LIFE IN LONDON #02

I had spent the morning travelling to a GP clinic for the pleasure of obtaining a tuberculosis immunisation. I needed the shot for work, and hadn’t received it prior, despite my working in health in Australia, because in most first-world countries TB isn’t a particularly common disease. In fact, if I was working outside of London, just a few kilometres out, I wouldn’t need the shot either. It’s only here, in Central London, that tuberculosis is prevalent enough to warrant protection against it. I’m not sure what that says about the health conditions of Central London, but I’m choosing not to think about it too hard in case I ditch health altogether and go work in a supermarket.

(Actually, I’ve worked in a supermarket — I’d probably be more likely to catch something there. Between the customers and handling money, it’s basically a petri-dish of communicable diseases. Thank god the days are gone when I have to accept sweaty money pulled from an obese woman’s cleavage. Now I just shower the obese woman. Maybe a supermarket isn’t that bad? Moving on…)

The TB immunisation is unique in that it’s not injected deep into the muscle like most vaccines, but is delivered just under the skin. Long story short, I now have a cute little bubble of inactive tuberculosis in my upper arm. The doctor told me that this cute little bubble will decay into a sore, and not to worry when this happens. He said some people see the red swollen skin and leaking pus and think something’s gone wrong. I said this was a fair reaction to purulent muck leaking from an injection site. He said it was completely normal and could take six months to heal. So I have that to look forward to.

After leaving the clinic I walked to the closest township (my exercise has increased dramatically without access to a car. It’s amazing how having no other option can really motivate you to walk). My new room more closely resembles a cheap hotel bedroom than a warm familiar place in which I can tuck myself away, and this is solely because it’s without ornamentation. While I remain unreasonably proud that I moved overseas with nothing more than a fourteen kilogram bag, it did leave little space for personal items. I decided I needed to put something on the very white walls so headed to a store to print some photos. There was an hour wait while the photos were printed so I bought a sandwich from a supermarket and went for a wander around a nearby park.

It’s important to note that I had headphones on and was listening to a podcast while taking my meal and stroll. And not little earbuds that could be hidden in ears and under hair, but big proper headphones, the sort that engulf your entire ears and block out all other sounds.

The reason I point this out is because, whilst leaning against an outside table-tennis table in the park and enjoying the sun, I realised someone was talking to me. There was a black blur at the edge of my vision that was vaguely human shaped, and I could just make out the murmur of words outside the noise vacuum of my headphones. I turned and found a short squat middle-aged woman talking to me. Apparently unperturbed by my back being to her or the presence of my headphones, she happily nattered away, needing very little prompting to keep the one-sided conversation going.

I slipped my headphones around my neck and faced her, and discovered that she was talking to me about immigration. Let me give you some more information about my new friend and see if you can guess what her opinion was on this delicate topic.

My new friend was in need of a shower. Her black hair looked like something that had been pulled out of a clogged drain pipe and her clothes were of the caliber most people would delegate to rags. In fact, it looked like her clothes had been used as rags for many months, but then, desperate for an outfit, she decided to reverse her decision and upgrade them back to clothes before leaving the house.

My new friend was also in need of teeth. To give her credit, she did have a full set along the bottom, although they were black and a little worn. But where her top set should have been was nothing but pink gum. It was grotesquely mesmerising to watch her talk.

What she wasn’t in need of was a drink. I was happy to see she was remaining well hydrated, and happier still to see that inside the brown paper bag clutched in her fist was a 500ml bottle of Guinness. She was Irish, so I feel she’s entitled to this one. The woman was clearly a patriot. And for an adorable little touch, she was drinking her beer with a straw. Maybe lacking upper teeth makes drinking from a bottle a messy process.

Have you guessed what her opinion was on the complicated and human issue of immigration? That’s right, contestants, she was against it!

This woman’s opening statement in an attempt to broker conversation with a young man she didn’t know was racist comments. Isn’t that an incredible topic to use to break the ice? You have to admire her confidence.

My immediate thought was: “I don’t want to talk to you.” Followed quickly by: “I definitely don’t want to talk to you about immigration.” But I had twenty minutes to kill and rather than give in to the instinct to mutter something about buses to catch and making a get away, I decided to commit to having a conversation with this person. In my work, conversations with people outside the normal sphere of society are common, and given that I will be commencing work again soon, I saw it as a good easing in process. She was also a woman lonely and desperate enough for interaction that she approached a stranger wearing headphones for a talk. The least I could do would be to give her that. It would cost me nothing but time, and being currently unemployed, time is one thing I have in abundance.

Firstly, I had to change the topic away from immigration. While I was happy to converse with my new friend, I didn’t need to sit through her biased and ill-informed opinions on this topic, and didn’t think she’d appreciate my conflicting views, so I said, “It’s a complicated issue,” and then commented on her accent and asked how long she’d been in London.

By the end of our conversation I learnt these facts:

  • She’d been in London for thirty years. No, forty years. No, wait, thirty years (she was a bit unsure at first).
  • She was married to a dope addict.
  • She believed dope to be as addictive as hard drugs, and that it was a habit that could severely affect the people living with the addict. I was glad we’d found something we could agree on.
  • Her husband was currently in a jail, although she wasn’t sure which jail.
  • She was in the park today waiting until two o’clock when she could enquire after which jail her husband had recently been taken to.
  • She was a Catholic (she was Irish, so this wasn’t exactly surprising).
  • She was in the habit of swearing profusely, then apologising profusely for her swearing, before immediately swearing profusely once again. And then apologising profusely.

My watch ticked over to two o’clock which meant my photos were ready to be picked up. I looked at my new friend and said simply: “I have to go.” I wished her well with her hunt through the penitentiary system for her husband, and she spilled religious blessing upon me as I walked away, to which I replied: “You too!”

I gave her a wave and she smiled a half-toothed smile, and we parted ways.

Despite the obvious unpleasant aspects of talking to her, her body odour being just one, I don’t regret making the effort to converse. One thing working in health, and even in a supermarket, has taught me is how to talk to people. And more than that: how to empathise with them. A small dose of genuine empathy from me could change this woman’s day, and give me an insight into a life I’ve never, thankfully, had to live. A show of empathy is like a ticket into a deeper part of a person, where they keep the small truths and vulnerabilities they usually mask over. It’s easy to think that this woman was undeserving of empathy, that she is the product of life choices she’s made and is living the consequences of her actions, but this isn’t true. She is a person, and one who has had to face choices I’ve never had to think about. And while I wouldn’t want to maintain an ongoing relationship with her (as a drinking buddy, I’m pretty sure she could drink me under the table), I don’t mind sacrificing twenty minutes of my day to hear a slice of her story.

Anyway, that’s the tale of how I made my first friend in London. It can only go up from here.

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LIFE IN LONDON #01

I decided that, now that I’m back in the UK, entries from a travel journal aren’t really justified when, technically, I’m making a new home here in London. Even though this still feels very exotic (there are red double-decker buses everywhere!), and may feel like exploration, it is in fact a form of nesting. Of constructing a new home. And home, by definition, isn’t travelling.

But, invariably, by being in a new country and attempting to build a new life, things will happen that I want to write about. I imagine most of these will centre around me fumbling through the challenges of assimilating into a new culture. Subtle and delicate things like saying pants instead of trousers and having British people laugh at me. It should prove quite entertaining.

So in light of that entertainment, welcome to the first edition of Life in London.

Appropriately, the first entry in this segment involves my recent entry into London. It seemed like a good place to start.

 


 

I flew into Gatwick airport last night from Vienna, and planned to use public transport to make my way from the airport home. City mapper is an app that formulates every possible route from one location to another within London, be in via train or bus or tram or bike or walking or hover board. This isn’t me being witty, by the way. The trip from home to the nearest train station takes approximately eight minutes via hover board, according to city mapper.

I had checked the route earlier in the day while still in Vienna to get a feel for how long it’d take me to get home, and knew that a train, then a tram, then a bus would have me on my doorstep in just over an hour. I estimated I’d be in bed a little after midnight, provided I hadn’t gotten the time difference between Vienna and London mixed up. I had, but that proved redundant anyway.

The first hurdle to getting home was that my plane was delayed by half an hour, putting off the schedule of my planned route. The second hurdle was that, upon landing, I discovered that the internet on my phone wasn’t working. This frustrated me, but I put it down to poor reception and reasoned that I still had the previously loaded route on city mapper, and could follow that until reception improved. The app was offline due to lack of internet, so wouldn’t update, but still showed the path I needed to take.

After a twenty-minute wait on a windy platform, I caught the 12:16 AM train to East Croydon, then headed into the deserted streets towards a tram stop marked on my static map. As I stepped from the station into the night, I passed a cab rank, and prided myself on the money I was saving by using public transport, enjoying a superior silent chuckle at the lazy fools who pay exorbitant prices for a black cab.

I had my first sense of disquiet after about fifteen minutes of walking through the dark deserted streets of East Croydon, admitting to myself that wandering through unfamiliar London suburbs alone well past midnight probably wasn’t the smartest idea. The eight minute walk that my frozen app displayed took around half an hour, and involved a lot of back tracking, sprinting across multi-lane roads, and feeling incredible exposed as I wound through alleys with nothing but my small pack back.

Eventually I found the tram stop, a small island of light in a junction of empty streets, and stood, praying a tram would appear. I didn’t realise it at the time, but the flight delay and my own indirect path to the tram stop meant I had well and truly missed my tram, but as the internet in my phone continued to hibernate, I happily boarded the first tram to appear, giddy with relief that a tram had appeared at all. This relief soured after about ten minutes when the tram came to a stop in the middle of nowhere, the tram driver announcing end of the line, and the words “Out of Service” appearing in small lights on the side of the tram. With little options, I walked away from the tram stop and onto a long empty road, devoid of anything but factories and warehouses.

It was one o’clock in the morning (two o’clock Viennese time), and I was stranded in an industrial part of London.

Fuck.

As I stumbled up a seamlessly endless road, the odd truck rumbling past to break up the darkness and the silence, a part of me began to accept this was my life now. I was destined to wander the grid of London streets until the sun rose, and maybe even past then, living off my wits, the items in my back pack, and a phone that refused to cooperate and get me the hell home. I honestly had no idea how I would get from my current situation to my apartment. Without transportation, I was looking at a five-hour walk through unsafe streets. Every car that approached I begged just to drive on because I was convinced that if it stopped it would only to be for the driver and passengers to get out, mug me, beat me, and then carry on, leaving me without my back pack, my only ally. The phone they could have, for all the good it was doing me.

As I approached an intersection, two buses whisked by and I had to bite back a yelp at the joy of seeing a sign of civilisation. They sped around a corner to the left without stopping and disappeared. I knew that left would take me in the opposite direction from home, so faced the decision of following big red buses away from where I wanted to go, or go right, down another long empty street filled with potential rapers and muggers, in the vague direction of my apartment.

I went right (right is right, after all), and prayed I wouldn’t later come to regret this as the moment I made the stupidest decision ever. Actually, it couldn’t be the stupidest decision ever because I’d already passed that point when I confidently and cockily walked past the cab rank into the night, a dumb smug smile on my stupid face. I cursed myself as idiotic tight ass and marched up the right hand road.

I saw foxes scuttling across the asphalt, dimly lit by the street lights, and felt like one of them. I too padded cautiously through the dark, sending furtive glances to either side, shoulders hunched against the cold and an imagined attack. We were creatures of the night, only I was a big dumb animal, vulnerable and unable to scurry into the bushes like my nocturnal companions. They were made for the night, whereas I was made for sitting safely on a couch eating chips.

The road I strode up, which I was sure would stretch on forever, a purgatory road, a Möbius strip road, miraculously came to an intersection, although as dark and deserted as every other I’d encountered. I stood on the corner looking up and down the line of bitumen disappearing to either side and feeling very far from home, and noticed, almost hidden by a scree of trees, a bus stop. A bus stop! It was like finding a sealed bottle of water in the desert, spotting a ship when adrift in the ocean, discovering a chocolate bar in the back of the pantry when you’re really hankering for chocolate. It was salvation.

I trotted to the bus stop, pulling out my previously useless phone and putting it to use as a torch, and stifled a squeal of happiness when I read that it was a 24 hour bus line. This late at night, the bus would come at ten and forty past the hour. It was 01:20 AM (02:20 AM Viennese time). I had to only wait twenty minutes and I would be heading, roughly, closer to home. More importantly, I would be taken off the streets and tucked into a warm metal box on wheels, which would feel like a five-star hotel after wandering dimly lit London industrial streets.

Twenty minutes is a long time to wait in the dark, standing on the side of a road in the extreme early morning, head spinning from sleep deprivation, listening to every sound and being convinced it’s Jack the Ripper. (I know he only preyed on prostitutes, but given how perfect a target I’d made of myself, I figured he’d make an exception).

So I did the only reasonable thing a person can do in that circumstance to pass the time: I pulled out my book and started reading.

Picture me now, backpack on back, standing small and exposed on the shoulder of an empty road in the middle of the night, reading by moonlight. What a fucking idiot.

Eventually twin headlights lit up my ridiculous tableau and the bus pottered to the side of the asphalt, door swinging open like the gates of heaven, and I boarded. I was so ecstatic I could have hugged the bus driver if not for the plexiglass barrier and his complete look of apathy that clearly communicated the sentiment, “Just take a damn seat.”

While riding this bus I realised that if I got off in five stops I could catch another bus from there to Morden station, a fifteen minute walk from home. I had a plan. I was going to get home. I repressed the urge to attempt to hug the bus driver again.

I disembarked at the appropriate stop and looked for the times of the 118 bus line that would get me home. It was upon reading the bus schedule that I discovered the 118 isn’t a 24 hour bus line as I’d presumed. I scanned the list of numbers, desperately searching for what time the bus line terminated. It was 01:53 AM (02:53 AM Viennese time) and the very final bus of the day would come through my stop at 01:56 AM. In three minutes. A difference of three minutes and I would have been looking at a two and a half hour walk through the western suburbs of London, but instead I counted down the seconds and, right on time, the 118 pulled up to carry me home.

I had to clench my fists to resist any physical show of affection to my new bus driver, but couldn’t help giving him a huge grin as I swiped my oyster card and took a seat, to which he rolled his eyes, closed the doors, and pulled out onto the road. My night bus in red shining armour was taking me home.

I got off at the end of the line at Morden station and felt like I floated the fifteen minute walk home. I savoured every familiar sight, running loving fingers over the graffiti-scrawled roller doors of an indian restaurant, smiling at the outline of the post office, and eventually drifting blissfully through the wrought-iron gates to my apartment building. I climbed the three flights of stairs, unlocked the door, and stumbled into my bedroom. As I stood in the light of my room, safe and warm and with a bed beckoning to me at my feet, part of me couldn’t believe I was actually there, that my physical body had somehow ended up in this location. An hour before I had been nervously striding past shadowy factories with no concept of how to transport myself from that reality to this one, yet somehow, through some weird twisting of luck, here I stood, unmolested and intact, with my backpack still on my back at 02:30 AM (03:30 AM Viennese time), in my home.

It was at this point that I noticed the internet on my phone had decided to stir, and city mapper updated to announce that I had arrived at my destination. I glared at it like the annoying kid at school who claims to have known the answer all along and just didn’t want to say it, trying to decide whether to swear at it or throw it against the wall, and then just collapsed into bed.

My last thought before falling asleep was that, next time, I’d take the fucking taxi.

JOURNAL EXTRACT #08

2nd of September

I am sitting, freshly showered and rejoicing in the absence of sand from various folds in my body, on my bed in my Greek apartments. Outside, I can hear the braying of a donkey, a donkey I’m presuming is either in great amounts of pain or great amounts of pleasure — it’s hard to distinguish from the incredibly loud noises it’s making. I realised after writing this that it’s a strange thing to try to determine whether a donkey is receiving sexual gratification or not, but that’s just one of the many mind-expanding joys of travel.

After detailing the strict itinerary we hold ourselves to while holidaying in my last post, we immediately discarded our program and today did different things. I know, I know, what about the beneficial and economical pros of a strictly adhered to relaxation regime? Rest assured, we are professionals working at the top of our game, and our time was wisely used.

Instead of the delicious giant cinnamon donut I’ve grown accustom to, we opted to have a civilised sit-down breakfast by the water. This was in part because one member of our enclave, Martina, was leaving, and it seemed a fitting way to send off someone you’ve spent the last nine days with — particularly when most of that time was spent eating. The other reason was because we wanted bacon and eggs. Multiple birds with minimal stones, and all that.

Farewelling Martina made me very aware of the looming End of Holidays (yes, it warrants capitalisation) that was approaching, and the return to the ranks of the employed. This reentering into reality, albeit a very altered reality from the one I’m used to, has me thinking about the new things I want to achieve during my time in London. I’ve made a mental list of what my primary objectives are in an effort to avoid getting swept up in the working world once again. I don’t want to forget the reasons why I decided to deconstruct a life I’ve spent literally my entire lifetime building. The mental list, which will become a physical one by the end of this entry, should help keep these reasons at the forefront of my mind, reducing the odds of me falling back into old habits. I have a shitty memory: I can’t be too careful.

After leaving Martina to join the throngs of people and suitcases boarding the ferry, our now depleted group drove through the heart of Paros, stopping to explore the township of Lefkes. The town was composed of the stereotypical white-box homes and blue awnings I’ve come to expect, but without the smorgasbord of restaurants and shops found by the seaside designed to lure tourists. The cobbled alleys were quiet and deserted, and we wound our way down stairs and streets to the impressive church at the centre of it all.

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(Photo credit Kerstin Hofer)

Alex, acting once again as my tour guide despite the fact that this is technically her holiday too (I’ll buy her a donut to pay for her services), told me about the Greek custom of immediately burying the body without ceremony when a person dies. This is done because Greece is always hot and decomposition quick, but also because the ceremony of their death doesn’t take place until a year after burying. The body is exhumed, or rather the bones by this point, and the family sit around, food and drinks aplenty and music in the air, and reverently and respectfully clean each bone, before placing it in a specially crafted box which will become the departed’s final resting place.

I’m trying hard to decide if this is the most repugnant way to farewell a family member or the most intimate. The idea of handling a loved-ones bones is off-putting on a visceral level (bones are meant to be on the inside), but what could be more sacred than ensuring the very core of a person is put to rest cleanly and neatly. It’s probably a bit of both: icky, but nice. Sort of.

After exploring the town and this insight into macabre Greek traditions, we headed to the bays of Paros, one of which is renowned for mud. Apparently the dirt deposits that collect on the beach are full of minerals that are good for the skin, so people come to get in touch with their inner caveman and smear mud all over their body.

Before you ask, yes, I did it. And yes, my skin was silky smooth afterwards.

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Objectives for My Time in London: (excluding my newly adopted skin treatment regime)

  1. Write more: I like writing. If I could, I’d do it for a living. Sadly, I’ve been doing something else for a living, which leaves little time for writing. So, I’d like to write more. If I could get something published, I’d cry like a little girl.
  2. Read more: I like reading — this one’s pretty self-explanatory.
  3. Learn German: I’ve always wanted to learn a second language, and I now know someone who can converse in a language other than English. I hear this is an important component in language learning. My time in Austria clearly demonstrated the aching chasm of ignorance that comes from being outside a language, so I’m making it a high priority to master German. It’s hard work being the dumbest person in the room.
  4. Travel: Obviously.
  5. Exercise: While it hurts me to say it, and I mean that very literally, I’m committing to continue to work out with my roommates, Dom and Nikki. They’re both ridiculously motivated when it comes to physical exertion, and it seems stupid not to use their insane enthusiasm to supplement my own dwindling desire to exercise. Please remind me of this when I’m on the floor crying from too many squats.
  6. Work out work: By which I mean, figure out what I want to do with my life. At least professionally. I love working as a district nurse, but there are so many avenues in health I’d like to explore. Preferably something that combines writing and my health knowledge. For those of you unfamiliar with the city, London is actually a pretty big place, so it seems like a good setting to venture into the alternative pathways of the medical world.

That seems like enough objectives to keep me busy for now. Auf Wiedersehen. (<—Number 3 coming along nicely.)

 

7th of September

I am on a rooftop in Athens, twenty-one stories up, the city sprawling in every direction away from me. From this height, it looks like the world’s biggest miniature set, old and off-white figurines stacked as far as the eye can see in the folds of land that is Athens. I am alone.

Well, that’s not exactly true. The luscious rooftop bar and pool is full of holidayers eating and drinking, and soaking in the heat and humidity of this beautiful Greek day. But none of them are my companions. My companions have gone.

An hour ago, Alex and Anna left for the airport, where they’ll catch a flight back to Vienna. I’m picturing them in the airport now, sitting back and enjoying a meal of McDonalds. They were very excited by the prospect of McDonalds.

It feels odd to be alone. Normally, I am a person who enjoys a healthy amount of me time, a self-confessed introvert, but have found this desire absent in the past month. The person responsible for this is Alex, who has filled my days with so many incredible experiences and her own beautiful company, that, rather than feeling drained from so much stimulation, I feel revived. I cannot thank her enough. I know she’s reading this (I’m big in Austria) so once again, thank you for giving me the best month of my life. I will buy you as many chicken McNuggets as you like.

But even though I’m sitting here, sulking in paradise over my new isolation, I really have no reason to complain — these last few days of my holiday have been as eventful as the rest. I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it on the site before, but the plan has always been to end the trip with a wedding. Not mine, for the record.

A close friend of Alex’s, Natassa, is the marriage participant in question, and before I set out from Australia, Alex invited me to attend as her date. She reasoned that she’d never been to a Greek wedding, and I’d never been to Greece, so it was a good opportunity for both of us. I whole-heartedly agreed with her reasoning.

We made the return journey from Paros to Athens on the ferry, and after checking into our hotel, spent the evening exploring the city and, of course, eating delicious food. Athens lacks the beauty of the islands, the buildings looking tired and worn, shades of dirty cream instead of the vigorous white of Paros, but it has history.

On Saturday, while Alex went to Natassa’s mother’s house to have her hair done and other secret things that women do before weddings, I ventured into Athens, map in hand, keen to see some history. I’m a big lover of fantasy books, and many of them are set in Ancient Athens, or fictional places that very closely resemble Ancient Athens, so I was excited to see some of the places I’d read about. I wandered through ruins, Hadrian’s Gate and the Temple of Zeus, mentally reconstructing what these monolithic buildings would have looked like back when they were freshly built, and marvelling at the beauty and ingenuity of edifices crafted thousands of years ago. Naturally, I took a selfie.

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The wedding was a slightly strange affair. Not that it wasn’t lovely, because it certainly was, set against the Athen’s coastline, but rather because during the ceremony, which took place before a tiny chapel, most of the guests talked and wandered around, giving the main event only minimal attention. A Greek friend of Alex’s, Christina, said that sort of behaviour was common, and the betrothed didn’t seem bothered. A small choir of men sung in Greek while the priest intoned words which were lost on me, metal rings were swapped over the heads of Natassa, the bride, and Franz, the groom, as if the best man was unsure of which head it should land on, and then we all threw rice at the newly married couple. It was good fun.

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(I know, it wasn’t fair to outshine the bride and groom, but we couldn’t help it)

The rest of the night was mostly similar to a wedding in Australia: wine and food (although the quality of the food outstripped anything I’ve ever eaten at a wedding before), and dancing. I participated in a tradition Greek dance, by which I mean stumbled around in a circle trying to figure out the steps, and managing not to stamp on anyone’s feet. This pattern of eating, drinking and dancing continued until three AM when we bused it back to the hotel and literally fell into bed. The wedding had been a success.

The next day, or rather, afternoon, we emerged, ate, and made our way to the most iconic place in Athens: The Acropolis. It was genuinely stunning, and I played the game again of trying to picture it in its original state, ancient Greeks wandering throughout the columns, discussing engineering and philosophy, physics and religion. How they managed to build such a structure is beyond me. But then, I was never that good at lego.

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We had our final Greek meal, toasted our final ‘Yamas!’, and made our way back to the hotel.

And that brings me up-to-date. The holiday, this holiday at any rate, is all but done, and I am now sitting in my empty hotel room, wallowing in post-holiday blues. The past month has gone by so quickly, and yet seems filled to bursting with new experiences and sights, too many to be contained in twenty-eight days. I’ve seen things read about in books, and wandered roads laid thousands of years ago. I’ve walked through the palaces of emperors and learnt the history of a city. I’ve eaten amazing food from different cultures, and made new friends. It is no exaggeration to say it has been the experience of a lifetime.

Thanks for sharing it with me.

JOURNAL EXTRACT #07

27th of August

I am sitting, feet couched in sun-warmed sand, on the shore of an island in Greece. The blue waters of the Mediterranean are lapping only a meter away from where I’m resting on a deck chair, their blue perfection living up to the score of photos I’d seen before coming here.

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(Photo credit Martina Falkner)
The past few days have been bliss. It feels slightly mad that I’m living the stereotypical holiday pined after by people trapped in cubicles, the go-to idea of paradise conjured to appease the tedium of work. And I’m living it. In a way if feels like this is meant for someone else, that days of luxuriating on a Greek Island, bothered with no greater schedule than when to swim, eat, and sleep are reserved for the insanely lucky or insanely rich, and that at any point someone will walk across the sand and say, “You’re in my seat,” and then that will be that. But all the other beach goers seem to accept my presence, no one yet double-taking when spotting me and shouting “Fraud!”, so I’m going to relax and ride this for as long as I can.
The trip to the island involved four means of transport, beginning with Alex’s dad driving us to the airport where we met our other companions in idleness, Kerstin, Alex’s cousin, and two of Alex’s friends from university, Anna and Martina. It was sad to say goodbye to Vienna, and my temporary foster home and family, Monika and Rupert. Their generosity and welcome turned a holiday into something more, and deepened the enjoyment of my stay tenfold. Beside their lovely company and beautiful home, I will also miss their cooking. My god, they know how to cook.
From Vienna, we flew to Athens then took a bus (the third form of transport for those still counting) to the docks, where we boarded a huge ferry for the five-hour trip out to the island of Paros. The water opened up to swallow us as we drifted away from the newly discovered city of Athens (new for me, at any rate. I hear it’s actually quite old), and on to paradise. The sun set while we sailed and we were greeted by the lights of Paros sparkling along the shoreline, dimly illuminating the square white buildings Greece is renowned for. The departure from the boat was impressive, hundred of people, suitcase wheeling behind them, disgorging from the bowels of the ferry, a mass of humanity spreading out into the island. It felt like we were all new migrants, deposited on an island, to start a new life. If this is my new life, then I have nothing to complain about.
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(Photo credit Martina Falkner)
Since then we have split our time between sunning ourselves on the beach, swimming in the crystal waters, eating fresh seafood, bread and oil, and drinking beer and cocktails, napping in the sun, and, of course, reading. I honestly can’t remember the last time I felt so relaxed, and so free of that nag of productivity, the voice in the back of my head that usually disturbs my rest by insisting I need to be doing something more constructive. I’ve bought that voice a beer and he’s currently sleeping in the Greek sun. We’ve made our peace.
28th of August
I am back on a beach in Paros, a different beach from yesterday, but that doesn’t really matter. Every beach we visit looks like it’s been lifted straight out of a postcard. The weather is, of course, perfect, as it always is in postcards, a method designed to make those receiving them jealous, and a way for those sending them to brag. It’s the original check-in before Facebook was invented.
Each night after a strenuous day of concentrated napping, studious reading, and dedicated eating, we head back to our apartments to wash away the sweat of our hard work before venturing into town. We’ve explored a few parts of this island’s township, and if the postcard metaphor was appropriate for the beach scenes, then it only increases in the web of quaint cobblestoned alleyways found riddled throughout the hubs of Paros. Perfectly white cubed buildings squat almost a top one another, every door and windowsill painted a vivid blue in a patriotic display. Boutique stores selling jewellery and clothes share the street with idyllic restaurants, vines growing across lattice overhead and the tables lit by candlelight.
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So far the food in Greece has not disappointed. After the food tour of Vienna I received from Alex and her parents, I was convinced I’d find an anticlimactic feed no matter how good the fare provided by the island, but this has not been the case. The seafood is fresh, unsurprising given we’re on a spit of land surrounded by sea and, therefore, sea creatures, and the bread and oil rich and delicious. I’m not looking forward to heading back to London and having to feed myself again. It’s not that I can’t cook a decent meal, but I think my time in Vienna and now Greece has ruined me for regular food.
I spoke to my brother today – it was great to hear his voice. One line in and I was home again, a slice of the comfort and familiarity amongst all this incredible newness. We exchanged the usual report of happenings, but it was the talking shit around this news-swapping that eased the homesickness. There is no medicine better than laughing with your brother over something so fucking stupid you can’t help but appreciate the genius of it.
So far my homesickness has been rather restrained. I think this is due to the fact that I spent the first part of the trip with my cousin, Dom, who really is a brother in every sense except for the fact that we shared differently uteruses, and so home didn’t feel far away. I’ve also done nothing except holiday, so I still hasn’t really hit me that this is my new life and not just an extended vacation. I think some part of my brain is still convinced in a matter of weeks I’ll have to return to my previous life. I think once employment replaces holidaying that part of my brain will think, “Oh shit, this is hard again. Okay, I believe you when you say this is our reality now.” Luckily, that horrid realisation is still ten days away, so I’m happy to join my brain in ignorance and just relax in this piece of paradise. Ignorance is bliss, after all.
30th of August
I am sitting on an outcropping of stone in an alley in Paros while the girls shop. I have a suspicion the step of stone was built for men such as me waiting on women while they survey the market goods. The Greek culture is ancient and wise like that.
Right now my belly is stretched full with good food, the third restaurant meal I’ve eaten today. I know, if I was you, I’d hate me too.
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(My holiday companions)
Despite the fact that I’m on holiday, and have nothing but open time and endless possibilities, my days have still fallen into a routine. Please don’t mistake me, this is no criticism – my current routine far outstrips the one I previously had, which involved getting up at six each morning and working for eight and a half hours. But it seems routine is an unavoidable human condition – we develop practises that prove beneficial and economical, then add to these practises until our day is a scheduled thing. So even while holidaying, we’ve managed to hone our traits into a seamless machine of relaxation. Right now, my day goes something like this:
– Wake to the alarm at eight o’clock. And I know what you’re thinking, why the hell are you waking at eight on a holiday? To get the best sun beds on the beach, obviously. Beneficial and economical, remember? And fear not, any lost sleep is recovered on said sun bed later in the day.
– Flop myself out of bed at eight twenty after attempting to ignore the alarm for twenty minutes, brush my teeth and don my Greek Island ceremonial robes i.e.my bathing suit.
– Drive to a close by bakery and purchase one giant sugared donut. The challenge of which is resisting eating the donut until arriving at our destination.
– Drive to the beach and glory in our choice of sun beds, patting ourselves on the back for our wise early start, then immediately devouring the sugared donut in under a minute.
– Spend the next minute picking sugar out of my beard.
– Then comes the part of the day I detest the most: the ritualistic application of the sunscreen. This is probably the hardest part of my day, which is another way of saying my day’s not that hard, but I still find it in me to resent it. I do it anyway because one stubborn fit of resistance as a child and five days a whimpering afterwards every time a wisp of clothing touched my lobster-red sunburn taught me resistance is futile.
– Swim in the Mediterranean and reflect on how lucky I am.
– Nap, and feel that balance has been restored post the eight o’clock alarm.
– Read for hours until someone idly suggests lunch.
– Eat a lunch of delicious traditional Greek cuisine. Or pizza. Whatever looks best at the time.
– Repeat morning activities of swimming, napping and reading. By now, I have perfected these duties.
– Drive back to the apartment at around six for a shower and some phone time. WiFi is only available at the accommodation and not the beach. I know, stone ages, right?
– Make our way into town and meander through beautiful alleyways before selecting the next stunning restaurant to eat at.
– Sitting down with a sigh of relief after our strenuous meandering.
– Eat consistently amazing food – conversation usually halts at this point as we’re all too busy moaning with pleasure at every mouthful to bother with words.
– More meandering to work off dinner and the chance to shop.
– Driving home and collapsing into bed, confident in the knowledge that my new routine has ensured I didn’t waste a minute of the day.
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(Photo credit Martina Falkner)
As perfect as this routine is, and despite my best efforts to ignore the fact, I know that this lifestyle has an end date, and before long I’ll be developing a new routine in London. I’m certain of one thing when it comes to building this new life: I don’t want to replicate my old life. I mean, it seems like a waste of time and money to travel all this way and just build Same Life v2.0, don’t you think?
The reason I’m so determined to avoid this is because I think it’s an easy trap to fall into. That unavoidable human condition would kick in, and given the success of my previous life, it’d make sense to duplicate the elements that worked. Beneficial and economical. But this move is a chance to create a new routine, one built around new objectives. To reflect on what was previously out of balance and right it. To make time for new things.
What those things are exactly has yet to be decided. But I’m giving it some serious thought and will report back in the next post.