Road-Tripping ...Things I'm Learning

The best random car radio I've heard anywhere in the world so far was between Rijeka, Croatia and Budapest, Hungary.  I guess it's music I know so perhaps there was some nostalgia from the 70s and 80s involved but honestly, excellent music for that 4+ hour journey.

If you have a rental car that doesn't charge your GPS as you travel, chances are you might have some challenging experiences when attempting to reach your destination

First hint of trouble was in Verona.  Many people were approached for directions to our final destination in the heart of the ancient city.  Rijeka, and voila, although we tried to leave the GPS alone and simply rely on it for the complicated city-leaving and arrival parts ... the GPS battery started to die about one kilometre from our destination.

About then we became suspicious of the coincidence of the destination flag appearing and the battery warning appearing.  Maybe it had some kind of bug in the machine. 

Budapest ... about a kilometre from our destination, having really rested the GPS, up came the battery warning along with the destination flag. We were caught in a long traffic jam on the other side of the river.  Julie laughed.  I was not amused.

We crossed over into Austria yesterday and barely used the GPS.  No flag appeared as we neared our Vienna destination ... the 'bug' in the GPS suspicion is over.  The rental car has a faulty charger.  We shall proceed with caution, relying mostly on the big highway signs.  It's Trieste today and a longer journey that will take us through Slovenia.

But back to other things learned ... be clear on destinations programmed into the GPS. We had hoped to call in for lunch in Zagreb but managed to miscommunicate on programming that idea in.  We passed by and realised, after a conversation, that we love the journey as much as the destinations so we continued on.  4+ hours of road-tripping was a really excellent Plan B, although we did detour to a secondary road and visit a lake before leaving Hungary.

Budapest, brilliant city.  Loved it but more to follow in another post. 

Julie's handbag.  The one that sits behind us on the floor of the backseat.  Yes Julie, it is a marvellous bag that holds so much but ... let's be sure that I pull out your sunglasses, your normal glasses, your lip balm, your iPod music player (although that's more useful if charged), and every other thing I have had to grapple with on the road trip while you have driven us across Europe.

But okay, yes, perhaps it would have lacked a certain sense of achievement had we been that organised.

Air B&B, a great way to travel. We've stayed in local homes and apartments, met excellent people that I have to write more about when I have all the information and life isn't about the journey.  I'm writing this from a student flat in Vienna, where one of our hosts is a lovely Croatian guy studying architecture.  He was just in Rijeka last week.  They are a delightful couple and we're glad that we did it.  Julie organised it all and she has made me a convert because I do love meeting people where ever I go.   

It's another big old apartment complex with at least two inner courtyards.  The Budapest apartment was my favourite so far ... directly behind the opera house and truly exquisite, inner courtyard, beautiful ironwork on the inside and that delicious sense that you are experiencing something of an everyday life in each place.

Learned while living in Istanbul ... always look for cafes and restaurants that are full of locals. Do not be tempted to do anything else.  If you know someone, all the better, ask them where to eat.  We have eaten divinely while traveling.   It's been less about expensive and upmarket and so very much about good local food.  Hungary has been my absolute favourite so far. 

If in doubt about where to eat, stop someone who looks like they might eat in places you would like to eat in.  Asking politely worked every time.

Wines ... some countries you can barely go wrong, other countries have a wine culture to be explored with caution.  Perhaps that's as specific as I'll get but I do love countries where I can find my beloved Italian red wines. We enjoyed this Croatian red wine.   And were really impressed by Hungarian red wine ... absolutely lovely.  Thanks to Jennifer.

Men from Manchester on stag weekends in Budapest ... very friendly, quite naughty but with a lovely humour that meant we always wandered away on laughing.  We met 3 groups on our second night there.  Yes, they made us laugh.

Croatians in Rijeka speak beautiful English.  We were told by the lovely wine guy that they start studying it in fourth grade.  Hungarians in Budapest also speak beautiful English. 

Maybe that's enough for this post.  I wanted to finish up with a photograph of the most divine fish and chips I've had any place so far ...located on Andrássy Avenue, we would absolutely recommend The Bigfish restaurant because their cod and chips were sublime.

On wandering ...

‘every journey outside my known world is a form of often painful, sometimes euphoric spiritual growth. I have to break out of the exoskeleton of safety I’m constantly accreting in order to be born into a new world — soft, vulnerable, afraid, eager, porous. I hate it, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.’

Nikki Hardin , an extract from Longing Not To Belong.

I loved these words.  I thought to myself, I know that feeling.  That's how it is for me too.

For awhile, back at my childhood home, there was a gap between the hedge and the wire fence and there I was, that creature you see scaling the wooden gate, slipping out into the incredible world of the school next door.

And I think I remember the mix of fear and curiousity ... the need to wander that made me escape anyway.  A need that still overrides my desire to stay safely inside my known worlds. 

I imagine all kinds of things before I leave.  The night before, there  I am, wondering why I do it ... Cairo, Istanbul, Italy, and America.  But wander I must.

I love leaving.

On the other side of the ohmygodwhat haveIdone pre-departure thinking, is that sigh of happiness as I settle into the airport bus and it leaves.  There is the delight in arriving at Brignole in Genova, of opening the shutters, buying the flowers, and settling into a different life, so full of noise and colour.

And on the other side of leaving there have always been marvellous experiences ... like the market that ran all night just below my balcony in Cairo, or the gypsy festival in Istanbul where I wandered with friends, wandering Flanders Fields with prime ministers and actors.

On the other side of fear is Life in a form that I love.

And I go, knowing that it is entirely likely that I will have times when I sink into the dark pit of despair and anxiety for a few hours, where going outside is impossible, where I am left wondering what the hell it is that pushes me to leave and step off into other worlds.  But I always recover.

Sometimes with a belly-laughter-inducing-Mr-Bean-style story of what happened while I was in that place of fear.

I'm the biggest baby in the world sometimes.  I find myself in situations that are retrospectively hilarious but challenging while in the midst of them.  The ambulance in Genova was sobering but it's a story that can't be told with me giggling throughout.  The heat-seeking missile attack over Singapore is another that comes immediately to mind when reminiscing this stuff.  And the taxi-kidnapping in Cairo was also gut-wrenchingly amusing, and should I ever decide to share it here on the blog might agree.

You see, I was a writer before I took photographs ... or perhaps I thought I was a writer before I decided to become a photographer but then again, I had always been a photographer.  Maybe that means that I am a story-teller because surely both paths lead to the same place in the end.  I live with an Imagination that is as big as the Sun ... at least.

Mostly I have learned to live with that Imagination, to laugh over the stories that (don't really) happen along the way, and to leave anyway ...

Travel Ephiphany, Frances Mayes

One of those flash ephiphanies of travel, the realisation that worlds you'd love vibrantly exist outside your ignorance of them.  The vitality of many lives you know nothing about.  The breeze lifting a blue curtain in a doorway billows just the same whether you are lucky enough to observe it or not. 

Travel gives such jolts.

Frances Mayes, from A Year in the World.


I am back in Genova and it is so unbelievably good to be here again.

I was drowning in the winter grey of Belgium, missing my great big Genovese walks round the city, missing the exquisite espresso that Simona and Marta make, the focaccia from Panificio Patrone in via Ravecca, and missing the pleasure of finding just the right food, in amongst all that is delicious at Francesca and Norma's shop.

11am, and I have walked around the old city, bought my pale pink flowers, eaten focaccia, had espresso. I have talked with people.  This place feels like the closest to home I have ever been while wandering outside of New Zealand these last 9 years.

The sky is a deep deep blue, the air is mild - unlike the freezing cold in Milano as I arrived yesterday.  People are out on the streets and, as always, they are talking to each other and greeting strangers.  Did I tell you how much I love this city?

I felt so very strong, walking the hills in a way that delights me, as it's my first time on hills since I was here last, back in November.

I'm here to put together a range of accommodation options for the photography workshop in April.  I have my favourite hotel but I need to cover all budgets.  I think it will be easy but I want to be sure of what I am recommending.  And I need just a few more specific photographs for the book.

No photos today though ... my hands were full of focaccia and flowers.  And my soul was singing too loudly to concentrate on pulling my camera out of my bag to use it. 

And yes, I am a wee bit much this morning but oh, it is good to here.

'Back', a little more everyday.

And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.
Sylvia Plath

Friday was the longgggg day of travel.  I do it the most difficult way and almost destroyed my shoulder this time.

I caught a taxi to the train station because the possibility of me experiencing a Mr Bean-like incident is high.  Once, while rushing to Genova’s Brignole Station through the rain, I slipped and bent my knee in a way I hadn’t bent it in a long time.  Lying on the ground, pre-pain, I remember considering the possibility of hospital and not having to leave the city I loved however, a lovely man helped me up and I realised that the bone-crushing bend had actually freed my rather stiff knee up.  Bizarre but true. 

My train platform lacked both elevator and escalator access.  I looked at my bags ... one 23kg suitcase, one 7kg+ equipment bag, and considered weeping.  Needs must, and so I picked them up and began the climb.  There was a beautiful young man at the top of the stairs, watching me, resplendent in his Milan clothes.  I reached the top, looked at him, and said OHMYGOD! and laughed because what else can you do when you’re not sure you can survive that kind of ‘lift and climb’ scenario.  I wandered off to a spot in the sun to see what was going to happen.  It seemed I was to survive but for the odd achey muscley bits.

Then it was almost 2 hours on the train to Milan, first class ... because it was just 6 euro more, and so worth it.  And almost another hour on the train to the airport and yes, that was me, 2 hours early for the earliest check-in.  I still have a mild cough thing going and I was so tired, I just wanted to make sure I got home…

So they sent me away with my suitcase, my much-hated suitcase by that point in time, and I found a quiet spot where I could buy some pasta and tomato, and drink a glass of red wine.  My usb modem was still working and so I worked a while but, really, I just wanted to get rid of the suitcase, buy a book, and get through security.

Evening, on the plane and I bought one of those tiny bottles of airplane Merlot, twitching my nose a little over the fact it wasn’t the Chianti I had come to love. 
It was really bad.  I sipped but couldn’t drink it.  The air hostess noticed I hadn’t finished it when I returned it to her and offered to pop up the front and replace it with something nicer.  And she did!  I’m still smiling over that.

Home, suitcase battered but ahah! I had encased it in plastic wrap to avoid the usual suitcase breakage I experience on reaching Brussels.  Well ... I got it home only to discover that they had had their dastardly way with it and that the lock was broken and had jammed closed.  Dank u wel, Brussels airport.  Another suitcase story to add to the growing collection titled ‘Horrible Things That Have Happened to My Suitcase at Brussels Airport’.  This was its final journey.  God only knows what I’ll replace it with, probably titanium or some other unbreakable material.

On the bright side my suitcase on one of the first off the conveyor belt.  I looked at the time, I had about 6 minutes to reach the hourly bus to Antwerpen. I sprinted through the ‘anythingtodeclare’ section thinking that perhaps that wasn’t the best look when toting a plastic encased suitcase.  I ran, jogged, walked briskly and arrived, a dishevelled panting heap with about 2 minutes to spare.  The driver told me to calm down, that he’d wait, and he laughed. 

Gert met me in the city and, he too, experienced a small destruction to his body on taking my suitcase the rest of the way home and voila, I was home by 10.30pm ... to the most delicious guests.  Ashley, last seen when she was 10 and I was living in New Zealand, daughter of one my favourite friends in the world, was staying over with her lovely Australian friend Beck.  Our place had been their Belgian base for 2 weeks.  It was good to catch up on the years that had passed ...  although how lucid I was is debatable. 

I slept.

The next day, Paola, Simon and Matteo arrived, fleeing their home renvoations, and the quiet party kicked off.  It was more of a talking and eating and lounging around time together.  Persian chicken for dinner, with Paola’s delicious Limoncello Tiramisu for dessert ... and red wine.  We were trying to find a Chianti replacement for the Banfi I came to love in Genova.

Well, that’s what I was doing.  Maybe the others weren’t quite so interested in that particular search and, in fact, Gert had a Belgian beer.

Sunday came, Paola and Simon left after lunch.  Beck’s and Ashley started packing ... Beck was heading for Spain on the 5am airport bus, and Ashley’s flies out of Paris tonight, heading for New Zealand.  Jessie and little Miss 7 arrived and I did an impromptu photo shoot of the girls.  Dinner ... what was dinner?  Oh yes, it was the one where we introduced the girls to rabbit cooked the Belgian way ... in tons of beer, with sultanas and all kinds of yummy things.  They weren’t quite convinced despite me promising we were only eating the naughtiest rabbits.  Beck finally decided it would have been better not to know which creature we were consuming. (Note: that didn’t work with Jessie.  I may have led her to believe she was eating chicken once ... when it was rabbit.  I wouldn’t do that again.  She was veryvery cross with me.)

We heard the taxi leave this morning for the airport bus stop around 4.30am.  I went with Ashley to the train later.  I’m home now.  Sunshine on my back, an empty house.  Good music playing. 

So I’m back from Italy and now ... to work on that book.

Jetlag ... and some stories from the road

Probably not jet lag ...
The flight to Milan was meant to be about 1 hour and 15 minutes.  We ended up arriving 20 minutes early ... a short-cut that boggles my mind.  How does a plane arrive 20 minutes early?

The alarm rang in Belgium 4.59am. 
Taxi at 5.54am.
Suitcase, the one that Brussels Airport broke last time I flew in there, revealed we hadn’t managed to fix it as I placed it in the hold of the Airport Bus ... 6.05am.
I may have said a bad word.

I arrived at the airport.  For a moment, I forgot I was in a country whose service providers often don’t care.  I confessed that my suitcase probably wouldn’t stay closed on the plane, due to being damaged last time I’d flown Brussels Airlines.  Fortunately, I said, I had managed to replace the suitcase strap they had lost but could he note its fragile status?

Actually, the Brussels Airline check-in bloke pulled that face that Belgian service providers pull when they don’t really want to hear what you are saying because it’s YOUR problem and THEIR company and/or shop refuses to be held accountable.

Fair enough.  I’ve been there long enough to know the impossibility of anything close to satisfaction in this kind of thing.  I have lost the few battles I’ve attempted.  Raising ones voice doesn’t help.  These guys survived the Spanish Inquisition.  Raising ones voice is NOTHING.

I had an idea and suggested it to the Belgian check-in guy.  He warmed to me immediately. 
I suggested I get my suitcase plastic-wrapped so it would stay closed.
He led me there, abandoning his post even.
He didn’t mention the 5euro fee for plastic-wrapping.

However, there was the relief of having my suitcase secured. I returned to complete check-in.  He had handed my case on to the Belgian check-in woman.

I was early but you really need to be when you tavel from Antwerp to Brussels via the bus.  You have to allow for traffic jams when you travel morning or early evening.

I wandered off and bought a bottle of coke,, looking for that instant caffeine hit.  I thought the check-out chick insane.  She kept asking me for MORE money.  I knew we would work it out at some point.  She would laugh, I would laugh, she would apologise.
But no, that small bottle of coke really was 3.50euro.
I said ‘I’ll be sure to really really enjoy it then…’  And then we both laughed.
That is a robbery, isn’t it? 
It is $4.88us and $6.09 in New Zealand money.
I wish I hadn’t made those conversions now ...

On the plane and things began to improve. I met this lovely Mexican/American woman.  We chatted most of the way to Milan and so I noticed even less of the very short flight.

In Milan, the big heavy Belgian-frost-protecting jersey had to come off but ... oh no! I couldn’t put it into my plastic-wrapped suitcase because I still had a long way to travel and dared not interfere with its hold on my belongings - there were two train trips to be made.  I tied it onto my suitcase, hoping not to stand out as a peasant there in Milan.  Found a nasty sandwich, remembered too late that I knew how to purchase them in that shop because I had been a chicken last time too ... limiting myself to simple Italian when ordering food.  Sigh. 

I decided perhaps I could make this my rite-of-passage experience.  Each time I arrive in Italy I will have one of these disgusting sandwiches to appease the gods of travel and win myself a good visit.  I ate almost all of it while waiting for my train to Genova.  Breakfast had been quite some hours earlier.

On the train, I had the most incredible good fortune ... (so I’m thinking the sandwich sacrifice may be the ritual of choice on future trips).  I sat next to a lovely woman called Germana.  We began chatting after she very kindly alerted me to the fact that our number 7 train carriage had just become a number 6, and yes, we all had to move.

My seat was next to her in number 6 carriage and so we began to chat.  It turned out that this lovely woman had, like me, had spent some time living in Istanbul.  Well, that was that.  We fell into conversation, talking of the lovely places she had lived, talking of family, talking of life.  It was so excellent!  That train trip passed so easily that I didn’t even notice the million tunnels that we have to travel through to reach Genova.

We said goodbye at the station, I found a taxi and voila, here I am, back in this city I love so very deeply.

But that’s not all.  I walked into the apartment and Paola and Simon had arranged the loveliest birthday surprise.  3 bottles of truly delicious wine!  Really!

So there I was, back in Genova, having met good people along the way, my suitcase had managed to contain itself and not spill open and now ... there was red wine waiting for me!
A huge thank you to Paola and Simon!

Today it’s 9 celsius, it’s pouring down after 3 very dry months here in the city, and here I am, wrapped up warmly and smiling that big smile that I try to control whenever I reach this place.

I hope your worlds are behaving today and I wish you joy.
Ciao for now. 

First Morning back in Istanbul

I’m writing this, 8am on my first morning back in Istanbul.  The air is a little chill after the blue-sky warmth of yesterday but I love it.  It’s fresh, people are walking by and across the road the pharmacist … the eczane, is opening his store. 

Istanbul is breaking open.  There are new leaves on the trees and yesterday, tulips in full-bloom lined the coastal highway we took back into the city. 

Did I mention how good it is to be back here?

Last night, Lisen and Yakup created a Turkish meze kind of meal for us.  A cold meal of many plates, to be accompanied by Raki … it was delicious, as is most Turkish food.

The sweet flavour-filled tomatoes were cut into wedges, drizzled with good oil, basil and salt.  There was a lovely potato salad with parsley and dill.  A cold red lentil and bulgar patty that was so very good.  We had a little Passchendaele cheese, brought in from the flatlands, served together with Turkish salami and a stringy Turkish cheese that is a huge favourite of mine.  Olives marinated in some lovely concoction of herbs and oil, hummus, a yoghurt and herb dip, bread – with another saucer of herb-enhanced oil for dipping.

This morning, as I write this, Lisen is cooking my most favourite of Turkish foods – borek - layers of thin pastry cooked with cheese and herbs.  My cup runneth over and we haven’t been here 24 hours yet.

And having written such loving descriptions of the food, you need to know that the food isn’t my big Istanbul passion.  I love the city even more and today I’m heading into the city that fills another part of my soul ...

We’ll be wandering in Taksim, with a visit to Robinson Crusoe – a favourite bookshop, the flower passage, Galata Tower for that 360 degree view over the city with the Bosphorus and the Marmara Sea below. Galata Bridge and the fishermen leaning over the edge, the probably through into Sultanahmet with Haghia Sophia, the Blue Mosque.

Today is a day for full-immesion in this stunningly beautiful crazy-busy city I love.