Saturday, 28 September 2013

Behind the bookcase

It would have to be one of the most famous bookcases in the world.

But most people who come to it are more interested in what was concealed behind it.

I'm at Anne Frank Huis in Amsterdam, where the young Jewish girl and others hid in a secret annexe for more than two years during World War Two.

The house sits quietly on an Amsterdam canal, amid the pot smoke and groups of revellers who have come to the city to party for the weekend.  It's a somber contrast to the city's "good time" offerings.

Born in Germany, her family moved to the Netherlands when the Nazis came to power.  However, with Germany's invasion of The Netherlands, her father Otto decided the family should go into hiding in the annexe at the back of his factory.

I recently re-read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl and was taken aback at how articulate and insightful she was.  It's hard to imagine teenagers today exhibiting the same profound thinking or writing skills.

When I was reading the book, I never quite got a grasp of how the annexe was laid out and it's connection to the factory.  Needless to say, wandering through the rooms, I was surprised at how small  they were and wondered how eight people could live in its confinements for so long.

Even with all the furniture gone, removed after they were arrested, the rooms are tiny.  And with wooden floorboards creaking under every step, it would have been impossible for the annexe's inhabitants to move without inadvertently alerting workers down below.

I found some of the simplest things the most confronting as they were the most tangible reminders that Anne Frank and her family were here: pictures Anne had pasted on her bedroom wall, Anne and Margot's height markings on the wall, and Otto's mud map of the Allies' advance.

There is also the swinging bookcase itself and I can only imagine how petrified the inhabitants would have been when police stormed through it to raid the annexe.

The accompanying museum helps complete the picture on Anne Frank and the other inhabitants of the annexe.  

Her father, Otto, the only survivor of the family, returned to Amsterdam after the war in the hope of finding his family. He waited at the train station every day to see if his family would be among the returning prisoners. 

However, Anne, and her sister Margo, had been transferred to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where it is believed they had died of typhus in March 1945.  Not long after, the camp was liberated.

Otto found that Anne's diary had been saved.  It is now on display in the place where it was written.

One of the saddest parts of my visit to Anne Frank Huis is a video where Otto speaks about reading Anne's diary.  He says Anne's comments and thoughts were a complete surprise to him, which led him to believe that parents never really know their children.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Germany entangled by "spaghetti" icecream

Sunday can be a tricky day in Europe.

Once vibrant towns seem to go deathly quiet.  This was certainly the case last Sunday as my cousin and I began our week-long, Rhine River cycle from Heidelberg.

Despite the fact the country was voting in its federal election that day, you could pretty much drive your BMW blindly down the footpath at 150km and not hit anyone.

While the peace and quiet was delightful as we tried to get the hang of cycling in Germany, it became an issue when we wanted to get some lunch.

After a solid three hours of cycling, including getting lost a few times, we were keen for a lunch break.  The sizeable town of Weinheim didn't seem to have much open at all, so we hoped the next town along, Hemsbach, might prove more forthcoming.

Despite asking / miming to a local about where potential eating places might be, it was beginning to look like this town was also devoid of food.  Then we spotted an Italian restaurant that seemed to be open so we thought our luck had changed.

Sadly and strangely, this restaurant only served "spaghetti" icecream on Sundays.  So that's no pasta, pizza or anything remotely meal-like, just icecream that has been made to look like spaghetti.
We had noticed the German fixation with icecream back in Heidelberg, where chilly 10 degree mornings were no deterrent to some gelato.  However, this "spaghetti" icecream seems to be taking things to a whole new level.

Alarmingly, the craze has gone nationwide as we keep encountering it, even in tiny little towns.

Admittedly I haven't tried it, but it does seem kind of pointless squeezing icecream through a device so it looks like a completely different meal.

It seems like something an eight year-old might have come up with while trying to fool their parents into thinking they were eating a proper meal.

What's next? "Salad" icecream?

Friday, 20 September 2013

Tantalising texts from Thai

At first I thought someone on the plane was coming on to me.

"Have a great flight", flashed the message on my seat's screen.

But then I realised that everybody had the same message on their screens and so I began to feel a little less special.

Throughout the next 8.5 hours, as I winged my way from Brisbane to Bangkok on Thai Airways, little messages kept popping up in the corner of my screen.

"Hungry?  Meals are on their way!"

"Thirsty?  Let us know!"

"Time to rest.  See you."

These messages must be extremely comforting for those who are addicted to text messages and are having withdrawal symptoms 5,000 metres above sea level.  They're like a nicotine patch for textaholics.

It's a quirky touch and not something I have seen used on a plane before.

Admittedly it was sometimes annoying when you were engrossed in a film (or Tetris) and you're momentarily interrupted, but for the most part it's a neat idea.  It not only injects a bit of personality into the flight and the airline, but also let's everyone know what's going on without having to scream it across the PA system.

Given everyone stares at their screens anyway during a flight (whether they're watching something or not) it's one of those things that makes you wonder why no one had thought of doing it earlier.

Why this funky Thai Airways is just like a new Facebook friend - though it isn't clogging up my newsfeed with photos of every meal they've ever eaten.

Further proving they're super eager to be our new "bestie", shortly after takeoff the flight attendant took to the PA system with a special announcement: "Would the person in 12E marry the person in 12D?"

It seems this airline is so accommodating that they'll even do mid-flight proposals for shy wannabe-grooms who don't want to pop the question themselves.  (By the way, she said yes.  How awkward would the flight have been if she had said no!)

Sadly, looking around the cabin, which seems full of Brisbane families heading for Thailand's sandy shores (do children go to school these days?), I'm confident there's no one on board I want to propose to or receive a proposal from.

Actually I was more than happy that my screen was the only thing that spoke to me for the entire flight.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Sounds like a holiday

Travel and tunes.  For me they've gone hand-in-hand ever since I was a child and I would listen to Mel and Kim on my Walkman in the back of the family car as we journeyed from Warwick to the Gold Coast for our annual summer holiday.

There's some destinations I will instantly recall when a particular song comes on the radio.   These are songs that might not necessarily have an obvious association to the place, but was somehow being played when I was there.

Take Bath in England.  A beautiful and historic city that I always remember when I hear the Spice Girls' Holler, as this was what was playing on the bus in the year 2000 when I visited there for the first time.

Hey, I didn't say the travel and tune association was always perfect.

As I load up my iPod for another holiday, I'm busting out my top 10 travel tunes.

Yes, I do have a "Travel" playlist and these are just some of the gems the feature.  They're trotted out when I'm about to head on holidays, when I'm thinking of holidays or when I'm on the plane itself.

Some are obvious, some are relaxing and some are silly/tragic, but whenever they come on I can get that holiday feeling.

10.  Life by Des'ree
Sure there's some weird lyrics in there, but I too don't want to see a ghost, it's the sight that I fear most and I would rather eat a piece of toast and watch the evening news.

9.  I'm Like A Bird by Nelly Furtado
Well, some do say I run like a gazelle or was that an emu?   Anyway, you get the whole freedom connotation here and a strong desire to stick our your arms like wings when this one comes on.

8.  On the Beach by Chris Rea
Actually I'm rarely on the beach as I'm not a huge fan of the sun, but this laid back song seems to evoke a long hot summer no matter where you hear it.

7.  Breathe by Kylie
This is a popular track when I'm approaching a holiday - there's something about the lines "breathe, it won't be long now, breathe" that seems like very sage advice from the Princess of Pop.

6.  Fields of Gold by Eva Cassidy
It's like an audio massage that makes you want to run through a foreign field at sunset.

5.  Whoops Now by Janet Jackson
Possibly not on everyone's list but Janet's little ditty about being held back at work by her boss while everyone else is at play is a compelling story.  Thankfully by the end of the song the tables have turned and she too is saying "Whoops Now", but for all the right reasons.

4.  Come Away With Me by Norah Jones
Surely one of the most chilled and relaxing escape songs of all time.  I feel like I'm in the car with her on that hot summer's day driving down a desert highway to somewhere else.

3.  Touch of Paradise by John Farnham
The video clip had John chillaxing on a inflatable pool bed and when this song comes on you'll be wanting to do the same... possibly while you watch flamingos "walk and swaying in peace".

2.  One Day I'll Fly Away by Randy Crawford
This song seems to sum up the yearning to escape perfectly.  Depending on your mood, it can make you sad, hopeful and/or happy.

1.  Holiday by Madonna
Come on.  You know this one was coming.   If you haven't played this while heading home after your last day of work you're dead inside!  Dead I tell you!

What's on your "Travel" playlist?

Saturday, 14 September 2013

It's just plane etiquette

There's something about the confines of a plane that dramatically alters normal human behaviour.

As I pack my bags ready to depart next week, I steel myself for the inevitable fact that even the most tolerant and generous folk will revert to a primal, disorientated and selfish state once they step onto the plane.

Once on board, I believe a socialist approach is needed to cabin life so that the greater good outweighs the interests of the individual.  Sure, I would love to lounge across many seats or clog up the overhead locker with my stuff, but I realise others have needs too.

I know I will share the 20-something hour journey to Europe with a range of weird, wonderful and wacky people.

Here's the 10 most common characters I expect to encounter on a plane:

1. The Dazed and Disorientated
A passenger who struggles with the simplest of tasks, such as operating the in-seat television monitor, connecting their headphones, lowering their tray or opening the toilet door.  This may be a sign that they are tired, jetlagged and/or just really stupid.

Subset:   The Numerically-Challenged.
This passenger walks all the way to row 60 only to realise that their ticket says row 24.  Mayhem ensues as they try to "swim against the tide" back down the aisle.

2.  The Sleeper Agent
A coveted role, this passenger is able to "pass out" naturally or with chemical assistance for the duration of the long flight, even in the most uncomfortable of positions.   Normally an ideal companion, unless they are sitting on the aisle and trap access to the bathroom.

3. The Family
Enough to cause a collective groan from other passengers is the arrival of parents with one or more children who are old enough to wander around but, not old enough to realise they can't always do that.  Also easily identifiable by having at least two bags per person.   In their wisdom they may have also given their toddler a small Dora the Explorer wheel case so they can effectively clog the aisle and trip people in the terminal.   People in the row behind must submit to numerous hours of peek-a-boo with one or more of the children.

Subset - the Lone Parent
A sad and downtrodden figure who has resigned themselves to 20 or more hours of no sleep.  They'll happily let their children roam the entire cabin, just as long as they get a minute's peace.   Despite being sapped of all energy from their long journey, they are remarkably adept at throwing their children are waiting relatives.

4.  The Lone Ranger
Usually a man, this passenger seems keen to assert their individuality and resists caving in to societal pressures while on board by keeping their seat reclined during meal time and continuing to use their phone as the plane heads down the runway.   This person feels the purchase of their ticket enables them to do whatever they like so watch out!

5.  The Coloniser
This passenger races to claim empty seats for their own empire as soon as the seat belt sign has gone off after takeoff (or even before).   Accompanied by jumpers, books and other items to "reserve" spots, this person stakes their claim on any unoccupied seat.  Turf wars have been known to erupt when two colonisers plan to invade the same territory.

Subset:  The Hopeful
This character only makes an appearance during the boarding of the plane.  This solo traveller has empty seats beside him/her and lives in frantic hope that anyone approaching them is not going to sit down beside them.   Needless to say, their hopes are usually dashed and the spend the flight depressed and defeated.

6.  The Destination Dropper
Proving all social awareness goes out the window at 5,000 metres above sea level, this passenger is not afraid to tell other passengers, crew and anyone else that they've been there and done that.   This can create amusing moments as they try to tell veteran flight crew how to travel or offer unsolicited advice on the best sights in the crew's own town or country.

7.  The Speed Racer
Reaching for their bag as soon as the airplane's wheels touch the ground, this traveller is hell bent on disembarking the plane first, even if they're in row 56.   Not-so-discrete shoving and manoeuvring see them push ahead, race off the plane and speed to the immigration line.  Their efforts appear slightly futile when they're still left waiting at the luggage carousel long after everyone they pushed past has collected theirs and gone.

8.  The Lads
Dressed in shorts and thongs despite flying to Japan's ski fields, this male traveller usually travels in a pack and orders rums and bourbons as soon as the seatbelt sign is turned off.  Keen to drink their ticket price in alcohol, they also continually tussle with their companions with a rowdy "wayyheeyyy".

9.  The Overextended
Depth perception isn't everyone's forte, but these passengers are under the misconception that they will be able to fit their own body weight in carry-on luggage into the overhead locker.  They're sometimes thwarted by airline staff before they've even set foot on the plane and spend the rest of the flight grumbling about the injustice of it all.

10.  The Diseased
Sounding more like they have pleurisy than the common cold and apparently incapable of covering their mouth or using a tissue, this passenger knows how to leave their mark.  You can almost see their germs crawling across the cabin in your direction and if you could down a bottle of bleach as a preventative measure you would.  

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The tourist mirror

Do tourists in our own country make us better people?

I pondered this question while jogging through the centre of Sydney recently, through throngs of international visitors milling around around Circular Quay and the Sydney Opera House.

Of course a city that welcomes tourists is more likely to have more of the good stuff that residents and visitors alike can enjoy, such as entertainment, dining, festivals, activities, attractions and public transport.

But I wondered whether being surrounded by people from all over the world, and effectively being "on show", had a positive impact on the locals and their behaviour.

As I was jogging through the Royal Botanic Gardens, I could hear so many different languages and accents, from India and Asia, through to Europe and the US.  This multicultural mix was certainly more than I usually experience on an average day elsewhere in Australia.

I wondered what their impression of Sydney and its residents was, and also how that was shaping their perception of Australia as a whole and all of us who live here.

What had they seen or heard of us before they arrived?   Did they think we would all be like Crocodile Dundee or Schapelle Corby or Pauline Hanson or just people who turn their backs on refugees in boats?

Did reality exceed their expectations or did we disappoint?  

Suddenly I desperately wanted them to like us.   

I wanted them to think that Australians were friendly, honest, welcoming, progressive, diverse, tolerant, smart, happy and healthy people.   For some reason, I want Australia to be putting its best foot forward as though visitors were a prospective employer or in-law.

It made me want to give directions (even though I don’t live there - but I would do my best), smile as I jogged past, give way to their tourist group, and generally help where I could.

Those who know me know this is not necessarily my normal condition.

Though back in my hometown of Brisbane, I will readily stop and help a tourist with directions (whether they ask for it or not).   I’m not sure if this is just laying the foundations for some global karma and hoping someone returns the favour when I’m in a foreign city, or something more.

It’s not necessarily that I want their approval either.   

Being surrounded by tourists lets us see ourselves through different eyes.  We can almost detach ourselves and get a different perspective on how we live, how we act, and how we portray ourselves to others.

On Facebook we choose the image we want to be our profile photo, consciously shaping what others will think of us.

It's no different for when tourists are in town.

I hope the picture they see of us is one of a friendly, welcoming, honest, open-minded Australian.

Perhaps I want others to see this image because it's something I would like to see more of myself.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Breaking up is never easy

Citing “irreconcilable differences", this weekend Australia called it quits with Kevin Rudd (and the ALP) after a six-year "marriage". 

In recent months, it had become very apparent to everyone that the relationship was on the rocks.  

There were moments when we thought the marriage would last the test of time.  We thought we could keep going.   But it just wasn’t meant to be.

Thinking back to the wedding night (election night 2007), there was such excitement and promise.   We had catchy slogans, people were dressed up and everyone seemed to have high hopes for the future. 

This was the man we wanted to spend our days and nights with.

But then promises were broken, things were said and we started to see a different side.  We began to wonder if we really understood each other at all.

So we spent some time apart.  

We even started seeing other people and for a moment we thought Julia was going to be our new life partner. 

But then Kevin came back in a blaze of glory.  It was like he was fighting for our love. 

For that brief honeymoon period when Kevin moved back in we felt like we had rekindled some of the spark we once had for each other.

He promised he had changed.  He said he would try harder.  

But sometimes that’s just not enough.  For a number of reasons, the fire had died.

So we’ve decided to go our separate ways. 

It just didn’t work.  No hard feelings.  All the best.

In time, once the wounds have healed, I’m sure we’ll speak fondly of our time together.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

That sinking feeling

If Twitter had been around in 1628, the hashtag #fail would have featured heavily on 10 August when the Swedish warship Vasa set sail on its maiden voyage... only to sink less than two kilometres from shore.

The highly decorated timber ship lay at the bottom of Stockholm's harbour for more than three centuries until it was discovered largely intact in the late 1950s and salvaged.

Today, the entire Vasa ship stands tall (on solid ground) in a dedicated, climate-controlled museum in Stockholm that is completely dedicated to the most stunning failures of Swedish maritime history.

Like many of today's Hollywood stars, Vasa was made too top-heavy, which meant anything more than a breeze toppled it over.  Not the best feature for a warship destined for battles at sea.

My friend and I stumbled across Vasa by accident while "killing some time" in Stockholm.

On paper the Vasa Museum sounds like just another nautical museum (and we both aren't really seafaring folk).  But in reality, the Vasa Museum is one of the best museums I have ever been to.

Because it sank just after its launch and lay undisturbed at the bottom of the harbour, it is not only a fascinating relic but a time capsule.

Since being raised to the surface, the ship has been preserved and you're able to walk around it on several levels, peering inside, over and under the big ship.

Thousands of artifacts found inside Vasa, including clothing, weapons, tools and trunks, have been recovered and are on show.  They shine a light on everyday life at the time.

About 30 people are believed to have died when Vasa sank and the remains of about 16 bodies have been uncovered and analysed, revealing fascinating facts about who they were, their diet and their health - almost 400 years after their death.

As a monument to Sweden's naval power, Vasa was adorned with painted wooden carvings.  While the paint has faded, the sculptures themselves are remarkably intact.

Apparently Vasa's instability was pretty obvious even when the ship was in port.  But no one wanted to bring this to the attention of impatient King and so the structural problems were never addressed and the launch proceeded as planned.

On 10 August 1628, thousands of Stockholm residents lined the shore waiting to watch the ship's maiden voyage.

About 150 people were on board, including more than 100 crew, many of whom had also brought their wives and children on board for the first part of the journey.

But just minutes into the voyage, the unstable ship began to roll, allowing water to rush in through the gunports.

Despite taking about two years to build, Vasa took only minutes to sink.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

There's something in the water

I thought I was past the age when I would find myself at a puppet show - past that age by a few decades actually.

But in Hanoi anything goes and like many other adults I found myself at a water puppet show.

Long before there was Disney on Ice, it seems the Vietnamese were perfecting puppets on water.

An art form dating back almost ten centuries, it is believed water puppetry was started by those working in flooded rice fields.   It seems they didn't let the absence of dry land get in their way of a good time.

So while other puppeteers stand high and dry above the stage and dangle their puppets down, water puppetry sees the puppeteers sitting in a back half of a pool, behind a screen.   At the front of the stage (pool) the puppets come to life at their command, walking and dancing across the water.

The arrangement means you don't see any strings or wires, as all the operating mechanisms are hidden under the water.

Now to be clear, I'm not normally a puppetry fan, but it's not too hard to be entertained by a water puppet show.

Sure, there's a very "touristy" element to the shows in Hanoi, but let's face it, it's not something you're going to see at home anytime soon.

Made out of wood, the puppets are surprisingly animated and recreate legends, rural scenes and other traditional activities as they skim across the water.  The puppet characters include people, buffalo, water fairies and even a fire-spouting dragon.

Although I wasn't rushing out to buy the show's soundtrack (a mix of singing, clangs and drums), it was still a welcome reprieve from the continual roar of Hanoi's traffic!