At C, track left

I’ve been doing a lot of dressage lately.  I used to really like dressage.  Now I absolutely love it.  I constantly rave about the mare I have the privilege of riding, but it’s well deserved, she’s a super horse that makes dressage a true pleasure.  (Note: I didn’t say easy – just enjoyable.)  We have been working towards an event here in Aiken (which now looks like a combined test since I don’t have the necessary memberships to compete at a recognised USEA/USEF event), and so we are working on a Novice test.  Being a super smart savvy mare, the Rock knows as soon as you go up center line that you’re doing a test, and therefore gets pretty excited to show off all her moves.  It makes halting at X a little tough, and picking up the reins after a long walk even tougher, and getting the right bend in the canter without switching leads even tougher still, but I am enjoying every minute of it.

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We’ve been enjoying some pleasant warm weather lately, and making the most of if by hacking around the property later in the evening… bareback! I hadn’t ridden the Rock bareback before, and thought I’d try.  She’s not comfortable, but turns out walk/canter transitions are way easier without a saddle.

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Dressage is also proceeding apace with Sweetie, the paint project.  She is a super sensitive ride, and not necessarily a traditional one, which makes every ride a tough but rewarding one.  As a bit of a break yesterday, five of us headed out on a hack with no real plan.  So a walk turned into a trot, which turned into a canter… and as I manoeuvred the little paint mare around the back of the group, I saw a gap between the two front horses and went for it.  She positively flew between the two horses and galloped out in front.  We’d definitely started something, because seconds later everyone was tearing past us galloping down the sandy road and the race was on!  The rest of the hack was a little more subdued, apart from a run in with some cows…

We had two horses compete Advanced-Intermediate at Full Gallop Farm yesterday, which was great to go and watch.  Since they only decided to run in the first two phases, we were all done by 10am, and ready to go back and ride ourselves.  It was a shame they didn’t run the XC phase, since they were placed 1st and 2nd respectively after the show jumping.

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Irish Rhythm turns on the charm.

Three of us had a group jumping lesson that afternoon, tackling the “Circle of Death” for the second time, with definite improvement on my part.  Just when I thought I’d nailed it, and we were done, I looked over to see the jumps being raised, and off we went again.  Still not perfect, but a great exercise that has made a huge improvement in my riding.

Daylight savings has kicked in and we are loving having more light in the days – the horses can stay out longer, and now we sometimes have time in the afternoon to relax outside with a drink – not a bad view, if I do say so myself 😉

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After the storm

So we survived the ice storm and regained power after four days of “roughing it” (read: barbecuing instead of using the oven), and we are back to the normal schedule of training and competing.  Oh, except we had a tornado warning several days later.  (Aiken, are you kidding me?)

Several of our horses scratched from the last event, which was at Paradise Farm, and so they are all getting ready for Sporting Days this weekend.  We had two horses run in the Advanced division at Pine Top and one in the Training, which was a long but great weekend.  I tagged along with my coach as she walked her Advanced XC course, as it’s always great to see how she figures the course and plans her ride – although I’ll never get used to how casually she approaches something like a huge coop down a steep hill to a one stride angled brush.

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Deja Vu tackles the first water

As far as my own riding is concerned, this week held a new and very challenging jumping exercise – termed by my roommate as the Circle of Death.  It’s a classic exercise that we watched some of the Canadian short listed riders school during a team training camp coached by Clayton Fredericks.

Irish Rhythm and co-pilot take in some instruction.

Irish Rhythm and his co-pilot take some instruction during the team clinic.

My own attempts at the Circle of Death (which involves cantering in a circle with four poles/small fences evenly spaced, in an attempt to get an even amount of strides between the fences) were much less impressive, and much more frustrating.  Who knew it was so hard to control the canter over such small fences?) Despite the frustrations, it was a great gymnastic lesson that left us both lathered in sweat and ready for bed.

Not my best lesson.

Not an easy lesson, but an important one.

Apart from being annihilated by jumping exercises, I’ve been keeping busy hacking out horses, pulling manes (I have now been designated the barn’s official mane puller), and, of course, mucking paddocks.  The weather has been absolutely beautiful, and we’ve all been enjoying riding in t-shirts again.

Three amigos out for a hack.

Three amigos out for a hack, post-ice storm.

And finally, some exciting news is that we have a new addition to the barn here in the form of Sweet(ie), a little paint mare who is here for training.  With my boss away the day after she arrived, I got a phone call asking me to lunge the mare, and if she behaved, to get on and ride her through walk trot and canter.  So I lunge the mare who proves perfect if a little fresh, and decide I can get on. We walk around and it becomes apparent that Sweetie doesn’t really understand the concept of going on the bit, accepting the contact and coming through from behind.  I have my work cut out for me, I think, until I figure out how quickly this little mare learns.  She picks things up almost instantly, and tries her heart out.  After a few schools she has improved dramatically, and has now become my own little project, under close instruction from my coach.  She really is very sweet, and I can’t wait to see what else she can do with what we throw at her!

Such a Sweetie!

Such a Sweetie!

And last but not least, in a very exciting turn of events, my blog and working student adventures are going to be featured as part of Eventing Nation‘s Working Student Diaries section!  I’m currently constructing an article for them about my working student story, and look forward to seeing it online soon! Watch this space 😉

Ice, ice, baby

For the past few weeks, we’d been making fun of the communal panic that swept Aiken whenever there was a winter storm warning.  A few days ago, we discovered exactly why people freaked out so much.

For those of you who haven’t heard, most of South Carolina is currently recovering from a severe ice storm battering.  I awoke on Wednesday morning to sleet and freezing rain, which quickly formed resulted in a decent layer of ice on, well, pretty much everything.  As we turned out the first lot of horses, we got as far as the paddock gate before I conceded that I had to go back and get a hammer to release the chain holding it closed.  It was a similar story with the halters on the gate of the two horses that live out – some serious ice removal had to happen before we could get those halters on.

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So we mucked out as normal in the freezing temperatures, using scissors instead of a Stanley knife to open bales of hay and bags of shavings (our knife had, of course, frozen over so we couldn’t slide the blade out).  Luckily we didn’t dump the water buckets before we realised that our power had gone out, and therefore, we also had no water supply. So the delightful task of hauling water up the icy slope from the paddocks to fill water buckets and soak feeds began.  We negotiated the icy tree-strewn roads to seek out a hot breakfast and some power points at the closest Huddle House before stocking up on water and lighters and heading back. By mid-day, we had a fairly impressive array of icicles on pretty well everything.

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We opted to spend the night at a friend’s house who had power and a fireplace, which was great until his power shut off around 1am yesterday morning.  So we packed up, drove back to take care of the horses, and then headed out in search of food and petrol to run the generator we had just accumulated.  And what a drive – trees were bent over, fallen down or snapped in half, power lines were down in yards and across roads, and everywhere, the ice was beginning to fall.  The highways were ploughed but too late for some of the cars and semis we saw in the ditches on the side of the roads.  Petrol stations became places of refuge.  The one Waffle House that was open between Aiken and Columbia became a tin of sardines.

2 hours later, on the south side of Columbia, we were forced to admit defeat on the food front, having only filled up on petrol.  So we drove back to Aiken and joined the throngs of people who had started venturing out once they heard that various lifelines such as McDonalds and IHOP were open.  By this time, the ice was starting to melt in a big way, and driving downtown to rescue some frozen food from a client without power, we saw the worst of it.  The beautiful historical south boundary road, once lined with old oak trees had become a tunnel of fallen branches, trees bent or snapped in half.  Power lines dangled across the roads that weren’t completely closed off by fallen trees. Lights and shop fronts were dark, and people wandered around or drove their four-wheelers, looking at the damage.  We were glad to make it back to the barn, which thankfully has no trees nearby any of the buildings, but disappointed to learn our power was still out. With our bathtub full of water to flush the toilet running low, and water troughs for the horses dipping below the 1/3 mark, things were starting to get drastic.  Watching the ice melt off the roof of the barn, I was hit by a drop of water – and a stroke of genius. Soon every available bucket we had was sitting under the eaves collecting the falling drops, and not long after that, all our horses had full buckets in their stalls.

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Who knew we owned so many buckets?

Despite our lack of power, we had a great dinner and settled in to watch the Olympics, courtesy of our new loaned generator.  Although the ice re-froze last night, we had minimal problems this morning, although the lack of power and water is getting a little old.  Here’s hoping it comes back on today!

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Why it’s important to ride in the rain

Today was a miserable combination of freezing winds, temperatures hovering just above zero, and constant rain.  Despite this, I decided I would ride the Rockstar this afternoon.

And I’m glad I did.

There are a million excuses I could have made.  It’s cold, it’s raining, I don’t have enough time, her shoulder has been acting up, she should probably have a day off, I don’t have to ride, etc.

But there are a million more reasons why I should have and did ride in the rain – because I wanted to ride, because I’m mentally and physically tougher than wimping out over a bit of water, because if it rains at a competition I need to be able to ride in it, because it makes me a better rider, and because really, it wasn’t that bad.  At first I was a little concerned that the Rockstar had other ideas, (such as dumping me and heading back to the barn), but after resorting to the tried and tested trick of turning her attention onto other things (such as medium trot and shoulder-in) and absorbing her mind with how pretty she looks when she’s working, everything was sunshine and roses. We finally achieved a near-perfect trot-halt transition and eventually mastered the proper frame in right canter.  Even in the rain. This horse truly loves to work, and this afternoon’s ride was just what I needed.

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A true Rockstar.

Cowboys and cross country

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Yes, that is ice.  In South Carolina.  In January.  We had a solid week of icy water buckets, frozen taps, frozen laundry detergent, and icicles hanging from the roof of the barn, (which, unfortunately for us, is not entirely enclosed).  Aiken was hit with a crippling 2.5 inches of snow, with a state of emergency declared, schools closed, and a general sense of panic settling over the town.  The sad part is, I’m not kidding.  Eventing Nation pretty much nailed it with this post.

Our days are never the same, and are filled with pretty much the same morning routine – turn out, feed hay, muck stalls (and paddocks, every other day, which is NOT my favourite task).  Then it’s a waiting game while our trainer rides her other horses at the second barn, 10 minutes down the road, before she comes back to teach or ride here.  We have been doing a fair bit of hacking on a beautiful dirt road that borders our property, and is ideal for trot sets.  However, it’s spooky as anything to some of the horses, including the Rockstar, who nearly lost her mind when I took her out by herself the other day.  Don’t ask me what it was, but there was SOMETHING lurking in the bushes up ahead, and she was not taking another step towards it.  Instead, I got a wheeling, spinning, blowing horse, about six times over before I could dig my heels in enough to convince her that I wasn’t taking no for an answer.  Mission accomplished.  Now that she is (touch wood) sound, I’ve had a few flat schools, one jump school, and one cross country school with her, and it’s great to be progressing again (even if it is at the expense of my leg and arm muscles).  I’ve also had a few rides on a gorgeous bay horse for sale, and a cute little trakehner gelding, both Preliminary horses who are lovely to ride, and very different.

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Okay, so the bay is pretty damn cute too. 

But cross country schooling yielded the best pictures, (thanks so much to my awesome photographer!) so here they are!

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The Rockstar loving life.

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Schooling some downhill fences.

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The log coop after the sunken road.

 The hard part with this mare is that she loves her job so much, I have to find and keep a consistent, rhythmic gallop that’s not her careening out of control, or dying at the base of the fence.  Soft hands and leg on are a challenge when you feel like your mount is racing towards the fence.  Slowly, slowly, we’re getting it.

But where do the cowboys fit into this, I hear you ask? Well, a while back we went to a cutting futurity in Augusta, and were treated to cowboys, quarter horses, and of course, cutting.  It was so amazing to see these horses work, and we all had a blast figuring out how the sport works.  I won’t lie, after seeing several thousand dollars awarded in prizes, we were all thinking about switching sports and heading over to the dark side…

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Settling the herd.

 So for now, I await the return of our coach, in preparation for my afternoon lesson.  I think I’m going to need some spurs on this guy today.

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Back in the saddle: US edition

And doesn’t it feel grand.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Holland was very good to me during my last few days.  I returned to Amsterdam during the daylight hours and completed the necessary tourist rituals, including a cheese tasting and a photo with this sign:

Photo credit to my dear colleague.

Photo credit to my dear colleague.

Other highlights included a visit to an orchid garden, a trip to beautiful Urk in the north of the Netherlands, and lots of fantastic food.

But eventually it was time to bid Europe a fond farewell.  It has taught me many lessons (stay tuned for a follow up post there), but I was more than ready to head back to North America and get back riding.  So early on the 17th, I found myself on a train to the airport with my friend, and saying yet another teary goodbye, before tackling the most intense security process I’ve ever encountered.  Travel tip – allow plenty of time to clear security at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam.  Every passenger on my plane was personally interviewed as to what their travel plans were and where they had been prior to leaving the Netherlands.  Well, wasn’t security in for a treat with me! “How did you get from England to the Czech Republic?” “How did you get from Munich to Berlin?” “Who did you stay with here?” “What are their names?” “Where did you meet them?”  It required all of my concentration to try and recount the details of my trip in order, and I hadn’t even gotten through the actual physical security checks yet.  Exhausted, I settled in for the 9 hour flight to Chicago, where I cleared Immigration and Customs in half the time, and then settled back in to wait several more hours for my final flight to Columbia, which was, for the record, less than comfortable and less than speedy.  By the time I had gotten myself off the plane and my luggage off the conveyor belt, I was practically stir-crazy from sitting around and not sleeping for 24 hours, and ran full-speed into my friend and airport-chauffer’s arms.  We drove through the night back to the farm, catching up on the past month and a half and swapping stories, before we arrived and there were more joyous reunions with people and dogs alike.

I woke up the following morning on my birthday, and walked out of my room to be greeted with a glorious sunrise, revealing my new home for the next three months in all it’s equine glory.  Walking outside it was cold, and still, and quiet, and I was finally reunited with the Rockstar, who was predictably apathetic about my return.  I threw myself into the morning barn chores with all of my energy, content and happy to be back at home with horses.  The rest of my birthday was a blur of eating and riding, although unfortunately, mid-way through returning from our hack, the Rockasaurus went lame… again.  I think this horse is allergic to me, seeing as others have been riding her without a problem for a month and a half.  Anyway.  We went out for dinner and ate delicious sushi followed by some drinks back at the Barn A staffhouse.

Ok, so some clarification is needed here.  With a total of 20 horses under the care of my trainer, we have two barns – one with 7 (Barn A) and one with 6, soon to be 13 (Barn B, where I am).  Unfortunately for us, they are located 10 minutes drive from each other, which makes it a bit of a pain to coordinate every day, but overall we are in a fantastic location, minutes drive from several great events and cross country courses to school on.

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Cuddles with a sleepy little Trakehner outside Barn B.

So in other news I have been settling into my new temporary home well, with a minimum of jet lag and a maximum of enjoyment.  I had my first dressage lesson yesterday afternoon in blasting wind, and despite not being able to hear much, it went fairly well.  My position felt more natural and secure for some reason, and the painful core muscles I experienced this morning reassured me that it was in fact quite a good lesson!

 

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 🙂