a few things

First of all, a correction. It turns out my ferry crossed the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, not the Aegean. Oops. Clearly it’s time to brush up on my geography.

Second of all, it’s only when I’m on the road for extended periods that I recognize the luxury that is clean pajamas. There is truly no chore I hate worse than washing clothes in the bathtub, and they never feel (or smell) properly clean afterwards anyway. I found a laundrette today (and nothing will make you watch the clock quite like hearing ‘please pick up your laundry promptly, because in three hours we close for a week’), so I’m taking a moment to appreciate fresh, clean jammies.

Third, I met up with a friend tonight – another director I worked with in Canada several years ago, who lives in Athens. We managed to find an hour at a posh cafe to catch up. I was so pleased to see him, so delighted to spend time with a familiar face. And it took me a little by surprise how sad I was to leave him at the end of our brief time. The production we worked on was very close to both of our hearts – a very special experience. I would love to work with him again, but whether that happens or not is very, very far out of my hands. And it was only as we were parting that I realized I might never see him again.

Tomorrow I board the train to Thessaloniki, which will be my last stop in Greece before I fly back to London on Monday.

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Step two: Crossing the Aegean

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My little cabin on the ferry across the Aegean.

I think the overnight ferry ride turned out to be my favourite part of the journey.

It got off to a slightly rocky start. I got myself checked in okay at the terminal, but the set-up at the port is not designed for passengers on foot. I wasn’t clear where I was supposed to go and ended up dodging cars and trucks as they loaded on to the ferry while I tried to work out where to board the damn thing.

Once I actually got on the boat, everything improved. The porter showed me to my room so I could ditch my bags, then I headed back down to the communal areas to explore. The ferry transported cars and trucks and tour buses as well as passengers ‘on foot’, as it were, so there was an interesting mix of tourists and families and truck drivers.

There was a lounge area and a bar and a cafeteria that served dinner once we set out to sea. The whole place felt comfortable and friendly. We were this island of light on the dark sea, and I really liked the coziness of that. It’s the off-season, so it wasn’t crowded, and I brought my computer down to the lounge and puttered away happily for several hours.

When it was time to head up to bed, I was a little worried. I shared my little cabin with one other person and I hadn’t met her yet. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect.

My roommate turned out to be a matronly Greek woman, who seemed as pleased as I was that her travel-mate turned out to not be an axe murderer. Thankfully she spoke a little English – my Greek begins and ends with ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ – so we were able to negotiate turns in the tiny bathroom and when to turn the lights out.

I fell asleep to the sound of rain rattling against the ferry’s metal hull.

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Morning on deck of the ferry on the Aegean Sea. Leaving the storm behind.

After breakfast in the cafeteria, I spent much of the morning out on the deck. The weather was cool, but not cold, and I was fine out there in only my sweatshirt.

Islands slid by on either side, grey and beige rock studded with dark green vegetation. Behind us, the clouds still grumbled low over the water, but ahead of us the sun was shining and the sea was glowing blue. I lounged in a metal chair that was part of the outdoor smoking area and wrote a long email to my mom.

Again, I didn’t want to get off when the journey was over. I may need to look into doing a cruise at some point, because the whole ferry experience was so delightful. Maybe one of those river cruises or something.

Next step: getting from the port at Patras to Athens. It was supposed to be simple…

Step one: 1,700 kilometres by train

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Mountains! View out the window of the train, travelling through the Alps between France and Italy.

On Tuesday morning I left the little apartment in the Canal Saint Martin area of Paris that had been home for a week. I wasn’t going to miss the five flights of stairs or the loft bed I was always terrified of falling out of, but I enjoyed having a place that felt like home. I spent enough years living in hotels while I was on tour to appreciate the luxury of a kitchen and a washing machine.

This was the beginning of my big adventure – overland (and oversea) travel from Paris to Athens. The whole journey involved three days, two long-haul trains, an overnight ferry, a replacement bus, two short-haul trains, and several taxis. And I was so excited to get started!

I boarded my train to Italy at the Gare de Lyon. The first class ticket was less than 20€ more expensive than the regular train ticket (which was already pretty cheap, considering) so I splurged. For a 7-hour journey, I figured it was worth it.

The seat was comfortable with lots of leg room. And it reclined. It was a solo seat by the window, so I didn’t have anyone next to me, either. I got to just curl up and watch the scenery unfold.

It’s weird, if I’m on the move, I can sit for hours and not get bored. Even after seven hours on a train, I didn’t want the journey to be over. Watching out the window is like a meditation for me. I love it. (The only exception to this tends to be aeroplanes, because I’m so physically uncomfortable.)

I had this dream that the train journey would feel like some kind of compressed visit to the parts of France I never seem to get to. I didn’t exactly get my wish. Large sections of the train line passed through industrial areas (which shouldn’t really surprise me) or else had trees or walls or banks lining the path that blocked my view. The further south we got the better it was, though, and when we hit the Alps, the mountain vistas more than made up for any small disappointments.

I arrived in Milan around 6pm. The plan was, originally, to walk to the hotel – I had a map prepared and everything. When I booked my tickets in August, this seemed like a fine idea. I hadn’t realized it would be dark when I arrived in Milan, and wandering around by myself near the train station in a strange city in the dark suddenly didn’t seem like a great idea.

My plans to spend an hour or two exploring the city before bed went the way of the dodo for the same reason.

So, sadly, my night in Milan was underwhelming on several fronts. The hotel room was freezing (it was colder in Milan than in Paris), there was something crusty on the bedspread (which I stripped off instantly – I slept under the spare blanket from the closet and my thickest sweatshirt instead), and the pesto linguine I ordered at a nearby restaurant was depressingly mediocre.

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Slightly crooked view out the train window, travelling south down the coast of Italy.

The next morning, I did get to walk to the train station, though. It was just barely light outside and I got a bit of a look at the city. Much more modern and glossy than any other city I’ve encountered in Europe, full of the tall glass buildings I usually associate with North America.

This second train journey was a little less comfortable, but the views made up for it. There had been a frost overnight, and as the sun came up, a thick, white fog hovered just above the ground, softening all the edges.

In the afternoon, we reached the coast and travelled with a view of palm trees and sandy beaches and turquoise water for a long while. It looked like it should be delightfully warm out there, but every person we passed was bundled into scarves and hats and puffy jackets.

This time, at the end of the eight-hour ride I was actually ready to get off and stretch my legs. Two full days on a train had stretched even my love of travel, and I was feeling tired and rumpled.

It was four in the afternoon, I was laden with bags, and I still had a couple of hours to kill before I could check in for my overnight ferry ride. I had hoped to find a restaurant in the train station where I could hunker down for a bit, but the station was both tiny and under construction. Frustrated, I staggered outside. I didn’t want to go too far from the taxi rank, and couldn’t walk far with all my gear. My giant backpack screamed ‘tourist’, and I felt a bit like a walking target.

I crossed the roundabout outside the train station, and I am sad to admit, I have never been so pleased to see a McDonald’s in all my life. Clean bathrooms, familiar food, and somewhere safe to sit and read my book for a couple of hours: Sold!

An hour or so of familiarity and calm helped to recharge my batteries, and I found my excitement again by the time I jumped in a taxi to head to the port.

Next step: overnight ferry across the Aegean Sea.

Writers’ Workshop in Paris

I had to talk myself into going to the writers’ workshop at Shakespeare and Company last Sunday at least a dozen times. Which is ironic, since my original plan for my time in Paris was something of a writer’s retreat.

I had done quite a lot of research into the English-language literary scene in Paris. There are a handful of writers’ workshops in the city, and I had intended to attend several of them. But plans change, and the trip became much more activity-based, and other than blogging, I didn’t write anything while in Paris at all.

It was only in writing about Shakespeare and Company for this blog that I remembered the writers’ workshops – the bookstore plays host to at least two of them. And when I dug a little deeper to find the details again, I realized there would be one on the Sunday evening that I was in town.

Saturday evening, I went back and forth on the idea several times. I had a science fiction short story I wanted to workshop, but what if it wasn’t literary enough? What if someone stole my ideas – I didn’t know the people involved, and I was supposed to bring copies for them.What if I didn’t get the copies back? (… yes, I know. I didn’t say this was rational.) What if the people were mean?

I decided I would prepare my piece and decide at the last minute if I wanted to go or not. I saved my story to a memory stick and looked up the address of a local photocopy shop where I could get it printed out.

Sunday was a perfect Parisian day. I slept in a little, then spent the early afternoon wandering around the Ile St-Louis, which is the oldest part of town and an area I hadn’t ever explored before. It’s a beautiful neighbourhood of narrow streets and boutique shops and very, very expensive apartments. There is no metro and very little in the way of street traffic.

The sun came out and the weather was mild, and I whiled away an hour or two sitting on a bench by the banks of the Seine reading my book. This was exactly what I wanted from my Paris vacation.

Later in the afternoon, I met up with a friend for tea. We worked together over the summer in Canada, and she is now directing a play in Paris. It was wonderful to see a friendly face after spending several days on my own. She took me to a cozy cafe in the Marais district and we sipped tea and chatted for two hours.

If we’re still chatting, I won’t cut it off to go and do the workshop, I thought. I’d rather spend time with my friend. But at 5:30 she had to head off anyway, and I had plenty of time to make it to the book shop.

I had already failed at getting my story printed out. I found the printing shop earlier in the day with no problem, but I hadn’t thought about the fact that it was Sunday, and the shop was closed. I spent the hour before the workshop wandering through the university neighbourhood on the Left Bank, trying and failing to find somewhere else to print my story.

If I don’t have copies of my story, there’s no point in going to the workshop, I thought. What if it’s weird that I’m there with no story? What if I’m the only one?

What if the other stories are bad?

What if I have nothing to say?

What if the people are weird and pretentious?

Finally I decided that if I was trying this hard to find a way out of going to the workshop, the workshop was probably something I needed to do. As the saying goes: find what scares you and do it.

Even so, I nearly walked out while I was waiting for it to start. I had to promise myself that if I really didn’t like it, I was allowed to leave after it started.

The workshop was, of course, just fine. There was one person I wanted to jab with a fork and one person who got super-defensive about his work, but that’s about par for the course in terms of workshops. None of the works we read were terrible. And about 2/3 of the other attendees were there with no piece to workshop.

The structure of the workshop was a little different. I was used to reading the piece, and then going around the room twice – the first time everyone says what they think the piece did well, and then everyone offers constructive criticism. It was a classroom environment and designed to keep things positive.

In the Paris workshop, the leader asked us to talk about what we felt while reading the piece, and I found the resulting comments were often on the harsh side. Not unduly so, there were no attacks, nothing aggressive, but no one was pulling any punches either. I did like that there was no one-by-one-going-around-the-room-style commenting, though. It was more of a conversation, which gave me a chance to listen to others before I offered my comments. And I didn’t have to comment at all if I didn’t want to.

The pieces were pretty evenly split between poetry and prose. Workshopping poetry was a new experience for me. I don’t know anything about poetry and was worried I wouldn’t understand or wouldn’t have anything to say. But it was amazing the way that the imagery in these poems kept unfolding as we discussed them. I was pleased to find that I did have opinions on them, even if I didn’t necessarily speak them.

It wasn’t a life-changing event, and I can’t say that I really learned anything, but I’m pleased I went. It was something I wanted to do while I was in Paris, and I didn’t let myself chicken out. And it really wasn’t so scary in the end.

 

 

Paris Street Art walking tour

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A particularly stunning piece that combines paint with strategic carving into the wall’s already crumbling surface.

I came across the Underground Paris street art walking tour when I was digging through websites about the Paris literary scene. When I first conceived my trip to Europe, it was largely as a kind of self-imposed writing retreat.

The idea of the tour intrigued me, as I know absolutely nothing about street art whatsoever. So this past Saturday morning I met up with the tour guides at a cafe in the Belleville neighbourhood in the northeast of Paris for three hours of education on the subject.

The tour began gently, introducing us to the various different kinds of street art, Continue reading