Happy Easter!

Wishing you all a very Happy Easter. May it be filled with loved ones, far too much chocolate, and lots of literary goodness. After all, if the Easter bunny has time to read, then so do you!

~

Watercolour by Amber Alexander

XYZ is for the End of a Journey

Yes, I’m cheating. I could have made X is for Xylophone, Y is for Yazee and Z is for Zebra, but I’m not going to.  Truth be told, I didn’t play a Xylophone, scream “Yazee!” or even see a zebra whilst travelling.

And XYZ really is such a poetic metaphor for ‘the end’, don’t you think?

On December 30th 2011, I left for a European holiday. It was the first time in a good long while that I’d travelled not for study or for research, but for me.  Five countries in four weeks proved exhausting, but also incredibly gratifying.  Exploring new places, visiting old friends, and indulging in foreign food, cultures and people made a recipe for wonderful experiences and memories that will last a lifetime.

But the end of a journey is bitter sweet. The excitement of getting home to your own bed and the joy at seeing family and friends is coupled with the realisation that amazing experiences have now come to a close, and reality awaits.

Castles, canals, and home-made lasagne from your Italian host-mother are replaced with work, study and Vegemite on toast*.  And before long, a week has passed. Two weeks. Three. And then it all just seems like a faraway dream; something you did a long, long time ago.

Thankfully I have this A-Z series of posts to now look back on and remember what wonderful experiences were had, and I thank you all for keenly following this travel memoir-come-nostalgic holiday journal with me.

It’s now been two months since I returned to Australia, but already I feel like it all happened a lifetime ago.

This trip allowed me to start 2012 with a bang, but with so much planned for the year ahead, I intend to finish it with a bang too.  I am now 6 weeks into my Masters in Creative Writing course where I am actually holy-shit-scaringly penning my first fantasy novel. It’s new and it’s terrifying, but I’m using the explorations and experiences of my trip to fuel it… and I hope you will stick along for the ride.

For now I leave you with my Top 10 Travel Memories. If you’d like to see a list of the whole series, hover your mouse over the ‘About Katy’ link at the top of the page for the drop down link.

Happy reading, minions!

10. Watching the Scottish Ballet perform Sleeping Beauty.

9. Walking the cobbled stone streets of the Ancient Town of Rye.

8. Getting lost in Venice.

7. Exploring London on a sunny winter’s day.

6. Drinking hot chocolate at The Elephant Cafe, à la JK Rowling style.

5. Meeting up with my childhood best friend after 17 years.

4. Listening to live celtic folk music in an Edinburgh pub.

3. Being greeted at a Hamburg train station by my brother holding a Hawain garland and waving a German flag.

2. Arriving by night to the lights and Christmas markets of beautiful Krakow, Poland.

1. Seeing Edinburgh Castle for the very first time.

* I secretly missed my Vegemite on toast breakfast ritual. Shhh!

Journey of a pencil wielding, grammar-free child

"The mathematically-minded matriarch of the family unexpectedly pulled through with arguably the finest piece of writerly wisdom I have ever received."

Today I’m guest posting over at the wonderful Dodging Commas as part of a new series of guest posts with the theme Inspired to Write.  Blogger, writer and Dodging Commas hostess, Stef, explains:

Writers love talking about inspiration. We like to moan when we aren’t inspired and we like to boast when that sudden rush of inspiration has just jolted our minds into action. Inspiration can come from many sources – we can be inspired by places, images, words, actions, music, current events … and we can be inspired by people.

I have approached the writers behind some of my favourite blogs to contribute to Dodging Commas on the theme Inspired to Write. This is an opportunity to showcase a favourite author, express gratitude to a teacher, or dote upon a friend or family member. Above all, it is a celebration of the people who started us on our creative journeys, the people who keep us going, and the people who inspire us to follow our passion.

For me personally, it was a gratifying opportunity to explore the fundamental supporters of my creative dreams, as well as the literary peers who have shaped and influenced the kind of writer I strive to be.

For any creative undertaking, there will always exist those people who cease to question when it is you will be getting a ‘real job’, or who glaze over in the eyes when you try to explain your character arc or story synopsis. It’s not an easy job, supporting a slightly nutty, pencil-in-her-hair creative introvert, so those who do so are well deserving of the recognition.

To read my post and other literary, grammar and writing-related posts, head over to Dodging Commas this instant!

…Or at your earliest convenience.

Journey of a pencil wielding, grammar-free child

When Stef first asked if I’d like to write a guest post on who inspires me to write, I grinned and swayed like a giddy school girl. An opportunity to gasbag about the people in my life who have influenced the writer I am today? Oh, the joy!

Then I began to panic. How was I to contain a life-long accumulation of inspirational words, thoughts, ideas and people into an appropriately sized blog post?

[continue reading]

V is for Venice

Venice: In my humble opinion, one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

As mentioned in my S is for Souvenirs post, this was not my first trip to the city of love. Nor was it my second. It was actually my fourth, and that in itself testifies to the magic of this city.

What I find with many popular cities when travelling, is that people will often go to a city to seek out things to see within that city. In Berlin you might go to the Brandenburg Gate, in Rome to the Colosseum, in Paris to the Eiffel Tower, and in London to Westminister Abbey. It would no doubt be considered a failed expedition if a number of those ‘things to do’ weren’t ticked off the the list.

Venice is different.

Venice is a city that is enjoyed just for being itself. Sure, there are piazzas and murano glass islands and architectural glories to marvel, but I genuinely believe, and have also heard it said from others, that the beauty of Venice lies simply in being able to walk through the maze of worn alleyways, crossing bridged canals and watching gondolas glide by as the gondoliers whistle or sing away in Italian.

That’s why the best way to enjoy Venice is to put the map away and just wander.

That’s right, wander.

There is definitely something to be said for getting lost in Venice. In fact, I’m inclined to say it’s the only way to truly enjoy it. Follow the main drag and you will end up in Piazza San Marco in half an hour, with your fair share of souvenir shops guiding your way through crowded narrow alleyways.

Steer away even slightly from the main drag, and you’ll find yourself walking alone across beautiful bridges, passing locals doing their grocery shopping, and children on their way to school. Of the 409 bridges in Venice, no two are the same, and with the warm ochres, autumn oranges and rusty reds that paint the buildings, there is no tiring of the beautiful surrounds.

You could spend a whole day just wandering like this and never lose interest.

This particular trip to Venice happened to take place just when the big freeze across Europe began. It was -4 degrees and freezing, but despite fog and cold, it did not dampen my admiration of the place. It did, however, make for a relatively brief wander, with frozen toes determining our return home after just three hours.

Even after four visits, I’m still eager to return to Venice. There is something magical and terribly unique about a city immersed in water, yet there isn’t a canal or submerged building that looks out of place.

I don’t know that I’ll ever tire of the old buildings, quiet alleyways and rocking Gondolas. What I do know is, if you haven’t already, it’s about time you too, went and got lost in Venice.

Click on any of the photos below to enlarge


U is for Undeserving

Perspective

I confess, I sometimes feel undeserving of the opportunities I have in life.

What have I done to deserve these amazing experiences, to have family and friends who support my aspirations, who encourage me to reach for the stars and stand by me until I do?

The answer is probably nothing, and yet still I travel and I write and I live a life, financially modest, yes, but rich in experiences.

Whenever I travel, it becomes even more apparent. In Europe especially, I notice a particular despondency in response to the current economic crisis. My friends in Italy tell me how, despite qualifications and experience, they are lucky to find work in a bar or undertaking straightforward office work, an attitude reflected across much of the continent.

Homeless people riddle the cities whilst disabled people walk up and down the trains, handing out cards explaining their situation and their need for money. A discernible gloom has settled across many faces, and it is frightening to think that my own country is by no means unsusceptible to these same difficulties. In fact, I fear we are already seeing the first signs of them.

It remains said, however, that despite terrorist attacks and a global recession, despite choosing to pursue a profession that earns little (and still no) money, and despite prolonging the life of a student in a desire to continue learning, I have still been fortunate enough to travel, to experience new cultures, to meet new people, to be rendered speechless by Scottish castles, to have enjoyed grilled cheese in a Polish night market, and most of all, to be in a position to make these choices, all under the certainty that on my return home I will have a roof over my head and food on the table.

Travel is so often remembered for its highs, for the broadening of minds, and the appreciation of the new, that it is easy to cast aside and forget the less cheerful observations of human life. We are, many of us, so far removed from being that monumentally disadvantaged, that is difficult to know how to react or deal with it. As such, we ignore it, and remain silently grateful for what we have.

With the Kony 2012 campaign underway, it has precipitated a worldwide reaction to the brutality taking place in not-so-far away countries. Whilst this is by no means a new phenomenon, nor the only case of its kind, I can’t help but ask, why them? Why me? Why are some children born into a life of suffering, and others into a life of opportunity? It just doesn’t seem fair that the course of a life is decided before it has even started.

With or without Kony 2012, these are some of the questions that often travel home with me amidst the photographs and the souvenirs and the wonderful experiences.

I think it is important to live the life we were granted, to make the most of our opportunities, and to live without guilt of our happiness. That said, I think it is equally important to remember those less fortunate; not to be grateful for what we have or to feel better about our own lives, but to be reminded that the difference between our successes and another’s failures, sometimes comes down to little more than the country we were born in.

The wonderful memories of my travels will always bring me joy, but it is the observations of those less fortunate that serve as a reminder of how far we, as a human race, still have to go before all have the opportunity to enjoy the simple things in life.

What I hope to take from my travel experiences is the understanding that whilst I am in so many ways underserving of my circumstances, I am nonetheless in a position of power to change the course of humanity and guide it towards a world where all people live equally and suffering as we know it, ceases to exist.

T is for Transport

Me and my travel buddy, Hayley, going slightly crazy after transport misfortunes.

It has been mentioned before on this blog that I have a tendency to avoid public transport due to my uncanny ability to attract the strangest, craziest, creepiest strangers in human sight.

I once had a crazy Italian man shout at me from the back of the bus before stumbling towards me and, much to my protests, stroke my hair with much enthusiasm before the bus driver intervened.

Another time I had a lady on the train ask me to watch over her little girl while she went to the bathroom, only to emerge an hour later, high as a kite.

I even once had a woman throw all my bags and suitcases into the aisle of a train in a fit of rage, for no apparent reason.

Like I said, Katy and transport are not the best of friends.

Unfortunately, public transport is an unavoidable part of travel and whilst not always pleasant, it is sure to provide excellent fodder for stories.

The first of my travel woes began on the very first leg of the trip when I discovered that the sound to my entertainment system, that same system I was relying on to get me through the 14 hour flight with its many new release and classic movies, was, naturally, broken. After two hours of many different air hostesses trying to fix it, and a few hints from me that an upgrade to business class wouldn’t go astray, it was concluded that the system was not repairable and I was instead compensated with three remarkably droll finance magazines to help pass the time.

Still on the high that comes with the start of a journey, I was unperturbed by the news and instead decided to rest my head while I could.

My optimism soon waned, and after a few hours I turned on the screen and watched the moving pictures in silence. I then came up with the grand idea that perhaps I could watch something with English subtitles. Sadly, the English movies only came with foreign subtitles. The foreign movies on the other hand…

Der ganz große Traum

I ended up watching a brilliant German film by the name of Der Ganz Grosse Traum, or in English The Really Big Dream.  Based on a true story, it is a film about the man who introduced soccer to Germany and the trials he faced in that endeavour. A highly engaging story with some brilliant acting, I feel in hindsight I should be thankful to the faulty entertainment system simply for its part in leading me to this movie.

I was later unimpressed, as you could imagine, when the same issue presented itself on the second 9 hour flight. Thankfully, the plane was empty enough for me to move to a four seater, where I was able to stretch out to my heart’s content.

Other notable transport stories included: being interrogated at British Customs and nearly not being let into the country by a scary customs officer because I didn’t know the postcode of the address I was staying at; being on a train in Berlin as it ran over someone on the train tracks (which I spoke more about here); evading train controllers in Germany after discovering we had the wrong tickets; being patted down in a private booth at security in Abu Dhabi; and fearing death with every cough, sneeze and sniffle heard on every plane, train and bus after watching Contagion.

View of the alps from the plane.

But it wasn’t all bad. The four hour train trip from London to Edinburgh was particularly pleasant, so much so that I almost wish it had been longer just for the chance to enjoy more of the beautiful scenery and the joys of being seated in a ‘silent carriage’. The short, one hour train trip from Ferrara to Venice was also enjoyable after we forked out a few extra Euros to sit in First Class. And let’s not forget the fantastic views that come with flying several thousand feet in the sky.

Whilst their were some dramas, there was a discernible lack of ‘crazies’, which was a welcome change. I don’t think I’ll be making best buddies with public transport any time soon, but I can be thankful at least that I survived without anyone stroking my hair or throwing my suitcases around in a rage.

Do you have any memorable transport experience to put you off travel forever? Do you, like me, attract the ‘crazies’?

Meanwhile, if you’d like to read some more crazy stories, Aussie writer, Kaitlyn, over at Transports of Delight has been documenting her latest encounters with weirdos on public transport. Check it out!

S is for Souvenirs

Let’s face it, with a hefty 9 year student debt and no full-time employment on the horizon, I’m not exactly one to spend big money or partake in extravagant shopping sprees when travelling. All my carefully saved pennies go towards getting me to my destination, making sure I’m supplied with several meals a day whilst there, and getting me back home again.

Luckily for me, I’m less into souvenirs and more into experience, which generally happens to be free. Walks down cobbled streets, watching sunrises over foreign waters, catching up with far away friends, admiring architecture. These things keep me happy and sustained whilst travelling and frankly I feel I’m rather the better for devoting my time to living the experience rather than wasting it in search of the latest Louis Vuitton handbag.

That said, I do like to bring home with me things that remind me of places I’ve been. Photos are usually the best kind of souvenir, postcards too, but sometimes they just won’t do.

Here’s what I picked up on my latest trip.

Masks of Venice, Italy

You’ll be hearing more about Venice in a later post, but let me just say that this was my 4th visit to the city of love, and it was no less charming than it was the first three times. It is the personification of a place you can enjoy without having to spend a cent, the beauty of it being simply having the opportunity to walk the canals and to get lost in the maze of bridge spotted alleyways. On this trip, however, I decided to take home with me a little piece of Venice in the form of two hand made Venetian masks. The photos don’t really do them justice, but I assure you they are stunning.

Golden Venetian mask

Tragedy and Comedy, Venetian mask

Art of Edinburgh, Scotland

I love checking out local art when I’m travelling. Sadly it is almost never practical to take any of it home with me, but this time I found this beautiful little painting of Edinburgh by Rob Hain and couldn’t leave it behind. I love the vibrant colours and the somewhat fantastical quality of it; the moon in the sky above the castle and the steam engine at its foot.

“Meet me by the Fountain” by Rob Hain

Dragon of Krakow, Poland

As you already know from my past post, Krakow is said to have been built on the ashes of a dragon. Cool huh? So naturally there are dragon souvenirs everywhere. I was disappointed to find that most of them were pretty tacky and sadly labelled ‘made in china’, which is why I was so happy to find this little guy at a local toy maker’s market. He’s wooden, hand painted, has legs and arms that swing and eyes that rattle, and a wire coil to hang him from the ceiling with.

Wooden toy dragon

Life Ring of Hamburg, Germany

I confess, I’m not really sure why I bought this little life ring. Perhaps it’s my deep appreciation for harbours, or the fact that I grew up on a town by the sea. Or it could be that Hamburg surprised me with its canals and massive shipping port. Probably it was because it cost one Euro and I knew it would be light enough to carry home in my suitcase. Either way I picked it up and here it is.

Hamburg Ahoi!

Books of Edinburgh, Scotland

The Folk Takes of Scotland, retold by Norah & William Montgomerie

Edinburgh, the city of literature. Needless to say, here I picked up BOOKS. Oh my, there were just so many pretty ones to choose from. Beautiful covers, rare finds, first editions. But alas, I stayed the trembling hand that willed me to buy them all and restrained myself to these two.

The first is a book of Scottish folk tales and I confess I was wooed by the cover alone. Even so, it is a wonderful collection of beautiful folk stories.

The second is a book, which I think is pretty darn groovy. It’s the Story World Storytelling Kit, and while it may be for ages 4 and up, this 26 year old was enamoured. I kid you not, I opened this thing and fireworks went off in my eyes. Basically, it consists of forty tarot-sized story cards, each with a beautiful image on the front and on the back a one sentence description and three questions. The idea is to get your creative wheels turning to give you story ideas. It also comes with a book that has further card keywords and descriptions as well as tips on how to use the cards and examples of stories created from the cards.

How cool is that?!

But that’s not all. There are EXPANSION PACKS.  The top up packs have more specific cards to add to your collection with themes like “Quests and Adventures”, “Faery Magic” and “Animal Tales”.

I picked up both of these books from the gorgeous Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh’s High Street. Well worth a visit. If, however, you live in faraway lands and don’t own a personal jet plane, apparently you can find these gems on Amazon, so I highly recommend you check them out for you or the kids.

The Man in the Moon storytelling card

Back of the Man in the Moon card

The Story World Storytelling kit

Pottery of Rye, England

As I mentioned in my post R is for Rye, I was rather amazed to find that the pottery trade in Rye had not ceased to flourish with age. With my parent’s house in Australia dotted with the Rye pottery that they brought over from England 15 years ago, I knew they’d appreciate a 2012 addition to their collection, so I bought them Rye Pottery tea cups. They are English after all.

Rye Pottery tea cups for the oldies

Shotglasses of The Earth, Everywhere

Okay, so this is my small indulgence. I’m not entirely sure when it began, but many years ago I started collecting shot glasses as souvenirs from places I had visited. At the time I think I figured they were small and light (important things to consider for a heavy packer such as myself), they can be found in every city, and also because I thought they might be nice to pull out of the cupboard when having friends over for drinks. Ironically, I no longer drink alcohol and don’t remember the last time my friends and I thought it would be a good idea to pull out 40 odd shot glasses and get wasted, but no matter.

The point is, I can’t seem to drop the habit, and continue to pick up a shot glass in every town, city and country I find myself in.

Lots of little shot glasses, lined in a row

There you have it. My small collection of souvenirs from the trip.
What do you like picking up or collecting when travelling?

R is for Rye

With its cobbled streets, castle, and wonderfully preserved medieval, Tudor and Georgian houses, this ancient town situated in the south east of England just so happens to be where I grew up as a little girl, as did my father before me.

Once surrounded almost completely by water, the town dates back to before the Norman Conquest of 1066, and is known historically for being an important member of the Cinque Ports confederation, its role in providing ships for the King in times of war, as well as its involvement with the smuggling trade during the 18th and 19th Centuries, achieved through vaulted cellars, secret tunnels and passageways, many of which still exist today.

The Mermaid Inn

The Mermaid Inn, one of the oldest inns in England, has played host to Charlie Chaplin, Pierce Brosnan, Andy Garcia, Johnny Depp and none other than Her Royal Majesty, Queen Elizabeth and her mother.

Rye itself has produced a number of well known names, most notably being Sir Paul McCartney. I’m also proud to say that it has been a place of inspiration for a number of writers, including Henry James, Conrad Aiken, Joseph Conrad and H. G. Wells.

Bestowed with unseasonably mild temperatures and a few somewhat rare cloudless days, my Auntie and Uncle took my well-timed visit as an opportunity to accompany me around the town to strangely familiar, yet foreign places.

Little things stirred the memory of my childhood self – doorways, a clock tower, cobbled streets, the smell of fish and chips – but it was more the overall ambiance and character of this small historic town that set me reminiscing.

Rye Church and Graveyard

With a population of just over 4000, the town of Rye is about as quaint and as ‘English’ as it gets. Tiny doorways and black beams across white walls line the cobbled streets, whilst behind the medieval church a sun speckled graveyard sits rather beautifully as little red-breasted robins sing happily in the overhead tree branches.

The smell of hot coffee and freshly baked pastries pour out of charming little coffee houses, each furnished with mismatched lounge chairs, the walls lined with bookshelves and antiques.

I can’t help but find magic in the names of places: Lamb Cottage, Mermaid Street, The Mint, Wish Ward, Oak Corner, Watchbell Street. They all sound like names from a children’s fantasy story. Other places have names rooted in history; The Apothecary coffee shop was named after its former use as an Apothecary. Meanwhile, the smell of meat pies oozes from a little shop tucked away down a narrow street, its cast iron sign swinging from the roof identifying it as Simon the Pieman. 

Simon the Pieman

I think every town should have a Simon the Pieman.

As you get closer to the water, anchors, antique shops and the smell of the sea are prevalent. I see pottery in shop windows that look much like the Rye pottery we brought over to Australia with us almost two decades ago, and wonder at the lasting trade of some professions.

Meanwhile, the warm and welcoming inns provide hearty meals of roast beef, oven roasted potatoes covered in hot gravy for a late lunch.

Needless to say, I took many photos on this part of the trip and delighted my parents on my return as they scrutinised pictures of a place they once called home, much changed but also very much the same.

Even if I had not spent the first few years of my life there, I’m convinced I’d love it all the same.  It has character and charm, but it also has history. The idea of smugglers silently rowing by veil of night into hidden passageways beneath the town is a thrilling thought. Not only that, but the fact that my father recognised buildings, streets and places he used to walk by and play in as a child, is testament to the wonderfully preserved nature of this ancient town.

Yep, there is definitely something special about Rye.

Antique shop in Rye

Gravestones bow with the weight of their age

The House with Two Front Doors

Cobbled stones

Sunset down Watchbell Street

Typical houses of Rye

Old Anchor by the water

We're a funny lot, us English folk

Church Graveyard

Cobbled street overlooking Rye rooftops

Q is for Questions

So far A-P has been all about me. Now I want to hear from you!

Because polls and surveys are so much fun, why not have a go and fill out this one, just for kicks? I’m not doing any research or collecting personal data (all answers are anonymous), I’m just interested in hearing about you and your experiences with travel. Some questions are just for fun, and others I’m generally interested in hearing your thoughts on.

I’ll post the results on the Storytelling Nomad Facebook Page in the coming weeks, as well as some of the more creative answers, if you feel like getting inventive.

Silly answers welcome, but keep it clean, children.

Take the Storytelling Nomad Q is for Questions Online Survey now! (Fear not! This link will not bite or infect your computer. It will, however, open a new page)

P is for Pizza, Pasta and Pigging Out

Look at that menu. I mean really look at it. As if choosing a pizza isn’t difficult enough without three folded pages of small print selections. Just in case you were wondering and don’t possess my inquisitive procrastination skills to justify counting how many pizzas there actually are on that menu, I’m happy to inform you that there are eighty seven.

87!!

I’m not the first, and I certainly won’t be the last, to declare that Italians know how to cook a good meal. I mean, hello, any country that can even think of 87 pizza toppings, clearly knows what they’re doing. They’ve got skills I tell you.

Now before we begin, let’s get a couple of things straight. I love food. Eating to me is less a survival skill than it is an activity I look forward to participating in several times a day. With food comes cooking, which I love, and socialising, which I love, and just the general enjoyment that comes with eating yummy yummy things.

Fact number two. I am a fussy eater. This presents a slight problem for someone that likes to eat several times a day. I never got over that phase where you stick your nose up at vegetables and poke around at lumpy mashed potato. Yep, I’m one of those. 

My host mum serving up her amazing lasagne. Love her.

So, to find a place where I can pick anything from a menu and 99.9% of the time immensely enjoy it, is no small victory. But it is a victory that Italy can claim as its own.

I’m always very spoilt in Italy.  The benefit of staying with host families and friends, is that you get cooked everything traditional style. Every time I visit my host mum, Marilena, she makes a point of cooking me the local dishes and Italian faves. Lasagne, Gnocchi with Ragù, Pizza, Bean Minestrone, and my favourite, Cappellacci di zuca – a kind of ravioli filled with pumpkin and served with ragù. Buonissimi!

This trip was no different, and I’m sure the scales can prove it.

Home made salami chillin' out in the garage

What I did during my week in Italy was determined according to a well-thought out plan of what food I needed to eat and where: Marilena told me which days she wanted to cook me her specialities; two special trips were made into town to an amazing pizza place called Arcabaleno, which sells hot squares of pizza for about 1 Euro wrapped in paper ready for you to eat standing up there and then; I met up with a friend at a restaurant well known for its Cappellacci; and I even made a trip out to the Italian countryside while my High School friend, Maurizio, and his family made me home made pizza, topped with the home made salami they had hanging in their garage.

It really doesn’t get more authentic than that.

One night I met up with a group of friends at a bar for what they call an aperitivo. Basically what this involves is complimentary snack food on the basis that you’ll be buying drinks. Now, I’m not talking peanuts in a cracked bowl. I’m talkin’ smoked salmon, olives, prosciutto, fresh bread, cheeses, pieces of pizza and savory pastries.

My mouth is watering just thinking about it.

This is what cappellacci di zucca looks like. Thanks to Google for the image (it never stayed on my plate long enough to get a photo of my own)

Needless to say, I pigged out in Italy. The flavours and the care the Italians put into their food is evident in the enjoyment one experiences at every meal. On serving, the cook always waits in anticipation for appraisal, but I personally have never had to force a polite “it’s delicious” without genuinely meaning it. In fact “it’s delicious” would be an understatement for most of the meals I’ve had the pleasure of feasting on in Italy.

Like I said, they’ve got skills.

I have tried to replicate recipes back home, but they just don’t have that same oomph about them. I can only conclude that a) I’m a terrible cook or b) I need to go to Italy more often. It’s a tough call, but I’m leaning towards door number two.

Either way, I ate my way through Italy. Many a time I had pizza cheese dripping down my chin and pasta sauce splashed on my cheeks. I inhaled every meal like it was going out of fashion and whilst my table manners were probably appalling as I spoke with my mouth full, there simply was no time to concentrate on anything else but devouring and savouring that mouthwatering food.

And I’m happy to say that the Italians, they love it. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing someone enjoy something you’ve created from scratch. And in that, I’m more than happy to oblige.

Buon appetito!

Maurizio's Dad making pizza bases

Very excited about the lasagne I'm about to inhale

Being served pumpkin gnocchi with ragù

O is for Old Friends

Italian High School reunion

One of the best parts of travelling is catching up with old friends that have either dispersed themselves sparingly (and at times inconveniently) across all corners of the globe, or who have stayed exactly where you first found them, patiently awaiting your return.

In Italy I was able to meet up with my old Italian school friends. It had been about 3 years since I’d seen most of them. In Edinburgh I stayed with my beautiful High School friend Beatrice, also from Italy, who I hadn’t seen in 5 years. In Berlin I stayed with the loveliest German girl you’ll ever meet, Nathalie, who I met whilst she was studying in Australia a couple of years ago. And Simon in Hamburg, the funniest German guy you’ll ever meet, who I first met about a year ago in Australia whilst he was studying at university here with my brother.

5 year reunion with Beatrice

They are the type of friends you can spend years apart from, but as soon as you meet again you pick up just exactly where you left off, having a laugh and chatting away as if it were only yesterday that you last saw each other.

To me, these are the best kind of friends, and all of them have played their own part in wonderful memories of travel and friendship.

But, while all special, none of these reunions quite compare to the one I had in London.

I moved to Australia from England close to 17 years ago now. I was 10 years old at the time, and never really considered the possibility that I may not see any of my friends again, or at least for a good long while. Even at that young age I was a traveller at heart, and I looked only to the new horizions that awaited me, waving goodbye to my friends with not a worry in the world.

Of course, this was at a time when Facebook was not yet a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye. If you wanted to keep in contact, you wrote letters of the snail mail kind. I wrote loads of letters, taking special care that my handwriting was neat and pretty-looking. I bought postcards too. And gifts.

What I’m terrible at, is sending letters. Sending postcards. Sending gifts. In my defence, I was 10 and totally engaged in immersing myself and fitting in to a new country, school and culture. But nonetheless, with unsent letters comes lost friendships, and by the time I was old enough to really put any thought to getting back in contact, I wasn’t sure how, and was even less sure that I would be remembered if I tried.

Then came social networking.

After finding and reminiscing with a few friends here and there from my childhood, there was one in particular who I never forgot over the years. She had been my best friend right up to the day I left England.

We caught up as best as you can through online means and filled each other in on the most significant bits and pieces of the last 17 years. But when I knew I’d be stopping in England for a week this year, we decided it was time to catch up properly.

When I first saw Naomi standing outside the London pub waiting for me, it was all totally surreal. I still remembered her as the 10 year old with glasses, my perfect nerdy friend who would play gladiator with me in the playground and refer to everything as ‘twee’ and ‘beardy’, which we later puzzled over with no definite conclusion as to why.

I still saw her as that sweet little 10 year old, but also as the much taller, more beautiful adult version.

We caught up, we chatted, we laughed. We spoke of school days and scandals, exchanged memories and took a time machine all the way back to the early 90s. The most amazing thing, however, was the following discovery:

  • Naomi is an actress.
  • She studied at acting school and now performs at the Leicester Square theatre with her stand-up comedy group Improbabble.
  • Her best friend in England is a writer and a linguist.
  • She also does some transcription work for a bit of extra cash to support her creative endeavours.

Okay, before you ask what this has to do with the price of eggs, let me tell you a bit about me.

  • My best friend in Australia, Mel, is an actress.
  • She studied at acting school and now performs on stage, film and in theatres.
  • I am a writer and a linguist
  • Sometimes I do transcription work for a bit of extra cash to support my creative endeavours.

We obviously took our separation quite hard all those years ago, because we have subconciously replaced ourselves with in-country counterparts! Not only that, but we now also both support our low-income creative lifestyles with the same non-related professions. I find it totally fascinating, and it makes me wonder at the sort of people we are each drawn to, even at a young age. Do all our grown up friends mirror our childhood ones? Perhaps despite how much we may grow up or ‘change’, we still seek to surround ourselves with people of the same qualities.

We ended up talking for several hours and were so busy catching up that we even forgot to get a photo of the occasion. But no matter. It was an amazing reunion with my best friend of old, and we said goodbye promising not to leave it another 17 years before the next one.

And Naomi, if you’re reading this, thank you for staying the same beautiful friend I remember from my childhood. I’m convinced that had we grown up together, we’d still be best friends today.

Until next time, old friend.

Naomi and I at 8 years old

N is for Nostalgia

I can’t help it. Whenever I’m away travelling, no matter the fun I’m having or the things I’m learning, there’s always a small part of me, even if it’s the tiniest little spark in the deepest depths, that misses home.

As one with nomadic tendencies, it is in my bones to want to keep moving and see new places. I thrive on the new and the unknown, but that isn’t to say I don’t also yearn for the safe and the familiar.

If you’ve read my published article, So, Where are you from? you’ll have some idea of the slight identity crisis I had a few years ago when I realised there was no place I could truly call home. Moving from place to place may seem remarkably exotic, but it definitely has its drawbacks.

That said, when it comes to matters such as these, I think with age often comes a certain clarity. Though I’m unquestionably still a kid at heart and even now long to find the lost boys of Neverland, I also realise as I get older that home isn’t, and never really has been, a place, so much as a people.

When I’m away I miss my family. I miss my close friends. I miss my people.

I sometimes also miss my bed and the garden and my bookshelf and my computer, but it’s not quite the same kind of longing.

Which makes me realise that it doesn’t matter if you only moved into your house a year ago and still can’t figure out the trick to unlocking that damn shed door. Or that there are parts of the garden that you’ve never actually been in. Or that the house smells unfamiliar, or you don’t know how to get to the local post office, or that your own suburb sounds unfamiliar on your tongue.

What matters are the people.

Cliché? Absolutely. But that doesn’t make it any less true.

So, when I say that I miss home when I travel, what I guess I really mean to say is I miss people. I miss the friends and family in my life that together make the walls and ceilings and white picket-fenced garden of my own little country cottage that exists inside my head.

Like any home, I can’t bring it with me on a plane, across seas, over mountains, through countries near and far. And I certainly can’t take it through Customs.

But with each little spark of nostalgia that flickers while I’m away, I have only to remind myself how lucky I am to have such amazing people in my life. People that are only a phone call away and who will be waiting to keep me safe and put those walls back up again when I return.

To my friends. To my family.

To my home.

 

M is for Music

I’ve been looking forward to this post because by golly did I hear some good music while I was frolicking across Europe. And no, I’m not talking the latest pop rocking rapping top 40 hits on the radio. I’m talkin’ the stuff you hear in the streets; local live folk music, buskers and the like.

Get excited.

First stop, Krakow, Poland, where I stumbled across these two amazing fellas playing and singing their little hearts out. Not only are they so adorable in their little outfits, but even though I have no idea what’s they’re singing about, I just want to sing along too. Observe:

Next stop, the streets of Edinburgh.

I swear, my ears are fine-tuned to catch the sound of bagpipes from afar. I liken it to the Sirens of Greek Mythology; the sound lures me closer and closer until I’m practically playing those bagpipes myself. Of course there’s no deadly rocks and imminent death involved, which is certainly a positive, but you get the idea.

I like bagpipes.

It may have something to do with my time at university during my undergraduate degree. Somewhat isolated in the Northern Tablelands, Armidale is the home to the University of New England, a 6 hour drive north of Sydney, its sweeping landscapes and natural beauty are something to behold. While there I lived on campus, which was a 20 minute stroll to the university campus along a quite spectacularly scenic elm-lined road overlooking grass fields. It was during my afternoon walk home that I would often hear the faint sound of bagpipes, which would sound louder with each gust of wind that carried the music close.

It was quite beautiful to see the lone shadow of a student practicing in that far away field by sunset. The poor kid had obviously been banished to the fields, for really, what could be more irritating than trying to study, nap or watch television in your dorm room with the deafening sound of bagpipes next door? I see the dilemma, but it worked out quite well for me. I could almost imagine I was standing in the Scottish Highlands.

In any case, this guy may not be playing in beautiful fields by sunset, but it still had the desired effect. Observe:

Last stop, we remain in Edinburgh but head to a narrow, dimly lit pub one cold winter’s night. My host, Beatrice, tells me I must experience a taste of live Scottish Folk Music before I leave.

On entering the pub, we squeeze through the crowd past the bar and find two rare seats by a table occupied by a group of drinkers, all with instruments. They were chatting away over large mugs of beer and I observed through their conversation that they didn’t all know each other. It all looked very casual, but when the music started it was nothing short of magnificent.

In what seemed to me a mix between wonderful improvisation and perfect synchonisation, this group of mismatched characters played their fiddles and bagpipes and tin whistles, and I could not help but tap my feet and smile.

There was no ceremony or formality. Every now and then one of them would just stop and turn around to chat with a patron or fetch another drink. They each played when and how they pleased and yet somehow managed to sound like a perfectly orchestrated troop of musicians. It was spectacular.

I’m sorry about the poor quality of the video. I was seated behind one of the musicians and was trying to subtly take my video without being the overtly conspicuous tourist that I am.

Enjoy.

L is for London

The London Eye

What is there, really, to be said about London that hasn’t been said before?

It’s a city that doesn’t feel like a city. Somehow Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Piccadilly, The London Eye, Trafalgar Square, they all make this modern metropolis feel like a venerable kingdom. Not to mention that English accent I once possessed and now soak in hungrily in futile attempts to retrieve it.

I mentioned in a previous post that cities intimidate me. The hustle and bustle and pushing and shoving doesn’t make for a pleasant day, in my opinion, but for some reason I always feel at home in London despite all that. There’s just an air of opportunity about it.

I get the feeling that if I was looking for something, I would find it in London.

Apart from one remarkable event, which will be detailed in another post, I have little to report on my short stay in this celebrated city. I saw the sites for the upteenth time, and for the upteenth time I enjoyed every minute of it. I enjoyed food as only the English enjoy food, stuffing myself with fish and chips, pub meals and a special outing at Jamie Oliver’s restaurant Jamie’s Italian. To top it all off I was graced with unseasonably mild weather and blue skies.

For that, London, I thank you.

I am such a tourist

Clouds sweep over London

The Palace of Westminister and Big Ben under blue skies

Dinner at Jamie Oliver's restaurant

Trafalgar Square

The tube

K is for Krakow

When my friend, Hayley, and I, were looking at places to visit during our travels, Krakow was not the first place that came to mind.

I had never been to Poland, and neither had she, but when we realised we were practically on its doorstep in Germany we made a last minute decision to spend a few days there. Our primary point of interest was Auschwitz, but of Krakow – the nearest city to Auschwitz – we had absolutely no idea what to expect.

After boarding the plane in Berlin we spent about half an hour getting over the fact that the woman with garish blue eyeshadow, in jeans, a puffer jacket and wearing a bright hot pink cap, was actually our air hostess. Oh and look, there’s another one. Though we had booked with Air Berlin, we assumed Air Niki and it’s fashion forward hostessed were partner airlines. Gulp.

Welcome to Krakow! We were told that temperatures are known to reach -20, so we considered ourselves lucky

At any rate, after some deliberation we came to the conclusion that yes, we were on the right plane, no, we were not going to die, and holy crap, we’re going to Poland where we don’t speak the language or know anything about the country.

With this in mind, on arrival we found the first strangers that spoke English and, naturally, agreed to walk with them down a deserted unlit road in the middle of the night to find the nearest “train station” (I use air quotes because it wasn’t so much a train station as a bus stop next to what looked like train tracks). Admittedly, this wasn’t the smartest of moves, but fear not. Our new found friends were the loveliest Irish couple you could meet on a deserted road in an unknown country. And really, if you can’t trust an Irishman then surely the world is doomed anyway.

By the looks of the overgrown weeds sneaking over the train tracks and that eery silence you get when you just know there’s no train coming for a good long while, we agreed that we could potentially be waiting for some time. It was at this point that a taxi drove up, assumedly anticipating hopeless travellers such as ourselves, and offered us a lift into town at a very reasonable price. A price that was later revealed to be ridiculously high for Poland, but never mind.

Krakow by night

We arrived in town safe and sound and said farewell to our Irish companions. To get to our hotel we had to walk through the centre of town, and thank goodness we did.

By night it was breathtaking.

The Christmas markets were still out, as were the festive lights that lit the cobbled streets. People were gathered in friendly groups around food stalls and warming themselves with mulled wine. It wasn’t busy, but neither was it empty. The main square felt as if it were a large garden party, where everyone knew each other and all were just casually catching up on the latest gossip or taking pleasure in good food. They walked around serenely, admiring markets and chatting away in Polish. The atmosphere was wonderful.

Most of our time in Krakow was spent wandering around that main square and down the streets that snaked off it. The old town reminded me of Edinburgh, with its beautiful architecture, cobbled streets and historically preserved character. I was enamoured by the statues that stood tall outside churches and was captivated by the legend of the city being built on the ashes of a great dragon.

Grilled cheese at the markets

During one of our trips through the markets we noticed everyone walking around eating these odd little pastry-looking things. Now, I’m willing to admit I’m a fairly fussy eater, which means I’m not one to jump at trying new foods. But Poland had worked its magic on me and I decided to try one, with no way of asking or understanding what it was. It turned out to be grilled cheese. So simple, and so delicious. It came served with cranberry sauce, and I have no idea if it is particular to Krakow or Poland, but it comes highly recommended by this fussy eater.

After that I tried everything, and surprisingly liked everything. It wasn’t difficult to do when prices in Poland are ridiculously cheap. And I mean cheap. One night we ‘splurged’ at a fancy restaurant, buying the most expensive thing on the menu, which also happened to be the best piece of steak I’ve ever had. It still only came to $10.

Schindler's Factory

We also partook in one of the free walking tours of the Jewish Quarter, where we were taken to Schindler’s Factory, places which were used in the film Schindler’s List, as well as to Synagogues and a particularly heartbreaking square, where the Jews had been rounded up before being taken to concentration camps or to be killed.

We were shown a building at the corner of the square that used to be a pharmacy. During WWII the Germans told all the Poles to move from the quarter so they could contain the Jews there. The Pole who owned the pharmacy requested that he stay under the premise that he could help the Germans with medical supplies, but really so he could help the Jews. We were told that he would regularly bare witness from his shop window to Jews being shot in the square, and even more tragically as they were taken away and asked to leave their belongings behind with no idea that they would never be returning to collect them. He wrote a book called Cracow Ghetto Pharmacy, which I have yet to read but which I hear is quite a moving account of one man’s attempt to aid a few.

Empty chairs stand in this square in the Jewish ghetto Podgorze to represent the Jews that once gathered here to be taken either to concentration, working or death camps. They were told to leave all their belongings behind. There are 68 chairs, each representing 1000 Jews. 68000 Jews used to live in Krakow; there are now only 200.

The square is now a memorial to all those who suffered there.

What I found amazing was that the Jews were once treated very well by the King in Poland, before it was infiltrated by the Germans who spread lies and encouraged the Poles to disassociate from them. Of course its proximity to Auschwitz is an unfortunate reminder of what took place there less than 70 years ago, but in a city where 68,000 Jews used to live happily, there are now less than 200. Two hundred! The mind boggles at the ramifications that still echo from the brutality that took place during the Holocaust.

Despite this tainted part of Poland’s history, it far from dampened my visit there. On the contrary, I felt it a very friendly and cheerful place and could have hugged each and every one of them that spoke perfect English, which was practically all of them.

Krakow was definitely the surprise treasure of the trip. It came second only to Edinburgh of my favourite places and I only wish I had spent more time there to discover its secrets. But really, what better excuse than to one day return?

Also on Krakow and Poland:

A is for Auschwitz
C is for Castles

Love padlocks on a bridge in Krakow

You can't see it in the photo, but it was snowing!

Beautiful architecture and statues in Krakow

An angel outside Wawel Castle

More statues in Krakow

Another delicious Polish delicacy. Pancake type ravioli filled with potato and cheese, and served with sour cream and little bits of pork crackling.

More snow that you can't actually see

Streets of Krakow

J is for Jet Lag

Yes, I take my pillow when travelling.

Arguably the most painful part of travelling.

Living in Australia definitely has it perks, but unless your overseas holiday is in New Zealand or Antarctica, it can take anything from 7 to 30 hours to get anywhere. And no, that isn’t by boat; I’m talking jumbo freakin jets.

My first experience with jet lag was when I was 16. I had the mild sensation that something wasn’t right, but it wasn’t until about two weeks after arriving at my destination (when some sense of logic returned to my weary head) that I realised solid ground wasn’t supposed to move under my feet. It was something akin to standing on a rocking boat and every now and then I would suddenly feel as if I needed to catch my balance. By the time I realised what it was it was over, but it was unpleasant all the same.

Since then I have had the ‘rocking boat’ sensation only one other time, thankfully not on this trip.

The Sydney to Hamburg trip took just over 30 hours, not including the time spent waiting at the airport beforehand, which is probably the real killer. The waiting.

I hear some people get by on jet-lag pills and remedies, knocking themselves out with medication, or, brace yourselves for this one, just falling into a deep slumber allowing them to arrive refreshed and ready to take on the world.

Signs of jet lag: Wild, delirious look on face; Raised eyebrows that say "put the camera down or else"; Massive plate of food substituting inability to sleep; Unbrushed hair; Risk of using sharp three-pointed objects as weapons against humanity; Smiling against the odds.

Nuh uh. That aint me. I think it’s all about the sitting upright. I just can’t sleep in an upright position. I’ve heard about those strange people that can sleep standing up and don’t get jet lag and I’m convinced they must be part alien. Or something.

But I digress.

Of course on arrival the not sleeping at the appropriate hours is a bummer when you’re working with a short holiday. Staying awake all night and sleeping all day is hardly the best way to see the sights. But eventually your body adjusts and all is well and good for a time.

Until the return journey home.

And this journey home was probably the nightmare of all return travellers.  It began one chilly (-4) Sunday morning in Ferrara, Italy. Things were packed and suitcases were overweight, but I was ready to leave. We were at the local train station by 11am. The train left around midday for Bologna, which took just under an hour. We then had to get off and wait another hour before hopping on a two hour train to Milan. This was followed by another hour’s wait at Milan train station before the shuttle bus left for the airport, which took another hour. At the airport we then had to wait 3 hours before we could check in and another 4 hours after that before take off.

Then the flight was delayed an hour.

After a 7 hour trip we landed in Dubai, where we had to wait another 3 hours. This was where we also found out that our direct Dubai-Melbourne flight wasn’t quite so direct with a stopover in Singapore. That would take about 17 hours including the one hour stopover.

On arrival in Melbourne I had another 3 hours to wait for my plane to Launceston, which was fine because I knew I was nearly home. YES! I boarded the plane and buckled up with a sigh of relief. The plane rolled down the runway and started to speed up when suddenly the breaks went on and we were slowing down. Great.

We circled back to the starting point and sat on the plane for an hour while engineers came to fix the problem. By this time I should have been home.

Eventually we were ready for take two. We started picking up speed down the runway when, yep, you guessed it. The same thing happened again. At this point we were told to disembark and wait at the gate for further instructions.

This pretty much sums up how I was feeling. Probably how I was looking too...

After one hour and then two, I asked the lady at the desk if there was a possibility I wouldn’t get home tonight. When she responded with ‘yes’ I think a little (read:big) part of me died inside. I had been awake for almost 50 hours and I was starting to get emotional. I just wanted to get home. Like, now!

After another hour 5 names were called out. Mine was one of them. Some divine being saw my need and managed to shuffle me onto a seat on the next flight out. I sighed with relief as I heard the following announcement stating that there were no more seats left and all remaining passengers should head to check in to collect their bags and be sorted with accommodation for the night.

Of course I then had to wait another couple of hours for that flight, which was then delayed because not one, but two out of the two toilets on the plane were broken. They couldn’t fix them in the end but after some deliberation decided not to cancel the flight and send us on our merry toilet-less way. THANK YOU.

Needless to say, I held my breath in anticipation at take off, but thankfully we made it in the air and within the hour were safe in Tasmania.

I arrived home at 7pm that night. Tuesday. It had taken over 2 days to get home.

Of course, the jet lag that ensued was a different experience all together. The following week I found that I couldn’t sleep morning or night and I just wasn’t tired. I think I heard my body saying “Well hey, you kept me up for 2 days and now you wanna sleep every 12 hours? Make up your mind already”.

Two weeks on and while all is now well and good, I have decided that for my next trip I’m going to do some research. It will involve looking into becoming part alien so that I can sleep whilst sitting upright with fluorescent lights in my eyes and babies screaming behind me and old ladies coughing in front of me and old men snoring across the way.

Sayonara jet lag! I’ve got my eye on you…

Seeing my first Australian sunrise in a month

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore

If, like me, you share a love of books, writing and stories, then watch this beautiful short animation that has been nominated for this year’s Academy Awards. You won’t be disappointed.

Inspired, in equal measures, by Hurricane Katrina, Buster Keaton, The Wizard of Oz, and a love for books, “Morris Lessmore” is a story of people who devote their lives to books and books who return the favor. Morris Lessmore is a poignant, humorous allegory about the curative powers of story.

Using a variety of techniques (miniatures, computer animation, 2D animation) award winning author/ illustrator William Joyce and Co-director Brandon Oldenburg present a new narrative experience that harkens back to silent films and M-G-M Technicolor musicals. “Morris Lessmore” is old fashioned and cutting edge at the same time.

“The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore” is one of five animated short films that will be considered for outstanding film achievements of 2011 in the 84th Academy Awards ®.

EDIT MARCH 2012: The film ended up winning the title of Best Animated Short.

H is for Hamburg

Fountain at the Town Hall in Hamburg

After a 24 hour flight from Sydney to Frankfurt, one stop over in Abu Dhabi, one security pat down, and a 4 hour train trip, we finally arrived in Hamburg.

I confess, I knew little about the second largest city of Germany before turning up on its doorstep. I arrived jet lagged, tired, and very keen to find the nearest comfy bed to lay on for an uninterrupted, oh say, four days. Five?

But what prevailed was my excitement at seeing my little brother, Harry. Following in his older sister’s footsteps (me!), he took part in a student exchange program to Germany when he was 16. Ever since, he has gone back and forth between Australia and Germany to visit his host family, friends, and for study. In 2010 he decided that he would like to make his stay in Germany a little more permanent, and moved there to find a job, which he did.

Consequently, it had been a while since I had seen him and I was excited.

Sibling reunion on New Years Eve

I arrived at Hamburg station to see Harry waiting on the platform, waving a nicely sized German flag in one hand and in the other, holding a Hawaiin-style wreath of flowers to put around my neck on my arrival. I don’t know about your little siblings, but this is typical Harry behaviour and it was well-received.

It was then that I noticed it. The noise.

You see, what I have not yet mentioned is that we just so happened to arrive on New Years Eve. In Germany they have decided that fireworks are illegal, except for on New Years Eve. The result is many drunken people lighting fireworks pretty much EVERYWHERE, and not really knowing what they’re doing.

Naturally, we had to have a go.

So, after dropping off the suitcases, having a quick shower and promising the very enticing bed that I would be reuniting with it very soon, we set off. This was when Harry gave me a demonstration in the art of setting off fireworks.

He held that rocket high above his head and we admired from afar as it shot in the air and burst beautiful colours into the sky. Wow.

My turn.

“What do I need to do?” I asked.

“Hold it straight up in the air and don’t look at it,” Harry replied as he passed me the stick with the rocket on the end, lit it for me and ran back to watch from afar with the others.

Now, I’m very good at following instructions. I held that thing so bloody straight in the air, and by jove did I not look at it.

What Harry forgot to mention was that when the firework starts to pull, um, apparently you have to let go.

I was concentrating so hard on holding that thing straight that by the time I heard the screams “LET GO!”, it was almost too late. At the last second I let go and it banged frighteningly close to my head.

Okay, so that is why fireworks are illegal. Because people, like me, have no idea what they’re doing and little brothers, like Harry, don’t know how to give a detailed instruction.

Canals of Hamburg

Thankfully I lived to tell the tale. I now know that the stick is part of the rocket (and actually meant to be stuck in the ground or in a bottle when setting them off) and while I was always told as a child not to play with fire, I probably should have learned instead not to play with fireworks.

I met my bed that night with welcome arms and missed the midnight fireworks by a couple of hours.

But to be honest, I think I’d had quite enough of fireworks for one evening.

The next day was spent sleeping and the following spent walking around the beautiful city, with Harry as our tour guide (While he may be a pretty average firework instructor, he’s a pretty damn good tour guide).

I admired the canals, which I had no idea existed beyond Venice and also went to the Miniatur Wunderland Modelleisenbahn, the largest (and most impressive) model train exhibition in the world.

The city itself is spacious, elegant and clean, lit at night by the Christmas lights and decorations that still remained post festive season. There were some impressive buildings, such as the Town Hall, as well as many beautiful statues and monuments dotted around the place.

Harry’s host family treated us to a traditional German meal and gave us a warm welcome to their country.

It was a quick stop over in Hamburg, and a slightly hazy one at that, what with the jet lag and the near death experience. But I had a glimpse of the sparkle that attracts people to the city, and can see exactly why Harry is so keen to stay.

Tolkien themed boats on the canals in Hamburg

A scene at the Miniatur Wunderland Modelleisenbahn (check out the iron man lifting the car, and what's going on in the bushes!)

 

At the Model Train Exhibition

 

Santa being pulled up the hill by cows

The Alster Lake by night

G is for Galaverna

After spending a relatively mild few weeks in Germany, Poland, Scotland and England, countries usually known for their cold winters but which struggled to hit below zero whilst I was there, I arrived in Italy expecting much of the same. The forecast was for sunny skies and a tame 10 degrees.

Of course, it turned out to be the most bitterly cold of them all, with a top of minus four during my trip to Venice (but that’s another story).

Whilst the cold was moderately off-putting in terms of getting dressed into layer upon layer and mustering an enthusiasm to leave the house of a morning, it did provide for this wonderful phenomenon: galaverna.

Galavera in Ferrara, Italy

Galaverna. Galaverna. I kept hearing the Italians throw the word around but I’d never heard of it before and had no idea what it meant.

What in the bloody hell was galaverna?!

After several people tried to explain it to me using unfamiliar Italian words, I came to a rough understanding that it was a build up of frost from the weather being so damn cold over many days and not being able to thaw. I then proceeded to explain that there simply was no word for it in English.

Of course I was wrong.  The dictionary told me that ‘hoarfrost’ is the English translation for the Italian galaverna, and though I can’t say I’ve ever heard of it, perhaps those of you living in countries that annually reach temperatures below zero have.

For those of you who, like me, haven’t, it is described by the faithful online dictionary as:

Frozen dew that forms a white coating on a surface.

Yes yes, that’s all very good, but what the definition doesn’t explain, is just how beautiful it is.

The trees and bushes turn white with the build up of this ‘frozen dew’, which becomes more and more prominent as the days continue in cold succession.

What it ends up looking like is snow. Snow without all the slush and mud under your feet. It is, quite simply, stunning to admire as everything turns white.

While both hoarfrost and galaverna are two words I’m not familiar with, I find it fascinating that they exist at all. Not content with calling it ‘a build up of frozen dew’ or ‘frost pretending to be snow’, somewhere, sometime in history, someone actually gave it a name. I don’t know why this amazes me so, but it does. To be able to give a name to something so beautiful, really is quite gratifying.

That said, I have to admit that galaverna just sounds so much better on the tongue than hoarfrost. Don’t you think?

Galaverna in Ferrara, Italy