finding Amsterdam (2019)

Empty Rooms

 

Nothing for sale

But it was just after 10am

Everyone has to sleep, sometime.

 

Just soulless rooms with empty stools

High plinths

All the better for selling the wares

Faux leather

Wipe clean

Red …. of course

 

The sweet cloying perfume of cannabis

Hung heavy in the morning air

Joints easier to buy in a coffee shop here

Than a decaf latte to go

 

She barely registered them

Meandering by

Safe in their cosy togetherness

Just stood there

Bored vacant stare

A world away from theirs

The other side of the glass

 

Black lace

Painted face

Long legs

Pert breasts

A man’s fantasy tick box

In one window display

 

“It’s just sex”

“They’re looked after here, they’re …. clean”

“Business is business”

“At least she has a job”

“It happens anyway, anywhere”

“You can look, but, no fucking photos … ok?”

 

No

None of it felt,  ok

 

Her waist gave her away

Less a woman, more a girl

When did her journey bring her there?

Too young, too young

 

And when

Did her mind and her heart become empty rooms

Where for less than 50 euros

She had no choice but to sell her soul

 

 

finding Rome (2018)

Funny thing about Rome is that many of the iconic sites that most visitors flock to see are, effectively, a pile of stones …

The Forum, formed when a marshy valley was reclaimed at the end of the seventh century BC, was, in its hey day, at the centre of public life in Rome for over a millennium, with religious, political, commercial and social activities all taking place within its spectacular buildings and elaborate temples. And what remains today of the Colosseum tantalizingly hints at the magnificence of an oval amphitheatre which, holding over 50,000, was the largest ever built at the time.

The trick, they found, was to stop and for a moment, just stand still and imagine how these extraordinary ancient sites looked when they formed the epicentre of daily life.  She’d stood at the far end of the Forum, gazing down across its sprawling ruins, and imagined the chatter of the inhabitants of ancient Rome, wandering between the majestic pillars in elegant white togas.  And at the Colosseum, she’d planted her feet firmly on one of the few remaining pieces of original marble flooring, closed her eyes and imagined the roar of the baying crowd while the gladiator awaited his fate.

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Rome is a city where you really have to use your imagination … and when you do, there’s nowhere quite like it.  It’s also one of those cities that you can visit time and time again, and never tire of it, the kind of city where you stumble upon take-your-breath-away sites around every corner …. so much to take in that  a “top ten” list would barely cover it!

It was her second visit, his first, and she delighted in showing him all the must see’s … knowing that he’d be left speechless looking up for the first time at Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel masterpiece, knowing how much he’d love sipping a chianti classico whilst people watching in Piazza Novana just yards from Bernini’s exquisite marble fountain, knowing he’d marvel at the wonderous dome of the Pantheon, knowing he’d revel in exploring Rome’s maze of cobbled streets in the Ponte district just over the bridge from Vatican City … and of course, knowing he wouldn’t be able to resist a gelato. Even then, in early December, with a distinct chill in the air as the city readied itself for Christmas, there was nothing quite like an Italian gelato …

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New memories for her too … the highlight when they’d noticed by chance a glass lift running up the side of the Altare della Patria. Known affectionately locally as “the wedding cake” this magnificent homage to Victor Emmanuel II dominates the skyline by day, and at dusk, offers far-reaching views from its roof, of this wonderous city.  A special moment as hundreds of birds swooped into the trees surrounding bustling Piazza Venezia below them, as the sun disappeared behind the huge dome of St Peter’s Basilica in the distance … magical times in a magical city.

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finding Berlin (2018)

It was clear, from their very first conversation, that one of the things that drew them together was a shared desire to travel, so it was natural that within weeks of meeting, they started thinking about where they’d like to take their first trip together …

It’s a big step, travelling with someone for the first time, but, as the saying goes, when it’s right, it’s right.  And it felt right from the very start.  It was nevertheless important to find somewhere neither of them had been to before so everything, from the food to the language, the sights to the people – were new. In that way, the experience would be exclusively theirs, together.

Berlin ticked all those boxes.

It’s one of those cities that is always going to be a fascinating place to visit.  It has no choice but to look its recent history in the eye … and try to move on, all the while reinventing itself in the eyes of the rest of the world, and its own. No mean feat, when at every turn in this extraordinary city, there are stark reminders of the atrocities of a world at war. From Checkpoint Charlie to vast stretches of the Berlin Wall still looming grey against the skyline, both with moving exhibitions about the desperate impact on the lives of Berlin’s communities, as the city was divided into East and West. The powerful grandeur of the Brandenburg Gate, standing proud and defiant, the site of one of the most iconic scenes in recent German history when thousands celebrated as the Wall fell in 1989, and representing now not so much the a divided Germany, but more a symbol of unity and freedom.

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A city very much coming to terms with its past, respecfully and quietly. This struck them no more so that at the Holocaust Memorial. Over 2,500 giant block of grey concrete, set out to deliberately confuse on an undulating piece of land near the city centre.  Even on a sunny day, the atmosphere was eerie and desolate with a clever play of light as the shadows played on the stones – a deeply thought provoking homage to the murdered Jews of Europe.

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Berlin’s history is fascinating and tragic, and it is all too easy to spend time there feeling pulled down by the weight of it.  There is no escaping the past but there is no doubt that this is a city that passionately strives to look forward.  None more so that in Kreusberg, the cool suburb where they stayed, giving them snap shot into the lives of modern day Berliners – families to-ing and fro-ing on their bikes, music flowing out of the bars along the riverbank, every kind of cuisine, street art … the hip place to be.

They found a tiny ruin bar just off the river front, a building that they wouldn’t have given a second glance to without the recommendation of their host, graffiti covered, down an uninspiring side street. But what a find.  Inside, the young owners had imaginatively turned this desolate building into a warm and welcoming bar, candlelit nooks and warm smiles, the younger generation celebrating their city and reinventing something old into something new and exciting.  It was Berlin in a nutshell!

 

 

 

finding the place called Home

Two bright orange Sainsbury’s carrier bags! That’s all he was wearing!  He was the first musician she’d been introduced to since moving to Hastings a week before, and meeting him did rather set the tone of things to come. Midst the chaos of Carnival Week’s Pram Race, she could just about make out his name as Ben and that he played in a band called Kinky Peaches!

Being one of many “down froms” who have headed south and stayed,  she’d already found that two things define Hastings – the ever present, ever changing sea setting the pulse for the day … and the people – so welcoming, community-spirited, brave, innovative, unafraid to break the rules and frankly, pretty bonkers with an apparent penchant for dressing up at any given opportunity! 

And amongst them, an ever-growing hub of creative souls whose extraordinary talent colours the lives of everyone there.  Nowhere more so than in the music … stroll the old town on any given evening and it drifts out of the bars, enticing you to stop and listen more.  Take a typical Thursday … a Belgium keyboard player called Ilja de Neve singing full pelt in a tiny intimate bar on the famous George Street. Never heard of him? Neither had she! Did he knock her socks off? Hell yes! Sitting near enough to mop his brow, she’d  marvelled as his fingers effortlessly sped across the keys, his face contorted with passion for his craft, treating them to foot tapping boogie woogie and sublime blues. Up the High Street, German tourists pressing their noses against Jenny Lind’s windows, wondering at the curious scene inside of fishermen – so defined by their breton stripes and beards – raucously singing sea shanties while the punters chorused in, clearly demonstrating the old adage that Hastings is a drinking town with a fishing problem.  Along the street, Sam Calver’s melodic acoustic guitar drifted through the open doors of Porters … and that was all in just one night. Another evening, one drummer kept reappearing at different gigs, the audience even helping him to move his kit so he wouldn’t be late – only in Hastings! 

Of course, this isn’t even the tip of the iceberg.  During those early days in the place that she now called home, young Harry Randall-Marsh, leading his achingly talented soul funk band, had her swooning with one swing of his hips. The Funking Bar Stewards (a challenging name for even the most professional compere!) had them on our feet at the Seafood & Wine Festival. Dr Savage & The Incurables rocking the house at The Nelson, as only he knows how – dear god, the energy of the man!!  Los Twangeros, found most Sunday evenings at Whistle Trago, transporting their audience to sunnier climes. And the weekend treat of Sedlescombe’s Big Green Cardigan Festival – a testament to the quality of the local music scene that its organizers are able to entice such talented musicians to play.  Sister Suzie, by the way – that little lady with the big bluesy voice – absolutely nailed it!!

As so to Ben.  The next time she saw him, he was stealing the show with a guitar solo on the evening of Hastings Pride.  It was then she realised his band is actually called Kid Kapichi! Sorry Ben!

Hastings!  You rock!!

 

finding a New Life

It still seemed extraordinary to her that life could change so much …

Leaving her old life behind had always been about giving herself a chance to be happier.  But it was a huge leap of faith, and took more courage than she knew she had in her.  Life since then had been both terrifying and exhilarating in equal measure … and the most terrifying and exhilarating thing of all was that she never knew how it would all turn out.  Of course, none of us know that, but sometimes something happens that stops you in your tracks, a life defining moment where what happened before, was before, and a new chapter begins …

It had already been a year of change.  She’d finally been able to move on from a job which was beginning to suffocate her – to a job that offered a better quality of life, less stress and more freedom of time … and spirit.  Not long after that, an opportunity came unexpectedly to move home, and she decided overnight that this was a chance to live on the coast – something she’d always dreamt of.

So within a fortnight, she’d packed her bags and moved to a tiny studio flat overlooking the sea.  She knew the town, but hardly knew anyone who lived there.  So this really was a chance to start afresh, put heartache behind her, breathe in the sea air and embrace a new life.  There’s something empowering about being brave.  It’s confidence giving and it’s a shift of mindset, where anything seems possible … she knew she’d be fine.

When you live by the sea, it’s always there.  It somehow dictates the pulse of the day. The sound of the waves filtered through her window – sometimes fiercely wild, sometimes a gentle lap on the shingle … always hypnotically pulling her out to walk along the beach, breeze tousling her hair, sun caressing her face, a new life waiting for her to let it in with all its possibilities and hope …

It was her first weekend there. One of those glorious July mornings when sun catches the sea like a path of diamonds out to the horizon, when the beach is already dotted with early swimmers, day trippers eager to find their spot on the sand, locals meandering down to the promenade for a coffee.

She’d been walking for a couple of hours, exploring,  pinching herself that this was now the place she could call home.  There was a small cafe by the beach, nothing more than a beach shack, but near enough to where she lived that she’d figured she’d meet some of the locals there.  There was a friendly buzz about the place.  She ordered her usual latte, and spotted a line of orange deckchairs fluttering in the breeze looking over the sea. There was just one empty deckchair.

“Do you mind if I sit here?”, she’d asked the man sitting next to it.  He looked up. And time stood still, and in that moment, her life changed.

Fate’s work was done.

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finding Him

 

 

Unwittingly

 

They had each held the end 

Of the invisible string of fate

Connecting them

 

All the while

The string coiled tighter 

Pulling them in

 

Closer and closer

 

That day

Life held its breath

 

Their bodies so near now

The distance between them

No more that a moment in time

 

“Can I sit here?”, she’d said

 

He looked up,

The day stood still

All that went before, was before

 

This was their time

 

Fate’s work was done

 

finding Dubrovnik (2018)

The view of the medieval city walls was quite different to how it had looked the day before, when they’d walked its perimeter over several hours, taking in, from above, the maze of narrow cobbled alleyways within.  The old town had suffered its fair share of conflict over the centuries, not least of which the bombardment in the early 90s, when over two-thirds of the historic town’s buildings were hit by artillery during the break up of Yugoslavia. It took a UNESCO led initiative to reconstruct the town back to its former splendour, its turbulent history sand-blasted out of the stone, topped with new terracotta tiles adorning the roofs.

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However for the first time in history, the city walls had themselves received over one hundred direct hits, and from their new vantage point, the scars were there to see.

The opportunity to see the city from the sea was too good to miss, despite the reservations of her girlfriend who had envisaged a rather more relaxing break in the sun.  So, it was not without some trepidation (neither of them having even set foot in a canoe before), they took to the water, under the watchful eye of their tour guide and the rest of the group, far younger and rather intrigued by the sight of two women who should have known better giggling their way out into the bay, struggling to control the direction of their unruly kayak.

Once they’d fathomed how to synchronise their strokes, they’d settled into an easy rhythm, unwilling to admit to their aching backs and knees, sore arms and sunburnt faces tingling with the salty spray.  It wasn’t for the faint hearted, and 3 hours in, paddling against the current, getting back to the safety of the harbour was no mean feat for even experienced kayakers.  And wet didn’t even begin to describe the state of their underwear – perhaps wet suits would have been a better idea! But they did it, and did not embarrass themselves by floating unchecked towards the horizon (it happened) or falling overboard (that happened too)!

And they managed to keep up with the kids! So, in the end, it’s all about perspective!  Like the town wall, they might have been showing signs of having been around for a while, but they’d lived to fight another day!

 

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finding the Northern Lights (2018)

“Life is a choice. It is YOUR life. Choose consciously, choose wisely, choose honestly.  Choose happiness”

(Brionnie Ware, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying)

A new chapter had begun. A page turned.

She’d left a job of the last thirteen years to take another that, she hoped, would give her a better quality of life.  It was a time for change. It felt like the stars were aligned … and she was feeling brave.

Feeling brave is feeling empowered, and so, in that precious week of freedom between leaving one job and starting the next, she pushed her boundaries just that little bit more and booked a flight to the northern most parts of Norway to follow a life long dream to see the northern lights.

Research shows that to stand the best chance of seeing them, there needs to be darkness, and lots of it.  And the best way to find that is to head just about as far north as civilisation allows, to a tiny city called Tromso.  Linked to the main land by a elegant arched bridge, the island of Tromsoya is located over 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle,  where, during the polar night lasting from November to January, the sun does not rise at all.

The darkness apart, never having been a skier, she had also never before experienced a landscape eternally shrouded in its winter coat.  It was difficult for her to imagine, therefore, a land where it is like this for months on end, which is why she wanted to see it for herself.

The flight out of Oslo gave her the first glimpse of what she had been looking for.  In the eerie twilight blue, the jagged crevices and undulating contours of the bleak barrenness were outlined in every detail by the snow, norwegian firs piercing through, standing proud and defiant in this unforgiving landscape, so much more beautiful here than the one she’d left behind still holding up the gaudy remnants of the festive season at home. On they flew, two hours north of Oslo, on and on, north and north, leaving behind day light hours, and speeding towards a land of perpetual dark.

On her first morning, a violent noise, like someone throwing grit at her bedroom window, woke her with a start.  What she’d noticed when she arrived the night before was how quiet everywhere was.  Not only does a colder climate discourage anyone from venturing out, but the snow muffles any sounds, from passing traffic to voices, thus amplifying the strange and foreign sound, which turned out to be the snow plough doing its morning rounds, clearing the road outside her room after several feet of snowfall while she’d slumbered in the early hours.

In the south of England, on a “bad” year, we might do the depths of winter, or at least our perception of it, for a week or so. We momentarily marvel at the white, sparkling beauty of  a couple of inches of freshly fallen snow, then we grind to a halt. We moan that the trains don’t run on time (if at all).  We begrudgingly clear our drives and slip-slide our unresponsive cars onto roads often ill prepared for a cold snap, with gritting lorries cajoling the main arteries into life, but anywhere else left to the eagerness of its residents to get to work with a shovel.  We dig out our warmest clothes, raid the food stores as if the cold snap is unlikely to ever end, become neighbour friendly in ways we never do in “normal” times, start making homemade soup …. and wait for the thaw.

So different there … they are prepared and several feet (not inches) of snow is the norm. As is the multiple layers of clothing required to even step outside the door.  It certainly takes longer to get ready to go out for the day!

Apparently the way to walk best on frozen ground is to walk like a penguin … not something she ever really mastered and even had to be rescued from the middle of a cross roads when she froze on the spot (literally) trying to decide in which direction she would least likely end up on her derriere!  A kindly octogenarian, came dashing across the road with astonishing nimbleness, and came to her rescue.  It seems the key is not to walk like a penguin, but clip on spikes! She needn’t have worried though – by necessity everything moves slowly – the people (it’s all those clothes) and even the traffic!

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Tromso, dotted with centuries-old painted houses, was a centre for seal hunting, trapping and fishing, and later a launch pad for several notable Arctic expeditions. A truly fascinating place to explore in the mornings, the blue twilight creating an enchanting and surreal landscape before darkness set in, and the town retreated to snug indoors by candlelight, in front of cosy fires and generous bowls of steaming reindeer stew.

Afternoons were for sleeping …  for the real reason for her visit happened of course, at night.

She had three chances to see the northern lights.  Three nights to find what she had dreamed of seeing for as long as she could remember …

The first two nights were too cloudy, so she awoke on her final day knowing that it was now, or probably never.  To cushion the potential disappointment of not seeing them at all, she had booked a husky sleigh ride for that morning.  Two to a sleigh, with a team of excitable barking huskies straining at the reins, they left the city lights behind and headed into the snowy barrenness. It was one of the most exhilarating moments of her life – Wednesday mornings would never quite be the same again.

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And so it came to the last night.

Two minibuses set out in search of the elusive lights, higher and higher, deeper and deeper into the icy wonderland, then stopped to set up campfires and wait.  And wait.  And wait.  It was approaching midnight, by which time she had retreated into the warmth of the minibus and closed her eyes, resigned to the fact that it wasn’t to be.  Then there was a loud banging on the door. “Come quick! The lights!”.  And there they were, drifting across the night sky before her eyes in their magical dance, a green luminescent cloud, shifting and undulating like a flock of murmuring swallows.

There were no words …

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finding Myanmar III (2017)

 

Kipling’s “Road to Mandalay” was the majestic Irrawaddy river.  Her route north to Mandalay, Myanmar’s second city, was rather dustier – think long, poorly constructed roads clinging to the hillsides, with motorbikes weaving erratically between the traffic and the potholes,  carrying anything from a family of four to towers of vibrant flowers destined for market.

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It felt like the true beginning of their journey, leaving behind intensely populated and oppressively hot Yangon, to start getting under the skin of this fascinating country.  She’d never before been on a guided trip like this – two weeks where every minute is carefully itinerated.  It would be easy to write about it like a long tick list of places seen … we went there, we did this … but that wasn’t the point.  This was all about having the privilege of visiting a country that, after years of military dictatorship and ethnic feuding, was just dipping a tentative toe into tourism, so rare to find in a world where travel to far-flung places can be done at the touch of a button.

So then, it must come down to the memories that stay so vivid with the passing of time, that they are as clear as if they happened yesterday …

… the long line of saffron-clad bare-footed novice monks, dull eyes, heads closely shaven, queueing with empty bowls for their meagre lunchtime ration in front of a crowd of camera-totting tourists. A life of monastic discipline, cut off from their families and the outside world until they are old enough to decide for themselves which path they want to take.  For those considered fortunate enough to be here, an escape from poverty and an opportunity of an education – in the eyes of a western tourist, a life without freedom of self-expression, a childhood taken, and a uncomfortable insight into a cloistered life, prostituting itself for the sake of a tourist dollar.

… lying in bed in the early hours, listening to the night calls of unseen animals and deafened by the thunder of monsoon rains on the corrigated iron roof of their chalet deep in the teak plantations at Maymyo, high up in the Shan Highlands. Rains .. and sounds .. like she’d never heard before.

… the best part of a day sweltering on a rattan recliner aboard a paddle-steamer meandering it’s way down the Irrawaddy from Mandalay to the ancient city of Bagan, past under-nourished oxen working barren fields, golden stupa jutting above dense, jungle-clad riverbanks, endless rice paddies, and children splashing in the muddy shallows as their mother rinsed yesterday’s longyi, passing snapshots of rural poverty masked in the beauty of this untouched landscape.

… setting off before dawn for a hot air balloon flight over the temples of Bagan. An eerie silence broken only by the hissing of gas as the balloon serenely rose and drifted over this vast plain, over 2,000 buddhist monuments peeping through the early morning mist. And returning later to climb one of the pagodas to watch in awe the setting of the sun over this most ancient of worlds. … magical times.

 

 

 

 

… speeding across the vast serene waters of Inle Lake, fringed by marshes and floating gardens, stilt-house villages and buddhist temples, marvelling at the Intha fishermen, famed for fishing on one leg, and the curious Kayan people, whose woman consider their long necks encased in brass coils a thing of beauty. Such strange and foreign lands …

 

 

 

 

… most of all, the people.  It takes a trip like this to know what poverty truly looks like.  To know how fortunate are those who have running water, a roof over their heads, and  the certainty of another meal. These things so often taken for granted, when so many people in the world cannot.  And yet, they found people who were respectful, courteous and generous with their time … of course, just waking up to the potential riches a visiting tourist could bring, but nevertheless, grounded by their faith, and genuine with their smiles.

Myanmar, such a privilege, such a place … memories that would stay with her forever …

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

finding Myanmar II (2017)

What is faith?

She did not believe in a god as such, but equally she had never wanted to believe that the here and now, this life on this earth, is all there is.  She did not think that praying to a greater power was the way to heal, find happiness or seek whatever we are looking for, but she did believe that we all have the power within ourselves to find our path.

Nevertheless, she had always been fascinated by those whose lives are rich because of their faith, who find answers where she had never looked, who believed that a greater power would hold their hand and guide their way.  She did not understand, did not judge, but in many ways envied their total belief that that they would find their way, because they believed.  It is love and it is hope … however and wherever we find it.

Buddhism had touched her life when she had dipped in and out of yoga and meditation practices over the years, and she was curious to see a country where faith was not a lifestyle choice but a life’s journey.  On her travels, she had always found extraordinary, whatever the faith, the desire to demonstrate ones commitment to ones faith by donation, often, it seemed to her, by the most poor to the most rich …. even more extraordinary, here in Myanmar, one of the poorest countries in the world,  to see gleaming gold pagodas peeping out of the vegetation at every turn, as their plane came in to land.

It would be churlish and disrespectful to say that it’s all in the size of your pagoda … or indeed your buddha!  But there are a lot of them, and some of them are huge!

A large shed, north of Kandawgyi Lake in Yangon, houses the impressive Reclining Buddha – 66 meters long!  White face staring benevolently down, a vision of gold robe, red lips and finger nails, and feet so large that a platform has been erected at its feet to read the 108 characters painted on the soles.

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For a buddhist, especially a buddhist in Myanmar, this 98m high gilded stupa which dominates Yangon’s skyline, is regarded as the most sacred buddhist pagoda in all of Myanmar.

Monks, swathed in their distinctive saffron robes, going about their day, gliding silently amongst those who had come to pay their respects and those, like her, who had come to see this most sacred of shrines as the sun came down.

IMG_4790.jpgBarefoot, she walked around the stupa, gold, resplendent, towering above her.  It was one of those moments when being a tourist feels invasive, out of place.  So important to respect the privilege it was to be there. Everywhere, the offering of prayers and flowers, and the lighting of candles around the vast perimeter of the padoga.  Flames flickered in the sultry evening breeze, the sun slowly fell in the evening sky, its glow falling onto the gold stupa …. a hush descended on the gathering crowds, a moment to be still, to think, to pray .. .

It was spell-binding.  It was faith …. and it was beautiful.

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