Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Train to Transylvania: Part Deux

When I let you last I had a splendid day in Mini Europe and felt practically incandescent. Well, the second half of my train journey down to Transylvania was no less exciting with many more moments to make me want to pinch myself, as well as the odd couple that made me want to hit someone.

Copenhagen

The next stop on the way after plucky little Belgium, was Denmark – home of the Danes! More specifically Copenhagen, land of the Viking conquerors. See why I chose to go? At any rate it was a fun trip on the train – even if it involved sitting in the stair wells and spending a decent 5 hours standing in the hallway – because it was the first time I'd ever been on a train that actually goes onto a ferry to cross a body of water. Yes! Because bridges are too mainstream, the train from Hamburg to Copenhagen actually boards a ferry for 45 minutes to cross into Scandinavia from mainland Europe. How's that for awesomely weird?
At any rate, I made it to Copenhagen and it was pretty much more or less everything that I expected: chilly, expensive and pretty damn cool. The Danes sure now how to tempt me, too, with their glorification of their Viking heritage and the utter love that they have for Hans Christian Anderson, author of what would become my favourite movie of all time: The Little Mermaid. They love it so much that the musical has made it there (unfortunately not until after I left, mind you) and they also have that important little statue by the water past the new harbour. It was on my bucket list to see, and even though it was kind of little and most people are disappointed by it I wasn't. There was something just so nice about it.

On the other hand there was just so much else to do that made it wonderful like the National museum, full of significant Bronze and Iron Age pieces like the Trundholm chariot (it's significant to my area of interest, at least), the HCA storybook museum, and the Tivoli gardens, the second oldest theme park in the world. Whilst expensive, the city of Copenhagen was just so nice and so pretty that had I more money I definitely would have liked to stay longer and enjoy all the delights of the New Harbour and seen some more pantomime's at Tivoli. Plus actually venture out into Denmark itself, I didn't get the chance and I've heard that some of the best things lie outside of the city. Roskilde for one.

Munich

I don't remember too much about the train to Munich as I was so deeply engrossed in What a Girl Wants by the wonderful Lindsey Kelk that I didn't really notice Germany flying by. Since I'm not Germany's biggest fan (and it wasn't the Black forest) I didn't really care anyway, but all I needed to know was however long it took me to read that wonderful book is exactly how long it took from Hamburg to Munich.

I do have to say though that Munich, and Bavaria in general, really impressed me. Everything that was missing in that awful city of Berlin was back with a vengeance in Munich. The city was just so full of life and colour that I was terribly disappointed to leave as soon as I did, and barely brushed the surface on all the things I would have loved to do in that city.

But some of the things I did do was take in the Bavarian scenery, listen to the crazy clock in Marienplatz, sample some pork knuckle and imbibe a little too much at the Hofbrauhaus in the middle of the day. It was some pretty good fun. Of course I went on yet another amazing walking tour and learnt as much as I could in the 3 short hours I had, including plenty about the unfortunate mishaps that Hitler put the city through during his time as Chancellor and the war. At least one thing I learnt that impressed me was that Munich, knowing it wasn't going to escape from the war unscathed, secretly had architects record, photograph and take extensive notes on the majority of the city. So, that when the city was heavily bombed by the allies the people were able to rebuild the city just as it had been before – with all the beauty that Bavaria is known for. Yet another thing I hated about Berlin – it was so full of shiny new buildings it lost so much of its character.

The real reason I went to Munich, however, was in order to visit the so-called Disney castle of Neuschwanstein. Built in the 19th century by the poor, unfortunate and handsome Lugwig II, it still remains uncompleted to this day since the king's mysterious death over a century ago. Obsessed with fairy tales and religions around the world, the castle really doesn't look like the ones you'd find in the rest of the area let alone much of Europe. It does in fact look like it had been taken from the pages of more than one story, be it Snow White or Cinderella or Rapunzel, and I'm saddened that Lugwig II never got to see his dream realised. Especially when he paid for its construction with his own money and didn't bankrupt his kingdom in the process, unlike some past monarchs I could name (Louis XIV).

It was a super long day, with a two hour train journey each way in order to reach the castle site. But I made a good day of it with some new friends, ate some schnitzel, drank some beer, and sailed around the lake on a peddle-boat just for fun. Even if by the time I got home I was wrecked, I regretted nothing about how amazing a day I'd had.

Krakow

I do, however, kind of regret the ridiculously long bus ride from Munich to Krakow the following night, in which no one spoke a word of English but for myself, it was super cramped, and it was so hot it was like a circle of hell. Thinking back, I really should have just caught the night train instead.

But when I finally made it, I really enjoyed Poland. Well, at least until a point.

For one thing it was really cheap and not much less beautiful than places like Budapest and Prague, just in its own way. Traditional food was sort of delicious and you could really see that the Polish people, who'd been hit really badly by WWII, were all so lovely, optimistic and nice – not at all the kind of people beat down by circumstance. There was a real sort of dry humour about the place that made it fun to be around and you could tell from the pissing Lenin statue (yes, really) to the carved gnomes in the Salt Mines, that the Polish were a proud people. I really liked the time I spent there. Even if sometimes their stories and history felt a little more like black comedy.

Auschwitz, however, was another story. It is impossible to say that I enjoyed my trip to the standing memorial to one of the most horrific aspects of modern human history, when so much death and terror occurred in the very places I stood. Before Mathausen, I wouldn't have thought I would have been so monumentally affected by a place like that. Not because I think I'm cold, that's certainly not true, but because I had never been anywhere like that before and was not sure how hard it would hit me to be there in the flesh. And it hit me so hard, I almost had to walk out or risk being physically ill. Its so hard to even process the thought that someone could give the orders to liquidate hundreds of thousands of lives let alone actually carry those orders out. There was no excuse for what they had done, and no one will ever accept one.

But despite the human tragedy that has forever tainted the very land that the former concentration camp stood on, it has since become a memorial and warning to the future. In every language of the victims, including Hebrew, we are informed in iron of the events that happened and the hope that this will never, ever be allowed to happen again.

It was a harrowing day, one that needed to be had, and I am glad that it is something I can remember to regain some perspective now and then. People should go to mourn, to cry, to rail against the perpetrators, and to hurt, but most importantly people should go to remember. These people were murdered, mostly left in unmarked graves, but no one deserves to be forgotten. Each victim had a story, and keeping the remnants of the camp open to visitors allows at least a little part of it to be told.

Vienna

Back in Vienna I was so happy I practically bounced off the walls in incandescent glee. I gave a bit of a run down on the city before, and this was only a day spent again, so this will be brief. But even a single day spent was so nice I spent most of the morning reading over breakfast at a cafe then did some shopping, just having a classy, dignified sort of morning you'd really expect from a city like Vienna.

I thought about it actually and decided that Vienna had all the beauty, class, dignity and baroque that Paris did but without being so pretentious.

And that virtually set the scene for the day. I visited the museum dedicated to the unfortunate Princess Sissi and learnt about her life, I wandered up to the markets, spent more money than I actually intended to and later met a lovely new friend who I was able to eat cordon bleu with.

It was too-short a day in Vienna, but I enjoyed it no less than I had the last time.

Budapest

Budapest was much the same: a fairytale city that was just as amazing the second time around like Vienna. But of course the days were spent doing things differently to what I had before. For one thing I went to some more markets and saw some amazing and abstract works, and I spent hours lounging in all manner of baths at one of the biggest and most beautiful bath houses in the world from hot, to temperate to medicinal and even a very fast moving whirlpool. And to top off that awesome day I managed to wine my way to a ruin bar with a couple of attractive men and found myself stalking a pub crawl all the way to a kebab shop outside my hostel door.

The second day was a tad more dignified in effect as I visited the great market hall, some museums and highly amused myself by learning about the princes of Transylvania – which for those of you who aren't sure or don't know is not only a real place it used to lie within both Hungary and Romania, but now its just a part of Romania. There was also a lot of information about various phases in Hungarian history and culture including costume through the ages and propaganda from the communist occupations under Stalin. I hadn't realised before then what a varied and epic history that Hungary had had, and I found I was so interested in learning more about it than I already knew. And it wasn't just because of Elizabeth Bathory or the connections to Transylvania.

Like Vienna and Prague, I'll be back to Budapest again. There's just something about those three fairytale cities that made me feel all too at home and like a part of the stories I've always loved.

Bucharest

Romania was a very different kind of fairy story. It reminded me much of Krakow and the people I met had a similar disposition, albeit with a different kind of black humour. Such as, say, positioning a bust of Vlad Tepes across from a steak house and staring blankly when asked about when he died. One tour guide I had said, “What do you mean? He still lives. Sort of.” Romania takes Dracula pretty seriously, and its sort of nice to see them embracing their national icons in the same way that England reveres Sherlock Holmes.

In fact, like the creation of 221B Baker street, Bran Castle was designated as Castle Dracula – even if the Prince of Wallachia barely spent a month there in his life. But I have to say that it was perfectly chosen, completely atmospheric and I could almost see Jonathan Harker hobbling down the steps. Or maybe someone in the streets yelling 'Van Helsing!' I could go on, really. But what was pretty damn cool was that that morning we left Bucharest in sunlight and blue sky, only to make it to Transylvania in the afternoon when it was dark, grey and storming. I know. I even convinced a little boy on our tour that the weather had turned bad because we'd angered Dracula and he needed to apologise. He did.

Vampires are still big in Romania, don't be fooled otherwise.

Peles Castle, the summer home of the royal family, was pretty and architecturally interesting although for me sort of lacked a kind of originality. Compared to Bran Castle and Neuschwanstein it was practically boring. But it was fun to see not in the least because of how cool the surrounding city was – it was pretty much what I thought of when I imagined Romanian towns and culture.

Bucharest itself was nice – not crazy, but nice, and I could have spent longer touring around some of the more interesting museums that I didn't make it to the first time around. Plus my hostel was just so comfortable that I could have stayed for ages. It was a really nice little city that I vastly enjoyed.

Just a quick word too about Romanian desserts. When you go, don't forget to try a little something known as papansi. Its food of the gods.

So, in the end I did make it all the way from Lisbon in Portugal to Bucharest in Romania. It took me 25 days, 15 trains, 11 countries and one very long bus ride to make it, but I did and I loved just about every damn minute of it. 

Sam xox

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Cavern

I thought I had a plan for the evening when I walked into the Cavern Club in my converse shoes. But who was I fooling when I decided to have a quick pint and they started playing all my favourite Beatles songs? 


When I was little my father used to play the Beatles for me all the time, just like his parents used to play them for him when he was little. Of course whilst the Beatles days of fame did actually occur during his lifetime, he would have been in single digits for the majority of that time and John Lennon was shot when he was only a teenager. But just like my dad clung to their rock and roll music throughout his life, I've clung to it too. In fact, some of my greater memories include my dad and I listening to a Beatles song or too, one of the few bands he played for me over time with the very emphatic hope that I would love like he did from Blur to the Who and the Dandy Warhols. My dad has a particular taste in music, you could say. 

I started to learn the piano when I was in primary school, and my dad bought me a piano - nothing flash, just a big beast of an instrument that needed to be tuned almost before every practice session, but it was lovely and I wishes more than anything I hadn't given up in frustration at too young an age to appreciate musical talent. 

But of all the music books we had, and I'm sure there was some interesting ones, one of the best was actually a collection of song sheets designed for the guitar made up of many different Beatles songs. It had the lyrics of every song it mentioned, too, and to this day I never really knew where it came from or where it went to. I do know however that more than one road trip throughout the west of our Red Dirt country was comprised of sing a longs with the song book as reference. It was with this book that I learnt all of the lyrics to Obla-di Obla-da (Life Goes On), and i haven't ever forgotten them to this day.

Like Monty Python, the Beatles are something my dad and I have always had. And standing in the Cavern with my pint I started to feel sentimental, truly missing my dad for the first time in months because if anyone would have loved this as much as I, it would have been him. There was no one in the world who I would have rather come to the Cavern with.

My family hails from Liverpool, funnily enough my mother's side and not my father's, and well, we rather came from Limerick in Ireland before stopping for an extended stay in Wallasea across the Mersey from Liverpool's main hub. My nana grew up in the post-war city and was still here in her youth when John, Paul, Ringonand George burst onto the scene in 1957 long before they made it to Abbey Road. My nana, more adventurous and wonderful than she has ever given herself credit, came to the Cavern and saw the four lads play to the utter envy of the rest of us born long after those underground days. 

Liverpool and the Cavern itself have huge importance to myself and my family, at least the way I see it, and so when I decided to come down to Mathew street on my wander through the city for the very first time, I really did only plan for a look in to start off with. 

But then they played my favourite Beatles and Kinks songs and I knew it wasn't going to be the quick stop I'd intended. What was the use when I suddenly wanted to dance for the next few hours, and keep that cider coming? Hats off nana, you knew how to party. And dad, heck knows you'll be here next time. 

I threw Grandad in for good measure when Elvis filtered into the play. 

Sam xox

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Perfection

I should be updating you on my travel adventures since as per usual I'm behind, but I really felt the need to talk about something different: The idea of physical perfection does not exist, and it never has. 

As women, however, over centuries we have been encouraged by society and those around us that physical appearance is important in not only garnering acceptance but for someone to love us. It's less overtly centred on the latter now, we like to think, but that has not eradicated the backlash that has come heavy on us to always think something needs fixing. 

The 20th century saw the arrival of some rather handy invention at the sunset of the Great War when an early type of cosmetic surgery was applied to victims of shells, burns, and various other injuries. It was constructed and conceived in a way to bring a little humanity back to the unfortunate souls that were more awfully scarred by the affects of the war itself, the idea of cosmetic surgery simply for cosmetic purposes would come much later. From the very first the distinction between surgery for medical purpose and cosmetics became apparent, and has divided opinions ever since.

Personally, and apologies to all that this may offend, but I have never been able to understand or sympathise majorly with those who garner cosmetic surgery purely for appearances sake. This does not include those who have breast augmentation after chemo, or reductions to combat back aches, nose jobs for better respiratory circulation or reconstructions after serious injuries and accidents; cosmetic surgery after the went of a tragedy or to improve life medically are exempt from my disdain. 

Now, I've never grown up like a pretty little princess even if a lot of childhood was spent imagining myself as one. I've always been a little quirky, lacking in classical beauty and since I was 4 always a little bit fat - as Bridget Jones would say. And that sucks, doesn't every little girl wish they were beautiful (and not just to their mother)? But as we get older we learn to control that, that it is our prerogative to change the way we look to suit the person that we feel. I'm talking hair, make up, clothing, the kind of obvious things that Gok Wan will vouch can go a much longer way than you'd probably think. Work out in the gym, eat a better diet and persevere to shed the spare rolls you want to (and believe me when I say that I know how hard this is because I'm still hoping to someday succeed). 

Back when I was younger in the 90's, the focus in changing yourself wasn't this huge (at least I don't remember it being that way) and what they did try to teach in schools and similar was the importance of being good to others and learning to love yourself, flaws and all. Loving yourself the way you are, but that you can put in a little extra effort to pretty up every now and then if you so choose. I am very much a product of that sort of childhood: I work out, I try to eat well, I wear clothes that flatter my fuller figure and I gussy up to achieve the kind of face that I want because at the end of the day that's the only face I have. Right? 

Well, some others would disagree. 

Again I have to add gender reassignment to the list of exceptions to my disapproval here, as that's another steadily growing social point that is not at all where I am going with this. Wanting to be a woman or man is not the same as wanting to take to the knife to improve my face or figure. 

A couple of years ago in Britain, a young woman by the name of Katie Piper was attacked by an ex-boyfriend with acid to the face that blinded her in one eye and destroyed the beautiful face that she was so proud of. Her assailants were eventually arrested, but that did not stop Katie from being hurled into abject depression. Her story was immortalised on the documentary Katie: My Beautiful Face that caused a media sensation in the UK and cropped up internationally which is where I, in Australia, first saw it. Now what happened to Katie was awful - I'm not doubting it, and the cosmetic surgery performed on her was more of a mercy reminiscent of the original post-war attempts to restore a little humanity to the victim. But the part that bothered what the attitude that Katie had at the start of this time. 

If you've seen the Studio Ghibli film Howl's Moving Castle, you'll be familiar with the entertaining part of story when Howl's bathroom is cleaned this mixing up his hair potions and subsequently dyes his hair a bright red instead of blonde. Howl, obsessed with his own beauty, falls into a deep depression stating quite famously 'what is the point of living if I can't be beautiful?'. 

Katie Piper, although her tragedy was much much worse than Howl's, held this same unfortunate attitude and whilst I can sort of understand it made me sad to hear. Here was someone who thought that their looks were everything and on losing that truly thought that there was nothing left for them. Fortunately, over the course of her documentary you can see the change in her attitude especially after a good racking from family and friends, and by the end she becomes someone much better. She became someone who rose above her looks and embraced the kind of person she was on the inside. To me, she is now far more beautiful and likeable than she ever was before.

It may just be the way that I've grown up, but that internal beauty and love has always been what I've thought is the most important. I'm far from perfect in any way, so embracing the parts of me that I think are good has always been key to my happiness. I've never been able to understand the people that value physical appearance so heavily that they would undergo expensive, painful treatments to literally reconfigure their body shape. When I was younger my mother used to tell me that liposuction, unless it was undergone as step one in helping someone defeat great obesity that was killing them and preventing them from getting fit the regular way, was taking the easy way out. The same way she described suicide. After all size 12, in the words of Meb Cabot, is not fat. Liposuction may take the weight off, but it didn't make you healthy after all. 

As for nose jobs and implants - why? Jennifer Grey got a nose job after Dirty Dancing and it killed her film career because it took away one of her defining and set-apart features. It would be the same if Anna Paquin lost the gap in her teeth, I imagine. So you've got smaller boobs? You won't have as many back problems or gravity related mishaps when you get older. Besides, women know when someone's got fakes after all - and again remember when I said that chemo is exempt. If someone has to lose a breast to cancer then it's only fair they are allowed a replacement. There are so many factors in cosmetic surgery that I can't go through it all, but the thing that bothers me the most is the attitude towards it: just like Katie Piper used to be, just like Howl was, that physical appearance is this important to people that this has all become a social norm. 

Insert decades of arguments on positive and negative influences on media portrayal of women, all the bouncing back and forth between encouraging women to love themselves but be as beautiful as they can be. It's a whiplash of reality and know what side of the bench I'm on. But at least in this area, am I becoming a minority? 

That scares me. Will someday the fact that I haven't gone out of my way to make my appearance perfect mean that I'm unworthy of other peoples time or attention? Is appearance really more important than personality? 

I'll leave you with a quote from a song that I like to remember if I'm having an off day:

I know that I'm no prize, I'm not so easy on the eyes, I can't rely on looks to get me by; but ugliness permits a girl to use her wits, for pretty people never have to try.

Sam xox