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.