Somehow it is March 10th and I only have two and a half weeks left in Perth before I fly to Cambodia for a fortnight, then back to London for a friend’s wedding. I feel like I’ve been here for no time at all. The first month involved me being in an intense state of shock, burnout, grief and exhaustion. However, it also a time of happiness catching up with family and other overseas-based Perthites while we had the chance. It was a time of wildly fluctuating emotions – having a really nice day-trip to Rottnest Island for example, despite hiding the fact I was silently crying on some of our bike rides. Having a ball celebrating my Dad’s birthday dinner before being hit with a wave of low mood – kind of a low pressure system for the heart, and retreating to my room in an attempt not to ruin everyone else’s night.

The smartest thing I did during that time was go and see a GP, who asked me to give him a rundown of what happened. I delivered a matter-of-fact summary of the end of 2016 re: work, money, relationship, dog and living situation (i.e. residing with my whole family in the suburbs with no car and no job). I think the poor guy thought I had finished after the first couple of things, but his eyebrows rose further up his face as I went on. I wrapped things up as quickly as I could, and he slowly leant forwards and typed into his notes ‘situational life crisis’. ‘OMG yas’ I thought,  that is exactly right. He went on to explain that as my anxiety, depression and severe stress symptoms (I did that scale thing) were due to external factors, he did not want to put me on any antidepressant medication. I was cool with that. He also said he could write me a mental health care plan which would give me six bulk-billed Psychology sessions. I was definitely cool with that! I was about to stand up and leave when he said “I’m going to write you a medical certificate for Centrelink”. Say what?! He told me that he thought it would be good for my mental health if I had a break from working…but that I needed money for my self esteem and to reduce stress. When I arrived I had sold some employee shares that Woolworths had given me at the age of 19, and that had given me a boost of cash when I first arrived. To see it steadily dwindling away, however, created a tightness in my chest about having to find a job when I badly needed rest. The thought of re-inserting myself into the Perth Speech Pathology scene when I had been out of the loop for 5 years was intimidating and triggered off all kinds of ‘I’m not good enough, I’m not worthy’ kind of thoughts. Although going through the initial process of signing on to the dole was arguably not great for my self esteem, I can see now that it was the best thing he could have done for me and I’m glad I stuck with that plan without giving into the internal monologue of “You’re a total loser”. I started working at the age of 14 and have not stopped since (besides a few months when I was travelling), so decided to (try to) stop judging myself so harshly, let myself get better, and take that sweet sweet Government cash. I knew I had another two months to start catching up with everybody else, so besides doing a few fun things, I kept my head low and just focused on getting better. I spent a lot of time with my Mum during the day as she took some time off work, and I gladly let myself be looked after. I caught up with my friends slowly and one or two at a time to keep things manageable.

At some point in the second month I stopped carrying my dog’s collar with me everywhere I went and moved on to another stage.

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Transition

Once again I come back to my humble blog after a long absence, like returning home to see a friend. I haven’t had the ‘voice’ for it for a while – for me it was always about being filled with wonder and excitement about the changes I was experiencing in my life, and for a long time things have been static. Sometimes good, sometimes bad, but plodding along with a settled in predictability. After going through a transformative time leaving Perth and settling in London 4 years ago (earning buttloads of cash as a locum Speech and Language Therapist and therefore travelling loads), last year I took two part-time jobs with normal salaries and began the same daily grind as most of the other people who live here.

Life is no longer a holiday; short-term hedonism has been replaced with long-term goals and sacrifices in order to land the end result – higher up the ladder, spread across more rooms and up the duff. I may not be able to go out to nice places for dinner as often as I used to, but I have jobs where people actually know who I am and where I have the same ‘rights’ (locums aren’t allowed to access training, work in the holidays or get any leave entitlements), as everyone else. I have cred, I have gravitas. I commit to things and I can wish my colleagues a happy holiday and know I will be there to see them when they get back. I have been off my anxiety and nerve pain medication for 6 months and I am managing it well because I do grown up things like exercise and meditate and do therapy and eat healthily and buy milled flaxseed.

In a way embracing long-term goals has in itself been exciting. Never before in my life have I looked further than, well…. 0 years ahead. Money was for spending on things that you wanted right then. You could just get more if you ran out. I’d never had a boyfriend where marriage and children were more than just abstract, millions-of-years-away things that happened to other people. My disdain for authority and work politics meant that I never wanted to be involved and competitive. Settling down and being earnest was for losers. Swoop in, shoot out the lights and leave. Hurricane Jill.
Now though…what’s changed now? I want children and a big fuck off house and an awesome job that gives me enough money to be able to live like a grown up. I guess this just happens naturally. I’ve lived in London for three and a half years and in the last year I have halved my income and doubled my rent to live just with my boyfriend in a flat in Zone 1 so he can commute up to Bedford and even though we are both professionals we have no money and no space and WHY DID I LEAVE AUSTRALIA WHERE I COULD BE RICH AND HAVE A 5 BEDROOM HOUSE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DESERT?! What have I done? I’ve delayed growing up and now suddenly here I am in the middle of what was supposed to be a huge adventure, grown up and in the words of Snap!, as serious as cancer. Is this a good place to be grown up? If it weren’t for my fizzling out ovaries would I be growing up? Why didn’t I save some money to freeze my eggs? Why didn’t I save any money for anything? Where are those anxiety meds again?!
So fine, if I have to be a grown up, then I will plan out our new grown up life. You want long-term plans? I will give you the most comprehensive grown up plan you’ve ever fucking seen. I will get my coil taken out in February, then we will be pregnant by April. I will finish my 3-day a week fixed term contract in June and then in July we will move to Bedford. I will keep my 2 day a week Highly Specialist job in inner-city London and get some locum work in Bedford and because the rent is 50% of the price for 400% more room we will live like a King and Queen and we’ll have enough money saved for a house in no time! Growing up is easy, I will own it like I’ve owned everything else. As soon as I want things, they happen. That’s how it’s always been.
But the thing I’ve learnt about plans is that they don’t go the way you want them to, even (especially?) if you are sticking to them with laser-like focus and an all-encompassing, scary-to-other-people rigidity. You realise that doing locum work again means that you will be the expendable person at work who is far more experienced than most people but who is as distant and invisible to the team as a satellite circling the Earth. Even though you now want responsibility, you won’t get it. Anyway, ignore that feeling. You didn’t save any money and now this is what you have to do. Suck it up. You still have that two day a week job in London.
But then you find out that you and your partner are going to have some trouble conceiving naturally. This was not in The Plan. I bought a baby shirt on sale and it’s past April. Oh well, we’ll take some vitamins and change the way we eat and make sure we exercise properly and look I’ve bought an ovulation app and there’s this fertility gel and did you know X, Y and Z had trouble and now they’re fine and if we just try enough it will be fine…then your boyfriend breaks up with you.
Oh. The Plan. The Plan has taken over everything and snuffed out the spontaneity and light. You’ve been ignoring the fact your boyfriend has feelings and you’ve been so focused on The Plan that you haven’t been listening or acknowledging anything he has to say that doesn’t support your version of the next few years. You’re still together but all of a sudden you’re in couples counselling so you can actually see each other as people. Blergh. This is why I never tried to look ahead.
So, that’s where things are at now. Trying to find a balance – a moderate path that lies somewhere between floating aimlessly through life and squandering my eggs and my place on the property ladder, and being so preoccupied with these things that I can’t enjoy my life and I secretly resent my friends for having these things when I do not. When does the easy bit of life happen?
I’ve realised that immediately before I came to London, I spent a month in Edinburgh then went on a two week Camino de Santiago through Portugal with my friend El. As I come to my final months in London, I have unconsciously and serendipitously planned the same ritual – going to Edinburgh for a couple of nights for the Fringe then going and doing a shortened version of the Camino in August with El again. I think it will be good to compare how I feel about myself and my life to last time I did these trips – my body and mind are stronger and in a lot of ways I feel I’m a much better person than I was back then. Although I have a new set of challenges and a new unknown facing me, I am once again in a state of flux and am wondering which of those figs I can actually have. This way of being is scary and uncertain with no guarantees, but somehow, I feel as though I have woken up and am relieved that life refuses to be predicted and controlled.
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig-tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions… and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig-tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest,and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”
– Sylvia Plath (The Bell Jar)


Self Portrait April 2015 – put through the How Old Robot website. London has aged me 56 years.

Time is on my side

Well well well! Six months since my last post…pa-bloody-thetic.

Where was I in my last one? Ah…Lithuania. And whinging about my (lack of) job prospects. I’m going to have to fish out my 2013 diary to remember what happened after that. My guess is that I continued being stupidly busy, blowing my money on holidays and stressing out about getting a permanent job. Back in a second…

Well WATTYA KNOW?! I was right. After hitting ‘Publish’ on August 26th, my life continued much on the same trajectory as it had been on for the whole of 2013 (which, the consensus seems to be, was pretty shit for most people?).

Don’t get me wrong, there were some pretty awesome events including both mine and my loved one’s 30th birthdays. Jim’s came in September, 3 months before mine, so I wasn’t really feeling the ‘pinch’ when we celebrated his. I made sure to pull out all the stops because I know I can be a bit shit when it comes to doing things for people’s birthdays, if I even remember them in the first place. So that’s why I arranged dinner in the gorgeous private dining room in The Oak pub and restaurant in Notting Hill for us and 10 of Jim’s friends. I also spent ten…yes TEN hours making a cake in the shape of a cricket bat. My housemate Heloise watched me for the last 2 hours or so, observing in some kind of transfixed horror my botched attempts at icing. In the end, I don’t think it turned out too bad! The little presents I got him as well as the party we had at our place were the icing on the…oh, I guess I can’t use that analogy now. Jim and I made hundreds of canapes for everyone which we were really proud of, though we were happy to finally serve the last ones and get on with partying.

Jim’s party was a double-fun-bonus as my very good friends from Australia – Casey and Charles – arrived in London that day and I saw them for the first time in years in my very own kitchen. They stayed with us and a few other friends during their trip, and I had an awesome time hanging out with them and remembering the good old days as well as making new memories. Casey, Bianca (who lives in London) and I have known each other since we were 14/15 years old through working at BIG W! Together we have such a bevy of ridiculous stories from our time there; we are the original disaffected fucks. I ended up staying for 6 years – well into my Uni days.  I still have stress dreams about not doing my night ‘routining’ (tidying) properly and forgetting my log-in code. Grim. To spend some time together, we went on holiday together at the end of November/start of October to a random holiday destination – Transylvania. We had a LOVELY TIME! Although we had grand plans to travel outside of our Transylvanian base Cluj Napoca, we ended up lazily wandering its pretty streets and spending time catching up in ancient squares, cute little cafes and bars. I would thoroughly recommend giving Romania a visit – people were so outrageously friendly and there were enough markets and tiny shops to keep our touristy selves happy. I feel so lucky to have those two people in my life (though I’m secretly a bit glad our impulsive and wine-fuelled plan to get some kind of tattoo to symbolise our friendship has not yet come to fruition).

Not long after that it was time to ‘pop’ back to Perth for 8 days to surprise my Mum for her 60th birthday! As far as I can remember I have NEVER surprised anyone, so I was pretty chuffed with myself when we actually managed to pull it off. My dad and brother were in on it, and helped to arrange the logistics so that I could casually walk in and surprise Mum at our favourite restaurant – Restaurant Amusé. We’ve been visiting them since they opened a few years ago, and all their staff were really on board with making the surprise work. I arrived in the early hours of Saturday morning, my brother David picking me up from the airport and kindly giving me his bed while he slept on the couch. He had even bought my favourite soft drink – Passiona – to help me feel at home. Aww! His lovely girlfriend Sofi had bought me the most gorgeous Salus handcream, which was wrapped and waiting on a lavender pillow on the bed! So thoughtful and relaxing after a long haul flight. I slept in while David played GTA 5 and his cat Cereal stared at me and occasionally tried to sit on my head. Later that evening after I caught up with a friend, David, Sofi and I got spruced up and arrived at the restaurant early. We made sure Mum and Dad had their backs to the door, and I was smuggled away down a hallway right next to the kitchen. Finally the maître d’ (who is co-owner with her husband and Head Chef), signalled that it was time and I walked out, casually sat down in the extra chair, and apologised for being late. I’d been a bit worried that Mum would keel over at this point, but luckily her blood pressure meds worked perfectly and she let out a scream of joy and shock 🙂 Seems I almost messed up the whole thing by sending a jet-lagged Facebook message from Singapore, which obviously then told Mum that I was contacting her from Changi airport! She told Dad in puzzlement, but he managed to convince her that Facebook was hardly ever accurate due to signals bouncing off the wrong satellites and…stuff… Phew!

I have never experienced such crippling jetlag as I did upon returning to London after being in Perth for eight days. It was awesome spending time with my family, catching up with friends and touching in with the little people who have sprung up all over the place from the loins of those I know. But, your parents only turn 60 once, and I’m glad I’ve been able to be there for both of my folks’ celebrations.

Once back in Perth, my attention turned to a certain looming milestone. I never thought I’d be the kind of person to worry about getting older, and in some respects I’m quite comfortable with it; I’m more confident, relaxed and happy than I’ve ever been in my life. But on the other hand there are certain things that I expected to have achieved by the time I hit 30. The choices I made throughout my 20s came into question – has all my travelling and loving been worth it? My peers from University are now running hospitals, or are married and have (numerous) kids. And here I am – living what feel like the right choices for me…but not the right choices in terms of where I’d dreamt I would be as a little girl. Getting a permanent job didn’t turn out to be as easy as I thought it would be. I’m not as skinny as I used to be, and there are lots more dark circles and bags and general wrinkliness than before. And above all, the biological clock is ticking. Shit! Probably for that reason, I became grossly neurotic about having as nutso a party as possible down in a rented house in Brighton for my 30th. This coming from someone who initially, honestly, did not want to have a party at all. Luckily my very good friend Shaun (who proves to me that boys and girls CAN be friends), was also celebrating his 30th and came over to London (his previous home), with his girlfriend to spend the weekend with the crew. We had an amazing time – “I’m Keith Richards bitch!”

I was immediately relieved upon actually turning 30 on the 8th of December; the anticipation was infinitely worse than the event. I had been asked numerous times ‘What does it feel like to be 30?’ I decided I should probably ask my friend Shaun the same question, since that seemed to be the done thing. “What a fucking stupid question”, he replied. And that’s why we’ll always be friends.

A bunch of stuff has happened since then. New Years Eve was great. I took a WHOLE MONTH off drinking alcohol, in order to test myself, be a bit more healthy, and most importantly raise £600 for the Epilepsy Society. I finally got a permanent job at a Highly Specialist level. In other words, I finally got what I wanted. It was a hard fucking slog and I know it’s odd that I add it on almost as a footnote, but perhaps I’m not keen to talk about how much it means to me. Perhaps I’m sick to death of talking about it since it felt like that’s all I was talking about with my friends and family for a while. My stress levels have dropped dramatically since the start of the year, and one of the biggest things about my newfound stability is the prospect of mortgages and maternity leave. Oooooo-err! 2014 is lookin’ pretty good so far.

Casey, Bianca and I in Cluj Napoca


Mum, Dad and I just after the surprise!
The day I turned 30.

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!

Summer

As I sit here on my crisp white sheets, bright hot sunlight pouring in through the window onto the pink peonies my new housemate brought home for me, it’s hard to imagine that the last 6 months have been so grim. I feel like I’ve surfaced from underneath grimy bathwater in a sharehouse tub; the weather having the same affect on my outlook on life as it does on the London streets that in the sunlight look cleaner, longer, wider, and invite you to look up rather than down at your (wet) feet.

This ‘Blah’ period started back in January when Jim and I touched down in London after our 6 week amazeballs holiday to Singapore, New Zealand and Australia. Leaving the warmth, love and cuddles with the mini versions of my friends that had sprouted in Perth made the sting of the London chill even harder to handle. Still, Jim and I instagrammed the shit out of our huge jumpers and laughed about what a shock our bodies were going through transitioning from temperatures upwards of 40 degrees (Celsius), to subzero, ear-biting, nipple-hardening conditions (even through layers and layers of clothing – what’s with that?!).We even looked forward to the prospect of snow, since it’s still a novelty for me and really, who doesn’t like snow? I decided to try my hand at reviewing some of the exhibitions, films and theatre productions I have the great privilege to see on a regular basis, and my new goal solidified in my mind – finding a permanent job.

I enjoyed the fact that I had a couple of days off before returning to my contract work. In fact, if I had gone back the day after we returned, I probably would have died when a helicopter crashed into our street after colliding with a crane atop a high-rise building. It hit the ground at 8am, the exact time I would have been walking to the tube and passing the usual people, considering saying ‘Hi’ and not doing it. I heard it happen and at first thought the strange metallic boom was a piece of metal falling off a truck, or even worse, a piece of infrastructure falling off the railway lines that pass overhead near the crash. Then the sirens started, more kept arriving, and the traffic stopped flowing past my window. I dragged myself out of bed in curiosity and looked in amazement at the fireball burning a couple of blocks from my window. In the next couple of days it was announced that two people had died – the pilot and one pedestrian. People told stories about how they had seen the helicopter catapulting towards them and had run for their lives, narrowly avoiding death. The main footage used by the BBC was shot by my friend’s boyfriend who had been knocked off his bike by the impact. I wondered who the victim could have been, and worried in particular that it had been the bin man. On the way home from my first day back at work, I opened the Evening Standard on a busy Hammersmith and City Line train and saw the face of a man I walked past on my early starts. He was notable for his neat beard and for being morbidly obese. As the article explained that everyone who knew him thought he was a fantastic guy, I tried not to cry. I started to wonder what the point of everything was – one minute you’re walking to work, the next you’re burning to death in a pool of aviation fuel. I realised that, like the survivors, he may have seen the helicopter coming but had been unable to run away because of his size.

After the road opened up again I walked to work every day as usual, except this time through the charred remnants of the crash and the photos of the victims pinned to the buildings’ temporary walls. I diligently avoided the mysterious blackened circle on the foothpath. The crane was slowly rebuilt as every day I ducked and weaved my way through commuters into the tube. There’s something about the Underground that can really grind you down if you’re not particularly sure about your decision to be in London. I remember cramming myself into a carriage, feet barely touching the floor, the train trundling forth while everyone desperately tried to block out their surroundings with kindles, phones or bad morning papers. I was face to face with a glum (as in actual upside-down-smile) looking woman in a grey pant suit wearing ill-fitting Apple earphones that loudly blared Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go by Wham! The juxtaposition between that catchy 80s party fave and the picture of abject human misery before me made me want to either burst into tears or peals of laughter. I found out that day that my so-called accountants had been acting dodgy and had fucked off back to Australia. This meant that a) I had a massive tax debt, b)  my finances were an incomprehensible mess that I had to find another accountant to take on and c) a few of my friends were in the same boat. Great.

A few weeks after the helicopter crash, a 16 year old ex-student of one of the secondary schools I work at was stabbed to death in a street near the school in the middle of the day. I didn’t know him, but the thought of that happening to one of the kids I work with and just the fact that it happened at all made me feel sick. Some of the students put up a poster of the boy in the corridor and I couldn’t help but look into his eyes every time I walked past. There is evidence that youth offenders and people getting excluded from school largely have undiagnosed speech, language and communication needs. Obviously it’s not the only reason that kids have behavioural, emotional and social difficulties, but it’s been established that people with trouble communicating are at a higher risk for those kind of things. For a while I was looking at the young kids I work with and wondering What’s going to happen to you? I felt a bit helpless. To round it all off, Jim came home one day and told me that a lady in his office had gone down to the basement, locked herself in a rarely used disabled toilet and killed herself. My usual resilience and ability to deal with crappy things was on the verge of disappearing. One day I looked out of my kitchen window and thought Fuck this God forsaken place. I flagged with my Doctor that I wasn’t feeling the best.

Obviously some good things must have happened during that period, but misery breeds misery and my frame of mind only allowed me to see the shit. I suppose I went into survival mode, just keeping my head down and focusing on one thing at a time. Which was scarily similar to the state I was in before I left Perth. Our prolonged winter didn’t help at all – icy winds from Russia combining with grey skies sent from on high to irritate and oppress. I wrote a few pieces and waited to become the next famous blogger in London, which would obviously cure my existential funk. I went for a couple of job interviews and despite getting good feedback and gaining enough points to get the jobs, ONE OTHER PERSON would do better than me and get them. Inconceivable! I realised that up until now – all the way through high school, university and my early career (thinking about it, probably back to primary school as well), things have always come easily to me. I achieved academically whilst distracting everyone around me and misbehaving. I did well at Uni without having to try too hard and I had never, ever been turned down for a job. How things had changed since I bragged about how easy London was for me. What a naive, patronising twat.

Slowly the days got longer and the layers of clothing required to step outside grew less and less. Gradually my usual frame of mind crept back – I decided to see the position I was in regarding my career as a lesson to be learnt – instead of avoiding challenges and coasting along at a B+ level, I had to lift my game and learn perseverance and patience. On the surface I had assumed that as soon as I wanted something I would get it…though I guess deep down I had always worried that if I tried for something I really really wanted and didn’t get it that it would break me. I guess that happened on a lesser scale, but despite being rattled I was OK. And what’s more, I realised that everyone else had similar things happen to them after living in London for any period of time, and you just have to suck it up, get over yourself and get on with it. It still hurts not getting something, but it just makes me want it more and makes me try even harder. I want to do anything I can to stop kids in London going down that horrible path to crime and substance abuse, even if sometimes it’s hard. I want to dedicate myself to them and make sure they’re alright. Jim and I have finally moved in together and now instead of Sainsburys and a main arterial road, I open my window to the sounds of birds singing in the garden and kids laughing over the fence (it hasn’t gone all gross and suburban though – we’re still in Zone 2!). I understand tax better and am with some great accountants, and have finally paid off my debts. Importantly (for me) I have been on a couple of holidays, one of which I will be writing about soon. I’m writing again because it’s for me and I love it, rather than wanting to grab the attention of anyone in particular. Instead of taking the sunshine for granted I love and revel in it like other Londoners and keep in mind how different things can look in the grey. I’ll keep applying for permanent supervisory roles and when I get one I’ll appreciate it so much more. Things aren’t perfect but they’re OK and I feel like I’ll be better mentally prepared when winter rolls around again. Phew.

 

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.