“I want you flat on your back. Helpless, tender, open with only me to help. And then I want you strong again. You’re not going to die. You might wish you’re going to die, but you’re not going to. You need to settle down a little.” – Alma, Phantom Thread (2017)
The line above rounded off a gorgeously-affecting movie with a drop of cough mixture, leaving us with taste, perhaps a little too bitter in the mouth. It was a cunning sleigh of hand, a slap from your blind side. For the length of film, you were working on the pretense that what we would see unfold is love eventually warming the oddest of hearts, and you would be forgiven in thinking that was what you got in the end, but what we got was really not a tale about love.
It was a tale about addiction.
That Alma was willing to accept Reynolds in whatever shape, form or posture, just as long he was present and that Reynolds was essentially willing to subject himself to whatever contortion just to have her continue to be around, reeks of something a lot more nefarious than love should be. I consider myself to be fairly open to rather leftist iterations of what love could look like but this really does not look like love. It looks more like addiction.
Which then set me off on a lengthy thought process about how it would look like to be addicted to someone. I mean it’s certainly plausible, since Robert Palmer had a hit about it back in 1985. Then again he sang about being addicted to love, which may be slightly different from being addicted to someone. Okay, overthinking again. In any case, it’s irrelevant (the plausibility of the Robert Palmer song’s contents), given that I am someone who recovered from being addicted to someone. So it does happen.
It’s ironic because having someone be ‘addicted’ to you may be a prose that can be celebrated by selected public as an acceptable expression of love. To some it is the promise land – to have someone be helplessly fawning over you.
But yet the dysfunctionality presents itself in its byproduct. You would be hard pressed to defend the idea that an addict is simply someone who loves his drugs too much. It’s a little more sinister than that. So to equate that to love seems a little too radical even for someone who is more fluid with these things.
So if you are someone who enjoys the idea of someone potentially being addicted to you, then you are not behaving like a lover, but like a drug. You put yourself out there and hope that someone gets hooked-in, line and sinker. You may think what you’ve reeled in is a lover, but what you’ve caught is really an addict.
The dysfunctional relationships and friendships I’ve had in my life have always looked a lot like addiction. I may have tried to label them as a severely sacrificial form of love but in hindsight, they actually looked a lot more like an addiction – the drug being the person you are addicted to.
I’ve since considered the symptoms I was showing at the time when I was in those dysfunctional relationships; the abandonment of logic and principle, alienating friends and loved ones; a constant need for the person to be around; severe anxiety when there are signs that I can no longer be with the person; mounting financial problems driven by the need to service the addiction; severe rationalization of situation no matter how obvious that things were not going well, etc. I could go on.
Like an addict, you are quite powerless to stop yourself from being addicted. People have asked me why I subjected myself to those relationships and friendships? Why couldn’t I see how destructive they were? Why did I allow myself to be hung so far out to dry? Why did I behave with so little dignity?
To be honest, the most truthful answer is I don’t know.
It does look really cloudy on the inside. There is some awareness that things are not well but you fear even entertaining the thought of not having your drug anymore. So you hold on with all your might and hope the drug doesn’t destroy you too much and that people around you do not notice how it is changing you, killing you.
I have at times described this addiction as a kind of imbalance. I can see it quite clearly in some relationships and friendships, even today. I suppose an ex-addict will always be able to spot another addict. What does it look like? To put it simply, it looks a lot like one party having a lot more dependency on the other. Like how an addict is completely vulnerable to the whims and fancies of the drug they are addicted to and is willing to do just about anything to ensure they don’t ever lose it. I see it in their body language as a couple, I see it in the words they use, I see it in the decisions that are made.
And it still scares the daylights out of me when I see it today, even in others.
I sometimes do worry if that addiction has damaged me irreparably. But then, I am also comforted by the realisation that this worry keeps me on the edge, so I can ensure that I never fall into it ever again. The important thing I’ve realised from my addiction is that the drug is merely just a manifestation of what I desired. If it’s not that person, it would’ve been someone else. They became the drug because I desired to be an addict. I desired to be an addict because I was broken inside.
Contrary to what the hits tell you, love is not blind, love doesn’t have to bite, love doesn’t make you lost and love doesn’t make you lose yourself.
You can never get enough of what you don’t really want
from Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things
Me and the wife sat down and watched a good documentary film yesterday about, well, ‘the important things’, according to its title. The film is essentially a statement of how uncontrolled consumerism has been ruining our lives. It doesn’t really say anything we have not already considered but it managed to say it in a way that compelled. And tuck between the many quotable statement by the many people who were featured in it was the quote above, and it has sufficiently lodged itself into my head since.
Throughout this pandemic, I have started and ended many days, glued to the screen, consuming the news on what is happening around the world. One of the rhetoric that keeps recurring in discussions between world leaders and experts in their various fields is the concern on when people can start ‘resuming’ their lives.
Everyone is so preoccupied in wanting to ‘resume’ their lives that no one has bothered asking if we should. And I am not talking about a longer MCO. Perhaps if there is anything we should be learning from this crisis or should learn at its eventual conclusion is that life most certainly should not resume as it was before this happened. That we should take this as a harsh, harsh lesson on how we should rethink the way we’ve lived our lives. If we have taken some moment to look beyond the just fact that this crisis has severely interrupted the routines of our existence and beyond to what its larger implications have been, we would have started asking ourselves some very difficult self-admonishing questions about the way we’ve gone about things as a species before all this happened. This pandemic has in one or two deadly swoops, essentially decimated our way of living, one we’ve spent hundreds of years constructing. This disease respects no one you respect, and loves no one you love. It takes who it wants to, no matter if you are the most powerful man in your company and home, or if you’re living on the fringes of poverty. And in just a matter of months it has in essence managed to make humanity do something it probably hasn’t in thousands of years. To stop. To halt progress.
It’s tragic to think that it has taken an awful virus that squeezes your lungs and literally chokes the last breaths out of you, to get us to stop. Yet what have we been preoccupied by in this moment of halt? Resumption, to continue the journey we were on before. Instead perhaps what we should be doing is to ‘reflect’. To start asking ourselves questions progress has distracted us from asking. Was the journey we were on really that great? Was the journey we were on making us happy? Or have we at some point in the last few hundred years, completely and utterly lost the plot?
In the learning and development industry, there is a concept of how we should chunk out our development time called ’70-20-10′. It refers to the percentage of time we should spend on different areas of development. Have we similiarly started asking ourselves how we’ve chunked out what and where we spend our time on in the routines of our lives?
Have we started asking ourselves what and who we should value in our lives? That we sometimes prefer to spend more time with people who really wouldn’t matter after we submit a resignation letter, over the people who will be there beside you at your deathbed at the end of our existence. That the only reason why this happens is because we have a new car to pay for or an ego that needs servicing through stature in society?
Have churches and institutions of worship started asking itself how things should be different in the future? That churches should perhaps look different than how it did before? Less foundations and mascara and more ‘the bits in between the teeth’ because that is where the people are truly suffering. I love seeing the church going back community work as being its main agenda. It’s not that the church has stopped doing it before, but we can argue that it has not been its main agenda for a while now. One only needs to take a look at where it spends most of its time to truly know what matters to it.
That when there are no sharp suits for cameras to trail on or no fancy imagery to dazzle our senses that perhaps that is when one can properly question themselves what truly is their relationship with God all about? That when the routines of worship are taken apart, reconstituted and smashed that it is an opportunity for people to truly ask themselves the sobering questions they’ve been distracted from asking themselves all this while?
Have we as a society asked ourselves what we truly value? Because talks is cheap. I have read hundreds of tributes from people towards those of us who are working in the front lines – the nurses and caregivers, the people sorting out the fresh produces you buy, the cashier at your grocery store, the people who deliver your lunch to your doorstep. That in this time of crisis, these are our heroes, the people who are keeping society from collapsing altogether. Matthew 6:1 in the Bible says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Have we started taking a long and hard look at how, in the future, we can appreciate the important roles these front liners play for our society more by not having them be constantly struggling at the fringes of society but to put our ‘treasure’ towards where all our hearts are at the moment, which is alongside wherever they are, risking their lives for us. Let’s not forget that when life ‘resumes’.
Actually, instead of striving to ‘resume’ our life, we should instead be striving to ‘restart’ it, from zero. Or perhaps to ‘reboot’ it. Anything but just simply resuming it to what it was before, because that would be the tragedy that follows the first, that despite paying for it with the lives of people we loved that we did nothing with the time and instead went back to exactly what we had before. And that we learned nothing from it all.
The truth is, whether we like it or not, life won’t be the same anymore for a lot of us for some time. We will be forced to rethink the constituents of our existence and how we go about it no matter what. We can spend that time kicking against that notion or we can use it as an opportunity to reflect on how it can be different.
Perhaps we should start thinking about what we don’t want anymore in our existence, in our society and to not chase those things anymore. To be different from here onward.
I’ll end my thoughts here with a quote from a book (‘Everything that Remains’ by The Minimalists) that was featured in the film.
“I’d been running in one direction as fast as I could, chasing this abstract thing called happiness, but I’d been running the wrong way. I was sprinting east looking for a sunset, when all I really had to do was turn around and walk—not run, just walk—in the other direction.”
I’ve come to realise with cities, you never get a sense of how large they are unless you’re living at its fringes.
Salzburg gave us an illusion of sort on just how large it was because we were staying right at the eye of it, just a five minute walk from the Salzach river that runs through old and new Salzburg and just a very brisk 10-minute walk from Residenzplatz which you could argue is mostly where the action happens, if there is any action happening at all. So in Salzburg, it always felt like the high-interest areas were just a very walkable stroll away. This was not the case in Vienna.
There was a specific moment in Vienna, when it felt like I was trying to gorge in the streets but it was never ending and I was starting to get indigestion from trying. I had just gone on a quick two-hour sojourn to two record stores on my own. The first was memorable because it was the record store that appeared in one of my favorite movies of all-time, ‘Before Sunrise’. ALT & NEU or in its Austrian name ‘Teuchtler Schallplattenhandlung Antiquariat’ is the kind of record store that would appear to old-school vinyl romantics. Located in a basement-like structure with mosaic-tile floors, stained walls, it was not one of those clean minimalist record stores that look good in photoshoots. This was a dingy, grimy space that’s just filled wall-to-wall with records. There were records stashed underneath chairs, tables, behind doors. At one point I considered looking under the owner’s shoes to see if I had missed anything. You know a record store is worth the ground it is built on and its story worth the pages it is written on when each section of the record store gives you a feeling that toggles painfully between wanting to excitedly start digging and giving up altogether cause the task looks insurmountable. Minimalism is not a great look on a record store. Teuchtler was the kind of store that required a couple of days to dig through and I had about 45 minutes. I got there around 5-15pm and it was closing at 6. The kind lady behind the counter gave me an hour and a half to dig pass their usual closing hours. She even helped me get a few pictures, including one of me with Jesse and Celine in the background. Melt. She also gave me a record for free (I later found out she does this for practically everybody). It’s not a great listen but a free record is not the worst free thing you can get. Potpourri is.
There was a point when I was walking from Teuchtler to my second stop Moses Records where I found myself walking rather quickly (to catch that store before it closes at 8) but the roads just seemed endless. Night was sweeping in, the air was getting more biting every minute, I was slightly underdressed for it, but yet I was sweating because I was moving at a frantic pace. Walking is always the best way to experience a city. Zipping through its large and small streets. It’s much better if you’re just walking serendipitously all over a city without much agenda but in this case I had a place to get to and I should try and get back not too late less my wife sends the polizei out to get me. Incidentally, we were staying just a door away from a polizeistation.
But even in that somewhat manic rush, with long streets to conquer and a limited timeline to do it, I found myself stopping on occasions to admire little streets, small restaurants with diners enjoying a wine outside as desk set in, low-rise apartments with intricate and tasteful architecture, etc. This is the heartbeat of a city to me. This sojourn reminded me a lot of my solo walk back in Salzburg, not just because I was alone walking the streets here as well, but also because it allowed me to take in a city in a way that made sense to me. No specific sight to see, just rows of Viennese streets with life booming unassumingly around it. I love watching people going about their daily lives in a place that’s alien to me. The little touches here and there always get me. The kind of bags they are carrying after a workday – groceries, exercise or professional, gives a glimpse of their life’s routines. The kind of clothes they wear, intricately put together to ward off the weather with boots, scarfs, jackets and gloves all working together to achieve a level of comfort for the wearer. It makes me think about how different that is for us back home, where a pair of shorts and t-shirt will serve you well all year round except when you have dress codes imposed on you (anyone that requires someone to dress formally at an open air event in this part of the world should be subjected to a firing squad and laughter after). It just feels romantically exotic to me, the idea that you have to plan your wear according to the season because at no point in my life (with the exception of vacations) did I have to consider these things on a day-to-day context. I was taking it all in during the walk and it felt, enlightening.
Vienna is a pristine city. If it was a person, it would be someone that always has his shirt tucked neatly, clean socks on at all times and not a strand of hair that’s out of place. Sure, the areas where horse carriages park can smell like the ball sack of a buffalo but for the most part the city looks like one that intends to show just show its good side. The intricate gothic-style architecture was quite gob-smacking initially but after a while, it all became rather tepid quickly. I have never been particularly intrigued with clean and sterilized cities. It’s all pleasant to walk through but where’s the soul and character? That saying Vienna has hardly committed any crime punishable by death in this regard (as opposed to say our neighbors south of us) because while I found it rather lukewarm, there is still enough to love about the city.
That saying our first hours meeting with Vienna unfolded like a B-grade movie, with the tale taking swift, jagged and unnatural turns. One hour we were stuffing ourselves through a lovely brunch and in the next couple of ones after, saw me and the wife stuck in a dramatic predicament that involved running from a mysterious man in shades, being rescued by a team of radioactive rabbits and learning that 1+1 does not equal 2 but 3. Okay not quite as dramatic but it did involve mistaken parking lots, potentially misplaced cars and horrible business process and instructions in the course of us trying to return our rental. Hardly want to go into detail about our ordeal but to the Hertz office in Vienna, we ask that you consider these things to improve your return process:
Partner with a nearby parking garage to store your cars
Ensure that the instructions on your window corresponds with the documents you give to customers (ie, hire a bloody copywriter, namely me)
Give up on the business altogether
Oh, wait, can’t believe I breezed pass the brunch we had. We were sat under grape trees in a courtyard, on a sunny and chilly afternoon, stuffing our face with a brunch buffet spread that can only be described as more awesome than Charles Bronson’s moustache. It was the kind of spread that would drive a vegan to hang themselves in despair. From carved ham, to beef stews and roasted bone marrows, it was a fare to rival the ages. And naturally, without compulsion and not thinking about the vegans of the world, I dove in and tore through the spread with lion-like ferocity and cheetah-like speed. I was basically the closest I have ever been to being a champion of any sort. 24-mins later, I was done. It’s curious how quickly Asians blaze through their food compared to my Austrian counterparts. That, and that for them, even if it is a buffet and you can go back for food as many rounds as you would like, they mostly just take the requisite courses of starter (salads), a main (one or two meats) and dessert (in this case cakes). Unlike us who behaved like we were basically auditioning for an Olympic-level eating competition. I was basically eating for four and I was not even pregnant with one. Ah, cultures, don’t you love them?
Vienna is a city that requires you to slowly wine and dine, for it to reciprocate affection. It’s not a frantic city that assaults your senses and attempts to capture your imagination at every turn. It instead sits politely at its corner, legs crossed, smiling shyly whenever your eyes meet. It clearly is beautiful, but it would never at any point attempt to convince you of its beauty. It’s something for you to discover. The architecture is the first thing that pulls you in. Street-after-street of sophisticated and flamboyant structures that are designed to elicit a response out of you. It’s the kind of architecture that forms its own narrative, rouses your imagination and tells its own stories. But from there on, it becomes a bit of an open ended question. What is your poison? Sitting at a café on a sunny morning sipping a Melange at a café and watching genetic lottery winners walking by? Decking the halls of museums and looking at rare gem stones with names like ‘Cinnabarit’? Or perhaps your prefer walking the narrow passageways of Schönbrunn Palace, marveling at the wonder and grandeur of the Great Gallery and realizing that a Schnitzel is food that was fit for the most luxurious kings and queens? Or, or you could take a right turn at the front entrance of the Palace and visit a zoo instead? Yes, a zoo.
Tiergarten Schönbrunn, which translates to ‘Schönbrunn animal garden’ is a zoo located on the very grounds of the palace. It was founded as an imperial menagerie in 1752. What do the rich and powerful do when they have all the money and resource in the world? Well, they start a zoo of course. It was a tough sell for my wife to hit a zoo while in Vienna but I sold it by telling her it is considered one of the best in the world. My wife, being the kind of person that orders the items on a menu with a ‘chef’s recommendation’ icon next to them, bit. Zoos arouse a conundrum for me. The idea that these animals, designed and made to enjoy the large wild world, are put into an enclosed space, does bother me on some level. That saying, this zoo does its best in its efforts towards species preservation and ensuring that the animals’ stays are as comfortable as possible. The rhino enclosure was 2/3 the size of a football field and the polar bear’s sanctuary had enough land and water space for it to feel as free as possible. The polar bear was quite clearly the star of the zoo, with a special museum built under its enclosure that offers a lot of history information on the work that has been done with the polar bears by the zoo. People stood on the observation deck and waited for the star to appear but he was having none of it. That is until they lowered a basket of fish to lure it out. There is a certain perplexity with observing a polar bear in the flesh. It moves and behaves quite cuddly. Like a friendly uncle with a beer gut you could just walk up to and hug. But we all know that is not a good idea.
Zoos are funny things. It’s not one of those things you feel you want to do every month. In fact, the last time I stepped into one may have been more than 30-years ago. I am not sure why we feel this way. But yet, when I was there at Tiergarten Schönbrunn, I enjoyed myself immensely, scurrying from cage to cage to catch a glimpse of these wondrous beasts. It may be a while before I feel the need to go to a zoo again. There is an order of interest when it comes to choosing which section to visit first at a zoo. And in many ways, it is designed to appeal to the child in us. For me, they are plotted against a four box with the axis’ being ‘Size’ and ‘Danger’. I mean if you’re rushing into a zoo just to look at a racoon, then perhaps you should stay outside and have a Schnitzel instead. A lion on the other hand, would sit right at the top of that graph, and the one at this zoo certainly did not disappoint. Granted it sat at the top of structure and let out a few yawns but for a few seconds, it stared intently at our direction and my small toe curled for a second.
Our days in Vienna zipped by rather quickly, swallowed whole by the size and magnitude of the city. I remember remonstrating to the wife after the first day that we’ve hardly seen anything and a day was gone. But in hindsight I realise that this was in a way inevitable. Vienna is not one of those cities you can shuffle from sight-to-sight and feel like you’ve seen enough of it. It’s a city that requires time to appreciate, the kind of time that most vacationers won’t have. The people who truly enjoy the beauty and wonder of Vienna to its fullest are probably the people who make her every day. The office worker who takes the tram every weekday morning so he can get to his desk by 9 or the lady at the market selling fresh baked pastries, who rise before the sun to ensure people have something to eat when they feel like eating something. These are the people who enjoy Vienna the way Vienna should be enjoyed. And of them, I am of course envious but at the same time resigned with peace that at least I got to see a cheetah up close. How many people can say they have?
I find myself growing more apathetic by the mechanisms of a large church.
There is a certain force and will that is required to move machination that is that large and complex no doubt and I would dare not suggest inadequate salutations for people who see it as their role in the tapestry of humanity to do it.
But I care quite little for it.
As I say this I am also keenly aware that those same people probably care very little what I have to say about the matter and that is not something I begrudge. In fact I quite welcome it. I have always found it ‘warmer’ (that would be the sentiment) to find a corner in any mechanism and try to grow something from there. Away from looming, interested eyes. Whether that growth is noticed or not by the commanders of the ship is not something I concern myself with, just as long as they allow me that corner without bother.
The concept of a ‘congregation’ has at its worst, frightened me, and at the very least, produced a kind of apathy. It’s like being invited to a stag party where the only person you know is the groom. There is a reason why you are there, but it’s never any fun to be honest.
I’ve always seen my faith as a relationship, and as far as I know, a meaningful relationship is always between two people. To suggest that the meaning of this relationship is somehow interlinked with the concept of congregating with a group of people I know mostly in degrees between ‘acquaintance’ to ‘stranger’ has always produced more questions than answers.
I have always asked God that is it absolutely necessary for me to be at church to be a ‘Christian’? He has never answered that question in a complete sentence to me. I do see his answer in patches. The most clear being the cell group I am a part of that has grown in a far corner of this mechanism. That this group of people would not have existed without the machinations of a large church is what keeps me coming back to its hulking cogs.
I have mostly welcomed this season of isolation. I am not unmoved nor undisturbed by the horror that continues to envelop the world but I have found some solace in the midst of the chaos. One being that I can have the programs I am required to be a part of without most of the people whom, if I have to be honest, I care very little for and they care very little for me as well. I am able to distill it mostly down to the people I care about, namely my wife, some friends and my cell members. It’s like I am suddenly able to bespoke the whole machinery into just the parts that I love.
I would be a little deluded if I did not admit that it’s something I’ve loved.
I once scoffed when a friend told me that the reason why her brother broke up with his girlfriend was because, ‘she felt too good for him’.
I scoffed for two reasons. The obvious being that it sounded like a blatant cop-out. The kiss before the punch. ‘No longer attracted to you anymore’ or ‘I’ve fallen for another person’ not cutting the mustard for his nice-guy image perhaps? It’s like the choice between shooting someone cleanly in the head and ending their misery in a split-second or elaborately trying to hang them on a noose and watching the life drain slowly from their eyes. Assuming you really needed to end someone’s life, I don’t think I need to point out to you which is the better option.
The second reason I scoffed was that it felt like he was pissing on my meal. A large portion of society are trying to get to a point where they are happy. Or at the very least, happier than where they are at the moment. Some of these people do not know the first thing about where to start getting there. And here comes my friend’s brother who found the door, but decided to slam it shut cause it looked too inviting.
Sure, in longer hindsight I can recognise that my prejudice grossly oversimplifies the idea of happiness and just how difficult it can sometimes be to allow yourself to be happy when it finally arrives at your doorstep.
I am at a place where a decade ago, I would define as being ‘where I wanted to go’. I got the girl, I got a home and I have a job that I do not hate. I have enough time to catch up on my TV to unwind on some weekdays and to serve the community at my church on most Wednesdays and some weekends. I am no longer the Arthur Fleck-type character that can’t seem to pull his life together no matter how hard he tried. After 42-years of existing, I may be finally be coming to something resembling equilibrium in my life. Took a while, but I finally got here.
But yet, I have this almost subconscious compulsion to find something to be unhappy about even when things are going splendid. Perhaps there are those of us that are built with a little more complex parts. Parts that are too intricate so there are more opportunities for the machinery to break down. At least, that is what I say to console myself.
‘You grow up around something, and it feels like nothing.’
Jin Lee, Columbus (2017)
I’ve been thinking about this quote that zipped almost pass me in the gorgeous sleeper drama Columbus that I watched recently. It’s one of those films that appears to be about nothing, but is really about everything.
I love films like that sometimes, beyond the smash-grab kaiju films that mostly fill me with glee. Films that can draw you into their solitude somehow by draining all excesses of entertainment, until all that is left is just an emptiness that almost reflects the pockets within the major events of our lives, films like that intrigue and attract me. I almost always feel the same after the credits roll on them. I would like to know more about what happened to the characters. Did they get to where they needed to go? You almost always don’t. And from that minor feeling of frustration and cluelessness, births a kind of fictional loneliness in the heart that I am somehow attracted to.
I sometimes think I have a sordid love affair with loneliness. I know it is wrong, but I can’t help it. I keep retreating back to that place of despair, like a dog that voluntarily walks back into a small cage, even though they’ve been set free from it, I’ve been conditioned by a kind of loneliness throughout my life and I feel the need to sometimes retreat back there when the lights are the brightest, to hold its hand occasionally just to be sure that it’s cold, unloving comfort is still there if I need it.
Perhaps my unconscious need to feel this loneliness occasionally mirrors my choice of films. That for every loud, banging blockbuster I watch, I seem to need to dial it all down back into a tiny little arty movie about two unrelated people who meet in a gorgeous charming town and find some solidarity in their respective solitude. Perhaps it is a bid to balance out the diet, with films as is with life. That only in constantly reminding ourselves of unhappiness that we can truly appreciate happiness. Again, this sounds like something I would say to make myself feel better about not feeling better. There is a special kind of insanity that I feel sometimes, being in this body, straddled with this mind.
You grow up around something, and it feels like nothing.
Perhaps the trick is to think of this nothing, as something.
Actually, I probably think a lot more about my
travels after it’s done compared to when I am actually on it. Which
probably makes sense given I am generally more reflective in nature.
That’s not to say I am an imbecile during my travels.
The obvious subtexts can still scream out at me, but for the most part I
try and enjoy thing as they unfold. It’s only when I gird myself for a
flight home, suffer banal airplane food, drag my luggage to a waiting
car, endure a car ride that’s usually more
frantic than I want it to be, unlock the doors to my home, turn on the
air-conditioner, have my first local meal sometime in the next couple of
hours, and look at the pictures many times over the next few days, that
things start to sink in and I start to think
about the trip.
A lot of what I’ve been thinking about this trip
concerns a specific occurrence that happened during my time in the
mountainous town of Heiligenblut, more or less in the middle of our
trip. I had made my way up to higher ground with my
father-in-law (FIL) to grab a picture of The Church of St Vincent at
dusk, which is really the centerpiece of this otherwise quiet
mountaintop town. We were on the way back to the town center to
rendezvous with our respective wives when I saw the thing that
has stuck in my mind so vividly since. No, it wasn’t a portly man
crossing the street, naked, except for a pair of boots, in freezing
weather, although that would be pretty hard to scald out of your mind as
well. It was an aged gentleman, with a bottle of
milk in hand, coming out of the only supermarket in town, walking up an
open staircase just next to it, opening the door to his home, which is
stacked rustically on top of the market against a hill, and going in.
What? No nudity? Hamsters spontaneously combusting?
A dog peeing while doing cartwheels? Just a man with a bottle of milk
heading back to his home? You’re out of your mind joe. No I am not. Hear
me out. I can’t profess to have travelled
extensively so whatever I say in regards to this, you’ve got to adjust
it a little against the ‘talking out of your butt’ scale. So yeah, I’ve
not travelled a lot, but I have travelled quite a bit in the last
two-three years. At no point in any of our travels,
did I look at the life the people had in those countries and wished
that I had it too. Not even when we were high up in the quite magical
town of Kilmuir, surrounded by sea with the clouds just slightly above
us, did I feel this. Not even when we were walking
along the almost-unimaginably beautiful beaches of Paros did I feel
this too. I definitely did not feel it in the cosmopolitan cities of
London, Edinburgh and Athens as well. Don’t even get me started about
Australia. There was an itch in Bangkok, but it did
not amount to much.
But up there, looking at him, I was boiling green
with envy. Why? I don’t know. It’s hard to explain. Just the combination
of the very pleasant weather, the small town infrastructures of
Heiligenblut (The town center was basically just
a single street with one market, and one bank), the view that was right
there in front of his home, how completely stress-free he looked. I
tried to reserve a small percentage that the man I saw was just a
tourist renting the place for the night or maybe a
terribly unhappy man inside but it was no use. Someone had to live,
somewhere in this town right? Jealousy justified then.
I wanted what he had. Being born here (Taking
massive liberties now), in this gorgeous town that just purrs in autumn
but looks like Santa’s holiday home during Christmas from the snow and
the simple but beautiful life that he was given
no choice on. Yes, perhaps we always want what we don’t have and
secretly inside he may be wishing that he has made it a corporate banker
somewhere in warm and stressful Southeast Asia and we could just trade
roles but I am going to fashion a guess and say,
no. He doesn’t envy my life, but I envied his terribly.
Nature has a way of righting the wrongs of men. If our exposure to Austrian civilization thus far (Salzburg) had left us cold (literally) in regards to the people in this country, then this seem to become better the further we venture into the wilderness. Thematically it felt like a similar point to the one I made about Greek towns and how they look more beautiful the closer they are to the sea, almost like they are nourished by it. It’s the same thing with Austrian people and the woods – they seem happier and friendlier the further we ventured away from a city. It’s almost as if men become less pre-occupied with oneself when they retreat to basics. Okay that’s stating the obvious. I guess removing oneself from the usual tropes, expectations and stress that come from trying to live and succeed in a dusty, loud and obnoxious city can allow someone to focus on other things, like being a decent human being. Heiligenblut represented the furthest into the Austrian woods we ventured into but before we got there we managed to spend two days exploring the region of Tirol, namely Hall and Innsbruck.
In the list of ‘places we could do without if we
ever came back to Austria’ (basically a useless list), Innsbruck hangs
pretty high up there. It has neither the cultural richness nor medieval
vibe of Salzburg and not enough of pizzazz to
be Vienna. The selling point that it is a ‘city surrounded by
mountains’ becomes moot when part of your program involves driving and
hiking up said mountains and generally being surrounded by them a lot.
Innsbruck felt a little like an Australian city to me.
Yes I am aware I was in Central Europe and not somewhere in between the
Indian and Pacific Oceans despite their similar names. It was a
pleasant city, with wide roads, brisk wind and pretty architecture.
Shops were arranged neatly in designated blocks that
were obviously calculatedly-painted in various colors. But it lacked
character and it ranked really low in the possibilities scale (For more
info on what that is, go here), with buildings neatly arranged in grids
so you can see the block you’re walking on
is clearly going to be boring. The chances of you being pleasantly
surprised by a store felt rather unlikely when you can see that the next
large block consists of basically just a Spar.
Hall on the other hand, cares little for trying to
be anything but itself. The town center in Hall feels like a place out
of time. In a tribute to the randomness of my mind, I find myself
thinking about that scene in that kitschy
Master of the Universe movie in the 80s starring Dolph Lundgren
where a portion of the city was transported back to Eternia because of
some cosmic key. Wasn’t Courtney Cox in it? She looked really fetching.
Wasn’t Skeletor basically just a man behind
a skull mask? There was also being that looked a little like a Troll.
Yeah, the ones on a keychain. What, the movie has a RT rating of 17%?
Come on, that’s harsh. Oh thank God it just about shaves it against that
awful Gerard Butler romantic comedy. Man, Gerard
Butler has been in some seriously awful films, except 300 that
is. That I enjoyed. Hey wait, that scene where he kicked the emissary
into the large hole, who actually has to go down there to clean the hole
of bodies? Are there steps to go down? I don’t
remember seeing any. Maybe they are lowered down.
Oh sorry, got seriously distracted there. Hall yes a city that was out of synch with time. Yes it was like that scene in that He-Man movie because its town center felt so old and medieval, which is quite displaced from the more modern surroundings you have to pass through to get into it. But it’s precisely this jagged edge to its geographical existence that makes Hall endearing. It’s akin to that friendly uncle you have that has become so unfashionable that he doesn’t even try anymore. Hall felt like that. It seems neither interested to be gradually more modern like its outer fringes, or to fully embrace its medieval-ness enough to make it relevant to modern times. Instead it sits somewhere in between – generally unbothered with what everyone else has to offer, comfortable in what it is. Flower shops stood beside pizza parlors and bookstores in a un-curated manner, all geared towards serving the locals rather than tourists. I do generally prefer towns that appear more concerned with serving its locals rather than pandering to tourists. I’ve always preferred a more immersive travel experience and I am not able to do that if the town/city I am visiting insists on treating me like a vacationer.
I had put off eating a Wiener Schnitzel up till
this point. Seeing it as the closing cut at the end of an encore, the
epic orchestral finale to a concept album. I need it to be perfect. My
resilience wore at Hall. Why? No idea. Probably
a combination of early morning driving, hunger and the friendly
waitress in a milkmaid dress at the restaurant in Hotel Goldener Engl.
Actually it may be because they had a veal one on the menu. It’s
normally pork. It was nice. Fluffy, breaded flattened veal
deep fried and served with potatoes and elderberry jam. It was nice,
but hardly world-altering. My mind drifts back to something my wife said
while we were on a short break in Bangkok earlier in the year, in
reference to a stir fried cabbage dish in the restaurant
Supanigga (I know, a rather unfortunate name), ‘How nice can a cabbage
dish be?’ Nevertheless we went with the majority, given that everyone in
the restaurant had that dish on their table. It was seriously awesome.
So I would transplant that same thought here,
‘How nice can a piece of deep-fried breaded veal’ be?’ Or to weave in a
more Malaysian-centric version of the same thought, “How nice can a
veal version of a Chicken Maryland’ be? The answer is nice, but far from
awesome. It was no Thai-style cabbage. That
saying it was decent enough for me to eat it a few times more for the
remainder of the trip. But what I thought would be the epic finale to a
widescreen concept album turned out to just be a catchier pop cut in the
middle of an unlistenable album. Appreciated,
but was never going to make the album good.
The thematic and literal high-point of the trip was
our drive up to the summit of Edelweißspitze. Well not exactly the
drive-per se because I was the driver so all I was focused on was for
our Jeep not to be a large orange dot falling from
a height to people at a distance. I have spoken before about how the
Caldera view in Santorini at times appeared so large that it feels
impossible for our eyes to take it all in at a glance. The feeling is
the same at many points during our summit up the High
Alpine Road. The trees looked more imposing here, threatening to reach
towards the heavens, the mountains standing tall like a threatening
monolith designed to suffocate your point of view and the river valleys
seemed so far away down that it feels no longer
real nor tangible. Nature of this sort heals the soul in a way.
Suddenly, you no longer feel like the most important thing in the world.
All self-centeredness recedes because you discover that there things
out there that are put in this world to make your
life’s narrative feel so insignificant. All the pressures of modern
life, the intoxication we feed ourselves to survive it, the arguments we
start and end to endure the people in it – it all just fades away in
one fell swoop and you’re for a moment, rewound
back to a vanilla state and you start gaining some perspective on your
existence again. I love that feeling. It doesn’t last of course. But to
feel it even for a moment, once in a while, is rather nice.
If Edelweißspitze brought us up to the clouds, then our next destination Hallstatt ensured that we fell back down to earth with a loud thud. In my recent travels, I have quite often encountered nature of staggering beauty in loggerheads with the tourism industry around it that aims to earn a buck out of it. And in most of those encounters, while the industry is mostly off-putting, in all instances it has largely failed to diminish the sheen of nature at its finest. Not quite so in Hallstatt.
The charm of Hallstatt is probably still somewhere in there, buried under caked layers of side-street peddlers, touch-and-go travelers and touristy restaurants but not quite enough of it peeks through to remind me of it. Instead the experience I get is a town that’s chiseled and constructed out of a holiday brochure. It has betrayed the spirit and soul of its history to serve its new master – tourism. I find towns and cities like that unappealing. The mental image is likened to to a sound stage for a movie studio. Construct a historical town out of nothing? Sure. Which is tragic because Hallstatt is a town steeped in history. But all that has been defaced by a glossy exterior that leaves a plastic taste to the mouth.
That’s not to say Hallstatt isn’t still beautiful. It clearly is. The sight of swans and sucks waddling in the lake, framed against the mountains and a seducing sunset remains one of the most enduring images of the trip for me. In some strange way, I am glad I experienced it, even more glad that it was only for a night but a place I am certain I would never want to return to again.
I had made it a habit on the trip to rise early to read my book in the morning, mostly outdoors, wherever I was and my most favorite experience doing that was at our accommodation near Hallstatt. The house had a nice backyard garden with a view of the distant mountains. I sat there, some sun radiating the ends of my toes, in relatively freezing temperatures, snuggled under a blanket, reading my book. It was very nice. I have the twinklies now just thinking about it. Many people may remember Mozart’s house or Mirabell Palace but I will always remember these little intimate moments more than the big tourist attractions. I basically travel for them.
People have asked me what I thought of Austria. The
truth is, every time I do, I largely think about the time we spent away
from the city and in the outback regions of the country. I think about
the wonderful hike we had up to Lake Sandersee
in Großglockner. Our scenic walk through the Margaritzen reservoir to
get there. The spicy goulash we had at Panoramarestaurant at Kaiser
Franz-Josefs-Höhe after our hike. All the places we stopped at along the
High Alpine Road to try and take the view in.
A moment at the summit of Untersberg, when I was alone with my camera
with a view of the entire valley in front of me. Trying to take a
picture without gloves at 3 degrees C and watching my hand turn red from
the biting cold (it was fun, really). The night
walk we made from our accommodation in Heiligenblut to our dinner place
15-mins away, through streets lined with homes, dwarfed by the
mountains around them. The wonderful staff together with the two lovely
Bernese Mountain Dogs Ella and Lucy at our accommodation
at Tirol, Gasthof Badl, who gave us the first and probably only proper
warm hospitality we would receive in Austria. In a sense, our trip joy
curve was bell-shaped. It summited at the mid-point of it all before
spiking up again when we hit Budapest.
The charm of a city for me, as I have often noted, is almost never in the sights.
Very few statues, monuments and buildings that
would have trigger-happy vacationers snapping away their phone cameras
like semi-automatic machine guns, interest me on a fundamentally
emotional level. I can appreciate its beauty, assuming
if it is indeed beautiful, but I often find myself gravitating
emotionally towards things less seen. It might be a byproduct of not
wanting to associate myself with thoughtless holidaymakers who very
often may be taking a picture because they are told they
should or that the person next to them is. I feel like saying ‘it’s not
that I’m being judgmental’, but yeah I am. I can still remember the
exact moment this became an issue for me.
It was The British Museum, London, 2018, at the
Rosetta Stone display. The throngs of vacationers with their monopods
and phone snapping away, a lot of them with their flash functions on,
just imbedded something inside me and made me feel
like I did not want to be there anymore. Don’t get me wrong, there is
nothing wrong with taking a picture of something that interests you, I
do it all the time when I am traveling. The thing that made me feel sad
was that almost none of them appeared interested
to look at the stone with their own eyes, or even read the description
on the display. A majority of them walked away after they got a picture.
Box ticked, let’s move on to the next thing I am supposed to take a
picture of. The entire situation was such a
put-off that it made me completely disinterested with looking at the
Rosetta Stone for myself. It’s like hating someone cause they shared the
same first name as the guy who managed to snag your school crush.
We landed in Vienna at around slightly after
lunchtime and proceeded to procure a car from one of the most obscure
car rental section of any airport I’ve ever been to. I mean it felt like
we were descending into Plato’s ninth circle of
hell or the multiple levels of a suburban shopping mall (Yes, they are
the same thing). Granted my mind may be a little foggy now on the exact
details but the journey from the Arrival gate to the counter might’ve
been a little like this.
Take an escalator down two floors.
Turn left just before the coffee stand and walk into the door just next to the broom closet.
Turn left just before the toilet but after the subway scene in the ‘Bad’ video.
Take a flight of stairs six floors down.
Fight through four battalions of orcs.
Third counter on the left.
It felt like the rental car companies in the airport were being treated like Milton in
We got handed a sparkly orange Jeep as our ride which is just the kind of loud statement we needed for someone (me) who had never driven on the left-side before. I mean what would you prefer if you had a car heading towards you on collision course – a boring silver sedan or a bright orange Jeep? My point’s exactly. That saying, left-side drive turned out to be not so bad. It’s really just a matter of thinking something but doing the opposite. Kind of like being in a marriage (okay low ball, don’t murder me dear). Three hours, a bitter lemon and a Beatles playlist later, we arrived at the legendary city of Salzburg. Yes, birthplace of Mozart, the Salzburger Nockerl and do-re-mi (Eh, no?).
My first meeting with Salzburg was a hopeful one. You know how it is when you meet someone for the first time and exchange pleasantries. In rather rare occasions you get this urge and prompt that this might be someone you want to have a proper conversation with, to actually get to know better. It’s hard to say what it boils down to. A slight pause in the middle of a sentence that seems intuitive to you, an inappropriate quip that happens to mirror what you were thinking as well, the color of their eyes, etc. It was like that with me and Salzburg. Our accommodation only had one shower and there were four of us so I slipped out for a short walk around the city while everyone else proceeded to clean airplane grime off them. It was really short, 20-minutes perhaps. I walked down Griesgasse and turned left on to Franz-Josef-Kai, walked along the riverside and up the Makartsteg bridge. The air was cool but not biting and the streets was quiet but not deserted. It was just the perfect combination of factors that made it pleasant after a long drive and flight before that. That 20-minutes, to gather my thoughts and reflect, gave me a nice in, to gradually develop an affection for the city. Catch even the most stand-up guy on the wrong day and you’re still not going to feel it. This was really giving each other whatever that’s necessary to form a meaningful friendship. That walk helped me do that. Me and Salzburg had a nice handshake and agreed we would see how this would go.
For me, the charm of Salzburg was not in Mozart
Wohnhaus (the residence where Mozart grew up in), Hohensalzburg Castle
or St. Peter’s Abbey, all admittedly beautiful, historically-rich and
magnificent structures. It also wasn’t in the sprawling
Mirabell Gardens, key stop in The Sound of Music tour, which my
father-in-law was on in his mind, although I did managed to get a good
shot there of myself without my gut hanging-out. Rarer than a golden
tiger in a Karen Millen dress, that one. The
charm of Salzburg for me was in the streets worming from and around
Residenplatz. Not the fountain where it was the site of some Von Trapp
noodling but the unadorned and quirky streets strewn all around it like
after-meal spaghetti specks on a plate.
I’ve always been attracted to the underbelly of a
city more than its fashionable threads. I feel the true treasure of
someone is never realized on their best days anyway, but their worst.
It’s probably why I am innately drawn to characters
with at least some residue darkness in them. I have very little
interest in supposedly well-adjusted individuals. I think it was Kurt
Cobain who said, ‘I was tired of pretending that I was someone else just
to get along with people, just for the sake of having
friendships.’ Okay actually that just doesn’t make any sense whatsoever
to the point I am trying to make but I was really struggling trying to
find a suitable quote that was made by someone that is relevant to me.
But I’m sure you get what I am trying to get
That saying, this was as well-sculpted an
underbelly you would ever see. There are little nooks that take you to
lovely tiny shops selling anything from Christmas trinkets to marmalade.
It was not at all grimy or seedy. No slimy red-faced
gruff in a floral shirt with stacks of gold chains around his neck,
that’s dying to be your genie in a bottle here. Just nice little
cobblestone paths that lead into little gritty tunnels that open up into
I’ve always rated cities based on my very own
‘possibilities’ scale. What does this scale mean? It means I rate it
according to the level of possibility that I may discover something
interesting while walking its streets. I rate malls under
the same scale too. The quickest way to turn me off a mall is to have
exactly the same franchises every other mall has but in newer and larger
lots. No interest in that at all. I am more fascinated by dingy malls.
The ones that offer the papa who’s been making
coffee out of the same hell hole for the last 15-years. The one with
the music shop with old faded CBS cassette copies of Springsteen albums.
I have no interest in things that can be put together with a large pay
cheque. I am attracted to history, to stories
and well, possibilities. Salzburg does not rank as high up that scale
as say a city like Bangkok or Mykonos, but it’s still pretty decent. The
little nooks as mentioned, offer some hope for possibilities and that
drove my intrigue enough to explore it further.
That saying, the culinary breath and borders of Austria leaves little room for any exploration. If Thailand’s was the size of the Americas, then Austria’s would be the size of my living room. Okay, sorry, there I go over-exaggerating again. I tend to do it when I am excited. It’s probably the size of an apartment block. Yup no more exaggeration. No ships needed to conquer this baby at all. Most restaurants that serve native Austrian food serve roughly about the same things, and there are not much twists to the tale. There are differences. Serving your Wiener Schnitzel with elderberry jam as opposed to lingonberry jam is a minor twist but hardly one that will get you off your seat. It’s mostly still a slab of breaded deep fried meat. I did not have a Schnitzel incidentally when I was at Salzburg. I was saving it like the epic orchestral closer of an album. It needed the right time and feeling.
Bärenwirt did provide a decent introduction into
what Austria had to offer (which we later found out was the equivalent
of three-chord punk songs that toggle between meat and potatoes). That
saying this was pretty decent meat and potatoes.
Parked under a hostel, the restaurant offered what off-hand looked like
interesting choices. The frothed beer soup starter was interesting. I
liked it. The wife wasn’t so convinced. I think she was expecting old
cucumber soup with beer. The
Gebackene Kalbsleber mit Erdäpfel-Gurkensalat caught our eye (not
because it sounded like an evil Germanic spell to us) but because it
was ‘deep-fried calf’s liver with potato-cucumber salad’ (sorry to
disappoint you spellcasters). I mean if you’re going
to walk the tightrope with uric acid, why not be completely suicidal
instead? I did love the
½ Backhendl mit Erdäpfelsalat (Einstein’s formula for relativity
in German?), which was ‘deep fried chicken half-a-chicken with potato
salad’ (starting to see a pattern here?). There was also too much
Erdäpfel on the table in the end. The chicken was billed as ‘one of the best in Europe’ so we had to try it. Doesn’t have a nick on ‘goreng berempah’ but it was pretty good. Interestingly, it was half a chicken but each part was deboned so we
had trouble separating between them. Asians no likey this.
As much as it wasn’t the charm point of Salzburg for me, I did enjoy my tour around Mozart Wohnhaus, the house that Mozart grew up in, which today doubles up as a museum dedicated to the life and travails of the Mozart family but more specifically Wolfgang’s father, Leopold. Walking through his life and how he fostered one of the greatest musical minds in history was fascinating. He did not complete formal education himself because he found it boring. He instead poured himself into music and read incessantly and he appeared to have a burning desire to nuture a curiosity towards life in his children. In their free time, they played board games, darts and bowling to entertain themselves. Despite not having formal education, he was still considered a highly intelligent man. He wrote Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule, which is still considered today as ‘the’ book for violin playing. It just put a smile on my face thinking that scores of stuffy people hide behind the veneer of classical music as a appropriate trope for their well-manicured life but in actual fact, history suggests that convention was hardly the main course of the day for a lot of these classical music greats. Snark at the punk who dropped out of school? Well, that piece you’re listening to was also written by someone who dropped out as well.
It was also particularly heartening for me personally to see the passion my father-in-law had in drawing context between the places we were visiting and the scenes in which did they appeared in the film. What film? That film. The only Salzburg-related film that is relevant to Asian uncles and aunties. Yes that one. It’s always nice to see older people within our orientation, being excited about something that is not just merely functional in nature. It’s one thing for them to be excited about getting a great deal on a mattress at the local mall, quite another when they appear curious and interested in exploring the sites of a film they loved so dearly in their younger days. Always puts a smile on my face when I see older couples immediately rush out to the dance floor to slow dance when their song comes up. Their bodies may look 60 but look at their eyes, they are 16 again. It was nice to see some of that spark in his eyes. He even watched the film in the plane to prepare himself. We visited the Mirabell Gardens, the Petersfriedhof cemetery and the Nonnberg monastery as a result, as he shuffled from one location to the next like a kid at the aisles of a candy store, arms spread wide, ready to grab everything.
Nonnberg, in particular, left the strongest
impression on me. Perched on top of a hill, it still houses nuns today,
with its historical structure buffed up by some modern expansions. It
has not lost its charm though. I walked into the cathedral
within the monastery grounds. I caught it at the perfect moment, when
it was empty except for someone who was knelt at the altar. For a brief
moment, there I was, in a historically-rich empty hall in a place quite
remote from where I am from, observing the
intricacies of the structure, I imagined what it would feel like to
convene with God here weekly. It was a good moment, but it was not a
good moment I can truncate down to a nice snappy reason. I felt a kind
of comfort, mixed with a dash of peculiarity – that
I was there and no one would be able to take this moment away from me
ever again. I took a picture of the cathedral as more of a mental note
to myself of the moment. Then other people started walking in and I made
my way out to the path just outside the gates.
Just as I did, a bunch of Americans, who were perched on one of the
lookout points just outside the gate with acoustic guitars and a cello,
started playing and singing Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’. The
rumble of the cello in particular gaining glorious
traction in the airy hills. This culminated with what I had just felt
and the gorgeous view of the whimsical city of Salzburg in front of me
just made me smile. It’s funny, when I think about my travels, my mind
immediately goes to these often scant impressions
that may seem nonsensical to everyone else, but incredibly meaningful
to me. I quite like that my mind is built this way.
Not that modern day Salzburg isn’t stuffy in some
way, despite the punky ways of its musical godfathers. It most certainly
is. There is a sense that this is a city, and possibly a country, that
hasn’t quite learned to let it’s pretty little
locks down properly just yet. I’ve written a lot about the Greeks and
how their warmth is a reflection of the weather that reside above them.
In that same way, the Austrian people were as apprehensive and cloudy as
their frosty months. That’s not to say we
encountered anyone who was outright rude to us. Oh wait, there was that
bald bastard at Café Tomaselli. Here’s a tip from me – skip that place.
Cakes were shit, coffee was tepid and its only saving grace was a
wonderful mezzanine floor outdoor terrace that
overlooks a beautiful square. Here’s my suggestion, look out your
accommodation window instead and spend your money somewhere that isn’t
run by stuffy grumps in white shirts draped over black, black hearts.
Salzburg isn’t a large city and it often felt like
all roads led to Residenplatz. That intimacy is what makes it a
wonderful city to explore. It at times felt like all the important ends
of the city are just around the corner or a short
walk away. That may not appeal to some but I’ve always been a deeper
rather than a wider person (Not talking about central midfielders in a
football formation). I need to drill into the bowels of the city to
really feel its vibe and to stare at its true face.
That’s how I learn to love a city. Not by walking just its pristine
streets or merely sitting in pretty cafes. Salzburg offered me a chance
to properly explore it, to really feel its vibe, to taste its air and
smell it’s scents in a way I did not (later) in
Vienna. I appreciated that.
If the Caldera view provided us with a glimpse of the magnitude of beauty Greece had to offer, then the Santorini airport provided us the perfect earthbound-crashing, reality check anti-thesis to that, and probably what we needed before heading to the dense streets of Athens.
My wife was yet again anxious about the amount of time to buffer for our trip to the airport and after bouts of strenuous calculations, she arrived at the conclusion that we should leave our accommodation at least three-days before our flight (just kidding). It was probably two-hours before, but it felt longer. ‘In case there is traffic’, is often the common retort for the often voluptuous buffer. As it stood, the only thing standing in the way of our transfer was the incessant selfie-taking habits of one of our co-passengers. Like, hot pants, obsessive toy-collecting and a pony tail (on guys), there are just some things that are the game of the young. ‘Selfies’ may just be one of them. Actually scratch that, a guy should automatically be maced in the ‘cojones’ if they have a pony tail. The ride took no time at all and we suddenly found ourselves at the airport with a lifetime ahead of us before our flight.
‘We can always sit down and have a drink if we are early’, is the secondary retort that often follows the first if there turns out to be no traffic. This one works better for me. I hardly ever resist an overture to sit down and take my time over a cup of coffee so why not savor one before our flight arrives in 1,538 years?
I spot a cafe outside the airport but the wife thinks it would be better to get into the Departure Hall and find a place to drink in there. Seems sensible. That’s what we often do at airports, just in case it gets slow at the screening stations when someone is slow in removing their laptop, camera, shoes, belt, pants and underwear during screening. Oh, you don’t have to take off your pants and underwear? The hell I would know. At the rate they are going I wouldn’t bat an eyelid if they asked me to hand over my left nut in the future.
So we handed our passports and boarding passes to the smiling gentlemen at the Departure gate and headed into the hall, ready to dunk ourselves into a vat of espresso and break into a jingle. Right? No
For one thing, the Departure hall was the size of the second room in my home. My home is 890sft. Yes, I am exaggerating of course. Actually, it was the size of about five of my second room in my home and there was about a hundred people huddled in there. This is the truth.
There was no comfortable cafe for us to sit at, no duty free stores to browse for a Salvatore Ferragamo eau de toilette. There were plenty of fragrances on showcase though, with the popular one yet again being ‘armpit’. And there may have been a cafe in the left pocket of the ground staff but I did not check. We also found out that our flight would be delayed so we had some time yet to really take in the fragrances around us, properly.
There was not enough seats to accommodate everyone so we had people sprawling all over the place, up the stairs, down the stairs and possibly even the roof. I briefly considered seating in the toilet cubicle. It was pretty chaotic. Updates were not coming through on time on the board, so instead we had to listen out for people literary screaming, ‘Flight to Athens this way’ and we herd ourselves out like lambs. It was funny cause not just hours before, we were serenaded by the sight of romance-filled Santorini and now we are rounded like cattle. Ah nothing like the sound of fantasies shattering.
We did eventually find a seat at the outer section of the upper floor, but as a result we had to brave mini sandstorms every time a plane rolled in. That and holding on to our seat like our left toes depended on it cause there were throngs of people eyeing each warm seat. This was seriously five-star realism if you want a proper experience on what it feels like to try and flee a war torn country. No stone was left unturned to give us the best experience.
It did bring to mind what a guy that owned a jewelry shop in Oia was telling us two days before about how Santorini was not meant to accommodate these many tourists, ‘It’s because they filmed that Korean movie here.’ I have a theory that most of the ills of the world can be traced back to Ed Sheeran and the Korean entertainment industry. You can check up with me later on that. This airport certainly looked like it was not meant to accommodate this many people. We did meet a lovely American couple while defending the territory that was our plastic chairs. He was in landscaping and she was a nurse. They were also flying to Athens.
It greeted us the moment we walked out of Athens airport. What? The sound and soul of a city. I’ve written before that the sounds that emit from the islands, while can be rowdy and noisy, is nothing like the sound a city makes. Here is the sound of industry, of cars battling cars and of people expressing frustration at a stressed-filled life. The melodies of capitalism, so to speak. At rare occasions, a city sings to you, but mostly it sounds like it is just groaning. At least the cities I am familiar with. And Athens sounded slightly familiar.
Athens feels a lot like a Southeast Asian city. It emerges in spots and flashes. The dense city streets with buildings towering closely around tight walkways, giving the impression that it desires to collapse on to you is one way it reflects. The air is also warmer and more humid, with the island breeze struggling to navigate through the crowded streets. The streets are grimy, caked by age-old stains of industrialism, the lack of civic-mindedness and slow maintenance. Everything else moves faster here though. Cars, people, dogs and conversations. There is less time to pause, think and reflect. It smelled and felt a lot like home. It was both comforting and disorientating. I nearly called the guy at the bakery ‘macha’.
But amidst all that, there is a charm that can be seen in Athens. An ancient charm. The city it is today is built on ancient foundations, proven by how The Acropolis remains still the heart of the city, visible at most notable corners of the city. There are sporadic corners of ruins peppered throughout the city, like tomato sauce that’s eager to peek through the cheese on a pizza, Athens’ ancient foundations cannot be properly quelled by the fires of modernisation.
The thing about experiencing the Acropolis, at least for me, is that you are not necessarily staring at something beautiful. It may have been beautiful once, but it’s beauty has long been filed down by the sands of time. It isn’t like staring out into the alps, or Lake Tekapo or the Grand Hall at the Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna. The wonder of The Acropolis lies in its history and what it stood for during its time. It’s a wonder that requires a little more imagination. There is some beauty in its sheer magnitude but that is unfortunately tempered greatly by years of middle class Chinese business men back home adorning the front porch of their homes with miniature Ionic columns (why lah uncle why?)
That same lack of need to be contemporary that was so evident at the islands, is felt in Athens as well. The branding, prose and aesthetic of the city feels dated, but not in a cool way. More like a ‘I can’t be bothered to spend more money to update myself’ rather than a ‘let’s be vintage’ mindset. People still walk around in mullets and bell bottoms and the signage at most shops looks like they were carved out of the cretaceous period.
In many ways, Athens is like a city equivalent of most of our dads. They are well aware that their time has passed them by but yet they still try to excel at the same tropes that dominated their youth. They were young once but they often act like they never were. Athens knows it is ancient, and it is happy to excel at being just that.
The fascinating for us was seeing how Greeks do in a city, how they live, eat and celebrate life. We had a glimpse of how they do on islands but this was a proper, grimy and slimy city. What would they do? There are no beaches for them to lounge about to display those gorgeous face manes of theirs (the envy is still strong) or bountiful seafood catches for them to dip their fingers delectably into. What would they do without all of this?
For one thing, they stay in higher-rise buildings and shop for furniture in Ikea (sound familiar?), if our apartment in Athens was any indication. So much like an Ikea showroom was our apartment that I half expected a Chinese family to emerge out of the kitchen having tested the quality of the drawers, ‘Good quality wan.’
A bar called Bell Ray provided a nice moment for us amidst the frantic cajoling in the city. It was located just around the corner from our apartment and I believe we hit it on the first night we were there. Me and the wife have a running thread we go to when ordering cocktails – which is that the one I order always tastes better than the ones she does. I am attracted to certain elements and I deviate quite little from them so I rarely end up with a disaster. She on the other hand, loves playing Zorro when it comes to her drinks and she more often than not, finds herself coveting mine. If you are wondering if I engineered to tell this whole background story just so I can tell you that she won this time then nope, she did not. Papa reigned again here.
It was a nice bar though. Casual. Felt more like a cafe than a heavy bar. The kind of place you wouldn’t feel judged if you ordered a Martini or an Espresso. The music being spun by the DJ was nice as well, acid jazz mixed in with a little ambience and smooth electro. That and the bartender looked like Stephen Arnell but sounded like Sean Dyche. If you don’t know who these people are, take my word for it, he was awesome. Basically he should be serving out shots of testosterone instead of drinks with names like ‘Tikki Bob’. That saying I don’t think anyone else in this world can make ‘Tikki Bob’ sound as manly as he did. No, of course I did not drink a Tikki Bob. I drank an ‘Annie and Ben’ instead. Bite me.
Two meals book-ended our meals in Athens, both at different spectrums of dining. The first was a meal at Diporto. If I have been using no-frills to describe some meals in Greece so far, then Diporto took the term and power-slammed it through a roof. The walk to it felt like we were casually going from Streets of Fire to City of God in 500 meters. We passed a grimy market, damp and suspect streets and graffiti adorned buildings before arriving at what can only be described as a building built for the third act of a gangland extravaganza. In fact what eventually convinced us that it was the right building was a piece of graffiti that we saw that also appeared in a Google search of the place. I was resigned to being stabbed by a pocket knife after dessert.
Well, that is if they served dessert. They barely served a meal. This was a stall that is situated in Greece but fashioned out of the streets of Kuala Lumpur. The ‘take it or leave it’ spirit was strong in this one. For one thing the eatery was located at the basement of the building, operating out of a space that can best be described as part-Medieval wine cellar, part Asgardian dungeon. Oh wait, no, the Asgardian dungeon was nicer.
They only had a couple of things on the menu – a vegetable broth, a lentil soup, a chickpea salad and grilled sardines. That saying I’ve always been a lot more drawn to eateries with a scant menu cause it just shows me that they specialise in things. Want to turn me off? Have a menu that covers every dish in the world, and I will probably show you a restaurant that’s not really good at anything. Anyway back to Diporto. Yes, slim pickings but I was intrigued cause the place was packed. On top of that the guy taking orders looked like what happens if Michael Pena encountered a tiger that was picking a fight. He looked grumpy but also rather nonchalant about what everyone thought and did around the restaurant. He came for orders when he wanted to. Spoke when he wanted to. Brought food when he wanted do. There is a sense that not even a Demogorgon could make him do something if he didn’t feel like it.
As it turned out the sardines were some of the most delicious we had in Greece and the wine, which was obtained out of large barrels around the basement, was pretty gritty and rustic. It wasn’t complicated food or flavors but there is a charm about eating at a place like this and ordering the kind of food locals eat as kids in Greek homes. It’s not pretty and it’s not designed for mainstream consumption, but it taste of the land. And that was what made us love this place.
At the other tangent, there was Blue Fish. Not a fine dining establishment really, but they serve pretty intricate and tasty food. I honestly don’t remember much leading to the restaurant because I think I was suffering from a bout of mild heat stroke. I remember my wife leading me through streets, I was a little zonked from some beer I had earlier and I remember feeling parched and hot. It’s at least 20% possible that I may have dreamt this entire meal up as part of some flashback sequence but I just checked with my wife and she confirms that we ate here (phew).
We had a grilled octopus dish, a sea bass tartar with a mango sauce and a red fish dashi linguine. Every dish was truly sublime. The linguine was so good that I can still taste it today. There’s just a joy that springs forth from food that is made with love out of great ingredients. Don’t get me wrong, I get a lot of joy too out of sweating my way through my banana leaf rice at Acha while meat is being dunked into a huge vat of overused oil 10-feet away from me. But this joy is different, more sophisticated and rich. To be fair it is not a joy I feel very often in my life but I am starting to appreciate the merits of it. I told my wife that before I met her, I used to drive autopilot to the nearest mixed rice shop, wolf down a plate of it and go home and cry into my pillow.
But for the most part, Athens zipped by like a blur. Perhaps it is how my mind works these days. It registers less on the forefront of my mind if I experience things that is similar to things I would do at home. Being on the island of Paros, eating fresh seafood and staring out of to an aqua marine ocean is not something you can forget easily. Walking around Plaka, being hemmed in by people and trying to get the best deal for things, while incredibly fun and entertaining when you are experiencing it, seem to register a lot less for me now that I am home.
Not that I am complaining about being back in a city. I’ve found that a city is a good way to cap off a holiday before heading home. Less of a shock, more of a gradual sojourn back to reality. Athens provided that, with its stained streets, graffiti-filled walls and overflowing thrash bins. Oh, and I nearly got pick-pocketed on the way to the airport on our last day. He wasn’t very good. I felt it. I cursed involuntarily at him. I went up the train. Also, we got scammed by a lady with roses that was supposedly pregnant, but I think she was just, overfed. ‘Take me down to the paradise city where the grass is green and the girls are pretty’ Axl said. Not quite.
Stepping on to the ferry from the quaint and quiet town of Parikia at Paros and being dropped off at the port in Santorini is akin, I would imagine, to being born into this world under evening tones but being trusted face first into a bright spotlight immediately, in that it’s disorientating and overwhelming. The amount of people jostling in droves around the port, hustling for bus rides or just generally bumping around completely clueless is staggering. Staggering considering we just came from a port where we sat at a quiet bakery overlooking the sea, had a relaxing cup of coffee and some pastries, with a clearly demarcated information counter available clearly for you to find out where your ferry would dock when it arrives and when the time came to board the ferry, only a handful of tourists lined up civilly for their turn. Considering all that, the Santorini port was like Saigon in the late 60s.
The flavor of the trip on the packed bus was again of armpit. It was tempered somewhat by a hilarious conversation that unfolded before us of one Latino-looking guy telling another ginger-looking guy that he looked like Seth Rogen. Even if you really believe that, I am not sure you want to make something like that known to someone. You might as well walk up to someone and say that they look like a refrigerator. Ginger guy looked sheepish at the suggestion, probably caught between pretending he couldn’t speak English and rounding a left hook on the Latino. In the end he responded by saying he’s not heard that one before but there have been people who say he looks like Ed Sheeran. Okay I take my original point back, he deserved a Seth Rogen.
The bus stopped at the island’s main bus station at Fira so we had to take a bus to the smaller town our accommodation was in which was Imerovigli. Trying to catch a bus in Santorini made us miss home so much. The unhelpful officer at the help desk, the mess of buses parked all over the station as you walk from one to the other looking for the right one, buses who look like they are going to stop but then proceed to drive off without picking up any passengers, the lack of a civil line when trying to board one, etc. I mean who wouldn’t miss that? (I’m lying).
We were dropped about a 20-minute walk away from our accommodation so we had to drag our luggage up what was probably a hill but felt like Machu Picchu. It’s one thing to have to drag luggage up a dusty road, quite another to be doing it while being scorched by an unforgiving sun. I finally know what that sausage feels like in 7-Eleven. It’s hilarious how polarizing Santorini was from one street to the next. At no point did it feel like we were tracking to paradise. It felt more like we were carrying our own coffins to be buried with it. The town looked cramped. With roads generally looking like they were only about as wide enough for a single bus to drive through. The streets were lined with car workshops, rental companies and travel agencies. The wife expertly led us through the cramped streets towards our accommodation Nefeli Homes and it honestly did not look too hopeful. But just a short turn or two later, we arrived and we were suddenly faced with this view.
The adage, ‘take my breath away’ is used far too frequently in conversations and 80s pop ballads but this was a genuine moment. It’s not just that the view was practically unimaginable, it was also because of where we were coming from and how quickly it went from that, to this. It was also compounded by the fact that I was largely ignorant of what places my wife booked us into for the trip. It felt like she may have casually showed me this accommodation in passing but I may have been distracted by something else. Ignorance never felt so good. It added to the feeling of being sucker punched by both gratefulness and happiness.
Our host Roula greeted us with about as much warmth and friendliness as a person who looked like a frontwoman of a Satanic post-hardcore band could. She was decked completely in black, with jet black hair and an under-cut with pale corpse-like skin. She wouldn’t look out of place at all in a Morbid Angel mosh pit. But there she was, at the center of a tropical paradise. I wonder what her dark priestess would make of her occupation of handing out room keys to Asian tourists? And before we can pronounce ‘Imerovigli’ (actually this is not an accurate analogy cause it actually took us quite long to figure out how to pronounce it), Roula was helpfully and warmly rattling off things we can do and places we can eat at. If we had played a drinking game where we took a shot every time she mentioned ‘Caldera View’, we would’ve been pissed. It was the way she said it as well, sort of a cross between Romanian royalty and evil Balkan henchman.
Of course out of the many cafes and wonderful relaxing Caldera View drinking places she recommended to us to go to for the evening, we decided that we wanted to do the two-hour track from Imerovigli to Oia instead, at 3pm in the afternoon under the scorching Mediterranean sun. Why? Because we were schmucks. ‘Just follow the grey path,’ Roula casually mentioned. The grey path at that point looked like a slick road up a Hollywood driveway. So we girded up our loafers and slippers and took off like a pair of anxious sparrows, expecting a relaxing stroll to heaven on earth.
You know how sometimes in life, you get into something expecting it to be a certain thing only to find that it is nothing like that at all but you still put up a brave front because you don’t want to lose face for being so silly in the first place, until it gets so bad that you just have no choice but to admit it just plain sucks? You know, kind of like how the boyfriends of those social media influencers feel when she takes off her makeup for the first time and tone down the Beauty function on her selfies? Kidding (not kidding). That was what it felt like halfway through the hike to Oia. The grey path, turned out to only be a path for about 30 mins into the hike. From then on it was basically a pack of lions trying to have us for lunch. There were rough gravel paths, sharp inclines, dusty and sparse lanes, thorny shrub-filled roads that we had to literally fight through. After a while, we became suspicious of the friendly smiles from hikers that were coming back from Oia. Were they really friendly or were they laughing at these two Asian schmucks who were hiking in their loafers at 3pm in the afternoon? We were offered a donkey at some point for a ride. We briefly considered it. Enough said.
Interacting with the breathtaking views of Santorini was often like how you would a beautiful life-like painting. You are aware it’s there and what it is showing you, but there is a disconnect between what you see and what you are a part of. On many instances during our maniacal walk from Imerovigli to Oia, I glanced to my left to look at the Caldera view that was confronting me. And each time I did it, it was necessary to have a second step mentally to remind myself that I was actually there and what I am looking at was also there ‘with me’. Rarely in my existence have I encountered nature with beauty of this magnitude. I suppose what plays to the metaphor as well is that given the height and distance by which we were interacting with the scenery, everything seems almost at a standstill, kind of like a painting. Large ferries and boats were moving between islands before us, but at a pace that was not always noticeable from this distance. It was a painting except the objects were moving, just enough to inform your eyes that what you’re seeing is developing and changing but slow enough that you can take all the time you need to admire its magnificence.
Two hours later, we finally arrived at Oia, with dusty feet, burned skin and sweaty brows, a couple of hours short of the magic hour of sunset. If Santorini was a storm, then Oia was not the eye of it, it was the edges of it where cars are being flung to faraway places. There were people bleeding out of every orifice of the town. There were people on steps, people in restaurants, people leaning over edges, people under people, people on top of people, etc. If only I had a giant Green Lantern shovel I would push them all into the sea in one quick scoop. Alas it was a bright day but hardly our darkest night so we had to soldier on shoulder-to-shoulder with the masses of (mostly) Oriental straw hat/sundress-wearing types. Double groan.
Although to be fair, unlike many places I’ve been to, where the experience can be soured by the amount/type of people thronging it (To the bright neon-clad China tourists at Lake Tekapo, I’m talking to you) the glut of people at Santorini doesn’t have a nick on its spectacular beauty. As much as it’s crowded and noisy and that threatens to consume the almost unimaginable beauty of Santorini, it’s a meal far too large and magnificent for it to consume. In the end, the beauty of the island prevails handsomely over the downsides. If you feel bugged by the amount of people jostling at you at restaurants, bus stands and vantage points, just take a moment, take a step back and stare out into the Caldera View (said Roula style) and believe me, everything stands still again. It really is that beautiful.
The other experience that stood out for us in Oia was our visit to Atlantis Books, which back in 2016 made it to the top of National Geographic’s most interesting bookstores list. And to think we bumped into it by absolute accident, after being swept by the latest tidal wave of people making their way across the town to catch a glimpse of the sunset. The wave carried us and dropped us perfectly in front of Atlantis Books. Roula had mentioned it as part of her ratatatat list of recommendations list earlier but we thought little of it. But there we were, by serendipitous circumstance, in front of it. Being at Atlantis Books is quite an experience for book-heads like the two of us. For one thing to get into it involves you descending down a flight of medieval steps, almost like a metaphorical Lewis Carroll-like rabbit hole until you are in front of its rickety wooden door. And once in it you are almost literally washed away by a gush of books all around you. There are books at every direction and it can all feel a little too much to take. Thankfully Atlantis was built for a small family of hobbits so there is not a lot of space to cover. But whatever space it has is drowning in books of all sorts.
It’s a wonder in itself that we are able to step out of the torrential windfall of tourists above our heads and tuck into a basement filled with history and literary wonder. Most of the people crowding the streets of Oia were more interested to take another selfie than look at books, which really worked for the handful of us who were in Atlantis. A man could be heard telling the girl behind the counter, ‘It’s his money so he can do what he wants with it’, in reference to his son who is interested in buying a set of pricey but rare editions. Said girl behind the counter was heard telling customer later that she had just started at Atlantis two months prior and before that she was working in Spain. She is from America and she’s been making her way around Europe, working and traveling at the same time. Another man gestured to his elderly father at a wall of first editions. On quick glance, you could see first editions of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, ‘The Little Prince’, ‘Madeline’ and more. ‘Want a copy of ‘Mockingbird’ for €13,500?’ The father looked un-fussed. We bought a pocket size copy of ‘The Little Prince’ as a souvenir from the place because that was the first book we read together as a couple. How cool that they stamped the book, so that you can prove that you were there.
In her magnificent efforts in machine-gunning recommendation to us, Roula dropped a mention of Anogi in Imerovigli and how it was her favorite restaurant. She got us a reservation earlier and in hindsight, it turned out to be an inspired choice, not only because of the magnificent food, but also the fact that it was really close to where we were staying. Our feet was feeling a lot like they’ve been bathed in dragon fire after our hike so even a short walk felt like a torture. Many options were considered, from renting a donkey, praying for the powers of flight (or at the very minimum, float) to hiring a catapult and having it launch us on to our dining table. Nothing stuck, so we walked instead.
Anogi turned out to be one of our most memorable dining experience in Greece. So joyous was our first time that we went back there again on our second night. It wasn’t just the food, but just the vibe and feel of the place. No-frills dining featuring food cooked in rich techniques but rustic in presentation and taste. Oh, and the wine was cheap and fantastic as well. But above the food, what was fabulous about Anogi was the people. Everyone, from the two bosses who run the place to the variety of different front-house people and servers were just a delight to deal with. They were friendly, humorous and were very forthcoming with recommendations. Over-the-top good service doesn’t always happen back here at home so it’s not like I head out to restaurants when I am traveling expecting it. But when you do get it, that’s when you understand just what a difference it makes to someone’s dining experience. It was a cold and chilly night and the both of us were relatively ill-dressed for it but the soulful food and the friendliness of the people really warmed us up. Well, that is until the next gust of wind and we feel like our souls were being strangled by a yeti again.
The outstanding dish at Anogi for us, turned out to be the rooster pasta. Deceptively simple but really delicious, it’s a rooster poached in wine, baked and served on top of a bed of pappardelle pasta cooked in tomato sauce and Mediterranean spices. It was so good. How good? We had it two nights in a row. The smoked pork belly we had on the second night was pretty damn delicious as well. ‘How was the food?’, asked the male boss. ‘It was fabulous,’ I exclaimed. ‘No way, it was horrible right? So horrible that I am going to give you a desert for free’. Look, I am well aware that everyone gets the desert for free probably, whether you pretend-hated the food or not but it was still nice to banter with the person serving your food. Again, like Yannis at Mykonos, here is an establishment run by people who are passionate about what they do. It’s infectious seeing them work. They are constantly moving, tending to all the needs of the diners with patience and attentiveness.
Which is probably why people are thronging the place all night. Yes, all night. We were offered a reservation on the second night at 10pm. Felt a bit silly to be eating at that hour but given we had a pretty food-filled day, we decided to take it anyway. As it turned out there was a line out there, at 10pm. The line hardly subsided until 11.15. This was not a drinking establishment with food. It was a dining restaurant and people are willing to wait until pass 11 to get their dinner. Granted as we were starting to observe, Greeks do eat pretty late, this is still pretty remarkable. The female boss remarked to me that the kitchen would still be buzzingly dishing out main courses-till pass midnight. Forget ‘maggi goreng’ for supper when you’re feeling peckish later at night in Santorini, go for a pork shank instead.
I don’t need to constantly do stuff when I am traveling. Some of the best moments I’ve had while traveling have been the days when nothing is planned and something magical just drops on my lap. As I’ve said before, it’s either I am the luckiest traveler in the world or perhaps, I am a person that is quite easily satisfied. Or perhaps, my wife is just amazing at making something out of nothing at all. Probably that (saying this cause she has a gun to my head).
So in the spirit of being chilled and serendipitous, the evening of the second day at Santorini provided a magical moment for us in a most unexpected way. We had spent a fairly innocuous day shopping in Fira and visiting a farther-away town of Pyrgos. Sat on top of a hill, Pyrgos offered almost panoramic views of the island. We declined a further 3km hike up to the Holy Monastery of Prophet Elias that is sat on top of Mount Profitis Ilias, which would have been spectacular. Why? Because we are on a holiday and not in an iron maiden. The day had instead zipped by in a haze of ice Freddo Americanos. On our way back we somehow made our way to a church building near our accommodation in Imerovigli that was overlooking the Caldera, and there was a small crowd gathered there.
We did not manage to catch the sunset satisfactorily in Oia the day before because we had to take in the sight of the sunset often together with noisy barbaric Chinese aunties waving their monopods around like maces. This was a decidedly more serene experience with everyone just relaxing in their respective spots, with minimal chatter and no jostling because there was enough space for everyone to have a good view of the sunset. It was magical, like life painted over in a warm hue or a gorgeous filter. It was like my soul took a huge and long breath at that moment, ready to face the rest of its existence, from there onwards. The sky danced to the tones being painted by nature as the sun made its way to embrace the horizon. It started out in bright yellow but gradually dimmed to a magenta, like the lowering of curtains after a spectacular show.
In many ways, that was the fitting end to our time in Santorini and more broadly the Greek islands. We would go on to have a dip in our accommodation’s freezing pool overlooking the Caldera and a second meal at the wonderful To Honaki chip shop (so good that I forgot to mention the first time we ate it) before leaving on a plane to Athens but that sunset, where we managed to, for a moment, slow dance with one of nature’s finest sights, will always be the official ending to our sojourn at the islands. It has been an unbelievable magical journey through landscapes that at times, beggar belief and partake in experiences that we would remember fondly for the rest of our days.
If we were to imagine Paros as a person, then that person would be a teacher.
We braved a bit of a tourist-storm at the Mykonos port earlier this day. Have you seen a port filled with people who look like extras from a Korean skincare TV commercial? No? Lucky you. But alas it was a storm that turned out to be mostly blowing towards Santorini, which gave us much needed reprieve but offered us a glimpse of the influencer-packed, straw hat-totting, sundress-flowing typhoon that awaited there later in the trip. There is a kind of charm that is attached to boarding a ferry from one island to another. It offers a glimpse of how people would’ve traveled in older days, offering oneself to the elements just to get from one place to another. Granted the only elements we had to brave here on this relatively large ferry (it was large enough for more than a few pickup trucks to drive into it before swallowing a few hundred tourists), was being bombarded by a song-long commercial of the company who offered the ferry services. That saying, you don’t know what you’re missing out in life if you’ve never sat through a power ballad called ‘Paros Jet’. The name Paros Jet offers quite little opportunity for your imagination to flex on both the intended destination of the vessel, nor the speed it was going to hit to get there. It does reek of insecurity issues though. Wished you were taller? Had longer legs? Six pack? Ryan Gosling’s features? Meh. How about a ferry who wants to be a jet? There you go.
Oh right, the teacher bit. Yes. We got schooled by Paros in the age-old lesson of ‘not judging a book by its cover’, or in our case, ‘not judging a Greek island by the how much it initially looked like a city wrecked by civil war’. I suppose we have little else to blame but our own narrowmindedness. What triggered the impression? Narrow dusty roads, mud-stained buildings, dry and parched landscapes, etc. In another mindset, this would all be framed as ‘charming’ but we’ve just come from what was essentially paradise (when I type this, I am thinking about the beaches in Mykonos, and not the grandads trotting around in speedos when they really should know better) so forgive us while we adjust to suddenly being thrusted into Helm’s Deep. We had to take a 20-minute bus ride from the ferry port of Parikia to the fishing port of Naousa and the journey was about as scenic as the interior of a dilapidated cow carriage. And because buses were less frequent in these parts, they pack them up real tight, like they do back home. Nothing like the whiff of an afternoon armpit to remind you of your motherland. At this very moment, Agios Ioannis, the beach, and dreamy lifeguard seems like a dream and two nightmares away.
We alighted the bus at the Naousa bus station hoping for some reprieve but found little. The roads were caked with dust, the buildings stained yellowish and the kids were playing with Uzis at the back of pickup trucks (just kidding, although they might as well be). Ten minutes into our walk to Despina’s Mare, where we would be hanging our weary sails for the night, we found some reprieve at the skirt-end of the town center of Naousa, with a little more cobblestone walkways, restaurants and buildings that did not look like they’ve just tangoed with a sandstorm. It’s hilarious in hindsight because the path we took to get to our accommodation was just a street away from what is certainly the most charming town centers of this trip, and quite possibly ever, to me. In fact, we would later realise that the bus station was just a short walk down the road from a charming bent of seaside restaurants and a clear sight of the gorgeous aqua-marine Aegean sea. But we saw nothing of the sort as we made our way to Despina’s Mare. It was almost like an anti-Truman Show, where forces were conspiring to keep our sight away from the beauty of the island to teach us a huge slap-of-a-lesson in being judgmental.
Despina’s Mare as it turned out, looked delectably comfortable. Not quite like the meat and potatoes accommodation we had to get by with at Mykonos. For one thing, they had a sign here right upfront which helped us not to have to literally sail the seven seas to find it. Despina’s daughter Konstantina greeted us and informed us that there is a nice beach about 10-minutes away on the right by foot up the road and that the main town center of Naousa with its restaurants and bars, also a short 10-minute walk to the left. At this point of time, given how famished we were from the trip from Mykonos and the fact that we had to walk through what was essentially Mogadishu in 1993, we would’ve been okay with a McDonald’s. Actually I kid, my wife would’ve probably started a civil war herself if I had made her eat at a McDonald’s. No, there wasn’t a McDonald’s on Paros. At least I don’t think so.
The room was a sight for dusty eyes. Granted it wasn’t exactly the Waldorf Astoria but it had a large comfortable bed, a spacious restroom where you don’t need to feel like an Argentinian center back planting an elbow on an unsuspecting opponent every time you reach for the shampoo. There were welcome cake and pastries on the table, two spacious side tables with USB plug points and there was going to be breakfast in the morning. As far as we were concerned, it was The Jetsons in 2063 for us. But it wasn’t the slap yet. The spacious bed and breakfast spread was that fraction of second before a slap makes its intended contact, the point when the hand leaves your side, raises to form and prepares to strike hard.
Then we drew the curtains and slid open the door and we were greeted with this sight.
Now that was the first slap.
The walk into town brought us a little more back down to earth. Winding cobblestone roads cramped with messily constructed homes. Not too dissimilar from Mykonos except a lot more poorly curated with many homes looking incredibly cluttered and the roads just a degree grimier. It was like experiencing a Greek island town with a little South East Asian filters on.
Greek towns and villages seem to become more beautiful in relation to how close they are to the sea. Granted most of them are settled near the sea, but the disparity between settlements inland to those near ports can sometimes be quite gob-smacking. There’s of course a very logical reason why this is so. Tourists in these parts tend to flock to seaside towns and so there is more money floating around in them, hence the better amenities and honestly, it’s quite difficult to be ugly when you’re joined to the hip with that sea. But I prefer the more romantic notion, that the Greeks get their lifeblood from the sea and the closer they are to it, the more nourished and alive they seem to be.
Ouzeri Mitsi was our pick for lunch on the first day at Paros. Not because the menu enticed us or because the name of the restaurant sounds like a Greek superhero but because we were famished and it was the first restaurant we came into contact with. Life becomes a lot simpler when you’re faced with food or death decisions. Eating at Ouzeri Mitsi proved a couple of things to us. Firstly that, because the standard of accessible Mediterranean fair and freshness of seafood produce back home is a lot more touch-and-go than go, walking into any random restaurant on any Greek island is generally going to taste pretty decent. And secondly I am never going to eat pastas back home again.
And if I still had lingering grunts about how Paros looks more like the end of a shotgun barrel than a Cyclades paradise then, it gave me a second lesson in not putting my mind’s boots into its own metaphorical mouth by offering us a spectacular view while we chomped on our sumptuous lunch. The only thing inhibiting this view to our left was the sight of a portly man in an unbuttoned white shirt at another table in Ouzeri practically making love to the fish he was eating. I mean it’s one thing to enjoy your food, it’s another to be licking your fingers seductively with an orgasmic look in your eyes. Actually we’re glad we ever laid eyes on him eating. He has basically changed the way we view eating fish forever. That ‘bulus’ back at Acha Curry House is never going to be devoured the same again.
In fact the food in Paros may just be some of the best we had in Greece. The fried calamari in Taverna Glafkos has properly set a standard for all other fried calamaris to contend with for the both of us, and we suspect it will remain so for a while yet. Maybe we were starting at a very low base, but it was amazingly delicious. Not that it was gastronomical science or anything, just baby squids perfectly deep-fried in batter, garnished with pepper and salt and a squeeze of lemon. But the taste was just tantalizing. It provided me just a moment of realisation at just how much rubbish tasteless frozen calamari I’ve been eating all my life back home. There was also this charming little café called what I can only roughly identify as Kafeneio, where they served small plates of Greek dishes. Our favorite was a dish of freshly cut tomatoes, feta and olive oil. It’s a dish that appears so simple that it feels like a restaurant should be ashamed to serve and charge money for it. But yet, it’s a dish that feels almost impossible to replicate back home because it was all down to the natural quality of the tomatoes, the feta and the olive oil. The tomatoes in particular were the stars, sweet and juicy to taste, not at all like the sour bombs we often get back home.
That was the second slap.
Naousa’s town center is not large, but it compensates for its lack of size by being interestingly intricate. We explored them for two days and even on the second day, we were finding little nooks and corners we could tuck into and discover things. Whether it’s little knickknack shops, fun-sized gellatorias or to-go pizza joints, Naousa is like the town that keeps giving. At the heart of its night life is the restaurants around the port. Packed with tourists of all shapes and sizes, the clinking of wine glasses against each other, utensils against dining ware and the sound of indistinct chatter punctuate the serene and calm skies of Paros. It’s noisy sure, but quite unlike the sound a city makes. There are no awful stabs of frustrated honking by motorists, raised frustrated voices against each other and against the city or thumping pop music emanating from departmental stores. This was a more joyous sound. The sound of relaxed revelry, of happiness at conversations and the joy that can really only come from having a meal in a gorgeous island in the middle of the ocean with people you love.
This ‘sound’ was what endeared Paros to me. It felt like nothing I had ever felt before. Suddenly it all made sense. That life can also be a celebration beyond just birthdays, anniversaries and the holidays. That life itself can be a celebration. I’ve always been apathetic about food and celebrations. I generally eat to live and I’ve not had many celebrations since my sixth birthday that was more than just my family going out to a Chinese restaurant and ordering a few dishes to fill our tummies. But suddenly, standing there in the middle of the Naousa port, watching the people there, hearing the ocean cooing behind us, it suddenly all made sense. How food, culture and celebration all came together in a more relatable sense to me. It wasn’t about gifts and fancy outfits. It wasn’t about just enjoying a moment, or a day. But it was about enjoying life itself through these things. Even as I reminisce these things now, I no longer associate Paros to the first impression I have of it – the mud-stained buildings and dusty streets. In fact, those initial memories are fast-fading, replaced by the scent and sounds of the lighter side of Paros.
This was the third slap.
A trip to Greece is always going to be about the beaches. The seafood, sunshine and the facial hair sure, but on top of that list, the beaches. We would eventually work the ‘beach itch’ out of our system during the trip but we were still at the height of it when we were in Paros. After our lunch at Ouzeri Mitsi, we walked another 10-minutes up pass Despina’s Mare and just as Konstantina said, we reached a beach called Agii Anargiri. It’s quite a different experience from the organized beach at Agios Ioannis back in Mykonos. Here, the beach front is just a few steps away from the vehicle road and splayed out in a way that appears unappealing at first because it had patches of uncut grass all around and the sand appears stodgier here. The wonderful thing was that it did not cost us a cent to be here. Just open up your towel over the sand and you’re good to go. Don’t expect any tropical cocktails though.
And while Agii Anargiri may rank as probably the least appealing beach we spent time at in Greece, all you need to do is look sea-ward and everything else no longer matters. Not even the fact that you’re laying your towel just ten steps from where a Prius just zoomed by. The sea is all that matters and when you get into it, besides the fact that you immediately feel like curling inside a microwave oven because of the cold, you feel free and at-one with mother earth. The sea here, as is the case throughout Greece, is gorgeous and being at the center of it, with the sun beating down and the waves gently caressing your chest, you just feel like it’s possible to just close your eyes and lose yourself to the calming elements.
Like the building blocks for a castle in my mind, these little experiences have slowly warmed me more and more to the idea of finding a belonging on a beach. Agios Ioannis in Mykonos was a crucial piece, but so was Kolymbithres beach here in Paros, which we went to on our second day there. We took a short boat ride over to the beach, traversing through unbelievably clear aqua marine waters to get there. The water felt deceptively inviting with its color, like diving head first into Jell-O. But given that we were more or less in the middle of the ocean, my guess is it won’t feel like Jell-O if I decided to plunge in. Given my inability to swim, it will be more like a big fat sack of rice being dumped into the ocean.
Once there, occupants of the boat flooded into the different segments of the beach like ball bearings slipping into the different nooks of a pinball machine, to grab themselves an umbrella for the day. We initially got a paltry one that was two rows from the sea at the first beach front we got to. But my wife had that look. Let me explain the look. It’s basically the look of someone who has been forced to watch a litter of puppies being drowned. Okay, I jest. Let me try again. It’s the look of someone who has been forced to watch a puppy being drowned. Yup. So we moved. You move when your wife has that look. That’s my marriage advice for everyone out there. Free of charge. So move we did, to the next beachfront, where it was almost empty and we had our pick. And score, cause now she looks like a puppy greeting her master at the door or an alcoholic influencer at an open bar. I can never tell which is which.
Some moments of the day flash to mind. The American family and the father with the sardonic wit and two women who we couldn’t distinguish were either his daughter, wife or mother-in-law (yeah I know it doesn’t say anything well about the women in discussion). The wonderful cold hit of fig tequila on lips against the punishing sun. Me getting my leg wedged against two rocks from a slip which threatened to ruin my beach day but papa powered through. The sight of a heavily pregnant but fit woman dancing around the upper regions of the queer rock formations that characterizes Kolymbithres, with not much of a care in the world. I mean why would you when you have the sight of that ocean in front of you? Yet another entry filed under the folder ‘Things a Middle Class Asian Will Never Do’ in my head. My sporadically dipping into the calm, clear sea, watching fishes swim around my frame. It was a wonderful day indeed.
This was the fourth slap.
There’s a unique sense of wonder and romanticism that comes from being a person who was raised in one end of the world, under markedly different conditions than the people here and somehow ending up in this relatively small island in the middle of the Aegean sea, taking in their culture, eating their food, breathing their air and walking on their streets.
Even now as I sit here back in humid and dense KL, typing this, my mind is bathed in endorphins as I think about what it was like to be in Paros. That things are chugging along just as they were when we were there. Despina is still welcoming guests to her abode with her warm smile and hearty breakfasts in the morning. Glafkos is still dishing out delectable calamari and turning away hopeful diners because they are fully booked. The streets are lined with visitors from around the world, baked by the Mediterranean sun but joyful for being in the midst of a gorgeous island getaway. And Lola, the aged and grumpy cat I met somewhere in the town centre of Naousa is hopefully still guarding the entrance of that cute boutique that’s tucked under the stairs. ‘She’s an old lady’, a girl sitting outside the boutique assured me when Lola gave nary an expression to me when I tried to play with her.
The same can probably be said of Paros. An old lady of the sea, glistening throughout history from her renowned white marble. She may not be as zesty and sociable as Mykonos or as breathtaking and spectacular as Santorini (as we would soon find out), but she has a charm or two up her understated sleeves yet. It’s not an obvious charm, but once properly unveiled, it can be quite breathtaking. It says a lot, given our initial impression of her, that Paros ended up being our most favorite portion of this Greek sojourn and will probably always hold a special place in me and my wife’s hearts.