Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Another Christmas in Coogee

I love Christmas.

It really is my favourite time of year.  It's a time for both a celebration as well as a bit of a relax.

Work becomes a bit easier (not in the literal sense) when you're surrounded by the cheerful smiles of people looking forward to a break.

Everyone is in a celebratory mood and moving from party to party.

In the Southern hemisphere, we're also greeted by the warm embrace of summer.  In Sydney, that means the beach is once again open for use after many months of taunting us.

This all adds up to mean that this is a season where a weight is lifted off your shoulders and you're able to relax the next months away.
That is unless you place the weight straight back on yourself!

Christmas doesn't just happen!  It takes a lot of work and preparation!
So while I was happy that this was a more relaxed time of year, it in no way meant that I wasn't going to be well prepared for Christmas day and the fun times that I was going to create for all my friends.  The first thing to do was to ensure that I was surrounded by the appropriate amount of Christmas cheer.  This required tinsel.  Lots and lots of tinsel.  It required decorations and random Christmas related paraphernalia splashed everywhere.   I wanted my apartment to look like Santa Clause had thrown up in it.

With some help from the Irish, I was able to get the apartment looking truly gaudy!
With that task done, Christmas day itself began to approach.

This meant another sterling edition of "Christmas in Coogee".

This year's would be our most multicultural yet, with guests from Australia, Austria, Ireland, Switzerland, France, Germany and the United States.

Just like other Christmas in Coogee celebrations, it was also going to be a lot of work.  This year, even more so than others.  With a guest list pushing 20 and a lack of the help I normally received from Andy and Josh, the work necessary for this year's merriment was going to be done almost exclusively by myself.

A couple of days before the lunch, I began to cook.

Several components of what I was making for the lunch required preparations to be done well in advance.  I needed to make some sponge cakes, bake some pavlovas, make the stuffing and prep the turkey.  This was all in addition to the fruit cake that I had been soaking in brandy for the past 6 weeks as well.

Finally, the actual day arrived.

I woke up nice and early and began the process of baking, peeling, stuffing, boiling, frying and chopping (not in that order of course) necessary for everything to come together. 
It was tough.  I even needed to employ the services of an extra oven at a friend's place to ensure that everything was cooked on time.

Once everything was finished, I wandered out and found myself a seat with everyone else.

Crackers were cracked, hats were put on and the celebrations began in earnest.
Summer had been unseasonably cold.  So of course on the day of Christmas in Coogee, we found ourselves facing a rather warm weather.  I wasn't going to let this discourage my appetite though.

Food and drink were clearly making a positive mark on the gathered crowd.  I've always been of the firm opinion that food not only brings people together, but it has the ability to put people at ease.  So when combined with the free flowing drinks, the day was set.  Fans were put on full blast to counter the heat and everyone was attacking the mountain of food I had prepared (a mountain that had grown even larger when we received an Irish contribution of a full leg of roasted ham).
My intention had been to put people into a food coma.

After about the third helping of everything, I could see that people were slowing down and beginning to get a bit groggy.
It was at this point that I did my big reveal.
I hit everyone with a double dessert.

Pavlova and trifle (and of course, the trifle was full of brandy).

I could see the look of horror on everyone's face as they realised they hadn't left enough room for dessert.  This was but a small obstacle though, and when the plates of dessert were passed around, no one declined.

As they began to eat the desserts, one of the Irish girls immediately noticed the amount of brandy that was in the trifle and asked me in mild shock: "Has there been anything in this meal that doesn't have booze in it?"

I had a simple response for her.

"No."

Shortest visit ever

I was drowsy and cranky when I arrived in Hong Kong.

Swiss Airlines clearly had an amazing sense of humour when they decided to put me in the middle seat between what seemed to be two rugby players.

As we landed at Chek Lap Kok airport, the last thing I had in mind was allowing myself to stay within the confines of its walls.

I had time.  Only 4 hours till my connecting flight back to Sydney, but I still had time.

I quickly jumped on the airport train link and within 15 minutes I was in the middle of Hong Kong.
This gave me about an hour to have dinner with Josh.

He had only move to HK recently and was keen to give me a tour of his new apartment.
It was a very quick tour as I soon had to race back towards the train station and back to the airport.

I cleared customs and passport control and was soon back in an uncomfortable seat, heading back to home and the feeling of dread that comes with knowing that work is about to start.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Chocolate, clocks and neutrality

France had been truly lovely.

I really had not expected to have such an enjoyable and relaxing time there.  Places that receive hype normally disappoint, but in this situation I had been lucky enough to get what seemed to be the best of both the hype and the hidden.

Sadly, nothing lasts forever and I was soon on the road again.  First by train through to Stuttgart (which turned out to be a horrifically boring city), then on a plane through to Switzerland.

It was a strange twist of fate that I found myself in Zurich at this time.  Over the course of the last year, I had become acquainted with numerous Swiss people  from Zurich through my masters.  It had been a great experience knowing them as they had provided me a far better insight into a country that I frankly knew little of beyond the stereotypes of chocolate, clocks and neutrality.  As is always the case in such situations, I now unsurprisingly found myself in Zurich with none of my Swiss friends within 5,000km of me.  It seemed to be some kind of infernal joke that my time here would be only guided by the proxy of my friends.
This minor glitch was not going to stop me from enjoying myself or exploring the city though.

What I found was similar to Oslo.  Though even more organised.  It was the German/Scandinavian style of precision and cleanliness that made life appear to run as clockwork.  Much like Oslo, this was another expensive city and within a day of walking it was clear that I had seen the majority of the sights that were on offer.  The buildings in the old city were a beautiful reflection of the past (though they had all been clearly updated with the benefits of restoration).
This was a city where the trams came on time as did the trains.

At one point, I even found myself laughing to myself when I looked at my watch and noted that in 30 seconds the train I was waiting for would be late, only to look up again and see that the train was arriving on time to the minute.
I did my usual thing of climbing the tall things to try and get a better view and I even found myself on a boat in the middle of Lake Zurich.  It was calm and peaceful.  My trip around the world was coming to an end and it was fitting that I was able to move it to conclusion with some quiet.
As I walked through the old city, I wandered past what looked to me to be the classiest cafe I had ever laid eyes on.
I had to enter of course.

I strode through the floors of the cafe and into the back room with the elegant couches and ordered myself some Darjeeling tea and strudel.  Both were of the finest quality.  As I lingered over the tea, I had thoughts of how nice it would be to spend my days drifting away surrounded by the finery.  This was a short lived thought once the bill arrived.  A pot of tea and a strudel had set me back the princely sum of Swiss ₣18.  It was clearly time to leave.  
The more I wandered around Zurich, the more I realised that this was not the type of place suited to a tourist like myself.  There simply was not enough to do.

This was the type of place to be lived in.  It was the type of place that I should have brought myself to on the way to skiing, or for the purposes of visiting people.  To merely be one of the sight seeing throng, this place was not entirely suited to the task.
The evening was approaching, so I went to find myself a feed.

I contemplated getting some fondue, but quickly realised how horribly pathetic it would be to order a communal dish such as fondue to eat by myself.  I settled for the rosti and the Zurich style veal instead.  The buttery warmth of the sauce more than made up for the lack of a melted cheese.
Wandering around Zurich had tired me out completely.

It was a relief when I arrived back at the hotel.  The Mondrian inspired motiff of the rooms made me laugh a bit, but it was still a clear winner compared to the bland and uninspired hotel rooms I had often found myself in for work.
Switzerland had been a nice relaxed location to visit, but I won't be returning until I can ensure I am met by my friends with local knowledge.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The simple pleasures

I had really enjoyed my time in France.

It was completely unsurprising that Paris is the most popular tourist location in the world. It's combination of tourist sites with the unique French culture was alluring to both the greenest of tourists happily taking photos at everything, all the way through to the most world weary of travelers who consider themselves above being called tourists (even though they are still tourists....).

For me, I had definitely enjoyed both aspects. Standing on top of the Eiffel Tower, wandering down the Champs de Elysee, seeing Napoleon's tomb, all of these had always been high on my tourist list of things to do.  On the other hand, the cultural aspects were difficult to ignore as well, be it eating and drinking in a bistro with my old friend Phil, attacking a pastry whilst sitting on the grass of Parc du Sceaux with my friend Maya, or merely feeling the surge of humanity in the Paris metro.

All of this aside, what I liked the most about France and traveling generally was encapsulated one evening with my good friends Maya and Adam.  It was the culmination of many years of growth for my traveling.

As a child, I remember watching Justine Shapiro on what was then "Lonely Planet" (now called "Globe Trekker") when she made the comment that (and I paraphrase) "the best part of traveling isn't the things you see, but it is the people you meet".

Now, I immediately thought this was a steaming load of bollocks (I'm certain I would have said "bollocks" as a child).  I respected Ms Shapiro even then, but this was surely a complete falsity. In my juvenile mind, the key purpose of travel was to see things. It was to get off of some ricketty form of transport and stand awe struck in front of a monument/wonder/attraction.  Meeting people was something that you could do back at home, so why would you waste your time doing it when you were abroad trying to cram in as many sites as possible into a busy schedule?

As time went by, my views slowly changed.  Traveling more made me want to interact more with local cultures.  I no longer wanted to only see the sites, but I wanted to understand the places where the sites were situated as well.  It was strange that as I matured, I actually became less serious when I traveled.  I was more laid back and far more open in dealing with those around me.  After all, it's not possible to meet people traveling if you're scowling or have knitted brow.

When traveling became increasingly serious for me as a past time, I found myself becoming even more open in my interactions with others.  I was more approachable and I started to approach others as well, just to say hello, just to see what they were doing.  It was a recipe for success.  I started making friends.  Not only  "friends" that you will never see again, but actual friends whom I continue to see and interact with to this day.  On this most recent of trips, I even arranged my schedule so that I caught up with many of those friends whom I had met over the years.  I saw old friends in New York, Ottawa, London, Oslo, Paris.  Many of these were people I had met on the road.  They were able to take me around and show me a side of their home towns that I would never have seen had I not been with them.

So when I finally found myself with Maya and Adam at their home one evening, it seemed like the final chapter in the metamorphosis from the child into the adult when it came to traveling.  I was in a foreign country and yet it was a simple dinner with friends that would be the highlight of the trip.  Instead of choosing to gallivant around the city with its bright lights, my preference was to spend my evening with my close friends having a simple French dinner.


Not that the dinner itself was anything to be dismissed.  We had a lovely duck confit with rosemary roasted potatoes.  The amazing thing being that in France, this is just a simple meal that is often eaten at home.  We were all in a good mood, their baby was soundly asleep and Adam was still beaming from the news of his recent promotion.  To celebrate, he decided to bring out a nice bottle of Nicolas Feuillatte champagne that he had recently brought.  It added another nice touch to this standard Parisian meal.


To finish it all off, we tucked into the desserts we had bought at the patisserie down the street.

It is an appealing life they have in France.  It is comfortable, it is refined and it is relaxing.  It's understandable why so many people are drawn to it.  This was a great night as it was one of the few opportunities I had to spend with my friends now living so far away, and yet it would have been just a normal evening dinner between acquaintances repeated countless times across the city.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Wandering the museum

This has been a very cultured trip for me.

I had already had the pleasure of visiting two of the largest museums in the world in the Met and the British Museum.

I was rounding this off to a clean trifecta by visiting the world's LARGEST museum (by number of visitors anyways). I was visiting the Louvre!

This was going to be fun.

I had set aside the entire day and I was going to be completely engrossed in the nerdy fun that comes from being immersed by the beauty and history of a museum's wonders.
Even before I had gotten inside, I was already pretty awestruck.

Standing in the main entrance of the palace, I could feel my excitement slowly increasing. The modern glass pyramid that acted as the entrance to this museum is like a portal to some other universe. It's presence contrasts sharply with the grand architecture of its surroundings and yet this seems to make it all the more apt. It is almost like something out of science fiction, as an entrance guiding guests into the museum with its wonders that span across the centuries.
Once inside, I found myself immediately struggling to take it all in.
The sheer volume of works in this museum was something else. But it was more than that. Within this museum was a collection of some of the most iconic pieces in history. Much like my first visit to the British Museum many years ago, I didn't know where to begin.

Strangely enough, one of the first things I found myself confronted by Hammurabi's code of laws. As a lawyer, it was apt that one of the first recorded legal codes would be the first thing I saw. Even as a child, I remember reading about the Hammurabi, the great law giver and his impact on civilisation. I felt much as I did when I stood next to the Rosetta Stone years ago, that I was somehow being drawn into the history that this piece represented. It felt like I was now a part of the chain that reached all the way back to Hammurabi.
But there was no time to stop.

I had to keep moving.
There was far too much in this museum for me to be walking slowly or to be standing in front of one exhibit for too long.
I had to look at Cupid and Psyche for instance. I had to look and marvel at the most delicate of carvings and the perfection of artistic technique....

.... then moving on to the beautiful movement in the remains of Nike of Samothrace. It was incredible to stand there in front of this silent and unspeaking statue and to be carried away by the winds that still moved her along. People wandered past, taking photos and chatting in front of the statue, and yet the statue remained frozen in its movement.
Moving on, I began to realise that considering most of the works with any degree of detail would be an impossible task. I had to change my tact.

I would have to try and walk through the majority of the museum, taking in as much as I could and only stopping at the pieces that were truly breathtaking or significant.

Pieces like this for instance!
"The Raft of the Medusa". The size of this painting surprised me. In fact, the size of most of these paintings surprised me. This was a painting that had always intrigued me, so full of suffering and turmoil. Seeing it towering over me changed the perspective completely as I was so used to seeing it in a small print in a book, only a few inches wide.

I kept walking.

Eventually I found myself in a room that was getting far more attention than any other in the entire building.

Fighting through a scrum of people, I reached the prize at the end.

The Mona Lisa. It was true, she was smiling strangely at me.

Ignoring the throngs of people jostling around me, I maintained my position at the front and slowly moved along the frontage to change my perspective (again, ignoring the shoving and pushing) in order to see if it was true that she has "eyes that follow you".
It was true. She really does have eyes that follow you around the room.

Time to move on though....

.... to a famous (and incomplete) portrait of Napoleon. One of many countless works that I have seen in popular culture.
And then speaking of popular culture, who could forget the painting "Gabrielle d'Estrées et une de ses soeurs"? Well.... I guess pretty much everyone wouldn't have any real knowledge of this painting except for the faint recollection of having seen or glanced it once. Wandering through this museum made me realise just how much of popular culture is derived from art and influences that the majority of people are completely oblivious to, even when they draw on directly.
The same came be said for the ancient Egyptian sculpture, "the Scribe".
Then there are the more famous pieces again. Michelangelo's "Venus" confronted me and astounded me when I wandered into the hall that it commands. It is a hall filled with other pieces and yet none come close to the beauty of this perfect piece. Whoever sat for Michelangelo was clearly a beautiful woman, and this is beauty is perfectly carried over by his skill. Surely that is the sign of the quality of his work and technique?
I had to keep walking.
Walking through time, from ancient to less ancient.
From continent to continent. I had to keep walking.
It was beginning to get a bit overwhelming. I was actually getting tired. This had never happened to me in a museum before. Normally I am so full of excitement that I have more than enough energy to power me through the entire day.
Maybe I was getting old. Or maybe I was just sick of seeing the same classical style of work presented to me over and over again.
For all of its beauty and wonders, I would not say that the Louvre is a museum that excels in showing the marvels of humanity and history and all its forms. It seems to have small amounts of a wide categry of things, and a huge amount of a limited category of things. Amazingly, I had probably had my fill of some of those limited categories (being the French and Italian Renaissance).
This was a great museum. Clearly one of the best in the world. However, it is not a museum that has the balance and scope of the Met or the British Museum. It is a museum that has does a few things superbly, a few things to a level of near perfection. Sadly, this perfection is achieved at the cost of other things. It's a harsh criticism of an amazing museum, but I think it is a valid one nonetheless.

The French Riviera

I should have spent less time in Monaco.

I had found the place I should have spent more time.

This is the image of the south of France that was in my mind.
Arriving in Nice made me happy.

It also made me angry. It made me angry that I had wasted all that time that could have been spent here, and due to my poor planning I would have less than a day to explore the beautiful city.

I had to be quick, so I set out to find as much of this city as I could in the quickest amount of time possible. That meant climbing to the highest point!

Powering through the old city, I was swept away by the beautiful buildings and narrow lanes. My ideals of what a French city should look like were clearly that of Nice. Lovely cobblestone streets all lined with cafes were one of the first things I came across. This was the cosmopolitan city with the laid back culture that appeals to so many across the world.
Once I got to the top, my worst fears were confirmed....

.... I had well and truly budgeted too little time here.
After I descended from the heights, I found myself slowly walking along the waterfront.

It was late Autumn, but the weather was still warm enough that people were sunning themselves and wading into the ocean.
It was a strange feeling to walk along this pebbly beach.

I had never experienced anything other than a sandy beach, so there was something strangely unfamiliar about hearing the close sound of the waves and feeling the uneasy footing of the pebbles slowly giving way with each step I took.
My watch told me it was time to go.

I didn't even have enough time to sit down to try some of the famous delicacies of the region.

In my mind, I kept repeating to myself that I would return to give this region the proper attention it deserved. And yet... I knew it was very possible that this could be the last time I ever set foot on the pebbly beaches of southern France...

Friday, December 23, 2011

A monastic island

I love contrasts.

I love stark and sharp contrasts.

To me, it represents a true picture of any location. It shows me what it's really like to live or exist in a place.

Far too often, I find that the impression provided of a place is limited to a shiny facade. It isn't exactly a false impression, but it's definitely not the full picture that you get from spending an extended amount of time in a place.
So away from the beautiful facade of Cannes, away from hotels and away from the beach, I found something far quieter.

St Honorat Island is only a short ferry ride away, but it might as well be in a different country. It is an island full of monks who spend their time between quiet prayer and making wine. It is a calm and quiet place that truly allows a person to think and to contemplate the existence.

As I got off the ferry, dozens of seniors departed with me, yet surprisingly that was pretty much the last time I saw any large groups of people.

It felt as though I was on this island almost completely by myself.

And I loved it.
Following the path around the island, I would occasionally walk off to the side and find myself in front of beautiful little coves. Perfectly secluded little beaches that just begged for a swim.... and me without my bathers....
As I walked from one end of the island to the other, I found myself wanting to sit down, to just rest and even to take a nap. The sight of the vineyards also added to this sense of overwhelming calm I felt.
It was hard to believe that just over the water, the debauchery of the Cannes Film Festival would occur every year.
This place seemed too peaceful, as though it was protected by a bubble far from the anxieties of modern life.