Amsterdam. We came, we saw, we concurred!

Prior to leaving New Zealand last April, I did a very scientific market research study to determine how I should best prioritize my visiting of European destinations – based on a Top 3 study. Basically, I asked everyone “What were your three favourite cities in UK & Europe?”. So scientific was my research, I even had a control base of respondents who had never even been to the UK or Europe… which really wasn’t much help (Scientists do like to make unnecessary work for themselves methinks). Warning: the following results may shock you… well… not really.

Girls, for the most part, would let their minds wander dreamingly back to cities that were “beautiful”, “gorgeous”, “cute” and… other such bandied-about adjectives that are over-utilised by the female species. They’d get lost in fond memories of bridges, cathedrals, quaint food stalls and charming cottages… before forgetting what was asked and eventually isolating 5-10 places they’d consider as possible Top 3 contenders. Whereas, approximately 99.9% of guys (which would necessitate me having asked at least one thousand males… I know) thought for all of a split second, grinned widely and stated “Amsterdam… definitely Amsterdam” as being in their Top 3. Then they’d usually go on and agree with their respective girlfriend/missus/fiancée/nearby-female-person about the other two that made up their list.

Canals, houseboats, sinking/leaning/architecturally-unsound buildings abound in Amsterdam

I’ve always wanted to go to Amsterdam. When I was younger I read a biography of Paul McCartney and my favourite part was the chapter on the Beatles resident gigging in Amsterdam. Well… I was eleven so, more specifically, I enjoyed the detailed descriptions of half-and-fully-naked girls lining the streets in the Red Light District (RLD). Then, as I grew older, I learnt of their kind views on the green stuff and, despite not having tried it until I was eighteen, thought that these Dutchies must be pretty cool. So it was a feeeeeew years later when our kind friend’s Jess & Glen decided they’d like to show us some Amsterdam-age.

Amsterdam was awesome. Everything you expect is there – the RLD is lit up in full-length windows that are lit in… well… red light – a rather flattering shade that enhances whatever features the scantily clad women (and she-men… eeeewww… in blue light) have (For the more… discerning gentleman there’s also “Ugly Alley” and “Fat Alley”). Coffee shops are everywhere, with windows hazed from a mist of pleasant-smelling smoke – I can confirm that it looks even hazier looking from the inside after an hour or so. The canals are… everywhere, bikes are also everywhere and (whilst still under the hazy effect of either/both alcohol and, ummm, coffee) be very careful crossing ANY street which, after modes of transport already being on opposite sides of the road, has designated lanes for bikes, trams and cars. Be especially wary of cyclists – from what I can tell, bicycles in Amsterdam are donated to native Dutchies and tourists afflicted with colour blindness, and therefore are at huge pains to abide by any directive lights.

The Heineken “Experience” is worth €15 Euro too (order online – saves you 1 whole Euro). Especially seeing as a pint will set you back at least €4.50 – you get two free at the end of the tour. A complete history of the brand and brewing process underlines the self-guided tour which is both informative and interesting… who am I trying to kid… I was hanging out for the free beer. Next time you see the Heineken label or brand name, have a look at the “e”’s. They’re “smiling”… or rather, tilted on an angle to appear as such.

Amsterdam. A must-see city. Chilled out, socially in harmony (apart from edgy Polish frite vendors who mistook my comment on the shop’s name – “Chipsy King” – as an attack on his possibly gypsy-like background) and supplier of red-lit professional services, world-renown beer and comfortable surroundings to indulge in a spliff. Everything you’re told it is and expect… and more. Get there.

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Londonisation: Tube-ulant Travel Titbits

I’m loathe to say “titbits”, but I did…. so deal with it. Someone like Pagey (good on ya mate) will probably point out another, equally alliterative, term I could have used that sounded more… heterosexual. And for that I can only re-enforce the scarcity of resources available to my entire voluntary editorial staff of one. And for that I won’t, nor will I ever, apologise. Sorry…. aaaarrgghhh, damnit.

Anyhow, without further ado (much of which is about “nothing”) I thought I’d start rambling on about life in London through the eyes of… well, MY eyes. Some of y’all will nod agreeably, maybe even take a moment to holler “amen to that sister!”, while some of you may be flippant in your disagreement and whinge about possible unfair treatment in my digressive vernacular (Boom! Thank you synonyms finder), in which case you may well be too experienced in London life and most likely have adopted the tendency to jump at the slightest chance to have a good old whinge (It is definitely a stereotype of mother-land natives that is well-founded and anecdotally documented). For the rest of you (who have yet to experience London living) it may prove mildly interesting and maybe even slightly informative…

The Tube (or Underground) is revered as a phenomenal engineering success by many Londoners. That’s discounting the ongoing “signal issues”, which result in delays or temporary closures, and the line “upgrades” & “maintenance” which occur most weekends. This leads me to believe that whatever engineering genius that founded the first subterranean train – way back when “gay” meant happy – didn’t quite build the bulletproof machine that they intended (In stark contrast, Londoners, depending on their mood or the weather [which are directly correlated] are also quick to whinge about these malfunctions). But, in light of New Zealand’s piss-poor public transport system, it’s fair to say that having the ability to get anywhere easily, within greater London, and without crawling through traffic thicker than a North English accent, in a privately-owned vehicle, is pretty darned handy. Even if it involves forfeiting the cost of a good night out.

The newbie novelty factor of navigating this never-ending network lasts all of a few trips. Then, once the leisurely nature of your initial, touristy ventures are replaced by work-related rides of necessity, the monotony of cramming in with a thousand others (even the proverbial sardines would joke about being able to “swing a cat” or “land a 747″… not that any self-respecting sardine would joke about cats…) for the purpose of getting somewhere you’d rather not go (E.g. Top Shop) gets… old. As a side note, it’s not an exaggeration to state that the amount of unidentifiable black stuff that comes out of my nasal passage, after having ridden the Tube for all of 20 minutes, would make any health professional cringe.

The lighter side of all of this is the convenience and the regularity of services. Most Tube lines run every 1-5 minutes, anticipated closures are broadcast well ahead of time and I have actually seen evidence of new paintwork following one of the aforementioned “maintenance”-related stoppages. There is also the huge range of commuters that participate in this daily, underground migration – corporate types suited up in thousands of ££’s worth of business attire, tourists touting “Primark”, “Top Shop” and “H&M” shopping bags, grandmas gingerly stepping off and on (minding the “gap”) the platform, over-protective boyfriends protecting their attractive girlfriends with menacing stares, entire Indian (I’m not being racist… this is fact) families piling into carriages complete with a months worth of groceries (some crammed into whatever part of the accompanying pram that is not filled with baby/toddler/grandma)… not to mention the tap-dancing homeless people, the fresh-from-an-Arsenal-win football fans…..

“This is a Picadilly Line to Cockfosters“… snigger

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Happy Hungarian, Budapest Birthday

The Chain Bridge over the Danube River by night

Turning 29 is quite emotional. Well… not really, but it sets the scene for this blog rather nicely. For starters, it begins a year-long count-down to a much larger number than what is logically, and simply, just another year (except, in this instance, it will be a leap year – thanks Jeremy). Astrologically (so I’ve been told) it marks the first of your life’s potential “Saturn Returns” (more here, if you give a sh*t… which I don’t). But mostly, it means you’re just… getting old.

I have long been at ease with the prospect of reaching the milestone of 30, so this is no big deal. But, as we all get older it’s hard to escape an increasing sense of emotional awareness, yearning for financial security and, at least for myself, an acceptance that (despite an over-whelming urge to tell crap jokes, make a dick of myself and continue blogging in a vain attempt to take over the literary world) you are who you are and that no amount of aggressive behaviour modification, Anthony Robbins seminars or botox treatments, can change your core self. At least that’s what I’m sure a more mature version of myself may say. Without getting too “airy-fairy”… the roller-coaster of emotions that made up my birthday started with… relief.

Budapest's Grand Market Hall

This relief (which can be further analogised to the roller-coaster theme by the relief that a child would feel at being of sufficient height to be able to ride the roller-coaster) came primarily in the form of an early-ish wake-up that, although not entirely welcome, was thankfully not related to any dreaded shift at Top Shop. This was then rapidly followed by excitement (akin to settling in a roller-coaster seat and strapping yourself in) as, after all, it was my birthday and good things happen on birthdays.

There was then a slight emotional lull in proceedings (like when the roller-coaster is click-clicking it’s way up the initial, steep portion of the track) which involved EayJet-style queueing and the mad people-avalanche that is involved in locating seats, elbowing your way to the immediate vicinity and then menacingly staking your claim in the over-head compartment for your bulging baggage (haha… bulging baggage). The EasyJet experience could quite easily be the subject of an entirely separate blog-post…

But, right from landing in Budapest, it was pure elation, fun and enjoyment and, similar to the awesome parts of a roller-coaster, this part seemed to go all too quickly. A mumbling (and probably potty-mouthed) airport shuttle driver ensured we saw as much of the city’s other nice hotels before finally dropping us off at the rather nice Art’otel that overlooks the Danube and the magnificently lit-up Parliamentary Buildings. We were momentarily, and unreasonably, gutted when we found our room faced away from the river… only to open the curtains to a view of an equally-magnificently lit-up Matthias Church. Awesome.

Unbeknownst to me, Amber had arranged to meet up with our friend, and fellow explorer of Nice, Monaco and London, Jo. A crazy co-incidence in timings meant she was in Budapest at the same time. This inevitably led to many Hungarian beers, mulled wines and occasional swigs of Hungarian Palinka, being consumed over the three nights of our trip. The following few days were amongst the most amazing we’ve had since leaving NZ in April. For photographic evidence, check facebook. A MASSIVE thank you to Amber for organising an amazing weekend and a huge shout-out to Budapest. Get there if you haven’t already.

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Temporarily Top Shop-tastic

I never thought I’d see the day. And it’s not as if it was a rash, last-ditch move made out of desperation to restore financial order to a travel-fuelled sea of debt. It’s not like I had Baycorp at my front door, threatening to take all my belongings – which, at the present time, could be itemised precisely on one standard-sized post-it note (To be fair, if Baycorp arrived at the front door of the North London townhouse where we’re currently staying, claiming I owed any amount that necessitated an around-the-world flight then… fair play to them). No, it’s not as if I was even guilt-tripped into it by my better half who had almost finished her second week of mind-numbing contract admin work. No, I brought it upon myself. I’ll admit it. My inability to verbalise any remotely negative response, and thereby emphasize to the sneaky temp agency that I was a man who could do anything, was my potential downfall. It’s all like a strange dream now, but it definitely happened. And it will, more than likely, happen again.

And so it was, a bewildered 28-year-old version of myself, a promising-yet-somewhat-experienced sales and marketing professional with an awkward approach to humour, sitting in a popular clothing chain-store that was due to soon be in-fluxed by two kazillion fashion-conscious teens and university students. Next to me were half a dozen late-teen (21 at MOST) young women (with vastly more retail experience than I – i.e. have actually worked in a similar store or… have spent more than an hour in such a store without heading swiftly for the exit while gasping for fresh air) awaiting our “assignments” as temporary shop assistants. Yip, to say I was a fish out of water would be like saying the Queen herself may feel a little out of place on the set of “Good Will Humping”. I had no idea what I was in for.

To start off I was allocated a lanyard. I’m not sure how this piece of unnecessary equipment manages to alleviate some individuals levels of self-importance to that akin to Zeus, the god of all gods. This psychological effect seems related to what happens to even the geekiest of geeks when he/she attempts to wear sunglasses inside and assumes, seemingly because no-one can see their eyes, that they are Chuck Norris himself, and develop a strange swagger and accompanying Zoolander-type sneer. I was quite looking forward to a similar effect taking hold of me and envisaged myself as a real-life Popeye after having chugged back ten pints of condensed spinach. But, alas, I remained a mere mortal and found this man-jewellery to be a huge hindrance anywhere within cat-swing of protruding pointy things or passing projectiles. But, as an official “Top Shop Staff” member, I felt like I was part of the cool group… and I was gunna enjoy it.

The fun ended there really. Yes, I had a few moments of near-awesomeness – like when I adopted the native NZ “how’s it” head movement (you know… one eyebrow slightly down, faint upside-down smile and the quick upward-motion “nod”) at my fellow Top-Shopians, as if I was one of a select few. I even managed to surprise a fellow temp (who has five years experience as team leader at a Target in Sydney… so there) by quickly and efficiently learning the intricate art of fastening security tags to newly-arrived garments AND I got my first appearance on the shop floor (centre stage) whilst trying my darnedest to find the specific location (in a hectic, jam-packed, two-storied retail outlet) for the re-location of 20-odd singlets.

The rest of the day was more IQ-lowering than stock-taking individually coloured jellybeans that had, somehow, filled Scrooge McDuck’s hilltop vault (imagine that…). “Filing” over-priced clothes into storeroom locations, tidying stupidly-uncoordinated rows of jackets/jerseys and moving more clothes around than should EVER be squeezed into such a confined space (A few of you will have a giggle at that last one) was never going to put me on track for self actualisation. But it’s money in the bank… and for that I’m grateful.

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Comforting Notions for the Lesser Travelled

Each time I recently posted photos from Amber and my Awesome Adventure, I could hear it. Each photo depicting either or both of us somewhere tropical, far-flung and/or cliche-but-man-I-want-to-go-there must have brought about a guttural “get f****d”, “bloody show off”, “lucky for some” from a select few. These rants may or may not be followed by an overly-dramatic shut down of the laptop in exasperation, maybe a walk to the fridge to grab another calm-down beer or possibly a quick trawl of the photos just to check if the photo-putter-upperer experienced any nasty falls… or a bite from an angry venomous snake cooped up in a wooden box in Koh Samui. The reason I know all of this for sure is… that used to be me.

This is not to say things have changed too dramatically. This would necessitate me attaining a level of maturity – involving the ability to see logical and sensible reason far beyond the extreme, wavering nature of human emotion. Bugger that. Despite the amazing destinations our travels have taken us, I still experience the same envy of people having fun and experiencing places/events/circus-freak-riding that I haven’t. I still label these people “dicks” (based solely on jealousy) and sulk in a corner for the next 5-6 minutes. This is usually followed by a reluctant viewing of their sixty million photos of their weekend in Budapest. Followed by the overwhelming urge to have my own weekend in Budapest.

Whoops, how did this photo get in here?? Seriously, I mean it, it's not all litre-steins-of-awesome-beer and non-stop fun... kind of.

The comforting thought we ALL must realise is… no-one takes photos of the stressing traveller trying to find a place to sleep, or hungover and grumpy on an eight-hour bus trip (actually… I’ve seen some of those photos…), or experiencing gastroenteritis on a crappy below-deck cabin in the Aegean Sea. Even IF there’s a picture of this taken, it very rarely makes it to facebook. Well, not by the person in the picture anyway.

It is with this knowledge I’m making an effort to appease those of you who may have experienced any such facebook-envy or jealousy at having not had similar experiences… yet. I can assure you that, at various stages, Amber and I felt our age and decided that maybe backing up a “semi-big” night with a pub crawl, that STARTED at 1am in the morning, was not an attractive idea. We welcomed the fact we’re not big on “doof doof” music, large groups of shrieking teenage Australian girls or tour guides with egos bigger than Matthew Ridge’s… chin. We’re well over large dorm rooms, arrogant French people and Australian tourists. Did I mention Australian tourists? I have a theory that they’re the new wave of what was stereo-typically loud, obnoxious American tourists… but that generalization has yet to take off.

All I’m saying is… it isn’t all smiles, wonderment and life-changing travel. It mostly IS, but I’m sure you’ll be glad I’m attempting to make you feel better about it all. Now I’m off to meticulously plan our next adventure. Maybe Bruges… or Amsterdam… hmmmmmmm.

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Idle Times for this Kiwi Mind

Being unemployed can do strange things to a person. Simple, everyday tasks and menial duties can turn into, quite possibly, one of the highlights of your week. Things like warm showers at 9am, daily videos and investigating the myriad of options available from the fridge for lunch become shining moments of awesomeness and events to, from the mere thought of, get overly excited about. It’s the boredom that does it. And the permeating half-thought that, unless you spend all of your waking day looking for the next step towards financial incomings (from which you can better plan complete world domination in the form of a weekend trip to Bruges), your day will be a complete waste of time and you’ll have to join the legion of trackpant-and-ugg-boot wearers that shuffle about the streets of outer London, reeking of unemployment-ness.

But it’s not all doom and gloom!

Despite all this travelling over the past four months, there have been a few personal drawbacks or “side-effects”. That’s not to say these drawbacks even BEGIN to make a dent in all the awesomeness that ensued as Amber and I jet-setted halfway around the world, it’s just that there are some little things you notice when the all the fun is over and you’ve dispersed your belongings from the chaotic confines of your pack to the various storage facilities of a new room. Not that you hadn’t noticed these “things” along your travels, but it’s only now you’re not traversing from hostel to hostel, frustratingly attempting to communicate with a Frenchman or rushing to catch yet-another 8am bus to your next destination, that you can sit back and take stock of the whole… situation.

Captain Carbohydrate as I'd imagine him/her/it

First of all there’s the European Enlargement Effect (EEE). People will tell you that, in Europe, there is an exceptional amount of bread, pasta and similarly carbohydrate-laden foods readily available at affordable prices. These people are WRONG. There is FAR more than an “exceptional” amount available. In fact, you will struggle to escape the convenience of such food. Even if you’re Captain Carbohydrate himself, these foods will creep up on you and slowly but surely get… under your skin… literally. Needless to say I’d put on a few pounds and that, being now situated in a land of pub grub and countless fine ales, I was worried things wouldn’t get any better.

Next up is the Dwindling Intelligence Effect (DIE). Yes, travel broadens your horizons, develops your sense of the world and your place in it, fosters friendly relationships with like-minded people and creates a whole heap of facebook-envy-inducing photographic moments, but… it makes you dumb. So much so that as I scribbled the third answer in a clearly-labelled “easy” Sudoku puzzle after half an hour of head-scratching and swearing, I was starting to think I’d never be worthy of any of the jobs advertised in even the “graduate” section of the UK employment websites.

You’ll be stoked to know that both of these disorders have been almost overcome by good breakfasts, morning walks and a cover-to-cover reading of “Life for Dummies”. My fellow job-hunter mate Jeremy has definitely experienced similar travel-related effects (he is living in Angel and was disappointed I didn’t mention him in my previous blog so… there you go J) and would probably agree with me when I wind this all up by saying it’s a small price to pay. Also, Amber has a job and started yesterday – woohoo!

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London Living & Job Hunting

From our humble bedroom window here in Enfield I can make out what locals would describe as a “sizeable back yard” (as well as the neighbours counter-part) , yet another row of typical street town-houses and yet another overcast morning. Just kidding, this morning was quite a rare pearler of a morning – not a cloud in the sky and a comfortable autumnal chill in the air. The accepted norms here, in terms of real estate, would give any staunch Kiwi a great excuse to have a good old fashioned rant, and accompanying rave, on how much better we have it at home. And, for the most part, he/she would be right.

For all the forward advice I’d received about London prior to getting here (and believe me it was a seriously mixed bag of “awesome”, “dumb”, “stink”, “choice” and “eeeeh… it’s OK”) I had little idea of how accurate almost ALL of this feedback was. All of you that have been to and seen London for yourselves will be rolling your eyes (Ha! Like I’m not used to that old manoeuvre) and saying “Told you so ya dickhead”, but I have differed in opinion with feedback on other places/cities/experiences enough over the past four months to know not to take such subjective statements for gospel.

Yes, I’d been told about the finicky-yet-somewhat-reliable underground public transport system likened (in name) to a cylinder. I’ve now found the secret code to deciphering the colours, names and winding passageways that make you feel as if you’re going to pop up in Northern Africa, and I can report my findings to be satisfactory. I’d also definitely been told about the even finickier nature of the weather system that seems hell-bent on confusing the proverbial excrement out of locals and tourists alike. The past “summer” here in the UK has been considerably different to what we’d expect back home and, in past months, London’s daily weather forecast has looked almost identical to that of Auckland – in the middle of winter. I’d ALSO been told of the similarity, in quantity, of both household letterboxes and the number of pubs within the greater London area (I have no definite statistics to back that up unfortunately). And I can confirm this with a great amount of happiness. In short, London is frickin’ cool once you get over the crazily fickle weather (and run screaming half-naked onto any patch of semi-vacant grass as soon as the sun is out in full force) and the occasional inconvenience caused (usually in the weekends) by signal failures and “ongoing maintenance” on public transport.

Ams & I are now in full Job Hunt mode, characterised by our wary computer-screen-blasted eyes, the numerous cups of tea and coffee being made and our reluctance to leave the cosy confines of our bed when our alarms go off at the leisurely time of 8am. So far we’ve found; recruitment agencies think their farts smell like blooming rose-buds on a UK May morning, any reference to a Tier 5 “Youth Mobility” visa should be left to the very END of your CV and following up on a weekly basis saves you the anxiety associated with wandering whether your lazily-put-together cover letter has led to someone even looking at your CV. Both of us have endured various peaks and troughs in motivation and the odd “existential funk” (in which I took a leaf out of the legendary Ron Burgundy’s book and went suit shopping!). But we’ll persevere.

We’ve definitely enjoyed our time in London thus far and have done our fair share of touristy adventures to the likes of Camden Markets (where, if you’re not careful, you’ll wind up with the equivalent of a ream of regular A4 of tattoo shop brochures), Shoreditch (awesome little street market with fantastic fresh food – meat pies!!), Trafalgar Square (bigger and better than I expected?), Chiswick (catching up with Team “Chizzick” – Glen & Jess and Blake & Jenna) and briefly visited Clapham Junction & Tooting Broadway (Phil). We’ve seen our fair share of Monopoly-related streets and perched our cold rare-ends on the lane-dividing fence on Waterloo Bridge to watch the pretty-darn-impressive fireworks that marked the end of the Thames Festival. We’ve strained our necks gazing at the biggest of the world’s Bens, the London Eye as well as counting the aeroplanes ominously circling Heathrow. London has countless worthwhile events, sights, suburbs and is far greener and friendly than most give it credit for. But I still miss NZ.

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