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Seeking cold

I went in search of cold weather. It was 16 degrees when I booked my flight but by the time I got there, temperatures had soared. I landed in Oslo to 27 degrees and wasn’t at all impressed. Then I discovered that beer (which I don’t usually drink) was about €10 a pint and that a glass of wine could be more expensive than a meal. And that’s where the disappointment ended and the infatuation began.  Oslo – I’m sold.

IMG_6520 (800x599)What is not to like about a country where, every June, you get 12.5% of last year’s annual salary as fun money – for your summer holidays. And where each December, you pay half the normal income tax. And where if your bus is more than 20 minutes late, you can get a taxi and reclaim the fare. Imagine a country where the minimum wage is €15 per hour, you work 35.5 hours a week and get 5 weeks paid vacation. Not to mention free education and health (ok, so if you’re paying taxes it’s not exactly free). And yes, Oslo, as the country’s capital, has its fair share of problems – rape and murder being the two that come to mind. And yes, there were parts of the city where I didn’t feel comfortable. But that said, the pluses far outweigh the minuses.

IMG_6510 (800x598)That Oslo is on the water is a huge plus in my book. Anywhere that has a promenade or a boardwalk automatically rates high marks. That everyone speaks English and Norwegian and the Lord only knows how many other languages makes life as a tourist so much easier. And that the people are so hospitable, friendly and helpful… well, it made me wonder if I’d stumbled onto the set of some utopian dream.

IMG_6765 (800x600)When I can navigate a city within a day without fear of getting lost, that’s a miracle. When I can plan to leave at 7.53 and arrive at 8.07 and know those times to be exact, that feeds my OCD. And when I can eat fresh fish, all day, every day, with a mayonnaise that (dare I say it) is as good as Hellmans, that makes me stop and wonder whether I’ve died and gone to heaven.

IMG_6527 (800x600)I’ve been missing Alaska a lot lately. Perhaps it something to do with catching up with my Alaskan mates on this recent US road trip. Perhaps it has something to do with craving some decent cold weather. Or perhaps it’s the remoteness of it all that I long for. Although I didn’t venture further than Oslo, and by all accounts it only gets better once you cross the city limits, I felt an immediate affinity with Oslo that transported me temporarily back to Anchorage.

To be fair, had I not had a well-read, well-informed, and multi-talented guide in FC, I might be thinking differently. Seeing a city from the perspective of someone who lives and works there is so much better than leaving it in the hands of a travel-guide writer who may never have physically set foot in the place themselves but relies instead on what others have written.

IMG_6509 (600x800)IMG_6504 (600x800)Like my intrepid guide, Oslo has attitude. Even its street sculpture has something to say. Around every corner, there’s something new. It reminded me a little of Bratislava in that sense. Some might say that there’s not much to see – a few main attractions and that’s it – but once you start looking, really looking, the city is like one big box of assorted chocolates there to be savoured or devoured, depending on the mood. It’s certainly not cheap, but if you do it right, get the weekly travel pass, visit the supermarkets, and watch for the lunch specials, it’s doable.

 

Not all schnitzel and sausage

When I pitch Vienna against Budapest or even Bratislava, it always comes in third. I’ve never taken to the city – and I have no idea why. It seems a little sterile and old-fashioned, without a sense of humour. It seems to take itself far too seriously. Yes, it has some magnificent buildings and some spectacular museums and galleries. And yes, it’s the home of sacher torte, that delicious chocolate cake immortalised by Franz Sacher in 1832 (interestingly, he trained first in Bratislava and then in Budapest, before ending up in Vienna). And yes, it has some great schnitzel and sausage, but aside from all this, there has always been something missing…for me. Vienna was just a little too predictable.

But this time around, I was taken to the Naschmarkt and was suitably impressed. Aside from the usual fare of fresh fruit, veg, and flowers, this market does a roaring trade in fresh fish and lamb. And lamb to die for. Many many years ago, while in the village butchers with my mother, I laughed at the conversation she had with the butcher in which both were rhapsodising about a leg of lamb. For the life of me, I failed to see how anyone could be so taken with a piece of meat. Then, in Anchorage, Alaska,  I found a real butchers with real cuts of meat. When I stopped to admire a rack of lamb on display, he quickly nipped in the back and brought me out the finest leg I’d seen in years. It had happened – I’d turned into my mother. The same happened on Thursday in Vienna as I ogled the cutlets, the shoulders, the racks, and the legs of lamb and wondered for the umpteenth time why Budapest’s markets are practically lamb-less. I can see me taking the train to Vienna on a lamb spree someday soon.

The market is truly cosmopolitan and perhaps for the first time I glimpsed the city’s multicultural ethnicity. Vendors from all over the world plied their trade in prepared food and ingredients. Had I not been so focused on schnitzel for dinner, I could easily have lost myself in the Indonesian food on offer. On Saturday, the market extends to include a flea market – enough in itself to warrant a return journey. But perhaps one of the most exciting finds of all was an international discount bookshop with a huge variety of English books on sale. To be able to sample new authors without paying an arm and a leg for the experience is a very underrated pleasure. I browsed, I bought, and I went back for seconds.

Flowers behind bars

The older I get, the more I realise how many obsessions I have. Minor ones, admittedly. Perhaps more fixative than obsessive. And the peculiar thing is that although I’ve had them for years, I’m only now noticing them. Take my thing about flowers behind bars.

 

Subotica, Serbia

In Subotica the other day, I found myself taking the long way around to pass a bunch of lilies behind an iron railing. The sun was doing weird things to the petals, creating a ghost-like shimmer that seemed quite fitting, given that the flowers were growing next door to the church.  I was having a particularly ‘fat’ day. I’ve been off off the cigarettes since 1 May (and yes, I meant to put two offs there). I’ve been off them before but not seriously. It’s as if my body knows it too, because, true to fact and form, I’m piling on the pounds and wondering why I’ve given up something I like to become something I loathe.That old story of a skinny girl trapped in a fat body comes to mind – and perhaps that’s what the bars spoke of.

Modica, Sicily

If you want to join the ranks of pedantry, you’d point out that these are lemons, not flowers, but a fence is a fence is a fence. I remember once measuring a three-day hike in terms of the number of lemons I’d need given that I was carrying a litre bottle of gin and an ample supply of tonic. When did I grow up and get sensible? When did I become so serious? When, I wonder, did I start measuring life in terms of deadlines and meetings, airports and airplanes, invoices and reports? How difficult would it be to turn back the clock, rip down that fence and set those lemons free?

I’ve never been a great one for roses. Perhaps I overdosed on fairy tales as a child and had my fill of Rose Red and Rose White. Maybe their association with Valentine’s day has morphed into my subconsciousness and manifested itself as a synonym for commercialism, materialism, and all the bad -isms associated with money. There was a time, back in those wonderful days when I had time, that I would go regularly to Bratislava. I was looking in some silly, romantic way, to get a sense of what it was like to live  during the Cold War and Communism. For me, walking out of that train station is as close as it gets, off-celluloid. I want somehow to get a sense of a time I was never party to; to get a glimpse of what like was like from behind the bars. And yet, quite laughably, we build our prisons. The fences we erect around our little patch of life, fences that keep us in once place (perhaps figuratively rather than literally), doing one thing; fences that somehow shape our vision of who we are. And inside these fences we grow, regardless of those self-imposed limitations. Others looking in see the beauty that we ourselves have long-since disregarded and when they point it out, we dismiss them and their opinions as inessential.

Pliskovica, Slovenija

Perhaps it’s open roses I don’t care for. Ones that have yet to bloom still have that sense of what might be. That sense of wonderment. Something to look forward to. They’re not jaded by life and work and that ever growing list of have-tos. That increasing sense of obligation that comes with so-called maturity. That weight of responsibility augmented by dependency. For them, anything is possible. Youth is on their side and life is rolling out ahead of them, ready to be shaped and molded to their liking. Not for them the daily battle of wills, the fruitless fight against the establishment, the struggle just to start what will fast become just another day.

Budapest, Hungary

I wonder when this fascination started? What triggered this strange collection in my subconsciousness? Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness – the ugliness of captivity. Or even scarier, the representation of having given up – of somehow having decided to settle for life as it is, with all its limitations. Or worse again, the recognition that I’ve bought into the mass mania that values the external manifestation of beauty above anything else. Or maybe I just want a cigarette.

Pit stop for inner peace

Depending on the  temperature, the humidity, and how long I’ve been away from my own bed, I either like or loathe Malta. This time of year I’m very much in like. I am strangely fascinated by the place and the more Maltese I get to know, the more I see how unique this archipelago really is. Perhaps it’s because it’s so small that people appear so different. Maybe it’s because there are so few of them, that the pack mentality isn’t quite as obvious and individuality seems to shine. And no, that’s not a polite way of saying that the Maltese I’ve met are mad –  well, not in the mainstream sense of the word, anyway! But they are definitely cut from a different and more interesting cloth.

Mr. A spends his spare time tracking down the graves of relatives long since departed. There are still communal graves in Malta with a bye-law that they can’t be disturbed for two years after a burial so really you need two, on rotation, for your family – just in case. The B-B family is a cross between the Brady Bunch and the Waltons, with subtitles…and one of their four dogs actually talks. And Mr M is a self-confessed chapel chaser. He probably knows every church/chapel on the islands. While the tourist brochures tell us that Malta has 365 churches, one for every day of the year, Mr M reckons this is closer to 420 and I believe him. One of them, he said, is right bang smack in the middle of Paceville and is open all day every day. This I had to see.

Paceville is club central in Malta. It has the highest concentration of pubs, clubs, bars and restaurants anywhere on the Island and is the, if not the only, place to go ‘out on the town’. I’ve never braved it myself as there’s an unwritten roster in place and I’ve never managed to time it right. By 11pm the 14-year-olds have gone home; by midnight, the 16-year-olds have followed suit; by 1am, the 18-year-olds have left; and from then on it’s open season…by which time I’m usually nodding off to the sound of waves on shore.

Millennium chapel, Paceville

I was a little sceptical when Mr M first mentioned dr0pping by the Millennium chapel as it was fast approaching midnight. I wondered how many tourists went to Paceville looking for a church! In all my travels, I have never yet come across a church that’s open 24/7. I’m lucky to find one that is open other than an hour before and after mass. I’ve been to Bratislava many times and have yet to find the Cathedral open. I found the same on various roadtrips through Hungary. And more and more in Ireland, too. So much for the church providing a refuge from the madness of world. It’s quite a sad reflection on society. But right in the heart of Paceville, is a small chapel open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Further up the road is another small chapel that apparently holds late night pre-party prayer groups for young people heading out to paint the town their own peculiar shade of red. I’d like to meet the priest who is so in touch with society and clone him.

Mosta church

Surveys say that despite the Catholic billing, just 50% of Maltese are practising. Yet any church I’ve been to has been nigh on full – no matter what time I go, or which church I go to. And most of them have at least two if not three or even five masses on Sunday. At Mosta one Sunday in January, I counted 672 people in the congregation and 17 altar boys on the altar ranging in age from 6 to 16. I did wonder at the absence of altar girls. (In my defense, the mass was in Maltese and I’d already been there 45 mins before it started!) The local seminary has 30 students, 5 of whom will be ordained this year. In a country with a population of just over 400,000, that’s a fairly high percentage of priests in anyone’s maths.

The times they are a changin’ though. Later this year, on 28 May, Malta will hold a non-binding referendum on the subject of divorce. A quick poll taken in the office was probably an accurate relection of the Island as a whole – it was split in two, for and against. As Malta is the only country in Europe still to outlaw divorce (and only one of two in the world to do so, the other being the Philippines), this will be a real test for this last bastion of Catholicism.

 

Back to Bratislava…again

IMG_1998It’s hard to say what it is that keeps taking me back to Bratislava… apart from second-time visitors to Budapest wanting to broaden their horizons. For some very strange reason, I’m in love with the city. I don’t think I could live there though… yet there’s something strangely cathartic about getting off the train after 2.5 hours of journeying through the Hungarian and Slovakian countryside and stepping into the world of John le Carré. It’s like being back in the Cold War…or at least what I imagine being in the Cold War would have been like.  It’s not the best side of the city by any means. Generally hustling with all sorts – backpackers, touristy tourists, local commuters, shoppers, and the usual hang-abouters that come with every train station – it’s far from picturesque. Concrete just doesn’t cut it when it comes to atmosphere. Still, though, there is something in the air. Slovakia joined the eurozone in January this year and I missed that bit of excitement this time around. There’s something rather magical about getting used to new money; the temporary suspension of reality when you just spend and hope for the best, having tried in vain to come up with an easy denominator to make the calculations easy.

The No. 13 tram takes you down into the old town – the historic centre – and close enough to my hotel of choice, the Kyjev. The lift takes minutes to get to the top floor and when you step inside, you step back in time about thirty years. My imagination runs riot and again, I can see spies around every corner. I love it. Nothing has been touched in years. This is in sharp contrast to the old town, where modern sculptures have been plonked in random places.

IMG_1956

I’ve been to Bratislava four times now, and each time have made a valiant effort to light a candle in the Cathedral. Only it’s never been open to the public. I’ve been on varying days – Monday, Thursday, Friday, Sunday and each time it’s been closed. Right next door to this rather splendid tribute to Catholicsm, is a far more intriguing building that is overshadowed by its neighbour. Personally, I think it has more character; better reflects the mood of the people; and for me, symbolises the arty side of old age. If it were a poem, it would be Jenny Joseph’s When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple. You have to hand it to the Bratislavans – they take any and every opportunity available to art it. The day I was there, we came across a bunch of lads who had just taken part in choral competition. While waiting outside on the street to be summoned for their photo call, they started singing. Beautiful a cappella. The jury is out on who enjoyed it more: the singers or those fortunate enough to happen past at that moment. That is Bratislava. You never quite know what’s around the next corner. It’s not somewhere to spend a week – a day and a night is plenty – yet no two days or two nights are quite the same.