Bucket List

I’ve moved back to London and I still haven’t decided whether to go back to Perth for good at the end of the year, or just for a couple of months to celebrate my brother’s wedding. I kind of thought that being back in Perth would help me decide once and for all, and I thought it had, but when I got back to London I’ve become all confused again. The problem is that both options are good! I’ve got the ridiculous privilege of being able to live for as long as I like in two first world countries, and of course it’s the case that when I’m in Perth I feel like I want to stay in Perth, and when I’m in London I feel like I want to stay in London. I watched a TED Talk once about making decisions and upshot of it was that when two options are both objectively, quantifiably good, then the decision has to be made in terms of how each one relates to your identity. Which opens up a whole other can of beans! So, I’ve decided to live as though I might be leaving London for good sometime before November. And put off the decision until…sometime, later…

Obviously when you live in a place for going on 6 years, you start to take it for granted. You go to and from work, and if you’re me, you accept invitations to things other people have organised often enough that you’re busy and drunk enough to stave off any alarming (but necessary) introspection. You have so many proactive friends, that you change over time, from someone who used to actively pursue experiences that made you happy, to a passive participant in other people’s plans.

No more! I am the protagonist in my own life! she internally screamed as she bought a $30 notebook with BUCKET LIST embossed in gold on the front cover. If not now, when? resonated the tag line within her bones, bones whose age fell perfectly within kikki.K’s target demographic.

So far on the list (the G – M15+ rated ones):

  • Eat dinner at Dans le Noir
  • Go on the London Eye
  • Eat at The Ivy
  • Visit Stone Henge
  • Visit Bath
  • See the white cliffs of Dover
  • See a stag beetle
  • Hold a hedgehog
  • Visit 2 – 3 Eastern European countries
  • Feel in love with my room
  • Lose 5kg
  • Organise a night out and be the one ‘in the lead’ – navigate!
  • Do an oil painting
  • Visit the Tower of London
  • See the changing of the guard
  • See a show at The Globe
  • Go punting
  • Visit the Zoo
  • Flip the bird at Tory wax figures at Madame Tussauds
  • Visit some of the hidden Roman Baths in London
  • Do a copywriting course
  • Do a TEFL course

Updates as completed and any bucket list tips welcome!

bucket_list_journal_life_essentials_front

Lithuania

Despite all the ongoing drama with my career, I find myself back at work! This time I have a contract with the same employers via their ‘bank’ of temporary staff, rather than working for them as an external contractor. That means that while I get paid far less per hour, I get to work continuously through to 31st December, attend training sessions and go to meetings. It also means that I can apply for any internal NHS positions that come up. So, while I anticipate my first diminished pay installment with fear combined with morbid curiosity, I’m content to settle in and play the long game.

Anyway! On the 16th of July Jim and I jetted off to Lithuania. Why Lithuania you ask? Well, in Amsterdam I bought one of those world maps where you to scratch the gold top layer off where you’ve visited. One night Jim was helping me scratch out countries when he accidentally got rid of Lithuania. Clearly, this was a sign we had to go there immediately, and further to that we decided it would be my 30th birthday present to Jim. After a quick google search to make sure we weren’t likely to get hacked to death upon disembarkation, I bought us two return tickets. Jim was both excited and perplexed by this random act of spontaneity, and after some initial comments that I was possibly suffering from bipolar disorder, he really got into it! The most in-depth piece of research we did was to buy Lonely Planet’s guide to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. We purposely avoided finding out too much in order to fuel our curiosity and our belief that this would either be the ‘best, or worst holiday ever’. Jim told his Lithuanian work friend that we were going to visit her homeland, and her response was ‘WHY?!’ After Jim explained that it was basically due to geographical ignorance, she shook her head and gave him a dire warning not to eat potato dumpling. Mysterious!

The beginning of our trip was marred for me by receiving a phonecall just before the plane started taxiing, informing me that I hadn’t been successful in a job interview I’d done that morning. Argh! Again, it was one of those ones where I had done really well, they were tossing up between me and another person…and in the end the other person had answered the questions better. It was a Youth Offenders role and, more so than after any other interview I’ve done, I was gutted I didn’t get it. For the first time after one of those calls, I cried. I cried, in fact, for the entire duration of our flight to Vilnius. I just had time at the end to calm down and have a glass of red wine before landing. Personally I wouldn’t have served me alcohol, but I guess Ryanair are pretty despo for cash. In the end I’m glad I ‘got it all out’ as I was able to compartmentalise everything and leave it behind when we got off the plane. No sooner had we landed than I was hungrily exploring everything exciting and alien.

The gaggle of men waiting with single red roses for their sweethearts in Arrivals gave me a good first impression. The building also gave us a taste of the Baroque architecture to come, with peach walls and stucco decorations lining the numerous archways we walked through to get to the exit and the taxi rank beyond. I think a vital part of visiting a country is catching a cab. If you manage to communicate where you’re going and finish your journey without being ripped off or getting into an argument, you’re all good. If you manage to have a little conversation, even better! Too far the other way is just as bad though. If there’s anything worse than a ‘chatter’ in your own language, it’s a chatter in one that you can’t understand. Our dude was a guy whose stern demeanour, sharp haircut and high cheekbones made him look exactly like a Bond villain. He was slightly bemused when I said ‘Hello’ and showed him my iPhone with our hostel’s address on the screen. He said something confirmatory in Lithuanian and moved to get into the car, but first I had to ask whether he would turn on the meter. After some wild gesturing suggesting numbers rolling over (similar to the one for ‘travel’ in basketball or netball), repetitions of the word ‘meter’ and several emphatic points towards the centre console of the car, he nodded and we all climbed in. To my relief he turned it on.

We stayed at Down Town Market Bed & Breakfast just outside the Old Town borders, close to the bus and train stations. I loved the old wooden doors that opened up to the dark creaky staircase, with sensor lights that only came on after you had tentatively edged your way up a few steps. Our stay in a double room with ensuite was really comfortable, and as there was no communal dining area they brought breakfast to our room. Great coffee! Although it was late when we arrived we ventured out for a cheeky stroll to get an idea of Vilnius’ scale. It was wonderfully creepy not knowing whether you were on the right or wrong side of the tracks, a feeling that was intensified outside the Old Town by several abandoned/ruined buildings with gaping holes leading to their pitch black cellars. Mega spooky. We ended up at a very cool looking indie bar attached to the contemporary art museum. Typical. Although we could see hints of columned buildings around the corner, we decided we’d come far enough and contented ourselves sitting in the dark drinking box wine and realising how hot everyone is in Lithuania. On the way back we came across lots of cosily lit wine bars and restaurants that we promised ourselves we’d come back to and never did. The next day we stumbled across the absolutely breathtaking Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which was stripped back to its bare bones and in a state of (dis)repair. It didn’t look like much from the outside, but I’ve never walked into a place with such stark beauty…the dust in the air capturing the light flooding in through the windows and a simple crucifix hanging above the altar in a style I’d never seen. The kind of testament to faith that makes even an undecided agnostic want to believe in something bigger than themselves.

We decided that as we’d had a gasp-worthy church experience (that stupidly didn’t even rate highly on Lonely Planet’s guide), we didn’t need to seek out any more. Instead, we found the fantastic underground cellar bar Bambalyne, whose advert Jim spied on the edge of our run-of-the-mill map provided by the hostel. What a find! They boasted 88 different DELICIOUS Lithuanian beers and it was quiet enough to be intimate but popular enough to have atmosphere. And the beer was DELICIOUS. An afternoon nap saw us sober up enough to head out for dinner. A friend I met in Lisbon recommended checking out a neighbourhood called Užupis…which has actually declared itself an independent state. They even have a manifesto! The history is too much to go into here, but we had a great time looking around despite it pouring with rain. We had a delicious porky feast at a restaurant there, which was hilarious because of the meat-fatigue it caused and the fact that the power kept cutting out. We got back late, soaked, but happy.

Užupis

Slightly sore-headed the next morning, it was time to catch our train to Klaipėda, to be followed by ferry and bus to Nida. Where Vilnius is in Eastern Lithuania, Nida is on the far West coast, at the far end of a glorified sandbar called the Curonian Spit. Although our departure was fraught with Jim’s ‘being early anxiety’, and we somehow got those seats on the train that don’t actually match up to any windows when I had daydreamed about inspecting Lithuania as we clickety clacked through, we were still in high spirits when we arrived in Klaipėda 6 hours later. After an awesome lunch including pig’s ears, herring and pickles, we boarded the ferry over to Smiltyne. The ferry was as disappointingly unromantic and practical as they always turn out to be. On the hour or so bus trip from Smiltyne to Nida the fatigue finally kicked in and we slept like logs as we were propelled through the pine forest. Thankfully Hotel Jurate (which I think means ‘mermaid’) was smack bang opposite the bus stop and we were able to fall straight into bed. The building had another use in Soviet times and one of the remnants is the super stylish glitter cement on the corridor walls.

Glitter cement in Hotel Jurate

We roused ourselves about an hour before sunset and took a stroll along the concrete promenade. Pretty little houses and stalls selling amber clashed with the huge bar/restaurant on the pier spewing forth Eurovision-worthy pop. Ahhh, the serenity. Luckily we found a nice beer garden upwind with a view of the gorgeous ‘Golden Dune’, which sloped steeply down to where its extreme angle met the sea. I was particularly in awe because it reminded me of a recurring dream I have that involves me fleeing from a tidal wave up a loose, sliding, steep-as-hell sand dune at an agonisingly slow pace. There are always other people struggling alongside me. Sometimes I make it, sometimes I don’t. Always the dread is worse than the submersion. A few years ago my friend El and I realised that we were having the same recurring dream…weird! While in Morocco a few years ago I had the experience of trying to run up a huge sand dune in the Sahara, and it was hard…real hard. Terrifying. Anyway…the beer garden had several racks of smoked fish that the area is known for, and the smell from the smoking ovens was mouth-watering despite the fish looking like something from Saw. We sat on beanbags in the fading light and ate a plump, juicy smoked mackerel with crusty bread Ahhh, sweeeet.

Smoked fish in Nida

Looking back I wish we’d bought more amber from Lithuania…funny how you take things for granted when it’s available by the truckload in whatever country you’re in. But really, who wouldn’t want a piece of ancient amber with an ant stuck inside?! That’d be one to show the Grandkids. I have to go back! We got an early night, prompted by the only English channel switching to Playboy at 10pm. WTF?! Breakfast in the hall the next day felt a bit like a communist The Shining, but again the coffee was delicious. After the lady in the tourist office laughed in our face when we said we wanted to see elk, we caught the bus to nearby Juodkrante, walking a couple of kilometres out of town to see the slightly less exciting largest heron/cormorant colony in Europe….oooo! Upon first sighting we were a little underwhelmed, but after a while the sheer breadth of it was quite impressive. On the walk back to town we decided to duck into one of the overgrown dirt tracks leading into the pine forest. I knew the spit was only 1.5km wide at that point so even though it got a bit spooky we decided to keep going to see the Baltic Sea. I kept an eye peeled for elk, but alas the closest we got to fauna was seeing a slow worm that a Lithuanian Granny was showing some kids. When we reached the beach we thought it was odd and kind of stupid that people were picnicking on the black dirt on the side of the dunes NOT facing the beach, but as soon as we reached the crest we realised why. The wind howled and whipped the sand into our legs to the point where broken skin was feared. However, we couldn’t just leave without dipping our toes into the infamous sea – ‘Man it’s freezing!’…’Yeah, Baltic!’ – so down we ran to the water’s edge. As predicted it was pretty damned cold, and to add to the horror, when I tried to collect some of the brown rocks at the tideline I realised they were BUGS. A whole beach of bugs…sand made of bugs flying in our faces! Grrossss! After taking some parting snaps we left the crazy Eastern Europeans to continue freezing their bollocks off in the water, found our way back through the forest trying desperately to see some elk, before getting the bus back to Nida.

We’re all going on a…summer holiday?!

Our last night in Nida was spent pigging out on cheese, ham, bread and wine in our hotel room while the weather took a turn for the worse outside. That’s enough for now…more next time!

Homecoming Bean

Some of you may remember back in May last year when Jim and I woke up on a (sunny?) Saturday morning and decided to zip down to STA Travel to buy our tickets to NZ and Australia. We bought them so far in advance that we managed to steal a good deal. We also bought them so far in advance that I could shove ‘going home’ to the back of my mind and not have to think about it for the best part of a year.

London is good for that… you’re so busy rushing around making money, running maniacally for public transport, meeting up with people and schlepping to Europe on easyjet flights that you may very easily avoid huge, significant, life-defining, identity-shaking returns to places where everyone knows the ‘real’ you (aaaaahhhhhhhh)! That is, until you’re on the plane from Sydney to Perth by yourself and you suddenly feel like opening the emergency escape hatch whilst vomiting on everyone in the extra-leg room row. Thought you’d got the good seats? Think again.

Jump back a couple of weeks and Jim and I were leaving London very early on a chilly winter’s morning, even earlier than necessary due to Jim’s Woody Allen-like neuroses about being late – “I’d rather get there an hour early than be 5 minutes late!” It was only when we arrived at the airport that his nervousness re: missing our flight morphed into excitement. In fact, I’d never seen him so excited! I thought it was very cute so I giddily joined in. I had big-upped Singapore Airways A380 so much that I was anxious for Jim to like it, he hasn’t had the best experiences on long-haul flights so we had invested a bit extra to ensure satisfaction. By the way he was bouncing around, demonstrating all the different ways he could fold his legs and saying “This is amazeballs!”, I needn’t have worried. I always feel that sleeping on Singapore Airways flights is a waste of precious time; there are too many films to watch, crisps to request and camparis to drink! I stayed awake for the entirety of our 15 hour leg to Singapore, the best film I watched being Beasts of The Southern Wild. A combination of pent-up emotion, beer, tiredness and terrific film-making resulted in me quietly sobbing in my seat. Too embarrassed to keep wiping my face, I decided to just let the tears flow freely down my chin and onto my chest. When I turned to face Jim in the closing credits, the look he gave me was a mixture of bewilderment, disgust and genuine concern. After 3 days spent hot and jetlagged in Singapore (apart from an amazing meal at Fat Cow and our awesome hotel it all seems like a blur), and a gruelling 12 hour layover in Sydney, we finally arrived in Christchurch on the South island of New Zealand. I knew I’d be back! We landed just after midnight and Jim’s sister whom he hadn’t seen for 4 years drove us back to her house, where we passed out for a solid night’s sleep before driving down to Timaru the next afternoon.

Jim’s family live in a gorgeous country-style house with Molly the dog and their two cats Kanga and Roo. Ten glorious days were spent in serene relaxation –  pottering around in the sun amidst the flowers, walking Molly in the rocky rivers that are quintessentially Kiwi and just spending time getting to know each other. In the lead-up to Christmas more lovely family members arrived from around the islands, meaning there was always an air of festivity and somebody new to meet. A highlight of our first few days was watching the end of year school production at the boys’ boarding school that Jim’s mum works at. It was a musical take on Robin Hood, mysteriously opening with a performance of Footloose then unfolding as a 3-hour panto. The boys did an amazing job and were all so sweet, especially Maid Marian (played by a tall slender 12 year old boy with fantastic cheekbones). He completely outshone Robin whose only memorable moment was emitting a Napoleon Dynamite-esque ‘YES’ with fist-pump action upon receiving Marian’s hand in marriage. I totally get excited about kids achieving things, so I had a great time.

There were trips to quaint towns, fresh pasta making sessions, delicious lunches at The Shearer’s Quarters and Verde Cafe, drunken blister-inducing totem tennis matches, as well as a viewing of The Hobbit at a tiny independent cinema built in the 1920s. But the most exciting thing of all was Jim and I getting our Christmas present from his Mum and Dad early…the Air Safari Grand Traverse flight over Aoraki Mount Cook! We got it early because a) I was leaving for Perth before Christmas and b) we needed time to choose a perfectly clear day to fly. On our fifth day there, Jim and I got the all clear and jumped into the family car, reaching Lake Tekapo at 10am. We arrived just in time for me to use the loo (where I sneakily put on some mascara despite Jim hopping around in a rage brought on by nearly being late), board the light plane and take off into the amazingly blue sky. We were in the air for just over an hour, soaring over glaciers and rivers carving their way through mountains, finishing their journies in lakes tinged turqoise by glacial ‘flour’. We flew so close to the highest peaks in New Zealand we felt like we could just reach out and touch them. It was all so magical, I can’t put into words how awe-inspiring it was to see such massive mechanisms of nature at work. We heeded our pilot’s warning not to spend too much time looking through our viewfinders…making sure we were soaking in the experience firsthand. I was keeping a close eye-out for the huge mountain goats who apparently live up there, but instead caught glimpses of tiny huts on the barren, frozen mountainsides. Our pilot informed us that a few people live ‘off-the-grid’ in the Alps, far away from the bothersome presence of others. For someone now residing in one of the biggest metropolises on Earth, it was reassuring to see the wilderness in all its humbling power, as well as to know there are people still committed to stillness and solitude. On our way back we flew near a sheet of cloud cover where the coast meets the Alps, resulting in a dazzling strip of whiteness stretching as far as we could see. Aotearoa indeed.

 

 

My time in New Zealand was over far too quickly. As Jim’s Mum put it “I feel like I’ve been waiting so long for you to get here, and now that you’re here you’re leaving again!” I was sad to leave, but excited to get to Perth. I left Timaru with a bag of presents from Jim’s family, in a mini-van full of octogenerians bound for Christchurch airport. Something about NZ just makes the soul feel good.

Next time: the Perth leg (Gah!)

Berlin

I’m determined not to omit any significant events in my ongoing travel narrative, so an entry about my trip to Berlin at the end of November is required! My designer/music producer friend Nick turned 30 at the start of December and to celebrate he invited a bunch of us to that notorious home of techno, street art and overall balls-out coollery.

I’d never been before so was well excited, though I was due back in London only two days before an eagerly awaited 6 week holiday to New Zealand and Australia. I wanted to be fresh and spritely for my journey across the world. Most of our group were already in Berlin when I flew over by myself after work on Friday (Jim wasn’t able to come). My plan was to arrive at my hostel and go to bed…meeting the others in the morning after their hard night of partying, smugly facing the sub-zero temperatures with dignity and aplomb. Unfortunately (fortunately) after I ran into my friend Tim at Schönefeld, took a midnight metro ride with platform-beer to the fantastic St Christopher’s Inn and tiptoed into a dorm of sleeping girls I thought Screw this… I’m in Berlin! Tim and I grabbed our essentials, texted our friends to find out where they were, then made our way to… Berghain.

Now, my prior knowledge of Berghain/Panorama Bar was this: parties lasting 30 hours, rude bouncers who are impossible to get past… and once you manage to get in… hordes of hardcore (mostly gay) Germans writhing to techno and occassionally/often having sweaty public sex on the dance floor. “Do you think they’ll mind my mustard turtleneck cable-knit sweater?” I asked Tim as we climbed into a taxi. “You’ve just gotta own it…and don’t look excited…look like you don’t even care whether you get in.” This was do-able.  We arrived and crunched our way up the frosty, infamous path leading to the door, my heart hammering away but the rest of my body exuding the coolest demeanor I could muster; my lips were firmly set, my hands were in my pockets, one eyebrow was slightly raised and Tim and I were studiously ignoring each other. Security glanced over my dorky khaki bomber jacket and my protruding mustard knitwear…and let me through. We were in!

Stock photo of Berghain

What followed was a hilarious night of drunken antics that made me feel glad to be alive. All of us went into the situation aware of Berlin’s dangers re: theft. Despite that, I believe three of my friends lost their jackets and one person lost their wallet. Some of those items turned up after a tail-between-the-legs return visit, in the cruel light of day, to argue with the meanest cloak room bitches in the history of the world. Beneath a gigantic photo of a gaping anus and dangling scrotum, a certain male companion chatted up a cute girl…who turned out to be a man. Our Professor buddy who never ever takes off his formal wear was the epicentre of the Panorama dancefloor…twirling around random girls and boys…getting cut off at the bar…generally having the best time ever experienced in a tie and tweed jacket. At one point I had my drink knocked out of my hand by a whirling, twirling raver. Subsequently I was presented with a sobbing friend and her boyfriend wanting to go home. Having arrived hours after everyone else and therefore still having some remnants of energy, I launched into a Braveheart-esque tirade about why it was a rubbish idea to leave – “Who are we?! Are we old and decrepit and no longer capable of staying out late? When we look back at this time of our lives, this moment in time we had at one of the best techno clubs in the world, in one of the coolest cities on Earth…what will we say? Will we say we felt a bit tired and some shit things happened so we went home? Or will be say that we stayed…stayed and DANCED like nothing mattered…like we were going to live forever?! We’re going to fucking stay, and we’re going to fucking DANCE”. We all cheered and stormed onto the dance floor, where we danced for 5 minutes before I said that actually I was tired and we should go home. What happened to Tim? He stayed ’til 9am, partying with some new German pals we’d randomly made earlier in the night.

 

My view of the unlucky ones, enroute to the hostel

Needless to say, the next morning did not see me waking up and greeting the others with aplomb. It saw a case of extreme fragility and nauseousness that led to bouts of dry-heaving on the ‘alternative’ New Berlin walking tour we joined on Saturday. From memory it was around -6 degrees in Berlin during the day, so…pretty cold. Despite the weather and our eccentric tour guide bemusing us a bit, the walk was enjoyable and totally worth the 10 Euros we each paid. We got to see some cool, often quite famous street art and some grimier parts of Berlin that we may not have seen otherwise. We were filled in on some background to the clubbing and alternative scenes of recent years, although the take-away message was that by its very nature, the underground is transient – “Things go up and then come down…” That night we were out again, with similarly stupid antics of which the high point for me was probably licking the ‘electric science ball thing’ at Tresor (again, another hugely famous techno club), as it wasn’t working well with our hands due to the layers upon layers of grime coating the disgusting thing. If that was the climax, then getting (sensibly) cut off from the hostel bar in the late hours of the morning, bursting into a bakery and, in the words of my friend “confronting an old man surrounded by all these croissants and shouting ‘Do you sell beer?!'” was the finale. I spent the entire next day in bed as sick as a dog (booze or ball…who knows) whilst everyone else played 3D blacklight mini-golf…dammit. Again, most of us were down a few essential personal items such as coats, scarves, gloves etc… but luckily no wallets or passports.

 

 

 

 

I managed to get it together for breakfast at the Reichstag on our last day, which was delicious and an opportunity for a final reflection on our time together. On the way we got yelled at by a middle-aged woman who looked a bit strung out out and whose only legible word in her aimless rant was ‘Discotek.’ Oh Germany.

What did we learn from Berlin? I’m not sure that trip popped up in our life paths to teach us anything…all I know is that Nick had fun, we all had a chance to act mental and we’ll be back there in August for his wife Bianca’s 30th. Sometimes things don’t need to be overanalysed.

 

 

Revival

Gosh, it seems like a lot longer than 3 months since I wrote my last blog post. I thought about just ending it there, as everything seemed to have come full circle, and I’d achieved everything I’d set out to do when I first started this. I can remember writing my first entry at my parents’ computer a few days before I left Perth (for what was supposed to be 10 months), feeling excited but scared and wondering what was going to happen. I had so many questions about myself and life that I wanted answered, and really, when I think about it, most of those particular questions have been answered. Win! So no need to write anymore, right? That’s a wrap. Plus, the other day I read a column in the paper (an actually respectable paper with no boobs on the third page), about the trend of blogging: everyone’s a writer and no one’s a ‘reader’. The journalist quoted some statistics about the number of blogs that exist versus the number that are actually read. She reiterated the familiar point of view that attention spans are devolving and we’re lucky if people bother to read anything beyond the 140 characters allowed to us in a ‘tweet’. She made a kind of assumption that because of those statistics, the people who were producing the excess writing weren’t consuming any writing. She wrapped up the article by urging people to read rather than produce, and praised the reader of her own piece by labelling them ‘national treasures’ for bothering to read to the end. A nice bit of condescension there. So that was all a bit… concerning.

But as one of my friends is fond of saying, life isn’t a movie with a clear beginning, middle and end. Yes, I found what I was looking for. Does that mean life stops asking questions? Of course not! And yes, perhaps people are producing more. Perhaps some of it is rubbish. But some of it is good! There are so many stories out there. Who decides what’s rubbish anyway? Through my work as a Speech and Language Therapist, particularly in inner-city London, I’ve come to value my level of literacy, I enjoy it; I want to celebrate it! Clearly people are producing more written work, because we’re all humans who want to create and connect with people. Does it matter if people read it or not? I think because blogs are intertwined with social media, and most blog sites now tell you how many visits you’ve had, what starts off as a personal project for your own satisfaction becomes a search for external validation of your writing skills/experiences or whatever.

Recently I put some of my old drawings up on facebook. I deliberated for a long time before doing it, just as I’ve deliberated for a long time about continuing this blog. I enjoyed producing them, I enjoy looking at them privately. So why put them up? I guess ‘art’ has always been displayed and as long as you strike a balance between wanting to produce things for your own satisfaction, because you enjoy it, and gaining some sort of validation from people viewing it, then that’s fine. Previously people’s art would have had to pass some kind of standard to be viewed by an audience, and now anyone’s old shit is out there (including mine). I suppose if you don’t claim to be an expert, it’s all good?! Who knows.

So here is my non-expert drawing of Jim that I did on the plane, what I am pretty proud of.

Moving on… in the last few months of last year I went on a couple of great holidays.

I have to admit, I wasn’t feeling overly excited in the lead-up to my trip to Croatia #firstworldproblems. I had foolishly booked an 8-day holiday a couple of weeks into the September school term, which (as well as the previous term’s paperwork panic) had led me to worry about my contract being renewed. In fact, I had all but resigned myself to job-hunting for a position that was non-reliant on the structure of the UK education system and seeing it as as a positive that I was sort of pushed into aiming for hospital work. I had even told my agent that I didn’t really want her to put me forward for the position again. But… when my agent called and said that my previous workplace had asked for me again, I considered returning… but only if my agency upped my pay. Which they did! So here I am, another two terms under my belt, meaning I’ve been there for over a year. Hurrah! They’ve made some major changes to the way they carry out their services which means I actually have time to do admin during the day and I feel far more effective than before. Ergo, I am way less stressed than at the end of July, it’s great. The upshot is that enjoying my days and having time to do my job properly means I’m valuing my professional self and what I do far more. It’s no secret that locums get given the ‘difficult’ schools that the permanent staff don’t want, and I feel like I’ve taken some pretty hard schools to work in and done a reasonable job. Job satisfaction… what a pleasing, alien state!

Anyway… Croatia! After working like a madwoman and being exposed to all of the disgusting lergies carried by hordes of mucous-filled children, I was exhausted and sick (actually becoming one of those people who just dose up on pseudoephedrine and run around London like wired zombies because they just ‘have to get this done’). The last thing I wanted to do was then partake in organised fun for over a week (me and a friend had signed up to a TravelTalk sailing tour). In fact, if I weren’t going to let down my friend I would have cancelled. I’m so glad I didn’t! As soon as the sun hit my face and the sea air filled my lungs I felt like my usual self again… in fact way better than my usual self. It made me all the more excited about basking in the sun in new Zealand and Australia over Christmas. On the beautiful deep blue Adriatic Sea, we visited Split, Hvar, Dubrovnik, Lumbarda, Korcula, Makarska and Brac. I loved Croatia, and feel so  lucky to have visited before it joins the EU. Its cities are paved in marble with gorgeous buildings and its history is proud and rich. It was the little, ‘untouched’ (except by hordes of English, Aussie and NZ tourists of course) places that really charmed me and formed the most lasting memories.

Docked in Brac, I decided that alone time and exercise were needed (not to mention giving my liver a break). Instead of turning left towards the tourist markets and the harbour, I forked right to some lonely looking basketball courtsl. After sitting on a bench in the shade, eating chips and writing postcards, I put on my hat and wandered off into the neighbourhood. Beautiful stone houses sat nestled into the hillside overlooking the cathedral and the shimmering bay. Overgrown cobbled pathways wound in between them, creating quiet corners that seemed hundreds of years old. I found myself climbing upwards, always choosing the incline over the decline, and soon I had to make a choice – run through a swarm of hornets to continue to the top, or turn backwards. Repeating the phrase ‘they won’t bother me if I don’t bother them’ repeatedly in my head, I ran through the hornets, totally bothering them. Emerging unscathed and trying not to think about what would happen if, typically, I got stung and died of anaphylactic shock on a lonely Croatian hillside, I kept going ’til I reached the top…whereupon I was greeted by this sight…

“Holy fuck” I thought. A fig tree! Figs galore! Figs ahoy (particularly apt as I was travelling on a boat)! Whether it was fate, ‘God’ or whatever that led me there I didn’t care… all I knew was that a beautiful fig tree growing out on a crumbling wall on a sunny day, with some handy steps thrown in for good measure, said ‘Sit here and contemplate’.

So I did. About which figs I’d chosen in regards to work and love. The main thing I came away with was this: I’m not a squirrel. I’m not even a human who’s good at climbing trees; I’m a clumsy human with no upper body strength. That is, once I’ve somehow managed to pick a fig I need to climb down, sit under the tree and eat it. If I try to pick too many I’ll drop them, squish them or end up on the ground myself. I used to say I could have all the figs… and I guess you can, just not all at once. And that’s the way I like it – because luckily I’ve chosen some damned delicious figs.

Next time… Berlin!

Spornwall

It’s probably once in a lifetime that your holiday in Spain ends with your Spanish neighbour joining you on the street to help your friend contain a drunk, elderly Russian man on crutches who has pulled up outside your villa in his car. I’d say it happens once in TWO lifetimes that the neighbour is wearing only a bath towel, and once in three lifetimes that there is a handgun tucked into the back of it. Frightening enough, but what happens when your Russian friend kindly ups the ante by starting to rant about Spanish fascists? My knowledge of the Spanish civil war is limited to what I learnt from watching Pan’s Labyrinth and reading Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls, but it doesn’t take a war fact enthusiast to know that a Spanish man with a gun might get a bit pissed off at a Russian man calling him a fascist outside his own house at 2am. Our randomness rating reaches the lofty heights of once in four lifetimes when the neighbour, once satisfied with your friend’s ability to manage the Russian man, tells him he’s heard us all making noise and hands him a huge amount of weed so we can ‘keep quiet’. Jim says I happen to run into weird situations, but I never really thought he had a point until looking back on that holiday gem.

To put this into context I should tell you that at the end of July, immediately after my contract finished for the school year, I joined in on a plan hatched by my friend to hire out a villa on the Costa Blanca in Spain. Seven people originally from Perth ended up going, with people arriving and leaving at different times throughout the week. We hired a villa set into a steep and rocky hillside, with an amazing view over Pueblo Mascarat. It took around 6 hours for me to get from the airport to the villa via buses and taxis, but the long journey was worth it and I did some light exercise to help with the nerve pain caused by sitting down for hours on end. The setting was idyllic and it felt like we were starring in some holiday special of Bold and the Beautiful. The seven of us settled easily into each others’ company, despite some of us not having seen each other for  years. Some of our group still lived in Perth and were on short holidays, one of us had been living overseas for years and was quite used to catching up with transient groups of Australians passing through the UK and Europe. The rest of us were in various stages of being or becoming emigrants. After being on the move for so long and meeting lots of new people, it felt really good to be around familiar folk who you don’t have to ‘try’ with. I think because most of us seemed to be at a transitory stage of our lives, we managed to bring enough prior knowledge of each other to feel comfortable without including presumptions or rigid expectations that sometimes come with long-term friendships. We swam, drank, played games, explored, ate good food and enjoyed the sunshine; the stark landscape with its tough scrub and bright reflections reminding me of home. At the end of my four days there I was feeling more optimistic than ever about returning to Perth and seeing everyone.

Previously I mentioned that Jim was going to show me where he spent every summer as a child, and that we had already bought a car hire voucher from STA when we bought our tickets to Australia. About a week after I returned to London, we put aside 9 days to brave the wilds of Cornwall. We had a rocky start, both of us traipsing to Kings Cross from our respective homes via public transport, me laden with the camping gear not already transferred to Jim’s flat. We arrived at the car rental place only to be told that our insurance policy was a bit dodgy and that we should cancel it. Terse phonecalls ensued, my anxiety rising due to memories of paying 800 pounds excess thanks to a dented wheel arch the last time I hired a car in the UK . After all of that was sorted and I was certain that I wouldn’t pay a single pound even if I somehow managed to completely demolish the car due to my own stupidity, I stood waiting to be handed the keys. Then the man behind the counter asked for my passport. Which was in a drawer. At home. Around an hour and several tube rides later, we finally hit the road. We cleverly avoided the congestion zone and slowly and terrifyingly made our way to Jim’s house in Queens Park. We threw armfuls of CDS and the rest of the gear in the car (sans bedclothes thanks to someone!), and set off again towards the motorways. We suffered the same communication issues as any couple would when one person doesn’t drive, one person hasn’t driven in over a year and all they’re armed with is an incomplete google maps printout and an iPhone3 that is rapidly going flat. However, we managed to talk about why we were both a tad snappy using excellent ‘I feel…because…’ phrases and finally ended up barrelling down the M5, blood returning to our knuckles and jaws gradually unclenching.

Driving in central London was already a tense reintroduction to the joys of driving, but as the weather grew worse and we drove deeper into Cornwall, I was challenged anew by the narrow, winding lanes, impatient local drivers and eventually the thick fog that descended upon the claustrophobic landscape, decreasing my vision to zilch. Somehow we made it to Wadebridge alive, where Jim’s Uncle and his wife had left a home-made shepard’s pie and a bottle of french red for us on their dining room table, over which we finally unwound and realised that we were far from London. Due to the weather and the welcome insistence of Jim’s family, we extended our stay with them from two to three nights. Jim and I went on day-trips to Lanhydrock and Padstow after long breakfasts with Chris and Anne, returning in the evening after they had left for their night shifts. One of my favourite nights involved wandering down to The Swan pub after our early dinner, once again kindly provided by our hosts. We drank a bottle of Chilean Sauv Blanc and played rounds of rummy, and I FINALLY beat Jim at something, ha! On day four of our trip we bid Chris, Anne and their (literally) braindamaged cat Gandalf goodbye. Gandalf had fallen off a balcony as a kitten and as a result, moves like an unpredictable, malfunctioning rubber robot with seven legs. I am the least cat-friendly person (mostly due to being allergic), and had avoided him all the more after finding out he’s a biter. Anne loaded us up with food and wine and we set off for the southerly village of Coverack.

Jim was facing the particular problem that I’ll be facing in December – how do you recreate the nostalgic experiences that you hold so dear for someone you love? To show them the way things are done, to let them inside your past and hope that they accept it at the very least, or at best love it too? Do you try to stick to the formula and make the new fit the old, or create your own new memories on an old stomping ground? In the end I think our conclusion was to have a mix of both. It was so much fun camping again, and we had some sweet gear thanks to my friends Bi and Nick. Amazingly, another family who Jim saw every year as a child were continuing to camp there every summer, so we spent some lovely time with them as well as doing our own thing. Cornwall is such a unique and awesome place, and it was a really special trip for both of us. There’s so much to say about what we did (I literally have a whole noteboook full of things and this is long enough already), so I’ll just list my highlights:

– BBQ on the beach at sunset with Jim’s family friends and walking back to town with headtorches in the dark
– Huddling in our tent as it poured down with rain, eating freshly cooked whole crab from Cadgwith Cove
– Walking to the pub in the evening as bats swooped for insects overhead
– Feeding some horses mandarins (if horses could say WTF, these totally would have)
– Eating Roskilly’s icecream
– Watching everyone in the village have fun at the Coverack Regatta, even though we didn’t win the raffle
– Seeing Jim so happy about showing me this special place

 

Travels, not trevails!

I think it’s about time for a cheerful depiction of my life in recent months as the last few posts have been a bit morose and perhaps gave an inaccurate depiction of a miserable miser moping around and whining about pain and professional healthcare (both the giving and receiving).

I have actually been on an array of amazing holidays and I am going to summarise each one even though some of them were actually a while ago. Hell, I’m spending all my money funding this insatiable drive for exploration, so I might as well celebrate it.
 

Back in May Jim and I visited his friend from Cambridge, whom he hadn’t seen for years, in BASEL for five days . His friend had forewarned us that Basel is not the most raging of cities, and as he and his girlfriend had taken some time off from their stressful jobs, it was probably going to be a recharging break rather than a rampage. That was fine with us as London provides its fair share of rampages. We actually felt as though we had the city to ourselves as it was a Swiss public holiday and as the culture is generally family-focused, people who work in town usually go ‘home’ to the rural parts of Switzerland on the weekends. London was wet and gloomy in May and it was glorious to bask in the sunshine and feel your skin getting warmed. The Rhine roars and cascades through the city giving it an energy that the lazy Thames just can’t provide. I may be wrong, but Basel is not known for its culinary delights and as it was the most expensive city I have ever been to (bar Reykjavik), I was grateful that Jim’s friends cooked for us most nights and would not hear any talk of us cooking for them, nor compensating them. They are vegan and initially Jim and I were a bit anxious that we wouldn’t be satiated, but the meals (particularly a spicy chickpea curry), were delicious. A highlight of Basel for me was our visit to the Cartoon Museum, which contained some excellent satirical drawings and a very dark main exhibition by Swiss painter and cartoonist Martial Leiter. We wandered during the day and were in bed at a reasonable time, with the lowest amount of alcohol ever consumed on holiday by either of us. This was mostly due to us adopting the lifstyle of our hosts as per houseguest etiquette. For Jim who used to party hard with said friend who apparently used to be a bit of a ‘lad’ , it was difficult to adjust his expectations to fit the new reality. We had long conversations about the nature of friendship and essentially came to the conclusion that long-lasting friendships are those in which the two people allow each other to change, or not change as the case may be, without giving each other unncessary shit. Not being judgemental in other words. If they join a Kool-Aid cult or start building a shrine out of toenail clippings or something, then intervene. Otherwise, it’s generally best to let people explore themselves and live their lives as they choose. If you can no longer find common ground, then maybe the friendship has come to a natural end. Luckily, that wasn’t the case in Basel and there was still plenty of common ground for those two. We returned refreshed!

Around 15 Euros worth of sausage
Strolling along the Rhine
Martial Leiter’s work

 

 Next up for me was a four day holiday to VIENNA and PRAGUE at the start of July with my very good friends from home, Matt and Matt. I have known one of them (Matt1) since I was born as our Mums were best friends. I feel very lucky to have a friend in my life who has always known, accepted and loved me and about whom I feel the same. His partner (Matt2) is absolutely great and as the holiday approached I grew more and more excited. I met the boys on a Friday night in a Vienna hotel, our enthusiastic reunion witnessed by both the bemused concierge and the hotel’s resident tortoise. We immediately went out for a drink and found a cool outdoor wine bar, catching up over a chilled bottle of white wine, surrounded by Vienna’s hipsters. We explored the city by foot the next day, strolling around in the sun and laughing continuously (possibly due to heat stroke or an overdose of XL schnitzel). Our attempts to listen to live classical music in a traditional Viennese bar (as opposed to attending a full concert), were thwarted by the intense heat, so we only managed to listen to a couple of pieces before escaping outside into the breeze. On Sunday morning we managed to leave Vienna in the boys’ hire car after experiencing some drama with the GPS, our exit aptly accompanied by one of Mozart’s epic symphonies. We drove from Vienna to Prague, stopping off at a small picturesque village near the border of the Czech Republic called Mikulov.We had to check in to our hotel in Prague and be at the top end of Wenceslas Square by 4pm, so our initially relaxed lunch in Mikulov grew more and more fraught as time slipped on. As Matt2 so beautifully put it – “From now on, whenever I hear this I will always be reminded of fleeing Vienna sans GPS and shortly thereafter, fleeing the Mikulov town square on foot carrying a hastily purchased rosé and a napkin full of almonds”. We managed to hot-foot it to the meeting point for our tour after the most hasty check-in of all time that somehow involved The Matthews getting upgraded to the best room in the hotel, overlooking the Old Town Square! I think the guy at reception had a bit of a crush.

Goodbye Turtey!
Mikulov town square, pre-panic
On the road
The 6-person tour we went on was called Taste of Prague, run by a young beautiful Czech couple called Zuzi and Jan (pronounced Yan). I’m going to be very lazy and copy some of the information from the follow-up email they sent after the tour to sum up everything we ate and drank:

 

Milk-style tank beer

1. We had home-made Slivovitz (plum brandy) made by Zuzi’s father in front of the National Museum at the top of the Wenceslas Square.

2. We went to the Cestr steak house in the old Communist Federal Parliament building. We had beer shots (dark Master lager – Pilsner Urquell head – malt biscuit), Pilsner Urquell “tank” beer (regular and milk-style tank beer), Czech sourdough bread with butter and radishes, Czech steak tartare with quail egg, toasted bread and garlic, beef flank first smoked and then boiled in its own juices for 16 hours, beef flat slow-grilled on rosemary with truffle sauce, spare ribs marinated in red wine for 24 hours and then slow-cooked under the lid for 16 hours, grilled Prestice pig pork belly with smoked pork tenderloin on celeriac salad with walnuts, Czech trout on butter with fresh thyme and vegetables, “Olomoucke tvaruzky” – aged cheese wrapped in bacon and deep fried in breadcrumbs with home-made mayonnaise, escargots boiled with root vegetables and baked in mushrooms with Sabayonne mousse, roasted farm-raised chicken with truffle stuffing and chicken juice with truffle butter, potato dumplings, potatoes with curd cheese, green bean sprouts with pork cracklings, tomato salad, and beer ice cream.
Czech steak tartare with quail egg

3. Then we had “chlebicky”, the open-faced sandwiches, at the “Svetozor” deli (baguette – potato salad spread – smoked ham – Czech pickle – hard-boiled egg).

4. We followed with Becherovka shots and “horicke trubicky” rolls with whipped cream and hot chocolate in Choco Café at Liliova street. In addition, we had a sampling of Czech pastries – the Vetrnik (Windmill – puff pastry with vanilla and caramel cream and caramel glazing).
5. We finished with wines at the Vinograf wine bar at Misenska Street (2008 Alibernet red by Mr Manak). 
Needless to say, I didn’t lose any weight on this holiday! I was in food heaven… my mouth is watering as I read back over our meal at Cestr, where the philosophy is ‘nose to tail eating’. As well as being about the food, the tour had an emphasis on covering the recent sociopolitical history of the Czech Republic and the wider Austro-Hungarian Empire. Their candid, matter-of-fact accounts of communism were in turns hilarious and troubling. It was nice to understand Prague’s background in a contemporary rather than medievil sense. Sunday night was spent drinking the Czech wine we had bought under extreme time constraints in Mikulov. On Monday we did some more sightseeing, wandering around the Wallenstein Garden and ducking into small cafes and pubs to stay refreshed. The other resounding memory from this trip was visiting the Pinkas Synagogue and the Jewish Cemetery, both of which are part of the Jewish Museum. The walls of the Pinkas Synagogue are lined with the names of Jewish people who died in the Holocaust and it is truly horrifying and deeply moving to walk through the rooms. Even when you think there can’t possibly be any more, you walk through another doorway into another hall covered with actual people’s identities. It had never been brought home to me in such a personalising way. On Monday afternoon I flew back to London and both Matt1 and I felt physically ill as we had to say goodbye. At least it’s not too long until December.
 
I think that’s about enough for this post! I wish I hadn’t waited so long to write about my travels, but I don’t think I was able to relax enough to write about them until I had been offered at least one work contract. So now they’ll be coming in a steady stream over the next week. 
Wallenstein Garden
A remnant of Communist times

 

Long live whimsy