The wondrous fear of living on a houseboat, or, my life avoiding camping chairs.

2014-02-16 16.43.50So after a conspicuous absence from the blogosphere, and a less visible absence from the inside of my writing thalamus I have returned.  Floating to the surface like so much scummy debris from the Thames River.  Be I perhaps that bottle bobbing along upside down blindly unaware of its onward route?  Be I the log, lumpen and unappealing, putting one in mind of the need for regular intake of fruit?  Regardless, I find myself kicking off the cape of lazy invisibility and returning to the world of the web hosted word, I shan’t anticipate a fanfare.

Anyway, on to the blog post, the nautical theme is evident in the clever title.  Genius is proved by historical longevity as they say and that’s got all the trademarks of an Eliot insight.

I now live on a houseboat, apparently according to some probably inaccurate statistics lifted off Google so do 10,000 others in London (or is it technically 9,999 others?).  It is perched directly on the Thames in the shadow of Battersea Power Station and downwind from Battersea Cats and Dogs home.  It is lovely, and scary and memorable and a bit silly.

Let’s illustrate with a couple of little stories and reflections.

One day I wished to exit this dreamy vehicle to go to work, a request deemed unreasonable by the nauticus upon which I reside.  It displayed its fear at my illogical demands by sitting staunchly on the river bed and thus being some good portion away from the stairs attached to the pier which I would mount to gain (brief) freedom and onward trajectory.  Oh I waited, bundled up to the hilt like a fool, sighing and gazing pointlessly at the gap as it remained the same.  I should return to land nevermore thought I.

After despairing for moments that stretched yawning in to adjacent moments that I boringly anticipated I decided to take matters in to my own hands.  I guesstimate the gap to have been circa a metre, due to the stairs being higher than the boat this was unhelpfully exacerbated and as such I needed a sturdy item to traverse this successfully and avoid the dowsing in the Thames that would nostril ticklingly piss off customers at the cafe where I (used to) work.

I found a collapsible garden chair, a flat beauty of plastic and metal, rusted in the just right fashion Goldilocks would admire.  Laying this one way across the gap (the base on the stairs and the back support on the boat) I stepped on it tentatively only to find that it opened up.  Never fear thought I, simply turn it over, which I did.

Upon the second and blindly committed stepping disaster occurred, yes I admit a disaster that had more than a little tinge of predictability.  I fell through the chair, the seat showing complete disloyalty by immediately breaking under my weight.  By some fortune I had managed to grab on to the stair rail as I fell, which meant I swung in to the side of the stairs but alas hanging almost below them.  I considered my position for a moment and the pain, and then haltingly pulled myself up.  I was in one sense amused and delighted, for you see I had thought my days of being able to hold my own body weight up with my arms had passed.

On another occasion my hardy housemate and I attempted to host a tire off the riverbed next to the boat so that we could re-attach it to the side and thus not thump in to the pier quite so dementedly.  Two hideously long boat sticks with hooks on the end later and we are jabbing away like a coked up polar bear salmon fishing.  The sticks bent, the tire remained and with much guffawing we limped away with sore arms.  We lost the battle, we chuckled at our little war.

There is nothing quite like being on the boat to relax.  Looking out at the Thames rippling away, the moorhens with their gargantuan feet and tiny bodies heads down and swimming into the tide, the Cormorants diving into the depths for lung filling amounts of time, the swans that look like they have no heads as they sleep necks buried in to bodies floating aimlessly like bizarre flotsam.  The sun and the smell of wood burning and the creak of the bits of the boat that have lived a life.  The tide miraculously raising the boat six metres and ensuring a view of London that wallops the air from lungs.  A sense of being in and of London but removed, a feeling enjoyed on New Year’s Eve when dancing, and sipping alcohol of a dubious nature under the gaze of the Shard and equally intimidating MI5.

When at night I occasionally worry about drowning or being gassed to death by a freak diesel engine malfunction I lie on my bed, let myself be rocked and stare out at the skylight until I fall asleep.  It feels like travelling living here, and that’s a feeling I relish.

 

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The Chatty Fox Fem's It Up.

Being a feminist is like having tattoos on an obvious part of your body, you know you’ll always be looked down on in certain types of places.  And sometimes that’s half the fun.  To suggest that you are a feminist is to be au fait with a corresponding lip curl.  Or an argument.  Like the word Cunt and the industry therein, it has taken us years a to begin to reclaim the word.  No reclaimation necessary, for my friends it has always been ours.

As a proverbial sapling in this world they call ‘blog’ it seems sensible to begin by making my intentions clear (and relying heavily on spellcheck).  Following a spate of articles/books/inane comments and shallow insights in to what it is to be ‘female’, there has been a dilution of the subject to the point where, like a cheap squash, it has a rather unaccountable but nasty flavour. …

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So glad I went for Tea in San Francisco

San Fran for BlogI’m not a pretentious traveller but there was something arrogant in the way I approached San Francisco.  At best a presumptive naivety that assured me this City was one I had already known.   That I possessed a profound capacity to understand San Fran beneath the stacks of syrupy pancakes and the Mohawks; better perhaps than those who lived there and wandered blithely through dizzyingly steep streets, past expansive gluttonous stores.

I was educated like thousands in America itself and across the pond on Beat retrospectives and raw, obscene poetry that loosened something in my windpipe that allowed me to breath, or better still gasp, startled.

I hoped that my generation too was ‘starving, hysterical, naked’, anxious to live, to experience, to travel and hop trains at pedestrian crossings. I looked for the evidence around me and felt my life lacking, not willing to carve out something for myself and without those friends ‘hopped up’ and feverish on illegal narcotics to guide me to a bleary and ultimately disappointing enlightenment.

I wasn’t in America and I wasn’t in the Cold War and reading about the Rosenbergs’, and visiting the Berlin Wall though formative experiences could never hope to inspire in a girl from London an entirely real sympathy.  I simply could only imagine.

But what imaginings: I lived on the East Coast of the US, comfortably settled in New York though occasionally the stranger with Frank O’Hara and Truman Capote; I obsessively wanted and envied with Tiffany and observed with detached pleasure the glistening torsos of the men drinking Coca Cola on the cacophonous streets I had never walked.  I wandered the highways and byways with Bill Bryson and later Jack Kerouac, sleeping fitfully in strange towns and on top of cars, often bemused and occasionally experiencing violence.  Something very real and very alive became uncovered somewhere in the middle of my amblings through Betty Friedan and Susan Faludi, and I was shocked to find womanhood through is this it?  And a feisty Backlash.

I hoped to see Faludi in San Francisco but for me she stood apart from the city, speaking so unequivocally and with such volition on a scale that exceeded geography and became symbolic of a broader world and a deeper problem.  Thus I came to San Fran, having experienced its bars through Lawrence Ferlinghetti and its heart aching bittersweet childishness through Gregory Corso.  The most meaningful threesome I ever had.

So I brought with me to San Francisco a head full of Poetry and the knowledge there was in this City something a little special; hoping to find myself temporarily released from the constraints of the ordinary and the thumping pressure of an approaching graduation.  Flying into New York and having to run barefoot to my connecting flight was I hoped an omen of the bohemian lifestyle I was to experience in San Francisco, if only for a while.

It was Berkeley that made an impression on me first, for my trip had been inspired in a practical fashion by wanting to visit a friend studying there.  It was he that met me at the airport, where I sat muggy and expectant and awfully dehydrated.  I hugged him, feeling the reassurance of his cotton t-shirt and observing the familiar cowlick now drooping from the heat onto to his forehead.

Berkeley was terribly bright; I perceived it first squinting through tortured eyelids, reeling from the oppressive feel of the heat and the steepening walk up to my friend’s accommodation.  We took a detour through the campus to marvel at the unashamed gargatuantness of the buildings, such awesome hulking structures.  All so white, so square, block after block of intellectual monoliths; the walkways between crowned with flags praising the students fortuitous enough to study here.  Did I like Denise feel that my life was enriched by these sober surroundings?  I did.

Strolling through the library I began to feel a quiet thoughtfulness work its way in to my jaw, urging me to sit in the reading room cuddled up with Aristotle and Walt Whitman.  To type at a battered laptop words that meant something only to me with a brow that spoke to everyone of my exquisite concentration.  I was humbled by the place, and chastened into reflecting on my own slapdash efforts at higher education.

Particularly moved when in a large open square I was shown a tiny circle of soil between paving slabs that declared itself free from ownership; serving to provoke in the onlooker the notion that land everywhere largely belongs to people who spend a whole lot of their time fighting to have it or some of their time warring to keep it.   This self conscious patch retained an autonomous dignity that I envied.

My friend and I had a coffee in the international café, the coffee surprisingly as strong as the feeling of academia and the shadowy wood panels darkening the room.  I wrote some poetry, but it failed to set me alight, the nearby feel of Ginsberg served to paralyze.  The intimidating notion of hoping to write my own story as powerfully evocative as the surroundings stifling.

Oh but I still attempted to write my way round San Francisco when staying solo in the City for a portion of the trip.  Particularly in Golden Gate Park and stretched out in a comfortable café on Columbus Avenue.  I’d settle in with a book and a wafer thin turkey sandwich, full to bursting with sauce and gherkins.  My ideal savory partner.  Me and the confident waitress would share a joke about the ‘pickles’ as they are called in the US, and muse briefly on the quirks of the English language.

I cycled too.  Renting a bike from Fisherman’s Wharf on the sea front, hoping to remember the staff warnings regarding the sensitive brakes.  Inevitably I occasionally forgot and immediately suffered swift retribution.

So I set off along the front of the harbor, reeling from the smell of the Sea Lions, conscious of the gawping tourists.  Feeling vulnerable, without balance and strangely free.

I intended to cycle across Golden Gate Bridge and thus angled my beleaguered bike in this direction, unaware of the multitude of hills that seemed like mountains between me and that red beacon.

In the end lost and off colour I sought help from a French Man who cycled with such a quiet dignity that I immediately felt calmed.  He beckoned me to follow him, and thus seemed to me from behind like some comical mime artist, leisurely in movements that appeared to defy him getting anywhere.

We, or I, plodded up maliciously steep streets, past houses with doors seemingly tilted uniformly at forty five degrees. Cars and occasionally people overtaking on the outside with a ruthless, almost defiantly unfriendly determination.

I have never so intimately known my own kneecaps as when observing them in front of my face walking and cycling in San Francisco.

And at last the rather unglamorous reality of entering that magnificent bridge from the cycle path, hemmed in by wire mesh and then fed onto the crossing proper.

Cycling for the first half against the wind I was astounded by the power of the elements and the breath taking feel of the height.  The sea below expansive, charming, horrifying.  The supports of the bridge yawning above me, seeming to move, to tighten, throwing me further into the gale as I passed their bulbous foundations.

I took several pictures of myself, resting on one of these outcrops, or cycling along; every strand of hair at the mercy of that frightful howling.  I felt so exposed, yet unobserved and smiled to myself, catching the beginnings of laughter in the back of my throat.  Succumbing to some sort of gleeful hysteria.

Exiting the bridge I coasted all the way to Sausalito, the town on the other side of Golden Gate.  Reveling in the occasional driplets of sunlight and the rest for my exhausted body.

Sausalito feels like it’s been relocated from some European Riviera, some elegant, pastel retreat.  Striking one as so at odds with the sharpness of San Fran, the callous edginess.

No-one seemed to live in Sausalito, a town in limbo, at the mercy of commuters and tourists .  Sweet shops closed, ice cream parlors waiting for the height of summer, wandering couples reinforcing that there was no one here with a sense of purpose.

Accordingly I strolled around and then went to wait with a paper for the Ferry.  Bike temporarily abandoned next to me, slightly in disgrace for the punishment to my frame it had liberally dolled out.

Trying not to catch the eye of a rather dubious though admittedly jolly fellow bumbling along with a shopping trolley it was without surprise that he then steered toward me.  What luck I thought wryly having by this time retreated in on myself, finding safety in the solitary persona I often adopted when travelling alone.  He sat next to me and proceeded to roll a fag, it was then he started a conversation.  While he talked about conspiracy theories and sucked on the pitiful roll up I began to relax.  So I too began to converse, agree-ing avidly or even querying, listening with delight and marveling at his enthusiasm.  I felt that we had made a truce of sorts, or that this man was somebody I had already known, at parties fuelled by alcohol and filled with characters I never truly believed existed.

The Ferry arrived and I boarded it with my increasingly reluctant bicycle.  Having got on it first because of my obnoxious luggage I was unable to assist the homeless man who tried to seek passage on the same vehicle.  My lasting image of him is when I looked back and saw him being turned away.  Deflated by the refusal of the ferry staff, let down in some way, disappointed.  He took his trolley and began his slow journey back in to Sausalito, a town I was left liking despite its too beautiful façade.

That man was I felt somehow a representation of San Francisco, hopeful, oft cynical and outside of conventional society.  I had given him the New York Times and he seemed to relish the gift, plenty of fact and fiction to unravel within I thought.

My trip to San Francisco wasn’t entirely consumed by the beat writings I had relished while safely tucked up at home in England, but these played a large part in what I perceived I wanted from the trip.  I wanted to relax, to ponder, to write and to experience.  To take everything in whilst retaining a leisurely pace.  And thus it was that I came to Golden Gate Park and my most cherished of memories.

Trying to locate Golden Gate Park I strolled through Haight-Ashbury.  Admiring the grizzled youths and their military jackets turned gillets, I sensed that I had come upon something very real and consciously nonchalant.  I goofily smiled and for once shopped, immersing myself in $3 bargains and feeling like I’d stumbled across 1960’s Americana.  Especially when eating a greasy burger sat at on a too high counter stool, elbows extended on to the chrome to ensure balance.

Then on I pressed into Golden Gate Park, arriving without fanfare and in confusion at which direction I’d come from.  Walking blind, past ravaged individuals who were enjoying the sunshine I finally came upon a large, white, colonial style conservatory.

It was so striking against the back ground of green and assorted foliage.  There I cheekily took a picture of a wistful young lady swaddled in loose garments that I saw leaning on a bridge, her quiet yearning moved me.

I chanced upon a display of fan dancing outside the Japanese tea garden, and found myself transported to some far away culture, delighted by the impish faces of the small children involved.

Entering the tea garden itself I was awestruck, such beauty, such serenity.  I spent a long time walking underneath trees, admiring mini waterfalls and delicate bonsai, calmed deeply.

In this spirit of reverential hush I made my way to the tea hut that sits atop the largest lake, surrounded by lily pads making their slow progress across the water, and the drooping boughs of slender trees.

I sat facing this gorgeous scene, ordered tea and submerged myself.  Ensconced in this delightful hut constructed of wood and bamboo, nourished by the atmosphere I felt an almost epiphany.  It is ok to be alone, to find company in the self.  It is ok.  I am enough as I am.  It is ok.

Sipping tea from a tiny cup, I felt an ease I have never felt before.  I feel grateful to have experienced such a sensation and hope to again at some future point.  I snapped open the fortune cookie I had been given with my tea and read, ‘your luck has been completely changed today’, how true it felt.  In the middle of a park in the grand city of San Francisco I laughed from the sheer joy of it all.

I accidentally just brought five tonnes of plums and other travel practicalities.

Well colour me exotic this here may well be my first ‘practical’ post, because let’s face it travel isn’t all spectacular views and meeting those one night only alcoholic soul chums.  It’s quite a lot of remembering you left your pants drying on the radiator at home, or wondering why you brought that 50litre bag along when carrying your granny holding all your possessions would have been lighter.  So, in a wholly unscientific manner here are five things to remember, because after some memorable experiences they are certainly things I can’t forget:

1)    Take a small bag! I understand that you may be going for several months and you want to be prepared, but you won’t necessarily be any more so even with that behemoth and no matter how tight you pull the straps it’s going to make you ache like a motherflipper.  After a while it’ll hurt to just look at it and you’ll burn your travel insurance and hope some-one steals it, knowing that young and infirm thieves are unlikely to be able to shoulder the burden.

After taking a 30litre bag (I’m 5”2) on a 4month trip to Kenya and finding it a misery though a beautifully suitable environment for the small and scuttley, I have sworn off bags larger than a school rucksack.  I understand this may be excessively small for some, and fair play, I also don’t pretend there’s much chance of me squeezing in souvenirs for the return journey but as a base line it might be wise to take a smaller bag than you first plum for.  You will not regret it.

2)    Limit your clothing!  In order to help with the previous point its worth engaging the thought bladder and getting clever about your clobber.  I can’t lie I’m no fashionista, but even the sassily stylish would do well to slim down the kit.

As a rule – and when not going in to a severe environment that requires specialist clothing- I suggest taking: a multi-purpose trouser for general walking and potential sports; a skirt or pair of decent shorts for an additional practical garment which also functions as an item that can be dressed up; and if feeling luxurious a pretty dress or smart trousers in instances when only visual decadence will do.  To the shock of no-one I tend to ditch the latter unless super sure it’ll be required, a cheap local garment can always be purchased and may be more appropriate if the occasion desires.

On a recent trip to Croatia, finding myself hideously poor before setting out and not being able to invest in the usual good quality stock pieces, I brought a cotton pashmina and used it as a scarf and a skirt as occasion necessitated.  I wasn’t sliding on the slippery surface of oh so much saliva dripping from the lips of lustful gents, but I was decently covered, even in more conservative environments and able to layer up for warmth when required.

I also tend to take one pair of practical shoes, for me trainers or women’s knee boots that have ideally been sprayed with waterproofing solution, which I mostly wear and one pair of small, smart little slip on shoes.  These hang out at the bottom of my rucksack, taking up little room and reassuring me that I can raise myself out of the trampy gutter if I need.

A whistle-stop tour of the rest includes: A couple of pairs of pants; likewise socks (including a thick pair if poss.); tights if needed; A rain Poncho -for ease of storage and because the generous size means it can cover your rucksack as well in a downpour situation-; a jumper –I tie this on to my bag if it’s hot, or at airports-; some t-shirts – I take neutral colours mostly, but often bring one t-shirt I find a hoot for travel fun-; if enough space miraculously remains, which it surprisingly often does, I pop in Pjs, or when space distressed I just use an old t-shirt; and lastly a little hat, for I am prone to being a chilly mortal.

I hope this segment has excited in its modest potential and not sweatily alarmed; bear in mind that wherever you go it is unlikely that you won’t be able to buy clothes that can be got rid of later.  And remember, we are inventive beings!  Finding myself in Africa in wet season without a rain jacket, I used a black bag sized, thick plastic sack to keep my torso dry.  It makes me chuckle to remember it, and I’m sure everyone else I encountered too, but by God it rained.

3)    Eat and drink fool!  Try not to be lulled by the dazzling yet false lights of over economising.  I have often travelled on a budget that would make shoe-string look high end, and have been tempted to reduce my outgoings beyond sense.  For instance: when taking multiple flights I have failed to invest in a bottle of water and been forced to sit withering away internally with only the popping of my eardrums to distract me.

So make sure you do buy water when you travel, filling up the same bottle if you can or replacing it if advised that the faucet supplies are potentially ropey.  Though a cringingly basic point it’s the kind of thing that you may need to remind yourself when scrabbling for the pennies.

Likewise do eat, I have chowed down on cream cheese and bread for more days than I care to recall on trips but been able to extract the energy I require from this meagre feast.  You may feel this point is overstated but I know many individuals who have allowed themselves to famish and dehydrate, and ended up feeling like a squirrel’s rear end after curry night at Wetherspoons.  I admit I understand this first hand for I am of course one of those suckers.

Stumbling across local markets in foreign lands is often a delightful coup; you can purchase items in good quantities for the kind of coinage that usually gets sidelined in our reverence of notes while having a nosy at the exciting titbits people like to buy in such places.  The title of this blog comes from an instance in which I handed over a small coin to a lovely market stall holder in Zadar and pointed at some tiny green balls, curious to see what they were.  I was quite shocked and mildly aghast at the thought of having to heave round the ridiculously bulging blue bag she then gave me full of what turned out to be plums, all for the equivalent of 50 English pence, but good on her she had been shovelling plums into that carrier like it was going out of fashion.

4)    Have a plan about how you approach the accommodation issue but don’t necessarily have accommodation planned!  The age old question when approaching a trip is: do I book accommodation in advance?  If going for a week long holiday in the same location, this is obviously sensible but if travelling around think again, you may find this practice too restrictive.

On a particularly exciting but admittedly ill planned trip that I launched myself into just as I reached the tender cusp of my early twenties I decided to entirely leave myself to the mercy of my own ambling.  When I arrived in Paris and simply walked straight forward from the Gare de Nord station for two hours before miraculously stumbling across The Louvre this approach worked out beautifully, I was so stunned that I was seeing this breath taking area with my own eyes that I began to cry.  For me this moment was especially evocative given its unplanned and surprising nature.

The flipside is that I then spent over three hours trying to find a place to stay, realising after much time had passed that most of the hostels were located in North East Paris, and I was on the more expensive hotel obsessed South West.  I took it well, but it is fair to say I was shattered and grateful I didn’t have a tetchy companion in tow.

This then would be the advice I would offer after different approaches to the slumber issue, chats with others and the wisdom that is rammed home after the hard graft of situations like the above illustrated.  Book the first night of your stay and then free flow from there.  Most people have an idea of what stops they want to make on their trip and in roughly what order, if this is you then you can also research and take photocopies of where hostels/hotels/campsites/huts can be found in these locales.  In this way you are not entirely going blind, and won’t end up wasting mammoth amounts of time.  Do not rely on guidebooks to get you out of a fix, they are great in an auxiliary capacity but often phone numbers for hostels and the like are out of date due to the transient nature of this business.

For some individuals booking the last night of their stay is also a great relief, though this is evidently more appropriate when travel home has been pre-booked from a certain spot.  For others a tent in a back-pack means that anywhere is a potential scene for snoozing.

Though I swear by the first night rule, it truly is for you as an individual to determine what you are comfortable with.  If you do like to plan trips to the finest detail, admit this if any other way would cause untold turmoil.  However do not be afraid to challenge yourself and turn up somewhere about which you know diddly squat, it’s pleasing to find that sometimes fortune does indeed favour the bold in these instances.

5)    Losing everything but your mind is ok!  A lot of the fear people experience before embarking on travel is the worry that important items could get lost or stolen.  The passport is a high flyer in the one to argh scale, as are money/bank cards and boarding passes/eurorail documents etc.  We don’t like the idea of being left stranded in other realms without the means to transport ourselves back to familiar terra firma.

This is not irrational, however limiting this anxiety will leave you feeling a lot freer and lighter, able to relish the spontaneity of travel without succumbing to a paralysing, quivering paranoia.

Reducing your chance of becoming such an individual is a practical way to keep the trepidation in check.  Keep your precious items in a secure place in your bag and spread your money around your person.  When  travelling on my own I use one of those little, netted bags in which washing tablets are placed then lobbed in the machine to put my money in.  I then tie this either to a label inside my skirt/trouser or to a belt, leaving it to hang inside the garment against my leg.  I credit a friend with having shown me this.  These bags are far more discreet then the travel wallets sold in shops and easier to access when actually wishing to retrieve your money.

As identified earlier, using a small bag is also ideal, it allows you to blend in with the crowd without seeming like the wide eyed traveller you may well be.  If you do take a big bag to transport your bulging goods then don’t forget to take a day sack with you so that you can weave as unobtrusively as possible through the crowd in small cities.

Walking with purpose and eyeballing your well thumbed map in private are also sensible ways of not appearing vulnerable and pray to criminality.  I was advised that if in desperate need of directions when abroad it is wise to approach an individual who is unlikely to have an ulterior motive to ask.  E.g. a busy barman, in the presumption that it is likely they will want to see you on your way speedily and accurately and propel you to the door.  Looking for things in a bag with your back against a wall so no-one can approach from behind is also helpful.*

No-where is the adage ‘go with your gut’ more useful than when travelling.  It has been whispered in the annals of time, written in a fair few narrative guides and repeated from parent to child since the dawn of holidaying time.  It is true.  If a situation feels more than a little dodgy, then remove yourself from it.  It’s ok to annoy the receptionist at a hotel that seems slovenly on security by apologising but cancelling your room.  It is fair enough to add significant time to your journey by skirting round a badly lit area you do not feel at ease walking in.

I got in a Taxi in Miami after a lengthy journey on the Greyhound, and asked to be driven to the airport.  From the bus garage the airport can be seen, but due to an intense road system it’s only possible to get there through vehicular transportation.  Though the Taxi I hailed was outside a rank, it was clear that the driver was going the wrong way and better yet had asked me for payment immediately as I got in the car.  I’ll be honest, this may well be standard practice but I felt uncomfortable about it all and told the gentleman that I preferred to pay at the end.  He immediately turned around half way down a road and drove me to the airport, taking my money on arrival.  It may well be that nothing dodgy had occurred, but I went with my gut and felt a lot more at ease having spoken up, bringing the matter to attention.

It is unlikely that you will be a victim of crime, so keep this in perspective.  However if you are, do not panic, it is always worth handing your stuff over when faced with a violent, aggressive situation.

Whether your stuff gets stolen or you lose it you will likely be disorientated, in doubt of next steps and potentially without a dime.  Head to the nearest Consulate or Embassy of the country of your passport.  Explain the situation to the hostel/hotel/campsite where you are staying to get the directions to the nearest one.  If unfortunately you have not yet chosen some-where to lay your head when your misfortune occurs ask at tourist information or any accommodation you see even though you are not staying there – both these places are used to enquiries from travellers and will no doubt help out.  The Embassy (found in the Countries capital city) or Consulate (scattered around the Country in smaller cities) are likely to tell you to get a police report if your items are stolen, this is often tedious and laborious but necessary.  Try and keep your head and ask for as much advice about this procedure as possible from the employee who speaks to you at the Embassy/Consulate.  Different Countries have different implicit rules when approaching the Police on various issues.

Keep a laminated photocopy of your passport, and several passport sized photos in a different place from your passport in your bag.  This will simply speed up the process when being issued a temporary passport by the Embassy/Consulate if you need to travel urgently.  The Embassy or Consulate would expect you to have some ID to prove who you are, for this reason the laminated passport could be beneficial and another form of ID kept in a secret location that you can produce would be extremely advantageous.  If you cannot reach the Embassy or a Consulate then call them, it is a good idea to take out with you the numbers of Embassies or Consulates in the Country(ies) you are going to correspondingly.^

Lastly, get Travel Insurance!  It’s one of those annoying things you rarely use, but it is of utmost importance in the unlikely instance that you get ill, or lose things.  I think the aspect that covers medical expense is the most essential, since medical treatment can be outrageously expensive as a visitor in many locales.  Note: try and find a travel company that pays medical costs upfront, otherwise you’ll have to cover expenses at the time of treatment and claim the money back when you have returned to your home Country, this may be financially crippling.  When I was admitted to hospital in Kenya before I was allowed on to the ward though after being looked over by a Doctor I had to pay a set cost, I was a lot luckier than some as this was £400, but it put me in my overdraft with two weeks left in the Country.  I only got the money back after several months back in England.

So to summarise give yourself the best chance to have a super cracking time!  It may help as suggested to: limit your clothing and thus your baggage; keep in mind that it’s good to eat and drink in a sensible fashion – though toasting another successful day of travelling with new friends is  an admirable past time; get your head round how you’re approaching accommodation and don’t sweat it about losing stuff!  Even if everything you have on you disappears and you have to sleep in a stairwell –I’ve done it, it is bollocking cold- you’ll still be ok.  My friend once you realise this, then you will be truly free to travel.

*Indebted to Charlie McGrath MBE for the information in this paragraph.  Learnt after attending a one day ‘Gap Safety Course’ back in 2005. I would highly recommend this course, more information can be found at: http://www.objectivegapyear.com/course

^ Compiled with information from Charlie McGrath MBE, myself and also with reference to: http://www.fco.gov.uk/en/ (As an English National I provide only the UK Foreign Office Website, apologies to others from different Countries who will have to locate similar websites themselves, although a lot of general information may still have relevance.)

Oh My Fjord.

Ashamed at gasping as the Arctic coldness dumbfoundedly surprised us, forcing more of that air we had yet to notice for all its purity into parted mouths.  We had stumbled from the plane and without perceiving found we had passed clean through Bodø airport.  The small build up of traffic outside struck us in all our ignorance as uncharacteristic, and we were told as much by Geoff who would be driving us to the apartments he owned with his wife Elisabeth in Saltstraumen, Fjord adjacent.  The snow we’d seen excited us, in a way I hadn’t anticipated and as we ventured further from the city it lay in thicker heaps by the side of the road. The darkness of the descending night meant we could only make out pockets of the surroundings and thrilled us with the knowledge that we would only be treated to a full panoramic view come morning.

The route from Bodø to Saltstraumen circled close to the coast, following an inlet shaped like a reversed C, crossing from mainland Norway to the little island of Straumøya then back to the mainland.  The bridge that connects the former revealed itself in short metres in front of the car lights, rising in the centre to a sharp point.  The bonnet corresponded by creeping up at an alarming angle, we signalled to each other with eyebrows inching upward that we found this structure peculiar yet enjoyable.

Geoff, it turned out, originally hailed from North East England and delighted us with a verbal view of Norway that was simultaneously sympathetic and revealing.  Having lived in Norway for many years, in the current spot for ten of those, and having married a Norwegian lady he had insights that would have kept us entertained for several times the 30mins our journey took.  We appeared at Saltstraumen Brygge via a discreet turn and jumped out of the car as soon as we could in curiosity, refreshed instantly by a temperate breeze.

After introducing us to his wife, Elisabeth, Geoff disappeared with a wave and a backward glance.  Elisabeth’s warm greeting preceded her walking us genially over to our apartment; across a peaceful, near silent stretch flanked by several striking white buildings.

As we entered the ground floor property and Elisabeth darted over to turn up the radiator it became clear our kind hosts had surreptitiously upgraded us.  The apartment was spacious and generously sized, equipped with kitchenette, dining area, a lounge and separately two bedrooms and an enclosed bathroom.  Through many large windows we could glimpse a wooden platform, and just beyond bobbing boats and the sea.  Tastefully decorated, the apartment felt cosy and inviting.  We were instantly enchanted.  It was gratifying to notice that Elisabeth had registered our delight and seemed shyly pleased with our exuberant reactions.  She left us to return to the onsite restaurant where she was managing a large Christmas party, part of a Norwegian tradition in which companies take their employees out for lavish meals periodically throughout the year as a token of thanks.

Suddenly alone, we hugged each other in delight and after a frenzied explore of the accommodation fled outside to chirrup happily about the sea.  All the apartment buildings stood hunkered before the wooden platform we had previously spotted and it was revealed that through the slats of this in daylight one could see water lapping against craggy rocks, replete with starfish clinging sedately where they could and plethora fish constantly swimming into the current.  The platform itself was lit by several human height lamps, lending the scene a pleasant glow and a gentle romance.  We collectively let out a sigh, and trooped back to the restaurant determined to toast our good fortune with a hearty red wine.

Noting that we had missed the opening hours for the local shop, Elisabeth offered us smilingly some soup and homemade rolls that were left over from the restaurant gathering.  In our guilt, we hesitantly though delightedly agreed.  In this way a mere hour after arrival we found ourselves slopping down a beautiful broccoli/blue cheese soup and sipping at a delicious red wine, interrupting our chat to renew our short term memories of the view.  We could not believe our luck.

The next morning after a slovenly glorious amount of sleep we leapt up in quick breathed enthusiasm and moved to open the window blinds.  Rewarded upon raising them by a blanket of uninterrupted snow outside our apartment.  All about lay hills, edged beyond with mountains.  At the top of the mountains a blue tinge of snow could be seen as the sun bounced periodically through the clouds and around; each sharp jutting of rock random and hypnotising.  The sea outside was closer than we’d perceived the night before and more expansive.  Kneeling down to look at it, mere inches away from its surface on the pier, it was revealed as gloriously clear though shot through with undertones of green.  The fun began in marvelling like children at our footprints through the snow, leaping both feet braced into pockets we found gathered around the scene.

That day we walked around the surrounding terrain, pleased to see eagles with classic feathers clumped like fingers circling high above and the kind of skinny, pale trees one imagines when thinking of Northern Norway.  Every new angle on the vista was another wide eyed photo, and it became evident we were both in a permanent state of awe and joy.  Spirits not dampened even when on attempting to get closer to the sea from a coastal area deep on our travels, I inadvertently shoved my foot through ice and submerged my lower leg in freezing, muddy water.  It is worth noting at this juncture the weather was a consistent -1degree.  Saltstraumen is, in the main, lucky weather wise, being sheltered from the deeply severe climate that more exposed coastal regions suffer.  However, on climbing the egg shaped bridge we had marvelled at in the car the night before, I was stunned by a bitter and violent wind that left me deeply chilled. This was offset by a magnificent view of the Fjord, and an eagle flying low overhead, generous compensation.

On returning to our apartment we noticed through the window a gentleman weighing a fish he had just caught.  The Saltstraumen area is fish abundant and the majority of visitors to the apartments are keen anglers, who take the opportunity to relax in the surroundings while almost being guaranteed a good haul.  Cod, Haddock, Plaice and even Scallops among many others can be fished there.  Due to Norway’s careful, fiercely protective attitude towards the environment, there are rules for those hoping for a catch here, which are thankfully dutifully and widely respected.  We both have little experience of fishing and instead pored with furrowed brow over leaflets that illustrated each local fish, hoping to identify the critter while slyly eyeballing the group.  The fish turned out to be a 3kg Cod, and was caught by a man who had just pulled up to the site for ten minutes.  It would presumably be eaten that night by the two young boys we saw with him who were unfazed by the dying fish, and were running instead gleefully around the decking.  I found this attitude to be positive and interesting, how nice that the children were educated yet blasé.

We cooked that night, and drank Norwegian beers, falling asleep on the sofa having tuckered ourselves out.  The following day we spent once again in  walking, stumbling across a little very snowy and yet still sandy beach.  We crouched and pointed things out to one another, curiosities in seashell miniature and a couple of vivid coloured Sea Urchins.  A calm spookiness descended as we passed by old boating huts, left abandoned but with enough remaining structure for there to be hidden alcoves and lengthy shadows.  The snow fell thickly that day and we laughed heartily as it came respectively up to the knee, and languishing high up calf.  Catching the snowflakes we could make out individually the intricate shapes, shaking our heads to think that the paper cut-outs of flakes we’d done in school had contained an accuracy of these spider webbed delights.  Every track we couldn’t identify became elk, and we created wild stories of the situations in which we’d see them.

That night we had to return to Oslo and after a lovely chat with Elisabeth, retreated to the apartment to say goodbye.  I had been on a serious budget when booking this trip for a Christmas/Birthday present for my partner, I had been worried and stressed that it would exceed my finances and fail to live up to my hopes.  Yet it had delivered on both and for us both.  We were overwhelmed by the gorgeous geography, the unbeatable, personable generosity of Elisabeth and Geoff, and soothed by the tranquillity of the location.  It had been in my partners words ‘Perfect’, and we hadn’t even see the Northern lights that can be spotted from outside the door in this spot within the Arctic Circle.  Geoff said to us in the vehicle on the way to Saltstraumen, ‘If you just enjoy where you are, you can live cheaply’, those words stuck with us and cheered my thrifty side.  So as we walked around smiles upon faces and cheeks rose pinched, or sat looking at the sea, or kicked up heaps of dusty snow, they came to glow with significance.  We whispered goodbye, and thanked the apartment, trying not to cry.  We shut the  door gently and in silence, knowing that we’d been treated to a shard of something glorious.

We stayed at: http://www.saltstraumen-brygge.no and would highly recommend it, contact Elisabeth and Geoff if wanting to discuss prices and dates, as they strive to be accommodating.

The best route to Bodø, which is in Northern Norway, is to fly into Oslo (1hour40mins from London) and then fly from there domestically direct to Bodø airport (1hour30mins from Oslo Gardermoen), I did this by booking separate flights to get the best price (though obviously a bit more of a logistical headache).  To drive from Oslo would take approximately 20hours if this is preferred.  Bodø airport is very close to Bodø city if wanting to stay there, or local buses can be taken from the airport to Saltstraumen, or any of the surrounding areas.  If staying at Saltstraumen Brygge, you can be picked up, or take a direct bus if on a reduced budget.

 

Mickey Rourke’s Face

Crouched on my knees in  Kottbusser Tor U Bahn station calling to a dog in badly accented German is not how I saw this night panning out. The saddest thing is my garbled cries of ‘sit’ and ‘leave it’ are producing a pitiful response. The young lad who owns the dog has cleverly aged himself by removing his two front teeth and blowtorching his forehead. To help the process further I offer him a couple of cigarettes, we smoke balanced on our haunches. He doesn’t speak English, it’s fair to say I don’t speak German and yet we communicate. There is something I understand here and there, though how I couldn’t tell you. A desire to converse and the serious consumption of alcohol perhaps offers an explanation.

I’ve been in Berlin for two weeks now, and feel like somebody’s cracked open my ribcage with a crowbar. How liberating. A city where young women walk the streets and feature on the walls, killing cats, pouting lasciviously, resting self consciously on their elbows. Where a thirty minute train ride will take you through districts full of tower blocks or hulking mansions or bohemian boutiques. Looking out of the window on the S Bahn, the circular track that connects Berlin’s central highlights, I can’t help but marvel at the incomplete perfection of this place. How the city manages to retain some sense of innocence while sporting the kind of haggard face that makes Mickey Rourke’s look positively youthful.

I say ‘chüs’ with a wave and a nod before tucking my hands in my pockets. Gasp at the cold, smile at the Christmas lights. There is so much potential here. I feel like the dog, the youth and I all belong; caught between the street art and the clattering trams.