Vienna, New Year’s Eve, 2015

Vienna, New Year’s Eve, 2015

The Westbahn train from Linz was crowded but I easily found the hotel after getting the U-Bahn to Alser Strasse. Three young Italians were taking a long time to check in but, when these other guests around reception cleared off, I ended up talking to the man behind the counter, comparing the death tolls of the Irish and Ukrainian famines. He didn’t want to pin the latter on Stalin, just “die Moskau Regierung” (the Moscow government), and I wasn’t going to argue with him about the 1930s. Not on New Year’s Eve. He must have asked me something about Ireland for us to jump on to that topic but in fairness he was curious about Irish dancing as well. He imitated the arms held down by the dancers’ sides, a style I explained was ordained by our puritanical priesthood. Das war ein Befehl von den Priestern. Sonst, zu sexy.

Anyway, I dropped the bag in the room and set off to find Berggasse and Freud’s apartment, even though I presumed it would be closed. It wasn’t. It was packed. A mixed French group pushed the street door ahead of me. Upstairs a stubbly Frenchman with a woolly cap didn’t bother going in. His wife turned to him. Tu restes au café en face? He chuckled and nodded. Il y a un sex shop en face.

A little video of a couple of Freud’s hats in a glass case and the preserved waiting room beside them was a good memento to come away with but, before leaving Berggasse, I also took a photo from the street of the lit windows on the first floor. The people jumping the ‘queue’ to swarm around the entrance desk had been more of an illustration of Alinsky’s key psychological principle – that people only push to get on a bus which they think has limited seating – than anything Freudian. Schlange means both queue and snake in German but there, one couldn’t dream of either.

The temperature had dropped below zero and my legs froze as I kept walking, having passed a locked-up Irish pub I’d looked up, on Landesgerichtstrasse. Ending up in the Museumsquartier, I said I’d keep going and get something to eat in Flanagan’s. A hot whiskey prepared by the manager thawed me out and I didn’t ask him about food, having already stopped for a final Bosner. Though the single sausage had looked more like a Käsekrainer, it was just as well I’d had it, as there was no sign of anyone eating in the pub. After a beer to follow the whiskey, I slipped away. A place like that is too much like home and only alright for one or two at most, if you want to keep it country. Another country.

The hotel room window, even if it had been double glazed, which it wasn’t, couldn’t compete with the fireworks and bangers. I got back around ten, having wandered through the crowds in the lit-up Innere Stadt. They were enjoying the amenities (food, drink, music). Before turning into the hotel I strolled to the far end of Theresiengasse just for a look and to kill more time. Ganz Wien was blaring from some open third-floor windows on Kreuzgasse, as I passed that junction. A Falco moment. Once more my legs were feeling the cold so I called it a night.

Talking again to the man at the desk, I found out he was from Kiev. My impression that he missed the USSR was reinforced. He was proud of Nikita Khruschev and Ukrainian generals and a nearby monument to the soldiers of the First Ukrainian Front. I’d have guessed he didn’t care much for Jews either, though all he did was express sympathy for the Palestinians. Woher kamen diese Juden? (‘Where did those Jews come from?’) He told me his two sons were soccer players but I didn’t want to peer too hard at his name tag to get the surname. Something ending in -ov, I thought. It was raining firework debris on the roofs and the racket was quite intense. There were sirens too, now and then. The curtains were closed. He didn’t look at all Slavonic. He was swarthy and reminded me of some actor, such as Lee J. Cobb (smile, voice, moustache) or Pernell Roberts or a combination of both. A group he said were from Odessa then emerged from the lift and when one of them came over to talk to him I said goodnight.

Though he’d claimed Rokossovsky was Ukrainian, that invited a later check. The Marshal was of Polish origin and spent almost three years as a prisoner of the state from 1937 until his release without explanation in 1940, during which time he somehow never signed any false statement. He later told his daughter that he always carried a revolver so they would not take him alive if they ever came for him again.

Up at half past eight on New Year’s Day, I opened the curtains. That revealed some snow on the windowsill. It was still snowing at the airport. The plane needed de-icing. Before leaving the hotel I’d asked a different chap at reception if the Christian name of the man from Kiev was what I’d thought it was. He found it amusing when I added that we’d had a long conversation, like it was nothing new.

Innsbruck, August 2016, Austria #11

Innsbruck, August 2016, Austria #11

10th August, Wednesday

On the three-and-a-half-hour train journey to Innsbruck from Verona, a north German family of three shared our compartment most of the way. They had just spent ten days hiking south over the Alps. The wife was a pigtail blonde, a bit literal but kind and young in spirit. Early forties, I imagined. The son was about ten.

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The husband mentioned seeing the Cliffs of Moher on the Irish west coast last year and then the only other occupant – an Italian woman – suddenly produced a picture of the cliffs on her phone. I hadn’t the heart to mention that they had become a notorious suicide spot.

The card worked without the pin here. The lady at the Schwarzer Bär took the matter in hand and processed the payment. [The pin of my credit card had somehow been locked during a transaction at a hotel in Verona and I couldn’t change the code until I got back to Ireland.] Nonetheless I need to compile a few choice phrases for my review inspired by the Verona incident and the charmless reaction at the desk this morning.

My mother and I had an OK meal in the Altstadt this evening but by the time we emerged the odd drop from the grey sky and foggy Nordkette had turned to rain. In short sleeves, I hadn’t even brought the blue mac.

Tonight I was sent back out for some liquid supplies. This time the rain had stopped and the mac was a bit warm. Passing two dark, empty Spars and no Billa, I thought the station might have something open the latest. The supermarket lights were on there and I could see a girl tidying up inside but it too was out of bounds. The Würstelstand back on Maria Theresien Strasse gave me water and a couple of cans of beer.

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11th August, Thursday

In the morning at a post office over the bridge I got the €500 sent by my brother via Western Union. It rained again in the late morning after we went over to the Altstadt.

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Nevertheless it surprisingly then cleared up to make a sunny day. Seeing the last of the cloud lift off the Nordkette meant we went up to Hungerburg on the funicular in the afternoon. I made a panoramic short video of the view but stuck my own head into it and later discovered something black had stuck between two of my front teeth during lunch so it only looked like a visit to the dentist was on the cards.

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My mother later did some shopping and I bought Joseph Roth’s Radetzkymarsch in the Tyrolia bookshop. I do like Innsbruck.

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I didn’t care for Graz, a couple of months ago. I can’t speak about Klagenfurt but from what I’ve seen, Graz is the charmless sister of Austrian cities. My mother is really impressed by the river here.

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A lot of Italian can be heard and a surprisingly large number of Spaniards are in town too. A few too many dogs. Canines. I don’t think they’re all local. Why do people travel with dogs? We had a nice lunch on Maria Theresien Strasse and indeed we had a nice dinner in the Goldenes Adler across the bridge quite late this evening but my arms got cold.

12th August, Friday

Raining again this morning. We won’t be visiting anything else before we leave Innsbruck. Killing an hour now before checking out. The flight from Munich is not until 20.20 tonight.

We had trouble finding seats on the train but eventually got into a compartment with two young blondes unknown to each other. When a middle-aged English couple with too much luggage later boarded our carriage and couldn’t find seats, it led to talk in our compartment. These two Brits caused the good-looking girl at the window to roll her eyes at me as she retook her seat after a quick smoke on the platform.

Ja, ich habe gehört,” I said, in reference to hearing the woman loudly laughing and then swearing, down the carriage (“Farking hell… This is farking ridiculous” etc).

Die sind Englander. Wir kommen aus Irland.”

The girl was interested and happy to hear that, as was the gorgeous student with the pigtail and the anatomy book near the door on my mother’s side. She beamed as she closed the book, took off her black-framed reading glasses and asked in German if I’d liked Innsbruck. Having explained that I’d been there before on my own too, I went on to outline the Verona hassle to both of them. They were very sweet and also curious. The one beside me had lovely varnish on her toenails – somewhere between pink and orange – and expensive sandals. The girls were open-mouthed again when I explained that we lived on the south coast and so I’d have to drive 200 km after Dublin Airport.

The girl with the anatomy book got off at Kufstein and sweetly said Auf Wiedersehen not just to us but also to the one beside me, who softly replied with Tschüss. There was a fella in boots on my left who never said anything except a whispered “Fuck” at his phone but he didn’t look like another Englander. He even smiled once or twice, for example when I had to stick my head through the compartment doorway to call back my mother who had walked past after a toilet break.

We got off at Munich Ost and the girl at the window bade me farewell twice as I stood in the corridor with our bags. All the hours in Munich’s maze of an airport weren’t as bad as the endless corridors in Dublin before the passport check. The drive was OK but by the very end of it I was tired and starting to see things. Home at one in the morning.

Juliet’s Curse – Two Nights in Verona (Italy #5)

Juliet’s Curse – Two Nights in Verona (Italy #5)

8th August, Monday

Noon in a park near the station in Bologna. We’re here since half past eleven. We have hours to kill here. It’s hard to believe the next train to Verona is not until half past three. The cicadas are sawing away in the trees. The grass is burnt. A couple of the male pigeons are doing 360° turns to impress the girls. How can we have to wait this long when Verona is only fifty minutes away?

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The arena is bigger than I’d expected, at least from the outside. We had dinner nearby at a hotel restaurant (Torcolo) on Via Cattaneo. The lamb rack and varied veg were nice but there wasn’t any elbow room where we were seated, outside, between the German-speaking couple to my left and the French-speaking pair to my right. We didn’t say much. All the voices were low. Who wants to draw the attention of the neighbours? An assortment of flying insects buzzed my face too. Tomorrow we can can take our time and do Verona properly.

9th August, Tuesday

Juliet’s revenge or Juliet’s curse? We didn’t go to see her bloody balcony but everything was going OK until this afternoon when I paid the bill here with my card. A young Gianna Ten-Thumbs at reception most likely pressed something she shouldn’t have and somehow locked my pin. I had to ring Dublin twice to get that opinion confirmed and then I got on to my brother to provide help for when we get to Innsbruck. She looked like she didn’t know what she was doing and the sweet one (a bit older) had to give some guidance before she was, eh, finished with me. At least I had my receipt but my worries started when I went out then to get some cash. It was all hassle after that. I should have brought more cash.

Late on Tuesday. I have a f*cked credit card and though we still have €327 we’ll be relying on Western Union come Innsbruck. We’d seen a lot this morning. There are lots of tourists here speaking German and French but not a lot of Americans or Asians. Or Brits. We crossed Ponte Pietra below the huge cypresses on the Roman theatre hill.

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That was before I found a café bar with no name on Via S. Rochetto, where we had a couple of great (Pampero) rum and Cokes each – in what looked like jam jars – plus a nice lunch (carbonara for me).

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Then it was time for a rest from the heat, back at the hotel, but I wasn’t feeling particularly tired and therefore fatefully went downstairs to pay up. Immediately afterwards the card wouldn’t work.

I first called Bank of Ireland after we went half-way over the red-brick Ponte Scaligero by the Castelvecchio. It was on that hump-backed bridge that I told my mother I was worried about the card and what was wrong with it. A couple of jazz musicians were hammering away noisily nearby.

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Out on my own later, the first advice from the bank – to try to change the pin at an Italian ATM – proved useless, even at a Barclay’s branch, and I used up the rest of my credit ringing Dublin the second time for confirmation of the bad news. I didn’t realise I’d been gone an hour and a half but at least had got back to the hotel when my mother began texting. I couldn’t answer her otherwise. My brother will replenish my phone too.

10th August, Wednesday

I’d thought I wouldn’t complain online about this but the dismissive attitude of the charmless young woman with the glasses this morning changed my mind. Hotel Siena will get a roasting. The defensive aggression kicked off with her saying it wasn’t nice and it was a serious matter to make such an accusation. I wasn’t accusing anyone of a crime or deliberate wrongdoing. I said it was clearly a mistake but, as she wanted to talk about seriousness, my “Siamo nei guai a causa di questo” (‘We’re in trouble because of this’) was only met with another contemptuous shrug, just like the reaction to the opinion of my bank.

I told them to be careful in case it happened again but didn’t rear up because we still wanted to get the other (nice) one to call us a taxi. It was pissing rain outside. There was lightning last night, in the distance. Early this morning, heavy rain thumped some nearby roof or awning and that woke me at half past six.

Postscript: once I got back home and simply changed the pin code at my bank, the card worked as normal. There was nothing wrong with it that hadn’t happened in Verona.

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Having thus proven there was nothing wrong with the card before or after Verona, I then received a threat of legal action from the hotel proprietor (16/08/16). How much simpler it would have been for her to be polite and sympathetic at the outset, especially as I never asked for any money back nor made threats of any kind.

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Bolero in Bologna… August 2016 (Italy #4)

Bolero in Bologna… August 2016 (Italy #4)

6th August, Saturday

Getting here was free of hassle. Stepping onto the plane, which wasn’t full, I showed two stewardesses my pass and behind me my mother said

“I’m with him.”
“Lucky you,” said Barbara, the chief.
“He’s my son.”

Soon B. came down to us and said we could move forward into an empty row. The taxi to Bologna city centre was seventeen euro and I found the narrow street with the hotel (Albergo delle Drapperie) handily enough on foot. Out on my own come midnight, I wandered around photographing Bologna at night.

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I also discovered the Mercato di Mezzo around the corner is open on Sundays and the nominally Irish pub on Via Zamboni won’t be showing any hurling unless it’s on Sky. There was a lot of Carabinieri out but they weren’t busy. One carload of the Polizia Municipale turned up too, shooting the breeze on Via Rizzoli.

7th August, Sunday

A late goal got Kilkenny a draw with Waterford, who hit the ball wide five times in a row before it. No goal (for us) and we still nearly beat them. Nearly. I was relying on texts from my brother. The result came late this afternoon while we happened to be sitting in a stuffy church, San Giovanni in Monte.

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Hit my knee for the third or fourth time on the knee-high wooden corner of the bed frame that’s hidden by the bedspread. It’s about eight in the evening now. This morning we got a breakfast of sorts in the Mercato di Mezzo and walked down past the Due Torri while the Sunday bells were ringing.

From there we walked Via Zamboni and back before catching a brass band Bolero on Via Rizzoli. It consisted of five musicians, one of whom was a girl with an accordion. They played in a cool spot in one of Bologna’s 38 km of porticoes.

We had lunch around the corner on Via Clavature where the waitress at the Buca San Petronio was a bit of a linguist. I overheard her tell another customer she had spent extended periods in France and Germany. She complimented my Italian, as did a girl in a supermarket, completely unprovoked, after I’d only said a few words and gone “Si” when she mentioned a sacchetto, but though I’m winging it, certain things are bound to make me crash and burn.

A typical scenario involves ordering ice cream. This afternoon I was going well in the Cremeria Funivia on Piazza Cavour, ordering coni and assuming the classic bacio and zabaione were going to be straightforward dollops, that is until the sweet young blonde handed back the change and started talking about the gusti and their combinations. When she saw the look on my face – presumably that of a man who had suddenly lost his hearing – she switched to English and volunteered to make the choices for us. I explained I wasn’t certo about the gusti, even in inglese. I’d be lost after banana, mint, chocolate and vanilla.

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Soldiers were guarding San Petronio today, along with the Carabinieri. That’s how Europe is now, though Bologna seems a very relaxed city. Red Bologna in sight and spirit – near the Buca di San Petronio a busker who looked like Roger Waters (& of similar age) did Working-class Hero in an Italian accent.

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Tonight we dined nicely at Rosarose, again around the corner on Via Clavature. Pullets and roast potatoes and Pinot Grigio. A smattering of salad. A few green leaves. Being Bologna, it wasn’t as plain as it sounds. A nearby Israeli kid nearly hit my mother’s elbow when he yanked a chair but a waiter soon told him to get back in his own seat. The kid and one of his little brothers then blew out their table candle while the parents were paying, inside.

Later I went on my own to the Celtic Druid where one of the barmen felt like talking. He suggested that going to an Irish bar was a comfortable option but I explained it was my way of meeting locals, like him. At first he seemed to think I meant the Florentines when I said Florence was come pieno di insetti. I meant tourists, of whom he wanted more for Bologna, like a poor relation. I left there at one.

8th August, Monday

Noon in a park near the station. We’re here since half past eleven. We have hours to kill here. It’s hard to believe the next train to Verona is not until half past three. The cicadas are sawing away in the trees. The grass is burnt. A couple of the male pigeons are doing 360° turns to impress the girls. I can’t say I’m hungover but I could sleep more. How can we have to wait this long when Verona is only fifty minutes away?

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