I love Paris in the winter: a concert, the sunset, a proposal

  
Sometimes clichés are clichés for a reason. Like the romance of train travel, the romance of Paris, the romance of proposing to the girl who makes your heart skip a beat.
  
We left from London on the Eurostar – the train straight from London St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord. I had butterflies in my stomach. But the wc on the train had a delightfully bizarre poster of the Mona Lisa and our seats were not so much next to a window as next to the bit between two windows. Otherwise known as a wall. These hilarious little niggly things calmed me down a bit.
  
Our hotel was in Ménilmontant, out in the 20th arrondissement, the proper Paris of street art and musicians and a Jewish kindergarten guarded by soldiers.
  
 

There was a moment of panic when the hotel staff couldn’t find our reservation despite all of the (many) confirmation emails I could produce, and their confusion that yes, these two ladies did want just the one bed.

  
After several conversations in harried French which I understood but pretended I didn’t, we got our bed. Likewise someone slunk into a room and removed two bags which apparently belonged to a ‘Sarah’ they believed to have been me and showed us to our room and all was well.

“Sarah! It’s a very common name!” yes it is. But it’s not my name. And maybe don’t give away reservations based on first names? Perhaps try surnames or reservation numbers? 

(aside from this it was an excellent excellent hotel and we would recommend it highly)

   

In the few hours we had between arriving in Ménilmontant and the gig which was the spark for our trip to Paris we set out on the streets to find Père Lachaise – the famous final resting place of Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, and Abelard and Heloise (among others). It hadn’t been on our list but what is a list if not just a suggestion, really, and we were in the neighbourhood. Sort of.

  

 We found Jim Morrison’s grave by following the young people. Nearby was the grave of a 21 year old victim of the BATACLAN massacre.

   

  
Side note: this trip had been booked for months when the attacks in Paris took place and while we paused for the shortest of seconds we never really considered cancelling.

  
 I did myself proud in my efforts to get us completely and utterly lost. We ended up repeatedly finding the grave of the father of homeopathy when we were looking for Abelard and Heloise because I am the actual worst and somehow forgot that the key to one map will not work when you’re looking at a completely different map. How I manage to do things like this while still being extremely capable baffles me.

  

 We found them eventually. By which I mean Pip found them. I was no help. At that point the sky was rapidly darkening past pink into night and I am not nearly goth enough to hang out in a French cemetery at night. Besides, we had a gig to get to.

  

 It’s technically illegal to smoke inside in France but also it is still France. We found a little bar and we sat on the terrace and had a drink and ate dinner and around us people smoked and spoke in French and it was all entirely perfect.

  

 The entire reason we went to Paris in December was to see Courtney Barnett. She’s an Australian singer and one of our favourites – we discovered her together, in the car on the way to work, so entranced by the song Avant Gardener and its laconic singer we sat and waited until the very end.

 

She performed in a silver box inside La Gaîté Lyrique, an art and music centre in the 3rd arondissement. Our bags and jackets were thoroughly checked on our way inside and it was a tiny reminder of the horror three weeks prior.

  

 But we got beers and moved inside the venue and it was just one of those perfect nights. A guy sidled up to us as we were chatting “Excuse me, are you Australian?” “… close but no, sorry, Kiwis” “Oh! Great! Me too!”

His name was Cam and he’d lived in Wellington and worked in Politics and knew the opening act but not Courtney Barnett, and us the opposite, so we shared knowledge and danced together and I was having such a good time I could have proposed right then and there.
She played all our favourite songs and it was their last show of the tour so they were all a bit loose at the end and oh she’s just really very good.

   

  Afterwards we ended up at a bar halfway between the gig and the metro with our new friend from New Zealand talking politics because we are ridiculous people. In the grand tradition of excellent nights, it was, all of a sudden, a lot later than we were expecting – thankfully, Paris is not nearly as terrible a city as London, and the metro runs right through to 2am. Ish. It was close. But we made it.

  

 Our hotel delivered a bag of pastries and proper French bread to our hotel room which, the morning after the night before, was an actual lifesaver.

 While we put ourselves back together again, ready to brave another day in Paris, I dug her engagement ring out of my backpack and put it in my jacket pocket. One upside of vintage ring boxes is they are quite small and discreet. One downside to vintage ring boxes is that they SOMETIMES COME APART IN YOUR POCKET.

At the metro station I jammed my hand in my pocket to hold all the bits together and nonchalantly wandered down the platform to quietly panic and put it back together again. She had no idea.

  

 

I truly believe I am destined to never visit the catacombs in Paris. I’ve tried twice and both times I’ve failed. This would be much easier to handle if it wasn’t so damn far out from the very centre of the city. Each time it’s at least a half hour trek out of the way. So that happened. We won’t dwell on it.

   
   

Our first stop in the very centre of Paris was Notre Dame. It was a Sunday and it was cold and there were soldiers with massive guns all around. We had planned to go right to the top (of course) but the queue was over an hour long so we walked around the inside, listened to a bit of the service, and departed just as heathen as we entered.

  

 
  

We stopped at the bridge-covered-in-locks because it was Right There. It was full of tourists and really angry old French ladies so we didn’t stop long and I was relieved I had passed on that as a proposal location. The locks are sweet but either some people have extremely adventurous poly relationships or it’s become locks for the Squad as well as for lovers.

  

   

Since we were in the vicinity I took us to Shakespeare & Co., the crazy english language bookshop right on the river. There’s now a coffee shop right next door where we had delicious coffees, god I think I even had a long black. The story goes that the owner of Shakespeare and Co, George Whitman, knocked on the door of the shop next door every single weekend asking them to sell it to him so he could open a literary café next to his bookstore. They turned him down for two generations (his daughter Sylvie continued, albeit monthly, after his death in 2011) but in October 2015 the café opened and in December 2015, we visited.

  

 
There’s something magical about being in Paris when it’s cold outside. We walked through the naked trees of the Tuileries, we ate freshly made crepes (lemon and sugar for me, ham and cheese for her) and both agreed that we liked I.M. Pei’s pyramid entrance to the Louvre and hated the Roue de Paris ferris wheel on the Place de la Concorde.

    

   
We braved a queue to visit Monet’s water lilies at the Orangerie (and all of the other amazing art as well) and that was the afternoon ending – dusk comes so much earlier in the winter time.

   

   
 

As the light faded around us we walked down through the lights and the tat of the Christmas markets on the Champs-Élysées – every second stall selling crepes or waffles or vin chaud – turned left and all of a sudden we were there. The Pont Alexandre III. It’s a glorious beaux-arts style bridge which is absolutely beautiful and the place I’d chosen as the backdrop to my proposal.
Of course I was so distracted I don’t have a photo of the bridge itself.
The sun was setting, the sky was pink, the Eiffel Tower a silhouette in the distance, and I had a ring box clasped in one hand in my pocket.

   

Some things you don’t get to know. Some things are just for her and me. Some things I could never get into words. The blood rushing through my ears, the sudden choking up as I asked her, the actual shock on her face, our shaking hands.

 

We found a place to sit down – at one end of a concrete bench. At the other end three thirteen year olds sat smoking weed. The youngest looking one, the one who was drew in a book while the other two made out, came and asked us for a cigarette.

 

I wouldn’t change a thing.

  

 
We couldn’t call our families straight away. Thanks to the tyranny of distance and time zones it was about 5:30am when we got engaged (!) so we visited the top of the Eiffel Tower. It was dark and windy by the time we got up there (you queue to queue to queue to travel in an elevator to queue to queue then another elevator ride and you’re there. To get back down is only third the queueing. That’s still quite a bit) but the lights of Paris stretching out in every direction was worth it.

  

 Heading back to Ménilmontant we were exhausted and happy. Picking a bistrot recommended by our hotel we ended up at a tiny bar after 8pm at a tiny wooden table, giddy and starving. Run by a waitress with red curls and an iron fist she recommended wine and we ate duck confit and steak bavette and drank viognier to our engagement.

  

   
For a change, with our weekend breaks, we had taken an actual day off work. Monday was another full day in Paris with the Eurostar in the late evening.

  

 We saved the Louvre for our final day so we could dedicate proper time to it. We spent hours and hours and still only saw a quarter of it

  

 One of my favourite moments was walking into a room filled with ancient Greek vases, looking around and realising that we were the only two people in the room. That doesn’t happen often in the Louvre.

   

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

We looked at art until our eyes and feet could take no more and then we made the worst mistake of all. We tried to leave the Louvre. It used to be that you walked out a door but now you’re herded into a horrible labyrinthine mall and it is disorienting and difficult to leave. Horrible horrible horrible.

  

    
 
(In Belgium you eat mussels and drink beer)

Our weary feet took us to Belgium for lunch (or rather a strange restaurant that said “welcome to Belgium” as you entered and “welcome to france” as you left) before we took advantage of the last day of our travel card and took the metro across the city to Monmatre.
Sidenote: maybe it’s because it’s not nearly quite so far underground or because the lines don’t intersect as much but the Metro in Paris is less stressful than the Underground in London.

  (A truth universally acknowledged is that in every city, there will be an Irish pub

One bonus of an early sunset is watching the lights play across the sky without feeling the scratchiness that comes when you need to find somewhere for a drink or dinner. We climbed the hill and stairs up to the Sacre Coeur as it was pink with sunset light and saw the Eiffel Tower silhouetted across the city.

   

  

  
  
Our final moments in Paris were spent in a square surrounded by twinkling lights, the Place du Tertre where street artists plied their wares until it was too dark for them to see and we sat at the terrace of a little restaurant with my scarf as a blanket and a glass of wine in front of us.
At one point three soldiers who were patrolling came across a cardboard box abandoned in the centre of the square. The carefully affected caution they took was something to behold – two of them flanked the box, looking around the square, while the third nudged it with his boot and opened a flap with the barrel of his gun.

It was nothing, just a cardboard box, but their reaction reminded me it could have been more.

  

We ate rainbow macarons on the eurostar back to London and I marvelled at just how ridiculously perfect the weekend had been. All the stars had aligned. 

   
 
A final moment, at the end of our journey, as we paused on the rail bridge looking out to the lights of the Chelsea Bridge and London beyond I thought “we’re home.”

Bureaucrats & drug dealers: a weekend in Geneva

Our trip to Geneva was a spur of the moment, stroke of madness, ridiculous, romantic, impulse purchase of a trip.
  
After the … experience that was flying from Stansted airport on a Friday night (complete with an hour spent in the security queue and running through the airport for the departure gate) we made sure to leave more than even the most generous of time allowances for our trip from Gatwick.I’m sure you can tell where this is headed. We had hours to spare, hours to kill. Gatwick was an organised delight of an airport and we even had time to have a drink (or two) (maybe it was three) as we DID NOT RUSH to our flight.

  
Getting into Geneva was a dream. There is free public transport (!) and the train from the airport to the very centre of the city takes all of around 15 minutes (!!). We did not get lost in city streets at 1am. By 1am we were in our extremely warm hotel room and I hadn’t even cried once.

 Bright and early the next morning we put on all the layers we could muster and headed out into the streets – at a tiny café I ordered us coffee and croissants in French and felt inappropriately impressed with myself. My high school French hadn’t failed me. And, thankfully, we both drink black coffee.

   

I’d been concerned for our days in Geneva as all the things we’d wanted to do were closed or booked or too far away (a cable car up a mountain, the United Nations, the tour at CERN) but we enjoy exploring a city, it’s relatively easy to navigate and of course the lake is absurdly beautiful; glacially clear water made us think less of the sluggish Thames, and the Jet d’Eau is simultaneously impressive and … not (it really is just a really really high jet of water)

   
  When I was 11 I went to Switzerland with my family and my memory is very much of a mixture of languages (German, Italian, French), a lot of cheese and chocolate and cuckoo clocks and cowbells, entirely Swiss clichés. But Geneva feels wholly and completely French. Well, French with extra fondue and chocolate. But still.

I think this is a geographic thing. I’d not realised Geneva was so completely out to the side of Switzerland, a little Swiss tributary into France. So basically this all to say I am 1. Bad at geography. 2. Not very good at researching locations before I get there.

 

Despite the 2°c chill in the air and clouds blanketing the valley, we walked up to the cathedral in the old town and continued on up the spire because that’s what you do when you’re in a foreign place? You get to as high a position as possible and peer into the distance. It’s what we did in London and Oslo; it’s what meerkats do watching out for danger etc. It seems sensible. I can’t fault it.

   

There were adorable markets all through the old town and a sculpture which marked New Zealand on it with no apparent explanation. We visited the art gallery and stopped at a café to sit outside in the sun for a sandwich and some vin chaud, we visited a tiny museum full of taxidermy and spent too long searching for exhibits that were no longer there.

  

    
   
We ended up back at the waterfront for the most beautiful pink and blue dusk. It’s ridiculous but the Jet d’Eau really comes into its own when the lake is still and beautiful and the clear sky stretches for miles. Until then it seems a little cramped, bowed by the clouds.

  

 Geneva is a city of bureaucrats, honestly, and I do not mean that as a bad thing. It’s a great place. And it’s full of bureaucrats. Yet somehow, Pip and I managed to find the five street corners which looked more like The Wire than any street corner I’ve ever passed in real life.

You can only really understand how unusual that is if I’ve pointed out about the bureaucrats.
So we walked, in the cold and the dark, past street corners of drug dealers who nonchalantly whistled just in case we were looking for hard drugs. We weren’t. We were looking for a Korean restaurant. But when we weren’t interested, they weren’t interested, and we found the kimchee we had been looking for.

 

It wasn’t absurdly early by our standards when we sat down to eat – it was after 7pm and we started with a drink – but we were the only customers in the entire restaurant. And it stayed that way. Which, while it was delicious and I wouldn’t change a thing, may have been the most I’ve ever spent on a meal. We’d been warned that Geneva was expensive but we’d been to Oslo, also famously pricey, and not been too alarmed. More fool us. So, you know, beware beware. 

 

Sitting outside when it’s freezing cold is quite a revelation – it takes a surprisingly long time for your body to realise quite how cold it is. We made it through most of a pint at a strange neighbourhood sports bar we passed on the not-drug-dealer-alley side of the way back to our hotel.

And yes, despite spending a ridiculous amount on dinner we still stopped for drinks. Because at that point, really, why do things by halves.

  

 I woke up early the next morning as I’d promised to call my family – this whole timezones thing is such a pain – but it’s not fair that we both have to wake up; so I put on my jacket and a hat and headed out into the still Swiss Sunday to walk the streets talking to the little box I was holding up in front of my face and disturb the general populace.

I do like talking to my family as I walk around and show them the sights except every single time I almost get hit by cars as I try to cross the street and maintain conversation …

 

On my way back I discovered a tiny hipster coffee bar for coffee and croissants to take back to my best girl in our hotel room. Breakfast in an overly warm Swiss hotel room is really quite lovely. Especially as you don’t have to worry about crumbs in the sheets.

  

 I know it makes sense, for a town full of bureaucrats, for the United Nations to only be open on weekdays but it makes it dreadfully inconvenient for weekend break travellers. Okay yes the visitor’s centre is still open on Saturdays but this was Sunday so it was no use at all.

  

 Eternally hopeful, we caught the tram to the giant broken chair statue and, at a nearby gallery of china and porcelain (I don’t know) we confirmed it was closed. 

 

You wouldn’t think a gallery of china and porcelain would be all that interesting. You would mostly be right. It was diverting in its own way but I don’t think I would recommend it. We spent some time standing in the windows upstairs looking like ghosts in the photos of the tourists outside. 

   

There is a seriously creepy statue outside the Red Cross museum – it’s called The Petrified and I was approaching it with reverence until I realised that the sign on the outside of the museum encourages you to take selfies and share them on Instagram with a hashtag. There was a lot of that at the Red Cross Museum (which is excellent) very serious subjects lightened with quirky displays.

  

 And that was pretty much all we did in Geneva. It wasn’t our most eventful trip but we came away eager to visit more Swiss-y parts of Switzerland and, thankfully, excited to spend time in France. Which we had planned for the very following weekend.

Paris. Potentially the most romantic weekend of my life.

  

1am in Oslo 

1am in Oslo in October is cold and quiet and orange-yellow with street lights. There are tunnels on main roads and surprise road works and then when you get to your hotel they don’t accept cash.

You only have cash.
  
 

When I moved back to London I promised myself this time I was going to take advantage of living so close to Europe. I was going to show up to work on Fridays with a backpack and head off straight after work across the seas. This month, as we finally feel settled in our London life, we managed to do just that.

  
Last Thursday was my 32nd birthday and I was not coping very well but that is not this story. My love and I had tickets to Norway so I wouldn’t get too down on the ravages of time.  


 

We had picked Oslo almost at random – there were excellent flights for the weekend we wanted to go somewhere, anywhere and thus, with a wish and a prayer, Norway it was.
  
Unfortunately, it turns out that hell actually is Friday night at Stansted airport. It took us 8 hours, a mess of security, running for our gate, and then an hour’s standing bus ride to get from our offices in London to a hotel in Oslo. Arriving to find the hotel wouldn’t accept our payment, and our room was probably actually only ever intended for one person at a time? I am an easily frustrated person.

  
Saturday dawned clear and crisp and cool. I had brought my winter jacket and I was so pleased the first time I really needed it was outside of London. We’ve travelled together now, this jacket and me, I think this bodes well.

  

 I didn’t have any expectations for Norway and, embarrassingly, only knew how to say Hallo and Takk, but it was really quite beautiful (and everyone, of course, spoke perfect English. They’re so impressive).

  

 The harbour is beautiful and the entire city is filled with trees. It’s the beginning of autumn so leaves were just beginning to turn and the city was a patchwork of green and brown and orange and gold.

  

 It was grimier than I was expecting, with fewer old buildings. But that’s probably because I was thinking of Sweden. Norway was the second poorest country in Europe until they struck oil in the 1970s – it’s now the second richest and this you can definitely tell, there are beautiful modern buildings all around the waterfront. An astounding opera house and a modern art museum I wish we’d had more time to visit.

  

 What did we actually do? We were travelling on a shoestring thanks to the hotel inconvenience, and Norway is a reputedly expensive city. Our focus is on doing a few things well rather than rushing through a checklist. That is just what we did and it ended up being a practically perfect weekend.

  

 The metro system in Oslo is relatively painless to navigate (if uh you have someone with you who is excellent at navigating public transport (I’m so lucky)) and the ride up to the hills above Oslo to Holmenkollen allows for beautiful views right the way across the city.

  
What is Holmenkollen, you ask? It’s a massive ski jump metres above the city. There’s a viewing platform right at the top with ridiculously beautiful panoramic views and the ski museum inside was surprisingly diverting – even for a non-skier like myself.

  
There is also a downhill ski simulator which pretty much cemented that non-skier status. No thank you very much. I’ll just look at the sights.

  

  Hotdogs are A Thing in Norway. We ate them in a park with ketchup and mustard and remoulade?

  

 I picked this iced coffee because I liked the packaging but it turned out to be “Christmas” flavoured – cinnamon and nutmeg. I think. It was delicious. I love it when judging a book by its cover works out well.

   

We climbed around the outside of the Akershus Festning, a medieval castle built to protect Oslo, and met a skittery police horse. The police horse was definitely a highlight.

  

 
  
That night we ended up in an English theme pub watching Norway play Malta at football surrounded by Norwegian blokes before collapsing into our tiny little bed.

  

 Early Sunday morning we were back at the water to catch the ferry over to the Bygdøy peninsula. We had a date with museums-about-ships.

  

   
There are two stops on the Bygdøy ferry – everyone gets off at the first stop to go to the cultural and Viking ship museums but if you stay right where you are, you can get off at the second stop and go to the Fram and Kon-Tiki museums. When you’re finishing up there, that’s when all the people who got off at the first stop will show up and crowd the place. Perfect timing. I’m guessing you could then go back and visit those other museums but we didn’t (I’m not very into Viking history tbh).

  

 Instead, I went to see if there was a gate to the Royal Palace (there did not appear to be), we bought hats (mine has a moose on it) and made extra sure we got a seat on the bus back to the airport.

  

 One time Norway knighted a penguin. His name is Sir Nils Olav. Now he’s a snapchat geo filter by the palace.

   

We arrived back home at 10pm on Sunday night and on Monday morning we were back at work, bright eyed and bushy tailed. Somehow, despite not taking a single moment off work, I felt like I’d been away for a week.

  

 Visiting Europe in the weekends is the best thing. Next up? Switzerland!

   

I am a ridiculous romantic fool from time to time so I bought secret flights. But she really does like planning things as much as I do. Keeping it a secret right to the end would not have worked out well.

(I just looked up the average temperature for the weekend we’re visiting? It’s 4°C degrees.)

 

Darling it’s better down where it’s wetter … 

And back to travel tales…

 
So we didn’t go to the aquarium in Bangkok, or Prachuap, and I don’t know if there even were any in the towns we visited around England and Wales, so we’ve kind of completely & utterly failed at this so far but! We DID make it to the London Aquarium. 

  
It was expensive & full of tiny children shouting about nemo and teenage Italian boys trying to take selfies looking staunch with sharks in the background (and completely failing) but there were rays & massive tanks & jellyfish & I can’t help it. Lord but I am a fool for aquariums. 

  
(Is the plural even aquariums? Aquaria? I do not care enough to look it up)

   
  


   

On coming out. Every damn day.

They look at me, they look at her, they look back at me. It’s the quickest of glances, the smallest of pauses, and they say “just confirming that’s a double room?”

Yes. It’s a double room.

  

It gets tiring, you know, constantly coming out.

It happens more at the moment, what with the new country & new people & everything.

I knew, before I came out, that it would happen. I mean, I’ve had people do it to me – the assumption of heterosexuality is something I think we’ve all been guilty of at one point or another. But it wasn’t until now, almost two years after coming out myself, that I decided on the right feeling. It doesn’t make me angry, it doesn’t insult me, or make me sad; tired is really the closest I can get.

I’ve been thinking about this as we travelled around Britain, renting hotel rooms, setting up a bank account, getting a room in a flat, meeting recruitment agents, meeting new co-workers. Every time, a little voice just peeps in the back of my heard, a note of caution. But (so far and fingers crossed) everyone’s been … fine. Completely fine. 

But still, the constant tiny little corrections get tiring. Worse is not correcting people. When I do that I’m tired and a little sad.

“My partner’s on a two year visa so we’ll probably head back to New Zealand then.” “Oh okay and what kind of work does he do?”

That was a moment I didn’t correct. I didn’t correct her and we continued the conversation but I had a ball of sadness in the pit of my stomach.  

  

There also seems to be a trend among … allies (oh I do not like that word – I mean people who are down with the spectrums, gender and sexuality etc.) to say that sexuality should be a “who cares” or “need-to-know” kind of thing. 

And while I support the sentiment, I can’t help but feel it’s dismissive of the importance of visibility to gay people. 

It’s great you’re on our side but also um I care that Ellen Page is out, I care that Amber Heard is bisexual, I care that Angel Haze is pansexual. You can care in a positive way.

  

Also, I do truly believe you can’t live as a gay girl, with a girlfriend, renting hotels and hiring hotels and setting up bank accounts, without coming out to people who really don’t need to know about your sexuality. Whether those people care or not. Whether they care in a positive way or a negative way. That’s the risk we run to live our lives openly, to love openly. It’s a risk that’s ultimately worth it.

  

Because sometimes it’s kind of fun. Like getting a question from a new acquaintance, at a bar one Friday night …

“Is he not your type?”

“N… no, she’s more my type” she said, gesturing in my direction.

I grinned as I watched the realisation flit across his face. I wouldn’t change my life for anything.

  

Caveat: I’m very lucky – an educated, white, femme-of-centre lesbian living in a large city. I am swimming in a sea of privilege. I know this.

Day trippers: Oxford

I had a temp job starting on Monday and as such to celebrate (sort of) my last days of freedom before gainful employment* (sort of) my girl and I decided to head to Oxford for the day.

It’s … really very close to London. So close, in fact, we’d deliberately left it off our road trip.

I’d visited Oxford once before, with my family when I was 11. My one memory of it is of an audiobook of The Witches by Roald Dahl – which my family quoted for years afterward.

We only really decided the night before. In that kind of “oh why not?” kind of way we sort of excel at. I downloaded an app, bought tickets, and we were set for the very next morning. No reserving a seat, no special coach station. We went to a bus stop just down from Madame Tussauds and flagged down the next bus to Oxford.

  
It’s only an hour and a half (ish) from the centre of London to the Centre of Oxford. That’s like driving from Wellington to like … Levin.

  
My favourite moment from the drive was when I realised we were driving through a suburb called Headington. Just outside Oxford, I’d kind of written off seeing the Headington Shark and there we were, driving right past the street! We didn’t stop so I didn’t get a photo, but we saw it and that’s good enough for me.

  
Actually called “Untitled 1986” the Headington Shark is a sculpture intended to express someone feeling totally impotent, angry, and desperate. Created by sculptor John Buckley, the shark was erected, without planning permission, on the 41st anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki and only received permission to remain in 1992.

I love it.

Given we’d only really decided to go to Oxford the night before, we had absolutely no idea what it was we wanted to do. Thankfully Oxford is teeny tiny so getting from place to place wasn’t a problem. And also thankfully, the town itself is absolutely beautiful so just wandering the streets was almost enough.

  
There’s a strange air in Oxford. Unless they’re on their way to exams in dress robes, you can’t really tell students from most of the tourists and there are a lot of souvenir shops but, given most of the attractions are also, you know, a working university, it doesn’t feel touristy at all. It’s unnerving, like you’re in a town where everyone is just a little bit lost.

We picked the Ashmolean museum because we are inveterately curious about the world. It’s a great collection and I think the first time I’ve been in a museum which has a room dedicated to the history of said museum. So very meta.

     
  

Oxford has, unsurprisingly, one of the biggest book stores in the world. Blackwell’s. We visited and I wanted to buy oh so many books. But I made that mistake last time I lived in the United Kingdom and I shan’t be repeating it – I find it too too hard to divest myself of books. It’s easier to just try and not buy them in the first place.

  
Then everything fell apart a bit. We tried to visit the Bodleian library but their tours were sporadic, and expensive. Or maybe the audio guide would have been fine? But again, they don’t really promote it all that much so we just kind of wandered away and around past the Radcliffe Camera – largest reading room in the world. But, because of exams, closed to the public. Damn.

  
Half of Christ Church was open – but not the Great Hall which was properly 50% of what I’d wanted to see. But I was determined that this would not be another Bodleian so in we went. 

  
And it was totally worth it. The college buildings and the quad, even without the Great Hall, are beautiful, but the Cathedral – oh the Cathedral is lovely. It’s a teeny little church turned Cathedral by Henry VIII but it’s richly decorated – with stained glass by Edward Burne-Jones, one of my favourite artists.  

     And, to add to the fucking ambience, there was a youth orchestra practising for a performance and it sounded just like the most ridiculous movie soundtrack.

  
Then, because we’re us and we’re beautifully predictable, we found a pub with just enough time for a pint before our bus home (unrelated to Oxford, I’m sure, but our bus took for-ever to get back to London).

Basically, it was great and I think we love day trips now. We’re thinking of heading to Whitstable and Brighton and Cambridge and Windsor and Kingston, and those are just the few I can think of right here right now.

  
* It’s a two week temporary position. But it’s much better than nothing.

NW8, London. 

Since returning from our road trip we’ve tried to make the most of being unemployed while still, you know, trying to get jobs.

  
We’ve been to galleries and parks and the Tower of London. We’ve done things I’ve never done before and I’ve been able to revisit some of the places I’ve been but see how they’ve changed and see them through the eyes of my favourite person.

   
   

In our flat we have three bedrooms, a kitchen, and the bathroom. While it was super strange for the first few days, I was surprised at how quickly I adjusted to not having a living room. I think perhaps all the hotels actually helped.

We’ve even bought a few little plants, which I absolutely adore.

  
We live with a lovely couple who’ve just moved here from Portugal, with their gigantic cat Gaspar who is kind of terrified of me? Or just pure hatred. He hisses at me when all I want to do is love him.

I’m trying to not hold it against him.

   
 Our other flatmate is a lovely English girl who stays with her boyfriend most of the time so we barely ever see her. I think legitimately the last time I saw her was 8 days ago, though I know she slept here at least one of those nights. 

Maybe her boyfriend has a living room at his place.

  
And despite being pretty much constantly together since we left New Zealand? My girlfriend and I have not killed each other yet and I’m still ridiculously heart-eyes-emoji about her.

  
We spent this afternoon picnicking in Regent’s Park and it was a wild success. Despite not bringing enough to drink, having two excellent parks within 20 minutes walk of our front door is an excellent excellent situation. Plus, there’s the zoo?

  
It’s been hard sometimes. I loved my job and we loved our flat and cat and pals and sometimes I miss them, a lot. Somethings are ridiculously expensive and some things are cheap. Sometimes London is grey and raining and it’s freezing cold despite it being, allegedly, summer. And then the sun comes out and you can picnic and get sunburnt.

  
Relocating across the world and dealing with brand new and sometimes inexplicably difficult bureaucracy can drive you up the wall, and we’re all speaking the same language here! I have no idea how my pal Laura has managed moving to Brazil but lord I have mad respect.

Though sometimes, it seems like maybe we’re not actually speaking the same language at all.

  
Now all I need is a job.

1600km around England and Wales

Oh hi there! Welcome back!

  
So yes. Initially we booked a rental car for pick up in London, before we got spooked and changed it to a train to Bath and the rental car from there. We picked places to visit almost at random from the guidebook – anywhere that looked interesting, really, and then picked hotels based on: 1. does it look like Manderley? 2. is there a pub nearby?

  
It was the best week with the worst beginning.

Traversing the city on the tube at rush hour is never the most pleasant experience but doing it with a bag? Horrible. Even if it’s only carry-on size, like ours were, it’s not the nicest. Oh and then when we got to the station we discovered our train had been cancelled.

Like I tweeted at the time, there’s adventure, and then there’s ‘trying to catch the National Rail on a day with a signal failure.’

(I WAS TOO MAD TO EVEN TAKE PHOTOS)

We were given two options; to hope for a train to Basingstoke and then take multiple extra little train journeys to Bath, they had no idea how much extra it might cost and it might take us all day; or to get a refund, go to another tube station, and spend £20 more to catch the train on a different service to Bath.

We paid the £20. It was worth it. 

  
It was raining when we got to Bath and it seemed like our rental car company had vanished into thin air. Wandering around an industrial area is not the most fun you can have an is in fact less fun than dealing with a cancelled train and unhelpful customer service people.

Once we were at the rental car company, eventually, the skies cleared (I’m not even kidding) and we were given a brand new SEAT León to drive.

It was adorable and black and had only done 18 miles when we got it. And, thank everything, it had Sat Nav. We named her Penny and she would become a saviour and a menace over the next week.

  
On our way to our hotel for the night we took a detour to Portishead because it was on the coast and, mostly, because of the band. It was one of the windiest places I’ve ever been. And I’m a born Wellingtonian.

  
The hotel we picked was the most Manderley of all. A big old hotel on a cliff overlooking the sea in a town called Clevedon just out of Bristol.

  
We drove in to Bristol to visit the suspension bridge* and then returned to our hotel by the sea to sit in the bar, where we were the youngest people by about 30 years, to drink beers and plan our next move.

   
   
You know, if you ever visit Bristol, you should definitely check out the SS Great Britain. Initially we thought it would take maybe an hour? Three hours later we were back on the road. It was the only super touristy thing we did in Bristol but I don’t regret that for a second. 

   
 Croeso y Gymru!

  
I’d been to England before, and I’d been to Scotland, but I’d never actually made it to Wales. It became my favourite part of the trip.

  
Tintern Abbey was just far enough off our route that I was beginning to really hope it was worth it when we rounded a bend and there it was, majestic and crumbling and almost in the middle of nowhere. 

  
We were almost alone among the stones.

  
Our first night in Wales we technically stayed in Cardiff but drove out to a place called Cowbridge (in the Vale of Glamorgan!) to have dinner with another member of my girlfriend’s family. 

  
(DON’T LET THIS FOOL YOU. THIS HOTEL WAS NOT GOOD) 

We were underwhelmed by Cardiff – the traffic and hotel were terrible, there was nothing we really were that invested in seeing, so we decided, fuck it, Cardiff’s not going anywhere, and headed out of the cities.

It was the best decision.

If we’d stayed in Cardiff we’d never have stumbled across the Botanic Gardens of Wales or had enough time for me to get us lost in the moors searching for a random church we saw a sign for.

   
 We also visited another ruined Abbey – the Strata Florida from the 12th century, and the Devil’s Bridge which only cost £1 to visit and was worth so much more.

   
   Basically, a 2.5 hour drive took us the better part of 7 hours and I wouldn’t change a thing. Every time we rounded corner to see yet another beautiful part of the landscape one of us would invariably exclaim “Fuck Cardiff!”

  
University towns, we like. Aberystwyth has a university, and a ruined castle, and a funicular, and a beautiful classic British seaside town waterfront. It was utterly utterly charming.

  
We stayed in a hotel on the waterfront because, when you’re in a place like that, you just can’t not. Our room was in the attic with a beautiful view of the sea, and apparently half the hotel was originally built as a home for one of the Jack the Ripper suspects. I was in love.

  
Continuing our pattern of doing-things-beloved-by-old-people, on our day in Aberystwyth we clambered around the ruins of the castle (13th Century!) partly because they were there, partly because they were free, and then took the (crazy steep and rattly) funicular up the hill to see the view. 

   
 On our way back down, I kicked the bar at the northern end of the promenade. No, I don’t know why. A sign told me it’s a tradition.

  
Oh! And, visiting the old-old-old books at the National Library of Wales, I snuck this photo of Angus McBean’s guest book (I didn’t use flash, I swear).

  
Also continuing our pattern of taking-7-hours-to-drive-anywhere-in-Wales we drove to Colwyn Bay via Snowdonia National Park and Portmeirion, because why the fuck not, basically.

   
     Portmerion looked a little bit like a hallucination and we got lost in the woods. But it was such fun. 

   
 (we also ate Welsh Rarebits because they were on the menu, it was cold outside, and well, we were in Wales so I think it’s mandatory)

Most of the way to Colwyn Bay we crossed an old old one lane bridge and saw there was a pub by the river and it was so fucking gorgeous I could barely take it. 

  
So we stopped and had a pint and it was just perfect. I couldn’t have been happier.

  
Which is good, because Colwyn Bay was very very weird. We stayed in a B&B run by the loveliest people (and their precocious daughter called Hermione Rose) but the town itself? Almost utterly charmless. A strange dinner in a strange restaurant followed by a pint in a Wetherspoons pub. But only one. Because it was a Wetherspoons and not a very nice one at that.

Driving out the next morning we drove along the waterfront to see the Bay the name promised, but a wall had been erected all the way along, as if they didn’t want anyone to see it. 

We should have stayed in Conwy.

  
In Conwy was yet another medieval castle ruins. This one was from the 1200s and is in remarkably good nick. Plus there were a lot of birds nesting all around the walls which adds a surreal air.

  
Then, for some absurd reason (um I think I suggested it?) instead of just driving the under-two-hours to get to Lancaster, we decided to drive all the way around Lake Windermere so 1. I could see the lake, and 2. we could visit Satterthwaite which is probably named after a distant distant relative of my girlfriend (her name isn’t Satterthwaite, don’t get all stalky)

  
It ended up taking us all day. 

  
But! The Lakes District is beautiful, and Sattertwhaite is a tiny town with a babbling brook and whitewashed houses and a country pub where we had lunch. 

  
Thanks to our diverting diversion, and the fact we needed to get to York, we ended up not having any time at all to see Lancaster. Which was a pity because our room was in the attic with a view out over beautiful grey stone buildings. Maybe we’ll go back someday.

  
It’s beautiful in York. We were staying at a hotel-above-a-pub right next to the medieval gate and two minutes walk from the Minster.

   
 We spent hours in the Minster – the undercroft area is actually a pretty interesting museum but they don’t even tell you that when you go in. So odd. We also climbed the 275 steps to look out over the city. Also an excellent choice.

   
 (oh and I was super glad we did the Yorvick Viking Centre first because well that was not impressive at all and it would’ve been terrible the other way around)

  
After York we drove to Bath – probably the longest journey of our trip, and the only one where we stuck to the motorways and listened to Penny the SatNav the whole way through. We had to get to Bath in time to drop off our wee Leon.

    
When we pulled into the rental car place we’d clocked 995.7 miles (or more than 1600 km) and we hadn’t damaged their brand new car at all. Phew.

  
Our hotel in Bath was terrifying and probably haunted. The bathroom was twice the size of the bedroom and constantly chilly. There was terrifying art on the walls of the hallways and the only other people there seemed to be over 80.

  
The Baths of Bath? You kind of have to, if you’re there. I touched the water in the middle before I saw the sign saying to not touch the water and my finger felt all strange and wrinkly for the rest of the day. The water tastes …. like blood.

  
(there was a tap and paper cups, it wasn’t the same water you weren’t supposed to touch)

  
That night we were sitting outside our hotel, not quite ready to face the potential horrors of a night in a haunted hotel, when a man (this is disputed, my girlfriend swears it was a woman) in full creepy-clown makeup and long hair, accompanied by a younger person holding a light bounce reflector scurried into a bar next door to our hotel.

We were just drunk enough to think there was maybe some strange kind of circus/cabaret act going on at this bar called … Circo. Not even kidding.

Of course there wasn’t and this story, like so many, kind of just ends there. We had hoped for circus cabaret but instead we had a couple of really delicious cocktails at an almost-empty cocktail bar, and slept all night undisturbed by ghosts.

  
The next day we caught a coach back to London, moved into our flat, and enjoyed the special bliss that comes with unpacking a suitcase after weeks of living out of it.

  

* a terrifically sad sidenote to our time in Bristol. As we headed back to our hotel for the night we noticed the area around the suspension bridge had been cordoned off by the police. It had only been an hour or so since we had been at the look out and when we checked local news websites that night and the next morning we couldn’t find out what had happened.

It was a couple of weeks later we found out an old woman had committed suicide from the look out and that’s why everything was cordoned off. I’m beyond certain she was sitting on one of the benches when we were up there (my memory is very good) and … the rational part of my brain knows there’s nothing I could have done, but the irrational side wishes I’d smiled and said good evening to her.

Almost 1200 hours since we left New Zealand. 

I landed in London with my best girl by my side 41 days ago now. 41 days. It feels like yesterday and forever ago all at once.
I’m going to write and write and write until I can’t think anymore. This might get long. If it does I’ll split it up. Promise.

58 days ago I handed in my swipe card and left Parliament through the public entrance. After 6 years of working in the complex it was a strange, sad feeling.

  

The following week passed in a blur of packing and storage units and farewell dinners. It was one of the strangest, hardest weeks of my life. But ultimately, adventure and wanderlust win out.

  
Our alarm went off at 3:30am on a Monday morning. We said a sad farewell to our cat and the best flatmate in the world drove us to the airport.

(seriously – she even snuck heartfelt presents into our bags. How fucking sweet.)

We queued with our enormous bags with a crowd of Australian waterskiiers returning home and one Greek Orthodox priest. It was a surreal morning.

  
Despite having a man of god on board, the flight to Australia was one of the most turbulent I’ve ever experienced and oh man that was just not fun at all.

Hitting the heat of Bangkok was almost a relief after the crisp sterility of plane travel. That lasted for all of about 5 minutes and I was relieved to be in the back of an air conditioned taxi driving into the middle of Bangkok as the sun set around us.

  
Both my girlfriend and I have spent time in Bangkok previously (her step-father is half-thai) so ticking off all the sights was not high on our list. We wanted to visit the malls, the forensic museum, eat a lot of thai food, drink a lot of iced coffee, and maybe visit a couple of temples.  

 

  
We achieved everything we wanted to and more – I think we had iced coffee at least twice a day? It’s one of the best things in the world. We also watched Fast and Furious 7 which was an excellent and important piece of cinema.

   
 But my favourite thing we did in Thailand was get out of Bangkok. My girlfriend’s Thai family have a guest house in a seaside town called Prachuap about halfway between Bangkok and Phuket and we headed there for two nights.

  
Prachuap combines all my favourite bits of Thailand, takes out most of the tourists, and has super cute monkeys you can visit.

(There are also terrifying monkeys you can visit and you should NOT get the two confused)

  
We borrowed bikes from a cafe and despite the fact I hadn’t ridden one in actually 20 years, it turns out you really don’t forget so we spent our two days in Prachuap cycling around like a goddamn Wes Anderson movie.  
 

One morning we climbed 396 steps up a hill to an abandoned monastery, fighting off decidedly unchill monkeys with selfie sticks (no, actually) (they were the terrifying monkeys) all before like 11am? We swum in the sea then ate lunch at a place which offered Shrimp Explosion and Taewpo Incubation Mix (to be fair, the food was delicious)

  
Our final evening in Prachuap was spent at the local food market where my girlfriend’s Thai family introduced us to their friends and bought us so much food. Just, so much food. It was all delicious.

  
The minivan we took back to Bangkok was possibly one of the most terrifying rides of my life. It was four hours of highways and changing lanes and no indicating and using the verge as a lane. I needed to close my eyes a lot because, well, they know what they’re doing. And we made it back to Bangkok in one piece.

The flights from Bangkok to Dubai to London were extremely stressful. For some reason, despite leaving more than enough time before getting to each gate, we ended up running and almost missing each of the flights. I don’t recommend it. 

But, on the other hand, when you ask for a wine with your meal they give you two, so Emirates is alright by me, overall.

  
All of a sudden we were in London. Separated with my Irish passport and her New Zealand passport, there were a nervous few minutes before we were spat out into arrivals where my girlfriend’s brother met us and helped us wrangle our giant bags onto the tube.

  
I was so excited. I still am so excited. I’m in my favourite city in the world with my best girl and I can’t quite believe my luck.

  
On our first full day in London we had lunch 36 storeys above the city.

  
Our second full day in London we had to haul our bags which just seemed to keep getting heavier and heavier from one end of London to the other. We used the tube and well, suffice it to say we decided we would NOT be doing that again before we leave.

I rented us an AirB&B studio in Stepney, forgetting that 10 minutes from a tube station is at least 5 minutes too far, and that the DLR is a pain and a half. It was a long week. 

(Also, the bathroom had taps shaped like dolphins, with one red eye and one blue eye to indicate temperature and they were the worst things I’ve ever seen)

  
The weather packed in and it was colder in London’s spring than it was in Wellington’s autumn. “We’re heading into summer” I’d told my girlfriend. I was perhaps a bit optimistic. Besides, anything after a week in Thailand is going to feel relatively icy. 

The rain didn’t help my rationalisation.

  
By the end of the first week I had shown her pretty much all my favourite places – the Tate Modern, St Paul’s, Borough Market, and we’d discovered new things of our own (like Porky’s BBQ in Camden).

Best of all we found a flat. We could see an end to living out of suitcases.

  
Our plan had always been to get to London, spend some time getting our bearings, and then take off for a road trip around the UK for a week so, dear reader, that is precisely what we did.

  
But ah, I wrote that and it’s super super long. So I’ll post that tomorrow.

It’s all happening now

Just signed up for a storage unit. #LDN15 is getting more & more real.

Today my replacement started at work.
It’s great – she’s a friend and I recommended her for the job and she will be brilliant but also … she’s my REPLACEMENT. I’ve packed all my bits up from my desk and I sat all day at a sad desk in an alcove which sounded like an aeroplane.

At 6:30ish this morning we ticked over to less than three weeks until my girlfriend and I are on a plane on our way out of New Zealand. It feels like only yesterday we were sitting in bed on a Saturday morning booking tickets.
That was September. April seemed so far away. Now April is Wednesday.

We’ve had our big leaving party already and we still have a work party and a family dinner to go.

Our living room has been taken over with boxes and this weekend, thankfully the four-day Easter break, we move boxes into a truck, drive them half an hour away, and unpack them into a storage unit.
A unit where they will sit, undisturbed, for two years.

All of a sudden this feels really really real. I can’t wait.