(no subject)
awesome
mrben
Ugh, jetlag is still kicking my arse. I'm told that spending time out in the sunshine is a good thing for curing it, but it's so cold... and also I'm at work at the end of the office that has no natural light. In my experience I can only adjust by about an hour per day, which means it should be fixed by the end of the week.

Now, with any luck, my new hot water service will be installed today. Yes, that's right. I've had no hot water since I got back from overseas. My dad was supposed to have had it done in the previous five weeks while I was gone, but no. (Yes, it's all his fault.) It'll be good not to drive to relatives' places or resort to sponge baths in the cold of my house to get clean.

(no subject)
awesome
mrben
Oh yes, piccies: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150263598228475.371981.535023474&l=30155ed353

Paris
awesome
mrben
I'm sure that many of you have been to Paris before, so you'll not be surprised when I declare it to be the prettiest city I've visited. Every building throughout the city (and also the outer-city as observed from train windows) has such charm that it's as if, like their language, they tried to refine it until it was made as beautiful as they could.
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So that's the end of my journey. I'm not sure what to feel about going home. There'll be routine and a certainty of what I'm doing the next day, which can leave my brain free for other more creative things than how to navigate a particular city's metro system. Unfortunately, my brief forays onto The Age website seems to only tell me petty things that don't really matter (a fact previously masked by proximity) and it makes Melbourne seem so... provincial. But yes, the world is a big place. Maybe I'll get hooked on this travel thing after all.

Barcelona and Madrid
awesome
mrben
My surprise Spanish adventure took me to Barcelona and Madrid. Just to be contrary I'm going to tell you all about it in chronological order.

The whole reason for choosing Spain for a random adventure was that 1) I was kinda getting a bit sick of Eastern Europe (Really, Germany is East and not central now, Ben?) and 2) I found myself uttering the odd Spanish phrase in my general wanderings. Usually this phrase was "lo siento" (I'm sorry) when I bumped into people. Obviously deep within me was a burning need to apologise to the Spanish. Thus the adventure began.

Barcelona! The choice of young tourists the world over! Given my rather late decision to get to Barcelona over the weekend, my hostel opportunities were somewhat limited. I ended up in a hostel a little way out of the city hosted by a man who was literally stoned morning to night. He forgot to tell me many things and told me some things three times. He was not particularly helpful and the whole place kinda sucked. The people there was all kinda young - and I mean that in a mental capacity. Oh well.

Sometimes cities have deceptive sizes, and Barcelona is just such a city. It's bigger than you think and it makes it a bit more difficult to walk. However, I did my best. As per my usual plan, I spent my first evening wandering about. It's generally about picking a landmark and just walking towards it and hopefully finding some interesting stuff along the way. Now if you were into Formula 1 racing, that would have been the weekend for you. There was a car show on (much like we get back home, really) to coincide, and the fountain was lit with colourful lights that I think were supposed to be somewhat in time with Disney music. (Aladdin and The Lion King fyi.) It was quite explosive. For those of us in the cheap seats outside the car show it was a little less cool though.

Barcelona loves Gaudy, loves him with a passion that transcends taste. If they had the money (which they don't) I know that they would cover every rooftop with rows of colourful tiles and make all their buildings appear to melt. May they ever remain poor! There's one church that everyone must see because it is a monstrosity. It is by far the ugliest building I have ever seen. I'm told that it's much nicer on the inside, but it was 12.50 euro to get in. My regiluosity just wasn't great enough to take that risk.

The gothic quarter of Barcelona is not like any other city I've been to. I say that only because everything in it is so much smaller than every other city I went to. Landmarks are often walls with doors in them because the Spanish ran out of money and couldn't make facades. I kept on saying to myself "Is that it?" as I passed such landmarks.

Pot appears to be incredibly easy to come by. I reckon it was about 50% of what I smelled on the streets. Also, there was a fair number of cigar smokers, probably trying to indicate that they were rich. But oddly there were noticeably fewer smokers than in the other parts of Europe.

Regrets? I have a few. Maybe I should have spent that 12.50 to get into the church. Maybe I should have got to the beach where there was topless bathing aplenty. (For shame, Ben. A missed opportunity!) It would have been good to have walked up to the rundown amusement park. Alas! Let's move on so I can talk more about regrets...

Madrid! Regrets? I have a few. My biggest regret is that I don't have more time to spend here. I have enjoyed Madrid far, far more than I did Barcelona. It's a bit more laid back and the people are nicer. The area I've been staying in is really nice, even if the beds in the hostel are kinda crappy and it's so hot that I've been unable to sleep. (I am so looking forward to the Hotel du Commerce in Paris.) There are several things I really wish I'd had a chance to get to and failed to due to either lack of time or incompetence. (The latter refers to my attempts to get to flamenco dancing last night, and the former refers to the bull fights.)

I have tried and failed to work out when certain shops open and close. I understand that there's a siesta in the middle of the day - an event that I totally understand given that it's been in the low 30's every day, but so often things just seem to be closed at odd times. I've seen a lot of roller doors with graffiti on them and not a lot of services. But those shops must open at some point... right?

Never mind, the bars are really chill. Again, I haven't exactly worked out when things really get happening (and also I often forget what day it is, which might explain it partially), but we've walked into bars that would have and should have been absolutely packed and just sat ourselves down on couches, took our shoes off and ordered Mojitos. Another place I'm sure gave us double shots of whiskey and the owner very patiently explained everything to us in broken, simple Spanish/English. Our favourite evening starter place gives you a free plate of tapas with every beer you order. Basically, while nowhere near as cheap as Eastern Eurpoean cities, it was good service.

As you might have seen on the news, the entirety of the city square has been turned into a sort of hippy commune. It's tent city in there, and there are paper flyers with various anti-government, anti-monarchy slogans stuck up everywhere. It's not at all threatening, but I guess after more than a week everyone has kind of settled down. I walked through it several times, as did plenty of other tourists with their cameras. There's some media covering the protests too, with much more professional video equipment. There's always someone with a megaphone to yell out something, and people shake their hands in the air in agreement with what I presume has been said many times before. Otherwise they all sit around chatting, with Gypsies wandering around selling beers for a euro.

And so ends my Spanish adventure. See you all in Paris, the last stop on my European adventure.

Barcelona piccies: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150258517198475.370519.535023474&l=fb1a0ab72d

Madrid piccies: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150261187103475.371259.535023474&l=198c3eed45

Berlin
awesome
mrben
I've been trying to work out exactly how my time in Berlin went by so quickly. It feels like I've just arrived and that I've been here a long time all at once. I challenged myself to do what nobody else I've ever spoken to has been able to do: define what makes Berlin such a great place. I can firmly say that I barely scratched the surface in my five days here. (Really? Five days?) There are so many different aspects, facets of the city that I'd have to spend several more paragraphs waxing lyrical about it to even sketch out its shape.

Obviously I barely scratched the surface, but I've had some of the quintessential experiences (although missed a bunch of the traditional ones). Berlin has amazing museums and art galleries. For 16 euro you can get a ticket to five of the galleries on museum island. I wandered about with some Aussies and Canadians through a brilliant Egyptian permanent collection and through some very depressing-looking modern German works; one day they might discover colours. The Natural History Museum was well worth the 6 euro entry charge and really showed just how organised the Germans can be.

In my wandering tour of what was once West Berlin I went up the TV Tower that really is everyone's navigation point. Given it was cloudy and my sense of direction in Europe has completely deserted me, it was really helpful. The views are spectacular and I can inform you that Berlin surrounds are pretty damn flat. There's a giant park with massive open spaces, only slightly marred by the sounds of passing traffic a little way away. There are plenty of monuments strewn around it too, but I'm not really sure how well they're kept.

East Berlin is vehemently protesting any changes to its artistic scene. The underground tour I went on took us through some of the areas and buildings that it's been suggested will be gone in six months due to commercial development. There's quite a bit of political graffiti about the place. Indeed, it seems to be their primary form of expression, which is logical given that their language ruins all comedy.

With my new hippy and party people friends - different Aussies and Englishmen - I checked out some of the pub scene (almost serene in its demeanour) and spent the hours of 1am to 5am jumping about in a rave at an abandoned train station. (It's not quite as cool as it sounds.) Wandering home in the cool morning light, my ears slightly stuffed with cotton wool, was quite refreshing. It's this activity that's caused me to lose most of my last day here. Fortunately I understand that's part of the Berlin experience too.

Basically, Berlin can be whatever you want it to be, and it's best experienced with a coupla other people so you can form a critical mass and really make wherever you are yours.

As for my next moves, my original plan was to go down to Dresden and then to Prague. No longer. Dresden has deemed me unworthy of paying a reasonable price for accommodation (ie. all the hostels are full) so I've decided to go to Barcelona instead, and then up to Paris.

Piccies: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150252750013475.368720.535023474&l=c4d95a496f

Budapest
awesome
mrben
And so my Budapestian adventure comes to a close. It seems so long ago that it started and that so much has happened. Sure, it ended on a low note - with some guy bursting into the room at 4:15am, dropping change all over the floor, huffing and moaning before falling asleep with the most impressive snoring I've heard in a week, which set off a cascade of competing snoring from the other males in the room - but other than that I've only good things to say.

Unlike the other hostels I've stayed at, this one has a bit more of a party culture. I think it's a Budapestian thing. Every night our hosts would chaperone us out to any number of the local bars where we would test out the authenticity of the exceptionally cheap local beers and spirits until the early hours, generally meeting up with groups from other hostels. It was activities like this that caused me to lose about two days in which I would have sampled more of the historical attractions. Oh well.

The weather has been sensational. Maximums of about 30C every day, although it was a dry heat so it didn't feel that hot. This made the free walking tours I did really enjoyable. The Communist Walking Tour was particularly informative. The girls on the General Tour even took us out to a cheap lunch place. They were pretty good really. I hear that not everyone's experience of the locals has been as positive. Please note, dear readers, that at supermarkets you have to weigh and put the stickers on your fruit 'n' veg yourself. They may get narky at you, although my cashier took a liking to me and gave me some Garfield-branded cards "for your children". I thanked her.

Now, the locals do tend to stare. I really noticed this at the Turkish baths. I didn't know if it was because a) they'd never seen someone without a huge, overhanging stomach before b) the scratches my my back from some amorous activities were particularly visible or c) they just find tourists fascinating. It's said that the locals go to the baths once a week. I don't believe this for a second. I saw far, far too many old people there and very little of the youth. And they were not an attractive bunch. Old people have no shame, and there's a bit of a reinforcing nature when nobody else has any shame either. The only attractive people there were tourists. Maybe I was there at the wrong time...

Overall, I really enjoyed myself and would recommend you come visit.

Piccies: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150246832673475.367383.535023474&l=9131ac02fd

Next: Berlin

Me.

Vienna
Boredom
mrben
Ah, Vienna. How do I love thee? Well, not as much as I might have hoped. There were patches of brilliance, like my first meal, but there's not a lot that really captured my heart. The main issue in all of this is the hostel I was staying at, which is a dead zone of epic proportions. I kept hoping that kindred spirits would turn up, but alas! I'm in the secondary building, which only has one six-bed room and, for the first night, one other occupant; a fifty year old unemployed Romanian who'd been kicked out of another hostel for overstaying his welcome. The kitchen is locked and there is no common room. Well, it was my only option when I booked, and you know what they say about beggars.

I'll say this: the Viennese women are an attractive bunch! I'd go so far as to say that there is a 2:1 ratio of attractive women to attractive men. The fact that so many of the women are my type may be part of this analysis. So yes, it's probably confirmation bias, but so many of the men look like complete morons. Really, it's almost inconceivable that this city manages to propagate without massive infidelity. I know that's been noted a billion times before, but the other notable thing about the Viennese is that everyone smokes and the only non-smokers appear to be the tourists.

The city itself is very clean - a trait I'm not so fond of - with huge tree lined roads surrounding the inner city. There's a massive riding culture with dedicated paths all over the place, which I approve of greatly. There's no rubbish in the subways, and I seem to be the only person who dared to eat on the platform. Unlike Rome, Vienna tends towards straight lines in everything it does, leading to boring photography and few surprises on walking tours. The buildings are absolutely huge and opulent, each with frescos attempting to outdo the others. The churches also seem to be trying to outdo each other in their service to the man upstairs.

Schonbrunn Palace is huge, the grounds even more so. The tour takes you through some of the more impressive of the palace's 1400 rooms, but I must confess that it all began to blur together in the heat and the crowd. (Also, no cameras were allowed.) I'd have skipped the tour and just gone out onto the grounds has I known. A note to summer-time guests of the grounds: bring sunscreen and sunglasses. Yours truly managed to get hisself burnt due to a packing mishap (and pale skin, sure). The paths are very, very wide and covered in white pebbles that reflect sunlight very well. From the Gloriette at the top of the hill there are some great views over Vienna, and there are little forest areas for peaceful breaks. Entry is free to the grounds so they're often used by joggers who you'll see trundling past.

Incidently, I'm pretty sure at least part of the reason my Romanian roommate was kicked out of the last place is that he snores like nobody I've ever heard before. It's like an unrelenting, undulating clearing of the throat. Added to this it seems that every other person who's stayed here over these four nights also snores (and is therefore less susceptible to its effects). But for yours truly it's a nasal cacophony of terrible proportions.

Photo goodness:
http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150243394758475.366084.535023474&l=243d026a7e

Next: Budapest.

Rome
awesome
mrben
Rome: The Eternal City. And in this city I eternally walk. I've spent every day with some people from the hostel checking out various revered structures, all significant to various degrees. Everything is ancient and dirty and amazing. The streets are cobblestoned so the cars and motorcycles rumble over them with a low staccato, a sound that is joined by the constant refrain of Rome's police force. There's a haze that kicks in at about 11am, which I'm presuming is pollution, but it's not so bad. It's been wonderful weather, a brief bit of rain a coupla days ago aside, but I can certainly see how hot the summer is going to be.

If you asked me to name the places I've been, I couldn't. My Italian is no better than it was when I got here so all the names kinda just slipped past me. Rest assured, dear reader, I saw them all. My sore feet can attest. The Colesseum is amazing, the Pantheon absolutely brilliant and the streets themselves are gorgeous. They seem designed to give you glimpses of upcoming architecture and then suddenly open up onto a vista. Walk as much as you can and be prepared to sweat if you take the train.

The traffic is not nearly as bad as I was lead to believe. I'd suggest that the traffic in Cusco and Malaysia was far crazier but, like those places, the drivers are much more aware. So despite the narrow streets and everyone's habitual stepping onto the streets into traffic, I haven't seen a single accident. There are plenty of scrapes on bumper bars though, so perhaps I've just been lucky, because I've certainly been stepping into traffic as I haven't yet get my head around people driving on the right hand side.

The people seem to be quite friendly (and not the savages waving spears I'd been led to believe). I haven't actually asked for directions (being 1. male 2. stubborn and 3. in possession of three maps) or had any need to talk to any one out of turn, but I'm pretty confident they wouldn't yell at me and poke me with sticks. Have no fear, my friends. We managed to get by and order pizza and wine with really bad pronunciation, and they took our money; always an effective carrot.

But you want to know what I didn't do? I didn't go to a single museum and I didn't get to the opera. Yet I'm fine with that. I can firmly say I've "done" Rome. Four days is about the right amount of time here. Yes, you could be more thorough. Yes, you could have doubled your time with cultural activities. But I'm ready to move on, and that happens tomorrow morning when I fly to Vienna.

For those of you fortunate enough not to be on Facebook, here be some pics:

http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150239610438475.364790.535023474&l=036d8f9b6d

Ben.

(no subject)
awesome
mrben
Ah, uni students. They're so young and naive. My sojourn to Public Bar taught me 1) that "pub" is short for "public bar" and 2) university students can't conceive of me being 34. Turns out I'm 26. Wonder whether I should have corrected him and said I was 25. Anyway, with my new-found youth I drank a lot of $1 pots and accidentally stole some guy's phone. Good times.

(no subject)
awesome
mrben
I could get used to these five day weekends. Thursday night saw me out with the Melbourne Reddit crew at a pub in Fitzroy, and each and every one of them are wonderful... and maybe I've just pissed in their pockets to give them a warm feeling.

My grandmother's house has been freshly painted by the entire family. What a great family we are. She was a bit anxious about the whole thing. I guess having your entire living area thrown into chaos and half painted in one day can throw you off. She's getting on a bit and is not comfortable with changes. She had a plan for how things were going to go and was a bit stressed when they didn't happen. Mostly these revolved around where, when and what we were going to eat; it's something she thought she could control. But the place does look so much better now.

Saturday I tried Naked for Satan's pintxos (I don't actually know what that translates to, but they're mostly slices of bread stick with various tasty toppings on top) which was excellent. The payment system relies on your honesty, which is pretty cool too. I recommend people go there. They have specials on Monday to Wednesday where they're only 50c each. I could gorge again.

Sunday... new Doctor Who. Why do we have to open with a double episode? Doesn't Moffat know I'm going overseas and won't see the second half until I get back? I spent the rest of the day rewatching most of the previous season. As you do. :)

My walking shoes have split down the side. Now, as far as timing goes, couldn't this have waited until after I got back? I suppose it's better that it didn't happen in a week's time, but geez FSM, what are you doing to me? These plans of mine are supposed to be perfect! Not a hair out of place! Not a single thing missed! No opportunity for anything unscripted to happen. It's almost... as if... as if you want me to do unexpected things. Hmmm...

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