The Trip, Part Two/Dva/Két/Dvě

LAST TIME ON THE TRIP:Alex “Dash” Spencer and Dominic “Party Pants” Parsons began their sweep across South-East Europe, encountering artery-killing food, wrestling Russians, and Western European Guilt. But with three destinations down, there were still eight countries to visit, drain dry of their chocolatiest resources, and write about at length. Their adventures continue in this, the second thrilling installment of The Trip. Because what more magical time is there than 5am? The walk from the station, as the sun began to happen, took us past what would remain my favourite sight in all of Zagreb: the long wall of graffiti. It was (officially-sanctioned) street art at its finest, blank stretch of urban space and transforming it into something playful. To be honest, it’s something Zagreb could have done with more of. It’s handsome city, well-kept and just the right size, but it felt a little like a blank slate. In the blistering heat of first day, heavily punctuated by naps, putting our own stamp on it just felt like far too much effort. It took until the next day, jumping from bar to bar drinking irresponsibly and with veracity, for it all to click. Dom choked down an accidentally ordered ‘Amaro’; in a moment of conciliation, I burnt away a few throat cells with some ‘Stock’. (The exact nature of both spirits remains a mystery.) Everything just worked, landing us in Kaptolska klet for the largest mixed-grill-to-share ever encountered by humankind. Train 4: Zagreb –> BudapestBy now, we’d settled into a rhythm. Not full-on ADVENTURE!, not the mind-losing boredom of Train 2. Just a peaceful seven hours spent keeping to ourselves, until the train was invaded by a load of post-festival local tweens with no respect for personal space. Never have I become so quickly acquainted with a young lady’s feet! And without socks! I say! For our shortest stay of the trip (approximately 18 hours, including a lengthy and much-needed sleep), I felt strangely done with Budapest by the time we left. We were masters of time and our own fate… or just lucked out a bit. Picking a route to and from dinner (Trofea Grill, uncontested king of surprisingly classy all-u-can-eat-and-drink meat and wine) through the Városliget park is probably the reason for this. Coming back along its north edge at twilight exposed us to Vajdahunyad Castle, beautifully lit, and along the Andrássy Út boulevard. Delightful! Train 5: Budapest –> PragueTwo trains in two days. 14 hours out of 48. Travelling shouldn’t have been this much of a pleasure. But the novelty of modern, air conditioned trains, plenty of food and drink, and a cabin to ourselves? This was the Interrail experience we’d dreamed of. The first stop I – in fact, both of us – had visited before, three years earlier, on the holiday that served as a blueprint for this journey. The entire city was overlaid with half-memories – is this where…? didn’t we…? – and expectations. And of course we landed, completely by accident, in the same cocktail bar we’d behaved disgracefully in three years prior (Harley’s, Dlouhá 18, complete with slightly dodgy Jack Daniels rock theme, graffitied walls and inexplicably ice-filled urinals). One reasonably priced Long Island Iced Tea later, and it wasn’t hard to remember why. Many cocktails later, it was hard to remember how we’d even gotten there. In the meantime, the city had hit that weird hour where bars were just getting lively, but all the restaurants were closing. And so we ended up in La Casa Blů (Kozí 857/15), a tapas bar, eating a Czech interpretation of everyone’s favourite pick-&-mix Spanish food. Cue the next morning, more half-memories and a day of wandering the city feeling hazy and homeless. The hangover landed us in some tourist trap restaurant (Hotel Prague Inn, 28. října 378/15), looking to repent for the tapas and get a solid, honest, ‘Polish’. On this front it delivered: well-cooked meat, slightly sweet cabbage and dumplings galore (my moravský vrabec) and a touch of the strange in Dom’s svíčková na smetaně, beef served with whipped cream. But then the accumulated hidden/semi-hidden charges and apparently compulsory tip kicked in, as is a tourist trap tradition. The feeling of disparity and being cheated (and homeless) knocked us off balance for a few hours until we found another centre in Petrin Hill. We were chasing an ambiguous road sign promising a possibly non-existent maze, but a steep climb to the top yielded great, if tree-obscured, views and a sense of smug self-satisfaction from watching people get on and off the funicular. Homeless or not, we were empirically better than them, and what greater holiday feeling is there? (Additional photos over on the Dirty Mistress Tumblr)

Ratatouille or: Pretension, A Dish Best Served Cold

Ratatouille is, in many ways, the black sheep of the Pixar family. Produced, along with Cars, in that period when Pixar had broken away from Disney and were searching for a new identity, it often gets lumped in with that film’s confused aims and mixed success. It’s not the clear classic of Toy Story or Finding Nemo, nor the adult breakthrough of Wall-E or Up. Fittingly, what Ratatouille is, is misunderstood. Even in my own memory – having come out of the cinema, raving about how it was a bold statement on the situation of the artist – the film was difficult, even boring. My lofty claims were shot down, not unsurprisingly, as nonsense. Look at the funny English student, they laughed. Watch his silly dance. And perhaps the dance remains silly. But, watching it again, Ratatouille says everything to me. It is a manifesto on originality, what should matter (and what, in reality, does matter) in great Art. I’ll break this down…. Remy – the film’s hero, the plucky, sellable-to-the-kids rat – is an artist. His art, for the purposes of the film, is cookery. It is clear from the beginning that this passion goes far beyond your everyday omnomnom, and to the fervour of an auteur. He is visited by visions of his hero, the chef Gusteau, and risks his life to pursue this passion.Yet, he is tied down in his roots. Remy is a rat- enemy of the cooking industry. This provides a lot of the film’s conflict, but it represents any underdog, any unlikely outsider. Though he looks to the stars, Remy is unarguably of the gutter. I couldn’t help but see an undertone of class to his position- all the talk of snobbery and ‘us vs them’ has the ring of working class rhetoric. You could read in multiple other ways, but that’s the one that – perhaps significantly – stood out to me. Though, as Remy’s hero reinforces throughout, “anyone can cook”, regardless of who they are. But Remy’s family don’t understand. Their ambitions focused purely on survival, Remy’s interests are surplus. The humans, the class he (pretentiously, you might say) aspires to, repress him- in an early scene, by literally shooting a shotgun at him and chasing him firmly away. So Remy ends up in Paris, gay ol’ Paree, in the company of multiple humans. What they represent is where the film starts to get interesting, and complex.Our secondary hero, Linguini, on the right there, is just a proxy for Remy’s ability. For the purposes of the film’s metaphor, he is just another part of the artist- the physicality, the real life, struggling to juggle multiple demands and stresses. The resemblance between him and Remy is not coincidental. In the middle is Skinner, the villain of the piece. He embraces genre, sticking rigidly to convention. The cooks working under him are told to create nothing new, only to stick to Gusteau’s successful recipes*. It is for this that Anton Ego, the secondary villain and Will Self lookalike, condemns the restaurant to “tourist fare.” Ego vs. Remy is the film’s great success. Ego is the critic who has lost his passion for what he criticises, Remy the untrained but talented outsider. Ego is, as Linguini oh-so-tactfully points out, “thin for someone who likes food.” There is a parallel with Remy here- earlier on, his family accused him of looking thin. Why, they ask. Not enough food? Or too much snobbery?The moment of Ego’s rediscovery is glorious. It snaps back to his childhood, revealing the critic’s roots as a working-class farmhouse type himself, triggered by the titular ratatouille- “a peasant’s dish”. The colour shoots back into him, and we see a return to passion: later on, he dons a beret (always handy short-hand), moving back from critic to artist. All thanks to the work of an outsider, who is finally outed. And, of course the world can’t take it. There is always a backlash against the pretentious intruder… Maybe I’m putting too much thought into this. Maybe it is a kids’ film, plain and simple, untainted by the thoughts and experiences of its writer/director. Maybe I’m jumping to conclusions- writing this at 2am having just finished watching the film, I’m Remy, all passion and no consideration. I haven’t even talked about the visual poetry of the tasting sessions, the lump the ending left in my throat, how much I identified with… well, everyone. Maybe I have pretensions above my station. Good. At least I’m not the embittered critic. I’m a few years away from becoming pure, emaciated Ego. (Sidenote: look at the film’s logo. Even its somewhat pretentious, for a kids’ film, title is broken down to accessible chunks. It’s a silly little joke, it’s making it easier to approach for kids, it’s the entire film in one handsome logo.) *It might be worth noting at this point that the film was written and directed by the wonderful Brad Bird, who worked on the peak seasons of The Simpsons, probably TV’s comedy, but by Ratatouille‘s 2007 release very firmly in a formulaic rut. Ahem.