Overland to Eastern Europe: New Belgrade

Day 7: New Belgrade (Novi Beograd)

It’s the bit I really want to see –  the dormitory of Belgrade – built to house the expanding population. Many of former Yugoslavia’s buildings are also here and seem forgotten or neglected or barely maintained. That’s not much of a sell but it’s bloody great for tourists from Birmingham.

There’s the classicist, modernist Palace of Serbia, still a government building but with no water flowing in its fountain….

The 1970s brutalist Genex Tower, aka the Western City Gate, which is half empty, one residential tower attached to an unrented commercial tower by a two-storey bridge and revolving restaurant (both closed)…

In Blok 28, the Televizorke (TV sets) building, with concrete windows  moulded in the shape of TVs, is very much like a Serbian Barbican…

It overlooks a futuristic UFO-shaped concrete kindergarten…

Novi Beograd is so spacious and easy on the eye – if you like blocks and rectangles and grids – after all the fancy buildings of Budapest. Despite unlit subways, empty fountains and crumbling mosaic tiles, the place is feels full of real life and there are people and small cafes and hairdressers on every block.

We sit on the crumbling graffitied unloved fountain plaza of the Genex Tower. It’s a strange holiday place to soak up a rare bit of sun but needs must. A nearby young woman reads her book. Anna, a student dentist, turns out to be a resident of the Tower, and we feel like the luckiest tourists in Belgrade when she invites us in to ride up to the 30th floor for a quick look-see. The building inside is surprisingly nice and cared for and the views through the round window at the top are fine but it’s the building itself that is truly spectacular. It really is a crying shame that Belgrade appears not to care for for it. Anna agrees but “they don’t listen to the young people who have some idea about this kind of stuff”.

From Novi Beograd, we catch a bus slightly further out to Zemun, a very different, almost Mediterranean municipality of Belgrade with a distinctly holiday feel. People are feeding the swans by the Danube, eating ice creams on the promenade and dining on riverside terraces. We order gibanica – cheese pie – at one of these for just a few dinars.

Afterward we do the must-do of Zemun and climb the Gardos tower for a panoramic view of just how big Belgrade is (Zemun is just one of its 17 municipalities). From here we spot the distinct stepped constructions of Yuri Gagarin Street in the far distance. Maybe next year.

We’re leaving tomorrow, having barely touched the surface of Serbia’s capital city. Tomorrow we’re on the train again and it’s going to be a long one.

Day 7: Belgrade to Podgorica

Overland to Eastern Europe: Belgrade

Day 6: Belgrade

First thing – well, noon – we change apartments. We now live here for the next 48 hours, in the roof bit, where Pete is pointing. The lift is thankfully much nicer and less weighty on the cables.

We’re sitting in a chain café called CoffeeDream and Pete has been served a salad in a glass storage jar and told to shake it. The look on his face…

People are smoking in here because there are no EU health and safety regs to tell them not to. Also, everyone smokes. For me, this signals the start of a week of heavy passive smoking, sore throats and stinky clothes. Let’s hope Brexit doesn’t resurrect that one.

We wander the cold blustery city, go to the fort, snap Serbian cyrillic characters and cat graffiti, walk along the Sava River and then go to a machine learning art exhibition as part of Resonate Festival. Aw.

Mid-afternoon, we meet two more single-syllabled friends of Pete, Mark and Dom – Ash and John (it took me a while but I think this is correct) – in a smoky pub for cheap local beers called Lav. Once more we are all somehow enraptured of Belgrade’s failings and quirks as much as its marvels.

In the evening, we dine with Hannah, a machine-learning artist, and her fiancé Myk at ‘the organic café’ (there are dishes without meat!) where the conversation is suitably intellectually geeky – about bias in datasets and ways to make that more transparent.

The wrangling of information is very relevant to my interests after several decades spent in fact-checking journalism for mainstream media and chasing objectivity in the representation of a story’s facts, according to the NUJ’s Code of Ethics. But as the evening goes on I become more aware that mere humans are no longer up to this task. Machine learning is obfuscating the nature of the source data and its biases are often not obvious – until you fall outside the algorithm, at least. Who is checking the input data for bias, accuracy, context, relevance? So many parallels with journalism and the rise of fake news. One interesting thing…  Wikipedia is launching https://www.wikitribune.com with paid fact-checkers because news is so broken right now.

Anyway… it was an interesting evening.

More than this, I love that this stuff is taking place in Belgrade and that people are coming from all over the world to discuss this here.

Here! Crazy!

Day 7: New Belgrade

Overland to Eastern Europe: Budapest to Belgrade

Day 5: Budapest to Belgrade

Panic at Kelenfold Station – it is 10.55, the Beograd train says 11.04 but I was told it leaves at 11.37. I run with my backpack up the stairs to the ticket office where a man tells me “Table! Watch! Number!” increasingly slowly and loudly before finally writing it down and slamming it up against the window. “TABLE! WATCH! NUMBER!”

Okaaaay.

In case the Avala is leaving early, I run to platform 14 down this corridor…

Thank God for Milos Rabbit (amazingly his Serbian surname translates as rabbit) – an English-speaking Serb with a Thai wife who works in Vienna but is on his way to the border to see his mom and also visit the dentist. He explains that 11.04 is the arrival time (which makes no sense) and that we shall leave at the appointed hour, (which we do).

It is only 15 euros to travel for nine hours on the Beograd Special from Budapest. We talk for five hours straight – about Brexit, NATO, Putin, Trump, North Korea, China, and where to go in case of nuclear war (New Zealand). Also infosecurity, as he is an IT manager. And how I mustn’t panic when the train tilts after Novi Sad and the rickety bridge after that – “Don’t worry, it’s normal.” He gives me his number to call in case I need anything translated once I get to Belgrade.

At the border, we sit on the train for an hour, traverse no man’s land, then enter Serbia. “Welcome to THE LAND OF MAN!” he announces.

“We’re not in the EU anymore!” I add, and nearly burst into tears at the double meaning.

I see flat farmland, a horse-drawn plough, old women working iron machinery, bombed out buildings, chickens, goats and snoozing farm dogs, backyard subsistence crops, and maize flowers growing up through the tracks. I’ve been told that Serbia is a bit ‘Wild West’ but I thought because it was struggling post-war not because it is actual frontierland.

“Serbs are direct, honest and very hospitable,” says Milos. “But also they don’t care. If people in Serbia cared, it could be a great country. But we would rather be poor and free.”

After Milos leaves, I head for the white tableclothed dining car to spend my leftover florints. I have enough for goulash and a Chardonnay. I am the only person in the dining car. The chef puts his book down and shows me various plastic wallets of food before firing up the microwave.

Arnold, the subversive industrial-music-loving, spiky-grey-haired Hungarian chef, gives me a free beer once I’m done and we chat as darkness falls, all the way into Belgrade. The train is late once more and we toast Mr Popovic of Wasteels Travel Agency, who is waiting for me at the other end to pay for the next set of tickets to Podgorica. Poor Pete is not toasted as, being the husband, he has to be there to meet me. The conversation gets drunker and the toasts more frequent, and I arrive quite merry into Belgrade thinking how very wonderful solo travel is.

Sadly I don’t get to meet Mr Popovic as Pete has already paid him and collected the tickets by the time I arrive. I’m told he looked suitably like a kindly gnomish owner of an antiquarian occult bookshop, but taller. Later, I arrange to buy him a Lottery ticket as a thank you for waiting. He says, if he wins, he will buy a new car. I love Mr Popovic.

Pete, meanwhile, is in a panic after asking when the train from Bucharest came in and being told to go to the other side of the city.

I had thought Belgrade would be flat being by the Sava and Danube rivers but he walks me up, up and up into the old town area, through higgledy-piggedly barely lit streets and broken staircases. The hill finally plateaus into a pedestrianised high steet with al fresco seating. But the tone has been set. Belgrade reminds me of the Birmingham Bull Ring in the gritty 70s, and I feel safe and strangely at home.

The lift to ‘WOW’ Apartment is decrepit and clanking; its walls lined with molten effect something or other. It drops down half a foot when we enter. Despite the shady common parts of the block, the apartment itself is indeed very wow with a giant chaise longue sleigh and dark bachelor pad colours.

I meet Mark and Dom, who are also here for their fifth Resonate festival, but all anyone can talk about is how bonkers Serbia is, from the supercheap prices to the meat dinner lurking at the bottom of a pasta dish to gigs in old abbatoirs to the 1970s Brutalist Western City Gate crazy architecture.

I’m happy to be back in the land of conversation. The solo first half of my trip is over. Now for ‘the holiday’.

(Mr Popovic and I do not win the Lottery.)

Day 6: Belgrade

Overland to Eastern Europe: Budapest

Day 3-4: Budapest

I’m staying in the catchily-titled 4YOU Citycenter Apartments, actually in the company’s old converted offices on the fourth floor of an inner courtyard. There is a pull-up bar on the door, tea in the cupboard and a gift chocolate bar on the table from Gabor, called Balaton Bum.

I sleep until noon and am overcome with the strongest feeling NOT to venture out into a new and strange city. I just want home comforts and familiarity of which there is none here – the light switches flick up for on, the doors open outwards and the language is impenetrable.

“It’s Finnish,” explains Gabor.

“Ah,” I say, feeling like a bemused jetlagged Bill Murray in Lost in Translation.

It is also unseasonably cold and raining. “This is a tragedy,” says Gabor, with stereotypical Hungarian pessimism and woe.

I spend the day running for cover to places recommended by the always good Spotted by Locals app: Soos Foto (10 old Hungarian photos for a florint!)…

…Café Noe for melt-creamy square-stacked Jewish pastries, the BP Shop for BUDA FCKN PEST t-shirt designs, Retrock for some (actually really nice) vintage designer clothes…

…the Hotel Gellert’s thermal spa (“like bathing in a cathedral”), the No2 tram for a cheap 15-minute riverside tour…

…and finally Semmi Extra for burger and beer supper in a converted cinema whose name translates as ‘No problem’.

The Fitbit hits a record 23,000 steps.

The next day is fretful. It is half taken up sorting out my onward ticket to Belgrade – engineering works mean the daily Avala train is leaving from Kelenfold suburban station not Keleti – meanwhile Booking.com has also decided to glitch and not accept payment for a future booking and is going to cancel it. I end up hanging on a customer service line to the Netherlands and burning all my phone credit.

The afternoon doesn’t improve much. I’m looking forward to relaxing in the Szechenyi Spa but I’m in the water less than 30 seconds when a Hungarian silver fox called Steve says “You have nice body”, “You want a massage?”, and then follows me into another pool where British stags are pointing out a spray of suspicious brown bits floating in the murky green water.

The place feels icky after that and I bath-hop an endless series of pools watching the watchers ogle, running away from Steve and feeling dispirited.

Four days without a decent conversation is wearing thin. Do I still enjoy this solo travel thing? I guess. But Budapest does not fill me with that feeling of “THIS IS IT! There is NO PLACE I’d rather be right now and nothing else I’d rather be doing.”

I settle my bill with the every-helpful Gabor and we arrange that he will buy a Hungarian Lottery ticket with my tip – if we win small, we’ll give it all to the homeless; if we win big, it will be spent on “cancer solutions” and buying a Budapest apartment to rent out that he will manage. I love how the idea of a Lottery win connects people across the divide and decide to buy random Lotto tickets for others I meet on the trip.

(Gabor emails me the ticket as proof. We don’t win.)

Day 5: Budapest to Belgrade

Overland to Eastern Europe: Zurich to Budapest

Day 2: Zurich-Budapest via the Arlberg Pass, Innsbruck, Salzburg and Vienna

Back in the UK, ‘Maggie’ May has called a snap election and it seems my best hope is for a coalition of chaos. The world is shifting direction, going forwards but travelling backwards.

I’m travelling backwards, as instructed by Seat61.com. I’m also in second class until Innsbruck when I can get a cheap upgrade to first class; dirty windows the length of the train know no such divisions. At Buchs, the train reverses and I’m looking forwards at last.

Soon after we start to climb, and climb, into the snowy treeline towards the Arlberg Pass. Sun on snow is blinding, firs sag, black rocks are frosted, snowmelt cascades here and there into the valley. Winter-spring is surprisingly vivacious here. I see the cold everywhere around but cannot feel it, only view it through the glass like a high-speed Lady of Shallot.

Skiers join the train at St Anton am Arlberg, letting in fresh cold Alpine air and piling up the overhead racks with oversized kit bags. Luggage – the most mundane icon of the journey, carriers of things, our precious little transporters.

Night falls. I’ve been on the OBB (“Erbaybay”) Railjet for nearly 10 hours. There is little to see once through the Tirol except for a few snow flurries as we pass through Vienna. I watch a vampire comedy on the iPad and fall asleep.

The train is late – again. Gabor, my Hungarian apartment manager, meets me from the train at Budapest Keleti station so I don’t have to find my way late at night on my own. He briefs me for nearly 45 minutes but lends me money for dinner. I venture out into Erzsébetváros in search of a midnight feast.

Day 3-4: Budapest

Overland to Eastern Europe: Birmingham to Zurich

18 April 2017: Birmingham-London-Paris-Zurich (everybody talk about pop muzik)

It feels great to have the world in my backpack again and leave all responsibilities behind. Leaving is, as usual, hell. I feel a huge sense of lightness and relief to be on Bournville’s Dairy Milk purple platform.

Staring out of the window. Why do so many English people have a ‘fear of foreigners’? Travel is about crossing boundaries and meeting ‘the other’. Who we meet (or don’t meet) is what defines how we feel about a place. Travelling inevitably makes us feel more united than divided.

Le Train Bleu, Gare de Lyon – a recursive mirror, a steamship fresco, olives so plump they are almost sweet, couples with luggage and leg-age. A mother and two daughters request my spare chair and I suffer the lot of the solo traveller: to be endlessly exposed as alone. In defence, I write in my book. I fulfil my role of being a solo-travelling, diary-writing cliché.

From Paris to Zurich, each landscape unfolds more beautiful than the last. Vivid yellow rapeseed farmland, golden herds of cow drinking in sunset glades, hills start to roll in homage to future Alps which arrive in darkness. Paris is full but France itself is strangely empty; not a single soul anywhere with villages seemingly under curfew. It is only at Dijonville once darkness falls that there are signs of life: a light in a house, some tail-lights in the distance.

The train is running late and you wonder what the fuck you are doing on this empty last train to nowhere, blackness out of the window, a tired reflection and an anxious midnight walk through unknown Zurich still to come. You even wish yourself back home with all those obligations you so loved shrugging off earlier. This is the bore of travel.

Switzerland arrives – a new country! – despite the dark aloneness, this is somehow something to celebrate.

Day 2: Zurich to Budapest

 

Balkans overland trip brings introspection

Well, at least I went to the Balkans…

Despite bemoaning the lack of a big tickbox item on my sabbatical last month, I have actually been planning a small ‘big trip’ since January and last month it happened – a two-week, snow-to-sun, mountain-to-sea, 2,000-mile overland trip via eight countries to Eastern Europe. It featured stops in Zurich, Budapest, Belgrade, Podgorica, Kotor and Dubrovnik and finally fulfilled the promise to meet Pete in Belgrade after his fourth Resonate Festival.

‘What did you learn, what did you gain?’ an old friend used to ask of such experiences.

The short answer is to use a travel currency card when your Visa card fails on the Austrian OBB trains site.

The long answer is… that this was a test. A test of my love of travel, and being older with a backpack, and something around what happens to a solo traveller once they settle down.

How is it, for example, that I still dream of big adventures but find myself yearning for home, my boy and my rabbits when away? What is this almost overwhelming tension between pleasure at going to new places and anxiety over the unknown? And what would ‘not going’ on new travels mean for my identity, which is so bound up in getting away? I’m not a huge adventurer but I have travelled – a lot – so without it, who am I?

This trip was short but one of the great overland adventures and there shall be photo/diary extracts to come. But where does this ambivalence about travelling leave me? Not necessarily wanting more. Which feels very, very strange and, with a big birthday coming in 2018, I’m left questioning my ideas about going to Nicaragua or back to Indonesia.

Perhaps this lifestyle change process of reassessment is going to affect me more deeply than I planned.

There shall be more blogging about this.

Update: on a more positive note, I did get damn pretty fit on this trip. So many hills, mountains, cliff sides, train platforms…

Six-month therapeutic confessional sabbatical check-in post

Six months have passed since I started my inadvertent sabbatical. There are no fireworks or big announcements or even possibly any major achievements by most sabbatical standards. In fact, this may be the most boring sabbatical story you’ll ever read and here’s why…

When you work eight hours a day, you think three months off will be enough to achieve your dreams, but you don’t account for the need for an actual break. From three to six months, you start in earnest working on your ideas and plans, only to realise that life still gets in the way and procrastination still happens and you’re not even sure of what your dreams are any more. Six months in and there’s no sign of a book (or even an ebook), new business, travel caper or other big bucket-list tick of some kind. But, man, have you sorted out your shit – the house, the clutter, the finances, the open tabs and bookmarks, catching up with people, latent DIY projects and so on.

It’s not all procrastination, though, because when you’ve only known one career for nearly three decades, it turns out you need quite a bit of time to have a proper rethink about the final third of your life (we’ve had learning and earning, so what’s next?).

It’s like my sabbatical inspiration Sam Underwood said to me a few weeks ago: once you’ve started a sabbatical you kind of want to work out how to continue it (as he has managed to). Up to now, I’ve been logging what I’ve been doing to prove to myself that things are moving forward and that I’m not frittering away this precious time. To mark six months, though, I thought I’d look at how things have changed and what, if anything, I have achieved by dropping out for a bit.

Before…

From Feb 2009-Sept 2016 I worked as a full-time digital content editor for a London content marketing agency and my own private clients. Eight hours a day on a chair (or stepper!) at a computer doing the work I love – writing, refining, publishing, strategising; rinse and repeat.

For seven fortunate years, I rode the wave of brand publishing’s shift on to the Web and into social media and apps. Budgets flowed online, opportunities abounded, the publishing world I had known was changing fundamentally; it was really quite thrilling to be part of it. I threw myself into self-training and signed up for conferences from London to Paris to Texas. I set up Blogger and WordPress blogs, Tumblrs, Second Life, Flickr, Scoop-It, Ning, Storify, Delicious, YouTube, LinkedIn, Vimeo, Digg, Stumbleupon, Reddit, Vine, Meerkat, Instagram. You name it. I loved this new world of connection and freedom and the old hierarchies levelled.

I climbed the new digital career ladder eagerly and easily as digital skills were in high demand, going from journalist to blogger to website editor to content strategist to digital skills trainer in the space of two years. An even bigger change was being able to work remotely, which meant I could move away from hectic media-centric London to a less stressful lifestyle in my home city of Birmingham.

But as digital marketing became mainstream, I found my enthusiasm dwindling. Learning (for me at least) had plateaued and a new normal had been established that was less interesting.

To cap it all, my old RSI injuries – renamed ‘tech neck’ for the internet generation – weren’t getting any better in a sedentary, screen-based job. After being referred to a physio clinic, I got my final warning: nothing more could be done to resolve my ongoing suite of neck, shoulder, arm, elbow, wrist and back pain. The only option left for this unfit sedentary editor was lifestyle (ie, career) change.

After…

When a main client took their content work in-house, this provided the impetus for finally acting on the physio’s advice. Even so, I have to keep reminding myself that health is the main reason for taking this break, not to write a book or take off around the world.

As I ponder returning to the freelance writer/editor circuit, these are the three big changes that I want to keep going.

1. Health and fitness  

I’m not longer tied to a desktop computer but many of the things I want to do (write, infosec, connect) still involve firing up the laptop. At least now there is some balance: I can go to tai chi in the park or Scottish dancing or play basketball  (all new hobbies) to keep the muscles from seizing up in static tension. I now tend to work on the lappie late at night with a wine or tea.

I’ve also lost a few pounds from being more mobile and just generally feel a whole lot better being more active. There is still a long way to go until I’m fit and strong enough to achieve the South American bodyboarding holiday dream but one of the big realisations has been that I constantly underestimate how long everything will take. The important thing is to be on the path to fitness and to get there eventually and without injury.

2. Learning and creativity

I know the projects I want to do and have spent the past few months getting to grips with different ways to approach a big writing project. I’ve recently also found a few inspirations that have sent me off down the experimental-writing-text-photography-art spectrum, which feels ‘right’ to me as a blogger, more so than a straight text book does anyway.

I’ve also prioritised learning new things, such as exploring photomontage, brushing up on my Indonesian and I’m currently on my second cybersecurity course. Hopefully I can build on these without them taking up so much headspace in future.

3. Financial planning

I spent much of the first three months sorting out the immediate practical issues of a career break, namely the financial side. I’ve always put 25% of every income payment away – to pay for tax and travel – so I already had some money put aside. But instead of blowing it all on travel this time, I decided to significantly reduce my mortgage debt, get rid of unnecessary monthly debits and reduce my budget to minimum levels. We also set up a joint bills account and savings plan for petcare and holidays, and I reduced my luxuries to the occasional coffee out.

I still have some income from client work so I’m breaking even each month – and that’s fine. I see this as buying myself the gift of time rather than the gift of stuff. I’m no longer flush but I feel free.

In summary…

So this is the new lifestyle – poorer but healthier and with the hope that the new things I’m learning will take me somewhere new in time. I have no idea whether I’ll be looking at infosec jobs in a year’s time or creating text-based artworks or bodyboarding in Nicaragua, or just pottering around the garden, drinking tea and reading books with the bunnies in tow.

Other people I know have done major league things with their sabbatical – overlanding to Japan, for example, or taking the family on the road in a camper van in order to research a new business, or publishing a book.

In comparison, my sabbatical is pretty boring but I am very much hoping that by laying the sensible groundwork now, it will pay off many times over in the long run. My big achievement, hopefully, will be to ensure that a lifestyle change is just that – change for life.

Barack Obama: “If you’re walking down the right path and you’re willing to keep walking, eventually you’ll make progress.”

From surrealism to Roman emperors in the bath

This may be a more relaxed post than usual because… Saturday night rioja and dreamy Max Berlin on the stereo. I feel good. The screen break is currently going very well indeed.

Here’s what happened in February:

  • Practical – admin is on the backburner at last mainly because of setting up a joint account (which the BBC seemed interested in). Vet visits were ongoing as Clem Bundango came down with “the snuffles” (any illness in rabbits is near-death serious).
  • Learning – now up to 300/2000 words of Indonesian vocab so it’s slow-going but I have discovered that the University of Birmingham has an Indonesian Society so I will hopefully be meeting some Orang Indonesia for kopi dan percakapan (coffee and convo) in March. The big news is that my Explore Photomontage course started at last – and I’m really enjoying getting visually creative without needing drawing skills (see Anita Ekberg in NYC’s skyscraper fountain as a work in progress that plays with surreality and scale).
  • Helping – a bit more babysitting, a bit more Stirchley supermarket protesting, a bit of visiting a friend who is temporarily staying in a rest home (strange/conflicted places that don’t seem a good solution to elderly care – read Atul Gawande and Being Mortal for more on this difficult aspect of modern healthcare).
  • Writing – digitised various extracts of London life in the early 1990s into one document; next job is to edit edit edit. Put out a photo/video press release on a local protest that was picked up by the Birmingham Post & Mail. Applied for some writer development help for the next 12 months with Writing West Midlands (scrivener’s fingers crossed). Took a Life Writing day course at the Mac, which mostly made me realise I need to stop doing creative writing exercises and get on and write the damn thing. The tutor’s message of “You’ve got to enjoy it otherwise why do it?” was also a very good one for me.
  • Books – small books are my friends right now: The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide; Noam Chomsky’s Media Control and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. All bath books – is this a thing? TMI?
  • Health/exercise – Scottish country dance x2, tai chi in the park x1, Nordic Walk session up the Lickey Hills, Cotswold hill walk with big sis, swim/sauna x2, allotment digging x3, shot a few hoops with my new birthday basketball and made a new friend (see People).
  • Events – first haircut in five months due to budget restrictions, second Stirchley anti-Lidl protest, Art Show & Tell #2 at the P Cafe, Lobelia’s album launch at the Tower of Song, exhibition at the Wellcome Centre on how we see animals (featuring a guy who lived with a fully-grown Bengal Tiger called Ming and an alligator called Ali in an apartment in Harlem), immersive video installation at the Barbican by Richard Mosse who filmed the refugee crisis with a thermal imaging camera, some interesting new pieces (including photomontage) at New Art West Midlands 2017 at the Mac. Oh yes and a birthday dine-drink family do at the British Oak.
  • People – finally met and chatted properly with Danni S, who went to the very top of my must-meet radar when she offered to dig the allotment: “I love digging!” It was refreshing to meet a confident and interesting lady who baulks at nothing (it seems), says what she wants and then does it. Fair play. Also I now have a basketball pal to play with – a five-foot-tall Iranian lady called Arafeh who used to play back at uni and still shoots a mean hoop decades later.
  • Something new – after four years, Professor Bunminster has finally succumbed to sitting on my lap and being petted. This is a major breakthrough in hoomin-rabbit relations. Also, being February, it was new songbook month at Moselele – we’re now up to Songbook 8, which features such grand tunes as Pink Sunshine by Fuzzbox, Reward by The Teardrop Explodes and a past relationship song to be punctuated and nulled by the mighty uke, Nothing Else Matters by Metallica. Used my new photomontage skills to create my first wedding anniversary card in 21 years.
  • Somewhere new – Cheltenham, a flying visit on the way to a Cotswold spa hotel, as a guest of my sis. Walked up Cooper’s Hill where the famous cheese-rolling takes place; it really is a breakneck gradient.
  • Holiday – two days in the Cotswolds; a trip to that London.

More sabbatical posts are here.

Sabbatical in full swing of lying in, coffee dates, protests and trip planning

Stirchley Lidl protest at the Council House. Pic: Neil Elkes?

I am finally relaxing into this screen break, sabbatical, time-out thing. Work decisions have been made (will be picking up freelance work again from April) and I’m not beating myself up about having lie-ins until lunchtime occasionally. Although there are a lot of things listed below, I’ve generally been living a bit more slowly and less stressfully after realising the main point of having a break is to actually have a break.

Ironically, planning a future holiday – a big overland train trip to Eastern Europe taking in eight countries – has seen me back on the computer for hours and days, trying to sort out the route options, pricing and accommodations. (I have shared some travel tips at the end of this post.) But I’m very excited to have finally sorted out the bulk of it and I’m looking forward to staring out of a train window for hours come spring. If anyone wants help  or advice with this kind of trip, I am now a semi-pro and free to be taken for coffee in February.

So here’s what happened in January:

  • Practical – starting to realise the admin never ends but my head is feeling calmer as the financial situation clears.
  • Learning – complete weeks 5-7 of OU Introduction to Cybersecurity course (cryptography basics, protecting your data on the network, what’s the worst that can happen?); still plugging slowly away at Indonesian vocab (up to 280 words out of 2000).
  • Helping – helped a young couple understand mortgages (randomly); waved a banner at a protest outside the council house against Stirchley/Lidl planning application; lent an ear a few times (being there for friends and family is a lot easier now); babysat for six hours for my super-cute five-month-old great nephew (changed my first nappy, made my first milk bottle up, dealt with my first tantrum).
  • Writing – finished processing a big three-year diary book and started a beat-style extract around London life in the early 1990s.
  • Books – ‘Love and Rockets X’ graphic novel, and made a list of some classic ones I haven’t yet read.
  • Health – weekly Scottish country dance class, weekly tai chi in the park, Millisons Wood to Meriden walk with big bro, yoga training from big sis, one gym session.
  • Events – Scottish Dance New Year Social, Stirchley Baths 1st Birthday, Roger Hiorns Ikon show, Justin Wiggins’ BOM show, Exploring Photomontage ‘Made at Mac’ show, birthday lunch for niece at the Mailbox, another school reunion wineathon, Pete’s talk on Cityscapes at the Kings Norton Photo Club.
  • People – many coffee shops have been visited this month. I finally booked in travel chats with Ruth, coffee with former work colleague Jo, catchups with the Kings Heath coffee crew, B30 brunch massive and London-Brummies curry meet-up.
  • Something new – mixed media textiles taster at the Mac made me realise it’s not for me; conversely, I found Pete’s new Art Show & Tell at the P-Cafe very inspiring and full of interesting artists/creatives talking about their work – and work barriers. Next one is on 16 Feb at 3pm (info here).
  • Somewhere new – Pitstop Cafe, Cotteridge (a gem, best mugs of tea); Gorilla Coffee Cafe, Kings Heath (nice enough).
  • Holiday – spent the best part of a week, researching and booking an overland train trip across Europe and trying to arrange a bodyboard holiday (postponed).

Some tips from my hours of travel research:

– You can get return flights to Bali in March/April for just £340 return on Qatar/Emirates. I’ve never seen them so cheap and on such good airlines. Check out latest prices on Skyscanner.

– Follow Seat61.com for overlanding by train; it really is a fantastic resource for telling you how to get there (cheap, express, scenic) and how exactly to book your tickets.

Bodyboard Holidays, run by UK bodyboard senior champ Rob Barber, offers bodyboard tuition in some very sexy winter sun places, from Morocco’s southern beaches to Costa Rica/Nicaragua to Indonesia. (They also do Newquay, Wales and Ireland.) Bodyboarding is a low-impact fun sport although all-round fitness is required for swimming out I discovered last summer at their Cornwall Bodyboard Camp. Check out the calendar.

And, yes, I’m ignoring the whole despicable Donald Trump thing.