Tag Archives: travel

The Museum of Broken Relationships

I remember when this opened, some years ago, under the name ‘Museum of Failed Relationships’. I liked that name better – it echoed of wars, revolutions, fallen heroes and honour in defeat. Broken… eh… anything can break. I visited it in June 2011. I was at the end of a relationship, that moment when all sadness gets a bit grimy already, and I was in the right mood to read about the ‘ex-axe’, and similar exhibits. In anyway, it was one of the most enjoyable museum visits I’ve ever had in my life, and I recommend it to anyone.

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The art of wrapping

I bought many things on my recent trip to Japan. It was hard not to: just about everything on sale in Japan was eminently worth buying. Food, drinks, books, shoes, humble boxes, ceramics, paper goods, whatever I set my eyes on was simply beautifully crafted, with precision and care. Even more, it was all displayed with such respect for the object that it made everything seem meaningful, valuable, important.

Even more importantly, every item purchased was so lovingly wrapped for me by the shop assistants that many of the things I bought I didn’t have the heart to unwrap. I felt, in a way that might be quintessentially un-Japanese, that I might ruin some crucial quality of my buy by getting it out of its paper packaging.

So take a look at this humble little thing, a papier-mache box, I bought in a shop in Asakusa, and religiously carried around for a month after in its original packaging. Watch as it comes apart, the thing of beauty (見事) that it is.

The box itself is gorgeous; after all, that was what I saw on the shelf in Asakusa. However, the multiple layers of packaging added an entirely new level (or layer) of beauty to it. The habit of wrapping a square item in a square sheet of paper by rotating it slightly was common to my experience of Japan: many very humble items came to me wrapped like that, in very humble shops and from people who clearly weren’t any sort of paper artists. The folds in such a wrapping process result in many very small, unusual corners. It was only once I had unwrapped it, and examined the paper, that it became obvious that, despite the seeming haphazardness of the angle, and the irregularity of the little folds created along the way, there was great thought involved in the technique. It was only once the wrapping paper was laid out that the symmetry of the folds was revealed:

After returning from Japan, I spent at least a month gripped by what my boyfriend called a case of post-Japan blues afflicting all Australians. Nothing, to put it simply, was good enough anymore. What would have seemed like ordinary customer service until my departure for Tokyo suddenly looked like gratuitous acts of random and deliberate rudeness. I was appalled by shop assistants across multiple states shrugging and declaring that they weren’t really good at wrapping, instead handing me some brown paper and letting me do the job myself, if I was so keen on having my bought goods packaged. In a bookshop in Brisbane’s South Bank, adjacent to GOMA, a bookshop that purported to be a classy joint, I had to quite warmly insist to the shop assistant that his wrapping skills would certainly be adequate before he deigned to wrap the pile of books I had just bought with the intention to give as presents. And not to say anything about the quality of the purchased goods. After Japan, quite simply, nothing was good enough anymore.

Japan is certainly heaven for anyone with a love for applied arts – Japanese arts are all applied, and Japanese culture values application enormously. But being there reminded me strongly of the little pleasures of living in Europe – travelling a few kilometres whichever way and experiencing a thousand microfelicities upon finding something new, beautiful and native to the local area to savour, touch, perhaps bring back as a little present (omiyage, お土産). And I remembered my visit to Perth, my first travel in Australia outside of Melbourne, walking through shop after shop, all of which could have been called Cheap&Nasty (dot-painted boomerangs, koala keychains, postcards of men holding pints of beer), and wondering how it was possible that so many people had spent so much time settled on that corner of the Earth without producing, appreciating and refining a single thing, a single item special to them. A single thing worth making with care, displaying with respect, wrapping with love and selling proudly to a visitor.

One could make the age argument (Australia is so young!, has not had the time to produce papier-mache boxes worth raving about!), but it is an insincere argument. What makes the Asakusa box special is not the thirteen hundred years of Japanese civilization. It is the care with which it was made, the care with which it was displayed, the care with which it was wrapped upon purchase, the care which naturally extended to my own greater appreciation. Such care comes with respect for the craft, and appreciation of beauty that is a degree separate from the utility, cost or status value of the object. It is materialism in the proper sense of the word.

It is care that Australia lacks, not history. After all, most of what human beings do, as a species, is rather banal: growing and eating food, building shelter, hitting balls of varying shapes according to varying rules; some paved roads here; some drying racks there. Civilization and culture are not so much the sum total of our operas, marble horsemen and bell towers, but of our ability to imbue with meaning and purpose these everyday activities that we have shaped our life around. What makes Italy a deeply satisfying place to live in is not the ruins of the Colosseum, but the way Italians talk about food and football: not as guilty pleasures, but as activities of cosmic importance. (As of Japan; look no further…)

To be able to tell why something that you do matters, it is not enough to bullshit (marketing thrives in Australia as well as in Italy), because a narrative of that sort is not a lie. It is definitional, and generative. It is born by giving a voice to one’s own innate sense of what is important, and it makes others care for it more. It forms, by default, a community. But it requires an opening up, and it makes one vulnerable. Especially if the context is that of a place in which it is considered somehow embarrassing to care.

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On girls and bikes

Picture this: Turkish island of Heybeliada. Beautiful name, big blue sky, people sitting in cafes by the sea. An older woman, in her fifties, dressed entirely in turquoise, is helping a girl that could be ten years of age to get on a much bigger bike. They succeed; the girl rides off, the woman sits down with two women in a cafe, both younger (early thirties). The turquoise woman has a headscarf, but is otherwise in plain clothes. The young women are dressed non-religiously, as is the girl, who comes back, gets off the bike, and joins them at the table.

Continue reading “On girls and bikes” »

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Ville Radieuse; Croatia.

‘Kvart’ is a Croatian word that only really lives in Zagreb. ‘Kvart’ means ‘quarter’, 1/4 – as in quartiere, quartier, viertel; in other words, district, neighbourhood, part of town. Continue reading “Ville Radieuse; Croatia.” »

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A note on violence

13 June

As I’m writing this, the first gay pride parade in Split (second biggest city in Croatia, biggest coastal, smack-bang in the middle of the area that was heavily bombed during the war, therefore, somewhat predictably, somewhat right-leaning) resulted in a violent riot, as the parade (of 200 mainly non-gay people – activists, intellectuals, supporters) was met by a rock-hurling counter-protest (of about 10,000 by the police estimate). Croatian media are exploding with commentary, all condemning the violence in the harshest possible terms. This is great improvement since the LGBT issue was first raised, only about 12 years ago, when no one spoke about it, and the general opinion was not far from an assumption that there are no homosexuals in Croatia. But, in a very strongly masculine culture, homosexuality is, of course, destabilising for a whole series of cultural paradigms. As one journalist wrote: Continue reading “A note on violence” »

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Europa, Europa

There is something about twos than always beats threes; unfinishedness, truncation.

I am going back to Europe, and although I probably won’t have time for Berlin again, there will be Berliners in Zurich, and I am fortifying myself with Berlin music nonetheless.

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The things nobody tells you about Berlin

1.
Saturday, December 27th: Letter from the Countess von Moltke and read fairy tales to the King of Prussia, a sad and tedious affair. In the paper it says I belong more to Germany than Denmark. Spent the evening with brothers Grimm.
–Hans Christian Andersen, diary entry from a visit to Berlin

2.
Misprejudices self-correct automatically. The first thing one notices is the thing one hasn’t been told in advance. For example, how thin and tattered Berlin’s urban fabric is. This is a rare European city that is yet to be stitched back together after the World War II. While most cities have grown over their war holes and gaps, reconnected historical street patterns and traditional pedestrian flows, Berlin is still in bits and bobs. It is not normal. A normal European city layers competing kinds of order, overlapping intentions: a majestic vista here transects a medieval neighbourhood there; an excellent metro cuts through a tight, walkable centre. It features a semiotic excess: regal triumph over the colonies specked with modernist rationality bordering 21st-century cool blending into the preserved history for we were all working class once. Berlin, on the contrary, is an urbanistic hodge-podge, a compendium of planning errors, everything we know it’s bad, not dissimilar to an Australian city. Berlin is competing centres separated by kilometres of thin urban fabric, light industry in the most central places, vacant sites not even broadly landscaped into parks, multiple airports, enormous warehouses separated by large empty spaces. There are large parts of Berlin, including the most central, like Alexanderplatz, that have no urbanistic idea worth keeping, that appear to have been built as a failed compromise between budgeting, marketing, transport and political constraints, not a single one actually satisfied.

This should result in a textbook fiasco. Instead, a kind of exhilarating chaos emerges, unlike any European city could possibly generate, with its main pedestrian shopping strips crowned by a cathedral, its waterfront promenades and Jugendstil cafes. These cities are built in the image of a society in which everything has its place. Berlin, very clearly, has no society. Just little clusters of like-minded people here and there, grouped around a couple of fast-food joints and a U-Bahn station. Going out is like going out in Melbourne, or even Perth. One walks the same street, and goes in and out of vibrancy, commerce, hipness. Unter den Linden is a historical monument, not a promenade, and it leads precisely nowhere. Friedrichstrasse is too cramped and short and trafficky to be anything more than a passage, despite Zara and Dussmann trying to make it look like just any place for office workers to shop afterhours. Multiple competing boulevards are flanked by kebab stalls and ruined by the Underground growing overground. I can list you the reasons, just in case you wondered: the Wall going through the Mitte/Kreuzberg, paralysing the former heart and resulting in double everything: train stations, airports; Cold War rewiring of traffic on both sides in order to make roundabout sense; the poverty of the former capital preventing swift reconstruction. But this list is deceiving, because it immediately points to a kind of historical wreckage that you will think you understand, and imagine an image from the collective imagery which will be beautiful, but incorrect. You will arrive, like me, and find a city which is neither grand nor historical: the history it abounds with is recent; fifty years; eighty years. And the grandness is amusing and macabre together, like a very bad joke. Berlin has grand patches (Brandenburg or the ˙Vőlksbűhne), but the overall effect is sort of homely, like Canberra. When it is a stage, it is without an audience. Again, historical reasons may explain why the city is happy to remain in theatrical tatters.

3. No photos of Berlin are ever right, so I settled on my favourite photo of my favourite
Berlin artist. Hands up if you recognise this man.

4. Whichever way, in the absence of society the city is bustling. And here the other fallacy: that Berlin is a vibrant, happening city. Whatever makes Berlin interesting comes from the fact that precisely the opposite is the truth: Berlin seems to be constantly failing to happen. I notice, again, because I was told otherwise. Where I imagined a sort of European Beijing, a construction site peppered with designer stores and people in overtight jeans wearing wanker hats, it is more of an empty lot awaiting brownfield revitalization. Its main attributes, twenty years later, still being a vast oversupply of land to population and very low rents, it attracts not entrepreneurs but people who like not having to work too much. And this is the crucial difference between Berlin and a magnet for hipster-wannabes such as Melbourne (geographical similarity breeds easy comparisons). Melbourne is a typical product of boosterism, a collectively sustained state of belief in its own grandeur. The city government, the restaurant critics, the emerging jewellery makers and those who move down in droves to read Three Thousand a bit closer to the source, all wish Melbourne’s status as a cool city – otherwise, what would remain of their lives in overly expensive Brunswick shacks or overheated Fitzroy apartments? In Berlin, instead, only Kreuzberg seems to have achieved a mythical status. For however many starstruck art posers like me try to elbow their way into the city, they seem to be forever outnumbered by Turkish immigrants, old people enjoying the benefits of rent control, and the drug-fried who are here for the three-day techno parties. The highest percent of unemployed among German cities. Insalubrious and unwholesome and uncool, much of it. Berlin wears its dagginess with a shrug. It’s the cheap rents that seem to matter more.

As much as I doubted that the city of Berlin was as terminally bankrupt as is often said, it has been hard to remain sceptical when the snow freezes over uncleaned footpaths, resulting not just in the city-wide state of dangerous (that term so loved by Australians, who live in a permanent search for catastrophic perils to nip in the bud), but in constant obstacle to movement. People slide over metres of ice, occasionally falling, perpetually stumbling. And here another sweet side of Germany emerges: as much as they constantly apologise for their own, well-documented love of rules and regulations, they are certainly a couple of notches more unruly than the larrikin and anti-authoritarian Australians. When I ask about the elderly handling the icy footpaths, Ingo asks: “What, you think old people aren’t able do walk in winter?” When the ticket inspectors raid the undeground train, half of my carriage is unscrupulously ticketless. Squats still everywhere, smoking indoors, and memories of a Wall coming down. On the other hand, only Turks and I cross on the red light.

The combination of relaxed slowness and elephantine change, of poverty and big projects – my friends here showed me a book on No Wave, and that’s what Berlin now looks like, like New York circa 1974 – means that everything that is imaginable may be possible. Not always in the perfect way (which is what makes Andersen’s diary entry so apt), the cleanest and neatest, but it may be there, just inside a courtyard or underground or some distant U-Bahn stops away. Berlin is a New World, right in the centre of the Old.

5.The final thing nobody tells you is how happy one is in Berlin. It is a delirium of sorts, brought upon by the sights, the history, the people, the softly dry German humour, the abundance of good theatre and the constant invitations to go see things and do things, but primarily by the ridiculous, disorienting cold, in which a day counts as warm if gloves are not strictly necessary for outdoor survival. Getting indoors after an hour in this cold makes one’s nose run, blood rush headwards, and fills you with the adrenaline of survival, of achievement. Not dying on the ice is a feat which brings on constant self-congratulation. And I have never been as hungry as I am in Berlin. Every few hours, regardless of how many cooked meals I’ve had that day, I need to refuel on fast food, and no crap cuisine has ever tasted so unarguably good as the wűrste I find on these expeditions, including the ubiqitous Currywurst (‘curry’ in this case the honorific bestowed upon ketchup sprinkled with curry powder), the sort of item I would avoid in a wide circle anywhere else. I have even found myself (incredulous) at a Burger King one night at 4am, eating ‘chilly cheese nuggets’ (certainly the worst idea in all of culinary history). I keep chocolate on me at all times, to get me through particularly long Alleen. When Rene spoke of the Canadian camaraderie, I couldn’t muster any feeling more positive than Schadenfreude, but now I understand. This weather is an opiate.

6. It is tempting to imagine that this state of suspension will last, that Berlin will remain the only hobo capital in Europe. Common sense suggests otherwise, but the sheer size of its voids makes you wonder. And then, its own history is one of fits and starts, not of accumulating riches. Of all the European cities, this is the only one in which so many things feel acceptable, from shabby clothes to indulging one’s sexual fetishes in public. Berlin smiles at you, sort of, and invites you in because there is no competition, the stakes are too low. It is likeable city, but cool. A rare thing, that one.

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Bodhisattva in metro

This video will cheer you up even if there is no reason in the world to be anything but miserable. Quite something.

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Vertical multiculturalism

You have to be the most humourless disco sceptic not to like this Turkish gem:

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Clã – Competência Para Amar:

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Against horizontal multiculturalism – by which we intend a socio-cultural activity oriented towards minorities, or a decorative employment of mainly non-European expressive cultures (Brook, Barba, Mnouchkine), a moussaka which tries to convince us, with a bit of Indian make-up, majestic Japanese costumes and roars of two to three dark-skinned actors, that it is engaging with the rest of the world. But the methods of composition and employment of these piled up sensations/sensationalisms are still intact in their Westernness. In contrast to this – let’s say it calmly – colonial approach, artists of the so-called vertical multiculturalism, working on the transects of different cultures, struggling to break through the simultaneity of different cultural identities with a sort of schizoanalytical approach, are building a unique, innovative art. Such an actor manages to hold, within his mental habitus, multiple different archaic combinations and ways of being while his body emanates the gestic essence of modern theatre, which gives a vertiginous dimension to the internal, ritual element. The same can be said for the above-described directorial interventions.

–Gordana Vnuk, Pogled iznutra

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Very quick note: Lisboa

Image from Estudo-V, a blog which is, against all odds, Lithuanian.

Lisboa is as beautiful as ever: weather very much like Sydney’s, but with a history and a society and a certain gravitas only Portugal has. It has become more popular with tourists, which makes me happy, because it’s finally being recognised as a fine, fine city. Children and old people on the street until the very wee hours, and the abundance of tascas, small restaurants with the wife in the kitchen and the husband on the floor.

“Chorizo is the sundried tomatoes of the last few years in Australia”, I said to my friends, who looked a bit annoyed:

“But there are so many different kinds…”

Vanda and Cisco’s apartment overlooks Tejo, the bridge and the gigantic Christ on the other bank, and being here is wall-to-wall joy. Not good for my smoking habit (the Portuguese smoke like they all have a stash of spare lungs somewhere safe). Not good for my sleeping routine (going to bed before 3am is something I’ve yet to experience in this country of insomniacs). But so good for the soul.

And it’s home. Frankfurt was home already – the familiar taste of bad German coffee and excellent German croissants. (Jet-lagged as I was, I had one croissant but two coffees.) As I move and move around, more places become home, and home becomes larger. The world becomes more familiar, less scary. As I’m putting together my stay in Berlin – populated with strangers artists, urbanists and adventurers – it all looks so easy. (I like to travel. It’s my pirate aspirations. I can bum around for a very long time before I need the reassurance of a bed and a breakfast.)

Most importantly, I’ve found all my niches. The cross-tabulations of interests that look suspiciously outre’ in Melbourne, Victoria, are here legitimate areas of expertise. In Zagreb, I spoke with Sonja, who runs UrbanFestival, a festival of theatre that poses questions about space. Why?

“There was a group of us theatrologists,” says Sonja, “and we figured out that theatre had moved out of the black box, and the most interesting work was all investigating geography, especially urban geography, all over again.”

Initiatives in sustainable urbanism are cropping up all over Europe too, and I see no reason why I wouldn’t be able to find much to do in the years to come. This breadth of creative thinking, of innovation, and the radical reappraisal of the importance of my discipline, are a beautiful thing to trip over at Christmas time.

Add the fact of clothes-shopping (Coco Chanel tops, Italian boots), of abundant superhero movies (the new Sherlock Holmes is my perfect film, and Robert Downey Jr. my unlikely perfect man), of good food and spirits, and wonderful friendships revisited, and it’s something of a perfect time away. I’m being every inch the international woman of mystery and intrigue I’ve always aspired to be. And I am serious. Irony is so 1997.

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