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Chopped Liver and Klezmer- a week in freezing Krakow (or is it Cracow?)

This post comes with a consumer warning- this trip was not our usual happy jaunt to foreign climes, to savour native cultures and escape our everyday life. I thought it might be that, but once the visit to Auschwitz materialized on the itinerary, everything changed.

It all started when (like many other fellow Israelis) we happened upon appealingly cheap flights to Poland. I knew nothing of Gdansk, or Poznan, but I knew that Warsaw was flattened during WWII and rebuilt, but that Krakow remained mostly intact. I like old European cities, so  chose Krakow over Warsaw- the shopping mecca of the modern Israeli. I looked up what there was to do in Krakow and basically there were three things: the Medieval Town centre, the Jewish Quarter of Kazimeirz and the Ghetto and a visit to the Salt Mines. But every tourist website I explored offered a day trip to Auschwitz Birkenau. Okay, clearly if you are going to Krakow for a week, that has to be on the itinerary. I know that most Israeli school high kids get taken there but I had never really thought about what a trip to that terrible place would mean to me as an Israeli and a Jew, and as a human being. It just didn’t seem right to be in Krakow and not make that trip. We had visited the Killing Fields in Cambodia, and the American war Museum in Saigon, and also the DMZ in Korea. It was time to face our own history.

Therefore, this blog will be ( as befits a week before Pessach) different from all (my) other blogs, and the content may be heavy. You have been warned.

The flight ( Ryanairm arriving  at a horrible 23.59 )was enhanced by a chat with a Polish journalist called Anton who is now my Facebook friend and will hopefully be visiting us in December. On arrival,  fortunately our Ryanair transfer guy was waiting at the airport to take us the 30 minute drive to the Jewish district of Kazimierz, where we stayed at the comfy but slightly worn Kazimierz II hotel.

The staff were still there as promised and we quickly got ensconced in our room. The next morning after a hearty complementary brekky (brazenly UNKOSHER) we set off to explore the centre of old Krakow. We tried to join a free walking tour, but that did not depart, as there were not enough people. So we made our own  way through winding cobbled streets to Wawel castle to tour by ourselves. There we chanced upon a different free walking tour company and joined the end of their tour. We didn’t actually enter the castle because the first available tour involved a 2 hour wait. In any case it didn’t look like Versailles. The free guide was good and so I noted that his company (called Walkative) had other tours including one of Jewish Krakow, and the guide said that their tours went in all weather and regardless of the number of participants. We had a lovely cappuchino and chocky cake in the old city and went home for a rest. We had dinner in the Jewish quarter near the hotel at a very excellent restaurant  Kuchina Domowa ,that was exceedingly tasty and cheap, like many restaurants in Krakow. We at first went in to the one next door, Sasiedzi, which had been recommended to us by some girls at the hotel, as appearing in the Michelin guide, and which boasted Hebrew over the doorway. But it was more expensive and fancy looking and we were very satisfied with the one we chose. In the evening we went to a meeting of Couchsurfers in a pub called The Legend, which was a bit hard to find. The event was fun and we talked to people from Italy and Spain as well as local Krakovians.

Next day we did some more exploring around the main square downtown, including the famous medieval Cloth Market, and the streets around it including St Mary’s  Basilica and the Jagiellonian University building. In the evening we went to a lovely concert of Chopin music in the Chopin Gallery.

Next day we took an organized tour to the Wieliczka Salt mines just outside Krakow. I was a bit apprehensive about this as I had heard there were 800 steps down, but in the event, despite having a problem knee that morning I managed to do it slowly and surely.

The steps were not steep, well lit and with a handrail all the way. The guided tour including bus pickup cost 120 zloti per person and an earpiece so that you could hear the guide (Konrad- “Konrad’s group please join, please follow”)  and it  was very interesting. The statues carved out of salt with the chandeliers of salt crystals were great, and the pièce de résistance, the huge chapel at the end of the tour was staggering. Apparently locals can hire it for weddings and other events. There are also a bar  and restaurant down in the mines.

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St Kinga’s Chapel, Salt mine ( wikpedia Image)

 

Next day we took a free walking tour of the Jewish neighbourhood Kazimierz and its synagogues with Walkative. The tour began right by our hotel  in front of the Old Synagogue    and continued to the other places connected to the Jewish life of that neighbourhood which was completely wiped out in the Holocaust. This was where the trip started getting very weird. I continually felt that vast amounts of money are now being made on the backs of a whole community that has been totally  eradicated. Everywhere there are bars and restaurants, profiting from displaying Stars of David and Menorahs, and by selling gefilte fish and chopped liver. Everywhere you see posters for Klezmer music being played by non Jews (cultural appropriation?) The place was thronging with tourists. Poland is cheap, and the beer is plentiful. Of course this is all completely natural  but somehow it felt jarring. For example, from the free tourist map I was given:

Hevre- once a Jewish prayer house, now a hip bar, with peeling original frescos and DJ parties in the basement on weekends. “

“Sababa: this covert cocktail club offers signature drinks served by sharp-dressed barmen in a low key lounge setting with weekends DJ sets”

I don’t know – it just made my skin creep. But more of this dislocated feeling anon.

Back to the tour- we saw the beautiful Old Synagogue, now a museum, which we returned to on our last day, another Synagogue which is now a bookstore, and the Remu Synagogue and cemetery where we had to pay 10 zloti each to visit (despite the fact that there were some Hassidim from Bnei Brak praying inside, next to the jean- clad French teenage tourists). The tour then crossed over the Vistula river to the Ghetto and the horrifying Ghetto Heroes Square. (  70 empty  bronze chairs – One  chair for each 1000 people murdered)  The tour finished up outside Oscar Schindler’s Factory, where we were offered a paid tour inside what is now a museum. WE opted to queue outside for 45 minutes to visit independently. Our guide pointed out that all the commercialization of Kazimierz district began only after the movie Schindler’s List, which brought the world’s attention to Jewish Krakow. Before this time, he said, the district had become run down and the derelict houses, abandoned by their Jewish owners ,were inhabited by the poorest of Krakow’s residents. Then gradually tourists came and people saw a marketing opportunity in all things Jewish.

The Schindler Factory Museum was interesting but extremely crowded and it was hard to focus on the wealth of information on display there. We made a valiant effort before returning to the hotel to have dinner and steel ourselves for the following day- Auschwitz- Birkenau.

WE had originally planned to visit the camps independently, just taking the museum guides for the tour inside (outside guides are not allowed). However on discovering  that the next day would be -6 wind chill effect -20, we decided to forgo getting there under our own steam, and booked a tour bus that would pick us up from the hotel, and take us directly to Auschwitz I , provide a tour guide and then continue on to Birkenau (Auschwitz II). It was odd as there were no other Jews/Israelis on the bus and it felt a bit bizarre. The whole day was extremely odd. I can only direct you to the wonderful article written by teacher Adam Boxer, which really puts a finger on how I felt for the rest of this trip. What Mr Boxer says is spot on. I sometimes felt that the guide was being overly defensive, for example, by pointing out that the camps were in fact built to exterminate Poles and not only Jews (true, but 90% of the victims were Jews, both Poles and from other countries).  Then she said that inmates claimed the “Jews had it easier” because they were exterminated immediately on arrival instead of being tortured by camp life. This may be true, but it’s a funny way of putting it. She also said that in comparison to Auschwitz II , Auschwitz I was like a 5 star hotel ( brick barracks, toilets, beds) Again this is effectively true but just sounds awful. In terms of content, I believe she was 100% accurate. It was really the tone that bothered me. The tour of Auschwitz was about 2 hours but felt like eternity. In our 4 layers of clothing it was impossible to fathom how anyone could have survived there wearing pyjamas and no shoes. As the guide said, you could be punished for wearing another layer underneath your prison pyjamas.

From there the drive to Birkenau (Auschwitz II) was about 10 minutes. Again, Mr Boxer’s account is spot on. The camp was horrifying in its barrenness, as the Nazis destroyed most of the camp before the allied forces arrived, leaving only the crematoria. We toured the wooden huts that have been reconstructed there. Then the guide said she would continue on across the vast snow covered field to the crematoria. Those who preferred could return to the bus. D went; I caved in and returned with a few other women to sit on the bus and try to digest what we had seen.

 

The next day was our last day in Krakow and it was still bitterly cold, so we just popped down to the old city to see the last of the downtown area. We happened upon the strange “Underground Museum” which features a history of Medieval Krakow underneath the main square. Then after an amazingly cheap and tasty curry at Indus, we returned to tour Kazimierz again and enter the synagogues which we had not done on the walking tour. I leave you with some photos of those. Next stop Iceland.

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Australia Part 2-Beautiful Brizzy

I continue with our drive up from Sydney to Cairns, which mostly consisted of stunning beaches one after another, and I apologize that I didn’t note down the names of all the beaches. We tried stopping off at a couple of points where locals assured us we would see whales, one of these was Woolgoola Headland, and you could just about see them with binoculars. But this just whetted our appetite – see Whale- watching later on.The one place that we spent a couple of days in and enjoyed immensely was Yamba at the mouth of the Clarence River Estuary. We stayed in the cute Yamba Beach Motel, which had everything that one needs for a comfortable stay and was reasonably priced by Australian standards. We then just wandered around the tiny town (lots of huge hills leading to the lighthouse) and took a book to read on the various beaches( one was called Pippi beach). Highly recommended. WE also had a very nice pint at the Pacific hotel, which has a splendid bar  overlooking the sea, and touts itself as “Australia’s best sited hotel”. Could not argue with them.

One final place I would like to mention that we enjoyed on the Central coast before we reached Brisbane was Dorrigo National Park. 

This lovely place is a short drive from Coffs Harbour and we spent a few happy hours strolling through the forest paths which are clearly signposted and not overly taxing. There is a short boardwalk at the beginning of the park and then a  few circular paths of varying  lengths, with waterfalls and so on. There is also a visitor centre where you can watch a short movie on the flora and fauna in the park. Our only problem was discovering that our car battery was flat when we returned from the walk (and of course it was a Sunday, our phone had no reception, which is common in isolated areas of Australia, and there was no internet reception either.) Fortunately a lovely couple in the car park came to our aid with jump leads and got us started up again.

It is really hard to get a sense of the rainforest from the photos, because the trees tower above and all around, so the photos really don’t capture the vastness of the experience.

On the way back to Coffs Harbour, the motel owner had suggested we stop at a quaint little town called Bellingen which we were passing through anyway. He specifically used the word “quaint”, adding that since I am from the UK I will understand. The town,set in farm land, with lots of horses and cows dotted around, was indeed quaint, with many interesting old buildings, and a museum, which sadly we did not manage to check out.

 

From Yamba we continued up the Pacific Highway to Brisbane. We had expectations of Melbourne and of Sydney, but Brisbane was a city about which we had heard very little. And we were blown away by it. Since we saw that we had plenty of days of our trip to make it up to Cairns, and had decided not to continue driving but to get there by plane, we decided to extend our stay in Brisbane and chill out a bit there, as moving every one or two days gets tiresome. As soon as we walked around in central Brisbane we felt at home. It’s hard to say exactly why. Our air bnb was in a wonderful quiet neighbourhood called Hawthorne, and came with a kitchen, garden, a swimming pool and a dog called Oscar. It was also 5 minutes walk from the Hawthorne Citycat Stop. Citycat is a ferryboat service that plies up and down the Brisbane river and is a far more useful form of transport than the bus.It runs frequently, and up until after midnight 7 days a week. All you need to use it is an electronic  Go Card that you top up with money as you go. It is the same card for buses, trains, ferries and trams. You can just get on it and go all the way up one end of the line and then back again for about $6.

We immediately bought our Go card and started exploring. The first part of the city that we discovered was the central area of the Queen Street Mall which we returned to many times during our stay. It was both relaxed and buzzing, full of life and great for people-watching but not in the way that large cities are. It was always fun to sit on a bench and watch people, and we also took a tour later on with a Brisbane Greeter, (volunteer guide) who introduced us to some less well-known corners of the city.

There are lots of things to see in Brisbane- we particularly enjoyed the Southbank area and the Parklands- a long riverbank promenade that was built after the World Expo of 1988 and consists of a cultural precinct (Museums, art galleries, concert halls, theatres) a Nepali Peace Pagoda, grassy areas and free public swimming pools. There is also an Epicurious garden, where fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers are grown by volunteers, and distributed free to people. The Southbank was the location from which we watched the fantastic Riverfire firework display at the end of the Riverfire festival which happily coincided with our stay in Brisbane. This display was preceded by air displays by army helicopters and jets. It was a great day, no less impressive in that the crowds dispersed in a quiet and orderly fashion at the end. The festival also included lots of free performances all over the place, which added to our stay. We also enjoyed walking around Roma Street Parklands, another park area near to the second place we stayed Spring Hill Apartments. We wanted to add more days at the Airbnb but it was no longer available, so we took the apartment for a week, which was a bit pricy but also included a washing machine and dryer! The only drawback to this accommodation was that it was indeed at the top of a hill. But there was a free bus that stopped right outside the apartments, and deposited us in the city centre in less than 15 minutes. So as the Ozzies say “No worries”.

Other places we loved in Brisbane were the Botanical Gardens and the old Regent Theatre which is now a tourist office, but part of the interior of the old theatre has been preserved. Just travelling on the ferries up and down the river and looking at the iconic Story Bridge from different angles was great fun. WE were continually amazed that every time we went down town something was going on- one day they were distributing free ice cream in Queen Street; another day there was a farmers’ market next to Victoria Bridge; there were lots of free performances in the Mall area too- one day we saw a display of Aboriginal dancing there. Our stay was also enhanced by meeting up with our friend Steve from Virtual Tourist, and then Gary and Roger from Servas, all of whom came out for dinner with us. WE also made new friends in Vera and Paul, a lovely couple we met on a Saturday morning when we went to the Farmers’ Market at the PowerHouse  and who also met us for dinner another evening. All of these meetings impressed on me that nice as sightseeing may be, the really memorable parts of our travels are always the personal contacts we make with locals. The openness and warmth we received from all the Australians that we met was just phenomenal. So thanks Ozzies!

Then there was one of the highlights of our whole trip- whale watching at Redcliffe. After a lot of humming and ha-ing we decided to go for it. It’s after all one of those “once in a lifetime” things right? It’s expensive but definitely something to remember. I checked out various companies and found that the most highly recommended one was called, strangely enough, Brisbane Whale Watching , and it had tons of recommendations on Tripadvisor. They guaranteed that we would see whales. But I was not prepared for how many! We bought a package which included a pickup from a location near where we were staying, transfer by minibus to the cruise jetty, the hour or so  trip out to the bay near Moreton Island and a buffet lunch. We even had a brief look at Beegees Alley before boarding our boat.

Very soon after reaching the bay we immediately started seeing humpback whales and some even jumped up right near the boat.It was truly amazing, and it was important to stop taking pictures (most of which missed the whales jumping) and just look at these lovely creatures. I still did manage to get a few good shots though! Each time there was a sighting, the crew shouted 11 o’clock, or 3 o’clock, and everyone rushed to the appropriate location of the ship to see the whales. There was even a mum and baby but I didn’t manage to get a picture.

Finally it was time to leave wonderful Brisbane- so I will just leave you with a few more pictures before we head for our last stop in the trip- tropical Cairns, and the Great Barrier Reef.

Six weeks Down Under- from Melbourne to Cairns

Things I loved about Australia:

Friendliest and most open people in the world -Amazing scenery –  Ease of getting about -Clean and convenient ( never had to wait for a bathroom!)- the noise the traffic lights make (kind of like the spaceship doors on Star Trek) Cosmopolitan – you can get lots of different kinds of food like Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese and Indian in the cities – Everything is safe- trails are clearly labelled, information is freely available, nothing is mysterious or confusing

Things I liked less:

Prices- Everything is ridiculously expensive :The package tourist trips are ridiculously priced.  ( unlike Mexico for example)  Transportation is also not cheap  You can’t eat out cheaply like in Asia    Local  is not so healthy (everything seemed to be fried/ hamburgers – we missed a good Israeli salad and fresh fruits)  There are Chinese EVERYWHERE (more than we saw in China?)    I couldn’t get Uber to work (ok,not Oz’ fault)

We have just returned from what had seemed to be the “dream trip” for many people, and in many ways it was miraculous, and marvelous. and was certainly different from many other trips we have done. For a start it took us to the furthest eastern and southern point on the globe we have ever been, and was the longest flight we have done. It took over 24 hours, with one flight from Tel Aviv to Hong Kong and the second from Hong Kong to Melbourne (with a return from Cairns through the amazing Cathay Pacific).

Having said that, I was not expecting Australia to be “exotic” or “alien” in the same way that our Asian trips have been. The culture in Australia is so familiar, that for the first few days in Melbourne it felt like England- the sky and fields of Victoria looked like England, the houses in the city looked English and the roads and signage were the same. There were pubs called “Sherlock Holmes” and “The Charles Dickens” and of course many of the citizens are of British or Irish descent. WE could read everything written and understand everything said to us. So coming to Australia was physically but not culturally far.

I will divide the blog into sections, because of course a trip of 6 weeks is going to make for a very long blog post. So first, to Melbourne.

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Part One Melbourne  and Sydney ( and a bit further north!)

WE spent 6 days in Melbourne. The first day we arrived at night and the next day we spent having brunch with family, and that was really great. They gave us a few pointers about what to see around town. So we began by walking along the Southbank (a bit like the London South Bank) cultural area and this was indeed the part of Melbourne we enjoyed the most. It has a lovely walk along the river, with cafes and restaurants, and some cool statues. I didn’t think much of Federation Square, which was not as lively as I was expecting. Neither did I find the alleyways with the graffiti in Hosier Lane that impressive- the ones in Mexico were far more colourful and artistic. We did enjoy the colonial architecture of the buildings, the Victorian shopping arcades,  the fascinating Immigration Museum and thoroughly enjoyed the Old Melbourne Gaol House  experience, during which you go  through what a prisoner in Victorian times would have felt on being admitted to the Jail – it was fantastic, and the lady sergeant who “processed” us was deliciously scary.

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Southbank sculpture

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Chillis, Chocolate and chapulines- latest trip.

Part 1- The Yucatan Peninsula

This blog post will be the first of several on our latest trip to Mexico. I don’t like to write really long posts, and of course a six week trip through Southern and Central Mexico warrants a bit of space. So bear with me on this. I shall try not to waffle too much.

We flew into Mexico City and immediately on to Cancun to start our Mexican Experience. And when I say “immediately” I mean after a 2 hour wait at passport control and a mad dash for the connecting flight. The passport chaps did not care who was travelling onwards and who had arrived at their destination. After arriving in Cancun we got a bus to Playa Del Carmen, our first port of call. The bus ride to Playa was smooth and comfortable- about one hour on a lovely ADO bus (more of this great company anon). Playa is a lovely seaside place teeming with tourists from all over the world. The beach is great, and lined with great cafes and restaurants. Very little of the “real Mexico” here, but a great place to start our trip. We enjoyed strolling up and down the main pedestrian drag, especially at night when it was full of live musicians- from Mariachis to Led Zeppelin covers. Sitting on the beach with a mojito and watching the sunset was a great start to the trip. And the day trip we made to Tulum was fantastic.

The colour of the Caribbean was a sight to behold. We visited many archeological sites during our Mexican trip, but the setting of the ruins at Tulum was what made it stand out in my mind.

Many people (especially young American students) come to the State of Quintana Roo, where Playa is located, and stay only in this one place, on the beach and never see any more of Mexico. This would be akin to coming to the US and seeing only the beach in Florida. We wished we had seen more of this Caribbean coastline, but wanted to do more than see the beach. So after a couple of days we boarded another ADO bus and headed for Valladolid , which was, we were assured, the REAL Mexico. ADO buses, by the way, are fantastic. They are air-conditioned, have lots of legroom, movies (in Spanish) and toilets. When you buy a ticket you get to choose your seat, and when you hand in your backpack/suitcase you get a little tag for it, like on a plane. The longer in advance you buy your ticket the better the price.

Valladolid  was indeed less touristy than Playa. The town has a sort of rough and ready feel to it, and although tour buses sweep in and out of the main Zocalo (town square), many tourists seem to see it as a day trip and do not stay the night.

The colourful house fronts and the busy street market are interesting, and typically Mexican, and the main Zocalo is closed off for dancing on Sundays. Other than walking around the streets or popping into the nearby cenotes, there is not an awful lot to do in Valladolid. But it does have a certain raw charm.There is, however the amazing little Chocolate Factory. (there is another one in Merida). Here you can learn about the whole process of making chocolate, taste some unusual ones such as Oregano Chocolate and Chilli Chocolate, and of course buy some to take home.

We did one day trip from Valladolid to the pyramids of Ek Balam which we enjoyed immensely.

We visited several archeological sites during this trip, and found each one amazing in its own right. I thought (as someone not very well up in ancient history) that I might get bored, but each place was different and had its own fascination.

One day we were strolling around in Valladolid when we chanced upon a large group of young people in a public square, dressed in traditional clothes, clearly preparing some kind of dance performance. We asked when there would be dancing and singing and they said to come back at 6pm. So we had a quick tea in a nearby place, to escape the rain, and fortunately on the dot of 6 the rain stopped and the chairs near the square filled up with people. We joined them and asked the lady next to us what was going on. She said it was a performance of students of education celebrating the end of the term (if I understood correctly). They performed a number of traditional dances and it was all rather charming. Later, in Merida, we saw a similar thing but it was for tourists. The Valladolid one was “the real McCoy”.

From Valladolid we took another bus, for 3 hours this time to the city of Merida, which, sad to say, was a bit of a disappointment to me.

I had read a lot about Merida, and had expected to love it dearly and wish to spend a long time there. However what conspired against us was, to my surprise, the Merida Carnaval, which took place while we were there, and was the reason that the regular events, street dancing on Sundays downtown and performances of the Mayan game of Pok a Tok ( despite the tourist office assuring us they were still happening) were all cancelled. At least twice we waited in the Zocalo to see something which never happened. Usually we found other tourists, also waiting to see something and eventually we gave up. We thought about going to the Carnaval, but our Airbnb host Maurizio, assured us it would be a bad idea. Once the Carnaval was held in the town centre, but the police could not cope with it, so it was moved to some fairground about 2 hours outside the centre of town, and reached by shuttle buses from all over. Apparently it would be crowded and full of drunks, so we decided to pass. A young couple also staying at our place did go and concurred it had not been a great idea.

We did enjoy walking around Merida’s broad avenues, especially the Paseo de Montejo, and visiting the Anthopology museum there housed in a wonderful old colonial building built in the Porfiriano period of 1909. We even took a horse drawn carriage back down to the Zocalo once, when it was too hot to walk.

Downtown there are a number of interesting buildings to see, and we took a free tour. After about 30 minutes, however, we discovered that what we had joined was not in fact the free tour, but a private tour paid for by another tourist which we had inadvertently gate crashed! A shame because the tour guide was wonderful, spoke great English, and there were only 4 other people. After discovering our mistake we rushed off to find the free tour, for which the guide was incomprehensible, and  which had about 35 other people! It did, however take us round the main sites downtown- the Palacio de Gobierno, Palacio Montejo  and the Modern Art Museum (MACAY)

The one day trip we made from Merida was to Celestun. We didn’t do it by organized tours, as we had for Ek Balam, but simply got a bus from the second class bus station and got off at the bridge before the town (as instructed by the lovely American- Mexican couple we met on the bus). From there you simply walk down to the pier and join with other tourists to share a boat tour. The tour is around 90 minutes and takes you to the place where the thousands of flamingos can be viewed, and you also see “Bird Island” with lots of other seabirds (pelicans etc), and some crocs, and a little peek at the Mangroves. It’s beautiful and serene. We shared a boat with a charming Korean and his two daughters who were taking him on a trip after he had been very ill.

Here ends part one. From Merida we leave the Yucatan so I will continue the trip in the next post.

A very cultural week

*** Warning! Long blow-by-blow post. Please feel free to skip as necessary!

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The gorgeous Belvedere Palace

As I wrote in my last post, the trip to Vienna was booked before we  knew that were going to Sri Lanka. But in any case of course Vienna and Sri Lanka are going to be very different experiences. We had never been to Austria before, partly because of my bias against the German language, but we decided it was worth a try.

So we packed up and flew off to our lovely air bnb care of one Anton Herzl. We got the airport bus to downtown for a cheap 13 Euro return (being careful not to lose the return part of the ticket!)

The flat was very well located, 5 minutes walk from the U-bahn subway station and a leisurely 20 minutes do the city centre along the Danube canal. We mostly walked down and travelled back by subway when we were exhausted. U-bahn has a flat rate of 2.20 Euro and is easy to negotiate, and all the machines are in English as well as German.

The first day we ventured down town and just wandered around to see what we could see. WE saw the Parliament buildings (which are very impressive, but didn’t take the organized tour) the  City hall or Rathaus building, and the huge Museum quarter. Everywhere there are statues, and highly ornate neo-classical, baroque and a few art deco style buildings. IT’s all rather ovewhelming, and it’s hard not to constantly stop and take pictures. We then walked back through the gardens of the Rathaus and around the area of the Imperial Hofburg Palace.

On our second day we first went to find the ticket office to collect our ticket for the Vienna Boys’ Choir, which we would hear the following Sunday in the Mozart Mass at the Imperial Palace Chapel. After this we visited the Albertina Museum for the fantastic Chagall to Malevitch and Monet to Picasso exhibitions. Then we hit the Naschmarkt open food market and partook of our first proper Schnitzel. Actually it was hard to decide where to eat as there were so many lovely looking restaurants, but we finally picked one, and then wandered around a bit (taking more photos of course) There was a nice Asian place where the waiters were all Chinese, so we chatted a bit to them and came back there the next day.

In the evening we attended a meeting of Vienna Couchsurfing at a small bar, and met people from Vienna, Spain, Colombia, Finland and even Syria and Palestine. It was fun but hard to talk to everyone as there were so many people. When we left it was pouring with rain so we took a taxi home, as we were not sure how to negotiate the tram.

The third day was spent entirely at the amazing Imperial Palace the Hofburg, which has several different parts, and it is difficult to see everything if you don’t want to be “castled out”. As rather limited animal fans we passed on the Riding school, but if you are a horsey person you can do that. We saw the Silver collection and the Sissi Apartments, which show a peek into the lives of Franz Josef and his young wife Elizabeth (the Sissi of the movie fame) and it was a very interesting experience and made me want to brush up on my history. Everything was fascinating and beautifully laid out.We then returned to the Naschmarkt for supper to get a bit of Stir fry and practise our Chinese on the waiters.

The next day being Holocaust Day in Israel we identified by visiting both Holocaust Museums in Vienna. We found them rather underwhelming after all the grandeur of the Hapsburg palaces, especially as the museums themselves are not very well laid out or labelled, or even that easy to find. The first one in Judenplatz was particularly uninspiring, and had a temporary exhibition of documents relating to Simon Weisenthal. The second one was better and had a special exhibition on the contribution of Jews to modern music, and this had a very good audio visual commentary accessible by smart phone.In the evening we had tickets to a Mozart concert held in the Sala Terrena, one of the (many) houses occupied by Mozart during his time in Vienna. The concert was lovely but even more impressive were the decorations in the hall itself,which were just gorgeous.

Day 5 was a visit to the incredible Belvedere Palace. It was hard to choose where to go, as there is also the Schonbrun Palace, which we were told is completely different and also amazing, but one can’t see everything,right? Anyway the Belvedere was indeed lovely, and quite easy to get to on foot,by walking through the lovely Stadpark. Fortunately the Stadpark had a food fair going on that day, so we had a great Viennese hot dog on the way as an added bonus. On arrival at the Belvedere, we noticed some workers erecting lots of scaffolding and a small stage, and decorating everything with flowers. There was no seating so it wasn’t a concert. We discovered that the place had been hired by a very rich Indian family for a wedding, to which 1,000 guests had been invited. Apparently this is a “thing” now. There are two palaces, actually the Upper and Lower, and the gardens. Fearing exhaustion we chose only the Upper, where the famous “Kiss” picture by Klimt is housed, and were not disappointed. There are rooms upon rooms of gorgeous artworks and it just goes on and on… Anyway the visit to the Belvedere, with its ornate rooms and galleries was another wonderful day out in Vienna.

Dan wanted to have a glimpse of the Danube proper and not just the Canal, so the next day we walked via the Karmelite market towards the river. The market, in Leopoldstrasse, a Jewish neighbourhood of Vienna, was quite nice but nothing amazing. But on our way to the river we walked through the Prater amusement park which was nothing short of splendid. I am not usually a fan of these things but the big wheel was indeed impressive and the whole place had a sort of yesteryear charm to it which was quite lovely, added to the fact that the sun was shining. We reached the Danube eventually, which was, as I had feared rather disappointing. There were no restaurants or cafes along its banks, as there are along the canal, and frankly nothing at all to do there. SO we decided to head back to the area around the Stefansdom, the iconic church set in the Stefansplatz, and the beating heart of the Innere Stadt. There we went up to the top of the spire in the lift, and enjoyed a view out over the city.

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D on the Danube

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Amusement park at Prater

There were still a few more surprises for us in Vienna. We had tickets for the Vienna Boys’ Choir singing the Mozart Mass in the Imperial Hofburg Chapel. I had not realized this would be a “proper” Mass and not just a concert. This was a rather weird anthropological experience for us good Jews, never having attended Mass before. I was rather worried they would call us up to do whatever it is you do with the host and the wine, but fortunately we didn’t have to do that. The choir was of course outstanding and the accoustics were incredible. The whole experience was very special. Our final musical experience was actually devoid of music. We did a tour of the Opera house, which was very interesting, but didn’t attend a performance, as we couldn’t get tickets, and I didn’t fancy queueing up for 3 hours to stand through something that we didn’t know well, and there were only performances of less well-known operas on, so we decided to pass.

Our last day in Vienna we returned to Stefansplatz a bit( quick glass of white wine and marching band!) and then walked along the canal again to just chill out and try and take in all the sights. We were blessed with gorgeous hot weather, and chanced upon a cafe restaurant, amusingly named Tel Aviv beach, complete with sand, deck chairs, hummus and pita (which we didn’t eat) and a great view of the canal.

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Imperial Box at the Opera House

Thus ended our week and we now have a month to get ready for the next adventure- Sri Lanka! Bring it on…

 

 

A week left and counting..

We came back home to Jerusalem for a month over the semester break and it has been rather weird. Firstly of course it was great to see all our friends and family again,to eat our faviourite Israeli foods that are not available in China, and to sleep in our own (extremely soft) bed. It was great to go to Pilates classes again and tell people we are just here for a break and are living in China.But it was also odd that we very quickly found ourselves missing China, Xiamen and our life there. I miss the students, I miss getting up every day in Xiamen and not knowing who we are going to meet or what is going to happen.I miss the challenge of trying to make myself understood in Chinese.And I miss the surprises every time we order in a restaurant and have no clue what is going to appear on the table.

It was great to be met at the airport by our younger son,to hear what he has been up to,and to spend time with my Dad,and my brothers and see all the family together for my brother’s birthday.But now we feel that we are in the way.The boys have their own lives to lead,and really don’t need us around.My dad is doing fine and is okay with us going back.

Today is Chinese New Year, and although we planned not to be there during that festival I am a little disappointed now I see it all on the TV that we will be missing the festivities.So maybe we will stay put next year and see them for ourselves,wherever we are.

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We did have some fun here.We went to see a couple of movies and we are gong to a concert this week. But we kept checking the prices in the restaurants and shops and comparing to Chinese prices. We spent some time with friends of ours from Xiamen who came to visit, Steve and Viny, who are of the Bahai faith and came to Israel to go on a pilgimage to their temple in Haifa. We showed them around Jerusalem a bit,went with them to Yad Vashem,to Ein Karem,Abu Gosh and the Tayelet to see the views of the Old City.

We also had a coffee with Aliza and Shimon who will be joining us at XMUT next semester.So that was fun too.So roll on next Monday when we get on the plane and go back to Xiamen via Hong Kong,Macau and Shenzhen.

Steve and Viny visit Abu Gosh

Steve and Viny visit Abu Gosh

Some reflections on Chinese students and EFL (for teachers,probably)

We are nearing the end of the first semester here in Xiamen and our 3rd semester in China so time for a bit of reflection.I have spent the last 2 weeks testing my students orally for their Final Exam,and I have a few observations. It seems that there is a great deal of difference between teaching English majors and Non English majors,but there are some things which seem to jump out at me as “weird” or “different” when I compare the Chinese universities to the Western ones. Firstly,the students here seem to have a lot less choice in their lives than our children do,and than we did as students. Most students here,when asked why they chose this university or why they chose their major reply that “My parents picked it” or “My Gao Kao (high school university entrance exam) score was too low to go to another place. They don’t seem to express any opinion about what to study or where to spend four years. Another thing that sticks out is that they mostly plan to return home to their “hometown” when they graduate to help their parents,or because getting a job there is easier than in another city.They often plan to follow a career choice chosen by their parents,again in many cases not something they are crazy about. I find this rather sad,looking back on my University l ife and how much I loved it.

Students,by and large, try to answer our questions with what they think we want to hear,and not their “real opinion” as far as we can fathom,and it is impossible to get them to be honest and really tell us what they think.And by the way there are some other rather confusing things. Frequently a student will refer to his “hometown” which is his ancestral family home,but not necessarily where his family now live,which can be thousands of miles away. And they will also refer to “my sister” or “my brother” when referring to a cousin,but it can also mean a true sibling. Many of them ,despite what we know about China,do have a sister or a brother,sometimes two!

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Students here seem to be perpetually busy doing pointless tasks for the university,and when they are free they just watch movies online,or sleep,or play computer games.They rarely go into the city which is only 30 minutes away as they seem to think it is too far or too crowded.They are lacking in ambition and independence,and on weekends go home to their families if they live near to Xiamen.There is very little of the typical University life we know in the UK- certainly no pubs,no parties,very little mingling of the sexes at all.In class the boys and girls sit separately as we did when we were very young in elementary school.They are pretty immature,look much younger than British or American students and have very little social life.Classes have a class monitor much as we did in high school,who has to do various things for the teachers. I asked some students about hobbies,or what they do in their free time and the predictable answers were “play computer games”,”sleep” “go to the library” and for some girls “go shopping”.

Of course the students are delightful people on the whole,very polite and respectful,curious about us and where we come from,why we are in China and what we think about it.They find it hard to imagine why we would have left a place which they consider to be alluring,magical,and highly desirable to come to China and they mostly have very little idea of travelling even as far as Shanghai,let alone abroad.IT all seems very unreal to them. I can’t help wondering,however what the future holds for them,and what China will look like when they reach adulthood…

More anon…