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.

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God Made the Earth, but the Dutch Made Holland

On a bit of a whim, and exactly six months after my last visit, Clare and I headed to Germany to visit Janina, Andreas, Vanessa and Ingo.

It was an amazing weekend starting with 4 hours sleep on the Friday night before heading off to Gatwick for our morning flight. To our delight the forecast was for high 20s and sunny, unprecedentedly warm weather for the time of year. We stepped out of the plane and were immediately down to t-shirts and ready to kick on the thongs!

Janina kindly picked us up from the airport and we headed to her place to drop the luggage before going into Düsseldorf for some shopping and lunch. It was very different to the last time I’d seen it, with beautiful flowers lining the streets and al fresco diners lining the sidewalk. We had lunch and a wander before picking Andreas up, visiting the Esprit factory outlet, and heading to Köln for, you guessed it, more shopping! I’m pretty sure Janina keeps German clothing retailers in business.

That evening, after showing Clare the Dom, we met Vanessa and Ingo for drinks (many) and dinner at a famous Colonian beer hall.

The following day was, again, beautiful and sunny and by early morning it was already up in the mid 20s. We donned our beach gear and headed for Janina’s Mum’s place where we picked up her BMW (complete with sat nav), asked it to take us to the beach in Holland and off we went! Within a couple of hours we were strolling along the water front as though it were the middle of summer. We had a bite to eat then went down to the sand to sit for a while and enjoy the beach.

When we started to burn we decided to head to Amsterdam for the afternoon.

It was really beautiful in the warm weather, sitting outside a coffee-shop watching the world go by. I liked Amsterdam the first time I was there, but the beautiful weather brought out a whole new side of it. We ended up staying quite late after a wander around the city, some drinks and a bite to eat, then headed home. Janina had to work the following day so it was an early night.

The following day Clare and I looked around the old town in Düsseldorf, but were seeking shade and a drink early in the day as things heated up fast. We later collected our bags from Janina’s and headed for Köln to wander along the river and spend some time before our plane left.

We got home pretty late that night, with work the next day, but it was a great break with perfect weather and I think Clare was glad to tick two countries off her list!

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Return to Düsseldorf

After a nice long bus trip from Prague, Chris and I got back to Janina’s in the early afternoon, dumped our bags and headed for the Düsseldorf Old Town to explore.

We initially looked around the Old Town streets before wandering along the Rhine to the Stadtor (City Gate) and Media Harbor. It was nice to explore in the sun and just have a wander after so long in the bus. We also had a quick look for Halloween costumes for Tuesday night but, unfortunately, failed and decided to go back to Janina’s to have some dinner and watch Fight Club.

On Tuesday we looked at options for getting to Rome and (finally, at the last minute) found a costume for the Halloween party. We spent most of the day on the net sorting out our trip then headed home for dinner. At about 10:30 PM we went to the party in Bonn. I wore a lovely rubber mask and went as a messed up serial killer! It was a really good night with the Disco Boys DJing, however it was a little disappointing (and embarrassing) that we were the only ones dressed up. Everyone else was in their ‘pick up’ clothes! I was pretty much Bridget Jones.

On Wednesday we were a little tired and seedy and did very little. Janina cooked us an awesome risotto then went to Andreas’, came back with some DVDs, then left again to look after her sick boy. Chris and I watched The Way of the Gun then had a sleep, chatted, ate some more risotto and watched Harry Potter.

On Thursday I took Chris to Köln in the morning where it was absolutely freezing and I first had to purchase a jacket and beanie before climbing the tower of the Dom again and looking around the sites of the Old Town. Having looked around we headed back to Düsseldorf to meet Janina and Vanessa and head up Rhine Tower (Düsseldorf’s telecommunications tower). The view from the top was pretty good, especially with the setting sun illuminating everything in a golden glow (we were up there just at the right time). The early sunsets are something that’s going to take some getting used to for me! I love long days and darkness by 5:00 is getting hard.

Having taken in the views we headed out for dinner in the Old Town. Janina convinced me to try Sauerbrauten, a beef marinated in vinegar with potato dumplings, which was very nice and just as filling! Then, after a few drinks, Vanessa and Janina had to head off to the movies and Chris and I went back home to watch Harry Potter 2! I know this may sound boring, but it’s been really nice to have some time to relax and watch a bit of TV etc!!!

Vanessa met us in Aachen on Friday to go to more food factory outlets. The Lindt factory outlet was first and, while it was exciting, the prices and options were not that outstanding. For example, there were no Lindt Balls! From Lindt we went to some Christmas food outlets before heading into town for some lunch and an explore of the Old Town streets. Janina wanted to sit down for a drink so we found a four storey teahouse and sampled some new blends of tea while chatting the afternoon away.

As we were leaving for Rome the following day Chris and I went on the net for a while to check details before heading back to Janina’s to watch Harry Potter 3.

That concluded my wonderful stay at Janina’s (to whom I am incredibly grateful for hosting me for nearly three weeks), which had been awesome and a great chance to relax while seeing a bit of Germany! The adventure continued the following day.

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Several Days in Düsseldorf

On Saturday Janina and I went shopping for her party, then had some lunch before she had to go to work at Esprit.  I was left with instructions to put out some food before her guests arrived then I waited. 

Answering the door to her guests was amusing, since I’d met very few of them before and spoke no German.  But it was a bit of fun.  Eventually Janina came home and the party really kicked off.  She had some really nice friends and, again, I appreciated their efforts to speak English.  All up it was a fun night. 

On Sunday (having gone to bed at 4:30 AM) we got up late and had pizza and Coke for breakfast then spent the afternoon tidying up and relaxing.  I read more of Anne Frank (which I picked up in Amsterdam after her house) and then watched some TV with Janina. 

On Monday the weather wasn’t great so I stayed inside for much of the day, watched some news and The Nanny in German.  It was funny how many of the episodes I remembered from 10 years ago.  I also spoke to Chris (a mate from Melbourne) and worked out him getting to Düsseldorf, then watched The Lost Boys before heading to bed.

Tuesday I was determined to get out of the house, so I headed to an Internet cafe to update my blog.  I’m finally getting through it.  Then I met Janina and Andreas for Thai, then (in National Foods tradition) gelati before heading back to her place for drinks.

Later on we picked Chris up from the Hauptbahnhof and he and I talked for much of the night, catching up on stories from the last few months of travel.

Then Wednesday we headed to the station to book our tickets to Prague.  I’ll update you on this adventure very soon!

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Colonian Museums

On Friday I headed back to Köln, equipped with my iPod, and took a day to just wander the city on my own. It was great fun, just to tune out, take some photos and take it all in.

After a wander along the banks of the Rhine I stumbled across none other than a chocolate museum. Well, could I resist – no. So in I went. And I didn’t regret it in the least. The museum contained an exhibition on the cocoa bean, the harvesting process, the history of chocolate production and the modern production process. At the end of the exhibition there was a small production facility where you could see chocolate being produced from beans through to the packaged product. It was pretty exciting, I think I was more interested than most of the kids. The whole room smelt like Lindt chocolate too, just as a bonus.

Having finished the museum I couldn’t resist buying some truffels so I set of with them for a walk back along the Rhine. I then went to the modern art museum, and spent the afternoon there. I was proud, it was the first time I completed a gallery (or museum) in full.

After the museum I was starving so I grabbed a bite to eat then wrote some postcards and jumped on the net for a few hours to reply to e-mails and update this site. When I was finished there I headed home and met Janina and Andreas for some pizza and a smoke of a shisha pipe. Then, rather tired from all my walking, I went to bed.

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