Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Canberra. It’s really not as bad as you think, Part 1.

Yes, I know, damning with faint praise and taking a cheap shot all in one go. But when I came home from my travels, a good friend suggested I take photos around the city as interesting as the European snapshots I’d been sharing via Facebook.

Now when it comes to PR I’m good, I’m very good, and I’ve had some challenges in my career (a day to arrange a media event on the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge for its 75th anniversary and find someone born the same year it opened for an energetic bridge climb? Tick!) but I feared this could be be my Waterloo.

It’s not that Canberra doesn’t have a nightlife or culture. It’s just that on a weeknight these things can be a bit hard to find. Scottish comedian Danny Bhoy summed it up earlier this year when he performed here on a Thursday night. “The biggest laugh I’ve had all day was from the stage hands, when I asked where we were going for dinner after the show.”

But, always game for a challenge I’ve started scouring the what’s on guides for new and previously unknown events to take part in.

Which is how I came to drag BFFs MattyHari and Captain Kangaroo along to The Front Café and Gallery in Lyneham to hear a Gypsy swing band from Melbourne, La Mauvaise Reputation, http://www.lamauvaisereputationband.com/fr_home.cfm

I do love The Front, it has a good line up of acoustic acts that they get to perform, shock/horror, on school nights. It’s a fairly small venue so it fills up quickly, and it usually doesn’t take long for the audience to get into the spirit.

La Mauvaise Reputation had a good reception tonight and there was plenty of clapping and foot stamping to accompany the double bass and guitar in French Chanson versions of Edith Piaf, Serge Gainsbourg and Charles Trenet. It was so vibrant and lively and the crowd so enthusiastic that for a while I thought I’d stumbled back to the bars of Paris (as opposed to stumbling from the bars of Paris as I was doing nary a few months ago).

It was brilliant seeing the audience getting into it, and again I don’t want to give the impression that Canberra audiences are unresponsive. It’s just that here in Canberra I’ve witnessed some excruciatingly lame audience interactions.

Like in 2008 during a stand-up performance by British comedian Bill Bailey. Visiting Canberra eight or so months after Kevin Rudd swept to victory with the Kevin07 slogan, Bill Bailey was being gently mocking about the name Kevin lacking a certain gravitas. 

“Kevin07, gone in 11,” yelled out some socio-political thinker from the back rows. While the rest of the audience squirmed in acute embarrassment at this example of parochial commentary, Bill Bailey took it in his stride and got the night back on track, moving on to tell us about his experiences of ASBO culture in London. Pausing to ask if we knew what it meant, he asked what it was called here. “We call them youths!” yelled out the self-proclaimed wit (I’d preface that word with ‘half’ or, more fitting,  ‘f*ck’), and this time his neighbours practically stifled him to prevent any more biting satire.

People of Canberra, I issue this plea, put a bit of EFFORT into your heckles. We can attract world-class comedians to our town, but we want them to come back.

And as for that Kevin07 heckle, in hindsight it’s STILL neither funny or prophetic.

So back to tonight’s gig, La Mauvaise Reputation ended with a song about a metro-ticket collector. As Paul the lead singer explained it for those of us who don’t understand French, I had the chance to relive for MattyHari one of my greatest moments in Paris. “See it’s just like that lovely Parisienne metro officer who thought I was 25 and was going to charge me the student rate,” I stage-whispered to her with pride.

“And the song goes on to say how the ticket-collector goes mad,” Paul continued to the audience.

“But that’s not like my ticket collector,” I quickly assured MattyHari. “He was perfectly sane.”

“Of course he was darling,” she replied soothingly. “Now be quiet and let the nice man sing his song.” 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Put your best foot forward…

I’m off to see the West Australian Ballet perform Cinderella today, so naturally my thoughts have turned to shoes.

I’ve often wondered how, if Cinders’ shoes fit her so well she was the only one who could wear them, she came to lose one in her midnight flight. Maybe the high heels had gotten too much to dance in, so she’s taken them off to keep on boogeying with the Prince. Just as well she didn’t try this in a Canberra night club, the bouncers would have threatened to evict her if she didn’t put them back on “right now!” I possibly know this from first hand experience.

Thanks to the fairy godmother known as Internet shopping, I have the perfect foot attire for today’s performance. I will be donning my fabulous John Fluevog yellow maryjanes, shoes that blends style, fun and comfort in one delightful package.

I discovered Fluevogs last year, whilst shopping along Chapel Street in Melbourne. Only a few shops stock them in Australia and only in a limited range, but fear not shoe lovers, the Fluevog website has a cornucopia of choices. A visit is a wonderful way to while away a few hours, http://www.fluevog.com/

As you can tell I love shoes, it’s one of the factors that identifies me as an inhabitant of the Bridget Jones-Carrey Bradshaw ghetto (work in PR/have a mountain of shoes boxes in my cupboard/insert your own conclusions about the state of my love life here). Browsing through a book store or shoe shop always puts me in a good mood. If only I could find a shop that stocks both.

And I’m not fickle in my shoe love either, I take good care of each and every pair, careful to polish and repair my darlings regularly. It can’t be a coincidence that in addition to Cinderella my favourite fairystory was the Shoemaker and the Elves; I can’t tell you how entranced I was when the poor shoemaker would awake each morning to find the worn-out footwear of the towns people transformed into rows of shining shoes.

Even when a pair of favourite shoes can’t be repaired anymore and have to go to the Great Bookmaker in the Sky, I still keep them. One particular pair of favourites was the camel-coloured cowboy boots that stood me (yes, pun intended) in such good stead for many years. Sadly a year in Edinburgh made them a victim to the ravages of the centuries’ old cobble stones of High Street, so they were given an honourable retirement and shipped home to Australia. Today they nestle in a soft coth bag at the top of my wardrobe, with my collection of vintage fashion, waiting to become the Heather Collection that will grace museums around the world (it’s going to happen I tell you!).

At the time I packaged up my beloved boots I wrote them a small eulogy, which I’d like to share with you…

These boots were made for walkin’ (a melancholy day in May 2008)

It is with a sad heart I remove my beloved caramel cowboy boots for the last time. Sadly cuban heels and soles can, and have, been replaced, but there is no cure when the leather tears away.

Ah beautiful cowboy boots made in Italy. You are truly Spaghetti Western Boots and, like those movies, I have reveled in your kitschness. We both knew we'd never go to a Texan ranch, but we'd look fabulous if we ever did.

Seeing and winning you in that E-bay auction was a triumph. I knew there was a risk in buying you that way. Would you fit? Would you be comfortable? But from the moment I unpacked your buttery softness and slid you on to my foot, all doubts were swept away, Cinderella herself could not have been more delighted. 

We were together that glorious day in Melbourne when we met Anthony Stewart Head, and I am convinced that had you been with me a year earlier when I met James Marsters, he would have propsed on the spot.

Over the past 12 months we've bonded even closer, so far from home. You've protected me against the freezing chill of a Scottish summer and we've roamed the cobbled stoned streets of Edinburgh together. You were with me when I met Olivier for that first interview to work at the Edinburgh International Film Festival; arranging a meeting via text Olivier asked how would he recognise me? "I'll be wearing a black skirt and camel cowboy boots," I texted back. "I think I'm going to like this girl," he said. 

Boots, we've danced the night away, at the Fringe Festival Paint the Town Red Party where I slipped and pulled my dance partner on top of me. It was wasn't your fault boots, the blame lies with a treacherous bottle of red wine that had found its way into my possession. I was painting myself red. 

And the dancing has gone on, from an evening cruise down the Seine, to hip-hopping in Rotterdam. Given my height we may not have stood tall but we've stood proud. Good times boots, good times. 

You've earnt your rest boots, you've earnt your honourable discharge.

But not for you the indignity of the garbage bin, no you'll be lovingly packaged up and sent home to pride of place in that burgeoning costume museum of my life. There you'll be a reminder of what life is about: good times with friends, travels, nights of dancing and, of course, stalking James Marsters. 

That'll do boots, that'll do.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Of graffiti, guerrilla gardening and ground beans…

I bet Julius Caesar, home from conquering parts of western Europe, was never greeted with a rainbow coloured helium balloon declaring ‘Weclome home’.

In which case I can only say that poor Julius should have been nicer to his mum and his sister. After two months of vagabonding around Europe, the smiling faces of my big sister and nieces met me at the airport and whisked me off for pampering at my mother’s house, where roses and the afore mentioned balloon greeted me.

I made what some may consider to be a tactical error by scooping my dog Tiffy up for a cuddle before saying hello to my mum, but not in mum’s eyes: a dog lover from way back she would have thought any other greeting just plain wrong, so I was still given the balloon and roses.

I’ve been back home for three weeks and it’s given me a chance to explore my home turf with fresh eyes. And the two months away have wrought changes. There’s now a new coffee shop at my local shopping centre, so now local patrons have double the choice! I can now walk my dog through the park and go get a coffee, Hackett might need to change its name to New New York! All right maybe not just yet, but the new shop is very welcome, stocking a delicious range of freshly baked bread and sweet treats to go with your coffee. So come and check out Little Beano when you get the chance.

Before I left Canberra I did a bit of guerrilla gardening near my apartment, planting summer bulbs and colourful pansies in some empty ground. I felt a little like the little girl in The Secret Garden, claiming a patch of earth no one else wanted. Seeds and bulbs went into my little garden in winter and no one has been near it since I left. I wasn’t sure how it would go in my protracted absence so I was rather delighted to come home and find pansies blooming in rows of red, yellow and blue, larkspur and gladioli foliage pushing through.

Sure it’s modest but I’ve seen my neighbours walking out and smiling when they see the flowers, so it’s nice to know I’ve given them a touch of whimsy to share. 

And that reminds me of something that made me smile today, a charming piece of graffiti completely different from the usual 'so and so wuz ere'. It lifts the spirits and is  a delightful reminder that home really is where the heart is! 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The last supper...

(23rd October 2011)

It wouldn’t seem right to end these travelogues without telling you what I had for dinner tonight.

It’s been pointed out to me that descriptions of food and pictures of food have been prominent features of my travel tales. “But that’s not true,” I've protested, “I write about drinks as well!”

I’m in Hong Kong, the last stop on my way home. I flew out from London at noon on Friday, and arriving at my hotel in Hong Kong at 2 am, according to my internal body clock. According to the wall clocks it was 9 am in the morning, and I still had two hours to wait until I could check into my room.

I spent the time falling asleep in the poolside cabana lounges and the very ornate red velvet divan in the lobby, until the desk clerk took pity on me, or more likely, decided I was making the place look untidy, allowed me to check into my harbour-side room.

The view is magnificent, right over Victoria Harbour, but I had no eyes for it today. I poured myself straight into bed and slept without moving a muscle for six glorious hours.

When I came too I was in more of a frame of mind to admire the view, as sun was setting and the lights were slowly coming on and illuminating the harbour. I took myself off for the best view, from the hotel’s swimming pool, and swam for awhile to clear my still sleep befuddled brain.

That was at the point I realised it had been almost 12 hours since I last ate, an unheard of occurrence in these travels.

On my Hong Kong stop in August I was staying in Causeway Bay and over three days came to know the area well, the local eateries are well worth a visit around there. So I jumped on the metro, and it deposited me two stops down smack bang in the centre of Causeway Bay.

I employed my usual navigational technique: wandering vaguely until I recognise something I took notice of before, usually a shoe store, boutique or café (welcome to Heatherland, the roads never take you exactly the same way twice, but there’s always something interesting or pretty to look at).

And my technique didn’t fail me this time either. I spotted the Glee Café, where I’d had dinner one night in August, hoping my meal would be accompanied by a group of show tune singing teenagers.

No songs, but the food is fantastic! It now being more than 12 hours since my last meal, I was willing to devour the menu, plastic coating and all, but fortunately the descriptions caught my attention. I quickly settled on just what I wanted, the crispy bean curd and roast-pork hot pot. I had to point at the menu, as I was worried my mouth wouldn’t stop watering long enough to speak.

And not long to wait either, barely had I started sipping an iced lemon tea than the hot pot arrived. Unfortunately I didn’t have the presence of mind to take a picture, frankly artistic pursuits are forgotten when your tummy is rumbling. But let me tell you it was everything I’d imagined, the bean curd crispy, the roast pork succulent, and all brought together in a broth lightly flavoured with fresh ginger. Ambrosia!

So tomorrow is the end of this wonderful journey, at least until I’ve got over the jet lag, After that there are still adventures to be had. I’m determined to find someway of visiting Europe every 12 or 18 months, three years is just too long to be away from my loved ones. Thank you all for making me so welcome, seeing you and making new friends along the way (hi Maya, Cathy, Dushyan, Rachel and Jacqui!) has been an absolute joy.

I thought you might be interested in some of my recommendations, (or just consider them my aides de memoir for my next trip and remind me of them when I’m booking hotels).

Hong Kong
I’ve stayed now in the Jia Hotel in Causeway Bay and the Grand Harbour View Hotel in North Point (I’m at the latter now). They are both very good, the Grand Harbour is more expensive but worth it for a night to see the Harbour light up. The Jia is my favourite, a good value boutique hotel with very friendly staff and a great beauty spa, the Halite, around the corner (I’m off there tomorrow for a massage and pedicure, hopefully they won’t be as horrified by my feet as there were in August).

Santiago de Compostela
I think the best hotel I stayed at the entire trip was the Hotel Altair. Converted from an old house, it’s an 11-roomed boutique hotel. The ground floor rooms private courtyards, the beds and bathrooms are large and the staff cannot help you enough. Throw in the most exquisite jam at the breakfast table I’ve ever had (rose petal jam, Kathy Goth and I searched all over Santiago for a jam but had no luck, it’s unique to the hotel) and you have got one excellent stay.

San Sebastian
Stay anywhere near the beach, La Playa Concha, and enjoy the 20-minute walk into the town centre. Don’t forget to go to any of the pincho bars, serving small, ready-made sandwiches. There was one that had the most incredible goats cheese topped with walnuts and balsamic vinegar.

Despite getting shunted to a less salubrious sister hotel than the one I booked, I loved staying on the Buda side of the Danube, so ignore the travel books and look for a hotel there rather than the busy Pest side. It’s an enjoyable stroll over the main bridge to the local markets, and by the time you get there you’ve earnt yourself a big, hot plate of goulash.

I highly recommend staying around the Opera district, there were quirky boutiques and jewellery stores, particularly Loyata, an atelier Nancy and I stumbled on the first night we were there. It looked close but the lights were on, so I pushed at the door and stuck my head in. This technique was later successfully employed on both a Chinese restaurant and a Serbian restaurant, just as there were both almost closing.

We stayed at the Carlton Opera Hotel, which has beautiful art deco fittings (including an old lift you’d expect to deliver a swaggering Hussar with a clanging sword belt at any moment), in an apartment that had a very strange layout. I stayed on an extra night and was upgraded from the awful single room I’d booked over the net to a much more luxurious double room, on the condition that I write a good review for the owner on the booking site I used. She kept asking me where my review was every time I saw her, I did give her a good review as she scared the hell out of me (she showed me she could bypass the anonymous feedback options to find out exactly how had left the review), but at least here I can privately mention that the towels are really scratchy!

The Novotel is an easy walking distance to the train station, you don’t need to get a cab, but far enough away so you’re not right on top of the trains. Jump on the train to Bath for the day and visit the Thermae pools, where you can see the Abbey spires and green hills from a warm roof top pool.

After a swim, head to the Sally Lunn café, Bath’s oldest restaurant. I always seem to end up in the Jane Austen room eating the Queen Victoria tea-the eponymous Sally Lunn Bunn topped with lemon curd and thick clotted cream.

In Bristol the markets in the middle of the town are fun and the Watershed filmhouse has a good café to sit and watch the lights of the river come on in the evening.

Hotel 53 had one of the best beds I’ve slept in, and the town centre has lots of good traditional pub style restaurants for dinner. Next time I’ll try not to have the crushing hangover from Cardiff that I did on this visit.

See earlier comment about the hangover. I do remember that we started at the Goat Major, named after, I’m not kidding you (you’ll understand that pun in a minute), the goat that holds the rank of Army Major in the British armed forces.

The hosts of the Warwick Lodge are delightful people, very friendly and welcoming. As they weren’t busy this time of the year, they upgraded me from the single to the double room at the top of the house.

Forget the hit and miss of London hotels, go for a self-catered apartment, it costs about the same and unlike most of the hotels you’ll have room to swing a cat. I stayed at the Grand Plaza Apartments in Bayswater, close to the Bayswater underground station that is only one stop to Paddington and the Heathrow Express. Easy to get around!

Olivier took me to Bob Bob Richard, a very glamorous cocktail bar near Carnaby Street. Their specialty is the apple and rhubarb gin martini. 

From there we were off to a fashion show that a friend of Olivier’s was promoting. 

It was held at St George’s Church Hanover, and I bored Olivier with descriptions of how it was once THE place that the toffs got married at (I know this from a lifetime of Georgette Heyer and Dorothy L Sayers novels). It was very, very beautiful but much smaller than I imagined, maybe to prevent the brides as they walked down the aisle, contemplating being hitched for life to a chinless wonder of the aristocracy, and turning and fleeing.

And that brings us once again to the here and now and the almost end of this journey. Don’t worry though, I still have one almost full day in Hong Kong, so I’m sure I’ll manage to fit in a few more meals to tell you about!

On the trail of vampires, werewolves and Time Lords…

(20th October 2011)

If I was going to run into The Doctor at any time of these travels, it was probably going to be between Bristol and Cardiff.

There should be a sign as you enter the city limits: You are now entering BBCland, watch out for flying TARDISes!

It’s here that the BBC films it’s two premier geek-culture hits, Dr Who and Being Human. So if there was a chance of walking into a blue police box that’s bigger on the inside, this was my chance and I was going to take it.

Bristol was my first stop in the UK; I arrived almost two weeks ago for a reunion tour with friends and family.

It got off to a good start outside the UK, in Vienna the weekend before, with Nancy who came over from Rotterdam. Neither of us expected the sudden cold so we spent a lot of time going from café to café, willingly eating ourselves into a stupor. The first afternoon we had lunch at 4 pm, dinner at 5.30 pm, cake at 7.30 pm, then a late night snack of Chinese dumplings at 11 pm. Now I wouldn’t want you to think we did nothing but eat indiscriminately, we had a list of things to do, a veritable mission:

1. See the Lipazane horses at the Spanish Riding School (tick, saw them going into their stables after their morning’s exercise).
2. Eat sacher torte (big tick on this one, and an extra tick for the cheery Sacher Hotel cloak room attendant who told us “Dressing-off the ladies is the best job ever!” as he helped Nancy and I remove our jackets.)

3. Attend a Mozart or Strauss concert (tick, tick, we attended a concert in the concert hall that the Strauss New Year’s concerts are broadcast from. Though beautiful and ornate it is a very very small space, TV really does make everything look bigger. There's also an extra tick for me for conducting an intense and entirely wordless flirtation with the trumpet player whilst seated in the upper galleries).

4. Eat cheese strudel (tick, between a Thai dinner at 5.30 and Chinese dumplings at 11 pm).
5. Find a ‘there are no kangaroos in Austria’ tacky tourist souvenir (tick, there is a surprising array of such memorabilia).
6. Eat schnitzel (tick for Nancy on this one, I opted for goulash).
7. See a German Shepherd police dog solve apprehend a criminal (our only failure, who knew Inspector Rex wasn’t a real crime fighter?).

So after three nights ( and LOTS of meals) in Vienna I flew to the UK. My suitcase was spot on for the luggage allowance but I was a bit worried all the strudels and tortes might have put ME well over the weight limit. Maybe the airlines allow for some extra poundage for travellers out of Vienna?

Once in the UK I’ve been travelling on a rail pass, bought in advance. It’s great, I don’t have to queue or book tickets, I wave my pass at rail attendants and jump on.  It’s a good way to travel for someone with my awful sense of direction, the train knows where it’s going so I let it do the work and get off in the middle of whatever city I’m visiting. Perfect for tracking down a recalcitrant Time Lord.

Day one was Bristol, which has an even bigger attraction than Dr Who: my friend Paula. And I discovered that you don’t always need a TARDIS to travel back in time, it’s three years since we’ve seen each other, but a plate of nachos for old times sake in a filmhouse café made the years disappear.

Bristol is an amazing city, the river runs through the centre of town and all the bridges made me think I was back in Venice. It has a thriving arts community, and I found a designer making steampunk inspired jewellery. I bought a small brooch made from an old beer bottle top, inside is a miniature print from an 1870s Parisian fashion magazine and tiny watch parts stuck in. I’m a big fan of steampunk, not having the faintest idea about technology I’m quite willing to believe alternative worlds where the computers and the Internet could have been powered by steam engines.

Bristol is also the setting of the first few seasons of Being Human, a BBC show about a vampire, werewolf and ghost sharing a house. Yes it sounds like the Comic Con version of the old 'an Englishman, Irishman and Scot walk into a bar...'. It can’t be a coincidence that it was full moon while I was there, and as I wandered around at night I did keep an eye out for werewolves in the park. I didn’t spot any supernatural beings, but I’m almost 100 per cent positive Jamie Bamber from Battlestar Galactica went past me at the train station, so it’s a obviously a stopping point for intergalactic travel too. 

Not far from Bristol is Cardiff, a mere hour and a half away. My friend Sean lives here and he arranged to take me on an impromptu Dr Who/Torchwood tour, taking me around the city sites where the shows are filmed. This involved taking the train down to Cardiff Bay, and to catch the one that had just pulled into the station we went from a standing stop to a sprint, racing each other up the stairs. We overtook an older man on the stairs, leisurely ascending, who told us not to run. Just as we similtaneously drew breath to be offended at his officiousness he added “I’m the driver, it’s not going anywhere without me.”

Our new friend the traindriver dropped us near the Bay and we headed to the outside façade of the Torchwood building. It’s here that my beloved James Marsters made a guest appearance, and was thrown across the set, sprawling on the ground. At first I was very excited about being in his footsteps, until I remembered that I’ve been up close and personal with him on several occasions now, the last one nary a year ago when he got rather an eyeful of my cleavage. Footsteps, that's for amateurs!

We figured the Doctor may be hiding out in some local bars, so we interspersed our tour with plenty of stops along the way, and as an upshot I was not feeling quite so tickity boo the next morning on the train to York. Fortunately it was grey and overcast (rather like my complexion that day) so I could settle in for a little nap on the four-hour trip.

York was a stopover to get a good night’s sleep for the trip to my old stomping ground, Edinburgh. Again time melted away the second the train pulled into Waverly Station, and for the next five days I threw myself into a proper reunion tour with friends and family in Edinburgh and Glasgow.  Much love to everyone who made this so special!!

But time doesn’t stand still though, as was evident from the presence of my two adorable new cousins, two year old Kenzie and three month old Kyle, the babies of my cousin Siobhan. My brain boggled at the idea of Vonnie being a mum. I first met her when she was a shy eight year old, all the way back in 1996 when I was living in an Edinburgh youth hostel. I remember her coming to visit me there, fascinated that I was sharing a room with seven other girls, and eyes wide at the amount of people coming and going from the hostel.

This time Siobhan, Kenzie and Kyle were part of a wonderful family dinner with my Livingstone and Pollock cousins, who for the past 15 years have been welcoming and generous with their vagrant Australian cousin. I was determined this time to break my history of ALWAYS being late for our family dinners, usually because of getting on the wrong train, taking the wrong road, or of having some weird ailment (burst ear-drum, facial paralysis, strained Achilles tendon, glandular fever to name but a few). Since I was staying in Glasgow this time, I actually made it onto the right train without a mishap, and arrived hale and hearty, for the first time in 15 years

After dinner we headed back to my uncle Alastair’s house and here was another reminder time doesn’t stand still. All through dinner Alastair had been telling us about the ‘Friend request’ he’d had for Facebook, and he made 16 year old Amber promise to set it up for him.

“That’s great,” his son Alan, said, “You can use it to get in touch with all your old school friends. Oh wait, you'd need a séance!”

And as soon as Amber created his account and explained how to use it, there was no stopping Alastair. “Right,” he said, “Now, how about this Twitter thing?”

Seriously, who needs an unreliable Time Lord when you can be in the here and now with your loved ones?

Is that the sound of Starlin turning in his grave?

(7th October 2011)

Taking slow, languorous laps of the thermal waters, under a ceiling of aquatic mosaics, I wondered if this was what being in a seraglio would have been like.

Around me were women of all ages, luxuriating in the waters of the women’s only thermal pools. I was a bit surprised to be honest that the sexes were separated, was everyone here particularly prudish?

And then I noticed that all the women over the age of about 60 had stripped off and were calmly working around from thermal pools to sauna rooms as naked as the day they were born. Totally and utterly starkers. All the younger women were well covered up in swimming togs. Let it not be said that the young have cornered the market on shameless, body flaunting behaviour; the senior citizens of Europe would no doubt take great delight in proving this wrong.

The baths were delightful, a succession of pools and sauna rooms of varying temperatures. I started in the first pool, 36 degrees, lapping slowly. It was too shallow to perform any intricate water-ballet choreography, so I contented myself with a brief tribute to Esther Williams, performing on the surface the two moves I made up in her honour: the turtle and the windmill.

The pools were much needed after a long day in Budapest, particularly after struggling through the last bastion of communism: the international terminal of the Budapest train station.

I was there today to buy my train ticket to Vienna for tomorrow and I am very glad I didn’t leave things to the last minute.

So far I really haven’t seen any lingering signs of the days of communism, English is widely understood, KFC, Burger King and Maccas are everywhere, and the BMWs on the road are signs of great wealth in the city.

I was a bit disappointed to be honest. I was half expecting to see more evidence of the bad old days, an expectation that was quashed this morning hearing Australian pop-princess Delta Goodrem on the airwaves in a supermarket.

But imagine my delight when I rocked up to the international terminal of the train station to find a dingy room, shored up by crude pine beams, and only three of the nine desks open to serve a roomful of anxious passengers.

I dutifully grabbed my ticket and took a seat. Just as well because I sat there for a long, long, long time. One of the desks was dealing with a group of young Americans, and I’m not sure if there was a bit of vestigial Cold War resentment going on, but they’d already been there for an hour, according to the disgruntled passengers around me.

It took so long to get served that I began to fear the boundaries of Europe would have been redrawn before it was my turn. The lady near me had already missed two trains to Munich in her wait for a ticket.

But eventually my number was called, and since I’d time to study the train schedule (in intimate detail, I’d forgotten to bring a book) I knew exactly what I wanted so I was in and out with my ticket in record time.

Thankful to have gotten out, I took myself to the market and indulged in an AMAZING beef goulash with dumplings and vegetables. Unbelievably good! 

It’s kept me going most of the day, and even after my swim I only wanted a light meal.

I’d gone past a local bar called the Nevada Pub earlier today and I was intrigued, so I figured that would be a good place to check out tonight. There were lots of satisfied looking customers, who all looked quite local, always a good sign.

I’m really glad I did because not only was the food and drink fantastic (a French onion soup served within a thick, crusty load of bread a campari and homemade lemonade, a pretty pink shade perfect for a post-seraglio drink), but more importantly The Song came on.

Now when you’re in a former Soviet-block country, there are two songs you really want to hear. And they’re not 99 luftballoons or Elton John’s Nikita (I remember feeling so smug at 14 that I knew more about Russia than silly old Elton. He didn’t even realise he’d given the girl in his love song a boy’s name!)

No, neither of those. I’ll give you a hint, one of them is The Final Count Down by Europe, which I haven’t heard, although there’s still time.

But if there was just one song from the 80s that I really, really wanted to hear whilst visiting a former communist country, it was this one…Wind of Change by Scorpion.

Ah yes there it was in all its synth glory with overwrought guitar chords, marking my final night in Budapest. What more could I ask for?

“Take me to the magic of the moment
On a glory night
Where the children of tomorrow share their dreams
With you and me
Take me to the magic of the moment
On a glory night
Where the children of tomorrow dream away
in the wind of change”

Budapest, I love you!

Just in case you had any doubt, Hungarians think I’m more refined than George Negus…

(6th October 2011)

It’s a big call I know, but I have it on good authority that it’s the honest truth.

Given the clue in the title, you can probably guess that I’m in Budapest now; I flew from Venice to Budapest this morning, on Carpatair, the official airline of Hungary. Going just on the name I really didn’t know what to expect. Would it be a flying carpet? A former Soviet-era rust bucket barely able to get off the ground?

It turned out to be a Dash-8, one of those taxi-cabs with wings that service the Canberra-Sydney leg so reviled by Public Servants. I’m not a huge fan, but at least they don’t go high enough to cause any real anxiety. It proved to be sound of wing, and as an added bonus the very friendly staff gave passengers a bar of rather nice chocolate as we all exited the plane. So, so far Budapest was impressing me (it really does only take a bar of free chocolate to make me happy).

Searching on the internet a few weeks ago, I choose the Hotel Gellert, built in 1911 at the height of the Art Noveau movement and home to the city’s renowned thermal baths. Entry to the baths is free for all hotel guests, everyone else has to pay.

So I was quite looking forward to my sojourn there, a spot of thermal bathing being rather appealing.

So I presented myself at the reception desk, only to have my hopes dashed. The hotel had double booked itself and mine was the short straw that had been determined to be shuffled off to one of the chain’s other hotels. I was assured I wouldn’t be charged anymore and would be given a bigger room, and that I would still have free access to the thermal baths, and that the two hotels weren’t very far apart, so I didn’t make a fuss.

The concierge then went to get me a taxi (courtesy of the hotel) to take me to my new digs. There was a bit of a wait so we got chatting, he asked where I was from and on being told Australia, he became very animated.

“We had the Socceroos stay with us,” he said excitedly, “they were here with George Negus. Do you know him?”

“Not personally but I know his work very well,” I replied of the veteran Australian journalist.

“Yes he is very funny. But,” said he said in confusion, “You don’t sound like him, you don’t say ‘G’day mate’. Why don’t you sound like that?” he asked, as if I was trying to deny my heritage and sell out my country for 30 pieces of silver.

I briefly considered explaining my ‘travel voice’, where I make a big effort to speak more slowly and enunciate more clearly, just so I don’t sound like I’ve just escaped from an episode of Kath and Kim, but I didn’t really want to get in to it. “I travel a lot,” was the simplest explanation I could come up with. He accepted that and went on to tell me about an ice hockey team he follows in Newcastle. Not the UK one, but the one outside of Sydney! I do love the surprises this trip keeps throwing up at me.

So here I am in my replacement hotel room, I’ll be honest it’s not a great hotel, but the bed is bigger and it’s in a much quieter part of town. I was a bit cranky at first, the original hotel is on the Buda side of the Danube, but near to the bridge that takes you the main Pest district. This hotel is even further from the bridge so it takes a good 45 minutes to walk to the start of Pest, and then even longer to the main attractions are.

But close by is a really beautiful park with a large duck-pond, and it is very pleasant to sit there and watch the sun go down.

Of course I did walk for six solid hours today, so I’m sure sitting on a stationary army tank would probably have done the job too if one had been handy.

I did have fun today though, and I’ve been fulfilling my mission: to single handedly solve the European debt crisis, armed only with my credit card!

I’ve come to the point of my travels, eight weeks in, where I am heartily sick of all the clothes I have with me. And quite a lot are already replacements for the clothes I ORIGINALLY bought with me, and abandoned weeks ago.

I don’t regret packing light, I’ve lugged my suitcase up and down so many metro steps and Venetian canal steps, that anything more that the week’s worth I have, would have killed me. I’ve kept my suitcase to an even 22 kilos the whole way, although I did cheat a bit. The suitcase I started with, the one that British Airways lost for a day and then delivered to me with a broken extendable handle, became a health and safety issue.

I’ve been dragging it by the top handle since Paris, it’s been frustrating and difficult, but with three weeks of being just in Santiago, it was doable. That is until I got to the Santiago airport on Saturday.

The top handle finally gave way, it was inevitable, the handle was not designed to be used that way. I managed to get it to my hotel in Madrid but knew it was time to say a sad farewell. I bought a new suitcase and although I felt like a traitor, I kind of fell in love with it. Its lighter, moves better and fits more, and it didn’t take me long to get over the feeling that I was a cheating on my old suitcase. The bruises where it constantly ran into the backs of my legs are still present as mementos of our time together.

I knew I’d made the right decision in Venice, where my new travel companion was a joy to manoeuvre up and down mossy canal steps.

And because it fits more, that naturally means…more shopping. So that’s what I did today; after all, Europe needs me to shop! And to be honest it’s not just in the interests of their economy, it’s going to be awhile until I get to do another clothes wash, and my walking shorts and the striped T-shirt I bought in Barcelona might attract an anti-biological warfare unit if I put them on again in the near future.

So I bought a new T-shirt to replace the stinky one and a new denim skirt at an outlet shop. I haven’t quite got the hang of the Hungarian currency but even with my dodgy calculations, I didn’t spend more than 10 euros combined. Bargain! I LOVE Budapest! (we can now add ‘bargain shopping’ to the short list of things I need to be happy. It’s right after ‘free chocolate’)

Hmm, I may have to try harder at this ‘single handedly saving the European economy plan. Ah well, there’s always tomorrow!