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Sydney lights

I wrote this last week when I was in Sydney, before moving on to Brisbane and Byron Bay, and then home to Taupo, NZ.

Sometimes things are almost more beautiful when they are blurry. Tonight I came back from yoga, at hom in Sydney, a delicious place where the heat from our collective breath steamed the high windows, the 38 degree humidity felt as though it was sinking right into my sweat slicked chest and they sold iced coconut water from a tiny fridge nestled beneath the reception desk.

I walked back to my hostel through the bustling crowds and lights, holding my bag to my side, my steps slow as the warm evening air swirling against my still hot skin. My eyes were still blurry and short sighted from the class, so used to focusing on my breath and staring lazily at my upside down shins through half closed eyelids. As I stepped onto George Street, my breath snatched away as my eyes trailed up, above the crowds across the road. The Town Hall was aglow, its beautiful old stone an exquisite canvas for the light from the projector that was wreathing it in radiant, brilliant patterns of colour.

I stood across the street with my wet hair, marvelling up at the hall as I waited to cross, my eyes not quite picking out the design, but not trying to either. It was as unimportant as it was beautiful. Some others around me ignored the magnificent show, their impatient glances flickering between each of the streetlights, anticipating when they would turn, their clenched hands tight on the straps that held their bags. Eager to get home, I guessed, to wives and boyfriends and new babies and houses that smelt of warm cooking. But many more took photos of the Hall, pointing and smiling in wonder, or turning to friends with delighted, open mouths, their cameras forgotten in their hands.

The streetlights turned and the green man shone across at us, the sound of his tapping feet echoing across the empty, grey expanse of intersection. The rush of people was immense, like the sea, crushing in on each other, hundreds of steps crisscrossing and darting between others. I love crossing the road diagonally. Something about it is so thriving metropolis, so urban, so, Tokyo.

George St, Sydney

It makes me feel the way I am, just one tiny fish in an entirety of a huge melting of culture, insignificant and immensely small. Something about this thought awakens me, enlivens me, instead of being the depressing notion that it sometimes would be, if pondered differently. There is nothing expected of me, nothing to stop me, nothing to hem me in. I just have to live, and be content, and that’s all right with me.

It was only when I got closer that I realised what the design was. Christmas wreathes, green and red and gold, winding their way across the stone façade. It made me smile even more, until I was grinning alone in the street, taking blurry photos with my cassette clad iPhone. I am a Christmas freak. Goes with the territory of having a name like Holly, I suppose.

Tomorrow I will go to see the Opera House and the blue water of the harbour, the green trees nestled amongst the houses of the opposite bank. I have not seen it before, only from the air as we flew in, our plane hanging low above the near suburbs. The gorgeous Harbour Bridge stood proudly above the twinkling blue of the ocean, reminding me, bizarrely, but perhaps expectedly, of Finding Nemo. I smiled looking down at the winding blue, imagining a little clownfish in there, and angry crabs.

Sydney Opera House

the Lennon Wall

Amidst the browns and greys of the old streets of Prague, Czech Republic there lies a secret rebellion of colour. Well, maybe it isn’t so secret, but the twists and turns of the cobbled streets that lead to it make it feel as though no one knows about it, this deliciously clandestine wall, filled with paint and love and Beatles lyrics.

Years of youthful ideals, fearless love and sticky layers of paint all form the kaleidoscope of riotous colour. Love is the answer, all you need is love, love knows no distance or time. White doves and red hearts, peace symbols and outstretched hands. So hopeful, so sure.

We had Styrofoam cups of gluhwein nestled in our gloved hands, and the spicy warmth of the wine seemed to mix somehow with all those colours from the wall, making the cool breezy day suddenly intoxicating and vibrant. I felt like anything was possible, staring up at those bold words.

The Lennon Wall has been a place of freedom and positive expression for decades in Prague, a message of hope and love in the centre of a stricken city, created by rebellious artists, students, intellectuals. It has been painted over several times by the authorities, but within a day or two the messages reappear, and soon the wall is covered once more, a fantastic illustration of the resilience of the human spirit.

Never have I felt so at one with those around me as I did on that day, holding my gluhwein beneath that vivid expanse of bravery and love. I wished that I had a paintbrush too.

oh Switzerland!

I’m back! First of all I would like to say sorry for the lack of posts this last week, it was almost as though my writing reserves had run dry after the whirlwind that was November. But in a flurry of central European countries and rickety trains the inspiration has picked back up, and I think that the time is finally ripe to gush about my favourite country so far – glorious Switzerland!

We arrived through the southern border, our train gliding through the misty fields of northwest Italy, the flat frozen landscape giving way to the Alps that rose up ahead, huge giants wreathed in mist, waiting for us. The cool night air stung our throats when we first tasted it in Lugano, and as we wound our way up the hill behind the train station the city appeared far below us, glittering through the clear winter air, curved neatly around the black expanse of water which stretched out, reaching darkly towards the mountains. The mountains were visible only by their impenetrable blackness against the bright starry sky, and the odd orange light, floating hundreds of metres above the city.

We wandered down to the lake in the night, and stood awestruck on a wooden pier as white swans glided silently below us, their white necks just slightly inclined towards us, giving away their feigned nonchalance at our presence.

In the daylight we saw the huge mountains that rose around us, and a white mist was hanging just above the still water of the lake, filling the valley and causing the sun’s rays to bounce off each mountain, making a strangely bright white light and wreaking havoc with the photos.

I think it was that morning that I fell in love with Switzerland. We played on a children’s playground, laughing and trying quite sensibly to make the swing do a full loop. This attracted some very disapproving looks from a mother in a matching mauve ensemble and her daughter in pink, who were both playing on the climbing frame very passively.

A day later we caught the Wilhelm Tell Express up to Luzern, and spent the entire ride sitting with our noses pressed against the glass as the train corkscrewed through the bowels of the mountains and rocked steadily alongside glassy lakes. Luzern passed in a haze of heissi marroni and more swans, and beautiful reflections of the purple sunset in the water below the bridge. Everything was clean and clever, well designed and attractive, and everything worked. It was a welcome change from the laidback systems of the Spanish, where the method to the madness is not always evident.

We took the steepest cog railway train in the world up to Mount Pilatus, an experience that I won’t be forgetting anytime soon. It was a little unnerving to see the track rise up like a rope though the windscreen, and to see the ground dropping further and further below as we were hoisted up the mountain.

The view from the top was amazing, the kind of beauty that pricks at your eyes and catches your breath. We could see the tips of the Eiger, Jungfrau and Mönch mountains rising above the rest of the Alps, a glittering world of white high above the villages, which shone in the sun and reflected the bright blue sky above. From the other side of the summit the green fields stretched away towards the horizon, interspersed with blue lakes and quaint villages, and always those hills, straining towards the sky. The cool autumn days were wonderfully crisp, the sky above us always unbelievably blue, apparently very rare so late in the year. We knew that we were lucky.

We woke up one morning in St Gallen to a winter wonderland. The frost was falling outside, tiny specks of silver blown softly by the wind, and the white fog was rising with the sun, giving view to the sea of rooftop balconies outside. The trees on the far hill were white and frozen, the icy frost encasing them in a hard shell, but they looked fragile, almost fluffy in their white delicacy. We ate cheese and meat for breakfast with crusty hot bread, in true Swiss style.

The trains that we took that morning whipped silently through the frozen world and as the sun rose higher in the sky it glinted off each window that we passed, flickering and fast, like camera flashes off the glass. We hiked a mountain that day, walking purposefully and with a definite spring, our feet finding the beaten track between the long grass that brushed at our ankles. The cool air burned our lungs and our bodies warmed us from within as we climbed, shedding layers and smiling as our breath puffed ever faster. At the top we sat on wooden benches and drank huge glasses of sour cider, cold and delicious after the walk. I sat quietly and held my glass close as I admired the view, true Heidi land laying before us, the houses and the mountains just like the pictures in my fraying book. I loved the landscape in Switzerland, I loved the people and I loved the food.

Oh the food! We ate like kings, spoilt for choice and each time greeted with unrestrained hospitality by each member of Oli’s family that we stayed with. I spent much of the time deciphering Swiss German, but happily so as I always had some sort of new food to occupy myself with. We ate raclette cheese in Aarau, delicious truffle and garlic cheeses bubbling underneath the grill, poured thickly over waxy new potatoes.

There was fondue in St Gallen, crusty hunks of bread dipped in more amazing cheese, a medley of crossing forks and clinking glasses of wine. The best red brotwurst was at the markets in Solothurn, served on a paper plate with a floury bun and yellow mustard, and so piping hot that we ripped at it with our teeth, too impatient to wait for it to cool. I tried pffeffer and spätzli for the first time, sour venison soaked in wine for days and served in a wonderfully brown gravy with the spätzli, which as far as I could tell was like muddled dumplings, some sort of delicious batter mix boiled into little lumps of heaven.

There was always a block of chocolate floating somewhere in our backpacks, and Sugus lollies and Lindt Lindor balls loose amongst the socks. Even now we still have a tube of Switzerland’s amazing Thomy mayonnaise in the day bag, always at the ready for any mayo-requiring situation. You may scoff, but they occur surprisingly often!

It was almost reluctantly that we left through the east of the country, knowing that we should make the most of our rail passes and curious to carry on into Eastern Europe. But we left part of ourselves in Switzerland I think. And if there was one other country in which I would truly love to stay forever, I know that I could be very happy in Switzerland, smiling out of train windows as the blue lakes whip past, green mountains circling steadily above.

so this is what it feels like

It’s finished. All is written and done, and all that is left behind is a slight echo of typing, a sweet nothingness. November has been amazing. Busy, wonderful and awe-inspiring.

We left Spain with its strangely rainy skies and overpopulated coast and caught the train up through France, to visit Nice and Monaco. We ate a baguette with camembert overlooking the beach in Nice, and shared an over sized beer, shivering a little in the weak sun.

I wrote thousands of words over thousands of kilometres, in speeding trains, on rickety hostel computers, in cold train stations and on pretty park benches. There were late nights filled with writing, and always, no matter how far we had come in a day or how many countries we had passed, I knew I still would have to write somehow. And so the words came, because they had to.

The story twisted and changed with each new place, if the sun shone, the sun shone in my novel too. If there was wind twirling around me, there was wind around my characters too. I made them clutch at scarves whipped away from their necks and pull at stray hairs stuck in glossed lips.

The cold hit us when we arrived in beautiful, clean Switzerland (which deserves another post, big enough in which to convey my love for that wonderful country). We spent eleven happy autumn days there, dreaming of staying forever. We left through Liechtenstein, much to the confusion of the many train conductors who helped us. ‘But why do you want to go there?’ was a frequent question.

It turns out they were right, and the highlight of Liechtenstein was the ten metre stretch of crunchy leaves that we happened upon. We trained on through Austria, and Venice, and then up to Slovenia, a vastly underrated beautiful country. I wrote in an old prison in Ljubljana, maybe including a little too many symbolic trappings in my writing.

From Slovenia we travelled to Budapest, Hungary, and spent two days exploring the famous ruin bars of the city, and soaking in the amazing baths. We found a wonderful Christmas market and ate until we couldn’t anymore, and then just sat and watched the children ice skating beneath the millions of twinkling lights, hot steaming cups of mulled wine cradled in our hands.

And it was in Budapest that the glorious, long awaited day of November the 30th arrived. I wrote and wrote that morning, sitting on the rickety bed in our huge €8 room, pouring my entire heart into the story, giving my characters every emotion that I had. The intensity picked up and kept going, and I felt my heart racing as the word count jumped up, higher and higher, almost erratically.

Then, all of a sudden, it was done. The little word count on the bottom of the screen said Words: 50,003 of 50,003. I stared at it for a second, a deep flush of pride sweeping up from somewhere around my stomach. I had finished it.

When I was at primary school I was given an award for my writing. I was only nine, and the ‘story’ was just a few lines, but a few lines that I had poured my heart and soul into. I didn’t finish the story, and my teacher said as she was awarding it to me that I never finished my stories, and she wished that I would. I laughed it off like all of the other children, but that comment has stayed with me for the fifteen years since.

So when I saw the word count I paused, but only for a second. Because I wasn’t finished yet. And I realised something then which made me smile as I kept typing. I’ll never be finished. This is only the beginning.

night train to Venice

Last night we took the train from Innsbruck, Austria down to Venice, Italy. We had booked night beds, and boarded the train at eleven, cold and tired. Our bunk beds were hard and warm, and we fell asleep almost immediately, exhausted from waiting for one cancelled train after another in a freezing Liechtenstein train station.

As the night settled around us and the train started to move we reached across from our beds to clasp one another’s hands. There was something utterly romantic about holding hands there in the dark midair, while an old Italian couple slept above us and the train rumbled smoothly below, snaking and curving with the rails, rocking us from side to side as we fell asleep.

We were woken by the conductor at six am, and sleepy peeks out of the Velcro curtains showed us a blurry landscape of glassy water and deep blue sky. Out in Venice it was cold, and when we arrived a few minutes later it was still dark, the night just lifting. Venice was a mass of shimmering water, gleaming with the reflections of hundreds of orange street lights. We walked silently around the tiny streets, our breath misting in the chilly air, stopping to admire the empty canals and feeling as though we shouldn’t have been there. The city felt like a film set, the boats silent and waiting for the actors, the sky above a painted ceiling.

It took us an hour to find the main plaza through the maze, with a few tired snarks at each other, each followed by a mumbled apology. When we did find it, San Marco, it was breathtaking. Only a few lonely travellers were there, each with an amazing camera and a tripod, all trying fruitlessly to capture the sunrise. We sat on a cold stone bench beside the surging green sea, surrounded by pigeons and birdshit and watched the sky change, mesmerized by the bright red sun.

The saying goes; red sky at night, shepherds’ delight, red sky at morning, shepherds’ warning. So I am still watching the sky, waiting to see if dark clouds will roll in above the city. But all above is clear and watery blue, and this start to the day is promising. I am sitting in a red booth with a hot chocolate and a custard croissant, while around me the Italians gesture wildly and sip their tiny, hot coffees like they contain the elixir of life.

And I wonder if just maybe, sometimes, the shepherd got it wrong.

Chaouen, the blue mountain village

Three weeks ago we spent five days in Chefchaouen, Morocco. It was… an experience. We arrived off the ferry from Algeciras late at night, after spending forty minutes waiting for the customs man to stamp our passports (we had been the only people not to get them stamped during the two hour voyage, oops).

Luckily there was still a bus waiting to take us to Tangier. I will never forget that bus ride. We rode in air-conditioned style, the fastest thing on the road, passing hundreds of laden vans, all carrying illegal duvets down through Morocco. The bus driver drove straight down the middle of the lanes, honking and spitting at the cars in his way, until they pulled over slightly and he was free to continue down his median.

We arrived in Tangier to a chaotic medley of cars revving, angry horns blaring and people yelling, deposited on the side of the most hectic roundabout I have ever seen. While picking up our bags we were accosted by a friendly man who tried to pick them up, ushering us towards his taxi.

We were prepared for this, perhaps a little too prepared, and after a few firm no’s his smiling face vanished, and suddenly he was yelling at us, telling us to go back home, that we were racist, and he hates racists in Morocco. So, bewildered and overwhelmed we began our march into Tangiers, our backpacks heavy on our backs and my long sleeves tight on my arms in the humid heat.

The next day we took a grand taxi down to Chefchaouen, travelling in luxury and admiring the harsh, brown landscape rising into mountains, all while driving 140 kms around donkey ridden corners. I’m just glad I made it back from Morocco with my nails intact!

But we made it, and we arrived in the blue mountain village in the early afternoon. The car was flagged down by a local, who offered to show us the medina and the mosque. We waved him away, certain that we could find it ourselves and unwilling to commit to anything before at least stepping out of that car.

The driver continued on, around a corner, up two streets and around a roundabout, and we deposited ourselves on the pavement, shaky and more than a little nauseous. We managed to wrangle our change from the driver, and were just straightening up and looking around, when we were accosted again. By the same man! Who had by all accounts and purposes just sprinted up at least 800 metres after our car, and who now was smiling and not in the least bit puffed.

We were a little afraid of his superhuman abilities, and consented to follow him, exchanging suspicious glances with each other as we climbed hundreds of stairs after this happy man.

He took us up and through the labyrinth of blue that is the Chefchaouen medina, through the goats and markets and spices, and finally we found a hostel willing to let us sleep on their roof terrace for only 35 dirham a night.

We spent an interesting four days in Chaouen, relaxing on the roof terrace, happily being hassled by everyone we met outside and denying countless offers of hashish.

The blue walls were amazing, and the food was unbelievably cheap, though we ordered with caution. My favourite parts were the spice bags, and the blue walls, the colours were so beautifully vibrant.

And my least favourite part? Maybe the flea bites from our rooftop terrace bed – I still have the marks!

the Alhambra

I wanted to put up some photos of the Alhambra, before it gets too late and they are inevitably buried in the myriad of photos that seem to accumulate while travelling, only to be unearthed by a rogue slideshow when we finally return home.

It was a breathtaking visit. We woke up early, heeding the advice of many other travellers that we had asked. It was still dark, and as we sat in the little bus that wound its way up the mountain we all watched each other, everyone trying to size each other up. Is she a tourist? Will they run ahead of me, seizing my rightful place in the line?

It was a funny ride, full of hostility, defensive shoulders and yawns in the early morning. But it was surprisingly easy, and after a short wait in the line and some stellar advice about a secret ticket line we made it, and we were free to run around the enormous grounds.

The Nasrid Palaces were amazing, the amount of intricate detail was almost exhausting to look at. Those carved and geometrically tiled walls spoke of pure devotion in their painstaking application, or less romantically, at least of slave labour. We wandered for hours, heads constantly flipped back on our shoulders, always looking up, at the pillars, the ceilings, the amazing carving that was everywhere.

Outside the gardens were wonderful, lined by thousands of metres of hedges, all trimmed as though with a slide ruler, green and smooth and perfect. The history of a fortress so old was amazing. We walked around the parapets of the rough stone roof, so at odds with the delicate carving of the interior.

And as we looked out into the expanse of buildings that is now the city of Granada, we inhaled sharply, marvelling at the fact that once it was all just fields, arid and dry, stretching out until they met the mountains.