Labyrinthine

Another birthday has passed.  Nearly two months later. Yes, I am still here, breathing out slowly.

I am nervous about birthdays. My mother died on her 65th birthday and my step mother on her 75th birthday.  So every birthday is something to be anxious about.  I can only truly relax when I wake up on 2 August and realise that I have beaten whatever jinx it is for another year.

However,  this year has seen the stakes just edged higher.  Just a nudge.  A rather hard nudge.

In October 2009 when I was diagnosed with cancer, my mortality was thrust to the forefront of my mind.  My 50th birthday had been just a few weeks earlier. At first I believed I would be gone by Christmas, but as the surgery took place and the chemo followed, my focus settled on the next likely date.  My 55th birthday. That would make sense – 55 for me, 65 for my mother and 75 for my step mum. Not long, but long enough.

I had not realised how much my 55th birthday has wormed its way into my mind, but it had. the fact that this birthday would also be 5 years since the very memorable birthday where I paddled around Shwe Dagon in torrential rain and had photos taken of me which it would turn out to be the last photos of me which included my left breast, were every firmly imprinted in my mind. A world beyond August 1 2014 has been hard to envisage.

So you can imagine the relief at waking up on 2 August this year, a day after I hit the magical 55, and found myself very much alive and kicking! Still here! I journal sporadically, particularly when there is a compelling prompt or need to download, and on August 2 this is what I wrote in a little cafe:

“I AM ALIVE! I did wake up this morning and now, after a wander around delightful Echternach, I am sitting dipping slices of bread into olive oil which the monsieur has gently mixed with sea salt and herbs and advised me “this will taste delicious” And he is right. Accompanied by what I can only describe as real olives, neither quite black nor green “olive” colours but more a kind of aubergine hued, small wrinkly, asymmetrical rustic olives. They taste as fresh and as real as they look.

Alive and eating olives in Luxembourg.   Yes, this birthday had been unusual for another reason. This was the first birthday I had not spent in Asia since 1998! This year I sought out something a little different, and ended up in a small village in Luxembourg, having travelled entirely overland.

I left Scotland two days before the day, on the efficient East Coast train from Edinburgh to London, arriving at a Kings Cross Station which I did not recognise. It might have been only 2 years since I had last been there, but major renovations rendered the familiar completely unknown. I had an early departure the following morning, and an evening which saw my son and I staying out rather too late. We hadn’t seen each other since last year at the time of my father’s death, so our catch up was lovely if short. The following morning, we both left just after 6 am and he headed somewhere I could not keep in my mind, but where he would be working. I headed by bus, then underground before joining the long check-in queue for the the Eurostar.

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Soon I was bound for Brussels speeding past English countryside, through the tunnel, and through French and Belgian greenery. I always enjoy listening to the announcements shift in order of language, depending on which country the travel happens to be in. Before lunchtime, we were drawing into Brussels Midi Station and my little travel bag was being wheeled towards another ticket office.

If I had been yearning an easy journey, that was certainly what I got. In less than 15 minutes, I was leaving the Ticket Counter, clutching a return ticket to Luxembourg City and pulling the travel bag quickly towards to platform, where the train would depart from very shortly. Apart from a group of holidaying teenagers trying to party in the corridor and blocking the doors with their camping gear and crates of beer (most of which disappeared in the journey) the journey was uneventful. Three hours later, we drew into Luxembourg city, ready for the next leg of the journey, bus to the small village where I had booked four nights in a guest house. A village which had caught my eye because of a picture of the beautiful forest scenery, pulling me towards a peaceful, birthday escape.

When I arrived, the lobby area of the guest house was completely deserted. I had to struggle with my own cultural baggage. Too much reserve, which does not permit you to ring the bell for attention unless you wait a silly length of time! When I finally got over myself and pinged for attention, a woman came out of a nearby room, which I later learned was the kitchen, sideways, her head appearing first, bright red lipstick and blond hair which sat at a severe angle to her face, and wearing a surprised expression. Contradicted by the fact that she knew exactly who I was, which room I would be staying in and for how many nights. She also knew I had arrived by bus and handed me my key without any checking of my name or booking details. This was based on our joint assumption that we were referring to our email correspondence which had provided excellent advice on how to reach the hotel from Luxembourg City. The bus for 3 Euro, rather than a taxi for around many many more! Sound advice indeed. She then gave me a map and told me that I should walk round the village as it was too late to go the forest. “Tomorrow you will do the kilometres” she instructed me! “Tomorrow is my birthday”, I thought to myself “I will decide what I want to do tomorrow, and it might be kilometres, but let’s see!” She then asked me if I would be having dinner that evening, and understanding that this was a serious matter, I made the instant decision that I would. 7 pm sharp, she told me. She was very pleasant, but clearly a close relative of Sibyl Fawlty!

I soon came to realise that as well as travelling across Europe, I had also travelled back some decades in time and had landed in the 70s, in a very quaint kind of way. As well as ubiquitious smoking and ashtrays beside the toilets, I found the menu options similarly quaint and reminiscent of the 70s. The four course set dinner of an evening, was a journey back in time, and not for the faint of stomach! The style and character of the food is what could best be described as hearty. Enormous portions, dishes I had long forgotten about such as beef stew, salad with pineapple and cherries in it, trout swimming in a plate of melted butter and vegetable soups. The four courses included two starters, each of which would have been a perfectly adequate main course – such as an enormous plate of smoked salmon salad. The main for the first evening was a ratatouille of mutton with enormous chunks of tender meat, each one would have been adequate for my evening’s dinner. Breakfasts were similarly hearty – a selection of cold cuts, cured hams, pickled gherkins, delicious smelly cheese, nutty breads, fruits and a coarse, rich pate served with tea or coffee (the only hot item in the buffet). The waitress was also highly purposeful and made me smile when she expressed surprise and perhaps tinged with a hint of judgement when gently reminded by a couple that they would like coffee but had not yet received it. “Encore un café? Another coffee?” she questioned! Each of the staff addressed guests or customers in the their own language (Flemish, French, German, Dutch, Luxembourgish or English) based on some invisible but highly accurate sign.

The place seemed to be suspended in time in many ways. There was a very weak internet connection, only reachable from one or two chairs beside reception! Even more strange, was that I seem to be the only one who pulled out a laptop. I saw no tablets or even smartphone type devices in the establishment. The owner would pass me tapping away at the keyboard, uploading photos and communicating with another world. “Again working?” she noted, clearly rather puzzled! No one seemed to have either a need or compulsion to be reached or reachable, nor to take and immortalise a series of “selfies”. My fellow guests mostly seemed to belong to a fairly narrow profile. European, older than me by at least a decade, and mostly sporting walking sticks (as in going-for-a-serious-trek walking sticks and not helping-me-keep-my-balance-and-stop-me-from-falling-over walking sticks), hats and little backpacks with water and maps. The only concession to gadgetry seems to be a higher than to be expected ratio of Big SLR cameras – at least 2 per couple. The village itself was similarly quaint, and I was intrigued to realise that there seemed to be only two shops. One sold a plethora of cheeses, grape juice, collections of cow trinkets and fine wines. The other was a very stylish shop selling assortments of exclusive blown glass ornaments. I am not sure if it was possible to buy a newspaper and a pint of milk anywhere in the village!

So this year, the scene for my birthday was one of both the new and the unfamiliar. Once I had clarified that I had indeed woken up alive, I set about making the most of the day. I was eager to explore the nearby woodlands and forests to see if the reality would be as pretty as the internet images. I took my map and wandered off in the direction of one of the shorter, 5 kilometre walks with my camera, water bottle and comfy walking shoes. I nervously followed the signs and soon found the trail into the most beautiful woodland. I gingerly stepped into this new territory very aware of the awkwardness and fragility which is a very real part of my mobility following treatment and ongoing side effects. I walked slowly, but steadily, my eyes open wide, picking my way carefully.

The aspect which had particularly drawn me was the image of dramatic rock formations and I was delighted to stumble quickly on a labyrinth of such rocks. This is where I come into my own. I cannot follow an organised trail but have to “explore” on my own terms. Walking gently through the ravine formed by the rocks, I was spellbound by the textures on the rocks, the strange angles and the precariously perched trees on their edges.

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Before too long, I happened upon a bench, sitting beneath a kind of underhang in the rocks. This was my spot. I sat myself down, took out my pen and paper and held them for probably an hour, just watching and listening. The sounds of the woodland, the breeze in the leaves, European birds, with their higher voices than their tropical cousins.

 

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Eventually, I wandered off again, through another set of rocks, with no clear idea of where I was heading, just being pulled by the curiosity of seeing what was just beyond my vision.

The daylight was starting to fade by the time I decided to head out of the forest and back to the guest house for another hearty dinner to celebrate my Luxembourgois birthday.

The following day, I caught the local bus into the nearby town, Echternach, on the border with Germany. I could see Germany on the other side of the river, and clearly Germany could see me too, judging by the number of times my phone cheeped with a “welcome to Germany message!”

Echternach

Echternach

 

Echternach

Echternach

The following day, day 3 of surviving being 55, I ventured back into the forest for more kilometres and many more wanderings in the labyrinthine rocks. I had set a small goal of finding the Siebenschluff, or seven gorges, and wandered off the trail many times on the way, drawn by my curiosity and butterfly-like wanderings.

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The weather which had up until then been dry, decided to change and I found a space underneath another rock while it was particularly heavy. Mostly though I was able to continue towards the Siebenschluff, embracing those gentle rain drops. My senses were accosted by an unexpected sweep of nostalgia when I realised that each footstep on the damp ground released the scent of European woodlands. A hint of pine and green foliage. A smell I thought I had forgotten, so reminiscent of the Scottish forests of my childhood.

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The choice for this birthday trip was perfect. I wander through labyrinthine formations and forests in the same way as I like to approach life, especially life post diagnosis. I want to explore, allow myself to be side-tracked into places which might be more interesting than the main path. Interesting, and also unknown. Navigating this post cancer terrain is very reminiscent of a labyrinthine landscape. I think that I am travelling in one direction, but suddenly an obstacle is in my path. I need to find another space, or just investigate a different way. Reaching the Siebenschluff was an achievement and a lesson. They were very different to my expectations, much narrower but no less dramatic. Some of the seven ravines were too narrow for an adult to pass through, little secret tunnelings. Others had well worn paths into the heart of the formation. I realised that the journey to reach them had in some ways been the fascinating part of the day. It was not long before I had moved onwards through more woodland and back towards the village and more familiar territory.

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I travelled onwards the next morning for a day in Luxembourg city before returning to London refreshed from my labrinthyine wanderings, celebrating being on the other side of 55 and marveling in the irony of being able to decompress from the intensity of a more 21st century life in a developing country!

Many happy returns – a European birthday for a change

Many happy returns of the day, is the expression. One I like a great deal since my diagnosis. Already this is my fifth “return of the day” since I heard the words which made me think I would not see another Christmas, never mind another birthday.  There is another story in there which I am also picking up, but for now, I am looking at a birthday policy of “no return” which I have stumbled upon in recent years.birthday bean

In 1999, I travelled on a rare adventure to celebrate my 40th birthday. I had never been out of Europe, save to a short holiday in Tunisia so the thought of a train trip to Asia was a huge step into new territory, literally as well as metaphorically.

In mid July 1999, I flew to Moscow and then caught the Trans Siberian Express.  The rest is history, and was a great part in the shaping of my own history. This was the first time I had travelled to Asia, and to make this all the more meaningful, I ventured into Asia one kilometre at a time, as the train moved forward and spent that magical 40th birthday in Southern China, cycling alongside paddy fields. In 2000 I had started work in Nepal and spent my birthday there, and from then on developed a kind of tradition.  Spend the birthday in Asia, if possible in a new country.  And as a result I have spent every single birthday in the intervening birthdays in Nepal, Thailand, Mongolia, India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar. Cambodia and Malaysia.

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This year looked a little different.  For a start there are important family events which I have to be here for.  No question.  And now for the trivial, but practical.  My bank card expired on 31 July and the new card would be delivered to a UK address. Hmmm. Of course it is possible to get from Asia to Europe and then back again for a birthday in Asia.  Possible yes.  Realistic, less so and sensible –  almost certainly not. I would definitely be booking a birthday trip from the UK.

The only option which looked viable was to book a few days in Istanbul, the cusp of Asia and Europe, and celebrate my birthday there.  I looked at options, and was particularly encouraged by the fact that I could fly direct from Edinburgh. I could also fly back into London and then see family in the Englandy side of the UK.  It all looked good and feasible.  So I then looked at hotel options, initially highly surprised at the ridiculous costs, but managing to find some reasonable options.  Next step is to do the “side-by’side” crab approach to booking.  First the flights, then the hotel, not confirm one nor the other until both appear to be workable.  Fights were available and so was the hotel, so I moved to the next step.  Booking and Paying! Now, if it takes time to search for options, that is nothing compared to the challenge of paying for them online.  Our weak connectivity always brings a challenge and was true to form when I tried to pay for the flights.  The payment process would almost complete, but a dropped connection for a second would bounce me back to the start of the process. After the third attempt, the inevitable happened.  A message appeared advising me that my bank card was not accepted.  My heart sank, as although I knew it was probably due to the repeated attempts at payment, it always stresses me when the card refuses to work.  By this time it was late in the evening and after an extremely expensive phone call resolving the card I decided to call a halt to the long and tedious proceedings and try again the following day.

The following day was Friday 18 July and we woke to the news of MH17, a commercial flight which had been blown out of the sky on its route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. Suddenly, selfishly, the thought of booking flights which were strictly speaking “unnecessary” became very unappealing. I did not make a conscious decision not to book, but I made no move to take forward the planning and confirmation of the previous evening.

My appetite for booking the birthday break had disappeared, and conveniently I was buried under the necessary tasks which have to be done generally before depart on leave. Time ticked on and by the time I arrived in Scotland all I had was a great deal of confusion, far too many ideas and wishes and very few days to plan and book. There were a number of options and my criteria were clear.  Firstly, I wanted to go to a country I have not been to before and secondly I did not want to fly. But translating this into a booking was somewhat more difficult. There were so many options – even Istanbul by train, Budapest, Vienna and Prague.  Riverways in Europe were another option and I have also not been to Portugal, Sweden or Finland and they were also accessible over land and sea.  In my mind, an exotic journey on the Orient Express was what I was hankering after, but that is but a dream.

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Fantasy aside, amongst the many options, the biggest challenge was in pulling all of the information together and making sense of it.  I really just wanted to go into the International Bookings Office which used to exist in mainline railway stations and find out what was possible, and for them to hand me an exciting ticket. Sadly, these facilities no longer exist and a complicated phone call to London would be the only way forward. With only 48 hours before I wanted to leave, though, many of those options were reducing dramatically as was my will and capacity to organise anything at all complicated.

There was one very simple option which emerged and gathered favour, however, and one which did not need a complicated booking or reservation. And – it was to a country I have not been to before………. If I caught Eurostar (easily bookable online) to Brussels, I could then catch an onward train to Luxembourg which would arrive 3 hours later.  These trains departed hourly and did not need advance booking!  I could leave London in the morning and be in Luxembourg in the afternoon!

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I realised that I knew very little about Luxembourg, but from a quick image search I knew that it would be a good fit, even if not near Asia.  Luxembourg city is highly impressive and looked very appealing.  Before I booked it, however, my attention was drawn by one image on the Visit Luxembourg tourism site and before I knew what had happened I was off on another hunt! I had seen images of beautiful woodland and wanted to spend my birthday, right there!

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I soon learned that Luxembourg is a very small country and to get to this village very near the eastern border with Germany, it would take less than an hour. Finally, a decision had been made, tickets were rapidly bought and a characterful guest house booked.

And that is how I came to decide how to spend my first non Asia birthday in 16 years! And that is a tale for the blogging morrow!

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