Saturday, October 10, 2015

Bitten deep by positano

Sunday 28–Tuesday 30 September 2014

Positano steinbeckons

Here we are, over a year since Til and I were in Positano, and I'm still yet to sort all my photos and notes and memories into posts and albums and videos. But I persist, inching my way through whenever I get the chance. It's quite an efficient way of remembering, really. And Positano, of all places, seems a fitting way to recommence, given those famous remarks of John Steinbeck's about the town, which, I'm sure, must adorn almost every travel blog post ever written about it. But once more won't hurt:

     'Positano bites deep. It is a dream place that isn't quite real when you are there and becomes
     beckoningly real after you have gone' – John Steinbeck.

This still rings true sixty years later, despite the changes to the town. I'm pretty sure both Til and I have found ourselves uttering the phrase 'Remember in Positano ...' disproportionately often, especially considering how short of a time we were actually there. In my memory it feels like days and days ...

'Come back to sorrento'

After our epic, uncomfortable, almost entirely sleepless overnight bus trip from Munich, we arrived in Rome, grimy and groggy, at around 7am, and found our way via the Metro to Roma Termini, where we would board another train to Naples. Of all the places we'd been so far in our travels, this sprawling, bustling train station was actually the first place we'd already been to in the past, three years earlier on our exchange trip. The experience of being somewhere so foreign and so insignificant to us – just a functional point of transit, nothing sentimental – and yet simultaneously so recognisable, was thoroughly surreal to me. Like spotting a familiar stranger you recognise from your hometown in a completely different city: you know them, but you also can't claim any ownership of them. You only know their face. One of the subtler quirks of travelling, I suppose. We reminisced about all the stressful, harried moments and travel disasters we'd experienced in that same station before like wise old folks looking back on the follies of youth. The inception of smartphones in between this trip and our last had practically obviated travel disasters from this trip altogether.

While I waited with our bags for Til to come back with some breakfast, I got talking to an older Australian woman waiting for her own partner about how she worked in security, and all the places we were about to go. You really can't go five minutes in Europe without bumping into another travelling Australian.

After that we boarded our train to Naples, sidling through the hallway and into an empty compartment and unshouldering our backpacks. Before long we were joined by a pleasant, voluble Neapolitan, Antonio (who might've been a surgeon?), with whom we had a long discussion about all sorts of things for the duration of the journey (see the video at the end of this post). It makes me wish it was so easy to talk to people back home.

From Naples it was another – this time pleasantly soporific – train trip to Sorrento. I slept the whole way, but I remember it so vividly from the winking interstices in my sleep: a shift in position here, a bleary glimpse around the carriage there. It was a raucous journey, despite my somnolence, the racking and clacking of the old carriage over the tracks shunting us around in our seats. I recall the open, empty space of the carriage being filled with such bright Italian light as it throttled through the famed countryside of Campania, mountains on one side of us and sea on the other, almost like that brief, glorious stretch of railway between Stanwell Park and Thirroul back home that never fails to pull the gazes of surfers checking out the water and phone-fixated commuters alike. Periodically the magnificent views would be obscured as we flickered through umbriferous caves of vines encasing the fences that divided the train line from the backyard gardens of houses on either side, all bursting with produce in the typical Italian fashion, nurtured by the region's rich Vesuvian soils. I almost felt guilty sleeping through it, but I really needed it after the previous night, and I knew there'd always be the way back.

Ciao, positano

In Sorrento we found our way to a bus that would take us the rest of the way to our hostel in Positano,  a small town nestled in the cliffs of Italy's stunning Amalfi Coast. Supposedly it was struggling to survive until Steinbeck wrote his (highly recommended) Harper's Bazaar essay about it, full of amusing details and characters and anecdotes, and since then it has been a popular tourist destination, despite Steinbeck's predictions that it could never become such. Of course, this sets up the impossible task of trying to write about a place that has already been written about by Steinbeck. You'll excuse me if I refrain from this task where I can and, instead, refer you to his infinitely superior prose:

     Flaming like a meteor we hit the coast, a road, high, high above the blue sea, that hooked and
     corkscrewed on the edge of nothing, a road carefully designed to be a little narrower than two
     cars side by side. And on this road, the buses, the trucks, the motor scooters and the assorted 
     livestock. We didn't see much of the road. In the back seat my wife and I lay clutched in each 
     other's arms, weeping hysterically, while in the front seat Signor Bassano gestured with both 
     hands and happily instructed us: "Ina da terd sieglo da Hamperor Hamgousternos coming tru
     wit Leeegeceons". (Our car hit and killed a chicken.) "Izz molto lot old heestory here. I know.
     I tall". Thus he whirled us "Throt Italy". And below us, and it seemed sometimes under us, a 
     thousand feet below lay the blue Tyrrhenian licking its lips for us.

I'm not sure how much the roads have changed since Steinbeck's days, but I can assure you that hairline, cliff-hugging track was quease-making for more than one of the passengers on that bus, including a Canadian girl, Christa, sitting nearby, who would be staying at the same accommodation as us. The views were enough to make up for it for me, though, especially as we came within sight of the town and it kept hoving in and out of view as we skirted each protruding cliff (see the video).

For want of any space to pull over once we finally reached the town, the bus stopped in the middle of a bend in the road to spit us out, holding up traffic while we collected our bags. Impassive locals watched from their cafes, sipping their coffees and smoking their cigarettes while we oriented ourselves and headed uphill for Hostel Brikette, making the acquaintance of Christa on the way. Once we arrived we were welcomed by a warm, breezy British woman put into what seemed like a perpetual good mood by her sun-kissed existence here. She ushered us onto the balcony to await our check-in, where we took in the mandatory astonishing view and chatted with Christa and – surprise, surprise – another Australian couple living in London. Across the road was an inexpensive little pizzeria, C'era una Volta, that did incredible marinara pizzas,* which we were obliged to try out immediately after our long journey (an overnight bus, three trains and another bus, in case you weren't counting).

*The memory of that pizza has just driven me out to my local establishment in the hopes of recapturing that magic taste but, alas, I fear even the fine woodfires of Summer Hill cannot compete with true Southern Italian fare. 

After pizza and beer in the sun we went for a stroll down through the town and some seven hundred stairs to Spiaggia di Fornillo for a refreshing afternoon dip, sharing sympathetic looks with huffing and puffing tourists coming back the opposite way all the while. Let me refer you to Steinbeck, once again, for a word on stairs in Positano:

     Its houses climb a hill so steep it would be a cliff except that stairs are cut in it. I believe that
     whereas most house foundations are vertical, in Positano they are horizontal. The small
     curving bay of unbelievably blue and green water laps gently on a beach of small pebbles. 
     There is only one narrow street and it does not come down to the water. Everything else is 
     stairs, some of them as steep as ladders. You do not walk to visit a friend, you either climb or 
     slide [...] Positano is never likely to attract the organdie-and-white linen tourist. It would be 
     impossible to dress as a languid tourist-lady-crisp, cool white dress, sandals as white and 
     light as little clouds, picture hat of arrogant nonsense, and one red rose held in a listless 
     whitegloved pinky. I dare any dame to dress like this and climb the Positano stairs for a 
     cocktail. She will arrive looking like a washcloth at a boys' camp. There is no way for her 
     to get anywhere except by climbing.

These morning glory flowers were familiar from home. They're everywhere in Wollongong.

The site of the Positano Nativity (Presepe), which is brilliantly decorated and illuminated in December every year.

On the way to the water's edge.

The pebbly beach.

After sunset we made our way back up the stairs (the likes of which we hadn't tangled with since our foolhardy scaling of the Great Wall of China) and headed into town to find some dinner, ending up at Il Grottino Azzuro, where we'd exited the bus earlier, for a pasta and a salad each before bed.

Our extremely well-polished plates.

That tyrrhenian feelin'

The next morning we were slow to emerge from the hostel after the travails of the previous day, but when we finally did we sauntered into town in a very relaxed fashion to find somewhere with a magnificent view for brunch, settling on the very suitable Da Gabrisa Restaurant & Wine Bar (see the video for a sample of the view). I enquired about vegan options and the lovely old Italian waitress was very enthusiastic and accommodating, and recommended a vegetable risotto. I'd heard southern Italy was supposed to be fantastic for vegans, because a lot of the food is already accidentally vegan, and because it is anathema to Italian restauranteurs to put anything additional into a meal that wasn't listed on the menu, so there is no surprise cheese sprinkled atop a pasta or salad, or milk solids hidden inexplicably in a sauce, ruining an otherwise perfectly edible meal. They use fresh, whole foods here. 

When my meal came out, though, I admit I was slightly disappointed. It just looked like a plain, bland risotto with some limp vegetables languishing throughout. That all changed when I took the first bite. I hadn't accounted for the fact that we were in Italy. If that meal had've come out in Australia, it would've been awful, but since we were eating Italian cuisine in Italy, cooked by an Italian with Campanian produce, it was somehow out of this world. I don't know how they cook things that are so simple and yet so, so, so delicious, but somehow they do. Bellissimo!

Til with our view.

After brunch and a quick stop to drop off some clothes at a launderette, we wandered through town taking in the sights and then down to the main beach, Spiaggia Grande. The weather was beautiful, but we refused to pay fifteen euro each for a beach chair and umbrella, so we just slummed on the pebbles with the rest of the plebs, taking turns to alternately sunbathe and swim so no one could steal the camera. 

After a few hours we decided to head back, and we passed a very vegan-friendly-looking organic café. Til was still surfeited from brunch and I wasn't exactly hungry either, but I was really craving a salad roll (my old quotidian staple and favourite back home). I allowed Til to talk me out of it and kept walking, but by the time we'd reached the top of the hill I was determined to get my salad roll, especially since I'd seen they weren't going to be open the next day. So I left Til to sit on the side of the road (her choice), while I went back for my prize, and it was so worth it!

What would Steinbeck think if he could see these 'languid tourist-lady-crisp, cool white dresses' which he predicted could never be sold here, but which in so doing he helped to bring about?

As we carried on our way, Til was taken by the notion of watching the sunset over the water with a few beers, so we stopped in at Ristorante il Capitano for a cocktail and a beer. The place looked right over the water, and it was vast and empty in this interim hour far too early for an Italian dinner, so we found ourselves in command of it. The staff kept bringing us free nuts, which for some reason prompted us to try and create a male version of Women Laughing Alone with Salad (see below).

Men laughing alone with nuts.

Unfortunately, detracting from the fun was the presence of the restaurant's mascot, a brilliant blue macaw named Capitano, kept in a tiny cage nearby. His chest was de-feathered, as though he'd been plucking himself out of boredom or some other mental issue arising from his captivity, and every time he made even the slightest noise, the ogre-women of the proximate office would scream belligerently at him. What a horrible existence. Who ever thought it was a good idea to cage birds? It's absurd. See the video at the end of this post for some footage of Capitano.

Poor Capitano.

That night we had more delicious pizza from C'era una Volta with Canadian Christa, and she told us about her lifelong dream of going to Bali, which was obviously weird to hear as Australians because it's so achievable for us. But she said from Canada you can't get flights for anything less than thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars, which is crazy! Not long after that watched a quick episode of Grand Designs before bed.

Ciao, positano

And the next morning, all too soon, it was time to leave Positano already. Our schedule for our tour of Italy was brimming, so we weren't spending too long in any one place, but I comforted myself that we would be able to go to beaches all the way up Italy. Unfortunately I had somehow overlooked the fact that practically none of the places we were going was on the coast. I think I just didn't want to believe that that beautiful Tyrrhenian feeling was coming to an end. 

We loaded up on snacks for our journey, missed our first bus because it was overloaded, and squeezed onto the next one, winding away over the cliffs back to Sorrento, Naples, and onward to Rome and Tuscany, Siena-bound. But even now, a year later, I think I can still feel Steinbeck's Positanesi bite marks.

Here's a video I threw together out of random scraps of footage from Positano:

Friday, April 3, 2015


Friday 19–Saturday 27 September 2014

Taking care of business

After disembarking from our train and descending into the furious pre-Oktoberfest bustle of Munich's Hauptbahnhof, I celebrated our arrival in Germany with the biggest pretzel I'd ever seen!

But after that, in stereotypical German fashion, it was straight to business. First order: wifi-hunting. We needed the internet for directions and to contact our friend Kate, who we'd be meeting and staying with for the festival. But over the next week it would always be a struggle to find decent wifi – free or otherwise. This scarcity stood out in our general experience of German society, otherwise so advanced in its embrace of technology and public services. Then again, maybe it's unfair to judge based on this particular time of year. The system could've just been overloaded with the annual influx of SIX MILLION visitors (more than the entire population of Sydney!) to Munich for the world's biggest beer-drinking festival.

Eventually we did manage to track down a painfully slow internet connection, and then it was on to order number two: acquiring appropriate apparel, or 'Tracht'. With the festivities kicking off the next day, we took this chance to find lederhosen for me (the non-leather kind; 'lederhosen' literally means 'leather pants') and a 'dirndl' for Til. Straight across the road from the station was C&A, a department store with a whole floor dedicated to the traditional Bavarian garments.

In case you didn't know, Germany in its modern form is only a relatively young (nineteenth-century) nation, federated from several distinct states. Despite the dominance of Prussia (the state containing the capital of Berlin) at the time of unification, it seems that all those internationally familiar 'quaint' tropes of German identity – lederhosen, beer consumption, little wooden 'chocolate box' houses and whatnot – are mostly derived or distorted from the cultural markers of fiercely independent Bavaria, to this day home to a strong nationalist–separatist sentiment.

After a long browsing session where we ran into Daniel, one of our fellow Aussie travellers from the trans-Siberian, we left the store happy with our finds and caught the train to Laim, the suburb where Kate, Til and I had rented a room. 

Staying at sina's

By the time the three of us were planning our Oktoberfest trip back in Australia, beds in a hostel dorm room in Munich were already going for a cool HUNDRED EUROS PER NIGHT. For a while we thought we might have to book a Topdeck tour so we could stay in tents, but we'd heard that was supposed to be awful – just imagine stumbling back through the campsite drunk, wandering around tripping over tent lines in the freezing cold and wondering where your tent is. Luckily, we checked Airbnb before we booked that. Our first choice was a bleak little room rented out by a guy named Zoltan that was going to cost us something absurd like sixteen bucks a night. He never got back to us, though, so we kept searching (probably lucky because, at prices that low, chances are it was some kind of murder trap).

'ZOLTAN!' Every time we spoke of Zoltan thereafter, which was surprisingly often, we would make this sign. All hail.

Thankfully, after Zoltan rejected us, we stumbled across a better room at a less improbable, though still reasonable, price. We were staying in the apartment of a bunch of young Germans who make extra money by renting out their rooms every now and then, especially during Oktoberfest. Our host was Sina, a lovely, soft-spoken and thoughtful artist who greeted us warmly upon arrival. 

Well, not quite that warmly. But still.

The apartment itself was definitely a bit grungy – perhaps slightly dirty – but nothing unliveable (there's a little footage in the video at the end of the post). It was all very cool, the quintessential student house, with that trademark accumulation of random items, origin unknown – street signs, a red plastic phallus, religious paraphernalia, random postcards and photos – that attests to long student habitation. It boasted the greatest concentration of Jaegermeister bottles I've ever encountered, stacked in the corners of rooms, atop cupboards and out on the balcony in the dozens, if not hundreds. Sitting on a branch affixed to the kitchen wall was a taxidermic bird of prey, from whose perch dangled some anonymous black lingerie. We were impressed by a sturdy wooden sleeping platform of Sina's own construction that stood overhead in the hallway, and underfoot two adopted cats were forever strutting possessively in and out of the apartment's bedrooms and balcony.

As for our room, it was right at the rear of the apartment, through a narrow hallway that I originally assumed was a coat closet. It was light, spacious and, as the living quarters of an artist, pretty idiosyncratic. One wall was dominated by an evocative blue mural over which splayed human silhouettes in white, like the imprints of bones on an x-ray. The room's corners and surfaces were occupied by all the artistic accoutrements you'd expect: easels and paintings and sculptures and models. Inventively, our host had created a sort of diaphanous shelving system out of a series of linens suspended from the ceiling. Most remarkable though, and a little eerie, were the otherworldly branches hanging overhead, sprouting long locks of golden hair from each twig.

A shop on the way to Sina's. I'm guessing they sell schmuck parodies. Or maybe it's a paradise for schmucks ...?

Stairway to Sina's.

The cat.

Sina's room.

A close-up of the 'family tree', as I dubbed it after we learned it wasn't doll's hair on the branches, but Sina's sister's and mother's.

This well-anticipated note was left in a bucket next to our bed. And oh, how much stronger than me it was ...

A somewhat baffling sign posted above the toilet. Sorry, Sina – I didn't follow these instructions even once, haha!

First venture

After chatting to Sina and checking out the place, we stood around catching up with Kate, who'd arrived earlier. She revealed that she'd gotten sick on her way there, just in time for Oktoberfest, but she was determined to have fun anyway, so in that spirit we set out on an exploratory walk. The train station wasn't far from Sina's apartment, but none of us could face working out the logistics of the U-Bahn quite yet so, in what eventuated to be a poor choice, we just set off in the general direction of  own. Basically we just ambled for like, forty minutes, getting nowhere of discernible significance before reaching an arbitrary point and turning back the way we came. We did see one or two nice sights on the way, though, and stopped off for a few beers to give the whole expedition some purpose.

At the pub we had no idea what beer to order and, observing our ignorance, the waiter conned us into  purchasing 'Oktoberfest beer', which we were later informed by a nearby local was, in his opinion, just more expensive and not as good. They also tricked us by bringing out an endless stream of pretzels, the complimentariness of which we were unsure of, but which we couldn't resist regardless. Finally, we observed one more aspect of the German mindset (or 'Weltanschauung') in action. I'd heard years ago that the Germans don't have the same sense of 'public liability' that we in the Anglosphere do. Like, if you get drunk and fall off something because there's no fence there, that's your own stupid fault, not the council's. I'm not sure exactly how true that is (although excessive EU regulations did come up a few times in conversation with locals), but this beer garden was full of trees that constantly bombarded the people below with massive conkers. I'm sure that would be dubbed some kind of health and safety hazard back home.

After a few drinks and some (decidedly not free) pretzels, Kate wasn't feeling too great, so we just headed back to the apartment to get an early night and store up our energy for the next day's revelries.

Kate being pathetic in bed.

Latenight macca's and meetings

Or so we planned. Til and I, at least, got hungry, so we headed back out to the dangerously proximal McDonald's for a feed, an activity I realised during the composition of this post that we engaged in with alarming and shameful frequency ...

Don't make me run! I'm full of McDonald's!

WHY DON'T WE HAVE VEGGIE BURGERS AT MACCA'S AT HOME!? Til ordered first and got a really weird look when she asked for a cheeseburger without a meat patty (her usual back in vegetarian-hostile Aussie Macca's), but I spotted the veggie burger on the menu and ordered that instead. Also, all their meals come with salads!

Spotted Salman Rushdie in line. Illuminati confirmed.

By the way, I saw that guy at McDonald's: that is not Salman Rushdie!

Satiated, we were ready to revert to our original plan and hit the hay, but when we returned there was a stranger sitting alone in the kitchen, so we introduced ourselves instead. The newcomer was Sam, a carpenter and friend of the flat's who lived nearby. We stayed chatting to him for a while and, of course, it wasn't long before the beers were busted out (as well as some schnapps and some odd Slovenian cherry liqueur we'd picked up in Ljubljana). Before we knew it, the other residents of the flat had joined us and we were making a night of it. Sina showed up with her physics student-genius-entrepreneur boyfriend 'Fa', as well as two other flatmates – Chris, a stagehand, and Danni, another carpenter – and before long we were joined by some more travellers renting rooms: three (very conspicuously) first-time travellers studying abroad in Florence: Danny from Chicago, and Maddy and Allison from Florida. We had a great night chatting and drinking and getting to know one another a little, and I even thoroughly enjoyed watching as Sina and Danni (again, in true German fashion) unabashedly engaged in a massive argument in German for about ten minutes! 

'Bevare: we Germans aren't all smiles and sunshine.'

Sam and Til.

Danni and Chris.

Fa (vaping) and Danni.

Before we went to bed, the flatmates and their friends very graciously invited us all to join them in their first-day celebrations the next morning, which we really appreciated. It would prove to be really good getting their tips for the event, and getting to see it all from a local perspective for the first day.

Tapping of the keg

There were, however, a few regrets the next morning when we struggled to wake up and get ready in time to satisfy an indefatigable Fa, whose innate German efficiency (haha) made him eager to get out the door. He shamed us all with the revelation that he hadn't even been to bed yet – he'd stayed up all night partying!

'They're efficient and punctual, with a strong work ethic.'

The plan was to head to the supermarket for some supplies (i.e. brekkie and beer), then to Fa's flat, where we could conceal it all in bags. Unlike every public event in Australia ever, the Oktoberfest grounds, 'Theresienwiese' (or 'Wiesn'), weren't fenced off at all. However, while there was no explicit prohibition on bringing your own food and beer, we were advised that it would probably be frowned upon by security. So, with the food stuffed into backpacks, and swinging two gigantic cases of beer between three of us, we timed our entrance perfectly to sneak past the guards unnoticed. Situated as I was in the middle, with a beer case handle in each hand, it was only halfway there that I realised that if both straps holding up my lederhosen slipped off my shoulders, which one or the other was frequently doing, I was in actual danger of having my pants fall down around my ankles. I had to keep getting Til to come push them further up my shoulders. For some reason they were missing the little extra strap that's supposed to join the suspenders over your chest and keep this from being a problem.

Other than that, though, I loved the Tracht! The lederhosen were really comfy, and the girls reported the same for the dirndls, saying the practical cut below the knee was actually liberating, because you didn't have to worry about flashing people every time you bent over or sat down. Personally I thought the women looked great in dirndls, with the fitted waists and feminine style. I actually wish we could all dress like that all the time! Except, of course, I prefer my fake leather lederhosen to the genuine kind. Supposedly the Bavarians of old only ever had two pairs – a working, everyday pair and a dress pair. They still wear them on special occasions, and I kept being told the ultimate goal was to get them so stiff with spilled beer and grease wiped off your hands that they are able to stand up unsupported.

The three of us on Fa's balcony. Munich has a prohibition on buildings higher than 99 m in the city centre, and the rule is being extended outward over time, so Fa's place offered a rare view.

In their infinite wisdom, the locals advised us of the uselessness of trying to get a seat in the tents as a group on the first day of the festival if you hadn't booked a table months in advance. Instead, their custom was to bring their own drinks and set up camp on the slope overlooking Theresienwiese known as 'drunk hill', so called for the people who tend to gather there to sleep off their intoxication (see the video at the end of this post). 

The Germans demonstrated how to expertly pour our weissbier into the beer glasses they'd smuggled in (it was considered sacrilege to drink it straight from the bottle), and we all got to drinking. They also taught me the trick of leveraging off bottlecaps with other bottles or a lighter, which saved me from cutting up my fingers trying to pry them off with sheer force and a rock. I'm actually amazed that I got this far in life without ever needing to know how to do that ...

'Come on! Open! I want what's in you!'

Next Sam and Fa kindly set to work preparing the group a traditional Bavarian breakfast of weisswurst, sauerkraut and pretzels (although Til and I obviously eschewed the sausages – nobody even knew what animals' bodies they was made out of; yuck! Further investigation reveals it to be pig and calf flesh, incidentally two of the most morally reprehensible meats, as far as such things can be ranked ...)

Basically we just spent the whole day camped out on the hill watching the festivities, drinking, periodically returning to the supermarket for more crates of beer, and engaging in general merriment. The weather was pretty miserable at first – drizzly and grey – so we huddled under a tree, sitting on plastic bags in the mud for most of the morning, but thankfully it cleared up in the afternoon.

We met a few other friends of the flat, like the Italians Rochelle and Chris' girlfriend Alissandra, whose two-hundred-and-something euro dirndl had the girls cooing in admiration. Getting into the spirit of things, Til had Kate do her hair in an attempted 'Tymoshenko' braid, but Kate failed to account for the surprising mass of Til's hair and it turned into more of a coil. Still looked very effective, though, and sparked one or two conversations about Tymoshenko's politics.

Left to right: Former Ukrainian prime minister and businesswoman Yulia Tymoshenko; Til; and Hilde and Ingrid from Gore Verbinski's 1997 classic MouseHunt.

One highlight of the day was the ceremonial tapping of the first keg by the mayor of Munich, the traditional opening of the festival, up until which point none of the tents are permitted to serve any beer. We didn't actually see it, but all of a sudden at twelve o'clock we heard the first of a succession of thunderous booms. After the third or fourth one had sounded, the locals began to shoot one another astonished looks, reacting with increasing incredulity to each successive crack until some of them were practically writhing around in cachinnating paroxysms of amazement at each blast. We were totally bemused by the antics, asking repeatedly what the hell was going on, but it wasn't until afterwards that we were able to extract an answer. Reportedly, each gunshot marked one swing of the mallet by the mayor in his attempt to tap the keg. This was the new mayor's first year, and the Germans considered twelve attempts extraordinarily poor form, especially in comparison to his predecessor, who'd had it down to an art, usually tapping it in a single swing. Their astounded convulsions had been brought on by sheer, disbelieving embarrassment for the poor guy. That's what they told us, anyway – I've read elsewhere that twelve gunshots are just traditional, so who knows? I captured a little of the locals' reactions on film which you can see in the video at the end of this post.

Beer wench Mathilde.

Kate and Til getting a photo with an interesting character from an office day out. Under his skirts was an enormous novelty penis, which he kept flashing at everyone all day.

I think the original point of this photo was that I was wearing Sam's hat, but that's kind of lost in the framing ...

Me, Danny, Sam, Chris, Fa, Danni and two randos.

Some legend who climbed the plinth making sure his beer got down safely before he threw himself off.

Danni and Sam got into a lighthearted scuffle.

Crashed out.

Sleeping it off in synchronicity on drunk hill.

At some point in the afternoon Kate and Til went to have a look around the Wiesn, and when they returned they brought with them Christian, a Dane living in Munich for the year while he worked for a bank, who'd been separated from his friends. Not having any way to get back with them, we adopted him into our group for the rest of the day, slipping him beers from our communal crate. 

Come night time, our German hosts were ready to leave and the weather was turning bad again. Kate, Til, Christian and I were keen to kick on to a Mexican bar that Christian said was supposed to be good but, by the time we'd run to the station in the rain, the girls were over it and ready to go home, leaving just Christian and I. The only problem was that, as two lady-less guys in lederhosen, there was little chance of us getting let in anywhere, so we basically had to go on an odyssey all over Munich before we found somewhere half-decent, but we managed to have a fun night anyway.

On the way home.

Luggage luck, wifi woes and taking our time

The next morning I was very unpleasantly awoken by a very pleasant surprise – Munich Airport called to inform me my lost luggage had arrived! After a week and a half of cycling through the same two outfits due to the initial incompetence and subsequent protracted intransigence of AirSerbia in cooperating with the ostensibly diligent, though evidently ineffectual Ljubljana Airport lost luggage service, I was finally getting my backpack back! Within a day of the matter being transferred into the capable, ruthlessly efficient hands of the Germans, the issue had been resolved, and the bag was delivered to Sina's doorstep an hour later. Talk about productivity!

Other than that, though, the day was pretty uneventful. The great thing about spending the week in Munich was that we didn't feel any pressure to return to the festival three days in a row and destroy ourselves like our American friends, who were only in the city for the weekend. We had the luxury of a recovery day between each visit, which we could use to plan the next part of our trip and explore the other aspects of the city. All we really accomplished after our generous sleep-in was a delicious but expensive lunch at a veggie restaurant followed by a failed wifi-hunting venture that resulted in an hour sitting in an overcrowded Starbucks with unusably slow internet. But that was okay. Because we weren't spending a hundred euros a night on accommodation. We could afford to go at our own pace.

L'atelier des allemands

Back at the flat, the internet had magically decided to work again, so we seized the opportunity to do some travel research and make some bookings. While we were doing that in the kitchen we got talking to Sina and her friend Lou (I think?), who were heading over to their atelier to do some work. There was an unused former hospital-cum-telecommunications office building nearby whose owners were renting out cheap workspaces for artists and techies and craftspeople, so Sina and the group had snapped one up. Once again, they showed great hospitality and generosity by inviting us along to check it out. Til and Kate had to crash, but I was more than happy to go along.

After Lou sung us a hauntingly beautiful German song (which I recorded, but which the audio unfortunately stuffed up on), we made the short trip over there in Lou's car, talking on the way about language and the differences between German and English. The building was huge and cool and creepy, and pretty much exactly what you'd picture if you thought of a disused hospital-cum-telecommunications office building. Fa and Danni were already there when we arrived, the former fixing a lamp and the latter tinkering with something or other at his carpentry table. In the corner a bunch of computer towers kept cool by fans buzzed away, part of some ingenious money-making scheme I never quite got my head around. Something to do with the free electricity included in the rent and graphics cards and 'mining' bitcoins or whatever. And above the door hung yet another Sina-constructed wooden berth, which I tested myself. Sina and I talked for a while about her art, including how she'd been commissioned to create the altar for a church and her use of fibre optics and concrete to create really cool effects with light. 

Lou and Fa working on their lamp.

At some point the trio led me into a neighbouring workshop and introduced me to an engineer of some kind who'd rigged up a stairlift to his wall for no particular reason. I was wary of some kind of prank when they encouraged me to have a go, but they soon won me over and I got on. Unfortunately, just as it was about to reach its zenith, the battery ran out and I was stuck nine or ten feet in the air on a wall-mounted chair! Sina got the whole thing on film, so it's in the video at the end of this post.

Bustling activity below as they try to work out how to rescue me.


The point where it jammed.

They didn't have any luck in getting me down, so I just had to climb. It was pretty funny. After that the Germans got to work and I caught up on writing my notes before making my way home. I found myself so impressed with/inspired by/envious of this group of enterprising young creatives. It's not something I've ever encountered back home – this can-do, all-embracing atmosphere of activity amongst people my own age; getting out and just doing stuff; inspiring one another; cross-pollinating their various artistic, scientific, technological, and practical skills; hearing about something and looking into it and going for it and trying and failing and succeeding and just making it happen even though you might only have half an idea of what you're doing. It's something I'd love to find a way to emulate back home ...

Seeing the city

Last time Til and I had been to Germany in 2011, we'd visited the Nazi and later Soviet concentration camp of Sachsenhausen, which was a sobering and harrowing experience that I wasn't eager to repeat this time. Kate, however, had never been to one, so on Monday she and Til had planned to visit nearby Dachau. Unfortunately by this stage she was basically bedridden, so they had to postpone the visit and Til and I went out without her.

Our first stop was Max Pett – Das Vegane Restaurant on the appropriately named Mathildenstrasse!

Matilda on Mathildenstrasse.

Mathilden = bad.

Perusing the menu at Max Pett.

Mmmm. Seitan schnitzel.

Next we headed to Marienplatz to undertake our standard Sandeman's New Europe free walking tour, where we had an American ex-footballer as an enthusiastic guide around the city for a few hours. It was interesting to learn about Oktoberfest's origin as a celebration of the marriage of Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen in 1810, which was then made an annual event due to its success and stimulation of the local economy. The guide also explained that the date of the celebrations was later brought forward into the last weeks of September and first of October to take advantage of the usually more clement weather, accounting for the confusing disjunction between the name of the festival and its actual timing.

The Neues Rathaus (New City Hall) on the edge of Marienplatz.

In the hall building's courtyard.

Part of the Mariensäule, perhaps my favourite piece of statuary ever (sounds more grandiose than it is – it's not like I have a list!) in the centre of Marienplatz, our meeting place for the tour. It's a Marian column erected in celebration of the end of Swedish occupation in 1638. In the middle is a golden statue of Mary, but my favourite part is the four putti surrounding it, each (quite non-veganistically) slaying a different symbolic mythical beast. This photo shows one putto triumphing over a cockatrice, representing pestilence.

Neville-like, another putto raises his sword to strike down the serpent of heresy. The other two putti battle a lion, symbolising war, and a dragon, representing famine, respectively.

A model of the city.

A frieze of Joseph Ratzinger in the Munich Frauenkirche (Cathedral of Our Dear Lady), who presided over the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising before becoming Pope Benedict XVI.

A statue of sixteenth-century composer Orlando di Lasso that has been co-opted by Michael Jackson fans as a shrine since his death in 2009. The guide told us Jackson would rent out an entire floor of the Bayerischer Hof hotel across the road whenever he was in town, so when he died fans associated the spot with him and chose to leave their tributes there. The authorities refused to build an official memorial, but apparently encouraged fans to centre their offerings around this statue, as di Lassio was supposed to be the young rockstar of his day.

The Feldherrnhalle in the Odeonsplatz, a crucial site in the history of Hitler's rise to power.

Dodger's alley. During the Third Reich, people passing by the Feldherrnhalle were required to give the Hitler salute to a Nazi memorial. Objectors to the regime would risk their lives to circumvent this obligation by taking this alternative route, now commemorated by golden cobblestones.

The famous Hofbräuhaus.

Interior of the Hofbräuhaus. Kinda like:

Among other things, we also got to see and hear about the Münchner Residenz (royal palace), the seat of the Bavarian kings; the Bayerische Staatsoper (opera house), the site of an early sprinkler system that didn't work because it was winter and the water in the system was frozen, so the citizens of Munich had to put the fire out with beer; and the city's gigantic maypole and the story of how the city police stole it.

After the tour, Til and I returned to Marienplatz to wait for one of the daily chimings of the Rathaus-Glockenspiel, which depicts a joust between two knights and the dance of the coopers (a tradition carried out once every seven years, which I think Chris from the flat might've partaken in back in 2012 – not sure, I was quite drunk when he told me). See the video for a few snippets of the glockenspiel in action. We sat down for some chips and beer while we waited, and listened to three American tourists being outrageously loud and obnoxious, one of them telling a story about how she was in all the Australian gossip magazines because she was once unknowingly on the same boat as Frederik and Mary, Crown Prince and Princess of Denmark.

While we were waiting for the glockenspiel, this Aussie lady bashfully asked Til re-hook her bra.

Hoisting our Maßes (singular pronounced like 'mast' without the 't' – the Germans don't know what you're talking about if you call it a 'stein', which is actually an English neologism).

The glockenspiel.

Empty Maßes.

After that it was back home to meet Kate, then to dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant where we'd arranged to meet up with my friend Lauren from high school and her boyfriend Alex, who were also in town for Oktoberfest.

Septemberfest 2: return to theresienwiese

The next morning we returned to McDonald's for breakfast, the girls still defiantly dressed in their pyjamas ('Who cares!? I don't know anyone here!'), then got all Trachted up for another afternoon at the festival.

Crazy-ass pyjama Til.

Bavarian badasses.

At Wiesn, we walked around for a while looking at the rides and stalls and bought some corn on the cob before finding a few spare seats on the end of a table in the Augustiner tent. We all ordered our first official Maß of Oktoberfest beer from a tent, and made sure to tip our waitress generously so she'd come back to us quickly. Each Maß was about ten euros, but it was a full litre of beer, and it's a lot stronger than other beers, a fact Kate and I in particular would come to know intimately. 

'Uh, my English is not perfect, but I have to tell you: eh, your beer is like swill to us. Uh, do I have that right? I'm saying zat only a svine vould drink zis beer.'

We Aussies think we're big beer drinkers, but we've really got nothing on the Bavarians, who consume on average 150 L of beer for every year of their lifetime. We heard some pretty shocking horror stories about alcohol dependency from our hosts.

Considering the gigantic portions of Oktoberfest beer in thick, chunky glass Maßes, it was pretty impressive to see the put-upon but cheerful waitresses carrying five in each hand! We talked to ours a bit, and got her to teach us the 'Ein Prosit' song (see the video), which was being played every five minutes and sung by everyone in the whole tent:

Ein Prosit, ein Prosit                                              A toast, a toast

Der Gemütlichkeit                                   To cheer and good times
Ein Prosit, ein Prosit                                              A toast, a toast

Der Gemütlichkeit                                   To cheer and good times

Augustiner tent.

Every now and then someone would stand up on the table and everyone around them would sing and clap and cheer until they skolled their entire maß.

Another enormous pretzel.

Til's ancient enemy: soggy bread.

Trying her hand at waitressing.

Toilet tipping: 20 cents for a small penis; 2 euros for a large penis.

At some stage we were joined by some random Swiss and Czech dudes.

And then Lauren and Alex found us and hung out for a while.

Soon we were getting hungry, so we all went out in search of some food. Everyone was worried that I wouldn't be able to find anything at such a meat-focused festival, but actually, ten percent of the German population is vegetarian, and the festival has embraced veggie options over the past couple of years, with vegan versions of traditional Bavarian fare available all over the place. I was able to get a crazy-good soy-chicken risotto, of all things.

After lunch we parted ways with Lauren and Alex and ventured into the very festive Lowenbrau tent, where they were playing 'In the Jungle', but we couldn't find a seat, so we tried another. While we were looking for a seat we passed by a German baby that the girls were very taken with, and they ended up having a kiss, a cuddle and a dance (see the video)! After that we sent Kate to flirt with a big table of Italian and Aussie guys to see if they'd let us squeeze on the end, where we spent the next few hours.

Our new Italian and Aussie friends. We were told the population breakdown of Oktoberfest attendants was generally 1: Germans, 2: Italians, and 3: Australians, so I think we're representing ourselves well.

This crazy photobomber got a little too enthusiastic with his toasting later and smashed his Maß.

Everyone was having a great time, when all of a sudden Kate turned to me and said she had to go. I was surprised because she seemed totally fine a minute ago, but that's the hard lesson we learned about Oktoberfest beer. It hits you all at once. The same thing would happen to me a little later, and I'd end up feeling very sick and falling asleep on the train station platform, and then again in Macca's while Til ordered a burger. Before we left I'd have to go throw up in the bathroom, after which I fell asleep on the toilet for a while. Not my proudest moment. The beer was just stronger than me. So much stronger. 

Septemberfest 3: the last maß

The next day Kate and Til went to Dachau while I worked on a blog post (after a cheeky hungover McDonald's breakfast). When they got back, quite shaken (especially Kate, since it was her first visit to a concentration camp), Kate had a quick nap and Til did some more travel booking and then it was time to hit Wiesn one last time.

Christian was going again that night as well, this time with a big bunch of his fellow Danish expatriates, so we arranged to meet up. After looking around a bit, the three of us headed to the tent he said they were in and fortuitously just bumped right into him and his mates. 

The Danes had a big table to themselves, but there was no more room on it, so Kate, Til, Christian and a couple of his friends and I squeezed onto another one elsewhere and got down to drinking and chatting. A lot of them were doing some kind of nicotine product that you snort or something, so many cocaine jokes were made. Other than that topics of conversation included Danish royalty and Princess Mary, of course, soccer, handball, and Danish and Australian drinking songs, which we recited in order to make each other down our drinks (see the video).

Traditional Oktoberfesthertzen on the way to Wiesn.

Christian, Til and Kate.

Photobomber, me, and Christian's friends.

Someone behind that latticework divider there was stripping roses off the beams and throwing them over in an attempt to woo Kate and Til. They weren't happy when the boys started playing with them instead.

Sorry Kate.

After a few hours, though, Kate had to go 'cause she was feeling sick and the Danes did too since they had work in the morning, but not before I was enlisted to help Christian smuggle his Maß out of the grounds. Apparently they were considered quite a trophy 'cause you could get fined for trying to take them and security was pretty vigilant about it. Christian's cunning plan was to play the part of a stumbling drunk who'd removed his shirt as drunk people are wont to do, when in reality he was carrying his glass wrapped up in the shirt, and he needed me to lean on to give the act credibility. It worked, too! But his friend didn't have me to boost his verisimilitude, so he wasn't so lucky and got totally busted.

After that Til and I went inside to another tent where we stayed until closing time at 12. I got halfway through my third or fourth Maß and got hit with the old Oktoberfest beer sucker punch, and couldn't take another mouthful, so Til took me home, where I threw up into Sina's strategically placed bedside bucket (thank god).

Playing the role of the put-upon friend having to deal with the stumbling drunk.

The last tent we were in – we saw a scuffle with security right in front of us!

The final days

The next day a hole was ripped from our collective soul when Kate departed to head east to all the places we'd just come from. But our pain was soothed by the knowledge that we'd be meeting back up again soon in Cinque Terre. For now we seriously needed to get onto our travel plan situation. It ended up being such a nightmare that we'd have to keep extending our stay in Munich by one more night for the next two or three days!

The non-planning-related highlights of our last days in Munich, though, mostly revolved around food, including stellar meals at Taco Libre, vegan doner kebabs at Royal Kebabhaus, the best burgers ever at Burger House, and delicious baked potatoes from Pompom at Hauptbahnhof.

Viking Til on the way to Royal Kebabhaus.


Cool stickers on the kebab shop's door.

The last thing I had to do was buy my sisters' souvenirs/birthday presents/Christmas presents (yes, they were that expensive) from C&A: they'd requested authentic dirndls!

Modelling their souvenirs on Christmas morning back in Oz at Stanwell Tops.

On Saturday we left Munich via overnight bus to Rome. Needless to say it was a goddamn nightmare. It was boiling and uncomfortable, and we were sitting in front of two horrible racist Australian dicks, and I hardly slept a moment. But our time in Munich had been amazing, right up there with the trans-Siberian as one of the highlights of the entire trip.

The way we would describe it to everyone who asked was that it was just the biggest, best party ever. I loved how chilled out it was compared to Australia. We think of ourselves as laid back, and perhaps we are individually, but compared with Europe our society is so regulated and policed, either because we are infantile and require more policing, or because all this policing infantilises us. Oktoberfest had no fences, no rules, hardly any security or brawls. Sure, drunk people were lying all over the place and pissing in bushes and whatnot, but it was fine. And there was such a genuinely festive spirit suffusing the entire event. So often the festivals we attend back home are segregated by age, and with the absence of children to watch your behaviour around and the lack of the moderating influence of more senior adults, the atmosphere really changes. My experience of most (mainstream, non-hippie) festivals in Australia is kind of competitive, angry, stressful – you have to push past people, people ram into you, you're forever waiting in lines and trying to press your way to the front. There's just a general attitude of hostility towards those outside your own group, and on display everywhere is what I've come to recognise as a particularly Australian brand of mindless, brutish, belligerent masculinity that kind of taints the whole mood. Oktoberfest wasn't like that at all. It was such a genuinely communal celebration – entire families dressed in matching Tracht, kids running around, old people enjoying themselves alongside the youth. It wasn't about looking cool; it was about having fun, and that's why it was so great.

Probably the best Snapchat response I got to my Oktoberfest snaps (from Til's brother Lachie).

Aside from the festival itself, we'd just been so lucky in so many ways – to have been in Munich at the same time as old friends from Australia like Lauren; to have found such good accommodation with such cool, friendly, welcoming people; to have met fun people like Christian and his friends, and all the randoms whose tables we shared and had great conversations with. I really hope I'll get the chance to go again someday, or at least to see a time when we have something comparable back in Australia!

Thanks for reading! Here's the video from our time in Munich: