Japan 2016 – Part 1

Tokyo is basically the world’s most immersive and expansive video game.

This thought occurred to me as I stood in the queue for train tickets at Narita Airport. Above me, a huge screen broadcast a cartoon depicting the dangers of selfie sticks (e.g. if they touch the overhead electrified train lines, you die). To the left, people bustled in a store that sold nothing but underwear in bizarre prints (popcorn, kitten faces etc). Over to the right, several cartoon characters wandered around clumsily, guided by very serious men in suits… which I realised is because the costumes have no eye-holes, so the grave-faced suit-men would whisper to the poor bastards inside when to stop and wave for photo ops with eager kids and amused tourists.

It has to be said, Japanese people love a queue. Whether for something as tedious as train tickets, or the latest wasabi-spiced Hello Kitty-endorsed rainbow-coloured sultanas (or whatever), they will happily line up for it… Not only that, but people are actually employed whose sole job it is to manage the line, ensuring it doesn’t take up the wrong bit of pavement or whatever.

Which is very Japanese in itself. If you’re familiar with their tea ceremonies, you’d know it’s deeply ingrained in Japanese culture to manage things down to the most granular movements and gestures – very politely, very gently, but also with utmost seriousness. Hence why here, you even line up for the train, instead of just crowding around the nearest door… Because in Japan, door finds you – you line up at the designated marker and voila, there it is right in front of you, sliding open with an elegant smoothness as if to say ‘welcome sir to my carriage’.

So what am I doing here in Tokyo? Basically, I’m part of a group that’s gathered here to celebrate my sister’s 30th in her all-time favourite country. And I do mean ‘all-time favourite’ – she and her boyfriend Shane have been here SIX TIMES since popping their cherry-blossom cherry some years ago. Me, this is my third time. For the other people in our group – and I’ll introduce the whole cast shortly – this is their virginal visit to the Land of the Rising Toilet Seat.

Now, back to Narita.

Our first action upon collecting our luggage was to make a beeline for Lawson’s. Lawson’s is basically a Japanese 7-Eleven but better. We were on a very specific mission: to locate a decidedly Western foodstuff with a Japanese twist. The twist comes in the form of special mayonnaise, known as kewpie, that must tap with great force & immediacy into the dopamine-pumpers of the brain, because god DAMN – one bite of this stuff and it’s like your taste buds are getting oral sex. The legendary snack I’m referring to is Egg Sandwiches – or as my sister likes to call them, with mock Japanese accent, egg sand-he-wicho.

I don’t know why purchasing egg sandwiches at Lawson’s merits a mention, but the truth is not a day went by during our time in Japan that we did not pay our daily pilgrimage to a conveni (convenience store) for this ever-tasty, ever-ready snack… that flavour-bomb mayonnaise encased between two of the lightest, fluffiest, whitest (and no doubt nutrition-freest) slices of bread you’ve ever held in your soft, trembling hands… All for a loose-change price tag of about 200 yen (~AU$1).

But enough about egg sandwiches. We need to press on.

Right now I’m on the train to Tokyo proper and feel, once again, like I’m in a video game. Every little development along this journey – train arrives at station; train doors open; train is now departing – is accompanied by a little chiptune ditty straight out of The Legend of Zelda. Whoever made those top-loader washing machines that play a sea shanty once they’ve finished – that person was surely Japanese, coz they live and breathe that kinda stuff. And I’ve just noticed – to make things even more interesting – that there’s actually a different ditty for every station. My sister tells me this is so that Japanese salarymen who use their commute to sleep – so ~90% of them – train their brains to recognise & wake up to their station’s particular melody.

Ahhh, the Japanese. Are they actually a race of cyborgs, powered by gluteinous rice? Perhaps they are.

I should probably introduce you now to this gang of five I’m travelling with. Like I said, I’m here with my sister Matylda, her boyfriend Shane, another couple – Stef and Nicki (keep in mind Stef’s a dude – this initially threw me too) – and James, or ‘The James/TJ Bones’ as my sister refers to him with a mixture of amusement and affection.

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I quickly learned why. James is a heart-of-gold kind of guy who has a refreshingly undeveloped self-consciousness – one of those characters who’ll happily say whatever pops into his head, appropriateness filter be damned. It’d only be a few more hours until I was acquainted with his left testicle, which he popped out of his jim-jams for a giggle… But what really defined TJ on this trip though was his addiction to food. I’m not saying this guy’s a foodie, coz that’s half of Melbourne these days… I’m saying he has a mental disorder; the gastronomic equivalent of a crack addiction. On more than one occasion The James put us in real threat of missing a train, coz he’d gotten a whiff of something on the way and just had to stop and try it… Usually catching up with us at the last second, clutching a paper tray of octopus balls or whatever, half-apologising, half-eating, and mostly not giving a fuck coz he got the food and that’s all that really matters. James isn’t fat by the way – just standard-issue post-30-year-old dadbod – which makes this all the more extraordinary.

To be honest though you can’t blame him. Cheap, quick, delicious food is abundant in Nippon. Pokey little ramen bars with a curtain for the front door, emanating tantilising smells and noise… Little katsu don eateries, ‘katsu’ being (as far as I can tell) some form of meat on rice (inagi, or eel, being my favourite)… And even littler sushi outlets without a single seat, coz frankly the sushi is so fucking amazing you WILL be happy to stand while you eat it, the immaculately fresh, tender morsels melting in your mouth like butter. You eventually leave not so much coz you’ve had enough, but only to be fair to the inevitable gaggle of people gathered outside, awaiting their turn to intake some of this shiny, briny mouth heroin.

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These things are never mixed, mind you. The Melbourne thing of selling sushi and hot food at the same place, for example, is a big no-no in Japan. Every type of food – ramen, katsu, sushi, teppenyaki – is an art and you specialise in one only. There’s a place near where I live called ‘Wong’s Café’ that sells sushi rolls and Chinese food. To a Jap, that’s basically like having a combined brothel/ library – madness. And I tend to agree.

I should mention that the alcohol here is likewise top-notch. Most of the mainstream brews are made by Suntory – that’s the same Suntory that Bill Murray/Bob Harris advertises for in Lost in Translation – and it’s probably the best beer I’ve had outside of Poland and the Czech Republic. Now that I think about it, it’s weird we don’t get Suntory beers in Aus given Asahi’s so prominent… Asahi’s not bad by any standard, but it’s really just a Japanese Crown Lager. Suntory’s brews, on the other hand, are deliciously smooth, even slightly creamy in the way that Polish beers are… and, like Polish beers, they’re dirt cheap.

Japanese whiskey – again, dominated by the omnipresent Suntory label – is also top notch. Later in the trip I bought a fine-looking bottle of rum at a bottle shop which I thought was authentically South American, given it had a Spanish name and palm trees on the label, with no sign of that quintessential Asian tendency to misconstrue any culture outside of their own… Only to realise later it was produced in Japan. It was the best rum I’ve had to date.

The only alcohol category that the Japs fail at is vodka. There’s only one Japanese vodka label – basically an acknowledgement that they suck in this area – and instead of at least giving it a pseudo-Slavic name (like the pseudo-Spanish name for the rum), they just call it ‘Gibley’s’, as if vodka originated in fucking Wales or something. With its text-only white-and-navy label, it’s definitely no Belvedere – but this didn’t stop me and my sister from mixing generous quantities with fruit juice & downing it with Polish gusto on several occasions… For the vitamin C content, of course.

Wow. I’ve written extensively about egg sandwiches and liquor and haven’t even made it off the train to Tokyo yet. So yes, indeed – we’re all sitting in these big Gold Class-style seats whizzing at high speed through a semi-rural landscape – and speaking of alcohol, we’re all happily sipping cans of booze nestled on our fold-out trays. I’ve got a can of frothy Yebisu beer – another excellent & popular brand here – and my sister’s enthusiastically tucking into a can of ‘Strong’, a lemon-gin premix that lives up to its name in both flavour and potency. In Melbourne, of course, we’d all be issued $200+ fines and muscled off at the next station for doing this, but in Japan – completely acceptable. And they give you your change back like it’s a piece of the True Cross.

There’s actually an entire blog entry one could write about that fact – why DO we have such fascist drinking laws in Australia, and why, admittedly, are we so bad as a collective at drinking? Because don’t get me wrong: the Japanese get smashed. There’s a whole Facebook page dedicated to the phenomenon of uber-pissed Japanese salarymen passed out on in public places and transport – I saw it first-hand on a previous trip; a group of middle-aged men in impeccable business suits, faces flushed, laughing all with their ties inexplicably tied around their heads. The difference is they didn’t cause anyone any trouble. My sister told me a story, also from a previous trip, of a businessman so drunk that he had no choice but to puke… So what did he do? Opened up his suitcase and vomited all over his work papers. Not one globule of half-digested rice made it onto the floor of the train.

Whereas Down Under, getting drunk too often means acting like a moron – trying to draw as much attention as possible to you and your mates; hitting on women who don’t want a bar of you; and, depending on how the night pans out, perhaps starting a fight or destroying some property depending on what’s around. “This is why we can’t have nice things”, as the saying goes… While here in Japan, women literally walk up and down the train carriages with a cart offering you half a bar’s worth of liquor.

Yet it’s funny that here we are, all Aussies, all drinking yet behaving with utmost civility and self-control. Maybe the Japs have sent off all their fuckwit drunks to hard labour in Okinawan quarries or something, and left the rest of their citizens alone… Which, if true, I couldn’t applaud more. We should do the same instead of punishing everyone – coz who doesn’t feel like a bit of a drinky on a long, boring commute?

Anyway. Our first proper taste of Tokyo came with a stop in Shibuya. Shibuya is what probably comes to most people’s minds when they think ‘Tokyo’: it’s the district with that massive Times Square-esque intersection where, in Lost In Translation, Charlotte is lost in a sea of colourful umbrellas and looks up to see a huge projection of a brontosaurus saunter by. Me, I saw a bunch of men in suits ice-skating in ridiculous formations, for what seemed to be an ad for fruit juice. Who knows. At first you laugh, then you try to figure it out, then you give up trying to figure it out and just enjoy the surrealism. This is a country that, I think, knows it’s weird by other people’s standards and revels in it. The bizarre ads; the anthropomorphised ambulances with cat and dog faces; the eyebrow-raising Jinglish (everywhere I saw an ad featuring nothing but a woman and the words “Moist Diane” – again, who knows)… Collectively it says something pretty clear: This is Japan, and ordinary notions of ‘normal’ do not apply or matter. Reverence and irreverence, what’s important and what isn’t, is very different in the brilliant, quirky land that gave us samurai, sake and Sonic the Hedgehog.

One example that randomly comes to mind is how in Melbourne, you’ll grab a $2 sushi roll from any old joint (usually Chinese-owned) but you’d spend that lunch break catching up with someone, running errands or hitting the gym – being ‘productive’. In Japan, an adult might waste an entire lunch break reading semi-pornographic comics at a 7-Eleven or sleeping in a car, but the sushi consumption would be undertaken with the sort of thoughtfulness you’d reserve for a trip to the art gallery – careful consideration of the menu followed by full, devoted attention on the flavours in play. Sushi is not something you shove into a plastic box with a tiny plastic fish of soy sauce and scoff down at your desk while reading clickbait news on the web. It’s serious business.

And takeaway sushi is exactly what we had in Shibuya. We decided to ‘camp’ for a while at a statue of a dog that, no joke, has a photograph taken of it probably every 10 seconds during daylight hours. The dog, called Hachikō, used to leave home and make its way to Shibuya station every day to wait for the arrival of his owner, a uni professor. One day the professor died and never came home, but the dog continued the ritual every single day for almost 10 years until his own death – a moving example of dogs’ unrelenting loyalty to their master. It’s no surprise that the Japanese were impressed by this and in the words of the Wikipedia page I just brought up, to remind myself of the dog’s name –  “Hachikō’s legendary faithfulness became a national symbol of loyalty, particularly to the person and institution of the Emperor.”

After our own obligatory group shot, complete with peace signs, the girls went off to a sushi outlet we’d seen on the way out of the station, while us guys guarded the luggage, observing the insane level of public excitement at this otherwise unexceptional bit of bronze, while tentatively sipping on cans of beer/Strong. I say ‘tentatively’ coz at this point, it still seemed weird to be able to drink anything alcoholic in public. The Great Southern Nanny State had indoctrinated us deeply.

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Anyway, at one point I attempted to balance a pile of sushi and soy sauce on one of the backpacks and it promptly fell over, leaving a massive dark-brown stain on the hallowed ground surrounding Hachikō’s likeness… So we decided this was our cue to leave.  We each grabbed our respective luggage and once again, began dragging it noisily along the concrete and bitumen onto another train, and finally – after some assistance from a traffic controller, spiffily dressed in what looked like a crisp Navy uniform – made it to our flat.

The problems started as soon as we stepped through the door. The flat, an AirBnB owned by some expat Yank, was tiny. There were two very small bedrooms – one of which smelled bad, due (we surmised) to an uncleaned tatami mat – and five of us. After much deliberation and back-of-head scratching , the pieces settled thus: Stef & Nicki in the stale-smelling room; me, Matylda & Shane in the other room (I had a mattress on the floor – #luxury); and TJ on the couch in a ‘room’ that was just a cramped walkway between the kitchen and balcony. Not quite the Sofitel Deluxe Suites, and there was a serious lack of bedding to boot – at least justifying my decision to bring my own pillow, as I’m rather fussy in the evening headrest area.

The room/bed allocation process had gotten us all a bit tense, so we did what anyone would do in that situation – step out onto the balcony and have a smoke and beer. By the time we were done, with malty breath and tar-infused jackets, watching cherry blossoms flutter off a tree like pink confetti, we felt much better. Hey, we were in Japan. Everything’s gonna be cool.

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Me & Matylda at the cherry blossom tree on our street. Part 2 will come eventually – in the meantime check out my Instagram for more Japan pics!

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Eurotrip 2015 – Part 5

COLOGNE / AMSTERDAM / WROCLAW – 16 November

Currently sitting on a bus on the way from Wroclaw to Krakow. While the crimson-coloured PKP (Polish National Railways) trains of old had their charm, this bus is a reminder of how things have changed – zooming along an autobahn on cushy red leather seats, with free wifi, everything so clean it looks like it came off the factory line just this morning. Outside, blanketed in fog under a low grey sky, is the Polish landscape: utterly flat; the only landscape I’ve seen in Europe reminiscent of rural Victoria, with its similarly flat, relatively featureless fields stretching out to the horizon. This is unsurprising given that Poland comes from the word Polanie, meaning ‘people of the fields’… A fantastic piece of territory for farming; not so great for defending against invasions.

I guess I should go back to where I last finished, which, speaking of invasions, was Germany. We had just one more stop to go – Cologne – which I had high hopes for, as a big city with a famously impressive cathedral. Actually it was the most underwhelming destination of the entire cruise. The cathedral is undoubtedly impressive – Gothic on steroids – but the rest is pretty mediocre, like the crappiest parts of Melbourne’s CBD cobbled together. That’s all I gotta say about it really.

At around dawn the next day we got to Amsterdam, world capital of sex and weed. In this way Amsterdam’s very different to your typical European city: it’s gritty, grimy, chaotic, noisy, freakish. Grandiose structures from the glory days of the Dutch Empire are surrounded by American junk food chains, novelty shops selling shishas and sex toys, and of course the infamous ‘coffee houses’ which are far more about cannabis than caffeine. Through the windows you can see ’em packed to the rafters with backpackers, idly sitting around, staring back not so much at you as through you with pink glazed eyes… And as you pass the door you get a strong, sharp whiff of the herb responsible for their vacant expressions.

Both me and Josh were here for the second time, and Josh hated it all over again from the outset. While I can’t say I loved it myself – and Amsterdam’s definitely a culture shock after several days of quaint, quiet little German townships – I was still interested enough to want to walk around and explore. With its endless waves of hobos, freaks and tourists flowing down the city’s main drag and in and out of its ghetto-ish laneways, it’s probably not a place I’d want to live in, but it’s a fascinating urban jungle to get lost for a while– especially in a hemp daze. Unfortunately we didn’t sample any as Josh wasn’t up for it, but I did treat myself to a cannabis ice-cream – basically a vanilla Choc Top infused with ganja – which disappointingly didn’t have much of an effect, if any.

It’s like the 70s never quite died in Amsterdam… Though really, I guess, it’s just a city that famously panders to the weed culture – not just in making cannabis readily available (though contrary to common belief, it’s not actually legal – just tolerated), but in all the associated paraphernalia of that lifestyle, from tie-dyed shirts to iron-on peace signs… Basically everything you’d pack for Rainbow Serpent. And if you’ve ever experienced the munchies after a few joints or cookies, you’d understand why the place is so totally inundated with junk food outlets – from ‘kabab’ (as it’s spelled in Europe) to pizza by the slice, and of course the city’s famous vlaamse frites – thick-cut chips served in a cone with a dollop of delicious yellow mayonnaise.

The next day, Saturday, was a hell of a day. We were up at 6:30am, bags hauled off the ship by 7, then breakfast and farewelling the various people Josh and I had befriended over our two weeks on board. Then it was off to Schiphol Airport by bus, then on to a plane to Frankfurt after a 45-minute delay, then on to another plane to Wroclaw (which I had to run for like a crazy person), then, finally, a drive home to the residential outskirts of the city. It wasn’t even 3 o’clock yet when I stepped through the Machalowskis’ gate and up to the front door, but this was not the time to retreat to a soft private place and crash. It was family reunion time, on for one and all – Uncle Jurek, Aunt Ewa, my cousins Kasia and Milena and their partners Adam and Michael. As luck would have it, Michael was celebrating his 40th in town that night so after some tomato soup, bigos and two shots of wodka, off we went – me still dressed in the stale flanny and jeans I’d been wearing for two days straight now, as my luggage was sitting somewhere back in Frankfurt thanks to a strike at Lufthansa.

There’s not a great deal to write about my two nights in Wroclaw: it was, like I said, one big long family reunion; a whole lot of sitting around and talking and eating and drinking. It was the typical Polish experience – conversations fueled by shots of ice-cold spirits and an endless procession of hearty meals, cakes and coffee. I reunited not only with relatives but met the next generation of my family – suddenly coming to terms with the fact I’m an uncle – as well as people I’d met on my trip 11 years ago… One of these being Jeremy, an old Brit who lives with his Polish wife (Michael’s mum) in Duszniki, a mountain town near Wroclaw, with whom Paul and I had spent Christmas and New Year’s Eve back in 2004-5.

KRAKOW / WARSZAWA – 22 November

“Krakow is one of my favorite places on earth. It is a medieval city full of young people. A wonderful, striking combination.” – Jonathan Carroll

Our two final destinations were Krakow and Warszawa – the former and current capitals of Poland. Where to begin? To be back in Krakow made my heart soar. It’s a beautiful city full of beautiful young women, as one of its many cultural treasures is the 800-year-old Jagellion University which attracts young people from all over Poland and the world. As a happy result, this immaculately preserved medieval city is also full of bars: reportedly the 800m x 800m market square in the centre of the Old Town has the highest density of bars in Europe. Yet it doesn’t seem that way at first glance; you have to explore a bit… Step curiously through an arched entry-way off the street and walk along until you come across an open wooden door, with the sound of conversation and laughter faintly emanating from below… Step through, down the staircase and suddenly you’re in a gorgeous old subterranean space, a centuries-old brick cellar that’s been converted into a funky bar.

Krakow is the site of what is probably Poland’s single most important monument: the Wawel, a collective term for the old royal castle and cathedral, set atop a hill near the heart of the city. Sadly we didn’t get to go inside – tickets had already sold out the day we went, even though we’d got there around midday – but we did walk around and take in everything from the outside, including the barracks that the Austrians built during Poland’s 19th-century partition, and where Hans Frank later stationed himself as Governor of Nazi-occupied Poland… The building adding to Wawel’s significance, in a way, as a reminder of Poland’s troubled history.

In Warszawa you get even more of a taste of this history, at least the tumultuous last 100 years. It’s a markedly different city to Krakow – the moment you step out into the open from the Metro, you’re immediately struck by this: Warszawa is a modern, bustling city. You emerge into a square full of people and noise and see a skyline of shimmering glass skyscrapers rather than Gothic spires or Baroque towers … Then you turn around and there it is, looming over you: the Palace of Culture and Science, a brooding, majestic building constructed, originally, as an expression of Communist power. The building is therefore as controversial as it is iconic of the city – it used to be derisively called the ‘Russian wedding cake’ – and in the 90s, I believe there was even debate about whether it should be torn down. But like the initially maligned Eiffel Tower, most Varsovians these days no longer see the Palace as a blight on the city’s skyline, and have embraced it as an emblematic landmark which adds to Warszawa’s unique historical tapestry. I took this picture on our way to the Palace because it summed up Warszawa for me (and innumerable shots like this can be taken from various parts of the city): the old, the new and the Soviet Realist, all co-existing in a city that’s still rebuilding.

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(That’s a temporary Christmas installation in the foreground, by the way.)

Warszawa was completely destroyed in World War 2 – systematically dynamited and flame-throwered to the ground by German forces in 1944, following the ill-fated Uprising to liberate the city – and when US forces inspected the rubble in 1945, they suggested the Poles move their capital back to Krakow. But this would have meant Hitler won, in a sense: the Nazis demolished the city on his orders so that it could no longer function as a ferocious, unrelenting bull-ant’s nest of Polish nationalism and defiance. And so the laborious task of postwar reconstruction began, under Soviet watch, without any of the monetary aid Germany and other European countries enjoyed from America… Domino-style mass housing; utilitarian office buildings; everything made of beige stone and grey concrete – colourless, devoid of the decoration that once defined this ‘Paris of eastern Europe’. For better or worse, these Communist-era buildings still form the bulk of Warszawa’s infrastructure, interspersed with the odd reminder of the city’s former beauty… And now, increasingly, shiny glass testaments to its status as the capital of one of Europe’s fastest-growing and most promising economies.

So anyway. There’s probably not much point in a day-by-day narrative of what we did – essentially it was sight-seeing, eating, drinking and acting like retards to amuse ourselves. Josh fell in love with pierogi so we ingested plenty of these hearty ravioli-style dumplings, at the expense of our waistline – perfect for the cold temperatures that had kicked in by this time. On our last night we went out with Piotr – a family friend of mine, a few years younger than us and a Warsaw local – which perfectly wrapped up our boozy bachelors’ tour of Europe.

(ALMOST) MELBOURNE – 22 November

That night and indeed our whole stay in Poland made me realise that while I’m Polish and love hearing the Polish language around me, and seeing the red-and-white flag everywhere and being in these places with their incredible history which I’ve read so much about… At the end of the day, I’m a foreigner in Poland. People pick up on my accent straightaway and sometimes even switch over to English, assuming (not incorrectly, I guess) that I’d be more comfortable conversing in that. I may have a name few can spell and even fewer can pronounce; I may have the hair and cheekbones of someone who’s clearly from the north of Europe; and several of my closest friends are Polish, our shared heritage an important catalyst for our friendship. But I’m Aussie before I am Polish; Australian English is my primary language; and the Australian way of life is the one I live – the only one I know, in fact, having lived my whole life in Melbourne bar a half-year in Poland when I was 5. And while I have friends from all backgrounds – Serbian to Swedish, Chinese to Peruvian – they are all, at the end of the day, Aussies too. And so it’s great to be coming back. Just a few minutes ago, Josh interrupted me to point out the Martian red landscape outside the plane window: that surefire sign we’re flying over ‘Straya, the great rust-coloured continent so very, very far from the ornate lamp-posts and cobbled squares of Krakow. And as deeply as I miss those things already, I’m also happy to be coming home.

EPILOGUE – 3 December

So it’s been over a week since we’ve got back, and I wanted to add this before publishing the above coz I feel reflecting back is perhaps what’s most important in a journal.

The final week, in Poland, definitely cranked up the emotion-meter: catching up with relatives, seeing nephews for the first time, seeing my grandma for possibly the last time, and then finishing off the trip with five nights in the two great cities of my ancestral homeland – the cultural treasure chest of Krakow and the hero city with myriad faces, Warszawa. I still recall the feeling of joy I got when I opened up the windows of our flat in Krakow, smelling the crisp icy air and looking out over Dietla (the main drag we were on) with its rows of oak trees, shedding the last of their yellow leaves onto the footpath and tram tracks below. I got the same feeling three days later, when we’d lugged our luggage up the stairs to the top floor of an apartment building on Warszawa’s Old Town Market Square, and looked out: over the square (at that point a construction zone as preparations were underway for the Christmas market) to the red-tiled roofs and fresco-painted facades of the Old Town; and beyond that, a series of lit-up skyscrapers and the ever-present Palace of Culture and Science. It seriously tripped me out to wake up at 5am on Monday and remember I’m now back in little ol’ Elsternwick on the eastern side of sunny, suburban Melbourne, half a planet and an entire reality away.

I feel, therefore I am.

It’s an artist’s take on Descarte’s famous statement, and it vaguely encapsulates what travel does to me. Because undoubtedly there was emotion, in fact as soon as I went for my first walk around Budapest I was almost moved to tears, swept up in the staggering beauty and history all around me. It felt almost surreal, like being sucked into a movie you love but haven’t seen in ages.

This was not a relaxing trip, by any means. It raised questions rather than answered them; put gaps and issues in my life that I’d swept under the carpet back to centre stage. Burned into my mind’s eye is my grandma’s face when she asked me, a mere minute into seeing me for the first time in 11 years… “Mateusz, when are you going to get married? Why haven’t you got a girl? It’s such a shame for you not to have a girl.”

We’ve heard it before, ol’ gran’ma telling you to eat more and hurry up and get married. It’s a cliche we like to chuckle at. But the way she said it to me, face scrunched up with worry and slight disapproval, was like the way you’d ask someone when they’re going to straighten the fuck out and give up heroin. She looked pained by the situation. And the more I reflected on it, the more I realised maybe she’s got a point. Maybe our Australian culture of hooking up and going out and dating endlessly through your teens, 20s and well into your 30s is bullshit. Maybe our Tinder/Snapchat generation is heading for a middle age of hollowness and loneliness, having never committed ourselves to true love when we had the chance – playing the grasshopper when we should’ve started playing the ant, setting the foundations for a supportive family life. This is going down a totally different path – and there’s a reason why I’ve personally missed the marriage bus so far – but it’s the question this trip raised perhaps above all: Why aren’t I married? Why aren’t I taking that more seriously? As I sat beside my grandma – now a fragile shell of her former self, ravaged by old age and Parkinson’s – I realised the clock is always ticking, slowly but relentlessly… That life is passing all of us by, and it’s dangerous to forget this as you go about the same old shit back home day after day, week after week, very slowly progressing towards… Well, what? Not much at all, if you don’t bother to stop, examine your life and consciously set it on course for love, fulfillment and meaning.

The answer doesn’t necessarily in a new place – as tempted as I am to spend 6-12 months back in Krakow and see how that life goes. But absolutely, at least as a start, it demands a deep, fresh, charged, big-picture outlook… And that, I believe, is the real purpose of travel: to reset your mind and soul and put you back in tune with yourself and your destiny. In which case, I can happily say that this trip was a great success 🙂

Pleasant Perth

It’s nice to start a holiday with a mate driving you to the airport, then bumping into another mate as soon as you get there. Just an hour after I’d stepped out of the office clutching my laptop bag and backpack, I was already at a pub downing Peronis with Marcin and Kelly, light-headed with the sensation of my complete and newfound freedom.

The flight was uneventful, which I guess is a good thing for flights. I was seated next to an Asian lady who arrived 10 minutes after me, sat down, looked at the chapter heading on the page I was reading (which happened to be ‘When You’re Married, Your Wife Sees Your Penis’), looked at me, then closed her eyes and pretty much stayed that way until we got to Perth. I read several more chapters of ‘I Suck At Girls’ until it became more depressing than funny, had an apple juice, listened to some Falco, and a good couple of hours into the flight finally glanced at my watch to find out it wasn’t actually two hours in at all, but 35 minutes. Much of the rest of the flight I spent doing nothing in particular – observing the passengers waiting for the toilet, watching bits of Dark Shadows over someone’s shoulder, and trying to ignore the over-the-top gayness of the all-male flight crew, who reeked of chick’s perfume, exchanged endless wry smiles and remarked how great it was that “it’s just us guys on the flight” – a sentiment I can’t say I shared. Eventually though the plane hit the tarmac, everyone shuffled out, and at about midnight Melbourne time – 9pm Perth time – I was at my parents’ modest but charmingly rustic home in Woodbridge, consuming fresh ham, bread and beer in the finest Polish tradition.

It goes without saying that Perth isn’t London or Tokyo. There are no world wonders or celebrated cultures here. But it is extremely clean, tidy, easy-to-navigate and just damn pleasant. Everything looks like it’s just had a fresh lick of paint and where it’s not painted, like the bricks were laid yesterday. There are trees and birds and parks everywhere to an extent that puts our own ‘Garden State’ to shame – even my parents’ street ends in an untamed wetlands reserve with a creek running through it, like something out of a Mark Twain novel. Perth also has a knack for clever and artistic retro-fitting, combining the old, peeling and rusty with the slick, new and shiny in a way that not only seems to work well functionally but is aesthetically pleasing. Most of the sculptures I’ve seen around town are likewise made out of bits of recycled stuff – pipes, tins, sheets of corrugated iron etc – yet are far more interesting and meaningful than the soulless, plasticky shit sprinkled around Melbourne… complimenting rather than contrasting offensively with their surroundings. Wherever you go, Perth gives the impression of being inherently cohesive, thoughtfully planned and lovingly maintained, even if there’s nothing in particular to make you go ‘whoa!’… a down-to-earth, picturesque city full of green spaces and shimmering waterfronts that, to be honest, seems a lot more liveable if less exciting than Melbourne. Another way to put it would be that if Australian cities were women, Perth would be a relatively petite, unassuming but wholesome natural beauty – in contrast to the flashy, big-boobed and sexed-up glamour girls on the east coast. And I do like my unassuming natural beauties.

Perhaps as a result, the people here are more relaxed and friendly as well – much more like country than city folk. At the Midland Farmers Market where I had ‘kangaroo on stick’ and ‘crocodile on stick’ for lunch, complete strangers would make comment to one another while picking their fruit and veg: “How’s this bloody weather eh?” “Any idea where the scales are mate?” One dude who looked like a bushranger remarked to no-one in particular, while sticking mushrooms up his nose, “I can smell these mushrooms. They’re good. If mushrooms don’t have a smell they won’t have a taste either.” At one point an older man offered a little Asian mother in short sleeves his jacket. Which reminds me – you’re always seeing racially-mixed couples here; particularly white guys/Asian ladies – something I realized you hardly ever see in Melbourne despite the far greater number of, well, white guys and Asian ladies. A final observation on Perth folks that gets me, as a Melburnian programmed for rush and impatience, is that at boom gates, drivers never take off as soon as the actual gates lift, but sit there obediently until the bells and lights themselves have ceased – like L-platers on a driving test trying to make the best impression.

Above all it’s just nice to be with parents and eat healthy home-cooked food – fuckloads of it, including bigos, my own brand of pesto- and anchovy-smothered pizza, and some of the freshest seafood I’ve ever had. On Sunday night we went to a German restaurant which isn’t so much a restaurant as a domestic European dinner experience: You step into a warm brick house full of antique knick-knacks and framed watercolours and are greeted by a short, soft-spoken German man – the younger of a middle-aged gay couple who run the place by themselves – sit down at  whichever table you want, and basically wait for food to come out while listening to crackly vinyls of old German songs… one of which my parents immediately recognized from their childhood in Communist Poland, when it was used repeatedly in war films to signal “Here comes the evil Kraut.” There are no menus and no specials boards – basically you don’t get to choose what you’re served – but when the evening’s offerings are straight-out-of-the-oven bread, thick chicken soup, pork schnitzel with potato salad, and Black Forest cake, who could care less. Sure enough it was all delicious and, again, incredibly fresh – once a nearby group were served their helpings of steaming crumbed goodness, we could hear the cook in the kitchen smashing raw pork fillets for the next tableful, i.e. us. No pre-prepared shit bunged into a microwave here.

We spent this afternoon in Fremantle – for those who don’t know (as I didn’t), ‘Freo’ is a coastal suburb of Perth that’s probably best compared to St Kilda – full of streetside cafes, stalls selling beads and other hipster/hippy paraphernalia, and yes, hip young people and their hip partners. What makes it better than St Kilda is that there’s quaint colonial-era architecture around every corner, made largely of ocean wind-blasted sandstone reminiscent of Violet Crumble, which glows yellow in the sun and made the late spring afternoon seem all the more radiant. The throngs of young people, Edwardian facades and pedestrianized areas actually gave me a strong deja vu of sitting at Krakow’s market square at one point – a lovely thing, and not one, I have to say, I’m ever likely to experience in any of Melbourne’s trendy hot-spots.

Anyway that’s enough writing for one entry. I’m gonna close off with something I discovered thanks to a scrawl in a toilet cubicle at Fremantle’s Notre Dame University. The scrawl consisted of the second paragraph, and when I Googled it back home, found that it was part of a larger and rather nice bit of poetry:

“There was once a man who became unstuck in the world – he realized that he was not his car, he realized that he was not his job, he was not his phone, his desk or his shoes. Like a boat cut from its anchor, he’d begin to drift.

“There was once a man who became unstuck in the world – he took the wind for a map, he took the sky for a clock, and he set off with no destination. He was never lost.

“There once was a man who became unstuck in the world – instead of hooks or a net, he threw himself into the sea. He was never thirsty.

“There was once a man who became unstuck in the world – with a Polaroid camera he made pictures of all the people he met, and then he gave all the pictures away. He would never forget their faces.

“There was once a man who became unstuck in the world – and each person he met became a little less stuck themselves. He traveled only with himself and he was never alone.

“There was once a man who’d become unstuck in the world – and he traveled around like a leaf in the wind until he reached the place where he started out. His car, his job, his phone, his shoes – everything was right where he’d left it. Nothing had changed, and yet he felt excited to have arrived here – as if this were the place he’d been going all along.”