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Tag: Might as well face it you’re addicted to Lindy (page 1 of 2)

On balance

When I was maybe about 6 or 7, I was pretty into gymnastics. I did some kind of classes at the YMCA, and whenever tumbling and mats and balance beams and all that crap came out in gym class, I was well up for it.

This was before I shot up too much in height. Before I became over-aware of my above-average stature. Before I let my naturally higher centre of gravity get the better of my brain. I did cartwheels and flips and at least attempted things like parallel and uneven bars without worry of what I would look like or whether I’d be much good at it. And I looked at girls on TV in the Olympics and thought, DUDE, I COULD TOTALLY DO THAT, THAT IS AWESOME.

Then one day I was messing around and took a running jump at a knee-slide across the floor and somehow hurt my ankle. Not enough to send me to any kind of emergency room or anything, or even to mention it to my parents (I guess I thought they’d be mad or something), just enough for me to limp off and be very suddenly thrown into that period of life when fear of pain prevents you from trying things you’d not have thought twice about when completely carefree and small.

This is the first memory I have of feeling like that. Maybe that’s the start of growing up.

Then the gymnastics dream was really squashed when I started being told I was ‘just too tall’ to be a gymnast. Yeah. That. And the good old tall girl standard: ‘Why don’t you try basketball?’ That shit started EARLY. But I’ll tell you what – I’m fucking terrible at basketball. They put me on the middle school team almost certainly because of my height, and then never played me because they realised their mistake.

This was kind of a relief as far as I was concerned because I had no interest in playing, but it was also annoying because my parents wouldn’t let me quit before the end of the season. So it meant I had to go to practice with a bunch of girls who weren’t very nice to me, and then sit mostly on the bench during games, being bored but told to look involved because team spirit or whatever. This just gave a lot of those girls extra fodder for giving me shit for not being good enough. But I didn’t freaking WANT to be. I wanted to be doing flips and handstands. I wanted to be overcoming the terror of being a giant in a sea of average height. Or at least, you know, having more time to read books by myself and be on the MathCounts team.

I’m sure there was a lesson in the entire experience, but I can never help but wonder if being actively discouraged from pursuing gymnastics due to factors completely out of my control was the start of pushing my ability to maintain balance downward. Just, you know, in life, in general. Because if there is one thing I am rubbish at, it is balance, in every form and incarnation. Physical, mental, emotional, work/life, social/antisocial, eating, drinking, standing on one foot without wobbling. All of it.

About a year ago, I was reading Bobby White’s Swungover post on partnership in dancing (a fantastic thing you should read) which includes this aside that I now think about almost daily.

I want to steer us into a side alley at this point to talk about why we often feel incompetent in a dance practice. Modern middle-class people (which comprise almost the entire modern swing scene), simply put, are not good at body movement because most of us pretty much checked off walking, running, sitting, standing, and throwing a ball and then decided to take a break. Until a decade or two later when we suddenly discover swing dancing and all of a sudden we curse ourselves for not having those types of parents who shoved us into dance classes as soon as we got cocky with all the walking. We now have the incredibly infuriating process of trying to do things that are often simple in concept but incredibly hard to carry out. And as adults who’ve mastered so many aspects to life, we’re not used to that. It’s like if you’re right-handed and suddenly try to write an entire paragraph with your left hand — you feel confused and incompetent. So, in the dancing sense, because you haven’t daily trained your body to respond to complicated movements with finesse since you were young, your entire body is now a left hand.

I mean.

Nail. On. Head.

I have been thinking a lot about balance in every part of my life, mostly because I now have a regular reminder of how my own physical balance is horrendous. I can’t help but wonder if only I was encouraged in different ways when I was much younger, would I have better ways to maintain my own ability to keep my feet under me and support my own weight? Literally AND philosophically. Did I lose the tools for this as people more or less told me that things like my height meant I couldn’t possibly HAVE those tools?

I spent all last week at SwingSummit, which was hard work in the best possible way – there are exactly zero ways that practicing swingouts on an open air dance floor in the gorgeous mountains of southern France every day can fail to be incredible.

I’m not going to write about at length because picking apart a week of intense swing dance camp nerdery is just not interesting to most non-obsessed human beings. But one of the best things it did was give me some new tools for working on keeping my feet and my weight where I’d like them to be. And perhaps indirectly, a bit of training on the kind of balance I’m working even harder to achieve inside my head. Or if we’re following Bobby White’s stellar metaphor – training for full mind-body ambidextrousity.

Most people would not consider working harder on your holiday than you do in your normal life ‘balance’, but I just think of it as being a foil for people who sit and do absolutely nothing on their holidays. Plus, I already did nothing for a week on a beach in Cambodia and hated every boring minute of it. So we have established that I am not the best at sitting still.

But some things other than dancing happened last week too. I stayed away from the internet and all forms of media for seven full, glorious days. I had a whale of a time lazing in a rural French supermarket parking lot talking sweat management with a bunch of guys while we waited for our laundry to finish. I sat on a beat-up outdoor swinging bench seat idly chatting, looking at the mountains, and swatting at flies for over two hours without moving more than the swing itself.

I’ve not managed relaxation like that for longer than I can remember. Somehow this time, it came pretty naturally.

A love letter to Lindy Hop

It’s Frankie Manning’s birthday today, and also World Lindy Hop Day. And since dancing has done so much for me in such a relatively short period of time, I’m going to gush for a minute.

Perhaps a lot of these positive personal changes are a result of age and experience, but I’m pretty sure Lindy found me at the exact right moment, so there’s something to be said for the perfect storm.

Sometime in the summer of 2013 when I was finally coming out of a pretty dark place, Duncan showed me a Movits! video that had some of the Harlem Hot Shots in it (SO MUCH CHARLESTON). I immediately fell in love with a random Swedish hip-hop swing band in a way I’d not fallen in love with a band since I was a teenager, and the ‘oh-swing-dancing-is-a-THING-and-wow-it’s-kind-of-awesome’ wheels started turning.

It took 9 months (and my friend Kate mentioning she’d been thinking about trying swing dancing while we were eating ice cream) for me to go to my first lesson. And another 6 months to the tipping point, when I was considering giving up, but the perfect combination of circumstances and people landed me in ESDS, and something clicked.

I met, and continue to meet, some of the best humans I have ever known. I have incredible friends – family, really – that have come from dancing. I discovered a worldwide community where I’ve been welcomed with encouragement and enthusiasm. I now know such a huge variety of instensely intelligent, introspective, strong, and talented-in-all-kinds-of-fields people that I may have never known if we weren’t all doing this crazy dance together. How lucky is that? On its own.

But there is so much more. For one thing, body image. Lindy is for everyone. You don’t have to be some model perfect looking human being to be a good dancer, you just need some rhythm and an ability to have some fun. People of all shapes and sizes and ages do this dance and they all look awesome because they are freakin’ enjoying themselves. It’s a nice big ‘fuck you’ to the imagery we’re constantly bombarded with about what’s good-looking and happy.

And personally, after dancing for a while and realizing my body could do all this stuff I never thought I’d manage even a year before, my self-image got a lot more positive. Of course I have days where I’m like, oh my god, I hate all my clothes and I feel like garbage, but for the most part, I feel pretty damn good. I am the same size I’ve always been, I’m just stronger, healthier, and happier about it.

After my first full weekend event (ELX 2015), I felt so badass, I went out and bought the first bikini I have ever owned. (I did need a new bathing suit, it wasn’t just a random decision.) I was 31. I never, ever thought I’d feel comfortable enough to wear a bikini in my life. Then I christened that sucker in Lake Baikal.

So the confidence boost in general is pretty transformative. I mean, in addition, if you had told me a few years ago that I’d regularly be going up to strangers asking them to dance, I’d have looked at you like you were an alien from a strange and distant universe. I am so not that person. It’s still pretty hard to be fair, but I do it all the time. I’m constantly amazed at this. (And at the fact that I can do Suzie-Qs, which is like some kind of disconnected foot magic.)

I also know that mustering up the chutzpah to do the whole quitting my job and finally going on this massive trip I’d thought about for so long thing had a lot to do with the nerve, direction, and general belief in myself that was not previously present in such high doses.

(Also also, I bought a bike, which I’d never have done if I hadn’t started dancing, but that’s a whole other life-massively-improved-by-self-reliant-transport story.)

All of this from just going out and dancing 2-3 times a week. It has been better than any gym or therapy or medicine you could ever offer. I am still the same person and I have as many shit days as anyone, but I bounce back faster, and my good days are even better. And I’m only ever a day or two away from being able to swing out and forget any stupid thing that’s bothering me, even if only for 3 minutes at a time.

So. I am relatively certain, in a way that I am not often about many other things, that, barring injury or illness, I will be doing this for the rest of my life.

Frankie said that if the whole world danced the Lindy Hop, there would be no wars. Obviously that’s some wishful, utopian thinking. But a big part of Lindy is connection, and if you can connect to another person long enough to enjoy a swingout, a circle, and some quality lindyface, you can think a little further than your own wants and beliefs. That’s a damn good start.

Where to next?

Before I even got back, people were asking me this question. People continue to ask me this question every day. So here! By popular demand. A short list.

In 2016

Somewhere in Scotland (or northern England)

We’re due a group camping trip this summer. So at some point, I’ll dig out the totally loud but amazing tent Kristina gave me, load it into someone’s car, and we’ll trek off to the highlands or the Borders or the Lake District and tromp around and have a grand old time, even if it rains sideways.

We’re also definitely going back to Newtonmore in September. Ain’t no party like a Lindy Hop party in a quiet highland town.

Swing Summit, Ferme Les Costes, Ardèche, France

I’m going to Swing Summit (yaaasssssssssssss!) with friend and dance partner extraordinaire, Chris. It’s an intense, week-long camp based on super-focused teaching in small classes for Lindy technique nerds in the gorgeous mountains of southern France. There’s outdoor dance floors and a pool and a dog and they sort all your food for you. It’s going to be difficult and fun and exhausting and flippin’ AWESOME.

AND I intend to have a ridiculously huge French lunch in the 5 or so free hours we have in Lyon before flying home.

New York & Delaware, USA

I have promised I will hit the US sometime before the end of the year. Hopefully in the Autumn. This will involve family time and bagels and Dogfish Head and hopefully some mother-effing hot apple cider. And I still haven’t danced in the states, so I will take care of THAT while I’m over there.

Hamburg, Germany

To visit Felix, of course! It seems like a really cool city, so I’m excited to get the local treatment. It will be relatively easy to do, as there’s a direct Edinburgh-Hamburg EasyJet flight, so I’m really hoping I can swing it this year, financially.

Wish list

New Orleans, Louisiana, USA

Because food and music. Those should really be the only reasons I need to cite. I can’t eat anything involving crawfish unfortunately, but there is plenty more to be getting on with. And I have a serious weakness for New Orleans and Dixieland style jazz. Plus I have seen relatively little of the US, and it will be nice to go somewhere different over there.

Herräng, Sweden

Obviously.

South America

I realise that’s a wide net to cast, but it’s the only continent I’ve not hit yet (aside from Antarctica, which, well, after the cold of Siberia, I don’t know if I’m running down there anytime soon). I just want to go everywhere. Bolivia (salt flats!) , Argentina, and Uruguay are all on my radar as excellent options. I have mixed feelings about whether or not I should go to Galapagos. In any case, this will probably be the source of my next major travel adventure, but it’s going to take a while to get there, and it will probably look very different from the last trip. Much slower, for a start.

Mongolia (in the summer, please)

I’ve said it was my favourite and I’m not lying. I’d really love to go back in the summer for 2 or 3 weeks and go out wandering, camping, riding lovely horses, and EATING yes please. Preferably with a wee group of friends.

Let me tell you that I love you, and I think about you all the time

‘Maybe Tomorrow’ by Sterophonics has been on heavy rotation in my Chill The Eff Out playlist for this whole trip, most likely because it’s used on Long Way Round, so it was somehow already intrinsically connected. But it’s on an album called ‘You Gotta Go There To Come Back’, which is a phrase that’s been bouncing around my brain since I boarded my first train at Waverley in November. I had unexpectedly got to a place I never really considered I’d be, which is, loving the place I live in so much that I missed it before I even left.

It’s not true of everyone who travels like this, but a majority of the people I’ve met along the way have some sort of restlessness with where they come from. Sometimes they’re a bit bored of it, sometimes they’re indifferent, and sometimes they flat out hate the place. Those are as good reasons as any to find somewhere new for a while, but I have no such negativity towards my home. I did not aim to get (or run) away from anything – except possibly my old job, but I could have easily done that without leaving the city.

What’s happening here is more like the fulfillment of something I’ve been thinking about for such a long time that it felt like I’d be doing myself a disservice NOT to go. The idea of this trip felt strange and not necessarily impossible, but so big it couldn’t possibly happen in my normal life. So of course I had to prove that wrong. Now that I’m at the end of it it still feels that way. It’s really hard to believe I’ve just done all the stuff I’ve done in the last three months. Rolling into St Petersburg feels like a lifetime ago. This will all fade into a sort of memory legend quite quickly, and I suspect sometimes it will feel as though it never happened.

But I had to go there to come back. Not many people get the chance to prove to themselves they are precisely where they need to be. That’s not what I set out to do. I just wanted to see some stuff really. There was no big deeper meaning or life changing goal. It wasn’t as much of a why as a why not?

Perhaps I’m a bit more patient in some ways, or slightly more adaptable to difficult situations. Maybe my problem solving or resilience is better. Hopefully I’m a slightly better dancer. But I’m still mostly the same. In a bit of an email chat with a friend the other day, he said that clearly I must be tired of being alone because it means I’ve got no one to kick off to. And I laughed because not 30 minutes earlier, I’d been walking down the street thinking, ‘WHY IS IT THAT EVERY HUMAN BEING EVERYWHERE ON THIS PLANET CANNOT WALK DOWN THE STREET WITHOUT THEIR FACE IN THEIR FUCKING PHONE’ (seriously though, why?) but I had no one to rant to. So it’s true – more patient on the outside I may well be, but I am still quick to call out the world’s bullshit. Some things will never change.

Anyway. If you’ve been reading this you know that I was kind of ready to go home a few weeks ago, but I had this one last weekend to look forward to – my first international swing dance camp. This trip has been powered on many things, but predominantly: free WiFi, the kindness of strangers, and Lindy Hop.

Dancing in the street. (Photo credit to Big Bang Swing.)

Dancing in the street. (Photo credit to Big Bang Swing.)

I have been welcomed like family to so many places just because I dance, and I really don’t think this trip would have been as amazing as it was without that. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to end it than The Big Bang. To the point where I teared up when writing a thank you on the Bangkok Swing Facebook page because there is really no way it could have been better, and I appreciated the awesomeness of it all even more because of the low-ish place I’d been in the week or so before. Lindy has not only saved every low moment of this trip, it has turned it around into something joyful and magical. Everywhere I danced was great, but Bangkok was truly the best.

Now I’m sitting in the airport (a novelty!) drinking a very strong coffee to combat my total exhaustion from the weekend and waiting to finally go home. I am. So. Happy. About that.

So. Thank you to everyone who put me up, showed me around, woke up early to call me taxis in their language, made me breakfast, bought me lunch, dropped me off, picked me up, jumped in lakes with me, and ordered local food for me. And of course thank you to everyone who danced with me.

Thanks to my rockstar friends who all provided support from afar via some form of modern technology at some point along the way. Every short message and long chat was appreciated more than you know.

Thanks to my family for trying to understand all this and not worrying too much too openly.

And I end with another thing in my regular rotation. You may have seen this coming. It’s the best song for the occasion.

See you soon, Scotland.

Saigon. Or Ho Chi Minh. (Depending on who you talk to)

I still don’t have a definitive answer on this, so I have mostly been calling it Saigon. This seems to be what the locals call it. (And the local Lindy Hoppers!) When I was in Hanoi, I was told that most people in the North call it Ho Chi Minh, and in the South, it’s more often Saigon. Apparently sticking to that as a general rule is respectful. It’s all political, as it was renamed Ho Chi Minh to celebrate reunification and it’s all tied up in the war, although they don’t seem to expect foreigners to call it either one. I heard it called both in both places, but definitely more frequently Saigon when actually in the city.

ANYWAY. Saigon is another place I don’t have a lot of pictures of. It was also the first place I was really, really hot. About 33-35C as standard. Yuck. So I spent most time hiding from the sun when I wasn’t searching for tasty street food.

I had another great hostel where I met lovely people to hang out with who were all staying in my room. On the first day, I went with Fran from South Africa to walk around and hit some sights. We went to the museum of Ho Chi Minh City, mostly because we just happened to wander past it, where there was some history of the city along with a few tanks and jets, which seem to be everywhere. Then we went to the Reunification Palace, which is a really cool building designed by a French architect. We both thought it was a shame that it’s only used as a museum now, because it seems like it would be a lovely place for a party. Especially the wicked dance floor on the top.

Fran headed off to do a tour she’d booked for the afternoon while I checked out the bunker in the basement of the palace. Lots of old radio equipment and various war rooms full of maps, which is a bit creepy.

When I got out of there, I found a street vendor selling Kem, which is ice cream of some non-determined fruity type flavour. It’s all different colours and topped with some condensed milk and nuts and it’s delicious. Sold off the back of a motorbike, like absolutely everything in this country.

I had a look at the cathedral, where there were loads of Vietnamese women getting their wedding photos done outside (or perhaps modelling, or both, who knows), and then the stunning post office building. Then I took a very hot walk back to the hostel by way of some lunch to start the routine that has now stood for the remainder of this trip: get up early, go exploring, eat lunch, hide in the air-con or fan/shade until the sun goes back down and it’s mildly less sweltering.

That night was the Saigon Swing Cats regular Sunday social. My foot was not feeling all that great, but good enough to walk, so I decided to go regardless and just take it easy. There weren’t loads of people there because of the upcoming Tet holiday and Wednesday is their bigger night anyway, but it was lovely to meet up with people and do some fairly low-key dancing. Nothing fast and no Charleston for me, which is SO FRUSTRATING BECAUSE CHARLESTON IS MY FAVOURITE, UGH, INJURY. But I think I managed to not push myself too hard. The excellent sangria on offer didn’t hurt either. AND I met at least one person who was going to the Big Bang – Eric, who’s American but living in Bangkok at the moment – so I’ll have a familiar face when I rock up at the Bangkok socials.

I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again. It was such a wonderful thing to go to a social and feel at home in the world. Everyone there was so friendly. And there were other people traveling too (Eric plus a girl from Portugal who had even convinced her non-dancing friends to come along), so you get people who immediately understand you from two different directions. It just made everything worth it all over again. Even the heat.

The next day I went to the War Remnants Museum with Hannah and Eric (different Eric), a couple from Canada who were also staying in my room. We wandered around on our own once we were there, which is good because I spent the whole time getting increasingly pissed off and upset at America. BIG SURPRISE.

There’s a letter to Obama from a 23 year old woman who is a 2nd generation victim of Agent Orange which they’ve enlarged on the wall, and it’s just near the end if you go through things in the order they suggest. She’s admiring him for how he raises his daughters and how he believes in opportunities for all, but then asking why he doesn’t help 2nd and 3rd generation victims get the compensation and help they deserve. This is after you find out that the chemical companies were eventually forced to pay American victims but the Vietnamese have never received a cent. One of these companies is Monsanto. The same one that fucks over farmers around the world, but especially in America, on the regular. These companies are on par with murderous dictatorships. They are pure fucking evil. Unfortunately they’re protected by capitalism and the government and god knows what.

I am well aware that plenty of Americans were against the war in Vietnam. I am not going to go into my own specific politics on any of it. If you read this enough you’ll know I’m a humanity-loving, socialist-leaning pacifist. Suffice to say we should never have been there. We had no business doing any of it. And I don’t think we’ve learned from that error, in terms of the decisions being made today about the military. (And god help us all if maniacs vote Trump into office.) It’s really depressing and it’s a wonder the world doesn’t hate us a lot more. Luckily though, so many people are generous and forgiving. We seem to be on the receiving end of that a lot more than we deserve. But that’s precisely the foundation of my faith in humanity. So.

ENOUGH ABOUT THAT. We went to a cafe to recover from the misery and eat lunch. They had a locally brewed IPA from Pasteur Street Brewing Company that was the nicest beer I’d had in weeks. Not lager! Hooray! And after the requisite hiding in the hostel aircon for the rest of the afternoon, Fran joined us and we all went for dinner.

Epic rice pancake with coconut meat which was bigger than my head.

Epic rice pancake with coconut meat which was bigger than my head.

The next day was mostly wandering around and finding amazing food to eat. Fran joined me again for coffee and lunch, where we had Banh Xeo (rice pancake, which the Saigon version of is HUGE) and Banh Khot (little fried rice cakes with stuff on top), which we practically rolled away from. Those little fried rice cakes were probably my favourite thing in Saigon. But the pancake was good too, and the Pho I had for dinner at a place just down the alley from our hostel which was consistently busy was also amazing. (Although if I had to choose, I preferred the northern style Pho in Hanoi.)

I wish I’d had more time in Vietnam. I definitely preferred it to Cambodia. I could have paid for a visa, but I was being cheap. I’d have liked to see some of the Mekong Delta and the mountains in the north. But I maxed out my 15 days, so it was time to move on.

China with company

When I set out on this adventure, I said that I was doing it alone not because I have some deep desire to be on my own in the world, but more because it’s hard to find someone crazy enough to match your particular travel style and intentions who also has the budget and time to join you.

So imagine my joy when, along the way, I stumbled upon the absolute perfect travel buddy. I’ve never made such fast friends with someone. I’ve never wanted to bear-hug and strangle someone with equal ferocity in one day (or even in the same five minutes). I have never put my full faith into someone so quickly.

Well, except when it comes to hostel booking.

Felix and I ended up sticking together for nearly two weeks. From the minute I entered China, I didn’t have to worry about navigating it alone, which was such a relief, because I was getting to the point where I really appreciated the backup. Being on my own is totally doable, but extra exhausting. Having someone to balance my crazy, split costs with, and order extra amazing food to try was just The. Best.

Throughout this trip, I’ve felt a pretty good split of emotions on being on my own. About 50% of the time, I’m pretty neutral about it. 25% of the time, I really wish I had someone with me, and the other 25% I’m quite happy I’m alone. The way I knew I’d found the perfect companion was when I realised that regardless of him driving me up a fucking wall sometimes, I don’t think there was ever really a point where, in my head, I was like OK I WOULD PREFER TO BE ALONE NOW PLEASE GO AWAY. We seemed pretty well in tune to when it was just time to be quiet and read a book. Or in his case, go to sleep, as he seemed frustratingly able to do at any time in any place. (WHERE DO I LEARN THIS SKILL, UNIVERSE? I thought for sure that three months of traveling would teach it to me, but thus far, NAE LUCK.)

So after the madness of Harbin, we took the bullet train back down to Beijing. We got to enjoy some first class seats because everything else was gone by the time we’d decided what to do, so we paid through the nose but at least there were big comfy seats and free (weird) snacks. Beijing was mercifully low on smog. We got really lucky with the wind and the sunshine that way. On the first day, we wandered around Tienanmen Square taking goofy pictures, then got an overview of the Forbidden City from hill in the park behind it before indulging in another massive hotpot dinner.

The second day was for seeing the Great Wall. I hadn’t wanted to go to the really touristy bit at Badaling, but it was the easiest option, so in the end I lost. But it was fine. It was still too cold for massive crowds and we had a good long walk before catching a train back to the city where we met up with Galaa (from the New Year train!) and some of her friends to get REAL Peking Duck in a super fancy restaurant. (We had a booking she made in my name, but they’d misheard, so it was under ‘cake’.) The place even had crazy Japanese toilets with heated seats that opened for you when you walked into the stall and all sorts of spray functions I was too intimidated to try. But it was the polar opposite of the squat toilets everywhere else, so it was almost equally as impressive as the duck we’d come to eat.

That night was also my night to try dancing in Beijing. It ended up just being a taster lesson in 20s Charleston, and there weren’t many Lindy Hoppers about, but it was a cool bar and I did get one or two dances in. The others sat upstairs and watched for a bit.

We did some walking around the hutong district and shopping on our last day before getting the night train to Xi’an, on which we downed a bottle of delightfully cheap Great Wall wine and I did a lot more not sleeping. Xi’an was full of smog, but we got some breakfast, soldiered on and got the bus out to the Terra Cotta warriors, which is every bit as impressive as you hope it would be. There are just SO MANY. And the place is a working archaeological site, so I thought it was really cool to see piles of clay appendages with what were more or less giant post-it notes on them as some kind of sorting system as well as things in varying stages of restoration. We spent most of the afternoon looking at clay men and watching most of the very old 360 degree film about the site whilst providing a ridiculous running commentary under our breath, then we headed back to town.

On the bus ride back, we could actually see the smog get heavier the closer to the city we got. This put Felix in a particularly foul, depressed mood. I was mostly trying to ignore it (the smog and the mood). But Xi’an soon redeemed itself, at least a bit, by having the best street food EVER in the Muslim Quarter. Stalls and stalls and stalls of different barbecued meats, tofu, fried dough filled with greens and spicy lamb, sweet sticky rice cakes, flat bread with seeds, more hawthorn, nuts, fruit, candy – all KINDS of amazing things. We didn’t get quite enough for dinner so we went back for breakfast and lunch AND a stock of snacks the next day before getting on yet another night train to Shanghai. (On which we also downed a bottle of wine, naturally. And I even managed to get a bit of sleep this time.)

By the time we got to Shanghai, I was so burnt out on cities – and Shanghai is basically a mashup of London and New York only Chinese – that I just had no desire to do anything other than eat and dance. We got a really good hostel again and did a lot of wandering around and eating, but we really didn’t do any sightseeing at all. I’m not even sure what sightseeing there is to do in Shanghai because I didn’t bother looking. I did spot a Tesla showroom in the fancy downtown bit of the city which I think may have made Felix’s year. And I found some Couchsurfers to meet for dinner, so it was really good to get to speak to someone local and share some food.

Dancing was the main reason I wanted to go to Shanghai at all, so I was really happy when it turned out to be the best Lindy night on this trip yet. And I even managed to teach Felix the basics when it turned out there was no beginner lesson. I am not a good teacher, particularly when it comes to teaching the lead side of things, but I shuffled through 6 and 8 beat steps with him off to the side. And then the man got on a crowded social dance floor multiple times without ever having danced a step of Lindy in his life. Mad props. I would not have been able to do that. And he did really well!

We checked out the roof terrace before we left to get the full panoramic view of the city and then we ended up AGAIN at McDonalds because it was one of the only things open and we were hungry. I couldn’t actually believe it. I’ve avoided the place for over a decade and I hit it twice in as many weeks in China. Personal food fail. But it’s all part of the experience in the end.

The next day we did a bit of shopping and drank one last bottle of crap wine as a goodbye toast before I joined Felix on his trek to the airport to see him off. I hate goodbyes, and losing my travel partner-in-crime made me quite mopey. China would have been very different for me without him. I definitely think I got more out of it with someone to share it with. Certainly in terms of food alone, but also in terms of a recharge from someone who’d been traveling for much longer and understood where I was with things, both in my head and in the world.

I went back to the hostel bar and had a drink, but no one there was being sociable (which would turn out to be par for the course in China as I’d soon find out), so I gave up and went up to pack and get ready for my early morning train to Guilin.

Dancing in Russia

One of the goals of this trip was to dance as many places as I can, especially considering I’m doing a weekend-long Lindy camp at the end of it, and I can’t do that kind of hardcore event after spending 3 months getting rusty. But it also gives me something specific to aim for in a few places, and an environment where, while still potentially intimidating, I feel pretty comfortable as far as social situations go. Particularly as it’s perfectly acceptable to not really talk much if you don’t feel like it. All you really have to do is dance! That I can do.

St Petersburg was my first time ever dancing away from Edinburgh, and the first time with no one I knew or recognised around for support. It was definitely a little scary to walk in there. But by the end of the night, I realised I just have to keep telling myself I’m never going to see these people again so just go all in. It’s quite freeing to your dancing to know that whatever you screw up (or nail!), no one knows who you are anyway, so you can learn a lot and have fun with it. I just tried to dance with as many different leads at as many different levels as I could. And everyone in both places was super friendly.

The space in St Petersburg was amazing. It was in the Freedom Palace, and it was an old high-ceilinged room with velvet curtains and a friggin’ canopy around the bar. The floor itself was a bit meh but it didn’t matter. The atmosphere was good and so was the music.

In the Freedom Palace with Summertime Swing.

In the Freedom Palace with Summertime Swing.

One of the great things about this already is hearing the different music selections. I’m trying to remember some of my new favourites, but I wish I could shazaam everything so I could just have one big list of the music the rest of the world is dancing to on the regular. Some of it is the same of course – the band in Moscow played ‘Splanky’ and I immediately thought of my friend Graeme running by yelling ‘NAKED GUN THEME’, because, um, that’s what happens in Edinburgh – but even hearing different versions of the songs you’re used to (and deciding which you like better) is quite fun for a music dweeb.

The first thing I’m doing everywhere is just watching for a few songs. A, because it’s way too nerve-wracking to jump right in, and B, because I learn a lot – who I want to try to dance with, what the floorcraft is like (one place was definitely scarier than another in this respect), what everyone’s style is, who’s showing off, who’s shitting it because they’re a beginner (in contrast to me shitting it because I don’t know anyone).

Also there are some things that are comfortingly and amusingly the same everywhere. Everyone appreciates cake. The water is always a hot commodity. And you can never have quite enough windows to throw open, even in Russia when it’s -2 and snowing out.

If the room in St Petersburg was grand, the room in Moscow was totally cool in the opposite direction. It was like a secret Lindy clubhouse. Pictures of Dawn Hampton and Frankie Manning on the wall, old dance posters, dressing rooms and a wee bar. A bit speakeasy-ish, and very home-y and comfortable. You can tell it’s well-loved, and the floor was great – they don’t let any outdoor shoes in the place without plastic covers. And you’d never know the place was there from the outside.

Trying to find these places is always slightly intimidating when you’re somewhere strange. The MSDS website literally called the entrance to their space ‘very soviet looking’ and it was in a bit if an industrial park-ish area next to a shopping mall. I didn’t feel unsafe at all, but it was slightly like, erm, where am I? But then you hear some jazz clarinet or Ella Fitzgerald’s voice wafting around a corner or out a window somewhere nearby and you know you’re in the right place, just follow the music.

There were some amazing dancers in Moscow, and the place was heaving. They had a live band and a super impressive cabaret the night I was there (see video playlist below) so I’m sure this meant it was probably even more crowded than usual, but it really highlighted the difference between being in a place with all your friends and being in a place where you don’t know anyone. Especially as a follow, this is super difficult. Even when you muster up the chutzpah to ask every lead in your sight line to dance, they still get snapped up crazy fast. And when you don’t have friends around, you have no guaranteed dances so it can feel like a lot of work just to get on the floor regardless of how much enthusiasm you have because NO ONE KNOWS YOU. It’s a little frustrating, but it’s teaching me to adjust my expectations accordingly (and miss my friends a whole lot).

HOWEVER. Despite the difficulty if going into a social alone, it’s absolutely worth it. I had some lovely dances with some awesome leads. I got some crazy new moves thrown at me and I was able to follow at LEAST half of them. I think the lead/follow bootcamp of Winter Swing Weekend before I left Edinburgh was incredibly helpful. And it’s a pretty big boost to realise you know how to do something well enough that you CAN hold your own in a completely different scene.

(I totally need to up my fast Lindy game though. Oh my.)

Earlier in the day I went dancing in Moscow, I’d met up with Lana, who I’d been put in touch with by Ian, a fellow Edinburgh Swing Dance Society member. She walked me around, showed me some sights (in the snow!) and took me for lunch at this Russian cafeteria-style place called My-My (pronounced ‘moo moo’). We got some sweets with the bill, and I threw mine into my bag, not really knowing exactly what it was but too full to eat any candy.

Russian tablet.

Russian tablet.

At the end of the night when I made it back to the metro sweaty, exhausted, and slightly overwhelmed, I was rummaging in my bag for SUGAR PLEASE SUGAR NOW as usual after a big dancing night, I pulled out that wee sweet from lunch. I unwrapped it to find it was more or less exactly like Scottish tablet, which was such a perfect thing, because there’s always tablet at Lindy events in Edinburgh. SUGAR FUEL. It was like Edinburgh was taking care of me from far away, and the universe was saying ‘well fucking done you for sticking with it even when you were terrified’. HOORAY FOR DANCING.

Not sure if the Chinese have their own version of tablet, but I’m definitely looking forward to dancing in Beijing, which should be my next chance in a few weeks’ time.

St Petersburg

So once I remembered that I have very little patience for (most) museums, I kicked off three months of Kate Walks Around Foreign Cities Looking At Things Til She Can Barely Stand Up and Also Eats A Lot. My two favourite travel activities!

On my first full day in St Petersburg, Elena made another incredible breakfast and then we set out to do an epic walking tour of the city. She had printed out loads of information from the interweb and she proceeded to hit me with just the right amount of facts about everything we saw all day. We walked about 15km in 7 hours. Later on when I was looking up lists of must-see things in the city, I noticed we’d seen pretty much ALL of them –  the standards and the ‘often missed’ stuff. It was pretty nice out all day too, windy but sunny with no rain, so we were lucky.

We went up on the wall at the Peter and Paul fortress and all up and down the river on both sides. Then after a pizza and wine stop we walked down the Moika embankment in the dark and saw my favourite sculpture of the day, the monument to Alexander III, DIRECTLY OPPOSITE a bizarre sculpture of a baby riding a T-Rex (because St Petersburg knew I was coming). After we saw where Elena went to university, we went to an amazing bakery (Sever) and picked out some cakes to try once we were home with massive cups of tea.

Sunday was a bit of a day off because I couldn’t walk for another 7 hours THEN dance. So we had an easy walk to see some close-by sights in the rain, bought a bunch of local chocolates, then made a tasty, traditional dinner of salted herring, potatoes and salad. Then I went to the regular Summertime Swing Sunday night social at Freedom Palace! Slightly nerve-wracking at first, but I had a lovely evening. I even got a high five from one of the guys I danced with, because ‘It’s so cool that I don’t speak much English and you don’t speak Russian but we can still dance!’ And yes, it totally IS.

(I’ll do a full post on dancing in Russia once I’ve been to the Moscow Lindy night tomorrow.)

Monday was another rainy day, and I managed to get proper soaked in the morning after going to start my visa registration. I bought some postcards and then went back to the Freedom Palace to dry off and write them, which is actually an anti-cafe where you pay for your time there instead of your drinks, then you get to have as much tea, coffee, and cookies as you like while you sit in various comfy spaces and use the wifi. It’s such a great idea! The first one was started by a dude in Moscow and now there are different ones all over Russia and popping up in some other European cities as well. I’m already trying to figure out how I can open one in Edinburgh.

In the afternoon, I went back to the Peter and Paul Fortress to go to the small museum on the history of rocket development, because SPACE! And I also went to the History of St Petersburg museum, because why not? (also it was free with my rocket ticket.) And actually it ended up being really good. I spent more time in there than I expected to, and I was last out. The guy in the coat check was giving me a good-natured hard time for it. They just had all sorts of stuff on the progression of the city and whole rooms on travel and cinema and kitchens and everything else you could possibly want to know about what things were like in the city for the past 300 years. But the thing that made me wish I had more time was this crazy little video in one of the rooms on how they raised the Aleksandrovskaya column in Palace Square. It was all in Russian, but it was animated in that weird Monty-Python-esque style of like, moving cut out illustrations on static backgrounds with matching ridiculous sound effects. I really wanted to watch the whole thing but there wasn’t enough time. It was hilarious AND informative.

There was an hour between museum closing time and when I was supposed to meet Elena and Elena (yes two!) for dinner, so I wandered around looking for a cafe and found an amazing coffee shop (Double B I think it was called) where I had a much-needed flat white and a sit down before being introduced to the tasty, tasty world of Georgian food at Tbiliso. Oh my god. I clearly need to go to Georgia because they have the most delicious stuff ON THIS EARTH. There was fried bread with cheese, there were all sorts of dumplings, there was chicken in some kind of heavenly nut sauce, there was a spicy red beef soup, there was VERY GOOD WINE, and there was some kind of nuts in grape and honey stuff for dessert. And I wanted to try just about everything else on the menu too, which all looked so different from anything else I’ve ever had. I practically rolled home and flopped into bed like a beached whale.

Then I was down to my last day, which was lovely and sunny again, and I finally went IN to a cathedral. that Church of Our Saviour on the Spilt Blood is covered top to bottom in mosaics, which is pretty impressive. And there was a wee display on the restoration of everything which made my dork heart happy. I took another long walk in the freezing sunshine, broken up by a fancy lunch and a trip to the central post office (massive!) for stamps. And my last stop was the Kunstkamera, which was all right, but by the time I got to all the weird medical specimen babies in jars (um, yeah) I was a little too tired to keep my stomach from going all blergh. So I left and had a coffee and cake before one last dinner at home with Elena. Then it was off to catch the Red Arrow overnight to Moscow.

St Petersburg is beautiful. I can definitely see why it’s called the Venice of the North, and I’d love to come back in summer for all the festivals and dancing and WARMTH. All the better for endless walking and eating. It’s a nice bridge between Scandinavia and the rest of Russia though, so it was a really good way to start I think. And big, big thanks to my first host Elena, who went out of her way to make me feel at home. Hooray for Couchsurfing! It was my first guest Tatiana who put me in touch with Elena in St Petersburg as well as my hosts Yana and Ifan in Moscow and I have been incredibly well taken care of so far. What an awesome way to travel.

Here’s the full Flickr album of St Petersburg

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.

A (freezing cold) river ain’t too much to love

So hey! I’ve not packed it in, I’m still here. September started with a Cold That Would Not Die and some pretty bad family news – a combination that left me completely physically and emotionally cleaned out. I shut down for a few days and then threw every shred of what I had left into planning and prepping for a group trip to the Cairngorms thinking if I could just get to that, I’d maybe feel human again.

And you know, crazily enough, it worked. For a month that started off as horrendously as it did, it’s done a pretty big flip. Starting with, at long last, the Foo Fighters gig of Grohl Scream-Along Therapy on the same day I put my notice in at work, I got a lot out of me that had probably been building up for a long, long time. Then there was a double shot of absolutely amazing weekends.

I do feel like I may be a broken record here but I was just picked up and fixed in every way by the incredible people I know. From just listening to me dump my brain, to sitting in pubs or living rooms with beer or tea or one very, very well-timed hot toddy, to jumping around at rock shows, to dumping each other in freezing cold rivers, to dancing our faces off til the wee small hours, and everything in between. It has been the best month. And that is not something I would have expected to say two weeks ago.

Sometime in mid-August, when everyone was itching to get another trip planned following our jaunt to Glen Coe, I threw a weekend (second in September) and a place (Aviemore) out on Facebook to see who’d bite. Then Dimitris suggested we should maybe go whitewater rafting and that quickly became The Plan.

My main goal was to get us sole use of a hostel for at least one of the two nights so we could have a little party after whatever outdoor madness we got up to for the day. I did not have high hopes as we were only a few weeks out and there are not billions of hostels in the area we were going. However, by some stupid luck or grace of the universe, I managed to snag the Strathspey Mountain Hostel in Newtonmore for us all on the Saturday night. We were split into another place down the road on the Friday but it didn’t much matter because all we did was roll into town, have a DELICIOUS pub dinner, and go to sleep in prep for early starts and cold water the next day. But I felt like the grand fucking wizard of all organisational kingdoms for getting the place for just us. (That was sorted before the bad beginning of the month, so maybe the stars were lining up to make up for things. Who knows. I’m just happy it worked out that way.)

Saturday morning, ten of us got carted up north to somewhere on the river Spey where we all changed glamourously into wetsuits at the side of the road and goofed off with the air pump and the rafts while the guides dropped the van off at the end of the route. The river wasn’t too crazy because strangely enough, it hadn’t rained in a while, but we made up for it with extra spinning, drenching each other via paddle splash fights, and straight up tipping each other into the water. Then they had us trampolining off the upturned rafts into a deep bit of river. We were often accompanied by the smell of lovely, autumn-y smoke wafting along from the wee fishing huts along the banks, and we even saw salmon jumping out of the river. No joke. It was amazing. At the end of the run, we carried everything up the hill, changed into dry clothes, threw things around, and ate our picnic lunch on what used to be a railway platform.

That all would have been good enough to make a weekend, but that was only the start of it. We snoozed and chatted on the way back down to Newtonmore in the van and plotted our evening. There was a tea and cake run when we got back, and a few of us played Cluedo while the rest went shopping for food and booze. Gav took charge of making us an epic pot of mac and cheese and the giant playing cards came out again until the dancing started. Dee’s birthday was coming up so we surprised her with cake and a jam circle, and then we just kept dancing til about 2.30 in the morning. Thanks to my Spotify account, a good WiFi connection, and Gav’s speakers brought up for the occasion, we were the bangin’-est party in Newtonmore. I had been slightly worried about possibly getting in trouble with the owners, but it turned out that Graeme actually knew them (SCOTLAND IS DELIGHTFULLY SMALL), and in the morning, they insisted we come back and do it again, and next time invite them to watch the dancing. How much better can it get?

Well, I’ll tell you: plenty. Because after we cleaned up the party and moved all the furniture back and said goodbye to the fantastic Helen and Laurie, we went for a hangover-curing walk around Loch an Eilein in the sunshine and watched the boys climb a tree and then swim 100 freezing metres out to claim the castle for their own. Then we had some ice cream and drove to Feshiebridge where the majority of us caught the freezing wild swimming bug and did some ice cold sliding down chutes in the river. And to cap it off, before we started the long drive back down to Edinburgh we got the NICEST fish and chips overlooking Loch Insh and skipped some stones in the water while trying to spot Ospreys.

There was not one single part of the weekend that was less than freaking great. It didn’t even matter that there was traffic on the drive back. We sang along with Graceland in the car and that alone can heal a broken anything. I felt so good about life at this point I could barely believe my luck.

And one of the million wonderful things about this trip is that after all the texts and calls and emails and prodding to get everyone accommodated and transported and paid for and advance-medical-and-sizing-information-for-the-rafting-ed, every part of the actual weekend fell into place so nicely because everyone was so up for it and helpful and generally awesome. We had no reception from about an hour away from Newtonmore but we all ended up in the same pub at roughly the same time for dinner, and they kept the kitchen open for us despite our lateness. Everyone pitched in with the shopping and the cooking breakfast and dinner and making lunch. Everyone shared stuff and cleaned up and helped decide what to do. We all danced and sang and took care of each other and no one was ever in a foul mood because how on earth could they be when surrounded by the loveliest people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know?

I know I’m spouting a lot of sunshine and rainbows here, but it’s all true and it’s all very well appreciated.

And in terms of cost, because I’m all about spelling that out around here, it was so INCREDIBLY cheap. We will do this again and again and again as long as people are willing.

The total per person was about £156, give or take a few quid.

We all had slightly different transportation and some people didn’t go rafting, but here’s a rough breakdown per person for the weekend:

  • £31 – 2 nights accommodation including one where we had sole use of the hostel.
  • £55 – 1 day whitewater rafting on the Spey including all equipment and transport to and from Newtonmore
  • £18 – share of rental car and petrol for the weekend
  • £17 – share per person for 2 breakfasts, 2 lunches, 1 dinner, lots of cake and tea, and a TON of booze split across us all (this is a ridiculous bargain for a weekend away)
  • £35 – (roughly) 2 pub dinners plus a few pints on the first night

I feel like these costs are so insignificant in comparison to how brilliant a time we had that it may as well have been free. I can’t wait to do this again.

And I know I keep saying this, but as if that weren’t enough, this past weekend was Edinburgh Lindy Exchange, which was equally awesome in all kinds of other ways. I’ll save it for the next post though because I’ve gone on enough here as it is.

But I do want to say that the past two weeks have been some of the best I’ve had, and it’s not only my Lindy friends I have to thank for it. Kristina and Yann are basically my family and scraped me up off the metaphorical ground with the aforementioned hot toddy AND A PUPPY (my new best friend Magni). I had a brilliant-as-always lunch with my ex-Galleries Pie and Pint crew. And even a few of the people I work with (I do like some of them) have provided welcome relief from the daily drudgery, including a noise-making minion toy of sheer joy.

So, thanks Universe, for all this awesome right when I needed it. And thanks friends, for being ten million times better and more than I could ever ask for.