Saturday, October 30, 2010

Day Nineteen: Madrid without a Map

One of my greatest inspirations for travel has been E.M.Forster's Lucy Honeychurch, the heroine of a Room with a View. The book and the movie have always been a source of inspiration while travelling - ever reminding me that there are always other ways to travel. My Lucy fantasy also makes me pack a thin, white cotton nighty to wear around my hotel room, lets me let my hair blow in the wind, try everthing new and different I can get my hands on and attempt to see things in the light of truth, beauty and love, as George Emerson would have it (another character in the book - Lucy's paramour and catalyst for change).

So when things get challenging, I have to ask myself, "W.W.L.D." What would Lucy do?"

Things got a little challenging yesterday, which was to be expected. There are going to be days when things get a little strained. After a very early start and saying goodbye to JP at Schipol Airport, it was time to catch the plane to Madrid. The first realisation was that I was saying goodbye to somebody who I don't know when I'll see again. The second realisation is that I'm on my own for ten days. For the last three weeks I've had somebody to eat with, talk to, explore with - and at times, translate and explain stuff - now I'm on my own to do all this.

On arrival after then short flight, it came to my notice that Spain was going to be a slight culture shock for me. First observation. It smells good here. Second observation, everything is in Spanish. I really should have done that CAE course...

My Offspring Spanish isn't going to cut it. (Offspring Spanish, you know, uno, dos, tres, quatro, cinqo, cinqo, ses...) I've picked up all of the Spanish I know from Dora the Explorer and Sesame Street. Not a great start, but I know the fundamentals of "two beers, please", hello, goodbye, count to ten, please, thank you and excuse me. That's it. Luckily, the Spanish gestiulate a lot so the conversation is not lost. (Actually, as I speak French, I pick up far more, I just can't talk back - had the same experience in Greece)

Second realisation - I get fractious when hungry. With only a packet of crisps on the plane to fortify me for the day, I tried to navigate the Madrid Metro early afternoon. There was also 15 degree temperature difference between Amsterdam and Madrid. So hot and hungry I went to find my hotel. The Madrid Metro is great. Quick, easy and clean, though rather confusingly signposted in places. Making  my way to Placido Domingo, whoops, Santa Domingo station, Barney and I had a reasonable run.

I don't think I've mentioned Barney yet. Barney is my luggage. A very large, purple duffle bag on wheels. It is soft, cumbersome and you want to throw it off a bridge - just like the children's television character. Barney is also very heavy, something to do with me failing to pack light and having to take winter clothes. Lugging a case around the Spanish metro at most stations is fine as there are lifts in place. Santa Domingo station is one of the stations without a lift.

Next mission, find the hotel. The trip advisor website made mention that the hotel was badly signposted. After fifteen minutes of hunting around knowing I was close, I finally asked a shopkeeper who sent me two doors down. Thankfully there was a lift to get me and Barney up the stairs to my small, well decorated but thin walled room. The trip advisor website also made mention that like most Spanish hotels, expect noise - with no carpet and little insulation, expect to hear your neighbours snoring and flushing toilets. When expected, this is fine - I have earplugs and they work well. The room also has the best shower I've encountered in a two star hotel - it's glorious.

So after a shower and a lie down it was out to explore with my metro ticket in my pocket and leaving the guide book and map behind.

This place is wonderful. I've seen nothing yet, but the streets are filled with life. The wide roads, ironwork balconies, lively people, amazing buildings to be explored - this wasn't going to get done on this evening as I only left the hotel at four.

Next mission, something to eat. Madrid allegedly has some of the best food in the world, however, in my over tired and uncommunicative state, the fear set in. What do I want to eat? Where do I want to go? I'm a single woman - where should I go that's good where I wont get stared at?

Another thing about the Spanish. They seem to have their main meal at lunch and only graze for breakfast. Dinner is rarely had before 9 pm. After walking about for an hour I settled on this cafe in a tree filled square. I sat down, ordered a beer, scanned the menu - only to be told, "No Patatas Bravas. Only this side of the menu." Bastard. After a bit of chorizo, I paid the bill and walked on.

Madrid without a map was lovely. I had a great walk around the streets, noticing how things change so quickly from one street to the next. How enclaves of grocers and supermarkets and electrical shops make way for boutiques and banks just around the corner. It's a picturesque place, with the the leaves just turning and the heat taken out of the cobblestones - it must be like an oven in summer. I can't wait to see more today.

Then, as would happen to Lucy, it started to rain. The plan was to find a metro to get me back to the hotel. With no map on me, this proved to take longer than expected, wandering the streets at twilight, leaves being blown about, no umbrella, getting more soaked by the minute, on top of the tired and hungry strop. 45 minutes later a metro station was found. I'd walked farther than I thought, further north and west than the regular tourist traps take you.

After a stop at the corner shop for more fortification, I went back to the hotel for a much needed early night. I think Lucy would do this - fortify yourself with sleep before a busy day of taking in a new place. Now, the next morning, I'm feeling wonderful. The earplugs worked well and the decent night's sleep has made all better again.

I'll start exploring properly today. Firstly, I'm meeting up with Georgie, a friend from book group and her fiance, Thom. They've been on the road for three months and they've stopped by Madrid on their way to Granada. Can't wait to see them, hear about their adventures (and hopefully get a few tips on getting round this fascinating place).

I also can't wait to get into Spain properly. It's fascinated me for years. I've allegedly got some throwback Spanish genes if my hair, eyes and temperament are anything to go by.

Besides, it smells good here. What more do you need?


Friday, October 29, 2010

Days Sixteen, Seventeen and Eighteen: Two Amsterdams and a Bonus

I'm saying a sad farewell to the Netherlands tomorrow morning. I really wish I could stay longer - there is so much more I want to see and do.

But on to Amsterdam.

The city you see with friends is not the city you will see for yourself. My two days in Amsterdam are testament to this. Both days were wonderful, just completely different in what got done, what was seen and how I perceived the city - which is to be expected. I've got two completely different views of Amsterdam now and I know that when I return I'll see the town through fresh eyes once again. (and there will be a when - I'm going to make sure of it - love it here)

What can I say about this near mythical  place. It's as gorgeous as everybody says it is. It felt to me like a solid mix of London shopping and Paris chic with the canals thrown in for good measure. True Amsterdammers will cuss me for saying this, and yes, the city does have its own very unique vibe, but like most European cities, many of the shops are the similar, the sale signs are similar, the outdoor restaurants are similar. Also, only having two days in there, I know I need to see and do more. I'd also love to see Amsterdam when it's not pissing down. Allegedly the next time that is supposed to occur is next May.

There were three things on my list of to do's in Amsterdam. The Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Gallery and Anne Frank's House. I know that there are so many other things to see and do but these were my top three, and given the limited time, choices had to be made. The first two were there to satisfy my need to go into as many world class art galleries and musums in the world. The third is a of a special interest to me - the spirit shown by this girl and her family is phenomenal  - I can't say more than that.

Tuesday, JP, Sascha, Anneka and myself made our way into the city. Both JP and Sascha are better versed with Rotterdam and Utrecht, so we were all tourists together. First thing we did was make our way to Anne Frank's House. The queue was around the building  - at least a two hour wait. The way I see it - queuing when you have little time is pointless, so it was put on the list for the following day. So we spent the day looking around, wandering in and out of shops, taking in the streets and lanes, pondering the smell of weed. We found lots of high end shops and lots of manky tourist shops and coffee shops. The day was finished with dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe - something I've never done, so I can knock that off the bucket list - it's Anneka's favorite which made it special.

By the end of the day, we returned, walked off our feet, tired and ready for bed. And I got plotting my return the following day. Tickets were bought to two of the museums. Anne Frank's House will have to wait - all of the tickets for online booking were sold. Thinking about it, it may have been a good thing - I got teary just walking past the place that day - best saved for next time.

Having the luxury of wandering these galleries was amazing. Doing it on my own time, fantastic - I'm not boring anybody else and I can stay looking at things I like for as long as I want. The fact that the Rijksmuseum only has the best of it's collection on show due to extensive renovations was disappointing, but they have some amazing things to show. One of the things that hit me that was among the sedate portaits of burghurs and snow scenes was a really gruesome scene depicting the lynching of the de Witt brothers. And here I was thinking that the Netherlands had a more peaceful history. Wrong. The other minor gripes with the museum is that the place is badly signposted in both Dutch and English - people who already had a ticket were expected to jump a long queue rather than have a separate entrance much to the ire of the waiting crowd. Also, because the whole place is under reconstruction, it felt very, very crowded in there - not ideal.

This was followed by a short walk in the rain down to the Van Gogh Museum - also excellent, better organised, a bit less crowded and brilliantly curated - loved every minute of it. The special exhibition in the underground wing was great too.

I tried to explain this to Sascha - there is something about being in these great galleries - something we don't really get to see in Australia. The history and the tradition is all fascinating - the beauty contained in these galleries, paintings and objects we rarely see at home - it just has to be done. I didn't tell her about how I had to catch my breath when stumbling over a Rodin bronze (another favorite) or how just being in the presence of Pisarros and Degas, along with much of Van Gogh's work - in chronological order - just makes my soul sing - that's what art is supposed to do, in part?

My inner arty fart was released - Pandora was a happy girl, even in spite of the unrelenting heavy drizzle.

The evening saw me make my way back to Utrecht to visit the Grounded Dutchman's best mate and his wife. They're a great couple - they've known GD for a lot longer than me, but we seem to get the same things out of him. Bless. After a solid pickling with red wine, I scurried back to Almere - tail between my legs, feeling like a teenager trying to slip back in later(it was only 11 pm and JP is two years older than me - still felt like I broke curfew and I was going to get in trouble with Dad).

As today way my last full day in the Netherlands (not Holland - Holland is only a part of the Netherlands - and we can't let people from Limburgh feel left out, can we Merijn...) I went for a drive with the family to Den Haag - or The Hague as it's known to English speakers. I asked what was there, other than JP's new company car. Oh this and that. We'll visit Scheveningen said JP, it will be fun.

I can't even say Scheveningen. After four days here, I'm getting my ear and eye around the language. It feels like a funny mix of English and German, which will get you lynched for saying, but it is true. If you listen hard, there are a lot of common words in all languages. Written down, with a bit of nouse and removing the a couple of extra Vs, Js and Is you can sort of make out what is going on, kind of. Just trying to pronounce anything is next to impossible. The G sound comes like a gargle from the back of your throat - a bit like cattahr or a death rattle. UI makes an 'ow' sound, like cow or brown. And the J stuck after a vowel lengthens it - well that is what it feels like.

So after collecting JP's new Skoda wagon, we made our way to the beach. On the North Sea. Kewl! Actually, it's gorgeous. Sandy beaches, dunes, cut against the overcast sky, wind whipping your hair - magic.
We had a good look around this Dutch seaside town - like Brighton without the rocky beach, Rosebud without the bogans, Victor Harbor without the footy tours - and with pancake houses. It was a great morning larking around.

Just after lunch I was deposited in the centre of Den Haag, some ten minutes away. I had a motive. After all that art the day before, I set myself a small pilgrimage. If I was here, I may as well see if I could trace THE painting. One of my very favourites. The Girl with the Pearl Earring, by Johannes Vermeer.

So passing this monstrosity on the way to the Mauritshuis Museum if was feeling a bit underwhelmed:

Ten minutes later I was dropped off and my afternoon of guilty pleasures started.

For art lovers, this is THE gallery to get to. The Holbeins, Rembrandts, Rubens... all in a gorgeously small space, without the crowds.Magic. I spend a good two hours communcing with some of my favorite paintings. And the Girl with the Pearl Earring is even more breathtaking as it is in reproduction. Just amazing. Vermeer is a genius.

The rest of the afternoon took in the Haag Museum, which was small, badly run, badly organised and a little shocking. In room two, where they had a rogues gallery of Who's Who from The Hague. There in a corner was a portrait of Johan de Witt - the guy I was telling you about from the Rijksmuseum. Beneath it, in a glass case, was his tongue and toe, saved from the brutal lynching. I left soon after that - just a bit gruesome for a Thursday afternoon.

I took the slow train back to Almere after wandering the gorgeous medieval streets. Have a look:

It felt like I was in a painting.

The slow train let me take in the countryside which I still think is incredibly beautiful despite the low cloud.

And early tomorrow I leave for Spain. There's a lot of mixed feelings. I so want to explore this magical country some more. I'd love to come and stay for a few months and get into the language. I'd like to get to know more of these incredibly generous and fun people. And I don't realy want to say goodbye to JP, Sascha and Anneka - they've been a part of  my life for three years and I don't know when I'll see them again.

It's been a fantastic time here.

The only thing I'd change here is the poky, steep staircases everybody seems to have - but that is my problem and nobody elses.

Til soon,


Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Halfway Through

I woke early this morning to the realisation that I'm halfway through my trip - and I got all morose. I'm not that fond of reality at the moment. I'm having a perfectly lovely time living the life of Reilly, seeing new things, going new places, enjoying new things to eat and drink (Mexicanos excepted) and generally enjoying being on holiday.

The thing I'm desperately not trying to think about is going back to work with the knowledge that I have to find a new job in the imminent future - though in my book of goals I have written a long list of things I want in a new job, including a great salary, coming within a month to six weeks of being made redundant, long term contract, great people, CBD bases, generally 9-5 with some flexibilty to work from home, varied role, possibility of some people management down the track - that sort of stuff, just putting it out to the universe what I want from a job, and with any luck, and a bit of leg work, the universe will provide.

I'm also trying to make sure I write down my goals as often as possible, to start thinking about what it is I really want for my life when I get back. It's an exercise that we were taught on a soft skills course a few years ago - write down what it is you want out of life, write them down daily. I will help to focus your mind on what it is you want and it will let your unconscious brain work out how to get it. Concentrate on the "what", the "whos, wheres, whys and hows" can follow later.

It turns out there's a common list of six on my list - to be under a certain weight, to run a marathon, to buy a two bedroom appartment inner city, to get married to a loving, kind, solvent man, to write a novel and to be financially secure are all on there daily basis. There are a few others that come into it to - like owning a cat, travelling out of Australia every year, having a child. Things that would be nice, but we will see - the other things I have to work on. More food for thought.

I've not had a trace of homesickness since I've been away. There are a few things that would be nice to have, but there's no yearning to go home. It's a pity that you can't take your own bed on holiday - not that any of my friend's spare beds have been uncomfortable, but I love my bed.

The routine of the gym is something I'm looking forward to getting back, going for regular runs with Kit and M (which reminds me - must ask K if she wants to train up for the Puffing Billy Run) I've been out of the really heavy exercise routine for a few months and I miss the feeling of hard muscles - though all the walking I'm doing is making up for some of this. Still, it will be nice when I can bounce coins on my bum and to be able to run  five kilometres in under thirty minutes once again. At least this holiday has given my body a chance to heal completely from the operation.

Though I'm not missing Dream Group, I'm missing the people. I've heard it from three people that nobody sat in my spot at meditation - which I find sorta cute. I haven't been dreaming which is fine too. They will come when they need to, probably best as I don't have the forum there to discuss them.

The oddest thing I'm missing is telling the Grounded Dutchman stuff. I just can't pick up the phone and tell him crap. He's the person I tell crap to, whether it be I saw a balloon going up into the clouds, or you can get stropwafels at a certain shop to look at this silly thing, here's a photo.

And the data roaming is turned off on my phone. Probably a very good thing, but I miss not being able to check things out online immediately from my phone. Just have to be thankful that this has occured as my phone bill would be astronomical - rather than the just plain stupid that it  normally is.

However, it's onward and upward for now. Back to Amsterdam for the day to visit the museums (will blog about this in detail later -  I was there yesterday) then back to Utrecht to meet up with the Grounded Dutchman's best mate and his wife.

I've got the joys of Spain to ponder - Madrid's been made more appealing as I'll be meeting a friend from home and her fiance while I'm there. There is the joys of the Alhambra and Seville to look forward to, seeing old friends in London, the glory of Bath.

Only then can I start to ponder reality.

Right, time to get up. The man with the pile driver, knocking in posts is worse than the guy with the leaf blower at home. This is my signal to get my butt out of bed, shower and go find out what the Van Gogh and Rijksmuseums are all about.

Til later,


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Days Thirteen, Fourteen, Fifteen: The Bad and the Beautiful

There are some absolutely wonderful things about travel. There are also some things that you would rather forget about. As I sit here writing this from my friend's living room I'm taking in the best of travel. Jan Pieter has has back to the open fire, Sascha has their ancient cat on her lap and Anneka, their daughter is playing with my iPod touch - a rare treat for a twelve-year-old who spends her days calculating how much pocket money it will take to buy one (seven months of hard labour it seems). Life is lovely here. The house has the feel of an upper class Ikea catelogue, but it feels very much like home.

I am now in Holland, away from the tortures and temptations of the United States. After a twenty four hour journey, consisting of a three hour shuttle bus ride to JFK, a four hour wait at the airport where I had to endure every crying baby apparently wailing for dear life (most appeared to be waiting for a flight to Uzbekistan, so I suppose you can't blame them), a seven hour flight to Frankfurt (which went quickly) and a six hour, three train ride to Almere in Holland, here I sit, netbook on my lap, wondering how it is that I have come into contact with such wonderful people in this fantastic country. I'm a really lucky girl.

After disgracing myself badly by falling asleep on the couch, snoring last night, I was sent to bed. After eleven hours of unbroken sleep later, life is good. Jan Pieter has the week off work, Anneka is on school holidays and Sascha doesn't work during the week, so I have travelling companions for the week. Sweet!

There is nothing better than being able to see a country through the eyes of a local and Holland, with its inpenetrable language, sort of needs a local to decipher the gutteral sounds and strange spellings used around here. Also, if you want to see the best of the place, like any country, having local knowledge is better than any guide book.

The first thing I have to say about Holland - it has to be the most beautiful country I have ever seen. More quaint than England, which I did not think possible, more symmetrically picturesque. The poplars that line the roads are equal distant apart. There is a lot of water in the form of canals and lakes. The only thing missing is hills. There aren't any. Diddly squat hills in fact. You're lucky to find a crest in the road - however this makes it the perfect place to cycle - and this is something everybody does.

At Almere Centrum railway station the bike park is bigger than the car park. The other thing about the bikes, unlike Australia where everybody is on racers or mountain bikes, most people ride these upright things - which are really technical with gears, shockers,brakes and lights, but the men don't find it emasculating to sit up and ride a bike looking like they don't have a care in the world - everybody else sits like that, and if you ask me it looks a hell of a lot more comfortable than hunching over a mountain bike. Also, nobody, and I mean nobody, wears a bike helmet. (Grumble, grumble, nanny state Australia, grumble, grumble, oh yeah, they have real designated bike lanes and bikes have right of way half the time)

The second thing about Holland that I've noticed - the people seem pretty relaxed. This is just an observation, but people here seem really cool and unstressed about stuff. Okay, I've worked enough with Dutchmen to know that they do get stressed, but the people in the street don't seem all worked up - they just appear to be nice, happy normal - and rather tall people. As a race, they are known as one of the tallest in the world - so I feel rather short.

Today we did a bit of touring around Flevoland and Utrecht. Flevoland wasn't here forty years ago - it was an inland sea until they drained it and built houses on it. Located about five metres below sea level you sort of get why there are no hills here. All the houses are very new, the roads are immaculate and the facilities are great. Many Dutch people dismiss the place as boring (the Grounded Dutchman being one of tis most vocal critics) but its a place with cheap housing for young families. Also, more cultural centres are only half an hour away by train.

The first stop we made was to a windmill. You're in Holland, you have to see a windmill (and being a daft Australian, you hum that song about the little mouse with clogs on, oh I declare...) JP and Sascha took me the scenic route through the towns of Huizen and Blerican until we reached this wonderful site.
Going inside, the miller gve us a tour of the insides of the place. The tour was given in Dutch, so it all sounded like "Hurdy gurdy, hurdy, gurdy, gargle spit,"but JP and Sascha gave me the English translation. This mill used to pump water. It was moved to this location in the 1700s. The thatching has always beed there. The mill stones weight 900 kgs each and it still mills grain today. All of this was done to the whoosh of the windmill's sails. A great afternoon was had - and I have the feeling that JP would love to work in the place - the old mechanicals are just up his alley.

The next stop of the day was the city of Utrecht, possibly one of the prettiest cities in Holland. The Grounded Dutchman is always going on about how lovely it is - and he is so very right.

We wandered the streets for a bit before settling down for some Dutch "culinary delights." Well, I think that's what you call them. First up, bitteballe at a pub. The man with his deep fat fryer had gave us these balls of fried stuff - chicken nuggets, meat balls, cheese sticks, nasi goreng balls, all deep fried with some Dutch curry sauce. Actually really great as a snack.

Then after a bit more walking, checking out a few shops, including this cooking shop where I found this:
And not only could you get two grooms - here were also cake decorations with two brides - gay marriage is recognised over here. JP also showed me where the "coffee shop"was - with a big sign out front saying no under 18s. Maybe when we go to Amsterdam tomorrow.

Next stop dinner. This was taken at a wonderful establishment which had the following display of "food':

The man with his deep fat fryer got to work once again - seems if yuo have a deep fat fryer you are God. Yum. Hmmmm. Okay, Grounded Dutchman has been raving about these Mexicanos things for ages. "They're just yummy". After having a Mexicanos I think that there are two possibilities - either GD has had his tastebuds decimated by his mother's cooking over the years, or he has a very warped sense of humour. We also had patats, or chips, with satay sauce mixed with mayo and raw onion, washed down with a coke. Joy. The only reason the Dutch remain slender is because they ride bikes everywhere. It's not an experience I want to repeat - the acid reflux is still getting to me. And just because it's drowned in curry or satay sauce doesn't mean it's edible - it just might seem edible.

The last stop before home was to the afwerkpleken along the canals near the centre of the city. JP said I was in for a treat. On barges along the canal were these large windows, in which sat women in various states of undress, of every size and colour imaginable.

An afwerkplek is a place a hooker takes her john.

Okay, I'd heard about these, but never seen them. Prostitution is legal here - something I really don't think is a bad thing at all any culture. What I found rather creepy was not that these red lighted, red curtained chambers were right by the side of the road but the road had turning circles at each end. It was the large amount of traffic here, even at this late part of the afternoon, with men, quite openly going up to the doors and going in - I've lived a few houses away from a brothel for years - I've only ever seen anybody go in there once. The cars in the street varied from old bangers to high end luxury vehicles - more than a few Lexuses and Mercedes. Many of the women seems jaded and sad, with no substance to their smiles. The foot long dildoes and other recreational rubber products adorning the window sills were a bit frightening. By and large the beds that were in full view were made, the rooms clean. Occasionally you'd see a sign advertising S&M or bondage.

JP said that the place was near a large postal sorting complex and at shift change time you'd see the street lined with posty vans. That must be a sight.

All of this is a part of the experience - not something I would ever see in  my travels on an ordinary day.

I'm looking forward to seeing what Amsterdam will bring tomorrow.


Saturday, October 23, 2010

Days Nine, Ten, Eleven and Twelve: The Hounds of the Baskervilles

I write this while I sit on the couch at my aunt and uncle's place in the Neshaminy Valley. To my left is snuggled a Rottweiler/German Shepherd cross, to my right, is an American Pit Bull Terrier. The Rottie Cross is snoring gently. The Pit Bull's muscles are twitching as he sleeps - obviously chasing rabbits. Despite initial appearances, these two animals are some of the gentlest creatures I've ever met. They're really sweet - just like pretty much everybody else I've met over the last ten days.

I am with family here in Philadelphia and I've been enjoying myself immensely. I've struggled internally with staying here for the longest time as I really don't have that much contact with blood relations, but this has been a really positive experience. A lot of healing is taking place and this is a good thing. It's not that I've done that much, but it's been really cool to hang out with my Aunt and Uncle, their kids and grandkids and of course, these snoring beasts.

On Tuesday afternoon I bade farewell to Reindert and Corazon. This was a sad event on which I'm trying not to dwell - they're great people to have in your life and as we're not sure when we'll see each other again the sadness of parting is only dulled by the great memories of the stay in Boston. Part of me is thinking of training for the New York Marathon next year - I have enough airmiles to come back... well it's a thought. Reindert dropped me at Logan Airport and down I flew to Philly where my uncle picked me up.

What can I say about my dear old uncle? For starters, as a child he was alway my favorite relation - as my Dad's younger brother he's only sixteen years older than me. He's always been the cool uncle too - he flies jets around the country transporting the rich and famous around the place (He says he loves Goldie Hawn and Kirk Douglas - and Warren Buffett is a good bloke - my six degrees of separation cred has just gone through the roof!) I have fond memories if him taking me to the zoo when I was about five. He was the uncle that went off to the army and flew planes. It's all very exciting when you're a kid. I look at him now and he hasn't changed - only my perception of him is no longer hero worship - now he's just a great big daggy Australian bloke in possession of an American passport.

My uncle is also undisputely a member of my family in spite of him turning traitor and becoming a Yank. We share many of the same genes, traits and foibles. Ice cream is seen as the sixth food group. You can't walk past a bakery without buying something. There is this annoying energy about him that would get on your nerves if he wan't so affable. It's all freakishly familiar to me. He's a successful, driven version of my father.

My aunt is a calming influence on his ragtag energy. She's a counsellor at the local high school working with pregnant teenagers. Challenging and rewarding work. She has boundless compassion - almost as deep as her love of baseball - a game of which I'm rather unfamiliar but gaining a growing understanding. I think it's  bit like cricket - just the innings have been designed for the American attention span.

I really haven't been doing that much in the last few days. My uncle and I went into Philadelphia city on the second day I was here and had a look around the city. First stop was the Mutter Museum. Pronounced Mooooter (or Moeter if you're Dutch) it's a fascinating place holding all sorts of strange medical antiquities. They have this huge skull collection along with all sorts of medical strange stuff - pickled babies, bits of bowel the size of bolster cushions, brittle bones, iron lungs, ancient speuclums used for gynaecological exams. ( My uncle and I were equally fascinated - just up both of our alleys - and we spent a few hours taking in the syphillitic skulls, cojoined twins foetuses and other rather ghoulish displays. We also went to have a look at the Liberty Bell (which is still broken) and Philadelphia Hall - but after looking around and trying to find the ticket office, we gave up to go and find some granite for the kitchen backslpash.

Philly's very different to New York and Boston. There's definitely a rougher feel to the place. Like Boston and New York, the downtown areas change from street to street, some feel far more affluent than others.We also went to a southside area to check out more tiles for the kitchen. I chose to go with my uncle rather than sit in the car - it felt decidedly dodgy.
One highlight of the Philly visit has to be the visit to Franklin Mills Mall. I was dropped off at this gargantuan place at ten thirty. I was warned, but I've never seen anything like it. A mile of mall! 1600 metres of shopping heaven. The poor clerk at The Athlete's Foot got me at my worst. $90 Asics Kayanos - like I pay over $250 for them at home. I nearly hugged him. Not too much money and a lot of purchases later, I was collected and returned home - exhausted. $90 Kayanos - that's like heaven! All my purchases have been posted home so that I don't have to drag them around with me - mega bonus. Besides, my bag is already on the heavy side and I'm not really wanting to pay excess baggage on my flights through Europe.

The other highlight of my Philly stay was going to watch my cousin's son play football. Scottie (pronounced Scaaatie) is nearly seven. He's in the pee wee league. There were all these six, seven and eight-year-olds, padded and helmetted up to the max, running around the the field yelling "hup!". There were also mini cheerleaders strutting their stuff on the sidelines. It was a freezing night. The little kids were having a ball. It gave me a chance to get to know my cousin, Scott (pronounced Scaaat) who also explained the rules of this baffling game. Think I'll stick with Aussie Rules and Rugby - they make far more sense - but it was still a great evening. I just wish I'd taken my camera. The little kids in their gear were SOOOOOO cute.

The best thing about this time in Philadelphia has been reaquainting with the family. For people that I only see once every handful of years if I'm lucky, they've made me feel really welcome and the reconnecting has been great - I just hope they feel the same way.We are very different in many ways and have somewhat opposing beliefs, but that doesn't really matter. They're my kin - and lovely kin at that. It makes me sad that they don't live closer.

Tomorrow I make the long journey over to Holland. A three hour drive to JFK airport, an eight hour flight to Frankfurt, then ICE train to Amsterdam, before making my way to a place called Almere in Flevoland where Jan Pieter, Sara and Anneka will be having me for a few days (before I got to Spain)

There will be none of the things I have grown to like over the last ten days there - it will be completely different. And there will be no Hounds of the Baskervilles to cuddle up to for one.

Of the things I have grown to like here:

1. Squirrels
2. Maple Syrup (abundant here - not so at home - and in all sorts of grades)
3. Good service
4. Earnestness
5. (caught up on a lot of television)
6. Hot pretzels with cinnamon sugar (blame my uncle for that one)
7. The organic movement - so much cheaper than home
8. American prices - AMAZING
9. Spiced breakfast cereal
10. The willingness to celebrate stuff - which appears to my sensabilities that they would celebrate the opening of an envelope, but I like their willingness to do this - we should take this to heart. Celebrating is a good thing to do - we Australians don't do it enough - or maybe that's just me.

I'm leaving here with the knowledge for as much as I generally berate America, it really is a good place. Yes, they appear to be loud - (oh heavens my family is loud - they make me feel very quiet - and I do feel softly spoken in public) and okay, I don't agree with everything their government does or says, but I come away from here rather sad. I know I've only scratched the surface and I'd love to see and do more.


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Day Seven and Eight: Oh, Boston, my Boston

Will write more substantially in the next day, but some shots of this marvellous place - just to show you why I like it here.

It's just really lovely here.

More later.

Pand xx

Monday, October 18, 2010

Days Four, Five and Six: New England Dreaming

I'm currently living in a movie set.

When I think of America, I tend to think of some of my favourite films, most of which are set in New England. Mystic River, The Witches of Eastwick, Good Will Hunting to name a few, are all set in Boston. So here I am, in Boston, wandering familiar streets and scenes and feeling strangely at home.

Most of this is down to the wonderful hospitality of Reindert and Corazon. For regular readers of this blog, you will be aware that Reindert is an old friend from work who somehow got me into running. He's a bit mad, he's Dutch and he's possibly one of the most generous and kind people I know. His wife, Corazon, is of Mexican descent and is currently doing her PhD here at Harvard. Being around these two is like being around good family - the kind you love spending time with - and I don't know how I will be able to thank them for having me - because I don't know if I could show them such a good time in Melbourne.

Reindert and Corazon live just outside of the Harvard university campus in the City of Cambridge, which is really an inner suburb of Boston. The streets are lined with trees that give a dappled light to the wooden houses, most of which are two or three storeys high and made of wood. There is a bit of an austere air to the suburb which backs on to the university where Corazon has her lab. It's all very surreal to me - Harvard, a place I've been hearing about in books and films since I was a child is now here at my doorstep. It's all very exciting.

Boston has been a bit of a revelation. My Australian sensibilities are often baraged by what is perceived to be American, but this place is incredibly normal. The people here are lovely - okay, the natives are very friendly is what I'm trying to say. People are earnest, open, greet you with a smile and appear genuine when they bid you, "Have a nice day." American service is still something I'm getting used to - if we were to receive it at home we'd be asking what drugs the server was on. It's all a part of the culture - this is what America is about.

So far, Boston has shown me a far more genteel part of the country. The scenery is STUNNING. No other word for it. Being autumn, the leaves are falling, coming in every colour from bright yellow, through to burnt umber to a Botticelli russet and everything in between. I took the following shot on a trail run (well, fast walk) through the Middle Essex Fells National Park this morning. Reindert went for his normal psycho run round the park, I went out for an hour and nearly expired at the beauty.

Being leaf falling season, it also means that it's Halloween. Another strange concept for an Australian. Like why would you want to place a whopping great pumpkin on your doorstep for a few weeks. And why does it have to be an orange pumpkin? Why can't it be a Tasmanian Blue or a butternut? And surely it's a waste of food.... It's strange.

Reindert and I took a trip out to Salem, the location of the famous Witch Trials in 1692. That was a bit of an odd one.

If it's one thing the Americans have perfected, it's consumerism. $20 to park the car to wander this picturesque town. Being Halloween, the place was stupidly packed. There were ghosts and witches and skeletons and pumpkins as far as the eye could see. There were also lots of kooks, freaks and weirdos about the place. We went to a psychic fair - just my cup of tea you might think, but really, it all felt a bit jaded. We tried to get into the Salem Witch Museum but the queue went around the block and the three hour wait wasn't on either of our agendas. We ended up watching a recreation of the pre trial of Bridget Bishop, which was okay, followed by a leisurely stroll around the Peabody Essex Museum which suited both of us just fine. Also found a brillant set of tarot cards that are very Tim Burtonesque - quite taken with them.

After Salem, Reindert and I, on the way home stopped at this place called the Stop and Shop where we picked up three small, live lobsters for dinner. These were summarily cooked in boiling water and served with horseradish mashed potatoes and fried garlic green beans when we got home. Brillant they were, though I have been berated for not being able to throw my own lobster in the pot. Seems I have to let somebody else do my bidding and kill my food for me - though I am quite happy to eat it. And I was also berated for not naming my lobster. Hmm. Naming your food - haven't done that since my childhood when we had pet lambs called Breakfast and Chops.

It's a strange place this America. There is so much here, so many things to see and do - and Salem gave the best and the worst of tourism. Plenty of tat and tactlessness, but also a reverence to the history.

Revering the dead and their history is something the Yanks do very, very well. There are monuments to all sorts of people, everywhere. It doesn't end.

A few other discoveries:

The money is boring. Seriously. You have to look at what you're presenting to the check out person - it all looks the same. And the coins are strange. The ten cent piece (dime) is smaller than the five cent piece(nickel) and then there is the 25 cent piece or quarter. All a bit foreign to me - especially when they still have a one cent piece or penny. We got rid of the one cent piece years ago.

They use middle names a lot here, but only on official things.

The service is exceptional most of the time.

You can't escape the history lessons around here - it's like it's indoctrinated from the time you're born.

Everybody has a photo face. Watch people having their photo taken and they will put on a face. Reindert says that this is my over-reaction to my camera allergy, but it's quite funny.

Things are bloody cheap around there. The runners I normally wear are $270 at home. $130 here - I nearly fell over. Food is plentiful and good - when you get away from the street food, which appears to be pretty crap. Full stop. People who live on street food here probably have the inability to poo.

It cost to go to art galleries and museums. This really got to me - in Australia, the major art galleries and museums are often free to enter. Here, a twenty dollar entry fee is pretty normal, which I find rather sad as there is so much for everybody in these places and they should be there for everybody, whether they can afford it or not.

Oh, and most surprisingly of all - it appears that here, in this land of the loud and the brash - I come across as quietly spoken. People can't hear me. I seem to be about thirty decibels quieter than most of the folks around here. This is truly a revelation. Me - soft spoken. Geez.

Right, off to dinner. I have another day and a half in this lovely city with lovely friends before taking off to sunny Philadelphia.

Til soon,


Thursday, October 14, 2010

Days Two and Three: The Spoils of Singapore

I'm writing this from my very large, very comfortable bed in my very small New York hotel room on 26th Street. I'm exhausted, but happy.

It's been a rather strange forty eight hours, involving the head spin that is Singapore, the torments of travelling with a low level dose of food poisoning and finally, ending up in a city I haven't been to for eleven years and feeling quite okay about the lot of this.

Travel is about experience. Not all of it is going to be good experience. Sitting on a plane for twenty hours thinking that you're going to either pass out or throw up in equal waves, on top of stomach cramps, while having every drop of moisture is leeched from your skin, all the time surround by a hofbrauhaus of German Tourists- really isn't up there in my best moments. (What is the collective noun for German tourists?)

But enough of that. Singapore. A superheated Disneyland for dysfunctional adults with too much money? A place designed by Michael Jackson, only with more rules and lots of coffee houses? Stepford for those without a wife but the need to have everything controlled. It's not that I didn't like Singapore, it's just far too regimented, sterile and conformist for my liking.

The things I will remember most about Singapore, other than Evaline's monumental generosity, is its sterility. It's like a rich, petulant, precocious Malaysia with none of the soul. Leaves wouldn't dare fall from the trees in case somebody in the goverment would get mad.  Don't get me wrong, the manicured streets, even pavements, regimented distance between trees etc, etc are very calming the my Western sensibilities - but I do prefer the ramshackle side to Malaysia, some ten kilometres away as the crow flies. I like the open drains and pot holes, shaky electricity, blue and white uniformed school kids scurrying about, skinny cats and the personality of the place. Singapore has been planned and developed. JB just sprouted.

From our hotel on the Orchard Road we walked into a bevvy of exclusive shops filled with luxury goods and expensive clothing. Sure, it's lovely to look at but where is the fun in the place. We did a river cruise at night and saw the sights all lit up for our enjoyment. Sure, it's really pretty but you have to seek out the substance. Evaline and I made our way to the Malay Quarter and Little India to see a more real side to this tiny island. Highlight of the trip to Singapore was a visit to the Hindu Temple in Little India, a richly carved building silled with devotees. The camera stayed in my bag out of respect, but I wish I could have taken some shots of the ornate carving inside. People streamed in and out of the building, prostrating themselves, kissing statues, leaving alms for deities... it was a fascinating human parade, all supported by years of prayer.

Maybe it's the colonial vibe that doesn't sit that well with me - I am an Adelaide girl after all. There is the hankering to go back and stay at Raffles next time. We had breakfast at the kopitiam or coffee shop at Raffles, but next time I want the full silver service affair. There is something completely over the top about this piece of history - home to the Singapore Sling and a dead tiger under the pool table in 1902. Made a promise to Evaline that next time I'm in town we stay here... better get that kids book off the ground.

Some of the gloss of Singapore was taken out mid afternoon on my last day there when the food posioning got me. I went from my normal rosy shade to a fetching grey-green. Aware something was up Evaline took me to the airport early, where I made a mad dash to the bathrooms. On checking in my bags and bidding Evaline goodbye I checked into the transit hotel for a few hours of rest and unfortunately more vomiting. I made my flight with the nausea abating, freshly showered but feeling totally wretched. Thankfully I was freshly showered - I think spending 24 hours on a plane smelling like upchuck would have made me suicidal.

It wasn't a pleasant trip in the slightest, but the cabin crew were helpful, plying me with icy cold towels and dry ginger ale. No sleep was had and by the time I got to Frankfurt the cramps were abating. The second leg was a bit better, though my sense of humour was out the window - it took every fibre of by being not to deck the creepy, fat German tourist who was taking sneaky photos of the female cabin crew EVERY time they passed by. That was just eww.

All is pretty much back to normal now. My appetite is back, the cramps, nausea and generally crappiness has gone, though my skin will take a few more days of intensive moisturising to get the plane air out of my skin. Even managed to eat something decent. Found that New York has Pret a Manger - a favorite haunt in London - on the streets of Sixth Avenue. I took a four hour walk after a three hour nap - it seems to have made everything better. Looking out over New York at night from the Rockefeller Centre is very cool too.
Right, I best off to bed. More about this strange and foreign land next blog. For all of the amazing sights, sounds and smells of Asia, this America place really is quite foreign.

Night, night.


Monday, October 11, 2010

Day One: Jahor Bahru

The man in the minaret has done his job. At 5.36 am, the cry goes out to the faithful and the five minutes of rhythmic, doleful sung prayer commences. In my hotel room there is a subtle arrow on the ceiling pointing towards Mecca. Melbourne time its three hours later so by rights I should be walking to work, so there is no drama in this.

But as this is downtown Jahor Bahru, the man in the minaret will be singing five times a day, and as Evaline has explained, after a while you don’t really notice it. Christians, Muslims and Hindus all go about their business mindful of each other’s beliefs but also giving them room to get on with things. Evaline, Chee and their children live in a Muslim area of JB, but she was telling me of how they had a ground breaking for their new church a few kilometres away, her husband, Chee, an architect, is designing the place.

No drama, no council refusals, they just get on with it peacefully and quietly.

I’m rather enamoured with this place. I love that there are four new stamps in my passport. The nice lady in immigration at Melbourne let me have an exit stamp. You only get one if you ask nicely these days. Then one for coming into Singapore, one for leaving Singapore received before heading onto the bridge that spans the Strait of Jahor, then one as we hit the Malaysian mainland. There will be two more stamps in it as Evaline and I make our way back to Singapore this evening.

The last time I was in Malaysia was nineteen years ago, which I related in my last blog. Maybe I’ve grown up and travelled the world and also, Malaysia sees so many more tourists now, but there is no more the sense of being a pimple on a pumpkin. No stares, no car horns, tourists are regulars around here. Like everybody else here, you’re allowed to get on with your business.

Evaline has changed little in this time. She’s still has the most amazing smile from within – something I’m so pleased she hasn’t lost.

After a day on the plane and the short trip back to JB, we had dinner at a local Hawkers Market – amazing food – satays tender and sweet that melt in your mouth, fried oysters, which is a mix of egg and oyster – divine, the eponymous Hokkien Mee, barbecued pork dumplings and some sugar cane juice to wash it all down with. Evaline and Chee come here once a week with the children for dinner. There is no real decor to speak of, plastic stools, formica card tables, plastic plates and chop sticks. None of that matters, the food is honest and good and the eating communal.

Evaline explains that this is what her life, and her family’s life is about. Communal living, sharing, family. They like being together, talking with each other, caring for each other, it’s what families over here do.

Certainly given me a lot to think about.

We had a look around town. That everything is written in Malay, Chinese and English, though often flawed English adds to the charm. We might visit the Fizzio for a foot massage later today. Chee said that an English friend always laughs when he passes How Ars Fook Street in the centre of town. I was amazed that at ten ‘o’ clock in the evening, so many people were out and about – but then again, it’s hot and sticky all day – you can be more productive in the cool of the evening.

Another anomaly of the tropics – at home sunrise and sunset go on for an hour. Here it appears to get light and dark very quickly. Or maybe I’m just noticing things differently now I’m away.

Right, I’d better get up and showered, Evaline will be here soon to pick me up with the promise of breakfast in a traditional Malay coffee shop, with noodles and sambal among the skinny cats that haunt your legs while you eat.

A little bit of simple bliss before hitting the very different country of Singapore tonight.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Three Countries in One Day

Tomorrow its the rather magical tenth of October, 2010  or 10/10/10.

May this prove to be as auspicious as I hope it will be.

At ten past eleven my plane takes off for Singapore.

About eight hours later, my old friend Eveline, with whom I went  to university and have not seen for nineteen years, is picking me up from Changi Airport and then we're off to her home in Jahor Bahru, Malaysia for a few days.

Three countries in one day. W00t!

The last time Eveline and I spent time together she gave me some of the best insights into this fascinating country.

In 1991, I moved to England for what I thought would be a two year stint. I spent a week in Malaysia with  couple of old uni friends who put me up and showed me round the place. In 1991, Malaysia wasn't the country it is today. Nineteen years ago, Malaysia was very much second world.

For a recent graduate who'd only ever been to New Zealand, it was a complete eye opener. At the time I wore my hair very long and dyed it red. I'm about 15 centimetres taller than the average Malaysian woman. And solo female travellers were not very often seen back then. In other words, I stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb. After a day I was completely over being stared at, beeped at, and called out to. It was intimidating. I made sure I was dressed modestly at all times, but still, the stares, beeps and shouts got to me. This was nineteen years ago - tourism and Asia's view of single women travellers is much more understanding and tolerant twenty years on.

Near the end of my stay, Eveline took me down to meet Chee, her then fiancee's parents in Malacca, halfway between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. The trip down there was one of my best memories - Chee's parents were market traders who lived in a two bedroom apartment in central Malacca. From the humble dwelling there came three kids - now a doctor, a dentist and an architect - all educated at foreign universities. The sacrifices of his parents really hit home. I was blown away - and felt very, very fortunate for my mostly government paid tertiary education.

After a tour of the Malacca wet market it was off for breakfast - at a noodle bar, found under a piece of shade cloth, just outside the market, filled with cats and smells and odd cutlery and bowls of sambal. I thought this was just brilliant.This was how the locals did things. Fantastic.

Eating in makeshift noodle bars, seeing how the locals do things, finding different experiences, this is what I love about travelling.

Nineteen years on, Eveline is a lawyer, happily married to Chee with two lovely kids who I can't wait to meet.

I rather hope Eveline has good memories of me too. Eveline and I met at university residential college - Lincoln College to be precise. She was one of the people who introduced me to chilli and spice and all things different and exotic - and her friendship was always very valued, though unfortunately we lost contact soon after I moved to England. Thankfully facebook allowed us to reconnect last year. She was always a person I wished I'd kept in contact with.

When I told my mum that I was staying with Eveline and Chee she said to say hello. Not a Christmas goes past where she doesn't mention the year Eveline came for Christmas.

In our second year, Eveline came home with me for the year end festivities. Mum still talks of how she sat in the kitchen watching her cook. "What are you doing? Is that traditional? Does everybody do that?", were Eveline's repeated questions. Our family doesn't do the traditional Christmas thing, more Australian seafood and salad, but both were fascinated with what the other did at this time of year.

I just remember that as a good christmas. Things were going to change pretty drastically soon after that.

So nineteen years on - our lives are so different. But I have the sneaky suspicion we won't run out of things to talk about.

With everything packed, ready to go, all there is to do is do the last load of sheets and towels before Alice picks me up and takes to to Melbourne airport early in the moring. I feel incredibly, wonderfully blessed.

Which is just how I should feel at the moment.

Also, my friend D is running his first marathon tomorrow. If I wasn't going abroad I'd be doing it with him - or running a few kilometres behind him anyway. For an engineer he can put together some great words. D's blog gives you an insight into the long distance runner. Hats off to you D - will be sending you energy - you're my hero and I'm incredibly proud of you. My running dreams are being lived out vicariously.

Tomorrow's going to be a big day.



Friday, October 8, 2010

What wins you a round the world airfare?

The best thing about this trip - I won the airfare.

Work had this competition, open to the 1000 Australian staff - 100 words or less, what will the National Broadband Network do for our fair country. Be creative. Winner gets two tickets to anywhere that Singapore Airlines flies to.

Now, at Tin Can, String and Whistle, 95% of the working population are engineers. Asking an engineer to be creative normally entails the use of duct tape, WD40 and fuse wire. Asking an engineer to write something creative normally sends them into an Asperger's frenzy. (We have a bit of a saying around here about the engineers here - if they don't have Asperger's Syndrome they're mildly autistic.) So being one of the two percent who have an Arts Degree and published short stories, being creative on paper comes a little more naturally. Also, as there were only 70 people who entered the competition, the odds were okay at winning this, not that I was to know any of this. Also in my defence, the entry was written in 15 minutes one lunchtime.I thought I had Buckleys.

So here is what got written. They said they liked the fact I was using new technologies and thought things out past the norms.

I just thought I'd tapped into my inner nerd....

This is what won me my ticket (reverted the two return tickets to one round the world)


Mikayla Tennenbaum of Peppermint Grove, Perth and Duncan Rossglen of Abbotsford, Melbourne, invite you to their holographic wedding  on 15 December 2020, 5 pm AEDST.

Guests arrive via NBN Holographic Portal 589.849.28 for logon, bio-imprinting, avatarisation and virtual seating by 4.45pm on the day.

The Griffhippos, eclectic band from Yuendemu are providing holographic entertainment and dancing after linking takes place.

Food: Scent imprints of Melbourne coffee, food and wine from McLaren Vale will be virtually sent for avatar consumption. Cakepods will cater for dietary requirements.

RSVP: 1 December 2020 with biometric information, ensuring no virtual gatecrashing on the night.

Go on, say it.


Thursday, October 7, 2010

Today's Dilemma: Packing

When did packing become so hard? Why is packing so hard? Why can't I be a bloke who just has to shove a couple of pairs of jocks and jeans, a toothbrush and a razor in a bag and take off for a year?

Hell, the Grounded Dutchman rode from India to Holland with 12 kgs of luggage, half of which was parts for his motorcycle. I will also add that the Grounded Dutchman doesn't smell that good at the best of times, but I envy his packing style.

I'm not a heavy packer. I'm not a light packer either - I think I fall somewhere in the middle.

As the doctor told me not to go to work today - something to do with the 38 degree temperature and the starts of a hacking cough he witnessed yesterday, I'm having a dry run at packing today inbetween hours in bed.

Phah. I'm horrified.

My control freak self is making lists and getting all anxious. Thirty five days away, five long haul flights and weather conditions spanning from tropical Singapore to galacial Holland and England in November.

How am I going to make a 11.50 pm flight from tropical  Singapore only to land 24 hours later in icy New York after a day of sightseeing. Do I have some clothes in a bag and grab a shower and change into warmer clothes at the airport? Or do I turn up in my thongs and shorts at JFK and hope my tits don't freeze off and break my toes.

There are also other eventualities I need to cater for - like a set of running gear, something that can be dressed up in case I go out to dinner, my swimmers, nightware and a light dressing gown as I'm staying with friends (and I'm very much aware of how dreadful I look in the morning) and the obligatory set of slob clothes for when I'm with family in Philly.

Other things to make their way into the bag - a travel hair dryer (necessary) three adapters (US, UK, Europe), phone and camera chargers, the small spare address book, an RSI mouse to be returned to Jan Pieter, five Australian/Europe power adapters for Jan Pieter (should send my step dad over to change the plugs like he did for me...), a spare book, my Lonely Planet Guide to Spain, a copy of the last Artemis Fowl book for Annika, a copy of Underbelly III for Reindert, my heart rate monitor, a jar of vegemite for my uncle (though by rights it's not allowed in the states - something about it being poisonous.) oh, and of course, my tarot cards.

I also know I'll repack on Saturday - taking out about a third of what I have in the bag with the expectation that I'll buy some stuff on the way and post some stuff home. I have a bit of a strict rule about wearing everything in my bag at least once, so I'll consider the number of stockings and socks in the bag, take out the fourth long sleeved top and remember that the Australian Dollar is nearly at parity with the US equivalent... and clothes are good and cheap in the US.

In the mean time - the last bits to do. Register on, have a think about what I want to do where. A Turkish bath in Granada might be on the cards, contact a friend of Gloria's in Madrid, ponder the joys of seeing places through other people's eyes.

Oh and the killer. Reindert asked me what I want to do when I get to Boston. How am I going to break it to him that I want to go to Salem - where the witches were. I mean, I'm a witch, I grew up with Elizabeth Montgomery on the telly and I'm passionate about witches rights - witches like me - and the midwifes, healers, herbalists and tarot readers - we misunderstood women who tap into our feminine side. That's going to be fun.

I can't complain - very small difficulties and worries in which to have fun resolving.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Drink, Think, F*ck

I'm sitting at home with a cold. I leave for Singapore in five days and I have an effing cold. Crap. Actaully, I'm tucked up in bed with my travel netbook, typing from bed. I could have been at work, but my dear boss, Popeye has the tendency to march you out of the office when you turn up sick citing , "This is why you have sick leave, moron!" Also, the common cold also freaks me out a bit, as they have the nasty habit of settling on my chest, turning into bronchitis and having me on courses of antibiotics for weeks.

Then again, since working through a lot of my anger issues, losing some weight and getting fit, I've been lucky. I've gone from having six or seven bouts of bronchitis, to one or two a year.

So here, I sit, praying that I don't get bronchitis, taking the panadol, echinacaea, magic green horse pills and hot lemon drinks to try keep this at bay. I should stop moaning, but I know how uncomfortable it is flying with a cold. And as I have nine flights in the next forty days.... well yeah. I better find a decent god to pray to to ensure this doesn't happen.

Speaking of prayer, I was lucky enough to score a ticket to a preview of "Eat, Pray, Love".

We did this book at book group last year to very mixed reviews. The chick lit haters pretty much refused to read it, others enjoyed it as a chick lit fantasy, the lit heads were rather put out by this sort of light weight, nimby namby book on spirituality, others thought it was just okay.

Me, I loved it. And I'm normally the lit head of the group.

Here was a woman who was walking a path similar to mine, and I don't see this very often on paper.

Okay, I don't have Elizabeth Gilbert's life - I've never spent time on an ashram, or partied the night away with a hot Brazilian in Bali, nor been divorced. If I'm honest, I've never been in a relationship long enough to be married. I don't write for New York Magazine.

But I understood her searching, her need to find herself, her need to take herself away from everything she knows and find new things and experience more of life. I also got the bit in India, the part that got slated more than any other at book group. To me, this book describes what it is to find your truth and what it is like to meditate better than any other I have read. She put it better than anybody has every put it in my eyes.

I know what it's like to struggle with meditation. I have this fight with myself every second Saturday as I sit through my kabbalistic meditation class. Some days I hear every word. Other days I have no clue what went one. I remember one very special day when I turned into a large, blue third eye chakra and that was all I was aware of - my body had literally disappeared.

So I was really pleased when an old workmate said she had a free ticket to go see the film. Javier Bardem. Num num num. I was also pleasantly surprised by this eye candy of a movie. My expectations had been lowered, I wasn't expecting too much, but I was glued to this film. Here was an alternate version of my life. Somebody got me for a change.

Okay, the film won't win any Oscars, but it is glorious to look at - I've been to Italy and Bali and they are just as wonderful as I remember. The India bit was great too - though rather cut down from the book - but the bit I found so special is the part most people flick over.

I told the Grounded Dutchman  about the film - which he thought was quite silly. "If I was to do a tour like that it would be called "Drink, Think, F*ck." That's what you do when you go on these tours."

I wasn't in the mood to disagree, mind you, I disagree with most of what he says - just easier to go "Whatever, GD." In his time, Grounded Dutchman has rode a motorbike from India to Holland, driven an old Citroen van across the Sahara - not unlike Top Gears Fifteen Hundred Quid Challenge. He's gone on all of these journeys. But he rarely talks about them. I know the India trip changed him, he's said it was one of the most transformational trips of his life. But he rarely talks of his travels, which annoys me no end. he says that theire his stories. I call that selfish.

Not that I get to take a year off to find myself, but I wander what words will be used to describe my five weeks away through Singapore, the US, Holland, Spain and the UK.

I can't wait to see what these words are.

The movie also had a bit where at a dinner party they were talking about how each place has a word - London - constrained, Paris - Romance, Italy - food, etc. Then they started talking about what eachother's words were. For Liz, it was the Italian word for all encompassing.

I wonder what my word will coming out of this trip.

Something to think about as I sit on a plane anyway.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Gateway

The last words of my last post have been quite prophetic.

Taking the some of the gloss off of my imminent five week holiday is the knowledge that I am about to be made redundant from work. Whether this means that I walk out of the door on Friday and never go back to Tin Can, String and Whistle, or if I come back from holidays and have six weeks left in the joint is to be finalised. At the moment it looks like it may be the latter, but I'm up for either eventuality.

My time as den mother to twenty five integration engineers is coming to an end. Hmm.

The great thing is that I know that this may be one of the best things to ever happen to me. I get a modest pay out. There is lots of work out there at the moment. I've been terribly bored for six months in my current job, really only hanging around for this holiday. As much as I love the people, I'm over the way the company is run and if I'm brutally frank, I've had this hanging over my head for eighteen months. It's no surprise and I bear no ill will toward my direct management. The Hollow Men at the top, those faceless suits that direct the company I'm a little more scathing of, like Eliot's shadowy forms, shape without form, shade without colour, paralysed force, gesture without motion, they sit in Sydney making decisions about people's lives whilst running around the prickly pear.

I suppose on of the things I dislike most about working for large international companies is the facelessness of those making the decisions. We used to have a Senior Manager on the floor with us - an older gentleman, always there with a smile and a hello, knew the name of everybody on the floor, always asking about family and interests and the like. You felt reassured by the fact that he knew who you were. He left in disgust six months ago. Now the most of senior managers reside interstate - no idea who you are, what you do or what can be done. It feels like  a very inhuman way to do business.

Or maybe I'm just soft.

The great thing about these pending changes is that my mind's begun to expand. What do I really want from life? What is it I want from these changes? Where do I want to be? What sort of things do I really want. What is my value. I ask myself these questions and I see a lot more than what I'm getting from Tin Can, String and Whistle. And even better, I have five weeks to gently contemplate this - which is also a godsend.

I'm also fortunate that I've done all of this before and know how to go out and get jobs. This does mean dealing with recruitment consultants, who I hold in as much esteem as real estate agents and pyramid scheme traders, but they are a necessary evil. I've got friends starting to put good words in for me. My CV is in order, I just have to find out when I'm leaving, get out there and go for it.

Knowing I'll miss the people is hard, but then again, I've made some of the best friends I've ever had at this job - they're not going anywhere too far. And I know that I'll make more friends where I
m going. I won't miss being bored, scratching around for work or wondering when redundancy is going to happen.

In the scheme of things, this is one awfully big adventure.

Watch this space. It might just be epic.