Have a nice day…

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St Gile Cathedral on a very nice day

Grey. Gloomy. Cloudy. Cold. Miserable.

This is what I was told to expect from Scotland weather. “Pack your thermals!” they said. “You’ll miss the sunshine!” they trilled. All the while I la-la-la-la’d away such unflattering portrayals of my beloved Scotland. I mean, I had spent two nights here last year in the middle of January. Yes, it had been cold, but the sky had remained a clear crisp blue whilst the sun had pinked my chilled cheeks. And let’s not forget I was a happy little mitten-wearing-Brit until the ripe age of ten. I was raised to laugh in the face of overcast!

Despite the evident preparation that was my English upbringing, I nonetheless braced myself for a sharp, icy wind and stocked up on scarves, gloves, beanies and wooly socks. I was ready to face the frosty fleshless monster!

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Welcomed to Edinburgh with a dusting of snow

And then I arrived. It snowed. It was beautiful. I watched the flakes fall from the warmth of my cosy new flat and thought nothing of gloom and misery and cold. It was the perfect welcome. And once the snow had melted away, it seemed the sun was willing and ready to resurface with a vengeance.

“It’s sunny!” shouted my flatmate one morning with great surprise and joy. She insisted we make the most of it, so we went exploring the city. Down wynds and closes we went, across parks, through royal grounds, over cobbled stone streets and always under the ever watchful eye of the castle.

The following day I awoke again to a shout of “It’s sunny!”. Again we went outside exploring.

On the third day, I heard the same declaration. “It’s sunny!” That was when I knew Edinburgh was treating me to a special kind of hospitality.

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“It’s sunny!” at Edinburgh Castle

So continued the days, always with the surprised yet blissful announcement from my flatmate that the sun was once again gracing us with its presence. I knew I was being spoiled, but I didn’t care. Some days I even stayed inside to read a book by the bay window and soak in the sun through the glass.

And then came last Sunday. We had planned an “out of city” excursion to a castle ruin that called to us from what seemed like the edge of the world.

“It’s sunny!” never came.

Instead we awoke to grey, gloomy, cloudy, cold AND miserable. We were late to get moving, but undeterred nonetheless. On the train we hopped and arrive we did to the beautiful picturesque beachside town of North Berwick. It was just past 1pm, and despite the cold grey weather, the town was abustle with dog walkers, pram walkers, and just your average walker walkers (not the flesh eating kind, to any of you Walking Dead fans out there wondering otherwise).

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A little reminder of home in North Berwick

To get to the castle we needed to catch a bus just a little further out of town. When we arrived at the bus stop we realised we hadn’t accounted for the Sunday timetable, and had missed the last bus going out. I’m not going to lie, I was cold, cranky and disappointed. Though the town itself was an attraction, the castle was the primary reason for our visit. After seeing no taxi in sight and agreeing we were both too poor for such a luxury anyway, we retreated to the closest pub to ask if the castle was in walking distance and how long it would take.

The Ship Inn was warm. It was cosy. It was so very inviting.

Then this happened:

Katy to Bartender: Hello! We’ve missed the bus to Tantallon Castle. Is it in walking distance?

Bartender: Oh aye. It’ll take ye about an hour but it’s a nice day for it.

Katy: *laughs*

Bartender: [silence. strange looks]

Katy: [looks outside at cold, grey pit of doom] I’m sorry, it’s a nice day for…?

Bartender: It’s a nice day for a walk.

Katy: [looks outside again, confused]

Bartender: [gives directions and tells us to enjoy the “nice day”]

Once back out in the cold I asked my flatmate, who has been living in Scotland for several years, whether the bartender had been joking. She kindly explained that when she arrived in Edinburgh she had been equally confused by a tendency to refer to cloudy days as “nice” days, but after a while understood that the Scots seemed to be pretty happy with the weather as long as it wasn’t raining, hailing or snowing. Anything else was considered “good weather”.

And I couldn’t help but be a little humbled. I’ve been spoiled the last 17 years in Australia, where a day without sunshine is like a day without air. We thrive off it. But to those where rainy days outnumber sunny days, of course the average cloudy day where you can leave your brolly at home is going to be a “good day”. These little pleasures are all relative and we have to take the good no matter how it comes.

And so we walked. The walk warmed us up. We enjoyed the scenery in a way we wouldn’t have been able to on the bus and I daresay enjoyed the day a great deal more. Tantallon Castle was as eerily beautiful as the pictures had indicated and to look over the cliffs at the smashing waves under dark clouds was spectacular in itself. I could almost see the sieges and pirates and smugglers and battles before me. Novel ideas were running rampant around my head.

And when it was time to go home we decided to walk.

It was, after all, a nice day.

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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.

I is for Inspiration

Bridge of Venice

There’s a funny thing that happens when you travel.

Every sense is heightened by unfamiliar places, foreign languages and new experiences. Something as simple as a woman pushing her pram is somehow more interesting as she skillfully navigates the bridges of Venice.  A man paying for his groceries at the supermarket is enthralling when you understand none of the Polish that he speaks but at the same time recognise that he is participating in friendly banter with the checkout woman as you decipher facial expressions, hand gestures and body language.  Doorways become portals. Statues become sentient. People become characters.

The Edinburgh School of English inspired to get creative with their sign.

The mundane suddenly becomes fascinating.

When you watch the world through a traveller’s eyes, I am convinced that inspiration is at your unlimited disposal. With sight, sound, smell, touch and taste all intensified through being surrounded by the unknown, this naturally precipitates a different perspective on not just the extraordinary things, but the standard, run of the mill everyday stuff too.

What could be better fuel for the imagination?

If you have read E is for Edinburgh, then you’ll have some idea already of the impression it made on me. Not least of all was being able to follow in the footsteps of successful writers such as J.K. Rowling, Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall Smith to the Elephant House cafe where they each, at one time or another, went to write parts of their novels. Or seeing the belongings and original works of Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Robert Burns in the Writers Museum.

I have already expressed that I am in no way surprised that they were inspired by such a beautiful city, and though it wasn’t just Edinburgh, it was there that I understood something probably quite significant to my future as a writer.

J.K. Rowling writing Harry Potter at the Elephant House cafe

As I looked at the photos of J.K. Rowling sitting in the cafe writing Harry Potter, I realised that once upon a time she was like the rest of us aspiring creatives. Before Harry Potter was a household name, she sat in that cafe writing her novel, probably never knowing if it would ever see the light of day, wondering if she could afford that fourth cup of coffee. I’m sure that later on when she received her 1st rejection letter she felt as dejected as we all feel when are work is not recognised or loved as much as we love it. I’m even more certain that she felt worse after the 2nd, the 3rd, all the way up to the 12th rejection letter.

All these thoughts led to a small epiphany, all relating back to the big question: How do you know if you’re a writer?

I don’t think I’m the next J.K. Rowling, Tolkien or Robin Hobb. I don’t believe that my stories will survive the ages like the greats of old, or make me loads of money like the greats of today. I am not even convinced that I write particularly well or skillfully.

What I do know is this. If I practised every day I could probably play the piano fairly sufficiently. If I trained morning and night I might be able to make it as an athlete. If I tried really hard I might be able to learn all the things there are to know about accounting and become an accountant. I could probably succeed at many things if I put my heart into it.

But what I have discovered is that I am never going to be any good at any of those things. Why? Because I don’t care enough for them to put in the required effort to try.

Writing, writing, writing!

And then there’s writing.  I wake up every day looking forward to it. Without getting paid for it or ever expecting any monetary remuneration, I sit at my desk and I write. I edit and I perfect as if it were a thesis awaiting submission, and then I click save and sometimes never look at it again. Sometimes it’s hard and I get disappointed when the words don’t accurately reflect the idea in my head, which leads to frustration and misery.  But every day I still go back to it.

It’s the 9-5 job that keeps me in the office from 7am until midnight without a lunch break, and yet I never feel compelled to complain.

And I think that is what maybe, just maybe, makes me a writer. Not my skill with words or my chances of success. Nor any likelihood that it will ever amount to anything more than a little blog called Storytelling Nomad and a few published ramblings.

But like that ordinary woman sitting in her little cafe writing about an unknown wizard called Harry, I’m willing to keep at it every day because I’ve always been told that if there’s something you are truly passionate about, then you won’t care how long you spend working at it or how little you get paid for it, because the undertaking itself will be reward enough.

So I is for Inspiration. Be inspired, not by the people that have already ‘made it’, but by the average Joes like you and me, the ones that may or may not make it, J.K. Rowling circa 1990. I think we can learn the most from these people, because they are the ones that are willing to put their heart and soul into doing the thing they love most with only the smallest of hopes that it may one day amount to more.

Try and see the world through a traveller’s eyes and be inspired by the ordinary. Because if you do it right, extraordinary will certainly follow.

Sunrise in Scotland

E is for Edinburgh

Where to begin?

If you’ve read C is for Castles then you already know what an impression Edinburgh made on me. It had me writing poetry. Me. Poetry. Wonders never cease.

The journey began by train. Now, I’m usually not too eager to participate in long train journeys. While the idea of being able to sit quietly watching scenery fly by, reading a book, or listening to music, is of course very appealing, I rarely get to enjoy such leisurely activities when it comes to actually being on the train.

You see, I lack what I have been told is known as a ‘fuck off face’, if you’ll excuse my French.

Scenic views on the train

What this means is, that if there is one weirdo, crazy person, creepy man, talkative eccentric, drug addict looking for someone to look after her child while she shoots up in the loo (true story), then that person will without fail come and sit next to or opposite me.

Joy!

As such, I usually lack the enthusiasm that many show for long train rides. THANKFULLY, the four and a half hour London-Edinburgh train trip was nothing less than absolutely delightful.

My friend, Hayley, and I were seated opposite each other across a rather agreeable little table, which we agreed was the most civilised we had been since we’d begun our journey. The carriage was peaceful, we had free wifi (a luxury when travelling o/s, I tell you), and as we passed through the English and Scottish countryside, I could do little but admire the stunning scenery.

And that was the beginning of what soon became my favourite leg of the entire trip.

The Writers Museum

For a writer (or an aspiring one at least), there is nothing more satisfying than visiting a place that embraces literature with (wide and very) open arms. Edinburgh is the world’s first UNESCO city of literature, so they take the whole business of writing and reading very seriously and you can see evidence of it everywhere. From writer’s museums, storytelling centres, author tributes and pavements quoting famous writers, the city is absolutely brimming with creative energy.

The Writers Museum pays tribute to three notable writers, each who at one time lived in Edinburgh: Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Robert Burns. The museum houses a permanent exhibition to the three writers, displaying rare books, manuscripts, photographs, and original tools of the trade. Like many of the places I visited in Edinburgh, the museum was interactive, which meant that walking into a room could set off an audio reading of one of the writer’s works. Admission was also free, so no excuses not to get your literary nerd on.

"And yet, and yet this New Road will some day be the Old Road too." Literary flagstones on the streets of Edinburgh

Outside the museum, the courtyard, streets and stairs leading to the museum are paved with quoted flagstones, citing famous Scottish writers.

Another place in Edinburgh worthy of literary note is The Elephant House cafe. This cafe, where yours truly just three weeks ago could be found sipping hot chocolate, was where the literary genius of none other than J.K. Rowling wrote parts of the Harry Potter novels.

And who could blame her?

Where magic happens

The back room of the cafe offers spectacular views of Edinburgh Castle (yes the same one I doted on in C is for Castles), and the hot chocolates ‘aint bad either. It has also played regular host to Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall-Smith. They quite clearly put something in the coffee there, and I’m hoping whatever it is they put in the hot chocolate too. Perhaps I left with a little extra writers luck?

But it isn’t just one funky cafe that is fuel for the imagination in this city. There’s a story in every nook and cranny, and you don’t even have to be looking for it. It is hard to say whether writers have found their inspiration in the architecture of Edinburgh, or rather, if Edinburgh was in fact built in faithful reproduction of the fairy tales and romantic stories of old. All you have to do is look up to see Cinderella’s castle or Rapunzel’s tower.

Fairytale buildings

What fascinated me most about this city however, was just that. That it’s a city. And I still loved it. I mentioned in an earlier post that big cities often make me anxious, but thoughts of anxiety were far from my mind when I was there. Whilst it is obviously a tourist attraction, I didn’t get the feeling that I was surrounded by in-a-hurry tourists. The locals were doing their grocery shopping and the students were on their way to classes. The lovers were walking hand in hand and friends were having a laugh at the pub. All this, right in the heart of Edinburgh, amongst the medieval buildings and before the castle’s towering gaze.

Statues in Edinburgh

What’s more, the locals seem to appreciate their city, something people often lose sight of when surrounded by beautiful things every day. Everyone was cheerful, despite the cold, and there were no signs of the graffiti or vandalism that I’ve seen lining the canals of Venice or the streets of London. It’s a beautiful city, and those that live there obviously do not take that for granted.

Whilst the train trip home was just as pleasant as the incoming journey as I watched the sun rise over Scottish seas, I can’t deny I was sad to leave that place. Even now I long to return to Edinburgh.

One day soon…

NB: Edinburgh also had me delving right out of my comfort zone and trying something new to eat – Haggis, otherwise known as sheep’s offal (entrails and internal organs), served with ‘neeps and tatties’, or, turnips and potatoes. I’m happy to announce that it wasn’t bad. Not bad at all.

Bookstores line Edinburgh streets

Holyrood Palace

Me following in J.K. Rowling's footsteps at the Elephant House cafe.

Statues at sunset in Edinburgh

Greyfriars Bobby - the sky terrier known in the 19th Century for spending 14 years guarding the grave of his owner

Rooftops of Edinburgh

D is for Dance

I’ve always been a fan of dance, in particular the ballet, and have been fortunate enough over the years to have seen a number of excellent performances in Australia. The idea of telling stories not with words but with movements and music is awe inspiring to me.

So how could I resist when I saw a poster at Edinburgh train station advertising Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty? I couldn’t, of course, but I was coming to the end of my trip and money was in short supply. I had another week in which I needed to feed myself and Katy without food at least every three hours is not a happy Katy.

So what to do?

My Italian bred, Scotland-living host, Beatrice, and I went to the magnificent Festival Theatre to assess the situation for that evening’s show. It was my last night in Edinburgh and Beatrice had never been to the ballet before, so our fingers were crossed.

Luck was with us that day as it would seem, when we were told we could not only get tickets but, being after noon on the day of the performance and being the students that we are, tickets would be 10 pounds. TEN POUNDS I TELL YOU!

On receipt of our tickets, we saw the words ‘restricted view’ stamped in bold at the bottom, but were not at all disheartened. Did I mention they were 10 pounds?

The performance was beautiful and the costumes were outstanding. Visually, it was a masterpiece of a show and Tchaikovsky’s music never fails to disappoint.

As for our seats, well, I’ll leave it up to you to decide how restricted our view was:

Curtains closed before the performance

Probably the best seats I’ve ever had in my life!

I leave you with a trailer for The Sleeping Beauty so you can see some of the production in action.

C is for Castles

Perhaps the highlight of the entire trip was castle spotting.

Whilst I absolutely love living in Australia, the laid back way of life, the climate, the land and the people, it is a sad fact that for all this we, as a relatively ‘new’ country, miss out on the history that countries in Europe have to offer.

One of the perks of said history is the castles.

Standing in front of a Katy sized doorway at Wawel Castle, Krakow

Big or small, new and old, crumbling or unspoiled, extravagant and simple. I don’t care how they come, but boy oh boy do I like a good castle.

The idea of secret passageways, miniature doorways and hidden rooms just makes me all warm and fuzzy inside. Of course, this all stems from my love of fantasy stories, naturally. But what amazes me most is that no matter how many castles I see I still feel as if I am being transported back in time to a moment when castles were alive with nobility, scandal and intrigue. The feeling is so overwhelming that I’m certain were I to close my eyes, I could see the nobles wandering the castle grounds and the stable boys attending to the horses.

Like I said, I do love a good castle.

The first castle that caught my eye was in Krakow, Poland. We visited Wawel Castle at night when all was a bit eerie, but it was still perfectly beautiful, made even more so by the fact that it sits on the hill that hosts the Dragon’s Den, a limestone cave said to have been inhabited by the legendary Wawel Dragon.

My Auntie and I with one of the canons my grandfather made

Whilst the cave is closed during the winter months, the appeal of a city and a castle built upon the ashes of a dragon was all quite extraordinary to this impressionable young mind.

Now to England, where we find ourselves in the ancient town of Rye, which happens to be where my father grew up, his father before him and, some many years later, where I also did some growing up of my own. But more about that in another post.

Ypres Castle was built in 1250 and is one of the oldest surviving buildings in Rye. Once used as a prison, it now hosts the Rye town museum.

It’s a small fortress, but I love it all the same, especially after hearing of my grandfather’s part in the making of the canons that now sit outside the castle, as well as my father’s accident falling off one of the castle walls. Boys will be boys.

Ypres Castle, Rye, England

When I was 16, I went on a student exchange to Italy where I stayed with a host family for three months in the small town of Ferrara, about an hour south of Venice. The following year I went back to visit my host family. About three years later I moved there to study for a year. A few years after that I returned again for a visit. And this year, just over a decade after my first visit at the ripe age of 16, I returned once more to my host family, host town and host country.

Castello Estense, Ferrara, Italy

Needless to say, Ferrara and Italy both hold a place close to my heart.

Did I mention Ferrara has a castle? And a moat? AND a drawbridge?

Yep, The Estense Castle is pretty impressive. Smack bang in the centre of the city, this moated medieval fortress has bared witness to every stage of the city’s colourful history since its foundations were laid in 1385. Whilst some amazing stories about the castle have been told to me in Italian over the years, I’d be well pressed to do them justice with a poor translation and my dreadful memory, but I would nonetheless recommend a visit to this beautiful castle if you’re ever on your way North to Venice.

My first view of Edinburgh Castle, from the Grassmarket

The last castle I’d like to share with you is the gem of them all.

Having never before been to Edinburgh, I was absolutely taken aback by its beauty. The streets, the buildings, the architecture – it was all nothing short of amazing. Of course Edinburgh will get its own post, but its castle, well, it made such an impression that it probably deserves its own post too. Alas…

When I first spotted this magnificent structure, I was being taken on a tour through the streets by my dear Italian friend who now studies in Edinburgh. The irony of an Italian showing around the British born Australian was not lost on us, although it was even more prevalent when I found myself cooking her my Italian host-mother’s pasta sauce recipe. But I digress.

Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh, Scotland

We were walking down the cobbled stone streets of the Grassmarket, admiring the beautiful bookshops, architecture and quaint little narrow passageways between buildings, when one of the wider side streets opened to reveal a towering rock cliff face, which literally morphed into the castle perched atop it.

I was absolutely speechless. Without getting all melodramatic on you, it was for me so overwhelmingly magnificent that I actually felt a bit choked-up.

Truly, this is the moment and the place that will stick with me as the absolute highlight of the entire trip. I was completely enamoured. I felt like I was standing before a castle from a fantasy story, in Westeros or in Middle Earth.

It made such an impression that I was compelled to write a poem about it. As I’ve said before, poetry is far from my forte and this is certainly no prize winner. But raw as it is, the meaning is clear: I love you Edinburgh Castle!

A Kingly Embrace

I walk cobbled streets
You hide behind stone
But with each passing crossroad
I catch glimpse of your throne

As cliff becomes castle
Turrets touching the skies
All turn to your fortress
With passionate sighs

You observe from above
The tenderness of others
The embrace of a friend
Brushing lips of two lovers

But when friends have long gone
And love starts to wither
The distance between us
Brings a tremble, a shiver

For in heart and in soul
I belong in your towers
Perched upon rock face
Dreaming for hours

And though distance remains
Between me and your grace
Please await my return
To your kingly embrace

Edinburgh Castle emerging from the cliff face