John Smyth – Curious Crusader

It seems crazy to me that my father missed the last five years – so much has happened in the world, and in my world especially. Every day though, I can hear him, sure of what he’d say in any given situation:

  • My first apartment – “It’s beautiful Lisa, really beautiful. What does this switch do? It’s not working. I’ll fix that. This window is sticking. Get some butter. You’ll need shelves. I’ll get the stuff tomorrow, ok?”
  • My crazy adventures – “You climbed a volcano! Wow, pet! What was it like? What was your favourite part?”
  • My life decisions – “I’m proud of you pet, doing your masters. You just have to keep going, but you’ll get there. I’m always amazed at what you can do. Here’s your mum. Love you.”

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I do get worried that I’m forgetting – as new memories move in, I’m afraid I’m losing the old ones, and that I’ll forget his voice, or his laugh, or his hugs. So here are just a few of my favourites – the one’s that make me smile the most.

When friends are just strangers that could kill you
Every child is told not to talk to strangers, and my father made no exception with me or my sister in dishing out this life-saving piece of advice. Except, of course, that he loved to talk to strangers – at the bus stop, in the supermarket, at the footy. Many of my parents best friends are the result of my father’s ‘do what I say, not what I do’ approach to stranger danger. With an outstretched hand, and a smile – “Hi, I’m John. This is my daughter Lisa. Yeah, we can’t wait to get the barbie going. So, what are you up to for xmas?” / “Did you know that guy Dad?” / “Nope – don’t tell your mum that’s why we’re late.”

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“Go find your father”
As a child you hear many of the same refrains again and again – “Go to bed”, “Brush your teeth”, “Stop biting your sister”, but I heard one more than any other. Whether at the shopping centre, or the supermarket, or at a party, each occasion ended with the same command from my mother – “Go find your father”.

How did we manage to lose this 6”2” Dubliner so often? Because my father was a wanderer, an explorer, a diehard dawdler. There was always something to see, something more interesting to look at, or ask about. And it was always seemed to be my job to go round him up. It wasn’t hard – as his little oval shaped head was always bopping around above everyone and everything else. I would find him gathering up pamphlets, or examining a bench (why?), talking to the Bunnings guy about rugby (see above), or lost in the homewares section not really understanding how he’d got there. I’d pop my little hand in his big one – “Mum says its time to go” / “Ok. This says there’s a free concert at the botanic gardens tomorrow, we should go.”

Do not…ok, maybe, do, but don’t tell your mother
There was not a single ‘Do Not Enter/Cross/Open/Proceed’ sign that my father did not see as a personal challenge. He just had to know what was behind the door, or down the path, or in the other room. This did not sit well with my mother’s naturally cautious nature. “John, do not go down there.” / “But Una, there’s no one around, and it says there’s a penguin colony.” / “Yes, which the sign says explicitly not to disturb. Get back in the car.” / “I’m just going to pop down for a second…” / “John Smyth if you go down there I am getting out of this car and walking home.” / “Don’t be silly, we’re in the middle of nowhere. I’ll be back in five minutes. Girls come see.” / “Girls, stay in the car. John, I swear to god. Why do you do this? Just get back in the car.” / “I can already see them, Lisa put on your runners.” / “Lisa don’t touch your shoes. Bloody penguins….”

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Miss you Dad. Love you loads xoxoxox

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The surprising and confusing ways of German life

Two years in Germany and I have learnt…quark, I don’t know! Here are a few rambling observations.

Really? Yes, really.

People: Germans are not hard or cold. They are reserved and cautious, definitely. But once you get to know them they are kind, and generous to a fault, and incredibly loyal. I barrel towards them as a loud, open, bumbling, emotional mess, and they gape in surprise – and then they pick me up, tell me exactly what I have done wrong, and help me on my way with a bemused smile and a lot of love – I couldn’t appreciate this more.

Food: I’m Irish so I really like blood sausage. You do this very well. That is all.

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Work: The Germans value their leisure time like no other culture I know. They are strict in their observance of it (see below) but it means they have the most robust economy in Europe AND a society that takes time to relax, slow down, and de-stress. They may not go about it in the way I would like, but you can’t deny it works.

Ummmm…acca-scuse me?

People: They are hard to get to know. They are contrary and confusing. Learning anything personal about them is like pulling teeth. But, yes, it’s worth it.

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Food: I get you don’t like chili, or garlic, or coriander, or lemongrass, but does that mean you have to remove these wonderful flavours from the very cuisines that honour them (Italian, Thai, Vietnamese etc.) And why is ‘paprika’ quite literally the only flavor of potato chip you have? And what the fark is quark?? (Just because I like it doesn’t mean I don’t think it isn’t an abomination against all things natural and holy).

Work: You must ‘pause’ between these hours and on these days. No, you cannot decide when this will be. Flexibility? Please explain. Sunday is rest day. No, you cannot buy groceries on Sunday. Or after 10pm. Or on any public holiday. You should not work, or study, or do anything at all on rest days except be with your family. You don’t have a family here? Find some.

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“I am from Japón” (said the Spaniard)

The man from Coria del Río meant Japan, of course – but I am getting ahead of myself. 

In the last few years my workdays have not always been typical. Yes, most of my days usually involve meetings, and phone calls, and sitting behind a desk trying not to be sucked into the email black hole – but more and more they are atypical. Not surprisingly this started in PNG – peace marches in autonomous regions; radio shows on the edge of white sand beaches; anti-corruption workshops held under the watchful eye of government spies – all made an appearance in my work calendar. Surprisingly, however, this is now continuing in Germany – or the various other places I wind up for work. Below is a little story about a day last week that I like to call ‘My surreal Friday’.

As happens almost everywhere I go in Europe I am, once again, surrounded by people who speak a language I do not. On this particular day its Spanish, because I am in the incredibly stunning city of Seville, and my two colleagues, and our two hosts, are engaged in a rapid conversation that, to my ears, sounds equally beautiful and incomprehensible.

“They want to take us for a drink?” – my colleague poses this to me as a question, as I am clearly the only thing impeding this Friday afternoon expedition.

“Sure – why not?” I reply, a quick beer and then I can get back to our hotel and the mountain of work I have to do – maybe I can write that strategy after a quick dip in the pool – damn its hot!

My colleagues and I pile into the little hatchback as one of our hosts takes the wheel, and the other jumps on a scooter. Both men are in their fifties, and their offices – “Ten minutes from your hotel – we go?” – are 40 minutes from our hotel – deep in the industrial desert just outside the city.

This is the real Seville – or technically the next town over – not the old, achingly beautiful medieval centre that millions of tourists fall in love with every year (if you haven’t been – go immediately) – but a place full of factories, large abandoned office blocks (“Since recession the big buildings stand empty” – I am told) and empty plains and squares that swirl with the sand that has been used for centuries to make the yellow facades of the buildings and homes that line the cobbled, narrow streets of the city down the river.

We arrive at one such square – an empty bandstand stands at the centre – and the wind has kicked up the yellow dust in the blazing heat. If not for the delicious smell of fish frying nearby, and a peak of the river between the buildings, I would swear it was the Wild West. Numerous restaurants line the square – cheap metal tables and chairs sit outside, but there are no patrons (“too hot”).

I am hardly inspired, but start to head around to the front of the building – surely the river’s edge will be a pretty place for that quick drink? But instead I am ushered inside to a dimly lit taverna with a wooden bar, linoleum floor, little decoration on the walls except aging photos of matadors, and seating for roughly 14 people. Nadal’s match is playing on the television and everyone is a local – children mingling with grandparents, friends who have known each other since birth catching up on their week – laughing over plates piled high with tapas. This is the real Spain – so much so I have no idea where we even are and how I would possibly get back here – and I stick out like a sore thumb. But I love it. Immediately, I love it.

Our beers arrive and so does our first course (one of five – “Just snack, nothing, just snack”) – tomatoes in olive oil – and despite having had lunch, after the first bite, I inhale the tomatoes with a relish usually reserved for meals at restaurants that use more than two ingredients – tomatoes have never tasted this good! Of course I am unaware there is more coming – which may be why our hosts begin to chuckle when they see my delighted face, smeared with olive oil, as I leave my cutlery behind and begin picking up the tomato slices with my fingers.

Giant prawns served with rock salt, battered calamari and octopus (“squeeze lemon –you, yes”), and two plates of fried fish to be eaten off the bone (“no squeeze lemon – only for tourists” with shake of the head and heavy sigh as I reach for the wedge) soon follow, as well as two bottles of manzanilla wine, (sherry wine), and a shot of I don’t know what to finish it all off. I am full, I am a little tipsy, and I may have entered heaven.

Some of the conversation takes place without me – which I am totally fine with as there is eating to be done – but through my interpreters we discuss the tennis, the recent abdication of the Spanish King, our hosts wives and children, their friends (“10 men meet every week for lunch for 30 years – no women – if women come we maybe meet for only 30 days, not 30 years!”) and, finally, this incredulous statement is uttered “I am from Japón”.

I am sure I have misunderstood, as the man in front of me is so typically Spanish in appearance – tanned skin; dark, greying hair; full features – that “Japón” must not mean what I think it means. But, after our ‘quick drink’ we are taken for a stroll along the waterfront (I realize this is why we have come here in the first place – just so this story could be told) towards a dock, where, standing high and tall opposite, is a statue of a Japanese Samurai.

As we look out at the river, I am told that back in 1617 a Japanese delegation led by the great Samurai Hasekura Tsenenaga was sent on a diplomatic mission to Europe, and on the way to Seville, 11km from the city, they stopped in this town, at this very dock. Six of the Samurai were so enamoured with the place that they decided to stay, and now 7000 residents of Coria del Río can trace their ancestry back to Japan – they have even been invited by the Japanese Government to visit one day (“my wife – she no like to fly – so I never go. I love my wife, I am a good husband, so I never go”).

My mind is seriously blown – the food, the wine, the fierce heat – have they all converged so I am hallucinating? We are not yet at Kafka-esque territory, but if a man in a bunny suit appeared I wouldn’t be surprised. But, as we crowd in front of the statue to take a photo – with my belly full, and my mind reeling – I look out at the river, and at my smiling and gracious hosts, and think ‘every Friday should be like this’.

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(Have you ever found something completely out of place in its surroundings? Or had your own surreal Friday? Share it below.)

 

 

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Saying thank you and giving thanks (its not the same thing don’t ya know)

So my first post from Germany should probably be about Germany – but it ain’t. It’s about Indonesia. And a girl called Jenny. And my complete inability to learn new languages (and I think Pharrell Williams and that bloody song may have something to do with it too).

I was in Indonesia last week for work, collecting human-interest stories in rural villages. I hadn’t really wanted to go on the trip, because it seemed like such a hassle in the middle of my very busy life in Germany. But, once I arrived, despite the oppressive heat, and serious lack of sleep, I found myself genuinely, and quite exuberantly, happy. The reason for this was simple – the millions of smiling, cheerful Indonesians who were all around me; who were delighted to see me; and who couldn’t stop telling me how beautiful my pale and pasty skin was (ironic for a person who comes from a land where spray tanning is on the verge of being declared an addiction).

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I was struck by how delighted they all were; how at ease; how grateful they were for a new home built out of concrete instead of bamboo, or their first washing machine, or a polaroid photo of their family. There was just so much joy, and I thought, ‘I want me some of that!’

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Now, I am very aware that as an outsider, and someone who doesn’t speak a word of Bahasa, I could never truly know whether these people were really happy or not. And that culturally they would always show us incredible hospitality and respect. And I also know its hard to be anything but nice when an awkward white girl comes barreling towards you with a giant smile repeating thank you – ‘Terima kasih!’ Terima kasih!’ – loudly, and confusingly, since you haven’t even said hello yet. But these beautiful people infected me with their happiness – they just seemed so thankful for the abundance in their lives.

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As someone who struggles with all languages except for English (and even then) my defense against the world is to learn the word for ‘thank you’ wherever I go. When I travel I repeat ‘thank you’ like I am praying.

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‘What would you like to order’ – ‘Danke! Danke!’ (with nodding head and stupid grin); ‘Don’t walk in there, its an area only for men to pray in’ ‘Terima kasih!’ Terima kasih!’ (walking straight into the pray room, swaying womanly hips); ‘This is our sacred shrine’– ‘Arigatou! Arigatou!’ (immediately placing dirty laundry in sacred shrine)

I have found that this technique does actually work – by constantly saying thank you I am showing my immense gratitude for people’s patience with me as I bumble and stumble my way through their world. But, I have come to realize, I don’t give thanks nearly enough for the fact that I have the opportunity to be in these astonishing places in the first place.

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And this is where my good friend Jenny comes in. Jenny is a very talented actress in New York who has had a bit of a rough year. So, a few weeks ago, she started a truly amazing weekly video blog entitled Gratitude Grows on Trees, where she tries to take stock each week of all the little things she is grateful for. Jenny happens to be incredibly witty, whip smart, crazy charming, and very raw about her struggle with embracing gratitude, and, so, I can’t begin to tell you how the five minutes where I watch her each week just fills me with awe and elation. For those few moments she makes me think; she challenges me to shift my view of the ‘hardships’ in my life – basically, she infects me with gratitude.

So, what does all this add up to? It adds up to a moment – one distinct moment in the middle of Surabaya in Indonesia. I was listening to a favourite song (grateful), on a magical portable device (grateful), as we drove past lush green rice paddies in a place I never thought I would visit (grateful), and in that moment I gave thanks for the absolutely wonderful, crazy, kick-ass life I lead. Then the car stopped, I stepped out, and opened my arms wide with a loud ‘Terima kasih!’ Terima kasih!’ and promised myself I would find those moments more often from now on.

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They said whaaaaaaaat? (The signs that just keep on giving)

Travelling is a funny thing. Not always funny ‘haha’ – it can be exhausting, frustrating and, well, bloody fantastic – but sometimes it really can be laugh-out-loud funny. Not all of these signs are meant to be funny but each of them gave me a small chuckle (some even made me think), and all managed to reveal something small about the place I was in. I just had to share a few of my favourites.

New York

New York – you gotta love a city that loves Robe Lowe this much.

Washington DC

Washington DC – but I am sure you guessed that already.

New Orleans

New Orleans – can you guess what shop this was?

Seligman

Seligman – never were truer words spoken.

Venice Beach

Venice Beach, Los Angeles – its often the simplest things…

Savannah

Savannah – so fun they forgot how to spell.

Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon – this was sound advice that I followed, but I still couldn’t stop sniggering.

Mexico

Mexico – where they speak the truth succinctly.

New Orleans

New Orleans – probably my favourite, and in a vet clinic of all places.

Whitehorse

Whitehorse, Canada – making writing implements sexy since…whenever this pencil case was manufactured.

San Francisco

San Francisco – I tried to listen really hard, and then I actually went to a zen-like place. The wall rocks.

Savannah

Savannah – where even the shopfronts have a Southern sauciness.

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Where art thou Aurora? (Oh bugger it, let’s just toast some marshmallows)

So, I have a bucket list, Two actually. One of 10 things to do before I am 30, and another 10 things to before I am 35. I only have a year left on the first one, and, well, it ain’t going so good. I deliberately booked a five-day trip to the Yukon in Northern Canada to tick something off my bucket list – to see the Northern Lights (officially known, by official people, as the Aurora Borealis).

But, after four nights of staying up to 2am to meet damn Aurora, she never appeared! I am bitter. I am twisted. I am…pretty much the happiest I have been in a long time. That’s right – the trip – despite the absence of extreme particle density (another official term) was AWESOME! It may actually have been the best trip of my life – and that’s saying something. Did I destroy a pair of gloves by placing them on a heater? Yes. Did I get lost in the woods for 30 minutes while dog sledding? Yes. Did I have an extreme allergic reaction to a probiotic? Yes. But, hey, that’s just how I travel, Lisa-style.

So, here are the top five reasons why my Aurora trip – with no Aurora actually present – rocked:

5. Takhini Hot Springs – There’s nothing quit so surreal as running along an iced-in passage, in your swimmers, in -15C weather, so that you can jump in boiling hot water full of brown minerals. It was the warmest and cosiest I was the whole trip – despite being surrounded by snow. It was also right next to the finish line for the toughest dog sled race in the world – The Yukon Quest – so we got to see the last sledder arrive.

4. The snow – For someone who has spent the past three years or so in a perpetual summer, of ‘walking around in your underwear or you might die’-type humidity, it was such a treat to be surrounded by cold, crisp air, and walk around a town covered in snow. The surrounding mountains and forests were so magical I kept expecting to see a wardrobe, or Tilda Swinton, around the next bend, just so I could confirm I had stepped into Narnia.

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3. Whitehorse – there are 22,000 people in this town, and they all know each other, look out for each other and are super friendly. You feel it wherever you go. They also do crazy-ass stuff like turkey bowling in the middle of the street, pie-eating contests, and volunteer in their hundreds to help organise The Yukon Quest. You get a feeling these people would put themselves in serious harm’s way for one another, because a lot of times they have to in order to survive in such harsh conditions.

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2. New friends – I spent four nights from 10pm-2am with some amazing people. We were all a bit nervous on the first night, but by the third we were like family. Sitting around the campfire, we laughed, we toasted marshmallows (and even taught our toasting wisdom to some Japanese friends), went snowshoeing, made snow angels, and generally acted like idiots to stave off the cold (and the aurora bitterness).

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1. Dog sledding – it was a really close call to put this as my number one, but I am sure my new friends would agree it needed to be at the top of the list. Hands down, best thing I have ever done. We got a perfect day for it – piles of snow and beautiful sunshine – but the dogs were the real champs. You totally fall in love with them (I tried not to play favourites – but Rocket was totally mine), and the feeling of freedom, adventure and speed you get driving the sled is like nothing else. I want to do it again – immediately. Check it out at Muktuk Adventures.

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If you want to try your luck at seeing lady Aurora (the lights came out the night I left – darn!) visit Northern Tales, and feel free to ask me any questions.

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They say ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’ – I say, sweat it! Sweat it good!

A byproduct of being an expat (because, I think, I must admit now, that is what I am) is that you only hear about the big stuff. I’m having a baby! We’re getting married! I am the proud owner of a plant I have yet to kill! The life changers; the defining moments. And I am happy for all my friends and family when I hear these things. I also try and be there for them when the bad stuff happens, as best I can, though I know I could do better.

But, what I really miss, is hearing about the small stuff – the day to day, the humdrum, the daily anecdotes. I got an extra stamp on my coffee card today – score! My boss thinks I don’t know he steals paperclips – but I do! The guy in the cubicle next to me looked at me, I think, maybe – he is so cute! These moments shared with those you love and laugh with are what keep you connected. While facebook updates do help fill this void (sometimes too much), I miss that personal connection of hearing the story first hand – that it was told just for you.

So, I came up with an idea. While going through all of my personal belongings for my move to Germany I came upon hundreds and hundreds of blank postcards – collected from my travels around the world. They are my souvenirs, as they are cheap, lightweight and quite often capture what my camera can’t. I knew I wanted to keep them, (despite protests from my mother – ‘they are just bits of cardboard; I don’t know where you get this sentimental streak from; my daughter is a hoarder – ooh I’ll keep that container from 1989, I might be able to use it one day for the dozens of cookbooks I keep but never use’) but I didn’t want them to just sit in a box.

Thus, my friends and family in Sydney have all received two postcards, addressed to my new office in Germany, that have a random 2014 date on the top. I have asked them to write to me on that day, about THAT day, in the hopes of bringing a little bit of ‘small stuff love’ back into my life. The fact that their memories are being combined with my own – that I will be taken back to a moment in my past, while reading about their present – is sentimental as all hell, and just that little bit awesome. Sometimes, the small stuff is the best stuff going. 

(For more postcard fun check out The 30 Postcards Project)

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I got a tattoo! (Please don’t tell my mother)

Just this week a friend asked me about the tattoo I had done in June last year, and why I had gotten it. This has come up a lot in the last six months, and understandably so. As mentioned in my inaugural post I am a pretty straight arrow so it has come as a shock to many that I got a tattoo at all (my mother’s reaction when I called her from Canada to tell her, after a long pause, was a high pitched ‘Did your sister get one too?’ – as if tattoos were catching, like chickenpox). When I have been asked I mostly dismiss the question because, well, its a bit of a long story, and honestly, long stories about the complex reasons why you got a tattoo come across as a bit of a wank.   

But, I have decided to put it down in print, and thus, forevermore, I can direct people to this page for the reasons as to why I got the word ‘If’ tattooed on my right wrist (oh, and for those who wondered if it hurt, it was aptly described by my sister’s roommate as ‘like having a bee drag its ass across your skin’).

Just under three years ago I had my first day working for the United Nations (UN), five days after I arrived in PNG. While I wasn’t someone who had always dreamed about working for the UN, I can honestly say that it was the most momentous thing to ever happen to me in my life up until that point. It wasn’t New York, and the photocopier didn’t work, and yet, still, biggest day of my life. It changed my life so dramatically, that I am now moving to Germany as a direct consequence. Life can be so crazy like that. 

Then, that evening, my Dad died, from skin cancer. Eight months previous he had been told that melanoma had metastasised to other parts of his body, and once that happens its pretty much over (I tried not to go to PNG, of course, but my Dad was insistent his dying would not interfere with my opportunities in life – he was pretty great like that). So the greatest and most horrible things to ever happen to me took place within 12 hours of each other. Life…well, life can go fuck itself. 

A few months previous, in the midst of all the drama that goes with dying and moving and trying not to implode, I had come upon a poem, a part of which stuck with me, and that came back to me on that day. Its from Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’, and the second stanza starts with:

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same.

Those last two lines are written on the player’s entrance at Wimbledon, but most people’s Triumph and Disaster doesn’t involve a racquet and Roger Federer. They are mostly much quieter, and simpler, than that. Mine just happened to be on the same day. 

(Please remember to wear a t-shirt, sunscreen and hat, and that ‘tanning is burning’ lovely people. To find out more go to http://www.cancer.org.au/about-cancer/types-of-cancer/skin-cancer.html)

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When all you can do is step into the void and…wait, what are we talking about?

I have always struggled with the idea of writing a blog. I didn’t know what blogger I would be. A travel blogger? (I have been on a plane an average of every two weeks over the last three years.) A challenge blogger? (a la Julie and Julia – love that movie.) A foodie blogger? (I love to eat, um, everything.) An awesome kick-ass blogger? (Like my friend Miranda Ryan – check her out at The Naked Envelope.) It all seemed so restrictive. And hard.

For all those who know me personally (hi mum!) you know I am a bit of a strange duck. I am an extremely organised and controlled person who takes crazy risks sometimes. I can plan an event for 200 people, but still manage to get my arm stuck in a box for 20 minutes (another blog for another day). I love Shakespeare and Twilight in equal measure. I resist all things normal, and yet you wouldn’t describe me as artsy, or edgy, or quirky – I’m a pretty straight arrow. And I tend to fall down. A lot.

So I decided to just wing this thing and not define myself, or it, at all. We are free forming people! I have a few ideas about what might go on here (but who knows if they will actually eventuate). Over the next year I will be traveling for two months (Canada and the USA) and then moving to a country where I don’t know the language (Germany), after spending the last three years in a place where I only knew one of the 800 languages on offer (Papua New Guinea). So its bound to be fun, scary, and humiliating in equal measure. Come along for the very tepid ride.

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