Tuesday, 20 December 2011

All our bags are packed we're ready to go..

This is it.  Our last day in London.  What started as a single year of adventures has become a 1 year 10 month adventure for Lee and a 1 year 8 month adventure for me.  We have been very lucky to have some very good times with really great people.  It is a bittersweet leaving for me.  The people I have met here have been great,we've managed to travel and explore so much and there will always be more to see.

We have learnt how to get around: Underground, buses, trains, DLR.  We have learnt to be understood, from the simple: pants/trousers, crisps and sweets, indoors meaning home; through to the phrases: "ah bless", "do y'know what I mean?" 
We've visited:
United Kingdom
Broadstairs  (I swear, we didn't just choose the 'B' places)
Lake District
Yorkshire Dales
Northern Ireland
La Spezia
Liagnano Sabadorio
Czech Republic

I've been everywhere man!

And our adventures don't finish here.  
We are heading back to Australia via a couple of weeks in the USA.  First in New York and Washington, then across to Seattle to meet up with Lee's Dad.  I plan to continue to blog my way through that trip, plus through the adventures that we are bound to have in Australia once we move back.  So goodbye to London and goodbye to the byline, "Following Karen and Lee on their year(s) in London and everywhere else they go.."

The Christmas Cup in Karlsruhe

Our final weekend of travel while living in London was a fun indoor tournament in Karlsruhe, Germany.

Highlights from the weekend included:
  • The Oxford (a student bar) where we ordered 50 shots and 1.2kg of schnitzel, plus four other meals for 6 of us;
  • Ensuing various degrees of drunkenness and stages of hangover on Sunday in particular;
  • Getting lost in the forest within the campus (on arrival and for Alex, also after the party);
  • A €60 taxi ride that was more like €90;
  • Off-roading in the return taxi;
  • "Have you met Alex";
  • Gluwein (pronounced glue-vine, a German version of mulled wine);
  • Girls scoring multiple goals against men;
  • French Sunday and the new call "le Spec" (short for the totally invented French word "le speculative", a dubious creative (edit by Lee) long option to be shouted from the sideline.
Some of the best fun you can have while wearing a Christmas hat and a Santa costume.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Northern Ireland

Friday was my last day at my work and in the mad rush to finish up and make sure everyone had the information they needed, I was late getting to Gatwick causing us to miss our flight. Bugger. We were able to pay a transfer fee after the fact and get on a flight later that evening, the last one of the day. We picked up our hire car and drove ~1 hour to the coast. So, another late night as my cold set in for good.

We woke in a bed and breakfast in Portrush and were served a 'fry' with eggs, bacon, sausage, tomato, potato triangle things and fried bread. Just 20 minutes drive away along the coast was the World Heritage listed Giants Causeway and despite the lack of sleep and ill health we were keen to get going.

The shapes of the rock at the Giants Causeway were intriguing. We spent a good hour trying to capture the shapes and the crashing surf. Time and again the fickle surf impressed us with its splash, while we were not in a position to capture it on camera. We climbed amongst the broken rocks within the bays, investigating shells and reflections and trying not to end up in the freezing pools of water. Only half the track within the Giants Causeway was open, due to a mud slide onto the path, but we were not too disappointed as we'd stayed several hours already, we were cold, thirsty and our noses were running. To our surprise, we heard that the Carrick-a-reed rope bridge was open, as from what I had read, it was closed in December. With a fistful of chocolates each, we made our way along the coast to Carrick-a-reed. The coast was a collection of cliffs, rocky outcrops covered with moss, irregular but green-covered hills, sheep and a range of fence qualities. The colours and the quality of the light on the scenery brought to mind various BBC dramas and, by association, Friday and Saturday nights at home on the farm.
Unfortunately the Carrick-a-reed rope bridge was closed for crossing, but the scenery and the stories were pretty good.

Next on the list was Bushmills Whiskey Distillery - the oldest in the world, having been granted a licence for production in 1608 by the royalty at the time. Unfortunately, it was closed due to ice on every surface, so we ate a local lunch. The thing about eating locally are the prices. We had a soup, toasted sandwich, hamburger and coffee for less than £9 - unheard of in London.

On the way back to our accommodation we tried to capture the Dunluce Castle ruins in the dwindling light. The cold, my cold and the busy weeks caught up on us and we caught a couple of hours of sleep before heading out to dinner at 6pm (yes, there's that little light during the day).

At our host's recommendation we went for dinner at the bistro on the wharf. A door behind the tiny bar lead to a large, modern dining room, trendily decorated. Already at this hour we were lucky to find a table for two for dinner. My salmon and Lee's pork ribs were expertly prepared and presented. The combinations of flavours and textures (particularly important for me with limited sense of smell) were well balanced. Feeling greedy we each ordered one of the amazing looking desserts. Lee vanished his pavlova, but I barely made a dent in my toffee cheesecake thing.  Delicious, whatever the case.

Early to bed and late-ish to rise we started the day again with a fry up. The first thing on the list was a revisit to the Dunluce Castle ruins. We walked our way through, envisioning what it must have been like for the MacQuillans and the series of MacDonalds before it was abandoned in the 1600s. I think cold and drafty, although likely very beautiful.  The last inhabitants certainly sounded well off with their persian carpets and dozens of chairs upholstered in silk, damask, velvet and satin.

The first time we time we turned on the radio we giggled our way through the news report.  Despite the gravity of the news, it was hard to feel it.  We did grow a little more accustomed to the accent, though, this didn't help us much when locals spoke to us.  I think it was due to the speed words were spoken. At times we wondered if we were speaking the same language.

Next on the list came the Bushmills Distillery again, which opened at 12:30.  We took in a tour, which was very clear and informative.  The guide had been well coached in speaking slowly so that foreigners could understand her Northern Irish accent and she was so well practised, she wasn't thrown by a single question we asked of her.  Yes, Lee and I are those attendees who ask questions at every stop, curious as to how it all works, the numbers and scale and the output from input.  Each batch of their whiskey is distilled 3 times (unlike Scottish whiskey, which is only distilled twice) for a 'purer alcohol' which they then water down. The tour finished with a couple of tasters - I was very happy with my Hot Toddy - a recipe I might have to look up for a future occasion, and Lee's 12-year-old whiskey kept him happy - although, not at all to my taste.  The whole, slick experience persuaded us that we needed to buy a few bottles as gifts.  (We had forgotten that we only had carry on and would have to pay to check a bag so that we could ship them back to London - Bugger Bugger.)
After a lunch with a high proportion of potatoes at Bushmills Distillery, we decided to head back to Belfast via the Causeway Coast Road.  Here observed more of the stunning coastline with its great-looking surf, high cliffs, and pretty valleys.  One planned stop was at the Old Layde Church, which is also known as the 'hidden church'.  Perhaps not surprisingly, we didn't find it easily.  This church is a bit of a mystery as unlike most, which are on the top of a hill in the middle of the village, it is found in a valley, on the coast, one mile from the nearest village.  For a place where it gets rainy, cold and muddy - even the seriously faithful would be pushed by this.  It is believed that it was used by Scottish believers who would cross the water to worship, when their religion was persecuted on their own land.  The last service was held there in 1790.  The late evening light, the quiet location, the relative seclusion, the leaning gravestones made the whole place feel a bit spooky.

We carried on around the coast, without much purpose as it was pretty dark by this stage, and stopped in Carrickfergus to meet up with Hazel who I had worked with.  Dinner here and then on to the airport.  Turns out, I left my beanie at the pub where we ate.  Bugger Bugger Bugger.  That beanie was bought by Wayne on his UK travels in the 90s, I then claimed it, took it to Melbourne, left it at a Creswick Big Wet Tournament, failed to pick it up when Dan brought it to Perth, picked it up at the next Creswick Big Wet Tournament, and brought it to the UK where it went on several trips with us - including to Norway to see the northern lights.  That beanie has been around the world a couple of times now.

Landing late on Sunday night we carried on quickly to catch the express train home, only for me to realise I had left my phone on the plane. Bugger Bugger Bugger Bugger.  Ours was the last flight of the day, the final train was leaving in 5 minutes, the lost and found area was unmanned, our terminal was 10 minutes away, it was all too hard so we went home without it.  Thankfully it was handed in and I picked it up Monday afternoon, with the cost of a train to the airport and back.

Overall, it was a cheap weekend that became expensive.  This was nothing to do with the place though, which was beautiful

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Good People, Good Times

This weekend we caught the train to Darlington to catch up with Nick and Cat. They have featured in this blog previously as good people and good times and this weekend was no exception.

We arrived in Darlington late on Friday night and met them at a pub in town where they were celebrating a successful year with Nick's work colleagues. Soon after, Lee drove us home in Nick's car, with some enthusiastic directions from the back seat. Once home, Nick outlined the plan for the morning, and we tucked ourselves in to bed for an early start.

Luckily for us (and him), Nick again proved his forethought as a host by prepacking and preparing the food for the day, so that we were away by 8am, the roughness caused by the night before only adding 30 minutes to our planned departure. We were feeling optimistic with the sun shining through the window, but as Cat drove us toward the Lake District we headed into some inclement weather. It was beautiful to see the double rainbow stretched across the fields and houses, lit by golden sun, but it was an indicator for the rest of the day.

We reached our destination at the base of Helvellyn, the third highest peak in the Lake District and England (do I trust this information from Wikipedia?), and layered up in time for it to start raining. Not prepared to back out yet, we crossed the bridge over the river and started up the valley toward the Hole in the Wall. It was beautiful with the bright orange heather stretching across the hill and we were able to see the weather coming and put our hoods up. It was fairly easy-going up the hill and finished with a winding rock stair. As it rained down on us, it was asked, "Who's idea was this anyway?"

We reached the Hole in the Wall and our next decision point. As we poked our heads over the dry-stone wall we felt that the strong wind that we had dealt with so far, was pretty minimal in comparison to what was roaring across the unsheltered ridge of the mountain. We sat in the shelter of the wall and ate our sandwiches, very quickly adding all the layers we had just taken off or carried thus far.

We set off for Striding Edge, one of the peaks, and our original optimistic destination. We didn't get far before the hail stopped us. Let me describe it. It was like being hit directly in the face with tiny rocks. The hail was thick and travelling horizontally. It died down and we proceeded a bit further before it started up again. Gusts of wind knocked us sideways and backwards. We couldn't see where we were going. A conference of the minds decided it was safest if we turned back. You may think it odd that, even then, I was still a little disappointed, but agreed that it was the wisest choice.

We took a different path back down the mountain. In most places it was more sheltered, but still we were blown about and rained on. The layers over our ears made decent conversation limited, but none of this could detract from the beauty of the region. It really helped that we were well rugged up, once again proving, "There's no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing."

On the way down we saw a collection of dogs and their owners training for mountain rescues, in various stages of training. In one case a man ran 20m away and hid in a dip off the track. The dog was then released to find him and bring the handler to the man, indicated by barking. Once found, the victim passed over the squeaky toy reward. At the other end of the scale, we saw a person hiding out, perfectly still in a green sleeping bag and a dog scaling the whole hillside.

The occasional lulls in weather were welcome, but there was plenty of motivation to get down the mountain and into a sheltered, warm place. Cat drove us home after stopping off at Dirty Bird for some hangover cure (yes, it was bad enough to last most of the day). We spent a quiet evening in with some movies and takeaway.

The next morning, it again dawned sunny. I made sure to pack my polarizing filter and left the tripod behind. After some fresh, home-baked friands, that inexplicably didn't turn out as usual, we drove to Richmond. The biting cold came as a bit of a shock as we stepped out of the car, as did the light shower of rain. There was still a lovely golden sunlight, so we took the scenic route around the castle and down to the river, where it started to rain for real. Our hosts were not dressed for this weather and we strode back to the car. From there we travelled to a local, rural shop/restaurant where we ate a hearty breakfast, then drove down the road to meet Cat's borrowed horse Splash.

The weather was bitterly cold and threatening, but it wasn't until Cat had changed and taken Splash out of her stable that it started to rain. And it wasn't until she had tacked her up (excuse me if wrong terminology) and mounted that it started to snow. She took a short walk around the field, probably neither horse nor rider enjoying it, for the sake of the photographer. Of course, as soon as the horse was untacked, rugged and put safely away the weather stopped dropping water (in various forms) on our heads. We reached our limit and went home. From there we walked Fenris and their new cat in the park (cat thinks she's a dog maybe?) and spent a quiet afternoon at home with a collection of cheeses and mulled wine, before catching the train home

I have to commend and thank our magnanimous hosts for their patience with my shooting photos and their hospitality in trying conditions. We had a great time, despite what my description might suggest.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Georgian Gastronomics

Most of the adventures I have blogged have been over the weekend, but that is not to say that we haven't also been active during the week. I had such a good time Tuesday night it is worthy of a post.

We met up with Ange and Stu for dinner, at a restaurant suggested by Ange as one that we wouldn't otherwise have access to. She was right - how many Georgian (the country not the state) restaurants would I have the opportunity to eat at in Australia? I'm guessing not many.

I arrived first and was amused to hear that the same music on the website was featured in the restaurant.  We had folded flatbread with cheese in the middle that tasted a bit like calzone and another bread that also had egg on top, yolk still runny.  For mains I had lamb and eggplant kind of stew/soup (came with a spoon for eating) in a delicious broth.

From there, very full, we moseyed down the street to the multi-storeyed Whole Foods to drool at the cakes, meringues and other baked goods, have a sticky-beak in their coolroom full of cheese and basically dream of the time when we could afford to shop there regularly.  (We were in Kensington..)

We came out almost empty-handed (thanks Ange for the white-choc-coated pretzels) and found our way back to a piano bar above the street that eagle-eyed Lee had spotted.  It was great!  The piano man played a selection of classic rock and classic 90s hits that had the whole bar on their feet - spot on for the target market which appeared to be single, 20-somethings that are making the most of Mummy and Daddy's allowance, or at least No Kids Professionals like us.  (We weren't dressed in the latest fashion though.)  I can only imagine how ram-packed the bar would be on a Friday or Saturday, as it was full on a Tuesday.

A really relaxed and enjoyable night with great conversation and even a little dancing.  I'm going to miss hanging out with Stu and Ange when we're back in Australia.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Northern Lights in the north of Norway

One of our most anticipated and envied trips took place this weekend: we travelled to the north of Norway to see the Aurora Borealis - and we succeeded.

Travelling to Tromso
Friday night after work we flew 2h from Heathrow to Oslo in the south of Norway. With no connecting flight to Tromso, we stayed overnight near the airport. My first impression was the cold. My second, the politeness of the receptionist at the Gardemoen Airport Hotel as he explained that we were one letter away from the correct Motel and gave us directions on how to get there. We stayed a basic and comfortable night in the Motel/Hostel and breakfasted on the usual Euro fare plus something brown that might have been goats cheese. Then it was back to the airport on the bus and on a plane for another 2 hours to Tromso ('s' sounds like a 'z'). We landed in Tromso at midday - in twilight. Our (Lee's) research had shown us that the sun was up between 10:40am and 12:20pm, losing 15 minutes a day. I'm not sure where it was rising and setting - but we never saw it.

Saturday in Tromso
We wandered through downtown Tromso: down the main street with its Christmas lights, through the town square where we picked up some street-side lunch and along the waterfront. The centre of the city and the airport are on an island at its widest 3.5km and 10km at its longest. It is part of 'the fiddly bits' or fjordland in the north of Norway. The waterfront was particularly interesting as, as several locals told us, it was at its highest ever level. A storm in the North Sea had led to water levels being several metres higher than the usual high tide. I would never have known otherwise, it was so calm. An indicator that may have been key to a more keen observer than me was where the water had breached the harbour in a puddle, all the locals were clustering and kids were splashing about in their gum boots.

It was dark by 2pm. I had to keep reminding myself of the time. I imagine the lifestyle of a local to be very different to mine. I would find it difficult to motivate myself to go outside when it was dark so much. Although being out of bed before dawn takes on a new meaning. Most people, particularly parents with kids, had some form of reflector on their clothing.

We felt like we had a good idea of the main city centre (is 65,000 people classified a city?) by 4pm when we were picked up for our main event. I had slept on both flights and I slept some more on the 1h30min coach ride to our destination in preparation. 

Lyngsfjord Adventures
On arrival we were kitted out in quilted onesies, boots, mittens and gloves. There were 12 of us who were keen to try the dog wagons - unfortunately there wasn't enough snow for us to go sledding. We split into two groups of six - our group went first to the camp, where we met the dogs - looking less like the stereotypical huskies and more like kelpies in shape. Their fur was thick and they were all friendly, although maybe a little shy at the number of people.
There was:
  • A dog who had just returned from a trip to the north pole (one you would always want on your team apparently);
  • Happy - who was just that;
  • Balu or Blue who was a really tall dog and so keen he had to be chained or he'd jump out of the pens and chase you down when left behind,
  • There was also a 13-year-old dog who was still racing;
  • And a fairly new pup (1 year) that one of our leaders was given when she helped a friend to finish a race - he had a team of young dogs that were so mentally tired that he had been running in front of them for 100km already. She was a beautiful-looking dog who was quite keen on finishing off her neighbour's unwanted food.

While our two guides Amanda and Nora loaded the dogs to take them to the starting point, we went into one of the Sami tents for a feed. We were served a wholesome meat (reindeer?) and vegetable soup served in wooden bowls with a sweet flatbread, about a centimetre high. After we had our fill of soup, a Norwegian dish of flatbread, nuts, brown sugar and cinnamon was served for dessert. Then it was our turn with the dogs.

The owner of the business drove us to his property where we were to start with the dogs. Each cart had 5 dogs. The carts themselves were 100kg, plus the weight of the two travellers - one passenger and one steering/braking/scooting/pushing as required.  Steering felt a bit like a quad bike. We took it very slowly as it was very icy and the main message of the pre-briefing was basically "screw up or screw around, you injure the dogs". It was a trail-ride style, where each pack followed the one in front (apart from our leaders who wanted to cut the corner when we turned around). We travelled 9km all up, 4.5km each way (although it didn't feel that far). My favourite part of the trail was a section of woodland where the road was more of a track with ups and downs and corners and tree
stumps to navigate.

While I was driving was the first time we saw the Northern lights. A couple in our group had seen them the night before and pointed them out. After the initial distress to our guides for our unplanned stop, we had a chance to observe and take some photos - only a little bit of pressure on Lee as I was holding the dogs in check. It was faint, but very beautiful on the longer exposure on the camera. The movement or 'dancing' of the lights I would compare to sheet lightening in a distant storm, only not as fast (more a flicker than a flash) and not as bright. This may well be inaccurate as most of our view was in the gaps or reflection of clouds.

Our guides returned us safely back, without injury or incident. From there Lee and I were delivered back to the camp where we met our guide for the night, Roy, and the two other couples who were to stay the night. Roy described himself as a very active person who fell asleep if he was sitting still for five minutes - so right up our alley. He was a climber, hiker, photographer, and more. He had brought some toys along for us to try: a couple of unicycles, some juggling balls, a guitar and a mandolin. Lee tried all of these and I tried all but juggling. Throughout the evening we ducked outside to take a new shot of the northern lights, to try a different composition and in the hope that they might be brighter/less clouds/generally better.

Before going to bed around 2am in the cosy cabin we took advantage of the sauna. Robes, towels and slippers were provided, so we felt very fancy. Everything was lit by candles, lamps and the fire, so was also pretty romantic, if you discount the reason being no electricity. Our log cabin was toasty as with its roaring fire. The only, very real, reminder that we were camping - or to use a plane magazine term, "glamping" - was the drop toilet, that will always smell like a drop toilet, no matter how many candles. Breakfast was served a bit after 7am, and was made special by cutting our own large hunks of fresh-baked bread. We were driven back to Tromso with a bit of information about the area and a lot of sleep.

All the staff at Lyngsfjord Adventures did everything they possibly could to make the experience personal and enjoyable. Each activity was seamlessly run and transitioned. The staff appeared to be a very happy family who all lived within the Tamok Valley.

The ~50 people living in the Tamok Valley made their living from tourists or commuted into town for the week. There were few farmers and few fishermen but both were finding it hard. Previously, being a farmer of salmon in the fjords guaranteed you as a millionaire. Now, due to the low price of salmon, and the setup and maintenance costs required to meet strict regulations to prevent disease escaping into the wild salmon, it is a break even exercise.

Sunday in Tromso
The remainder of our day in Tromso we explored a little further out of the city centre. There was a lake marked near the centre of the island and we made our way there following Google maps. It wasn't a long way, but it was uphill. It wasn't the hill that was the trouble, it was the wet and cold weather forming ice. On the way up we were ok, possibly because we were leaning forward. On the way down was a different story. I'm not sure if it's Lee's walking style, but he ended up with a sore backside and wrists after 3 accidents. We soon adopted the locals' method of sliding our feet along the ground without lifting them. Locals seemed to use the controlled slide not just when they were walking but also when they were driving. We wondered what the statistics on road/pedestrian accidents in Norway compared to other countries is, as it was often easier to walk on the road.
The lake was beautiful in the dawn/dusk twilight; a collection of wader birds on an island in the middle, frosty yellow heather around the outside and parts of frozen water. It was also surrounded by locals taking their children, dogs or themselves for a walk (or solitary run).

For lunch, back in the city we ate two different meals combining cow and pig with veges. On the potato we had sour cream and the house garlic butter which had herbs, lots of salt and something that made it red that we just couldn't put our finger on. Once we had finished, all the light from the sky had gone, making photo-taking a little less interesting. We wandered through the town some more until it was time to make our way back to the airport for our two flights back to London Heathrow.

We were exhausted, but flat out congratulating ourselves on two items off the Bucket List:
1) See the Northern Lights (bonus points for photographing them)
2) Visit a place where the sun doesn't rise (or set)

Photoshoot analysis

I find it really interesting to look at the photos that we selected.  I believe we selected the shots that reflect how we perceive ourselves.  Let me take you through what I mean.
The shot of me: I'm leaning a long way forward looking relaxed, but engaged.  That's how I perceive myself to be.  Whereas Lee's, to me, looks strong, easy-going, but still showing his interest by a slight lean forward.  It also makes me smile to see how (un)flexible he looks. 

As for the shot of the two of us: 
  • We are looking at each other which shows our connection;
  • Lee's arm around me signifies strength, protection and comfort;
  • Lee kissing me on the cheek shows me his love for me; and 
  • My smile at him shows that he makes me happy(er).
We have a very similarly posed shot from our wedding, so that also has strong reminders for us. 

Most of these 'winning' shots were taken while seated.  This reinforces for me the online posing advice I had read, which suggested seating people, particularly if they were uncomfortable.

What do you think our photos express?  Would a different pose reflect how you perceive us?  Let me know in the comments.
All our shots can be viewed by clicking on the album link here.