From Ireland to Holland

Holland 2

I flew out of Dublin on Sunday, just hours before a set of airplanes were due to do a flyover of the River Liffey. Initially I was worried I was missing out on something rather grand, but two things shifted my disappointment to joy. Firstly I found out that the flight line-up included a jet owned by budget airline Ryanair, which guaranteed there would be delays and timing issues. Secondly, as we touched down in Maastricht a pair of biplanes with acrobats on their top wings flew over us, performing slow barrel rolls. They were bewitching in their lack of caution, and immediately I felt I was somewhere just a little bit special. Intimate daredevil acts rather than overblown theatrics, that’s the way to this boy’s heart.

Maastricht rests at the base of the Netherlands, nestled between Belgium to the West, and Germany to the East. Soon after our arrival Francoise and I are led to the city centre by her friends (and our enthusiastic and engaging hosts), Ilja and Ivo. As we walk towards the spires that lance the skies above the city centre, the streets shrink and the buildings grow. While strolling we’re constantly passed by cyclists on gearless grandma bikes. The age of the bikes and their poorly mounted bells ensure they never approach silently as they judder and clatter down the bricked lanes. My mood shifts between delighted and charmed as I hear and smell the cafes and bars, and glance down the narrow alleys that run between the aged building frontages.

Churches and cathedrals are often the most impressive structures in European cities and towns, and this place is no exception. But as the spiritual requirements of nations and their populace change, these buildings frequently languish in ghostly silence. Here though, the religious monoliths abandoned by those whose faith has evolved are being resurrected in some very interesting ways. Their gothic and baroque shells are providing beautiful usable spaces, and the result of these renovations are locations thick with atmosphere, and enlivened by their renewed purpose.

We start with a visit to one of these updated properties, which the Guardian newspaper called “the most beautiful bookshop in the world”. As we enter between thick steel doors I’m spellbound. In 2008 the centre of this ancient Dominican church was filled with a three-story skeleton of black steel bookshelves and walkways. Cleverly the hollow structure ensures your views of the thirteenth century stonework are barely impeded, no matter which way you look. The more functional appeal of the towering steel work, is that it enables me to get closer to the ceilings as I ascend the stairways. Up here the carefully lit stone ceilings offer up their artful decorations far more effectively than from the floor a hundred feet below. I shudder a little as I can almost feel the haunts peering over my shoulder as I flick through novels and magazines.

Our next stop is another post-religious renovation, the Kruisherenhotel. This sixty room conversion is a brilliant example of converting the intimidating to the intimate. The lighting must take the most significant credit for the transformation, diffused spotlights are used to accentuate the past as much as they are to illuminate the present. The placement of modern sculptures between ancient detailing doesn’t push the boundaries of taste, and the use of the padded doors from the old confessional booths inserts a softer texture between the hard stone and steel.

These sympathetic installations help to highlight the pride of the citizens of this old city. They have ensured that the past hasn’t just been preserved, but that it is functional, that it is integrated into people’s lives.

Yesterday was a day of less metropolitan pleasures. We boarded a boat tour on the Maas River, bound for four locks, and a nosey at what canal living was like. It was a journey of the simplest comforts, my belly was warmed with Nescafe coffee, and filled with home-made cheese and pickle sandwiches. The Dutch commentary was intermittent, and fortunately translated by Francoise. Entertainingly the gaps between the captains explanations were filled by an eighties mega-mix. The sounds of Roxette and Tears for Fears tunes built a nostalgic backdrop and put me in a contented mood as we drifted along the waterways. We passed rowing teams, long barge houses and occasional upset geese, and the even the grey skies and patches of rain couldn’t mute my pleasure.

Somehow this city has quickly drawn me in. I’m enjoying picking out what I can from the written and spoken Dutch language, it seems to draw enough from German and English to make translation an entertainment rather than a chore. I love that the people are frequently on bikes or foot, and perhaps as a result there are few signs of the obesity issues of other places I’ve been travelling lately. And this despite every delicacy I’ve tried so far being either very sweet, or being cheese.

It’s interesting to compare the way I feel here, to the way I feel in Ireland. If cities might be people then I’m pretty sure Dublin is a dishevelled old bloke with a taint of beer and loss, who covers his concerns with cheeky bravado. He’ll never quite earn my trust, though I’ll not forget him in a hurry. I always feel a little more at ease when I leave him behind. Maastricht on the other hand is a tall, sensibly dressed woman in her thirties. I noticed a small curious tattoo on her wrist every time I chat to her, but her banter would be so engaging that I would always forget to ask about it. Like the presence of the tattoo, her tales about her life always leave me with at least one more question at the back of my mind.

I’m very thankful for the circumstances which drew me here, I only wish I had more time to take on what this region seems to offer. I’m sad to be leaving Lady Maastricht in  a couple of days, but I guess there’s always another tomorrow.

The people we choose to spend time with

Friends 2

We spend a large portion of our lives with a number of people due to circumstances, rather than choice. Life starts this way. We don’t get to choose those assigned to nurture us, those kin who will contribute significantly to our initial ideas on how the world works. Whether we’re raised within a family, a tribe, or an orphanage, those around us during our formative can either inhibit or develop our sense of self-worth. Their actions act as a template for our moral framework. They can help us to understand that we are valuable and valued, or they can damage us beyond repair.

Once we leave home, many of us will spend eight around hours a day with a new mix of people in order to earn a living. Our workmates are likely to affect our day-to-day mood, the degree of satisfaction we derive from our jobs, and our desire to seek new opportunities and advance ourselves. They may also influence our diets, our political views and our prejudices. And we don’t usually get a say in the selection process for these people either.

So we spend a lot of our lives being influenced by an arbitrary assortment of people. How important is it then that we take care in selecting the rest of the people that we hang out with? I was at a wedding in the United Kingdom a few years ago, and I was asked to make an impromptu speech. I thought about the friends of the groom that I knew, some witty, most currently drunk, and all affectionate. I spoke of how a person might be judged by the qualities of their friends. Looking at those we choose to share our time with can help us understand a lot about ourselves. Do I like Karl because he’s the only person who will stay out drinking with me until 5:00am? Do I like spending time with Kelly and Janine because they are gorgeous, and when we’re seen together around town feel like I’m living in a music video? Or do I spend as much time as possible with Di, because she reminds me to be myself, and at times inspires me to be my best self?

A good friend’s father once told her that the worst place to meet a lad was in the pub, that she should instead hope to find a boyfriend in more positive environment. I can understand the logic behind this, though the population of the UK and Ireland might dwindle if it were to become a popular idea.

Meeting people through an activity which improves us, seems more likely to lead to positive relationships. Marathon clinics, Spanish classes, football teams, all these activities bring us into contact with people who want to improve, and who are happy to share the experience. Over the past year I’ve found my closest new companions through hosting travellers on my couch. We shared a joy for exploring new country’s and trying new activities, and we aren’t afraid to stay in a stranger’s home. They’ve accompanied me on sand castle building competitions, glacier climbs and surf lessons. They’ve been people who have actively encouraged me to live more enthusiastically, and I’m hopeful that at least a couple of them will become friends for life. And now I get to catch up with some of them in their homelands. I haven’t connected with every single one, but i know from experience that if I had met ten strangers in a pub, I wouldn’t end up rafting the Grand Canyon with any of them.

We shouldn’t underestimate the power that others have to transform us. I owe it to myself to find friendships with people who I admire, respect and am occasionally envious of. They’re more likely to motivate me through their actions and inspire me through their ideas. And if I am brave enough to be open and honest with them and they still want to spend time with me, then that’s an amazing and rewarding thing.

Travelling on, without leaving myself behind

Contemplation

Sometimes I’m incapable of examining my own behaviour with any degree of detachment. I sit so deep within my life that I struggle to see shifts in my mood, or changes in my thinking. This has resulted in a somewhat rough week of introspection.

My most recent summer in New Zealand was an incredible time. I had been seasoned by a difficult winter, and rather than curling up into bitterness and cynicism, I hit spring with all the positivity I could muster. I found a home near the sea, worked hard with a mix of entertaining people, and experienced some of my country’s most beautiful and thrilling offerings with a Couch Surfer who was to become a great friend. It was the warm culmination of six months of rebuilding myself, of figuring out what drove my happiness.

Hosting travellers for several months had reminded me of the joys of discovering new lands and strange cultures. I resolved to set flight again, determined this time to see it as a way of achieve specific tasks, rather than just aiming to ‘expand my horizons’. Sub-consciously I knew I didn’t need to find myself, or grow in any substantial way, I had earned tranquility through my own positivity. I had an opportunity to work on my writing and spend time with an inspirational woman in the United States, and I knew the opportunity was too good to miss. I handed in my notice, and boarded a flight to Los Angeles.

I’ve travelled quite a lot, I’ve become accustomed to creating new homes in new lands in a matter of days. But each departure from home is different, and this time somehow I left something of myself back in Wellington. Within days of leaving my friends, family and stability, I began to undo, to fray at the edges. I was being introduced to some incredible experiences. I was encountering critters, scenery and kindness, and I knew I was very fortunate to be exploring a new land, with an incredible host. But somehow I remembered my capacity for over analysis. I began to actively think myself into a difficult place, largely due to uncertainty and anxiety. I was still having a great time, but I began to draw into myself.

It is a very humbling experience, having someone you care about very much let you know that they don’t know who you are anymore. I couldn’t see the changes, and in the end I had to make a very difficult decision to leave a perfect situation, to give me some space to reassess. I’m now in Northern Ireland, staying in my sister’s Backpacker Hostel while I untangle the strands of me that got knotted. I left behind a bed in a castle, a captivating American and a comfortable writing environment. I’m hoping to rejoin all of these very shortly, but I have to know I deserve them first.

In the meantime a week in Derry has helped me understand how much I’ve changed over the past few years. A couple of nights ago I was sitting in the “Indian Room” chatting at length with my sister and a Canadian traveller about life, travel, and hostel experiences. Next door in the main lounge twelve energetic young travellers were passing about bottles of Black Bush and preparing for a big night out. I realised I was in the right room. I’ve grown out of the need to steal centre stage. I used to feel a need to counteract my tendency towards quiet enthusiasm with boisterous bravado.

It’s always been important to me to remain young at heart. I’m frequently frustrated by people whose horizons shrink with every year that they age. But I realise now that I have different needs than I had in my twenties. I don’t need to age, but I do need to mature. I need to be understood for who I am, I need to spend time with people I admire, and I need to remember that the real me is far more engaging than any character I might play. I’ve also realised that some degree of stability and predictability in my life isn’t a bad thing. Knowing where I might be in six months and who I might be sharing that with, those things let me concentrate on advancing everything else.

I thought my greatest travelling challenges would involve surviving arid desert landscapes, avoiding grizzly bears, and finding a flat white in America. Instead my struggles have been internal. I’ve learnt how important it is to hold onto my sense of who I am. It’s not easy having to confront your fallibility in a foreign land, but I’m back on track now. Life should be about living that next day just a little better. And it all begins today.