Thursday, December 25, 2008

Grey Bear's Holiday Message

From our home-away-from home in Italy's beautiful Veneto to yours, wherever you are ...

Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa, Hanukkah-Shalom and
a somewhat belated Eid Mubarak!

Phew! So many religions you humans have! - maybe in 2009 you can all learn how to play nicely together.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Of Beer and Bears

I don't think that anyone who knows me would call me a quitter - bears don't quit, they hibernate - but a bear can only put up with so much. After months of whining and complaining and long faces and sulks, I decided that my bipedal attendants needed to get out of Bratislava for the holidays.

After a few collusive phone calls with my god-bipedal attendants (who reside near Venice), I arranged a whirlwind trip from Slovakia, through Austria, and then on to Italy. If this doesn't shut these two up, nothing will.

I confess that nobody cried as we left Bratislava but there were tears of joy as our train pulled into Vienna.

One of our first ports of call was the 1516 Brewing Company. Most people would be more than satisfied with a trip to Italy as their Christmas gift, but my male bipedal attendant wouldn't stop pouting until I agreed to take him there. He kept going on and on about the Reinheitsgebot, or beer Purity Law, of 1516. He's such a purist. Of course, I had to have a beer (above left) just to be polite. Bears - especially Freelance Goodwill Ambassador bears - are by nature very polite.

After we left the pub and before we ducked into the Little Buddah b
ar for cocktails, I slipped off to look for my extended bear clan of Austrian bears who were having a family reunion in a store front window. People - especially Austrians - love their bears. Fortunately, my German is excellent and the thick glass pane which separated us didn't prevent us from having a great bear chin wag.

After a night of Viennese beer and bears, we caught a very early morning train to Mestre. I admit that my bipedal and god-bipedal attendants were all a little bleary-eyed and I don't doubt that they napped through all the best parts of Austria. So much for a scenic train ride - I might as well have bought them plane tickets for all they cared.

Unfortunately, one of the women
- Brigitte - who shared our compartment is a huge fan of mine and, well, she was really nice and all, but when I travel, I like to remain anonymous. After three hours of regaling her with tales from my international fashion modelling days in Milan, I had had enough and excused myself.

Brigitte's constant badgering must have completely frazzled me becau
se I took a wrong turn at the bathroom and found myself in the bar car. I really don't know how that happened. All I know is that while my bipedal and god-bipedal attendants were napping and Brigitte was calling all of her friends on her cell phone and telling them about me, I was able to enjoy a couple of Austrian biere in peace.

And that's what this season is really about, isn't it? Peace on Earth - even if that little bit of Earth is the bar car on a train speeding through the Alps towards Italy.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Unidentified Flying Bear (UFB)

This post is a bit of a misnomer because, of course, I'm not an unidentified flying bear because not only am I highly identifiable - I am after all a former international fashion model and currently a freelance Goodwill Ambassador - I can't actually fly without the use of a Boeing 777 and a pilot.

Last week - in an effort to culturally enrich their lives - I took the bipedal attendants to Bratislava's Museum of Jewish Culture which, in spite of what their website said, turned out to be closed. A quick-witted bear, I devised a Plan B, which was a trip to the city's super groovy Novy Most, or "New Bridge", formerly known as Most SNP: Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising, which spans the Danube. And as you can see from the photos, atop the Novy Most sits a super-space age UFO tower.

The ewfo (a.k.a, the UFO tower) - proudly holds last place on the World Federation of Great Towers (WFGT) list of, well, great towers. At 303 metres, the Novy Most is the world's longest cable-stayed bridge in the One Pylon-One Cable-Stayed Plane category. I don't really know what that means - my specialties are pretty much confined to cutting edge fashion and organizing relief to much of the developing world - or how many bridges actually belong in that category. Probably more than one though.

For 200 koruny, you can take the elevator to the top of the ewfo but since 200 koruny will - as my male bipedal attendant reminded me - buy 8 half-litres of beer (or 16 half-litres since there are two of them), we (or they) chose not to.

At the top of the ewfo is a swanky restaurant and its Italian chef has pressed me to celebrate New Year's Eve there atop the city. I find it really hard to enjoy your meal with the paparazzi in your face (although I should be used to it by now) and my bipedal attendants can't really afford the 6,000 koruny price tag (booze not included). Besides - as my male bipedal attendant reminded me - 6,000 koruny will buy 240 half-litres of beer (or 480 half-litres since there are two of them), so we (or they) chose not to.

Back in the late 60's-early 70's, when they built the bridge, the city had to destroy almost all of the historic Jewish Quarter (inefficiently represented by the closed Museum of Jewish Culture) and a lot of the Old Town. By doing so, access to the nearby neighbouring Communist Block-'burb - and former site of a labour camp for Hungarian Jews - of Petržalka was greatly improved - so I guess it all depends on what your priorities are.

Their culture-destroying efforts were not in vain though because in 2001, Slovakia declared the Novy Most the "Structure of the Century". I'm not sure if it's really worthy of being the Structure of the Century, but having seen its 20th century competitors, the panelák's - blocks of high-rise pre-fab concrete panel buildings slapped up by the Russians from the 50's to the 80's - I guess it does win hands down.

My bipedal attendants are pretty sure that the ewfo was built by visiting space aliens - although in my mind, there's something quintessentially Slovak about it. But that could just be the
8 half-litres of beer (or 16 half-litres since there are two) of them talking. Besides, the majority of visitors to Bratislava only stay for half a day at most and I don't think that even space aliens could have built the ewfo so quickly.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Christmas Bear Cheer

In what I can only call a Christmas miracle, this weekend I managed to convince my bipedal attendants to brave the grey (such a nice colour!) and spitting skies of Bratislava and venture out to the Christmas Market. Bratislava's Christmas Market is the high point of the Slovakian social calendar, and draws tourists from all over the country as well as from abroad. Chances are, those visitors from further afield are probably doing the Christmas Market circuit - with stops in the more famous markets in nearby Vienna and Prague and maybe even Germany - but still, the town square was packed.

I would like to be able to say that the Christmas Market here is a centuries-old tradition in Bratislava, but it's not - it's barely over a dozen years old. It's never too late to start a centuries-old tradition. Just because Mozart had to pass by Vienna's annual Christmas Market on his way home all those years ago shouldn't make anyone feel unimportant or insignificant.

Here, about 100 stalls wind their way about the old city's market square, Hlavne Námestie, spilling out into nearby Hviezdoslavovo Námestie, where the guards from the US Embassy keep a watchful eye from behind barbed wire. There isn't too much to do at the Market, except eat, drink, and buy "traditional" Slovak gifts. These "traditional" gifts can be divided into 4 categories: things made from wood, things made from beeswax, things made from gingerbread, and things made from ceramic. For the most part, the craft items are much the same - hearts and angel ornaments - the only difference is what it's made out of. Once you've visited 4 stalls, you're pretty much done - at least that's what my female bipedal attendant said.

Visitors seem content with this set-up since in any case the raison d'
être of the Market appears to be eating and, to a greater degree, drinking. Local fare can best be described as rustic (what my female bipedal attendant calls "peasant food"). Cigánska pečienka (Gypsy liver) - fatty pork on a bun - is a favourite, as are sausages, goose liver or sauerkraut potato crêpes (lokse) and the always festive: slices of bread slathered with goose lard and raw onions. As a vegetarian bear, there were very few culinary options open to me.

Sweets are outnumbered by savouries at the Market (why would you want something sweet when you can have bread & lard?) but you can find poppy seed and nut pastries, oblatky (large wafers that look like they've been stolen from the nearby church) and honey biscuits.

I confess t
hat I was tempted more by the liquid refreshments: medovina (mead) - a honey wine - piqued my curiosity (I am a bear, after all) but it was a little too sweet for my taste - my palate is more suited to dry Spanish sherries. Hot wine (a.k.a. mulled wine) is the perennial favourite at the Christmas market but I've had that before, so instead I decided to try a glass of hot punč - or punch - which locals pronounce as pooooooonch. It's made from black tea, alcohol, fruit and spices and pretty much tastes like mulled wine. I'm sure it's different - I just can't figure out how.

The award for the most questionable holiday cocktai
l is hriatô: a concoction of warm liquidized lard (preferably with pork scraps), 50-proof alcohol and often, a smidgen of honey or sugar. Traditionally, this potent little potable was drunk by men working in the forests during wintertime but eventually found its way into the cities, especially during the Christmas season. I must confess that even if I weren't a vegetarian bear, I'd probably keep shy of the Lard Latte.

After about 20 minutes of this, (surprise! surprise!) my bipedal attendants were getting a little antsy - the male one just wanted a beer - apparently you have to go to the Vienna Christmas market for a beer - and the female one just complained about how cold it was. Some people! They forgot to bring my hoodie and I didn't complain. Next week, we're going to go to the Vienna Christmas Market with my god-bipedal attendants who will be visiting from Italy, and the first thing on the agenda is to buy that poor man a beer.

Many people seem to prefer the Bratislava Christmas market to its bigger and splashier competitors in Austria and the Czech Republic. Visitors like its "coziness". As a freelance Goodwill Ambassador, I always like to find the good in things, and yes, maybe there was no beer for my bipedal attendants, and not much to eat that wasn't made out of a goose or a pig, and almost zero selection in the traditional craft department - but I felt warm and fuzzy by the time I left. Unlike some, I was full of Christmas cheer. Of course, that may have had more to do with my glasses of mulled wine,
punč and medovina than anything else.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Addendum to a Bear Hole


I forgot to mention this in my last post but apparently, poor little
Čumil has been nearly decapitated two times by this city's drivers. In response to this, Bratislava has erected (hee hee - I love that word!) a traffic sign to warn motorists that there is a sexual deviant/peeper/watcher peering out from street level. So far, the sign seems to have worked. Although having seen drivers in this city, it's still only a matter of time before poor Mr. Čumil gets beaned by a car - and then heads are going to roll. Or at least one will.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Bear Hole

I've been feeling really guilty that I haven't been blogging so much lately, so I searched my bear archive this evening and came across this "vintage" photo taken of me during my first week in Bratislava. I had been hoping to post about the city's Christmas market which began about a week and a half ago but I haven't visited it yet because it's been either too cold or too rainy. And if you think you can hear the whiny voice of my (female) bipedal attendant in that last sentence, well, you'd be right.

In any case, that's me and Čumil (the Watcher) who, well, watches the city go by from the mouth of a manhole. He was created about eleven years ago along with the Napoleonic Soldier and Schöne Náci as a means of making Bratislava's Old Town - which was in the middle of a huge restoration project - more interesting and quirky. As the most photographed piece of art in the city (my female bipedal attendant would say that the list is quite small but I try to ignore her) on a busy pedestrian thoroughfare, he is usually swamped by hoards of camera-wielding tourists. The Japanese seem particularly fond of him. He's probably had his photo taken as many times as me. (Well not really - I was just being polite).

Čumil is, of course, a fictional character (unlike me who is real grey flannel and stuffing) but there are several theories about the real-life inspiration for the statue, ranging from a partisan who hid below the city's streets, a construction worker taking a break, to a peeping tom who just likes looking up women's dresses. Based on his grin, I fear it's the latter. If that's the case - as a freelance Goodwill Ambassador - I probably shouldn't have had my picture taken with him. My superiors at the UN may not look kindly on the fact that I was photographed with a sexual deviant. I wonder if this ever happens to Angelina Jolie?

I would add that since imitation is the highest form of flattery, you can now find "living statues" of Čumil in Bratislava. To be honest, those people just make my flannel crawl so I keep my distance from them. At least Čumil - the bronze version - doesn't ask me for money. It's probably a good thing though that I don't wear a skirt.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Grey Bear (Ad) Vents

Once again, things have gotten a little stressful around the house and my bipedal attendants are even more down-in-the-dumps than usual (and that's saying a lot). I'm sympathetic to their situation - I'd be a pretty rotten freelance Goodwill Ambassador if I weren't a caring sort of bear - but I admit that they've been driving me a little crazy.

In an effort to cheer them up, I picked them up an Advent calendar - and of course, it has bears on it! I thought that opening a little window every day and finding a chocolate would be fun - plus they can count down the days until Christmas.
I know they're also a little sad that they won't be spending Christmas in Spain with my female bipedal attendant's mother this year - which they've done for the last 3 years - but then I reminded them that they could be spending the holidays on a ship off the coast of Somalia, so buck up!

Anyway, Advent technically begins today but children (and my bipedal attendant
s) will begin opening the windows of their Advent calendars tomorrow. Advent calendars were created by German Lutherans about 150 years ago and the first printed calendar appeared in shops in Hamburg around 1902. A Swabian claimed to have invented the calendar, but I don't give that theory much credit since I don't know what a Swabian is. You can tell that our calendar is German because one of the little bears (bottom left) is holding a pretzel!

A few years later, what we think of as the "modern" Advent Calendar with its 24 little doors marking the days until Christmas became a staple in Germany and eventually, chocolates and candies began to magically appear behind those little doors. Since tomorrow is Day 1 - and my attendants aren't very savvy about the ways of the world - I had to demonstrate how the calendar works. That's me on bottom-right showing them what's behind door number 1.

Nowadays, some Advent calendars have extra days to accommodate Hanukkah (I don't quite understand that) and New Years and you can even buy digital Advent calendars too - although I don't know how you get your little piece of chocolate from one of those. Sometimes humans are too clever for their own good.

Anyway, I know that my bear calendar won't transform the lives of my attendants but maybe it'll give them something to look forward to and keep their grumbling to a minimum. Of course, knowing them they'll start arguing about who gets to open the door and who gets to eat the chocolate. I think I'll have to get another calendar just to keep track of the two of them. Now I know why we bears hibernate!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


It's been a while since I've updated everyone on my whereabouts but for the most part, I've been in Bratislava, listening to the squawks and complaints of my bipedal attendants - and of course, bearing it all. And just to put it in perspective, the temperature has finally plummeted to zero, so you can imagine how well my female bipedal attendant is holding up. (Not.)

On Sunday I had the opportunity of flying to Frankfurt with my male bipedal attendant, who had some business to conduct. Rather than take Her, he took me - as it's universally accepted in our household that, as a former international fashion model and freelance Goodwill Ambassador, I'm the savvier traveller. That sure put her nose out of joint!

Unfortunately, we were in the city for less than 24 hours, and most of that time my male bipedal attendant was in meetings, and I was left in the hotel room but at least we were at the Mövenpick, instead of some of the other fleabags he's chosen in the past. Except for the one paparazzi I found hiding in the bathroom (we soon became friends though), our stay there was faultless - which makes it a bear-pick. It even had a bear-size jacuzzi (below, left)- although I had to fight my bipedal attendant for it because he wanted to brush his teeth in it. Who ever heard of anyone brushing their teeth in a jacuzzi? He can be such a Philistine!

Above the bed (top centre) was a quotation by Goethe: Es ist nicht genug zu wissen, man muss auch anwenden; es ist nicht genug zu wollen, man muss auch tun. Fortunately, I speak German fluently (ein Bier bitte?) so I translated it for my attendant: “It is not enough to know something, we must also apply it. It is not enough to want to do something, we must also do it.” I know that Goethe was born in Frankfurt almost 300 years ago and that he's a local son and all, but I don't know what that has to do with having a good night's sleep - it seemed a rather strange thing to be mulling over after a hard day.


Still, I had a wonderful night's sleep even though my male bipedal attendant snored a lot. I'm just glad that the room designer hadn't decorated the room with a quotation from Goethe's Faust. As a freelance Goodwill Ambassador, I don't think it would be appropriate to sell my soul to the devil - even in my dreams!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Metamorphosis of Grey Bear

As Grey Bear awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.

Well, not really. As you can see, I am still a bear. And I always have nice dreams. But 93 years ago, readers in Prague and soon around the world read these opening lines (except it was Gregor Samsa and not Grey Bear who awoke from uneasy dreams) and followed the sad tale of the transformation of travelling salesman Gregor Samsa.

Franz Kafka - who wrote the Metamorphosis - was born in Prague and his presence is keenly felt throughout the city. I read a little Kafka when I was a bear cub and, I must admit, found his themes to be a bit depressing. There's so much misery in the world - and as a freelance Goodwill Ambassador I see a lot of pain and injustice firsthand - that I don't want to spend my few
leisure hours dealing with troubled individuals flailing about in a nightmarishly impersonal and bureaucratic world. I can spend time with my Bipedal Attendants for that.

As I said, you can find Kafka everywhere in Prague's Old City
. Naturally there is a museum devoted to him, and you can see several of the houses he lived in. My favourite of his houses is the one on Golden Lane, in the Lesser Quarter near the castle (photo, below right) because it's the cheeriest all his homes. Having read Kafka, I'm surprised he didn't paint it black.

His statue (above left) appears next to the so-called Spanish Synagogue in the Jewish Ghetto on Dusni Street, across from one of the houses he lived in. I don't pretend to understand it - it's a little bizarre. The tall black sculpture is of a headless man in a suit with a smaller figure of Kafka sitting on his shoulders. And of course me. In one short story, a young man rides atop another's shoulders and walks through the streets of Prague at night - and it is this story which inspired the sculptor. No bears though. Too bad.

Interestingly, Kafka almost emigrated to Madrid where his favourite Uncle Alfred lived. Uncle Alfred was trying to find work for his nephew with Spain's national railway and had that job materialized - which it didn't - I have to wonder if Spain's picture-perfect blue skies and ruby rioja wines would have had an impact on his writing. Maybe Kafkaesque would have come to mean something completely different. Maybe that cheery blue door on Golden Lane was a sign of the inner happy Kafka.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

A Bear in Bohemia

Last weekend, I took the Bipedal Attendants - who have been pretty stressed lately - to the Czech Republic for a well-earned weekend in the fabled "mother of cities", the "city of a hundred spires" or simply "Golden Prague". Amazingly, they didn't grumble too much at the prospect of rain - which never did happen - and brooding skies - which did. I think I'm finally whipping them into shape. Even when they found out that they had been the victims of bank fraud, they cheerfully blamed Slovakia (where the crime had actually occurred) rather than the Czech Republic. I think this bodes well.

So, Prague - or officially, Hlavní město Praha (Prague, the Capital City) ... the city of writers, monsters, musicians, physicists, artists, hockey players, Hollywood directors, religious dissenters and near-mythical kings ... the city of Kafka, the Golem (if you're not familiar with the Golem, click here), Mozart, Einstein, Alfons Mucha, Jaromír Jágr, Miloš Forman, Jan Hus and Good King Wenceslas, and so many many more - and now us (plus another billion tourists)! In fact, there's so much to say about Prague that I may have to write more than one posting about it.

For more than 1,000 years, Prague has been the political, cultural, and economic centre of the Czech Republic. Amazingly, the city was left relatively unscathed from the ravages of your stupid WW II (although its Jewish population, which was one of the largest in Europe, would woefully disagree), and what greets the visitor is an urban mosaic: a Gothic city, a Baroque city, an Art Nouveau city. Whatever you want, you can find it, whether it's the haunting Jewish quarter or bizarre cubist houses, tiny medieval houses or fin de siècle apartments.

me (above left) in front of the Astronomical Clock which was started 600 years ago. Beside the clock are 4 figures which represent the civic anxieties of its citizens: vanity, greed (originally depicted as a Jew holding a money bag - but since your stupid WWII changed), death and foreign invasion (a marauding Turk). Below those figures are the Chronicler, the Angel, Astronomer, and Philosopher. Below those figures is me, and a thousand camera-wielding tourists all clambering to take my photo. When will I ever learn to wear a disguise when travelling?

Probably the two most famous landmarks in Prague are the Charles Bridge (above right) and the Castle. The Charles Bridge, which spans the river Vltana, connects the Malá Strana ("the Lesser Quarter") with the "Old" and "New" cities on the opposite side of the bank - although the "New" City is about 700 years old. The bridge is peopled with 30 statues of famous - and not very famous - saints and other religious scenes, and although I saw a few dogs and deer, I couldn't find any bears. Maybe that's a good thing. Historically, bears haven't been treated very well.

How the Charles Bridge hasn't collapsed under the weight of all the people (and 1 bear) who cross it every day is a marvel of engineering! After pushing our way
through the crowds of tour groups, buskers, vendors, and pickpockets, we stopped to have a glass of mulled wine - what signs advertise as "hot wine" - just to calm our nerves. It was "okay" - it was certainly better than burčiak which (unfortunately) is sold in Prague too, but when I think of the Czech Republic, I don't think of wine, I think of beer.

Of course, since Czechs drink more beer than anyone else in the world, tossing back per capita approximately 157 litres of pivo a year, my male bipedal attendant - who fancies himself a bit of a beer connoisseur - was anxious to contribute to the national statistic. We ended up at a brew pub called U Medvídku - which means "At the Little Bears" - I
couldn't have chosen (or named) a better place myself! For over 500 years there has been a brewery and a "beer house" on this site. After all, Czechs have been brewing & drinking beer forever (written references to bear are 1,000 years old) and even Good King Wenceslas - in a bid to safeguard Bohemia's famous hops (the secret ingredient in its world-famous beer) decreed that anyone caught exporting cuttings from the nation's plants would be executed. Ouch!

Now I wonder if that's the first example of corporate espionage in the history of the world?!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Puttin' On the Ritz

As a former international fashion model, I've paraded down my fair share of catwalks and appeared on the covers of the world's most prestigious fashion magazines wearing all sorts of fancy dress (and undress - sometimes, I bare it all!). At the risk of sounding a tad immodest, everyone knows that I put the Armani tuxedo on the world map in the 1980's. Nonetheless, it's always a treat to have the opportunity of putting on a top hat - even if it's someone else's - every now & then. Today I was combing the streets of Bratislava's Old Town when a throng of Japanese tourists asked me to have my photo taken with the statue of Ignác Lamár - a local character whose likeness has been memorialized in bronze.

Ignác was born in the somewhat impoverished neighbourhood of Petržalka (it's still a sea of ugly communist block apartments) 111 years ago to a very poor shoemaker who was himself the son of a famous clown. Even at that time, Ignác was considered by many to be someone who lived his life in the past. Ignác - known by locals as Schöne Náci - epitomized the elegance, courtesy, and gallantry reminiscent of the Austro-Hungarian empire in an era pretty much bereft of those qualities.

Many today believe that he was mentally ill - and maybe he was - but, in spite of everything, he paraded up and down the streets of Bratislava - especially in the area between St. Michael's Gate and the Danube - with a smile on his face, a cane in his hand, dressed to the nines (wearing a velvet frock coat with tails no less!), opening doors for people, bowing to passing ladies with the words ruky bozkávam ("I kiss your hand") in Slovak, German, and Hungarian, and doffing his signature top hat. He survived on the generosity of locals who gave him food from the Old Town's many cafés, or by working on and off as a carpet cleaner.

A legend has grown up around Ignác which says that he ultimately went insane because his beloved was taken by the Nazis and died in a concentration camp. Poor Ignác!

Ignác died of tuberculosis on October 23rd, 1967 and was buried in Lehnice, a town in southwest Slovakia. In 2007, his dreams were (belatedly) fulfilled when his remains were brought to Bratislava where he was finally interred in his hometown - in the city's beautiful Ondrejský cemetery (I was there last week but I didn't see his grave). Hundreds of people attended his "second" funeral. His gravestone is engraved with ruky bozkávaman ("I kiss your hand") which appears in all 3 of the languages he greeted Bratislavans with on the streets of the Old Town.

Currently, his statue can be found on Rybná Brána Street in the Old Town which many consider to be an unlucky location since it's been vandalized a number of times over the last five years. Often it is his top hat which suffers the most. Even in death - and now immortalized in bronze - poor Ignác has had a hard time of it.

Ignác have made a great freelance Good Will Ambassador? Or better yet, maybe I should say: isn't Ignác a great freelance Good Will Ambassador?

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Vienna Calling ...

I appreciate that as a freelance Goodwill Ambassador (and former international fashion model), I make a lot of demands on my bipedal attendants: I travel a great deal, I distribute food and medical relief to troubled nations, I have to be rushed to various functions with world dignitaries and heads of state, and be whisked about to photo ops - just to scratch the tip of my very big iceberg. But my bipedal attendants have been whining more than usual lately - a period roughly coinciding with our move to Bratislava - so I decided that enough was enough.

I took them to Vienna.

Vienna! - the home of sachertorte - the world's most famous chocolate cake - Mozart, waltzes, Gustav Klimt, Viennese coffee, the Vienna Boys Choir - and of course, wiener schnitzel. Unfortunately, of all these things, we only managed to have a coffee; there was a humongous line-up for the sachertorte, we skipped the museums, the Mozart we found was made of cardboard, my male bipedal attendant has 2 left feet and couldn't waltz to save his soul, we saw lots of boys but none were singing, and since wiener schnitzel first saw the light of day as a calf on a farm, we couldn't have any of that. Thank goodness the coffee was good!

Because we'll have other opportunities to visit Vee, we decided to make our first outing a walking tour and save the museums for a rainy day - which my bipedal attendants reminded me should be any day now. Personally, I don't think my bipedal attendants have earned the right to stand in the presence of Dürer, Rubens, Rembrandt, Raphael, Vermeer, Titian, Velasquez - and Klimt.

So we walked and we walked and we walked. Of course, my female bipedal attend
ant developed a dozen blisters during the course of the day - which we still haven't heard the end of - because her feet have yet to be acclimatized to wearing shoes rather than flip-flops (bears don't even wear footwear & I don't complain!), but in between the "rest stops" for coffee and beer and a pee, we did manage to see a lot.

And because we'll be back soon (there were no inspectors on our train to validate our tickets so they're good for another 30 days!), I'll just mention what for many Viennese is the very soul of their city: the Stephansdom - the cathedral of St. Stephen. Dominating the centre of the city - it is the Eiffel Tower of Vienna - its first incarnation was as a simple parish church in 1147 which itself had been built over an ancient Roman cemetery. Over the years it saw much rebuilding, expanding and redesigning in the Romanesque and later Gothic styles. It is now very big and very awesome - even by a bear's standards!

Its highest point - the South Tower - stands 136 meters (445 feet) tall and served as an observation point and military command post during both the Siege of Vienna (1529) and the Battle of Vienna (1683). The North Tower stands at about half its rival's height - money being tight and all, it never reached its intended grandeur. There is a story though that its architect killed himself over a girl before he could complete the tower and, as a hopeless romantic myself, I much prefer that tale. Poor architect!

It's also said that, one day, Beethoven saw birds flying out of the church's belfries (the Stephansdom has 23 bells!) but he couldn't hear a thing - and that was the moment when he realized that he had gone totally deaf. Poor Ludwig! The largest bell (weighing over 20,000 kilos) was actually cast from cannons seized from Muslim invaders - one of the best examples of recycling I can think of. One of the lesser bells is known as the
bieringerin ("beer ringer") which was once rung for last call at the city's taverns. We could use one of those in our house - but maybe not as big.

At one time, a mastodon bone hung over the main entrance to the church, so that doorway is now known as the Giant's Door. Poor elephant! On either side of this doorway are curious features - curious even for a church. Embedded in one wall are two brass ells - the ell being a unit of measurement roughly calculated from the shoulder to elbow. These brass markers provided the approved, standardized lengths for measuring drapery and linen in the city. On the other side of the door and also carved into the wall is another indentation (see photo, above left). Those people who believed that their bakers had cheated them by giving them small loaves of bread, could check these questionable loaves against this standard measure. With all this measuring of cloth and linen, I wonder if anyone actually went to the Stephansdom to pray?

There's so much more I could tell you about the cathedral - there are lots of miraculous stories and legends attributed to it - and about Vienna for that matter, but it'll all have to wait until we pop back for another visit. With Vienna only 1 hour away - in the immortal words of
Falco (Mr. "Rock Me Amadeus") - Vienna is always calling.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Burčiak & Beer for a Bear

Le Beaujolais nouveau est arrivé!

... well, not really because it isn't the 3rd Thursday of November, but ever since I walked Paris' catwalks as an international fashion model, the arrival of those coveted bottles of vin de primeur has always been a day of celebration (with a day of hangovers the following day) in our household.

I confess that I was a little relieved when I heard that Slovakia produces its own wine and hosts several wine festivals throughout the year and, as I reminded my bipedal attendants, this alone should take the sting out of leaving Spain. This weekend saw Bratislava's "Rača Vintage Festival", so I thought I'd give my attendants - who are still sulking about the weather - a little treat by taking them for an afternoon of tasting the region's (self-) acclaimed burčiak or "immature wine".

Of course it rained, although temperatures did climb - for a short period - to a downright tropical 12º C.

Slovakia's Small Carpathians region produces 0.3 % of the wine in Europe and most of it is consumed domestically although a little bit is exported, notably to Japan. I would remind you that David Hasselhoff is big in Japan too. Oenophiles in the area suggest that the best way to taste the local wine is to visit the private cellars of those vintners who started up their businesses after the fall of Communism. Instead, we took the #5 tram to the village of Rača.

I mentioned that burčiak is an immature or young wine - so young that, from a scientific perspective, it might be a little premature if not ambitious to even call it "wine". The wine - or what might be more accurately called "broth" - is, in fact, only drawn from its primary fermenters after about a week of fermenting. At this point, there's still a lot of yeast and sediment in the wine. Bottles of the murky burčiak sold at the festival - mostly 2-litre plastic pop bottles - proudly display a good inch or so of sediment at the bottom and "floaters". Don't ask me what those are.

Because of the high sugar content (remember, the wine is still fermenting), the wine is very gassy (just like my male bipedal attendant!), so you have to stop about every 30 minutes to unscrew the bottle caps - lest there be a burčiak explosion. In fact, it's been suggested that the etymology of the word burčiak is "explode" or "stir up". The other option is to finish your 2-litre bottle within that time frame - which I think lots of people do.

The wine sells here for just pennies a glass or about 2 to 3 euros for a 2-litre bottle but, after having sampled both the red and the white (yes, that is white wine in the above-right photo) what seems like an outrageously low price is actually quite reasonable. Certainly charging more would be criminal.

What are normally residential streets in Rača are closed off to traffic and booths are set up, so people can wander about, swig wine from bottles, stop to release gas from the bottles, and eat all manner of deep-fried doughy things, and lots of sausage. Although it only has an alcohol value of about 5%, the wine keeps fermenting in your stomach so it doesn't take long for people to get into the spirit of the new wine - the so-called "burčiak curse".

Some of my bipedal attendants' colleagues attend the festival annually and have learned to self-medicate with an anti-diarrhoeal before drinking. After trying both wines, I can easily believe that it does go right through you, which makes me wonder why I only saw 4 porta-potties the whole afternoon. Imagine: new wine and Imodium! I bet that never happens on "Beaujolais Nouveau Day".

After my 2 samples, I decided not to buy an actual bottle but took my male bipedal attendant's advice and changed my tipple to beer. Fortunately Budvar, the original Budweiser, from the Czech Republic was on tap. Unlike the American Bud - the self-styled King of Beers - its Czech forebear is the Beer of Kings. Which made it the Beer of Bears today.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

A Hrad Day's Night

At the risk of sounding immodest, I’ve probably visited more castles than any other bear in the world, but all the ones I’ve seen had either been Muslim alcázars or alcazabas “appropriated” by conquering Spanish Catholic armies. Today though, I visited my first ever non-Muslim castle - what's called a hrad in Slovak - and it was quite different from the castles I saw in Spain. My female bipedal attendant was quick to point out that the sky wasn’t very pretty (she actually used the word “ugly”) but that’s hardly the fault of the castle. I have to keep telling her that we're not in Spain anymore.

The castle at Devín - barely 10 kilometres from Bratislava - is perched strategically atop a rocky cliff some 212 metres high, and the settlement of the site can be traced back to Neolithic times. Historically, if you could control this site then you could control the many trade routes which travelled along or across the Danube - especially the so-called Amber Road which ran from the Baltic to the Adriatic Sea. I love amber - especially amber cuff links, even though the colour doesn't go very well with grey flannel.

The Celts were here, as were the Romans and the Slavs, as well as lots of other people. As far as fortresses go, this one’s a survivor and has been breached, fallen, changed hands, been modified and reinforced many many times, although Napoleon did a pretty good job blowing it up in 1809. Little men shouldn’t have access to explosives.

Much of what I visited today dated to the 15th and 16th centuries but there were remains of a 9th century basilica as well as a 4th century Christian chapel which may have served the spiritual needs of the Roman legionnaires who were stationed there at that time. I guess when men aren’t thinking about killing each other, they think about their god. Or at least their place in heaven. Humans are such an odd species.

Far far below the castle flow the grey (not blue) waters of the Danube and the brown waters of the Morova Rivers. In fact, Devín Castle overlooks the confluence of these two waterways, the middle of which is actually the border with Austria. On a clear day you can see Vienna and bits of the Alps although it was clear today but we didn’t see much except grass and trees. Still though - it was Austrian grass and trees.

As a freelance Goodwill Ambassador, I am very mindful that until 1989, the Iron Curtain followed this waterline and barbed wire was strung along the banks, cutting off access to the water. I like the fact that the dissolution of centralized Communist authority is called the “Velvet Revolution” – and not just because I’m a former international fashion model and very sensitive to fabrics (although I do look very nice in velvet – especially red velvet).

As you can see, I was forced to dress weather-appropriately today, and my bipedal attendants kindly took my hoodie out of mothballs, but not without a lot of complaining about the temperature. Last weekend it was in the mid-30’s here and today it was a brisk 13 – which I admit is a pretty significant drop in temperature. Of course, listening to my female bipedal attendant, who had to wear socks and running shoes today and who hasn’t been out of flip-flops since March, you’d think the world had come to an end. Maybe she should have been there when Napoleon was blasting the castle to smithereens. That would've given her something to complain about!

Friday, September 12, 2008

A Duck, a Snail, and a Bear

A few weeks ago, I recounted part of a rather unforgettable day in Málaga where my bipedal & god-bipedal attendants and I enjoyed the city's fabulous fiesta. Odds are they don't remember too much of the day, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention that before indulging in several bottles of cartojal, we had visited the city's Alcazaba and Roman theatre, and even hiked up the hill to Gibralfaro Castle (my attendants complained the whole way) - just so that no one thinks that we (or more accurately they) are complete degenerates

That morning (pre-cartojal), I stumbled across a statue of Hans Christian Anderson. It turns out that Mr. HCA had spent some time in Spain but was most fond of Málaga. In fact, his favourite spot in the city was the English Cemetery. I think that Mr. HCA may have had some "issues" - I mean, someone capable of writing "The Little Match Girl" would probably feel comfortable in a cemetery, right?

Fortunately, there are no frozen dead little girls on this statue but, on his satchel sits the Ugly Duckling. And me on his knee.

I was quite surprised last week, after dodging autograph hounds, to come across Mr. HCA here in Bratislava. When he visited the city in 1841 he said, "If you want a fairy tale, your city is a fairy tale itself." I'll have to think about that one. It has even been suggested that a fire which had broken out in the nearby town of Devín served as an inspiration for "The Little Match Girl". He was apparently moved by the "sadness and misery there". I mean, really!

Of course, I didn't actually meet Mr. HCA but rather another statue of him: no Ugly Duckling here (or frozen dead little girls), but a snail which may
refer to the snail in "The Snail and the Rose-Tree" - another thoroughly depressing tale if you like snails. And I like snails. As a freelance Goodwill Ambassador, I like everyone and I must confess that I want to like Mr. HCA too but all these stories about death and evil queens and star-crossed lovers are a little too much for me. And he didn't make any bears heroes in his stories either. In fact, in one story he even penned the line “Why, it's hot enough here to roast a bear." Roast a bear????

In any case, Mr. HCA - or at least statues of him - have provided me with a nice transition from Spain to Slovakia. Maybe a better expression would be that I feel "bookended" by him - or at least statues of him - which, as a writer, might have made him smile.
Assuming he ever did smile.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

A Bear in Bratislava

I thought that the photo of me with the Napoleonic soldier might throw you off but it seems that a few of my savvier readers were able to identify my new location as Bratislava (or Pressburg in German and Pozsong in Hungarian, although no one guessed those), the capital of Slovakia. I've been here for almost week now and, I must confess that I thought I’d enjoy a certain level of anonymity in this part of the world (I seldom modelled east of Milan) but as you can see from the above photo, the paparazzi always manage to find me.

I mean, as a former international fashion model I'm used to having my photo taken but this fellow was a little too much in my face.

In any case, Bratislava is going to be my den for the next 11 months and I have to say that my bipedal attendants have been awfully long in the face about the whole situation. I miss Spain too - I haven't had a manzanilla for over a week now! - but Slovakia brews excellent pivo (beer) and of course Czech beers are cheap and ubiquitous so you'd think my he-bipedal attendant would stop moping about.

There's a lot I can say about Bratislava but I think I'll pace myself a bit. I have to get a handle on the language which is a bit tricky . So far, besides pivo, all I've managed to learn is ahoy (hi), prosím (please) and d'akujem (thank you) because bears are nothing if not polite.

And I do know that "bear" is medved' and "grey" is sivý, but I'm not sure if that makes me Sivý Medved'.

So for the next little bit I'm going to work on my Slovakian as well as the attitudes of my two bipedal attendants. As a freelance Good Will Ambassador, there's always plenty of work for me to do (especially now that Angelina has repopulated the world again - I mean, she hasn't worked for months!) but this time it's a bit closer to home. Some people are just so ungrateful for the new experiences offered to them. Even if they could just learn to grin and bear it they might learn to actually like it here. And if not, I may have to hand out a few pink slips.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Where's Grey Bear?

I seem to be sitting in the hat of a Napoleonic soldier. Any guesses what city I'm in?

Monday, August 25, 2008

Feria for a Bear(ia)

This past Saturday, I took my bipedal attendants and my god-bipedal attendants to Málaga's feria, Andalucía's most famous summer fair - famous because malagueños have been drinking and dancing and parading horses and killing bulls (I don't like that part of it) through the summer's hottest two weeks for over 500 years.

On August 19th, 1487, the Catholic Kings entered the city, formally bringing it under the aegis of the crown of Castille. Four years later, Málaga's bigwigs decreed that festivities to commemorate Isabel and Ferdinand's reconquista should begin on August 15th - a time which also coincided with ongoing religious celebrations. The rest is history.

During the day, feria-istas (I just made that word up) head towards calle Larios in the downtown core to party away Málaga's daylight hours and, if they're still standing by evening, will continue on to the Real: the actual fair ground.

We were quickly caught up in the bedlam of calle Larios. One of the official drinks of the feria is cartojal: a typical wine from Málaga - sweet and pale - made from the muscatel grape. Bottles of icy cold wine and glasses are sold everywhere: the ice cream shop behind me (upper right) was transformed into a cartojal shop - and at 8 euros a bottle, it doesn't take long for sobriety to become a distant memory. In fact, the official feria website warns feria-istas:

Pace yourself, though, it goes down great but packs a punch and the fair goes on until late...

Excellent advice which we chose not to take. In retrospect, we probably should've eaten something more substantial than a small plate of manchego cheese.

Instead, we indulged in several bottles of cartojal and a few cervezas, stumbling about the streets with other carousing malagueños - many of whom were wearing typical Andalucían dress (flamenco is the dress code and gender-bending is encouraged). I'm not terribly proud of this but I became so tipsy that I actually was convinced to don a bright red flower - a flor de tela - in my bear-hair. But I'm comfortable with that - I mean, I am a boy-bear and all - but I think it's okay to let loose and colour outside the lines as it were. And I was pretty colourful.

Everyone wanted to have their photo taken with me - which I'm used to because I am a very recognizable and rather photogenic bear (a throwback to my international fashion model days) - but as a freelance Goodwill Ambassador, I was a little concerned that my excessive cartojal-consumption may have fallen short of the high standards set by the United Nations. I confess that my image may have been tarnished a bit too. Oh well. Málaga's feria comes but once a year and I can start working on my role as "pillar to society" this afternoon.

Or maybe tomorrow because t
oday is a holiday in Málaga. The feria is over though - it actually ended yesterday - but because this is Spain, malagueños require a day of rest to recuperate from the previous 9 days of abandon and debauchery. And I always say that when in Rome - or Málaga - you should do as the Romans - or malagueños - do. I'm going back to bed. I just hope that no one sends UNESCO any compromising photos of me from Saturday afternoon.