Letting Go 08: Poland part 2

Saturday, September 30. 2006
Again with the stupidly early arrival, this time in Krakow (I believe the w is pronounced as a v) where I would hold up for a few days. I stumbled around in the early morning trying to find my hostel (the local cousin of the Nathans Villa I stayed in while in Warsaw) and failed, despite it eventually being right under my nose. Damn. But I like Nathans because they have free wireless internet and they do your laundry for free. Fantastic stuff.

I did my usual routine of small talk with the receptionist, then sleeping for a few hours to recover from the train damage. I took a walk after that. I tell you something, I went back to Poland with a specific aim, to Krakow in particular because of something nearby I wanted to see, but I had little to no idea that it was such a nice place. Historical capital of Poland, home of Wawel Hill (again, get those vs out) where Polands kings are crowned. Another miraculously undamaged by war city. Its quite the tourist drawcard and I knew almost nothing of it I realised as I walked around. A perfectly preserved (but not too tarted up) old town, full of churches and a huge town hall, requisite tourist trappings and souvenir sellers. The atmosphere is laid back and sunny and the historical, nougat like centre is ringed by the chocolate coating of the Planty, a circular park that they put in when the took the city walls down a few hundred years ago. The Planty is what sold it for me, it takes two hours to walk around the whole thing and it is green, cool and shady. The old town is always in sight, no-one is hurrying anywhere. City planning or just opportunism, I dont care whoever designed it all, I salute you, over and over.

I took a walk out of the city, trying to find some things that were in the wrong direction, then walked back to the hostel around the back of Wawel hill. Very nice city, easily the nicest in Poland.

I had planned, the whole time, to visit Osweicem better know by the name the Germans gave it, Auschwitz and make the last stop on my WWII atrocities tour section. Id been to Hiroshima a year ago with my sister and on this trip Id made stops in Nagasaki and Nanjing, which round out the top four (but lets not get bogged down debating this list, so to oversimplify: lots of shit happened and ranking it would be nothing short of insensitive and retarded) and I am not too sure what else to put in there. Maybe Dresden? Southern Okinawa deserves to be there and not just because I went there; but it all pales next to what I saw today. Since stumbling upon war history as a teenager, the realities and text of the war have been largely two separate things. Its only in the last couple of years that they have become more concrete. So its almost fitting that the first chapter to shock me and become and obsession was the last one I made it to.

But step back, to the moment I dragged myself out of bed the next day. The hostel here does laundry for free, so Id thrown all my intolerably dirty socks and not so unbearable t-shirts in to be cleaned. This left me shirtless and sockless as I got out of bed, so I threw on my Socceroos shirt and went barefoot downstairs.

There were cops everywhere. I grinned stupidly in my just-woke-up daze. You have to walk out onto the street and around to the front door to get in, so I went out and noticed the door had been all fucked up by something. Inside reception there were some very grey faces and a couple of grim ones. I asked the receptionist why all the cops were there. She said she didnt know, so I left it. As I made tea I heard the people sitting at the tables talking. Someone from their dorm had been killed in the night. Exactly who and what and why, I havent put together. Not that its my business. Past the fact that someone had been murdered in my hostel. I could barely imagine what the others who had been asleep in there had gone through. I still dont know if it happened in the room, or outside, or if it was another guest. But it happened.

As I went back to my room to change and get ready to go, I saw the body lying on the grass. Just lying there. Inert, lifeless, twisted unnaturally. Visibly damaged. The police looking grim and just angry enough that I hurried on. The scene will be a snapshot in my head till the day I die. They could have covered it, or shut the door. It would have been visible from the windows all on the side of the building, if I had looked out. I didnt.

Whatever the reason or cause, someone had been killed right there and I had, as it were, stepped on it. Stepped in it. Shit, no wonder the receptionist didnt say anything.

I dont think of stuff like, it might have been me. I am infinite and indestructible, but Im also uninsured and while I think my lack of spark with the ladies gives me cosmic balance protection in other places (like defence from violent crime) you cant think too long or hard because then everything seems dark, scary and unpalatable. Life is too short and end when it may, it wasnt last night.

So with that image in my head I set out, down to the bus station for the hour and a half ride. I slept part of the way, listened to my earphones the rest. The town itself is entirely unremarkable. A train station, shops, houses this could be anywhere in eastern Europe. Except for all the day trippers, very few of whom look terribly happy. Everyone knows what it is, what happened there. The horror of the place is real and infamous. They dont advertise the museum nor do they charge money to see it.

I waited for the tour to start. It begins at Auschwitz I, the smaller part. You dont need to take a tour but I wanted as much detail as I could get. There are posters, books for sale. Nothing over the top, you understand. Just information. There was a movie, all the famous footage taken by the Red Army as they came across the camp and liberated the 8000 survivors that had been left behind by the Nazis as they took the rest of the prisoners on the final march. It is entirely shocking, narrated in a 1950s feel, all dissent, high moral ground and rhetorical questions. Shocking, totally.

Then onto the camp. Under those gates, into the barracks. These ones are brick and the streets are lined with Poplar trees. Make no mistake, the feel of evil is in the air. People are restrained, almost no-one talks except for the guide. The sky was clear and blue, almost mockingly so, all the colours vibrant in the warm day. The photos we all know are black and white, grey and grainy, full of emaciated people. The camp was liberated in January, the heart of winter, so this is no surprise. September is a wonderful time of year in Poland. The tour shows all the famous corners, the utter heartlessness of the exercise. The point was to kill, murder it was a factory, a factory of death. Harsh and unknowable realties were played out in those buildings. You can hear the tales and see the piles of shoes, glasses, clothes and even the hair that was cut off the dead but in no realm of our safe, padded existence can we ever really, truly know that it would have been like. And thanks to whatever power might be out there that we dont have to find out.

I wont go into detail about everything there. You really should go for yourself. Everyone should. If we forget these things, we are doomed to repeat them.

After Auschwitz, there is a bus that runs you over to Auschwitz II Birkenau. This is where most of the killing was done, efficiently and cruelly. The sheer size of the place is totally overwhelming. As far as you can see. In every direction. Stand in the middle, where the trains arrived, and look around and the camp is all you can see. The guide told us all about the living conditions and sanitation. I would describe it as living hell but I dont know what thats like. It sounds like something I wouldnt ever want to find out about.

The monument at the end of it all is simple and dignified. The platforms are made up of one and a half million blocks, one for every person murdered there. After that I walked around where the crematoriums were. I was basically alone. Just me, the trees and the ruins of the buildings. One was blown up in an armed uprising, the rest by the retreating Nazis. The ruins are still shocking. I get the feeling that very few visitors make it all the way out there. I was alone by the time I made it to the corner of the camp. It was completely silent. No insects, no birds. Just the sound of a few acorns dropping from the trees. Otherwise completely still, but in no way tranquil. There is a restless feeling and a sense of evil. This is not a place I would ever like to go at night. Or, for that matter, ever again. The sky was cloudless and the sun hours from setting, but it was dark. Dark in my mind, dark in the memory of the lost souls. Senselessly wasted and never coming home.

I walked the long way back to the bus. A flock of small birds were flying overhead. As if they were coming back. Maybe hope might bloom again. All the years on and we are not forgetting in a hurry. This is all we can do now, for the slain of Osweicem.

I went back to Krakow with too much to think about. That night I went drinking with a bunch of American uni students in town on a study tour that seemed to be mostly focussed on how the local laws differ to the ones at home, thus making them of legal drinking age. My heart was not in it, not on the revelry or the clubs we went to, because the days events were already too heavy. Fun is fun, but there are shadows over everything. Shadows ruled that day.

But as night ends, so do shadows fade from mind and the next day looked better. I saw the rest of the notable sights and went to Kosciusko Mound with a pair of English guys. They turned out to be brothers and the view from the mound turned out to be very cool. An artificial hillock sculpted out of dirt from Polish battlefields and some imported from American War of Independence battlefields, it is mysteriously named after the tallest mountain in Australia. Baffled, my friends and I made the long walk home. On the way I stopped at a bookshop and bought a Murakami Haruki novel, a wonderful decision on my part.

That night was marked with full-hearted drinking of cheap local beer. Many, many pints of it, and things threatened to go on to dawn in the hostel bar, but I knew I had to make an exit the next day, so I pulled up stumps about three in the morning.

Krakow is known for the lively nightlife to be found about the place, but I saw little of it. There are quite a few historical places I didnt make it to (Oscar Schindler, of the List movie fame, did his noble deeds in Krakow, the factory is there but I missed seeing it) and I admit I skipped going to the castle. I went because Auschwitz was a long-term goal of mine and that was all I really needed to see.

The next day I walked to the bus station and fought through a rally to fight the crowd of people trying to get on busses. Some rally had cut off the bus station for an hour or so everything leaving was delayed and I had to wait around until about two oclock before I could get a bus to Zakopane. There I would get a connection to Poprad in Slovakia but I ended up arriving about ten minutes too late, so I was forced to stay a night there.

Good thing really, because it is a really nice town. Nestled right in the south, it is in prime real-estate for hiking and skiing so is the winter sports capital. The town is themed accordingly, the main street looking a little too Swiss for my taste, but this is even more tasteful and neat than Krakow, you might not even think this was Poland. It is a street apart from the rest of the country, quite thankfully so. Tourist crap and souvenirs aside, the atmosphere is almost festive. I walked the streets, stood and stared at the High Tatra mountains that loom over half the skyline, ate some food. It was a lucky accident indeed the hostel in town is agreeable and cheap, I almost considered staying another day. But I had outdoorsy activities in my near future as it was, so I woke early and was headed belatedly for Poprad first thing in the morning.

Letting Go 07: Czech Republic

Friday, September 29. 2006
Bleary arrivals were getting old fast. Yet I kept doing it. Another morning, another five am arrival. This time it was different. Id been dreaming of this city for a long time. Her reputation precedes her, this lovely maiden, and I hope I would not be let down.

I was not, because Prague is wonderful. Everything you hear and more. Its the more that gets you, because its all that sucks about the tourist industry. But more on that later. They are always doing construction work in t he parts of the cities where I happen to be staying. It is like someone is out to piss me off or something. Prague was no exception, the intersection I had to traverse (after walking the wrong way for ten minutes till I realised and went back) was a goddamn mess. But I found the hostel and boy, was I knackered. This overnight bus ride was somehow worse than the rest. Is such a thing possible? Cant say. I had to hang around the bus station until I could change me some Crowns, in the company of three nuggetty looking blokes dressed in head to toe dirty denim, not a front tooth between them.

Prague, oh little mother, your reputation precedes you; I might not have known why I knew your name but I did before I went and now Ill not forget it in a hurry. I stayed there for three nights and had a whole lot of fun. Tourist cities dont come any more major than this, it felt like one big swarm of tourists buzzing everywhere I went. Even in the very tail end of the high season, you wonder if there are any Czechs in the city anymore. Its just tour group after pod of backpackers after stag party out there, under all those amazing facades and graceful spires. If I didnt know better (and was a whole lot more cynical about it) I might even think that it is a parody, a Spinal Tap-esque exercise into Euro-Tourist-City satire. Therein lies the first layer that we have no choice, none at all, but to call Kafka-esque.

The hostel didnt let me check in until 2pm. So I put my bags in the luggage cage and slept on the couch. All around me breakfast was happening. I woke up a few times to a totally different scene around me, different faces and smells, sights and voices. Surreal from the beginning. The empty streets and confusion of construction that was going on around the space between the bus station and hostel felt like a maze. I stirred enough about midday to go have a look around the city and attempt to locate some local food and beer. Both are renowned, but the beer is much more than the food, and neither could be located. Armies of gawking tourists covered the main squares and big roads, telling the real shops from tourist traps and fakers verged on impossible. The restaurant I had been aiming for had since turned into a Chinese place, so I gave up. Fast food to the rescue.

After checking in I had a chat with some of the others about and went for another look around. The hill to the north of the city used to hold the worlds biggest statue of Stalin, but they dynamited the fuck out of it back in 63. In its place is the second layer of Kafka-esque that pervades the city. Instead of the great auspices of Joe Stalin to look over the great city, now the day is measured out by a gigantic metronome. I dare say it is the worlds biggest name me if you can any other giant metronomes and well have a show down so earns my instant admiration. The view is also amazing, the best available, and there are a lot going around I can tell you. I walked after that to the closest bridge and crossed over to the castle side of the river, walked through the streets for a while, poking around a few shops. The streets are lines with buildings that range from baroque and art nouveau to medieval and just plain old fashioned, all maintained and well looked after, almost too well. It could be a reconstruction, but I take their word for it that it is all genuine since the country was mostly spared the city-crushings of WWII (but not totally spared) but the attraction of it all provides enough funding and reason to keep it all looking spic and span. The effect is that the age of it all is lost, but luckily none of the grandeur is. The castle side of the river is a wonderful place to wander around, the winding streets and hills, charming little shops and alleys, all basking in the sunlight and positively glowing with all the attention the get every day. I walked around to the tourist information place at the end of the Charles Bridge, the walked back over across said bridge. The castle side is called the Old Town, the other side New Town but here is required an explanation. It is new only in relation to the old, having been founded in 1300 AD or thereabouts the old town gets to fill in the date of birth section on its visa applications as 800AD. This is old stuff, people, and somehow it survived being smack-bang in the middle of centuries of warfare and didnt get crushed into dust. That is what people come to see and as we have established, they come in numbers. Occupation after occupation sought to control the country and it has only been since 1993 that the Czech Republic has been a land of its own. Despite the age of things, the red-tape of the surroundings puts a fresh coat of paint on it all, really.

The Charles Bridge is where the saxophone solo scene from the INXS Never Tear Us Apart video was shot. This explains its current fame.

The cobbled streets of the new town look like the ones in the old town, so do the old buildings, towers, churches, spires and such-and-such.

The hordes of tourists certainly dont change much. They range from the truly appreciative, to the is this it? screeching American retirees, to the hungover youthful Brits who managed to get out of their hostel bed at three and thought they might attempt to see more than just the clubs and bars.

I went back and had a nap. When I woke there were two Brits of the appreciative sort talking over me. I struck up a conversation and they said they were going on a walking tour something I generally despise, but this one had tempted me too, because it was called Ghosts of Prague. It was too much for what it was, but it was still fun and interesting to hear the ghost stories from the quieter corners of the city, at night. And they had someone dress up as a ghost and jump out every so often, scaring the piss out of the Brits. It was fun.

Then we went for some local food and beer. This time I was part of a successful raid. The local beer is cheap and quality. The food much to my taste. I went to bed happy that night.

The next day I met a few more people Americans this time and I spent the day sightseeing with a 16 year old girl, a 30-something woman and her closer-to-40-than-30 friend. A strange combination we made, but it was good fun. They were nice people and we all went up to the castle together. We looked around that part of town, and a few others. Had some food, talked about this and that. Another fine day. The consistency of Pragues beauty is indescribable. In the new and old towns it is unbroken, nary a modern looking edifice encroaches on the view from highpoint or street level. I am sure that there is an ugly communist suburb tucked away somewhere, but they keep it hidden and theres no reason for us tourists to go there.

That night I joined some drunken Brit girls in a game of Go Drinking And Dancing. I think its fair to say that its not who wins of loses, its how you play the game. And we all played it very, very well.

The next day I slept in as I decided I had deserved. I went to the bus station to enquire about onward travel and was directed to the train station for my destination of choice. I acquired the right ticket and was pleased. I admit that not much else was achieved that day, but you have days like that. I walked and took in some of the sights Id missed, bought food, found a CD I had been looking for. Did well, generally. Sent post cards. All the small things that have to be done.

That night I went with some French people to the cheapest bar in Prague and got absolutely hammered to commemorate the fact. My God, the local beer is top quality.

The last and final day I walked up the hill next to old town. It is a quiet corner and all green and leafy. At the top of the hill is a the Petrin Tower, modelled after the Eiffel Tower and a lot more modest. The way down is just as nice, there are no crowds making the walk, because they all take the tram up and down. I wont tell them what they are missing, but I tell you. Dont miss it, you get great views and its nice and quite and green. The parks toward the bottom are wide and full of small trees. Paradise in a great city.

So it was I humped my stuff to the train station that night and jumped on my first night train in Europe. I was going back to Poland (for some reason) and wasnt looking forward to it as you might imagine. But that was for some different reasons, understand. The train was cold and I had a seat ticket rather than a sleeper carriage one, but there was only one person in the cabin so I could lie down. I still dreamed some fucked up dreams, in between being woken up five times to have my ticket checked. Not once did they look at my passport, however, so I missed out on another stamp. Bummer.

Letting Go 06: Germany

Thursday, September 28. 2006
I sat most of the day on trains to get there. From Gdansk to Szczecin (try saying that three times Hell, try saying it at all) was the longest stretch, there I changed some Zloty for Euros, keeping a handful for later. I bought the next ticket and got on a train for Angermunde, over the German border. It was a short ride, the line was pretty much to ferry people over the border. Neither city is much of a place, they just happen to be near the border. In Europe these border areas are not much, always underdeveloped, unless there is a strong historical reason for it being otherwise.

From there, it was a fast ride into Berlin.

Into confusion, too. I heard later that the station I got off at is the largest in Europe. Wouldnt surprise me if were true but it might be a reason to sign it better, yeah? I guess the natives are pretty used to it, they know how to get around. Cant make these things too easy for visitors now.

I found the S-Bahn line, bought the wrong ticket and failed to validate it, then got to the station I needed to without being checked. The end result was that I spent one Euro twenty I could have held onto. Doesnt sound like much but it might have made a difference after what happened.

The hostel was huge. Its always a worry, getting off at an unfamiliar station and then bumbling around looking for the place. This time there was no issue. The place was huge, you couldnt see out of the station because it took up the entire view. So it was close, too. Stepping inside I found plastic-fantastic pre-packaged backpacker experience. All computerised booking, sleek plastic everything else, uniforms Drunk Aussies all over the place. It was total commercialisation. Everything backpacking really shouldnt be like but in the really popular places, this is the absolute personification of what it is. I hated it from the beginning. But it was the cheapest place there, so it had won.

I had just enough Euros to pay for one night and get a kebab. I had changed only just enough money to get by. There would be no checking the city that night, not would there be more food, or beers. There wasnt enough to pay for a ticket the next morning on the way to the Amex office so while I made it without getting checked, I was greasing it the whole way.

But back to the hostel. It has all the info you could want about other hostels and tours and all that shit, all in a special room for such enterprises; lots of computers (internet access costing three Euros for a half hour, even with your own computer); bar; enough room for almost 800 people. You got that right, no typos here eight hundred people. It was like a hotel except without the good bits and loads cheaper. I felt violated, like someone had marketed the whole backpacking thing and served it up. It was just wrong. But cheap, so aside from my ideals as a true travelling man of the world, it appealed to my wallet.

Heres the other thing. Eight hundred people, Im in a dorm with room for twelve, but its divided into three parts. It used to be a ten person room and two rooms for two people each. They took the doors off and voila, a fourteen person room. I was in one of the ex-twin rooms. By myself. Potentially eight hundred people and I am all alone. So theres not much to do, no money, no drinking, not even people to meet. It happens, I suppose.

The next day, after getting to the Amex, I wander around. I didnt realise that Id come to the most touristy part of town, since I know absolutely nothing about Germany, and walked past a lot of the big sights without knowing. I stumbled upon the German History Museum and spent the next few hours re-living it all. It says a lot about not just German history, but European history as a whole, that even with a long and colourful story like Germanys, a huge museum like that still has to dedicate nearly a third to the two world wars. Id even say that WWII gets about a quarter all together, once you count the parts about the rise of national socialism more if you count the direct post war stuff. This was the first inkling about the sheer insanity that that city has seen over the years. Not just the world wars, but the divided years and the wall, two things that are still visible in the landscape.

I walked some more and ate some food. Then walked some more. I wandered through Checkpoint Charlie (now a tourist trap) and to the site of the old Gestapo building, which is in the process of being excavated and renovated, but there is a temporary exhibit going on. Scary stuff. All the terror that happened, the concentration camps and holocaust, was planned out there. Dark dealings. Then I walked some more again.

Tours are not my thing. As a rule, avoided like the plague. But given that I had nothing to go on about Berlin, I went along to a free tour. I knew there would be a catch, but it couldnt be too bad. The one I aimed for was a bike tour, but not enough people turned up so we were handballed over to the walking tour. Which was good enough. We saw things Id gone by the day before and things I hadnt seen yet. Brandenburg Gate, the Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the old Luftwaffe building The greatest hits. There is some crazy stuff out there, I tell you. Hitlers bunker, even though its just a parking lot now, it still there. The places where the wall used to run is marked on the ground with cobblestones. Too many stories to recount here.

The tour was free, you just had to tip what you thought it was worth. A sort of civilised guilt trip, but I will admit here that I weaseled off without parting with a cent. Hey, they said it was free.

A look inside the Berlin cathedral, plus access to the roof to take some photos, followed by me going to the hostel to gather my things and going to meet Sven. Sven, who I had met in Latvia, had come good with his offer of accommodation, just he couldnt help me until then. That was cool with me, I take what I can get. After a little confusion about the subway station (I might have gone to the totally wrong place) I finally found him and we went to his place. I got the couch, which he had designed and built himself, and it was very comfortable. We looked at photos and had a few drinks, talked some crap and talked some more. Great guy, in all. Went to bed about three in the morning, which is cool for me because I dont have to go anywhere, but he had to work Poor guy. Not like I kept him up or anything.

I went back to the bike tour the next day, but again there were not enough people. So instead I saw a few things with one of the other disappointed people and had a good old day of it. There really is a lot to see in Berlin, you know. The Olympic Stadium was pretty impressive and the Jewish Museum is incredible. Not just an amazing piece of architecture, but the displays and such tell the story as accurately as I imagine they are and the parts dedicated to the holocaust and exile of the Jews (minimal, in the overall scheme of the museum, because they are but small parts of the story) are awesome. The Garden of Exile is a series of giant concrete blocks set in rows, the paths in between set with uneven stones. The blocks reach into the sky and it is almost like a maze. The blocks lean over slightly and the paths are very hard to walk on. The entire effect is incredibly disorienting just like the Jews who had to leave Europe after the war would have felt. The holocaust tower is even more awesome. A dark room, almost totally silent, with high walls and a small window at the far top. The experience is designed to be as lonely as possible and after only a few seconds you feel fear and panic set in; but it is nothing compared to what a concentration camp must have been like.

After that I had to go back to Svens so I could clean my stuff up before he got home. Didnt want to be a bad guest. I made it and he was happy when he got home, so I can assume he liked my company. Good for me. We made jam after that, then had Turkish food for dinner. Then he drove me around the city so I could see it after dark, see things without people there, see things all lit up. It really is a nice place, Berlin, and it has many faces to it. While it sits these days on the plastic end of the scale (the other end being stone) there is enough going on to make you sit up and notice. The divide between east and west is still apparent, still visible in certain ways. The east is generally cheaper, so it is student oriented and favoured by immigrant groups. It attracts the night life and fun side of things. The west, however, is where you find people wearing suits and making money. Stick to the east.

Then there is the wall. Only left in sections now, it once cordoned off the entire of West Berlin. Insane as that seems today, with the city now fully integrated, it was only 15 years ago that it came down after forty odd years of division. The story is truly crazy, that it came to building a wall to keep people from escaping, that the communist leaders of East Germany could turn a blind eye to reality for such a long time The end game moral is that the people will always win out, no matter what obstacles are there, the people who live in a place will be the ones who eventually win control of the situation there. It takes time and it takes other events to start things moving, but the people always win.

What is left of the wall is mainly in three places. There is a long, mostly undisturbed section next to the old Gestapo building site, protected because it is on the same land, so it was never broken up or destroyed. Then there is the East Side Gallery, an even longer section that has been turned into one big canvas and is covered in art. The art is covered in graffiti, so it is one big community project and truly amazing. The last notable section is in Potsdamer Platz. This was one of the more happening parts of the city in the pre-Nazi days, all dance halls and night clubs and such. Like all places in Berlin it suffered during the Nazi days and went into hibernation during the war but never had a chance to wake up, because some crazy fucker built a wall through it. So from one of the livelier parts of a livery city, it became a wasteland, a no-mans land because the mentally retarded bastards who had East Germany by the testicles couldnt bear to lose any more citizens. All it was good for was the viewing platform that let West Berliners take a gander into communism. These days it is back to some kind of glory, as a commercial district full of glass skyscrapers and hotels. You wouldnt recognise it from 15 years ago and you can check if you like. The famous footage of the first section if the wall to fall was in Potsdamer Platz. The first section comes down and people come through freely. That section has been put back as a reminder, right where it stood dividing and destroying the city, in the middle of the scene of the greatest recovery. A constant reminder to the insane times the place has seen.

I stayed with Sven for two nights, but he had to go somewhere so I said my goodbyes to him and spent the last night in Berlin in another hostel. I went there and it was pretty nice. I met an Italian guy and we had a few beers. The next day, my last, I just walked from one end of town to the other. I made it back to the hostel just in time to get my bags, jump on the train and get to the bus station just in time to get out of there. Just in time.

Letting Go 05: Poland

Wednesday, September 27. 2006
Early, rainy, grey, cold, concrete, confusing. First impressions might stick but they are seldom so accurate. They need to put that on the postcards. Welcome to Warsaw. Theres not much colour. And it will probably rain.

So it did. It had begun raining back in Kaunas and it had followed me. Just a light mist when I got on the bus. The border crossing in the middle of the night was as devoid of fun as always. Arrival in Warsaw was in darkness, so I sat blearily in the bus station trying to triangulate where the fuck I was. Tired doesnt begin to describe it, this sensation, it went to my core, my very heart lack of sleep is one thing, my symptoms were worse this time. I can get by tired but I wanted something else and she wouldnt be there, not any time soon, if ever again.

So once daylight spread over the city I decided to walk out and try and make sense of where I was. I had arrived for some reason at Warsaw Central, rather than the bus station across town. Negotiating the exit from the building was not easy. For the main transport hub of the city, nay the country, things were complicated. The underground passages resembled a maze and there were no clear pedestrian crossings to be seen. There was no traffic about so I went unscathed. The first thing that stands out of the grey sky and concrete mess of the streets is the Palace of Science and Culture, a God-awful Stalinist nightmare of a building that lords over the city like a giant middle finger. It is imposing, unsightly, immense and ugly as sin. It was love at first sight.

There are very few places in Warsaw that dont feature a view of the thing, so it was a good thing I liked it so. Better get used to it, the postcards will say. I had directions to my bedding and walked there. It took about 15 minutes. The staff were really nice, especially given the early hour, and let me check in straight away. So I did and fell asleep, dreaming the dreams of the truly tired.

I woke about midday. Breakfast was still going on, so I ate and went out into the cold and wind to change money and get a better look. I had no warm clothes, so I thought about buying something to combat the cold. I would have nothing to do except hang out at the hostel if this kind of weather persisted. The day was so miserable I didnt stay out long. Times like that, when your heart matches the weather, they are truly down times. I retreated to rest a little and take advantage of the free wireless internet and laundry. I ventured out only for food, because it was simply too cold to go out without more clothes on. I did quite a bit of writing there and then, so let no-one say I wasted my time.

The next day was better. The sun even stuck its head out, so I went to the stadium market and bought a jacket. More of a hoodie. But these modern words and clothes confuse me. It is a damn ugly thing I got me, but it was the best of a bad bunch, let me tell you. The biggest market in Europe and they got all the bad, knock-off, low quality shit you might expect. It was so big I couldnt barely manage to find my way out again. Thats a quality market.

Warsaw has a fully-reconstructed old town, the original having been blasted to shit by Nazis and Soviets. The Poles rebuild it brick for brick. You can only keep some things down so long. The re-creation is authentic, apart from the city wall that look too new and clean, you might not even realise that its not genuine. Getting there is a small challenge too, because its simply tiny compared to the old towns of the cities to the north. Blink and you might miss it and be stranded a tram stop too far. I took far too long, messing around on trams, finding it and once there was a little under whelmed. In the list of great cities of Europe, you wont find Warsaw cracking the top ten for a good reason. Poland, while following a similar history to Baltia, has clearly not recovered from the Soviet era with quite the same verve. The economic recovery has lagged behind many of its neighbours and it shows in Warsaw. Still quite drab and grey, the city planning and infrastructure still needs work. But it is getting there public transport, for one, the main streets for another, are looking good. Its just the rest. Lacking in charm or spark, it still needs time. I am sure that this is all that is missing from the equation. So keep an eye on it and hopeful the people in charge do all the right things.

The small old town has a few nice features, a castle and whatnot, statues, gates, walls. Nice looking place. This was all the sightseeing I really managed, just walking around the city, because thats all there really is to do. And it was getting cold. Time to go back.

The next day I hammered out travel plans, got tickets, did all the usual running around. I was only there for two nights and it wasnt too little at all. I saved the great attraction for the last day and went with great spirits to the Palace. It is as ever imposing the closer you get to it and no less ugly. Directly from the Fuck You school of architecture, it was a present from Russia back in the day. The message is clear. We own you. Try saying no to this.

There was a vaguely informative exhibition on various corners of science. No real unifying theme, but given the buildings purpose I guess it was required. The whole point of the endeavour was to get to the top and take in that view. It is the finest view of the city, simply because the panorama is thankfully free of the building itself. The rest of the view isnt much to write home about either. But stretch on as far as you can see, it does, in every direction. This is a place where people live, many of them, where their lives take place and where they grow up. Like Poland itself, Warsaw has seen simply too much damage, fighting and oppression to bounce back just yet. The last few hundred years has seen Poland as a poor country, used and occupied by stronger neighbours and even with all the good will and positively it will just take time.

Just take time.

So it was that I left on the afternoon train to Gdansk.

I was going to stay with a local family, always a welcome experience. The train arrived after a few dull hours at eleven pm. I found my host, Krystyna, and we went to a local tavern near the dockside to meet some of her friends and family. It was a wonderfully quaint place, all nautical memorabilia and boats on the wall. I talked to the people who were very curious about my presence Gdansk is off the main Poland tourist route, out there on the Baltic coast, and I imagine they dont get to meet so many Australians in their daily lives. So I heard their stories and they heard mine. There was a dude from Kenya there, he married a local and ran a travel agency. He was surely out of his element, but Poland offered a better life and he had taken his chances. He could speak Polish, no mean feat, and was doing well for himself. The people you meet, indeed.

So after some food and drinks they took me home. The house was an apartment in a Soviet era housing block, something right out of the communist dream and so far off the tourist trail I cant begin to tell you. It was a small apartment, smaller than I expected to see in that part of the country. Gdansk is not a big city, but it is big enough to be considered a major point. I had assumed that quality of life to wit, apartment sizes might be bigger and better, but maybe not. Either way, it was a nice homely place, clearly the place of family and warmth. Shining out of the concrete edifice, out of the imposing history that put it there, you can try but youll never succeed in crushing the soul. Religion and communism were always at odds and in deeply Catholic Poland this was always a source of resentment and ultimately, as I saw, one of the tools that cracked the Iron Curtain.

We sat around the kitchen table, talked about things, about what I was planning to do and see, and we ate some food. Krystynas husband had dual citizenship with Canada and had travelled further than most Poles, and spoke better English. They knew and remembered all too well the grey years of communism and while they told me little, I heard enough to cement the image of a system that did not consider the people in it, one that had to keep them down in order to impose itself and thus justify itself. The story was the same everywhere I had been I knew I felt anger, but the times were past and everywhere I looked I saw people climbing out of the hole. There were lots of things still left there (in Poland more than other places) but the sun would again shine. Anger is no good now. We need to learn and remember what happened and why, so that we might prevent it ever coming to pass again. Im not saying this of communism, which is a beautiful theory and has not been tested under ideal situations, not that I think this is ever possible, but far be it from me to stink over this wonderful idea, just the mutated ugly mess it begot.

I also could tell that tales of those times are not easy to tell. I had to go to museums and memorials to get anything, so the first stop the next morning was the Solidarity Museum. The story is simply incredible and lends itself all to easily to sloganeering and bannering. Revolution soon dies, sold out for a pay rise. The original revolution that began the snowball that engulfed Eastern Europe, surely it began in some hearts with all the purity and goodwill such actions require, but I shudder to consider how fast they died and were taken over by power hungry merchants of terror and control. The very name of Stalin evokes horror, let that all I write here. From the peoples revolution grew the evil empire and there in Gdansk, from the people came the first blow to bringing it down. Dock workers striking in 1980 at Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk met cruel reprisal from the government, but after food shortages and further reduction of available goods just before Christmas (especially cruel in such a Catholic nation, where the winter is harsh, coming from an atheist government who surely must know but openly do not care) were the spark that started the strike. Under banners of We Want Bread and We Want Religion, the strikes saw police and brutality but held firm. The museum has footage of people getting run down in the street. The result was the government giving in and allowing the first legal trade union Solidarity and the beginning of the end. It was not easy, but from small acorns grow great things. The museum, on the grounds of the still active shipyards, tell the whole story and is a wonder. The path on the way in is lined with artefacts from the era, including a part of the Berlin Wall, and several monuments, including ones to those who died in the fight. It all tells a spectacular and important story. I was duly moved.

The old town of Gdansk is a reconstruction, since it was crushed during the war. Common story, that. It nonetheless is impressive, full of colour, tourists and museums. The story of the city had intrigued me from the start. I had seen it was the free city of Danzig after the first war, virtually autonomous, before which is had been at the centre of Prussia and therefore had a strong German heritage. It had been built by trade and amber and had been a Teutonic stronghold for a long time before that. All it took were a few days of fighting to send all this into permanent history, the buildings that saw it all happen reduced to rubble. It was yet another cold reality check about just how much was lost during the second World War. But we must not despair too much, because if only one thing came from that great tragedy, it is the spirit of reconstruction and preservation that has galvanised the continent (and fed the tourist industry). Most of this story I had the details filled in at the local history museum, inside the old town hall. The rooms themselves survived without total devastation, so the building as well as the exhibits is worth a look. Then there are the numerous churches, the tallest of which I climbed 450 stairs to get a load of the view. The top was swarming with small flying insects. Great.

After taking it all ain and yet another kebab for lunch, I took a tram down to the beach. The Baltic sea had been very good to me, and this would be our last meeting for the time being. I walked it up and down, went for a swim. I thought about the people I had met and played with in its waters, about the times we had all had on its shores and in the countries it washed up on. Good times, but not in that ever growing pile of memories called the past. I said goodbye to the sea, goodbye to my friends, goodbye to my memories. I thanked the sea for being part of it all and it gave me some amber to carry with me. Pink Floyd came on my earphones. Wish You Were Here, oh how I wish you were here.

I found my way back to Krystynas and went to bed.

Letting Go 04: Lithuania

Wednesday, September 27. 2006
Instead, we hitch-hiked. We took the tram to the edge of town and walked a few hundred metres down the highway and took our chances. Good thing I had a pretty girl to thumb for rides because even then it took an hour to get picked up, I think I might have been trapped there had I been on my own. The first thing to stop was a huge crane. There was barely room in there for the three of us and our bags but it didnt matter. The driver was a Lithuanian guy and all he could do was take us ten minutes down the road. We took him up in that and soon we were thumbing again. It didnt take another hour this time a Polish truck driver picked us up and he was going right on through Klaipeda and onto Kaunas. Jackpot. There was plenty of room in the cabin and even though we didnt speak each others languages there was communication. Mary-Jane knows a handful of Russian and German, I am good at gesturing and grunting. At the border we stopped for thirty minutes to take a break and change money. Here he made tea and coffee for us and when I showed him the various coins Id collected, to show where Id been, he gave me a few from his collection. Kindness knows no language, helping people out needs no words. It was very kind of him and even though the highway doesnt run into the city, he took us as far as he could and we walked to the nearest bus stop and took the next one into the city.

Klaipeda is the third biggest city in Lithuania. It has Germans in its history and also goes by the name of Memel. Claims to fame include a balcony where Hitler once stood and gave a speech and being the closest city to the Curonian Spit. Lithuania is the land of my fathers, where my grandparents grew up and where the fled from during the horrors of the second world war. They never returned, given the miracle that they survived at all and ended up in an Allied occupation zone, instead emigrating to Australia at the first chance. My grandfather went first, followed a few years later by grandma and my father. All my life I knew this story and never knew anything of the land they came from, so it became something of a target, a mission, a need. Now I was here, the rest of the land lay ahead of me. I had this girl with me to, beautiful and fucked up, the lost little girl with her arms around me. Just a wandering guy with nothing better to do but spend his money walking all the places he can find. Somehow connected, somehow walking the same little path for a while somehow together. It felt good, but where would it end What was going to happen in Lithuania, what of my dreams and plans? Plans are for breaking, because the express an idea of limitations. There are no limits, what we humans can do All I knew is that I didnt want to lose her or miss a second, to make the most of all of this I had in my hands and wonder if it was going to be clay or sand. Clay turns into sand too easily, before you even realise what it was you had in your hands and what youve made of it, so your memory is shaped and sticks but in reality it is nothing, having all fallen away.

In Klaipeda there is one hostel in town, outside the train station. We walked over there and found two things. The wonder boys had beaten us there by a matter of half an hour, maybe not even that, and they had taken the last two free beds. Damn that, what a pain. We walked to a few other places but there was nothing close to being affordable so in the end we brokered a deal. Christian would sleep on the floor, we would share a bed and pay for everyone. This meant we would need to sneak in and make sure that the receptionist didnt see us, but we were all getting good at hoodwinking hostels. In the end it all came good and we werent found out.

In our wandering around looking for a hotel we all ate at a local pub. The food was local cuisine and the beer world standard. There was nothing lacking here, this is a country with its shit together. That was a unanimous call. Sitting at the table outside, we talked and laughed, the co-incidence of finding each other again not lost on any of our happy faces. Having worked things out yet again, it was all too much and even though it was only that morning we parted ways, it was a joyous reunion. Because we never expected it to happen quite that way, for things to go quite on these lines but surely as I type these words we sat there and it felt like a year later.

The night was cold but two people in a single bed, it was where it started and was destined to end.

The next day was another on-the-fly construction, ad-libbed and re-written before we even thought about things too much. We went over on the ferry to the Curonian Spit and it is a majestic place. When the four of us were together, it didnt really matter where we ended up, the times were always good, laughter was never far away. The guys went for a swim in the beach, I hadnt come in my board shorts so I stayed out. The Spit is a one hundred kilometre long sand spit, an average of four kilometres wide and is essentially one long sand dune. A pine forest has grown in the middle while the edge on the coast is one long, silky beach. It was awesome. Hard to believe it is as undeveloped as it is, most any other country would have such a place crawling with activity but here at the end of the summer, on an admittedly cold day, it was almost empty. I had wanted to go all the way down, to the town of Nida at the Russian border, but soon enough we were heading back into town. Plans were fluid, designed to change and grow. The boys were heading away that afternoon. What were Mary-Jane and I going to do?

On the beach, while the boys swam in the cold waters, I had held her with her back to the water, and lifted her up. All I could see was her face, smiling at me, all fro me, her black and sandy hair blowing in the sandy breeze, one strand or two dancing across her cheeks. The surf rushed lightly behind and filled our ears, flat but foamy and white as it ran up to us, then the sky loomed blue and grey and white above us. It was the whole world to me, and there she was, filling it totally, for a few seconds. I can hold that moment forever in my mind, in my heart, for that was the perfect moment. Picturesque, total, perfect. Honest with myself and my feelings, I knew something in that moment and my heart leaped, never to come down.

I kissed her there and then, flying in the sand.

We sat up the beach on a seat while the Vikings proved themselves. Having swum the beach, they retreated from the chilly water and dried themselves off.

We ate kebabs before taking the ferry back, then went to the hostel. The boys prepared and left again.

Mary-Jane didnt want to stay in Klaipeda another night. We talked about getting an overnight bus, or train. I wanted to stay around, because Nida was still in my head, but the flow was leaving toward Vilnius and a visit to the station lead to the discovery that a train was too, in about and hour and a half. We qualified for the youth discount, too, so we could get to Vilnius for a pittance. The arrival would be quite late, but this was no great problem. We gathered our things and like that, we were on our way to Vilnius.

It was late and wet when we arrived.

And we were damn hungry, having failed to get any food before we left, plus we didnt yet have anywhere to stay. But we were lucky then, because the first hostel we rolled up to put us up and told us where we could get some food that wasnt McDonalds at that late hour. So this was Vilnius, the great city come great again. It was dark, the streets were not well lit and it was almost raining, the rain that its more than a mist but not droplets. Hunger was driving us both to distraction and barely a word was said while we found the place. The streets are even harder to navigate than anywhere else Ive seen, twisting and turning, running into each other and refusing steadfastly to go in a straight line. Add to this a good amount of construction going on and the learning curve is going up sharply. We found the restaurant, serving reasonably traditional Lithuanian food. I had my first glorious experience of Zeppelins, a hearty and surely fattening local concoction. Potato based dough with meat inside. What more could you want to put some hair on your chest.

Sleep came quickly that night. It had been a long day in a few ways.

I actually forget how many days I spent in Vilnius. They were spent arm in arm with my girl (as I had come to think of her, no matter how true it may have been, but every day you see more and more that black and white are almost strictly Hollywood) and walking those twisting, bending streets; we climbed the hill and saw the three crosses, we walked through Uzupis, we found the miracle tile outside the cathedral. However many days there were, they were certainly happy ones.

Strange town, Vilnius. It has this reputation and now I have some distance on it I see why. First of all there is Uzupis, a colony of artists, drunks and dreamers who have made the inside corner of a bend in the river their own independent republic. Full of art and squats, it has its own constitution and atmosphere not found anywhere else, I will say, in the world. There is an excellent pizza place there too, and the bar on the side of the river is great. Around the hill you find an array of parks and churches, cathedrals and statues, the life has been breathed back into the country after the stifling communist years and nowhere more so than the heart. They have much to mourn and not so much to celebrate, more martyrs than heroes, but the emphasis is on the latter two. The fallen and lost souls are remembered. We went to the genocide museum, housed in the old KGB building downtown. Remembering how the Latvian Occupation museum tells a harrowing story, and the Estonian equivalent a short tale of oppressed years, the Lithuanian story is by far the most tragic of the three. Simply put, in all three occupations last century, they fought back harder. Thus they were punished by equal degrees to their dissidence. Estonia felt the revenge, but since they gave in quickly were spared the true horrors. Latvians fought long and hard but despite the best intentions the resistance was put down (the best of the Latvians even becoming integral to the Red Army in some cases) but the Lithuanian resistance was fought long and hard, bitter and cruel on both sides and the numbers on display at the museum let visitors know that they equal genocide. In no uncertain terms. Of the Baltic states more Lithuanians than anyone else were deported and murdered. Imprisoned in the most unimaginable ways. You can see the KGB prison as it was left and be shocked by the barbarity of it all. It takes a few hours to see the story and look through the cells and I left feeling changed. What strength not to be totally crushed by such evil. On the outside there are carved the names of some of the victims. I saw one who shared my surname. I could only shiver.

But now Vilnius is a happy place, colour and laughter paint the streets now. Freedom has a sweeter taste to those who know life without it and they gorge at its table.

I was not surprised when Mary-Jane and I came back to the hostel one day to see the wonder boys there. They had taken longer but they had made it to Vilnius and tracked us down. I had told them where to look. So the remaining days there we had company and again we were together, the four of us, this time with Vilnius to see. Such days will be hard to track down again.

They came to an end, of course, all too quickly, after a few nights. We cooked hamburgers, drank with the other guests. It was awesome to be there and a privilege to have had the chance. We saw them off at the train station and they were gone again. Mary-Jane also had to go. The next day I took her to the airport. School was starting and our time was up.

I didnt want to stay. I gathered my things and took a train to Kaunas. There I found that there was a night bus going to Warsaw, so I bought a ticket, spent the next six hours walking around Kaunas and then tried to sleep on the bus. Sleep on the bus is hard and even harder when you are used to having someone special there next to you. My time in Lithuania was always going to be special. I had no idea just how special it would be, or that I might not even get close to doing what I had planned. Time shifts, changes and warps like my plans and I was better for it.

What was going to happen next? Usually I can say whatever I will but my head became clouded. Clouded with her, with what we had said and what I wanted to say. Id said it all before I lost her to the air and the real life she had waiting in Helsinki and she told me later that she couldnt possibly know how she was supposed to feel yet but next time, lets make a next time. These words, or ones like them, clouded me and I thought too much of times to come and what might or might not be there. I couldnt take it and knew it was the wrong thing to do. Live now, this is the only moment we have to live in and it goes on regardless of whether our head is there or not. Its not something we control. I was on my way to Poland, entirely the wrong way, and a new country of adventure lay ahead. I did my best to keep my mind there.

My Way 15: Scotland

Tuesday, September 26. 2006
Instead of a Monday morning flight I took a Tuesday morning bus to Glasgow. Why I was heading that way, what my path would be was a result of a half hour brainstorming session involving John and a few pints. Since deciding fatefully to head to Amsterdam to get things started, I had sort of drifted toward London just because John was there. No real clear idea after that, but seeing as I had made it as far as London I thought that seeing the Scottish highlands was a good idea. On top of that Id purchased a newer guide book (for those lonely winter nights in front of the fireplace, you see) and this time Id made the first cut. The first book I had covered the whole of Europe. I had cut the west out and gone for the guts of the issue. Eastern Europe, here we come.

But before that, theres me crying on the way to Glasgow. Maybe it was the weather, that had suddenly turned to grey miserable shit as soon as the calendar flipped to August. It could have been the scenery was so reminiscent of home that I wouldnt have been at all shocked if the bus had turned a corner and we were driving down my road. Rolling green hills, stone wall, sheep, grey skies, its beautiful and its just like my little corner of Australia, the one I hadnt seen for years. Enough to make anyone cry. Or it could have been the killer come down. Lets go for all of the above.

In any case, when we arrived in Glasgow it was grey and pissing with rain. Great. I get out my umbrella and try to figure out where I am. The bus station. Good. Where is everything else? I find the main station. Ok. Got my bearings. Now for the hostel that I might or might not have a bed at, where might it be? And do I go there, or just suck it up and find somewhere else? In the end, I find it and the staff are all young Aussies. Yippee. Apparently last night was rad and I should have been there. Yep, fuck them. Nice place though. The other people were pretty cool and told me where I could get some food. I only stayed there the one night. The next day I did some looking around, saw the cathedral, and took a bus to Fort William. I had nowhere to stay lined up, but I went anyway. I had a debate on the merits of impressionism with a French girl on the bus. She was not a Picasso fan (shame) and quite shocked I had no accommodation lined up. Yeah, half right.

Fort William was cold and grey. I had not banked on this weather, you know. I had not even brought my long pants. I left most of my gear in London, taking a few changes of socks and underwear alongside a couple of t-shirts. It was cold up there. So much for Summer. Maybe it just doesnt happen up there. Either way, I was cold as I walked around looking for somewhere to stay that wasnt painfully expensive. The hostel in town was full when I found it, but they punted me on to a place down the road and told me how to get there. Cool of them. I bought some food at the Tesco and found the bus. It was a little way down the road in a hamlet called Banavie. When I got off the bus, the sky had cleared and you could see what I had come for. Ben Nevis sat there, all squat and grey. The tallest mountain in Great Britain and I would climb it, oh yes.

The hostel was warm and homely. There were some cool people staying there, so I felt better about the massive downer and shitty weather. I always feel depressed when I go into the countryside, it just happens when I get away from a big city. Theres the isolation, the presence of sheep, the fact you can feel the wind and see grass. It just gets to me. The knowledge that it will get dark and it will really be dark thats a killer. The dark is real out there. In the cities it never really gets dark, the light just changes form. I have said before Im scared of the dark, this is why. But sitting and talking in the lounge room with older sorts from all over, it was good fun. I found out who was going up the mountain the next day and got it sorted.

The information warned about how hard it could get, how a real map was necessary, a compass and all that. Sturdy shoes. I had none of these things. I barely had clothes suitable for the climb. And you know what? It was nothing. It takes four hours to walk up and slightly less to get down again. The trail is easy to follow and the only struggle is the quality its loose rocks most of the way. The challenge is negligible. In Winter I am sure its tougher, but the info said that even in warmer months it was hard. Such crap. Talk it up. Maybe if youre 90 years old. Or disabled. Or a 90 year old disabled man. Whatever. It was fun, dont get me wrong, I had a good crowd to climb with and it was easy going most of the way with awesome view. There was a layer of clouds and once we got through it was like we were standing on the top of the world. It was really awesome.

At the top, marked by a stone thingy, I stood on top and for the second time in a week, I was higher than everyone else in the UK. Beat that.

After descending it, I had curry with two other guys, who shall remain forever The Ben Men. Good times. I was feeling human again.

The next day I walked through the glen at the bottom of the mountain. It follows a stream and is quite pleasant. I went up and down the hills next to it a few times, to see what was there, but there wasnt much besides mud and slugs. The scenery was so much like home again, it was a strange feeling. To go to the other side of the world and find something so similar, it makes your head spin just a little.

I met a girl out there, from Italy. We walked and talked and back in town we had some real British food. Saying no to the haggis. Being Australian, this is about what our food is like. Boiled vegetables, roasted potatoes and meat. It was awesome. The Italian girl found it a little bland. Thats about the strength of it, really.

The next day I took the train back to Glasgow. That train line is one of the most scenic in Britain and it doesnt disappoint. All bends through hills and bridges over rivers, part of it was used in the Harry Potter movies. For a larcenous amount you can take a ride on the same steam train they used in the movie. No, really.

Glasgow was the same as ever. It was Saturday, so the hostel was full. A good portion of the guests were Scottish kids down from the arsehole-like towns off a ways for some good old fashioned partying. I would not be joining them, as my stay in Glasgow would end at about four thirty in the morning. I talked to the people and watched TV, then went to use the bed I had paid for. I might have even gotten away without paying, since I left at two am and probably nobody would have noticed. Hindsight, eh?

So walking from North Street to the bus station in Glasgow involves traversing the main street of town. Normally this is a good opportunity to get some take away food, maybe have a quiet pint or three, but in the middle of Saturday night its an invitation to have a drunk Scot threaten to kill you. Which is exactly what happened to me. Im walking along, dodging local colour as it staggers along, and a big fat bloke comes up to me and says, Im going to race you up the hill. If I win, I get your bag. If you win, I still get your bag.
What the fuck? Was he saying he was going to rob me? Yep, for a good few minutes he follows me to the bus station with his friend not far behind, in my ear the whole way about how he is going to take my money, then follow me home and steal all my things. I dont mention that I dont have a home and even if I did it would be on the other side of the planet. I dont think he would have found it funny. Where was a copper when you actually needed one?

I get to the bus station and try going in the front. Its closed for the night, I have to go around the side. By this point Im totally paranoid about everyone I see. He thinks Im going down the pedestrian tunnel. This is when he tells me hes going to kill me there. I wasnt going that way, so I turn and go around the side. He temporarily gives up. I hide behind a wall, and he comes charging in with his friend. He rampages from one end of the place to the other, shouting stuff I cant make out, and I go across the middle, hiding behind busses, to get to where the airport shuttle bus stops.

Thats the last I see of him, of Glasgow, and after the airport, of Scotland. Nice place, really.

I spend the afternoon asleep. I pack my stuff up and go back to the airport. I make it this time. There is a delay at the check in, as I have to take my backpack to a different counter. Then again as I prove my computer is not a bomb. Then again for some reason as we wait to take off. Then finally, I am getting out of the UK.

My Way 14: England

Tuesday, September 26. 2006
Time travel is possible... This happened before Lativa and all that, but I couldn't be arsed writing it up and posting it untill I had some free time earlier this week. Enjoy.

[Personal note to the J: sorry man, I'm just sorry. It happened, I lost sense of what to do there for a while, but this is the way it went and honesty is forward, forward is the future and may it never go quite like this again.

A strange sense of homecoming, to a place Ive never been. It feels similar, it looks close enough. The language is the same and they drive on the same side of the road. But an air of confusion, too, not merely fuelled by the heatwave that was crushing the fragile locals. London, once the crown of the Empire, distant light from the far corners of the Commonwealth. Probably all the colonials coming home feel the same. Its similar and familiar, yet a different world. How they made half the world map pink is hard to grasp now, especially when most of them seem to be either sunbathing in Hyde park, off their faces on something or clearly not Anglo-Saxon. Times have changed, but this was still the bitch that spawned my homeland. Or at least, made it what it is today. Complex, the relationship can become.

I arrived at the thoroughly shitty hour of about five am. The border crossing at Dover at two am had been fucked up. We all had to get off the bus and into the customs building, even the British passport holders, and questioned about this and that, before some Limey cunt grudgingly stamped our passports. He didnt even do it right because you cant even read it, screw you. Im Australian and you should be nice to me.

I called John when I got to Victoria station. He told me which tube station to go to and I figured my way there. Sleep is an impossibility on those overnight busses, so a happy state of delirium is where I was. John met me at Kilburn Park and we went to his place. He lives in a share house in the Ghetto, although which Ghetto it is meant to be escaped me. He looked almost as bad as I felt but we both covered it nicely. I think I had a sleep after that. Or took advantage of his internet connection. Or something, it was not my best time.

I stayed at his place the rest of the week, sleeping on his floor (without mattress or anything, dirty laundry bag for pillow) and when he wasnt there, sleeping in his bed. Sometimes I slept there when we was still in it, but thats what friends are for.

The brutal truth about London is, even when I didnt have to pay for accommodation, just eating, getting around and sightseeing was too taxing on my finances. Its worse than you hear, London. I did my best but each day was like a kick in the groin. And it was between thirty-five and forty every day. Add to this the fact that almost nowhere has such a modern convenience like air conditioning the two weeks a year its worth using dont justify the cost of getting it installed. Only the most swanky of establishments and shops will cool you down. Not even busses or trains will help you out, Im telling you man, it was hot. The locals are generally of the constitution that makes them feel faint if the mercury breaks twenty. This was an unpleasant but often hilarious backdrop to my tightarse stay in the capital of England. What a bitch.

My first sights were seen with the ever-present John. Omnipotent, we shall call his greatness. He took me on the bus to Oxford Circus and when I complained that it was a shitty circus, he patiently explained that it was called that because it was round. Circle, circus same root. Circuses the ones with clowns and tigers and such were named for the same reason. A lifelong mystery had been solved. We walked to the Thames river past a bunch of statues and monuments. So amazing they were that neither of us really knew who or what they were for. Hyde Park has become a brown patch of dead grass, but the natives were out in force, soaking up the solar power. Down by the river, past Westminster Abbey (a truly fine building) we gawked at the London Eye (fucking horrible eyesore) and walked over a few bridges. The preliminary sights out of the way, I think we went back to his place, because he might have had to go to work. I likely slept.

The week, up to Friday, saw me do mostly things that cost as little as possible and yet I still went through a bunch of money. Fuck all that, was it worth it? But England is undeniable, it was always a necessary part of my trip. Obsessed about money I really was, but its a defence mechanism. I saw the streets, rode the tube, went to the free galleries. It was good fun and they speak my language. It was on Thursday that I went with John to the Globe Theatre to see Antony and Cleopatra and for five quid, standing tickets are an absolute bargain. If its scorchingly hot, I advise maybe taking some water. It was something of an ordeal, but the play was world class.

I kind of fast forwarded through to the weekend. Because the weekend was totally massive. I planned it that way it made it work out. This is honesty and Im not exactly proud of what I did, but I had a lot of fun and learned some big lessons. About myself and life, about the world and how it all works. Believe me, I learned the hard way, but I still learned.

I had planned to go large in London from the start, from the very start, so I got some advice about where to go from DJ Ollie, long time beat merchant from those parts, and some advice about where to get myself sorted out. I took his advice. I wont name names and I cant remember exactly where the club was. I had a little sleep on Friday, went by the soul crushing factory where John serves up three pound pints to drunk Poms to give him the keys, then took the tube into the city.

I found the place after a few wrong turns and got in without a hitch. No of that not in those shoes, buddy crap. There was a short, perfunctory search (pretty sure they were just checking I didnt have a dealing-worthy amount of anything) and I was in. It was about eleven thirty and it was not crowded at all. It wouldnt get busy until about two thirty, after which it would be really busy until I left at about four. In between I noticed the club was dichotomised perfectly depending on your substance of choice. The less informed of observers might think that it was divided along musical lines, but this is only part of the story. The entrance is right in the middle, stairs coming down into the club. Next to that is the toilets, which are almost devoid of mirrors and staffed by one big black guy. Big and black are probably the prerequisites only because they instil a sense of discipline hes not there to be anything but friendly, but if something happened, well you wouldnt want to be on the wrong end of it. He means safety, politeness. There is a water fountain just outside of the toilets, where the security guy can see but does not need to go. There is the bar, left of the middle, behind which is the brighter of the two rooms. Here is more spaced out, easy going, chilled even, area. I cant identify the kind of music being played in there but the space is essentially for coke heads. Everyone has that dead-ahead stare, most people have sunglasses on, and the dancing is minimal. There is no strobe going here.

Downstairs again is the dark, pulsating, frenetic space for the pill monsters. Strobes, lasers, all the toys needed to feed a generation of e-heads and space junkies. This is the warm, sweaty space for those who want to feel the love and let go, be loved back and just fade out of the world for the night. They dont need to interact with the cocaine driven crowd upstairs because that would be a total bring down. The cocaine crowd dont need to be hassled by jittery kids or messed about by too many strobes. It is a balance, perfectly figured out and engineered. This is a purpose designed space, make no mistake. They really do things right in London.

I had been given the advice of look for the slightly shifty guy in the corner, so I kept my eyes out. I had never actually procured for myself before, would I be able to go through with this illegal activity? All the years of propaganda to the contrary, the inherent dangers But I did it. Not quite thinking the transaction would be the way it was, I gave the guy a twenty and half expected change. Silly of me. Instead, I got four little pink things. My first reaction was, these are small. Maybe they arent as good? But I was over the moon, I was set not just for tonight but the weekend. It was going to be fun.

It was. I did two that night and they did exactly what they were supposed to. Ill refrain from overly-long descriptions of the effects, because it makes one sound like a bad hippie and pisses of the J no end. It happened, mate, but hang in there. This is a rollercoaster.

I met people, they disappeared, came, went they talked, danced, tickled me, all sorts of crazy stuff. Looking back, I missed some obvious stuff, but I was not on the pull as the locals put it. I was too far gone for that anyway. My own name was too far beyond the horizon when it all came together. Some bloke, who sounded local but claimed to be from Noosa, asked where I got my stuff but the dealer was gone. So I sold him one of mine for ten pounds, further increasing my list of illegal activities for the day (I think I jaywalked on the way there too) and introducing me to the real-life applications and dynamics of a buy low sell high economy. Made the night out a whole lot cheaper, too.

But I was gone, truly and totally gone. I was shaking and twitching, dancing and running around and all the usual. Good fun, but the second one might have been taking things a little too far. I did wonder what that was like, you know. Now I do. I went home after coming down and split a taxi with some people Id just met and would never see again.

I arrived back just as John was leaving. So I showered and got the bed all to myself. I slept, through some miracle, and felt not so bad after waking up and eating. I had Saturday night ahead of me, one pill left and a plan in mind. I had to meet a friend on Sunday morning, an acquaintance from Japan who just happened to be in England at the same time as me. Awesome coincidence, but it meant I might have to end things early and come home during the night so I might actually be functional.

It never happened. I dropped the keys at the soul crushing factory, dodged the drunks and hit the tube. It was, of course, messed up for some reason (repairs or something) so I had to take the long way and walk a few blocks to get to the club. I made it with no hassles in the end, but what a London experience. Goddamn tube. This club was a lot bigger, something like five rooms depending on your mood. I got there about eleven and planned to take what I had, wait till it wore off and go home. Do you really think I managed to do that? Nah. Who can stop the party at two am and leave, especially when re-fuelling is so easy? The first look around, when I got there, revealed no-one dodgy looking. Not many people there either. Oh well, it is early and these guys dont show up until things are really going. So I dropped and got started.

It didnt work. Combination of fatigue and the night before, I know for sure. The bad feeling in the place, maybe. Who knows how these things affect the experience. I know a little better now, but dont wish to have the real skinny on it at all. But I took one and felt nearly nothing only after finding a Turkish girl and dancing with her for a while did I feel anything. Despair took over and this is the ultimate killer when she left. Just as this happens, a guy asks me if I want to buy any. I am forced into a dilemma. I think, what the hell Im only here for the weekend. I have a ten pound note. Suddenly, I have two more. Just after that, I meet two Australian girls and we stay together all night. I have friends, Im up and going, the club is filling and the atmosphere improves. How much fun it is, I cant convey. Its another world out there. Fake, real, what is what all meshes together for this party. My philosophy on all this is simple. Part of life, but not your whole life. I lost control for one weekend because I didnt know what I was doing.

I felt down and the guy came round just in time The girls I was with were too scared to buy for themselves, so they sent me. In the end the guy gave me freebies, because I was such a good customer and he was likely off his head. I did six more that night, making it eight for the weekend. I danced until I felt like I was dying at eight in the morning. I was done for, wrecked, smashed against the walls. I was seeing shit and messed so hard I felt like I might never come good again. It was fun and it was horrible. Horror and joy, sorrow and insanity Ill sound like a bad hippy soon.

Maybe a more measured pace would have been better. A bit more control. But its not there anymore, London is so far away it hurts to think and I cant make such a party happen anywhere else. So its over. But my weekend wasnt.

I got home just in time to shower, change and leave again to meet my friend. My ears were ringing so badly I could barely hear a thing. It made the days conversation hard. All we did was get some food, walk around Londons tourist sights again, then I saw her off at Victoria station. I had a good day, staying with it in spite of myself. I knew from experience that it was not the Sunday that killed you. It was Monday. I havent had one this bad ever before.

I was supposed to get up at four, get to the airport and fly to Glasgow. I had bought a cheap ticket and chose Glasgow because Edinburgh was too expensive. Festival season, you see. But I didnt make it up, I missed that goddamn aeroplane and fuck me, it was the start of a very bad day. The flight had been cheap enough, but with taxes and all the rest had been expensive enough. And once it was gone, it was too late to change it or get any kind of refund. Nope, that money was gone. Id paid the price for the weekend already. This did nothing to improve my mood. I panicked and had a small anxiety attack. The price we pay, indeed. I had a return flight booked and paid for, and a hostel. Shit, it was all falling apart My carefully laid plan. In the end, between fits of panic and crapping myself, I e-mailed the hostel and changed the booking to the next day and bought a bus ticket there. I was going there, goddamit, no matter what. This settled, I felt better but the lost time and money stung badly.

It was a shitty day. The come-down had started. It was to last the best part of a week. The longest and worst of all time. John had no sympathy for my plight. I deserved none.

My Way 13: France

Tuesday, September 26. 2006
So I went back to the bus station and waited around. Id purchased a book at a rare opportunity to get my hands on some English literature so I sat near the station reading. There were some odd looking people around there, it was a little unsettling. Having been put off so thoroughly by my time in the city and entirely too hot (it was not just hot anymore, it was beyond reason, beyond what we think as acceptable) but at least I had the Dice Man for company.

The bus came by and I boarded. I think I slept my way into France, not that there is any distinguishing feature to let one know that you are no longer in Belgium, and woke up in the outskirts of Paris. We drove into the city, by now the long day had passed into darkness and my late arrival had become a midnight arrival. The driver seemed to get lost at the bus station, eventually getting into the right spot after several circles. I retrieved my bag from the hold (at least things dont get wet over here) and set off to find my way out. And maybe a toilet.

The escalator downstairs promised both bladder relief and the metro out of there. I had no idea exactly where I was or where to go to find somewhere to stay. My plan was to find the metro, get on it and go somewhere. This was waylaid by the appearance of three huge men. Shouting at me in French and gesturing wildly, I managed to tell them that I didnt speak their language, maybe they speak some English? They could. They claimed to be police and wanted to see my passport. I froze. The aware traveller knows of scams and the troubles of late night bus station, I had even just read about just this sort of scam in the LP. So I tell them no, you may not see my passport, who are you supposed to be? One had a flimsy looking armband that claimed he was a cop, another thrust a badge of some kind at me; it all looked fake and there were no uniforms. Again I refused and they became more persistent, so I became more defensive. I was convinced I was about to lose my passport and all my money to three conmen, that as soon as I hand over my passport I would never see it again. Or getting it back would cost the hefty donation of all my cash. Either way, screwed. More fucked than that guy stuck in Iraq. The also indicated they wanted to look through my stuff. This was entirely too much and I was in no mood to take that. My repeated refusal and insistence that any kind of search be done at, oh I dont know, maybe the police station? Was met with them showing me their handcuffs and guns. I nearly pissed myself. Other passengers were coming downstairs and walking past, silently watching my dilemma but not saying anything.

So I might be arrested or shot. Things were getting worse. I hand over my passport and one of them takes it away. I protest and another guy pushes me back. I dont want him to take it away, so convinced am I that its gone for good. He comes back with it and orders me to open my bags. Then to take everything out. So there I am, getting all my stuff out in the bus station past midnight, and putting it all over the floor. Three cops are looking with interest at everything and Im still crapping my dacks.

Eventually they are satisfied and I am allowed to repack my gear and get my passport back. They were genuine police (but they did a real good job of not looking like it) and I learn later that the filth in France have the power to search anyone at any time in any place. This is a measure, apparently, against drugs and concealed weapons. Civil liberties are being eroded every day in exchange for police not bothering to do a decent job (good policing stops drugs, not random searches) and I can see how a lone male traveller coming off a bus that departed from Amsterdam earlier in the day might be suspicious, but the whole thing shook me up and was all too unnecessary. If they are going to do such a thing, maybe having somewhere at the station to do it properly so my dirty underwear dont get spread out on the ground? And by the way, if I was going to bring a bag of weed or a handful of pills with me as a souvenir of Party Time in the Low Country, I would have put it at the bottom of the bottle of aspirin the Bancho gave me that I carry in my wet pack. They didnt even ask me to open the wet pack but my computer case was enough of a potential risk that they needed to get into it. Fucking jackasses. Just doing their job, sure, right. All of that.

I find the metro, all shaky. Put some money in, get a ticket. On the train I consult the book and realise I dont know where to go and even if I wanted to go further than the end of the line, this was the last train and connections were likely to be rare. I look lost enough for someone else on the train to ask me where I was trying to go. I dont know, I say, I guess I need to find a hotel. She herself is new to the city but thinks that around Republique station I might have some luck. This is my only lead. It turns out that this is only a little way down the line, so I get off there. I wonder what happened to the girl. I always wonder what happened to the girl.

Outside it is still warm. The cafes are still full of people and there is a lot of activity on the streets. I go into a few places marked hotel but the first three or four places can only offer me rooms in the vicinity of a hundred euros. This is about my entire budget for the country, so I have to say no. Eventually I find a place that has a double room for 55 euros. Its late, Im knackered, so I say alright. The room is small and has no aircon, but it will do for the night and my nerve has been lost (the alternate plan is to wander, Henry Miller style, all night until I can find a hostel) so I relent. Its not like I didnt try to book ahead. Its not like I didnt do all I could. This could become a real issue, me not having a credit card, because it looked like booking ahead might become a necessity indeed. Dammit.

I resolve to be up at as early as possible and get to a tourist information centre to find a cheaper place to stay. Maybe even find a hostel myself. I have a little bit of information, this might just be possible. I sleep, finally.

So it was the next morning I was out of bed and out the door by eight, onto the metro to find the tourist info places listed by the LP, which was quickly wearing out its welcome and usefulness. Twice it took me to places that were no longer tourism-related (one near the Pompidou Centre, the other near the Arc De Triumph) and all the more I was frustrated. I had to be back at the hotel by midday to get my stuff and then where would I go? Reality and the weight of a deadline loomed. As I sat on the train, I noticed just past where I was going to transfer there were a few hostels. All I could do was get off and check it out. I got out at St. Paul station and tracked the place down, it was right around the corner from the station. No room, said the guy, but we always have at least a few no-shows on the reservations. So Ill take your name and if you come back at midday we will have a room for you. Thank fucking Christ. So it was settled.

I walked around the area in the heat after that for a little while. The Notre Dame was nearby, the Seine lay in-between. I was in Paris, place of mystery and romance, scene of both Miller and Orwells down and out days, immortal and great. I was beginning to feel it and began to brighten after a morning of heat and stress. I went back to the hotel, took a shower and packed my bags. I put them in the luggage room and headed out to find some food. I chose to walk a few stretches to see more of the city (the subway affords a pitiful view of things, aside from a few artfully decorated stations) which included back to St. Paul to confirm my room (all good) and then over to the cemetery Lachaise. This was my first call on the Paris sightseeing agenda and not without reason. The last resting place of many a notable, including none other than the one and only Jim Morrison. I was going to pay tribute to the Lizard King.

The cemetery was huge. Maps helped tourists find their way about the literally hundreds of notables buried there, and even then people were doing all right selling maps. And even then there were lost looking people all round. Finding any one grave out of the thousands there wasnt so easy, it seemed. I eventually found Jim, after stumbling across Chopin in the meantime, to see that his final resting place was hidden behind some other big stone marker, fenced off and watched closely by three security guards. That was no fun. Still, people had managed to get their tributes to him and there was a steady procession of people coming to say their piece. Jim is never lonely, I can assure you, and is still loved. Hes been gone now quite a few years longer than he was ever with us on this planet, but his impact lives on. Party on, man, I know youre up there with Lennon and Hendrix and every other muso whos ever passed over and its one big block party slash jam session.

Further around I came to Oscar Wildes grave. This was something different all right. It is a huge stone grave with a bust on the front, like you might see on the front of a ship, simply with his name and dates on the front. But the whole thing is covered from top to bottom in lipstick marks. All over, front, back and sides. Someone out there still loves him; doubtless a lot of people still do, and its very apparent.

In the back corner are all the monuments to the world war dead. Each category has a different marker, or set of markers. Each one a sobering reminder of just how many people were singled out and in how many places they died. Not just those who fought but the persecuted are represented. More often than not the memorials were erected by the survivors of a group. The fighting spirit that got them through their hell has not abandoned them in life after, life does indeed go on. The inscriptions are simple and precise. This is a memorial to those murdered There is no beating around the bush. Nothing about those who died, no passive tenses, nothing but the straight reality of what happened. These people were our friends, family and kindred and they were murdered by the Nazis. We will never forget. The war memorials you see in Europe are a far cry from those at home, I can tell you now.

It was way too hot to be walking around in this any more and I needed water, possibly food. So I left the dead to their meanderings and walked back to Republique, retrieved by bags and took the metro to the hostel. After checking in I went to the supermarket in from of the station. To counter the higher cost of, well, everything in France I devised a method of eating cheap (the only real corner I could cut) so for the best part of two weeks starting back in Breda, I ate mostly bread, some kind of meat usually ham and tomato sauce. Vegetables were impractical in the heat and without utensils, not much good, but fruit was the only thing breaking the monotony. It was a simple thing and soon enough you miss the variety of wider eating but you cant beat the value. Just think of all the cash Im saving, yeah, everything will be fine.

I lay in bed for a while and talked to the others in the room as they came in. When Id arrived the place smelt like pot. I wondered who was responsible for it. After a simple meal I went out for a walk. Walking was also free and Paris is without peer as a city. It is simple, the beauty of the place. It is an old city and you can strip away the modern linings (flashy lights, neon, street signs) with your mind and you get an idea of what the city has been like in years gone by. Just walking around, the atmosphere is tangible even to me on my own.

Paris is one of those places that you hear so much about, that I had dreamed of for years, that I had read about in places like Victor Hugo novels and listened to the sounds from the streets when learning about the revolutions and beheadings, a place that without realising, has worked its way into my heart and mind. Such a thing is inevitable and expectations run unconscious and high. Hear now that it was far from the Paris of my imagination and daydreams, that the Paris known by my Henry Miller and George Orwell is gone, forever consigned to the pages of novels and history books, and this made me sad; sad that the raucous Moulin Rouge is just another building in a street of sleaze and the bohemian cafes are now serving five euro latts and the whores are gone from the parks. But in its place, what magnificence, what treasures it still holds, what a sense of the past and preservation lies here within the city. It is still a jewel and a great and glorious one at that. Modernity and politics have stamped their ugly trade upon the place but Paris has something that cannot be killed, a soul that has seen it all and looks forward. This is a place where the past is still there, in this eternal moment we live in, it has not been cut away completely and you can see it, sometimes, instead of just feeling it. Maybe it is a shadow in an alleyway or a street sign on a boulevard, a look in the locals eye or just the view from the Notre Dame; Paris is still Paris and nothing short of the end of history will kill her off; better are we for feeling and knowing it, better for all the millions who visit every year and I did not enjoy sharing her with all of you, but I cannot hope to hold you as my own. Paris is to share, Paris is a place you want to be with someone but more on the romance factor later, because I have gone on for long enough here and I have to keep on.

The next day I bought a day pass for the metro. All day I could go wherever I wanted on the metro and let me say, I have seen subways from Belgium to Beijing and the Paris Metro is far and away the most comprehensive. There is nowhere in the central Paris area that is more than 500 metres from a station and trains run so frequently you dont need to concern yourself with times; the layout is simple enough that I was mapping routes and changes without delay. So I came up with the Metro Walking tour, armed with a list of places to go and a will to walk where needed, this was an upgrade on my patented Walking Tours that saw my skate shoes grace unnecessarily large amounts of pavement in cities like Shanghai, Nanjing, the much-maligned Brussels and unforgettably, Takamatsu. I was upgraded now power sightseeing has never been easier.

So it was that in a day I managed to visit la Defence, the skyscraper district on the edge of town (a magnificent roll of city planning if I do say so myself put all the new, shiny ultra-modern buildings at the edge of town and keep the heart of the city intact), the Arc de Triumph, the Eiffel Tower, the catacombs, the opera house and Pigalle. Later I would revisit the tower and have a look down Rue St. Denis at night. Thats the rundown, stay tuned for the details.

La Defence is an impressive collection of modern skyscrapers, including the batshit-fucking-loco design of the Grand Arch. That thing is crazy, it looks like it shouldnt be allowed to stay up. But it does. Amongst the heat and other sightseers were a collection of shiny metal sculptures that made for some great photographic fodder. There wasnt much to do but look around, so I went back to the train and went to Champs Elysee and took a gander at the Arc de Triumph (again) with a view to going up and admiring the view of the city. But not for the price they were asking, thats fucking extortion. Fuck those guys.

Then it was time to see the other great feature, the Eiffel Tower. The closest station is a short walk and it was already lined with tourists as I followed the crowd. And there it is, as majestic as it looks in all those pictures and movies, just like you always imagine, it fairly pulsed in the heat. I walked up the stairs, thinking the elevator to be entirely too bourgeoisie, and was rewarded with a very cool view of the city. That was about halfway up the elevator to the top was a great idea, but the line was outrageous. So I went down, took some more photos and headed back to the metro.

My information had told me that the catacombs were open from two pm, so I timed my run to be there just at they opened. Maybe things were different now, but the line told me that things had been going on for a while. I had to wait for about forty minutes to get my run in there because they only allow a hundred people at a time down there. Safety, you see. Its a long way underground, deeper than the water pipes, deeper than the metro. Its an old quarry that was decommissioned due to worries it might collapse and leave Paris exposed as a giant hole, but came to the fore again after the nearby graveyard started making the residents sick when it rained and flooded. The bones were exhumed and under a cover of night, moved into the old quarry. They were artfully arranged and opened to the public, for reasons I guess the French keep to themselves. Now I joined the crowd heading down to have a look.

If you see a skeleton, a real human skelton, the first reaction is revulsion. See a hundred, arranged by type rather than owner, and you become desensitised so quickly its not funny. These were people Now they are part of the walls. Its a strange thing and you walk for about 10 minutes to get there, followed by about half an hour of bones. Its cold and damp, even when the temperature outside is a tasty forty Celsius. Its hard to know how to feel.

After I emerged, I headed off to track down the American Express, a very Henry Miller moment. As it is next to the Opera House, I had a nice view of it melting in the heat. I headed out to the bus station to buy a ticket out of there. Then I was knackered the heat really knocks you out. I went back to the hostel (another night, another bed) and had a chat to my roommates and had some food. Then I went back with one of the guys I met to check out the Eiffel Tower at night. We saw the sunset over it and had some food. We went home via Rue St. Denis and ran a gamut of hookers and strip clubs. From the legendary heyday of the area, to this streets that is not a shadow on Amsterdam, Henry Miller would be ashamed of what happened. Not that whores are my business.

The next day was set aside to visit the Louvre. And that I did all day I wandered the halls and gazed upon masterpiece after masterpiece, until the word lost all meaning and the world was nothing but beauty and wonder, painting and sculpture, then I realised that it was almost five pm and I had not eaten anything. Past the crowded Italian wing and the very centre, many of the rooms are almost empty, sometimes you can even be alone with a painting. The whole experience is totally overwhelming, totally surreal, and totally necessary. It was magic in a way they defies words, really, nowhere can you see so much great art and have such a context to it that it might even make it less important than it really is. To take it all in would require days Days I dont have. But I had my time there and it was special.

Sick of my diet of bread and ham, I ate a pizza for dinner.

The next day I moved beds again. The art gallery theme continued, with the Picasso Museum first in line. Its not exactly his greatest hits, more the rest of what he did all there in one place. It was fantastic. I can enjoy everything the man did, and I was very happy to have been there. An odd thing, most galleries allow picture taking. I always thought this defeated the point and as far as Id known was banned. In all places, Paris, the Mecca of art galleries, would I find it accepted. Only a few places (the Italian wing of the Louvre, for example) didnt let you, and that was only really because it was either too crowded in those places or too much of a pain to tell people not to use the flash. Still, I dont think its right. Just because. Either way, I did take some in the Picasso Gallery and you know what? They must do something with the mounting or the light or the layouts, because the colour never quite comes out right.

Memory fails next, because the two galleries I went to after that are famous and hold many amazing pieces but the names, they escape me. I saw Monets Waterlilies collection and could not believe it. The sheer size and majesty of these paintings is lost on no-one who goes to see them. And trust me when I say the line was outrageous. So its not like they are a secret treasure locked away somewhere. Lost on no-one I say because everyone there is just staring at them in awed silence. For a busy gallery in a busy part of a very popular tourist city, the lack of noise is most welcome. These paintings are between six and ten metres (maybe more) long and about two metres high. They were painted in the gardens of the Tulleries, where the gallery now stands, as experiments into light and reflections. They are, I understand, the greatest examples of impressionism we have. The genius obvious to even me makes you either inspired or totally ready to give up trying.

Downstairs is an awe-inspiring collection of historys great impressionism works. Crowded as it was, you walk away remembering only the genius youve witnessed. Bleating crowds of idiot tourist fade away.

Following that, another gallery. Works of paint and sculpture, including quite a few by Rodan, that were as brilliant as anything in the Louvre. By this time the heat of the day and hunger had gotten to me. I looked at an appreciated it all, but by the time I left I was dying to eat and drink, to recharge and find some rest.

I probably walked the streets for a while that night. And slept a while too, because thats what you do.

My final day there I went to the Pompidou Centre, the home of modern art. After all the classics it was a breath of fresh air. Inspiring, amazing, crazy. Its the element of crazy that sets it apart. The building itself is like nothing else, in Paris or anyone else, covered it huge multicoloured pipes, as much modern art as the works inside it, the controversy it must have stirred when it opened. Paris has preserved the old world feeling so well, this is the exception. I talked to a few people about it since and everyone either loves or hates it. Call me crazy, but I love it. The exhibitions inside help that feeling, because its all good.

I seem to recall going up the Notre Dame that day too. It was blinding hot and my cameras battery died on me, but Ive been up on that roof and climbed with the gargoyles.

So then it was to the bus station and on to the next stop, the motherland, the once great protector. Old Blighty was calling.

You know what?

Friday, September 22. 2006
Easy come, easy go. No sign of a real update for a while, so let's chill. But the next load is gonna be a big one. Being up to date is soooo last year.

In other news, the universe corrected itself and the usual nature of things have reasserted themselves. Turns out it was just a glitch. Nobody got their hopes up, I am sure.

This surely can't be the way it is meant to be, so further research is required.

My friends don't write to me anymore either. What the hell is everyone doing? I have nothing but time to think about all of this; sometimes I think you might not care anymore.

The universe has corrected itself. I'm tired, lonely and alone -- just like I said, the way things seem to default to in the long run.

So goddamn write to me.

Out of time

Friday, September 15. 2006
Out of synch, here is today. It had to be posted.

Today was crazy.

Maybe insane is a better word. I dont know. Just listen and see for yourself.

I had planned, the whole time, to visit Osweicem better know by the name the Germans gave it, Auschwitz and make the last stop on my WWII atrocities tour section. Id been to Hiroshima a year ago with my sister and on this trip Id made stops in Nagasaki and Nanjing, which round out the top four (but lets not get bogged down debating this list, so to oversimplify: lots of shit happened and ranking it would be nothing short of insensitive and retarded) and I am not too sure what else to put in there. Maybe Dresden? Southern Okinawa deserves to be there and not just because I went there; but it all pales next to what I saw today. Since stumbling upon war history as a teenager, the realities and text of the war have been largely two separate things. Its only in the last couple of years that they have become more concrete. So its almost fitting that the first chapter to shock me and become and obsession was the last one I made it to.

But step back, to the moment I dragged myself out of bed. The hostel here does laundry for free, so Id thrown all my intolerably dirty socks and not so unbearable t-shirts in to be cleaned. This left me shirtless and sockless as I got out of bed, so I threw on my Socceroos shirt and went barefoot downstairs.

There were cops everywhere. I grinned stupidly in my just-woke-up daze. You have to walk out onto the street and around to the front door to get in, so I went out and noticed the door had been all fucked up by something. Inside reception there were some very grey faces and a couple of grim ones. I asked the receptionist why all the cops were there. She said she didnt know, so I left it. As I made tea I heard the people sitting at the tables talking. Someone from their dorm had been killed in the night. Exactly who and what and why, I havent put together. Not that its my business. Past the fact that someone had been murdered in my hostel. I could barely imagine what the others who had been asleep in there had gone through. I still dont know if it happened in the room, or outside, or if it was another guest. But it happened.

As I went back to my room to change and get ready to go, I saw the body lying on the grass. Just lying there. Inert, lifeless, twisted unnaturally. Visibly damaged. The police looking grim and just angry enough that I hurried on. The scene will be a snapshot in my head till the day I die. They could have covered it, or shut the door. It would have been visible from the windows all on the side of the building, if I had looked out. I didnt.

Whatever the reason or cause, someone had been killed right there and I had, as it were, stepped on it. Stepped in it. Shit, no wonder the receptionist didnt say anything.

I dont think of stuff like, it might have been me. I am infinite and indestructible, but Im also uninsured and while I think my lack of spark with the ladies gives me cosmic balance protection in other places (like defence from violent crime) you cant think too long or hard because then everything seems dark, scary and unpalatable. Life is too short and end when it may, it wasnt last night.

So with that image in my head I set out, down to the bus station for the hour and a half ride. I slept part of the way, listened to my earphones the rest. The town itself is entirely unremarkable. A train station, shops, houses this could be anywhere in eastern Europe. Except for all the day trippers, very few of whom look terribly happy. Everyone knows what it is, what happened there. The horror of the place is real and infamous. They dont advertise the museum nor do they charge money to see it.

I waited for the tour to start. It begins at Auschwitz I, the smaller part. You dont need to take a tour but I wanted as much detail as I could get. There are posters, books for sale. Nothing over the top, you understand. Just information. There was a movie, all the famous footage taken by the Red Army as they came across the camp and liberated the 8000 survivors that had been left behind by the Nazis as they took the rest of the prisoners on the final march. It is entirely shocking, narrated in a 1950s feel, all dissent, high moral ground and rhetorical questions. Shocking, totally.

Then onto the camp. Under those gates, into the barracks. These ones are brick and the streets are lined with Poplar trees. Make no mistake, the feel of evil is in the air. People are restrained, almost no-one talks except for the guide. The sky was clear and blue, almost mockingly so, all the colours vibrant in the warm day. The photos we all know are black and white, grey and grainy, full of emaciated people. The camp was liberated in January, the heart of winter, so this is no surprise. September is a wonderful time of year in Poland. The tour shows all the famous corners, the utter heartlessness of the exercise. The point was to kill, murder it was a factory, a factory of death. Harsh and unknowable realties were played out in those buildings. You can hear the tales and see the piles of shoes, glasses, clothes and even the hair that was cut off the dead but in no realm of our safe, padded existence can we ever really, truly know that it would have been like. And thanks to whatever power might be out there that we dont have to find out.

I wont go into detail about everything there. You really should go for yourself. Everyone should. If we forget these things, we are doomed to repeat them.

After Auschwitz, there is a bus that runs you over to Auschwitz II Birkenau. This is where most of the killing was done, efficiently and cruelly. The sheer size of the place is totally overwhelming. As far as you can see. In every direction. Stand in the middle, where the trains arrived, and look around and the camp is all you can see. The guide told us all about the living conditions and sanitation. I would describe it as living hell but I dont know what thats like. It sounds like something I wouldnt ever want to find out about.

The monument at the end of it all is simple and dignified. The platforms are made up of one and a half million blocks, one for every person murdered there. After that I walked around where the crematoriums were. I was basically alone. Just me, the trees and the ruins of the buildings. One was blown up in an armed uprising, the rest by the retreating Nazis. The ruins are still shocking. I get the feeling that very few visitors make it all the way out there. I was alone by the time I made it to the corner of the camp. It was completely silent. No insects, no birds. Just the sound of a few acorns dropping from the trees. Otherwise completely still, but in no way tranquil. There is a restless feeling and a sense of evil. This is not a place I would ever like to go at night. Or, for that matter, ever again. The sky was cloudless and the sun hours from setting, but it was dark. Dark in my mind, dark in the memory of the lost souls. Senselessly wasted and never coming home.

I walked the long way back to the bus. A flock of small birds were flying overhead. As if they were coming back. Maybe hope might bloom again. All the years on and we are not forgetting in a hurry. This is all we can do now, for the slain of Osweicem.

I went back to Krakow with too much to think about.

Letting Go 03: Latvia part 2

Wednesday, September 13. 2006
The Bar was semi-hopping. There was cake. Everyones favourite hostel bar worker was having her name day, so there was cake and people willing to eat it. Thats how I met Sven. Despite the Viking name, Sven was German. We are cake and drank the first of many beers, and we were merry. And since it was Helenas name day, she was in the mood to drink and take it to the next level. What comes before plan bee? Part-ay!

Sorry for that. Flaming shots of Absinthe will make a man think of silly shit to say.

You get some apple juice, Absinthe in a glass. You light the green stuff and pour it, pouring, into the juice. Then you put the empty glass upside down on a napkin with a straw poking out. This traps the fumes, you see. Drink the shot, then suck on the straw till you feel all funny.

Repeat five times before you leave the bar.

And on into the night, entourage in tow, about three people. Orange Bar was the only place I could think to go after that, so to Orange Bar we went and more drinks were had. There was dancing, drunk Russians, dancing with drunk Russians. Tables, dancing on tables, drunk Russians dancing on tables. I think I managed to not dance on a table. I met some people too. Would you believe drunk Finns? You can set your watch by this fact, lads. Two guys, one from Finland, the other Denmark, riding bikes from Helsinki to Copenhagen. And I realised that Id seen them before. In Tallinn and in Parnu. And now here. What are the odds?

Then something really incredible happened.

I met the girl from the bus. Outside I saw her and I recognised the back of her head. Id know it anywhere. She looked at me and remembered, so I asked her, dont I know you from somewhere? It was corny from the start. This was the point where coincidence and fancifulness become full-blown reality, plan changing in their powers, where no mortal man has the strength to stand up to their terror and say, No! Because we are mere men and women, boys and girls; it just cant be so that we can get in the way of something so much bigger than us.

I had things figured out, you know. Before that. There were big things I needed to do, important stuff I wanted to try and do. But it all goes out the window and life became that shining amalgam of minutes, each one passing by fully appreciated, sparkling like an individual droplet of water thrown into the air as if by some playful child or wilfully careless God. Each to be known, appreciated, felt, even if we didnt choose to, life becomes that way and at the centre, I believe that we were all lucky to have a piece of it. No matter the time of day of our state of mind, everything that came to pass was a true and full, life with every drop squeezed from it, then we bathed.

It is easy to realise that mere partying and drinking, while fun, is not particularly remarkable. But sometimes the circumstance and the people make it special, sometimes the combination of people and place hit that rare chord in the symphony of life. That happened there in Orange Bar, me and Sven, plus the wonder boys Christian and Tarmo, complete with bicycles, then the Finnish girls. There was Anna, who was working at a church in Liepaja. Then theres Mary-Jane. The girl from the bus.

Careful what to write here, since current events lead me to write passionately, whereas I know that the future could swing either way; so let it be said and this past be made mine, to use as I see fit Write it all, write it accurately, write it as it happened.

That night was talked all the usual bar talk, outside, inside, in our group, switching conversations. There was English flying around, Finnish, some drunken spilling over into Danish and German. Russian was in the edges of hearing. More drinking was done, everyone either held their poise or kept their selves from falling over all the way. It was a delicate balancing act. I unavoidably fell into conversation with Mary-Jane. She was quite unlike any girl I had met before, her poise and attitude was far from the recent modern standing, she would have fit in much better with the crowd at the Factory, back in the day, or maybe as a Bowie groupie, in a different life she was one of Miller or Dylans lovers. Riga could barely contain her, it was a town for two nights, but the scope of a New York or Tokyo would be required to fulfil her need for the elusive fabulous. Her poise was positive, her stance was looking for fun, searching for cool. And so pretty, I cant begin to tell you. Her hair was cut in such a way, like a hopelessly trendy outgrown Joey Ramone, covering one eye, with blonde streaks all around. Her eyes were the colour of everything and nothing, we dont have a word for that colour yet. Her lips moved as her brain did, she seemed oblivious as they curled or stuck out in response to the way she thought as she spoke. I was spellbound. Gone, youd say. What she saw in me, the rough and quite drunk smelly tramp Ill never know, but that night she did see something.

We all stayed in the bar till morning, except Sven had to leave early so with a call of see you in Berlin! he was off, followed by Christian who was dead tired after riding all day from Tallinn. Tarmo seemed keen on Anna, so I paired off with Mary-Jane and the four of us went back to their hostel (not my hostel it must be noted I was supposed to be back at Alises place, but the walk was too far, so they invited me) and they told me that there was no-one keeping an eye on who was coming and going, I could sleep in an empty bed. Cool, thats easy, I thought. But as we crept inside, Mary-Jane asked me to sleep in her bed with her. Not being one to offend by refusing an invitation, I climbed in; this is what I mean when I say connection, there was an understanding, some kind of spark. But nothing untoward happened, you would call it first base, for she wasnt just some easy girl and I was still rather unknown.

But all the remainder of the night and onto the morning and afternoon, she was mine to have and hold. And it felt good to be there.

The afternoon rolled up and it was time for me to leave. I had left my bag at the Old Town hostel and needed to go get it, I should show up at home and see how everyone was doing, I should do a lot of things. I thought they were all leaving that day anyway. Leaving me with one night of fun and another missed chance, but thats how things go for me these days, who knows when things might just come my way. So I said I was going, maybe well see each other again. She kissed me goodbye and we walked outside. I felt pain for a few seconds as reality came to replace the night and I didnt feel tired, despite the lack of sleep.

But no-one went anywhere except a caf, we had food and something to drink. They were leaving tomorrow, so today I was there to hang out with them. So much for going home, so much for my bag, so much for a shower Where was this going to lead? The first fact of the day was the wonder boys, their bikes were stolen the night before. Theyd left them in a vacant lot across from the hostel and they had disappeared despite the four locks they had used. What a downer. So Christian was off at the police station all day, talking to this guy, talking to that guy, waiting for an interpreter, all the while any chance of finding anything was growing colder by the minute. It was, by all reports, a frustrating day.

We, on the other hand, took to the streets. The four of us walked around Riga and I pointed out a few of the notable things and places. I took them to the trampolines and the excursive section of the hangover cure was taken care of, I took them to a place for lunch and then relinquished control of the operation. I was a guide but not a total one. The whole day was good, the weather was on our side. Warm but not too warm, the pace of Riga is set at hangover so nothing moves too fast, nothing is intolerably loud.

The evening rolled around. All day Id been close to Mary-Jane, talking and whatnot. It felt right and natural. We had some food at the hostel, Christian appeared and looked none too happy. It was a big stain on proceedings, let no-one deny. Still, it was Saturday night and life goes on. It went on, after some drinking at the hostel it moved on to the Old Town bar and kept going to a place called the Cuba Caf, one of the better places to drink and be merry in town. Walking from one to the other, while she had her arms around me, Mary-Jane told me she had a boyfriend, which was something of a shock. Why all this then? But dont be sad, she said to me, and kissed me again. What was going on? What was I to think All the time at the Cuba Caf I didnt feel like dancing, even though it was going pretty well, so I hid my disappointment and smiled as they all had fun.

Strange turn of events, I had to admit this was painful, but amongst it all I had to think, if shes doing this with me then things cant be all right Not with her and this guy, quite clearly something was wrong. Im not the cause of it either I am just a catalyst, along for the ride, setting off a reaction that was bound to happen. So I slept in her bed again that night, despite all the obvious misgivings. It was the same as the night before. What the hell was going on here.

Sunday, and I still had not gone home. Their plan was to get the train to Liepaja and I was invited. Liepaja was on the Baltic coast, it is known for thriving rock scene and white sand beach. Planned was a few days of fun and swimming, staying at a suitably trendy hotel. The catch was that on Monday two more guys would be coming, and one was the boyfriend. That was something I was not looking forward to seeing, Mary-Jane and this guy. I could deal with saying goodbye there and then, that afternoon, and never showing up in Liepaja. I was never going to join them that day, if I was going anywhere it would have to be on Monday morning. My things were still at Alises and I still hadnt been back there So I planned in my head two things. One was to say goodbye and not show up in Liepaja, just let it go, take my memories and go; the second was to get there early and talk to her, tell her how I felt and that she needed to work thing out with herself because clearly something was wrong. I would tell her how I felt and that no matter what, all I wanted was for her to be happy. No matter what had gone on or what might happen, if I feel this way all I can want is for you to be happy. Then Id be gone, off into the sunset, just like in Hollywood. Except that Id have to still be with me and I wouldnt really have a destination, just a heart full of hurt again.

So what to do. I bought the bus ticket, had a shower, got my things. Told the family what I was doing and said thank you fro having me. It had been wonderful of them to have me like that, putting up with my bulky way and lack of Latvian language skills, and the last few days my lack of communication and all the rest of it. In the morning I had some food and made it onto the eight am bus. I slept the whole way there.

So what to do I hadnt made a conscious decision but there I was, in Liepaja, without any real conclusions. I asked about the onward bus to Klaipeda and found I had about three hours to do my thing, get back to the station and leave if I was going to do that today, that way. Just enough time Only I didnt know where anyone was. Liepaja was a big city, I thought, so they could be anywhere. I had phone numbers and one lead, that Anna was working at the Trinity Church. The station had nowhere for me to leave my bags, so I carried them into town and went to the tourist information centre to ask about the church. I couldnt get through to their mobile phones. I asked about the church and said my friend was working there. The girl then asked if I was from Finland I said no, why would you ask that? It turns out that she knew Anna, it wasnt such a big town after all. She then told me that I would find Anna in the church and she knew about Mary-Jane and the others and where they were staying! And I could leave my bag there as long as I came back before seven when they closed. Not bad at all, these small towns.

So to the church where I found Anna, who called for me. They were at a caf near the hotel, not far away at all. So over I went.

And when I saw her sitting there, I knew I couldnt leave.

I sat down and heard what I had missed, the fun from the night before. Maybe I should have just gone with them. Oh well, I was there and as much as I wanted to leave, every time I saw her I just couldnt bring myself to do it, to tell her my piece and walk away. Just couldnt do it. So I earned the fate of having to stick around and see what would happen when the boyfriend showed up. Her last words to me in Riga were, things will be different in Liepaja. She was right, in a way, and I for one was determined to be the better man and prove her right. There would be no more touches, hugging, holding; no more playful flirting or kissing. Nothing, she wasnt mine anymore, she had to become just a friend. If this was going to work for me, things had to be different.

I tried, I really did. She kept on the way she was, she seems to play the game without the self-checking mechanism that I do, and just act on her impulses more. So her impulses were to lean on me, be cute and rub up like a cat, I had to rebuff it but I cant say I didnt like it. It was hard and I didnt say why I didnt play along I figured she knew. Either way, time passed and the bus I should have been on came and went down the highway. I was going to have to stay in Liepaja at least a night.

We had wandered around the town, had food and everything and were onto drinking at the hotel by the time the boys came in. Two weedy looking Finnish boys, they looked about seventeen and had long hair. Not long enough to quality as truly hippie but more the overgrown straggle of the late teenage years, when such as thing is rebellious and cool, before the wearer discovers hair gel or an equivalent and says goodbye to knotted hair and hello to easy. Boys just dont have the patience and skill required to treat long hair with the respect it deserves. Anyway, my prejudice against these two should be clear enough. Despite the situation, where I was being nice to people and had accepted the fact that she was not in fact mine, I was not yet big enough to try and like these two. In many ways my information made me the enemy. I had access to knowledge of events that would surely be kept secret by everyone else involved, so I alone had the keys to the World Destroyer weapon. I could crush his world like only tales of infidelity can ruin a man. This made me stand-offish enough to be just short of rude when I spoke to them.

Then there was the question of how on Earth did this guy manage to keep a girl like that? Either I missed something or Id seen a part of her and missed the rest. It was all a little confusing, but I was beginning to see why. I was right, I had just been a catalyst to an event that was bound to happen. From the start I like to imagine that I could feel her icy front toward him. Something had changed and it was clear, I was in a good place for having stayed.

It played out that night, as we ate and drank, went to a bar, and the next day at the beach. While I got off my face and talked drunken bullshit with Christian and argued with various people over this and that, Mary-Jane was having a talk with the boy alone. While I was swimming happily in the Baltic Sea, catching waves and chasing Frisbees, she was walking with him around the place, coming and going, not talking to me but speaking in Finnish. There was drama in the air and I caught wind of it all, despite the nuances being lost on me via the language barrier.

The night before as I had lay on the couch in the hotel, my place of slumber for that night, sleep had barely come over me when she walked out of her room. She looked sad and upset. She told me things were not good, she wasnt happy and didnt know what to do. She went to the bathroom and got some water and was on her way back to bed when I called her over. I knew that I had decided to keep it clean, but this was not the time to abandon her. She came and we lay on the couch together in the kind of way that would have given us both away had he seen us. But he stayed in bed and she lay on me, looking upset as I talked to her, told her all the things she had to hear but already knew. We can do anything, all we want, you know your desires if you listen close enough and I know you can do it She lay there and listened, just listened to me talk and she said she felt better. We stayed there a while. I thought we had already had our last kiss, but it wasnt to be, because she kissed me there and then, despite her boyfriend sleeping in the room next door, despite things being different. I guess what I felt and what she felt met up, I guess that some things cant be stopped.

She went back to bed and I finally got some rest.

It was the next day at the beach I heard that she broke up with him and sent him home early. Tuesday was a day of drama and broken hearts. Tuesday is not my story to tell. I spent most of it away from the drama, talking all sorts of crap and good things with Christian as the Finnish crowd sorted their dramas out and the scene played itself in front of my eyes part by part. I never saw the whole thing but I filled in the gaps.

At the end of the day the two guys had left and it was down to the original five of us. We bought a whole load of vegetables and cooked up a feast. And that night Mary-Jane and I slept in the double bed. How good it was, for me, how strange that things had turned out like this! What wonders worked in my favour that I could hold this beautiful girl all night like this and not have to worry about the morning, because I knew the way things had gone before meant that anything was possible. I knew nothing of the path ahead and had no way to decipher it, so it becomes void nothing so there is nothing to worry about. I held her like I promised myself I never would again and slept like it was the end.

The next day there were pieces to pick up. Mary-Jane wanted to leave Liepaja as soon as possible, Anna had to go to work and the wonder boys had to keep going, new bicycles purchased and ready to roll. The only question was, now where? And who was going with whom? Im fucked up, she said, understandably, confused and lost. Should she go back to Riga, then home? I asked her to come with me. I had made up my mind to go to Klaipeda in Lithuania and would be taking the afternoon bus, and she said OK. It came to pass then that Anna left first, then after breakfast the boys took off toward the horizon. Mary-Jane and I went to the nearby caf and restaurant place near the dock and had some food and beer. Like the hotel room had been when there was five people in there, she said her head was like that. The floor was messy but the walls were clean. Talking down by the water I didnt remember what time the bus came through, only that it was around three oclock. Time passed and when it came time to go, we stayed.

Incessant rain

Sunday, September 10. 2006
It's rained the entire weekend. Not just drizzle but torrential, flood-making, ark-building rain. It prevented me from moving in to the new place, and today we made an unhappy discovery - two of the external walls leak. I suspected that the rood mgiht leak and was happy when I was apparently wrong, but no, Taiwanese buildings are shoddy.

On the up side I have finally played my drumkit this weekend, several weeks after purchase. It's all right. Expect photos of both it and the new place soon.

We got the ADSL hooked up yesterday, and then Dinna's computer decided to die. Not sure what the problem is but it's another hassle. Great. I'm pretty leery about taking all my stuff there - I don't need anymore damage due to liquids, thanks.

Oh, and Peter Brock died. I'll leave it to KC to write this one up.

The Tallest Poppy

Wednesday, September 6. 2006
The first time I saw him I had no idea who he was. But there he was, on the TV holding a brown snake by the tail and waving it in front of the camera. The single most venomous snake on the planet and he was shaking it like it was a toy.

So I knew he was batshit fucking loco the first time I saw him. Bless him, he saw in creatures great and small what few could and his passion, his sheer will to be happy, brought this joy to the rest of the world.

Derided for being too Aussie or embarrassing, he was not quite a hero for his commercial enterprises but what put him above and beyond the average entertainer was what he did with his success. Devoting so much to conservation, he surprised and won me with that.

While it wasnt the brown snake that did him, or his loved crocodiles, I have to think that its somehow fitting that he went the way he did. Sad as it all might be, I like to think he might have wanted to go like that, over any other way.

He will be missed, just as he was loved by more than he could have know.

All creatures great and small, there is one less champion for you now.

RIP Steve Irwin

Letting Go 02: Estonia

Wednesday, September 6. 2006
Up the coast, along the water for a short way, frequent road blocks and a decent stop at the border. It took about five hours, giving time for waiting at the road works, and I got a new stamp in my passport. I was also in Tallinn. And I was lost already. The map must be broken, because if the bus station is where the map claims then nothing else is right and if I am where I think I am then the bus station is definitely not where it is supposed to be in the LP and I have a long walk to the hostel. Well crap, what to do? I got to find a bank and change some cash too. I walked in what I decided was the right way to go and sure enough I came upon a bank. I broke out the 100 Euro note I still had from France and said, all this in whatever you use here please. They have Krones, or Krooni, or something, and the rate is something decently odd like 10 equals fifty Euro cents (I dont bloody remember) so I spent the whole time in Estonia wondering just what things were worth, knowing that it was pretty cheap, and hoping what I had would survive. It was all good in the end, but only just. As you will see.

The lady at the bank pointed me in the right direction and this proved that LP were slightly retarded. They will be getting a gently worded e-mail from me. Anyway. Tallinn too has a preserved Old Town, complete with city walls. The city was once very solidly defended and these days the walls are part of the larger picture, one of a medieval city, the guardians of which now sit at desks and watch the heritage of the town is protected. Indeed, the Soviet era suburbs of concrete and grey surround the place but the middle is as wonderful as Riga, not as big, but possibly better, just because I am a total sucker for city walls.

Hiking in to where I figured the hostel would be I passed the tourist information centre and noticed a tent on the green across the road from it, how odd. The streets of Tallinn are almost ridiculously hard to navigate at first, nothing goes in a straight line, everything curves into seemingly everything else, and the cobblestones all look the same. The architecture that makes Riga so magic is absent mostly, but the overall medieval feel more than makes up for it. I located my sleeping place and it was really cool. Not to small, not too big, it was essentially a converted house. The beds were all in the living room, the kitchen was the kitchen, and so on. The only downer is that there are only two toilets. The staff were also very cool people.

I dropped my stuff and went out for a look. I started by going back to the mysterious tent. It turns out that they run an alternative tourist information centre right next to the official one. I find this totally acceptable and infinitely cool, I cant begin to tell you. The kids who work there are helpful and fun to hang out with, so I stayed around talking and asking questions, they were more than happy to answer and put up with my presence. They run tours and while I generally despise organised anything, they deserved it, I thought, and plus, it was a bike tour. Sold. So I put my name down and took a walk about the place.

Again, lots of churches and old buildings doing things they didnt used to do. Recycling, essentially, and I like it a lot. Theres not a lot of high land in Baltia, not many hills and no mountains to speak of. There are some slight rises in Tallinn and now they provide a rocking good view of the city and all proceedings below. In so many ways it is a beautiful city to be in, the old and the new, the old and the older all blending in and making a small city heart. The sun was setting and the whole thing glowed. The sea behind is shined. Ive come to think that impressions like these shape your opinions of a city and dictate just how much fun you might have there. I havent been wrong yet.

Back at the hostel it turned into drinking with the other guests and staff. The limits were withdrawn, it seemed, and Tallinn turns it on in some way every night of the week. Buying drinks at the shop around the corner was cheap to the point of a joke, at the bar still cheaper yet than even Riga. London and three pounds for a pint can go suck my dick after that, suck it long, and suck it hard.

Things culminated in a bar that had karaoke. You know its a good night when

And then the hangover, but nothing superhuman. I went and found some food, an action followed by going to the Info Tent for the bike tour. The tour was fun, I hadnt been on a bike since Amakusa. True to their word, it went to not only the notable places but a lot of out-of-the-way spots and truly interesting little corners. Theres the old KGB building (no longer open to the public after ex-inmates kept coming in to trash the place) and the last un-re-developed old building in town (a real medieval dungeon!); the ugliest building in town, built in a hurry to accommodate the yacht events during the Moscow Olympics and scene of where the guide once got into a fight with some Drunken Russians; the old town jail that was compared in comfort to the hostels in town (hahaha) and the only submarine in Estonia. Then theres the park that used to be a mass grave, some old Stalinist workers houses and a long ride back to the tent via the market near the train station. I just gave away all their secrets, oh no.

Then it was time for lunch and further explorations on my own. The Estonian occupation museum is as horrific but not as in-depth or detailed as the one in Riga, purely because the Estonians had the easiest time of it back then not because of any reason other than they gave in easily. Having seen the brutality applied to their cousins in the south, Estonia was less willing to fight a long battle in the forests and put up with the payback that would come. The level of pain inflicted by occupiers was the same as the fight put up by the locals. But this is not to say that Estonia had an easy time, no, there is plenty of evidence that things were very, very grim indeed.

Back at the hostel I found all the guys who worked there gathered in some kind of celebration, so I joined in. It was a very fun night not at all bad for a Tuesday and it culminated in a cellar bar, followed by a late night hamburger. Good times, good times.

I awoke and went back to the bus station to buy a ticket. Next stop was going to be Sareema Island. I chose the three forty bus so I had time to go back and take one last look around. I went to the biggest of the churches and climbed up for the view. It was spectacular. The hundreds of steps up the tower werent much fun, but thats part of the adventure. I had a chat to the girls at the tent, grabbed my bag and jumped on the bus.

Outside of Tallinn, the landscape is all the same. Flat, flat as anything, trees, forests, farms. All the way to the south, where we paused and took a brief ferry ride over to the island. Onto the town of Kuressaare, which is as much fun to write as it is to say, and into the hostel. Its not much of a town, and what they do have is totally tourist oriented. Plenty of overpriced B&B places, a few expensive looking restaurants. I asked at a shop where to go and I found it no problem. Its on the school grounds and is totally Soviet in look and feel. Brilliant. All function, no artistic merit, it feels cold and is cold. I was all alone both nights in a five-person dorm. So I had a little sojourn in the country, I did, that could have been more streamlined and cheaper had I planned a little. But we will see that I didnt, and thank the heavens for that.

My plan was to stay there two nights, affording me one full day of doing whatever, then go down to the bottom of the island to get the ferry down to Ventspils in Latvia. I was out of luck, because it runs five days a week and Friday is not one of those days. So I was condemned to get the bus back to the mainland and re-trace my steps back to Riga. It turns out that there is not so much to do there if you are of limited means and have no car I would have been just as well off staying one night and taking the ferry the next afternoon, since it leaves about six pm. But I didnt know the times until the first morning there and it was only a small thing. I bought a bus ticket to Parnu, after which I could get on a passing vehicle to Riga, then rented a bike. I rode all the way to the islands famous meteorite crater and back. The countryside is ever present and never changing. The weather was fine and conditions for riding great. While the crater itself was something less than amazing, it was all part of the experience. Such wide skies and open green pastures, I hadnt seen in years, nothing like that in years.

Back in town I went next to see the beach and castle. The beach was not much, but once again the Baltic came to see me, and the castle was superb. The design is not your grand dark stone edifice, but like something out of a fairy-tale, such is the shape of the roof and walls. Truly special. Inside is the local history museum. I went inside, mostly for the prospect of the view from the roof, and was blown away by the whole thing. The rooms and corridors are as ever, the history fascinating and the exhibition inside about the local experience during occupation was the whole sad story from a different angle yet again. Kuressaare is essentially a rural place and so more than forced deportations and Sovietisation of the city, it was collectivisation and farming techniques that were forced and coerced onto the local population. It exposes the means and the failures and the reasons behind the crumbling of the entire system. Propaganda videos from the time and endless photographs tell the story you cant see elsewhere. The ideas were sound enough but the practices they had no choice but to adopt for their farming resulted in nothing short of disaster.

So I had some food and went to bed. It was going to be an early morning, since I had to be on the seven am bus out of there.

And make it I did. The return trip to the mainland was the same as the one there and less eventful. If thats possible. Arriving in Parnu, I had to get off because the bus wasnt going to Riga. I found the ticket office and managed to get a seat on a bus passing through at five thirty. This gave me about half a day to look around the town. It was another beach resort, so I walked down to the water and waded out. I walked down the end of the beach, noting a large number of naked old ladies. At the end of the swimming beach is the breakwater that goes all the way out into the water, about two kilometres. I walked all the way out just for the view. It was worth it. Then I walked back, back along the beach to where I started. The beach is just as it is at Jurmala, all soft silky white sands and calm water. Flat as ever, even here on the exposed coast. Only now there were even more naked old ladies, and a couple of not so old ones. Just as naked, though. I felt like I might be in the wrong place somehow. I looked around. There werent any guys about. And just as a few came along I saw the sign that Id missed because I was walking in the water. It was a ladies only beach along there. Oops. Sorry about that. I cant say Im too proud of that mistake. Well, Im a little proud.

I went back towards town. Parnu is a lot of long, lazy streets lined with leafy trees. The sunlight filters down and it all looks golden and green, a nice warm summers day. Lots of parks around add to the laid-back atmosphere. I sat and read in one of them. This is Estonias premiere beach resort and it is indeed nice. I bet you could even find a few drunken Finns about.

I needed to eat before I left. So after a look in the modern art gallery, I wandered main street and saw a likely place. I had thirty-five krooni left. I asked if this would buy me anything. It did, the daily special was exactly that much. Score.

And just in time to get on the bus. It pulled in and a bunch of people got off for a break. One girl stood out as not at all bad looking. But other people on the bus, what was I to do. I found my seat, it happened to be behind pretty girl. I was destined to look at the back of her head until Riga came around. I considered briefly sitting next to her, but as I dithered someone took that seat. Ah well. I slept most of the way anyway.

So it was back to Riga. I got off the bus and made a beeline for the Old Town hostel. I wasnt staying there but it was Friday night and I was determined to make a scene of it. The plan was to hit the bar there and make friends with some other travellers, form a posse and find some action. I called Alise on the way and told her I was back, so expect me home at some point. It was all cool with her, and so I found myself in the mood to party.

What happens next? To think now, it makes everything else look like nothing much.

Letting Go 01: Latvia

Tuesday, September 5. 2006
The plane touched down after a good ten minutes of turbulence on landing. The guy across from me had actually been praying. I was just trying to get back to sleep. Sleep was already impossible in the plastic-fantastic no frill Ryanair aircraft, so I gave up and accepted that I would be buffeted and half conscious on arrival. How accurate my prediction was.

Riga International is a the smallest airport I have ever seen. Developed to house the cheap airlines that ring Europe and smooth the EU-entry conditions over, RIX is functional and friendly. I must admit that upon landing I had no idea what the time or currency was two things that were straightened out quickly. Lats are the accepted coin of the realm and one Lats is almost one Pound. Except one Pound wont buy jack shit and one Lats can get you half-drunk. It takes two for a guaranteed hangover. Life is good in Latvia for the visitor, especially in the summer.

And not just because of cheap pricing and easy access to the country. Riga might be the prettiest city I have yet seen and without a doubt the girls are the best looking of any city in the world. I make this call without hesitation. But the city itself at least, the preserved Old Town, is magnificent. The cobbled streets, the Art Nouveau architecture everywhere, the tasteful displays you see everywhere, the open courtyards. All bathed in the long summer days. Ringed on one side by the old canal and the greenest park you ever saw, the other by the mighty Dagava River and the three huge bridges that cross her. The four church spires ring out above the skyline and the streets are filled with people and lined by cafes. Everyone is happy and glowing, you feel at ease and at peace and you can walk for days.

Out of the Old Town is the capitalist spread of buildings that makes up the New Town and after that are the Soviet-era suburban building block apartments. After that? Pine forests all the way to Vilnius and Tallinn. But not to forget the silky beaches that run all along the coast of the Baltic Sea. Run, dont walk. Im keeping it all a secret Its too good to let all the fuckers who ruin the best parts of Western Europe get to it yet.

From the airport to the city was disgustingly easy. No ten-pound busses here. Twenty cents was all and there I was, a short walk from the hostel I found. The Old Town hostel is a cool place, with a bar in the bottom and simple, clean dorms. I only stated one night, but it was a fun night and got me set up with contacts in Riga. After that I called Alise, who I met in Amsterdam, and she invited me to stay with her family. This is how I stayed a week there in Riga, taking my time, seeing it all. Day trips to the beach, not missing a thing, taking it all in.

That first day, as I went to the bank to change more money, I met KB. KB was Korean and came with a ready-made screen name. He was only in Riga for the night and wanted to do what he could. We ended up, of course, getting some food and them going drinking. The local beer is cheap and good stuff and we can both attest to that. The restaurant we found serves everything with garlic. Even ice-cream. But we didnt try that. You have to save something for the return visit. So after the food and drinking, there was more drinking at the hostel bar followed by a trip to get more food, then a return to the bar where we drank some more and then went for a little more food. It was a good night. Nothing complicated, nothing difficult, just relaxing, talking shit, walking the streets, feeling dreamy, feeling like a cobblestone.

Before all that I spent some time walking around the streets, seeing the buildings and architecture, checking out the landmarks. The most notable is the Freedom Monument, which stands tall and proud right at the start of the Old Town. Miraculously it survived the Soviet days (given that it represents and celebrates Latvian independence) and remains as ever. On top of the square decorated with heroes and battles is a tall pillar topped with the statue of a lady, known by the locals as Milda. She holds three stars aloft, for the historical three parts of Latvia. She is guarded by two guards and always has a generous collection of flowers at her base. A local custom is to leave flowers near monuments on certain days or times, this happens all throughout Baltia, and Milda gets them on peoples wedding anniversaries. I suspect that a number of them also appear in the memory of the deported. During the Soviet days, laying flowers there alone could earn you a one-way ticket to Siberia. Why it was even allowed to stay is a mystery.

The canal park that borders Old Town on the Freedom Monument side is wonderful. Green and always full of people, the beautiful people of Latvia, there is happiness and life a-plenty in there and I walked end to end. Then I came around to the station and the huge clock above it and back into the cobbled streets. Glowing in the summer light, Riga was the most amazing city Id seen in a long time. It looked good and felt friendly, clean but not sterile, marble not plastic. It was a kind of love at first sight. Popular enough to be tourist friendly yet thankfully not overrun with them. Tourists dont enamour themselves to me too easily and while I hate to single out a single group, Riga has one unsavoury side that lends a light to show this one particular group but more on that later.

Id called Alise the day before and arranged to meet her at ten oclock. I woke up at closer to eleven. And even then I barely made it up and out. That local stuff really has a sting in it, I tell you. So it was off again to the payphone to call and apologise, then a re-adjusted meeting time. I ran into KB again and we agreed that the night before had been top quality. I cleaned my things up and went off to meet Alise.

She was there, just as I remembered and I apologised. It was all ok and we got on a bus to her house. She lived a ten-minute ride from the Old Town, I could walk it in about twenty minutes, in an apartment block. The neighbourhood was apparently an old one, from pre-war times, dating to around the first independence times. Lots of colourful old wooden house, all fading now, paint peeling away. Lots of leafy trees to filter the sunlight onto the walls. Picturesque implies that it lends itself to being painted or photographed and while it doesnt even show a true moment to capture, the atmosphere, ever intangible, is there, there all around. Alises family were lovely, although they didnt speak too much English (they can all speak Esperanto, however!) they were entirely accommodating. It was all too much really, to have a place like that to stay and go home to it felt like a home and my welcome was as long as I wanted. Alises sister and her boyfriends provided the most company to me, as they were students on holidays. This meant they had the time and will to talk and show me around some more. This was even better than I ever imagined. A few nights they took me around the town and pointed things out and they even took me to see a movie and trampolining. Yes, they were great days.

From the Sunday I arrived I stayed at the Old Town one night and at Alises until the following Sunday. I took a few day trips around Riga. The first place I went outside the city limits was to Salaspils. During WWII there had been a German concentration camp there and now there was a memorial there. It had been intended as a temporary camp, where prisoners would await transport to the bigger camps, but as the war went on it went from a place of forced labour to another killing camp. Jews from all around as well as anyone else unfortunate to earn the wrath of the Nazis ended up there. Some 30,000 people died there.

Pause here for a second. I say died, but nowhere will you find that word at Salaspils. Or any other war-related monument, museum or exhibit. Every time the word is murdered. 30,000 people were murdered there. Jews, workers, women, children. Murdered. At the time my thoughts were intense, crazy, face to face with the reality of these events for the first time. Read books, I had, seem movies Listened and learned, thought quietly about the horror without knowing it truly. I read the figures, same as you have, and reached the same conclusions, probably used the same words in your head. Monsters, killers, inhuman, unbelievable. How could it happen Then to go somewhere like this. Words failed me because there were none. In a clearing in the woods no bigger than a few soccer pitches there once stood, fifty years or so ago, a place where suffering beyond comprehension was inflicted on truly innocent souls, somehow perpetrated by other humans. There were no words to come out that day, just raging sounds and noises that crawled from my head. Hatred, fire, insanity. The insanity that infected that whole bloody mess infects everyone who faces it down. The winters in these parts hit minus thirty. Inside the huge black slab that houses the messages and pictures drawn by survivors are images of almost naked people working in water up to their waist. We all know what happened at these places. But the feeling there and the stark, simple reminders that sit there no words. Just insanity.

All you hear are the insects. No birds, no animals. Just the wind and the insects.

I took the train to Darzini station, which is just a platform in the woods. I met two Americans who were there to see it too, so we walked through the trees together. It was solemn and sombre enough. This was not the Eiffel Tower, we were preparing ourselves. We found the big black building and the clearing in the trees. A big slab on the ground holds a metronome, ticking loudly, endlessly. Marking time until the end comes and this place might know some peace. Until then, it ticks on and on. In the clearing stand six huge statues, erected by the Soviets in memory of the murdered. They are the Humiliated, the Mother, Solidarity. The style is socialist realism, all cubed jaws and angles, but the effect would be the same no matter what. Huge, intense, towering. The memory and spirit of the people is here. After that there are the foundations of the barracks, each marked with a single remaining tiny window. Silently we walked around in the heat of the day. No shade exists there. I had a bottle of water. I poured some on each window, some on each statue. The a-bomb memorials in Japan all feature water fountains to quench the eternal thirst of the victims, inspired by this thought I took the bottle of water I had bought for myself and gave it to the souls here. I walked to each and every foundation and shared a little with each one, a small moment of Zen as I poured the water.

Then I came last to the childrens barracks. This was the saddest of all. People had left flowers at all the rest but here there were toys. Toys for the children who had suffered as no grown man should. I had a Mars Bar in my bag, so I shared it with them. As I child I loved nothing more than chocolate and to share mine with these kids was really all I could do for them.

Then it was over. The haunting memorial stands strong and real, a memory that should never be allowed to die.

There would be no trains for a while, so the three of us walked to the town of Salaspils. It was maybe twenty minutes through the woods and we found the bus back to Riga. It was food for thought, manure for the soul, a harsh pile of shit that hopefully helps something positive to grow. That we never forget, that we never repeat.

Back in Riga we went to St. Peters church and went up to the top of the tower. The view was awesome. You can see the whole city from up there. After that it was time to go our own ways and we did. I went home to write, they went to their hotel.

It had been a heavy day. Such a beautiful place and people, such horrors. I slept well enough.

The next day was another day trip. Again to the train station. Riga station is a little weird. Finding the ticket office was a trial and the platforms even more elusive. Apparently the station had a facelift a while back and now its a Frankenstein-like mixture of shops and trains. It really was a small struggle to find the right place to go but both times I made it without just missing any trains. This time I was going a lot further. Salaspils was only twenty minutes but Sigulda was closer to two hours away. A long way but the ticket was cheap and it was still a good day trip. Sigulda is as close to having mountains as you get in Baltia, there is even a cable car, ski run and bobsled track out there. Otherwise it is the start of the biggest national park in Latvia, a pine forest covered set of hills that leads out into the wilderness. There are several castles and churches around and season depending, you can go for a run down the bobsled track (that would be in the winter) or bungee jump from the cable car. I was hoping to do the jump, but only after getting there did I realise Id messed up. Had I read the PL properly I would have noted that it said what the ticket office told me. Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I was there on a Thursday. Lucky me.

So I took the car across and looked at the spectacular view. Theres a cool looking castle that you can see from there, so I decided to go off and find it. It looked big and not too far away so it shouldnt be hard. Getting off the cable car, there were no clear signs or paths. I looked around and eventually decided on a direction. I ended up wandering through the seemingly seldom visited pathways, going over bridges and walkways that were wooden and broken. Other people were there too, so it wasnt like I was lost, but they were rare enough to make me think that maybe I was going to be soon. It was a bit of fun.

Eventually I found the way down. I hadnt expected to have to go down anywhere but thats ok, there didnt seem to be any other paths. There I found the famed sandstone caves. You can tell they are near because of all the signs pleading you not to graffiti there. Wet sandstone is very easily carved with any kind of pointy object and mere signs hadnt stopped anyone from making their mark. Its fucking disgusting. All that time they stood there and nothing happened and suddenly a bunch of drunk Russians decide they need to put their names all over it. Great.

I never found the castle, either. I must have walked for hours but no castle. I took the cable car back, looked around some more and after wandering down to the bobsled track (still looking hair-raising without ice on it) grabbed a train home. It was full of drunken Russians.

Maybe this is a good point to talk briefly about the drunken Russian issue. Im not calling all Russians drunk, but I will say it cannot be a coincidence that almost every male of Russian appearance was either drinking something or about to. Either they are very concerned about keeping hydrated or absolutely dedicated to their pickling. Of the three states in Baltia, Latvia ended up with the highest percentage of Russians. Perhaps Estonia was too rural in their minds, maybe Lithuania had earned a bad reputation, but I think the attractiveness of life in Riga (which seems to have always enjoyed a better reputation and style of life than most of the former USSR) and the high possibility of moving there is the reason. Today almost 50% of Latvia is ethnically Russian with that balance being played out in Riga. They have a corresponding influence on the overall picture of the country, compared to the 30% or so in Estonia and Lithuania. But why do they always seem loud, obnoxious and intoxicated? You cant go anywhere in Riga without hearing Russian I am told that Russian families dont even bother with the formality of learning Latvian and while I am no expert on the language, I can tell when someone has the drunk dialect going on. And it usually coincides with them either smelling like vodka, trying to fight me or just stumbling over something. Call me crazy, but I know what I saw.

Drunken Russians. I wonder if I should even think of them as Latvian? I wonder if they do? Not enough time has passed since all this was, essentially, Russian property. With the fifty-fifty balance going on in Latvia, with the right numbers in the right places, that almost equals a political majority for the foreign residents. A scary thought, given the history of the place. Apparently the local votes are spread enough to make it a real possibility at the next elections. There are even enough pro-USSR holdovers to hold a decent rally every year at the World War II memorial, which just happens to be in between the Old Town and Alises house. It is a strange monument, since it memorialises the years 41-45, which were not good years for the Latvians. It isnt about the soldiers who died in the war, since effectively Latvia did not win anything, it is about the Soviets taking back their land from the Germans. Both, of course, are invaders and occupiers in the eyes of the locals. So why is it still there, this reminder of both the German occupation and the second Soviet occupation? Why wasnt it taken away with the statues of Lenin? Because the Russians, pro-USSR or not, still take pride in what happened. And there are enough of them that there is enough cause to keep it. There is considerable, but not enough, pressure to remove it (one nationalistic young man tried to blow it up one year) and so it stays.

This thing is huge. There are five stars on pillars, reaching to the sky, almost as high as Milda. There are three heroic Red Army soldiers, brandishing weapons. There is a maiden, waiting their coming so that she may be free once more. It occupies a space bigger than the Salaspils memorial and has its own fair share of flowers. Remembering the war is the right thing to do, yes, but what parts and for what reason? The whole thing brings up some different angles and asked me, at least, to do some strange thinking. Points of view change, angles show new things. If I had said to a local that Latvia was simply East Russia (as John put it before I left) I might have been kicked in the head, but the evidence is there to suggest that it is in many ways still that way. Drunken Russians not withstanding.

The whole week was laid back, I could take my time and not feel pressured by paying for a hostel, so my sightseeing was less of the power variety and more of the take your time variety. This meant hours walking the cobbled streets, time at home typing and generally not getting too worked up about anything.

It was after a day of doing simply nothing that I went down the coast a little for my first experience in the Baltic Sea. Jurmala is a part of the country I quickly found most Latvians to be very proud of. Indeed it is considered the finest resort on the coast and has been for a long while. The proximity of the Crimea to Moscow possibly saved it from becoming the beach resort, but the fourteen kilometres of clean white sandy beach attracted more than enough attention over the years and the pulling power can partly explain the large numbers of retirees and ex-soldiers choosing to move to Riga during various occupations. I took the train down there and despite it not being very far it took a good 40 minutes. Theres a reason people take the bus most of the time in these parts. I jumped off at Majora and followed the crowd to the water. In between was everything I have come to despise about anywhere labelled resort or tourist anything because it was just full of overpriced cafs and restaurants, all the annoyances of the weekend getaway spot and most of all, all the tourists come to spoil my view.

I might have been in Brighton, or possibly Shonan, but it wasnt up to the level of garbage of Surfers Paradise or Huntington. Plus it was warmer and cleaner. The Baltic is almost completely flat and the water is around 18 degrees during the summer. The Bay of Riga is a little on the polluted side, more than the rest of the Baltic Sea, but nothing to make you sick or itchy. The amber that washes up on a lot of the coast doesnt make an appearance here except at the souvenir sellers. Development has been kept to a respectable distance from the water so the dunes and beach are still in good shape. It is great for swimming because the salinity is low and the crowd surprisingly thin. Maybe they all came for the cafs.

I had my ear pierced the day before so I wasnt there to throw myself into the water, but I took my shoes and socks off and went in as far as my knees. The still waves mean that you can wade out a long way and walk parallel to the sand as far as you want, something you can do all along the coast as far as I saw. Baltia is unlikely to produce any world beating surfers any time soon.

So I walked along the beach for a while and wished I could swim properly. There were a lot of families and old people and little kids. Not nearly enough of the talent I see on the streets turned up, but you cant have it all. I went up the beach and took a seat and got my book out. I was rudely interrupted by the other phenomenon of the Baltics Drunken Finns. One of the economic miracles of the EU is that the high cost of living but equally high wages makes Finnish Euros worth a decent amount more. Combine this with easy access and already-cheap beer and youve got a Finns wet dream. Mind you, I find as a race that the Finns are up there with the best and with the exception of the girl who used to beat me up when I was at uni with her (a big shout out to Heini, wherever you may be) they are all awesome. More about that to come.

These two were a few sheets to the wind and looking for someone who could speak English. I could but I was no help, since they were looking for something that I didnt know about. No mind, I had a good chat to them and got the low-down on Baltias popularity with their people. The bit I just told you about. Yeah. They were cool enough and after a hollow promise to go and visit their country, they left to find more alcohol (presumably).

Having no way to swim, I took my leave and went back to Riga. I contemplated going out but decided to watch a movie and get some sleep.

Sunday I spent organising myself and talking with the family. I had decided to go up to Estonia, rather than go straight on to Lithuania, and so I would leave my big pack there and be back in a week or so. I dropped by the Old Town and had them call through to a hostel to get me a booking, bought a bus ticket and took what I thought would be my last walk around the streets. Boy, was I wrong about that.