Things have been a little quiet on the communication front recently, but what can one say when there is little to report but “I’m looking for a job” or “I’m still looking for a job”? Change ‘job’ to flat, friend, meal, coffee or bar and you can appreciate that things have been perhaps a little quieter than anticipated.
I recently cracked the SIX MONTH barrier since leaving good old NZ, so wrote my thoughts in a disorientated fashion, but here they are:
- I’m good, I love London but if I wrote about my time thus far it’d be boring! It’s a bloody aaaaawesome place, I absolutely love it and I’m not sure how I’ll ever leave (except I haven’t had a winter here yet).
- If you want a big night out, there’s always something happening. If you want sport, there’ll be sport on. If you want to chill, it’s easy to. Howevr, to do any of these things, to even have the thought pass through one’s thick skull, will automatically cost a minimum of £50.
- I’ve done some cool things, like getting up to Stonehenge, Wimbledon for the tennis, out to the West Country to see Jimmy Carr live (soooo un-PC, actually hilarious) and going along to see Alice Cooper, live, in a decorated and half abondoned old palace on Halloween. Mostly I’ve been hanging with mates and work colleagues in various pubs and tasting various domestic and continental brews.
- Loving the various domestic and continental brews.
- Hating what the various domestic and continental brews do to my waitline, and wallet. One gets heavier while the other gets lighter. This is not a winning combination!
- When I first arrived, on my occassional big night I would get home when the sun arrived, around 4am. Now I get up before the sun at 7am. The sun goes to bed just after 4, the lazy sod.
- It is SO warm in London at the moment. The average temperature is around 12 degrees. You must understand (I’m yet to) that it is SO warm right now.
- I’ve been relatively quiet with a lack of income so far (no huge nights on the town (half truth) BUT I get my second pay cheque on Friday, YAY!!
- It’s been slow going making friends with locals but I’ve met HEAPS of cool ANZACs (who are hopefully reading this and giving me brownie points, oh yeah!).
- If you think you’ve been to a horrible, crowded bar, you haven’t. Try the Shepherds Bush Walkabout for the Rugby World Cup final. It was like a beehive, but instead of honey on the ground, it was snakebite (ew), Strongbow cider (ew) and bulk amounts of piss (ew).
- The tube was the coolest thing in the world when I arrived. Now, if someone jumps in front of a train, I mutter to myself and about the utter ineptness of it and how selfish the suicidal person was. Bless their soul. Yep, the city sure desensitises you.
- Football (I know it’s soccer, but I’ve changed) is cool. I like having a pint (whilst shoring up the waist and lightening the wallet) and watching a game, especially midweek, and a Saturday, and a Sunday afternoon. Which is pretty much every day really.
- Some people think I’m fancy for liking rugby. Where I’m from, it’s called breathing (substitute breathing for being born?). Football fans think rugby fans are posh snobs.
WARNING: BORING STUFF TO FOLLOW (more boring than the proceeding stuff)
I started work first week of October for a company called Vidiator. We’re part of Hutchison Whampoa, one of the largest companies in the world, owned by one of the richest men in the world. He’s from Hong Kong. You’ll prob know Hutch for the 3 mobile brand. We were borne of 3, as a software company for them, but have since expanded. We write software that effectively encodes video to a codec readable by mobiles, tablets, PCs, smart TVs etc, then distributes it across the mobile network operator’s platform. I’m the guy that uncovers leads, talks to people, sets up meetings, flies there and closes. My territory is Europe, Middle East & Africa. I’m off to HQ in HK in Jan which will be cool, my first time there.
Cool, well, now I have to travel on public transport, probably run someone over, then trample a crowd of people in order to bribe some lady for her soon-to-be vacant room in a shared flat.
I’d had friends and a few Topdeck tour leaders say that Berlin is in their top 3 European cities. Growing up, I’d heard it was a rather bleak and grey city, so I really wasn’t sure what to expect. Entering the city, Sabi drove us around in the bus with Mark pointing out the sights. It’s a large city, very spread out and mostly unspectacular, with some exceptions. We stopped at the Berlin wall for photos. It was fantastic to see such an important piece of modern history and be able to touch it without having some overzealous European security guard trying to throttle you. The longest standing stretch is covered in murals, showing the personality of the city. My favourite, which is my new Facebook profile pic, was a reproduction of Pink Floyd’s The Wall – thick white stone bricks with a hole in the middle showing characters from the movie. Very cool!!
We checked into our hostel, Wombats, apparently one of the top 10 hostels in the world? It was a nice enough place but the bar had 1€ Berliner Pilsners, awesome!! Mitch, Jack, Keith and myself sat round in the rooftop garden bar drinking until 10ish when we were moved inside and met up with the girls. We continued to abuse the cheap beers and play the local sport – coin tossing. The idea is to throw a 1€ coin, or 50c coin, into a jug hanging behind the bar. Free shots if you got it! My first handful of shots all hit the rim and bounced away, an effort I couldn’t better. Ang got it right before Tom won a bonus 10 shots. We had a big walking tour the next morning, so didn’t want a biggie, but despite this Keith and I were there until closing time, 1:30ish.
And so, the walking tour. We met nice and early at the Reichstag and shot through to the Brandenburg Gate, a famous symbol of Berlin. It was odd to see it without all the Nazi flags that used to adorn it in the Hitler era – I would have seen dozens of photos with the gate covered in them. Under the gate, along the Unter den Linden, around the Pariser Platz to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The memorial is very unique, an entire city block covered in 2,711 grey concrete blocks. They’re all different sizes and the ground is rolling. As you walk through these coffin-like blocks, you do get a sense of uneasiness. It’s meant to demonstrate the unease with which the Jewish community would’ve felt during the holocaust – periods of light, of dark, of growing suffocation or being cut off – it’s very odd. A well done monument I think.
From here we moved on to the site of Hitler’s bunker. It’s now topped by a car park for some neighbouring apartments, you’d never know it was there. Next was Goebbels’ Ministry for Propaganda and his apartments. Our guide told us that Goebbels had a club foot, something I never knew and was amazed at, seeing he was number 2 for the Nazis and led the effort to exterminate people with disabilities such as his. Weird. We continued to the Luftwaffe Ministry, completely and ironically untouched by Allied aerial bombing. Its a huge and very imposing building and to me, didn’t look like one of the oldest buildings in Berlin.
Finally, we dropped past the Topography of Terror, another part of the Berlin Wall and finished off at Checkpoint Charlie. Most of what was part of the checkpoint is well gone by now, save for a small US Army hut, left there for tourist reasons. Once the tour finished off, Keith, Brett, Lisa, KD and myself checked out the Topography of Terrors. This is where the SS where quarter during the Third Reich years, and walking through the old basement, we really got a feeling for the terror enemies of the state must have felt when they were dragged there. The museum tells the whole story about the years of the Nazi party and how the rest of Europe was affected by the expansionist efforts of Hitler. There were some pretty distressing photos but I’m glad I saw it.
We each had a couple of curry wursts for lunch (Keith, I hope you’ve opened a curry wurst joint in Melbourne!) and then walked home, via the TV tower down the Unter den Linden. Along the way we also stopped at the VW offices and took lots of photos of the Bugatti Veyron on show. We each had a nap, some very quick chilli burgers for dinner, then we had the pub crawl.
Beer is one thing the Germans take very seriously. Legally, beer brewed in Germany can only have water, hops and barley as ingredients, and now more recently, yeast. The Germans are the third largest consumers of beer in the world, per capita, and we really fitted in on the pub crawl. We went to four bars, had jäger at each one, plus whatever was on tap or in the fridge. The cool thing in Europe is that you can drink in public, so the last beer from each bar was always in a bottle so we could walk and drink to the next one! We finished off in an underground club. It was a late night which really sucked the next morning – an early start with our drive to Amsterdam. I couldn’t be bothered facing stale bread, processed cheese and salami so I skipped breakfast and sat on the footpath. When Sabi turned up with the coach there was a moment of humor (for some of us) as someone moved Mishae’s belongings and Keith took her free seat. She’d been on it for the duration of the trip and was rather upset with him, but he was so hungover and tired he could not have cared less.
So, onwards to Amsterdam, the last time Sabi would drive us
Arriving in Prague I was excited. I’d read a number of cold war novels set there, and seen photos and heard positive things about the city, so I was hoping it’d live up to expectations. We were staying in an awesome hostel (Plus Prague, do it if you’re looking for somewhere to stay!) and the tram ride on the number 12 in to town was rather quaint. We crossed the Charles Bridge, one of the highlights of the trip so far for me. Started in the 1357, the stone bridges crosses the Vltava River In stunning fashion, with palatial buildings both sides of the river, a tower each side of the river and the castle in the background. You really get an understanding for why it’s called the city of spires. Gothic architecture is the real theme of the city, leading someone to remark it was like Disneyland, such is the such obvious architectural beauty everywhere. Prague was largely untouched by bombing in world war two, so it really is authentic from hundreds of years ago. We walked through the old city to the astronomical clock, then up to the main pedestrian mall. We did the tour at twilight, so this pretty city looked doubly amazing.
Following our walking tour, we hit a couple of bars, one from the 1800s set in a basement (where an old, fat Indian dude asked Carlie, “Nice, how much?”), the other being a modern 5 level, multi themed club. Both places we tried, liked and mastered absinthe (until the next morning!). For a Tuesday night, the massive club was pumping. Only three of the floors were open, but two of them were packed. The middle floor was odd, with lots of lasers which were fun to play in. Apparently in Prague you can go clubbing at 16, so the place was full of kids as KD found out…. In any case, it was a fun night with lots of nice looking central European ladies and all the tour people getting so boozed they kept disappearing and reappearing later.
The hangover wasn’t particularly pretty the next morning, so after a leisurely sleep in, Keith and I headed into the old city again and met up with the Melbourne girls. We followed the previous nights walking tour to see the city during the day. We were all impressed all over again, it is a lovely place. I checked out the Hard Rock cafe and liked what I saw, especially the red ZZ Top Coyote Bolt guitar signed by the band.
Later that evening we met Mark and the group and headed to the Beer Factory for dinner and, of course, beers. Keithy and I shared a 1kg meat platter with ribs, chicken bits, steak and pork neck and everyone was able to pour their own beers from the tap in the middle of the table. For some of the girls this was a real novelty but for pros like Elle, they wanted someone else to do it. I followed Keith and got a photo of me drinking straight from the tap.
We had two tables, and one of the cool things at the BF is there’s a large screen that tracks how much beer each table has consumed. We weren’t really racing but we smashed the other table, until Britney Two Beers got angry and competitive and downed a crazy three beers, making him completely legless and putting their table in the lead.
As we left, the heavens opened and we experienced an absolute downpour. Brett’s late beer charge came back and bit him in the ass as he went to go pose for a photo with a man in a saxophone costume and ended up blowing him…..the bad way.
We all jumped in taxis and headed home. Prague taxis are absolutely crazy, there are stuff all police on the roads and the taxis don’t care about road rules, so expect to hit 100kph in residential areas. Luckily tonight, the rain kept the cabbies sensible. A bit of last minute pool, then bed at a relatively early hour of midnight.
Baked beans for brekkie the next day then on the bus to Berlin. A lot of people seem to rate Berlin so let’s see…..I’m not expecting wonders.
As we exited Slovenia, many of us were struggling to stay awake on the bus, and for those that did, there was reward. As pretty as Slovenia was, Austria wasn’t far off. The drive to Kitzbühel in the Tyrol region gave us a beautiful view reminiscent of parts of New Zealand with twisting blue glacial streams, pebbles lined river beds and startling mountain ridges, some of them impressive granite.
We enjoyed a local pork dinner before heading to the bar to sample the local brews. There were two beers and a range of schnapps, all of which we sampled until the wee hours. We were up early the next morning, and after waiting on the kerb for an hour, we were picked up to go canyoning.
Walking uphill in two wetsuits, booties and boot liners was not overly fun, but once we were in the canyon, we loved it. It started with a 20m abseil & zip line into the canyon, followed by jumping through the waterfall we just abseiled down. The water was freezing, but perfect to get over any hangovers as Sabi, our awesome driver, attested to. We spend the next few hours sliding down mini falls, climbing, abseiling and jumping. We ended up at a 7m dam which we took great delight in jumping off. Back flips, front flips, a misty flip thrown in, all good fun. Sabi even did a penguin dive – a no hands, head first jump. Stuff that for a joke on a schnapps hangover!
After a quiet afternoon, we headed up into the mountains for dinner. Myself and the boys all had the big triple pork plate, all washed down with a stein of beer and Amanda’s shared litre of red wine, some of which ended up her brand new pink dress. The dress survives.
On the way down the mountain, we stopped at an old wooden pub where the family has brewed their local schnapps for generations. It’s 50%ABV, and strong and black, reminiscent of Jäger. Its called Hexengeist, German for Witch’s Brew. In an afternoon, if you do 10 shots you are awarded a certificate, but as we were there half an hour, the mark was set at five. A big task! The patriarch of the family lined all the shots up along the table and set fire to them. What a sight! Luckily for me, they were burning quite a while, so the five shots weren’t too taxing, although I was in a very good mood after! I was awarded my certificate and we made our merry way down to a bar where some other Topdeck leaders were drinking. Sabi and Mark said hi while Mitch and I chatted to Jacqui (an Aussie guide that organised our stay) and boogied away to her playlist of old school hits – Queen, the Eagles and the like. We also tried some more of the local brew.
By the time we hot hit bed we were all in tremendous moods, but it wasn’t just the booze. We had loved Austria, the people are very friendly and Kitzbühel is a very picturesque town. In fact, during winter it’s full of supremely wealthy people, mostly Russians. Michael Schumacher even owns a house there. I’d love to head back for a little snow boarding action.
On the way out of Austria towards Czech we stopped at Mathausen, a Nazi-era concentration camp. Mathausen was the biggest of a series of work camps located near Linz. It was a grade 3 work camp, one of only a couple in Europe, designed to purely exterminate educated political enemies of the state through productive labour (literally, extermination through labour). The location was chosen as there is a large granite deposit there. The inmates were typically fed five spoonfuls of food every three days, a calorie intake of well less than 1000 calories a day. Those working in the quarry were forced to carry stone blocks of up to 50kg up what is known as the Stairs of Death, a wide, spiralling set of 186 stairs with each step so short, a mans foot could not wholly fit on it. The average weight of an inmate – this is shocking – was 40kg, so these blocks weighing 25% more than then, coupled with the tiny steps in a long, uneven staircase led to many prisoners falling, creating a domino effect, with many more below falling to their deaths. Those that did reach the top could be pushed back down by guards, or made to stand next to a cliff edge at the top. They then had the choice to push another prisoner off to their death, or be shot. This was known as the Parachutists Wall.
A survivor of the camp was able to document 62 different forms of execution the guards employed at Mathausen to kill prisoners. One of these was the gas chamber, a small room, a tiny room I stood in, allegedly able to hold 120 people at once for death by gas.
We were shown a film at the visitor centre that showed a number of survivors of the camp at the time of liberation by the Americans. Most were skeletal, literally skeletal, barely able to walk, let alone work. The images of these men with every bone showing through their skin brought new meaning to the phrase ‘skin and bones’ to me, and made me feel truly sick. The overcrowding, intense summer heat and winter lows of -30*C would really have made Mathausen Hell on earth.
The site now is quite beautiful, such a sharp juxtaposition from its history. Rolling green meadows and a number of works of art intended as various nations’ tributes to those killed there.
It was a massively sobering experience for all of us that were there that day. Best estimates of those murdered are around 300,000 men and a smaller number of women and children, including all those that were killed en route and in medical experiments separate from the work camp. Heindrich Himmler, in charge of the concentration camp efforts, was said to be so nauseated by his visit there in 1942 he was unable to eat. Yet the policy of extermination never stopped.
Walking the path from the camp and station to the quarry was of interest – the original paving stones remained and were so rough, hewn anywhere that we had to take care not to injure our ankles walking along. That’s a bunch of well fed, fit and mentally alert Antipodeans, not a bunch of malnourished prisoners with a life expectancy of three months carrying more than their own bodyweight on their backs.
One final thought from Mathausen – two of the cremation chambers that I saw, I would not have been able to fit in. I’m a relatively fit male, yet I wouldn’t have fit in….it just illustrates again what condition these prisoners were in when they were at the end of their lives.
Anyway, on to the famously beautiful Prague in Czech, can’t wait. Even though there’s another new bloody currency to use!
We’d already passed through the beautiful country of Slovenia on our way from Venice to Croatia, but passing through from one EU country to another is easy. Going from Croatia back into the EU, not so much. We had a very austere looking customs man search the bus, and all those with non-EU passports had to go through security. Luckily for me, I was given a cursory glance and waved on through with no fuss. Love that British passport!
Slovenia is one of the least densely populated nations in Europe, as most of the country is covered in very dense, green forest. It’s also a very small nation geographically, so the drive from the border to the capital didn’t take long.
The capital of Slovenia is a delightful town of 300,000 called Ljubljana. Locals have one way of pronouncing it, but for Westerners it’s Lube-e-ana. It reminded me a lot of Christchurch – small, flat, green, pretty, and absolutely nothing going on, even on a Saturday. We walked through town and the highlights were seeing mounted police, a protest and the H&M store – like a Farmers shop, most of the girls love it. We climbed the hill to the old castle, dating back almost 1000 years. The views were good, but the boys were thirsty, so after I’d tripped over a rusty piece of metal sticking out of the ground and cut my toe open, we headed back down to town the the bar. We made friends with the barmaids, scored some free tapas and enjoyed the local beer. Dinner was just down the road, and while I’m determined to eat and drink local fare wherever I go, I couldn’t quite order the chavelle on the menu. Horse steaks just aren’t my thing.
The boys and the Melbourne girls ended up back at the bar for a few more hours, enjoying 4€ cocktails, 3€ pints of local beer and the apple sheesha. It wasn’t a biggie by any stretch of the imagination, apart for Carlie, but there were some good stories to tell in the morning. Carlie wound up with the hat of shame, and she fully deserved it.
On the way to the Austrian Alps we stopped at Lake Bled, 40 minutes out of Ljubljana, and the host of the next rowing world champs. As amazing as we Kiwis think Lake Karapiro was for last years world champs, I have a feeling that Lake Bled will be popular. It is absolutely stunning, set in a glacial valley with beautiful clear blue water, an island in the middle with a quaint church and a medieval castle at the top of a tall cliff. We rowed to the island and spent some time exploring it, then rode bikes around the lake. A stunning area and somewhere that I’d love to come back to. In the meantime, go the Kiwi rowers!!
A short drive after takes us to the Austrian region of Tyrol, but traffic, roadworks and driving hours mean the ~300km trip will take almost 6 hours. Luckily the Austrian Alps are beautiful with the drama of sheer cliffs and glacial valleys carved in the rock. I feel I am repeating myself describing the beauty of everywhere I visit but it’s true! From Lauterbrunnen to Monaco to Croatia to the Alps – I love it all! The last part of the journey between the German and Austrian borders is pure South Is of NZ – blue glacier rivers, the road following the river, exposed bleached river stones on the bends – it reminds me of driving to Wanaka and our boys trip to Wellington.
One cool thing about the drive – the cool cars! Austria is the 12th richest country in the world per capita, and the top end Porsches, Audis, Mercs and Beemers at each truck stop are eye opening in their number.
Tomorrow we’re going canyoning and perhaps I can squeeze in a third skydive…..we shall see!
I had been excited about getting to Croatia and it’s famous beaches, but the country was fully ruined for me by my self inflicted monster hangover, the likes of which I hadn’t really experienced before. I was sick on the bus all along the 180 odd kms of coastline we hugged, with hairpins, big sweepers and change in gradient along with the shocking Croatian roads, bumpier than a teenagers face. I was even sick into the Adriatic waiting for the car ferry. Awful.
Admittedly, it is stunning, the coast is almost entirely limestone and has beautiful shrubbery growing up amongst it. The green and white compliments the stunning clear blue Adriatic Sea, amongst the clearest water I’ve seen anywhere in the world.
We were going to Pag Is, a famous party island, but it looked like the opposite. White rocky desert completely covers the 60km long island. We wound our way to the west coast and settled in to our hotel in the town of Novalija. In summer, it’s 2000 strong winter population swells to 50,000, really demonstrating it’s beauty. After a mostly restless sleep on an awful bed, I awoke to a mostly better head, sore ribs and a beautiful day. My stomach, however, rejected the notion of food, so I stuck close to the hotel all day.
That night there was to be the opening night of a 5 day spring break party across the island, so after a few quiet, controlled drinks we headed to Aquarius by the ‘sandy’ beach across the island. Arriving there, we found our tour ratio of 5 girls to every guy was completely reversed, with change. I’d estimate there were 12 guys for every girl at the party, and apart from us Topdeckers, they were all completely slimy Croats, Italians or Poms. We literally couldn’t turn away from one of our girls for 10 seconds without some sleazy I-tie taking our place and trying to get the girl. It was incredible, like an all boys high school putting on a dance but forgetting to invite any girls at all. Adding to that, us guys weren’t safe as there was a strong gay contingent partying it up. I had my ass grabbed will being arm-in-arm with Monique from my tour. We didn’t last too long, but long enough for a few of the girls to get enough drinks in them to need looking after, a good excuse to leave on the bus back to Novalija.
Day 2 was good. After a typically awful Croatian meal for breakfast, the boys and a couple of the girls jumped on the sauna bus to head back to the same beach were at the previous night. While it was stony, it was beautiful with the desert around us and the mountain ridge on the Croatian mainland rising up behind. The water was so pure, so clear and so refreshing. Swimming in it just felt amazing. Unfortunately, despite all the sunblock I had applied, I got the Croatian tattoo – a well toasted back. Lots of aloe has helped since, and I’m hopeful it won’t peel.
I had dinner with Rachel, Abbey and Georgi and a seafood restaurant. All the produce was fresh and local, and after the owner had proudly showed me his cooler full of bream and John Dory, I proudly showed him some I’d caught at Langs, including a monster JD, a 14 pound snapper (about 14x bigger than his bream!) and the video of us catching the mako the summer just gone. Needless to say, he’s now suitable impressed by Kiwi fisherman!
Another early start after our third night at Pag Is and we’re back on the bus, winding our way back towards Slovenia. Luckily this time I was sans hangover! My memory of Croatia is it’s incredible beauty and the stunningly clear water.