I have just walked into the Baroque Library at Coimbra University, Portugal. It is dark inside, but I can see shelves and shelves of yellowed, fragile-looking books and golden-gilded pillars rising up to the ornate, floral-painted ceilings. There is a faint, insect-like squeaking that continues in a staccato rhythm. After reading on the pamphlet that the books date to 1750 and that the walls of the library are 2.11 metres thick, I see this:
'In their daily fight for preservation, books rely on another ally: inside this temple of books lives a colony of bats, which come out at night and feed on the occasional insects. The presence of these mammals requires special care in the prevention of any possible damage caused to the valuable wood of the tables: every day, before leaving the library, the keeper covers the magnificent tables with leather towels, and the following morning he cleans the library before opening it to the public.'
As with many things on this chequered tablecloth of Europe, as soon as I read about bats cohabitating with 250 year old books in a tiny, gold-encrusted library, crapping all over ancient tables and having a man specially appointed to clean up after their insect-gobbling ardour, I think: 'Toto, we're not in Sydney anymore'.
Roman ruins, crumbling aqueducts, multi-turretted castles built on clifftops by malnourished townsfolk under the rule of a portly, pointy-bearded King known for his love of Rococo interiors and sardines served on silver platters shaped like hollowed-out aubergines... Things here can be so eccentric and mysterious that my mind radar starts bleeping and circling, trying to find anything remotely like the Australia I remember.
I am a bit more used to European weirdness now, having lived here for a little while. The intitial feeling I had when I arrived here is beginning to wear off. You know the feeling: that of having eaten seven too many Pastéis de Belém in a magical land where the walls are older than anyone's great-great-grandfather, your neighbours an hour's train ride away can only speak to you in sounds that roll and zip and somersault unintelligibly by, and 'coffee' has only one possible meaning, served to you in a cup the volume of an amoeba's sigh. By now, I have seen a lot of old doors, I can order pastries from my Portuguese neighbours, and I have grown to enjoy drinking 5 amoeba's sighs per day (don't worry, I line my stomach with port first...).
But as this library-o-bats will attest to, sometimes things take a turn down such a Bermuda Triangle of crazy, that all I can do is laugh crazily and then think how crazy it is that Sydney's oldest building only dates to 1811. Of course we've had our share of crazy characters, and Aboriginal presence in Australia has been proven to date back to at least 40 000 years, but in general ours is not a history of gluttonous Kings with a penchant for Rococo.
I spent most of my time in the Baroque Library trying to locate the bats, rather than fawning over the books. However, after scanning the tops of the bookshelves and peering at the golden crests from every possible angle, I did not see any black leathery friends hanging upside down. I was looking with such childlike intensity that suddenly I felt a pang of being taken-in. The thought to question this highly suspect claim had not occurred to me until long after it should have. Maybe a guy in a bat costume would jump out and mock me and my Australian gullibility.
But no. This wasn't America. I wasn't going to see a film crew spring out from between the leaves of the books, and a man in a bat costume would not tear off his mask to reveal Ashton Kutcher. As far as I know, 'punking' has not spread through Europe the same way it spread through Summer Heights High.
I decided that the bats are there. You just have to know where to look. With this in mind, before leaving the library I walked up to the library/bat keeper and whispered, 'Where are the bats?' He just shrugged, presumably not speaking my somersaulting language, and pulled out a faded golden key from his pocket. He placed it into the massive teak door and, with great care not to let too much light in, motioned me back out into the courtyard.
A courtyard for a university founded in 1290. I should say, founded in 1290 by King Dinis I of Portugal, who also happened to be a troubadour with 137 songs under his belt, including a rather unusual one about love (rather than religion).
A King penning love songs at the same time as founding universities? In 1290? Toto, my canine friend, come here. I have an announcement to make...