MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the month “October, 2011”

Bella Toscana

On the third morning of my stay in Tuscany I woke up with a swollen face. My neck was swollen too, and swallowing felt like moving a shard of glass down my gullet. My glands were massive, and I felt a bit dizzy, and generally rubbish. Having been on a high for the past few days following graduating from university, I was brought back down to earth with a thump. My neck was so large, it might as well have been a literal thump. As the morning progressed it got worse, and between us we only had a couple of doses of ibuprofen, which gave only a temporary relief to my discomfort. On top of the blistering July heat, my happiness quickly dwindled.

It was a simple plan: spend a week in a villa in the middle of nowhere in the Tuscan countryside, and just chill by the pool. It had started off well, atleast it had when we made it to Italy. It hadn’t been the most relaxing trip to the airport after the taxi was late, and he proceeded to make up for the lost time by attempting to make the car fly, accelerating along the motorway like a bat out of hell. At the time, it was the scariest taxi ride I had ever been on (that title now belongs to a ride I had in Athens a couple of years ago!), and my friends and I gave each other ‘save me’ looks whilst gripping onto the upholstery.

Following our arrival in Pisa, a few train rides brought us to Pistoia, a lovely town still surrounded by a wall. Another taxi ride later, and we pulled up at our villa, none of us having change to give a tip. It didn’t go down very well. But the villa was stunning, and just what we wanted: seclusion, sunshine and a swimming pool, not to mention good company with everybody enjoying the relief of finishing university and most importantly: the end of exams.

 

Pistoia was a lovely old-fashioned town to walk around, quaint and picturesque, and it moved at a lovely sedate pace that was inspiring. Pisa on the other hand left a lot to be desired. I was the only one of our group that chose to climb the leaning tower, the others preferring to wander round the cathedral. It is a very bizarre feeling going uphill then downhill then uphill then downhill despite climbing staircases, but it was a lovely view from the top. Granted, we spent only a rushed day in Pisa, but something about the place meant I didn’t warm to it.

 

Florence on the other hand, was in a league of its own. For many people, the first destination for visitors to the city are the shops, cafes or galleries. Mine was ‘la farmacia’. As I had planned on spending the week by the pool, I hadn’t bothered to learn a word of the language. A few of my companions knew the basics, so as far as I was concerned a simple ‘buongiorno’ and ‘grazie’ was as much as I needed to worry about. My troubles getting Ibuprofen that day taught me a lesson in learning basic communication skills in the native language prior to visiting. Having said that, I felt the pharmacist was being deliberately difficult when it came to giving us what I so desperately needed. To me, ‘vorrei Ibuprofen per favore’ was a reasonable request, but it was met by a blank face and a ‘non capisco’. Vorr-ei I-bu-pro-fen per fa-vore. Perhaps saying it slower would help. The girl at the counter called her supervisor and we went through the whole rigmarole again. Having already spent the train ride to Florence convinced everyone was staring at my fat neck, I was confused that he couldn’t appreciate my current predicament. After a bit of pointing and gesticulating, the lightbulb turned on above his head, and his eyes lit up. ‘Ah! Ibuprofene!’ Now, written down, there is only an additional vowel. Phonetically, in English, we were saying Eye-bew-profe-en. The Italian equivalent is Ee-boo-pro-phen-ay. Frankly, I don’t think there is much difference between the two, but had it been me doing the talking I could have put it down to my pathetic-foreign-accent syndrome, but it had been my friend in her convincingly-native-to-my-ears accent that had done all the questioning. I guzzled the ee-boo-pro-phen-ay down with as much glee as my razor sharp throat would allow.

My favourite part of Florence was the Duomo. I loved wandering around inside and climbing higher and higher up the walls until eventually making it out onto the roof. The reams of red slate roofs disappearing in all directions is a warming sight, and a wander around the stalls at Ponte Vecchio was an eye-opener. We spent the afternoon wandering around the gardens at the back of the city until the sun began to set, and then the day was rounded off with pizza in a cafe near the Arno river, followed by a tiring bus trip back to Pistoia.

 

I slept brilliantly that night, apart from when my friend pushed me awake due to my snoring. After apologising, I quickly drifted off into the land of nod again. When I awoke the next morning, she was not impressed. Normally a quiet sleeper, my swollen neck and face had turned me into a bulldozer trying to mow down a herd of angry elephants. A second night of the same threatened to ruin our friendship forever, and she was forced to sleep on the couch downstairs. The third night was my turn to sleep on the couch. I woke up each morning with a parchment-dry mouth that ached, but the ibuprofen quickly eased it off for the daytime to let me enjoy some pool time in the sunshine.

By the end of the week I was feeling immensely better, although I continued to snore for several nights after the holiday was over. A trip to Viarreggio to laze at the beach and lap up some delicious gelato certainly helped soothe my aches and restore my status quo. As I spent this day by myself, I had no choice but to make some effort to speak the lingo, and thankfully I managed to negotiate not just the Italian rail system, but the immense choice of gelato flavours available in the parlour. For me, happiness is a belly full of good grub, so this followed by a cracking bbq back at the villa was just perfect to offset the graduation holiday. Buona vacanza!

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J’arrivee a Paris!

I like to do my best to speak the local language when I’m abroad. I got a B in Higher French at high school, and have self-taught myself Spanish and Greek as an adult. Despite all my efforts, I’m only fluent in English, but I’ve always prided myself in trying to speak other languages, with varying results. The most common result is laughter… at my expense.

My university friends decided to inter-rail around Europe for the summer. I couldn’t afford it, but found a very cheap airfare on a famous Irish airline that would fly me to Paris to meet them for a few days. As is typical of said airline, it took me to a tiny little airport that had a Portakabin as a terminal, about an hour north of Paris. The bus that took me from there, dropped me off in a part of the city that I couldn’t initially place on a map. It was essentially just a car park. The surrounding buildings were tall and I couldn’t find any of those rather well-known landmarks that Paris is famous for. After a spell of going round in circles, I eventually found my way to the Champs Elysees, and a metro station. Hopping on, I settled in for the ride. Then got out and changed lines, and settled in for the ride. Then got out and changed lines, and settled in for the ride, eventually reaching the 20th arondissement where my bed for the week was.

 

I had a day to myself before my friends arrived, so I spent it wandering around the graves of dead famous people. It’s one of those things that is often in guidebooks, and to be honest I’ve done it in more than one cemetery in more than one country. However, whilst casting my eye over the wreaths and gifts left by adoring fans of the previously rich and famous, I can’t help but feel there is something banal and pointless about it all. Having said all that, I still have the obligatory photos of Chopin’s, Oscar Wilde’s and Jim Morrison’s resting places. Why else would you go to Paris?

On the flip side, I loved the Louvre. I spent all day there, and could have easily gone back for more the following day. I may not be keen on wandering around the graves of dead people, but I adore history, especially natural history, and therefore museums make me immensely happy. I’m not as fussed about art, but wandering through the corridors of the Louvre stirred enough in me to make me fascinated by the ageing works of art hanging on the walls. I spent so long there, I practically had to be shepherded out at the end of the day.

I had arranged to meet my friends next to the leg (or foot) of the Eiffel Tower. Staying out in the far reaches of the city, it took me longer to get there than I anticipated. It wasn’t till I got there that I realised our error. The concourse was mobbed, people surging about all over the place, but this was not the biggest problem. The biggest problem was that the Eiffel Tower, or La Tour Eiffel to give it its proper name, has 4 legs. We hadn’t specified which one. After half an hour, I came to realise the futility of the situation, especially as numerous phone calls went unanswered. It eventually transpired that my friends had left their UK mobiles at their hotel, not thinking they would need them, and as their visit to Paris was shorter than mine, a rendezvous never occurred. I essentially found myself spending 6 days in the most romantic city in the world (supposedly), all on my own.

 

I spent my days seeing the sights: L’Arc de Triomphe, La Cathedrale de Notre Dame, La Tour Montparnasse, Sacre Coeur, varying jardins, and out to the Palais de Versailles which was absolutely stunning. The palace was amazing and the grounds also – a great place to visit away from the city. All of these places posed varying language challenges, but the worst was when I wanted to eat. I’d long mastered the art of ordering food and drink, as well as general chitchat and pleasantries, but admittedly my accent left a lot to be desired. My attempts at ‘la langue francaise’ were generally met by laughter, looks of intense concentration as they tried to make out what I was saying, or replies in English, the speaker clearly feeling that my French was too ridiculous to converse with, and trying to show me up with their easy grasp of my language. My foreign language skills tend to fall down around my ears when the person I’m trying to converse with is doubled over laughing at me. In the cafe on the top floor of La Tour Montparnasse, I’d asked for ‘un cafe noir’, which resulted in a barage of babbled monologue that ultimately resulted in the word ‘ESPRESSO’ being spoken to me slowly like I was a child. I found it easier to just agree, and made a point of hanging around the cafe longer than was necessary just to make a point. At Versailles, my request (in French) for a filled baguette, was met by a big sigh, and a response in English regarding the fact that it was cheese OR ham, and that both were not an option. This odd fashion for only 1 ingredient, was reinforced on a subsequent trip to France several years later, where, on a day trip to St Malo, I asked for a baguette (again in French), only to be laughed at, mocked visibly in my presence to the gentleman in the queue behind me, and again met by the retort of ‘buerre OU mayo, pas le buerre ET le mayo!’ Frankly, I’d rather have a Ploughman’s sandwich any day, but at least I tried…

Oh, Canada!

My best friend K and I had often talked about going to Canada together when we were older. We were both excited at the prospect, but in the end K beat me to it. She left school the year ahead of me and went over there without me. I was insanely jealous, but most importantly, even more determined to go.

I’m generally a shy person. Those who know me well, know that this shyness eases off with extensive acquaintance, until I’m a rather loud, though generally amiable person who likes to talk about myself. But with strangers, I barely utter a peep unless conversation is hauled out of me under great duress. So it came as something of a shock when I announced to my family that I was going to go to Canada on my own. I’d made up my mind and that was it. That up-grade on the flight to Toronto lulled me into a false sense of security, because when I landed at the airport and tried to negotiate my transit to the city centre, I felt exceedingly out of my depth and in fear of the 6 weeks that lay ahead of me before my return flight from Vancouver.

In the ensuing years, I’ve learnt to pack for my travels in a much more organised and frugal manner, minimising not just wasted space, but avoiding those items that really aren’t necessary at all. Ever. In Canada, my backpack was about 24kg. If anything helps to illustrate the enormity of this misjudgement on my part, then I will tell you this: I’m 5’5″, and at that time I weighed 55kg. I was unable to stand up straight with it on my back, and getting it onto my back in the first place was a challenge in itself. One of my biggest ‘giggle-to-myself’ memories of that time in Canada was when I got off the train in the village of Niagara Falls, and sat down next to my backpack on the platform in order to clip the straps round my waist. What ensued was a rather comical vision of me rolling around the platform in circles, unable to thrust my body and its load onto my two little feet. In the end, I required the helping hand of a man who couldn’t stop laughing, to lift me up off the ground.

Toronto was my temporary home for 2 weeks, during which I ate  countless subways and pizza slices thanks to my inability to cook; something which I’ve only just started to master some 9 years later. It was the first place that I got sunburnt, and it still remains to this day the worst sunburn I have ever sustained in my life. Following the obligatory visit up the CN Tower in order to stand on glass thick enough to hold more elephants than you would ever care to see standing on one spot, I headed out to the Toronto islands, wearing mistake number 2: flip flops. Nobody who seriously likes to walk, wears flip flops. By the end of the day wandering around those beautiful islands, my feet resembled an extra in a zombie movie (ie. lots of blood and fluid oozing out of places where they really shouldn’t be oozing out of), and on top of that, I started to feel the effects of my inadequate sun protection. The blisters that formed across my shoulders were like bubble wrap. Large and fluid filled, if you squeezed one, the fluid would rush into the neighbouring one and bulge out in a rather gross fashion. If serving no other purpose, they atleast gave me a topic of conversation when meeting new people. Lesson number 1: use adequate sunscreen and top up regularly!

 

The aforementioned trip to Niagara Falls led me to witness the first of many ‘wonders’ that I had ogled over in guidebooks. There are many lists of ‘wonders’ these days. Wonders of the ancient world, the new world, the natural world, etc etc. With so much tourism, it doesn’t take much fodder for some new book or journalist to make up a new list of ‘wonders’ in an effort to get people to visit somewhere new ‘before they die!‘ Frankly, I have my own list. It has evolved over the years, changing and adapting to my new found perspective on the world, but at the inexperienced and untravelled age of 19, Niagara Falls was at the top of my list. The tacky commercial quarters leaves a lot to be desired, but if you can shut out the noise and clammer of the 100s of other tourists around you, then the natural beauty still inspires much awe. It is the location where I saw my first racoon, and I remember watching her foraging amongst the rubbish with her babies in tow, when everyone else around me was watching the rather pathetic fireworks display that they insist on doing most nights in an effort to light up the falls after dusk.

 

By the end of my trip to Canada, I had fallen in love with Alberta and British Columbia. I took the VIA Rail across the continent from Toronto heading west, stopping for a week in Jasper, before finally heading onwards to Vancouver. This train ride is where I learnt how popular the Scottish accent really is. Before the age of 19, the vast majority of my holidays had been in one of my most favourite countries in the world: Scotland. When everyone in that country talks in a similar way to you, it is hard to stand out from the crowd. In Canada, and in many countries since, my Scottish twang has won me all sorts of amusing attention, albeit that everybody outside of Scotland (and suprisingly many people within my current city of residence) thinks I’m Irish. I’m not. I’m Glaswegian. I might not live there anymore, but as far as I’m concerned, I couldn’t sound less Irish if I tried. In fact it has often been noted that my attempts at speaking in an Irish accent don’t sound Irish either. Either way, those 3 days aboard the train from Toronto to Jasper, and the subsequent overnighter from Jasper to Vancouver found me in my element. There is no better way to meet fellow travellers than travelling in the economy class of a sleeper train, where your seat is your bed, and your bed is a barely reclined seat with a standard VIA Rail blanket to snuggle under. The folk I met on that journey made the whole trip worthwhile, and did exactly what a good trip should do: it gave me some amazing memories that still make me smile (and if I’m very honest, in some cases cringe with embarrassment) to this day. Never again will I take the optional tour of the mail carriage…

If you go to one national park in Canada, I’d recommend Jasper. Every other mug will have followed the tourist trail to Banff, and missed out on this gem. It is beautiful, stunning, and yet has a fraction of the tourists that it’s neighbouring park has, leaving you to soak up the sights without feeling like being at a cattle market. I loved Jasper the minute I got off the train. I didn’t however, love the temperature. When I booked my holiday for the end of August, I had only considered the hot weather of Toronto, and hadn’t figured on the cooler weather of the higher altitude in the Rocky Mountains. I visited glaciers, ice bergs, mountain tops and glacial lakes in nothing but a t-shirt and a denim jacket. I spent a lot of that week feeling cold. The local elk population on the other hand were feeling hot. Randy and hot. When it comes to staying in a hostel out in the wilderness, it pays to heed the local warning of staying away from the elks during rutting season. I had booked a trip out to one of the local beauty spots (of which there were many: Maligne Lake, Athabasca falls and the Angel glacier to name but a few), that left early from the high street. I was staying out at the local youth hostel, a 50 minute hike from town. I set off early in the morning in order to be there for the 9am departure, and was lost in my own thoughts, hiking along the side of the highway, when a thunderous noise was followed by a fully grown female elk bursting through the trees just about 100 yards in front of me with a bull elk in hot pursuit. Startled, I quickened my pace, only for the female to change her direction and head straight towards me. My heart leapt into my mouth as I had visions of the bull charging me down in a fit of testosterone-induced rage. At 8.30am on what was supposed to be just another day on holiday, I found myself speed walking along the verge of the main highway with a bull elk to my left and a female elk to my right. By the time anybody else appeared in the vicinity, both elk had returned to their woodland lairs on opposite sides of the road. It was a close encounter that was both mesmerising and downright frightful at the same time. Within that week, I also saw a moose with her calf, several deer, and all sorts of other furry critters at various altitudes. I also came out in top-to-toe hives following a bite from a rather ornate species of mosquito. Jasper became the first of a very very long list of places I want to go back to.

 

On the western coast of southern British Columbia lies one of my favourite cities in the world: Vancouver. How can a city that is bordered by mountains, trees and an ocean as well as having a ‘Death by Chocolate’ restaurant, not be on anybody’s list of great cities? 1598 West Broadway, that’s all I’m saying! As I sit here today, I have crossed the longest and the second longest suspension bridges in the world. The latter is in South Africa, and the former is in North Vancouver (at the time of writing this is the case, anyway). My all-time highlight of this stay, and indeed of the whole trip, was getting to spend time doing love number 2: watching wildlife. Splashing out on a float-plane to Victoria on Vancouver Island, I suffered my 2nd worst sunburn (though worst facial sunburn) by bobbing about on the Pacific Ocean on a RIB watching scores of Orcas or Killer whales swimming around us. 3 superpods of about 60 whales each to be precise. 2hrs of brimming joy as these imposing creatures swam around and past us on their daily quest for food. I was so naive at 19, or maybe it was more a lack of common sense, but somehow I never fathomed in advance that when the sun is shining in a cloud free sky, it reflects off the sea and is even more capable of turning a normally fair-skinned lassie into a fresh-cooked lobster. I didn’t even need to open my mouth to attract attention that day.

 

Suffice to say, after 6 weeks, I didn’t want to leave. I’d hiked, I’d biked, I’d flown, I’d floated, and I’d choo-chooed. I’d seen elk, moose, whales, deer, racoons, and many more creatures. I’d got sunburnt, and covered in hives, and I met so many funny and/or weird people that all add to the memories. I came home with 24 rolls of film (digital cameras were still fairly new, expensive and a novelty at that time), and it cost over £200 to develop them. I bored my family and friends with the stories for months, and it became the starting point for what has now become my trademark phrase: ‘I’ve been travelling solo since I was 19…’

The Book of Life

If my life was a story being written, then I’m on the cusp of chapter 7. I remember very little of the events of chapter 1, and chapters 2 & 3 were a non-event, that only served the purpose of progressing to chapter 4. As for 5 & 6, well, they have brought a thousand smiles to my face and a thousand tears. It’s been a fantastic ride…

In 6 weeks time, I’ll be on a plane, cruising at 35,000ft above the Atlantic Ocean. I’ll possibly be eating some airline food right now, watching a movie perhaps. Maybe I’ll be cursing the screaming child sat in the row behind me, or quietly fuming about the overweight man in the seat next to me spilling into my personal space. I’m an ‘aisle seat’ person. I love the window seat if there is anything worth seeing, but as most long haul flights are too high up for any kind of view, or generally over oceans, or during the hours of night, I prefer to feel that perception of space that is afforded by sitting at the aisle. Being stuck in the middle or window seat of a long haul flight is the closest I will ever come to feeling claustrophobic.

One of the worst flights I experienced was on a London to JFK flight, where I was stuck in the middle seat. To my right was a man who did nothing to dispel the well known stereotype about American’s waistlines. As such, I couldn’t get my arm rest down, and therefore I had nowhere comfortable to rest my right arm. I naturally spent a lot of time leaning to the left. Unfortunately, on my left side, was a full-grown, broad shouldered man. Whilst not overweight, his stocky dimensions meant that in order to avoid touching the flab of the man on my right, I was practically lying on his shoulder. I’d never before been so crooked in a plane seat. Mealtime was even worse. I couldn’t get my laptray down fully, and there was much awkwardness trying to politely make out like his belly wasn’t the problem. It was an extremely smelly and uncomfortable flight.

Μy most favourite flight on the other hand was another trans-atlantic, this time from Glasgow to Toronto. It was my first time heading out of Europe, and I was travelling solo. Clearly I looked pathetic and vulnerable to the ground staff, because without knowing it, I had my seat exchanged at the last minute. I knew no different when I was seated in the second row from the front, and it wasn’t until half way through the flight that it finally dawned on me that I wasn’t in economy class. The space was luxurious but boy did I feel the difference on the flight back to Scotland!

The long and the short of it is: I love to travel. I love travelling around my own country just as much as I love travelling to and around other countries. It doesn’t define me, but it is part of my story, and it plays an integral part to chapter 7 in my book of life.

Welcome to my travelogue…

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