Thursday, 7 February 2013

Auckland - home!

At Bethells Beach, West Auckland with the lovely Emma
Well, I'm home - safe.  A year of travel, exploration, learning and occasional navel-gazing and I'm back in NZ, house-sitting in a near-empty house with a near-empty bank account, wondering what happens now..!  In a way, the whole year was 'for' this time now.  A year away from the NZ life to gain a fresh perspective, and to see what that would do for me.

Being back in Auckland after an 8-year absence (uni, work abroad) is wonderful.  Nick, who's never lived here, feels like he's on a tropical holiday - and I'm loving having so many familiar places and people about.  And this city has upped its game!  Just keeping up with the cafes is hard work (although a task that I'll humbly accept).

After a Christmas and New Year of reconnecting with family, friends and country, and having more than my share of swims, NZ craft beers and coffees, the year proper is now commencing and it's head-down for the job hunt.  There are broad plans for extra study later in the year, as well as some art lessons/practice - but first things first, let's sort out how to pay the rent.

After a year of being a nomad and setting up camp countless times, I can't wait to find a place (come on, magically cheap central Auckland rental...), unpack a few of my things (cook books, I have missed you), and enjoy the regularity of a job, home, friends.

I know I'll be abroad again before too long - the Pacific Northwest must be revisited, as must Finland, and the whole East Coast of the US is calling my name... but I'm not a nomad at heart, and it's great to be home.

Before I sign off, I did promise pictures of my trips to Finland and Italy (Bologna/Ravenna).  So, without further ado...


Ravenna had been on my 'oh, that would be amazing' list since 6th form Art History class, when I learned of the unique mosaics at the Arian Baptistery in particular, and their interesting (to me...) back-story.

We visited for a long weekend, and stayed in nearby Bologna (known to Italians as 'the fat' for its superior cuisine... sounds good to me!) with some fantastic San Franciscans in the historic quarter via Air BnB.

Top left: The Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna.  Right and bottom left: the Arian Baptistry.
The Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna.  Despite studying this stuff for years, it was really magnificent.  Turns out scale counts for a lot, and those angels/saints really feel like they're flying right atcha.

Bologna food market
Glorified nutella-bomb.  Amazing.
Trying to cheer Nick up after we missed a train.  Coffee/pastry time!

So, despite my 'oh we couldn't, we're going back to NZ in a week... we have no money...' we made it to Ravenna.  I have Nick to thank for talking some sense to me and making me realise that a long weekend was better than not going and regretting it, and we had a wonderful (emphasis on the full, that food delivered big time...) weekend - my introduction to Italia!


My time in Finland was a solo venture, while Nick visited his grandfather in the Netherlands.  Finland for me is a place of 'I don't know why - I've just always had to visit'.  I spent one week travelling from Tampere, out to the coast (Rauma), up to the lakeland (central Finland), and down to Helsinki (southern coast).

For my first few days I was taken under the wing of a wonderful, friendly children's psychologist/therapist, who I met on the airport train to JFK - in February!  We got on like a house on fire and she'd said 'if you're ever in Finland...'  Pirjo put me up in an apartment all to myself (her work apartment, set up like a home to help with kids' therapy), and was the most wonderful host, while I took myself off for architecture safaris around Tampere - a city known as 'the Manchester of Finland' (a dubious title), built up around the cotton industry (Finlayson textiles, brilliant).  Pirjo also took me for my first Finnish sauna - a log cabin in the woods by the obligatory freezing-cold lake.  

Crazy Finnish doors in Helsinki
At the Alvar Aalto museum in Jyvaskyla.   Top right: the cafeteria which Aalto designed.  Bottom right:  Aalto and his wife; original hipsters.  Left: a caption from the museum.  Beautiful, whilst also confirming my suspicion that maths is horrid.
Upsettlingly, my SD card gave up the ghost half-way through the trip.  So - the misty midnight sauna, the wooden village by the sea, the wooden vernacular church in the lakeland - all will have to take on some kind of mythical status in my mind.   I'm sure there's a lesson in there about living in the moment or something... but it still sucked! 

I do however have photos of the second half of my trip - Jyvaskyla, Helsinki and a trip out to Porvoo, another old wooden town.  So, here we are:
Porvoo - an old wooden town just outside of Helsinki.  I did about 99% of my Christmas shopping here - such beautiful crafts that were really unique from shop to shop.  The lady from whom I bought a hand-knitted bolero was thrilled to hear it was going all the way to NZ, and made a note that she must tell her friend, the garment's creator.
Speaking of crafts, it gets dark early - crafting is a big deal in Finland.  Top left: late afternoon at the craft shop, stocking up on knitting supplies.  Remaining images taken at the Museum of Finnish Craft (Jar with red thread, bowl with 'peas' made from pencil nubs, stones in soap dishes...), all the work of artist Anu Tuominen.
Helsinki railway station
An anti-mining campaign through the streets of Helsinki.  Apparently Finns are pretty quiet, reserved people, so a march like this was very unusual and shows how important environmental issues are to Finns.  Fair enough!

A cold, beautiful morning in Porvoo

Local church, Porvoo

A week was not enough.  Finland was the second place on this trip that I didn't want to leave, and I'm already wondering how/when I can get back there.  I was told repeatedly that I'd come at the worst time of year - but the low skies, short days and cold stillness had a quiet, strong beauty that I could feel.  I can see why the Finns are renowned for being people of few words and deep thoughts; there's something about the landscape that has an almost immediate effect on the character.  I hope that one day I can experience that for longer than a week... it seemed rude to be there for such a short time, when the place felt like it had so much more to say to someone who would listen.

But for now - I'm trying to regain that inner stillness while I figure out what's next for me here, in Auckland.  Not so easy when the sun's blazing and the cafes are calling... but I'll strike a balance somehow!

Now, I've been told by Nick that he's whipped up a couple of short video clips of our year.  Which is exciting!  When they're finished, I'll post them here - but for now, here I am back in NZ and that's the end of the trip!

So - thank you for coming with me, thank you for reading and hopefully enjoying the odd story or picture with me.  I hope 2013's a good one for us all - over and out!

Love as always.

Sarah x

Friday, 14 December 2012

Hello December - looking back & blogging through the 'flu

December in London - 5.00pm

So, apparently it's half-way through December... And suddenly I'm looking down the home straight.  My flight is no less than THREE sleeps away.  I can count the hours until Nick and I board our Air China jet for the start of our 56-hour (!) odyssey back to the Southern Hemisphere.

And with perfect timing, my body has decided to help me wind down by catching a hefty flu/tuberculosis/whooping cough combo.  My standard expression for the last week-and-a-half:

Sensing that once the cold tablets have worn off I will realise the lunacy of posting this on the internet...

Being housebound with outside temperatures plummeting and a mild dependency on mulled wine developing, I've started to look back on the whirlwind of the last 11 months.  

I have most recently visited Finland and Bologna, and those trips have been amazing.  But while I'm reminiscing, and before I dose you with another photo-a-thon, I thought I'd share some of my 'highlights' from the year, and even some of the lessons I think I might have learned, if I can claim to be wiser from the experience.  

I've also been struck with a big dose of "oh shit, what was my plan for NZ again..?" so I'll touch on that a little too.  And all in that tidy order; it helps me feel like I'm making sense of things!

First things first:  Highlights

The Basilica San Vitale in Ravenna - been wanting to check it out since 6th form, it didn't disappoint

I've travelled to a fair few places this year.  Not an insane amount, but enough to make my head spin nonetheless.  Along the way and  for various reasons, some places and events have proven to be even more amazing than the rest.  A non-exhaustive list, in no particular order of things that stand out in my Sudafed haze flash-back:

  • Portland, OR: super-cool hosts courtesy of, more sweet vintage sh*t than you can shake a stick at (for pennies!!) and the best beers I've tasted yet puts Portland up there as one of my fave spots;  
  • The Berkeley Spa Experience was one-of-a-kind; 
  • Americans (in general); 
  • Staying on Fox Island, Puget Sound - taken in by wonderful people who didn't know me from a bar of soap;
  • Manchester, of all places - here's an example of why.
  • Finland (post to come!) lived up to and exceeded all expectations, again aided by a wonderful host met earlier in the year in NY;  
  • new family in Spain and London
  • Seeing Henry V at the Globe
  • making it to see a stage of the Tour
  • hiking in the Pyrenees and, of all things, 
  • the infamous night we spent 'car camping' in this magical place:

view of Castle Stalker from the 'campsite'
Hilarious what turns out to be the good stuff.  Then there are the little things - trips to Liberty's, Aussie coffee at Grind in Putney, relaxing by the river in Perarrua, a hundred little bits and pieces that I know will keep popping back into my mind for ever and ever.

The carpet section on the top floor at Liberty's - many a pilgrimage made.

However when I was looking back through the photos for this post, the biggest smiles came to my face when I saw photos of the people I've met. It might be an obvious one, but it has been wonderful to rekindle old friendships in new settings, and it has been especially fun meeting new people.  These have been the most 'stretchy' experiences for me, going out on a limb to make connections with new people and every single time being amazed at the kindness of near-strangers.   

I'm often too shy (yes, really) to take photos of these moments and then regret it later, but I have taken some - so; to friends old and new - the best part.

Beautiful, kind people

As well as the things which stood out as extra interesting/beautiful/fun, there are some stand-out things I seem to be thinking to myself frequently throughout the trip.  I'll call them lessons, although they're probably a bit of a mash-up of all sorts.

Before leaving NZ, I had coffee with a friend in Wellington who said to me matter-of-factly, “Sarah, you’re putting a bit much pressure on yourself for this trip - you'd better not be planning on getting enlightened while you’re away or 'finding your calling'”. 

I quickly changed conversational tack and took an intense interest in the weather.  But of course, friends are mind-readers and mine knew I was desperately hoping to ‘get enlightened’ by the magical travel fairies and come back raring to go – immunizing orphan children or whatever.

I realised pretty quickly after departure that constantly moving around is great for information gathering, and less conducive to spontaneous revelation. As it turns out, if you take yourself to the other side of the world, you’re the same person there as you were back home.  Not heaps wiser or anything.  Huh.

A long way from home, on Mallorca
However – this knowledge is not the depressing realisation I would have thought if you’d told me in February that it would be one of my Grand Conclusions.

Why? Because it is accompanied by a second realisation – that finding the perfect thing for me to do and doing it absolutely perfectly?  Doesn’t matter so much.  In fact, worrying about it less would probably do me a lot of good.  For an authenticity-obsessed perfectionist, that’s a bit of an adjustment.

I’ve been a bit of a cart-before-the-horse type when it comes to ‘life planning’.  My brain has worked along the assumption that if I can only:
  1. figure out how the world works (maybe by going to University… or living in a different city… or going on a trip of random countries for a year…?) then I can
  2. Figure out my take on it all, and
  3. Decide how I should apply myself to best effect.  (I'm not sure how I imagined I'd pay the bills etc while I sorted this out - my brain isn't practical like that.)
But meeting a few people/seeing a few places and generally appreciating that this world's a big, old place and I'm a pretty small part in it has got the brain stretching itself enough to realise that there's something amiss with the above strategy.

It would be awesome.  It is also impossible. It turns out you can't taste all of life at once and then choose which part you think is best.  The only thing for it is to pick a piece and bite it (life is now a cake - roll with it).

At this point I realise you may well be marvelling at how I find such round-about routes to come to the most basic of conclusions.  You’re welcome.

The real change isn't in what I'm doing, but in giving myself permission to stop agonising over where things are leading and just learn from what's in front of me.  This would've been a useful revelation at the start of the year, and saved me a lot of "but what does it mean" moments.  But that's the point isn't it - 'experiential learning' and all.
This quote I came across in March confused me madly then, but has been a sort of guide throughout the year, changing colour and shape in my mind until I now love it.
 My plans for returning to NZ aren't rocket-science or revolutionary.  At present they probably look relatively mundane, from loose criteria for work (writing involved, a general mission I can sign up to), to 'extra-curricular' bits and bobs (re-learning how to paint, instead of half-heartedly dragging out the pencil box every six months), to slowly plodding on in the church/spirituality vein, they're all about starting small and just getting amongst.

It might not be everybody's idea of fun, but turns out it is mine. No more agonizing over Grand Plans (well, old habits die hard but less of it anyway), more getting on with it.  
In Spain - looking pretty much the same as when this whole thing kicked off.  Just a bit more chilled out.

So!  The most photo-less, thought-ful blog post yet.  Enough of that - time to top up the Sudafed and head out into the cold to finish off the last of the Christmas shopping...

I'll leave you now until the next (and potentially last!) post.  Happy December - !!    

Lots of love as always,


Saturday, 20 October 2012

September... Everywhere!

From a sunny Autumn morning in Earlsfield I bring the promised blow-by-blow of where we've been/what we've been up to this past month.  After some good girl-time with friends and just chilling out at home, I'm feeling properly caught-up and Creative Things are happening in my Brain - which is exciting even if as yet completely nebulous & incommunicable.  For now, something straightforward - here is a photographic recap of September xx


We left Perarrua with heavy hearts after a wonderful farewell feast with Jochum and Judith, and headed to Mallorca where my lovely friend Elise is working with the rich and beautiful on yachts in Mallorca. (Well, Elise is working, what the rich get up to in Mallorca could fill another few posts...)  A crazy world and a big change after our little farming village!

Bonnie, Nick, Me, Renee and Elise on the steps at Elise's pension
Elise - I love this photo
Elise's pension - a heritage-listed house run by an ex-navy Brit and his wife
The Diner where we ate on many occasions (burritos/burgers/apple pie...) run by a lady from Kentucky.  Nick took this photo which I love.
The road to a beach on the west coast of the island - not for the faint of heart.
The beach at the end of the trek
...accessed via a tunnel in the rock!
We spent just under a week in Mallorca, and found it to be a real mixture.  It was great to have Elise show us around, as we headed to the bars where the boat crews tend to hang out - it felt like a real pirate town, with all sorts of shady characters and dodgy deals alongside/overlapping with mega-swanky restaurants, spas and shops.

A week was enough though, and after two and a half months away from her shores we headed back to the United Kingdom.  

Specifically, to the hospitality of Freya and Colin, who welcomed us despite themselves being in the process of packing up house for NZ.
Freya and laser-eyes Delia, advising us on how to cook "a brace of pheasants" (which Freya happened to have in the freezer, posh kid).

Late Summer walks near Putney common
After a week in London it was time to head north for the one date that had been on the calendar all year - our friends Andy and Jo's wedding at Loch Lomond in Scotland. 
Walking in the hills above Loch Lomond with fellow guests post-wedding
For the first time in years Nick had convinced me that camping was a great option (a quick look at our bank balances helped), and we headed up to the Loch with sleeping bags and tent in tow.  Imagine my disappointment when, half an hour before turning up at the campground, we got a call saying the whole place was waterlogged, and camping was off the agenda.

I rose above my heartbreak and quickly booked us in at the local YHA - as it happened, an old manor house which had been used by American troups as a radio base during the war, and then donated to the Youth Hostelling Association of Scotland once they were done.  Thank you, sirs.
The hostel by the loch
The wedding was beautiful, complete with Ceilidh (Scottish dancing, half as weird and twice as fun as it sounds).  The next day we headed off in our little rent-a-dent to see a little of the countryside:
Hiking the hangover into submission above Loch Lomond
Standing stones!!!! Real ones!  "Pull over pull over get the camera" - we got our nerd on and were so stoked to find these guys.
And an ancient burial mound... so mysterious and awesome.

We may have overestimated the amount of distance we could cover one day ("this country's small, that drive will take us no time..." - small and windy and single-track, oops) and twilight hit well before we approached the town where we were booked to stay.  Nick suggested finding a spot for some "car camping" and in a moment of daring, I agreed.  Far too late I realised that "car camping" is a hopelessly optimistic way of saying "sleeping in the car".  

I don't know what else it could have been, but I felt duped.  A bargain was struck whereby "car camping" would occur conditional upon the consumption of two bottles of wine to get us through.  One each, only fair.

Car camping - the reality.  Dinner for two by head-torch.
It wasn't all bad.  It was good, even. The discomfort was counterbalanced by a spectacular spot with an outstanding view over a loch, and a clear night provided one of the clearest skies I've ever seen.  A serious downpour also made for enormous puddles which in the dark, still night turned into mirrors for the stars - windows into bottomless galaxies below the earth.  Nick and I stood on the grass at their edges peering down and, after a bottle of wine each, having our minds blown fairly spectacularly.

The morning brought more rain - and rainbows
The view from the "car camp" - Castle Stalker on the wee island, as revealed by a later google search...
It was soon time for city comforts once more, and a visit to a university friend now living in Edinburgh.  A night in a double room in a hostel felt like five-star luxury and was the perfect way to bid Scotland farewell before heading to visit Rose in Manchester.

Northern English summer - Woolen dress, sandals, hat, sunnies... out walking with Rose
Rose had recently suffered at the hands of a seriously ill-qualified hairdresser and, after a couple of glasses of wine, bravely charged me with remedying the problem.  Apparently the resulting haircut has earned many a compliment, so I deem it a success.  Unfortunately we only took a "before":

As this photo clearly demonstrates, Rose was not at all sceptical of my abilities... 
The train station in Rose's little town.  Actual steam trains went past here, on real rounds - not historical-fun-times steam trains.  Amazing.
A bakery stall at the Market in Bury, near Summerseat.  Overheard from two shopping ladies:  "well, I was just saying it was exactly like in Coro-NAY-tion street, when Deirdre BAR-low was talking to that Moroccan lad"... people here were gold for watching.
Walking on the moors above Summerseat.
The time with Rose, chatting in the evenings and chilling out while she was at work, was a much-needed rest after the month of travel.  There are many things I've learned, or realised more fully, this year - and one of them is the value of quality time with good friends.  An oldie but a goodie.  Nick headed off to London to start his job, while I conducted my job search from the warmth of Rose's couch, cooking us dinner when she got home and talking about everything under the sun.

The spell eventually ended when I got a job interview (for a Department of Health job I didn't get, booo), and the London machine called me back once more.

So, now it is no longer the morning - I resumed this post at a deli in Earlsfield an I'm now sitting here with jamon de Serrano, olives and a second glass of wine.  With a place to live, a job to feed me and the time and space to be able to look back on all that we've been up to.  I hope you'll excuse the lengthy post - we're caught up!  And soon I can perhaps talk about the journeys/happenings unfolding in my brain... who knows?  But we'll talk soon at any rate.

Lots of love,