Ventimiglia, and the perils of budget travel

When I mentioned Ventimiglia, a friend said he’d never heard of it. Neither had I until a train dumped me there in July.

Early on the morning of the 9th, I left Barcelona to make my way over to Metalcamp. I had a Eurail pass, which meant I intended to crawl my way across France and Italy with free tickets and hopefully get an overnight train somewhere along the way. Things never, of course, go to plan.

I spent most of the 9th hopping on and off the trains I was entitled to free trips on, from Barcelona to Figueres-Vilafant to Montpellier to Nice. Now, you look at Nice on a map. Looks like it’s tucked right next to the Italian border, so it’s only a short hop into Italy right? LOL NOPE. A few hours on the train, and I get to the border. Ventimiglia’s just across the border, so it’s where trains going between France and Italy drop their passengers off to switch from TGV to Trenitalia. By this time, it’s mid-evening.

It takes me about twenty minutes to figure out that there aren’t any eastbound trains for the rest of the day. The next one leaves for Milan at 4:30 the next morning. So, I’m stuck in a tiny little border town.

Because this happens pretty regularly, the managers of the only two hotels in town can afford to be pains. No accommodation was available for less than €70 a night. Dear readers, I am not a wealthy man. Well yeah I saved up enough to be able to do this trip. But I had to do the entire thing on the thinnest shoestring I was capable of mustering at the time. I couldn’t afford a €70 hotel (the most expensive I ever paid for was €40, which was the cheapest place in Venice and, as I would find out, a dusty, bedbug-ridden hole). So I did what anyone would do: found the place that would be open latest, with the hopes it could tide me through for a while. It was open until 12 – this being a sleepy Italian town which only really exists so trains have somewhere to change – and it was a shitty little karaoke bar.

I swear to god, I never again want to hear a middle-aged Italian man mangling his way through the Scorpions’ “Winds of Change”. Because I heard it enough times for a lifetime that evening.

So, come midnight and fewer beers than I really needed to get through that vocal mess (because, well, €8 pints), everything in town was closed. So what could I do? Well, it was a warm summer night, and I was only going to be around for another four hours before the station opened up and I could wait on the platform. So I tuck my backpack into a corner outside the station, lay down my jacket and fall asleep on top of it with the alarm set for 4. And I quite happily did not spend a minute longer than I needed to there.

I suppose, if you had a real pressing need to sleep on the street, you could do a hell of a lot worse than a small Italian town during summer.

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Gallipoli

Not counting Hong Kong, Turkey was the first country I visited last year, and depending on where you think the country sits, either the first European, first Middle Eastern, or both country I ever visited. As an Australian, a visit to Gallipoli was pretty obligatory.

For those who aren’t aware, the Gallipoli campaign in WWI is a huge part of the founding mythology of the Australian nation. Considering it was a) a battle that had bugger-all to do with Australia, rather being in the interests of our imperial masters and b) one that we lost, a lot of Australians take issue with the large part it plays in our national mythology (a number of prominent Australians are fighting for greater recognition of Kokoda, as it was probably the only actual defensive battle for Australia against an invading force – Imperial Japan – since federation, and it was successful). Although it’s worth mentioning that for a while, there were some positives from that: largely, that Australia’s war memorials were focused on the futility of war and pointless loss of life. Then John Howard got elected, Australia was drafted into the war on terror and the ANZACs were posthumously drafted in as “fighting for the freedom of people everywhere”. Screw Howard.

ANZAC, by the way, stands for “Australian and New Zealand Army Corps”. The two countries were grouped together in the British Imperial Forces, and the acronym stuck. Nowadays, “Anzac” either refers to a simple, rolled-oat biscuit (“cookie”, for the Americans reading) or when a politician wants to assure New Zealanders that they aren’t entirely forgotten by their next-door neighbors (the words “Anzac spirit” get thrown around liberally).

So, anyway – In Istanbul, I decide to arrange a day trip out to Gallipoli. It’s one of the few things I did last year with a tour guide as opposed to a bit of research and my two legs, and I’m very happy I did (the tour was done by RSLTours, and after a bit of haggling with an agent in Istanbul, came to €65 including lunch – money well spent). The guide we had for the day – we were in a small group, with an older Australian couple and two Swedish backpackers – was a history postgrad and had dedicated some time to the history around the founding of the modern Turkish state, which, he told us, Gallipoli was as instrumental to as it was for Australia, if not more so.

Mustafa Kemal was a junior commander who led the Ottoman forces at Gallipoli. It was at Gallipoli he made his name as leader, and his victory in defending the Dardanelles gave him the public respect and authority to be able to take control after the collapse of the Ottoman empire and remake the Turkish state in the modern, secular image he had in mind. He was remarkably successful – talk to anyone in Turkey who isn’t Kurdish, Armenian or Assyrian and they generally have little but praise for Kemal, who came to be known as Ataturk.

The common theory surrounding the landings at Anzac Cove, and the one taught in most Australian schools, is that they fucked it up and landed at the wrong beach – a scrubby, steep slog instead of the nearby easily sloping rise with good tree cover. The guide suggested an alternative he’d come across in his research, which makes so much sense I wondered how I had never thought of it before: This beach was deliberately chosen, because of course the Ottomans would have much better defenses at the obvious, easily assaultable landing point compared to this rocky pain in the arse where no sane commander would put their troops. Almost none of the soldiers at Gallipoli had ever seen battle before, and as such the hellishness of that first landing stuck out in their minds as horrible, and the idea that it was a cock-up was, I suppose, easier to stomach than the alternative that assaults are always just that damned hard. The fact that the boats dropped the soldiers – carrying full kit – a fair way out from the beach for stealth purposes, meaning they had to wade waist-deep for a good distance after being dropped straight into freezing early morning April waters would not have helped. Oh, by the way, that photo only shows halfway up:

The ANZAC soldiers assaulting the Ottoman position still had this to go, and once they realised where the assault was coming from, the Sphinx – the Anzac nickname for that rocky outcrop – was used as a gun position (it’s barely changed – if you look at a photo from WWI, all that’s different is that trees have grown back from the bombing). It was of course, a fucking massacre. When British command got told what was happening they sent the command to “dig, dig, dig” – simply to dig into position. It’s for this reason, by the way, that Australian soldiers are to this day referred to and refer to themselves as “Diggers”.

Lone Pine was the site of one of the biggest battles of the Gallipoli campaign. The tree here now was regrown from a branch of the original, and it’s surrounded by hundreds of graves.

That’s Lone Pine in the distance. The front line generally fell somewhere between where I’m standing and Lone Pine for the last third or so of the campaign. Those hills are where Simpson and his donkeys (there were several, as they didn’t have as good self-preservation instincts as Simpson), a combat medic who’s become something of a folk figure in Australia for heading back and forward – often a couple dozen times per day – to the front lines to rescue injured soldiers, did his work. If you’ve seen the movie Gallipoli, this is where Mel Gibson’s character did his big failed-hero run at the end of the film, too.

And this? This is the most important picture here, and simply one of the most wonderful sentiments I’ve ever seen displayed on a public monument.

I’ll also try to mention what music I particularly associate with a place, because I find that affects my memories a great deal.

Of course this song was in my head the entire day at Gallipoli. How could it not be? Waltzing Matilda – a wonderful little folk song about the homeless suicidal thieves who made my country great – was adapted as a marching song, and has been played at pretty much every military event in Australia for the past hundred years. It’s played every Armstice Day and every ANZAC Day – a day specifically for remembering Australian and New Zealand war dead which occurs on the 25th of April, the date of the landings at Gallipoli – it was played at the passing out parade when I finished basic training, and it was played when ANZACs returned from overseas. Every Australian knows it, which is why “And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” has so much impact for every Australian when they hear it. I am curious, though – non-Australians, what does this song say to you? Does not getting the references still let the sentiment of it shine through?

Day 25 & 26: Borders

I’m currently about five minutes walk from the Mexican border, at El Paso. It’s an intensely guarded bridge over the Rio Grande, with queues stretching back for blocks and guards pointing flashlights all over the cars taking the trip over. The border, in the United States, is very serious business.

So taking this trip after my European trip has been good for the contrast. In Western and Central Europe, I quite frequently didn’t even notice I’d crossed a border. The way I noticed that I was in a different country was simply by the style of architecture, the language spoken, the vibe of the place (vague, certainly, but often very noticeable), and sometimes the weather and geography or ethnicity of the locals.

By this standard, I’ve crossed ‘borders’ of a cultural, European fashion probably three times (Northwest/California, California/Southwest, Southwest/Texas) since coming to the United States.

Day 24: Cliches Subverted

They say that Las Vegas is the city that never sleeps.

This is, however, patently nonsense. It sleeps in shifts.

If you go into a casino at 10 in the morning – as I did, in search of coffee after rolling into town after a horribly cold night in the back of the van in the desert – the average age is somewhere in the 60s, presumably on account of all the young folk sleeping off hangovers. Six hours later, the average age has dropped twenty years; another six hours later at night-time, it’s back down to the twenties. And then the next morning the cycle starts over again.

Vegas sleeps about as much as an army does.

Day 22 and 23: The Cave

Since coming to the United States, a lot of people here have asked why, I, an Australian from the magical land of Oz (a lot of people here hold Australia in something approaching reverence, though for none of the reasons I’m so happy to call it home), have, well, come to the United States. I tended to fumble around my answer with a lot of “well it’s like”s and “but, you know, also”s with a few “knowhatimean?”s, but the other night during a bourbon-and-hot-dog fueled discussion that also touched on Jeff Bridges, Wu-Tang and wine regions, I came up with something that sort of works – at least, for me to explain it to myself.

The key for me is Plato’s allegory of the cave. If you’re not familiar with it, there’s a wonderful layman’s-terms summary over at the Philosophy Bro, and if you are, I suggest reading it anyway because I really like what the Philosophy Bro does.

In Australia, we see the America-shaped shadows on the wall of our cave. Our cave wall happens to be a wide-screen plasma TV hooked up to the internet, but it’s still a cave wall. We could be satisfied with that. Most Australians are. But for a country which has such an impact upon Australia, upon Australian life, upon the Australian people, I think that’s a foolish and lazy path to take. America affects up more than we care to admit, and all rhetoric about the rise of China aside, that’s not going away any time soon – like, three decades at the earliest, maybe even a half century for anyone to overtake America in terms of cultural influence.

So, the shadows on the wall of the cave aren’t enough – at least not the way I see it. I felt the need to go outside and see America in more than just some monochromatic, two-dimensional, perspective-less image. And as an Australian in the early 21st century, that seemed to me to be a pretty smart move. I visited Europe to see the past and I intend to visit Asia and South America to see the future. But right now, I’m in the USA, to stop thinking as so many of my countrymen do that the shadows on the cave wall are the real deal and to see the present the way it really is.

Day 21: Nyquil

Nyquil is one of those things which I’ve known by reputation for years but never seen on a shelf, let alone tasted, because, well, America. As such it’s pretty representative of the the experience of this trip. It’s also awesome.

Twice a year I get my ‘seasonal cold-y-flu-y-thing’ (scientific term), which usually amounts to up to a week of runny/blocked noses, coughs, blocked ears, fevers, lack of sleep and other assorted manflu symptoms. It popped up this last weekend. Somebody at the hostel, upon seeing that I wasn’t feeling tops, offered me a shot of it before I went to bed. Damned if it didn’t knock me straight out, give me a solid and pleasant eight hours, and leave my nose mostly dry by the next day. This stuff is way stronger than any cold and flu medication I’ve ever had in Australia or the UK, and I want to bring a bunch home with me.

Day 20: Advertisements, Part 2

One of the side effects of a completely and utterly dysfunctional healthcare system is that people don’t go to a GP for anything other than the most serious of problems, simply because they cannot afford it. So a lot of self-diagnosis happens (the consequences of this in the hypochondriac culture which is – no pun intended – pandemic across the western world are serious and also worth consideration, though I don’t intend to do that unless I get bored and have nothing to write about some other day). Thankfully, those lovely pharmaceutical companies are on hand to help you make a choice as to what medicine is right for you (comedy option: “take all the drugs?” “take ALL the drugs!”). And this is where the bits between the shows on American television strays from a bit different to outright bloody surreal.

The formula is so precise and unchanging between each ad, you easily get confused. They ask if you’ve ever had a certain, horoscope-level ambiguous feeling, or get somebody – usually either an elderly person/couple (for Medicare-deductible drugs), or a woman who looks like she’s in her mid-40s but is made up to look in her late-30s – to talk about when they felt that thing. Then they’ll talk up the medicine as the cure to that, as well as a half dozen other maladies and general less-than-excellent feelings. It usually has one or more of the last three letters of the alphabet in its name. This usually takes up the first half to two-thirds of the ad. And then, the disclaimers.

Okay, so in as lawsuit-happy a culture as the US is, I can understand why these things are necessary. But they’re completely bizarre and cause you to wonder why anyone would take the drug in the first place. When twenty-five seconds of a minute long ad is taken up by a soothing female voiceover telling you that “people who use x may experience side effects including lack of sleep, diarrhea, dizziness and heart attacks or in extreme cases, death”. I’m not making a word of that up.