Thursday, December 1, 2005

Me and London

I’m proud to report that after living in London for only two months, I’ve got myself a new set of wheels.

I had no choice, you see. Taking the tube to work - and then taking the bus when the tube started to really get to me – was giving me too much time to think, about London, and about my strange love affair with this city.

When I first got here I was doing a lot of job interviews in central London. So I’d take the scenic 94 bus, which goes past Holland Park (posh) and Notting Hill Gate (Hugh). One evening there I was, wearing my suit for the third straight day in a row, sitting on the top deck of course and staring dreamily out the window. I felt like I was living in some kind of movie world – and not just because of Hugh, who I haven’t even had dinner with yet. I just couldn’t believe I could simply get up and walk to Portobello Road, or TopShop, or even Buckingham Palace should I choose to hang with Her Maj.

And then the bus veered sharply and the girl standing next to me fell straight onto my foot with her stiletto.

That’s pretty much it. I think that London, as far as cities go, is a player. It charms you, flirts with you, plays hard to get with you. Milliseconds later, you find yourself in bed with it. It teases you with magical things… accents… that great, dry, British sense of humour… charming rooftops, quaint parks and shops you could only dream of. And then, just as you’re falling for it, it takes out its pointy shoe and stomps all over you.

Having hit the two-month mark as a London-dweller, although the initial lust has worn off, I still find myself in various states of amazement. All those street names and tube stops and parks I see every day are no longer the things Rolling Stones lyrics and Monty Python sketches, but part of my daily existence. The first Sunday I was here I got to see the city from the back of a motorbike – and it’s remained my favourite thing to do ever since (even more that shoe-shopping, believe it or not.) And of course there’s Portobello Market, crammed with more funky antiques, crazy clothes, cheap Thai soup and hangover-cure pastries than one person can reasonably take in.

But at that same time, I share a home with six Australians. I adore them, by the way – and I know that one day I’ll laugh at the stories of our falling-apart house with the “pet” mouse in the kitchen and the velveteen couches circa 1969. But thinking back on my lovely two-bedroom pad in Montreal on the Plateau, I do sometimes wonder...

And then, there is the London Underground. The Tube. I can’t believe I ever once complained about taking the Metro to work in Montreal in the morning. It is a pristine, royal chariot in comparison to the experience of standing, literally crushed, amongst throngs of angry English people, literally growling at each other, on a train that stops 10 or 15 times between stops. The trains change direction or destination simply on a whim, leaving you stuck beside the tracks and waiting until three more go by before you can squeeze yourself on another one and arrive at work an hour and a half after you left your house. And the tube lingo, combined with some of the station names, is almost a dialect in and of itself. How does “alight” mean get off a train? When I landed here and took the tube from Heathrown, I thought the flashing message “This train is for Cockfosters” was a practical joke being played by some football fans.

So now, as a Londoner, I’ve found an alternate form of transportation. It’s flash, it’s silver, and I get to work on it in half an hour. Although riding a bicycle on the wrong side of the road, surrounded by insane black cab drivers and crazy scooterists, is what some would call terrifying; it’s also probably a faster way to wake up in the morning than, say, tea. Oh yes, I’m often passed by these pro bikers: blazing, geared-up dudes with bright yellow jackets and fancy pants and bicycles worth more than any car I’ve ever owned. They look upon me with disdain. But I can still eat KitKat Chunkies and Cadbury Flake bars, and that’s what matters.

And of course, I’ll continue my love affair just a little bit longer.

Wednesday, November 9, 2005

Second Traffic Light to the Right and Straight on ‘til Morning

One thing I love about the Greek people is their easygoing attitude towards life. It's so completely different from the day-to-day the way we're used to it, and it's also so easy to get used to. Punctuality? 2:30pm usually means between 4 and 6. Line-ups? Non-existent. And when it comes to directions… well I can’t tell you how many times I've asked how to get somewhere – be it the bus station, the train station, the port, or the nearest chicken giros pita stand – to be answered a smile, a bit of arm-gesturing, and, somewhere in there, the words “just take the second traffic light to the left.” It seems that in Greece all second traffic lights to the left lead somewhere.

I truly believe in traveling by the seat of your pants, and grabbing every opportunity (within reason) that comes your way. That’s how, five years ago, I ended up spending two weeks in a station wagon named Phyllis camping along the east coast of Australia - several thousand kms from my planned destination. And it’s definitely how, one night on a beach in Santorini, under a full moon, when a guitar-playing Austrian asked if I wanted to travel with him down to a remote hippy island south of Crete that I’d never heard of in my life, I said, “sure!” first and asked questions later.

So as much as I’d rather not, I have to fast-forward you through Santorini and Crete. Don’t get me wrong: Santorini, with its black sand beaches and white-washed houses, is magnificent. And Crete is an island of warm people and jaw-dropping scenery that will definitely have me going back for more. But what got us from Iraklio to Chania to Paleochora, and then up at 7 in the morning, lugging our packs 1.5kms back to the port where we caught the boat that leaves only twice a week, was Gavdos.

Like I said, I’d never heard of it. Most of the Greeks we met along the way had never heard of it. In fact, most residents of Paleochora, from which Gavdos is only two hours (by sea), have never been. As we traveled South on Crete, and I heard more stories, I have to admit I became more and more apprehensive.

But nothing beat our arrival to Gavdos on Wednesday afternoon. It started when I stepped off the ferry and onto the island’s one bus, (which runs, as it would, on its own schedule depending on the mood and sobriety of the driver.) I stared in awe out the window as we wound through dusty roads and past the homes of the twenty to thirty permanent residents of the island. I started to worry when we got off at one of the two functioning tavernas. And when we walked for what seemed like hours over old, craggy coral reefs, covered in sweat, I was really started to lose faith. Especially when we reached Agios Ioannis Beach, which, unlike our previous campgrounds (and despite my desperate hopes), had no toilets. No showers. Definitely no electricity. And, at least it seemed at first, no one else.

I know what you're thinking. But believe it or not, I adjusted to life on Gavdos pretty quickly. And it’s not just because I had no choice. (Even if I had run, screaming, back to the port, the ferry back to Crete wouldn't have come for another five days.) In fact, in no time at all, I came to love the place.

In fact, I think that, put in that kind of environment, our minds and bodies just sort of ka-chung into a perhaps previously undiscovered gear. I would never have guessed that I would feel so good in a place where the sea was my shower, my bath, and my dishwasher. Where my home for 5 days was a tent on a sand dune under the shade of a cedar tree overlooking a massive beach. Where sand was literally EVERYWHERE (food, sleeping bag, nose). Where in a bikini I was wearing more clothes than most of my neighbours. Let me tell you, meeting someone over some wine at a campfire and seeing him the next day playing Frisbee and wearing only a hat and sunglasses is definitely an experience.

The closest shop to Agios Ioannis is about a 20 minute walk away and the nearest shower (which, I admit, I snuck into just once) was 30 more. But despite all this - despite my hair getting so salty I could have used it to season a dinner for 4, despite the lack of internet and Perrier - those five days at Gavdos had me feeling better than I ever remember feeling.

And in a place so full of nothingness, it’s amazing how there’s so much to see, taste, smell, hear.... Like the view from the lighthouse, which we got to by motorbike (and a prayer), of a sea is so wide and vast you just get lost, and of sunsets are, by picture or a million words, indescribable. The feeling of sitting on the beach at the south of the island, which literally is the southernmost tip of Europe. The tastes of freshly picked thyme that grow from the bush next to your tent, the smell of the air in a place that has, at most, 15 cars, the nothingness of sand dunes that are your carpet to the sea. Imagine lying under the clearest, starriest night skies while watching thunderstorms over the ghostly outline of Crete, and hearing no sounds – no buzz of electricity even – except the ocean, and, okay, the occasional pan flute from down the beach. I’m not sure I even can anymore.

Because 5 days later, I was standing in a red phone box at midnight, wearing all my clothes on top of one another and still shivering. Oh yes: London. And that's for next time.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Greece, Part I

Greece began with Athens.

I know it usually does, and I also know that a lot of people share the same opinion of Athens: loud, dirty, and overrated. But I think seeing Athens - and then seeing the rest of Greece - is a kind of metaphor for the whole experience. It's a whole pile of opposites on top of each other. And you have no idea just how much until you get to the end.

When I arrived in Athens, I went to my hostel,unpacked, changed, and went out to get some food. After walking for about 3 minutes, I turned a corner, and came face to face with the Acropolis. There it was - just sort of casually sitting in the midst of this cosmopolitan city - cafes to the left, shops to the right - a sight so old and so familiar even to those, like me, who have never seen it before. I stood and stared for what seemed like hours.

And that's how I began my month in Greece. It was a string of experiences so unbelievable - and each so different from the next - that I could not have dreamed it up if I tried. So, begging your patience (and pardon for not having written since Austria...), I will share with you Greece in Two Parts. Or maybe Three.

After Athens, I got the opportunity - for which I am so grateful - to experience a road trip not only in Greece but in the beautiful and untouristy Pelopponese region, which runs along the South of the Greek mainland. If you've ever done a road trip, you know the deal: basically, living in a car and breathing the same air as your fellow travelers for days on end. A sort of microcosm develops: road trip names, one-liners, even foods that become part of the lifestyle. Even better, our tour guide was a Greek-speaking Canadian friend with a family so huge and welcoming that by the end of a week I felt I was one of them.

Not only did I become Greek as we drove through the Pelopponese but I also acquired the nickname of "Snake", which came from a combination of stories best left for another time. Snake spent 3 nights in a villa on the side of a mountain in a village of 20 inhabitants. She saw a monastery built into the side of a rock cliff. She swam in 3 different beaches one day, and walked, mouth open in awe, through the winding, narrow streets of Monemvasia. She ate the most incredible things: french fries that would make any potato green with envy, cooked in olive oil that rendered her weak in the knees... bread freshly baked in a stone oven... grapes picked from the roof outside the kitchen... warm goat's milk first thing in the morning. It's a testament to how good she was feeling that she was still willing to appear in a bikini in public.

But all good things must come to an end. So, one week later, Snake, Leaner and Coco returned their car, joined another friend and took a ferry to the legendary island of Mykonos.

I say legendary, of course, not because of any beautiful Greek myth of gods and centaurs and magic fruit, but because Mykonos, as anyone who's been there knows, is insane. You start living a life you never dreamed you were capable of... spending days on end being utterly sleep-deprived and surviving only on a steady intake of giros pita and 10 Euro cocktails. You start doing things completely out of character, like dancing on bars (twice). You don't blink an eye at sights such as, just to pick an example completely at random, the guy in a g-string with a horse head over his best bits who dances at the beach bar every night starting at 5pm. You watch with mild disinterest as you sit on your chair on Paradise Beach and people saunter by, completely nude except for a pair of giant headphones.

I actually had a great time on Mykonos. How can you complain about having a drink by the sea with your feet hanging off a dock, and having to jump up to escape the occasional crashing wave? You can't. Unless you're my liver.

Not only that, I had to get to Santorini. It was the place I'd wanted to see in Greece (yes, after watching The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants during a lunchtime matinee on my last day of work). If only I had known where I would go from there...

Monday, August 15, 2005

The Hills are Alive...

People and places. That`s what traveling is really about. Okay, I know it`s obvious and also that I sound like the headline for a cheap cruise line brochure. But I`d forgotten how interconnected the whole people-meeting experience is with the travel experience, and vice versa. By random coincidence (or not?) you`re at a streetcar stop waiting to go to Dachau, and, as you don`t actually speak the language and can`t read the timetable, you ask the woman next to you to. Turns out it`s not coming at all, there`s a replacement bus service and you (okay I) would probably have stood there for the next 2 hours wondering what was going on. She kindly escorted me to the bus stop and, as usual, we get talking.

I`m slowly learning more and more about how Germans feel about the holocaust. Many, like this woman, carry a guilt around with them so heavy that when they speak of it, it`s almost tangible. Which anyone could understand. But at the same time, as a doctor I met in a Lebanese restaurant in Bonn said, why would you feel guilty about something you personally didn`t do, and would never do? It`s a good question, and one I certainly can`t answer. So I asked the woman at the bus stop. She said it was a part of her because her parents had been alive at that time. From speaking with friends my age and visiting museums here, I see – what I suppose is obvious but I never considered – that this is simply a cross the German people bear.

It takes most of a day to see everything that remains at Dachau, but I don`t think in a lifetime it would be possible to really absorb it. I expected to be bowled over by the horror and sadness of it all. Instead, I found I couldn`t wrap my head around it. The idea that human beings would treat each other in such a manner is inconceivable, I think, to most of us. And yet we try to take it all in, to keep something alive within us that we cannot name.

Of course, people I`ve met on the road so far have also infused my trip with comforts, joys and history lessons I never thought I would have. It`s because of a friend of a friend that I was able to see a 2000-year old Roman fortress and a witch tower on the outskirts of Frankfurt... and, to my absolute delight, meet his amazing family who wined and dined me and took me into their gorgeous home without question. It`s because of the family of a friend that I got to stay in Austria, have my crystals read (!), experience Salzburg (one of the most breathtaking cities I`ve ever laid eyes on, Empress Sissy`s former summer home, the ice caves of Dachstein, and the legendary town of Hallstatt. It`s because of a new friend that I got off the beaten tourist track in Munich and saw Starnberg Lake, and the jaw-droppingly sexy Tango Pasion the Prinzregententheater.

Always the cynic, I try to tell myself that this is what happens when you travel – you meet people who take you places where you meet more people. But I can`t help but be feel grateful that these people – kind of like travel angels – have made my trip into what it`s been so far. And it`s not just because of their talents as tour guides.

::: photos courtesy of Helmut Schwarz:::

Monday, July 25, 2005

We have meat here in the building

Let’s get a few things straight about the Germans.

First off, they are good-looking people. Exceptionally good-looking, as a matter of fact. I know you can’t categorize about this race or that country and of course it’s not like Vogue opened up and rained supermodels all over the country. But far from Augustus Gloop, Germany seems to be populated with a whole lot well-dressed, attractive and very slim folk. How they do this, what with the abundance of all things not on the South Beach diet, is a mystery to me. Every second shop is a bakery, every street corner sells crepes and sweets. Every third shop sells food of some variety, and no matter what that variety may be - from cheese to cucumbers to liqueurs - the person working there will cheerfully offer you as many samples as you like of whatever your heart desires. It is true happiness - and not just because you're a wee bit tipsy.

Another other strange but delightful German habit: double beds with two single duvets rather than one large one. I see this is a miracle of modern science. Why struggle for the ownership of one duvet when you can snuggle away in your own cocoon, covering whichever parts of your body you choose, while your sleeping partner does the same? This comes in especially handy when you slink home at 6am after a night of clubbing and wish to share the bed with someone who is not your sleeping partner but your friend. Of course you wish, in a friendly, non-homophobic sort of way, to keep the maximum distance between yourselves, especially if you're too tired to shower first. Easy. Simply grab your own personal duvet, roll over to your side and snooze away.

But I think, for a true taste of why Germans are so often referred to as “crazy Germans”, you need to experience a night out. To begin with, Cologne is hugely into cocktail lounges. Not the cheesey flaming Mai-Tai variety with parquet floors and seedy menus, but full on animal-print-chairs, candles, and menus a mile long with cocktails I've never heard of. Sometimes the drinks arrive complete with tropical fruit and samba music playing in the background. Some of them have pictures of Che Guevara painted on the walls. One, where I went last night, was voted "best bar in Germany" by Playboy magazine. At another, I made friends with the barmaid, who was creating the most bizarre concotions draped in berries and watermelon. It was only when she offered me a lychee fruit and a wink that I realized that my enrapturement with her drink-making might have given her the wrong idea.

My Canadianness has been of some interest to some people, but I'm not really what you'd call a novelty. My first approach came from a guy who happened to live in Burlington, Ontario, of all places. My second was a guy who, when I said I was Canadian, nodded wisely.
“Aaaah, Canada. I think that this is the best country in the world.” Me: “And why is that?” (expecting a lengthy political monologue about peace, health care and Maritimers.) Him: “Because you have snow. And what are these things, you know, with the…” (holds one finger over either side of his head.) Me: “Antlers? Reindeer?” Him: “YES! Reindeer! With antlers!” Me: “Well those are great reasons to love Canada.” Him: “Australia is pretty cool too.” Me: “Definitely.” Him: “But kangaroos don’t have antlers.”

I was expecting German clubs to play only techno music, so it came as quite a shock that a lot of the clubs that are open late are on the total opposite end of the spectrum. We arrived at one place at 3:30am on a Wednesday night and things seemed to still be going strong. Oddly, when we walked in, the DJ had just dropped that classic dance tune “Get Off of my Cloud”. I thought perhaps it was song kind of tongue in cheek post-modernist German thing, until he then played “I Can See Clearly Now”. The weirdest thing was, those wacky Germans (and Burlingtonians) were doing it up on the dance floor like it was no one’s business.

Just to clarify, I have done things aside from drinking cocktails and dancing to 70s rock music. The Cologne cathedral is so incredible, they began building it in the 13th century didn't finish until the 18th. The size of it is totally overwhelming - you come out of the train station and it pretty much blocks the sun. And yours truly climbed to the top today. The view of the city, the Rhine and the massive church bell made it all worthwhile.