I was asked by my wife last night what my hope was for 2021.
I gave the usual answer with a side of ‘peace on earth, mercy mild and God and sinners reconcile’. Rather telling was that nowhere in my succinct list was there a hope for things to go back to what they were.
Buried deep in my heart, I’ve not been very eager for things to go back to what they were.
Of course I say this without any prejudice towards people who have struggled financially through this pandemic or people who have had loved ones taken by it. I have nothing but respect for you who have soldiered through 2020 under those circumstances.
It’s unfortunate that it took a ravaging pandemic for humanity to take stock of its decisions and to just stop where it was heading. My deep wish was that it was a white paper by a very smart person, a rallying call by the leaders of the world or heck, a song by Bruce Springsteen. Instead it took a pandemic.
As I sit here typing this, I just witnessed a well-dressed man trying to enter a building, without a mask, confidently walking in and gesturing to the guard that he’s just heading up a floor and he should be allowed an exception. He was subsequently pulled back and told that he needed to check-in, get his temperature taken and was asked to put on his mask just like everyone else behind him. Turns out he did not have a mask with him. He was denied entry and was told to head to a store across the road to buy one. He stepped out and just stood there for a few minutes. Occasionally shuffling around his pockets, looked back at the door, wrestled with his ego a little before walking across the road to get himself a mask.
It felt a fitting analogy to the minute good that the pandemic has had on society. For too long the agenda of humanity has been organised not by severity, but by class. And while inequality continues to exist in any civilised society driven by capitalism, there is a slight warmth that comes from having the entitled among us reined in a little. It seems almost poetic justice that it should come in the form of the one thing that levels the playing field for all of us – our impending mortality. I guess it has to be that for everyone to take notice of it. This was not a ‘poor person’s problem’. It was a disease that crept into the highest halls of society and government.
For too long we’ve been a society that ignores the plights of the marginalised, underappreciated the ones who worked unseen to keep the pillars of our lifestyles in place and rewarded the people who continue to sink us deeper into our mire. Something desperately needed to change.
Again, I stress that I am saddened that it took the lives of millions.
I guess we had gone so far into self-destruction, it required something equally devastating to stop us.
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‘There was no party, there were no songs ‘Cause today’s just a day like the day that he started No one has left here that knows his first name And life barrels on like a runaway train Where the passengers change They don’t change anything You get off; someone else can get on …’ – Ben Folds
I’ve been thinking a lot about death.
I know, it’s hardly the appropriate tidings for the season but it is what it is. Don’t get me wrong, I also in equal measure enjoy staring at our lovely Christmas tree and recently, watching ‘Love Actually’ as the token yuletide movie of the year. So it’s not like I am growing moldy sitting alone at home on a wing chair in the dark. But at the same time I have also been thinking about death, a lot. I see it even in songs that are really not about death (The Ben Folds song above is about someone being laid off).
Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the precise moment when it happens and how that would feel like.
As a Christian, I’ve been conditioned since young to focus on what happens after that moment. The bright light, the rejoicing, the yellow brick road and Oz. Just kidding. Jokes aside, I do fundamentally believe in the moment after of course. You can’t exactly subscribe to only a portion of what you consider the truth. But it won’t stop me considering the flip-side to that which is just a big well, nothing. No big party. No bright lights. Just, nothing. The cliché often employed is that it’s like going to sleep but not waking up.
I must confess at certain points of my existence that has sounded somewhat, comforting. Lately it hasn’t been though. I’ve been thinking a lot about what ‘nothing’ feels like. Yes, it feels like nothing, of course. But that just seems so stark, so brutal. That the amount of energy and force-of-will that it takes for us to go through life is just snuffed out in an instant and there is just, nothing.
If I am being honest it feels a little lonely. Not that you would be conscious of that when it happens because you are just in that big nothing, but that’s my sentiment on how the nothing would feel like.
In this age of almost unmitigated popular culture saturation, one can become a little desensitised about death and to be fair, for a long time, I was. But lately, I’ve been processing every death I read about or even see on screen. I consider what it would’ve felt like for them at the point of death and how it would’ve felt like if they had indeed stepped into the huge nothing. Even reading about people who have long gone sparks bouts of rumination. Like how I recently read about the making of Bowie’s 1971 record ‘Hunky Dory’ and I started thinking about how it’s been already four-years since he’s died and how he would never been experiencing new things anymore, new sounds and new words and everything with him has just come to a grinding halt. And this is a man who literally rewrote the rules of rock music. What more me, some random guy living in Kuchai Lama?
“Every human is a little bit sad all the time because you know you’re gonna die. But that knowledge is what gives life meaning.” – from TV show The Good Place.
I write all this in the expectation that weeks from now, I won’t remember that I wrote a single one of these words. That like most existential crises, it just fades away to the background because something else just becomes louder. That quote from The Good Place sums it up nicely. That the very concept that our expiry clock starts on the day we are born should be enough to render us unwilling to do anything and just give up altogether. But humans are resilient and we just get on with it, by minimising this dark inevitability into the background of our lives and to just kick this bucket decades down the road and occupy ourselves with things that gives us meaning and happiness today. If you think about it, life is just a series of distraction tactics.
I am also cognisant of the fact that I appear to be writing all this rather atheistically. Like I personally believe there is just a huge nothing after we die. But that’s not what I believe. I believe there is something more awaiting us at the other side.
I was having a conversation recently with a friend and she raised a point about whether she was doing enough with her life, given many people have earned millions by the time they were her age. It’s a logical thread of thought. The human disposition, and in many ways, its sickness is often that it feels it doesn’t have enough and as such, should pursuit more. We quickly concluded that we are just people that don’t love money and success enough to give up just about anything in pursuit of it.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the little comforts that money brings. Like having a stable roof over my head with air-conditioning (my wife still doesn’t believe I was born in Iceland and dragged forcefully into a tropical hell but the truth will always remain the truth), having a spacious couch and a TV in front of it, taking my wife out to a dinner she deserves on occasion, having the ability to buy a vinyl I really want on some months, rewarding myself with a decent cup of coffee when I feel like it and buying a slightly more expensive book that I really want to read, off BBW season. I do enjoy these things.
Except personally, I really don’t need much more beyond these things.
I still drive my 11-year old Toyota even though we can probably afford a nicer car. The day I change it would be because it can no longer practically fulfill its function for me, and not because I want to drive a newer, sexier car. I have no desire to buy more expensive music equipment. I still play my trusty Peavey because I’ve always managed to make it sound right to me. I could upgrade my sound setup at home to something slicker but the hand-me-downs I have now works just fine so why change it? The clincher of it all is that lately, the chorus of ‘let’s change our TV to something nicer’ has been coming more from my wife’s end than mine, the supposed ‘TV addict’.
We did spend on traveling. We did it because we agreed very early on that if we were going to spend on anything, it would be on experiences. Things that enrich our lives in a way shinier possessions could not. For the rest of our lives, me and her will always have that drive we took on the Northcoast 500 in the highlands of Scotland with Mazzy Star playing on the car stereo back in 2018. No one can ever take that away from us and it most certainly won’t end up in a landfill.
I’ve always seen traveling as a privilege anyway, and not a right. I am grateful for everything I experienced but if I experience nothing else for the rest of my life, it’s fine. A person with an upbringing like mine was not supposed to be able to walk the beaches of Paros. At some point, I might’ve accessed a cheat code and honestly, I am just glad I managed to get away with it.
I’ve always felt like this – that money has no hold on me beyond the basic comforts I require. Except for the longest time, I had not enough of it. I was labelled by someone once close to me that I was calculative when it comes to money. It’s quite hard not to be when you are splitting pennies. I wasn’t doing it because I loved it so much that I was not willing to part with it. I was doing it because I was trying to ensure I have enough.
These days, I am firstly thankful that I have enough. This is important to me and I take not a day of it for granted. Which is why I tell my wife that I hate it when we waste food unnecessarily because I don’t want to forget the days when my family had not enough of it. How I almost never buy clothes that are above a certain price, no matter how much I like or can afford it. How i almost always eat at the same ‘Yong Tau Foo’ place near my home when I am having dinner on my own. And I actually do still get the tingles at the prospect of eating baked beans and luncheon meat with rice (it’s the best). Some of these things I do instinctively, some of it I do intentionally; to remind myself that while I am thankful for where I’ve ended up, I am also grateful for where I came from. I don’t ever want to turn soft from comfort and become ungrateful and entitled.
Yes, on most days, I am thankful I have enough. And on some days, I am thankful that because I do, I can confidently say now that money really has little hold on me.
There is a deep comfort that comes from knowing that.
“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 at.
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 pretty squares.
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.