Sunday, July 27

Life as a fox


Our neighbourhood fox is looking decidedly healthy these days. I originally though he had some sort of nasty mange but have come to realise that he's simply been moulting his winter coat. We recently spotted him with a companion in the neighbour's yard so we're hoping to see a couple of mini-foxes before Summer is done.


Last week we also had a baby seagull learning to fly from a window sill directly below our flat. The poor bird either fell out of its rooftop nest, or boldly decided to give flight a go without success. The young fledging sat on the window sill for two days before finally making it to the ground via a small window-box roof. It was gone the following morning. We suspect our fox friends enjoyed a gourmet meal overnight.

Wednesday, July 23

Life as a soap opera

My brother the Olympian

Regular readers will have noticed that it's been several weeks since my last post. Needless to say plenty has happened. In fact recent events have almost surpassed those of a prime-time soap opera. In my wildest dreams I couldn't have crafted a plot to outpace the last two weeks and consider it credible.

First up, my father went into hospital for a second round of major cancer surgery. A two hour operation saw five tumours safely removed from his liver. All tests confirm that his cancer has been successfully contained. He'll live for many more years in perfectly good health. Dad's condition is so rare that the liver specialist admitted this was the first such case he'd encountered in his entire professional career.

A few days later my brother Hamish heard that he'd been selected to join the Austrian Olympic Team in Beijing. He'll be a mechanic for the Mountain Bike team. As a member of the support crew he'll participate in the Closing Ceremony. It's incredible to think that he'll be on centre field inside Beijing's stunning Birdnest Stadium during the closing festivities.

However, as with all good soap operas, our run of good news came to an abrupt end on Friday, July 11. The previous day Garry and I flew to Berlin with my best friend Brendan and his partner, Grant, for a three-day weekend. Our plans were disrupted early the next morning by news that Grant's mother had died unexpectedly in Sydney. Airline strikes and schedule challenges meant that Grant couldn't fly home until Monday morning. He eventually decided there was little he could do for 48 hours and we all agreed to continue with the weekend in Berlin. I'll share more about our time away in a later post.

Grant's news was followed on Sunday evening by word that my Auntie Pam's partner had also passed away. Bob had been unwell for some time so his death was not unexpected. However, as with any death, her news was sad to hear. My Mum couldn't travel to be with her sister given that my Dad had just been discharged from the hospital.

Our soap opera week was taken to another level barely 24 hours later. Hamish contacted the family early Tuesday morning to share news that his father-in-law had died. Hermann Wieser was 68 and in perfect health. His passing was completely unexpected and came as a huge shock to all of us. Hermann's funeral was held in Kitzbuhel yesterday. I flew in from London along with nine other people to attend the service and burial.

The service, while conducted in German, was very moving. It was held in an old, ornate and gilded Catholic church overlooking the town. It's hillside location is stunning, surrounded by towering mountains. The service was well attended with standing room only. I was particularly moved when the sun briefly appeared as the funeral procession slowly made its way to the grave site. The alpine backdrop, traditional churchyard and somber stream of black-clad mourners all lit by brief sunshine were the hallmark of a classic Hollywood scene. As I reflected on the moment I couldn't think of a more fitting tribute to a life well-lived.

With so much sadness in the air it was almost a relief to close off recent events with a family celebration. Today was my niece's sixth birthday. With so many people still in town it seemed appropriate to come together and celebrate a life that's just beginning. Nicole was excited to receive lots of shiny new toys and was just as happy to share a large icecream cake with the extended family. Hopefully our soap opera session has now run its course and life is back to its more mundane pace.

Monday, July 21

Odds and sods


Brendan and I recently spent a day sight-seeing in London, visiting places I'd yet to see. This included a trip to Crystal Palace, once home to the famous Victorian glass building that gave the area its name. We also visited Hyde Park, enabling me to finally see the popular Peter Pan statue I've always heard about.


Our day of sights began with a train ride to Crystal Palace. Here a large park spreads across a hillside overlooking South London. It was also home to the cast-iron and glass building built to house the Great Exhibition of 1851. Originally erected in Hyde Park, it was later moved to the park that now bares its name. It's main entrance was dominated by two water jets shooting 76 metres into the air.


Sadly the structure burnt down in 1936. Today, the only visible remains are a series of brick terraces, grand staircases and a few surviving sculptures. We found a small reproduction of the facade in one corner that simply hints at the grandeur that once dominated the hill. Today, the site's most prominent feature is London's main television transmission tower.


We later tried to visit the Victorian dinosaur park, but the gates were closed thanks to a local government strike. Instead we made our way back into town, stopping to walk the banks of the Thames. I took Brendan on my tourist river walk past the London Eye, over Westminster Bridge, past Big Ben (stopped for the classic red bus and clock tower photo) and along Embankment to Cleopatra's Needle.


We then made our way to the Science Museum. I'm always fascinated by the Apollo 10 capsule displayed in the main hall. I still marvel at the thought that this machine once orbited the moon. Equally fascinating is the world's first MRI scanner.


Our final stop for the day was Hyde Park. We stopped to watch the locals paddling in the Diana memorial fountain, before wandering along the Serpentine Lake to the bronze Peter Pan statue. Unveiled in 1912, the statue depicts Peter Pan standing on a tree trunk watched by woodland animals and fairies. We also encountered an unusually friendly rat who had absolutely no qualms climbing onto my shoe.

Saturday, July 19

Berlin


The forthcoming Summer Olympics have focused plenty attention on China’s national capital and its incredible transformation. In recent times the city has opened a new airport terminal, underground metro lines, spectacular sports stadiums and dramatic new public buildings. I’ve read articles that compare the city’s development to that of Paris, London or New York during their respective economic heyday.

I first visited Beijing in 1998. Since then I’ve returned regularly for business, witnessing first-hand the remarkable transformation. I still recall standing at a major intersection, a few short blocks away from Tiananmen Square, and being transfixed by the expanse of bicycles I could see in every direction. Today, the same intersection is just as chaotic, but the bicycles have been replaced by a noisy sea of cars.


I’ve seen only one other city, Berlin, transform itself in a similar manner over the same time frame. My first trip to Berlin in August 1990 came only nine months after the Wall had fallen, and a month before reunification of the post-war German nations. At the time, we’d hitch-hiked into Berlin along one of the three autobahns that had once linked it with the West. Ominous border booths and fences were still in place (but not in use) and the East Germany Ostmark was still in circulation.


I’ve returned in 1996, 2002 and again last weekend when Garry and I ventured to Berlin with two friends from Australia; Brendan and Grant. This was my fourth time in the city, their first. We stayed on the banks of the Spree River, in Mitte, a neighbourhood that was once part of East Berlin.


Each time I’ve visited, the city’s progressive transformation has captivated me. In 1990, Potsdamer Platz was nothing more than an empty field in the heart of the city surrounded by the last remnants of the infamous Berlin Wall. Six years later the same location was an astonishing forest of construction cranes stretching for almost a kilometre. Another six years on and it was home to a modern, light-filled public atrium linking half a dozen ultra-modern glass towers.


Today, a further six years on and the city continues to surprise and delight me. This time I noted the new soaring Hauptbahnhof terminal, a new stadium on the banks of the Spree and entire neighbourhoods in former East Berlin that had become fashionable café zones. Even the restored Reichstag was sporting a new metro station. I was glad to see a few decaying remnants of the old Cold War city still remain.


The East Side Gallery is still in place. This preserved portion of the Berlin Wall on the northern bank of the Spree River was transformed into an outdoor art gallery after the wall fell. Its stark concrete wall is painted with colourful murals, many with political themes reflecting on the city’s release from decades of fear and oppression. In 1996 the paint was bright and the images larger than life. Today, the same artwork is faded and blotted by graffiti.


Checkpoint Charlie has become a cliché tourist spot. The once imposing border post has been replaced by a Disney-clean guard booth flanked by meticulously arranged sandbags and two flag-bearing uniformed soldiers. You can pose in front of its perfect façade once you’ve greased each soldier’s palm with a few euros. It was hard to fathom that the city’s once frightening reality had become little more than a tourist’s happy snap.


I was relieved to see a few poignant memorials to the city’s painful past have been sensitively preserved. Perhaps the most striking of these was the Topography of Terror, a open-air display near Potsdamer Platz that documents the history of the Nazi Gestapo. A preserved, tattered section of the Berlin Wall provides a sombre backdrop. It’s here that you’re reminded of how much heartache the city’s citizens have endured for almost eighty years.


I was also glad to see that the simple Wall Victims Memorials was still in place near Brandenburger Tor. This memorial consists of a line of white crosses that immortal individuals killed attempting to escape from East Berlin. The last of these victims died less than nine months before the wall fell. Brandenburger Tor itself has been transformed. A once isolated landmark demarcating the border between East and West Berlin is now overshadowed by a ring of uninspiring modern buildings that link it directly to the surrounding neighbourhood. Personally, I think it’s lost much of its grandeur in the process.


Other familiar sights remain untouched by progress. Over the course of the long weekend I took the boys up the TV tower at Alexanderplatz, past the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedachtniskirche war memorial church and along the grand boulevard of Unter den Linden. Each was as memorable as the last time I saw it.


However, perhaps the most memorable highlight was the Pergamon Museum on Museumsinsel (Museum Island). Here we saw the impressive Pergamon Altar, a reconstructed Roman temple, that gave the museum its name. The altar sits in a large glass-roof atrium, the height of a three-storey building, making for a breath-taking experience as you enter the museum itself.


Two years ago, Garry and I were fortunate enough to visit the ancient town of Pergamon in Turkey. At the time, our tour guide showed us a low-profile, grass-covered platform and noted that it had once been home to the very same altar. Recalling its original location brought this museum artefact to life in a rare and wonderful moment. Once again, Garry and I were reminded of the unique experience afforded by our life in London.

Sunday, July 6

Guest appearances


We’ve had two friends from Australia staying with us for more than a week. Brendan and Grant are seeing the sights at a pace, along with Brendan’s flatmate, another good friend, John. As well as the regular tourist sights and sounds, they’ve fitted in at least one highlight Garry and I have yet to experience. 48 hours after landing at Gatwick they successfully queued for Wimbledon, securing tickets for the N0.2 court. Unfortunately Brendan came home with a shocking bout of food poisoning and spent the rest of the evening throwing up. Not quite the souvenir he's anticipated.


Last weekend Garry and I took the boys to Borough Markets, one of our favourite London experiences. We came home with a fresh Ostrich egg – a first for all of us. Later in the week it was transformed into a delicious leek and spinach frittata. It proved ideal for feeding eight hungry dinner guests, possibly the only recipe that requires the equivalent of 18 eggs. Our neighbourhood fox even put in a brief guest appearance.


I took our guests for a tour of Greenwich, including a visit to the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College. It's been 18 years since I last saw the hall. We also wandered through the Old Royal Observatory. Something I've never done. I was surprised to discover a surviving segment of William Herschel's telescope on display. This very instrument was used to discover the planet Uranus, on March 13, 1781. Yet another piece of history comes to life in Europe.


Last Sunday we also made an early morning dash to Stonehenge and on to Salisbury before dropping John off at Heathrow. It was wonderful to be visiting old favourites with close friends. Stonehenge was as remarkable as ever, its bold shape backlit by intermittent sunshine. Next weekend we’re off to Berlin for three days. The boys will then be off to Paris for three days.