viernes, 28 de diciembre de 2012

Km 27,053: Images of the average (Villach, Austria)

Austrians, if you are to believe what Julia says, are the most average people in the world. She claims that there is nothing special about Austria nor its people. They are just regular and absolutely inconspicuous. Now, I don't regularly hear much about Austria in the news, but the TV has taught me that Austrians excel at two things: skiing and locking people up in basements for extended periods of time. 

When I started planning my trip to Austria to go visit Julia, I wasn't really sure if I would like the country and what it had to offer. I have never skied before and the idea of living in a basement for a few years didn't seem particularly appealing. I wasn't really comfortable either with the idea of locking someone else in the basement. Trapping people in basements might be the work of lunatics, but it takes a responsible lunatic to keep your prisoners alive. You have to check on them and bring them food regularly and, with plants dieing on me because of my neglectful attitude, I'm not really sure I'm ready. With all these concerns, I wasn't really sure if we would find anything non-average to do and have a good time in Villach.

Villach and its surroundings was just as average as Julia had warned us it would be, with all these dull landscapes unremarkably covered with snow and illuminated by the most unexceptional light ever. 

However, we still managed to have a good time with Julia and her inconspicuous Austrian friends and family who were all very kind to us and didn't try even once to push us into their basements. We went to a Christmas market for hot cider, to a techno party for vodka tonics and to Julia's neighbor's house for some schnapps. We had delicious food for breafkast, for lunch and for dinner. We waltzed, we Gangnam-styled and I even danced polka with Julia's grandmother. I doubled my money at a Slovenian casino's roulette table, sipping some red wine and looking down on middle-aged Italian med gambling their money away. I even went on a full moon hike with lamas on a snowy mountain.

On a second thought, Austria and its people may not be as average as Julia said it was. You can't be average when you have lama hikes in the Alps under the light of a full moon.

Km 26,847: Hunting for deer in Venice

Momo by Michael Ende is one of my favorite books. As a child, I would stay up late and read it under my bed covers with a flashlight. Momo lead to the Neverending story which, in turn, pointed me to a book of short stories by Ende called "The Prison of Freedom", which gets its name from one of the stories.

The truth is that time has blurred my memory and I have a hard time distinguishing between what actually happens in "The Prison of Freedom" and what I think happens. Accuracy is irrelevant: "The prison of freedom" tells the story of a boy who is taken by his wealthy father on a perpetual business trip throughout the world, while being left in the uninterested hands of a neglectful butler very much fond of prostitutes, and a succession of inexperienced teachers lacking character and personality. With no other family and no long lasting friends, the boy grows up virtually on his own. After a few years of living in luxurious hotels all around the world, this boy realizes that people around him keep talking about a strange concept that is completely unknown to him. Whatever "home" may be drives his curiosity and he starts asking people around him (the teachers, the staff from the hotels, his neglectful butler and even the prostitutes) to tell him more about their "home". Home seems to mean something different to everyone and involves all kinds of places and people, but he realizes that everyone smiles when they talk about it and "home" emanates a feeling of belonging. To his despair, he finally understands that there is no place on Earth that means anything similar to him.

Father dies and the boy, now a young man, inherits a great fortune that he spends on solitary trips around the world, looking for a place where he belongs. He finds himself one foggy night walking through the narrow streets of Venice, more depressed than ever. Maybe he was blinded by the fog, maybe he tripped on purpose. Either way, he falls into one of the canals and is miraculously saved from drowning by a man. Surprised, frustrated and embarassed at the same time, he runs into the labyrinth of streets until he is completely lost. He stops and looks into the window of a shop, where he sees a painting of a hunting scene. Several men, the hunters, are shooting arrows at a deer. Upon closer examination, the deer is in fact formed by the arrows that are being shot by the hunters. An inscription in latin says something along the lines of "The object of your quest may not be known, but it is the quest itself that will show you what you are looking for". The shop is an antique store selling all sorts of objets, paintings, maps, compasses. The young man, captivated by the painting, walks into the store and finds exactly what he was looking for.

I was in Venice on a foggy day last week. I'm persuaded it must have looked exactly the way Michael Ende imagined it for this story.

jueves, 27 de diciembre de 2012

Km 25,005: Madame Michemouche in Montpellier

My only evening in Brussels was well invested in a hearty dinner with lots of wine, ribs and nice company. We visited a Christmas market where one could buy all sorts of expensive holiday paraphernalia and drink enough hot wine to not care anymore about their prices.

The trip from my hostel bed in Brussels to my sister's apartment in Montpellier was uneventful (other than the loss of my little gray hat). I was picked up by Bea at the bus station and promptly taken home for a quick lunch and a long shower. Bea had to go to her university for an exam, so I was left behind for some city exploration. I walked to the city center, which holds some sort of similarity that I can't really define with other Mediterranean cities like Cagliari in Sardinia or Split in Croatia. I did some extensive window shopping and then strolled through the Christmas market, which had the same gorgeous little presents at the same unreasonable prices as in Belgium.

Bea and I met in the city center after her exam and strolled around the streets in Montpellier, talking and people watching. We decided to stop in a burger place to get food with rock n' roll names and meet up with Bea's boyfriend. I got an Unforgetable burger, with honey and goat cheese, but seriously considered having a Highway to hell which had bacon inside and didn't look half bad. And then, while we were in the queue to order our burgers, we met three charming Montpellierians: Jeanne Michemouche, a pretty pink paper butterfly with sparkly wings, and Sarah and Victor, two slightly drunk and very entertaining students. As they recounted, their friendship with Jeanne had been short but very intense as they had picked her up from the garbage only minutes before, saving her from humiliation and a certain death. We were touched by their story and couldn't refuse an invitation to join them for a beer on the chilly terrace of a bar. We were caught in the rain but insisted on staying in place by pulling out a children-sized umbrella to protect our food and beers. We went to another bar for a drink and to dance some reggae and salsa. We decided to go for one last drink before the shutdown of Montpellier's public transportation system at one in the morning, and enjoyed some sangrias on the terrace of another bar. Before parting, we exchanged phone numbers, Facebook profiles and good wishes, while giving Jeanne Michemouche a Mexican name, Juana Michimucha.

I'm not really sure what there is to see or do in Montpellier and for that reason, can't really recommend it to anyone. But if you're ever in Montpellier and bump into a pretty pink paper butterfly with sparkly wings, please send some greetings on my behalf as I've been unable so far to find Jeanne Michemouche on Facebook. Maybe she's adopted her Mexican alias and gone somewhere else for the winter..

lunes, 24 de diciembre de 2012

Km 23,548: A capella in Bruges

I've been living in the Netherlands for almost two years, catching on to typical Dutch habits like keeping my beer outdoors during the winter and biking past a windmill on my way to work every morning. Despite this fact, or perhaps because of it, I sometimes indulge in little outbursts of Mexican bad habits, notably poor planning. The last episode was only a week ago, when I realized, first, that the flight I was taking to see my sister in Montpellier in a few days was actually a day later than I thought it was and, second, that no matter how early I left Nijmegen on that day, it was impossible to arrive on time to catch my flight in Brussels Charleroi. As a consequence, I now had an extra day of vacations and had to spend the night before my flight somewhere near Brussels. In an effort to protect my pride from the fact that I had to spend the money I had saved with my cheap Ryanair ticket on a hostel, I decided to make it worth it.

Bruges is my white whale; every single plan I've ever made to visit it has failed in the past couple of years. Everyone else has already been there and doesn't want to go back. Patching my frustration with my credit card, I booked a bed in a hostel in Bruges and decided to go by myself.

After an unexplainably long train trip from Nijmegen to Bruges, some wandering in dark alleys and checking my map, I arrived to my hostel in time for Happy Hour. Except it wasn't all that happy, because the bar was occupied by two radically different species of humans: autistic travellers, busy with diverse electronic devices and with no interest in social contact, and socially awkward locals, excessively eager to buy you a drink and take you for a romantic walk through the city. I decided to forget about socializing and wander through the city at night by myself. I walked for a couple of hours, visited a few monuments and the Christmas market and did some window shopping, without the hassle of the troupes of tourists.

The next day was equally lonesome but, to be honest, it didn't really bother me. I woke up early and, armed with a very cool map I got at the hostel, visited every single highlighted location I thought was interesting. I had a lot of time to walk about, to take pictures, to sit around and to think. I made plans for the evening, to visit in Brussels a long lost friend from highschool for "all you can eat" ribs and some catching up. I had lunch and visited the last highlighted location on my map: the museum of lace.

Now, now. I can hardly think of a museum that sound even more dull than the museum of lace (the museum of buttons in Mexico City is probably close). But the museum of lace in Bruges is remarkable for two things. The first one is that for The same €2, you also get an entrance to the creepy Jerusalem chapel next door. This bizarre church has the honor of owning, hands down, the eeriest altar I have ever seen along with intimidating inscriptions about God's awareness of your deepest thoughts (even if you don't really want to share them with Him). If this uncomfortable religious experience doesn't cut it for you, the museum of lace is also remarkable for it's collection of award-winning lace and live demonstrations of how lace is handmade.

Creepy altar in Jerusalem chapel
 A small piece of handmade lace that would sell for €10 takes about 10 hours to make. If deductive reasoning is on my side, a piece selling for €100 would take, say, 100 hours to complete (I'm not sure if the complexity/price relation of lace grows arithmetically or exponentially, but I'm going to settle arbitrarily on 100 hours. Just because). This means that the extraordinarily complicated pieces they have on display in the museum may have taken hundreds or maybe even thousands hours to make. And that puts a lot of things in perspective. The only things in which I have invested hundreds of hours of my life is in studying medicine and perhaps in playing the Sims (which is definitely much less glorious).

When I look at the time and patience required to make a piece of lace by hand, I wonder what will happen with handcrafts that go at a slow pace that just seems incompatible with modern life. After going to school or work, hitting the gym, catching up on Facebook (or 9gag or whatever your online addiction may be) and spending time with your loved ones, who will have time to work on their lace project for hundreds of days on end? What's more, what will happen to those with stereotypes associated to gender roles? My mother is capable of sowing, knitting, crocheting and embroidering in a way that I probably never will be able to achieve. But just like playing with dolls, learning to knit or embroider never sounded like a thrill for the younger version of myself (although I recently developed an interest in knitting and picked it up, mostly from the internet, partially from a group of young women with a somewhat obscure interest in making sweaters out of balls of wool). Will the popularity of these crafts shrivel? Will they end up being kept alive by small groups of people with something which will be considered an outdated or obsolete hobby?

I think I would rather invest hundreds of hours of my life in studying medicine all over again rather than in making lace by hand. I'm not so sure about the Sims though. It might have been a waste of time that I could have spent working on my handmade lace project instead.

Map of Bruges made out of lace