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 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.
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.
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…
Sometimes holiday snaps produce something a little bit more artistic. I particularly like this moody photograph (of Pete) taken on the top of the rainy Parking 58 car park in Brussels. Why were we on a car park roof in the rain? Find out here. More Brussels trip posts are on Tourist Vs Traveller.
Just back from a week in the centre of France in a little known area called the Cantal. It may be "one of the most sparsely populated and geographically isolated French departments", according to Wikipedia, but it does have one big claim in that the region encompasses Europe's largest volcano. Snowshoeing a sleeping volcano seemed an irresistible storyline. Continue reading "Cantal press trip blogged – and a travel request"
Travmedia, a press release and journalist alert service which connects journalists and PRs, has just made a very smart move (I hope) by launching a Facebook-style social network, that will facilitate many more travel trade connections and work opportunities, and make travel freelancers like myself more visible to travel editors.
'My Network' is a little clunky to use at first – a beta feedback option would be good for members so that they can improve the user experience. And there are currently some privacy issues – if you are a Travmedia member you should immediately update your default profile so that your full address doesn't show, for example.
But I think this might be the first useful work-oriented network I've joined since Twitter, which has become a little noisy of late.
The success of 'My Network' may be dependent on whether others adopt its usage and how Travmedia develops the service. But it's already been helpful to me in finding PRs for areas I want to cover, for reconnecting with friends I've met on press trips and for posting feature pitches and commissions.
We shall see how our relationship progresses after the first flush is over.
Fuelled by Kanye West's ridiculously wrong Tweet about hating stickers on laptops, I was impelled to blog not just my laptop stickers but also my stickered up old guitar, my songbook, my diaries and any other stuff I could lay my sticky little hands on.
So tonight, I blogged over on Tourist Vs Traveller about pimping travel diaries, only to realise that you can't embed slideshows in WordPress.com. So, because I made one, and because I have an urgent need to share my sticker love, here is it below.
And for the full sticker addiction, you can view all 39 pics here as a Flickr set called, yup, Stickers.
These links are relevant to my interest but have been sitting in tabs for the last two weeks. I will read them, I >will<. But after I've dumped them here. They make quite an interesting view of what has been taking up my time in the last little while. Links as diary entry?
I'm thinking of buying an Android phone…
HTC Desire review by TechRadar – five stars, looks good, please tell me if this review is all to cock in the comments though as buying is imminent via Top Desire deals. Or should I iPhone it like the rest of the world?
CoCoMad is this weekend (July 3, 2010) in Cotteridge Park, South Brum. I have heard it is good. Here is the line-up.
The garden has been battered into submission to my will. This rose was planted by my Mum and is the prettiest thing in it: Woburn Abbey floribunda. I heartily recommend this little try-hard. Lots of colours and it flowers repeatedly. All for a tenner. Thinking of getting another one.
A little SXSW diary catchup… It’s the halfway point of SXSW Interactive and I’m still gearing up into this festival to end all web festivals.
Here’s my personal/business mission statement for this year’s event – slightly different from last year as I’m being part-funded to attend by the UK’s Digital Mission along with about 25 others from the West Midlands. See the Heart of Austin site for more on who we are – but with a trade show stall the size of the UK’s stand and no other UK region represented here, you can see how much Birmingham UK values the digital dollar and I think is also representative of what a digitally connected hub the Midlands is.
SXSW Diary: from Miami to Austin
Arrived into Austin on Thursday at 9.30 am after 22 hours of train travelling from New Orleans and 25 hours of no sleep – you can see the state of me in this 'Let's look at the brewery' video as I fail spectacularly to be a tourist guide to San Antonio from the train.
There will also be content going up on my travel blog, Tourist vs Traveller, about my Amtrak train and Greyhound road trip from Miami to Austin via Atlanta, Birmingham and New Orleans. But mainly about the 24 hours this Brummie spent in our namesake city, Birmingham Alabama.
I'm also adding to my Flickr picture set as the days go by: SXSW2010 and USA2010 – if you want to see the trip that led up to the festival and see what Birmingham, Alabama looks like.
Thursday/Friday saw badge pickup – where I learnt that it pays to be late. Never to turn up at the listed time but at least two hours later if you want to avoid the queues.
First panels: mobile UX and improv lessons
My kick-off panel was the UX of Mobile, which is a whole new world of design, dev and content and one that may lead website design in future rather than the other way round. In future, mobile design will be a key driver in all digital design, was the expert view, because shrinking down website to fit on a small screen (surprise, surprise) doesn’t work.
I spent most of this panel, however trying to track down a certain Bharath Kumar who had left his memory stick on a corridor floor by a power socket. It was like trying to solve a mystery. You’d think everyone at SXSW would be easily findable on the Web, but I tell you, Bharath Kumar is a VERY common name. In the end we found his mobile number somewhere on the stick and texted him. And he lived happily ever after.
The afternoon’s best session was Improv Lessons for Freelancers – and has inspired me to take up improv if there are any such sessions in Birmingham UK… This is not just about how to be charming to your clients but how to, for example, say yes positively to their ‘Make it pop’ requests without actually committing yourself to a bad design decision – or extra unpaid work.
How to network at SXSW
Over a margarita, of course. Thursday evening was the SXSW West Midlands networking dinner at the Iron Cactus, the social and business bonding oiled by the drink of SXSW: the margarita. Parties are another major feature of SXSW.
I’m a relative new arrival into Birmingham’s digital scene – see September 2009’s Why I am moving back to Brum – so it was good to cement a few friendships and to let people know that I’m a web writer, web editor and content strategy person who can plug into the commercial scene in Birmingham and create content for clients/agencies that need a professional web writer/editor.
The serendipitous Glastonbury effect
Saturday was a frustrating day. Every panel I chose to attend had a mile-long queue to get in.
But this is where SXSW reminds me of Glastonbury in that it’s all good. If you can’t get to something you want to see because it’s over the other side of the site and four floors up, or it’s oversubscribed, then there are some great little gigs right next to you. It may not be your subject but you can still take away something from it.
Critical Tits, for example, was an interesting one – a conversation where the Burning Man festival was being called to account for its new and tight restrictions on photography, where they see anything shared to a wider audience as 'commercial use'. I think the move has stemmed from people snapping naked female artists and those shots appearing on porn sites. But the clamp down seems excessive and controlling being applied across the board as it is. I may be wrong on this, I didn't get the full lowdown as the session was interrupted by an emergency fire alarm and evacuation of the whole Austin Convention Center.
I also attended Why Keep Blogging by some of the original superstars of blogging (SXSW is great for attracting big names) and How to Create a Viral Video – which was (possibly) more fun than useful but made by the attendance of Damian Kulash of OK Go viral video fame.
How to create a viral video
I think OK Go’s music has become secondary to their videos, but, OMG, This Too Shall Pass is a damn fine video. It starts with domino toppling and ends in the most astonishing series of pop music Mousetrap that you will ever, ever see. Ever.
An incredible idea if you can afford the 60 engineers and six months it took to make. Although the point was made that the record company couldn’t afford it but commercial sponsors State Farm Insurance could – and got very positive comments from the millions who have seen the video. And the only product plug was their logo on the side of a truck that sets the first domino falling, plus a credit at the end.
Now that’s what I call marketing 2010!
Content Strategy FTW!
Kristina Halvorson’s Content Strategy FTW was the highlight of my day. I received a major info download that is currently swirling around my head so will post another time on that.
Over the next year, I’m looking at employing content strategy for We Are Fierce in Birmingham and helping them to bring their festival, consultancy and training arms all under one unified web presence over the next year.
I’m not sure what will result, but it’s going to be interesting as few organisations pay this much attention to the haphazard and messy world of content. We shall bring order! And the basic premise is ‘Less is More’.
Will also be attending CS Forum 2010 – an entire conference devoted to the growing discipline of Content Strategy.
Daily Strangeness from Dorkbot to Kick-Ass
Finally, last night was fun. After a brief stop-off at the Dorkbot tent to twiddle some knobs (here I am with a BleepLabs Thingamagoop), we were hijacked on Sixth Street into a cab for an interview for (I think) DVD bonus features for a new superhero flick. SXSW Film Festival saw the premiere of Kick-Ass – a superhero movie based on a comic book of the same name – we signed our Hollywood movie waiver and proceeded to be drilled about what type of superhero skills we would have and who’s ‘ass’ would be like to kick and why, as we were driven around the streets of Austin in a cab emblazoned with Kick-Ass all over it.
It was one of those mad, interstitial Glastonbury moments that is tertiary to the main event but one of the things you remember most. After all, the slogan and ethos of this city and this festival is ‘Keep Austin weird’.
Off now to enjoy Tuttle at SXSWi, an inaugural Content Srategy meetup, Fray Café tonight and see what else Sunday brings. It's going to be fun.