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“…And because there is nowhere to go but everywhere, keep rolling under the stars…” Contiki Honeymoon Part 1 of 3

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I’m back. I’ve been back in Winnipeg for about a week now, after a much-needed adventure overseas in lands vast and beautiful. J. and I had booked our honeymoon long before I lost my job (ironically scheduled to take place at the time my vacation days would kick in),  and though this meant zero employment insurance for three weeks (despite having used up my vacation payout to, well, survive since August), I tried my best to put aside my feelings of guilt and anxiety, leave the stresses of the preceding month behind, and venture off with my new husband who’d worked extra, incredibly hard to take care of us. We had three back-to-back Contiki trips planned (seriously, after last summer’s trip seeing what I think ended up being 14 cities in 16 days and meeting some of the best people I’ve ever known, this was the only way to travel – yes, even for a honeymoon!): Mainland Greece, a cruise through the Greek Islands, and a week in Ireland. #diversity.

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After a bit of a surprise getting to Winnipeg Airport, we soon discovered we wouldn’t be flying Air Canada, but instead Air Canada Rouge, their best kept secret for travellers on a budget whose retro idea of in-flight entertainment included such joys as Name That SmellAdventures With Strangers (Because You Aren’t Allowed To Sit Together), and Cake in the Face (and other surprise wake-up calls). Slightly baffled that a two-hour domestic flight came with a nice glass of wine and TV screens for all, yet 8+ hours across the Atlantic was to be spent wondering if that green sauce was actually food and playing the world’s most limited edition of I-Spy, we promptly took a couple of sleeping pills and attempted to knock ourselves out until we got to Greece.

We arrived in Athens to clear skies, warm temperatures, and the happiest taxi driver in the world, who ended up taking one of my EPs! We were dropped off at the lovely hotel a few hours before check-in, so ended up crashing in all our jetlagged glory with our suitcases in the lobby. We were to meet the rest of our group later that night, and after getting in to our room, taking in the view from the rooftop pool (no Ibis here!), and discovering iced coffee wasn’t going to be hard to find at all (“uhh, we’re kind of famous for it”), we met our first tour manager Alex and our group of fellow travellers for the next few days.

Our first day spent as a group started in Athens, where we ended up walking through the city centre, exploring the Plaka area and ending up at the most picturesque Greek scene for dinner, at a restaurant built over several areas up some steps canopied with a roof of open-air ivy and vines. Traditional dancers and ALL THE CATS (Greece = cat lady heaven) provided a gorgeous atmosphere, we dined, made new friends, and got to see the Acropolis all lit up under the moonlight. A beautiful first night topped off with a walk back where poor Alex was trying to give us a bit of a tour by night but we all got distracted by playing with the dog with a ball instead of paying attention to the story of the monument in the city square (oops).

Day two was pretty chocka. We began by hiking it up to the Acropolis and the Parthenon itself, which was nothing short of breathtaking – both in terms of view and for the less fit of us. Being at this spot, next to these impossibly big old structures (constructed in 447 BC and finished by 438 with no modern-day machinery? Somebody get those Greeks time-zapped over here to maybe do something about our roads!) completely reinspired my love of Greek mythology, and everything we learned was a brilliant combination of folklore, myth, belief systems, and history itself. We then trekked over to Mycenae to visit some cool tombs, took in Agamemnon’s Palace, where we learned tales of murder, incest, treachery and Troy, and ended the day in Olympia, where we spent the evening getting to know our new friends, played tonnes of games, drank one too many Mythos, and climbed a tree. My scrapes from falling out of it were nothing compared to the misadventures that ensued after we’d gone to bed – apparently poor Alex had been called at 3:00 a.m. to be informed that some of his group had launched themselves heroically from their second-floor balcony in an attempt at subterfuge so a fellow dedicated adventurer could go skinny dipping in the (very much closed) pool. Love you guys 🙂

Our second-last day of this trip began in Olympia, and the spot of the very first Olympic games in 776 BC. I wish you could capitalise numbers; the history of some of these places is mind-blowing. We had a really in-depth tour of the site of the games, met Olympic Dog, visited the temples of Zeus and Hera, and the exact spot the Olympic flame is lit every four years. Some of the guys took it upon themselves to have a race (James!! You’re supposed to win!), which was tonnes of fun, and we had a bit of time to ourselves to pick up some goodies and our first real gyros of the trip – HEAVEN! (They even put chips in them over there!) We had a stop in what might have been my favourite spot on this leg of the trip, the relatively untouristy little town of Nafpaktos. We all enjoyed the most turquoise water ever, splashing around, soaking up the sun, and a quick margarita before heading off to Delphi for a night of dancing in a local bar (we are feeling our age a bit on these nights, but I’ve decided that the Aussies are just born with the superpower of being able to drink copiously and constantly and still manage to be upbeat and functional the next day regardless), and a surprise – because it was our honeymoon, they’d arranged a special room for us in the hotel there – the actual Presidential Suite where Hillary and Bill had stayed!! It was breathtaking. I only wish we got to enjoy it for longer!

The final day of Spotlight on Greece I spent hanging with the girls at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi. Everyone was feeling slightly rough from the night before, but we had in front of us one of the most magnificent sights and amphitheatres, so we went for it and climbed as high as we could to enjoy the view!

After making our way back to Athens, we picked up some last-minute souvenirs, ate more gyros, and transferred to our new tour group for the Golden Fleece. Only three of our group were moving on to this next cruise, so we said our goodbyes and made our way to the next spot, where we’d be joining a new group to set sail through the Greek Islands on board the beautiful Celestyal Crystal. We’d already packed so much into four days I couldn’t believe we still had over two weeks left, and though I was sad to say goodbye to a couple of really awesome people (AJ, Steve, we’ll meet again, and Ashleigh and Carime, all the hugs in the world to you ladies), I was excited for another two Contikis and thirsty for more sun, sea, and mythology.

Stay tuned for parts two, three, and compilation video! 🙂

 

The Horizon Is My Home

“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people, and they recede on the plain ’til you see their specks dispersing? It’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s goodbye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”
– Jack Kerouac

I sit here with a thousand words inside me, and a thousand more memories on top, all bubbling away and zipping about, weaving themselves together in some sort of attempt to make chronological sense of the past three weeks, desperate in their endeavours to not be forgotten. I don’t know where or how to begin, as I sit here, freshly back from the trip of a lifetime, my regular world a stark contrast to the fantasy I was just lucky enough to experience. I left stressed, lonely, and hopeful. I return with a heap of new friends I grew to love dearly, memories of labyrinths and gas lamps, vast skyscapes, breathtaking architecture, soul-wrenching emotion, near-kidnappings, film festivals held on the walls of minsters, giant underground cathedrals, haunted houses, ruins turned into a bohemian revolution, the actual Moulin Rouge, epic EDM dance parties in enormous thermal baths with lasers in the sky, romance, friendship, highs, lows, stories you couldn’t possibly make up, and the ultimate in adventure.

Our time began in Amsterdam, where we’d planned on spending a night before heading over to join our Contiki group in Berlin the next day. Thanks to a bit of a cock-up at the Winnipeg end, our luggage didn’t make it off the plane with us, so we had to stay at the airport for a while trying to explain that our bags would also like to spend the night. Exhausted and eventually with suitcases in hand, we made our way to the hotel, which thankfully wasn’t too far away. After a bit of a nap, we realised we only had a few hours left in this beautiful city – so we did what any newly-on-holiday person would do and head out to the Heineken factory! The tour was fantastic (as was getting free beer for trivia), and we hit the streets (packed due to it being Pride day) in search of the I amsterdam sign to be massive tourists with. We walked through the city, stopping briefly as I was overwhelmed with deja-vu: I don’t often remember my dreams at all, but a recurring one I’ve had for years involves a rapid descent through a castle being chased by robots and escaping into a town square covered in cobblestones by a clock tower – the very place I found myself in that night in real life. It was bizarre enough to move me to tears. After snapping some photos, we found and climbed all over the sign, and went for a lovely dinner by a canal.

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Our first adventure came that night when we found ourselves separated on the streets of Amsterdam – unable to find J. and with no telephone on me, I tried for a while to hail a taxi, none of which would stop, and being me, promptly burst into a fit of tears. Eventually a man came up to me and asked what was wrong – and in my panic,  “don’t go with strangers in a strange city in the middle of the night” won over “you can do this”, and I followed this man, who kept assuring me he was taking me to the spot the taxis stopped. Knowing nothing about Holland but clogs, tulips and bicycles (none of which were available to help me get out of my predicament), I figured maybe there was some sort of taxi central, but after forty minutes walking around with him asking me if I wanted to drink wine or smoke pot with him (and occasionally asking people for money), we ended in an alleyway. Still sobbing, and at this point terrified, I told him I didn’t think the cabs came there, and that I was going to go and wait in the road. I ran. I ran fast. I hailed the first car I saw and hoped desperately the driver would know where my hotel was. Miracle of miracles, he did, I had enough money for it, and I arrived to find J. safe in bed. Lesson learned: NEVER wander off in strange cities in the middle of the night. Never go with strangers, never forget your phone, and always, always remember how lucky you are to have someone that cares about you. Never let them go.

So our time in Amsterdam was brief, but we head onward to Berlin the next morning to meet up with the fifty-two people that would become our best friends for the next two weeks. We had a couple of hours to kill before the official group meetup, so we found a very German sounding restaurant named Andy’s and sat with a pitcher of beer in the sun, making each other laugh and sneaking video clips of each other answering impromptu philosophical questions. After changing and heading to the hotel, I met a girl I knew instantly was going to be an amazing friend. She ran up to me and introduced herself as “Jackie, like Chan”, and said how she’d been following my stuff on Facebook and “had to meet this girl”. She was lively, bubbly, full of hugs, dance moves, and good vibes, and we became fast friends. Getting to know 50+ people didn’t take long at all, and over a traditional German dinner, very quickly, very good friends were made.

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berlThe next day we went on a walking tour of Berlin in the beginning of what proved to be a giant European heatwave. We saw the Brandenburg gate, street art, grabbed some currywurst, almost made it onto a hot air balloon, took in the Berlin wall (where I cried at a message of love graffiti’d on it), and head out that evening to two German bars. The first didn’t last long, as it was basically in a boiling hot, airless room, but the second was surrounded by deckchairs in the park under the stars, where J. and I sat hand in hand looking at the stars. The next morning, we went along the East Side Gallery (longest remaining part of the Berlin Wall), and headed on to beautiful Dresden, which was stunning. The town had been completely rebuilt after being destroyed in World War II, and was full of beautiful, baroque-type buildings. We climbed a tower, took in the views, and head across the border into the Czech Republic.

I must say Prague was the city I was most looking forward to, but it didn’t even end up making my shortlist of favourites. It was absolutely stunning, but it was also packed with people who don’t move and shove you out of the way, scary traffic, pickpockets (luckily we were safe), and in a case of horrible timing, my PMS followed by two entire weeks of ‘that time of the month’ (two months ago I’d had a miscarriage – something I don’t want to go into; but my hormones were definitely all over the place) in addition to heightened emotions and heat exhaustion led to a big fight I read too much into and almost wanted to drop it all and go home. After a difficult night, neither of us wanted to miss out on getting up to see the sunrise over Charles Bridge, and we rose at about 5:00 to walk through beautiful parks and cobblestoned streets to catch the skies over the city bursting with colour. That morning, we joined the group for a bike tour through the city – which was absolutely wonderful! We learned so much, saw gothic cathedrals, began our adventures in speed photography, and spent some time in the beautiful old town square, where historic buildings and churches surrounded cafes that spilled out onto the streets. Here we had quite possibly the best pasta I’ve ever had in my life – at Coyote’s of all places!! We toured a nuclear bunker, dressed up in gas masks, and spent the evening with the rest of the group at a traditional Czech restaurant, where I bonded closely with a beautiful girl named Irene, shared drinks with new friends, and watched some fun dancing and games.

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Next up was back on the road toward Vienna, with an amazing pitstop at the Sedlec Ossuary – something I’ve wanted to see my entire life!! I’d always imagined it bigger, but it was a smallish chapel basically built with the bones of over 40,000 people arranged to form chandeliers and decorations inside. Nothing can describe what it was like to be surrounded by such immense beauty made purely of human bones. When we got to Vienna, we stopped at the beautiful Schönbrunn Palace for a quick jaunt and some fun group photos, and then head off toward the Schnaps Museum for a fun tour and lots of tasting 🙂 That night we were dropped off at the city’s Rathaus (city hall) – a stunning gothic cathedral upon which had been hung an enormous projection screen, surrounded by rows upon rows of seats. It happened to be the Vienna Film Festival, and we had our pick of glorious food and drinks from an open-air eatery to enjoy it with. Afterward, a dream was realised: when J. and I booked this trip, we realised we would have the opportunity to live a Frank Turner lyric (the song this post is named after, the one I dedicated to my busmates, and the one I’ll attach to the video I’ll be making of the whole trip) and “drink with drifters in Vienna” – we all went down by the riverside and sat by the water enjoying a beer. Amazing 🙂

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The next day was a much welcomed free day – so a small group of us joined forces and began the day at a very fancy cafe, trying out their famous cake (I can’t remember what it was called, but it was VERY chocolatey!) and cream-filled, wafer-covered ice coffees. We went to the Sisi Museum at the Hofburg Palace, which moved me once again to tears – I’d never heard of Empress Elisabeth of Austria (“Sisi”) before, but her tale and her writings were so tragic they tugged at my heart. Here, as I read quotes of hers in big letters across the walls, I vowed to write a song about this character – a carefree young girl who was thrust into the spotlight at fifteen years old, marrying a king who loved her unconditionally, living in splendour, yet eternally searching for some unattainable solace, miserable, and yearning for death… eventually assassinated in the late 19th century. Having in the past been in some very dark places, her words of such beauty and loneliness struck a chord, and I bought the only English book available on her and her writing. Our group lay on the grass in the palace grounds, taking photos (myself getting a massive bruise I ended up rather proud of after launching myself into the air and tripping trying to take a group shot), sharing stories and lots of laughs, and from here we went into town to climb over 300 steps in blistering heat to the top of a tower. Totally worth it! We found a pretty little tea house close by and grabbed a bite and a beer, and J. and I celebrated our half-year together by going on an adventure, finding a wonderfully creative restaurant with a big sign saying “we’re all mad here” on the outside (throwback to Fringe festival last month!), had epic conversations and pizza, and reconvened with the group as they took us to Prater amusement park to end the night, where we rode rollercoasters, and I shot myself into the sky with Jackie on a giant slingshot. It was brilliant.

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Next up, we headed for what became my other favourite city, Budapest, stopping in Bratislava, Slovakia on the way. Again, words fail to do justice to just how incredible Budapest was. This was the city going into the trip I knew the least about, but became the one that stole my heart. I had no idea it was two cities rolled into one; Buda and Pest sit on different sides of the river Danube and brought a fusion of exotic romanticism filled with architecture, castles, parties and adventure. By night we first went on a sightseeing tour, getting a spectacular view of the entire city, and taking in the royal palace. Then came a highlight: a dinner cruise down the river, seeing the city completely aglow from the water as we ate a feast of local specialities. At first we thought perhaps birds were circling a giant cathedral, lit up in gold, but we soon realised they were bats as we stood on the bow of the boat in each other’s arms. It was nothing short of magical. Before we left, J. and I had hoped we’d have time to visit the thermal baths in the city – little did we know that the one night we were there just so happened to transform these baths into a massive EDM dance party!! “Sparty” (terrible name, but I bet whoever came up with it was high-fiving himself pretty hard, haha)… how does one go about describing Sparty? The Széchenyi Baths are the largest in all of Europe, its water supplied by two thermal springs. Usually, people flock to the waters for their “healing” properties – but this time, people showed up by the hundredfold to party. I’ve never seen anything like it. Great music, cheap drinks, fireworks, and a laser light show that created 3D objects in the sky and made you feel like you were in the Matrix… all in the warm water while under the stars. This was an experience I’ll never forget for the rest of my life.

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Not too many people made it up in the morning for the walking tour, but around 11:00 we all started filtering out of our hotel rooms and into the corridors, where a small group of us teamed up and went on a mission to find a beer bike we’d seen the night before. These bikes can sit up to eighteen people, with ten sets of pedals. Everyone teams up together and drives the bike around the city with the assistance of one guide, whose responsibility it is supposedly to stop the bike ending up in a ditch or the river, as it’s also attached to kegs of beer and an unlimited supply! We were slightly disheartened when we found them all booked up, but lucked out when we found one on its lunch break, whose operator agreed to let us hop on for 45 minutes. It was perfect – we made it about halfway through the town square, haha, but enjoyed just being in such a beautiful part of town (Hero Square), relaxing in the sun in amazing company, then wandering through parks and learning about Dracula. We’d heard rumours that the labyrinth under the castle was de-illuminated after six p.m., and that it was still open for exploration for another hour afterward… by gas lantern. How could we resist?! We showed up at the castle only to find another handful of friends, and together we went down into the Labirintus on the adventure of my dreams. Lamps in hand, we went through sprawling dark hallways, thankful for the cool air and slightly terrified we weren’t going to get out. We took turns being tour guide (J.’s tales of Dracula in the best Schwarzenegger voice I’ve ever heard went down brilliantly), kissed in cages, and visited torture chambers, caves and cellars 16 metres under the ground. My love for these people grew so incredibly much as the trip went on, and I find myself so sad today wondering why some of the world’s best people must be so far away.

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That night, we went to an incredible place called Szimpla: the”ruin pubs,” a cult bohemian open-air collection of bars through which we roamed, marvelling (and trying not to collapse in 40-degree heat!) at the bric-a-brac-erie, the Christmas lights strung haphazardly across walls and tree branches, the live bands, the DJ who commanded a simultaneous spirit of chill and excitement, the various paraphernalia that adorned doors and walls, seating made from old bathtubs with mattresses in them and fairy-lit bicycles strung from the ceilings. We had what became my new favourite drink (which J. and I will make you at our next cocktail party), but escaped relatively early due to the heat.

Szimpla Kert in Budapest

Szimpla Kert in Budapest

After leaving this beautiful place, we found ourselves en route to Poland, where the entire coach took part in a music quiz (which we won hands down! Thank you, useless ’90s pop knowledge!), stopping briefly in Banská Bystrica. We were soon in Krakow, and first thing in the morning, explored (and got stuck in) the Wieliczka salt mines, once again heading underground into a labyrinth of tunnels, licking salt off the walls (Anthony: “So where’d they get the salt from?”) and learning about the oldest mine in the world. This place was incredible: we saw dozens of statues carved out of rock salt by the miners (including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose words make up a portion of my text tattoo) as well as several underground chapels complete with chandeliers. It was stunning, and the size of it too immense to begin to describe. Our small group of adventurers got separated from everybody else somehow, and we found ourselves not on the lift for normal people up to the exit, but squeezed in through a gate onto what felt like some kind of coal chute, shot back up to the surface. We grabbed food (I never want to see another sausage again) and danced in sprinklers in the heat until finally everyone was together again.

Krakow was also the place J. and I were determined to discover something called Lost Souls Alley – definitely not on the tour, but ranking hugely high on TripAdvisor! Escape rooms these days are all the rage (and with good reason), but imagine one located in a haunted house instead, at the end of an alley where your two choices were either strip club to the left or screaming and chainsaws coming from upstairs. Unfortunately they only had a single slot open that day and could only take up to eight people – so after feeding pigeons and splashing around in the beautiful market square, the most dedicated of us head over to the alley itself. Solving puzzles while being chased by monsters through room after room of absolute terror? Brilliant. We emerged alive, and went on to join the rest of the group for a traditional perogy dinner. I believe Krakow was also the place of the $1 shot bar… after our friend Danny bought at least a hundred, I’m pretty sure we’re all either barred for life or we’ll go back to find they’ve erected a statue of him. This may also have been Warsaw. I’m getting my Polish lines a little blurred.

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Quick sidenote: Poland was where I had to make an emergency stop for hair dye after Sparty destroyed all the beautiful purple in my hair and turned it grey! Do not buy hair dye in Poland! It does not come with all the supplies you’ll need, and your choices will be one of three. I grabbed the red one and ended up having to mix it with my own hands in the hotel sink and plop it on my head, hoping for the best. Rescue mission to come.

On our penultimate day, we found ourselves in the actual Auschwitz concentration camps. What to say about this place? It seems wrong to even utter words, instead taking the time to reflect once again on the horrors that took place in these factories of death. I walked past barbed wire, listening to our tour guide tell horrific tales of what could have easily happened to me or you had we been born in a different place at a different time. I saw endless shoes, spectacles, and luggage, stolen from real people who were gassed and burned. I walked through gas chambers and read about the experiments, and walked down hallways of photographs of those that lost their lives. Labourers. Hairdressers. Students. Ordinary people. I cried silently as the tortures were described, imagining there could be nothing more terrible than this happening to someone I love. These people were loved. And they were killed. My choice in atheism was affirmed again in this place: the religious among us may wonder where was God at this time of evil. The rest of us may wonder where was man. As we walked toward Auschwitz II (Birkenau), I told J. that when I got home, it was going to be so difficult taking part in our normal again. Seeing people complain on Facebook. Filling out spreadsheets. Things that, compared to these atrocities of broken bodies and deadened hearts, of faces without names whose souls reached for the sky as their physical shells of bodies plummeted into ash, mean nothing at all.  Nobody deserves to suffer, but nothing could possibly be anything close to what happened in that true nightmare of history. Be so, so very thankful for the life you have today.

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Last on our Contiki tour was Warsaw, and by this point most everybody was running out of steam and getting the dreaded Contiki Cough, yet all were filled with an eagerness to spend as much of the little time left we had together. J. and I spent the day eating perogies, wandering through a magic garden, enjoying a beer in the sun and packing up before heading out for one last night with our new friends.  We feasted, we drank, we danced, we embraced, and we all got up bright an early to say our teary goodbyes. I can’t handle goodbyes at the best of times, but when you’ve seen some of the most brilliant sights the world has to offer with these people, danced under the stars, sailed down rivers, launched yourself into the sky, got lost in labyrinths and witnessed the brilliance of human imagination as well as the madness of a man who changed history forever… when you spend every waking moment with these wonderful souls, these fellow dreamers, travellers, explorers and adventurers who flock from across the globe… you truly do leave a piece of your heart with each and every one of them. Saying goodbye was the acknowledgement that those pieces had shone brighter than ever, and as they splintered off back to their respective corners of the galaxy, life would from then on be that much duller. But, at the same time, each of those wondrous souls left a piece of themselves with me. New, glorious, exciting, brilliant friends with whom I’ve shared the memories of a lifetime. People I’m determined to do it with all over again. And that hope, that dream… shines on in its own way. A beacon to sail toward. I’m crying just thinking about how fantastic they all were.

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J. and I finished our trip by first heading to Paris, where I saw quite possibly my favourite sight of the whole trip: his face when we turned the corner and he saw the Eiffel Tower in person for the very first time. It lit up like a Christmas tree, and I was at once surrounded on all sides by beauty and wonder. Of course we ventured over and climbed it, despite the protest of our legs, which were at this point about to fall off, but we made it to the second storey and took in the brilliance of the city from above. A warm rain began to fall, and I pulled out the only umbrella I had – one covered in Union Jacks, of course, which quickly threatened to get us kicked out of France! We enjoyed a beautiful French dinner with a fantastic waiter, hopped the Metro to our hotel, dolled ourselves up as best we could in ten minutes and head for another wonder: The Moulin Rouge itself. I have to stop for a second here and express my heartfelt gratitude for the man I’m so lucky to be in love with. A Moulin Rouge show, in Paris, with him by my side. I felt like the luckiest girl in all the world. The show, Feerie, was absolutely packed, and the streets were lined with people queuing to get into this magical place. As we filtered in, we were transported to another world, one lit by warmly quiet red table lamps and veiled by drapes that hung across the ceilings like a great circus tent. We were seated, champagned, and treated to a show the likes of which I’ve never seen.

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Three hours later, we were due on a train to London, so we downed a couple of giant Red Bulls and hopped the Eurostar over the channel where we were met by my dear friend of 19 years, James. He’d planned the entire day for us, and treated us to breakfast, a ride around the London Eye, a trip through the Dungeons, a brilliant pub lunch in a pub that was restored in the 1600s, where we were joined in person by the lovely Elly, with whom I’ve been blog friends for probably near a decade! Great conversation and great food were enjoyed by all, and with our remaining couple of hours, we traipsed through the Tower, taking in the ravens, the crown jewels, and various instruments of torture. (Of course.) We ended the day back at the station, all I think holding in tears, and both of us feeling an immense sense of gratitude for the kindness and friendship we’d been gifted.

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I’m sitting at over 4,000 words right now (Contiki book deal, anyone?)  so I’ll wrap this up. Fifty-two new friends. Fourteen cities in sixteen days. Chickie Chickies and dead guinea pigs and Holas. “Moisto bene.” Memories, sights and experiences that made my heart soar and my soul occasionally sink, all of it coalescing and transforming me into something new. Coming back to where you started is infinitely different to never having left, and though materially I may be poorer, experientially I am blessed with the wealth of riches money couldn’t possibly buy, and more thankful, reflective, educated and inspired than I’ve ever been. The Eastern Road may have come to an end, but these friendships, these memories, these dreams… these are just the beginning of a whole lot more.

I’ll be working on a video of the whole thing over the next few weeks, and I can’t wait to share the spirit of this trip with everyone. Until then, here are about 700 photos!

On not blowing myself up, and how digital serendipity forever changed my heart

I’m sitting a few hundred thousand feet in the sky somewhere between Alberta and Manitoba, having left behind that magical city once again. I remember the very beginning of summer, when I found myself unemployed and was gifted (along with the time to do so) a surprise trip out to Vancouver, and I fell endlessly in love with it. The end of August, when I’d booked my original first trip, seemed so far away. Now both trips are behind me and I’m filled with a sadness that it’s all over, but a sadness that’s infinitely outweighed by gratitude, wonder, and hope.

If we’re Facebook friends, you’ll probably know that the lead-up to this trip was a little on the Sod’s Law end of crazy. I’d just started a new job, which I absolutely love to pieces and has made me feel incredibly welcome, appreciated, and has given so much in the way of encouragement, freedom, and patience. I feel creative, connected, and thoroughly enjoy each and every day I spend there. (Seriously, they let me run with this idea my first week on the job – just wait until you see what I get to do for Hallowe’en!)

10383006_10152662721309171_274438477794558083_nThey’ve also been ridiculously kind and patient with All The Things – lending me a vehicle when I accidentally spilled nine litres of kerosene all over the carpets of mine and spent two weeks driving around inhaling it; helping me with a rental car; allowing me the flexibility to make up time I had to take for, you know, being horribly ill and having to go get insurance and convince MPI I wasn’t an insane person. (The bulk spillage of fuel after carrying it around in your car for old-timey writing by oil lamp purposes apparently isn’t the most common of situations.)

So, the car almost blew up. I kind of poisoned myself. I had to spend a bunch of money to re-paint my entire apartment in order to be able to sublet. I had to pack up, hire movers (who showed up while I was still asleep and not finished packing or painting), and then spend the rest of the day frantically packing everything else and transporting it over myself (with the help of my wonderful father). The cleaner I’d hired did her thing, only to have my walk-through with the caretakers the next day fail miserably in that she’d taken the money, done an atrocious job, and I subsequently wasn’t going to get my damage deposit back. I couldn’t fix it, because I was getting on a plane. Then my mail redirection started being sent to my father’s house, because apparently having the same last name means we are the same person… didn’t have time to unpack in my new house, left my cat with a new environment, new people, and basically got onto the plane to Vancouver a complete wreck. Huzzah!

But oh, the difference twenty-four hours can make! I arrived, met by my best friend at the airport, and we laughed as my suitcase came off the plane vibrating loudly enough that it sounded like drilling from below. I had a little bit of a cry on the beach… but it was a beach. It was 11:00 at night and my face was kissed by a warm sea breeze and my eyes by glittering stars. We lay on the sea wall and broke open some emergency car wine and plastic cups, and I went off into the night to begin a BC adventure all over again.

Sky

The Artist and I spent the first day basking in the sun, devouring the best food in the world (when I inevitably move there, I like to think I’ll be healthy, with all the hills and walking and stuff, but I know I’ll turn into the poorest, fattest foodie on the coast). We sunbathed, and I began my mission to have a selfie with a seagull (preferably with one stealing food from my hand. It’d be awesome!). We ate sushi covered in coconut, sat on a beachside patio at an Irish Pub while tourists waved at us all covered in our tattoos, and met with friends to watch the most glorious of sunsets before a catch-up movie night. Every sense was set alight that day, and I felt an even stronger sense of belonging than before.

Cloud

The next day, BFF and I spent a day with the goal of touching the sky and the sea in the same day. We went up a mountain and wandered around in actual clouds. I can’t describe how awestruck I was by the whole experience. Walking, outside, as clouds slipped through our fingertips and swathed over the trees and fellow explorers, was enchanting. I felt like I should have worn black and taken some badass goth horror shots up there; a silhouette against the mist that swallowed up the trees. I touched the sky, and then we went to the complete opposite of a mountain: Lynn Canyon.

Canyon

The scale of these trees is far too immense to describe, but we trekked through them, down woodland steps made of roots, across a suspension bridge, down into the valley where we sat on rocks with our ukuleles and I slipped and fell and learned that my brain’s reflex is to save the camera, not myself, which was rather amusing, even if I was left a tad bruised and soaking wet. We ran into musicians in the forest, who asked us to play with them, and we headed for the beach to end the day with our toes in the ocean. All these things in a single day. Have I said yet how much I love this city?

Uke

I was so thankful to get to spend time with The Oneironaut and his beautiful lady, with whom I’ve taken to exchanging postcards and letters through regular mail. We had a fantastic writing session, and I was gifted a lovely notebook, inscribed with a message I’ll cherish, and I learned a few new exercises to get the creative juices flowing before settling down for a full-on writing session. We had the most incredible sushi under strange sculptures of mythical creatures hanging overhead, and though our visit was brief, it was wonderful. It’s funny how much you can come to care about people you’ve only met twice in person through a random encounter with digital serendipity.

GastownI revisited Gas Town, the closest place to York I’ve come across since moving across the Atlantic. Took in a ghost tour, and spent the rest of the night on cobblestoned streets, hopping from pub to pub, drinking expensive Pimm’s at bars lined with gas lamps and cocktails made with antiquey-looking tonic water. I may have stolen a little bottle to keep with my ever-growing collection of Vancouver mementos. We visited the steam clock, and I felt thoroughly at home talking with strangers about ghost stories and travel adventures, wearing things I might feel uncomfortable in in Winnipeg, but so very comfortable in there. I felt like some kind of time travelly, Victorian, sciencey artist-type, and that it was okay to be one there.

I visited the magical places where video games are made, saw my friends make great music and great art, went to an awesome comedy show, reconnected with the lovely lady I met on the plane last time I visited (who was reading the same fantastic book as me!), and we shared a hipster lunch and fancy Italian coffee. I went to geek heaven, in the form of the INSANELY cool Storm Crow Tavern (seriously, can I get on this? I’d be a great nerd pub owner), where you could roll a 20-sided die for a random nerd shot (including the – be still my heart – Sonic Screwdriver!), dine under the Temple of Cthulu, and the bar had a battle-axe high above it, in a broken case, with the words “in case of zombies, break glass.” The entire menu, design, layout, and feel of the place was incredible (from the TARDIS back door to the multi-gender, multi-species toilet signs), and I would very much like that to be my local.

I realise I’m already sitting at over a thousand words here, but I have another story I need to tell involving one of the biggest instances of Decent Human Being-ness I’ve ever experienced. Two days into the trip, I lost my laptop. The machine I take with me everywhere that has all my writing, every photo, memory, and every piece of art I’ve spent hours making on it. Luckily, my skills in Sherlockery are pretty fantastic, and I narrowed down the place I was sure I’d left it pretty quickly. Unfortunately, this place was closed for the long weekend, not opening again until the day after I was set to return to Winnipeg, so I spent the rest of the trip feeling a little bit like I’d lost an appendage, and hoping desperately my powers of deduction weren’t going to fail me.

Flash back a little while, and shortly before I arrived in Vancouver I’d received a message, from a perfect stranger who’d happened to find me online, read my blog, and sent me a beautiful message that made my heart smile.

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love new friends! And lo and behold, I just so happened to be in Vancouver. I went for brunch with this person, who was one of the most genuine people I’ve ever had the pleasure of spending time with, and we talked about the laptop, amongst other things. He had a bit of an old clunker and was in the market for a new machine, and asked what I’d been using, the specs, etc. We went to the Apple store and I recommended the Macbook Air wholeheartedly. Soon enough, he bought one, and I told him how much he was going to love it. He said I needed something to be able to keep doing what I’m doing, and said “how about this: I lend this to you, and if yours shows up next week, you can just send it back to me. If it doesn’t, then hang on to it, and you can pay me back if you want to.” I didn’t know what to say. An act of pure human kindness – I was kind of speechless, and I hope very much it wasn’t taken as anything but gobsmacked gratitude! I assured him he’d be seeing it again, and came home with a new machine I could keep creating on, and a new friend.

Sometimes we become so used to the world just being full of the mundane, full of people doing shitty things to each other, full of drama or heartache or bad luck, that genuinely pure acts of human decency and generosity take us by surprise. I’ve always found it slightly sad that sincere kindnesses are such a rarity they raise eyebrows, or evoke questions of ulterior motives. It’s been a personal mission for a long time to do everything I can to change this “norm” – to tell important people I love them, to send postcards in the mail for no reason, to pay for a stranger’s coffee or to give a lift to someone without a car. These little things are questioned, but I do them anyway. And to be the recipient of something so immensely good and kind took me by surprise, and words cannot describe my gratitude. The good news is that my detective skills were as sharp as ever, and my original laptop was found safe and brought home by a friend who was visiting the week after I’d left – every piece of art in tact (and desperately begging to be backed up!).

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I’ve been to Vancouver twice now in two months, and every time it burrows its way into my heart even harder, painting the walls with its warmth and beauty, kindness and brilliance. That place is full of some of the most talented, creative, genuine, wonderful souls I’ve been lucky enough to meet, and as a result of clicking on one artist’s page somewhere on the Internet back in January, my life has forever been changed for the better. Wonderful new friends. Magical experiences. Tattoos, sights, and a burning fire of inspiration. Now to try not to think about the fact that my favourite band in the world are going to be in that city in four short weeks… this is going to be quite the test in willpower 🙂

“Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”

As of next week, I’ll be flying to Baltimore, MD (home of the grave of a certain Mr. Poe!) for a work trip to attend the largest LGBT corporate conference in North America. Close to 3,000 LGBTAs will be in attendance, and I, a little Winnipeg Administrative Assistant, was somehow chosen as one of fifteen colleagues from across the world to go. This wasn’t without its challenges – Administrative Assistants don’t usually get to travel, aren’t really supposed to take on extra-curriculars, and definitely don’t have corporate credit cards. When I was asked, the immediate response locally was a hesitant yes, on the condition that I did all prep work for it on my own time, and earned the hours in advance to cover the travel days. Nobody else had to do that. But because of the unusual circumstance of somebody at my level being offered this opportunity, I did. Which I reluctantly decided I was okay with – I wasn’t going to miss out on something this awesome just for the sake of having to work through lunch hours! 

Something I’ve struggled with throughout my career are the limitations determined by job title. Possibly appearance, too, but I’ve talked about that before. I have a pattern of entering organizations at the administrative level – reception, admin assistant, etc. and quickly expanding the role as much as I can to reflect my actual capacity. I wasn’t given a brain to answer phones and file papers, and I’ve proven myself more than capable in writing/marketing/graphic design, social media, group facilitation, and all sorts of communications functions. At my last job, I initiated, designed and delivered entire curriculum for a series of workshops, gave corporate presentations to promote services, wrote radio/print ads, and managed two corporate videos from the ground up. Yet my title was not permitted to reflect how much more I brought to the role.  I always suspected it was due to looking young, but now I’m experiencing it again, I’m certain it’s the case. 

I’m 27 years old. I still get asked if I’m 18 and told how young I look. People joke that it’s a good thing – and I’m sure one day when I hit forty, it will be – but in the meantime, it’s a curse. People judge you based on what’s on the surface. They don’t take the time to read over your accomplishments or look at your work ethic. They don’t spend time investing in hearing your ideas or asking your opinion. They see someone who looks new to the workforce with an entry-level title. Someone inexperienced and therefore unworthy of being heard. I’ve come up with countless proposals, ideas and process improvements, I’ve expanded my network, I’ve initiated communications and social media strategies that have gone national. I’ve been asked to be part of a global steering committee for a corporate diversity network. Outside my office walls, I’m recognized and valued. But locally, I get the sense I need to stop thinking outside the box, get back in it, and stay there. Consequently, the flame on my desire to do more is waning. And how is that good for a company as a whole?

In addition to titles and physical appearance, I’m sure some of this is generational. I always have been one of the youngest members of the office, and it is hard to “teach old dogs new tricks”. But how do you get those tricks to be acknowledged when the very position you’re in is the obstacle? I’m struggling a little with this trip. I’m going as a corporate ambassador, to promote the company and how it encourages diversity, respect, and innovation. I am proud to work somewhere that supports these values – I just wish there was something I could do to help them become more of a priority.  Still, I am incredibly excited (and nervous!) for this trip. I’m going to be meeting colleagues from across the world I’ve been getting to know and befriend over the last few months. I’m going to be surrounded by people who have the same values I do, who share the same passion for equality in the workplace. It’s going to be incredibly inspiring. But I’m nervous about how to get my learning heard when I return home. I have felt disheartened – but one of my US colleagues encouraged me recently to keep doing what I’m doing. Keep standing up for what’s right, doing everything I can to promote inclusion, diversity and equality. He reminded me that I may only reach one person – but that that in itself is one more person touched than had I given up. I’ve tried to take that message to heart and keep it there for when things get tough. 

At the end of the day, I don’t want to look back and say I was defeated. I want to stand strong, though perhaps having taken a fair share of knocks, perhaps a little scarred, and perhaps slightly saddened by the discrepancy between how the world is and how it could be. But I want to be able to say I never gave up. I know my capabilities, and I refuse to be caged by others’ resistance to change and innovation. And I know my intentions are always to better things around me. It’s hard, sometimes, when your efforts are stifled and quelled, but I think that’s where personal accountability comes into play: it’s easy to become the product of other people’s expectations, and it’s alarmingly more so to believe something just because it’s continually reiterated – but you have to find your own truth, stand your ground, and remember the wise words of Albert Einstein: 

Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds. The mediocre mind is incapable of understanding the man who refuses to bow blindly to conventional prejudices and chooses instead to express his opinions courageously and honestly. 

I’ll update again soon – this summer/autumn have been incredibly eventful, and I have stories of tattoos, space parties, new kittens, love, ridiculous Halloween costumes, music, bookwriting and flesh-eating diseases to share, along with a post-conference update on how brilliant Out & Equal was. Oh, and why am I going to a giant LGBT conference anyway? No, to answer the colleague who asked my boss if I was “coming out”. I’m going because I’m proud to be an ally, and I want to do everything I can to change the corporate culture to one of equality, where people can feel comfortable, unafraid, and free to be their true selves.

Stay strong, stay real, and see you on the other side!

Edit: In a case of fantastic timing, I saw this article posted by a friend of mine today: When did Gen Y become Gen Y-Can’t-We-Take-You-Seriously? “I hate that adage that youth is wasted on the young. It’s so defeatist, and it comes with a whiff of patronizing bitterness and jealousy. Usually, it’s uttered by people who are older, who somehow resent the young – the beauty and possibility they possess, and the fresh intelligence that threatens those in positions of authority.” It seems I’m not alone after all.

Temporal anomalies, meeting my heroes, and horribly inappropriate Easter baking

Ahoy!

I’ve been meaning to write since getting back into Winnipeg on Monday, but said arrival was at about 3:30 AM and the last few days have been a whirlwind of playing catch-up to all the paperwork I didn’t do while I was gone, and all the sleep I didn’t get on my big American adventure. I’m still working on the latter. This past weekend’s trip was something I’d tossed out to a few friends a few months ago, primarily as One of Those Things you’d really love to do, but logistically would likely never happen – you know, stuff like travelling through time, solving a murder, raising your own ninja turtle or having David Tennant’s baby. So when it actually happened, it was pretty much the equivalent of waking up one day and finding out you’re Batman. Actually, let’s go with SuperTed, because he had cool rocket boots and a best friend voiced by the third Doctor.

This weekend, my best friend, her man, the Professor and I headed to Minneapolis to see my favourite band in the whole world. We got to the US border and were met by a typically burly and angry looking guard who proceeded to stand in front of the car with his arms crossed, not saying anything. Not having travelled by land to America in the last ten years, and definitely not having driven there myself, I had no idea what his problem was. He apparently had a series of problems, namely my Britishness, the fact that we had “lots of antiques” in the boot from the photoshoot (if a Dollarama decorative trunk that cost all of $2 and the complete works of Shakespeare count as antiques), that we didn’t know his silent frown clearly meant he wanted our passports, and most impressively, that we’d gone to the wrong border and didn’t have a map. We’d borrowed a GPS, not having realised you could choose between routes (shortest distance, fastest time etc.), and had followed the directions on the setting we’d presumed was the default. (Why would anyone want anything other than fastest time?!) It then took us an additional two hours driving through an endless time loop of several kilometres on US59 followed by a right on US59, a continuation on US59 and another left on US59, then a few more turns down the road on US59 (seriously, I’m pretty sure the name of certain area in the middle of a southern Nevada desert was a typo), but after heading due west to the Interstate, we finally made it to Minneapolis – two hours before show time!

The show itself was phenomenal. There’s nothing in the world like being in a room of people who share the same enormous passion for the same thing you do, enjoying the fact that people who make music that sets your soul on fire are ten feet away. I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited in my life. We bundled our way near enough to the front, and I took hundreds of photos and a few videos (on my new iPhone – why did I not get one of these before?) and then ran off to the side of the stage where they were packing up after the show. This was the part where I became possessed by the spirit of a twelve-year-old fangirl, lost the ability to voice anything resembling coherence or sanity, told them all how amazing they were and reached out to stroke the lead singer’s shoulder. What a creep! But my creepiness paid off, and after my friends interjected and showed that we actually were quite normal, we spent the rest of the show watching the other band, standing with my favourite band, talking about how they met, the fact we’d driven ten hours to see them (they felt awful!), and just music in general. I even had a photo taken with the whole lot – something I’m sure will rocket its way to the top of my list of Best Moments Ever and crash land there permanently. We all wandered around afterwards in a giddy euphoria, ordered the most amazing burgers I’ve ever had (delivered straight to our hotel room!) and collapsed in a happy exhaustion.

The next day, we checked out at noon and headed for the Mall of America, and learned that in America, speed limits mean absolutely nothing. First of all, they were in miles, and secondly, people seemed to add twenty to whatever the sign said showing no regard in the slightest for the safety of fellow humans. When we finally made it, we spent the day (yes, the entire day, and not the three hours that would’ve had us home before midnight) running around the indoor theme park, exploring shops made for writers (I want a dress made of stationery!) and sipping smoothies under the starry skies of the Rainforest Cafe. It was absolutely wonderful.

The ride home was faster,  but pit stops to toilets in the middle of nowhere (in the dark), the GPS guiding us off the road onto a grass hill surrounded by sleepy little houses that looked like the set of a horror movie (in the dark) – and then into a solid rock wall, added to high speed wakes of very large, very fast vehicles made it a little unnerving – but we made it back after hours of great music, plotting, copious amounts of sugar and a very bright Venus in the sky to guide us home.  We arrived at about 3:30 AM thoroughly exhausted, but it was so, so worth it 🙂

Now onto more adventures: in a couple of weeks, I shall be leaving Hobbit House and moving into a giant, sprawling, thoroughly haunted and brilliantly post-Victorian building. The apartment is the biggest I’ve ever seen – with three bedrooms (potentially four), two living rooms, a sun room, and a hallway longer than a bowling lane. The building has a courtyard inside (!) and is full of staircases leading to nowhere, doors opening onto brick walls, and it houses the oldest and creepiest cage elevator in the country. It has gorgeous wooden panelling halfway up the walls, an actual fireplace, and the bedrooms are probably bigger than my whole suite. I’ve already begun dreaming up evenings spent with typewriters and Merlot, covering my walls with the words of Shakespeare, and watching thunderstorms over the village this summer. It’s beyond perfect, and within a fortnight, it will be my new home 🙂

Hope you’re having a wonderful long weekend – and learn from my mistake: using pink icing in butterfly cakes unintentionally pays tribute to the whole fertility side of the Easter holiday, and may render your festive treats slightly NSFW. Oops!

Take me to the docks where there’s a ship without a name, and it’s sailing to the middle of the sea

In two days, I am going to be leaving the bitter streets of Winnipeg, and hopping on a plane that will take me to what looks to be one of the most beautiful places on earth. I still can’t believe it’s happening. I’ve had visions of the airline going under, the ticket not being valid, my Permanent Resident Card expiring, the hotel having no record of the competition, or losing my passport – it’s one of those genuine too good to be true moments, and I don’t think the reality will sink in until I actually set my suitcase in the suite, I pinch myself hard, and I am still surrounded by sparkling ocean and sunny skies. If this is actually happening, there are no words to describe how incredibly thankful I am.

I’ve been lucky enough to grow up seeing a fair bit of the world. Living in England, everything was a mere stone’s throw away – you could see Paris, Spain, Cyprus or Turkey in a couple of hours, and it didn’t have to break the bank. My parents introduced me to other countries, other cultures, and history thousands of years old. I’ve seen galleries housing the most famous paintings in the world, temples dating back centuries, amphitheatres and natural hot springs, castles and cathedrals and national monuments. The seed of the travel bug was planted early and has blossomed big – to this day I seem to have an insatiable appetite to see the entire world. I read blogs from people who live on the road, surfing couches and making a new home every day, and I think it’s incredible. I have friends who travel so often their home is a parking spot for a sailboat, forever at the beck and call of a new horizon; a new city to fill with imagination, storytelling and art. I wonder if, in a past life, I was a bit of a nomad.

To the heart, to the heart there’s no time for you to waste
You won’t find your precious answers now by staying in one place
And I’ve driven across deserts driven by the irony

That only being shackled to the the road could ever I be free

I wonder if Frank Turner’s really onto something. I’m so fortunate to have been able to see so much of the world in my twenty-five years. I have colleagues twice my age going on their first international trip this year, and here I sit struggling to think which countries I’m going to be able to cram in before I start “settling down”. Quotes intentional; I refuse to believe I won’t travel anywhere for over a decade after bearing children. Which definitely isn’t on the horizon any time soon! I have more than a few big places left on the wishlist – Australia, New Zealand, more of England and Ireland, and Prague…. I would love to see India, too. 🙂  Last year, I went on four different trips, taking me to five different countries on two different continents. Do we see a pattern here yet? If not, here’s a hint: it begins with “p” and ends in “oorness”! After next week’s trip, I doubt I’ll be able to afford to go far this year – I definitely plan on visiting Ontario, and possibly Chicago once more – but international destinations are temporarily on hold.

Until 2012. I hope. If I can keep up saving the amount I was each month for the damned wedding, I can use it toward saving for the next big holiday – Italy and Greece, perhaps? And probably a stop in the UK, provided it’s non-Olympic season. (Got to visit home, defined on the first Google hit as “a town populated by 14-year olds and their children“, welcoming visitors with testimonials such as “though 90% of the population are chavs, the remaining 10% aren’t such shits” – I don’t know if an extra 908,000 tourists, coinciding with the predictions of dear old Nostradamus, makes for the wisest timing for a visit…) I’ve only ever seen the Greek island of Corfu, and, being about nine, my interests back then probably lay more in the extra flavours of Calippo than in the Achillion Palace, but these days, I would love to see the sunsets of Santorini… explore ancient Olympia, and hop on over to the wonders of Rome and the canals of Venice. My heart definitely belongs in Europe, and I think this is one trip I can justify saving up for! So next time I’m tempted by January sales or a fancy new camera (which may or may not have been purchased recently…), I’m going to make it a habit to ask myself: do you want an extra top you don’t need? A new nail polish? Or do you want to see the world? And I’m hoping what follows next will be easy. Even if it takes a little while. 🙂

I leave you with the song whose lyrics comprised the title of this post – one of the most desperately romantic and beautiful melodies I heard in all of last year. Turn it up, close your eyes, and dream of faraway places… and I’ll see you in just over a week! 🙂