Category: Travel

Vienna Diary, July 15th

The big mistake I make when visiting large galleries of the type stuffed to the gills with Great Works is that I never spend long enough standing and just looking at the paintings. Or rather, standing long enough before a single individual painting that I can absorb what I’m seeing. There is some default setting I have been set to that has me move on like I’m scrolling down a feed on my phone fast enough that I don’t have to look at the ads.

The works I found at the Kunsthistorisches Museum were worth taking a moment to stare at. Just to take one example, consider The Miracles of St Ignatius of Loyola by Rubens:

Unfortunately, I lack any formal education in art history, but it is clear enough that what is depicted here is some real Q-anon shit. There are demons, cherubs, and what I think is an exorcism, but might be shapeshifters about to reveal their true lizard form. I don’t think I’m speculating too radically to say that the women at the bottom right are saying “Won’t somebody think of the children?” It is only a matter of time before the conspiracy theorists stop trying to find satanic symbols in corporate iconography and turn to this embarrassingly rich vein in European art. Dan Brown should have started a gold rush, but maybe, like me, your average conspiracy theorist lacks a liberal arts education and scrolls past this kind of content too quickly.

Vienna Diary, July 14th

Egon Shiele was born in 1890 and died of the Spanish flu in 1918. During his brief life he participated in the influential and controversial Vienna secessionist art movement, winning support and patronage for his work. A “controversial art movement” in this case means all to say that a gang of young artists who were expected to paint classical scenes in the style and manner that was expected of them, broke away from the institutions and did their own thing. Their own thing caused all manner of pearl clutching that, at least to me, today, in retrospect, seems non obvious in cause, involving fine distinctions and no small amount of biting-the-hand-that-fed. As I understand it, nudity in and of itself was hardly unprecedented in art, but the way that Gustav Klimt did nudity was deemed obviously very bad, and Schiele, who was something of his protege subsequently discovered his own variations on making nakedness indecent in some fresh way.

Walking through the Leopold museum, which houses the largest Schiele collection in the world, I took a strong draught of all the secessionist stuff, going between rooms dedicated to one painter or the other, thinking to myself thoughts as articulate and insightful as, “OK, this guy had a few ideas of his own”. But the Schiele rooms were a revelation, in that I had no prior exposure and his work immediately struck me as particularly good. They had a prophetic quality, if you are willing to accept prefiguring an art style that might one day appear in 2000AD as prophesy.

I also enjoyed this extract from a letter that Klimt wrote. Obviously at this period of life, Klimt did not practice “the grindset”. I suspect that enjoying this kind routine is the prize won through hard work, luck, and success in your youth.

Vienna Diary, July 13th

The Vienna clock museum follow naturally from the globe museum. On some deep level the two museums are the two sides of the same temporal, geographic coin. As with globes, we take for granted how clocks determine our thinking about time. It feels to us like this absolute notion. As part of my work I regularly handle integer values that mark the number of seconds since January 1st 1970, the Unix epoch, which as far as a command line wizard is concerned, marks the true Common Era. I imagine you have to do a lot of astrophysics subject to effects of relativity to shake this absolute thinking.

The key scientific innovation in pendulum clocks is isochronism. First observed by Galileo, this means that the period of a pendulum — that is to say the time it takes to swing back and forth — doesn’t depend on the how big the swing of the pendulum is. So when you set a pendulum swinging, the first period takes the same amount of time as the hundredth, even though the pendulum by this point isn’t swinging as far. (Wikipedia tells me that this property is only approximately true). Thus regular increments of time can be measured out. Fortunately our days and calendar events happen with sufficient periodicity that they can be broken down in measurable fashion.

Also, I learned that people used to put working clocks into paintings to be hung with the dual painting/clock functionality.

Vienna Diary, July 11th

The Vienna Literaturmuseum provide digital tablets that, with certain prompting, give English translation of their main displays. So equipped, I was able to wander their rooms and follow the broad strokes of the history of Austrian literature. While I did manage to gain an appreciation of the big events and ideas, and learn which authors I should read (Joseph Roth, for one), I found the power of the museum, at least for me, was less educational and more the sheer spectacle of seeing this world of cursive script and typewritten pages that once existed. A world and a culture that we have definitively left behind.

Vienna Diary, July 10th

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Vienna was the best evidence that the most accommodating and fruitful ground for the life of the mind can be something more broad than a university campus. More broad, and in many ways more fun. In Vienna there were no exams to pass, learning was a voluntary passion, and wit was a form of currency.

Cultural Amnesia, Clive James

I read the opening to Clive James overture over a decade ago now, toward the end of my undergraduate degree. In retrospect it is clear that the aspiration it conveyed, and indeed the whole book conveyed, lodged itself deep in my mind. I did not read the entire book, following the practice of most readers, but jumped around the essays, ultimately moving on before the book’s depths were exhausted. It was the overture to the book that gave me a deep impression of what Vienna and specifically its cafe culture once was. It is probably the reason I first arrived in Vienna with greater expectations than when I visited Paris, even knowing what James informed me of: the abrupt end of it all with the finis Autriae.

Walking around Vienna it is hard not to think of how Twitter is collapsing — in corporate farce rather than facist horror (although, not coincidentally, there are plenty of nazis now on Twitter). For those who were lurking in the right corners and following the right people, the cultural significance of Twitter was easily comparable to Vienna’s cafes. James writes that for “generations of writers, artists, musicians, journalists and mind workers of every type, the Vienna cafe was a way of life”, and it is too good not to suggest that today they those very people have all become terminally online. He writes of Peter Altenberg who “hardly achieved anything at all” by the standards of his more famous cafe contemporaries, “But his very existence was a reminder to more prosperous practitioners that what they did was done from love“, and you think of all the legions of writers who hustled for work, readers, or even just likes on Twitter. Or you might read Stefan Zweig describing the cafe as “actually a sort of democratic club, open to everyone for the price of a cheap cup of coffee, where every guest can sit for hours with this little offering, to talk, write, play cards, receive post, and above all consume an unlimited number of newspapers and journals.” The unlimited number of newspapers and journals is so much on the nose, that the rising paywalls suggest another reason why the great age of Twitter discourse is at an end.

The fact that certain habitues received their mail in the cafes seemed amazing when I read it back in (maybe) 2011/12. But now I can check my email and my Whatsapps while in line at a Dunking Donuts.

Doric columns in America

Early in October I made my long awaited trip across the Atlantic. After a year and a half of an international travel ban, international uncertainty, and international levels of mooching about the house, things moved very quickly.
The gears of the US immigration system had finally started turning again and I entered the US under a National Interest Exemption (which was far less glamorous than it sounds). A month later and the floodgates were open to all the suitably vaccinated from the UK/Europe.

Now I’m married and in the process of settling down and making this place my home. It came as something of a relief to discover that while the waiting times have grown on processing paperwork in every other state institution, I was able to get hold of both a library card and marriage license in under a week. It was in the library that I recently discovered the local newspaper, which did not disappoint.

I will miss walking along the bit of the river Thames that passed us by in Oxford. I certainly was not getting the full Magdalen college experience I thought I was signing up for when I took the position. The bicycling between the department and college for lunch, an occasional boozy high table dinner, and department seminars felt like a very brief and distant chapter in my life. I still get chapel updates in my email inbox (and you can watch recordings of Evensong on their Youtube channel).

A regatta on the Thames.

I’ve taken up the role of a rather callow would-be Tocqueville trying my best to make my observations about this America we’ve all heard so very much about. There is plenty to go at here in New England; there are so many little details that seem to separate the place from anything you might expect to encounter in Europe. There is the huge main road that cuts right through the middle of town that rivals the Champs-Élysées in breadth, but not in French-i-ness. There is the habit of sidewalks to be pulled away, out from beneath your feet, in certain neighborhoods; a feature of what I understand to be a sacred part of each American’s autonomy to decide things for themselves. I stared at one gas-station for a while trying to work out why it seemed so singularly a New England gas-station, and I finally settled on the Doric columns that framed the windows.

While the fall colours blossom in their red, yellows, and gold, the commercial store-fronts and advertisements struck me as strangely washed out. I only half believed my senses until we drove past an Aldi, and its colours leaped out at me as if they had imported high saturation colour along with their own German brand of discount supermarket experience.

I really did feel stuck in Oxford for the past year and a half. There was plenty of mathematics that I managed to get done that I was very pleased with (this paper with Sam, and this more recent article), but it really wasn’t where I wanted to be when the music stopped.

I won’t say that this was a coping mechanism for dealing with the circumstances, but there were times when I was very happy to fall down certain Youtube rabbit holes. Nothing political, extreme, or conspiratorial (although I understand these have been very popular), but certainly nerdy. My personal favorite was discovering the community of youtubers dedicated to the pursuit of constructing elaborately complicated model kits for giant Japanese Gundam battle suits. I’ve never watched the associated anime television series, nor tried constructing any of these kits myself, but giant robots need little explanation. I found something both soothing an compelling about watching these particular videos, on double playback speed (so I didn’t actually have to sit through the full twenty minutes).

There is an almost medical degree of precision committed to these builds, and plenty of nerdy tools and technique brought to bear. You’d think they were putting together a satellite in a clean room. Added to the constructions themselves is the video production itself, with all the camera’s, lenses, microphones, editing, and really every video is the product of two distinct headaches. Thinking about it harshes the mellow though, so I wouldn’t dwell on it.

With the level of unnecessary detail on these model robots, I was reminded of the lavishly illustrated Dorling Kindersley “look inside” books I would get as a Christmas present when I was growing up. These huge hard backed coffee-table-books-for-kids offered interior cross sections of Man-of-Wars, 747s, and the space shuttle. And in one notable series, the interiors of the vehicles from the Star Wars universe. That a fictional universe should be given the same attention as the real one didn’t bother the younger me in the least. For an eight year old the Star Wars universe was a far more immediately accessible and vivid world. To an adult the books look like and elaborate joke, but to a kid they were as serious as Star Wars itself.

I am telling myself that it must be a sign of deep maturity on my part that I look at the two above images and feel more of an urge to read some Patrick O’Brian rather than watch The Mandalorian.

Hoodoo what you won’t do.

The past month has been packed. In fact, my life has literally been packed up into boxes, as the first thing I did this month was leave Israel and move back to England, where I am starting a postdoc at Oxford. It has been seven years since I last lived in England, but I haven’t had much time to really take it all in because no sooner had I arrived, set up all my new passwords and bought a bike, I was flying off again to Montreal, Utah, and Chicago to give talks and finish a paper. Most of my life is still packed up in those boxes, but hopefully not for too much longer.

I was in Utah two weekends, so we managed to spend one of those weekends down in the south of the state, visiting the national parks and hiking around Bryce Canyon — a “natural amphitheater” carved into the valley by millions of years worth of rain and wind. These natural forces have sculpted a landscape of striking red rock formations featuring stone spires known as Hoodoos. The Paiute native Americans who lived and roamed these valleys, before the arrival of Europeans, were as taken by the Hoodoos as the camera-toting tourists pulling up in their cars today. The Paiute had a mythology that these formations were the magically petrified remains of “Legend People”, victims of a trickster Coyote god. Who exactly such Legend People might have been remains unclear, but European settlers managed to identify one rock formation as having an uncanny resemblance to Queen Victoria:

The almost central rock formation has an uncanny resemblance to the iconic full profile of the illustrious British monarch.

The Canyon today takes its name from the Mormon homesteaders who settled in the area in 1874. Ebenezer Bryce was a Scottish ship’s carpenter born in 1830, who converted into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and, after being disowned by his father, moved out across the Atlantic to Utah. At the age of 17. After marrying a Mary Park in Salt Lake City he did what many of the Church’s faithful were encouraged to do: homestead. And homestead they did — not only in multiple locations in Utah, but also then in Arizona as well. All while having a fantastic number of children.

Before we made the trip I found I had to supplement my limited supply of clothing (most of my clothes being boxed away at some unknown location) if I was going to survive the weekend. So off we went to the Deseret Industries (an LDS equivalent of the Salvation Army thrift store), where aside from picking up some suitable synthetic fabrics, I found a book that took me back to high-school.

Back in 2017 my AS English Literature teacher, Alan Currie, passed away. He had covered Hamlet and Keats — if only I had such lessons to guide me through all of the English canon. But perhaps more interesting and formative for me than the examined syllabus, was the month or so we had after the AS exams had been completed. In principal, we were supposed to use that time to start preparing for the second year — which I had dropped out of (unfortunately and completely unnecessarily). In practice it seemed like the teachers took the opportunity to expose us to the breadth and variety of all English literature offered. Although these classes were redundant in terms of my final grade, I was engrossed enough to go to every one of them.

I remember one class Mr Currie came in with large A3 photocopies from the Times Literary supplement. It contained the shortlist for the TLS/Foyles (2007) poetry competition. Held every year, and now called the Mick Imlah prize, this is was an open competition and all the poems were featured anonymously; readers were provided with a coupon they could cut out and submit a vote on the winner. We spent the class poring over the poems like they were the football pools, trying to work out which was the best, and which ones could possibly be the work of a celebrated poet. Not that I think any of us aside from Mr Currie could have named a contemporary poet outside of those featured in the GCSE anthology. I remember being excited by the sense that literature was a thing going on right now, and not only was I invited to judge, but it was clear that I could also have been submitting poems (were I so inclined).

Now thanks to the Oxford libraries online archive access I’ve been able to go back and find out who actually won (The Mauve Tam-o’-Shanter by Paul Groves).

It was around this time that I set myself the challenge of reading the 1001 Book to Read Before You Die. I can’t remember exactly when I gave up on this. I think it was the moment I decided it was OK to read at a book that was not on the list. At that point the challenge took a far less definite form.

Possibly picking up on my sudden inclination to read as much of the canon as quickly as possible, Mr Currie began suggesting books to me. Usually these books were taken from the dog-eared copies of former set texts that had been retired to a supply cupboard. I remember Mr Currie showing me one classic of American literature, told from multiple viewpoints. It stuck in my mind because Mr Currie was amused to show me one unusual chapter in the middle of the text:

Mr Currie was amused.

I was unable to recall which book this had been. Until I found myself lying in a tent within Dixie national forest, flipping through the copy of As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner I’d bought the day before from Deseret Industries, and discovered that this was in fact the book Mr Currie had suggested to me. Two chapters into the book I discovered that I remembered reading it — or at least those initial chapters. I hadn’t read any further than those first chapters, but had set it aside for some unknown reason — possibly I simply hadn’t known what to make of it.

It is strange to try and imagine what you might have made of a book when you were a decade younger. It would be nice to imagine my capacity as a reader has improved — although there is a thriving industry of commentators reporting that our attention spans have been dramatically reduced. I found myself having to reread the first sixty pages to get my head around what was going on. I’m not sure I would have been up for that in high school. Mr Currie would certainly have approved of my perseverence. I imagine he would have laughed and admitted he had done likewise. And trouble understanding half of the characters were saying.

Petra – the Treasury building was not a treasury.

I will be leaving Haifa in August this year and returning to the UK. After three years living in Israel, and being in no particular rush to do and see everything, we suddenly realized that if there was anything we still wanted to see or do, then we had better get on with it. There remain a bunch of museums in Jerusalem I’d still like to visit, but there was one major thing we had conspicuously failed to do: visit the ancient city of Petra in neighboring Jordan.

Due to its appearance at the climax of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the treasury building is Petra’s most iconic sight . The entire ediface is cut out of the rock face and is as impressive in reality as it appears on film. Despite the name, the building is not a treasury — in fact it is believed to have been a mausoleum for the Nabatean King Aretas IV. The name derives from the Arabic name Al Khazneh which is rooted in folk tales of treasures hidden inside.

But before we could admire the Treasury Building, we actually had to get to Petra. Due to relatively healthy relations between the Kingdom of Jordan and Israel, it is possible to cross the border between the two countries, albeit at one of a handful of crossing points. Most tourists book with a tour group, but it is entirely possible to go solo, so we opted to plan our own adventure. This meant an early start in Haifa to catch one of the sporadically scheduled buses that run from Nazareth into Amman, the capital of Jordan.

Amman is far less tourism oriented than Petra (or Aqaba where we would exit Jordan after visiting Petra), but it was worth visiting just to see the huge Roman amphitheater which dominates the downtown area.

Although I do not have any similar photographs to document the experience, eating the local kanafeh in Amman was a similarly worthwhile experience. In case you don’t know what kanafeh is, allow me to explain. Imagine a cheese cake. Now make that cheesecake thinner and serve it hot and upside down. And instead of shortcrust pastry you have a base (now a lid since you turned it upside down) of shredded filo pastry with pistachio nuts sprinkled over it. And the cheese is a local Palestinian variety — a cross between something like mozzarella and ricotta. It is served with hot, sweet, sugary rosewater is poured over it. Kanafeh is a killer desert. Even as I type this I’m grieving the fact that I haven’t eaten more of it. I may have to try making some after I have left. I won’t be the first person to have tried, as this youtube video I stumbled over bears witness:

From Amman it was another early start and long bus journey to arrive at Petra where we were disgorged from our bus into the throng of tourists. Tourism is a major part of the Jordanian economy and Petra is a central to that. But until 1812 the capital of the Nabataean Kingdom, once a major regional trade center, was essentially lost to the world, the location a secret known only to Bedouin tribesmen intent on preventing the remains of the city from being plundered.

Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, was born in 1817 to a Swiss family of merchants. After studying Arabic at Cambridge, and was tasked by the African Association with finding the source of the Niger River, but instead decided to improve his Arabic first by traveling around the Middle East. Soon he was adopting the persona of Sheikh Ibrahim ibn Abdallah an Indian Muslim whose strange accent could easily be explained away so long as he wasn’t actually in India. After hearing talk of what he realized must be the ruins of a city known to classicists only through passages of ancient text, he convinced a Bedouin to guide him there on the pretense of completing a pilgrimage.

I hired a guide at Eldjy, to conduct me to Harouns tomb, and paid him with a pair of old horse-shoes. He carried the goat, and gave me a skin of water to carry, as he knew that there was no water in the Wady below.

In following the rivulet of Eldjy westwards the valley soon narrows again; and it is here that the antiquities of Wady Mousa begin. Of these I regret that I am not able to give a very complete account: but I knew well the character of the people around me; I was without protection in the midst of a desert where no traveller had ever before been seen; and a close examination of these works of the infidels, as they are called, would have excited suspicions that I was a magician in search of treasures; I should at least have been detained and prevented from prosecuting my journey to Egypt, and in all probability should have been stripped of the little money which I possessed, and what was infinitely more valuable to me, of my journal book. Future travellers may visit the spot under the protection of an armed force; the inhabitants will become more accustomed to the researches of strangers; and the antiquities of Wady Mousa will then be found to rank amongst the most curious remains of ancient art.

Travels in Syria and the Holy Land, by John Burckhardt

At the time you could easily imagine Burckhardt fancying himself a brave and impetuous explorer. I think most of us today would, at the very least, would consider betraying the trust of your guide a major ethical lapse. Not that Burckhardt had long to reflect on the choices he made. He died five years later of dysentery.

Visiting Petra today is hazard free, to an extent Burckhardt himself could have imagined. There is still some legwork involved, however. Walking through the entire site is a good 8K hike. But it is an amazing 8K. You start by wandering through the outer limits of the city where you can still see graves cut into the rock face of the sounding valley. Then you hike through the Siq — a norrow passage between two rockfaces that legend tells was originally formed by the water that gushed from the stone that Moses struck with his staff. Eventually you arrive at the Treasury building, and then into the valley where you find the rest of the city.

The length of the hike combined with the heat seemed to take plenty of visitors by surprise. There is a brisk trade in camel, horse, and donkey rides to take the overwhelmed back and forth. You can be forgiven for not anticipating how much there is to see (there is an entire city) if all you were expecting was the Treasury Building. There is a huge amphitheater, temple, and — if you are ready to go to the site’s furthest extent — the impressive Monastery which easily matches the Treasury for grandeur:

We also made a friend on the way up to the Monastery.

Finally, after spending 24 hours in Petra we took a taxi down to Aqaba where we were able to enjoy more kanafe before leaving Jordan and crossing into Eilat the next morning.

The view from Aqaba into Eilat.

The Hula valley, scarecrows, and malaria.

In December we took a trip to the Hula valley, a wetland reserve located in northern Israel and a few hours out from Haifa by bus. The site is a major destination for ornithologists as it lies in the intersection of two major migration flyways. An estimated 500 million birds of over 400 different species pass through the valley each year, although I imagine that current environmental situation may mean those figures are out of date. Climate change notwithstanding we were able to see an awful lot of birds — mostly Cranes — taking a break from the long a perilous journey between breeding and wintering.

If we had visited the valley a hundred years earlier, it would have been a very different experience. We would have run the serious risk of catching Malaria for one thing, because the entire valley was swampland. Only in the 1950s was the process of draining these swamps undertaken. Canals were dug out canals and the river Jordan was deepened. The project was ostensibly a successful; the swamp was gone and the land could be used for agricultural purposes. As is often the case with such human enterprises, however, there were some unintended consequences. These swamps were full of peat — semi-decomposed vegetable matter — that when dried out tends to be seriously combustible. Sure enough the drained Hula valley was struck disastrous underground peat fires.

Unlike the forest fires that were sweeping California last year, which caught headlines and could be seen by satellites in orbit, peat fires can be incredibly hard to detect. They are a deeper, smoldering, slow burning kind of fire that takes place underground. They also happen on enormous scales. If they aren’t caught early enough the only thing that can put them out is torrential rain. Peat fires are, globally speaking, the largest fires on earth and are estimated to make up 15% of mankind’s contribution to greenhouse gases.

In the Hula valley the damage caused by the peat fires was extensive. In some places the damaged caused to the soil caused depressions as deep as 6-7 meters. This would go on to cause environmental damage to the Sea of Galilee and deterred migrating birds from stopping in the valley. In the 90s the decision was made to flood the Hula valley again. The idea was to develop a nature reserve by controlling the underground water levels. While the valley would remain drained during the winter, it wouldn’t dry out during the summer. And as they restored the valley, the birds began return.

The summer in Israel, for me at least, are months of enduring the ordeal of endless mosquito bites. I am however grateful that I’m not running the risk of malaria, a disease that thrives in the swamps such as the one that existed in the Hula valley. So I can’t say I disapprove of the original desire to transform the land. The individual who we can really credit of the elimination of the disease from Israel however is Gideon Mer. Visiting Rosh Pina a number of years ago during Passover I was taken to his old house and told that this was the man who had cured Malaria. Given that most diseases aren’t eradicated by the miracle drug or vaccine, but rather through public health policy, I think it is fair to say this is close enough to the truth, in Israel at least. Here is his obit in the British Medical Journal:

On the bus back to the Technion, we could see the fields still used for agriculture, less than a kilometer away from the wetland reserve. It seems amazing that you could maintain a bird sanctuary while growing crops next door. If birds like to do anything, or so I’ve been led to believe, it is to fly into a farmers field and gobble up all the seeds. Indeed, we could see guards on patrol, circling the fields in what looked like little golf carts, ready to scare off any hungry cranes.

It was enough to make me wonder: do scarecrows actually work? I’m more familiar with scarecrows as a trope in popular culture. And bizarrely scarecrows are usually depicted as being almost entirely ineffective in repelling birds, while being a very scary staple of the horror genre. If you visit the Wikipedia page for scarecrows, you’ll find there is far more page space devoted to scarecrows in fiction than to their alleged real world function.

I’m certainly not the first person to wonder this, or indeed to take to the internet to find an answer. Steve Coll in his New Yorker Diary back in 2009 describes being struck by the same question, but finds nothing helpful in his search results. It is a good example of an area of knowledge where the internet feels incredibly non-definitive. Since Coll’s own inter-quest for an answer something closer to a definitive answer appears close to the top of googles listings: a Mental Floss article linking to scientific studies, government webpages, and the Daily Mail. If you are also beginning to wonder if the ostensible legitimacy of areas of the web are giving way to a wave of jankiness then this article — the most informative survey of they literature on scarecrow efficacy I could find — is only going to stoke your fears.

Confronting the Kugelmugel.

Whatever Christmas spirit I may have lacked for being in Israel, I was able to suitably redress by spending the first week of December in Vienna. The whole city feels like it was built to be decorated with gaudy winter lights.

I arrived on a Sunday afternoon, and after finding my hotel and getting dinner I decided I needed to go off on a bloody long walk. Walking is my principal source of exercise when I am taking these short trips, and I certainly wasn’t going to let the inclement weather get the better of me.

Rain will eventually threaten to get the best of you if your waterproof jacket doesn’t live up to it’s name so finding hot chocolate became a pressing concern. Vienna is world renowned for its cafe culture, but this led google maps to send me towards fancy coffee houses with startlingly long queues for admission. Whatever chain outlets existed weren’t open on a cold and wet Sunday evening. Fortunately, while most of the Christmas market had packed up and left, there was still one stall left open offering hot punch (spiced wine and rum) that was able to fortify me until I got back to the hotel.

Vienna is renowned for it’s cultural history and visitors can behold the incredible architecture, visit one of the many museums, or experience the live music the city’s many music conservatories cultivate. I was only around for a week and most of the day time I was busy hallucinating about line patterns inside the free group. I did manage to spend one morning walking across the city. Given my limited window of opportunity I had to prioritize. So that meant the Museum of Art Fakes, and then the Republic of Kugelmugel.

In 1971 the Austrian artist Edwin Lipburger, with help from his son, built a spherical house for himself out of wood. As you can see from the picture above, the house isn’t just vaguely spherical. It is literally a sphere. Lipburger was apparently obsessed with the “cosmic harmony” of spheres. He christened his new home the Kugelmugel. The municipality of Vienna was less enamored with ball shaped houses, and as it turned out they had some kind of rule or regulation forbidding the construction of such a dwelling. This was the beginning of an ongoing dispute between Lipburger and the city that led to him declaring the Kugelmugel an independent state and would escalate to Lipburger going to jail for ten weeks — specifically for erecting unauthorized street signs.

Eventually, some kind of arrangement was reached when in 1982 the Kugelmugel was moved to Prater park, where it can today be found by the fun fair. Lipburger was apparently induced with the promise of electricity and running water, neither of which were ultimately provided. He was the Republic of Kugelmugel’s only citizen, and after his death in 2015, the Kugelmugel remains in Prader park as a strange tourist attraction.

Today the Kugelmugel stands among the growing ranks of the worlds micronations — the outsider artists in the world of statecraft. There have been many motivations for claiming your own independent ministate. In the UK the Principality of Sealand existed as a platform for pirate radio in the 60s and 70s. Lipburger’s own declaration of independence was made partly in protest but also as some kind of artistic statement. Although stamps and passports were issued, it is hard not to read his endeavor as a means of challenging the idea of a modern state, rather than a credible attempt to create one.

Whatever Lipburger’s intention, the impression it gave to this curious visitor was perhaps far from what he would have wanted. It is surrounded by an eight foot fence with barbed wire running across the top, and a sign above the gate give the impression of a former Soviet bloc country that doesn’t care for visitors. The sign marking the street Antifaschismus-Platz rings with an irony similar to the likes of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.