Natale.

Florence, Italy.

The sky was dusky as we began our pilgrimage from Oltrarno to the Duomo. Though only a one kilometre walk, the sea of people into which we were swept up set our pace, meaning it would take us almost forty minutes to reach our destination. The street was alive with chatter in various languages, my nose filled with the sweet smell of waffles and roasted chestnuts, twinkle lights hanging over us in a canopy of gold.

When we finally arrived in front of the cathedral, it took us another fifteen minutes just to press our way through the crowd enough to skirt the baptistry, until we were finally in sight of the looming tree, decked out in red Florentine fleur de lis. I noted the swish of coats brushing past one another, the stomping of hooves as horses harnessed to carriages waited for eager tourists to climb inside.

Here is good, I said, stopping in front of the nativity, though we would be pushed and pulled like the tide as we waited, ending up several metres from the spot which we had decided was ‘the one.’ There was nothing to do but laugh as we were thrust against one another, waiting for the countdown.

Dieci, nove, otto, sette… it began.

Here we go! I said, thrilled, turning my eyes towards the tree once again.

UNO!

And with that, the tree came to life with thousands of tiny white twinkle lights, a myriad of diamonds tossed onto an impossibly large pine, lighting up the piazza and our faces as the contagion of excitement reached us, crushed amongst the many bodies.

Let’s go, I said, suddenly beginning to feel overwhelmed as people shouted and cheered, their breath touching my cheek as they called out auguri! to one another.

We slipped away as quickly as we could, skirting the back of the cathedral where the crowd was thinner. Soon we could breathe, and we made our way to Santa Croce, where mulled wine at the Christmas market was calling our names.

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I could feel my heartbeat accelerate as we approached it. I had missed being here. My head was full of foggy memories of eating sweets and drinking mulled wine or hot chocolate while perusing Christmas wares and admiring lights…I was so relieved to be back in the city I loved, a city I had called home for three years.

We rounded the corner and once again found ourselves swept up in an impossibly dense crowd. We had to hold hands to avoid losing one another. It was too loud to talk, and the crowd was too thick for us to stop, to peruse anything at all. I could smell the sweets, chocolate and spices, but could not steer us towards them. I could feel my heart rate accelerating once again, yet with anxiety rather than anticipation or excitement. This wasn’t how I remembered it. I could hardly move. My gate was controlled by the flow of the swarming bodies surrounding me. Other people’s scarves were brushing past my long hair, making it cling to them with static. I felt hot and uncomfortable.

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Mulled wine ahead! said Liz. We belined for the wooden hut, lighted by antique-looking bulbs, a large bubbling vat emanating a sweet and spicy aroma. We wedged our way to the front and held up two fingers. Due, per favore! 

Hands cupping plastic cups, we took a seat on the steps of the basilica, finally able to observe the market on our own terms. As the wine warmed my stomach, I felt myself relaxing, finally able to breathe, to move. From here I could observe the happy Christmas shoppers, seemingly unfazed by the hustle and bustle of those around them. The steps were occupied by cheerful young people in clusters, each with a cup of mulled wine clasped between gloved hands. I turned back to the soft glow of the market. It was magic, from afar. I sipped happily, my bum becoming cold on the stone steps, but my heart full and content.

Maybe I’ll try the market again tomorrow.

 

A one-eyed bandit.

We had been driving for hours. Endless twisted pines, craggy rocks and sapphire lakes as we wound our way through northern Ontario, until finally we were within about a half hour of the Sleeping Giant, our destination for the night. A small liquor store came into view, and we pulled off into the dusty parking lot to pick up something to drink by the fire later that night.

We were three days into the first adventure we had taken together, and had settled into a rhythm, settled into being renegades, the open road ahead of us, a cab full of gear behind us. Our parents were both thrilled and shocked that we had taken on this journey together, curious of the outcome. We got along fine, now that we were older, but we were two very different people. He was a homebody. I was a gypsy. We had never spent so much time together before, as we were now, but several years of travelling abroad had created an ache within me to see the rest of my own country, and to make memories with my family to balance all the solo adventures I had boldly set out on. As we blazed westward at highway speed, the stresses of life after summer were pulled out the windows along with the smoke from my brother’s cigarettes. Somehow we never ran out of things to talk about. We told stories, we told jokes, we sang songs.

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The old wooden screen door banged behind us as we stepped into the quiet shop. An older woman shuffled up to the front counter and greeted us. Hello, we both said as we perused the shelves. The woman chatted to us from behind the counter as we browsed, her voice following us up and down the two or three aisles, asking where we were from, where we were heading. To the park, we told her. We’re driving across the country. We placed our purchases on the counter. The woman had one strange eye, which she squinted as if trying to keep it from falling out of her head.

To the Sleeping Giant? she asked.

Yes.

Do you have your firewood yet? she said in an almost warning tone. We looked at each other, slightly confused.

We usually just buy a bundle at whatever park when we’re at.

She leaned towards us slightly, as if to tell us something in strict confidence. Well, you sure are lucky you stopped in here. Her strange eye narrowed even more. I happen to know they are out of firewood at the park. Won’t have another load until Friday. I’ve got some here, five dollars a bundle. She slapped her palm on the counter as a punctuation mark to this revelation she was imparting on us.

Oh, we said, turning to each other once again. I guess we’d better grab some then.

I’m just happy I could save you some time, she said as she tapped away on the ancient cash register. It’s a long drive back out once you’ve reached the park. About thirty kilometres. Not worth coming back for. Not worth it at all. Not much would make you want to turn back after driving as far as you have. This way you can have yourselves a nice fire tonight!

Thank you, we said, paying her and heading out to the woodshed she had directed us to to grab our wood, the smell of campfire already filling our noses, fingers itching to strum the ukulele while sipping tea and listening to the waves of the great lakes.

Enjoy your trip, she said with a wink, as she began shuffling towards the back of the shop once again, where a television was humming through a doorway.

We were relieved when we finally rolled into the park, and anxious to set up camp and stretch our legs. We had been on the road too long, and needed a rest from the thrum of the highway. Nick waited in the truck while I dashed into the little office to pick up our site pass. Usually I did the talking. He didn’t much like talking to strangers.

There was a bit of a line, campers all flooding to Ontario parks to enjoy the weather and the freedom of summer. I felt at once a part of the collective Canadian consciousness, the one that tastes like beer and smells like campfire and seaweed, which I had been away from for so long, exploring foreign soils. When it was my turn, I gave our information, picked up our pass, and asked where I could get ice for our cooler. It’s in the shed, just around the corner.

I jogged back to the truck, put our pass on the dash and asked Nick to come help me grab a few bags of ice. He switched the truck off and hopped out, following me to the shed. There were two doors, one of which was open with an ice cooler inside. We loaded up with a few bags, and were about to turn to leave when a gust of wind caught the second door. It blew open with a dramatic creak, revealing floor to ceiling piles of firewood, with a little wooden sign.

FIRE WOOD $4 A BUNDLE.

We turned to one another, speechless for a moment before his eyes narrowed and he said, We’ve been bamboozled….

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Fires and forests.

I had to get over the fear of touching other peoples’ dreadlocks. They always seemed so delicate to me; as if if I were to wrap my fingers around one, it could suddenly break off, leaving me with an itchy snake of hair in my hand, not knowing what to do but to stuff it in my pocket or quickly throw it away somewhere.

I wouldn’t touch his for several days to come. It was a long play.

Ennismore, Ontario.

My ears were absolutely over-flowing with the sound of crickets emanating from the tall grass in the back field, punctuated every few moments by a crack from the fire, sending sparks up towards the sky where the milky way dripped an arc above us. The fireflies have been gone for months now, the summer having crept out the back door without announcement. We didn’t feel the grass growing damp with the nighttime dew, seeping through the open sleeping bag we occupied like a little raft next to the smoking chimenea housing our modest fire. The others had left, I guess to their beds, where doors and closed windows kept the night out, while we here continued to wrap ourselves in it. At some point he dragged another blanket over and dropped it on us.

Lying on our stomachs, we watched the low flames. Lying on our backs we watched the stars I wished I could read better. Lying on our sides we evaluated one another, and interpreted the silences that stretched between talks about places we would go, places we would stay, tiny houses and self-sustaining philosophies. The urge to climb a tree surged inside of me, as it sometimes does.

He talked about rent, this fellow gypsy I had come to know by chance.

Why rent an apartment, if your plan is to travel around for the next few years? 

Because it’s good to have a home base in between.

I disagree. A home base is a safety net, one that makes you subconsciously resist your next move. We all seem to have a compulsion to occupy the spaces that we call our own. So I prefer to have no space I call my own, at least for a while.

Saying these words made me feel, at least in part, like a fraud. Seeing as I could already feel myself getting comfortable here, with the “temporary” full time job I had taken on upon my unexpected return from Italy. It’s in the woods, I had been telling myself. I love the woods. But in reality I spent a lot of time opening bottles of wine to be served in buckets of ice in a dining room that looked at the woods through large windows.

Moving my tent a few metres every few days had started off as a way to avoid killing the grass, but soon became a symbolic ritual. Time to move on, I would tell myself, dragging my little tent to the left or right, under this or that tree, closer to or further from the fire, or the house, or the fence. But soon it really would be time to move on.

Where will you go next? He asked, tucking a dreadlock behind his ear.

Somewhere warm, I said, pulling the blanket tighter around my shoulders.

 

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Auntunno.

Out on the lake

which slips by

a deep blue full of questions beneath my canoe,

I watch the hills.

You can only watch something that moves.

You look at something stationary.

But the hills move,  though imperceptibly

(in a manner that is so slight, gradual or subtle so as not to be perceived).

They move, this I know, because they are green

yet there is a suspicion, a premonition

of colour

that hangs above them, waiting to settle over them.

non è ancora autunno, it says, hovering there.

But almost.

West at highway speed.

We drove for days on end.

We drove until pines and lakes gave way to prairie flats.

In the flats, the butterflies came.

They floated, drifted, languidly,

all of a sudden caught up in wind tunnels caused by highway speeds.

We smiled at them, doing loopty-loops, catching themselves and flapping on

as if nothing had changed

as if they had not gone topsy-turvy

as if they had intended all along to change directions.

We smiled at them, hypothesizing about where they were going, why,

as cigarette smoke wafted out the front windows,

and re-entered through the back ones.

 

With our truck parked in a town, some town,

we heard the hum.

The hum was a hundred bees,

buzzing about the wings of the butterflies who hadn’t survived,

the wings that had wallpapered our front fender,

with iridescent paper,

and a subtle dust of yellow and white.

In an hour they were gone.

Losing trains.

In the winter of 2015, I had a friend living in a very small village in the mountains of southeastern France, a short car ride from Valence. Rosie. Craving a familiar face from home, I decided to take the nine-hour train ride from Florence to Turin, from Turin to Lyon, from Lyon to Valence, to visit her. Rolling through northern Italy and then southern France lulled me into a contented daze as countryside whizzed by my window, until our train unexpectedly stopped somewhere between Turin and Lyon.

I strained to understand first the French, then Italian message that crackled over the speakers. We were stopped for perhaps twenty minutes, all travellers craning to see out the windows, or shuffling in their seats impatiently. Another announcement, and suddenly everyone starting murmuring to each other. I looked on, helplessly confused, and tried asking the woman sitting across from me in Italian what was happening (Scusi Signora, che succede?), but she didn’t understand. A young French girl across the aisle from me explained to me in broken English that there was an unidentified piece of luggage, and they had to search the train. This was right in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Europe: Paris, Brussels…I was not afraid, so much, as I had never had to feel this type of fear before. We would be delayed, the girl told me. For how long? I asked, more aware of the time and my next train to Valence than the potential threat. They do not know.

 When a man in uniform came striding down the aisle, I stopped him to ask how long we would be delayed, and explained that I had another train to catch. The girl across the aisle translated. You will not make it, he says. You should make another arrangement.

I immediately began to sweat. This was not part of the plan. There was no internet on the train, and I had no way to message Rosie, who would be waiting for me at the station in Valence in just a few hours. I tried calling my host family in Florence, but now that we had crossed the border it cost a fortune, so I hurriedly asked them to look Rosie up on facebook and try sending her a message about the delay. The credit on my phone ran out.

I sat back in my seat, nervously awaiting any news about our departure. A message crackled over the speaker once again, and suddenly everyone was standing up and heading for the now opening doors. We have to go out, said the girl.

I struggled to follow the crowd, dragging my little suitcase behind me, to a different platform, where everyone filed onto a new train. After about another twenty minutes or so, we were underway, but my train in Lyon would already be gone.

When we arrived, I followed a small cluster of people from my train to the information booth, where we were told that those who had missed the train to Valence would be shuttled there in a large van. By this time it was getting late, and we wouldn’t be arriving to Valence until almost midnight. Rosie would be long gone, wondering where I was.

I dozed in the van, where the other passengers were an older French couple who offered me food, and a businessman with a briefcase. When we reached Valence, the station was dark, closed up for the night. Will you be alright? asked the old couple in stilted English. I was too embarrassed to say I had nowhere to go, so I simply said yes, pointing vaguely and saying, I think my friend’s car is over there. Then they were gone, and I was alone. I wandered around the station, the empty parking lot, the sleepy street in front of it, but of course there was no sign of Rosie. I opened and closed my phone, hoping for it to magically work, finally throwing it into my bag, useless.

I laid my suitcase down on the ground, and sat on top of it, my chin in my hands, trying not to panic. Maybe there was a bar, somewhere I could go to keep warm for a few hours. I could ask someone to use a phone, but I didn’t even have Rosie’s number. How stupid of me.

Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a man near the corner of the parking lot. I saw him see me, and avoided looking in his direction as he made his way over.

Est ce que ça va? Es tu seul? he asked when he was within earshot.

I don’t speak French, I replied.

Are you lost? He asked.

No, I replied. I’m waiting for my friend.

Where is your friend? he asked, looking around confusedly. I explained the situation. But what will you do? he asked, a note of concern in his voice, eyebrows knit.

I will wait, I said.

But what if she doesn’t come?

I don’t know.

You could stay in a hotel, I can show you where there is one, he told me. How much money do you have?

None, I replied. I was so stupid. He hemmed and hawed a moment, before saying, Here is what I will do. I will get a hotel room for you. You cannot stay here alone.

I didn’t like this idea one bit. I tried to think of an excuse, a believable plan that would make him leave me alone. I strained to see as far down the street as I could, once again hoping to see Rosie waiting for me.

I saw headlights. My heart jumped. The man was still speaking, but I was busy tracing these headlights as they drew closer. They turned into the station and the passenger’s door flew open. Allie? Allie? Is that you? I leapt off my suitcase and ran into Rosie’s arms without looking back, her partner Franck stepping out of the driver’s seat. I thought I would cry. She held me tight, her dreadlocks tickling my face as I buried it in her shoulder.

We looked everywhere for you, we were so worried when you didn’t get off the train! We thought maybe you could be at the other station, so we drove there to see, then came back here!

The man came to join us, holding my suitcase. He handed it to me and introduced himself to Rosie and Franck, explaining the situation to them in French. I could see Rosie was not impressed. She thanked him, took my suitcase and we turned to the car and got inside.

Franck quietly drove us up, up, up, into the mountains through winding country roads, as Rosie and I chatted away to one another, catching up. I was exhausted, and so relieved she had found me. We soon pulled off the road and got out. I followed them up some wooden steps to a large stone house, the side door leading to their small piece of it. They opened the door and we entered a large sitting room with a long wooden banquet table, a mattress in the corner, and a woodstove crackling. Welcome! said Rosie, a smile in her eyes.

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From a coffeeshop.

Does this train go to the airport? The guy who appeared to be sleeping across from us, slumped over his seat, opened one eye and muttered, I sure hope so, before slumping over once again. We looked at each other with worry in our eyes, then shrugged our shoulders and settled in for the ride, hoping for the best.

 

 

12:36.

It was the last day of our first trip to Amsterdam. With several hours to kill before heading to the airport, we found ourselves in a very funky coffeeshop, walls laden with graffiti and various posters and nostalgia items. We placed our order, soon feeling relaxed and at our ease. What will we do with all this? I said to my boyfriend, pulling out several tiny baggies of leftovers. We’re going to the airport soon…but we can’t just throw it out.

Let’s have another then, we’re not in a rush.

It didn’t seem like a terrible idea. However, when we had finished, there was still some left. Let’s just give it away, I suggested, but instead we had one more.

13:42.

Suddenly I remembered our flight. Oh my god, we have to go! I exclaimed. He gasped and turned to me with wide eyes. We stared at each other for a moment in shock, before settling back into our seats.

13:57.

The same revelation soon hit me again. Oh my god, we have to go! I exclaimed. He gasped and turned to me with wide eyes. We stared at each other for another moment before settling back into our seats.

14:13.

The third time that I hurriedly made the same observation, we finally sprang into action. I collected up my purse and phone, he threw the lighter and papers into his pocket, and I made to slide off my stool.

When my feet touched the floor, I realized we would most certainly have a problem getting to the airport on time. I felt as though I were wearing springs on my shoes, the floor pushing back comically against the soles of my feet. I tried to act natural as I bounced my way towards the door.

14:18.

When we finally stumbled out into the fresh air and the afternoon sun, he turned to me and said, We’ll need to get back to the boat to grab our stuff.

WHAT? I shouted, the quietness of the square not having yet registered against the previous volume of the coffeeshop. We both burst out laughing at the volume of my voice in the otherwise tranquil square. We took a few steps, but didn’t make it far before we both started laughing again. He pulled out a map to try and figure out the way back to the boat, which generated more laughter. My body was heaving and my belly sore…I couldn’t stop laughing though my mind was screaming at me to stop. I started to panic. My body was not listening to my brain. I tried to take a few deep breaths and still my diaphragm, which worked for a few moments until I turned to him to speak, which caused a whole new fit. We were getting nowhere, and I was starting to believe we would never make it back to the boat. What could we do? My mind raced through the options, and finally I convinced myself that the only viable possibility was to go our separate ways. Wait, he called, I found the way. I turned back without looking at him, willing myself with every fibre of my being not to look. I stared at the ground and followed him, consciously attempting to maintain a still diaphragm.

14:34.

We walked and walked, and I became more and more sure that I had never seen these streets before in my life. I said as much. Yes, we have Allie. We were in this very spot just yesterday. Look, remember that shop? I did, but my brain worked hard to convince me that I didn’t. The laughter was gone, and paranoia set in. This isn’t the way. This isn’t the way.

I no longer believed us to be in Amsterdam, I felt so very lost. I fully accepted the fact that we would never make it to the airport, and told my self resignedly, we live here now, wherever here is.

15:01.

We have been walking for hours. At least four, I told myself.

Yet here was our boat. I almost collapsed with shock and relief. Until my feet were firmly planted in our little cabin, I didn’t believe it to be true. We wandered around the tiny space trying to get our suitcases together, tripping over one another, and finally we were out the door, muttering a quick, thanks very much, to the man at the desk on our way out, not making eye contact, expertly avoiding revealing our current state.

15:44.

We found our way to the train station, and quickly became overwhelmed with all the times listed on the ever-changing screen, people in suits dragging suitcases, expensive shoes clicking on marble floors.

16:00.

Excuse me sir, which train goes to the airport?

16:12.

There are two seats together here, Allie. 

16:19.

Does this train go to the airport?

I sure hope so.

17:10.

Flight 206, now boarding rows one to ten.

 20:11.

Taxi!

 20:38.

The door to our apartment closed behind us. We both slumped against it, turning to each other, eyebrows raised.

We’re home, he said.

It appears so, I said.

Bed?

Yes.

 

 

 

 

 

Neighbours

The ferry announces its arrival with two quick blasts of the horn. I poke my head up through the hatch in the forward cabin, see it pulling into the dock at Wolfe Island, just across the channel from the city of Kingston. The sun isn’t yet high, but leaves it’s glittering tail across the water as it rises over Lake Ontario. It’s my first time to Windsong, my father’s boat, since last summer.

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I check my watch as I slide out of bed. 6:27. I climb out into the cockpit, and turn my gaze to the other sleepy sailboats anchored nearby. Our neighbours. They are all empty, we are alone in the anchorage this weekend. The high-rises of Kingston glitter in the morning sun to the north, the island slowly wakes to the south.

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As I watch the windmills turn in the distance, giving power to the many farms here, I think about my Opa, who came to this very island when he first arrived in Canada in 1951 from Holland. I wonder which of these farms employed him, as a young 20-year-old immigrant, writing to my Oma across the ocean to tell her to come, that Canada was an amazing place, that she would love it.

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I consider swimming the short length from the boat to the island to go exploring, but my father offers to row me across, so I can keep my clothes dry. I hop out of the rowboat, backpack on, and set out on my little journey. I head east towards where I know there is a bicycle rental shop. The road takes me towards the edge of the town of Marysville, and I soon see a small sign reading Cycle Wolfe Island at the end of a driveway. I make my way down the gravel lane, towards a shed at the back with a closed sign on it. Darn. There is a whole yard full of bikes, but no one in sight. I guess I’m walking. I continue out of town, the houses slowly spreading further and further apart, until I am nearly under the first of the windmills at the first of the farms, then turn back towards town.

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In town, I meander through the side streets, snapping pictures of some of the houses and gardens, before finding myself in front of a small art gallery. I head inside where a few other tourists are perusing what the walls are displaying, and one wall in particular draws my attention. It is a grid of perhaps twenty portraits, various smiling faces gazing out a me, with a small sign in the bottom right corner reading Neighbours. There is something so beautiful in the simplicity and familiarity of this collection, that I spend several moments admiring it as a whole, before inspecting each face, in turn. I continue making my way around the gallery, but find myself back at Neighbours after a few moments. I try to memorize it, wishing I could take it with me somehow. I eye the two ladies behind the counter, chatting to one another, and approach them timidly. Excuse me, they both look up. Would it be okay if I took a picture of this wall?

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Yes, sure, says a middle-aged woman with curly blonde-grey hair. I line up my camera contentedly. But why do you want a picture of that wall? she asks, as I take my shot.

Well, I guess I just really like it, I say, looking down to check the image turned out.

I was curious, she says, because I painted them.

I look up at her once again. They are truly fantastic, I say, wishing I weren’t so shy, and that I could think of something more intelligent to say to her about her work. A man in a tilly hat and a three day beard not far from me joins the conversation. You will notice two people in this room in those portraits, he says, nodding towards Neighbours. So the other patrons are not all tourists after all. Oh? I say, turning back to the wall and recognizing his face right away. You are the top right, I say, pointing.

Yes, and my wife is there too, he says, pointing to a woman at the other end of the room. She is the bottom middle, I observe. They are all so lovely, so familiar, I muse. He tells me how each image was painted in about twenty minutes, while the artist sat having a conversation with her neighbours, all presumably islanders.

I thank them both and wish them a good day as I take my leave, heading towards the local coffee shop. I order an iced latte and take a seat outside in the shade, pulling out a book that a friend lent me a week ago, The Monk and the Riddle. I settle into the warm, late July day, feeling grateful for a free weekend from the three jobs I have recently started, in the hopes of soon saving enough for my next adventure.

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Is that a Buddhist monk, or a different kind of monk? asks a voice after a few moments of reading. It’s the man from the top-right portrait. His wife and son are a few paces ahead, walking towards the bakery. A Buddhist one, I say.

My wife and I used to be Buddhists, he tells me. I wonder what “used to” be a Buddhist means. He gives me the name of an author I should look up, tells me the book saved his life, before running to catch up to his family. Thank you, I call.

I head down to the dock after reading a short while longer, and try calling out to my father, who is working inside the boat. No movement. I try again, then move to another dock, a little bit longer and thus reaching a little bit closer to the boat. Still nothing. I stand for a moment, gaging the distance and my ability to swim it, before slipping off my sandals and setting my backpack down. I can come back for it later.

Just as I am about to slide off the dock into the water, I see a hat emerge from below deck, and an arm waving.

I guess my swim can wait.

In Ruins.

My first year in Florence, I remember sitting in one of my favourite grungy cafes with a friend, debating whether or not we could afford to go to Budapest for a weekend. We wanted to visit a Hungarian friend who we had met in Florence, but had since gone home. We absolutely could not afford it, but we went ahead and booked some cheap flights with a live-once attitude.

The first night, we checked into a hostel in an ancient marble building that cost 5euro per night, and the room was shared between ten people. Budapest was cheap, really cheap. Nora met us and took us out for dinner, and then she asked if we wanted to continue drinking and go out to dance.

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She led us down the snowy streets, cheerfully lit in places with twinkle lights but not enough to lift the wet chill that clung to everything. We approached a crumbling doorway, closed off with thick, clear plastic sheets draped over it, a flickering red bulb lighting the entrance behind it. We pushed the plastic back and stepped inside: our first ruin bar.

In Budapest, many ruined buildings in the historical centre have been taken over and reclaimed as bars and clubs. Holes have been semi-covered, crumbling roofs have been secured, lighting and sound installed, and new life given.

We entered some sort of old mansion, with many winding stairways, and what seemed liked endless rooms and corridors. Each room had a different vibe: different music vibrating the walls, different styles of dance and dress, and different levels of intoxication, making my head spin as we stumbled up and down hallways, tripping up and down stairs and into and out of various rooms.

We couldn’t talk, it was too loud. We had to shout at each other, or use our hands to communicate which direction we wanted to go. It was like being inside a labyrinth, and I doubt I would have been able to find the same room twice, had I wanted to. We settled into a long, narrow space, packed shoulder to shoulder with people, a deejay spinning dance music at the front, elevated in his booth above the dancers below him like some sort of prince or deity. We danced for an indeterminable amount of time, maybe hours, maybe minutes, avoiding men who in the confusion tried to crush too close to us. When we were fully exhausted, we wound our way back down the tangle of corridors, rooms and stairs, eventually stumbling back out into the frigid winter air.

The next morning, we woke up early in our hostel, and Nora came to meet us by the door, wrapped up in a wool scarf and mittens. I want to show you something, she said. We trudged down the slushy sidewalks, shivering against the wet cold that felt much more severe than it had in Florence. We arrived at an expansive, crumbling building, the door simply an opening at the front. We stepped inside to a lively market, stalls clustered in various corners and hallways of a once mansion, locals bartering over cheese, jelly, coffee and meats. It was such a vibrant scene. We went up to a stone bar and ordered a cappuccino each from a man in an apron and mustache, finding a table with mismatched chairs in a corner up some stairs, overlooking the bustle below.

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I let my gaze drift over repurposed items, now adorning the walls as décor; there was an antique bicycle hanging from the rafters, adorned with twinkle lights, a wagon used as a planter, different fabrics strung from the walls and ceilings, which were coated in graffiti that somehow created a beautiful chaos.

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Nora looked up from her coffee. Do you girls recognize this space? Confused, I took another look around. Behind us was a narrow winding staircase, and my eyes roved over the tangle of corridors and doorways…Is this the ruin bar from last night? gasped Rebecca. Sure is, said Nora, her eyes smiling at our surprise. It’s so different in the daylight! I said, incredulous. It was amazing how last night’s confusion had quickly been replaced with a different type of confusion. The crowd had changed, the sounds, but it was still buzzing with energy and activity. This crumbling old building was bursting at the seams with life, from early morning until all hours of the night, never sleeping it seemed, but simply transforming in purpose and use.

We experienced many beautiful things that weekend in Budapest, climbing to the top of the snowy hill overlooking both sides of the river, seeing museums, caves, and soaking in elegant thermal baths, eating hot meals for next to nothing. But the ruins and their constantly evolving energy left a lasting impression on me. I loved the way they had made something new out of something old, giving new life to something dead, never surrendering to decay or age…

 

 

I do believe in fairies.

Surely there is magic hiding everywhere we go. One must simply take the time to seek it out.

Rathebeggan Lakes, summer 2014.

Why don’t you take the kids out to the garden?

I had been a nanny for about a month now, in Dublin, Ireland. The weight of homesickness occasionally took up residence on my chest, but mostly I was happy. It was my first time crossing an ocean, my first big adventure and it was only mine. I had come alone and I was making sure to firmly eschew my comfort zone. On the weekends I would zip a change of clothes and what little cash I had made that week into my backpack, sling it over my shoulder and hop trains to Kilkenny, Belfast, Cork or Galway, taking long rainy hikes and eating potato stew in dark taverns to warm up. My feet were probably always wet.

During the week, I was with the kids. They were five and one. Sometimes their mom would play hooky from work and take us all on an adventure in the car. This was one of those days.

Her auntie had an allotment, a patch in a community garden outside of the city. With a rare but treasured sunny day ahead of us, we packed the kids into the car to go for a visit.

There was a small lodge at the farm where her cousin who was visiting from Jordan was staying that week. She poured the tea and they settled in for a chat.

Why don’t you take the kids out to the garden? Head left through the trees and cross the little bridge, you’ll love it.

I took little Emily in my arms and Jack raced on ahead. As we crossed the small footbridge, a hush settled over us. I couldn’t hear the tall grass swishing, or the heat bugs buzzing, or the voices carrying from the windows of the lodge. Leaves crunched under foot and the most colourful tree I had ever seen came into view.

It’s the wishing tree, said Jack.  In front of us was a tree laden with a rainbow of silk ribbons, and a note explaining that each one was a wish, to be left with the fairies. Fairies? It took me back to my childhood on the island, building a tiny house out of moss and sticks and placing it in a bluebell patch with a welcome note. Olivia, my sister, had always believed.

We continued into the trees, and I was stunned by the beauty that I saw. This place was indeed magical. If you looked carefully, you would see tiny doorways in the trees, little bridges from one branch to the next, and tiny colourful toadstools. P1080437.JPG

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I was taken back to the summer that we held a fairy ball in the garden, the next day finding a tiny silver slipper and a miniature string of beads left behind, filling our heads with stories of what had possibly taken place after dark the night before.

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The kids roamed around through the trees for some time, tapping on all the doors, examining the toadstools and pointing at the tiny clothes hanging out to dry, and eventually I brought them back inside to put Emily down for a nap. When I had a spare moment, I slipped back out to the garden on my own.

I had a small piece of string in my pocket, I don’t remember what from, but I took it out as I approached the wishing tree. I sat for a moment, wrapped in the silence of the small wood, and thought of all the choices that had led me to here and now. I wanted life to always be this way. I never wanted to forget that there are a million forms of magic, all there for us to take or admire. I never wanted to be still, or stale, or stuck.

I tied my string and headed back to the house.