This Means Nothing To Me

 

(A photo I took in Salzburg a couple of years ago)

(Not just a cheerful travelogue- politics and history and the life and death of Stefan Zweig)

I have been in Austria for a week and a half now for teaching work. I meant to update last week, but some brutal 7.30 am start times, heavy snow, a lot of planning to do outside the classroom, and a diet of pure stodge in a small town with few dining options (and even fewer options for vegetarians) tired me out. It feels strange to be in small-town Austria, where not much tends to happen, while political turmoil with dire consequences for many vulnerable people goes on around the world.

The UK does not feel like a good place to be right now, but I can’t stay away forever. I will not be back for more than a few days until April at the earliest anyway. I’m now in Steiermark, the start of the Alps, and the snow is all gone, and there is rain much the same as an English winter. For my job I get sent to run workshops in schools in towns few tourists visit. Apart from next week in Vienna, I’m criss-crossing Austria on the train to various small towns dotted around. I enjoy lengthy solo train trips in the mountains with suitable music and snacks, but I don’t enjoy lugging a suitcase filled with 5 weeks worth of supplies, even if it does have wheels.

When people picture Austria, they have an image of Vienna, elegant, full of opera houses, art museums and slightly kitschy Mozart souvenirs, and the Alps, full of charming wooden chalets, drifts of powdery snow, and hearty people in lederhosen (and probably adding an imaginary background of mountains to Vienna).

The east of Austria (where Vienna is) is actually mostly flat. I’ve been in Vienna overnight two Saturdays in a row now, but was either at a work training event, or leaving early the next morning for further travel. I’ll be there for a full week from Sunday anyway and will take full advantage of my afternoons off to see some exhibitions. I have been to Vienna many times before, and frequently at times of year with better weather.

There’s something a little bit low-key seedy about Vienna outside of the grand buildings on the tourist routes (although it is a very safe city). Run-down little shops that seem to have been there forever, rotting art nouveau stations with no staff on the green Ü4 line, decrepit looking branches of Norma and Pennymarkt supermarkets with peeling beige lino tiles and flickering neon lighting that make Lidl look luxurious and which close on the dot at 6pm. Indoor smoking is still legal (and very prevalent). The Danube is not as central as you might expect. German TV often picks a Vienna accent for small-time crook characters. There’s the Vienna schmäh, the mix of charming manners and snide humour. And the (increasingly familiar) accent, where people mumble yet draw out the vowels at the same time.

Last year I read The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig, the memoir by the Austrian writer who was an international star between the wars until his persecution by the Nazis (and topic of this weirdly personal bit of vitriol by Michael Hofmann here). He had been neglected until lately in the UK, until the release of the Grand Budapest Hotel (loosely based on several of his stories) caused his books to be reissued, and in particular The World of Yesterday to be translated by one of my favourite translators, the incomparable Anthea BellThe World of Yesterday covers his upbringing in 1890s Vienna, the shock of the First World War and the rise of Fascism, and ends with his escape to Brazil (and eventual suicide).

Stefan Zweig discusses how in fin-de-siècle Vienna, discussion or education about sex was forbidden, yet brothels and porn were everywhere you went. Boys at his school were barely allowed to speak to girls their own age, yet got themselves into terrible anxieties by leaving their wallets (with their ID card inside) in brothels and dreaded being blackmailed that the managers would tell their parents. No wonder this was also the era of Freud and Kafka, and psychoanalysis, As an adult in the 1930s, he’s absolutely relieved that aspect of the era is over. No-one cared about sports or football, teenagers were obsessed with actors and poets, and poets were like rock stars. As a respectable secular Jewish family in Vienna, the Zweigs felt comfortably accepted in society- these things can change or be changed any minute.

After the Anschluss, and the increasing restrictions on Zweig, the fact that he could practically see Hitler’s house in Berchtesgaden from his own house on a mountain outside Salzburg only rubbed it in further. His success and international respect as a writer could do nothing to change it, and he and his wife ended up having to leave Austria for Brazil (via the UK and USA). Being a German-speaking writer, whose work was eventually banned in every country that spoke his language, and an internationalist who now could barely visit or communicate with any of his writer friends dotted across Europe drove him to despair.

Something that also sticks out in the current political climate of increasing nationalism, calls for closed borders and countries turning away Syrian refugees, is Stefan Zweig’s (and others) utter outrage at the closing of national borders and introduction of passports in WWI. Until then all borders were open, and anyone could travel anywhere, and passports and border controls felt like a loss of freedom and a scary imposition of control (for the record, I am 100% pro open borders).

“‘People went where they wished and stayed as long as they pleased. There were no permits, no visas, and it always gives me pleasure to astonish the young by telling them that before 1914 I travelled from Europe to India and America without a passport and without ever having seen one’. The Great War and its aftermath increased what Zweig calls ‘a morbid dislike of the foreigner, or at least fear of the foreigner…. The humiliations which once had been devised with criminals in mind were now imposed upon the traveller, before and during every journey. Thereafter, everyone required official photographs, certificates of health and vaccination, letters of recommendation and invitations, and addresses of relatives and friends for ‘moral and financial guarantees’ … His Austrian passport became “void,” as he puts it after the Anschluss, the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938. He was forced to ask British authorities for an emergency white paper, ‘a passport for the stateless’. He came to understand what an exiled Russian acquaintance had once told him: ‘Formerly man had only a body and a soul. Now he needs a passport as well for without it he will not be treated like a human being’..” (from this article)

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Friar hermit stumbles over

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I’m in Brno in the Czech Republic for a week before starting work in Austria next week. The Czech Republic is having a much colder winter than usual, with heavy snow. Yesterday we went down to Brno Resevoir, which had unusually frozen over. We walked about five miles up the river Svratka over the ice, up to Veveří Castle, on a thick layer of snow over ice. The ice made some ominous cracking noises, but there were lots of people skiing and walking dogs, so it was safe enough.

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There was the occasional patch of exposed ice.

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And this unidentified dead animal. A deer? A fox? Either way, it was very dead.

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Gute Reise

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On Thursday I go off to spend 6 weeks in Central Europe. One week in Brno in the Czech Republic, then five weeks in various places in Austria teaching. Then in March, I’m off to Japan for two weeks.

So I will closing the shop from 3pm GMT on Weds the 18th of Jan. If you want zines or ribbons or badges, this is your last chance until April.

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Keep it clean

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I wouldn’t say I was particularly tidy, but I do like to keep my living environment clean. I spent a few years working in restaurants when I was younger, and a big part of the job was keeping the restaurant and bar as clean and pleasant as possible. Especially at the end of the night, you can’t go home until everything is spotless, so you get used to cleaning things as efficiently as possible, and in a way that makes sure it all looks shiny as well as being hygienic. This has also been useful in making not-so-nice rented places in London a lot more pleasant to live in. (It has also given me the side-effect of finding housework to be an effective hangover cure)

I’ve come to realise lately, a surprising number of people find housework difficult and turn out not to know things about laundry, unblocking drains etc that I thought everyone knew. It still seems a bit patronising for me to write these tips (but also quite militant in my aversion to dirty tea towels and unrinsed washing up), because they’re obvious to me, but I know now they’re not obvious to a lot of people, and New Year seems an appropriate time to write them.

I don’t really find many online cleaning tips that helpful. They’re either aimed at Americans and talk about things you don’t find in British houses and products that aren’t available here, try to convince you that anything can be cleaned with white vinegar and baking soda (tip: sometimes that doesn’t work well), or they’re for the kind of obsessive person who loves to buy special brushes to clean inside blinds. I just want my place looking nice without spending too much time or money doing it. I haven’t recommended many specific products, the generic supermarket stuff is fine.

Here’s what I want from cleaning really:

  1. You don’t feel nasty because you touched something and it was mysteriously sticky or dirty
  2. You can invite people over without feeling ashamed
  3. You spend as little time cleaning as possible for the biggest result
  4. But without spending a lot of money on special products
  5. Everything is shiny and smells nice with the minimum effort, and you like being at home

So here’s some tips after the cut, for anyone who wants them.

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10% off with code 2017

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To celebrate the start of the new year, I’ve got a 10% discount in the shop and free UK shipping (international shipping is calculated by weight). There’s zines, colouring books, vintage stamp badges and vintage haberdashery.

Just enter the promotional code 2017 at the checkout.

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2016 in review

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I spent a low-stress and low-key Christmas with my friend Vicky up in Manchester, and have returned to Kent over the New Year to see hometown friends. I’ll be in the UK for a few more weeks (including my birthday), then heading off to Austria for 5 weeks for work, then a further 2 weeks in Japan, meaning I’ll be abroad until April. A variety of factors has meant that I’ve not worked full-time in months, and to be honest I’m itching to go back to work and being busy all the time.

It’s fair (and easy) to say that 2016 was not a good year for me. And the consensus is that it was also a terrible year politically, that has seen fascism and far-right politics on the ascendant. Here is a brief list of my positives and negatives for the year.

I don’t have any specific resolutions for next year, apart from to have fun, because 2016 has been a real drag.

Positives

  • I won a free trip to Japan for 2017. This isn’t a thing that happens much. I wrote about it here.
  • Enforced down-time meant I read quite a lot of books. I will write about them in another post.
  • I got some creative projects done, despite being limited for workspace and never in one place for long.
  • I went on holiday to Italy. It was cheaper than extending my lease in London by a week. You can see the photos here
  • I spent some time in France in the sunshine
  • I finally left London for good. I left for the usual reasons- there was plenty of work for me, but housing is out of control and I couldn’t afford it any more, and I was working/commuting long hours for increasingly lower rewards, and I just wasn’t having fun any more. Added to my friends leaving en-masse for the same reasons, and it seemed like a done deal.

Negatives

  • However my plans to relax over the summer house-sitting for my mum and then move somewhere in September were scuttled by the flat needing to have all the electrics and plaster ripped out and replaced, leading to me house-sitting a building site, and then by my dad’s increasing ill-health, so I’ve spent the last few months shuttling back and forth and dealing with family … stuff. The Southern Trains industrial relations fiasco also meant that I was stranded at times, found it difficult to take local temp work, and rarely went to Brighton despite being 40 mins away, adding to the sense of isolation while I was house-sitting.
  • I still don’t live anywhere. All my things are in plastic boxes at my mum’s until my return in April, along with a large Risograph machine that belongs in a studio.
  • One of my mum’s cats died of cancer. He was my little pal, and wouldn’t let anyone else pick him up. RIP Oscar.
  • I had my own health issues, including multiple bouts of shingles last Christmas, and wisdom tooth trouble
  • The generally scary political climate

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I’m going to Japan

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(Image- Chion-in Temple Gate at Kyoto by Hiroshi Yoshida 1935)

This March I’m going to Japan for two weeks with my friend Vicky (also of Pen Fight zine distro), co-inciding with her 30th birthday.

A little while ago, I won a competition I’d entered at a food fair run by Japan Centre food halls.The top prize was two flights to Osaka courtesy of Air France KLM, five nights stay at the Hyatt hotel in Kyoto (way, way out of my normal budget), and a free tour of the Gekkeikan Sake Brewery. The runners up got free sake. I’ve entered this kind of competition before, but only ever won the free booze at best, so I was astonished to hear that I was the winner, and didn’t quite believe it was real until the whole trip was firmly booked yesterday. So a big thank you to Kim at Japan Centre (and also for the delicious free lunch at the company’s restaurant when I collected the prize).

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(Map we have been making of travel ideas)

It seemed a shame to go all the way to Japan and only stay for five days, so we are going for two weeks. Five days in Kyoto are firmly booked, and some time in Tokyo, Osaka and Hiroshima is in the works (probably via a train pass). One of my school friends (hi Sarah!) lived near Hiroshima for a long time, working as a teacher, and she has a lot of recommendations of places to go, and I have quite a few other friends who have been to Japan before and who have recommended places. Top of the list are the temples and old buildings in Kyoto, the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo (if we can get tickets), and the rabbit island near Hiroshima. Oh, and eating a lot, and taking a lot of photographs.

So this isn’t just my travel plans, here’s some books from Japan I’ve read lately:

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Sanshiro by Soseki Natsume

A pre WW1 coming of age story by Soseki Natsume of I am a Cat fame. Sanshiro comes from the countryside of southern Japan to study in Tokyo and is baffled and overwhelmed by big city life and women. I particularly liked how a standard love-triangle storyline was set up, and then deflated at the end by the fact the the woman in the triangle actually had her own life going on and had arranged to get married to someone else without the two men even noticing seemingly.

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In Praise of Shadows by Junichiro Tanizaki

A strange but interesting little essay from 1933 about the aesthetics of Japanese buildings, taking in toilets, why electric lights are ugly, and why gold looks better under candle light. (As it’s from 1933, there’s also a weird self-hating racist bit, which made me sad).

You can read the whole thing for free online here:
http://dcrit.sva.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/In-Praise-of-Shadows-Junichiro-Tanizaki.pdf1

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The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Mari Kondo

The famous book about decluttering and tidying (and possibly the only book I’ve read on the topic written from a Shinto-influenced viewpoint). Mari Kondo focuses on getting you to only keep the things you really want. A useful book for me, as I’m about to spend three months abroad after Christmas, and have been going through dejunking my things before putting them into storage. (I shamefully have 80+ unread books).

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Last shop order dates for Christmas

 

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The shop will be closed from the 16th of December to the 2nd of January.

Last order dates for delivery before Christmas:

UK– 15th December

EU, USA and Canada– 14th December

Australia & New Zealand– 10th December

Rest of the World– 7th December

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Defeating the To Read pile

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I’ve spent most of this afternoon sorting out my books, and making a pile of the unread ones. It turns out I have 84 unread books. Over the next six weeks it looks like I’m going to have a lot of time on my hands, unless a new job or a large chunk of money magically presents itself, so I’ll try to get through a good chunk of these.

Here is a list of the books, arranged alphabetically by author:
Read more

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Fanzine Ynfytyn 24

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I’ve got a new zine out. This one’s probably only of interest to those with a uterus. About getting a Mirena coil when you already have endocrine problems and have to take Prednisone.

24 page 1/4 sized perzine on pink paper

  • PCOS and Endometriosis
  • Getting a Mirena coil
  • Endocrine Meltdown
  • Removal

You can buy it, along with zines, prints and ribbon, here.

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