February wrap-up

February was such a busy month, though looking back at photos I’ve taken it really doesn’t seem that way. I think that’s because the weather was a dreary mix of high winds, low cloud cover and rain, none of which really inspires taking a lot of photos.

The biggest news of course has to be that I am now a very proud Aunty! I have now become one of those exceptionally irritating people that is constantly waving a mobile under your nose to show you yet another photo of a baby. Cannot wait to meet him in person. At the moment he doesn’t seem to like Skype and puts his cranky pants on whenever I try to see him using it.

I was out and about with friends a lot in February as well. I went to see Dallas Buyers Club and Only Lovers Left Alive both in one week. I really enjoyed Dallas though I think the middle seemed to lag a little and I liked OLLA though mostly because I am a bit of a sucker for pointlessly existential films – especially if they feature Tom Hiddleston shirtless for most of it. Then I had a friend’s housewarming party, a colleague’s farewell drinks, book club, Valentine’s drinks and coffee with a few friends I’ve not seen in a while. Sheesh, no wonder my bank account was so incredibly dire!

Work was busy as well, though it still remains as awesome and ridiculous as ever. I am positive I get the weirdest phone calls in this job. I had another prank call, which I actually fell for this time (Jim Pansy. Sigh.)  and a voicemail from a lovely old biddy wanting help with a crossword clue (I think the answer was vivarium). 

When there was a magical day where nice weather fell on a weekend, I managed to make my way up Calton Hill for the first time in far too long. It’s a great place to see straight down Princes St as well as across to Leith and the sea. It’s also the most fantastic random collection of monuments. There’s the Nelson Monument, Robert Burns Monument, Political Martyr’s Monument, Dugald Stewart Monument, and the National Monument (aka Edinburgh’s Disgrace, after they got less than halfway through building it and ran out of money). There’s also the Observatory, Old Royal High School and a quirky stone house.

Hopefully now that it is spring the weather will start to warm up a little and I am already loving the longer daylight hours. March is going to be busy again but I have a few quiet days in there as well!

By the way, if you’ve got this bookmarked as http://www.travelsandtealeaves.com you may need to change it to http://www.travelsandtealeaves.wordpress.com because I can’t be bothered paying to renew the premium contract and it expires this month!

All life needs is a wall planner

Back around mid-January I was attempting to spend a Saturday afternoon relaxing in a cafe. I had a slice of cake, a coffee, my notebook and a novel arranged in front of me but I kept experiencing waves of discontent that made it really difficult to focus on my little relaxation routine. For several months I kept experiencing the same thing – I would be happy in that precise moment, happy with my life and my present, but then I’d feel out of sorts, as if there was a precise word I couldn’t remember. Then, it that little cafe, I had a lightbulb moment and I realised exactly what it was that I needed to address this occasional droop in spirits. A wall planner. So I scoffed my cake and coffee, ran to the nearest stationery store and spent the rest of the afternoon gleefully populating my brand new wall planner.

I am a very visual and tactile person. I like being able to see and feel things (like the carpet lining the sides of the mountains trains in Sydney. So satisfying. So gross.) and I also like having a plan. I am selectively organised. While I feel more content with my life mapped on a wall, I regularly have one of the messiest desks in the office and I often use one side of my bed as temporary storage – more than once I have woken up to find keys, pens, my hairdryer or a book stuck to a limb/my face. Buying this wall planner has done wonders for my inner confidence. I like to use it to count down the days to things, see just how busy my social life can be, and best of all plan holidays.

Only a few weeks after the wall planner arrived into my life I booked my next holiday and my first one outside of the UK in over a year. I am going to Copenhagen for my 26th birthday! Wooh! I leave on my Thursday 24th April and return Sunday 27th. The perfect mini break. Flights and accommodation have been booked so now I just need to decide where I want to go and what I want to do for the three and a half days I have there. I’ve been contemplating getting the Copenhagen Card because it does seem good value for money. These are the things on my list so far:

  • Nice dinner for my birthday at a Scandinavian/Danish restaurant
  • Canal cruise
  • Walking tour
  • Little mermaid statue
  • Tivoli Gardens
  • Kronborg Castle

If anyone has any further suggestions I am all ears!!! Just two months until I go, whee!!!

 

Up Helly Aa – part 2

Sorry, I’ve been busy and sleepy. Not a good combination for writing inspiration, especially if your job involves a lot of writing every day.

Day 3

After the most interesting night’s sleep I’ve ever experienced, I woke up to discover we had arrived in Lerwick. The weather was aggressive – gale force winds and sleet. After a quick orientation drive around the town, we dove straight into Up Helly Aa festivities with the Jarl squad parade. The Jarls are the only squad to dress as Vikings and they lead the procession in the night, but before all that they have a daylight parade in full Viking glory as they provide a guard of sorts to the galley, which is pulled through the streets for all to see. The galley is about 15 feet long and painstakingly crafted and painted before being set alight. The best thing about the parade is the relaxed atmosphere, everyone can just walk along with it, so there I was following a galley and a bunch of Vikings along a street in driving sleet. Normally they station the galley at the harbour for a photo op but it was far too windy – I heard afterwards it was the worst weather experienced during the festival in over 20 years. I think it made it feel more hardcore, more spectacular and raw. In the end we stopped up near the town hall, took our photos and then made a quick exit to the hotel for drying off. Unfortunately I discovered my backpack had acted as a funnel, guiding the torrential rain down my waterproof jacket to the seat of my much-less waterproof jeans. I was so damp I even had to change my underwear.

We spent most of the afternoon in the Lounge, a small pub of locals and half the band from the parade. The band decided things were much too quiet so nine bagpipers played Flower of Scotland in a room that couldn’t hold more than fifty people. I still don’t think my hearing has completely returned. This was followed by the Fiery Sessions, a folk concert with lots of fiddle playing and little Vikings singing.

After a quick but delicious dinner at the hotel it was time for the main event – the procession and burning of the galley. At the advice of our driver, we stationed ourselves outside the town hall where we got to witness the Jarls have their torches lighted before they went on their way around the town, coming in full circle to then light the other 900 torches on the street below. Watching 900 torches simultaneously light down a street, the orange glow curving round the corner and out of sight, is spectacular. All of the squads then started their march, the air thick with embers and Viking hollers, until gradually the galley came past, its white paint orange in the firelight. Once the squads had passed, we made our way down to the park where the galley would be stationed for burning. This meant that we had our backs to the road, where the procession was passing before entering the park and forming a circle around the galley. Because there were so many men and torches, progress was slow, it meant we were essentially sandwiched between two walls of fire – the men in front, guarding the galley, and the men behind, slowly making their way in. Sometimes it was hard to keep my eyes open, there was so much smoke and embers. Every minute or so I would feel a hand brush an ember off my back and I would do the same for the people in front of me. Without meaning to sound cliched, when the wind would gust, the sky would be filled with millions of glowing embers and it really was magical. It was easy to forget it was 2014 and not centuries earlier. Eventually, the Jarls arrived and somehow all 900 men managed to throw their giant torches onto the galley, which ended up looking like a mountain of oversized match sticks. My scarf still smells of smoke from that night.

Afterwards, we went to invitation-only party in the town hall. Each of the 50 squads has spent months creating a performance complete with choreographed dancing and costumes. The evening, from 8pm until 8am, consists of the squads making their way round the town, visiting different halls and showing off their performances. Normally only the locals see these, so it felt really special to be there. Between it squad’s performance is ceilidh dancing, drinking and eating. This honestly had to be the most insane party I’ve ever been to, but after experiencing the relentless grimness of Shetland’s winter, I don’t blame them for getting a little crazy. Each performance was unique, hilarious and potentially disturbing. Men between the ages of 16 and 65 dressed in ridiculous costumes and danced like a Rock Eisteddfod on crack. There were Dispicable Me minions, life-size puppets, oriental geishas performing magic tricks, bumblebees, the Gruffalo, Spanish señoritas (there was a lot of cross dressing), Santas and far more skin-tight spandex than I ever wanted to see. My favourite performance though was the Flash in the Pan, which featured men dressed in fedoras, sunglasses and trench coats that they would wrench open in time to music. Underneath each man was wearing boardshorts, a frying pan at their hips and a ladle between their legs, which was also attached to their knees. When they would pull their knees apart the ladle would fly up and whack the frying pan. It was the most bizarre, most hilarious thing I have ever seen. Considering these are all regular guys – oil rig workers, teachers, businessmen, bus drivers – the level of choreography and creativity is amazing. Naturally as the night progressed and everyone got progressively drunker the performances did slip a little. But it was brilliant. I’ve still got to upload my videos but here’s one I found on youtube:

Day 4

The day began with a subdued breakfast where I noticed what appeared to be a really old bullet hole in the window next to my table, facing out of the dining room – I wonder if it’s a remnant from the original Up Helly Aa Festival of the 1800s when celebrations were considerably more violent. We spent the day driving around Shetland, seeing its spectacular scenery and the occasional lone panda or Viking from the night before walking along the road, slowly making his way home to bed. My favourite spot had to be St Ninian’s beach, which if it wasn’t so hellishly cold would be perfect for swimming. The water around Shetland is a shockingly clear, aquamarine blue. I was expecting it to be an unforgiving, steely grey. The Jarlshof was also pretty cool; a collection of archaeological excavations of ancient settlements. Mostly the sea was the show-stealer though. It was hard not to watch the waves constantly crashing as the wind buffeted everything in its path. No trees naturally grow on Shetland. Lerwick has a few dotted around in people’s gardens but the rest of the island is bare.

The afternoon saw us back on board the ferry, for another rough night ahead. I wisely had a light lunch and no dinner and wasn’t ill, though the feeling of being on a boat that rocky still isn’t an entirely pleasant one. At one point my chair nearly tipped over in this weird sort of slow motion. I saw the boat start to raise slowly to my left and continue raising underneath me. I was able to grip the table and stay upright, but not everyone did. That night sleeping it felt like someone was picking the boat up and dropping it straight down, causing an odd sensation of weightlessness that isn’t entirely helpful for sleeping.

Day 5

After the insanity and adrenalin rush that was the past four days – not knowing if we were going to make it to the festival, rough ferries, the festival and after party – we took it pretty easy on our way back to Edinburgh. We stopped at a nature reserve and walked along St Cyrus beach before having a real Arbroath smokie in Arbroath for lunch. Our final stop was the Hermitage, just outside of Dunkeld, a gorgeous forest walk to Ossian’s Hall, overlooking Black Linn falls and (coincidentally) a hermit’s cave. Of course I had to ask the question of whether the hermit purposely chose the Hermitage to live. (They didn’t know.) Just before dusk we made it back to Edinburgh, exhausted but elated from the experience.

I had such an amazing time during Up Helly Aa, I thoroughly recommend it and would love to do it again one day.

Up Helly Aa – part 1

I survived Up Helly Aa! Despite the odds, I can now say that I’ve crossed the North Sea twice and seen a Viking Fire Festival. I still seem to be recovering and have spent the past three days sleeping in much later than I intended. Because I hate really long posts, I’m going to do this in two separate entries.

Day 1

It was confirmed first thing by the tour company that the ferry wouldn’t be sailing that night as intended, but we would still be spending the night on board, hoping to sail the following evening. The weather seemed to be going from bad to worse and at South Queensferry we were told the road we were trying to take to Braemar was closed due to snow. Instead, we went past the monument where King Alexander III fell down a cliff in 1286, more or less triggering the events that would eventually lead to the uprising hundreds of years later. We stopped for lunch at St Andrews, birthplace of golf, though as it was bucketing down we mostly stayed indoors. The next port of call was Dunnottar castle, a fantastic ruin on the east coast of Scotland. The weather had eased slightly so we were able to get pretty close to it. We also made a quick stop in the fishing village of Stonehaven before heading up to Aberdeen and the waiting ferry. Although it wasn’t sailing, we needed to be on board at the usual boarding time. To make the most of the evening, our tour held an impromptu ceilidh in the ship’s bar area, with one of the tour guides playing the accordion and singing folk songs. I love Scottish folk songs and ceilidhs, I wish we had the same thing in Australia. I even learnt a new song ‘Rattlin’ Bog’ which has been haunting me as I try to sleep for days now. We also learnt what happens when you combine whisky, a deserted ship and a children’s dress-ups box. It wasn’t pretty but it was very funny.

 

Day 2

Now that the weather had eased slightly, we made our way to the Tomnaverie standing stones, where Douggie the driver and pyromaniac, lit some torches so we could have our own mini procession just in case we didn’t make it to Shetland.  We had the area all to ourselves and with everything covered in a fine layer of snow it was pretty brilliant to pretend to sacrifice one another on a hilltop in the heart of the Highlands. Warmed up with whisky and fire, we made our way to Balmoral, where we saw the church the Queen visits when she’s in Scotland and the churchyard where John Brown, Queen Victoria’s ghillie (and probably lover) is buried. We also stopped at Braemar, which is an idyllic town on the east side of the Cairngorms. More snow was predicted so we couldn’t stay long, in case we got trapped there. So we made our way back to the ferry where we got the great news the ship was sailing – honestly, none of us thought it would. I’m pretty sure that if it wasn’t for Up Helly Aa it would’ve been cancelled. Once on board I tried bravely to have dinner – unfortunately for a ferry that regularly crosses one of the roughest seas in the world, it does not offer even a remotely light option. There was the choice of curry, battered fish, beef casserole, hamburgers or chicken in cream sauce. They don’t even sell crackers! I managed to keep my dinner down for about an hour, which I think was a valiant effort considering just how rough that crossing was. It was impossible to walk in a straight line and the reception area looked like a casualty zone with people lying about everywhere. After dealing with my dinner I felt much better but decided to go to bed fairly early. Sleep was interesting, especially around 4am when it got really rough and things started flying everywhere and it felt like my feet were about to go flying over my head.

A very London Christmas

Christmas 2013 in London was utterly brilliant, a perfect mix of relaxation, being a tourist, eating lots of food and indulging in my dorky tendencies.

Although I was meant to get the 12:30pm train to Kings Cross, the UK is currently experiencing a high volume of hysteria-inducing weather systems (also known as heavy rain) and seeing as the trains here have a habit of being cancelled if someone happens to sneeze on the track I decided to get the first train out instead. Hello, 4am start! I haven’t seen you in a while. Anyway, the train was almost completely empty for the entire journey (probably proving that although I scornfully mock National Rail for it’s penchant for running around screaming THE END IS NIGH PEOPLE, I am actually no better and the only person whose neurosis demanded that extra precautions were taken) and almost completely smooth until someone forgot to hit the right switch and we were stuck approximately 100 metres from Kings Cross Station for an hour, due to “signal failure”.

Once in London proper and bags deposited at the flat, Jen and I wandered over to South Bank to see their merry little Christmas market and partake in some mulled wine. Man, I love a winter Christmas if only for the mulled wine. We then watched two Christmas films, About A Boy (Jen’s choice) and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (mine). I am fairly certain I spent the entire film exclaiming how much I loved each scene – I really need to stop doing that. It’s like a nervous tic. I also shared with Jen my mum’s fondness for the moose cups that the family drink eggnog out of. I stayed awake to Skype with the family briefly (when I told mum about watching Christmas Vacation, she replied with how much she really wants those moose cups. I wonder where I get it from…)

Christmas Day was spent with the opening of presents and the attempt to wear as many gifted items as possible. I was really spoiled and very thankful for all of my gifts. Jen and I then wandered back over to South Bank for Christmas lunch at a pub. It was really delicious, especially the bottle of wine, and I am really glad we made the effort to get there for opening. We had sensibly thought to bring our own crackers and were the envy of the pub in our silver crowns. Afterwards we wandered past St Paul’s, Covent Garden, Leicester Square and Trafalgar Square to check out all of the Christmas decorations before settling down to watch Love Actually, the Doctor Who Christmas Special and a few episodes of The Thick of It. As an aside – we thought of a brilliant drinking game: take a shot every time a character in Love Actually wears a turtleneck. I’ve never seen so many turtlenecks in one film before!

On Boxing Day we went to London Zoo, where we may have lost all feeling in our toes and I may have started to get a bit tetchy at all the kids who kept pushing in front of our turn to climb on the gorilla statue… It was a lot of fun despite the freezing temperatures. As if  we hadn’t suffered enough exposure, we rounded off the day with a visit to the Hyde Park Winter Wonderland, which was equal parts brilliant and insane. There were so many rides that I wanted to go on, except for the knowledge that I really would die of hypothermia if I did. Of course it’s a great idea to go on a ride that spins you 60ft in the air in temperatures barely above freezing! There was also a retro disco band, haunted house, countless crepe/confectionery stalls and faux German beer halls galore. It was brilliant and made Edinburgh’s look twee in comparison.

The forecast for Friday was meant to be atrocious so we spent the day indoors with a Lord of the Rings marathon. I swear, Jen and I have watched those three films together far too often. We quote along or snigger at silly little in jokes and sigh nostalgically at the stories you find out if you watch the Extended Editions with audio commentary (again, something we have done together far too often). Our favourite comment points: Every brilliant Boromir line. Legolas’s weird habit of standing in the background pulling absurd faces.

Saturday was my final full day in London and we spent it in true Jen and Liz style: lining up, wandering aimlessly, in a pub and watching a really attractive actor in a play. The day began when we left the house at 7:15am to begin our lining for tickets to that night’s performance of Coriolanus at the Donmar. Proper tickets sold out within 20 minutes of going on sale and trying to get the Monday Front Row tickets is like winning the lottery, so pretty much the only chance of seeing it live is to line up the morning of a performance to get any returned tickets plus standing. We got there just before 8am and there were already 20 people ahead of us. At first I was feeling really disappointed because I knew that they only sold 20 standing tickets, but then I remembered there were two performances that day! Success! I am so very, very glad we did it, even if it meant standing outside for over 2 hours in the December cold. The play really was great, I definitely found it easier to follow than some of Shakespeare’s other works (like Julius Caesar, all I remember is Beware the Ides of March). While  I don’t think it’s Shakespeare’s greatest work, the cast did an excellent job bringing alive the wit and humour as well as the drama of the story. It was the first time I’d seen a live sword fight and I nearly burst with excitement. It’s so FUN. I can sort of see why the Romans got such kicks out of the gladiator battles. Even though it was perfectly choreographed I was so anxious that there would be the slightest miscalculation. And of course Tom Hiddleston was amazing. Even more attractive in the flesh and mere metres away. Gratuitous shower seen FTW. Would I have seen that particular play if he wasn’t in it? Probably not. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I do enjoy going to the theatre and would go more often if I could afford to, but if I have the opportunity to see someone I particularly admire/fancy then I’m not going to turn it down. It was the perfect way to end an absolutely amazing time. Although I don’t know when I will see Jen again,  I refuse to get maudlin because I know that we’ll always stay in touch no matter the distance.

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Random things I miss about Australia

(obviously family, friends and pets are a given.)

  • Lay-by. Nowhere does lay-by here and it used to be my main way of buying things, ensuring I didn’t go over budget but still had nice stuff occasionally.
  • Being able to regularly see the stars. It might be because I live in the centre of Edinburgh but I don’t see the stars like I used to.
  • Triple J. I can’t find a radio station over here that matches it for great local music and I am starting to feel out of the loop as I listen to the 2012 Hottest 100 album on repeat.
  • Avocados. Yeah, we have avos here but they aren’t the same. I’m fairly certain they’ve been frozen so they go from being rock hard to black overnight.
  • Being able to say words like “quoll”, “quokka”, “bilby” and “bandicoot” without people laughing at me and insisting I’m making them up.
  • Having an electrical socket in the bathroom. Really, Britain, is it that hard to put one where people are most likely to want to use their hairdryer?
  • Being able to air dry my clothes in under three days. I’ve started to have nightmares about mildew spores infesting my lungs.
  • Not having to remember to ask for salted popcorn instead of sweet. Seriously, I do not understand sweet popcorn. Toffee popcorn, yes, but sweet? Bleurgh.