Onwards once more

And now we are in our new accommodation in Edinburgh. A week in Paris, a week in Liverpool, a week of dog-sitting, and now we are in a clean, tidy flat with a lovely housemate for the next six weeks. Time to breathe, stretch out a bit and relax (and also time to properly unpack our suitcases!)

Duffy was a dream – sweet as pie, very well-behaved for a puppy and always eager to play. Also, taking a dog for a walk in a public park makes you a people-magnet. We had so many great conversations with fellow dog-walkers about travel and Edinburgh and Australia and received many good tips for the next couple of years. We caught up with an Australian girl we met on the walking tour and spent the day trawling up and down the Royal Mile, breathing in centuries of whisky, history, hot tea, tartan, and cobblestones. I found out that a house J.K Rowling used to live in was a twenty-minute walk from our flat, so I took Duffy and Sean on a Rowling expedition to glimpse the place that utter greatness once inhabited.

The flat we moved into today is further out from the city – about a half-hour bus ride – and the neighbourhood is lined with fields and is a stones throw from the Pentland Hills. I am yet to find a corner of Edinburgh that lacks charm. To top everything off, I’ve opened another envelope in a package given to me by my two best buds, a packet full of surprises that I am trying to make last, and discovered a USB with a whole bunch of my most favourite films on it. Every day, I have to pinch myself and marvel at how lucky I am.

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Tourists again!

Today, we were tourists for the first time in our adopted city. We have been to Edinburgh before, for several days in 2012. I also went for a single day in 2007 with my bosom chum, Alfie. I love this city. I love the architecture, the history, the sound of the accents, I even love the dreadful weather, which we experienced in full force today (okay, there was only a little bit of rain, but the wind was crazy). I love this city so much, we decided to move here. So far, all we’ve done is high-five ourselves. It’s brilliant.

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The beautiful puppy we are dog-sitting was looked after today by a friend of her owner’s, who has known her since she was tiny and regularly comes over to spend time with her. This was great for the dog, who was ecstatic to see a familiar face, and great for us, as we were able to spend the whole day stomping around the Old Town. We started with the Sandemans Free Tour that we have done before and is consistently excellent, and then in the afternoon we did the Castle Tour as well (same company), almost being blown into the Firth of Forth from atop the rock. It’s great seeing these places, knowing we can come back anytime. You don’t feel rushed or pressured to take everything in, and you can make regular stops for hot drinks and shelter from the weather.

After another malt, a snoop around a second-hand bookshop, and a cheeky cider, we are back in the warm apartment, cooking dinner, playing with the dog, and watching telly. Tomorrow will be a more placid day – job applications and apartment inspections to follow up – but we met some great people today and will hopefully catch up with them again over the next few days. This is what travel is all about – a mix of people and experiences, and plenty of time to recharge before the next lot of adventures.

Good morning, Edinburgh!

Finally, in Edinburgh. The place we hope to make our home! We farewelled Liverpool and our friends there on Friday and took two trains and a long bus ride to get to Scotland’s capital. The ride, while lengthy, was incredibly scenic – until, of course, the sun went down. I think the night sky is blacker up here. It’s brilliant.

When we arrived last night, we took a taxi from the main train station for about ten minutes. We are staying in a beautiful part of Edinburgh about a half hour walk from the castle, surrounded by coffee shops and parks and lovely-looking houses. We are lucky enough to be dog-sitting a six-month-old Labradoodle puppy named Duffy, so we’ve spent the last 24 hours getting acquainted! Duffy’s owners don’t leave until tomorrow, so they’ve been feeding us and showing us around the area and just generally being super helpful regarding job-hunting and house-hunting. This morning we hopped out of bed and it was SNOWING!! Real snow, falling like leaves, making everything look like a bloody Christmas card. It was just perfect. We’ve taken the dog for a massive walk in said snow, which sort of turned sleety and rainy after a bit, so we stopped for delicious lunches and the best coffee we have found so far.

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We have the week ahead of us, with no commitments except for looking after Duffy and her routine. I anticipate lots of job applications, maybe rental applications, lots of walks and stops for hot drinks and food, lots of reading and writing and staying indoors where it’s warm. I’m feeling pretty damn pleased with our decision to pick Edinburgh.

 

Lovely Crosby

I really like Liverpool. It’s not a particularly tourist-y city, and obviously many would argue that it’s not as pretty or exciting as London or Edinburgh. But because we have family friends here, I’ve spent quite a bit of time here over the course of my travels. Our friends live in Great Crosby, which is a lovely suburb north of the city, only twenty minutes by train. Crosby Beach is famous for it’s work of sculpture by Antony Gormley, Another Place.

another place

A half hour walk down the road brings you to Little Crosby, the sweetest little village you ever did see, with all the charm of rural English life while only being a stone’s throw from Sainsbury’s and the train station.

little crosby

We have spent the last few days applying for jobs online, eating delicious home-cooked meals, catching up with our friends, walking (in insane wind and rain on Monday), watching Anne of Green Gables (yes, yes, YES), and buying waterproof jackets and shoes.

captain

crosby

Today we attempted to open a bank account. Pro tip: Pay the damn fees and open one before you leave Australia. Far easier. Hopefully tomorrow will yield kinder results…

Reviews

Back in the day, I did some writing for SYN media. The old artsmitten website is defunct now, but I wanted to make a record of the reviews I’d done for them. The first was for the collection Transactions by Ali Alizadeh. The second was for the poetry collection Free Logic by Rachael Briggs.

Transactions – Review by Emily Prince

The latest book from prolific author Ali Alizadeh, Transactions, will not disappoint enthusiasts of Alizadeh’s previous work. No stranger to controversial responses, Alizadeh has been both celebrated and criticised for his unconventional use of multiple forms and the strong political commentary that pervades his work. With Transactions, the reader is presented with a set of linked short fictions exploring themes ranging from the conflict in the Middle East to the culture of victim blaming and the accommodation of the male gaze.

Alizadeh weaves threads of connection through his prose, bringing it full circle by the end of the novel, tying off loose ends in certain cases, and leaving others achingly unfinished. It is the power of insinuation that works best in Alizadeh’s work – what is not quite described, but sits in shadows, just off the page. Those storylines that remain uncompleted will sit in the reader’s mind long after they have finished the book, and it is perhaps in these stories most of all that the political commentary speaks louder than the narrative.

Transactions spans the political divide – the characters are drawn at all ends of the socio-economic scale representing various ages, genders, ethnicities, political persuasions and experiences. Certain characters and locations Alizadeh revisits more than others, and nearly all are mentioned in stories other than their own. Among Alizadeh’s strongest characters are a Ukrainian prostitute whose father’s involvement with the Chernobyl disaster plagues her new life in Amsterdam, a mysterious online extremist who goes by the moniker ‘The Alchemist’, and a nameless assassin who winds through the stories, reappearing when the reader least expects it. Paths cross and fates intertwine but despite the carefully crafted connections, each story stands strong on it’s own – how they relate to each other is not their most important achievement.

Some of the more repulsive characterisations include people who take sexual advantage of individuals displaced by war, and there is also a strong critique of an international aid organization, guilty of patronising it’s charges and ‘putting religion before humanism’ (p. 134). Transactions is filled with timely commentaries of the current state of humanity and the globe, and the depiction of refugees in these stories echoes, with uncomfortable clarity, the predicament of asylum seekers in Australia.

The benefit of fiction gives us the figure of the nameless assassin, who becomes a sort of avenging soldier, disposing of those who have taken advantage of already-distressed victims of war. While an exciting link between the stories, not to mention a desirable prism of karmic significance, this character does not hold up as very realistic next to the organic and gritty portrayals of normal people struggling under extreme circumstances.

Alizadeh uses third-person narration regularly but not exclusively, injecting one chapter with graphic, confrontational poetry that is beautiful in its composition and inherently ugly in it’s content. Alizadeh also experiments with unbroken first-person narration that borders on stream-of-consciousness in some cases. Toward the end of the book is a purely epistolary chapter and a chapter comprised completely of one poem broken into small, precise stanzas. While these are good examples of Alizadeh’s talent with different forms, the inclusion of more variety in form throughout the book would have made their placement less jarring to the reader’s experience.

Amongst the sexual, social and political commentary of Transactions are the sometimes humorous, sometimes brutal, always thought-provoking little interactions between characters. It is these moments when Alizadeh’s prose shines the brightest and when the divide between reader and story merges most seamlessly.

Free Logic – Review by Emily Prince

Free Logic, the latest offering from philosopher and poet Rachael Briggs, 2012 winner of the Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize, is another triumph for the UQP Poetry Series. Briggs has crafted an impressive collection of almost 80 poems, widely diverse in content and arranged in topical suites.

Her strength in linking poems through suites is apparent, and some of the strongest verse occurs once the linked poems have established a pattern, be it a first line copied word-for-word from the final line of the previous poem (the ‘Tough Luck’ suite, which provides some interesting play with punctuation) or a less rigid connection that links only a few key words in the same way (‘Toothfish’ suite). The human condition is dissected and analysed throughout Briggs’ work; this is done particularly well in the ‘Deadly Sevenlings’ suite, which comprises 7 poems each focused on a different cardinal sin. The suite titled ‘This Poem Is Not About You’ cleverly ties each poem back to the author herself in the final stanza, referencing her by name, or a variation thereof.

Briggs’ American roots shine through in poems such as ‘Halloween’, and her ‘Cryptid Riddles’ suite focuses on Australia – its geography, folklore, history and culture – and is an enlightening and often amusing read, particularly when coupled with the knowledge that the author is originally from overseas. Briggs is a master of exploration, delicately teasing out certain themes and weaving them throughout her prose with patience and insight. Such themes include love, gender identity, sexual maturity, adolescence and philosophical discussion. Poems like ‘The Care and Feeding of Prehistoric Reptiles’ and ‘Swampy’ leap out at the reader, their construction eliciting a tangibility that is rare to find and even rarer to pull off. Briggs wields her talent masterfully, balancing shorter, punchier poems with more languid works, and the contrast complements the collection well.

Contrast of content also highlights her versatility – while some poems investigate the mundane domesticity of the everyday:

Me in sweatpants, you in midmorning whiskers,

planning out the last of our winter weekend.

Yesterday: bad sci fi and Islay whisky.

Now: I need coffee.

Others border on mythology and horror:

There’s a black glaze monster

gazing from the shattered clay

with one red eye. Far off, the sea

cries out. Her heartbeat roars an answer.

The sometimes-repeated metaphor of animals in place of children and pregnancy manages to exist without becoming overdone, and similes appear sporadically and beautifully in lines such as:

…the snow shows no sign of calming.

Every flake is bright as a tiny comet. 

Her expertise and passion for philosophy is obvious, and is further expanded upon in the ‘Notes’ section at the conclusion of the book. This section defines various terms for the curious reader who may not be familiar with them due to academic and/or cultural background, as well as acknowledging and referencing song lyrics used. This is an interesting resource (and no doubt a legal requirement), but some readers will prefer to skip this, and enjoy Briggs’ skill with words without revealing the nuts and bolts behind it.

Au revoir once more

The brilliance of Picasso was on display at the Musée Picasso, despite two floors being closed in preparation for an exhibition. The sheer volume of work this man produced is astounding. The amount of stuff he kept throughout his lifetime, little doodles and tickets and pieces of paper and all manner of tiny clues to his personality and creative process is second to none. A wonderful museum, and definitely one to revisit when it is completely open.

The Eiffel Tower and the Arc du Triomphe – staples of Paris they may be, but they always look impressive, especially in a fine haze of rain. Eating a Nutella crepe and riding the carousel nearby simply enhances the experience.

Montmartre, my heart. Another walking tour, another couple of hours of bliss, even in the cold night air. Revisiting the homes of Van Gogh and Picasso, witnessing the beauty of Sacre Coeur, even buying original work from the artists who frequent the mountain. Finishing a tour in a tiny, warm bistro, with hot onion soup full of cheese and bread, red wine and a French salade too big to finish (normal salad fare like lettuce and tomatoes, but with bread, two types of cheese, potatoes, and meat in the mix also).

Cimetiere du Pere Lachaise – a peaceful, sombre experience. Among the monuments and the graves of writers, thinkers, and artists lies a smaller plot for a 21 year old woman who died at the Bataclan in November. Visceral sculptures reach toward the sky to commemorate victims of war.

The Abbey Bookshop – an English-speaking treasure trove for book lovers. Towers of paperbacks teeter precariously on either side of ever-diminishing aisle space. A fresh pot of coffee is propped on a hidden shelf. I buy two books, determined to excavate space in my suitcase, including a 1996 issue of the Paris Review with a short story by then-unknown writer, Elizabeth Gilbert. (Whether or not you liked Eat, Pray, Love, you must read Big Magic).

The Latin Quarter yields more and more bookshops. The Pantheon with its crypt full of writers and philosophers and scientists and Resistance heroes is huge, overwhelming, and beautiful. Frescoes of Jeanne d’Arc and Sainte-Genevieve adorn the walls among their male counterparts. Foucault’s pendulum mesmerises visitors.

The church of Saint-Etienne-du-Mont is just as beautiful, only smaller. The tomb of Sainte-Genevieve is surrounded by candles. I pray quietly and thankfully. Next door, the Bibliotheque Sainte-Genevieve is a hive of activity, students racing in and out of the reading room and the reserve section with its cabinet of curiosities at the entrance. An accommodating guide takes me for a tour in a small group, speaking French to everyone else and translating for me. I try to express my gratitude in clumsy French first, then English.

Our last night in Paris, and the four of us find a restaurant in the Latin Quarter. I have another beautiful French salade and am able to finish it this time. We drink more red wine and order dessert – my creme brûlée is the best I have ever tasted. We return to our mostly packed-up apartment, and in the morning we have cleaned up and are on the train to the airport by 9am. I finish this blog post at the gate, about to board our flight to Manchester and the start of our UK adventure. I will always love France, its language, its people, its capital city, and I look forward to many more return trips.

The adventure continues…

I write this sitting in a food-and-wine induced fog, having just returned from the Latin Quarter with Sean after the most beautiful dinner I have had in a long time. A bottle of red, a starter of vol-au-vent with escargot in a creamy sauce, duck breast and the most tender vegetables for a main, and a chocolate ‘Napoleon’ dish. Sean had the most divine chestnut soup for his starter, and a creme-brulee-type dish that was served on fire to finish. Bliss.

We have spent the last couple of days walking up and down and all around this amazing city. We started at the Grande Galerie de L’evolution in the Jardin des Plantes yesterday. Even in winter, the wide open spaces are beautiful with splashes of colour made all the more precious by their rarity. The Galerie is enormous, like no natural history museum I have seen before, and the temporary exhibit on big apes was particularly interesting.

Then we embarked on a walking tour of the Latin Quarter – I have found my new favourite place in Paris. I can’t believe it is my fourth time in the city and I haven’t explored this until now! Thankfully, the walking tour takes you through the Roman ruins, the history of the Sorbonne, the haunts and abodes of great writers and thinkers, and the majesty of it’s architecture. Sean and I were the only two people on the tour which made for a very informative and custom-made experience!

Today we visited the Musee d’Orsay, a completely new experience for me, and concentrated mainly on the Impressionists, the sculptures, and the works of Toulouse-Lautrec, though the collection is far, far larger (and still only a fraction of the size of the Louvre). We filled up on mulled wine and crepes for lunch, and then joined Claire and Steve for the catacombs. I’ve been through the catacombs before, but was glad to go again. There is nothing quite like it in this world – walking through the remains of six million Parisians, miles underground, and reflecting on how many people have come before you and shared the same experience – it is sobering to say the least.

We have two more days in Paris after this. Then we start our adventure in the UK. Our job-hunting, house-finding adventure. Time will tell how we handle this, but I am excited and optimistic. We are incredibly lucky to have this opportunity and I don’t intend to waste it.