Berlin

24 Jan

So, it was my birthday recently. My thirtieth birthday.
It is generally thought to be a big deal to turn thirty, but being the non-big-deal-maker I am (I had no 18th or 21st parties with their obligatory embarrassing speeches and equally embarrassing costumes/drunken spews/make out sessions discovered by Mum or Dad), I thought, “Hey, no biggie, just turning thirty, maybe I’ll go to Berlin and then go to London”.

No biggie, huh?

Simon and I flew to Berlin on a Thursday night after he had finished work. Almost as soon as we had hopped on the airport-to-city bus we decided we wanted to live in Berlin. Way before we got to our beautiful, huge apartment decorated with vintage furniture and a shelf full of design and architecture books. Way before we’d sampled some of the ridiculous all-night nightlife. Way before we’d even taken one bite of a vegan breakfast buffet. Yep, even before all of that, there was something about the lights and the people and the idea that this was actually a city, rather than the kind of biggish town we’ve been living in, that excited the hell out of me. In a strange way it kind of felt like I was going home- it just seemed like Melbourne and Berlin should be BFFs or Sister Cities or whatever they call it because they had so much in common. Well, from what I had seen out the bus window in twenty minutes anyway.
I was overwhelmed and mildly panicked. I had no doubt that this place was going to be awesome, and I already knew that three days was not going to cut it. I had done barely any research into anything other than the seemingly hundreds of vegan restaurants and I had no idea what I was doing. I wanted to see the city but had no idea how I would accomplish such a thing in a short three days, with only an unread Lonely Planet in my bag and a few restaurant bookings in mystery locations.

As soon as we reached the main bus interchange we were lost.
We had a kind airb’n’b host waiting for us only a 5 minute walk away, only we couldn’t figure out which way to walk, due to the alarming lack of street signage and the impossibly large number of surrounding streets all bearing the same name of Alexanderstrasse. It was snowing, cold and closing in on midnight. There were a few huffy fits and a lot of retraced steps. I received several concerned calls from our host, which only threw us into a lost tizz even more.
When we finally got to the apartment it was awesome, but I was feeling a bit ruffled from all the getting-lost business so I went to sleep grumbling and cursing that this was going to be the worst birthday ever.
Sure enough, the next day- my birthday- I woke up with a frown on and through a series of slightly inconvenient events which most people would consider fairly mundane and not worthy of being grumpy about, my frown became even more etched into my face. We had nothing for breakfast and I was hangry. I went out to find a supermarket while Simon was still sleeping and brought us back a feast of olives, artichokes, three types of bread, orange juice, avocados and tomatoes and coffee, and somehow, inexplicably, it only made me madder.
I sulked as I ate my delicious breakfast in an exciting city, and felt like an idiot because I couldn’t shake the grumbles out of my unappreciative body.

I continued grumbling as we took to our day’s activity- an “alternative tour” of the city.
If I was doing a word association exercise and the words “alternative tour” came up I’m fairly certain that the next words to pop to mind would be “mind numbingly shit”, but I had heard good things about this tour company, and I figured it would be a good way to see a lot of the city in a short amount of time. And anyway, if it was that bad we could always just do a walk off.
I wondered if it was a terrible idea, and in some ways it was. We were lectured a number of times on “street art” and told what a “paste up” is. Even more enlightening was the lengthy description of what a “tag” is. Being in a tour group, albeit a small one of only 6 people, being led around to the popular graffiti locations (much like Hosier Lane in Melbourne) and being asked “so, does anyone know what ‘street art’ is?” was cringe worthy at best.
It certainly didn’t do much to improve my dark mood which was bordering on foul. Not only was I being told the ins and outs of street art about 10 years too late, but I had left my warm shoe insoles at home and we had been walking around outside in the snow at minus two degrees for a few hours. My toes were throbbing with the pain of the cold.
However, the tour was not all bad. We were led around various parts of the city- not to monuments or sights, but just to random squares and buildings in the different clusters of neighbourhoods that make up the city. When he wasn’t waxing lyrical about how awesome Banksy is, our guide was actually very good. He talked a lot about the separation that the Berlin Wall caused and he illustrated it with a few truly interesting anecdotes- one about a rock concert held right against the the western side of the wall so that people in the east could gather and hear it, and another one about a man who built a house in a little “no man’s land” corner of the wall, thus loopholing his way out of western and eastern law. Let me just point out here that he told those stories a lot better than I just did.
We walked down a street that reminded me a lot of Sydney Road and had falafel for lunch. We ended the day in a weird shanty town on the edge of the river which consisted of a beach volleyball area, a few ramshackle stalls with nothing in them, a stall making food and a bar full of Jamaicans smoking cigarettes and warming their hands on stones placed near the fire. You could tell the place would have been totally magical and full of people in summer. But it was the dead of winter and so it was kind of just a bit creepy.
I had a beer and started feeling better. My toes started regaining some warmth. I talked to an over enthusiastic Brazilian girl who was with us on the tour.
I went home, took a nap and woke up without a trace of grumpiness.

It was lucky, too, because we were in for a big night and grumpiness would have spelled birthday disaster.

We went for a fancy dinner at a restaurant that felt like it was really far away from everywhere.
Despite the fact that my main meal was 90% sauteed leeks and my raw cheesecake tasted like Copha I had a fabulous time drinking wine and late night coffee and talking.
We went searching for a bar that was in our guidebook, but the (perhaps unwise) coffee started playing with my guts and I was convinced if we didn’t get somewhere soon I would literally have to jump behind a fence and shit in the courtyard of an apartment block. Lucky I always carry tissues.
Thankfully a bar popped into view and I didn’t have to desecrate Berlin or my soul.
The bar was not the bar we had been hopelessly looking for for the past 45 minutes, wandering around quiet streets having no idea where we were. The bar did, however, have a functioning toilet, which I hurried to make use of while Simon was served by a waitress even more surly than I had been all day.
We got out of the unwelcoming place pretty quickly and went on a long and confusing journey to a club we’d heard about. It seemed that it was out in the suburbs and was, in fact, a derelict apartment building.
After passing through security we were in a large courtyard filled with white plastic constructions- there was a long white tunnel edging it’s way around the garden, big enough to fit 3 people across and tall enough for Simon to stand in. There was also what seemed to be a stage, and a few more white plastic shacks. It was all covered in snow, and there was not a single person out there, so we headed inside the apartment and stood in line at the coat check.

Coat checks are a big deal in Germany. When it is below zero outside you need to wear a coat to get where you’re going, but once you are there you don’t want to lug them around all night slung over your shoulder. Aside from using the coat check because winter coats are heavy and uncomfortable to carry around unless you are wearing them, I also discovered later on that morning that putting my coat in the check was a wise move given that every pore of my skin and everything I was wearing, save for my coat, smelled like a beer bottle full of ciggie butts.
This coat check was huge and had at least seven people working in it.
We’d been waiting to put our coats for a few minutes when we saw what the hold-up was: someone had come into the coat room holding a tray full of blue shots- everyone had stopped what they were doing, cheers-ed everyone else, downed their shots and started chatting. It was awesome.

When we were relieved of our heavy layers we headed upstairs, and found ourselves in a maze-like apartment which had been re-furnished with a minimum of effort to pass as a club. In a few rooms there were bars and people dancing. There was an enormous stained glass light fitting and large torn scraps of fabric hanging from the ceiling. As we walked through we found a room which had a pole dancing pole right in the middle, surrounded by some seedy looking sharehouse couches.
The next room was simply furnished with an old queen sized bed, complete with sheets, blankets and pillows. We went up a set of stairs and found a larger dance area, which was packed with people smoking and dancing. I heard lots of French people talking. We were here to see a French DJ duo that Simon had heard about, but when we arrived there was a guy playing minimal techno, which is not exactly my kind of thing. He had an undercut and a bun. We danced to his music for a while, and saw the duo we had come to see edging up on to the stage. One of them was an enormously fat guy with a pushed in kind of face wearing fluoro sneakers. He soon started yelling out to the audience in his French accent, getting everyone riled up for an awesome party. I can’t remember at all what he said but I remember it being awesome, turning to Simon and laughing.
The bun-topped minimal guy started wrapping up and the new guys made their way to the DJ area, which was blocked off from the crowd by a barrier that had dicks drawn all over it, and contained the DJ equipment as well as some op-shop paintings of nudes. The whole ceiling was covered with small wooden frames with ugly purple floral material stretched over them, hung at jaunty angles.
It was as if a super shitty sharehouse had morphed into a banging club. Even though I felt like a huge dork for it, I couldn’t get the thought out of my head that this was SO BERLIN. It made me embarrassingly happy.

So the minimal DJ fades out, and there is a moment of silence while the fat guy looks excitedly out at the crowd. With a movement of his hand Enya is singing “sail away, sail away, sail away” and it is the most perfectly suited thing I could imagine. Somehow in the context of this night, in this place, and the music that had just finished, the song seemed so right, and, remarkably, it actually seemed banging.
The DJ was not just a one hit wonder and continued to play sweet track after sweet track. I danced until my feet were literally sore, leaving at about 5 in the morning.

After a few hours sleep I was up and ready to eat something huge and greasy. One of my feet was swollen and bruised from all the dancing and I limped to the train station while Simon stayed in bed. I was meeting a friend who I’d met while cycling in Italy who happened to live in Berlin. We met at a place affectionately known as “the Vegan McDonalds” and I ate an amount of chips and burger that didn’t even seem possible to fit inside me.
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We lounged around at a cafe drinking tea and then it was back home for another afternoon kip before heading out to the next fancy dinner I had planned for us.

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Full of food, I fell into bed with my bruisy foot raised on a pillow and slept until the next onslaught of food- a vegan all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet that I had booked for the next morning. I jammed in egg salad, scrambled eggs, pancakes, waffles, warm bread rolls layered with centimetres of herbed butter, deep fried sushi, vegan cheese, potato gratin and breakfast curry until I could jam no more.

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We waddled over to the Mauerpark Flea Market, which was the flea-iest flea market I’ve ever been to. Many of the stalls were simply cardboard boxes on the ground, piled full with a combination of absolutely useless junk, filthy gems, and scrunched up newspaper.

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I lamented that we didn’t live there, because if we did we could have the coolest decorated house ever known to man. Amongst all the dust and caked-on dirt and rubbish there were some wonderful treasures, but I didn’t buy a single thing. It was big and sprawling and incredibly cold and my gut was achingly full.

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The guilty gluttonous jam-packed feeling from breakfast didn’t leave me until long after we’d gotten back to our apartment, packed our gear up and headed back to the airport.

I felt like I’d done a fine job of things given how overwhelmed I was by the thought of it at first. I am well aware it is a cliché to say this about holidays but really, it just wasn’t long enough, and although I had an incredible time I feel as if there were and are so many more incredible times to be had there.
It literally felt as if we’d just arrived when we had to leave, and if it wasn’t for the gammy limp I’ve been carrying around all week I could almost believe it never even happened.

surprisingly tasty vegan protein balls

10 Jan

I have been drinking protein shakes after doing my physiotherapy exercises to give myself the best chance of rebuilding my flabby muscles. But sometimes a protein shake is just not possible, for example when you are travelling. I will be travelling for the next ten days and I intend to continue my exercises during that period, but I’m sure as hell not going to take a huge bucket of protein powder and a shaker with me.
I concocted these portable protein balls so I can take them with me.
They are not as high in protein as a shake but if I eat a few of them it should do pretty well. And surprisingly they don’t actually taste too bad!

10 dates, soaked in hot water for 30 minutes
1 cup raw, unsalted sunflower seeds (or you could try using another type of nut/seed)
6 tbsp agave or other liquid sweetener
2 heaped tbsp peanut butter
2 tbsp water
1/2 tsp vanilla essence

1/4 cup cocoa
1 1/2 cups unflavoured soy protein powder (or chocolate flavour if you can get it)
shake cinnamon

Using a hand blender or a food processor blend the first 6 ingredients until smooth. Transfer to a bowl and mix in the rest of the ingredients, using a spoon at first and then your hands to really get everything in a big lump. You might need at add a tbsp more water or agave syrup if your mixture is dry. Form into 18 balls and store in the fridge.
Depending on your protein powder you may get more or less, but mine ended up at 9.4 grams of protein per ball. Not bad at all.

Munich – Silvester

2 Jan

Christmas here was deathly quiet. The streets were empty as people ate kartoffelsalat and various animals formed into sausage shapes, all bundled up inside their family homes. For the foreigner there was no “in”- there was no hint of the festivities that you could only imagine were going on behind closed doors. We spent the three Christmases (Heiligabend, which we know as Christmas Eve and is the biggest day of celebration, and the imaginatively named Christmas One and Christmas Two) watching movies and periodically getting up to roast some potatoes or make some tea to go with a piece of Christmas cake. By the end of Christmas Two my ass cheeks were in pain from sitting down for too long.
But as New Years Eve approached things started to change. People were out on the street going to sales and buying fireworks and acting festively. Fireworks had popped up everywhere and were for sale in the most everyday places. The first few pages of advertising catalogues were filled with fireworks, you could buy them at Aldi or at the drugstore taking up the spot where I would usually find shampoo. It was quite a novelty for me to see them out and about in shops, just waiting to explode into someone eyes. I had heard from some of the girls at work that people take to the streets and the parks at New Years Eve, (endearingly called “Silvester” in Germany and a few other European countries) to let off as many fireworks as they please. The few days preceeding the New Year is the only time of the year that fireworks are legal. On the 1st January they all disappear like they were never there,lurking behind locked doors to await the next year.
I had wrongly assumed that New Years Eve would just consist of a few little shits lighting fireworks outside our apartment. In reality it was much, much more than that.
We had no plans for Silvester. Our housemates are usually pretty absent but had been very notably absent for the past few weeks- they were on a silent retreat in Romania, staying away from all the hoohah of the silly season. So we had no housemates and the other few people who might want to do something with us had pre-arranged plans that did not include us.
New Years Eve has never been an awesome night for me- I always get anxious with the pressure of having the Best Night Ever, and always ended up having an Average Night. I often deliberately not do anything because I can’t bear the thought of forcing myself to have an awesome time. The pressure just always gets to me and since I’ve been of legal drinking age I have spent most New Years Eve’s holidaying at my parents house watching the Sydney fireworks on TV and looking after the dog who was terrified yearly by the few people who managed to get hold of some illegal fireworks.
Our plans were minimal. We knew there were no “official” fireworks shows, like there are in Laurieton or Melbourne or any other town in Australia, and we were curious to see what would actually happen in the centre of town. We decided we would take a walk around and see what we could see.
The day before New Years Eve I ran into the nice couple from downstairs halfway on my way down the stairwell. They invited Simon and I to join them and a few friends at their apartment to have some drinks and some food and to go into the city later on, and so our low key night started morphing into something quite different.

I had spent some time over the past few days trying to figure out what would be an appropriate cake to bake for this time of year, but had come up with little in the way of Silvester food traditions. Pigs are said to represent luck and prosperity and it is traditional to eat anything with pork in it, or alternatively a small marzipan figure of a pink pig which were sold all over the place. You could eat a bowl of lentil soup, the lentils representing coins, and if you reached the bottom it would ensure you had enough money for the year. Other traditional New Years foods included fondue and raclette and a mysterious item named Neujahrs Brot- a presumably special loaf of bread about which I could find out nothing except it’s name, even after consulting a few Germans. I was not very inspired by pork or drippy cheese or a bread I had no idea how to make and so I settled on making cocktails. I made a lemon syrup and concocted a sweet and very strong vodka drink. I told Chris and Isa about my fear of fireworks: as a kid we had a family friend who was missing three of the fingers on one of his hands, and there will not be any prizes for guessing why. Ever since I learned what his mangled hand was the result of I swore never to touch one. It wasn’t that I was terrified of them, I was just cautious. For the same reason I have never touched a pokie or tried heroin: it seemed like the only way it could go was wrong.
There had been a mix up with the other party attendees, who didn’t end up coming to the party, and it was planned that we would instead meet them at the Englischer Garten- a 3.7 km2 green park cutting a thick strip through the northern part of the city. I had been there a few times before- it was a beautiful place full of manmade lakes and swans and it was sliced by thin creeks and offshoots of the Isar river. The perfect place for a relaxing Sunday afternoon picnic. Or for watching people surf mid-winter in full body wetsuits on the artificial wave created by some accidental engineering. But that night it was a far cry from the picnic blanketed park that I knew.
We walked up the street to the tram stop where there were three adolscent boys stationed. They were drunk and obnoxious, in a way that was slightly more menacing than I would have liked. They had small fireworks that they would light and throw in various places, generally at other peoples feet, which would give off a very small light display but give off a jump-inducingly loud noise. Being the closest targets we had at least ten of them thrown at our feet, and I tried to act cool and casual even though I was envisioning bloody stumped ambulance rides. On the packed tram everyone was carrying bags of fireworks arranged neatly like chocolate bars in a store bought Santa stocking. Every person I looked at beside those in our group were carrying fireworks, though thankfully noone was letting them off inside the tram. I doubted it would be the same in Australia.

We reached the park and walked though a part of it which was unfamiliar to me. The park did not have any lights and we were drunk. We lost a few people and regained a few people. We met up with the party non attendees and watched Chris make many confused phone calls to try to find everyone else. We ended up in a group of six or seven and headed to high ground so that we could get a good view of the city, which was unfortunately the same idea as about half of the population of Munich. We got separated from one another again and found one another again. I got squished into a set of shoulder blades and tried not to freak out. We passed around a bottle containing 50% ginger ale and 50% vodka and I relaxed a little. There were some fireworks going off- every few seconds one would pop up into the sky and explode anywhere within a 360 degree area.
There were people with fireworks everywhere. As midnight approached the fireworks became more and more frantic. It seemed that the whole park below us was full of people with bag loads of fireworks. In the distance I could see a concentration of explosions at the city centre, and to the right I could see a long strip of action along a main road.

There was no official countdown and we heard at least 3 or 4 differently timed versions of it. The sound and the frequency of the fireworks became intense. It sounded as if we were literally in a war zone. There was a cacaphony of “zeeewwwwwwww”s and “pyeeeeeewwwww”s and bangs and pops and fizzles. Smoke began filling the air. I could not hear what anyone was saying. I tried to look into the distance but the heads and shoulderblades in front of me didn’t allow much. I was quietly frightened but also thrilled by the energy and the excitement of all the people around me. It was like being on a scary ride where you can imagine yourself falling out of the carriage at any moment, which makes it all the more thrilling. Girls screamed and couples drunkenly made out. People tried to pop champage around us but couldn’t because they didn’t have enough space. A girl behind me got hit with the debris of a wayward firework- at first screaming because she’d thought somone had thown a bottle at her head, and then laughing hysterically when she realised it was a large stick that the firework was supposed to launch from, but which had obviously accidentally launched with the explosive itself. I felt glad that I hadn’t been one metre back, craning my head, eyes open to the oncoming launcher. The noise was terrifying, coming from every direction and every height and every speed. After about 15 minutes of the most chaotic, clamourous show the fireworks began to die down slowly. People were running out of explosives and going home.

We entered the warzone beneath our hilltop station to find some more of Chris’ friends. Down the hill we found ourselves in a dense cloud of smoke which did not disappate in the slightest before we made our way out of the park over two hours later. We saw groups of people dotted around us, some still working on setting off fireworks, others just standing around drinking. I felt like I was in a post-apocolyptic riot scene. The remnants of fireworks carpeted the ground. I could not see more than 3 metres in front of me. The sound of bullets slicing through the air made me cringe and hold on tight to Simon’s hand. I didn’t know where I was or how to get home if I became separated from him.

We finally made it to Chris’ friends- a jolly Bavarian guy, his girlfriend and his young niece. They had been letting off fireworks and they were very excitable. Before long a few more friends joined us and everything became a drunken silly blur. We met some guys who didn’t believe we were from Australia- they thought we were German’s showing off our English by pretending we couldn’t speak German. He kept trying to trick us into “understanding” what he was saying by talking loudly to his friend in German and saying things which were obviously offensive. We smiled and nodded and his friend tried to convince him he was wrong, but he wouldn’t believe us. We tried to convince him we were actually from Poland, or a magical country called “Polstralia”. One of the guys held up one an enormous sparkler, used for lighting the wicks of the fireworks, and said “You know what I call this stick? I call it the Jesus stick! You know why I call it the Jesus stick? Because it took 2000 years to burn down!” After that he laughed hysterically and thought he was clearly the funniest person alive, even though noone else even remotely understood his joke. Someone handed Simon a bottle of champage which he drank out of for the next hour, until someone handed him a magnum of champagne. One of the guys did a round of “cheers” and refused to clink glasses with me for some unknown reason. One of the guys apologised constantly for the state of his friends. One of the guys finally suggested we walk to the train station and go to a club.

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We took a long ambling walk through the park. It was freezing, and my toes and fingers had long ago become so cold that they hurt. I needed to pee but the only option was behind a tree in a fairly open park, where “behind” for me might be “in front” for some poor unsuspecting partyer. We made our way slowly into the train station, where there was thankfully a toilet. I let out a few hours of built up, drunken pee and felt, as they say, relieved.

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As we got on the train we seemed to gather another few members- whether they were strangers to everyone else or just me I don’t know. When we arrived at our station we stood inside for an hour, right between the ticket machines and the escalator, with all of my new found friends pulling beers out of their pockets and demanding that we drink them immediately as they couldn’t take them into the club.
I nursed a beer for the entire hour, only drinking half a sip the whole time while we stayed warm and talked nonsense in the station. I had had plenty of the ginger ale mixer.

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We left everyone in a shambles outside the club, having stood there with them for half an hour, everyone too drunk to remember that they had come to the club to go into the club.
We walked home along a main road and witnessed the damage- the street was littered with colourful pieces of paper, cardboard, torn apart cyclindrical firecrackers, stumbling drunks and patches of spew. I was thoroughly drunk and happy and so exhausted that even as I lay myself down in bed and thought “the music downstairs is so loud I’ll never get to sleep” I fell unconciously asleep into the next year.

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Munich – Blomberg

19 Sep

A proverbial phoenix rising, I have been becoming remarkably stronger and more pain free over the past few weeks. I have started doing regular exercise, which a few months ago seemed like wishful, never to be fulfilled thinking. I have been hula hooping around my loungeroom like a silly laughing school girl (a silly laughing school girl with sore abs the next day, mind you) and yoga-ing all over the floor like a flexible, artiulated slug, as well as attending my housemates yoga classes, which are conveniently located out the back of our apartment block. For a time there I was pretty much terrified of physical activity, lest it twinge some muscle or twang some tendon and send me into a week or a month or what felt like lifetimes of bed rest misery.
I have been teaching myself a little song:
“FUCK YOU PAAAAAIN
YOU DON’T LIVE HERE NO MORE
FUCK YOU PAAAAAIN
YOU’RE AN UGLY FUCKING WHORE
FUCK YOU PAAAAAIN
YOU DON’T LIVE HERE NO MORE
FUCK YOU PAAAAAIN
Hey, I feel like coleslaw”

And somehow, with a degree of magic or perhaps because of my determined aggressiveness or perhaps because pain just really doesn’t like shredded cabbage, things have been getting better.
Things have been getting so much better, in fact, that I bought myself a fancy new pair of lurid papaya coloured hiking shoes, which I found at the best store in the world, Globetrotter. Germans are serious about their outdoor activities. There is nary a person who doesn’t like skiing on the alps, hiking up the alps, cycling down the alps or doing any other activity that can possibly make you breathless on or near the alps. Even girls and old people and little kids love it. And everybody rides their bikes everywhere. Old ladies to the markets, crazy drooling men to the beer gardens, tiny children strapped to their mothers bike on the way to do the groceries. At any regular bookstore you can find at least an entire floor to ceiling selection of books about hiking/skiing/cycling in Bavaria alone. And that’s not even counting the entire chest full of drawers hiding all sorts of maps and guides that will no doubt be there as well.
But that’s just a regular bookstore. Globetrotter is something much, much more than that. It is a store with 3 expansive floors dedicated to the outdoors lifestyle. It is like a department store of all things awesome. There is a section the size of a small bookstore with guides, a shelf island dedicated to relief maps of the alps, a technical backpack section, a regular backpack section, an office backpack section, a camp stove section spanning a few aisles, clothes up the wazoo, an awe inspiring shoe collection and I’m not even sure what’s on the top floor. But it is not just the dazzling array of goods they have on offer that make it a outdoor nerdly heaven. They have a large pool on the bottom floor where you can test out kayaks before buying them. They have a rain room where you can put on waterproof clothes and find out exactly how waterproof they are. They have a windy freezer room with heat detectors on a display screen so you can see just how warm you are staying in your 5oo euro jacket. They have a travel service to help you plan outdoor holidays. There is an enormous ant farm, and a periodic display of a water jet spurting from the kayak pool all the way up a central space that goes right to the top floor. There are different types of rock surfaces to walk over when you’re trying out shoes, there is a rock climbing wall to test your grip, there are displays of shoes sliced into cross sections so you can see exaclty what you’re getting your feet into, there are a million trillion customer service attendants who are way more geeky than you who are willing to spend an hour with you talking about the ins and outs of everything that might suit your needs.

The first time Simon and I walked in there our jaws dropped, and then I wee’d my pants (which were unfortunately not waterproof) before doing a little jig around the mosquito net display. It was paradise. I wanted everything.

We have made a lot of visits since but the refrained and frugal spender in me had only let me come away with a map of Munich printed on tyvek paper so that you can crush it into your bag and spill as much beer on it as you please, and a re-usable aluminium water bottle.
That is until last week, when I decided I really wanted a pair of comfortable shoes- ones which I could go running in if my FUCK YOU song would work to that extent, ones which I could ride my bike in, and ones which I could go walking in the city or the forest or the alps. I had confidence that the right pair of shoes would play a key role in my pain free, gettin’ stronger happiness. Since leaving Melbourne, the sportiest shoes I had put on my feet were a saggy pair of dunlop volleys that I’d trodden thin through Thailand. I wanted comfort and support and fandangled lacing systems that would help me conquer the world, or at least a small part of it. I felt like buying a pair of shoes, putting them on in the store and leaving my old ones behind, jumping out the front door and performing my own personal Rocky montage while singing about coleslaw in a boomingly courageous and unstoppable voice.

What in fact happened was that I spent a long time talking to a delirously happy giggly sales lady who seemed genuinely thrilled to help me pick the exactly right pair of shoes, herself a confessed shoe freak who would, if she could, change her shoes every hour depending on the weather or the time or some other minor change in the world, because that’s just how much she loves hiking shoes. I’m not even making that up- she actually said that to me, starting off with the sentiment that “we’re all a bit freaky here”. I think I loved her. I certainly loved her enough to let her guide me towards one of the more expensive pairs of shoes, a strikingly vomitous pair of electric pink and red and black multipurpose hiking shoes which I could pretty much use for every and any purpose I cared to suggest. I carried them home in a box instead of on my jumping, stair climbing feet, put them on when I got home and made dinner in them. Hardly montage worthy but still, I was happy.
I couldn’t believe how much I loved those shoes. I took photos of myself in them, I wore them with matching pink stockings, I put them next to my bed when I went to sleep so they’d be the first thing I saw when I woke up the next morning.

But more than the shockingly bright things themselves, I loved what they symbolised. They symbolised a new era in which I could perform rigorous physical activity and not be afraid of hurting myself. They symbolised an ability to explore this lumpy snowy country I’d found myself in. They symbolised the rock hard six pack I would soon have and the clear skinned face of a woman who breathes wholeheartedly in a whole lot of crisp alpine air. It was hard to believe the effect buying those shoes had on me but it was like I’d just given myself permission to be active again, after months and months of restricting rest where all I craved was a little jog or a fast paced ride through the city.
I was keen. I bought the shoes on Friday and we went to the alps on Sunday.

We went by train one stop before the end of the line and hopped on a bus to head to Blombergbahn, an amusement park set into the side of one the smaller pre alps. We’d found it on the internet searching unimaginatively for “Munich Most Beautiful Hiking”. It was described as a family friendly area- it was an easy hike up the mountain and there was a cool chairlift that could take you back down as well as a concrete luge track that goes halfway down the mountainside. The only way we knew when to get off the bus was when all the kids got off. It was packed with people, being a cool but perfectly sunny Sunday.
We had some trouble figuring out which route to follow but again, just ended up following the kids, hoping like all hell that they were taking the easiest route. Despite my yoga and hula hooping I have not gained back much of the aerobic fitness that I lost over the last few months. There were lots and lots of people on the path- a school excursion group, old men and women slapping their walking sticks noisily, women carrying babies straped to their backs, children who could not have been more than 3 years old trudging solemnly and dads piggy backing them when they complained too much. By the apparent calibre of our walking companions we judged this would be an easy walk.
It got steep pretty quickly. We were, after all, walking up a mountain. We passed a woman sporting a bandaged knee and a little kid doing a wee. We forged forward into beautiful vertical forest, the sun slipping through the cracks like spaetzle. It was a gorgeous place, if only it wasn’t for all the other people who thought it was gorgeous too.

It was quite tough going, I was puffed and sweaty and was breathing too hard to hold a conversation. I was impressed by these old and young Germans, plodding up the hill like it was the easiest walk they’d ever done. But then again, they come from a country full of enormous, towering mountains that everyone walks up every weekend, and we come from a country with some rather large hills that everyone would prefer to drive up, but only on special occassions. I felt a little embarrassed to be having such a hard time of it and had to keep reminding myself that it was only two days ago that I’d had the courage to buy a pair of hiking shoes, and here I was walking up a mountain, and who gives a fuck if it’s only a tiny mountain that old ladies walk up? It was a mountain damnit, and I was proud to be walking up it.

It would seem we don’t have much luck with our bodies because somewhere around the halfway mark Simon pulled a muscle. We were left with the decision to walk back down or to walk to the top so we could get the chairlift back down. We decided we’d go to the top, rest a while, have some sandwiches we’d packed early in the morning and breeze on down the chairlift. The problem was that inbetween where we were and where we had to get to was about 3 kilometres of pretty relentless uphill walking. We walked for a while and took a break, walked for a while and took a break, until we reached the destination of the signposts we’d been eyeing off. Unfortunately the destination was not at the peak of the mountain, as we’d presumed it would be. It was another 600 metres walk up a very steep rocky path. Simon rested underneath the signpost while I did a reconnaissance mission to check that the chairlift was where we hoped it was. I saw the little hut that the chairlifts dissappear into and reappear from and hot footed it back to Simon. We moved on a little further so we could eat our lunch with a splendid view of the alps poking out from between piney forests.

We fortified ourselves with sandwiches and nuts before breaking through the final frontier to the top.
When we got to the top we passed the chairlift hut to find a spectacular view that I hadn’t anticipated at all.

Luckily we had only eaten a portion of our lunch so we settled in amongst the cow pats and had our second alpine picnic in half an hour.
As it turned out we lingered a little too long. We took a quite terrifying ride down in the chairlift, an open seat with just a bar to hold you in, your feet hanging limply into the outside, your sweaty clothes becoming freezing with the high cool air, and the feeling that at any second you could accidentally fall forward and tumble down the mountain to be run over by one of the luge-ing children below. It was beautiful and scary and unexpectedly romantic.

We limped to the bus stop, only to find we’d missed the bus by literally a few minutes. The next one was in two hours time. It was 2:30.
We repaired to a nearby beer garden to spend two hours sitting in the sun drinking an apfelschorle and a beer like the big spenders we are.
We finally caught the bus which quickly deposited us at the train station with only a 5 minute wait for the next train. The train pulled up in front of us and it was jammed full of people who like us hadbeen straining muscles all day long in the countryside. People were sitting on the floor in the aisles, people were standing so close to one another that everything just looked like skin coloured blurs dotted with bicycles, prams and backpacks. It was extremely squishy and we artfully jostled our way aboard like only Melbournians who have tried to catch peak hour trains with a huge uni assignment know how.
We stood in the aisle, basically hugging one another, which was actually kind of nice. We’d brought along a headphone splitter and an Ipod and so listened to some music quietly together. Five minutes later we stopped at a station and took off again. A few minutes after that we stopped at another station and felt the other half of the train which came from a slightly different direction bunt onto us for the remaining hour or so of the journey. And then we waited. We waited for five minutes and I started getting impatient, cooped up amongst so many sweaty, restless bodies. We waited five minutes more and I started huffing and making what the fuck faces at Simon. We waited another five minutes and people started getting off the train to see what was going on. We couldn’t move because we were boxed in by a teenage boy wearing a hoody that had the smell of being left in the washing machine a touch too long and a guy sitting on what appeared to be a very uncomfortable bag of squash raquets. We stood and waited. I yanked the headphones out of my ears in a fit of exasperation which I hoped would somehow jolt the train into action.
When we’d been waiting for about 40 minutes the engines turned off, the lights went out and the air conditioning ceased. I told Simon this better be a fucking medical emergency or I’m going to make it one soon.
Five minutes later we saw a stretcher being hurriedly rolled towards the platform from the parking lot. They passed our carriage with it and disappeared to the front of the train. A few minutes later they passed back the opposite way, this time with a woman on top of it who was being restrained because she was having a seizure. It looked like she was about to be on the receiving end of some difribulator action. I felt sorry for her, but in an awfully incompassionate way I couldn’t help but feel even sorrier for myself. I was supposed to be home hours ago.
The train didn’t move for another ten minutes, and when it finally started up again I felt like letting out a little whoop. A lengthy announcement that we couldn’t understand was made, and when we stopped at the next station we followed everyone else in filing off the train and looking confused. We waited around for 10 minutes, not sure what to do because half of the people from our train had gone to one platform and half of them had gone to another. We took a guess and ended up on a train a short while later which was even more packed than the first one we’d been on, helped along by the 5 bicycles that were stacked against one another in the standing area. The people who were already on the train when we got on seared us with dirty looks.
The rest of the ride was uneventful, and we finally got home at 8:30, about six hours after we’d originally intended to leave. We ate huge bowls of pasta and laughed about how wrong the day had gone. We watched a terrible movie and took painkillers. We wondered what had happened to the woman, and wondered how awful it must have been for the people in the carriage with her waiting for an hour for the ambulance service. And ntil the moment I slumped into bed, my eyes closing instantly, I kept those bright red rubies of shoes strapped to my feet and marvelled at what they’d already been through in our friendship of just two days, and where we might go together next.

Italy – la casa della Nonna

18 Sep

Italy had started with a four day blast of aperol, cheeseless pizzas and talking my half witted Italian to waiters who no doubt thought I was a complete idiot while Simon thought I was simply marvellous and very brave.
When the awesome four days were up Simon took the train back to Munich to go back to the drudgery of work while I took the next train back to Sonia’s home for a few more days of family time. And oh what a family time it was.

We went to markets and looked at tablecloths and to a fancy pizzeria with an azure pool as the sparkling centrepiece and a tight-dressed woman singing La Isla Bonita to karaoke music on stage. We went out onto the lake in a relative’s little motorboat, an activity which saw us shimmying Nonna off a makeshift concrete dock into the rocking disobedient boat, we drank Aperol spritzes and Nonna got drunk, every few minutes mentioning how dizzy she was. She secretly stuffed money into my handbag and then she made me take even more money from her to give to Sonia after Nonna had left, so that Sonia would have no way of refusing it.

We took a trip together in Sonia’s car to my Nonna’s childhood village, a few hours drive away. There we would drop Nonna and Carmen at the village where they would spend the next few weeks doing woozy circuits of cousins houses across the surrounding mountaintops. Five of us squished together in the car that day: a talkative Italian woman assuring us that she would never take her eyes off the road while doing typically Italian heart stopping overtaking manoeuvres; a just-on-the-good-end-of-senile 85 year old man who spoke in a combination of Italian, German and English and kept repeating the same line from a tv commercial that went something like “buy blah blah blah tyres, because it’s the tyre that makes the car” after which he would giggle wildly like it was definitely the funniest joke he’d ever heard; a 65 year old Australian woman who had never visited Italy before nor met any of the relatives she was about to be the guest of nor had any idea what kind of situation she was about to land herself in: an 88 year old Nonna who seemed nervous and anxious to get there, and me.

The front seats of the car were animated by loud, argumentative father and daughter. A lot of the conversation was in Italian, and while I could grasp a thing or two here or there, most of it was way beyond my comprehension and so it just seemed as if everyone was yelling random things really loudly, sometimes getting more passionate, sometimes a little more subdued, but more often than not, just plain loud. I got the feeling that when it came to the 85 year old cousin, no-one really comprehended what he was saying (possibly sometimes even himself), so at least I wasn’t left out in that respect. The rear seats of the car were quiet and fidgety- three generations of the one family all nervously twiddling their fingers, hoping not to die in the car, wondering what exactly was about to happen. I was hot sitting in the middle and I started to get a headache.

We stopped for coffee in a cafe next to a castle. There was a big drama about where to park, how to get out of the car, when to cross the road, whether to take the walking stick, where to have our photos taken, what to order at the cafe, when to leave. There was a big drama about everything, it appeared.

We took hairpin turn after hairpin turn, blind overtake by blind overtake up the mountainside until we reached a pretty little line of houses, five of them: the village. The view was spectacular. The houses were right on top of the mountain and had a killer vantage point for looking across to the other small villages peaked by churches which were dotted on hillsides and nested in valleys.

More relatives greeted us and took us inside their home, which was the house that Nonna had been born in so long ago. It was like stepping into a caricature of an Italian mountaintop home with low low low wooden ceilings, an old Nonna (not mine) in a wheelchair, a daughter with an apron on dusting flour from her hands, bread rolls sitting on the wooden tabletop, a bowl of apple peel on the dining table. Everyone jabbered on in Italian while I stood there wondering what I should do. Was I supposed to kiss everyone? Was I supposed to introduce myself? Was I supposed to just go back outside and pretend I’d never been there? Should I have brought some cookies for them? Was I breaking some sort of unspoken village law by displaying a tattoo on my leg written in Italian? I awkwardly manoeuvred myself out of the roof-closing-in claustrophobia of the low ceilinged house and took some photos instead.

What should have been a pretty special moment was more like an exercise in polite awkwardness, although I did at least manage to take some great photos of us together there.
It was pretty incredible to think she had been born inside that house, and even more incredible, and almost impossible, to imagine her there as a child. She described to me how she used to walk down the mountainside to the other village to go to school. She was ten years old when she left for Australia, and so she remembers quite a bit about the village and about her life there. Also she has visited many times since emigrating to Australia so has had regular, if far between, refresher courses.

Next stop was lunch, a trattoria on a hairpin turn which looked like an alpine chalet, where there was no menu, but a waiter who came to ask us what we wanted, like we already know everything there is to have, and if we didn’t, well then, he’d just have to tell you what there was . There was a bit of hoo-hah over getting me something to eat- I found that my meal was being negotiated by every one but me, and luckily the negotiations arrived at a pleasing outcome. Amongst the veal scallopini and the osso bucco was a simple pasta with tomato sauce and a plate of green beans cooked exactly how Nonna had always made them, all fried and mushy and delicious.

Stuffed, we drove on further to the next cousins house, the house Nonna would be calling home base for the next few weeks. The place was AMAZING. The cousins were totally rich if their home was anything to judge by and it was just exactly how you would imagine a rich Italian house to look- everything totally over the top, huge glass display cabinets full of china and religious statues and trinkets, a wooden stove with a pearlescent floral finish, immaculately clean, family photos everywhere in chunky sparkling silver frames. It could have been the cover photo for a dated Italian Better Homes and Gardens interiors special magazine. We were offered bitter orange cordial brought out on a silver tray and took a tour of the expansive labyrinthine building, each room more highly styled with pink gingham ruffles than the next.
We spent a few hours there, all the while I had no idea what any one was saying any of the time, except for interludes of “because the tyre makes the car!! Hahahahaha! The tyre makes the car!”
I sat on the couch watching the clock, wishing I knew what everyone was talking about but also kind of glad I couldn’t understand because I would probably be even more bored if that was the case.
My headache became more and more intense, and by the time we’d spent 3 or so hours at the cousins home, I felt my brain was ready to make a wet popping sound before gushing out of my ear holes.

We said our farewells and I drove back home with Sonia for one more night before catching the train back to Munich. In the car I tried to sleep because with the combination of the stuffy air con and the loud talking bouncing around the walls of the car having an unsurprisingly negative effect on my headache situation, I was beginning to think I might just rather open the door and roll myself out of the car, lay on the side of the road for a while, maybe til the next morning, and then rock myself back and forth in the fetal position until I’d made my rocking way back home.
Instead I was constantly woken with cries of “It’s the tyre that makes the car” and a particularly cutting comment about how I’ve changed, how I’m always so serious and never laughing like the last time I visited, a personality trait which co-incidentally occurred almost exactly at the same time as everyone forgetting that I don’t speak fluent Italian. I hadn’t changed. I just had a headache and a less than perfect understanding of what was actually being said. Well, that and I was sick of the car and tyre catchphrase.
Half way home we made a quick pit stop at a roadside pumpkin and melon stand, where I marvelled at the lumpy, warty, spotted pumpkin varieties and felt a little bit better for being outside.

Back at home I basked in the quietness of my room while I waited for a friendly little red aspirin guy to do his work and thought about what had happened.
It had been so wonderful to be in Italy with Nonna and Carmen, to see them speaking Italian, to see them where they and by association I too had come from. It felt like everything was sort of sliding into perspective. My brain began unravelling some of the deep rooted Italian-bent personality traits that are in my family, and suddenly it all made sense why Nonna’s house is decorated the way it is, why her green beans are cooked the way they are, how she must have felt on her adventure to Australia, to be transported from this magical snowy mountaintop to the suburbs of Sydney and how significantly this must have affected the feisty agile woman, and in turn how it must have affected me.
It had been a trying but immensely satisfying trip and as my headache slowly faded away I felt a tired kind of blissful happiness that comes with fulfilling one of life’s unlikely, surreal dreams.

The motherland, the second time

17 Sep

With a hundred billion involuntary twitches of excitement that made me look alternately like I’d had a stroke and like I was on some sort of seizure inducing recreational drug, I took another trip to the mother country, this time with Simon in tow.
We were to make a whirlwind tour of a few of Italy’s northernmost cities to fit in with Simon’s extended weekend of Friday to Tuesday, the time off work being nail-bitingly approved only on Monday, giving us only a few days to put some solid travel plans in place.

Our trip deliberately co-incided with a visit from my Australian aunty, Carmen, and my Australian nonna, Nonna, who lived in Italy until she was 10 before emigrating to Australia and becoming frustratingly officially naturalised leaving me with no hope of any Italian priveledges like a passport or the right to eat pasta for lunch every day.
Nonna is 88 years old, and it was awe inspiring to see her make a 24 hour trip in a plane where she has to bring a spare stool to rest her feet on because her feet don’t reach the ground. She is much smaller than I am, and though no-one could ever suspect such a thing without witnessing this woman’s diminutive stature first hand, I completely, totally dwarf her, which is a very very strange feeling for someone who has spent her life looking into people sternums and the space between their shoulderblades. Nonna is the kind of woman who fusses and worries about a lot of things, a delightful and endearing neurotic habit I have had passed on to me in lieu of the aforementioned passport. So if this doll-sized 88 year old grandmother of mine was going to just casually go to Italy for a month it sure as hell was not something I was going to miss out on, especially since her destination was a mere five and a half hour train ride through Austria and straight through the alps from my home in Munich.

The day we left was grizzly and cold. We were disappointed because we had been very much looking forward to getting some close up views of the alps, and the misty fogginess of rain and clouds seemed like all we would get to see was a thick white blanket and maybe, if we were lucky, a few outlines of mountains.
The track was undergoing maintenence and so we had to swap from the train to a bus and then back onto a train. Somewhere in the process we ended up on the last train, squished into the aisles, perched on the “oops we’ve got too many people” fold down seats where we had to stand up every time anyone with a small dog or a suitcase of even just wearing clothes would want to pass, which was often. I balanced on the seat, getting angry and huffy, not believing this was Europe when it felt like we were in India.
Fortunately the rain added some wonderful drama to the mountains and my huffiness evaporated. The enormous misty apparitions which sometimes popped gaspingly into full view were cuddled and cloaked by icy clouds spreading over them like wandering aimless ghosts of marshmallows. Sheer cliff faces with the texture of hessian bags, a fine brown network of eroded crevices and lines woven into and over and across one another were marauded by looming clouds and expertly placed whisps of white. It was spectacular, creepy and mysterious. It felt like the kind of movie scene where a white horse would come galloping out of the trees with a dead princess slumped over it’s back, her ruby blood staining it’s coat.

We arrived in Verona, which is the nearest city centre to my Italian aunty, Sonia, who I met for the first time and stayed with when I was last in Italy. Simon and I stayed in Verona in an airb’n’b apartment instead of staying at the family house, just for kicks. We were picked up at the station by the guy we were renting the apartment from (very gratefully because it was pissing down) and delivered to our new apartment for the next few nights, an old kind of grubby place which had searing red feature walls and had been decorated with primary coloured IKEA furniture and Keith Haring stickers.
The weather still mumbling bad things under it’s breath to itself, we found an umbrella in the cupboard and went exploring. We walked past Juliet’s balcony, which Simon refused to look at, which is kind of fair enough- Juliet was never a real person and correspondingly nor was there ever a real balcony that she pranced upon- it is just a random balcony that someone decided could make them a lot of money, at 5 euros a hit to go up the stairs and sit on it briefly while your Romeo begrudingly takes shitty photos of you.
We kind of just wandered around, spying awesome striped churches and unearthed ruins, but keeping our eyes mostly open to the opportunity for afternoon drinks, which we found soon in the Piazza Erbe.

We drank aperol spritzes, northern Italy’s signature drink- which shows up to your table as a deep orange glistening wine glass filled with a combination of bitter citrussy aperol, prosecco and sparkling mineral water. It, and all other drinks ordered at cafe/restaurant/bar type places, always come with a plate of olives, or potato chips, or both. We ordered spritzes at a few different places in order to maximise our abuse of the chip olive system.

By the time we were pretty drunk we had had enough of potato chips and olives and went for dinner at Verona’s only vegetarian restaurant, run out the front by a guy who can only speak Italian and and out the back by his wife who can speak English but never came to my awkward rescue. We ordered a bottle of wine and got even more drunk. I talked with the waiter in Italian, which Simon and I both thought was awesome at the time, and which I’ve avoided thinking about since because I’m sure the mistakes I made would come rushing back to me with a crippling case of Drunk Italian Regrets. The meals were pretty average but between our bottle of wine and my bold attempts at Italian conversation, it was one of the most fun, satisfying and jovial dining experiences I’ve ever had.

On the stumbling, dancing way home we passed by the Verona Arena, the centrepiece of Verona, an enormous ampitheatre just shy of a few thousand years old. Just prior to ariving at this monolith we passed a woman, leaning up against a statue of a man riding a horse, yelling to anyone who would listen. Although I’d been pretty confident with my restaurant Italian I had no idea what this woman was saying, except that whatever it was wasn’t full of cheer. As we walked past a few metres away, it became evident that she was violently maturbating as she yelled.
Giggling, I tried to take a sly photo of her as we hurried along to the arena which these days, instead of hosting weird medieval games now hosts concerts and is famous for opera spectaculars. We had arrived right smack bang in the middle of opera season and we could hear some booming voices being belted out of lungs. Huge props waited inside their roped off areas on the street next to the areana waiting to be changed- there were enormous Tutankhamun busts, huge dogs, heads that seemed as big as hot air balloons and various other oversized, towering, styrofoam objects. In combination with the eerie quiet on the streets, the still audible masturbation scene 100 metres away, the wet shining slick to the ground and the drunkeness we had a very surreal, Alice in Wonderland gone wrong walk home.

It was raining again the next day and so we found some indoors entertainment at Castel Vecchio, where there is a museum of artefacts and hundreds upon hundreds of ancient religious paintings. Religious paintings aren’t usually my scene, but given the rain and the lack of more appealing galleries, I made the most of it by pointing out baby jesus’ penis everytime it popped up in a painting, which was remarkably often. Simon and I delighted over the paintings made before perspective had been discovered, and over the paintings made before anyone knew how to draw eyes, or, indeed, a face. We saw some sweet swords and armour, some awesome ancient jewellery, a stone cold babe with no face and more depictions of small boys penises than I would ever like to see again.


In the afternoon we met with Nonna, Carmen and Sonia, got some coffee and went on a Sonia-guided walking tour of Verona. We meandered through the shopping strip, where a busker had his head stuck through a pram pretending he was a huge creepy baby crying with a piercing, screeching authenticity that I could not stop laughing about. We went to a mobile phone store and hung out there for an hour or so in everybody’s way while Carmen had her locked Australian phone attended to.
We went, to the amusement of both Simon and I, to Juliet’s balcony. The balcony is in a small courtyard which is constantly writhing with people. Our three ladies fussed over some business amongst their bags like they were about to do a “GOOOOOO TEAM!” while women appeared briefly on the balcony, had their photos snapped and then were replaced with other women.

What looked like a hen’s party started making a fuss and when a woman wearing an elaborate beaded headpiece emerged on the balcony they shushed the crowd and everyone went silent. The girls in the courtyard were holding a life sized image of a man, and the headpiece girl started talking to his image in English, proclaiming her love for him, before launching, giggling and embarrassed, into a fine, of not mildy interrupted by nervous laughs, rendition of “I Will Always Love You” by our dear departed Whitney.

Our walking tour took us back to Castle Vecchio. Simon and I felt like in the past few days we’d walked through the entire city at least three million times over. We amused ourselves at the castle by taking photos of people having their photos taken.
We parted with my relatives and spent the rest of the evening much like the previous evening minus the ballsy attempts at Italian, before taking the train to Bologna the next morning, where it was also raining.
It was a Sunday and nothing was open so we went to a church, Santo Stefano, which is actually a sprawling, labrynthine building made of many churches which were tacked one after another until it finally became a long, twisted building composed of 7 churches. We mooched around inside and in the cloister for a while as the sun finally began to shine. Right next door to the church we found a conveniently located aperol spritz supplier and set to drinking ourselves stumbling once again. We sat in a large cobbled piazza and watched people and their dogs go by, as well as lots of people shaking and jiggling and guhguhguh-ing as they rode their bikes over the rough surface. On the other side of the piazza we saw a group of about 20 teenage school boys settle on a step while their trusting teachers popped into the church complex for a peep. We heard a dog barking wildly, and it was beginning to become quite distracting. It became even more distracting, though, when we realised it was one of the schoolboys who was doing the barking, his face hidden behind his hands yelping out an extremely realistic impression of a dog. The boys sitting on the step thought it was the funniest thing that had ever happened in the history of the world and one of them was crying, doubled over with breathlessness in a fit of hysteria. Sometimes a real dog would walk across the piazza on a lead, and the boy would start slyly barking at it. This would cause muffled choking eruptions of laughter amongst the boys and soon we started finding it almost as hilarious as they did.

Not long after we witnessed the greatest window shopping pose in the world.

The next day it rained again as we walked through the Quadrilatero, a small district of streets crammed with fruit, vegetables, massive swaying ham legs and pretty tarts. We walked some more, on our way to the art gallery, through the university district, a gritty, piss smelling, political grafitti-ed area that made us feel oddly comfortable. After lots of looking around for the right door to enter, pulling on random doors to see if they’d open, and deciphering photocopied signs, we found the art gallery was closed for the day. Luckily we had an informative tourist map with landmarks helpfully pointed out, and we chose next to go to the university museums whch promised fossils and old medical equipment. Again, closed.
We tried our luck with the tourist map yet again, following it to a spot named intriguingly “window to the canal”, which was exactly that and did little to alleviate our feelings that we were hopelessly useless failures at being tourists.

Not bothering to fight the fact that it was Monday and there was not really anything to do, we found a place that miraculously offered soy milk cappucinos, outstayed our welcome loitering over the tongue blisteringly hot cups, and went back to our hotel to have an afternoon kip, which wasn’t at all helped along by the coffees.
More fizzy bitter drinks followed and we got stuck in a bar when the rain started belting down and lightning started streaking through the sky. We talked to a nice Bolognese guy who couldn’t believe us when we said we thought it would be a great place to live. He was jealous of us being Australian. During the entire trip there was a lot of talk about financial crisis and this was just one more to add to the misery, although he was an upbeat cheerful guy and it was fun talking with him about nothing really.
When the rain cooled off we headed towards dinner- a place I’d read about out of the centre of town, a Roman restaurant with vegan food where we were greeted by a shy girl who seemed a little afraid of us, even though I was trying my most charming Italian on her.
The place was dead empty. There wasn’t even any music. There was Totti memorabilia everywhere and that was about it. We considered leaving after we’d been seated, given the bizarre, kind of morbid atmosphere, but couldn’t bring ourselves to do it. We ordered wine, hoping at least we could create a two person atmosphere with it’s aid. Then in waltzed a very large, charistmatic man who appeared to be the owner evident by the way he was sitting at the office desk situated oddly at the front of the eating area checking facebook. He came over to talk to us and would not speak anything but English with me even though I was trying hard to practice my Italian. He asked where we were from and how long we were staying. He said he was sad for us about the weather and he’d see what he could do, whereby he pulled his hand out of his pocket, put it up to his ear like a phone, and started brrrringng his lips to make a ringing sound. God picked up the phone on the other end and our lively host asked if he could please do us a favour and quit it with the rain. He indicated to us that god had obliged and we’d be sunbaking within minutes, even though it was night. He let us be, except to tell me, somehow kindly and jovially, that it was my own mistake that my vegan meal was delivered dusted with parmesan. The restaurant filled up with Italians, a relief after being in so many tourist places for the past few days. I got drunk and spilled wine and pasta sauce all over the tabelcloth but artfully folded a flap over the blushing stain so that no-one would ever notice.

We went to the train station together the next morning- Simon was heading back to Munich and I was going back to Verona to squeeze in some quality time with my relatives. I’d been twitching with excitment before we left and so far I’d had no power to stop the twitching. Our whirlwind tour had been amazing, even in the pouring constant rain, and I was about to do something possibly even more exciting: visit my Nonna’s tiny mountaintop home town.

Munich – Starnberger See

26 Aug

It has been hot here. Like, proper summer hot. Sweat hot. Singlet hot. Plants on the windowsill frizzling up hot.
But Munich offers very little in the way of summery cool-down options, especially compared to Australia. The amazingly pristine Isar river cuts through the city and attracts hundreds of boob-exposing, portable bbq grilling, longneck drinking toe-dippers, who very rarely actually dip their toes in because the Isar is tooth achingly cold. The downside is that the Isar is tooth achingly cold, and that your sun basking is constantly soundtracked with the hum of city cars and motorbikes. Also, there is no sand or soft ground- your riverside frolics are conducted upon either large back-poking pebbles or hard areas of dirt with the occassional tuft of genetically strong grass. Not that I’m complaining, because the Isar is a pretty cool place to be, it’s just that the rest of the Munich population usually have the same idea and it turns into a squirmy flesh-fest, but in less of a good way that you might imagine.

If you are wanting to get away from the sausage-smoke and the pebble-pushers, your options are a few indoor pools, or soaking in a cold bath.
There is one alternative to this, if you are willing to take one hour train ride, and that is to visit one of the many lakes (“See” in German) scattered about Munich’s outskirts, which is an incredibly popular choice.

Feeling on a Summertime high from our last weekend at Tegernsee, where we didn’t actually do any swimming, dangling up high above those jangling cows and whooping in that Alpine air, we took a second trip to a second lake, Starnbergersee.
A 40 minute zoom on a far-reaching suburban train brought us relatively close to the lake, backpack jammed with potato salad, a few pieces of cake, a bikini, some towels and mineral water bottles refilled with plain old tap water. (I feel I must make mention of that leftover cake here, as leftover pieces of cake have become something that play a deliciously haunting, ever-present role in my life currently. For when we are not going to Alpen lakes, when we are not perilously trundling up cable cars or going out to bizarre ladies only salsa nights, I have been baking. A lot. I have set myself the task of learning the art of German baking. However, this comes with a extra challenge: to make German baking vegan. And on top of this, an extra challenge: to write a book about those experiences. It’s kind of like Julie and Julia, minus the shitty movie, Meryl Streep and thus far, the critical acclaim. I plan on taking this book to some pretty weird places and have already had some fairly bizarre experiences trying to make it happen. So, fair warning to all, there will be many cakes in the future, and the frequency of this blog is bound to drop off a bit as I concentrate on other words in other places.)

We didn’t really have any idea where we were or really at all what this lake was going to be like. The lake itself is quite big, about 20km long and a few kilometres wide, and we’d picked the third train station in a series of four stops alongside the lake with about as much randomness as we could muster.
A lot of people got off the train at the same time as us and split off in various directions. We sweatily slid off out of our seats and followed the youngest, coolest looking people, having heard that there are areas for families and areas for the cool kids and areas for leatherbacked nudists. We crossed the road in a pack and traipsed through the forest that seperates the train station from the See. We walked through some tracks amongst the sun praising pines, reaching ever-more heavenward, tall and thin to their hot gassy god, and in return that hot gassy god spilled bright piercing orgasms of streaky light in an ecstatic play of light and dark lines upon them in a beautiful display of master/disciple harmony.

We kept ourselves hot on the tails of those German youths, fearing landing in the wrinkled testicle of an elderly nudist sunbathing colony.
Fifteen or twenty minutes later we emerged into a huge grassed park populated by beach umbrellas, paddle-ball players and hundreds and hundreds of people in various states of undress. We walked another five minutes across the exspansive park and finally saw the lake.
The lake was outlined by a loose gravel walking/cycling path, with a few prime metres of sunbaking space inbetween. This prime sunbaking space was interrupted heavily by foliage, creating really what were a few small cramped lakeside nooks which you would have to arrive very early and be very lucky to find a position in- a position where you could actually see the lake. Most people were settled on their towels to the outside of the path where there were more large grassed areas, stretching back a few hundred metres, divided into seperate areas by trees. We walked along the path, seeing what there was to see. Each new separate grass park we came across was packed with people and umbrellas.

Each little nook of lakeside sitting space was also, predictably, packed.

It looked like the whole 1.3 million population of Munich was here, eating picnics and sitting topless in a park kind of near some water. It is a funny sight to an Australian for all these people to be essentially at the beach, unable to see the water and mostly not really swimming.

There were some people swimming though, clustered around a few small piers, jumping off, milling around and launching an array of blow-up vessels. It was an impressive view- the white, looming Alps presiding over the lake, the thousands of colourful umbrellas, the hundreds upon hundreds of sun-kissed people, the English backpackers playing paddle-ball.
We found ourselves a spot in the full blaring sun, stripped down (though not to European standards) and proceeded to inhale the heat, hoping to get hot enough to convince ourselves that we should get in the water, which we had no doubt would be terribly cold.
The sun worked it’s magic and we cautiously put our feet in. We watched a cruel looking woman take great pleasure in picking up her terrified dog, wet and shaking and probably weighing no more than 500 grams, and dump it in the water a few metres out, where it would immediately scramble to get out as quickly as possible, cower around her feet flinching every time she came close to it again, before she would pick it up and do the same thing.
It was like opening up an esky the day after Christmas to find a few leftover West Coast Coolers and a bottle of lemon squash all bobbing around in a bath of water, and then thinking “ooh, I wouldn’t mind some lemon squash”, dipping your hand in and then quickly retracting it because the water is still as icy cold as ice itself, never getting to guzzle back that squash.
We gave it time, and our little feet acclimatised. Emboldened, we entered up to our knees, waited, then waded in a little further, gradually working up the courage to surprise my body by suddenly diving in before I had the chance to stop myself. It was actually not so bad, and what the temperature lacked, the dazzling views of the Alps made up for. Nonetheless it was only a few minutes later that I retreated to the sun-blaze and potato salad waiting just over the path.

We laid around reading, eating, sunburning and drinking our tap water. We ate some leftover pieces of cake and dipped ourselves in one more time before reversing our trip through the forest and back to Munich four happy, sunfilled hours later.

The rest of the week was filled with writing, chores, introductions to the local fruiterer (whose name is Juliette), awkward conversations with the building managers (amusingly called “hausmeister”s), a proposition to bake 10 wedding cakes by this Friday, visits to the stern physiotherapist whose capacity for sharing information seems to be horribly limited to my constant prompting, a drunken night out with Simon’s new workmates and fifteen or so completely random other people, and frantic plans for a rapidly approaching jaunt in Italy.
I am just about peeing my pants to get back to The Motherland, just a casual 5 hour train ride away, across the Alps and passing through Austria: to soak up those Mediterranean rays, fumble with my half-forgotten romantic language knowledge, meet some more long lost relatives, eat three cooked meals a day and splash about in some more Euro-lakes. And this time, to make it even more pant-pee-able, I will be dragging Simon along in my wake.

Munich – life outside of the city

17 Aug

It has been a couple of weeks of some serious seasonal change.
The nasty old rain has all but stopped. It is summer here, and it finally actually feels like Summer. The days are clear and bright and warm. I sometimes even sweat. You can tell it is Summer not only by the weather, but by the hoardes of people drinking take-aways from the local beer garden or kiosk, puffing smoke from their disposable grills, baring their breasts and white legs, and dipping their toenails into the Isar river, which runs almost right through the centre of Munich. Being a very landlocked city, the river is the place to be on hot days. The funny thing is you rarely see anyone actually swimming, it is more about being CLOSE to the water, rather than being IN it. I get the impression that the water is very, very cold, though I have not been brave enough to test it myself yet.

Seeing as the weather has been pretty permanently good- co-incidentally occuring around the same time we moved into our new apartment- we finallly took a trip out to Tegernsee, the land of rolling hills and of the mountain ringed lake which we had had to put off a few weeks ago because of the rain.

I packed a picnic, just as I had intended the first time. We missed our train and spent 40 minutes wondering why we had just missed it (was it early? were we late? did we have the wrong timetable?) until the next train came. We rode along for an hour or so with hundreds of other people doing the same thing as us, and dozens of other people who looked like they were very prepared for some serious walking, and still dozens more transporting their bikes for a day ride in the mountain bike tracks nearby. I marvelled at the four girls who were going hiking together for the day. I thought how unlikely and bizarre doing something like that would be in Australia, and how much of a big deal it would be, whereas these girls just seemed to be, you know, casually hiking in the alps together for the day.
As the train rounded it’s final corner our destination was revealed to us- a blue, sparking lake with lumpy green formations oozing upwards from the ground around it. It was lined with people drinking aperol spritzers and people sunbaking and people swimming. It was a beautiful little town, and the sun was clear and bright and hot enough for me to do a not-so-discreet mid-lake stroll removal of my leggings, which were clinging to my legs with sweat.

I had to buy an extra bottle of water, which as an aside, usually comes room temperature, even the ever-present mineral water.

We got a little bit lost looking for the tourist office where we needed to ask directions because we’d conveniently forgotten our book wth the miniature, probably useless anyway, map inside it. To get to the cable car, which was our ultimate tip top destination, we needed to catch a bus that would take us to the base of it, which required us getting slightly lost again and waiting at the bus stop for half an hour. The bus took about half an hour itself, stopping for 5 minutes at one stop, 4 minutes at the next while the driver had confusing non-smoking smokos.
When we got to the cable car I almost wee’d my pants. I was so excited! It went so high up! Carving through a pine forest! Into a fucking mountain! Holy crap!
We paid our ludicrous fee, which ended up being worth it, and boarded a little bubble racketing it’s way along a big-ass metal chain, or cable to be precise.
It went very slowly, and it was a few minutes before we reaached the ouside world past the confines of the boarding room, which was loud and smelly and clangy and groany with the complex cable system looming above us.

We roughly floated into the air, and chugging over some bumpy parts of the cable system it felt as if we might be dislodged any moment and smash to our spectacular death bouncing all the way back down the steep hill below us. We rose higher and higher, pine forest surrounding us, a steeply inclined cable ahead of us, a stare-inducing view of the lake and it’s towns opening up beneath us.

We heard jangling bells. We saw a castle dotting the top of a peak, surrrounded by nothing but pines. We heard the jangling bells louder. I thought the cable car was maybe on it’s last legs. I scanned the forest around me and saw a large clearing of grass, on such a slope that it appeared almost vertical. On the grass were a dozen or so goats, lazily chewing grass, clanging the bells around their neck as they bent forward. I felt like I was part of an ad for Swedish chocolate. We poked our noses out the small gap in the window of the stuffy carriage and sucked in the alpine air. It was so fresh and clean that you could amost feel the bell jangles in your nostrils.
We passed some cows grazing directly beneath the cable system, also accompanied by the picture-perfect, almost ethereal sound of bells.

At the top we were greeted with views of the Alps to one side, and views of Tegernsee and more mountains to the other side. In the distance you could see snowy white shimmering apparitions of the bigger, more commanding mountains. There were crosses on the top of every peak, a phenomenon instigated by eager Christians to claim the world as belonging to Jesus.

We sat up there for over an hour, slowly circling the top of the peak, pausing every few metres to take advantage of the new, slightly different view point. We sucked up the leftovers-based-picnic with our mouths and sucked up the fresh cool air through our pores. It was, to use an an old fashioned but appropriate word, marvellous.

One the train ride home we had two 23 year old American girls yapping less than a metre away from our faces. I got to learn a lot about their obnoxious, self-involved lives and had a hard time planting my hands into my thighs instead of letting them fly into their faces like they uncontrollably wanted to. After a day of beauty and quietness, it seemed a fitting way to be welcomed back to the city.

A few days after Tegernsee I was lucky to depart from the city again, this time to a tiny town called Rabensham near Passau. My yogic housemates run a few yoga retreats every year and I’d arrived just in time for this one. It went for five days and the setting was the house of the father of one of my housemates. It was perfect. It had dark eaves and a steep roof that made me feel like I was living inside a Christmas card. There was an enormous flourishing vegetable garden full of pumpkins, green beans and tomatoes. There were fruit trees everywhere, a huge pond topped with wall-flower waterlillies and a little pier jutting out over the surface to dive in from. My bedroom was a teepee which I shared with 2 other girls.

I’d received a lift in someone’s car to get there with three other girls. This was enough to have me pretty worried because the whole two hour drive was conducted almost exclusively in German. I am not a self-righteous douche bag who expects conversation to revolve around them, or the langauge of the group to be altered for them, and so it was with measured and predicted disappointment that I felt like a huge useless twat, understanding nothing of what was going on around me. I wondered if this would prove to be difficult and isolating for the next five days- which I would be unable to escape from given the remoteness. In the social stakes I already had a negative score.
We arrived in the afternoon and everyone met everyone. A lot of the people already knew each other from past retreats or from friendly connections, so I was down another social point thanks to that.

After dinner I presented a cake I’d cooked the day before and it was happily eaten, although I could not coax out anything but compliments. I had made a vegan version of a traditional German cake and wanted feedback on how close it was to the real, buttery and eggy concoction. Having just met each other I could understand the lack of constructive criticism, but I was still, somehwhat humourosly, let-down by people telling me my cake was delicious.

It went like this:
In the evenings we had an activity. Twice we had bonfires (once with chanting that was a bit beyond my ability to accept other’s sprirtuality, and saw me mentally rolling my eyes a few times) and once with a ritual of burning meaningful things we’d written on paper (which was also a bit kooky for me but was actually pretty fun- who doesn’t like sitting outside in the cold wrapped in a blanket throwing shit into a fire? No-one, what’s who). Once we learned a new mediation technique where I almost passed out. On the first night there was a detailed discussion about whether or not we would swim in the pond naked or with bathers. It was voted unanimously that no-one cared.
After the evening activity we would go into silence.
We would be awoken by a gong at 5:30am, if you weren’t already awake from the sounds of someone diving into the pond in for some early morning invigoration. We would then get ourselves cleansed with some morning rituals involving snorting warm salt water up your nostrils and spraying it out any orifice it felt like coming from, rubbing your gums with salt until your mouth feels like a mega-sized serve of popcorn, scraping a spoon over your tongue and washing your eyes out with more of that warm salty water. It was a fairly wretched scene, the 6 people who’d managed to get up in time snorting and spitting and scraping and gagging within close proximity to one another, but it was surprisingly refreshing and it did a lot to help with the waking up process.
Then we had 1-2 hours of breathing exercises, conducted on the grassy area just outside the teepee while the sun rose. It was usually very cold and thus I was usually wrapped in a blanket like a beany lady burrito which made me feel cosy and happy. The early morning is a pretty magic time of the day and when you are watching your breathing like an oxygen-obsessed hawk you can get to some moments of being close to complete quietness.
After breathing there was a quick tea break, followed by a two hour yoga class, followed by a big porridgey breakfast with fruit and a hundred sprinkly self serve toppings of coconut, sultanas, sunflower seeds and the rest of their healthy brethren, alongside dark, intense German bread, tomatoes and cucumbers which had recently been plucked from their vines and more great big soup-bowl mugs of heavily honeyed tea.
The morning was then ours until 1 when we would have a midday snack and start talking again for the day.

I walked through the surrounding forests and found a gun and a human shit. I went to the forest every day and spent a lot of time taking timer photos of myself, singing loudly and writing notes about what I’d been thinking, which regularly said something like “Why must one believe in some divine power, some God, some chants, some ridiculous handholding circling of the fire to be able to appreciate yoga? Why must a yoga practice go hand in hand with firetwirling, slackline balancing, teepees and hackysacks?”
I got angry about a few things, but I had so much time to kill and nothing to do in it but relax that as much as my agitated mind told me not to be such a damned hippy, relax is what I did. I read, picked berries in the forest, went naked swimming in the pond, slept in a hammock, wrote and mooched around attempting to read and learn from the German-language ayurvedic cookbooks from the kitchen.
In the afternoon we would have another few hours of yoga, dinner and the evening activity I have already mentioned, and then it was back to silence again until the next wake-up gong.
In the talkative aftenoons I made friends, and even though everyone spoke mostly German, I had a ten-strong team of happy translators who made me feel more comfortable than I’d imagined I could.

It’s not that I became enlivened by the spiritual aspects of the retreat- I did not- yet I acquired a peacefulness and happiness that had been notably lacking in my life for a long time. I give credit to having a routine, waking up early, spending hours listening to and feeling my breath, paying close attention to my body and doing a lot of highly focussed stretchy exercises a day. I also had a lot of time for self-introspection and though I didn’t have a clichèd ah-ha moment, it gave me a good amount of time to evaluate what I’ve been doing and how I’ve been coping with it, and what I could do to keep some of these nice retreat-y feelings in my everyday life.
I came back feeling socially connected (an element of life that has escaped me since we left home 5 months ago), with less pain in my back than I’ve had for months, feeling refreshed and motivated,.
Motivated for what?, you might ask. Aren’t you just some lazy lady of leisure, living the high life in Munich and doing whatever you want? Well, yes, I am. But what I want requires a great deal of motivation. I am going to write a book. A book about cake.

Munich – sharehouse style

7 Aug

We moved into our new house almost a week ago, and pretty much nothing but strangeness has ensued.
The courtyard out the back of the apartment block is ringed by businesses run mostly by people who live in the apartments at the front of the block. There is a tailor, a few graphic designers, an astrologer and a French restaurant that I know of, and plenty more niche businesses that I do not know of yet. Our housemates, who are a lovely couple about our age, also have a courtyard business- a successful yoga and massage studio.
When locking up our bikes in the back courtyard surrounded by these sometimes legitimate , sometimes just plain kooky businesses, we have been at least three times approached by complete strangers and hausmeisters and told politely that we should not keep leaving our bikes in the wrong spot because it blocks the driveway, despite the apparently unbelievable fact that we have not once left our bikes in the alleged position. The courtyard is also home to a leery old man who has simply stared at me on a number of occassions as I have locked up, trying to speak a little English to me but generally just coming off as a weird, grumpy, moany old dude.
Even not taking into account the odd little commune vibe of this particular place, German rentals are absolutely weird. When you move out of a place, you take everything with you. When we moved in the house was stripped of curtains, curtain rails, light fittings, bathroom mirror, and strangest of all, the entire kitchen. They pull out the whole kitchen- the stove, the cupboards, the dishwasher, the sink, everything. And then they transport their kitchen, take it all out and have it re-installed in their new home.
The old home is painted clean white and is left for the new person as a very, very empty shell. The hausmeisters (in this particular apartment block, they are more like resident handymen) are called upon (without charge, oddly) from wherever they are wandering around to do things like minor plumbing jobs, attaching curtain rods to walls, putting in light fittings and so on. Sometimes (read: 3 times so far) they even just let themselves in as soon as they’ve rung the bell and before even Usain Bolt could get to the door so they can get to adjusting a light fitting or fussing over the kitchen tap.
Our new, friendly yogic housemates were living in the one bedroom apartment downstairs by themselves when the people above them decided to move out. Having a good relationship with the landlord, they were asked if they’d like to move into the nicer, bigger 3 bedroom apartment one story up, to which they said yes and proceeded to find some people to share the nicer, bigger, 3 bedroom apartment one story up rent with. And that is how Simon and I luckily came to be here, in a wonderful light filled space in the coolest part of town, kind of like the Gertrude St of Munich minus the government flats and good coffee.
The apartments in Munich are so unaffordable (actually about the same price as equivalent apartments in Melbourne) that not many of them have a shared space other than the kitchen. To make the rent payments more achievable, they rent the loungeroom out as well as the bedrooms. Thus, Simon and I have rented out not only a bedroom but the room which is supposed to be the loungeroom. So far Room # 2 is a big empty echo-vessel, bouncing endlessly the howling of the fire engines and ambulances that seem to pass every few minutes, and acting as a reverberation microphone for the tram line a few stories below us.
Our housemates moved in one day before us, carrying all their junk up the flight of stairs.
They kindly called upon the collective hausmeister/apartment/courtyard business community and gathered a bit of borrowed furniture for us, which was awesome because it meant we didn’t have to spend our first few nights pretending we were camping by sleeping on our sleeping mats. We did, however, still have to sleep in our sleeping bags with our heads uncomfortably resting on our inflatable pillows until we made it to IKEA a few days later, which was a journey as epic and harrowing as you’d expect.
And then…our housemates moved out the next day.
Not knowing they were going to be moving apartments, our housemates had planned to host 6 weeks of yoga retreats way out in the Bavarian countryside, which was to begin the day after they’d moved. Not knowing they’d be in a new apartment with new housemates, they’d also organised via airb’n’b for their apartment to be sublet for the entire 6 weeks they’d be away.
But, rent being expensive as it is, they didn’t cancel the airb’n’b bookings, they simply asked their airb’n’b guests if instead they mightn’t mind living with some housemates and hurriedly made up a room for them.
This we found out the day before we moved in, nonchalantly brought up by our sweet and accommodating housemates- “Oh, so we’re going away for 6 weeks and someone else is going to live here. We haven’t met him yet but we think he will be nice”.
Ok. Well, I guess it could be fun.
And so, the housemates who we thought we would be living with are in fact far, far away, and we have a housemate from Berlin, whose name we can’t understand or even begin to know how to pronounce because we don’t even know what letters it is composed of, who is working in Munich for a few weeks before he goes home and is replaced with another airb’n’b subleaser for the remaining four weeks.
You might imagine it is already kind of weird, but it only gets weirder.
On our first night at the apartment I got a phone call from my countryside yoga housemate, asking a favour. A friend of hers was coming through Munich on his way to a festival in the south. He would be arriving at midnight and leaving the next morning- could I let him in so he could stay in their bed for the night? Okay. Sure. Why not.
He didn’t arrive until 1:30 in the morning, which, as you might know, is about 3 or 4 hours past my bedtime. I greeted him in some thrown on clothes with some pillow creases scarring my face and showed him his room, after which he insisted on talking loudly, albeit extremely amiably, in the hallway right next to our subleasers room. The next morning we had coffee together and we got on so well he even offered Simon and I a place to stay if ever we went to Berlin, which undoubtedly one day we will. It was lovely, but predictably awkward and weird.
A few days later the subletter let me know that his girlfriend was also coming to stay for the week- he had spoken to our housemates about it and they said it was fine.
Ok, cool. What harm is one extra random housemate in this already decidedly random situation?
The same day as this announcement I recieved another phone call from countryside housemate, saying that another friend was passing through Munich tonight and he would be arriving in an hour, and could I please let him in? Oooookaaaaay. Sure. Why not.
This friend, however, was a little less amiable than the previous Passing Through Friend. Simon and I were just sitting down to dinner when he knocked on the door. I asked him if he’d like some dinner. “No”. We chatted a little, I asked him what he was doing in Munich and he replied defensively that he had nothing to do in Vienna. I was baffled. I too have nothing to do in Vienna, but that’s not why I am in Munich.
I darted my eyes in Simons direction just as his darting eyes were making their way to mine.
I asked him what he was studying and he said “pfft, ART, come on, what did you think?!” after which he abruptly left the kitchen, went into his room and smoked a cigarette.
He came back saying he felt better now and asked us what the smoking policy in the house was. He then asked if he could drink the half-drunk glass of water that was sitting on the kitchen table beside me. The next question was to request a (non-existent) spare set of keys so he could go out. I asked him if he was leaving now, just so I could give him my set of keys right then if that’s what he wanted. He replied abruptly “Yes, now”, and so I gave him my keys and he went out for a while.
Simon and I could not stop looking at each other wild eyed wondering what the fuck was going on. We retreated to our bedroom not wanting to face the aggressive awkwardness that was about to storm back in the door any moment.
We heard him come home, and heard the subletters girlfriend arrive.
The subletters girlfriend shook my hand while I was brushing my teeth in the morning and the Passing Through Friend had to be woken up so I could retrieve my keys from his jeans, which he had gone to sleep in until 1:30 in the afternoon.
So somehow, in the course of this week we moved in to a house we thought we’d be sharing with a nice, friendly couple, to a house we have instead shared with 4 complete strangers ranging from a little bit awkward to cryptically whoa.
Somehow, in the course of this week, we have gone from ecstatically moving into an awesome new place to realising we are kind of accidentally running a not-for-profit halfway house for vagabonds.
Somehow, in the course of this week, I have decided it is appropriate for me to get out of here and go to our real housemates yoga retreat in the countryside for the week.
Retreat being the operative word.

Munich – pretty things and painful things

2 Aug

Since I smashed my body onto the ground in a muddy, ugly, slippery cycling mess a month ago, I have been having painful troubles with my already painfully troublesome back and hip. Almost two years ago I woke up with a sleep-ruining pain pulling through my back muscles, caused by the wand wave of a cheeky hell-raising unidentified devil. The pain level has waxed and waned ever since, but it has not for a single day left me undisturbed and peaceful within my own skin. It has crept it’s way into my hip and thigh and often creeps it’s naughty old way into my brain, spreading it’s hot pain into my positive, get-better-soon thoughts, which I desperately cling onto.
My natural instinct has been to shush up about it, hoping it will disappear as suddenly and mysteriously as it appeared, and trying not to bother anyone too much with the woeful details, which are incedibly boring and depressing. I suppose I also don’t like to talk about it because somehow saying the words makes it less likely to ever get the fuck outta here.
However, it has worsened with the sudden jolt of falling off my bike and it has worsened with my currently unemployed, fairly aimless status, giving me plenty of time to mull it over and focus on it more than I would like to. Unfortunately, this has seen me spend a good part of my time in Munich performing physio exercises in the pool, wondering if they are doing any good, seeking a new physiotherapist in this strange new convoluted health care system, testing out the local Thai massage jont, saying fuck it and going for a 65km ride anyway and paying for it dearly over the next few days with not only intense pains but with a deep green vomiting session as well, and spending the next few weeks periodically in annoying pain.
What I’d really rather be doing is cycling to Vienna, or hiking in gorges, or walking to the top of big hills and proudly looking over my new kingdom like a human Simba.
The problem is I simply don’t know what’s wrong, and not knowing what’s wrong means not knowing how to go about minimising it’s impact on my life. And so, not knowing what else to do, I have carried on as usual, unable or unwilling to make any major changes to how I live.
It is a huge challenge for me to not walk or ride my bike anywhere and just rest for the day. My mind takes me to crazy, cooped up, restless places and I would typically rather put up with physical pain over mental anguish- so, while taking a ride out to the Olympiapark and walking around it’s day-time carnival might be a foolish thing for my body, I might end up crying from frustration and boredom if I didn’t. And thus, almost a few years later, this dull, creeping pain has taken up permenant residence in my body, and it may or may not be the fault of my persistent, active self.

But never fear, this sob story is not simply for the sake of telling a sob story, or to gather unneccessary sympathy.
It is to illustrate why, under the supervision of Nurse Simon’s watchful eye, I have been prescribed Rest, which Nurse Simon has been enforcing and I have been halfheartedly, begrudgingly trying to stick to in the name of experimentation.
But what is a restless, active soul to do when plonked in the middle of Bavaria, Germany’s outdoor loving, hiking boot rich, mountain biking capital? Is she supposed to sit in her dim one room apartment with it’s usually-not-working internet and listen to the intricacies of the cooing nesting doves outside the window? Is she supposed to sit in the park and read a book for 10 hours everyday? Is she supposed to fatten up on litres of beer, imbibed friendless and alone, and sleep it all away in a drunk coma? How do you fill up your days when you aren’t permitted to do anything which requires movement?
I can hear the hard-working, busy people of the world revolt and curse me when I greedily complain of being sentenced to do nothing at all. It’s just that the movies-in-bed-every-day-of-the-week vibe just isn’t for me, and for what it’s worth, I offer a swap, if there are any takers.

On these “rest days” I have been trying to keep my cool by rationing out my activities, and trying to spend a fair portion of the day sitting or laying down. (Gah, I doubt I could sound any more boring if I dictated some text from my high school science book.) These “activities” have generally consisted of grocery shopping, gently walking around museums, and sitting in the park across the road from our apartment tapping keys on my laptop. I am aware this may sound enviable but my brain has programmed this squarely into the torture category, and so I try to pack just a little punch into my metred out activities.
Apart from the delicious, slow-cooked, preparation-intensive dinners, the greatest thing to come out of this unfortunate situation is that I have visited a few fascinating museums which I would probably not have have visited had I been in full steam ahead mode.

I took a leisurely and yes, very slow and steady, ride down the magnificent boulevard that is Maximillianstrasse, a wide street lined with huge, royal buildings and luxury shops with your Gucci’s and your Prada’s and your Dior’s like an exaggerated Euro version of the Paris end of Collins St. The dot in the exclaimation mark that is Maximillianstrasse is Max-Joseph Platz, a big round piazza ringed by the old royal residence (that’s Residenz in German), theatre, and treasury now all converted into museums housing the same things that used to be in them, but now with the addition of glass boxes and mood lighting. I took a few hours dip into the Treasury (amusingly translated as Schatzkammer), which my handy guide book described as “an Aladdin’s cave of treasures”. And what a world of twinkly, sparkly pretty things there were! It is not often that historical artefacts have me going cross-eyed at their details and make me want to get up so nice and close that I effectively block the exhibit from any other curious eyes. It is not often that old stuff puts me in a wonder-induced trance and has me plotting how to smash the glass without anyone noticing and slipping away with some precious steals.
But then again it is also not very often that you walk into a low-lit room full of fairytale jewelled crowns and perfectly, intricately filigreed sword sheathes resting against heavy green and navy velvety carpeting. It is not very often that you see a crown almost filled solid with cut gems and delicate silverwork, looking like it weighs a few kilos, displayed next to it’s matching earrings, bracelets and necklace.

The details were entrancing. From the other side of the room I saw what seemed like a bunch of big-ass gems linked together into a very regal neck piece. As I approached I saw that the gems were linked together by golden claws, and that on each of those golden claws was an incredible amount of filigreed detail, and that each of those filigreed details was painted with fine licks of colourful enamel- an object that the longer you looked at, the more you saw. It seemed that almost every object had this same quality, especially the altars which burst out of their own little cupboards into intense, exploding infinite life. Everywhere you’d look a tiny screaming silver face would berate you, a miniature bunch of grapes would surprise you or a woven vine worth of ivy leaves woud twinkle from amidst a thousand other surprisingly small details.

Some of the objects were so absurdly detailed that if you didn’t look up close at them you might think you’d seen a silver explosion that someone threw some emeralds into- the details from afar can look messy and cluttered, but it’s up close their magic sparkles into shining, masterful order and prettiness.

Subsequent rooms were filled with etched glassware, a babies rattle made with a beavers claw set into it, long intimidating swords, dining ware made of precious stones, crazy-small wood carvings which took 18 years to complete and delicate tea services. One of the final objects was a spectacular travelling set made for a princess- a kind of Swiss Army Knife of a carved wooden suitcase, from which small drawers would swing out and secret compartments would be slid open, with puzzle-like contents including everything a travelling princess might need such as a metre long ivory ruler hinged with silver, a full vanity set and a dining set for two people amongst other spectacular hand carved objects.

Perhaps I’m just getting a bit girly as I grow older, or a bit more immature, or maybe more materialistic but holy crap I was attracted Siren-like to those sparkly, shiny, twinkling, glittering objects. I ooh-ed and ahh-ed over them like a Malaysian cinema audience watching Battleship (ps, that actually happened).
Such was my attraction I took dozens of terrible, poorly lit photos and made Simon sit through a slideshow complete with my own, ill-informed commentary, which was ill-informed because I would typically tire of the audio guide a few sentences into each description and leave the telephone-like contraption hanging useless and unheard around my neck.

Bolstered by the success of my sparkle princess day, I picked another museum from the guide book, this time the toy museum, which had somehow avoided my notice despite being in a city-centre building whose arch I regularly walk under. Perhaps I didn’t understand the sign, which says “Spielzeugmuseum”, a rookie mistake.
I took a narrow spiralling staircase up a few floors, enjoying the opportunity to get a miniscule amount of exercise on a supposed rest day and bought a ticket off the ticket lady who charmingly thought I should buy a family ticket given all the small children milling behind me. It’s possible that it is unusual for a grown woman to visit a toy museum alone, but I can’t see any good reason for it. Toys are for everyone! Even quiet, part-crippled ladies.
The museum spanned three small floors, the walls covered in glass display cabinets and packed to the brim with happy, ugly, cute and grim toys of ye olden days. It was actually quite fascinating thinking about a child deriving any kind of entertainment from these primitive, plain things in today’s hot breeding ground of Angry Birds.
But for me they were quite enthralling to look at. There were many examples of teddy bears amongst the displays, some with fur so worn they’d become bald except for the un-affected tufty areas round their blind button eyes. There were some toys which were just folded pieces of paper, grimy from dirty hands and from being played with. There were open doll houses with full kitchens with bundt pans, mandolins and sieves hanging off the walls, beautiful decorated minature tea sets, a collection of very early Barbie dolls wearing foxy zebra print pin-up bathers, a whole cabinet of tin robots and hundreds of fighting tin soldiers. There was a cabinet full of creepy dolls, the kind with porcelain heads sewn onto fabric bodies. Their smooth angelic faces chronologically gave way to ugly, contorted faces of “regular children”, as the result of protest from mothers who opposed the unrealistic impressions. A small boy with plucked-thin eyebrows and a wicked look on his face made me glad I wasn’t unfortunate enough to be born a “regular child” in those times.
There was a model of an entire zoo, based on a real zoo, and a model of Noah’s ark in which the game (one of the few games allowed on Sunday’s) was to put the animals two by two into their correct position in the ark.
I saw tiny replicas of an everyday country town- women selling fruit from stalls, brass bands performing on tiny seats with tiny tubas, women pushing prams, children skipping and people shopping- all set amongst model buildings of the town hall, the train station, the pharmacy and the school.
Like in the previous museum, the details really caught my attention, especially in the dollhouses where there was almost everything required to run a household, except miniature and in non-functioning form. Also entertaining was Barbie’s book “How to Lose Weight” and her super chic and enviable Audrey Hepburn style cape-coat get-up.
There were literally thousands of toys- not quite sparkling like the jewells of the day before, but alive nonetheless with their own, grimy interesting stories- that kept me captivated until my Daily Activity ration had been depleted and it was time to return home to hopefully, feverishly plan out my next non-back-breaking fix.