JOURNAL EXTRACT #06

18th of August

I am once again relaxing on Alex’s couch, sharing the property with two cats and a tortoise. They’re good company, but they only speak German, so it’s hard to get a good conversation going. I have to take a moment to recognise how good my life is at the present moment. Each day I wake up, have a relaxing morning, before venturing out with Alex for my next Austrian adventure. If it wasn’t for the whole money thing, I could see myself being happily unemployed for years to come.

It’s been five days since I last wrote an entry, and this feels both too long and short a time. The days have whipped by, blurred memories and moments all traced with an edge of happiness. Yet when I think of all I’ve experienced in this time, five days doesn’t seem long enough to contain it all.

When I last wrote I was making wishes on suspicious shooting stars. Since then I’ve seen Klimt paintings, walked atop the bell tower at St Stephan’s Cathedral, relaxed at a bbq in Upper Austria, eaten at a wirtshaus with around twenty of Alex’s extended family, wandered the beautiful city of Vienna, celebrated Monika’s birthday with some of the best food I’ve ever tasted, chopped wood, drunk schnapps, and just generally eaten my way through most of Austria’s traditional menu. And loved doing it. And I know I’ve done even more, but my memory’s failing me right now.

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It’s hard to pick highlights from this array of bright moments, but getting to relax at a bbq with Alex’s mates in Upper Austria would have to be one. Alex organised the event both as an opportunity to gather, eat and drink in the beautiful Austrian summer, as well as to give her friends a chance to meet the weird Australian boy she invited over. In both aspects, it was a success.

As with everyone Alex has introduced me to, her circle of friends were open and welcoming — I’m beginning to suspect the Viennese stereotype of being stubborn and impatient as being false.

Another highlight was being invited to lunch with Alex’s family for her grandmother’s birthday where I ate venison and soaked in the company of her family. I couldn’t understand the dialogue but could appreciate the rhythms of conversation and the shared laughter that are so common at my own family gatherings. If travel reinforces anything, it’s that we’re not as different as we think.

Today I was sitting around the corner from Alex’s office building, resting on a small square of wood, stones and greenery amongst the industrial grey of the area. A balding man with stained yellow teeth smoking a cigarette approached me and attempted conversation. I knew his sort — the lost and addled, deprived of interaction and having forgotten the social norms of a community from being too long outside of it. He spoke German and I spoke English, but that wasn’t a great deterrent. I have dealt with people like him for years as a nurse, and know that a calm face, a smile, and a patient tone is all they’re after. I gave him these and he grinned with saliva-flecked lips and bid me “Tschüss,” which means goodbye. I bid him the same.

It is strange being outside a language. I never realised how much of myself I projected until the option was taken away from me. When I’m surrounded by those speaking German, I internalize everything. It’s not the most comfortable feeling. I have things I want to express out into the world but have no way of doing so. So I remain quiet, and outwardly thoughtful, bottled inside my own head. I imagine it’s years spent like this that drives someone like my balding, nicotine-stained new friend to approach a stranger, even if it is just for a minute of conversation.

It’s okay, though. It’s a new experience, and I like new experiences. It makes me think of the immigrants who travelled to Australia, knowing no one and having no word of English, and somehow managing to build a new life. I can’t imagine the isolation they must have felt, how much they internalized to begin with, until some patient person helped them with the language. Alex is my patient person, but sometimes things simply cannot be translated. Conversation goes by too fast, or the context is too foreign. I understand, and instead just try to enjoy the atmosphere and the mood of those around me. I do take great pride when I pick out one word from amongst a hundred. It makes me all the more determined to master German. At the moment I have the reading level of a three-year old — although having read some of Alex’s niece’s books, I feel even this is being generous.

And on books, today I went into the National Library of Vienna. The irony of the place was that it was too beautiful for reality, and looked like it belonged in a book. The smell of the books, the texture of the wood, the bright and intricate murals decorating the ceiling could have been spun out of fantasy. It was certainly this geeky book-lover’s fantasy. Vienna continues to astound. Every time I think I’ve see it’s most beautiful side, it turns and reveals a new facet that stops me in my tracks.

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Tomorrow I visit one of Vienna’s royal castles, the Schoenbrunn Castle, and I’m sure it will cause me to falter in my steps like all the rest.

EMERGENCY ADDIT:

Early after arriving, Alex and I were sitting in her backyard at night when we heard a noise in the bushes. Alex casually remarked that it was probably a hedgehog. I casually lost my shit. I was very excited by the idea of seeing a hedgehog. After a confused expression and something like, “Really? It’s just a hedgehog,” Alex attempted to find the creature but with no luck.

Today, I got to hold a hedgehog.

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Alex’s Dad, Rupert, was in the garden and managed to find the most adorable baby hedgehog, which he then handed to me. I think you can see in the picture how happy I am about this series of events. It may have been the most exciting thing I’ve seen in my travels so far.

Vienna, you did it again.

20th of August

I am sitting on my bed in my adopted room in Vienna, with a belly full of wiener schnitzel. It’s a good way to be. Today is Alex’s first official day off from work, so I’m giving her the day off from her second job as my travel guide. I can be a generous employer. Suitably, we’re having as lazy a day as possible. It’s strange not to be going and seeing another of Vienna’s ridiculous wonders, but good as it gives me time to digest and assimilate all that I have seen. Overtime I think Alex has played her best card, laid the crowning jewel of Vienna out to wow me, I’m proven wrong. After the library I was convinced nothing could top this surreal experience. I was wrong.

Yesterday we trained it to the summer palace of the Austria Empire, the Schönbrunn Palace. Austria is now a republic, but historically it was an empire that used to stretch into parts of Italy, Hungry, Poland, and the Cheque Republic. As you would expect from such a vast empire, the living quarters of its royal family were suitably impressive. Actually, suitably impressive is a gross understatement. What I meant to say was mindbogglingly incredible, lavish and opulent in ways I couldn’t fathom. Yeah, that’s what I meant to say.

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We started by walking around the mammoth stretch of building that was the main estate that used to house over one thousand staff — all to care for a family of five. The five I’m referring to is the very famous couple of Franz and Elizabeth, a.k.a Sisi, and their three children. There’s a chance they had more kids and they were simply lost in the labyrinth of the palace. There’s really no way of knowing.

After circling the building we walked through the central gardens which were all perfectly maintained, towards one o the most impressive fountains I’ve ever seen. To be honest, it was more of a man-made waterfall bedecked with beautiful statues.

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We wound our way up an incline towards the Gloriette, which we theorised was used as a sitting room. If so, it is the mother of all sitting rooms. It was ordered to be constructed by Maria Theresa, a previous empress of Austria who ruled and instigated many positive changes, all while giving birth to fourteen children. I guess the mother of all sitting rooms is appropriate for this mother of Austria.

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Given we had already climbed so far, we lashed out and paid the €3.50 to climb to the top of the Gloriette and look back down at the palace. I’m going to try to describe it, but please bear in mind that my words are insufficient. Much like a photo only captures a static image, my description will undoubtably be missing the bombardment of details taken in by the human eye that elevates it from something simply nice into something indescribable. For the full effect, I recommend seeing it yourself.

Looking down, the palace was reduced to a doll house, one of perfect and exquisite realism, with the stretch of symmetrical gardens laid out like a royal carpet leading to its door. To either side, the dark green of the wider gardens unrolled, a maze of beauty and shadows. I say gardens, but a manicured forest is a more accurate description.

Behind this picturesque setting that more rightly belongs in the pages of a book than my mundane reality, Vienna, the city, rose and fell, a mosaic of ancient buildings and modern skyscrapers, cathedral spires and aqua-rusted domes, far off golden statues catching the few rays of light leaking through the clouds.

In case my description failed to impart the sentiment: It was nice.

So you can see why today, a day of rest, of assimilation and digestion, is necessary. I need this time to convince myself it was real, that this boy from Australia wandered the palace of Austrian emperors, took in art commissioned hundred of years ago and featuring people long dead, but whose actions and decisions helped sculpt the world we have today. It’s a lot to take in.

Tomorrow, a border crossing into Slovakia.

23rd of August

I am sitting in my bed at the beginning of what will be my last full day in Austria. For the time being, at any rate. Vienna in the summer is unquestionably beautiful, but Alex has detailed all its winter attributes, and has made the idea of returning very appealing. She’s offered to let me stay with her again when I return, and it would be rude not to accept this gracious offer. Really, my hands are tied.

I know I’m really going to miss Vienna. I have only been here two weeks, but every thing from the kindness of Alex and her family, the open and impressive expanse of the city itself, the food and the history, and every person I’ve met, have made this a place that feels like home. A friend told me yesterday that Vienna was voted one of the most livable cities in the world — I can believe it.

My last entry finished by mentioning our planned journey into another country. We did it. And we did it by train. In fact, the trip only took about forty minutes. I’m pretty sure I’ve waited on a train platform in Melbourne for longer than that.

I was very excited to be plunging from one country to another, to see the change that would occur. Living on the world’s biggest island means a border crossing isn’t possible without the use of a boat or a place — that we were doing it via train seemed very novel.

Much to my surprise, there was no fanfare when we passed the border, no fireworks or welcoming wreaths, no security guards or cavity searches, the train just continued chugging down the tracks, and from one breath to the next, we were in Slovakia. The passport I’d brought stayed tucked in my pocket, unstamped.

Despite the lack of carnival welcoming my arrival into another country, there was no doubt it was in fact another country. The German words I’ve come to expect on signs and advertisements were gone, replaced a foreign collections of letters. The shape and style of the buildings looked different, and the language floating around me in conversation shifted. That short train ride and we were in a new culture, the old borders allowing it to grow beside the culture of Austria, untouched and unmixed.

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Bratislava is a small city, by which I mean Alex and I walked in and around it twice in the few hours we were there, but it has a certain charm because of this. The age of the place is apparent in its narrow cobbled streets, and its charm is intensified by the ease with which food and drink can be bought. It’s a place made to appeal to tourists with a restaurant on almost every corner. Like every meal I’ve had since landing, lunch was delicious — for those still playing at hoe, I had the beef goulash.

And, really, that was Bratislava.

Yesterday, after an incredibly delicious morning of doing nothing, Alex and I headed to a fair. The fair is a three-day celebration of eating and drinking. What it is celebration of, I hear you ask? Why, eating and drinking, of course. The most noble cause for celebrating.

I was feeling very underdressed as Alex stepped out wearing a traditional dirndl — think shouldered white shirt, patterned dress and apron. The garb is reserved for special occasions, and the effect is stunning. And made more so once we arrived at the fair to see crowds of people in the traditional outfit — you could almost taste the culture. Which I soon did, by eating a baumkucken, which was kind of like a log length of cinnamon donut. It was good.

The men didn’t miss out, strutting around in below-knee leather lederhosen and checked shirt. Alex told me of the sophisticated system used by the ladies when tying their aprons: A knot on the left means the wearer is single, and open to a polite advance. A knot on the right means the wearer is in a committed relationship and all interested parties would be better trying their luck elsewhere. A knot centred in the back indicates the wearer is a widow, and a knot front-and-centre means the wearer is a virgin. Although, why this information needs to by public knowledge is beyond me. But I think this system is genius, and if adopted into Australia could save for a lot of failed attempts at picking up. For a very old tradition, it’s really quite ahead of its time.

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Tonight we plan to farewell Vienna by heading to the top of the DC tower for a cocktail — a most appropriate was to say goodbye as the city will be laid out around us. As I said, I’m sad to be leaving, and have loved every second of my time here.

I can’t really complain, though. Tomorrow, we head to the Greek Islands.

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JOURNAL EXTRACT #05

10th of August

I am back, shoulders sore from the two-hour commute with my faithful backpack once again mounted on me, in an airport. Airports are like little cities, a micro-civilisation sprawling out across terminals. From where I sit in the departure lounge at Heathrow airport I can see people eating, shopping, talking, working, and one young woman opposite me is sleeping. All of us are temporary residents in the most multi-cultural country in the world.

Emotions are also high at airports, which I like. You get to see under the mask. People are either so exhausted from early starts or six-hour layovers or their previous flight that they stop caring about how they come across and just are. Some are cranky, others near-manic, and others just blank and slack-jawed, thoroughly worn down by travel.

And then you get people at the other end of the emotional spectrum: the excitement. Adults freed from the shackles of work and undeflatable by the prospect of a holiday. Children running around, still excited by the novelty of an airport and the flight to come. Often these exuberant kids belong to the exhausted adults, too tired to tell their children to stop playing tag amongst the perfumes. I don’t think these polar extremes of energy levels are a coincidence.

Luckily for me, I fall into the latter category: the excitement. And I totally won that tag game.

No, I am the undeflated adult still revelling from my emancipation. And today I get to go to Austria. Vienna, to be exact.

The fact that I get to write a sentence like “Today I get to go to Austria,” illustrates just how insanely lucky I am. Insanely lucky to have the wealth to afford the trip. Lucky that I have parents who educated me to get a good job to get said wealth. Lucky that I have a mind-blowingly generous friend who lives in Vienna, giving me both a reason to visit the city and a roof over my head. I’m feeling very lucky right now.

The past week hasn’t been all sleep-ins and leaving a perfect indent of my body on the couch though. I made some moves towards gaining employment. While I wait on registration to come through (still) I can get work as a carer in the community, tending to the more fundamental aspects of my job rather than the technical. While this isn’t something I could do long-term, I don’t mind the idea of starting in London this way. It’ll give me time to explore London and get the lay of the districts around me. It’ll also give me the opportunity to learn how the UK community health, and their NHS, works. Information I’m presuming will be useful.

It’s also, compared to care-managing a team of nurses, blessedly free from a lot of responsibility. The good thing about being at the bottom of the ladder is you can always pass your problems up.

I met with my agency in King’s Cross and interviewed — I say interviewed, but like all aspects of getting work in the UK has been, it was really an exam. I filled out a ton of paperwork, provided all the paperwork I had already sent across electronically, and answered pages of drug calculations and short-answer scenario question. Good fun.

The next day I attended a nine-and-a-half hour training day, going through all the basic elements of the field — OH & S, manual handling, CPR , etc. While the day did drag endlessly, it was made better by the fact that everyone had English accents. I was also asked to role-play an emotional abusive husband, and was told my Australian accent really sold the role. I’m not sure what this says about the Australian stereotype. My fellow trainees’ reviews were glowing:

“I was scared.”

“I was worried for the wife.”

“It made me uncomfortable.”

At least if my registration never comes through I can try my luck in the West End.

Dom and Nikki also began a twelve week work-out program that I optimistically agreed to participate in, blissfully ignoring the fact that they’re both much stronger than me. After a leg session, I struggled to walk for three days, and had to lower myself into chairs with my arms in case my legs gave way. It gave me a new appreciation for my mobility-challenged patients. I have only regained the use of my arms after an arm and ab session, and still wince if anyone touches my stomach. I guess I should be happy the exercises are working.

I am loving life in London, and it’s been exciting to start building a life in another country. Every small win becomes a huge victory because you’re doing it in another land, and that deserves a healthy pat on the back.

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The girl opposite me is waking now, and that’s my cue to wrap it up.

More to come from Vienna…

 

11th of August

I am sitting in the lounge room of my friend Alex’s house, a cat curled around my feet, in Vienna. And just like that I’m in another country. I realised today that the commute on the underground to get to Heathrow airport took the same amount of time as the flight to Vienna. It’s a weird world we live in.

The hospitality I have received is staggering. Alex’s family have graciously taken me into their home, making every effort to ensure I’m comfortable. Alex’s mum, Monika, had even read my post from Italy, deduced that I have a soft spot for nutella, a bought a jar for my arrival — which she wrote a welcome message on! I can now say from experience that there is nothing more welcoming than a personalised jar of nutella. Nothing.

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Before I arrived, Alex said she’d be my tour guide through her beautiful country, and, one day in, she has more than lived up to her word. Let me quickly list yesterday’s itinerary:

I was collected from the airport (personal chauffeur) and driven to Alex’s home, given a tour of said home, shown my own room, towel set — even my own shelf in the bathroom cupboard —walked to the local pond (Alex calls it a pond, but I think that’s being humble. In Australia we’d call it a lake — it was far from the tiny waterhole I had been picturing). From there, driven into town and a stop for some truly delicious ice-cream, then on to the River Danube to soak our feet (it’s averaging around thirty-six degrees in Vienna. And I’d just acclimatised to London’s twenty-two degrees). Then sitting in a restaurant by the river to enjoy a Radler (think shady) and brocollinockerl (think small pieces of dough cooked in a cream sauce with ham and broccoli — very nice).

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And this was only the first day! Already, Alex has detailed the list of activities she has planned, and I swear my eyes grew larger with each one — I couldn’t be more excited.

Alex told me that the Viennese (that’s the proper term, I checked) have a reputation for being cranky and impatient. Luckily for me, I have found only the opposite in my foster home — a sign of how unique these people are. I feel honoured and humbled by how readily I was accepted, and the effort Alex and her family have gone to to welcome me. When I offered to help around the house, mop the floors, feed the cats (anything!) I was politely rebuffed and told just to relax and enjoy myself.

I am definitely enjoying myself, although it does feel weird to do nothing. Alex and her parents all leave for work in the morning and I can’t help but feel like I should be shrugging on a uniform too and earning my keep. I don’t think I’ve learned the knack of stopping, of switching off self-expectations and appreciating the here and now. After Austria, I have two weeks on a Greek island with nothing more pressing to do than eat, sleep, drink, read, write, and swim, so I’m hoping to perfect the art form then. It seems the appropriate place to do so.

 

13th of August

I am back, relaxing while the household works, in Alex’s lounge room, her cat again sitting by my feet. I think he does this to get a mention in the journal. It has been a brilliant couple of days since I last wrote.

On Tuesday, chased by my own conscience from laying about while others worked, I headed out solo into Vienna — I only went a kilometre down the road, but I’m still marking this as a victory. I even greeted someone from the neighbourhood. Luckily for me, “Hello” in German is “Hallo,” so I mastered this one a while ago.

I headed to the “pond” and jogged a few laps, which seemed like a good idea in the cool of the house, but quickly became a sweaty mess once I exposed myself to the sun. Of course, I was jogging around a huge body of water, so cooling off wasn’t too hard. After my swim I headed home and met Alex for lunch, then we headed to a carnival.

When I was in Year Twelve, my English teacher, Mr Savage, made us study a movie starring Orson Wells based on a Graeme Greene story called The Third Man. At the time, I was a bit resentful that my class had to study a black and white film while all the other classes studied Gattaca. But the movie was actually good, and more importantly to this anecdote, featured a huge ferris wheel from Vienna. Two days ago, I rode that ferris wheel. Mr Savage, if you could see me now.

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The ferris wheel has been operating since 1897, and once Alex assured me they regularly serviced it, we headed up. The view was amazing, with Vienna laid out around us.

The next treat was dinner at Schweizerhaus, where we caught up with Anna and her boyfriend. I met both Anna and Alex on a tour through Vietnam and Cambodia, and it was very cool to be sitting with these two lovely people again, in a foreign country (for me, anyway), chatting and eating.

Which brings me to the main event — the steltz. Steltz is a huge piece of cooked pork, surrounded in stripes of juicy crackling, and it may have been the best thing I’ve ever put into my mouth. I would have put a photo up but we devoured it so fast there was no time for happy snaps.

Yesterday, Alex took me through Vienna’s city proper, and to her university and its beautiful and ancient reading room. We were both convinced it was very Harry-Potter-like, but sadly I saw no evidence of magic. But there were books, very old books, and the smell of them hung in the air, and that was a kind of magic of its own.

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We also saw the parliament building, which outshone any building I’ve ever seen in Australia. And, in a weird twist of fate that makes you believe everything in the universe is connected, I went and saw Alex’s and her dad’s company — the same company my dad works for. We were all very excited by this, and Alex and Dad even had a quick chat over the companies chat room. Small world.

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In the evening I met a couple of Alex’s friends who were both incredibly friendly and welcoming. We drove up to a hilltop on the edge of the city, set up a picnic and enjoyed the view. From our vantage all of Vienna lay out like a blanket below us. It was beautiful.

We had decided on a picnic as it was reported to be a good night to see shooting stars. As the sun set, we laid back and watched the sky, armed with our wishes for when we spotted one. Collectively, we saw around ten shooting stars, although I’m skeptical on a few that may have been planes. Or UFOs. We made our wishes anyway.

It was a beautiful night in Vienna, and in some ways I’m shocked that this is only the third day. So much has happened and I feel so comfortable in this place.

Thankfully, there’s plenty more to come.

JOURNAL EXTRACT #04

30th of July

I am sitting at the outdoor table out the front of the villa, a table we’ve deemed out dining table due to the constant clement weather of Northern Italy in the summer. Jonty is beside me, cheeks full of banana, while Vanessa and Dom chat. Steve’s brother’s family departed this morning at the awful time of four-thirty AM, reducing out little enclave to seven.

It’s been a couple of days since I wrote, and have no real excuse other than I was lost in a haze of relaxing, good company, swimming in the pool, cross words, eating, and occasionally napping. I’ve fought my way free of this cloud of luxury to summon enough motivation to write. I’ll probably have a nap once I’m done to recover.

When l last wrote, Dom, Nikki and I were planning a venture through the forested hillside in search of an ancient wall we spotted from the top of the hill. I’m happy to make my report: We made it.

The three of us fought through the plague of flies, then picked our way along a narrow track choked with brambles. We all obtained a collection of scratches, trophies of our exhibition into the wild. We eventually emerged into a shadowy clearing with a section of grey stone wall ahead of us, and discovered it wasn’t a wall after all. The crumbling ruin we’d seen was actually a fort — we’ve yet to determine why a quaint town in the remote hillside of Umbria required a fort, but I have theories of secret organisations a la the Da Vinci Code. This is Italy, after all.

We tried to find a way to the front of the fort but were beaten by bush and buildings — the fort squats on the edge of homes, one built into the base of an old church, with a bell tower that continues to ring out on the hour.

We retreated back to our section of wall amongst the scrub and, like the true explorers we are, scaled the wall to a small window up the side of the stones. Crawling through the narrow opening, I almost wedged my shoulders in the tiny gap, but after some contorting, crawled out on my hands and knees into the tree-clogged interior of the fort. We were standing on an inner ledge, twenty metres up from the fort’s floor. The roots of the trees around us were probably the only reason the outcropping could take our weight. The sheer drop stopped us from venturing any further, but it was still fascinating to study the vine-scrawled walls stretching away to either side.

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We jogged back through the choking curtain of flies (quite literally — I inhaled one, could feel it buzzing in my throat, and hacked it out onto the dirt), warmed by the midday heat of the day and the glow of victory from our successful expedition. We quenched this heat by falling immediately into the pool.

Tomorrow I leave this nest of relaxation and head to London. I enacted my plan to move overseas almost a year ago, detained again and again by red tape and paperwork. It begun to feel like it would never happen, like it was a nice dream but the reality of my life was a vice I wasn’t allowed to escape. Not that I don’t love my life, but I was ready for a different reality.

That tomorrow I land on English soil and see my new home for the first time feels…odd. Odd in that part of me is still skeptical, too well schooled in getting knocked back when it felt like the path was clear. An exhilarating and mad kind of oddity when I convince that part of myself that, no, this is really happening.

Ironically, it seems to have rushed upon me, from an imperceptible crawl to a light speed dash, and suddenly I’ll be there. In my new reality.

 

31st of July

I am sitting in the cramped seat of a Ryan Air plane, passenger’s around me purchasing coffees and sodden-looking chips, apparently unable to go without food for the two-and-a-half hours of the flight despite the exorbitant prices of this low-budget airline. I am on my way to London.

Last night I farewelled Vanessa and Jonty, although it wasn’t a sad goodbye as they and Steve will be in London twenty-four hours after us, staying with us for the next week in our new apartment a.k.a Steve’s old apartment. We had a late-night dinner outside under the moonlight, a meal made with the leftover ingredients that still managed to be a delicious feast. We drank beer and talked, and I felt blessed.

This morning Steve took us to the train station where, upon arriving, we discovered the train was delayed. We had copious amounts of time up our sleeves so grabbed a table at the station’s cafe, bought one euro coffees that tasted as good as any back home, and played cards.

Our train eventually arrived and in a series of excellent exchanges we moved from train to train to taxi to airport, and to our gate with a perfect half-an-hour to sit and relax before boarding our plane.

Throughout the day the three of us intermittently remarked on the fact that today we were moving to London. It is surreal for me, but even more so for Dom and Nikki. They’ve spent the last five months crawling across the globe, touring large chucks of South America, parts of Central America, and most recently picking their way through Europe. I think the idea of stability and freedom from their shoulder-dragging packs is a luxury akin to heaven.

Already we’re getting into logistics, discussing obtaining bank accounts and sim cards, finding supermarkets and, more importantly, pubs. Talking about these details is a way of breaking down the monster that is London, a point to start in that giant and ancient city.

I have my headphones on, blocking out the roar of the plane’s engine and the cattle-like chewing of my fellow passengers. The melancholy music of Passenger is filling my head, a Brit himself, and it seems a most appropriate way to venture into my new home. The lyrics I’m listening to also seem particularly poignant…

“Well, fill my lungs full of smoke,

fill my belly full of beer,

fill my nights with bad jokes

told by folks full of fear.

Fill my eyes with a stinging,

fill my time with wishing she was here.

Well, fill my wide with a narrow,

fill my safe full of danger,

fill my bed full of shadows.

fill my dreams full of strangers.

Fill my ears with a ringing,

fill my heart with a fear of fear…”

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5th of August

Where was I? It’s been five days since I last wrote, five days of settling in, of exploring, of acclimatizing. Of starting.

I am sitting on the couch in my new lounge room, three floors up, and from the window behind me big red buses, iconically London, trundle past. This is just one of the details that remind me I’m in London. The underground logo, seen on a hundred BBC programs, jumps out from signs and maps, black cabs potter down the roads as I walk, and the overcast sky, even in summer, are all gentle reminders that I’m not home.

And, to be honest, I need these indicators. I don’t know if it’s because Australian culture is derived from English, or if the landscape isn’t all the different from Melbourne, at least at a glance, but it’s easy to think as I sit here, Dom and Nikki on the opposite couch, that I’m relaxing in Brunswick, and that at any moment my twin brother, Damian, will walk in. Sadly, he won’t, because despite my brain’s subconscious search for familiarity, this is London, and he’s in Melbourne.

Even walking down the street, I’m still mildly surprised when I hear a British accent, a reflexive part of me still anticipating hearing an Australian accent from the strangers around me. I’m working hard on adopting a British accent, but I don’t think it’s taking.

So far, I like London. It’s easy, particularly compared to navigating Italy. Speaking the same language certainly helps with this. But it’s the public transport system that helps the most — it’s incredibly efficient, particularly given the web of train tracks and bus lines, and the sheer mass of the population. I had a quiet thrill the first time I descended into the underground — I was still lugging around my oversized luggage at this point, so the thrill may have come from sliding it off my shoulders and leaning against the carriage’s interior wall once I boarded.

I find riding the underground, or the subway from when I was in America, as a sightly magical experience. You leave the upper world behind, sit on a rollicking bullet, and when you ascend again you’ve been teleported to a new place — the upper world has changed. Magic.

Given this is a travel journal and I now have settled into my new home, I considered stopping the entries, but reasoned that presently I’m still on holiday (a.k.a unemployed), which makes me a tourist in this city, and so justified further entries. I’m also jetting off to Austria in five days, so the holiday, and subsequently the journalling, must go on.

Suitably, given my self-imposed status as tourist, yesterday we trained it into London to see the clichéd sights. The same dislocation occurred upon seeing Big Ben and the River Thames as when I saw the Statue of Liberty or Venice Beach. These are the places from movies and television, not real places to see and touch, and live around.

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Parliament building is an absolutely stunning and intricate feat of architecture, and I found it genuinely beautiful. It made me happy Guy Fawkes never managed to blow it up.

The rest of my time has been settling in, exploring the small township of Morden and the surrounding area. I had a haircut yesterday and decided that attending to this very domestic task has officially made me a local. I even used the phrase “Alright?” with my barber. I think I pulled it off.

There’s a giant park literally across the road from the apartment, and we’ve already explored large swaths of it. Dom and I discovered a path that rings the park, made of a corridor of ancient trees with pine bark laid across the track. The trees shadow the path and the smell of the of the bark permeates the air — it feels like running though Narnia. It’s beautiful, and I’m already anticipating the enjoyment of walking the track in winter with frost on the needles, huddled in an absurdly thick jacket.

Tomorrow I head into the city to meet with the agency who will hopefully find me work. As of now, that work will not be nursing as, from my phone call with them yesterday, the UK nursing board may have lost my latest batch of paperwork, forestalling my registration. And no registration means no nursing. I’ll continue to pursue it, as I have for the past year, once I return from Austria, and until it goes through, my agency has assured me they can find me alternative work.

I’m apprehensive about resuming employment. Not just because it’ll mean the end of my holidaying (for now), but also because I’m nervous of becoming trapped in full-time work. I recognise the need for money, but am hoping to achieve a better work/life balance, at least for this brief slither of my life. I want the focus of this time to be exploration and experience, to trial new things, and not get bogged down in the responsibility of working 40+ hours a week.

I’m hoping to use the next month while I’m away to weigh my options and decide which track I point myself down that provides new insights coupled with fiscal responsibility. Not the easiest tightrope to walk.

But the problems and stressors of real life can stew for now — Austria awaits.

JOURNAL EXTRACT #03

25th of July

I am back in Rome, back in the same lounge room in fact, circling my way from central Italy, to Salerno, to Sorrento, and back to Rome via Napals. It was oddly nice to come back to something familiar. Not that home-sickness has kicked in yet, it only being nine days since I left Australian shores, but the human inclination to nest is still present. Dom, Nikki and I are all excited for London, and the nest we’ll make there.

The three of us decided to wake early before the heat of the day would beat us back inside and go for a run along the banks of the Tiber River. It felt good to stretch my legs and accelerate my heart rate — the view of the sun rising above the river, bridges arching overhead every hundred metres helped add to the magic of the moment.

I last wrote from the shores of Sorrento, and it was literally ten minutes after writing that entry that a thunderhead rolled over, the wind picked up, and, most gloriously, the temperature dropped by about five degrees. I almost cried. The change only lasted a few hours, and by the next day temperatures were back in the mid-thirties, but the reprieve was appreciated.

I’ve spoken to a few locals by now who all state Italy is going through a heat wave — hearing the locals complain about the weather made me feel better about my own complaints. I’m sure people back in Melbourne, huddled around their heaters, would be resentful of my complaints.

Yesterday was a travel day, and we trained it firstly to Napals, then immediately boarded anther train back to Rome. We were all very impressed with our newly earned train-savvy.

Once back in Rome we ate, rested, then made our way to the Spanish steps. When I asked Dom what the significance of the steps were, he replied, “To get people higher up the city.” He was not wrong.

The beauty of the marble steps was detracted by the hoards of roaming salesmen, sweaty people shoving roses into girl’s hands before insisting their boyfriends buy more. Nikki was an expert in growling out a “No!” and sending them scurrying away. Handbags and sunglasses, laser pointers and selfie sticks were all on sale — you know, all the things you want thrust in your face while trying to enjoy an ancient architectural achievement.

Eventually I lost my patience, and when a man showed off his laser pointer, creating a small dot of light a few metres away in an effort to impress me, I asked, “Why would I want that?” He didn’t have an answer for me.

The view from the top of Rome sprawling away, the dome of the Basilica in the distance, made battling through the plague of sprukers worth it.

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Today we reboard the trains and make our way north to Umbria, where we’ll meet my cousin, and Dom’s sister, Vanessa, her partner, Steve, and their son, Jonty, as well as some of Steve’s family and friends, to spend a week together. This insanely generous couple invited us to join their holiday, and their generosity continues as it’s Steve’s apartment that the three of us will be staying at in London. I can’t thank them enough.

Did I mention that the place in Umbria is a villa. In Italy. An Italian villa. Yeah.

 

26th of July

I am reclining on the balcony of a villa in Umbria, looking out over the forested hillsides and spreading vista of the township of Spoleto, the muffled conversation of Dom and his sister drifting up from the pool below. This place is incredible. The air is fresh, the only sound that of cicadas and the ones we make ourselves. It is exactly as beautiful and picturesque as you would imagine when hearing the phrase “Italian villa.”

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Our trip here turned out to be an eventful one. We happily navigated our way to the station and onto a train heading to Spoleto, but getting off the train turned out to be more complicated. It happens that the station prior to Spoleto is called Baiano di Spoleto (which we now guess translates to “town outside of Spoleto”), and upon hearing the world “Spoleto” on the train’s overhead speakers, we grabbed our bags and headed to the doors. The train stopped and we got off. Then Dom had second thoughts, a dim memory making him think we might be at the wrong station, and we got back on. Then he had third thoughts and we got back off. Another passenger had departed and we asked him if we were in Spoleto. His face was all sympathy as he shook his head and said, “The next one.”

The train had just started rolling by this point, and despite our tugging at the handles, waving at the train driver, and a family on the other side of the doors attempting to force the door for us, it continued to glide on, leaving us stranded on the empty platform. We wandered around, learning that the next train wouldn’t arrive for an hour, while we were scheduled to meet Steve in half-an-hour’s time at the next station down the line.

The old Englishman who had told us we were at the wrong stop, who we learned was called Brian, informed us that Spoleto was five kilometres down the road, a decent challenge in the stinking heat and lugging around fifteen kilogram bags.

We had a wander through the tiny township of Baiano di Spoleto, resigned to wait an hour but hoping to find wifi to at least alert Steve that we would be late. Dom ran into Brian at the only open cafe who, upon learning we were having no luck, told him that his wife would be by soon and could drive us to the Spoleto train station. After profusely thanking Brian, we sat at the cafe’s outside tables and waited, discovering that Brian was an ex-Dean of a law university in England, and spent half his retired-life in Italy and half in Britain.

Brian’s wife, whose name we failed to catch and will hereafter be referred to as Wife of Brian, was equally lovely and appeared completely unfazed when her husband informed her she’d be chauffeuring three strangers down the road to Spoleto. Due to our oversized bags, Brain continued to wait at the cafe, and within minutes we were waving our new friend goodbye and on the way to the Spoleto train station with Wife of Brian.

The trip was closer to ten or fifteen kilometres than the five Brian estimated, and we were relieved we hadn’t risked the walk. Steve probably wouldn’t have found us if we’d passed out on the side of the thin road, oversized backpacks still on our backs.

After farewelling Wife of Brian, thanking her and being rebuffed after offering her money, she wished us well and drove out of our lives. The family that had tried to open the train doors for us from the inside were at the station and approached — they were Steve’s brother’s family. They had recognised us from Steve’s description, and had known as we both tugged on the door, the train moving away, that we’d gotten off at the wrong stop.

We sat and chatted for an hour, watching a storm roll in within minutes, the wind blowing the torrential sheets of rain sideways, and lightening streaking through the black clouds. Steve’s brother, his wife and young daughter and son were all incredibly friendly, and comfortable conversation was achieved instantly.

A short wait, a drive out-of-town and up into the hills, and we had made it, despite the self-inflicted hiccups and due in large part to the kindness of Brian and Wife of Brian, to the villa. And, more importantly, to Vanessa, Steve, and their beautiful boy, Jonty.

 

28th of July

I am sitting in the dining/lounge/kitchen space of the villa — the upstairs one, there’s another downstairs. The house is quiet, the ten other inhabitants still sleeping.

It has been nice to stop. The villa is about a twenty-minute drive out-of-town and up into the hills, and the only way in and out is via the car Steve hired. The car seats five and as there are eleven of us. It means, in a sense, we’re trapped here. I know this sounds like a plot for a horror film (and yes, we’ve taken guesses at who the murderer could be — my bet’s on Jonty), but it is, in fact, perfect.

There’s always that onus while travelling to keep moving, keep seeing, keep experiencing, because you probably won’t be back and you have to get your money’s worth. It’s hard to shake because there’s a certain amount of truth to it, which is why enforced idleness in an Italian villa is perfect. With nowhere else to be, I’m forced to stop and just enjoy where I am. To sit and while away hours talking with my companions. To read, to write, to swim, to rest. It’s sickening, I know.

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(Pictured: Dom and Nikki soaking in the Italian summer. And beer. Nikki’s on the left)

And where I am is beautiful. Yesterday Dom and I went for a run through the hills, trotting down narrow tree-lined paths and emerging on one curving edge of a hill over-looking a collection of old buildings (and when I say old, I mean older than any other building in all of Australia), and a ruin of what appeared to be an ancient wall, high and thick, that must have once ringed the tiny township. The valley of the Umbria countryside spread out to the horizon, a patchwork of fields and olive groves.

While running though the forested hills, it was easy to forget that I was in another country and not simply going for a jog in the Australian bush. What brought it home to me the most was the smells. The fresh odour of the tree sap, the spice of the pollen, told my senses that this was not home, that this decidedly foreign.

The only detraction to the run was the horse flies that rose in their hundreds, eager to greet us. Running through the copse, I felt like a car with insects perpetually slapping my windscreen, only in this simile the windscreen is my face. In the end, Dom and I ran with hands constantly moving, battling our way through the cloud of bugs. It was a small price to pay.

Today Nikki, Dom and I intend to retrace our steps and see if we can find our way down to the ruin of the wall. I’ll report back on the success of the mission.

I can hear movement downstairs and the querying question from Jonty of “Ball?”, so I think I’ll go say good morning.

 

DISCLAIMER: I’ve been alerted by a friend that I’ve never actually stipulated who my travelling companions, Dom and Nikki, are in relation to me, and that this is causing some confusion. Dom is my cousin (on my Dad’s side, for those playing at home) and Nikki is his girlfriend, and my friend.

They have their own blog, which details their incredible journey before meeting up with me, as well as parallel tales of our recent travels, if that’s your sort of thing. It a great read, and can be found here.