The fine art of finding a hostel: II - Genoa, Italy
Russell Degnan

Genoa has been on my mind of late and, inspired by the map making abilities of a friend of mine, it seemed an appropriate place to renew a series badly in need of more than one post. [1]

Genoa is a delightful city, slowly emerging from a reputation as a miserable and dirty port city, into a new role as a miserable and dirty tourist hot-spot. Quite possibly, after Venice, the most important city for the early development of commerce in the Western world, Genoa is close to being the most under-rated place to visit in Italy. Not for too much longer. An outstanding collection of baroque architecture and painting, delightful narrow streets and a spectacular setting nestled where the alps flow into the sea can't stay hidden forever.

I arrived at the Stazione Principe in Genoa relatively early in the morning. The train ride along the coast from Nice is lovely, especially with the sun shining off that very Mediterranean blue. This left me several hours until the reception would open at the hostel, and feeling fit, and somewhat overly energetic (a new country will do that to you), I decided to walk to it, relying only on the hostel map and my wits.

A more formidable challenge than the interpretation of a hostel map, a traveller shall not find. It, or rather, the newer, in fact, worse version of it lies to the right. Note the size of the hostel and the confusing road network. None of this is close to reality, and would be better served by a giant question mark. It does however, have the decency to orientate itself northwards, and while the scale is a little odd, some major landmarks are prominent, such as the station, and the funicular railway.

Hostels are traditionally located on the top of a hill, at the edge of town. Genoa is no exception, though it was sheer luck that it was on the top of the ridge, and not over several ridges. As the day wore on I became less certain that that wasn't the case. The guide says 3km, it means by car, the walk is much less. Though it also says it is north of the city centre, when it is actually north-west. However, the map accurately depicts the hostel as north from the station, so it has that in its favour.

Getting there by bus is quite simple. You get on the bus, follow it to the end, then get off. You don't even need the local bus patrons to direct you to your stop, as no less than five of them did when I was in Marseille (friendly town). Walking though, is a little more complex. I had assumed, that if all I did was continue walking northwards, and upwards, that eventually I would find the Via Costanzi. This assumption was not entirely accurate.

The mistake I made, I made very early. Having found my way along the mostly flat section near the station I decided I didn't particularly want to walk up the winding streets when there were such conveniently placed stairs available. The Unfortunately taking them also took me off bus route 40; hitherto my only guide to general direction. It was not much of a mistake, and if I'd known where I was going, I am sure I could have found my way to the hostel without an issue. But a mistake it was. I got very lost.

On the Via Sant'Ugo one comes across a church. The hostel lies at the top of the gully this church lies near the bottom of. If you take the stairs from the church a series of staircases, one after the other, with just a few walks between takes you right to the hostel. I took the other set of stairs, to the right, then, in a series of misguided turns, somehow ended up on the other side of the spur, and hence nowhere near where I wanted to be.

I am not sure how many stairs I climbed in those few hours, but I learnt some words. "Salita" means stair-case, that was easy enough. "Non-passegio" means that you'll have to climb a couple of hundred stairs, to find someone's front door and a barking dog, then take an equally long climb down. I was very fit then. I was very very fit by the time I got to the top.

Climbing, and more climbing. Once I sought directions without success, but never once did I find any street marked on the ridiculous hostel map. They may exist, but they may as well have not been marked. If you keep going up for long enough though, you'll reach the top of the ridge. The view is quite spectacular.

By this stage, having drifted north-east, I was quite close to the funicular, or the top of it anyway. This was good, it meant two things, that the hostel was somewhere to my left, and the road to it, somewhere in the general vicinity. But where? And would I find a map in the ostensibly tourist orientated cable car service? No idea, and no.

The street the hostel lies on, Via Costanzi is quite near there, but has not one, but two (!) name changes before it becomes the street you want. Now somewhat tired, at the top of the hill, but otherwise short of ideas, I was still milling about the funicular plotting my next move when a man with family in tow, asked if I was looking for the hostel.

Of course I was. Why else would I be lugging 30kg of backpack to the top of the hill? I was only about 500 metres from where I needed to be, but help is help. The man from Blackburn became as indispensible as the Mexican chap who helped in Luxembourg, and all's well that ends well.

But back to the church. There is another interesting fact about this route, and that is if you wait for the bus to pass you, then run up the stairs, it will go past you again at the top. It will do it again after the next stair-case, and the next, all the way to the hostel. Shirkers need not read further. There are just under one thousand steps from the railway station to the hostel entrance, the major, prettily landcaped ones are shown at right -- the final one is particularly difficult. If you are feeling energetic I highly recommend the race, it is good fun, and when you reach the top you can pant out to the bemused hostel staff:

Hi... *puff* ... I ... *puff* ... one sec ... *puff* ... need ... *puff* ... the key ... *puff* ... to ... *puff* ... my ... *puff* ... room..

A hostel worth going to for the view alone. The first photo shows why. Note the railway is at sea level.

[1] Though not near so much as this one!

Days Spent Away 14th August, 2006 23:26:13   [#] [1 comment] 

A Trichotomy of Tourism: The Lost
Russell Degnan

Assignments pending, and not particularly inspired to blog right now. Next week will be worse, the week after much much better. Also see The Crazy and the The Dumb

Uncultured, unlettered and uncivilised, but learning.

If one wanted to talk to a tourist, and it does have its benefits, then one should always aim to find one who is lost. Where the dumb tourist treats the local resident as an artifact for study, and the crazy tourist has no wish to speak to locals not interested in potentially killing him; the lost tourist is generally happy to speak to anyone, happy to let what turns up turn up, and happy to seek advice on what place best offers them the opportunity to see a lot without terribly much effort. If only they could speak to the locals to ask!

They seem relaxed, because the lost tourist has no plans, no aims, no goals, and a seemingly unlimited time to achieve all those things. For the dumb tourist, the guidebook is the bible that tells them what they ought to be seeing; for the lost tourist it is a security blanket, in case that street over there turns up nothing, or for when they accidentally fall off the narrow path beaten by a thousand passing backpacks.

And yet, by themselves, the lost tourist is basically a useless filler of town squares, cafes, train stations and hostel beds. They are so perennially broke, living for the most part, on bread, chocolate and as much alcohol as they can suffer from the cheapest dive any of them has found; and staying at the houses of friends or just met acquaintances whenever, or wherever they can find them; that the only economic losers if they were to disappear completely would be the hostels and the Canadian flag sticker and patch industry. While their knowledge of what they might see is generally hopelessly misinformed, lacking in any reason to want to see it, apart from it being there, and them being in the general vicinity.

Sure, they know about the Spanish Steps, on which they will happily pronounce that they are, in fact, as you'd expect: steps. And they'll stumble over the Colloseum, the Pantheon, the Vatican, and, with a bit of luck, the Trevi Fountain. But otherwise their local experience is limited to the personal and the inane: the street they found the internet cafe on, or the only cheap food in an otherwise helishly expensive tourist hotspot. Until that is, that they find the fabulously unexpected.

Because, taken together, the lost tourist is no longer an aimless vagabond of uninteresting facts about otherwise extraordinary places. Together they are part of a massive network of quirky and unusual places, events, activities and people, that have been dutifully passed on in the grand oral culture that is the hostel common area. Find a place with a decent kitchen and you'll meet twenty people all ready to chat, and if you're lucky, to share a meal.

The lost tourist, after all, is a contradiction. They want to see and find things, to experience culture, to chat with locals, and learn a little history. But they don't want to be constrained by those things in their quest for aimless self-discovery. While this information is in the guidebook, on the internet, or at some forgotten tourist information bureau, to consult them is to admit that they have a plan, when really they don't. Instead, their fellow lost tourist carries the burden of knowledge. They are all lost together.

During the off-season, when half of them will be Australian, and most of the rest Canadian -- who, for reasons I've never been able to determine always travel in pairs and are obsessed with card games -- the chat is a never ending narrative on where you've been, what you've seen, and what you hope to see next. The humblest visitor to Avignon becomes an expert on Papal politics during the Great Schism; to Antwerp on the history of printing during the Dutch revolt; and to Prague, the cheapest and best way to fall over and dump your guts into the gutter.

Which is not to say there is one true way to travel as a tourist [1]. I, obviously, am proudly lost, having equally proudly left my guidebook at home, flaunting my lack of excessive book baggage to anyone willing to ask for one. Being crazy is fun too, and there is much to be said for visiting some of the more important cultural landmarks directly, instead of merely stumbling across a crowd of people and a vaguely familar building. But lost is where I like to be, as it appeals to the inner spirit; an inner spirit that says "I don't like to plan anything properly". And what better way to travel than that?

[1] There is of course the unusual idea of travelling to have a holiday, and even a little lie down. But they are not tourists.

Days Spent Away 3rd June, 2006 03:11:35   [#] [2 comments] 

Things I Wish I`d Said (1)
Russell Degnan

Did you report this as lost?

While travelling, like in real-life there are dozens of things you would, in retrospect, have said, given your chance to make amends: "No Salt", "How much?", "Hi", "Do you take bookings?", "Yes, I will be here tonight". But the winner for me, hands down, was the one above.

It all started when I lost my passport. That in itself is not suprising, I lose many things: keys, addresses, mobile phones, my sense of where a sentence is going. But to lose a passport is a pretty bad feeling. Even apart from the sheer stupidity, there is the sense of lost identity, the small matter of having to get it re-issued, the fact that you are effectively unable to leave the country you are in, and are probably now there illegally to boot. It isn't a "No worries" moment like say, falling out of train; people with the ability to do bad things to you take these things seriously.

I lost mine in Kings Cross Station, three days after arriving in London, and one day after I'd learnt that someone had bilked my credit card for $2000AUS. It wasn't exactly turning into a good week. I knew where I'd lost it because that was the only time I'd taken it from my bag (and the reason it later attached itself to my neck instead). But I didn't find out till that evening.

Needless to say I slept like a baby. In that I didn't and I was up at 6am to go down to the lost property office. The guy there was very helpful.

Me: Excuse me, Did you find a brown leather satchel? It has my passport in it.

Him: You need to pay two pounds to get it back.

Me: I need to go to the bank first. But you have it right?

Him: Yes, we have it. But you can't have it back till you pay two pounds.

Sweet relief then. Well, five minutes later anyway. And all's well that ends well, as they say, except I didn't ask him one thing:

Did you report this as lost?

Let me explain. I crossed into Belgium on the sea-cat (rough trip) on September 4th 2001. These were happier times, when you could joke with American customs officials about their silly questions, and they'd tell you how they harass old ladies who say, "Oh, no, my husband packed my bags".

But I got the third degree from the Belgians. He took my passport, ran it up on the computer, then flicked through it a few times. There isn't much to look at. Then he asked me about the Dutch work permit that wasn't valid till October,

You are going to work there?

Yes, but not till October. I am on holiday now

Grumbles, then a chit chat with his fellow official. More grumbles, then, an abrupt shake of the shoulders, and a stamp.

Well, wasn't that fun. Touchy, these Europeans.

Because of the wonders of the Schengen system the next time I used my passport was going back into England, which was a breeze (as far as I remember, it was 4am); followed that evening by a flight out of Heathrow. Needless to say, security had been increased since I'd come in. But even so, the official was a little odd. Like the Belgians, he ran it through, then flicked through it. Then went and talked to his friend, more muttering and grumbling and checking of my photo, before he comes back.

Me: Is there a problem?

Him: No, no problem.


Yeah, no problem at all. Thanks for your help. After two days of flying and no sleep for closer to four, I stumbled into the Tullamarine customs desk, gave the customs official my passport and was told.

Could you go sit over there please?

Well, this is a little... unusual.

While I sat on a hard, clean, plastic seat next to a very irritated Arab-American, a couple of officials perused my passport. They flick, they look at me. More flicking, more looking. And a fairly earnest discussion as well. After about five minutes then came over to talk to me.

Russell, did you lose your passport while you were overseas?

Ah, no.

Well, the computer says your passport is lost.

Oh wait, yes, in London, at Kings Cross. But I got it back the next day.

It is flagged as lost. You need to go to the Dept. of Immigration and get it changed.

And that was that. No anal probes. But a bit too close to one for my liking. So, just so you all know. Having a passport flagged as lost tends to make you less trustworthy. And that isn't a good thing.

Days Spent Away 18th March, 2006 13:06:52   [#] [0 comments] 

Gallerie dell`Accademia, Venezia
Russell Degnan

Strictly speaking, the Accademia is, for the most part, a regional gallery, since very few of its works come from outside the Venetian lagoon. But when your region is as brilliant and creative as any in Western art then your regional gallery tends to be pretty damn good.

There are so many paintings I could pick as a favourite here: the Tempest by the brilliant Giorgione, who, like Leonardo, realised the best way to get a reputation is to produce very little but look clever doing it; Carpaccio's amazing series on the martydom of St. Ursula; the Venetian religious ceremonies by Gentile Bellini and Lazzaro Bastiani; or any number by Titian, Tintoretto, or Vivarini, who does an excellent St. Jerome. Or I could pick something random from the fine examples of 17th and 18th century painting from when Venetian art went to pot.

But if I was to pick a favourite I would have to choose a work that, by its very size, I'd normally dismiss, but in this case love, by virtue of its fascinating and very funny history:

Feast in the House of Levi
Paolo Veronese, 1571

When I last posted one of these, Jon and I had a lively dicussion on representations in the work in question. Veronese's work, covering an entire wall in impeccable detail, is full of figures representing some or other biblical figure, or some other aspect of symbolism. Except, as will be shortly demonstrated, a good portion of them are there by accident.

For you see, in 1573 Veronese was hauled before the inquisition, to explain his blasphemous painting of the Last Supper. What become very clear is that while the 45 year old Paolo may be an early, if intimidated, advocate of freedom of artistic expression, he was no scholar. He didn't know the difference between the Supper of the Magdalen in the house of Simon the Pharisee, and the Last Supper. He got the apostles right, but accidentally turned a quiet reflective supper into a raging party. But no matter, the inquisitors sorted him out, and here (in full), is the result: [1]

Saturday 18 July 1573
Master Paulo Caliari, painter, dwelling in the parish of San Samuele, was arraigned in the Holy Office before the sacred tribunal.
   Asked his name and surname he answered as above.
   Asked his occupation he answered, 'I paint and make figures.'
   Said to him, 'Do you know why you are brought before us?'
   He answered, 'No, my lords.'
   Said to him, 'Can you imagine why?'
   He answered, 'I can well imagine why.'
   Said to him, 'Say what you imagine'
   He answered, 'On account of what was said to me by the reverend fathers, or rather by the Prior of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, whose name I do not know, for he told me that he had been here, and you lordships had instructed him to have the figure of the Magdalen inserted in the place where there is now a dog. I answered him that I would willingly have done that and more for my own honour and that of the picture. But I did not think that the Magdalen would be suitable, for many reasons which I will state whenever I am given the opportunity.'
   Said to him, 'To what picture do you refer?'
   He answered, 'To a painting of the Last Supper that Jesus Christ took with his apostles in the house of Simeon.'
   Said to him, 'Where is this painting?'
   He answered, 'In the refectory of the friars of Santi Giovanni e Paolo.'
   Said to him, 'Is it on the wall, or on wood, or on canvas?'
   He answered, 'On canvas.'
   Said to him, 'How high is it?'
   He answered, 'Perhaps 17 feet.'
   Said to him, 'How wide is it?'
   He answered, 'Some 39 feet.'
   Said to him, 'On this Lord's Supper, did you depict and servants?'
   He answered, 'Yes, my lord.'
   Said to him, 'Say how many servants there are, and tell us what each of them is doing.'
   He answered, 'There is the master of the house, Simon [sic], and below this figure I have also put a steward, and have made it look as though he has come for his own entertainment to see how the feast is going.'
   He then added, 'There are many figures which I cannot recall, for it is a long time since I put up the picture.'
   Said to him, 'Have you painted any Suppers other than this one?'
   He answered, 'Yes, my lords.'
   Said to him, 'How many have you painted, and in what places?'
   He answered, 'I did one in Verona, for the reverend monks of San Lazzaro; it is in their refectory.'
   He said, 'I did one in the refectory of the reverend fathers of San Giorgio, here in Venice'
   Said to him, 'That is no Supper, and it is not called, "The Lord's Supper"' [it was a Marriage of Cana]
   He answered, 'I did one in the refectory of the Servites of Venice, and another in the refectory of San Sebastiano, here in Venice. [both were Suppers of the Magdalen]. And I did one in Padua, for the fathers of the Maddalena. I do not recall having painted any others.'
   Said to him, 'In this Supper which you painted in Santi Giovanni e Paolo, what is the meaning of the painting of the man with a bleeding nose?'
   He answered, 'I meant him to be a servant whose nose is bleeding on account of some mishap.'
   Said to him, 'What is the meaning of those armed men, dressed in the German style, each with a halberd in his hand?'
   He answered, 'I must say a few words here.'
   He was told to say them.
   He answered, 'We painters have take the same license as do poets and madmen and so I made those two halberdiers, one of them drinking and the other eating, next to a blind staircase, and they were put there to be ready to perform some task, for I thought it fitting that the owner of the house (who, as I have been told, was a great and rich man) should have such servants.'
   Said to him, 'And that man dressed as a clown, with a parrot on his fist, for what purpose did you paint him on the canvas?'
   He answered, 'for ornament, as one does.'
   Said to him, 'Who are at the Lord's table?'
   He answered, 'The twelve apostles.'
   Said to him, 'Do you know St. Peter who is the first to carve up the lamb? What is St Peter, the first of them, doing?'
   He answered, 'Dividing the lamb, to give it to the other head of the table.'
   Said to him, 'What is the one next to him doing?'
   He answered, 'He has a plate, ready to receive what St. Peter is about to give him.'
   Said to him, 'Explain what the next one is doing.'
   He answered, 'There is a man who has a fork, and is attending to his teeth.'
   Said to him, 'Who do you think was really present at that supper?'
   He answered, 'I believe that Christ and his apostles were present. But if there is space left over in the picture I decorate it with figures as I am instructed of my own invention.'
   Said to him, 'Did anyone commission you to paint Germans and clowns and the like in that picture?'
   He answered, 'No my lords; my commission was to adorn that picture as I saw fit, for it is large and can include many figures, or so I thought.'
   It was said to him, 'When you, the painter, add decorations to your pictures, is it your habit to make them appropriate to the subject and to proportion them to the principal figures, or do you really do as the fancy takes you, without using any discretion or judgement?'
   He answered, 'I make the pictures after proper reflection, within the limits of my understanding.'
   He was asked, 'Did he think it proper to depict at the Lord's last supper clowns, drunkards, Germans, weapons, dwarfs, and other lewd things?'
   He answered, 'No, my lords.'
   He was asked, 'Why, then, did you paint them?'
   He answered, 'I did them on the understanding that they are not within the place where the supper is being held.'
   Said to him, 'Do you not know that in Germany and other places infected with heresy they are accustomed, by means of outlandish paintings full of indecencies and similar devices, to abuse, mock, and pour scorn on the things of the Holy Catholic Church, in order to teach false doctrine to foolish and ignorant people?'
   He answered, 'I agree, my lord, that it is bad; but I must say again that I am obliged to follow my predecessors.'
   Said to him, 'What did your predecessors do? Did they do anything like this?'
   He answered, 'In Rome Michelangelo, in the papal chapel, depicted Our Lord Jesus Christ, his mother and St. John, St. Peter and the heavenly court, all of them (after the Virgin Mary) naked, in various attitudes, and with little reverence.'
   Said to him, 'Surely you know that it is not to be supposed that there will be clothes or such things at the Last Judgement, and so there was no call to paint clothing, and in that painting everything is of the spirit -- there are no jesters, no dogs, no weapons, no frivolities of that nature. On the strength of this or any other example, do you think that you did well to paint this picture as it now stands, and do you wish to maintain that it is seemly and in good order?'
   He answered, 'Most noble lord, no, I do not wish to defend it. But I did think I was doing right. And I did not think of such important things. I thought I was doing nothing wrong, especially because those jesters are not in the place where Our Lord is.'
   After which their lordships determined that Master Paolo should be compelled to correct and amend the picture considered at this session so that it becomes suitable for the Lord's last supper, as the Holy Office sees fit, within the space of three months, this correction to be carried out at the discretion of the Holy Office, at his expense, and under threat of penalties to be imposed by the Holy Office. And so they decreed with all propriety.

Which is how it came to be known as the Feast in the House of Levi instead of The Last Supper, that being easier than removing a dozen figures. And it is a great picture, that never fails to make me chuckle when I see its German halberdiers.

[1] Taken from "Venice: A Documentary History 1450-1630" by Chambers and Pullan. Struck out words are in the original transcript

Days Spent Away 9th February, 2006 16:48:58   [#] [0 comments] 

A Trichotomy of Tourism: The Crazy
Russell Degnan

What do you mean, 'I've left this a long time', it's only been 14 months! Previous edition here.

Venturesome and disdainful, with heavy boots and a tendency to appear anywhere.

If the dumb tourist can be expected at the world's most famous spot, then the insane tourist can be depended on not to be -- except in disguise. When the Lonely Planet describes something as "a must-see destination" the crazy tourist reads it as "over-crowded, over-rated and commercialised". Not that you would ever see them with a Lonely Planet.

If they did have a guidebook, it would be a Baedeker from 1837. If they deigned to bother with a map of Rome, it would pre-date Sixtus V's urban renewal program. Accomodation is only necessary when it rains or snows, as they prefer the side of roads, railway stations and the comfortable homes of random strangers.

Because for the crazy tourist, everything is an adventure, and anything that isn't has leached the fun out of it. If they do arrive in a hostel -- always prepared with an excuse for preferring such luxuries -- they are easy to spot. Their boots will be rugged, and their stories equally so. The crazy tourist never arrives anywhere by such traditional commodes as a train, or bus, and if they do they never admit it. They have always hitch-hiked in the back of a van with Columbian drug-runners, ridden their bike two thousand miles, swum the North Sea, walked through rivers, climbed over passes, rowed down creeks, or otherwise tried to risk life or limb.

For some reason they are more often German, but Americans are prevalent too -- desperate to be seen as anything but dumb. No matter who they are, their brief stays in more comfortable surroundings brings out their social side. The crazy tourist will have learnt everything on their travels, and wants to tell you. Wants to help you. Because you have missed the point of travel, by staying where other people stay, and seeing things other people see.

Each of them a born story-teller. Yet, like Don Quixote, they seem to have imbibed too many heroic tales, and rush to replicate them whenever they can. The travelling experience they get is as fake as any other, but what a narrative! Every day is a tale of triumph and woe, as they pull the strings on the puppet show of their life to act out the play they wish it was. Each foray into the world inhabited by the lost tourist leaves behind a string of bards, each beginning their tale with "I met this guy in..."

And yet -- also like Don Quixote -- the crazy tourist wants to inhabit a world that no longer exists. Although they aren't blind to globalisation, they seek to reject it. They don't want to see the rest of the world as like their own country -- full of office-workers and chain stores -- so they dig under the skin of every place, complaining when they can't make it bleed, and always moving to somewhere where they can. Eastern Europe was a god-send for a while, but eventually it too will go, sending the crazy tourist back to either nature or the third world.

Nevertheless, the ephemeral impression they leave on others they meet on their travels has left one thing changed. The people that heard their crazy stories got jealous of the adventure, if not the pain of finding it. And so was birthed adventure holidays: crazy tourism for the dumb and lost. Unless they've sold out to run it, you won't find the true crazies there though.

[1] And it is always a guy.

Days Spent Away 7th February, 2006 21:29:35   [#] [0 comments] 

Somewhat belated
Russell Degnan

Now that various commitments are behind me, I've found my way to Canberra, and this gentleman's couch. Next week I'll be in Sydney on the couch of a non-blogger (luddite). Till then blogging will be either light or heavy, depending on circumstance.

Notes (mostly art-related) from the trip up:

- A microsleep will kill you, but a powernap save lives.

- Dark roads with lots of gnarled, over-hanging, gum-trees and not much else are very Bill Henson.

- The heavy rains through north-east Victoria have caused a rare outbreak of green in the gum trees as they store up water. Very John Glover.

- It is amazing how quickly the roads deteriorate once you enter New South Wales. And how much better they get when you start pointing the car towards our nation's capital.

- The Kosciuszko National Park's attempts to stop rocks from falling on visitors through the widespread use of chicken wire are very Christo.

- Dark clouds, a little mist and some dead burnt out trees made the trip out of Thredbo somewhat eerie.

- There was an equally cool view of rain coming out of the mountains across Lake Jindabyne. Unfortunately, no lookout, and no photo.

Days Spent Away 2nd December, 2005 17:27:31   [#] [4 comments] 

Russell Degnan

The rubbish bin had a nice tone, a deeply satisfying sound that resonated across the small intersection while it rattled on its hinges. It had presented itself at the perfect moment. Three of Antwerp's twisting narrow streets converged onto a small raised roundabout; barely big enough to fit a park bench, the city authorities had instead left a single, round rubbish bin, of traditional height, width and colour in the middle, and left it at that. A single street light sat above it. Designed primarily to stop cars accidientally using it as a speed-hump, it served to illuminate it like a stage-prop from one of those univeristy productions where everything had to be scavenged from the performers' lounge rooms.

I arrived at it despondent, but the emotional slide had taken longer than the walk from a little Turkish Cafe to the bin.

I hadn't really followed football (soccer) until the early 1990s, and so the first time I saw Australia fall at the final hurdle of World Cup qualification was not particularly crushing. That year we played Argentina, and noone seemed to think the talented but inexperienced team would stand a chance against Maradona by himself, let alone his illustrious team-mates. We didn't, but years later an Argentinian told me how big a fright we gave them.

The next time round was completely different: star-players, star manager, and a star stadium with a big crowd. Half the country was introduced to the tragi-comedy that is Australian football that night. Football games are decided by little things, so it is always possible to lose even if you don't deserve to. But many. many little things went against Australia that night in Melbourne. If Argentina was fate, Iran was farce. Ultimately though, the result was the same.

Uruguay was different again; more professional in approach; more realistic in what was expected. But I wasn't in Australia to see it. During the first game I was in Milan. I knew what television station it was on; I knew what time it was on; but finding a cafe/pub/something was more difficult than you'd think. Friendly Italians wished me luck but couldn't help me. After an hour or so I gave up and went about town instead. I had managed to miss the only final-hurdle qualifying victory Australia has achieved since we beat Hong Kong in October 1977, but at least we'd won. Two days later, the Australian hostellers in Den Haag told me all about it, having watched it as a large and rowdy group.

For the away leg I found myself in Antwerp, where I was crashing on my Latvian friend G's floor. With assignments for university due, and my promise to help later, he left me in the Turkish cafe to the bemusement of the regular customers. They helpfully found me the game on television just as it started, so I settled in, sipped a drink, and watched. It wasn't until Kewell missed on the volley in the second half that one of them asked if it was "no good?".

"No", I responded, trying not to tear my eyes away from the little box above the bar, "no good, we need a goal".

When G returned with five minutes to go we still needed just one goal. We went close, as usual, but as time ticked out we sudenly needed more than that. G swore at the same time I did. It was over for another four years.

On the way back to G's place we came across the rubbish bin. It seemed to have been placed there specially to be kicked, as if someone knew I'd be passing, and knew I'd need an object for that very purpose. I wanted to do so the second I saw it, thirty metres away. Only decorum prevented me from running at it. As I got nearer another thought intruded. I paused, briefly, to check that no stern European authority figures were there to complain. Then, satisfied, and with two steps, I booted it as cleanly and as hard as any ball had been in the match.

"Feel better?" asked G.

"No, no I don't". But I did, at least a little.

Days Spent Away 12th November, 2005 09:22:05   [#] [0 comments] 

Schelling`s Meeting Place Problem and Paris
Russell Degnan

Discussion being what they are, a post by John Quiggin on Thursday related to game theory, diverged the next day into a discussion on Schelling's meeting place problem. Stated simply:

"You are told to meet someone in a city (New York?) on a particular day, but not told a time or a place. They are told the same information. Where and when do you go?"

A fascinating problem, much loved by theorists, but so much more fascinating when you actually have to solve it yourself.

I came across it in Paris. A friend of mine from Phoenix, Arizona was travelling on a tour through Europe. We had met once before, but details of what she looked like were a little bit hazy. I was also travelling, but slower, and without purpose. She was to be in Paris on the 5th October, and so we agreed to meet up on that day; place and time to be decided when we'd know, but probably in the afternoon. I arrived on th 2nd, and emailed her a contact number for the hostel I was at.

On the 4th, when I should have been in my room waiting for a phone call I was talking to some other fellow travellers. I missed the call, but a message and number was left. However, when I called the following morning she had gone.

Hence the meeting place problem. I resolved to check my email later in the morning, but hadn't managed it by the time I found her.

I won't tell you where and when directly. The answer is available on Stacy's old diary here. Needless to say, empirical evidence would suggest that Schelling was right.*

* Strictly speaking this isn't a correct comparison, because only one of us was looking, and merely happened to guess right, but the guess did conform to what Schelling suggested was the best guess.

Days Spent Away 15th October, 2005 12:27:59   [#] [2 comments] 

La Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna
Russell Degnan

My mother tells a story about my first trip to the Louvre when I was 6, and how I raced through each room well ahead of my parents before coming back to tell them which painting I liked in each room, one by one. Nothing much has changed. I still saunter through galleries at a reasonable pace, looking for works that grab my attention, and ignoring the ones I don't. However, because many of these visits may in fact be my only visit I like to do a second trip, to acknowledge each work in the gallery to make sure I have seen it, pausing again on the works that I really liked. Finally, when there is time, I do a third run through, to take one last look at the ones that I like. Sometimes they are famous, sometimes they are not.

This new series [1] is about those works.

Needless to say, this technique works better in small regional galleries (and exhibitions) than large, impressive ones. Doing a quick run around the Louvre is an exercise in masochism, particularly given the quality. And so my first post is dedicated to one of the outstanding examples of regionalism: La Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna.

This is a good gallery by any standards really. It is quite old, dating to the late 18th century, and having no works past that date, but many good ones from the four centuries preceding it. But it is still a regional one, with a strong emphasis on Bolognese art and no pretensions about its attraction to international tourists -- at least that's why I think none of the ushers spoke English.

Almost hidden amongst all the large and impressive works however, was this one:

Madonna del passero

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri detto il Guercino, 1615

It is not a large painting at only 58cm wide; is strangely weighted to the left in the triangle between the two sets of eyes and the object of their attention. But the realism and themes make up for any other flaws.

The mother and child are common enough in Italian art; the sparrow is rarer. Normally representative of God's love for small creatures and therefore the meek and humble; here it seems to serve merely as a convenient object of attention. But a beautifully rendered one, perched on the madonna's equally well drawn fingers.

She on the other hand, is clearly from the post Caravaggian era of real people. Instead of the beatific mother of the Lord her dishevelled hair and tired, but young, face gives the impression that the mother of the Lord was up all night listening to him cry.

There is no doubt what the best aspect of the painting is though. The contemporary mannerist child was a bloated god-creature, ugly and unrealistic. Il Guercino's child is the perfect emodiment of humanist ideals. His little hand grasps at his mother's clothing for balance and protection, the other arm tensed and looking to reach out. The face of the child is focused and curious, seeking knowledge; not to be lauded as a innocent, but to learn and to be taught. His mother's actions show the parental role, protecting him from falling with one hand and guiding with the other.

If the mother looks like she is occasionally harried, this painting captures a moment of serentity; of peace. The religious symbolism gives way to the simplicity of a mother's love and a child's curiosity. I don't think I've ever seen a painting express the sentiment better.

[1] New readers of this blog might note that a fair proportion of my posts are made up of unfinished and neglected posting series. I will get to them... eventually.

Days Spent Away 6th October, 2005 17:42:11   [#] [4 comments] 

The fine art of finding a hostel: I - Namur, Belgium
Russell Degnan

If there is ever a time when having a rough idea how different cities are laid out and a good sense of navigation is useful, then finding your preferred place of accommodation in a city you just arrived in is surely one.

Namur, lying at the conjunction of the Meuse and Sambre Rivers in Wallonia, Belgium is not a large city, nor even an especially interesting one, but it has its merits. Most impressively, it is dominated by the citadel on the hill and by mist. The two together make for an intriguing mix of oppression and romanticism that left me in a daze for my entire visit.

But when I arrived I had a more difficult task. It was late afternoon, as I'd come down from Amsterdam, and had (deliberately) left my guidebook (which had a map) at a friend's house. Instead, I was relying on a very rough memory of what the other map said, which was worse than useless, and a truly awful map from the Hostel guidebook, faithfully retained to this day, and reproduced at right.

Those of you who clicked on the first link will immediately recognise some of the problems with this map: it is not really orientated to the north (at least not consistently); it has no scale and is in any case, stylistic with inaccurate distances; it marks only one street, and one bridge; it doesn't show the railway station, and worst of all, depicts the rivers at right angles when they are not even remotely close to that orientation (the Meuse runs straight for a start).

So what to do?

Where the city centre was in relation to the railway station was not clear, but I was reasonably certain the river would be at the bottom of the hill I was on. I'd have been remarkably surprised if it wasn't in fact. I made my way down, each step taking me further under the looming side of the mountain atop the citadel sits.

The problem was, I had no idea whether I was approaching the Meuse, or the Sambre. The bridges should be a clue, but aren't, because not all of them are depicted on the hostel map and the width of the citadel as I approached it seemed to indicate I was approaching from the wider Meuse side -- when actually it lies along both rivers.

Having reached the river, I figured that I should walk downstream, hoping to find the confluence where I could orientate myself. Fortunately, this too led me directly to where I needed to go. After spending a few minutes looking at available landmarks, I felt reasonably sure I knew which river was which, and chose the road that led upstream of the Meuse. But how far?

The hostel guide said 3km from the station, but if anyone trusts those figures I have a bridge I'd like to sell you. They are often out by whole factors. So, off I trudged, with the citadel on my left, for a goodly distance, before I finally reached the bridge. It is a very nice bridge as can be seen from the picture below. It does not, however, face onto the Casino.

The casino is further, near the Avenue Felicien Rops [1] from which there is a very substantial walk to the hostel. And I mean a substantial walk - see the lights on the dam upstream of the bridge? It is past that.

But being lost is no longer an issue, even if being crushed by the weight of your backpack is; because all along this avenue live people who regularly see lost backpackers, trudging to their destination, but without any clear indication of where it might be. And they are very helpful and friendly, waving you along like spectators at Le Tour. For a while, the sun even came out. Just for a brief moment. It is Belgium after all.

[1] The museum to Felicien Rops is also in Namur and worth a visit.

Days Spent Away 30th July, 2005 00:50:26   [#] [1 comment] 

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