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.

Golden Gate Bridge bike ride

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I’ve always loved cycling and am missing my nice old Schwinn quite a bit while I’m away. Before coming to San Francisco I’d heard that a nice thing to do was to hire a bike and pedal over the famous red bridge to the little towns on the other side. I didn’t waste any time – in fact, it might have been better to wait an extra day to avoid doing this big trip on the hottest day of the month, but such is life.

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There are plenty of bicycle hire shops in SF but I chose Blazing Saddles because I could get a discount for booking online. It was $36 for the full day and they gave me some maps and directions. I still got lost, but that was all part of the fun – thank goodness for Google Maps.

I rode along the bay to Fort Point, also known as the spot in Hitchcock’s Vertigo where Madeleine is about to jump into the San Francisco Bay. What a film, what a city!

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The climb up to the bridge’s entry point was the most strenuous part of the whole trip, made worse because I was wearing jeans – I really didn’t bring a lot of outfits to the States. I got up to the bridge all sweaty and red-faced but absolutely loving it. Look, there’s the city, and we’re all standing on the GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE!!

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From there the ride was pretty easy, down to the little seaside town of Sausalito.

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View from Sausalito

Some bikers get the ferry back from there, some go on into the forest to see some redwoods, which I intended to do, but in the end I continued on to the next town on the water which is called Tiburon.

Riding around on a hot day past the green hills and little rivers, I was the happiest girl in the world. I had no idea that the Bay Area looked like this – what a stunner!

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When I reached the ferry terminal at Tiburon, I got off my bike and starting seeing stars. It had been a long ride – I think about 25 kilometres and it was about 29 degrees that day. I staggered over to the cafe on the wharf and guzzled an iced coffee while I waited for my boat.

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Ferry terminal at Tiburon, with SF in the background across the bay

This was probably the only “touristy” thing I did in San Francisco but ended up being one of the best things I’ve done, ever. Gorgeous weather, amazing scenery and some much-needed fitness and fresh air. I’m still raving about it.
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Classy San Diego

IMG_0003Before coming to San Diego the only things I knew about it, ridiculously, were from Anchorman. It’s actually a wonderful city will friendly locals who smile at you on the street, clean, wide streets and lots of sunshine.

California actually “began” in San Diego. Tourists can visit the Old Town, which has a lot of original or restored buildings from the Spanish colonial years. The stories of people living and working in the fledgling state were amusing and at times, very sad. Plus the Old Town has a beautiful old hacienda with a garden that was especially lovely under the California sun. IMG_0158

San Diego is an important military city as well. There are numerous military bases, including the large Pacific Fleet navy base which most people know about, and, consequently, a lot of handsome military men.

I trekked out to a gargantuan bunch of malls outside the city and bought a new camera, and then tested it out at the famous San Diego Zoo. The entry price is fairly steep ($48) but it provides a whole day’s worth of entertainment. One of my Lyft drivers (it’s a rideshare app that is big in California) told me that his main motivation for visiting the zoo would be not to see the animals, but to check out the people! He had a point. It was Easter Saturday, so Californians in their thousands were enjoying a day out at the zoo. I took some shots.

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And the one I am most proud of, the Sad Tiger.

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The Black Lodge

a possibly unrelated beer (photo by Dan Hough)

a possibly unrelated beer (photo by Dan Hough)

I had a few weeks left. At the end of these few weeks I would sit down in a plane and wave a teary goodbye to Berlin, the city of my imagination, the only place to truly be young and nocturnal and full of thoughts.

I woke up every day in a sharp melancholy, calculating how many more mornings I had of looking out on my snowy courtyard, holding a warm coffee mug. I spent the days looking at people on the street, feeling a bubbling jealousy – how is it that they were able to stay, when I had to leave? At night, usually for the whole night, I drank Weißbier with fellow foreigners as we all wondered when we’d see each other again once there were continents and oceans between us.

Some friends from Sydney were in town, and wanted to see some Berlin bars. I met them on a quiet, dark street behind Schönleinstraße. One of them had found out about this bar online – it was modelled on The Black Lodge. Like always around this time, I had a little lump in my throat that got bigger when I looked at anything at all.

We found the address of the bar. Silence, and nobody around. “Well, it said on the website that it’s meant to be open tonight,” said my friend. “It’s new.” She didn’t sound very disappointed. She was on holidays, and everything was equally exciting, I guessed. But I could count on my fingers the number of nights I had left to visit a bar like this. Soon I would be living my old life again, and it would be as if all of this never happened at all. So I was definitely disappointed.

I stepped up to the door of The Black Lodge and peered through the glass panel at the dark interior. It was definitely closed for business tonight, without explanation. A single light bulb was switched on somewhere inside, illuminating a narrow doorway and a few black and white tiles on the floor. It was authentic flooring from the TV show, and I imagined the dark red curtains that must have covered the walls in there, and the armchairs, and the people who would quote all the lines and talk about the chewing gum coming back into style and try to figure out how Twin Peaks could still give them nightmares. But I could only see that single patch of light.

It made me feel slightly, and strangely, afraid. There on that silent street, I suddenly felt the stillness of the night and the crispness of the cold air acutely. I imagined that just as I was looking into the frosty glass of the door, somebody was looking at me, from a window up above. It made me shiver.

“Do you think that this is a real bar?” I asked my friends. “I’m getting a weird feeling about it. Like, maybe it’s actually an art project.”

My two friends chuckled. “No, really!” I protested. Just then under the streetlights, it seemed true to me that somebody in Berlin would set up a bar’s façade sure to attract a certain type of young person, and then revel in that person’s disappointment while filming the whole episode with a fancy camera, all in the name of art. Stranger things had happened – were surely happening right now, a few streets over in Neukölln. And for a David Lynch-show-themed bar – it was too perfect.

Or maybe it was the cobblestones on the street, and the night in the city that was slowly eroding my logic. It was all too big and unfair. I couldn’t explain how it felt to know that I would soon be looking at the same night sky but on a different street, with different scents in the air, wearing sandals.

We gave up and walked into the night. Later, at home in Sydney, I heard that my friend had gone back to The Black Lodge and found people drinking inside. I couldn’t help but hate all of them.

Epilogue: I looked for The Black Lodge and found that there is nothing at its domain name. IT’S JUST TOO WEIRD. 

DEUTSCHE POST

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classy LR (photo by Kate O’Dwyer)

“We need costumes, of course we need them,” they all said. Dressing like a normal group of young women wouldn’t cut it – for Oktoberfest we needed to be squeezed into tight-bodiced Dirndls with bright gingham aprons and frilly white blouses that skimped on coverage around the bosoms. My lady friends turned out to be right about the necessity of dressing up, Bavarian-style, to match all the strapping young men in their Lederhosen – the theatre of Oktoberfest, which takes over so much of Munich for a buzzing, otherworldly few days, is as intoxicating as the litres-upon-litres of beer.

My Dirndl was on the traditional side (dark brown, skirt down to my knees) but I still managed to burst out of the top of it.

Still, I think that the original one I had ordered from a confusing German online store would have been more eye-popping. I’ll never know – upon my return to my little apartment in south-east Berlin I had a knock at the door and was delivered the unforunate dress, wrapped up neatly but many days too late. It wasn’t the store’s fault, apparently – the website displayed a warning that at peak times, Dirndl deliveries might be delayed, and this was the most important time of year for lovers of German paraphernalia. Not to worry – the store offered full refunds, 48 Euros that could be put to good use by this particular foreign student. All that was necessary was to return the Dirndl by post.

Torstraße was far from my home, but a place I used to visit a lot – a wide street split by tram lines, and full of small rooms that would come alive at night, packed with interesting people drinking interesting things that they didn’t pay much for, all with the special spark in their eyes because they were in Berlin, the greatest city on Earth, with the extra good fortune to be young at this most excellent time in history. I think on this day I must have been drinking mint tea at St Oberholz, a café where a certain type of young person (with black-rimmed glasses) came to set up their laptop and procrastinate with their magnum opus. I took a detour to a yellow Deutsche Post, my unwanted Dirndl wrapped up in the bag that it was delivered in, with a makeshift label stuck on one side.

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this package did it right

Time ticked on infuriatingly while I stood in the line. There were many things about the German postal system that I did not understand. Every post office was also a bank, for example, and parcel notices were sent out in advance, so it was actually possible to arrive too early for your packages. But at least they were open on Saturdays. I was finally called up by a grey-haired matronly Frau at the far end. She took one look at my bundle and said “Das geht nicht. It doesn’t work like that. “Oh, so how does it work?” I asked. Apparently I needed an official box to send things in. “Danke,” I said and smiled. The woman did not smile.

I found a stack of bright yellow boxes that evidently needed to be assembled. I picked up one which in its squashed state was very long and wide. It appeared to come with drawn instructions but these were worse than useless. There I was, wrestling with a huge flat yellow piece of cardboard almost as big as myself, my face growing redder by the second. I looked around. Nobody was surprised to see this happening – nobody was even looking. It didn’t alleviate my embarrassment. I hid into the most secluded corner I could find and eventually managed to force it into a useful shape, get my squashed-up package inside and stick my label on the top. I lined up again.

I waited for another short eternity. I looked out the windows at the grey, windy street and thought of all the grey, windy streets beyond it, stretching across the sprawling city and into the grey, windy countryside, and eventually to the cold sea. There wasn’t much warmth left in the air and every day brought us all closer to a winter that I was getting afraid of.

I was called up again, to the same woman. She frowned anew but there was a little smirk somewhere on her face. At my expense, of course. My package still wasn’t acceptable – home-made labels were nicht erlaubt. There was some official form among all the other official forms in the place that I needed to fill out. I felt a bit forlorn, with my package still in hand. My eyes suddenly stung. Why was it all so hard? Is this what delayed culture shock felt like? How ridiculous that I needed to bring a friend to the damned post office for moral support! That dreaded thought was showing its face: “This wouldn’t have happened back home!”

I had now spent more than half an hour at the post office, and it had gotten me nowhere. Some kind of resentment at the pointlessness of leaving home that day was surfacing, but I frowned hard to keep that feeling down. In the same way that I always tried to reassure myself that (almost) nobody ever died from the cold in Berlin (surely a lie), I told myself that plenty of ordinary Germans use the post office every day, and none of them have gone insane.

With the correct label finally stuck on the box, I approached my new nemesis again. I kept my eyes on her and tried to look like a person with serious intentions, not some clueless traveller who at this moment, was afflicted by acute homesickness and a malaise brought on by seeing too many stern faces in one room (especially when any resident of Berlin should have been used to the latter by now). She had another question. Where were the pieces of sticky tape that came with the box? I drew a breath, but didn’t know what to say. Fortunately, she could see that I might cry, and relented. Her smirk returned: “Ok, we’d better get your package on its way, hadn’t we?”

I imagined the post office woman sniggering to her colleagues over black coffee and stupidly sweet cakes later that day. I did my best to slam the post office door behind me, zipped my jacket up to my chin and marched down Torstraße for my mint tea.

Athens, October 2011

Some old travel writing from my most recent year abroad.

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The Circus

It should have been a sign.

I sat in the minibus speeding along the shore of the glittering Bosphorous, tears in my eyes for leaving Istanbul, this pulsing city, the glow and shimmer of which I had never seen before. On arrival to the airport, I found that my flight to Athens had been delayed by 45 minutes. Actually 90 minutes. Actually two and a half hours. In the plane my fellow passengers and I sat, staring blankly ahead at the seats in front, not speaking, not smiling, not eating, because there was no cabin service.

It was the strikes. The air traffic controllers in Athens were reducing airspace. Throughout the week, almost everybody else would strike, too. Even the public broadcasters and garbage collectors. Even doctors. I had been under no illusion as to what I might find in Athens, this mythical centre of the Ancient World, now the epicentre of crisis in the modern one. I had heard of the riots and the tear gas. What I hadn’t heard about was the “circus”. This comical translation from Greek of the concept of chaos, of something being crazy or going wrong, but in a good way, was fairly relevant to the whole trip.

I was welcomed by a group of international friends who had all, for some reason or another, chosen Athens as a reunion spot. First stop was for souvlaki. It’s never a bad time for souvlaki, and every Athenian has their favourite. It’s also never a bad time for a frappe, a grilled corn cob from a street stand, or some salad swimming in olive oil. Or a drink, in one of the hundreds of intriguing bars, all decorated lovingly like movie sets, and not closing until 4am.

But it is, perhaps, a bad time right now to be in Athens. I first stayed in a hostel, where the strikes scheduled for that day were written on the whiteboard in the morning. Upon check-in I received a phrase brochure, including the translations of “you’re cute” and “are there riots?” I moved to the apartment of a friend, which was convenient timing, considering that the next day was the day when both the public transport and the taxis were on strike.

The sprawling concrete of the suburbs and the sunshine on the cobblestones in the centre might always look the same. But the exasperation of Athens belongs to the here and now. My hostess told me that her parents had advised her to get out of the country again, not to give up on Greece but just to give herself a chance of success for the next few years.  We walked through the city, past policemen on ever corner, and she expressed unease at being around them. I wondered aloud how painful it might be to be hit by the tear gas. “It hurts,” she said. “I know.”

I took a ferry to Hydra, an island close to the city but far enough away to clear one’s head. Here, donkeys are the only transport and I felt that maybe nothing had changed in the last hundred years. I jumped into the salty, luminescent Aegean and bobbed around for a while, wondering what was to become of Greece.

On the summit of the Acropolis, it was hard not to feel the sadness of it all again. But hopefully the stone columns will outlive these troubles, too. In any case, even in these times it isn’t hard in Athens to come by a big smile, a good story and something delicious to eat. It is always worth seeing something for oneself.