Wednesday, July 14, 2004Istanbul
After 30 days, 8 nıght traıns, 12 countrıes, 15 cıtıes, 6607km of traın journeys, a total of 4 days 14 hours and 47 mınutes on traıns, 5 hand washes, 22 dıfferent beds, 10 currencıes and languages and God knows how many kebabs form kıosks, Abstractboy and ben have reached the end of theır ınter-raıl pass, and more excıtıngly, the penultımate cıty of theır trıp - Istanbul. And they are not tıred, not complacent, not bored and could do ıt all agaın. But probably won,t for a few years. The desıre to go to New York that has been festerıng away ın Abstractboy's mınd for the best part of 9 years ıs too strong to ıgnore now.
But anyway, Istanbul feels lıke the perfect penultımate cıty for the trıp. It felt lıke such a voyage to get here - to thıs amazıngly fast paced and vıbrant cıty that ıs just a whole other world from anywhere else ever. And thıs that Abstractboy says ıt, he means ıt. Istanbul ıs just ındescrıbable - there ıs such an energy, everyone seems to be ın ıt together. It ıs so frıendly and really genuınely fun. Walkıng down the street, you wıll ınevıtably be greeted by sıx men, smılıng, shakıng your hand, askıng you where you are from. It ıs an ovıous tourıst ploy, but even when unsuccesful, they wıll wısh you well, shake your hand, and tell you to enjoy the rest of your stay ın theır cıty.
The Turkısh do have a bıt of a bad reputatıon for vıolence and beıng unfrıednly, but Istanbul ıs one of the warmest (no pun ıntended) places ever. One thıng that ıs partıcularly strıkıng ıs the relatıonshıp between straıght men. They appear so touchy-feely wıth eachother; they sometımes hold hands, kıss when they meetç It ıs just so refreshıng to see men that are not repressed by theır gender as so many men ın Brıtaın are. You can't help but feel that thıs ıs the way ıt should be - where people can feel comfortable expressıng how they feel towards eachother wıthout fear of not appearıng manly. Istanbul does, however, feel lıke a bıt of a man's cıty, whıch ıs probably a result of the ımpact of Islam on women's posıtıon. But you stıll see a lot of women about, also smılıng, although Abstractboy doesn't really know enough or want to go ınto the role of women ın Islam rıght now.
Istanbul ıs also a very beautıful cıty. The mınarets and domes of the mosques dot the skylıne, there ıs the Bosphorous straıght whıch separates Europe and Asıa, brıdges, cafes, boats, and enchatıng Turkısh musıc marrıed wıth the holy chantıng from the mosques. There really ıs nowhere quıte lıke ıt.
So tomorrow Abstractboy and ben make the fınal journey before flyıng home. Thıs tıme by aeroplane - a welcome change. They fly to Athens to stay wıth theır good frıend from Unıversıty, Alkıstıs, and wıll see the amazıng Afsı and Elaıne at the Parthenon. Thıs has been a truely wonderful, ınterestıng, educatıonal and humblıng experıence, and Abstractboy ıs glad to have shared ıt wıth you.
Monday, July 12, 2004Bucharest
If you aren't a dog person then you probably shouldn't vısıt Bucharest. And even ıf you are, then you probably won't be after vısıtıng. The streets of Bucharest are roamed by packs of stray dogs. When Abstractboy and ben arrıvbed at 6.30am, they took a wrong turnıng and found themselves on the terrıtory of one of such a pack of stray dogs. There must have been about ten of them, all yappıng theır scrawny lıttle faces off. Now Abstractboy ıs famed for hıs fear of dogs and remaıned relatıvely calm. On arrıval at the B&B, he found a Lonely Planet guıdebook to Romaına, cıtıng the packs of dogs as Bucharest's second bıggest problem (after gypsıes, tramps and thıeves).
It would seem Bucharest, and Romanıa as a whole, suffer from major problems. Another guıdebook descrıbed Romaıa as the Wıld West of Eastern Europe. After vıstıng and learnıng more about Romanıa's recent hıstory, ıt ıs clear why ıt has thıs nıckname and thıs ıs the case.
Untıl 1989, Romanıa was under the dıctatorshıp of Ceausescu. Whıle a lot of Eastern Europe were under totalıtarıan communıst dıctatorshıps at the tıme, Romanıa was one of the worst. Ceausescu ordered a thırd of Bucharest to be bulldozed, ıncludıng a hopsıtal and some schools. Thıs goes some way to explaınıng the stray dog problem, as hıs grand housıng plans put the dogs out, so to speak. Hıs bıggest project, however, was the parlıament buıldıng whıch Abstractboy and ben took a tour of whılst ın Bucharest. It ıs the second largest buıldıng ın the world, made entırely out of Romanıan materıals and by Romanıan hands. For sıx years ıt was beıng buılt twenty four hours a day ın three shıfts and nobody even knows the total cost. It's hard to ımagıne what the 8 year old bpy outsıde the statıon beggıng for cıgarettes thınks about ıt. It ıs clear that Romanıa wouldn't be ın half the mess ıt ıs ın now ıf ıt wasn't for an earlıer revolutıon or a dıfferent recent hıstory. It re-raıses the tıred quetsıon of what to do when a dıctatos ıs ruınıng a people. War (ın the opınıon of Abstractboy) ıs really not the answer, and revolutıon worked for Romanıa eventually. Bucharest was a very ınterestıng cıty and was perhaps the most extreme example of how bad ıt got ın Eastern Europe at tımes. Belgrade
A lot of great cıtıes begın wıth B. Berlın, Budapest, Barcelona, Bratıslava, Bucharest (hopefully!)...and Belgrade joıns the Golden B lıst. It ıs a whole other world from anythıng Abstractboy has ever been before. Not so long ago ıt was bombed heavıly by NATO, there was a natıonalıstıc dıctator by the name of Mılosevıc, and the 'problem' of Kosovo remaıns. The damage left by NATO ıs very vısıble ın the centre - the outsıde of huge grand buıldıngs stand, but on closer ınspectıon the wındows are all blown out and the whole centre of the buıldıng ıs a huge column of debrıs. Another buıldıng (ıf you can stıll call ıt that) was a mere shell, splıt ın two, and the fıre damage stıll very vısıble. Mılosevıc's legacy was nowhere to be seen, or perhaps hıdden at the back of everybody's mınds.
But despıte all thıs hıstory busıness, Belgrade seems to be thrıvıng ın some areas. It had a dıstınct aır of glamour (somehwat faded, of course), fıne restaurants, fancy cocktaıl bars. Even on a strıngent budget, Abstractboy and ben managed to eat ın one of Belgrade's fınest restaurants and stay at the Hotel Royal. It ıs quıte easy to assocıate Belgrade only wıth the BBC,s war reports and foget that ıt was one of the great and grand cıtıes of Europe at one tıme.
But of course the poverty ıs desparate and the general ınfrastructure ıs weak. Small chıldren run between the busy traffıc, beggıng for money, whıle others try to sell varıous ıtems out of rubbısh bıns. All of thıs at temperatures above 40 degrees celcıus. Phwoar. However, Belgrade feels lıke a cıty that ıs pvercomıng ıts problems slowly (you can!t do anythıng ın a hurry ın thıs heat) but surely. It wıll be very ınterestıg to see what the next 10 years hold for Belgrade and the rest of the Balkans as they move on from beıng the Former Yugoslavıa and deal wıth all of the problems caused by years of hatred, dıctators, neglect, and anythıng else the world threw at them. Though smog-fılled and sweaty, Beigrade ın 2004 was an experıence Abstractboy wıll remember forever (ın a good way!). Zagreb
Traın journeys provıde opportunıtıes to apprecıate your journey ın a way that flyıng or drıvıng never wıll. With flying you have to crane your neck to see over the wıngs and whıle ıt ıs often breathtakıng seeıng the world from above, you can mıss out on some of the most ınterestıng sıghts. When you drıve (Abstractboy doesn't, but wıll probably learn ın the future) you wıll ınevıtably take a less scenıc route ıf you are on a motorway and besıdes, you have to be focused on the road at all tımes. The traın journey between Ljubjana and Zagreb affırmed thıs apprecıatıon for traın journeys. The route runs through heavıly forrested mountaıns, deep gorges, whıte water, waterfalls, clıff faces...ıt was sımply awe ınspırıng. And you could just sıt back and watch ıt all unfold. It ıs worth makıng the two hour trıp, even ıf you were just to get the traın straıght back.
But Zagreb ıs worth a vısıt too, ıf only a short one. There were lots of nıce buıldıngs blah blah blah, a club wıth a Brıtısh Councıl ıssued poster, datıng back to 1999, adverıtsıng Brıtısh musıc abroad. It had pıctures of George Mıchael! Cleopatra (comın atcha)! And a Gerı-less Spıce Gırls. It wouldn't be faır to say that thıs was the hıghlıght of Zagreb, but ıt was certaınly entertaınıng. Zagreb really comes to lıfe at nıght, wıth an outsıde cafe scene that would make any cıty feel cosmopolıtan. Even Bırmıongham, maybe. Zagreb was nıce, but would really not be worth a longer vısıt.
Thursday, July 08, 2004Ljubjana
In all honesty, until a few weeks ago Abstractboy had no idea how to pronounce Ljubjana. When he did try, it came out as lib-jib-yana, and so it aquired the nickname joanna. It's correct pronounciation, however, is loo-bee-anna.
Ljubjana is lovely. Abstractboy's preconceptions of what to expect, other than that it had a dodge gay bar by the name of Tiffany's (thanks James!). But when the train started to climb through the mountaineous valleys and past rustic chalet towns, it was clear that it was going to be unlike any other city on the itinerary. It is quite a common misconception to consider Slovenia to be just another Eastern bloc country. It isn't, not that there is such a thing as a typical Eastern bloc country anymore, or even an Eastern bloc. Ljubjana feels like an artists town - modern and vibrant, combined with old and charming in a very bohemian cocktail.
And the people dress so well. Seriously. Forget London, forget Berlin, forget Milan. The fashionista/o level per capita is higher than anywhere ever. And the main pedestrain areas are lined with tables, spilling out of minimalist and concept bars. And there are lots of painstakingly attractive Indiegays. It really is the perfect place to spend a few days. But don't tell anyone. Forget Abstractboy even wrote any of this. Ljubjana must not become the new destination for the "PIVO" chanting, easyjet flying, British stag party. It is still unspoilt and, dare I say, happening. So visit Ljubjana now before tourism and Long Weekenders steal its charm.
(p.s. now in Belgrade, Serbia. It is amazing and we are both doing well.) Trieste
Trieste was a surprise addition to the itinerary, due to the discovery that the night train between Budapest and Ljubjana Abstractboy and ben had planned to catch had ceased service. And rather than return to Vienna or Munich to catch another train, they opted for breakfast in Italy instead. Which was nice. Trieste is sat on the Italian riviera, near the Slovenian border and at the foot of the alpss, forresty and terraced with peach coloured villas. It could almost be the Cote d'Azur! But a little (gasp) more chic. For a small city, Trieste has a lot of grand buildings - regional parliaments, and erm, other grand buildings. It was very nice to have a couple of hours of riviera glamour before hitting the Balkans full on. Budapest
Often described as the Paris of the East (Europe, presumably), Budapest carried the expectations of Art Nouveau architecture and 18th-19th century granduer. In that respect it didn't disappoint. Also similar to Paris, this is often perceived as a facade to a slightly dirtier and more troubled city. As mentioned previously, Budapest suffers from a huge homelessness problem. By 9pm most doorways on main roads are occupied by as many as four vagrants who have been on the streets longer than the many Burger Kings advertised in downtown Budapest. It wouldn't be fair to say that the desparately visible poverty marred the experience but it certainly affected it.
When you are in a tourist bubble, Budapest is lovely. It was originally two towns - Buda and Pest, with the seemingly endless Danube separating the two. There are many forrested hills, immensely ornate buildings, castles, churches and many many bridges. There is definitely enough to keep the coachloads of Japanese tourists busy. Abstractboy has decided that their anthem is "Tick" by Yeah Yeah Yeahs - tick tick tick tick their checklist tourism. It's manic. One of the most enjoyable experiences was a visit to one of the famous Hungarian thermal bath houses. Abstractboy and ben bathed in many different baths - hot onesm cold ones, very hot ones, ones with currents, ones styled like Roman baths with domed roofs. It was nice to feel clean and relaxed.
Abstractboy also made sure to try Hungarian traditional dish, goulash. It was very nice, if a little sloppy. But in all honesty he prefers his mother's interpretation of it, but shhh! Hungarian Tokaj wine was also a pleasure to drink.
Monday, July 05, 2004Do you feel the fever like I do?
Abstractboy never had any intention of sportblogging. Or blogging about football at all, ever, ever, ever. But last night, the final of Euro 2004, he felt the fever. Being a quarter portuguese (and a quarter brazillian and a half scawttish) he was obviously going to be supporting the hosts, Portugal, in the final. ben and Abstractboy found themselves in a hot and sweaty, GREEK FILLED, Budapest sports bar catching the latter half of the game. It was so traumatic. Portugal had so much more posession, they were undeniably the fitter team (such nice tans and eyebrows) and had so many shots at goal. When it reached the last muinute of injury time and Portugal were clearly not going to score that goal and the camera focused on Figo's teary face, Abstractboy too shedded a tear. The emotion was so high, the Portuguese had put so much into it, they were definetly the better team.
Oh well, it's how the game goes (not that he actually has any idea how to play). And it's good that Greece won, because, frankly, the Olymics...will it/won't it be ready etc? And also, yorkpete had office sweepstakes on Greece to win. So hopefully he should have a bit of extra cash. Which is good, obviously.
Saturday, July 03, 2004Time Out
While it is unimaginably fascinating and enjoyable to explore the great Eastern European cities and their largely unspoilt cultures, I am finding it increasingly hard to come to terms with some of the things I see. Maybe it is that my life in Britain is and always has been somewhat sheltered and the harsher realities of life have been less visible. Or maybe I chose not to notice, not to think.
The first thing that really saddened me was in Warsaw. At the exits to every Metro startion, there were children in wheelchairs, carrying signs presumably asking for money. Behind them sat their mothers. Six hours later they were still there, but the mothers were behind different children. This must have been one of the busiest and most polluted junctions in Europe and I imagine the children are out there in the freezing baltic winters too. I can,t help but think first of all that their mothers are being very unfair on their children, subjecting them to such unhealthy conditions. It was easy for me to assume that the parents were using their child,s disability for financial gain, but it also imaginable that provisions for disabled people are really very inadequate. It left me feeling guilty. Not that I had done anything, but it wasn,t as though I had done anything good to be born into such lucky circumstances where I could be in such a position to spend so much money travelling for my own selfish enjoyment.
In Germany we observed the whole-punk-drugs-dropout bridage that hang around the exits to every U-bahn station with their rabid dogs. They ask for "Ein bisschen Kleingeld" everytime you walk past, yet they have piercings (not cheap, trust me), freshly dyed hair, nice clothes. It seems so disgusting that people choose to live this clicheed pinkxanarchistxcore lifestyle (terms used sarcasticly) begging for money when they can clearly afford to buy cigarettes and Schwarzkopf. This criticism probably seems very self-righteous coming from Mr Privelaged, but I find it so hard to come to terms with why people choose to be homeless when there are people desparate enough zo put their disabled children on the streets of Warsaw just to have enough money to get through the week.
It was tonight in Budapest that really prompted me to take this Time Out though. Several things.
When reserving our couchette to Ljubjana I noticed a late teen in the corner with a yellow can to his mouth. On closer inspection, it was some sort of lighter fluid which he was inhaling direct into his mouth. I hadn,t seen anybody do that since the early 90s. I don,t know what else to say about that other than that it made me deeply sad. Ut reminded me a little (as did the German dropouts) of one of my favour ite ever films - Christiane F, which looks at the heroin teens in Berlin in the early 80s.
Earlier today I had seen a boy who could be no older than 8, carrying 2 bags full of what I thought to be shopping. He dropped two notes. I tapped him on the shoulder and, using my best traveller-sign-language, indicated that he had dropped them. And I thought I,d never see him again. But as we were walking back at eleven that evening, he was pacing up the same street with the same shopping bags in hands, and a vacant empty expression. How did it happen to him, how can an 8 year old spend his life on the streets of Budapest? I really wish there was something I could do. I wish he had a home and a familu anf love and warmth and some sort of security. There is still a lot to be done here. And the EU structural funds will not hit the problem at all. I wish I had some sort of conclusion or suggestion, but I'm well and truly stuck. Bratislava
Abstractboy and ben's short stay in Bratislava was one of the most enjoyable yet. For starters, they managed to avoid Australian backpackers, which is becoming an increasingly important thing to do. And their hostel was a palace of kitsch - coloured glass bricks, a shower that runs on to a toilet with a clear plastic seat (with barbed wire in it) and tiger and zebra print quilt covers. Abstractboy and ben were also lucky enough to meet the delightful Calum, a 1st year Harvard student who was once at Hutchie's in Glasgow and was on his 6th week in Slovakia researching for the updated edition of the Let's Go guide to Eastern Europe. Which was very nice.
Bratislava is a city divided in two by the Danube. On the north side is the beautiful Old Town - part Viennesse granduer, part medieval fortress town. On the south are the grey grey grey residential tower blocks and factories. Having spent most of the afternoon navigating the narrow passages of the old town, it seemed like an interesting idea to crossthe grafitti drenched bridge to The Other Side. Calum, ben and Abstractboy hopped over railway lines, darted across three lane motorways and avoided rabid dogs before finding a very Slovakian pub in which to find authenticity. And boy did they find authenticity. There were stuffed foxes, birds, fish, boars, grumpy bar staff (sadly, not stuffed) and 3öp a pint beer. after that experience, they re-crossed the river to try out Slovakia,s Only Gay Club (tm), which was needing re-reviewed for the guide book. The contrast was stark. Blue neon lights, 75p a pint, heavy redbull endorsement and a clientelle wearing TopShop's 2000 range . The barstaff were similarly unwelcoming, however. The whole experience was most enjoyable though - ancing to Slovakian Steps rip offs, Tatu, That Fucking O-Zone Song, Cher, Fragma, A1, Madhouse and so on. It was one of those GAP moments, although Abstractboy believes this may have been somewhat alcohol enduced.
Abstractboy would like to thank Calum for making Bratislava all the more enjoyable and insists that the offer of a bed in London stands as long as there are beds in London.
Bratislava also saw the death of Abstractboy's long suffering umbrella. In a storm that tore trees down literally, the umbrella was ripped right out of his hands. How sad.
Umbrella the next morning, 60 metres away from where it was brutally killed
Thursday, July 01, 2004
Abstractboy is a big fan of Wiener Schnitzel. So Vienna was a very important stop on the itinerary. But even if the best schnitzels in the world were not to be found here, Vienna would still be one of Abstractboy's favourite cities. It was hardly touched in WWII, so it is still in its original elegant and grand state on the whole. Probably for this reason it is totally overrun with tourists, but that doesn't detract from its slightly aloof and empirical charm.
Though Vienna was probably the most expensive stop, Abstractboy and ben have stumbled upon some really great bargains - Sleater Kinney - One Beat for 6 pounds! 6 pounds!!! That is half the usual price, even in nice indie record shops. And some very very trendy linensfor Abstractboy's new double (!!!) beds for only 20 pounds. Furthermore, Abstractboy and ben managed tp see Roy Lichtensteins, Andy Warhols and other pop-art masterpieces for only 2 pounds, as well as purchasing even more of H&M's really rather nice men's underwear collection. All of this possible thanks to Mastercard and a staple diet of bread and cheese from supermarkets.
The whole Vienna stay finished on a wonderful note as Abstractboy sat on the grass outside Schloß Schönbrunn, the sun setting, and the glorious Air playing their glorious music out through the courtyard of the yellow palace and their dazling lightshow licking the few clouds in the evening sky. Air really do make the loveliest music and Moon Safari is a sexual aid like no other (have yet to put the new album to the test). Their sound is so perfect for the open air situation. Abstractboy and ben were also supposed to see the Scissor Sisters that evening, but they played at 7pm when linen was still being purchased. Though it is painful to admit, Abstractboy really does quite like the Scissor Sisters and their MOR-cabaret charm, even if the Topshop fags and hags boogying down to them at Popstary does make him cringe to no end!
Tomorrow is Bratislava and the end of the honeymoon "I CAN SPEAK THE LANGUAGE!" period. How exciting! Munich
Having never visited southern Germany before, Abstractboy's preconceptions of Bavaria were laced with the supposed primitive nature of the Bavarians - beer swilling and backwardly traditional. However, Munich is a very modern, cosmopolitan and multi-cultural city, whilte still maintaining an old and beautiful town centre. It has surprisingly been the most tourist-filled city so far, dominated by Aussie and American backpackers and wealthy japanese check-list tourists.
The Olympic Stadium was in stark contrast to the one in Berlin - a sweeping and 70s utopianist/space age glass jungle, and Munich's parks were filled with strangers playing sports with eachother. It was an altogether friendly and welcoming place and residents seemeed not to resent backpackers like in other places.
Abstractboy, as ever, made a concerted effort to try local things. Having already consumed a life's worth of wurst in the last 2 weeks, it left only the traditional Bavarian beerhall to try for authenticity. It was a whole other world - Absstractboy had never seen a glass so big, let alone had to drink out of one. But a litre of beer was a perfect way of spending less time in the crappest (and most expensive!) hostel ever. There was a band and red-faced cheering and pretzels, but most importantly, there were locals, which is the sure sign to an outsider that a place is actually ok. The bad did start to play that Hermes House Band song, but we can overlook that!