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Unravelling the story I'm trying to tell

The Land Where Lemons Grow by Helena Attlee

Sicilian lemon grove

Lemon trees in Sicily. Many of the traditional lemon groves are abandoned because maintaining them is labour intensive.

Next time I pass through Savona, I need to stop and find myself a candied chinotti. It’s a type of citrus fruit used in the perfume industry and candied in panettone.

I told a friend that I was reading a book about the history and farming of citrus fruits in Italy. He laughed. But the more you see a land, the more you want to understand it. It helps that the book flows with a personal narrative and delighting anecdotes.

Perhaps I enjoyed the book more because I’ve eaten Amalfi lemons, lived a few weeks on the outskirts of Palermo and wandered lost, in the rain, through abandoned lemon groves. Perhaps it helps to have drunk homemade limoncello.

Surely it helps that I know what a citron is. When I was in Sicily last winter, I ate a slice of one. This beast is somewhere between a lemon and a rugby ball. Its skin isn’t smooth. You can’t find it in our supermarkets, and its juicy centre is pitifully small. Imagine the earth, with its small core, thick mantle and rough crust. The segments are the core, the pith is the mantle and the yellow surface rough with character. The juice is incredibly sharp. You eat it, and the thick white pith, with salt.

Before visiting Sicily, I’d never heard of this fruit. Along with the mandarin and the pomelo it’s one of the oldest citrus. The rest of the citrus family (which is much more extensive than just oranges, lemons and limes) is descended from these fruits.

I made lemon sorbet yesterday afternoon.

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Other books I finished reading in May

books

They say never judge a book by its cover, but I have to disagree.

Better Than Fiction: True Travel Tales from Great Fiction Writers edited by Don George

Much of the time, I’m oblivious as to why I travel. I know when I’m exploring a new place, being introduced to someone new and then having that incredible conversation where they open up and surprise you with their insight, I get a kick. I also know that I’m drawn to the sea, the mountains, forests and early morning sunrises across distant horizons which make the worship of the sun seem common sense. Sometimes, when I’m alone especially, the world feels like it’s trying to show me something more than my little human brain can comprehend.

“And I’ve begun to understand the purpose of travel; a few days of seeing the world in a different way gives us the confidence to face whatever waits for us at home. Even Mountains.”

Aliya Whiteley, An Alpine Escape

And yet travel is a lonely business. It’s often a quest to find that supposed ‘self-love’, happiness to be oneself and take comfort within that identity. Sometimes it’s a quest to define oneself, by comparing oneself to what one is not. Whatever the quest, it’s a quest that in the urgency of routine seems impossible. It requires a fresh perspective.

“Looking back, I think my trip to India was in part an attempt to cleanse myself of the need for her, to find an alternative route to peace or else a definitive reason to give up the search. This was a tall order, and it didn’t work, thank God – that woman is now my wife.”

Stephen Kelman, Mumbai: Before the Monsoon

The magic of travelling perhaps is a mixture of recognising oneself, the sacredness of the world, and what it means to belong.

And in those quiet moments of sunshine on park benches, reading how other people tackle the same mental agility course as I do is somewhat therapeutic. Hearing their stories of the wondrous and the exotic reminds me of the value of my own.

Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection by John T. Cacioppo

Reading this book lead to a fascinating conversation with a couple of fellow nomads about the difficulties in balancing the need for connection with the traveller’s urge for novelty.

“When we feel socially connected, as most of us feel most of the time, we tend to attribute success to our own actions and failures to luck. When we feel socially isolated and depressed, we tend to reverse this useful illusion and turn even small errors into catastrophes – at least in own minds.”

Perhaps everyone struggles with loneliness, but perhaps with travellers, it’s an expected condition. The isolation of being the only person like you, who knows you, who has felt for you, is one that a traveller should expect. You’re an alien walking amongst a tribe. You do not fit. You are a novelty. You do not belong. You are special and wondrous, but you cannot be understood.

And the more I think about it, the more I feel that the antidote to loneliness is being seen. Many conversations through instant messengers, or cheerful exchanges amongst strangers can’t do more that act as a distraction. Sometimes you need to be seen as you are. You need someone to be willing to look.

Sometimes, with travelling, you find the odd stranger who does look. I had coffee with a young man in Poland who used the silence between sentences to listen and see. He let there be space, a crack that allowed the light to get in.* Then there was a conversation I had with a woman who saw my fingers twiddling with my necklace, leant forward and asked what it meant to me. I hadn’t known the answer until I told her. In these moments, there’s a real connection.

But it can never compare to the level of connection that comes from someone who really knows you, knows you at your very best and at your very worst, accepts them both and is willing to know more. And that’s precious.

 

 

*The Leonard Cohen obsession continues.

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Poland: Navigating the public transport of Poznań

Poznań terrace houses

On Wednesday, when I took my camera, it wasn’t quite so sunny.

For me, it’s a bit of an awkward moment. You walk into a café past the seating that’s out in the sun on the main square of a quiet town at lunch time on a Tuesday morning, and ask to be directed to a toilet. The cafe is otherwise empty, and the waitress gives you an odd look. You promise what you really want is a coffee.

It’s not like I’m desperate or anything, it’s more a matter of security.  As a lone traveller who knows nobody in this foreign city, I have nobody who’s going to look after my bag for the duration of my expedition to the bathroom (where I find I don’t know the words for ‘men’ and ‘women’ in Polish). I don’t want to order a coffee and the waitress deliver it to an empty table. Who wants cold coffee? There’s a whole problem of not feeling comfortable leaving your handbag unguarded beneath the square table. I don’t even have a cheap coat or jacket which could prove this place is my space.

It’s a common inconvenience of being a solo traveller

In the sunshine, the old market square (Stary Rynek) in the centre of the old town of Poznań looks picture book worthy. Although the old town isn’t in the position of the oldest part of the town – that was on the little island close by where the Cathedral now stands – it’s here you find the old terrace houses, many of which are painted beautiful colours that remind me of a more subdued, elegant version of Cork, Ireland. Many of these terraces have become cafés.

I chose a cappuccino

Hoping nobody was staring at me, wondering what I was up to, I swallowed my little white lactase tablet. I know I shouldn’t be drinking a milky coffee. It’s the first one I’ve drunk in months. Worse still, I’m disappointed with the surplus foam, too much milk and there’s no chocolate sprinkled on the top. I’m no longer sure why I used to love these drinks so much in my pre-lactose intolerant days, or why they used to give me so much comfort. This choice is a symptom of the stress of the previous few weeks. I’m behaving irrationally.

And particularly the stress of the morning I’ve just had.

I’m staying with a wonderful woman, in the outskirts of the city, who, unfortunately, had no idea of how to use the local public transport. She is very much a car driver. Since I have no car I headed out, wandered through the housing estate where the houses stood proudly amongst their gardens (yes, gardens), past the yappy dogs and located the nearest bus stop. I’m not a fan of buses.

Getting a ticket was complicated

A kind Polish woman who spoke lovely English explained that there was no possibility of buying a ticket on the bus. However, she named the street and the newsagents where I could buy a ticket. Back ten minutes walk in the direction I’d just come.

The women working in the newsagents were gossiping

When I walked in, with my ‘I’ve got no idea what I’m doing but I’m happy to meet you’ expression. It’s been my experience that strangers in Poland do not pass in the street with a chirpy exchange of ‘morning’. They keep themselves to themselves. They do not exchange eye contact. A lovely Russian Theology graduate later warned that this is even more severe in Russia. To smile on public transport in Russia is as to walk around with a large billboard declaring yourself a fool.

I am a smiling fool. I did however manage to buy a ticket, thank the ladies, in Polish, and begin the trek back to the bus stop. The ticket was not, however, enough to cover me for an entire journey. The newsagents didn’t sell complete tickets, they only sold ten minute tickets. The sort of ticket that allow you to get on a bus and traverse to the nearest real, automatic, credit card accepting ticket machine. I said it was complicated.

I discovered the ticket machine

At the end of the bus route, where you change from bus to tram to get into Poznań centre I wandered around lost for a while and only came upon the ticket machine just as I was thinking of giving up and walking. I purchased a ticket that would last me for 72 hours and cover both the buses and the trams, but was cheaper than a day saver at home. Then, relying on luck, I climbed on a tram, assuming there was a good chance that all the trams went somewhere via the city centre. It was the number two tram.

Between the GPS on my phone, and my intuition of following the crowd, I hopped off the bus at what proved to be a convenient location. After gaining my bearings, I strolled down the cobbled streets towards the square, to find my coffee.

And so I ordered a cappuccino, and then wished I hadn’t.

 

Poznań terrace houses

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Some books I finished reading in May

books

They say never judge a book by its cover, but I have to disagree.

I travelled throughout May. This meant I was back to my ebook reader where I had started reading a wonderful series of short stories by Gabriel García Márquez some time before, and a series of short travel exploits* which happen to be the perfect size to fit between train stops.

Strange Pilgrims by Gabriel García Márquez

These stories were strange and all in their own way represented a search to satisfy some unsatisfiable need. In the prologue at the very beginning, García Márquez discusses the origin of the story collection.

“This has been a strange creative experience that should be explained, if only so that children who want to be writers when they grow up will know how insatiable and abrasive the writing habit can be.”

These twelve stories of South American travellers are not suitable for children, and I feel in this sentence, García Márquez isn’t speaking about young, half grown humans, but children as in the children of the craft. He’s talking about me.

Stories come into mind over time, and García Márquez seems to have collected them like how one sees grubby men collecting fag ends from beneath park benches. Compelled because it had become part of him. After accidentally losing his notebook, containing the key elements of the stories, he reconstructed those that remained strongest in his mind. The whole process took eighteen years, sixty-four stories became twelve, but he wrote the current result in ‘eight feverish months’.

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan

Listened to the audiobook, borrowed from the library.

I am sadly susceptible to travel sickness. Not ideal for a traveller. Long coach journeys, bus rides and boats are my nemesis, for whilst on a train or plane I can quite comfortably read, but on these other forms of transport it proves icky. Audiobooks in the circumstances are a wonderful alternative.

The Silk Roads is non-fiction epic history. In its paper form, it’s a chunky book. In audio, it’s over 24 hours long. That’s some serious listening time. It’s also a huge amount of information. I liked it, because it provided a perspective on history that was different. It wasn’t that is wasn’t focused on the west (in parts it definitely was) but it gave an overall broader impression of the connected nature of the world, going from way back. It felt more complete than any understanding of world history that I’ve had prior to this.

Now I can’t remember most of the book, for which I’m blaming my ears. I’m every type of learner other than auditory. And in the bits I do remember, I’m not sure where they happened or who was involved. But I do recall thinking that I would have to, at some point, get a paper copy of this book and begin all over again. From what I do remember, it will be worth it.

My Life With Ewa by Tim Pratt

This is a love story between a young American boy, Tim, and a girl, Ewa, from communist Poland. It’s a story about visas, popes, speeding school buses, hitchhiking, love letters and a truly long-distance romance. It’s a delightful tale, in which tense arguments regarding guns at the border between east and west Berlin mix with the delightful account of the everyday. Moments like learning to queue, Polish style, or when your girlfriend’s mother asks how serious your intentions are towards her daughter.

But this story, candid and humorous, had a poignant twist for me. I borrowed my copy off Ewa’s bookshelf, in the room where I slept at night.

Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

I don’t care if you’re rolling your eyes you mathematical logical geniuses, I love this book. And I will keep on loving this book. I first read it seven years ago, borrowed from the Grump’s mother. This time I read the Mother’s copy, which I’d bought her, and which I’d lent to Jesse and then collected again on my detour through Germany. I read it laying on a bed in Poland, whilst hiding from having to speak to anyone.

Looking back, I’ve no idea why I liked it so much before. Back then my heart was whole and scratch-free. My Italian road trip hadn’t yet happened. I didn’t speak any Italian. I hadn’t taken up meditation properly. There was certainly no feeling smug when Gilbert explains the intensity and difficulty of Vipassana, as I’d never heard of it. Reading it again now, I must get so much more out of it. Reminds me there are other books I ought to re-read.

Gaining Visibility by Pamela Hearon

This book was a free gift from Kobo and everything you would expect from a terribly light romance set between America and Italy. I read it in a morning, whilst I was feeling exhausted and in need of casually sitting in a sunny park letting the world pass by. I wouldn’t particularly recommend it, but sometimes it’s nice to have something light and quick to munch.

 

Do you have any recommendations of short story collections ideal for the traveller?

*In part two…

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Germany: ein hund, ein cobra but no English

I’m not entirely sure how it came about as an arrangement. However, the deal was I’d write a blog post if Jesska took me to yoga.

Seeing that I was with Jesska, and that I was new, the super flexible soft spoken yoga teacher came over to say hello. Jesska introduced me as her friend from England

“Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”

I know enough German to say ‘nein’, but in that moment, my brain failed.

There was a brief exchange of thoughts between Jesska and the teacher, before Jesska explained I should move mats so that I would have the best chance of seeing what was going on. Because yes, I’d agreed to do yoga in a language I do not speak.

Now I’d always thought of German as a harsh sounding language

However, in the mouth of the yoga teacher, it was soft. We laid down on our yoga mats to the sound of typical calming yoga music. Everything smelt of incense. Pretty soon I was feeling relaxed, and my pre-yoga nerves had dissipated. As I focused on what I was doing, it occurred to me that actually understanding what was being said didn’t matter so much. If I’d never done yoga before, I might have had some difficulties, but a downward ‘hund’ is a downward dog and a cobra is a cobra.

All I had to do was copy

In fact, sometimes I found myself ahead of the rest of the class as sometimes the verbal instruction followed the teacher’s movement.

It was all going well until she stopped demonstrating and started walking around the classroom. I’d focused on watching so intensely that I had completely failed to memorise the routine, so now I found myself having to copy the other students. Of course, all the students’ movements looked slightly different from one another.

As the teacher walked around she corrected our poses

I felt her hand on my back giving me some small prods and a gentle push here. Moving me into a better position. Then there was the additional helpful miming. She demonstrated ‘put your head on your folded arms’ with a purposeful stare in my direction.

Jesska says that occasionally she’s add a word in English. I missed these English prompts entirely. I had no idea the teacher had said them until Jesska asked if an up dog was the same as a downward dog in the car on the way home. No, but I appreciated the effort.

The surprise came right at the end of the session

We lay down, covered in our blankets, ready for the compulsory post yoga nap – chavasana – and closed our eyes. That’s when I heard the teacher putting on her hand-cream.

Odd time for moisturising your hands, I thought.

And then, suddenly, I found that the intense smell of this magic hand cream was making itself intimately acquainted with my head, neck and shoulders. I was being anointed.

Would you try a yoga class in a language you don’t speak?

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