Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Twelve grapes

At midnight on New Year's Eve, church bells chime twelve times, once for each month of the year. People have twelve grapes in their hands, and they try to eat one grape for each chime. If you manage it, you're blessed for the next twelve months. 

It's a neat little tradition.

Being thinking a bit about this year. It's been a strange one, an interesting one, and ultimately a rich and rewarding one. I'm a bit numb at the moment, and my mind kind of flits in and out, but I'm pretty bloody grateful that I'm here. The novelty of travelling has mostly gone, and most of it is pretty mundane. But every once in a while, you get this little thrill at being in these strange new places. 

It's something I hope I never lose. 

I'm down to my last €4 euro, though, so it'll have to be window shopping and Burger King until my funds top up. I'd probably starve if it wasn't for Burger King. 

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Reyes and Sevilla

"Despite global warming, London is still too cold for him."

- Arsene Wenger, on a homesick Jose Antonio Reyes

In the early 2000's, Arsenal were top of the pops. We were powerful and strong, with world-class players along every line. We were stocked to the brim with leggy French brilliance, and we ruled the Premiership. 

What's more, we played with elan

Our golden boy of that time was Jose Antonio Reyes, late of Sevilla, and one of the most promising kids around. He was the symbol of our coming dominance. He was fast and unpredictable, and gooners were wetting themselves thinking of the partnership he'd strike up with Thierry Henry. Good times lay ahead.... Premierships, Champions Leagues, even Carling Cups.

It didn't turn out that way, of course. Abramovich came along, and Chelski was formed. We sold Vieira, we sold Pires, we sold Henry, and we're sinking slowly into the morass of the middle reaches of the Premiership. We're terrible at the moment, and we've all got the horrible notion that nothing's going to arrest our slide. 

And of course, Reyes got homesick and eventually went home to Spain. 

While I was in Madrid, I didn't see what the point was. Madrid in winter's a nice place, but chilly. It doesn't snow, but there's a bite to the air that's definitely uncomfortable. It's not much different from London, I suppose. 

Now I'm in Sevilla, I can see what the fuss was about. It's the middle of winter, and it's 17 degrees. People stroll around at night in windcheaters. Today, there's a glorious blue sky and a freshness to the air that sets your pulse a racing. It's a far cry from dreary, wet London. Even in summer, London's climatically unimpressive.

Frankly, considering the weather in Sevilla, I'm surprised Reyes lasted that long at Arsenal. 

Monday, December 29, 2008

Madrid

"When you get to know it, it is the most Spanish of all cities, the best to live in, the finest people. It is in Madrid only that you get the essence."

- Ernest Hemingway, lifted from a travel article

For a city with such a big reputation, Madrid seems awfully quaint. The heart of the city's a plaza called Puerta del Sol, and it's really just like a friendly little shopping arcade. It's the geographical and cartological heart of Spain (all distances are measured from a little bronze plaque in the ground), but there's nothing there but a statue of a king on a horse (Carlos III) and a statue of a bear eating a tree. 

It's a brilliant little town, though. They have pub crawls for 10€ a night, with free shots in every bar. They have "museums of jamon" (my translation) which treat the stuff like fine vintage wines instead of just legs of cured pork. They have museums with almost endless galleries and paintings which would be the envy of any in the world. And yet somehow, they've retained the ambience of a lazy little outpost town. 

It's really quite fascinating. 

I saw the Guernica the other day. It was a bit of a shock, just bumping into it in the Reina Sofia. I wasn't prepared to see anything interesting in that museum, and all of a sudden, I'd seen more Picassos and Dalis than I could imagine. It's a stark little painting, the Guernica. Emotive, too. I think every Spanish artist of that generation must've tackled the Spain Civil War, but the Guernica tops them all. Also saw El Bosco in the Prado. Even if he wasn't a great artist, El Bosco would be famous for his name. The Spanish have got a way with nicknames, don't they? 

But I can't stay in Madrid for long. It's New Year's soon, and the place is booked out. Decided to go south to Andalucia instead. Sevilla first, then Cordoba and Granada. Orange trees, balmy days, Moorish architecture... it sounds lovely. After the cold of Madrid, it'll be good to walk around without a scarf, a beanie and a permanent shiver. 

I feel a bit guilty leaving Madrid because I haven't seen much of the city, but I'll be coming back to Madrid at the end. So I can still see Real Madrid and Atletico, see the Prado and the Reina Sofia again, walk through the royal palace... 

But it'll have to be manana - definitely manana. 

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Buon Natale

"It's the Venice of Italy."

- my brother, in the comments section

So after all the deliberations and stress and minor psychosomatic aliments, I'll be in Venice for Christmas. It's still Christmas Eve here in Europe, but since this blog's set to AEST time, I'd better do the blogging now, rather than tommorrow. Don't think I'll be waking up in time for that.

Venice is a profoundly depressing place to be in at Christmas. It's cold and wet and there's a permanent mist that covers everything. There's this sense of brooding melancholy about the place, as if the city's dwelt too long on it's long and sordid history to really give a damn about the present. The paint's peeling, the plaster's cracking and the buildings are slowly sinking back into the mud.

Plus, there's no one around. Just a few tourists taking advantage of the low season. And just a few leeches taking advantage of the tourists. There ARE locals around (I see them in the supermarket sometimes), but you've got to know where to look, I suppose. They tend to stay out of the tourist streets. And tourists tend to stay near the tourist streets, because once you stray two blocks away, you become hopelessly lost.

My dormmate said that Venice is a dying city, and that's right for a lot of reasons. It's drowning in a sea of tourists. It's drowning in a sea of brackish water. It's drowning under the weight of its own history. And it's losing people because, these days, it doesn't generate anything othet than tourism. You get the feeling that in 20 years time, Venice will consist entirely of B&Bs, hotels, and street hawkers. And considering this city used to be the strongest maritime power in the Mediterrean, that's a bit sad.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

In Milan, not Madrid

"So how long have you been in Madrid?"

- me, earlier today, having a complete spatial meltdown

The Brazilian girl looked at me funnily when I asked that. She asked me to repeat the question. It was only when I said it again that I realised what I'd said wrong. 

We're in Milan, not Madrid. 

In my defence, I was booking a flight to Madrid while I said it, so I got a bit confused. Also there are many similarities between Madrid and Milan - both are elegant cities with a reputations for stylishness, both have great football sides, and both start with M. But really, it's a sign that maybe I've been travelling too long and I've been in too many cities. 

I think I'm suffering a mild form of spatial incontinence, where the places are coming and going so fast that I can't figure out where I am. I woke up yesterday in Riomaggiore in the Cinque Terre, spent the day pottering around Genoa, spent the night watching AC Milan at the San Siro, and spent today walking around Milan. I'm a bit discombobulated at the moment. My brain can't handle the fact that I was bathed in warm air, sunshine and blue skies yesterday, and smothered in cold and fog today. 

One thing that contributes to that feeling is the number of Duomoes I've seen. There's been one in every Italian city I've been in. And they keep getting bigger, and grander and prettier. It started with the Naples one, with that flask of water/blood. Then there was the candy-cane striped Florentine one, and the liquorice one in Sienna. And now, there's the Gothic splender of the Milanese one. 

It's awe-inspiring. In the fog, from a distance, it looks like it's made of ice and mist. When you're up close, the detail is mind-boggling. It's white, and enormous, and covered with flying buttresses and spires. There are statues on every ledge and gargoyles poking out of every conceivable corner. And there's the nicest view from the roof terrace. I'm not sure why I've got this compulsion to climb every pretty cathedral I see, though. 

One interesting thing I've found is the apertif hour. From about 6 p.m to 9 p.m, bars provide an open-slather buffet of cold cuts, pastas, cheese, breads and salads - all for the price of a drink. I think it's all over northern Italy, because I've heard people talking about it in Turin and Venice. Really good deal, and I wonder if it could catch on in Australia? 

Monday, December 22, 2008

5-1 to Milan

Saw Milan pummel Udinese tonight. 5-1, with Pato and Kaka doing doubles. Remarkably pretty, but a bit disturbing. It was 3-1 after eighteen minutes. There was no defence to speak of. There was expansive passing, incisive moves and attacking formations. It wasn't the Serie A as I remember from the TV. 

What's the deal with Italian football now? What's with all these goals?

Mind you, I'm not really complaining. No team with Pato, Kaka and Ronaldinho leading the line can play anything other than beautiful football. Kaka is mesmerising. Pato is clinical. And Ronaldinho is Ronaldinho. He's a circus act in the middle of a football field. He does the flicks and step-overs that lesser Brazilians would baulk at. Once, instead of kicking the ball out to touch, he flicked it up, swished it behind him and back-heeled it over the line. Yes, he's unfit and lazy and he's not the player he once was, but he's still Ronaldinho. 

And the San Siro is so beautiful at night. I've only ever been to functional stadiums here in Europe, such as the athletic track/football stadiums of Roma and Napoli, or the soullessly corporate Emirates in London. In contrast, the San Siro is beautiful, from the winding stairwells that line the perimeter and the roof that's suspended above the stands, to the sight-lines within the stadium and... I don't know, it's just a perfect football stadium. 

And the Arsenal drew 1-1 against Liverpool. I was somewhere between Genoa and Milan at the time, so I've no idea what happened. A quick glance at the table shows that we're 5th, about 3 points behind Aston Villa. Wenger had better start acting like a proper manager soon, because it's starting to look scary. 

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Cinque Terre

"It's about a 1 hour walk; about 2 hours if you're taking photos."

- Elisabeth, about the path between Corniglia and Manarola

Around the 11th century, a Ligurian peasant decided he'd spend his spare time carving a terrace out of a mountain face overlooking the Med. The land around the coast is too steep to be arable, and it must've seemed like a good idea at the time. But it quickly got out of hand. The result is about 2,000km of stone terraces along some pretty inaccessible stretches of coast. 

The Cinque Terre area is certainly arresting. You walk along the cliff face and there's a picture-perfect view every ten paces. It's terribly frustrating because the intensity of the sun means that a third of the shots will be in shadow, a third will be too bright, and the rest will only remind you of how much better it looks in real life. 

Elisabeth was right. It's no joke; you really do spend half your time there taking pictures. The fishing towns are perched on steep rocky valleys; sometimes, houses are built right on the cliff-top. The trails wind through vineyards, forests, cliffs... and then there's the Med, all sparkly and blue and perfect. 

There really are some places too beautiful to be true. 

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Siena

There's no mistake, I smell that smell
It's that time of year again, I can taste the air
The clocks go back, railway track
Something blocks the line again
And the train runs late for the first time


- Stereophonics, Local Boy In The Photograph

Went to Siena today. Saw the Tuscan countryside by the bus. Saw the black-and-white Duomo and the Campo where they have that biannual horse race. I'll have to write something about it a bit later.

I'd had this song in my head for the past couple of days. I only know a few lines, so I've been singing those under my breath over and over and over again. Driving me crazy.

****

Turns out my 6 month open-ended ticket expires... after 6 months. Who'd have thunk it? It's a bit fucked up because I was budgeted a bit more time, but there you go. I'll be back in Melbourne by the 18th of February. It's depressing when the end is in sight, and you're down to counting down the weeks.

Fucking hell. Back home in 2 months time.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Michael M'Angelo's "Dave"

"Well there he is, Michaelangelo's Dave."

- Homer Simpson, the Itchy and Scratchy episode

Jian and I were sitting behind the Dave, in the middle of a group of French schoolkids. The Dave's a stupendous sight, an awe-inspiring example of delicacy, sensitivity and strength, all carved out of solid rock. There's a pretty good reason it's the most famous statue in the world, and we were speechless for a good while. 

Still, we were sitting at the back of him. 

"So what do you think of his arse?"

Jian looked at me funnily. It's not the kind of question she was expecting, I suppose. 

"It's a bit flat and uninspiring," I continued. "The front of him's so tense and sculptured, but his arse is so loose and relaxed. Really strange. I thought it would've been a bit more perky and rounded."

She starting giggling in spite of herself. The Dave's supposed to inspire awe and admiration, and from the front, it usually does. It really is a fabulous statue. His face is soulful and doubtful as you approach him from the front, and but his expression turns into steely determination as you walk around him. His hands are tense and he holds that stone so pensively that it's poetry chiselled out of rock. His feet are perfectly balance, at that moment of rest before rapid, violence action. 

But if you've been staring at his arse for ten minutes, the lasting impression is that the Dave's a remarkably calm boy. His buttocks are flaccid and flat. It's a sign of repose. Of calm. Of the certainty of knowing that he's in the hands of God, and not even a Palestinian giant can harm him. 

You gotta admire a faith like that. And you got to admire the genius of Michaelangelo, who's so good that he can use a pair of flabby butt-cheeks to remind one of the confidence of youth and the power of faith. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Florence

"They're dogs! Playing poker!"

- Homer Simpson, one of the Halloween episodes

The Duomo looks like a big stick of green-red-and-white striped candy cane.

It's strangely appetising. From the side, it looks festive and happy, as much unlike an cathedral in Europe as I've seen. There's an adjoining bell tower that's about seven stories high and made of the same coloured marble. I had to fight the idea of licking the building to see if it tasted as sweet as it looked.

There's a dome atop the Duomo. It's impressively vast and awe-inspiringly beautiful. Climb to the top (and 468 steps later), you've got panoramic views over all of Florence. The dome's the barrel-vaulted egg-shaped thing that Brunelleschi built. He got the project by crushing a hard-boiled egg on a table in front of the Medicis. Strange way of winning probably the most difficult project in Renaissance Italy, but there you go. Sometimes, you've got to present with flair to win the client.

Got to say, the Medicis had good taste in architecture, and sculpture, and paintings, and art in general. I think the Renaissance would've turned out a whole lot different if the first Medici prince had a penchant for vivid pink and puke green, and a liking for cute puppies and fluffy kittens. We'd have a giant marble Cheshire cat instead of the David. And a painting of dogs playing poker instead of The Birth of Venus.

Actually, the last wouldn't have been too bad. I like Dogs Playing Poker - it's freaky and disturbing and tres avant-garde. I remember watching this video presentation in a park in Manhattan once, with dogs dressed as humans, going activities normally associated with a park - gardening, serving hot dogs, sitting on a park bench.... it's oddly disturbing.

As Homer Simpson would say, "They're dogs! Playing poker!"

Monday, December 15, 2008

3-2 to Roma

I went to the Stadio Olimpico the other day to watch the Roma-Cagliari match. I'd seen Roma play midweek in the Champions League, thought they were far, far better than 14th place, and wanted to check them out in flesh. Also, the tickets are surprisingly cheap - €15 a piece.

It was a little disappointing for a 3-2 win. Epic result, and very dramatic (Roma equalised in the 80th minute and scored the winner in the 87th), but they really shouldn't have been in that position. They dominated possession and hit the goal posts twice. Caligiari's goals were against the run of play. They were weak, jammy goals as well - I think breaking an offside trap, and a deflected shot.

What was irritating was that Roma lacked a genuine striker. They had all this great link-up play, but they didn't have anyone up front to focus their passing. Totti's not a striker, and Baptista played like he did for the Arsenal. It made for a strangely Arsenalesque experience - a lot of pretty passing and not a lot of end result. A lot of missed chances, too. They improved substantially once they subbed in Montella and Vucinic.

But the thing that really surprised me was the number of goals in Serie A. 3-2 to Roma, 4-2 to Inter, 4-3 to Lazio (I think), and later on, 4-2 to Juve against Milan. Some from the Juve game were great goals (Amauri's chest-down effort was impressive), but still.... it's a lot of goals. What's happened to the Seria A?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Rome

"That's how people talk in Italy, Jerry - they sing to each other."

- Kramer, Seinfield

Sometimes, I think Claire's right and I am letting the best bits of travel pass me by. 

I've been seeing some really great things in the past few days. I never thought I'd see Raphael's School of Athens, or the Sistine Chapel. I never thought I'd walk through the ruins of the Roman Forum. I never thought I'd ever see the Pope. These are all fine things, but then you're on a crowded bus and you're peeking over a girl's shoulder at the SMS she's writing, and you start to think that there's more to the city than what happened a thousand years ago. 

And if you pay it the attention it deserves, you do start to notice things. 

When you walk across the road, it's like an elaborate game of chicken. The cars don't stop for you; you've got to make that first step on your own. The cars don't slow down for you; you've got to keep walking at trust that they'll slow down and let you pass. But at least they don't honk at you if you're jaywalking, or straying too far from the kerb; it's all part of the give and take of life here. 

Pizzerias in Rome bake in metre-long slabs and prices are charged by the kilo. In Naples, pizzas are individualised and made with care; in Rome, they've become another victim in onslaught by industrialised fast food. They sell jumbo-sized salamis, as thick as a man's waist. And there's this obsession with Nutella - I came across a bar with its window space full of Nutella jars, and I had a Nutella gelati (which was delicious). 

They are so freaked out about internet security here that I have to login in my passport number everytime I use the internet. At other places, they restrict access to certain times of the day, or direct you to a local internet cafe. And yet, I beeped when I walked through a metal detector at the Campi Museum, and the guards waved me through. 

At the Santa Mara Maggiore Cathedral, they were having the evening mass in a chapel on the side. I sat in the main hall listening to the words, and like Kramer said, they really do sing to one another. There was one guy bending for confession - he had his luggage next to him and had obviously come straight from a trip - and I figured he must've had one juicy confession on his hands. And it's all in a building that's 500 years old and still a living part of that community. 

And we saw a mechanic washing down the walls of his garage with a hose, and leaving the car untouched. That was just strange. 

I'm thinking that if I had more time, I should camp in Rome or Naples for a while and really get to know it. I'm worried about being run over (the game of chicken always ends in tears) and I dread that slippery feeling of stepping in dog shit, but still, I like it here.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Me and Il Papa


When I was seventeen
I drank some very good beer
I drank some very good beer 
I purchased with a fake I.D.
My name was Brian McGee
I stayed up listening to Queen
When I was seventeen.

- Homer Simpson, It Was A Very Good Beer

I saw the Pope today. 

It was an intimate affair - just me, the Pope, and five thousand screaming, singing, flag-waving Catholics. We were herded into a hall beside St Peter's, and sat patiently through Benny's message. I sat patiently, at least. The grandmas over to the side were whopping up some noise and the nuns up front showed us why they were sent to a nunnery all those years ago. 

It was like a religious experience. 

My first thought was that it must be extremely boring for the Pope. He sits through the same thing every week: the same groups, the same choruses, the same fanatical, spiritual fervour. My second thought was that it must be extremely humbling to be the receptacle of so many people's faith and devotion. My third thought was that I wish the Pope came with subtitles. 

And I had a Duff last night. A very good Duff. A surprisingly very good Duff that I bought with a foreign ID. It's brewed in Belgium and has distributories in Asia, Europe and Africa. And here's a photo:

Can't get enough of that wonderful Duff. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

When in Rome...

The thing that I really like about Rome is the unexpected. The city's so crammed with history that Roman ruins and medieval churches are living cheek by jowl with Renaissance palaces and run of the mill apartment buildings. Buildings that would be considered historical landmarks in other cities are just the local bank or shop or church in Rome. 

It is the strangest thing. You can be walking along any innocuous street, and once you turn a corner, you can come across an amazingly old church that would be a historical landmark in any other city in the world. Or you look up from the dog poo covered road and you're standing right next to an apartment building that was built 100 years ago. Or you find out that the bench you've been sitting on was right in front of Trajan's column. 

We went to the Vatican today. 

St Peter's is as vast and as grand as you'd expect. Cathedrals are meant to inspire awe and fear of God, and St Peter's Basilica does the job nicely. I was so impressed by the altars and the statues and that vast, gilded roof that I was ready to fall on my knees and convert to Catholicism. Imagine what a 16th century Italian pilgrim from the back of beyond would have felt. 

The Raphael rooms are amazing. It really is a shock to be confronted by something like The School Of Athens and realise that you're actually seeing these things in real life. The first impulse is to take as many photos as you can. The second impulse is to stand and stare. I think I wasted about fifteen minutes in front of that thing, just trying to pick out all the people in the fresco. 

And the Sistine Chapel is what you expect - awe-inspiring. It tells the story of Man, from Creation to the Last Judgement. And it's such a grand thing to stand in a big crowd of people, all of us with our heads craned up, watching all of history unfold. I'm kind of pissed off that my camera died halfway through, but you know, at least I was there, and at least I've seen it. 

Oh, and gelati. Love gelati. It's so cold and so sweet that it makes me teeth hurt and my head ache, but it's worth it. I knew a girl at uni would existed on a pure ice-cream diet for a while, and I'm starting to think that she had the right idea. Love gelati. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

A thousand words

"Roma, non basta una vita."

- just something I picked up off Lonely Planet

The Forum, the Colosseum, the Pantheon, St Peter's.... I've been wanting to go to Rome since I was about ten, since I first became interested in Roman history. When you're interested in something, you always want to go to where it all started. It's natural, I suppose, and I've been thinking about Rome for a very long time. 

The strangest thing is that it's just as impressive as I've always imagined. 

I'm not really sure what to write. I'm sure it'll come to me in time, but for now, I guess a thousand words will have to do:


Monday, December 8, 2008

2-0 to the Napoli


The street leading up to the Stadio San Paolo was flanked by police cars and divvy vans. A couple of side streets were barricaded, and policemen where stationed at the intersections. A police helicoptor was doing lazy circles in the sky. 

And all this for a soccer game. It's a far cry from a game at the Emirates. 

Inside, the stadium was half-full, about 30,000, but it was so echoey that it seemed like the ground was packed. Fans were standing on the seats with no one telling them to sit down (imagine that!). Flags were waving, there were melodious chants (it sounds much better when you don't know what they're singing) and flares in the stairwells. 

It's a pity the game was pretty mediocre. Napoli play like the Arsenal on a bad day - a lot of over-elaborate passing that doesn't go anywhere, with a striker (Zayaleta) who prefers to miss sitters rather that score. They beat Siena 2-0, and should've won 4-0 or 5-0. Very much an Arsenal performance 

Actually, I'm pretty glad they only score twice. This crazy Italian guy would jump up and down and give me a bear-hug whenever Napoli scored. Kept trying to talk to me in Italian about the Napoli side. Friendly people, these Neapolitians. Or is that Napolese?

I don't know. 

Here's a picture of the biggest tub of Nutella I've ever seen. And no, it's not a perspective thing, it really is as big as that girl's head - 5 litres all up. Apparently, it's only found in Naples. 


Sunday, December 7, 2008

Pete's getting married

"It's a nice day for a white wedding."

- Billy Idol, White Wedding

I'm not certain, but I'm fairly sure Pete and Felicia are married by now. 

I was told the date of the wedding was the 7th, but that's a Sunday, and most weddings are on a Saturday. It's academic, though. I'm a bit hazy about the time difference, but they're probably in the early hours of the 7th in Australia at the moment. So either way, I suppose it's appropriate to blog about it this afternoon. 

Pete and I have known each other since we were ten years old. We pretty much grew up together. It's strange to think how old we've become, and how seamlessly it happened. I can still remember those Sunday afternoons when we played cricket until it was too dark to see the ball, and then board games after dinner. It's making me a bit guilty because I really should be there, instead of here in Napoli. It seems a bit silly to be roaming around Europe when important things are happening back home. 

Makes you realise just how myopic and self-absorbed travelling really is. 

Speaking of which, I've just come off a pizza-crawl of Napoli - five pizzerias in two days - and I'm starting to feel the effects of it. My blood's half cheese at the moment. My hands get shaky around two o'clock if I don't have a slice in my hand. I keep seeing Margherita pizzas everywhere I go, and I get cold sweats at night and nightmares about being chasing by giant basil leaves. 

And the Arsenal beat Wigan 1-0, in a hideous display of football. Apparently. I was lining up for a Margherita at the time. A fifteen minute wait for the fourth best Margherita I've ever had (the dough was grand, but the cheese was a bit thin). Pity I missed the Arsenal win, but when you're chasing the red-yellow-green dragon, you lose sight of the things that matter.

We love the Arsenal, we do.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Pompeii

"Caecelius est in tablino."

- the first sentence from the Latin textbook I had in Year 7.

I remember we studied Latin for one semester in Year 7. It was held in the second storey of the MacDonald building, a converted Camberwell mansion in the middle of the school. The walls were covered with dingy laminated photos of Rome, forums, theatres and Pompeii. And we studied from a book about this guy from Pompeii called Caecilius.

Caecilius lived in the town of Pompeii, shortly before Mt Vesuvius erupted. The book pretty much went through the daily adventures of Caecilius, his wife Marcella, and his son Quintus. The first thing I ever learnt in Latin was that Caecilius est in tablino. Later, I learnt that when he was in the tablino, he would bibit. Much later, I learnt that he'd also go into the scriptorium to scribit.

It's scary to think that I remember that much from a book I last read about fifteen years ago. But as I said, I really liked Latin. All in all, the best language I've ever been exposed to. It's so logical, so precise, so simple and completely dead. It's probably the reason I was so interested in Roman history when I was younger. 

We went to Pompeii today, and I walked through the same streets that Caecilius did all those years ago. I wandered through the theatre where he would've seen the plays, went in the amphitheatre where he would've seen the gladiator fights, and even when the brothel where lovely ladies would *ahem* bibit a bit of ol' Caecilius. 

It's remarkably well preserved. Unlike most ancient ruins, you don't need an active imagination to see it laid out in front of you. Most of it is still there. You can still see graffiti scratched on the walls, and signs painted on the streets. It's possible the best thing I've seen during this trip. 

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Margherita Pizza

"When the moon hits your eye
Like a giant pizza pie
That's Amore..."

- Dean Martin, That's Amore

I had my first pizza pie in Napoli tonight. 

The place came recommended by the hostel, so we set off for the old town with the map and a vague sense of direction. Went down series of narrow alleys and crowded piazzas. Almost run over by a cacophony of scooters and cars hurtling down those one-way streets.  Past little of grannies taking their groceries home, and kids playing soccer in the squares. 

I had a Marghertia at the old town's local, a tiny corner restaurant that's buzzing with orders even after seventy-odd years. Almost weeped when I took my first bite out of that pizza. It's an amazing experience to eat the genuine article in the city where it all began. I almost felt ashamed of all those years spent ordering bastardised pizzas like Meat-lover's and Supreme pizzas. There is something magical about mozarella cheese, tomato paste and basil leaves. It's almost spiritual. 

Spent the rest of the night at a cafe overlooking one of those cramped little piazzas with a glass of red. Watched the locals gather in a corner of the square, and scooters buzzing through the alleys around us. Saw the moon and the stars peeking out through the clouds. And I thought to myself that there are much worse ways of spending the European winter. Freezing your arse off in Belgrade is one. Developing DVT on a long-haul bus is another. 

It's an amazing city, and I wish I had more time here. 

It's more ancient that Dubrovnik, and you can feel two millennia of human occupation when you walk through the streets. You see buildings built on top of massive vaulted archways, and churches tucked in amongst the towering apartment blocks. You see washing lines strung up high above you, and feel soiled socks tramped in the grime beneath your feet. And you can kind of understand how it must feel to live in a city where the history is so palpably a part of everyday life. 

Oh, and Arsenal lost 0-2 to Burnley in the Carling Cup. It's a pity, because I would've liked to have seen our kids win the damn thing for once, instead of just depantsing a couple of Premier League clubs in the early rounds. I mean, the performances of Wilshere, Ramsey, Vela and co. really should be acknowledged in some way. 

Then again, we did beat Chelsea 2-1 on the Sunday after a truly shocking first half. I only got to watch the first half (the bar owner was hooked on a Bundesleague match instead), but it was bad, bad, bad. Shock of my life ot find out a few hours later that we'd actually won that match. Maybe we'd used up all our luck in that game? 

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

On Leaving

"When you're telling people about Dubrovnik, are you going to say "oh, the old town was nice, and the city walls were nice", or are you going to tell them that you got drunk and went down to the beachfront at night and got soaked sitting on the rocks?"


- Claire, an Irish girl from last night

It's my last day in Dubrovnik tomorrow. Getting the overnight ferry to Bari tomorrow night. And tomorrow, it all pretty much changes. I'll be back in the Schengen zone, back in the West, I'll be heading back to London, where it all began.

Dubrovnik in winter is a bit temperamental, and I've been stuck in the middle of a bad patch today. It gave me some time to mull over a few things. Like the above quote. Like some of the people I met last night; professional travelers who work in a country, travel around it, and then move on. Like what I wanted to do in this trip, and what I've actually done.

When you listen to people tell their stories, you can feel it calling at you. There's that temptation to just let everything go, to just slip away and let the currents take you where it will. Some people have. And the freedom of it seems intoxicating. There is something exciting about being dumped in the middle of a city, with no idea where you're going to go. And it's amazing to be in a new place every week or so. If you can get over the homesickness, I'd imagine it's a pretty hard life to let go.

Claire was right on a few things. To travel, you've got to experience the culture. You've got to take these set of pretty buildings and nice scenery (is this a sic?) and make it your own. You've actually got to get off your arse, meet some locals instead of hanging out all the time in backpacker hostels, and establish a bit of rapport with the populace.

You've got to make an effort.

And to be honest, I really haven't made much of an effort since I've come to the East. I look back now, and there's nothing much that's really stuck. I've seen some nice places, and I've eaten some weird food. I've been to places I never knew existed, and I've had the most surreal experiences (like being yelled at by a crazy old guy in a Salibury supermarket - he thought I was a homosexual and coming onto him because I stood too close to him in the queue).

But to make your experiences stick, you've got to do something extra. You've got to creep to the end of your comfort zone and jump over that boundary every so often. Travel's to do with expanding your horizons, and I admit that I've been cosy in my comfort zone since about Berlin.

Probably missed out on a lot of things.

And that night on the beach really was exceptional. Secluded rocky cove. Whipping winds. Black sky, black rocks, black sea. Big, crashing waves. In the day, the Adriatic seems beautiful. In the night, it's threatening and powerful and menacing. It's a buzz to feel the power behind each wave. And it's exhilarating to get drenched by a particularly large wave.

Of course, in the cold (and rainy) light of day, we were probably looked like a bunch of drunken wankers. So maybe it's just a matter of perspective? Something to think about on the ferry, I suppose.

Monday, December 1, 2008

On Kotor

I spent about six hours on the bus yesterday to get to Kotor. It's a small town in Montenegro, and has an Old Town that rivals Dubrovnik is prettiness. There's a bunch of winding, cobble-stoned streets and tall, looming buildings. There's a castle that's built high on the hill and there's the most spectacular bay just across the harbour.

Still, I don't think it was worth the travel. Three hours to, three hours back, and about half an hour to potter around the town. It's nice and all, and it's cool to get another stamp in the passport, but there are only so many pretty little seaports you can see before it gets a bit samely.

Dubrovnik's nice. Took a walk along the city walls today, and it's quite a lovely view - just a bunch of orange terracotta tiles staring back at you. And the walls are built hard against the sea, and bits of the foundations are actually in the sea. Very dramatic stuff. Makes you wonder how the Serbs could've bombed something to pretty. And they're starting to set up for Christmas - there's a big tree in the town square.

Wish I knew where I'm going to spend Christmas. It's so far ahead, about four weeks away. And I'm a bit nerovus about it - got these visions of spending the night in deserted hostel, pulling a little bonbon by myself. Dreading the thought, really. Really need somewhere cheerful to go.

I've been thinking about Rome for the religious aspect. And Germany for the Christmas markets. And Seville or Barcalona, simply because they're probably a couple of the prettiest places in the world. But I don't know. I had a snowfall in Sarajevo, and I'm kind of wanting something similiar on Christmas Day. Never had a white Christmas.

If anyone's of a mind, you can vote on the right hand side.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

On Dubrovnik

"You've got all these people buying you drinks and laughing with you, and you start to wonder.. "why are these people being so nice to me?""

- Dylan, on the walk home from Dubrovnik

I left the club at about 4:00am, and started walking back to the hostel. From the Old Town to Lapad, it's about 35 minutes by foot, and it's an eerie walk. On the road near the Pile Gate, there's this stretch that passes by the sea. You can hear the waves pounding on the cliff below, and the hotels twinkling in the distance. The road's lit up but completely deserted.

Around that spot, I started thinking about Britt Lapthrone.

She's the Aussie backpacker who died in Dubrovnik a few months ago. I've been thinking about how her story for a while, actually. There's something really disturbing about it. It's something to do with the mystery surrounding the decomposed body, the ham-fisted investigation and all those urban legends about travellers meeting bad ends.

I met Dylan about ten minutes out of the Old Town. He's a guy I'm sharing the dorm with. He'd left the club a while earlier, and had got himself completely lost. He was about to curl up in the corner of a garden somewhere when I bumped into him. We headed back to the hostel together.

So much of what makes travelling worthwhile depends on openness and trust. You meet strangers in the street and you start talking. You've got to believe that they're nice, friendly people and they're not a threat. Most of the time, they are.

The people at the club were really, really cool. Bought us drinks, taught us Croatian drinking songs, made sure we had a good time. Most of the time, you switch off and relax. But sometimes, like Dylan said, you start to wonder - why are they being so nice?

Friday, November 28, 2008

On Mostar

"We will fight until we die because we have no choice. We have nowhere else to go."

- I'm paraphrasing, but it's something one of the soldiers during the Mostar seige.

I'll be in Dubrovnik for five days. The ferry for Bari only leaves once a week in winter, and I lingered in Belgrade and Sarajevo a bit too long, I suppose. Oh well, Dubrovnik is warm and beautiful, and I probably wouldn't mind staying here for the rest of my life. After the cold of the Balkans, it's nice to see the clear blue sky reflected in the clear blue sea.

But this one's on Mostar.

I stayed there last night. I was curious about the town after I'd watched a documentary in Sarajevo about the siege in Moster. It was the craziest thing - in Sarajevo, Croats and Muslims were allies and fighting for their lives against the Serbs, and yet 100 kms to the south, the Croats were shelling the hell out of the Muslims in Mostar. It makes me wonder what the guys up in Sarajevo thought about it.

Mostar's much like Sarajevo, only the rebuilding isn't as far advanced. They've fixed up the Stari Most and the Old Town, but there are still abandoned buildings in the streets around the Old Town. It's a bit confronting to see the mortar holes and the bricked-up windows. And itćs uncomfortable to walk around taking photos of places where people died only fifteen years ago.

The Stari Most is sparkly and white. It's quite a dramatic sight, really - a perfect, slender stone arch across a picturesque mountain river. It's the kind of view that postcards are made from. And as a symbol of reunification and reconciliation, it's just about perfect. But it's a bit disappointing to actually walk across it. It's a bit short, with these bumpy stone slats in the ground to stop you from slipping. Not quite like the tourist shots.

But it's cold, windy and miserable on a winter's day. I'm glad I came to the coast instead. The bus drove along the coast as we wound our way south to Dubrovnik. And the scenary was breathtaking. What was it that my sister-in-law said about Croatia? Oh yes, it's like the Mediterrenean as it once was...

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Snowfall in Sarajevo

"It's amazing the transformation when it snows. When you think about how gloomy the city looked when it was raining, and how it looks now..."

- Andrew, musing about the snow, from across the Turkish Quarter

The guys are watching Hostel in the common room. There must be some kind of inside joke amongst hostel owners in Eastern Europe - in every place I've stayed, there's a DVD of that film. Now, I've had nothing but good experiences in the hostels from Eastern Europe, but still... I'm not going to watch that movie while I'm over here. 

Ever. 

It just fucks around with your brain. When you're travelling alone, just about  everyone you meet is a stranger, and everywhere you go is a strange place. Often, you're dumped on the outskirts of a strange town, and you're practically blind, deaf and dumb. By some strange reason, it always works out - there's a helpful local who happens to speak English, or there's a bus waiting at the right spot, or you just stumble the hostel by plain dumb luck. 

But when you watch a film like Hostel, you realise that the world's not a big cradle of warmth and serendipity, that there ARE jackals out there waiting in the shadows, and that when they've got you in their sights, there's probably not a lot you can do to walk away. It really, really fucks with your brain. I cannot emphasise that enough. 

But I don't want to talk about that. I took a walk through Sarajevo tonight and saw snow falling for the first time in my life. It's amazing. It looks light and flurry when it's falling down, but it turns into ice on the streets. It's a powdery white when it's pure and fresh, and it turns into a muddy, icy slush when it's been trampled upon. It covers everything in a soft white haze, and it makes the city look magical. 

You don't get much snow in Australia. You normally have to drive a couple of hours to the snowfields, and nowadays, much of that snow's artificial. Snow in Australia is purely recreational. It's so different when it's falling in the street where you live. It's one of the most beautiful things I've seen so far. 

Here's a photo of one of the orthodox churches:


Oh, and the Arsenal beat Dynamo Kyiv 1-0 tonight to qualify for the knock-out rounds of the Champions League. I caught the last ten minutes and watched Cesc make a 50 yard pass for Bendtner to score. Awesome goal, but I gather it was a poor performance overall. 

Oh well, whatever - we still love you Arsenal.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Sarajevo and the captaincy

"It is a great honour for me to captain one of the biggest clubs in the world. It is a proud moment. I know it's a big responsibility but together with my team-mates, I know we have the spirit and commitment to get back to winning ways and fulfil our potential."

- Cesc Fabregas, on his appointment as the new Arsenal captain

So Cesc's the captain.

It's the right choice at the wrong time. In August, Cesc said that the captaincy would be a great honour, but in one or two years. He's got enough on his own plate, I think, without having to worry about lifting a struggling team. It's definitely a risk. But there really isn't much other option. Toure's not a vocal leader, Clichy's too inconsistent and Sagna's... I'm not sure why he's not an option, but he's not. Maybe because he's too French. I don't know.

Let's just hope it works out.

I spent the day yesterday looking at all the leftovers from the siege during the Balkans war. The guide was fifteen when it started, nineteen when it ended, and he fought in it for three of the four years. As we drove through the hills around Sarajevo, he pointed out the Serbian positions, the Bosnian positions, and that narrow wedge of disputed territory in between.

The strange thing was how innocuous the landscape seemed. The roads we were driving past where lined with houses, and gave great views of the city below. Except for the occasional ruined house or the leftover bunker, we could've been driving through suburbs of any town in the world. And excluding the four years between 1992 and 1995, I suppose they were just ordinary suburbs.

He mentioned the shrapnel holes that scarred the buildings along the way. I hadn't really noticed them before he pointed them out, but afterwards, I could see them everywhere. I could even see the Sarajevo roses that splattered the streets. It was a brutal siege, with 10,000 people killed, and the horrible thing is that world just let it happen.

The Serbians had taken positions in the hills around Sarajevo, encircling the city. The UN took control of the airport in order to get supplies through to the citizens, but because the Serbians took half of what was delivered, it wasn't enough. To get enough supplies, the citizens of Sarjevo dug a tunnel under the airport, linking with a corridoor of Bosnian control territory behind the hills.

The guide showed us the tunnel under the airport, through which the citizens could get supplies from the outside world. It started off in some guy's basement, wound 800 metres through a hunched-up, water-logged space, and ended up in some other guy's basement. Only about 25 metres still exist, and only from the exit side, but still, it's something to see. Again, it's startling to see how commonplace these things were. When you think of war, you imagine large theatres of combat and maps with coloured trianges - it's a bit confronting when you realise that sometimes things occur in people's basements.

Going to walk around the city a bit more today. It's all quite interesting, in other ways. The Turkish quarter is a tourist trap, but it's a lovely warren of twisting alleys and wooden houses. There's a park with a giant chess board and the old men line up in the morning to play with that. And then there's the Latin Bridge, where some Austrian Archduke got shot and gave the band Franz Ferdinand their name.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Pink Arsenal

"But what did they get here? A team lacking any form of togetherness and a centre-forward who decided this was a suitable occasion to wear pink boots. They were the brightest shade of Barbie-doll pink imaginable and unless Nicklas Bendtner was simply being ironic, the ultimate fashion faux pas for any striker who wants to be taken seriously."

- Daniel Taylor, from The Guardian, about the 3-0 win to Man City

I'm a bit angry right now.

I'm sure it was a throw-away line by Daniel Taylor, but that remark about Bendtner's pink boots is really irritating. A player should be free to choose the colour of his accessories without fear of ridicule or smarmy remarks from journalists. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, a centre-forward should be judged, not on the colour of his boots, but on the quality of his link-up play.

There is a common perception that pink is a frivolous colour. It's been associated with Barbie dolls and bleached-blonde bimbos. It's the colour that little girls choose when they're playing dress-up, and it's a colour that denotes femininity, tenderness and playfulness.

But it can also be the colour of brutal ruthlessness and utter bastardry.

It really depends on how you co-ordinate. If you combine pink with darker colours (black, grey, blue), you get this vivid, flaming pink that screams dynamism and rage. The black and pink combination, especially, is incredibly arresting. In feng shui, pink is the colour of fire, and black is the colour of water. The mix of the two provides an agonising, uncomfortable tension that has nothing to do with sugar and spice and everything nice.

I use pink quite a bit on this blog. I've changed the colour scheme a couple of times, but I finally settled on the pink-and-black combination. It's edgy, it's hip and it screams out in a kind of primordial, existentialist fury about the futility of the human condition.

Plus, the pinkness looks just darling, doesn't it?

Fuck it, I don't know how that slipped out.

Anyway, I'm in Sarajevo for a few days. Took the bus from Belgrade yesterday. Sarajevo's a remarkably pretty town - it's up in the mountains and ringed by hills. The bus came into Sarajevo as the sun was setting, and the sky was flooded in pink hue. Flocks of birds circled above. Really pretty. And pink. And not at all feminine.

Damn Daniel Taylor.

P.S. No, I'm not going to do a match review, or comment on the match. 3-0 to Man City. Fucking hell, there's only so much pain a gooner can take. I'd rather focus my attentions on inconsequentials, like a footballer's fashion sense. So stay tuned next week for an analysis of Alex Song's dreadlocks.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

We've sacked Gallas

At Arsenal lately, there's been a lot of talking. Clichy says we've got to concentrate, Almunia says we've got to be harder, Gallas says we've got to stop quarrelling and show him some respect. And Wenger says that everything's going to be fine and that this is the best group of players we've ever had. 

But actions speak louder than words. The players have shown over the past few weeks that they can't concentrate, that they're fragile, and that they concede weak goals. Gallas had shown that he's not up to being captain. And Wenger has been shown that this is far from being the best group of players he's ever had. 

Yesterday, Wenger took the step of stripping Gallas of the captaincy. Gallas had lost the respect of the players, control of the dressing room, and he'd aired out his grievances in public. That's not the way a captain behaves, and Wenger had no choice. It's one small step to make things right, but there's plenty more to do. 

Nothing's really changed. The players are still fighting amongst themselves and there's still a shocking amount of ill-discipline. We still can't defend, and we still have a thin, inexperienced squad that's getting exposed far too often. There's still a chronic lack of leadership and there's no obvious choice for the next captain. 

Toure's the next senior player, but he doesn't seem to have the personality to dominate a team. Cesc has that personality, but he's so close to cracking that putting him in charge of an under-performing team might break him. Clichy's the other candidate, but I'd rather he concentrates on those defensive lapses that have cost us points in recent games.

There's another way, you know. It's radical, but it's oddly appropriate - don't appoint a leader. Let one develop organically. Silvestre has the experience to organise the defence. Cesc has the talent to lead the midfield. That's enough for now. Just let the players play and don't worry about who's leading whom. In time, leaders will emerge from all over the park. 

Right now, the captaincy's a minor issue. 

I'd much rather Wenger focuses on more important stuff. Like buying an experienced defender, a defensive midfielder and a great goalkeeper. Like concentrating on our set pieces and defending. And like winning enough games to get that 4th spot. We're limping into the January transfer window, and when we get to it, we've got to do some serious surgery. 

There's a lot more left to do, Arsene. 

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Belgrade

"There are no international trains to Sarajevo."

- the response I got from the train information guy.

In retrospect, it was a stupid question.

It's been over fifteen years since the war, but these things tend to linger. Serbia was a bad, bad country for a long, long time, and I suppose the Bosnians are still a bit wary about them. If I was them, I'd be worried about a train track that led straight into the heart of my capital city, as well.

But it's been a long time since the unpleasantness of the Milosevic days. The last conflagration occurred nearly ten years ago. Sloba's gone, his henchmen are down for the count, and Belgrade seems like a normal city. You do come across the odd bombed-out building, but they're more a curio than anything else now.

I'm a little disappointed about it, to be honest. It's contemptible, but one of the reasons I was curious about the Balkans area was the war. As a kid, the Balkans War was chaotic and interminable. I didn't pay enough attention to it to understand the causes, but the siege of Sarajevo, the massacre at Srebrenica and the general badness of Slobodan Milosevic filtered through to my mind. Enough of it got through anyway, to make a visit to Belgrade something out of the ordinary.

Belgrade's an ugly city. I took a walk around the old city, past the Republic Square and around the Kalemegdan Garden. It's grey, shabby and anonymous. It's the distillation of most of worst elements of socialist architecture. It's like something out of Bladerunner, only smaller and without the chic of sci-fi noir. But in fairness, they say Belgrade's a party city, and it's got that kind of air to it - in the morning, there's a bit of hangover hanging over the city. And the city does look much more attractive at night.

I'm of two minds whether to stay in Belgrade another day. I'm a bit too lazy to organise for Sarajevo, and the hostel here is cosy and comfortable. Might be nice to just lounge around and watch DVDs for a day. But Dubrovnik's calling, and I'd like to be there before the end of the month. I've a schedule in my mind of where I want to be by Christmas, and I'd like to stick to it.

Anyway, back to my inquiries about Sarajevo.

In the end, I walked around the block to the bus station and asked for a bus to Sarajevo. There are about six or seven daily, for 1800 dinars. So I guess I was being a bit melodramatic. It's easy and relatively cheap to get to Sarajevo after all. It's not like it's a bloody war zone, now, is it?

P.S. I should write something about Gallas being sacked as captain, but I only do one post a day and it's going to take a while to process it. Plus the Man City game and everything - might wait until after the game.

P.P.S. Now that I'm in Sarajevo, I should clarify. Bosnia and Hercegovina is divided into the "Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina" (the Muslims and the Croats), and the "Republika Srpska" (the Serbs). Most of Sarajevo falls into the Federation side, and the main train and bus stations are in the Federation. The bus station to Serbia, however, is in the Republika side. The interesting thing is that the trolleybus terminal which connects the bus station to the rest of the city is a 150m walk away - and this trolleybus terminal just happens to be at the edge of the Federation side. So I guess there are still a few tensions around. 

Friday, November 21, 2008

Fucking Arsenal

"When, as captain, some players come up to you and talk to you about a player...complaining about him...and then during the match you speak to this player and the player in question insults us, there comes a time where we can no longer comprehend how this can happen." 

- William Gallas, the leader no one's following

What's going on at Arsenal? 

Right now, we're a shit team that squabbles amongst ourselves at half-time. We're not good enough to win anything, and yet, we've got such inflated egos that we think we're champions already. It's depressing. And I can't be bothered writing something soulful about it. My heart isn't in it. I think, like Cesc, that this team is going nowhere, and I can't put my best efforts towards something that is doomed. 

There was a time when we were successful. That was the team of Vieira, Pires, Henry and Bergkamp. The reason for that success wasn't purely talent - it was the unique team spirit that had been forged through years and years of playing and training together. It was in the way the whole Arsenal team bowed before Pires when he won the Player of the Year award. It was in the way Henry took the mickey out of Ljunberg's Calvin Klein modelling contract by parading through the dressing room with a sock stuffed down his shorts. It was so strong that Vieira rejected Real Madrid because he didn't want to break up the family. It led to the Double, the Invincibles, and some of the most beautiful football ever played in England. 

And now, we're shit. We gutted that team and promoted kids too soon. The kids have had too much, too soon. And now, they're spoilt and weak, and greatly deluded about the extent of their abilities. They need someone to give them a huge dressing down. But that's not going to happen. 

Arsenal are a side bereft of leaders. All that experience that was garnered through the 90s has been discarded, and now, there's a leadership vacuum at the heart of Arsenal. It's a problem that cannot be solved merely by parachuting experienced players into the side. It takes time and success to earn that position of leadership. Without it, you're just an old guy barking orders that don't make immediate sense.

Gallas is right - it's hard to comprehend how this can happen. How the fuck did we end up like this? This was supposed to be the Golden Generation, dammit. Cesc was the new Vieria, Denilson was the new Cesc, and we'd have little baby Cescs all the way down to the under-9s. We were supposed to be WINNING stuff by now, not just showing our potential in fits and starts. 

It's so utterly, utterly depressing.  

Anyway, screw it. I'm in Belgrade for two days, and I'm going to go get something to eat. After two and a bit weeks in Turkey, I'm sick of kebabs. Arsenal can go hang themselves. 

Fucking Arsenal.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

My three month anniversary

"I'm leaving tonight. I'm going off to Europe for six months. It's starting to shit me off. I'm starting to realise that it's a really, really long time and it's a lot of money. But still - it's something I've got to do. I'm going to go mad, otherwise."

- Me, three months ago. Yes, I'm quoting myself. 

It's raining in Istanbul. 

It's remarkable because, before today, I never would have thought that it rained here. Every day I've experienced in Istanbul had previously been golden and sunny and warm. It's partly why I like it here so much. And I genuinely like it here. Istanbul represents the halfway point in my trip in so many ways. It's nice to sit here on the edge of Europe and contemplate everything I seen, and everything I've yet to see. 

The header might've given it away but, it's my three month anniversary today. My halfway point - geographically, chronologically and probably financially, too. 

The quote above was lifted from my final post in Melbourne. I can still remember writing it - I really was shitting myself thinking with worry, thinking about all the things that could go wrong and hoping about all the things that could go right. It seems like such a long time ago, but it really wasn't. Three months is the time it takes to find an Australian Idol. It's half a football season. And yet, it's also half a world away. And it feels like a lifetime ago. 

I've got a map of Europe in my office (and I hope it's still there). In the weeks before I left, I traced out various routes and itineraries, popping post-it notes over places I wanted to see. I envisaged doing a big circle around Europe, starting in London and going as far east as Istanbul before heading back to London. It's strange much it's gone to plan. Kind of sad, really. I thought I would've been side-tracked more often. 

It's not what I expected - it's a lot easier and a lot more comfortable than I thought it would be. My relative wealth has insulated me from the real hardships that long-term travellers go through, and my natural sense of caution has always kept me within sight of the beaten track. I'm at least five years too late for the prom, so to speak. 

It's been worth it, though. Most of it's mundane and rather boring. You can get bogged down with transport and accommodation and trying to find enough to eat without straining your nominal budget. And you quickly settle in an everyday routine that innures you from everything that happens around you. But then, something rubs you differently, and it hits you that you're in Europe, and you're in this places that you've spent such a long time thinking about. 

And that makes it all worthwhile. 

Still, I can't help thinking about where I'll be in three months' time. When I left Melbourne, I was an absolute quivering mess. I just wanted six months off to clear my head. And now that my head's vacuously empty, I'm started to look ahead. I don't want to, mind you. I've still three months to go, and I'd like to enjoy that time without having the worries of everyday life crowding my vistas. 

In my last Melbourne post, I wrote: 

Best just to go with the flow and trust that it'll turn good eventually. Yes, you can cater for every contingency and plan everything to the last second, but where's the fun in that?

I should take that to heart. It is me, after all. 

P.S. And here's something cool that Jim Schembri wrote in The Age. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Socks And Jocks

"Ive said it before, Only 1 person can take the blame for this circus at Arsenal and that is Mr Burns aka Wenger who was toothless in the transfer market in the summer. This is what you get for being so fcking tight, You only have yourself to blame Wenger."

- Attila, from the Gooner Forum.

I'm back in Istanbul, and I'm staying in the same hostel that I did when I first arrived. I'm even in the same room, and only two beds along from the one I slept in before. It's quite odd. They say you should never go back, and I'm starting to realise it applies to hostels as well. Everyone I knew from two weeks ago has left. The rooftop bar's been closed for winter. And the new people are, well, new. 

It's a shock to realise just how transient your experiences really are.

I suppose I should say something about the Villa game. I've been avoiding it because there isn't anything new to say. It's all pretty obvious. We played crap and deserved to lose. If we play like that again, we're not going to qualify for the Champions League next season. We need reinforcements in January because our current players aren't good enough. And if we don't get those players, Cesc Fabregas will leave at the end of the season.

It's all been said before, and I'm sick of saying it again.

I spent today exploring the streets between the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar. It's quite an interesting area. It's a maze of shops and malls and little side-alleys. You can buy virtually everything in there - baby turtles, Turkish Delight, cameras, power drills, designer clothes, weapons.... but I ended up just buying a bunch of socks and boxer shorts. It's tempting to buy something touristy, like a hand-woven carpet, but I've a limited budget and I'm running out of the essentials. I'm sick of wearing the same pair of underwear for days on end. 

And there's a lesson in that for Arsenal, maybe. It's exciting to consider the potential of our kids, and it's probably incredibly fun to try and unearth the next Zidane or Pele, but what we really need right now is a solid defensive midfielder and a gusty central defender. We've been shopping for the future for so long that we've run out of underwear. I know it's tempting to continue buying those baby turtles and 1 YTL lottery tickets, but we're hopelessly exposed at the moment, and we live in terror of our next de-pantsing. 

Time to buy some socks and jocks, Arsene. 

Monday, November 17, 2008

Troy

Sing, goddess, of Achilles' ruinous anger
Which brought ten thousand pains to the Achaeans,
And cast the souls of many stalwart heroes
To Hades, and their bodies to the dogs
And birds of prey.


 - The Iliad, first lines, Book 1

The first Troy I knew came from the World Book encyclopedia. I was really into Greek myths as a kid, and the Trojan War was the ancient world's equivalent of a red carpet parade at the Oscar's. After reading all the articles, I was curious whether Ajax the Lesser ever had resented being compared to Ajax the Greater. 

The second Troy I knew was from this book they got us to read in Year 7, "The Luck of Troy". It was an account of the Trojan War from the point of view of Helen's kid by Menelaus. It's a sanitised version of the events, with Helen being bewitched by Paris, Achilles being a gentleman, and Menelaus being a concerned husband and father who just wants his family together again. 

The third Troy I knew was from school textbooks. It's where I learnt about Schliemann and his penchant for dynamite and ancient buried treasure. It was also my first exposure to the scale of the plunder that 19th century Europeans carted back to their cities.  

The fourth Troy I knew was from the Iliad. It had got to the stage where I was so curious about this stuff that I wanted to read from the source. I wasn't really prepared for the galleons of blood, guts and gore that our heroes waded through, nor the 400 pages of prose verse I had to wade through. It was moving, though, especially went I got to the lines, "and then they buried Hector, tamer of horses".

The fifth Troy I knew was from the film. It starred Brad Pitt as Achilles, Eric Bana as Hector and Darryl Hannah as Helen. It was panned by the critics, but it wasn't too bad. Of course, Oliver Stone's decision to take away the supernatural aspects from the film was like stripping a Disney film of smultz, but I liked the realpolitick elements. And Rose Byrne is a bit of alright. 

The sixth Troy I know, I visited today. It's the real Troy, a city perched on a hill overlooking a plain, with the Dardanelles on the horizon. The walls are high and strong and if you squint, you can almost see the armies of Agamemnon arrayed on the fields below the city. There's nothing much else left of the city - it's been called a "ruin of a ruin" - but it's a big kick to walking around it. 

There are nine Troys all up, built one on top of each other. The sixth one is considered the Troy of the Iliad, and the ruins date mainly from the ninth, Roman Troy. Schliemann blasted through a lot of strata to get to Priam's treasure, and it's been exposed to looters and sticky-fingered tourists ever since. So it's not like Ephesus or Pergamum, with their restored buildings and ruined grandeur. But it is something to imagine that sixth Troy, with all the armies of Greece crashing against the walls and not prevailing. 

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Gallipoli

"I'm not ordering you to fight; I'm ordering you to die. Your deaths will buy time for another commander and another army to arrive."

- Mustapha Kemal, to the 57th Regiment as they died at Cunuck Bair

You know, I'd planned this post another way in my mind. I was going for the anti-war angle, with a mention of Australia's involvement in Iraq and a rather sarcastic observations about how, both times, we were led into stupid conflicts by short, war-mongering old men with an eye for the populist vote. 

But the Gallipoli peninsula is actually quite a beautiful place. It's hilly and covered with a scrub forest, with a curving shoreline that's studded with pebble beaches. The Aegean Sea's a vivid blue, and when you find a spot where the sun's shining and you can hear the waves washing against the shore, you're flooded with this sense of peace. 

It's incredibly difficult to picture this as a place where 100,000 people lost their lives. 

When you walk through the various memorial sites that are scattered along the shore, though, the setting seems oddly appropriate. Because most soldiers were buried in mass graves, or simply disintegrated where they fell, they've resorted to placing memorial plaques for the fallen at the places where they landed. And the memory of those deaths is somehow more poignant when you're surrounded so much beauty. 

The strangest thing is that Gallipoli means as much for the Turks as it does for us antipodeans. You wouldn't think it, mostly because we Australians tend to be naively self-absorbed about things like this. In Australia, we've kind of warped it to make ourselves both noble warriors and victims of Imperial dictates. The Ottomans, who lost 55,000 soldiers, are barely mentioned. 

When you're learning about Gallipoli in school, you tend to forget that we're the aggressors in the campaign. And when you're driving through the pennisula, all the memorials are to the ANZACs. It's only up on the hill, at Cunuck Bair, that you get an idea that it wasn't all just about us. There's a memorial up there to the Turkish 57th Regiment, who charged repeatedly at the ANZAC trenches to buy time for reinforcements to arrive. They all died, of course, even the water boy. And there's just one memorial of theirs, versus the scores of ours dotted across the landscape. 

It makes you think. 

Anyway, Gallipoli's seen as the genesis of modern Turkey. From Gallipoli, Mustafa Kemal went on to become the hero that founded the Republic of Turkey. Influential man, Kemal. History's supposed to be made through the glacial shift of public opinion rather than through the force of one man's ideas, but Kemal's an exception. I doubt any other Turkish leader could've set Turkey on the road to modernisation as well as he did. It's with good reason that they call him Ataturk (father of the Turks). 

I'll end with a quote of his, about the kids who died at Gallipoli. I first heard this in primary school, and it's never failed to move me since:

"Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives.. you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours.. You the mothers who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears. Your sons are now living in our bosom and are in peace. Having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well."

P.S. There's a cowboy on Turkish TV at the moment, and he's lassooing people to the tune of "Wild Wild West". I'm sure there's a perfectly plausible explanation, but it's all Turkish to me. 

Saturday, November 15, 2008

I Am Backpacker

And now I'm all alone again, 
Nowhere to turn, no one to go to,
Without a home, without a friend, 
Without a face to say hello to.

- On my own, Les Miserables (at least Epinone feels my pain...)

I'm the only person staying at TJ's. 

TJ's is a five storey apartment building that has been converted into a hostel. It's in Eceabet, on the Gallipoli pennisula, and about twenty metres away from the ferry to Canakale. The hostel has thirty rooms over three levels, and in the summer, it can accommodate 140 people. There's this cafe/lounge on the 5th floor which has panoramic views of the Dardenelles, and it really must be something to sit on the balcony in summer and watch the container ships sail pass.  

It's winter now, though, and the place is just spooky when you're there by yourself.

It's an eerie feeling walking through the building. The foyer's homely with some nice Turkish touches, but the 2nd floor feels like it's a mental institution. It's half-lit with chained-up doors and twisting corridors. In the summer, when there are people around, I imagine it's a great place to stay, but when you're fumbling with the keys in the middle of the night, and the wind's murmuring just over your shoulder, it's plain scary. 

When you're in a hostel, the problem usually is finding some privacy. People are sleeping in the dorms, cooking in the kitchen, talking in the lounge... it can be hard to find your own headspace. It means that often, five minutes alone can feel like a stolen moment of illicit pleasure. But TJ's different. The silence is oppressive.  

I guess it's a bit like that interlude in the film I Am Legend, when Will Smith's stalking the deer through the deserted streets of New York. There's that same haunted emptiness in this hostel. It's like you can feel the memory of all those people who've stayed here and who've now gone. I suppose it's the disadvantage of coming to Gallipoli a few days after Remembrance Day. 

Whatever the case, I'll be fricking glad to be back in Istanbul in a couple of days. 

Friday, November 14, 2008

An Englishman, an American and an Australian

"It's a bit like the beginning of a bad joke, isn't it?"

- The Englishman (Adam), when I step into the van and introduced myself

It was an inauspicious start. One cramped little mini-van, three guys, a tour guide, a bus driver - and three hours to kill before we got to Bergama. As Adam put it, it seemed like the beginning of one of those jokes - you know, the Englishman, Scotsman and Irishman ones....

But wasn't too bad. It was nice good, in fact. It was nice to wander the ruins of Pergamon with a handful of people. You get the uninterrupted attention of the guide. You get to take photos without having to wonder how to avoid the backs of other people's heads. And you get to stroll around the place with a certain unhurried ease. Really, it's the best of both worlds.

The tragedy of Pergamon is that the altar of Zeus was carted off to Berlin in the mid 1800s. In fact, I saw the altar a month ago when I was in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. It's a beautiful piece of architecture, and the friezes on the front are lovely, but it doesn't belong there. Certain things belong to a certain place, and that altar belongs on a hilltop overlooking the city of Bergama, under the shade of a couple of cyprus trees. It's the place where, in the Iliad, Zeus sat down and watched the Trojan War unfold. It's the place where the kings of Pergamon, who believed themselves the descendants of Zeus, build their altar to honour their ancestor. And that altar looks out of place sitting in a giant hall in a museum in the middle of Berlin. 

It's about context, you know. 

Then again, I came from Cappadocia and I've seen what the Turks can do with their historical heritage. After the Christian monasteries were closed down, and the Greek expelled, some enlightened souls decided to go up to the cave churches and hack the faces off the frescos that decorated the walls. The result is a series of galleries which are striking mainly because of what has been lost, rather than what is there. 

And the Hagia Sophia, of course. You can never forget the damage done to the mosaics of the Hagia Sophia. 

Still, there's something to be said about repatriation. Like the Elgin Marbles, like the bones of the Australian Aborigines, like the hundred and one mummies that are stuffed in the British Musuem, repatriation is the decent thing to do. They belong to their local environment, and not in some over-heated exhibition hall in the middle of a European city. 

Maybe it's a bit selfish of me. I get the biggest thrill when I walk through cities like Ephesus and Pergamon, and I realise that I'm in the amphitheatre where St Paul was nearly lynched, or where St John preached, or even where Zeus sat down with a bucket of ambrosia and watched the greatest battle in mythology unfold. 

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Touring around Selcuk

I'm in the middle of a tour of Turkey. I'm staying at Selcuk at the moment, and I'm seeing a few ruins over a few days - Ephesus, Hierapolis, Pergamon.  

In some ways, a tour's a good idea. You're bussed around to all the places you want to see, tour guides explain the history of a place while you're there, and you're given decent hotel rooms. After 3 months of sharing dorm rooms with snoring, stinking, noisy backpackers, it's nice to have the privacy of a private room. It's liberating to realise that I could blog in the nude if so inclined. 

But in many other ways, a tour's a bad idea. You definitely feel dumber on tour. Because everything is basically just a footstep away from the tour bus, you lose all sense of location. You live in a cocoon of buffet meals, air-conditioned buses and large floppy hats. I'm staying in the middle of Selcuk, but I haven't been further than a block around the hotel because.... well, there's really no point. Most of everything I require has been provided by the tour, and I can't really summon the motivation to have a gander at the town. 

So now, I've done travelling one way, and I've done it another. And while a tour's much more comfortable, it really doesn't compare with the discomforts and petty irritations of solo travelling. I'll never do it this way again. 

That said, it really is something to walk down the main street of Ephesus towards the Library of Celsus. And the view from the theatre is magnificent. You really get an idea of how grand and imposing a city like Ephesus would've been back in its heyday. And the age of the place is simply staggering. I was sitting in the latrines, and it was awe-inspiring to realise that toga-wearing dudes were sitting in the exact same spot, doing much the same thing, 1500 years ago. 

Or maybe it's just me. I've got a low threshold for awe. 

The youngsters beat Wigan 3-0 last night, with Jack Wilshere and Carlos Vela showing the world why Wenger's not as deluded as we were all thinking a week ago. I didn't watch it, so I can't comment. I wish Wenger would play Vela in the first team, though, because I'd like to see the guy play. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

OMFG, 2-1 to the Arsenal

"So I take it you're here to find yourself?"

- Dora, the Canadian ex-pat who's made Goreme her home. 

Dora's lived in Cappadocia for 13 years. She followed her husband to Goreme, and after they divorced, she liked the town so much that she stayed. She bought a house and ran a pension for a number of years. At the moment, she's wondering whether it's worthwhile giving up on the town and moving back to Canada. She's got a plane booked in December, but she's not quite sure whether to take it. 

She belongs in Goreme. Yesterday, she walked through the valleys around the town and picked stinging nettles. There's a slower, more reflective pace of life that suits her well. Her "home" is Calgary, but she's been away for so long that she's afraid she won't adapt if she moves back. In her mind, she's Turkish, and Goreme is her home. 

And when she asked me that question, it was with a certain kind of weariness, like she's seen my type so many times before. I suppose she's met a lot of people travelling in Cappadocia, and a lot of them are trying to find themselves. I'm not sure what I'm doing here, to be honest. When I first started out in August, the idea of travel seemed to have a sense of purpose. Now, I'm not sure. Just going through the motions of living, I suppose. Just drifting along. 

There are some amazing sights in Cappadocia, though. The lunar landscapes is spectacular, and the way the inhabitants managed to carve those houses, monasteries and cities is amazing. If I hadn't have lost my USB cable in Istanbul, I'd post a few pictures. Simply amazing stuff, and well worth the 11 hour bus ride. 

Not sure if it was worth missing out on Arsenal beating Man Utd 2-1, though. I haven't had internet access since Friday, and it's a bit of shock to read about it after a 14 hour bus ride to Selcuk. How the fuck did that happen?