Saturday, January 31, 2009


"riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs."

- Finnegans Wake, because after a week of bussing, I'm back in Dublin. 

On the bus from Galway, I was wondering whether it was worthwhile coming just for a Guinness tour. It's a heck of a detour. But then I remembered the American guy from Cork, who said it wasn't much different from any other brewery tour, but still.... it's the Guinness factory.

There's something arresting about a pint of Guinness. They pull about 3/4 of the glass, and let it settle. At first the colour's a light brown, but as you watch, little waves of beer start streaming down the sides of the glass and build a solid black layer and gets thicker and thicker as the waves stream down. After a couple of minutes, the pint's all black, and the bartender fills the glass to the rim. 

I never understood why they did that until one day, quite unexpectedly, I did. 

Once a pint is pulled, the nitrogen molecules decompress and float to the surface. But because nitrogen gas is too small to break the surface tension of the liquid beer, the molecules bounce off the surface and get pushed back down to the bottom of the glass. This results in the quite hypnotic reverse cascade effect you see in a resting pint of Guinness.

It's quite a sight. And it's quite scientific. And it's like poetry in motion, or like a Jane Austen novel with zombies in it. Which, according to the Guardian, is coming out in April. It's something I'm going to have to read when it comes out. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a fine book in possession of a good reputation must be in want of a horde of flesh-eating zombies.  

Friday, January 30, 2009

The Cliffs of Moher

"I'm probably stating the obvious, but stay away from the cliff face."

- Billy the tour guide, in the car park at the Cliffs of Moher

They're not that impressive, the Cliffs. They're about 200 metres high and they run about 200 kilometres along the west coast of Ireland. They're black and sheer, of course, and they have a greenish tinge owing to the mould that grows on the cliff face. 

This is Ireland, after all. Everything's tinged by green. 

The terrain around the Cliffs is cold and bare and windswept. It's limestone rock covered by sparse grass. In the visitors' centre, there are photos of bright, sunny days and bright, smiling tourists. I didn't see much of either today. It rained intermittently, and the raindrops were like tiny pins prodding numb skin. The wind was so strong that you could lean on it and still stay upright, and the sky so grey that you couldn't tell where the ocean ended and the clouds began. 

Billy told us about the Hungarian tourist who, in search for the perfect photo, went right to the edge, slipped, and was never seen again. As I walked around the perimeter, I began to see the Hungarian's point of view. The path is a good five metres away from the edge, and there's a heavy slate fence running along the path. On the other side, there's grassy fields and rocky platforms and very tempting vistas. The Perfect Photo is very much the tourist's Holy Grail, and many have succumbed to the lures of the quest.

I probably sound pretty flippant, but I'm not. I understand perfectly. I did something similar in Cappadocia a few months back. When the red mist of tourist photography takes hold, it takes strong willpower NOT to take that extra step. 

We spent the rest of the day hopping on and off the bus trying to take pictures whilst avoiding the rain. Saw a dolmen. And a littler version of the Cliffs of Moher. And a whole heap of castles and a pack of llamas. And we stopped for a couple of minutes to admire four spring lambs nipping each other to stay warm. 


As we drove past, I wondered if those Irish lambs know that their brethren down in the antipodes are enduring the worst heat-wave in 50 years. It reached 44 degrees in Melbourne yesterday. One can hardly comprehend it. 

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Arsenal vs Everton

"GOAL!!!! EVERTON LEAD!! And it's another Tim Cahill header!! Baines crosses from the left and Cahill leaps high above his marker Clichy to direct his header inside the left-hand post. What a talent."

- eurosport live updates, 61st minute of the Everton - Arsenal match

It's half-time at Goodison Park, and it's 0-0. 

I haven't watched the Arsenal since the 'boro match in mid December. I remember having to scramble from the outskirts of Rome back to the Capitoline to watch that match. I only got back in time for the second half, and it was 45 minutes of such unmitigated hideousness that I wished I'd missed a subway connection or two. 

Back then, Arsenal were in a state of flux. Gallas had been sacked, Cesc was the newly appointed captain, and the team were at the start of a shaky unbeaten run. We were playing badly, but not losing. There was the January transfer window to look forward to, and it looked like things were starting to get better. 

About a month later, we're still on that unbeaten run. But the optimism has long since dissipated. We've lost Cesc to injury, and our board's shown an alarming lack of ambition in the transfer market. We've all got the feeling that the Arsenal are on the slide, and are going to be on the slide for a very long time. 

And against Everton tonight, we're playing hideously. 

I remember something Myles Palmer said a few blogs ago, about how the current Arsenal side lack partnerships. I think he was right. Technically, our players are good - they pass well and can control the ball - but there's not a lot of invention going on. The players aren't moving to receive lay-offs, or to create third man runs. The full-backs aren't making over-lapping runs, our passing is often sideways and ineffective, and it's all a bit jerky. I contrast that with the smooth-flowing moves of Barca and Valencia, and my gooner heart weeps big salty tears. 

What's worse is that, for some inexplicable reason, all the pubs in Galway are showing Hull vs West Ham. No one knows why. Saw this drunk guy sit down on a bench between two bronze statues and start up a conversation. He probably knows as much about it as the rest of us. So I'm stuck with an internet connection which is so fecking crap that the stream doesn't even load half the time. 

And Cahill just scored for Everton. 

Off a header. 

I'm going to go take a shower. I suddenly feel very, very dirty. 


I couldn't walk away. It's like a bad car wreck, I suppose. 1-1 draw, van Persie levelling at the death. At least this means we've still a buffer between us and Everton. We're 5th, and we're fighting for 5th for the rest of the season. 

That's fucking depressing. 

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Baked beans and pork sausages

"I think children in sweatshops are a good idea. Small hands are good for stitching fine details."

- me, to the Concern Ireland guy campaigning against sweatshops in India

I'm not sure why I said that. Shit-stirring, I suppose. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I ran into the guy on the street, in the rain, and he had such a nice, big umbrella. Wanted to keep him talking a bit while it rained. Also, I remember Ali G doing something similar on his TV show, and you know, monkey see, monkey do. 

It got a laugh out of him, anyway. 

In Cork at the moment. Grey, industrial city in the south, on either side of the River Lee. Apparently has a rapidly escalating heroin problem, and has been likened to Edinburgh in the "Trainspotting" days. It sure feels like Edinburgh when it rains. 

First day here, I was walking to Subway when I saw a guy abusing a couple of other guys about his car. A few minutes later, I saw an ambulance speeding to where the confrontation was. When I came back, the guys, the ambulance and the car were all gone. You do get a few characters around here, I suppose. 

Second day here, I went to Blarney Castle. I climbed the tower and got grappled by an old Irish guy who dropped me down the parapet to kiss a fecking stone. Now, I'm eloquent and full of the Irish blarney. Also full of baked beans and pork sausage, which is pretty much all I can afford here in Cork.

I'm wondering if I should spend a third day here, or whether to head up to Galway. The days are slipping away, and I've only a week in Ireland before the visa runs out. There's not a lot to see here, and I'm sure there's enough rain and Guinness and craic and blarney and other quintessentially Irish charms on the west coast. 

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Every Fecking Irish Pub

Foolishly I followed you to Dublin
Like a ghost I walked the streets of Temple Bar
And all the bright young things were throwing up their Guinness in the gutter
And once I thought I saw you from afar

- Every Fucking City, Paul Kelly

There's a huge window in the lobby of the hostel, and it overlooks Parnell St. I'm sitting in front of it now, and there's not a lot happening. It's one of those gloomy, prematurely darkened Sunday afternoons, the kind that makes you long for a warm bed and a good book. I'm not entirely sure I want to step out this evening, but I'll probably have to. 

I'm only in Dublin for another evening, and I should make it count. 

It took me about half a day to realise that cars here drives on the left side of the road. It took me a whole day to realise that I didn't have to look down at the pavement every couple of seconds to check for dog poo. But it only took me twenty minutes of walking down O'Connell St to realise that every fecking pub in Dublin is going to be an Irish bar. 

There's something disconcerting about Irish bars on the continent. There's the appropriation of British culture, for one, which means that they're the ones you automatically turn to for a screening of the Arsenal. There's the kitchiness for another. And then, there's the irritating thing that they're almost never run by, owned or patronised by, Irish people. 

Temple Bar is the spiritual home of all those far-flung Irish bars. And I took a stroll through it on Saturday night out of curiosity. It's a depressing place when you're sober. The pubs are packed and the bright young things are lining up in front of clubs. There's puke on the pavements and drunken kids stagger from one bar to another. There's a huge queue in front of the ATM (it is very expensive in Dublin). 

Everything's dressed up to be sold now, ain't it? 

But on the other hand, they do have these plaques on the pavement for places mentioned in Ulysess. Which is kind of nice, I felt. Always wanted to read Ulysess, but never got past the first chapter, and the last monologue by Mary Bloom. Some people say that if you read the first and last pages of a book, it counts as reading the whole thing, but I've always had my doubts about that idea. You miss out on a lot if you just go from A to Z, and you never find out why the Zebra did it. 
Dublin's been alright. Guinness is expensive (I spent more for a pint than I did for lunch, today) but surprisingly good. The weather's cold and miserable at times. But people are willing to stop for a chat, there's always something interesting in the streets, and most of the museums and galleries are free, which helps on the cold afternoons. 

Most days, everything's grand. 

Friday, January 23, 2009

Tilting at windmills

"Can't you see? We're just decadent, decadent! This world we're in can't last, my friend. Our time is over. And you know what? I'm glad. I'm torn between wanting to end it all in a huge bacchanal riot and wanting to grab people in the street and shouting at them to stop it."

- Abigail, the Canadian girl from a couple of night ago. 

Beer, whiskey, whiskey...

Sometime in the middle of the pub crawl, we started a competition to see who was more dissatisfied with Western society. Abigail had just come up from Kenya and had been outraged by the disparity between her affluence and the poverty of the locals. I was, well.... I was just me. I lean towards the melancholy side of things. And so, to the sound of ubiquitous dance-pop-RnB-rock, we whined about colonial legacies, climate change and the delusional, selfish, degenerate depths to which Western society had sunken.

Whiskey, sangria, sangria...

I don't think the irony of two Westerners discussing the immorality of capitalist excess whilst on a pub crawl ever hit us. It didn't hit me, anyway, until the next day. In my defence, though, I was very drunk at the time. 

Beer, mojito, something orange with vodka in it...

It's the nicest thing to have an earnest, drunken, vaguely intellectual conversation. You're drunk enough to think that you're being very profound, but sober enough to be loquacious. Your brain starts buzzing with words that you'd mothballed since high school. And you start to believe that you ARE as brilliant as you suspected during all those reflective moments on the loo. 

Ah yes, sweet, beautiful drunk talk.


I'm leaving Madrid in about 45 minutes, and I'm starting to wish I'd pushed back the flight by about a week. There's a lot more to see and do, and I've only scratched the surface. It's a charming city, Madrid. It's brick and plaster instead of stone and marble. It has nice ambulatory streets and human-sized plazas. And it's surprisingly inexpensive. Somehow, it has retain the air of a quaint backwater town, despite being the capital of Spain for 500 years. 

And speaking of regal cities, we went to Toledo yesterday.

It's built on a hilltop and ringed with walls, with the river on one side and the plains on the other. It's full of winding streets that are lined by steep, brick buildings. We spent a lot of time peering through shop windows looking at all the shiny steel weapons. There's something about a stack of swords and shields that brings out the ten-year-old kid in me. Toledo steel was famous in its day, and it's always cool imagining riding around the countryside, tilting at windmills and rescuing damsels in distress. 

30 minutes to go, and I'd better pack up. Got a flight to catch. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Wellcow to Madrid

"First African-American president - better do good."

- Malia Obama, showing that Barack's not the only one with a flair for snappy phrases

I've a weakness for a bad pun. So when I came across a psychedelically-painted cow entitled "Wellcow to the Island", I took a photo of it. It was in the middle of the Plaza de Oriente, with the Palacio Real on one side, the Teatre Real on the other, and a statue of Phillip IV in the middle. It is a very pretty plaza. 

But the highlight was definitely the cow. 

There are life-sized statues of cows scattered throughout Madrid. They've been painted in different styles by different artists and they've been on display for about five days. Apparently, it's part of a cultural exhibit that's been touring Europe. In a couple of weeks, they'll pack up the herd and ship them off to the next city. 

Just watched the inauguration speech. Really stirring stuff. At the moment, Obama's escorting Bush down the steps of the Capitol, towards the helicopter and out of Washington. Forever. 



As a postscript, I got barred from two nunneries that afternoon. Didn't get into the Royal Convent of Bare-foot Nuns, and didn't get into the Royal Covent just down the road from the Palacio Real. It's a pity. I really wanted to see where the bare-foot nuns lived. There're thirty of them, and they're hermetically sealed - cut off from the world, except for one family visit a year. 


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

End of the world

It's the end of the world as we know it
It's the end of the world as we know it
It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine

This is going off on a tangent, because I haven't done much today. My money's come in, it's the New Year sales in Spain, and I need a coat for winter. Gosh, my head hurts from all this shopping. 

Anyway, Obama's going to be sworn in as the 44th President of the United States some time today. And the expectations that have been placed upon him are enormous. I read a few days ago that 70% of Americans believe he'll solve the economic crisis in his first year. I read today that drastic action on CO2 emissions will have to occur within his first term, or the greenhouse effect will pass the tipping point. And then there's all that symbolism about him being young and black, and able to heal the legacy of slavery, energise a jaded populace, forge a new kind of politics for the 21st century..... 

You got to feel sorry for him. After eight years of Bush, he's got a lot to fix. And even if he was hideous Frankenstonian figure with the brain of Jefferson, the guile of Adams, the ethics of Lincoln, the charisma of Kennedy and the simple, salt-of-the-earth goodness of Truman, he'd struggle with all the expectation. 

Yes, he can? Not bloody likely. 

I'm bringing it up because of the aforementioned article from the Guardian. According to Jim Hansen, we've four years to fix the planet, and Obama's the only guy who has the political leverage to do it. Personally, I think we're stuffed. Not because it can't be done, but because it won't be done. We lack the willpower. Climate change won't really inconvenience people for another twenty, thirty years. To put that into perspective, that's three generations of footballers away. No one can imagine that far into the distance, especially a politician who's being judged in four year terms. 

To make any headway, you've got to introduce a carbon tax that will make renewable energy sources (solar, wind, geothermal, etc,) competitive with coal and oil. You've got to do that in an economic system that's grinding to a halt. To pass any of this, you're going to need bipartisan support on a scale unprecedented since WW2. And you've got to do that in your first term as president. 

It's political suicide.

Plus, you got countries like China, with a government that's only in power as long as it can it expand the economy fast enough to keep up with the expanding aspirations of its rapidly expanding middle-class. I use the word "expanding" a lot because it's a bit like blowing up a balloon - if the economy doesn't keep stretching like the rubber skin, the whole mess will end up snapping back on the Chinese government's collective faces. And that's a more pressing issue for them than what will happen in twenty, thirty years time. 

Jim Hansen's wrong - Obama can't save us. The only man who can do that now is Batman.

Monday, January 19, 2009

From Barcelona to Madrid

From St Kilda to Kings Cross is thirteen hours on a bus
I pressed my face against the glass 
And watched the white lines rushing past
And all around me felt like all inside me
And my body left me and my soul went running

I always seem to get into Madrid early in the morning. 

Took the overnight bus from Barcelona to Madrid last night. As always, it's a disconcerting experience. Once the luggage is stowed away and you've settled in your seat, the driver turns the lights off and everyone falls asleep. There's something about the humming of a bus that's very conducive to sleep. The bus stops every two or three hours to refuel and give the driver a break. When he turns the light on, everyone wakes up and shuffles out into the way-station. 

It's a strange experience. You're in the middle of nowhere, and the only light is coming from the way-station. There's a road that stretches off into nowhere, and nothing else. Every way-station seems to be built from the same design, and if it's a particularly long trip, you get this suspicion that the bus has just driven around in circles for two hours and come back to the same spot. 

When you get off the bus, you're a bit disorientated. It's not lack of sleep, because you've had enough. It's not a DVT-induced mini-stroke, because you've had plenty of opportunity to stretch in the pit stops. It's more a case of temporal dissonance, I suppose. You know you've been driven 700kms overnight, but it really doesn't feel that way. In your head, a part of you still thinks you're in Barcelona. 

I miss Barcelona. There's so much there that I want to see again. If I could redo this trip, I would've spent two weeks in Barcelona and two weeks in Granada, and what would it matter if I'd missed out on Florence or Venice or Prague? There's nothing there but photos and postcards. 

But still, it doesn't matter. At least I got back to Madrid in time to see Real Madrid play Osasuna. Beautiful stadium, beautiful team, dodgy referees. Probably the only stadium I've seen that has elevators and escalators for the fans. Definitely the only stadium I've seen that's installed heaters on the roof to keep the fans warm. 

3-1 to Madrid. 

Saturday, January 17, 2009


Flashpacking - Backpacking, but not on a budget, using first-class travel and accommodation. A more "flash" version of backpacking. 

- the definition from Urban Dictionary

By most definitions, I'm a flashpacker more than a backpacker. I stay in hostels with clean sheets. I bathe regularly. I eat three meals a day and am acquainted with most of the five food groups. I can afford a slice of the better life that I keep seeing in the shops and cafes that I walk past. But the thing is, I keep wondering why, if I'm a flashpacker, I need to scrimp so much. 

I've spent a bundle over the past two days. 35€ to see a couple of Gaudi's modernist apartment buildings. Popped 40€ to go to Figueres to see the Dali Museum. Spent about 50€ on my two Barca matches. But I don't think I can sustain it. I'm getting slightly worried because I've 120€ left in the bank, with three days before the card tops up again, and a trip to Madrid and a ticket to Real Madrid to pay for still. 

Thing about this trip, I keep thinking about money. 

And I've met real backpackers on this trip. Guys who sleep on park benches and eat nothing but Nutella and jam sandwiches for weeks on end. Guys who get by as sketch artists as they bum their way across Spain. Guys who have been travelling for months and years on end, until they've almost forgotten where they've come from. Now that I think about it, it's been mostly guys.  

They do it on a wing and a prayer. They drift and let circumstances take them to places they never thought they'd go. There's something compelling about that, that goes past the stink of unwashed clothes and cigarette smoke. They're at ease in the world. They can meet Triumph and Disaster and treat the two impostors as the same. 

I'm not really sure where I'm going with this. Just bummed that I've got probably 20€ discretionary spending over the weekend, once I take out accommodation, travel and football expenses. Which is pretty shitty for a flashpacker. 

Friday, January 16, 2009

Messi at the Camp Nou

I hear he sang a good song, I heard he had a style
And so I came to see him, and listen for a while
And there he was, this young boy, a stranger to my heart

Strumming my pain with his fingers
Singing my life with his words
Killing me softly, with his song
Telling my whole life with his words
Killing me softly, with his songs. 

- Killing Me Softly, The Fugees

The first time the great man appeared, he was wearing a bright orange vest and chocolate brown leggings. As he trotted out over the sideline, the crowd began applauding. As he started warming up, the crowd started chanting with a feverish longing. The game was suddenly unimportant, and we were all in a state of suspense. 

It was the 60th minute, the score was 1-1, and Leo Messi was preparing to enter the game. 

Until that point, it had been a nothing game in a nothing cup competition. It was the second leg of the Copa Del Rey tie, the first having been 3-1 won by Barcelona a week ago. The tie was pretty much concluded before the match had begun, and both teams approached it in that manner. Barcelona fielded their second-string side and both teams kicked it around in a lazy fashion. 

There's something magical about the Camp Nou on a winter's night. We were sitting on the edge of the highest tier, right by the corner flag. The ground was floodlight, the crowd buzzed beneath us, the players moved with slow precision - it was like being in a really, really chilly dream. 

It was a good thing it's so atmospheric, because the game was crap. 

I have fond memories of the Valencia-Villareal. It was blood-and-guts running and attacking and skilful play for 90 minutes. It was probably the best game I've seen. Barca-Atletico was a couple of teams kicking it around and trying not to get injured. But still, there's something about watching Barcelona play. They have a mystique about them, coming down in an unbroken line from Cryuff to Strichov, to Rivaldo and Figo and Ronaldinho, and now, to Lionel Messi. 

Messi got onto the pitch in the 76th minute. He's the best player in the world, and it showed. Immediately Barcelona perked up. The passing was crisper, the play more purposeful, and the team started playing the way only Barca knows. Messi made a couple of great runs, and it was just amazing to see the guy in action. 

I've just had a glance at the match reviews in the newspaper blogs, and they're all raving about a good game with plenty of attacking moves and two skilful, free-flowing sides. And I'm wondering if I watched the same game? Or maybe, I'd been just so intent on seeing Messi that I overlooked some pretty good football in its own right? 

2-1 to Barcelona. 

Thursday, January 15, 2009

On Barcelona

After a while, you tend find a place you feel really connect with. I´m not sure why it is, but when you ask people, they´ve always got one place that´s special and that they rave about. You ask them why, and it´s always about something unique that happened to them and to no one else. One thing´s been pretty constant, though - Barcelona is everybody´s second favourite city.

It´s a pretty special place. I was taking a walk along the marina this afternoon. The sun was out, the sky was blue and the esplanade was lined with plam trees. There were seagulls swooping on halpless snacking tourists and, well... it was just perfect. It reminded me of San Francisco along the Embarcadero, with the palm trees and the trolley trams and the smell of the sea coming from the Bay.

The Gothic Quarter is right off the waterfront, just off the Mirador de Colom. It´s a warren of buildings and shadowy streets. You keep walking and get lost, and keep walking and eventually you wind up at La Rambla. Everything seems to lead to La Rambla. And it´s something you can keep walking down forever.

And then there´s Gaudi. Sometime in teh 19th century, Barcelona got rich. Very rich. It burst through its city walls and expanded into the countryside. They drew up plans for a grid of the new city, one that was full of tree-lined streets and broad avenues, like a Paris with more class. It´s where I´m staying now, in a 100 year-old apartment just off one of the main avenues.

It´s a stroke of good fortune that I´m plonked in the middle of a host of Gaudi´s stuff. It´s the oddest thing to walk along a street filled with stolid 19th century buildings, and then come cross a riot of colour and shape and weirdness. Took a walk through the Parc Guell the other day. Spent some time sitting in front of the Casa Batllo today, and wondering if 16€ was a fair price to see probably the weirdest house I´m ever likely to see. Probably have to do it tommorrow.

Off to see the Barca-Atletico game now.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Sagrada Familia and Big Brother

The Sagrada Familia's been on my to-do list for the past fifteen years now. I remember seeing it in a travel doco when I was a young'un, and the image of those weirdly shaped towers kind of stuck with me. For the past five months, I've been asking questions about it to everyone who´s been to Barcelona.

The reports don't do it justice.

First thing, it is a construction site in the middle of a cramp suburb. It's a bit deflating when you get there because the sightlines are obscured by cranes, fences and workers' shelters. All the knobbly bits of the older, Gothic parts are grimy and stained, and all the newer bits are glaringly clean in comparison.

It's not until you walk around the picture postcard facade to the other side that it starts to come together. Amazing portico of the Passion of Christ, and when you enter, you're hit by the tree-shaped columns that branch out to support this vast, vast roof and...

I really can't be bothered. 

I'm watching Spanish Big Brother right now. I was never a fan of the Australian Big Brother, but the Spanish version ain't bad. Still the same premise - pretty young things chatting vacuously and looking pretty in front of surveillance cameras - but they're all talking Spanish, which gives it a certain something. I suppose it's along the lines of the fascination that comes from ignorance - they could be talking absolute rubbish, but it doesn't matter because all I can see are Spanish people looking pretty and chatting vacuously. It's very compelling. 

Barcelona's nice, but I sure wish I'd come here when my enthusiasm was higher. 

Sunday, January 11, 2009

3-3 at the Mestalla

"Puta! Puta! Puta! Puta!"

- the four stands of the Mestalla last night

It was clearly a dive. 

The Valencia player put out his arm and the Villareal guy went down like he'd been hit with a baseball bat. The referee pointed to the spot, though, and then the crowd started on the above chant. I remember what "putain" means in French, and if it correlates with the Spanish, I have to agree with their sentiments. 

Puta, indeed. 

It would be a cliche to say that it changed the course of the game, but it did. It went from a 3-2 win to Valencia to 3-3 with ten (?) minutes left on the clock. Valencia worked hard for the next five, ten minutes to get the winner, but it wasn't to be. Villareal closed shop, played for a draw, and got it. 

So 3-3 it finished. 

It was a very good game, though. Probably the best I've seen in my time here; it was fast-paced, attacking, real end-to-end stuff. It was like a Premier League game, but with two sides who can pass, dribble and who are committed to aesthetically pleasing football. The passing was polished, the movements were slick, and the players willing to dribble and take on the opposition. It was miles better than anything I saw in Italy, and (sentiment notwithstanding), a better spectacle than the Arsenal flogging a hapless Premier League club. 

If I had to be cruel, I'd say that Valencia deserved it. Every time they gained the lead, they sat back. They were 2-0 up in the first half after dominating possession, and then they conceded a goal in injury time. They lost the lead in the 75th minute, regained it three minutes later, and then sat back again. So something like this was going to happen. 

But it's better to be pleasant than cruel. And it was a very nice game of football. 

Saturday, January 10, 2009

On grime

"You look like you've been in a few hostels, but I'll just explain the rules."

- the guy at reception today

I guess I'm finally dirty enough to qualify as a backpacker. 

When I first started this thing, I would walk into a hostel and look at the scruffy, unshaven backpackers with a kind of wary-eyed awe. They looked seasoned, at ease with their surroundings, and above all, dirty. They had a certain kind of worn-in filth that's the result of months of lax hygiene and infrequent showers. I didn't have that kind of grime at the time, and I felt more like a visitor to a zoo than a genuine lodger of hostels. 

I have that dirtiness now. I'm fairly sure of it. The receptionist confirmed it. And today, I had seven hours on a train to contemplate it. There's about 5 millimetres of grime, grease and sweat covering my body. There's an awful funk that comes from my beanie whenever I take it off. And while I take frequent showers, it's probably negated by the necessity of wearing the same set of clothes for weeks on end. 

Sometimes, I feel like I'm the captain of a huge cargo ship of microbiota, and I have a duty to guide my flora to safe harbour. My protozoa, and especially my fungi, have been with me for quite a long time, and I hate to think what'll happen to them once this trip ends. I'll probably miss them when I get back to Australia and have the luxury of shampoo, soap and clean clothes ever day. 

I think I'll go take a shower now.

Thursday, January 8, 2009


"You have built what you or others might've built anywhere, but you have destroyed something unique in the world."

- Carlos V, King of Spain (1516-1556), about the cathedral in the Mezquita

Cordoba's all yellow. 

It rises from the banks of a muddy yellow river. The walls are made of sandstone, and the buildings are covered with yellow plaster. The alcazar is made from yellow-tinged rock and the Meqzuita is made up of rough-hewn, yellow sandstone. From the banks of the Guadalquivir River, as you cross the old Roman bridge, it seems like the city's made out of yellow mud. 

The Meqzuita's a strange thing.  It was started in the 8th century and kept expanding as the Cordoba emirate kept getting richer. In the 12th century, it had overtaken the Damascus mosque as THE reference point for Islamic architecture. The guide book says it's the greatest visual representation to homesickness ever constructed, and it's not wrong. 

When you walk in it, it's cavernous and dark and so eerie. It's a hall of marble pillars and red-and-white brick arches, with dim lanterns hanging from the ceiling. The sense of history is almost palpable. If you close your eyes, you can hear the muezzin call to prayer, smell the orange trees in the courtyard and see the host of muslims kneeling in the direction of Mecca. 

Of course, someone in the 16th century decided to build a cathedral right in the middle of it, so the effect is kind of diminished. The cathedral's so out of place that it jars the senses. You have a mosque that speak of God through the repetition of pillars and arches, through the use of space and light and shadow. It's elegant and graceful and so profound. And smack in the middle of it, you've a bunch of statues and paintings and clutter, that speak more of the mundane than the transcendent. It's pretty shitty, and I wholeheartedly agree with Carlos V. 

End result, you walk out of the Mezquita with a profound sense of loss. And you wonder what it would've looked like if it hadn't been desecrated by the Catholics. 

Pictures Of Me

Pictures of you, pictures of me
Hung upon your wall for all the world to see
Pictures of you, pictures of me,
Remind us all of what we used to be

- Pictures Of You, The Last Goodnight

This one's about photos.

Over the months, I've taken a lot of photos - of scenery, of buildings and streets, of people and sometimes even of me. On the bus from Granada to Corboda, I've been thinking about the reasons why I keep snapping away. 

One reason is so I can have something pretty for my laptop wallpaper; and I DO have an awesome set of wallpaper pics now. I keep changing from the Alhambra to the Rose Valley to Tintern Abbey, to the Aya Sophia to the Cinque Terre to.... you get the idea. Currently, it's one from the balcony of the Generalife in the Alhambra, overlooking the Nasrid Palace and the Albayzin.

Another reason is for physical proof that I've been in these places. I've got notions that, way in the future, I'll be cranking up the old laptop and showing the hypothetical grandkiddies where grandpa went when he went mad and needed six months abroad for soul-searching. I'll be showing them pictures of Venice before it sank back into the lagoon, and they'll roll their eyes and say "whatever". 

The third reason, and perhaps the most sensitively poignant, is that it's the easiest way to establish a connection to these places. You see something majestic, or beautiful, or something that's a high-point in human civilisation, and you don't want to walk away. You want to take something back with you, to leave your mark, to connect with these places and not forget about them after a few months back home. And picture taking is the easiest way of doing this. One click, and you've frozen a vista that you've seen with your own two eyes. 

But photos never capture the immediacy of the moment. There's not a photo that details the sound my feet made when I crunched into freshly-fallen snow in Sarajevo. There's not one that recreates the sense of awe I felt as I stepped into the vastness of the dome in the Aya Sophia, nor one that shows the way that shafts of light punctured the dusty air of St Peter's Basilica. There's no way of recording the eeire stillness of the Rose Valley in Cappadocia, nor the sound of the fountains in the gardens of the Generalife in the Alhambra. 

And there's nothing but my memory to remember the chill of the waters off Dubrovnik, the blackness of the sea and the sky, the howl of the wind and the recklessness of drunken idiots squatting on the rocks. I think a lot about that night, but there's nothing left which reminds me of what happened. It's just me and my memory, and even that will fade as the weeks and months roll on. 

So really, it's kind of pointless. And depressing.

Still, it's my first day in Cordoba, and I shouldn't spend it typing in the dorm. Gotta step out and get me some photos of the Mezquita while it's open. It's one of the grandest buildings in all of Spain, doncha know. And I can always do with more wallpaper pics. 

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Three Kings

"Usta va fiesta?"

- my first comprehensible sentence in Spanish

It's the Three Kings Festival today, and the city's pretty much dead. Monday night, there was a huge parade of Santas and Pharaohs and Wise Men down the Gran Via Colon, but today, half the shops are closed and everyone's walking around looking like they're nursing a giant hangover. 

It's a pretty strange parade for an outsider. You've got a few of cohorts of Roman legionnaires, Berbers and Moors. Then a couple of guys on stilts. Then a float of a Pharaoh, and a couple of Wise Men, and then one of Santa on a neon-trimmed sleigh. All of whom throw sweets into the crowd. Dads hold up confused babies to see the parade. Kids worm their way through the crowd to pick up sweets on the floor. And everyone cheers and waves as the lollies rain down from on high. 

I suppose one of the reasons people travel is to be able to see strange local traditions first-hand - like getting pelted with hard-boiled lollies in the middle of the night. It's strange because the Spanish Christmas season has been building up to this point. There's a quiet lull between New Year's and Three Kings Day, and then it ends in a bang. Three Kings Day is the day that presents are distributed. And it's kind of cute watching the kiddies try out their toy motorbikes on the streets. 

But then again, one of the best days in a long while came the other day, when I realised that EVERY bar in Granada offers free tapas, whether advertised or not. Fried ocotopus, grilled squid, jamon bocadillos... it's enough to make an alcoholic out of anybody. 

Monday, January 5, 2009

The "Grand" in Granada

"Do not cry like a woman for something you could not defend like a man."

- the last king of Granada's mother, to her blubbering son

In 1492, Boabdil, the last King of the Moors, surrendered his throne to the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella. With him went 700 years of Muslim rule in the Iberian peninsula, and the end of the dream that was Al-Andulus. As he rode out, he took one last look at the city, with the red brick of the Alhambra on one hill, and the glistening white plaster of the houses of the Albayzin, he started to cry. At which point, his mother made her famous remark. 

I reckon that if Boabdil's mum had been in charge of the defences, Granada would still be the capital of Al-Andulus. 

Whatever the case, Boabdil's tears are understandable. Granada is a beautiful city, and the Alhambra is breath-taking. There's a grace and a simplicity about the Nasrid Palace that puts the grand houses of Europe to shame. It's quite humbling, to be honest, to walk through courtyard after courtyard and see this Muslim idea of heaven portrayed in marble and plaster and water. The Nasrid Palace has to be the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. 

Thank God I took a shitload of photos, because I doubt I'll remember the details.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Feliz Ano Nuevo

It's a new day, it's a new dawn
It's a new life for me
And I'm feeling good

- Nina Simone, Feeling Good

So this is how 2009 starts.

I'm in the dorm, listening to the rain and typing on my laptop. John Coltrane's playing on youTube, and I'm waiting. Soon enough, that magical moment will arrive when my traveller's card ticks over and all those lovely euros pour from the ATM and into my wallet. My mind's half drowning with gluttonous thoughts.

Sevilla's not much fun with only 5 € in your pocket. 


It's 4:00am in Melbourne at the moment, so I imagine the birds have started singing in the pine trees behind my bedroom window. They start pretty early in the summer. In about an hour or two, the sun will rise. The inky blackness of the sky will bleed into a deep, intense blue, and then fade away as the first rays of the sun hits the atmosphere. The sky will turn a vivid pink, and then an orange and then will be all but forgotten as the sun crests the horizon and shines upon a new day. 


The rain's stopped, and John Coltrane's stopped, and I'm still waiting for the hours to tick by. It's been like this for about a day and a half now. It's certainly put a dampener of the new year. 

I spent the first half of New Year's Eve trying to figure out how I'd manage to stretch 5 € over two days. I wandered aimlessly through the mazy side-streets and peeked longingly into cosy little bars and restaurants. I stood in the Plaza Nuevo as the clock struck midnight, as the firecrackers burst, as everyone started sipping champagne and munching on grapes. 

I spent the second half of it trying to get drunk in a bar by the Alameda de Hercules. Met up with some people from the hostel who shouted me a couple of drinks. It's difficult when you're living on the charity of mates, and it's even tougher when you're faced with the distinct possibility that you're a pauper but for a single paper note in your wallet. 

It's doable, though. 


Had a look at the dashboard widget just before, and it's 4:30 in the morning. 

It's the 2nd of January in Australia, and it's almost time now - it's just a matter of hours before the dawn of the first business day of the year. I'm hoping it's the start of a new dawn for me as well. For you see, I transferred the fund from my bank account to the traveller's card a couple of days before New Year's. It takes two business days for the cash to get through to the traveller's card. And as the day dawns and the transactions start to flow, that longed for moment will arrive...

And I'll know how I'll feel.