January 11, 2019

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On day two of this new year I was back at work and feeling pretty blue about it. I work three days per week from an atypical office I share with three other people. It is located in a pocket of Melbourne, just outside the CDB, populated with offices, apartment buildings, a couple of hospitals, and of course the university I work for. However it does also have some greenery, Melbourne’s good like that. There’s a rather large park down one of the major roads, perhaps two kilometers away, and a few smaller ones in opposite directions. And then there are the areas I think of as micro parks. Small patches of grass, wedged between dissecting back streets, hidden away behind the multistory behemoths. These tiny slices of land are mini oasis’s from the surrounding sea of traffic and enterprise, and it’s from one of these parks that I’m writing this now, its greenery making me feel less blue. Given the peace of this micro park it seemed like a good place to share some thoughts as we roll into the new year.  So let’s dig in.

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I use to look down upon new year’s resolutions, and new years as a celebration in general. It seemed arbitrary to my not-so-long-ago younger self. The parties never felt as fun as they should, resolutions can be made any day of the year, and it’s so close to Christmas; and you’re never going to be able to compete against Christmas when it comes to good ways to end off a year.

Now, I like New Years more. There are a number of reasons for this, but mostly it comes down to a matter of perspective.

I realised the mode of celebration was under my influence, and that I craved something more subdued and relaxed than an all out party, as that felt like a better was to step into a new year. This year, for example, started off great. I started it married. I started it on a beach with family watching illegal fireworks explode above us as the waves crashed gently against the shore. I started it with my wife sitting in front of me and a chest sore from laughing. We drank some spirits from the bottle, jokes flying between the five of us, played some good/bad music off of Holly’s phone, lay down on a too small blanket, looked up at the endless array of stars, and sang. While I did find sand in my hair the next morning it still seemed like if the rest of the year was an extension of that night, then 2019 would be just fine.

I also have my resolutions for the year, or goals as my brother Matthew prefers, as goals are changeable and adaptable, able to be altered to match whatever may come. The reason I have started this tradition is that while resolutions can be made any day of the year, while we can stop and evaluate our situations, decide upon changes we’d like to make then action them, we often don’t. New years works as a reminder that I have influence over my life, specifically my actions, and that if I want to make changes the first step is deciding on what they are. Even if I don’t want to make changes, it’s still good to stop and recognise that fact, appreciate the course I’m on and continue down it.

My four goals are much the same as last year, which boil down to Write more, Run more, Read more, and one new one, which is to pick up the guitar again and learn some new songs. All of these goals have definitive targets involved because I’ve found that’s what works best from me. They also have spreadsheets to track these targets because, again, that’s what works best for me. They’re also all goals I have control over. There’s no point me setting a goal like ‘get a story published’ because ultimately I can’t ensure that happens. I can write a story, find a publication to submit it to, and do the best job I can with the application, but that doesn’t mean I have any control over whether it gets published or not. Now, if my goal was to submit one story per week to a publication, then we have a tangible and achievable goal I have control over.

As for competing New Years against Christmas, then, yeah, no, New Years isn’t going to take that crown, at least not for me. But it’s not supposed to, they’re two different beasts, each with their own positives, and personally I’ve come to enjoy the contemplative aspect that New Years provides.

Whatever shape 2019 ends up taking I know I’m grateful to be living it, and hope that throughout the year I continue to look at the stars, laugh until my chest hurts, and sing bad songs. And, occasionally, find a quiet micro park to sit in, escape the world for a moment, and write down some words, much like these.

Talk soon,

Damian

January 4, 2019

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I have a new habit. When I’m bored, or thinking, or my fingers just need something to do, I turn a ring that sits at the base of my index finger around and around. The habit is new because the ring is new. It was given to me on the fifteenth of December in a stunning park near my house by a woman who I love while a hundred of our nearest and dearest watched.

In other words, I got married.

It was the cap on not only an amazingly big year, but an amazingly enriching and life-altering dating relationship. The day itself was beyond my imagining. I’ve never been one to believe that your wedding day is the happiest day of your life, that always seemed a little bleak to me. What about all the other days? All the ones where you fell a little more in love? All the ones that made the wedding day happen? And what about all the ones that come after? The ones where you grow old with that person beside you?

But saying all that, our wedding day was up there as one of the most joyous I have lived. There have been other days that have been as good, but few that were filled with so much love. And the thing that surprised me was that it wasn’t just mine and Holly’s love, it was all of it. It was my love of the people in the room, and their overwhelming love washing back. It was the community that had grown and surrounded us our whole relationship all in one room, all celebrating. It was my parents in the front row tearing up as we spoke our vows. It was my sister’s exuberant face, the effort and time she put into making us a beautiful mountain of a cake. It was my brothers, both those of blood and those bonded through friendship, as they stood beside me. It was the bridesmaids on the other side, women I had come to know and love, and who are my sisters whether they know it or not. It was the earnest congratulations from my aunties and uncles, the gleam in their eyes as they wished us so many good things. My three year old nephew on the dance floor, fists clenched, belting out every word of Ed Sheeran’s Castle on the Hill, while a crowd of adults gathered around him, cheering him on. It was the feel of Holly’s hands in mine as the celebrant said the words that would make us husband and wife. It was the awkward feeling of eyes as we swayed our way through our first dance. The cheer that went up as we were introduced as husband and wife. My Dad’s speech, thoughtful and honest. My new sister, Kerry, bringing tears to the eyes of many in the room. The uncontrollable laughs as my brother Jonathan delivered his words with the deadpan skill of a seasoned stand up comedian. The dancing, the singing, the songs from our youth that were so bad they’ve now become good. The group circle as we collectively sang the classics, all self-consciousness lost with the aid of love, comfort, and alcohol. The laughter as my wife and I skipped arm in arm with our bridal party through a public park. The overly squeezy hugs from my new sister-in-law as she said through joyfully gritted teeth ‘I love you so much’. My uni mates all huddled together, a mass of friendship as we shouted out the words to Rod Stewart’s Rhythm of my Heart. The dance moves; silly, fun, and over-the-top. It was Holly walking towards me, flowers in hand, smile on her face. The lump in my throat as I think about it even now. The photos, the kisses, the warm words. The moments I took with my new wife to stop and look around the room and just take all of it in.

It was our wedding day.

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To add to this wedding post I thought I’d share my vows with you all. Not only because I’m happy to declare them in front of a global digital audience, but because I’m proud of them, and proud of the woman I was lucky enough to say them to.

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My love, you are such a warm wonderful beacon in my life. You fill my days, my thoughts, and my arms in the best way possible. The most Holly way possible. A way that makes me grateful. A way that makes me centred. A way that adds something special to any given day. 

I love the years we have spent together and the life we have built. I love you. Your inquisitiveness, your quiet strength, your easy company, your cheeks. I love what’s inside your head, and without it. You are my favourite person, and a life with you is the best life I can imagine.

So, I promise to climb mountains with you. Be they metaphorical mountains made up of life’s challenges or your personal goals, or real ones made of dirt and stone. Either way I promise to walk and climb along side you, encourage and support you, joke and mock insult you all the way up and down the other side.

I promise to have fun with you. Be it on a big badass adventure, or a quiet night at home. I promise to watch cartoons, go to parties, sing in cars, read books, have long chats, send you cute animal pictures, aggressively grab your butt, and kiss your face. I promise to do these things on the easy days, and, especially, on the hard ones.

I promise to be your partner. To do extra chores when I know you’re low on time. Help you look for something that you’ve lost. Give you a shoulder massage just because. To listen when you need to talk, have patience when you’re flustered, to use what small influence I have to make your life a little bit easier and a little bit better, and thank you when you do the same for me.

I promise to love you. To respect, appreciate, and value all the things that make you you. To squeeze you overly tight when I’m full to bursting with that love or to whisper it gently in a more restrained and less rib damaging way. To look for all the ways I love you and remind myself just how lucky a man I am.

And I promise to keep updating these promises. To add subsections and amendments and entirely new promises as our lives grow and change. To keep you and them always in my mind and my decisions and my actions.

I promise to choose you, every single day.

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Talk soon

Damian

November 27, 2018

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Slovakia had already stunned us with it’s quiet alpine towns and its challenging mountain trails, but it had more in store for us to enjoy before we’d head back home.

Here’s what happened next.

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We woke early, showered, tidied up, and said goodbye to our glammed up, luxurious, definitely haunted apartment complex and walked down to the train station. Our backpacks, now feeling more like a part of us than not, sat comfortably against our backs, the sun already rising in the bright blue sky. We would miss this place but we were excited to see what came next.

We would be heading first to a city called Poprad, then swap trains onto a village called Vydrník. First though, our train had to arrive on time as our crossover only allowed minutes in between this change.

It did not.

The plan had been that our new hosts would pick us up at Vydrník station at a specific time and then drive us over to the accommodation as it was a little way out from the station. However with our train delayed and our transfer uncertain we had to tell our hosts that we weren’t sure now when we would be arriving and that we’d figure out our own way from the station to the accommodation. With that done the train pulled up. We piled on, found our seats, and settled in for the short trip to Poprad. In Poprad we ran out of the train, hoping against hope that our original train would still be at its platform. Seeing a platform that advertised the same departure time as our train we hoped for the best and ran up the steps to see the train waiting. We asked the conductor if it was heading to Vydrník, it was, so we rushed on board. The train began to move as we fell into our seats. Turns out we would make it at the original time after all…except now we had no ride. We’d figure it out. First though we watched autumn pass by our windows. Yellows and orange and red, and some remaining green filled the view with it’s golden splendor. The train trundled along and I could barely focus on my book due to this gorgeous countryside.

We pulled into Vydrník and the lady Holly and I jumped out to find that, sure enough, our message had been received and no car waited for us. Unfortunately, not much else did either. Not only was Vydrník a speck of a village, it was also centered further afield than the station and in the opposite direction from our own village, Hrabušice. We started walking, following a large two lane road lined with apple trees loaded with fruit, the ground likewise littered with it’s fallen and forgotten bounty. Our backpacks, which had felt so comfortable and familiar that morning began to drag against our shoulders as the dirt crunched beneath our feet. The sun was now well up, warm but not hot. We scanned the hilly landscape, still able to see the mountains we had traversed days earlier on the horizon. It was, all told, a nice walk. We made it into Hrabušice, pointing out the small shops and restaurants we would hopefully visit during our time here, then past towards our accommodation. We rang the doorbell. A young woman greeted us, excited by the prospect of meeting Australians; conveying this excitement in good but limited english while telling us how far we must have come. Her excitement was a joy and soon infected us, overriding our own tiredness. The accommodation was simple compared to the penthouse we had left that morning, but comfortable and welcome.

Hrabušice is located on the outskirts of the Slovak Paradise National Park, our reason for being there. It is also, as we were to learn, small, old-fashioned, and quaint. We walked its entirety within an hour, circling around the outskirts of the town and through it’s housed streets, spotting many cute dogs, and one sheep, in the front yards. While it did have the aforementioned shops and restaurants, they seemed to come from a time in the not so distant past. The first shop we went to was tiny, it’s shelves full of basic stock, all visible from behind a rope. This shop was like those from before my time, where you’d point out to the proprietor your list of items and they would collect and bag them for you. Quaint? Yes. Convenient? Less so. Mostly thanks to the language barrier. Our Slovak was, and unfortunately remains, non-existent, so when the shop lady asked us what we wanted we weren’t one hundred percent sure what she was asking, nor knew how to answer. Luckily, through a lot of pointing and miming, we were able to purchase what we needed and for a remarkably cheap price. The restaurants were pleasantly more english friendly, usually even having english menus, and full of rich, meaty, delicious food, and cold frothy beers. It’s smalltown-ness and isolation was a quiet pleasure, knowing soon that we would be in its opposite, back home in a city where our time and attention would be demanded from many sources. I think of it’s paddocked outskirts and star filled sky now and wish I could go back, just for an instant, and breath in its fresh country air.

While Hrabušice was lovely, the Slovak Paradise National Park was where the real treasure lay. The entrance to the park was located just a few kilometers from where we were staying, so the next morning we packed a lunch and headed out into the foggy air. The road took us past yet more apple trees and paddocks that contained, surprisingly, Highland cows. We had seen these beautiful rust coloured beasts first in Scotland, months ago, and, Holly especially, had fallen in love with them. It was somehow right that we were seeing them now, at the end of our trip, making our adventure seem that it had come full circle. We feed them some of the fallen apples, causing one to follow us for quite a way, before we turned off and headed toward the park.

In summer the park is busy, with an entrance fee and a couple of small streets full of bars and souvenir shops that you must traverse before heading into the wilds. But this was autumn, and so, with visitor numbers drastically lower, the streets were empty, as was the entrance booth. We walked through the deserted area, walked along the tree line, through grass thick and wet with morning dew, and into the park.

One thing you should know about the Slovak Paradise National Park is that it is full of gorges, and while other countries may situate its walks above these ridges in the landscape, Slovakia thought the best views were from inside them. They were not wrong. But, you may be saying, wouldn’t the gorges be full of water from time to time? And you, now, would not be wrong. Which is why these gorges are decked out with wooden bridges, ladders, winding steps built into the rock face, and chains to help you traverse the rocky water way.

It was amazing. It felt like a giant adventure park, like we had been transported inside a Crash Bandicoot game, following a path that required us to step, jump, and climb, to make our way to the finish line. Add to this the ridiculous beauty of the landscape, the incredible autumn colours, and the soft musical rainfall of the falling leaves, and you have one of the greatest days I have ever lived.

I could go into more detail, describing the throbbing wellspring of joy in my chest as we passed through that well named paradise, taking photos at almost every step. Instead I think it’s easier to just show you those photos as they can say more than I ever could.

We spent more days in this idyllic little part of the globe, went on more walks, had more funny little experiences, found more animals to pat. We continued on, through Košice and Budapest, and made our way back to Vienna, and then to Melbourne. Home.

Part of me wants to tell you all about it, in unnecessary, potentially painful, detail, mostly in an attempt to relive the experience. But, I’m learning, that’s just not possible. One, because I am a flawed beast with a not so picture perfect memory, and two, because experiences are only ever once in a lifetime, and can never be repeated. The river of time flows on and we can never walk through it at the same point twice. The closest we can come is this, stories and memories and photos.

Which is plenty.

And the beauty of it all is that once those experiences have been lived, their ours forever. I may go back to my workaday job, get pulled down into routine, look at my phone too much and get stuck in traffic, but the fact that I have done these things and visited those places still remains. I will even die one day, and all those stories and memories and photos will undoubtedly be lost to time, but they still happened. They will always have happened. And that gives me solace, because I will be lost to time one day too, but I will always have existed.

As will these words.

Thanks for reading them.

Talk soon,

Damian

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November 8, 2018

 

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Holly and I have returned home. I am currently sitting on our familiar couch in our unchanged lounge room, eating an apple and writing this post. It is six thirty in the morning before my first day back at work. But rather than talk about that I’d like to talk about Slovakia and the final leg of our trip. A leg filled with incredible natural beauty, increasingly more rest days, and a journey over a mountain.

Let’s begin.

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While most of our travels had been meticulously researched, planned, and booked many months ago by the Lady Holly, the final leg was not. The final leg was going to be spontaneous, we would be spontaneous, we knew we would because we had pencilled it in to our diaries. Because that’s how spontaneity works, you plan it. The original idea was that close to the date we would go on skyscanner, look at the cheapest flights out of Vienna, book one, then leave the next day. Except, as you may have gathered, we’re not all that good at spontaneity and so during our time in Germany we cracked and booked some things. I’m glad we did.

What we booked was a number of trains leaving from Vienna, making their way through Slovakia, before getting a bus down to Budapest in Hungary. From the start we knew we liked Slovakia, mostly because their train network was so incredibly cheap we even decided to bump ourselves up to first class, which cost a dollar or so more. We also booked in our accomodation for this leg, granting ourselves seven days at our first location; the longest time we would have spent anywhere for the last couple of months. It was exciting, mostly because we didn’t really know what to expect. We knew we wanted to see more mountains, and that we wanted to rest more–as our months of being on the move were starting to wear us down–and Slovakia seemed to hit both of those notes; being both mountainous and quieter than some places. But that was it. Beyond that it was a mystery. One that would prove to have many treasures hidden within it.

Our first stop was Štrba, located at the base of the Upper Tatra mountains. Our accomodation wasn’t in Štrba proper, but a smaller village a short distance away called Tatranská Štrba. To call it sleepy would be appropriate; almost deserted, even more so. Our apartment was in a large complex, with views overlooking the Tatras. Across from it was a hotel which featured a “mini zoo”, with animals ranging from peacocks to goats–with nothing in between, as they just had peacocks and goats. Calling it a zoo might be a bit rich but it was a welcome delight nonetheless. The apartment was excessively affordable, well under budget compared to most of our other stays, and yet was the nicest, most lavish, accommodation we’d had the whole trip. It featured an enormous balcony with exceptional views, a very blinged up kitchen, with purple LED lights under the bench and an incredible coffee machine, two bathrooms, one of which had a large bath and mood lighting, and one of the best beds we’d slept in the whole trip. We played it cool as the host showed us around and explained how everything worked, but then broke into giddy giggles as soon as she waved goodbye. We would have seven days here and the place was paradise. And remember how I said the town was almost deserted? Well that went double for our apartment complex. Despite having four levels of apartments, we didn’t see a single soul the whole time we were there. Not once did we pass someone in the hall or share an elevator ride. Never did we catch anyone entering or leaving their apartment or have to hold the door for someone. We did hear noises though, and occasionally voices. Obviously ghosts, which just made us even more excited to stay there. Back to the town for a second, while it may have been deserted it was also gorgeous. Alpine and lush and rich with autumn colours, blue skies filled with sun shone down on us as we walked it’s quiet streets and took in the impressive natural scenery. And overlooking it all was the Tatras. On that first day we looked up at those mountains, keen to cross their craggy peaks.

Day one was rest day/buy groceries day/get all giddy about our killer accomodation day. Day two was our first journey up towards the mountain. We took a cute little train twenty minutes to its base where another tiny town sat, Štrbské Pleso. This town was larger, but again somewhat deserted, we assume due to it being off peak. While the weather was perfect for walking, the locals, we take it, are more interested in their winter sports, which is when the two towns would really fill up. This was a reconnaissance mission for us as we knew the next day we would get up early and return to do an epic sixteen kilometer walk over the mountain. Which brings us to day three.

The alarm went off at five, we packed bags, made a lunch, and were on the tiny train by six am, and back at the base of the mountain and walking by six thirty. The walk started through a fairytale forest, rocks and staircases of twisting roots lined the path, all shadowed by the centuries old trees reaching up around us. If Hansel and Gretel had skipped on through there it would have been little suprise. As we climbed the terrain changed, the forest making way for grasslands. The sun had yet to break the mountain peaks so we walked in shadow as we made our way up. The landscape began sparser still, grassland changing to rock. We saw a small waterfall leading into the stream we had been following and were surprised to see the track led up beside it. Right up in fact, as chains had been installed for us to climb with. We secured our backpacks and made it to the top of the mountain right as the sun broke free to shine down on us. It was perfect. It also wasn’t the top.

From our new platao we could see we still had much further to go. So on we went. We passed blissful pools of water, stark blue against the mountains grey. And on we went. We traversed over a field of rocks, boulders resting against boulders as far as we could see, the yellow markers revealing a path through them like we were adventurers in a video game. And on we went. We headed up, our legs starting to weary as they took high steps up a rocky staircase on the edge of a cliff face. And on we went. We scrambled over another false top–incredibly high now but not quite at the peak–and found an even larger pool, this one partly iced over and as reflective as a mirror. And on we went. We passed onto more rocks, these ones more uneven, the trail curving and hard to keep a track of. And on we went. Into snow, which hid the path even more, climbing more than walking now as we saw what we thought must be the top, but refused to believe the mountain after all its false promises. And on we went, until we got to a peak, a sharp ridge with an insane incline that we would have to climb over. More chains had been installed, and cold and exhilarated and more than a little tired, we pulled our bodies over the mountain.

Then there was the matter of getting down. The other side of the ridge proved just as steep as the side we had just traversed, but now we were going down, with gravity a little too keen to assist us. Falling was a very real risk, not helped by pebbly rubble beneath our feet. All of this combined caused Holly’s vertigo to kick in and panic to flare. She seized up, teared up, and for a moment thought she wouldn’t be able to do it. I knew she could. I know she can beat most mountains. I took her bag, she took some deep breaths, and with me speaking words of encouragement she took a shaky step down. Then another. And another. Until we were past the worst, and, while still far from flat, were on more solid ground. And on we went.

Our legs were past weary, past tired, and into angry and sore by the time we made it down and across to our end point, the top of the chairlift. Here was situated a beer house, because of course there was, this is Europe, and so we sat and drank and rested our legs.

The day, while tiring, had been one of extreme and rewarding experiences. We had climbed over a mountain and seen various shades of its beauty along the way. It was a day worth doing, worth remembering, and worth writing about.

Next time I’ll tell you what we did next.

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Talk soon,

Damian

 

October 19, 2018

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When last we spoke I was singing the praises of beautiful Mostar, sharing photos of yours truly smiling behind a giant platter of food, and spinning thoughts on war and kindness.

Let’s get back into it, shall we?

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We left Mostar by bus. A risky venture after the questionable success of the last one, and a risk we quickly paid for. We were heading back to Split in Croatia for a second night, and I was looking forward to seeing the city’s sun dabbled shore and discovering more of what hid behind it’s white stone foundations. But I would have to wait somewhat, as about half way through our four hour drive, our bus inexplicably pulled over onto the side of the road, where it would stay for the next two hours. I say inexplicably mostly because I don’t speak Croatian. Neither does Holly, funnily enough, and so we were both left scratching our heads as the driver took the bus in and out of park while slamming on the brake pedal and calling out in Croatian. We managed to get the gist of it; the bus was broken, something to do with the brakes, and we wouldn’t be going anywhere for awhile. We weren’t too bothered, we didn’t have a schedule to keep, we had snacks in our bags (always have travel snacks), the view from our breakdown spot was incredibly beautiful, and our kindles were charged and full of books. Even if a replacement bus didn’t come for the next day, we’d be fine. Some of our fellow passengers, however, weren’t so lucky. Two ladies, not travelling together, both started…how to put it?…freaking out. They had planes to catch and had not budgeted in time for their bus to break down on the side of a highway. One of the other passengers, a middle aged woman who clearly liked to take charge in situations she shouldn’t be taking charge of, marched down the bus and told them it was alright, she had a solution. They would pray. My eyebrows rose at hearing this, but rose higher when one of the women agreed. The other one responded more akin to my own thoughts, “or we could call for a replacement bus.” They ended up doing both. Not that either woman would see the replacement bus. They managed to score themselves a lift from a passing good Samaritan. Divine intervention? We’ll never know.

Split, as suggested earlier, is a coastal town, as much of Croatia is. Old world Mediterranean architecture rubs shoulders with startling blue ocean water, and holds port to a large number of skiffs, sail boats, and cruise ships. The center of Split is Diocletian’s Palace, an ancient roman building that more resembles a large fortress that a traditional palace. It was built at the turn of the fourth century AD, and has had quite a history since that time, with many conquerors moving in and out as the years passed. Today it is home to the city’s interior with twisting passage ways and shopfronts sprawling out from it like ink leaking through water. Rich white buildings and pillars, courtyards and underground passages, are now home to shops and cafes, gorgeous places to sit and drink a cup of strong coffee, or browse the many delicious food options available. I was very taken with it, but we didn’t have too much time to explore because, on a whim, we had booked ourselves on a sunset cruise.

With the sun setting we drank beer, ate canapes, and listened to music from the boats resident band. We felt fancy and exhilarated, and, later, drunk; having taken advantage of the endless alcohol a little too hard. Still, it was a beautiful night, spent beside my favourite person. Split had impressed, leaving us with the vow to hopefully return one day and see what else Croatia had to offer.

 

Next it was onto Prague, aka, my new all-time favourite city. I don’t say that lightly either, by the way. I’ve been lucky enough to visit many amazing cities in the past three months, but Prague…Prague was something else.

Part of it was the history, which is long, and terrible, and fascinating. Part of it is the beer, which is hoppy, and varied, and delicious. Part of it was the chimney cakes, which, well, look them up and you’ll see. But mostly it was the grandness of the city itself. The way every turn of every corner found some new architectural delight. How the streetlamps glowed. How the cobbles gleamed against their light. How if I squinted my eyes only a little I could swear I had walked into a city of wood and stone previously only found in the high fantasy books I grew up on. That was the most thrilling part of it all. When I read those books and heard about these grand old cities full of towers and turrets, ale and aged meats, manors and magic, I dreamed of walking through their streets. I thought this was only possible in the pages of books written by imaginative women and men, but in Prague, I lived this dream. The book obsessed teenager in me rippled to the surface and practically squealed as he walked across Charles Bridge, grinned madly at the aged Gothic statues dotting its surface, and took photo after photo of the sprawling, magisterial castle that overlooked it all. I’ve been lucky enough to have visited a number of medieval cities in my time, but none of them came close to living my fantasy the way Prague did.

I liked it, in case that wasn’t clear.

I immediately messaged Brother Jonathan, who had already been here himself, to madly share my gushing of the fact that I was in a city from the books we loved so much. I don’t remember his response but no doubt it was more subdued than the drunk-on-happiness text I’d sent him.

The next day we were already penciled in to do a walking tour of the city, needless to say I was very excited. The tour was ran by an affable North American man who had also come to the city because of love, both of the city and his now wife who was born in a town not far from Prague. This love of his (for the city, not his wife) was infectious and if I hadn’t already been spellbound by Prague at the start of his tour I would have been by the end.

From there there’s not too much more to say. We spent the rest of that day exploring it as best we could in our given time, grazing our way through as much food and drink as our stomachs would allow, and repeatedly declaring that next time we came back to Europe we would see more of Prague and more of the Czech Republic. I have no doubt it still has other hidden treasures to discover.

 

The magic of travel is that I get to visit worlds unknown to me. Yes, they may be my world, they may be the planet I’m already familiar with, but until I rocked my way over Croatia’s water, and strolled through Prague’s impressive streets, they didn’t exist to me. Not really.

Now they do, and what a wonderful, magical, and beneficial thing that is.

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Talk soon

Damian

October 9, 2018

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The travels continue. The Lady Holly and I have made our way through five countries in the past twelve days. That fact still astounds this previously isolated Australian. Back home I could drive all day and only just make it to the other end of the state. But here I can, and did, do a day trip from Austria to Slovakia in less time than it takes me to get to work.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. When last we spoke I was in Berlin, digging through its substrate to find hidden treasures. Much has happened since then, and I want to tell you all about it.

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We left Berlin by air, a shaky little budget airline, on a flight in which I read, Holly slept, and a giant sat beside me (or as close to a giant as a six foot something human can be–while I do sometimes wish I were taller I did not envy his height in this instance, my knees mostly fit under the chair in front, which is more than I can say for my giant seatmate). The turbulence and my fear of flying had me grabbing the armrest but the views we came upon, islands and oceans, also had me grabbing my camera (but also still the armrests). We were flying from Germany to Croatia, a short flight time-wise, but a large change in both climate and culture. We left six degrees plus windchill from a country full of beer and bread to land in the sunny Mediterranean where shorts, sunglasses, and cocktails were commonplace.

We were in Split, but we wouldn’t be here for long, spending just one night before a bus would take us across the border into Bosnia and Herzegovina. We will return to Split and so I’ll tell you more about that in just a moment, but, first, Mostar.

Mostar is one of the more important cities in the Herzegovina region, a city of old beauty and recent war. Its history is primarily one of conflict, as it sits between old dividing lines, nationalities, and religions. This conflict, however, mostly stems from the leaders, politicians, and the usual pack of arseholes who are too greedy for power and so ruin things for the rest of us. Its people, or at least the ones we met, primarily want one thing; peace. But we’ll circle back to that in just a moment.

Our first impression of Mostar was unfortunately not a good one. The budget bus line we were travelling with was running late, and so skipped a stop. Our stop. The one we had mapped a course to our accommodation from. Instead the bus dropped us off on the other side of town, where our lack of Bosnian and the drivers lack of English meant we really had no idea exactly where we were. The area was a little run down, and a beggar girl (the only one we saw the whole time it should be noted) greeted us as we stepped off the bus with an outstretched palm.  Like I said, not a great first impression, although, to be fair, few bus stations are. We were tired and lost and unsure of safety. We would later learn that we were never in any danger, Mostar is a remarkably safe city, especially for tourists who are very welcome there, but at this time we just wanted to make it to our accommodation as quickly as possible. There were two obstacles to that, however. The first was that, while I did have a sim card that provided me with 4G in a large number of countries across Europe, Bosnia and Herzegovina was not one of them. WiFi was also not available, at least at the bus station, and so any help from our phones was off the table. The second was that we didn’t have the right currency. Bosnia and Herzegovina is part of the European union, but are a later addition and so haven’t converted their currency to the Euro. Again, we would later learn that plenty of places did accept Euro, but for now we thought we might as well have monopoly money. We shook ourselves out of self pity and went and found an ATM. Now cashed up, the next thing was to find a taxi. We found one, but the guy took a phone call midway through Holly explaining where we were trying to go, and waved us away. Cool. So, it was onto the next one. Again, Holly explained where we were trying to get to, and after the driver conversed with a friend who must have known the roads better than he did, we were on our way. Things were looking up.

Accommodation in Mostar is largely guest houses, and ours did not disappoint. Our host, Nina, was kind and welcoming, with a delicious Eastern European accent that had me wanting to mimic it just to feel the taste of the words on my tongue. I did not, at least not while she was still there. The house was big, we had the entire first floor, which was a two bedroom house in itself, and wonderfully clean after the unfortunate experience with the apartment in Berlin. It was also laughably cheap, considering how nice it was and its great location; we were only a ten minute walk from old town. With our spirits well and truly lifted we decided to waste no time and go check it out.

The wounds and scabs of the recent Croat-Bosniak war were obvious as we walked, present in the form of dilapidated buildings, chipped and broken mortar, and the simple shells of what once were homes.

Around those though, was rebuilding. The war officially ended back in 1994 and while Mostar still hasn’t recovered to what they were previously it’s not for lack of trying. For all the bombings that happened during the war, and there were many, the old town mostly managed to stay clear of it. I say mostly for one very important reason. The bridge. The heart of old town, the heart of Mostar, and a proud feature for the locals, is the Stari Most, which translates, simply, to Old Bridge. They call it how it is in Mostar. They have good reason to be proud of this iconic feature because it really is quite lovely. 

Unfortunately, back in 1993, after standing for four hundred and twenty seven years, it came down. Military forces during the war destroyed it, after first destroying every other bridge in the city. The people were devastated, understandably, and it wasn’t until 2004, after the war had ended, that it was rebuilt, thanks in part to the financial aid of a number of neighbouring countries.

The bridge, however, is just the peak of the enchanting old town, where multi layer, bazaar-laden, cobbled streets are rich with people, riverfront seating, and the smells of spices and cooking. We were quickly caught by the charm of the place. It seemed like another world. Like a little pocket of medieval Arabia. A town from another era, which indeed it was. 

We wandered more than walked until our stomachs told us it was time to find out just what the source of the delicious smells were. Thanks to some of Holly’s research we already had a destination in mind, and, keen to try just about everything on their very tasty sounding menu, ordered the grill platter for two. What the restaurant neglected to mention was that this meal must have been meant for two ogres or bears or anything that can eat more than the average human because the pile of food that came out was certainly more than Holly and I could handle. We did our best, we really did, but it was a mountain of meat, with ponds of various dips and sauces, thick vegetation in the form of fresh vegetables and cheese, and at its base a plate of bread that could have, on its own, feed us both comfortably. It, and I, looked like this:

Food

I would not look like that by the time we were done. I would look bloated and full and like I’d just eaten my weight in meat, which indeed I had. The whole thing cost fifteen euro.

We spent the next few days exploring this broken and beautiful place. We had two guides in this time, one young, born towards the end of the conflict, hopeful and energetic and proud, the other older, having lived through the war, less energetic, with some bitterness, but still proud. This time would prove to be some of the most engaging of our entire trip. While we have visited countries that had experienced wars of their own, never had it been so recent, and, ironically, never had I known so little of it. This had happened in my lifetime. While I had happily been running around in grade two, these people had been running across streets to avoid sprays of bullets, hiding in shelters as bombs fell over head, protecting what they could from a war they didn’t want, didn’t agree with, but that they had found on their doorstep nonetheless.

The heart of the Croat-Bosniak war comes from three nationalist groups coming into power and then using this power to try and gain more power. They used past county lines and religious differences to try and gain territory and dispel people. Concentration camps were set up, families split, people killed; the usual laundry list of atrocities that come from war, and it had happened just over two decades ago on the land we were now walking. Our second guide, the older one, while explaining all this, mentioned in passing that he had been a soldier during it all, by necessity more than choice. He also explained that even though the war was over the effects were still being felt, and that many of his friends had turned to drugs and alcohol after a fragile peace was restored. He told us this not with anger or bitterness, just fact, the same way he pointed at a billboard for the upcoming elections and told us the man on it, the one looking for votes, was a war criminal who had avoided punishment. He spoke a lot that day, and for the most part Holly and I listened. As he talked I got the sense that he had avoided the fate of his friends because he talked, because he had people who listened, even if they were strangers from a foreign land who’d paid for the privilege. His tourism had turned to therapy. I hope he continues to talk. I hope that tourists continue to visit. I hope that war never finds them again, even if the roots of it are already trying to find ground.

There was one other thing, one beautiful and inspiring thing, that both guides told us. It has to do with the people that share Mostar’s borders. People from three lands, Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia, each with differing religions, Catholic, Muslim, and Christian Orthodox. These differences were the reasons the nationalists used to start their war, and the one they continue to try and use to re-flare it, but separatism is not something felt by the people of Mostar. Quite the opposite. “Unity is the spirit of Mostar” is what both guides told us. That was how they said it, the spirit of Mostar. They said it with pride, they said it with hope, as they explained how before the fighting all these differing parties had lived, worshiped, and even married together, how tolerance and understanding was common in a place that could have instead been a boiling pot.

To say I was humbled by Mostar and its people would be an understatement. We primarily went to Bosnia and Herzegovina for the lovely scenery and pools of turquoise water, and we definitely got that, but we got something else as well. A deeper understanding of the evils of mankind, yes, but also the kindness that often gets overshadowed by it. A kindness that should never be disregarded and never be forgotten.

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I was planning to write more on this leg of the trip but this feels like a nice stopping point, so I’ll save that for next time. Instead, I’ll leave you with some of the scenery I mentioned.

Talk soon,

Damian

The Words in the Walls

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Over the last week I’ve been writing a story on twitter with the help of friends and strangers.  You might remember this from the last time I did one, but basically it’s a collaborative effort where I provide the ongoing story and the aforementioned friends and strangers vote on what direction it goes.

I genuinely really enjoy doing these. One, because it means I’m ensuring I write every day, even if it is just in two hundred and eighty character bursts. And, two, because it also makes the writing process a lot less isolated. It’s amazing to me that the writers room for this little story was spread out over who knows how many spaces and countries. It truly shows the brighter side of the internet. So, to everyone who voted and followed along, thank you.

In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I’ve also started a new twitter page where I can continue these stories indefinitely.  Feel free to click the previous link to follow along and participate, the more voters the better as that will ensure the story doesn’t stop.

In the meantime you can also click the link below to read the twitter story; The Words in the Walls.

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Remember, we live in a time where at any point you can type ‘red panda’ into google then see a bunch of pictures of them, and if that’s not magic I don’t know what is.

Talk soon,

Damian