(this post has subject headings so scroll down to the bits you want to read, and ignore the other bits if you are not interested)1. a general intro
2. st petersburg - the giant doll's house
3. dinner with dykes in st petersburg
4. estonia... not much to say really...
5. poland: reactionary catholicism
6. krakow is where the g-funk is at
8. sunrise over slovakia
9. general reflections #1: when is a keffiye NOT a sign of solidarity with the palestinian struggle?
10. marriage encounter hits the streets of budapest (specially for the davos)
11. the amazing, death defying autobahn! or, how i made it into and out of dresden alive
12. general reflections #2: anti-semitism and the german left
13. Standard Tanz stole my heart away... or is it just a queer way to tango?
14. just me, a room, and a computer (oh and some lovely new housemates too)1. Intro
strangely, as i began to type just then, my head was filled with the sound of robert plant belting out "it's been a long time, been a long time, been a long lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely, lone-ly time!" strange how these songs (no wait, *tracks
*) pop into your head now and again and force you to reveal intimate knowledge of led zeppelin that you really would rather have kept to yourself.
hmm, anyway, here i am in berlin. i guess you could call it my new home for a little while. i know it's been a while since i wrote anything to this blog - for those of you who have been checking the thing more frequently, it's flattering, thankyou, but really you should know better eh?
and i guess by way of explanation of the led zeppilin lyrics, i have to make a public admission at this point - it seems the only principled thing to do. i made a rather large claim to several people before i left that "i wasn't the 'type'
of person to get homesick." HA! i'm eating my words with so much cream on top right now that i think i will have to promise whoever those people were a beer when i do eventually make it back. i think i even held up my hands and made the bunny-ears gesture when i said 'type'... sheesh. well, i think i've just been through my first major bout of homesickness (which, it must be said coincided with some extreme PMT and the flu, and a harrowing few days wondering if my computer would survive both the australian AND the german postal systems... yep if i had taken a photo of myself it would have been a pretty sorry sight - lucky for all of you i didn't).
however, i am now beyond the dolldrums, for the moment at least, and am enjoying the liberation of unlimited internet access, so i've been getting into a bit of email, skype and chat action, which has been a good way to get in touch with a few people and feel a bit more connected to the life i have down there in melbourne.
but what am i doing? well, the main reason i'm in berlin is to attend german classes, which i have every weekday. other than that, i'm just having some time.
2. st petersburg - the giant doll's house
moscow train station, st petersburg
this was my first image of st petersburg, and the last image of my trans-siberian journey. i really liked going on that train trip - somehow travelling so far on a train just opens you up and you really get to feel the distances you are covering.
i think something that struck me about st petersburg was that it was like a big doll's house. and i'm sure that many of it's poorer inhabitants (like the rest of russia) feel just like Ibsen's Nora did. the city is only 300 years old really, which distinguishes it markedly from moscow - i think i have mentioned before that when you spend time in moscow, you really get a sense of it being this powerful medieval metropolis. st petersburg, by contrast, is like the urban version of eye-candy. take a look at this:
there is no question that it is stunningly gorgeous, but also sickeningly gorgeous in a way too, and i was surprised (pleasantly) at the number of other tourists i overheard making comments like "wow, you can understand why they wanted a revolution". when you look at a tourist map with headings over the major sights, it is as though every second building is a palace of someone or other. the winter palace is but one among many. and there are still many visible indications of the kind of wealth the 19th century russian bourgeoisie was steeped in:
38 "millionaya" street
this street is right next to the winter palace, and it's former demographic is clearly indicated by the street name. but despite all of these indications of former glory, there is also quite a bit of street graffiti - i think more than moscow. and i suspect much of the stencil art that i found was partly a result of the G8 protests that happened in st petersburg in july, because much of it was in english. here are some russian-language examples:
or my personal favourite:
this magnificent artwork appeared on the ground in front of a rather large bust of Frederic Engels - i mean, who would have thought that even a statue of the guy could throw new light on the 'Origins of the Family...'? Check this out:
it was a veritable playground.
and all this kiddie action was going on in the gardens in front of the smolny institute - yep, the HQ of the revolution. i had an appointment to go see the institute's internal museum (you have to make a one-on-one appointment with the staff because it's not really open to the public as such), but on the day i couldn't make it because i was visiting the peter & paul fortress instead. i sort of regret this, but i hope to go back there someday, preferrably with a russian speaker, so that i can see what must be an interesting colleciton. but for all of you fans of the russian revolution, here's a photo of lenin in front of the doors of smolny:
the smolny institute
anyone else who has read 'ten days that shook the world' or various other inspirational writings on the revolution, will understand how much of a strange rush it was to walk up the drive way and through the gates and past this statue into the doors of smolny. it was weird, exciting, and melancholy all at the same time. and it was the same at finland station.
but while we're on the topic of museums, i did go to one which was such a shocking throwback to an era that most museum people would rather forget. i think this picture speaks for itself:
this is the russian ethnography museum, but the ethnography - if that's what you can call waxy figures in stereotypical settings in glass cabinets - was not limited to russia. i think it is in fact the oldest museum in st petersburg, and is at the university. but it was so bad that i felt it was worth writing home about.
but again, while we're on the topic of museums, there are just so many in russia, and so many in st petersburg, that it is impossible to see them all. i mean, it took me two days just to whip, and i really mean whip, around the hermitage. after a while you almost become desensitised to the amazing artworks you are seeing. and so it is a great pity that i missed out on the russian museum, which is the biggest collection of russian art in the country, which would mean the world.
but i did take heaps of photos in the hermitage. most of them are kinda crap, very blurry etc, because you're not allowed to use a flash (i was shocked that you were allowed to take photos at all). but i took this photo especially for silvana - i think it's one of the earliest printing presses in st petersburg...
and here is another picture i took, of a piece of ancient greek pottery that i just found fascinating. i mean, i think anyone who has taken any sort of interest in the history of sexuality will be familiar with the prevalence in ancient greek art of sexual images between older and younger men/boys, but this image is of a woman using two dildos which, while not altogether uncommon, is an image that doesn't get much of a look in when it comes to ancient greek sexuality - "what? women?" i almost walked right by it, but i'm glad i chose to take a closer look.
but now, moving on from queer old culture to queer high culture, one of the definite highlights of my time in st petersburg was seeing the Marriage of Figaro (Mozart) at the Mariinsky Theatre for $10 (i was charged more as a foreigner, the russian woman sitting next to me paid $3, but my income was probably 10 times hers).
so why it was queer...? well, i don't know if you can tell from these photos below, but all the members of the 'peasant choir' section of the cast were cross-dressed. it struck me, because on the whole russian society really isn't yet jiggy with the homo thing, nor the cross dressing thing, nor anything that really transgresses quite strict and conservative ideas about gender and sexual identity.
it left me wondering as i walked away from the theatre afterwards what was behind their decision to do this. maybe they were just getting into the spirit of Mozart's times, when 'that sort of thing' happened all the time and was more or less par for the course, especially at the popular opera playhouses (i imagine not so much at the royal ones). alternatively, there may have been some modern gender-bending agenda going on in the st petersburg opera company which would be way cool, but highly unlikely. i doubt i will find the answer, but it was very exciting nonetheless.
but aside from that side-point, the performance was riveting, and amazing, and i loved it. i just rocked up five minutes before the show was scheduled to start, and bought a cheap ticket on the spot. the thing i noticed about the russian opera, is that all sorts of people went, and people weren't really dressed up to the nines, although a few were. but there were just heaps of "ordinary" people there - it was a saturday matinee, and i guess the super cheap prices make it more accessible to people. i mean, you would think this would correspond to a lack of quality, but it doesn't at all. the performance was magnificent.
i also found it interesting that they held up the russian flag at the end of the peformance, even though this opera is set in italy. i guess this is just a standard manifestation of nationalism... mmm, but anyway, it was pretty amazing to be in the mariinsky theatre.
also in st petersburg i met up with some people from this online thing called hospitalityclub.org which is an accommodation exchange community - it's really cool and most of the people i have stayed with have been from there. but i met up with some people from that and we went to see some small band gigs which was fantastic. one of the gigs was in this house at the end of the city - virtually in
the gulf of finland we were so close to the freezing water. all it was was a room with a few plug in amps and some chairs (a la the orange and mustard coloured ones we used to sit on in primary school) with a vary mysteriously placed stage prop background which was a painted picture of palm trees, again like the ones my grade two teacher Mrs Spaull used to paint in primary school... go figure. and then just a bunch of people watching - like 20 people watching. no drinks, no bar, no music, no inbetween noise. bare bones gig. it was fantastic. and the music was pretty nice too. it was sort of russian folk meets atmospheric hippy meets experimental... nice.
and to end this section on st petersburg, here are a few selected pics:
this is me in lenin's office. LENIN'S OFFICE! this is in the Museum of Russian Political History, which is in the former home of the Prima Ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya who was a sort-of secret lover of Czar Nicholas II. She fled from Russia when it became apparent that the bourgeoisie were in for it at some point in the near future, and it was Bolshevik HQ in the lead up to the revolution, and the office is intact.
this is one of two of my favourite cafes/restaurants in st petersburg. it basically has not changed since the soviet era. it's just tables, chairs, a coat rack, and more pelmeni than you could poke a stick at - pelmeni are these delicious russian meat dumplings (sort of half way between a steamed dim sim and a raviolo) that you eat with sour cream. and that's pretty much all they served, and it was dirt cheap.
my other favourite cafe - they served delicious, massive, and dirt cheap pies - they cook these big enormous rectangle pies and cut you off a generous piece. it's not far from the mariinsky theatre, so i think a lot of people go there after seeing a show. it was a great place - they played jazz and had lots of old fin de siecle photos of st petersburg.
some funny buggers made me laugh a lot when i saw these two bus-stop posters along the nevsky prospekt:
not only are there still lots of official statues of these two still standing all over the place, not to mention relief sculptures on the fronts of buildings, memorials, streets named after them etc etc, but people use their faces as a graffiti medium! ...and remember timotei?
women construction workers. i had to take a few photos of building sights i saw. i mean, i have seen women working on construction sights before, and i have known many a woman-tradey. but this was different because on many of them there was almost a 50/50 mixture of women and men construction workers. i have never ever seen that before. they were doing the same construction work as men, and in some cases they were doing specialist rendering work on artistic facades etc also. you could tell they were women because they almost all wear head scarves when they are at work. i got a sort of kick out of it in a way, because it really was a confirmation that any ideas that women shouldn't or can't or have no interest to work in construction are simply sexist nonsense. on the other hand, it gave me pause to think about the particular economic conditions in russia that necessitate women doing this work - any work is better than no work, and i'm also fairly certain that it is not as a statement of anti-sexism that company owners hire women into these positions but perhaps has something to do with cheaper wages. and also, it is interesting and revealing of a broader structure of sexism the way that such a lack of material distinction between women and men and the work they can do sits alongside all these other conservative ideas about gender identity. i mean, for example, the number of women in russia i saw wearing knee high leather boots with - no joke - 6 INCH
heels was seriously shocking, and the advertising and billboards are just saturated with images like Britney and so forth. i mean this is really exactly the same as the US and australia and what have you - i'm not trying to suggest that advertising is unique to russia! - but i guess as a proportion of the population the number of women doing their darndest to emulate these advertising images was really overwhelming, as a comparison to where i'm from. i mean, this is a country where on average the earnings are so meagre - one male anaesthesiologist (i don't know how to spell that) i shared a train carriage with told me he earned $200 US per month... one of the women working at the hostel i stayed at in moscow worked 4 days back to back round the clock with no sleep, because she needed the money. in this context, the roaring, saturating trade of this season's latest designer leather high-heal boots is just so contradictory. ah, but what would capitalism be if not a beast of many seemingly confounding contradictions?
hmmm, well anyway i obviously have hundreds more photos, but i'd better move onto the next section or this post will never end.3. dinner with dykes in st petersburg
on one of the nights i was out having a few drinks with some people from my hostel (some lovely germans from dresden who i later went and stayed with) i met three russian queer women. two were a couple, and they kindly invited me over to dinner. i think they were as excited to meet me as i was them. anyway, as you can perhaps see from this photo, "dinner" consisted of half a loaf of bread, some beef devon, some crisps, and a couple of beers.
i chose to put this photo up because you can't really see any of their faces properly, and i don't really want to out them on a publicly accessible blog so easily, and nor would i write their names here. but anyway, it was really nice of them to invite me over.
interestingly, despite the paultry size of the queer scene in st petersburg (there is one lesbian bar, and not really any non-pub social scene to speak of at all), they showed me some of the art projects they and their friends have been doing. they are very young (19 and 21) and only have a very very small bohemian/alternative set of friends, but the artwork they have been doing is hip and happening and really sophisticated. some of the photography work reminded me a bit of some of the projects in slit magazine, and there was also a short film still in the editing process about a teenage woman break dancer and a teenage boy ballet dancer, who got to know one another through the making of the film, aimed at breaking down stereotypes about gender and sexuality. it was a really damned fine film, and all the more meaningful and powerful because of the societal context.
one of them was saying (the one who made the film) that she had been kicked out of art school because she wanted to submit an art project on lesbian sexuality. this is a public university we're talking about. she said she was called in to 'discuss' the matter, and was basically given a dressing down, and told she couldn't submit it and to do another project. she decided to take her project and leave the university. way to go! but full on.
anyway, they were really cool, courageous dudes, and i hope they keep kicking the homophobes to the curb. both of them mentioned a deep desire to leave russia... but when they are paying the equivalent of about $400 australian dollars per month on a single room in a building where the door is virtually hanging off its hinges and one of the windows is cracked and they have to share a toilet, kitchen and bathroom with other people in the building (which for a lesbian couple in a non-friendly environment can be a pretty harrowing, gaping hole in the privacy department), and on the kind of incomes i can guess they would be on, especially since one of them has now been kicked out of school and therefore any student stipend she may have been on, ...they reckon it's pretty out of the question for a while yet.
4. estonia... not much to say really...
that sounds awful, but i was only there for 24 hours pretty much, stopping by on my way to poland. i caught the bus there from st petersburg, which normally would be about a 6 hour drive, but it took 8 hours due to the border crossing. getting out of russia was easier than i thought, but i was still clutching my precious train tickets and hostel booking receipts (to prove and justify my whereabouts for every day that i was there) tightly in my little hand, just in case anything got nasty. i may have been overly paranoid, but always better to be safe than sorry. in the end it was completely uneventful, but just took a long time.
the town of Tallinn is really pretty, but like so many other places in europe where there is an old town still in tact, it has pretty much become the domain of tourists and craft market vendors. lots of hand-made doilies, hand-made sweets, hand-made you name it they've got it, young budding actors and actresses making some humiliating cash on the side by dressing up in medieval outfits and selling sweet roasted nuts on roaming stalls, strange performance/displays in the town square by military troops, and a whopping MASSIVE mcdonalds right inside the gates to the old town, which is advertised far and wide around the city (there are other outlets elsewhere in the city, but that one stood out because it was inside the old town). it's pretty disillusioning. i can't imagine how disillusioning it must be for many estonians and russians who have lived through estonia's rocky history.
outside the centre of town though, where just next to the old town there is a series of big (and i have to say) ritzy shopping centres, it's a different picture - lots of people living ho hum in the same old apartment buildings. i stayed with a really nice married couple - she's russian, he's estonian, and their six month old baby. they are on their way to move to australia, because they find estonia sort of depressing, and think that life would be harder in russia with a kid. perhaps my admittedly bleak view of my short time in estonia was shaped somewhat by their own incredibly bleak and disillusioned perspective. and the weather was terrible too.
and maybe i was just coming down off my russian high a bit also. when i say high, i sort of mean that kind of high you get when things are just a little bit stressful or a little bit demanding of your energy, or a little bit challenging, so you get into this headspace of higher-than-average tension and it feels a bit like a come-down when you finally don't have that stress anymore... you feel a bit exhausted... i don't know, it's hard to explain but that's how i felt after leaving russia, so i think poor old estonia got the raw end of my attention span.
interestingly, the woman i stayed with was telling me about her memories of the Communist period. she was telling me about one time when she had asked her mother when was the happiest time of her life. she was subconsciously expecting her mother to say, without hesitation, the years following the fall of the Soviet Union, because that's the standard grand-narrative. but her mother's experience didn't reflect this at all. during the regime, she had been a skilled engineer, a university graduate, working on important projects and earning a fairly okay wage for Soviet standards. after the fall, she, like so many others, lost her government job and had to find work cleaning people's houses, cleaning hospitals, cleaning schools - basically worked as a janitor of sorts. but in answer to her daughter's question she said that the time in her life she remembers most fondly was the period when she was pregnant with and after the birth of her daughter, primarily because the government would offer income subsidies to those who were having children, and she didn't have to work for 3 or 4 years, but still earned the same amount as if she had been working in a wage-labour job.
i thought this was a pretty interesting story, and a nice little anecdote, that tells us something different about the ordinary russians who lived through the Soviet period, and the things they remember as being important to them. i don't think valuing stories like this at all means viewing the Soviet Union with any kind of rose-coloured glasses - in fact the opposite... you have to look at the realities of ordinary people's lives, rather than falling into the trap of seeing the cold war as a dichotomous power struggle. in fact, workers really suffered under state capitalism, just as they suffer under capitalism! but there were some strange and positive hangovers - like maternity leave - from the original revolution that i guess the stalinist party-aristocracy couldn't justify doing away with. not until later anyway. the period we were remembering was about the 1960s i guess, judging by the age of my host.5. poland: reactionary catholicism (but lots of cool stuff too)
poland is fascinating. if i were to sum it up - which i wouldn't because i think it's a bit silly, but bear with me - i would probably say that the politics of the 1980s are still living the high life in poland. that and the fact that, as i said to my mother on the phone, Vatican Two really never made it to poland. i don't think i have ever in my life seen so many pictures, monuments, memorials, trinkets, crafts, decorations, souvenirs, or anything else you care to mention, all in honour of our now deceased John Paul II. god, i can imagine ole JP turning in the grave at the idea that the "radical ideas" of Vatican Two (1960-something), such as nuns no longer being required to wear full habits, and all sorts of other progressive changes to the catholic church's theology and practice, would ever be permitted to permeate polish society. as it happens he did a pretty good job of installing a man in the likeness of his own image (wait, there's some strange dual meaning there... i didn't mean it i swear) - ie, someone who would ensure that the conservatism and reactionary politics of his era would continue - just look contextually at the latest comments from Benedikt on the muslim religion being one of violence, or less shocking but equally conservative remarks about the main reasons the anglicans can't just yet rejoin the catholic church being those of women priests and the anglican church's (might i say paltry) acceptance of homosexuality... yep just another day at the vatican.
the old town of warsawa
everywhere i looked, especially in krakow, there were full length habits - in fact it's the only place i've seen, since i was a very young child hanging out with friends of my parents, where there have been nuns and priests under the age of say 40. i think this point is especially interesting in the context of what is becoming quite an acute issue for the catholic church - that of its aging clergy (both male and female). where once upon a time many of the parish priests in australia were coming out of ireland and scotland, i think very soon they will really need to be imported from poland, or perhaps some from some of the central and south american countries where the catholic church is still quite big.
but this brings me to another point - the particular quality of polish catholocism, or more correctly the polish catholic establishment
. it could really not be more starkly different to the catholic establishment of, for example, central and south america, or other places like east timor. in these places, the catholic church has been, and is in some cases still, something of a progressive force - supporting progressive national struggles, or anti-capitalist campaigns. for example, i have heard (perhaps others can correct me if i'm wrong) that a sizable proportion of the EZLN, the Zapatista Liberation Army in Mexico, are practicing catholics (not that mexico is central or southern - i know that it's northern, but i guess i'm doing what most other people do and viewing it as part of America's political and economic south).
in contrast, the polish establishment is like a big bastion of the old venerable institution, distant from the people, distinct separation between clergy and congregation, politically stiflingly conservative.
anyway, enough of that, but what i did find interesting in an ironic way was just the reactionary narrative of the "defeat of communism" which is so opportunistically used to bolster conservative ideas. For example, no one ever says, "in poland, we supported and defended a huge democratic upsurge of polish workers and ordinary people." no, no, no! it's "we defeated 'communism'!" whatever that's supposed to mean... and the meaning is deliberately avoided too. in so many of the historic plaques i saw it was john paul this and john paul that - nothing mentioned about the fact that the Solidarnosc uprising really was a democratic movement of thousands of workers from the ground up, aimed at toppling what had been a debilitating and suffocating (not to mention at times deadly) Stalinist state capitalist machine.
and the irony of some things was just too great to ignore! take this for example - right next to a historical display on the street commemorating the Hungarian workers uprising of 1956, which showed pictures of a mammoth Stalin's head having been pulled off some statue or other, there was a mammoth statue of John Paul. i am in NO WAY trying to say that JP and Stalin were the same at all - obviously one killed thousands of people, while the other simply led one of the biggest conservative organisations the world has ever seen (though some have argued that his position on contraceptives may have in part contributed indirectly to many AIDS related deaths in africa for example, but nevertheless it absolutely cannot be said that he ever set out to get rid of people). one was a ruthless politician AND killing machine, and the other simply a ruthless politician.
the two cannot possibly be compared. but it just simply begs the question - if so much of the narrative now is about how much of a cult of personality stalin had... i find it hard not to see the cult of JP II as being of a similar mould.
and of course the other thing is that they (being the United States government mostly, being the ones in power these days) emphasise the grey, colourless lives that people had to live under the eastern communist regimes. but if you want grey colourless lives, check out downtown warsawa in the capitalist age:
you know, just because a building is made from silver glass rather than dull grey cement, it doesn't necessarily follow that the lives of ordinary people will be any more interesting or fulfilling!
the other thing is the old town - it's really weird right, because it's completely reconstructed. utterly. a bit like dresden. when you walk around the old town, you can see where they have used original blocks on the corners of buildings. but other than these, the entire thing has been reconstructed from photographs and artworks. incredible, because if you knew nothing about europe and world war two, you'd never know. it's one of those weird feelings that this kind of knowledge gives you in a place.
but by far the best thing about warsawa was the giant massive flea market. i met a lovely woman from brazil at my hostel who had met a lovely man from warsawa on a train. he was taking her to see the flea markets so i tagged along. this thing is massive - it was the first thing that caught my eye on the previous morning driving in to the city on the bus from tallinn. and instantly, when i went through the gates, i was transported back to the vietnamese markets of west melbourne, the vic market and paddy's market in sydney. only this was bigger. if i hadn't been trying to skimp on money i would have jumped at the chance to eat some cold rice paper rolls. as it happens i had just eaten an unsatisfactory yet filling breakfast of porridge.
i didn't know until that day, that there is a huge vietnamese population in warsawa. our host told us that the historical reason for this is that after Solidarnosc in the 1980s, many (i guess north?) Vietnamese people came to Poland on the assumption that they would find solidarity and solace there, sharing an experience of living under Communism. what they found, in fact, was a society that wasn't used to asian people, and so the usual 'migrant community in diaspora' thing has taken place, where many have been forced to adopt a career in outdoor market stalls to make ends meet, and the boundaries between the vietnamese and polish populations really hasn't been broken down much at all.
next to the flea market, which is located around the outsides of this decrepit, run-down stadium (used in the former regime... the markets began in the 80s i think he said), there is a vietnamese community centre. but unless you knew how to find it, you would never know it was there. there was a temple for praying, and various rooms that are used for community gatherings and events. it was such a starkly constrasted juxtaposition of culture - a pocket of buddhist vietnam in the centre of poland.
anyway, it was a really nice day, and definitely a highlight of my trip, even though we were only at the market for an hour and the community centre for about 20 minutes. our host was actually working on a series of art/community projects with a group of other artists. they made a film about the market, and have been doing a whole lot of creative work to try to break down divisions and barriers between the vietnames community and the rest of warsawa. it sounded really cool what they were doing. they organise meet and greet days jointly with some of the vietnamese groups and stuff, as well as the arty stuff they do. he was cool.6. krakow is where the g-funk is at
now krakow is a cool, cool place. and when i say g-funk, it's not just a hideously daggy title for a section of my blog - krakow is full to the brim with jazz bars. everyone loves jazz, digs jazz, watches and listens to jazz. i went to several jazz bars while i was there.
so, i stayed with this glorious woman called Joanna who was the most generous host and we got on like a house on fire. and her partner was fantastic too, Koba.
me, koba and joanna at a jazz bar
the three of us got very drunk on very very many vodkas. interestingly, in poland flavoured vodka is the most popular, unlike russia where straight clear vodka is more prevalent than drinkable water. so i tried honey vodka, bison vodka (sort of herbed i guess), and lots of other flavours that i forgot for obvious reasons. i also tried this shot called a 'mad dog' or something, that is basically made of this stuff that is like 70% alcohol or something crazy, with tobasco sauce and something else. clearly the details have become vague... wo. talk about knock your socks off. i also tried this thing called 'bombe' - which is where you basically just plonk a shot glass full of vodka into a pint of beer, glass and all. i can't believe i survived to tell the tale. and for those who know me, i'm really not what you would call a massive drinker... fortunately i had been in training since beijing.
singer bar, kazimierz
this bar, singer, was one of the very first bars to open in this district of kazimierz - formerly the jewish quarter, later the krakow jewish ghetto, and these days the trendy student/young people quarter. it's called singer because, as you can just make out in the photo, all the tables are old singer sewing machines, and perhaps (though i have no information to confirm this and it's pure speculation) it's name may have been a nod of respect to the jewish victims of the holocaust. or maybe it was just a cool idea for a bar. whatever the case, it was one of the first bars to open up after Solidarnosc, and therefore is one of the oldest modern bars in all of Krakow. they played great jazz music and me and joanna had a fun time dancing away.
her house was just around the corner from here. everything is within walking distance in krakow. the first day i was there was this gloriously beautiful day, and 22 degrees, which, after 2 degrees in st petersburg only 4 days prior was like a miracle. it was sunny, and i was finally over my PMS, and i spoke to my mother and sister on the phone for the first time in weeks. this is the tree i was looking at while i spoke to them:
it was in the old yard of a gorgeous old church and as i spoke on the phone i stood in the sun and admired this tree.
other things i did in krakow included walking all around the old town, which unlike warsawa is not reconstructed, and remains in tact - also unlike warsawa, and i believe because of this historical difference, the krakow old town is actually the city centre - it's where most of the shopping is, the cafes, banks, bookshops, and various offices and churches and concert halls are. krakow residents actually live some of their life there. that said, the town square is still full of tourists (like me...), but there's not so much of a hollywood set atmosphere. there is one major historical quirk though, which is that krakow still has a town horn-blower. every hour, on the hour, a horn-blower opens the shutters of the tower of the cathedral (which is in the central square) and blows a little tune to each of the four corners: n, e, s, w. it was nice. and it was good to have some nice time in the sun before going to auschwitz.7. auschwitz...
my visit to the auschwitz complex of concentration camps was not what i expected it to be. i expected it to be a really solemn affair, quiet and reflective, with time to digest and think. as it happened, there were so many people there, and the guided tours were so fast that it was difficult to take time to think at all. in some ways, because of the way that the tours are done and partly due to hollywood, it's hard not to feel a bit desensitised to the place, and to its horrific history.
i kept having the sense while i was there of knowing some of the history about it, but not really feeling the connection between this knowledge and the place i was in. for example, there was one spot in birkenau II where i was standing, and about 2 metres away there was a big blown up photo of the selection taking place - in a close up, you can see the shadow of the thumb of SS chief joseph mengele (i think it's him) giving the left or right signal - death or labour.
but even as i was standing in that spot, looking at the photo, it was hard to grasp what was actually happening. i then followed the path down towards the gas chambers where the condemned would have walked. that was poignant and struck home more than other things. but it was still hard with so many people shuffling about.
except there were definitely a couple of things that stuck in my mind about going there. i hope this doesn't distress anyone - skip to the next paragraph if you think you might get distressed...
what was really shocking to me, and something i really hadn't expected was when we went into one of the prison blocks in birkenau I. birkenau II is the massive part of the camp where the gas chambers were, and where most of the cell blocks were those wooden ones we've all seen in the films. birkenau I, however was a former WWI army barracks, so the cell blocks were two story brick buildings. as we zipped in and out of them and got synopsised historical information, we came into one room up the top. i looked to my left and saw a big glass wall, like a giant museum display cabinet. behind the glass was an area of about 12 or 13 metres by about 5 or 6 metres, at waist height. spread across this area was what looked at first glance to be the wool of brown sheep spread out like it would be across a shearing table. i thought this to be somewhat unremarkable until just as i was about to turn away i saw the braid of a young person's hair in amongst the 'wool'. then i noticed the smell. it was in fact a sample of several tonnes of human hair that were found in various camp warehouses. but more horrific was the fact that this hair had not been removed until after death - meaning that it was someone's job to go through the gassed corpses and cut hair off, remove gold teeth etc. a lot of the hair was covered by a white, grey film of something - presumably the remains of zyklon b. across the other side of the room, there was another display cabinet with some rolls of what looked like tightly woven hessian backing for an old upholstered sofa. this is precisely what it was, but it was not made from hessian. it was the product of human hair. this means that there are still people out there in germany today, who may have an old sofa with this stuff on the back. perhaps they know, perhaps they don't, perhaps they fear it and don't want to investigate lest their fears be confirmed. i would find such a reaction understandable - there is an extent to which people in europe have to accept the basic facts of history, otherwise it would be impossible to live here. but it is the memory of this that will stay with me. i really am still reeling from when the moment of realisation hit my senses.
but this is just one part of understanding the phenomenon of the nazis biological racism and mass extermination policy. going to auschwitz was good for understanding the physical dimension of horror. it was also good for understanding the systematic methods of the nazis and their SS force. the camp, which stretches as far as the eye can see in some directions, was designed with such chilling functionality. but in terms of understanding the broader context of why the holocaust happened, you really would need time to go through the historical exhibitions in different sections of the camp, and even then would only be scratching the surface of some of the reasons.
in this respect, i found that when i went to the dachau camp outside munich 3 years ago with my sister alexis, i walked away feeling much more like i had engaged with the place, partly due to the excellent and engaging historical exhibition there. still i'm glad i went to auschwitz, but i think it would be worth going again, earlier in the morning, with a bit more time to read information and look at the exhibitions.
here are some photos i took.
1. guard watch tower; 2. inside one of the wooden accommodation barracks (only a couple of these remain standing - the rest were burnt by the nazis in 1945; 3. part of gas chamber (in this underground chamber, the corpses were brought after gassing so valuables could be removed before cremation); 4. the train tracks (taken from main entry tower, gas chambers are at the far end, with camp sectors to left and right.8. sunrise over slovakia
this is a short entry, but on the train i took from krakow to budapest i woke up just before crossing the border from slovakia to hungary and the sunrise was beautiful so i took a picture.9. general reflections #1: when is a keffiye NOT a sign of solidarity with the palestinian struggle?
when it's a fashion item across several european countries...
people wear these things in all sorts of colours without even the slightest skerrick of political reasoning. i have been seeing them around ever since russia. as you can see in this photo, if you don't like the red and white or the black and white ones, you can just buy one that has been dyed purple instead. yes that's right ladies and gentlemen! no longer do you have to wade through years of annoying political debate about sovereignty, factional background and tactics of struggle to work out whether you will wear red, black or possibly green, on a white background. now, ladies and gentlemen, you can choose! diversity! choice! forget the politics, and just concentrate on looking good! and not that people shouldn't wear them to auschwitz (in fact when done with progressive political consciousness this would probably be a very powerful gesture of solidarity among the oppressed of the past and present), but it was just weird to be at that place and watch people walking around with bright purple or dyed yellow arafatski, seemingly oblivious to anything but whether it matched their shoes.
it's a phenomenon that i've seen through russia, poland, hungary, and now here in germany. right here in berlin, despite the massive turkish muslim and moderately sized lebanese population here. i saw one guy selling them at a street stall in neukoelln, and i asked him whether most people buy them from him for fashion or politics, and he said decisively that it was purely fashion. anyway, i don't want to come across as being over-the-top alarmed, but it's a fairly different thing to melbourne. but possibly this is just because the melbourne fashion market hasn't cottoned on to this european trend yet... let's hope not.10. marriage encounter hits the streets of budapest
i discovered this when marriage encounter
came up casually in conversation, as it does. one of my hosts in budapest, steven from ohio, jumped up and said suddenly - "i've seen that on a car!!!!" we then went on a hunt through several streets where he thought the car in question might be. eventually, bingo.11. the amazing, death defying autobahn! or, how i made it into and out of dresden alive
on my way to dresden from vienna, me and my driver cracked about 170km. on my way from dresden to berlin, probably about the same. one one of those journeys it was also raining for some of the time. i can't believe i'm still alive. i can understand if you were brought up driving that fast that you would be very used to it. in fact, one of my drivers expressed his deep frustration that his car didn't have enough horse power so 170/180 kms was the fastest he could actually go. what was really scary was the fact that we were in the SLOW lane. yup.
dresden was really cool - here are my friends anne und sven who i met in st petersburg:
i stayed with a friend of theirs, rene, who was generous and lovely and showed me around the suburb where they all live, as well as the city. rene lives about 3 steps up a little road from the river elbe - ah! die elbe... sehr schoen!
one of the best things we did in dresden was to go visit a travelling exhibition from the US holocaust museum, called "deadly medicine" at the deutsches hygiene museum, on the biological experiments conducted by the nazis in the lead up to their mass extermination project. there was an excellent, excellent section on the history of the eugenics movement which i would recommend to anyone interested in that. here's the poster for the exhibition, and a link to an online version of the exhibition.
it was a fantastic exhibition, and dealt also with the history of experimentation through the late 1930s on people with disabilities - these experiments provided much of the biological knowledge that was then used later to justify the mass extermination of impure people.12. general reflections #2: anti-semitism and the german left
since arriving in berlin almost four weeks ago, i have observed many things, seen many things and have started to explore some of the political side. one thing that has been something different for me is dealing with a large section of the far left who support the state of israel, and believe that supporting the palestinian struggle is a manifestation of anti-semitism. there have even been phenomena like sections of the far left waving american flags at demonstrations, and even a tiny minority actually supporting the us invasion into iraq because the middle east, by and large, is anti-semitic in their desire to destroy the state of israel and therefore any blow to these middle eastern countries is a blow against anti-semitism.
this last example, however, really is a tiny minority of a most extreme view. it doesn't represent the majority of what i'm describing. still, the fact that there is such a large section of the far left (not the moderate or reformist left, but the radical anti-fascist, autonomista left) who really believe that it is anti-semitic to criticise zionism is something new to me.
hmmm, stay tuned for more on this, because i do want to write something more substantial and informed about who thinks what here - i don't know if anyone else is interested, but i'll put some stuff up in future posts anyway and you can read it if you want.13. Standard Tanz stole my heart away... or is it just a queer way to tango?
Standard Tanz (shtahnd-art tahnnz) is what die Deutschen call ballroom dancing. this is by far the most exciting thing i have started doing while i'm here. every sunday night, at a bar called SO 36 in kreuzberg, from 18:00, there is gay and lesbian ballroom dancing, complete with german showtunes music. it is the. best. thing. ever. here are some pics:
so at 18:00 there is a dance lesson on a different dance each week that goes for about an hour and a half, and after the lesson more and more people arrive and the dance floor is PACKED for the rest of the night, with people dancing jive, tango (both argentinian and european), mambo, samba, salsa, foxtrot, cha cha, and various forms of waltz. it's 6 euros entry for the night, and no extra cost for the lessons, plus there's usually some form of variety show in the middle with give aways etc. it is really the most incredible thing.
i've decided i'm going to go every week, and come the Lesbian and Gay Seniors Tea Dance in march 2008, i'm gonna find me some older dance partners and knock their socks off with my moves. (for anyone who doesn't know about this, it's held annually as part of midsumma, but often doesn't actually take place until the Victorian State Government's Senior's Week, which is usually a bit later in March. it's usually held at matinee time and is one roaring party. i went in 2005 and it was great.)
but seriously, it's heaps of fun, and it's one of my best meeting people strategies at the moment.14. just me, a room, and a computer (oh and some lovely new housemates too)
that was the scene when i moved into my new house 6 days ago. i had a borrowed bed, not yet set up, but other than that there was seriously me in this deserted room with a chair and finally my computer. i felt like something out of the matrix, tap tap tapping away on my keyboard, needing nothing but my web connection to keep me going, only i wasn't wearing black leather and let's face it, i couldn't do martial arts to save my life, although i might manage an off balance semi-high kick if threatened.
it is great to finally be connected again, rather than having to constantly pay exhorbitant rates in internet cafes, using computers that don't do all the things you want them to and don't let you change them. still i've met some pretty nice folks in internet cafes. heaps of the internet cafes around town are owned and run by turkish or arabic people. there is one that i have been to a few times, even though it's totally out of my way to anywhere. it's in the heart of neukolln, which i guess is berlin's coburg - turkish and arabic shop signs everywhere, baklava and doner kebab pit stops on every corner, and great fruit, veg, nuts and bulk food stuffs stores everywhere. anyway, the first time i went in there, i was just typing away, doing my thing, when i noticed the guy next to me, a friend of the owner, was watching some footage. i looked over, and it was footage of palestinians being subjected to harrassment by israeli soldiers, and then some other footage of us military activity in iraq. i indicated my opinions, and then we proceeded to have a fairly basic conversation in german (it was basic because i don't really speak german...!). anyway, it was pretty nice to have a moment of solidarity.
also, i bought baklava from a place a few doors up from there, and when the guy heard that i spoke such crappy german he asked where i was from. i told him, then he said he had cousins in australia, and so did one of the other guys working there. they were pretty excited about telling me that. i was pretty excited about eating baklava, and told them so. it was nice.
anyway, i'm supposed to be waking up in two hours for german class so i'd better finish up. yesterday morning was one of the first frosts here in berlin. although, as everyone keep saying, it's one of the warmest winters in 100 years. i guess all you folks in australia, especially in Victoria, are having some "warmest weather in 100 years" of your own. the fires sound crazy. and the smoke drifting across the city... full on. but i have a bike now, so i'll maybe be riding over some more frost on the way to school.
so, my posts will be far more frequent from now on, thanks to broadband internet. if you have read all the way through, thanks - i'm stoked that you found it interesting enough. even if you didn't, i hope you got something out of this entry to take away with you.
til next time,