Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Birds From Hell

It is really time to resuscitate this blog. I have been busy the last few months with work and university (that's no excuse, I tell myself sternly), but now I'm going to get back into it. Otherwise I will have no record of my life, and there's a good chance that I'll forget everything.

So I have been thinking about blog posts, and what I could put in them, and have created a list of possible topics. The first topic is the Escalators of Doom. The second is my weekend out of Sydney, up the coast with the Pirate Pianist (who has returned from Germany, and is living there with Pirate Boyfriend. And I'm really not kidding about the pirate bit. He has a cutlass), and the third is Birds From Hell. Then there's also probably the International Fleet Review, and Oktoberfest on the Beach.

I think I shall start with Birds From Hell, as you may have guessed from the title of this post.

So I was minding my own business, walking to university one day, when I passed under some trees and was hit quite hard on the side of the head. I jumped and ducked and looked around, but couldn't see anything that might have hit me - no pinecones, no balls. I'd walked past a girl a few weeks before who'd just been swooped and who warned me about magpies, so I guessed it might have been a magpie. When I put my hand up to my ear, it came away with a spot of blood, so I walked the rest of the way to uni and went into the library to ask where the nurse was.

One of the librarians was very enthusiastic and got out her first aid kit and patched me up, and I went up to the research room and decided to go a different way next time.

Five days later, I walked a slightly different way, which would take me on the other side of the road to the trees. I wore my hair differently. I wore different clothes. And I had just turned onto the footpath on the opposite side when something black hit me on the side of the head.

This time, it was definitely a bird. Right, I thought, if I can't go on the opposite side of the road, I'll go through the park next to the trees, and follow the guy on the bike who isn't getting picked on by magpies.

So I followed the guy on the bike, rather quickly, but I had only just entered the park when something hit me again. I began to run. Something hit me again. I ran faster, covering my head with my arms. When I thought I was far enough away from the trees, I slowed a bit, but the magpie hit me again.

I ran right to the other side of the road, and here it seemed I was no threat to the magpie, and it stopped attacking me. I went, rather shaken, to uni, and as it was quite early in the morning I couldn't find anyone who knew where I could find a first aid kit. A lovely lady who volunteers for ambulances finally appeared, took a look at my ear and said I should go to the medical centre.

At the medical centre, a doctor looked me over, cleaned up the blood, patched my two cuts with special plasters and gave me a tetanus shot (I can never remember when I've had tetanus shots. So now, here, a record! September 2013!). She said it was the only time she'd ever seen magpies actually draw blood.

Yesterday, for the first time in months, I went underneath the magpie tree. I had an umbrella, and I was not attacked! A slight victory (probably because the magpie didn't know it was me).

And then last week, we had a party for Melbourne Cup day that I was late for, because I was doing a presentation for university. The presentation went well, but everyone else had had a good brunch and I needed food. I stopped at the Hungry Jacks (aka Burger King) at Circular Quay, which does two-for-one Whopper Juniors on Tuesdays, and decided I'd get the deal even though I didn't think I could eat both. Someone else was bound to be pleased with one.

I was a few bites into the first burger and walking along the quay when a seagull swooped down and tried to steal my burger, raking through the bun and dropping lettuce everywhere. I promptly dropped the rest of it in a bin and got out my second burger, then ate it under a roof with my shoulders hunched up.

I'm pretty sure Australian birds hate me.

Apart from the pigeon I saw the other day which looked like it was wearing spats. I don't think it hates me... it didn't try to attack me, at least.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Nightingale Floors, Cats and Excellent Books

My flat has a nightingale floor (there's an awesome book called Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn. Go. Now. Read it.). Around the front door and entrance hall, the floor boards creak and sing, I imagine to warn of any intruders - the boards don't creak anywhere else in the house. I have made it my task to cross this nightingale floor without it squeaking. Haven't managed it yet. Possibly my flatmates think I'm a bit weird, treading back and forth, back and forth and grumbling when I still can't find a good non-creaky spot.

I will succeed!

I have made friends with a Siamese cat called Jazz, who looked pretty confused when I followed him down our driveway and along the road calling here kitty kitty, but came around the next day when I managed to pat him in the back garden. I still haven't witnessed any rain in Sydney, and it's great to be able to sit out in the garden in the warm sun and not get sunburnt (this is what I like about early spring - warm but not 8min sunburn warm).

On Friday I found out that Untold (sequel to Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan), a book I was resigned to waiting for until late September, had actually been released in my territory. Having little to no self-control, I immediately got it for my Kindle app, made dinner (some self-control!) and sat down to read it into the night. It was excellent! It's fun to see characters and their relationships change over time, especially when they go the way you want them to (mostly). I knew there would be some Terrible things happening (that's what makes a good book), but those events were balanced out nicely by the good things. I can't really tell you anything about the plot because it's a sequel, but the first one is about an intrepid girl reporter in a sleepy village in England, who happens to have an ever-present imaginary friend and a long-suffering best friend who hates people in general and only wants to take naps. Good stuff, in other words.

I should probably get back to looking for jobs and studying (I'm enjoying being back studying. Learning things is good!). Have a good week!

Friday, August 23, 2013

First ten days of Sydney: organising and wildlife

So I have a flat! I have a nice little almost-routine going with my university work and my looking-for-work work. I have a membership form for the library. I am waiting for my tax number. All those little things are slowly coming together.

I spent the first few days with my friend The Angel, and made great use of my unlimited travel card. I took the ferry out to Manly and sat in the sun to do readings, as well as check news sites to see exactly what had happened in Wellington with earthquakes (I'd heard some people on the ferry say 'earthquake' and 'Wellington', so thought I should check it out). On the way back the captain said to look out to the right of the boat, and there was a spout from an orca.

I found my flat over the weekend. It's not too far from the beach, and has lovely flatmates who make things like cauliflower-base pizza. On Monday I had a nice meetup with my friend the Pirate Pianist (complete with cutlass), last seen in Germany, and had dinner with Fifties Filmstar on Friday evening.

I've been on the lookout for wildlife - not because I want to see anything (you may remember my squirrel obsession in the UK), but because I don't want to see anything. Anywhere else, I'd pay the barest attention to ants. Here, I know that some ant species bite you really really badly, so I'm terrified when I see any. Ditto for spiders. And snakes? Urgh.

So far the worst I've seen is a dead cockroach (on the footpath) and a dead skink (also on the footpath).

Hopefully it'll stay that way. Not much wildlife in the big city, right?


Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Sydney Sydney Sydney

So I'm off again! This time, not so far away - Sydney, which is really just a quick hop from Auckland. Three hours rather than thirty, which I appreciate. I'm now sitting beside a large sculpture of an erupting volcano, listening to birds and tinkling water. Ooh, some chanting too. The lava changes colour from blue to purple to red and green. I have my suitcase-I-found-on-the-side-of-the-road-two-years-ago, which I predicted two years ago would not last much longer. Ha. It's been to Sydney, Tokyo, North London, Other North London, Greenwich, North London, Greenwich, North London, Greenwich, Auckland and back to Sydney (I used it to move house).

I should probably make my way to the gate, and see what China Air planes are like :)


It turns out that China Air isn't PRChina China, but Taiwan China. My plane was full of people going to Taipei via Sydney, and I'd checked in early enough to get a nice window seat (though of course by the time we lifted off it was dark and you couldn't really see much). After some trouble with my headphones (I was plugging them into the wrong armrest), I watched How to Train Your Dragon and Suits, and then we were landing through some pretty rough turbulence in Sydney.

My awesome friend The Angel picked me up and I found out just how terrible I am at passing along directions in a car. After a bit of circle-driving, we got back to her place and had a nice evening with movies and I tried to get used to Sydney time.

On Tuesday I took a few buses to university and enrolled, then wandered round the campus figuring out where things were. Enjoyed the weather, which was sunny and warm after the hail in Auckland. Later I ended up in town and we went to see a scary movie called The Conjuring, which did its job pretty well.

Hopefully sleep will come tonight....

Monday, June 10, 2013

Winter and the Fragrance of Georgie Pie

I've just realised that it is technically winter now. Time to wrap up warm, time to get out my blue coat and gloves and hat, time to-

Hang on, it's not actually that cold.

I thought I'd re-acclimatised to Auckland weather, but I still can't quite believe this is supposed to be winter. Sure, it's still early (and we did have a few cold days last week, and they had SNOW last year), but the sky is blue and I only need two layers. I remember it being faaaar colder in Sydney.

I guess I should go and see some snow at the end of the month.

In other news, the beloved Georgie Pie has returned at last. It was NZ's own fast food restaurant (with BALL PITS, as my bro keeps reminding me) until it was taken over by McDonalds and closed down in the mid-nineties. After a lengthy Bring Back Georgie Pie movement and Facebook group, McDonalds are testing bringing back the pies in selected restaurants, starting with the steak mince and cheese flavour (yes, MEAT pies).

Bro suggested a mission to obtain one of these long-lost pies on the opening day, so we sat in afternoon traffic, found a park and joined the line (which had been much longer when they first opened that morning, apparently). As soon as I smelled that special pie smell, I was taken back to eight years old, giving my order for a small mince pie and a latticed apple and blackberry.

It's funny how easily smells can trigger memories and the feel of a place or time. What if you could capture those scents in bottles and have a library of them, labelled according to time and date, and you could transport yourself back just by smelling one? Transport metaphorically, of course, within memories.

Hmm. Or literally. I can see that turning into a very strange story.

The pie was good, in any case.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Book #21: Brazil - The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Round the World Wednesday! Is it still Wednesday anywhere in the world? No? Oh well. Today is Honorary Wednesday.

The Summer Prince is another of those books that evokes a place so viscerally that you think I want to go there, even if the 'there' is a few hundred years in the future, a parallel world or some undefined historical time. So, I'd like to go to Brazil now. I want to see Palmares Três, the jewel on the bay, the pyramid city of lights. Though possibly not with the bloodshed that goes with it.

The book is set in Brazil at least four hundred years in the future, where everything is life and death, love and hate, moving forward and holding back. The main character, June, is a young artist in a city ruled by grande women, where anyone below the age of thirty is not taken seriously. Every five years, the populace elects a king, and after a year of his rule, he chooses the next queen and is sacrificed. The system is quite logical, really - someone who is about to die is less likely to be swayed by politics.

It's an election year, but not just any election year. This year the king will be a waka, under thirty, and his sacrifice will serve only to continue the reign of the incumbent queen. He will have no true power to choose another queen, but for a year he will be the most priveleged of the youth of Palmares Três.

June votes for Enki, and is ecstatic when he wins. She's already half in love with him, but Enki falls in love with her best friend Gil and she's not quite sure where she stands. She throws herself into making Art, recognising that Enki is as much an artist as she with the way he moves and influences the crowds. They become collaborators on sensational projects, and Art is at its best when it creates a sensation. Or a revolution.

Enki is hurtling headlong towards death, but he is the most vital character in all senses of the word. He helps June understand what's important, and the reader along with her.

Palmares Três is most desperately, incredibly alive, with its dancing wakas and ritual sacrifice. I love the way Johnson communicates that, with the blocos and the graffiti and the secret ninja art projects. I also love the way she weaves Portuguese into the text, making it clear that English is a foreign language to her characters.

Any books you know and love that are set in Brazil?

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Auckland Writers and Readers Festival

...and on that Friday, the heavens opened and the rain fell in great fat splotches and ran in rivers through the streets, and umbrellas were nothing against the onslaught, and Kathmandu jackets were soaked and clingy and hair plastered wetly against the face...

The rain wasn't quite that bad, but it was definitely a relief to get inside and walk around the Aotea Centre in the dry. My Friend Who Rocks and I decided to go early and see Words Out Loud (mostly because we wanted to be sure of getting a seat for the following YA writers reading event), but really enjoyed the poets performing their visceral, thought-provoking works. There's something incredibly engaging about the spoken word, and ideas coming straight for you from the mouths of passionate speakers (Courtney Meredith, Miles Merrill, Ken Arkind and Carrie Rudzinski).

After we'd been blown away by poetry, we were treated to readings by Paula Morris, Kate de Goldi, Libba Bray and Patrick Ness. Paula Morris read some very creepy scenes from her ghost books Ruined and Dark Souls, set in New Orleans and York. Kate de Goldi read a few passages from her ACB of Honora Lee and had everyone giggling, and then Libba Bray demonstrated her amazing ability at accents and voices with Beauty Queens. Lastly, Patrick Ness read the first chapter or two of a very new book that didn't even have proofs yet, and left everyone hanging, knowing we can't find out what will happen until the book's published.

And then it was back out into the rain, which was more drippy than pouring by then.

Friday, May 10, 2013


Hello everybody! I thought it was probably time to de-hiatus this blog, and update it with all the things I happen to have done in the last few months. Well, not all the things. That might get a bit tedious.

It's funny how being in a place other than 'Home' can change your view of things. So much is new, so much is different, and interesting things pop up every day. The Underground! Coats! Squirrels! When really, if you cast the same gaze over Home, you can come up with just as many interesting things.

Notable things I have done in the past few months:

Swum in one of the northern-most beaches of New Zealand, and walked to see the Pacific Ocean and Tasman Sea meeting and churning at Cape Reinga.

Well, this isn't the Actual beach. We swum at one a few bays over.

Seen a penguin in the Wellington lagoon. No pic unfortunately, but I did see one!

Walked past Peter Jackson's Embassy Theatre.

Eaten an amazing rainbow wedding cake.

Ridden in a limo.

Attempted Gangnam Style in heels. No, there are no photos.

(Okay, I was a bridesmaid too. Congratulations to the New-Minted Travelicious Lady and the Boy with the Lotus!)

Watched an incredible hour-long fireworks show, with rainbow fireworks and people on fire and light shows against the side of the museum and wire work.

Been to the Pasifika festival, where I watched dance performances and ate icecream in half a melon.

Driven an automatic car for the Very First Time.

Driven very slowly into a wheelie bin (unrelated to the previous item).

Tried to watch Indiana Jones at an outdoor theatre, but ended up cowering under ineffective blankets and running to the car in pouring rain.

Tried my hand at glass blowing.

Bussed past Mt Doom aka Mt Ngauruhoe.

Survived one of the longest warm, dry spells New Zealand has known while it snowed in London (what a hardship).

Gained the trust of two new cats: skittish Prtska (the name is entirely my fault ha) and ninja Poppy, who we're pretty sure has ADHD and has had some vet visits recently from fighting.

Swung on a proper beach rope swing.

Been to Matamata aka Hobbiton (though not the actual set, this time round. This is just the town information centre).

Now the cold is coming in at last, and the washed-out days where the sun spends its time failing to push through the clouds. Good time for catching up on my reading.


Thursday, February 14, 2013


Most importantly, there are sparkly stars in the roof of the plane that they turn on when it's dark.

I'm flying over Brisbane at the moment, on the fourth of my five flights home. The first three were around seven hours each, and this one's only 3, which seems incredibly short. Soon I'll be in NZ again, 21 months after I left!

My timetabling didn't hold up that well (I planned everything out to minimise jetlag. I hope) because there were more movies than I expected, and of course timetabling sleep doesn't often work. I had a cold shower at Brisbane airport and a nap on their nice couches, but I feel I will be in need of caffeine at some point.

My last few days in the UK were full of packing and going to see people. I returned to Stafford, and this time had a lovely dinner at an old pub and visited the High House, a four storey half-timbered building from the 1590’s that stands in the middle of town. The rooms are done up in styles to match different ages, one room with a beautiful four-poster bed and replica hangings and another as an Edwardian shop. The floor made me feel I was on a boat, it was so wavy. It snowed while I was there, too, my last blast of winter until I meet it again midyear in New Zealand...

It's always strange leaving somewhere. Even if you come back, it'll never be quite the same as it was. I said goodbye to people and house and garden and road and park and railway station, pulled into London Bridge, said goodbye to the Shard, got my ticket for my luckily-late-departing train and arrived in plenty of time for my flight at Gatwick. I poured most of the one and two penny coins I've collected into the charity boxes and boarded my flight to Dubai.

I looked out for the Burj Khalifa (world's tallest building, at nearly a kilometre high) as we came into Dubai, and I think I might have seen its lights in the darkness of the front camera. Too dark to see much of anything else, though. The flight was late and I was worried I might miss my connection, but there was time enough to wander some of the airport and get to my Singapore flight on time. The terminal I was in has soaring great triangular windows in the curving walls, and an unbelievable number of people at two o'clock in the morning.

At Singapore we had to get off and wait while they cleaned the plane, go through security again and reboard for Brisbane. I'm getting sick of taking off my belt and extracting my electronic devices from my backpack, but there's only once more!

I should probably be grabbing some sleep. But there are so many movies to watch...


Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Zombies, Silent Disco and the Science Museum

I'm getting rather late with my posts. But there's so much to do! Packing, seeing everyone, eating very strange meals to use up all the food I have in my cupboard... On Wednesday a group of us went to the Late Night at the Science Museum, which was zombie themed. I was held up and late, so from South Kensington tube station I ran through the subway and up the stairs to the Science Museum. There were lots of people milling around and a sort of queue, but it was a very haphazard queue and I wasn't sure if it was really a queue or just people coming down the road. I wandered through the doors and got a pamphlet from a lady, then texted people to see where they were.

It turned out the queue really was a queue. Tricky Ricky had waited for half an hour and Twitterboy and his friend were still in line outside. And I, oblivious antipodean that I am, walked straight in.

They had actors shuffling around dressed as zombies, and lots of zombie-themed activities including zombie-rights picket lines. Unfortunately, we couldn't find any that didn't involve waiting for an hour, so we retreated to the silent disco and claimed headphones.

Silent discos are awesome. Everyone has wireless headphones with three channels, and they have at least two djs working at a time. This means that whenever you get bored of a song you can switch channels and hear something else. You can see what channel other people are listening to because the headphones have lights that glow different colours according to the channel. We had two channels going, and it's amazing how fast the crowd can shift between mostly listening to one song and then mostly to another. At one point YMCA came on, and almost immediately everyone was doing the actions.

And if you don't like either of the songs, it's a surreal experience to take off your headphones and hear people singing along to two different songs at once, with no backing music.

One of the things I will be leaving behind in the UK is my unlimited movie card. It seems like there are so many movies coming out on February 8 that I want to see, and now I'll have to pay for them individually! One, Warm Bodies (a zombie movie from the zombie's point of view) doesn't come out in NZ until April, and I was bemoaning the necessity of waiting for it. But then I noticed the advanced viewing at the Science Museum IMAX - this is zombie month after all.

So on Sunday I went back across London to see the movie. The cinema was completely full, with a few extra zombies who moaned and groaned at the screen through the credits and looked generally worrying to sit next to. I enjoyed the movie, though I think I would have liked it better if they'd had an extra line near the end explaining where the main characters were running to (or maybe it was there and I missed it). It's a good movie otherwise, with lots of jokes and ironic musings on life.

At this moment I am on a train to Stafford - my last UK trip for a while. The sun is out and shining into the carriage and all the fields are spring green.


Lincoln and Burns Night

Why is it, whenever I try to catch a train, the buses and tubes unite against me and deliver me to the train station with breathless seconds to spare? I have not yet missed a train (touch wood), but pretty much all of them I've almost missed.

Today I am off to Lincoln. I've only got a few more weeks in the UK (I will return in September, if all goes well) and I've been squeezing as much as I can into them. This morning I was trying to make my room presentable for potential new flatmates, but I still left in good-ish time.

If only the bus had come when it said it was going to, not ten minutes later (they're supposed to come every five to eight minutes). If only I hadn't just missed the Jubilee train and had to wait four minutes for the next one (I've got used to tube trains every 1-2 minutes). If only the train hadn't been held at Canary Wharf to 'regulate the service'. If only I hadn't chosen the wrong door, adding precious seconds to my change at London Bridge. If only I hadn't missed the Northern Line train by five seconds, and had to wait five minutes for the next one. If only the driver of the Northern Line train hadn't decided to wait stupidly long at every station. By the time I got to Angel, I was convinced I was going to miss the train, so much so that I was a bit relieved I wouldn't have to run through the warren of King's Cross at high speed in my coat and backpack. There were four minutes until the train left, and I still had Euston to go before we got to King's Cross.

Or... not.

I'd mixed up King's Cross and Euston. King's Cross comes first. I sprinted off the train, trying not to collide with too many people, up the escalators, and the next escalators, and the next escalators. As I was reaching the top, the lady on the loudspeaker said that the next train to leave from platform 3 would be the 10.08 East Coast Service to Newark North Gate. My train! At least now I knew which platform, which is one of the things that takes up time to figure out.

I still only had about a minute left, and hadn't collected my tickets. I ran for a ticket machine, stabbed in my code and almost ran off with half my tickets before I remembered there were more to come. I followed the signs to platform 3, ran through the barriers (they were open, no need to figure out which ticket I had to stick in them! Hallelujah!) and skidded down the platform to the first open door (first class). I was on the train!

I was only 30s late, but the train was later. If it had been on time, I wouldn't have been able to catch it. Now we're speeding through snowy countryside with fields blanketed in white. In central London the snow has disappeared, but out here it's still a way from melting. Very pretty. And there are bunnies in the snowy white fields!

I stayed with my lovely hosts in a village a little outside Lincoln, beside a Roman archaeological dig. The smaller roads were very icy and we slid a bit at one point. Someone had tried to build an igloo using an umbrella as scaffolding, though it was only half-done.

Friday was Burns Night, when much of Scotland celebrates the life of Rabbie Burns and eats haggis. Though Lincoln is in England, my hosts have Scottish connections and were celebrating too. I had a great night, with Scottish smoked salmon, proper sheep's stomach haggis, neeps and tatties (turnips and potatoes). Though we didn't have a bagpiper, we had an iPod to pipe the haggis in, and the Ode to a Haggis (great chieftan o' the Puddin-race). To finish, there was cranachan and clootie pudding, and whisky, of course.

On Saturday we went for a turn around Lincoln. Lincoln Cathedral is one of the largest (if not the largest?) Norman cathedrals, and is set high on a hill looking over everything. It's fantastic coming across the low hills towards it in a car, and it must have been incredible to be a pilgrim in the medieval times, approaching this colossal building on foot. The inside of the cathedral has beautiful vaulted ceilings and high windows. Footsteps echo and you can hear the stillness.

Right outside the cathedral is the castle, which was once used as a prison, and is in fact where the court house still is. It's having renovations at the moment, but when it's not you can walk all the way around the tops of the walls. Instead we walked some of the way down Steep Hill, an old medieval street with original buildings stepping down the hill. The shops along here are wonderful little boutiquey things with crafty jewellery and clothes and knickknacks that you could spend hours and hours in. We peered in a few, then went down into the main town for coffee in a half-timbered café on a bridge that has been open for business for about five hundred years. The beamed ceilings were low, the casement windows glinting in the light, and if you squinted a bit and imagined folk in doublets and hose you could almost believe you were in the sixteenth century.

There was a lovely winter barbeque for dinner, and soon it was time to get the train back to London. The rain had come in the night, and the fields were a patchwork of greens and browns, very different from the white landscape of Friday.


Saturday, January 19, 2013

Snow and the Tower of London

It's cold here, though not quite cold enough for proper snow blankets. We were promised snow falling ALL WEEKEND, but I looked out the window this morning and the snow in the back garden is sinking sadly into the grass in patches.

Yesterday I walked along the Thames in the snow (retracing Bond's London car chase in Skyfall), past MI6 and along to Westminster. There was a team playing football on the green outside Westminster, snow floating around them. I was very glad of my thermal top, my knitted tunic, my half-mohair jersey, my blue coat, my sheepskin ugg boots, and my hat, scarf and gloves. Not sure how they were doing in their shorts and t-shirts.

From Westminster I got a Circle line train to Tower Hill, and wrapped up In preparation for the Tower. You enter via a drawbridge over the snow-white expanse of the grass moat, and walk along Water Lane, which is built on wooden pilings over the Thames. We had a short talk from one of the Yeomen Warders (aka Beefeaters) in the Chapel rather than around the grounds, because it was pretty cold outside. He told stories about the history of the Tower, and the executions that had taken place through the centuries, before informing us that the bodies had originally been buried exactly where we were sitting, with so many thrown in under the stones that the floor was higgledy-piggledy uneven. Most of them were exhumed and reburied in Queen Victoria's time, but some, including Anne Boleyn, were still under the altar.

I've become a great fan of audio-guides in my time in Europe - you can listen and look at the same time. Much of the audio-guide at the Tower takes place outside, so I was determined to stick it out through the snow with frozen fingers. I would get the full experience! I would hear and see all the Tower had to offer!

I went through the Medieval Palace above the Traitor's Gate, and saw a recreation of a King's chambers. Through a staircase and over a bridge was a beautiful octagonal room with vaulted ceilings, and up another spiral staircase I found the battlements of the inner wall. About this time, I realised I only had forty minutes left until the Tower closed, so I stopped looking at everything and made a shortlist (They tell you three hours is a 'long' time to see the Tower. In future, I think I should take all the maximum times for things and double them. I like to take my time...). So... around the battlements, and on to the Crown Jewels!

There are lots of very expensive things in the Crown Jewels, as you may think. The number of gold plates and sceptres and goblets was truly incredible, and then we came to the crowns. I hadn't quite realised that they don't generally reuse crowns - there's a new one (or two or three) for each monarch. And they all have lots of very sparkly jewels in them that glint in the light as you move slowly past on the tourist conveyor belt. There weren't that many people - I guess it's a good time to go to the Tower when it's snowing - so I was out quite quickly and heading for the White Tower, which is the big square one that you probably think of when you think of the Tower of London. It was built by William the Conqueror, and at the time was the tallest building in Europe.

The entrance to the White Tower is on the first floor and has wooden steps leading up to it - this meant that, in a siege, you could destroy the wooden steps and no one could get in. An opening in the stone wall halfway up the stairs shows where the bodies of the two Princes in the Tower were apparently found, which was quite creepy. It's strange to come across places where famous things you've learned about actually happened.

Inside is an exhibition of armoury, including a few sets of Henry VIII's. He was tall and pretty imposing, judging from his armour. There are also swords and horse armour and guns and the 'Line of Kings', which is a set of life-size models of kings and horses made in the seventeenth century. One of the sets of armour holds the world record for tallest armour, and another displayed right beside it is one of the smallest and looks like it was made for a three-year-old.

The warders began to usher us out, so I took a last few listens of my audio-guide and reluctantly gave it back. I hadn't had time for the Bloody Tower or the Queen's residence, but I didn't think the Yeomen Warders would appreciate me hiding in a tower room and exploring the rest in darkness.

It had stopped snowing, and everything was glowing in the dusk and lights. I took the DLR to Canary Wharf and admired the fairy lights and glowing paper boats floating in the water, and then was off home.


Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Into the New Year

Christmas and New Year and the holidays that go with them are over for another year. The best thing about Northern Hemisphere Christmas is the lights - when it gets dark at 4pm, you can really get the full impact of all the twinkling, sparkling things. I may have mentioned that, this year, the Oxford Street lights were sponsored by Marmite. Here's proof:

The sad thing about Christmas lights is when they turn off. The twelve days of Christmas are over, and now many of the lights around London are hanging over the streets, dark and lonely-looking. Some places are ignoring tradition/superstition and keeping them on, however, which I think I like. Jermyn Street seems to be covering all bases (they've turned half theirs off) and a few arcades along Piccadilly are still fully bedecked. Christmas lights should be turned on as long as they're up - I know they have to come down some time, but they look much too sad hanging there in darkness.

I have many New Year goals to complete this year. I feel a bit like Schroedinger's cat at the moment - I still don't know whether I'll be living in NZ or the UK this year, so it's difficult to sit down to any one thing and forge ahead. Apart from writing, that is - that can be done anywhere (I tell myself I can write anywhere, including on the tube, and then still don't finish that project from 2010 that I've been meaning to complete for months).

On a side note, tomorrow the London Underground will turn 150. That is a very long time for an underground railroad. They're doing a commemorative journey with a steam train and one of the oldest electric trains still in service. Sadly, I won't be on the train (I considered it when I saw the article this morning, then reflected that a train like that doesn't have spare seats available the day before its journey). Happy Birthday London Underground, anyway!


Saturday, January 5, 2013

Amsterdam Days 5 & 6: Van Gogh, Flea Markets and Flying Back

I'm back in the UK now, and on a train to Ipswich. I like how fast the trains go, it really makes you feel as if you're getting somewhere. I got back to London on Thursday morning, and have had barely enough time to watch four movies at the cinema before going off again for a nice visit with the rellies in Ipswich.

Okay, now that I've written that, the train is going slowly. Hmm. Where's the 'faster than fairies, fast than witches/Bridges and houses and hedges and ditches'?

Anyway, I have been a bit slack (I always seem to do this with the last few days of a holiday - I think 'I will write it all up as soon as I get home!' and then I go to four movies instead). I got up to my last full day in Amsterdam, which started earlier than any other because I had an exhibition to get to. So, I left the hostel at 10am, after a nice almost-pat of the cat, who was sitting with its back to me on the table.

The sun was out, and it was almost warm. Apparently the canals freeze over later in the winter and people skate everywhere, which was hard to believe with the sun shining slants of light past the tall houses and irregular rooftops and the water sliding dreamily by. I had to keep stopping to take photos, and by the time I got to the Van Gogh exhibition (held in the world's first Stock Exchange. I think.) I thought I'd have to queue. But no! I paid my money, collected my 3D glasses and descended, at the security guard's indication, down some stairs, past the ladies loos and into the exhibition.

This seemed somewhat strange, but after the first few paintings I forgot about everything else. The idea of the exhibition is to bring together 200 works by Van Gogh and present them digitally retouched so you see the original colours, rather than the faded versions of today. This means there aren't any actual Van Gogh paintings in the exhibition, but it's still amazing to see these paintings you know so well in their full vibrancy. Van Gogh used early synthetic paints which have faded pretty badly over time, so blues and reds sometimes don't come through. As well as the remastered paintings, some of the most famous works have been interpreted through 3D animation, which was pretty cool.

The final section of the exhibition was held in the vaults of the building, which explained the location in the basement. It showcased paintings now lost, whether through fire, Nazi repossession or burglary, presented in actual safes.

After some wandering around the streets and across the bridges (sometimes rather frenzied wandering, as I got later and more lost), I met TOWSR in the main square. There was a lion dance happening, complete with extremely loud ground-level fireworks and copious clouds of smoke, so we watched that for a while before going to find the flea markets.

I had very little money on me (I was determined not to change any more pounds to euros) but we had a good time admiring the wares and checking out the lego buildings of the old Jewish quarter. Last stop on our itinerary was the supermarket, then dinner and sleep. I had to leave at 7.15 the next morning.

It was still dark, and I realised as I walked to the bus stop that I didn't actually know what a bus stop looked like. Were they in the same place as the tram stops? I didn't think they shared stops. I ended up walking well past the invisible bus stop and on through Museumplein, which I hadn't seen properly and was actually quite nice. Finally I found a bus stop (just past the tram stop, and on top of the tram lines rather than on the road) and got on the next bus to the airport.

Schipol airport is a lot like a gigantic mall, with added check-in desks and holes in the floor through which you descend to the train station. On the plane, our pilot came out of the cockpit and told us he'd be flying the plane, and if anyone wanted to get off now they could. The flight was quick, into London's sixth airport Southend, customs even quicker and then I and my new plane-buddy got a train to Stratford. Of London airports, I think it's probably the quickest and easiest, bar City. And finally, home!

Well, actually, Stratford Westfield mall, Pitch Perfect (awesome) and then home.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Amsterdam Day 3: Anne Frank Huis

On the first day of 2013, we slept in a bit, but not too much because we wanted to beat the crowds at the Anne Frank Huis which opened at midday. Unfortunately many other people had the same idea, and so we spent an hour and a half waiting in the cold to get in, comparing the purpling of our fingers and staring up at the clearing sky. Why could it be dry today, and not last night?

The wait was worth it, though. We thought they were only letting in groups of twenty or so at a time (hence the long line) but really the line moved slowly because the house was absolutely full of people. Despite this, the atmosphere of the place was amazing - very quiet, with everyone looking at the stories and relics of the secret annexe's inhabitants and being respectful.

The house was Anne's father's office and warehouse, and Anne and seven other people shared a few rooms at the back of the building for two years until they were betrayed by an anonymous tip and sent to concentration camps. Of the eight, only Anne's father survived the war, and went on to publish Anne's diary.

You start out in the front rooms, where the warehouse and offices were in Anne's time. Only the office workers knew about the annexe's inhabitants, and Anne, her family and the others had to be careful the warehouse workers didn't hear them. There are photos of the office staff and Anne standing in these same rooms, and it's surreal to think of them there. You climb some very steep stairs and after a few more rooms, you climb behind the bookcase and enter the annexe.

First is the room in which Anne's parents and sister slept, with curtains shut and light dim. The rooms are actually larger than what I'd thought, but if you consider eight people living here for two years in very little light without going out, and without being able to make noise for fear of discovery, it was probably incredibly claustrophobic. Next is Anne's narrow room that she shared with one of the other inhabitants, still with her pictures of film stars and art pasted on the walls, and then the washroom with its basin and not much else. The stairs to the upper floor are even steeper - they take about as much floor space across their rise as they do across their width - but above is the main living room where two more people slept at night, and then Peter's small room with its ladder up to the attic and the window where Anne and Peter used to look out at the world.

It's so strange to think of everything that went on in these rooms, both the day-to-day living and the final day when the people were taken away. The rest of the museum shows pictures of Anne at all ages until 13, when the last photograph of her was taken. It seems incredibly sad that we can read her words but not know what she looked like in those last years, and that there is a 'last photo' of her that shows her at such a young age. Another section talks about discrimination, and trying to figure out the right thing in a world that has so many different ways to define 'right' and 'wrong'. The Nazis thought what they were doing was right. Many people today who do terrible things think the same.

By the time we left the museum it was 3.30 and we needed food. TOWSR wanted more chips (a dependable gluten-free lunch) so we went to Febo and I tried out the hamburger vending machines. The burger was actually pretty good - I guess they replace them lots and they spend less time in there than they might do in McDonalds warmers. Next we tried to find chocolate, and despaired of ever finding a proper supermarket (where do Amsterdammers buy their food from? Do they eat out every night? We are unsure). And lastly, back to the hostel to warm up...


Amsterdam Day 2: Library, Begijnhof, Schuttersgalerij and 2013

Last day of the year!

The hostel has a cat, and I think it likes me. It was asleep outside our room when I left for breakfast this morning, and it only bit me once when I tried to pat it. And then it followed me down to breakfast!

We tried for the Anne Frank Huis this morning, but the line looked about an hour and a half long so we went to our next stop: Amsterdam public library.

This is an awesome building, seven floors worth with beautiful views out over the city and cool bookcases. The children's section has lots of curving circular bookcases, one that has a second level that you can climb up to via a spiral staircase, and a giant polar bear. All libraries should be like this. We had some frites for lunch, and then wandered through the city and looked at the shops and the tulip stalls and found a post office. There's an amazing bookshop called the American bookshop that winds up for three floors, and just behind it is the Begijnhof, a courtyard surrounded by pretty buildings that was once a home for Beguin nuns, who wanted to live a nun's life without taking the vows.

The Amsterdam museum is right next door, and has a free gallery with huge paintings and photographs and an amazing carpet along the floor representing all the different nationalities that live in Amsterdam. I found the New Zealand square and enjoyed the paintings of guardsmen and orphanage women, and the gigantic 17th century wooden statue of Goliath.

After that it was back to the hostel for dinner, and to wait for the New Year celebrations to start. We'd been hearing explosions all day, and it turned out that these were small sort-of-hand-held fireworks that people kept letting off in the street. Lots of car alarms accompany the bangs and crackles.

It began to rain about nine o'clock, and we weren't sure if the promised street parties were going to happen. We stayed in the hostel's bar until about 11.15, then wrapped up and umbrelled up and forced ourselves out into the windy wet street (have I mentioned Amsterdam is very windy? It's like being back in Wellington). We'd ended up in a group of New Zealanders and one Nederlander (who had party horns, which were really useful) and found a spot beside the fairy-light bedecked outdoor ice rink under some trees. Fireworks were going off everywhere, including in the road in front of us, and the path to our destination Liedseplein turned out to be much like an obstacle course, dodging people, fireworks, broken glass, bikes and large puddles as well as struggling to keep the umbrella up and away from people's eyes.

By midnight we were soaked and freezing, but everyone was jumping around and whooping and wishing Happy New Year and throwing still more fireworks around. With the number of bangs and the strength of them (as well as the sirens from ambulances and police) we might have been in a war zone. We wandered around for a while enjoying the festivities, then went back to our hostel for warmth and music and dancing.

Happy New Year to everyone! Hope it brings excellent things :)