Monday, December 3, 2012

Japan

I wrote this for a contest I did not win...
 
My dear Japan,
How I've missed you. It's been a long time since I left your shores. I've grown up a little, come to understand you a bit more, thought about how little I had to offer you and how much you gave to me. We've both changed, Japan, both become older and hopefully wiser. I cried for you, you know? When disaster struck, I cried for the land I once knew and the people I loved. I'd love to see you again; to make the flashes of memories solid once again.
We were not always the best of friends, were we Japan?  I was young and away from home. You were ancient and dignified and hard to come to grips with. I struggled with your customs and your reserve. You gave me something special though, a group of middle aged housewives who were ready to spill the beans on how life really was. It wouldn’t have been fun without them. I have always been grateful for my guides though the muddy waters of being a gaijin in a strange new world. I was ready to leave, as now I’m ready to come back. How have you changed, Japan? Are you different now, or do you remain the same?
You always fascinated me, Japan. Coming from an island myself I always wondered how so many people could live together in such a small place. The answer is order, not control as I first thought. There are rules, Japan, that you expect people to live by. We all have rules; though I guess less people usually abide by them. It is the small defiances that intrigued me. The people in parks dressed as punk rockers – how their parents must despair: The slightly shocking frission of a love hotel: the need to travel the world and see what else there is. It’s rebellion on a small, private scale. I love it about you; the way people follow the crowd, but make their own way.
You fed me well, my friend. I loved it: sushi, sashimi, katsu curry, okonomiyaki, those octopus ball things from Osaka. In New Zealand the sushi is 'unusual.' In the UK it is even worse. I want to sit in front of one of your chefs and be fed the best parts of a fish, simply sliced, on rice. It is perfection. I want to go back to Cococihiban and remember that Japan can take the best of other cultures too.  Do you still have Beard Papa? I loved those choux pastry things. They were delicious. Oh, and Izakaya. It’s been too long since I heard the welcoming call of one of your pubs, far too long.
Do you remember my Hello Kitty toaster? I loved that thing. My toast had Hello Kitty on both sides. It was totally Kawaii!
When I was homesick and far from home one Christmas you cheered me up with a trip to an Onsen. Do you remember? It was in Nagano, I think. It was outside and snow was falling all around. That’s magic, Japan. You cheered me up that day with your beauty and the simplicity of appreciating nature. I remember the ebullience of summer festivals, the joy of spring and the quiet simplicity of nature that Christmas day. I can’t remember autumn though. I remember people telling me about it. Maybe I was away. I’d love to see the trees. I remember my students saying ‘Japan has four seasons’ like it is something unusual, but you do take delight in each one. It reminds people that not so long ago you had an agricultural society and that your land is a great asset.
Your land, Japan, your beautiful land, mountains and beaches and forest, stretched out from the tropics to the frozen north. Though covered in parts by a grey urban sprawl that at times seems unassailable, you always make sure that people remember your power and that beauty comes at a price. We are cousins in this respect; the islands of New Zealand are shaky too and we are always aware of the power of the land which we borrow for such a fleeting time. Take care of your people, Japan. They have suffered greatly in the last year. Keep them safe.
If only, Japan, I hadn’t been so young and so far away from home. If only I had appreciated you more. If only I had learnt more, spoken more, asked more questions, seen you more clearly; if only we had more time to get to know each other. If only I had learnt your language properly, if only I had taken the time to see more of you. If only I had explored more, seen more, written more, done more. If only, my friend, if only…
Teresa-san

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Scone, Perthshire

 

“So thanks to all at once and to each one,
Whom we invite to see us crown'd at Scone.”
 
William Shakespeare - Macbeth

I hate Macbeth! I hate teaching it, I hated learning about it, I didn’t get it, I still don’t.  It’s got certain charm as a piece of propaganda though. Way to make the boss look good!  The reason I mention Macbeth at all, is because I've never been quite sure how to pronounce Scone.  I should know, they are the final words of the terrible thing!  Turns out the place is pronounced quite differently to the thing you serve with jam and clotted cream - Skoon. 
 
Moot Hill
Scone is the ancient crowning place of Scottish Kings, including the much maligned Macbeth.  Legend has it the men coming to pay homage to their liege would shake the soil from their boots.  Over millennia this dirt became Moot Hill, on which a replica of the Stone of Scone now sits.  This place, which should evoke something of this long history, is rather incongruously placed within the gently manicured lawns of the Earls of Mansfield.
 
 
The Stone of Scone has been a pawn at the centre of Scottish/English history for more than 800 years no longer rests under King Edward’s Chair in Westminster Abbey.  It now sits safely in Edinburgh Castle.  It's almost home.  

 

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Pitlochry Highland Games

I like Pitlochry.  It’s a small Victorian town in the middle of Scotland with not much more than its charm and its location to work with.  It seems to be punching above its weight.  There’s a festival theatre, a salmon ladder, mountain walks, the smallest distillery in Scotland, highland nights, the odd ceilidh, numerous cafes – one of which serves pancakes with bacon and maple syrup, and a whopping number of events. 

I’d been jumping around all week talking about the highland games.  I’d indulged in some puerile sniggering about caber tossing – is one called a caber tosser? But really, I was looking forward to something familiar, but in a more traditional setting.  In Paeroa, New Zealand there are highland games once a year.  It’s a huge event with pipe bands coming from around the country.  People I’ve known my whole life organise it.  It’s lovely; though I can’t remember the last time I went.
 
 
This one was at once similar, and remarkably different.  It had the same events; the same banter over the tannoy, even the burger stall seemed to be selling the same things...though I’d imagine these days Paeroa would be selling something more exotic.
 
What was different was, of course, that this is Scotland.  It’s not the offspring of the diaspora re-enacting the games.  It has been going on since 1852.  I don’t care what you Europeans think; that’s an awfully long time. 

 
Small towns being what they are, virtually the first people I saw were ones I already knew.  They, I’m quite sure, thought I was crazy to be quite so enthusiastic about the day.  They’ve not known me long enough to know that I love a tradition, that I love to find out the history of events like this, that the idea of a community creating an event that has lasted for more than a century is astonishing.  There were people from far away, that’s true, and probably none so from so far away as me, but it did feel like a local event.








Sunday, July 8, 2012

Wanderlust Blog of the Week

My blog on Gallipoli has been chosen as 'Blog of the Week' in Wanderlust Magazine. 



Wanderlust Travel Blog of the Week

Friday, June 29, 2012

Sunday, June 3, 2012

A River Runs Through It



The River Thames is not the prettiest of rivers.  It carries silt from upstream and often looks an unpleasant murky brown.  It is healthier now though than it has been for centuries.  Today I finally realised just how historically important this is. It was the backbone of England and therefore the British Empire.  It was alive today in a way it has seldom been for me – because it was in use.  Boats streamed past, from small boats carrying cadets, to a Maori Waka, to steamboats and the glorious boat carrying the queen.  The river seemed at once sentient and much more important. 


London, like most major cities is built on water.  The same river brought the Romans to England, carried people to the tower, flowed past Shakespeare and his Globe, took people away to foreign lands, guided the Luftwaffe unwittingly in the Blitz, brought cargo from the Americas, Asia and Oceania, and glittered gently in the sun as I looked down from the London Eye.  The Thames has flowed for millennia, widening and narrowing, freezing over, thawing out, carrying kings and peasants and thieves and lords.

There is an awful lot of hyperbole bandied about during royal events.  The union flag flies high, people actually sing ‘Land of Hope and Glory,’ there are numerous programmes on the telly with ‘Great British…’ in the title, Victoria sponges, Pimms and cucumber sandwiches suddenly become intensely important.  Patriotic fervour runs high, whipped to a frenzy by a media slightly cowed by recent events and running scared.  What will Kate wear? Will it rain? Will there be protest? Will anyone fall overboard?


I can’t help but think that The Queen, a lovely and distant figure in a glorious hat would have preferred a cup of tea and a hobnob in the country somewhere and that all this pomp and ceremony is not really her thing at all.  But 60 years of duty will prevail, she will stand in the cold for hours as she travels up the river, she will wave at people who think they know her, who think that they deserve a piece of her life because of who her father, and his father, and his father were.  60 years of being polite, of being on show, of duty to an outdated and alien ideal which seems to have little place in this modern world, of being powerful, but having no real power.  Imagine, 60 years in the job!


So I’m glad, on this rainy day in London, the Thames was woken up from its quiet, inexorable journey to the coast and was brought alive by boats and people and bunting and flags and cameras and cider and icecream.  As a celebration of the history that has always fascinated me, it just seems right. 


And I hope someone gave those two pensioners a cup of tea when they came off the boat, it’s a long time for anyone to stand.







Thursday, May 31, 2012

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Queen's Garden Party 2012




I’m a sucker.  We know this.  Underneath the cynicism is someone who cries at movies, reads trashy novels and loves overblown ceremony.  It’s true.  I’m not ashamed (well, not too much).

My friend and I applied to go to ‘The Queen’s Garden Party’ at Buckingham Palace months ago.  Members of the Commonwealth living in the UK can apply to go and their names may be picked to put on a fancy hat and join 7000 people in the place grounds. 


My presence was requested by the Lord Chamberlain on perhaps the nicest stationary in the world.  This invitation card scared me into dress shopping.  Lots and lots of dress shopping and shoe shopping and hat hunting.




This frenzy of consumerism had some pretty good results.  Your intrepid explorer actually scrubbed up quite well.  London put on some sunshine after several days (weeks) of rain, A and I met up on the the train and headed to the palace gates looking very snazzy.



The back garden of Buckingham palace is quite unusual.  It looks like someone’s backyard...though most people don’t have a backyard that will easily fit 7000 people in a small part of it.  It’s lovely, and almost completely unpretentious - except for one small thing; the Queen’s tent.  When tea is served and the anthem played, the royal party slowly makes its way across the lawn to a tea tent of their own.  Here they meet VIPs (of whose numbers I was not, strangely) and get stared at like goldfish in a bowl.  What a way to live one’s life.



There were cakes! Lots of cakes! In a survey of guests (me) I can safely say that the little cakes with raspberries were they best.  The wee sandwiches with cucumber and mint were fabulous.  The staff serving petit four was charming and didn’t look harassed at the never ending queues.  Young men in yellow waistcoats took your plate with a smile.  People began to relax and the antipodeans amongst the crowd gave up their chairs in favour of sitting on the ground.  Ice-cream was served, two bands played show tunes and I ate more sandwiches (excellent sandwiches).





I can confirm, my friends, that Queen Elizabeth II is a real person.  Yes, she is very small.  Yes, she has exquisite taste in hats. Yes, Prince Phillip will spend hours talking to people.  Yes, the palace is nice, but not as elaborate as some I’ve seen.  Yes, I had a lovely day, in a lovely park, with lovely cucumber sandwiches. 

Lovely.





Sunday, May 20, 2012

Football


A very long time ago, in a land far away, I went to a football game.  Japan 2002 – The World Cup Ecuador v Croatia (a terribly important game) in Yokohama.  It was amazing. I supported Ecuador in the interests of geographic proximity.  A few days earlier I had been to Toyota Stadium to watch the televised Japan v Russia game (just quietly, this was marred by a raving alcoholic flatmate – a story for another day).  In that week I found out something I had hitherto not realised…football (or soccer for you Antipodeans/Americans) can really be quite exciting.  It’s fast paced, the assorted throng is hilarious, in Japan people chant in harmony, there are hotdogs – and beer.

Another abiding memory of my time in Japan during the World Cup is my students – for the most part adults – being terrified by the concept of hooligans…generally English ones.   The promise of these mad fans trashing cities, beating up the constabulary and running amok was all over the news and quite the conversation starter as I recall.  I don’t remember any problems; it costs a fortune to get to Japan and even more to stay there.  Promises of football hooliganism were happily exaggerated.

I have a point here somewhere…oh yes, I quite like football and one of these days I will go to a match in England.  This weekend Fulham was festooned with flags and bunting in honour of Chelsea v Bayern München in the UFEA Champions Final.  I get the feeling I'll be seeing a lot of bunting this summer!



Thursday, April 19, 2012

Cheers - What Teresa Drank...

Pimms - A Very Important Wedding
Some Very Important Guests - Battersea Street Party

Tea and Icecream - Prague (-12 outside)
Tea - Somewhere
Tea and Cake - Dublin
Pina Colada!
Ayran - Turkey






Apple Tea - Istanbul
Breakfast - Paris
Coffee and Pancakes - Amsterdam
Amsterdam
Provencal Pitcher
Fish and Chips and Local Ale - St Margaret at Cliffe






Monday, April 16, 2012

La Sabraneque


It’s Tuesday afternoon and I am sitting on a castle wall high above the tiny Provencal village of Saint-Victor La Coste. Below me I can hear the murmur of people talking as they work and the sharp almost metallic sound of stone hitting stone. Above me are the partially restored ruins of the castle; beneath me are the town walls, the small village and mile upon mile of olives and grapes stretching out into the distance.

My fingers ache from the stone I lifted this morning, my shoulders are sore from the unfamiliar exercise of the day. Building dry stone walls is not my usual idea of a holiday, but this is what I signed up for – two weeks of volunteer work at La Sabroneque; an organisation using traditional techniques to slowly restore the town of Saint-Victor La Coste.

Created in 1969, La Sabraneque preserves, restores and rebuilds historic sites. Its first task was the reconstruction of the old village of Saint-Victor La Coste. This was done using the traditional building techniques of the area. This recreated village is stunning; its thick walls and solid, grey stone construction keeping out the worst of the summer heat. It is home for the next two weeks.

I, as hundreds of people before me have also, had volunteered for a two week programme in Saint-Victor La-Coste. This means living and working in the reconstructed town. There are fifteen volunteers today, working on two different areas; one a terrace in the old village, another on a dry stone wall closer to town. Three of the volunteers have been here before; they are the experts, not too removed from their own first experience not to remember that we have just arrived.

Dry stone wall building is, as you would expect, hard work. It’s not so much the physical labour, though that is exhausting, but rather the effort of finding rocks that fit, that are stable, which look right. The morning had been about learning what needs to happen to make a wall stand up. Exhausted and frustrated we finished for lunch, meeting again on long tables under trees just outside the kitchen. This was to become a hub for the group, where we shared beautiful meals of aubergine and tomatoes, zucchini and beans. We discussed the inherent problems with dry stone walling (mainly a lack of patience and skill).

After lunch was the option of helping in the afternoon. I declined and walked up the hill to the peace of the castle. I had recently been in a hotel in elsewhere in Europe, unlike most of my experiences it was overrun by tourists, a nasty, humourless place where people fought over breakfast rolls and pushed to the front of queues. The area, one of outstanding natural beauty was infested by tourists, offending the locals and scaring off responsible tourists. I travel a lot, I love doing it, but I cannot help but think of the impact that I am having on the planet. The thought of giving something back, of treating a landscape with respect was one that greatly appealed.

There is nothing untouched or wild about this part of France. History lies lightly upon it though. Down the road in Avignon you can feel the weight of ages. At Saint Victor, the stone walls could be as old as time or built last week. For forty years the locals have been used to people arriving from around the world, staying a while, drinking pastis under the cooling leaves of the tree outside the local bar or practising school-girl French in the corner store. They stop occasionally to talk about the latest wall, to offer some pithy advice, to see how we are doing. They are used to it.  

On the weekend we escaped the cool, thick walls of our accomodation, into the Provencal countryside, eager for that slice of Peter Mayle idyll. The lavender had been picked, but the fragranced lingered. We visited markets thronged with people. The tomatoes were huge, straggly shaped and not even vaguely reminiscent of the tomatoes at home, lying in their plastic coffins, ripened somewhere between the plant and the shop and tasting of water. The sausages were dried with thyme and oregano. The peaches dripped juice down our arms. Hilltop villages glowered down at the tourists melting in the midsummer sun. We critiqued walls, scoffed icecream and downed litres of water, wine and beer. There is something restful about small Provencal villages. Once you are away from the crowds on the hilltops you are quite quickly somewhere rural and quiet – apart from the ever present ring of stone against stone; and the cacophony of curses in seven different languages as stones were dropped and fingers scraped.

As the days went by I got better at placing stones on the wall, or at least thinking about what might go where. Under the infinitely patient watch of Pascal Parres – a stonecutter who has worked at La Sabroneque for 10 years - it started to make more sense and amazingly, to look more beautiful. It started to be less about me and my ideas on sustainable tourism and more about the jigsaw puzzle of the wall. I have rarely been as happy as when Pascal pronounced one of my stone placements “perfect.” Time slipped away in the routine of the days, work in the morning, lunch, optional work in the afternoon, time at the local bar, dinner, wine, petonque...



I'm not much better at building walls than before, but I have an appreciation for the craft, for experts in obscure fields who love what they do, and for artistry in stone.  

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Northern Line

Starbucks. A beacon of modern England. It's humming with people sipping a days worth of calories in a cup. A double decaf soy caramel latte with cream or some other abomination. I like Starbucks. It's the McDonalds of my generation. I like lattes. It always has a clean loo. And wifi.

Across the road is boots the chemist, a stalwart blue and white presence on the high street. Next door is Marks and Spencer where anemic tomatoes lie in plastic coffins and sandwiches bustle for position in the wonderful land of 'convenience food.'

I'm on the high street in Chelmsford, Essex. Rather conveniently its name us just that "High Street."  It's nice. A high street in England, like all the others. Why are they identical?

Anyway, this is not a ramble about a high street, or Chelmsford, which seems like a very nice town. Rather, this morning I took the Northern Line on the tube from Balham to Bank, at 8am. It was hideous! The type of journey where you breathe in when the doors close and take a collective breath when they open again. Wedged against someone's armpit your intrepid explorer took some time to contemplate London (and for the record, Mr Armpit had defiantly showered and deodorized very recently. Thanks, Mr Armpit). It's become second nature to walk quickly, Metro grasped in one hand, Oyster at the ready. I only ever stand on the right hand side of escalators (even if I'm not in London but somewhere more exotic like Birmingham). I mind the gap; I avoid eye contact. 

It's not second nature yet, but it is familiar. It's also ghastly. A seething mass of humanity squashed together, traveling underground like rabbits (a nod to the season, I really mean rats).

I'm very glad Mr Armpit took a shower. I'm also glad Starbucks has wifi. I might just go find a sandwich...now where was Marks and Sparks?