This is Austria – Day 9-11 (Vienna)

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:

  1. Partner with a nearby parking garage to store your cars
  2. Ensure that the instructions on your window corresponds with the documents you give to customers (ie, hire a bloody copywriter, namely me)
  3. 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?

The great unwanted

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.

My instincts are the enemy

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.

This is Austria – Day 4-8 (Hall, Innsbruck, Heiligenblut and Hallstatt)

I do a lot of thinking after I travel.

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.

Go tell it on the mountains

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.

The medieval-like city of Hall

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.

A veal Schnitzel

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.

Imagine, a cup of coffee here

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.

Hello

So what do I think of Austria?

‘The nature there was worth the trip’.

This is Austria – Day 1-3 (Salzburg)

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 Office Space.

Our left-sided ‘orange is the new loud’ steed …

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?).

One of the pictures I took on the walk during the first night.

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.   

Mozart Wohnhaus

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.

Off to Tirol and Innsbruck.

This is Greece – Athens (Day 8 to 10)

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?

The aspiration of thousands of Chinese uncles back home …

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.

An ancient city …

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.

The street we lived on …

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.

The ancient and the less ancient …

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?

Our apartment. What did I say?

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.

But yes, it’s time to ‘Take me home’ …

This is Greece – Santorini (Day 6 and 7)

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.

Being let out into the wild …

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.

“Oia is just around the corner’, said no one …

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.

That rooster pasta was really something else …

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.

Lucky cat.

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.

Athens awaits.