Valuable life skills

Valuable life skill no. 5 - How to pack a horse trailer

Valuable life skill no. 7 – How to pack a horse trailer

Over the past 382 days I have accumulated and honed a set of very unique life skills.  Unfortunately, most of these just didn’t seem to fit in to my resume, so I thought I’d list them here.

 Life skills that should make me a more employable person but are most likely sadly underestimated:

  1. The ability to manoeuvre one or more suitcases in a variety of intricate fashions.  Including but not limited to; getting a large suitcase and accompanying hand luggage into an airport toilet cubicle, down stairs, up stairs, along 2km of cobbled streets, into elevators, onto escalators, onto buses, etc.
  2. The ability to dig a rainwater ditch. Because there comes a time at every horse show when someone has to do it.
  3.  The ability to accurately judge wind speed, direction, and velocity. Because when you’re mucking paddocks and flinging manure into the wheelbarrow, you want it to land in the wheelbarrow, and not fly back in your face.
  4.  The ability to PROPERLY coil rope, hoses, and electrical cords. Because if you don’t do it properly, there’s nothing more annoying than trying to untangle them.
  5. The ability to remember several different timezones simultaneously and coordinate phone calls and Skype calls accordingly. So I’m basically be qualified as a secretary now, right?
  6.  The ability to pack large amounts of stuff into one suitcase and one carry-on bag. Also known as suitcase tetris.
  7.  The ability to pack a horse trailer. Sounds easy, but you try fitting 16 bales of hay and 12 bags of shavings in a trailer so that a) the horses don’t eat the hay and b) you still have enough room to fit in the rest of the gear AND get the horses up the ramp.  Also known as trailer tetris.
  8. The ability to film/take pictures whilst riding. And actually have the pictures turn out half-decent.
  9. The ability to do currency conversions mentally. Because if you can’t do this when you’re shopping internationally, you’ve got a problem.
  10.  The ability to sleep on planes, buses, trains, couches, and similar places. Because when you’ve got two 13 hour flights back to back, you need that sleep wherever you can get it.

 

Valuable life skill no. 8 - how to take decent pictures whilst riding.

Valuable life skill no. 8 – how to take decent pictures whilst riding.

 

The in between

Sitting at my gate lounge in Abu Dhabi waiting for my last flight home, I have a bit of time to reflect and recount the happenings of the past few days.  They were filled with packing and organising and putting away jumps and riding – dressage, jumping, trot sets, gallop sets, and hacks.  They were also filled with goodbyes.

Yesterday (or was it today?) I said the hardest goodbyes of all.  I said goodbye to several humans, two dogs, and one very special horse.  I cried many tears, and held back many more.  The hugs were never ending.  The gratitude flowed endlessly.

When people encourage others to go overseas, to travel, and to live and work abroad, they tell you about all the fabulous things you’ll experience – the great memories, the friendships, the amazing times to be had.  But what they don’t tell you is how hard it is to leave.  Particularly with another 16 hours of travel before I return home to my family and friends, I feel like I am in the ‘in between’ –  unable to let go of what I’m leaving but also unable to grab hold of what’s waiting for me, because I’m not there yet.

Despite the emotional trauma, I can’t forget the amazing experiences and memories I have made along the way, and I know these will keep me going when things get even tougher.  Stay tuned for a more detailed account of the final days in Aiken.

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Home is where the heart is

With just four days until I go home, life is starting to feel a little weird.  What will it feel like to not have to muck a barn every morning? How am I going to re-adapt to driving on the left hand side of the road? (Sydney, consider yourself warned.)  How am I possibly going to survive without my Rock – my new four-legged best friend, the horse that has seen me through so much, and that brings so much happiness to my life?  All of these are questions that I have to wrestle with, at the same time that I consider how excited I am to go home and see my friends and family again.

You see, the thing about travelling and living abroad is that it changes your sense of home.  No longer do I have just one home, and one family, I have several.  No matter where you are, you will always be missing one of them, and the more you travel, the more you experience, the thinner you spread yourself.  You never stop having to think about what timezone you’re in, or what slang you’re using, because one or more of your families are on the other side of the world.  Inconvenient, no?

Although it is heartbreaking to leave another family behind, it’s the sadness that reveals how much they have changed me, and how important they are to me.  I will miss the humans, yes, but also the horses and dogs that have made every day a joy to experience.

I started this journey with a sense of anticipation, and I was anxious to answer one important question I had for myself.  After so much time away from riding, would I still love it as much as I once had? Or had I already succumbed to the all-too-common teenage affliction that results in horse-crazy young girls losing interest and pursing other things in life, like a normal social life?  Without even realising it, I have answered that question for myself ten times over.  I still have the drive and the passion for horses, as much as I ever did.  I lived, breathed, and slept horses for the past year, and loved it.  Although I felt like a little bit of a gypsy this year, living out of a suitcase, I know now I had one true home all along, and that home will always be in the saddle.

Home is where the heart is

For where your treasure is, there will be your heart also.

P.S – Here’s a video of my show jumping round from Full Gallop Horse Trials, having a blast on the Rock.

Show jumping on the Rock

Sliding doors and Fresians galore

Greetings from the Netherlands! You may be forgiven for thinking this title a little strange… but it was the only witty rhyming title I could think of.  And it makes sense, I promise! So, yet again there’s some catching up to do!

Berlin

Another day, another amazing, unique city.  Berlin was a mix of sobering historical monuments and vibrant city scenes. After arriving late afternoon and yet again lugging my suitcases along a kilometre of cobbled streets from the train station (not to mention up three flights of stairs at my hostel), I decided to go for a walk, and find some food.  My feet carried me to Potsdamer Platz, and the brightly illuminated Sony Center.  They also found their way to an Australian restaurant overlooking the inside of the aforementioned Sony Center, and even though it was my first night in Germany and it felt like a bit of a cop out, I decided to treat myself to some “home-style” food.

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I could have made better chips, though.

  The next day I was lucky enough to have a friend show me around the city, thanks to a chance meeting through a mutual friend a few months ago.  In 5 hours we covered all the main sites of Berlin, such as this gate:

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And this wall:

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Not to mention the more important sites like a hotel with an elevator inside an aquarium, and the Rittersport flagship store (droooool…)

I also got to meet up with another ‘family member’ from Winnipeg, at their café on the East Side, before we headed out for a delicious dinner and dessert.  (If you’re one of those people that’s interested in seeing photos of what I eat, there’s a place for you. It’s here.)  All in all we walked around 15km so I was more than ready for bed that night.

The following day meant another bus, another train, and another country.  It was off to the Netherlands, but as we well know, things can never be that simple for me.  Getting to Berlin Hauptbahnhof was surprisingly easy.  Getting on my train to Zwolle was easy.  Working out where to change trains was a little harder.  Eventually, once on the train, I worked it out.  Relieved, I got off at the right station, content to wait the ten minutes for my next train, which was supposed to leave from platform 4.  Here began the problems.  I was standing between platform 4a and 4b, with no platform ‘4’ in sight.  The train information on the electronic screens did not match the train I needed.  I hovered, and waited, and paced, and waited.  The minutes ticked by until finally, at the allotted time, a train pulled in… right at the end of the platform.  I start to power-walk towards it, but with about 30 meters still to go, I hear a whistle blow.  Uh oh.  Not good.  There’s nothing for it but to sprint down the platform, hauling my 35+ kilos of luggage behind me.  The doors are starting to close.  I leap onto the train and somehow, with one hand, manage to fling my suitcases onto the train behind me, a second before the doors close.  Panting, I collapse onto the luggage, as the train driver opens the door and asks in Dutch “Is everything okay?”

Oh gosh.  I don’t even know if I’m on the right train.  After establishing that I was, I got my breath and made my way through the train to sit down and recover from my “sliding doors moment.”  [Rookie error no.1 of international solo travel: not having a working phone number or mobile internet.  Had I missed that train, I would have been up the proverbial creek sans paddle.]  Finally arriving at the station, I have never been so happy to see my dear colleague in my life.  (She has a blog too.  You can follow it here.)

So after dinner that night I found myself cycling to a local barn to watch some dressage practice.  Ahhh… my soul feels at peace again!  At first I was puzzled when my friend told me to put a key into the back wheel of the bike.  “What for?” I wanted to know.  After getting a bit lost in translation I realised it was to lock the bike wheels so it couldn’t be stolen.  Aaaah the clever Dutch.  They ride bikes everywhere, they build dikes so they can drive over the water, and are big on the wind and solar power.  Plus, they eat lots of cheese.  I like the Dutch.

So last night, the plan was to head over to my friend’s boyfriend’s house, cook dinner, and maybe watch a movie.  Instead, we ended up driving to Amsterdam, walking around the infamous Red Light District, and having a few beers.  It was a pretty solid night out that was soon followed by a pretty exceptional day out.  We drove (yes, both of us took turns driving, and I successfully navigated the Dutch highways and country roads in a manual car), to a (relatively) nearby barn that breeds, trains, and sells Fresian horses.  What a treat!  They were having an open house (or open barn?) so we were shown around by various lovely people who told us about the operation and the horses they have there.

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Like these cuties!

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And this beautiful boy

(You can visit their website here.)

We finished the day with a spectacular view of the sunset from a small “beach” created by one of the dikes.  Yep.  Life is good.

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Go, enjoy your life!

Hallo from yet another bus, (my last one!) this time to Berlin.  For those who are curious, I’ve just calculated the amount of time I have spent on buses since I left home (not including the time I have spent waiting for buses), and it clocks up to be about 43 hours.  That’s a lot of time on buses.  I’m pretty happy that it’s all planes and trains from here on out.  The great thing, however, about bus travel, is that it gives me plenty of time to catch up on writing blogs and emails back home!  And there is so much to catch up on!

Vienna

As usual, I wasn’t sure what to expect crossing the border into a different country.  As it turns out, Austria ain’t too concerned.  We bussed right on through, and I would have missed it had I not been suspiciously looking at the EU flags.  It wasn’t too much of a border at all, really.  Plus one for bus travel.  After a bit of difficulty finding where we had to take the metro (I now consider myself a metro connoisseur), we made it to our fabulous hostel in Vienna, where we checked in, got ourselves sorted, and then headed out for dinner in a great pub/restaurant nearby.  I had my first taste of Austrian beer and decided it wasn’t too bad.  It’s a far sight better than the beer back home, that’s for sure, but I still don’t think I’d call myself a beer drinker… yet.  Afterwards, we proceeded back to our hostel to claim our free welcome drinks (yes you read correctly), so we had some more beer before calling it a night, seeing as we had a big day awaiting us.

There is one very special attraction in Vienna that I’m ashamed to say I had completely forgotten about until we were heading there on the bus.  Horse people, of course, will know straight away that I am referring to the famous Spanish Riding School – the home of the white Lipizzaner stallions that have been trained for over 400 years in the art of classical riding.  So naturally, when I remembered this, I sat bolt upright on the bus and blurted out to my friends that we HAD to go.  So go we did.  We saw the morning performance (well, most of it – visibility isn’t great with standing room tickets), and… wow.  I was actually, physically rendered speechless by these horses and riders.  My eyes were glued to the first pair that came out.  The suppleness of the horse, the softness of the rider, the lightness of the hands, the fluidity of the gaits, the stillness of the position… I was mesmerized.  And that was just the young horses, demonstrating walk, trot, and canter.  We then saw slightly older stallions schooled in hand in the airs above the ground, such as the capriole and the levade.  It really was breathtaking to watch these horses and how they communicate with their masters – for it really is this way, not the other way around.  They perform the movements when they feel it’s ready – and when they do, you can see the passion and spirit they put into it.  In short, it was an amazing experience, and not one that I’ll forget in a hurry – although I’m sure my attempts to replicate that kind of effortless riding are sure to meet with failure the minute I’m back in the saddle.

So the rest of Vienna was pretty cool too.  We took a tour of the State Opera, which is incredibly beautiful.  I wish we had more time in Vienna, because (travel tip alert!), you can get standing room tickets to the Opera, 80 minutes before the performance, for €3 and €4.  No I’m not kidding.  I would have loved to have done that, but sadly our stay was too brief.  We had afternoon coffee following our tour, eager for some famous Apfelstrudel, and it ended up costing us more than dinner and beer in Prague – so we had a cheap dinner before saying a fond farewell to one of our trio who was taking the airport bus.  Our sad farewell was cheered up a little by the comedic departure – he was the only one on the bus, with a driver who was more concerned with smoking than making the departure time, and waved away the last three euros of the fare my friend offered him, rounding it down to almost half price.  My remaining travel companion and I made our way back to our hostel, and to bed, before attempting to visit the Naschmarkt the next day (forgetting, of course, that it was a public holiday and everything was closed), so instead we caught up for breakfast with another Winnipeg ‘family’ member who was working in Vienna for the weekend, and showed him some sights back in the city centre.  That afternoon it was off to Munich by train, where we made our own delicious lunch of dense, nutty bread with ham and hummus… mmmm.  Upon our arrival, we checked into our hostel, (the same chain as in Vienna), and as we were talking to the guy behind the desk about why we were travelling together and how we met, we came to the realization that it was exactly four years ago, to the day, that I had shyly asked if I could share a lunch table with two girls, and become lifelong friends with one of them.  Pretty special.  The check in guy gave us an extra free drink each, because we’d already stayed in another of their hostels, so off we went for dinner – döner kebaps with rice and salad and chips… yum!

After dinner, we decided it would be a good idea to do some laundry – since we had some time and plenty of dirty clothes.  Reading the instructions, we followed the steps, put the clothes in, the money in, pressed the button, and… nothing.  I pushed on the door harder and it clicked, with the machine lighting up… showing that we needed to insert money.  Oh no.  This was turning out to be some very expensive laundry.  We laughed over it and used up some more coins, then went for our first drinks.  On the way back up I went to the front desk to change more coins, confessing it had eaten my money, and the girl behind the counter gave me more coins for nothing! Now we could really laugh about our mishap – so we thoroughly enjoyed our second free drink before heading to bed – everyone else was already asleep! Quite a difference to Prague, where people were crashing at 4am.

Munich

So, Munich, Munich, Munich.  What a city.  It’s colourful, and clean, and bright, and charming.  We started our day by taking the metro downtown, to the main square, and marvelling at the beauty of the town hall and the famous glockenspiel clock.  In our guide, we had read that you could pay €1,50 to climb up the tower of one of the nearby churches, and get a stunning view of Munich and its surrounds.  We had decided this would be a good idea, but the problem was, the phrase “nearby churches” didn’t really help us with locating the right tower.  Everywhere you looked there was a church and tower! Eventually we found the right one, and laboured up the 300 odd steps to the top.  The air grew colder as we reached the 15th floor and finally opened the door to the balcony… and all of Munich.  It was a beautifully bright and clear day and we could see all the way to the mountains in one direction, and Allianz stadium in the other.  The city spilled out beneath us like so many matchstick houses, in colours of white, pink, green, yellow, and blue, capped off with terracotta roofs.  We saw and heard the glockenspiel clock play out its tune at 11 o clock, and then headed back down to some markets we had seen from our vantage point.  Oh my goodness – cheese, sausages, meat, pastries, olives, pastes, spreads, tea, coffee… the smells alone were enough to set our tongues wagging.  We had coffee and I finally got my beignet that I had been craving.  The jam inside proved to be a little messy though… We struck up a conversation with some American guys from Minnesota for a few minutes, then decided to walk up to the Odeonsplatz and the English Garden – a huge park nearly 4 times the size of Central Park, and home to many long paths and flowing streams.  Everyone was out enjoying the sun and it proved a glorious afternoon walk before lunch.  We saw a few more sights before coming back to re-organise and re-pack all our stuff (I’m getting a little too good at this), and go for dinner and an amazing Bavarian restaurant where I found my ideal beer – one mixed with lemonade!  But all good things must come to an end, and unfortunately today I had a very, very tough goodbye to say.  My friend and I stood on the train platform as my train approached and hugged each other long and hard.  We exchanged the usual “take care”, “safe travels”, and “let me know when you get home,” because I think neither of us could really articulate everything we wanted to wish the other person in those few brief moments.  I smiled and got on the train, as she grinned, waved, and said: “Go, enjoy your life!”  I will never, ever forget that.

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Reunions and road trips

This blog entry is brought to you by the free wifi aboard my Eurolines bus to Vienna. (Because apparently I can’t seem to get enough of bus travel in Europe.) The past week has been a blur of faces and places, so I’m going to do my best to recount some of it.

I left Yorkshire just before the New Year, making my way back to London for a bit of a ‘family reunion’. So it was back on a bus and back to London Victoria coach station – which seems like my new second home. But as we know none of my solo travel ever seems to go smoothly, so of course there are funny complications that need relating here. My bus arrived early, so early, that I figured it was absurd I sit around for an hour to wait for my next bus that was supposed to take me 10 minutes to Vauxhall. So I decided to brave the Tube in peak hour instead. Big mistake. The line I needed had no service, so my first ticket became invalid when I tried to switch lines. I was instructed to go to Vauxhall station and then change. By this time it was only 30 mins until my original bus was scheduled to leave, so I figured I’d head back and just take it the ten minutes. But of course the bus was delayed an hour. So it was back to the Tube, and with some careful calculations, I finally got where I needed to go, although of course not without plenty of unnecessary train tickets and running around.

So, the ‘family reunion’! Three and a half years ago, I was completing exchange in Winnipeg, Canada, and just so happened to become great friends with a bunch of phenomenal people, mostly Europeans. Since I was finally visiting the continent, a NYE catchup was organised with 7 of us. Practically a London local by now, I played tour guide to two of my friends for a day before we all got together for a home cooked meal, some drinks, and a crazy night out. It felt just like being back in Winnipeg.

New Year’s Day was spent watching Fulham play West Ham in the freezing rain, and no, we were not covered by the stadium roof. After some serious luggage culling and rearranging, I packed up my life yet again, and boarded a flight to Prague with two of my friends, ready to hit 4 cities in 8 days.

First stop: Prague
Oh, Prague. City of colour, home of amazing architecture, and thief of my heart. The only disappointing thing about Prague was that we only had one full day there. It was spent doing plenty of walking around, and taking a tour of the beautiful castle complex (with plenty of other Aussies, by the way). Everywhere you look, there are more beautiful colours, more stunning buildings, more intricate architecture… And no shortage of my favourite pastry, the Tredlnik!

Prague yielded some stunning pictures, but unfortunately I didn’t have the insight to put my laptop in my handbag for the bus trip, so they will have to wait for another time.

Next stop – Vienna!

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A very British Christmas

Seasons Greetings from sunny England! That’s only half a joke – it was sunny today, even if it was blowing a gale.  So, picking up from where I left off – France and Belgium.  I still find it crazy I was able to just go to Belgium for a day!  I had my first TGV experience (thank you to my old University French text book for reminding me to “compostez votre billet”…) and in half an hour I was whizzed off to Brussels.  Australia really is lagging behind with this whole high-speed train deal – it’s the way to go! So I spent the better part of the day wandering around Brussels, sampling the delicious hot chocolate, frites, and waffles, and seeing the sights, before hopping on the TGV back to Lille.  I got a distinct amount of pleasure when, the following day, I was able to answer the question “What did you do yesterday?” with “I went to Belgium.”

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Brussels – a foodie’s paradise

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The Grand Place in Brussels

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Beautiful Brussels

So after my week-long stay in Lille, I said a fond farewell to my host and embarked on one of the most drawn out and painful A-B travel plans I’ve ever had the stupidity to concoct.  With bags in hand, I trekked to the closest Metro station, caught the Metro to the main train station, walked to the coach lay-by, caught a bus to London, waited 6 hours, caught a bus to Leeds, walked to another train station, waited an hour, and then got a train to Hull.  Except it didn’t quite go all that smoothly.  For starters, my bus from Lille did not show up at the alotted time.  The distinct lack of signage ANYWHERE was enough to make me start panicking slightly.  Fortunately, I was not alone.  I  met two young Brits waiting for the same seemingly non-existent bus, as well as (surprise surprise), a fellow Aussie! We swapped travel and working stories and had a nice time as we froze our butts off waiting for the bus, which was an hour late in the end.  So we clamber onto the (already packed) bus and head off to the channel tunnel.  It turns out it takes longer to get OUT of France than to get in… the border officer looked at every, single, PAGE of my passport before handing it back to me.  Must have been all the pretty pictures in it.  Then it was back on the bus to drive 100m to the English side of the border, where I was subjected to the usual 20 questions routine.  This is becoming a bit of a struggle for me, with questions like “where have you been?” and “where are you going next?”  It’s all starting to blur a little…

So anyway, we pushed on and got into London that evening, where I faced a 6 hour wait before my next bus.  Fortunately, my new Australian friend also had a 4.5 hour wait, so we grabbed dinner together and had quite a decent chat about our gap year experiences to pass the time.  When I finally boarded my next bus, it was 1am, and I was in major trouble with my phone not wanting to charge.  When I say phone, read: emails with bus tickets, train tickets, navigation instructions, mesaging capabilities, etc. Basically, my phone has become my lifeline, and now it wasn’t charging.  So instead of sleeping, I precariously held the device just so, so that it would charge to a reasonable amount allowing me to navigate to my next part of the journey. Eventually, after 5 hours on what turned out to be the “milk run” service, I got to Leeds, and successfully navigated past the drunk partygoers to make it to the train station.  Another hour on a train and I have never been so glad to see a friend in my life.

So anyway, I enjoyed a very British Christmas, including a visit to a stately manor home:

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A visit to York:

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and of course, plenty of delicious Christmas food:

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It also featured a trip to the beach, which I found an odd excursion in the middle of an English winter, but there you have it:

IMG_6475Somehow, it doesn’t seem quite right…

(and yes, the person on the left is wearing ski pants)

Happy Holidays 🙂

French doors

So this is kind overdue but reliable wifi has been hard to find of late. Let’s cut to the chase and start with Paris.

My nemesis in Paris, apart from my lack of comprehension of, well, everything, was the humble French door. Just your ordinary, run of the mill, beautifully ornate French apartment door. They don’t work like they look they should and they are way more complicated to open and close than I first thought. They consistently got the better of me. I think it’s some kind of French joke played on tourists, even the metro train doors have a knack to them.

Anyway. I spent a whirlwind 2 days in Paris, or more correctly, 1 in Paris and 1 in Versailles. The chateau and gardens in Versailles might be my favourite place in Europe so far. They just don’t make them like that anymore. Sadly, the pictures are currently inaccessible to post – I left them in London. But here’s a picture of the Louvre!

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So where am I now? Brussels! Enjoying the scenery and the chocolate and the frites – or at least I’m about to, for lunch. Hopefully my next update will be a little more substantial, but until then, here’s the best representation of Canada and Europe ever.

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Jet lag

I used to think that people who complained of jet lag were just wimps, making excuses for everyday tiredness.

I am now fully convinced that jet lag is definitely a real thing.  Why? Well it’s 1:30am and I’m still wide awake.  I haven’t been tired this week, but I have had a lot of trouble sleeping.  ZzzQuil hasn’t even made a difference. So what does one do when they can’t sleep? They blog!

This week in London has been excellent so far.  I have just 2 more days until I head off to Paris and I plan to make the most of them.  I have become pretty competent and navigating the city using my new best friend – the Tube – and will be sad to leave it behind.  The city – that is.  But I’ll also miss the Tube.

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After months of searching, I finally found a winter jacket today.  Let’s just all take a moment to snicker at the fact that an Australian travelled to the other side of the world and ended up buying a Billabong jacket.  Okay.  But it fits so well!

Tonight I cooked dinner for my two friends hosting me, and felt like I was right back at home walking to the shops in trackies, boots, and said new jacket to pick up ingredients.  There’s something comforting about blending in when you’re in a foreign country.  I must do a pretty good job of it because I always get people a) asking for directions and b) asking to take a photo for them in front of various landmarks.  I guess the downside to travelling solo is that you don’t really have someone to take photos of you unless you ask, but the definite upside is that you can do whatever you want, whenever you want.  The freedom to roam is really quite something, and I love getting (not too) lost in London.  And on that note, I’d better try and get some sleep, because there is a big exciting day planned for tomorrow – which will hopefully be chronicled in a future blog 😉

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London = Monopoly

What a whirlwind.  It’s hard to believe that just 3 days ago I was mucking stalls and packing suitcases, getting ready for the next phase of my year abroad.  Now, I find myself sitting in my friends’ flat in London, resting my weary feet after a day of walking around the city.  Let’s rewind.

My last few days in Canada made it very difficult to leave.  All that beautiful snow, combined with great riding, delicious dinners and teary-eyed farewells turned me into a bit of a nervous wreck as I hastily stuffed clothes and shoes into suitcases and tried to attend to the countless tiny things that come along with travelling internationally.  After a few emotional farewells, I made it to the airport, checked in, bought myself one last Timmies French Vanilla and muffin, and sat down to contemplate the upcoming trip.  All of a sudden, it hit me that I was leaving Canada for good.  Well, chances are I’ll go back to visit (again) at some point but judging by my bank balance, it won’t be for quite a while yet.  Looking around, I saw everything as if for the first and last times simultaneously.  All the brands and quirky Canadian traditions that have become so familiar.  I listened to the accents, and heard the French repetitions.  I thought of all the people I was leaving behind and quite nearly lost it.  Thankfully at this moment in time I was offered a free sample of tea.  Anyone who knows me in person will understand that this was quite possibly the most perfect thing in the world to cheer me up a little.  So I get on the plane and get another stroke of luck – an aisle seat with no one in the middle seat, and a very friendly young Finnish guy in the window seat.  Our conversation kept me distracted enough as the plane took off not to get too over-emotional about leaving my second home.  Canada, it’s been real.

So then I found myself stopping over in Iceland, before getting on a flight to London.  Waiting for my plane in Reykjavik, I realised I hadn’t really eaten a proper meal since breakfast the day before.  Icelandic Air is great, but they don’t feed you dinner.  Points off.  So I grabbed a sandwich (thank goodness for Mastercard, because I sure didn’t have any Icelandic currency on me) before boarding my final flight to Heathrow.  After three and a half years, it was quite a shock to see a good friend of mine waiting for me in Arrivals.  I still don’t think it’s quite sunk in that we’re reunited.  I got my initiation on the Tube as we made out way back to her flat, catching up on three and a half years of stories.  Our plans to head back out gradually faded as we realised how late it was getting and how tired I was.  This became evident the next day when I woke up at 1pm, sleeping a total of 14 hours.  I used the rest day to get organised, and booked buses and trains to Paris, and to some other places in the UK.  The relief at getting at least some of that sorted was palpable.  In the evening, I helped my friend decorate her Christmas tree, which stands all of about three and a half feet high – it’s pretty darn cute.  It’s quite different to be somewhere where all the Christmas traditions make sense.  I.e: Santa Claus wearing winter clothing and dashing through the snow doesn’t quite make sense in Australia, nor does roast anything when it’s 30+ degrees.  I’m now torn between my two definitions of a “real” Christmas…

After a sleepless night (I guess I didn’t do a good job at combatting the time zone change) it was up bright and early to trek into London with my friend on her way to work.  We boarded what was undoubtedly London’s slowest overground train before switching to London’s most packed underground train.  I managed to extricate myself and wave goodbye at my stop, and then I was on my own.  There was a time when this would have petrified me, but today it thrilled me.  I joined the human tin of sardines on the escalators and followed the signs out towards Hyde Park.

Well, of course it was raining when I got outside.

But no matter.  I strolled around the park, watching squirrels and vaguely watching for the signs towards Buckingham Palace, which was my first stop.  I was surprised at the size of it – yes it’s big, but has always seemed colossal to me on TV.

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From there I hurried off to see the Horse Guards Parade, an hour early.  Woops.  So while I waited I busied myself around Trafalgar Square, and the National Gallery.

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Perhaps one of the most amusing parts of my day was watching everyone go up for a picture with one of the Horse Guards.  One of the horses had a wicked sense of humour and would stick his tongue out at them, making most of them jump away.

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The Horse Guards Parade itself was quite a process, and involved a lot of waiting around.  I busied myself with observing all of the horses and their tack.

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Picture of the day goes to this very handsome and very cheeky man!

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The rest of my day was spent tramping around the city, visiting some of the main landmarks.  It’s so nice to be back in a country where I feel comfortable looking the right way before I cross the road.

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So far, I am loving London.  Mostly because it’s old, and I love old stuff.  However, there is one thought that has been bugging me all day.  Walking around London I feel as though I am stuck in a giant game of Monopoly, except I have yet to find the place where I pass Go and collect $200. (Yes, in Australia, we played the English version of Monopoly as kids).  Perhaps I’ll make it a mission to visit all the Monopoly places over the next week?