The iron curtain of freedom

Day 11 - Luxembourg

I awoke in room 410 with enough time to throw my clothes back in the pack, bid farewell to Munich, I barely knew thee, and begin the end of our journey. We only had one stop left, that of Luxembourg, the sovereign tax haven straddling the borders of Germany, France and Belgium. It was a tiny dot on the horizon and we'd have to cross most of Southern Germany to reach the place. As James steeled himself to six hours behind the wheel with equal fortitude I took up the pen again, every epic journey needs its chronicler right? But my mind, never the most biddable beast, drifted from the empty page. It stared wordlessly at the passing hills and trees as for the first time on the trip the car pointed towards home. The landscape was imbued with a glow, as if the softest and most gentle tune followed its contours and weaved through its verdant forests. A thread of gold too thin and fine for all to be able to see glinted in the sun and stretched off into the landscape pulling me one way as the road relentlessly pulled me the other. It wrapped and gilded my feelings even as I laughed at their slight absurdity. All things must pass but I exalted in the moment, breathing in the scent of fresh linen, wriggling my toes at the bottom of the bed as the early morning sun crept around the edges of the curtains. I corralled my romantic and soporific thoughts by and by and threw them back to the preceding days, though the former affection complimented the latter. It had been a great trip, restorative in a way I probably didn't realise at the time. I was never between places, leaving behind a past that wasn't what I hoped it would be and stretching for a future that absolutely, positively was going to be everything I dreamed of. The moment had value and wasn't to be endured until a more favourable one came along. I approached my 48th country and still I move, still I ponder its meaning and ask myself again why I do it. It seems so utterly caused by chance, by answering an unexpected question with an unexpected answer. A 'yes' when every ounce of my timid being screamed 'no'. Maybe I doubt the authenticity of my experiences because of that and suspect that it is all just the cold compilation of a list. Am I still striving to be defined by travel or does travel unavoidably or naturally define me? As ever I seem to have more questions than answers, what the hell is this blog for? But if I narrow my eyes I think I can almost see the answer, just beyond the horizon. What is it? I'll have to go there to find out.
Luxembourg City will not be my most effusive and excessively floral rendition of a place. It is one of, I was later informed by a learned friend, Europe's seven micro-states, the others being Lichtenstein, Andorra, San Marino, Malta, Vatican City and Monaco. I had only previously visited the latter of these which burns my burnished travelling pride a mite. But then I've barely done half of Europe at this point, 26 of 51, that horizon ever leads somewhere new. Anyway as I was saying, Luxembourg City, well there's not a lot to say. It has a funfair in the city centre, it is populated disproportionately by wealthy people (the city, less so the funfair), a gentleman could more than adequately outfit himself in the ateliers and his gentlewoman would be looked after too. We took dinner in the Place d'Armas to the background of Luxembourger folk music from the bandstand, possibly in Luxembourgish. The sky darkened to cobalt and little bulbs flickered to life above our heads. It felt a pleasantly dull place, unrocked by the currents of the continent, let alone the world. It was a model village surrounded by waves that heaved greater each passing day pulling men, women and children back and relentlessly forth and often, tragically, down. They crash against hasty defences and pour through gaps to find a level ground. Just as a tsunami reaches its full extent as you stand before it on the beach so we have slapped the waters many miles away and seen the ripples grow.
The exquisite ease of our passage through eleven countries was well illustrated the next day as we sped like Greg Rutherford towards the ferry, our schedule not enhanced by a detour around Gent. Razor-wire topped fences (so thoughtfully donated by the British Government) lined our passage and segregated us from the camps sprung up to either side. These weren't there the last time I came through Calais, the fences, but to an extent the camps too. It made me wonder if the ignorant transitions between the...politically united...nations of this continent would be there the next time I come through. It made me wonder if we have idly lifted the corner of the snooker table and are starting to feel the thunderous crash of simple physics across the red-stained baize...


Day 10 - Munich

So many people have become just portraits hung only with cobwebs in the attic of my memories. Passing acquaintances and fleeting passions created by chance intersection of different paths criss-crossing the world. And so I thought it was with her. I hadn't seen the girl since those last days of Margaret River, part of the sturm und drang that fires the memory of it. There is a delight in the dramatic recall but memory is just our internal storytelling function, malleable to the narrative that we want to hear. Is all history oral and shaped by Chinese whispers? Maybe this blog will act as my corrective to that, once stripped of the requisite flourish. Even now those events seem improbable, like EastEnders in Oz. After a hasty goodbye shielded from inflamed eyes, and one prompted by belated decency on my part, I welcomed the escape of the road. But they were great days for all their filthy, haphazard melodrama and I tear a little at their remembrance. I guess not all things stay in the box in which you put them though, no matter how prettily wrapped. Proof of that was in the very fact that the autobahn kissed our worn wheels again and I was heading for Munich.

"You're such a tourist!"
It was hard to disagree with the fräulein. Matt, James and I had arranged to meet her in Mariensplatz which, according to the guidebook, is a square (platz in German) in the city of Munich. Okay I didn't read the guidebook but being first there we found a place that satisfied our simple criteria of being in a cellar (keller to the Germans) and served beer. She wasn't enthralled at having to meet us in Munich's equivalent of the M&Ms shop. Not a great first impression - I imagine after two years I'd probably have to make one afresh. In perfect contrast to hers as she walked down the stairs...memory does not always embellish, sometimes it does not do justice. We ordered a platter of mixed meatstuffs from the heavily illustrated menu and listened to a large table of large Americans loudly enjoying the curiosities of 'Bavarian Culture'. We may be Brits abroad but we are not American tourists and, authentic German meal finished, we implored our hostess to take us somewhere a little less obvious. So we found ourselves in a large beer garden in the west of München. It was also the oldest in the city I am reliably informed. Heaving for a Thursday night the clientele ran the the gamut from young to old. A couple were dislodged from a 4-seater table for the promise of our more lucrative business though the waiter soured on our revelation that it would be drinks only. Nevertheless four litres of excellent beer was shortly slammed in front of us in a displeased yet pleasing manner. Of all the good reasons to move to Bavaria, you'd be allowed to support Bayern right?, the beer must be the best. She was also a fan of beer and football, regaling us with memories of the summer of 2014 and open top buses and the best party ever. Well she wasn't born in 1966 but that was pretty great too as I remember. We also learned how to drink like a Bavarian - strong eye contact, slight grip adjustment, wastage. And we learned the international sign language for describing various sizes of boat. What I didn't learn was how to perform the dance commonly known as 'The Postman'. It was performed in my absence to Matt and James' great amusement. Requests for an encore were met with an unequivocal 'nein'. The waiter presented some sausages and a handshake as an olive branch, happily accepted, and the time flew by in a happy haze until there were two people left in the oldest beer garden in Munich. It was a night I'll box up and put away, to be opened again in years to come, a time capsule of flawless enjoyment.
Ich bin ein Municher. Maybe.

The Hallmarks™ of civilisation

Day 9 - Bratislava

Breakfast was taken in Hotel Sacher in Vienna, home of the famous Sacher Torte. I wouldn't ordinarily begin the day with cake but holidays do strange things to a person. Suitably tortified we jumped on a train for the second of our two day-trips, this time to Slovakia. I had preconceptions about the places that we'd been to so far, some based on personal experience others less so but Slovakia ranked as a genuine unknown. Having great affection for Prague and by extension the Czech Republic I suppose I wondered if the Velvet Revolution of 1989 had cleaved off the less desirable part into the eastern state. Luckily we three had established a means of determining the level of advancement of a place, thus -

Question 1 - Does it have an Ikea?
yes, we saw one from the train.

Question 2 - Can you tour the place on a segway?
yes, one was sitting outside a tourist office.

Question 3 - From where you are standing can you see an H&M?
...oh Bratislava you were so close to maximum points.

But perhaps we should not expect too much as the city didn't have electricity until 1978. We walked around the cobbled old town and would have probably had a greater appreciation for its preservation and general easiness on the eye had we not been in so many cities recently of equal visual appeal. Hardly Bratislava's fault that we'd spun through 8 by this point. And liked them all to a greater or lesser extent. Except Jönköping. Jönköping can go to hell. We took a drink in the faded glory of the Roland Café with its frayed red seats, greek sculptures and octagenarian at the piano. It harked back to a more elegant, slower time in its look and feel but who can trust such a feeling these days when so much 'Disneyfication' takes place and the facade of the olde world is plastered over the cynical joists of the new. It turns us all into cynics I suppose. Whatever its provencance was it was a damn sight better than the place chosen for dinner. We'd also tried to establish rules for picking restaurants, chiefly - don't go to the first place you see and avoid menus illustrated by pictures. The former we achieved in Bratislava, the latter proved impossible. On the plus side my soup tasted good and arrived quickly (we had a train to catch), on the negative side it was probably made before I'd even been to Slovakia. Matt took has turn on the goulash and with disquieted bellies we made for the station.
The last time I was so close to a railway track abroad things had gone a little wrong. But this time I had waited for the train to stop before getting off. And the onward journey would be by bus rather than ambulance. A bus which, after a mildly concerning amount of time, did arrive and was shortly filled by the onrushing mob of fellow passengers. We hung back in the certain knowledge that another one would turn up and and there was absolutely, positively no way we would just be left in some tiny town in western Slovakia. The second bus did come and, despite the driver's assertion that there was no way he was taking us to Vienna, we found a seat. It transpired that there was another train that would finally get us to where we were going. We milled around on fully operational railway tracks at the next station awaiting the rumoured train. It had gone from 1st world to 3rd world in a remarkably short space of time and gave me semi-fond memories of the wilder places I've visited. The fondess largely drawn from having escaped those previous situations. Lights in the distance became our transport home and we were moving again.
The sun settled into an orange bloom on the horizon and an eerie mist rose from the green fields. Wind turbines cut lazy holes in the sky. It is ever the hardest balance for me when travelling to decide whether I should be photographing the passing sights, describing yesterday or simply feeling the moment. Whichever I choose I am losing something of the other two and risk deferring my enjoyment to retrospectives. In recording a moment through camera or words do I strip it of its emotional resonance? Is the real beauty lost in overly literal dissection? I hope not.

Enjoy your trip?

Day 8 - Budapest

A Buda, a Pest, maybe a golden grand piano and a hidden treasure chest (i'd settle for a Nazi gold train though), we pulled out of Hauptbahnhof Station and were on our way to the country of the mighty magyars. Booked in an old fashioned cabin with 6 seats in a 3 + 3 facing arrangement I had the misfortune to be seated next to a grimble who had decided that now was the most opportune time to trim his fingernails. Being English I was unable to make any complaint louder than an internal 'tut' but there was a woman in the cabin of indeterminate origin who had no such social restrictions and soon called him to account. He shrugged in a nonchalant 'what could possibly be the problem' way and turned instead to his cyrillic newspaper. Decorum restored the soothing sway of movement lulled me. There is an unexpected luxuriousness to closing your eyes on a train, a delicious reduced consciousness softening the hard lines just beyond your eyelids. I can't sleep on a train and why would I want to when I can drift through this gentle haze, my febrile senses dulled, my aching extremities just distant memories. The world melts into a froth, it becomes a watercolour in the rain and it is seldom more tolerable to me.
Stepping out of the train we were given first-hand experience of the 'swarm' as our prime minister so sympathetically put it. Anyone of a darker complexion was being given extra scrutiny on the platform. Groups of men hung around outside the station planning the next step on their long journey to what they no doubt hoped would be a better place than from whence they came. It is so easy to forget how staggeringly fortunate you are, that you have won first prize in the lottery of life and the awful extremes of existance are confined to the pages of books, caged by bitter experience and exported woe. I think the pleasantness and ease of our lives is, in part, sustained by the suffering of others and have no blame for those who do not wish to live and die under that unequal system. You can only hope you never have to face the choices given to the 2,500 immigrants who entered Hungary the same day as us. Or to the Hungarian people who suffered under Nazi occupation at the end of the second world war and the 'liberation' by Soviet forces for the next 40 years. Budapest's 'House of Terror' is the building in which the secret police of both Nazi and Soviet regimes monitored, tortured and disappeared dissenters. It is a meandering, almost numbing journey that demonstrates the hollow triumph of VE day in this part of the continent. It leaves you wondering why Eastern Europe was left to its fate or if the allies truly knew the implications of the Soviet sphere of influence or, indeed, still had the energy to care. Churchill did saying in 1945, before his most famous application of the term, that "it is not impossible that tragedy on a prodigious scale is unfolding itself behind the iron curtain which at the moment divides Europe in twain." I can't answer the question of whether more could have been done because I sit at a great distance, too easily filing the events of the past and decisions of people I've never known into binary categories of good and bad. Am I to judge those who collaborated in the subjugation of their countries when a national border is a line of a map and the only true border is the one drawn around the square foot of space each human being occupies? We live too short and stand too close to life to see the curvature of time. The romance of resistance should never overpower the horror of its failure.
Departing Budapest James and I left Matt to his book in our cabin and settled ourselves into the buffet car. James had acquired quite a taste for lemon beer and, finding the bar's stock to be warm, asked for a can or two to be placed into the fridge. This bemused the barman who did not seem to understand that we were going to be here for a while. Ordering a standard pilsner instead we sweetened it with a jäger chaser. This caught the attention of a couple seated to our right. Nestor was a doctor from Colombia via Mexico who was in Europe for a conference, accompanied by his wife Aurora. We chatted amiably for the next few hours covering subjects such as jägerbombs there were few jägerbombs involved. He had acquired quite a taste for the stuff by the time we pulled back into Vienna. Back at the hotel and shortly before falling into a pizza-induced coma, James tagged Matt in and we spent the next few hours on our balcony covering subjects such as whiskey there were a few whiskeys involved.

Roll up that (road) map

Day 7 - Vienna

We'd been there only hours before but there was no sign of the absinthe bar. The place where it should have been seemed to offer no sign of its existence. Maybe we did drink that hallucinatory stuff after all but not here... The miles behind the wheel were starting to take their toll and both drivers eagerly accepted the opportunity of an extended break. The next stop was Vienna and we could pitch up there for a few days, visiting Hungary and Slovakia by train. We passed Austerlitz, scene of Napoleon's most renowned victory 110 years ago which caused the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire the political entity, centred around Germany, that had dominated Western Europe for near a thousand years. There is a certain irony that the wild and unconquered Germania delineated by the Rhine and Danube should become the spiritual successor to the Roman Empire, in the west at least. The battle caused William Pitt, the British prime minister at the time to say of the map of Europe "Roll up that map; it will not be wanted these ten years". Throw a stone in Europe and hit a piece of salient history, fire a gun and create one. From Napoleon with his Grand Armeé of 350,000 to a single man on a train we have ever tried to shape our world through violence, the fallacy of the continuance of diplomacy by other means. But then the pen is mightier than the sword, however little comfort that gives to the person being stuck with the sword. To coin a phrase like that would do me for this life.
An essential feature of everywhere we have stayed thus far has been the availability of secure parking. This is owing to the fact that Matt's £3500 bike (wheels not included) was in the back and was, as he reminded us, far more precious than myself or James. The Meininger in Vienna had promised parking but not delivered so we were forced to find an alternative. As well as being underground we managed to park next to a classic Porsche 356 Speedster worth around £200,000 making the trusty Polo an even less likely target. I'd been to Vienna earlier that year so felt reasonably able to act as tour guide, I was also aided by Burgess Maps™ although hindered might be a better term. We took the tram along a stretch of the Ringstraße though not too far as we didn't buy tickets and I rated our chances of talking our way out of a fine as slim given the general Viennese disinclination towards levity. We tried for dinner at Figlmüller but the place gets ridiculously busy and for once on this trip it was easy to believe a restaurant when they said they were booked out. We found dinner nearby at a place called Lübeck instead. Finishing the evening in Champions Bar to watch Liverpool play Arsenal in what was a riveting 0-0 draw, no really it was, more riveting than this blog entry anyway.