Saturday 27 December 2008

Have Yourself a Foreign Little Xmas

The period between Christmas and New Year is not necessarily a quiet one for a freelance writer. As newspaper staffers go on leave while there's still a daily newspaper to produce, it can be a good time to pick up work.

In previous years I've written during this period for Melbourne's broadsheet daily, The Age. This year, however, I'm tackling a writing assignment for Lonely Planet.

One perennial of the holiday season is people complaining about the holiday season: its commercialism, its tacky muzak, the pressure to shop with crowds and be cheerful about it.

Which puts me in mind of past Xmases and New Year's Eves when we've been overseas, and how refreshing it was to step outside the usual hectic formula and celebrate year's end in a different way.

Some of the most memorable...

Xmas in Cairo, 1992 & 1993.
Christmas in Egypt is naturally low-key, as it's a predominantly Muslim country and the Coptic Christian minority celebrate the day in January. This naturally made it far more attractive, as Xmas commercialism was entirely absent. The only glimpse of the Western-style Santa was in the foyers of five-star hotels.

One year we had friends around for Christmas lunch, including Texan fellow English language teacher James (who we referred to as Mr James, after the style of our students) and Mohamed, a local student. One exotic item on the menu was a taste of the Australian yeast-based spread Vegemite, on a piece of toast. It was universally reviled; though as this is the usual reaction to Vegemite from those not raised on it, we weren't disappointed.

Vegemite was, incidentally, one of the items we required from the decadent West whenever someone came to Egypt to visit us. The others were Twinings Earl Grey Tea and Branston Pickle, proof of our Anglophile tendencies.

New Year's Eve in Cairo, 1993. This remains the most impressive New Year's Eve I've ever had. The party was held on a houseboat on the banks of the Nile, bobbing slowly as the music played loudly and guests clambered above and below deck. It belonged to a friend of a friend, and was also home to two fat cats who seemed oblivious of the commotion.

Xmas in Berlin, 1994. We were living in Poland by this time, still teaching English, and had hopped on the overnight train from Kraków to Berlin. It arrived at Lichtenberg station in the former East Berlin, where trains had pulled in from Poland in the communist era, so it was a less than flash entry.

We were staying with fellow members of the Hospitality Exchange, wherein members trade each other free sleeping space when they travel. Our two German hosts had kindly arranged for us to stay in an empty apartment belonging to a friend of theirs, so we slept on a mattress on the floor and placed a gigantic bottle of cheap French wine on the window ledge to be chilled by the snow outside.

As Germans have their main celebration on Xmas Eve, we shared a salmon with the guys that evening. Back in Kraków, we were startled by fireworks being let off prematurely in anticipation of Sylwester - which Poles call New Year's Eve, it being the feast day of Saint Silvester.

Xmas in Kraków, 1993 & 1994. Although Poland is a deeply Christian country, Christmas there was also surprisingly uncommercial (though this may have changed by now). And very authentic to our Australian eyes, with small wooden stalls selling mulled wine around the edge of the snow-covered market square. The snow itself was something we'd only seen briefly once before, in Vienna.

There were other subtle differences. Poles place more weight on St Nicholas' Day, 6 December, when St Nick appears in the garb of a bishop, distributing treats and rewarding good behaviour. Kraków even had a special Xmas tram running the rails, on which St Nick made appearances.

Another difference was its duration. Not much in the way of Xmas decoration appeared before the first week of December, but the celebratory mood carried on to the end of the Epiphany season in January. As a result, it was not unusual for the concert hall to schedule a performance of Christmas carols well into the New Year.

On reflection, what was most enjoyable about these Xmas and New Year celebrations was the removal of the societal pressure to enjoy them in a set way. It's another reminder of something I'm always banging on about - the power of travel to make you see the world through fresh eyes.

What about you? Any memorable festive events overseas?

Friday 19 December 2008

Santiago Dreaming

As a travel writer, I'm a firm believer in keeping a detailed daily diary of my impressions while on the road. The result is often a lively piece of writing that evokes the feeling of actually being there that day.

As an example, here's a (suitably edited) extract that I wrote at the end of a warm November day in the Chilean capital, Santiago...

In the Barrio Bellavista district of Santiago, Chile, near the foot of the Cerro San Cristobal mountain, lies La Chascona.

This was once the home of Chile’s Nobel Prize winning poet Pablo Neruda, and is now a museum devoted to his memory. The street it’s on is a tiny cul-de-sac lined with colourful houses, a peaceful backwater under the midday sun.

As we wait within a small courtyard for the next English language tour, we overhear an elderly American lady saying to a Chilean: “Everything is growing here. In the States everything is closing down and I don’t like it. But here everything is growing. Maybe it’s the new frontier.”

And it’s true, there is a subtle but palpable energy to the city, and signs of prosperity are everywhere; it’s not that hard to imagine yourself in Europe.

Our guide to the house is Gonzalo, a small energetic man with a splendid moustache. La Chascona, we discover, is actually a collection of rooms of varied shape, set at different levels of the hillside and separated by areas of vegetation.

But the interior of the rooms is the most interesting facet of La Chascona. The poet collected many things, including bottles, ship’s figureheads, Toby mugs, paperweights, ashtrays, dolls, and representations of horses, watermelons and fertility gods. He also loved the sea, and a had a room built with a sloping floor to remind him of life under sail.

Sadly, much of his fascinating collection was smashed by right-wing thugs connected with the 1973 coup, venting their rage at Neruda’s hard-left politics. Slowly though, the foundation which manages the house has been able to either repair items, or repopulate it with those of Neruda’s belongings which escaped damage.

Neruda was a highly creative and intelligent man. He was also somewhat unconventional, walking through his home in the garb of a sea captain, and sometimes even a nun. I suggest the adjective eccentrico to Gonzalo, and he agrees with a smile: “Si... or maybe loco.”

Lunch is at El 125, a nearby bar. Here we discover the secret of a big cheap meal in Chile: ignore the printed menu and check out the lunch special, usually on a blackboard near the door. For a mere 3900 pesos (AUD 10) we have a pisco sour, a cold roast beef and capsicum entree, a choice of beef or fish, and a glass of wine. My steak comes a lo pobre (literally “poor man’s steak), with fried onions and two eggs.

I ask for it muy echo (well done), but it arrives rare. This is no problem; the waitress presents a side plate, I place the steak on it, and she takes it away for further immolation. I much prefer this to the Australian method of removing the entire plate while your companion eats on; at least I can continue with my eggs. I actually ended up with a completely new steak, and a better cut at that.

When the bill comes out, she makes a point of asking if we wanted to add the tip to the credit card or pay it in cash, which undermines our first waitress’ advice that tipping is not compulsory. But we’re happy to tip after the steak resolution.

A few minutes later in the street, slightly intoxicated, I realise I’ve left my camera bag at the restaurant, and dash back at high speed to retrieve it. It’s still under the table, thank god - smiles all round.

Later in the afternoon we suddenly notice the Andes as the smog dissipates, and go out to take photos. We end up at a table outside a pub on the corner of Dardignac and Pio Nono, where the evening’s festivities have started with a curtain raiser of socialising, drinking, and general good humour.

Latin people use their public spaces so well, and it’s extremely pleasant sitting among the good-natured after-work crowd.

A waiter appears and we order cervezas (beer), to which he responds “Chico?” (“Small?”) As I’m pondering this, he disappears, returning with two half-litre steins of the amber fluid. He obviously feels that these two large gringos had not got that way by consuming chico amounts of anything.

To dilute the alcohol, Narrelle orders a completos, the Chilean hot dog with its sausage, onions and mustardy mayonnaise. It costs just 500 pesos (AUD 1.25), but you get what you pay for: a cold sausage in a stale roll does not a gourmet treat make. Still, it’s washed down nicely by the beer.

Thursday 11 December 2008

The Unpublished 2: Squaring the Canberra Circle

This is the second example of a travel article that I've never been able to place. This time the focus is Australia's national capital...

The best view of Canberra is from the back of a departing train. – Bureaucrat Percy Deane, 1928

Like Percy, I’m not a Canberra person. I’ve always thought of Australia’s capital city as dull and contrived, an artificial place without surprises. But I’m here for a week on a business trip.

So I’m going to experiment, taking a leaf out of the Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel, released in 2005. The book aims to liven up your travel by throwing in a random element or two. Following one of its experiments, I’ve taken a map of Canberra’s city centre, otherwise known as Civic, and drawn a square based on City Hill, cutting across the CBD’s hexagonal street patterns.

I’m going to follow the borders of that square as closely as possible, even if it leads me through buildings, to see what happens if you throw the guidebook away. Go on Canberra, surprise me!

West: From the midpoint of the northern border of my square, I cross Northbourne Avenue, the major thoroughfare leading north from the city. From here my line doesn’t run west along a street, but through buildings between two streets. But the Jolimont Tourist Centre offers a way through.

In the centre of the space sits a lady at a small tourist information desk. We discuss why the city centre is called Civic, when I haven’t seen a single sign with that name. On my map it’s called just “City”. I wonder if this is an attempt by the ACT Government to make the place sound bigger and more bustling.

I eat a sandwich on a weather-beaten bench in the adjoining bus station, with its pebble concrete surfaces. Its worn appearance makes me think more fondly of Canberra; I remember it being too clean and tidy, but now it’s a little tarnished and all the better for it.

As I cross Moore Street, on my left I can see the 1920s Melbourne Building, one of the oldest buildings in Civic. It’s a beautiful colonnaded square building with orange-brown tiles. There’s something vaguely Spanish about it today, and its graceful lines make it stand out among its neighbours.

Next is a fenced-off pre-school, quite empty. On the grass just outside it, I find surprise number one: a small plastic yellow helicopter with red rotors. I toss it back over the fence, like returning a fish out of water.

South: Turning at the north-west corner of my square, I pass the Street Theatre located on the edge of the Australian National University campus; it looks bit like a 1950s Railway Institute or an abandoned service station. A production called Wish You Were Her is showing, the poster featuring a photo of former Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone. Possibly not a complimentary biographical work.

I have to cut through ANU’s School of Music. A student leans thoughtfully against a wall, holding a cello in its case. Then two excited guys run past me, one of them saying “You did it!” They disappear into a lift as I leave through a far door, clueless.

After navigating a tricky intersection and its traffic islands, I find myself on Marcus Clarke Drive. For an Australian history graduate, Canberra is a freaky place to be. Place names aren’t just names: the suburbs and streets constantly evoke past prime ministers and other famous Australians.

Then I’m confronted by surprise number two: a flying saucer. It’s a concrete building which whose exterior is a single vast dome surrounded by a moat, reaching right to the ground, with curved gaps for windows. It turns out to be the Shine Dome of the Australian Academy of Science. A sign on the door regrets that the building’s not open to inspection. I regret not being able to inspect it.

I realise I’ve veered way off my path; I need a GPS device, or at least a compass. Making a correction through a patch of bushland, I get my first glimpse of Lake Burley Griffin. It’s quite an expanse, and I can see Parliament House in the distance, flag flying. Nice view.

East: I walk past Rydges Hotel, and I can see the ACT flag flying from City Hill ahead and to the left. Back on track.

Crossing parkland between traffic feeder roads, I’m suddenly dive-bombed by surprise number three: two magpies. I’m crossing a completely open space, but the whooshing sound is quite distinct. I break into a half-run from this pair of small creatures, no doubt looking quite ridiculous to the passing drivers.

Having escaped, I look for the Olympic swimming pool, the south-east corner of my square. I pass a young guy sitting eating a rice dish out of a plastic container with chopsticks, wearing a baseball cap, next to a sign advertising a free solarium visit and massages.

I stick my head into the massage business. A guy with an eyebrow piercing comes out to serve me, and I get the chance to have a closer look at the dome over the pool. I’m surprised to realise it’s not a solid structure, but a huge inflated cover. It gives the impression of a huge marshmallow.

North: I pass the Casino Canberra. This part of town feels more businesslike. The buildings have colonnades, but otherwise they’re modern and featureless. There’s also a slick café with suited business folk, and a hairdressing salon called Shine (no relation to the concrete dome).

I should pass through buildings here, but I don’t fancy wandering through federal government offices in the current state of security paranoia. So I try heading up external stairs to the second level of the building. Here I discover surprise number four: a strange courtyard featuring faded and cracked hexagonal concrete shapes, and a cool bar called Toast. It’s salsa night tonight! I’m sensing that the fun parts of Canberra are often hidden away from the streets.

Then it’s past discounted Harry Potter books in Myer within the sprawling Canberra Centre shopping mall, and through the food court. It strikes me how young the passers-by are, and how that’s the case across Canberra. There’s something youthful and innocent about the city, and it’s quite appealing.

I leave the Canberra Centre for the City Markets. I don’t know if it’s ever been open-air in its past, as it looks fairly modern now. But you can push around a cart, visit different stalls and buy fresh meat, seafood, poultry, and so on. There’s lots of interesting stuff: fusili, polpettini, free-range duck eggs.

West: On my last leg I have to find another path between buildings. A small shopping arcade helps me out, and I pick up a local free paper on the way. Inside it, I read about a celebration being held by the Uruguayan Embassy and the Uruguay-Australia Association. It’s a reminder of how international this city is, no matter how much it feels like a big country town sometimes.

At last, I reach Garema Place. This is a cool pedestrian area, with cafes and restaurants, and finally there are people around. It feels a little shabbier, more unplanned than the neighbouring parts of the city centre. There are Chinese, Japanese and Indian restaurants, a number of cafes and a surprisingly cool upstairs bar called Hippo.

I like the atmosphere here, with people clustered together in the eateries’ lively outdoor areas; and I’m even pleased to see skateboarders. This is great: more noisy and more animated. Finally I’ve found a place which feels like it’s part of a thriving people-sized city.

It’s only a hop, skip and jump to my starting point from here, so I sink gratefully into an outdoor seat and order a macchiato. Looks like Canberra saved the best for last. And surprised me after all.

The Unpublished is a random series of my never-published travel articles. For previous instalments, click on the The Unpublished Topic tag below, then scroll down.

Thursday 4 December 2008

Close Encounter of the Sculptural Kind

As any Australian travel editor knows, there's something enormously alluring about international travel.

Curiously, these editors receive far more unsolicited material about overseas journeys than domestic ones, even though domestic travel is much cheaper to research.

It seems that a trip to Europe is inherently sexier than a weekend interstate on a budget airline.

But addicted as I am to international adventures, there's no logical reason why a local trip should be any less enjoyable.

You can even travel very locally and have a good time. A case in point - last Sunday Narrelle and I visited the Yering Station winery in the Yarra Valley, just 40 kilometres east of the centre of Melbourne. We were interested in the seeing the works entered in the annual Yering Station Sculpture Exhibition & Awards.

What was novel (for most Melburnians) was our method of getting there - a train to the Lilydale terminus, then a bus from there. It was surprisingly easy to catch public transport into the Yarra Valley, but most people would assume it would only be practical by car.

The sculptures - a pretty flexible term, as most were not the traditional carved stone pieces - are scattered around the grounds and premises of the winery, making an attractive hide-and-seek game as you spot them among the greenery.

The one we had a particular interest in was Grosse Fische - Kleine Fische (Big Fish - Little Fish), a piece which had been foreshadowed some months ago in a post within John Richards' Outland Institute blog.

In it, artist Gaby Jung asked readers to send her empty fish-shaped soy sauce containers. The resulting work used masses of these plastic vessels to form a giant fish, suspended above a pool in which more soy fish float.

It was an impressive piece, as were many others in the exhibition. The winery itself is no slouch, either, being composed of a mix of historic and modern buildings set within beautiful grounds denoted by circular patterns of plants and paths.

After viewing the artork, we tasted home-made jams in the nearby shop, then climbed the stairs to the deck of the bar. We sat outside in the sunshine, sipping rosé and eating excellent sandwiches made with quality ingredients, thinking that perhaps life wasn't so hard after all.

Then we walked the two kilometres or so to the nearest town, Yarra Glen (which I always think sounds like the name of a bushranger). It was an easy stroll along a flat road past fields, though cars whip by at a fast pace.

One woman stopped and asked if we'd like a lift - bless her - but we declined and kept strolling. I'm always amazed by how difficult people who don't walk, think walking is - as if it's a major hardship to walk a couple of kilometres through attractive countryside on a pleasant day.

And the important thing, it occcurs to me, is being immersed in the environment when you're travelling. A car is handy to get from A to B quickly; but I always feel annoyed when tearing through a new landscape I'd rather be in contact with, while confined behind glass and steel.

So that was our Sunday. A visit to a winery, some great art, and a walk into a new town. It might be close to home, but I call that a travel experience worth having.