Those falls at Niagara

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It’s fun to be a tourist sometimes. And it would have been absurd to leave North America in a few weeks without having seen Niagara Falls.

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Two hours from Toronto by coach, the falls straddle Canada and the USA and since the Canadian side is soaking in Americana (a Hershey’s store, Elvis impersonators, a Coca Cola milkshake shop and Planet Hollywood), I can only assume that the American side is covered in red and white maple leaves. (Unlikely.)

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Yes, the town is tacky and I didn’t bother seeing any of the wax museums – my only wander into a casino was a disappointment. But the falls themselves really are vast and loud and stunning, and on a hot day like yesterday, the cool spray felt a bit like a blessing.IMG_1614 IMG_1624 IMG_1629 IMG_1631 IMG_1635

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Festival review: Nachtdigital 17

I had the opportunity to attend the exclusive Nachtdigital festival in Olganitz, Saxony, from August 1 to 3.

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one-of-a-kind graphic design

It’s all electronic, held in the German countryside in the summer and I say “exclusive” because only 3000 tickets are ever released and the event is consistently sold out straight away.

Olganitz is a village not far from Leipzig and it made for a very lovely drive south from Berlin.

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Most people camp but there are bungalows available too, in the “Bunga Bungalowdorf”.

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My party was camping. We brought enough food and beer for a small army and divided our time between our little tent town and the main stage areas, which, owing to the petite size of the whole operation, was only a three-minute walk away.

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The stages (one main stage, one inside a big tent and a smaller one by the water) are set by the lake, and the weather was hot and perfect for swimming and splashing around. It was a really beautiful place to have a music festival.

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The music was minimal in general – the heavier stuff in the small hours of night and the more ambient at sunrise and during the daylight. Being Europe, music starts in the evening and goes right through until 11am, although a thunderstorm did make everyone stop for an hour or so on the second night.

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I think this is Siriusmo

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Around the grounds there were little hideaway places to party, like this miniature mirror booth.

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And at night the place was lit up by flashes of colour.

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I had no expectations for Nachtdigital but I had heard many positive things which all turned out to be true. The overall pace and buzz was warm and relaxed – everybody was in a good mood. There was something really exciting about beats echoing out through the fields at night, before it was time to see the early European sunrise.

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And no reason to stop dancing, except to soak up the rays.

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Music: The festival’s specialty is exposing lesser-known and underground DJs from around Europe. My highlights were Siriusmo, Robag Wruhme & Roman Flügel, Heatsick (who I have now seen on three different continents), the Doumen Records showcase and the very unique ROD, who unleashed his terrifying bass right after the thunderstorm.

Crowd: Smiley and relaxed. I didn’t see any “antisocial” behaviour at all. The majority of people were young and beautiful and seemed to mostly come from Germany and The Netherlands.

Food and drink: Guests can bring their own booze into the campsite but not the main stage area. The food for sale was actually pretty tasty, with lots of vegetarian options. Drinks were also not through the roof. But if you plan well, you can survive the whole three days without spending any cash at all.

Grounds: A lovely and unique location, in the fields near a small lake surrounded by woods. Toilets were nothing special (portaloos) and the “shower” was just a cold hose with some curtains around it. Luckily, the weather was really warm!

Nachtdigital has quite a following, and I can see why. I’m still listening to this kind of thing, reminiscing.

 

Going back to Berlin

Two days before returning to Berlin I watched the aching and beautiful film Auf Der Anderen Seite (The Edge of Heaven). What I love about Fatih Akin’s films – besides their emotional depth and lingering sadness – is their keen eye for the “ordinariness” of life in Germany (and Turkey). Streetscapes, kitchens, university cafeterias – it’s as real as can be. It was the perfect way to practise my German.

I spent a year in Berlin as university student. I was young and free and my days and nights were, well, extensively documented on social media – why not? But some things don’t show up in Facebook photos: the smell of baking bread in the U-bahn stations; hands make sticky from drinking Club Mate; the first glimpse of early sunrise in the summer, when your night is still in full swing; the heavenly taste of Kristallweizen with a slice of lemon.

It was all like I remembered, but I’m (maybe) a real grown-up now. More inclined to enjoy organic ice cream than 50c tequila shots (grassy, sweet Zubrowka is another matter); more excited about eating Turkish food at normal dinnertime than at 4am. This time around, I was able to tick off the two activities that I somehow never found the time for in 2011 – cycling in Tempelhof, the vast empty space in the city that used to be an airport; and visiting the über smart modern art museum, Hamburgerbahnhof.

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Clärchens Ballhaus – a dancehall unchanged since decades

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I used to live on this street

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Club Mate is a soft drink made from mate tea. A acquired taste that every new resident has to get used to.

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Reunion with my dear Australian friend Kate

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Neukölln at night

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Kneipe

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“You pay 1 euro with your first drink for the DJ”

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The Tempelhof terminal is one of the only remaining examples of Third Reich architecture

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Some examples of food worth going crazy for:

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Bio-Eis (organic icecream, now everywhere in Berlin)

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Döner macht schöner

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Leberkäse im Brötchen

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I travelled around the world to find this Turkish dessert – it’s called Künefe and is made of shredded pastry, soft cheese and honey

I don’t think I could ever get sick of Berlin. It has a wonderful creative spirit and wears its history on its sleeve. Its citizens are interesting and interested in preserving its unique place in Europe and the world. It’s a crossroads for young people from everywhere, and in the summer, when gardens are growing out of control everywhere, it’s a real fairytale.

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Darkness and sunshine – that’s Berlin!

Halfway Point

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Montreal brunch – luckily I wasn’t meant to eat all of this by myself.

Two and a half months ago, I flew out of Kingsford Smith on my way to North America. Alone. It’s been, in the majority, a solo trip since and assuming all goes to plan (no September snowstorms), I’m halfway through.

It feels like much longer. My memories of California and Mexico are like a colourful dream sequence now, and that was only in April. I’m hearing an odd mashup of accents when I open my own mouth. Like everything, I’m sure that the next half of the trip will be intense and fantastic when it’s happening, and be over far too soon.

Along the way I have met dozens of solo travellers and I always feel like we’re part of a special club. We’ve discovered the thrill of going out into the unknown, armed with only wits and charms. Yes, there are a million blog posts already about how travel opens your mind and the romance of leaving home with only a few pairs of clothes and some good books. So everyone gets it. But there is something to be said about deliberately turning yourself into a complete stranger.

For one thing, people are impressed by it. You really came here all by yourself? Do you have family here? Friends? Wow! You’re brave! (And I smile to myself.) I don’t feel overly brave or adventurous, really – it’s Canada. They speak English here. I’m a dual citizen so I don’t need any scary immigration paperwork. Everyone is friendly. But I am proud of one thing – conquering my fear of being alone.

On my 25th birthday, which was a few weeks ago, I got a manicure. Then I went to a Japanese restaurant, by myself. I splurged on an expensive ramen and a beer. After that I walked over to a tiny theatre for a film screening I’d read about online. When the film was over, I made some friends by chatting about the rain and offering some chewing gum around, and we went out for more beers. It felt good to be a grown-up woman who could find her own entertainment and meet new people.

I’m planning on writing a separate post a bit later about the act of a woman going into a bar to drink alone. But it’s not too much of a stretch to say that for me, getting used to that has been one of the most rewarding treats of the whole exercise.

Maybe being happy alone is a skill that can only be learned through experience. In any case, I think that mastering it can only be useful for all the trials and errors of an interesting life.

Sometimes, in idle moments – and there are many – I think about the singular burn and sparkle of the Australian sunlight. The way everyone’s skin looks shiny after the sun sets on a hot day. Wattles, and jacarandas, and espressos and Coopers. It’ll all still be there, and I’ll get to enjoy it with all the people I miss. But I’m blessed to be young and healthy and I know who I am, which has been a wonderful thing to discover.

If you’re a woman (or man) who has travelled alone, please share your thoughts about it with me.  xx

At the CN Tower

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“Everything changes after three weeks.”

So said the Englishman who had been here for six. That meant that I should have been two days already into the rest of my (Toronto) life. Well, let’s say you get a few extra days for the weekend. I thought about whether it was that particular evening, warmer than most of the ones I’d had before, that was going to be pivotal.

But it was the whole disappearing day, really, that was a little bit special. I had spent three weeks (and two days) in Toronto, and had very little to show for it. Up until my arrival, every few days held the promise of a new city and new people to meet. I had moved to a new city for real and now, it was all up to me.

As happens so often in life, I shouldn’t have worried so much. Although I didn’t realise it except in hindsight, it was indeed around the three-week mark that my new (temporary) life started to come into focus. My street and my home began to feel familiar. I made some friends and started having things to go to in the evenings. I started to memorise streetcar routes and subway stations. I was able to sleep.

I look at the CN tower every day. So far up in the haze above the streets, it often has a unreal quality to it.

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If I was only staying in Toronto for a few days, enjoying one exciting day after another, I would have visited the CN Tower already. So I decided to go up.

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My place is over there somewhere.

Even though I had to push my way through hundreds of squealing children, it really was beautiful up there. You can ever-so-slightly see the curvature of the earth, off in the blue distance over Lake Ontario. IMG_0943

It’s expensive, as you’d expect – about $35. Especially because I chose to pay an extra $12 to go up a few more storeys to the Skypod.

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However, although it wasn’t advertised, the $12 includes some peace and quiet.

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On the main level there is a glass floor. I was excited to stand on the glass floor, until it came to the point where I had to step on it. IMG_0957My heart was beating incredibly quickly. There were other grown adults who were obviously terrified, and I don’t blame them. The fear of plunging to our deaths from incredibly high buildings unites us all, I guess.

So I had finally visited the CN Tower. I had seen a Sight, and was determined to see some more. I wanted to be excited about Toronto, every day that I spent there. And it was that evening that I met the Englishman, and realised that he was right.

Go By Train: The Canadian

The Canadian, from Via Rail, is a train that traverses the entire Canadian expanse.

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It was to be the longest train trip I’d ever done, and I actually couldn’t wait. 35 hours, from downtown Vancouver to the outskirts of Saskatoon. 35 hours of gazing and lazing.

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I boarded in the evening but the days are getting longer, so I had a few hours of landscape-watching until I had to revert to downloaded entertainment. It was hours and hours before the first stop, in the town of Kamloops. I find the steady movement of a train so relaxing. I was even able to get a few hours of sleep, crumpled up on my two seats and covered by my coat. IMG_0766

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In the late morning we began our climb through the Canadian Rockies. There were occasional announcements from train staff of landmarks to look out for. There was the occasional flurry of excitement when a passenger thought they had seen a bear.

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I wasn’t tired at all, despite being sleep-deprived. In the viewing car passengers could see the mountains in all their postcard glory.

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It was one of the most calming experiences I’ve had. A slow plod through eternal natural wonders – the mountains high above us, oblivious to all the commotion.

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I think this is Mt Robson, the highest peak of all. (Head in the clouds.)

Our next stop was the little town of Jasper, a favourite base for skiers and climbers. I was able to get out and stretch my legs, and gulp some fresh mountain air.

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From there, it was straight on to the city of Edmonton, which we reached in the dead of night, when I was snoozing under my coat again. In the meantime the land flattened out slowly.

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And I enjoyed some on-board services.

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As the first full day on the train faded away, the passengers started getting chatty. There was a musical couple who performed country love songs live in the lounge, and received advice from an old blues singer on his way to Winnipeg. A baby-boomer couple on holiday told a story about a girl who, many years ago, fell off the train when she was having a cigarette between carriages – she had to be rescued from the wilderness in the middle of the night. Two young English women told me all about their travels, and a pair of Quebecois chaps helped me pay for my dinner (delicious, by the way), when I realised with horror that the staff would not accept debit cards. An elderly woman sitting across from me told me of her time living in Australia and New Zealand.

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This is my new country, at least for a short while, and its vastness, its stillness, the unblinking wonder of it – all of this was on display from the windows of the train.

We were all nowhere in particular, until I arrived at my destination – seemingly nothing more than a concrete slab in the middle of a huge yard.

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I had reached Saskatoon, in the prairies, having travelled for two nights and one day. I had drunk many litres of coffee and eaten a whole stack of bagels – and exhausted my supply of podcasts. Some of my new friends would stay on The Canadian for two more days, all the way east to Toronto. I wished them all the best.

Go By Train: The Amtrak Cascades

My second train ride of my trip was one that I nearly missed. By “nearly” I mean that Amtrak staff had locked up the train and were ready to go, and I practically had to beg to be allowed on.

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The Cascades goes from Seattle to Vancouver, so it brought me into Canada. It must have been a newer train than the Coast Starlight because the seats were even more comfortable and the wifi was functional. It was only a four-hour trip – my next one will be 30. More to write about then perhaps.

One I had calmed down I was able to enjoy the view.

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The Emerald City

That’s what “they” call it.

After a rainy hiccup in Portland, my run of sunny days picked up again in Seattle. IMG_0543

These are photos that I took from the ferry to Bainbridge. The sky was so blue and clear that I could see the mountain ranges clearly, and even get a surreal glimpse of Mount Rainier.

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It was really stunning, and shortly after I came back to shore I was able to see a pink sunset over the horizon – unfortunately my camera had died at that point. Considering I had expected nothing but drizzle, I felt very blessed.

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While less colourful and diverse than California, the Pacific Northwest definitely has its charms. Seattle was a real delight. Bike-friendly, an important business centre (a lot of suits), a beautiful waterfront and plenty of cultural history to explore.

The EMP Museum was one of the more quirky museums I have been to. Instead of having a whole lot of objects on display, it seemed to have mastered the art of the “experience”. What was on display, though, were a lot of smashed guitars, mostly from Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain.

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remnants of guitar smashed by Jimi Hendrix, a Seattle native

There were many guitars that were not smashed, too.

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Somebody recreated tall buildings of the world with Lego, and they were on display too.

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Along the waterfront is the Olympic Sculpture Park.

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Jaume Plensa’s ‘Echo’, just getting installed

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Because the weather stayed fine, and because I could, I went on a bike tour organised by my hostel.

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from Green Tortoise Hostel’s facebook page

We rode around the coastline to the little haven of Alki Beach, where there were more blue skies and more views of the mountains.

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And so I learned to love the Pacific Northwest.

Six days in Portlandia

For much of my stay in Portland, Oregon, the city looked like this.

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View from the aerial tram station

 

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And I felt like this.

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This was supposed to be super awesome but instead I was freezing and miserable and the only thing to do was to drink about it (in one of the squillions of breweries or McMenamins bars).

But when the sun was out, Portland was lush and lovely.

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Every residential street looks like this

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View from Mt Tabor

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Reservoir at Mt Tabor

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Trees and sunshine at Mt Tabor

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I took this on a bike ride through the city

In a way, it was exactly what I expected. All the young people were good-looking and inked and had matching glasses to me. They were all eating organic food and drinking craft beers. And they can all go to food trucks.

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But I just couldn’t love it. I spent a lot of time wishing I was back in sparkling California, and since I had planned a whole week to relax and gather my thoughts, I had a lot of time to dwell on it. But as much as we all rave about travel, some places are just cities that people live in and visit. Not every stop along the way has to change your life.

Some more things about Portland:

– people are calm and have a good sense of humour  – it’s “where young people go to retire”

– the beers are strong and tasty

– there is usually an early AND late Happy Hour at bars (and this includes food)

– unsurprisingly, drinking beer is a top activity – apparently it’s a brewing capital of the world

– there is a strong commitment to sustainability: my hostel was largely made of recycled materials; it’s a bike-friendly city; if you can’t finish your food at a restaurant they will automatically give you a box to take it home in

– Uber/Lyft/Sidecar – none of these things exist in Portland!

– they are proud of the TV show Portlandia and you can go to organised screenings in pubs around the place