Confessions of a timid traveller: why I keep coming home

confessions-of-a-timid-traveller

This post was inspired by the NZBloggers #BlogGreatness challenge for weeks 7 & 8. The topics are ‘Favourite part of NZ’ and ‘Contrast’. You can find out more about NZBloggers here.

I have a confession to make: I am a very timid traveller. I love arriving in new places, exploring different cultures and seeing the world. But I find the actual travel part – the getting from A to B – incredibly challenging. I am afraid of the literal sense of the word: to ‘make a journey, typically of some length’.

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Travel Flashback: six hours in Switzerland

Geneva main

This post was inspired by the NZBloggers #BlogGreatness challenge. Every week, bloggers are tasked with writing about a predetermined topic. This week’s prompt is ‘Neutral’. You can check out other blogs on the subject here.

In early 2011, when I was on exchange in Lyon, France, I was invited to spend the weekend at the family home of my then-flatmate, Nawel. She was from a beautiful town called Evian-les-Bains – famous for the bottled water – on the shores of Lac Leman.

What I didn’t immediately realise at the time is that Lac Leman is French for Lake Geneva. On Sunday morning Nawel casually suggested we take a drive to Switzerland, in the same way one would suggest going downtown for a cup of coffee or the like. To a young girl from borderless New Zealand, the idea of taking a day trip to a different country was mind-blowingly awesome.

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When travel is less than perfect: my bittersweet London memories

Last Sunday I woke up without an alarm. I felt rested and content. I went for a walk up Mount Victoria and sat cross-legged on top of an old concrete bunker and marvelled at the beauty that is home.

To my left, the perfect symmetry of Rangitoto. To my right, the harbour dotted with sailing boats against a backdrop of white beaches and rolling hills. Directly in front of me, the calming presence of North Head and a dozen islands stretching out to the horizon.

This is the place I call home.

Rangitoto Island
Rangitoto Island
North Head & beyond
North Head & beyond

My hometown often leaves me speechless. Gratitude bubbles up in my chest and silences my restless mind. In moments like these, I think, this is enough. My life feels both expansive and tiny at the same time. Expansive because my mind is flying free, soaring over the blue water. Tiny because my home seems so small, this little peninsula, a collection of streets, familiar houses.

I feel immensely grateful that I love the place where I grew up. That my desire to explore has never been marred by a desire to flee. That no matter where I go, I carry home in my heart.

But sometimes I worry that I will get too comfortable, too content. That I will become complacent. As I sat on top of that bunker, on that still Sunday morning, I thought: I hope I never take this beauty for granted. I hope it is forever enough to calm my frantic mind.

Beyond home

Another Sunday dawns. Today it is rainy and humid. I wake up at 5.45am, my throat parched, gasping for air. The weather is warm and sticky. I pushed open our two bedroom windows, as far as they would go, and lay still, listening to the wind swirling outside.

I can’t sleep, but it’s too early to get up. I check my phone. I scroll through Instagram, Facebook. Spring has dawned in London. The sky is a bright blue, people are at the pub. Immediately, bittersweet memories flood my brain.

I close my eyes, and for a few moments I am back in London. Walking to Putney Bridge. Shopping at Waitrose. Leaning against the doors of the tube on a weekday morning, reading about nicer places, as I speed towards work. Fumbling for my swipe card to enter the office in Farringdon. Always fumbling for my swipe card.

Sitting in our back garden in Fulham, chatting about the world with our flatmates, interrupted by planes flying low overhead. Heathrow Flight Path.

Waking in the middle of the night to shouts from the flat above. The neighbours are arguing again. People run up and down the stairs, cursing. The front door bangs.

Venturing to unseen corners of the city on weekends, eyes wide open, minds exhausted. Eating the best chocolate cake we’ve ever tasted in Brixton. Always looking for a quirky, independent café to try. Often ending up in Pret-à-Manger, hungry and tired, eating a ham sandwich.

The best chocolate cake, ever, at Brixton Village Market
The best chocolate cake, ever, at Brixton Village Market

After-work drinks in the pub during winter. Old pub, low ceilings, pint glasses overflowing. Standing outside in the rain, trying to get to know my colleagues. Navigating the different cliques and unspoken rules. Yearning to be asked about my home, for someone to listen to my story, for someone to see the real me.

Shopping for winter boots in Bromley in the rain. Feeling broke and broken. Desperately looking for something practical, something I can walk long distances in. Most boots are fashionable, with chunky heels and non-existent lining. I leave the store with sturdy lace-ups, something I’d never wear otherwise, out of a primal desire to avoid cold, damp toes.

Catching the train to somewhere new, and feeling the breath return to my chest as we soar out of London, passing the rows of houses and finally seeing nothing but fields of green, or even better, a glimpse of the sea.

Revisiting old favourites. Being transported back to my 19-year-old self in the Tower of London, a mesmerising piece of history. Climbing the Monument for the second time in my life and seeing a completely different view. Walking past private gardens and posh shops in Chelsea, but this time wondering what all the fuss is about.

Tower of London, one of my favourite places
Tower of London, one of my favourite places

Eating curry in Brick Lane. Feeling conned. As usual, wishing we knew the area better, so we could seek out the trendy eateries and meet some locals.

Coming home from work during a transport strike, after three hours on a bus. Collapsing, exhausted. Tom takes my shoes off, puts me to bed, hot drink and a piece of toast. Crying my eyes out, out of sheer exhaustion.

Loneliness, even though Tom is nearly always by my side.  Wanting to get to know locals, to form a connection, to be part of a community. Wanting to be asked about New Zealand, getting the odd question about Lord of the Rings if I’m lucky. Telling people about New Zealand anyway, often met with kind eyes and blank faces.

Always talking about home, thinking about home, until one day: home.

Right back to where we started

We went home. When people asked me about London, I didn’t know how to answer. When I am passionate about something, a place or a person or an idea, I can’t stop talking about it. I speak fast and freely and excitedly. I get frustrated when people can’t see what I mean, because my heart is so full, my soul so alive.

I felt this way when I returned home from my first big trip overseas. When I was 19 I went on exchange to Lyon, France. I arrived in the city alone, with nowhere to live, and spent my first ten days in a hostel, madly visiting flats and putting my classroom French to the test.

My six months in Lyon were exhilarating. They remain one of my fondest memories. I awakened an independent streak in me I didn’t know I had. I made new friends and spoke a new language and pushed myself far beyond my comfort zone.

It was in Lyon that I decided to move to London one day, even though I might not have known it at the time. What I did know is that Lyon was just the beginning of my overseas adventures – I quietly vowed to come back to this side of the world.

19 year old me, living in Lyon
19 year old me, living in Lyon

When I met Tom, I had been back in New Zealand a year but Lyon was still fresh in my heart and soul. He quickly established that I wanted to live overseas again, that this was something I envisaged happening in my near future.

One year later, the company he was working for went into receivership, I was stuck in a job I hated, and we decided to move to England.

We all form opinions based on previous experiences. I had no doubt in my mind that this second round living abroad would be just as exhilarating as the first, perhaps even more so, going with the man I love.

But London was no Lyon, and for some reason, for reasons I am still trying to figure out, my soul did not engage.

Moving to London was a hard and difficult process. Unlike when I moved to Lyon, there was no time-cap on the experience. We could be there for a year, we could be there for ten years.

We made decisions blindly, fumbling in the dark. We went in the wrong direction more than once. I spent a lot of time isolated, unemployed, looking for a job while Tom worked long hours. It was tough.

Things got better. We moved house, lived with close friends from home. I found a job. We met other Kiwis living in the area and we managed a few holidays in our spare time.

But our ‘everyday’ was a slog, it was an uphill climb. It took most of my energy to commute to work and then spend nine hours in a job I wasn’t passionate about. I wasn’t earning enough money for weekend escapes to outweigh the dullness of my 9-5 reality.

I felt like we were failing. I still sometimes wonder if we did fail. Did we give up too soon? Were our expectations too high? Did we make too many wrong decisions? Did we not have the right attitude?

When we arrived home, I was still working through these feelings. People asked me about London, and I didn’t know how to answer without sounding ungrateful or small-minded.

Redefining travel

My experience in London forced me to redefine what travel meant to me. I had been on three other trips: a one-month exchange in Tahiti when I was 14; a two-week trip to Rarotonga with my best friends when I was 17; and a six-month exchange to Lyon at age 19.

All three of these trips were challenging but exhilarating. They nourished my soul and mind and helped to shape the person I would become.

Before London, to me travel was synonymous with adventure and discovery. It was undoubtedly a positive experience, despite any negatives.

I am still coming to terms with the fact that London felt like none of these previous trips, and did not warm my heart in the same way. I kept wondering: where did we go wrong?

But the lessons I learned in London are now propelling me through my life in New Zealand. The complete lack of direction we felt in London has helped us define our way forward back home.

Making the everyday extraordinary

When Tom and I were living in London, we had Europe on our doorstep. We had infinite options. The city was alive and buzzing. There was always an event on, a new show to see, a new park to visit. Although some people thrive in a busy environment, to us it felt heavy, suffocating.

There were moments when it was brilliant. When I adored the city and its people and its history. But these moments were the exception, not the rule.

The day-to-day grind, the long commute to work by tube, the grey weather, the constant need to be on high alert, this didn’t feed my soul.

And it was then, when we were both trapped in a routine we didn’t love, that we decided we did not want to live our lives waiting for an exception to the rule.

We wanted every day to have a little bit of light. We weren’t prepared to sacrifice daily dullness for the odd wild weekend or once-in-three-months trip abroad. What we wanted was to love our ‘Ordinary Wednesday’, to create a life we didn’t want to escape from.

If we hadn’t lived in London, I’m not sure we would have arrived at this conclusion – at least not so soon in our relationship. After being home a few months, I realised I had been devaluing the time we spent in London because it wasn’t an incredibly positive, happy time.

Walking to Putney Bridge, where I did most of my soul searching. Always a relief to see the murky Thames.
Walking to Putney Bridge, where I did most of my soul searching. Always comforting to be near water, even if it is the murky Thames.

That was my first mistake. Just because something is hard, or not the right fit, doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable. It doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth it. And most of all, it doesn’t mean you failed.

I’m sure everyone has bittersweet memories of some kind, anxieties about the past, worries that you could have tried harder. What if you had done things differently?

When I see glimpses of London on Facebook or Instagram, I sometimes feel sad that our time over there wasn’t what we expected. And sometimes I wonder, if everyone else is loving it so much, then where did we go wrong?

But then I remind myself that travel is an intensely unique experience for every individual. We all respond to situations differently. What works for one person may not work for another.

The beauty of travel is it awakens you to who you already are. It shines a light on your uniqueness. Through comparisons and new experiences, you are able to identify what is really important to you on an individual level. And that is invaluable.

On the road to our Ordinary Wednesday

Another lesson that London taught me is time is finite. Many people describe London as being a city made up of small cities. There is music London, or theatre London, or café London, or pub London, or history London… whatever you are interested in, you will find a group of people interested in the same things, and they will become your community.

What this taught me is that there is not enough time to do everything. We only have so many hours in each day. So, you have to be selective.

Find what it is that feeds your soul, and concentrate on investing your time, money and energy into that. Don’t worry if it’s different to what other people want, or more importantly, what other people think you should be doing.

We are all unique and life is too short not to listen to the desires of your heart. No matter how bittersweet my memories of London, I will always be grateful to the city that put me on the road to creating my ideal life.

New Year, New London

New Year New London

“Grove Park offered us a safe, warm place to sleep at night and convenient transport links for work. But that’s about it. Instead of thriving in a new city, we were struggling.”

So, on my birthday we moved from Grove Park, zone 4, South East London – home to countless fried chicken shops, three barbers, a Sainsbury’s Local and not a lot else – to Fulham, South West, zone 2.

This move was the best birthday present I could have asked for. Now it feels like we’re really living in London. While Grove Park had its positives – cheap rent being one of them – it was quite possibly the most boring suburb we could have picked to live.

A word of advice: if you grew up in New Zealand, close to the water and surrounded by beautiful greenery, don’t move to a quiet suburb on the outskirts of London at the beginning of your first English winter. You will cry. Waking up to grey sky, grey brick and rubbish strewn across your grey street will make your heart ache for home. Just don’t do it.

Pick somewhere livelier instead, with great transport connections and at least a couple of eateries to choose from. I don’t have anything against fried chicken. But when you wake up on a wintry Sunday morning and you just want to pop out for a hot chocolate or a couple of pints at the pub, and all you have to choose from is Cottage Chicken and Perfect Fried, you will feel depressed.

Our adventure at Groove Park, as Tom now ironically calls it, started out positive. If anyone read this post, you’ll remember how excited I was about the fox in our backyard and the cheap chocolate at the local store.

Oh, how times have changed. Harry the fox was probably in our garden every evening, only we couldn’t see him as the sun started to set at 4pm and we were half asleep in bed, eating cheap chocolate that didn’t even taste good and contemplating whether or not to get on the next plane home.

This may strike you as rather pathetic. Why did you move there in the first place, you may be wondering? Tom and I made the best decision available to us at the time. We weighed up our options and went with the one we thought would provide us with the best chances of enjoying ourselves.

Tom had a good job in Kent and a car. In our minds we imagined taking road trips every weekend and frolicking in the English countryside. Or something. We didn’t factor in the fact that driving in England is more stressful than serene, or that the countryside looks just as bleak as brick on a cold winter’s day.

Truth be told, we were lacking in motivation. We were living in a new city, trying to settle into jobs and find a way forward. Rather than wanting to escape on a road trip every weekend, or play tourist in central London, we were seeking a little bit of normality. We wanted to be able to go out for breakfast without spending half an hour on the train. Or to go for a walk around the neighbourhood when the sun did occasionally make a presence. Okay, technically we could do these things – but fried eggs at the Filling Station Cafe or a walk through brick street after brick street just didn’t quite hit the spot.

Grove Park offered us a safe, warm place to sleep at night and convenient transport links for work. But that’s about it. Instead of thriving in a new city, we were struggling.

Of course, as it always does, it all worked out in the end. We are now living in a busy, vibrant community with plenty to see and do and a tube stop right on our doorstep. We have moved in with friends from New Zealand, so we’re never lacking in social interaction or the comfort of the familiar. And we can look back on our time in Grove Park and feel grateful – perhaps smugly so – that we get to call a country as beautiful as New Zealand, home.

Our new street in Fulham. Quintessential London houses
Our new street in Fulham. Quintessential London houses

For me, this experience has also underlined the key difference between travelling and living in a foreign country. Travel brings on a specific mindset. You are open, energised, captivated by all the new sights and hungry for more. It’s challenging, daunting, inspiring and amazing all at the same time. You collapse into bed every night feeling exhausted but alive.

Living in a foreign country starts out that way. Everything feels like an adventure. But inevitably, life soon takes over. When you have work in the morning, bills to pay, food to make, you just have to get on with it – you don’t always have the time or energy to stop and admire that old church you just walked past, or take a photo of something special.

At first this is hard. I remember when I lived in France, I felt incredibly guilty for feeling homesick because I felt this intense pressure to be “having the time of my life”. I may be four years older now, but that feeling still remains. Just like I felt guilty for missing home in France, I am now feeling guilty for missing home in England.

Sometimes I wonder if social media has a part to play in all of this. To live overseas, or go on an ‘OE’, is always depicted as this joyous, fun-filled experience. As an outsider, you could be forgiven for believing travel is synonymous with having the best time of your life, ever.

Yes, being on holiday and seeing new places is fun. But when you have a job and a ‘normal’ routine, you’re not waking up every morning with a spring in your step. Back home, I wouldn’t worry too much if I had a bad day. I’d just get through the day and onto the next one.

Here, however, I feel hugely depressed when I’m going through a difficult patch, because my emotions don’t match what I ‘should’ be feeling according to social media. I’m slowly starting to realise that it’s okay to feel crap. I am learning not to put so much pressure on myself to be having fun all the time, and to instead just appreciate the experience for what it is.

I know some of my seasoned-traveller friends will be reading this and nodding right now, as they are the ones that continue to remind me that this is what exploring a new country is all about. It’s about the challenge as much as it is about the reward. It’s about pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone and just seeing how it feels.

What I need to remember is there is no right or wrong answer – there is no “should”.  You forge your own path.

“London owns you now”: a brief encounter at Borough Market

Birds eye view of London Bridge and river Thames

“This was London, in all its filth and glory. Nostalgic for the past, while yearning to cast off the chains of bygone ages and step forward into the bright utopia of the future.” – Marie Brennan, With Fate Conspire

It’s bitterly cold. I’m wearing double socks, double jumpers, gloves, a scarf, a hat and a thick coat. My feet are numb, my hands frozen. I feel fantastic.

Holding a fresh baguette to go with my recently purchased mushroom paté, I’m trudging through Borough Markets with my godmother Nicola and soaking up the smells. Giant fry pans filled to the brim with Spanish paella bubble before me. A few steps over is a vat of Thai chicken curry, bright orange like the sunset. The oil has risen to the top and formed a glossy red film. It looks delicious.

Around the corner and I stumble across a saucisson vendor slicing thin pieces of cured meat with extraordinary care. “Made with local ingredients!” says the seller in a thick French accent. “Three for ten pounds! A bargain!” I can’t justify the purchase but I try a slice. Rich and flavoursome, it melts in my mouth and takes me right back to France. A few stalls over and there’s five different cheesemongers. The smell is so thick I can almost taste the cheese. Comté, blue vein, emmental. Then there are the butchers, exchanging game for cash as pheasants hanging over their stalls, feathers still fresh. Slabs of meat resting in chillers. Fat roast chickens glistening on spits.

Then meat is replaced with chickpeas, raw vege salads, the bright colours of beetroots, courgettes, carrots. At a fruit and vege stall Nicola picks up a bulb of garlic so huge it’ll cost her more than a cup of excellent coffee; she chooses coffee. Around another corner and you have stacks of brownies waiting to be devoured, artisan handmade chocolate sold by the ‘chunk’, moist gluten-free fig and orange cake, marshmallows, fudge, ice cream, sweets galore.

Whatever you feel like eating, you can find it here. Vendors battle for customers by trying to make their food look and smell as appetising as possible. You can try before you buy. But what you see is usually what you get – no walking away feeling bitterly disappointed with your purchase, the food really is as good as it looks. A stall selling melted Raclette and potatoes wins my six pounds. A new market assistant is being trained. A man in his early fifties, his hands are shaking slightly as he places half a giant wheel of Raclette directly under the grill. The inside of the wheel – where the knife sliced the circle in half – faces the heat, resting in a special metal holder. Slowly it melts and once the top is golden brown and bubbling, he takes it out. Carefully, holding the entire semi-circle of cheese, he scrapes the melted layer over potatoes under the careful guidance of his manager. It’s an intricate process and he needs a few tries. The end result is pale yellow slop on a white paper plate, topped with a few gherkins and a sprinkle of salt. Simple, unpretentious and utterly divine.

Nicola orders a roast duck wrap and chicken gyozas topped with chilli oil and we sit in the sun outside Southwark Church enjoying every last bite. The sun is warm but the air is cold; our bums go numb against the concrete bench. In weather like this, the hot food feels nourishing and fulfilling – not just for our bellies, but for our soul. I’m not a Londoner. Yet.  I’m homesick most days, yearning for views of Rangitoto Island and the sight of the sea. The beauty of New Zealand cannot compete with London’s mish mash of historic buildings and littered streets, grand walkways and dark alleys. Much of the city is dirty and brown and brick. But it’s full of life.

And in places like Borough Markets, where people don hats and gloves and brave the winter to banter with local shopkeepers and devour delightful food, you can’t help but see beauty everywhere you look. It’s in the faces of those who turn up in the cold, day after day, to urge people to taste their fresh goat’s cheese or to sell just one more stick of chorizo. It’s in the faces of the visitors, the tourists snapping photos with their big SLR cameras, and in the locals who purchase the same thing from the same vendor every week. But mostly it’s in the food – the bright colours, the smells, the presentation. It’s in the way food brings people together.  No matter how cold it is outside, how bitter the wind or grey the sky, there doesn’t seem to be anything a hot meal can’t cure.

After finishing our food we pop into Southwark Church for a quick reprieve. One minute we are in the thick of the markets surrounded by people; the next we are in a breathtakingly beautiful building with walls dating back to the 12th century. This is London – the contrast between now and then, the coexistence of the modern with the ancient, the hustle and bustle alongside the serious. Eventually we leave and wander back through the markets.

Satiated after our meals we manage to resist further temptation and instead find ourselves admiring a stall selling aprons and bags. Out from behind the counter comes a large, balding man with reddish skin and a faint scar on his right cheek. He has cheerful eyes and a cheeky presence. I couldn’t understand the words that tumbled out of his mouth at first, his accent was so thick. But Nicola was hooting with laughter. He smiled at my confused face and asked where I was from. New Zealand. He chuckles. “Ahh, London owns you now,” he said. “Yer never gonna leave. I’m from Liverpool, I came to London for a little while, I thought. I’ve been living in London for 25 years.”

Before I can protest that Liverpool is not quite New Zealand, he continues. “Soon from now, maybe in 12 months, yer gonna go back home to New Zealand, and yer gonna be in a lovely cafe and yer gonna be talking to someone. And all they’re gonna want to talk abou’ is their sister’s leg operation. And yer gonna start thinking about London, and it’s music, it’s theatre, it’s food. And yer gonna be back. London owns you now.” He goes on for a bit and I enjoy listening to him talk, seeing London through his eyes. This red-faced market man with a gruff exterior and a cheeky spirit, addicted to the life and energy of the city. And of course I’m sceptical – the thought of a place owning me is ridiculous. I own me.

But then a small part of me can see how it could happen. How the buzz and energy of London could pull you in and never spit you back out. I know I’ll never give up the blue sea and beaches of back home, the luxury of never living more than a short drive from the water. But maybe I’ll let the lure of London reel me in for now; in a city like this, the only way to enjoy the grit and brick is to fully surrender to its charms.

Five lessons I learned in London this week

Tower Bridge London

“There’s always a tell-tale sign: a surly waitress…”

You know what they say… every day is a school day! And lately my classroom of life has been full of interesting ‘lessons’, for want of a better word.  I seem to have an uncanny ability to find myself in bizarre situations, but hey – I always emerge with a story to tell.

My godmother Nicola calls it “randomness”. I’d be inclined to agree.

Here are five random yet entertaining lessons that I’ve learned in London this week.

1. Sheriffs are not REAL sheriffs – even if they have flashy badges

Just after noon on Wednesday two burly men pulled up in front of my house in an unmarked van and proceeded to advance towards my door. After two loud knocks I thought I’d better answer it, albeit cautiously.

Slowly, I poked my head around the door and eyed them suspiciously. No girl likes to be visited by two burly men in an unmarked van on a Wednesday afternoon!

“Hello…?”

“Hi ma’am, we are from the Sheriff’s Office,” said – let’s call him – B1. And with that he flipped open a shiny gold badge. It was about at this moment that my heart started racing even faster, images of sheriffs and Robin Hood and bright yellow crime scene cordon rope flicking through my mind. Upon reflection, the thoughts I associated with the word ‘sheriff’ were entirely random and not at all accurate. Isn’t it interesting how the very word induced fear and anxiety?

Anyway, turns out I’m not good in the face of burly men with badges and I pretty much turned into a dithering idiot. The two ‘sheriffs’ were after one of my house mates, who will remain unnamed.

“Is he in ma’am?”

“No, I haven’t seen him in three days,” I reply, my imagination going into overdrive. OH MY GOD, HE’S A MURDERER, I LIVE WITH A CRIMINAL, WHAT IF HE’S HIDING IN HIS ROOM WAITING TO GET ME!?!

“Can you check for us, ma’am?”

So I sprinted up the stairs and knocked frantically on his door, half scared that he would emerge with a bloody knife and half wanting him to come and deal with the burly men on the doorstep.

No answer.

“He’s not in,” I shrug, “We haven’t seen him in days.”

The two men look disappointed and go to leave, but then my fears kick into overdrive.

“Wait, I mean, I live with this guy?! Is he dangerous? What should I do?” I squeak. I was literally shaking.

Turns out big burly men don’t look so scary – or burly – when they crack a smile. Finally they seemed to click on to the fact I was visibly distressed and laughed gently.

“No love, he’s not dangerous – he’s not a murderer or anything.” EXCELLENT. GLAD TO HEAR IT.

But instead of leaving, B2 looked to both sides and then said conspiratorially, “Look, close the door and we’ll pass you a letter through the mail slot. Can you make sure he gets it?”

Still slightly too shocked to think properly, I nod in agreement and close the door. At this point another flat mate – NOT the dodgy one – decides now would be a good time to come down and investigate the noise.

And of course he finds me standing at the door shaking.

“WE’VE JUST HAD A VISIT FROM THE SHERIFF!! THEY WANT [insert name here]!!! THEY ARE GOING TO PASS ME A SECRET ENVELOPE!”

My flat mate looks visibly confused.

“We don’t have sheriffs in England. What on earth are you on about?”

In comes the letter through the mail box, a large sum clearly visible in the envelope window. Debt collectors. Turns out they were from The Sheriffs Office, a debt collection company. Maybe if I’d paid closer attention instead of worrying about crime scenes I’d have saved myself a lot of stress….

The letter is tacked to the mirror in the hallway, waiting for said flat mate to collect it. He still hasn’t come home… but there is a lively flat debate underway about who gets his room if he never returns.

2. I should probably start calling myself Jessica

In New Zealand, answering the phone with “hello Jess speaking” never used to generate any kind of surprise. It was a safe, polite, natural way to engage in conversation with whoever was calling you. Simple.

You’d think so, right?

Here, people just get confused that they are taking to a girl named Geoff. It happens EVERY TIME. No, people, JESS – J-E-S-S like JESSICA.

I should really start calling myself Jessica. It’s just NO ONE calls me Jessica, except my grandparents and occasionally my dad. Nothing but my passport and driver’s licence has my full name on it – not even my CV.

Guess its Geoff for now, then. 

Oh, and this happened…

One Chai Latte for Jess please...
One Chai Latte for Jess please…

3. Never trust a surly waitress

I wish it wasn’t rude to walk out of a restaurant once you’ve sat down. But don’t you just hate that awful sinking feeling you get when you realise you’ve picked an over-priced, low quality joint that is going to take all your money and leave you feeling robbed?

There’s always a tell-tale sign: a surly waitress. If the person taking your order couldn’t care less about the food, the wine, or your wellbeing, chances are the food and wine aren’t the best.

Becca and I learned this the hard way after spending the equivalent of a three course dinner on three tapas – three cold, dreary, tasteless tapas.

Might have to put my writing skills to the test in a negative TripAdvisor review…

4. It’s a myth that librarians are all book-loving, sweet-natured creatures

It’s no secret I love books. I love books so much I’m not afraid to shout it from the rooftops. I’m one of those people who lists reading as my favourite hobby and ACTUALLY means it.

So naturally, I was very excited about joining my local library. This week I did some research online, armed myself with the appropriate documents and wandered into the library inhaling the scent of books like some lovestruck hippy.

Until a grumpy librarian ruined my moment.

You see, I thought the librarian would be SO excited that someone new wanted to join the library (with e-readers and the price of books these days, I thought libraries would be strugglin’ with their numbers). I hoped she might engage in a little conversation and give me a tour of the stacks. How naive.

Turns out, if you don’t have a British ID card – or a British accent – people can be very cautious. As I sat down to join, the librarian passed a snooty eye over my NZ driver’s licence and my UK proof of address (which yes in hindsight was a subscription to Time Out magazine…) and said NO.

NO, you cannot join our library.

I was crushed. It might have helped if she was nicer, you know, a little friendly or at least slightly warm, not cold and life-hating.

But then she made it all worse.

“Are you just here to use the internet?” she asked, obviously going to slip me the Wi-Fi password.

NO, I wanted to cry. I ACTUALLY WANT TO READ YOUR BOOKS! I’m a REAL library lover, not just one of those Wi-Fi frauds!

My face was literally so disappointed that she did say I could ‘come back and try next week’, with ‘better’ documentation. I’m still holding a small grudge, though.

5. None of my winter clothes are actually winter clothes

It’s getting cold. And none of my ‘winter’ jackets and jumpers from Auckland cut the mustard.

WINTER IS COMING.

The London List

Richmond, London

“The problem with a place like London is – where do you even begin?”

Sometimes, my inner control freak expresses herself in strange ways. There are moments when I catch a glimpse of myself from the outside, almost as if my subconscious leaves my body and gives me a birds-eye-view of my own unique, slightly batty, approach to life.

A few nights ago I had one of such moments. Sitting on my bed, surrounded by Time Out magazines and coloured pens, I was frantically flicking through the pages and carefully tearing out articles.

“There’s just so much to do in London!” I exclaimed to Tom, who was sitting quietly next to me, absorbed by an article on the internet and effectively blocking out my little circle of stress.

I was feeling anxious – but in an excited way. You see, I’ve had a tough few weeks. I’ve learned something new about myself: I’m not very good at being unemployed. I’d been moping around feeling blue and dreaming of flying back home to the New Zealand summer. But then I snapped out of it, by deciding to conquer London like it was the to-do-list of all to-do-lists.

I had started thinking of London as something I had to do, a task I had to tick off my ‘list of things to do in life’ before I could move on successfully to the next stage. Like a level on a video game. Or a chapter in a book. I felt as if there were certain coupons I needed to collect before I could say “I’ve DONE London.” Like visiting all the major tourist destinations. Attending a high tea. Eating fish and chips in a local pub. You get my drift.

But the problem with a place like London is – where do you even begin? London is huge, not just in terms of population or land mass, but in terms of what it has to offer. Even if you lived here your whole life, you couldn’t possibly do it all.

Besides, to make things even more complicated, there are many different Londons within London. There’s the arty London, the muso London, the foodie London – and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Whatever you’re interested in, you can find a group, club, venue which caters to your passion.

All of this only contributed to my anxiety, as I sat on that bed and tried to find a way to begin.

“I think I need to buy a clearfile,” I said to Tom. “You know, so we can organise activities by category – food, tourist, music, art etc.”

“Mmmm,” said Tom. Eyes still glued firmly to the computer screen.

“Or maybe we should just fold up pieces of paper and put them into a bucket and pick one every week? You know, be adventurous?”

“Yep, sounds good.” This time I get a small nod.

“Oh but then we will have to categorise the buckets, you know, for rainy day activities and sunny day activities, expensive activities and free ones. Otherwise we could pick out an outdoor activity when it’s raining?!?!”

At this point my voice was most likely beginning to border on slight hysteria and I was probably chewing anxiously on my pen, mind going a million miles an hour. An OUTDOOR activity on a rainy day?! God forbid.

Tom shut his laptop, placed it on the floor and turned to me slowly.

“We just have to begin,” he said simply.

Begin?! But that’s what I’m trying to do, I protest. Doesn’t he understand?

“We just start doing things. You don’t need a clearfile, or a bucket system, or to organise it logically. We just get out, every weekend. Simple.”

Simple?

And that’s probably about when my subconscious left my body and gave me a birds-eye-view of my silly state of anxiety. I could almost see the stress particles zooming around my head, in the form of Time Out cut-outs.

All of a sudden, it dawned on me how completely ridiculous I was being.

London is not a task. Living here is an experience. And here I was, trying to turn it into a chore of enormous proportions and tackle it like a project at work, or a university assignment. Armed with highlighters and post-it notes, I was ready to blow this thing out of the water. I wanted an A+ on my London report card. I wanted to tick ‘101 things to do’ off a list with a bold red marker. I could already see the blog posts unfolding. “Look at me, I’m up to number 59 – getting attacked by pigeons in Trafalgar Square!” Let’s face it, no one wants to read about me trying to play the role of ‘perfect tourist’.

Fortunately, opposites attract, and I have a relaxed, logical partner who kindly helps me see things through clearer lenses. We don’t have to begin – we’ve already started.

Don’t worry, I’m still writing a list. I like lists. But the anxiety is gone. The ‘list’ is just for kicks now :)

Living in London: my first impressions

London Eye

“We’re still in that fun period where everything slightly new is exciting and worth telling home about.”

Like 8 million other souls, I can now say I live in London. South East London, mind you, in the depths of zone 4 suburbia and country fried chicken takeouts. It’s no Notting Hill, but we have a garden and a room twice the size of a zone 1 studio. I think we’re doing okay.

I do feel a little on the edge of it all, away from the sirens, lively street markets and general hustle and bustle. But as Tom likes to say, “he’s a zone 4 or 5 kinda guy”. Me? I think I’m a “zone wherever works for now kinda gal”. And for the short term, South East London suburbia is providing everything we need.

It’s been about two months since we left New Zealand. We’re still in that fun period where everything slightly new is exciting and worth telling home about, like how much cheaper yoghurt is over here and how cold it is already.

Here’s a quick round-up of my favourite novelties so far:

1. A fox lives in our back garden.

He sleeps on top of the shed and walks with a limp. Although he’s probably a pest and gets up to all sorts of mischief around the neighbourhood, I kinda like having him around. ‘He’ might be a girl but there’s no way I’m getting close enough to find out. So I’ve named it Harry.

2. Chocolate is cheap. And abundant.

There are so many new varieties to try! This is excellent. We’ve been working our way through the entire Green & Blacks selection, which incidentally, is available in New Zealand. The dark ginger is my favourite flavour so far.

3. We pay £15 a month for prepay phone credit and receive unlimited internet data.

Yes, unlimited. I don’t even want to know how much we’d have to pay for that back home.

4. It’s fun playing the ‘guess where we’re from game’.

Until people guess Australia, South Africa, Canada, America, England (?!) and then look at us blankly as if to say, ‘where else could you possibly hail from, strange creature?’

5. It’s equally fun seeing people’s reactions when you say ‘New Zealand’.

English people who know NZ usually ask us why on earth we moved here from ‘paradise’. One bank teller actually spent a good ten minutes trying to convince us to get back on the plane and go home. People who aren’t familiar with New Zealand either: a) stare at us blankly, or b) say something completely random and inaccurate about our weather.

I could go on, but I won’t. Ginger chocolate is calling my name.

Jess x

Traipsing around Paris in the snow: tips for surviving the French capital in December

“I don’t normally feel good about feeling miserable, but Paris is all about paradoxes. This city makes you feel fabulous in all of its melancholy.”

I visited Paris one snowy, cold weekend in early December. The city was rather hostile – people hurried around the streets, scarves pressed to their faces, eager to get inside to a warm fire. It was not the Paris of postcards, with chic French ladies sipping vin by the Seine or cheerful tourists posing in front of the Eiffel Tower. But it was still Paris, and I was determined to make the best of it.

Continue reading

My brief encounter with Athens

“I felt vulnerable, scared and sensational. I had a huge grin on my face and my skin was tingling. It was one of those “am I really doing this?” moments, where everything feels surreal.”

One of the best things about travel is the people you meet along the way. I ended up in Athens by accident – I hadn’t planned on visiting the Greek capital on this particular trip. But when my new Greek Australian friend Alexia invited me to visit, I couldn’t resist the opportunity, and before you know it I was touching down in one of the world’s most celebrated cities.

I flew to Athens from Lyon via Zurich. To say it was an adventure is an understatement. It was the longest flight across Europe I had done by myself, involving a rather tight changeover at Zurich Airport. I barely slept the night before, and was up at 4am to get to the airport. Little did I know the day would unfold to be one of the most memorable of my entire six months abroad.

I landed in Athens to find the whole city was on strike. All public transport was stopped (as far as I could gather, not speaking a word of Greek). Alexia’s clear instructions were rendered useless: go out of airport, turn right, catch X96 bus to the port of Pireaus. With no bus and limited time, I found myself in the back of a taxi, placing all of my trust in a short, balding Greek man with a bright smile.

My first encounter with Athens was short-lived but it is seared in my memory. My mission upon arrival was to make my way to the port and catch a ferry to the island of Aegina, where I would spend a few blissful nights with the Demetriou family. I expected the journey to be colourful, but couldn’t have possibly prepared myself for the combination of adrenalin and fear that was to come. Continue reading