Symbolic Forest

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Blog : Posts tagged with ‘travel’

Problematic city

On Amsterdam

Central Station: the transport hub of the city. Trams and metro to all parts of the city; buses to all parts of the suburbs. Ferries to get you across the harbour. And trains, of course, to the airport, to the rest of the country, to the rest of Europe. Underneath the station a crisscross of subways provides the usual transport-hub range of things a traveller in need might be looking for. New luggage, flowers, quick food. There are fast food units in the subway, selling chips, fried chicken in a bun, other forms of quickly-cooked meat, where the shy but hungry traveller need not even speak to the staff; and conversely a shy fast-food-frier never need speak to their customers. The whole front of the unit is a wall of clear plastic coin-operated boxes, each with a door at the front and a door at the back, each hopefully containing some tasty but unhealthy morsel. The hungry traveller puts their coins in the slot and opens the box; at the back, the staff fill up empty boxes with more hot food. Everything is, under heat lamps, on display behind its little perspex door to tempt you.

We didn’t, I have to admit, arrive in Amsterdam by train. We arrived on the cheap overnight bus from London, which drops you off first thing in the morning in a car park on an artificial island in the harbour, midway between the city and the equally artificial suburb of IJburg. The tram then takes you onwards into the city, tunnelling under the Amsterdam-Rhine Canal, backpackers and budget tourists packed in alongside commuters on their way to work. It takes you, naturally, to the vortex of looping tram tracks and platforms in the forecourt of Central Station. We changed trams to head off to our hotel, stood waiting for our next tram to arrive, and took in the sounds of the city.

The main entrance of the Central Station has a clock tower at either end, square, topped with a pyramidal spire. On the right-hand tower is a clock face. The left-hand tower has something that at first sight looks similar, but with only one hand On the day we arrived the single golden hand was sweeping back and forth rapidly, with no apparent pattern to its movements. Bells were clanging, and I thought through some natural pattern-seeking train of thought, that each clang of a bell corresponded with the swish of the single hand through each segment of its face. It was an auditory illusion: the bells were the bells of trams pulling away from their stops, a sound you will hear all over the city. After a few minutes I realised that the markings on the face - N, NO, O, ZO, Z and so on - were the Dutch compass points. The hand was a wind indicator, connected mechanically to the weathervane atop its tower, responding to the gusty wind blowing across the flat waters and flatter land surrounding the city, telling everyone with the skill to read it which boats they might expect to be coming into harbour from which directions, and which might find the weather fit to sail. A suitable sign for a merchant city whose golden days were created by sailing ships gone for months at a time, where the traders left back at home would carefully watch the wind, wary of whether it would indicate fantastic profit or total ruination.

It is, of course, fake. Almost brazen in its fakery. I don’t mean that it doesn’t do anything, that there’s no weathervane and the hand’s movements are random: it is genuinely displaying what the wind is doing above Amsterdam right now. What is fake about it, is the thought that any merchants ever watched this particular weathervane for signs that their fortune was about to be lost or made. Central Station wasn’t built until the 1880s, and it was built on Station Island, which as the name suggests didn’t exist until it was needed to put the station on. Station Island was dropped right across the old harbour mouth, roughly on the spot where, back in the city’s golden days, a floating boom was laid out every night to defend against attack from the water. The Central Station sealed off the old quaysides along the River Amstel, the source of the city’s wealth, from the wilder waters of the IJ. It was controversial; it was the final death-blow to the old, decaying Golden Age city’s harbour. The wind indicator on top of the station is, in some ways, the first sign of tourist theme-park Amsterdam. Telling all those waiting for their trams that today the winds are good for boats at anchor in the Zuider Zee to come into port and land their precious cargo, even though the building it is part of would fox any attempt by a temporally-adrift East India boat to reach the city’s merchant quays. For that matter the Zuider Zee itself is no more: the IJ, the bay that Amsterdam teetered on the edge of, is a freshwater inlet of the Markermeer lake, one of several different and separate patches of water and land which the old, treacherous Zuider Zee was carved into during the twentieth century.

Only a few minutes’ walk from the station, the Oude Zijde is the real tourist heart of the city. And by that, I mean, tourists flocking to Amsterdam will generally reach Central Station and pour themselves into the Oude Zijde to get drunk, get stoned, and have sex. By “tourists” I mean a particular type of tourist, of course, largely young alcoholic men, and by “have sex” I mean mindless mechanical fucking. I might not know the city well, but the Oude Zijde seems to be constantly crammed with drunken tourists staggering about, gawping at the fetish shops as they wander from bar to bar, joking about how many whores they’re going to use, should they find the courage. The brothels themselves are unmissable: shop frontages consisting solely of glass doors, pink neon strip-lights above them. Behind each door stands a woman in cheap satin underwear, posing for the passing drunkards to try to entice them in. Should one of them have enough courage - each, I imagine, thinking of the amount of “banter” he will get from it back home in Corby or Hexham or Andover as long as nobody tells his fiancé about it - the woman will take their cash and lead them through the door, upstairs into a tiny bedroom, leaving her doorway empty until she is ready for the next fucking customer. Then she comes back to present herself on show again, like a bag of chips, or some fried chicken in a bun. “I can’t believe you did it, mate,” the customer’s friends will shout, all too willing to believe that women will.

I don’t like to think that the Oude Zijde, popular though it is with all the tourists, represents the real Amsterdam. It horrified us. Some streets in Britain have a bad reputation on a Saturday night: St Marys Street in Cardiff, for example, or the Centre in Bristol. The Zeedijk of the Oude Zijde, though, was hardly any more pleasant than a British city Saturday night, on a summer weekday afternoon. When I think back about Amsterdam, I try to block the Oude Zijde, its endless vomit-bars and its women-as-fast-food out of my mind. We never even tried to see any of its great sights, such as the church which gives the district its name.

Walk, instead, in the other direction. Start, again, looking at cheap food beneath Central Station; but walk the other way, through the tunnels under the station platforms, under the bus station, and on to the banks of the IJ. At one time you would have been looking out on open water; swimming in it, in fact, before Station Island was built. Nowadays it seems more like a river, a Thames or a Hudson, but back in time this was a wide bay. The water, whatever you call it, is busy here, with little boats darting back and forth; free ferries linking North Amsterdam with the main part of the city, and longer-distance boats slowly ambling past them. “Upstream” and “Downstream” are meaningless concepts on this stretch of carefully-managed water. Originally the way to the sea lay east, via what is now the Markermeer and the IJsselmeer; then, after a canal was dug, north; nowadays west via the newer, larger North Sea Canal.

I’ve never really been to sea, other than the occasional ferry. The longest I’ve spent on a boat, as far as I can remember, is on the cross-channel ferry from Dover to Dunkirk, an entire two hours spent steaming across the mad dash that is the Strait of Dover, dodging heavily-loaded container ships heading from China to Rotterdam. According to my mother though, a hundred and fifty years back our family consisted of a tight-knit bunch of Cornish fishermen and wreckers living in a village so nautical it didn’t even have road access. Before that, according to family myth, the Cornish fishermen had in turn descended from a group of Spaniards who decided to switch sides in 1588 and never made it home again. However implausible this story might be, however unlikely it is that I could inherit tastes specifically from a branch of my ancestry that can only make up, at the most, a sixteenth part of my genetic heritage, I have to admit that I do rather enjoy the abstract concept of being in a boat. In, I promise, an entirely armchair way. I love to walk alongside a harbour watching canoeists capsize and trainee sailors send their sailboats in the wrong direction, and think it might be nice to try it out, some time in the future. The one time I did actually try canoeing, back in primary school, I was the only child in the entire class to fall in, so it’s probably a good idea if this theoretical aptitude remains completely hypothetical. Nevertheless, getting on board one of the ferries that run back and forth across the IJ, hand resting on the side of the boat, looking out across the choppy water studded with red buoys, I certainly felt in my element. The boats are simple straightforward things, symmetrical, both bow and stern consisting of a large fold-down gangway via which pedestrians, cyclists, scooters and tuk-tuks all pour aboard; the passenger deck runs straight through from end to end, with the bridge up above in the centre, the boats shuttling back and forth from one bank of the IJ to the other without ever needing to turn around. When they get going, they get going with a purpose, forcefully pushing their way blunt-ended across the water or up and down the harbour, past warehouses turned into flats and shipyards turned into offices. The working docks are now east along the canal towards the sea, so large on the map they dwarf the city itself.

Over on the far side of the IJ, we found a café which seemed put together from random timbers and pieces of plastic panelling, sitting on a point overlooking the water. Tucked away behind it was a sty, to raise its own pork and bacon. We sat indoors and relaxed as rain battered the windows, surrounded by dereliction repurposed for offices and street art. The stumps of shipbuilding cranes still stood, sawn off abruptly at their hips: it had a disconcerting effect, as if their upper parts had been Photoshopped out of the scene. This redeveloped dockland was nothing at all like the hard, shiny, corporate enclaves of Canary Wharf; instead, it was if the residents of Stokes Croft or Shoreditch had suddenly been teleported to some derelict post-industrial wasteland and left to get on with things. We don’t seem to do redevelopment like that in Britain. If you visit somewhere with partly-redeveloped docksides - Cardiff Bay, say - you see a complete and severe dichotomy between entirely rebuilt landscapes filled with expensive and privately-guarded flats, and over the fence, a scene of empty desolation where the remaining port tries to hang on to docks that might, maybe, be required for trade again one day. In North Amsterdam the two blur together. Just like how, throughout Dutch history, the marshy land has blurred into the reedy inland seas.

We decided to try walking along the waterside to a different ferry terminal, the one directly opposite the Central Station, but the banks of the IJ are so indented with canals and dockland that it turned into a very long way around, compared to the direct route along the water. All of this land is unreal: instead of docks being cut into the land, land was dredged up and squeezed between the piles to form docks in the negative space. Perversely, it reminded me of growing up in Lincolnshire, in another town where the ships are higher than the buildings and modern housing estates give way to industrial sheds. We crossed a canal packed with houseboats, passed a vast, humming electrical substation, and decided to wait for the bus instead. I can imagine myself living in North Amsterdam, in a little suburban idyll only a quick bike ride from the ferry into town. Normally I think of myself as a city person, and as I said, I can’t stand the centre of Amsterdam, but I can imagine myself being entirely happy just outside. Does that make me a hypocrite?

Out in the suburbs, even in the fashionable inner suburbs where tradesmen’s tenements have been converted into designer boutiques and vegetarian restaurants, it’s easy to forget about the nasty Amsterdam that the stag parties head straight for and stay with. We tried to stick to the quiet parts of the city; we’re quiet people. Even heading out away from the centre, though, we couldn’t help noticing more of the glass-door brothels: on the edge of the Pijp district, for example, overlooking the Boerenwetering canal. You can spot them from a distance, by the distinctive pink strip-light over each door. It seemed to be the largest we’d noticed in the city to date, and we had to turn ourselves away.

You could easily accuse me of being dismissive over this, I guess, or of brushing over these Empowered Women’s right to sell their bodies and their sexuality to anyone they choose to. And I admit: I have never met any Amsterdam prostitutes, still less, to the best of my knowledge, talked to any. I have no idea what their stories are, where they came from and why they are behind their little glass door. Why shouldn’t men be able to buy sex in exactly the same way they buy a chicken burger? What harm is being done? And it’s true that the lot of an Amsterdam prosititute is, in most cases, nowhere as near as it is in those parts of Britain where prostitutes are regularly murdered by serial killers the police are usually uninterested in catching. But why should I not find it distasteful and horrific, that these women are being advertised and commoditised like this? How many end up chewed up like food? It’s a continuum, you could say: at one end there’s don’t touch performance, strippers and burlesquers showing their bodies off; in the middle you have the dominatrixes; next to them, the prostitutes. If burlesque dancers and dominatrixes are intelligent, modern, empowered and independent women using their own confidence to turn the system upside down and take advantage of the patriarchy, why doesn’t that apply to prostitutes too? To which I reply: show me a burlesque audience there to admire a woman’s empowerment and not her tits. Show me a dominatrix who dresses for herself and not for her customers. Tell me that putting a person on display behind a glass door isn’t degrading and inhumane.

I’ve read accusations charging the Dutch, or the Amsterdammers at any rate, with hypocrisy for features like the wind indicator atop Central Station. Features like tne Nieuwmarkt metro station, whose architecture commemorates the riotous protests against its own construction. But would these accusers prefer it if history and controversy was completely forgotten? It strikes me more to be a manifestation of, what we could call if we were to descend into national stereotyping, the traditional Dutch compromise. The habit which supposedly arises from the need of the medieval Dutch to agree quickly on how to fund and build each dyke, before the waters submerged them. We must build the railway across the harbour-mouth, but the railway we build will hark back to our great seafaring days. We must knock down the neighbourhood to build this metro, but we will memorialise it when we design the station. There could, you could argue, be a similar degree of pragmatism at work in the open brothels of Amsterdam. No nation on Earth, after all, has been able to ban prostitution; so put it out in the open where it can be seen. Maybe the problem I have, the revulsion I felt, is not with the brothels themselves as much as the men who flock from around the world to use them.

On a different day, as we again found ourselves walking through Stationsplein towards the city, some passing tourists with Geordie accents asked us if we knew the time. They were I assume fresh off the train from Schipol, and were astounded to discover that we, the first people they’d spoken to in the city, spoke English. I couldn’t help thinking, they should have been more surprised if we hadn’t understood them. Shortly after we came home, I received an email, one of the standard “would you like to apply for this job?” fishing emails that recruitment consultants send out in their thousands every day. This one, though, was for a job back in Amsterdam, and it promised hard that I wouldn’t need to speak a single word of Dutch. It was sorely tempting. Find ourselves a flat in a quiet part of North Amsterdam and catch the ferry to work every day. Follow all the old Dutch customs, like eating waffles and paying in cash at the supermarket. But would I really not need a single word of the language? Tempting as it was, I didn’t follow it up. Maybe nowadays, after a little reflection, I would do. Maybe I could turn a blind eye to all the tourists drawn like magnets to the Oude Zijde, and teach my children that the women displaying their bodies have nothing, but the men drawn towards them, have everything, to be ashamed of.

In case you were wondering, I did, whilst we were in Amsterdam, try out some fried chicken in a bun from a little perspex box in the subway beneath Central Station. It wasn’t the best street food I’ve ever eaten - that has to be an angelic and heavensent hot dog in Copenhagen - but it wasn’t bad either. It had all the magic ingredients that the best Western street food should always have: hot, slightly salty, slightly greasy, a deep-seated feeling of pleasurable guilt, and instant satisfaction followed ten minutes later by the knowledge that you need another. I did not, in case you were wondering where this was leading, try out any of the other clear doors. I’m not sure I will ever be comfortable that they exist, and I can’t entirely put my finger on why. I could quite happily spend all day riding a ferryboat back and forth on the IJ, watching the boats and warehouses zip past as we headed towards the glittering recumbent shell of Central Station, so long as I could block the drunken hordes from my mind. Instead, hold a wet finger in the air, feel the wind blowing across the flat, flat lands of Holland and realise what it means for fishermen in the middle of the IJsselmeer or tall ships out in the wild open sea beyond the dune-belt. I could live here, if I ever learned to compromise.

Summer railway

In which we have a trip out by train

Never mind “Spring Bank Holiday”: it’s June, and it feels like it’s summer already: last weekend, we had a day at the beach, and both ended up horribly sunburned. As shorts aren’t an option for work, I winced every time I moved my legs. Yesterday: a bank holiday weekend, and beautiful sunshine again, so we went off for a cream tea and a steam train ride.

The footplate of a steam locomotive on a summer’s day is a horribly hot and airless place to be. Nevertheless, riding behind a steam engine seems like such a naturally summery thing to do. So we travelled down to the South Devon Railway,* for a day’s relaxation sitting in railway carriages and watching trains go past.

The South Devon Railway is, as steam railways go, an unusually scenic one. Being in Devon it’s surrounded by lush, verdant countryside; it follows the River Dart down from Buckfastleigh, past rough, rocky rapids; weirs and once-busy mill-races; finally alongside the more placid deeper, lower stretches of the river, down to its tidal weir just by Totnes station. It doesn’t take much effort for a train to trundle downriver; as we sat in the front carriage with the windows open, we could hear the locomotive clanking its way down the valley with barely any steam on, the vacuum pump making a light chiff noise for each revolution of the wheels. Every so often, a gentle touch of speed was needed, and we heard the deeper huffhuffhuffhuff of the cylinders, four huffs to each vacuum pump chiff. We passed sleepy red cattle, wading fishermen, and groups of wading photographers standing on mid-river rocks to take photos of the passing train.

Country trains often ramble a little, and pause unexpectedly. Midway along the line, we halted in a loop, and waited quietly for another train to pass. Other passengers, not used to this sort of thing, looked around and wondered what the problem was. We were too far away from the signalbox to hear the block bells chiming; but we could hear the rattle of the signal wires as the signals for the down train were pulled off, then we watched it slowly chuff past us before we started on our way again.

This is not Photo Post Of The Week, incidentally. That’s because the photos below aren’t ones I took yesterday; as usual, my photo uploads are far too backlogged for that. These, though, are from the last time I visited the South Devon Railway, about three years ago. The fixed stop signal has been repainted since, but not much else has changed.

Buckfastleigh station

Watering an engine whilst rounding the train

GWR tablet catcher, Buckfastleigh

* Things it is important not to confuse pt. 373: the South Devon Railway, the line from Exeter to Plymouth designed by Brunel, opened in the 1840s, and bought out by the Great Western Railway in the 1870s; with the South Devon Railway, the heritage railway formed in the early 1990s to take over the Dart Valley Railway’s tourist line from Totnes to Buckfastleigh and turn it from a business-oriented tourist attraction into a more charitably-run steam railway. You may spot a problem of similarity with the names there.

Photo Post Of The Week

In which we visit a small corner of London

Regular readers might recall that recently, we visited the London Zine Symposium, and I mentioned it on here. That post, after lots of rambling about the aristocratic “anarchists” of the zine world, ended with us leaving the zine symposium and heading off into the big city, with no hint of what we might do next.

Well: we explored. I took K on a walk something like one I’d done before, from Bankside up past St Pauls, through a deserted Smithfield, past Farringdon and up into Clerkenwell. And on the way, we passed somewhere I wasn’t aware of three years ago when I last passed it. So, we went in.

Postman's Park

This is: Postman’s Park, right in the centre of the City, on King Edward St; a 19th-century park made from former graveyards and churchyards which abutted each other. A small patch of green. I’d heard about it from Nothing To See Here, which has featured Postman’s Park and its most distinctive feature. The Watts Memorial, to commemorate the bravery of ordinary people.

Memorial, Postman's Park

It consists of 47 tile plaques, under a lean-to shelter, commemorating ordinary people who died saving the lives of others, in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The painter G F Watts created it, from the late 1880s onwards; he delved into the archives for some of the plaques, commemorating deaths from 25 years earlier.

The rest of the park has its own air of strangeness, being lined with headstones dating from its days as a group of churchyards. Especially on a summer Sunday evening, it is a quietly mysterious place, the art-nouveau plaques of the memorial lending it a subtle neogothic touch.

Memorial, Postman's Park


In which DIY is the only way

It had been a while since I’d been to London. We stumbled out of bed early to get to the Zine Symposium, to give us time to get to the station and get the first London train of a Bank Holiday Sunday. The guard didn’t bother to unlock the whole train; he unlocked one door and stood by it, so he could manage the queuing passengers and let us wander along the inside to find our seats.

It didn’t take long to get there; none of the “Bank Holiday Travel Chaos!” that the media loves. We nipped across to the Bishop’s Road Underground platforms, before trundling across town to Spitalfields, where the symposium was being held. Beforehand, we explored a bit of the area, from the fashionable and gentrified Old Spitalfields Market to the more traditional junk stalls at the north end of Brick Lane. We squeezed through the Sunday market crowds, as a couple of construction workers looked down on us from atop the bare concrete of the new railway bridge there.

The Zine Symposium was, when we found it, even more crowded than the market had been, a crowd of independent-minded people squeezing between stalls and studying what was on offer. We rather liked the sound of one of the symposium talks, on the problems of running zine libraries; unfortunately, it seemed to be the weekend for promising-but-disappointing discussions. There was little on the distinctive and problematic aspects of zine libraries, like archival, conservation or cataloguing; and it was dominated by a chap called Chris from the 56a Infoshop, who had originally been planning to talk about a different topic, and largely did just that. He started with an extremely narrow-minded and prescriptive view of “zine culture” and worked from there: zines must be radical, political and ephemeral, and therefore “institutions” such as public or university libraries** should be discouraged from collecting them. This is a slightly tricky position for the curator of a zine library to hold; I was left with the impression that he only approved of libraries that he could be in charge of.

On reflection, though, there was a strong link with the class hegemony of the previous day – a stronger link than “disappointment”, I mean. Chris Of 56A disapproves strongly of anybody making money from zines, of zine-writers becoming publishers, or trying to do anything resembling a career with it. Which, essentially, is an extremely aristocratic position.*** Writing is only socially acceptable, in radical/anarchist society, if you have enough time and money to be an amateur writer, because any other approach would be a betrayal of your assumed values. It’s an interesting complement to Lapdogs of the Bourgeoisie‘s “who can afford to be an art worker?” approach.

More importantly, though, Chris’s view was completely contradicted by the rest of the symposium itself, a broad range of stalls from all corners of self-publishing. Serious tracts on politics and anarchy rubbed shoulders with silly cartoons; touching memoirs next to artists’ books and prints. Much, indeed, was not too dissimilar to things we’d seen at the Bristol Artists’ Book Event a month before. I avoided the Serious Political Zines but did go for the Serious Political Vegan Cake (Lemon & Ginger Variety), which was very tasty indeed, but did in one aspect leave me slightly worried. I’m not entirely sure what the Serious Political Vegans are going to think of us submitting a dairy-heavy cake recipe to the Symposium Zine.

Full of cake, and with rather less cash on us, we escaped from the throng of zine-fans. It was a very enjoyable event, despite the politicising; and hopefully next time we go back we’ll have things to sell ourselves. We disappeared away down Brick Lane, and went off to explore some more of London.

** even somewhere like The Women’s Library, which I would have thought sufficiently radical, but which Chris specifically mentioned as being tainted by institutionality. I wondered if he had a specific gripe.

*** Compare with pre-revolutionary France, where it was perfectly acceptable for aristocrats to have craftsman-like hobbies. Louis XVI’s favourite hobby apart from hunting, for example, was locksmithing. If any aristocrats actually needed to make money from crafts or trade, though, they might suffer the penalty of dérogeance, or, being stripped of their title and status.

Road Trips

In which we discuss similarities between books and blogging

Last week, in the last Book I Haven’t Read post, I mentioned By Hook Or By Crook by David Crystal, and predicted that – in contrast to the book I was actually writing about – I’d have By Hook Or By Crook rattled through and quickly finished off.

Well, indeed, I have: it’s read, finished, and back on the bookshelf now. Prediction correct. And, as I said before, I think it was easy to read precisely because it mirrors the way I think. To recap: it’s written as a road trip, during which the writer muses on anything, really, that he finds of interest as he passes. A nearby manor house reminds him of a railway engine named after it, which prompts him to muse on railway engine names in general. The journey from Anglesey to the mainland prompts him to recount the history of the Menai bridges,* and a trip to Hay-on-Wye leads to the history of inn signs, coats-of-arms, and many other things besides.

It’s a book of associations, and a celebration of associative thought. I’m sure that it didn’t actually take place as a single trip, and that when Crystal sat down to write the book he didn’t just muse on whatever came to mind; it’s too carefully structured and crafted for that. But it does read as if that’s what he’s doing. It made me think, moreover, of the way I write this blog, which isn’t at all carefully structured and crafted. But, as I move through the world, I see things which spark my brain alight and give me something to think about; and this blog is the result. It’s full of rambling and digression, but, rambling and digression with a common thread behind it, the thread being the things I encounter.**

I was thinking about this as I got towards the end of By Hook Or By Crook. So, I was quite amused when I reached Crystal’s thoughts on blogging.

[Blogging] is writing which is totally spontaneous, put up on a screen without the intervention of an editor or proof-reader, so it is much more like ‘speaking in print’ than anything before. And it shows many of the properties of spoken language, such as loosely constructed sentences and unexpected changes of direction. Bit like this book, really…

David Crystal has a blog. He started writing it at the end of 2006; he said, as a sort of FAQ page. Given that By Hook Or By Crook was published in ’07, though, I’d assume that he started blogging either a few months after the book had been written or when it was in the final stages of completion. I’m wondering if writing that book was one of the other things, though, that prompted him to start writing a blog. Because, really, they’re often exercises in a similar sort of vein. Spotting something that interests you, and telling other people about it.

* from building up to burning down, you could say

** Which is all a bit of a longwinded and pretentious way of saying: I write about whatever’s on my mind.

Memories of the year (part one)

In which I remember arriving in Riga

In past years, I’ve usually posted my stand-out memories of the year so far, around this time. Last year there were four; the year before five.

There aren’t so many big, stand-out memories on my mind this year. That’s not because the year’s been dull or empty. Rather, the opposite: there have been so many happy memories that I can’t single many out from the crowd.

This one, though, is from my birthday. It’s getting dark, and I’m looking out of a plane window, at lamplit streets and tower blocks, watching the ground get closer and closer and trying to make out landmarks I recognise from the map. If you know me, you’ll know I don’t fly very often; in fact, at this point, I’ve been up since about 4am, I’m on the second plane ride of my birthday, and also the fourth of my life. I’m scared, not because of the flight or the impending landing, but because I’ve never been to a foreign country quite so foreign before, but I’m also rather excited. We might still be in the EU, but this is definitely more exotic than France or Germany. Latvia at night, as I turn 30.

Notes on Riga (part 2)

In which we're warm on holiday

“Ooh, how are you going to cope with the weather,” everyone said, when I told them I was going to Riga. “You’d better get some warm clothes.”

So I went out, shopping. I bought an all-enveloping thick wooly jumper (in the sale, Burtons in Middlesbrough) and a rather nice brown wool coat (in the sale, Debenhams at the Metro Centre), and, well, that was it. “That’s no good,” said The Mother. “You should have been going to sports shops. You should have got some skiing clothes, lots of layers, something waterproof, make sure you’re properly insulated.”

“Have you packed any sunglasses?” said Dad. “You’ll need sunglasses if you’re going somewhere like that in winter, otherwise you’ll get snow-blindness.”

“That’s a nice coat,” said someone at work. And then she laughed. “You’re going to freeze if you’re wearing that to Riga.”

Take a moment to spot the common theme here. Lots and lots of advice, on what to wear, from people who have never ever been east of Margate.* We do have a Resident Pole in the office, though, who has travelled up that way, and she thought I’d be fine. “I always think it feels colder here,” she said, “than on the Baltic. It’s something about the dampness here.”

And, it turns out, she was almost right. It was certainly damp and grey in Riga, with overcast skies most days, and sometimes a fine misty rain; but it didn’t feel any colder than Britain in winter. No frost, no snow. Chunks of ice floating on the river and the City Canal, but otherwise just like home. If I’d taken skiing clothes, I’d have melted.** As for needing sunglasses – the thought still makes me giggle.

* Well, The Mother went to the Dalmatian coast in 1972, but that doesn’t exactly count.

** One thing we found: every building in Riga, every shop, museum and restaurant, keeps the heating turned up on full blast. On the other hand, when you come inside wrapped up for winter, you’re expected to take your clothes off. All the museums we visited had free cloakrooms at the door, and restaurants and cafes all have communal coat-racks that everyone happily uses.

Notes from Riga

In which we enjoy ourselves on the Baltic

Don’t drink the water.

I only poured one glass of water from the tap in the hotel. It was a murky shade of brown. After I let it run for a while. One of the notes in the hotel room said, I think, “don’t drink the water,” in Latvian. I’m not entirely sure, but the bathroom and the water were definitely mentioned. As a bottle of water cost about 30p from a shop,* we weren’t overly bothered.

The hotel, though, was sumptuous. A big room, an enormous bed, and lots of dark wood, carved with lions and cherubs. The combination reminded me of Western European Iron Age art; some Iron Age cults apparently worshipped fierce tigers and severed heads, as far as we can tell. Every morning we woke up to lions baring their teeth at us from the wardrobe.

* or over £1 from the hotel minibar


In which we anticipate a holiday

I’ve already told this to just about everyone, because I’m bouncing up and down already. In a few weeks time, we’re off on holiday. To Riga! I thought I’d mention it here, though, just to say: if any readers know anything good to do in Riga in winter, let me know. I know it’s a long-shot, but you never know who reads this and where they’ve been.

Mr E Shrdlu of Clacton writes: “I’ve been to Clacton!”

Yes, I know you have. Shush there.

Memories of the year

In which we remember things we’ve done

Last year, I spread my favourite memories over a series of posts, and wrote each one up properly. This year, I’m still feeling rather woozy and fuzzy-headed; but, nonetheless, these are the things I remember most clearly about the year.

The sight of Devon in January. Driving down the M5 in the dark, and wondering what it would look like in the daylight; then the next morning seeing everything clearly.

Getting on a plane for the first time, and feeling it throw me back in my seat on take-off. I didn’t realise, beforehand, just how forceful it feels. I tried to identify towns, roads, railways from the window, but didn’t do very well. From what I did recognise, we took a very sinuous course around southern England before heading out over the Channel.

Driving around town in the middle of summer, trying to find my way to work, via a route that wasn’t closed by flooding. The estates and marshland east of town were being pumped out by the army; not many routes were passable. Thinking: it’s a bit silly making the sea defences bigger and louder, only to get swamped by the rain.

And, finally: at the end of summer, on a Sunday afternoon, sitting on a stile listening to church bells, and all the other noises one hears at such times.