Thursday, August 3, 2017

Hello There!

Thanks for dropping in to my page; 'tis nice of you to visit :-)

Hmmm ... where to start? Let's see. I'm guessing that, like most people who arrive here, you already know me in one way or another. So I'll skip the usual autobiographical stuff, and tell you why this page exists. Basically, Ranting Manor is a partial record of my thoughts and adventures over the past twelve years, as promised to various people before I left Australia in 2005 to spend a year teaching English in Russia. That move abroad turned out to be just the first step in a much longer journey, and hence 'The Manor' has survived ... and grown far beyond its originally intended size.

There are some travel stories here, a bit of classroom-related stuff, and other random thoughts about the odd corners of the world I've ended up in at various times.

Btw, regarding my present whereabouts: I'm currently in Bangkok, enduring the heat and enjoying a bit of Pad Thai on my way to Australia. So by all means read on if ... well, if that sounds like it might be worth reading about :-)

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Save The Little Traffic Light Man!

Hallo :-)

While I've got some time on my hands, let me tell you why I snapped this ordinary-looking photograph two days ago in Dresden, and why it makes me happy.

'Ampelmännchen' pedestrian signal 
 Pragerstraße, Dresden, 6.07.17

As you probably know, a few years after WWII Germany was divided into two separate states: the western, capitalist FRD, and the eastern, socialist DDR (often called the GDR in English). This division persisted for 41 years, between 1949 and 1990. 

From the point of view of civic infrastructure, 41 years is quite a long time  I mean, just think about how different the main street of your home town looked in 1976, compared to its appearance today. So obviously the two Germanies each went down their separate infrastructural paths, and they came to look quite different at street-level. 

A case in point: in the 1950s, the world got its first 'little green men' and 'little red men' at traffic intersections, telling pedestrians when it was safe to cross. The idea spread quickly, and before long, both Germanies had installed their own little traffic light men. But they weren't the same by any means. 

In the DDR, a unique* version of the stop and go men appeared. Compared to the standard versions, which were not much more than stick figures, the East German traffic light men were robust-looking and slightly cartoonish, sporting rakish wide-brimmed hats, and with visible hands and noses. Their creator, a guy called Karl Peglau, added these touches because he thought that having an 'emotional connection' to the Ampelmännchen (German for "little traffic light men") would encourage pedestrians to follow their recommendations about when to cross the road and when to wait**

Peglau nervously presented his sketches to the East German authorities, thinking his proposal would be rejected for its quirkiness. Luckily, he had no need to be nervous  the government of the DDR happily accepted the proposal, requesting just one alteration. The little green man was originally drawn facing right; they insisted that Peglau flip him around so that he was walking towards the left. This, they felt, would make him a more appropriate symbol for a socialist republic. 

The Ampelmännchen were pressed into service in the early 1960s, and they soon became part of the cultural furniture; one of those little, often inconsequential things that help to provide people with a sense of place and identity. They turned up as characters in children's books, on radio, in road safety cartoons and even in games. Although to be to honest, I suspect that many East Germans didn't realise just how much they loved their Ampelmännchen ... until, all of a sudden, they were threatened with extinction. 

This leads us back, briefly, to more momentous historical events.

In 1990, the two Germanies re-unified, and people all over the new Bundesrepublik Deutschland took to the streets in a mass celebration for which history supplies few parallels. The images of street parties were beamed all over the world (I remember watching them, wide-eyed, as a teenager in Australia). But at some point, the party had to end ... and then, some harsh realities would have to be faced. 

Western Germany had become a financial powerhouse; the wirtschaftswunder ("economic miracle") of the 1950s had propelled it forward at a great rate, making it one of the world's most developed countries. Meanwhile, the DDR had spent four decades suffering from similar brands of governmental incompetence, indifference and corruption to those which still prevail today in several eastern European countries and in most former Soviet states. The result, natürlich, was an ever-widening discrepancy in living standards between the two Germanies. 

After re-unification, it was decided that this gap had to be bridged, and the way to do it was by massively investing in the East. 

The government diverted trillions of Euros into this project (not without controversy, of course), and eastern cities and towns started receiving badly-needed infrastructural makeovers, funded largely by the wealthy western states of the Bundesrepublik

Obviously this was a good thing in many ways, but not in every way. The DDR had largely been a disaster, but even disastrous states produce some things that are worth saving. One of those things, in this case, was the Ampelmännchen. As moves were made throughout the 1990s to standardise traffic signals around Germany, it became clear that he would soon be gone. But many people in the former DDR just couldn't bear to see that happen ... and so a grass roots movement was born.

The only coffee mug
you'll ever see on this blog    
Now we need to move forward slightly to the year 2000, when the Schmolympic Games came to Sydney. My partner and I had decided that the only natural, sane reaction to this frightening eventuality was to get the hell out of town for as long as possible. We therefore went on holiday to Germany and Scandinavia for three months, and we spent a good portion of that time in what had previously been the DDR.

This was how I first became aware of the traffic light men. When we arrived in Berlin, the campaign known by then as Rettet die Ampelmännchen ("Save the little traffic light men") was in full swing. The iconic green and red figures were everywhere: on bookmarks, t-shirts, baseball caps, coffee mugs, plates, postcards, deck chairs, fridge magnets, footballs – basically anything that you could print an image on.  

Once you'd noticed this (and it was impossible not to), getting a souvenir Ampelmännchen seemed as important as getting a piece of the Berlin Wall. 

In fact, it was probably even more important. At that time, every souvenir shop in the city had little chunks of The Wall for sale, but it was widely rumoured that nearly all of them were fake. Genuine fragments had long since disappeared (went the rumour), so what you were buying was just a bit of broken-up concrete slab from a random building sitegraffitied on two surfaces to look authentic. 

The Ampelmännchen products, on the other hand, were real artefacts of an episode of 'micro history' in the making.

I got a mug and a bookmark, and treasured both of them.

(Full disclosure: I eventually bought a chunk of faux wall too. Real or not, it proved hard to resist. I gave it to my dad, who hopefully still has it.)

When we came back to Australia, I was full of concern for eastern Germany's traffic light men. But you know, life moves on, and you forget about things. So I never actually found out how the Rettet die Ampelmännchen campaign ended. 

Since 2000 I've been back to Germany several times, but apart from one super-brief visit to the border town of Görlitz in 2012, I hadn't set foot in any areas that used to be part of the DDR

In other words, until I saw the Ampelmännchen in the photo above, I didn't actually know whether his kind still existed or not.  

And that's why the photo makes me so very, very happy. 

Simple, really :-)

Btw, with just a little bit of researchiness, I found out the campaign was in fact overwhelmingly successful. Not only did the Ampelmännchen stay in the cities where they were originally; even a few west German cities requested to have their stick figures swapped out for hat-wearing, prominent-nosed DDR traffic light men.

To me, all of this is extremely heartening, for a couple of reasons. In a world where you continually find examples of governments doing things against the wishes of real people, and said people being ridiculed, overruled or silenced in various ways when they try to point out what they actually want, it's nice to see a counter-example once in a while. The Ampelmännchen are exactly that; not a huge and life-changing victory for the people, true, but not an entirely insignificant one either. 

Secondly, although there aren't too many good things you can really say about the DDR, I love the fact that a few niceties have been retained. 

A Trabi on holiday in Poland 
Swinjouscie, Poland, 10.07.16

There are the trabis, for instance  cute, boxy little cars that remain a 'cult phenomenon' and may soon be re-born as fully electric, eco-friendly vehicles. There are also beloved and formerly state-manufactured consumables like Rotkäppchen (Red Riding Hood) sparkling wine and Spreewald pickles (the latter made famous in the brilliant and heart-breaking 2003 movie Goodbye, Lenin!). In the years immediately following re-unification, these things got throttled in the marketplace. But since then, they've staged dramatic comebacks, and are now firmly established in present-day capitalist Germany. And to this list, we can add the little Ampelmännchen – the babies that were saved just in time, as the bathwater was being drained out of the DDR. 

So there you go. That's my rant about the Little Traffic Light Men. I hope you enjoyed :-) 

I'll get back to my usual "Hmmm, that was an amusingly weird/ embarrassing/regrettable thing that happened during my holiday" shtick very soon.


(* I use the word "unique" here to mean "different to anything else", but certainly not to imply that there are no other interesting or quirky traffic signals around the world. Just one example from Europe: the Danish garrison town of Fredericia, where all the traffic light men are soldiers, some male and some female. And I'm sure there are many other examples. If you know of any, please share below; I'd love to hear about them!)

(** An interesting aside: 21st Century research has shown that Peglau was onto something here. Apparently, in a study, German pedestrians instinctively responded to the Ampelmännchen far more quickly than they did to the western stick figure.)

Der Tangentenmeister

So let's start with Dresden. 

I have to warn you that I’m a lifelong Germanophile who finds pretty much everything connected to this country interesting. So be prepared for some tangents.

To start with, I almost didn’t get here at all. Polish Rail and its regional partner in Silesia did their usual trick of finding inventive new ways to suck*. From Katowice to Wrocław (three hours) I had to stand in the vestibule and move my bicycle every time someone wanted to use the WC, because they’d sold me a bicycle ticket on a train with no actual space for cycles. But that was dealable with … far worse things can happen on Polish trains.

The truth of this was driven home when I got to Wrocław and tried to board my onward train to Dresden (the final departure of the day). See, I'd assumed that having a ticket meant that I’d actually be able to get on the train when it came.

Silly, naive foreigner.

I arrived on the platform about 10 minutes early, but dying to use the bathroom. Noticing the train was one of those very small regional thingies, I asked the driver (who was hanging out of his window) “Czy jest toaleta w pociągu?”** – ‘Is there a toilet on the train?’. He said “Nie”, which you can probably guess means “No”.

I raced down the platform stairs with my bicycle, and rode it through the tunnel into the main hall. Found the toilets, paid, used them (or at least one of them), and raced back to the platform with two minutes to spare. It was all good; I'd made it.

I then tried to board the train, but when the doors opened, it was packed – there was no space for me or the bicycle. The conductor, who was standing there next to the doors, simply said “Mesta nema” (‘There’s no space’) and shrugged his shoulders, smirking slightly.

Amazing Reconstruction 
(including some still in progress)
Schlossplatz, Dresden, 6.07.17

Feeling desperate, I tried to argue by pointing out that I had a ticket. But my elementary Polish failed me, and the conductor clearly saw no merit in my reasoning. So I said “Maybe there”, pointing to the other carriage. I ran to it and the doors opened to reveal another sea of people, only slightly less dense than the first.

Then something slightly wondrous happened: the sea parted, as all the passengers who were already sardined into the vestibule did their best to make room for an incoming person with a bicycle. They managed somehow, and I slipped into the carriage, thanking everyone profusely.

The next 90 minutes were spent gripping the bicycle brakes, trying not to let the front wheel either roll over the foot of the Mormon missionary standing in front of me, or go slack and lean on the trouser leg of the heavily tattooed Polish guy immediately to my left.

Two hours later, when the train emptied out near the German border, I headed up to the front carriage. (Unlike the one I’d been in, it had a bicycle symbol on the outside, indicating there were places for bikes there.) On the way through the train I passed the toilet – you know, the one which the driver had said didn't exist, thus setting in motion the whole drama I've just described.

Kudos, Polish railways. If your mission statement is “To supply a functionally infinite number of unpleasant surprises to passengers, then Mission Statement Accomplished.

Anyway … I arrived in Dresden around 10pm, and as I walked along the platform towards the station building, I felt a sudden rush. It’d been five years since I last set foot inside Germany (one of my favourite countries), and even longer since I’d properly visited. Now here I was, after a two-day journey, breaking the absence. This was genuinely exciting :-)

There was also the added intrigue of finding out how much German I could actually remember. I studied the language at both high school and university, but I’ve really had no call to use it for at least a decade. So until recently I was essentially a beginner in terms of my ability to actually produce sentences. But over the past six months, I’ve been trying to brush up the basics on Duolingo. I was about to see whether any of it had stuck.

The moment of truth came almost immediately, when I exited the station onto the street. I had a map, but I was totally disoriented and couldn't work out where I was on it. So I asked for directions … and much to my delight, I understood most of the reply!

“Ausgezeichnet!” (“Brilliant!”), I thought.

Baroquery ... 
Zwinger museum & gallery complex, Dresden, 6.07.17

I was even more delighted the next day when I signed up for a city tour, and the woman who sold me the ticket complimented my German. I’m sure the compliment was at least 50% politeness – especially since I then proceeded to get on the wrong tour bus – but even so, Yay me in a limited way :-)

I spent the next couple of days wandering around, admiring the sights and generally playing tourist. I did the obligatory ‘overview tour’ first, then went back to spend more time in places I was drawn to; I sampled the local cuisine and spent pleasant hours sipping coffee on boulevards; I did some shopping; I cycled around town a bit … you know, all the things normal people do when they’re on a ‘city break’.

Yet all throughout that time, I was continually and deeply cross-examining my own impressions of Dresden. How exactly did I feel about it?  

In the back of my mind were those who have called it Germany’s most beautiful city. I definitely can’t agree there – the competition is just too fierce. Still, it’s certainly a cool place with impressive architecture and a very pleasant vibe. And it becomes all the more impressive when you consider it in the context of 20thC history ... as you’re bound to do if you’re, say for example, me.

Cue tangent.

I’ll try to avoid discussing 'The War' too much, ‘cause I know you’re here to read my silly travel stories, not to get a free history lesson. But just quickly: you may know that, in the closing months of WWII, Dresden was singled out by British and American forces for a particularly brutal series of bombing raids which continued for three days.

The raids are now so infamous that if you type the bombing of into Google, Dresden is the third auto-complete option you get after Hiroshima and Pearl Harbour”. They’re also widely acknowledged as a war crime and for good reason.

The details of the bombing are phenomenally awful. British and US military command specifically targetted civilians, deliberately trapped them in the city, and then massacred around 25,000 of them. Many were burned alive by incendiary devices that ignited just above the ground, turning the air itself into flame – a death almost too nightmarish to imagine. And the strategic value of doing this (though the US Air Force made up some bullshit later) was essentially nil. It was purely the impulse to inflict terrible suffering that motivated the attacks, and that’s all.

Of course, all of this has to be evaluated in the context of ‘World War II Morality’, which was horrifying on all sides. Looking back at that time, it often seems as though a collective psychosis took over every participating nation, and produced six years’ worth of top-shelf human cruelty. Still … it was brutal.

Incidentally, the other thing which British and American forces ‘accomplished’ in Dresden was to utterly ruin the architectural fabric of the city. They dropped almost four million kilograms of explosives, and it actually would’ve been slightly more had the smoke not forced them to rely on crappy American radar during the second and third days, resulting in large numbers of bombs being dropped elsewhere. Some American pilots even ended up bombarding Prague by mistake. (It’s an uncharitable thought, but it has crossed my mind that this might be where all those jokes about Americans’ poor geographical knowledge started. Apologies to my American friends for that thought.) 

Anyway, the result was basically this: the entire inner city and parts of the suburbs were reduced to rubble, and Germany lost one of its ‘architectural jewels’ for essentially no reason whatsoever.

So when you factor in all of this, the present-day state of Dresden becomes not just very pleasant, but actually kind of remarkable. I detected no ‘dark vibe’ hanging over the city at all, though you sometimes get that in cities that have suffered catastrophes in living memory, so I wouldn’t have been surprised to find it here. And the reconstruction work is undeniably exquisite.

Rubble Woman
Dresden, 7.07.17
Having said all that, I actually found my attention being drawn less to the impressive big-ass architecture, and more to other features of the city. The open, spacious nature of the central streets was something I loved, as were the extensive pedestrianised areas and fabulous cycling paths. (Remember, I'm coming from Almaty, where Islam is attempting to make a post-Soviet comeback, but where the REAL religion of the people is the motor car).

There were also specific details that I enjoyed, like the poignant statue of the 'Rubble Woman', erected to honour the women of Dresden who were responsible for clearing away something like 19 million tonnes of rubble so that the postwar ruins could be turned back into a functioning city. And then there was the Ampelmännchen ('little traffiic light man'), who I’m going to tell you about in the next entry.

On my second full day I ventured into the Großer Garten: two square kilometres of parkland and walking/cycling trails, with a Baroque palace slapped in the middle. I've always admired how the Germans 'do' city parks (Weimar’s Park on The River Ilm is a particular favourite – it occupies a third of the city’s total area, and it’s a feast of colour, especially in autumn). This one confirmed my view; it’s just a few minutes’ ride from the centre of town, and yet in places it feels more like you're in a forest than a city.

I’m aware, btw, that devoting an entire paragraph to a park in a blog entry makes me old. But I’d argue that it also makes me well-travelled. I mean, when you’ve visited and lived in a number of cities, these things start to become noticeable. 

In Sydney, for instance, the parks aren’t spectacular (excluding the botanical gardens and perhaps Centennial Park), but you’re never far from one and they do their job of creating ‘breathing spaces’ and places for people to read, hang out on benches, kick footballs etc. That helps to make Sydney a more livable city than, say, Ha Noi, where ‘going to the park’ requires a major outing. Then on the other end of the spectrum you've got places like, say, Warsaw, where parks are always close at hand, as well as often being vast and beautiful. 

If you’ve never lived in a place at either extreme (that is, either the extreme parklessness of Ha Noi or the plentiful parkland of Warsaw), trust me: it does make a difference.

Suburban Mansion
Dresden, 8.07.17

Finally, after three days in the city, I took off through Dresden’s suburbs, heading for the town of Pirna further down the Elbe River. Here the aesthetic changed to large manor-like houses and intense greenery, and once again I found myself quite impressed. But it got even better once I was outside the city limits – perfect riverside bicycle paths led me through picturesque villages, and the journey was broken by a palace surrounded by even more extensive, shady parklands.

All in all, it was one of my most enjoyable cycling days ever, and a nice, gentle re-introduction to this mode of travel.

Skinny Pub for Passing Cyclists
Pirna, Germany, 8.07.17

I mean, yes, I did get soaked while crossing a motorway bridge that spans the Elbe River ... but hey, that's just one of those small prices you pay for spending time on the Green Continent. I’d call it a bargain. 

View from The Villa
Pirna, Germany, 8.07.17

Now I’m relaxing in the garden of a small villa outside Pirna, directly overlooking the river through lush greenery and wondering why I stayed away from the Bundesrepublik for so long. It won't happen again :-)


(* Bad train services are among the very few things about Poland that are worth moaning about on a travel blog. It's pretty much only that, and the dreadful wi-fi. If you've been reading 'The Manor' for a while, this isn't the first time you've heard me complain about either. And I make no apologies  PKP really needs to get its act together!)

(** When I said this sentence, I had the feeling that I'd made a grammar mistake. Checked it later on Google translate, and realised that indeed I had. This is the corrected version.) 

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Together again

A few days ago I took part in a wonderful reunion.

In 2015, while staying in Prague, I rewarded myself for surviving a year of extremely hard work and personal drama by buying a beautiful new bicycle. I then rode said bicycle to Katowice in Poland – a city which I feel oddly guilty about, because I’ve travelled through it so many times and never once really treated it as a destination in and of itself.

After overnighting in Katowice, I caught a train up to wonderful Warszawa (Warsaw) and noodled around there for 10 days, before heading to Ukraine where I spent almost three weeks with my son Timur, my friend Scott and my bicycle.

All-told, then, in that summer I rode about 500kms – sometimes in short bursts, other times from town to town in day-long rides.

At the end of all this, I had a problem: there was no obvious way of getting the bicycle out of Ukraine, because no-one in Lviv could offer me a suitable box to pack it in – not the post office, and not the numerous cycling shops I visited. So I gave it to a Ukrainian friend called Nataliya on ‘extended loan’.

I have to say, I was glad that the bike was going to a good home, but parting with it wasn’t easy. When I saw it in the bike shop in Prague, it was love at first sight, and by the time I’d finished taking it for a test-ride around their car park I was deeply smitten. And since giving it away, I’ve missed it a lot – as would be evident to anyone who’s seen the photo of it on my computer desktop.

(Feel free to think that's sad, btw, but I'm not ashamed. Some people have cars on their desktops, and cars are a stupid plague upon the Earth. So there.)

Anyway ... cut to Almaty, Kazakhstan, where I’ve been living and working for the past two years.

There was a time when I relished the challenges of residing in this city, but sad to say, that time has now passed.

The reasons for this are numerous, but I won't run through all of them here – partly out of respect for the many good people I know and have met over the years in Almaty, and partly because I don't want to bore you, my dear reader.

However, given that we're talking about bicycles here, I do need to rant about one particular negative aspect of Almaty life: namely, the fact that it's a TRULY, EPICALLY SHIT place to be a cyclist.

For a start, the whole city is basically a mountainside – or at least a giant foothill. Not only that, but most of the footpaths are utterly broken. This is courtesy of the city council, who appear entirely comfortable focusing on the 'making money from property development kickbacks' side of local government, while blatantly ignoring the 'providing residents with basic requirements like a reliable water supply, a functioning police force and a decent public transport system' side. This bunch of self-important jackasses really ought to be put on trial in the main square – except that (thanks to the council's own spectacularly bad urban planning 'strategies'), the main square is a crap place to do anything.

Sorry ... tangent.

To these issues, one must add the childish aggression of Almaty's drivers. Not being a professional demonologist myself, I don't claim to understand the process by which raging demons are able to possess the souls of normally calm and amiable Kazakhs whenever they get behind the wheel of a car (or indeed a bus). But in any case, it happens. These demons delight in doing things like slowing down at a pedestrian crossing, waiting until you're directly in front of their cars, then surging forward so that they're nearly touching your legs – a pointed, aggressive warning that if you don't hurry up and get off 'their' road, they'll be only too happy to break your shins.

Probably needless to say, the demons are not at all ‘cycle conscious’, and to the extent that they even notice the presence of a bicycle in their domain, I imagine it annoys them even more than the presence of a pedestrian.

And then there’s a question that I’ve repeatedly posed in my mind over the last couple of years: if I had a bike in Almaty, where would I actually ride it to? To work, in 40-degree summers and treacherous, ice-bound winters? To the hideous shopping malls which have sprung up around town, reinforcing the illusion of 'progress and modernity' that's regularly foisted upon the citizens of developing countries like Kazakhstan? To the city’s one and only sizeable 'park' (dedicated to the President of course), where Almaty's citizens are permitted to walk along two or three more or less perpendicular paths, but not permitted to bring in bicycles, pets or skateboards, to have picnics, to walk, sit or play on the grass, or to do pretty much anything else that free people think of when the phrase "Let's go to the park" is uttered?

No thanks. I’ll pass.

And so, for the last two years I’ve frequently pondered the question of whether I should brave the dangers and become an Almaty cyclist; but ultimately, the final decision has always been “Nope, It’s just not worth it".

Now cut again to last Thursday.

We’re in Lviv, Ukraine – a quietly grand, thousand-year-old city where almost nothing is more or less perpendicular (except for the regrettable Soviet-era apartment blocks which most people now live in).

I’d arrived two days earlier, and my friend Nataliya was sadly out of the country on holiday. So by prior arrangement, instead of showing up at her flat, I went to the school where I used to work and where she works now. And there it was, waiting for me, behind a vertical blind in the accountant’s office.

The Apache X5 Cross. My beauty!

I’m fairly sure there had never been another time when I was so pleased to be reunited with an inanimate object.

As I took off across Petrushchevicha Square, I felt totally elated. Finally, we were back together – me, and the thing I’d spent two years craving. It was blissful :-)

I stayed in Lviv for a week, visiting my son. But of course, knowing in advance that the bicycle reunion was coming up, I’d also planned a little adventure to follow.

And so it was that, at 5:30 this morning, I dragged myself out of bed and started the long process of getting the trip underway.

The process was long because, in Ukraine, couriering anything is a major undertaking. I had a suitcase which I wanted to send to Warszawa, where my journey will once again end. But half a day of traipsing around Lviv, trying to find willing couriers (since none of them would answer their phones and their websites either didn’t exist or didn’t work) proved insufficient. So on the morning of my departure, I still had the suitcase.

I grabbed a taxi to the bus station and put the case in the locker room there. Then I went back to the hotel by bus, grabbed my panniers, loaded up the bicycle, cycled back to the bus station, bought a ticket to Poland and retrieved the suitcase from the locker room – all of this before 8am.

A bit over two hours later we reached the border and, after a long and tedious crossing, arrived in Przemysl, Poland’s easternmost city. It’s a place I know quite well, having done this border crossing more times than I could count – and yet, never before had I dragged a bicycle and a suitcase through Przemysl at the same time, looking for a DHL office that turns out to be located on a parallel plane of existence which is invisible from our own mortal realm. It’s not an experience I’d recommend ;-)

In the end I gave up and went to the post office. There, with immense patience and good cheer, a woman packed my suitcase inside a black garbage bag and secured it with (at a guess) about 15 metres of Scotch tape. We then attached the relevant documents, along with my name and reservation number, so that the hotel would have some idea of why this giant garbage bag had turned up on their doorstep.

And the cost of this service, including the Scotch tape? About 8 Euros.


Around 17 hours after my journey had started, I arrived here in Katowice, where I’m staying the night – and once again feeling a bit guilty about using it as nothing more than a transit hub.

Tomorrow I’m crossing the rest of Poland en route to Dresden, a place which (despite many glowing recommendations) I’ve never visited before. I’ll stay there for a couple of days, just to have a look at the city, to shop for a few things which are either unavailable or insanely overpriced in Almaty, and to relax a bit. After that, the cycling will happen.

Much adventure lies ahead; I’d better get some sleep.

More from me soon, no doubt.


Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Returning Thing

Over the last decade or so I've travelled around quite a bit, and my hunger for seeing new places hasn't diminished. I try to make it a rule, in fact, to visit at least one 'new' country each year. (This year I've managed two  yay!)

At the same time, though, there are also places that I find myself returning to again and again  either because of work, or personal commitments, or just because the places themselves keep drawing me back. 

The Nerd, The Sea, The Flag of Estonia
Tallinn-Helsinki Ferry, Baltic Sea, 19.07.16
A classic example of this is where I am now: inside a hydrofoil ferry on the Baltic Sea, crossing from Estonia to Finland. 

I'm not sure how many times I've made this journey, but it's enough that I have a bunch of memories associated with it. There was the time when I jumped on a ferry at 7am, not having slept and still drunk from an evening of revelry in Tallinn; the time when my suitcase broke as I stepped out of the ferry terminal in Helsinki, spilling my belongings all over the road; the time when boarding meant that I'd reluctantly but definitively parted with a woman; and then a bunch of other disembodied moments, mostly involving me standing on the outside deck, just savouring the Baltic winds and the 'uncluttered' feeling of being on the open water.

I really do enjoy the 'Returning Thing'; it gives you a chance to see how places change and develop over time. Also, every time you come back to a place, you've developed a little as well, so you see it through different eyes and notice different things.

Lviv, Ukraine, 13.07.16
One place I return to quite often is Lviv, because my son lives there. It's very much a multi-layered kind of place, and each visit gives me a new perspective on it. And within moments of arriving, I've invariably whipped out my camera and started capturing the things that are grabbing my attention this time around. 

This year I tended to focus on small details, like this shrine to the 'Virgin' Mary which I noticed in the stairwell of a dinghy Soviet-era apartment block. (Sorry for the blurry pic; it was dark in there, and I only had my phone.) Last year I stayed for a lot longer and I snapped quite a few different things, including some of Lviv's wonderful older architecture (always a great target for the camera lens) and anything which related to the war in the East. 

Monument to The Victory Over Nazism
Lviv, Ukraine, 05.09.15
I also got to do sth I'd planned for a long time: spend half an hour with Lviv's amazing Monument to The Victory Over Nazism, which stands a little way out of the centre in an open square. Like the Moscow Olympics Bus Stop (mentioned in the previous post), this symbolises the city's complex relationship with Russia and with its the Soviet past ... but it's also just an incredible piece of brutalist statuary.

Cosmonaut's Column
Victory Over Nazism Monument, Lviv, Ukraine, 05.09.15

At the front of this monument stands a huge column, into which a 'cosmonaut' and two soldiers are embedded at different heights. The effect is striking, as the figures stand starkly, heroically against the sky. 

Behind this is the main part of the monument, on which a series of interlocked vignettes depict fierce hand-to-hand struggles on the battlefield as well as other scenes from life during wartime. My favourite of these is probably the one below, in which a Ukrainian woman hands a loaf of bread to a soldier. The looks on their faces  especially the soldier's steely, determined glare  are quite mesmerising, because they seem full of cryptic hints about how the victors regarded themselves when the monument was designed. 

A Loaf to Save A Life
Victory Over Nazism Monument, Lviv, Ukraine, 05.09.15

I've got a lot more pictures of this thing which I could show you ... but you get the point :-)

Another of my 'former home towns' is Tallinn, it's and one that I particularly enjoy returning to. These days, I generally only have time to pop in overnight  but even that can be a great pleasure in its own way. 

Still Loving The Old Digs
Tallinn, Estonia, 19.07.16

It's been said that Tallinn has become somewhat over-commercialised, and that it's lost its former charm in the process. I don't know that I'd agree. It certainly seems more developed these days, and the tourism industry has pretty much achieved Full Specturm Dominance on the port side of the Old Town. Likewise in the slightly seamy little 'Club District' that has spread out through the streets around Viru (one of the main medieval gates). 

The thing is, though, Tallinn has always been commercial, and it's always had its seamy side. But if you know your way around, you can still get away from the main tourist drags and find the quiet, tranquil bits. And architecturally, it's as breathtaking as it ever was. So I have to disagree: I still think it's a marvel.

Actually, the main reason why I started thinking about this whole business of 'returning' is something that happened to me when I arrived in Tallinn yesterday.

I was booked in to a place called the '16 Euros Fat Margaret Hostel'. Fat Margaret is one of the 34 towers that form part of the city's medieval wall, and it's one of those that you can enter through, sort of around the back of the Old Town. I know this because the school where I worked in 2009, International House Tallinn, was located across the road from it.

I have very fond memories of working in that school. Probably more than anywhere else I've taught, it was what some people like to call a 'family school', where the Director of Studies and the receptionist were one and the same person, every teacher knew every student (and in the case of kids and teens, often their families too), and where there was always a hot cup of tea waiting for you when you came up the stairs to the reception area.

However, it was also a school in crisis: struggling to pay its bills, it'd had its heating switched off more than once during the bitter winter months, and there was even talk of trying to re-open one of the bricked-up old fireplaces, just to keep the teachers and students from freezing to death while they studied. Serious conference calls with the building's owner were commonplace, as were less-than-rosy predictions of the school's future.   

When I saw the address of the Fat Margaret hostel on my printout, I thought "Oh, I think I know where that is  just go past the IH Tallinn building, head up the road, and turn left." I was quite looking forward to passing the building where I used to work, just to see if it was a) still there and b) still a school.

As I got closer, though, it seemed there was something wrong. I'd drawn more or less parallel with the school, though I hadn't actually looked at it yet, and from here the map seemed to be telling me there was a road forking off to the left. But I can usually recognise a road when I see one  it's one of my professional skill sets  and I definitely couldn't see one here.

I glanced over at the school, and got the shock of my life  well, ok, maybe not quite, but certainly the shock of my month. Over the door was a sign: "16 Euros Fat Margaret".

The hostel was the school!!

Formerly My Workplace, And Now My Hostel
'Fat Margaret' Hostel, Tallinn Estonia, 19.07.16

Checking in was weird. There was a new reception downstairs, and the guy gave me a key and directions to my room, which was on the upper floor, where the classrooms used to be. As I ascended the stairs and walked down the hallway, I passed old classrooms, their doors now marked with private room and dormitory numbers. And when I finally came to my room, in a far corner, I realised that I'd actually taught where I was now about to shower and sleep!

This was definitely one of the strangest 'returns' I've experienced anywhere.

I had to talk to someone about this, so I tried explaining to two staff members that I used to work in the building. It seemed like they weren't quite sure whether to believe me, or to conclude that I was slightly unhinged and delusional. I guess that's what comes from working at a hostel for too long: you meet so many weirdos, and hear so many tall tales, you become skeptical about anything that sounds a bit improbable.   

Anyway ... at any moment now, I'm going to experience another return. The ferry is pulling in to Helsinki Harbour. From there, I'll wind through the familiar streets of the city centre to the railway station, and grab a train to 'my' part of Finland, the region known as Kymenlaakso. This is one of my favourite 'Returning Places' of all  and much to my joy, delight and general hooray-for-me-ness, I've got nearly a month to savour it. 

I'm sure to be in a ranting mood at some point during that month ... so you'll hear from me soon :-)