Continental Confusion, Krakow and Commissions

Hello, I’m returning to my blog after a long gap. In August, I went ‘home’ to England to see my elderly parents, family and friends – more about that in future posts – and returned to Australia via a few days in Frankfurt (ahh, Europe…) at the end of September. I came back suffering the usual dose of continental confusion! Where is home, what is home, where do I want to live/retire? Those long-haul flights don’t help; they merely intensify the feeling of distance between Australia and everywhere else. When I first get back, I remain suspended in some kind of limbo, my head and heart still in my mother’s kitchen while my physical self has landed on Australian soil. Sometimes it’s a schizophrenic existence having two parallel lives across a large divide. But I am glad to say I’m feeling far less conflicted than when I first returned.

There’s nothing like springtime blossoms, a beloved dog with floppy spaniel ears, a bunch of fabulous friends and a busy new job to anchor me back here. I’m now a month into my new job and it’s varied, fun and stimulating but busy, client- and deadline-driven so I don’t always have much juice left over for blogging.


That was what was such a treat when I was away; how I relished keyboard-free time without the constant need-to-know pull of social media, without deadlines, word counts and writing commissions. Seven weeks without my mobile ringing – can anyone remember what that is like?! I only went onto international roaming a couple of times: once when I spilled red – very red staining to purplish blue – fruit tea on my sister’s brand new carpet and missed the train to Margate as a result; and the second time when the return train from Margate was delayed due to a trespasser on the line.

This trip was more luxurious than previous European trips. I travelled Premium Economy which, although nothing like as comfortable and pampered as Business Class, was well worth the investment in terms of the overall travel experience (in fact I got a great price as my itinerary involved a hop-skip-and-a-jump 10-hour layover in Hong Kong both ways and a stop in Frankfurt). The food is a bit better, the seats are longer and wider and recline further than in economy minimising sleep-sabotaging episodes of neck slumping, and, with fewer people, there’s more air to go round.

I also ditched Airbnb accommodation in favour of hotels as, frankly, I am over shared bathrooms and kitchens and self-catering. Lovely as the spacious attic room in Krakow (November 2014) was, when I ran a bath it leaked all over the floor as the tub needed sealing with silicone. Then the window-less broom cupboard-sized shower room stank of damp. You get the picture.

No, this time I stayed in a boutique hotel in Margate with funky chandeliers, sea views, great food and cocktails, and in Frankfurt I went to a family-run hotel just outside the city complete with pool, spa and sauna, patisserie, chocolate shop, fabulous restaurant and flirtatious barman! Again, that’s another story. But don’t get too excited…

Frankfurt's Eiserner Steg or Iron Bridge - complete with lovers' padlocks

Frankfurt’s Eiserner Steg or Iron Bridge – complete with lovers’ padlocks

Anyway, back to my November 2014 visit to Krakow, a gem of a city packed with history and interest. And full of museums. Hence my travel feature commission titled ‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum’. I ran around Krakow in an adrenal whirl packing in as much culture, caffeine and culinary delights as I could in the three days I was there. No time for luxuriating. Hopelessly conscientious (I was a bit of a swot at school…), I visited all bar one of the museums mentioned in my article. So I was particularly pleased when my article was finally published last month in travel magazine Get up & Go. If you’d like to read it, click on this link:

A well travelled piece of cheese, coincidence and circular stories

(Please note all pictures at the end due to iPhone formatting challenges!).

I started writing this on the train from Budapest to Zurich (I got on in Vienna). It was good to spend all day sitting down after a hectic but happy few days! Sipping a cappuccino – I NEVER drink coffee but having burnt the candle at both ends, it seemed a good plan – I discovered a piece of blue cheese in my bag.

Rewinding to Kraków, a fellow ‘airbnber’, a lovely guy from Asturias, Spain, insisted on giving me a chunk of his favourite blue cheese – a mix of cow’s, goat’s and sheep’s milk.

He’d brought it all the way from Northern Spain and reckoned it was among the best. I’m not big on dairy usually but it was rather good if a bit rich for breakfast!

Cut to my last night in Kraków when I moved to a motel near the airport ready for my 6.25am flight to Vienna. There was no way I could get my luggage down four flights of steps (bear in mind that each flight had 24 steps with a tiled halfway landing) at 4.30am. Out of respect to the Asturian, I popped the cheese into my bag before I set off.

Extracting every last ounce out of my time in Kraków, my luggage, the cheese and I went to a traditional Jewish restaurant in Kazimierz to catch some Klezmer music on the way to the motel.

The restaurant called ‘Once Upon a Time in Kazimierz’ was a great find. I’d called a number earlier in the day, and not speaking Yiddish or Polish, muddled through in German and English, enough to get the name of the street.

The decor reflected the building’s history as a tailor’s shop with sewing machine tables, wedding dresses and suits hanging from the ceiling, coat hangers on the wall, boxes, shelves and leather suitcases dotted around.

One of the numbers the band played was a song I’ve sung in my choir- ‘Bei mir bist du Schoen’ by the Andrews sisters (are you reading K and R?!). So there I was foot tapping away, drinking mulled wine and feasting on duck with cranberry sauce.

A familiar looking and sounding pair walked in and sat at the table behind. An English father and daughter. Where did I know them from? Where they perhaps famous? Actors? We got into conversation and it transpired that they had taken part in a BBC historical reenactment program called Turn Back Time – The Family. It screened in Australia as well as the UK and I had seen it. Not only that, I remembered the roles they had played through the ages, pre-World War One being the toughest when they were a working class family. I was interested to hear it was pretty authentic, privations and all, apart from the emergency mobile phone (a health and safety requirement) that doubled up as a torch when visiting the outside loo!

How likely was it that they would find an Aussie fan in downtown Kraków?! Quelle coincidence! Needless to say, we found plenty to chat about and bought extra rounds of drinks which put paid to my early night.

The motel was in no man’s land surrounded by lorries, factories with pacing guard dogs and automated gates. My taxi got a bit lost but, thanks to that extra shot of raspberry vodka, (coffee, dairy and booze- what’s going on?!), I was too relaxed to worry. Of course it was all fine and, on arrival, I was greeted by an outstandingly charming woman
(customer service in Poland is not always the best) who helped me print my boarding pass for the next morning.

I was in Vienna by 10am having had 4.5 hour’s sleep. Ouch! Checking into Pension Susanne, a fabulous old-style hotel right in the centre, I realised the cheese was still in my bag! I’d somehow got rather attached to it and so put it on the windowsill to breathe. Then it was 12.30 and time for lunch at the flat of the family I au-paired for in 1982.

Amazingly, the father of the family still lives there and it’s hardly changed in 30 years. I could remember it all, the same ancestral oil paintings, the same dining table, the same heavy Biedermeier furniture and Louis X1V style chairs in the living room. But they couldn’t remember me!! Hardly surprising; the children were 3 and 5, they had lots of nannies and it was the mother who
took charge of everything. Sadly, she died in 2009 and Peter now lives with a carer.

I was flooded with memories of my time there, not all of them happy. I was terribly homesick back then and struggled to feel at ease with a Viennese family boasting aristocratic heritage. Suffice it to say, I walked away with mixed emotions. There’s something rather call cold and formal about Vienna in my experience.

However, I broke the rather depressed spell with an afternoon stroll taking in a bit of retail therapy treating myself to a Gmundner Porzellan vase- oh God, more luggage- a mug of Gluhwein in a rather tacky Christmas market, making a short pilgrimage to the Ephrussi Palace (see my previous Ohhh Vienna post), and then marveling at some of the traditional shops, one for example devoted to chandeliers and crystal glass and one to hunting gear and dirndls. Zara and H & M, which seem to be everywhere from Kraków to Zurich, are not a patch on these old established stores.

There was just time for the briefest of naps before the opera, which was magnificent from the choreography to the singing and subtitles on little screens in front of each seat (there was nothing like that in 1982!).

The Cunning Little Vixen is a short opera so afterwards I went to the famous Hawelka cafe near the Jewish museum. The artist Adolfo Frankl, a holocaust survivor, lived and worked there. I had come full circle – he survived Auschwitz and his story, those of other survivors and the 144 brave souls who managed to escape helps to balance the horror of the crimes committed there (I only touched on them in my blog, but they have stayed with me). What depths of emotional and physical resilience the survivors must have drawn on. I drank to them, this time in peppermint tea.

As for the cheese, it’s now in my Airbnb landlady’s fridge in Zurich! Madness, I know! It’s time for me to go offline and prepare for the long journey home. Methinks the cheese has probably gone off already! More on Zurich another time.






Culture-Vulturing in Krakow

I’m getting ready to move onto Europe next week – and it’s been fun and games getting it all organised. When I ran through my travel schedule with Mum, she remarked that it seemed a bit punishing. It probably is a bit. However, living so far away in Australia, I’m hell bent on immersing myself in all things European and making the most of every minute.

The organisational challenge started with the luggage. I always vow to pack lightly and never do. To get my luggage down to Ryan Air’s strict 20kg, I’ve already crammed a jiffy bag with shoes and clothes and sent it home via sea mail, left a bag, two more pairs of shoes and other ‘stuff’ in a cupboard at Mum’s house (too bad, I will simply have to come back and get them), and promised my father that I won’t bring so much next time. Star that he is, he helped me pack, carefully protecting my bone china cups in bubble wrap and scarves. Thankfully, I am allowed 10kg of hand luggage as well but both cases are straining at the seams. No room for anything more – it’s a bit like that scene with the fat man in Monty Python’s Life of Brian – one more wafer thin mint and it would explode!

Up until now I’ve always been ultra frugal when travelling and battled around – luggage in tow – on public transport rather than take taxis. One time I stopped off in Japan on my way back to Melbourne. I flew in, jet-lagged and a bit hazy, from Manchester and got lost in Kyoto Station ending up in a beeping and flashing electronics store. I finally found the right bus, hauled on my cases and mustered the right change, but was universally unpopular with my fellow travellers who sighed, shot me angry looks and tut-tutted at the amount of space I was taking up. Even the unfailingly polite Japanese struggle to maintain their dignity in the rush hour!

My airbnb host in Krakow recommended MEGA taxis as they are apparently much cheaper than the taxis at the airport. I tried calling them but they put the phone down on me, either because they didn’t speak English or were put off by an overseas number. So we went down the road (I’m in London) to my sister’s Polish builder’s DIY shop, and his sister Annette called them for me. To cut a long story that won’t work but at least I tried!

I’ve got a magazine commission and am writing about some of Krakow’s most interesting museums. Poland’s cultural capital boasts more than 40 museums and galleries – after extensive research I whittled my hit list down to seven. Working out when to go to what museum was as complicated as organising a business trip.  Not surprisingly they are all shut on 11th November as it is Independence Day, which, I have now learnt, commemorates the anniversary of the restoration of the a Polish state ­– the Second Polish Republic in 1918.

Luckily several companies run tours to Auschwitz that day so all is not lost. The company recommended by Trip Advisor was crazily expensive making me wonder if the tour was running just for me in a stretch limo! So I rang the Tourist Information Office and found a much better deal including a free lunch.  This was more like it!

Some of the other museums on my list – I’ve chosen an eclectic mix from a stained glass workshop to a pharmacy museum, a town house, an underground archaeological museum, Schindler’s factory and more – have strange opening hours. One is only open from 12-7, one has guided tours in English on Thursdays and Saturdays at 12, others have erratic winter opening hours such as 14.00 to 15.20 and so it goes on. With a bit of luck and organisation, I should manage to see at least five out of the seven!

I’m sure I’ll get time in between all this culture-vulturing to sit in cafes and watch the world go by or catch a few notes of a Chopin drifting out of some ancient church or concert hall, peruse the markets, chat to the locals, perhaps dine in a Jewish restaurant in the old town or take advantage of whatever other opportunities come my way. I doubt I’ll be up to much nightlife; after three days of running around, my flight to Vienna leaves at 6.25 in the morning. But I’m not complaining as I’ll be in Vienna by 10am and ready for the next adventure.

Homeward bound

I’m beside myself with excitement! I’m planning a trip back to England in October to see my parents and family and then tacking on an eight-day European adventure. It’s such fun organising it all and I have already imagined myself sitting in atmospheric cafes, walking along cobbled streets, wandering around ancient churches, tuning into different languages, browsing street markets and more. Although living in Australia I’m next door to Asia, it’s Europe that steals my heart.

I haven’t been over to the Northern Hemisphere since December 2012 when I spent three nights in Copenhagen on my way to England. It was December and yuletide was in full swing. I felt as if I were in a Winter Wonderland and relished every minute.

This time I had planned to return via Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. A small and compact city, it would have been perfect for strolling around and soaking up the Central European vibe, but the flight times from London were limited and at anti-social hours. So where else? Berlin continues to be all the rage but I wanted somewhere that wouldn’t bring on a full-blown attack of guidebookitis. (see my post:

Then I remembered that I had read about Krakow being the 7th and newest UNESCO City of Literature joining Melbourne, Edinburgh, Iowa City, Dublin, Reykjavík and Norwich. And, of course, it’s Poland’s second largest city and stuffed with historic interest and significance – from the largest medieval plaza in Europe and Kazimierz (the old Jewish quarter) to countless churches and ancient tombs, a vibrant arts scene, a still-functioning salt mine and, of course, Auschwitz nearby.

I managed to get the second last thirty pound fare on Ryanair from London and, through Airbnb, I’ve booked into an artsy and affordable attic room in a share house in the old part of town. One of the hosts is training in Traditional Chinese Medicine (right up my street) and dances the Tango in his spare time, and the other is a landscape architect specialising in community projects. Reading the many enthusiastic reviews they sound like wonderful people to engage in conversation, but they also appreciate peace and quiet and do yoga in the mornings. I know I am going to love it there.

From Krakow I am heading to Vienna for just under 24 hours and from there I will get the train to Zurich. Researching hotels in Vienna and what’s on at the Opera brought back all sorts of bittersweet memories from my au-pairing days in 1982. When I worked in publishing in London in the 90s, I contrived to spend a day in Vienna after a sales trip to Germany. I think I met with a couple of publishers and then found time to go back to the street where my erstwhile employers lived. With a thumping heart I rang the doorbell but no one was home. Perhaps just as well. After all, we didn’t get on that well; I gave my notice in half way through and then had to grovel my way back a week later when things with a new family across town didn’t go so well. Although they had seemed much more fun, less stodgy and starchy, and the children were older and capable of more sophisticated games than Mr Wolf, I hadn’t reckoned on a fur-shedding cat taking up residence on my bed or that a very bossy and imperious cook with orange hair and thick blue eye shadow ruled the roost and wrote all the rules. I was highly allergic to cats in those days, something the red-haired cook used to her advantage. That and endlessly comparing me, unfavourably, to the previous au pair. According to my research on Google the father of my original employers is still living in Reisnerstrasse, but this time, inspired by a phrase a friend sent me: “the past is for reference not residence,” I won’t be retracing my footsteps.

The girls I looked after in Vienna

The girls I looked after in Vienna

Instead I’m staying in a wonderful-sounding old-style hotel called Pension Suzanne right in the centre of Vienna opposite the Opera House. I’m really curious to see what modern day Vienna is like. Is it still a bastion of stiff manners, etiquette, snobbery (the family I worked for were minor aristocracy) baroque interiors, quartets playing Mozart and lots of strudel, noodle soups and sachertorte? And are the Viennese of a certain class still wearing the green Loden coats and hats with brushes on? Scanning what’s on in November, I see there’s still plenty of theatre, opera and classical music performed in historic costumes in ornate salons, but there’s also Mamma Mia, Mary Poppins and Lady Gaga. I think I’m going to find Vienna much changed!