The Day The Music Died

Today I walked by an HMV store in Sydney, and obviously couldn’t resist walking in. It’s a store in the process of being shut down, with their entire stock piled randomly onto large tables with people digging through. A very depressing view. I had spent a better part of my youth in HMV stores in the UK listening to music and learning about the latest trends and artists, and now all that was reduced to piles of CD cases nobody seemed to want anymore. Is that how things will look like the day the music dies?

Tokyo was a more uplifting experience. They still have a Tower Records store just outside the Shinjuku metro station that seems very well frequented and still has the deep catalogue the chain had been known for in the past. I found the only ever official solo release by Neil Innes from the Bonzos, Ruttles and Monty Python, an early live CD by I Am Kloot, the first CD by Jamie Cullum and yes, my guiltiest of pleasures, a remastered version of ELO’s 1981 album Time. I know …

Obviously, the decline in music sales is a global phenomenon, so it’s no surprise that record stores are affected everywhere. But as someone who’s spent part of their youth getting thrown out of record stores for listening to too many records before buying one, it’s sad to see such an integral part of my formative years slowly die away …

Thin Lizzy

Australians are very eager to discuss their history as an independent country as I could realize every time I spoke to a local, but they’re still part and parcel good subjects of Queen Elizabeth II. It’s in the little things in which you notice this, such as the road signs that look exactly as in good ol’ England, the habit of serving afternoon tea in cafes (including the compulsory cucumber sandwiches) or Lizzy’s counterfeit on their $5 note (what? She didn’t rate the $100 bill???)

Still, food here is far more exciting than in the old motherland. The Aussies have mixed good things from many of their immigrant communities into their traditional food and made it into something unique and very edible. Chicken Cesar salad here comes with Satay, Pizzas have curry sauce and their kangooroo steak ala mode is quite delicious. Also, it’s nice to have English language menus again.

Ordering food in Japan was more of an adventure: Either you had to find a restaurant that had menus with pictures or plasticized copies of their dishes in a window, so you could drag the waiter outside and point to the dish of your choice, or then you had to use the “point and shoot” method in the pricier places that didn’t come with the visual aids for non-Japanese: You point onto a random item on the menu and then shoot yourself if something turns up you don’t like … I had to sometimes revert to that second method and was confronted with an interesting variety of dishes I would have never ordered had I been able to read their language: Eel rice, quails eggs and something brown I really don’t know what it was, but it tasted quite ok after that trepidatious first bite … But hey, everyday you should try to do something that scares you, an old business saying goes. Well, I certainly took care of that …

Modern Asia

On my travels through Asia I often had BBC World as my only English speaking companion to keep in touch with what’s happening around me. August this year marks the 60th anniversary of India and Pakistan becoming independent countries and laying down British rule.

To honor that, BBC is running a very interesting series of reports on modern India and Pakistan, often filmed through the eyes of returning expats who come to see how their home country has developed. Particularly interesting was a report by a Pakistani actor sporting the broadest of Scottish accents, Glaswegian no less, on the entertainment industry in modern Pakistan. He openly admitted that he had come to reconfirm his preconceived notions that he was far too modern for his brethren back home only to find himself being told that it is him who has antiquated views on his country.

It’s hard to summarize all the reports in brief but between what I saw on these reports and what I observed myself on my travels it seems that we in the West have a very distorted view of how the rest of the world develops. And I think it is this distorted view that makes us miss the beauty and richness of many places outside of the realm of what’s familiar to us. Sure, places like Pakistan and India and certainly China still face their challenges and enormous inequality. But they’ve come a whole lot further than many of us care to acknowledge and if we don’t pay attention, they may eventually pass us by before we know what hit us.

Only just now on the news there’s a report of an Indian company exporting jobs to the United States because their local currency, the rupee, has strengthened so much against the US dollar and they can’t find local talent for the prices they need …

Keep your eyes open. It’s a big world out there.

Eh, where’s the moon gone?

Today, Aug 28 Sydney was graced with the spectacular view of a complete lunar eclipse. Only yesterday Mars was as close as it will ever be in the next thousand years or so. So, quite an auspicious time for star gazers these days.

Just as I got off the boat from the whale watching tour one of the boat crew told me about the eclipse. Ever fascinated by all things space, I wandered along the harbor over to where the opera house lay, as I remembered having a great view on the moon from there in days prior. As I came up towards the opera house, I saw a group of people heading some place rather determinedly. I tagged along, thinking that these locals probably knew of a great spot to see the eclipse. After all, we were only minutes away from its start. And a great place they did know. We ended up walking up to a boat waiting at the mole to take on passengers. Apparently, this was a privately chartered boat that someone had organized for himself and his friends to get away from the light of the city to get a better view. I asked the organizer whether I could follow on board, and he agreed to have me join.

So, I got a second boat ride that day, this time hunting the moon instead of whales. My photos obviously cannot convey the spectacular of a complete eclipse, with it’s red moon during the eclipse refusing to be properly portrayed through my lens. The rocking boat didn’t help either with the long exposure times ….

Sydney – Lunar Eclipse

I met some very nice Sydney siders in the process, even though I was probably the only one over 30 on the boat … The title of this post is a quote of one of the more chemically altered passengers, who came crawling out of the captain’s cabin about halfway through the complete eclipse and realized that an essential part of the night sky had gone missing …. Not sure he remembered what the official excuse for this party was.

I also got a chance to taste some authentic Aussie barbeque. I prefer the Texas version, but the cook was making some mean burgers …

So, all the more reasons to go out howling at the moon.

Whalin’ Away

I went whale watching today on a trip outside of Sydney harbor. An incredible experience as the pictures below will show. These creatures came all the way next to the boat, apparently curious who was floating around there and attracted by noise we made, circling our boat for the better part of an hour, playing with each other, waving their tails and blowing air once we found them. They’re gracious in their movements despite their enormous size and weight. True kings and queens of the ocean and worthy of our care and preservation.

Sydney – Whale Watching

I’m In A Land Called Down Under …

After a lengthy transfer with Thai Airways from Tokyo to Sydney via Bankok, I’ve firmly landed in Down Under. This having been a lifelong goal of mine, I was looking forward in particular to my time in deamland.

Sydney so far presents itself as very pleasant, albeit somewhat sleepy: Shops close at 6pm and unless you know where to go, there’s little night life in sight in the city center. However, look more closely, and you’ll find great things to do.

The Sydney Opera House is indeed impressive as the picture below will show. And even though it has a bum rap for its acoustics, they’re actually not so bad. Albeit, I wish their opera orchestra were a tad sharper, especially their horns. When I went to see a presentation of the highlights of opera (i.e. a best of collection of popular arias, the orchestra’s horn section put down a solid performance: from bum notes to late entrances and shredded intonations, they covered the entire repertoire of how not to play your instrument. The singing was lovely, though. So, unfortunately, in the case of the Sydney Opera, the content didn’t quite match the packaging. However, it must be said that Australia has developed a very systematic approach to developing young talents in classical music. And even though they still have ways to go in terms of their orchestra, such effort needs to be commended.

The next day I undertook an excursion into the Blue Mountains, a mountain ridge right behind Sydney, cutting off the East coast from the remainder of the country. Apparently, the blue haze that gives the mountain range its name comes from the reflection of sunlight in the air that’s drenched in dropplets of eucalyptus oil from all the trees covering the mountains. The sights, amongst them a rock formation called the Three Sisters where absolutely astounding.

On our way there we stopped by a wildlife park showcasing local fauna such as koalas and kangaroos. See for yourself, but I think they are wonderful creatures. But then, I could fall in love with a milliped ….

As I move on with my journey, I’m inspired by the everyday and the world.

Sydney

Holy Mary – Quite Contrary

Sorry, but I digress again: Alberto Gonzales – Attorney General of the US and chief enabler of everything that is constitutionally wrong with the presidency of George W. Bush has finally resigned. It seems, he has finally lied to the US congress just once too often.

It is only befitting that this should happen the same week that the cradle of European civilization, Greece, is up in flames, battling to preserve its most ancient treasures, amongst them the site of Olympia, where the first Olympic games were held. As much as history is going up in flames in Southern Europe, so has Alberto Gonzales put a torch to everything that made the United States a great country, deserving of global respect. He led the way to torture in American prisons and the subterfuge of law and order and the constitution by the Bush administration.

It is only time that his tenure at the “Justice” Department finally goes up in flames.

Diana

Sorry, if I digress for a moment from the subject of my current travels. I’m in Sydney right now, and, as behoovs a proper member of the British Commonwealth, the story of the 10th anniversary of Princess Diana’s death is everywhere.

I’ll never forget the day she died. It was the day I was emigrating from Switzerland, following my corporate job to a three year stint in Vienna, Austria. I sat in the business class lounge and everybody sat around the TV sets that showed nothing but footage of Diana. Many people cried, shaking their heads in disbelief.

It was an ominous and strange beginning for my time as a member of the diaspora.

P.S. on Tibet

BBC World this week is showing several reports on Tibet and the Chinese Government policies towards that region of their country. If you can view that channel you should try to catch these reports. Or go to their website: www.bbc.co.uk, or here.

Not So Lost In Translation

A final thought on my first encounter with the Japanese on their home turf:

They are a very friendly, if formal people. The first Japanese I met was my taxi driver, who not only wore white gloves and a three-piece suit in 100 (35C) degree weather, but also, despite a language barrier was extremely concerned with providing the very best service to me. Not only did he absolutely refuse to get any help from me in handling my 33kg (70lbs – the bag was about the size and body weight of my driver) bag, but also upon arrival at the hotel, he didn’t let go of my trunk until he had dragged it all the way into the middle of the hotel lobby – and then refused to get a tip! On his way out, he kept bowing to me until he was out of sight…. Now imagine that in New York City ….

Bowing is in general a vital part of formal interactions between Japanese. When someone purchases something in a store, it is not unusual for the sales person to follow the customer out into the street, handing the bag to the customer and then following-up with a series of 90 degree bows. The angle of the bow seems very important: The deeper the bow, the deeper the respect that’s being demonstrated.

It’s easy to feel frumpy in Japan, even knowing that you’re a tourist in casual clothes. No self-respecting Japanese would leave the house with one hair out of place or any bow or button for that matter. They dress enormously stylish, but not flashy – except for the teenagers it seems where anything goes apparently …

Also, technological gadget live squarely at the center of Japanese life. I wrote earlier about their high-tech toilets, and I haven’t even covered all the options. Also their trains are a technological work of art. Comfortable and smooth to ride in, complete with a friendly smiling conductor who bows in light of the privilege of looking at your ticket. Also, at every street corner they have these drink vending machines, where you can get anything from an iced caffe latte to iced green tea or soda. So, you’re never than a few steps away from rehydrating … not a bad move in their hot and humid summer weather.

In general, Japanese seemed very reserved to me, but upon my rather miserable attempts of speaking to them in Japanese, they usually thawed, probably moved by my ineptitude, and proved quite friendly and talkative and more than willing to help with any question I might have. So, I spent a few subway rides in very interesting conversation.

I’d love to come back and spend more time and get to know this people more closely. Hopefully then with a better result in my attempts at speaking Japanese ….