The story of our pets mauled to death

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WARNING – GRAPHIC, UGLY STUFF BELOW.

I was at a dinner with my nephews and my sisters when I got the call.

Dee – “I think the dogs have killed a chook”. What? I said. She explained they were missing but she could see one motionless in the neighbour’s backyard.

“Ok. I’ll call you back,” I said. I was a bit numb to it all. Trying to be a good guest at this dinner, and process it all. I was thinking things like, “Maybe one had survived” and “At least they died quickly”. But both of those assumptions were super-wrong.

Then I realised I should get home. I ran most of the way. Dee picked me up at Torwood Park.

I rattled that next door gate so the dogs – two massive alsatians – would know I was attempting to come in. It took a few trys but then they started going nuts with the barking. They smashed up to the gate ready for a fight but they let me in maybe I guess they because they recognised me.

Even though I just had to trust they wouldn’t bite me if I came in – I slunk inside. They led me around the back. I was looking for the bodies and the further in I went there was nothing. Then the dogs went around the deck and up to the top of their backyard. It was like they were leading me to their trophies. I followed and it was then I saw both chooks right next to eachother in a bed of a hundred broken feathers. It almost looked like Art. Just a hideous version of it.

One of the birds (Charlie) was horribly mutilated. Her head was missing and big bits of her body around the neck were chewed out. The other was intact but messed up. She was laying on her side and the eye facing me was closed – like it was fused that way. I picked her up and her head flopped like the neck was snapped- but then I heard something like a tiny inhalation. A gasp. I thought the dogs had made the sound or it was just a crazy snap of the dirt and twigs beneath me. I didn’t realise it at the time — but it was a signal.

The dogs were still circling around, so proud of their achievement. At that moment I thought I had imagined it. The birds were so damaged it was impossible they had survived this ordeal. I shooed the dogs away as I lay down the towel (which I had grabbed out of the car) and put both birds on top and wrapped them up. The dogs were still circling around so happy with their achievements as I walked back towards the gate.

Carrying them out I almost immediately felt a warmth through the towel. “Oh god!” I thought. They are so warm – it must have just happened – if only I had got home sooner.

But then I remembered that sound. It just hit me. One of them was still alive.

Dee was waiting for me in the front yard. Even though I was not 100% certain I said, “One of them is still alive.” She was already in tears and now things were so much acute.

I laid the two birds on the deck and looked at the eye of the one I suspected was still alive. Her neck was broken and it looked like she had been dragged around by that neck. Blood was coming out of her beak. How she had survived was incredible — but still so fucking awful.

It was confirmed when her eye — three quarters closed — managed what must have been an incredible effort to stare back at me. She was indeed alive. I knew what I had to do. I asked Dee if she agreed and she said yes. I apologised to her. It was Big Red. Named after Big Red in the “Bring It On” movies. She was the biggest of the three, the most ginger. And probably the top of their tiny pecking order.

I went into the house and grabbed a plastic bag. But what was I going to do? I just realised the bag was to stop her looking at me while I killed her. I put her in and them stomped on her head. I jumped up and down as much as I could until I felt her skull was flat. (I wanted to make sure).

But that didn’t stop me opening up the bag to check I had indeed killed her. Oh god. There was blood on my shoes and on the paving. I had made such an effort the plastic bag had ripped open and the eye that she had looked at me with was now entirely free of her skull. It was massive and round and it was still looking at me. Oh god. Oh fucking, fucking god.

You don’t get a pet and look at it every day and imagine for one second that you will one day stomp on its head with all your might. And that “one day” you will stomp so hard you set an eye free and gaze into it. But that’s what I did. She made no further sound apart from the crushing sound of doom.

oh god.

At first I just stared into space. I think I started weeping about an hour later. Then we went downstairs and discovered an egg in the hutch. I started bawling again.

And today I was walking to the city to get lunch and I put on a sad playlist and just started weeping uncontrollably. Luckily no one truly looks at anyone these days. I think I managed to look half decent at the sushi-station. Maybe not.

This song is just the WORST (or BEST) at times like this:

 

AND HERE ARE SOME MEMORIES:

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WALES (CYMRU)

Had another big interview at Bristol passport control. It seems that UK border control staff can’t fathom that someone could get 5 weeks of leave all at once. Plus they must suspect all Australians just want a UK job and then we’ll stay forever. After a few minutes I almost said, “Look, my dad was born here — I could get a UK passport no probs.” But thankfully I kept my mouth shut.

Another big wait for a hire car and it turned out to be a month-old Seat Leon. Great car — except the sat-nav was flaky. (Kept crashing). The guy at Europcar tried to get me to upgrade to an auto for a mere 50 pounds extra a day. “Um. No thanks,” I said. It was such a ridiculous suggestion I almost lol’d.

Next we were slugging it out with the serious traffic that is omnipresent in the UK. It took us an incredible amount of time to get over to Wales. We crossed this massive bridge — possibly the longest bridge I have ever been on. There was a toll at the end — but apparently it is only a one way toll. We made it to the hotel was in the Cardiff bay area.

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TOBY

So the reason for our trip to Cardiff was to meet my cousin Toby for the very first time. We are actually half-cousins — my grandmother had a child (Pam) when she was a teenager and Pam was secretly adopted out. And I say it was a “secret” because my grandmother never mentioned it to us. Grandma got married, had three children (my dad being one of them) and then immigrated to Australia.

Pam managed to locate my grandmother when I was about 10 years old and it was a big commotion. It was like suddenly my dad had another sister and I had this big branch of family in the UK — including a cousin only a year younger than me (Zoe) and another cousin just a baby (that was Toby). It was almost a scandal because my grandma is such a ridiculously uptight and authoritarian. She seemed affronted by all this information and behaved appallingly.

But during all that drama Zoe and I exchanged a few letters and then again as adults — but we only met for the first time on my very first trip to the UK in 2007. But by that time Toby had grown up and was living in Birmingham so I didn’t get to meet him. Later during the hey-day of Facebook Toby and I bonded over music and it was just a given that I would track him down this trip.

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By this time he was married to Emma.

So we arranged to meet Toby at a multi-story pub/restaurant called Mt Stuart and that was awesome. Emma came a bit later as she was still working. (ASIDE: Emma was already a celebrity to me because she knows the amazing Cate Le Bon personally.) We all had a great time and Emma and Toby announced one of them was “preggaz”. I am pretty sure they used that exact term/phrasing. Totally!

The next day we went over to Toby and Emma’s place and then drove up to the Brecon Beacons for a hike. It was so fucking beautiful and because the landscape was so devoid of trees — there were impressive views almost 100% of the time. The UK is a pretty flat place — especially at this latitude — so it was incredibly refreshing to see so much landscape in all directions. I think the term”rolling hills” was coined up here.

Later we went to central Cardiff where the Roald Dahl festival was going off. There were giant peaches, big chairs, snow-sledding, frogs, fantastic foxes etc. I was such a big fan of Roald as a kid, and am so glad kids still see how amazing he is/was. He was so irreverent. My favourite book was Danny the Champion of the World. But there didn’t seem to be any monuments to that.

Then we had food and beer at this food stall section in the park. Then we were joined by Toby and Emma’s amazing friend Lowri — which is “Laura” in Welsh. Moved on to a quaint pub, then a small bar where we got to see the fireworks. Brilliant day!

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PHOTOS OF BRECON BEACONS

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OTHER BITS: in dot-point:

• Roald Dahl was born here.
• There is a Dr Who museum.
• The road signs are in English and Welsh
• People get dressed up in costume (hen’s nights etc) and climb the Brecons
• There was a massive, but very polite, queue just to get a photo at the summit marker (see below)
• There were a bunch of military doing training up there. Guns, backpacks, camo, the works. As one of them ran by us he joked, “We’re looking for a lost sheep.” Everyone LOL’d.

BONUS PICS

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Iceland

We woke up super-early ’cause our flight was at 6:45am. Marku generously drove us to the 2 hours to the airport in Helsinki. Our Icelander Air flight featured these shimmering “Northern Lights” in the area above the overhead luggage — a funny touch. We were smashed a bit by the cold as we took the bus to pick up our hire car — but it was truly beautiful to be cold again. The wait for the car wasn’t so beautiful. Epic queues at car hire places is a thing you just have to get used to. If you pick up a car at the airport in Europe be prepared to wait in line for about 30-45 minutes.

Keflavik Airport is a long way out of town. Originally it was an airforce base established back in WW11 when Britain (and then the US) decided to occupy Iceland. (It was almost an invasion — the justification being, “before the Germans did it.”) But the long drive gave me a chance to get used to the right-hand drive, plus changing gears with my right hand. Iceland has a LOT of roundabouts too — very tricky.

As you drive into town you pass this vast desert of rocks sometimes spattered with grass. No houses, no trees — just rocks. “Why didn’t they build the airport here?” I wondered. Later I learnt that particular area was still geologically active. Riiight! I get it.

Eventually we arrived in town and our hotel was on a street that was closed to car traffic for most of the day so we had a terrible time working out where to park. Google maps was thoroughly unhelpful in this situation constantly telling us to turn where we simple couldn’t. Eventually we just parked at a public carpark and it took me ages to work out the machine which had only limited English instructions. Arriving at our hotel room — which was on the top floor — we were a bit “over it”. But it was a nice space and had pretty spectacular views of that big church.

IMG_1121.JPGIMG_1122.JPGThis is our little hire-car (white) in the hotel’s tiny carpark

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FARTS

What they don’t tell you about Iceland in the guidebooks is that the shower smells like farts. I think Dee even tried to blame me. But it’s the high sulphur content in the water — it’s especially apparent when their water is heated. But it’s not a big deal — at least I didn’t think so.

Next we had Vietnamese for lunch then we got some groceries at this el cheapo supermarket chain featuring a very wasted-looking pig called Bonus. (see below.) Much like Franklins or Bi-Lo back here. That night we had dinner at a place called the Public House — just a beer and burger thing. Iceland is pretty expensive it should be said. A bit “eye-wateringly” so at some points. Expect to pay about double what you’d spend in London. (HORROR STORY: we paid A$12 for 4 pappadams the next night).

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THE “TRIANGLE”

The next day we headed north towards Gullfoss (golden falls) and Geysir (which does not need a translation). Almost immediately out of town the scenery was truly fucked-up. Like nothing I’d ever witnessed before. It was just a mixture of bizarre and magical no matter where you looked. (And you could see as forever as your eyes would allow because trees were a bit of a novelty.)

You really cannot describe it adequately, not just because it was so alien, but also because there was always too much to look at. Too much to process. I have talked to people who have been to Iceland — mainly Laura Morrissey — and we agree you just can’t explain how different everything is. (And I’ve been to a bunch of places at the “end of the world” — namely Tasmania and New Zealand and Norway.)

But the super vulcanism really makes this place special. I’ve seen it described as “lunar” or “jurassic”. And that relates to the rocks and sometimes the sparseness of vegetation. Maybe also weird stuff like black sand and all kinds of alpine moss. And sometimes of course because every once in a while you see steam literally pouring out of the ground! (No wonder Iceland is literally powered by geo-thermal electricity).

Another crucial aspect to this vibe is because Iceland is so bloody diverse and you can never get used to one particular vista. Everything changes just a few more minutes down the road or even if you turn your head around. I really struggle to articulate the experience. And pictures do not help. The limitations of photography to do justice to a landscape was never more apparent than on this trip. It was almost heartbreaking. (But I got over it.)

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We stopped the car a few times for photos (never as grand as what I hoped) and at one place the wind was so bad I thought it was dangerous — like it would blow the door off the car as I opened it. We saw some poor touring riders on fully-laden bikes just swimming across the road because they couldn’t stay straight and travelling less than walking speed. They were hardcore.

The geyser at Geysir was interesting and worth the stop — but after one eruption we were like, “OK — been there, done that.” There were lots of gooby tourists around with super-amazing cameras trying to get a shot/video that had been taken a billion times before. Good luck with that.

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So the geyser spews-up every 8ish minutes. As we arrived in the car we saw the geyser go off in the distance. Then we parked, and it took us about 3 minutes to walk up to the spot and we spent exactly 1 minute waiting, and then we promptly left. Express tourism. It may or may not have been a bit like our trip to the Louvre where we just went straight for the Mona Lisa (which took about 4 minutes) and then  we were like, “What now?”.

At Gullfoss we parked for free again and followed the columns of tourists towards the falls. From the top it looks super boring, almost like — are we in the right place? But then you get past the tourist office and suddenly the canyon becomes apparent and you get a few choices . You can stay up on the ridge or dive down to get super close. We went down and later I realised this was the farthest northerly point on Earth I had ever been — previously it had been in the fjords of Norway.

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IMG_0969.JPGThe farthest north I have ever been, and may ever go.

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IMPULSE

At dinner that night I managed to convince Dee to do something YOLO. Being a GEN-Y/ millennial I think she was particularly susceptible to that word being barked at her at any protestation she tried to throw back at me. Eventually she caved and agreed to booking a ~$500 snowmobiling adventure on some glacier a few hours east at 12:30pm the next day.

See on the plane over I had seen a tourist video of Iceland where they showed snowmobiling and it looked easy and apparently, “JUST LIKE RIDING A BIKE!” I can ride a bike, I thought. And I figured that we should see some “ICE” in “ICELAND” — right?

NORTHERN LIGHTS

That afternoon the sky was super clear. I found this local website that extrapolated the cloud data and predicted if a clear night was ahead and it gave a pretty good forecast. So I set my alarm for 2:50am. There was no real science to that except I just betted that time there would be the least light pollution. Instead I accidentally woke at 2am and went onto the balcony. The night was indeed pretty much clear, but as I looked these strange clouds swirled about towards the west and they moved faster than normal clouds — and up and down unlike any normal cloud. My heart started racing. I dove back inside and grabbed my camera which has a “stars” setting. Just holding the camera steady with my hands — not even leaning against a wall — I took a shot and there it was. It looks far more impressive in the photo, but it was still an amazing feeling knowing they were up there — dancing about. I woke Dee and she came out for a look and did her best to be impressed.

I then got dressed and smashed down to the harbour which the inter-webs told me was the best place for viewing in the city. By the time I had got there the lights had virtually stopped and that was a tad disappointing — but I had to try. In fact, by now it was 3am and if I had woken at 2:50 like I originally planned — I would probably have missed them.

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IMG_1174.JPGEarlier that night

WHITE OUT AND WONDERING HOW MANY WAYS WE COULD DIE (or “Our visit to Mýrdalsjökull”)

The next day I was still convinced my impulsive decision was on point. Dee was incredulous. She was convinced I would be a mess once this whole malarkey was acute. After 2.5 hours of driving we turned up to this very remote looking outpost. No one seemed to be around. We went up to a door that looked like it was where we needed to be. But in a massive fail we tried to pull the door — where it was a push-vibe. Another entry in our FAIL-LIST. We hurried back to the car — thinking the door was locked because we were too early. After hiding in the car for about 20 minutes other prospective adventurers started arriving and we saw them gain access and realised our fuck-up.

IMG_1197.JPGWe stopped at this waterfall on the way

So we slunk back and signed huge waivers and got fitted up in this gear. Like a full body suit. Big fat shoes. Gloves and a balaclava. Then a massive helmet. All of which was either too big or too small but we didn’t have the heart to complain or fuss. Once kitted up — shit was about to get real.

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We awkwardly trudged over to this rusty truck with massive tyres. With the help of a small step ladder we were on board and so began the bumpiest journey I have ever experienced. It was so bumpy it was just plain fun. You just couldn’t help but LOL. Meanwhile Dee was beginning to fret.

So now I will turn over to Dee for her thoughts:

“I was bloody loving it, but also really thought that Davey was going to throw up. He is a terrible with motion sickness and the ‘super-jeep’ ride was like serious turbulence to the nth degree. And also he was already nervous about the whole thing, so I spent the journey up to the glacier worried that he was going to vom. But if I didn’t have that to worry about, that would have probably been the most fun part of the whole thing. It really did feel as if we were going on a lunar journey – the landscape became increasingly grey and rocky; all of our fellow astronauts kept their helmets on and really seemed to be contemplating the seriousness of our mission. Dunno what we would be doing on that lunar mission (colonising? snowmobiling the hell out of some alien life-forms?) but everyone seemed to be feeling the same. Anyway, I kept on turning to Davey to offer him encouraging, “isn’t this fun!” looks that usually coincided with us being unable to get up a particularly steep incline or bracing to drive over a glacier.”

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(I also worried about the truck tipping over, the truck breaking down [it sounded very sick and took a few go’s to get started], frost bite on my fingers, and how I would pay for clean-up if I vomited into my helmet — the place I felt would be the most appropriate.)

Once we were snowmobiling I thought how bloody impossible this situation would have seemed to me just a few days ago — or a few hours even. “I am on a fucking glacier, in the middle of Iceland, which is on top of a volcano, driving a bloody snowmobile. What the fuck?” A few seconds after we started off into the icey-snowy oblivion I forced myself to make a note of this. And underline it.

But the higher we got, the colder it got. And the whiter. Pretty soon we couldn’t see more than 50 metres.

I was pretty worried most of the time — not shit-scared it should be said — I  spent a bunch of the time up there just processing all the ways things could go wrong. But despite that — I had an incredible time. I knew this was well above my comfort level and I would appreciate it forever (obviously once we were safely down). It was absolutely insane being so close to a crevasse (having studied all those mountain books once upon a time) and being in a total white-out was just like being in the Empire Strikes Back on Hoth where Luke is visited by ghost Obi-Wan. I had no faith that Han Solo would rescue us should things go pear-shaped.

The most horrible of thoughts in my head was that in this white out we had no idea of navigation — and this is one on my most evil fears. If our guide was somehow compromised by a sudden crevasse or a roll-over or worse — our group would have little to no idea how to get home.

IMG_1205.JPGThe briefing

At the start we had this briefing — but it was so windy, and my head was inside a helmet an astronaut would be jealous of, and thus I missed crucial points about the artificial heaters inside the handlebar grips. Consequently after the first leg my fingers were so cold I had to unzip my jacket and press them against my raw skin to heat them up again. And then Dee was like, “Why aren’t you using the heaters — ya dig-head.” Pretty much verbatim.

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At this first stop we huddled around the guide who drew us a snow-map of the region on the ground. Then he proceeded to point out that we were standing directly on top of a massive volcano called Katla which hasn’t erupted for 98 years — yet it usually erupts every 13-95 years. In other words — it was well overdue. And tremors were detected just the month before. (And it seems there was one as recently as  September 11, 2016). And then he said if it blew it would probably flood the town he lived in (Vik) and there was a pretty good chance the next eruption (when it comes) will ground flights world-wide for maybe 120 days. Freaky. We just might have secretly hoped it blew while we were in Europe and we were stranded. That would be terrible!

Next stop was at a crevasse and that was fucking insane. I stood well back. Like I have read Inter Thin Air and seen that Touching the Void documentary. Crevasses are very, very dangerous places.

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RANT

But then this American dude wandered off up along the edge of the crack. I was so concerned that he was getting too close that I pointed him out to the guide. The guide started shouting at him to come back but he couldn’t hear. Then the guy suddenly pulled out his wang and started pissing into the crevasse. I was appalled. I am a pretty sure his partner overheard me saying to Dee, “That is so fucking rude.” Apart from the brazen crassness, I bet the glacier fed some local water supply. And the dickhead had taken a piss just a hour before at the little hut where we all got geared up. Sheesh!

LAST DAY

Our last day was meant to be at the Blue Lagoon — but, HOT TIP,  you need to book well in advance so there were no suitable times. It was raining and a bit chilly so we bummed around the sights within walking distance. It was a mercifully “nothing” kinda day. A rest day. See our flight was at 6:45am the next day and we had to be out of bed at like 2:30am. Even then we only just made it. For a tiny airport it was ridiculously busy. And there were so many security/passport/checking-in/bus-to-the-airplane hoops we had to go through. Insane.

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BONUS PICS

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IMG_1184.JPGMorning on day 3

FINLAND

(FINLAND DAYS 1-2 HELSINKI) BLOG IS HERE!

Here is our trip a bit deeper (mostly east) into Finland proper.

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IMG_0902.JPG(terrible photo of Dee, but this was the traditional pastry breakfast in Finland – I think called korvapuusti.)

IMMINENT VOMIT

So (Dee’s great-uncle) Marku picked us up (at Helsinki Station) and he immediately drove us over to this coffee place on this lake which was a venue for the winter olympics way back then. We had some traditional pastries as well and then headed for Porvoo which is one of only 6 medieval towns in Finland. It dates back to the 14th century and is a big deal over here. There was even a large group of Russian tourists on some bus tour. (I had to ask what language they were speaking). Lots of wooden houses painted in bright colours. Very tiny streets.

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Next we headed out towards the country. Finland has a lot of trees and lots of winding roads (probably cause they are all dodging the millions of lakes.) Very, very soon I got super car-sick. I was in the back seat and we got lost at one point and I just forced up the courage to beg our very generous host to stop the car because I didn’t want to vomit everywhere. It was evil. I spent about 5 minutes in this beautiful forest trying to compose myself. It was so hard. I hadn’t felt that degree of travel sickness since I was a kid. Another 2 stops later and I just put my head between my knees and a plastic bag underneath that fully expecting to blow some serious chunks at any second. For whatever reason — I managed to hold on to the contents of my stomach for the next 100ks.

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KOTKA

Kotka is where Marku lived. But he had organised for us to stay in this river/sea-side villa of one of his mates. His name was Pekka. And Pekka was an absolute legend. His daughter Emma was turning 21 that night and it was apparent everyone was coming over for a party. “Awesome,” I thought.

While Marku went to fetch his boat, Dee and I went “Roaming”. Over in Europe there are laws variously translated as “Freedom to Roam” or “ Every man’s right”. In Finland (and heaps of other places in Europe) that means you can literally go on private land to pick berries — as long as you are a reasonable distance from private houses and yards. Unfortunately the berries we saw were pretty much in people’s front yards. But it was fun just considering the notion. Berries and fruit were everywhere.

Back at the house Marku arrived with his boat and took Dee for a trip while I had a nap cause I was still a very bit fragile having spent 2 hours being so violently nauseous. A few hours later, I started to recover and by that stage Pekka’s family came over in little spurts. First was Pekka, then Emma’s BF (Arho) and her younger sister (Maija). Then Pekka’s wife who had to rush off to do hospital duty (she was a doctor).

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IMG_0987.JPGMarku’s boat arriving

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SATURDAY SAUNA

Before we knew it Pekka was (wood) firing up the hot tub (see below) and we were having a wild time translating the handwritten notes on the back of Dee’s grandad’s old photos. They were a bit racey (for the time).

Everyone spoke excellent English and we all got on famously and it was genuinely incredibly fun. I was super excited. So excited that when the sauna was announced — boys always go first — I was like, “Hell Yeah!” And sauna (pronounced “sour-nah”) is a big deal over in Finland. According to Wikipedia, there is an average of one sauna per household in Finland. It is seen as a necessity — not an extravagance like it might be viewed over here. And Saturday is the traditional day to take one. So Pekka, Arho and me all had a shower and I was last in line, showering in my improvised swimmers. Suddenly the other two were completely naked and I just dug deep and got the last of my kit off. Like I have not been naked in front of other males since school (apart from one medical exception — don’t ask). The only comparable occasion was in Japan when I went into the Onsen in Kyoto and I went so late at night no other blokes were around.

But being all naked in a steamy room with beer and stories and laughs — it was so great. An entirely refreshing naked experience! It just felt normal.

I am a hyper-sweater. I know that from bike riding. I sweat about twice as badly as my mates. And so I was a mess in there – just melting faster than the wicked witch in Wizard of Oz. But it was still kinda interesting. After about half an hour (I could have spent longer) we all went out and did a running jump off the jetty into the river. It was so amazing. The buzz of being so hot and then so cold all of a sudden is like a hit of drugs — not that I know what a hit of drugs feels like. Really. That river freezes over in winter and they have to cut a hole in the ice to do that sauna-to-water trick we had just done. Incredible.

For dinner we had this big plate of salmon and veges — served traditional Finnish style — and it was amazing. This night was without too much exaggeration — one of the best nights of my life. Thanks everyone over there! Rock on. (We also had homemade pizza at their place on Sunday night too — love you guys!)

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IMG_0910.JPGThis is Arho about to dive in!

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HAMINA

The next day Marku took us to the old fortress town of Hamina — where Dee’s grandfather came from before he immigrated to Australia in the 1960s. The town is designed in concentric circles — just like a fort. Indeed there are fortifications and moats everywhere that have been re-purposed as schools or sports fields. Or just dog/walk parks. Next we headed to the Virolahti bunker only a few kilometres from the Russian border. On the way I had dreams of seeing Russia, maybe just like Sarah Palin. But Finland is so flat, and so forested too. You rarely see views more than a few hundred metres unless water is involved. And despite the fact we were in spitting distance of Russia, there was no hope of seeing it unless you literally drove up to the border.

The bunker was incredible. These massive square rocks four deep that stretched for hundreds of kilometres. (Designed to stymie Russian tanks). It was a proper Marginot Line — but actually finished (no pun intended). Trenches and bunkers too. The line is now a popular multi-day hike.

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IMG_1081.JPGHamina!

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Hamming with forts all around.

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IMG_0937.JPGTaking pics of the homemade pizzas!

IMG_0940.JPGSaying goodbye to our Finnish puppy besties!

BONUS PICS!

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HELSINKI – September 8-9

Had my entire backpack searched at the airport security in A’DAM. I was cool with that, but boy oh boy — they were thorough. I got in trouble because I didn’t realise I should have taken my camera and the iPhone charger out of my pack and put into one of the trays (just like the lappy). Look — I travel quite a bit and this was the first time I had encountered these regulations. Anyway I did my best to be polite and apologetic.

On the flight we tried one of Ben Law’s little tips. We deliberately booked a window seat (me) and an aisle seat (Dee) separated by an empty seat (some random who we could negotiate with later). It was genius. Thanks Ben! No one got booked into that middle seat and we had our row to ourselves. Pity it was only a 2 hour flight.

Over Helsinki we swapped seats and Dee got a decent look at all the lakes of her homeland. “It’s the land of a thousand lakes,” she said, quite authoritatively. And it looked true. They were everywhere down there. But as I learnt later — there are about 188 THOUSAND lakes in Finland. So Dee was basically lying. I am used to that.

Anyway I bloody dare you to look up Google maps and witness all that land vs puddle bullshit. It is bloody crazy. Wait. I can do that for you just cause I am a decent guy. Observe:

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We should establish at this outset that Dee is 1/4 Fnnish. Her mother’s maiden name is the unpronounceable “Veijalainen”. Phonetically you could get away with saying VAY-A-LINE-ANN.

A BIT ABOUT FINLAND FROM WHAT I COULD GATHER INITIALLY

Finland has a population of about 5.5 million people, so about a quarter that of Australia. It’s relatively flat — didn’t see any mountains or even that many hills. Lots of lakes and ocean coastline — as mentioned previously. Finland has been around as an autonomous state only about 100 years. Was part of Sweden for a bit (in Helsinki all road signs are in Finnish and Swedish), then Russia (further east you get the road signs begin in Finnish, then below is the Swedish, then below that is the Russian). Finland allied with the Nazis at the beginning of WWII and fought the “Winter War” with Russia and punched well above it’s weight. (But in the peace deal, possibly cause it killed a highly disproportionate amount of Ruskies (compared to Finns) — it lost quite a bit to Russia.) Mostly it has been pushing against Russia, rather than Sweden. Monuments and markers of the War(s) are everywhere here.

The language is like nothing I have ever heard before. Apparently it has more in common with central-eastern Europe than Scandinavia or even Russian. It is still a tiny bit high-pitched, but not sing-song like Norwegian. Everyone seemed to speak an incredible amount of English so you can truly get away with “Hei” (Hello) and “Kiitos” (Thank you).

Sauna is a big deal over here. You pronounce it “Sour-nah”. According to wikipedia there are over 3 million saunas in Finland. Than is over one sauna for every two inhabitants. Wiki: “Finns think of saunas not as a luxury, but as a necessity. Before the rise of public health care and nursery facilities, almost all Finnish mothers gave birth in saunas.” We got to experience this all first-hand. But more on that later!

FIRST DAY

We arrived by train from the airport and found our way to the hotel which was basically in the dead centre of town. We had missed lunch and it was now too late so Dee sent me on a mission to find snacks, a drink, fruit and a tinned coffee. But finding a convenience store was a super-challenge. I got the fruit (berries) just at a market-kart near the station but failed on most of the other criteria. Finland has that thing where you can only buy booze at State-run facilities. And these can be hard to find if you don’t know where to look.

Meanwhile my phone-card from the UK refused to work so on the agenda for that night’s activities was to get a cheap Finnish phone plan. We eventually found R-Kioski. Pretty much exactly like a 7-11 but it also had these massive gambling machines (like Pokies) in a corner. Very weird.

Later we scrambled around to the big sights like the Cathedrals and the big Square and the waterfront. Dinner was at this pub place around the corner.

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SUOMENLINNA

So in Finnish – “Linna” basically means fortress or castle. We got to see a few other “Linnas” around the place. The vibe in Finland is that it is a tiny country squished between superior nations but it will defend itself to the hilt. To the HILT. And “Suomen” is basically the word for Finland. So Suomenlinna is a bit of a big deal. And it isn’t just one island. It is six islands connected by bridges. There’s a bunch of people that live there permanently. There’s even a school. And just quietly — the Pokemon were going riot over there. I saw a bunch of kids who had obviously skipped school just to go nuts over there.

The place was huge and there were always tiny nooks and details of the fortifications to look at and explore unimpeded. Tunnels and ramparts and actual batteries. Plus cute houses and views over the sea towards Estonia. It made the our pathetic “fort” in Brisbane (Fort Lytton) look pretty ordinary.

Lunch was at a ramen place. Look — it is so much easier ordering food in the language it was invented in when you are in a place that is a billion miles away. So consequently there is cultural neutral-zone.You kinda appear quite knowledgeable, and be a deadshit tourist at the same time. It’s a level playing field. “Tonkotsu Ramen Kiitos.” And then you can proceed to know the condiments and use the chopsticks (and spoon) with super-dexterity. It is a revelation. (ASIDE: In London we would order Pho, but we would get the kudos by pronouncing it “Fir”.)

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BOMFUNK MC’s

Here’s the thing – I will not try to pretend this next bit wasn’t tragic. It is what it is. I have been the biggest fan of this song, and it’s film-clip. Like almost equally. It is just the perfect marriage of sound and vision (and dancing). One of the very first children’s shows on TV I watched was called “Words and pictures”. And that was what it was about. Perfect. Art or just lowly “entertainment” wasn’t necessarily confined to just one medium at the same time. You could be the best of both or all worlds at the very same time.

Anyway this film-clip was so amazing and I just had to go there. Luckily the wikipedia page had the very specifics so I could go there and KNOW I was in exactly the same place. Nothing was changed. I even attempted to play the song on my iPhone but accidentally sent the music LIVE to everyone on the train cause I hadn’t quite got my headphone jack connected. Dee was horrified, but I didn’t care.

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NEXT!

That night we had dinner in some brewery and prepared for the next day into the heart of Finland via Dee’s great-uncle — Marku. He was picking us up at 8am.

BONUS PICS

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IMG_0895.JPGSome art installation!

Amsterdam – days 11-13.

We arrived in Amsterdam on my very first birthday overseas. And of course it didn’t quite feel like the kinda birthday you get back home where I buy myself a lego set and eat sticky-date pudding for desert and relax on the couch all evening. No — it was just another intense-day where we had to get somewhere and once that done — maybe I could relax and maybe be interested in celebrating. I think I might have got to that point at about 5pm.

But backtracking: we got an uneventful train from Breda and then found a cab rank at the back of Amsterdam station and I swear we got ripped off. I couldn’t see any meter running but I thought that was just cause I didn’t know where to look. And cause we were doing two drops, one for us and one for Jess, I thought that might have something to do with it.

I thought I had learnt this scam (from this time in Atlanta where the driver locked our luggage in the boot until we paid whatever he had previously “quoted”.) The scam is where the taxi driver just “quotes” you a figure at the start of the journey and you accidentally “accept” and so the meter isn’t running the whole time and later you don’t have much choice but accepting. It was a bit more acute cause Jess had to pay the final bill (cause we got dropped off first). So not a great start. And taxi drivers wonder why they have such a bad rep and why everyone seems to embracing Uber.

Our hotel was a little on the edge of town. But close to all the museums and the park and of course there were canals everywhere.

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BIKES

It really was the most bikes I have seen in one place. It was a little funny though because ALL the bikes were using the bike lanes or the side streets — never the road proper. I looked on and thought, “OMG, I could smash so much faster using the car part of the road.” And I saw the occasional “roadie” and they were using the bike lanes too — which were vastly more congested. I guess that was the vibe. For me personally I like to mix it up with cars and smash it. To make sure my Garmin stats are the best they can be.

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THE HOTEL

It was a nice place where we were staying. All this cool furniture and Art in the common areas, plus a market virtually next door which had a food hall, cinema and cool shops.

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That night we had dinner at a Japanese place and then had some fun — just quietly.

The next day we realised another TRAVEL FAIL: you could only buy tickets to the Anne Frank museum online and our window was virtually frozen out. I had even read Anne’s Diary as prep, but I figured just standing outside was enough. It had been such a harrowing experience just reading her words and then stumbling around the streets where she lived, walked, and where she rode her bicycle — before it was banned. Then looking at her prison before a proper-prison was sad enough. Her ghost was everywhere — indeed she was almost a ghost when she wrote those words, and walked these streets and cowered at the back of that factory.

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Later that day we had lunch in a rooftop restaurant which had one of those  glass elevators. I am all a bit tragic in these situations. I don’t like heights, and I don’t like elevators. But I love views. Work that one out Freud.

And then we went to the Van Gogh Museum and used one of those audio-tour things. They are so good. I am so dumb when it comes to Art. I barely even know what I like — mostly just knowing what I hate. And the stuff in the middle — the stuff I am indifferent to is more a mystery than true indifference. So it is so refreshing having stuff explained to me. I LOVED that nun (Sister Wendy) who explained paintings in the most incredible way imaginable. So much weirder (and less pompous) than Robert Hughes, but conversely so much more natural. I saw it on some obscure timeslot on the ABC when I was a kid. Even as a kid I thought she rocked. CHECK THIS OUT I BLOODY DARE YOU — OMG! Or this which is super-trendy ATM. (Watch vs Hannah Gadsby’s review of the same painting.)

Anyway — I did my best not to get all teary – but it was super-hard. He was a redhead too. Bloody hell.

The next day we did that Ryks Museum and that was OK. Like it was at least an hour of entertainment before you were over it. We stretched it out to 1.5 hours. OMG — art galleries just get so samey. Call me a philistine — but that is the truth.

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SUMMARY

At the time, and a bit since I really don’t think I got into Amsterdam that much. I think I need to go back one day and maybe that will change. I mean Paris was a bit like that. London possibly too.

BONUS PICS

IMG_0805.JPGGratuitous red-light district shot — it was pretty tame really.

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These signs were everywhere. We had to google them later because I thought it was highly weird. It turns out that it is an anti-theft device where if you steal something you just might get sprayed by a DNA code that will mark you and basically connect you to the crime. Unless you have like a billion showers in the space of a week. Or burn all your skin off. Or confess. Up to you.

IMG_0825.JPGDee with a shop cat

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GUEST BLOG – Jess writes about the Redhead Festival

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My take on Redhead Days is a little different to Davey’s… While I fully sympathise with the plight of the downtrodden gingers, wept for the guy in the Being Ginger Netflix documentary, and would argue strongly that the lack of ginger emojis is a mild form of racism… I myself never endured any ginger torment as a child.

Sure, there were what Dee would call my “terminally ill years” between the age of ten and 15, before braces and eyebrow tinting, but even through those awkward teenage times, if I had a dollar for every time someone asked, “Is that your natural hair colour?” I’d have enough money to hit up every ginger festival in every country every year.

I know this makes me (even more of) a minority, and I consider myself lucky for never having been made to feel embarrassed about my hair colour. (Except maybe for the time I dated a guy who turned out to be obsessed with Annie, and I only found out when he introduced me to his grandmother, who said, “Oh, she does look like Annie!” That was awkward.) My ginger pride stems from my upbringing, and the strong female gingers I had as role models – my beautiful mum, who I watched being constantly adored by my dad, and my fiery aunty, a total knockout loved by everyone. I don’t even know if you could call it “ginger pride”… Our hair colour, while acknowledged and celebrated, was just a small part of who we are. It was a non-issue, so I never had to overthink it, and I just kinda liked my hair colour. Even appreciated that it made me a little different.

So for me, Redhead Days seemed like a bit of fun. Something that would make a cool story… “Yeah, so I’m traveling through Europe for six months, and my first stop is a little town in the Netherlands for a three-day celebration of gingers.” Why not?!

But then I arrived in Breda, and my little ginger bubble burst. For the first time in my life, I actually felt self-conscious about my hair colour. While there was a strong sense of solidarity amongst the gingers, it was the non-ginger ginger enthusiasts that really made me uneasy. All of a sudden I was on display, and I didn’t like it one bit.

Standing in the town square, men with cameras would swarm and take photos of me like I was an animal in the zoo. One guy got so close I had to give him an “I can see you” eyebrow raise so that he’d back off.

Probably the most unsettling encounter was with a (non-ginger) guy from Vienna who claimed to be a journalist. He approached Dee & me in the park one afternoon looking for a story, with a bottle of coke and pack of cigarettes his only tools of trade. Within five minutes of awkwardly sleazy chitchat, he was convinced he and I were “the perfect pair” and suggested we be Facebook friends. Feeling a little flirty (in hindsight, foolish!) from the wine, I said that if he could find me at the pub crawl later that night, we could make that happen. He did find me. Twice. At two different pubs, among hundreds of gingers. In the dark of night in a foreign town, he seemed even more creepy than during the day, forcing me to make a French exit and go home to bed.

The official group photo was the last straw. Being herded into the photo location space, and then separated by a barrier from the non-gingers while the photographers snapped at us from the top of a cherry picker, just felt a little too much.

So while Redhead Days was an interesting experience, I was relieved when the weekend came to an end, and I could just throw my hair up in a ponytail and move on. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d washed and blow dried my hair three days in a row. Because hey, if I’m going to be photographed unknowingly, I want to be looking my best. 💁 (Blonde emoji used for lack of a ginger one.)

And here’s Jess’s blog: The End of August

GINGER FESTIVAL – BREDA

DAYS 8-10

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It’s been a bit of a life-dream going to The Ginger Festival. There are others apparently — but the one in Breda is the biggest and I think the very first. But despite being desperate to go, I was still quite a bit intimidated by the experience. I treat my gingerness as politics. It’s incredibly important to me. I know I harp on about this all the time, so just skip the next two paragrapha if you’ve heard this all before.

I am what I can only describe as a “Militant-Ginger”. I genuinely believe we have a case for ethnicity. Not just for our physiognomy, but because we are genuinely persecuted. And I know you are thinking, “What’s a few harmless jibes? Get over it Coppertop.” But it’s really tough growing up the only redhead in your class. You feel so different at a time when you just want to be so, so the same. But I never had it as bad as the woman I saw on TV describe how her (male) classmates ripped down her dress to see if her pubic hair was red too. And when that South Park episode came out I wept for my little ginger comrades still at school that had another set of bullshit to deal with. I constantly feel like telling little ginger-kids, “Don’t worry — it gets better.”

There is also another case for our ethnicity — the fact we evolved to be genetically adapted to the highest latitudes — where the sunlight was weak or only available for the shortest periods. Our pale skins could soak up the limited sunlight more effectively so we didn’t have any vitamin D issues. Anyway. I identify as a ginger and it shits me so much when we are dismissed as just a minority hair-colour. We are all so much, much more that that.

I CAN”T HELP NOTICING EVERY SINGLE GINGER

When I see a random ginger I cannot help but pausing for that milli-second to process that meeting. I feel we have a tiny recognition moment similar to what the movie “Fight Club” popularised. We don’t say or do anything, (or even nod or maintain any length of eye-contact) — but it’s just an instant affinity. Maybe it is even mutual. So of course SPOLIER ALERT: this will become a bit of sensory overload very soon. More on that later.

So back to BREDA. When I announced we were going to the festival, Jess — a fellow ginger from Brisbane— said she would come too. I spent ages at Antwerp Station lining up to buy our train tickets (cause the machines refused to work). The woman at the counter was a ginger and for the 20-odd minutes I waited in line I worked up the courage to say that I was buying tickets to go to the Ginger festival — imagining all the while she would be pleased or at the very least — interested. It turned out she was mystified at best. Maybe it was my terrible attempt at translating the concept, but she had no idea about the festival, didn’t care about my trip and maybe even didn’t identify as ginger. Not a great start.

We arrived at Breda station around lunch time and when we walked out into the light we stopped because we weren’t entirely orientated. But then suddenly a woman came up to us with a brochure and I thought, “Ugh, somebody selling something.” I did my least enthusiastic “hi” and was even about to decline what she was offering. But then she asked if we were here for the Festival. Instantly I was gobsmacked. Though not a ginger, she was an official spruiker of the Festival. She handed us these booklets and gave us directions — all in English. It was incredible. We felt special. We had arrived. We just might be home.

PAYMENT DRAMA

There was a bit of drama getting this apartment — despite the fact I booked it first and three whole months before we were due to arrive. (The whole reason for the trip was based around getting to Breda). Eventually Laura in the UK had to pay for it because I couldn’t pay by credit card and paypal would only pay in Australian dollars (which the owner refused). And that was a highly convoluted process and took ages and all the while I seriously wondered if we were being scammed.

So when we arrived at the address and it was just a vacant shop I was horrified. “I had a bad feeling about this,” I said. We looked around the back and were met by a security gate with no intercom. Dee was calm. Jess was calm — but I was mortified. I dove into my pack and brought out the confirmation print out. There was a phone number listed. So after a few fails at  getting the area code, I got through to the owner and he was like, “You’re early! I’ll be there in 10 minutes”. Saved! I can’t imagine what we would have done had we not got SIM cards. Anyway. Crisis over.

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This is my review of the apartment if I could be bothered: only one bedroom, but there was plenty of space. Noisy at night — made good use of ear plugs. No hair dryer. No air-con (just a very ordinary ceiling fan in bedroom). The three flights of metal stairs were treacherous after rain. Complicated key system. Wifi was a bit flaky. Don’t forget (like we did) to bring 300 euros in cash for safety deposit.

Exploring Breda we saw all the sights despite only officially simply trying to find a supermarket. Then we realised we needed that hairdryer so Dee and Jess went off hunting that while i lugged all our groceries home. Jess and Dee made a frittata for dinner and we ate on our balcony which had a decent view. Then we all got showered, made-up and blow-dryed (me included) and made our way to the nightclub which was the first event on the Festival schedule.

FIRST GINGER PARTY — AND I AM WORRIED. “IS THIS A TOTAL DISAPPOINTMENT?”

As we got closer I got both nervous and excited. Not being totally confident in google maps I wasn’t even sure we were in the right place, but then we turned a corner and there were some gingers hanging about outside. I instantly said hello to everyone. But I got some push-back. I got the intense feeling they were not used to being greeted so warmly by a stranger — even a fellow ginger. I think that is a European thing. (My friend Cass moved to Norway and said to me that if he greets a random in the street, like just being polite, they cannot comprehend it. They assume you are an acquaintance they have forgotten. It is inconceivable to them that a stranger would want to simply say “hello”.) I worried that this whole event would be a bit wooden. Just a photo-op. A total disappointment.

But of course I was determined to make the best of this. Inside, as the beverages kept flowing, everyone seemed to loosen up a bit and realise there was an affinity. Eventually you could just go up to anyone and say, “Hi”. We met a bunch of gingers including Ireland’s Ginger King. (He had a crown to prove it). And then we were all corralled into a group photo. At that point knew this event was important. The Ginger-Fest hadn’t officially started but there was at least 200 gingers here ready to stand up and be counted (and party.)

IMG_0687.JPGHere’s the Irish King!

I got in there for the photo and then dived upstairs while the MC was still talking to get a shot of the crowd below. I posted that shot to Instagram as something like: “There are 100% gingers in this shot. True Story” It was profound. I know I use that word a lot — but it was so meaningful. I was with my brothers and sisters. I was with people who knew what I had gone through and I knew what they had gone through (and would go through, potentially, for the rest of their lives.)

My ginger friend Nicci commented on that post saying, “I can’t imagine what that would feel like.” And as I woke up the next day and saw that — I realised it was a truly momental occasion.

NICCI: “You’re so used to being an oddball that you don’t even think about it anymore, until someone mentions they were in a room full of people similar to you, and you get an odd sense of belonging for the first time that you didn’t know could exist.”

GINGER SATURDAY

The next day Jess and I were all trying to look our best. I have never had the need to shampoo my hair twice in one day — but that happened. As I ventured out that morning I felt   quite consciously that I was being “looked at”. I felt like everyone knew why I was here. But combatting that hyper-self-consciousness was the fact I felt like I wasn’t the only one. All us gingers were almost celebrities. Indeed Jess will later tell you stories about how she was shot by all these ginger-paparazzi. (Stay tuned)

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That morning we got our country stickers. We seemed to be the only Australians there — but later we found at least two other gingers form Australia. But most of the gingers were from Europe. One from Iraq. For the first time ever I have worn our flag with pride. Not pride in the flag, just pride in the fact we had come a long way and there were many, many gingers in Australia that I had promised to represent. And I thought of EVERY SINGLE ONE OF YOU. (Even though I forgot to tag the awesome Shelley in my Insti post. Still sorry about that Shell. Forgive me!)

PUB CRAWL

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On this night Dee chose to stay home. She could have come, but in her mind that would have been awkward. I understood her decision. So it was just Jess and me who got assigned to different “teams” for this event. They had to divide us all up into groups of about 12 so we didn’t overwhelm any single venue. My group had two guides and then we hit about 8 pubs and nightclubs before a big meet-up at some massive nightclub. Of course – I had a great time. That was a given. I was a bit dusty the next day it should be said.

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PHOTO DAY

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OFFICIAL PHOTOS (we are actually in these – just saying)

So a Sunday emerged and we all met in the Square and again it was too many gingers to process. It was obscene. Ginger-kids too. About ten of them were planted on this stage looking out over all of us. (They were so well behaved it should be said). After a big speech by the mayor we all walked about a kilometre to the train station for a group photo. At that point Dee got excluded. There were bouncers that literally said, “Gingers THIS WAY, you people go over there.”

Dee was a bit nonplussed already. Obviously I felt sorry for her, but then I didn’t. SOZ BEB.

The Sun had now come out and it shone down on us just like the deadshit it is. We all realise it is the reason life exists and the reason we all still exist, but to us, it is still pretty bullshit.

We all stood there in that SHINE for about 30 minutes trying to look our best “GINGER” and always looking straight ahead while these goobs tried to get the perfect shot on-top of these cherry pickers which were constantly going up and down. All the while we were melting, squinting and possibly developing (or nurturing) various skin cancers. UGH! This terrible MC was running around interviewing gingers on the loud speakers and it was cringe-worthy at best. I didn’t really expect anything better — but this was billed as the pinnacle of the whole event. And it was pretty ordinary. They really need to make that bit slightly less contrived. Like we are herded. Or a spectacle. Just saying.

BONUS SHOTS

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EUROPA TRIP (DAY 5-7) BRUSSELS/ANTWERP

From LONDON to BRUSSELS to ANTWERP

I’ve said it before and I will say it again — it is so, so civilised travelling by train. The seats are generous, the security and immigration is less intense, you can walk about anytime you want, watch the countryside (except for the tunnel parts) and you generally arrive right in the centre of town. I would even rate the chugging motion, the clickety-clack of the train over the tracks being quite therapeutic and conducive to sleep – if that’s what you need.

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IMG_0737.JPGEUROSTAR 2007 vs EUROSTAR 2016

In saying all that — our hotel was in the old part of Brussels so we had quite a walk up there on rather hot day, dragging Dee’s suitcase noisily over the cobbles. A good 20 minutes passed.

IMG_0739.JPGDee carried my backpack, while I looked after her suitcase and my smaller pack

Eventually we arrived and the place was pretty fancy. But we conversely — were quite dishevelled. We must have looked so awful they gave us a glass of home-made lemonade while we checked in. It emerged the hotel was an old Dominican monastery. It was the kinda place that had a personalised welcome message on your room’s TV and the kinda place you took a photo of before you messed it all up with your crap. In the public areas a loop of Gregorian chants was omnipresent. I am not sure if that was settling, or kinda weird. As we came and went here I am sure the staff thought of us as probably simple folk that have accidentally come into wealth — “nouveau-riche”. We wore pretty simple attire relative to the other guests and we didn’t have the breakfast and we were always coming and going. I guess it was all confirmed when we famously got the barman (right in this supremely palatial bar) to open — literally the cheapest bottle of wine in Brussels — because we didn’t have a bottle-opener.

IMG_0770.JPGDid some boxing in the hotel gym — was great!

BRUX

While Dee freshened up I hit the town exploring and found a bunch of places to show Dee later. Here Brussels had those tiny lanes and organic street layout. Brux had a charm. The flags draping over the lanes and the fact it was a tiny, but quite big city all at the same time. We were staying in the hyper-touristy section but you could still get a feel of the place despite the incessant “frites” signs and “chocolate” stuff.

That evening we spent 50 euro on two ramens for dinner. Why it was so expensive I do not know — maybe it is a delicacy here.

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FEET

Meanwhile my feet were a mess. I had developed a massive blister on the plane 4 days earlier and it was now a goiter-sized bubble on my left foot. The other foot was littered with blisters too. Jess Kearney and I did a comparison — I won. And the only relief I got was to get walking for about 15 minutes. Once you had got accustomed to the pain, once your feet were “warmed up” — then you could perambulate with some degree of dignity. The cobbles did not help.

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The next day I hobbled the 400 metres to the Museum of Comics which was super-interesting. The english translations were a bit dodgy, but it was so amazing realising cartoons go back to those monks back in the middle ages and their innovative illustrations to religious texts. And nowadays a lot of comics are done with super-sophisticated software on massive tablets. It’s almost cheating. There was a lot of Tintin/Hergé — he’s pretty-much a national hero in Belgium.

BOERKE

But also this comic about a guy called Boerke. Which I think loosely translates to English as a dude named “Dickie”. (Of course it does. LOL). There was this installation devoted to these comics and it was so subversive — but so incredibly hilarious too. (And beautifully illustrated too!) It’s the sort of thing you could only get away with in Europe. But we both thought it was the best. You be the judge:

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The town square looked postcard perfect the day we arrived, but then overnight all these trucks arrived and ugly bunting and pavilions were being set up for some gooby beer festival. All that old-world-chic was now ruined by 21st century logos and plastic and cordons and crowdedness. In all the airports in Europe, just after you get through security, or though immigration, they have this pad with 4 options on it. Colour coded and happy/sad face options. “How was your experience today?” it asks. But “Ugh” or “Sigh” was never an option. I think I would hit either of those buttons on this day if one of those bad-boys were available. But maybe mostly I was complaining cause any photo I wanted of the place was compromised and instantly dated.

That night we had a beer at this pub that Jon recommended which apparently had over a 1000 beers on tap. It was called Delerium and it was one of those places that was a bit of a warren. It had exotic and historic beer memorabilia plastered all over the place and all the tables were barrels. Outside (at the rear non-entrance) it had a gigantic beer bottle hanging off the facade and the words “BEER PLANET”. Ordering one of 10 beers available is intimidating. Ordering 1 of 1000 is just utter bullshit. But being the trooper I am — I somehow managed.

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ANTWERP

The next day I did an early morning trip to get breakfast at the local “Paul” — a popular boulangerie chain over there. According to the diary I wrote that day I was a bit scared about ordering something in a place not necessarily frequented by foreigners — especially at that hour. Despite practising, I managed a very bullshit “Deux croissants et un cafe au lait, sil vous plait.” But of course they answered in perfect English and I was all worked up about nothing. My “Merci!” was literally perfect it should be said.

We met Jess at the train station and then had a quick lunch in the tourist-trap restaurant section and then we headed up to our train. I checked another “FAIL” into our list when buying our tickets from the only FRENCH speaking vending machine. So I accidentally bought 3 return tickets — we were only going one-way. Oh well.

We arrived at the magnificent Antwerp(en) Centraal Station. Possibly *the* most amazing train stations I have ever been to. From where we arrived, at it’s deepest depth, we looked up towards the light and it seemed like a temple. We took all these successive escalators up and up towards the pinnacle, all the while more and more bathed in natural light and getting closer and closer to the original station building with its massive dome and incredible architecture.

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Our hotel was just across the road but it was a bit “basic”. Jess was sharing with us. Despite the fact it was blazingly hot there was no air-con, no fans and the layout of the rooms was weird. (Jess was basically sleeping in a windowless cupboard off the main bedroom). The shower was a bit awkward and there was no WIFI! UGH. Deal-breaker. But it was just for one night — right? Luckily the temperature dived once it got dark. We got composed and headed off towards the old part of town. The route was through a major commercial district. Malls and expensive shops everywhere.

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Then were were suddenly upon possibly the tallest church I have ever seen. And it was like 12th Century. Crazy. We stopped for a drink (I had a Duvel) in the courtyard ahead of the church then somehow arrived at a bar that had a “house dog”. A place called Billie’s Bier kafetaria.

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I had something that tasted truly awful but apparently was revered and had an incredibly complicated brewing process.

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Next we had the WORST dinner at a Chinese restaurant. I accidentally ordered basically a macaroni-cheese in a Chinese style. (The menu was in Dutch). It was more bland than disgusting. Like the kind of food you might appreciate if you were on a long-haul flight and you had slept through a meal-service.

OH YEAH — I GOT A HOLE IN MY THUMB NAIL

IMG_0636.JPG(more on this later — eek)

BONUS PICS

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EUROPE TRIP (Day 1-4)

IMG_0663.JPGDee was hoping to buy Albo’s new book at the airport — but instead just had to download it to the Kindle.IMG_0672.JPG

AN INTRODUCTION

This is the story of our 40 day trip to Europe. It was a “busy” trip. It made my head spin when the reality of it all hit the night before we left. I was a mess of nerves and I genuinely believe I was more anxious than I had been on the eve of our first time to Europe almost 10 years ago. This time we were jumping about Europe like iced-up-maniacs on pogo-sticks. By our standards it was an unprecedentedly hectic schedule. We weren’t stopping for very long in any one place — apart from the 6 days in a row at London right at the very end. (Which was essentially a reward for all our previous express-tourism). We had three separate car hires, one of which was that right-hand drive bullshit with a manual — meaning I not only had to get my shit together to drive on the opposite side of the road, but had to change gears with my right hand.

There were a bunch of intra-Europe flights on airline carriers we had never heard of and all the transfers that necessitated. There were a bunch of extremely early flights. And we were yet to book a bunch stuff — particularly in Ireland.

LONDON

The last time we arrived in London it was at 6am. (This was back in 2011). And thus we made it to our hotel in record time. Probably just before 9. Naturally the hotel room wasn’t ready so we were forced to wander around a bleak, grey city like zombies for hours and hours until we could check in at 3pm. Lesson-learnt, this time we booked an airport day room. It was so tiny and super hi-tech it was like living on the International Space Station. There were buttons everywhere for lights and the TV but crucially a button that would un-furl the bed. (It was like a massive robotic Jason-Recliner). That done the entire room was filled up. Once you were done napping you literally had to collapse the bed so you could move about the place again. We only got about 1.5 hours sleep but it was enough to feel a tiny bit fresh for the trip from Heathrow into the city proper.

We took the express train to Paddington, then got some brand new Oyster cards and planted 20 pounds on each. At Liverpool Station we took a quaint black cab and the (equally-quaint) driver was the most ENGLISH person you could imagine. I actually think he called me “Gov” or “Governor”.

So we were staying in Hackney. About halfway down Hackney Road in a spot I would describe as “authentic” London. On the “dodgy-scale” I would rate it at about 15%. Like there was perhaps a 15% chance anytime you ventured out there that something uncomfortable would occur. Within a stone’s throw there was a Chippy, three off-licenses, a Tesco and some weird proliferation of bag merchants.

ON THE BUSES

We soon learnt our road had three great services (the 26, 48 & 55) that would certainly get us moving in the general direction we needed to be — if not taking us almost exactly where we wanted to go. So we didn’t use much of the Tube. It is only a pound per journey on the bus — no matter how far you travel (as long as you stay on that particular bus). As opposed to the Tube which is almost 4 quid minimum a trip. It was now all about the buses. We would always ride up top to get the views and to be guaranteed a seat and jut for the novelty. Plenty of people also took dogs on the bus — Dee would rate that as another bonus.

FIRST NIGHT

Our date with Laura K and Laura Morrissey was in Shoreditch at the Owl and Pussycat. We walked over and, being inherently super-punctual — we got there early and I was faced with my first cultural malaise. I was ordering our drinks and I had been prepared for Dee’s wine but my beer proved a complication. I successfully ordered the wine, but as I looked down at the beer-taps I couldn’t recognise any brand — or any variety. As far as I could tell there was not even a Guinness or Kronenberg option. Whatever I stumbled into ordering was barely OK. I think I even ordered it again just cause I couldn’t bear the roulette of trying something else which might have been worse. It was a bit of a wake up call. I was now on the other side of the planet and I had to get my shit together.

It was so great to see the Lauras and epic good times were had. PizzaEast for dinner.

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I CAUSE AN INCIDENT

We were back at the hotel by 10 and we crashed into bed. Asleep almost immediately. But at about 3:30am we both woke up and I decided to use the facilities. The room was unfamiliar and completely dark and I was searching for the bathroom light. “Where the fuck is the bathroom light?, “ I said to Dee. I had completely forgotten that bathrooms in the UK have the light switch on the outside. It is absolute stupidity — but that is how they do things over there. I was stumbling around and Dee was giving me some suggestions. Eventually I found this cord and I think I said, “Hey maybe this cord is it.” Dee literally screamed, “NO DON’T!” But it was too late.

I yanked this cord and suddenly all these alarms went off. I literally thought I had set of the Hotel’s fire alarm. Dee sprung out of bed in a panic and was like, “That’s the panic cord.”

“WHAT?!!”

See we were in one of those “ambulent rooms”. Designed for people with disabilities. That panic-cord was super-effective. It not only made unspecified people in the hotel (or else) in panic-mode – but I too was now also quite a bit PANICKED. I dived upon the room’s telephone and was immediately in touch with someone in Reception. In hindsight I realised I had picked up the receiver just at that instant after Reception had dialled our room number to check on us.

“Oh My God, “ I said as calmly as I could muster. “I didn’t mean to do that.” She started telling me how to cancel/reset the alarm but her instructions weren’t quite specific enough. (I guess because all rooms are subtly different she was telling me to find this switch at a place it definitely was not.) Another panicked minute or two ensued before I found that cancel button — on the ceiling of all places. I leapt on a chair and the CRISIS was averted. But all that adrenaline was still swimming about our super-wired bodies and as we slumped back into bed it took us a bunch more time to get back to sleep. After that I started making a list of all the FAILS! we had done so far.

Examples:

1) I said “G’Day” at least twice within hours of arriving.
2) I said, “Can I chuck that on my card?” — which would have been equally a highly mystifying and creepy thing to say now I realise it.|
3) Dee accidentally locked her suitcase after accidentally spinning the combination locks.
4) (In Brussels) Buying the cheapest/dodgiest wine available but when we realised it required a corkscrew, we realised we were in such a super-expensive hotel and asking the concierge to uncork it. So much AWKWARD.

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IMG_0946.JPG(2007)

IMG_0392.JPG(And in 2016)

The next day, a Friday, we went into the city to get UK phone cards and have a wander around. Went to the British Museum and it was “Saturday” chaotic. So much more security since last we visited. Not much else to report about that day except the epic stairs at the Russell Square Tube station.

BRISBANE IN LDN

That night we caught the bus up to one of most favourite places in London — Stoke Newington — initially to meet Laura K. But then a bunch of other Brisbane ex-pats were on our agenda. Sonya and Brad, Mark and Katie. We all piled into this tiny backroom section of an awesome vegetarian Indian restaurant (RASA) and shared stories of living in London and me and Dee got excited. Then LK and Dee and me headed to Camden (EDIT: Actually Dalston — thanks LK) to see Susan’s band. Laura Morrissey was there too and then suddenly Mitch appeared. So many Brisbane friends! But jet-lag was creeping up and I was mostly to blame for us leaving just before midnight. Moments before I made the call I had accidentally gone to the women’s toilet and it was horrifying. “OMG! I am just a tourist! I am a Deadshit! I am so sorry!” That was literally what I said when I emerged from the cubicle and when the realisation punched me in the face. The two women there were luckily very understanding.

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SUNDAY

The weather had turned a little. It was periodically drizzly but our tiny umbrella seemed to keep us dry as we walked over to the Columbia Road Flower Market. It’s a thing in London to buy flowers. It’s a bland and dreary existence here (nature-wise) and I guess you don’t get to see much natural colour and so people go a bit nuts for flowers to spice up their apartments. It was super-crowded and we slow-mo’d our way through the throng to find a quaint bagel place and dove out to the back for a bit of peace and to scoff some rather excellent bagels down. Then Dee and LK went off while we made own ways independently towards the War Cabinet Rooms over near Westminster. I made it most of the way just walking only having to get a four stop/one change tube ride to meet the deadline. The tube service was advising that patrons should take water to stave off the heat down there. It was good advice. The tube was disgustingly hot. You’d think being so deep underground it would be sufficiently insulated — but the air is so blisteringly stuffy. The atmosphere seems to be enriched by human body heat and having just walked up top for an hour meant my core temperature was already elevated. There was a spot at the end of the carriage where you could stand next to a tiny open window which provided some relief — but only while the train was moving.

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The line-up for the War Rooms was epic, but after a quick stop at a Pret-a-Manger for a coffee we got hit by a sudden downpour. It was sufficiently severe to decimate the line-up and we made it down with only the briefest of waits. SCORE!

After learning quite a bit more about than I really needed to know about Churchill (but achingly little about his wife Clementine) we came up into the light again and realised we hadn’t seen a single window for hours. LK came back with us to our hotel room for drinks. Then collectively we did a poke-hunt in Haggerston Park and then at Bethnal Green we caught our first Mr. Mime — a Europe-only Pokemon. We were all so excited we did this big group hug. Embarrassing, but it felt good at the time.

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IMG_0436.JPG(August 2016)

IMG_6637.JPG(January 2008)

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MONDAY — BANK HOLIDAY

It was a slow start, but after wandering around the area we made it to a cafe attached to a recording studio called “The Premises”. It was one of those places with signed pictures in frames all over the walls. Jarvis Cocker, Little Boots, Lily Allen etc. A group of four fat Council workers had the table next to us and were so deplorably inappropriate they made Trump seem like an angel. The runt of the group was a guy called “Fat Paul” who copped most of the vile. And he wasn’t that fat. Poor bastard. Even the waitress was insulted — “You’re not as fat as Fat Paul,” one of them said. Literally.

Anyway. It was mostly a quiet day that ended with dinner in a section of Hackney that I can only describe as Little Vietnam. Tomorrow we had to negotiate THE CONTINENT. (More on that later.)

ASIDE: This was my favourite ad on UK TV. So good. (and the way the dog jumps up in the very last second is equal genius and magical.)

BONUS PICS:

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IMG_0710.JPG(Drinking in a park with a squirrel)