Kettu (my Finnish friend) and I took the cameras and some cheese to a fell, a hill that stood out above the flat landscape. I was assured that it was a fell, and that it ought be called a fell, and not a hill, although I would have used the word hill if I weren’t told otherwise.
We also took two pairs of snowshoes, a flask of tea, a large sausage (chopped in two), a cheese sandwich wrapped in foil and a couple of small bars of chocolate. We wore woollen socks, thermals and fleeces and layered up on the gloves. The temperature being somewhat chilly and the snow rather deep.
And then, at the bottom of this fell we got out of the car
The first thing you don’t realise about snow is how quiet it makes everything sound. Sat at my desk there’s a whirring of fans, an electric hum, and the rain, quiet but steadily drumming. Cars drive past, sloshing through the puddles, their engines engaging beyond the wall to climb the hill that leads away from the house. In the kitchen the Mother clanks china against china, the Father coughs, something somewhere beeps. Even as I write this, I’m firing my fingers against the keyboard, the thump down against the sensors in an unsteady beat, so loud you can hear it from the hallway.
But outside, on the edge of a fell, surrounded by a deep snow that hugs the trees tight, wrapping them up like Christmas presents, there’s a lullaby of silence. The strange thing is that you don’t always notice such silence. You stand there and everything feels fresh. The sunlight, low and bright casts huge shadows. But there’s so much snow that the light seems to come from all around.
And then you moved
When I stopped and listened I was amazed by the sound of the snow creaking under my boots. I’ve never heard snow behaving like this before. The snow in England is typically of the damp variety. It doesn’t squeak or moan. Occasionally a thin layer of ice might crunch, but not this noise. I was supposed to be quiet so that I didn’t frighten away the birds. I crouched, the layers of my waterproof trousers rubbing against each other, unsilently, and watched as a willow tit attacked s feeder hung from a nearby tree. Kettu scattered out some cheese, staging her shot, whilst I crunched around the trees, following the paths, in some sort of elated daydream.
Luckily, despite my incessant need to ask questions and the squeals of the snow as it compacted beneath my weight, the birds came fluttering by to say hello.
At some point I realised that I had everything the wrong way round.
I was talking, in that absent-minded way, about socks. Saying, with a slight air of complaint, that we just don’t have proper woollen socks in England. At the time, in my hands, I grasped a large pair of thick woollen socks my friend had given me to wear over my normal socks to fight off the sub-freezing temperatures outside. What I wanted to say was just thank you. What I ended up saying was that in England, we don’t have socks. You go into a shop and all you find are socks made of synthetic materials. Even Marks and Spencer’s posh socks are only part cotton.
And my friend just stared at me as if she didn’t speak English. Except she speaks almost perfect English. Her typical use of the language is, without doubt, closer to ‘standard British English’ than my own. Apart from the occasional v/w sound that give her away as being Scandinavian, she sounds like she grew up playing lacrosse. It’s probably safe to say that the grammar pedants would have fewer qualms with her spoken English than my own.
I repeated myself, because most of the time I can get by such failures of comprehension with simpler phrasing, a slower pace and by pronouncing my ‘t’s and ‘h’s. It didn’t work. She looked at me like the French look at me when I’m trying to ask for more than one thing at once. Completely blank.
And then, she decided to use the reliable tactic of demonstration to prove the point that I was being a naïve idiot. She leant over to a box, removed the lid and pulled out a ball of wool.
“This I bought in England.”
I’m worried about becoming like one of those city kids who don’t know milk comes from a cow. I stared at the knitting needles and realised that I had a few things to learn about life. Most of which is about attitude.
If I want such wonderful socks, I need to learn to knit socks, not complain at the lack of woollen socks in the modern British culture. Or, to extrapolate from socks to life: I need to wake up myself, not expend energy complaining about the culture being asleep. Wasn’t it Gandhi who said one ought to be the change one wants to see?
We go for a walk around the neighbourhood, in a perfectly civilised fashion
Two young women who haven’t seen each other for some time, who never have spent all that long together, but whom somehow fit together as if we’ve been friends for years and years. Conversation goes back and forth: life and its tribulations; philosophies and their failings; the weather. Being pen-pals we know about each other’s lives, we understand each other’s stories, and so this conversation is a continuation of an ongoing discussion of life.
And then, as we’re reaching the apartment, I spot a washing line and decide what I want is to nip inside and grab my camera. Bemused, but accepting, my friend grabs her camera too. The washing line is covered in snow, more snow than that sprinkling England had, and I’m thinking suddenly of the Mother. I want to take a picture of this washing line specially for her. I imagine she, and possibly only she, will appreciate it.
And then we’re outside again, and the blue-haired Finnish photographer, who has welcomed me into her home, is laughing at me.
A grin forms over my face when I look at the snow
The air here is fresh, quiet. I was a witness to this landscape on the train from Helsinki. I travelled north. The sun rose and the snow deepened. I saw the white roads, the banks of snow, the tall trees and frozen lakes. My friend met me at the train station and we took a road trip with sandwiches and a flask of tea. I marvelled at how she drove on ice, how the tyres just worked. How everything was white, and yet, at the same time, in the ever changing sunlight, nothing was. My delight continues. I cannot quite believe my eyes. There is so much snow – less she says than years past – more than I could imagine.
She’s a wonderful photographer
Her pictures capture the quiet silence of this place. The shadows and light of the low sun. The sparkles in the crystals of frozen condensation. The small glimpses of life through the flutter of a bird’s wings. Nature’s sculptures – buried trees – worthy of a permanent position in a sculpture park. And, between laughing at me and my disbelief, she’s teaching me. Showing me that to make the snow appear white I need to have the histogram for my photo closer to over-exposed than underexposed. Warning me that when I take my camera inside I must keep it zipped tight in its bag, so that it warms slowly, for preferably at least an hour, and doesn’t get damaged by the moisture.
And I snap away. My photos under-exposed, then over-exposed as I switch from taking pictures in the shade of the building to pictures dominated by the sunlight bouncing off the bright, sparkling snow. But in time I find balance. The controlled, yet imp-like smile of my friend gives me permission to take my time. There’s no rush here. She laughs at my delight as I squeal about the snow being like glitter, or because at last I have managed to take a picture of her that’s not a silhouette. I sound like a child, amazed and free.
Then she points to a mound of snow, which some local children have made into a slide
She suggests that I try sliding down, although she doesn’t try herself. She plonks herself and her camera down in the snow, as if the snow were a sofa that one could sink into with ease. Cautiously I climb up, taking care of my footing, I sit slowly, and then, gently I slide down.
And then I run up, my boots springing off the ice. And slide down.
It’s somewhere between minus seven and minus twenty but I have forgotten about the cold. I run up and slide down.
My dear friend gets me a plastic bag. And I run up, lay the bag down on the ice slide, sit upon it and go. Again and again and again. Until my clothes are sticky with sweat and my breath catches in my chest. And I’m laughing. Frost forms on my scarf. I’m talking in quick spurts, occasionally checking that still buried in the cold snow my friend is happy for my to be so indulgent. But she grins as she snaps more and more pictures and tells me I can go again, if I want. Like a grandmother who has seen it many times before and yet is still moved by the childish delight.
When the Midget and I did a three-week train adventure in Eastern Europe I booked our flights, the first two nights’ accommodation (in a hostel dorm) and the overnight train travel that would get us to Amsterdam on the right morning to meet the Dutch Kiwi – who kindly invited us to stay for a few days.
For some people, an attitude of planning as you go along must seem abhorrent
It certainly does have its downsides. After all, you spend a significant amount of your time staring at maps and trying to get good enough wifi to make a booking for the next night (or at least you did in the past when foreign data was so expensive). This is precious time that you’d prefer to spend staring at gargoyles or petals. If your holidaying time is limited, then there’s often a feel that you need to be looking outward not down at your phone. And perhaps, particularly in busy seasons, on tight budgets or in unusual locations then there’s not all that much choice to begin with.
Even less at the last minute.
Urgency however, has a value. It forces you to make a choice. When you’re running to a deadline it’s often easier to get things done. Being able to book accommodation without excessive hesitation is a skill that has come with practice and has now saved me hours.
Sometimes, having this flexibility pays off in a big way
I went to France for two weeks and stayed for two months. I went to Spain for seven weeks and stayed for three months. Imagine if I’d had a flight booked, or accommodation booked, and had therefore turned down the opportunities that developed around me? On both occasions I could have stayed longer, I was invited to stay even longer, but I had plans made elsewhere.
On some occasions though, a solid plan makes a trip
For me, this includes almost all travel done with anyone else. I’m used to my own stress and have coping strategies in place for being lost in train stations, unable to find the right bus and sat on the doorstep waiting for someone to let me in. What I find much more difficult is having someone else there beside me, tapping their foot, rustling the papers or bemoaning the situation. When you are with someone else, you are, in part, also responsible for them.
I’m also keen on having plans when I’m hiking. It’s tiring, physical work and the truth is, I don’t want to be walking and worrying about where I’m going to be sleeping. It can be difficult enough just with the blisters between your toes.
Last year The Grump and I walked a section of the Rota Vicentina on the coast of Portugal
It’s a stunning walk down to Cape St. Vincent, and for someone like me who prefers the walking to the map reading, it’s a gift because it’s so well marked. Since we were changing accommodation almost every night, and staying in small villages, it made sense to book everything in advance. I believe that the Grump would be happier if we also had the location of the nearest market, nearest bakery and reviews of all local restaurants all researched before either of us set foot in an airport, but where we’re sleeping and how we’re getting there tends to be enough for me. When you’ve got so many nights, each in a different place, having a spreadsheet becomes invaluable. Hiking is not meant to be a stressful endeavour.
My spreadsheet looks something like this:
Name of Host
Location is the name of the place as we remember it. Pronounced wrong. The address is what we’re going to google when we’re lost. The contact number is rung when we discover that the address on google has failed us. And the name of the host is another way of keeping nights separate in our brains.
If we’re splitting the cost, we can need columns for settling money – sometimes multiple currencies – and a statement of whether or not we’ve actually paid. Then there’s the weird notes, like that we can get the key from the grandmother who lives two doors down.
The kitchen column exists because quite often I prefer to book somewhere that I have access to a kitchen. Eating out every day is expensive, and sometimes you’re not seeking something fancy. All you want is a bowl of soup heated up in the microwave, somewhere that you can kick off your boots and curl up on the sofa.
However, a plan is just a plan
It’s a model of the situation you expect. But during travels you are, from time to time, going to happen upon the unexpected.
Breakfast, for example, is a word with a different meaning depending on where you are. If you book somewhere in England and it includes breakfast, you probably can skip lunch. If you book somewhere in Italy or Spain, you might fine what you actually have is a mug of coffee and a biscuit. You have to be at ease with some unknowns.
Even when you think you’ve got everything organised and multiple copies of the spreadsheet printed off, it cloud-stored and emailed back to yourself, you can still find yourself wandering around the wrong village (Arrifana) at nine o’clock at night. Plans don’t always play out as smoothly as a spreadsheet suggests. Sometimes you grit your teeth, try your hardest not to say anything unkind to your normally lovable companion, and call someone for help.
Asking for help is a much more important skill in travelling than making fancy spreadsheets
If you want to get better at travelling, get better at asking for help. You might find that someone’s willing to rescue you when you’re drowning in the Yorkshire Dales or that when you’re desperate for a cup of tea, the hotel receptionist will fill your mug with boiling water, even though it’s midnight and they normally charge for hot drinks. Having a tidy spreadsheet doesn’t keep you dry or your tummy full.
There was a miscommunication at the final moment of our Rota Vicentina walk
At the point I thought I’d finished my 150km walk and sat down with my ice cream to celebrate, there was still 5km left and it needed to be done asap as otherwise we’d miss the bus. The Grump set the pace, I trudged along behind. By then, my feet really hurt. And yet, the next morning, we found a bakery where the Grump had savoury crepes which came with a huge helping of chips and I tackled the pastries and coffee. Although it was raining outside and we were both tired, we laughed at it all and appreciated what we’d achieved.
Despite this, or maybe because of it, this year the Grump and I are switching Portugal for Italy and are walking a section of the Via Francigena. Although it’s a few months away, we’ve booked our accommodation, the Grump has booked his flights and I’ve made a beautiful spreadsheet. Now I don’t have to worry about it until just before I leave when I remember I need to pack.
Often, I’m asked where I start when I’m planning my travels
When you’re thinking about travelling it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the options. I’m lucky, in that now I have done some travelling, and met people from all over, I can build trips around visiting people I care about seeing again. There are a few other factors that orientate me within a plan. Primarily, I’m currently keeping to Europe. There’s a lot in Europe, and since I’m a young naïve woman who travels mostly alone, Europe is where I’ve decided I can push the edges of my comfort zone without jumping overboard.
This post demonstrates some of the whimsical thinking that goes on behind my travel planning.
A friend invited me to go stay with them during their spring holidays when the university is closed
Without really thinking about it, I said yes. She’s up in Finland and although I’ve driven as far as Sweden, I’ve never been to Finland. Ignoring how cold Finland is in March, it seems like an excellent idea. After all, I’ve never been to her town; I hadn’t heard of it until she moved there to study.
The two of us met in Sicily working as carpenters and have written to one another regularly ever since.
Another friend invited me skiing
I said yes despite never having been skiing before and knowing nothing about skiing. I’m sure I’ll learn, and I know I’ll have a great time since the friend in question is the sort of friend who has me giggling and chatting until the early hours of the next day – and it’s always about wondrous trivia and calamitous romances whilst eating much too much chocolate. She’s so accepting of me, and non-judgemental, that I find myself feeling comfortable even when I’m saying the most ridiculous of things, and this is despite our strong, differing opinions on odd socks. Skiing is in Austria. I’ve got new gloves, but I still need some good socks to keep my toes warm, I’ll need them for Finland anyway.
Paris is one of those cities I wish to see more of
And since another dear friend is starting work in Paris very soon, it would be a waste not to visit her and her partner and their sofa-bed to celebrate their move. I’m already imaging us in a Parisian patisserie, my mouth already watering. Then there’s the art galleries that I haven’t spent nearly enough time in and the streets which require some aimless wandering.
Which is the basis of the odd framework for my next trip (next big trip)
Which I’ve then bulked out with more whimsical intention. Since I’m going to Finland, I figured Estonia’s capital Tallinn is on the way. I read something about Tallinn long ago in a book, which I then promptly forgot, but which has managed to lodge an odd bead of curiosity in my mind. Then I learnt about the Singing Revolution which started in Tallinn in 1988 and which is the sort of thing I wish I’d been taught about in school.
It’s often entirely on gut feeling that I start off my plans for visiting places or seeing things. A painting in an art gallery can be a catalyst for my spending three months in one village in Northern Spain. A friend’s postcard spent too long staring at me and I had to go see the original again. It doesn’t take much to get me inspired, but when there’s a travel idea in my mind it takes root and won’t budge until I’ve followed it through. I’ve been to the same ice-cream shop in Italy on at least three, but probably four, entirely separate trips. All this goes to show that motivation is a complex topic. To me it feels whimsical, but simultaneously like the most obvious common sense.
Latvia and Lithuania happen to be between here and Estonia
Although I’ve been to a fair few European countries, I’ve not been to either. Lithuania particularly caught my attention because of a tour I did through Warsaw last May. From 1569 to 1795 Poland and Lithuania were joined in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which at its largest also contained Latvia, that odd extra bit of Russia, a bit of Estonia, considerable amounts of Ukraine and a tiny bit of Moldova. This commonwealth was notable for its quasi-democratic government and tolerance of religious differences.
Managing the logistics of this trip requires the full application of my analytical mind. Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, is proving an interesting challenge to get to. It has a train line that only seems linked to the rest of the world during weekends (look up Rail Baltica I). The main problem seems to be a lack of standardisation of gauge. With EU funding, this part of the world is slowly becoming more connected.
I don’t know when I decided that I was going to do the whole lot by train
I think it was when I started considering the number of planes it would take to get back and forth: England to Helsinki, Helsinki north, back to Helsinki, off to Austria… It feels excessive and I’m not in a rush. Plus, leaving the obvious planet saving point aside, I prefer trains to planes. Often, the view out of the window is better. In a plane you get a breath-taking view on take-off and landing, and occasionally when the clouds clear as you’re passing over the Alps or along a stunning coastline. Most of the time though, what you see is cloud and often. Lots of cloud. And clouds are impressive, but not necessarily any better than passing through a quaint little village station. The windows are bigger on trains, and people rarely try to sell you a glass nail file for more money than you’ve spent on your entire lunch. On the Berlin to Warsaw train you get a free cup of coffee.
I also find trains soothing
There’s something about the motion of the train that has a calming effect on me. As long as you avoid the busy trains, and frantic crowds, you can have an easy afternoon, not doing a lot, just watching the world go by.
Writing, and reading, on trains I find comes easily to me. It’s like the motion of the train sets my mind moving. When I’m in a new place learning how to fit in and ideally create a temporary sense of belonging, then I often don’t pause long enough to get my thoughts and feelings and all that stuff I’m reflecting on scribbled out. A train can, in its own peculiar way, be a place of pause and sanctuary.
For the first time since I was a child, I have a good night’s sleep before an early flight. So good in fact that I awake to the half past four alarms (we set a few), startled. I’m genuinely unsure where I am or why I’m there.
The Mother does a passport check – yes, I have mine – and we take the shuttle to the terminal. In the queue to drop off our baggage the Father takes my passport from me. He hands all four, in a neat stack, over to the man at the counter. I’ve stuck at the back and have to pop my head up for my face to be confirmed as a match.
My seat on the plane is a window seat. I laugh at this. For almost all the flights I have ever taken on my own, and there have been many, I have been allocated a window seat. Feeling that I have had the delight of the view many times, more often than my sister for example, I offer the seat up, but nobody wants it. I don’t understand. The sky in the early hours is a beautiful thing, even if it’s chucking it down. I’d always chose the window seat.
Once landed, we pass through security. All four of us manage to negotiate the electronic passport machines. Ahead of me are the carousels, the Father and Midget look ready to pounce on our luggage. I smile, the airport signs for the toilets are a match to the ones I saw in Faro in March. I like them because someone’s dared to be creative – the women aren’t in skirts. There’s also something about a sense of familiarity.
My brain jumps, as it now always does in a language explosion, to the adverts and posters. I read every sign and spend most of my time in the terminal with a furrowed brow. I don’t speak Portuguese, but travelling, especially travelling alone has made my brain pay attention to words I don’t know. I’m beginning to believe all that science about neuro-plasticity. I’m working not with one language, but with a weird multi-language pattern recognising zone of my brain which a few years ago barely existed. I’m still no better at speaking any of the languages I don’t speak, but I’m getting noticeably quicker at recognising patterns.
However, I spend the holiday surrounded by English. I can say ‘por favor’ and ‘obrigado’ but when I greet the man at the bread counter I’m ashamed that I can’t even count to ten – all I want to do is get four bread rolls – this ineptitude I feel is ridiculous.
But this isn’t travelling, it’s just a holiday. It’s a beautiful holiday. I swim in the pool with the Mother, play tennis with the Father and pool with the Midget. I buy and eat fruit from the market that I can’t name in English, and bathe in the gorgeous warmth of the sun. After a few days, I begin to realise that it’s been a long time since I’ve had a holiday like this. It feels deserved.
Which just goes to show how much I’ve grown in the last few months. My endeavour to have a gentler brain is working. There was a point where I criticised myself when travelling, even though I genuinely believe that’s what I want to be doing, and that it’s good for me.
The grandmother would ask, “Are you off on another holiday?”
And I’d not know what to say, other than, “Yes.”
Perhaps, at a first glance, the difference isn’t so big. When I lived in Barcelona I swam in the sea, sunbathed on the beach and, in the evenings, drank wine with a couple of American ladies. Taken at face value, it certainly looked like a holiday.
The difference however is in the mindset. On holiday, you’re getting away from it all, you’re relaxing, you’re allowing yourself to be diverted from the normal course of your life – temporarily. When travelling, (at least for me), you’re getting under the skin of something. You’re learning, listening, thinking intensely and allowing the experience to change you – permanently.