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.

DSC03112

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…”

IMG_0845

 

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.

IMG_0862

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.

IMG_0818

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.”

IMG_0839

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.

IMG_0832

 

(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.

JOURNAL EXTRACT #01

16th of July

I’m currently in Abu Dhabi airport – a place I never really thought I’d be sitting. Not that in my life I didn’t anticipate airport or travelling, the Untied Arab Emirates was just never on that mental list.

It’s thirty-five degrees here, as opposed to the eight degrees I left back in Melbourne. The jacket I cleverly thought to wear rather than pack in an exorbitant waste of precious space is shed and on the chair beside me.

So far the trip has been – and dare I say it and risk jinxing is all – easy. Perhaps this is due to the pendant around my neck given to me by my sister depicting the god Ganesh. A custom’s lady here in Abu Dhabi remarked on it, surprised to see a young, blonde white-boy wearing it. When she queried me with “Ganesh?”, and pointed to it, I confidently replied “Yes, Ganesh. The remover of obstacles,” as if I was the embodiment of all worldly knowledge on the religion of Hindu. I assure you I’m not, and have my sister to thank for this scrap of information that helped me win over the custom’s lady.

I have a cold at the moment, an apparently immutable side-effect of travelling, even when just setting off, it seems. I have been hoarding tissues to get me through the flights – they may be the most important thing in the world to me right now. Luckily for me, and my fellow passengers, I have had the window seat with my last two flights, and could at least turn away when expelling the contents of my nasal cavity.

I am missing my family and friends, but more so due to the knowledge of how long it will be until I see them than from any huge passage of time so far. It has been eighteen hours since I hugged my parents, sister and brother goodbye at the airport.

IMG_0757

On the flight from Melbourne to Sydney I sat next to a couple heading to a national go-karting competition that they were officiating. In another apparently immutable side-effect of travelling, they were from Morwell, and we discussed people who had grown up down the road from me while growing up. From Sydney to Abu Dhabi I sat next to a sweet Italian couple who were heading to Napals for the first time in fifteen years to visit family. After helping Marie find the port for her headphones post her attempts to shove the plug into a USB port, we became firm friends.

I’m now off to message family and friends through the mundane miracle of the internet. Thank god I live in a time when even here, alone in the Abu Dhabi airport, I’m not really alone.

17th of July — scratch that, 18th of July

I had good intentions to write yesterday, but ran dry on time and motivation. Jet lag and a few beers were to blame.

So I’m in Italy. In Rome. From our small apartment I can hear church bells ringing out, and yesterday I wandered through the ruins of the Colosseum. To say it feels surreal doesn’t do it justice to the sense of dislocation and wonder. Italy has been a presence since childhood due to my primary school’s weak attempt to teach us Italian, and because of this I saw pictures of the Colosseum at the same time I was reading children’s books. Somewhere in my head the concepts merged, and the land of Italy joined the ranks of Narnia and Middle-Earth as just another fantasy land. To be here, to be walking through the physical evidence of those childhood stories is…well, imagine getting to meet Aslan. Yeah.

IMG_0764

The food has incredibly lived up to the hype, and I can foresee myself happily eating my way across Europe. A friend from Austria asked if I’d brought loose-fitting pants for the trip due to all the delicious food I’d be eating — I no longer think she was joking. I’ve made a promise to myself to maintain my exercise, if only so I can completely indulge in the food, guilt-free. Because, let’s face it — I’m not going to hold back on the food.

A change of location now: I’m on a train heading towards Salerno. We were originally going to brave a bus and save some euros but google failed us and delivered us to the train station. And seeing as we were at the train station…needless to say, we took the train. Which, while sitting here, still warm despite the train’s air-conditioning, is probably a good thing — air-conditioning was not guaranteed on the bus. We also learnt the hard way that seats on the train are allocated, and after an awkward bilingual conversation with an elderly Italian couple, wrestled our over-sized bags through three very cramped and full carriages to our seats.

The beautiful Italian countryside is whipping past the windows, so I’m going to stop and enjoy that for a bit.

19th of July

I am on a balcony, three stories above the ground in the seaside town of Salerno. Our apartment building bookends the street, and from my vantage point I’m looking down the corridor of buildings, painted an assortment of creams and tan. Scooters and cars drift by on this lazy Sunday morning, and it is all perfectly stereotypically Italian.

The Italian summer is definitely a contender for an Australian summer —  temperatures remain in the mid-thirties. Our current place is lacking in air-conditioning, and while the owners promised us a fan, they were successful in breaking said fan in their attempt to construct it. So no fan. Luckily, all three of us, Dom, Nikki and myself, are all veterans of a summer in Brunswick, a red-brick house deprived of insulation, and are familiar with braving the heat. This mostly involves laying topless (Dom and I, not Nikki) on the cold tiles and doing as little as possible.

We took a stroll through Salerno and alone the coast — the township curled alone the crag of land with mountains standing senile behind and the sun dripping down in a haze of orange. It was beautiful. And made more so by the beer we enjoyed.

IMG_0774

A concert was taking place on the beach in a temporary stadium, with a line of teenage girls waiting to get it. We managed to discern the headliners were a group called “The Kolors,” which we presume are like an Italian One Direction. Dom was disappointed we couldn’t get in.

A lot of this is still feeling surreal, although made less so by the necessary practicalities travel forces upon you — coordinating transport, arranging accommodation, figuring out meals and activities. These administrative tasks keep the whole experience grounded. The fact that I won’t see my family and friends for so long still hasn’t sunk in. Intellectually I’ve accepted it, but a part of my brain insists this is just a holiday, and my normal reality is waiting around the corner, ready to resume in an instant.