One of my favourite parts about arriving to a new country by plane is that first moment when you step outside, and pass from the recycled, air-conditioned, over-used air into air with entirely different smells and flavours. Every time I get back to the UK, it just smells like home to me: it was, after all, home for a couple of years, and I didn’t ever actually have the intention of leaving. While I’m sitting on the plane, still waiting to disembark, I’m excited to return to the smells and flavours that I recognise.
Of course, I’m also excited to see friends, and in this case my friend Tom met me with chocolate minstrels in hand. Way to my heart! I stayed with him and his parents (who somehow remembered the ‘crazy Australian girl’ from several years prior) for the next few days, in their house an hour out of London.
I got in quite late in the afternoon, so pretty much headed straight to bed: it had also been a crazy few weeks (as ever) at the firm, so I was ruined. Besides, the next day I had a meeting in the city at 10am. Oh, planning.
Before my meeting, I took a wander and started experimenting with my new camera (the one I still use btw, it’s just a little compact). I saw a big, slightly terrifying-looking English school, and couldn’t resist taking a photo:
The reason I was taking this trip was basically because I already had a one-way flight to Europe, but was having pretty serious visa issues with the Ukraine/Russia. I’d booked the flight in August of 2011, shortly after I’d started learning Russian, and probably should have realised that it would take me longer than 6 months to sort out a visa etc. Either way, I asked work for two months off, asked my travel agent to book me a flight back to Australia from ‘somewhere east (and the later in the year it is, the further east it should be)’, and went. So at the point I was in London, I already knew that I’d be teaching English sometime in the upcoming year.
I also saw an interesting chap hanging out at a stall nearby (again, I was experimenting with the camera, hence the sepia):
It’s clearly not just Russia with its quirks. Speaking of Russia, I was just near the Imperial War Museum, and spotted a monument to Russia’s WW2 soldiers:
I also enjoyed this, outside the front entrance:
I spent the rest of the day wandering around down-town, drinking coffee. I got in trouble in Topshop for taking this photo of their display:
This was only a few months before the London 2012 games, and there were these fantastic red cranes just looming over the sky-line:
Of course, by this point I was almost dropping from exhaustion, so headed home. And now… it’s time to get ready for work.
My second day back in the UK was spent looking for boots. Having size 43 feet is rather a challenge at times, and in fact all day, I found just three pairs of boots in my size. Two were hideous, and the other cost $600. But oh my god were they lovely. Until I realised that that’s a new snowboard and bindings, and I couldn’t really justify the expense.
I met Tom for dinner after he finished class for the day, and then we trotted on home. Well, tried to, anyway. In the evening, the train back out to his house only runs every hour, and we just missed one, so had to wait an hour in the tube station. We then started playing on the escalators (as all reasonable adults do) and, you guessed it, missed the next train. Good form. Man did I sleep well that night.
I spent the next day mainly in the area near Tom’s parents’ place, in Ware-Herts.
The following day was Australia Day, and my lovely friend Tilly came down from Liverpool for the day. While waiting, I even got to listen to Triple J’s Hottest 100! As it turns out, this was Tilly’s first trip to London. Ever. In her whole life. Despite living less than 300km away! So I gave her a tour 🙂
I was actually leaving for Amsterdam that night, on the overnight ferry. So, naturally, I decided to put washing on that morning, and cart my wet things around with me. Mm, mould—nom nom!
I met Tilly at the station (eventually—we couldn’t find each other for ever!) and dumped my wet things (and baggage) at a laundry before heading straight for one of my favourite places in London: the British Museum. I’m pretty solid on my ancient and classical history, so gave Tilly a tour of the ground floor. I love it! Next we went for a bit of a walk.
Sadly, Tilly had to go back to Scouseland, and I had to head off to Harwich to catch the ferry. It’s my preferred way of getting to Europe from the UK: it’s cheap, super-comfortable, and how awesome is waking up in a different country? Also, boats.
Shockingly, I managed to catch the ferry from the UK to the Netherlands with no dramas. I probably should have thought to myself that ‘oh, I didn’t screw up departure, so arrival’ll be my problem’—but hindsight is a wonderful thing!
The ferry is how I usually travel between the UK and the Netherlands actually. It’s super convenient, comfortable, saves on a night’s accommodation, and gets you there at a really useful time in the morning (ferry company). It’s so comfortable, in fact, that I just about slept through my alarm, and had rather a rude shock when I realised we’d arrived and that I was unpacked and in my pyjamas. Needless to say, getting off the boat was a mad scramble, and I then had to get through immigration.
The migration agent was a tall good-looking Dutch guy (funny that), who asked me what I was doing in Holland. I said that I was visiting a friend. He looked at me and asked where the friend was from, and I spelt it out: U-t-r-e-c-h-t. “Utrecht?” he asked, and I just nodded. He then laughed at my linguistic incompetence, which is totally justified.
An hour or so later, I was in Amsterdam again. Let me be clear that I do not like Amsterdam. Or at least, I don’t like the tourists: take them away, and the city would probably be rather nice. As it is, the tourists are all there for prostitution or drugs (and this is before the stricter pot rules came in), and they really are the dirtiest, most repulsive people you’ll ever meet. I’d attempted to avoid the worst of them by staying at a hostel further away from the Red Light District this time, though that didn’t quite work. Eugh, the RLD. I’m not at all prudish, and obviously prostitution is decriminalised in the Netherlands—for Dutch women. But the greater proportion of girls working there aren’t Dutch women, but immigrants from much poorer countries: and they aren’t covered by the laws. This puts them in a prime situation as far as traffickers are concerned, and the first time I was in A’dam (2008) I read a Dutch police report which said that at least 50% and up to 90% of the women and girls working in the sex industry in the city are trafficked. That means that chances you’re having sex with someone who’s enslaved is pretty high, and every time you go and see a live sex show, there’s a high chance you’re watching someone being raped. I don’t have words strong enough to describe how viscerally foul that is.
Anyway, I was actually still meant to be working on a tender for the law firm back in Australia, so once I’d dropped off my things, I headed off to try and find somewhere with internet to do some work. It was suggested I try a place in L-whatever Square (Leidseplein). Haha that place turned out to be the Bulldog, and needless to say, I was swamped by a cloud of smoke when I walked in. Kind of hard to write a tender when you’re stoned via passive smoking, so I wandered onward.
I found myself further out of town, along the waterfront, and wandered on into the library. It took me quite a while to figure out what was going on, but then I managed to find myself both a desk and internet access. Hoorah! It’s an amazing library actually: gorgeous architecture, lots of studying room, thousands of beautiful books, and the piece de resistance, a pianist playing classical music on a grand at the entrance.
At about this time, I realised that I’d made a rookie error: in my rush to get off the boat that morning, I’d left behind my teddy-bear. Egads! I’m a pretty terrible adult and hate sleeping by myself, so I have a teddy bear. Feel free to judge silently. Anyway, I couldn’t get my phone to work, and I couldn’t get in touch with the ferry company, so messaged JFord all a-fluster, and she started sorting it out for me from Australia. How on earth was that easier?!
That evening I went for a walk through the city to take some photos. Eugh. Another thing I hate about Amsterdam: I’m a woman walking around by herself at night-time, so I clearly must be a prostitute. *Rolls eyes*. It’s not just turning down guys who are trying to buy you, it’s the fact that all of the tourists look at you as if you are something to buy. It’s a horrible, horrible feeling. The city itself is quite nice at night-time though, with reflections on all of the canals (Amsterdam is one of the many cities given the ‘Venice’ label. Like St Petersburg, though to a greater extent, it’s built on land reclaimed from the ocean, and canals and dikes are ubiquitous).
Amsterdam’s a funny old place, actually. I find the architecture and statues a little grotesque in a way, as if all of the limbs and boughs are drawn out in torture. Indeed, there’s a certain blood-thirstiness behind the history of the city, somewhere between a celebration of and an indifference to violence. For example, there’s this one place where prisoners used to be tortured: if they misbehaved in prison, they were put overnight into a room which would slowly fill with water. The only way they could survive was by pumping it out all night. When the prison was later closed down, the place was turned into a public pool (!), and it’s now a hotel.
The next morning, I awoke in the hostel in a state of absolute disgust. There was a sink in the room, and it was filled with vomit (as was every other sink I could get to on the floor). Someone had also obviously urinated into it. Shortly afterward, I was to encounter the culprits: a group of four guys in my room, who got up and proceeded to talk and joke about the prostitutes they’d slept with the night before, in the most grotesque and base and inhuman of terms. They then tried to talk to me, and I spoke back to them in Russian, pretending not to understand: no fucking way was I talking to them. Putrid chavs. After they all went out to find drugs, I talked with the three other people from my room, some cool kids from Melbourne, and they were similarly revolted.
Of course, I couldn’t hang around all day: I was on a teddy bear rescue mission! I spent a few hours heading to Hoek van Holland and back. The lady laughed at me a bit when I turned up and said that my teddy was being held for me, but hey. Then it was a few hours’ work on the tender before heading out that night to meet my friend Edwin.
I’ve known Edwin since late 2007, when we lived together in a hostel in Manly (Sydney). I try to get to the Netherlands to visit him whenever I’m in the area, and it was conveniently on my way this time. We met up for dinner, then headed out to get our drink on. We were sitting having some vodka in a rather chilled bar/restaurant, when E decided to cause a scene (he likes to do that). So he suddenly slams his drink down, stands over the table (and he’s 6’4″, so he really looms), starts shaking his finger and yelling at me at the top of his lungs. I’m giggling nervously, and everybody else in the restaurant is being quiet and avoiding eye contact. Then, as a final measure, Edwin slams himself down into his seat: which promptly gives way, and he’s suddenly sprawled on the floor with the most surprised look I’ve ever seen on anybody’s face. The restaurant as a whole burst out laughing and applauding, it was fantastic!
Next we went to another bar. I do love that Dutch people are tall. Tall people make me happy. Anyway, I started to feel really sick, so we went outside so that I could cool down. E was completely freaked that it was -7 and I was too hot to wear a coat, while he was freezing! I wasn’t feeling any better though ( 🙁 🙁 :(), so he escorted me back to my hostel, trying to teach me how to say ‘Utrecht’ on the way. It must have been at least half an hour of me trying to say it, and him laughing at me each time. Again, linguistic incompetence! (At least when it comes to German-ish languages).
The next day, it was off to Germany itself for the first time.
My B&B in Mannheim was super-luxurious after the hostel grossness in Amsterdam, and was even relatively conveniently located. Mannheim is an industrial city in the south-western corner of Germany, and definitely not on the tourist trail. It’s actually the only place I’ve been in the country, despite best intentions of making it to several festivals or to go and party with friends in Berlin. I went there to go and see a performance by the band the Guano Apes, who had been my theme snowboarding music for the preceding season (oh my god—ripping it down the slopes in NZ to ‘You Can’t Stop Me‘? Freaking amazing!). It was also conveniently on the way to where I was going in Italy.
I was actually going to the concert that night, and with the help of the lovely B&B owner, figured out my bus to where the concert was happening (though, naturally, didn’t bother looking at how I would get back). I rocked up my outfit and headed off. When I got there, I fetched myself the first of several wodkas (seriously, I can’t not laugh—I get that ‘w’ is ‘v’ in German, but I like to think that everyone says ‘wodka’ instead of ‘vodka’, like a country of extreme lisps). And oh my goodness, I was so happy to be there: every time I’m in a crowd of people whose first language is not English, I get stoked, because I feel like there’s still things to learn, and still parts of the world to explore. So I was having a lovely time having a little dance in the crowd, while making the observation that I don’t look German at all. Haha I point this out, because it’s usually peoples’ first guess as to my heritage (which isn’t actually the case).
The support act, ‘Alpha Academy’, was super-fun, and then it was time for the GA. They sing in English, but obviously I had no idea what they were saying between songs: so I asked the guy next to me whether he spoke English. His name was Christian, and he and his friends were actually super-helpful. He translated (insofar as he could) what was being said. To be fair though, after another visit to the bar I wasn’t paying that much attention anyway: the bar-guy gave me a truly terrifying amount of vodka. He was practising his flaring technique, so first poured normally, then over the other arm, then behind his back: by the time he’d finished, I had a big cup of vodka. Wodka. Giggle. I also bought some chocolate, for dinner—health ftw!
After the gig, Christian offered me a lift home, which I obviously accepted. I was in the middle of freaking nowhere, with no knowledge of German and no clue (in general). It was pretty entertaining: I was listening to the GPS and learning some new vocab, while C’s two friends were talking in the front seat. They had very, very limited English, but had figured out that I have a limited passive understanding of German, so were completely fucking with me. Think horror movie script (but with more giggling). Haha I’ll never forget them talking about ‘child soup’ then looking at me surreptitiously to make sure I’d understood. *Eye roll.*
The next day started pretty hilariously, with the owner’s receptionist-son snorting with laughter at how badly I pronounce even ‘I don’t speak German’ in German. He derisively laughed that I’m as bad as his American mother. I did feel like pointing out that if he’s half-American, his English should really be a damn sight better, but I pretended to be nice instead. The day was then spent wandering around taking photos and doing work on the tender for the law firm. I did make the observation that there are an inordinate number of phallic-shaped buildings in the city (and judged it worth texting my friends in Aus about, while obviously giggling my head off. Maturity!).
From a big tower.
Every public building seemed to look like this.
From the tram. Aaagh, the tram!!
Just chilling out in the park in winter, feeding my flamingos.
Aaagh, I just remembered, I did the stupidest thing! There’s this tram which goes about the place in Mannheim, and so I figured I’d get on it and do a quick loop: it didn’t look like that many stops. I also decided to do this before having had any food that day. Freaking two hours later, I was way out of the city and starving. I’d not had a meal in a couple of days, and that’s when it finally hit me. Worst, tram-ride, ever. I saw a McDonalds (not something I usually eat), jumped off and ate everything. Then another hour or so back to Mannheim. An angry, angry hour or so. Gleugh. Oh well, I spent it watching the sign announcing the next stop, and listening to the PA to understand how each letter etc sounds in German (I really am obsessed with languages).
Apparently at some point during the day, C had driven back to my hotel and left a note at reception saying how awesome it was meeting me and offering to show me around the place, but I didn’t get it until I’d already left Germany the next morning, on my way to the Italian Alps to go snowboarding. Hells yeah!
A couple of trains and a bus or so after leaving Mannheim, I arrived in Selva val Gardena, aka Wolkenstein. It’s in an area of northern Italy which used to be part of Germany (?), but was reapportioned following WW2 (another ??). As such, residents speak Italian, German, and a weird local dialect which is a mix of both and more. It’s a beautiful little ski town at the foot of the Dolomites, but unfortunately it was cold enough that my SD card froze and I have no photos. Yes, that’s literally froze: I think at one point riding, with wind chill, it was something like -40. It was great, I had the slopes to myself! I should also mention that, much like this introduction, the order’s a bit all over the place: too much snow and too much awesomeness in too short a space of time means that I’m not totally sure what happened when.
So why Selva? My friend Wicklund was doing the season there and so I had a place to stay = yay (plus I wanted to catch up, of course—I’m not actually an arsehole). And oh my god was it amazing: aggghhhhhhh (imagine my face melting as I’m remembering how good it was). It’s a place I definitely want to go riding again, despite the problems I had with skiers (I was one of the only snowboarders on the mountain, and skiers literally walked up to me in lines and pushed me over. They really hate snowboarders… where is the love? I swing both ways!)
Wicklund met me at the bus stop and we headed back to his for some drinks, and I met some more of the crew, who were all snowily great. At some point though, the travel caught up to me and I fell asleep on my designated couch. Hours later, I woke up to find that I didn’t have the couch to myself: and while granted, I don’t like sleeping alone, I infinitely prefer that to sharing with random dudes. I’m also not very polite at whatever o’clock in the morning, and I kicked him out. Poor guy had to walk home in the middle of the night in -18 or something ridiculous. (Maybe I’m an arsehole after all!)
After some minor money-exchange dramas the next morning, I bought my ski pass and went to go and hire a board. I was travelling with my outer-gear and my own boots as usual, but my baby just doesn’t fit in my baggage allowance. The guys set me up with a Burton Feelgood, which I eyed dubiously, but took anyway. I then gondala’d up to the top, at which point I realised that there was a screw or two missing from my bindings (which definitely weren’t dropped by me as I readjusting my base-plates..), and I had to head back down again. Which I did. Newly screwed, I headed back up the gondala and took the board out for its first spin. And yuck. It was so squiggly and short and gross. I also just don’t get what the fuss is about Burton boards, I prefer the ski brand boards (I ride a K2, and my favourite hires have been Saloman and Rossignol). So I returned to the ski hire place in town again, walked in, and said that we really needed to do better. I may or may not have said that I needed something longer and harder… but really! I was talking about the snowboard!
Third time lucky—this time, I set the board up while still in the shop, and when I got back to the top (I put way too many hours into that gondala), it was lovely. Perfect stance, and a nice firm board, too: I like it steep and fast, and I don’t feel comfortable doing that on softer, wiggly boards. Ohhhh it was so gooood.
I had my usual random conversations with strangers over the next few days, of course. There were a few guys who wanted to go riding with me but couldn’t keep up; one Austrian dude who claimed to have gotten sick of snowboarding after becoming some kind of European champion, and now rides a monoski LOL; and my personal favourite, a bunch of Russians. I was next to them on a lift, realised what language they were speaking, and butted in. “You’re Russian?” I asked. They sure were. “I speak a little!” I announced, and with no further ado, they handed me a bottle of whisky. Sounds about right!
Oh my god, you actually have to go riding this area if you’re into snow-sports at all: even though I didn’t have particularly awesome snow, I was more than delighted to have something like 1500km of trails to play with. On my second day riding, I got to warm up on a 15 minute black run. Fifteen minutes!! In Aus or NZ, black runs are over in 90 seconds, 2 minutes tops. Ohhhhhh (more face-melting).
The next day I decided to attempt the Sella Ronda for the first time, a 40km trail that circumnavigates the Dolomites. Turns out, I did it the lame, non-steep way, but it wasn’t so bad. Before heading off, I remember I was sitting in a café looking out at the falling snow and having breakfast spaghetti (that’s a thing.. right?), when I was suddenly overwhelmed with the feeling that I’m probably the luckiest girl in the whole world, and started crying in the café. It wasn’t awkward at all. Also that day (I think), I had my big dog adventure, which I’ve already included in another post (actually an email I sent back to my colleagues in Aus).
Some time around then, we went for a night out in Selva. Drinking. So much drinking. After pre-drinking following an epic chalet meal, we went to a couple of different bars (I could totally be mooshing a few nights together here), making it to some kind of salsa class at 11pm in a packed, sticky bar. Needless to say, everyone was wasted, and I’m not sure how much salsa anyone really managed. I do distinctly remember being somehow cut off from the group I was with by some Italian guys, and backing away from them until I literally had my back against the wall (where the ‘wall’ in this case is a big stone column). They’re kind of aggressive. I also remember terrifying amounts of jäger (much like with the barkeep at my concert in Germany, I ended up inverted alcohol/mixer quantities, having around 1/3 can of red bull and nearly half a bottle of jäger in my cup). I couldn’t get through it, funnily enough, and passed it off to poor Rex, who just about died. Finally, I somehow managed to cut myself quite badly on the plastic cup, and asked the bartender for a band-aid. By the time I was sorted out, I turned around to find out that everybody I was with had left. I sent a rather enjoyably irritated text ranting at Wicklund, then trekked off into the snow and figured my way back home. Using wind direction. Like all good drunken sailors.
On my final proper day of riding, I did the Sella Ronda again, but in the reverse direction. It was much better: steeper, faster, longer, superb. I was trying for the girl speed-record, but got lost for quite a while in the middle, and made the rookie (safety) errors of both paying attention to signs, and unstrapping when I was supposed to. Next time! Because there will be a next time.
On Friday night we went to go and see the local team play ice hockey against their nearby rivals. It was my first ice hockey game (loved it), and also my first mulled wine experience (ditto). It’s nothing on the Russian ice hockey experience of course, but on the upside, there was ample entertainment to be found in the opposing team’s supporters’ enthusiasm and rage; not to mention one of the player’s surnames:
After a quick ride the next morning, I headed off to Prague to start my CELTA. I, awesomely, managed to get off in Prague at the wrong stop (the penultimate, rather than final, stop). I got on the next train to the city, and had my first functional Russian conversation, explaining the situation to the lovely train conductor. She let me get on with no ticket :). I was then greeted (‘gret’ should be a word. So should ‘sprunt’ for sprinted and ‘meese’ for the plural of moose) by a taxi driver sent by the school, and we talked in broken Russian the whole way to where I was staying. I was also somewhat flabbergasted to hear what was recognisably ‘These Boots Are Made for Walking’ on the radio, but all in Czech!
I just have to stress one more time how much I loved my time in Selva, and give a massive shout-out to Wicklund, Rex, and Kim in particular. Thanks so much for your unbelievable awesomeness and hospitality!!! 😀