Coming to terms with Adventure


 

One of my first friends was an adventurer. He was a soft toy man dressed in yellow named adventurer Sam. Little did I know that in the future many of my close friends would share the same name; it must be a special name. Adventurer Sam was always well prepared. He had a soft toy water bottle and soft toy binoculars. Inside his backpack, perfectly sized for a soft toy adventurer, he carried a soft toy map. That way he would never lose his way. He was a childhood hero; a figure to look up to. If he could be an adventurer, why not me?

My parents are adventurers. In their mid 20’s they left their home land of New Zealand for The UK and started a new life in Edinburgh. Did they know they would stay in Britain for ever? I don’t know. What I do know is that they left practically everything. Family and friends all on the other side of the world, replaced with the rainy streets of the Scottish capital. Their small island in the Pacific turned into a smaller island in the Atlantic, and home was geographically as far away as you can go without leaving the planet. What a decision. I’ve always taken it for granted; that my parents lived as long As I’ve been in alive in New Zealand, then only to trade it forever. But really it’s amazing. They must have been truly brave to move so far.

I always wanted to be an adventurer. As a child I was fascinated with ancient Egypt, and while other kids wanted to be famous footballers, I dreamed of pyramids and ancient gods. I wanted to be an Egyptologist, and perhaps so myself to be a little Indiana Jones. More likely though, I wanted to be like Adventurer Sam.

We used to always spend the Easter holiday in the Lake District. When I was four my mum and step dad called my ‘the champion mountain climber’ because I had climbed one very short mountain with them. For a few years I carried that title deep in my heart and believed that it was true. I wanted to conquer the highest mountains and see the greatest views the world had to offer. My strongest memory from early childhood is walking through the forests in the Lakes, one hand held by mum, the other my step dad. We never found the bears.

I went with my dad in the summers to the west coast of Scotland where we sailed Scotland’s western isles. There I felt nature, and learned its strength. When the sun came, its light played with the sea. The waves shifted and reflected the sun over us. Sometimes dolphins swam alongside the yacht and we became for a short time a member of their community. When the dark skies came and the sea was pulled into black waves, I learned that nature must be respected. She is not evil, but she can be terrifying and violent. When you sit in a small boat that leans so far in a storm, that you are almost touching the wailing sea, you learn the violent beauty of our world.

When we landed on islands it felt as if we had found new land. We were the first people that had ever been there; the island our own kingdom. I still remember the disappointment as we found signs on the ‘black isle’ that people had been there before us. The other boat in the harbour should have been proof enough, but so is the imagination of a dreaming child.

In ‘normal’ life I lived in Cambridgeshire with my mum and step dad. In Cambridgeshire there are no lakes, no mountains, and very little nature. Instead agriculture reigns entirely. Some find the endless fields of crops beautiful. I see in it the end of nature. There is nothing to connect with there. We lived in a region we hated and stayed because of my step dad’s work. There was no adventure in Cambridgeshire. When people tell me that it is my home, it hurts. My mum grew up on a farm where the plains of central Otago meet the mountains. My step dad grew up near the lake district. I was born in Edinburgh, a city never far from hills and the sea. We never fitted into Cambridgeshire, even me who has spent most of my life there. I only ever really felt at home when I went to see dad in Scotland. The strongest influence Cambridgeshire had on me was the desperate desire to escape it.

I remember one of the teachers I respect the most from my school days telling me “you’ll grow to appreciate here after you leave it.” I’ve gone back a few times now. Every time I last a few days before questioning how I managed to stay there so long. I go there to see family, catch up with a few friends, then I leave again.

The point here is, I was always going to end up needing something I could quantify as a ‘real’ adventure. When I did finally leave Cambridgeshire after school was done and dusted, I was really running away in many respects. Maybe I still am. I’m not entirely sure.

That was four years ago now. I packed my bags, got on a plane and landed in China. At 19 years old I was moving to the Gobi desert. The adventure hasn’t stopped since. In four years I’ve been a teacher,  been a student in three countries and lived in five cities. I’ve travelled thousands of miles on trains and buses; watched from their windows as lush mountains turn to deserts. I’ve started to learn how little I know that there is to know.

At the end of my first year in China, some friends and I sat in a courtyard in Beijing and considered how surreal it would be to be back in the UK. One said: “we’ll never have an adventure like this again.” We had all lived and worked as teachers in small cities across the country, far from the well known metropoles. I didn’t believe him and promised it was only the start. In some ways that adventure never actually ended. In other ways, we truly never had an adventure like it again. If I told you that we all met on a small Scottish Island with a population of around 200 people, you probably wouldn’t believe me. That first adventure ended after all in a town of 20 million.

Going back to the UK actually was an adventure too. My Chinese city, Kuitun, had a westerner population of roughly two; me and my friend who I lived with for the year. Some others lived twenty minutes south in Dushanzi, but nonetheless in a city of 300’000 we stuck out like sore thumbs. The first day back in the UK was extremely uncomfortable, because everyone wasn’t Chinese, and it just didn’t feel right. It took a month to readjust.  I missed good food. I missed things being affordable. I missed the language. The UK was all wrong.

That year was the only full year I’ve spent in the UK since leaving school. The year after I was back in China, and I’m writing this right now from Germany, where I’ve been for the last three and a half months. Although it was a great year I had cabin fever the whole time. After a year that was split up by long train journeys across the whole of China, a whole year in Leeds felt like a cage. Because of that, I think I’m still running. I love university, but despite that A whole year in one place had become so difficult.

In three weeks I go back to the UK for the first full year since year 1 of uni. My relationship with it has completely changed. I see it more as a nice country which I like staying in, rather than a home. Four years of hopping in and out of it seems to have its toll eventually. Not so long ago I thought this point would be feel like the end of my ‘adventuring’. There are no more times where I ‘must’ live outside of the UK. That’s all done now. But it’s so problematic.  My childhood was characterised entirely by a need to run, to explore the world; and the frustration that that need couldn’t be realised. Now, after four years of changing worlds and experiences, I  feel the sense of adventure disappearing but simultaneously don’t want to stop. My friend’s comment back in Beijing comes back as a ghost. The adventures never were the same.

There is no doubt in my mind that after another whole year in the UK I’ll be itching to run away again. Already I’m considering whether it is better to move to Europe or to Asia. But for every year I keep running, the less it remains adventure, and instead becomes normal life. It becomes normal to have friends for a few months, only to wave goodbye forever at the end of that all too short time. It becomes normal to wonder if you can still keep your life to one bag if you need to. The concept of ‘your own bed’ disappears. Your own bed is wherever your sleeping at any given time. I’ve been told for example that I can have my own bed back this time I visit Cambridgeshire. The last few times I’ve been sleeping in the living room, and both ways are fine, because my bed isn’t my bed anymore.  I wouldn’t trade the experiences of the last few years for anything but in truth, for everything you gain, you lose something too. Embrace adventure too much, and it seems you lose a sense of home.

Something is still puzzling. As a kid, adventure was always associated with nature, but my last four years has been spent almost entirely in cities. How do I assimilate the root of that need to run, with the actual result? Is that why after four years something seems lacking, or does that stem from too long simply up in the air never staying in one place? The exception is my old dream of becoming an egyptologist. I have something in common with my old dream. I do explore culture, and although the cultures I learn about are very much still living, the foundation is still there.

I think over the next few years my concept of adventure will change. They say life itself is an adventure, and I believe that wholeheartedly, but that doesn’t fit with the relatively superficial conceptualisation of the word explored here. I think as this superficial material adventure becomes more and more a form of normal life, experiences gained along the way will feed a more philosophical form of adventurism. That is to an extent already happening. When you start to realise more deeply that every nation thinks differently, and that their thoughts are not right or wrong, but a different understanding of existence,  existence suddenly becomes much more fluid. There lies perhaps the next adventure: No longer in places, but in mind sets. Maybe the next few years will prove that theory wrong, but one thing is doubtless. The adventurism embodied for me in a childhood toy and hero, adventurer Sam, is not the same adventurism that lies in the future. I still need to come to terms with adventure.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

A quick trip to Prague


There is something a little wrong feeling to me, writing about Prague before I’ve even really written about my new home in Leipzig in any depth, but that seems to just be how it’s going to go.

I’ll put it down to actually having taken photos in Prague, and not down to a serious case of slacking. I’m kidding myself really though.

IMG_6872

You have probably heard of Prague. It’s turned into a bit of a tourist hot spot in recent years, as far as I can tell. There certainly were a fair few there. That however doesn’t take away from it being a fabulous city. It’s cool, it’s arty, it’s historic, and wonderfully Gothic. Gothic will always score points with me.

So why did I end up in Prague when I should be busy exploring Leipzig? A good friend of mine came to stay and we decided to go on a trip out of town. Prague just happens to practically be down the road. It’s about an hour to Dresden on the bus, which is almost on the Czech border, then the Czech Republic (officially Czechia now, but the name apparently isn’t catching on at all) is a conveniently small land making the second half of the journey happily brief.

That’s not to say I would have complained at a longer stint through the Czech countryside. It’s beautiful. Living in deathly flat Saxony is a bit of a curse for me, seeing as my pet hate of Cambridgeshire back in the UK is its boredom-inducing views. The majority of the Czech Republic is surrounded by mountains, and although our bus drove only through comfortably rolling countryside, lofty mountains were always in the distance.

Something about the rolling fields was puzzling though. I could swear they had changed colour since Germany. The saxon fields of flatdom are at the very least of a very pleasing green (Cambridgeshire fields are usually brown and frankly crap), but over on the Czech side I swear the grass was slightly bluer. Now, I’m willing to accept I’m just mad, but that’s what I thought. Blue-ish-green fields. Lovely.

And then of course moving further east in Europe means the buildings change quite a lot. Although Prague as a city was impressively gothic, the churches appearing from the hilltops in the countryside had a distinctly orthodox feel about them. I believe that the predominant form of Christianity in the land is actually Catholicism, but the church architecture makes me think of further east. Of course, that is almost irrelevant anyway, as being a former east bloc country means that most people are irreligious these days.

I didn’t get any photos of that lovely Czech countryside. I was too busy enjoying it. I never get any good shots from bus windows anyway really.

So. After rolling along in a coach over rolling, slightly blue-ish (mainly green) hills, Demi and I arrived in Prague. We only had a day and a half, so had to use our time well to get the most out of it.

Naturally we through that idea to the wind and spent a good chunk of time in coffee shops.

IMG_7021

being Bohemian in Bohemia

I’m going to put it out there and say that doing so is almost justified in a place like Prague. If there is a positive word for those strange folk like me that find themselves willingly holed up in coffee shops for the best hours of the day, every day, then that would could well be bohemian. Prague just happens to be the main city of Bohemia. Although this land may not exist today, the feel attributed to the word certainly does. Therefore I (and I hope Demi too) feel no regret at the dangerous amount of time spent sipping coffees on a more dangerous time restriction.

We spent the rest of the time wondering the wonderful streets with our cameras.

IMG_6916

or taking photos of cameras inside the coffee shops.

Honestly, we did actually go outside a bit.

IMG_6869

How could you not, when a city looks as good as Prague does?

There’s clearly so much to do in the city. I was quite desperate for example to go to the Kafka Museum, as a huge fan of that genius existential miseryguts. Being a former east bloc city, there is also a communism museum hidden in its windy streets. Then of course towering over the river from the old town is Prague castle, apparently one of the largest castle complexes in the world.

Unfortunately the old town was so touristy we turned back for quieter streets, and never quite made it to the castle. I get the feeling it is a must see however, if you are not busy being ‘bohemian’ in coffee shops.

IMG_6912

I’ll just put some proof of actually stepping outside now.

IMG_6924

Prague sits comfortably on Vlatva, which is the longest river running through the Czech Republic. I showed my ignorance by thinking that it was the Danube. Nope.

IMG_6936

The buildings really are beautifully ornate in Prague. I’ve never really been one for balconies, but I’d be pretty chuffed if my house had a balcony like those in Prague.

IMG_6963

IMG_6975IMG_7036

I even appreciated the road signs in Prague. I don’t drive, so I can’t say the road signs are my favourite thing in the world, but I have to applaud a town which has road signs for segways.

IMG_6931

And signs for classy gentlemen to cross roads.

IMG_6938

See, this shouldn’t have surprised me so much, as former East Germany still holds on proudly to its Ampelmann. The fellow of traffic crossing light fame even has his own shop in Berlin.

Prague does of course have historic links, for better or for worse, to the German speaking world. It was an important city in the Habsburg Empire after all. Kafka after all, wrote his stories in German, not Czech. It is worth pointing out that he wasn’t hugely fond of German, despite it being his chosen creative language. He saw German as the language of bureaucracy – no surprise really, when you consider it was  the ruling language despite Czech being the native tongue.

IMG_6951

Remants of German on an older street sign.

In fact, when I think about it, Prague and the Czech Republic has had a rough past. Most nations with ‘Republic’ in the name have had to stand up to something annoyingly aggressive in their histories, and within the last a hundred years, this city has been part of politically unstable Habsburg empire, with all the in-fighting that came with being part of that unhappy club. Then it found itself part of the communist east bloc. The country (as Czechoslovakia) was flung into an anti-communist revolution after the fall of the Berlin wall and the ensuing collapse of the east bloc. By 1992, The Czech Republic had come into being.

IMG_6954

Now back to wondering streets. The part of the city I was really looking forward to seeing was Charles bridge, a gloriously Gothic construction running directly to the old town. Despite standing directly on the bridge, I don’t recall seeing it. I think if you removed all the brickwork of the given bridge, Demi and I still could have crossed the bridge quite happily as long as the tourists left hanging in mid air by the lack of bricks stayed where they were.

Ignore physics for a second, and imagine it’s perfectly plausible they would just float there. Charles Bridge was absolutely stuffed with humans.

IMG_6979

I had to look for details on the bridge instead, as there wasn’t much chance of a dramatic panorama of the bridge itself. These saintly looking fellows were practically telling me it was a mistake to try fighting through the crowds.

IMG_6995

As for this saintly looking fellow, it seemed to be a tradition to touch him as you cross the bridge. No idea why. I could research it, but I think its more fun to puzzle over it instead.

IMG_6998IMG_6988

This saintly fellow was telling me to get off the bridge, offering a kindly recommendation for the castle you see in the background. Demi and I, as previously mentioned, ignored the suggestion due to crowds. We were not smited, and are both in good health after refusing kindly instruction from such a religious looking dude.

IMG_6997 I had also heard before getting to Prague that the city has a love of puppets. This man was the only puppeteer I saw in the whole city, but at least his puppet fitted wonderfully with its Gothic home. I had Sonata Arctica’The boy who wanted to be a real puppet in my head for the rest of the day.

On all things arty, I’m so happy that the trip to Prague taught me the name of an artist I’ve been wishing to know the name of for a while. Mucha. I absolutely love his rich, almost mystical style, but I didn’t know his name until bumping into his work throughout his homeland.

IMG_7024IMG_7049

Luckily his art work was proudly shown all over the place. It also suggested trying the local absinthe. So we did.

I had to approach the green fairy with some care, as I had been warned by my mum that there was a potential family heritage risk with it. High quality absinthe contains a hallucinogen, and mum had warned me she reacted badly once to a related compound found in a medicine she had been told to take. The waitress at Absinthe Time did also give us practically a briefing on the drink before we bought anything.

I still love her description. She told us that Absinthe will potentially “change our perspective of reality”.

In small amounts, a good Absinthe is meant merely to give you euphoric feelings. That is I imagine unless you choose Absinthe on the menu with 8 times the recommended amount of narcotic in it.

Me, paying heed partly to mums advice, and partly to the advice of my wallet, opted for something a bit more standard. It turns out that a good Absinthe is actually a gorgeous drink. If you don’t like the taste of anise then give it a miss, but otherwise it has to be one of the most drinkable spirits out there.

The correct process for preparing the drink is also quite the performance. The waitress came over to our table with a bottle of absinthe, two glasses, sugar, a special spoon, and a lighter. Anyone with any reasonable sense, or absolutely none at all, will know that spirits set on fire quite easily. That was the intention with the Absinthe. Our waitress set our absinthe on fire, and slowly melted the sugar cubes into the glasses of absinthe. After leaving the glasses to cool, our drinks were ready.

Euphoria was the word. We left the bar with a strange mixed feeling of being lightly tipsy, but at the same time strikingly chirpy for a state of drunkenness. Great fun.

As it happens, the Czech republic is simply a land known for its alcohol. Somehow I wasn’t fully aware of to what extent before getting there. The Czech republic is famous as home of the Pils. Pils comes unsurprisingly from Pilsen. Despite living in the part of Germany that is more into pilsner than weissbier and so on, I’m not really a Pils person myself. I gave the local pils a go nonetheless, and discovered that, actually, the Czech republic knows how to make a pilsner. I’m left wondering if Germany’s world fame for beer should perhaps be gifted over across the board to Czechia, because although German beer is good, damn, that Czech beer is also good. In terms of Pilsner, Germany is left floundering awkwardly somewhere behind the Saxon Alps.

A discerning Demi approved. Ignore for a moment that her beer is actually not a pilsner. It is at least definitely Czech.

IMG_6889

Beer is always the right place to end. If you follow in the footsteps of some of my local Leipziger folks, then it is also quite a reasonable way to begin, namely a hearty morning pint on the tram on the way to work. But for today, seeing as this post has been about a short visit to Prague, I will leave Leipziger drinking habits to another day.