Monday, 2 January 2017

To 2017 and beyond!

I wrote this sitting toasty warm in front of the gas heater in my apartment in Berlin on New Years Eve, having only disembarked from a plane from the Australian summer only a few hours before. I was back in Berlin after a short and whirlwind visit Downunder. It was a good time to reflect on the year that has passed, as I sat weighed down by jet lag but unable to sleep. So here goes. 

As we are all painfully aware, on the world stage, politically and in popular culture, 2016 was a pretty terrible year. Personally, however, it was full of adventures and opportunities to push myself to the limits to continue discovering what I am capable of. This year I haven't faced my challenges alone, however; I've had my partner in crime, Daniel, who I picked up somewhere along the way in 2015.

2016: a recap.

2016 consisted of a lot of movingI moved out of the home I had been living in since arriving in London in Hammersmith because the lease ended and the place, rightly so, required renovating. From here, I moved in with my boyfriend Daniel in Wimbledon. Then my UK visa ended and we made the crazy decision to move to Germany. Because yolo.

Travelling. The country a month rule still stood, with much more local travel included also:
  • Gibraltar
  • Spain x 2, including Ibiza for my 30th birthday for the Spanish Dirty 30 Funfest, with Dan, Al and Nat. We then went on to Seville, Madrid and Barcelona.
  • Sweden, where I saw the Northern Lights
  • Norway, where I caught a ferry cruise through the fjords 
  • Belgium, where I attended the Anzac Day ceremony in Passchendaele, the battle for the western front which saw some many Aussies and Kiwis lose their lives in World War One
  • Ireland
  • Germany - my new home
  • Croatia
  • Montenegro
  • Poland x 2, being so close to Germany, Dan and I literally pop across the border for day trips
  • Romania
  • Czech Republic
  • Australia
  • New Zealand
United Kingdom travelling included:
  • Northern Ireland
  • Wales
  • Scotland, for the Fringe festival and Nat's birthday
  • York, Scarborough and Whitby
  • Cambridge
  • Cornwall, including Penzance, St Ives, Lands End and the Eden Project
German travelling included:
  • Potsdam
  • Munich
  • Dresden
  • Hamburg
  • Berlin, of course
Being a nutcase. With the support of photographer Dan and my awesome team mates Al and Nat, I completed my 2nd Tough Mudder. Naturally, I insisted on going through the electrocution obstacle even though, as a Tough Mudder "Alumni" I didn't have to: I ended up getting shocked in the head.

Turned dirty thirty. With friends, I celebrated my 30th birthday at Pacha in Ibiza, as I wanted to have one last chance to party before I got too old for it. Turns out, there are plenty of old fogies on Ibiza island, and I didn't bring the average age up to 22!

Anniversaries. Dan and I made it to 1 year, and what a truly incredible year it had been! We were, of course, taking a day trip to Montenegro from Croatia on that day, which was a fitting way to spend our anniversary. May there be many more years and even more adventures to follow.

Work. I wound up at The Elders, where I learnt so very much about the state of the world. I became properly interested in world events and as a result can now have proper adult conversations with people. I was sad to leave the Ducklings but we have remained in touch. Arriving in Germany, I searched tirelessly - and demoralisingly - for a job. I eventually found an incredible role doing what I enjoy. It took Dan and I both 2 months to find jobs, and we were at the point of giving up. We later learnt that 6-7 months was the average, and realised how lucky we both had been to get such great jobs in 2 of the biggest English speaking organisations in Berlin.

The difficult times. I wallowed in my own self pity at how poorly (or so I thought) the job hunt was going. I panicked until I broke down about not being able to find somewhere to live, or how to get my bank card, or how to register to live in this strange country. In the end, Dan and I pulled through though and are making the most of the time we have here. 

I have become a beer drinker! After Germany and Belgium visits the year before, I decided the golden beverage was alright. Now living in Germany, we have discovered that beer is literally cheaper than soft drink, so the result is obvious. I've discovered that I enjoy the Erdinger dunkelweiss, amongst others.

I went home home for the first time since June 2014. I visited New Zealand and met Dan's wonderful family and friends for the first time, and they made me feel so very welcome. He showed me his beautiful country and I fell in love with it. We then flew across the pond and I hugged my mum for the first time in over 2 years. I cuddled my best friends' baby girls who I had never met yet. And I gave the biggest hugs to my beautiful nieces who literally pelted down the driveway on Christmas Day and wouldn't let go of Aunty Sasha all day (except when we played Crack the Egg on the trampoline, which could have easily ended in disaster). 

At home, I celebrated a joint milestone year for myself (30 years old), my brother (50) and my mum on her 70th birthday surrounded by friends, family, and ensuring I got myself painfully sunburnt. 

I caught up with countless friends to find out about their lives, loves, losses and laughs of the previous few years. I tried not to say things like "I can't decide if I'll be having my birthday in Paris or Portugal" and failed spectacularly. 

It was more difficult to return to Berlin than when I left in the first place, and the plane journey was an emotional one. I am back now though, and many more adventures await. I feel very fortunate that, with the support of my family and friends, this is the life I have been able to carve out for myself over the last couple of years. Travel has truly become an addiction. 

2017 has so much in store for it already, and it's only just begun.

So let's say Prost! to an amazing year ahead!


Thursday, 1 September 2016

Ich bin ein Berliner

I have neglected my blog badly. I know this. I know you know this. You know I know you know this. We all know this. Life has been a hectic, crazy, incredible roller coaster the last 9 months and yes, I have had time to write all about it, but often less energy to be able to.

I haven't told you about the Northern Lights on our Nordic Odyssey, nor Anzac Day in Belgium, guinness in Dublin, drinking 70% beer in York, the Dr Who Experience in Cardiff or exploring Cornwall. I haven't told you about Spain, my birthday extravaganza, Croatia or, most recently Edinburgh.

But most of all, I haven't told you about Germany. 

Today marks exactly 3 months since Daniel and I arrived in Germany. 



3 months since leaving London and preparing to attempt a new adventure in this different part of Europe (well, at the time the UK was still part of Europe…ZING! NB: I know it's still part of the continent Europe, I'm being facetious...)

It's been 3 of the most challenging months to date, far harder than starting anew in London. But if it hadn't have been for London, starting in Germany would have been damn near impossible. Finding housing, jobs, and dealing with things like bank accounts in a non-English speaking country, with no help whatsoever, has been eye-openingly difficult. But we did it. We got there. And it's all been worth it.

PAPERWORK
Oh my, do the Germans love paperwork. There's numbers for this and that. Can you apply online? Highly unlikely. Do you have to battle a 2 hour queue to discover that the computers are down and to come back tomorrow? Yes. The Germans are known worldwide for their efficiency but when it comes to red tape and paperwork, getting ourselves set up has been the most inefficient exercise I have ever encountered. And I say this affectionately (now, that it's all sorted), as I have spoken with locals who have to go through exactly the same process that we do any time they want to move house, and they agree and bemoan the situation too.

There are 3 main bits of paperwork required to be able to get a bank account, and each requires the previous to be gotten first.
  1. Anmeldung. I don't think it'll matter how long I live in Germany, I'll never learn to say this word. Basically, this is the registered address form, and the first thing you need to apply for once you have semi-permanent accommodation. This took us 5 attempts to get, 2 computer mishaps, 1 appointment for far too far in the future to be useful until finally, with a lovely lady who didn't speak a word of English, we got the paperwork sorted after lining up since 6.30am. Every single German resident has to do this every time they move house. It is the faffiest faff I've ever had to deal with and I almost cried with relief once we finally got it.
  2. Sozialversicherungsausweis. I think this is my new favourite German word (sorry, kartoffelpuffer!) Literally, "Social security card" or number. I braced myself for faffy faffness like the Anmeldung, but it was relatively painless. It still couldn't be done online, but thankfully once it's got, it's got. Dan and I are in the system now!
  3. SteuerID. Tax file number. This was meant to be sent to us after we applied for our Anmeldung but we never received it, so I braced myself to go into a Burgeramt (kind of like a town hall office) to deal with more faff. Thankfully again, this was a quick matter, with the lady behind the counter printing out two sheets of paper, and it baffles me that I couldn't do this at home.

However, geared with all 3, last week Dan and I could finally apply for bank accounts! (Which only took an hour and a half and about 300 sheets of paper).

Et voila! Dan and I officially have all the paperwork completed to be German residents.

JOBS
I started applying for jobs while I was still in London. This tactic had served me very well for landing a job in London, where I interviewed for a role the day after I arrived. Not so with Germany. For both of us, the rejections came thick and fast, the number of jobs we could apply for not as great as we had been led to believe, and things were starting to feel a bit dire. 

We had a date to find jobs by: first week in August. We had already booked travel to Edinburgh on the 12th of August, and decided that if nothing had come to fruition by then, then we would make that our exit date. 

We applied for job after job. We spent our days applying for jobs, or searching for English-only speaking jobs, firing off as many applications as possible. They all started to blend with one another (and frankly, I should have kept a spreadsheet). Then one day while we were out: a phone call. Dan had an interview for a short-term role in a school. 

This sealed our fate, as the short-term role gave us an extra couple of months to find full time employment, and in that time, the offers started coming in. I ended up having about 4 phone interviews and 3 in-person interviews all in quick succession. Turns out the job turnaround in Germany can take quite some time (and that jobs remain on job boards long after they have been filled). A couple of the jobs I decided straight away were not for me, and this was empowering to realise - no matter how desperate I am for a job, I simply cannot do something I do not believe in or know I would be bored doing. 

In the end, it came down to two jobs. I had a great interview for a music education startup, even joined the team for breakfast but at the 11th hour, they decided that my visa situation was too difficult for them. They offered me an assistant role until the end of my visa, and I said I would think about it. In the meantime, I had an amazing interview for a company called e.on. Is it weird to say the interview was pleasant? Was kinda fun? I really enjoyed chatting with these people, and it seems they enjoyed chatting with me as less than 24 hours after my interview, I was offered the role.

It's a 2 year contract, however they were upfront with understanding that I may not want to stay in the role for the whole two years. They looked into visa options for me, and it seems that extending is as easy as walking into the tax office with a letter from my work. How about that, London?!

However, more German bureaucracy stood in my way. Even though I could start straight away (this was the beginning of August), due to payroll (and the same thing happened to Dan), I couldn't start until 1 September. This left me with a month to waste (and waste it I did) and dwindling funds. 

But no matter! Tomorrow I start, and I'm looking forward to it. It's been 3 months since I worked and while it's nice having time off, it can get a bit tiresome. I don't make a good housewife.


HOUSING
This is our final hurdle. We stayed in a hostel for the first few weeks either side of our Spain holiday, we stayed a week pet-sitting last minute in Moabit, we were lucky enough to be approached for a 7 week stay in a lovely apartment in Mitte, and currently we're in a 4 week stay near Wedding. However, it is proving very difficult to find (or be responded to about) long term accommodation. We have 2 weeks left in our current place and time is now of the essence to find somewhere - even if only for a few weeks - to move into at the end of this lease. 

We visited a place tonight that would take us to December. Later in the year we should have more luck finding a long term place, but I guess it might be interesting to take these couple of month flats and live all over Berlin - it's been fascinating exploring all the different areas so far! That's me being glass-half-full about the situation. Ultimately, a place we can call home for a year would be perfect, but it isn't likely to happen.

GETTING OUT AND ABOUT
Before our funds dwindled significantly, Dan and I got out and around Berlin as much as possible.

Potsdam
Potsdam has become one of my favourite places (thank you, Nat!). It's a town just outside of Berlin (but still accessible by public transport) that is home to well preserved hundreds of year old castles and their estates. You can wander through the grounds free of charge, and many of them are spectacular. There are 3 main parks and we have explored 2 of them so far. There's interconnecting rivers and lakes, big expanses of wild park, perfect manicured gardens and elaborate castles dotted all over the parks.








Day trip to Poland
Yep, that's right. Just two hours from Berlin is a Polish town named Szczecin (which is virtually unpronounceable, so try Stettin) and we just popped over the border for a day trip. It's a cute little town with a dotted path encircling it so visitors can take themselves on a self-guided tour of the city. Why don't more cities do this? We saw some lovely architecture and ate some incredible food. Cheap food. Painfully cheap beer. 1L for €3? I'll take 2.


Museums
Unlike London, museums and art galleries in Berlin are not free. We have paid to visit a couple, including the DDR Museum which showcases what life was like in East Germany under Communist rule, the Deutsches Technic Museum where we spent a literal full day and still didn't see it all, as well as underground bunkers which German civilians hid in during WWII while Berlin was being razed. 

In addition, we bought tickets for the Lange Nacht der Museen (The Long Night of Museums), which, for the entry cost of 1 museum, gives you access to over 70 museums and art galleries across Berlin, and also includes all public transport costs to get between them. We managed:
  • Neues Museum (which houses the bust of Nefertiti, and I myself was busted when my flash went off trying to take a photo of her in the Do Not Take Photo's room!)
  • Pergamon Museum
  • Berlin Cathedral
  • The Wall Museum (Mauer Museen)
  • Deutsch Currywurst Museum (yes, that's right, a museum dedicated to that sausagey snack - it was the wurst!) Actually it was a lot of fun, and I enjoyed it :)




Lakeside
One thing I never knew about Berlin was how many lakes, rivers and channels divide the city. For the warmer weather, there are many lakes which you can go swimming in, however some enterprising person has added an entrance fee to most of these. We found one that was free called Schlachtensee that turned out to be perfect! It only has a couple of areas on its 7km circumference that has a very small sandy beach, but every few metres there's a small gap in the trees allowing you to set up your towel amid relative privacy and have your own little patch of shore. The water was very clear (the clearest in Berlin, apparently!) and I was doing fine until some little fishies started nibbling at my toes. I never expected to be able to swim in nature so close to the city.


***

There have been other little bits and pieces such as a quick trip to the Botanic Gardens, drinking lots and lots of beer, and exploring all the areas we have been living in (and finding interesting parks and lakes). We have had 3 big international trips; 2 weeks in Spain, 6 days in Croatia and 4 days in Edinburgh. In the near future, we have Oktoberfest in Munich and a trip to Bucharest, Romania on the cards. It's a crazy time!

And so I'll finish this long update here - we've made it. We actually made it. We did it. We're going to succeed. We are registered. We have bank accounts. We have jobs. It's going to be alright. It's going to be amazing, in fact, as we have bought ourselves another year in which to explore the rest of this diverse continent. 

Til next time,

x

Monday, 30 May 2016

The end of an era, the beginning of a new.


3 weeks.

My Tier 5 visa technically ends on 2 June, though I landed in London on 23 June, 2014. That means I miss out on 3 weeks of my visa due to a series of unfortunate events. Right now, I would do anything to get those three weeks back.

2 years.

Still, I have spent the last [almost] 2 years living on the opposite side of the world from my home, away from friends and family in a selfish attempt to find myself, learn, explore, discover. And it worked - a little too well, I'm afraid. I'm not ready to finish having adventures and so the European Extravaganza won't be ending here...

1 year.

The next adventure. I will be saying So long, old chap! to London, and Guten tag! to Berlin, Germany. I won't be making the move alone - somewhere along the way I fell in love, and a gentleman will be joining me for this next challenge. Berlin simply won't know what hit it.

Recapping the past two years

The last two years have been the greatest adventure of my life. There were incredible times, there were the lowest of low times, there were hardships and there were experiences so amazing that I pinch myself to this day. There were the best and the worst of decisions made. Then there were the people I met and the friends I made who will last a lifetime.

I've learnt that ugg boots are an outside shoe. I've repeatedly forgotten the First Rule of London: always carry an umbrella. Imperial pints are the norm (and at first, I couldn't even get through two...). Sunshine is not to be taken for granted and squirrels are brazen little buggers. What they call a "big" spider here...well. I've developed a love-hate relationship with the tube and I always, always minded the gap. Hairdressers are notoriously awful and the water somehow tastes worse than Adelaide water.

But I fell in love with this city. London is everything, all at once. There is a saying, "When you are tired of London, you are tired of life." It is true. While it can't organise itself enough to implement the 24-hour night tube, it is still a city that never sleeps, a city full of every interest you could perceive imaginable. You like food? Food festivals and restaurants galore. You like art? Museums, graffiti, you name it. You like sports? Join a team in Hyde Park or go hiking in Wales. Every taste, every interest is catered for and one can never, will never be bored in London.

I fell in love with this city, and I am going to miss it like crazy.

Travel

I had a rule: visit a country a month. I stayed pretty much true to this goal. If a month loomed without a weekend away, a quick squiz at Skyscanner and an impulsively bought flight would quickly correct that.

In all, here is the total list of countries visited:
  • England (of course)
  • Scotland (cheating, I know)
  • Northern Ireland (also cheating)
  • Wales (REALLY cheating now x3)
  • Republic of Ireland (x2)
  • Norway
  • Sweden
  • Germany
  • Austria (x2)
  • Belgium (x3)
  • France (x2)
  • Spain (x2)
  • Luxembourg (also cheating, I only got out of the bus and ate a donut)
  • Gibraltar (kind of cheating as it's still technically British)
  • Poland
  • Czech Republic
  • Slovakia
  • Latvia
  • Iceland
  • Hungary (x2)
  • Croatia
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina (I ate an icecream when I got off the bus)
  • Montenegro
  • Greece
  • Italy
  • Egypt
There are some noticeable omissions, such as the Netherlands and Portugal, but that is one of the founding basis for continuing the adventure: another year in Europe to finish off those countries I didn't quite make it to.

I also wanted to see as much of the Motherland as I could too:
  • Bath
  • Salisbury
  • Stonehenge
  • Oxford
  • Cambridge (x2)
  • Windsor
  • Nottingham
  • Birmingham
  • Stratford-upon-Avon
  • Ascot
  • Weston-super-mare (Dismaland)
  • Liverpool
  • Lake District
  • Cornwall (St Ives, Penzance, Lands End, St Austell)
  • York and Yorkshire (Whitby, Scarborough)

Theatre

What else is London known for? The West End, of course. I have seen a metric truck-tonne of live performance, and bought the programme for almost all of them (which was extremely weighty and inconvenient to post home, curse my compulsions!):
  • Les Miserables
  • 10 x shows at the Edinburgh Fringe
  • 1984
  • Hamlet with Benedict Cumberbatch
  • Miss Saigon
  • The Scottsboro Boys
  • Kate Miller Heidke
  • Rhapsody in Blue by Candlelight
  • The Nutcracker (ballet)
  • Matilda
  • Forbidden Broadway
  • Dan Sultan
  • The Lion King
  • Evita (hilariously awful!)
  • Assassins
  • Wicked
  • Showstoppers!
  • Peter Pan Gone Wrong
  • Eddie Izzard
  • Noel Fielding
  • A Midsummer Night's Dream (the Globe)
  • The Book of Mormon (x2)
  • The Phantom of the Opera
  • Tina Arena
  • Avenue Q
  • Urinetown
  • War Horse
  • Taming of the Shrew (the Globe)

Conclusion

I am a melting pot of mixed emotions.
Sad that I am leaving London and everything it has to offer. Sad that I don't know when or if I'll see Big Ben again, or walk across that little bridge in St James's Park that overlooks Buckingham Palace.
Excited that I am continuing the adventure with my love, and moving to such a fantastic city as Berlin, where I too can fall in love with its architecture and life.
Scared that it won't work out, scared that I won't find a job or a house.
Content that I filled my time in London to the brim, that I let no opportunity go to waste and experienced as much as I possibly could that was thrown my way.

Happy that I got the opportunity to undertake this adventure at all, and blessed by the people in my life who have been so supportive.

And so, I leave it here. London, til next time.
xox


Thursday, 21 April 2016

Les Misérables

45. See Les Misérables

12 hours since I left the theatre, and I am sitting here conducting the soundtrack into thin air at my desk, unable to concentrate on anything else.

Do you hear the people sing?
Singing a song of angry men?

It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again!


Six weeks shy of my 30th birthday and I have finally been privy to the wonder that is Les Misérables, enjoying its own 30th year on London's West End.

How did it come to take me so long? I have known much of the music from various choirs, orchestras, singing lessons and piano books across the years but had never seen them put together. I missed the opportunities when it, on rare occasion, would be performed in Adelaide.

In 2012, I refused to watch the movie featuring Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman. I wanted to see it on the stage first. I didn't know if I would like it, but dammit, I wanted to see it.

By 2014, I had crumbled, and watched the [abomination] of a movie. Now I had a fair idea at least of the plot and how the music I knew so well fitted into the story line. I read as people complained that there was no speaking in the movie, and shook my head at the stupidity of humankind.

Fast forward to arriving in London in June 2014. Here was my chance: Les Misérables was performed on the West End, every night, and had been for 30 years. And I waited. I waited for discounts and special deals which never came.

When it came time to write my bucketlist for the last few weeks I have left in London, I put Les Misérables at the top. Dan and I had been saying for the longest time that we should use his theatre tokens on Les Mis, but we continuously forgot to take them into the city to buy the tickets.

Finally the day came. Tickets had been purchased a few weeks before, seats D 1 & 2. My day at work was less than ideal, but I was looking forward to that evening. I rushed out of work towards a restaurant near the theatre, blathering away to Dan about how excited I was and occasionally breaking into song.

On my own
Pretending he's beside me
All alone
I walk with him till morning

 
The Queen's Theatre is a beautiful theatre right in the heart of the district. I was worried about Stall seats because I often struggle to see past people, but the stage was high enough that the people in front did not obscure my view.




The show
From watching the movie, I had a sort of idea what the plot was, so I wasn't going in blind to the story line. Les Misérables is quite a complex narrative spanning multiple narratives across many years, culminating in Paris in 1823 with the uprising of the French Revolution. If you don't already know the general story line, then this blog post is probably not for you!

To be fair, I couldn't really remember what happened. And so I watched with baited breath and anticipation as the plot continued to unfold. We had the understudy for the main character Jean Valjean and honestly, he was so incredible that I felt it was a disservice for him to be the understudy.

Javert was a suitably stiff and stoic character, with a permanent frown whose staccato tone punctuated his unwavering commitment to hunting down Jean Valjean. The tragic Fantine grew higher and higher in my regard, and I loved the beauty and relaxed aura she possessed at the very end when she returned to Jean Valjean. Cosette felt a little over performed, but still possessed an incredible soprano voice and Eponine, the beautiful Eva Noblezada who I had seen previously in Miss Saigon, was wonderfully heartfelt for her rendition of On my own.

I giggled a few times throughout - not least because of the Master of the House, the wicked and immoral Monsieur Thénardier and Madame Thénardier and the small moments of comic relief are truly a relief in this ultimately tragic tale.

Conclusion
At the end of the show, after joining most of the crowd in a standing ovation, I turned to Dan and said,
"Can we see it again? Like, now?"

I have now spent all morning listening to each of the songs again, desperate to commit the words to memory. Les Misérables has now joined my list of favourite musicals, and has gone from a show-I-guess-I-should-see to a show-that-I-must-see-again-and-again.

Til next time,
xx

Friday, 15 April 2016

Nordic Odyssey Part 1: Stockholm

19. See the Northern Lights
The driving force behind the Nordic Odyssey was the desire to witness the dancing sky, the Northern Lights, the Aurora Borealis.

And dance the sky did.

Our adventure spanned 9 full days and 9 nights travelling over 2700km through Sweden and Norway, right up above the Arctic Circle and back again. It was truly an experience of a lifetime and one of the most amazing holidays I have been on to date.


Friday 12 February
STOCKHOLM
We arrived very late at night and so made our way directly to our accommodation. The air outside was cold, the icy ground slippery but there was little to no snow to be seen. A flake or two fell like dandruff from the sky, but that was all we would see of the white stuff that night.

Saturday 13 February
STOCKHOLM
As we had trudged towards our accommodation the previous night, I had stopped to adjust the gigantic backpack in front of a coffee house selling a delicious looking cream pastry. We promised to return the next morning for breakfast, after we picked up our 24 hour Stockholm travel pass.

We had a big day of activities ahead of us, and the travel pass turned out to be invaluable. Not cheap, but it paid itself back within a couple of journeys: throughout the next 24 hours we were on and off the trains whenever the fancy took us. Scoffing the delicious pastry topped with cream and apple sauce, we headed to the nearest train station.

"It looks pretty out there, let's get out!"

We were on our way to the Ericsson Globe when we spotted a pretty scene out the window of the train. It was cold, but all sunny blue skies. The scene infront of us was a partially frozen lake with large shards of ice and pretty houses up on a hill.

Also, the ground was covered in snow.




Sufficiently photographed out, we hopped back on the train, just to get out 2 stops later when we saw another pretty scene out the window. This time, we had to walk down quite a steep (and slippery) hill until we reached the bottom; a dock, a ladder and...what's that on the lake? Footprints? Is the ice thick enough to stand on?

I perched myself on the edge. Rested my feet on the ice. Three...two...one and I was standing! Both Dan and I had a go at wandering around on the thick, frozen ice, but a couple of little splintering noises had me back on the jetty quick smart.
 

We walked along for a short way, and watched someone skiing along the other side of the frozen lake. They must have been off to the shops!

Time to get back on the train and head to the Ericsson Globe. A little miniature globe scales the side of the giant globe, and inside this mini orb we were offered a slightly different aerial view of Stockholm as it is a little further out from the city centre. We could see the frozen lake we had just tap danced on and all the pretty red rooved houses.
 

Next stop on our itinerary: Ikea. The one thing (other than the Northern Lights, of course) that I was adamant to do in Sweden was visit Ikea. Back in Australia, I was obsessed with Ikea having lived so close to it: I had become sufficiently brain washed. Dan, however, had never been to one before so naturally it was time to start with the largest one the world - and where the phenomenon began.

It was huge. We took some embarrassing photos outside before making our way straight to the restaurant (we would never have made it through the whole store without sustinence!)
 

And guess what that sustinence was? Swedish meatballs, of course. Swedish meatballs, that delicious gravy and of course: lindenberry sauce. I was in heaven. We wondered what the strange white drink everyone around us appeared to be drinking, so Dan went to the dispenser to collect a glass for us.

Milk.
It was milk. Not so strange after all, but definitely a moment of cross language confusion!

The Ikea store was massive, and not particularly well laid out. There were mezzanines within levels, and mezzanines within mezzanines but I am quite sure we managed to see everything in the end. We sat on comfy and garish couches, we imagined how the pouf would match the rug in our imagined home. We spun on office chairs and wrote obscenities into the children's calculators.

After spending at least 5 hours exploring the store, we made it to the ground level and out, having purchased only a thermos. In the outside store, we grabbed some chocolate and snacks while we organised where to go for dinner.



Dinner had to be a viking restaurant. Using our transport pass, we hopped back onto the trains and back into old town. We walked through the door and a large blonde man greeted us. As we did not have a booking we would have to leave by a certain time. "Was this ok? And what are your names and where are you from?" he asked us.

We wondered why he asked, but gave him the information he required. The next minute, we were standing on a set of stairs, full to the brim viking restaurant laid out before us.

"Please welcome..." he boomed, "Sasha and Dan from Australia and New Zealand."

The room erupted in cheers and hollers as we decended the stairs, and we, visibly embarrassed, crawled into our seats in the middle of a long table. Is this because we didn't book? We soon realised, however, that every time a new table were seated they were introduced, and each time we joined in the whooping and applause.

So, it's not a secret that Scandanavia is expensive. It's very expensive. Eye-wateringly so. So when we looked at the menu, we were glad we weren't particularly hungry. We ordered mead (of course!) to be drunk from our chalises, a pot of mussels and a meat selection comprised of reindeer heart, bear, moose and more.

In case you wondered, reindeer heart is very strong and gamey and probably my least favourite of the meats. Stabbing our dinner with our viking implements, and regaled by traditional music - it was an excellent evening.



We began the wander back to our hostel, stopping to take night time photography and generally be irresponsible throwing chunks of ice into the river. It started snowing on us, and we giggled and played in the snow all the walk home.



Sunday 14 February
STOCKHOLM - KIRUNA
We checked out and stored our luggage at the station before setting out for the day. Today we wanted to explore the old town and the Djurgarden. It was much colder today, and the sky was white and grey. Despite the 3 pairs of socks, my feet remained cold. No matter! That's what snow does.

As we walked towards the Djurgarden, we passed the Palace and had a peek inside.

"OUT OF THE WAY" I heard from behind me, and promptly jumped further into the path of the guards stomp marching their way past. Oops, it was the changing of the guards. We followed at a safe distance (to avoid being shouted at again!) and watched the ceremony of the guards.

On the outside of the palace, the steps had been converted into a skiing ramp and children young and old were practicing their technique. I thought this was particularly cool - you'd never get a skiing ramp on Buckingham Palace!

After a warming coffee at the entrance of the Djurgarden (which is a very large public park filled with museums), we set off to explore. And it was beautiful. The landscape was white, the trees were stark black and white, the sky was white. The occasional bit of colour popped on the horizon; a little house here, some orange reeds there and us of course, in our bright purples and reds.




Dan had been here before, and wanted to show me a rather rudey statue. We had a look through the statue park and indeed there was a very sensuous, naked, sprawled lady statue looking a tad cold in the snow.




All of this wandering was in aid of reaching the Vasa museum. The museum is solely dedicated to a ship, but not just any ship: an almost fully intact 17th century ship that had been salaved and restored and now offered a fascinating insight into the people of the time over 300 years ago. Hilariously, the ship sunk within about 10 minutes of its launch as it was too top heavy (the king demanding Extra Cannons! But not being able to account for it in the design...) but due to the cleanliness of the water and the lack of tide, the entire ship sat at the bottom of the sea perfectly preserved.

Our cameras fogged up in here having come from the very cold into the very warm, and so a lot of our limited time was spent trying to get the lenses clear. However, I found it completely fascinating and soon they were calling for us to leave.

We had a few hours now before our overnight train to Kiruna, so we returned to the entrance of the Djurgarden, ordered - you guessed it - meatballs!, had a few beers and then went back to the train station.



One the way back to the station, we discovered a free outdoor iceskaing rink. Honestly, some of the things about this country are just so amazing - you definitely wouldn't find free rinks or ski slopes in London! We watched one girl effortless skate and twirl, and a boy try to impress her but ultimately fell over and embarrassed himself. It grew quite cold, and so we continued on.

We chose to catch the overnight train to Kiruna as it would be a different experience for me, a chance to look at the pretty scenery and basically covered transport and accommodation For an additional £4, we were able to upgrade to a cabin. We waited in the cold for a little while but soon enough our train approached, and we boarded.

Our cabin was adorable, and perfect. Two bunk beds that could be folded away into couches, hidden storage at every turn and the best bit: our own tiny toilet and shower. We made ourselves comfortable and decided to go check out the restaurant car (the food carriage).

Ok let me set the scene. I'd made myself comfortable.
"Can I do this barefoot?" I asked Dan.
"Absolutely, it should be the next car."
So barefoot and braless, and I threw my shawl over my shoulders and pottered to the end of the carriage and, between the two of us, we hauled open the two very heavy doors dividing the carriages.

Not the food cart.

"It must be the next one," Dan said, and we continued on.
And on. And on.  About 6 cars down, we found the food carriage. I threw Dan a look as filthy as my bare feet.

"We're here now, we're buying something," I said, and got us a couple of pizza slices, continuing to throw Dan [now mock] filthy glares.

It was after midnight now, so once I mustered the energy we made the [barefoot] trek back to our room to settle in for the night.

***
Part two sees us waking up above the Arctic Circle, well on our way to Kiruna and the next leg of our Nordic adventure.

xx

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Part 1: Keeping up with the Sadashain's

There are many things that have happened in the last...ahem...6 months that I haven't written about because, well, I've just been so busy doing said things that I haven't had a chance to write about them!

This is now going to be a brief round up of all the interesting things that have happened in the last 6 months over a couple of blog posts.

Historic adventures

Underground Steam Tube
Before the tube was the tube as you know it, steam trains used to run the length of many of the underground lines (which would have been particularly smokey). They were replaced with the streamlined ones you see today. A few of the old vintage trains are still in working order, so on this day Dion, Dan and I rode on the Metropolitan line in a vintage locomotive and wooden individual carriages.

It was a lovely day out - I didn't understand the terminology flying over my head, although the small boy in our 8 person carriage made me smile with his Sunday Best white shirt and tie, expensive camera, miniature tripod and a head buzzing with questions and acronyms.


Thames Cruise
Before it started to get really cold for winter, Dan and I went on a paddle steamer excursion out to WWII Maunsel Forts. The Tower Bridge had to open to let us under as we were so tall, and we waved at all the people on the top!


Not every one can say that the Tower Bridge had to raise for them. Along the way we saw many different parts of London as we snaked up the Thames out to the open sea, stopping particularly for a look at the Forts. They were used in WWII to help defend the UK and look like strange War Of The World metal creatures in the middle of the water. On the way back, the Greenwich Mean Line laser was shining bright, as we passed back and forth across the time zones!



Bonfire night
Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason and plot.
We see no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot! 
Guy Fawkes night is a big deal in London, with many parks and counties organising fireworks and a bonfire. Dan and I went to the one at Wimbledon as it was convenient (and I went to the Ally Pally one the previous year). The ground was a complete muddy mess, but the sky was clear.

We watched through the fence the fireworks for the kids show, and then entered for the adults show - so effectively got two shows for the price of one! Once inside the grounds, we discovered that there was no alcohol at the event - and we had been looking forward to something warming us up! We did stumble across one small stall selling mulled wine, and their line was ridiculously long. We grabbed a couple of wines over the evening from there, but it was largely a dry event.

The bonfire was lit and its glow enormous - my face was legitimately burning. Afterwards, the fireworks lit up the sky to current pop music, and so Guy Fawkes was celebrated.



Aldwych Station
A ghost tube station that is no longer in use and, while used up until the 1990's, had been barely modified since it was built in the 1890's. The lifts were still original turn of the 20th century, and we learnt how the station was used in both World Wars as bunkers.

These days it is open occasionally to the public for tours, but mostly used in movies and TV shows when they need to depict the London Underground




Sports

Rugby World Cup
The final two teams in the World Cup were New Zealand and Australia, the children of the Commonwealth. The Brits were pretty unimpressed that all of their various countries had been knocked out, and now it was down to the rowdiest two.

Tickets to the grand final were of course impossible to get. Dan and I and a few friends found someplace that was screening it - for £5 you received entry and two drink tokens, so we figured if the atmosphere was crappy then at least we could take the beers and leave! It ended up being a pretty decent atmosphere, and of course the Kiwi's won, but Australia put up a good fight to make it quite a tense game.

I say all of this like I knew what was going on. Dan spent the game giving me a crash course in what the hell was happening on the big screen. Thank you!

Soccer..I mean..football
One of my London bucket list items was to see a football game. I became increasingly aware that it was difficult to get tickets to games, especially anyone big. I really wanted tickets to Arsenal, naturally, the most difficult of them all.



As fate would have it, Dan's brother Jeremy is quite a fan of Arsenal and has been to almost every game since he's been living in London (in the suburb of Arsenal, of course). He managed to get us tickets and, donning my borrowed Arsenal t-shirt and scarf, we made our way into the stadium with 60k other fans.

It was a sunny day, but freezing cold and we had an excellent view of the field. I thought it was a good game as it was close and edge-of-your seat, but apparently Arsenal were playing pretty poorly. None-the-less, they won! 2-1 (thank god). And there was much rejoicing. Jeremy kept us up to date on which player was who and what they were good at, so I feel I received quite a rounded education.

Returning to the station afterwards was slow progress as 60,000 people piled back onto the streets and onto the tube stations. We weren't in a rush, so we just trundled along with the crowd.



***

Stay tuned for Part 2 of Keeping up with the Sadashian's: Shows, small trips and culture!

xx

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Belfast, Northern Ireland

At the beginning of February, I visited Belfast in Northern Ireland with Cory, Nicole and Dan. The entirety of the thanks belongs to Cory and Nicole who organised our accommodation, recommended flights and booked us into the tour.

Dan, Nicole and I arrived in Belfast late on the Friday night, Cory having already arrived earlier that day direct from Dublin.

Our hostel was a little bit out from the centre of town, but it was comfortable; a room of bunk beds to ourselves in the attic and after we received our wristbands, we settled down for the night: we had a big day on the morrow.

The Giants Causeway
Cory had booked us into a tour to see The Giants Causeway and I had readily said 'yes'. To be completely frank, I had no idea what The Giants Causeway was, but it certainly sounded like something I wanted to see. We arrived at the tour site and were shown towards the coach. A young man from the company spoke to me.

I gaped a couple of times. Oh! He mentioned the weather! I opened my mouth to respond, when he said something else.

Quick...translate brain, translate! Turns out, I am really bad at deciphering the thick, Belfast accent and thankfully the young gentleman accepted my laugh, my quiet "Oh yes, I hope it holds out!" without thinking I was being rude.

We hopped on board the almost-full coach, and set off out of the city of Belfast. Our coach driver was also tour leader, and he was a wealth of knowledge, facts and figures that kept us entertained for much of the journey.

"If you can understand what I'm saying," he said, to which I nodded vigorously, "it's because I'm not from Belfast. I'm from Londonderry!" That explains that, then.

Much to my delight, I discovered that the tour was not just visiting The Giants Causeway (whatever that was), but a range of other places along the way. First stop: a Northern Ireland distillery. Whiskey for breakfast, anyone?

There was a quick hop-off-the-bus-photo-opportunity on the way, at Dunluce Castle, which was easily spotted as the House Of Greyjoy from Game of Thrones. It was cold. Very cold outside the bus, so photo taken, and we were back on in the warmth.

The Bushmills Distillery was expecting us, and laid out their triple distilled honey whiskey to try. It worked. I bought a couple of miniature bottles as I had never met a whiskey that didn't make me shudder.



Soon, we approached the visitors centre for The Giants Causeway, and advised to avoid it. As a group we decided to get the shuttle bus to the site to be able to spend a bit more time there. As the shuttle rounded the corner, the scenery before us was beautiful, crashing oceans on a wide expanse of hexagonal rocks.

The Giants Causeway is an incredible vast array of approximately 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, resulting from an ancient volcanic eruption.  As the lava melted, it formed the columns, creating stepping stones out to sea.

What I want to know is, who counted them? It was beautiful, set to the backdrop of the rich green mountains as we battled to stay atop the columns and not be blown off into the ocean (or tumbling down the side when we climbed too high!). I couldn't imagine the area in summer: winter created a sense of underlying danger, a wild, rugged beauty.












We spent as long as we could here, taking photos from every angle before finally remembering to just...be...exist...and watch the waves crashing against the columns. We jumped on the next shuttle bus, attempted to get some food and returned to the coach.

Our next stop a little way up the road was the Rope Bridge at Carrick-a-Rede, which was built in 1755 by salmon fishermen to avoid taxes.



Unfortunately because the wind was blowing a gale, we were not allowed to cross the rickety bridge, but we were allowed, two at a time, to descend to the beginning of the bridge and take a photo as if we were crossing it. As the lady marshall said, it's not often you get a picture with a completely bare bridge!

The coast was a beautiful sight, with the blue green water, the rugged green cliffs and the ominous grey sky, and we were exceptionally lucky that the weather held out for us.



Soon we were back on the bus and our tour continued up to the very pointiest tip of Northern Ireland and back down towards Belfast again. At one point, we were very close to Scotland and I could see a lighthouse shimmering on the horizon.

To be honest, I dozed a little on the bus at this point, and missed some of the facts and information from our guide. I wasn't the only one, as the movement of the bus had sent many to sleep.

We found ourselves back at the starting point and alighted from the bus, straight into a brawl between two men frantically punching each other in the face. I found this mildly ironic, as not an hour previously our guide had told us, "Belfast is the 2nd safest city for tourists in the world!" Maybe he was right - these were locals belting each other.

The guide had recommended a couple of good Irish pubs and I unfortunately was put in charge of finding one, which naturally meant we walked in entirely the wrong direction. Salvaged by the rest of the group, we finally found one of the recommended pubs which boasted being Belfast's oldest pub. We did a couple of laps but alas, no spare seats.

The other recommended pub, Whites Pub wasn't too far so we decided to give it a try. It too, was apparently Belfast's oldest pub, but this time we were able to get a seat quite easily.

We naturally ordered Guinness's and, you will be proud of me, by the end of the night I'd managed 3 and a half. This guinness was delicious. At the time, I had only had 2 guinness in my life and they had both been in Ireland, so I determined that I would try one in London later to see how it compares. I have since done so, in an Irish pub, no less, and it is true: the guinness in Ireland tastes supremely better.

While we ate dinner (for me, an incredible steak) we were entertained by a couple of live bands, one of which took Nicole's particular fancy. We were also accosted by some ladies on a hen's night, one in which was particular boisterous and took a shining to our table. It was finally time to flee, and so we made our way back to our hostel to pack and get ready for our final day in Belfast.



Titanic
"The say we may get into New York by Tuesday night!"
We had two things we wanted to accomplish today: visiting the Titanic museum and seeing the Belfast Peace Wall. We started with the Titanic museum, which was a reasonable walk from our hostel.

Since visiting the museum, I have re-watched the classic film Titanic, which, while Rose and Jack are fictional characters for plot purposes, the details of the movie are very true to the actual series of events. It made me feel extremely sad and hate stupid people.

The museum took us through the making of the Titanic, the unsinkable ship which created a huge industry boom in Ireland but was also extremely taxing on the men working the ship. This then led to how the Titanic came to sink, and why there were so few survivors.

We all know the story. 2200 people on board, only enough lifeboats to carry roughly half of these people. Then, when the boat did sink, the lifeboats were only half filled before being deployed, meaning in the end, approximately 700 people of 2200 were saved.

The final message got to me the most. Before SOS was the distress signal, it was the morse code for Come Quickly. Distress (CDQ).

The final message from the Titanic:
CQ.....



From the Titanic museum, we made our way to the Peace Walls via a lunch stop as it was going to be quite a hike. I ordered for the table 4 Irish Coffees as that was what we had agreed, and was promptly humiliated by the waiter and the table as he returned saying, "Can tell you're not from around here as no one orders an Irish coffee!"

Oh well. It was still delicious. Very strong, but!

Peace Walls
Cory had visited the wall the day he arrived and we followed his lead. However, when we approached the entrance he had used, it was blocked off. A large, metal gate blocked the traffic across the road; a constant reminder of times past. Googling this, it turns out that yes, the main gates are closed still to this day on a Sunday, but there were other entrances and so we wandered that way.

The Peace Walls were first erected in 1969 and divide the Catholic and the Protestant neighbourhoods of Belfast. They were created very, very high and span over 5km, to try to curb the violence between the two factions.



Now, the wall remains, and has a completely different feel to the Berlin Wall, another divider that I have visited. The Berlin Wall, as we all know, was torn down in 1989, whereas the Peace Walls remain upright to this day, even if movement can be made between the two sides now. It was eerie, and the mood was completed by the distance sound of a Mr Whippy icecream van, with the faint tones of Greensleeves the background music to our visit. Few cars came past, no other foot travellers.

Like the Berlin Wall, it was covered in interesting graffiti and artwork, and after studying it for some time we realised we had to return to the station so we could catch a bus back to the airport.

Right about here, it began raining on us, and a bunch of kids threw stones at us. It was a sombre end to the visit, but I am so very glad I have no seen Northern Ireland, the British part and I do very much recommend this little city.

Til next time,
x