Friday 27 August 2010

Fragments of the Titanic

This week's guest blogger is fantasy novelist Narrelle M Harris, author of the acclaimed vampire novel The Opposite of Life.

I’ve always had a penchant for the personal when it comes to history.

The grand sweep of tumultuous events is glorious and amazing, but it never really embeds itself until I get caught up in the personal story.

I’ve held my fingers against the stones of an ancient Roman wall near the Tower of London, and thought not of Empire but of guardsmen resting for a moment in that shade.

I’ve sat on the giant blocks of stone at the base of a pyramid and thought a little about the Pharaohs, and a lot about the workers who may have paused here for water, looking up at the mighty thing they were building for the king.

Watching Ken Burns’ seminal TV series on the American Civil War had me fretting over the fates of the now long-dead individuals whose journals and letters gave us insight into the conflict.

Individual stories – of courage and venality, of love and loss – get to me every time.

The Titanic exhibition

Melbourne Museum’s Titanic: The Artefact Exhibition had the same effect. Between books, films and documentaries, I know the tragedy of the 1912 sinking of the SS Titanic well.

The grand and terrible hubris of it all. The stupidity and short sightedness of building a ship and failing to put enough life boats on it. The panic and human failings of the night, as well as the nobility and selflessness.

So I knew the big picture before stepping into one of the museum’s late Thursday night sessions – and the exhibition’s creators knew that I would.

They also knew it’s through personal stories that we experience the greatest impact. So, on arriving at the exhibit, visitors are given a boarding card which contains information about a real person who travelled on the Titanic. You learn a little of their story, their friends and family - but not their fate (yet).

The exhibit is excellent at helping you identify with your passenger. It starts with excitement at the creation of the largest, most luxurious liner ever, in an era where faith in technology was at its height.

Heading toward disaster

However, because we already know how the story ends, there are notes of foreboding. An early caption outlines the decision to have only the 16 lifeboats required by law, rather than the 36 boats that would have been enough to save everyone on board; and there are quotes displayed about how unthinkable it was that such a ship could ever sink.

The artefacts retrieved from the depths range from the objectively curious to the subjectively distressing. The rivets used to fix the massive plates to the ship are like the Titanic’s bones on display; but a stained and damaged steward’s jacket is a painful reminder of the man who once wore it.

After learning about the construction and launch of the Titanic, we turn into a darker corridor. The room’s temperature literally drops, and we follow that awful morning when the ship strikes an iceberg, and begins to sink.

There are quotes on the walls from survivors - or they may be the words of victims, reported by survivors - about that terrifying time. I look for my passenger – Mrs Emma Bucknell – while Tim searches for his, the unlikely-sounding champion fencer Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon.

Other people’s stories are displayed on boards, some about women who showed great courage and skill in getting their lifeboats to safety, and keeping spirits up during the long hours before rescue.

Personal stories of survivors and victims

Display cabinets contain personal items that had one belonged to passengers, retrieved from the depths. Tears are pricking at my eyes at the evidence of interrupted lives, and there’s a sense of relief that one set of items come from a man whose luggage made it aboard, although he didn’t. I wonder whether these items are a valuable historic resource or a macabre display for ghoulish curiosity, then realise that they’re both.

Finally I see the board listing the names of all the passengers and crew, split into survivors and those who perished at sea. I find Mrs Bucknell and discover she survived (and so did Sir Cosmo, more surprisingly).

I also think of other Titanic lives I’ve learned about tonight. The woman who stayed to die with her husband; the baby who grew up not realising that she was a survivor of the famous sinking which had killed her father; the boys in the boiler room; and the famous band that played on the decks while the passengers tried to escape.

I’m glad that their names are not forgotten.

Narrelle M Harris visited Titanic: The Artefact Exhibition courtesy of Museum Victoria. The exhibition continues at Melbourne Museum, Nicholson Street, Carlton, until 17 October 2010.

You can find details of Narrelle's vampire novel The Opposite of Life at her website, along with details of her other published work.

Friday 20 August 2010

Serbia: Happy Travels in Novi Sad

Despite the Balkans' increasing popularity with travellers, Serbia remains a mystery to most. 

In this guest blog, Serbian student and writer Jelena Farkic (who we met in Szeged, Hungary during our recent European trip) relates the charms of her hometown and Serbia's second city, Novi Sad...

Serbia will welcome you with a smile on its residents’ faces, a glass of extra cheap lager and rich traditional dishes you will not forget for life!

But if you are contemplating coming to Serbia, make sure the capital Belgrade is not your first and the last stop.

Experience the uniqueness of travelling on old trains from the communist era - an aged, red, massive locomotive will slowly drag its wagons, taking you to just any corner of the country.

One of the significant stops, Novi Sad, is definitely not far from Belgrade - you can get there in a hundred minutes and for just a few euro coins for a ticket.

A journey from Belgrade to Novi Sad passes within the glimpse of an eye - as you go, you may be watching the rolling countryside of the Pannonian plain, then you start to see the city outskirts and the Danube, eventually getting to the peak of the medieval fortress and bang! – there you are at the station being herded off with all the other travellers, being inserted into the everyday life of the city.

So what's so special about Novi Sad? Being Serbia’s second largest city, far less hectic and far more laid-back than Belgrade, it offers its visitors culture, vibrant nightlife, delectable cuisine, friendly citizens and alluring charm, all wrapped up with style.

The pleasant atmosphere that rules the city provides you with the feeling of comfort, tickling your imagination, prompting many questions and making you more curious with every step you make.

Summers in Novi Sad used to be lethargic and totally dull. Then the story changed - within just a few years, it has become very lively and dynamic, partly thanking to numerous cultural events that arose from the creative minds of young people and, one by one, came into being.

The most significant one is the EXIT summer music festival, unique for its location. The 17th century Petrovaradin fortress, proudly overlooking the city from the other side of the Danube, becomes the meeting point for music fans of many nations for four days each July.

Just a few weeks prior, the Cinema City Film and Media Festival gives the city a completely new image for more than a week, turning it into a global cinema offering 20 different locations in which to watch over 150 films of either domestic or international production.

The best way to meet the city is to meet its residents - you may find out a lot more talking to people than just strolling along the streets on your own, led by the map, ticking off every sight in a guidebook.

Friendly locals may lead you to the hidden corners of the city, introducing you to the specific rituals they have; and they may also teach you several phrases in the Serbian language so you know how to greet and thank people, order a drink or make the toast "ziveli!".

You definitely shouldn’t plan your stay in Novi Sad too thoroughly in advance; as once you step onto its streets, you may be possessed by the feeling of pleasant unpredictability...

Jelena Farkic is a student and writer in Novi Sad, Serbia.

Friday 13 August 2010

Companions on the Polish Road 2: Toruń to Lublin

“A good companion shortens the longest road.”

This sentence is an old Turkish proverb, and it proved very applicable to my recent research trip through Poland for Lonely Planet.

(Though I won't mention the three wars the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth fought with the Ottoman Turkish Empire in the 17th century - for that would be tactless)

Last week I described the Poles I met while travelling from Kraków to Gdańsk. This week, let's hear about the fellow foreigners I met up with on the way...

Toruń: From the train station serving this beautiful Gothic city in southern Pomerania, I had to catch a bus across the broad Vistula River to reach the Old Town. As I walked through the station underpass to the bus stop, a cafe advertisement caught my eye, as it was largely in English.

When I dropped into the Kona Coast Cafe the next day I discovered a genial American, Jon Greene, behind the espresso machine. He and his Polish wife had decided to live in Poland for a while, and he'd refused to consider anywhere but Toruń (a fair call, in my opinion). We sat a table and chatted for a while, and I gave my approval to the coffee. It's worth dropping by if you're in town - the cafe's at ul Piekary 22.

Giżycko: For some reason on this particular trip, I had to catch a lot of buses and trains around 6:30am - for some reason the next choice would always depart too late in the morning. So on a chilly weekday morning I found myself sitting on a bench in front of the humble train station in this attractive lakeside holiday town in Masuria, in Poland's northeast.

Another early train had just left so there was just me on the platform, eating my packed breakfast from the hotel I'd just checked out of (Polish hotels will always pack you a breakfast if you have to check out too early for the in-house breakfast, which is much appreciated).

Then a young guy walked up to me and asked something. I explained that my Polish wasn't fluent, then found out he spoke reasonably good English and was on holiday from nearby Belarus.

Aleksandr and I were both heading to the city of Białystok, which required a change of trains at Ełk. Now I love Ełk, because it looks like the English word 'elk' but in fact has a letter 'Ł', which sounds like the English 'W'. So the name of the place is pronounced 'e-w-k'... which sounds adorable, for some reason.

(You can learn a lot of utterly unreliable but amusing nonsense about 'Ł' at its Uncyclopedia page, which describes the letter as "The evil twin brother of L. He is an ally of ∩ and controls the Unicode Villain Organization of Eastern Europe, or UVOEE for short.")

Anyway, we got out at Ełk, marched into the station building to discover which platform our connection was on, then trooped off to Platform 3 to board the next train.

We had a good talk along the way; I was intrigued to learn that Aleks, a keen sailor, had been due to join the Soviet navy just before the USSR dissolved and the career opportunity disappeared. Now he works in an automotive business in Minsk and sails as often as he can. Poland's northeastern lake country is perfect for that, of course. And not far from Minsk.

Białystok-Warsaw: A few days later I was leaving Białowieża, a small town in the eastern Podlasie region, which is famous for the wild European bison which still live in the surrounding forest.

I was waiting for a bus at about - of course - 6.30am, when I got into limited conversation with an elderly couple in Polish, who were impressed that I hailed from so far away. Then a waiter from the hotel restaurant showed up, on his day off, and we had a more fluent conversation in English.

When I left the bus at Białystok, I had the vague impression I heard some people speaking English. But at that stage in the Polish journey I do sometimes imagine hear English - my brain seems keen to twist what it hears into something I can recognises. Odd, but true.

Anyway, I shook my head, walked across the pedestrian bridge that led to the train station, and bought my ticket for Warsaw and onward to Lublin.

Then I realised there really were people speaking English - two middle-aged American women being helped by a young Polish woman who, I discovered later, had walked them all the way over from the bus station to assist them, even though she was due to catch a bus herself. Nice to see the Good Samaritan spirit at work.

After she'd left, I introduced myself to the ladies, and also introduced them to the dubious delights of Polish train station coffee (a choice of instant coffee or percolator granules served in boiling water, which you allow to sink to the bottom).

We shared a compartment on the train to Warsaw. Pam and Margie (I think those were their names, from memory) both had Polish ancestry and had been travelling to various parts of the country; they would be transferring at Warsaw to a train to Kraków. So we chatted, then I waved them goodbye at the grim Warszawa Wschodnia Station, where I was catching a connection to Lublin.

Lublin: My final meeting came courtesy of microblogging tool Twitter. I'd exchanged a few comments about my Polish adventures with Polish-born Twitter user @rusticbynature, then realised she was tweeting from my next stop Lublin, so suggested meeting up. So myself, Ania and her American husband Jaime, a keen photographer, got together at the Złoty Osioł in Lublin.

It's a hidden-away pub-restaurant in the centre of town, dimly lit and full of rustic atmosphere, and I wouldn't have found it easily by myself. If ever in Lublin, see if you can locate it, starting with this address: ul Grodzka 5a. Its name, by the way, means Golden Donkey...

Friday 6 August 2010

Companions on the Polish Road 1: Kraków to Gdańsk

When I travelled around Poland in 2008, I made a point of talking with people I encountered along the way.

As I was researching a possible travelogue book about Poland, I wanted to get the most out of encounters with locals on my journeys.

Two years later on my next round-Poland Lonely Planet trip, however, being interactive was its own reward.

Some of my best travel memories, I realised, have arisen from chance encounters with people, both on transport and on the streets.

Although most Polish trains are divided into compartments and are thus conducive to chat, I find that Poles have something similar to the British reserve. The polite procedure when entering a compartment is to say "dzień dobry" ("Good day") to your fellow passengers, but not intrude further.

But if you do fancy a chat and you both speak enough common language to communicate, it's possible to end up in a warm and interesting conversation.

And there are other ways to meet both locals and other international travellers. Here's a few of my experiences in May-June 2010...

Kraków: In 2008 I discovered the English Language Club by accident, when I noticed its small sign hanging above a street in the Old Town. This time I made a return appearance in the company of Narrelle. The club has met weekly since before the end of communism in the 1980s.

It's run on a pretty simple concept - a mixed bunch of locals, tourists and expats meet in a big room up a tatty staircase to chat informally, helped along by tea and biscuits. If you're ever in Kraków on a Wednesday, get along to a meeting from 6pm to 8pm at ul Sienna 5, near St Mary's Church; it's a fun way to meet the locals.

Kraków-Łódź: On this meandering train journey to Poland's second-largest city, I realised that a couple down the corridor were lightly bickering in English. Passing by their compartment, I introduced myself and discovered the male half of the sketch was a UK academic who was heading to Łódź to consult with colleagues there about a possible joint project.

We had a pleasant chat, and speculated whether onboard catering might materialise once they added an additional complement of carriages to the train at Częstochowa. It did - in the form of a lady with a trolley - and I scored the last kanapka (sandwich).

Warsaw: Visiting funkily-decorated hostel Oki Doki to check its details for the LP book, I bumped into its owner, Ernest. That's not as obvious as it seems, as he spends a lot of his working days at other locations; but somehow we always happen to be there at the same time when I drop in every two years.

We sat in the hostel's bar and shared a beer or two as I heard about his latest travels. Ernest is the most well-travelled Pole I know, having been to just about every continent with his wife and daughter. But not Australia... yet.

Wrocław: In this attractive southwestern city I had arranged a meeting with artist Tomasz Moczek, creator of the famous dwarf/gnome statues which are scattered through its Old Town's streets. First I scored Poland's chattiest taxi driver, who was determined to have a lively conversation about Australia no matter how limited my command of the Polish language.

He deposited me at a crumbling old industrial complex which turned out to be a former brewery full of artistic offices and studios, and I sat outside in the sunshine with Tom and two of his friends who helped translate, as we all drank beer and talked art. That was fun.

Gdańsk: In the Baltic port city, I met up one evening with my friend Andrzej Gierszewski, as I have since Narrelle and I met him in 2007. On that occasion I was looking for someone to interview about the amber trade for a 'vox pop' box in Lonely Planet's Poland country guide, and Andrzej was perfect - he related a great set of tests you could do to discover if a piece of amber was fake.

Every time I return we've met up at cafe-bar Kamienica on ul Mariacka, a beautiful small street of terraced shopfronts featuring gargoyle-head drain pipes. We drank a bit too much beer (Polish beer is becoming a theme, I see), and talked history, culture and politics as the sun set.

Next week: Enter the internationals - an expat cafe-owner in Toruń, a Belarusian fellow-traveller, two American ladies on a bus, and the Polish-American couple at the Golden Donkey...