the particulars of travelling

It’s the details
the minutiae
a long series of challenges and puzzles
all day, every day

Oh, sure, the sights are wondrous
But it is the interactions
the interpreting
the map reading
and the trivial accomplishments

Everything unfamiliar
Nothing can be assumed
All to be deciphered, understood

How do I order coffee?
Do we drink it at the counter?
No, no
That’s only in Italy

Where do we buy the tickets?
Can we get a weekly pass?
No, no
You can’t buy a ticket on the tram

Those are the wrong tickets
Say all the ladies on the bus in French

You’re going the wrong way
Says the man in Italian
As the rental car gets stuck
trying to turn
down a medieval lane
And he makes the traffic behind reverse
while he escorts us out

I am so grateful I would kiss him
But he is gone on his scooter

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ancestral journey to croatia

My grandparents were both born on Brač; my grandfather in Novo Selo and my grandmother in Sumartin.  My grandfather left the island with his two brothers when he was a teenager.  He travelled first to South America and then on to New Zealand in the early 1900s.  His cousins had also come to New Zealand around the same time.  Did they travel together?  Who was first to arrive?  Did he come because they were here?  I don’t know.

In New Zealand he met my grandmother who had come here with her mother.  They met and married on the other side of the world from the small island on which they were both born, a couple of miles apart.

I travelled to Croatia for the first time in 2012 with my partner and our son.  The morning of our flight from London to Dubrovnik I wake up in the most hideous mood.  Venom spewing from me.  I feel deranged and possessed.  The boys keep their distance.

We get to the airport and I have an altercation with a stranger while we queue to go through the scanners.  In my fury I round on this man and I see him shrink away from my derangement.  When it is my turn to go through the scanner, the alarm goes and I am pulled aside for a full body pat down.  I have no metal on me to trigger the alarm, but my madness has been observed.  We are allowed through and, still possessed, I leave the boys and take my hideous self to the bathroom.  There is a large mirror the length of the wall and I glance at the poor tortured face in it as I walk past.  I’m already in the cubicle before I realise that it was my own face I was seeing.

I meet the boys in the bookshop and after looking at books for a while I’m suddenly aware I’m back.  I’m me again.  The madness gone.

How do I explain it? I don’t know, but it felt as if a long line of ancestors knew I was coming, and had a lot to say.  A long line holding a lot of pain.  When I was back in NZ, a friend told me that her Croatian husband has a similar extreme reaction when they visit Croatia and is unbearable to be around for the first few days they are there.

Dubrovnik was beautiful; the weather perfect, the hotel luxurious, the coast picturesque, and the ‘old town’ wonderful.  Yet still, intermittently, I was overcome with this horrible state.  I was so revolting that the boys kept away from me and we went separate ways in our sightseeing.  I loved being there even though I felt so disturbed.  The people seemed familiar but separate, making me feel at once an outsider as well as stirring a deep sense of connection.

On the third day we travelled by taxi along the coast to Makarska.  I was not prepared for how beautiful and unspoiled the coast is.  Makarska is a beach town located at the base of the most dramatic mountains, and again the weather was perfect and our hotel was lovely.  Yet still I felt agitated and awful.  Or rather, I felt as if I were being agitated, as if it had nothing to do with me.

The manager of the hotel rang the phone number I had for the relations on Brač, and they invited us to visit them the next day.  We caught the ferry over to the island not knowing if they would speak English, not really sure how distantly we were related, not knowing what to expect at all.  But family is family and we were welcomed with an openness and warmth that made my heart sob.

This was my grandfather’s brother’s grandchildren; ‘cousins’ to me.  My cousin kept holding me and smiling and saying, I’ve met you before?  You have been here before?  She felt as familiar as one of my sisters.  I held and squeezed her back.

It hurts to say goodbye and leave the island.   It hurts again the next morning to say goodbye to the hotel manager.  Hugging her (this woman I’ve only known for 3 days) like I would break and her saying ‘don’t cry’ before I did and me wailing ‘I just don’t want to go’.

I felt so at home there and, as in Rome also, so right in myself somehow.  Even though it’s all so different and we were so different from it and from the people, yet it was on some level so deeply familiar.  Weird really.  No, ‘familiar’ isn’t the right word, and I don’t know what is.  Just a blind sense of connection at a cellular or molecular level perhaps.

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claustrophobic in venice

Oh how shameful, to not like Venice; but I didn’t.  I couldn’t breathe there.  According to J’s cousin who has lived there for years, New Zealanders and Australians often have this reaction.  We are too used to open space.

Walking the narrow lanes, I can’t see enough of the sky.  I feel so hemmed in.  Trapped like a rat in a cage, going round and round with no chance of escape.  With a glimpse of Donald Sutherland, just ahead, around every corner.

After a couple of days of roaming the lanes, I insist that we pay some exorbitant amount to have a ride in a gondola.  It is only when we get out onto the Grand Canal that I can finally breathe and I realise I have been holding my breath since we arrived.

J, of course, loved Venice.  He, with his innate sense of direction, loved to be in a place where it was possible to get lost.  He went off exploring on his own for hours; while I stayed in the apartment, anxious.

People had warned me that I would find Rome very dirty; but I didn’t experience that at all.  I thought Rome beautiful, but Venice dirty and decaying.  It seems almost sacrilegious to say it, when Venice is so loved, but I just didn’t get it.

I was also aware that all was not as it seemed.  That the real Venice is behind closed doors – the houses themselves masks.  The streets a treadmill for tourists, while the Venetians live in a parallel, hidden Venice.

Fair enough!  How hideous to have to share your city with 30 million visitors each year.

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feeling at home in rome

In Rome, I am not too loud, too excitable, too emotional, too volatile, too much.  For the first time in my life, I feel completely at ease.  As if I fit.  As if who I am is all right.

We arrive at 7 am and already the air is crisp, clear and hot.  We’ve travelled 12 hours from New Zealand to Hong Kong where we spent the day wandering around, sweating in the heat and humidity.  Back on the next flight at midnight for another 12 hours to Rome.  We arrive filthy and smelly; grubby tourists.  Our room is not ready for us until the afternoon so, filthy and smelly, we hit the streets.  Here we are, so grotty, and here is Rome, so beautiful.  Nothing ugly allowed.  No billboards, no excessive signage, no ugly high rise buildings, no McDonalds.  Welcome relief to the senses.

I love Rome from the second we step off the plane.  It felt like a great pulsating heart; warm, inviting and full of light.  I don’t mean the people; they ignored us turista.  I mean the energy of the city.

Visiting the Sistine Chapel was the highpoint.  Walking through the Vatican Museums, overwhelmed by the art.  At first able to walk in any direction, then slowly becoming aware that we were being funnelled one way in a thick crowd.  And it was so hot.  The passageways get narrower and there’s no turning back, we can only move forward, herded with the crowd.  We didn’t have a map so we didn’t know where we were heading, but eventually pushed through a single door and realized we were in the Sistine Chapel.  Looking up, the ceiling so far away and the paintings so much smaller than imagined.  Squeezed in with hundreds of people, so hot.  No windows, guards everywhere.  The way out at the far end – another single door, but you have to go through a wire gate to get to it, in single file.  All those people talking and the guards ‘shushing’.  Awful and squashed.  Trapped in this cavernous room.  I hate it and feel so disappointed.

Then a voice in my head reminds me that it’s a ‘chapel’, and next I see at one end a cross and candles for an altar.    Focusing on this I’m drawn inside myself and find calm beneath the intensity and noise of the crowd.  Then I start to feel energy, huge energy, as if I have tapped into some sort of energy centre.  As if this room with its famous ceiling is not about the art at all.  As if the chapel was built at this place because of the energy that emanates from here.  As if the painting on the ceiling was created from this energy.

I stand, beneath this famous ceiling with my eyes shut, and I am filled with energy.  Filled to the top, filled to bursting.  I can’t speak and I hold onto J’s arm as he leads me with the crowd out the doors.  I am in a state of absolute bliss, like I have never experienced before.

It lasts for hours.

View through the ceiling of the Pantheon

View through the ceiling of the Pantheon

 

first trip to europe, aged 44

As a child, I watched my three older sisters leave New Zealand for Europe.  One by one they left, in tears, always the tears – and I waited for years for them to come home.  In my early 20s, when everyone went off on their ‘OE’ (overseas experience) I didn’t.  It was too big.

Twenty years later, in my early 40s, I feel the pull.  With New Zealand so far away, it takes a strong pull to leave.  Then my son’s class at school plans a trip to Europe.   Now I really want to go.  I’m ready.  Why should he get to see Europe before me?  I’ll go with the school as parent help.

I get home one afternoon to a letter advising who the parent helpers will be.  I stand in the hallway, keys still in my hand, and read that I have not been chosen.  I feel myself sinking hard.  This was my chance and now it’s gone.  But in that second I make a decision not to go to pieces. I wave the letter above my head saying, I’m handing this over, sort it out.  I put the letter away and don’t let myself think about it.

A couple of weeks later my partner hands me another envelope.  It’s a $10,000 travel grant awarded by his company – completely unexpectedly – for us to use however we like.
Thank you.

So I got to go to Europe.  A special trip with my partner, meeting up with our son in London.

The next few posts are a few of the odd experiences I had in different cities.

only in solitude

Writing, for me, comes in times of stillness
The letters and words float into my head
and I ease them down to paper

I don’t sit down to write
The words find me when I am quiet
When I listen

Now that I am working again
and busy,
oh so busy,
my head is full up
No time for listening
No space for letters
Just do, do, do

It’s 4.30 am
An unplanned moment of solitude