24 June 2003 - Oxford
The Myth of Harry Potter

I'll actually assume that all of those reading this will have already read the book and know the story well. It's worth a read, anyway, and this review doesn't exist to persuade people to join the estimated nine million others who have already finished the story, but to act as a point of ddiscussion. An open-invitation book club, if you like.

Harry Potter is successful because it is mythology. It is the story of how a hero on the side of good is created and eventually truimphs over evil.

For mythology to work, the following must happen:

  1. The hero must be originally thrust into a situation, of no free will of his own. It is fate that deals him his immediate hand and for the most part in the beginning, he has not choice of what happens to him.
  2. The hero must initially fail oor failure must seem a foregone conclusion. This is usually because he lacks the knowledge or the skills to succeed. He may make mistakes and is obviously not up to the task.
  3. With the help of mentors, the hero improves himself. Skills and knowledge are imparted to him.
  4. The hero must finally choose to face his greatest fears and weaknesses and by himself overcome them.

It is interesting to note that the first three books follow this formula quite closely, but the last two have begun to deviate away from it.

For a start, Harry has been less in control of his destiny than before. In Goblet of Fire (GoF), he escapes a trap. He doesn't choose to be involved in the climax, he is led there. In Order of the Phoenix (OotP), Harry makes a bad decision and actually walks willingly into another trap (you tell kids, but there's no stopping 'em). This time, his emotions (or lack of control of them) is what gets him into trouble.

There is no redemption for past failures in both GoF and OotP, just narrow escapes. GoF seems to exist to remind the reader that Harry is somehow destined for his path in life. This is
actually made concrete in OotP by the prophecy.

It's also interesting to look at the mentors in the two books. Mad-Eyed Moody in GoF is teaching Harry skills to succeed in the Triwizard Tasks so that he will resurrect and be killed by Voldemort. This is one mentor who is not looking out for his charge's welfare.

Who is the mentor in OotP? I think that it is the Defence Against Dark Arts (DADA) teacher for the year, Delores Umbridge, as well as Hermione. Before the Order of the Phoenix drops by to save Harry from the Death Eaters, he is ably aided by representatives of Dumbledore's Army (DA). The DA is clearly a result of Harry's efforts and there would have been no reason for DA to exist if Umbridge was a more competent teacher and if Hermione had not pushed Harry.

(Incidentally, is there any significance that all of the DADA teachers who are still alive appear in OotP? Does Gilderoy Lockhart have some role to play in future books? And no comments please from anyone pointing out that Moody from GoF is not the same Moody in OotP.)

In both the last two books, Harry's choices near the end have resulted in disaster. Voldemort would have not come back nor would Sirius have been killed if not for Harry's choices. In effect, he is making bad choices.

The fifth installment details a rite of passage for the growing Harry Potter. Perhaps it should be called "Harry has Hormones", with all the pubescent turmoil and rage that floods Harry in almost every page. Never have I seen a children's book so full of SHOUTING from the main character that I fear Bloomsbury's pretting presses would have been well advised to have invested in a special Harry Potter font (Loud) just for this book.

Why is Harry angry? Plot-wise, it must be so that J.K. can bring Harry back down to Earth so that he is still the underdog. He needs to have things to learn or create in order to grow, and this lack of knowledge must be exhibited at the beginning of the book.

Of course, it's no good having this framework if you don't have anything to hang upon it. You still need to tell the story. And boy, is J.K. good at this. It is compelling to read her work, to the extent that you just can't stop. I know, I was up at two in the morning devouring her words. It's fun to read. You know you're reading good stuff when you find yourself feeling for the characters, when in your mind they become fleshed out and real.

Somebody the other day said that Roald Dahl was a better writer than J.K. Rowling. Now, I'm not about to begin World War III by agreeing or disagreeing with this, but both writers have the knack to create central characters that are believable. When you get to a stage that when you ask, "so what would so-and-so do in this situation?" and you know the answer, well, that part of the job's done.

The other thing is plotting and pacing. Harry Potter is mythology disguised as soap opera. There is not so much a plot, as there are several plots that weave in and out of one another.

It is telling that my least favourite chapter is the one where Hagrid recounts his encounter with the giants. I think the back story is needed because otherwise you don't really understand where his brother is coming from, but because it stands by itself, it feels disjointed from the rest of the book. You could have almost released it as a booklet for Comic Relief, "Hagrid's Diary" or something. It isn't as compelling a read where you learn things gradually over time.

Remember Anne of Green Gables? That was a soap opera as well, the point being when on Earth would Anne eventually figure out that Blythe would be the right one? I guess the Ron and Hermione relationship rollercoaster has shades of that (although, as in real life, only the girl is perspecascious enough to realise that they're even on such a ride). Mark my words, the day when Ron realises how great Hermione is is going to be one of the watershed points of the series. You heard it here first.

Since we're talking about love affairs, a word or two has to be said about Cho. I like Cho. I've always been a sucker for smart, pretty girls. And I'm sorry to see that Harry is having such a hard time of it. But I know exactly what he's going through. The uncertainty of romance is, to me, less romance and more pain, and credit needs to be given where it's due.

You know, reading Harry Potter has been to me nostalgic trips into my past, when I was young and in boarding school. Threre are things in there that just strike as being through. Staying up and waking up at ungodly hours to finish homework. Opting to study outside in the sun during Summer. Feeling the urge to punch somebody on the sports field.

All of this will culminate in book 7. Will that be the end? It probably looks that way if J.K. doesn't license the rights for other writers to create spin-offs. And yet...

posted on Tuesday, June 24, 2003 - permalink
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Just in case you've been living under a rock for the last few months, Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix is now out and, yes, I have read it. It was a big deal in England, with pages of news taking over from the Beckham's-Real-Deal story.

If you want to know, yes I've read it. I finished it 28 hours after I bought it, mostly in the wee hours of Sunday morning. And yes, I like it very much. Even if it isn't perfect. There will be a review coming out about it (I know, I know, along with the hundreds of millions of reviews already out there). There are also some pictures taken at midnight in Oxford, and that will also be up soon-ish. Promise. Really.
posted on Monday, June 23, 2003 - permalink
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20 June 2003 - Oxford
Oxford Food

What an odd thing to write about, I'm sure you're thinking. Surely there's not that much difference between food in Oxford and food in the rest of England. And English food has a deserved reputation for being mediocre.

However, I spent three years in Oxford, and I considered it home for time I was there. And a big part of my life is food, so it shouldn't be surprising that some of my most vivid memories should be connected with food.

It is a testament that although I can easily point to you several decent eating places in Oxford, I find it almost impossible to do the same in London (I can think of the budget Japanese shop near Leicester Square, but that's all that really comes to mind).

My first port of call when the bus came to a stop was Harvey's, the sandwich shop. I immediately stopped by for a scrumptious steak sandwich. In my years as an undergraduate I consumed countless numbers of these, always in half a loaf of ciabatta, always without tomato slices. It was a favourite stop for me because it was halfway between the Maths Institute and my college, and I could have a quick lunch while walking to one place or another. It was also conveniently near the cinema, so I could check out what was showing there.

The sandwiches from there are very, very good because they are generous and they give you exactly what you want: mustard, mayonnaise, brown sauce, cucumber, lettuce and 8oz of steak in half a loaf of ciabatta. In the nine years between the time I left University and now, they have not scrimped on any of the ingredients and their price has gone up a paltry 60p at the most.

There are other sandwich shops in the Covered Market, but none of them match the economy and taste of Harvey's.

Another favourite shop of mine is George & Davis. It should be world-famous, by right, if sales were based on quality alone, there should be a chain of G&D's stretching from John O' Groats to Land's End. People should be familiar with the G&D cows, not Ben & Jerry's, and the favoured flavours of the land would be Dime Bar Crunch and Chaos.

Instead, there are only two outlets in Oxford. Infuriatingly, the second shop opened five or six years after I left college. It's not a chain, really, because one called George & Davis, the other George & Danvey's, but the queues can be as long as ever, and the quality is still the same. Well, except that the Danvey branch seems to have fewer flavours on offer, but that could just be my imagination!

Why is it so good? First, the ice cream is good. No, I take that back, it's great. It's made in the basement and you can petition your own flavours (enough names on a petition sheet means a flavour gets made). The ice cream is solid, full of proper milk (not air) and it's difficult to be completely satisfied with just one scoop.

Secondly, the shops have got a fantastic atmosphere. It's full of students, so everyone's relaxed and having fun. There's a Question of the Day which wins you a free scoop of ice cream if you're the first to get it right (The question when I was recently there: "Which 1960 Billy Wilder film won Oscars for Best Film, Best Director and Best Script?"). You have your choice of free newspapers by the side, which I used to peruse in between bouts with tutorial questions.

Thirdly, the location's great. The original G&D's is just across the road from the Mathematical Institute which made it a comfortable place to hang out. It also faced Somerville College, the formerly all-girls college, which wasn't such a bad place to be.

The new G&D's sits across from Christ Church College, so you can now eat your Rum n' Raisin while in the shadow of Tom Tower (although why anyone would look forward to that, I don't know).

The other thing you should do when you're in Oxford is to go picnicking. You can either loll about in the sunshine by the river or you can loll about in the sunshine on the river. You can stock up on things like bread, cheese, and drinks from the local Sainsbury's or Mark's and Spencer's, but the authentic way to do it is to go to the Covered Market. It's a great place to just wander about - two of my favourite shops in there are Ben's Cookies and the cheese shop where I can buy Oxford Blue Cheese. I don't normally like blue cheese, but this one is creamy enough to make me forgive the strong taste. Ben and Claudi know this, so when I stayed with them, they almost invariably have a little stocked up in the fridge. Actually, the last time I was there, there was quite a bit, and I brought back a whole lump to London. My brother doesn't eat blue cheese, so there I was, wolfing it down, while he sat beside me with an awkward look on his face.

It's probably a lot easer to picnic on terra firma than it is in a boat, but if you are going to do it over water, make sure that at least one of you knows how to punt. It looks easy, but there is a knack to it that needs to be learnt. You'll find out before long that it's far easier to go around in circles that it is to go in a straight line. It's been more than ten years since I've done this, and before I was just getting the hang of it. I obviously have forgotten a lot in the time in-between.


posted on Friday, June 20, 2003 - permalink
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17 June 2003 - London
The Darwin Centre in The Natural History Museum

I do not like London very much. The truth is, I think that London is one of the least pleasant cities to live in. However, all things have their silver linings, and London's is its collection of very fine museums.

The British Museum of Natural History must be one of the best museums of its kind in the world. Having said that, I usually don't visit it anywhere as often as I could, simply because I prefer visiting the Science Museum next door. This is strange, because I wouldn't categorise the Science Museum in London to be all that great, but I've always preferred hard core science over stuffed animals. And yet, perhaps I'll still change my mind.

My brother and I visited the Natural History museum because of the new Darwin Centre. It's actually only the first phase of many, and at the moment it's not terribly impressive to the casual visitor. What you see are some exhibits of preserved animals, an interactive multimedia display explaining why it's important to pickle animals and not much else. But that 'not much else' includes a behind-the-scenes tour of the centre, and that makes the whole trip worthwhile.

Because we visited close to closing time, my brother and I were the only ones on the tour, lead by one of the staff (Emma, I think her name was - Emma, if you're reading this and I'm wrong, please correct me). The tour goes into the actual laboratories used to preserve and examine specimens.

The Natural History Museum's collection of preserved specimens is one of the most important in the world. There are specimens dating from the early nineteen century. Some of the bottles are marked with a red cap. This is to indicate that the species was named based on examination of that particular animal.

The number of specimens is stupendous - something like six million, if I recall correctly. They keep everything from small beetles and earthworms, to their largest specimen, a fully-grown Komodo dragon.

The specimens are kept in specially cooled rooms, behind double doors. The doors are what my brother calls James Bond double doors, because the first set automatically opens when you wave your passkey over it, and then you step in, and when the outer doors have closed, only then do the inner ones open. Very cool. But a little over-the-top?

The temperature is kept at 13 degrees Celsius, below the flash-point of alcohol. And with that much alcohol floating about, it's probably a wise idea to do so. Obviously, there's no smoking in the labs.

A lot of the animals are kept upside-down. This puzzled both my brother and me, until we were told that limbs were less likely to be damaged when animals are pulled out right-side up.

The Darwin Centre has seven floors, and each floor focuses on one type of animal. I wondered if there are rivalries between the floors. "Don't talk to him, he's with the inverterbrates".


posted on Tuesday, June 17, 2003 - permalink
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16 June 2003 - London

When I was a teeny weeny tot running around London, I remembered that Hamlyns was the coolest place there (the new Science Museum notwithstanding). Come on, five floors of toys, toys, toys - there was no way that could go wrong.

These days, it's not the automatic stop for me that it used to be, but I still drop by to see what's going on when I get the chance. I think I've been to Harrod's twice, but I've lost count the number of times I've wandered up and down the escalators (almost always the escalators and not the lifts).

As you walk through the front doors, you are greeted by people making giant soap bubbles or playing with multi-coloured crayons or firing rubber pellets or throwing around giant spaceship frisbees. As far as I am concerned, a sense of wonderment fills me and I start wandering around googly-eyed looking at what's on offer. I hardly ever buy anything these days, but browsing around is undeniable, purified fun.

I know that some of you out there will snort with derision at me succumbing to the allure of mass commercialism. Most toys out there are tied-in to some over-hyped flavour-of-the-moment (e.g. Hulk) and are over-priced for what they give. But there are still some enjoyable things to oogle at - the micro remote control cars are pretty cool.

However, the magic doesn't last for long. I think I spent the longest playing FIFA 2003 on the Game Cube with my brother. These days, gadgets have to be smarter to keep the attention, big kids included, and there are not many gadget freaks out there bigger than me. To be honest, the only reason why my house is not filled with bleeding-edge technology is because it gets bleeding expensive to make it that way.

So it is with perversity that I content myself with simpler toys. The ones that fill me with nostalgia for my childhood days (for example, the Fisher Price ambulance that still sits on my shelf).


posted on Monday, June 16, 2003 - permalink
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posted on Thursday, June 12, 2003 - permalink
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You may have noticed a lot of new postings up. There are so many that I think you need to go to the archives to see them all. They cover stuff in Copenhagen, Berlin, Budapest and a little bit of Prague.
posted on Monday, June 09, 2003 - permalink
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7 June 2003 - Prague
Good gyros, bad burgers

It's not as easy as you might think to find cheap food in Budapest and Prague, especially if you want to avoid the American fast food outlets. You first need to step outside the normal tourist areas, and then decide what it is that's worth eating.

Despite me telling my mum of university kebab horror stories, I've been having my fair share of them lately. Well, they're called gyros in Hungary but they're basically the same thing - sliced grilled meat in a pitta bread with sauces and vegtables.

I have to say that they do 'em well in Budapest. It's yummy and filling and all for only HFL350 (about RM4). And they dollop in all the yoghurt you want.

It's much nicer than the University kebab vans. It probably has something to do with the fact that the meat looks like real meat and not reconstituted by-by-products (the stuff they don't even throw into sausages). Yummy stuff.

On the other hand, I never thought anything could compare with the lows of University roadside van food, until I had a burger in Prague. I mean, I say bad things about Ramlyburgers back home, but my Czech burger recalibrated the scale.

They're very cheap (about CKr20 ~ RM2) and for good reason. Let's begin with how it looks. What you see when you order a burger is some wrapping paper, some bun, some green leafy stuff and something hidden behind all that. It looks like something trying to disguise itself as meat behind lettuce and bread. It's embarassed that it's even called a burger, and has tried to disappear by drowning itself with tomato sauce.

It gets better. Go ahead, take a bite. You'll taste the bun, the lettuce, the tomato sauce and... something. It has a texture not unlike cardboard that has been left soaking wet for a few days. It really needs to be tasted to be believed.

And if you dare look at what you've bitten into... well, it was the stingiest looking chicken burger I've ever seen. No more than a single layer of mince, a thin white line which just about separated it from being called a lettuce sandwich. And you pay for this stuff.

Well, to be fair, I was a little fuller after that, although it probably had to do with me downing whole litre of water just to wash away the memory.

Maybe I shouldn't judge a whole country's burger industry by just one sample. Perhaps I should try another one tomorrow - after all, they're cheap enough. Wish me luck, guys.


posted on Monday, June 09, 2003 - permalink
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6 June 2003 - Budapest
Travelling Blues

Finally. I've hit it. I thought it might happen sometime around now, and it has. I've hit the Travelling Wall.

The Travelling Wall is that point of time when you suddenly feel that it's about time that you stopped travelling and went back home. When if somebody gave you a ticket home right then, you would be sorely tempted to take it.

There are many reasons why you hit the Wall. Sometimes it's just the tiredness of living out of a suitcase. I hit that in the USA after about a month or so, but travelling then included the stress of finding a place to stay everytime I flew in. Now I reserve hostel beds in advance

Sometimes it's because you're disillusioned by the lack of stability and you just want to be able to wake up to something predictable. Well, that's not hit me yet. I'm looking forward to Prague, to meeting my brother in London and to (hopefully) go to Dublin.

And sometimes it's because you just miss home. You miss being around people you know. You miss your cats. And you miss being able to wake up in the morning and eating roti telur.

What I would really like is for somebody to give me a return ticket, so I can go back home for a few weeks and then continue travelling the last month or so. To recharge my batteries, as it were. Although it sounds odd that I'm asking to take a break from a vacation, travelling is pretty hard work sometimes. You get out of it as much as you put in, and I've been putting in a fair bit. I'm happier for it though, I have to say.

I have not regretted a single minute of this trip so far. It's reminded me how little I know about the world and, has, at times, tested my resources. I've learned more about myself and what I'm able to do and what it is that makes me tick.

But I do miss my roti telur.


posted on Monday, June 09, 2003 - permalink
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6 June 2003 - Hostel Fortuna, Budapest
Feeling hot, hot, hot

It's absolutely incredible. I can actually count on one hand the number of days it's rained on me on this trip. Apart from these few aberations, the weather has been absolutely incredible.

Take Budapest, for example. I am sweltering here in this hotel room. It must be 36 degrees plus outside. I drink so much water, I think I spend more on it than food.

I don't have a thermometer with me, but I find the state of my undergarments at the end of a hard day's walk to be a pretty good indicator. Stickiness corrolates to temperature. No, it doesn't hug the wall when I throw it there, but it does seem to momentarily cling before dropping.

I have to admit that I do look upon with some envy at all those air-conditioned tour buses as they zoom up and down the Buda hills, but I console myself with the thought that I am my own free man and not tied down to the whims of some fascistic tour guide. You hear me? I'm FREE! And getting a good work-out, to boot.

Sometimes all this works to my advantage. In the heat I'm not my normal slightly dishevelled self and turn into a more grotesque version, with my t-shirt collar askew from sweat, my wind-blown sculptured coiffure above a shining brow and the hair on my arms gently layered with a mildew of perspiration. All this helps cultivate my sweaty skinflint student look and I do get the occasional break when bargaining for discounts. Either that, or the shopkeepers are keen to get me out as quickly as possible.


posted on Monday, June 09, 2003 - permalink
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5 June 2003 - Outside Buda Castle, Budapest
The Buda Hills

Budapest is actually two cities, Buda and Pest. It's was actually originally called Pest-Buda but I think they changed it because Buda is the older half, because Buda looks over Pest and because Buda looks way cooler anyway, with it's castle.

In fact, I'm sure in some dictionary somewhere, next to the word 'buda' you're going to see the following description: "lots and lots and lots of hills, don't even try to walk it if you don't plan to climb a lot, but is pretty nice to look at".

It doesn't look too bad to start off with. Just walk down this road and you're at Matthias Church. Well, this road slopes at an almighty angle, and those smart Hungarian entrepreneurs had placed their grocery shops just at the point where you think "Oh my, this is hard work". I rewarded them by buying a litre and a half of water straight away.

The view of Pest from up there is, in short, outstanding.

(If it wasn't, I was going to march straight up to the nearest Tourist Information centre and demand to know why. It should be made mandatory by law that high places must print disclaimers if the view from the top is disappointing. I can name two places that should have large WARNING stickers on them: The Berliner Dom in Berlin and St Stephen's Basilica in Budapest.)

I did hunt around up there for Castle Cavedn as well, and I really have no idea where it is. This was a shame, because I really wanted to be able to title this piece "Climbed up a hill to climb down a cave". I went to the exact spot on the map, and there was something behind locked doors that looked a little like an entrance to a cave, but who knows?

The jewel in the Buda crown must be Buda castle itself. Like all good castles, it occupies the highest point in the city, and yes, it gets my You-Get-Good-Views-From-Here label of endorsement. It's large (but not as large as the palace complexes of Peterhof or Sanssoucci) and it now houses numerous museums, like the Museum of Cotemporary Art, The Hungarian National Gallery and The Budapest History Museum (none of which, unfortunately, I was terribly interested in).

There is actually a furnicular railway up to the castle, but I think that that's for wimps and you wouldn't catch a real man like me going up on one. Not unless it was for free, of course.

In my naivety (and this trip is certainly exposing lots of that), I had thought that all those fantastic buildings that I saw across the Danube from Pest were on one hill. There was this huge, Soviet-styled statue (I found out later it was the Liberation Monument) that caught the eye and warranted a closer look. I tried to find the best route
across to it, but to my consternation, I kept going downhill. Well, unsurprisingly, that was because it was on top of another hill.

Well, I had climbed to the top of Neak Pearn, and I had wheezed up to Seoul Tower, and I had battled Seoraksan and (barely) won, so I rolled up my sleeves and climbed Gell¢¾rt-hegy.

I am proud to say that I managed it without wheezing once, and I even beat a couple to the top (although I'm pretty sure they didn't even notice I was there). Yet again, great views from the top. And I even had the will-power to not give in and pay double-price for a litre of water and waited until I got down to rehydrate.

By the time I had got down, it was only five o'clock, but nine hours of climbing up and down hills had pretty much done it for me. But tomorrow, I think I'll tackle the much flatter Heroes' Square.


posted on Monday, June 09, 2003 - permalink
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4 June 2003 - Budapest
When they say "travel for free" they don't mean you travel for free

I've bought myself an EURail ticket. It's one of those things that lets you travel for so many free trips on European rail for within a certain period of time. You pay quite a bit for it, but since you travel for free, it should work out.

Well, not exactly for free. Let me give you some examples.

So, is it a good deal? Well, train travel in Europe (especially that area covering France, Germany, Switzerland and Austria) is so expensive that even with the EURail ticket at the exorbitant costs they're selling it at, it's actually worth it if you want to travel Europe by rail. This is especially true if you plan to either go trans-continental (e.g. all the way from Lisbon to Rome to Budapest to Scandinavia to Paris) or if you want to make many small day excursions.

It isn't anywhere near as good as the Delta Air Fly-All-You-Want ticket that I had when I was travelling in the states all those years ago. Then, the only criteria was that there was a free seat on the plane, and then off you go. There were no extra costs, nor did you have to make reservations.


posted on Monday, June 09, 2003 - permalink
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4 June 2003 - Somewhere between Berlin and Hamburg

There is a reason why people get stereo-typed. You hear about loud Americans and arrogant Germans, and there must be some basis for it all.

Take my train journey from Berlin to Budapest, for example. I was sharing a couchette cabin with this dear old German lady and two Americans.

These guys were walking advertisements for stereotypical Americans. They spent half the night talking to each other, in loud, annoying voices, on subjects as diverse as which girls in college were hot to which girls they've met on their trip so far were hot. Not that I enjoy eavesdropping on people, but there are times when you just don't have a choice.

"Man, do you remember Sharon?"
"Oh yeah, she was awesome, dude. But she'd do anyone."
"No way! How come she never did it with me?"
"Cos you're such an a******, dude!"

"Do you remember that chick from London? Man, she was hot!"

And so on, and so forth. For at least an hour they discussed various conquests (rather, degrees of conquest).

What was more surprising was that these guys weren't just out of high school. They were both over twenty six. Listening to them talk made me feel good that at 26 I was where I was in life, working in what I consider to be a worthwhile job, and not where they were. Okay, they probably made it with more hot girls than I did, but they'd have to be pretty hot to beat what I was doing.

Just as they were drifting to sleep, the train pulled into some other station. At least eight more Americans clambered on board into the cabin next door and just to confirm that the two I had just listened to weren't an aberration, they then proceeded to loudly explain to each other how sucky couchette cabins were, even if they did have awesome cup holders.


posted on Monday, June 09, 2003 - permalink
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21 May 2003 - Moscow
Bolshoi, bolshoi, bolshoi

In Russian, bolshoi means big, which is a word you would think they would use more often, given their predilection for all things big.

Everything is huge is Russia: the country, the buildings, the statues, the women.

Well, the women seem to fall into two categories: extremely thin or extremely large. There seems to be some sort of correlation between age and size. I exagerrate a little, but not much.

The statues are just huge. What on Earth makes people think that having large monuments to themselves is such a great idea?

But maybe there is so much in Russia that they can afford to be profligant. The country is huge. Remember, it's taking us six nights to cross the country from Ulan Batar to St Petersburg by train. There are (at least) five time zones covering the country. And there is a lot of space in between the towns.

Russia is large enough and rich enough in raw materials to be self-sufficient. They don't need to be trading partners with anyone if they don't want to. And yet, all this potential seems to be wasted. Things are sometimes so inefficient, especially when you compare it with countries like Singapore, Switzerland, Hong Kong and Luxemburg. It's a paradox that the larger a country is, the less they seem to be able to do with their resources. The US is an exception to this, and I suppose that Russia is correct in trying to use them as an example for privatisaton, but they have a long, long way to go.


posted on Monday, June 09, 2003 - permalink
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3 June 2003 - Somewhere between Berlin and Vienna
Meine Deutsch ist nicht so gut

I had studied German in school for two years. Well, actually it was four, but there was a break in the middle and I started again from scratch, so I consider it two. It was a choice between German, Music and Latin. There was no way I was going to take a dead language, and I thought that I could learn music on my own, so German it was for me, then.

I can tell you, from personal experience, that the gulf between GCSE German and the real world is as wide as the Malaysian football league and the English Premier League. They kind of look the same, but one is faster, more complex and takes much more skill to master.

Take the simplest of instructions, for example. The things that the conductor says when the train is entering the station I can just about understand, but some of it are educated guesses. "The next station is blahblahblah. We hope you had a lovely journey. Please do not forget your belongings.". Something like that.

I worry that I'm missing the subtleties. What if the conducter was actually saying "The next station is blahblahblah. We hope you've had a lovely journey. And, by the way, the train is on fire, so it would be a good idea to get off as soon as possible.".

It must mean something that the first full conversation I had was with a lovely film attendant near Alexanderplatz, although it consisted mostly of me repeating what she was saying.
"Matrix Reloaded, die Film is auf Englisch oder Deutsch?"
"Alles auf Deutsch."
"Alles auf Deutsch?"
"Sie m☻ssen nach Potsdam Platz gehen."
"Potsdam Platz?"
"Ja, es gibt Film auf Englisch im Potsdam Platz."
"Film auf Englisch in Potsdam Platz. Danke sch¢¼n!"

Now, I'm sure that you can understand what was going on in that last conversation without me having to translate it. And a lot of what I talk to people about is in that vein. They're just simple phrases that I know, and I kind of fake it around them.

Sometimes I get into trouble. They start playing dirty, by speaking too quickly and using words I don't understand.

For example, here's me ordering dinner:
"Einmal Fisch mit Frites, bitte."
"FischUndFrites? DreiStucke,Ja?"
"Erm... Ja..."
"Erm... Ketchup is gut, danke."

At this point I just give them a five Euro note that I know I should get change from.

It actually amazes me how few people in Germany are comfortable speaking in English. Unlike those in Finland, Sweden and Denmark, the Germans assume first you can speak German, and then only try communicating to you in English. Even the guided tours at Sanssoucci palace were in German (which is why I didn't go on one).

Anyway, despite my very basic German, most of what I say has been one of the following: Entschuldigung bitte (Excuse me please), Ich versthehe nicht (I don't understand), and Mein Deutsch ist nicht so gut (My German isn't very good).


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3 June 2003 - Somewhere between Berlin and Vienna
Matrix Reloaded

Aha. Finally. Three weeks after it opened in Moscow, I finally got a chance to see it. I didn't see it in Moscow or St Petersburg because Mama doesn't like Keanu Reeves. I didn't see it in Scandanavia because it was expensive (about RM40 for a ticket).

I almost didn't get to see it in Berlin because almost everything in Germany is in German. All the TV programs are in German. All the plays, the musicals, the newspapers, the magazines, most of the signs, the menus, you name it, it's in German. Subsequently, most of the films have been dubbed in German too.

They seem to be well done. I had the chance to watch Star Wars I: The Phantom Menance in a showroom and it was the German version. The guy dubbing Qui Gon Jin really sounded like Liam Neeson. It was a very impressive performance. Even Jar Jar Binks didn't sound as annoying.

But no matter how well done it is, I still am completely and thoroughly against voice-over dubbing. The inflection and manner of speech is part of the acting itself and to take that away from a film and replace it with something else is simply butchering a film. You
could argue that sub-titling also spoils a film, but surely less so than dubbing. I also have the same bugbear about translated works. I told my mum that I haven't read Dr Zhivagho because I don't read Ruussian. She was amazed, but surely, it's not the same thing to read a translated version. The author's words have been changed.

But we're moving away from the main point, and that is I want to say that I think that Matrix Reload is a very good film. There are also a lot of inidivdual things I could point to that I really hate, but overall, it's good. Even if it does have Keanu Reeves in it.

It's another sequel in a year of sequels. We've already had X-Men 2, we're going to get Terminator 3, the big one at the end of the year is The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King AND (as if it weren't enough) another Matrix sequel, Matrix Revolution.

The story picks up six months after the end of the last one. It begins with another awesome Trinity (Carrie Anne "tight wetsuit looks good on her" Moss) action scene where she single-handedly takes on many, many guys in a slow-mo camera-panning kung-fu fist-fight that the original initiated and is now standard in all action movies (and yes, she does look good in her threads).

Neo (Keanu "man, when will he gain more than one expression" Reeves), Trinity and Morpheus (Lawrence "listen to my elocution" Fishburn) are still running around the Matrix trying to free the people in it and save Zion, the last bastion of humanity in the real world.

Neo still has his super-powers that he discovered at the end of the last movie but now people keep making it clear that there's no point having the ability to fly and fight like you're on hyperspeed if you don't know what you're going to do with it. Morepheus is convinced that Neo is the One, but what on Earth (or on Matrix) is the One meant to do?

Well, this movie is about that, and that main plot is very well done. As before, there is a twist, but it all builds up so nicely to it, it works well.

The other story is Neo and Trinity's burgeoning love story and the introduction of Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Locke (Harry J. Lennix). These characters provide some tension and it's very probable that they will have a major part to play in the third installment.

Also back is Agent Smith(Hugo Weaving), but... well, there's more to him now than before. I shall leave it at that and let you find out.

Most of the action scenes are great and I never really get tired of watching them fight. There's so much effort put into choreographing them, just sit back and enjoy them as works of art.

The whole movie is stylish. It isn't innovative, but long black overcoats and sunglasses will probably never go out of style. And there's something about fighting while keeping a deadpan look on your face that's just, well, cool.

(I've just realised that the Matrix owes a lot of its look to the Terminator series - black threads, cool shades and that deadpan look.)

What I do have a big problem with is the use of computer-generated Neos for some of the action sequences, especially his fight with Agent Smiths. The problem is that it looks computer-generated. I know that a lot of the graphics in the film are created on a processor somewhere, but for goodness sakes, guys, it's got to look real.

When they look good, it works great. For example, the shots in a chase scene where the motorcycle swerves in and out of traffic must have been computer-generated to some extent, but it looks so good it's a thrill. But some other shots just look baloney. I hate them. They spoil the whole movie. If I could, I would edit out whole sections of fight scenes simply because they annoy me. Snip, snip, snip.

Another thing that annoys me are the long stretches of discourse that don't move the plot forward at all but seem to be just there emphasise how much the Wzarchowski Brothers (who produced, wrote and directed the series) know about philosophy. There is a point when being clever is just showing off. It's good to break up the action, but next time guys, try some comedy instead of existentialism.

However, all in all, these are not major problems and the movie works well enough for me. There are some very good scenes, especially the one after Neo goes through the door to find out what exactly it is he has to do (a lot of doors in this one, by the way). Also, just about every Morpheus scene where he spouts theology and struts and poses is actually great. It could have been bad, but it works with Lawrence Fishburn.

The initial reviews to this said that because the original set such high standards and expectations, this version just had more of the same, and there was nothing new.

Well, as far as I'm concerned, it just has to be good enough, and I enjoyed it enough to look forward to the next one this December. Even if it does have Keanu Reeves in it.


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3 June 2003 - Somewhere between Berlin and Vienna
No such thing as a lucky break on this trip

I've been racking my brain to think of lucky breaks I've had on this trip so far, and I can't come up with any. I can think of many 'challenges to overcome' and since they didn't kill me, I guess they made me better. I certainly hope so.

Maybe I exagerrate a little bit. I did manage to go into, not one, but two cathedral towers at student price because the cashiers insisted that I was one. I did get to travel on a Scandanavian ferry for free. I did manage to not fall off a mountaintop.

But, as a whole, the returns have not been enough to balance out the bad breaks.

Let's take this evening's hijinks as a case in point. I bought a ticket with a couchette from Berlin to Budapest. What a great idea. I get a good night's sleep and wake up to the strains of the accordians of Hungary (or whatever it is they play).

I've got my ticket, I checked it twice, I made sure I got my bags out early so I didn't have to rush in case anything bad happened (who says I don't learn from my mistakes?), I take good care of my bags and valuables and then I take note of my seat number (44) and wagon number (164) so I don't have to rush.

Except that my seat doesn't exist. Couchette 44 in Wagon 164 is a figment of somebody's imagination because Wagon 164 is not a couchette wagon.

I had a nice long conversation with the conductress, mostly in German. There is some sort of strike or something somewhere and because of that, the last wagon is not a sleeping wagon. That's how good my German was.

For a long, long moment I thought that she was going to send me to go sit in a chair and I was about to demand (Hear that? Demand.) for my EUR20.50 back because I wasn't going to be sleeping in a bed like I had paid for.

Fortunately, I didn't have to show my darker side (stop sniggering, you guys) and it was settled by me being given a fourth couchette in a wagon that already had three people, and would eventually get one more.

At this point, I am trying to be positive and I must say that I am extremely thankful that I still have my health, most of my money, my passport and (although the last is debatable) my sanity.


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1 June 2003 - JH Ernst Reuter, Berlin
Berlin's public transport

Today, a young lady stopped me and the following conversation took place:

Her: Hi! M¢¼chte¢¾ du ein fahr? (Hi there, fancy a ride?)
Me: Nein, danke... Ich habe kein Geld. (No thanks, I have no money)
Her: Schade... (Shame...)

And with that she zoomed off into the sunset. Nice looking girl, though, with fine legs.

I mention the legs because she was cycling at the time. Actually, she was cycling one of these velo taxis which are like modern rickshaws in Berlin. They seem to cover the park area between the Zoo and the parliament, where public transport is a little thin. It's also a bit of a tourist magnet.

Actually, they're a good idea. They're non-polluting and they complement Berlin's excellent public transportation system. They're not strictly part of it, being a private enterprise of some sort, but they work fine.

Berlin's main public transport arteries include the bus, the metro, the train and the tram system, and it's not too dissimilar to Stockholm's and Helsinki's.

It's an integrated system, so one ticket covers all. The basic ticket costing EUR2.10 (about RM8) lasts for two hours and you can do whatever you like in that time. You can transfer, double-back and get on or off however you like, within certain zones. For example, it's possible to go somewhere, do shopping and then travel back.

There are a plethora of variations, including a day card (EUR6.30 - not that good a value if you're not staying out late or travelling a lot), and short rides (EUR1.10 for up to three subway/train stations or six bus stops without changing).

Again, as with all these integrated systems I've seen so far, the keyword is trust. Nobody checks all the tickets on the subway and metro, and the bus drivers just give it cursory glance. The fine for being caught is EUR40.

The routes and maps here in Berlin are really good, and unlike in Copenhagen, I didn't spend ages trying to figure out exactly what I had to do. They have one map with all the train routes, and another that overlays all routes over a city map, and they do it consistently. Makes life a lot easier, I can tell you that.


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31 May 2003 - Somewhere between Hamburg and Berlin
German trains are W☻nderbar!

Especially if you're travelling first class. That's the one perk you get for travelling using an 'adult' EURail ticket - you get to travel first class. Well, I paid for it, I might as well use it!

The train between Copenhagen and Berlin was especially nice, although I think it was a Danish train, and not German, because the map in between the carriages were of Denmark. However, all the signs were in both German and Danish.

I'm now in the train to Berlin, and I'm all alone in first class. Not a bad deal, really.

The seats are wider and a bit more plush, and (this I especially like) there are little headrests you can lean on - useful for people like whose head lolls back and front and from side to side when I fall asleep in a chair.

The first class cabins also have little temperature controls, so you can adjust it to be a little cooler without having to open the windows.


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31 May 2003 - Somewhere between Copenhagen and Hamburg
The magic of technology

It's absolutely brilliant. I love technology. I love being able to stay in contact with everyone back home whenever I want. People don't appreciate how powerful technology is in changing lives. Toffler was right, I think: Changes in technology and society affect each other.

I can, while on a train heading towards Berlin, send SMS's to three different people on three different topics in less than five minutes. And they reply back to me in about the same time.

There is a cost to all this of course. I don't know how much the bill will be, but I could access the Maxis website and check my bill status.

Technology's wonderful.


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31 May 2003 - Somewhere between Copenhagen and Hamburg
Oh, so that dotted line means ferry and not bridge

If you look on a map showing rail routes around Europe, you see a dotted line joining Denmark and Germany, between R◘dby and Puttgarden. Now, I thought that it was a bridge, despite the legend showing blue dotted lines to be ferry routes. This was because the train I was boarding said very clearly "Hamburg Hbf" which meant I was going to stay on board it until I reached it. No mention of ferries anywhere on the ticket, on the timetable, on anywhere else.

Well, I should learn to trust map legends a little bit more. It was a ferry, but I was right too: I didn't have to get off the tain.

Another first for me. The train stops right outside the ferry, waits, and then gets on board. It's like a mini-station in there, and you can get off and wander about the boat.

It's a regular ferry, with restaurants, bars and the ubiquitous duty-free shops. You get a view of the sea and enough time to wolf down a fish and chips, which I did. They were also selling an all-you-can-eat salad buffet for DEK80 which was extremely tempting, but since I had a good breakfast, I didn't think I'd do it justice.


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31 May 2003 - On a ferry somewhere between Copenhagen and Hamburg
Even when I try to be organised...

Oh wow. The first real disaster of my own making this trip. I think tiredness has something to do with it - I was coping fairly well up to Ulan Batar and then pretty okay after that. Actually, it's a miracle that nothing bad has happened before this, given my propensity of being distracted by unimportant things.

I lost my left luggage card and only found out about it fifteen minutes before the train was due to leave. It was in the right-hand pocket of my 'flak jacket', which is where I put all the stuff I label "important" which I need ready access to. Well, it was in my right-hand pocket until I emptied it to organise it better. For some reason, I didn't recognise the card when I was cleaning up and relegated it to 'someone else's property' in the hostel dorm. I only realised my mistake when I saw somebody using the same card at the left luggage lockers. I would like to say that if I hadn't tried to organise the junk in my pockets, it wouldn't have been misplaced, which forms a rather convenient excuse for me to not ever clear out my pockets again.

Fifteen minutes is a lot of time if you can open your locker. It's not when you have to persuade a bureaucratic locker attendent to let you get your stuff.

It was quite easy to get him to open the locker, but then he closed it up again and told me that I had to fill up a form before I could get to my stuff.

Actually, it may have not been so bad if it was me who was filling up the form, but he insisted on doing it by refering to my details on my passport himself. It was then I found out he was short-sighted.

Once the form is filled in, he gives you another ticket and asks you to pay an additional DEK50 into the locker. This is after I had cunningly spent most of my Kr¢¼nes in anticipation of leaving Denmark. I gave him EUR20, and got back in return some unknown number of notes and coins (which I later figured out to be DEK140, which is
pretty close to the actual exchange rate).

If you've never had to climb two sets of steps and run a hundred meters carrying four bags at the same time, let me tell you, it ain't so easy. It's a little bit harder if you're asthmatic. For the second time on this journey, I got a slight asthma attack. Fortunately, this time around I had the Ventolin. Wonderful stuff. Really, really works. Here, have some free advertising on me.

The story doesn't quite end there. The zipper on one of the bags broke in the rush and now I have a makeshift combination of shoulder and trolley bag.

Lesson learnt? Left luggage cards fall into the same category as passports when it comes to importance. Either that or, DON'T BOTHER CLEANING OUT MY POCKETS!


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30 May 2003 - Copenhagen Danheim Youth Hostel
I Can't Cope-withagen

Wow. This is something I won't do again in a hurry: stop in a city for 'just one night' to get a taste of it, en route to a larger town. The idea was that I would stop by Copenhagen on my way to Berlin instead of going there straight from Stockholm. Originally I was going to go direct, but a friend had suggested that I look him up in Copenhagen. Furthermore, it takes 13 hours to travel to Berlin and the way the trains are arranged, it will always take up two days on the rail pass, so I thought, "what the hey, might as well do a stopover in Copenhagen".

Well, it was a bad idea, I think. Firstly, the train in from Stockholm gets in at about six in the evening. Secondly, the youth hostel I am in is far away from the centre of town. Thirdly, things are expensive in Copenhagen. Actually, things are very expensive. And lastly, my friend didn't reply my email.

It costs DEK15 (about RM10) to use a bus. It costs DEK50 (about RM30) to get a burger, fries and soft drink. Somebody was saying that they spent DEK1000 on the first day, and they didn't even do anything - it was just food and lodging. In case you're interested, I've been
surviving since this morning's buffet breakfast on one pair of Twix and an apple. And several bottles of water. And I walked the 5 km from the station to the youth hostel.


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30 May 2003 - Somewhere between Stockholm and
Malmo, en route to Copenhagen
So Far, So Swede

Well, Mama left me yesterday to fly back to KL via a short stopover in London, leaving me to fend for myself in Stockholm. Well, it's not that there's much to defend myself against. Swedes are generally nice people who speak good English and say "Hej" a lot. If you're wondering, the 'j' is a 'y' sound, so it's "hey" or "hi".

Mama thinks that "hej" is interchangable for "hello", "what's up?" and "good bye", although I disagree with the last one. If there are any Swedes out there who can clarify this matter, it would be very much appreciated.

Anyway, they almost always say this, certainly when you enter a shop or when you want to ask for something, and even if you happen to be sitting down on a bus next to them. It certainly makes your day when you get a bright smile and a jolly "hej" from a pretty face first thing in the morning.

However, you can sometimes see people getting impatient under that veneer of politeness, so I wonder exactly how far you can stretch them before they explode on you. Unfortunately, I am now leaving the country, so I am not going to be able to indulge in a bit of Swede baiting to find out.


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30 May 2003
Walking the walk

There's one big thing that separates Mama and me on holiday. I like to walk and she, unsurprisingly, doesn't. On top of everything, St Petersburg, Helsinki and Stockholm are pretty compact towns, so they're ideal for walking.

One reason why I like walking is because you can see everything from where you are to where you want to be. You can take your time, and detour whenever something takes your fancy. You can take pictures to your heart's content, and not have to rush to take one through a window. You are on holiday, after all - make the most of it.

Secondly, this is the only real exercise I'm getting at the moment. I'm not going for morning jogs, I'm not working out at the gym, I'm walking. At the moment, every week, I spend three or four days walking at least five kilometers, usually more.

Thirdly, I believe that only way you really get to know a place is to get lost a little in it and wander around, and you can't easily do this on public transport. But when you're walking, you can easily take a wrong turning on purpose just to see where it leads you.

Lastly, walking's free.

Actually, the truth is that once I know a place, walking to and fro kind of loses it's appeal a little, so if it wasn't for the fact that it's one way of saving money, I probably wouldn't do it so much.

Mama, on the other hand, has money, has shorter legs than me and is not good at walking long distances if she's not being distracted by something (like shopping). I'm terrible to her sometimes, and I feel bad for not trying harder with the public transport.

Lesson learnt: When travelling with somebody else, make sure that both arrange beforehand exactly how much walking we are going to do in a day.


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29 May 2003 - Stockholm
Skansen Open Air Museum

I actually like museums. There's something about them that excites the soul. The fact that they're made to edducate the general public gives them a nobility which I'm more than happy to share in.

I read an article recently which criticised museums for becoming more and more populist, moving away from the tradition of educating to one of making money. I didn't fully agree with it; in fact, I think that museums have a duty to be as fun as possible because that's the one sure way of making learning easier. I'm not suggesting that we relabel Disneyland as a museum, but we should see what is it that makes something like that work, and then incorporate it.

Skansen, in my book, is a fun museum. It's not fun in the white-knuckle, adrenaline-pumping way, but more in the this-is-a-nice-place-isn't-it way. (White-knuckle is next door, at the Tivoli Gardens amusement park.)

The down-side is that it's so big that things kind of get samey after a while, and because of the number of things on offer, some don't quite work. But, in general, I'm more than happy with the results.

Skansen is an open air museum, established in the early part of the twentieth century as an effort to preserve Swedish heritage. One thing you can't fault about the Swedes, it's their determination to be kind to the environment and their culture. Who else would invent a
soda-can crushing machine that automates aluminium recycling (including paying people for the effort).

Somewhere along the way, Skansen grew to include a zoo, so now it's can be thought to be in two parts: A set of authentic and well-preserved Swedish architecture that includes demonstrations of craftwork and a zoo that includes some animals native to Sweden and then quite a few that aren't.

The craftwork portion reminded me of the Korean Folk museum. Since Skansen pre-dates that, I'll assume that the Koreans included Skansen in their research, and the similarities show.

For a start, there are samples of architecture from all around the country. Honestly, this is my least favourite part of the whole thing. My poor brain just can't cope with the variety and in the end I've seen twenty different houses, and I'm still not able to tell you
which was which.

Within some of these buildings are museum attendents, but they're all nicely dressed up in period costume (read: turn of the last century). Some of them are actually doing something like baking cakes or working the printing press, and they're all ready to answer any
questons you might have. This is my favourite part of the whole thing. If you have the right people manning the museum, you can do wonders. They're well-informed, friendly and entertaining. And being there actually doing what they're explaining adds a whole new
dimension to the exercise.

You can, of course, buy anything they make, including food, silverware, glass instruments, printed material, you name it. If they make it, you can buy it. The prices are all quite reasonable and I suppose they help subsidise the museum.

(By the way, I think that the state should fund museums, and all this talk about corporate sponsorship should remain with places that are purely entertainment [Petrosains, anyone?].)

The zoo is pretty okay. It goes for the open-air concept popular with modern zoos these days. (Although the wolves and bears are kept in very deep open spaces, just in case some curious tourist thinks it's a good idea to tease one of them. If you ask me, people like that deserve all they get.)

There's actually a surprising amount of farm animals, although I suppose if you're putting up a model of a farm, you might as well include the whole shebang.

There's also elk, bison and seals, and then a special section, which is like a zoo within a zoo, that has exotic creatures, including lemurs, bats and tarantulas. (They let you pet the spiders, if you want. And no, I didn't want to. They're as big as my hand and some of
them have words like "bird-eating" in their names, and I reckon my hand is just the right size for a dove or a small pigeon.)

The zoo suffers from a lack of people to help explain things, and the signs are a little brief to be of much help; they also point out strange things, like how in a particular breed of cattle, the forelegs are bigger than the hindlegs (or something like that).

More annoyingly, because animals are now in their 'natural' environment, they're much better at hiding away from pesky tourists. Good for the animal, not good for me.

It's actually big enough for a whole day if you stop and look at everything, but if you just skim some parts and just do half a day, you can end early and then run off to Tivoli Gardens next door and scare yourself silly, just so that you get the full gamut of


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29 May 2003 - Stockholm

Sweden has given the world many things, for example: The Nobel Prize, Ikea and ABBA. Only the last is significant to this posting.

ABBA weren't just pretty faces, you know. Two of them also wrote the songs: Benny Andersson and Bj¢¼rn Ulvaeus. And before Paul McCartney wrote oratarios or Elton John wrote movie soundtracks, Benny and Bj¢¼rn, with the help of Tim Rice, wrote a musical called Chess.

I tend to get nostalgic when I hear music from Chess. It was the first musical I really liked through and through, although I must admit I was attracted to it because of it's links with the game. I was a bit of a chess geek back then.

The first and only time I watched it was when I was fifteen. It was a short three-show run at the Old Fire Station in Oxford and I persuaded my housemaster to make it a house trip. I enjoyed it thoroughly then. I really, really liked it, got the full album, heard all the songs. Then I got the American version of the cast recording which had a few new songs in it, and liked them too.

Because it's not considered to be in the same league as Les Miserables, Cats or even My Fair Lady, it's not a popular musical to put on and there has not been a long-running version of it other than it's initial release, although it seems to get a lot of tours.

They also put on one-off presentations, like the one being produced in Stockholm until the end of May. I would have taken my mother to watch it, but it's performed in Swedish, and I didn't think she would have enjoyed sitting through two and a half hours of people warbling in a foreign language if it wasn't opera. I don't even know if she'd
through it if it was an opera.

But, because it's been fifteen years since I last saw it, and because it's probably going to be another fifteen years before I get another chance to see it again, I went ahead, bought a ticket for SEK475 (slightly less than RM200) and resigned myself to remembering the English lyrics (which at one point in my mis-spent youth I completely
memorised, although age has a way of remedying follies like that).

What now follows is a review of the Stockholm production of Chess as performed on the night of 29 May 2003. Those of you who have not seen the musical, or are not familiar with the plot or music and will never want to be, I suggest you skip right on ahead to the next article - the following paragraphs will be painful to you.

To summarise the basic plot: Two players compete for the World Chess Championship and for heart of a woman during the height of the Cold War. One is Anatoli, a Russian with a frustrated marriage to his wife, Svetlana, and tired of his current life. The other is Freddie, a brash, arrogant American (I'll cut the snides about there being no
such other type) who is a brilliant genius, but spoilt to the bone. The only reason he manages to keep it up is due to the efforts of Florence, his assistant and general PA. Anatoly beats an over-confident Freddie in the first game, and Florence is exasperated with Freddie's viotile character. While cooling off in a bar after arguing
with him, she meets Anatoli, and there is an attraction between them. Anatoli wants to defect to the West with his new squeeze, but Molotov, Anatoli's politburo minder, suspects this and tries to foil him. All this builds up to the climax of the deciding game of the Championship that will decide who gets to wear the crown and win the

This production as a whole is thoroughly well done, especially the performances in the lead roles and the overall production values, but key changes in the tone of the plot jar with me a little.

What amazes me about this musical is the way whole-sale changes are made each time it is newly staged. The original West End version, to me, best balances Anatoli's conflict between love for a woman and duty to his country, and Freddie's attempts to redeem himself. The Broadway version (based on what I hear in the cast recording)
focusses on Freddy, while this Stockholm version most definitely is about Anatoli's affair with Florence and how it clashes with the family that he has back home.

To be honest, I don't really like the changes. I preferred it when both men were fighting for both Florence and the Championship. Florence's talents as a chess expert and game advisor is now non-existant and there's really no reason for Freddie to want her other than because he doesn't want anyone else to have her. The new version reduces Freddie's role so much that he is just a caricature of all things bad about Americans. His solo "Pity the Child" is now more of a tantrum than a plea for help and I think the story suffers for it.

I really would like to see a production that stresses the parallels between playing a chess game and the players trying to win Florence's hand. But maybe that's too obvious, and that's why I write reviews instead of directing musicals.

Apart from that one thing (which I think is a pretty big thing!), everything else about the performance was very good. The singing throughout, especially of Florence and Anatoli, is right on the mark. There are several new variations on delivery: The most famous song of the whole musical, "One Night in Bangkok" is now just background
nightclub music (the whole tournament is played in Merano now, instead of being split between it and Bangkok); the Arbiter's performance is more cloying than authoratative - a conscious, change, I'm afraid; and my favourite song in the whole musical, "I Know Him So Well", which was originally a heart-felt plea, is now a catfight between Florence and Svetlana. These all work well to keep the musical fresh, although the Arbiter's take on things doesn't reallly work well with me.

The other pieces which are played more or less as they were in the original are still pretty well done. "The Deal" between Freddie and Anatoli is especially good, and the conflict presented there is certainly better than when they are facing each other over the chess board. (Incidentally, yes, they really seem to be playing a game, but
from where I was sitting, I couldn't really follow the moves after the first few. If anybody knows what they were, I'd be happy to know!)

The set as a whole is as you would expect from Sweden - modern and spartan - with some elaborate props. The use of squares and black and
white are ever-present, as with just about every production of this musical, I'm sure.

There are also other novelties. For example, the Arbiter floats eerily over the game as it is in progress. More impressively, trapeze artists perform while Anatoli and Florence discuss their impossible love affair, although I have no idea how one relates to another (all that stretching and touching might be semi-erotic, I guess). Another
impressive point is how the entire chequered background, with practically the whole cast mounted on it, moves out and around the players as they play their final game. Never mind the creaking as it moves forward, it's still a pretty impressive idea.

All in all, did I enjoy myself? Yes, without knowing a single word of Swedish. Maybe key elements of the plot were explained in the dialogue, which would have made the changes more satisfactory, but never mind - I still left the theatre humming tunes in the key of Chess.


posted on Monday, June 09, 2003 - permalink
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I'm in Prague now, and I really like the city, despite only having been here for a few hours. A few of the reasons include: It's pretty, the girls smile nicely at you and the food can be cheap (if you know where to look and what to and not to eat). But the keyboards are still a pain to use - try figuring out how to get the @ key on a Czech keyboard.


posted on Sunday, June 08, 2003 - permalink
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Many thanks to those of you who've emailed to me lately. I was especially pleased to hear that at least one person out there likes my writing (praise and plaudits are always welcome!).

There are a few questions that people asked:

posted on Friday, June 06, 2003 - permalink
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Yet again, I have problems uploading articles from my alphawriter to Internet cafes. There's one here that has a USB port (EasyCafe) but they're &%$§&%&§$ only for show and don't work! :((

posted on Tuesday, June 03, 2003 - permalink
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Polygamy course soon
I'm not quite sure what to make of this, if it is some sort of compromise, or if they're just extending the logical idea of "since we have a kursus for people who want to get married, we should have one for people who want to get married again...".
posted on Tuesday, June 03, 2003 - permalink
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