20 years of ORC

Twenty years ago today I was in the long-departed Ottakar’s Bookshop, in Edinburgh, wondering if anyone would come and play games with me.

It was not the best time for tabletop roleplaying games. They had fallen off the cultural radar completely during the 1990s, with an aging player base and no signs of transformation ahead. But I still loved them, more than ever in fact given the exciting experimentation of the indie scenes in the UK and the US, and when I found a high street retailer who wanted to make space for the games, I saw an opportunity.

Only a handful of people turned up to those first meetings of what became the Ottakar’s Roleplaying Club, but they kept coming back, and slowly the numbers grew. Soon my Saturdays had a reliable date: we’d meet at the bookshop, wander over the road to a giant internet cafe with lots of empty tables, and then play games all afternoon.

In time, the Ottakar’s Roleplaying Club morphed into the Open Roleplaying Community, and other people stepped up to steer it as I departed to the other side of the planet. (Dave! Bill!) And it’s still around today! Although it is very different in form these days, it still does the same job: it’s a welcoming hub for all people who want to come together and play these wonderful, ridiculous games together.

And of course, in that same time, tabletop roleplaying games have become a legitimate cultural phenomenon, attaining a level of cultural presence that would have shocked me that day in Ottakars!

I’m really proud of ORC (the acronym was entirely accidental!), and grateful for the wonderful friends I made there, many of whom I’m still in touch with today. I learned a lot. Some of those lessons are top of mind right now in fact, as I’m busy community-building in the TTRPG space again, this time for the glorious KiwiRPG. Just can’t help myself!

20 years at large

morgue & Leon carefully navigate the world

Twenty years ago today, I hopped on a plane with my best bud Leon and we flew from Wellington to London. It was exciting. I’d never been overseas before.

I came back several years later, after exploring Europe and the Middle East and North America, and living long enough in Edinburgh that I still think of it as my other home. 

I wanted to feel the size of the world. The more I travelled, the bigger it all felt, because every place I reached also revealed countless more places in between. But it also ended up feeling not quite so big as all that, because it turns out the world is made of people, and now I have friends scattered all over the globe, and the shape of my life was powerfully changed by these friendships.

The other important thing I learned is that the right place for me to be in that world is here, home again in Aotearoa New Zealand, on the banks of Te Awa Kairangi.

I hope to go see other places again, and visit all my friends out there. I am so glad I met all of you. You make the world feel just the right size.

[morgueatlarge] Moa, Moose & Maeroero

Or: Creatures of the South

There are moa down there. New Zealand’s largest flightless bird, the moa, is reputed to be extinct since before the arrival of Captain Cook – but I choose to believe it’s not. Because the world would be a cooler place if there were still gigantic, curious birds stomping around its most mysterious recesses.

Besides, a moa was seen just a dozen years ago. By a guy who ran a pub in the area. The pub then becoming a well-patronised tourist destination. Hmm. His name was Paddy Freaney, and yes he’s Irish, and you can see the photo he took of the moa at Wikipedia. Unless it’s a photo of a sock puppet. Or perhaps a seagull.

So now that we have established beyond all doubt that the moa exists, it is with regret that I report Aaron and I failed in our quest to find one, despite making numerous moa-appropriate calls into the bush wilderness. Inexplicable.

And moose. The moose of the deep south were confirmed to exist in 2000, with the discovery of a verifiable clump of moose hair in the depths of Fiordland. The http://www.nzwt.co.nz/projects.htm New Zealand Wildlife Research Trust is working on finding out more about them, and perhaps snapping an elusive picture of the Fiordland moose in its natural Fiordland habitat.

As an aside, I love that a large chunk of New Zealand is called ‘Fiordland’ because it is entirely made up of fiords/fyords. That’s how they do it down south – no fancy dressing things up for them. They call a land of fiords a Fiordland and crack open a Speights mate, pride of the South.

And despite the drinking of Speights, and Monteiths, in abundance, and making numerous moose-appropriate calls into the bush wilderness, no moose came to disturb our campsite. Or if they did we were already asleep in our tent.

And the maeroero. The sasquatch of the Catlins, on the South Island’s southeast tip – as it says on http://www.catlins.org.nz/iwi.htm the Catlins site, “Maori legend has it that large hairy monsters inhabited these valleys of forest, their name was Maeroero, meaning wild man of the forest and were feared by all Maori.”

We did our best to lure a maeroero to our table by playing abundant cribbage and drinking bourbon and making numerous maeroero appropriate calls into the bush wilderness, but no maeroero emerged from the darkness. The only wild hairy men of the bush were Aaron and myself.
And perhaps that’s the truth in all of this – that you can go looking for the secrets of the wilderness, but all you find there is yourself. With a beard.

So, given our lack of luck with the moa, the moose and the maeroero, what creature did make an impact on our Southern Odyssey? It was the sandfly. New Zealanders, and travellers who’ve experienced them, will give a shiver of acknowledgement at the thought of these creatures. They are tiny, millimetre-long flying insects with a disturbing desire to drink your blood, and they leave behind swollen irritations which in their numbers can be atrociously uncomfortable. Tenacious and pernicious, the sandfly accompanied us all down the West Coast, out to Milford Sound, and turned up again in Piano Flat on our last night together. They came at us in great numbers, hundreds, even thousands of them, clustering against our tent and flying into the car and landing on us all over. They were constantly drawn to us. I do believe they worshipped us as Gods, whole sandfly civilisations rising and falling over different interpretations of our holy writ. They loved to get on to our exposed skin and bite.

We hated them. Strict biosecurity measures, learned at the NZ border crossing, maintained the integrity and safety of our tent. Outside of that, we relied on some very effective insect repellents, which had the effect of convincing a sandfly that has landed on you not to bite, but instead to fly to another part of you and see if it can bite there, and so on and so on.

The sandflies were fairly intense in tiny Haast, at the south end of the West Coast road. Haast, you will recall, is a tiny hamlet of a few hundred people – this total a huge advance on the population in 1990 – with a single small “supermarket”. It gave me no end of bewildered pleasure to note that sandfly-beset Haast’s only retail outlet had a sign out front saying that no-one wearing insect repellent was allowed within. The owner, it seems, is extremely allergic.

One supposes she married into the region.

Wayback Machine link to archive of original message

[morgueatlarge] Joop, Edinburgh, a watch

I’m in Edinburgh.

It’s amazing.

When I told people I was heading up there they’d all say “it’s so beautiful” and you know, it really is. Not scattered spots of beauty mixed in with miles of chaos like you find in Barcelona or London, but a comprehensive all-around goodness that you can’t run from without finding yourself in the middle of even more. The hills and valleys give it fascinating character, with the awesome Salisbury Crags overlooking the city, and the view from shopping-central Princes Street across the narrow valley of Princes St gardens to the old town up on the facing hill, with the castle itself dominating everything from its high perch… amazing. Yeah.

I’m staying with Bradley, yet another friend who goes back to primary school days, at a comfy place a fifteen minute walk from Princes Street. The quickest route goes straight over South Bridge, which is closed as workers pick through the extensive damage from last week’s fire. The smell of burnt
wood carries through the cold.

It’s a good place and I’m going to stick around a while. It’s time to be still for a little bit.

In London one evening I met up with Joop Jagr, the guy Leon and I had met on the plane coming over. Surprisingly he’d been in London the whole time I’d been travelling; the number of stories he had about what he’d got up to here were still never less than hilarious and often a bit disturbing. He’s done a lot of travelling, and over a pint he asked me how I’d found it, ‘the whole travelling around business’. I tried to answer as best I could.

Here’s an attempt to retell what I came up with, using literary license to make it all sound a lot better than it would have that evening, and probably missing out some stuff and perhaps putting in some stuff too.

-Travelling is weird. It’s a whole bunch of things, all sort of bundled up together for no reason other than logistics. You do them all at once but they don’t really have anything in common. Like, you see things – monuments and icons and famous places and museums. And that’s cool, that’s reason enough to go travelling all by itself.

And also you meet people, all kinds of people from all kinds of places, and because of how it is on the road it’s so easy to make friends… I think it’s always easy to make friends but most of the time it seems harder, you know? On the road it seems as easy as it really is. And that’s cool, that’s reason enough by itself as well.

And then there’s the thing about being in new places, hearing a different language all around you, seeing people live a daily life that’s recognisable but unfamiliar, or even wildly strange. That’s invigorating and enlightening and it sort of puts you in your place culturally, gives you some perspective.

And it’s a test, as well. Can I handle myself? Can I avoid starving to death somewhere?

And then when you travel there’s that ‘go with the flow’ thing, where you can just find yourself riding a current and life starts making itself up for you as you go along and suddenly you’re in the middle of the most amazing new situation… [here Joop nodded sagely and made a comment like ‘I’ll drink to that’ – all of his travel tales stem from going with the flow, at least the ones I’ve heard]

And when you travel you learn stories and make stories. You sort of are stories, you’re hyper-aware of how you’re living in something that one day’s gonna be a narrative you’ll spin out for your friends.

And… I studied anthropology at University, so I get to see that in action, and it’s even more amazing because I know that the cultures I see all around me go so much deeper than I could understand without living amongst the people and learning their language and becoming part of their community.

And you see how place defines experience and how experience defines your reality. So I get to be Morgan in a new place, which is different to Morgan at home. You just skim over the surface of the world and your headspace changes. Everything changes. –

At this point Joop reminded me of something I’d said on the plane coming over, about how I had one real goal for travelling: to try and understand the size of the world.

And I said to him, – all the rest is a part of that, right?

I’ve travelled Europe for three months without a watch.

I now have a watch. It’s time to stay in one place for a little while.

Merry Christmas all! Don’t hold your breath for Christmas cards, I’ve kind of left it too late… there are plenty more tales to tell, and I’m sure Edinburgh will yield some of its own!

Sorry to the Londoners (and surroundings, hello Cambridge people!) who I missed yet again. Not many of you this time, thankfully. I’ll get to you, I’m gonna try and come back down early next year.

Peace and love (and, for the old-timers who appreciate old-time-references, antelopes)


[waybackmachine link to original]

[morgueatlarge] Flashback: Andorra, Realm of Duty Free

Andorra is one of those tiny countries, the ones that aren’t large enough to merit a block of colour on large-scale maps and are instead identified by a line pointing at their location. The ones you forget about, basically. It’s sandwiched between Spain and France in the heights of the Pyrenees. The local language is Catalan, same as Barcelona. It uses the Euro as currency even though it isn’t part of the EU, and both the Spanish and French postal systems are in place, everywhere there is a post box for one there is a post box for the other alongside. (Which reminds me of the three parallel postal services we had at one time in New Zealand, each with their own stamps and letter boxes, and once again I shake my head at the folly of

There are two things to understand about Andorra:

  • it is high in the mountains
  • it levies no import duties

The first is important because mountains mean slopes with snow, and slopes with snow means ski. All of the towns in Andorra are basically ski resort hotels and the homes and shops of those serving the skiers. So while the high Pyrenees are incredibly scenic, anything resembling a local culture is pretty thin on the ground.

The second is important because of what it means for the central town, Andorra la Vella (which I believe just means ‘Andorra Town’. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.) and more specifically its main street. Well, it really is just a main street. And all along the main street are exactly the same shops you find in the duty-free sections of airports. Cheap consumer electronics, copious amounts of alcohol and tobacco, and all the rest. It’s a giant mall in the mountains.

A weekend trip was in the offing. The posse were Julian and myself, and three of Julian’s fellow language assistants, Lucas and Julia whose car it was and who were organising the whole thing, and Leanne. Lucas is from Argentina and would serve as chief translator for the trip, while Julia and Leanne are both from the UK, London and Leeds respectively. I’d met all three on my first day in Auch, joining them and Andrew for an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet lunch mere hours after stepping off the train and surprising Julian with a phone call saying ‘Viv, I’m at Auch train station.’

It is appropriate now to give due respect to Julian for coping with my unexpected arrival with such good grace and charm and, indeed, enthusiasm. Cheers.

Anyway, Lucas, Julia, Leanne (and also Andrew, who was not along for this mission) had made a previous expedition to Andorra a few weekends before, and they had lucked onto a nice three-star hotel with Jacuzzi, kitchenette and enough room for six, all for 60 euros a night for the room. The deal ran out at the start of December when the ski season kicked off, so they were keen to go again and I was in the right place at the right time.

Friday morning, mere hours post-Tip-Top, we set off. Lucas drove with great consideration and Julian held tightly to the doorhandle for most of the journey. There were no accidents, and Julian was a bright light for us all, enough that he managed to inspire me to overcome my own hungover state. I was a third of a bottle of whisky down on Julian, after all, and if he could rise to the occasion then damn it, so could I! The car was small and Leanne was jammed in between us, doing the best she could to be happy about it, and the journey was full of corners, and when you touched your skin to the windows it was clear exactly how cold it was getting outside.

As we rose into the mountains I was more easily able to put aside my queasiness. The views really were stunning, and when we hit the snowline I was sold. I’ve done lots of describing of mountains lately, seeing as I’m currently in Switzerland, so I’m not going to make the effort here, but they were massive, impressive, and very different to the Alps in ways I can’t quite put into words.

We got settled into the hotel, which was everything that had been promised, and sallied forth to Andorra La Vella for a shopping expedition (I managed to resist temptation). Not fond of malls, I was quite ready to return to the room for a nice meal and a relaxing evening of conversation, ‘Jaws’ in German, and a very pleasant Jacuzzi.

Saturday morning and we jumped back in the car and explored the country a little. The highlight for me was leaping out of the car into snow a foot deep or more, and the impromptu battle that instantly developed. I threw my first snowball, badly, achieving spiritual communion with Charlie Brown after all these years. The highlight of course was Lucas leaping headfirst into the snow in a pratfall so spectacular he either planned it or is truly one of the world’s great stumblers.

All too soon the cold had eaten into our fingers and we were back in the car. We ended up back at Andorra La Vella, in a small bar/restaurant just off the main strip where we shared a half-dozen plates of tapas. These included spiced fish, potato wedges and slices of chorizo and other sausages. All in all, very filling and very tasty. Then we returned to the hotel room to relax for a bit before heading out again after nightfall for the main event of the evening: Caldea.

Caldea is a health spa complex right in the heart of Andorra La Vella, its glass-walled central tower rising high above the surroundings in a narrow pyramid. Inside it’s a multi-leveled arcade of subdued lighting and bubbling fountains, expensive tourist shops making way for a large reception area for the various areas of the club. It didn’t seem like a real environment, and after a few minutes I realised I was being reminded of the kind of set you’d see in an episode of Star Trek.

We paid about 20 euros each for entry to the complex for three hours, from 9pm to the closing time of midnight. After hurried changing and much faffing about with the lockers, trying to convince the keys to work, the five of us strode forth into the heart of the complex. Oh, lord. If the reception area had the garish shiny futurism of a Star Trek television episode, the main space was like a big-budget Trek movie where the crew go to the pleasure planet, crossed over with the barmy 70s sci-fi décor of, say, Logan’s Run. (Note, however, that I found no evidence of sinister goings on behind the scenes.) The main pool was huge, roughly oval in shape, all about waist deep or slightly deeper and a very pleasant temperature. The ceiling was very high above, and a few storeys up on the walls were full-length windows into the on-site restaurants, where diners ate while gazing over the whole interior. More important, however, were the other pools above the main one.

From within the water there were staircases rising up to five enormous basins, set at varying heights above the pool, each large enough for a dozen or so people to settle within. From below they looked like shallow half-spheres with water spilling over the edges and cascading down to the main pool. They were at a variety of temperatures and included different kinds of designer turbulence, the piece de resistance being the highest pool where you could sit against jets of water designed to massage the back. There were six sets of jets evenly spaced around edge of this pool, and you started at the weakest and proceeded around them until you came the last, which pummelled the tensions in your back into a most pleasurable submission.

As impressive as all this was, it was only the beginning. One arm of the main pool went outside, waist-deep all the way, where the city lights played against the mountainside and steam poured upwards off the water. Here there was a circular channel with a strong current and a number of other nooks and
corners. Also outside, but set apart from the main pool, was a large Jacuzzi in a particularly dark corner of the courtyard. To find this one you had to brave the icy cold exterior while soaked to the skin, and when
you found it, it was a great pleasure to jump in. The real problem was working up the nerve to get up and out again.

There was a very cold dunking bath alongside the hottest of the pools, where Julian took particular pleasure in testing his resilience (greater than mine, I promise you), there were numerous alcoves where you could settle and rest, there were dark rooms and steam baths and stunningly hot saunas. I can make that last description with authority, as I spent some amount of time that I cannot remotely estimate in one of the hot rooms, and when I emerged I was indeed quite stunned. I wandered in a state of utter
relaxation to the side of the main pool and settled on to a deck chair, one of about thirty set out in this dark corner, although I was the only person to make use of them all night that I could see.

From this spot I had a spectacular view of the next stage of the evening’s dramas – the sound and light show. All through the evening there had been soothing music thrumming through the sound system, music that actually enhanced the atmosphere rather than polluting it. Now the lights dimmed and changed colour and the music changed tenor, becoming a medley of classical and semi-classical themes that were vigorous, rousing and sometimes sinister (including that particularly ominous piece that gets wheeled out in every second Hollywood film, the piece of music that all by itself makes me put Young Sherlock Holmes in the scary movie category, you know the one, dum dum dum dum, dum dum dum dum, dum dum dum duuum duuum dum dum…). While that was going on water spouts were rising and spinning in the middle of the raised pools, arcing water into the air to rain down on the main pool, sprays
rising and receding in time with the ebb and climax of the music, all building to a glorious purple finale where ice-cold water leaped from unexpected jets to fall on to the exposed parts of a delighted, squealing crowd in the pool. Magical.

The same show came again about an hour later, but the time went very fast. I drifted from pool to pool, and couldn’t quite believe it when midnight came and we were all ushered out of the water – I can hardly think of a time when three hours has passed so quickly.

One other part of the Caldea experience you should note to really get a good impression of what it was like: the sheer amount of affection on public display. There were a lot of couples making out all over the place. I’ve been in Europe for a couple of months now but it still rings bemused ‘get a room’ bells in my prudish NZ-cultured brain.

So ended our Andorran expedition. The following morning, after what were universally agreed to be very restful post-spa sleeps, we piled into the car and set off on a roundabout return route that took us through Spain. We stopped for lunch in a small town called Sort, and again enjoyed a healthy spread of tapas. Of particular note this time were the snails that Lucas and Julian ordered. Now, I’ve heard it said that eating snails aren’t the same as common garden snails, but I couldn’t spot any difference. Imagine a cast-iron tray, about the right size to bake cookies, and cover it with a layer of snails from the garden, and you have a precise image of what was delivered to the table. Of course, the snails weren’t moving. To eat them you pick them up by the shell and jab at the little beggar inside with a wooden pick, dragging him out and into your mouth. The consistency: chewy and juicy. The taste: they were coated in a rich buttery flavour, and some of them were particularly spicy. I had four in all, enough that I can now say with confidence that yes, I have eaten snails.


And Hoa spells his name Hoa, not Hao. Thanks Jon Ball for the correction. Sorry Hoa! I did know, I was just stupid!


[waybackmachine link to original]

[morgueatlarge] Flashback: The New Beaujolais

Two announcements before I start ranting:

(1) Londoners: I’m getting into London this Saturday afternoon. I’m leaving again on Thursday and probably won’t be back until after New Year’s. I’m keen to see as many of you as possible, particularly those I didn’t manage to catch last time, so give me an email or wait until my phone is in the UK and contact me there, 078 17772635. Suggestions for Saturday night gratefully received.

(2) Wellingtonians: heritage couch free to a good home! My sister’s shifting, and the couch she inherited from me is surplus to requirements. This is the marvellous gold/green creature that so happily participated in every party at Todman St. It’s a bit threadbare but it’s dead comfy and my mum has a photo of me sitting on it as a baby, so it’s been in the family for a long time and I’d like to see it placed where someone will give it the same loving attention I always did. Anyone interested, call Miriam on 021
137 8640. (You’ll have to pick it up, mind.)

After my expedition to Montpellier, Avignon and Carcassonne, I returned to Julian’s place in Auch. I was backtracking for a very specific purpose: I had been invited on what promised to be a very worthwhile expedition to Andorra.

So, Friday morning and the bags were packed, the car loaded, and we set off bright and early. Very bright and very early. This was a problem. you see, the previous night we had experienced… Tip Top. And Julian had experienced it more than anybody.

Let’s see if I can run this down.

Julian lives in a roomy apartment next to a high school. The education system that he’s entangled in, working as a language assistant, also provided this accommodation which he has, essentially to himself. He does have a nominal room-mate, Jan, who only very occasionally appears to make use of his sparsely furnished room, thus giving Julian all the freedom he requires to kick balls through doorways. Mostly, Jan lives with wife and children in a different place entirely.

When I got back to Auch, I was surprised to find that Jan had chosen to materialise. He’s tall, very agreeable, quite young for someone with wife and multiple children, and when he practised his English with me it was really quite good. Certainly vastly better than my French. Anyway, that Thursday November 22 was the night of the release of the new Beaujolais, and Jan proposed we go out for a little drink to mark the occasion. We readily agreed. We would, it transpired, be meeting up with another person, a
female colleague of Jan’s. All well and good. Evening came, out we went, and the wine was ordered and tried – as Julian put it delicately, ‘it’s very young’. Jan agreed that it’s always terrible. (Why the entire country makes a song and dance each year over what seems to be universally agreed as a crap wine, I have no idea. Genuine French culture for you, anyway.)

Jan’s friend showed up, a fierce-talking chain-smoking deputy principal just barely in her thirties, one of those women with career in her blood. As we consumed more wine I was less and less able to understand her rapidfire French, and before long she and Jan were having an intense and unintelligible conversation across the table, the barrage of French diagonally separating me from Julian. We just smiled and nodded to each other and the wine kept coming.

Finally we got up to leave, and I was quite ready for bed. But the night was just beginning. We jumped from bar to bar, getting drunker and drunker, the time getting later and later. As Jan and his colleague sink deeper into each other’s company, Julian and I welcomed fellow language assistant Andrew, who had been led a merry mobile-phone chase around Auch before tracking us down. Andrew is an sturdy Irish lad of 21 years, with a ready smile and a penchant for rugby. It was at his rugby training that he met Go, who was also with him that night. Go is Japanese, represented Japan in the Sevens at one time, and played rugby in Canterbury, befriending along the way such Kiwi rugby legends as Todd Blackadder, former All Black captain. And here he was in southern France, with not a whit of French to his name, to play rugby for Auch.

So we chatted, and marvelled at how Go really is called Go, and I was able once again to wheel out the story of how I used to play basketball with How and Why. (Although, okay, not at the same time, and their names are spelt Hao and Wai. Hey Hao! You’re an anecdote!)

And then we made it to the infamous Auch nightspot… Tip Top.

They checked us in the camera before opening the door to let us in. It was by now circa 2am on a school night but the place was just starting to fill up. I was ready to go home but I hung on – I couldn’t leave Julian behind! The group’s reasoning process was by this time well impaired, and with a bottle and a half of Beaujolais under my belt alone I was in no state to lead the group out of the Valley of Death/Tip Top. I called it a night when the bottle of whisky appeared, leaving Julian to battle on while Jan and his colleague were, ah, becoming steadily more collegial.

Julian sprinted in sometime in the region of 5am, a third of a bottle of whisky later. We were due at the car about 9.30. It was, needless to say, to be a long ride to Andorra.

Oh, Jan appeared at 9ish, as Julian and I were getting ready to leave. There, my friends, is another piece of French culture for you.

next: Andorra!

[waybackmachine link to original]

[morgueatlarge] alp, alp, the comedian’s a bear!

When I look to my left I see an array of red-brick apartment blocks, three to five stories high, arrayed in a loop around a block of bright green that could have been drawn in with a felt-tip pen. Near to me there’s a sloping rock garden leading down to the driveway, to its left a small play area, a wooden tower with a pyramid roof and a slide rolling down from it in a narrow plastic wave. On the top floor of the nearest apartment block there’s a man in his twenties on the balcony. He’s leaning inside the sliding door to talk to someone else. He has a shoe on his hand, a black workshoe. On the balcony railing, looking down on the concrete path at the foot of the building, is a santa claus figure, two feet high with a smiling cherub face and waving his glove to the nonexistent passers-by. The trees to the left of that block have given up to winter already, their limbs bare or fuzzed with brown, but to the right they are still green, although fading. It has rained through the night and is starting to rain again. The drops come down thin and perfectly vertical.

These buildings make up the bottom third of the view. Beyond the apartment blocks is a hillside. It is an almost vertical slope covered with tall trees, almost all of which are bare of leaves. The ridge rises and falls sharply, echoing the shape of the children’s slide.   The hillside makes up the middle third.

The top third is cloud. Cloud is heavy here, rarely lifting, sometimes casting tendrils of mist down into the valley where they settle or drift, sometimes enveloping the whole valley floor in a cloud so thick that one can only hear, not see, the destination of a thrown stone.

It’s a beautiful valley. A few days ago I went for a walk, it turned into a five-hour expedition, to see what I could see. All around there were hills and mountains, wreathed in fog that occasionally teased me with areas of clarity – snow on the pines here, a steep bank of green there. I walked from Stansstad village to the larger town of Stans, and kept going, following the road and railway line up the valley. Had I kept walking I would eventually, long after dark, have made it to the ski resort of Engelberg, at the foot of the Titlis mountain, one of the giants of Switzerland. This is also the place where Craig, my co-host and old friend, is teaching.

Titlis was obscured by intervening hills and mountains, but there was plenty to see around me. The valley floor has wide fields, impossibly green, agricultural stations mingling with the fringes of the towns. The sloping valley sides, as green and smooth as a pool table, play host to tiny gatherings of cottages, halls and churches, while in the centre a bright red train runs along a slowly curving line. It reminds me of nothing so much as the model railways my grandfather so enjoyed; too detailed and delicate and unblemished to be real. As the eye drifts up the slope the green shifts to white at the snowline, or sometimes to a line of white fog that had wiped away the upper parts of the hill like an eraser to a pencil sketch.

The clouds lifted as the day wore on and I was treated to more and more of the mountains until finally, late in the day, I had a clear view of the two nearest peaks, the Stanserhorn just above Stans and Stansstad, and the more distant and still taller Pilatus, both classic mountains, studded with dark green trees and steep slopes of rock and snow, towering paternally over the small villages.

And I’m told its even better in summer.


Saturday night and Craig and Marcel were dinner party hosts. Eight of us gathered around their dinner table for a traditional Swiss raclet. Two hot grills were set in the middle of the table along with a wide variety of cut meats (bite sized), slices of cheese, small baked potatoes and gherkins. you cook for yourself at a raclette, putting the meat cuts on the top of the grill and plucking them off to your plate and your mouth when they’re ready, and melting the cheese slices in special trays with handles that sit under the element. When the cheese is good and melted you scrape it off the tray with a wooden scraper, over the potato or gherkin or whatever it is on your plate that you want to douse in cheese. And then you eat, and throw some more cheese on the tray and some more meat on the grill.

It’s reminiscent of the traditional kiwi barbecue, but it has more in common with the happy camaraderie of a good fondue party – that of course being another Swiss winter specialty. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, listening to conversations switch from English to German and back again and indulging my affection for cheese. I managed to completely cover my melting tray in a bubbling, browning crust of cooked cheese, clearly the sign of a rank amateur.

The Swiss love their cheese, and they also love their chocolate, represented at the dinner party by Craig’s ridiculously intense mudcake which gave me a glorious headache when I was halfway through the square-inch section I had.

(Craig, making the mudcake, checks the icing: ‘hmm. needs more chocolate.’ Unwraps an *entire block* of Swiss chocolate and dumps it in. Oh Lordy.)


Sunday, Craig and I went driving. Switzerland is surprisingly small, since we went almost the width of the country in a couple of hours, travelling via autobahn from Lucerne in the German language area to Gruyeres in the French language area. This is a small, well-preserved medieval village with castle on a hill overlooking the lands the Count once ruled, and itself loomed over by a range of stunning alpine heights, which happily were under sun and blue sky when we arrived. It has given its name to the cheese, but I was more interested to find that the name comes from ‘Grue’, the heraldic creature on its coat-of-arms, a sort of fearsome heron. The reason we made this pilgrimage, however, apart from as an excuse to do a grand tour of the Swiss countryside, was the HR Giger museum.

Explanations. I’ll try and keep this short.

When I was 11, my friend Luke managed to source a bootleg video copy of Jim Cameron’s film Aliens, newly out to the rental market. We settled down in my lounge on a sunny Sunday afternoon to watch. It scared us so much we had
to turn it off half way through and go for a long walk before we had the nerve to watch the rest.

Thus Aliens became my favourite movie of all time (a title it holds to this day, still seeing off all challengers). Furthermore, I’ve long been active in the roleplaying game scene in Wellington, and between 1995 and 1997 years I organised a series of well-received events based around the Alien movies, involving nearly 150 people across all the different events. Thus my reputation as ‘the Aliens guy’. Since the last event, in December ’99, I’ve given the Aliens thing away through total burnout, but still my reputation precedes me and Craig had the Giger museum well and truly on the list of things to show me. And I’m glad he did.

Giger is the Swiss painter/sculptor who designed the creature in the first film, and the success of that movie is largely due to the absolutely terrifying nature of his design. It didn’t come out of nowhere – through the sixties and seventies he had created a series of airbrush paintings exploring the juxtaposition and integration of the biological (usually in
terms of the human form) and the mechanical. These are some very disturbing images; there’s something very visceral and primal about their impact, about combining biological elements with mechanical structures and experimenting
with different kinds of interface, not least the often overt sexual/death
imagery that is part and parcel of any exploration of biological reality.
Furthermore, while a surrealist, Giger specialised in realistic depictions
of coherent environments and landscapes – they don’t distance you through
abstraction, thus making the impact of the bizarre entities and structures
he designed still more profound. There’s a beauty to it, but there’s also
something abhorrent, and in a way it’s the combination of beauty and
abhorrence that is the most important thing about Giger’s works. (For more
on Giger, see www.HRGiger.com)

The gallery is spread throughout three floors of a house in the middle of
Gruyeres, and it included lots of things I’d never seen before, and lots of
things I had. Seeing the originals of images I had been familiar with for
well over a decade was a lot more exciting than I expected it to be,
particularly the originals of Giger’s little-seen designs for sections of
the first movie that were cut from the first draft of the script. The
filmgeek in me was most excited, however, by the extensive design sketches
Giger completed for Alien 3, almost all of which were not used and none of
which I’d seen before. I can see why they weren’t used – they were very,
very weird and disturbing, far too weird for mainstream Hollywood. Hell, if
Alien 3 was my movie I wouldn’t have used them either. But they were
absolutely fascinating.

Craig – thanks for organising this, because even if I’d known it was there,
I probably wouldn’t have bothered to go, and I really would have missed out
on something cool.


My tan is fading.


Be well you all,


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[morgueatlarge] morgen morgen: morgan

Switzerland began with another train journey, a long one. I farewelled Julian and left Auch on the 7.30 train and pulled into the station in Lucerne three changes and almost fourteen hours later, just after nine pm. It was a pleasant enough ride, lots to see through France, particularly tripping over a flooded landscape where fields were submerged, fiery autumnal trees spiked up from brown water, and isolated cottages rose like ghost ships out of apparent lakes. It was dark by the time I was cruising through Switzerland but it was also apparent I was in a different place, a long way from the placid south of France. The view from the train showed lights arrayed on slopes and around lakes, and there seemed to be a lot of people working late at the office buildings we were passing. The stereotype of the Swiss-German work ethic is very true; and sure enough, the trains did run on time.

Through the journey I read from cover to cover Herman Hesse’s 1920s work ‘Siddartha’, a distillation of Eastern philosophy into the form of a novella, along with explanatory notes from some bloke who prepared the Picador edition I was reading. It was a great read, and I must make due shout-out to Aaron Andrews who made the trade – I think I got the better part of the exchange, coming away with Mo Yan’s satire of Chinese culture ‘The Republic of Wine’ and ‘Siddartha’ while he had to walk off with Edward Rutherfurd’s history lesson/potboiler ‘London’. Sorry about that.

(Now’s as good a chance as any to mention the way reading is so huge in backpacker culture. Everyone reads and talks about what they read and trades old books or simply gives them away – a finished book is just dead weight, after all. I have been consistently surprised by the kinds of books getting read. They don’t tend to be the ones on the bestseller shelves of your local bookstore. Instead you see a lot of classics – I’ve seen Hemingway, Faulkner, Salinger, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Fitzgerald… and a lot of more modern works, but ones off the beaten path are fairly common. Lord of the Rings has finally disappeared from the circuit, apparently, I’m told it was what everyone was reading nine months ago. Harry Potter still turns up now and then. Anyway, there’s no real point to this aside, except to say that everyone reads, and they read interesting stuff, and it’s all good.)

Right, where was I. Oh yeah, Hesse. Well, he was German, but he ended up in Switzerland. So there you go. It was even relevant.

I was met at the platform by Craig Duncan. He’s another old friend, one I met on the same first-day-of-intermediate-school that provided my first meeting with Leon, travel buddy on the first part of this mission and again through Portugal, and Adrian, kind host on that first anxious night in the northern hemisphere two and a half months back – a fateful day indeed. Craig is now living with his partner Marcel, who is Swiss, here in Lucern He’s currently teaching hotel management law at a hotel management school but as I understand it other opportunities are appearing all the time so I don’t know how long that will last. He and Marcel live in an enormous, beautiful apartment in Stansstad (I think that’s the spelling), a short car journey from the Lucerne train station. To my eyes they seem pretty well set up. I’m told they have a great view of the mountains but it has been foggy, but still scenic with the nearby craggy hills, and the lakeside just a short walk away – this is very nice indeed, especially with the fog drifting over its surface and obscuring its far side.

I’ve been here a full day now, and apart from a bit of walking about the neighbourhood I haven’t done much – most of today was spent in intense catch-up/discuss Switzerland mode with Craig. Nevertheless I can pass on some things I have noticed about this country that differentiate it from all the others I have been in since leaving New Zealand:
* no dog-gifts in the streets
* no-one asking me for money
* some evidence of driving laws

All of these are changes for the better.

Right now I am stupendously full after eating an enormous plate of food prepared by Marcel. I will sleep this off in the room I have all to myself in a comfortable bed with a fogged-out view of the mountains, and the only unnerving thing will be the full military kit, rifle included, sitting next to my bed – Marcel is off to military service on Monday.

I’ve never shared a room with a rifle before.


Shout outs to Luke and Sam, who got married on Saturday, and Dan and Chrissy, who did the same thing on Sunday. Hope the days were, respectively, a blast and a blast.

And to Julian, my kind and generous host in Auch, who for some reason walked me to the train station at 7 in the morning. Cheers.

And to Tintin.


[morgueatlarge] the aftertaste of chocolate

is in my mouth. mmmmmmm. I had a late-night chocolate crepe. all of europe has a sweet tooth but this really is ridiculous – a delicate crepe liberally sprinkled with sugar and then thick, melted chocolate poured warm into the folded nest and then you just can’t quite eat it fast enough and the chocolate goes all over the white plate and it really is divine…


i am in Montpellier. It’s a great town, elegant and sincere, with a pedestrianised heart that keeps going and going. I’ve found it a bit hard to penetrate the nightlife, much as I found Toulouse by night somewhat impenetrable – both student towns, both very pleasant, but unless you want to stand and drink alone they can be difficult after sundown.

i spent a bunch of days in scenic Auch, west of Toulouse, before heading here. There I enjoyed the hospitality of my childhood friend Julian McKenzie, working in Auch as an English language assistant in the high schools. We’ve had a fine old time, and he’s taken me to a different bar each night, and introduced me to a pleasant bunch of fellow tutors. In Auch there is a cathedral and a statue of d’Artagnan, so I’ve seen both of those about a thousand times as well.

France is interesting. The suburbs look more like suburbs to me than elsewhere in Europe. The people I’ve found to be very pleasant indeed, even as I butcher their language and drop its twitching corpse in front of them and expect them to LIKE IT, okay??? Let’s just say I’m better at listening and reading French than speaking it.

(This is the perfect point to note that I had to jump through numerous hoops to study French in my sixth form year, leading to the pleasant solution of being sent to the girls school down the road for that class… it might even have helped my French a bit. More notably, it gave me a wonderful friend, hey Melissa!)

(okay, it also gave me a good story to wheel out when schooldays talk gets going, but thats by the by.)


the place is about to close around me and I’ve barely begun to write! more will have to wait. I had a coffee in a cafe last night and filled 16 pages of notebook with furious scribble, so there are definitely things to be said.

in the meantime, I’ll just recommend those who have time to check out Krzystof-from-Barcelona’s webpage, its fascinating reading.


a bientot!


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[morgueatlarge] Another flashback: San Sebastian

I spent a few nights in San Sebastian. These nights just happened to be over all saints day, which are pretty big-deal holidays in Spain. On arriving at the train station and finding via phone that the hostel was full (despite promising us there´d be no problem when we´d called that morning), we actually listened to one of the room touts at the station.

(Whenever you arrive at any place with a backpack on, there will be someone at the station offering you a room at a handy price. Usually the best plan is to walk past these people, but they can come in useful, as here.)

We ended up in a dinky little room right smack in the middle of town, about two doors along from the big fancy hotel that, the tourist brochure gushed, was where all the big names stayed when they came to town for the San Sebastian film festival! So the location was great, and the price wasn´t bad at all, thanks to some nifty negotiation by Ella.

We went exploring of the old town, which is right nearby, and find large numbers of bars, a reminder that this is a big tourist town. The oddest thing is stumbling on the presence of a fifty-foot woman, well, perhaps thirty feet – I came up to her shin. She was made of cardboard and dressed after Xena, and promoting the San Sebastian festival of horror and fantasy films, which was going on all over town. She loomed at the end of a long narrow street, and whenever we walked through the old town we´d glance down and see this woman with her sword in the air far, far away. It was, I have to admit, pretty fun.

San Sebastian consists mostly of two beaches, which are both beautiful. One of them is excellent, yellow sand and pleasant surf and long and wide, but the other is simply magnificent, a glorious curve of archetypal beach-ness that just kept going and going. Hence the tourist destination. At night the beaches become the domain of groups of teenagers drinking under the walkway, but they´re still very pleasant, and the strange curve of the bay inside the harbour mouth gives rise to interesting surf. At either end of this beach are hills, neither of them too large, one of them rising up over the old town and playing host to a grand lit statue of Jesus, which itself rises out of an old castle/fortress… we explored the fort by night after finding the gate unlocked, which was hair-raising and not exactly informative, but did give a great night-view of the city when we hit the top and relaxed at Jesus´feet.

The other hill is climbed by a cable car, which both Ella and I weren´t interesting in using, so we tromped up the road. It´s on a similar scale to, say, Mt Vic, maybe a bit higher. Anyway, just near the top we find the road blocked by a guy with a road barrier and a sign saying you have to pay a euro to proceed, because, apparently there were restaurants and a lookout up top. Well, we weren´t standing for that nonsense (its the *principle* of the thing), so we settled at the side of the road just in front of the barrier, where there was a pretty stunning view, and hung out. For a very long time. I thought the guy would be perturbed but he didn’t seem to be, Ella was convinced he was having too much fun raising and lowering the barrier arm when cars came up or down to really care about us. He did seem to enjoy raising and lowering the arm.

On our last night in town, we went to a bar for tapas – small snacks that you consume with your beer, arrayed all over the bar surface in an enticing smorgasbord – which served as our dinner. I can´t even describe the things I had, but they were all very nice indeed. Then we found a notice saying there was a free movie at a cinema down the road. So it was that Ella and I ended up watching the ’57 Hammer classic The Abominable Snowman, starring Peter Cushing, in the foyer of a cinema with one other guy and the cinema staff. Peter Cushing is even more dashing with a Spanish voice.


Ella is gone, and I strike out alone for Toulouse tomorrow. From the calls I’ve made, everywhere seems full. Will I find a bed? Will I survive? Don’t touch that dial.


Jocularity from the UKers in the hostel after the All Black´s big loss in the rugby test to England. Hope all of you back home are staying indoors until the riots have ceased.


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