Ugly Babies

Serendipity Magazine (c) 2006.

A 6-week backpacking odyssey through Europe.







36 days, 11 countries, 1 pair of sneakers. I'm glad I did it, but I'm ultra glad it's over.


They say hearing about someone's travels is like looking at someone's baby pics. Only marginally less interesting. I'm showing you my babies anyway. So you can see how ugly they all are.


Travel Tips The first thing you do on arrival is grab at leaflets, maps and brochures to find what's worth seeing. But you need to wade through mountains of advertising fluff to get to any truth. Not unlike the catfood leaflets I wrote to finance this jaunt. I have now tasted my own medicine. And it is poison.


I met Scott the Scot in Rome and I asked him to compare Edinburgh with Glasgow. " If yae wann tae see Art, Architecture and Culture, go tae Edinbo." he said. "If yae wanna git rat-arsed and tickle some fanny, come tae Glasgow."


If only the Lonely Planet were that concise.


Good habits I've been out of bed well before 7 a.m. every day. This ain't because of any new found zest for life. It has to do with ventilation.


Dorms stuff 6-10 people into a room. In big cities like Amsterdam, Berlin and Barcelona, they pack upto 20. The windows only open a few inches to prevent drunks from throwing objects or themselves outside.


All this means you wake to a room teeming with warm carbon dioxide, sweat and nocturnal farts. No matter how rancid the showers are, you run for them, just to taste air that hasn't been filtered through another human.


Cartoon Food In Prague the menu comes with cute cartoon renditions of the dead animal you are about to devour. Duck Curry has a shot of Donald; Chicken Chausser has Tweety Pie; Pork Chops, who else... Porky Pig.


I order Garlic Rabbit and Venison Steak. Because they have pictures of Bambi and Thumper next to them. And the thought of them skinned and skewered for my pleasure makes my mouth water, my stomach rumble and... I won't go further south.


Who knows? If Sewer Rat Burger were marketed with shots of Mickey and Minnie, it may yet become a delicacy.


Balkan Humour The train to Sarajevo stops at 18 checkpoints between Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia. At the first, a Croat military policeman bangs on my door, salutes and demands my passport. "Sri Lanka..." he sneers "You help Serbia in war?"


How do you answer that one? It's taken me years to fathom who the Serbs, the Croats and the Bosnians were. And decades to figure out who the bad guys were. (Hint: All of them) If I answer yes, and he's Serb, maybe I get a chaffeur-driven tank ride around the Balkans. If he's not, maybe I get ethnic cleansed and chucked in a mass grave.


"Sri Lanka... no fight...no Serbia." I stammer, hoping that sounding like a gimp would bridge the language barrier. He slaps my back so hard I feel my shoulders dislocate and roars with laughter. In other words, he has been, as the English say, winding me up, or as the Sri Lankans say, taking me for a bite.


There are 17 more stops on that train. That 'joke' is replayed no less than 4 times. First thing I do when I get home is get my shoulders x-rayed.


My biggest shame A rainy night in Salzburg. I miss my train, arrive at the Hostel drenched and exhausted. Two Danish girls take pity and invite me to empty a bottle of Chardonnay with them. The light dims, conversation flows, they lean in closer... before I know it, I'm signed up for... a Sound of Music tour.


Four hours on the Fraulein Maria bicycle ride, traipsing through flower gardens, castles, streams. The tour's full of middle-aged women, families, camp men, silly girls and a few other bewildered heterosexual guys.


The bus driver has just one CD on loop. Guess which? A bit of Radiohead, perhaps? The first Black Sabbath record, maybe? Nope. You know the album I speak of. Edelweiss, Doh-a-Beer, Yodelay-Hi-Ho, Have you met a bitch called Maria and 20 other golden greats.


And at the climax of the tour, they drive up that hill, we get out, the ladies put on nun's habits, spread their arms and screech, "The hills are alive..." Sounding and looking nothing like Julie Andrews. I should've walked into the mountains with whatever was left of my dignity. But then I realize... I look kinda cool in a nun's habit...


Going Dutch He's an aging busker. I say I'm on my way to see Tracy Chapman play at the Paradiso. He says I may not believe him, but he slept with Tracy Chapman 20 years ago. I reply, he may not believe me, but I cried myself to sleep listening to Tracy Chapman 20 years ago.


Now sad, corny wordplay hardly qualifies as high wit. But in an Amsterdam hash bar, even a grunt can come out sounding like the collected works of Oscar Wilde. He bursts out laughing and buys me drinks for the rest of the night.


He tells me how he slept with Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow and Eddie Brickell. How he gets high with Crosby, Stills and Nash. And every time Neil Young comes to Amsterdam, they go to the red light district together.


I end up missing the Tracy Chapman gig. It's not often that you hear stories taller than your own. It's not often that in the land that invented the term "going dutch", someone pays for your drinks all night.


Ying and Yang Some days you're surrounded by Bosnian urchins threathening to pelt you with fruit unless you hand over your camera. Other days, you're on a French beach, sipping Sangria, surrounded by a sea of topless women.


Travel impresses on you the ying and yang-ness, the sometimes-you're-the-hammer-sometimes-you're-the-nail-ness of it all. No matter how much you plan, some days will rock, some will stink. You go with the flow.


To think that after growing up surrounded by temples, I had to visit a topless beach to understand the essence of Buddhism.


Playing with infants At first, when asked my age, I blush, say, how old do you think I look... blush again and say... Well... I'm actually 30. Then I look around the table and see that no one present was alive when Rick Astley was in the charts. And I'd see myself through their eyes, transform from a worldly-wise 20-something, to a sad old git trying to recapture his youth.


So now when they ask, there's no blushing or coy questions. I look straight ahead, say I'm 26 and then promptly change the subject.


Best Argument Was it on metaphysics in a Parisian cafe over a cask of rouge with beret wearing socialists? Or on global politics in a seedy Berlin nightclub with chain-smoking drag queens?


Neither.

It was in a family hostel in Vienna, over a jar of marmalade with 4 Austrian kids, ages 8 - 12. The topic? Was Prisoner of Azkaban a superior work to Goblet of Fire.


These kids were vituoso musicians on a school field trip to Salzburg who spoke 4 languages fluently. Who, despite my best efforts, managed to convince me that even though Azkaban boasted circular time-travel plots and characters like Sirius Black, Goblet was in fact, quote, da shit, unquote.


More Smart Kids In the Gaudi museum. He looks like he's been breast fed till the age of 10. He runs around like he owns the place and speaks as if everything he says is of great import. In other words, a typical American.


Opinion is mixed on Antonio Gaudi. Some say genius. Some say Gaudy. I reckon he's pretty cool. End of Art history lecture.


"Mommy. I want to be like Gaudi!" screams the kid as I picture his severed head hanging from one of the Spaniard's turrets. His mother, in the typical schoolteacher tone that parents of obnoxious kids have, replies, " But honey, what do ya wanna be? A painter, a sculptor, an architect...?"


I visualise her skull dangling next to the brat's, when the kid comes out with the most brilliant justification for human ambition I've ever heard. " I just want to do something that people look at and go... WOW..."


I gaze at the lump of lard in awe. Don't we all?


Sri Lankan Story

Two Argentinian girls tell me of their visit to Sri Lanka. They like the country, but can't stand how the men ogle. Especially the manager at the resort they're at. He gawks at them sunbathing and scribbles in a notebook. When they catch him, he grins.


On their last day he gives them an envelope and asks them to open it in their rooms. It contains an illustration of him as a two-tongued monster, performing oral sex on each of them. He's captured their nakedness in startling detail. The caption says, "If you like this, meet me on beach tonight."


They lock their doors and check out of there at dawn. I'm amused but can't help feeling sympathy for my fellow Lankan. The muppet probably still believes that the way to a woman's heart is through pornographic hand drawings. Bless.


Stereotypes

People think of Germans as humourless, closet fascists. What scheisse. I found them warm, smart, funny and surprisingly egoless. And more than willing to confront their past.


Tiny example. Outside Humboldt University, in the square which once held Nazi book burnings, there are now stalls selling those same books at half price. There's a little memorial with a quote from German author Heinrich Heine, written a century before the rise of the Third Reich.


"If you start burning books, soon you will be burning people."


Now that prophecy (a) makes Nostradamus look like a two-bit sarsthara karaya and (b) tells you that it is possible for a society to address its past and learn from it, no matter how bloody or horrific.


Out of all the capitals I visited, Berlin is the only one I'd seriously consider living in.


Truth Hurts

Ibiza is Sodom and Gomorrah with chavs, spice girls, lads and slappers. It's my last stop and I'm knackered. So I decide to walk around and people watch. The only problem with people watching is that other people watch you. A chav points at me. "Look, it's a black Bob Geldof!"


I go to the nearest WC and look in the mirror. Goggle eyes, unshaven jowls, scruffy hair, slouching shoulders, crumpled shirt. The cretin was right. If I were fairer, I could've organised Live Aid.


Europe's Greatest Band Best gig? Not Tori Amos in Rome. Nor Queens of the Stone Age in Prague.


It's in the student quarter in Venice. I see kids skanking on the streets and I spy them giving away wine at 1 euro a cup. Hallelujah! In Venice, buying a thimble of beer could set you back 10 euros.


They're a reggae band. Skinny, unshaven white guys with dreadlocks, wearing shorts and flip flips. Tinny drums, warm bass. Like early Police before Sting's head disappeared up his arse.


Now all this sounds pleasant, but surely, you say, it can't compare to Tori pounding the keys under a hail of lights.


The band's name is Uber Maan Schaft. (Translation: Superman's you-know-what) If that isn't the coolest name for any band in this or any other known universe, I don't know what is. Plus, they are from Stuttgart. That's right, German Rastafarians! Who knew?


And the cheap wine? That's courtesy of the guitarist's uncle's vineyard. When was the last time Bono bought drinks to a U2 gig?


That's all folks

If that was exhausting to read, be glad you weren't there. And be glad you're not here now. I'm about to take my socks off for the first time in 36 days. I may require a chisel.


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