The Changing Seasons: From Summer to Autumn

Yesterday was a crisp Autumn day in London. There was not a cloud to be seen and, despite being freezing, the day was beautiful.

Adrian, Cynthia and I set off early for Oxford for a relaxing Sunday out of London. Sipping my coffee (I’ve discovered decaf), I began to feel very relaxed as the train departed Paddington and sped through the city into the countryside, past rolling meadows and picturesque hay bales. I realised, as I sometimes do, that I haven’t updated this journal for too long.

We arrived in Oxford a little over an hour later and wandered into the city centre to book a walking tour for the afternoon. We then bought ourselves a cheap (comparative to London) lunch and headed for the botanical gardens. I really enjoyed sitting under the yellowing Autumn leaves, nibbling a baguette and watching the passers by. It was the first time, in a while, that I’ve felt truly relaxed.

From here we had a look at a climate change centric photography exhibition before thoring ourselves in the greenhouse while being wowed by some incredible tropical plants. As it approached 2:00 we strolled back to the centre of town to commence our walking tour.

This took us through various parts of the town with our guide commenting on the history of the city, its buildings and its various colleges. Luckily we were able to enter several colleges, as part of the tour, for an interesting inside look into their beauty and grandeur.

Possibly the most enjoyable part of the day, for me, was spending the remainder of the afternoon in a restuarant / bar on the main street listening to live jazz while we had Devonshire Tea and read the Sunday papers. It’s something I often intend to do, and never do it, and sitting there relaxing with friends really made my weekend!

In other news work is going well, having had my St George’s contract extended until the end of November. I have booked my ticket home for early December. I will arrive in the midst of several major birthdays and Christmas before madly job hunting to start work next year.

Since my last entry I popped over to Paris, needing some time out of London, and had an amazing Autumn weekend with beautiful weather and great culture (thank you Gilles). I wandered the streets, visited Le Père Lachaise (home to the tombs of Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison) and spent Sunday night in a funky underground jazz club.

I’ve also been spending many days in London trying to fit in as much as I can before I head home. From a trip with Yumi (one of Adrian’s house mates) to the Tower of London, to a morning service at the beautiful St Paul’s, to free outdoor cinema at Trafalgar Square, to days in the Tate Modern, I’m trying to make the most of this city.

I will be home in a few weeks but, until then, stay well and I look forward to catching up soon!

j j j

A Year in Retrospect: Thoughts From a Sushi Train

It’s 2:00 PM on Saturday, 18th August 2007, 53 weeks after I left Melbourne. I’ve recently turned 23, and I’m sitting in Finchley Road at a Sushi Train realising what an absolutely amazing year I’ve had.

In the past year I’ve set foot on four continents, visited more countries than I can count, met many amazing people, reunited old friendships, and lived some of the most incredible experiences of my life. Be it experiences like riding along the Golden Gate Bridge as the sun sparkles off the Pacific, or floating in a hot air balloon as dawn breaks over Egypt; or be it drinking Kölsch at your friend’s favourite beer-hall in Germany, or realising, for the 100th time, as you stroll along the Thames embankment, that you’re actually living in London. It matters little how big or small the experience, it is each of these which have come together to make the past year as amazing as I had ever hoped for.

It has not, of course, been without hard times. Several things have happened with my family which have been difficult to bare from so far away. But the world doesn’t pause for anyone, and I’ve been lucky to have such supportive family and friends to ease the burden of these times.

Today I had an Andy Day (a term coined by Cynthia; credit where credit is due). To digress for a moment, I’d never really discovered the value of ‘self time’ until a few days before leaving Melbourne. I had met Mum and Dad for breakfast in some suburb; of which I’ve forgotten the name. Though it was the middle of winter the weather was beautiful and I decided to take a drive [back in the days of having a car] into the city and see where it took me. I ended up just wandering Southbank and enjoying simply being in Melbourne. I was amazed at how much more I noticed by just being there, alone, instead of always surrounding myself with people and talk. Prior to this I had always felt sad for those people alone in the movies, or eating dinner in a restaurant without company. Suddenly my attitude changed. This is not to discount how much I love socialising, but there’s a time and place for everything and on this occasion I had a better time in my own company. I realised on that day that some things are better experienced with your full attention; a realisation which helped ease concerns about travelling alone and which enhanced many experiences while I was away.

Back to today: I headed down to London Bridge and wandered to the Tate Modern, having had a Starbuck’s breakfast, where I browsed the Global Cities exhibition. It’s what I love, and hate, so much about London – there is always something new to do, but never enough time to do it all. Having spent a couple of hours wandering the exhibition I headed across the Millennium Bridge to St Paul’s, then jumped on the tube and walked around Covent Garden and Leicester Square before coming to Finchley Road where this story began. It was a simple day but I had a ball and it got me thinking about what an amazing year this has been.

Just over one year ago I said goodbye to friends and family, boarded a Qantas plane and flew to London. I was meant to transit to Brussels but was caught in the 10th August terror threat and lost my connecting flight (for which I will always hate British Airways and refuse to fly them again). Eventually I made it to Belgium and met my friend Minda (with whom I’d travelled briefly in New Zealand) who I spend the next week with exploring quaint Belgian cities, eating great food and sampling some of Belgium’s wide variety of beers.

In mid August I caught the Eurostar back to Waterloo and, the following day, started my 6.5 week tour of Europe. This took me through France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Egypt, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Austria, Germany, Switzerland and The Netherlands. I had an amazing time, but probably wouldn’t recommend spending so long on a tour. If you’re not up for fully independent travel, do several smaller tours with breaks in between.

People often ask the highlight of my European experience. While this is an obvious question to ask, and one I’ve been guilty of posing myself, it’s not a question for which I have a simple answer. Europe is so big, so diverse (both geographically and culturally) and the experiences had in each country are so incomparable that it’s hard to say, “I loved x most.” I loved standing at the top of the Eiffel Tower; for me that was the ‘yep, I’m in Europe’ moment’. Later I saw 3000 year old art in an Egyptian tomb. How can these experiences be compared enough to prioritise a favourite?

Following my tour I spent a few weeks in a hostel in London. I didn’t get up to much during this time, as I had myself a cold, but did manage to book a trip across to Germany to see Janina and Vanessa (more friends from my New Zealand trip). It was great to see these two again and I ended up spending three weeks with Janina, relaxing, exploring and enjoying Düsseldorf and its surrounds.

During this time Chris, a mate from Melbourne, came over and we headed to Prague for a few days. This was a beautiful city and provided some great photography as autumn had set in and the leaves were turning golden and falling.

From Prague we went back to Janina’s for a few more days then set off for Italy and Spain. We started in Rome, a fantastic city which I was happy to see again. Chris was an excellent travel buddy with similar interests and a passion for walking and taking as much in as possible by foot. A definite highlight was climbing the dome of St Peter’s and watching the sun set over Rome.

Twenty-four hours later we were watching the sun set over the Mediterranean from the top of a hill in the Cinque Terre, a beautiful, untouched region in northern Italy where time has stood still and preservd the farming traditions of the past. We spent several days here walking between the little villages and roaming the hills. It was a beautiful few days.

Chris and I then took an overnight ferry (trying to use every possible transport this trip) across to Barcelona where we began a couple of weeks exploration on the east coast of Spain. Barcelona was, again, great fun but it was nice to get out of the cities and see some smaller Spanish villages (albeit slightly over-run by British sun seekers).

After Chris and I spent several weeks travelling, walking, talking and solving all the world’s problems over various beverages, I departed for the United States. This part of my trip was, unexpectedly, amazing. I didn’t have the greatest expectations of America due to the culture, as we observe it externally, being somewhat irritating to me. Upon arriving in San Francisco and exploring this city, meeting real Americans and getting back into big city life, I discovered a new found love for the country.

Wandering the streets of San Fran, seeing the Golden Gate Bridge as a backdrop and fire-escapes lining every building, was thrilling. I had only three days there, one of which I spent in the Yosemite National Park, which wasn’t enough and, as with most places I’ve visited, it’s on my ‘repeat required’ list.

From San Fran I made my way to the surprisingly hot LA where I started my US tour taking me from LA, across the south through Vegas, the Grand Canyon, Dallas, Memphis, Florida, then up the east coast through Washington to New York. On the whole it may have been the best weeks I had away. I think maybe this was because my [negative] expectations were always broken, but also because I was surrounded by a great group of people and I was always learning. I think I obtained a more worldly, historical knowledge there than I did in many years of study.

New York City was amazing. Christmas carols playing where-ever you walked made you feel like you were in a Christmas movie and I felt the festive spirit in the strongest way I have since I was a kid. I had ten days in the city across Christmas and New Years and I had an absolute ball. I was up at 7:00 most mornings, not in bed before 1:00 and pounded the pavement for the hours in between. By all rights I should have been exhausted but the city has an energy of its own which gets in your veins and you feed off it! I instantly fell in love and, within the first days, was already planing my life there (in the semi-distant future, of course).

Sadly, come 3rd January, I had to bid the city farewell and head to London to start a more regulated life. NYC waved me off with a stunning sunrise, the Empire State Building silhouetted in the distance against a glowing pink sky. Eight or so hours later I was checking into my hostel in London, exhausted having not slept the night before I left.

Here began my London experience. I started looking for places for Clare and I to live and investigating the job market. A week later Clare arrived and we started our life together in Willesden Green. Clare started work within days of arrival, and I sat at home job hunting and working on my website management software, Simple Site, for ten weeks. The cash problems started and, while I don’t regret this experience in the slightest, I’m still struggling. On a side note, I would recommend coming to London with a job lined up and plenty of savings behind you; it’s an expensive city to get started in.

Eventually I found a job with the Health Protection Agency, doing a PC rollout for three months, before moving onto St George’s Hospital where I am currently working as a desktop engineer.

During the time in London we’ve made lots of friends, had plenty of nights out, dinners, drinks and fun experiences with great people. We’ve made a bit of a surrogate family with Cynthia and Adrian and have been on a road-trip together to the Lake District.

In April Clare and I went to Turkey for a tour which took us through Gallipoli for ANZAC Day. This was an incredible adventure, I really love Turkey and the dawn service was something that, in my opinion, every Australian should experience. Whether or not you have a direct connection to the campaign, it’s a very moving experience.

As the weeks have gone on we’ve done more London experiences. Whatever your interest London caters for it with galleries, museums, theaters, stadiums, concert halls. The tube is the most incredible transport experience in the world and will get you to anywhere you need to be. It took me a while, but if you open yourself up to London it really delivers, and now I’m attached. While I’m sure I’ll love coming home at the end of the year, I don’t think I’ll quite be finished with this city.

To celebrate my birthday last week, coinciding with my anniversary of being away, I flew to Minda in Belgium for a few days, then to Janina and Vanessa for the end of the week. It was good fun to see them again and have some time away from work and the day-to-day life in London. This is where Europe is so amazing. I left London and within a hour was sitting having drinks in a quaint Belgium town. It’s so easy to get to a completely different world.

I really have been so lucky this past year with what I’ve experienced and hope that anyone else who sets out on an adventure like this can have such incredible times also.

Thanks for reading and don’t forget to keep in touch. If you know me well, you’ll know my e-mail address. If not, just post a comment and I’ll get back to you.

j j j

French Riviera

After our time in Barcelona we headed for the French Riviera which is absolutely stunning. We spent a day exploring Nice and Cannes. The sun was out again and made for some incredible views of the beaches.

We caught the train along the coast from our accommodation and arrived in Nice mid-morning. We headed down to the beach first then climbed a few hundred stairs up the cliffs to a lookout with even better views and plenty of photo opportunities.

Next on the list was the Nice Saturday markets.  Think fresh, gourmet deli then add the atmosphere of the French Riviera and you have it.  Everyone bought a few different snacks and we headed to the foreshore for a feast of semi-dried tomatoes, olives, fresh fruit, fresh baked bread, salami and cheese.  Then hand-made lollies to top it all off. What a perfect lunch.

After lunch it was time to hit Cannes. The Contiki guide suggests Cannes is the playground of the rich and famous and, upon arriving at the port, you can really see what they meant. In Cannes it’s nothing to have a huge pleasure cruiser fully equipped with multiple jet skis and, of course, a helicopter. Yes, Cannes is pretty spectacular although I think the scenery of Nice wins it for me!

Saturday night we headed into Monaco which is like a scene from a James Bond movie. Luxury cars everywhere, everything pristine.  First we went to the Grand Casino and put a couple of Euro through the pokies, to no avail. I kept my last token as a bit of a memory of the night. Then we (Bianca, a girl from our tour who I’d just met, and I) just wandered Monaco, feeling VERY under-dressed. I still find the night a bit strange, everything was so perfect it feels more like a dream than an actual place.

The next day we left France and drove around the spectacular coast en route to Italy.

j j j

Bienvenue à Paris

I’ve been a bit slack with writing, due to how busy the tour is and the extreme lack of Internet facilities. However, here is the latest update since the last post.

I left London early on Friday morning with my Contiki tour and headed to Dover for the ferry crossing to Calais in France. We watched the white cliffs disappear into the distance as we sailed away from England and approached France. The rest of the day was a long drive from Calais to Paris, but it was well worth it.

That night, after dinner, we had a night tour of Paris to get our bearings for the city and to see The Eiffel Tower, at sunset, in all it’s glory! It was nothing short of what I expected, spectacular!!!

The next day we headed straight to the Chateau de Versailles where Scott (a mate from Contiki) and I spent a couple of hours wandering the huge gardens. King Louis sure knew the meaning of extravagant.

After the Chateau Scott and I headed into Paris, starting with a race through the world’s largest round-about to get to the Arc d’Triomphe. After exploring the Arc we wandered down the Champs-Élysées to get lunch, not that I got to eat much of our French picnic after a bird decided to crap on me and my lunch. I found it pretty funny wandering the streets of fashionable Paris in a shirt with bird crap all over it.

The rest of the afternoon we wandered, taking in the sites and the culture of Paris. We didn’t get up to much that night, just headed to bed after a couple of drinks at the bar.

On Sunday morning we were up early to walk up the Eiffel Tower. The view from up there is breath-taking and I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of smog. I could see for miles. And, just as I thought that my dream of climbing the tower couldn’t get any better, we hopped in a lift bound for the very top. Up there, you feel like you’re on the top of the world. Paris, in all it’s splendour, spans for miles and I spent a good bit of time up there taking it all in (and, of course, drinking a cappuccino (I won’t mention the plastic cup)).

That was just the start of a very big day in Paris. That afternoon we walked along the Seine to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa. That museum is huge, it’d take you a holiday alone to see it all. Following the Louvre we skipped lunch, running out of time, and headed further along the river to see Notre Damme. Though we didn’t have time to get in, we walked around the cathedral and took plenty of photos. Afterwards we headed back to the Contiki bus via several quaint back-streets. Though only 2 days, it was a great preview of Paris and definitely inspired me to go back.

From Paris we headed to the Contiki chateau in the Beaujolais region of France. Here was a relaxing couple of days with a bit of a party the middle night. It was good fun and an opportunity to get to know a few people better instead of madly running around sight seeing.

j j j