2017/18

2017 was an exhausting year.

It was a year that found me working more hours per week than I ever thought I would. Twelve-hour days became the norm, bookended with hour long bus rides through the suburbs of London, crawling my way north over the Thames and back again, german audio courses filling my ears for the morning journey, and Alex’s voice filling them for the return trip home.

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I went in and out of a thousand patient’s homes, into apartments of squalor and into estates so grand they could have housed five families instead of the single rich elderly resident that they did. I took endless blood pressures, felt an infinity of pulses, and inserted blessedly few suppositories. Maybe around four. Not too bad, really.

It was a year that found me spending more time away from my loved ones than in any other period to date. I was away from Australia for thirteen months, and saw my partner for only three and a half days of every fortnight. I was either working or in my tiny bedroom in Tooting, where my primary activities were eating, skyping and sleeping.

It was a year where the news reports seemed determined to bend us and bow us, to convince us the world was a doomed place being run by morons and bigots. The endless stream of click-bait fed us a diet of hopelessness and negativity, and sapped already depleting reservoirs.

It was a taxing year, certainly, but don’t believe it all, because 2017 was also an exhilarating year.

It was a year that saw my brother, Damian, become engaged to his best friend, Holly. It was a year where, in an uncharacteristic display of twinliness, I also became engaged to my best friend.

My voice quavered and my hands shook, and I asked my lady a question and she gave me a lifetime of happiness by answering in the affirmative. This happiness commenced almost immediately when, at four o’clock in the morning, with both of us too juiced up with adrenaline to sleep, we sat in bed, watched TV, and ate potato chips. Perfect wife material, my friends.

It was a year that contained a visit from my parents who crossed oceans and continents to meet me, my new fiancée, and my new fiancée’s parents, in Greece. The six of us soaked in the sun and the sea of the Mediterranean, ate our body’s weight in delicious food, and shared in the excitement of the coming nuptials.

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We explored the city of Vienna, my second home, and I journeyed with my parents across the United Kingdom. My previously isolated existence was suddenly occupied, and places and streets and homes that had been segregated from my former life became infused with the flavour of family. Those lonely locations in London now carried memories of Mum and Dad, causing the loneliness to have a harder time taking hold.

The year contained adventuring as the three of us road-tripped, dipping into the wildness of the Scottish highlands and tracking the coastline of Northern Ireland. We explored the isle of Skye, trekking on foot into the beauty and fierceness of the land, standing at the crest of the Old Man of Storr and whooping into the wind that tried to uproot us from the rocky soil.

 

It was a year where I shared texts and photos and videos with my older brother, Matthew, and spoke to my sister, Angela, through computers and phones, and realised I wasn’t as cut off as I imagined myself to be.

It was an exhausting year, and an exhilarating one, and one that helped highlight the significance of each of these attributes. Because although the adventuring was eye-opening and inspiring, and it was for the adventuring that I originally stepped out of my house in Ardeer and trotted off to Europe, it was the more subdued moments that really made my year worthwhile.

It was weekends with Alex, chatting over coffee or making meals together, or doing nothing at all but sitting on the couch and watching TV, that made the hours of work slip from my shoulders.

It was sitting with Mum and Dad in an irish pub or an Airbnb kitchen and having a beer or a cup of tea, and talking as if the miles that had previously separated us and the months spent physically apart were a brief nuisance already evaporating from our memories.

It was seeing my family’s faces in my laptop and mobile, and laughing like we always do until I could have sworn they were in the room with me, our conversation creating a temporary bubble where the laws of time and space were suspended, that punctured my isolation and deflated it.

It was all these interactions, these small and intimate moments amongst the labour of work and the highs of adventuring, that made the external stressors of the rest of the world that usually hammered at my attention become nothing more than the sound of rain falling somewhere outside while I was tucked up warm indoors.

2017 exhausted me, but it also exhilarated me to learn that what I really want from my life is these quieter moments, moments with Alex, conversations with my siblings, tea with my parents. Because while the adventuring is great, and standing on a mountain in Scotland laughing and screaming into the wind will have your adrenaline racing, it’s the getting warm and dry at the bottom with someone you love that gives it significance.

So bring on 2018, a year where I will marry the woman I love and build a life with her. A year where, by the end of it, I will no longer be torn between two cities, but will finally have a home in Vienna. A year where I’ll celebrate two weddings with my family, and see my brother marry his best friend.

A year where I’ll work less, and probably adventure less, but instead make time for the quiet moments that make both things worthwhile.

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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.