Category Archives: Travel

Why I’ve decided to be more generous to buskers or the things you miss when you travel

Stone sculpture of a figure and busker with his back turned in Lagos, Portugal

When you are on the go traveling, what do you miss from your more settled life back home? Maybe what we don’t miss tells us something about the things we could happily life without.

I recently went traveling for nearly 3 months – some of the time I was living in the one place with friends, and the rest of the time I was traveling around, staying no more than two or three days in any one hotel. I can tell you straight away one of things I did not miss while I was away and that is TV. At home I watch far too much, but while I was away I was not even tempted to turn on the hotel TVs, I preferred to either just sleep or read in the room, or else head back out the door for more exploring. And of course I didn’t miss all the routines of settled life like cleaning, cooking and buying groceries.

On a sunny saturday I arrived in Brussels and wandered my way from Brussels-midi station through a number of streets with the eventual goal of the Magritte Museum. When I walked uphill and got to the top of the Mont des Arts, there was a busker playing guitar and singing in English in an open area. When I heard some familiar songs sung in my language, I realised how much I missed music and particularly the freedom to sing. I suppose you could sing in the hotel shower, but apart from that, there’s not much privacy or freedom to sing when you travel (unless you’re a musician, or you’re on a bus tour where people want to revive their school camp bus-singalong days). 

I came across a few buskers in my travels at times when their music gave me pangs of longing. When you travel to countries where your own language is not spoken, even the simplest things become hard and hearing songs sung in your own language provides a real touch stone. I have to say I almost never give money to buskers (although I did give money to a classical guitarist at the market who did a great rendition of ‘Paint it black’ earlier in the year). But I know now how much a (good) busker can give you something you didn’t even realise you were missing and so I plan to be more generous to buskers in the future. 

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A Bruges visit brought to you by the letter ‘B’

  

1. Belgian chocolate

All I’ve had are a couple of samples, and they were nice, but I hate to tell you I don’t actually really like chocolate. I know it’s shocking to admit, but I prefer the fruit fillings and other ingredient to the chocolate that surrounds them. However, for those who like chocolate, there is every possible product, many packaged like the attractive rows of Bruges houses. A novelty favorite are the chocolates made to look like rusty tools, bolts and locks. Although I haven’t indulged in a chocolate , I have eaten marzipan that was supposed to taste like lemon and nougat studded with ginger and apricot. 

  
2. Beer

Another Belgian favorite, but again I’m not really qualified to advise on the many types or their taste. I had my first beer in Belgiam tonight at a Pizza Hut and it was cherry flavored. I’m sure all serious beer aficionados are shuddering right at this moment.

  
3. Belfort

If you visit Bruges and you want to climb the Belfort tower to the very top of the belfry, get there as early as you can. They only let 70 people up at a time (which is a mercy considering the necessity of passing people on the increasingly narrow winding stairs). I was lucky enough to only have to wait for one person to exit. The relentless 366 stairs climb is nicely broken up by mini floors with information displays and samples of bells. After the long climb the breeze at the top and the view were much appreciated. However ear plugs are probably recommended for when the carillon starts playing while you are up there as the sound of 47 large bells is somewhat deafening!

  
4. Breeds of dogs

I don’t think I’ve seen any dog breed more than once, apart from the fact they are often in pairs of the same breed, but I have seen a lot of dogs, including sharing my visit to an art gallery with some sort of Afghan hound and his owners. Large dogs don’t tend to be very light on their feet on wooden floors. This may be the only time I get to appreciate Picasso in the company of a canine. Perhaps Picasso would have approved: he was certainly unconventional. The only cats I’ve seen in Bruges are the ones on the plentiful tapestry products in the shops. If cats inhabit the city, they must be safely tucked away in their residences. 

  
5. Break-neck speed

This is the speed of the many cars that hurtle around Bruges’ cobbled streets with seemingly little regard for the many cyclists and absent-minded tourists meandering the streets where ‘foot path’ is a matter of opinion.

  
6. Boats and birds

The open boat canal cruise is a popular option and even in the rain they seemed to get a good turnout. People also happily queued in the rain for the boats. The main on-water competition for the boats is the iconic white swans. They are beautiful to watch floating along in formation in a swan flotilla. Swans, ducks and other birds all enjoy the canals. 

  
7. Bicycles

Bike hirers seem to be doing a roaring trade and many tourists and locals traverse the flat streets. There are ample bike racks in a number of squares and many bikes can be photographed leaning against walls in picturesque locations. I’ve done on all my wandering on foot, but a few blisters later the bikes are looking like a good option. 

  
8. Bridges

As Bruges is a city encircled and criss-crossed by canals, there are many small stone bridges that enable canal crossing. Some have a single inverted half circle opening, while others have three. These openings allow the burgeoning canal boat ride business to prosper. Many of the bridges also seem to be home to various plant life. One bridge is even overlooked by the patron saint of bridges. 

 
9. Bewildering streets

It seems to be quite easy to get quite lost in the meandering streets of Bruges – or maybeIm just directionally challenged. There are certain landmarks, like Markt and the Burg or the various churches, but because all the streets are constrained within a large oval shape, most streets don’t just run north-south or east-west. However this is all part of the charm, as you never know what new experience you’ll come across, but try finding your way back to the same place twice, when you never saw the street name, and it can be a challenge. 

  
10. Bilingual

Bilingual was handy because it begins with the desired letter, however the truth seems to be that many who work locally are quad- or quin- lingual (is that a word?). I presume most locals speak Flemish, and they can also be heard conversing pretty fluently in Dutch, French, German and English. Most menus are also printed in 4 or 5 languages, making it a very easy place to travel. The range of visitors seem quite broad and I’ve interacted on a minor or more sizable level with people from USA, Spain, Poland, Japan, France and overheard people speaking English, German, Mandarin, Dutch and Eastern European languages. 

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Life’s conveyor belt

Shopping centre escalators

From below it’s as if the people are moved by magic, carried across my field of view in ordered lines. Some gaze around glum-mouthed, others stand straight with purpose, phone to ear. Prams travel upwards along with trolleys in this midday insular domed world. On they go towards consumer destinations. Branded bags of many colours pass by me grasped by their eager purchasers. Some people are content to be passengers, carried along, but others quicken their own journey, striding upwards with arms swinging.

Life is like an escalator, sometimes we surrender ourselves to its pace, and sometimes we fight for control, assert our will; stamp our style on the journey. At times we are hesitant to step on or hop off, afraid of stumbling and making a fool of ourselves – but ultimately we are all heading in the same direction, no matter how we travel the distance.

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Excelling under pressure but dysfunctional in the ordinary

Sand dune

One of the most interesting people I’ve met this year has been dead since 1926. I’d heard her name before I really met her, but if you’d asked me anything about her, I would have been very vague. Now I’ve had a window into the inner workings of her life, heart and mind. She’s a lot more human now than when she was just a reputation to me.

A charismatic conversationalist who came to life when conversing about the poetry of the east, travel and archaeology and many other subjects, she had auburn hair and knowing blue eyes. Gertrude Bell was a woman of great energy. She mastered in her lifetime of 57 years 6 languages, mountaineering (summiting some previously unscaled peaks), gardening, cartography, archaeology, mountain and desert travel and diplomacy (developing a network of connections across the tribes living in the Middle East). Some say she was also a spy and she is credited with assisting in the founding of modern Jordan and Iraq. She certainly excelled at extremes and under extremes. Her personal life was tragic – her mothered died when she was a child, her family wouldn’t allow her to marry her fiancé, who died tragically while still young and she later had a fervent, unconsummated affair with a married man who then died at Gallipoli. She fought to defy the set paths unmarried women of her generation would normally have taken – she loved her family, but she threw herself at challenges time and again. She would not be confined or limited.

Why was I drawn to her? Drawn to read her biography? It called to me from a shelf in Dymocks book store, from the moment I saw the desert landscape and the title Queen of the desert. Sometimes I think I wasn’t born for the maintenance of life and its routines and sometimes I think maybe I’m just lazy.  The things that give me life are the crises and the extremes and the times you have to just push yourself and don’t have the leisure of reflecting. What does me in is the day-to-day, the repetitiveness of it all. It’s tedious and soul-sucking. I call myself a project person – someone who finds energy in projects, events and dramas. I think this draws me to other project people – other people who soared in the challenging times, but maybe didn’t do so well in the ordinariness of life – I feel like they’re my tribe.

I had a phase of reading the biographies of early aviators, Charles Lindburgh, Amelia Earhart and Amy Johnson. I love the tales of their early aviation achievements, of how close they often were to death, only saved by chance, or by their own wits. But they were often driven back to the skies when their earth-bound lives failed. Amy Johnson had a difficult family life and a failed relationship, Charles Lindburgh had a child kidnapped and life was never quite the same again. In an aircraft they could block out society and challenge themselves, and travel to the ends of the globes, meet new people in far away places, land in danger or land to the cheers of adoring crowds. Despite Johnson’s and Earhart’s tragic deaths, they died doing what they loved.

In Western society today there are not so many ways to really challenge yourself. I fell in love with Robyn Davidson’s book Tracks long before it was a movie. Her lone travels with camels and dog across the centre of Australia, having learnt to train camels under harsh conditions in Alice Springs, were epic. She too was fleeing family issues, but her achievement and the freedom of that time were great. And like Bell, Earhart and Johnson she broke female stereotypes, something those around her didn’t quite know how to handle. I’m not a risk taker, but travel, living off your wits and responding to crises, taking on challenges and seeing them through – these all appeal to me – and even more when suburban-bound life disappoints or threatens to overwhelm me with the mundane. I’m inspired by those who’ve come before who forged new paths and roles where there were none. Life is short, do the things that make your eyes light up.

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Rediscovering awe in Paris

Carved figurine in the Sainte-Chapelle

Towering glass kaleidoscope walls twinkle blues, reds, greens, yellows. Patterned pillars guarded at the foot by be-robed bearded figures with fanciful parasols stretch up between the stained glass panels. One wall would be magnificent, but a whole room of light filtered through rainbow stories and symbols brings the humans within to silence. Room is not an adequate word for this building, this Sainte-Chapelle.

How should one behave in such a room? Religious or not, the ancient art, the soaring structure, the light, leads you to sit and gaze in awe. In a knowing society, not much strikes us dumb. For a westerner, who feels (or at least feels the illusion of being) in control of their life, their destiny, it is significant to step through a carved doorway and suddenly feel dwarfed and insignificant in the scheme of things. You’re in the presence of a royal chapel that was built in the 13th century and all the gold mouldings and the rainbow light are ancient and grand. On this  Île de la Cité in the centre of Paris is this soaring, rich interior that belies its grand but grey exterior. You’ve stumbled on a treasure trove, but not a monetary one, a trove for the soul.

Of all the places in Paris that might have been brought to my mind, this is the one that has left the greatest lasting impression, ten years on from my visit. Sometimes when you travel you encounter a series of disappointments: the Mona Lisa is smaller than you imagined; the serenity of the Sistine Chapel is interrupted constantly by broadcasts instructing people to keep moving along; half the Vatican museums are mysteriously closed the only day you’re there. On the other hand, there are places you’d never dreamed about or heard about before that you discover on your adventure. These are the places that lodge in your imagination, that link to positive emotions and are recalled sometimes with a longing to return to that place and time. These are the places you can wax lyrical about given the opportunity, or the opposite: sometimes find yourself without any words to describe the spirit of a place and what it stirred in you.

Ten years ago I quit a job that had become stressful and politic-laden and took off to Europe for three months. A friend met me in Rome and we took a small group tour from Rome to Paris, through Switzerland. The tour group wasn’t all we might have hoped, but the places we saw and the stories we shared on our modern day ‘Grand Tour’ were an education. It’s hard not to feel like a cringe-worthy tourist when you’re in a group. A tourist who tramps through monuments, museums and cultures with barely a care or a context. Looking up at a vaulted vivid blue ceiling-sky storeys above you that glimmers with gold motifs you’re no longer a tourist, but a student of awe and wonder.

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