Europe by rail, part 1 of 11: The British Isles

A trip around Europe with no plan beyond a backpack full of clothes and an Interrail pass. This is something quite out of character for me, but if I’d planned everything in any detail I would likely never have gotten started, and time was against me — even rushing it like this was putting me in danger of not being back soon enough to vote in the EU referendum.

The drama started while I was packing, as I suddenly noticed the absence of my credit card. There was still no sign of it in the morning, so I cancelled it online with no chance of getting a new one in time. I never did find it, even when I got back.

Early morning rush to catch the bus to the train station! Except the bus doesn’t go as far as the train station any more. So to the city centre instead and hope I wouldn’t miss my connection! But it was OK, because en route I realised that the ferry I’d expected to catch was going in the wrong direction, and the one I really wanted was departing nine hours later. Well, that saved me the worry of catching the next bus, which was extremely fortunate because that bus never came. I double checked the credit card situation with the bank while I was in town, and it looks lost rather than stolen, so that’s good. Still no bus (a common problem with British public transport), so I walked the rest of the way to the train station.

It was a fairly long train journey by my usual standards, and I found that I had forgotten how to open slam-door trains in the decade or two since they disappeared from the line of my childhood home town. I almost missed my second stop until I realised that the window could be pushed down and I could use the handle on the outside of the door.

England is a mixture of outstanding beauty and litter strewn dumps, and I saw both on the trip to the ferry port. The dumps I saw were in the run-down brownfield sites (next to the train line, obviously) within towns and cities. Urban wasteland.

The trip took me through the villages of Mistley (population 2,685) and Wrabness (population 400), both of which had their own stations despite their small size. I feel like some of our place names are jokes I don’t understand.

The residents of the streets near Harwich International don’t like the EU. I saw many signs saying “vote leave” and not a single “remain”. You might think a town next to a major shipping port might like the outside world, but it seems not. The signs had all gone by the time I’d returned, presumably out of respect for Jo Cox who had died the day before. The place is run-down and tired, with streams used as litter dumps and an abandoned house whose windows had been bricked up long enough ago that even those bricks had started to crumble and fall away.

Getting on the cruise ship itself was the first time I really felt like I was in an enormous vehicle. Jumbo jets, even 747s, are so narrow they just don’t have that effect. Everything was priced as you might expect for a captive audience, of course. The sailing was smooth, assuming it’s still called “sailing” now that sails are archaically obsolete.

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Budapest part 3, spirit

[Budapest part 2, curiosity]

Continuing on from last time, there was little else of note that evening, save for two things.

First, the level of homelessness is surprising. I’ve seen homeless beggars on the streets of London and Cambridge, but always isolated. One under a bridge on one side of the river, the next on the far side of the river. In Budapest, I found a dozen grouped together around sleeping bags on the corner of Erzsébet krt. and Rákóczi út, by what Google Street View says is CIB bank (I wasn’t looking at the signage when I went past).

Second, the path I took back to the Airbnb went past the Budapest-Nyugati railway station — The crossroads outside the station has an underground plaza, lined with shops. The only other time I’ve seen such a thing, that I recall, was next to a train station in Nürnberg. I am a fan of such architecture, placing roads and pedestrians on separate levels, while still using the pedestrian level for shops.

Once Sunday came upon us, Sadie had recovered the energy to explore with me and we took the tram to Vörösmarty tér. All the shops were shut, leaving only the restaurants and bars. Sunday trading laws had stopped the rest.

The restaurant we picked was a typical tourist restaurant, in that it had large TV screens playing random content that annoyed Sadie. We drank a hot chocolate and used our smartphones to find other places to eat. Sadie was particularly interested in a soup restaurant that had good reviews, because soup requires no chewing and her jaw still hurt.

On the way there, we passed a street market filling the pedestrianised length of Deák Ferenc utca, still open even though it was Sunday (the rules only force shops to close if they’re big). Lots of interesting trinkets to see (albeit with tourist prices), cute and friendly, with a sense of permanence to the vendor’s huts that I’ve not seen on any other street market, except perhaps a few of those in the Camden Market area of London. I wish I’d taken a photo.

The soup restaurant was in the Jewish quarter of the city, so naturally we passed by the famous Dohany street great synagogue, which is completely underwhelming from the outside. Sadie was hungry, so we didn’t stop to check out the inside. Unfortunately, at the next turn, Sadie’s phone crashed, and we struggled to remember the name of the restaurant we were going to. Not that it made much difference, as when we did remember the name and found the place, it was stuffed full of customers and there was no chance of getting a table to sit at and rest. Instead, we went next door, into a small quiet generic place, the sort of restaurant that would be a kebab shop or chippy if it were in the UK. Pleasant enough, and even here English was understood and spoken. Which was lucky, because Google translate needs an internet connection to do voice translations. Or perhaps it was just good business, as the restaurant advertised “escape the dungeon” events in English, and was probably being the best tourist spot it knew how to be.

Sadie’s teeth came out in two goes. Left side, then right side a few days later. Very painful, despite the anaesthetic, and once out we could see why — one of the teeth looked like it had twisted 180° between the roots and the surface. The dentists were kind to her throughout, but we still don’t know why they used permanent stitches and then told us to have them removed exactly one week after the teeth came out instead of using dissolving stitches.

On the last night before the teeth came out and she was back to soup, we found and visited a nice a vegan restaurant, Kozmosz Vegán Étterem. I had a bean goulash to finally find out what goulash tastes like (I’m vegetarian, so real goulash is off the menu for me)… and it was instantly familiar. I’ve must have already tried it at some point without realising it. The desserts were really not my thing, but that’s a problem I often find with vegan desserts.

The taxi transfer was included in the cost of the dental treatment, but we had to go back to the dentists’ lobby to wait for it. While waiting, we saw the first reports of the Brussels attacks. The reports at the time turned out to be wrong, but that’s normal when reporters are clamouring for the latest big news. By the time we got to the airport departure lounge, the Airbnb host had emailed us to ask if we needed to stay longer — they had heard, incorrectly, that all flights had been cancelled.

Ryanair’s departure hall was exactly what you’d expect, and not worth commenting on. Once we took to the air, we got some lovely views — there’s something cool about seeing a tiny line on the ground, recognising it, and being able to say “I’ve walked the entire length of that street”.

Budapest part 2, curiosity

[Budapest part 1, health tourism]

Budapest from the air
Budapest from the air

The first thing I noticed about Budapest was during the flight. The sun had long set, the streets were lit… but the lighting was quite dim. The lights had the old orange-yellow glow of sodium vapour lights that I remember from my childhood, but not very many of them, not very powerful, and the rooftops were not lit up by them (I later found out that was because most of the buildings I saw were high-rise, whereas most of the buildings in the UK are three including the loft). I hadn’t even realised British rooftops were lit until I saw the unlit ones here.

Landing and quickly through to the exit, into a car park called “London”. No explanation was sought or given. The airport taxi took us past some American-style malls and billboard advertising, but the inner city was much more traditionally old-world, with elements recognisably similar to Barcelona, Berlin, Magdeburg, Paris… I hesitate to add London to that list, but London is what I grew up with and the standard by which I am able to consider something “unusual”, so I guess it must, by seeming normal in any regard at all, be like London. There were adverts listing prices in two currencies, Euros and what I later found out to be Hungarian forints (before travelling, I had looked up SIM cards and learned of the currency, but sleepy late night landing doesn’t help the memory, and for that journey I was confused and certain that Hungary was in the Eurozone).

The first night was a free stay at a hotel associated with the tooth clinic. Nothing of note about it, it’s much like every other hotel. Well, now that I write that I realise hotels are quite varied, so I should say “like every British hotel” — Americans would find it small and wonder why there was no bath, while Dutch might find it enormous (based on my experiences of many hotels in California and one hotel in Amsterdam).

Andrassy metro drawing, Wikipedia
I didn’t see these coverings over the staircases, but the surface of the roadway really is only around a meter above the ceiling of the tramway underneath.

The rest of the week was spent a 20 minute walk away, just off Andrássy [Avenue], a road large and important enough to have it’s own entry on Wikipedia. When you’re used to the London Underground, it is shocking (in a good way) to see how close the Metro line along that avenue is to the surface. The architecture of Andrássy is fairly representative of what I saw throughout Budapest, in there was a lot of it in a multitude of styles (though Wikipedia focuses on Neo-Renaissance architecture in the city) and varying states of decay — shocking levels of decay when it’s apparently the most expensive street in the country. A mishmash of styles is not something I would ever hold against a place, but the whole city suffers from the decay. This is not to say the decay was universal, because there were many buildings that looked very well maintained — our hotel, the Opera house, St Stephen’s Basilica — but the decay was noticeable. There are many wooden structures covering the footpaths next to some buildings, structures which I had mistaken for scaffolding until I saw metal scaffolding elsewhere, and which I now assume is just to keep the walkways clear (and pedestrians safe) from falling plasterwork. I’m looking at Budapest house prices on rightmove.co.uk, and it’s easy to be shocked by how cheap places in the capital city are if you don’t know how many places have exterior plaster falling away.

Frescos
Frescos

One of the more pleasant architectural surprises was frescos painted on exterior walls. They were all faded and darkened with some combination of time and pollution, but before now I’ve never seen exterior building painting on this scale and complexity outside of graffiti and Belfast’s murals.

Hősök tere (Heroes’ Square) itself is kinda dull — large, empty, a car park with some arches and a pillar — but beyond it is a city park with a thermal lake. It’s fascinating to see steam gently rising from it even as winter was turning into spring.

After getting a bit of cash from the ATM, Sadie and I went to dinner. There were two Indian restaurants near our Airbnb, the first one we went to had the best reviews. Unfortunately for me, my British tastebuds were expecting the British style of “Indian”, which is not only adjusted for British sensibilities on taste, but also secretly Bangladeshi (since meeting Sadie, who speaks five words of Bangla, I’ve found that every Indian restaurant we eat at in the UK has had staff from somewhere in Sylhet). The second was much more my taste, but if you’re from the UK, it’s surprising and worth knowing that our system of curry names is not at all universal: my korma was spicy! (For the benefit of non-Brits, a British korma never has any spice-heat). Neither of these restaurants appeared to employ anyone ethnically anywhere near Indian, at least in the customer-facing area. Again, very surprising for a Brit like me.

The consultation and first (of two) surgeries completed, Sadie had to rest in the Airbnb while I continued to explore. The Airbnb itself was on the first floor (Americans: second floor) of a five story block of flats with a shared entrance and internal courtyard/atrium with a small raised flowerbed and a lift in one corner. There was a balcony we never used, shared with the neighbours. Apart from the balcony, all the windows were two-parts, with separate fixtures on each side of the wall, and also a metal frame on the outside that reminded me of the security fixtures all around the windows of mzungu flats Nairobi. We had high ceilings (Victorian houses in England had those, when did they stop being a thing?), the TV had voice control, but no cables to connect to either an antenna or the DVD player next to it, and in the end the only use it got was casting from our Android devices.

I tried to shop for supplies while Sadie was recovering. On the subject of prices, wages are lower in Hungary than in Britain (by roughly a factor of 4), so anything involving human labour is cheaper, but anything involving machine labour (energy, transport, refrigeration, etc) or imported from elsewhere (cocoa beans) is the same. Bar of chocolate in a supermarket? Same price. Eating out? Half to a third of the price. You may have noticed I said “tried to shop”… well, I successfully exchanged money for goods and brought them home, but I had a panic attack doing so. This was the first time I’d been in a foreign country without a friend to look to for support (because she was recovering from surgery on a sofa 1km away). The lady on the till said something to me. I still don’t know what, but I’m now guessing something like “there is no price tag on this bag of potatoes”. I had my phone with me for translation, but it’s not able to do voice offline and I wasn’t fast enough with my typing to figure out what to do. For anyone else going, most of their tills don’t have scales, so if you get loose vegetables you need to have them weighed before you go to the till. Still, she smiled when I used my phone to say “Köszönöm. I tanulok magyar.”, so the translation was probably close enough for her to understand my previous deer-in-headlight expression. I needed a good hug when I got back to Sadie, not exactly how the whole support-your-lady-after-surgery is supposed to go. Remember, while knowledge of English is common it’s not universal, I’d assume that anyone who schooled while it was still Soviet-block would have been taught Russian as their second language, and I’d also guess that anyone post-Soviet would have many sensible second language choices besides English.

After a good sleep and recovering myself, I explored the city further. There were many familiar brands (McDonalds, Spar, Tesco, Lidl, C&A, Müller, Burger King, Subway, Costa, even a Lego shop), there were tourist-focused restaurants with multilingual pictographic menus, there were phone shops whose cheapest tablet was 6000 HUF, there were even a couple of sex shops — something that makes my British self double-take whenever I see them on a major street, although less so now I’ve been to Amsterdam where sex shops are as dull as any other high street retail outlet.

Erzsébet híd (Elisabeth Bridge) and plaza
Erzsébet híd (Elisabeth Bridge) and plaza

Enough wandering took me to the Erzsébet híd (Elisabeth Bridge), an out-of-place modern style bridge from the 60s. The Danube river used to split Budapest into two cities, Buda on the hilly west and Pest on the flat east. I only ever wandered around Pest, and the Pest side of the bridge had the remains of an old structure under glass in a plaza. I couldn’t tell you what it was under there.

Continuing northward along the east bank of the Danube took me past the memorial of the Shoes on the Danube Bank (before finding that link, I had no idea that there had been a rise of fascist parties in pre-WW2-Europe other than Germany and Italy… so much for my history GCSE!), then onward past their parliament building, which is a similar style to the Palace of Westminster in London, but friendlier as the security didn’t feel like it was trying to stop normal people the way the fifteen foot high steel fences around the Palace of Westminster do.

Buda Castle
Buda Castle

Across the river was Buda Castle. It looks cool, but I didn’t have the energy or time to explore that half of the city, so I can say no more of it.

Well, it’s midnight now, and I’ve been writing and researching this for several hours now and I’m not even part way through a walk. So, more later!

[Budapest part 3, spirit]

Budapest part 1, health tourism

Budapest wasn’t part of the plan, but things happened. Things, in this case, being wisdom teeth that have been troubling Sadie for some months now.

Here in England, lots of people are looking for reasons to be angry with foreigners. One of the currently popular trends is to yell “health tourism” and pretend that all the world’s sick come here for free treatment.

“It’s more complicated than that…” is already too long to fit into a newspaper headline. For Sadie, the complication is that all public services have been told to cut back as part of the politics of austerity, and NHS dentistry was only ever a bare minimum service. “Wisdom teeth hurt? Here’s an antibiotic to deal with any infections you might have. You need three infections in rapid succession to get a single tooth out, and we’re never going to remove that un-erupted because it’s also impacted.”

Removing wisdom teeth privately, in the UK, costs about £1,000, which she doesn’t have. But that doesn’t stop a third culture kid! She looked around and organised her own health tourism. There’s a clinic in Budapest, Hungry, which charges a tenth that, so even with flights for both of us and a week in an Airbnb and all the food and tram tickets and petrol to the airport etc. it was still cheaper than a single tooth privately in the UK.

And we got to look around Budapest.

Unfortunately for Sadie, who is the biggest traveller I’ve ever met, the drain on her system from having four teeth surgically removed meant I did twice as much travelling as she did…

[Budapest part 2, curiosity]

Dogs, teeth and conflicting dreams

We finally have a plan for our first real journey – we lack a date and a budget, though.

The plan is to spend a month going from Copenhagen, via Heidelberg and Zurich, down to the Amalfi coast, and it’s likely to cost about 800 – not too bad, though we are likely going to couch-surf in Zurich because hotels there start quite a bit higher than anywhere else.

We had hoped to head off on the 28th of Feb. A few hiccups – one, I’m out of cash. More painfully, my wisdom teeth are playing up.

They started causing a fuss back in October, when my biggest concern was that I couldn’t afford the sick leave required from work in order to get them taken out. The short version is I went to the dentist then and was told you need to have three separate infections before you can get an NHS referral to have them taken out. (I adore the NHS, but its dentistry is severely lacking, primarily because that’s been the first target of cuts since the NHS was founded after WWII.)

So I figured, given two of my teeth are causing a lot of grief now, that should equate to three infections, right? Wrong, apparently. I now need to sit around for an undefined period of time for the privilege to pay another £20 to finally get a referral to a hospital – and even then, for only one tooth. Nevermind that all four of them are causing me grief.

The result: looks like I’m going to Hungary, to sit around in an AirBnB for a week eating soup while my face hurts. That wasn’t on the agenda, but I’m relieved to have an escape rope – and I’m extremely grateful to my sponsors, the Bank of Mom and Dad…

I don’t know when this will happen but it seems imminent, and I’m feeling a little bit daunted. I’m not convinced that Ben wants to come, so it may just be me for this little journey.

Once that’s out of the way, and I’ve put some cash aside via a mixture of freelance transcription and translation, we’ll be ready for our trip.

 

However, it’s complicated a little by the fact that I really, really want a dog.

A Samoyed to be precise – they’re hypo-allergenic, and well, ridiculously adorable. I’m allergic to a lot of dogs. Samoyeds can cost £1,000, though, so that’s not so great. Our flat has a freehold that doesn’t allow dogs, either, plus is too small.

If it were up to me, I’d get a caravan, and have me, Ben and the dog all live in it and roam around Europe.

One final piece of good news from my perspective – I had thought that the longer journey had been ruled out, and that Ben wasn’t up for it at all. It turns out he is, provided that I find a way to stay solvent and not have to lean on him financially – which is fair. I’m nothing if not determined, so it’ll happen sooner or later, and when it does I’ll be here to write all about it.

Maybe we’ll bring the dog. I hope so.

Keeping a Fear Journal

I doubt I’m alone in wishing I had a tape recorder for my brain. I have so many thoughts that it’s hard to capture, they come through looking perfect for a fleeting moment and then they disappear leaving an indecipherable imprint on me, sometimes a longing, sometimes an unaccounted-for decision.

One decision I made recently was to start journalling my fear. Ana Forrest says, when you feel fear, write it down and then you can turn around and stalk it.

For a start, I’m not sure what it means to stalk fear. I’m determined to learn, though.

For a second thing, what does it mean when the first entry in your fear journal reads “I’m afraid of starting a fear journal”?

A key fear I’ve found though is fear of mediocrity, of doing something and being a bit poor at it, not getting results, failing. Of course, you have to do something badly over and over before you can do that something well. It’s a prerequisite stage. So if I maintain this fear, then I will never be good at anything.

I keep panicking about coaching because when I tried it several years ago, I wasn’t very good – and of course I wanted to be the female Tony Robbins from my first session. It helps a little to remember that I was also pretty awful as a union rep the very first time I tried it, and I got reasonably good at that – not phenomenal, mind, but I could get there if I gave it a few more years. Which, incidentally, I don’t particularly want to do.

It also helps to remind myself that when I first received coaching (also from a student coach) I didn’t think for a moment she may not be any good. I was too busy worrying what would she think of me, of my problems, what would I get from the session? They do say that the coach’s personality isn’t supposed to factor into the session at all.

I’ll let you guys know how that goes.

Ben is currently downstairs laser cutting a table as a birthday present for his mum. We head back there on Friday, via a friend’s house, and then we are celebrating her birthday on Saturday.

We are going to do a few day trips and possibly an Isle of Wight overnight, and then head to our first Workaway for a few days.

I’m excited. But a bit nervous. Maybe I should write about that in my fear journal too.

Yin and Yang

We’ve all heard of the Chinese concept of the Yinyang, and mostly know it as a fun little symbol with some sort of meaning about balance.
I recently read Unearthing Venus, by Cate Montana (highly recommended reading if you are, or love, a woman). At one point Montana explores the Yin and Yang and what they mean.

Basically, Yang is the masculine, the white, governed by the sun. It involves exertion, doing, striving. Yin is the feminine, the black, governed by the moon – and involves being, softening, allowing. For balance, you need both. It’s a fascinating topic and I recommend checking it out.

As a natural effect of Alternate Day Fasting I have noticed that my days are becoming quite Yin and Yang.

Yesterday was my yang day. I attended a coach training “accelerator day” in Buckinghamshire, learned a lot, and jumped repeatedly out of my comfort zone. I was feeling pretty scared in the morning, and by the evening I was so tired that I took the wrong exit driving home and nearly fell asleep in the Keralan restaurant where I met Ben and friends for dinner.

Today, predictably, is my yin day. Apart from a short burst of exercise, I have spent today mostly in bed, using my tablet to chat with my best friend, fasting, taking stock. Writing a to-do list for tomorrow when tasks come up.

I can deal with this! It helps that today is a Sunday, and that I’m not currently employed, so I can take these. I do remember thinking I needed a treat to help me get through my fast days. I think this rest will be the treat I’m looking for, for a little while anyway.

After all this is largely a quest for balance. And I can’t help but feel a lot of the reason we are losing our collective balance as a species is because we are neglecting our yin side. In a way, this is me doing my bit.

How do you get your yin balance?