Ptolemy has moved from Australia to Europe. This is the stories about what he sees, hears and smells. Be warned, this is not for the faint hearted.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Where have all the Aussies gone?

Where have all the Aussies gone?

Have you been into a pub recently? Have you had trouble making yourself understood? Are the bar staff at your local somewhat unfamiliar with your accent? After a year away from the UK, I have come back and I think I see the extinction of a time honoured working tradition: the Australian bar worker.

Australia Day provided a poignant example. We sought to avoid the crowds of the Walkabout for the more intimate environs of the Oz Bar in Bayswater. Things looked good: they provided the obligatory Fosters promotion where you got a scratchy ticket with every drink purchase. I found this out early because Petra*, a very pleasant, non-native English speaker behind the bar explained it to me. That was the first hint. But I wasn't worried, I was enjoying the pints of Fosters with Bundy & coke chasers. But the worm turned when the big screen lit up. My group gazed up in expectation, maybe we would see a Grand Final rerun or a Merrick & Rosso TV special (we could never be that lucky) or rugby or cricket or even a Kylie Minogue video.

Instead, we enjoyed 90 minutes (plus injury time) of English football. Stop now and make sure your heart is still beating, because there is worse to come: Half the pub was avidly watching the football.

I don't follow football. But I don't care much about it either way. But on Australia Day, in the Oz Bar, I thought this was a little sub-standard. And why was this travesty carried out? Maybe Australian-themed bars are going the way of the International Irish Pub. If every Irish pub in the world was staffed by Paddy's and Sheila's then Ireland would be denuded of the 18 - 24 year old semi-skilled workforce, so obviously they substitute in locals. Does Bar Oz find it that hard to find authentic staff in London, home of Australia's largest expatriate community? If the answer is 'Yes' it suggests that the Heckscher-Ohlin theory is in full effect. Our Eastern European cousins are willing to do the same job for less money.


*Name altered to protect the innocent. Ethnicity remains steadfastly unchanged.


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Monday, March 21, 2005

Gone but not forgotten

Ptolemy will return to update his tales shortly



Monday, December 27, 2004

A Good Place for a Moustache

Courtesy Summary:
WARNING: Educational material may be contained within, along with references to David Hasselhof.


Germany has an image problem. The citizens lack self esteem and outsiders harbour a number of curious beliefs regarding certain German practices. The ones I want to talk about today are lederhosen, David Hasselhof and beer steins.

Lederhosen (leather hose) are a southern thing. They are native to the Bavarians, and if you are so foolish enough to ask your native Cologne girlfriend if she has some, for example, you can well expect a bitterly scathing look and razor sharp putdown, all the more daunting in a harsh German accent. This is not in the least because lederhosen are worn by men. They certainly have camp value but I don’t think we want to project the image that we would secretly prefer our respective girlfriend’s to resemble, or even dress as, men, particularly not rotund, hairy Bavarian men. At the same time, it is wise to appreciate that the rest of Germany hates Bavarians. When Germany was unified in the late 1800’s, it was the Bavarians who held out and voted against unification. Even now they consider themselves very much a seperate entity. So although I think we have all pondered the attractions of sexy, lacy lederhosen over a gently yielding thigh, we must now come to the realisation that, like a good Michael Jackson comeback, such things will remain dreams.

David Hasselhof. Apparently he is big here, or so the rumour goes from outside world. The truth is a little more complex. It is true that he has a following in Germany, and one person even claimed that it was only the older generation that liked him. Actually, it all came about when Baywatch was launched in Germany, about four years after it was first released in the US (not an untypical delay in those days. These days it is about three). David, having a secure Baywatch career at that point, had gone into the studio and recorded an album, which released in Germany at the same time as Baywatch. So you had what was, at the time, the World’s Most Popular Show just starting, and one of the lead actors had put out some trashy pop tune. The result was a platinum album in Germany and a month or so of tour dates. Since then, David’s releases have not been as popular, although rumours that “The Hof” is a competent rapper, with an album to be produced by Ice-T, are circulating. I am not lying about that either.

Beer steins don’t exist. The word “stein” is an British-American invention to describe the large, often ceramic, beer mugs that are prized so dearly by tourists. Germans call them by the German equivalent of “beer mugs”. “Stein” is German for “stone” however, so maybe there is some obscure historical precedent hidden in some dusty village museum. The only comfort I can offer is that drinking beer is a national pasttime so there is no doubt that the beer you drink from the stein is part of a long and celebrated tradition.

Of course, living in Germany is not all about correcting cultural misconceptions, there is also the act of living that takes up my time. I have finally found a place where there is no stigma to growing a moustache, a place where earth tones in clothing are not only accepted, but often demanded. A place where the bad fashion of the 80’s is still a legimate choice of apparel (and I mean the fashion that we recognised was bad during the 80’s, not the ‘cool’ stuff we wore back then). It is a grand place.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

France: The Land That Dentistry Forgot

Courtesy Summary:
Number and duration of sexual escapades: nil (but I nearly got to be a roadie)
Gender of sexual escapade partner/s: N/A
Number of orifices “engaged” during sexual escapades: N/A
Number of independent observers to sexual escapades (including cameraman): N/A
Amount and type of drugs consumed: Coke: nil; Weed: nil; E: nil; Amyl: nil; LSD/Hallucigens: nil; Cigarettes: nil; Alcohol: est. 5 litres of beer.

Now that we have kept the less cerebral satisfied as to what has been happening, the rest of us can enjoy the details.


I went to Paris last weekend. It was an impulse thing. I was called by an old banking buddy on Wednesday. He had organised a weekend to France with his wife and she had to cancel on him because she was working on a research report on Greek banks for an investment bank. Wade (the friend in question) put out a call offering the hotels as he could not cancel the reservations. A quick discussion revealed that Nadin had no interest in the trip as she had to go horse riding, and also she had been to Paris on a trip during highschool and had been so traumatised by it that she never wanted to return. Kind of like a school trip I once did to Apollo Bay where I ended up with burnt shoes and 13 striches in my left thumb, but that’s another story. So I hurredly returned Wade’s call with the proposal: maybe he could get a weekend pass from his wife permitting his absence, and he and I could turn it into a road trip of College-Days proportions. Being married, and sensing he had some vague moral high ground as the wife had cancelled the trip and not him, and he had left the toilet seat down, and not snored too much the previous week when he went out for drinks, which had not gone on much past 11pm, he readily agreed. Now putting a lie to the theory that it is really cheap to travel around Europe, it cost me €160 for a return train ticket. I probably could have got it cheaper flying, but I did book the day before, and so missed out on any Super-Saver tickets. I blanched when the train man told me the amount, but I reassured myself that this is what road trips are all about: commitment to the cause. It is like when you get called and told to come down for lunch at Portsea, and you think it will take about an hour to get there, and then an hour later you realise that you are out of Minties and low on petrol and it is going to take you another hour and a half to get to the fucking pub, where you will be able to enjoy about three beers and then jump in the car to motor on home for another two and a half hours. Then you say to yourself: It isn’t a road trip without commitment. And a sense of suffering.

Anyway, I left Cologne at 10am, something that was surprisngly difficult, because I had to set an alarm for the first time in eight months. Do not underestimate how beligerent I felt that morning, especially for a man reknown for his morning beligerence. It was, however, a painless four-hour train ride to Gare du Nord, Paris, via Aachen, Liege and Brussels, a combination of picturesque countryside, particularly in France, and some of the best in post-war architectural experimentation.

I got into a glorious sun-drenched Paris at 2pm and startegically shifted my wallet to the front pocket to deter pickpockets. Wade had given me the address of the hotel, a Best Western on Rue Berbere du Opera. He suggested taking the Metro to the station called Opera and figuring it out from there. I was in no rush, and indeed Wade would not get in on the Eurostar until 11pm, so I thought it would be the next adventure. It had been a couple of years since I was last in Paris, but the Metro is pretty easy to navigate, so I was quickly on my way. I arrived at Opera Metro, looked at the local street map and could find no reference to Rue Berbere. Little did I know that “du Opera” aledgedly linked to Rue Berbere was in fact a solid twenty minute walk away, roughly equidistant between my current position and Gare du Nord. But I was on holiday, and so I took the opportunity to wander the streets and get reacquainted with Parisien streets. After orientating myself, by loitering around tourists with less of an idea than I did, I made my way accross town and check in, then settled down to the all important holiday activity of taking an afternoon nap. An hour and a half later, I was up and ready to see a few sights prior to the commencement of the France:Greece game in the Euro 2004 football tournament. It was 6pm by this stage and so I knew no offical sites would be open, but all I really wanted to do was walk around and absorb the vistas having visited a lot of these destinantions in previous years. I caught the Metro to just south of the Seine, and crossed the bridge to Notre Dame, and then followed the river towards the Louvre (made famous in Dan Brown’s The Da Vince Code – yes, the glass pyramids are there, wherein is held the proof that Jesus shagged Mary Magdalene and therefore 2000 years of priestly celebacy is all a particularly cruel joke at the expense of pre-pubescent children the world over) and beyond, up the Champs Elysee to the Arc du Triomph, built so Napoleon’s troops could celebrate their impressive victories over the Italians, Prussians and Habsburgs. I sat there and tried to imagine what it would have been like to see the world’s largest Contiki tour for Germans come through sixty years ago. I wonder what their trip song was to get them up in the morning. I then pondered the idea of opening a Museum of Military History in Germany, a long-held concept that I think just might work if there is an audacious foreigner in the lead. After some pleasant day-dreaming, I realised I was late and so I ran to the Metro to find a suitable venue to watch the game.

It ended up being another loss for the French, albeit somewhat less degrading then a two month collapse in the face twelve Panzer divisions (and associated support). Greece scored late in the second half and the Fench went home early. The hopes for a wild night out in Paris evaporated. I retired to McDonalds for a couple of cheeseburgers, then the off-license for a couple of cans of beer, and the hotel to await Wade’s immient arrival.

Which duly occured at 11:15pm.

We rapidly moved to the street level to soak up the local night-time ambience. A nearby bar provided the first comfortable base. The second was an Irish pub, O’Sullivans, my mother’s maiden name, which was busy, exhibiting the as yet unexplained attraction of Irish bars accross the world. As you can well believe, Wade and I were persued by a number of hot, teenage, gagging-for-it French chicks, but we were looking for a more sophisticated crowd and moved to the neighbouring salsa bar at 1am after a quick call to a London friend to find out where “the cool places” were. The bar was playing a lot of Beyonce for a salsa club and we did an admirable job of drinking Paris’ third worst caipirinha while ogling the dancefloor, in true businessman style. At least Wade had taken his tie off. Bed soon thereafter.

Next morning was up at 10, petit dejuneur at a nearby locale and off to the largest flea market in France, at Clignacourt. Wade was looking for some 1930’s travel posters that are currently de rigeur with certain elements of Manhattan society, and the bars they frequent. The flea market certainly had it’s share of disreputable characters selling all lengths and widths of string and wire, but we found our man, who lamented the lack of tourists, and hence the knock-off price he gave us, and the fact that Napoleon had been so strong and now France had nothing. There is nothing like the lament of the state-educated, small-time businessman with a penchant for airport novels. I should have asked him if he had read the follow up to Chariots of the Gods.

We were now under some time pressure. Up until this point, it had been a standard road trip, all drinking and travel posters and hot women and petit dejuneur. But the real reason for our odyssey was something else. It was 1pm in Paris and we had to be 85 kilometres away, in Samois-sur-Seine at 4:30pm to watch the opening act at the Django Reinhardt memorial jazz festival. If you don’t know anything about this festival then I won’t hold it against you. Django Reinhardt was a musician who pioneered a certain type of jazz, gypsy jazz, in the 30’s. After a disappointing visit to America, he returned to France and settled in the hamlet of Samois-sur-Seine where he later died. His style of music never reached a wide audience, to the point where it dwindled to the point that (it is reputed) there were only three bars left in Paris that kept the music alive, although they presumably also did a little Open Stage Poetry on Monday nights after the Simpsons. And there was an annual gathering at the place he was buried, Samois-sur-Seine. Then a couple of years ago, as far as I can remember from somehat blurred conversations, Woody Allen did a film loosley based on the Django Reinhardt story and the festival started to gain a little more attention, until it’s glorious form today: about eight hundred people milling around and watching the one stage, and a little impromptu jamming on the side, on a small island in the Seine. Check out the website
http://django.samois.free.fr/index.htm and marvel at the slendidly slipshod translation.

But what did I care? I never really got into jazz and I was miles away. So Wade and I started moving with a purpose. Efforts to hail a taxi at Clignacourt failed utterly. Sure, there were five parked at a sign that said Taxi, but it looked like we had got there during their coffee break. So we took the Metro back to the hotel, and our bags, and got the hotel to call a cab that arrived in four minutes. Off to Gare du Lyon, three different queues for a ticket and a casual Croque Monsieur and half a litre of beer before the train ride at 2:47pm.

3:30pm and we arrive in Fountainbleu, home of INSEAD and a hotel receptionist with a passing resemblence to Kiera Knightly which got us a bit excited. Our hotel, La Napoleon, was appropriate and when we called for a cab to get to the festival, they said it would take half an hour. A quick beer (330ml) and at 4:15 we were in the cab and the meter said €32.00 and counting. This was before the six kilometre trip to the festival. Wade judicously questioned the sum and we were told that Fountanbleu taxi drivers only work from Monday to Friday. So on the weekend, taxis are called from a presumably less unionised neighbouring village, hence our starting cost. Needless to say, I was a little shocked. But what does one do when you are stuck a few miles from your goal, with a deadline to meet? So we accepted that this was in some way a karmic debt being repaid, and if we have any luck it will haunt the Fountanbleu taxi drivers, especially the next time I have to give investment advice to a French pension fund manager. We got to the festival about half way through the first set, so not a bad outcome all things considered. Wade’s brother, Carter, was on stage playing along with Alfonso and the band Swing Ghitan. They were rocking the audience with some great, fast-paced gypsy jazz with a few ad hoc inclusions such the Simpsons theme, a bit of Scorpions and a few other bits I did not recognise. After the set, the following band that came on seemed to be a bit more traditional and slow paced and it threatened to send me to sleep, so Wade and I grabbed his brother, brother’s wife, and miscelleneous others and off we went to while away a few hours drinking beer, listening to the odd bit of gypsy jazz and just hanging out on the sunshine. At 10 pm we caught a shuttle bus back into Fountainbleu, walked half an hour to get back to the hotel and ‘enjoyed’ a late night kebab. Keira Knightley was no longer on duty.

Sunday morning and it was going to be a busy day in transit. Petit dejuneur was coffee and croissant, and a casual wander around the local chalet grounds and a chance to look at the peacocks. Then I left Wade and Co. and made for home, which was speedy and not really that interesting.

Research shows that France has the lowest per capita consumption of deodourant products in the EU. I believe it.
ps. This computer’s dictionary is German, so if this is riven with spelling errors, then you have now have a much better idea of how good I am at both spelling and typing.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Work in progress

This blog is under construction.

Until it is established, you should investigate:

http://frankmcgrath.blogspot.com