Thursday, January 28, 2010

Why Indeed

Cate has taken a few hours off here and there and we have been watching some episodes of ‘Deadliest Catch’. This is a TV series about fishermen who sail out of Dutch Harbor in Alaska to catch crabs. It is reputed to be the most dangerous job in the world – some 50 fishermen have died during the last ten years.

This happens mainly because the water is so (2° C) cold and if you fall in without an immersion suit you die within a few minutes. In the first series a boat sank and five fisherman were lost.

Now – it is not the most dangerous occupation – that would be the realm of something like coal mining in China where hundreds die each year – but these are Chinese and to TV Producers don’t really count - so I take the point.

It is indeed a scary job and we watch it mainly to see these tiny boats plowing through mountainous seas – and thanking our lucky stars that we are not on them but instead are in front of a fire with three cats.

We have been in some very scary seas while diving. It is a most unpleasant experience which is made much, much worse if you happen to be seasick at the time. If you have not been seasick my advice to you is to avoid it strenuously. Believe me – you will not have a good time.

I was browsing the latest edition of Vanity Fair (We received it a while ago but Cate purloined it to take to the Gym and I have just retrieved it) and my attention was drawn to an article about a yacht named ‘WHY’.

This is indeed the Godzilla of yachts – and certainly the weirdest shape I have ever seen for a boat of any kind - sort of like an electronic sea-going Krapfen. It is 58 metres by 38 metres. It has its own beach, spa, music room, swimming pool and helipad. It can carry 12 passengers and 20 crew.


The builders say, apparently without a hint of irony, that it is environmentally friendly. Well – it is probably better than a coal-fired power station – but I would say only just. WHY indeed!

But – for something more useful

You may not be aware of the Presidential Prayer Team but I urge you to visit it because, believe me, the President is going to need all the help he can get during the next few years.


Now not everyone thinks the President should be prayed for. I checked the site after the inauguration and it was apparent that some Christians pray only for white people. Indeed – some left comments that were – shall we say – un-Christian.

Enough are hanging on to make a difference – but it’s a been a bit difficult so far because there isn’t a single Republican in Congress who is prepared to vote for any piece of legislation that the President brings forward – now or ever. The dogs are really pissing on the President's swag and he's in more shit than a Werribbee Duck.

More prayer required is what I say. Get on with it! We really need to get something done before President Palin arrives and sends us all down the gurgler.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Great Baguette Disaster of 2009

In 1978 I bought my first edition of the ‘Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms’ by G. A. Wilkes. This wonderful book documents the many colourful expressions which are or were used in Australia. The new edition was released recently and I have received my copy from Amazon.

To broaden your horizons I will occasionally include some uniquely Australian expressions in my blogs. Feel free to use these in appropriate situations and startle your friends with the scope of your vocabulary.

My packing at the Spar checkout has not improved at all in the time we have been here – mainly because of the enormous pressure that one is placed under. The ideal situation is for you to put pack the heavy things at the bottom of your bag with the light and fragile things on top – and airily toss the the last item into the bag just as Helga the Iron Maiden with the steely gaze announces the price.

You can then pay – with the right money – getting rid of some of the kilos of brown coins which infest your pockets - and move on without being buried under the avalanche of stuff from the next person in line. (The cost in itself is usually enough to incite panic as you wonder what you possibly have bought that cost so much and did you accidentally pick up a bar of platinum and drop it in to your trolley).

But this never happens. The king’s ransom is always demanded while I still have a pile of things to dispose of. Then I start scratching around trying to find the small change I need but can’t do it quickly enough – panic - and pay with notes – getting yet another handful of change to add to my mountainous collection - and stuff this in my pockets as someone else’s tins and bottles start cascading onto my remaining groceries.

Other people don’t seem to have the same kinds of problems. The young people are much more agile and do the job with ease. The older women of course just stand there and pack their stuff while we all wait.

I always get something that just doesn’t go in the bag properly – or gets caught in the handles. Just one of these and it’s curtains.

In a ghastly incident in 2009 I got a baguette caught sideways in my shopping bag and just couldn’t get the damn thing out again. The bags are cloth and this one expanded to accommodate the baguette – which then made it impossible to get anything else in there.

I eventually had to break the baguette in half to extricate it and this took me maybe 30 seconds – it seemed like an eternity – and I raised my gaze fearfully to see Helga wanting money, a gigantic pile of my groceries glowering at me - and six customers waiting impatiently behind me.

The worst case scenario is when the little old lady (LOL) pays and then packs the rest of her stuff while you are still behind her - while you are having your items processed by Helga.

In this nightmare scenario Helga starts piling the stuff on top of the plastic shelf in front of the bench. When this is full she the starts putting it where the old lady is – but using your items to push the LOLs stuff further down the bench.

In this scene from hell you are then trying to move stuff off the plastic shelf and at the same time keeping it separate from the LOL - and grabbing back from her your Angus McTavish Pure Butter Shortbread biscuits that she is trying to snaffle.

By the time the LOL moves on you are up to pussy’s bow in groceries - and Helga is demanding money.

At this stage you can either cram everything into your bags as quickly as possible – and untangle the mashed remains when you get home – or throw everything back into your trolley and then retire to the packing bench to start all over again. I have often had to do this – first breathing into a paper bag for a few minutes to settle myself down.

There is very little you can do to slow the process down a bit. Some items don’t get scanned and if you put these at the back of the pile Helga may have to look up the price and this will give you a breather for maybe three seconds – long enough to hurl two items into your bag. You can also mess up the bar codes on some items so that Helga has to input them manually – but she is remarkably quick and efficient and has a vested interest in causing panic.

It is an excruciating and debilitating process and I always end up trudging home with a tangled mess of groceries and my pockets clinking with yet more unwanted change which I then add to the enormous and growing pile in a large dish.

I am checking online. There must surely be remedial grocery packing courses available somewhere.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Cats are rubbish at painting

MAK Wien

The Australian Open Tennis Thingy is on at the moment and has been for some time. I don’t know how long these things last but I do know that on every single day of the year there is tennis on TV. I have never understood why – except that people obviously watch it - and I don’t understand that either.

To me there is nothing more boring in the entire world than watching tennis on TV. Apparently far fewer people this year are watching the tennis in Australia. That I understand. It’s not as though there is nothing to do out there when the sun is shining. Perhaps they are finally coming to their senses.

But – worse than watching tennis being played – is watching the tennis players being interviewed after the game. Why do they do this? What could the tennis player possible say that could be useful. It is like watching rock singers being interviewed – pointless.

Get hold of a video of Angus Young from AC/DC being interviewed and you will understand what I mean. I love Angus and he is a fabulous guitarist but many years of excruciatingly loud music, wearing a school uniform on stage and inhaling and ingesting poisonous substances has reduced his brain cell count to single digits and it is pointless asking him any questions at all - other than would you like to go to the bathroom.

But he is more interesting than the average tennis player. The trouble is that when they are asked ‘what did you think of your game?’ they don’t say ‘I’m better – I won – he lost’ they go on and on about how fabulous the other person’s game was and how they had to use every facet of their game to best their fierce opponent and how they finally scaled this Everest and won the toughest game of their life despite overwhelming odds.

Unless of course they have just played Lleyton Hewitt in which case saying stuff like that would make the reporters laugh out loud. Poor Lleyton – he is built up before every event as being in top form to play the tournament of his life and they talk about his chances of regaining his Number 1 spot and then he either gets knocked out in the first round by an unseeded Yugoslavian – or – worse – progresses to the stage where he meets the Fed Express and gets creamed so badly they have to remove his body from the court on a stretcher whilst applying the paddles to resuscitate him. Clear - Bam!

But what I really wanted to say today was that I have developed an unhealthy dislike of a number of actors. I just don’t know why I have done this – it has crept up on me over a period of time. But I now cannot watch anything which contains Meryl Streep, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sally Field, Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell – and – I regret to say – many, many others.

This most probably is a sign that I am progressing towards becoming a complete curmudgeon – or could be due to the fact that these actors have perpetrated upon the movie viewing public some of the worst, most horrendous, poisonous, gruesome, ghastly schlock that it has ever been my misfortune to witness.

I hope I have not been too harsh and none of those actors reading this should take it personally - I know they and the writers, directors etc. do their best – it’s just me.

(Rant ends)

On a much happier note we had lost of nice snow on Tuesday morning but it was quite mild outside.

I have painted the wall where Sissi splattered wax and it is almost as good as new. If you think that a small and very active cat can help you paint – think again. Cats are rubbish at painting. What they are good at is dipping their paws in paint and then making white footprints on the floor.

I also patched up the damage I did to the wall when I hung two Jugendstil tiles. I really didn’t think they would fall off (and break) – but one did. It was the triumph of hope over experience.

But - the other one hung on like a limpet and I had to prise it off with a screwdriver. This caused a few problems which I had to rectify with sandpaper and paint. Cats are also no good at helping you clean up broken tiles.

Cate is staying in Fawlty Towers in Tel Aviv and is having a few problems getting anything done. However, she does have nice view of the sea and is quite comfortable.

And I should mention that my team - the Peoria Ponies - is in the Super Bowl. I have retrieved my T-Shirt and cap from the cupboard ready for this great occasion. My prediction is that the Colts will crush - CRUSH! New Orleans. Peyton Manning is the Man!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Ducks must be existentialists

The Australian Flag can only be improved by being wrapped around someone in Kansas. We have give this young lady a special Australia Day Award for her selfless devotion and promotion of Australia.

Today is Australia day and will be the subject of significant celebrations throughout the land.

Australia Day, 26 January, is the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet of 11 convict ships from Great Britain, and the raising of the Union Jack at Sydney Cove by its commander Captain Arthur Phillip, in 1788.

Australia Day

And – you know I never wish to be a curmudgeon – but 26 January 1788 was also the day we commenced the disenfranchisement and dispossession of the indigenous population, the wholesale destruction of the native habitats and wildlife, the pollution and ultimate destruction of some mighty rivers, the felling of millions of acres of native forests, the extinction of countless birds and animals – and the introduction of a number of species of plants and animals that have laid waste to vast tracts of Australia. Ladies and Gentlemen – I give you the Cane Toad.

This is probably the single most destructive creature (apart from humans) ever introduced to any country anywhere in the world - and has single-toadedly killed literally billions of Australia’s native animals.

And - in NSW in particular - we have always celebrated our convict heritage by electing to political office the most useless, vacuous, corrupt, incompetent bunch of drongos and no-hopers ever gathered together in the one place.

To celebrate these wonderful achievements Australians will have barbecues, burn steaks and sausages and drink copious amounts of beer. However, Australia is a truly wonderful place and in all my travels I have never seen anywhere I would rather be.

(Rant ends)

On Monday I went to the Natural History Museum to see the Darwin Exhibition. It is a brilliant museum with some sensational displays and the largest collection of rocks I have ever seen.

Rocks are a bit like birds with me – they all look the same – but I could not help but be impressed by the size and scope of this collection – which included a sliver of moon rock donated by Richard Nixon.

I never cease to be astonished by the immense amount of work that Darwin did to reach the conclusions that he did. It had never really registered with me how long Darwin’s voyage was. He started from Plymouth in December 1831 and arrived back in October 1836. This in a ship slightly smaller than our lounge room.

It also never ceases to amaze me at the amount of intellectual bankruptcy or intellectual dishonesty which prompts people to deny the principles enunciated by Darwin – and built on steadily year after year ever since. This because of some rubbish that they have been taught by people equally as stupid.

The museum makes no bones about this. It has sign that says – basically – Evolution is real – Creationism is nonsense!

viennesewaltz has commented about the TV channel W24, It does indeed show film shot from the front of trams, bicycle-type contraptions – and indeed Fiakers. We saw this when we first arrived and were totally transfixed by the concept.

It is in real time and it is exactly like sitting at the front of a tram and experiencing every traffic light or pedestrian crossing. It can be quite hypnotic and I often spend some time watching this on our bedroom TV before I go to sleep. It is certainly much more relaxing than CNN.

Comments on comments:

Parsifal has commented that the Austrian Times is a ‘stupid stupid stupid’ paper. No argument there. I hasten to add that I read the AT not for news but for its stupid surveys and to see the different innovative ways in which Austrian skiers and pensioners shuffle off the mortal coil.

Maalie has tried to depress me by telling me that Ducks don’t think. I am sure this is not right. Ducks are by nature existentialists – although the Ducks in StadtPark could best be described as ‘supported existentialists’ and I have never heard of an existentialist who did not have a high degree of consciousness and self awareness.

I am going to test this theory as soon as it gets warmer by reading them passages from Proust and Sartre. By my reckoning Proust should send them to sleep and Sartre will send them into a frenzy of intellectual activity (which may not be discernible to the naked eye but which I will be able to sense).

I will gauge their responses and report back.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Austrian Times readers don't like snow!

Snow Cat

Sissi doesn't really understand snow - but just loves it.

I am planning our next holiday and we have booked a Bike and Boat trip from Balzano to Venice in July.

Balzano to Venice

We had planned to go from Bruges to Amsterdam but that tour was fully booked. It is six months away in July so obviously there is a big market for this type of stuff.

Cate and Gwenyth are a bit worried because there are some ‘gentle slopes’ and the first bike day is 44 Miles (70 Kilometers). This is not really a long way on a bike – when I am riding in Wien I regularly do 32 Kilometers without any difficulty - so with some training beforehand they should be just fine.

Gwenyth shouldn’t be worried because when she was here in summer we rode 30 kilometers together one day and she had no problems - and could walk almost normally again after physiotherapy.

I am currently doing 20 kilometers daily on the exercise bike and will ramp this up later in the year when I start serious training.

I must say that – as much as I love the cold weather – it will be nice to get on the bike again and go cycling around the Donauinsel. Vienna is lovely at any time but it is particularly delightful in Spring.

Cate is off to Israel today and the cats and I are planning our four Cate-free days. We usually have a knees up on the first night and watch trash on TV. Luckily there is masses of this on the 150 channels which clog up our Sky box.

It is incomprehensible to me that people make some of this stuff – and other people watch it. It is so excruciatingly bad it makes we sweat with embarrassment for the poor wretched souls who have agreed to participate.

I can never do more than 5 minutes of any show. However – by all accounts they all seem to love it – and I guess it gives them their brief moment in the sun.

I have deliberately refrained this year from giving you any accounts of the numerous gruesome deaths sustained by the Austrian Ski Suicide squads which are infesting the slopes.

Suffice to say that there are many and varied way in which the Austrians merge with infinity and I am constantly amazed by their ingenuity – and particularly their apparent fascination with snow ploughs, piste groomers and snowmobiles. All of these seem to have some magnetic attraction for skiers who flock to them like moths to a candle – but at much higher speed - with predictable results.

The Austrian Times specializes in pointless surveys. One of the latest ones is about snow – and I quote:

“A majority of Austrian Times readers dislikes recent massive snowfalls, a new poll has shown.

More than one in two readers (54.1 per cent) said in the online newspaper’s latest poll that they hated snow since it "makes getting around more difficult".

More than a third of readers participating in the poll, however, said they loved the white stuff since it meant lots of fun for kids and great conditions for winter sports.

And 12.2 per cent said snow did not make a difference to them”.

Fantastic stuff! There is not much point in living in Austria if you hate snow. I think the 54.1% are probably living in the wrong country and should move to somewhere like Zanzibar.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

What do Ducks think?

About 10 years ago I developed very bad arthritis in my left shoulder. It was extremely painful and I couldn’t find any way to relieve it – except physiotherapy. I had scans to confirm that it was in fact arthritis and nothing more dangerous.

It was often so painful that I could not sit at my desk but had to lie on the floor –usually under my desk as I had an office into which people could see and I did not want them rushing in with the defibrillator.

People would telephone me and say

‘can I come and see you, it’s quite urgent’.
‘Sure’ I would say ‘I’m in my office’
‘I just walked past your office – you are not there’
‘I am under the table – come on down’
‘It’s OK it can wait’

And of course I sometimes had to call my management team together while I was in this state but they got the hang of it and sat around me in a circle while I lay in the middle of the floor. I only recruited people who were very adaptable.

We went to live in Townsville in Queensland where it was very hot – except when it was extremely hot - and the arthritis disappeared – completely.

I mention this because this winter – for the first time – I have arthritis in my left hand. This is the first time this has occurred and is no doubt a sign of things to come when I will be a wizened dwarf, crippled with arthritis, creeping around Wien and frightening small children. This could be next winter.

It is often quite painful and I cannot pick up heavy items with my left hand. I also have arthritis in my right foot – but it is not as bad as my hand.

So my question is – does anyone have anything sort of herbal that they could recommend. I am taking some fish oil stuff which seems to do some good. I don’t want to take any of the heavy duty stuff which is likely to be prescribed by a doctor because it is unlikely to do the rest of me much good. Any suggestions would be gratefully received.

Wien is just gorgeous today. Snow has been falling heavily since early morning. I awoke early. Muffin is practicing her high Backside 720s for the Winter Olympics and leapt on to me from her perch behind the bed.

When my pulse rate had dropped below 170 I thought it seemed very quiet so went out to the lounge room to look at the city. There was a light dusting of snow and it looked very promising.

Snow seems to deaden the sound of the city. Not that we can hear much in our Erie – but we noticed this in St Petersburg. It was deathly quiet all the time as everything was always covered with 20 centimeters of snow.

The one occasion it was not quiet was when the man with the white van tried to extricate himself from a snow drift outside our window. He did this by spinning his wheels violently for a few minutes and then shouting at his car while throwing lumps of wood under the wheels. There was no indication that he had done physics at school or understood the nature of either torque or traction.

Perhaps he thought that if he span his wheels long enough he would eventually get through the snow to bedrock and get some grip. I would have actually dug some of the snow from around and under the wheels first to give them a chance to bite.

I even thought about going out and giving him the benefit of my advice. Sure I don’t speak Russian but I reckon I could have done a pretty good job with charades and even planned how I would do it – and went through some scraping and digging actions in my head.

But in the event I decided against it because. Firstly because I was naked and secondly because I had no wish to be clubbed senseless by a large and angry Russian.

I was naked because it was always stifling in the apartment and we couldn’t find any way to adjust the heat – other than opening the windows – and we could only do this for short bursts as it was usually about -12° outside.

In any event – he was a local and what would I know – I come from Australia. So I spent some time wondering whether his engine would explode before his wheel bearings seized or the rubber on his tires melted – or if he would be asphyxiated by the smoke from the roaring engine or in if fact eventually the tires would grip and bury his van in the wall and demolish both the car and the apartment block.

I lost interest and went to bed. In the morning the car was gone. He left most of his tires behind.

There is now a covering of few centimeters of snow on the terrace and Sissi has been having a wonderful time burrowing around in it. I wandered over to Stadt park to get a few shots of the Ducks.

I am sure Merisi will have some lovely photos on her blog.

The Ducks don’t seem to mind the snow at all. In fact they always seem to be quite happy with their lives. Maalie will probably be able to tell us what Ducks think about – I am guessing not much.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Can you make a noise like a frog?

Light snow today but it is too warm to hang about and melts as soon as it hits the ground.

We have given Sissi a few snips but she complained so much that we did not get all the wax out.

I have decided not to shave her and will work on the de-waxing over the next few days. I can catch her unawares and get in two quick snips before she tries to shred me.

I was pleased to be informed by Maalie that I had captured some Tufted Ducks in flight. This was a great achievement as to me a Duck is a Duck and I am grateful that Maalie was able to highlight this extraordinary achievement.

I mean it’s not like discovering a new species – but I am well pleased – and with the photo as well.

Maalie (and indeed William) and I share a Prince. We actually share a number of Princes and Princesses together with a Queen and a Duke and whole hordes of lesser but oh so nobly born beings.

In Australia we have a form of government called a Constitutional Monarchy of which HRH Elizabeth II - the Queen of England and of Australia - (she multitasks) - is Le Grand Fromage.

Her representative in Australia is the Governor General and nominally Le Petit Fromage. She is currently Ms Quentin Bryce – a girl with a boy’s name - and is responsible for representing the Queen in Australia and for attending events, opening fetes, making sad and profound (but uplifting) statements after disasters, meeting foreign dignitaries – stuff like that.

Occasionally the Governor General is an alcoholic, gets truly plastered and sacks the government of the day. This happened once and is not likely to happen again because it created a ruckus that could be seen from the moon.

Now – occasionally the Queen looks up from watching Coronation Street and thinks – it’s time we sent someone to the colonies. It would normally be her son Prince Charles (the next in line to the throne – Eeeek!) but he is as mad as a cut snake and is rarely allowed out on his own.

So on this occasion our shores have been graced by Prince William, son of Charles – and second in line to the throne. He seems like a nice enough young man – no madder than the rest of his family – and an entirely suitable person for Australians to bow and scrape to in their droves.

He is swanning about in Australia at the moment and people are formicating all around him trying to immerse themselves in the royal aura.

On occasions such as this the question of an Australian Republic is always raised. We had a referendum on this some years ago and 75% of Australians voted for a Republic. There was a split about how we would elect the leader of a Republic and this was cunningly exploited by the master politician John Howard. So in the end the Republican proponents missed out because of disagreement among themselves.

Our current Prime Minister favors a Republic – but is unlikely to do anything in his first or even second terms.

I don’t think it matters much. I am in favour of a Republic but am in no hurry. The advantage of having a Royal Family is that they are usually benign, rarely corrupt and – in the case of the current family – provide endless hours of amusement because of their inevitably dysfunctional and whacky ways.

Of course the whole concept of a ‘Royal Family’ which rules over us in perpetuity is so bizarre and stupid that it is not worth discussing.

Now to more serious things.

The Democrats have lost the Senate seat in Massachusetts. WTF? How could this happen? Well there are many reasons – I am familiar with all of them and will not bore you with them now - but it is summed up by a quote from Drew Western:

“It is a truly remarkable feat, in just one year's time, to turn the fear and anger voters felt in 2006 and 2008 at a Republican Party that had destroyed the economy, redistributed massive amounts of wealth from the middle class to the richest of the rich and the biggest of big businesses, and waged a trillion-dollar war in the wrong country, into populist rage at whatever Democrat voters can cast their ballot against”.

Suffice to say that things in America are about to take a significant turn for the worse. You need to gird your loins for this.

It’s goodbye to Health Care Reform and indeed any other piece of legislation that the Democrats were planning on getting through the Senate. The Republicans are waging total war and are entirely committed to ensuring that President Obama can achieve nothing useful. My view is that President Obama will be a one-term President.

However, I have read some interesting speculation lately that Murdoch has signed up Sarah Palin to the Fox Network so that she has a platform from which to launch her bid for the 2010 Presidency.

Clearly this is a man who thinks – “I am not far from shuffling off the mortal coil – how can I take everyone else with me? “

I think a Palin-Beck ticket would be a real winner by the time we get to 2011 and am going to start storing supplies in the basement to prepare for the happy event.

Merisi has questioned my statement yesterday:

“The number of people who do not believe in a ‘god’ or a ‘supreme being’ is decreasing in most places except the USA and Muslim countries. It generally decreases in modern societies which are secular and where there are high standards of education. This is why religion is on the way out in most parts of Western Europe”

Hmmm…. I appear to have used a double negative which renders my statement – meaningless. What I meant to say was that religious practice is declining in Western Europe – but not in the USA or Muslim countries.

But – having said that – I can’t find the sources I used to make that bold statement. I will do some more research.

And by the way – Merisi has upped the ante by posting twice in one day. This is a sinister development and is not to be encouraged. How can we possibly match this?

A joke I thought of while writing about Sarah Palin.

A young child comes into the hospital and stands by his grandfather’s bed.

“Granddad” he says “can you make a noise like a frog?”

“Why do you want me to do that?” asks granddad

“Because mum says that when you croak she will take me to Disneyland.”

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Life, the universe and everything

Stadtpark at sunset.

I have received a number of excellent suggestions for de-waxing Sissi. Steph sent me a link to a site. This is obviously a common problem. Seems very strange.

We tried the warm water bath but the blood loss (ours) caused us to become faint so we are thinking about something else.

I think we actually need to cut it off. This will be less painful for all concerned. It will leave Sissi looking like Amy Winehouse leaving Annabel’s nightclub at dawn - but her fur will grow back in due course. (Sissi’s – I’m not sure about Amy).

And speaking of cats and water – check this dude out.

Water Cat

On Sunday night it started to snow and when we went to bed there was about 3 centimeters on our terrace. But – we woke up to drizzle and since then all signs of snow have gone and it is positively tropical. Today it was 3.5°. Eeek!

I am not happy about this, It is still supposed to be winter and it is snowing in other parts of Austria. I want my share.

A week or so ago I had a rant about the Australian government’s proposals to censor the internet. I suggested that this was probably the stupidest idea I had ever heard - simply because it could not be done.

I was interested to read the article in the New York Times which covers the issue of how the Chinese get around the censorship and the inability to access sites such as Facebook and Twitter. They use a VPN – which are either cheap or free – and provide private and unrestricted access to the global Internet.

Sooner or later the Chinese government will come up with a way to identify and restrict the use of VPNs. By which time the Internet users will have developed another solution.

Trying to censor the internet on a ‘global’ basis is a stupid and pointless idea. It won’t work. Better to provide anyone who wants one with a personal filter that they can install to in their home – unless their child is over 7 years old in which case she or he will crack it within 5 minutes.

Dumbness on this scale frustrates me.

New York Times

I put a note on Williams Blog about the latest Rapture prediction (Before 1 February). There is no need to worry about it – this guy’s predictions are rubbish.

However, William responded by sending an email about the daughter of a friend of his “whose daughter is now involved in the Lubavitcher circles of so-called Moschiah Men, who wear funny hats and yellow shirts, and dance madly in the streets because they're organizing a welcome of the Jewish Messiah, who's due back shortly on the planet Earth”.

I used to think that some beliefs were whackier than others but no longer have this view. I think they are all equally as whacky and each one is as soundly based as another. In some cases I don’t think the followers actually ‘believe’ in their cause. I have yet to be convinced that anyone could actually believe that Scientology has any merit in a spiritual sense. But who knows.

The number of people who do not believe in a ‘god’ or a ‘supreme being’ is decreasing in most places except the USA and Muslim countries. It generally decreases in modern societies which are secular and where there are high standards of education. This is why religion is on the way out in most parts of Western Europe.

It seems however that a lot of people still need to believe in something simply because life itself does not do it for them. The wonder of life and nature just isn’t enough and there just ‘has to be something else to explain it’.

I don’t have a problem with this and one day I will explain the long and tortuous road to my own current state of awareness. I might mention that I have tried religion and actually worked for a few years for faith-based organizations.

But – what I really object to – is people who are religious trying to impose their beliefs on society at large. I don’t care what you believe – but stay out of my life.

Don’t tell me women can’t have an abortion because it is against god’s will, or that god hates homosexuals, or that gay people can’t marry because god doesn’t want them to, or that god doesn’t want stem cells to be used to save lives or that the earth was created by god 6,000 years ago or that god sent you a message or wants you to do something - or any of that other palaver that you bang on about endlessly.

You believe it – so you suck it up. Leave me alone – I am more than happy with my life and don’t need an invisible friend.

I just have to be with Cate and the Ducks to know all I need to know about life, the universe and everything. (Well, maybe not the universe).

Monday, January 18, 2010

Wrestled from the mouth of a tiger

Ducks - Alberner Hafen - Wien

It is proving to be much more difficult than I had anticipated to de-wax Sissi. Most of her stomach is covered with wax and it has sort of gone hard and lumpy and is clinging to her fur. I can get little bits of it but she has a short focus for this type of stuff and starts biting me as soon as I get going. Brushing does not work as it just pulls at the fur and makes her unhappy.

She does smell quite nice because the wax was perfumed.

I spent a couple of hours cleaning the wax off the floor and walls. This was extraordinarily difficult because of the spray pattern. There were thousands of little spots of wax, punctuated by streaks and blobs. The walls will never been the same and will need repainting. I keep some white paint in the basement for just such emergencies.

We have found one person – Parsifal – who likes Topfenstrudel. In fact he is very fond of it indeed. Perhaps I am missing something? I might give it another try (joke!).

I have noticed recently a resurgence in young people’s clothing that looks like it has been subjected to close attention by Al Qaeda and then washed in a cement mixer with gravel. I guess it is a resurgence of the fashion thing – I remember years ago you could buy jeans without knees – and they cost more than jeans with knees. It doesn’t make sense to me but anyone who never wears anything but black T-Shirts and jeans with knees has lost all credibility in terms of fashion commentary.

Anyway – I saw this girl with the sweater which looked like it had been used for target practice and then to clean a car engine. It reminded me of my very favourite humorous writer David Sedaris. My daughter Melissa introduced me to his books a couple of years ago when I was staying with her in Paris and I have devoured everything he has written.

His most recent book (2008) is ‘WHEN YOU ARE ENGULFED IN FLAMES’ and following is a short excerpt – about distressed clothing:

“The only expensive thing I actually wear is a navy blue cashmere sweater. It cost four hundred dollars and looks like it was wrestled from the mouth of a tiger. “What a shame” the dry cleaner said the first time I brought it in. The sweater had been folded into a loaf-sized bundle, and she stroked it, the way you might a freshly dead rabbit. “it’s so soft” she whispered.

I didn’t dare tell her that the damage was intentional. The lengthy run across the left shoulder, the dozens of holes in the arms and torso; each was specifically placed by the design team. Ordinarily I avoid things that have been distressed, but this sweater had been taken a step further and ruined. Having destroyed it, it is now indestructible, meaning I can wear it without worry, For half this price I could have bought an intact sweater, thrown it to a tiger and wrenched it back myself, but after a certain age, who has that kind of time”

Interestingly, in the first print run of the book the dry cleaner uses French (Well she is French) and says “Ma Pauvre” instead of “What a Shame”. The copy I have now is one I bought from Amazon a short time ago and it has been dumbed-down – and in the process loses meaning. But that’s what happens.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

I am ready for Oymyakon

Our night out at Ein Wiener Salon was indeed an epic performance. It was Sven’s first day back after holidays and he put his heart into every morsel. Every meal at this restaurant is sensational – but this was special. This is what we had

Orangenlachsforelle mit Estragonmayonnaise, Wildkräutern & Saurem Kürbis

Sellerie-Apfel-Karottensuppe mit knusprigem Sellerie & Sellerie-Orangensalat

Gerbratene Gänseleber auf Topinambour, Stangensellerie, Löwenzahn & Preiselbeer-Ananaschutney

Confierte Entenkeule mit Dattel-Erdäpfel-Roulade, Rotkohl & Sanddorn

After we left the restaurant, however, things deteriorated badly.

We started heading for home and Cate said ‘let’s pop into the Schwarzer Hahn for a nightcap’ – and then bounded off towards it. Mayhem ensued. The less said about it the better – but it was a very late night indeed.

We made some new friends – can’t remember their names now but we bonded on the night. Unusually – we did not bring any home.

It was a bad day for all concerned on Friday – particularly Cate who had to work and Gwenyth who had to spend 30 hours flying to Australia. She was however upgraded to First Class on Etihad so this eased some of the pain.

In my case I regained my sight and the use of my hands at about midday and was able to force down some coffee.

On Saturday Cate achieved her ambition of buying me a proper coat. It is made by Christia in Italy and will get me through the fiercest winter imaginable. I am ready now for Minsk or indeed would be quite comfortable in Oymyakon.

During the last two weeks Sissi has developed a passion for shredding anything Cashmere and has managed to destroy a couple of Cate’s prized possessions. On Sunday she excelled herself by jumping on a small table on which a wax lamp was burning. The table collapsed.

She is now covered in wax - which will come off in time. I rather suspect that I will not get all the wax of the walls and ceiling but we can use the table for firewood.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

We have some hand-made camels.

Neva River, St Petersburg

I was reading the latest edition of Dogs Monthly and saw an article about an Austrian dog who can recognise 340 words.

Now they say that the dog can recognise the words – but I am not sure that makes it intelligent – I mean Dick Cheney could recognise words - but let’s not quibble.

I told Muffin about this and she snorted derisively and – if she could speak – would have said. ‘Why would it bother?’.

Exactly Muffin. Why would a dog want to recognise 340 words when about 6 will do the job quite adequately. There is stuff that you simply do not need to know. Cats recognise these boundaries but the problem with dogs is that they try too hard.

I do of course apologise to all dog owners who feel slighted by my blog entry and really do believe that their Rover is the most intelligent and wonderful creature on the planet. I particularly apologise to my son and his two dogs Lenny and Bandit who I am sure are both remarkably intelligent.

It is a bit hard to tell because on the two occasions I met Lenny he spent the whole time hurtling around barking and then trying to piss on my feet and it is hard to gauge a dog’s IQ when it is doing that.

William has made some telling points about building pyramids and I need to do some more research. The documentary I watched was quite compelling but the ‘ramp up the middle’ concept makes much more engineering sense.

I think my documentary maker was using flawed research and is not as smart as the Egyptians who built the pyramids. I must also apologise to any of the still living free Egyptians who built the pyramids. As Merisi has explained – they were not all slaves - and in fact I think my documentary showed this but it was a piece of information I did not retain.

I have reached the age where if I retain new information some old stuff falls out the other side so I need to be careful with what new stuff I collect.

We have finally solved our guest bedroom lamp imbroglio and have purchased two camels – one sitting and one standing. These are made out of resin and are just fabulous. Well they are to us but to an untrained eye they may seem a bit strange. They are hand-made locally by Lori Rosenberg and I shall provide pictures next week.

I turned off my Data Roaming in Russia – except for when I used the iPhone for navigation and once when I left it on Roaming overnight. This cost €93,75. This phone must have relatives in Zambia which it calls when we travel!

I did not respond to the debate about Tafelspitz but should say that I find it strangely unappetizing. Like Merisi – I prefer a good steak. I think Tafelspitz is one of those things – like Lamingtons and Vegemite – that you have to be brought up with to appreciate.

And as for Topfenstrudel – if anyone out there has ever eaten one – and enjoyed it – please let me know. It is singularly the most unappealing thing I have ever eaten.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

I will always be a pointer and shooter

This is Monika Rupert Jerilderie (mother of Sissi).

When Monika arrived in June she was a skinny, nervous wreck (she had been abandoned when pregnant with 5 kittens). It took me months to settle her down – and even get her to come near me. I could only do this by lying on the floor near her and coaxing her to come over.

She is now very fat, and remarkably happy. She often comes and snuggles up to me when I am watching TV or reading, or indeed using my PC - and she just loves to sit on the keyboard and make words with her bottom.

She is a truly gorgeous, gentle cat and I love her to bits.

I bought my new camera (Replacement for Thieving Russian Bastard (TRB) camera). It is a Canon 500D.

I bought another Canon because I still have some lenses that the TRB did not get. It comes with 4 manuals – in German, French, Dutch and Italian. Hmmm……something missing. I could download one from the Internet but it will be too cumbersome to carry around so I have ordered one online.

I bought an 18-200 mm lens which will probably do most of what I want to do. I have a 300 mm for Duck close ups but don’t usually carry that about with me. However, as instructed by a number of people (Merisi, Cate et al) I will no longer carry my camera in a backpack - so as not to be pillaged by T (name your country) Bs.

Today Gwenyth and I went to the KHM to look at art. I am a member there so go quite often as I just love some of the paintings – and indeed the artifacts the Austrians stole from the Egyptians – who must really be unhappy about being stolen from by almost every country in the world before they realised that all those bits and pieces lying around in the sand were really quite valuable.

I saw a documentary about how the Egyptians built the pyramids. It was not so hard – well not if you have 100,000 slaves and a fair bit of time on your hands. They built gigantic ramps around the pyramids as they rose into the sky and trundled the stones up these to put them into place. They had very sophisticated methods of moving large lumps of stone around.

Some people believe that the pyramids were built by aliens. I suppose it’s possible. I mean – I can’t actually prove that aliens don’t exist or that they did not build the pyramids. I must say however that if this is the best aliens could do I would not want to travel too far on one of their space ships unless I had a significant amount of travel insurance.

I have been thinking of sending a copy of the documentary to the NSW Government so they can see that it would indeed be possible to build a decent road from Sydney to Brisbane in less time than it took to build the pyramids.

Gwenyth does not linger in museums so I did not see my favourite picture "The feast of the bean king." by Jacob Jordaens. It is a beautiful picture with fabulous characters and – an essential ingredient to any top ranked painting – a cat.

After that we went to the Albertina which currently has an exhibition of Impressionist Art. I don’t understand Impressionism – but I like it. There is also a fabulous collection of art given to the Albertina as a permanent loan by Rita and Herbert Batliner. It includes major works by Monet, Renoir, Cézanne, Chagall, Picasso, Modigliani, Matisse, Kandinsky, Sam Francis, Mark Rothko, Roy Lichtenstein and Francis Bacon.


And finally on to the American Bar for a coffee.

American Bar

Tomorrow I am going to show Gwenyth the ‘Friedhof der Namenlosen’ which will look fabulous with the snow still lying around - and I will take some photos with the new camera. I expect no improvements with my photography notwithstanding the acquisition of new technology.

I have accepted that I am a ‘point and shoot’ user and that no amount of farnarkling will ever make me a better photographer than I am. Having accepted that – I must say that some of my Duck photos are not too shabby and in the unlikely event that is ever an exhibition of Duck photography in Wien – I will be up for it.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Don't they have enough nitwits already?

Today we got up really early to go to the Zahnarzt (Dentist - literally tooth doctor) for a checkup. This was our first visit to an Austrian Dentist (because we went to see Craig when we were in Australia) so we were very excited.

The dentist has a big practice and seem to have lots of assistants. He also has a very strange (for me) X-Ray machine in which one is required to put one’s entire head. This is probably normal here and seems to be very efficient.

We were both sent on our way without any interference with our teeth and told to make an appointment with one of the multitudes of ‘Dental Hygienists’ who were swarming about the place.

Our Austrian Health System E Cards got us the treatment for free. The Dental Hygienists will cost about €90 but by Austrian standards that is really good value.

Teeth are not covered by Medicare in Australia so if you can’t afford private cover you are going to end up being your own dentist. It’s not supposed to make sense.

We have secured a booking for Ein Wiener Salon on Thursday night and are very excited about this. It is getting harder all the time to get in – and we can understand why – because it is the best food in Wien – even when you have to eat in the kitchen, put up with the smoke and have the dog put his head on your lap.

This will be our final knees up as Gwenyth leaves us on Friday. However – we are planning a cycling and barge trip from Bruges to Amsterdam in July.

This sounds like bliss – 7 days of cycling alongside canals and on country roads in Holland and Belgium and in the evening relaxing on a barge with a nice meal and a glass of wine. And – we only cycle about 30 kilometers each day – this will be a doddle – I do this in 2.5 hours in Wien.

I should mention that the snow has gone but it is very cold and the snow that remains lying about is very icy.

And another thing – the Fox network has signed up Sarah Palin. Don’t they already have enough creationists, birthers, death panelists and nitwits?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Gwenyth now understands the wood issue

Hermitage, St Petersburg

Gwenyth and I went to buy some more wood. Gwenyth is not a party girl and likes to sit at home in front of the fire at night and watch movies. We have lots of these and on Sunday watched Das Boot – a classic German movie about a U-Boat. This went for about 5 hours and was a 20 log fire – so a shortage loomed. Not as bad as the UK Grit Shortage remind you – but potentially a problem.

Over the last week we have watched Dr Strangelove, Enemy At The Gates, Stalingrad (the classic German film by Joseph Vilsmaier), Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line. That was War Week, we are now moving onto politics.

Gwenyth now understands the difficulty of buying wood and getting it into the apartment and asked the question I have often asked myself ‘Is there an easier way to do this?’ She has two Masters degrees but came up with the same answer I did oh so long ago – ‘yes – get someone else to do it’.

On Friday we went to Plachutta so that Gwenyth could partake of the Boiled Beef. We arrived precisely on time but were shunted for 15 minutes into the bar area – which was full of smokers – to cool our heels while our table was prepared.

Our complaints about being left to stand in a smoking area were met with an uncaring shrug – ‘we only have one waiting area’ but we got our revenge by hanging our coats on the wrong pegs and causing chaos. Apparently each table has its own pegs and our thoughtlessness cascaded throughout the restaurant and had guests scratching and biting each other as they fought over coats and pegs while hapless waiters tried to restore order.

Gwenyth said that she was glad she had the Boiled Beef for the experience of doing so but it is not likely to be added to her repertoire for Sydney dinner parties.

Saturday was more exciting and we went to our current favourite restaurant – Cantinetta Antinori. This is always very good – but was a bit too smoky on the night. We had a really good waiter who pretended that we could speak German and didn’t grit his ears when we ordered things.

On Monday Gwenyth and I went to the ‘amusement park’ at the Prater where I rode the Riesenrad (Ferris Wheel) for the first time. This is not a ride for thrill seekers as it travels at glacial speed but we had fun looking at all the landmarks through a light sprinkling of snow that was falling at the time.

I had always imagined that the amusement park would be absolutely gruesome and it met my expectations precisely. Fortunately it was closed – apart from the Casinos – so we were not tempted to go on any of the rides - or indeed the ghost train. But look – I am just a curmudgeon and I am sure it would appeal to small children - or short-sighted people with no sense of shame.

On Monday we also visited the former home of Ernst Fuchs who is one of Wien’s most famous artists. He lived in the former Otto Wagner Villa in Hütteldorf. Herr Fuch’s art is not really my cup of tea as I can never get the hang of art where a person’s intestines are on the outside of the body – and there are far too many religious bits for my liking – but his mother had him baptized as a Catholic to avoid his being sent to a concentration camp so I can understand his enthusiasm.

It is a fantastic house – in the true sense of the word – and is certainly worth seeing.

It is fascinating to watch the airlines and security agencies in action after each attempted or actual or terrorist attempt. The underpants bomber has caused complete chaos throughout the world and we experienced some of this coming back from St Petersburg. Interestingly – no one wanted to look in our underpants and were still focusing on shoes. Perhaps they didn’t get the security update bulletins.

There have been a couple of incidents on the USA recently where really stupid people have made really stupid remarks while on board planes. Things like ‘how do you know I don’t have a bomb in my underpants?’

These types of comments inevitably prompt the return of the plane to the place from which it started and the arrest of the dickhead who made the comment. Interestingly – the last couple of incidents have prompted the Air Force to scramble fighter jets in case they have to shoot the airplane down.

Excuse me?

I think this is a slight overreaction to someone who has dust for brains and would prefer it if the flight attendants would just club him senseless with a stale croissant– especially if I am on board.

I imagine we are quite safe at the moment. The only person in the USA at the moment with dynamite in his underpants is Tiger Woods and he has his own plane.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


Badger and Cate. Red Square.

Cate came home early on Friday because Wien was placed on alert as huge snow falls were expected in the city. Of course it immediately stopped snowing and instead we got rain. This proves what we already knew – that weather forecasting is an imprecise art the world over.

Sissi is very disappointed because I had promised her at least 20 Centimeters of snow - in which she just loves to play.

The Stadtpark Duck Pond is no longer frozen over and there is now lots of open water but there is no sign of the Swan which Merisi saw late last week.

I have been watching the grit catastrophe unfold in Britain. BBC News has reported almost nothing else – but as there are 24 hours to fill and not much to fill them with – we get the same news every hour.

Anyway the story is that there has been so much snow and ice that the local authorities are running out of grit for the roads. Now I think grit is salt – it looks like salt – but I will need someone to nail that down for me. Perhaps Maalie – he is in the thick of it.

There was (so they thought) plenty of grit but supplies are running short and apparently – according to many – and particularly the Opposition Parties – this is a national scandal, is the result of poor planning, shows complete disregard for the Proletariat and is possibly a plot to bring down the Monarchy.

It is certainly a ‘grit-gap’ and is rapidly heading towards ‘grit-gate’. BBC reporters report breathlessly from next to ‘dwindling piles of grit’ or from roads which are suffering from grit-lack. Emergency supplies are being imported urgently for Europe (the banner under the story said ‘Britain imports ice from Germany’ but I am sure they meant grit).

People have been stealing grit! Good Grief! There is nothing lower than a grit thief (except the Russian bastard who stole my camera!).

People in the street have been interviewed. Not surprisingly - none of them is in favour of running out of grit.

I feel compelled to do something. I may encourage President to start a ‘Grit Lend Lease Program’ to get Britain backs on its wheels. I may start a 'Grit for Britain’ campaign – although I am not sure Austria would be absolutely the best place to do this.

On a happier note the Temporary Prime Minister, Gordon Brown has said that there is ‘no chance that Britain will run not of gas or heating oil’. This is a clear sign that people should start chopping up their furniture or be out in the woods with axes.

Cate and Gwenyth went to Schönbrunn on Sunday. This was Cate’s first visit. I have still not been and said that if I did go it would impede my progress towards making Spicy Lentil Soup for dinner. This was the show stopper for Cate so I was let off the hook.

Look I am sure it is just lovely – but it’s the middle of winter, it’s cold, the city is covered with slush, I have seen more palace and castles in the last year that most other people see in a lifetime (and I can tell you that they are pretty much all the bloody same) and we have just been in St Petersburg for a week.

In between watching the grit saga unfold over some days I came upon a truly weird thing. Something upon which I have never come before. It is called ‘tractor pulling’. I chanced upon the competition being held in Ohio and hosted by the Ohio State Tractor Pullers Association.

I watched this for a while and saw very powerful and strange looking machines drag large lumps of something (I couldn’t really work out what) along the ground as far or as fast as they can (I am not sure about the rules). To do this they span their wheels and spurted gouts of flame and smoke while people held their hands over their ears. I saw Judgment Day.

Being by nature inquisitive I had a quick look at the Internet to discover that there are tractor pullers and competitions all over the world. I am astonished that I have reached my vast age – and know so much trivia – and not know about tractor pulling. How could this be?

It appears to be a spectacular waste of time, energy, resources and money so of course is the ideal recreational activity for people who like smoke, flames and noise. (They are probably Republicans and use minced owls for fuel).

Thursday, January 7, 2010

What is it about aliens and bums?

It snowed heavily here on Tuesday night and we awoke to 10cm of snow on the Terrace. Sissi had a wonderful time and spent quite a bit of time burrowing around in it. I had a brief look at Beatrixgasse and there are cars covered with snow – but the footpaths are clear.

The Christmas Tree was chopped up and burnt on Wednesday. It made a nice crackling sound which startled the cats a bit but was otherwise most satisfying.

It was a public holiday in Austria (Epiphany - any excuse will do here) so we stayed at home. Cate and Gwenyth are building photo albums online which they will have printed and give to people. I don’t know why they are doing this but it is keeping them busy and out of my way so that I can get on the household chores.

Reflecting on St Petersburg I think it was one of those magic times that could never be repeated. We got there at perfect time in terms of weather and the quantity of snow and it may not be like that again for many years. There are of course many things still to see so we will go back again one day – probably in Spring.

We missed New Years Eve because we couldn’t make a decision about what to do. We had originally planned to go somewhere for dinner but the place we wanted to go to - the Grand Hotel Europe - go was €455 per person (Eeek!) so we passed on that.

We ended up having a pizza and an early night after deciding not to walk to the gigantic square outside the Hermitage where they had the stages set up for a show (yesterday’s blog photo). The chances of getting lost, robbed, murdered – or just plain freezing to death - were just too high.

In the interim I have been browsing websites which tell me about graduation caps and gowns, graduation songs, graduation themes and graduation parties. These are for pre-schoolers who get through the almost impossibly difficult first couple of years with building blocks and paints. It’s hell – who doesn’t deserve to graduate after that.

Graduations are also the current big thing for kids coming out of kindergarten and early school – and then the big one – grade school.

By the time these American kids come out of grade school they will have graduated about six times – but won’t be going to college. More than 60% will believe in Creationism and think that Jayzuz died for their sins (and if graduation after pre-school is not a sin I just don’t know what is), quite a few will have been kidnapped by aliens and been examined rectally, (what is it with these damned aliens and bums?) and an extraordinary number will think that Sarah Palin will make a good President.

So after about multiple graduations they will still be dumber than Mud Ducks. The dumber America gets – the more it scares me.

My Blogs since getting back have been dull and listless and I am having trouble getting back into it. I am sure I will be better next week.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Is there a Ministry of Approving Restaurant Menus?

It was snowing lightly in Vienna on Tuesday – but this hardly counts at all after our experiences in Russia. But it is nice to be able to walk along the streets without having to negotiate metre high piles of snow and ice.

Russians seem to place very little importance on the availability, location or condition of toilets. They are hardy souls and I guess these things are just not important. They were important to me because I am not accustomed to wandering snow covered streets in temperatures as low as -15°.

I am sure there is a good reason why toilets in Russia do not have seats. I can’t think what it is but I will do some research and let you know if I find out.

There must also be a reason for the most terrifying thing I have ever seen in a toilet anywhere in the world. I am working hard on getting it out of my head so am not going to describe it here – and you wouldn’t believe me anyway.

Every toilet I saw in Russia had an attendant – usually a woman – and usually with the same demeanor as the Metro ticket sellers. It seems that the role of the Toilet Attendant is to first remove the toilet seats and then to stop any cleaners from entering the toilets. In both this tasks they have an impeccable record.

While we were in Moscow we scuttled from Red Square into the GUM Department Store to get out of the driving snow. I went looking for a toilet and was directed outside and down into a freezing dungeon, where I found holes in the floor over which one must hover – or perch.

I would not have done this unless I really had to. I will say no more on this subject except that it was a scarifying experience, was something I will never ever do again, has probably caused permanent psychological damage, has improved my balancing skills – but didn’t do any physical harm apart from my needing a couple of stitches from my travelling sewing kit.

Everyone is Russia has a uniform – yes even the toilet attendants. Everyone wants to see your passport. Everyone wants you to have a piece of paper – but always a different piece. We went into a couple of restaurants where the menus have official looking stamps and are signed. What is this? Is there a Ministry of Approving Restaurant Menus?

People are invariably friendly (apart from the Metro ticket sellers) but speak almost no English so it can be a struggle – particularly when signs and menus are exclusively in Russian. This is fine – it’s their country – and we managed by use of sign language and charades. We only admitted defeat once when we went into a place called Tepemok which sells Blinis - and there was not an English word in sight – and very few pictures.

In Moscow we found a branch of Le Pain Quotidien which is the brand of café we used to frequent in Sydney so we felt quite at home as we munched on croissants and watch the snow pelting down outside.

As the only registered Sailor and qualified Navigator in the group Gwenyth was our guide in Russia and we stumbled along blindly behind her. She was wearing a white fur hat which we could always keep in sight – which is just as well because she moves like a startled gazelle. She gave a phenomenal performance in the Metro in both Moscow and St Petersburg and got us everywhere we needed to go.

She also got us through the Hermitage in good time – mainly because she breaks into a gallop at the sight of anything religious – and there is a fair bit of this around. We had a two day pass which we bought before we went (a very wise move indeed) but only spent about four hours in total in that vast place.

Gwenyth’s only real problem is that she sometimes gets the direction wrong by 180 degrees and needed the assistance of my iPhone maps to get her bearings. (Low cloud prevented her from using her Sextant). I would have thought this would be a major and career limiting problem for a sailor – but once she gets a sniff of the right direction she is off like a rat up a drainpipe.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Buggered Beyond Redemption

In the few days before we arrived in St Petersburg they had the heaviest snowfalls in 130 years. We had to fly around for a bit while they cleared enough off the runway for us to land. Viktor collected us at the airport after a while and took us for a very long and slow ride into the city.

I think that without Viktor we would not have found our apartment. I think that without Viktor, if we had found the entrance to our apartment, we would not have gone in and up the stairs. Normally the rats are on the inside but this time they were on the outside. The entry to the foyer was horrendous and beggared belief but – from what we saw – is probably quite typical.

The apartment was adequate but lacked a few things that one could reasonably expect in a ‘luxury serviced apartment’ and it would have been nice, for example, to have toilet paper, soap, dishwasher stuff, towels that weren’t made out of canvas and sheets that weren’t green flannel with floral patterns - but we were reasonably comfortable – all things considered.

While it was freezing outside it was very hot indeed inside the apartment – but we never could find the controls to adjust the temperature. All we found was a sign that said ‘DO NOT TOUCH THE FURNACE’ – but this would not have stopped us if we had been able to track it down.

So we had to keep opening the windows to allow icy blasts to cool us down and this was a bit tedious but hey – we were in St Petersburg during a once in a century snow storm!

I could not have imagined a city this beautiful. It was stunning, breathtaking, phantasmagorical. And snow! Never seen anything like it. There were piles of snow 2 metres deep along the sides of the streets. Other than on the main street, Nevsky Prospekt, we were generally trudging on or through mountains of snow, past cars completely buried and buildings that had vast sheets of ice hanging from their roofs.

And it was damned heavy going in many places. I slipped many times but only crashed head first into the snow once. The locals are very sure-footed and are as agile as mountain goats.

The snow removal people seemed to be a bit nonplussed by the quantity of white stuff under which they had been buried. They were able to keep the main streets clear but the minor roads were almost impassable and there was almost no attempt to clear footpaths. There were lots of ‘snow diggers’ around but they spent most of their time rearranging it – and indeed I am not sure what else you could do because it was pelting down all the time.

My camera was stolen on Thursday. I put it in my backpack and zipped it up. We walked about 1.5 kilometers to the Singer Café for a late breakfast – and stopped on the way only for red lights at pedestrian crossings. When we got to Singer Café my backpack was open and the camera was gone. I just do not know how anyone could have done that!

I had downloaded all the photos the previous evening so we lost no shots.

We did not report this to the police because they seemed to spend all their time stopping passers by to ask them for their papers. We managed to avoid this particular pleasure and I had no wish to have any kind of association with the police in Russia.

Our first foray to the supermarket was not particularly successful. The butter was in fact cream cheese, the sugar was salt, the pancetta was bacon and the milk was yoghurt. It is difficult to shop when not a single word is in a language you understand – and there are no pictures on the packets – but we started to get the hang of it after a while.

On Tuesday we went to Moscow on the fast train – the Sapsan. This took about 4 hours and was terrific. We arrived in the middle of what seemed to us to be a Blizzard but to the people in Moscow was probably just heavy snow.

We visited Red Square but could not get into the Kremlin. We spent an extraordinary amount of time cowering in coffee shops trying to escape the snow and cold.

Coming home we could not get the Sapsan so had to get the very slow, smoke-filled train with the drunks and lunatics.

The unhappiest people we encountered in Russia (and there are quite a few) were the people who sold tickets for the Metro. These all seem to be older women and they are impossible to avoid because – as far as we could tell – there are no ticket selling machines – or if there are the language they use is exclusively Russian (and why not) so are impenetrable.

My initial assessment of Russia – admittedly based on a very limited analysis – is that the country is probably Buggered Beyond Redemption and will need another 100 years to catch up to any other advanced European country. After all – the communists had a lot longer to bugger Russia completely than they did any other country so it figures that they did their best work there.

But gosh St Petersburg is gorgeous!

PS: Our bags turned up!

More later.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

I'm back - but I have no idea where our bags are

St Petersburg is stupefyingly amazing. I would love to tell you about it but we have just rocked home very, very late, many hours after we were supposed to, after a horrendous trip which culminated in our bags going somewhere else. I do however have a boatload of stories to tell you including what a ‘luxury serviced apartment’ in St Petersburg is like, why we went to Moscow for a day to see Vladimir Putin, why everyone in Russia has a job which they apparently hate, what it is like to walk around when the temperature is -15 and why I know longer have a Canon 400D camera.