Category Archives: culture
I’m standing inside a room, if you can even call it that. It measures maybe two by three metres. My shoulders are hunched, my head lowered, and I’m listening to the house owner tell me how an entire, extended family used to live in this room.
Just a few days earlier I was gliding along the canals of Amersfoort, onboard a boat, huddled on wooden benches with my aunt, uncle and a handful of strangers. A burst of budding leaves and flowering trees lined the waterways as the sun shone down on cobbled walkways and historic buildings.
I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day to explore this ancient Dutch city.
Listening to the tour guide, I tried to pick out words but often referred to the English cheat sheet, noting dates that aged Amersfoort back to the late 1200s.
The western boat route took us by houses built into the first city walls and provided glimpses of Onze Lieve Vrouwetoren, a 98m high tower that not only provides a visual reference point within the city but houses the middle point of the Dutch grid reference system. We slipped under bridges and floated alongside water gates and the birthplace of the famous Dutch painter, Piet Mondrian.
Drinking in the age of this little city, it was apparent that she had been well looked after. Despite her years, she was neatly presented, breathing out secrets of a long, knowing life.
Now, some days later I find myself as a guest inside the tall windowed grandeur of one of Amersfoort’s oldest houses, peeking in through secret doors and into the more recent history of the Second World War. A Jewish family hid away inside this little, little room.
It’s this kind of history, the human component, which really resonates with me. I stay for a short while, hunched and imagining how one lives a confined life, and a life full of fear.
And then the owner pulls away some wood to reveal a tiny window with views directly over to the synagogue. There, within those views, I realise, must have lain some comfort.
Dangerous, stupid or just a bit of English fun? It’s definitely one of the more bizarre British customs that I’ve come across.
Bad press surrounding the cheese rolling competition held annually in Gloucestershire had seemingly promoted the event. Any publicity is, well, publicity, I guess. Local and international competitors gathered, ready to run a race down a near vertical strip of pitted farmland and claim victory in front of an adoring – and somewhat tipsy – crowd.
Take Kenny Rackers, for example, a 27 year old who travelled over from the US with only one thing on his mind: to win. ‘I came 3,000 or 4,000 miles just for this race,’ he told journalists. ‘I trained a long time for this and got hurt on the hill practising. I came three days early and I took a bad spill, but I came to win.’
Having ambled up along a winding road into what felt like private farmland, I just made it in time for the end of the first race. I nestled my way in to the front of the crowds and there stood Kenny, clad in stars and stripes and holding high the mighty cheese. ‘I came over specially for this and I did what I had to do to win,’ he said. People queued to get pictures. Celebrity cheese chaser. Nice work.
I looked up at the top of the hill, some 200 metres away. Clustered with squatting people, it looked as though they were having to hold on to tufts of grass to avoid falling down. Occasionally someone did. The photos, quite frankly, do not do the steepness justice. Coopers Hill has become infamous for this one day, once a year. The rest of the year, though? Pah. Mountain goats, maybe?
I watched the next race, a flurry of tumbling bodies, bouncing bodies. The cheese, replaced this year by a foam replica, hit a chunk of earth and split off to the side. Legs struggled to keep up with downhill momentum, tumbles followed tumbles and tripped others up. At the finish line men walked around dazed, a blend of naked torsos and smudged mud make-up.
And so it repeated and repeated until I watched a man flip and then stop still. He tried to shuffle, but then lifted his leg. His foot stuck out sideways, and a sea of people groaned.
The crowd, revved on a good dose of bystander adrenaline and cider blur, started to disperse to the tune of an ambulance siren. Paramedics brought out the stretcher and the health and safety boohoos rubbed their hands in delight with the ammunition newly granted to them.
Another victory for sensibility over tradition? Let’s hope not. At least the grandmother who had until this year provided the cheese could rest assured that the police wouldn’t be knocking on her door, again. ‘They threatened me, saying I would be wholly responsible if anyone got injured,’ she told the Telegraph days before the event.
Yet the appeal of the event doesn’t seem to be fading. Thousands of people still climbed up to Coopers Hill to watch the somersaults, and plenty of people still entered the competition knowing full well the dangers involved. Like the running of the tar barrels in Ottery St Mary, this event has associated risks. What’s wrong with the competitors taking some responsibility for themselves?
So is it dangerous, stupid or just a bit of fun? Quirky, sure. I’ll go with that.
- Cheese rolling at Cooper’s Hill (official website)
- American flies in to win Gloucestershire cheese rolling contest (the guardian.com)
- American wins Gloucestershire cheese-rolling race, despite health and safety warnings (metro.co.uk)
- Kenny Rackers, Making America Proud From 4,000 Miles Away (averagenobodies.wordpress.com)
Sun blazing down on us, a bitey breeze keeping things cool, it was one of those perfect British days where you drink in the freshness of the air and turn your face up to a lightly white streaked sky.
Marching across the green grass fields of Gloucester towards a spring festival at an alternative education centre, I felt cheery being back in the UK. If I’d known that within a few minutes I’d be playing the moon in a zodiac demonstration and introducing D-man to my yearly childhood practise of maypole dancing, then maybe there would have been an even bigger bounce in my step. Maybe.
England, my sister said, was showing me its best side, a gold explosion of dandelions and sunshine, new life bursting out of branches and the otherside of a wintertime, warmth finally giving all its inhabitants some vitamin D therapy after two long, wet summers.
England, my sister told me, was persuading me to not give up on my home country, totally.
The following day brought more moments in amongst the greenery, this time within the grounds of an imposing country manor. We walked off a locally sourced Sunday lunch and played poohsticks on a trickling stream where swans and cygnets persisted to paddle against the current. We ambled up past crumbling stone buildings and into yet more green fields, nodding good afternoon to other walkers.
And it all felt, well, quintessentially British countryside. Far from the rugged and somewhat aimless adventuring I’ve been doing in the last two years, it was not without charm.
Over 30 million tourists visit London every year. 30 million. That’s nearly half the UK population (and doesn’t even take in to account the residents). One city with so many people? Somehow it works.
As a Brit, I’ve had a bit of a love/hate relationship with the city, and after brief breaks to the place I’ve always been happy to retreat back to ‘normal’ England. Now, though, I was seeing it through tour guide eyes, showing D-man around and trying to pack in as much as possible within a short amount of time.
So here is a list of what you could do in a day. More realistically, you will probably want to spread the activities out over a couple of days. I’ve not even included museums or galleries, gardens or markets or shops. The Science Museum, Tate Modern, Kew Gardens, Brick Lane, and more and more and more. So much more. Ah, another time, another list.
For now though, let’s run with this very standard tourist list of things to get the London experience started:
1. Start your day by swinging by some famous streets, sights and places
2. Squish in amongst the crowds to watch the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace
3. Boat trip down the River Thames
4. Watch the sun set over the city from high on board the London Eye
5. Wind down in one of London’s many theatres
And then you could finish the day and party on until daybreak at Fabric or one of London’s many clubs or squat parties. We didn’t. Wiped out from a day of flights and now a day in London, D-man, me and my mum headed back to our comfy airbnb find.
My guess is that at the end of the day you too will be tired. Your feet will hurt. You may decide that you don’t like the shuffling crowds, that this city of 8 million people and hoards of tourists is too chaotic and the depths of London’s underground belly too claustrophobic. You may groan about high prices, about sold out shows, about the fact that this city doesn’t seem to sleep.
But stop. Take a breath. You can’t really deny that London is a bold, beautiful city, alive with diversity and culture, can you?
In May 2012 I saw a Facebook update from a friend in Melbourne that stated ‘…over 40 resumes and nothing… I continue the travels…’, and so I decided to skip the call of the city and head straight to the north coast of New South Wales on my return to Australia. But another friend warned ‘It might be difficult to find work here in Byron. You’re arriving at the start of winter, people are losing their jobs’.
I needed to work, there was no question about it. A year of travelling between South America and Oceania meant that I was flat out broke and my financial independence was totally at stake. Additionally, my immune system was also fighting a battle and required rest and a good dose of TLC.
It made absolute sense to struggle (and a struggle was apparently unavoidable) surrounded by familiarity and a good dose of sunshine than in amongst a sea of city strangers. The decision to choose small town life over high-rise buzziness was easy.
Now, over a year later, I find myself reflecting on what has so far helped me to find my feet in a new town on the other side of the world. I’ve begun to build up a wonderful network of people around me, people with whom I can laugh, chat, adventure, dance, just be. I’ve been fortunate to find work – from unskilled to professional positions – that have kept me fed, watered and beyond. And I’ve found time to start exploring Australia, from the beach in my back garden to far further afield.
So, what worked? What helped me to take a break from constant travelling and actually put down some roots?
- Plan ahead, a little. Boring. Maybe. I sent emails and CVs ahead of my arrival that meant I had somewhere to live and work for the first few weeks. I stayed with a friend for a couple of days and then moved into a beautiful little B&B in the heart of Byron where I worked a HelpX arrangement for a few weeks, which gave me enough time to figure out something a little more permanent.
- Move into a share house. I remember how back in my early 20s this was helpful. When you’re new to an area and don’t have hoards of people to call up for a catch-up, having at least one other person around to say ‘What are you up to today?’ or ‘How’s it going?’ makes you feel a little less isolated.
- Know when to spend. In this part of Australia, public transport systems seem to be pretty abysmal so spending the last of my savings on a car was not only the right decision in terms of helping me to maintain a sense of independence, but it also helped me get to interviews, work and social appointments.
- Do the official stuff. Like sign up to Medicare. Like sorting out your Aussie driving licence. It might sound silly, but having a few basic things in place helped me to feel more secure in stopping my journeying.
- Get a job. Or three. At times I overcommitted with voluntary and paid work and struggled to hold it all together, but it felt great to have a different sort of focus, to contribute, to work in a team again.
- Get involved with activities. Back in January 2012 when I first visited Byronshire, I joined a climbing group. I am still friends with people from that group. Since being back in the area I’ve played in a girls’ soccer team, joined a local writing group and become an active member of a Sivananda yoga centre. Being part of things feels good and gives the week some structure.
- Say yes to invitations. Initially, you’re not on people’s radars because they have their own life and friends, but the more you go along to things and participate, the more you will become part of their consciousness.
- Travel and explore. In the past I’ve found it all too easy to split life between settling and travelling, rather than mixing the two, but on the advice of others I’m now trying to open my eyes to my daily surroundings. A cycle ride into town reveals a shady duneside pathway along which snakes are said to summer lounge. An after work beach walk puts me in near contact with the trailed tentacles of a stranded blue bottle jellyfish. That belly flip of excitement – the type of feeling you might experience when first visiting an exotic country for the first time – can still exist even if you’re not traipsing up mountains in Peru or exploring the salt flats of Bolivia.
But let me be honest. Stopping after travelling and embracing the life of an expat hasn’t been a totally smooth process (and clearly the travel bug lives on in my system as I still can’t claim to have really stopped). It hasn’t been easy, at all.
After the initial post-arrival elation, months three to nine proved tough. Whenever things weren’t going my way I contemplated packing my bags and moving to the next town, a place where there might be work, where people might invite me along to things, where I’d be sprinkled with some magical settle down powder and live happily ever after, my wanderlust diminished. I thought about Europe, about my friends and family there. I pondered: maybe I should just return to what I know, what’s comfortable.
There were times when I questioned why other expats didn’t reach out to me, offer me advice, hang out. At moments I wished so hard that I didn’t have to be the one to contact people, where I just wanted someone to call me up, out of the blue, and say ‘hey, do you want to do coffee?’
And then suddenly, it happened.
How was it for you? Was it easy to stop travelling? Or to settle in another country?
- The Top 5 Common Problems Suffered By Expats (expatforum.com)
- Top 5 benefits of being an expat (theexpatloop.wordpress.com)
- What Does The Expat Need To Know Before Moving Abroad (puravidafamilia.com)
- The Art of Courage for Expats (flavorsofbogota.com)
- Sailings from Britain to Australia a step closer (telegraph.co.uk)
- Record numbers as 40,000 young Irish emigrate to Australia (irishcentral.com)
Unlike my Australian housemates, I wasn’t able to vote, which is no bad thing considering a) I’ve been travelling for a while now and I’m totally disconnected from anything political and b) Australian politics in particular are foreign to me. Totally.
Well, I’ve had some introduction, I suppose. Like the note that appeared on my sharehouse sideboard the night before the election that stated to anyone who cared to read:
Can’t wait for Abbott, it’s gonna be great!
Someone else in the house had cared enough, not just to read the note but to add their own two cents worth:
Yeah Abbott, your daughters are so HOT!
Both of these statements – alongside some preparatory listening to Triple J radio – opened up a conversation about the September 7th election between Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd. We talked a little about internet speeds (seemingly a HUGE focus), about Abbott’s anti-gay marriage stance, about Abbott’s penchant for wearing Speedos and about his ‘I’m the guy with the not bad looking daughters’ gaffe. Like the pre-election polls, our conversation predominantly favoured Abbott (whether we favoured Abbott was, however, a totally different thing).
The next day, everyone (apart from me and other travellers and expats and people who were prepared to pay a fine for non-attendance) went to makeshift voting booths set up in schools and community centres around the country. It was a beautifully sunny Saturday in northern New South Wales so getting in and out of the polling stations ASAP was a priority. Voting had to be done but no-one wanted a wasted day. D-man managed it in under five minutes. Then he went and checked the surf.
No one was particularly surprised when Abbott was later proclaimed the winner of the election race. And oh so quickly, away from the TV and newspapers, life continued. I haven’t again heard mention of the election in my share house. Only the note remains, now stuck to the fridge with an added comment:
Abbott for pope
If I’m still loving the Australian life by the time the next elections come around, I will hopefully be a sworn in citizen, ready to make my vote count. And between now and then I promise that I will read and listen and learn so that my understanding of Australian politics is secure enough for me to make a properly informed choice.
For now, though, I’ll keep travelling and living Australia.
- Abbott creeps out Big Brother (smh.com.au)
- Australian expats make their voice heard in federal election (australiantimes.co.uk)
- London Aussies urged to cast their votes at Australia House (australiantimes.co.uk)
- Australian election count on course for record number of informal votes (theguardian.com)
I first became aware of street art tours when a fellow blogger posted photos of a trip that they’d been on in Buenos Aires. Street art seems to be growing in popularity and gaining acceptance; it’s been associated with enhancing community cohesion and giving disenchanted youths an outlet to express their frustrations. Of course there’s far more to it all, but I’m not the one to talk about this sub-culture. What do I know? I just like looking at some of the stuff. Little more.
With the rise of street art acceptance, street art tours were always an inevitable progression, and they’re too gaining in popularity. Go to London, San Franscisco, Bangkok or Melbourne and you can find a tour that promises to give you a taste of the latest contemporary art trend.
Whilst I have some questions about how such an underground scene sits within a commercial and mainstream context, I do lean towards street art over concept art, and so, following a tip off from a local, I skipped the tour and just went to the art direct.
This is easy enough for anyone to do as Melbourne’s laneways are infamous and printed up guides tell you exactly where to go. You’d struggle NOT to see any street art. But there is a good chance that without a guide you might miss the really good stuff, just like I probably did.
I’m also pretty sure, though, that there are walls of undiscovered street art away from the tourist eye, and like with any industry, what the mainstream get access to is hardly representative of the overall scene.
For now, this was all I was getting.
Do you reckon they’d let me buy the Ganesh spray job from Hosier Lane (see top pic)? Would anyone really notice if I bought those bricks, say for $1000,000? I’m just going to hunt down a Monopoly set.
- Off the street: art for all? (abc.net.au)
- VIDEO: Melbourne grafitti now a legitimate tourist attraction (abc.net.au)
- Top 6 Street Art Laneways in Melbourne (weekendnotes.com)
- Lord Mayor Robert Doyle says Melbourne’s famous street art precinct being abused by taggers (heraldsun.com.au)
- 15 Street Art Spots You Need To Visit Right Now (huffingtonpost.com)
- 15 Street Art Terms You Should Know (complex.com)
- Bangkok hosts its first street art festival (abc.net.au)
- Banksy’s Slave Labour sells for more than £750,000 at private London auction (metro.co.uk)
- Street Art (elizabethartandphoto.com)
- Spray it out loud: London’s street art (onefinestay.com)
- Street Art Around the World (zinaidastudio.wordpress.com)
- Inventive Street Art (makesomethingmondays.wordpress.com)
- New NYC street art blends hip-hop and signage (smartsign.com)