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Germany, Austria, Italy by rail - May 2004


Arrival

Thursday, 13 May 2004

It is 0400. Off to an inauspicious start. It turns out I was not e-ticketed: tickets were issued and sent to the travel agent a month ago. But I never saw them so I end up paying $50 to have them reissued by Qantas. Then another $25 departure tax. The coffee place isn’t open yet. My head hurts. And eight hours at Sydney airport to look forward to.

There is nothing good you can really say about the flight from Wellington to Sydney: three and a half hours isn’t really enough to settle in for the long haul, though it is certainly long enough to try, and I have long since lost my youthful ability to sleep like a babe in an aeroplane seat. (Along with most of the other accoutrements of youth, alas.) I wonder how much the Sydney departure tax is going to be.

Fortunately I do not have to worry about that. After a gruff-ish call back to Sharyn in the office – sorry about that Shaz – and a few minutes wait for the call back, the travel agent explained to Sharyn, who then explained to me, that the cost of my Sydney and subsequent departures is included on my (reissued) tickets. I am sceptical. “We shall see,” is all I concede at the time. I am also sceptical of the recounted denial that my tickets were electronic, it was all Qantas’s fault, and they would recover my money. [As it happens, my subsequent departure taxes were paid, and the agency did reimburse my $50.]

* * *

The flight from Sydney to Frankfurt was accomplished in two steps: a six and a half hour haul to Singapore and a ten and a half hour slog the rest of the way. I had an aisle seat. During the first leg, I shared my three-seat row with an elderly couple, apparently incontinent, for whom I had to keep getting up to allow them past to the toilet. For the second leg, I shared it with one empty seat and a completely beautiful young German girl, returning home from a seven month working holiday in Australia, who athletically vaulted over me whenever she wanted to get past. On each of these occasions, as her delightful little ass swept by a few centimetres beyond my nose, I wondered, where were you in the early fourteenth century, when I was young and single?

Travel

Friday, 14 May 2004

Entry formalities were delightfully transparent. No doubt we were all examined minutely by surveillance cameras and whatnot, but the user experience was efficient, fast, and pleasant. I was able to wave my USD 360 Eurail pass and catch my first train right from the airport. Most of the service people spoke excellent English and my worst difficulties arose because I was expecting complications which simply weren’t there. Except for one little thing. As the beautiful countryside rolled by, and my head finally stopped hurting for the first time in some days, it gradually dawned upon me that the train I was on was not going to Vienna....

The sky over Frankfurt is streaked with jet-streams: five or six in view at any moment, but we soon left that behind. The train – first class, at any rate – appeared to be a very social environment. People were constantly changing places to chat with one another. Perhaps they were all regulars who had gotten to know one another over the years, but I didn’t think so. Several attempted to talk with me, despite the obvious contrast between their smart business attire and whatever I must have looked like after 30 or so hours without a wash or a change of clothes. Alas, my complete inability to even greet these kind people in their own language left their friendly overtures unrequited. I smiled like an idiot.

As we moved further into east Germany – no longer East Germany – I began to notice more things in disrepair, buildings with smashed windows and broken roofs, but with active repairs underway in probably the majority of cases. Just before reaching Eisenach I saw a picture postcard village on the hills. If only I could stay somewhere like that! And, as it happened, I did, through good luck disguised as bad. Actually, Eisenach itself looked pretty nice, but I carried on to Weimar even though I had already figured out by then that I was not going to Vienna as planned. At Weimar station nobody spoke English, the map posted on the large board outside was indecipherable, and my Frommers map showed only the city centre: it did not extend to the railway station. So I shouldered my pack and followed the crowds, acting on faith. Quite a few people stared at me. I hoped it was on account of my exotic footwear – although I actually passed a shop selling “flip flops” during the afternoon – rather than visible dirt.

I found Weimar disappointing (not to say stultifyingly boring) although nothing in the Frommers, which extolls the town’s olde worlde charm and cultural significance, is actually incorrect. The place just doesn’t seem to have a personality somehow. So when the elaborately made-up but essentially charmless young blonde at the tourist information place told me there was no accommodation in Weimar, my only distress was occasioned by the logistical hassle of getting myself somewhere else. Ms. Plastic passed me on to an older, motherly colleague whose English was less proficient but whose willingness to actually help find a roof to go over my now increasingly fogging head more than compensated. Bus 228 from outside the train station to the Pension Lindenhof in Kromsdorf-Süd was just what I needed.

Before leaving the tourist information centre (by the way, you actually have to walk past anything you’re ever likely to want to see in Weimar to actually find the tourist information centre, which, for future reference, is located in the Marktplatz) I stopped at the attached travel agent to plan my route to Vienna. This lady, like the one at Frankfurt, thought I meant Jena – so it must be my accent causing the confusion – and I had to whip out my map to point out where I meant. The itinerary she produced had me arriving at 17:15, without reservations. However, I doubted that Vienna would run out of inner city accommodation quite so readily as Weimar.

It was only noon, so I had no need to hurry back to the train station. Even so, I found nothing to detain my interest in Weimar beyond a curious preoccupation the town seems to hold with Ginkgo trees, and only just missed the 13:05 bus through misreading the destination sign. (The electric sign on the bus actually says Pf-something, rather than Kromsdorf.) So I turned back for a doner and caught the 14:05, for the princely sum of €1.20, instead. As the short bus ride progressed, I could see that my luck was in – a rare enough event – because the countryside and the little villages we were passing through were everything I could ever have hoped for. Beautiful. So here I was, parked opposite a lovely old stone church, paying only €35 (NZD70) for a perfectly nice, clean little room, and breakfast to boot.

After a quick shower and a change of clothes, I lay down for a moment. About four hours later I woke up and went for a groggy walk; not too far, not too long. My nose was blocked full of blood and snot. Then it was half nine. “Bed,” I thought.

Saturday, 15 May 2004

When I was alternately freezing and overheating on the plane over, I had put it down to the vagaries of the airconditioning. That can hardly have been the case for my little room at the Lindenhof and, besides, my headache was back. I guessed I had a cold. Alas, that was insufficient to explain why I had been so distracted and disorganised: that simply reflected my addled state of mind. I wondered briefly if this trip might be a Passage to Juneau.

My hostess spoke no English, and my German was limited to “danke” and the numbers one to ten. Nevertheless, we managed to establish that breakfast was at 8:00 and that her “mann” (husband, I presumed) would take me to the station. I made the usual mistake of attempting to climb in the driver’s side of his car – a shared laugh – then off to Weimar and the train. Most every building facing the tracks, and some of the rolling stock too, is tagged. It is the same everywhere I have been by train so far. But soon we were back in the country, with its mysterious bright buttercup-yellow fields and beautiful, quaint villages. Sitting opposite me is a beautiful young blonde girl. As you’d expect, most of the women are blonde here. For some bizarre reason, many of them dye their hair. Red, in varying shades of fluorescence, is the preferred colour. My companion asked me to keep an eye on her bags while she went off somewhere for a few minutes, which I did gladly. Situation is everything: I didn’t understand a word she spoke, but knew exactly what she said, and vice versa.

It hadn’t occured to me until then, though it is obvious when you think about it, but the trains are organised like an airline service. There are principal hubs, rather than every line going everywhere. Thus, to travel southeast from Weimar to Vienna, I was actually on a train headed almost directly due west, to Fulda. I don’t mind this: On this trip I am not here to see museums and art galleries. Well, not primarily, at least. If I ever return with the family, I will do that then. But, on that improbable future trip I will almost certainly be driving, my usual lot on holiday, and unable to simply watch the world go by. On this train journey, somebody else was doing the driving so I was able to enjoy looking out the window.

On the way we passed three steam engines: two hulks rusting on a siding, but the third looking like new and in active service.

At Fulda I changed trains. There was only five minutes in which to accomplish this switch, but the precision of the timetables and timeliness of the train arrivals and departures ensured that I spent four of those minutes, quietly at ease on the platform, actually waiting.

The journey to the Austrian border is, again, relaxing. The villages, with their boxy, red-tile-roofed houses, are delightful; the spindly tall forests a lush lime green with many darker conifers, quite different from home. Opposite me I have acquired two more attractive blondes, one dyed red, the other not. How lucky can a guy get? The pleasant scenery extends even to some of the larger centres, too. Würzburg and Nürnberg are both wonderful looking cities, though taking little enough care of their respective skylines with tall smoke-stacks and what have you. The few hilly areas are the more scenic, but the majority of this trip is very much on the flat. For a short time, just south of Plattling, the track follows a fair sized river. Along the banks are a couple of stunningly picturesque towns which I should try to find on a map, and revisit. The border comes just after Passau, where most of the remaining passengers alight, and there are no formalities. What a grand time to be a spy – but is there anything left to spy on?

Linz is an unattractively industrial area, then things take a turn for the better as the train trundles into Vienna. The tourist information desk at the train depot organised a not too expensive hotel – the Hotel Anatole, in Webgaβe – within walking distance, and gave me a map and directions. And at last my cell phone springs into life and I can clear my messages!

Tired from travelling, I had only the energy for a quick reconnaisance down to the Kunsthalle and back. I’d do the thing properly next day. McDonald’s for dinner: boy, “large” in Austria really means it.

Sunday, 16 May 2004

Rain overnight. Slept somewhat poorly but dozed off and on and ended up actually getting up later than planned. Probably a good thing in hindsight because virtually none of the shops appear to open on a Sunday in Vienna. Jo rang during breakfast at the hotel. Rebecca, aged less than four at the time, was very articulate and clear. She asked me to come home.

After breakfast – the usual continental assortment of meat and cheese, with plenty of garlic to keep the vampires at bay – I finally hit the pavement about 8ish, sauntered down to the Kunsthalle, then halfway back again to the Meerhaus which by now was just opening. In the little square outside, three or four apparently homeless types were just packing up their blankets and things. Someone had wrenched the door off a nearby portaloo, rendering it, if not exactly useless, then at least quaint, and there were drifts of empty beer cans and rubbish in the corners. Still, it’s a tidier city than many I’ve seen.

The Vienna City Marathon is on today. Who knew? For the record, it will be won by Samson Kandie of Kenya, in 2:08:35.

The outside of the Meerhaus, which is several stories high, is covered in the little finger- and toe-holds used to build artificial rock-climbing walls and, of course, there are ropes and eye-bolts for karabiners too. The whole lot is fenced off but, if this were home, some congenital idiot would doubtless find his way in there, die horribly though deservedly, and then the politically-correct brigade of even more worthless human trash would swing into action and close the thing down. Does anyone out there understand this obsession that the do-gooder league has to save morons from the consequences of their own stupidity? Or from any sort of consequences, come to that. If some people are simply too dumb to live, what’s wrong with that? Perhaps all you kiwi do-gooders would care to piss off to Vienna? Apparently there is still some vestige of personal freedom left to be stamped out here.

Inside the Meerhous were the usual sharks, sundry reef-fish and tropicals, including the mandatory pirhanas. Not much variety or, at least, nothing out of the ordinary, though the tanks were very clean and the fish obviously healthy. They’d added an amusing “kast der Nemo” poster too, though it didn’t pack the punch it might have for, although they had blue tangs, I failed to see any clown fish. Nor sea dragons, nor ctenophores, nor jellyfish, so definitely behind the state of aquarium art there. However, there were a few terraria occupied by various large hairy spiders – not actually tarantulas, I don’t think, though indistinguishable to my layman’s eye – and a fine collection of snakes. Then there is the rainforest section: a walk-in aviary with free-roaming primates of some sort – tamarins I think. Some children chased them while their idiot mother looked on indulgently. I just leaned on the rail, staying quiet and still, though neither silent nor immobile, and after a few moments three of them came over to me, one climbing up on to my shoulder. The children and a couple of older girls came over to look. Hopefully they learned something; a bit later, after the children who just couldn’t slow down had left, I saw one of the girls happily entertaining one of these delightful wee guys herself.

Back past the Kunsthalle, which has sort of become my landmark as the “beginning” of the old city, and on to the now open Kunsthistorisches Museum: entry fee €7.50, reduced for National Art Day or something. After a quick turn among the Egyptians I went to look at the paintings: tons of Bruegal, as you’d expect in this part of the world – he leaves me cold – but some decent Italians as well. The best known individual works are a couple of Rembrandt’s self-portraits, which I couldn’t find, and Raphael’s Madonna in the Field, which I did. Alas my back was beginning to kill me by this time, a legacy of my fitful sleep the previous night no doubt, or perhaps it is just age, so I could do little more than limp back to the Anatole and rest from mid-afternoon onwards.

At some point I pass a poster advising me that I have just missed Peter Gabriel’s “Still Growing Up” concert by two days.

Verona and around

Monday, 17 May 2004

I select the inland route to Verona, via Innsbrook in preference to Venice, which I dislike. It is a myth, widely believed in New Zealand, that European public transport is able to be made far cheaper and more efficient than ours, only by virtue of the greater population densities. That is not my observation. This train from Vienna to Innsbruck, like all of the others I have travelled so far, is mostly empty. Within five paces, I have a choice of eleven vacant seats. Nor was my Eurail pass cheap. I am told – though no doubt there is some scope for hyperbole to have entered here – that it is usually cheaper to fly for any but the shortest distances in Europe, rather than taking the train. But then I would would not see anything, nor have any quiet time to relax and enjoy the ride.

Salzburg and Kufstein, though I only see them from the windows of my coach, are the aesthetic highlights of the first part of the journey. At Innsbrook I transfer to a different train, an Italian carrier. There is a change of crew. The Austrians in their tidy grey suits file off; the Italians in their ridiculous braid and epaulettes, looking like a bunch of South American banana-republic generals, file on. The carriage stinks of cigarette smoke, it is dirty, the suspension squeaks, the ventilation gurgles, the window is beaded with condensation, there is no complementary itinerary nor coffee service; just bright, shiney buttons on the rather martial uniforms of the train crew. Well, after all, we’re heading for Italy now, with all its attendant triumphs of style over substance. But at least the food will be better.

Brixen looks nice but probably expensive. I am told that all these quaint little villages through here are frequented by the beautiful people, the ski set, so it’s a cert, really.

* * *

Oh, yes, I’m back in Italy alright. As I get off the reeking, creaking, Eurocity train-wreck, there are no tourist information signs. Of course I have an ace up my sleeve in the form of Paul’s phone number, but I do not wish to bother him if I can avoid it. I go in search. First I find a travel agent and ask her for assistance. Her English is excellent and she is most helpful in terms of trying, but her’s is a commercial operation; her market is people with Euros, not Pacific pesos which the Kiwi has become over the past 30 years. (I remember when a Kiwi pound had parity with sterling!) The cheapest room on her books is €95 – NZD190! – which, yes, I can afford, but I’m damned if I’m going to. However, she does direct me to the actual tourist information office. I duly arrive at the appropriate window, whereupon the tall blonde woman there turns her back on me and begins reading the newspaper spread open on the counter at a side-window. I walk around to the side window and confront her again. This bitch has made me angry already. When it finally dawns upon her that I am not going to simply vanish so she can have a quiet read, she directs me back to the original window. Her English is poor – at least apparently, for she is clearly not what we might call “service-oriented”, and I wouldn’t put it past her to be playing dumb – and the full extent of her assistance is to open a brochure, scratch a line between the station and the town centre on the centrefold map, and proclaim “Most of the hotels are around the central area; the rates are in the front of the book.”

Oh, yes, I’m back in Italy alright. In Germany and Austria (every country I’ve ever been to, in fact) they’ll ring around and find somewhere for you. I have the idea they might even do that in Bolivia. But this is Italy. The search proves easy, however: I walk less than a kilometer and find anchorage at the second place I try. It is very tiny, and possessed of some strange and frightening bathroom concepts, but the Albergo Trento is neat, clean, cheap and cheerful.

My Rough Guide makes some parallels between Verona and Venice, but the two are nothing alike. Verona does remind me of Rome, however. On an earlier visit there, Jo and I found that one of the best ways to enjoy Rome was simply to wander at random through the pokey little alleys and whatnot. So I attempt the same approach here in Verona, and pass an enjoyable couple of hours until meeting my friends Joy and Paul for dinner, just as the sun begins to sink. They take me to a grand little spot (which I will not successfully relocate a couple of days later; such is life) where I am able to order myself a simple pizza margarita. It is sublime. Despite authentic wood ovens, acclaimed and lauded chefs imported from Italy, and trebled prices, there is nobody in the whole length and breadth of New Zealand capable of making this simple staple taste quite like the real McCoy. Yet it is something which almost any Italian pizzeria can chug out in minutes. I’ve been waiting six years for this....

Tuesday, 18 May 2004

I head off early to try to see some of Verona city centre, around the arena, before meeting my friends for the train ride to Mantova (Mantua). As it turns out, the frequency of the trains is such that I have plenty of time. Joy and Paul do not materialise in time for the 9:30 and the next train is not until 11:30. To our delight, the return trip for the three of us costs only €20 or so.

Anyway, we soon arrive in Mantova and head off to the Ducal Palace, a vast, sprawling group of buildings built, according to Wikipedia, between the 14th and the 17th century mainly by the noble family of Gonzaga as their royal residence in the capital of their Duchy. One of these, the Castle of St. George, houses the Camera Picta, the most famous room in the whole place, with its fabulous Andrea Mantegna frescos. Any of them is worth the visit, but capping the lot of them – both metaphorically and literally – is the ceiling “oculus” that portrays a balustrade with frolicking putti and a blue sky beyond.

Next, we visited the Palazzo Te, designed by Giulio Romano, a pupil of Raphael. The design of the palace is basically a square house surrounding a cloistered courtyard. Again quoting that font of all knowledge, real and imagined, Wikipedia, “for ten years a team of plasterers, carvers and fresco painters laboured, until barely a surface in any of the loggias or salons remained undecorated.” Sadly, in 1630, “Mantua and the palace were sacked” before falling victim to “one of the worst plagues in history that the invaders had brought with them. The Palazzo was looted from top to bottom and remained an empty shell: nymphs, god, goddesses and giants remain on the walls of the empty echoing rooms.”

And that is my recollection, too: an empty, echoing shell, with just the barest hints of masterpieces left clinging to the stone. It’s an odd feeling.

Wednesday, 19 May 2004

For the first time in as long as I can remember, I have slept through the night without waking, even once. This morning, though, I am finding it a bit difficult to get started. It is now 10:30 and the only thing I have achieved is to go downstairs and ascertain that there is no laundry here. I have clean clothes left for one day only. There are two places I want to see, and I must send some postcards, and I’d like to find an internet cafe. Must get up.... Must go out.... But can’t really be arsed.

I daresay I did manage to get out and do something, eventually, but just what it was I no longer remember, and the diary is silent.

It must have been this day that I learned of an impending general strike, which would paralyze the whole country, affecting the trains along with everything else, and potentially leave me stranded in Italy when I needed to be in Tübingen. Although I still had a couple of days up my sleeve, it seemed I would have to move on, bugger it.

Tübingen

Thursday, 20 May 2004

Only one awakening last night, about 2-ish, so not a bad night. Awoke a few minutes before the alarm, which I’d set for 6:30 and, although feeling somewhat apathetic, it seems I will not be required to atone for the booze I drank last night. My mouth feels like a cat slept in it though.

With minimal drama I check out, reach the station, and board the train to Munich. This time I am very careful to select a non-smoking compartment in first class. The striated, heaped masses of the Dolomites rise around us as we move towards and through Trento, with its enigmatic concrete circle of pillars on the hillside. Further on, the train slows to a crawl – something to do with the tracks – the Dolomites turn red, rusting rolling-stock sits in sidings. At this rate the general strike will catch us up before we leave Italy. More immediately, my connection in Munich is now in extreme doubt. Sodding Italians. Still, perhaps we’ll make up the lost time once we’re back among the Huns.

No. Both the Austrians and the Germans, once I reached their lands, took exactly the specified time between each stop, so we didn’t make up one single minute, and I missed my connection. There was another similar problem later, in Germany, so I missed a subsequent connection also. I found this most disappointing after my initial positive experiences on Eurail. Finally, I limped into Tübingen about 8.

Despite the problems of today, my early departure from Italy has deposited me two days ahead of schedule and, consequently, two days ahead of my room reservation. At the youth hostel I discover I can stay tonight, but not tomorrow. I am sharing a room even though the place seems virtually deserted today, that I will need my own towel (which I guess I’ll have to buy tomorrow), and that I’ve lost €500. I am plunged into gloom – not far off despair, actually – and feel like the whole trip is a disaster. I wish I’d never come. All my efforts to minimise the cost of the venture have been negated at a stroke. I contemplate fasting for a few days, to save money. I resolve to remain working in the IT sector, for the high income, even though I have come to hate it. I make all sorts of absurd resolutions along these lines. I am too depressed to do anything except my laundry, and I am anxious that some arsehole will steal that out of the drying room, too.

Friday, 21 May 2004

The morning began with a terrific thunder storm during which I remember the special inner compartment of my pack and a vague recollection of putting my cash in there. Half an hour later, the storm clears; my room-mate, Ernst, in town for a Christian rally he says cheerfully, heads off to the showers, and I confirm that I am still in funds. I wonder how resolved my resolutions will remain? My family will have sacrificed no less for this jaunt if I spend the money or lose it. Well, that’s one way to look at it, I guess.

My clothes are mostly dryish; the internet kiosk downstairs harbours more good news – a note from one of my colleagues advising that we have won a particularly fraught proposal – and I clear off down town to find a room for tonight. I make contact with Jörg about 11 and arrange to visit him at the University at 14:30. Sadly, though, I learn that Hans’s health is not the best, and he may be a no-show at the conference. Never mind; in a few hours I may find myself redescribing the types of Deflandrea phosphoritica – not your everyday experience! I must be returning to my old self: I had nothing to eat at all yesterday, and only a bowl of muesli at the hostel this morning, but I am not hungry. However, I am cold, having come out in only a tee-shirt, so I step into a coffee shop for a panini and coffee.

Ach! The microscope is very poorly set up – it can’t have been serviced for ages – and the material is poor. It appears to have deteriorated over time and some of Eisenack’s slides are so thick you cannot get high power onto them. I bash off a film and a half: we’ll see the results of the first one tomorrow. Jörg is a delightful guy and the collections of tetrapods and other macrofossils here are mind-boggling. Though very diplomatic, Jörg is clearly unimpressed that I am staying at the youth hostel until he realises that I am a student without funding. Like me, he uses an Olympus of which he speaks highly even though he is a Leitz man at heart (”I like to buy local”). I also meet Mercedes Prámparo, a delightful Argentinian who mostly works with pollen and spores, with the occasional dino, and knows Archangelski.

A doner for dinner; gentle rain pattering on the roof; I decide to curl up with the Misses Murphy (Eight Feet in the Andes) and have an early one.

Saturday, 22 May 2004

Two calls in the night. First from Jo, about 22:45, with a tearful Becksy (three and a half years old) asking Daddy to come home. After talking for a few minutes she cheers up, though, and the intricacies of saying “see ya later, alligator” have her giggling. I miss her and wish I was home myself. The second call, about 02:15 or so, is from the Vic Alumni Association to tell me I have been granted some funding. Hopefully I didn’t make too bad an impression on the phone, being rather groggy from being woken in the wee small hours. I can’t remember how much it is now, and thought it impolite to ask. Presumably I’ll remember when my head clears. I have to collect the prize in person and deliver a brief presentation about my work on 30 June. Cool. I make a mental note to email Mike and Graeme, my supervisors, to let them know. Meanwhile, the morning arrives and it is time to check out of the rather nice Hotel am Schloss, and return to the youth hostel.

Well, the youth hostel won’t allow me to check in until 1 – at least I think that’s what the grunting from the Neanderthal prick behind the counter means – so I check my pack into a locker and head up to the university to photograph some more of Eisenack’s classic slides. [The words I used in my diary are harsher still; the youth hostel guy must really have been a complete arse-wipe to make me that angry.] Just before 4:30 I rush down to the photographic shop to drop in the films I’ve taken. They are closed – I see they closed at 4:00 – and they do not reopen until the day after tomorrow. Ah, bugger it. So now I am back in town with nothing to do and it is far too early for dinner. I don’t want to go and get a book from the hostel, and wake up my room-mates yet again, so I sit in the park and write up my diary.

There is a poster stuck to a pillar: The Cure and Depeche Mode are performing tonight. Somewhere. If only I knew where, and where to get tickets, though presumably they’d be sold out by now anyway. It never occurred to me to check for concerts before I left home.

5 p.m. I can get dinner soon.

* * *

I find a pleasant little Italian (”prego”) pizzaria and have a lovely meal with a couple of beers and coffee to follow. Then, back to the hostel for a long boring evening, reading Dervla, until I can finally go to bed with some dignity, just before 10.

Sunday, 23 May 2004

Immediately following ablutions and breakfast, I went straight to the university and had finished photographing the types I was interested in by about 1530. Jörg appeared towards the end of my session. Then I came back to town and had a cheap’n’cheerful Chinese meal for lunch. They couldn’t understand either my English or my tortured Mandarin, but we got by. After that I went back to the hostel to shave (no basin in my room; I had to shave in the communal bog – what a drag), change out of my holey jeans, and do my laundry. Just as I was preparing to leave again, I ran into Jörg who had come to make arrangements for another couple of course attendees who would be arriving after midnight. He, too, had a run-in with Adolf, the aptly named, ill-mannered fucker who runs this dump.

Then we go together to the nearby beer garden to meet Henk, Appy and Jim, then on to the Hotel Hospiz to meet another 20 or so people. I can’t remember names – I’m a social imbecile – so eventually I slink away for a doner and back to my cell at Adolf’s stalag by 2030. A bit despondent; probably just the beers. Dervla until whenever, then sleep.

Monday, 24 May 2004

A rough night, with late arrivals waking everybody up, then someone in the bunk above me snoring loudly for hours: all course attendees. Then, in the morning, another attendee seemed utterly oblivious to the time. We were waiting for him to get to the uni. Where was he? Sitting in the now nearly empty breakfast hall (breakfast was finished) apparently waiting for someone to serve him. Oh, dear.

Anyway, we all arrived on time in the end. But the course itself is pitched at an audience of … well, I’m not sure, really. The novices must be completely at sea and the old hands simply bored. I don’t quite know what I would do instead, but with some thought I believe I could come up with something. I think evolutionary trends, ecological controls, gotchas, some current problems relating to classification … that sort of thing. Range charts are useful for the manual, but pointless on screen. If someone is going to talk about tabulation, then they should do it properly and in detail. Jim’s peep-show of specimens started to engage me, but after a while it was too much. To misappropriate another quote, it was just one damn dino after another.

Yeah, it was ok.

I took my films in for processing at lunch time. I met Wolfgang Willie; a lovely guy. And now, at the communal table (only because I’m too embarrassed to go to my cell) at Stalag Adolf, with Dervla again. Sigh. There’s not really a lot to do in Tübingen, when you really get down to it.

* * *

Herr Adolf wandered past and actually said hello. Maybe it’s a sign….

Tuesday, 25 May 2004

A long day of pictures of Mesozoic dinos, ranges, morphologies … spiced up with only the very occasional taxonomic conumdrum. Henk and I talked about when to, and when not to, speciate. He recognises, quite rightly, that the wee beasties are very variable, but, unlike me, prefers not to establish formal taxa unless he can see some stratigraphic merit, or perhaps an ecological signal. I’m more moved by the observation that the stratigraphic or ecological difference may lie elsewhere. I may not have (or recognise) the evidence myself. The interpretation of these things is a global activity, and the patterns simply cannot be recognised if similar taxa are just munged together into big buckets, because nobody can be arsed separating them. Publish and be damned, I say.

I picked up my films at lunch time. Hmm: some are ok, but none are great. I bought a pretty little necklace for Becksy and returned to the Italian place for a margharita for dinner. Then it was time to scuttle back to the uni for the guided tour of the vertebrate collection. Our guide was a hyperactive German: a man like my colleague Michael might be if deprived of cigarettes and force fed on concentrated caffeine for 48 hours. We were treated to an interesting insight into dinosaur hips followed by an illogical diversion into avian evolution: “The Chinese [Jehol biota] feathered fossils prove it!” Um, no. They’re at least 20 million years too young to prove anything about avian evolution. Mate.

Still, it was an interesting tour and the guy (whose name I heard twice, yet still couldn’t retain it) obviously knew his stuff.

Back to the stalag to clear my mail and then, I think, to bed.

Wednesday, 26 May 2004

More conferencing in the morning but – joy! – a half-day fieldtrip was on the agenda for the afternoon. I think the original intention was to visit three quarries, though in the end there was only time for two. The first of them, which, honestly, I do not remember very well, was a working cement quarry where we were able to look at the late Triassic Upper Muschelkalk Beds. The second quarry I remember very well, however: It was a lower Jurassic Toarcian black shale quarry where we were able to scamper over the tailings searching for well-preserved ammonites. I must have found a couple of dozen in the time we were there, and the pick of them would later make my backpack extremely heavy. The quarry manager was able to speak at length about the geology of the shale beds, which, considering his audience, was a decent feat. With the hunt for good ammonites getting our anemic academic blood circulating, Jörg and Co. made the sensible decision to cut the third stop and just let us go for it.

That evening was slated for the conference social function: welcoming speeches by University dignitaries followed by a rather nice buffet dinner at the Schloss Hohentubingen, a large castle built on a hill overlooking Tübingen. Ordinarily, I’d probably have feigned some distressing illness and begged off such an event, but I was anxious to meet the guest of honour, Hans Gocht, and at the same time pass on the regards from one of my supervisors. Jörg very kindly introduced me and interpreted for us. Hans was in hot demand from many of the class participants, however, so I did not hog his time for more than a few minutes.

Thursday, 27 May 2004

Conference during the day; I won’t write any more about that.

I went to dinner with a Colombian and two Belgians. We talked about TinTin a lot. “Pork” is translated to “pig” on the menu. Lots of sauerkraut, which tastes delicious. I can’t recall having eaten it since the German burger place which used to be in Johnston Street closed down, some 15 years or so gone by! In the end, I drank too much beer (too much for me is not really a lot) and awoke with a sore head the next morning.

Friday, 28 May 2004

I haven’t had a bad headache for days now, so this morning hit me like a truck. The conference has started to pick up, just as it’s about to end, and, today, we mostly leave the FADs and LADs behind and delve into some interpretive stuff. Henk is a bolide apostle. Oh dear. At lunch, and after the final curtain call on the conference, I rephotograph a few of the Tübingen types on a much better microscope, using a digital camera.

I treated myself to a rather lavish dinner at what has become my favourite restaruant, the little pizzeria run by the Italian family: a nice salami pizza with olives and a quattro litro of chianti, with Sicilian cassatta and aqua fizzante to follow. (Sure, the taxi drivers are crooks to a man, nothing runs on time, and it must drive anyone insane to actually live there … but … I’d have to say that Italy is a lot more fun than Germany, any day. Unless one goes to somewhere like Hamburg, of course.)

Grazie.

Frankfurt

Saturday, 29 May 2004

Some obnoxious bastard arrived during the night – around midnight – turned on the light and made a hell of a noise getting himself organised. He was noisey getting up too. What a prick. Then I had to pay one more day at the hostel … for today, the 29th. If that policy were to be applied consistently, it would mean that a person arriving one day, staying for a single night, and leaving the next day, would pay for two nights’ accommodation. It seemed strange and I vowed to query the YHA about it when I returned home [I forgot].

But I didn’t have time to investigate this morning if I was to catch the early train and share the first part of the ride, as far as Stuttgart, with my Belgian friends, and I wasn’t sure that the woman at the counter (not the lovely wee elf with the short, blonde dreadlocks, alas) could cope with the necessary concepts in English.

The ride to Stuttgart was quite charming. We passed a major hauptbahnhof on the way, which was like a wasteland except for the fantastic tapestry of tracks, pylons and overhead wires. Somebody should make one of those post-Armageddon movies there. I said farewell to my Belgian colleagues and changed trains at Stuttgart. The rest of the trip in to Frankfurt was more built-up, but not unpleasant. There is a good tourist information desk at Franfurt Hbf; they found me a very nearby hotel – the Prinz Otto, on Ottostraβe – easily, and it is reasonably priced even by New Zealand standards at €41/nacht. So now I am sitting here; it is only 1300 but apathy is in danger of getting the better of me. I must force myself out to explore, and maybe buy a new pen.

* * *

A more or less successful mission: I find the British Bookshop (reading material for the flight home is assured) and get my bearings somewhat. The little Chinese restaurant I spot across the road will furnish a pleasant dinner later on, and I acquire some Peter Rabbit WMF cutlery for Bex. The TV in my room antes up BBC, CNN, MTV, and some diverting local music show. I discover to my amusement that I am staying within two blocks of the red-light district, which features a XXX-rated internet lounge. I wonder what goes on in there? I will probably be better off not knowing.

Back in my room I wash some shirts in the shower, read a bit, enjoy my Mongolian chicken and a few words of Mandarin across the street and then write this in my diary. I won’t be late tonight I don’t think.

Sunday, 30 May 2004

I seem to have gone to the zoo on this day. Unless I’ve mislaid them over the years, I seem to have only one film (these were still emulsion days for me) of 22 photos, and, sandwiched in between Verona and pictures of my daughter taken when I got home, are a couple of Malaysian sunbears, something like a bandicoot, penguins – unbelievably!, an out-of-focus banded shrimp, a tank of at least four perfectly beautiful weedy sea dragons, and a rather forlorn looking rhinoceros. I actually remember the rhino, because there seemed to be only one. (Hopefully there were/are others resting out of sight somewhere. These days, they’re too precious not to be held in groups where they can breed.)

I’m a bit of a zoo junkie, and I recall enjoying my visit to Frankfurt Zoo. Apparently too much to have taken time out to write in my diary!

Monday, 31 May 2004

It rained overnight. I think I may have become vaguely aware of it during the usual “2 to 5” vigil – they started again last night – but I couldn’t hear much: I am on level 3 of a 4-level building. Anyway, the streets were wet and the air fresh and cool when I headed out around 0915. (There is no point in sallying forth any earlier: nothing opens until 10.) Regrettably, the Museum of Archaeology, my first stop, doesn’t open at all on Monday. With growing apprehension (perhaps everything will be closed; perhaps the black cloud right above me will fulfill its promise to dump much rain upon me any moment) I crossed the river, passed the Film Museum (closed), the Museum of Architecture (closed), and the Museum of Communication (closed), to arrive at my second destination, the Städel. I arrived exactly at 10, just as they opened the doors. For €6 I was in, and for a further 50 cents my backpack was spirited away for safe-keeping.

Today was the last day of the Holbein exhibition. Now I am not a charter member of Hans Holbein the Younger’s fan club, nor, indeed, his Dad’s, but it is always interesting to arm myself with a well-written guide (free, but easily worth the €6 on its own) to the works of any good artist and learn about their works and influences. This exhibition focussed primarily on his masterpiece, the Meyer Madonna, on loan from the Schloβmuseum Darmstadt, but also took in a number of the Städel’s permanent holdings. But, for all of Holbein’s undoubted mastery, it was the print of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna which stopped me in my tracks. I’m a sucker for Raphael at any time, and the Sistine Madonna is a stunner. Not only the painting, but Mary herself is drop-dead gorgeous; infinitely more human – more feminine, frankly more sensual – than Holbein’s stylised, rather slit-eyed caricature of a real woman.

It is interesting how one can walk into a gallery containing very many, very good paintings, and be instantly struck by just one of them, standing out as if in a spotlight. These are the true greats. Be they ‘ancient’ (Bellini, Cranach, Rembrandt, van Eycke, Vermeer) or ‘modern’ (Degas, Munch, Renoir, Rodin, Sisley), the difference between these and the also-rans – not to mention the never-rans in the modern galleries – requires no explanation to anyone who has actually looked at them. The new experiences for me included Lucas Cranach the Elder’s rather saucy (just look at that face … the face dammit) Venus, Jan Vermeer’s The Geographer (with wonderful van Eycke-like props and background; this is a masterpiece) and a rare painting by Arnold Böcklin, Landscape with Faun and Nymph. Alas, the gallery guards were no more than that: when I asked a gaggle of four of them if there were any other Böcklin paintings or sketches in the city, none of them had heard of him. The woman whose ‘beat’ actually included the gallery where the one Böcklin I’d found hung, suggested I try the second floor (’Old Masters’). Sigh.

By now my back was killing me, so I ittied back to the little cluster of cafés that comprise my ‘local’ dining area in the red light district, for a doner and coke. There must be something off-putting about me, I think: I’ve walked past the same pro twice, now, and neither time has she spared me so much as a glance. I feel quite inadequate about this, and surrepticiously sniff my armpits. No; that doesn’t seem to be the problem.

Homeward Bound

Tuesday, 01 Jun 2004

My big apprehensions today are how to survive on only €10 and how my back – which hurts even as I get out of bed – will hold up under my very heavy pack. I have breakfast, pack my belongings, quickly call home (but Bex is very tired and hungry; the only thing she really says is a sweet little apology for having sticky hands) and deposit my bags downstairs. I try to buy my train ticket to the airport but, incredibly, I am told one cannot buy tickets in advance. What? I realise this cannot be true, and walk away mystified.

A second piece of German obstinacy awaits me at the Natural History Museum. Here they cannot accept a credit card for the entry fee. (They would in the US but there, of course, I typically wouldn’t need to pay one!) So there goes half of the remaining pittance I have in cash: €5 in coins is it, unless I visit an ATM and allow myself to exceed my self-imposed budget for this trip, and also to be soundly ripped off by the usuriously unfavourable exchange rate these things charge around here. Not that I can recall even seeing an ATM in my travels…. The exhibits, though, are good, albeit somewhat sparing of English language commentary which, although present, is only about 10% as long as what is written in German. I should be grateful there is any, I suppose. But by now my bastard back is really bad and I have to leave soon. Just enough fortitude left for a quick visit to the shop and reading room which is … closed, without explanation. Gercloβen is the one new foreign word I have picked up on this trip. I can’t imagine why we had such difficulty thrashing the bastards in WWII; we should have just waited until Sunday when we could have walked in and taken over the place.

I stagger back to my usual stamping ground outside Dr. Müller’s Blue Movie Kine Centre for lunch and a drink, carefully checking for a MasterCard sign on the door of my chosen establishment. The pizza is German again, and the service is indifferent. I suppose I could have gone in to the bar (I was eating outside on the pavement) and asked for another Coke, but I chose to do without. This is, in my experience, typical of Germany circa 2004. And now, yet another disillusionment awaits me. My bill of €8.50, which is frankly highway robbery for a lousy Kraut pizza and a Coke but never mind that, is apparently “too small” to pay by credit card.

I can’t win.

* * *

About 18 hours from Frankfurt to Singapore; crew barely competent; painful old bitch in the seat behind me; my neighbour stinks; TV-thingy in front of me has a crashed menu which won’t let me select anything.

Contrast the flight with the space-age dunny at Singapore airport. The cacti are looking good but a large and intimidating group of Yemenis is hogging the free internet kiosks. When I finally manage to get one, the performance is so poor it is barely functional.

Reboard for the next leg and my first interaction with the new crew: the woman is rude and her English is poor. Whoever groomed the plane did not leave me a blanket. But it looks like I might have a row to myself and, by Christ, it’s good to hear a sprinkling of Aussi accents all around me … even if the goddam PA prattles on too much and half that still in German.

Hey, you don’t suppose … no, they must know. But watching all the flight attendants scurrying up and down the aisles delivering the “special” meals with very straight faces is almost too funny for words.


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