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Challenge: Get up early for a week

Kings Heath Park
Park report: King’s Heath is my current favourite to walk to. KECH girls are already going to school at 8am, flicking the finger at friends/enemies and checking out the boys. Drivers are driving like arses in 20 zones. It’s warming up for a 27 degree day. Grass is dewy but drying. A bee is hovering and checking me out – probably the smell of Soltan. Baby Driver soundtrack is playing. A hay fever sneeze. End of year accounts await and later an epic Moselele summer singalong. It’s gonna be a good day.

A random wish on my sabbatical list – and one of the toughest for me as a night owl – was to get up at dawn for a week to see what it would feel like and discover if/how it would change my day/life.

With sunrise at 4.45am in June and dawn at 3.55am, this was a bit too much of a stretch. Still, on the week of the longest day of the year I started to go to bed at 10.30pm in order to get up at 6 – three hours earlier than usual.

Three spare hours at the start of a day! What would you do?

Birmingham is a city often maligned and mistaken for a concrete jungle. Its critics are not aware of how much greener it is than, say, London. We have so many tree-lined streets but also a multitude of parks and recs. Within 30 minutes walk of our house, for example, are 12 or so parks: Kings Heath, Highbury, Cannon Hill, Holder’s Lane playing fields, Row Heath playing fields, Hazelwell, Stirchley, Muntz, Cotteridge, Cadbury’s ladies recreation ground, Bournville and Raddlebarn/Selly Park.

Waterwise, there is also the Lifford Reservoir, the Rea Valley Route, and the Worcester and Birmingham Canal. And, of course, my local Hazelwell Allotments to which I have the key.

I didn’t consciously set out to explore the parks and open spaces of south Birmingham in the early morning hours but it was a natural consequence of walking any short distance. The sun was shining, most people were still asleep or at breakfast, the day felt fresh and new. I downloaded a playlist on to my phone and started walking wherever (admittedly sometimes singing, dance-walking or air-drumming) to the beat of the music.

Here’s what I saw…

Hazelwell Allotments
Cotteridge Park
Muntz Park
Cadbury’s Ladies Rec
Rea Valley Route
Birmingham and Worcester Canal at the Lifford Curve
River Bourn at Stirchley Park and a shadow-me on the bridge

The walking felt good, the views were uplifting, the day started with a feel-good factor, and the music was a key part of the experience, giving me a lift and making me walk further and further, for an hour or more at a time. Coming home, my tea and toast never tasted so good. I even fitted in a meditation for extra deep levels of calm and relaxation, or visited a friend for a tea. And I still haven’t got over the weird feeling of having done so much and it being only 8 o’clock.

There were some downsides: losing my creative time at the end of the night and needing a nap to get through the day. But…

At the end of the week I was convinced enough to keep going with this new regime of getting up early Monday to Friday (and lying in at the weekends). Sunset walks were added, walks with friends and some trips further afield…

Harborne Walkway with Danni and Emma – a disused railway line close to the centre of Brum
Cannon Hill Park
Cannon Hill Park
Holders Lane playing fields and a paddle in the River Rea with sis
Kinver Edge walk with bro
Kinver Edge Rock Houses and breakfast overlooking the Black Country

On one walk I even discovered a secret canary yellow canalside breakfast caff in Stirchley, called the Barge Thru Café. It caused quite the stir on Twitter and I felt a little Lewis and Clark, discovering new things in an area where everything seems to be known. A breakfast expedition with other Stirchillians is already being planned – and if not a walk, an approach by raft or inflatable like the pioneers we aren’t. The adventure continues.

Brazilian-looking cafe at Stirchley ‘marina end’ – an unexpected find

And so…

It has had a big effect on me, and my mental and phyiscal health, this getting up early malarkey. This is the call to action bit. Is anyone else interested in an early morning walk around the B13, B14, B29, B30 post codes – there are some areas I don’t want to venture alone, namely the canals and commons.

Get in touch if you do.

Since Snowden… a visit to Infosecurity Europe 2017

Fiona Cullinan, Infosec Europe 2017

‘Since Snowden’ has become a bit of a catchphrase for me after his revelations in 2013 about the mass government surveillance of our data. Since Snowden I’ve watched Citizenfour, read The Snowden Files, completed two OU cybersecurity courses, joined ORG Birmingham, learnt how to use PGP encryption, risk-audited my personal info and started putting some basic processes in place so I am more in control of my data.

This is something I hope to starting helping other people with, so if you have a question about passwords managers or how to risk-assess your info, for example, get in touch. I’m still learning so it’s basic guidance only and probably best done at a friendly local level than in any official capacity.

Last month I also attended two days of Infosec Europe, the largest event of its kind in Europe featuring a conference programme, 360+ exhibitors and around 15,000 visitors. It was very much aimed at larger organisations and since I’m at the individual and SME level, there was some disconnect.

That said it was probably one of the best conferences I’ve attended outside of SXSW and I came away with a lot of info and contacts – enough to know that this is going to remain a definite interest of mine for some time to come.

So I’ve started a Twitter list of Women in Infosec because I missed that session at #infosec17.

And collected a few conference links for reading and reference:

Hello Infosec World.

 

 

 

 

What’s the point of yoga?

book cover

My mother-in-law is a long-time yoga teacher; my sister is in her second year of a yoga teacher training course; and many of my friends are yoga addicts, some to the point of getting up at 5am to practise or get to class.

But while I’ve been to a few classes in the gym over the years and even developed a daily sun salutation habit for a while to stretch out back stiffness, I’ve never really got it. What’s the big draw? Why does everyone love yoga so bloody much? Why are at least four people I know training to teach it? Why is an ancient Indian practice suddenly everywhere in 21st-century Britain?

It occurred to me that maybe I’m doing it wrong and that everyone else is getting some secret buzz out of yoga that is eluding me. So naturally I bitched about this on a social network, and that’s when a book arrived in the post from mum-in-law Sue.

It took me a month to get through ‘Bringing Yoga To Life’ by Donna Farhi but, even though I would say I still don’t feel it personally, I understand a bit better why other people love it.

I’m parsing the dog-eared pages here into blog post Q&A so I don’t have to read the book twice. Yoga aficionados forgive me if I’ve misunderstood. It’s not my intention to have a go, so to speak. My aim is to understand yoga in terms that don’t involve saying ‘come back to yourself’. As my sister often says: “Language always gets in the way.”

1. What’s the point of yoga?

There is a lot of gumpf in the book about how yoga is a life practice that connects you to the wild force that runs through everything. Of course, a lot of people don’t believe in a wild force that runs through everything but the point is that it’s the spiritual aspect that is the thing in yoga and not the physical focus that you get in the standard gym class.

An ongoing practice in your everyday life can help fortify you against all kinds of attack and give you a means of coping when life gets physically, spiritually or emotionally tough. Which seems a very good reason to do it –more than the need to be bendy anyway.

2. What does it teach?

What is possible as a human being; a sense of returning to oneself and becoming ‘centred’ not being separated from others/humans.

I’m not 100% sure what this means but I’m surmising that it is about removing the gazillion distractions that surround us and getting the focus back on our humanity – and the wider sense of who we are as a species (for better or worse).

(Aside: Personally I tend to think of humans as ants, although that may be too kind: as Ripley says of the monsters in Aliens: “You don’t see them f*cking each other over for a percentage.”)

3. Do you have to be perma-calm?

No (thankfully) but the point seems to be to apply the feelings of attentiveness that you cultivate through yoga beyond the mat – into relationships, work, play, etc. Less perma-calm, more ‘aliveness’. Luckily for me I don’t NEED to do yoga to achieve this. Just slowing down is conducive to flourishing, mindfulness and being a bit kinder to others.

4. Why do yoga people seem smug* or a bit too happy sometimes?

There’s a section in the book about gratitude and faith being the two supreme qualities that transform a yoga practice, which may translate into feelings of being happy to be alive in the here and now, and feeling thankful for what you have. Recognising how fortunate we actually are can turn the most difficult of circumstances on their head and affect every waking hour, says Farhi.

*I’m being a bit harsh here, it’s probably more of a radiant calm that I admire because I enjoy being fast-paced and am reluctant to slow down.

5. OK, so where do we non-yogis go wrong?

There are five causes of suffering listed by the Patanjali (from ignorance of our eternal nature to seeing ourselves as separate and divided from the world to attraction/attachment to impermanent things).

We can work on these without getting into strange postures and breathing deeply – but then again, do we? Yoga brings a certain focus. Farhi outlines some positive actions we can take:

  • Friendliness towards the joyful.
  • Compassion for those who are suffering.
  • Celebrating the good in others.
  • Remaining impartial to the faults and imperfections of others.

6. Does it have to be yoga?

In a word, no. There are many ways to channel our energies in life and to still the mind. What setting aside time for yoga (or other practice) does is provide regular time and space to ground ourselves, think on life’s big questions, face our demons, celebrate being alive, push the reset button or simply be free.

7. So why all the batshitcrazy postures?

None of the above tells me that I have to get into some weird twisty posture so why is this often the main focus? Farhi says the point of practising asanas is “to become more sensitive, attuned and adaptable” and that “great gymnastic abilities are entirely inconsequential in the context of yoga”.

I’m not sure this really answers the question of why yoga is often so focused on the physical. My own novice understanding is that yoga is predominantly about the breath, and also the breath in each posture. So my conclusion is that if yoga is a life practice helping you out when things get emotional or out of control, then the exercise element is a big part of disrupting bad thoughts and changing the focus. After all, it’s hard to give any mind to one’s existentialist angst when you are trying to do a Tree balance and not fall over, or when breathing is stretching your taut muscles so that physicality is the most pressing issue.

In short, perhaps asanas offer a fast way to ‘not thinking’ about your suffering; and (with practice) take you to a place that offers a spiritual balm that allows you to “see past the immediate and fleeting feelings to a broader perspective”, to accept things as they are and “find a place of inner ease that no one and no thing can take away from us” as a result.

8. Keeping up with the young bendy teachers and pupils always causes me to get injured at the gym. What’s that about? Where’s the realistic yoga?

Accepting we are where we are is the thing to do – otherwise we’ll be contorting ourselves into an “ill-fitting suit” of a yoga practice. Easier said than done. Switching off one’s competitive head is hard, and the language around yoga teaching can make you feel inferior if you go for a ‘lesser’ stretch or other compromise.

I look forward to older, less bendy, injury-challenged role models joining the teaching fraternity. I had a practice lesson with my sister for her yoga exam and it was refreshing to break down some really simple yoga moves and make the most of the nuances of each posture. It also allowed me time to breathe – something that is often missing from yoga classes in the gym with their focus on agility.

Farhi says: “As we enter our 40s and 50s there is a noticeable drop in energy levels… this is a period of life when the focus in yoga practice needs to switch from the mechanics of practice to the subtler underlying energetics of practice… Through these subtler practices we begin to realise the deeper significance of yoga practice as the body becomes more sensitive in its role as a vehicle for perception”.

By which she means more meditative practices, less physical repetition of advanced postures.

9. Will it help with the bigger questions?

It can* – “This contemplation both on death and what it means to truly live is designed to help you distinguish between short-lived pleasures and long-lasting joy.”

* Other options are available.

10. Will yoga solve my emotional baggage problems?

Yes, no, maybe, it depends. All kinds of realisations can be had – especially with regard to what Farhi calls our “box of monsters”. Rediscovering one’s inner self, true identity, centre (or however else you term the feeling you get from yoga and similar practices) is a way to look at your ‘monsters’ in a different way, with a certain distance and impartiality, even kindness and compassion.

11. What if we don’t like our inner self?

Yoga can help us act differently on the “riptide of strong emotions” and teach us to act more skilfully once we have cooled down.

While seeing clearly is a gift, we all have blind spots, however – difficult relationships, making bad decisions, making the same mistakes over and over, resorting to outbursts of anger. Farhi suggests asking a trusted friend to tell us honestly what they see in order to accelerate the process of seeing ourselves more clearly – this awakening is probably only for the brave though.

12. What happens in the end?

Nirvana? Leaving the Matrix? Seeing ourselves and the world in a new way? The realisation that we are all one?

After reading this book, yoga seems mostly about two things: practically, it offers a coping mechanism for life with the byproduct of better physical/mental health; spiritually it offers a potential reawakening through connecting to own core sense of humanity and our place in it.

It seems a shame that I don’t get this from yoga myself but I’ve also learned from this book that yoga is just one method of transport and there are other ways to get there. The important thing is to find something that does work and to practise it regularly so that you don’t fold when the riptide of emotions comes.

So, yes, yoga –

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The bonkers magic of KonMari

‘Sorting out the house’ was mentioned several times when I asked friends what they would do with a few months off. I’ll look back at May 2017 as the month of decluttering. Like many others, I tried the Marie Kondo book ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying’, aka the KonMari method.

Marie Kondo is a Japanese organising consultant and now bestselling author. She sounds insane when you read her book – she was addicted to tidying up by the age of eight – and her methods are no less bonkers.

But… it works.

I still can’t quite believe how folding your clothes so that they stand up has actually transformed what I wear simply because I can now see it all in one go. Or how asking if something ‘sparks joy’ has allowed me to emotionally, rather than practically, let go of things I’ve kept for decades – from university research papers to my 1990s Thelma and Louise denim top that never came back into fashion.

It could be procrastination from other more creative work or it could be life-transforming as the book promises. I’ve cleared out so much crap, I do feel lighter and freer, and more pertinently for an allergic person, the house is becoming easier to clean. The really sentimental things are to come but that’s why you practice with your socks and pants first. It gets easier.

Here are some before and after photos. Sorting is done by category – another trick that helps massively when facing a big clear out.

TOPS

BOOKS

ACADEMIC PAPERWORK

The nice thing about this is the focus is less on throwing things away and more on only keeping things that you love. But possibly the biggest lure of the KonMari method is that you only have to do it once. We’ll see if that is true in time but my socks do remain firmly folded for now.

Overland to Eastern Europe: Kotor to Dubrovnik

Day 12: Kotor to Dubrovnik

It’s raining heavily on arrival in Dubrovnik and it’s freakishly cold. We are wearing all the clothes and hats. This is not the only shock. The taxi from the bus station to Ploče charges a £12 set fare to go a couple of km, it’s £18 just to walk the town’s bloody walls – that’s each – and, worse still, a medium glass of so-so wine costs £7. Come back Zurich, all is forgiven.

“Everything is better is Croatia,” my Croatian ‘sister-wife’ Anita, the UK-famous inventor of the chocolate crumpet, repeatedly tells me – and I want to believe her. An old guidebook tells me the walls cost only £3 for access not so long ago, so this is probably the Games of Thrones effect. There really should be a different Dubrovnik price for non-GOT fans.

Being British, we of course mention the weather to our host Stijepo at Apartment Love and Hope and thank him for waiting for us in the torrential conditions.

“I would be happy if this was my biggest problem!” he exclaims, several times – a reference to being caught up in the 1991 Siege of Dubrovnik with no electricity or water and weeks of bombardment by Serbia/Montenegro. After that, we pretty much shut up about the weather and the price of bread.

Once the storm clears, it is indeed truly lovely inside the Unesco World Heritage Site of Dubrovnik, so clean. I mean, really clean. (Well, all that tourist money has to go somewhere I guess.) We enter it at sunset so that we can immediately leave it, as Stijepo has sent us for a sunset drink at Buza, a well-known drinking hole on the rocks outside the wall. Pete nearly chokes on his £6 GOT-priced Leffe but it’s the view we are paying for and a ringside seat for sunset in the Pearl of the Adriatic.

Day 13: Lokrum Island

Stijepo recommended this nearby island as a lovely spot for a picnic, with botanic gardens and an old fort – but, who are we kidding, we mainly go because he told us there were loads of friendly rabbits roaming freely about there. There are. Here is a bun the size of a banana…

… and also an array of randy peacocks parading and trying to win over peahens to the point of fighting.

It’s quite something to watch baby bunnies hopping around giant prickly aloe vera succulents while peacocks shimmer and shake erect feathers next to the deep blue Adriatic. Only unicorns could have topped off the fairytale if anyone has Photoshop skills to add one here…

Day 14: Dubrovnik

We check the cruise ship timetable and head into the Old Town as the passengers leave. After a picnic on ‘the outside’ wall by the harbour, we randomly bump into Hannah and Myk who, being super-speedy Americans, have caught up with us despite leaving Belgrade four days later. Their Podgorica train journey, taken on May Day weekend and packed with students heading back to Montenegro, makes ours sound a Four Yorkshiremen sketch – luxury. The next day Mark from the Belgrade apartment will fly in as we fly out. More travel connections in time.

We buy a Ferrero Rocher-flavoured ice cream from Stijepo’s recommended childhood ice cream parlour Dolce Vita and sit once more outside the walls, on a tiny beach that has the most beach glass I have ever scavenged in my life. You know when you start a collection and become enslaved? Well, mine is a worldwide beach glass collection and this tiny beach just tripled it – as well as producing two rare pieces in blue.

Pete and I discuss biting the tourist bullet and paying nearly £40 to walk the 2km city walls but it comes down to this on our last day – we can either walk or eat. So we eat: a tuna pasta and beer and wine and chocolate feast on our Love and Hope balcony overlooking beautiful Dubrovnik.

A male voice choir carries up the steep hillside from Banye Beach as the sunset does its glorious hazy coloured spectacle thing, and we have a little last-night-of-the-holiday dance on the terrace because we’re married now and it’s legal.

I may not be as enamoured of travelling as I used to be, and I can’t wait to see our own little floppy-eared dudes and the rest of the human-eared family, but I sure could do with a little bit more blue sky, sea and sunshine in my UK life to be happy.

Perhaps everything is better in Croatia after all.

</The end of the Balkan blogging beast. Thank you for reading. Hope you enjoyed it. Other blog posts are available. > 

Overland to Eastern Europe: Podgorica to Kotor

Day 9: Podgorica to Kotor

A bit of perspective arrives overnight and my appetite comes back for a full English breakfast out on the Hotel Hemera’s street terrace. No generic continental breakfast buffet here.

We have one hour to look around Podgorica’s sights – a bridge, a river, a statue of a Russian rock star – before we have to get to the bus station. Our local street of  bars and cafes, which closed around 3.30am last night, are all open and packed with people by 11am.

Our bus to the Bay of Kotor takes a 2.5-hours and the journey is a pretty one with snow-capped mountains, Lake Skadar in the distance and dizzying views down to Budva and Sveti Stefan beach resorts. We arrive into Kotor into an apartment overlooking the jade green bay and the Old Town, and sit on the terrace. We have a whole three days here.

One week into the trip, the holiday feels as if it about to begin.

Day 10: Muo, Perast 

It’s 24 degrees and we are wearing shorts and sun cream and sun hats. This has been the hardest trip to pack for: just a week ago I was up in the snow-covered Alps. We spend almost all day at ‘home’ in our Muo apartment, lounging and reading and writing and admiring the fjord-like Bay of Kotor and the Unesco Heritage Site of Kotor with its walled, almost triangular Stari Grad (old town).

We are about to leave the apartment when Pete gets the news that his Arts Council England grant application has been successful, which means he will have his first solo exhibition this autumn at Birmingham Open Media. We celebrate by hopping a one-euro 13km bus ride to Perast, a small Venetian-style village further up the bay, for an afternoon beer and sandwiches by the waterside.

A cruise ship enters the bay on its way down to Kotor, ready to disgorge several thousand people into its tiny port. We have learnt to timetable around them and I’m relieved to be in quiet Perast, wandering its tiny alleyways and stone staircases, while Pete 3D-scans a church square bust. Such is our life. We often enjoy our own little worlds, like our rabbits, each somewhere in the vicinity of the other.

Day 11: Kotor

No cruise ships today so Kotor Stari Grad is clear and we can explore at our leisure.

In truth I am ready to go home; yet when I am home I dream of being away. Both realities are perhaps tainted by a rose-tinted perception of reality.

Yesterday I came across another younger backpacking Brummie called Fiona on YouTube who is travelling for three years (as I did at the end of the 90s). I think of her at the future version of my past self – except she is vlogging her travels, advice, inspiration and reassurance. I simultaneously I admire her and think that I can’t go back in time to my own days cross-crossing Asia. I don’t envy the pressure she is under having to serve up daily content to an audience of followers. I remember how great it all was but now find myself annoyed by the narcissistic, self-focused, singular, young backpacker’s viewpoint. And yet… so fascinating and familiar that I think I must hate myself.

Solo travelling felt (still feels) like such an achievement for me, a shy Brummie who fell surprisingly in love with solo travelling as a teenager on a US road trip, enough to later hit the backpack trail to India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, South-East Asia, Australia, New Zealand…

Travelling opened up my eyes to new lands, people, religion, cultures, perspectives, politics, ways to live, ways to die, ways to think. I even learned the value of my own country when I had the chance to leave it permanently. And later I began to change how I moved through the world, more aware of the impact of travel and tourism, and my own privilege involved in traversing someone else’s land. Travelling humbled me in many ways.

So the other Fiona, the one I found myself watching dispense travel wisdom on YouTube, arrived as an echo from another time and place. She reminded me that I am no longer her and can’t go back to that youthful time and place. That is her present, my past. I am now a traveller who has to some extent settled down. And that makes me question who am I without it? Is there such as thing as being a ‘post-traveller’? How do I travel now, if at all?

Other Fiona is asking for volunteer vloggers to expand her coverage and I’m tempted to offer as Future Fiona – a potential talking futurehead from two decades on. Or just leave her to get on with it. She’ll figure it out.

Meanwhile, back in the present, I am caught in another time travel loop of see my own future 24 hours ahead. I have connected with a friend’s Instagram friend who was in Belgrade, took the train to Podgorica, and arrived in Kotor a day before us. Each day I check her Instagram feed to see where she has gone, before posting variations of her photos a day later. She is currently staying across the bay in Dobrota and that we have probably taken a shot of each other’s apartment. I wave and wonder if she is waving back. From this yester-stream I know we will be climbing to the Kotor Fort and I find it comforting to folllow in a future traveller’s footsteps, at least until the near connections across multiple dimensions via the internet start to melt my brain, for behind us, Hannah and Myk from our Belgrade dinner, will be following us a few days behind.

Climbing the 13oo or so feet up cliffside steps to the Fort is painfully slow but we press on despite the jellylegs and panting for breath. I’m nearly 50, losing my balance and not the fittest but I did it. I got all the way to the top, where the mountain goats frolic and the kids graffiti and the soda sellers sits. I can still do it. I feel good.

At dinner, we toast scaling the beautiful mountains of Montenegro, the success of Pete’s funding and the longevity of us – eight years together, coming up to three married. Achievements.

Tomorrow we cross our final border and my eighth country of the tour, into Croatia. As with all journeys, it feels as if it is ending before it has ended.

Day 12: Kotor to Dubrovnik

Overland to Eastern Europe: Belgrade to Podgorica

Day 8: Belgrade to Podgorica

Goodbye Belgrade – we head for the train station and get in the long queue to catch our replacement bus service.

The trains have got progressively shitter as I’ve gone further east and, when we finally reach it, this one is the worst yet. There is no dining car or even a coffee bar, the windows are graffitied some to the point of obliterating any view, and second class is both dirty and stewing warm. To be fair, the 10-hour journey costs just over €20, or around 40p an hour, which is a bargain even by Brummie standards.

The reason we are doing this is that the journey is a seat61.com top pick – “one of Europe’s most spectacular train rides” – as it will take us up into the mountains of Montenegro, in and out of around 400+ tunnels, across 200+ bridges and over Europe’s highest viaduct before descending into the capital Podgorica.

Thanks to Mr Popovic we know the train has been declassified so we quickly shift to first class, which is slightly nicer with reclining seats and a clear window. We settle down to pass the time, me looking, Pete reading.

We are sharing our old-school six-seat carriage with a guy who looks like a sexy hitman, and things are pleasantly quiet until three burly old Serb fishermen enter. Their conversation doesn’t pause for several hours. I have no idea what they are saying and very soon want Sexy Hitman to finish them off. Serbian should be a lovely language to listen to with its soft shmuzhy consonants and zhuszhes and itzas but any language spoken relentlessly is a form of travel torture. We three quiet imprisoned passengers all resort to headphones. Too late, local touts board the train selling beer and soda and an alternative option for escape.

The busy carriages and few remaining functioning toilets hum with the smell of sweat and sewage. Smoke fills the corridors and pervades the carriages. The air is oppressive and I find myself counting down the hours, not to Podgorica but to smelling fresh air again. But, of course, there are the dual border checks and the train randomly stops for nearly an hour en route and so we are once again running late. This is how a 300-mile journey takes 11 hours.

Fortunately, the general discomfort is more than outdone by the fact that we are travelling through a green version of the Alps, and even here the train climbs high enough to venture above the snow line.

I spend the last hour out in the corridor, staring far down into the valley at tiny moving cars a thousand metres below and muttering ‘inconceivable’ and ‘unbelievable’ at how the hell this crappy commuter train got up here and wondering if we’ll essentially be riding a rollercoaster down into the valley.

We arrive into Podgorica in darkness. Taxi touts swarm around, crossing the tracks to chase down business. We follow the hotel’s instructions to look for Halo or Red cab companies and soon we are enjoying our splash-out boutique hotel (£68 for two inc full breakfast), with the best monsoon shower and an unexpected mirrored ceiling. I didn’t see that in the reviews.

The joys of comfort and cleanliness and fresh air last only 30 minutes before I realise my small purse with my currency and Visa card in is missing, possibly lost in the back of the cab or back on the train as I packed up. After a long day I feel overwhelmed with emotions and having to deal with stopping all the credit cards. I want to kick myself for being so lax.

After all the cancelling is done, we go out for French fries and then a beer in Bar Berlin over the road to unwind, listen to music and not talk.

I am besieged by thoughts that I am a much less robust traveller than I think. I contemplate all that work planning the trip, organising the different currencies, checking Google Streetview, making a spreadsheet – and how I’ve just gone and fucked it up.

Day 9-11: Podgorica to Kotor 

 

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