La Bella Venezia

Yesterday we returned from a week in Venice. Yes, that’s right, a full week in the place most people visit for two or three days at most, pausing only long enough to tick off the main sites (Rialto, St. Mark’s Square) and do the main tourist attractions (gondola ride, selfie in front of the Bridge of Sighs). But if you take the time to spend longer than the average tourist in this amazing place, you will really reap the benefits.

Besides being beautiful, with its labyrinth of canals, colourful buildings, lively squares and narrow passageways, Venice is steeped in history. One only has to stick their head into the stunning Frari Church or Scuolo Grande di San Rocco to get a flavour of what the city has to offer. And it doesn’t stop there. The different areas all have their own unique charm, from San Polo (where we rented a lovely Airbnb property and found a gorgeous sandwich shop/bar which we frequented for a beer and glass of Prosecco most evenings) to Castello (where we returned to a wonderful restaurant near to the famous Arsenale – former ship yard and armoury – where we dined on our honeymoon last year) to the Jewish Ghetto and Giudecca, which both have a completely different, but no less charming, vibe compared to the other parts of the city.

This year, the Venice Biennale festival includes modern art, with a huge display of artworks to explore in both the Arsenale and Giardini. A two day ticket costs only 25 Euros, which is well worth the money. There are also a huge number of other galleries and exhibitions (both permanent and temporary, to coincide with the Biennale) running across the city, including new exhibitions by Damien Hirst and David Hockney (neither of which we saw, sadly, as we ran out of time).

And then there is the beach. On my previous two trips to Venice, both less than three days in duration, I didn’t make it as far as the Lido. But with a few days more we were able to hop on the Vaporetto (water bus) and make the half hour journey on two occasions. It’s not the best beach in the world, and it is very busy during the summer, but there are still plenty of sun beds and umbrellas available to rent and it offers respite from the searing heat and busy streets in the city, when sightseeing gets too much.

I need not linger on the food (it goes without saying Italian food is divine); suffice to say if seafood and ice cream are your bag, you will not be disappointed in Venice. I’m pretty sure I’ve come back at least half a stone heavier, but I don’t regret a moment of it!

Advertisements

The Jacket

The jacket had hung on the rail, unnoticed, for years, its once vibrant khaki shade now muted by a million tiny dust motes. On those rare occasions when a customer did venture to the far interior of the shop, their grasping fingers would probe the rail and yet somehow never find purchase in the jacket’s soft folds. Even the owner of the shop had neglected to update its price tag in his recent stock take. The jacket, it seemed, had been forgotten.

It hadn’t always been like this. When it was made a century ago the jacket had been stitched by deft and loving hands. Destined for war, it was a most important garment, for it bore not only the mark of its country but also the pride and honour of its countrymen. Such was its power the boy who wore it nigh-on fainted when it was placed into his trembling hands.

But once the war was over the reverence ceased to exist. The jacket was tossed into the dark recesses of a wardrobe, as though it were responsible for all the ills of the war. It wasn’t until the boy, by then an old man, had passed away that it was sold to a collector and brought here, to this place where time stood still and where the tinkling of the bell above the door grew more infrequent with each passing day.

The bell tinkled, and the door opened. Into the shop stepped a young man. He spoke in hushed tones to the elderly shopkeeper, who nodded and pointed to the back of the shop. Shuffled footsteps drew near to where the jacket hung. Fingers probed the adjacent garments, stopping just short of its location. But just as it seemed the jacket had been ignored again, the fingers probed still further and made contact with its arm, then its lapel. Soon the whole jacket had been pulled from the rail and slipped off its hanger and the young man was trying it on. He looked at himself in the mirror, smiled at his reflection and then at the shopkeeper.

The old man helped the young man out of the jacket and shuffled to the counter, brushing off the dust before slipping it into a bag and ringing up the sale on an ancient cash register. Moments later the bell tinkled again to herald the young man’s exit, and the jacket – with its new owner – re-entered the world.

Past post: The resurgence of swing

With the introduction of programmes like Strictly Dance Fever on mainstream television, styles of dance from bygone eras have been brought to the forefront of society’s consciousness.  And with so many swing organisations running successfully in the UK and abroad today, it begs the question:  Is the revived interest just a phase, or has the phenomenon been here all along?  Furthermore, is the interest confined to the older generation who want to relive the dances of their youth or a younger crowd who feel compelled to try something new?

Perhaps the best place to start is with the origin of popular swing dances from the first half of the century.  Typically black jazz dances such as the Charleston and The Cakewalk became more main stream in the 1920s and gave rise to the Lindyhop, which, in turn, evolved into the Jitterbug and Jive in the 1940s and 1950s.  Along with developments in the style of dance there were changes in the accompanying music, from big band swing music in the 1940s to rhythm and blues and rock and roll in the 1950s.  Popular artists of the time such as Glenn Miller and Little Richard took swing to new levels, helping to secure its place in musical history.

It wasn’t all about the music, of course.  Swing’s meteoric rise to fame was helped in no small part by the war, when military or civilian service meant people of all social ages and groups mixed on a regular basis.  The Jitterbug spread widely across the country during this period, and its exposure was not limited to the UK.  Swing was soon a global phenomenon, and has remained so ever since, albeit on a smaller scale than at the height of the war.

But how have swing dances survived?  Or more importantly, what has kept people interested?  Robin Weathersbee, who co-founded Maddy’s Jiving School with his wife, attributes swing’s longevity to the power of the music, claiming that “the strong rhythms and ever-popular ‘classic’ tracks, which still get mainstream media exposure today, have kept the music and style of dancing in the public eye.”

Martin Ellis, founder of Swingland, an organisation providing weekly swing dance classes, workshops and club nights, further strengthens the argument that swing’s success lies in its originality; “Over the last hundred years or so we have been able to record music, which means that we can trace the roots of every style of music, making it increasingly harder to produce something original.”

So who actually attends swing classes today?  According to Robin, most of his students are “much younger than the generation who would have danced to swing during the ‘40s and ‘50s.”  Martin agrees, “We have all age groups taking part, from young people in their twenties to older people in their seventies – but the vast majority are in their twenties and thirties.”

This revelation may come as a surprise to many, but Martin explains why younger people find swing classes so appealing; “Although our younger participants enjoy pop and rock music and go to clubs just like anyone else of their age would do, one fairly common theme is that none of them are into the seedier side of clubbing, such as drugs.  They enjoy going to an environment that is not fuelled by that, as its all about the music and dancing.  I suppose you could say it’s more wholesome.”

It would therefore seem that the perception of the swing culture as a safe alternative to modern day forms of entertainment may be another reason for its prolonged success.  This theory is given more credence if we consider the fifties lifestyle.   People had less disposable income to spend on drinking and leisure pursuits than they do today, meaning the emphasis was on cheap forms of entertainment such as dancing.  Society was just beginning to recover from the war, and dancing must also have provided a welcome release from the oppression of previous years.

So are television programmes like Strictly Dance Fever responsible for the recent resurgence of swing?  “Television programmes are not necessarily the reason,” says Martin, “The swing scene in the UK, compared to the US and Europe, is not really about competition, so whilst such programmes do bring exposure they don’t generate a huge interest.  It really comes down to the fact that the music is very good and the dances, although not easy to learn, are addictive once you have picked them up.  There is also such a big scene worldwide that many people see it as a chance to go travelling and meet other like-minded people.”

For many, the interest extends into other areas of the fifties lifestyle.  Robin and Collette Weathersbee are a perfect example.  “Our interest started with the music of the era, but we now collect and wear vintage clothing, own a 1947 Plymouth convertible car and have furnished our home in period style,” says Robin.

Whatever the reason for the interest, it seems the swing culture is alive and well in today’s society, both in the UK and abroad. And long may it reign.

7028_317306540056_4768498_n

Writing this post reminded me of when my friend’s band played for my 29th birthday celebrations in a pub in Vauxhall. It was such a fun night!

 

Restoration

Apologies to anyone who is hoping for the next instalment of the story I’ve been writing over the past few days, but today I thought I’d mix things up a little and return to blogging. I am, after all, sitting in an ex-brothel in the centre of historic Prague, and it seems wrong not to acknowledge the effect this place has had on me over the past few days.

I’ve written a full feature on my experience of Prague which I will be posting tomorrow on the Bea blog, but what I would just like to say in this post is that coming here has reminded me how wonderful it is to step out of your life from time to time and experience another culture. As an aspiring writer I always feel particularly moved when I explore another part of the world, as it reminds me how much more there is to know and understand.

I defy anyone who is suffering from writer’s block not to find inspiration here, where every twist and turn in the maze of back streets brings a new surprise – whether architectural delights, performance artists, odd little museums or delightfully quaint restaurants serving traditional Czech fare such as goulash and dumplings (just like grandma used to make – yum).

Breaking out of normal life for a couple of days can be really beneficial – not least when ‘normal life’ is proving troublesome, as in my case with recent redundancy news and subsequent job searching and interviews. I arrived here feeling drained and stressed, but after three nights in my (free upgrade!) palatial suite in the Mamaison Pachtuv Palace hotel and time spent wandering by the river, drinking local beer and eating hearty traditional fare I’m leaving feeling inspired, rested and ready to resume my job search with renewed enthusiasm.

God bless Prague and all who sail in her.

Image

I took this last night whilst strolling around the old town square. It sums up just how wonderfully atmospheric this city is. I don’t want to leave!

Past Post: Laos

I wrote this last year when I returned from my travels and submitted it to a newspaper writing competition. Sadly I wasn’t shortlisted, but I do think it’s good enough to share here, so here it is.

When the minivan driver hit his second chicken and narrowly missed a child toddling by the roadside, I felt moved to intervene. “You’re driving too fast, it’s not safe!” He responded with a maniacal laugh and slammed his foot down harder on the accelerator. I sighed. This was going to be a long journey.

I have heard many travellers claim that the people of Laos are amongst the least friendly in South East Asia and, based on this experience, I might have said the same. But to understand Laos and its people one must first understand its history. When you consider the ‘Secret War’ waged against it by the US from 1964-1973 – during which over 260 million cluster bombs were dropped on a country with less than three million inhabitants to dent the spread of communism from Vietnam – it’s easy to see why distrust and contempt against foreigners may exist.

It is estimated that up to thirty per cent of cluster bomb units did not explode on impact, and to this day there are still thousands of unexploded bombs located throughout Laos, many of them nestled unobtrusively in paddy fields where ordinary farmers are trying to eke out a living for their families, and where they and their children risk life and limb every day as a result.

We passed through many such fields on our kamikaze minivan adventure from Phonsavanh to Vientiane. In my more lucid moments, I relaxed my grip on the seat and pondered what it would be like to meet some farmers and ask them in person what it was like to live under the constant threat of such unimaginable horror. Perhaps then I would get under the skin of the country I had previously – and shamefully – only heard of in the context of its popular tubing tourist attraction in Vang Vieng.

Tubing is fun, and arriving in the country on a slow boat down the Mekong River is an experience not to be missed, but both are essentially just part of the tourist trail. Even the Plain of Jars and nearby ‘bomb village’ lack genuine character, the touts having sucked it out with their sterile production-line tours. It doesn’t help that a lack of infrastructure makes getting around a strain for even the most hardy of travellers, particularly in the wet season when roads can be impassable due to flooding.

My lasting memory of the country won’t be floating down the river in an inflatable tube, nor wandering around a field of ancient, unexplained relics. It won’t even be the suicidal minivan driver or the touts and their soulless tours. It will be the ordinary but heart-warming sights I witnessed as we drove for hours along death-defying roads; bright eyed children playing and whole families working the bomb-littered fields. Whilst such glimpses by their brief nature fail to yield any real insight into the Laos Peoples’ character, I will always feel respect for them, going about their business despite all that has been inflicted upon them.

Image

I took this on a day trip from Luang Prabang to a stunning waterfall, and was struck by the contrast of crisp, brown landscape and bright blue sky.

Two simple words

This weekend I’ve spent a lot of quality time with family and good friends, something I realise I haven’t done nearly enough of in recent months. It’s so easy to get complacent about the people closest to you. They’re not going anywhere, after all. But it’s precisely because they’re not going anywhere – because they love you unconditionally, because they’ll never let you down – that you should make an effort to keep them at the centre of your life. They’re the people who understand you better than anyone else, the ones you feel most comfortable being your true self with. They’re the ones who can provide a listening ear and shoulder to cry on one minute and make you laugh like a drain the next. In short, you need them to be you – why wouldn’t you cherish them?

I’ve also spent time this weekend reconnecting with friends – both in person and by email – who I made on my various travels over the past few years. I find these types of friendship so interesting, because you don’t share a history but you do create an unbreakable bond as you make new memories together. People who meet whilst travelling the world alone already have something in common – they’re searching for meaning in their lives, hoping for an adventure, maybe even trying to escape from a negative situation in the ‘real’ world that they’ve left behind. Whilst these kinds of friendships are very different to the friendships that have stood the test of time and turbulence, they are no less important. They teach you just as much about yourself – if not more – and should be valued and nurtured accordingly.

Then there are the friends you don’t even know that well, or who you’ve long since fallen out of regular contact with, who contact you out of the blue to wish you well and offer words of support and encouragement at just the right time. Several such friends have done just that for me in the past week. Their kind words really picked me up when I was plagued with self-doubt about my writing, and they’ve given me the strength to carry on.

Thinking about peoples’ tendency to be complacent towards their friends has, in turn, made me think about the simple act of saying thank you – not just when a stranger holds a door open for you or gives their seat up for you on the train, but to the people you know and love. To be a good friend, parent or sibling takes a degree of selflessness, you must be prepared to put your own ego aside and put that person before yourself. So when someone does that for us, shouldn’t it follow that we show our gratitude in some way?

In light of the above I’d like to do a little roll call to acknowledge all the people who have supported me and made me smile in the past week – family and friends both old and new:

Thank you Mum and David, Rory, Hayley Norrish, Anna Bullock, Amy Roberton, Gabrielle Liddle, Jen Chardon, Alex Sayer, Kaye Dolan, George, Caroline and Milo Watson, Mouse Bunch, Sian Brace, Lucy Caslon, @benjaminmurdoch, @cripesonfriday, @adeteal, @beyond_nadia, @SirHeppe, @matthewpaulgray, @BinaryDad, @dogtaniontastic, @teenybella – you’re all absolutely ACE 🙂

And a general thank you to all the friends and family who I haven’t mentioned above who have – at various times and in various places – put up with me, helped me find hope in hopeless situations, and generally just been there. You know who you are xxxx 

Image

I can’t think of a better picture to go with this post than this, of me and my best friend at my mum and stepfather’s wedding. We were six years old and completely different (me a girly girl, my best friend a tomboy – hence the colour of our dresses!) but we were – and still are – inseparable. True friendship that stands the test of time doesn’t require you to be the same – it requires you to appreciate your differences, and be there for one another through thick and thin. I’m so fortunate to have wonderful friends who have done just that for me.

History

The pub was steeped in history. Charlotte could feel it the moment she walked through the door. She stooped so as not to hit her head on the dark wooden beams, which were bedecked with brass casts of horse shoes and other relics of the time in which the building was conceived. There was a coat rack by the door, which she duly deposited her rain-soaked jacket onto. She turned around and waited for her eyes to adjust to the dimly lit room before approaching the bar. The floor was carpeted, a crimson blanket, the windows partially obscured by heavy velvet drapes of the same colour. Oil lamps burned on every table, the light barely filtering through their thick glass shades. In the hearth a log fire crackled and hissed, sending thick plumes of smoke into the chimney chute about it.

Charlotte took a step towards the bar and faltered, feeling suddenly anxious. Her skin prickled, the hairs standing up for no discernible reason. She surveyed the room again. Only two of the mahogany tables were occupied, one by a middle-aged man who was engrossed in the crossword, the other by a family of four, the parents struggling to control their hyperactive children. Charlotte looked at her watch. It was only quarter past twelve. She supposed the lunchtime rush would soon start, though there was no sign of it yet. Despite the man and family sitting to her left, Charlotte felt disquietingly alone.

A movement out of the corner of her eye made her jump. Her breathing quickened as her eyes darted to the right. She squinted into the dark corner of the room. There was nothing there. She took a deep breath and walked towards the bar, reaching a hand out to steady herself as a wave of nausea came over her. The clinking of glasses alerted her to the presence of a girl, about her age, who was walking out of the kitchen. She stopped when she saw Charlotte, put the glasses down, smiled and asked if she could help. Charlotte ordered an orange juice and fumbled in her purse to find the coins to pay. When the drink arrived a sudden thirst took hold of her and she swallowed it in one go.

It was then she saw him. He stood on the staircase to the right of the bar, so still he could have been a statue. His hair was smoothed against his head, his shirt freshly pressed. Charlotte’s heart hammered in her chest. She looked at the girl behind the bar, who had gone back to cleaning glasses. Did she not see? Then back to his face, weathered and beaten. His dark eyes bored into her. His mouth, lips slightly parted, seemed wanting to form words to speak.

She got there first.

“Hello Dad. It’s been a while.”

Image

I thought this image was a befitting accompaniment to today’s post. I took it in a makeshift cinema in Vashisht, a hillside village in northern India which is a haven for backpackers. The man in the picture ran the cinema, which was little more than a room with a flat screen television and cushions scattered on the floor. His daughter was so beautiful, like a little china doll. I was quite captivated.