Friday, April 30, 2010

Back On The Continent

I'm typing this on a French keyboard - the first time I have encountered such an implement - and the layout is beyond crazy, so please excuse any typos that follow.

I'm currently in Antwerp, sitting in an internet cafe that smells of cliched computer nerd sweat. I've spent a few hours wandering the city and thought I'd blog about my most recent adventures while I wait for my friend Dan to finish work. Also, I've noticed I overuse the word "aweso,e" and will endeavour to be more creative with my adjectives.

So, after my last post, I went on a tour of the Scottish Highlands, Loch Ness and the Isle of Skye. It was through Haggis Adventures and, as Anna, the friend I was staying with, works for the company, I went along for free (excepting food and accomodation). So I should give them a shout-out: they were excellent, and anyone wanting a good look at Scotland's more secluded areas couldn't do better. First day, we drove up through the Highlands, stopping off at the monument to Mel Gibson - I mean, William Wallace - and assorted beautiful spots. Scotland is exhaustingly gorgeous. It looks a lot like Canada (which is fitting, as part of Canada broke off several millenia ago and crashed into what is now Scotland) and every curve in the road reveals a nez breathtaking viez. The first evening, we went along to a cultural show that explored how Highlanders lived until a few centuries ago. It was pretty grim. I volunteered to model the traditional dress that predated the kilt, but I might not have done so if I'd known it would have involved dropping my jeans in front of my twenty tourmates.

Second day involved a trip to the Isle of Skye. It was lovely, but I'm so glad I don't live there. Yawn. Although climbing a mountain, the na,e of which eludes me now, was a highlight. It was a punishing hike, but so worth it for the viez. That night, we cruised moch Ness. As well as presenting a very confincing argument for the existence of the Loch Ness monster, the tour operator taught us some fun facts. For example, the loch holds nore water than all the other lakes in the United Kingdom combined. Huh. So it was nice to learn to lake was notable aside from its cryptozoology.

The final day saw a visit to the bqttlefield of Culloden and the drive back to Edinburgh. The rest of my time in Edinburgh was relatively uneventful; I just swanned around like a local. One night, though, Anna and I went on a tour guided by her friend Kirstie. It was a tour of medieval crime and Edinburgh's hauntings. Most of it took place in the vaults, an abandoned ,aze of subterranean rooms that were once used by legitimate craftsmen, but zere eventually abandoned and used by the criminal community. I am a total skeptic when it comes to the supernatural - see my many cranky atheist diatribes - but I was shitting myself down there. Kirstie was an amawing storyteller, and my knees were literally shaking.

Last night, I flew to Brussels. I got myself a flight for £11, and figured that was worth the lateness of the flight. It all worked out in the end, but man, it was a bit of a drama. All of the hostels closed their reception at 23.00 and, as my flight got in at 22.30, that wouldn't work. Eventually, I decided to stay in a proper hotel, in a room by myself, with an en suite. Sure, it had all the charm of cat vomit and it was stuffier than a nun's habit in summer, but I felt very grown-up. I also appreciated how frigging expensive it must have been for Mum and Dad to take my siblings and I around the world in 2001. So, once again, thanks to Mum and Dad.

Anyway, upon arrival at the airport, the border patrol gave me a bit of a shakedown. They grilled me for about five minutes about where I was going next. As I haven't booked my train out of Brussels yet, I couldn't prove that I would be leaving the country before my three month tourist visa expired, and this alarmed them. They asked me about my travel plans, my savings, all that stuff, which was ridiculous. Border security in Europe is so inconsistent. When I arrived in Amsterdam, I was stamped and waved in by a bored-looking security guard, and from then on, my passport was never checked until I flew out of Aarhus more than a month later. Besides - and with all due respect to the good people of Belgium - I hqve no desire to move to this country the size of a fingernail that speaks not just one but two languqges that are incomprehensible to me.

This morning, I wandered around Brussels, and it didn't do much to charm me. They sure know how to do a good church, but the town's unofficial mascot, the Manikin Pis, was a tacky little thing, and the city seems frightfully confused. It is hqlf-way between the Dutch- and Fench-speaking parts of Belgium. All the signs are in Dutch and French, if not English as well, and all the inhabitants had to keep switching languages when they picked the wrong one. It was an impressive skill, but it'd piss me off if I had to live there.

Brussels was by no means a terrible place, but its drabness made me worry that my week here in Belgium would be terrible. It won't be. I caught the train to Antwerp, and Antwerp seems excellent already. First off, it is decidedly more Dutch. As a big fan of Holland, this pleases me. It also has a long shopping street that reminds me of Copenhagen's Stroeget. The architecture is stunning - their main cathedral made me gasp as I turned a corner and stumbled on its ornate immensity - and it seems rather culturally hip. Dan works in a store called RA13, which is a combination cafe/fashion and music store/art gallery. I've seen this kind of combination many times before, but none make it work as seamlessly and stylishly as RA13.

Now, I'm off to have a beer in a pub crammed with tacky religious paraphernalia (woop woop) before meeting Dan and going to explore Antwerp's nightlife. Yeah!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

On The Road Again

I'm in Edinburgh, and man, this place is awesome. I would consider cheating on Copenhagen with Edinburgh - that's how dishy it is.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I've had a week of adventures, and should write about them so I can remember them once I'm all elderly and forgetful. After a great few days in London where I stayed with Alice and played tourist with Ian, I packed up my bag and left London the Sunday before last, bound for Cardiff. I was really excited to see Cardiff and, while it didn't quite live up to my expectations, I really enjoyed it. My first afternoon there, I went to the art gallery and museum, which I kind of raced through. It had great displays of French and Spanish art, but I was there to learn about Wales, so I raced through them. Then I went to Cardiff Castle, which was amazing: remnants of a Norman keep, a fantastic motte and bailey castle in the centre, and opulent Victorian living quarters. There was in introductory video with the production values of a primary school Christmas play that involved a lot of nonsense about a modern day girl with a magical notebook that conjured up medieval soldiers and such who chased her around, but it more or less achieved the commendable goal of conveying history without language, so non-native English-speakers were just as confused as the rest of us!

The next day, I made three day trips. Three! The first was to Saint Fagans, a cute town in the hills which has a museum on the history of Welsh life. I arrived before the museum opened, and so wandered around the local church and graveyard for a bit, where I learned that Ebenezer was a very popular name there in the nineteenth century. The museum eventually opened, and it was awesome. First up was an extensive and well-preserved medieval manor and its surrounding gardens, but the real highlight was the open-air village. They had transported and restored buildings from many different Welsh regions and eras, and cobbled together a little town with houses, schools, churches, bakeries, shops, even a cockfighting ring, most between three and four hundred years old. It was really interesting, and each of the buildings was manned by informative employees. Some were frightfully dull - going into great detail about parquetry and other bullshit I didn't have time for - but some were great. One guy gave me an impromptu lesson in Welsh pronunciation, and gave me a run-down on the history of English-Welsh relations. He hadn't heard English until he was six years old, and was really passionate about preserving the Welsh language. I think it's a beautiful language, and would love to learn a bit of it. I really enjoyed seeing it on all the signs, marvelling at how a language could cope so well without vowels.

After that, I went out to Caerphilly, where there was an excellent dilapidated castle. It had an enormous moat, and one of the towers was nearly toppling into it. From its towers, you could see all the way back to Cardiff, and look out at the beautiful Welsh countryside. Then I trekked out to Llandaff Cathedral, which was enormous and stunning. I also wandered past the school that Roald Dahl attended (and wrote about in his book Boy) and saw the church where he was baptised. That evening, I went to see Cerys Matthews, who used to be the singer in Catatonia, one of my favourite bands as a teenager. That was wonderful. I've been waiting twelve years - half my life - to see her sing. She was wonderful. Her new solo material is fantastic, but when she sang an old Catatonia song, suddenly I felt like I was a teenager again, sitting outside the art rooms at my high school listening to my Discman (remember those?). My favourite moment though had to be the couple of Welsh standards she sang. The whole room sang along, and I had no idea what they were saying. That's what I love when travelling - being lost in the midst of a bewildering culture.

From Cardiff, I went to Sheffield, where my friend Patrick and I had a date with out favourite band. We went to see Angelspit in Manchester and then Sheffield, and both gigs were awesome. They're a cyber-punk electro-industrial duo from Sydney, and were awesome. The second night, we planned to stand up the back, but ended up dancing and singing along to everything again. We even got a shout-out from the band for being such nerdy fanboys who know all the lyrics.

From Sheffield, I went to York, which I remember fondly from my last trip to England with my family in 2001. I visited the York Minster, which is a truly spectacular cathedral, but decided not to pay the enormous entry fee. I craned my neck and saw as much as I could from the entry foyer (which was still larger than the church I attended in childhood) and wandered around the outside. Then I walked around the town's intact defensive walls, which takes in most of the town's loveliest features. I even found the precise spot where my brother, sister and I had chucked a hissy fit nearly a decade ago: it began to rain, and we refused to wear the ugly ponchos our parents had bought along. We demanded they buy us umbrellas, which they did, at £10 a pop. (This was when the exchange rate was $3:£1 - yikes!) What brats we were. But that umbrella had a good run: it lasted me until I arrived in London last year! In the evening, I met a lovely Melbourne girl in my hostel. (Oh! The hostel! It was awesome. It was a renovated eighteenth century manor, complete with a grand staircase and servants' quarters, which now served as the laundry and television room.) I tagged along with her on Time Tour, a gloriously tacky boat trip with a recorded commentary on York's history. Cue lame sound effects and bad French accents. It was great.

From York, I went to Glasgow, where I stayed again with my friends Michael and Callum. I'd visted before, so we it was an enjoyably restful few days, with not too much running around. (Although lots of dancing. We were out until the wee hours both nights.) I was there to see Amanda Palmer, one of my favourite singers, perform in the basement of an old church. She was stranded in Iceland when I arrived due to the volcanic eruption, and might not have made it to the gig. I would have been disappointed but not devastated if that was the case - I've already seen and interviewed her three times, but this was the first gig of her new side project, so I was looking forward to it. As it eventuated, she made it to Glasgow, but the rest of the people involved in the side project didn't - they were still in New York due to the flight freeze. So she kind of enacted the whole thing by herself. The side project is called Evelyn Evelyn, and tells the story of a pair of musical conjoined twins who are exploited by their evil manager, and then they get their own back. She got the other Evelyn on Skype, and he played and sang his parts in the songs. Isn't technology amazing? Then Amanda would do everyone's dialogue, and cobbled together props from the audience. It was a strange, chaotic gig, but a lot of fun for how different and manic it was. And it ended with the whole crowd singing along to Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart, which was nice. The next morning, I hopped on a train to Edinburgh.

Well, Edinburgh, as I said, is awesome. I'm staying with my friend Anna, who walked me through the streets my first evening here. It's a small city, and you can walk everywhere, but it's crammed with beautiful churches, houses, castles and cobbled streets. It's where JK Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book, which doesn't surprise me: every second building looks like it could be one of the lesser buildings in Hogwart's. Nearly everyone is homeless - I have been asked for money more than two dozen times in two days, and that is not an exaggeration, and one guy even made farting noises at me when I declined to give him forty pence - or missing their teeth, but everyone else is really friendly. My first night there, we went to see Angus and Julia Stone, a lovely Australian brother-sister folk duo. The next day (yesterday, really) while Anna was at work, I visited the National Museum of Scotland, which was great. The displays were extensive, but in no particular order, so just as I was about to give up and move on, they announced a guided tour. So I did that. The guide was this adorable grandmotherly woman who added an extra half hour to the tour to show us everything, and she gave me a good basic understanding of Scottish history.

With all due respect to my English friends, the English are jerks. They spent so much time subjugating the Scots, the Welsh, the Celts and various other ethnic groups, who really have their own identities. Even today, it is hard for them to assert their cultural differences. That interesting guide in Cardiff was telling me about how often people complain about the fact that the signs are in Welsh first and English second. That made me very cranky. If you want to experience English culture, stay in England. Wales is fascinating because it is different. Like many people, I used to use the terms England and Britain interchangeably. I never will again. Whatever similarities the nations of Great Britain have, their differences are still enormous - it's like comparing the Dutch and the German.

Anyway, enough boring cultural commentary. I'm hardly the first person to note that Britain's cultural steamrolling is a bit shit.

In the evening, Anna and I walked up Arthur's Seat, the enormous mountain formed by volcanic rock in the centre of Edinburgh. It's just at the end of Anna's street - I can see it when I poke my head out my window - and it is stunning. The climb is difficult, but the scenery is beautiful. i'll definitely be up again a few times before I leave next week.

And now, I'm off. Expect another entry when I reach Belgium in a couple of weeks.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Leaving London

Friendship ruins everything.

It also makes everything worthwhile, but that's a story for another post.

One of the hardest things about moving overseas was leaving my friends. (Oh, and my family. Hi, Mum.) And now, one of the hardest things about going home will be leaving my friends. I thought about this on the tube this afternoon as I left my friend Ian after a day visiting the Tate Britain and the Globe Theatre. Ian is an American studying in Denmark, and we've met up whenever we've been in each other's adopted cities. (I want his and he wants mine - stupid visas.) I'm sure I'll see him again, but it'll be years before either of us has the cash to visit each other in our home countries. But in addition to Ian, I'll be leaving behind friends scattered across Britain and Europe, not to mention Australian friends who moved to London around the time I did.

But ah well. That's life, right? This is what is great and terrible about travel: it lets you experience people and places you never imagined, and then makes you miss them for the rest of your life.

At least I live in the age of Facebook. (Again, hi, Mum. Stop being such a creepy stalker.)

I've spent the last few weeks packing up my life. Man, I accrued a lot of shit. I arrived in this country with just a backpack and its contents. I am departing with just that backpack, but I am storing a candy-striped bag full of clothes at a friend's place, and donated two garbage bags full of clothes to charity. That was a good exercise - I'm a hopeless hoarder, and having to throw shit out was very good for me.

I also finished work, which was sad, but necessary. A story leaked to the media a few weeks ago about the BBC cutting its online activity, so it made no sense for them to renew my contract when the department would be downsized and, let's be honest, one of the first against the wall. It was great getting a chance to work at the BBC, but at the end of the day, it was a content production job, and I'm just not passionate about that. I need to figure out what to do with my life when I get home, which is a little terrifying.

But in the meantime, I've got some countries to see!

I haven't made any of the day trips or seen as many of the remaining museums and such that I'd planned to visit, but I plan to be back for a few weeks in July, so I can catch up then. I'm staying with my friend Alice for a few days and am heading to Cardiff on Sunday. I've told people who have been to Cardiff and, when I mention I'll be there two nights, they say, "Huh. Good luck filling all that time."

Uh oh. I'm sure I'll be fine: Cardiff has a great-looking castle, I go nuts for the Welsh language and I'm seeing Cerys Matthews (formerly of Catatonia) on Monday night.