Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Ou est la Eiffel Tower?

I almost never made it to Paris.

Tired and not a little hungover I committed the cardinal sin of travellers: I left home without my passport. Honestly, how can you leave for a foreign country and forget the one thing that guarantees you'll make it across the border? It boggles the mind. So, after rushing home to collect it and being driven "Notting Hill" style back to the coach station by my host mum and kids I had managed to miss my bus, and was staring straight down the line of a completely disastrous weekend. However my host mum convinced me that throwing money at the problem until I got what I wanted was the way to go, so I paid £179 for a train to Paris.

Admittedly £179 is a huge amount but, as Sian told me, if I didn't pay the money then in five years' time I sure wouldn't be £179 better off, and all I'd have would be the memories from the weekend I either went or almost went to Paris. And it was the best decision I could possibly have made. Oh Lord, how can I even begin to put into words how much I loved Paris?

I arrived on Friday night and, after having to call on my host family to save me for the second time that day by providing directions to my elusive hostel, I went for a stroll through Montmartre in search of a beer and some late-night Parisian watching. As I wandered I found myself surrounded by an ever-increasing number of sex shops, and just as I began to consider whether it was particularly safe for me to be walking in the red-light district alone at night I caught a glimpse of what looked like the arm of a windmill. Sure that there couldn't be more than one fluro windmill in Paris I quickened my step and found myself stumbling upon the Moulin Rouge. If nothing else had happened that whole weekend I think that moment alone would have warranted my train ticket. It was such a surreal moment - I could hardly believe this was actually my life. It was awesome.

The next day I jumped on a train and went out to Versailles. As it turns out, being young and living in the European Union has some perks, because instead of having to pay €27 to visit the Palace I only had to pay €8, which (irrationally) made me feel better about paying extra for the train.

Versailles is even more breathtaking in reality than in the photos I'd seen. There is really no way for the scope and beauty of the Palace to be conveyed in celluloid. It is phenomenal. The gardens are immaculate, replete with dozens of fountains and statues hidden within a giant hedge maze before morphing into literally miles of well-kept parkland, all of which leads you to both the Grand and Petit Trianon. Of all the places within Versailles, the Petite Trianon is most irrevocably linked to Marie-Antoinette. The area was gifted to her by Louis XVI, and it is the only part of Versailles ever to be seriously marked by the personal tastes of a single Queen.

The inside of the Palace is somehow even more amazing than the outside.

 But despite - or more likely because of - all the beauty Versailles made me feel slightly sickened. The place is enormous. The ceilings are so tall, and covered in massive murals. Every room is papered, carpeted and decorated to the nines. The furniture is priceless. And everything - EVERYTHING - is gilded. There is so much gold in that place that I don't even know what. The French revolution was admittedly a bloodbath, and a mostly ineffectual bloodbath at that. But if I had been a starving Frenchman in the 18th century and I'd seen Versailles I would have kicked off too. The ruling class just had too much. And although Versailles is so close to the centre of Paris, it is so easy to forget there's anything at all outside those big gold gates. It's like a world of it's own, where it probably seemed ok to spend all your money on clothes and food and parties, and where "let them eat cake" would have been a perfectly reasonable answer (whether or not she actually said that). But seeing Versailles I completely understood why the masses were baying for blood.

That evening I went back to my hostel and met Angele, a French-Canadian girl who was staying in the same room as me for the weekend. She asked if I'd like to come with her on a pub crawl and naturally I said yes. At the Metro station we met up with three other people from the hostel who were heading to the same place, so we all made our way into the city centre together. When we arrived at the supposed first pub there was no sign of the group we were looking for, so Angele used her super handy French skills to ask at the bar. As it turned out the pub crawl was totally bogus. But, not to waste an evening, we all went to the supermarket and bought bread, cheese and wine, and headed for the Eiffel Tower. While searching for a corkscrew we made friends with two Texan girls, and the seven of us sat under the Tower and had a quintessential French wine picnic, before heading back to Montmartre.

The hostel I was staying at had a 2am curfew, which was really unfortunate because by 3am the group had become fragmented, and I found myself cold and exhausted wandering around the streets of Paris alone when some guy came up and started talking to me in French. I managed to conjure up enough high school French to say "Je ne parle pas Fracais", at which point he switched to English before kissing me. I wasn't sure if I was totally ok with this turn of events, but I was too tired to fight it, so I just went with the flow until he asked if I wanted to come home with him. To the 14th arrondissement. Montmartre is in the 18th arrondissement, and there was no way I was going all the way to the 14th, so I turned him down. He seemed unfazed by my refusal and just led me into a side street instead, where he started taking off his clothes and trying to convince me to have sex with him there. Which I didn't. Even in Europe I feel there should be some lines I don't blithely wander across, and having sex with a stranger in a Parisian alley seemed like a pretty good place to stop.

Eventually I made it back to the hostel, and after about 4 hours sleep I went out into the city again. I don't think I could have had a more touristy day if I'd tried. And believe me, I did try. First up I climbed the Eiffel Tower. And I mean climbed. There was no way I was taking the damn lift.

Then I walked across the Seine to the Arc de Triomphe, which I also climbed.

And then I took a walk down a busy street, and realised I was hungry. Since I was on such a well-known French street I decided to have the most well-known French dish I could find. For the record: escargot are DELICIOUS! Ooooh I loved them.

Finally I went to the Louvre. I had hoped to visit Notre Dame afterwards, but I'd underestimated how much time I would spend at the Louvre. I wandered through the whole museum, saving it's most famous room for last. When I did finally make it to the Mona Lisa I was... well. I had heard people complain that she was too small, so I was pleasantly surprised to see a normal, portrait sized painting in front of me. But while I understand the need to protect such an important artwork, I feel like the Mona Lisa is protected to the point of detriment. It's hard to really see the painting from a foot away and through such a thick pane of glass. Still, I can now say I've seen what is possibly the most famous portrait in the world, so that's something.

On Monday I woke up early and walked around the corner to the Sacre Coeur before checking out of my hostel. Then I bought some more bread and cheese and had a picnic by Montmartre cemetery. Which might seem like a morbid place to eat my final meal in France, but it's actually a really beautiful place. And it's where a bunch of famous French people are buried, soI was in good company.

I was really very sad to leave Paris. It's easily one of my favourite cities, and I didn't even come close to doing everything I wanted to. I can't wait to go back.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

How'd you like them apples?

This post was inspired by apples.

Which is strange. Apples are great, don't get me wrong. But they're hardly an inspiring fruit (actually, is any fruit particularly inspiring? I don't know. Maybe the dragon fruit.). Anyway, apples are available all year round from any supermarket, so they aren't something that usually fires my imagination.

I'm writing this from my backyard, staring right at two bountiful apple trees, which may give some indication as to why I'm so preoccupied with an otherwise quotidian fruit. But really it's not the apples themselves that are getting me all whimsical. Mostly it's the fact that I've been overseas for almost nine months and I'm just really really in love with England right now (seriously, there's a squirrel on the fence directly behind me right now. And I'm sitting in the sun without doing irreparable skin damage. This is paradise).

For one thing, the apples (I swear I'm almost done talking about them) are literally falling off the trees, meaning it's almost harvest time. And harvest time means it's almost Autumn! The thing is, I've never really been too hung up on Autumn. I do love the sweet reprieve it offers from the blistering heat of an Australian summer, but aside from that it's really just an unremarkable lead up to my favourite season (I don't care what anyone says, winter is brilliant). UNTIL NOW! This year Autumn mean piles and piles of fallen russet leaves; the return of scarves and hats and coats; Guy Fawkes day and Bonfire night; as well as still being the lead up to winter. And this year winter doesn't just mean cold, it also means (for me at least) Christmas!

Admittedly I am getting a little ahead of myself. But I've been working full time this week because the kids are on school holidays, and I swear I have regressed about ten years in the past five days.

I was a little concerned about having the kids all the time for two weeks. I didn't think I'd be able to find things to do with them every single day But I have had SO MUCH fun! I've been on water slides, I've been to imaginary day spas, I even built a fort.

It's such a cliche (then again, this whole post has been a mishy-mushy barrage of sappy platitudes, so what's new) but I've picked up so much of their enthusiasm For one thing, spending so much time with children has reinvigorated the drive I had to get out and SEE things that was so strong when I first arrived, but has faded - just a little - since I started feeling so at home here. Which is why this afternoon I got home from work and booked a spur of the moment trip to Paris for next weekend (YAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAY!). But, probably more importantly, being with the kids has resurrected my fervor for simple, day-to-day things. Like pretending the space under the bed is a top secret cave. And, you know. Apples. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Two Weeks

Gosh, it's been a while. I would be completely unsurprised if any of you suspected I was dead. There were moments I thought the same thing. I wasn't, though. Mostly I was just drunk (ha. I'm all class).

I spent my last day in Dublin wandering around the city, seeing as many of the sights (or the free ones anyway) as I could. At around 4:30-ish I was pretty well spent, so I went back to my hostel and checked my facebook. You know, people are so ready to belittle social networks, believing them to replace actual interpersonal contact. But, thanks to my generation's inability to stay disconnected and a decent amount of good luck, when I went on one of the first things I saw was Joshua Harris' status proclaiming the fact he was in Dublin.
I met Joshua Harris when we were both back in Australia through my uni friend Courtney, and he's currently spending the year studying at a German university. He was funny and good value and we got on well, so when I saw that we were in the same city I immediately asked him if he wanted to meet up.
We went and grabbed a drink or two and I had dinner with his lovely family who were over in Europe to visit him and getting a little sight seeing done in the process. As it turned out we were on the same ferry out of Ireland the next morning, so we met up again around 8 the next morning, went to the on-ferry bar and treated ourselves to another pint before whiling away the trip playing card games (of both the alcoholic and - once the beer ran out - non-alcoholic persuasion).
It was wonderful seeing Josh. Although one of the best things about travelling is meeting new people, it's always refreshing to spend some time with someone with whom you already have context.
On Friday afternoon I arrived in a town in North Wales that has always played a big part in my life, despite my never having been there. Thirty-odd years ago my Mum went travelling and ended up living and working in a place called Glan Gwna (pronounced "Goona" for those of you not familiar with the Welsh fondness for consonants) just outside of Caenarfon ("Carnarvon"). My whole life I've heard stories of the time she spent there, and our house is decorated with drawings of the Black Boy pub, Caenarfon Castle and various objects bearing the symbol of the Welsh Dragon. And, of course, there were Anna and Susan. Anna had been one of mum's closest friends in Wales, and Susan is her sister.
Although mum only actually met Susan once while living in Caenarfon (at the time Susan was busy being married to the love of her life - a man who would later die in a completely tragic and unnecessary military plane crash in the Falklands and leave Susan sad for the rest of her life) they had later formed a good long-distance friendship. It was this relationship I called upon when booking my trip, and Susan was lovely enough to take me in for a weekend while I had the most incredibly surreal experience of actually visiting the places that had, until now, been the places of my imagination.
My first night in Caenarfon Susan took me out to dinner and showed me around the castle, telling me about the carriage that had plunged into the waters out the front and is said to still haunt the docklands (Britain is full of thousands of small ghost stories - I find them fascinating), before taking me for a pint at The Black Boy pub. The Black Boy was my mum's usual establishment in her heady Welsh youth, and it - much like Welsh wild-child Anna - has barely changed at all in the interim (unlike almost everything else).

I did the castle the next morning. Wow. Honestly, it's easy to be blase about castles in Britain, what with there being one in pretty much every other town. But Caenarfon castle was just breathtaking. According to the legend it was built as one of three castles demanded as a wedding present by a Welsh Princess before her marriage to a far-flung Lord. It reminded me of nothing more than the castle of Cair Paravel in the Narnia books. I lost two hours there without even realising, and had to rush out in time to go out to Mount Snowdon, just outside the town in the countryside.

I often think of Wales as the forgotten country of Britain, but it is an incredibly impressive country. The 
 country is equal parts bleak and beautiful, and it's plain to see why the Welsh are so proud of their myths and legends - when you're staring into a black water lake surrounded by towering slate walls, they're so easy to believe.

I left Wales for Scotland on Sunday afternoon, stepping aboard my train with packed lunch in hand and feeling for al the world like a character from a traditional English story on her way to boarding school. Though happily for me there was no such institution waiting for me at the other end.

I went to Glasgow first, thinking of staying there for a few days with "family" before heading off to Edinburgh to catch a day or two of the Fringe Festival. In Glasgow I stayed with my step-uncle's brother and his family (my familial connections can be described as convoluted at best), and from the first night I just kind of fell in with his nieces and their social activities. Of course I'd been mildly concerned about initial akwardness - there being some kind of expectation that we would hang out and be nice to each other OR ELSE - but it ended up being delieriously easy. They made almost nothing of the fact I was a stranger, and I spent the next five nights casually drinking. And drinking. And drinking some more. They're not lying when they say Scots drink.

If anyone was to ask me what Scotland was like I would likely give them a completely false impression. Not only did I spend most of my time seeing the country out of the bottom of a bottle, on my first day in the city I came face to face with this:

BAGPIPERS! IN KILTS! Casual Scottish. And as if that wasn't perfect enough, I then saw a poster advertising this band:

Possibly the best band name EVAR. Seriously, I almost wanted to find out when and where they were playing just so later I could drop into casual conversation anecdotes about that time I saw the Red Hot Chilli Pipers. Apparently it was only happening because there was a international piping championship that weekend. But I'd like to think these things happen all the time.

Also while I was in Glasgow I tried venison. And saw the TARDIS.

Anyway, I woke up on Friday morning and realised I had to be in Edinburgh that night to catch the overnight coach to London for work the next day (NB: NEVER. I slept for about 2 hours and had a strange man fall asleep on my shoulder. Ick). So I finally made my way across, and caught about 10 hours of the festival. Edinburgh was stuuuunning, and part of me wishes I'd gone there for longer (as planned. Ooops). But really I don't mind at all. It's so easy for me to get back up there, and the Festival will be on again next year.

And now I'm home again. And despite the rioting and my hellish 8-hour shift mere hours after dragging myself off the coach, it was good to be home. And even better when I got back from work and was greeted by the ecstatic screams of my kids, who spent the rest of the night falling all over themselves to tell me about their holiday, fighting who would sit next to me while we watched a family movie, and generally letting me know they missed me. It was a good two weeks.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Emerald Isle

So, Ireland. I woke up on Tuesday morning in time for the free breakfast, and decided I'd take advantage of the free walking tour advertised by the hostel. Which, as it turned out, was the best decision ever.

There were only two other people from my hostel who turned up for the tour, a Russian girl who lives in Germany named Natalie, and another Aussie, Adie. I always have kind of mixed feelings about meeting other Australians on my travels. I actively left a country full of them, so it seems counter-productive to start making friends with them all the way over the other side of the world. Still it's hard not to like someone who got "Hakuna matata" tattooed on their back in the red light district in Amsterdam.

The tour itself was incredible. It went for around 3.5 hours, and covered something like 11,000 years of Irish history. Plus the guy who was leading our tour group was such a good story teller that even if I didn't have a keen interest in history already the tour would still have peaked my interest.

My favourite anecdote from the tour was the story of Father Pat Noise, a priest who has a plaque dedicated to him on Dublin's main bridge. According to the story Father Pat was a fairly mysterious character, involved with gangsters and lowlifes, who's own life came to a startling end when his horse drawn carriage plunged into the river Liffey. His body, however, was never found. The plot, as they say, thickens.
Eventually a couple of people at the council offices started wondering who exactly Father Pat was. They inquired at the local churches, and found nothing, went to the Vatican, who had never heard of him, and raked through the census records without finding hide nor hair of a Father Patrick Noise. As it turns out, the reason nobody had heard of Pat Noise is because he never existed. The plaque was put up by a couple of unidentified pranksters. So the council took the plaque down, but when they did, tens of Dubliners went and tossed flowers into the river as a tribute to the memory of Father Pat, resulting in the plaque being reinstated.

After the tour Natalie, Adie and I agreed to meet up later in the evening for the hostel pub crawl. Which was hilarious. Adie and I bonded over each doing two shots of vodka and one of (awful) Irish whiskey in the space of about 30 seconds. I also tried Guinness, both on it's own and with coke. Which I know sounds disgusting, but was actually not bad at all. Apparently it's a German thing. I'm not entirely sure how many of the pubs on the itinerary I made it to, but at the second pub there was a violinist (fiddler?) and a guitarist playing traditional Irish songs, and it was just so exactly what I had imagined going out in Ireland to be like. However my participation in the crawl was cut short when I started chatting to, kissing and going home with (all in record time) an American boy I met. He's in the Navy and comes from the Valley in California, and even though I resisted the temptation to "hello sailor" him, I couldn't help but quote "Where are you, Kuwait?" "Is that in the valley?" and send myself into paroxysms of laughter because I'm SO FUNNY.

Even though hostels are generally great and interesting places, they're not really conducive to certain nocturnal activities. Luckily, his room only had one other guest. Awkwardly it was his sister. I have to admit, though, she was lovely, and after making idle chit chat for a bit she had the amazing good grace to go out for a pint. Honestly, if my brother came home late at night with some girl he'd picked up in a bar and none too honourable intentions I wouldn't want to hang about either, but I was still grateful.

This morning after finally extracting myself from my temporary bed I decided to get out of the city. Isabel had mentioned a seaside town near Dublin that she and her friends would go to when she was living here, and so I jumped on a train and spent the day sitting on the shore eating fish and chips, wandering along the cliffs and marvelling at the fact that I'm in Ireland, where there are Irish people living Irish lives and have dozens of Irish babies as per Monty Python's Meaning Of Life.

Monday, August 1, 2011

On The Road

The past five days have seemed like an age. My weekend basically started on Thursday night when my friends and I went out to The Elk to celebrate (mourn?) Tinja's leaving by consuming our collective body weight in £3 mojitos.

After struggling through both a healthy dose of post-tequila self hated and a veritable mountain of ironing on Friday I went out again, this time with a different Finnish. Happily Iina is back in London, on a permanent basis. I had thought the return of one Finnish friend would balance out the departure of the other, but on Saturday as I was walking home from my (new) second job, with 2 hours sleep under my belt and plans to spend my Saturday night consuming gin-jelly with Isabel I thought casually "we should ask Tinja to come".

I think Tinja leaving is the saddest thing to have happened to me since I've been here. I hardly knew Elena when she left, and Iina was always going to come back, but I don't actually know when (or if) I'll see Tinja again.

On Sunday I was back at work and by 5pm I was more than happy to just pack my bags and go to sleep, in anticipation of my whirlwind 12 day tour of the UK.

Which brings me to Ireland. Because this morning I got on a train, and now I'm in another country. Just saying that sentence is enough to reassure myself that nothing - not a career, not being with my friends and family, nothing - would be worth missing this. I booked a hostel ahead of time, because it seemed like the sensible and efficient thing to do. However my talents apparently do not encompass efficiency or sensibility, because I got off the ferry in Dublin with no Euros, no address, and no real idea of what I was doing.

Eventually I got into a taxi with a driver who agreed to let me pay him in pounds and told him my predicament. He told me he'd never heard of the hostel I needed, and his speedy recon mission amongst his fellow drivers proved equally fruitless. Instead he drove me to a hostel he did know of, where I dumped my stuff for the evening and went of in search for my planned hostel. And also food.

The latter was easy, and I had a lovely picnic on the banks of the river that runs through the city. The former, however, alluded me. I looked up the place on the website, marked it on the free map I'd picked up at the taxi driver's hostel, and set off. But after an hour of trekking through Dublin I was still no closer to finding my destination. In fact I was beginning to think the place didn't exist at all (a fear by no means alleviated by the constant engaged tone on their phone).

While I ate dinner, though, I figured maybe this was a fortuitous turn of events. After all, being dropped off by a friendly taxi driver into the waiting arms of an unbooked hostel room (and incredibly attractive receptionist) seemed like too perfect a situation to walk away from, So I threw caution to the wind and cancelled my initial booking, choosing instead to stay where I had been led (by FATE).

I feel this is the best possible beginning to my trip.