Look around Europe, Stage #5

Kraków to Kiev

Here I go, off to Kiev. I’ve wanted to go to the Ukraine, Kiev in particular, ever since the first time I played an arrangement of it’s Great Gate, although then in my naivety I thought Kiev was a part of Russia. In my defence that was in about 1985 so it was still part of the Soviet Union and visiting seemed pretty impossible then. Fiddler on the Roof is also my all time favourite hangover viewing and kicked off my general pedestrian interest in klezmer music. Now I just want to try a chicken Kiev in it’s hometown and see whether on not it can live up to my huge gluttonous expectations.

I learned a little bit more about the Ukrainian people and what they have lived through during a recent CPD course at work. I’m ashamed to say that this was the first time I’d ever heard of the holodomor and a little of the history of displacement and persecution that the Ukrainian people have had to survive as well as the ongoing issues in the East. Coming from a nice safe little town in Scotland, the strength and resilience that the people must have needed and need to survive is completely beyond my understanding. All those terrible years of Scottish suffering at the hands of the English was a bit before my time and Boris hasn’t kicked in yet.

After doing a bit of Google research I decided that driving there was probably not the best idea. I’m not sure how current most of the information was but I’m terrified of doing something irreplaceable to my van due to bad roads and potholes, and when I googled ‘driving in Ukraine’ this came up:

As I’m not entirely sure that my insurance covers me outside the European Union although my breakdown cover does, I decided to catch a train.

I’m a massive train lover in a not-very-informed type of way. Although I am generally ashamed of the UK rail system, I still do love the decadence of just getting an a vehicle and relaxing until it reaches it’s destination; it’s like a licence to nap without guilt. My new found discovery that first class can occasionally be affordable (or only very slightly more expensive than standard) still makes me as excited as a small child on a first adventure.

I’ve no idea which trains are which or how fast they go, I just like the ones with enough leg room. I’ve done a couple of epic train journeys; the trans-Mongolian route from Moscow – Beijing and Amtrak’s Southwest Chief from Chicago to Los Angeles and loved every minute of both of them. The American one was great in that all meals were provided and I had my own tiny room. That bunk was definitely invented with the napper in mind; you could essentially stay in bed all day and watch the amazing views, even the food could be ordered to the bunks. The one thing that drove me mad about Amtrak was the fact that every one of their trains that I took was at least two hours late.

A view from my couchette while crossing Arizona

My Trans-Siberian experience was a truly great adventure. Being in Russia for the first time alone was my first experience of being in a country where English is not widely spoken and so I just had to get over myself and have a go. By the time I got to Siberia I could at least buy water and noodles from a kiosk in perfect Rusglish.

I personally don’t think anyone can say that they’ve travelled by train until they’ve travelled in a platzkart carriage. I found it fascinating to see the way the Russian people travelled, often with their kids and always with a huge amount of luggage. The first lady opposite me spoke a small amount of English which was good as she helped me communicate with the provodnitsa and explained that she thought what I was doing was fairly dangerous. She was the last person I spoke to in English until I caught the train from Irkutsk to Ulan Batar three days later.

The view from my platzkart bed

I had such a great time and have so much more to say about that trip that I think it deserves a post to itself at a later date.

I got a tram to Kraków Główny and after a long wait finally managed to find my room/bed after what was a potentially quite a stressful situation. A huge train pulled up to the platform with carriage numbers ascending towards the back of the train. When I got to the end it was only carriage 19 and I needed 24 so I tried to ask any number of random train guards and they all shrugged at me. I don’t think it helped that my electronic ticket was in English. Finally I legged it to the front where there were men in different uniforms; I think maybe the sleeping part of the train is somehow separate or maybe it drops the other part off along the way. There was an American lady who was equally confused and the guard seemed a little unsure as well, but we both appeared to have three man bunks to ourselves so all seemed promising. A random man asked to take a picture of my train ticket and stole my linen pack. I’m not sure what harm he could do with this but I was slightly concerned.

At the last stop in Poland, Przemyśl Główny, two young men knocked on the door and my solitude was ended. It didn’t help that I was fast asleep and also in the wrong bunk. I didn’t sufficiently wake up to try and converse for a few minutes, but when I did they didn’t seem to mind too much that I was already settled in the wrong bed. As soon as I managed to drift off again the Polish border control came to see if we were all legitimate and then on the other side of the border a gentleman from the Ukrainian military didn’t seem to believe that it was me on the passport. By the time all of this had finished it was coming on to towards 4 in the morning and in another two hours or so we were in Lviv. The bed was very comfortable, it’s just a shame I had so little sleep. It turned out that the man who photographed my ticket has something to do with the train, so that was all good too.

My companions left the train at Lviv and so I tried to grab a little bit more sleep as the train wasn’t departing until after 11. I’d arranged with my new American friend to go and have a look around after we’d both had a nap so we found our way out and had a wander around. Lviv seems like a really fascinating place. It was a bit careworn in a rather delightful way, but I think we probably missed the more modern centre. I could have spent all day exploring the streets but we settled for a coffee and a croissant before we headed back to our train. On pulling up to the platform another two passengers arrived at my little door – I really don’t like the three bunk bed style of carriage, especially when I’m supposed to be on the top.

Some type of establishment in Lviv

The journey from Lviv to Kiev was around five hours but luckily one of my new companions was a very interesting and pleasant gentleman from the Netherlands who spoke amazing English. We chatted away until the last hour or so when my napping instincts kicked in until we got there. We parted company and I found a metro station to take me to my hostel which was just off Independence square. What a place that is!

Maidan (Independence) Square

Look around Europe, Stage #3

Sieverner See to Wrocław

Off I went again, me and my van, hoping to reach Leipzig at a reasonable hour. All started well enough, but it seems that I can’t escape roadworks anywhere and the incredible naps began to take over as per usual. I stopped at one of those wooded parking places that the Germans have on their Autobahn but I was moved on by a very friendly policeman because a huge lorry needed my place. I think he just meant me to move along a bit but I was marginally traumatised so I just left and moved on to the next one. When I found a bigger one I stopped for tea and had a lovely little nap in my napping car. I don’t know why I didn’t get one sooner, a car that has a bed is perfect for me.

I carried on but after another couple of necessary stops I realised that I may as well stop for the night before I got to Leipzig. I had found a little spot near a swimming pool but as I was due to pick up my passenger at half past ten and the pool didn’t open until ten o’clock, I was as well going there in the morning. Using the trusty park4night again, I found a little riverside spot in Alsleben, Saale and got myself officially rested.

I made a couple of fundamental errors where it came to Leipzig. The first was to have found a paid car park in the centre of the city to pick up my passenger. It was €1 for thirty minutes and I got there three hours early. The second, potentially a lot worse, was that Leipzig has a low emission zone that I had completely forgotten to look in to. I saw the signs and suspected as much, but it wasn’t until I’d stopped and checked on line that I realised there was nothing I could do about it retrospectively. If I get a hefty fine it will pretty much negate any benefit that I have gained through Blablacar, I’ll know for the next time I suppose.

My passenger agreed to meet me half an hour earlier so I could get out of that zone as quickly as possible and so I spent just under two hours having a quick look around the city centre. I spent a ridiculous amount on fruit and veg at the station complex, yet another reminder that I really need some language skills. The cherries were amazing though and I pretty much lived on them for the next couple of days. Leipzig is another place that I would like to go and stay properly in and have a proper explore, it was so pretty at that time in the morning and seemed nice and laid back. My passenger arrived just before 10 and we got back on the autobahn and headed to Poland.

Blablacar passenger #2 was a lovely person from Wrokław who had moved to Germany after studying. She was very well informed and great company. We were significantly held up again due to both roadworks and an accident so we didn’t get to Wrocław until after 7 o’clock. Just over the border we stopped at a little retro cafe with forest decoration for a coffee to wake me up a bit.

I finally found my campsite, ‘Camping 117 KS AZS-AWF Wrocław’, which was very well signed and I was ushered in the gate by a little old man. The lady in the office didn’t open the barrier for me, however, until I had my passport which meant that I had nowhere to park and had to reverse out of the way to let someone out. When I finally got in I was allowed to park wherever I liked so I chose a far-away spot under a tree which was next to an electricity point. The point only had two pin sockets which made me feel quite smug about my random amazon hook up purchases that I didn’t really think I’d need; not only did I need my two pin adapter but it turned out that I also needed a polarity reverser which I discovered with my polarity testing plug. I think I should possibly become some type of electrical mechanic.

The campsite was one of many ex-soviet campsites that are dotted around Poland, I’m in another one now. It cost 60zł a night which was possibly a bit steep as it was quite dilapidated, but it was easy to get to the city and surrounded by beautiful parks. The grassy camping area was surrounded by soviet camping huts, most were ruined but I liked them; looking out at the modern day multicultural campers reminiscent of a very different and not so distant past.

Sieverner See

Sieverner See is a man-made lake with people living around it. From what I understand, originally they were never supposed to be permanent dwelling places and then, after the rules were relaxed a bit, they were supposed to stick to specific proportions. All of this seems to have gone by-the-bye now though and there are all sorts of weird and wonderful houses to be seen.

My host was a good friend that I know from my fated days working as a secondary school music teacher. Our school was originally a nice place to work; the majority of the staff were caring and hard working and the head was supportive to staff and pupils alike, but gradually things began to change and sucked into the crazy quasi-corporate machine that UK teachers have to deal with today. I left and joined a band in a typically rash manner whereas my friend decided to try her hand teaching in Germany, which she very much enjoys.

I don’t feel particularly qualified to pass any opinion on different countries having never really spent enough time in any apart from my own to really understand the difference. That said, I have spent months at a time in Germany with work and there is something I really like about it, possibly just the trees and the fact that there are a lot of open air swimming pools. Oh and the beer isn’t bad either, I’ve never had a bad night out there although drinking isn’t really my thing any more. Round Sieverner See there are a couple of empty plots and I am currently very taken with the idea of buying one and building a shed, or to be more precise, a Russian style wooden home with a massive log burning stove in it. I’m sure it’s a ridiculous notion but not entirely far fetched; if I can give up my random amazon purchase addiction for a year or two and pay off a good chunk of my mortgage maybe I could do it. How amazing it would be to have an actual bolt hole like that.

I spent a lovely couple of nights there. On the first day we had a lovely catch up and a dip in both the hot tub in the garden and the lovely lake. I was a little bit upset that my Apple Watch only said that I’d swam for 290m, there must have been some crazy invisible current or something as I was in the water for nearly 40 minutes. After that we watched a rescue demonstration with my friends daughter and then went shopping for a bratwurst just to make sure my experience was complete.

We went to the coast for breakfast the next day, to a little place on the North Sea called Wremen. It was the type of place that I would have like to go for a pole about and perhaps a beer if I wasn’t living a driving life at the moment. We parked up and I cooked us all breakfast before going for a walk down the coast, all very pleasant. The industrial scenes from Bremerhaven reminded my of my mum, she loved an industrial landscape. I will definitely need to come back and stay for longer, this is something I never seem to learn because there just seem to be too many places that I want to go to. At some point, probably when I have retired/am between jobs, I will find somewhere and really get to know it.

I left for Leipzig at around half past four, with a good cool bag full of assorted, salad thanks to my lovely host. Lower Saxony is yet another place that I felt I could stay in forever.

Look around Europe, Stage #2

Calais to Sieverner See

Stage two of my European adventure began really with my total failure to find the parking lot at Calais ferry port and ending up in a suburb of Calais. Luckily I’d shared my location with my passenger on WhatsApp and she managed to find me without too much difficulty. Apart from that, driving on the opposite side didn’t seem to cause me too many problems, I was very glad to have a supportive passenger though.

I am already a fan of using BlaBla car. My first experience was great; my passenger was very pleasant and a great help navigating the French roads as well as keeping me on the straight and narrow regarding speed limits. I’m terrible for getting sleepy on the road but we made nearly made it to the Netherlands before I had to stop – I’m sure my blood congeals or something if I don’t move around enough.

We slogged it out with a couple more stops and made it to Bremen by about half past seven. By now I’d realised that, in an effort to be more spontaneous, I was actually a day early for my friend so I decided to stay in Bremen. I found a campsite using park4night and although I had a little bit of trouble explaining myself to the elderly gentleman on the gate I settled in for the night.

The campsite was OK, there were pictures on the toilets which I liked a lot. It cost me about €14 and a €5 deposit for the shower room key which was returnable. I can already feel that my €20 a day budget is going to go nowhere but I’ll soldier on an live on lentils for the rest of the year if necessary. For some reason they wanted me out of the campsite by 8 o’clock in the morning and then when I questioned it I think they said 7. I really must brush up/acquire some language skills at some point in my life, I believe it might make things more clear. I wanted to get a swim in so I found a Freibad that opened at 8 and then I thought I could explore Bremen and get some groceries in before I headed up to my friends in Bremerhaven…

WRONG. I hadn’t realised that Germany still shuts on the day of rest. I had a lovely swim in the Freibad in Weyhe and then went for a wander around Kirchweyhe. Absolutely nothing was open apart from the occasional cafe and many pubs which, disappointingly, are no good at all when on a driving trip. It was a nice enough little town but I couldn’t even find anywhere to buy milk so I headed back to my van and made myself a black coffee before heading up to Bremerhaven in the hope that I’d find something there.

No joy. I knew I was onto a loser when IKEA was shut. I didn’t think that ever happened. I was starting to feel a bit under the weather by this time so I stopped at a trusty McDonalds and bought a McMuffin at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, just for the novelty value, which was another error in my day. I chilled in the car park for a while and then found myself a leafy suburb for my afternoon nap. I finally made it up to Sieverner See for about 6:30 in the evening.

Look around Europe, Stage #1

London to Dover

Yesterday afternoon I loaded up my van and set of on what is to be my first European adventure on the roads. My ferry is due to leave now but rather than leaving super early this morning I chose to drive down last night so I could be fresh for my first European drive. As a rookie van dweller I’m only really on a kind of reconnaissance mission to see how I fare on my own abroad. If this is successful I’m hoping to buy a white van and convert it – I love my Nemo Romahome but it really is tiny and not particularly practical for general use – I like to have more than one passenger seat perhaps a little more storage.

I found a lovely curry house using the app park4night, The Swingate In & Namaste Dover. This app excites me with it’s promises of all sorts of interesting free stays across Europe. This particular site offered free overnight parking as long as a meal was purchased in the restaurant which was more than good for me. The menu was great and I had a lovely chicken biryani, half of which is in my cool box for lunch.

So this morning I got up early in order to practise my van ablution routine which is still not as slick as I’d like. I thought I’d better make a bit of an effort as I’ve arranged to pick up a passenger in Calais through BlaBla car. This is new to me and I’m a bit apprehensive as it’s my first attempt at driving in Europe but I thought I’d take the plunge. My passenger is a 22 year old French psychology student so what could go wrong apart from the fact that I’ve already managed to miss my original ferry by going the wrong way and then messing around filling up my car and buying reflective jackets. I might just have also forgotten that France is an hour ahead so I’ve had to change her pickup time to 1200 rather than 1100, hopefully she is an understanding psychologist.

I’m hoping to make it all the way up to Sieverner See, near Bremerhaven in Germany. An old work colleague of mine moved over there and adopted an 8 year old girl who I am very excited to meet. It’s a long way and I do like a nap so it’s probably luck I have company. Here goes…

Lethargy

This evening I am very tired and would very much like a nap, preferably the mid afternoon kind although I’m a bit late for that. It’s great to find that you have an accidental spare hour or two in the afternoon in which to sink into a hazy, sunny type of unconsciousness that feels like it goes on forever. I’m not such a fan of the lethargy that follows when the time comes to actually function again but I never learn my lesson.

I’m lucky in that I have the type of job that makes this possible. It’s a very restrictive job in many ways but as I live at work it does make sneaking away for a couple of hours easy sometimes. On the down side, it’s actually impossible for people not to find you if they try hard enough but usually they don’t.

I’ve had the type of day that feels like it’s gone on forever but I can’t think of any single productive thing that’s happened. I’m a military musician and had to sit through a necessary but mundane rehearsal this morning for upcoming events before a hurried lunch leading into an over-tiring half hour or so of circuit training. After this I had about twenty minutes to completely shower and change for the fourth time today before a mess meeting. The whole event has succeeded in making me suspect (as I often do) that I’m far too old to continue in this field, especially as there is a whole day of parade rehearsals looming up horribly tomorrow. I’m now nodding off in my second job as a security guard, dreaming of my bed again.

That said, I do really like my job. I love to play my instrument and I’m in a job where I can do this every day. Although I have some responsibility this really means that I get more freedom to do things my way; something I had an issue with in my younger years in the forces. Because of the way our units are structured there is also a lot of opportunity for a lot of different job and skills, so even if life seems a dull for a year or so it will never seem the same for long. The same goes with postings and hierarchy – in some ways no two years are the same.

The people factor is also a big one for me. I love to do my own thing and I am completely at ease in my own company, but being surrounded by people on a daily basis means I never really get lonely. Working closely in a team of forty plus people can seem really overwhelming at times, especially if we’ve been away for a few weeks together, but I’ve had some amazing experiences and I would do it all again in a heartbeat. The people I work with really are an amazing bunch of individuals.

A colleague and I with some new friends from St Petersburg in 2013

The huge downside is that we have absolutely no say over our time off, although we do get a fair amount of leave. Even week to week our schedule can completely change which is inconvenient for me as my house is a good two hundred miles north of London and the rail companies make a lot of money from last minute changes. It’s difficult to justify paying external rent in London and living at work can be pretty grim although the opportunity to live right in the middle of the capital is amazing. There is also the constant threat of being posted to a band in another area, which is basically a completely different type of job. These bands also have their plus points but it’s not a job that I’d like to do again.

So here I am, still completely conflicted about when to take the next step. I’m really in an extremely enviable position in which I have no real responsibilities, I am generally happy in my job and I’m also excited about the future, but I’m terrified of making a decision that I regret. There is definitely an element of fear in there, I’m used to a steady wage and I’m 100% familiar and comfortable in my workplace. My old self would probably take this as the very sign I needed to get out of my comfort zone, pack my bags and head towards my next destination…

Marlo’s First Night Out

Two days ago I found out that today was to be an unexpected day off. Unexpected days off are by far my favourite type of unexpected days and I was particularly delighted about this one as I had inadvertently planned a rather busy weekend. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to take my recently acquired Romahome R10 for it’s first proper overnight trip.

My original plan was to leave around seven in the evening on Wednesday and drive to some picturesque place on the south coast until Thursday evening. This way I would miss the congestion charge both ways and have a mini experience of spending a day in my new (to me) and very tiny camper van. Ultimately I ended up gaining extra shifts both nights but I just left after nine and came back after lunch so I was still able to spend a night out by the sea and all was good.

I know a little bit about the Dorset coastline but I wanted to stay within easy distance of London so I settled on a visit to the Isle of Sheppey in Kent. I used an app called park4night.com to find some free overnight parking stops. This type of travel is completely new to me; I did some minimal camping in my twenties but I’m more of a hostel/backpacker/train dweller type usually and I tend to plan ahead fairly meticulously.

I am excited in general about the park4night app. It doesn’t have the most attractive interface but has reviews and tips about cheap and free overnight parking across most of europe. After reading the reviews I decided on an ocean view parking spot so that I could potentially take some amazing lying-on-my-front-overlooking-the-ocean-with-a-but-cheek-out pictures to put on instagram and set out at about ten o’clock in the evening. This did not go totally to plan as it was very dark and I couldn’t find the entrance to get behind the sea wall. I found an alternative spot a little but further up in Minster which had plenty of space and was super quiet so I decided to bed in for the night.

Strange stick-on window blinds

I named my new steed Marlo the Motorhome. I’m not a namer generally but I was encouraged to and so there we have it. It wasn’t intentional but Marlo is the name of a travelling companion that I met while exploring Russia this Christmas; she was/is a very interesting and inspirational individual so I think that will be alright. The Romahome R10 is a Citroen Nemo conversion and so is very small. The bed is made by using the table top to bridge the gap between the doubled over front seat and the single seat in the back. I had played with this before and had a nap on my drive down to London but never tried to have a good night’s sleep. I had also not really tried out the stick-on window blinds so that took a bit of figuring out. It was very late so I just got into bed and settled down for the night. The mattress was comfortable and although I did struggle with a slight lack of arm room I managed to have a pretty good night’s sleep. In the morning I realised that the side of the seat was actually detachable and gave a body shaped sleeping space so I think my arms will be happier in the future. I got up and dressed at about half past six and went for a wander along the beach.

It was a lovely morning, not too cold and almost sunny. There were already a lot of dog walkers about on the Minster Seafront and everyone smiled and said hello. I took a walk down to where I had seen some large motorhomes on the other side of the sea wall to see if I could find access. Right enough there was an entrance right off the main road so I decided to go and buy some breakfast goodies, park up and feel the #vanlife properly. I had seen the road the night before but it looked like it let to nowhere and I’m just not quite that brave yet. I headed to Tescos to use their facilities and buy a few bits and pieces for the van and came back to make breakfast.

My first van breakfast

I started by boiling the kettle. This took much longer than I expected but I didn’t mind as I was embracing the lazy seaside feeling that I knew would disappear as soon as got within a few miles of the M25. I made myself a cup of instant and tried to make scrambled eggs; this was when I realised the importance of parking on the flat. The kettle had been heavy enough to stay on the hob but the pan slipped straight off until I got the hang of it. All ended well, however, and I had a lovely breakfast overlooking the sea. I relaxed, read a book and almost felt like proper traveller until I realised that I had to drive back into central London within the next couple of hours but even that felt quite relaxed – there really must be something in that sea air after all.

So now I am sitting at my desk doing my painless but horribly mundane second job so that I can save up thousands and thousands of pounds to fund my general wonderlust of the future. I can see the light, the story is out there.