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Category: Preparation (page 1 of 3)

Booking the Red Arrow

I just booked a Russian train on the Russian railways website without any help from an agency! It was actually… pretty easy.

I went all out (not really, just second class, but it feels like all out because you’ll see) and booked the Red ArrowКра́сная стрела́ or Krasnya Strelapossibly the most historic train in Russia. It’s the overnight train between St Petersburg and Moscow, and it’s been running nearly uninterrupted since 1931.

Nerd time: It’s train number is 001A. For the first train I take within Russia, I may as well start at the beginning, right?

AND. AND. AND. It just gets cooler because apparently they play ‘The Hymn to the Great City’ as the train leaves the station at 23.55. How fucking GRAND is that? It gets a sendoff EVERY NIGHT.

Plus, look at where I’ll be sleeping:

And to top it ALL OFF, you even get breakfast. You know how I love breakfast. I got to choose based on dietary requirements. There were pictures!

I fail to see how any of this won’t be incredibly exciting even though I’m supposed to be asleep most of the time. (Let’s be honest, I probably won’t sleep much.)

I had originally planned on booking everything through Real Russia, who are SUPERHEROES by the way. They have the most amazing customer service ever, including near-instant chat support for whenever I had another slightly panicked question about Russian or Chinese visa applications. I’d have been lost without them. Plus their booking engine has the option to view all the Russian timetables in local time rather than just Moscow time, which makes things much easier on the brain.

I did book a few things through them, as well as getting my Russian visa support document. (I’d have done both my visas fully through them if I’d been in London, but more on that in a future ALL ABOUT THE VISAS post.) But after reading a few blogs about booking yourself and Seat 61’s guide to the English version of rzd.ru (the Russian Railways website), I decided I could spend a bit of extra time in exchange for saving some money.

AND ALSO feeling like a boss for working out the whole timetables and some-things-still-in-Cyrillic thing.

I mean, I’m going to have to do it when I’m there so why not start now! Plus I really like Cyrillic – it’s nice to look at. The only word I can yet recognise – because I’ve seen it a BILLION times now – is ‘вокзал’ (which is ‘railway station’) but, you know, it’s a process.

The English on rzd.ru isn’t perfect, and all the image-based ads and stuff are still in Russian, but as long as you do the whole check and double-sense-check your timings and have Google Translate open for the odd thing or two, it’s absolutely doable. (Thank you, Google Translate, you are and will remain throughout the next few months, my hero.)

They don’t seem to email you your e-tickets like most rail systems, but they’re all stored in your account and it says that you can download them to your phone to show if you don’t want to print them. I’m going to print anyway to be safe, but it’s nice to know I guess. And I think some of the trains I’m looking at don’t have electronic tickets, so it will be nice to get a real live Russian train ticket to save.

As for credit cards, I did have a slight hitch there, which wasn’t a surprise after what I’d read online. It declined my built-for-international-use Llloyds Avios MasterCard (twice), but it accepted my RBS Visa Debit. Slightly annoying as I’ll probably get an international charge for that whereas I wouldn’t have on the credit card, but whatever. I just keep waiting for the fraud team to call, because surely it’s not every day someone buys a Russian rail ticket online. I’ve gotten calls for way more normal things. Lloyds does fraud control by text (which is actually pretty great) but I didn’t even get one of those after being declined twice. Who knows how they decide this stuff?

It definitely would have been much more straightforward getting Real Russia to do this work for me, and I’d HIGHLY recommend them if you can’t be arsed. They’re not THAT much more expensive, and they are utterly fantastic. Plus I’m still double checking my timings with their local-time-d version of the railway timetables.

Anyway, I’ve got a few more trains to book and I’m currently trying to see if I can cut out Yekaterinburg as an overnight stop. It’s hard to pick a stop to lose, but if I don’t, I’ll just be running around like crazy not really seeing much. Also, I REALLY want to spend a good chunk of time on the train. Enforced chillaxing. So I don’t want to only be doing overnight stints without any full days on the train reading and staring out windows and sharing vodka and snacks with Russians.

Still home

I’m back to posting! And I don’t even know where to start. Out of practice and all.

Yesterday I moved out of my flat for good. A place I’ve lived nearly all my independent adult life, and certainly longer than anywhere else I’ve ever lived. It was a shared home and then it was my own home for nearly equal time periods. Both pretty spectacular in their own rights.

It was hard to leave but it was also easy because it was time.

I’ve gone through just about every emotion over this, and now I have landed on ‘relieved and recovering’. It would be one thing to do just the moving out, you see, but doing it while leaving my job and planning a logistical circus of a trip by myself (VISAS, YOU GUYS, HOLY GEEEEEZ) is kind of fucking ridiculous. It’s precisely the ‘you are doing too much’ thing that I (and others) constantly tell myself to stop. It’s what I yell at the television telling people off on Grand Designs for doing ALL THE TIME – you know, let’s build a house and plan our wedding and also have our first baby at the same time and really WHO NEEDS A PROJECT MANAGER or an architect for that matter LET’S DO IT ALL OURSELVES! Best idea ever.

(I am not having a child during all of this upheaval, but I AM watching a 4-month old puppy, which might as well be the same. He’s damn cute though. That’s my excuse.)

I couldn't say no to this guy.

I couldn’t say no to this guy.

Anyway, now I’m sitting in Kristina and Yann’s flat, my (lovely!) home for the next month, and I have one big thing out of the way. I have a LOT of other things to do (Do you realise how many places you need to change your bloody address?! efffffffff.) but this Being Out is already making a massive difference. It feels DONE.

Last week, I suppose due to ALL OF THE THINGS, there was one day I was hit by crippling anxiety of the degree I’ve not experienced for 4 or 5 years. It was INCREDIBLY rough. But then there were friends talking sense, some very good beer, and dancing. And it lifted.

And then it was my last night in the flat. I finished the last manic bits of packing. I ate The. Most. Amazing. Pizza. downstairs at Origano with Katie. I drank two whiskys out of a coffee mug and danced like a maniac to Billy Joel and Taylor Swift/NIN and MGMT and Hot 8 Brass Band among my boxed belongings til 1am. Then I went to sleep.

When I woke up, I had a cup of tea and my fucking rockstar friends arrived to help me carry my life down the stairs and distribute it to three separate locations across the city in about two hours flat. Then I had a coffee and ham and cheese on coconut bread (Casa Amiga! swoon), listened to some sweet piano playing while gulping more tea, and did 3 hardcore hours of learning a Lindy routine (because running up and down 3 flights of stairs multiple times with heavy boxes is not adequate exercise for one day). Then we ate dinner in the pub and I walked all the way across town home to Kristina and Yann’s, because I was going to take the bus but it was such a nice night that I couldn’t possibly, hour-long walk be damned.

Let me tell you: All of that? Is the way to move.

I’ll miss my flat, but it had it’s day. Today I took a walk around Arthur’s Seat because it was ANOTHER beautiful day (seriously, Edinburgh, KILLING IT), and thought, well, I may not have my kitchen, but I’m still home. And I get to come back to the best city and the best people in the whole world. And it’s all fine. Hooray for that.

And now that I’m back to writing, you’ll soon hear all about that logistical circus. I leave the country in less than a month. There’s plenty to say between now and then.

Beginnings and ends, plans and memories

Three months there, about 24 hours back.

Three months there, about 24 hours back.

This weekend I booked my first train and my flight from Bangkok back to Edinburgh. It’s really real FO-REAL now. I just have to fill in the middle bits.

I’ve been waiting SO LONG to start doing the proper booking it almost feels fake actually doing it. But it’s paid for and in the calendar and on the spreadsheet and all that. Done and done.

With this (and pretty much every other) trip, the lead-up and the time I spend thinking about it afterwards far outweighs the actual three months I will spend away, and I have been thinking a lot about how much travel is about what happens in your brain, almost more than it’s about the physical act of going places and talking to people and eating things.

There was recently a New York Times article being passed around the interweb on what your holiday says about you, and how the planning bit has been, in some cases, proven to be more satisfying than the actual holiday because planning a busy and intricate itinerary is incredibly rewarding whereas actually DOING something so full-on is exhausting and stressful.

Well. Obviously.

I’ve tried to make my plans for this trip less about pinning down a detailed itinerary and more about amassing possibilities. And there IS a lot of joy in planning for me. Anyone who knows me even a little bit knows that I am A Planner and Organiser By Nature. I do think this reputation does me a disservice in obscuring the fact that I love spontaneity and surprises, and I often wish there was a little more of that getting thrown at me in my life. So part of this adventure is avoiding the temptation to plan the entire route in detail and keeping things a bit open-ended in places.

I will be booking my trains ahead of time through to Beijing, but after that, I only have rough ideas of where I want to go, and rough estimates of when I need to be crossing certain borders (mostly based on visa requirements). But I still have all sorts of lists of cool things I’ve heard about that might be worth seeing if I’m in the right place.

I should also say that the actual booking-of-tickets part of the planning is IMMENSELY satisfying because it means I AM GOING. And also coming back.

I think when I get back is when the trip really does its work.

Memory is a bizarre thing. Somewhat accidentally, I’ve been consuming a lot of media about it lately. I’ve just finished the memoir of a woman caring for her mother-in-law who has Alzheimer’s called Keeper: A Book about memory, identity, isolation, Wordworth and cake…. The book is half personal experience of the difficulties of caring for someone who is basically losing who they are and half musings on the research the author has done into how the brain actually works, how the disease breaks it down, and the history of Dementia, its treatments, and pubic attitudes towards it.

What we recall isn’t a matter of units of memory, but rather our brain pulling together a story and reconstructing something for us every time. We may think it’s the same always, and we may even think it’s the same as what actually happened, but really it’s probably not. Not the same as what we actually experienced and not the same recall all the time. Sometimes you remember slightly different details of an event and surely that shapes what you see in your head a little differently every time. It’s like watching a play instead of a movie.

From what I understand, Alzheimer’s breaks down the connections that allow your brain to pull memories together, so things disappear at different speeds, but you essentially lose the things that make you who you are, because that’s what memory is. Your personality comes in large part from your experiences and how you process them, and memories aren’t a digital things, they’re a constant, analogue process.

I also just saw Inside Out (how could I NOT?) which shows us Pixar’s vision of how memories and personality work. In their version, memories ARE actually units, but they’re kind of evolving marbles rather than static rocks. The way they portray memories having completely mixed emotions as their foundations and how they combine to create who we are is fascinating (islands of personality!) and gut-wrenching because it feels so accurate. And per usual with Pixar, EVERY ADULT in that cinema with me was all teary at multiple points from being hit hard in the feels.

Between the book and the film, I’m now walking around thinking about HOW my brain is pulling together the memories I’m flipping through at any given time. (Because I don’t have enough buzzing around in my head without getting all meta on top of it.) So I wonder how close the memory and the event are, and how they change depending on what mood I’m in when I recall them. BRAINS. They’re pretty cool.

The constant evolution of my travel memories connects those experiences to whatever present circumstance I need them to inform or whatever feeling I need to associate with them. This is true for a lot of experiences though. You do something you think is a bit rough or difficult or whatever, but when you look back on it you feel like it was maybe a lot greater than you gave it credit for at the time. Some of this is hindsight and analysis and, in my case, the fact that I have a hard time relaxing or not being a ball of anxiety about everything that’s happening because I can’t often quiet my brain down long enough to stop and really see what’s happening for two seconds.

But I sort of love this about travel. My memories of trips are things I call up and scrutinise on a regular basis, sometimes for daydreaming or escape, sometimes for self-criticism, sometimes for other things entirely. I’m sure they change a little every time, but I also know that it grows the experience to something much richer in my history.

And then there’s one trip I took just before a pretty traumatic life thing that I never got to think too much about in the weeks after I got back because I was Dealing With Some Hardcore Stuff. I honestly think this affected my ability to commit a lot of that trip to long-term memory in the way I usually do by mulling things over for ages in the background when I return from a place. I don’t have a lot of solid memories of that trip the way I do with every other trip I’ve ever taken, which is too bad, because it was a fantastic holiday and I know I had a lot of fun with my friend Sara who I went with. But it only exists in kind of pixelated bits in my head instead of rich dancing colours the way the rest of my travel inventory does.

In contrast, there’s the trip I took to Paris earlier this year. It was such a fast one, and full-on, and manic. And I had a good time while I was there, but when I think about it now, it’s grown into something so much more amazing than I thought it was at the time. Sometimes it’s good to plow through things and work them out afterwards. All the processing is a big part of who I am, and it’s changing all the time. And I love that. It’s what builds bits of those islands of personality.

I think the fact that your inner landscape is such a major part of your travel or anything you do is why it’s so difficult to explain the full experience of your holidays and trips. You can tell stories and try to draw parallels between them and the stories of others, but I find it nearly impossible to impart the real impact of any trip. It’s so wound up in the rest of my life. I kind of just have to trust that people get that. I think at least most of them who’ve done a bit of traveling do.

If memory was made up of discrete units we’d probably be able to explain our feelings on ANYTHING a lot better than we can. It would be like being able to hand someone a book off a shelf instead of attempting to pull up a 30-year-old tree at the roots and show them what bit you mean.

But I think it’s kind of nice you can’t sum yourself or any of your experiences up simply, even if articulation can be a completely awkward and uphill human endeavour. After all, if it were that easy, what then would we talk about in the pub?

Downsizing

Over the past year or so, I’ve been slowly upgrading bits of my travel kit to allow for keeping the size of my bag way down while maintaining reasonable creature comforts. Most of what I had to begin with is from when I first went backpacking in 2004 with what I think is about a 65 or 70L pack plus a 15L daypack. TOO BIG.

My current bag is 40L, which is perfect (and carry-on size! though I’ll probably end up checking it on the way home because I’ll have my Gerber in there), except maybe when it comes to winter gear. But seeing as how I’ll probably be WEARING all the outerwear, I don’t think I’ll need to pack it away very much.

I’ve not decided what kind of bag to bring for carrying things around all day. A backpack is obviously handy, but also more to worry about when it’s on your back. The shoulder bag I use at home right now is pretty beat up so I may just use that. Particularly because if it gets destroyed or lost or stolen, I won’t really care.

Anyway, the thing about downsizing to fit this minimalist packing style is that it requires making use of good design, both in specific products and also in the decisions I’m making about what goes in and what doesn’t. And that makes it even better for me, because I love a bit of good design. I’m a sucker for a product that someone clearly thought through from every angle and has a level of awesome to reflect that. Efficiency! Plus style. I will totally pay for it. I’d rather pay more now for something I’ll use another 10 years. Case in point: my transformer sunglasses. The best!

On the technology front, there was the stronger-lighter-faster computer upgrade – from a 13″ MacBook Pro to a 13″ MacBook Air, half the storage and a fraction of the weight and size – and the Kindle so I could carry a library rather than a book or two.

I have been editing the clothes I own and buying new stuff with travel at least partially in mind. I have a lot of merino wool layers, and I want more. They’re pricey as hell but they hand wash and dry easily and quickly, they don’t hold on to the funk of I’ve-been-living-in-this-for-3-days travel smelliness, and they’re comfy and adaptive to temperature. But I’m not stuffing my backpack with £50 t-shirts. I’ve also got cheap stuff, because you really can’t beat H&M basic leggings and tank tops and the like. (Also if my bag gets stolen it’ll be nice to know that it’s not all luxury technical clothing.)

New on the left. And it's even thinner than that once you squish the air out!

New on the left. And it’s even thinner than that once you squish the air out!

This week I got a new sleeping bag liner/sleep sheet thing, which I’m disproportionately thrilled by. My old one is cotton and ginormous in terms of pack real estate. I’ve been eying silk ones for ages because they’re tiny, and very nearly went for a silksak, but at the last minute, due to wandering eyes on Amazon, went for the Nod-Pod, an artificial silk (made in the UK by a small business!) option. It’s soooo much smaller than the cotton one! This thing is at least a quarter the size if not smaller. And very well-reviewed too, so I hope it was the right choice. It was only £20, which is probably not a whole lot more than I paid for the cotton one 12 or so years ago.

I’ve also recently bought a new travel towel, which is slightly bigger than my old one. BUT, it’s also much bigger in area, so unlike the old one, I’d feel plenty comfortable walking down a hostel hallway wrapped in this one. When I bought the original, for some reason I couldn’t find a towel big enough to modestly cover a 5’11” lady and have been looking out for one ever since. And I’m happy to give a bit of extra space for a good towel, because as we all know, it’s the most important thing when traveling the universe. I have even considered bringing both my old AND my new one. There are times when dry towels are worth their weight in gold. But I think I’ve decided against that, mostly because I can use a sarong or a scarf as a backup, and multipurpose items are key.

Alas, the one thing I can’t really downsize is my shoes, because my feet are huge, you guys, and shoes take up SPACE. Now that I’ll be doing some dancing, I have to take the requisite shoes for that, which do squish down a fair amount, but it’s still one more pair of shoes than I originally intended. Hopefully all my other packing efficiencies will mean this doesn’t matter much though. (After all, I’m turning into a packing cube BOSS).

Couchsurfing is the answer

Last weekend I had a MA-HOO-SIVE party, the likes of which I will be lucky to top anytime soon. I had a flat full of Lindy Hoppers, 20 pizzas (TWENTY!), booze, good music and a floor that, it turns out, is plenty big enough for a dance party into the wee hours.

My new toy, takin' over the hallway.

All the plans.

I won’t ramble on about it, but it also meant that a whole load of people saw my Ridiculously Giant Post-It Calendar Of Planning, so I suddenly had lots of good new tips about various parts of my trip where people had been before. Perhaps most importantly: the uk.gov info on Vietnam is all lies (up to 15 days for UK passport holders visa-free) and I DEFINITELY need to sort out a visa before I head off.

It’s so good to know who’s been where though, and now I can pick even more people’s brains about specific countries.

But maybe the best thing to come out of everyone seeing it is that the other night in the pub, my friend George said he hadn’t realised I was definitely going so soon until he saw that on my wall. So I was asking him for advice, first on what to do in China, but then just in general because he’s been all sorts of places. And that’s when he convinced me to reconsider the whole couchsurfing thing.

I’ve never really talked to anyone who’s done couchsurfing at length before, but George has both used it while traveling and at home. He’s currently hosting people, and actually brought the girl staying on his couch for the weekend to that party I had, which: what an intro to the city! But that’s also awesome. He had nothing but good things to say about his experiences with it.

I guess before I wrote it off without much thought (ERROR) because I let THE FEAR bred by safety concerns of being a solo lady traveller in someone whom I’ve never met’s home cancel out any sensible consideration. But once I properly checked out the couchsurfing website, my mind was easily changed. I spent all last night looking up hosts in some of the cities I’ll be in, and it’s clear from the honest and glowing references that most people have an amazing time with their hosts and surfers, and it’s really quite easy to find verified, well-reviewed hosts who have things in common with you.

I wholeheartedly believe that most people are good and friendly and trustworthy and just want to help you have a great time in their city. But it helps when you can see evidence, you know?

I also filtered some of my city searches by searching ‘Lindy Hop’ and found tons of dancers. I didn’t expect it would be so easy, but it’s exactly what I wanted to happen! I’ve been excited about dancing everywhere, but the logistics of that when you’re on your own are a little intimidating. The actual events themselves weren’t so much what worried me, it was the going to and from places, most likely at night, and looking after my stuff, and just all the little things I take for granted at home. If I stay with someone who knows the local scene, a lot of that anxiety fades away.

Staying with locals also means I’ll get to see their favourite bits of their own city, which isn’t the kind of thing you’ll usually end up seeing when you’re just looking things up online or speaking to people in hostels. When I went to Helsinki last year and stayed with Carolina and Johanna, I did one or two touristy things, but most of the time we were just wandering around or hanging out with their friends hanging out in the places they like to hang out. And it was great! That’s what I’d like to do everywhere. And that’s kind of how George sold it to me. He said it would be the most memorable part of my trip, and I believe it.

The other side of this is that I’m going to try to host some people here before I leave. Partially for references, but also because I love MY city, and I love showing off all my favourite things in it. I think this will be especially nice during the festival, because the place is overrun with tourists and the city kind of becomes this whole other animal. If you’re working the festival or staying in a hostel, you probably don’t see much more than Edinburgh’s festival face. I know that’s how I saw it in the beginning. And there’s nothing horrible about that, but how nice would it have been to see the local side during the most non-local part of the year? So hopefully I can show that to a few people. I shall report back!

 

PS I’ve done a wee overhaul. New theme! (Still by Anders Noren because I love his stuff.) After a year, it was definitely time for a change. Still doing some tweaks on it (need to get tags showing outside of a tab among other tiny bits), but I’m liking it so far. Hope you do too!

Dancin’ everywhere

Dancing in Stockholm will be just like this, right? Right.

This blog is now one year old. I’ve started many blogs over the years, but this is the first one I’ve managed to write in regularly for an extended period of time. This is the 99th post. I can’t really believe it, but there you go.

Not everything I’ve written has been particularly noteworthy, but I feel like there have definitely been a few good pieces. And perfection was never the goal – this has more been an exercise in will power and perseverance. It’s hard to keep your eyes on a goal when the payoff is so far away. When I decided to properly plan my Trans-Siberian trip after 10 years of thinking about it, I knew I couldn’t go right away, because: money. But I needed something to keep me focused, so a self-imposed assignment seemed like the thing to do.

I’ve had some big ups and downs in the course of the past year of planning for this. And some incredibly instrumental outside shoves in the right direction. I’m now in the kind of pre-final stages of planning, in that I’m waiting for the time when booking opens up for the trains that I need and the time is right for applying for visas. It’s been the most frustrating stage yet, because I’ve committed, but there’s not much to do but wait for the gates to open.

But committing myself to writing here has been more of a help to focus than I imagined it would be. Sometimes I’ve hated my self-imposed deadlines, but sometimes they’ve produced some fantastic, last-minute, honest writing that I may not have done otherwise. And a few times they’ve gotten me out of some serious ruts, in writing and, once or twice, in life.

The shape of this blog will continue to change as I get closer to this trip, and of course, when I’m finally on it. The shape of the trip itself continues to shift. Lindy Hop has become a pretty major part of my life in the past year, somewhat unexpectedly, and the idea of leaving it behind for three months is not something I’ve been too thrilled about lately. So I’ve been trying to figure out how to integrate it in my plans. I keep having to remind myself that this is MY trip and it can morph into whatever I feel like it should be.

Last week, when I was doing a trawl of swing dance websites for new info on things that might be happening in my planned path, I found out that there’s a big swing dance camp weekend planned in Bangkok for the last weekend I’m supposed to be away. I felt like this was the universe going ‘Hey, THIS IS FOR YOU!’ It’s at a fancy resort, and as it’s a week before my birthday and the end of what will likely be a pretty crazy trip, I decided I definitely have to go for it. A holiday from a holiday. With a lot of sweating, but it’s Southeast Asia, so I’ll be sweating constantly anyway. May as well work for it. (I don’t know how much it will cost yet, but money is a thing I still have time to make a bit more of, so I’m trying to.)

But then of course, I thought, I can’t go to a hardcore, full-on Lindy weekend after not having danced at all for nearly 3 months.

SO.

That got me looking more seriously into where I can dance along the way. And there are LOADS of places. I need not take 3 full months off. I can quite literally dance everywhere. Stockholm, Moscow, Beijing, Shanghai, Hanoi, Saigon, Phnom Penh, Bangkok, and who knows where else in between. It doesn’t mean I’ll do nothing but dance, but it’s one thing I can do to make me feel more at home in the world. And as the Lindy community is one of the most friendly, enthusiastic, welcoming, and lovely I’ve ever encountered, it seems to me a fantastic way to meet people from all over with an instant common interest.

And just like that, Lindy has become part of the thing. A bit of a boost while I wait for those gates to open.

Here is all my stuff. Please take it. (And maybe give me some money.)

This week, among many other little things like changing the type of current account I have to a non-fee-paying flavour (I Know, I know, THRILLING), I’ve told myself I really need to figure out which things I’m getting rid of that I need to try to get money for. And then actually list them or hawk them in some way instead of telling myself I’ll get to it.

Most of what I have I’ll be happy to just give to people. I’ll probably have some kind of weird party during which I’ll put all the shit I want to get rid of in the room, serve cake, and have everyone come take things away. If they want to buy me a drink or donate some cash (or better yet travel stuff I need!) to the cause in exchange, all the better. But I mostly just want to get rid of things with minimal effort.

But I need as much money as I can get and there are a few big items that I really need to try to sell properly. It’s just that it’s such a friggin’ PAIN. I just started writing an ebay listing and when I got to the shipping section I remembered why interweb selling makes me want to curl up and die. I don’t know how much my J Crew blazer weighs! I don’t know what kind of packaging I should ship it in! I don’t know how much that all costs! I just want someone to buy the damn thing, which itself isn’t guaranteed.

Related: why on earth did I ever buy a blazer of any kind, let alone one I spent £200 on and never wore? I don’t do things like that! When I spend that much on an item of clothing, it’s something I know I’m going to wear the hell out of. I blame my move to the corporate world and having absolutely no idea what I was doing with that. There were many bad clothing purchase choices. This just happened to be the most costly. And dammit, I will get SOME of that money back (and someone else will get a bargain on a very nice blazer that never had any business being on my back).

In any case, as this sort of thing is now taking up much of my free time, I straight up forgot about my own Thursday blogging deadline for the first time in a year. I was initially a little annoyed at myself, but now I’ve decided to give myself a permanent break from that. I have a lot of piddly, boring, tick-off-the-list things to be getting on with in the next 6 months, so I will now be posting once a week instead of twice to give myself the time to sort it all out. This will hopefully also mean better quality posts instead of a lot of churn-em-out ones, but that remains to be seen.

In the meantime, if anyone wants a bucket barbecue, I’ve got one going spare.

 

Stop worrying about the last cake plate and go

When I moved to Edinburgh, I went poking around the charity shops in Stockbridge and I found these retro cake plates. I don’t remember how much they were, probably like £2 for all of them. I loooooved them. I still do. They are MY cake plates. And I make and eat and serve a whole lot of cake.

They really are the best cake plates.

They really are the best cake plates.

So about a year ago when I was doing some hardcore kitchen cleaning and extraneous-crap-purging, I looked at my stack of plates and saw 5 where I thought there should be 6. But I couldn’t remember. I went back and forth between being ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN there had been 6 and believing that actually there were only ever 5 and I’d debated over buying them at all for that reason. And as there is no one who could confirm either, this non-issue took over my brain for a whole friggin’ day.

Until I had this moment where I was like, ‘OH MY GOD, KATE, IT DOES NOT EVEN MATTER, and this is also solid proof YOU NEED TO GET OUT OF HERE’.

The first tipping point. It’s always something weird.

How on earth do some plates make you understand why you need to go take a trip?

I’ve said before that I am not all about getting rid of all one’s earthly possessions because I LIKE stuff, and I like MY stuff. But that was the moment when I realised I need to not be completely attached to it. Why was I freaking out about the existence of a 6th cake plate when what I really wanted was to NOT be tied down to shit. CAKE PLATES. I will not be tied to cake plates. Who can ride a bunch of trains across half the northern hemisphere if they’re worried about cake plates? Eeeeeesh.

So I think about these plates every time I’m in prep mode. Particularly today when I was setting up my Crashplan account to try out the service. My computer is easily the single most expensive thing I will be carrying with me, but I want to make sure I’m not too attached. It’s a nice thing. But the computer itself isn’t the important thing, it’s what’s on it. With a proper backup system, the very real possibility of theft or massive damage isn’t really a thing I need to freak out about. It would be annoying as hell, sure, but it’s not my life.

This is also how I’m trying to look at every single thing I take with me. I’ve got a lot of specific and sometimes pricey gear to make living out of a very small bag easier, but if it all disappears, I don’t want to feel all panicky or distracted. The main thing I’m concerned about is my health and personal safety. As long as I can keep that in good standing, I’d like to think I’ll be able to handle losing some stuff. No big attachments.

The prep that goes into creating that attitude reveals what you feel is important REAL FAST though, because setting up backups and figuring out insurance and all that is boring and time-consuming. And I am not about to spend hours of my life backing up or insuring shit I wouldn’t miss.

(There is also a tangent in my head here about how we’ve gone past the point where we can have a zombie/flu/rage/blackout/nuclear apocalypse situation and still have concrete memories to carry around in the rebuilding, because now everyone keeps their life in the cloud and there are no hard copies to be in pockets and backpacks getting worn out with love and nostalgia in the big bad post-apocalypse world. This makes me look at my Kindle with consternation. It also makes me want to print pictures. I’m a little strange.)

As for the plates, in the big clear-out, they stay. Of course they do. But if another one is missing when they come out of storage, I’m not gonna spend a whole day wondering about it. (Ain’t nobody got time for that when they have to brag-post 3 months of pictures on the interweb.)

Trello

The best system of any kind is the one you actually use. In which case, the best system of any kind for me will always be on paper. I can’t seem to stick to any kind of technological thing with any regularity. Except maybe email, but no one else seems to love email as much as I do (except maybe Strong Bad?), so that’s kind of futile.

However! In terms of organisational apps, the one I have been coming back to, at least when I remember to, is Trello. I do love it. It’s super simple and it lets you drag and drop things around. I have it on my phone and in a perpetually open tab in Firefox on my computer, and it syncs automatically. You can have as many boards with as many lists as you want. And if I would just stop scribbling a million little post-it lists and get a bit more disciplined about dropping everything into Trello, I’d probably be way less scatterbrained than I am.

It’s kind of like a digital version of the massive post-it calendar I made, just for lists. I think that’s why I like it – for a digital thing, it’s fairly tactile. I did give up on using it for everyday stuff because I ended up writing things on paper or the back of my hand anyway. (Old habits die hard. I will always write on my hand because IT WORKS.) But a few weeks ago I realised I wasn’t really maintaining a Big List of crap to do for this trip properly, so I created a new board and I’ve been trying to dump everything on it that pops into my brain and haunts me with the threat that I’ll forget to do it and ruin EVERYTHING.

That’s maybe a little dramatic, but there are a lot of things that could be fairly major that either aren’t as immediately obvious as visas and tickets or aren’t as everyday as food and soap. For example, the thing that prompted me to start the list properly was the fact that I am allergic to shellfish and I am going to southeast Asia. I don’t know HOW allergic to shellfish I am because ever since having a fairly unpleasant reaction when I was younger, I just don’t eat it. And I carry benadryl everywhere, but I’ve never been tested or gotten an epi-pen or anything.

This is not something that worries me in my normal life because it’s pretty easy to avoid and I’m also able to communicate that it’s an issue. But if I consumed a bunch of crustaceans by mistake in the course of my travels, I have no idea if I’d have a way bigger reaction that I did when I was a kid or none at all. I don’t want to find out the hard way. SO. I kept randomly thinking, ‘Oh, I should probably get that checked out, you know, soon.’ Then I’d forget about it again. Then I’d remember a few weeks later and worry about it. And forget again because I didn’t write it down.

So now it’s written down. I just have to DO something about it. But at least it’s on the list.

I’m thinking I might take some time to do some sorting of this list while I’m sitting on my delightful train trip in the States next week. It’s entirely possible I’ll just start out the window listening to podcasts the whole time instead, but I should probably crack the whip a little. I’ve got about 6 months to go here, and that’s a long time, but it’s also not a long time.

I don’t think I’ll EVER have the list of things to do completely under control, and that’s probably fine, but I do want to make sure I at least cover the important stuff. Like, if I have rough plans for ‘this is what I’ll do if my computer gets stolen’ and ‘this is what I’ll do if I get incredibly sick’, at least if it happens I’ll have thought about it when I wasn’t in the middle of a crisis.

ANYWAY. If you love a list like I love a list, Trello is pretty great. So check it out.

Russia, immigration and politics

Sometimes when I mention how much I want to do the Trans-Siberian, I get a good bit of side-eye, which can at least half the time be interpreted as, ‘Ehhh, Russia? Really?‘ And I know. Russia is a big ol’ political and moral quagmire, at least from a Western point of view. I don’t claim to be up on all the issues or anything, but Putin is doing what the hell he wants, which is usually not agreeable, and the general consensus is that most Russians love him anyway.

On the recommendation of about 5 different people, I recently had a watch of the first two episodes of Reggie Yates’ Extreme Russia, which are on extreme nationalism and discrimination against the LGBT community. In both there are some pretty damning and disturbing views on immigrants and gay people which are in most cases backed up by the state, if not actively then by an obvious lack of action to support the victims.

But these are extremists, and extremists exist everywhere. It’s just they’re so much easier to see in Russia because it’s not against the law to act on your own horribleness there. Horrible people exist around the world – it’s just a matter of how much power they’re given. And I’m sure leaving them to it without even trying to get to know the people the extremists are shouting over is giving them more power.

I can’t get behind not going to a place because the views of the leader or the state are ones I do not agree with. (If I could I’d’ve had a hard time being home during the George W Bush years!) And if I judged all Russians on the fact that the Western media tells me What They Are and What They Believe, I’d be just as bad. I can absolutely see why there’s an attitude that ‘We are not going to be what the West decides we should be’. It’s just too bad that it often takes the shape of so much blatant hate and fear.

Reggie Yates did a fair bit of digging into where people’s radical views came from – particularly admirable because he was often being directly offended while he tried to do it. He was trying pretty hard to understand these people, and the state they feel they’re protecting by maintaining these views, despite vehemently disagreeing with them.

But he also talked to plenty of people who were NOT full of hate.

I’m not naive enough to believe everyone shares my modern peace-loving, tree-hugging views on the life and the world, but I do believe that, in general,  people with a variety of competing views are not actively bothered to make a fuss about it on a daily basis. No one can be an activist 24/7, and most people are, quite frankly, not that engaged. (You can see evidence of that EVERY DAY. I know I do.) People just want to get on with life. You’ve got to do your day job and eat your breakfast and get the fucking duvet cover on. No one, or at least, very few of us, care to be at war all the time, regardless of whether we agree with the dude next to us about gay people.

So unless there’s an actual war going on, none of this is going to keep me from going to Russia.

Interestingly enough, after the first episode of Extreme Russia, I was poking around iPlayer for something else to watch and ended up settling on a thing about the Glasgow Girls. It was a pretty crazy contrast, to go from how horrible it is that these extremist Russians treat immigrants like scum to our own country’s treatment of asylum seekers. (For anyone reading this who doesn’t know, the Glasgow Girls are a group of school girls who campaigned for the release of their friend who was taken in a dawn raid while awaiting a decision on asylum in the UK. They got the backing of the community AND cross-party support in parliament.) To watch something on Russia and say that could never be us when, in some cases, it has been and IS us, particularly in matters of immigration, is just a whole load of hypocrisy.

My first vote in the UK is swiftly approaching and it should come as no surprise that immigration policy has a very significant bearing on where my support is going. There’s a lot of very thinly-veiled racism in some party policies and quite a lot of people’s views on who should and should not get to stay here. Frankie Boyle wrote a brilliant piece in the Guardian about this, which is absolutely worth a read.

I AM actually an immigrant. It seems somehow easier for people to forget this because I’m a white girl from America. But this doesn’t exclude me from immigration law and it doesn’t exclude me from feeling offended when you go on about how we shouldn’t let THOSE people in here to take our jobs and our public money. Just because I don’t have an eastern European accent or a different colour skin doesn’t make me more valuable or legit than immigrants who do.

Anyway, I’ve gone off on a bit of a tangent here but my point, I think, is that there are people in the UK (and the US) with beliefs just as disturbing as what we see on TV coming out of Russia. So it stands to reason that there are also plenty of normal, friendly, decent human beings who do not make the news, who DO make the country. I’m pretty sure if I keep my common sense switched on and I don’t go ambling into a protest or a war zone, I’ll have a lovely time and meet some fantastic people. Who can maybe then explain to me why everyone loves Putin so much (if they actually do).