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Archive for the ‘Travels (NOT The Big Adventure)’ Category

I’m here to regale you with a legend. A story, if you will. A tale of how a city came by its name.

In the beginning, there was a guy. There was also a dragon, and some slaying. There may, in fact, have even been a second guy. I think he was a manly man. Or something. Anyway, a hand fell off. Or, maybe it was chopped off. And then…it was thrown into the river. Do you follow? No? Let me clarify.

Hand=Hant. Werpen=Thrown. In Flemish. Or Dutch. Whichever is the correct term to use. And that, my friends, is a concise – if somewhat garbled – history lesson on how (Hantwerpen) Antwerp came by it’s name.

You’re most welcome.

On the weekend, I visited Antwerp. And it’s an absolutely gorgeous place. Kind of like Amsterdam without the whacky-backy and minus some canals. But the feel. And the buildings. And the funky Antwerpians on their old-fashioned bicycles. It was definintely Europe and I really do love Europe a whole lot.

I was visiting my friend who lives there, so I not only had a day or so of tourist wanderings and photo opportunities, I also had the fun and debauchery of a birthday party Belgian-style. As a representative of all things English/Australian/Irish, I am pleased to report that I made you all proud. The bruise that is actually BIGGER than my leg is a clear indication that I was not an embarrassment to myself. I certainly did not fall over. I know this because I don’t remember falling over. And if I don’t remember it, then it probably didn’t happen. Although, by that logic, most of the party wouldn’t have happened, because I don’t remember a great deal of that.

I should not be allowed anywhere near a well-stocked bar.

Also, the Flemish language has officially become one of my favourites. It sounds so pretty. Full of long, drawn out vowels, sibilant whispers and a sort of burbly sound in the back of the throat. I couldn’t understand a word, but boy did I enjoy listening to it. Mostly, though, everyone spoke English when I was around, which was very nice of them. I did learn one word (which of course I’ve got completely wrong) but as I remember it the word is “schlor”. Which means moustache. This cropped up quite a lot on Saturday and Sunday, as most partygoers and post-party goers (c’mon, you KNOW that drinking is the best cure for a hangover) sported a fetching pencil-drawn moustache. No-one escaped. Women as well as men. But we all wore our schlors with good grace. Who wouldn’t enjoy a bespoke hand-drawn moustache?

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I flew up to the Gold Coast this weekend to visit my dad and brother and other extended family members. The Gold Coast, as the name implies, is a very beautiful stretch of coastline, with miles and miles of pretty beaches (from the vantage of a plane window seat, the sea does look like it is gilded with strips of gold). However, alongside these beaches are miles and miles of hotels and high-rises. I think it’s pretty soulless, but my dad and brother seem to love it. Each to their own, I guess.

So, yesterday evening, I was hanging out at the airport and waiting for my flight back to Sydney. I’d spent a couple of hours previously hanging out with my brother – just the 2 of us and some nice cold beers – and was feeling just a little bit tipsy and floaty. In a nice way.

Meandering through the endless security checks, drifting in and out of what was going on around me, I started thinking about a friend of mine, and a particular theory she has in regards to luggage and traveling. You see, she is a lover of designer labels, a high flying successful city worker and always immaculately turned out. I suspect she may the owner of the largest shoe collection in the southern hemisphere. I, however, am a proponent of charity- shop chic and on an eternal quest to find the ultimate bargain. I think that if something is second-hand, its pre-lovedness adds to its appeal rather than detracts. I like to imagine that inanimate objects absorb something of their previous owners, and that you can sense something of the previous life they have lived. It makes the object more interesting. Also, I’m cheap.

Needless to say, when I travel I opt for comfort over style. I try to pull together the best of both and be just stylishly comfortable (obviously) but often I fail (also obviously). My approach to packing can be best described as ‘last-minute-panicking and why didn’t I write out a goddamned list?!’ I also generally fly at gloriously inconvenient times (bargain flights, of course) which require me to be up and out of the house with sleep still encrusted in my bloodshot eyes. My outfit for the plane is therefore not usually the most pressing detail banging away at my frontal lobe. So, I suppose it wouldn’t be a surprise to learn that I don’t ever travel with branded luggage. Or even matching luggage. In fact, my bags don’t even reside in the same region of the colour wheel.

My designer friend, however, is my effortless opposite. Not only is her luggage assuredly designer (not even the cunning fakes, no they are definitely the real deal) but it definitely matches and – taking it one step further – she has a passport cover to complete the set. That’s right, a little leather book that’s only purpose is to make sure her passport matches the rest of her traveling items. Her theory is that traveling around with designer accessories makes life easier when passing through security and immigration checks. I respectfully disagreed, and maintain that they way they treat you will come down to which coat of arms is on the front of your passport. The actual document. Not the container you lug it around inside of.

So, there I was, wandering through the security checks, ruminating on this conversation between us from many years ago, and I thought to myself, “I’m bedraggled and my makeup has half slid off my face. I probably smell a bit like beer. I’m carrying a cheap backpack. And I’m sailing through the security checks. No-one is paying the slightest bit of attention to me. See? It’s not about the posh handbags.”

And then a voice broke into my reverie.

“Excuse me, miss. Come here please. I’d like to check your backpack. For explosives.”

I looked around. Was he talking to me? What was going on? This had never happened before! He gestured me over to his desk where I handed him my cheap little backpack. He ran a strip of paper over all the zips and then, opening the bag, ran it just inside the flaps. I half-smiled at him, maintaining my cool (and trying not to breathe beer fumes in his direction). Of course I didn’t have any explosives in my bag, but these processes always make me feel so damn guilty.

“Beep,” blurted the machine.

He looked at me.

“Beep!! Beep!! Beep!!”

My eyes were riveted to the screen, waiting to see if my life was about turn into a Kafkaesque nightmare.

“Thank you miss. Have a nice flight.”

I wobbled off to the bar and ordered myself a nice, comforting glass of wine. And starting musing about how much a set of Louis Vuitton luggage might cost. Passport holder included.  

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For all the faults and foibles and the big melting pot of weirdness that can be Europe, it’s got to be said that living on the doorstep of all those thousands (ok, dozens. dozens is plenty) of foreign countries is pretty nifty. They mostly use the same money, so picking up last trip’s leftovers means you can steady your nerves with a calming lager tonic straight after the plane ride before even approaching the currency counter. Bars in airports. And Euros. Genius.

Although I’m meant to be carefully saving for the Big Trip, this weekend there were more important goings-on to be tended to. Someone had decided to turn 30. It’s a big birthday, an important one, and a mere push through the decade barrier was deemed to be insufficient. We opted for an almighty heave. We went to Amsterdam.

I am not an Amsterdam virgin. My Dutch cherry had already been popped. Yet, in a weird reversal of the ageing vs sensible coefficient that usually governs youth in relation to debauchery, my previous trip – over 5 years ago – was a sedate one in which I spent 3 days walking around with my camera and soaking up the daytime atmosphere. Not too much drinking, and little or no time spent in coffee shops, brothels or other varieties of sordid behaviour.

This time round it was different. (Although still no brothels. I guess I’m just not a brothel kind of girl).

Ditching the traditional hotel route, we opted for an apartment rental. Tres chic, no? Handily situated just around the corner from the red light district. This place was kitted out and comfortable – we could make our own tea and loll around on the sofa. There were funny statues and pictures and random plastic noses and ears hanging on the walls, which we first cooed over enthusiastically, and then later found a little weird. There was a bouncy bamboo chair to take it in turns to sit in and – well – bounce. And, of course, as previously mentioned, there was the red light district just around the corner.

Can you see where this is going? Daytime didn’t get a look-in. We ventured out at night, made the acquaintance of dubious characters, and proceeded to spend hours getting lost inside of a 2 block radius. At one beer-stop, I met a lovely older gentleman propping up the bar while I was entering into a transaction with the bargirl. He chatted in Dutch, I replied in English. We got along famously. I’m pretty certain he was making sure that I was having a good time in his city, and I assured him that I certainly was.

Here’s something for you to ponder. The Age Coin. Ever heard of it? Lets say that you want to buy some cigarettes from a machine (not me, I’m still on the wagon, but I’m helpful, and as you’ll see, the purchase of cigarettes was a challenge. And I like a challenge).

You spot a cigarette machine. You start putting coins into the slot, naively assuming that the Dutch variety works like in every other place you’ve ever been. However, you soon realise that something is wrong. The coins refuse to enter the machine. And strangely, in a city that has signs in English all over and a population who speaks English better than yourself, all the instructions are written purely in Dutch.

After a good few minutes of fruitless coin pushing, you turn around and ask a friendly local, ‘excuse me, is there something wrong with the machine? It’s not working.’

‘You need ahn aayge coin,’ they reply.

Yup. Obviously.

‘A what?’

‘Ahn aayge coin. Go to the bar and they will give you ahn aayge coin. You haf to poot that in firsht, before the mah-ney.’

You dutifully trot to the bar, smiling back at the bleary red eyes peering through the smoke. The barmaid holds out the Age Coin to you, and gives you a sweet smile as you thank her.

Back at the cigarette machine you pop in the Age Coin. Pop in the money. The exact money, as these machines are not only averse to taking in money, but also to spitting any back out. In fact, they also seem to be averse to spitting any cigarettes out.

Closer inspection reveals there are no buttons, just coloured in plastic squares, cunningly covered in cigarette logos and names. There is no tray for the cigarettes to fall into. No coin return button to press. Just the slot where you put in the Age Coin and your Euro pennies.

I pressed and poked and huffed and puffed and finally gave up. My head was spinning and the inscrutable machine was giving me the heebie jeebies.

Grabbing my bag and my friends I said, ‘I think it’s a joke. They’re designed to confuse tourists. They’re all sitting here watching us and laughing at the silly English twats who can’t work out the cigarette machine.’

We left the money, the half drunk beers, and stumbled back out into the friendly glow of the lady-display windows. Who, I’m willing to bet, don’t bother asking for Age Coins.

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OK, it was a music festival. I have just come back from spending 4 days camping on the Isle of Wight, where a bunch of friends and I have been drinking and smoking too much, sleeping and eating too little and barely washing or even brushing our teeth. What fun! Seriously. I have never been camping before, never been to a music festival, but I had the most fab time.

There were 9 of us who went, and with a bunch that size it takes 9 times as long to actually do anything. Most days, breakfast alone would take about 3 hours. The weather was scrumptiously hot, and so slathered in sunscreen, tucked safely under the brim of my bonnet, we whiled away hours and hours just sitting around, chatting and laughing loads.

M and I were the lynchpins of the group, half of them being my friends, half being his. Considering pretty much everyone hadn’t met before, the dynamic was pretty good and we all seemed to get along. The atmosphere was mostly peaceful and friendly. By the end of the 4th day, we were all tired and worn out. Averaging four hours of sleep a night and drinking 10 times as much alcohol as water, I think everyone was at the end of their capabilities by the time we had to head home.

M and I found ourselves the brunt of much teasing over the course of this loooong weekend. Firstly, our combined lack of tent and camping expertise. He took along a tent he had bought which was way to small for even 1 person, never mind both of us. I had dragged along a tent which, while much bigger, had been sitting wrapped in its coverings for the best part of 6 years. And so was covered in mold spots. Yeah, the gang found it all pretty hilarious. The other couples on the trip were married and so had left the lovey-dovey-I-can’t-get-enough-of-kissing-you stage behind some time ago. M and I, 3 months into this thing, found it hard to keep our hands off each other. Much groaning and disgusted noises ensued as they all did their best to stop us being so affectionate.

And so I sit here alone with my cotton-wool head, knowing that only mega amounts of sleep and doing-of-nothing will restore me to some semblence of my real self. I tried to write some of this yesterday, but the effort of concentration made me feel really sick and I had to go lie down in front of a Channel 5 afternoon movie offering instead. To drift in and out of consciousness. Hard living such as experienced over the past few days requires significantly more bounce-back time than in my younger years. So worth it though.

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