travel and the art of mental maintenance: VIII. Broken Down Somewhere in Belgium

This is part of a series I have been working on. The Introduction is here.

I can’t remember how it was I found out that the bus had broken down. What I definitely remember is that it was extremely cold.

The bus breaking down did come several hours into a long bus trip from London. From there, we went across on a ferry from Dover to France and into Belgium. From here, the intent was to pass into Germany and then head all the way down to Munich.

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Tess and the Bullshit Bus

And those several hours came after a morning of scrambling to check out of hostel in London, have my wallet stolen, cancel my credit cards, call home to have them get a new debit card from my bank and have it forwarded to a future hotel, and then get to Victoria Station to meet our bus.

If I recall, we barely made it.

Once on the bus, we got our rundown on the Oktoberfest tour from the over-enthusiastic tour guide. All of it can be summarized by the cheekily declared: “There’s a fifty quid penalty for anyone who chunders on the bus.”

It was in the first hour that we met our (as the kids call it these days) squad for the week, Sally and Tess from Australia. They too were up for binge-drinking and risque behaviour but also appreciated the value of quiet-time and slumber.

Many others on the bus did not. Many brought milk crates of beer on board.

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Here I am, reluctantly enjoying said beer.

 

Look how horribly tired I am.

The day presumably passed on with strained social behaviour and blurred views of cows in fields.

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Blurred Cows. New band name. I call it.

And I must have fallen asleep. And that must have been when the bus broke down somewhere in the middle of Belgium.

We were in the middle of a truck stop and the bus was so utterly fucked that the heating didn’t even work. We dug out our sleeping bags and huddled up inside of them for warmth. It was all very tragic and miserable. In our privileged naivete, we probably thought this was what it was like during the war.

This was the entirety of our Belgian impressions. Aside from the cows, of course.

After a while, dawn broke and the diner above the service station opened.

We ambled into there to try to get some sleep.

I recall a stiff neck from diner booths maladapted to sleeping. As the day outside warmed up, we moved outside, legs stiff and wobbly. The other displaced bus partiers were lingering around, splayed across the narrow patch of grass between bus stalls.

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It was like someone had pulled the fire alarm at a rave. Only in the day.

Eventually a new bus arrived. Whether it came all the way from England, I have no idea. But that might account for the Greek epic-style wait.

All I remember is it was night by the time we got to the camp site and all Bri and I did was climb into a flimsy little tent with all the clothes we had layered up over top of each other like Michelin Men, and shivered.

As it turns out, camping in Munich in late September can be a blissfully chilly experience….

travel and the art of mental maintenance: II. Madrid, the arrival

This is part of a series I have been working on. The Introduction is here.

the arrival

I was supposed to take the train from Paris to Madrid. It was one of those things that I had planned out well in advance like the responsible adult I had thought I was. I bought my Eurail pass and everything.

If I remember correctly, it was an overnight train. In the planning stages, this was a good thing because it meant a night I didn’t have to pay for a hostel.

But then, as Paris wound to a close, all the ephemeral friends I had made in my hostel there were starting to drift away… some back to their everyday lives, some onto their next adventure. The loneliness was creeping back in. The tide was coming in again.

Suddenly, an overnight train journey was starting to feel a bit too much like claustrophobia. As if the train would trap me with myself and the bleak possibility of unwanted social interaction. Loneliness is strange sometimes in that you know social interaction should be good for you, but you fear it ever-the-more intensely.

This was the beginning of a pattern that would repeat over and over while I travelled, in one of those unearthly hybrids of art and mathematics.

So I looked up Ryanair. It was something absolutely absurd (like only 20 Euros) to fly from Paris to Madrid. So I booked it. I get irresponsible with money when faced with potentially anxiety-ridden situations. Anything to avoid it. Take my money. I booked a flight leaving that night. It would get into Madrid at about midnight.

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I took the Metro to the dying embers of central Paris where I had to catch a coach to this tiny little airport, the name of which eludes me. It was one big room lined with vending machines on one side, and windows on the other. You could watch the rickety planes come in and airport staff push the staircases up to them. For someone who grew up in a city with a major airport, this felt like time travel. As it I would see The Beatles descend at any moment. A pretentious, privileged thought, but one I had all the same.

Ryanair doesn’t book seats. It’s a free-for-all. I would come to learn the best entrance strategy (always go for the back set of stairs; most people rush the first), but at this point, I just went with the crowd.

I had my Lonely Planet travel guide and I spent the flight plotting my route from the airport to the hostel in Madrid. Easy peasy, it looked. Just one metro line, with one change. Doneskis.

But by about one in the morning, I discovered that part of the Madrid Metro was down for maintenance. I had to find the surface and find a shuttle bus. I got on the wrong one.

When I realized something was wrong (which took an embarrassingly long time), I got off the bus, and hailed a cab. I handed the address to a hostel over to the driver and he took one look at it and gave me a long, tired look. Without a word, he started driving.

Madrid in the middle of the night is an odd place. It is funny to compare it to other cities, especially my own, Vancouver, which shuts down at about one-thirty am, just after the last Skytrain pulls out of downtown.

Madrid is one of those cities that goes all night. Sure, it’s quieter than during the day. But there’s still stuff going on. It feels like an underground of sorts. Like you’re somehow complicit in this secret world.

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By two-thirty am, the cab pulled up at the end of a long alley. It was wide enough to know that it was a viable walkway, but narrow enough that the cab driver silently said no fucking way.

I gave the cab driver a look as if to ask where the hell am I supposed to go?

He pointed down this Spanish Knockturn Alley and said, “Down. Just little. On left.”

“Thanks.”

He looked solemn. By now, I had assumed this was his natural state of being, solemnity, but as I opened the cab door, he said, “Careful. Bad town. Very bad.”

I had sincerely wished he’d not said that. How could this have helped? Like now I could watched out for maniacs but before I would have embraced them with open arms? Did he think I was expecting the residents of Spanish Knockturn Alley to break out into a rendition of the Lollipop Guild at my arrival?

I side-stepped a few leering types, but I made it to the hostel unscathed. I managed to get a room and snuck up to it quietly, tiptoeing amongst the already asleep. So as not to cause unnecessary noise, I slipped off my shoes and slid into the bed fully clothed.

As tired as I was after such a long day, I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t even close my eyes. I pulled the blanket up to my chin and stared at the underside of the bunk above me. My heart was pounding. I could feel my pulse in my ears.

Holy shit! How had I taken the events of the evening in such stride? I had been stranded in the middle of the night in a foreign city I had not even seen in the daylight. And I had been alone. Completely alone. No one had known I was even in the country.

How stupid could I have been?

Once I replayed everything over in my mind, it was impossible to calm myself down. I had to repeat over and over: You’re safe now. Calm the hell down. It’s over.

It was a strange day, but an important one. I realized I could handle it. Things would be thrown at me and I only had myself to rely on. But I could handle it.

And maybe I needed to be a little bit more responsible with myself… and my money. But I wouldn’t learn that lesson until years later.

obligatory july post

I know I haven’t posted anything in a while. I have no real excuse other than I have been writing, just not any blog posts. The body of one book is barely cold and I’ve already started on another.

This one is a comedy, which is a nice change. It certainly makes life lighter.

I am finding a slight frustration, however, in the fact that I seem to keep jumping all over the place in terms of genre and style. I find I switch modes for each project and sort of adopt a different voice for each piece. Perhaps the differences are only really apparent to me, but it makes me feel reluctant to pick one and run with it, lest I find myself tied to that genre or style.

But anyway. The current piece I’m working on is what I think of as my “Default Mode,” which is basically the same writing style I use writing my blog pieces. It’s how I write when I just write and I suppose there’s something refreshing in that.

It is also a genre piece but only in the sense it riffs explicitly on genre. Perhaps I have been implicitly working through my frustrations.

We’ll see how it goes. It’s a fun, fairly episodic project, so I’ve been toying with the idea of posting it online. Maybe when I’ve got a bit more of it under my belt.

Anyway. Writing aside, life goes ever on as it does. Husband and I are moving. AGAIN. We found out a few months ago that our landlord is selling the place, so we’ve been keeping an eye out for a nice condo, and we found one…. ACROSS THE STREET.

As this is our fourth place we’ve had in New West, I realized we’re perilously close to forming a golden spiral across the landscape.

Is this cause for concern?

Mildly concerning. If I were a character in a Dan Brown novel, perhaps.

Whatever. I love New West. Unabashedly. We have good craft beer, good food, and they just put in a rainbow crosswalk for Pride Week. I imagine it’s only a matter of time before I dedicate a whole post to it.

travel and the art of mental maintenance: IV. Casablanca

This is part of a series I have been working on. The Introduction is here.

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I was exhausted and burnt out. For short trips, you rally. But backpacking is a marathon.

I dyed my hair from blonde to brown before I left Vancouver because I knew I was going to Morocco, and I’d heard warnings—mostly I’d ignored them, but my mother also heard those warnings. If she felt better, I could deal. However, it faded back into a dark blonde by the time I arrived in North Africa.

In a perfect example of a tremendous oversight, I arrived on the first day of Ramadan. I had a hotel room all to myself. A hotel on the beach, where I took the closure of everything as a chance to relax. I slept all day, wandered the beach, and then ate candy and drank mango juice for dinner.

But I got to watch the sun set over the Atlantic Ocean from Africa.

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The world started to feel small.

I wanted to explore, but I was feeling what I hadn’t yet realized was culture shock. I realized I had been incredibly naïve. I took short walks through this little part of town, sneaking photographs as if I were a cultural thief somehow. Most of my experience with the actual city was on the taxi ride from my hotel to the train station.

I cannot even remember how I called the taxi. Did my hotel call it for me? Did I flag someone down? I seem to recall few cars on the streets on the outskirts where my hotel was. I attributed that to Ramadan, I remember.

I feel slightly ashamed that my memory has failed me on this one little detail. I cannot even recall much about the taxi or the driver. I have vaguely blurred recollection of a typical cityscape passing by once we entered Casablanca proper.

I remember thinking, comically aware of my own absurdity, how absolutely nothing looked like the movie. I had expected this; I wasn’t an idiot. I harboured no false expectations on that front. I even knew that somewhere downtown, some enterprising restaurateur had opened a “Rick’s” and that it too was nothing like the movie.

So it goes.

travel and the art of mental maintenance: introduction

This is the introduction of what I hope will become a series / retrospective project / diary-after-the-fact / examination of memory-and-place-and-all-that-jazz. All the links to other posts about specific adventures and places are/will be below.

Whenever you get back from a long bout of travelling, the world always feels different (at least for a little while, until reality sets in again). For me, however, the world really was different. I was gone from August to November 2008. I have always meant to write more meaningfully about this trip. I’ve touched on bits and pieces here and there, but alas… I’ve never put together something huge.

I imagined that one day it would all be complete, as if I was filling in the pieces on a puzzle that would one day reveal the big picture. It seemed so easy, when I thought of it. That I would be able to simply sit and write. I would start at day one and then it would unfurl from there like a pulling the thread on a sweater.

But memory works in funny ways. Events are not always best discussed in sequence. Not when they are connected to ideas. Below is my itinerary, not as it was planned, but how it turned out when all was said and done. I will fill in links when I get around to writing them. And probably not in order. Although, that’s probably how it will start.

My parents bid me farewell...

My parents bid me farewell…

Less than an hour after touching down in Paris, I was sitting in a street café, eating a kebab with a guy from Newport Beach whose name I forgot as soon as I heard it.

It was August 10, 2008, and I would spend the next four months rolling through the epicenters of several western European cultures. At some point, my sister joined me and things got messier. The impact of those four months on the world were enormous and the whole time I was in a bubble lit by my own navel.

One Forrest Gump moment stood out: I happened up the financial district of London on the day of the Lehman Brothers collapse. I recall men in suits carrying boxes of office supplies and dazed looks. In retrospect, it made everything seem so much more important than it did at the time.

In fall 2001, I began university. Everything that followed was easily characterized by the phrase Post-9/11 and a campus perpetually peopled by anti-war protestors. It was here I met the boyfriend I would later break up with and have to run away to Europe to start over.

This was something of a theme for me, I realize now. I went to Europe for the same reasons a lot of people do in movies, if not in reality: I was freshly freed from seven years in university, five years of which were in a just-ended relationship, and I desperately needed to see something beyond my own milieu. It was simple: I needed to escape.

In summer 2002, I’d done something similar. I went to stay with family in England in lieu of summer classes to get over my high school boyfriend and my fear of the real world. The change of scenery provides a perspective easily lost when you’re stuck in the day to day.

Five years later, my husband and I would do the same.

But in 2008, armed with meagre savings, a line-of-credit, and poor financial decisions, I went backpacking. The entire thing reeks of middle-class white privilege.

Which brings me back to that kebab in Paris with a guy from Newport Beach…

I. Paris

the five types of travellers

Versailles

II. Madrid

the arrival

III. La Alberca

IV. Casablanca

V. Marrakech

VI. Some where in the the foothills of the Atlas Mountains

VII. London

VIII. Broken Down Somewhere in Belgium

IX. Oktoberfest

X. Dachau

XI. Kitzbuhl

XII. Munich proper

XIII. Amsterdam

XIV. Maastricht

XV. Paris Again

XVI. Disneyland Paris

XVII. Madrid Again

XVIII. La Alberca Again

XIX. Helsinki

XX. Hameenlina

XXI. Seinajoki

XXII. Huitinen

XXIII. Pori

XXIV. London Again

XXV. Lewes

XXVI. Doncaster, Thurnscoe

on the embarrassing act of coming home

Today we fly back to Vancouver. The great experiment – one might say – has failed.

I know that over the next week, the explanation will boil itself down to an easy deflection: one or two lines doing their best to contain both logic and pride.

It took us several days and a good dose of demoralization to finally come to the conclusion to come home. We weighed pros and cons, painted competing visions of the future, and tried to think it through in the most logical way possible. We gave ourselves time, and gave ourselves perspective. This was a decision we did not want clouded by such temporary factors as culture shock or bureaucratic annoyances, or faulty expectations.

In the end, all logic seemed on the side of going home. The only sincere mark in the stay column was embarrassment / wounded pride.

In the time we’ve been here, we found the plan shifting constantly, just as what’s-her-vampire-face’s visions shifting constantly in Twilight. (Ugh. I can’t believe I just used Twilight as a reference point.) The last – to sign a six-month lease in Hebden Bridge and keep looking for jobs – slowly crumbled as we started to think “What then?” What if we simply didn’t get jobs? Two months here and barely a bite. Sure, I got a job at a bookshop, but that was just not feasible with the cost of living in London. And I applied for about five or six bookshop jobs and was only called for interviews for two of them. Of those two, I only got the one job.

At the end of the six months, with no money coming in, our savings would be gone. We’d come back home with nothing: absolutely nothing.

Several factors might not make that seem such a difficult position to face. Perhaps if we were younger? At thirty, the world has a different expectation of you. Coming back broke and unemployed and likely stuck living with parents begins to look pathetic. We would not come to calls of “all hail the conquering travellers” but rather “why haven’t you sorted your life out yet?” At least that’s the implication you get in undertones and side-glances.

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Having spent most of the last ten years or so with this idea lodged in my mind that I would go work in England for a while, it actually feels something of a relief to be able to let that go. We can go home, and gone will be the feeling that everything is temporary. I can do those things I always wanted to do but didn’t because I never felt okay settling. I can sew cushions, paint furniture, get a cat. All those shitty kitchen utensils I had and never wanted to spend the money on replacing I can now replace.

There’s something of a weight gone. So, while things might not be the best case scenario we dreamed of when we left, we will still be in a better place than two months ago.

 

york wanderings

This gallery contains 9 photos.

british bureaucracy for the impatient

It’s been a week on and we’ve yet to hear anything from the estate agent. It’s been more than a month since the first job applications began and we’ve yet to hear anything from potential employers.

Is our luck running low(er)?

Or are we victims of the infamous British bureaucracy?

It’s something we noticed rather quickly yet it has increased in its frustration. There’s a middle-man to everything. As difficult as apartment-hunting was back home, at least it only comprised the following steps:
1. Call landlord to arrange viewing
2. View apartment and sign application
3. Landlord phones you to say, “you can move in Saturday”

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Here it is thus:
1. Ring up an estate agent
2. Estate agent tells you it’s already been let but they don’t take down the posting because fuck-you-that’s-why
3. End up on a mailing list where you get ten spam emails and two phone calls a day with the estate agent trying to flog you other flats
4. Do this several times and end up on several mailing lists
5. Finally find a flat that is available, arrange to see it
6. See the flat, decide to apply, but that means you agree you have to pay up front because you’re still on the job hunt
7. Wait for the estate agent to ring the landlord to see if this is okay, even though the only person benefiting from six months’ rent in advance is the landlord herself
8. Pay your two hundred pounds agent fees
9. Discover the estate agent doesn’t even check the references themselves and outsources it to a referencing company even though we don’t need a credit check because we’re paying up front so all someone needs to do is email our old landlord to check that we never broke anything.
10. Wait and wait and wait

As the job hunt grows bleaker and bleaker, we can’t help but wonder if a similar form of bullshit exists for recruitment agencies on which to blame the delays. Otherwise, we’re just unemployable in this country. That’s a distinct possibility. Doesn’t keep the job-seekers spam out of my inbox, however.

The options now seem thus: rent a flat (eventually) and keep up the (possibly futile) job search while our savings dwindle, or cut our losses and go home, pride bruised and bleeding, but finances intact.

The reality is, we’ve decided that we don’t want to stay here forever. I could elaborate, but that’s what it’s come too. We like it here, but can’t see making a life of it. If we could, perhaps that might change things.

scottish wanderings

This gallery contains 5 photos.

london 2013 wanderings

This gallery contains 9 photos.