Montenegro Wonderland

The first time I used the term wonderland I was on the very early morning train into Slovenia from Austria three years ago. I stood staring out the window, the crispy morning air rushing in as we cut through the valleys and past the small, sleeping town towards Ljubljana. The later sights of Maribo, fields of wheat and Lake Bled merely confirmed Slovenia was a lovely looking place.

DSCF0760The same term could be applied again 3 years later as we took the bus from Sarajevo to Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro. The sudden snow in Bosnia, after days of plus 30C, dumped snow on the early roads heading out through the national parks of the north (home to the best rafting in Europe) to the open fields of the centre and the blue water of the coast.

After days in Sarajevo, Jan and I decided to leave the town and the country, knowing we’d be returning for the next weekend. In the hostel we met some newcomers, Julio and Michaela who’d just got in. Their plans were to stay in Sarajevo but after some quick chat and beer from the Dan and Jan show, Michaela convinced Julio to come along with us. We had a travel team. The wilted and hungover pulse lifted.

DSCF0846We got to coastal resort of Budva late, around 10pm and then proceeded to get lost finding the hostel. Jan, dressed in total black climbed the gates of someone’s house only to be confronted by a neighbour wielding a stick who quickly gave us directions to the hostel. You can’t hit a face like Jan’s. The Montenegro Freedom hostel was a classic, run by two guys, generous, smiley and chatty, they booked us in and then made the best breakfast of the whole trip, cheese and ham toasties with fresh fruit and tea. Nomnom.

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We spent the days going up and down the coast. Montenegro is tiny, nestled on the Adriatic between the old world sophistication of Dubrovnik and the old world, managed-chaos of Albania. The coast is stunning and littered with ancient forts, steep mountains, hidden bays and old, labyrinth towns. We went round Budva’s old town, to Sveti Stefan and then onto Kotor in one day. Kotor stopped me dead. I knew I had to come back to stay.

DSCF0882Julio lacked the time but the remaining three stayed over in a hostel in Kotor old town, climbed up to the fortress for some amazing views and walked around the bay trying to take pictures without the cruise liner which parked itself in the bay. It was like a tank on your front lawn. The hostel owner also turned out to be a nationalist who seemed to despise the Bosnian Muslims (only the Muslims care about the bridge in Mostar. I spit off it. Its only 5 metres). But that took little away from Kotor, a real gem town, smaller than Dubronvik but with tighter streets and knock-out views from the fortress at the top.

I’ll be back Montenegro and not just to throw that tosser off the roof.

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Joy from Joy

I spoke to Jennie today for the first time in a long time. We’re going to Barcelona this weekend for a few days and emailed her to see if she is around. She is and she isn’t. For on the 19th she’s suddenly getting married to her boyfriend. The wedding is on Formentera, just off Ibiza. I’m invited but can’t make it. Yet, I was so pleased for her, a huge smile came across my face.

Her happiness as someone I cared a lot and connected with meant a lot to me. I still remember our husband and wife routine to get free drinks in Borneo in the 5 star and bars. That after I invited her to breakfast, the first morning we met. I knew i had to talk to her. We later spent the days exploring, hiking, hitch-hiking, drinking wine, eating delicious Japanese and Indian food, so delicious it stopped all conversation for the entire main course.

I’m going to Bcn with Ilo, staying at Riccardo for a few days before he goes to Italy for a wedding and leaves us the keys to a city centre apartment, its haunts and options. The grand Festes de la Mercee is on, the weather looks fine and we migh sneak a Barcelona game, plus The Kooks are playing for free. Ordinarily this would be enough, seeing old friends, getting round the city, using it as a gateway to San Sebastian and the North coast from where I try to get over to Rome and Naples to see Andy.

Whilst this stinks of good fortune, I’m aware of what more I have to do this year to realise the plans of next year. Enough is enough for me, a striver with no real idea of an end goal but some vague form of enlightenment. Its time to get back to work. Keeps a man and his plans alive 🙂 I am heading to sunrise before returning to sunset. Gonna be a long, long day.

Cardiff to Japan and back again

I managed to squeeze in a weekend to Cardiff with Dr Luke, Ro and Poppy at the start of August. Alex from Notts Uni came down as well as my old mate Si. Ever a pleasure to see them and a rare one too with Si. Life post-uni, as many from Notts are finding out is very different, and rewarding in others way. Gone are the days wasted with hangovers, watching daytime soaps and mulling over physically leaving the house. Hobbies and friends become near luxuries. Get used to it; it doesn’t change.

 

 

We spent the weekend wisely, catching two matches (Korea vs Japan and Newcastle vs Cardiff). Neither game were particularly satisfying or important. We spent the Olympic bronze medal match inside the stadium but near camped at the bar. Newcastle managed to produce a magnificently bad defensive display that killed the game off by half-time. But what was important was the symmetry involved.

I’ve lived in both Japan and Korea for over 3 years in total. I know each culture well and cherish those times. We all caught trains to meet in Cardiff and it reminded me of meeting Yukiko on the way to Hiroshima. She came down from Kyoto while I boarded in Osaka.

We arranged to meet in the  front carriage. It was the early train, maybe 730 or so. I remember Yukiko asleep, curled up in the corner, bag in hand waking with a blurry subconscious look and my smile.

We passed the days in Cardiffdrinking beer in the park, talking over times and memories. I’ve much fondness for Si, a guy I totally respect and whose opinion I’ve often sought from football, music, women and work.

I remembered meeting Si at Kansai International with four beers in hand for the short train ride to my place in Kyoto. There was no other way to toast his arrival and  our times together. Days later we were in Hiroshima in kimonos, singing karaoke and getting carried home after too much sake and Captain Q whiskey. Again we went to a game to  a game, Germany vs the USA and I don’t remember a single moment of it. But I remember Si was there.

Poetry

I’ve never really ‘got’ poetry. Never read much of it, never wondered why I didn’t understand it much. The opaqueness of some of the wording, mired in pseudo-imagery often two or three steps from the actual language on show just puts me off. Its like read Olde English.

It could reflect a lack of patience which I could never argue against. Bourdieu would argue my working class parents couldn’t never imbue me with the right cultural capital to find the answers. But like post-modern art, possibly I don’t need to understand.

I should try though. There must be value in such an ancient craft. Linden is always coming up with a poem to read. I’ve watched her on stage, admired her guts and still left none the wiser. Below is a poem written by a friend from Notts Uni Jas and dedicated to me. I’m not sure the sentiments are about me or reflect our friendship but its a nice to read. Thanks x

It’s not like I haven’t felt this before
But it’s quite right I’ve not sang of it at all
‘til now
It’s a feeling that sweeps my clarity
Into something smudged on pages
That blows away a fine peace,
Built trickily and took ages
It sets its mess and lays eggs
Abruptly hatches confusion
So blacks and whites turn grey
And I’m blinded by delusion
The delicate definitions that
I built on which to sit
Crush under weight of thought
And to blurriness, submit
Thinking thoughts of loves and hates
And what’s the difference now?
I’m scared it’s only true I’m hated
Like when I hated me not being Miss Lau
But this isn’t that; it’s worse
Inconsequent, shot all around
Cannot shield from this dimension
When blasts inside my head abound
So abrupt and sudden
I wasn’t expecting to sing
Of something so morose when I’m
Still raw from singing blessings
Now every shade of grey in sight
Isn’t welcome by defences
The love which saw each shade a friend
Was destroyed by muddy senses
I think I reached a threshold
Of okay-ness to ask
Of okay-ness to expect but I
Think I went too far, it passed
Under my feet, a line that I
In my own head conceived
Now even you of pure light
Will be disbelieved
Yes and those from who I’ve drunk
So deep; I can’t even see,
Instantly, how you
Ever cared for me
But I recognise
This ugliness that’s why
I sang and through song…
Salvation is nigh.

Nottingham Mark Two

So I returned to Nottingham last weekend. While I kinda missed the place, I certainly missed the people I met. Last weekend a lot of the MA-ers were handing in their dissertations and I wanted to see them, look at the place again and see a street art exhibit at the Contemporary. I managed to do most.

You might have read the blog I re-posted on FB dispensing my initial thoughts of the city (town?) from July 2010. Reaction was swift from locals in particular who felt I’d done the place a disservice. Jon called it harsh (but liked the ending), Siobhan referred to Nottingham as a aesthetic and cultural dream (come on…!) while Ashley assumed I didn’t like it. Well I did.

Last weekend was the marathon which in 2010 had marked my first weekend in the flat, a pretty but cold place with high ceilings, no TV or internet and ultimately too damn far away from Uni. I checked the TV this weekend and Big Fish was on, one of my favourite films. That was on last year too.  I love that film. So it all means its been one year for Mila and Basia too, since I met Mila and gave her the keys to the flat before running off somewhere for something.

I mentioned I found the city a curiosity. But there are small gems mostly in the Hockley area; Broadway cinema, Rosey’s Tea Shop, Jam Cafe or the Contemporary. Further a-field there’s the Orange Tree, Sir John, Crocus Cafe, The Golden Fleece, The Maze, the cheesecake shop etc. All these places became my haunts. I’m a recognised face, for better or worse. 🙂

I said ‘I was a fool for now’ in the original piece lulled in by the city’s gentle atmosphere. Little changed overall. As I got to know it, I liked it more, felt comfortable and found my homes with ease. The city is still very walk-able (except to Uni), the roads and pavements are quiet and the townsfolk are kind. A serious saving grace are the music venues, acoustic nights everywhere and plenty of international bands called through.

As you can tell I’m still pretty ambivalent about the city but in a positive warm way. I think a lot is related to the University. It does have an out the way, ivory tower feel about it. It lacks a hub. The Union building feels like a shell, the bar is paltry and only the library or just outside could be considered a meeting point. It lacks a community vibrancy, a homely feel. Its almost a chore to get there. Lenton and Beeston are the same. They can’t act as student hubs for they lack the infrastructure. No pubs, no real cafe, no communal vibe.

There’s a Cathedral. Did you now that? You may have walked past it on numerous occasion but it looks more like a small church. There’s a castle that isn’t. It also lacks, and this may be a benefit a distinctive street or area like Broad Street in Birmingham, famous for its run of pubs and curry houses or Big Market in Newcastle. The higgledy-piggledy nature of the centre with its weaving streets and lanes make it difficult to gather an image.

But putting it all in relative perspective, few cities in the UK stand out. Bristol has a vibrant music scene with access to the sea, Liverpool is Newcastle plus The Beatles, Manchester is trying to go Northern Cosmopolitan, Bath and York are lovely but quaint. Only Edinburgh, Brighton and London stand out as go-to cities. Nowhere else really stands up.

Returning to study will be interesting. Many friends who came to visit referred to the city jokingly as Nothingham. There was even going to be a Uni magazine article about it. I can understand that. At first glance, that’s pretty much all you see. But the city does have the amenities but without the distractions. It feels comfortable without the sprawl and contains hidden, small delights without the swarm. As someone I know would say, ‘it’s aright.’

Old Friends A-new

Ossie (finger-print t-shirt) came to visit a few weeks ago. He was in Europe for the first time travelling during some free time and made a bee-line to hang out with me in Oxford where I was working. He travelled with a book and his friend Jim, a clear-thinking, intelligent guy. The book was The Human Brain by Professor Susan Greenfield. It was mine but I’d given it to Os 3 years ago in Melbourne when I lived with him on the promise he gave it back to me personally.

‘Here it is mate,’ Os explained in his broad Aussie tone. So now after 3 years, there he was in the Kings Arms on a Thursday afternoon in Oxford, waiting to have a beer again with the book primed for returning.

I like to give books as random presents. Not only to impart what I consider valuable knowledge and awareness (forgive me being presumptuous!) but more simply as a gift that reflects my views on friendship; deep and long-lasting like books. For I take friendship seriously (even when I can’t resist taking the piss). Fundamentally we have a sense of responsibility to take care of each other, to make sure we can be the best we can be. I’ve been fortunate to have friends who have helped me out. I often can’t offer much but I do my best. Some music, books, a touch of knowledge, some humour and the encouragement of an optimistic guy.

How we interpret friendship says a lot about us, most importantly about how we are socialised. There is often an emphasis on difference between groups. It can seem difficult to broach numerous cliques. Talking to a new group and away from your own in a pub is viewed with suspicion in England. Our privacy settings are too high.

Yet having crossed the globe the odd time, I’ve found very little to keep us truly distinct. We hope the same dreams and seek genuine assurance and opportunity. I don’t believe in temporary friends or friends of circumstance. I build friendships and relationships that last, even if its difficult to keep in contact sometimes. And great, long-lasting friends can be made on any night.

So many a-time, I treat people as an old friend from the start, breaking down our entirely false social conventions. In a hostel, get a bottle of wine and offer a glass to those nearby. Once that bottle is finished, the next bottle is sure to arrive. At university, be forward and direct, inviting people in, for no one wants to be on the outside. The eight friends who visited me in Oxford over the last month were all reinforcing our sometime brief interactions. Like most others, before they were simply friends I hadn’t met yet.

So to my old friends a-newed this summer; Mirella after 6 months, Os after 3 years, Pedro after 4 months, the Oxford staff after one year, Rob after 6 months, Hanna after 2 years, Linden after 8 months, Mary after 2 years, Sarah after 4 years, Vedran after 3 years, Jane after 6 years, its been warming to continue without a blip again. And to everyone I’ve met this year including the Nottingham and Oxford crews, if I don’t see you soon, I will be thinking of you. You’ve shaped my existence in leagues. Thanks.

That reminds me: I’m off to the book shop. I wanna get Mary a book.

Linden left a few days ago

Linden left a few days ago. It feels like longer. I got up for her early taxi ride to the airport, acutely aware that despite her calmness this was a 1 hour journey through the desert at night alone with a taxi driver. It worried me and her though we tried not to talk about it. I got all the assurances I could, hugged her, waved her off and tried to sleep.

She is a brave girl, doing what she wants (or needs), moving between cultures and finding a home. Over this last few weeks, I have seen a more considerate side that I hadn’t noticed previously. It was always there no doubt but I hadn’t seen it summed up until she fully took care of it all. Her thoughtfulness is genuine when for some it’s convenient.

A girl who gets up on stage and sings when she knows she can or plays the guitar when she knows she can’t. Who gets up in the morning to take the morning sun, the quietness and the absence, filling each day until she removes her contacts, puts on the PJs and gets to bed. All in one seemingly fluid momentum.

I have seen her at her weakest, in a time which challenged her and left her isolated.
Almost overwhelmed. She is too stubborn to admit it but her eyes were wide with pain. I happened to be there then. She came through it with the same quiet willfulness that sometimes makes us argue but never threatens to boil over. I did my best for her but knew it would never be enough.

She works diligently, smokes her rollies, rides her simple bike around the grey streets of Berlin, cooks across cultures, drinks whiskey, plays her guitar without shame, reads Carver and Proust, writes her poetry, replies to emails occasionally, muses with artists, is chased by the same, men who want to take her and care for her. I am impressed. More and more so.

I watched her on stage in Berlin. She glanced over a few times but I rarely met her eye. She told a story about us from Brussels, a funny self-depreciating story which made me smile. I was proud of her up there, perched behind a large guitar, no doubt hungover but determined to do her best. I knew she wouldn’t fail herself. And everyone would be pleased. There was too much admiration in the room for her.

I saw plenty to like in Linden on this trip. With vivaciousness, creativity, sensitivity, open-mindedness, education and depth that need not be tamed, controlled or taken care of, she is some girl. And friend.