Wednesday, 26 October 2011

A Place For All Seasons...

Two sleeps.

 That's right peeps. Only two sleeps to go.

I have two sleeps left in Kingston.

Nestled under the currently thinning winter canopy of the tree that has, for almost seven years, shaded the highs and the lows of this Australian abroad.

It has been my haven.
An oasis, tucked away at the top of the winding street.
A spiritual home.

Summer Shade
A place of happiness and heartbreak.
Of worry and frustration. Of peace and calm.

Autumn Colour
A place for all seasons.
 Where I succumbed to my love of books, brilliant skies and bracing British winters.

Winter Sunset
Where I wrote my first blog post, discovered the joys of an afternoon spent baking and picked my first blackberries.

A Burst of Spring
And it's almost time to go.

To leave my cosy front window.
To tap away in pastures new.

That's right peeps. Gidday HQ is on the move.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Done and Dusted...Commuting Gems

This week, about 10 weeks ahead of schedule, I smashed the 50 Book Challenge.

That's right peeps - I've read 50 books this year.

(Actually this morning it stands at 51 but who am I to quibble over such a detail?)

Along the way, I unearthed some real Commuting Gems, writers that will continue to feed my long and literary journey to and from work every day. Douglas Kennedy made the grade early - I have read three of his books this year - closely followed by slightly off-centre crime fiction from Chris Brookmyre (I've read two of his). More recently, I discovered the joys of Jonathan Frantzen, Jo Nesbo and Scott Mariani and have already started my next Ben Hope Adventure (Mariani's protagonist).

I have also travelled far and wide from the comfort of my reading spot(s) - through the post 'et tu Brutus?' period of the Roman Empire (Colleen McCullough) and in a black cab across America with the incomparable everyman himself, Stephen Fry. I have immersed myself in the cultural melting pot of a Russian community in China with Kate Furnivall and stood in awe of the great and mighty Vesuvius with Robert Harris.

Let's not forget the little bit of star-spotting l managed either. I rubbed literary shoulders with Sir Elton, Alistair Campbell, Billy Connelly, Jane Austen and young Queen Victoria!

The stalwarts of my literary days gone by were there too - Lionel Shriver, Michael Connelly and Dick Francis (although after three of the latter, I might say nay - neigh, geddit? - to a Francis horse-racing extravaganza for a while).

I've also dropped in on old favourites like Heathcliff & Cathy and Meg, Jo, Beth & Amy. I read about risk and danger, and about a girl who played with fire and then made things worse by kicking the hornet's nest. 

I've even managed both a trip back to old Melbourne town (courtesy of Christos Tsiolkas) and a joyful celebration with fellow expat Bill Bryson, of the fabulous place I now call home.

Who knew that commuting four hours each day could bring such joy! 

Not all was smooth sailing (or commuting if you prefer). Three made my 'Disappointing' List - number 6 from Margot Berwin, number 15 from David Gibbins and 39 from Dawn French. Not so marvellous. But 3 out of 50 (that's just 6% says she, whipping out her trusty calculator to double check her mental maths) ain't bad. And look at all of the things I have experienced and discovered.

So if you've been inspired at all by my bookish banging on, or are looking for some great reads to add to your own (e)bookshelf, you can see them all - along with what I thought of them - at The Book Nook which, in the spirit of encouraging readership and literacy, I will continue to update.

Happy reading peeps!

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

A Very Chicky Birthday

Today is Lil Chicky's birthday.

So I thought I'd tell you a birthday story.

The first one was fraught with competitive friction.

This young whippersnapper had the front to question her big sister's attempts at teaching birthday best practice
Her (L) and me (R)
 But it wasn't long before she got the hang of it 
Sisterly pride in the background
And tried to muscle in
'What's the deal? It's my birthday, not yours!'
So I had to re-assert my authority
Birthday territory re-established
And by the time we got to her 21st, we had learnt to share
21st birthday of Lil Chicky (in the green dress)
So we played happily together
Outside Flinders St Station in 2005
for ever
Anzac Day Match at the MCG 2007
 and ever
At Sand Sculptures in Frankston, December 2010

Happy Birthday Chicky!

Monday, 17 October 2011

View Of A Bridge...Can't Take Any More

Gidday peeps!

Firstly, apologies if any of you received random emails 'from me' over the last 24 hours or so. A small hacking escapade has successfully been stymied and fingers crossed someone's on-line joy-ride has been brought to an end.

So, after a brief blog interlude, we are back in Prague, city of 1000 spires and the not inconsiderable Charles Bridge. Stretching over the Vltava River, Karluv Most (as it is known to the locals) was commissioned in the 14th century by Charles IV and joins the Old Town with the Little Quarter. It is 520m long, could originally accommodate four carriages across and is touted in every tourist guide as 'not to be missed'. Which made me desperately want to resist planning to see it. I know. It's perverse.

On the evening of Day 1, I fell across it from a slightly down river vantage point. 

Remember the postcard shot from Prague Post Number 2?
Feeling distinctly unimpressed by the Bridge itself, I decided to spend Saturday (Day 2) exploring Prague Castle and surrounds (which could constitute a whole other post but I am unsure as to how much Prague overkill you will allow yourself to be subjected to). The views are absolutely stunning from the top and the Bridge even managed a cameo in one of several panorama shots.

The rooftops of Prague with Charles Bridge, Old Town Tower and on the horizon, the spires of St Ludmila's
After several wonderful hours, I found myself descending to the cobbled streets of the Little Quarter where lo and behold, I fell across the Bridge again.

Charles Bridge Little Quarter Tower and entrance
There seemed nothing for it but to surrender to its call but as I passed through the archway, I noticed an ad for river cruises - weary and footsore by this stage, I was an easy mark for any seated distractions so I decided that this would be pleasant way to spend an hour. I even got a couple of Bridge shots in for good measure.

Charles Bridge before cruising beneath it...
...and after.
After the cruise had returned me to the shore, I did actually make it onto the Bridge but the Saturday crowds were out in force and it was not conducive to any sort of meandering or photo-taking. So I just went with the throng and made directly for the other side, determined to try again tomorrow.
Busy crowds heading for the Old Town on Charles Bridge
Tomorrow came all too quickly (as it always does when one is on holiday) and after spending a rather sobering morning in the Jewish Quarter, I ambled along more cobbled streets to find myself on the banks of the Vltava again but this time at the Manusov Bridge, a perfect vantage point for another go at capturing that other Bridge in all its glory.

View of Charles Bridge from Manusov Bridge
'It's my last day', I thought to myself. 'I cannot visit Prague having only had a cursory dash across'. And so began my purposeful stroll towards the Bridge's Little Quarter Tower.

Others clearly had similar stirrings...

Charles Bridge Little Quarter - are we there yet?
But finally I found myself ON THE BRIDGE.
The triumphant Tower shot which means...
...I am finally standing on The Bridge - with elbow room to spare!
Leaning over the Bridge I could see crowds gathered for a puppet show in the square below...
...but let's not get sidetracked. I am finally on The Bridge so let's turn our attention to it!

The Bridge is famous for its 'avenue' of mostly baroque statues. There are MANY statues (well thirty actually which is quite a lot for any bridge), all in various stages of dis/repair. Frankly after the first few, I got a little bored with the details and did not photograph them - I managed three and the one below is the best of those. If you are more interested and want the full run down, you can click here.

The Bridge is also a central point for entertainers and stall holders eager to take a few crowns from gullible generous tourists - here are a few of my favourites:

Ingenuity Czech-style
This one was particularly cute
These guys drew quite a crowd and much applause after each number
 Before I knew it the arch through to the Old Town beckoned.

Charles Bridge Tower - Old Town
  And with the Bridge finally behind me, I snapped a picture of it's namesake...

Statue of Charles IV in Knights of the Cross Square as you leave the Bridge
 ...before turning to see the sign opposite.

Do you think they mean that infernal Bridge?

So that's The Bridge post done and definitely dusted. If you are interested in checking out my previous Prague posts - and a big thank you to those of you that have - I've included a handy list below for you:

Prague Preview: Just A Peek
Prague...The Accidental Tourist (Trail)

They may just whet your appetite enough to inspire a visit.

Or not.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

A Pinch Of Salt...Feeling Like Jenny

Loose-limbed. Unruffled. Calm. Fluid.

These are all things I associate with a truly relaxing holiday. You know, the kind where you reach a sort of 'one-ness' with the world from your prone position on the sun lounge. The kind where the most critical decisions may include shall I read or doze, am I hungry enough to be bothered moving to accommodate some sort of snacking, and is it cocktail o'clock yet. Where it takes effort to pull yourself back 'together' again in order to manage a) the trip home and b) contributing something beyond water cooler stories during the first week back at work.

Most of us save hard and schedule annual leave with military zeal to achieve this and, when it's all done, find ourselves gazing wistfully at our fading tan lines and poring over travel websites to plan that next escape firmly in the foreseeable future.

Well this week, I managed to achieve this in the space of a couple of hours in South West London. On Thursday night I ventured just off Chiswick High Road, crossed the threshold into the world of Floatation Therapy and experienced the most profound relaxation ever. 

People, welcome to Floatopia.

There are lots of benefits associated with floatation therapy including stress relief, detoxing, increased energy, improved concentration, relief from injuries, regulating sleeping patterns (one float apparently simulates 4 hours of sleep) and releasing Endorphins - the body's natural pain killer and happy pill.

So I filled in my form, donned my Floatopia-issued slippers and was shown to my Private Float Suite. After a quick run through of the Float Room itself and the do's and don'ts I was left to my own devices and not wanting to waste a moment, I was showered and 'in'.

Floatation simulates a zero gravity environment for the body by heating a solution of Epsom Salts to skin temperature. The 'water' for want of a better word, is quite shallow (waist deep when you are seated) so I got myself in the right spot, pulled the door closed, turned off the light and lay back to find myself floating effortlessly in the darkness.

My brain chattered furiously and I in turns let myself listen to my garbled thoughts and then gently pulled my mind back to the sensation of the stillness. The soft background music stopped - this happens after about 15 minutes I was told - and after a while (and I really couldn't tell you how long) the chatter slowed and my limbs seemed to become 'at one', blurring the edges of my physical self, with the warm salt solution around me. I let my mind float too, observing it flit about as if the thoughts were not really mine and listening to my heart beating comfortingly in the background. At one stage, I tried to count my heart rate but my thoughts drifted away again.
It is the most extraordinary experience to be completely with yourself in this way. I've never 'mastered' meditation, always with one 'eye' on the clock and feeling too impatient with the distractions of the mind and body. But I imagine this is what it must be - this total acceptance of everything: the itches, the niggles, the thoughts, the chatter and then the move back to stillness, silence and peace.

The background music started softly again to signal the end of my float. Feeling a bit disconcerted I fumbled for the light switch and stretched to establish the connection between limbs and brain again. My Floatopia 'host' had mentioned I might 'feel like Jenny' at the end of the float - whoever she is, I'd like to be Jenny a lot more often.

15 minutes later I was showered, dressed and in the chill out area feeling like I had spent a blissful two weeks on a beautiful beach somewhere.

All in about 2 hours and for the bargain Groupon voucher price of £17.

And to top it off, I slept the best sleep for years on Thursday night and continued into Friday, calm and unruffled, in the face of the end of the week commuting challenges.

Now that's has to be the best value holiday I've ever had.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Life's Change Agent...

It's been a thoughtful week for me brought on by a funeral on Tuesday that I did not attend for someone I used to be close to. His passing was not unexpected. But it's sad nonetheless. I wondered, 'do we need to actually be there to honour our dearly departed?' There's part of me that knows he knows my sadness and love in spite of my absence.

In the wake of Steve Job's passing, The Metro on Friday ran a tribute on the front cover:

'Death is very likely the single best invention of life. It's life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.'

It will happen to us all in time. Whether we are 'prepared' or not. And I found myself strangely cheered by this alternative and entirely pragmatic point of view.

And then this morning I discovered A Message by George Carlin in the emails I hadn't quite managed to get to during the week. This email was from Mum and she called it a Masterpiece in the subject line - I think she's right so I've shared his message here for you to judge for yourselves.

George Carlin 1937-2008
A Message by George Carlin

'The paradox of our time in history is that we have taller buildings but shorter tempers, wider freeways, but narrower viewpoints. We spend more, but have less, we buy more, but enjoy less. We have bigger houses and smaller families, more conveniences, but less time. We have more degrees but less sense, more knowledge, but less judgement, more experts, yet more problems, more medicine, but less wellness.

'We drink too much, smoke too much, spend too recklessly, laugh too little, drive too fast, get too angry, stay up too late, get too tired, read too little, watch TV too much, and pray too seldom.

'Remember, to give a smile, because that is the only treasure you can give with your heart and it doesn't cost a cent...

'We have multiplied our possessions, but reduced our values. We talk too much, love too seldom, and hate too often.

'We've learned how to make a living, but not a life. We've added years to life not life to years. We've been all the way to the moon and back, but have trouble crossing the street to meet a new neighbour. We conquered outer space but not inner space. We've done larger things, but not better things.

'We've cleaned up the air, but polluted the soul. We've conquered the atom, but not our prejudice. We write more, but learn less. We plan more, but accomplish less. We've learned to rush, but not to wait. We build more computers to hold more information, to produce more copies than ever, but we communicate less and less.

'These are the times of fast foods and slow digestion, big men and small character, steep profits and shallow relationships. These are the days of two incomes but more divorce, fancier houses, but broken homes. These are the days of quick trips, disposable diapers, overweight bodies, and pills that do everything from cheer, to quiet, to kill. It is a time when there is much in the showroom window and nothing in the stockroom. A time when technology can bring this letter to you, and a time when you can choose either to share this insight, or to just hit delete...

'Remember to hold hands and cherish the moment for someday that person will not be there again.

'Give time to know, give time to speak! And give time to share these precious thoughts in your mind.


'Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.'

Such a fitting reminder to pause for the small moments, isn't it? We really do have much to be grateful for.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Prague...The Accidental Tourist (Trail)

When I travel somewhere for the first time, I am often torn between being supremely organised in what I want to see/do versus leaving myself free to soak up whatever comes along. Which invariably means I end up with a mix of the two. With other places I've visited, I have had a far better sense of their history so I must admit to feeling at a bit of a crossroads when I arrived in a gloriously sunny Prague on Friday afternoon - to plan or not to plan, that was the question!

But not wanting to waste time reading about it in my hotel room (which was rather lovely by the way), I put a few essentials in my daypack and armed with my new Nikon Coolpix camera (a frantic Amazon purchase the weekend prior upon discovering my trusty 5+ year old Fuji Finepix had died), I set off to roam the streets.

I was staying in a rather lovely part of Prague called Vinohrady (means Vineyard - how apt) which is just on the outskirts of the New Town...

...and is also not very far from Namesti Miru (Peace Square) and my first view of Prague's many spires and spirited architecture.

My first spires - St Ludmila's Church in Namesti Miru
Art Nouveau: Vinohrady Theatre and its winged figures, Drama and Opera
The first of MANY photos of random, un-named but pretty buildings
Namesti Miru is also where I learnt the rules about crossing Prague's streets - the guidebook says that the rules regarding mandatory stopping at crossings are quite recent so it's best to be on your toes, regardless of the little green man.

You got the Red Man pic becuse I was busy crossing on the green and too scared to stop in the middle.
As I wandered a little down the street I could see this in the distance...

...and being of an inquisitive nature, set my mental compass and began to walk towards it. I got rather close too and but for the sake of this headless man who 'showed the way'...

...I might never have gotten to the other side to see Wenceslas Square, centre of the Velvet Revolution and the overthrow of Communisim in 1989.

Wenceslas Square - that's St Wenceslas on the horse with the flag!
The gilded rooftop from afar became The National Museum
Monument to student Jan Palek who, in protest against Communism, burnt himself to death in 1969 (the year I was born!)
I don't know anything about the Velvet Revolution. I was 20 in 1989 and all I can remember about that year is the coming down of the Berlin Wall (a piece of which stands outside the Imperial War Museum here in London, but I digress). It's hard to believe that such enormous social change happened in my lifetime without my having a scooby. These are the times when I wonder at how big a place the world is and how little my world is in it.

Anyhow, it seemed that a stroll down this (in)famous square was in order...

A bustling Friday night
More amazing architecture (you saw the Grand Europa Hotel in my previous post)
The doorway to happiness? A modern and slightly jarring touch
Market stalls - souvenirs and sausages galore
 ...before leaving the main square to discover some lesser known delights.

This looks like it should be in a Wild West Town somewhere
A weary traveller
More spires against the darkening sky
Suddenly, a sign pointed me towards this archway, promising me passage to Starometske Namesti (or as I've now come to know it, the Old Town Square).

So after a quick glance at the stern features of this silent spectator...

Physician Jan Marek

 I entered and emerged to this...a veritable architectural masterclass!

The Astronomical Clock in the Old Town Hall Tower
A mix of Gothic and Renaissance styles carefully restored following the Prague Uprising in 1945.

Monument to Jan Hus and the gothic Our Lady Before Tyn Church

Rococo Kinsky Palace (now an art gallery)
Church of St Nicholas, classic Baroque
A little 'night' music
I thought this was as good a place as any to stop and enjoy a few local vittels...

View from my resting point - calm after the bustle of the Square
My first Pilsener
It's a (red) meaty city is Prague but I managed to find a passable chicken gnocchi on the menu
Feeling replete and relaxed, it was time for more wandering and I decided to explore the streets to the left of my entrance to the Square. I headed back towards the clock, wading through the crowds and wondering why it had gotten so busy. Suddenly the bells above me rang out and the little doors above the clock itself sprang open...

A performance every hour
Enchanted I held my ground amidst the throng, listening to the bells proclaiming the hour across the Square. And then the trumpeter appeared...

He played a little 'herald', waved his cape and took a bow on each of the four sides of the tower. Wow - climbing those stairs and trumpeting like that must take some lung power. (Please don't say he takes the lift and destroy my illusions.)

I tried to find out whether there was any historic significance to this but the 'best' I got was 'it's just for the tourists'. Illusions destroyed (unless you rekindle these by sharing your own learnings on the matter?)

By this time, it was getting dark-ish and so I decided to head in the general direction of the Vlatava River to catch a glimpse of the Charles Bridge. I went a little off piste and didn't land right where I thought I would but emerged a little down river to be greeted by this...

Charles Bridge and Prague Castle
There was a part of me that thought 'don't take the shot, you have seen it a million times in guidebooks and on postcards'. But the tourist in me just couldn't help it so I snapped three...before my camera battery died.

So it was time to head along the river and the darkened streets of the New Town back to the hotel...
Fabulous rooms at the Hotel Le Palais
...where I had a long, long bath, unpacked a little, collapsed into that big, big bed and slept like a baby!

If you enjoyed this one, here are my other Prague posts for your leisurely perusal:
Prague Preview...Just A Peek