“Leopards, jackals, and sheep, we’ll all go on thinking ourselves the salt of the earth”

It’s surprisingly rare to find a place that ignites all of your senses, and always a wonderful surprise when you unknowingly stumble into one. With its magnificent street art, bustling labyrinthine streets, orange sun bouncing off the sapphire waves and burning the skin, and life-changinglyndelicious food, Sicily is one of those.

Four cities in six days – the university student-saturated Catania (which also doubles as the aptly named cat capital); the wealthy boutique-lined Taormina; the sun-drenched coastal Syracuse; and, the Island’s energetic and crowded capital Palermo. Despite being clustered into a relatively small island, the cities of Sicily retain distinct characters. Indeed, the only thing that links them seems to be their people’s genuine love for and pride in their food.

Sicily is known for its food, so I was expecting tasty. I wasn’t expecting to leave questioning everything I ever thought I knew about food, taste, and cooking. The standard was set on the second night with a three-course meal at a local trattoria single-handedly run by a woman who makes her pasta from scratch, hand-sources all local ingredients, and can cook them to perfection. As an aside, I’m pretty sure she also makes her own limoncello.

At a Syracusan market a few days later, a man with a sandwich stall took great delight in allowing us to sample each of his 10+ cheeses as he made what was, quite honestly, the most magnificent sandwich of my life. Fresh crusty bread, olive pate, cheese, olives, cheese, chilli flakes, a smoked cheese, oh and some more cheese. The market itself was a cornucopia of giant fruit and vegetables and the wafting scent of Mediterranean and North African herbs and spices.

But it wasn’t all stuffing and gorging. There was also drinking to be done. Spritzers, dry white wine, and grappa drunk in some of the cosiest wine bars I’ve ever been in. NB Sicilian standard pours are very generous which lends itself to long slow evenings feasting and snacking, but can also flow to your head pretty quick if you’re not used to it.

Sicilian cities are also host to some of the most amazing ancient archeological and heritage sites. My personal favourites were a Teatro in Catania and a cliff-top castle in Syracuse.

But the thing I found most fascinating about Sicily was how seemingly similar it was to the Australian Italian community. In the mass wave of post-WWII immigration to Australia from Italy, many of the emigrants came from the south and specifically Sicily. And they brought their food and culture with them – two things which have adapted well to the Australian climate. Arancini balls, pepper and aubergine-based antipasto, and even pasta sauces found in Australia and Sicily but not elsewhere in Italy made for a very curious fish-out-of-water familiarity.

And on that note – photos!

A Rude Awakening: My Story

I have never been good with numbers. Maths; yes, but numbers as entities do not stick in my head. They float away before I can grasp them, and become muddled. When I used to work at the restaurant, closing the till on a late Saturday night required extra concentration, lest I fall into my old poor counting habits: 20, 40, 60, 80, 100 ; 20, 40, 60 80, 200 ; 20, 40, 60, 80, 300 ; … ; 20, 40, 60, 80, 700 ; 20, 40, 60, 80, 200 ; 20, 40, wait no… (2s and 8s have always felt the same to me).

I hate when people read phone numbers to me, always skipping too fast over the sequence, not pausing long enough for me to grasp what the number is and then re-formulate it; translate it from thought-image to written figure. I can do high-level mathematics, and working out budgets and savings or debt interest has never been an issue, but I avoid thinking of life in terms of numbers because it just gets too confusing.

And so – whilst I can tell the time – I find myself struggling with larger time-bound markers which are expressed in numerical form. I struggle with years, ages, and even months (did something happen in March or May ; June or July? The numbers are basically the same and their names too are similar).

And that’s basically how I lost my early twenties.

It started with the year of 21sts. Mine was at the beginning of the year; front-loading the celebrations and acting as a warm-up for the festivities to come. The rest of the year was a haze of work-days and uni assignments punctuated by weekends suffused with top-shelf booze, bizarre costumes, and nostalgic music. In what felt like the same year (but was really the following), I completed my final year of undergraduate and decided to move to Melbourne – a city which was strange to me, and in which I had no one: I shall be anonymous for at least a year, I thought. To justify what I thought would be my incredibly brief séjour to this ephemeral city I enrolled in an Honours degree, since it’s easier to meet people at a university (or so I believed at the time). For the first time in my life, I found that I had to buckle down and study hard and what with my studies and the distractions of a new town and new friends, that 9 months just flew by.

At the end of the Honours degree, I decided to take a brief break which somehow turned into 5 months back-packing in South America and a 3-month road trip through the USA and Niagra Falls/Montreal (it seems weird to say ‘Canada’ when I only went to two places).

Although I had sworn-off the academic life after the raging stress of Honours, this time travelling gave me enough space from it that I decided that undertaking a year-long Masters degree in Comparative Literature was just what the doctor ordered (spoiler alert: the same thing happened post-Masters, but I still ended up doing a PhD – can’t wait to see what I decide to do next…).

So in between the Americas and the Masters, I returned to what-is-now-home (Melbourne) where I met my partner’s extended family for the first time. They are truly wonderful people, and from the start we hit it off, finding shared interests in literature, philosophy, and a general approach to life. As the conversation turned towards the more personal, my partner’s cousin asked me:

‘How old are you?’

‘I’m 21.’ I told her, without needing to think about it.

There was an awkward pause as my partner turned to stare at me.

‘Kali,’ my partner said, with a look of genuine concern and confusion, ‘You’re 25.’

 

“A good appetite needs no sauce” (Polish Proverb)

Late last year, a friend checked-in on Facebook to Melbourne airport announcing their impending flight to central Europe. After getting in touch to ask if a visit to London where we were was on their itinerary (it wasn’t: they didn’t know we were there as they thought we had been in Ballarat for the past 6 months – long story), J and I decided that a weekend jaunt to meet in the middle in Prague wasn’t a half-bad idea.

We’d both been to Prague before, but the city still manages to charm. This particular trip was in winter, and there were mulled-wine sellers on most corners, Christmas markets galore, and street festivals and live music performances to top it all off. And the chilly weather provided a wonderful justification to indulge in copious amounts of Pilsner Urquell, fried and fermented cheese, pickles, peppers, and of course poppyseed cake.

We didn’t just spend our time in bars and pubs (just most of our time), also taking walks through many of Prague’s beautiful parks. But, it being only a two-night stopover visit, the eating and drinking and socialising did consume much of the weekend.

Whilst our friend headed back to the Antipodes, we went on to Krakow – a city I had not been to before, but which was absolutely amazing. The central old city – bubbling with tourists, central square-facing bars and restaurants, and enclosed by beautiful medieval façades – was an absolute delight, and I spent much time strolling up and down its numerous thoroughfares and laneways, people-watching and window-shopping.

As the sun disappeared and twilight set-in, we took a stroll up to Krakow Castle which sits atop the hill that overlooks the city. The view of the city was amazing, and we also got to walk through the open part of the grounds of the castle before they closed the gates – an activity I can thoroughly recommend as you get to see the best bits of the site (the view and the buildings) without having to pay the entry fee.

As darkness descended and more and more people came out to play (Krakow is a city that likes to party), we returned to ground level and went in search of a bar. J had heard of a vodka bar just outside the central area, and we shared a 6-glass sampler whilst crammed into a loft-style attic packed with tables of other welcomingly boisterous drinkers. The vodkas were flavoured: earl grey; cherry; apple; and numerous types of berries. And we rounded the whole thing off with a deliciously bitter pickle.

Doing things slightly backwards, we next found ourselves in a wine bar where, feeling holiday decadent, we each indulged in a glass of sparkling. By this stage, our heads were feeling rather light and our tummies rather empty, so we headed out in search of food: pierogi to be exact. Polish dumplings filled with mushroom and cabbage, or potato and cottage cheese, or spinach and cottage cheese, or any other vegetable-based deliciousness. This is one of my favourite dishes, and we spent much time wandering up and down the main pierogi-restaurant street deciding which place to sample first, then ended up enjoying ourselves so much we ate everything we wanted and were too full to go anywhere else.

The next morning we indulged in a pierogi & bakery breakfast – a plate of pierogi, a cup of borscht, and a cherry tart bought from the bakery and hole-in-the-wall pierogi bar not 500m from our AirBnB room – before heading south to Kazimierz for coffee. Our plan was to head to the gallery and the holocaust museum, but we had slept too late and so only got to the latter before the complex closed for the day (it closes early one day a week).

The museum – a very interactive exhibit where you walk through numerous spaces – comprised an almost overwhelming wealth of information that ran the gamut from oral histories, journals and letters, to official and government documents, photographs, and material culture. Very well curated, the act of walking through the museum provided a framing narrative that made the information easier to understand and locate historically and geographically. Knowing quite a bit about the history of the holocaust, and having read the canon (as it were) of fiction and non-fiction holocaust literature, I didn’t ‘learn’ too much from the museum per se (though I was shocked anew at the sophistication of magazine printing by in-mates in the camps), but it’s always interesting to see new documents presented in a different way.

We spent much of the rest of that day in the south, which has seen an influx in recent years of a Jewish population returning to Europe from Israel. It’s also one of the best areas for food, coffee, and cake – which is basically what we did for the rest of the day. That night, we also spent a good few hours in a video game bar playing guitar hero and I am now convinced that a bar is not complete without at least three consoles.

Krakow is a fun city and it feels very young and energetic. The people are friendly, the food is great, and it’s just a wonderful place to visit. Basically, it’s everything I thought it would be and more.

The next morning – our last for the trip – we got up early and hired a car to visit the spectre of Krakow: Auschwitz. This was not a happy day, and is probably best left for another post. Suffice to say here that I would recommend a visit to the museum if for no other reason than to be awed and moved by the physicality of it. Much like how walking through the museum aided comprehension of the documents on display, visiting the physical sites of the atrocities of WWII does enable some sort of grasp on the overwhelming magnitude of death that was carried out and condoned across the continent.

And, on that note, photos:

“Culture is the arts elevated to a set of beliefs”

Last June, I was in Sydney for the Biennale. The 2016 theme was ‘The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.’ The title is a quote from celebrated science fiction writer William Gibson (he of Neuromancer fame), and – as is perhaps self-explanatory – acts as a thematic lynch-pin for art which challenges dominant social, political, and economic ideologies and which shifts focus away from centres of power and privilege.

Under this banner stood the Biennale’s seven ‘Embassies’: Embassy of the Real (at Cockatoo Island); Embassy of Spirits (at the Art Gallery of New South Wales); Embassy of Disappearance (at Carriageworks); Embassy of Non-Participation (at Artspace); Embassy of Translation (at Museum of Contemporary Art Australia); Embassy of Transition (at Mortuary Station), and; Embassy of Stanislaw Lem (the Biennale bookshop). Between each of these major exhibition sites, one could also keep an eye out for the ‘In-Between Spaces’; interstitial pieces by exhibited artists which lay hidden amidst the streets of Sydney – a magical treasure hunt through the city.

Scattered across the town, the Biennale makes for a great excuse to see almost all that Sydney has to offer on foot. Walking from Embassy to Embassy, searching through streets and up hidden staircases for the In-Between Spaces, catching the ferry out to Cockatoo Island – it was a brilliantly exhausting weekend.

For me, the smallest Embassy was also the most exciting: the Embassy of Transition at the abandoned Mortuary Station. Though, to be completely honest, I think my excitement had more to do with the venue than the exhibition itself. An abandoned train station through which funereal trains used to pass on their way to the Rookwood necropolis is just my kind of place. You can walk up and down the platform, admire the rusted tracks, and hang out in the still furnished waiting rooms. It’s a pretty special place.

In a similar vein, Carriageworks is a phenomenal exhibition space. Also related to trains (it used to be where they were built) the sheer size and the low lighting of the space makes for an incredibly eerie atmosphere that lends itself well to much contemporary art, especially video pieces and anything that requires audience participation. It feels like you’re really stepping into another world, and makes for a wonderfully different feeling from the usual white cube gallery space. It’s open for exhibitions year around, and I would definitely recommend a visit.

And then there’s Cockatoo Island (which I’m pretty sure is where Cleverman was filmed). An old industrial site turned tourist attraction, it is an overwhelming site in terms of both space and material. My words cannot do it justice. I recommend spending a whole day there if you ever get the chance. But take a packed lunch – the food vans are ludicrously expensive. And this in a town known for its pricey food!

One of my favourite places to go to eat in Sydney is a bustling Izakaya in one of the shopping centres. It has everything you can imagine and, the last time I was there, I gorged on natto sushi, wakame salad, noodles, inari, nasu dengaku, mushroom skewers, and agedashi tofu (for the record, I did share). And to wash it all down, there was white wine, beer, and warm sake – and yes I had them all at the same time as is traditional (I just sipped them all very slowly).

And then there’s brunch. Ah Sydney – you do get brunch. Seriously, have brunch in Sydney. It genuinely is a breakfast/lunch replacement (and this coming from someone who can eat so much at a breakfast buffet that even the staff will ask if I’m sure I want another helping). My recommendation: Israeli brunch. Falafel, hummus, sabzi, shakshuka – what more could you want?!

This post is fast turning into a food tour (which is kind of not what this blog is meant to be about, and yet it keeps happening…) So I might just leave it there for today. Pics (mainly of food) below!

“What hath night to do with sleep?”

For a long time, I’ve wanted to go to Singapore but each time I planned a trip something would come up just before I booked flights and make it impossible for me to go. This has happened four times, but fifth time’s the charm and a few months ago I managed to sneak in a two-night trip.

I’ve known a lot of people who have moved from Singapore to Australia, so my expectations of the city were largely based on what they as (sometimes disgruntled) expats told me of their hometown. I was expecting a city of concrete and towers, of conformity and order, and of amazing food. The food certainly did not disappoint, but the city surprised me in many other ways.

Although concrete and towers are certainly pervasive, I was shocked at how beautifully green the island city was. Although it was incredibly humid whilst we were there, the innumerable parks which join each neighbourhood made the 6-hour+ walking days incredibly pleasant. And each neighbourhood certainly had its own charm.

A bit like Kuala Lumpur, the diversity of Singapore makes for a hodge-podge of a city, and the compilation of all the different neighbourhoods makes it feel like multiple cities in one. On the second day, we took a walk through the heritage-listed streets of the old town where multiple stalls and tiny shop fronts sold everything from touristic knick knacks to bags and clothing to incredibly beautiful antique furniture. From there we headed to little India where we stumbled upon an insipid-looking but incredibly popular eatery where – encouraged by the large local crowd and the obvious enjoyment of the diners – we ordered a dosa masala (freshly made) and sour lassi. Words can’t even begin to describe how amazing that meal was, so I’m not going to even attempt it.

Despite its deliciousness, we found ourselves unable to finish our dosa. Actually, we struggled to finish most of our meals in Singapore. The wide variety of the food, its continual availability and surprisingly low cost meant we spent most of our time eating. It’s entirely possible that I consumed my body weight in dumplings, and that was before we even got around to trying all the dishes Singapore is known for. All the different types of noodle dishes, daikon cake, murtabak – it was all good. Despite our incredibly short visit, I also really got into ordering coffee like a local (kopi-O-peng kosong!) which meant very high caffeine levels and so made getting the most out of our 40-hour trip a breeze.

Which was a good thing, because Singapore really comes alive after dark. It’s a city of roof-top bars and trendy nightclubs where young professionals in designer clothes sit in booths sipping top-shelf vodka or champagne. Or so I’ve been told by those same expats. With a historically conservative culture around drinking, alcohol in Singapore is expensive and the dress-standard entrance to clubs and some bars is prohibitively high. So we didn’t really ‘go out’ while we were there. We just wandered the streets hour after hour soaking up the atmosphere. Content to be anonymous revellers tripping the light fantastic down brightly lit boulevards where billboard advertisements move and beckon, inviting you into the eternally-open shopping centres.

 

 

 

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well”

I’m planning my birthday dinner at the moment, and I’ve gone with the best the Spanish-speaking world has to offer to vegetarians. Cue pintxos, tapas, home-made corn tortillas, and a Mexican chilli chocolate cake to die for. To top it all off, I have invested in copious amounts of cava, tempranillo, sangria, and – perhaps surprisingly – apple cider.  Ella Baila Sola is playing from the stereo and there’s also a misguided-purchase of a piñata sitting in the corner cause I didn’t really think through where I could tie it up…

Spanish food is fun. It’s theatrical, it’s delicious, and the invariably small serving sizes mean you get to try a little of everything and make catering a dinner party an absolute breeze. Of course, the only problem with my selection of theme for my birthday is that it’s making me feel incredibly nostalgic for Spain. I’ve blogged previously on Barcelona so today I thought I would go with San Sebastián.

I love San Sebastián. People say it’s too touristy, but what they don’t mention is that the vast majority of tourists (in the non-British season) are themselves Spanish – up from the surrounding areas for a weekend of good times. As a city of tiny alleyways, San Sebastián makes even the smallest crowd feel substantial, and we were there during a festival weekend. There were activities and performances every day, and one afternoon there was a parade in which giant wooden and paper dolls on stilts traversed the city to gather and dance in the square just next to our hostel.

San Sebastián is a loud city. Unbelievably loud. It is a city whose energy is infectious – even after a sleepless night at a Romanian airport and a very early morning flight we were ready to stay up till dawn.

And oh my god the food. The pintxos are a thing of beauty; an ocean of tiny toothpicks pressing magnificent combinations of cheese, peppers, and seafood onto crusty baguette. A well-stocked pintxo bar resembles a poorly built picket fence.

There are two types of pintxo bar. The first is staffed by middle-aged men in long-sleeve white shirts and black waistcoats. Either too bright or too dark, they are populated by a subdued crowd politely sipping table wine and nibbling simple pintxos made according to traditional recipes. The bread is topped with only one or two ingredients – always fresh – and the meal is rounded out with a serving of patatas bravas and pimientos de padrón.

The second is staffed by young bearded men working alongside women sporting bright red hair. The lighting – always just the right side of dark – obscures how many people the tiny venue contains, but the rabble of voices – and the quickly disappearing pintxos – hint at the multitude. The pintxos themselves are always works of art – beautifully executed pieces one feels almost guilty to consume – and are new twists on old favourites (brie with pomegranate, shitake mushroom skewers and the like). The drinks list is invariably simple but performance-based. At one place the cava barrel stood above the waiter’s head and streamed out in an arc. He had to hold the glass at just the right distance and angle to catch the liquid, which had formed a parabola above his head.

Two types of pintxo bar, and I honestly couldn’t tell you which is my favourite.

(I have very few photos of San Sebastián – I was having too much fun to remember to take any.)

“Time spent with cats is never wasted”

I’m writing this post from the Mitchell Library in Sydney. I’m on a research trip, but it’s January and the sun is out and my motivation for work is low – so I’m making myself feel better about my low productivity by working on my blog.

On my way in to the library, I noticed a rather curious statue of a cat perched valiantly atop an external window sill. The plaque on the ledge in front of me informed me that it was Matthew Flinders’ ‘intrepid’ cat who circumnavigated Australia with his ‘master’. I’m scheduling this blog post to be published just before Invasion Day, and the incorporation of an animal into the valorisation of the colonial project certainly gives me pause and makes me feel a bit queasy about the way in which narratives of exploitation, violence, and war are obscured through the use of familiar and innocuous symbols like pets (in very flippant terms: ‘ooh look, Flinders had a pet cat just like me – he can’t have been all bad then’).

But the cat statue also got me thinking about how cool cats are, and how they are often invisible in the past and present of cities. Lots of cities have statues and memorialisations of dogs, but few can make the same claim for cats (Sydney – ever ready to be unique – makes the claim to having both). A quick google search for cities with statues of cats got me to here: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/travel-tips-and-articles/the-cats-meow-top-10-destinations-for-feline-fanatics

And that, patient reader, is how I decided to spend today’s post talking about Kotor, a tiny city on the coast of Montenegro with a population of 13,510.

A port city since the Roman Empire, ruled from the 15th to 18th centuries by the Venetian Republic, and a contemporary sanctuary for cats, Kotor is a genuinely awesome place to visit (at least in summer, I have no idea if the same could be said of it in winter).

We stayed just outside the main town, in what can only be described as the most picturesque hostel in existence. We were welcomed with a glass of wine and home-made pancakes and sat for the next hour or so overlooking the jagged mountainous view out to the Mediterranean.

The old town itself is obscured from the beauty of its surrounds through an historical necessity: the Venetian fortifications still stand today, and one must scramble and climb up to the peep holes in order to catch a glimpse of ocean.

Inside the impending fortress walls lie labyrinthine stone alleyways which twist and turn past numerous tiny shops and food stalls all cobbled together and then suddenly open out onto expansive squares where tourists and locals alike lounge with wine and conversation. For every person you see, there are at least two scrawny cats similarly going about their business filching fallen or forgotten morsels of food, lounging in the sun, or exploring another of the never-ending selection of hidden passages.

The food in Kotor is tasty but simple – largely derived from bread, pasta, and ice-cream bases – and so we delighted more in the walking a cat spotting than the eating.

On our last day we woke with the dawn and took the famous walk along Kotor’s fortifications as the sun rose. A crumbling structure with many stairs, it was steep, in parts dangerous, and the still summer heat which we thought to avoid with our early-morning rise often made the going difficult. But with a view unrivalled by any other point in the city (and possibly in the Mediterranean) and unimpeded by any other walkers, it was an absolute highlight of the trip.

“Hunger is good discipline”

Until recently I hadn’t seen much of Asia, but Taipei was always high on the list of places I wanted to visit. My Taiwanese friends’ accounts and their epic love of food had long led me to believe that Taipei was a food paradise where continuous snacking was not only not frowned upon, but actively encouraged. In this I was certainly not disappointed. I felt like Alice nibbling her way through Wonderland, taking a tour through China’s best culinary achievements organised by region.*

Buns of every flavour – egg custard, vermicelli noodles with vegetables, red bean paste, mushrooms and spinach, black sesame paste (the kind that oozes like warmed Nutella and is so rich it acts as a tongue depressor), vegetable stew – they were innumerable to count. And then there were the pancakes! Spring onion pancake (the yum cha classic), and my new favourite post-pint treat: egg roti pancake. I think there is a similar dish to this in Singapore. You take a really thin roti pancake cooked with spring onion and fry it just a little on one side, then you flip it, crack an egg onto it and fry it till it is crisp and golden and so delicious it almost induces instant diabetes (insta-betes, if you will), then you serve the crispy buttery yolky mess with Sriracha sauce. And then you fight over it because you only got one between two and neither of you wants to wait in line for another one. Not that that happened…

But the most exciting part about discovering Taipei food culture was the dessert. Taiwanese dessert is genuinely amazing. Served hot or cold, your typical bowl involves taro, kidney beans, and jelly served in a rich red bean soup (and, one can only assume, a mountain of invisible sugar). And to wash it all down, there’s that Taiwanese export gem: bubble tea.

You never run the risk of being hungry in Taipei.

Of course, it wasn’t only the food that made the trip. Like most large Asian cities, Taipei boasts labyrinthine markets, vibrant neon-lit public spaces, amazing and diverse neighbourhoods, and an exciting nightlife.

Actually, Taipei’s nightlife has quite an interesting dynamic. Taipei has one of the lowest levels of alcohol consumption in the world (a result, it would seem, of the dual influences of an at times conservative culture and the exorbitant price of alcohol at bars). What this means is that nightlife happens in and around food markets, rather than bars, nightclubs or similar. And so you have families, groups of teenagers, business people, and tourists, all genuinely playing in the same sandpit, which makes for a very interesting – and quite wonderful and friendly – dynamic. Combined with a crime rate to rival Tokyo’s (both so low kindergarteners ride public buses to school by themselves) it also makes for an incredibly relaxed atmosphere.

And then there were the amazing day trips – visiting pandas, exploring temples, walking through all the neighbourhoods, discovering Taipei coffee culture, the amazing afternoon spent down at the converted docks (it’s now an art space for outdoor sculptures and indoor exhibition galleries), our accidental degustation dinner (it was so cheap we just thought it was a tapas style thing!), the attempt to visit all of the night markets which was very quickly deserted when we realised the actual scale of that project… The list is actually endless.

Sadly, the gallery below doesn’t adequately capture this. Regular readers (if they exist) may well have noticed that this post features a lot more description – and a lot less photos – than usual. There’s a reason for that.

We flew from Taipei to Seoul, landing at around the time locals would have been eating dinner. Somewhere between the airport and our hostel our camera – and all the memories it held – went missing. It was a horrible realisation and a bitter start to our time in Seoul.

But at least I have a valid excuse to head back to Taipei soon!

*Taiwan’s incredibly varied food culture is informed by a difficult history – something which I don’t think the tenor or length of this blog has any right to attempt to venture into. There are a number of amazing online resources which do this topic justice.

 

“Everything it is possible to imagine can also exist”

I was in Munich for three nights about 18 months ago and it was during a heatwave, so my memories of the city are hazy at best. I’d never been to Europe in summer before and before I landed at Frankfurt airport to a 28°C greeting, I was one of those smug Australians who snickered under my breath at Europeans who can’t handle real summer. Make no mistake, there is nothing worse than a heatwave in Europe. I think I almost collapsed from heat exhaustion.

One of the problems is the reverse of Australia’s lack-of-dealing with winter: there is very little in the way of air conditioning anywhere in Europe. The shock of cool relief one expects from those first few steps into a department store is nowhere to be found; it’s just more stagnant heat air. I remember waiting for a train at Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof, sweating so profusely I actually could not physically keep myself in the plastic chair. Unable to breathe for the suffocating heat, I took myself to the bathroom to throw some cold water on my face. Almost delirious with the relief of the spray, standing at the basin I removed both my shirt and bra in an attempt to cool down. It wasn’t until a rather surprised and perplexed woman walked into the bathroom that I realised it would be possibly more appropriate to take some wetted towels into a stall with me…

But I digress.

My strongest memories of Munich centre on our second night. A gorgeous city steeped in medieval and early modern architecture and thick with lush greenery and amazing urban gardens, Munich is the perfect setting for a fairy tale. Journeying through one of these amazing gardens – the Englischer Garten – we alighted on an immense Biergaten. Locals, expats, and tourists of all ages stood in a genial snaking line to exchange euros for tokens which could be used to buy Bier, Bretzels, and Bratwurst.

For those who hail from the southern hemisphere, twilight still, I think, holds a surprising and magical quality. In the fading light we drank and ate and were merry; three Australians and one local enjoying the balmy glow of a midsummer’s night dream.

By the time we left the beer garden the sun had well and truly set and the park was impenetrably dark. But we needn’t have worried about tripping over. Almost as soon as we had left the glow of the Garten, a new glow materialised; a tiny floating orb of light. It was chased by another, and another, and yet another – fireflies! I had never seen a firefly before and – emboldened by my numerous steins – I chased after them in squealing glee. Luckily my companions kept me from wandering too far off the path.

As we exited the park and neared the city centre, we digressed through one more patch of park. From the path we heard music, and wandering through the trees and over to the decorated rotunda which stood in the clearing opposite, we found an informal waltz lesson underway.

Gorged with token-bought ale and Bretzels, with tricksy fairies who lead you off the path, and with hidden enclaves in which elderly couples waltz into eternity, we turned back towards the path and followed our breadcrumbs back home, dancing a little along the way.

 

“The original version of modernity”

Disney World exists on the outskirts of Orlando, Florida but here I’m considering it as a city in its own right. Such a characterisation is, in fact, doing the sprawling conglomeration a disservice. Disney World, as its moniker suggests could – economically at least – exist separate to the nation which encapsulates it, employing enough people and generating enough revenue to rival the GDP of a number of small countries. It even has its own currency! (Which is to say that you can link your credit card to your hotel room key meaning you don’t have to leave your room with anything other than a single piece of plastic. The running total is, of course, always obscured – the Spectacle of Disney World is as impressive as it is insidious and evil).

I hadn’t planned to blog about Disney World. Our decision to go was triggered by a desire to launch immediately into the absurdity of US pop-culture after six months of backpacking across a continent where we didn’t even really speak the language so both at the time and in my memories I think of it more as simulated immersion than travel. Readers of Baudrillard (whose words lent this post its title) will understand what I’m trying to get at. In describing the act of driving through America in his book of the same name, Baudrillard attempts to capture the sense of vastness and emptiness of post-war America (both geographically and culturally) but concludes that the only way he could even begin to express this to his reader/listener would be to play them the video – in real time – of his road trip. Disney World is a lie (to use another Baudrillard term, a simulacrum), but in being so it becomes truth: a site at which the very soul of the US can be momentarily witnessed.

But that’s all a bit heavy. I’ve mainly chosen to blog about Disney World today because it’s Christmas and I thought it was in keeping with the decadence of the season. And decadent it was.

All of Disney World’s hotels are themed, meaning there is no respite from sensory overload even in the cheapest of lodgings (i.e. the one we chose). The theme is everything in Disney World. It’s broken into four (themed) parks: Magic Kingdom for classic Disney, EPCOT for the future/cultural sensitivity, Hollywood Studios for America’s pop-cultural heyday, and Animal Kingdom for safari (which has to be a metaphor for colonisation, right?). And the themes extend to the food. It’s difficult to find an item of food that isn’t shaped like a Disney character; lollipops, pretzels, cookies, bagels, fries, even sandwiches – they’re all Mickey. And because each park has its own theme, it also has its own themed food.

The staff are lovely, but a little too intense in their desire to make both your stay and your sense of yourself as an individual seem exceptional and important (after asking for directions to one of the – numerous – restaurants: “Oh my gosh I love that place! It’s my absolute favourite! Great choice guys, well done.”). The rides are so full of colour and movement and sound that I now totally get how people lose their life savings on pokies. And the universes that you have to traverse whilst ‘in line’ to get to the start of the rides are so intricate and interesting that you don’t even notice how much time has been sucked away from you forever. There’s a jungle to traverse to get to Indiana Jones, a training course for Star Wars, and entire planetary systems for Space Mountain – you grow old waiting to experience these things and yet you’re happy to turn around and race straight back to the start and do it all again once it’s over.

To close I’m going to paraphrase John Oliver (speaking on a rather different topic): Disney World was like crack; it was super fun at the time, but it’s good that we left.