Monday, February 20, 2012

The Year of Living Dormantly

Somehow, a year has gone by since I last wrote anything. A couple of days ago I asked myself how this could have happened. No answers came to mind - just a niggling feeling that I'd better do something before total atrophy set in. So, here you go, folks - I'm back, with a raft, or box, or kitty-litter tray, of new stories, observations, and stupidities, for your pleasure and edification.

Not that 'dormantly' is the most precise word, either - in the past twelve months I've been to Indonesia and Europe, had a few excursions into the Australian hinterland, worked a fair bit on my musical projects, assiduously driven the Titanium Princess to utter distraction, corrected not a few psycho-jeezoids on the interwebs, read Tia twenty thousand books, cleaned the pool, and vacuumed the carpet. So, before I receive nasty complaints involving the use of words such as 'sluggard', let me tell you that I've been busier than a one-armed taxi driver with crabs.

Now, where was I?

We (the T.P. and I) hit the tarmac of Dublin airport courtesy of Ryan Air, a company that believes it is sound policy to pay a penny to piss in its aircraft. Ha, I thought - what are vomit-bags really there for, anyway?

A few bus-stops later, we were ensconced in a shabby little hostel just down the road from St Stephen's Green. Central Dublin was just turning on its lights for the night, so we strolled up to Sheehan's Hotel, through the doors, up the stairs, and into the arms of twenty-odd people with whom I'd become great friends, but whom I had never seen in the flesh until this day.

It's a strange feeling. I'd 'known' all of these people for a couple of years - we were veterans of daily conversations about all sorts of matters: science, religion, atheism, culture, music, chickens - and I'd become accustomed to their 'voices' - the ones that formed in my head each time I read an erudite post from Sharon, or Steve, or Alexandra, or Dr Z, or Tyler, or Decius, or Philip, or Ashley, or Titania, or Jonathan, or Clod, or any of them. They'd become, for me, a digital family. But here they all were - sitting around at tables, big draughts of Guinness tumbling into the mouths of those who weren't currently declaiming strenuously (and into some who were doing both).

At our entrance, they all fell silent and turned to us. "G'day, you godless bastards", I cried, and twenty pairs of arms were hugging me. It was, I must say, one of the most astounding moments of my life. And we were all together in Dublin - let us not forget that. We were here for a conference; we were here to discuss important matters of the intellect; we were here to sort out, to rationalise, the New Atheist Agenda. We had conveniently forgotten that we were in the presence of a far greater intelligence: the mind of Guinness.

I awoke (to use the term loosely) the next morning with the blurry realisation that I was due to deliver a presentation on 'Language and Religious Metaphor' at the conference centre in about ten minutes. This was not good - I was in the upstairs portion of a double bunk, into which I had apparently climbed a couple of hours before, and from which I could see no immediate method of climbing down. I considered just jumping for it, but was unsure of the protocols of the Irish public health service. Then I noticed the T.P's gentle snoring coming from directly below.

'Chris...' I mumbled, trying to wake her so that she could take over the bunk-extraction procedure. It was to no avail - she'd consumed about thirty pints herself, and was somewhere between sweet dreams and a full-blown coma, by the look on her face.

Eventually, we made it to the conference centre, terribly late. Dr Z kindly offered to speak first, so that I could assemble what was left of my wits, and his erudite lecture on the 'landscape' of Evolution spurred me to pull my finger out, get it together, and say something vaguely intelligent. Somehow I waded through my presentation, and received rather enthusiastic applause and comments at its conclusion. These people, I thought, are either remarkably kind and generous, or they're hanging out to get to the pub for lunch. It was lunch.

After some tasty victuals and a couple more pints of ambrosia, we returned the the conference centre, where our resident cosmologist, Oystein, gave a fascinating account of the evolution of fourteen billion years of Universe in just under an hour. Jeebus, it made us all thirsty, though. We repaired to Sheehan's, again.

And that, dear reader, is the extent of our conferencing, unless you call wandering the streets of Dublin at all hours of the night, singing songs, laughing our heads off, telling each other our life stories, and becoming the real friends we always knew we'd become, a 'conference'. I think it became a far better conference than we'd ever planned. We took a trip to Newgrange, marvelling at the ancient mounds, intricate rock carvings, and the extraordinary solar observatory; we wined and dined at restaurants selected for us by our Dublin host Tyler (and they were all Italian, and all fantastic); we walked the grounds of Trinity College, where so many of the great Irish poets and dramatists and novelists had laboured; and we became friends for life.

It's not a bad way to spend a week, don't you agree?

We departed for Wales. We had an appointment with another man I'd never met. His name was Bendi. Sweet non-Jesus, how will I ever do literary justice to that encounter? But I'll try. Next time.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

"Shenanigans" is Irish for "What the fuck hit me?"

Dublin had always been to me a place of myth. I'd spent so many hours, no, years, poring over the great Irish novelists, poets and dramatists that the very idea of being there filled me with some foreboding - as if the reality would never match the imagining. Happily, I was wrong, but not for the reasons you may guess.

The Titanium Princess had been all agog in Brussels, which we'd not visited since we were kids in 1974, and I'd had hazy memories of the place (ok, I'd forgotten about it altogether). But Brussels was pretty cool; we stayed in a penzione just down an alley called the Rue Chair et Pain, a stone's throw from the famous square that housed the superbly elegant Grand Palace, the Museum van de Stad Bruxelle, and the Stadhuis van Bruxelle - all superb works of architectural and artistic genius.

But no - what took the T.P.'s fancy was the Musee du Cacao et du Chocolat, and I'm sure I don't have to translate that one even for American readers. Her Metal Majesty was high on hog heaven - she waltzed through the doors as if she were the number one shareholder in Belgian sweet-goods, and proceeded to expand by the minute as she tasted every single available offering. I must admit - Belgian chocolate is a pretty fine substance, and one which, I think, had it been dispensed freely to the Nazis and the Poms, might have prevented quite a few unfortunate fracas a few years back.

After taking photographs of Japanese tourists taking photographs of each other taking photographs of the Mannekin Pis and giggling and laughing, we jumped on a bus and headed out to the airport, where Ryan Air unceremoniously dumped us into the sky, went horizontally at a great rate of knots, and just as unceremoniously dumped us on the tarmac of Dublin Airport. (And that's just what Ryan Air does - talk about "no frills"; you even have to pay to vomit into their sick-bags!)

Well, I thought, as we trundled across the tarmac into Customs, after several weeks of hastily learning a number of languages including Turkish, Greek, Italian, German, Belgian and Alcoholic (ok, I was already fluent in the latter), here we are back in a land where everyone speaks English.

But what an English it is. I fancy that the Irish are the world's best users of our great and noble tongue - they have a way of making the most common conversational constructions appear as Shakespearian dramaturgy; if you ask for directions they will be offered with so many conditional subjunctives that you will forget where you were going in the first place. I was intrigued and bowled over by the friendly lunacy of Irish English. (As an example, when I breasted the bar in the Bleeding Horse Hotel one afternoon, the publican asked of my origins. I told him "Kurrajong, near Sydney". He whistled into his beard for a moment, scratching his nose, and replied "Well, now - that'd be a place, then, wouldn't it?")

There was a higher purpose to our arrival in Dublin. We were to meet up with about twenty friends of mine, none of whom I'd ever actually met face-to-face, but who had become good friends nevertheless via the magic interweb. We were all regular contributors to a well-known forum of atheists, rationalists, scientists, philosophers and other goodismists, and had been badgering away at each other for the past two or three years. A couple of the bright sparks, Titania and Decius (I'll use screen-names for these characters, considering the revelations that are about to unfold, haha), ended up planning a meet-up in Dublin about a year previously, and it turned out to coincide with the Laurie/T.P. Grand Tour. The stage was set.

The T.P. had organised our digs in another one of those youth hostels, which turned out to be not so bad, because it was within easy walking, stumbling or crawling distance from about thirty different pubs. (Have you ever crawled on cobblestones? It's a life-changing experience, let me assure you.) We tossed our bags on our bunks. (I got the top one, and dimly surveyed the kind of drunken calisthenics I'd be using to get up on it in about twelve hours' time. The prospect wasn't pretty.) A quick shower and change later, and we were walking towards Sheehan's Hotel, and a date with doom, or Oromasdes, as he's better-known... be continued

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Don't mention the war.

We pulled into Prague on the day Michael Jackson went to live with Elvis. I haven't got much to say about this fascinating city, except that a) its drivers are horrendous, incompetent fools who obey road rules to the letter; b) don't go there in June or July, because you'll be drowned in tourists and high prices; c) the museum is great, and even has a mammoth, and d) it has the best thunderstorms.

So, after a couple of days, we boarded another train for Berlin. The Titanium one had gone troppo in Prague, and was kitted out with a most magnificent range of fabrics and those fiddly things women like to acquire to adorn their ears, necks, wrists and the like - all silver and crystalline chunks of ultra-compressed carbon. I bought another hat.

The train journey, which wound its way along the Vlatava River (which, when it reaches Germany, mysteriously becomes the Elbe), was a delight. It took all day, but it was one of those trips that never becomes a burden. The scenery changed around almost every bend in the river, taking us past farms, through forests, and, at one point, between Teplice and Decin, along a grand gorge with towering, incandescent sandstone cliffs that were eerily similar to the Hawkesbury sandstone of the Colo valley where I live. It was magnificent, and reminded me that the best part of travelling is the travel itself. Just as when I was a twelve year-old train enthusiast, hopping on and off trains all over New South Wales, this trip was enchanting; every turn of the track revealed something new and wonderful, and often enigmatic.

Like this: we were coming into Germany, and, in a field by the railway line, was a post and wire fence that was about two feet tall. It went for kilometres. I was intrigued - what the fuck was its purpose? Was it keeping hordes of feuding dwarves at bay? To this day, I have no idea. It seemed completely useless, but for some German farmer, it was an integral part of the infrastructure, as it was obviously well-maintained (like everything else in Germany, of course). I don't know - I suppose one of the German readers of this blog will enlighten me eventually (although there are probably several dozen fewer of them now than there were a few weeks ago. Don't worry guys - wait 'til I start telling you about England - you'll realise I'm an equal-opportunity curmudgeon, for sure!)

We stopped briefly in Dresden, scene of the British and American Air Forces' own Holocaust in WWII. Of course, Dresden has been rebuilt, but there were several monuments to the carnage left as they were, as a reminder to all and sundry that war is just about the stupidest project on earth. Interestingly, Churchill's rationale for the fire-bombing of the city was that they were trying to wipe out the railway marshalling yard. And they certainly succeeded in that. There was just the small matter of the 100,000 to 200,000 civilians whose barbecued remains ended up as collateral damage. Nice one, Winston.

With this grim reminder of humanity's utter collective insanity under our belts, we moved on, through spindly forests of ash, or elm, or some other types of trees at which, as an Antipodean, I was at a loss to identify, until we arrived at the most exquisitely-designed railway station I've ever seen - the Hauptbahnhof of central Berlin.

Opened in 2006, the Hauptbahnhof is a magisterial comportment of steel and glass. Its architectural beauty lies in its transparency - from almost anywhere inside the structure, one can look at all of the platforms, and all of the tracks, on multi-levels connected by vast escalators; it is almost as if the station floats in its own sea of glass. It said, more plainly than anything else, welcome to Berlin, welcome to modernity.

A bus whisked us efficiently and promptly to the Berlin Youth Hostel, only a mile or so from the city centre. Distinct from the YHA residences of Turkey and Greece, the Berlin outfit was all simplicity and (here comes that word again) efficiency. We were in our room in three minutes flat, had a shower (no enormous cockroaches evident), and were back out onto the street to hunt for victuals in no time at all. A blazing curry later, we sauntered back to the hostel and sat on the lawn, me demolishing a six-pack, and the T.P. fending off invitations from Adonisian young men to cast a critical eye over the robust collection of etchings they were hoarding in their rooms. (Just kidding - only one such Adonis made that sort of approach, and when I cast a quizzical eye at him he pretty quickly realised, from the gaunt visage of your correspondent's face, that an assignation with the T.P. might be biting off a fair bit more than he could chew, so to speak. Mind you, as an aficionado of all things comical, I would have paid good money to witness such an encounter.)

The next morning we took a walking tour of the city. There is still a neat divide between East and West Berlin, and it reflects the post-war priorities (and ideologies, if you want to get all politically historical) of the British-American and Soviet blocs. On the East, the Soviets preserved and maintained as many of the pre-existing structures as they could. And so, you walk along the great boulevard and see row upon row, block upon block, of 18th and 19th century apartments, shops, and, down further, palaces, museums and state buildings. It is simply wonderful. On the western side, however, vast spaces devoid of anything, with interspersed 'modern' buildings, testify to the Allies' penchant for knocking down anything that was vaguely damaged in the bombing. Vast edifices, legacies of the 1960s, ugly as only that period of architecture can be, confronted and appalled us at every turn. We headed back east, to the museum district.

The Pergamon Museum, built to house the collection of ancient relics pilfered from the famous Greek city in Turkey (to which we'd paid a visit just a couple of weeks before) stood, like a Parthenon, amidst the crumbling walls and buildings of East Berlin. The street on which the Pergamon stands was the scene of some of the heaviest fighting as the Soviets forced their way into Berlin at the end of WWII, and the legacy of that fire-fight is stark, brutal and disturbing. Shell and bullet-holes cover the walls of buildings; even the Pergamon itself didn't go unscathed, with great, gouging holes blown in the fluted marble columns. I earnestly hoped, as I wandered along the street, that these would never be lost, never be cosmeticised, because they too, like Dachau, like Dresden, were a reminder of the ferocity of war. If stone, brick and concrete could be so scarred, and so massively, what was happening to the bodies of boys and young men?

Back at the hostel, young men and women gambolled on the spacious lawns. A bunch of boys, fifteen or sixteen years old, dressed in bomber jackets and jauntily-angled baseball caps, effected a swaggering sort of pimp-roll past us, speaking in German. These kids were attempting to fast-track cultural evolution. I half expected them to turn black and begin saying "Yo" before my eyes. Of course, I've seen the same thing in Sydney - it was just a trifle more amusing to see Coca-Colonisation proceeding in German. Ce'st la vie, as they say in !Xhosa.

The next day, on the Potsdamer Platz, I approached a German military officer who had a little table set up next to a big, heavily-graffitied chunk of the Berlin Wall. He was offering, for one Euro, to stamp passports with a variety of Cold War-era permission stamps. I happily found Checkpoint Charlie and a couple of other such paraphernalia embossed inside my passport. He told me that there was a movement going on to reclaim as much of the Wall as could be done, and his little effort was helping to raise money for the project. "So, where is most of the Wall now?" I asked.

"In people's lounge-rooms," he replied straight-faced.

We continued perambulating down Unter den Linden, to the Berlin Cathedral - another fine example of the temporal largesse that can come from convincing people of the efficacy of howling at an empty sky - and, on that sunny June day, lay on the grass beside the fountain on Museum Island, admiring, once again, the class of Europeans generally when it comes to the realisation of space in their cities.

But now it was time to go to Hamburg, where we had a date with destiny in the form of two outrageous Americans and a week of debauchery. Liver, don't fail me now...

Monday, April 26, 2010


Sadly, we took our leave of Narelle, and Munich, boarding a train bound for Prague. The plan was to take a detour into the Czech Republic, then emerge back into the old East Germany and head for Berlin. During the week in Munich we'd travelled to Salzburg, Wurzburg, and many a burg in between, relishing the efficiency of a couple of countries built on standards that would have been frankly impossible in a shambolic and oh-so laid-back country like Australia.

Every country has its good and bad points, of course - and often, these are evidenced on both sides of the same coin. Germany and Austria are paragons of public organisation and efficiency, for example - Mussolini didn't have much luck in Italy, by all accounts, but here, the trains really did run on time. These countries parade this neat-as-a-pin efficiency as a matter of course, most noticeably in their public transport systems, for sure, but in many more, and subtler, ways as well. I was forever taken with the no-nonsense attitude of the locals, especially when dealing with shopkeepers, policepersons, or any other official. Almost always, one's question was answered with a prefacing raise of the eyebrows and a slight moue, as if the answer simply didn't require the articulated "Of course, you oaf - vot do you think we are, here, barbarians?" There was a genuine pride in Germanic entrepreneurial efficiency, as if 'efficiency' was paradigmatic to any concept of both the ethical and aesthetic heights of culture. It was entrancing. Getting around the place was never a problem; the people were always happy to point one in the right direction, or offer good advice on food (, on second thoughts...), places to see, ways to do things.

Of course, there is another side. On a sunny Sunday morning, with no-one about (the Bavarians don't go out on Sunday unless it's to a relative's place for lunch), I went for a bit of a stroll. The roads were eerily vacant, and, j-walking across an intersection, I came across an old woman walking one of those sorts of dogs - tiny, yappy, fluffy and pompadoured - that really deserve to be picked up by the hind legs and dashed against the nearest brick wall. She stopped as I came to her side of the kerb, lifted a finger, and shook it vigorously at me. "Nicht in ordnung, nicht in ordnung!" she vituperated, busily clutching her tiny demon-hound to her ample bosom with the other hand. Nonplussed, I asked her what was the matter. She gesticulated wildly, tracing my path across the intersection with a finger, whilst jabbering away at me in German (naturally). I suddenly realised that I'd committed a grave offence, the worst one a bloke can commit in all of Deutschland - be different.

It dawned on me that the reason that Germany was a place resplendent in its efficiency was that everyone does the same things the same way. All those manicured wood-piles swept back into view, all of those pretty villages, docile farm-wives, cooking their pastries, all those people lining up so civilly to board the U-Bahn - to be well-ordered in Germany is the pinnacle of ideology. Forget the old Ubermensch bullshit - the only reason Hitler got to where he did was that the Germans are enthralled by the social purity of the concept of following orders. Heterodoxy is a sin; to be laid-back is as bad a crime as not washing for a month. I began to wonder what all of those post-war German immigrants to Australia must have thought when they got off the ship and saw thousands of Aussies deliberately not giving a fuck.

We trundled through several impeccably tidy towns - Dingolfing, Plattling, Deggendorf - and suddenly we were in the Czech Republic. Not that any sign announced it as such, but the first place we pulled into, Zelesna Ruda, was definitely un - German! The train heaved to a stop, and became, instantaneously, a Czech train. Instantly, the floor was littered with empty soda cans and beer bottles, scraps of paper and cigarette butts. And that was only my contribution! Outside, the rusting hulks of old boilers and other machinery littered the countryside; weeds grew with gay abandon, and everything looked tired and run-down. Ah, I thought - back to reality!

The train jalopied through a mixture of tumbledown villages, open country and pretty forests, then suddenly and noisily, came to a creaking halt in a city called Pilzn. Could it be, I thought? I jumped out of the carriage, onto the platform, and, Pope-like, got on my hands and knees, extended my posterior heavenwards, and kissed the earth. I felt like one of those diaspora Jews returning to Jerusalem for the first time, except that in my case the object of the pilgrimage was decidedly more gustatorial: beer! Fate, as she had done to me a few times recently, had delivered me to the shrine, the Mecca, of drinkers - the origin of the greatest of all styles of amber refreshment. Oh happy day! This was really beginning to be a journey of which one could be proud.

I resumed my seat on the train next to the Titanium Princess, who simply shrugged and gave me one of those acute, withering looks that said (and may I remind you that I can read the leader of the opposition like the doyen of Pitman's Shorthand): You simpering, gormless, feeble-minded halfwit. A divorce court is too good a place for you.

I was, however, in such a state of euphoria that I simply cracked open a can of Pilsener Urquelle and said "There you go, my darling - I knew this trip would take a turn for the better!"

We rolled on, towards Prague.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


The train came thundering through the Brenner pass as a weak sun rose under low cloud, and there was Austria all around us. Italy and its discontents were already a fading memory as we descended the mountain, through little towns, two of which were named, strangely, 'Mutters' and 'Natters'. Already the concept of civilisation had taken a curious turn, with each village obviously vying for 'Tidy Town of the World' status. It became rapidly obvious that in these rural villages, anal retention was not so much a psychiatric obsession as it was a religion. 

Each little neat-as-a-pin farmhouse had a woodpile. And oh, what a majestic piece of architecture it was. Each stick of wood had been lopped to within a tolerance of half a millimetre for length, and split at a perfect one hundred and twenty degrees, then stacked with a precision that defied imagination, and common-sense, for that matter. For fuck's sake, they were just going to burn the stuff, after all. Everything was clean, there was literally not a skerrick of rubbish - not a bottle-top, not a plastic bag, not even a cigarette butt to be seen. Coming from Italy, this was some contrast, and it induced in me a worrying mixture of deep aesthetic gratitude and a rising panic that I'd suddenly been transported to some Midwich-like otherworld. I fully expected to see Nicole Kidman look-alikes with Mary Tyler Moore hairstyles and cotton pinafores carrying trays of pastries to each others' houses. It was all magnificently surreal.

Even the natural landscape looked like it had been manicuring itself for centuries. Perfect stands of conifers gave way to fields of mown meadow; snow around the conical summits of mountains glimmered with a praeternatural light; bubbling and hissing streams of pure water cut lyrical swathes through a countryside that was familiar with every shade of meaning of the word 'green'. Verily, this was an elysian dream.

Gradually, I regained the use of plain English as we descended into Innsbruck, then headed on through pretty valleys until we passed, unnoticeably, into Germany, where we finally arrived at the busy terminus in Munich.

We were having a week off, just hanging out at Narelle's apartment and taking in the sights and sounds of Munich and its environs. I was dead keen to do some serious, Australian investigation into the entire range of Bavarian liquid refreshments, and I must say that I did a pretty good job of exhausting the possibilities - so much so that by the end of the week I had become, I think, the premier ameliorator of the global financial crisis, Munich chapter. The Titanium Princess, of course, continued to be unamused by our rapidly deteriorating bag of shekels, and informed me so as I lurched blearily back into the apartment each night after another days' sociological endeavours.

'I hope your liver explodes, you idiot,' she would lovingly coo, as I ripped the top off a nightcap of a particularly dark and handsome variety of the local wheat beer. One doesn't have to actually eat anything whilst sojourning in Bavaria, I found out, as the entire gamut of food groups seems to be contained within each bottle or stein of Weizen, Bock, Doppelbock (and boy, can a bloke get misty-eyed on that little product!) or even Helles.

And it's a good thing, too, because what the Bavarians actually eat can inspire nightmares just by looking at it, so what kind of nocturnal torment a bloke would endure if he accidently swallowed some of it, Christ only knows. Dear reader, have you ever even looked at a plate of udder tripe? I rest my case.

On the fourth day in Munich, I decided to ease up on the old body, which had started to disintegrate under the onslaught, and spend the day being cultured. The girls had bravely decided to visit Dachau and its horrors, whereas I was intent on walking my way through the Alte Pinakothek, Munich's illustrious museum of art.

The Alte is one of three museums of art (the other two being the Neue, and the Moderne), and contains one of the best collections of Mediaeval and Renaissance art in the world. I walked towards it via the Konigsplatz, the seat of Nazi power during the '30s, wondering how the girls were faring, and thinking about the dissonance between the grand opulence of the Reich's houses of power and the charnel houses they were walking through only a few miles to the north.

The Alte is a magnificent building, constructed in 1836, and an exemplar for modern galleries all over the world. It was rebuilt in the 1950s, along with eighty percent of the rest of Munich, all bombed to rubble. For the princely sum of one Euro I gained entry through vast timber doors, and began a day of saying "Ooh" and "Ahh", and "Fuck me dead!" about every ten seconds.

The museum is home to the old masters - German, Flemish, Italian, French and Spanish masterpieces assail the viewer at every turn. I was captivated, more than anything, by the iconography of the early Germans and Flemish. The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian by Hans Holbein caught my eye. Here is poor old Sebastian, strung up to a tree, with various archers taking cross-bow pot shots at him from point-blank range. He's beginning to resemble a porcupine, and is decidedly green around the gills, as you would expect. One of the archers is on one knee, casually slipping another bolt in his bow. The whole affair is being conducted in a no-nonsense style as if whacking arrows into a martyr's body is just another day's work for the executioners. It's a tantalising painting - and gruesome in its mundanity.

Lucas Cranarch, with whom I was unfamiliar before this visit, was a wonderful painter of the sixteenth century. His Adam und Eva is a colossal piss-take on the whole Garden of Eden thing, if you ask me - complete with a serpent with a smile like a used-car salesman. Lions and deer gambol peacefully around the tree, and Adam and his missus, rather than eat a fairly delicious-looking apple, look like they're about to drop acid for the first time.

I was still chuckling when I walked through a doorway into the hall of Reubens, and had to gently lower myself to the ground before I passed out in delirium. Here was a cornucopia of delight, bliss, fear, and horror; a compendium of every extremity of human emotion. Lined against each other on the walls were paintings of sheer intensity, colour, vibrancy, and masterly technique. I was winded, I was fucked.

To give just one example, let me quote verbatim from the notes I wrote on that day as I stood before Der Bethlehemitische Kindermord, a painting describing the Herodic infanticide:

The Roman soldiers murdering babies. On the right, a woman is biting the arm of a soldier whose bloody dagger is poised over her back. Their faces ooze brutality. Another woman scratches at the face of a soldier, who is holding a baby being stabbed through the heart. The angels watch from above and throw flowers!! A woman, right, clutches a dagger above her infant, as if she is resigned to ending its life as humanely as possible. Blood is dripping from her hand.  Throughout, human flesh is being sliced to the bone. I wonder what Reubens was thinking? Is it a moral lesson, or is it journalism?

As I walked back to the apartment, I wondered whether the T.P.'s excursion had not, perhaps, been so dissimilar to mine. All that horror, centuries piled upon centuries of it.

I opened the door. Chris and Narelle were sitting on the lounge, and both of them were crying.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

"Remember Montaperti!" (Part 2)

A couple of days later the three of us got on a bus and trundled through the Tuscan countryside to San Gimignano, a smaller version of Siena - another mediaevel fortress city perched on a hill. San Gim is famous for half a dozen or so square towers that poke out of various of its buildings without any rational explanation. It's like the builders just said 'Hey, Tony, we've got nothing on today, let's build a fuckin' tower on top of, er, that joint over there.' Whatever the case, they're pretty impressive, as is the entire city.

We walked through its ancient gates, and a wide, straight boulevarde climbed up and up the hill, lined with shops and markets, all adorned with flags and inexplicable figurines and knick-knacks. It was glorious and vibrant, and hundreds of people were walking along, everyone (including me) with the most delicious gelato in the world stuffed in their mouths.

I jumped into an internet cafe and hooked up with a few friends around the world, just in the interests of gloating, of course, while the girls haunted frock shops and the like. We re-assembled in the main square an hour or so later, where it seemed the annual festival of the pig was going on. Whole hoggies were roasting on several spits, and for the princely sum of two Euros I was handed an enormous, crusty bread-roll filled with the most succulent meat I've ever tasted. It was heaven on a stick, and without any guilt at all I went back for seconds. 

San Gim is a really pretty spot, and as we walked along the twisting, steep slopes of the Via Santo Stefano, I had the uncanny feeling of walking in the footsteps of romance personified. It was romantic; it was a place in which to love, and fall in love. It spoke of the history, and the ghosts, of lovers, this place, and I was calmly content. I like it when a new place brings old, close, and comfortable feelings to the surface. It's happened a few times before, but this felt special, and I was content. Ok, you can stop laughing now, but I was in love with the whole thing.

Fortunately, the T.P. brought me back to earth, complaining that I had once again got us horribly lost, and we had to get back on the bus by 3.45, so could I please get my head out of the clouds and concentrate on finding civilization again? We made it back to the bus depot in time, and I dozed away the return to Siena thinking happy thoughts. 

Finally, it was time to leave Siena. We had a day in Florence booked, and I was keen to get there, because all of my life I have wanted to see Michelangelo's David in the flesh, and Florence is where he lives.

Florence is a city without parallel - it is unfathomably eclectic, with a prepossessing mixture of all of the elements that make a city alluring. Picture this: Florence's vast, opulent and somewhat spooky Duomo sits comfortably amid a bustling, modern raft of tack. Shitty tourist restaurants and gift shops crowd it on all sides, forcing the traveller to think of this, the second-greatest Catholic cathedral in the world, as nothing but an attractor of filthy lucre. Which, when you think about the ultimate raison d'etre of Catholicism, strikes not one note of discord.

The Duomo itself simply reeks of exploitation and repression. I don't know why, but all of the great cathedrals of Europe I visited had exactly the same effect on me. Of course, I am awed by their majesty, their opulence, their mystery and their intricacy. There is no doubt that they display craftsmanship that is the pinnacle of architectural art. But, within their walls, is an ugliness which is inescapable. In Siena, for instance, exquisite sculptures by the world's greatest, Bernini, are overlooked by a parade of busts of one hundred and thirty popes, sternly overseeing the gullibility of worshipping peasants. The entire atmosphere in these houses of blood is the atmosphere of a psychological repression that left me in no doubt as to the origins of Fascism. We got out quickly - David was waiting.

We sauntered down from the Duomo to the Galleria dell'Academia, where David had been enthralling people for centuries. And, for fuck's sake-  it was closed! 'Pissed off' is not the term to describe my mood at that moment. I'd travelled half-way around the world, only to find that the Florentine Pogens had decided, for some inexplicable (but probably Catholic) reason, to close the gallery on Mondays. As I howled in rage and disbelief, banging my fists on the doors, the T.P. tried to comfort me, saying 'Stop whingeing, you idiot. You're attracting odd looks from the passers-by.' She's so understanding, my wife.

We made our way, me shrieking at the stupidity of all things Italian, to the Piazza della Signoria, where David's replica stood, amongst other gems of Renaissance sculpture. Somewhat calmed, my spirits began to rise. Here were sculptures by Ammannati, Donatello, Bandinelli, and the exquisite Rape of the Sabine Women by Giambologna. The whole place, overlooked by the fabulous Palazzo Vecchio, Florence's famous city hall, was wondrous. This was Italy, this was culture, for real.

It was time to go to Germany. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"Remember Montaperti!" (Part 1)

We got out of Venice after a few days, and by then my pessimism about the place had evaporated somewhat, after being treated to a night at the opera and some wonderful, simply magnificent museums of art. (I'm still not keen on its cops, though.)

The T.P. was excited to be on our way to Siena to meet her sister Narelle, whom she hadn't seen for a couple of years. Narelle is a dramatic soprano who lives in Germany and can sing a bit (not really - there is still some dispute in the family over whether it was she who shattered every bit of glassware in her parents' house at the age of thirteen.... or whether it was her mother hahaha - sorry, mother-in-law in-joke).

From Florence, we boarded a rattle-trap old train that reminded me of the state of the art of the Australian rail system (in Germany a couple of weeks later I had cause to wonder at the stupidity, carelessness and sheer blundering incompetence of our political masters down under, as I rode in a sumptuous express at 250 kilometres per hour, whisper quiet and vibration-free), and pulled into Siena a couple of hours later. We walked through the gates of the old city, high on the hill, and my jaw hit the ground.

Anything one can say about Siena is an understatement. It is grand, on a scale of grandness that 
invites comparisons to other cities in the same way you might compare the intellects of Richard Dawkins and Kent Hovind. It is architecture on acid - three- and four-story stone buildings of exquisite design crowd narrow, zig-zagging cobbled streets. Gigantic, elaborate timber doors open onto dim courtyards, where water can be heard trickling into sculpted ponds. These are the residences built from about the eleventh century onwards - the houses of the nobles, and it seems that almost every citizen of Siena in those times must have been a noble, because there is virtually not one house that is not ravishing in its grandiosity and architectural brilliance.

Our room at the penzione was on the fourth floor. As usual, I dragged two heavily-laden packs - realising, at last, that the T.P.'s shopping exploits in Venice had been designed with one sole purpose: to induce a giant myocardial infarction in me - up a ridiculously narrow staircase, alighting on the top landing to see Narelle and my assassin in a cheery embrace. I hugged Narelle - it had been about fifteen years since I'd seen her - and collapsed on a lounge demanding beer, pronto. There was none.

Like every other place in Siena, our quarters were - literally - a work of art. Frescoes of saints and angels adorned the bedroom ceilings, and the shutters opened onto a panorama of utter gorgeousness. I dived into a shower recess built by a sadistic midget, and with many contortions managed to wash off the accumulated sweat from our ten-mile hike up the mountain weighed down with the contents of the Venetian Treasury.

Narelle, who was familiar with Siena, and who also speaks a fairly good brand of Italian, was the perfect guide. We wandered down the street, around a few corners, and my jaw, which was still flapping noisily against my chest, shot arrow-like to the street. We had reached the Piazza del Campo.

If there is a better-realised city square in the world I want to see it now. The Campo is as splendid an urban space as you could wish for, and to think it was pretty-much complete by the thirteenth century. Paved in red brick, its seashell shape is dominated by the Torre del Mangia, a tower that reaches majestically to the sky. Great mansions circumnavigate this vast, open and airy space. Hundreds of people were just sitting around it, at tables outside the myriad of restaurants at street level, or just plonked on the brick paving itself, eating gelati or pizza and drinking wine and beer. It was coming on evening, and the deepening sky contrasted with the reds and creams of the buildings in a sight I won't forget in a hurry. It was spectacular (and that's just another understatement.)

We ate pizza and drank beer, and I suddenly realised that the square, although populated by plenty of tourists, was also the haunt of the locals themselves. And why wouldn't you come here of an evening if you lived in town? It was cool and inviting - everything you needed was within thirty seconds' walk, and the sights and sounds of musicians playing, dancers twirling, and people just generally having a pleasant time made you want to stay well into the night. I'm not a city person, but I could live here, I thought. be continued