Wednesday, 29 June 2011

An Ode To Josef Fritzl (And Others)

Austria is starting to annoy me. It's too pretty for sarky comments. How the hell are you supposed to take the piss out of somewhere so perfect? So instead, let's talk people. And I think Austria provides some serious mileage here.

The Lovely Nina's challenge for this beautiful land was an interesting one. I had to write a poem that contained some of Austria's most notable characters. So in the absence of anything to say about the country, here I present my pitiful effort. You probably don't want to read this if you're easily offended, and especially if you're my Mum.

by Steven Primrose-Smith

Arnie was a hero once, but left for pastures new,
From Conan to the Governor, his reputation grew,
The Austrians were most surprised, his brains so full of cack,
And no one here in Graz is chuffed, when he says, "I'll be back!"

Hitler is a warning call to all those Mums and Dads,
Whose kids are over-influenced by violent X-box fads,
Buy them something boring like a sponge or, say, a whisk,
Adolf's folks regretted most ever buying Risk.

Fritzl was a family man, and such a loving fella,
He liked to keep his children safe, so locked 'em in the cellar.
No one doubts he cared for them, in his own special way,
They say he loved his daughter least three times a day.

Not so many years ago, a bloke called Mister Freud,
Obsessed on genitalia, so much that it annoyed.
Oedipus, Freud announced, had fallen for his Mum,
But if she's fit, what's wrong with it? (But safer in the bum.)

So here we have four pillars, supporting this small land,
It seems that freaks and Austria are always hand in hand,
There's Adolf, Freud and Arnie and of course there's Mr Fritzl,
What's the secret formula? I blame it on the schnitzel.


Yes, OK, sorry about that but a challenge is a challenge. Box ticked. Anyone care to add a verse?

Thursday, 23 June 2011

How To Blow Your Nose Off

Oh Leberkäse - what a thing of beauty you are! Never has abattoir slurry been more attractive. If you've never tried it I recommend that you book yourself on the next flight to Graz immediately, drink yourself into a lather and then reach for a slice of this offally good snack as a morning hangover cure. It works. Really. And if it doesn't, what have you lost?

Describing Leberkäse without making you feel ill is quite difficult. It looks like a meat blancmange. Well, when I say meat, I mean all the bits that can't be sold as meat in their own right, ground to a paste and then baked like a cake. It's like Spam without the class. Its name literally translates as 'liver cheese', but the inclusion of 'liver' in the name is just to attract more punters. It doesn't contain anything as recognizable as that.

It's best served on a bun with a giant squirt of mustard and a good shaving of fresh horseradish. You have to treat fresh horseradish with respect. It's not like the mildly pungent creamy sauce you sometimes get with beef in Britain. This stuff can blow your nose off your face. When I used to live here back in the 90s, I took an English friend of mine to an Austrian restaurant. She ordered a plate of cold meats, which, as is fairly normal here, was topped with a fistful of the freshest grated horseradish. I feel bad. I didn't warn her in time. "Oh good," she said, "mozzerella!" She picked up a giant forkful and stuffed it in her gob. She couldn't really explain what happened next. Cheese doesn't normally do that. She danced around with her eyes streaming, wafting her face and howling. I think she thought she was dying. I'm glad it happened though because, first, it serves as a warning to anyone reading this, but mostly because I laughed my tits off. Her nose has only recently grown back.

Other Austrian meat products are equally dangerous. If you want a tasty sausage I recommend the Käsekrainer. But don't fry one without supervision, for inside its dense meatiness are hidden pockets of cheese. And as its core temperature increases, the cheese somehow transmutes into molten lava. Prod it roughly enough in the pan to break its surface and you'll be down Graz's A&E with a badly charred but really quite delicious eyeball.

Austria's good at soups and stews too. Leberknödelsuppe is a baseball-sized liver dumpling floating in a warm bath of beef bouillon. It's delicious although visually it's very reminiscent of an overly full potty. But there's one thing in this category I've never, ever had despite having lived here for five years. And, as you might have guessed, I'm hoping to sample it on this trip. It's called Beuschel. This is a heart, lungs, spleen and liver stew. Doesn't that sound yummy? No? I didn't even know you could eat a spleen. Why did we stop eating them? Why aren't there spleen-flavoured crisps? Is it because it tastes disgusting? Or maybe it has a foul odour. If it does, there's a simple solution. I'll just reach for a handful of horseradish and launch my nose across the room.

Bis später!

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Today My Beard Took A Life

The Lovely Nina has cursed me. In her crazy attempts to inject spirituality into my existence she's gone too far. All these occasions when I've been forced to visit temples and churches to satisfy her challenges, or perform incantations beside gravestones, have turned me. My beard has become enchanted. It's gone thoroughly evil.

First off, its length has got seriously out of hand. Every time I look in the mirror I grab the phone and immediately start calling the Sex Offenders' Hotline. But it's gone beyond that. Today, while casually walking through the centre of Bratislava, a young woman whizzing past on her bike glanced at me. I thought nothing of it, and then - thump! - I turned around and there she was, picking herself up off the floor, while a middle aged woman lay unconscious in the middle of the road. My beard did that! Distracted by the idea of Peter Sutcliffe walking unshackled around her hometown, the girl's only option was to terminate the life of a tourist. Bad beard!

But I can't shave it off yet. Many centuries ago I did a psychology A-level. I remember learning that there are times that we only remember things when we are in the same state we were when we learned them. So there are facts that you may have learned while you were off your tits that you'll never remember until you take your tits off again. And because I've revised for my planetary science exam on Monday with beard, what happens if I shave it off? Will I lose the knowledge? It's too big a risk. I'd have to sit in the exam hall for three weeks until I grew it back again. And there are other good reasons for keeping it. It's got so long now that I sometimes find snacks in it, and you never know when that's going to come in handy. This morning I found a 12" Subway.

I got lucky when I arrived in Bratislava. I turned up at the tourist office and asked for a cheap hotel and the nice lady there took one look at me and thought, "Where would Captain Birdseye like to stay in Bratislava?" and she immediately offered me a boatel - that's a boat that's also a hotel - a boatel! It's a rusty, old thing moored up on the Danube, but the room is great and the staff are super-friendly. Perhaps that's because they think I'm the skipper. I've even got the biggest cabin, and the only one with a balcony. We're all going to make Fish Fingers later.

But even though I've only been here for two days, it's time for me to leave. Slovakia doesn't get a proper exploration because it carelessly sited its capital right on its border with Austria and so there's no need on this trip to venture further inside. And that's a shame because the good stuff - Slovakia's amazing mountains, rivers and lakes - are all miles away, and time doesn't allow me to have a look. Maybe on a future trip. If my beard hasn't destroyed the universe by then.

Oh lovely, I've just found a Snickers. Good beard.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Beware - I Am BikeBot!

I've mutated. I am no longer human. And it's appropriate that in the country whose language gave us the word 'robot', I've morphed into BikeBot. After all the jibes about saddle-induced boils and painful undercarriages, I am no longer comfortable unless I am on my bike. When perched on its slowly disintegrating saddle, I am complete. I'm not particularly quick, but the legs pump and I glide across the face of Europe. But when I'm off the bike, things are not so good. I move around with the grace of Albert Steptoe.

I'm slowly falling apart. The latest problem is a dodgy left knee, which was agony walking around Brno yesterday. But ask it to cycle several tens of kilometres this morning and it's perfectly fine. I'm not sure how that works. Presumably it's the cycling that has caused the damage, and so why doesn't it hurt when riding? It is because I am BikeBot, homo cyclis.

I was also warned of the backache that would ensue by using a rucksack instead of front panniers. But I only get backache when I take the bugger off. Walking around a city or village without it, a pain shoots from my lower back down my right leg and then everything goes numb and I can't really move. I'm sure it's something muscle-related but maybe each evening I'm having a stroke.

So two legs bad, two wheels good. If I'm at an hotel, it's now getting to the point when, rather than walking, it would be more comfortable to cycle up the stairs. And there have been a lot of hotels in the Czech Republic. If I'm being honest, rather than the image you might have of me lying inside my pokey, little tent in a waterlogged campsite, I've lived like a king in this country. My hotel tonight costs €12. It's difficult to motivate myself to sleep in a field for a couple of euros less. And despite the kilometres, I'm pretty sure I've put weight on here too. It's the food. Ah, who am I kidding? No, it's not; it's the beer. When beer is only one euro a pint, it doesn't have much impact on the daily budget and so it tends not to get reckoned at all. And then suddenly I find I've had thirty-six pints and there's no money left for anything else. Except dumplings. Mmm, dumplings.

So my advice to you if money is tighter than normal this holiday season is to come to the Czech Republic. It's got some gorgeous, little villages (and, it has to be said, some god awful ones too), the most beautiful capital in Europe (so far) and it's cheap. The only problem is that, outside of Prague, you might struggle unless you speak some German. But learning a new language is a small price to pay for such a wonderful holiday. And when you're here, and you see me creased up in the corner of a town writhing around in agony, you can carefully put me back on my saddle and I will be happily on my way again.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Beer, Dumplings and Jewish Metamorphosisms

I'm stood dripping at the top end of Prague's most famous square, beneath the statue that provides its name. Good King Wenceslas looks down on the beast of Steven, a pink, sweaty freak with luminous eyebrows that make me look like a reverse Alistair Darling. Prague is hot today, but I've reached the Czech Republic's temporary Open University office at last. I hang about for a bit to cool down but I'm still a mess by the time I present myself. Jana and Lucka (whose name may be missing one or more of the Czech language's millions of diacritical marks, in which case, sorry) don't seem to mind and revive me with coffee and water. It's all change at OU Prague. They're moving from this small office to much bigger premises out of the centre soon. We have a nice chat and agree to meet the next day for a beer.

Mmm, beer. I may have mentioned this before but beer in outrageously cheap in the Czech Republic. In Prague, if you avoid the obvious tourist-milking outlets, a pint is one tenth of the price it is in Paris. And it's great beer too. It's not the fizzy pap you usually get fobbed off with in the UK now that the lager-producing monopolies are in power. But that's only one of the reasons why I love Prague. If Berlin is the city I want to live in, Prague is the one I want to visit as often as possible while I'm living there. The place is amazing to look at, with architecture covering eight centuries, and beautiful statues lying about all over the place. And from my random sample of four people I met here in Prague, it's full of great people too.

I met fellow Northerner Jamie on my first evening at a blues gig just around the corner from Charles Bridge. He's lived in Prague for seven years and is a friend of The Lovely Nina's sister, who suggested we should meet. I'm glad she did. Stan the Man, a Prague legend, was playing his electric blues that night. The club is little bigger than a single car garage but the atmosphere was rocking. Jamie is a guitar hero himself. I met him again on Wednesday night at the same venue to watch him play his own, more laid back, thoughtful acoustic blues. Watching Jamie is a mixture of pleasure and pain - pleasure because of the sound he makes with seemingly effortless fingerwork and rugged but note-perfect singing, and pain because I know I'll never be able to make a sound like that. I've played guitar for nearly fifteen years and I'm still utterly shite. I have the manual dexterity of Abu Hamza. If you're ever in Prague, Jamie has regular gigs at U Maleho Glena. Go and see him - you'll like it. You can also catch him at

After the show I got talking to a teenage guitarist from Ukraine who was about to begin studying in Prague, although he didn't have any idea what subject that might be. He looked like a cross between Brian May and my fifteen year old nephew, Jordan. Since you almost certainly don't know who Jordan is, that comparison is totally pointless but the next time I'm back in the Isle of Man I'll force him to wear one of my old comedy frightwigs so that I can recreate the look for you. Anyway, I told Brian Mayski my plan to cycle to Kiev and he laughed at me like I was a dick. The roads aren't great apparently, although he was proud to tell me that Kiev had been the centre of a massive empire in the 10th century. I asked him if they'd updated the roads since then. He laughed again, but he didn't say yes. Oh well. That's a problem for another year.

On Tuesday I caught up with Prague-born OU student Sasha, over here to see her parents. She took me to the National Museum where I learned some Czech history and was then given a tour of the places she loves in Prague, including a very popular ice cream parlour just off Wenceslas Square and the quiet, peacock-filled Valdstejnská garden. While enjoying the ice cream, we were accosted by a young American who wanted signatures to petition for the planting of a million trees in Prague. I asked him how many he'd planted so far and he replied, "Five." Well, it's a start. When I asked him what sort of trees he wanted to plant, he thought for a second and said, "Y'know, leafy ones". Ah, thanks for that. Sasha and I finished off in a restaurant she knew quite a way from the centre of town where I had the most massive and the most delicious pile of pork, cabbage and dumplings yet. Good King Wenceslas wasn't looking down this time but this really was the feast of Steven*. Sasha's tour wasn't from any guide book. To be able to see Prague through the eyes of someone who knows it as well as she does was very special.

The beer with the OUettes turned into three beers and a plateful of bacon dumplings. If I lived here I'd be the size of, well, the size I was a few years ago when I lived in Austria. Jana and Lucka are both extremely entertaining. It's their capable hands that will guide the OU in the Czech Republic. As university prices rise in the UK, dragging the OU with it, their job gets harder and through no fault of their own. The effects of Nick Clegg's deceit travel farther than the UK. I had a great time in the pub with them. Both of them were very funny with tons of stories to tell.

As well as meeting great people, I've fulfilled the tourist checklist of things to see: the people-stuffed Charles Bridge, the castle on the hill along with its cathedral, Wenceslas Square and the John Lennon Wall. And I got a chance to practise my fledgling Czech, which only got started late when I switched from Polish to Czech at the last minute. It's another bugger of a language. Sasha explained that there's a sound in Czech - the 'r' in Dvorak - that's impossible to make correctly if your tongue isn't perfectly formed. If this is the case, as it was with her brother, you need to have the skin beneath your tongue sliced away. "Didn't he mind that?" I asked. "He didn't complain," she replied. Well, he wouldn't really be able to, would he?

My Nina Challenge was another graveyard-flavoured one. I love cemeteries. Being surrounded by so much death reminds me to keep making the most of being alive. Her challenge was in two parts: to find and photograph the grave of Franz Kafka, one of my favourite authors, and, in honour of his most famous short story, to photograph a metamorphosis. Everything fell nicely into place. Because he's buried in the New Jewish Cemetery, to enter the graveyard I had to wear a yarmulke, which they hand out at the entrance. To capture my first skullcap-wearing experience I took an aerial view of myself. Suddenly I'd morphed from someone who's thinning on top to a much younger man with a luxuriantly full head of hair. Is it possible to convert to Judaism? It might seem like a lot of effort to cover a budding bald patch but I've already priced up what it will cost to install two sinks in the kitchen. Shalom!

Not everything in Prague worked out so conveniently. I woke up on Wednesday morning, a full 36 hours after erecting the tent, to discover a tent pole had snapped again, this time in situ, in the middle of the night. This tent has had more breaks than Steve Davis. I've now had breakages as soon as I've put the tent up, just as I have been taking it down and now after being left alone for over a day. I can now repair a cracked pole in a matter of seconds, but if things keeps up at this rate I won't have any spare pieces by July and then I'm buggered. And the tent is not the only equipment malfunction.

Cycling out of Prague this morning was a little hairy. The main roads through town were all triple-laned with no cycle paths. It was like being on a motorway without a hard shoulder. And as I got to the outskirts of the city and beyond, the edges of the Czech roads were getting a bit lumpy. The Carradice panniers have a clasp mechanism to keep the bags fastened to the rack, but these are working themselves loose while I'm riding with no obvious way to retighten them. Speeding down a busy hill I hit a tarmac divet that sent the right-hand pannier flying clean off the bike and on to the road behind. It was only the quick reactions of the driver following me that prevented by stove, gas canisters and bike tools from being crushed flat. It's looks like another botch job is required.

So, tent and panniers aside, Prague was wonderful, the city and its people. Thank you Jamie, Jana, Lucka and Sasha - my new Czechmates - for making my three days in Prague so fantastic and for making Prague the next city I'd like to live in if Berlin won't let me in for having stupid eyebrows.

* Joke copyright 2011 The Lovely Nina