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.

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.

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…

The Fox’s last stand

Three weeks ago I sold my car to WeBuyAnyCar.com. I don’t usually get attached to objects, but this particular car had belonged to my late mother and I did enjoy cutting around the country in it.

It was a silver 2006 VW Fox. At first sighting they are strange beasts and look too small to be practical, but apart from a very tiny boot there is actually a lot of room in these little cars. This particular model was pretty basic but it issued a warning if the lights were left on and the petrol cap was attached to the car; both essential features as far as I’m concerned.

I found it good to drive although I am by no means an expert. It was pretty good at accelerating past dangerous HGVs on the M1 and held the road well on the back roads in Scotland. It also served me very well when it came to moving house; with the back down it was excellent for trips to the skip or IKEA, it’s amazing what I have transported. I also liked the fact that it had managed to inherit a 1980s road map of Britain as well as hosting a Historic Scotland ruler in the glove compartment.

Last week I took it up to Scotland for what would be our last trip together. This was a trip of mixed emotions; it was the first time I had been up to my hometown since we sold my mother’s house three or so years ago and I went up to stay with a friend whose mother is also recently deceased. She was staying in her childhood home with her young daughter whilst trying to clear out all of those years of memories. We have been friends since we were two or three years old and so have a lot of shared memories as well as growing up in the same area. Our fathers worked together and our mothers shared a passion for gardening and botanical art, growing closer after they were both widowed.

It was strange to be back amongst familiar childhood surroundings without any real tie to any of them. I left home at seventeen and never really moved back but my mother stayed in the same house and I always felt that I had some kind of base there. Living slightly off the beaten track; my brothers and I had the run of the surrounding area and spent the majority of our free time outside during our younger years. We had dogs, cats, chickens, rabbits, various rodents and at one time even a duck called Sally. When I think back to the endless summer holidays it seems that it was usually sunny (despite being in Scotland), we had constant adventures, got into lots of minor trouble and were always half eaten up by midges. The only important rules I remember were to be back before dark and not to cross any main roads or rivers. What more could you need?

Everything now is much smaller and less shiny. The magical forests are now fairly small woods and the endless drive to the main road is now nicely surfaced and really not that long. The big house where the old ladies lived with a secret passage in the cellar is now a B&B with an unpleasant looking sign and the overgrown wilderness of a garden horribly clipped and sanitised. I haven’t been to see if the (legless) hut on hens legs is still in the woods as I think these days it would probably be classed as trespassing rather than exploring, although I still have that child’s sense that it is my world and I have every right to check on it. The track to the house where our closest friends lived is still dark and mysterious but I no longer feel the need to shut my eyes and run until I can feel the sun back on my face, and not just because these people are now long gone.

I skipped all of these things and went to see my mother’s next door neighbour. She was very close to my mother and I’m terrible at keeping in touch with people so I thought I’d drop in for the first time since we sold the house. I’m not sure what I expected but I didn’t really feel anything about passing the old house and gardens. My mother’s beautiful garden had been crudely fenced off to keep in an unruly dog and basically strimmed to within an inch of its life. The front looked waterlogged and unloved. The house itself didn’t look any different but my mother would never live in a house without a lovely garden so I knew she wasn’t in. I had a reminisce with the neighbour and endless coffee before going back to my friend who was in her own mother’s house trying to sort out a lifetime of bric-a-brac, dusty paperwork and many, many miscellaneous hand-crafted impossible-to-dispose-of items. Clearing out a dead parents house has to be up there with the hardest and most wrenching jobs of all time.

Despite the circumstances we managed to have a nice week up there. We drove round our respective old haunts and talked a lot about the past and our departed parents. We went for a lovely walk up Conic Hill and an enormous breakfast by Loch Lomond. We completed the day hike to the troll bridge in Callander in about an hour on our boring grown up legs and managed to avoid all dangerous creatures, mythical or otherwise. On the Friday morning I stopped at the butchers to stock up on scotch pies, haggis and tattie scones and drove back to the North East and the next day I sold the Fox. The car was probably my last physical tie to my mother but I don’t really need things to remember her, she’s part of me. I still miss her every day.

This Week

So it’s Sunday and the day that I have to get on a train back to the big smoke and resume my working life.

I’ve lived in London for the majority of time over the last seven years. It’s an amazing city full of beautiful things, places and people but I currently yearn to live in my North Eastern flat full time, take life a little more slowly and surround myself with the lovely people that I’ve chosen to make my friends over the years.

Or do I?

I love my life generally but I have always had a huge restlessness and belief that the ‘next step’ should be taken imminently. My current plan is to become self employed, base myself at home and basically travel and live across Europe (to start with) for extended periods of the year. The van life dream is real to me and, I think, obtainable but it will take a lot of guts and work on my part. I’ve always worked for large organisations after a couple of drifter years after college so I’m not sure I have the confidence or skills to put myself out on the freelance market without a substantial financial safety net. I’ve also been in the same profession for the last thirteen years and so I don’t have any first hand experience of the current job market.

This said, my varied career history surely must lend itself to freelancing. I’m used to figuring things out, I’m organised and do relatively well in whatever field I find myself. I’m au fait with technology and can use/learn it quickly. Although I love my colleagues, and in fact they are probably the biggest reason I don’t leave now, I am very happy in my own company and love being on the road.

The difficulty is that I really do love my current job. It was something that I always aspired to and eventually did despite much concern from my family and friends. I believe that everything comes to a natural end and due to ill health and age I suspect that this is fairly imminent, although there is nothing yet to force my hand. My workplace is about to undergo another change; maybe this is the time to cut the cord.

So the big question is am I still daydreaming or should I put my notice in, brave the leap and put all of my energy into creating this new amazing life in my head. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve bought a little Romahome and plan to get out in that as much as my schedule allows to see if I really can hack life on the road. Maybe if I look hard enough I might actually find the happy place that is so defined in my mind.

These are my breakfast musings. This week this is where I am. Next week it may not be so.

Friday!

I love Fridays, even when I’m working on a Saturday – there is just something good about knowing that the weekend is upon us.  This one is particularly good because, although I did foolishly agree to do a shift on Sunday, after that I have a whole 5 days off.  I’ve managed to get a good deal on a first class train ticket from London to the North East on Sunday evening and I fully intend to enjoy the ride.

I’ve only recently discovered the joys of travelling first class, until recently I’d always thought it to be way too extravagant, and I really love it.  I love the bigger seats and tables, the fact that you can sit by yourself by a window with enough space on a table and a power socket and of course I really love that you are provided with one meal and never ending inappropriate snacks with your tea or coffee.  I only book these tickets if they’re less than £10 more than standard class but as I usually travel late at night they often come up.

The discovery of reasonably priced first class tickets has also slightly reduced the irritation that I have with the general state of the rail service in the UK.  I can’t count the times that I have run for a train at the end of a busy week to find that all of the reservations have been cancelled and I’ve had to spend almost the whole journey in the doorway of a carriage.  I may be shallow but the comfy seats and snacks further up the train go a long way to appease me for years of mild Friday evening rage.

For my week off I am going to drive up from my North Eastern home to Central Scotland which is where I grew up.  I am looking forward to this as it’s a lovely part of the country and will be staying with one of my oldest friends.  I will travel up on Monday and hopefully visit a lot of old haunts through the week – I miss the Scottish scenery.

IMG_0651

The top of Dumyat, Stirlingshire.

Wish this could be my maiden voyage with the new mini camper but my trusty VW will do the trick.  Not a particularly spectacular roadtrip but a roadtrip none the less.  I’ve spent most of my time on trains recently so I need to rekindle my love of driving before my eagerly anticipated adventures.  Onwards and upwards.