Sunday, November 28, 2010

What's in a Name?

I bought a Shirley yesterday.

Yes, a Shirley.

What is a Shirley you may ask?

Well, Shirley is a Global Positioning System - or a satellite navigator as it is known to some.

Yes, I've named my SatNav. I think it suits her. Annoying voice, always trying to tell you where to go - most likely right all of the time except for when you really are in a hurry then she leads you down the garden path. Gets hysterical when you make a wrong move whether you know it or not, then she really lets you have it. Something that you will be talking to saying, "Yes, Shirley. What every you say, Shirley." Behind her back, you're more than likely saying ,"Eff off Shirley, there's no sodding way I'm taking Punt Road - or Chapel Street - go to hell!"

I think Shirley is the perfect name for a GPS. Lachlan's mother's name is Shirley. I think it's apt. I could have named it after the Grounded Dutchman's mother, who has many of the same traits of Lachlan's mother, but her name is long and Dutch and it can't be served up with the same amount of vitriol. (and she's a nice lady too - we couldn't do that to her). The Grounded Dutchman's mum would also never be seen with a pint of bitter and a fag in her mouth at ten a.m. either.

Naming things is something I love to do. As I'm probably never going to be a mother, I won't have the opportunity to mess up my children with my choice of name.

So I tend to name inanimate objects instead.

As some of you are aware, I have a car named Andrew at the moment. I work with an Andrew at the moment. I also have a cousin who is a copper named Andrew and another cousin who lives in Tasmania named Andrew. My Andrew was not named after a middle suburbs politician who never shuts up, nor an undercover member of the drug squad, nor a wearhouseman from Bagdad, Tasmania.

Andrew was named after a long gone ex's wobbly bits. Small but gets you where you need to go.  I think the name suits a 2000 white, five door Toyota Echo really well.

I've named all my previous cars as well. I've had Edna the EJ Holden (Large, lumpy, good at growing things in the boot), Phoebe the Fiesta - named by the car's former owner who is now a well respected doctor - so it's not just me - it might be an Adelaide thing.

And my car before Andrew was Colin. Colin was a 0.65 litre Daihatsu Centro. Colin had small man syndrome. I would have called him Allan, but Allans make the tea - and this car was as weak as maiden's piss - useless. So Colin it was. Strange thing is, the last two Colins I've met have been a drill seargent in the navy and a cauliflower earred Scotsman, both standing around six foot three and built like a brick dunny. Not small men at all.

It's funny how names can stick with you. Talking to Emm today after pump class she asked if I had thought of a name for my proposed new car, hopefully a zippy little Madza 2. "Dennis," I said. Emm then asked why I seemed to name my cars after middle aged accountants with comb overs.

Hmm, interesting point. Rather than Dennis, it could be a Malcolm or a Trevor or a Geoffrey or a Raymond. If I was really scraping the bottom of the barrel I could go down the Donald or Reginald route - then again, my grandfather was a Reg - best leave that for a stroppy ginger cat I may get in the future.

I love names, I really do. I was thrilled to find out that Reindert is a brand of fabric softener in the Netherlands. Why would his mother do that to him? That's just choice, especially as his brothers have two of the commonest names in the Netherlands. Why divert from the norms?

Meeting the Grounded Dutchman was peppered with angst as he has the same name as my long dead father. It took quite a while to get over the associations. I also have many "uncles" with the same name. Men with the Grounded Dutchman's christian name tend to be cricket loving, beer swilling reprobates with a desire for fame. They're also now all aged in their seventies.

I've been out with Marcs, who always seem to have mother issues, Simon's who inevitably love their computers more than me and Matthews, who would be near perfect if only they would wash their hair  occasionally.
Women's names are just as fraught. I've never met a Natalie who wasn't as fake as a three dollar note, a Rebecca who wasn't on antidepressants or  a Tammy who didn't have a boyfriend who was into CB radio and was knocked up by the age of sixteen.

I also have clusters of friends who seem to have names and similar traits. Of my three friends called Verity, all have had marital problems but seem to be able to work miracles in the business world. The Carolyn's I know all tend to whine a lot but their hearts are in the right place. Rosemary's are good in a crisis. Petronella's will undoubtedly smell of patchouli and think they are psychic.

I remember when a friend said she was going to call her son Francis. All I couldn't think was, hmmm, sits at the back of the class, picks his spots and eats glue. Just like the Mileses and Rodneys of this world.

Really, I shouldn't make fun of names. I'm Pandora. Pandy to my family. Pand to most. I get called Alison regularly - I'm told I look like an Alison.

I hated my name growing up. I've grown into it now. Knowing that when Pandora's box was opened and all of the evils of the world flew out all that was left was hope and opportunity. I rather like that.

But I'm also sure there are number of people out there who associate the name with Adrian Mole's first love and bogan troll bracelets.

Each to his own.

Pand (mother of Andrew the echo and Shirley the GPS)

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Selling Oneself

My days start a little earlier now. I rise on waking, make a cup of English Breakfast tea with a splash of skinny milk. I shower and wash my hair, after which, there is the normal cleanse, tone and moisturise routine of the facial skin and roll on some organic deodorant. I prefer the organic, non-chemical stuff, which works far better than anti-perspirant - it doesn't stain your clothes and it doesn't stop you sweating - it just stops you smelling. Humans are meant to sweat under their arms after all.

After these ablutions, I dress. With care. New tailored trousers, a clean white, trim fitting t-shirt, over which goes a long tailored black jacket.

In between imbibing my normal breakfast protein shake, fish oil capule and multi vitamin tablet, I consider my face. I'm really blessed. Spending my twenties in England, good genes and being pleasantly plump, I have few wrinkles for my age. Other than a couple of light circles under my eyes, my skin is clear. I now proceed to cover it in beige powder - again, mineral based to allow my skin to breath underneath. Then there's a bit of blusher applied to my cheekbones, a light dusting of shimmering eyeshadow, brown eyeliner (which a queeny make up artist told me years back to use rather than black - it's far less severe for a woman of my age) and a bit of brown/black mascara. I dry my hair straight - a seemingly pointless exercise in this humid weather, but it has to be done. It will be an unruly, frizzy mess by midday.

I am in interview mode. I have two pimps to meet today. I have to give them my A-game.

Before heading to the tram, I clean my teeth, careful to use mouthwash afterward. Just before I leave the flat, I put on my shoes. My running shoes. These are what I wear to work. A pair of one inch kitten heels sit in a bag next to my handbag. I will slip these on just before I meet the pimps. I may as well be comfortable until then. I have a pair of black work flats under my desk which will don my feet at Tin Can, String and Whistle. You could turn up in your pyjamas there and nobody would notice. Fridays I normally wear jeans - like everybody else. Unless you're meeting clients there's little point turning up in a suit.

Just after twelve, I slip out of the office for my scheduled meeting with pimp number one. Her name is Amber. Stripper name. Bet she's blonde, dressed fashionalbly, very thin and with a high pitched voice.

I'm used to dealing with the pimps - or recruitment consultants as they're known to the outside world. People who will sell your skills on to the highest bidder. People who will happily oversell your worth for their own gain.

Yes, I'm cynical, but after the last time I went contracting, going from appointment to appointment, shaking wet fish hands, having my christian name said at least once every sentence, you get to know the drill.
The good pimps are the ones you can have a laugh with. The good ones are genuinely interested in finding you a job that makes you happy. These are the ones who look you straight in the eye, tell you how it is and do call you through the year to see what you're up to. Second pimp of the day is one of these good ones. But more on him later.

Stupidly, I change into the kitten heels before making my way to the pimp's lair, a kilometre away from the office. In the wet and with the paving stones I slipped repeatedly and my right knee started to ache. Never to mind, a bag of peas and some lectric soda later would help to sort it.

Amber was on time. Indeed, she had the wet fish handshake, the simpering smile, the speech impediment that made her use my name in every sentence, and yes, she was slim, blonde and dressed very fashionably. We sit in a barely furnished room, stripped of natural light.

She then starts the questions.

What did I want to do? Had I looked at the company website? Was I able to work in Geelong? What were my strengths? What were my greatest acheivements? When was I available for work... all the normal questions from somebody who I would say has summed me up as one above pond scum in a moment after our intitial meeting. Of course, you have to put on your game face, answer with the same enthusiasm required of anybody else selling themselves.

Of course I will bend over and play dead as you wish.

Actually, it's not quite like that. I answer honestly. No, I'm not prepared to work full time in Geelong - a week here and there, sure. No, I don't want to work a ten hour day - I work to live, not the other way around. Yes, I like variety. I'm better with people than  machines. If I can google it, I can learn it. No, I don't have an MBA or a business degree - I've learned business the hard way, from the back offices and though pushing paper and watching closely. It's got me a long way.

On leaving I offered her my hand. She didn't appear happy to take it.

Pimp number two is a much better experience. Later in the afternoon I make my way down Collins Street once again. Pimp number two is named Tony.

Tony and I have talked regularly over the last three years. I met him just before I got the role with Tin Can, String and Whistle. He's somebody I could see as a drinking buddy or mate. A man with a firm handshake and a genuine smile. He remembers from previous conversations that I run, read tarot and write. He has an idea of my skills. He likes that as somebody in the testing field that there is a trace of personality in me. We have a chat. He tells me that it's probably going to be mid next month before more opportunities come in. I tell him I'm aware of this, but I may as well get the leg work in now. He laughs at my plastic bag containing my trainers. He asks if I changed them in the lobby for the kitten heels. I admit to this. I have to give him my A-game after all. Good attitude, he says.

After bidding Tony farewell, I make my way home, tired, knee aching, rather desiring a beer.

Selling yourself is hard. It's exhausting. You know who you are and what you can do, but you have to go out and wager this into the market. When you're not a salesman, this can be hard on the psyche. You are dressed in clothes you're not used to wearing, uncomfortable shoes, there is a mask of makeup on your face. Your hair, normally thrown up in ponytail or given a cursory brush once a day is groomed within an inch of it's life. All of this is tiring in itself - just more stuff to consider.

I work in IT - jeans or business casual are normal fare unless you're meeting clients - half the time you're scratching around under desks or playing with cables anyway. Makeup isn't insisted upon - geeks don't care what you look like. Sensible shoes are the norm. Code doesn't ask you to roll over and jump through hoops - it just needs to work effiienctly and to spec.

This is why this is all so alien. I do feel like a prostitute. I also know that when I get the new, job, whatever that may be, within a fortnight I will be stripped of the mask of makeup, back in my comfortable business casual clothes and wearing flats around the office. Such is the game.

On arriving home, there is a mad dash to the bathroom where a wet flannel removes the bulk of the makeup. The office wear is thrown in the washing machine and a bag of frozen peas is strapped to my throbbing right knee.

Once again, I know exactly who I am and what I'm about.

It's such a pity that finding work is such a performance.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Importance of Being Positive

The most important lesson I have learned in the last ten years, other than beer and Baileys mixed in the same glass should never be imbibed, is the absolute power of being positive.

By rights, me, Pandora Behr, probably should be a negative nancy. I have a session booked with the HR department of Tin Can, String and Whistle tomorrow where I know that they are going to tell me that my position is redundant and that my last day at work is going to be the 22nd of December. I'm overweight. I'm not overly good looking. I'm 42 years old. I don't have a significant other and never have. I only have an ordinary Arts Degree. My knee is playing me up at the moment. I have a personal trainer named Pinochet who makes me ache on a weekly basis. I take in people's cats when when they go on holiday - and I like it as it gives me something to talk to while I'm at home.

Rather sad existence, eh?

My attitude to all this is "F*ck 'em. Life is going to be amazing. Just you watch."

There's a rather wretched book out there called, "The Secret." Many would have heard of it - it's a new age classic allegedly teaching people how to get rich.

The central message of the book is that like attracts like - one of the general laws of physics. Okay, when I heard this statement a few years ago, at the mention of physics, I turned off immediately. See, I'm no good at physics. Just as I'm no good at running, computers, losing weight and getting well paid fullfiling work. Hmm.

Okay, like attracts like. Let's see how this works.

Okay, so one of the things that came out is surround yourself with positive people, some of it will rub off. And you think, yeah, alright, maybe.

Well, I've taken this on as my mantra.

There's been some fairly big occurences happen to me over the last few days. On the grand scale of things they may appear small but they've rocked my world enough to make me feel secure, engaged and hopeful.

First up, a friend asked for a bit of help. She's not in a good way at all - probably as low as a person can go without doing something stupid. She explained her situation, that she needed somebody round on the weekend to keep and eye on her as she was in a bad way. I said I'd be there. It's not that she's part of my inner sanctum, far from it, but I know how dreadful it is when you feel you have nobody to turn to when things truly turn to shit. Being there for her was a given - I'd never want anybody to feel like that - even if it's just being on the end of the phone - she knew somebody was there.

Knowing that the situation could have repercussions on me, I made some plans for the Sunday. A visit out to Blarney to cuddle the babies and Maow Maow. Arrange for Grounded Dutchman to come and receive his birthday reflexology treatment. Things I like doing that make me happy. Positive things to take away any residual angst from the other friend.

It worked - all is on the level. Chance and Lance (Blarney's babies) and the Maow Maow (Blarney's cat) got cuddled within an inch of their lives and Aunty Pandora felt restored. Grounded Dutchman left with his size twelve clodhoppers all shiny and new and with a big relaxed smile on his face and Reflexologist Pandora feels good because she's made somebody feel good.

Maybe there is something in this.

Next small occurence - I ran into an old university friend in the street. I remember Frank for many reasons. He was the obnoxious nice guy at college - Arts Student mocker and computer nerd. Nothing to look at really, often referred to as Fat Frank. Frank had an IQ off the chart and this gritty determination that I always admired from afar. I think Frank lived in one pair of trakkie daks and his college shirt for the full two years of college. At the end of my time at college, Frank started to go out with a friend of mine and I got to see a different side of him - the nice guy I suspected was under the prickly facade there was proven to be so. Since then we've occasionally bumped into each other at the airport over the years. He always stops for a quick chat - and it's always great to run into him.

Running into Frank on Bourke Street the other day I was amazed. He's 40 kilograms lighter and looks absolutely amazing. He looks confident and happy - there's this wonderful inner glow about him - it was a real revelation. He told me what he did to achieve this and what made him do it. "I just got sick of being fat."

Know the feeling. But I almost what a before and after shot of Frank to put up on my fridge - but a photo wont capture his inner glow. If Frank can do it - so can I. Okay, so I may not be able to run at the moment - but that's no excuse not to push weights, swim, walk and monitor the diet carefully. All it takes is consistency and the will. I know this.

The drive is there to once again get on the horse and start losing again after what has been a difficult year. It feels great.

They may seem like inconsequential occurences - looking after somebody - something I seem to do a bit of, and running into a friend on the street - but there seems to have been a paradigm shift within me.

Even job hunting. The word is slowly getting out that I'm leaving Tin Can, String and Whistle. And I have a big smile on my face. Well, of course. New opportunities. New people to meet. New things to learn. The job market is currently good, I have good skills. For the first time in my life I have money in the bank. I'll put in an hour a day job hunting - though I already have two pimp* interviews booked for Thursday. I hope to be working again by February, but that will give me some time to swim and write and de junk my flat. I can also start thinking about replacing Andrew for a new to me Mazda 2 (been told off already for drooling on my computer screen.) And more funds can get put into my housing fund. And maybe a two week break somewhere with a pool mid year. And you never know who you will meet and how they will effect your life - always for the good.

I like this positive attitude thing. Okay, call me Pollyanna, dong me on the head for being bubbly - but I can't go back to believing I'm fat, ugly, crippled and stupid.

Positive, with an attitude of gratitude for all I have - friends, family, abililty and hope.

I really can't ask for anything more. The attitiude's doing me well, thank you very much.


*I use the term pimp as a loose term for recruitment consultants. Like real estate agents and insurance brokers I know they have a point, I just wish that there was some substance to them. They're a necessary, though somewhat pointless evil - and I'm thankful I don't have to deal with them very often. Also, when you find a good one who treats you like a human being, hold onto that person's card - follow them from agency to agency - they're gold.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Today's Dummy Spit

I just lost it with the Grounded Dutchman.

There is a post coming about what is happening with the joys of jetlag, the fun of knowing I have to start looking for a job, my annual Christmas freak out, pondering spending my Saturday night minding a friend in crisis, knowing I have writing work to by Monday.... and endless list of stuff which has let me come back to my last five weeks at Tin Can, String and Whistle with a whimper, rather than a bang.

Instead, I'm choosing to write about what went down with the Grounded Dutchman in the coffee shop just now. It needs to be said. It might work out a bit of my anger, frustration and hurt.

I found him down at the coffee shop, noticing he'd disappeared for a bit. He was lost in thought, an empty coffee mug in front of him, just sitting there.
"Will you talk to me, what is the matter?"

Grounded Dutchman is very good at looking like a wounded puppy. He just looks sad all over. His long limbs just seem to droop. It's a bit pathetic.

Finally, after a few laboured breaths, he talks. "I can't get my point across in meetings. It's frustrating. I can't get out what I need to get out and it's beginning it impact on what I'm doing....". The litany continued about how he was feeling reigned in because he has some trouble with his speech. Then came the final straw.

"I just wish I wasn't a pharking cripple."

Cripple. The one word in the English language which tends to draw the normally mild-mannered Pand into a banshee.

My face flushed, my hackles drawn, I looked straight into his wounded grey eyes.

Slowly, deliberately, ennunciating with effect.


"But I can't get my point across. It's hard."

"Yeah, it's hard. It's not great. But you're not a cripple. You're a man overcoming a brain injury with some limitations around your speech. You walk and move perfectly. Your brain functions well. You can think. You can make jokes even if they are bad, you can dance and sing. Have you any idea how far you've come? When do you give yourself credit for this? So, you have a bit of trouble talking sometimes. So what - learn to do things differently - you can talk - it's just a bit hard sometimes. NEVER define yourself that way. It only gives people licence to discredit you."

I reached over and held his hand. There was a bit of moisture welling in his eyes.

"You're just a man with one limitation - you have trouble getting your point across. Find other ways of doing it."

He exhaled loudly. I grabbed his hand. Tear were streaming down my face by now.

"You are not a cripple. Don't define yourself that way. Don't give people the opportunity to define yourself that way."

He twigged that he'd sparked a nerve.

I went on.

"Nearly forty years ago, a little girl waited at the traffic lights with her mother near the Adelaide Children's Hospital. The little girl was in a red jumper and plaid skirt. Her feet were encased in clumpy shoes. Her legs were bandaged, hiding the rods of the calipers that were slowly straightening her legs. She was about to see the physiotherapist to see if these rods that had been a part of her life for the last were about to come off. These rods were the bane of her life. She hated them with every fibre of her being. A woman passed by with a couple of rowdy children."Look at that little cripple girl over there." she said pointing out the child."

Grounded Dutchman was listening now.

"That little girl was me. I was the crippled girl - and the crippled girl I continued to be. I've been labelled a cripple since I was a child. THERE'S NOTHING EFFING WRONG WITH ME. I used to have knocked knees and tip toes. They're fixed. But in calling myself a cripple it stopped me doing SOOOOOO much. Can't do that - I'm crippled. Running, jumping, just getting out there and living. It stopped me doing shit for thirty years. Can't you see what you're doing to yourself by calling yourself a cripple?"

He nodded.

"Never give them the opportunity to label you. NEVER call yourself that."

I think he got the point. By this time he was holding my hand. I resembled Alice Cooper, mascara streaked down  my face.

"You can work through this. You will work through this. But none of this cripple shit. You're a man with a limitation. It's time to get creative and find some ways to work through it. Here endeth the lecture."

He gave my hand a final squeeze and we went back to the office.

It's amazing how one word can open a wound the size of the Grand Canyon.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Day 34: Going Home

I'm at Heathrow airport - or Sodom - depending on your view of the place. It's not my favorite airport by a long shot, but it will get me back to Melbourne in 24 hours, the A380 hopefully keeping all engines functioning for the first part of the journey to Singapore, God willing.

I haven't thought about going home at all, other than I have changed my sterling for Australian dollars - that is the sum of it. It's not that I haven't been trying to think about going home - or back to Australia as I tend to refer to it. I've just been busy for the last five weeks having fun. I know that when I arrive in Melbourne early Sunday morning either Blarney or Barney will be there to pick me up. I've got my coat in my bag, it's not cold enough to warrant it in the airport. In the back of my mind I know that I'm coming back to what could be construed as a big pile of poo - but I'm determined to make the very best of it.

The last five weeks have been some of the best of my life.

My wonderful friends have outdone themselves - and for those reading this, I'm not sure how I can repay you for showing me such a great time.

I've seen stuff I never thought I'd seen, from the hacked out tongue of a Dutch dissident to the joys of some of the greatest art in the world to the natural beauty of New England in fall as they so call it.

I've roamed foreign streets with my head held high.

I've had some great nights out on the turps - and found that wandering the National Gallery with a few pints inside you is as fun as watching Antiques Roadshow under the influence of interesting tobacco.  (Yeah, that was pretty fun... but we're not supposed to talk about that....)

I've discovered that I do London transport with the flair of a native - so ingrained is the tube map in my head.

I've learned that self-preservation is more important that self-service, every time, all the time.

I also know that if I had Dorothy's red shoes and clicked my heels three times and said, "There's no place like home," I'm not sure where I would end up. Toledo is my spiritual home - hands down - it's resonance was off the geiger counter. London is the place that feels like home - even though I haven't lived there for eleven years - it's just a place where I feel good. Melbourne is where the bulk of my friends are and all my possessions reside - and this is a great thing too.

But looking back over the last five weeks, the thing that comes to mind most of all. Though things may not be perfect, I am one of the luckiest girls in the world.

Can't ask for anything more than that.

Talk soon after the jetlag subsides. They're calling my flight.


Thursday, November 11, 2010

Day 33: Resignation and Reconsideration

Bath and I have and interesting relationship. I've been here twice before and have remembered the place for it's incredible history and beauty, but also it's really cool vibe. It's a place where artists and writers and thinkers come to commune, take the waters and enjoy the relaxing and theraputic atmosphere.

Every time I have been here I've had a couple of disappointments.

This time is no different.

Actually, I've had a lovely day here. I've got to do the things I love most, which is wander around old shit and sit on trains. I love long distance train travel and the hour and a half journey to Bath is really pretty.

First job when I got here was to replace dodgy zebra bag. Dodgy zebra bag broke a wheel in Malaga, twelve hours after purchase and after a day of dragging it round the wheel had pretty much disintegrated and there was a large slash in the bottom on the bag. A trip to M&S sorted this and a new, equally ugly but sturdier suitcase has been purchased.

Next stop, the Abbey. Bath Abbey has always been a disappointment to me. It's one of the most picturesque cathedrals in the country - and very time I come here, something stops me from seeing it properly. First time I was here in 1992, I was away with my current boyfriend for the weekend. The abbey was closed for major reconstruction and cleaning. No access was to be had. Never to mind, I remember sitting on top of one of those tourist buses, about three degrees outside, Dave's arm about me. It was a great trip but there was the disappointment of not seeing the abbey.

The second time I came to Bath was with Gareth. My father had died about three weeks before. I was still in shock mode. "Fire bad, tree pretty," was about the extent of the conversation you could get out of me. I remember very little from that trip other than Gareth's eternal patience with me - something he's not normally known for.

Well, this time, I got in to Bath Abbey. For about five minutes. I made it ther around half past two only to be told that unless I wanted to listen to a children's concert I'd better get cracking - or come back tomorrow after ten.

Roight. I have to be back in London to meet somebody for midday. Not going to happen.

Seems the elusive Bath Abbey doesn't want me to visit her properly. I'M A CATHEDRAL JUNKIE - HOW DARE IT!

I did get in for a bit. I had a brief look around. I sat down in the pews and tried to get a feeling of the place, which was a bit hard when there's fifty eight years old jumping around in a sponsored epileptic fit to the beat of the tombola and jembai. (Actually they weren't too bad) After looking about, not feeling or finding anything new - the gorgeous fluted vaulting are still there - and it will be there when I come back at some stage to try again to see what all of the fuss is about.

The other thing I did like about the concert was it was really good to seem some noise and energy in the place. The African rhythms gave a wonderful juxtaposition to the austere stone. I really like that. Cathedrals should be used, not just revered or pondered over by rubbernecks like me.

Bath Abbey - I will see you one day. Just you wait!

The rest of the afternoon was spent wandering around the Roman Baths - which has to be one of the best tourist sights in Britain. It's exceptionally well done. I remember coming here with Dave - they were good then, they're even better now.

If you ever come to Bath, this is the place you have to go - it's brilliant.
So my penultimate night in Britain was spent having a quiet night with my book in my super-heated hotel room. Something that doesn't change - the Brits overheat their hotels. I opened my window as far as I could - they will probably hate me for it, but I nee fresh air. My pint of milk was out on the window ledge so that it wouldn't spoil, an old winter trick from years back, though it often freezes in the depths of the season. There was a lovely deep bath to be indulged in  - I only have a shower at home and with water restrictions, baths are only for holidays abroad (and at my mother's place where they're on bore water). Breakfast this morning was in a dining hall with lots of other odd bodies. The sausages were had with cold toast and brown sauce and coffee that had been over brewed. It all tasted WONDERFUL. Nobody does breakfast like a British B&B.

And now it's back to London for my final full day. The fact that Singapore Airlines won't let me check in is ominous.Supposed to be taking an A380....

Oh well, that's another adventure for another blog.


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Day 30 and 31: What I miss about Britain

After twenty four hours here I've realised that every time I come back, I miss the place a bit more. Though much has changed since I left here in 1999, there is a lot of stuff that has stayed the same.

Staying with Gareth and Georgina is great. It's like staying with family - the sort of family you like. They're used to house guests, just as I'm now used to being a house guest. Georgina runs a kosher kitchen - I know to ask what utensils to use - we get on fine. The dog, Sputnik, like me too. And I've helped the kids with reading and maths, so I've made myself useful.

So for today, we've been doing some shopping, taken advantage of the sales, and books - oh my goodness, almost half price. Thank goodness I have a two bag, 50 kg weight allowance for my bags. I've also done lots of tea and coffee, talking, school runs and general relaxing. It's been great. Some much needed down time before I get home. Also, I've got vegetables back into my diet, no alcohol and things aren't drowned in olive oil like they were in Spain. Preparing for the detox and diet that will wait for me on my return.

My day here has made me realise just how much I miss of this country. Other than my friends, all I've missed about Australia is the more temperate weather and the gym. I did leave here eleven years ago. I've been back a few times, but every time I go back, I realise I do miss it - even if everybody says it's going to the dogs.

I get back here and I find myself pining for some things. Here is a short list.

British television: Far better than any other telly I have seen in the world. You can find intelligent stuff easily on the box if you look for it - and there is lots of quirky stuff too. Yes, Australia has SBS and the ABC - but Britain doesn't have the Two and a Half Men channel - thank goodness. Channel Four is just bloody marvellous. Britain does, however, have a 160 pound a year annual television licence that allegedly supports the BBC. Glad we don't have that.

No sales tax on books: Nuff said - Eight quid for a book we play $32 for - would rather live here just because of this.

Kebab shops and curry houses - and lots of them: Lovely to know you can find a really good curry or kebab everywhere. Curry houses are thin on the ground in Oz - though they are getting more popular.

Great, free museums and art galleries: The National Gallery and the British Museum are staples. I could spend days poking around in there. We have good ones, London has great ones.

Nice and Spicy Nik Naks, Topic bars and Cherry Bakewell Tarts: Chocolate bars are 60 pence, crisps (or chips) come in 30 gram packages and are 40 pence and cherry bakewells are like the best sin food ever.

Marks and Spencer: The best work wear store ever. Does good knickers and food too.

Boots Chemist: The best chemist ever - and they do the best next item on the list.

Prawn and Mayonnaise sandwiches - pre packed: The Brits are great at doing pre-packed sandwiches. Okay, Austalian sandwich bars do great fresh one, but when you're in a rush, just grabbing something off the shelf is great. I'm easy pleased in Oz at the freshness and variety of our lunch bars, but you're never going to find a prawn sandwich pre packed, ever (let alone a prawn sandwich unless you make it yourself), but prawn and mayo sarnies are glorious Bummer. And pre-packaged sandwiches in Australia are rubbish anyway.

Variable accents: You can tell where people are from by the way they talk. No so much in Oz - though you can tell a bogan from a normal person and somebody from far North Queensland pretty easily.

Variety: England, small country, nearly sixty million people. Australia, large country, only 22 million people.Of course Britain is going to have more choice. It's a given. But it is great.

Brilliant beer: Whether it be Bishops Finger or Old Wallop, from stout to lager, the beer here, no matter what people say about it being warm, is great. Australia has a lager culture, but it is getting better (and I'll give it to Australia, better wine)

Pubs: The British institution of the pub is wonderful. It's like a living room you go to that isn't in your house, full of people you want to talk to. And there are no pokies in them, maybe a lone "fruit machine" but that is it. Miss English pubs big time - part of the reason I run the beer club at work - it's like being an innkeeper part time.

Eccentrics: I always fitted in here quite well cos I'm barking mad. Eccentrics are welcome around here, Australia you're just often seen as odd and made to know it. I miss that. Miss the intellingent banter of the barking mad too.

Choice of theatre productions: I used to be a regular at the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre. Superlative theatre here. Melbourne is good, but not to the same standard.

Old stuff: Again, Australia, 222 years of recorded history and a long dream time. Britain - nearly two decades of recorded history, and in the words of Blarney, lots of old shit. I like old shit. Gives me a sense of comfort.

Right, that will do you. I'm getting dropped at the station tomorrow to get myself of to Bath for the day, something I'm looking forward to making good memories of.

Take care,


Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Day 28 and 29: The Sum of All Parts

Finally, after many, many years and lots of contemplation, I finally get Picasso.

This is a big call, as until now, Picasso's work really hasn't floated my boat. Dali yes, Goya, oh, hell yeah, Pollock, for sure - but I never really saw the point of Picasso's work.

Until yesterday.

Maybe it's the full immersion in Spanish Culture that's opened my eyes. With a bit of time to kill in Malaga as I overnighted there, waiting for the my plane to England the following morning, I took myself out into the streets to look around this town I really had no desire to go to. Like Malaga is a European Holiday resort on the Mediterranean, filled with chip eating Eurotrash who want to sit on a sun lounger - why would I want to come here?

Also, after the glories of Seville, the Alcazar with it's amazing internals and fabulous gardens, Malaga was always going to be a let down. Well it wasn't, as it happens.

After lots of flicking through airline timetables, Malaga was the best choice to get back to London - flights that didn't get in at midnight and getting me to Luton - not Birmingham, Edinburgh or Manchester. It was a sane option.

So, after leaving Seville at lunch time for the two and a half hour train ride, (through some pretty impressive countryside) I found myself with an afternoon to spend doing not much. The only options for me were wander the cobbled streets, or take in the Picasso Museum. I also had to try and find a new bag to take on the plane (to avoid paying exhorbidant excess baggage fees). I found a lovely zebra print bag - well, nobody's going to knick it. Right size, right price and I should get away with in in hand luggage - not that I've bought that much - but my guide books and souvenirs are heavy - and last time I was lumped with 40 euros excess baggage (for three kgs...). Joy.

Being a Sunday in November, Malaga is closed - or nearly closed. After the buzz of Seville, the joy of the gorgeous streets that are very much alive at all sorts of the day and night.

First up, more on Seville - again, some of the best days of the holiday. Having people to have dinner with really helps single travel along and Georgy and Thom and I crossed paths yet again, so we decided to meet for dinner each night - a good call - you don't get in eachother's pockets, but you get a bit of variety. The Saturday night saw us have a delightful meal of garlic prawns, spiced spinach and chickpeas and chorizo at this little place in the Jewish quarter - marvellous food. This was followed up up by this rather lethal stuff called Aqua de Seville -  a fiery mix of cream, pineapple juice, rum and something sparkling and alcoholic. Ashamed to say my funny, drinking mouth came out and I trundle back to Pablo Neruda street in a merry state. (It was actually Lope de Rueda Street, but as with everywhere else I've stayed, I'm managed to find a familar equivalent - Placido Domingo Station, Julio Eglasias Road...)

The cathedral got a good going over - not quite as impressive as the one in Toledo, but still good for a few hours of poking about. It seems it's not a cathedral here unless you have an anatomically correct rendering of John the Baptist's head. Climbing the Giralda, the large bell tower was also cool, even if it did test my fear of heights. Rather than a narrow winding stair case, this bell tower has long, wide ramps, built to allow horses to the top. For once I climbed to the top of the church and not fear about getting down again.

Also spent a good few hours looking around the Alcazar, Seville's equivalent of the Alhambra. They're very different spaces, but still wonderful to while away a few hours, just drinking in the Moorish splendours. It was again a case of mouth open, drink in the glory. It's a stunning complex, the likes we do not see at home.

The gardens also were something to behold - peaceful, serene, yet full of life. Quiet pavillions, ofset by duck filled ponds, fragrant blooms under palm trees. It's just a joy to wander in this space on a sunny afternoon.

It was also good having Georgy and Thom around - they headed for Morocco just as I took off for Malaga. On our last night in each otgher's company and yet another great meal - partridge lollypops (did you know that chupa chups in Spanish actually means "Sucky suck"?), eye fillet and a mixed seafood platter. Postres, or dessert as it known, was not shared - though Thom and I swapped puddings - he took my chocolate walnut brownie and icecream and It took on his goats milk yoghurt with beetroot ice cream - which was really interesting,but not very sweet.

Then it was off for some flamenco. In every city the hotels were peddalling flamenco. We turned to our trust Lonely Planet and took the free option, down a few back streets in the Santa Cruz barrio. Thing about flamenco - you don't if it's good or not. We fronted up to this tin shed arrangement with what seemed to be every other nationality under the sun. There was little room. It was really smoky. We got some drinks and stood in the cooler, uncrowded spot near the loos. A trio came on stage. A bloke with a guitar, a chubby fellow with hair longer than the woman who came on with them who in this fetching pink get up. The guy on the guitar started up. The other two clap along for a bit. Then the long haired bloke started to yowl, opps, sing. Then the lady started to tap away to the bloke's constipated crooning. It was interesting, but after twenty minutes, Georgy started to feel faint from the cigarette smoke and we had to make a hasty departure.

We weren't sure if it was good flamenco or not, but they all seemed in the moment - what more can you ask for?

Something I haven't mentioned. In Spain everybody smokes, everywhere, all the time. Ciggies are around four euro a packet. Somehow the EU laws of not smoking in restaurants and bars have been resisted. And for non-smokers, this is crap. For reformed smokers, like me, I just have to sit down and shut up and not give into the desire to have one. Thankfully, I resisted. Filthy habit.

Georgy, Thom and I parted company after a final sangria on Pablo Neruda Street. It was an absolute pleasure having them a part of my holiday. Just having somebody to eat dinner with and swap notes with made Spain all the more enjoyable.

And now I'm back in England. Other than a sixteen degree temperature difference and the fact that it hasn't stopped pissing down, I'm settling in well. Here at Gareth and Georgina's place in Hertfordshire, all feels as it should be. It's strange to watch television and not have it dubbed (or have tarot readers on telly late at night). There is real milk to put in your tea, not the reconsituted UHT stuff. When Georgina picked me up at Luton, I immediately went to the driver's side - so used to getting in that side as a passenger. They drive on the correct side of the road again - for the first time in a month.

I lived here for eight years in the nineties. All is pretty much where I left it.

One bonus - we picked up Xanthe and Toby, Gareth and Georgina's kids, from school. Xanthe had a swimming lesson, and I was given the option to go swimming. In England. In November. The best thing about this is that my pasty, flabby body fits right in here at the Hertfordshire University pool. It also woke me up to the fact that I really, really do miss the gym. I can't wait to get back for that.

Hanging out with Georgina and Gareth is the perfect way to reacquaint myself with reality. It's a soft landing. Wednesday I'm in Bath, Thursday back in London and Friday on my way back to Australia.

But a last word on Picasso. I think it's a matter of my perspective that has made me appreciate it more. Getting Picasso is about seeing the parts, and then seeing the sum of parts. Then looking at the parts again. He's absolutely incredible.

It's a bit like me and this holiday. It's been a matter of fun and spectacular occurences. You then look over the time off as a whole. Then consider the holiday in parts again.

And it is only then that I really come to realise just how truly blessed I really am.


Saturday, November 6, 2010

Days 25, 26 & 27: Battered Senses

In the words of Malcolm Fraser, life wasn’t meant to be easy. Thankfully he didn’t say that life wasn’t meant to be beautiful, as the last forty eight hours have been an explosion of exceptional beauty, clarity and joy. It’s been an absolute barrage on all of my senses – nothing’s been left out – sight, smell, touch, hearing and taste (and even my strangely tuned sixth sense has had a ball). Being accepting of this has been a complete joy. Life’s taken on an otherworldly feel to it – reality is a place I’ll go back to soon – until then I’ll just let my senses do the living. It’s pretty cool, to be honest. I’m not sure I like reality any more – I’d rather live like this for a bit.

There have been too many highlights over the last two days, from twenty four hours of speaking English, to witnessing the splendour of the Alhambra, to taking in a Turkish bath, to witnessing rites, to meals of bliss.

Yeah, life wasn’t meant to be easy – but I think that every so often, everybody should feel like this.

I’ve made three starts at writing this, not able to put the words together to say what I’ve been thinking. First attempt was done in the courtyard of my Granada Hotel. It was the only place I could get a decent internet connection. Tough life, huh! It just wasn’t the place to write. I made an attempt on the train to Seville, but between the snoring Belgian behind me and entertaining a couple of Spanish kids with the fact I had a “kanguru” in my bag, not much writing got done.

On arriving in Seville I was told that there was only WIFI available in the lobby, but my room being above it means I get an okay connection and due to one too many sangrias, my fingers went awol and I lost all I wrote.

Mind you, it’s given me time to think about things. Not being able to write has provided some much needed contemplation time. How do you describe some of the best days you’ve had in ages? How can you tell about the barraging of the senses and what it feels to be overcome by all of this? The last few days has been one of sensory overload – from taste, touch, smell, hearing and sight, that and my peculiarly tuned sixth sense have all gone through the wringer in a very good way.

I didn’t know Spain would do this to me. It’s marvellous. The US was fabulous in its austerity and earnestness. The Netherlands was marvellous in its quaintness and order. This is a whole other world. A country of fire and passion and spice, mixed in with a decent reverence to tradition – but which tradition? Which belief? It all mixes into one and you get modern Spain. Yes, sometimes it’s incredibly frustrating the feeling of “Why don’t you fix this?” but then again, this is a country that has seen the likes of some of the most brutal regimes to date – maybe they rightly deserve to hang back and have a bit of fun.

Granada was fun. I don’t come to many places with expectations, but I’ve had so many people hype up Granada that it was hard not to. It has a wonderful vibe to it. Some of this, in part, is due to the large student population that overtakes most of the town and its old buildings. The other is that this town knows it can’t live up to the glory that sits above it in the form the Alhambra. It’s got this love me or leave me feel about it, with its narrow lanes crowded in by tall buildings, the slightly grungy feel and a very incongruous cathedral plonked in the centre of it.

The streets got to me. I call them kid cricket streets – semi-pedestrianised, only few cars dare to go down these narrow lanes and most people walk in the centre of the street. When one does pass, the cry of “car!” goes up, and people slowly move to the side of the road – just like it was when you were a kid playing cricket in the street.

I have to mention the cathedral. Knowing that I had the Alhambra to do the following day, I had a poke around the streets before my Turkish bath. Nowhere near as atmospheric or impressive as Toledo, it has the feel of being plonked right in the middle of the city as a sign of Catholic might. Looking at the history of the place, it may be the reason why the beautiful, but austere building is nestle about these tiny streets. Some of the most famous kings and queens of Spain rest in a chapel off to the side of the building - that part is impressive, but this cathedral left me with a feel of it trying too hard.

The Turkish bath was a guilty pleasure. Nestled in the back streets you walk into this old wooden door into a wonderfully smelling reception. You’re told what you need to do in reasonable English and proceed to the change rooms, where you disrobe, throw on your swimmers and enter this dimly lit, evocatively smelling, cavernous room in which seven pools are located, ranging in temperature from hot bath to effing-cold-I’m-not-a-sodding-iceberg! The trick is to spend about ten minutes in each pool – just relaxing. A decadent, guilty, glorious hour and a half. The sessions are mixed, hence the bathers and there are massage services on offer, which I took up and had Miguel give my back and legs a stern work over. Brilliant! I don’t think I’ll be able to smell rose, sandalwood and pine in the same way again. It’s been the most relaxing two hours of my holiday to date.

Then there’s the Alhambra. Its beauty moved me to tears. Rather than have my guidebook or an audio guide at the ready, I chose to drink this in – I can come back and learn about it later on google. Oh my. This is Europe’s version of the Taj Mahal. Absolutely incredible! The complex of fortresses, gardens and palaces is extensive, and some of the most beautiful works I’ve ever witnessed. You just want to amble slowly, in silence and take all of the majesty into your soul. I loved every minute of the six hours I spent up here.

I can't put word to this. I've tried. It's just too beautiful. Nestled at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountains with their snow coverd peaks, this is just a piece of perfection. Can't say more than that.

Making the day go faster too was a couple I met on the miracle bus on the way up there. (Miracle bus you ask – a European phenomenon – local buses that really do perform miracles getting you up the dodgy roads, cliff tops and narrow lanes – and miraculously get you there in one piece.) Rosemary and Colin, a couple from Melbourne, travelling around for six weeks while she’s on long service leave. I think they were pleased to have somebody to talk to as much as I was. Rosemary and I had a lot of similar interests, Colin was just a treat. He got us to sit down for fifteen minutes in the Generalife Gardens and just watch. He’s a wonderful old soul, with a childish sense of humour, knocking on every door he went past and pathologically crashing people’s photos. It was also lovely, just for a day, not to have to struggle with Spanish for just a few hours.

It was also nice to pay forward all the lessons that Georgy and Thom taught me – the menu of the day, a few language tips etc. We parted with the hope that we meet up back in Melbourne.

I’d arranged to meet Thom and Georgy before they took the late train back to Seville and with a bit of time to kill I meandered around  the Arab quarter of the town, already overwhelmed by the sights of the day. I stumbled across this small church with an open door. Of course I went in. What I found was a simple chapel for Spanish standards. An iron grille separated the main part of the church from the alter, a firmly locked gate clearly stated ¸”Keep out!” Behind the grill, a nun, dressed head to toe in white, veiled like a bride, silent, penitent, silently prayed in front of the later. The chapel was silent. Is sat and watched her for a while. There was a scurrying to the side of the church, another nun in the same get up came to replace her. The woman was hunched over, obviously older, under the veil of pure white. She scraped a chair over the alter, prayed on her knees for a few minutes, before sitting on the chair – obviously no longer able to manage the time on her knees on the hard, marble floor. I left them to their prayers – awestruck at their devotion.
And now I’m in Seville, with a bit of a hangover. I got in during the afternoon and had a bit of a wander. Found what I discovered after was a legendary tapas bar and had one of the best meals I’ve had here to date. The Spanish omelette with almond sauce and bowl of potatoes with tomato with herbs, all washed down with sangria. Had to waddle back for a nana nap after that... Thom and Georgy are still in Spain and are heading off to Morocco tomorrow, so we met up for dinner at nine, the normal time to eat around here (actually it’s a bit early...) , and once again wandered the back streets and found a small restaurant. Garlic prawns, a spiced mix of spinach and chick peas, some chorizo and this stuff called Aqua de Sevilla, (a bit of a brutal mix of cream, rum, sparkling wine, spices and pineapple juice) we traipsed home via an ice cream shop – happy. We’ll do some flamenco tonight as part of our last night in each other’s company.

It's been such a wonderful few days. Every sense of mine is happy.

All I can say is that Spain has taught me time and time again, all you have to do sometimes is slow down, listen feel. And occasionally look up.

Pand xx

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Days Twenty Three and Four: The Memory of Stone

There is something comforting about train travel. The slow undulations of the carriages, the semi silence of those around you, the knowledge that you’re on a form of transport that for all intents and purposes will get you where you need to go without too much fuss. The gentle rumble of the wheels against the tracks act as a lullaby.

Okay, your 7.15 commuter train from Ringwood to the city doesn’t have this romance about it, but I write this sitting on the long distance train from Madrid to Granada. I’m looking out over olive groves and cypress trees and a desiccated landscape that is not unfamiliar. It is very much like the part of Australia I come from, where grapes and olives bloom and the gentle hills roll about. It’s just as dry as my part of South Australia too, though there is no sign of irrigation and there is no sea to be found. We are in the middle of Spain. There is no sea here.

For centuries, battles have been waged over this land. Ancient armies have conquered and divided this nation. More recently, political battles have taken the edge off this powerful and mighty.

The moonscape before me is haunting. I wonder if greener lands can be found to the North.

Saying goodbye to Toledo this morning was hard, but necessary. I will return. I have more of the streets to walk, places to return to, and other parts to explore. In my two days there I was haunted by the memory of stone. The walls and streets of the city resonate a violent, yet educated past. Place a hand on the columns of the cathedral or synagogoe, or on the wall of the Templars commune and you feel the thoughts and prayers of thousands come into your being.

The chains of the prisoners still hang from external walls in parts. The simplicity of synagogues floor plan barely masks the beauty of the intricate lattice and stonework above – the incantations from the Torah etched for eternity in the eves. God is great. The Lord is my Shepherd. Though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I am not afraid. Words that have been uttered for millennia. Words that resonate through every culture. Words that cannot be erased.

Yesterday I managed to redefine bliss. I also tried to get to the bottom of the déjà vu that just would not go away. Turning off my head and turning on my gut, I listened, and listened hard.

The first stop after a necessary round of churros and chocolate (and possibly the worst cup of coffee I’ve had in years – instant would have been better) I made my way to the Cathedral. Unusually, I took the audio tour options, letting somebody else tell about what I was looking at. A great move. Pachelbel’s Canon was playing over the loud speak, interrupted periodically by a message in five languages over the tannoy that photography was strictly prohibited and you risked expulsion and excommunication if caught. For once, this was enforced – and I saw more than one doe-eyed tourist being strong armed out of the joint.

Incredible doesn’t describe the place. A mix of gothic and baroque the enormity of the structure that took nearly 300 years to build does not escape you. The Moorish influences, especially in the Chapter House, are breath taking. Looking up, red blotches appear to hang from thin air. On closer inspection you will see that these are Cardinal’s hats that hang over the resting place of these said men. The hole cut in the ceiling to let the light in over the main alter is inspiring. The museum holds painting from El Greco, Titian and Goya, to name a few. A superb three hours was had.

Lunch was had soon after, taking up Georgy and Thom’s recommendation of this place up on the hill. After a bit of hunting I found the Palacios Restaurant with its 8.50 Euro daily menu. After a kiss and a cuddle from the waiter I entered the dining room. For eight euro you get brilliantly fed. First course, an amazing, traditional stew of white beans and partridge which is served in a bowl that would feed a rugby team. Next course, calamari – there was plenty of choice, but I’d seen the half a huge chicken which was another choice and thought the wiser. What followed was the tenderest calamari I’ve ever had, served with a crisp green salad. This was all washed down with a glass of sangria and postres (dessert) of crème caramel. They feed you good here – it’s a wonderful thing I’m walking for six to seven hours a day to burn it off.

After a final kiss and cuddle from the rather friendly waiter, the next stop, the other synagogue and a couple of churches to check out – including a climb to the top of the tower that overlooks the city, challenging my fear of heights, but well worth it for the views.

The old synagogue proved most interesting. Entering the building I was barraged with another wave of déjà vu. The Kaddish, a Hebrew prayer for the dead started playing in my head. Been here before too. There is something in my spiritual past that has had me in Toledo over and over, whether Templar, Muslim or Jew – or maybe all of the above – the town resonates with me on many levels.

Something not many people outside the Jewish faith know about the Kaddish, this traditional prayer said over the dead. It is a prayer of hope. The words read of continuity and life. God is great. All is as it should be. Trust in life, for this is what life is. (I’m having to do this from memory – no wifi on this train and I can’t google it.) It is a prayer of comfort and grace. It speaks of things positive about the world.

Maybe this is why I had to come here.

My final stop for the day, ice cream. Holidays are about relaxing and having fun, but one must not neglect the diet, and ice cream is the sixth food group as most of us are aware. So finding a sunny square, I find a seller with my favourite flavour – Ron e Pasos (Rum and Raisin), shrugging off my cardigan, placing my back pack at my feet, I watch from my bench as the sun starts to go down behind the hills.

Absolute and utter bliss.

Day’s don’t get much better. Let’s see what Granada brings. I’ve got a Turkish bath at the local hamman booked for early this evening.

Life is really tough at the moment, she grins from ear to ear.

Now if only I could find a way to live over here again, get a European passport and somebody to give me a job as a travel writer – life might just be perfect.


Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Day Twenty Two: Deja Vu

I have been here before.

My footfalls are light on the cobbles, hair and dress blowing gently in the breeze, I make light work of the hills about town. I know these streets. Every inch of them. It's like coming home to an old friend. The memory comes from something cellular, other worldly. The sense of deja vu is calling from every fibre of my being.

This is my town.

In real life, I've never been here before. I'm in Toledo, just south of Madrid for the next two nights, bit I'm only just getting over the feeling of landing somewhere I know intimately. This is a place with which my soul resonates. I should be getting lost as I wander the streets without a map, but I don't - though I'm not sure where I am going, I end up in places that I know I've had things to do with in my past - which ever past that may be.

So far, it's been a great day. After freaking about catching the train last night after seeing that some trains I wanted to get were fully booked, I got an early start and made my way down to Atocha Renfe to get my train tickets for all of the trip. The language barrier still on my mind, I wrote down all of the trains I needed, prepared for what ever may happen. The tactic worked. The woman who served me whose English was about as limited as my Spanish had no worries decipering my ticket needs - so all of that was done by 8.15. It also gave me a very different view of a railway station at this time - in Australia, people are running around like headless chickens - here, the place is near empty.

After the short ride to Toledo at midday and a nearly as long cab ride to my hotel, I found home. Home for the next two days is a hotel down Santa Isabel Street. This is the view from my room.

I want to throw the shutters on the Juliet balcony open but the street is intermittently noisy - never to mind.

After settling in I made my way out to the streets. I'm home.

Two things have helped make the day so wonderful. Firstly the rain has gone and has been replaced by a wonderful, sunny, 18 degrees. The jeans, coat and jumper are packed in the bag again - I've got around in my favorite orange dress, a pair of leggings and my trusty dunlop volleys. Happy clothes.

The other thing that's happened - my Babelfish is working a little better. Whereas over the past few days I've been nervous about the language, now I'm taking a, "just give it a go,"mentality. It's working well. Though I still wish I'd taken a Spanish class in the last few months, I'm much happier just moving about, asking for things, counting in Spanish and generally trying to walk lightly around here. I've mastered the real basics. I even asked for stamps and ice cream today - and I got them. (Not at the same time.) People seem happy that I'm trying. "You English?", normally follows my attempts at Spanish - the "Soy Australiana."gets a nod and a smile. I can't do anything more than try.

The next thing to do was explore. Having another Lucy Honeychurch moment, I shoved my Lonely Planet to the bottom of the bag and just walked, firstly to find some lunch. Finding a restaurant filled with locals I went in and asked for a table for one. Taking the lunch special, I ordered the paella and what ever the waiter thought was good, to be washed down with sangria. Though not the best meal ever, it all tasted good - and the rice puddling, drowned in cinnamon was cool.

Next misson - find out about this place that has enthralled me so. I made myself inconspicious and tagged along with a tour group to see where they would take me - as you do. We ended up at a synagogue at the bottom of the hill. The synagogue has been there since the middle ages. Walking in you're bombarded with a millenium of prayer. It's one of the most peaceful places I've ever stood in.

Then it was to a park nearby. Been here too. Have a sneaky suspicion that I was thrown down this hill for being a heretic at some stage...
Then tere was the visit to the obligatory El Greco painting, a spot of shopping before contemplating what to do next.

The cathedral will be done tomorrow, as will the other synagogue and the mosque.

The last stop of the day was at a Templar Knights exhibition - a fascinating look at the ancient orders that used to live in the city. I bought Mac, my freemason friend, a bottle opener with the Cross of St John on it - hope he likes it - he'd love this place. I somehow think he's be resonating with it even more than I am.

After a decent lunch, dinner was a small affair. Wandering the Toledo streets in the early evening is magic. Kids playing soccer, tourists looking lost, locals making their way about, people walking dogs. On finding an open geezer bar I ordered some patatas bravas and a  beer. (It's a public holiday here nd many shops are closed, and a geezer bar is where the local old guys hang out  - guaranteed good beer). I was greeted with a kiss on the cheek and something Spanish from a local. He could have said anything from "Happy All Souls Day" to "Nice tits". Doesn't matter really.

After dinner and a second beer, I made my way back here. I feel safe here. I'm being guided by an inner knowing.

This is my town.

I am at peace on my return.

Pand x

Monday, November 1, 2010

Day Twenty and Twenty One: Fun and Frustrations

If there is one thing I hate doing, it's queuing. I hate it. I'd rather have my labia peirced than stand in a queue. It's a sodding waste of time. I should be really good at it as it's in my genes - I'm of Australian and English origins. Poms and Aussies are very good at queuing, but the Spanish - oh my, they have the queue down as an art form.

The last two days have been great, but not without their frustrations.

Firstly, I'm finding the language barrier somewhat alienating. Though I can pretty much get the gist of everything said to me, I can't really talk back unless ordering off a menu, asking for the toilets or the bill, buying something in a shop or saying hello, goodbye, please and thank you. I've mastered., "I'm Australian, I'm sorry, I don't speak Spanish - though I can speak French if that helps", too. The fact that the people of Madrid gesticulate a lot helps a heap. When things are written down, it's fine - my French and Latin help to decipher what is being said - still, after a three days of this, I've got brain ache.

I met up with Georgy and Thom yesterday, who helped to show me the ropes around here - and if I'm honest, I think they've saved me from the pits of despair and gave me some great tips about getting about. They're currently on a five month round the world trip and having a ball. As they have seven weeks left of their travels they've seen everything and done a heap.

They made the comment that of all the countries they have travelled, Spain has been the least English friendly of the lot of them. It's true, why should they learn English, it's their country, and it's the language with the third most speakers in the world - but it can make travelling confronting. Or in my case it just makes me feel useless.Then again.when a woman approaches you on the Metro and starts blathering at you, staring at you like you have a wart on the end of your nose, you get to play dumb. When she then says in a deep voice, "Give me some money!", you can respond with a rather sharp no. Thankfully she went away.

Georgy and Thom also gave me the heads up on eating around here. Breakfast is what you can scour out of any open cafe, which finding one before ten can be hard  - churros and chocolate are a favourite. Bakeries are good. I've cheated and popped in to Starbucks for a cappucino and a croissant for the last two days - as there is one around the corner and it's easy.

Lunch will normally be your main meal of the day. You can look around for a good deal and for ten euros get a three course meal off a daily selection at a bar or restaurant. And then there is dinner. The restaurants in Madrid open around 8 pm - and start to get busy around ten or eleven. Again, great, but after a solid day of walking and you're famished at six you have to look at your feeding strategies.

Georgy, Thom and I went on a walking tour of Madrid in the morning after catching up with churros and chocolate. The tour took in the major sites near the Plaza Major. It was cool. The guide showed us about, explaining a bit of the history. This was followed by lunch at a great restaurant near the Opera House. It was here we first witnessed the best of Spanish queuing. We must have stumbled across a popular place. The three of us were seated pretty much straight away in a downstairs area and had a leisurely lunch. In the hour and a half we were there, the staircase filled three times over with people queuing. For lunch. Like who queues for lunch?

Similar happened at dinner. We went our separate ways after lunch only to meet for dinner at eight. Once again, we went to a restaurant that appeared to be populated by locals. Once again we were seated quickly. While Thom and I polished off what appeared to be half a cow, people began to queue. We were all amazed. It's one of those cultural things - normally at home you'd be given a time to come back or told to go away, but people lined the aisle waiting for dinner - old and young.

But the mother of all queues happened today. I'd pegged today as the day I'd do the art galleries due to the forecast of rain, the first being the Prado, and it was on my list of essentials. I decided to leave early so I could hopefully miss the crowds and the queues.

No such luck. I arrived at eleven to find that there were two queues going around the block. Though they were moving they weren't going anywhere for the day. Also, there was nobody directing traffic. Why were there two queues? What was going on? They were about as long as each other so I joined the one nearest the building - would be safe bet. An hour an a half later, with the aid of a nice couple from Santander who sheltered me and another with their umbrella fromt he intermittent showers, I got to the head of the queue. What do you mean this was the Renoir line? turns out there was a special exhibition on, the ticket would get me in to the gallery as well as the Renoir. Phew.

Madrid is fantastic for art, though the Prado will always be sullied by the hour and a half wait to get in (as well as no public drinking fountains and a mile long queue at the cafeteria - people must get heat stroke in summer... ) It really was fantastic, looking around some of the great names of Art. The black Goyas have always been of interest and they didn't disappoint. There's a heap of religious art there too, but after three hours of wandering about, you can only take so much of the headless John the Baptists and crucifiction scenes. It was art nerds paradise. Oh, and the Renoir bit was lovely - really striking, just the impressionists aren't really my cup of tea.

I tumbled out three hours later - starving, thirsty and sore. Art galleries are more brutal than football.

After a quick late lunch it was off the to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum just across the road. After a short, fast moving queue (ten minutes, could handle that) I was in what is possibly the best art gallery I've ever been in. Superb stuff - more my cup of tea with more modern fare - Degas, Dali, Lichenstein, Hockney and Pollack - along wth a slather of Dutch, Amercan and German masters to boot. It all ended with a - photo exhibition of Mario Testino photos. Bliss.

I staggered out of the second gallery completely arted out at six thirty. No more galleries for a few days I think but I'm glad I've seen both.

Off to Toledo today. Georgy and Thom warned me get to the train station early - they xray all of your bags on the longer distance journeys here after a series of horrific bombings in 2008.

I'm sad to be leaving Madrid, as I know I've only really scratched the surface and there is so much to see and do here. It's another place I want to return to - but with a travelling companion to make eating more of an experience (they only tend to serve real paella to two or more people in the good places) and definitely after taking a Spanish course.

Take care,

Pand xx