Friday, 31 December 2010

A Tale of Two Cities

"It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief,
it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light,
it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope,
it was the winter of despair,
we had everything before us,
we had nothing before us,
we were all going direct to Heaven,
we were all going direct the other way."
- Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities.

I was reminded of this opening passage from A Tale of Two Cities the other day and it struck me as being somehow appropriate to my circumstances both right now and for about the last six months of 2010.

I've had the absolute time of my life on this trip. But it hasn't all been fun and excitement. There have been a few big spanners thrown in the works along the way with significant implications both here and back in Australia. In fact the reason I've been so quiet lately is because I've been working through some personal issues for the last few weeks that will have a big effect on the remainder of this trip for me.
No matter who you are, things happen in life from time to time. They don't choose a convenient time to happen, they just do.  This is one such time for me.
But this is a travel blog, not a personal diary or a gossip magazine.

Being the start of a new year, it's also a time for reflection on 2010. I'm left feeling many things all at once. But strangely, despite being in such a difficult time, bitterness isn't one of those things. I've had my share of dark moments, especially recently, but I'm now slowly turning that negativity into a strong determination to get back into my travel and really make the most of it before I return to Australia, and then be ready to hit the ground running with momentum when I do return.
All my old travel plans are now tossed out the window though, and I'm in the process of making new plans.

For the first time in a long time, the rest of my life is a blank canvas waiting for me to make my mark. It's daunting to think how much work I have ahead of me, but the infinite possibilities are also very exciting.
And it all starts right now.
I don't know what country I'll be in this time next week, but I doubt it will be France.

The last time I felt this liberated was when I was sitting in my Kombi van in Devonport in 1997, waiting to drive onto the ferry to Melbourne. I had $1000 in the bank and all my worldly possessions in the kombi, with no plans except to drive around Australia until I found somewhere I wanted to live. It was an incredible sense of freedom leaving Tasmania with no real destination in mind.
Six months and many adventures later I arrived in Perth with a couple of old friends I'd picked up along the way (a big hi to Kath and Chrispy if you're reading this). We were to stay in Perth to earn some money and then head north up Australia's west coast, but 13 years later I still find myself living in Perth. I guess I found that place I wanted to live.

My current situation isn't exactly the same, as I do have a few responsibilities back in Australia (property, vehicles, cats), and there is of course some sadness about what I'm leaving behind, but on the positive side I have the opportunity and means to do things I couldn't do back then.
But in both cases I have the excitement of a completely unwritten destiny, the means to travel, and the luxury of time.
Let's hope I can do something worthwhile with that.

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Location:Paris, France

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Vive la Catastrophe!

Ahhhh.. France! What can I say. It's a beautiful place. No matter how hard the French try to screw it up, it still manages somehow to maintain it's elegant cities and gorgeous countryside. Somehow..
They've managed to turn inefficiency, dysfunction and beurocracy into art forms. Nothing is ever simple or straightforward in France it seems.

But it still has an appeal. It's like a cantankerous old man that's constantly grumpy but is still somehow lovable. And wow... the food is amazing.
But I honestly do not understand how *anything* ever gets done here though. I think there must be government departments set up specifically to prevent people from achieving their goals. Maybe they offer government incentives for unnecessarily complicated procedures, or for introducing delays, or organizing strikes? They do love their industrial action.

French people tend to have a bit of a reputation for being rude, and I paid particular attention to this, especially in Paris.
I'm happy to say I don't think it's true. Well, kind of.
I don't think French people are rude as a whole. I met many very polite, kind and friendly locals, just as I would anywhere. I mean, you find a certain number of rude people everywhere (except Finland it seems), and France didn't seem to have lots more than other places I've been to.
But here's the thing. One thing I noticed is that when French people get angry about something, they aren't afraid to let the whole world know about it. If they're having a bad day then they don't hide it. No matter who they are or who you are, and it doesn't matter if their problem has nothing to do with you at all. Customer service be damned.
So I can see why they get this reputation as being rude. It can be confronting to walk into a restaurant and almost get abused by the waiter, simply because another patron has knocked over a jug of water and annoyed him. Those things stick in your mind, despite the thirty other waiters who were very helpful and patient and kind.
So don't judge an entire race by this. As I said, I met some wonderful French people who were incredibly helpful, polite, friendly, and generous. Stereotyping can be fun, but only when you don't take it seriously I guess.

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Location:Paris, France

Saturday, 11 December 2010

A Train in the Ass

In the last six or so weeks I've caught about 14 intercity trains (mostly overnight), a couple of flights, had dozens of metro and taxi rides, and even an overnight ship voyage.
All of them have pretty much run as smooth as clockwork. I'm *ahem* not normally known for my punctuality, yet somehow I've managed to get myself on board on time every single time. Despite ridiculously cold temperatures, thick snow, and a reputation for dodginess, the trains in Russia always ran on time and there was never a single hiccup. China was even more efficient, Mongolia was no problem, in Vietnam the luxuries were a bit rough round the edges but the logistics were faultless. And Finland and Germany were, as you'd expect, as precise and efficient as a Swiss watch. A quick change of trains in Amsterdam went as smooth as silk too.
But then in Brussels it was time to change trains and board my first French train. Everything went downhill from there...

I was supposed to catch a train from Brussels to Lyon and then after a 25 minute wait switch to another train bound for Toulouse.
I'd already been on two trains that day (Hanover to Amsterdam, then Amsterdam to Brussels), so everything had to go like clockwork in order to get to Toulouse that evening. So far so good. I had made it to Brussels on time.
But then the train to Lyon was 15 minutes late arriving. And then when we got on, it took another half hour before we left the station. I knew it would be tight, but the train from Hanover to Amsterdam managed to make up for 20 minutes of lost time during the trip, so it was still possible to make the connection in Lyon.
But then things just kept getting worse. We got delayed more and more, stopping longer at stations and sometimes just stopping completely in the middle of nowhere. By the time my connecting train in Lyon left, we were still two hours away with no idea how many more delays would occur.

Thankfully the train conductor was being as helpful as he could, and spoke very good English. He would have been very helpful, except he was being kept in the dark as much as the passengers. But he made a note of the passengers with connections and tried as best he could to sort something out for us and keep us all informed.
Eventually we were told NOT to get off at Lyon as planned, but instead to continue to Valence where a different train on its way from Paris would make an unscheduled stop to pick us up and take us to Toulouse. Great! That sounds like an excellent contingency plan.

So, I get off the train at the small station of Valence along with a dozen other passengers, and we go looking for someone to ask about this connection.
Well, firstly it seems not a single member of staff speaks a word of English. So I go hunting for a passenger who is also heading my way so I can just follow them around. It turns out there are four of us bound for to Toulouse, and one of them speaks excellent English. Thank you Mathilde, you are a lifesaver!
Eventually we managed to find the station master and to our surprise, he knew nothing of any connecting train or any special arrangements. He wasn't particularly sympathetic about anybody's situation, nor did he offer any help. One lady who was stranded and left to catch a very long and expensive taxi to her destination (as was explained to me later) was arguing that SNCF should pay for her taxi, and the station master was just telling her to stop complaining and go. She almost got into a fist fight with the him, but to my surprise instead of trying to diffuse the situation, the station master started shouting back and got up in her face, ready to have a go back! A security guard had to come and separate them.
Welcome to France.
Eventually we were loaded onto the next train to come by which happened to be bound for Montpellier, where at least some of the passengers were supposed to go. Nobody really trusted the Station Master's advice, and we knew it didn't really matter where this train was going, he just wanted us out of his hair. But that's all right, we wanted to get out out of there too. This would still be two hours from Toulouse, but at least we were getting closer. It was after 9pm by this time though, and it would be too late for us to get to Toulouse that day.
So we finally arrive at Montpellier, and thankfully the station master here was expecting us. For the four of us bound for Toulouse, we were given vouchers to stay in the hotel across the road from the station for the night and assured we would be taken to Toulouse the next day.
Luckily I didn't really have any plans for the next day, so what began as an annoying delay was beginning to turn into a little adventure that allowed me to spend an unexpected day in Montpellier. I didn't need to get to Toulouse until the following afternoon. I also found that being a spectator to all these goings-on was an interesting insight into the French problem-solving psyche. It seems that getting upset, yelling, and threatening employees might not solve any actual problems at hand, but it definitely makes the shouter feel better getting things off their chest. It didn't matter that I could only understand one word in ten. It didn't really matter if anyone could understand any of it.
So eventually the four of us all trundled our bags across the road and checked into our hotel, imaginatively called "l'Otel" which for the less worldly among us translates loosely as "The Hotel".
The staff had put about as much creativity into the decor of this hotel as they had it's name, but that didn't worry us. It was 11pm and we were all sick and tired of all the stress of dealing with trains and SNCF, but despite being weary, we were also still wide awake.
So I tried a trick I was shown by a Russian fireman on the trans-siberian railway. Here was my chance to do something in front of 3 strangers that I probably wouldn't do back in Australia. It's a pretty simple trick. It just involves pulling a hip flask of vodka and 4 shot glasses out of my bag and offering everyone a drink. But the trick is in the approach. You must be friendly and approachable, but you don't want to really give them a choice.

And so the night turned from total disaster into a great night of laughter, and four stranded travelers became friends, if only for a night.
Thanks to my Finnish and Estonian friends I was lucky to be carrying a fully-stocked bottle shop with me at the time, so we drank some Estonian Vanna Tallinn, some Finnish Salmaikki, and some good old Russian Vodka. These new French friends of mine probably thought I was an alcoholic, but who cares. Take that SNCF! It takes more than your incompetence to ruin our day. Epic win.

I slept in the next morning and checked out of the hotel around noon. Then spent a few hours wandering around Montpellier, grabbing some lunch at the christmas market and even looking at a very cool exhibition by the American photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard.
Then I wandered back to the train station thinking the 2 minute job of organizing a replacement ticket for today should take no longer than 40 minutes (allowing for language barriers and miscellaneous holdups). But of course I was being too optimistic, and after 55 minutes of queuing and trying to explain things, I missed the train I was hoping to get. There was another (slower) train just 30 minutes later which I caught, but it was just enough to give SNCF the last laugh. Fail.

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Friday, 10 December 2010

A Quick Impression of Hanover

After being so surprised at Rostock, I was curious whether other parts of Germany would impress me as much. Sadly this little sojourn through Germany is a very brief one as I head to France. But I do intend to come back and see more of it at some stage. Apart from some fantastic countryside and numerous cities like Hanover and Hamburg, I really can't wait to sink my teeth into Berlin.
So I left Rostock by train heading towards Hanover with a change in Hamburg. So many German cities have names that are so familiar to me, yet I know next to nothing about them.
My very brief glance at Hamburg through a train window was, I have to say, unimpressive. But I don't hold that against it. Sadly one of the downsides of train travel is that railway lines tends to pass through the less attractive parts of town. Graffitti-riddled industrial rail landscapes are the norm everywhere, not just Hamburg.
Intercity Rail is a fantastic way to see the countryside, but not a good way to see cities. I'll leave my first impression of Hamburg for a time when I can have a proper walk around town.

So on to Hanover. I'm spending two nights with my friend Uli and her partner Clemens. Uli is a friend I met through our common interest in Photography, and she also happens to love travel. Both her and Clemens are ridiculously smart when it comes to Bio-science stuff, but sadly the closest I come to understanding Biology is to know how computer viruses are made. Not really the same thing. But none of that matters. What does matter is that they are both wonderful people and I am so grateful for them letting me stay, and for their company.
I really hope we get to catch up again before I head back to Australia, and this time I'll try to time it better with your work.

Hanover itself is fascinating, although I really only had a brief time to explore.
One thing I had noticed through Mongolia, Russia, and Finland was that the kids I saw didn't really play much in the snow. I saw the occasional kid with a sled, but hardly any snowmen and I hadn't seen evidence of a single snow fight at all! Even the parked cars all covered in snow were left unmolested by kids who might otherwise be drawing or writing snow graffiti. I could barely resist the temptation to draw a giant smiley face on every snow-covered windscreen I walked past, how did these mischievous kids hold back their urges? It seemed unnatural. I guess they get so much snow that there's no novelty factor to it.
But things were very different in Hanover. My walk to the lake must have taken me along a busy school route because there were school kids everywhere.. And snow fights everywhere too. The evidence of splattered snowballs littered the pavement, and every convenient flat surface within reach that was once covered by fresh snow had been pillaged for ammo. This went on for a couple of kilometers. It seems these mobile snow fights would last the entire trip to and from school. That's more like it. Kids being kids. Wreaking havoc.
There is a beautiful artificial lake not far from Uli and Clemens' house called Maschsee lake that is completely frozen over at the moment, but looks like it would be a hub of activity during summer. Apparently it was built in 1936 by "unemployed laborers" who weren't really given much choice in the matter by the government, but I don't know the full story.. Just that there *is* a story to it.
I was told to walk along the length of Maschsee lake until I got to the town hall which was apparently worth a look. Pfft.. A town hall? We have them everywhere in Australia. What's so impressive about that?
Well, when I got there I found out exactly what they meant. Calling this building a town hall is like calling the Titanic just another ferry, or The Beatles just another boy band. As impressive as the building was itself, the grounds were equally impressive and looked beautiful with their frozen ponds and snow-covered lawns.
I continued wandering through the city, and soon found Hanover's Christmas markets. I'm so used to seeing Christmas decorations and fake snow in Australia, it somehow seems strange to see real snow on real pine trees in front of real old stone buildings. All my life I kind of grew up thinking a white Christmas like this was about as real as Santa Claus, and here it is right in front of me.

And the architecture! It's so German! I was expecting a few distinctly German buildings, but nowhere near this many. It's fantastic to see the character of cities change so much in such small distances between countries.
And All the people I've met along the way have been very warm and friendly and up for a laugh. Not in the same way as in Finland though. I can't quite put my finger on it, but I think I just connected slightly better with the Germans I met. It's as if I "get" how their social interactions work in a way that baffled me a bit in Finland. While the "slightly cold and clinical" German stereotype was well and truly busted for me, their reputation for efficiency was reinforced. The train stations were well laid out and everything ran mostly on time. One of my trains (the first leg of a trip requiring 4 connections and passing through 4 different countries in a single day) was delayed by 20 minutes due to "a fire" (which one of my fellow passengers told me probably meant a suicide).
I also stumbled across a very old church right in the middle of town that had been gutted and left as a ruin. All the exterior walls were left standing, but there was no roof or interior at all. Just a cross and a plaque on the ground in the snow with the words "unseren toten" written on it. It was obviously left this way as some kind of war memorial, and it's effect was really moving. I had to consult Professor Google when I got home to discover it's history and significance. As it turns out, this site called Aegidienkirche is a 10th century church bombed by the allies during WW2 that was left as-is as a memorial for 90% of the city centre that was destroyed by bombing. The plaque on the ground translates simply to "Our Dead".

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