Thursday 30 August 2012

Mysterious Pies of the Baltic (Part 1)

Gdańsk was beautiful, sure... but who
was cooking up its mysterious pies?
It looked like a pie. It tasted like a pie. But what was a dinky-di Aussie meat pie doing in a Polish city on the Baltic coast?

The place: Gdańsk.

The year: 1994, only five years since the Solidarity trade union had swept Poland’s communist regime from power.

The month: November, in the week containing All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.

As most of the week was a public holiday in Poland, Narrelle and I had some time off our English language teaching jobs to visit the Baltic port city of Gdańsk.

Enter the paj

And this is when we came upon the pie, at one of the many food kiosks scattered around the centre of the city. Or I should say the paj, for that was its Polish spelling, close to “pie” in pronunciation.

Intrigued by the sight of these familiar-looking objects in what appeared to be classic pie-warmer ovens, we proceeded to a taste test. They were much – but not exactly – like an Australian meat pie. 

Square or round, the right size, but with slightly thicker pastry and solid mince fillings sans gravy. And presumably made of pork rather than beef... but still eerily similar.

Pie mania

I’m ashamed to admit that in the following days we went on a paj-eating frenzy, consuming significant numbers of them. Call it research. But more honestly, call it nostalgia – we’d been away from Australia for two and a half years at this point, the sort of time period that has expats’ eyes inexplicably moistening at the thought of Vegemite.

Tasty as they were, these pajs were a conundrum, though definitely bearing an  Australian connection. One of them was handed over in a paper bag bearing the legend paj australijski, which translated to “Australian Pie”. 

At that point I really was intrigued, but there was no time to unravel the mystery, and in any case my Polish wasn’t up to quizzing stallholders on the provenance of their products.

The legend of the pie

But it turned out the puzzle could, like a cheap milk bar pie, be left on the top shelf for quite some time while still staying warm. Twelve years later I returned to Poland, now a travel writer on an assignment for Lonely Planet.

Researching the Poland chapter in the Eastern Europe book, I was obliged to cover the entire country over several weeks in sub-zero temperatures, thanks to the unseasonable dictates of publishing schedules.

The paj was low in my priorities, but not quite forgotten. Before leaving home I’d done a quick Web search, locating, to my mild surprise, the company that manufactured them in Gdynia, north of Gdańsk.

Their mysterious creator and convenience food mastermind
agreed to tell me all about them when we met at the bar of the Willa Lubicz, a posh hotel on a hill with a view of the Baltic Sea...

Next: The story of the Polish-Aussie pies continues, as I learn about the Dutch guru, the trouble with gravy, and the reason why 'pies' isn't a good look in Polish... [click here to continue]

This post was sponsored by

Friday 24 August 2012

Metelkova Madness

In May 2010, I slept in a unique prison cell in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Here's how that came about...

Hostel Celica is an unconventional backpacker’s crash space. It was once a jail, a forbidding stone structure surrounded by barracks in the Metelkova district of the Slovenian capital Ljubljana.

It was built as a military facility by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then decades later was inherited by the army of communist Yugoslavia and used as a political prison.

Then, after the tiny Adriatic state declared independence in 1991, the Yugoslav army moved out and Metelkova became a slum, full of decaying buildings that were marked for demolition.

Then something unexpected happened - the abandoned military buildings were occupied by artists, freed from the confines of communism and keen to spark creativity by banding together. The squatters stood (literally) in the way of the bulldozers.

It’s a dramatic story of artistic David triumphing over establishment Goliath. And although its residents have since developed a better relationship with the city authorities, its future remains uncertain - and that’s what gives it such edge as an artistic and nightlife centre.

Despite its grim past, the Hostel Celica (the word means cell) is actually the brightest and most official part of Metelkova.

It’s hard to believe it was ever a prison - even from the outside, brightly painted, it looks welcoming. Inside are atmospheric corridors and dorms, along with a good cafe and art gallery.

Most fascinating, however, are its “cells”: private rooms which are in fact renovated cells, with their barred doors still intact.

Each cell has been individually decorated by artists, producing a variety of weird and wonderful designs. 

Cell 116, which we're staying in, features a circular wooden bed suspended two metres above the ground, with a solar design beneath its frame. 

There’s a circular table beneath with curved, segmented stools on a blue-green floor. The walls are covered with mystical characters and cryptic text, and there’s a lampshade above the bed that resembles the sun.

Although cell 116 is one of their most popular, cell 111 is also memorable. It has a window fashioned around a ragged demolition ball's hole, a reminder of what might easily have become of this historic building. 

Metelkova is full of party-goers around midnight on a chilly Friday evening, the night of the week which locals say is the liveliest. What’s notable is the chatty, easy sociability of the scene – there’s even a bunch of people sipping beer high up on a multi-platform structure in the middle of one square. 

Jalla Jalla is a bar that’s typical of the vibe, at a focal point of one square where it funnels into the next. It’s a tiny space with the weathered, bohemian, much-painted alternative look that’s the standard in Metelkova. Friday night is the bar’s reggae night, and a DJ behind a red-yellow-green flag is spinning tracks as the squeezed-in occupants drink, smoke and sway.

In the second square, long wooden benches snake at angles in front of the daytime-only art galleries, the most striking facade of which is Galerija Alkatraz, a cutting-edge gallery during daytime hours. 

Above its door, the wall has been decorated in a riotous mosaic of broken crockery, with a classical statue at its centre. On the opposite side of the square, an African man has hung an array of sarongs, T-shirts, flags and drums for sale.

Nearby is Pri Marichi, a red-lit bar that’s an intriguing mix of styles - a DJ plays music from the 1930s while the clientele sits beneath posters of Metallica, Tom Waites, and Johnny Rotten giving the finger. 

Scattered through the complex are the entrances to several nightclubs - the most memorable being Klub Gromka, an eclectic venue presenting a range of music genres along with theatre, film and talks.

Nearby there's Klub Tiffany for LGBTI revellers, and lesbian venue Klub Monokel. Another venue is Gala Hala, where you could hear ska, punk, rock, metal, reggae or funk.

Metelkova might well be the coolest part of Ljubljana. It's certainly the most offbeat.

This post was sponsored by Student Flights NZ. Check out its site for student holidays.

Friday 17 August 2012

Bienvenue à Terre Napoléon (Australia)

Jean-Baptiste Isabey:
Napoleon Bonaparte, First Consul,
in the gardens of Malmaison 1804

Bonjour, er, mate, as I review the National Gallery of Victoria's current exhibition on Napoleon Bonaparte, part of Melbourne's annual Winter Masterpieces series.

This major event features a vast spread of art objects, maps, costumes, books and historic artefacts over several large rooms in the NGV's international branch south of the Yarra River.

What makes Napoleon: Revolution to Empire particularly fascinating is its Australian component.

Though I'd never heard of this before (history being written by the victors), it happens that the southern part of Australia from South Australia to Victoria was named "Terre Napoléon" by the French explorer Nicolas Baudin in 1802.

That's interesting enough; but on top of this fun factoid, it seems both Napoleon and Empress Josephine were fascinated by Australian flora and fauna, and had examples of each throughout their home Malmaison and its gardens.

Élisabeth Louise Vigée-le Brun:
Queen Marie-Antoinette (1755–1793)
in a hoop skirt dress after 1778
And if that isn't connection enough, the Balcombe family who helped care for Napoleon in exile on St Helena later migrated to Victoria.

They brought with them various items of Napoleonic memorabilia, some of which are included in the exhibition.

The Age newspaper had a lot of fun with this forgotten French connection to Victoria when the event opened in June, imagining Melbourne as the might-have-been capital of Terre Napoléon - you can read its preview here.

But what's the actual exhibition like?

I turned up with Narrelle at NGV International at 10am last Sunday, cunningly thinking that this would be the ideal time to see the exhibition before the gallery became too crowded.

But so did hordes of other art-lovers, and we were soon shuffling very slowly around the exhibits.

It was worth braving the (very polite) scrum. The exhibition is an interesting cross between an art display and a history lesson. It includes details of historic events from the French Revolution to the Napoleonic Wars, while also drawing the eye to the decorative arts which emerged from those turbulent times.

Empress Josephine's Bedchamber at Malmaison,
designed by Louis-Martin Berthault 1812

The latter is an eye-opener. We think of our age as being obsessed with spin, but the late 18th century was no stranger to creative propaganda. Among the exhibits are revolutionary-era posters, ceramics bearing revolutionary scenes, symbolically decorated furniture and various other examples of the arts intersecting with politics.

There are also some intriguing curios, such as the decorative clock with both a traditional 12-hour face and an unusual 10-hour face for the new day decreed by the revolutionary authorities.

Beautifully bound volumes contain artists' renderings of the strange new wildlife of Terre Napoléon, and there are larger objects such as weaponry of the era and an extravagant dress worn by a courtier to the coronation of Napoleon as Emperor.

Jean Piron:
Black swan of Cape Diemen
(Cigne noir du Cap de Diemen) 1800

It's an excellent exhibition; and though it's not cheap at an adult ticket of $26, it's good value for the amount of material and detailed notation you get for the price. In fact it'd make sense to take a break halfway through, get a pass out and visit the cafe, then go back for the second half with a clearer mind and rested feet.

The only negative I noticed involved the perennial problem area of explanatory text on the walls. Though well written, the notes at this exhibition are only about a metre off the floor and often placed in dim half-light, so they can be difficult to read.

I can understand making the text accessible for children and people in wheelchairs, but 1.5m above the floor would have been a better compromise for both short and tall visitors. An even better approach would have been to dump the text from walls and issue an exhibition guide on an iPod Touch, as the excellent MONA does in Tasmania.

Court dress and train of Mme Bérenger,
worn on the day of Napoleon’s coronation 1804

Despite these quibbles, the exhibition is a fine experience. At the end of the displays, the focus narrows to the Emperor's last years in exile on St Helena in the Atlantic. Small, domestic items he handled - such as a book about Captain Cook's Pacific voyages -  sit within the last few cases.

I wonder if he thought about the "might have beens" of Terre Napoléon as he read?

Napoleon: Revolution to Empire continues to 7 October 2012 at NGV International, 180 St Kilda Rd, Melbourne. Entry: $26 adult, $22.50 concession, $10 child. For more, see the NGV website.

Wednesday 8 August 2012

Floating Down the Yangtze

It's October 2008. I’m sitting on the observation deck of the Victoria Queen cruise boat, trying to write some notes about our progress down the Yangtze River. However, I’m getting nowhere – the scenery is too compelling to concentrate on anything else.

The riverbanks present a constantly changing blend of nature and civilisation: a succession of green hills, one crowned with what looks like a lighthouse-shaped temple. 

Occasionally we pass under vast bridges, replacing structures that were too low for the water level raised by the massive Three Gorges Dam up ahead. One city we pass has several new apartment blocks towering above the new waterline. So far, everything in China has appeared as I’d expected it to: big, big, big.

But all stories, in the end, are about people, and that’s something that China has no shortage of. Dragging myself away from the scenery back into the comforts of the cruise boat's bar one deck below, I talk to bar supervisor Steven Xu about what it’s like to work on this floating hotel. 

Steven is symbolic of the new China that’s economically open to the West; describing himself as a “country bumpkin”, he’s the first of his family to leave the farm for a job in hospitality.

“My parents are farmers outside Chongqing,” he explains. “They grow corn, sweet potatoes and rice. But it’s not the big farm you imagine, there are not more than ten pigs.

“They feel proud of me, because I’m the only family member with a job related to English,” he continues. And Xu is clearly one of those lucky people who have an ear for new languages. “I only started learning English two and a half years ago in vocational school. Since I got a job on the Yangtze, I’ve practised a lot and improved a lot.”

In some ways, this cruise could be happening anywhere in the world – it follows the international standard profile of cruises, with onboard lectures, excursions ashore, a captain’s banquet and a cheesy cabaret night with acts from the crew and passengers. 

The cabins are compact but neat and functional, with the unexpected bonus of bathtubs, and private balconies from which to survey the passing scenery.

On the other hand, the cruise boat is a fascinating fusion of China and the west, one of the many intersection points between the two cultures as more tourists head to China. There are also Chinese passengers aboard, part of a new middle class exercising its right to sightsee in comfort.

Another pleasing result of this cultural crossover is the diverse stock behind the bar.

“Chinese people like the strong liquor we call spirit, distilled from wheat, sorghum, rice and all kinds of stuff,” says Xu. “It can be 52% alcohol, even 60% alcohol. We make a cocktail called Yangtze Rapids, with this spirit and curacao, mixed with orange juice. It’s good.”

Of course, I didn’t travel to China to drink cocktails (though as they’re cheaper than the boat’s espresso coffee, I feel a certain licence to do so).

On the second day we leave the boat to visit the Ghost City of Fengdu. It’s called a ‘ghost city’ because traditionally the Chinese believed that this place was where their ghosts would pause for judgement on the way to their final reward. 

Built over centuries, it’s an attractive complex of temples, gates, bridges and other structures tapering over and around a high green peak.

At the summit we pass monstrous statues depicting deadly sins, to reach the place where the lord of the underworld resides. This is a truly intimidating figure in robes within a sanctuary illuminated by candlelight. 

Around the corner is something more macabre, a set of statuary showing what happens to various evil-doers in the afterlife. The corrupt government official’s fate is particularly gruesome – he’s being sawn in half, longways, through a particularly sensitive anatomical region.

Returning, I decide the boat is really quite splendid. There’s something delightful about ending a sweaty hillside slog by stepping back onto waterborne luxury, welcomed by red-coated staff who hand you a warm towel and a cup of hot ginger tea.

The next day we start to pass through the famous Three Gorges, and the river appears much cleaner than it was at Chongqing. This area seems much less populated, and nature takes centre stage as the rocky riverbanks rise dramatically, often at steep angles.

Then we step aboard a river ferry which takes us up an arm of the gorges, passing increasingly spectacular cliff faces and the occasional hanging coffin in high-up caves, legacies of the ancient Ba culture.

Eventually we end up at a floating platform from which we board sampans along a narrow lesser gorge. The boats are piloted by men in straw hats and straw cloaks. I’m struck by how cheerful the locals are, helping haul us in and out of boats, and clearly enjoying their jobs running tourists up and down the gorges. 

The final highlight of the journey is the massive Three Gorges Dam, a controversial structure which required the non-stop laying of concrete for almost a decade, and which displaced over a million people along the Yangtze’s banks as the water rose to its final level. 

Controversy aside, it’s an astounding thing to see, as are the locks the boat passes through during the night, dropping us down a hundred metres to the water level beyond the dam.

After breakfast on the last morning of the cruise, we board a bus to take us to the visitor centre above the dam. Our guide is Kevin, who delivers a spirited patter along the lines of being “a good dam guide or a damn good guide”. 

I tell him about an Australian prime minister named Kevin who speaks Mandarin, and he responds “But mine is better - you can't beat a native speaker”.

The dam is truly impressive, and yet another reminder of how China does things on a big scale. But dams and gorges aside, the highlight of the cruise has been the Chinese people, unfailingly good-natured as we’ve encountered them in markets, sampans and on board.

Steven Xu is keen for this cross-cultural contact to continue. “I hope our passengers remember the people they meet here, feel happy and come back again,” he says. “The thing I like most is the people around me – both my colleagues, and our passengers from all over the world. As long as tourism here is booming, I’ll keep doing this job.”

This post was sponsored by Cruise About NZ. Check out its site for cruise holidays.

Friday 3 August 2012

Mind the Gap... er, Map

I've always been a sucker for the London Underground map.

Since my first visit to London in 1990, this representation of the city's underground railway network has fascinated me.

For some reason its intricate colour-coded diagram seems to represent more than a way of getting from A to B.

Maybe it holds the promise of a hidden order to things, especially in a city which can seem so randomly arranged above ground.

Perhaps it's the collection of curious place names (Seven Sisters, Elephant & Castle, Pudding Mill Lane, etc) jostling each other on the map.

Maybe it's Harry Beck's 1930s inspiration of arranging railway lines in the manner of an electrical diagram.

Whatever the case, I found myself drawn in May to Mind the Map, a temporary exhibition about the Underground map and associated posters within the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden.

Although the exhibition covers the history of the map, the curators also commissioned a series of artworks related to transport, to spice up what could be seen as a dry topic (though not by me - I love maps).

Here's Memento by Susan Stockwell, a map of the world constructed from hundreds of old dyed and cut transport tickets:

There was also a selection of classic Tube posters, such as this memorable mess by David Shrigley which I think I remember from a previous visit to London:

Something else which caught my eye was a fascinating series of posters created about a century ago by Max Gill.

Intended to entertain as much as inform, they consisted of fanciful, incredibly detailed maps of neighbourhoods and their attractions, delivered with a dose of British humour. Here's a section of one, featuring the area around Hyde Park:

This reminder of times now past, created in 1933, linked particular Tube stations with the "wealth, romance and beauty of the Empire":

And finally, I was impressed by this sculpture, Jonathan Parsons' Zoned Out. It's a remarkable 3D piece in which the individual Tube lines cascade out from an upturned Tube diagram, creating the effect of a fountain.

By creating something fluid from the strict order of the diagram, the artist has up-ended the purpose of the map and seems to bring it to life - echoing many people's feelings that there's more to the Tube map than first meets the eye.

Mind the Map continues until 28 October 2012 at the London Transport Museum, Covent Garden Piazza, London. Admission (including the museum's other exhibitions) is £13.50 adults, £10 concession.