Hearty Welcomes & Salutations! Originally an action-packed travel blog from a globe-trotting Scotsman, An Ache for the Distance has, over the years, slowed down (I post less often), mellowed out (my dogs and kid have found their way on here) and become more of an expat blog (I German things up). Take a look around, leave a comment and share the love if you like something.
Stuart Mathieson, Lübeck, Germany

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Kaffee und Kuchen

Seldom am I tempted to travel long distances purely for food. There are of course exceptions, like the legendary Mrs Macs meat pie from Western Australia which, purely for the pastry and gravy alone, I might actually consider walking over hot coals and simultaneously sacrificing small woodland creatures, but as a general rule I try and avoid lengthy trips solely for culinary purposes. Taking this latter point into consideration, you may then understand my mild confusion as to why, on a wet, Friday evening whilst whizzing down the Cologne bound Autobahn at a velocity previously unknown to this Scotsman at ground level, I find myself feeling strangely excited at the prospect of my impending Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee & cake) weekend in a friends cosy, familial abode somewhere in the depths of Rhineland-Palatinate.

I must at this point confess that, if you were to put a map of Germany in front of me right now, my fingers would scan searchingly across the it, much in the same manner as a blind man reading brail, and would likely never find the said Bundesland of Rhineland-Palatinate. In fact, unless a city is on the coast or near the edge of the country, it will probably elude the geography department of my goldfish like memory for all eternity. This is unfortunately the same with most other populous nations boasting a hectic central core. England for example is jam-packed with industrious communities at its heart and yet, were I to try and pick out Birmingham or Leeds it would be like Stevie Wonder playing pin the tail on the donkey. But I diverge…

Of course the coffee and cake aren’t my only reasons for heading into the German heartland, the opportunity to visit Cologne and take in the visual splendour of Germany’s countryside are also important, but the sweet homemade delicacies which had been promised in advance definitely hold a lofty position on my list of expectations for the weekend.

After six hours of Autobahn driving we pull up outside my friend’s home in the town of Brachbach. I stumble out of the car and attempt to make use of my sleeping legs. It’s almost 2am and, despite being a novice with German culture, I’m pretty sure that it’s too late for my first slice of sugary sweetness. We head inside, are greeted by the parents and immediately offered some refreshments and sustenance in the form of coffee and cake. A smile starts to creep across my face, I love these people already. Just as my head starts to nod and my belly rumble, my ears catch wind of my fellow weary travellers saying “nein danke...” Unfortunately the curse of coming from a culture which classes having a biscuit with your tea as mildly excessive means that, despite hankering for cake, if nobody else is having some then I can’t either. A British mental barrier that I will sadly never overcome and no amount of counselling can help. As such, an hour later I find myself tucked up in bed with beer in my belly and cakes drifting into my dreams.

The next morning we all take up residence at the dining table for a big German breakfast of meat, cheese, dark weighty bread and gallons of coffee before making our way to the station for the Cologne train. I spend the hour long journey watching the landscape roll by through a dirty, rain-drop smeared window. It’s a bleak, grey day outside and the generous lathering of industry in this part of Germany combines with the weather to create a dull depressive atmosphere. However the downbeat feeling is soon swept aside and replaced by an excited state of anticipation as we enter the city. Never in my life have my nostrils been so open in expectation when stepping off a train. As the place which gave it’s name to macho perfume, I have, for years, believed that Cologne must be a musky but pleasant smelling metropolis. And as such, during the languorous meander from the platform to the central plaza outside the station my nose is pointed skywards and my nostrils to the fore as I waft Cologne in, so to speak.

My sniffing is soon halted by the sight of Cologne’s hefty gothic cathedral parked right outside the station. The main square surrounding this impressive, twin-towered piece of religious brickwork looks like it has been designed with a concrete football pitch in mind. Such is the contrast between the two that the cathedral looks slightly out of place and ill-fitting, despite of course being more visually appealing. We head inside to see if the innards are as impressive. After passing through the large arched doorway we’re immediately confronted by a sea of camera-happy tourists shuffling over every imaginable square foot of the open space. I spy a corner with a table of tea-tree candles flickering happily beneath some sculpted religious scenes and I involuntarily shuffle over and start taking pictures. Normally when I’m surrounded by tourists going trigger happy with their umpteen mega pixels I can’t bear the thought of taking my camera out and being one of the crowd but for some reason this moment is different. Maybe subconsciously I feel the need to be part of a bigger entity whilst in a religious building and, as I’d rather read a Lonely Planet than a Bible, I subsequently open my arms and camera lens to the tourist brethren.

From Life in the Germanic Shires

We soon move onto a communal pilgrimage of sorts, marching upwards in a spiralling fashion, our aim being the top of the cathedrals towers. The staircase boasts over 500 steps, all of which lead you in a never ending clockwise twirling ascent. They’re the kind of stairs where if you were to take the roof off the cathedral and look down, you’d be faced with a large concrete washing machine with people inside on a very slow and tightly packed spin. Upon emerging from the cycle at the top, not only are you greeted by some impressive, heaven bound spires but also a generous helping of wire mesh hindering every possible view point. This leaves me slightly unnerved as, in my mind, there are only two possible reasons why the wire is there. Either the cathedral is a popular spot for suicide cases looking for an adrenalin rush before a squishy end or the birds of Cologne are very possessive of their airspace and the pilgrims need to be protected.

Now, if I were to lose my lust for life and thus see no future, I don’t think I’d put myself through a rigorous 500 step, spinning workout before leaping off a tower to meet my maker. I haven’t given suicide much thought but I imagine if I had to then I’d go for a much easier way that doesn’t leave a stain on the pavement. And so with this in mind I’m grateful for wire mesh, despite it hindering an otherwise clear view down towards the Rhine and central Cologne, for I do not wish to have my eyes pecked out by a demonic crow.

From Life in the Germanic Shires

After 10 minutes of wandering around the top and reading the graffiti etched onto the historic walls we make for the stairs again. Going down is far more interesting than the upward slog as not only do you have the benefit of the wider side of the triangular, “wedge of cake style” stairs, complete with a banister and little windows, but also you get to watch others struggling whilst going up. About two thirds of the way down we pass an Indian family and for one of the uncles it is clearly a little too claustrophobic. He had stopped dead in his ascent and clung to the wall much in the same manner as a 3rd class passenger to a lifeboat on the titanic. He doesn't look as if he's going anywhere in a hurry and so I refrain from telling him about the remaining 300 steps.

We stumble dizzily onto the streets outside the cathedral and weave our way down towards the Rhine. The sky is still hanging low like a grey blanket over the city and it makes the Rhine look suspiciously murky and unappealing. The tourist ferries are, however, still doing a bustling trade and the bars and restaurants near the river front are packed with happy, contented folks. There’s a weird feeling of seasonal confusion as the summer joggers bounce along the riverside promenade but in amongst the bars there is a Christmassy twinkle to the lights and the sense of an approaching winter as some outdoor drinkers sport scarves and various other winter regalia.

We walk along the water front before meandering into the old town and enjoying the sudden transformation in architecture. Such was the destruction of many German cities during the war, Cologne included, that in the post-war reconstruction period, architects who seemed to be primarily inspired by shoeboxes and concrete, were given free reign to design a new city. And so it is that when you suddenly find yourself in a world of cobbled streets and narrow lanes away from the modern Cologne of grey, square boxes it’s a highly unexpected pleasure. I find a beer museum on a side street but decide not to go in for fear of spending the entire day there. Instead I content myself with a quick photograph before continuing the exploration of the old world. We wander up a small narrow lane and step out into a large rectangular square the size of a football pitch. It’s surrounded on all four sides with bars and restaurants and when faced with such a plethora of establishments boasting beer taps, it’s difficult to say no. A small but refreshing Kölsch beer is soon quaffed and a plan of action is hatched involving a tour of the main shopping street, followed by a consolidation of drinking activity in the Cölner Hofbräu.

From Life in the Germanic Shires

We subsequently do our best to enjoy a relaxing amble down Cologne’s main shopping thoroughfare but the density of shoppers means that it feels more like dodgeball than a leisurely stroll. By the time we reach the end of the street I’m more than happy to dive into the aforementioned beer house. As I step through the front door I have a strange sense of having been here before. However it’s not until we’ve ordered a round of beers from the particularly smarmy waiter that I realise this place is exactly like a small version of Munich’s legendary kitsch Hofbräu Haus, except here there are no buxom waitresses or lederhosen clad oompah band.

Another distinct difference being that in Bavaria a litre of beer will lighten your pocket to the tune of €7 whilst in this particular establishment you are bestowed a mere 200ml’s for €3. Now, maths is most definitely not my forte but when it comes to beer related numericals I know when I’m being had. However love, money and logic do not always mix well and as such I find myself ordering a second with a view to possibly stealing a glass. The waiter, a perfect example of arrogance personified, seems to be able to read my thoughts on this small matter of theft and he eyes me cautiously for the remainder of my patronage. He flicks a quick smirk as we leave and I instantly regret not smearing the table with mustard and accidentally spilling the salt and pepper.

Despite the unique brand of service in the bräuhaus, we’re in a happy, buoyant mood as we hop down the steps next to the cathedral and make our way over the plaza del concrete and on into central station. A quick scan of the departures board reveals that we are an hour too early and so we retreat back to the steps by the cathedral and join the youth of Cologne lazing outside in the weak autumnal sunshine. The hour soon passes and I’m slightly amazed at how quickly it disappears. Sitting on your backside doing nothing for 60 minutes should, by definition be boring. But when confronted with a large area packed with people happily minding their own business and shuffling from one unknown destination to the next, it takes on a zoo like quality. I had even started to think about information boards for some of the more permanent members of the exhibition. Nothing too fancy, maybe just a brief definition of the word “emo” or perhaps the daily habits and routines of an average tramp. It could be Cologne’s newest tourist attraction with guides and an interactive corner where you can prod at a drunken hobo. The kids will love it…

However I’m soon whisked away from my grand venture by one of Deutsche-Bahn’s double-decker trains and left to ponder what could have been. The landscape outside is slowly being covered by a veil of darkness and by the time we reach my friends house in Brachbach there is a definite chill in the air. His house looks warm and inviting from outside and as we step through the front door into a sea of warmth I hear those beautiful words, “Kaffee und Kuchen?”

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

The Woes Of An Addict (Part One)

Travel is an addiction. It’s as simple as that. It shares with drug abuse and alcoholism all the major addiction symptoms. Withdrawal effects, desire for a bigger and better highs and, quite often, no real control over ones actions.

This latter point is very much on my mind as I sit in my Hamburg apartment, glued to my computer, scanning the outskirts of the city on Google maps. It’s a beautiful 30C summers day outside, there isn’t a cloud in the sky and the majority of the populace are doing the right thing by lounging in parks, relaxing and generally enjoying a lazy day. I, on the other hand, am hatching a plan involving four train rides, kilometres of physical labour on a bicycle and a morbid tourist attraction in the form of Neuengamme concentration camp. Like I say, it’s an addiction…

My tourist attraction of choice is actually so far from the city that it’s completely off my Hamburg map and as such I desperately resort to scribbling a route from Google onto a piece of paper. I turn the computer off, get myself ready and head off. I study my home-made map as I lock the front door and realise it looks like a treasure map drawn by a retarded pirate. The possibility of getting lost in suburbia looks quite likely.

I walk out of the apartment block into a wall of heat and make my way to the U-Bahn (underground) station. It’s an easy 2 minute cycle but by the time I get there I feel disgustingly hot and sticky. I take comfort from the chap standing next to me at a pedestrian crossing, his light grey t-shirt informs the world just how hot it is by being almost entirely dark grey with sweat. I haul my bike up the station stairs and onto the platform. A train pulls up almost immediately and I inwardly thank the public transport gods for the efficiency of the Germans. Three stops later I’m at Berliner Tor station and looking to change onto a suburbia bound S-Bahn train. I get lost in the myriad of tunnels and I’m forced to surface onto street level to hunt down the different section of the station.

I manage to find the adjacent S-Bahn quite easily but, my pride in my own simple accomplishments is soon shattered by the realisation that by breaking away from the rest of the human traffic, I’ve made myself more vulnerable to attacks from the clip-board and question wielding fraternity. I’m accosted at the entrance by a Frau armed with the board, a pen and a plethora of guilt inducing scenarios complete with monetary solutions stemming from my bank account. Being very aware of my own financial plight, it crosses my mind to strike the first blow and ask her for money but instead I claim complete ignorance of the German language and, with an apologetic look, walk straight past her. She shouts questions at me in fluent English and we have an increasingly distant conversation as I continue walking towards the platform.

The train arrives after a couple of minutes, I wheel my bike on and realise that outside it’s 30C but inside the compartment it’s 40C. Everyone looks like they're being cooked. It dawns on me that these carriages are almost completely air-tight for rain protection (Hamburg’s normal weather) and little thought has been given to the occasional hot summer’s day. Only two small windows at the front can be opened and air-conditioning is non-existent. Death by public transport, a novel idea…

The train driver announces each station we arrive at, but he does so with a very distinctive muffle, as though he might be eating socks for lunch. I resort to counting the number of stops to go instead of trying to understand what he might be saying. I slide off the train after 10 minutes of baking, 3 kilograms lighter and with a thoroughly soaked t-shirt, confirm that I can count by checking I’m at the right station and then make for the streets. As I walk out into the sunshine and hop onto my bike, I realise that my hastily drawn and increasingly retarded looking map has no directions from the station itself. Brushing any doubt about my navigation skills aside, I set off in search of the first street on my map. I quickly make my presence felt amongst the locals as I free-wheel along on the wrong side of the pavement. At least I think that’s why the old women are scowling at me. Or maybe I’m on the wrong side of the street too? Perhaps it’s a no cycle zone? Do I need a license to ride a bike in Germany? This is after all the spiritual home of bureaucracy. Whatever the reason behind the scowls, I flash them a big toothy smile that I hope they interpret as “Feck off crinkly!”

I find my first road on the treasure map after a brief but extensive tour of the local vicinity and I’m soon fighting my way past roadworks, building sites and throngs of shoppers. Not the leisurely country amble I had envisioned. I persevere nevertheless, perhaps because the idea of getting back on a sauna train so soon strikes sweaty fear into my core, and I’m soon wheeling my way down a large but mainly empty thoroughfare, skirted on either side by red brick houses, more reminiscent of Manchester than Germany. After 5 minutes of brisk pedalling I reach a sign for Neuengamme. I swing right onto the long straight countryside road toward the camp and begin my 6km slog in the afternoon heat…

From Life in the Germanic Shires



Sunday, 31 August 2008

Life In The Southern Shires

The MCG empties and thousands of cricket fans pour onto the streets of central Melbourne. At exactly the same time, Andy and I hit the streets of the CBD and the van takes on the role of a driving billboard. It’s an advertiser’s wet dream. We take the wrong lane and are forced to do two lengthy trips down Flinders Street where we subsequently subject thousands of people to the bright colours and company logos on the ambassador van. Not content with dazzling only the cricket fans, we roll past Flinders Street Station in the heart of the city and subject all and sundry to the visual advertising feast. We’re soon travelling down St Kilda Road and, as the road splits into three different sections, I suddenly remember why I hate driving in Melbourne. The two outside parts are for ordinary driving but the central sector looks like a battleground between car & tram, a scary prospect that has only one possible outcome and as such I stick to the outside lanes.

We make it to my friend’s house in Albert Park, unhindered by tram aggression, and soon make a beeline for the Espy in St Kilda. For those not in the know, the Esplanade Hotel, better known as the Espy, is a Melbourne drinking institution. With a funky interior, an assortment of ripped leather furnishings, a kitchen for those with the munchies and enough cool people to open a nightclub next door strictly for the hip and trendy, it’s a pub that’s shouting out to be drunk in. We spend the next couple of hours pretending to be cool in a corner of the Espy kitchen before retiring in true pensioner fashion around 10.30pm.

The following morning, Andy, myself and Nicole (the friend in Albert Park), hit the highway in the direction of Gippsland and more specifically, Leongatha. Despite being on the road to Wilsons Promontory, not many tourists stop in the Gatha and it clings onto its traditional country town feel. My only reason for venturing into this part of rural Victoria is that I know a very hospitable chap named Ernie who lives on a property a few k’s from town. We met in a pub in Bairnsdale a couple of years ago and after a few beers he asked if my girlfriend and I would like to look after his farm whilst he went to Sydney for the weekend. A lasting friendship was subsequently born and I’m now a huge fan of the Gatha and this corner of Australia.

An hour or so after leaving the busy streets of Melbourne, we get to Ernie’s place. I start to have one of those surreal moments where it feels like the two year period since I was last here was just a dream. Ernie is exactly how I remember him, the property is pretty much the same and the only hint of change is that Skipper the Labrador is slightly more spherical. And like many of my friendships with Australians, we pick up where we left off by going for a few beers.

After a thorough session of refreshment at a local hotel, we head back to Ernie’s and the BBQ is fired up. As food is piled onto the barbie, I start to feel sorry for Nicole. She’s a vegetarian but the hot plate is starting to look like a buffet for a carnivore’s convention. Whilst she’s waiting for a space to open up on the barbie for her veggie sausages, we head around to the back of the house in time for the sunset. I perch myself on top of a fence post and go trigger happy with the camera. It’s a stunning sight as the sky turns bright orange and the rolling hills in the foreground become silhouetted. It’s the kind of scenery that makes some people go all philosophical. Just as I’m about to put forward my theories on life, love and the reasoning behind why opal fruits were changed to starburst, an engine roars in the background and Andy comes flying up to the fence on a quad bike. I contemplate my options, admire the scene or jump onto the growling four wheeled monster. It’s an easy choice.

Seconds later I’m flying across fields on the back of the bike with Andy seemingly going over every large bump he can find in order to send my backside skywards. It works to the point where my bum loses contact with the bike and I’m clinging on by my finger tips. Andy stops the bike and I manage to convince him to let me go solo. I’m soon ripping open the throttle to the point where it sounds like the bike is about to explode. This isn’t to say that I’m going very fast, far from it. I’m just having great difficulties getting the thing out of first gear. My masculine credentials take a swift nosedive as I stall in a distant corner of a far-away field. Andy starts to make his way over to help out but is no doubt simultaneously preparing a barrage of verbal abuse toward my girly driving skills. I manage to stop him in his tracks by getting the bike started again and I’m soon screaming over the freshly cut field in second gear, my man credentials thoroughly restored. We eventually put the bike to bed and spend the rest of the evening quaffing cold beers and munching on snags, a sufficiently Australian evening.

I wake up the next morning, slightly hung-over and once again feeling like a Christmas turkey on slow bake. At the risk of sounding like a meteorological geek, the winds have changed and Victoria is basking in glorious outback heat from the north. As such the van is stiflingly hot all night and I’m more than happy when we hit the road toward the coast and Wilsons Promontory National Park. At this time of year accommodation in the Prom is scarce. Allocation of summer holiday camping spaces apparently works on a ballot system beginning as early as August and when I call to find out if there’s any space for one little campervan the park ranger on the other end of the line scoffs in laughter at me. We head down anyway. An hour later we’re sitting looking at the large digital sign at the park entrance stating that the Tidal River campground is full for the next month. I decide to try “the ignorant tourist” routine. We drive up to the ranger booth and I ask in as strong a Scottish accent as is understandably possible if there are any camping spaces. The girl looks at me and then the van. Within 2 minutes we have a camping spot. Ignorance is bliss!

We reach Tidal River, park up and head straight down to Norman beach for a refreshing dip. The water is, to put it nicely, significantly chillier than what I’ve become accustomed to up in Queensland. It is however just as picturesque as anything you’ll find up in the sunshine state. A long white beach with aquamarine water lapping gently at the sand, bordered at both ends by rocky headlands and the dominating presence of Mount Oberon in the background. It’s a scene that sells a thousand postcards. After 15 minutes in the water my nether regions feel sufficiently frozen to justify a lengthy spell of sun-baking on the beach. I get out and lay on the rocks just beyond the sand. The hole in the o-zone layer above quickly wreaks havoc with my pasty European skin and I’m forced into fleeing back to the campground for some shady relaxation. I feel like I should be doing something adventurous and exciting but the heat is making me lethargic and I use up the last of my energy reserves on a gigantic crossword before slipping into a mild unconsciousness in the back of the van. I wake up a short while later with Andy shouting at me to look at something. I rub my eyes into focus and see 3 men fighting with a gas bottle which has burst into flames. Their buckets of water make no real effect and it takes a chap wielding a fire-extinguisher to save the day.

I decide to take this moment as a sign that I should get out of my slumber and out into the Prom. Andy gets some fishing gear together and we make tracks towards the beach to watch the sunset and for Andy to try his luck with the local marine life. After some serious barefoot rock climbing, we’re out on one of the headlands with a rod in the water and the sky turning a pinky purple colour. The mountains behind have become dark and broody and the whole scene is stunning. As the light fades I become a bit concerned about traversing the rocks in the dark and I convince myself that I’ll end up stranded on the headland overnight. I’m almost convinced that I’ll be waking up in the morning with a snake nibbling curiously on a limb until I notice that the tide has gone out far enough to make it possible to walk back across the sand instead of having to hone my rock-climbing skills in darkness. We make it back to the campground and have to flee into the safety of the van as the mosquitoes attack in numbers. The night ends with the crossword unfinished.

The second and unfortunately final day in the Prom is a far more active one. We set off from Tidal River around midday and follow the 2.5km track across to Squeaky Beach. The trail still shows signs of the bushfires from a couple of years ago and seems a little devoid of wildlife. We see a couple of parrots perched in a tree, one of which sports an excellently ginger floppy Mohican, and one blue-tongued lizard sneaking through the undergrowth but other than that there’s little activity on the animal front. The views make up for this though and it’s spectacular looking down toward the bays and beaches. We clamber around the giant rocks at the southern end of the bay before walking the length of Squeaky beach. It’s the last surf beach I’ll be seeing in Australia for a while and I try to make the most of it. After taking in as much of the salty scene as possible, we retrace our steps back to Tidal River. There’s a monotonous 3 hour drive back to Melbourne ahead of us and the day is pushing on. It should be a sad moment when I catch my last glimpse of the bay but I know I’ll be back at some point. The Prom has that effect on you…

A Whistlestop Tour of Brisvegas

The train is eerily quiet. The only noise is the high pitch squeal of the train wheels against the tracks, yet the carriage is packed with suburban types. It’s a sign that I’m in a city. It’s a bizarre concept that the more people you put in one place, the less they talk to each other. It’s a very un-Australian feeling, in fact it feels more like the UK as the clouds hang low and gray, threatening to open up at any moment. A few stops after I get on the train, a man in his mid-50s hops aboard and parks himself opposite me. I try not to stare, but it’s difficult. He’s wearing a tweed bonnet, a saggy yellowing vest with a pen clipped on, super short red shorts, high white socks and black, velcro-strap trainers. He looks very confused but, at this point, still in control of himself. I start to wonder how long it will be before he begins his unsuccessful train hijack attempt using the broken umbrella that he’s carrying.

The train pulls into Brunswick St Station and I get up to leave, hobo hijacker follows. He’s standing directly behind me and I’m convinced it’s only a matter of time before the back of my head feels the full brunt of a flying umbrella. I’m pleasantly surprised when the doors open and I step down onto the platform unhindered. I turn around and see him disappear into the crowd, which is quite an achievement considering his attire. I head up a set of stairs from the platform and come out into a large shopping mall where I proceed to spend the next 10 minutes lost, trying to figure out where the exit to the outside world is. I walk past a woman wearing a blue t-shirt with a large tourist information logo on it and “airport assistance” written across the back. I panic. Is Brisbane just one huge indoor shopping mall connected all the way out to the airport? I start following random people, hoping they know the way out. It dawns on me that I might be following people heading for the toilets and that I’ll subsequently look like a pervert as I stand looking confused and shifty outside a toilet cubicle. I decide to keep following anyhow and the decision eventually pays off as I stumble out onto Brunswick St mall.

Pleased to be in the outside world, I make my way up the mall toward Ann St and the city. As I’m nearing the opposite end of the street, hobo hijacker comes darting out of a shopping arcade, minus his umbrella and looking shiftier than ever. I’m curious to know what he might be up to but decide not to follow him incase he’s toilet-bound. I make my way along Ann St and can’t help but admire the surroundings as the road gets closer to the city. The architectural juxtaposition of old cathedrals and Victorian public buildings surrounded by shiny new skyscrapers is a novelty for those from the old world. I get to Queen St mall and am slightly taken aback by the number of people out and about on a Tuesday afternoon. Is anyone actually at work in Brisbane other than shop assistants? The electronic, merry Christmas tunes from a million Santa toys in a discount store remind me that it’s the festive shopping period and so I make a beeline for a coffee break at Southbank instead of fighting the yuletide crowds. By this stage I feel like I’m acting out a Lonely Planet mini-itinerary for Brisbane as I’ve briefly covered Fortitude Valley, the CBD and now Southbank in a mornings meandering.

Caffeine fuelled, I make my way over to the botanic gardens and then into the Queensland Parliament. I find myself in a tour group consisting of me and a very enthusiastic chap from Hong Kong who satisfies every possible cliché about Asian tourists, including the standard Hubble telescope-esque camera lens. We make our way around a few grand and ornate rooms before getting to the main chamber. The guide explains a little about the proceedings then goes on to tell us how there are 59 MPs in the Queensland parliament and that getting them all together at one time is a logistical nightmare. Granted Queensland is a larger than Britain but I’m left wondering what he’d think about trying to get 650-odd MPs down to London from every corner of the UK. I try and ask him but he’s in full-swing with his own spiel and by the time he stops the moment has passed.

Upon emerging from the Parliament, I realise that in a lot of Lonely Planet suggested itineraries there is something about going to a trendy spot for a drink. I decide that trendy isn’t necessary but refreshment of the beer kind is. I find an Irish bar on Queen St mall and head in for a healthy dose of European culture. As I settle down with my Guinness and big screen TV showing Bordeaux v Marseille I instantly regret my choice of pub. Directly behind me is a group consisting of one girl and two guys. The girl is English and set to “constant smelly chat” mode. Her voice fills the bar and her stories of travelling Australia are never-ending. The two guys she’s with have glazed looks that suggest they haven’t spoken in hours. I do my best to block her voice out but sentences like, “yeah, the outback’s really difficult but like, the tour bus was good and so everyone should go…” go straight to the “judge on first impression” section of my brain.

I quickly finish my pint and make a swift exit before the two guys drop-dead and she directs her chat toward someone else. Once out on the street, I realise I need to find some yin to balance the yang of the smelly pub chat. I make my way to the supermarket, stock up on supplies and head back to the suburbs for a healthy dose of Australian barbeque culture. The perfect remedy…

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