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2015 Grateful 14

Someone asked me today if I ever tired of travelling. The hassle. The queues. The lost luggage. The never-quite-knowing-how-much-a-flight-will-cost until you press the final button. The packing. The unpacking. Did I  mention the hassle? And I said no. Never.

Travelling is something you like or you don’t. Very few people are ambivalent. For many, it’s a chore. Something they have to do for work. They rack up hotel nights with the same frequency as others make cups of tea. For others travel is a choice. Something they do once or twice a year. The annual summer holiday with months spent planning where to spend those two weeks. And perhaps a week around Christmas, visiting family at home or abroad, or skiing. More still mark anniversaries and birthdays and notable occasions with a city break to somewhere foreign. But for some, like me, travel is an innate part of being. I can no more imagine not travelling than I can imagine not sleeping.

Yes, I’m lucky in that I have a job that facilitates my trips. I can work anywhere I have an Internet connection. Unless I’m giving workshops. And recently, when asked for dates for workshops in October and November, I froze for a minute as I looked through my diary and realised that for two whole months I would have to be in Budapest at least two days a week. Which left with with a five-day travel window.

time off

It’s not that I have anywhere in particular I want to go. Rather that I want to be free to go should the opportunity arise. A Serbian friend mooted a week in Israel – but I don’t have week. Two weeks in Iran was also on the cards but I don’t have two weeks either. And for a while, my narrative voice kicked in and I was caught up in a mental castigation of not being able to say no. I could have just said I wasn’t free. But that wouldn’t be true. I could have declined to bid on the job but that, as a freelancer, would be tantamount to heresy. You take what work you can get (within reason) when you get it, because you never know when the next lot will come along.

Some time in the last few months, my attitude to travel has changed. I missed out on tickets for Pink Martini who are playing next week in Budapest. I’m kicking myself. I’d give the toenail on my big toe to go see them live. So what did I do? I checked other tour dates in Europe and when I found myself trying to work in overnight train trips to Munich at mad h0urs mid-week, I realised that I enjoy a luxury denied to many. I’m living smack, bang in the middle of Europe. Getting a train to another country is often quicker than a drive from London to Newcastle. Flying between capitals is relatively cheap – and while the environmentalist in me screams NO!, the twenty-first century me pays her carbon dues and plants trees to offset her airmiles and reasons that as her dad wouldn’t set foot in an airplane, she can use his allocation, too.

This week is a quick trip to Ireland for a book launch. Next week is a quick trip to Malta for a workshop. Florence is also peeping over the horizon, as is Venice. And the States are calling – again.

If I’m not thinking about travelling, something is definitely wrong in my world. I’m grateful indeed that I get to indulge this particular passion and that the world is big enough to keep me thinking (and travelling) for many years to come.

A world behind walls

Other people’s opinions and impressions can have a marked effect on me. It depends, of course, the weight I give them and how they’ve done in the past. Not having the luxury of travelling for long periods of time, instead snatching a few days here and there, time is always at a premium. So how to spend that time requires thinking about.

When I said I was going to Tuscany, the one place that was repeatedly recommended by friends and acquaintances was Lucca. Way back in 1902, Hilaire Belloc, a writer, had this to say:  ‘The neatest, the regularest, the exactest, the most fly-in-amber town in the world, with its uncrowded streets, its absurd fortifications… everything in Lucca is good.’ And most of that still holds true – apart from the uncrowded streets, one of the side-effects 0f cheap and easy travel. It was busy. Very busy. And again, I found myself giving thanks that we’d come off season – not that there is an ‘off season’ in Italy. I can’t imagine the hell it would be at the height of the summer.

The tall Renaissance walls (all 4200 metres of them) that surround the medieval city hold all expectations at bay. If you hadn’t done your homework and realised that the town was really inside the walls, you could lawfully pass it by. Needless to say, I hadn’t done my homework, but the intrepid MI had.

IMG_0102 (800x600)The narrow, cobblestoned streets, soaring church spires, and buildings dating back centuries are all so well preserved that it’s like stepping back in time. Probably the most impressive piazza is Piazza dell´Anfiteatro, which sits on the site of an old Roman amphitheatre, accessible by four arched entrances. It’s a hive of activity with numerous bars, cafés, and restaurants making it an ideal spot for people watching.

IMG_0107 (800x600)IMG_0097 (588x800)The city’s understated elegance is mirrored in the brass mail boxes and ancient intercoms. With about 90 000 residents, it’s somewhere I wouldn’t mind living for a while, if they could fit me in. Most of the locals travel by bike and I’m sure they get royally pissed off at having to navigate the hoards of tourists that descend on the city every day. Mind you, though, if ever a nation was predisposed to patience, it has to be the Italians. They seem to take everything in their stride, no one in a rush to go anywhere. The narrow streets give way to even narrower alleyways with the view skywards impressive enough to cause a few run-ins and stubbed toes, as tourists stumble into each other and over each other trying to take it all in.  I’ve never fully appreciated the Tuscan colour palette before and how the sun bounces off the golds and yellows and oranges that make up the mix. What artistic talent I have wouldn’t fill the smallest of canvasses but had I any, I’d have been in heaven.

IMG_0124 (800x600)IMG_0166 (600x800)IMG_0140 (800x600)Trees pop up in the most unlikeliest of places and after an hour or so you realise the truth of the old adage – in Lucca, you really never know what’s around the next corner. Narrow alleys open on to wide expanses, the courtyards of which are crisscrossed with shadows of church towers and steeples. Its history was a tumultuous one. Once a centre for textiles, silk, and banking,  Lucca managed to stay independent of Florence and even had its own currency. The kings of Bavaria and Bohemia seized it at various stages, and the Noblese from the nearby cities of Genoa, Verona, and Parma traded it back and forth over the centuries. In the early 1600s, it was taken over by an oligarchy and managed to steer clear of trouble until Napoleon captured it in three centuries later. It had a good run.

IMG_0135 (800x600)IMG_0142 (800x600)IMG_0122 (800x600)What stuck me most, though, was how laid back it all is, despite the crowds. You can move from a bustling street to an empty square in minutes. The hundreds, if not thousands, of steps make perfect perches for those who want to spend some time enjoying the sun. When it all gets too much, take a break. Or even when it hasn’t gotten too much, take a break anyway. There’s very little that can’t wait.
IMG_0130 (800x283)In July, there’s a massive music festival and the line-up this year is impressive. I’d travel back to see the Dublin lads from The Script, and maybe take in Paolo Nutini the night before and Billy Idol the night after. What a few days that would be. Spoiled for choice. No matter when you go, if you’re in that part of the world, it’s a city not to be missed.
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