Thoughts on… Spending Monday in Mexico

20170423_224524

I am actually in Mexico as I type this, and I’m typing it on my phone, at the bar. I’ve had one Bahama Mama and one Electric Lemonade, and if you know me then you know that’s quite enough to have me enthusiastically humming Disney villain songs loudly and in public.*

Currently, I’m on Poor Unfortunate Souls, but I’m open to suggestions.

It’s nice here. I arrived a few hours ago and already my hair has taken on a life of its own and doubled in volume; it looks like it inhaled deeply and never exhaled. Waves have appeared out of nowhere. It is basically now a duvet for my head and shoulders. I have considered shaving it off about three times since the plane landed.

Make that four.

Today (tomorrow) is Monday, but I’m typing this on Sunday (today) because I am functioning on about four hours of sleep and trying to untangle time zones is beyond the scope of my capabilities right now. The Bahama Mama didn’t help. The Electric Lemonade was the nail in the coffin. I’m getting ready for a Mudslide and honestly, once I’ve had it I’ll probably have to ride a giant iguana back to my room because three cocktails is enough to have me talking to the walls.

I’m a notorious lightweight.

The bartender keeps calling me Emma, which makes me feel like I’m an incredibly unprofessional undercover agent. Is Emma supposed to be drinking something that tastes like melted lime Calippo? Is she supposed to be sitting on a swing? Are swings even safe in a bar? I feel like this is a head injury waiting to happen.

Speaking of muddled heads…

Today my Falling Half In Love With Strangers post is being featured on Discover WordPress, which is exciting and lovely and flattering and nerve-wracking all at the same time.

“…And that’s all I have to say about that.”

*Yes I also do this – regularly – completely sober. Stop judging me.

 

Falling Half in Love with Strangers

imageedit_17_8178655479.jpg

I love being able to express myself in writing.

It feels more accurate somehow than speaking words. Talking for me can sometimes feel like playing tennis with a colander; I mean, it’s possible, I can do it, but it’s not ideal. The ball goes over the net, but just about. It goes where I want it to go… more or less. I can’t be sure it’ll hit it’s mark, but I can hope. Later, I’ll go home and think about how I could have done it some other, better way.

Writing is different.

Writing is a tennis racket. When I’m writing, I have the time to think about what I’m trying to say, and then mentally flip through millions of words looking for the one that slots into my sentence like that Tetris block you’ve been waiting five minutes for; the one that gives you a combo and wipes the screen clean. Finding the right word feels satisfying, and I’m always on the lookout for new words to add to my vocabulary. If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ve probably noticed this already (like with Hygge and Sonder). I collect words.

Sometimes I find myself reaching into other languages for words that describe feelings or situations that there’s no term for in English. I’m bilingual – Spanish/English – and there are times when I can feel a Spanish word trying to force itself into an English sentence because there’s no English equivalent.

… And yet, even with two entire languages to pick words from (and a smattering of others), I still sometimes find myself searching for a word that doesn’t exist.

I am on the lookout for a particular word.

I want a word for the feeling I get when I connect with a total stranger for a few minutes or hours, and then never see them again. It’s an ability to suddenly feel profound, intense affection for someone I don’t know. It’s not physical attraction, necessarily. It can happen with men or women. It is a non-discriminatory feeling that happens without warning, without rhyme or reason. I want a word that explains how I can feel instantly and powerfully attached to somebody and then, in a perverse way, almost hope never to see them again.

Is there a word for that?

There are a handful of people I’ve met over the years who I still think about from time to time, because even if I only spent a few hours with them, in those hours I was invested. I wanted to know everything about them. I fell a little bit platonically in love with them and their stranger-ness. I felt something that I don’t have a word for, and I hate that. I felt a nameless, wordless bond.

If you’re thinking, ‘Quinn, what are you on about?‘ … here’s an early example.

About half a lifetime ago I was in Vienna, Austria, with barely any German and friends who had succumbed to sickness. I wandered out into the city by myself, and walked the cobbled streets alone with only a crumpled paper map for orientation. These were the days before smartphones, and everything was just a little more complicated. In the square behind a large cathedral, I pulled out my map and tried to trace my finger down the streets I had walked earlier. A voice interrupted my thoughts in harsh German and I turned to find a long line of horse and carriages parked along the kerb. One of the carriage drivers, dressed smartly in a black felt hat and waistcoat, was observing me with amusement.

“Lost?” He asked.

I nodded and trotted towards him. After all, if anyone knew the streets of Vienna it had to be the carriage drivers. He nodded his head at the padded bench beside him and helped me up into the driver’s seat. Up close I realised he was young, with bright blue eyes and a friendly, shy smile. He had a small gold hoop in one ear. I was alone and bored and lost, so I flattened the map against my thighs with the palms of my hands and explained in broken German where I had come from and what I was doing there. I told him I had no plans for the evening, and was just looking for landmarks to visit that wouldn’t require too much walking.

He nodded as I spoke, and pointed out a few different landmarks. Every few minutes a carriage would depart from the front of the line and our carriage would jostle as he coaxed his horses forward.

And then it happened. That wordless, nameless thing.

There is an entirely regular level of healthy interest that we as humans have in each other. When you meet someone for the first time, often there are a number of things you want to know about the person. A lot of adult conversations start with “What do you do?” or “Where do you live?” or “How do you know Martin/Julia/Alex/Sam?”

The wordless, nameless thing I feel skips the superficial curiosities of that regular level of interest. I lock onto people. My curiosity spontaneously mutates from a lukewarm, detached interest to a many-tendrilled absorption in the person in front of me. Once this happens, my curiosity extends into private, hidden corners; darkest secrets and earliest memories and family histories and relationships and hobbies.  I want to know what they do to feel better when they’re feeling low. I want to know their favourite food. I want to know when they last cried, and why. I want to know how they get on with their siblings (if they have any), whether they like to dance or prefer to sit by the bar, what age they realised the truth about Santa Claus, and how. I want to know what drives them, and I want to know what led to their presence next to me in that particular moment, out of the 7 billion other people in the world.

If that sounds extremely intense… I realise that. Don’t worry, I don’t interrogate people like I’m trying to solve a crime. I do gently question them though. Max, my friendly carriage driver, told me about how carriage-driving was a family tradition. He told me about the routes he usually took. He told me about how long he had been doing the job, and his worst experience with a passenger. He told me about his horses and his family. He pointed out his favourite spot in Vienna and his favourite coffee shop. We talked for about 45 minutes, and then a middle-aged French couple approached him for a carriage ride and I realised we had reached the top of the queue. Blushing, I stammered an apology and stood to jump down, but Max shook his head and gently motioned for me to stay seated.

“You come?”

I had just watched money change hands and realised that a carriage ride cost about €80. As a broke teenager, I had absolutely no discretionary funds for carriage rides around the city. I told Max as much, and he shrugged.

“You are not passenger. You are co-driver.”

The carriage ride was about 45 minutes of magic. I had never been on a horse-drawn carriage before, but compared to the paying customers I definitely felt like I got the best seat in the house. Sitting up high on the driver’s bench with Max telling me about the landmarks and explaining their history, Vienna looked different. The evening sun threw a golden filter over the intricately carved stonework on the buildings. I glanced over my shoulder at the French couple; the woman’s head was nestled into the man’s shoulder, and the two of them were smiling at nothing in particular. I could see how Vienna might easily be as romantic as Paris.

In between landmarks I slid in more personal questions. I asked about Max’s parents, his ambitions, what he did in his free time. He gruffly answered every question, with a shy smile every now and then to show he didn’t begrudge me my curiosity. Every so often he would mutter a question of his own, his low voice hard to hear over the sound of trotting hooves.

By the time we circled back around to the church, night was falling. The streets were clearing, and some of the other carriage drivers were disappearing in the dusk as they turned in for the night. I hopped down from the carriage, checking my watch.

“I guess it’s time for you to go home,” I said, gesturing at the carriages trundling away.

“Ja.”

“Okay. Well. Vielen Dank Max. That was… amazing.”

Max accepted my thanks with a sharp nod.

“Where do you go now?” My curiosity again. “Where do the horses sleep?”

“Other side of river” he said, gesturing with his arm. “Over…”

I opened up my map again and he studied it for a moment before pointing at an area of Vienna I had never visited.

“You come?”

I looked up to find him looking at me with an inscrutable expression.

I looked down at the map. The area he was pointing to was pretty far away. How would I get home? Nobody knew where I was. Then again, I had no other plans, and I was stuck in this nameless, wordless feeling with Max, Austrian stranger.

I looked up at him with a smile. “Sure!”

He held out a hand and helped me back up into the carriage.

I pried further into his life on the carriage-ride to wherever we were going. He told me about his last girlfriend and how long they had been together and how it had ended. He told me about the food that brought back childhood memories for him, and how he had spent his birthday. At one point, clattering over cobblestones on a dimly lit, empty street, he nudged my thigh with his hand.

“What?”

“You want?”

His hand opened slightly, offering me the reins.

“Me? I can’t! Max, I’ll crash your carriage.”

He nodded insistently and put the reins in my hands.

“You feel?”

I did feel. There was a tension on the reins, a sort of pushing, pulling, rhythmic motion. It immediately gave me a feeling of both pure joy and total calm. I gripped the leather tight and felt focus and control wash over me. He let me drive the carriage down the streets of the city, guiding my hands when we needed to turn, or tugging when we needed to slow down. Eventually we reached our destination, and he slowed the horses to a stop and jumped down to lead them through a large door between townhouses.

I felt my eyes widen as we passed under the stone arch and through time straight into the 1800’s. A small stone courtyard paved in cobblestones housed four stables with glossy emerald wooden doors. Lit by half a dozen warm yellow lamps, I watched as a cat yawned and sat up on a hay bale to greet us. I hopped down, completely enchanted, as Max parked the carriage and led the horses to their stables. I gazed up at the baroque townhouses flanking the little courtyard, my mouth hanging open. When Max tapped my elbow to get my attention, I was startled back to the present.

“I come back. I shower.” He said, running his fingers along the brim of his black felt hat.

“Okay.”

“You okay?”

“Yeah, Max, go have your shower.”

“After, drinks?”

“Sure.”

He disappeared, undoing the buttons of his waistcoat as he went. I spun around and sat down on a hay bale to pet the cat. Fifteen minutes later a man emerged from a building to my right.

“Hey!” he shouted, and I looked up, startled.

How would I explain my presence? Was I even allowed to be here? I looked around for Max.

“Hey,” he said again, and stopped in front of me. My eyes slid over this man’s body, from his leather boots, past his ripped jeans, over his white and red motorcycle jacket. A red motorcycle helmet dangled from his hand, and he had very pale blonde hair cropped short. He had a cowlick at the front. I stared at his face, frozen in panic.

Then I saw the gold hoop earring. It was Max.

I started laughing.

Out of his work clothes, he looked like a completely different person. He looked much younger. I realised he was only a couple of years older than I was. Without the hat, his blue eyes looked impossibly big and it was much easier to read his expression. He was pink from his shower, and he flushed and rolled his eyes when I explained, through gasps of relieved laughter, that I hadn’t recognised him.

The rest of the night was idyllic. He refused to let me on his motorbike because he only had one helmet, but we walked together to an open-air bar by the river and sat at a picnic table drinking and laughing and asking each other questions until the night wound down and I realised I needed to get home. He offered to walk me, but I declined the offer. The whole evening I had been suspended in a bubble with Max, and now I felt like I was holding a pin, ready to burst it and step out into the real world again.

We walked to the bridge, and he took my hands with an earnest expression. He said that he always had breakfast in the corner cafe near the cathedral on Wednesdays. He said if I wanted to find him, I knew where he would be. He told me he hoped to see me again. Then he kissed me on the cheek and squeezed my hands before turning and walking away, motorcycle helmet swinging at his side.

I didn’t go to the cafe on Wednesday. Although part of me wanted to see Max again, a larger part of me felt that we had spent a perfect evening together, and that was enough. I had half fallen in love with a total stranger over the course of a few hours. I had learned so much about him. I knew more about Max than I knew about some of my friends.

I never saw him again.

Every once in a while, I wonder what Max is doing. I wonder if he still draws in his spare time. I wonder if he still drives the same carriage through the streets of Vienna, and whether that coffee shop is still there on that corner. I wonder if he still has a small gold hoop in his ear. I wonder if he has a family now, and whether he remembers an evening spent talking about life with a stranger from Ireland, who was lost and bored and open to the possibility of being kidnapped. I hope Max is well. I hope he is happy. I hope that his life has been untouched by tragedy.

A few memorable hours spent with a total stranger, and I still care about their wellbeing years later. I still send good wishes their way when I think of them, for whatever those are worth.

There really should be a word for that.

Chasing UFOs at Chichibu National Park, Japan

imageedit_8_4073124494.jpg

I had been in Japan only a few days when my brother suggested visiting Chichibu.

“It’s beautiful,” he said. “You’ll love it!”

I was happy to go along with his suggestion, seeing as he 1.) is my brother and b.) was living in Japan at the time, so I cheerfully agreed, and the following morning I found myself on a little bus destined for Chichibu National Park.

This post isn’t really about the national park, however.

As we wandered up the hill from the entrance, I munched on my matcha-flavoured pocky sticks and looked around me. It was a sunny day and my brother was right, the park was beautiful. Granite rocks and large volcanic stone slabs reached into the sky and spindly trees dotted the landscape like escapees from a Bob Ross painting. Every so often I would find a sign in Japanese with a picture of a bear and the phrase “PLEASE BE CAREFUL TO BEARS!” neatly printed underneath in English. I think they were going for ‘Please be careful of bears’ but I have to admit their translation was much better. Not only was it unintentionally hilarious, but I feel like it had the potential to dramatically slash visitor numbers.

Not that the place was packed, exactly. We passed about five other visitors on our way in, and as we walked, we talked. Over the past few days I had visited shrines and cherry blossoms, and I had started to get a feel for the place. I hadn’t yet visited Tokyo, so the more extreme aspects of culture clash were yet to come, but I was enjoying myself immensely pointing out the cultural idiosyncrasies that my brother had assimilated after three years of living in the country.

I was also taking a great deal of interest in my surroundings. Small, chubby stone statues peeked at us from hiding places in the landscape. I pointed out every statue I saw until my brother finally rolled his eyes to the sky and slowly let out a long breath.

“If you do that for every single one of them we’ll be here until next month.”

I side-eyed him and snapped a quick photo. We continued on until we reached a shrine.

The thing you must understand about shrines in Japan is that they are everywhere. Before you visit Japan, you see a photo of them online or in a travel guide and you think, ‘That’s amazing!‘ What you don’t realise is that there are Buddhist shrines, and Shinto shrines, and although they are amazing, they are also innumerable and omnipresent. I really cannot stress this enough. There are shrines around every corner, in every city, up every hill.

We had already visited about five shrines in the past two days when I spotted this shiny red shrine in Chichibu. I pointed up at it eagerly. My brother sighed.

IMG_1448

“Really? Another one?”

I nodded. The novelty hadn’t yet worn off for me. I snapped a quick photo and bounded off towards the steps with my brother trailing behind me in a decidedly less enthusiastic fashion. At the entryway to the shrine, I circled an arm around a red pillar and admired the carvings as I waited for the sound of my brother’s reluctant footsteps to reach my side.

Suddenly a short, thin, bald Japanese man wearing what looked like white house slippers appeared out of nowhere. He said something in rapid-fire Japanese and I cocked my head like a confused spaniel. I felt my eyes widen in panic and I turned to look for my brother, whose foot had only just reached the last step.

“He minds the shrine” my brother muttered to me, joining me in the doorway.

The man turned his attention to him, and asked him a question. My brother explained in simple Japanese that we were Irish, and the man’s face wrinkled into an enormous smile.

“Air-ris-shu!” He exclaimed, beaming. “You come visit?”

“Yes!” I said, glad to be able to communicate.

“First Air-ris-shu here! Why?”

I pointed at my brother and said, “This is my brother. He lives here. I came to visit him.”

“Ahhh,” the man sighed. He muttered something in Japanese then to my brother, and I caught the word “sakura.” Having already had this conversation a few times since arriving in Japan, I nodded my head pre-emptively as my brother translated.

“He says you’re just in time for the cherry-blossoms.”

“I gathered,” I said dryly.

Each and every Japanese person I had spoken to since I had arrived in the country had made some mention of how fortunate I was to have arrived in time to see the cherry blossom trees. I was starting to think it was a bit of an unhealthy obsession. I mean, who gets that excited about a tree?*

I was still rolling my eyes internally at this national obsession with a flower when the man said something that snapped my attention back to him with laser precision.

“Are you here for UFOs?”

I felt my eyes slide to my brother’s face, trying to follow his lead. Was it another lost-in-translation moment? Did UFOs mean something different here?

My brother was staring blankly at the man. He blinked twice.

“UFOs?” I prompted.

“Yes!” The man bobbed his head up and down so vigorously I started to worry it might fall off. “Many people come for UFOs.”

I flicked a glance at my brother again just to double check that he was as blindsided by this conversation topic as I was. His face hadn’t moved a single muscle, but his eyes had the pained expression of someone struggling with the decision of whether or not to laugh.

“Do you mean… flying saucers?” I asked, haltingly.

“Yes, YES!” The head bobbing increased in speed. “Flying saucer!”

I briefly considered trying to catch my brother’s eye but then decided that it would be a monstrous lack of decorum to laugh in this eager man’s face, so I bit the inside of my cheek instead.

“There are UFOs here? In the park?” I asked.

“Yes, yes.” The man shuffled closer and pointed up at the sky. “They come. They come often. Here.”

“Oh.” I said.

We stood there for a moment in silence, the three of us looking up at a brilliantly blue, cloudless patch of sky. The man, reverently looking up at where he obviously thought a UFO might appear at any moment, and my brother and I following his gaze, rendered completely speechless. In the quiet the moment seemed to stretch, but for the life of me I couldn’t think of a single thing to say.

And then the silence was broken.

“I have photo!”

I turned to face him. “Sorry?”

“I have photo! One moment please.” The man shuffled into the temple and out of sight.

My brother and I stood motionless. Then the side of my brother’s mouth moved.

“He’s serious. He’s actually serious.”

Laughter bubbled up my throat and I coughed in an attempt to disguise it.

“You didn’t mention Yamanashi was a UFO hotspot,” I said in a casual tone of voice.

My brother snorted.

The man reappeared with a point-and-shoot camera that was at least a decade old. He positioned himself between us and turned the camera over to show us the small screen on the back. He flicked through various photos until he found the one he was looking for and held it up.

“See?”

I peered at the screen. It showed the patch of sky we had just been closely examining, only in this photo there was a small blob in the upper right corner. He jabbed the blob with his finger. “There!” He said, triumphantly.

It looked like a bird to me. Possibly an eagle.

“Mmmm” I murmured, noncommittal.

He flicked ahead to another photo of the same scene. This one had a couple of orbs, the kind you get from using the flash when dust particles get in the way.

“See!” He pointed, excited.

“Yes,” I said. “I see.”

He flicked through, showing us more photos with orbs hanging in the middle distance, and a couple more photos of blurry blotches in the sky.

“People come from all over,” he said. “They come for UFOs.”

“Tourists?” I asked.

“Yes, yes. French. Many French. Some American.”

“French and American people come here to watch for UFOs?”

“Yes, yes. UFOs here many times. French, American… They know. Many times here.”

“Like… Every month, or….?”

“No, no. Sometimes three times one day. Sometimes two times one week. Many times here. Some days better. Afternoon best time.”

“Afternoon? Not… at night?”

“No, no. 4pm. 4pm best time here.” He pointed at the patch of sky again. “Here,” he reminded us solemnly.

“Why here?” I asked.

“Area of activity,” he said, nodding sagely. “Governments come to study.”

“Governments? Really?”

“Yes, yes. American. Japanese. Governments come.” He looked out at the horizon, then stared into my eyes. “Area of activity,” he repeated.

“Ahh, of course.”

My brother clapped his hands together, his patience spent. “Well!” He bowed his head to our new friend. “Thank you, we will be sure to keep an eye on the sky for these UFOs.”

The man put his hands together and bowed his bald head low.

I put my hands together and bowed my head in return. Then I smiled at him, a genuine, happy smile. He legitimately believed in UFOs and I admired that faith and interest and passion, even if I couldn’t understand it. I had enjoyed seeing his world through his eyes for a moment, even if I had to squint a little to see eagles as flying saucers, and dust particles as spaceships.

As we made our way down the steps, my brother’s shoulders started to shake with laughter. By the time we reached the main path, tears were streaming down his face. After a quick look over my shoulder to make sure our friend wasn’t watching us, I joined him. I laughed because that was the last possible conversation I had expected to have at a Japanese shrine (or anywhere really). I laughed because it was sunny, and I was happy, and it seemed absurd to climb the steps to an ancient shrine only to wind up talking about flying saucers. Then I saw another sign for “PLEASE BE CAREFUL TO THE BEARS!” and started laughing again.

We finally wiped our eyes and refilled our water bottles for the hike ahead before setting off for Nanatsugama-godan Falls, and as we trudged up the next hill, I looked back at the blue, cloudless, birdless patch of sky.

Just in case.

*As I said, I hadn’t been to Tokyo yet at this point in the trip, and so I had no idea what was in store.

 

 

 

 

 

Stripping Off in Suwa, Japan

imageedit_11_7441272635

I walked into the Katakurakan onsen with trepidation clawing up my throat.

A smiling lady handed me a small towel and a small key at the window of reception, then gestured gracefully towards a door on the left. This was something I’d noticed a lot since arriving in Japan; every Japanese person I encountered seemed to have been born with the kind of grace that eludes me on a daily basis. Clutching the towel to my chest, I pushed open the door to the women’s changing room and walked in.

In no way was I excited about getting naked with strangers.

I was dragging my feet with dread. My skin had started to itch with a strange, cold, prickling sensation that wasn’t in the least bit pleasant. It hadn’t been my idea to visit the onsen, but the lovely Japanese man showing me around Lake Suwa had seemed personally affronted when I said I would rather not. His smiling, insistent head-bowing had worn me down until, resigned, I had nodded and followed him into the brick building.

1280px-130607_Katakurakan_Kamisuwa_Onsen_Japan05s3

According to Wikipedia “an onsen is a Japanese hot spring and the bathing facilities and inns frequently situated around them. As a volcanically active country, Japan has thousands of onsens scattered throughout all of its major islands. Onsens were traditionally used as public bathing places and today play a central role in Japanese domestic tourism.”

I knew very little about onsen before visiting, other than the fact that you have to be naked and tattoos are strictly verboten. Now here I was, standing in a changing room, clutching a towel, wishing the tiled floor would open up and swallow me whole.

Once I’d accepted that this was, in fact, happening, I looked around for any hint as to what was expected of me. I knew that I would have to strip down, but where? Here? Signs in unintelligibly bubbly kanji laughed at me from the walls. Trying to act nonchalant, I sat down and started to untie my shoelaces ever so slowly as panic bubbled up in my chest. Nobody there spoke any English, and I sincerely doubted my rudimentary phrases of Japanese (O-genki desu ka? Sumimasen! Kore kudasai) would get me very far in learning the intricacies of onsen ettiquette.

Just then, the door swung open and, as if sent to deliver me to salvation, a middle-aged lady walked in. She might as well have arrived in a beam of light, I was so glad to see her. I watched her out of my peripheral vision as I pretended to be absorbed by the process of peeling off my socks. I could undress myself – that part didn’t present a problem; after all I’ve been doing it every day of my life – but I needed to know what came after. I didn’t want to have to stand there naked like a total gom while I fumbled to understand what to do next.

The woman, unaware that she was the hero of the moment, kicked off her running shoes and started to briskly remove her clothing. I kept my eyes on the bench as she dropped her blouse, her bra, and her bobby pins into a tidy pile on the pale ash slats. I picked up the pace with my own clothes, pulling off my loose knit jumper and tank top in a single movement. Now that I had found this unwitting guide, it was important I keep up with her. I couldn’t let her disappear from view.

When she was quite nude, she put her belongings in a locker.

I also put my belongings in a locker.

She used her key to lock it, then slid the elastic keyring onto her wrist.

I did the same.

Picking up her towel, still ignorant of my careful observation of her every move, she walked through the changing room and passed under an arch into the room with the main bath. I followed, now so intent on following this poor woman like a creepy stalker that I barely registered how weird it felt to be totally naked around perfect strangers.

I said barely.

It was weird. It was very weird. I have a somewhat strange notion about my body in that I’m okay with showing it off to an extent – I feel comfortable in a bikini, and don’t mind changing in front of people if the situation demands it – but I don’t like getting completely naked in front of anyone who isn’t my partner. It’s a personal thing. I’d just rather not share the sight of my entirely unclothed body with anyone else. Make of that what you will. It’s not a matter of prudishness or shame or discomfort with my body… It’s just a personal preference.

I never said it made sense.

So here I was, standing in a room in Japan decorated to look like an ancient Roman bathhouse, stark naked, holding only a small towel and trying not to stare at anybody.

…Which, I mean, if I’m going to be naked around strangers anywhere, Japan is probably far enough away for it to almost not have happened at all.

My mentor turned to an area on the right, and sat on the tiniest stool I have ever seen. The stool was positioned in front of a little washing station, with toiletries on a similarly tiny counter. I followed her lead and sat two tiny stools down, with my knees up around my chest. I watched her surreptitiously as she used the shower head provided to wash herself, and copied her movements while wondering why the uncomfortably tiny stool was necessary. What was wrong with a shower cubicle?

yarimikan_grande

When she stood and made her way to the bath, I followed a couple of minutes behind. I walked to the far end of the bath and stepped into the warm water trying to look as unperturbed as possible. When my whole body was submerged in the warm water, I folded my towel and placed it on a ledge just like my onsen angel had done, and then I lay back, closed my eyes, and tried to stop thinking.

It’s almost impossible to stop thinking. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried it, but it’s like trying to herd cats. Emptying your mind of all thoughts is a lovely notion, but if you actually sit down and try to do it you can find yourself thinking about how hard it is to stop thinking, and then thinking about thinking about how hard it is to stop thinking…

Basically what I’m trying to say is that my mindful meditation didn’t last very long.

201501311713260969_01

I opened my eyes to see my onsen guide walking along the bottom of the bath. I stretched my leg out and felt around with my toes. I was surprised to find that there were thousands of small pebbles lining the floor of the bath. I slid down a step so that my chin was barely above water, and pressed the soles of my feet into the pebbles. It felt good. I could see why people loved the onsen. The water was exactly the right temperature; not too hot to step into without wincing, and not too cold to lie there for an extended period of time. It was quiet. The few women in the room were absorbed in their own rituals, washing and relaxing and combing out their hair. I’d never been in an all-female space like this before, and it felt very safe.

Strange, but safe.

I soaked there until my fingertips wrinkled.

Afterwards I stepped out to find my onsen lady getting dressed. Apparently it’s good to keep the minerals from the onsen spring water on your skin, so it’s normal not to shower after your soak in the bath. I pulled my clothes back on with no small sense of relief, and emerged into the cool air with a pink, flushed face and a new appreciation for onsen culture.

I feel like maybe after a couple of visits I might have managed to feel comfortable with the whole thing (although my brother told me he had to go to one with his coworkers and even just typing that sentence out now makes me incredibly uneasy, so who knows?). I’m glad I did it at least once, anyhow.

Have you ever been to an onsen? If not, would you try it?

And the real question… WOULD YOU TRY IT WITH YOUR COWORKERS?

Freaks and Fried Butter in Florida, USA

imageedit_7_3595029283

I am going to say something today that you might dismiss as ridiculous hyperbole, but I promise you that I say it with utmost sincerity:

There are few events in life as entertaining for a European as the Florida State Fair.

Six years ago, on a whim, Scrubs and I parked our rental car in front of the Tampa fairground and hopped out with entirely average levels of excitement. We bought our tickets, pushed open the gate, and ambled in. I was hoping for a small petting zoo and maybe a few stalls selling candy floss (or ‘cotton candy‘), while Scrubs was hoping for a speedy lap of the fairground and a quick getaway before I had a chance to kidnap a pygmy goat.

What we hadn’t even dreamed to hope for or expect were the hours of entertainment we managed to buy for a mere $12 each. From the moment we walked in and looked around at the first aisle of stalls, we knew that this would be one of the high points of our trip. In Europe, there is a common negative stereotype of Americans that is… unflattering, to say the least. You’ve probably come across it before; Americans are expected to be loud and not particularly bright, with a love for the star-spangled banner that borders on the fanatical, an enormous appetite for junk food and an enthusiasm for supersizing everything whenever possible.

Although on our travels we had periodically come across certain people or places that had tipped their hat to these stereotypes (the same as in any country, really), the Florida State Fair was the first and last place we visited that managed to fit all of these into a 300 acre space.

Food stalls with multiple options greeted us as we walked in. They offered everything – and I mean everything – on a stick. I am not sure why Floridians believe food is immediately made immeasurably better if it’s on a stick, all I can say is that they seem to believe it fervently.

We walked past these stalls with our mouths agape. Monstrosities that must have been conceived in the depths of hell screamed at us from brightly coloured billboards.

Everywhere we looked, people were eating indescribable (yet presumably edible) foodthings with great relish. Our eyes as wide as saucers, we eventually made it past the food stalls to the agricultural shed, where I found the pygmy goats, as expected… and cattle. Cattle with enormous horns that looked downright uncomfortable. I’m not sure these bulls were fully on board with the whole bigger-is-better mindset.

At least I understood why the cattle were there though. We passed the pygmy goats and cattle and pigs and sheep, and suddenly came across a kangaroo.

Kangaroos, as far as I can tell, are not native to Florida.

181526_10150096869718751_658982_n

We kept walking and came across a giraffe. A giraffe! Giraffes are definitely not endemic to Florida! He looked extremely out of place. I stopped to give him a carrot.

imageedit_2_6047920174

As we left the menagerie and continued on our way, we stopped for some grilled corn on the cob (not on a stick) and discussed the peculiarity of seeing African and Australian land mammals at a fair that was supposed to celebrate the best of the state of Florida. Little did we know, however, that the most peculiar was yet to come. We rounded the corner only to find a collection of brightly coloured tents festooned with hand-painted signs that stopped us dead in our tracks.

I feel I should explain here that my only experience with side-show attractions is what I’ve read about in slightly-problematic children’s books. Up until I saw these tents, I honestly, truly, hand-on-heart believed them to be something that had died out with the arrival of political correctness. As far as I know, “freak shows*” are not a thing in Europe – certainly, they’re not a thing in Ireland – so I probably stood and stared for far longer than is strictly polite when I realised what exactly I was looking at.

188837_10150096872323751_2103534_n

What.

185869_10150096872498751_3758788_n

On.

190611_10150096872773751_6308969_n

Earth.

I moved from tent to tent, astonished, as people queued up, paid, and wandered inside as if this were a perfectly normal activity for a sunny afternoon. The curiosity burned inside of me as I tried to decide whether it was ethically justifiable to pay to see “wild little aboriginies” or a “snake child” if you suspected they might only be animatronic dolls. They couldn’t possibly be real people… Right? In the end, my conscience won out of over my curiosity and I left the area of colourful tents feeling an uncomfortable mixture of intrigue and disgust.

We reached the rides (by far the least interesting part of the entire fair), cast an eye over the monster trucks (of course), and then I looked to my left and saw it, shining like a beacon of hope in this desolate land.

The holy grail. The most “American” thing I have ever seen in my entire life.

184826_10150096869243751_4278942_n

Deep-Fried Butter.

Obviously, it had to be done.

After weighing up the pros and cons of the menu (Pro: curiosity would be satisfied. Con: swift and premature death from coronary artery disease), we queued up and ordered two deep-fried butters and two deep-fried oreos. A short but surprising conversation with the nice man at the window proved unexpectedly illuminating when he told us that deep-fried butter was his bestseller. In fact, his nephew had given up his high-paying job in IT to run a deep-fried butter stall because it was more profitable. Both impressed and appalled, we retreated to a quiet spot with our deep-fried cholesterol grenades and examined them closely. In my excitement, I didn’t bother to focus my camera and as a result the photos are a blurry mess, but this is what they looked like on the outside.

imageedit_5_6444052174

I wolfed mine down in quick succession and then remembered I had meant to take a photo for posterity, so I asked Scrubs to take a bite out of each and then allow me to photograph them.

…Which he did, because he has the patience of a saint.

185732_10150096873498751_2379644_n

The one on top is the deep-fried butter, while the other is the deep-fried oreo. If you’re shaking your head in disgust right now or making an extremely unimpressed face, I can only say that you know not what you do. Much as I would like to scoff at the very idea of deep-fried butter, the unfortunate and inconvenient truth is that it was absolutely delicious. As best I can tell, they roll a knob of butter in sugar and cinnamon before freezing it, and then deep-fry the frozen blob of unhealthiness to create something that looks truly rank but tastes like melted heaven.

The deep-fried oreo, by comparison, tasted dry and bland.

Tired out from feeling like time-travellers exploring a strange land, we stopped for some candy floss on our way back to the real world. We also stopped to marvel at sandcastles, sculptures made from butter, stitched fabric and wonderful quilts. We eyed the funnel cakes and corn dogs suspiciously, and finally made it back to the car. We left the car park feeling the aftereffects of profound culture shock.

If you have the opportunity to visit this wormhole in the fabric of time, please go. It is unlike anything else you will ever experience. Wave a tiny American flag. Marvel at the sideshow stalls. Eat some deep-fried butter.

… and then maybe get your cholesterol checked, because I did and it was sky high.

Some say I still have high cholesterol** to this day.

 

 

*Apparently the use of the word ‘freak’ is considered correct now?

**I actually do although I don’t think I can honestly still blame the deep-fried butter….

Careening Around Cairo, Egypt

149529_462982548750_3159565_n

I was lucky enough to visit Egypt just before things got politically messy.

Scrubs and I arrived in Cairo in 2010 on the last day of Eid. The festive mood was infectious, and even after a long journey it was impossible not to feel cheered by the sight of shiny banners and twinkling, colourful lights strung from building to building. Tinny music and the sound of laughter streamed from open windows as we dragged our bags through the streets of the city.

We arrived at the front door of our hostel, Hola Cairo, feeling tired but excited. The large, heavy wooden door swung open with a loud creak and we were immediately faced with a rather grand (albeit dusty) stone staircase that had an elevator shaft running up the middle of it. If this elevator had been lifted straight from Disney’s Tower of Terror, I would not have been surprised. Dusty and covered in cobwebs, the wrought iron cage looked like it might snap and plummet straight to the depths of hell at any second. ‘Pics or GTFO‘ you say? Don’t worry. This OP delivers.

imageedit_12_4644205540
The entrance to the Hellmouth

After reaching out to give it a firm rattle and deciding we were so tired we would rather risk life and limb than walk up four flights of stairs with our bags, we got into the elevator and pushed the button for the fourth floor.

Nothing happened.

We jabbed at it again. Still nothing. An elderly Egyptian with a scowl carved into the wrinkles of her face happened to walk in at that moment, and she yanked the doors open with more ferocity than I honestly expected from a woman of her stature. She stepped inside, slammed the doors shut, and – without looking at us once – placed a bony button on the button for the second floor. She jabbed at it like she was making a point. She held it down for a good five seconds. Then the elevator shook as if waking from a deep slumber, and up we went.

155900_462980463750_7298631_n
Looking down and thinking we probably should have just taken the stairs.

Despite our misgivings, we did in fact make it to the fourth floor in one piece. Tumbling out of the elevator with the adrenaline rush of two people who have just had a near-death experience, we walked into the hostel to find a bright, clean, modern space that was in complete contrast with the elegant air of abandonment in the hallway.

The charming receptionist gave us “the suite”, which turned out to be an ensuite room with four beds overlooking the busy main street; pretty good for the equivalent of €15 a night!

156679_462975008750_3247033_n
The view from our window. I think that building on the right is the courthouse.

She also organised a driver for us for the following day, and gave us some advice on where to go for food. Armed with knowledge, we went for a nap and then went back out into the city…

This time we took the stairs.

76555_462980118750_5942835_n

That first night is a blur of fairy lights and stray dogs and music and food and sensory overload.

154615_462979838750_7818857_n
Cardog, close relative of Catdog.

The next day, a smiling man picked us up from the hostel and drove us around for the entire day. We visited the Step Pyramid, which is the oldest pyramid known to have existed.

156789_462991173750_4453799_n
A golden oldie

Then we visited the Bent Pyramid, which was the ancient Egyptians’ version of a rough draft. Archaeologists think this was the first attempt at a smooth-sided pyramid. As you can see, it didn’t really turn out to be the perfect triangular Toblerone-shape they had originally envisioned:

149150_462977588750_494898_n
How embarrassing

Of course, we still had to see the pyramids of Giza, and we decided the best way to do that would be on horseback. Our driver took us to a stable to rent horses (or camels or donkeys – they’re very diverse) where we got absolutely swindled out of an outrageous amount of money, but did manage to procure two healthy-looking ponies. My pony had no name but was lovely and quiet and sturdy, which pleased me immensely because I had only ever been on horseback (ponyback?) once before and I felt this gentle creature would be unlikely to tear off into the sunset at the slightest provocation. This was very good because we had absolutely no safety gear; Egyptians don’t tend to faff about with any of that health and safety nonsense.

A twelve-year old boy with excellent English joined us as our guide and we slowly ambled towards the pyramids. As we moved into a trot, our guide came up alongside me and engaged me in conversation. He asked about our holiday so far (good, great, bent pyramid, lovely food) and then asked if I had ever ridden a horse. I told him that I had once gone on a pony trek, but that the fastest my pony Polly had ever gone on that occasion was a trot, so I wouldn’t exactly be a skilled equestrian. He nodded solemnly, and then without a word of warning he pulled his arm back and smacked my pony’s rump with all his might.

My lovely, quiet, sturdy pony SHOT off as if she’d been fired from a cannon.

Holding the reins so tight my knuckles turned white, I leaned forward so as not to lose my balance. My poor brain, struggling to adapt to this alarming new development, shouted, ‘NO HELMET! DON’T FALL OFF! NO HELMET!’ as we galloped past the pyramids. My feet (in plimsolls; no riding boots at this rodeo) slipped out of the stirrups. A small part of me wondered how likely a spinal injury would be were one to fall on sand at what felt like 150 mph.

Slowly, though, I started to relax.

I found the stirrups and my grip loosened as I fell into rhythm with my little pony. I started to enjoy myself. I can’t quite think of another moment when I’ve ever felt as free as I did galloping across that sand with my hair streaming behind me. I felt like Medb or Godiva. It was just me, the pony, and the pyramids.

154239_462978513750_7456405_n

We rode around to see the Sphinx, who I have to say looks really great for being about 4,500 years old. I mean, her nose might be gone but she really works it.

77142_462979708750_3943247_n
You would hardly nose-tice. I’m sorry, that was terrible.

We made it back to the stables alive and unharmed and handed back our ponies, although some of the mistreatment of ponies we’d witnessed from other stables made us want to ship them all home to Ireland to live out the rest of their days in a nice green field. We finished the day off walking the streets of coptic Cairo, admiring the buildings (Scrubs) and petting the dogs (me).

77098_462981038750_5148792_n
Letting sleeping dogs lie

The thing about Cairo – and Egypt in general – is that there are so many treasures that sometimes they seem almost devalued. The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, for example, was like an episode of Hoarders in which the hoarder has been collecting treasures of the ancient world. Pieces that in other museums would be spotlit in glass cases are carelessly tossed in corners. Items are stacked or strewn around with no descriptions or explanations. The mummies are in a separate exhibit and very carefully lit and displayed, but the rest of the museum gives the impression that somewhere there’s a staff member sighing at the latest find and saying, ‘oh great, more hieroglyphics. Just shove that over there behind the door.’

It was truly bizarre.

One memory from our first night that I didn’t mention earlier is that as we walked down the main street, a man walked up behind me and stroked my hair. Not my head – he didn’t pat or stroke my head like a dog – he walked up behind me and ran his palm all the way down my hair. When I turned, he was already disappearing back into the crowd. Many women cover their hair in Egypt, so loose hair is seen as sexual in presumably the same sort of way ankles used to be considered racy in Regency England.

… Which brings us to cultural considerations.

Egypt is a mostly muslim country so when you visit, you have to be respectful of their dress code. This is the case in every mostly-muslim country I’ve visited so far (Egypt and Morocco) and honestly for me it always goes the same way. At first, I don’t mind at all. I almost find it fun! I buy some local clothes and wander around feeling a bit like I’m taking part in a theatrical production. As the holiday wears on though, I start to feel extremely resentful because I am so uncomfortable and warm and restricted. Visiting with a man is especially frustrating, because while they can simply roll out of bed and throw on a comfortable, breezy pair of shorts and a t-shirt, you have to rummage through your clothes for tops that hide your chest, but also reach past your elbows, but also aren’t too tight, and definitely aren’t sheer. You have to find bottoms that hide the shape of your legs and reach down past your knees, but also don’t make you feel like you’re walking in a sauna. I don’t know about you, but when it’s 37 degrees out (that’s 98 degrees for those of you in the Wild West), I don’t want to feel like I’m swimming in layers of loose linen. I want to be unrestricted and suitably attired for adventuring, like Lara Croft without the gun holsters or the breast implants.

Nevertheless, if you’re any sort of decent human it’s not optional. Get yourself a baggy pair of harem pants and a loose blouse. If I were to return (which I would love to do if they ever find their way out of that gnarly political thicket), I would probably also tie back my hair, but wearing a scarf is just a step too far for me. I don’t mind covering my head loosely at certain times but walking through the streets is not one of those times.

Food-wise, if you’re a picky eater, you’re bound to run into a few hurdles in Egypt. Unless you are somewhere that specifically caters to tourists, nothing is in English. You order things and then hope you like them. That’s actually my preferred way of eating abroad, mostly because it exposes you to things you might otherwise never have tried, but I understand that that’s not for everyone. Vegetarians will have a bit of a rough time trying to figure out which foods have meat in them, but hummus, baba ganoush and tamaya (Egyptian falafel) is everywhere so once you get into your groove you should be okay. Tabouleh – a couscous-like salad – is worth a try.

Our holiday didn’t end there. From Cairo, we took the ten-hour overnight train to Luxor….

But that’s a story for another day!

Barely Surviving Bansko, Bulgaria

bansko-banner

Well.

As I stood thigh-high in snow, looking around me for any sign of civilisation, I patted my pockets for my phone and marveled at my own stupidity.

Let me backtrack for a moment and explain that this happened in 2007, and that I want to tell this story because I wouldn’t want you to expect my travel stories to be in any way aspirational. In fact, many of my stories are of situations to be avoided, whether that’s due to the holy mortifying shame of them, or just a general lack of critical thinking skills displayed at the time. With that said, this is definitely one of the latter.

I’d arrived in Bulgaria three days earlier with a group of family and friends who had planned the New Year’s ski trip on a whim. At the time I was in a mindmelting relationship, so naturally I’d jumped at the chance for a break. An excessively enthusiastic shopping spree had made me the proud owner of a neon orange ski suit (from the children’s section) that made me look less like a professional skiier and more like an anthropomorphised traffic cone. I had also purchased gloves (from the children’s section), thermals, socks, boots, and matching goggles, so I felt very high-tech and athletic. My suit even had RECCO reflectors, which are supposed to help locate you in the unfortunate event that you get lost in the snow*. I was probably the most prepared I’ve ever been for a holiday in my entire life.

Our arrival in Bulgaria coincided with the run-up to the country officially becoming part of the European Union, and it seemed like the country was just about making ends meet with sellotape and bits of string. Our small plane landed on an icy runway outside of what looked like a large, corrugated iron shed masquerading as Plovdiv Airport**, and when we got inside we found a single luggage carousel that may or may not have served any practical use. I wouldn’t know; there were so few of us the airport staff just dumped our suitcases in the middle of the baggage hall instead of bothering with the charade of passing them through the hole in the wall. I don’t remember much about the journey from the airport to our hotel except that it was dark, it was snowing, and I was dog tired.

The next morning, I was dressed and ready to go by 7am. Feeling very prepared (and possibly overly-optimistic about my skiing abilities), I bounced excitedly from foot to foot as I waited to be picked up from the hotel lobby. A rickety minibus made the treacherous trip up the mountain every hour for four hours, picking people up at different hotels and depositing them at the top. In the evening, the minibus would meander back down the same way. Other than that, there was no way to get to or from the slopes, so I was always obnoxiously early for a seat on the bus.

My first day of skiing consisted of a lot of snowploughing – and if I’m honest it didn’t really pick up from there over the course of the week – but I had a great time. Just focusing on getting down the mountain in one piece was a nice reprieve from the drama that was eating me alive back home, and I was a huge fan of the little stops for hot chocolate every twenty minutes. My more athletically-gifted cousins quickly left me for the excitement of the red and black slopes, but I was content to slowly snowplough my day away in my kiddie ski suit, one green slope at a time. At the end of each day I would stumble back onto the rickety minibus, feeling extremely pleased with myself. Another day without breaking any bones! Another day of successfully avoiding trees! I was a star skier in my own mind. I would chatter excitedly until someone tugged on my sleeve to let me know we had reached the hotel, and then I would tumble off the bus ready for shots of tequila.

Skiing; it’s so much fun!

So three days into the trip, around dusk, I found myself on the last minibus of the day. Putting my trust in the courageous driver and the fact that this was my third round-trip on this deathtrap and we hadn’t yet plunged sideways down a cliff, I turned my attention to my friend Darcy and his younger brother Bing. They were staying at a hotel further along the route from mine, but everyone we knew staying at my hotel had left early that day so it was just the three of us. As the bus finally pulled in beside my hotel, I waved a cheerful goodbye and jumped down, alone.

The bus pulled away.

I stood, staring at the hotel.

I’d never noticed the blue window frames before. Come to think of it, I hadn’t noticed the popcorn plaster exterior either. I was almost sure my hotel had four floors… Why did it now only have three? I walked up to the building and pushed open the double doors.

The lobby looked entirely unfamiliar.

A large, surly-looking doorman appeared out of the gloom and said something to me in Bulgarian. I shook my head. He repeated himself and I smiled apologetically. “English?” I asked, with a hopeful voice. He shook his head and frowned at me. I looked around for someone – anyone – who might tell me where I now found myself, but the place was deserted.

I backed up, letting the double doors swing shut in my face. Then I turned around, and with an optimism that managed to completely blinker me from the red flags of my idiocy, decided it couldn’t possibly be too much of a walk to my hotel. In an ill-advised move that really sets the tone for the rest of this story, I set off down the road (if you’re keeping score as to how many moronic decisions I made on this day, we’re probably already up to about three).

Now keep in mind that although I used the word ‘road’ before, I was being extremely generous. What I am referring to as a road was merely a wide dirt track that looped its way back and forth down the unlit mountain. There were no cars to be seen, and I could tell that up ahead the path curved in a long arc before doubling back further down, so naturally I decided to take a short-cut through the trees (four).

Stepping off the road and hopping down into the forest, my feet plunged straight down into the snow until it reached my knees. I briefly considered turning back, but looking up at the embankment I had just jumped from I decided it would be easier to just press on (five). At first, I high-stepped like a pudgy pony doing dressage, but slowly the snow got deeper and deeper, and soon I was half-wading, half-shuffling through the snow. After fifteen minutes, night had well and truly fallen and I was only halfway through the trees to the next patch of road.

I started giggling to myself as I assessed the situation. Patting my pockets, I pulled out my Nokia with absolutely no roaming capabilities, and shone its paltry light around me. I was lost. I didn’t know where I was. If I kept walking, I was pretty sure I would eventually reach someone, but not necessarily someone who spoke English. I didn’t speak a word of Bulgarian. I didn’t know the name of my hotel, or whether it was up or down the mountain. I apparently didn’t even know what it looked like.

I slipped my phone into the neck of my jacket and slapped the snow with my palms as I considered my predicament. Then I returned to my slow snow-shuffle, giggling every so often at my own ineptitude. Every single step was an exercise in trust; I would inch my toes forward and hope against hope that the sole of my boot would meet something solid before the snow reached my waist. I started to feel nervous that I would fall down a hole camouflaged by the snow. I  wondered how useful my ROCCO reflectors would really be if I got caught on something. I wondered how much colder it would get overnight.

As I neared the road, I saw lights approaching from the distance and threw all caution to the wind. In all likelihood, you have never had occasion to watch a small, cushioned, neon-orange starfish-shaped person waddle quickly through excessively deep snow, but if you had been there that night that is exactly what you would have seen, and I think you would have been impressed by my speed.

You know, for a starfish.

I reached the edge of the road as a car came around the bend, and put out my hand… only to realise it was stopping of its own accord. I blinked in the harsh light of the headlights as an angry silhouette stomped towards me and grabbed my arm. It was Darcy. He and his brother had reached their hotel and somehow realised I had alighted at the wrong stop. They had retraced the minibus route in a taxi searching for me and my radioactive-looking ski suit.

Without a word, he half-pushed, half-dragged me to the taxi and bundled me in, where I was glad to see his brother (whose face wore a far less intimidating expression) and even more glad to give my extremities the chance to thaw. Darcy got in beside me and slammed the door of the taxi shut with a tight-lipped expression of barely restrained fury. He didn’t speak to me for hours.

Giddy with relief at being rescued from an ignominious death in a frozen forest, I was happy to ignore the waves of anger radiating from his body the entire drive back to the hotel.

I’ll tell you something, though…

He made damn sure I got out at the right one this time.

*Foreshadowing

**Apparently Plovdiv Airport has since undergone extensive renovations, and from the sound of things it no longer resembles a shed and now looks more like an actual airport.

Sporadically Nomadic

untitled-design-2

I love to travel.

I have been traveling since I was born. My mother is Spanish and my father is Irish, so in order to meet half of my extended family I had to be put on a plane as early as possible*.

Since then, I’ve been busy trying to visit as many new places as I can.

Unfortunately, I’m not one of those golden-haired, anklet-wearing, hostel-loving free spirits who go traveling barefoot for months on end and post pictures on instagram that make you want to claw your eyes out with jealousy. I’m more of a Dora the Explorer type. Not the new stylised version with the pearl earrings who looks like she owns a Burn Book. No, I’m the OG short dumpy Dora with the bowl haircut that looks like she’d be annoyingly upbeat about everything.

dora_marquez

That’s me! I keep a Canon 60D in that backpack. Una cámara!

I love everything about the actual verb part of traveling. I have no fear of flying – I actually enjoy turbulence – and even when it’s exhausting, arriving in a place where everything is a blank slate gives me the sort of rush people usually get from drinking five double espressos back-to-back. The usual annoyances of long-distance travel (limited legroom, for example) don’t really apply, since I am like human origami; I can stiffly crease myself into an astonishingly small arrangement of limbs when necessary.

My only real travel struggle is my ongoing difficulty with packing. Despite many years of practice, every suitcase successfully checked in continues to be a Pyrrhic victory. I rarely remember everything I need and, since the first items to be flung into my suitcase are usually things like my fins or my inflatable donut, it’s difficult to find space for more practical items.

Packing for the return leg of the journey is no less onerous. After finally stuffing my suitcase to the brim with non-essential essentials, I run into real problems on the way back when I want to bring home every kind of portable food. Trust me when I say that it is a true challenge to fit five boxes of tea, a 50oz bag of peanut butter M&Ms and a bear-shaped honey container into a suitcase that is already bursting at the seams; some sock sacrifices often have to be made.

Priorities!

Anything I think is delicious that I can’t find at home goes in the bag. I collect all sorts of delicious edible items when I travel; rainbow sprinkles, pastries, fried tomato sauce, tea, aniseed tortas, rice… I also collect other things. I collect tiny pebbles that catch my eye. I collect business cards from restaurants. I collect train tickets and hotel keycards and cinema stubs and pack all of these things away in my travel box.

… And I collect experiences. I collect memories.

I watched goat brains boil in their skulls in Marrakech, Morocco, and steered a horse-drawn carriage over the cobblestoned streets of Vienna, Austria. I unwittingly joined a pilgrimage in Jaipur, India, and reluctantly visited an onsen in Yamanakako, Japan. I discovered the limitations of air conditioning in Death Valley, USA, and did a drunken good deed in Paris, France. I got lost in thigh-high snow in Bansko, Bulgaria, and galloped past the pyramids in Cairo, Egypt. I’d like to write all of these memories down somewhere, and what better place than here?

This is basically my Pensieve, after all.

So I just wanted to check in with you, see how you would feel about occasionally odd, mildly mortifying stories from my pitter-pattering across continents. I even made a poll!

Thanks! Now go. Have a great weekend. Yes, you. You deserve it.

Even you with the heart of stone.

See you on Monday!

*I’m sure the rest of the poor unfortunate souls on that flight were delighted to have a two month old companion.

Travel, flying, Ireland, home

Straight Outta Ireland

150324_flights-hero-image_1330x742

There are a lot of great quotes about travel.

For example, Mark Twain once said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,” and I’ve certainly found that to be true in my own life. There is something about being in a country that is utterly unlike your own; it stalls the senses and resets your brain to create a new normal built on the foundations of the old.

Today, I’d like to write about any one of the many places I’ve visited on my travels. That’s what I really feel like doing. I want to spin an amusing tale about the time my milk withdrawals led me to sneak into a shop, in which I then had to mime extensively in order to procure a clear plastic baggie of unpasteurised, unhomogenised milk from an unknown animal. It was a lot like the scene from Bridget Jones, only with milk and confused Egyptians rather than a pregnancy test and confused Austrians.

bjpreggo
Same same but different

Anyway. That’s what I’d like to write about… But that’s not what I’m going to write about, because I don’t feel that would be right. This is my first post about travel, after all.

Let’s start elsewhere.

Let’s go back for another travel quote.

Terry Pratchett once wrote, “Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. […] Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”

So I’m going to start there. Or rather, I’m going to start here.

I’m going to tell you a bit about Ireland.

2a670c7ba6e231e2841a22463e08df3a

I was born and raised here, on this small but surprisingly popular patch of land; the little spoon to Great Britain’s big spoon. If you’ve never been, it really is as excessively green as people say.

This is mostly due to the truly appalling weather, which by all rights should have us lolling about despondently in deep, unremmitting depression. Instead, it has spawned a peculiarly Irish sense of humour and a steadfast, grim camaraderie. The citizens of Ireland are fighting an interminable war against the weather, and all we have to get us through it is each other.

… And we love to talk about it. Rain, naturally, gets the worst of it. Naturally, considering the amount of rain we have to deal with, we’ve developed different ways of saying the same thing so we don’t get too bored.

  • “It’s only drizzle” = It’s raining out.
  • “It’s only spitting” = It’s raining out.
  • “It’s trying to rain” = It’s raining out.
  • “It’s just a shower” = It’s raining out.
  • “It’s lashing rain” = The rain is coming down in sheets.
  • “It’s pissing rain” = The rain is coming down in sheets.
  • “It’s pouring rain” = The rain is coming down in sheets.
  • “It’s bucketing down” = Ready the Ark.

The default conversation with a stranger here tends to at least start with a comment about the meteorological conditions. I’ve traveled extensively, and nowhere else have I experienced this chronic, obsessive need to discuss what is happening in the sky. At work, answering the phone becomes an exercise in zen-like patience, since almost every call begins with the same – apparently compulsory – conversation about the type of weather we’re having.

“[Workplace name], how can I help you?”

“Hello! How are you?”

“Well, thank you, and you?”

“Ah sure, you know yourself. Ticking along! Isn’t it a dirty day*? A dirty, dirty day…”

“It is! I’m glad to be inside.”

“Sure this is it!”

It’s a thing. You get used to it.

As Mr. Pratchett rightly pointed out in the quote above, sometimes you don’t appreciate certain facets of your home country until you’ve been elsewhere. For example, it wasn’t until I was living in Germany that I realised why the Irish reputation for being friendly was so deserved. The first time I found myself waiting at a bus stop with a German stranger, the silence lengthened and, without shame or compunction, I commented, “Es ist sehr kalt, meinst du nicht?” (“It’s very cold, don’t you think?”). This was greeted with the same reaction I feel I might have received if I had stuck my middle fingers in her face, thrust my pelvis at her and insulted her mother in lewd terms, rather than made a fairly banal remark about the weather.

The second time I attempted casual conversation with a stranger was at a bar while I was waiting for my drink. I turned to the person on the stool next to mine and told them their cocktail looked delicious. They stiffened in alarm, and without a word picked up their glass and turned their back to me.

The third time I tried it (and was again rebuffed with much the same wide-eyed panic), my shoulders slumped in cultural surrender and I finally realised my mistake.

In Ireland, if you don’t spark up small talk when you find yourself thrown together with a stranger for longer than three minutes, the situation feels tense and awkward. In Germany, if you do spark up small talk when you find yourself thrown together with a stranger for longer than three minutes, the situation feels tense and awkward.**

Superficial small talk is not encouraged, or even welcome. Keep your congenial phrases of muddled German to yourself, is my advice.

Another thing I’ve learned about Ireland from traveling elsewhere is that we have tiny toilets. Well, either that, or our toilets are regular-sized and Florida received a supersized upgrade, because the toilets there are so inexplicably and comically enormous that when I first visited Miami I had very real fear that I might fall in. Every visit to the bathroom was fraught with danger.

Not only that, but I had always thought that a high water level in a toilet was the warning sign of a blocked pipe. Not so in America, where the water level in the toilet is so high, I imagine anything that falls into the toilet is a lost cause unless you’re Trainspotting-level committed to getting it back.

giphtrainspottingy-1

So.

A cultural fascination with the weather, small talk skills and relatively tiny toilets.

That’s what I’ve introduced you to today.

Welcome to Ireland!

*Translation: It’s grey, cloudy, miserable, and probably (yes, you’ve guessed it!) raining.

**This is not to say that Germans are not friendly. They’re very friendly! You just have to get to know them first… Preferably not by accosting them unexpectedly with superficial conversation.

 

The Human Turtle

sennheiser_momentum_on-ear_headphones_cream

I feel like there are certain universal social cues that everybody understands. I think everyone would agree, for example, that people wearing earphones are generally not looking for a conversation.

Despite this, somehow, for some reason, people break this seemingly simple rule with me all the time.

I can’t tell what it is about me that invites this kind of behaviour. Is it my tiny stature? Is it something about my face? Do I have an invisible ink tattoo that reads ‘TALK TO ME’ under strip lighting? It happens a lot. A man once motioned for me to take my headphones off in Tesco while I was looking at packets of rice, and when I did so, he said, “I just wanted to tell you, you have really lovely hair.” And then he sat back on his heels and stared at me expectantly.

I’m not really sure what he was waiting for. I cast a surreptitious glance either side of me to make sure there were no hidden cameras. I hadn’t even brushed my hair that day. There was nothing worth complimenting there. I thought about the food I still needed to buy for dinner. I thought about the awkwardness of the moment and how it would only increase if I got stuck in front of him in the checkout line. I thought about the fact that he probably thought he was being nice by interrupting my day to pay me a wholly inexplicable (and unnecessary) compliment, and I thought about the fact that by doing so he was making me deeply uncomfortable. Then I slowly placed the packet of basmati rice back on the shelf, said, “Thanks,” turned around, and left the shop without a backwards glance.

I beat a hasty retreat in all awkward situations. I am basically a human turtle.

Of course, sometimes I’m not given the option of being a turtle. Sometimes I am trapped by wretched misfortune. Sometimes I am on a 6am flight next to somebody who insists on a conversation.

The last time this happened was relatively recently. I’d had to wake up at 4am (which I’m sure you’ll agree is not at all conducive to a pleasant demeanor), and I was looking forward to listening to a podcast and napping on my two-and-a-half hour flight. I decided earbuds wouldn’t cut it, and brought my heavy duty Sennheisers to completely block out ambient noise.

Unfortunately I hadn’t counted on the persistence of my fellow passenger. Before we had even taken off, I felt a tap tap tap on my shoulder. I removed my earphones, expecting the flight attendant, and instead twisted in my seat to meet the smiling face of the man sitting next to me.

“Are you off on holidays?” He asked.

I nodded. “Yeah, just for a week. You?”

“Oh no, I live there now.”

“Oh, nice.” I put my headphones back on. I lay back and closed my eyes.

tap tap tap

I took my headphones back off.

“Do you know anyone over there?”

“Yeah, I have family there.”

I put my headphones back on, feeling a little guilty for being so rude. Still, if I’m honest, there are very few people I would want to have a conversation with at 6am; a stranger sitting next to me on a plane is definitely not one of them.

tap tap tap

FOR THE LOVE OF GOD.

I ripped off my headphones and turned my body to face his. I stared daggers of pure, undiluted hatred straight into his soul. He stared back at me with a bland expression of irritating, energetic cheerfulness. I crumpled back into my chair in defeat.

He talked to me without pause for the next two and a half hours.

It would be more accurate, in fact, to say that he talked at me, as he didn’t seem to require any actual participation on my part. At first I thought he might just be a nervous flyer, and this softened my attitude towards him. I felt a lot better about him tapping me on the shoulder three times when I thought it stemmed from nervousness rather than an obnoxious disregard for my personal space.

“Do you not like flying?” I asked, sympathetically.

“What? Are you kidding? I love flying!” He replied, before launching into an exhaustive list of the many places he had visited.

My juicy grape of sympathy shrivelled instantly, and hardened into a sour raisin of resentment that can only truly be understood by people who are too polite to extricate themselves from these sort of situations.

He told me about everything he had received for Christmas. He told me about his grandmother, his niece, his woollen jumpers, his hobbies. He told me about where he lived, and why. He told me about his parents, his siblings, his holidays. At one point he paused in the middle of a story to point over at a man who was similarly talking the ear off a woman a few rows ahead of us.

“God, look at him. You can tell she’s not at all interested and he’s just chewing her ear off! Poor woman.”

I stared at him. “Yes,” I said dryly. “Can you imagine?”

He shook his head in an agonizingly oblivious show of pity and then continued with his extremely detailed story about his family pets.

By the time we landed, I think I knew almost everything there was to know about him.

I collected my suitcase feeling dazed and wondering once again what it is about me that invites people to ignore the sacred social cue of the headphones. Does this happen to other people with as much regularity? If you’ve had this happen to you, how did you handle it? If you’re someone who has interrupted a stranger wearing headphones… why?

I’m off for a walk now. I’ll be wearing my headphones.

I hope I haven’t jinxed myself.