Author: Katalina Watt

Tanlines in ANZ and Fiji

Tanlines in ANZ and Fiji

Before the big move to Canada, I took two months to explore Australia, New Zealand and Fiji. I met lovely folk, saw beautiful landscapes and discovered that my face is 70% cheeks and 30% teeth.

Australia

Brisbane

We have a lot of family in Brisbane, but unfortunately we don’t get to see each other as often as we’d like. My Aunt had recently got married, and I got to spend some quality time seeing everyone and catching up. All the tiny people had grown up way too fast and there were even new babies to play with. As I’d been to Brisbane before, I didn’t do a lot of the touristy things, but I really enjoyed the Museum of Brisbane, Mount Coo-tha Lookout, the Gallery of Modern Art and the Botanical Gardens. I also unleashed my inner kid at Dreamworld theme park, riding all the rollercoasters and eating ice cream.

Cabarita and Stradbroke

We took some day trips to Cabarita Beach and Stradbroke Island. We did some lovely coastal walks, and in Stradbroke my cousin showed us where the dolphins swam by. They were curious things that came right up to the shore and we were able to feed them.

Byron Bay

I bid my relatives farewell and headed down to Byron Bay on the Gold Coast. It’s a wee beach town, consisting of one main street and the beach, and full of travellers and hippies. No shoes, no problems. Most people were inked, barefoot and sporting dreads or dyed hair. I spent a day there soaking up the sun, swimming in the ocean and meeting travellers in my hostel. The next morning a group of us got up before dawn to climb up to the lighthouse and catch a beautiful sunrise.

Coffs Harbour

I stayed in a wonderful hostel in Coffs Harbour, Aussitel, which had been recommended by a friend. The hostel organised a free trip up the hill to for a scenic walk around the rainforest, and we visited Coffs’ most iconic attraction the Big Banana. I took a trip up to Mutton Bird island, which had some fantastic views over the ocean.

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Port Macquarie

Of all the towns I visited on the East coast, I think Port Macquarie was my favourite. I took a coastal walk where I stumbled upon a collection of nudists. I was very British and ran away. I visited the Koala Hospital, where I learnt many surprising facts. For example, koalas are very fussy eaters; there are only a few species of eucalyptus they can consume, and then their palates depend on species native to the koala’s place of birth, as well as personal preference. So the hospital has a resident botanist who basically is a chef for the koalas.. We also took a trip Douglas Vale vineyard and historical home, which is run by a team of dedicated and sweet volunteers. They do a free tour and tasting, but appreciate donations which go to the upkeep of the house and grounds. I’m no connoisseur, but it was pretty damn good wine.

Sydney

I spent a few days in Sydney, and I befriended a lovely group of travellers. I stayed near The Rocks, a stone’s throw from the main landmarks. I spent a lot of time reading in the gorgeous Botanical Gardens and admiring the Opera House. We went up the Harbour Bridge pylon lookout, which had great views of the city and was more reasonable than a bridge climb. I adored the Art Gallery of New South Wales where I learnt heaps about the history and culture of the Aboriginal people and admired some cracking student art portfolios. I spent time geeking out at Sydney observatory, and we spent a cracking day at Bondi beach doing the coastal walk to Coogee. My highlight was visiting the Blue Mountains, which were phenomenal. We hiked around looking at waterfalls and mountains before hiking up the Giant Stairway. It was a pretty intense 900 steps but I was incredibly proud of myself for making it to the top. We felt like we’d earned the spectacular view of the Three Sisters.

New Zealand

New Zealand has been one of my dream destinations for such a long time, and I went on a Haka Tour, which was the perfect choice for me. We had a wonderful tour guide, Willow, and I was with two different tour groups for the North and South island. I met so many lovely people, and it’s strange how intense touring can be. All of us felt like we knew each other so well after such a short amount of time. We packed so much into  sixteen days, but it was ideal having a small group where you had a lot of flexibility. We were also very lucky with the weather, as it was on the cusp between autumn and winter, and we avoided most of the snow and rain.

Christchurch

We started in Christchurch, which was hit by an earthquake in 2011 and is still in a state of recovery. It was fascinating to see how the community has rallied, with street art and a container mall. On the drive out we were greeted by beautiful mountains, a theme which was to continue.

Lake Tekapo

We stayed in a lovely wee hostel which looked out onto the lake and surrounding mountains, and I was a bit awe-struck by the Church of the Good Shepherd. It stands on the lake shore and is an extremely popular spot for weddings. We also did some drunk stargazing by the lake and on the drive the next day we drove past Lake Pukaki with views of Mount Cook and stopped at a salmon farm and deli for lunch. It’s surreal feeding the salmon one minute and then feeding on them in the next.

Queenstown

We had a great time in Queenstown, which is often described as ‘the Banff of New Zealand’. It’s a tourist town where everyone is passing through or earning their keep to fund a lifestyle of extreme and winter sports. We took the gondola to check out the sweet view, ate some Fergburgers (the most delicious I’ve ever had), and patronised the local pubs. We took a day trip to Milford Sound, which was strangely made more dramatic by the wuthering weather, and I did a Canyon Swing (check it out) backwards and upside down.

Wanaka

A group of us tackled Mount Iron, and I was pretty pleased with myself for getting to the summit in a respectable amount of time. We all marvelled at why That Wanaka Tree is so famous, as lovely as it is, and on the road we had more scenic and food stops, including a taste of whitebait.

Franz Josef

In Franz Josef we had a lot of group bonding moments, including a limo trip to karaoke and coming fourth in the most disorganised pub quiz ever with a team name full of inside jokes. The only way to access the glacier is by air, but I did a three hour hike which brings you pretty close. My highlight in Franz was finally skydiving (check it out!) after having it on my bucket list for years. We did the alpine rail crossing back to Christchurch, which was a scenic ride full of life chats.

Kaikoura and Picton

In Christchurch the South Island group parted ways, and myself and Willow drove North to meet up with our new group. We stopped in Kaikoura, where I swam with dolphins in the open water. After that we drove to Picton where we saw seals, including baby seals learning to swim! From there we took the scenic ferry ride to the North Island and our first stop in Wellington.

Wellington

Wellington is my kind of city. We geeked out hard at the Weta workshop, learning about its history and chatting with the lucky sods who work there. I spent a whole day at Te Papa: I rode earthquake simulators, learnt about Maori culture and checked out a moving and edifying exhibition on Gallipoli, which featured huge scale sculptures by Weta. We also packed in a trip to the theatre, a visit to the night food market and a secret rooftop bar. So trendy.

Lake Taupo

On the way to Lake Taupo we drove past Taihape, famous for its gumboot throwing, and Huka falls. At Taupo we went for a late night soak in some secret hot springs. Sadly, there was too much snow on mountains for the highly anticipated Tongariro Crossing – which features the real life Mount Doom – but gives me all the more reason to go back! We did an alternative hike up Mount Tauhara which involved swinging on vines across lakes of mud, and scrambling up rocks in the dense rainforest. It had rained extensively before we arrived, so we went Grade 5 white water rafting, which was slightly terrifying and great fun.

Rotorua

On the way to Rotorua, we stopped at the Thermal Wonderland and mudpools, which were astounding and fascinating. I spent some time in Rotorua Museum learning about Maori culture and learning about space in VR. One of my favourite activities was the evening we spent at Mitai Maori Village, which is a dinner and cultural experience involving a Hāngi (traditional Maori cooking method) and performance. It was very respectful and they were welcoming of questions from the visitors, so I felt we learnt a lot.

 

Hobbiton!

I was very excited to visit the Shire and it did not disappoint. It doesn’t feel like a film set, because most of the vegetation is real and they have gardeners who tend to the grounds all year round. Hobbiton is located on a working farm, and we were told many stories about Peter Jackson’s particularity about getting Tolkien’s world right. I was delighted to answer the tour guide’s fan questions correctly and discover that I am the perfect height for a hobbit hole. At the end of the tour you can have a pint at The Green Dragon tavern, and they actually brew their own ales and ciders.

Waitomo

On the way to Waitomo we stopped at a Kiwi sanctuary at Otorohanga, but the main reason we were there was for the glowworms. I got a personal tour on my caving trip, and felt like a less glamorous version of Lara Croft in my gumboots and helmet. As well as being hobbit sized, I discovered my height was advantageous for squeezing through crevices.

Coromandel

We had a cheeky pit stop in Paeroa for some famous L&P, and in Coromandel we did a lovely coastal walk to Cathedral Cove and did a pendant bone carving workshop. Our final drive was from Coromandel to Auckland where the tour ended.

Fiji

We spent our first day in Nadi on the mainland, where we had a lovely Airbnb host who was incredibly helpful and even made us dinner! The next day we boarded the Yasawa Flyer to head to the Yasawa Islands, and our first stop was the wonderful island of Wayalailai and Naqualia resort.

Naquali

We first got off the ferry onto a bumpy little boat where folk are more often given life jackets to cushion their bums on the huge swells, and you wonder if you’re going to make it back to shore. We were greeted with a welcome song and an enthusiastic greeting of “Bula!” Very quickly we learnt to adjust to Fiji time, which means everything runs to a vague schedule and no one is surprised when things are late. The culture is quite relaxed, and after a week we were walking around barefoot and watches were only necessary for knowing when the next meal was. We were camping during our first week, which I enjoyed much more than I thought I would. We got through several bottles of sun screen and deet battling against the sun in the day and insects after sunset. Luckily we got some good breezy days and a bit of rain which broke the intensity of the heat. Besides, it’s not too bad lying in a hammock or on the beach all day working on that tan, and nothing quite beats falling asleep to the sound of the ocean.

We took a hike over the hill to another more secluded beach, away from both resort and village. There was some excellent snorkelling there and it was great having the space to ourselves. We experienced a Fijian feast, with a traditional kava ceremony. Kava is a drink made from pounded roots, and pretty much looks like dirty water. I disliked it at first but by the end I was converted, and you haven’t truly been to Fiji if you haven’t tried kava. It’s mixed in a huge ceremonial bowl and then passed around the circle in bowls made from coconut shells. You are supposed to clap and say ‘Bula’ as a sign of respect. Beginners are usually given a “low tide” tiny portion, but by the end of our stay we were calling for “tsunami” where they fill the bowl to the top. Every meal had musical accompaniment followed by the sweetest words: “More food everyone”. We visited the local village and went to a church service, where we heard the most beautiful choir. We took a trip to a smaller island, which used to house a resort, which was destroyed by Cyclone Winston, and it was surreal seeing the devastation firsthand. We spent a lot of time snorkelling and walked over the sandbar between the islands to visit the village school. I loved seeing the library there, and it was moving to see how few books there were, but how every one was clearly well-thumbed and treasured. We met some great travellers and spent a lot of time drinking and playing card games.

Blue Lagoon (i.e. the worst place ever)

We took the Flyer furthest North to Nacula Island. Blue Lagoon Resort, a ridiculous fancy and non Fijian run resort, was supposed to be the luxury portion of the holiday but quickly turned into a nightmare. In summary, it started with the worst restaurant service ever, but after we complained it escalated into the general manager shouting at us and pretty much accusing us of being liars and freeloaders. There was no real attempt to make amends for the horrible experience we had while we were there and we are definitely following up and complaining higher up. Even so, we refused to let it spoil our holiday and swiftly moved on to Oarsman’s Bay, which unfortunately was next door, but fortunately was lovely.

Oarsman’s Bay

After hearing of our experiences at Blue Lagoon, the manager offered us a bure (cabin) for the camping price, which we happily accepted. It was a lovely little place with an open air shower, which made for a spectacular way to start the day. We had some great communal dinners with the other travellers and the beach was absolutely gorgeous. We did a hike where we could see all the way to the other side of the island, and our trip to the famous Samailau cave was breathtaking. We also kayaked out to a private island to spend the day snorkelling and sunbathing. You can pay an extortionate amount to camp there overnight…or do what we did and kayak there and back for the day for next to nothing.

We ended the trip back to our Fijian home of Naqualia. It was lovely to see familiar faces and we treated ourselves to a discounted bure, as they were so chuffed and welcoming upon our return. We hiked to the summit of the island for sunset, had some fabulous snorkelling days and watched the locals spearfishing our supper.

It was finally time to go home, and now to plan the big move to Canada!

Elements

Elements

This is a short story I wrote for the Glasgow University’s Creative Writing Society Summer Short Story competition in 2014. I’m pleased to say it was the winning entry.

Have a read here.

A Boy and His Tree

A Boy and His Tree

A Boy and His Tree by Katalina Watt

It was never doubted that the boy and his tree would always be together. It was the first thing he saw of the house and his incentive for staying. He had used every trick to beg the adults to take this place over any other because of that tree, which stood like a monument in the garden, shadowing the flowerbeds and reaching out over the fence to the street beyond. His truest memory was the sharp image of the branches, like thick brush strokes from the trunk with each line spindling off into the bright clear sky. The leaves possessed every hue and shade, scorching his eyes with their dancing spectrum. The pure and vivid greens, the smell of earth and fresh dewy bark would always haunt him.

It was clear the tree was the reason the boy played in the garden. He would lose days running circles round the trunk, the breeze catching his shirt and the air crisp in his lungs. It was a tower to climb, a quest to complete and a place he called his own. He was reluctant to part from it when the sun dipped low behind the house and the night air chilled his bones. After some time of deliberation and several scrap diagrams hidden under his pillow, the boy timidly asked for a hammock, so he could sleep outside and be near his tree always. In the summer, the adults made an occasion of tying up the hammock and he rocked hour after hour. He sat in the stillness and stared up at the sunlight as it filtered through the leaves and bathed him in its warmth.

He sobbed bitterly when autumn came and he had to be taken inside. The adults couldn’t understand the intensity of his feeling and had difficulty keeping him indoors. He made himself sick with crying and took to clandestine night adventures which were quickly discovered. The boy thought the tree always looked best before it began to die, revealing its brightest and truest self. The tree withered, shrinking as the leaves shivered: stark, crisp, dead. The howling wind ripped at the empty hammock so the ropes coiled round the tree cut deep into its boughs. The boy watched from the pane as the frost grew on the glass and obscured his view of the garden.

During winter he used it as a tree fort, attaching the ruins of old planks onto the sturdiest branches and hammering nails askew. He played with forced vigour and recklessness, throwing snow from the safety of the treetop and showering the other children with ice water. Worn down by his persistence, the adults consoled themselves by making him wear thick layers. He couldn’t feel the cold bark on his skin so he huddled as close inside the tree as he could.

When spring next came, a hurricane pursued. Bits of dead branches and rotten debris ravaged the tree as the people shut themselves up inside the trembling old house. The boy did nothing; he was fixated by the destruction and savage violence of the hurricane’s attack. When the storm had passed, he stood behind the glass, looking on with longing and remorse. Whilst he understood it was unsafe to go outside during the gale, he felt he had done wrong when he saw the broken twigs flung afar. The roots, like claws, struggled towards him.

That summer he pretended the tree didn’t exist. After the abuse of the whirlwind, the garden was shut off and he saw the lonely hammock barely clinging to the tree. The adults forbade him from playing outside, calling the tree fragile and dangerous. He sweltered in the cloying humidity as the grass grew lush and green, except beneath his tree. The nails rusted in the sun and the planks were eaten by termites, the wood crashing to the earth in the stillness of the heat.

Autumn was unavoidable; it came with the smell of rain and golden brittle things. The sun-crisp leaves collected pools for him to sip and the bark felt soft beneath his fingertips. The boy went out with his bare feet sinking into the mud. He stared at his beloved tree, hollowed and dead, and examined with shame and regret where he had carved his name. Sighing, he made his way into the shed and found a discarded axe. Years of neglect had left the blade dull and spotted with rust, but the boy felt its weight in his two hands. His arms were almost strong enough to carry it with ease and he swept the weapon in ungainly strokes, cutting through the wind by his ears.

The boy stood by the tree for the last time and rested his head on its branches. He felt its grain beneath his palms. The thing looked smaller to him now; the highest branches curved low and stooped with age. Over the years the tree had bent and he had grown, and now they met. He took a lingering moment before the first swing. After the first it was easy to get a rhythm, and he continued until dawn.

He returned to the house, his ears ringing with the split of timber. That night the moon was blinding because there were no branches to cast shadows crawling across his room. The absence of the rustling leaves was deafening as he waited for sleep to wash over him. The taste of dew stuck to his tongue.

This winter he owns a notebook: beautiful, fresh and handmade. Its cover is made of pressed red leaves and the pages feel weighty in his hands. The grass never grows where the tree used to stand and the stump remains, the ring patterns darkening as the years go on. Like fingers, the roots reach desperately into the earth. He uses the smooth flat of the trunk and sits on the tree’s plot, pondering what he can etch this time.

© Katalina Watt 2012

Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman

Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman

An electrifying adult debut from Robin Wasserman, Girls on Fire is an unrelenting tale of adolescent female friendship and discovering the darkest parts of yourself. Many critics have compared Girls on Fire to Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, but I would say Wasserman’s novel is more immediate and urgent, made more vivid and shocking through shifting timelines and the first person perspectives of Lacey and Dex. To me, this book seemed more like the teenage debauchery of E4’s Skins meets the oppressive small-town community of Louise O’Neill’s Asking For It.

I read this in a combination of an advance reader’s copy from the lovelies at Little Brown and the audio edition, as I’m part of the Audio team there. The dual perspective lends itself well to audio, and Vanessa Labrie and Lauren Saunders are some of the most engaging readers I’ve heard.

Trigger Warning: Gore. Violence. Suicide. Animal cruelty. Explicit sex. Abuse: sexual, physical and psychological. Self-harm. Satanism.

The novel begins with a suicide and ends with a death, rebelling against a moral lesson and instead putting justice in the hands of the characters. Hannah Dexter is invisible, shunting her way through high school, frequent ridiculed but mediocre enough not to face the full wrath of the town’s golden girl, Nikki Drummond.

On Halloween of their Junior year, Nikki’s boyfriend is found shot in the woods, and the god-fearing parents of Battle Creek’s teenagers begin to fear for their children’s souls. Lacey is the misfit new girl at school, who quickly befriends Hannah and helps her discover Dex, her Doc-Martin-slinging, Kurt-Cobain-screaming alter ego.

The plot of the novel is way too gripping to spoil for you here, with events spiraling out of control as Lacey and Dex try to find each  themselves among the chaos they inflict on Battle Creek. There’s the typical concoction of any coming of age novel: sex, drugs, violence, bullying, self-harm, dysfunctional families and abuse with some religious fanaticism thrown in. Wasserman explores the traumas of being a teenage girl, the broken dreams of Battle Creek’s parents and the dichotomy between burning bright and fast, and feeling your life is full of compromise and regret.

At times the pace is a wee bit off, particularly in the middle, but it serves a respite from the madness. The events in the novel do seem unbelievable at times, but there’s enough grounding in ’90s nostalgia and the right level of fervor and fear-mongering among the residents of Battle Creek to keep Girls on Fire believable. The dual perspective is very effective but occasionally I found it difficult to distinguish between Lacey and Dex, which may have been intentional by Wasserman to demonstrate how much Dex has been influenced by Lacey’s vivid personality.

Girls on Fire is a refreshing look at the most extreme growing pains, of the dangers of idolizing someone else, mirroring them and finding cracks in the reflection. It questions the moulds we force young women to fit into, the false dichotomy between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ girls and the ways in which a society will pass judgement.

This may be Wasserman’s first novel for an adult readership, but she crafts prose that is both beautiful and haunting. I was immersed from the first page and Girls on Fire didn’t let me go until the end.

Girls on Fire is out in hardback, ebook and audiobook on May 5th.

Skyrim, or Iceland

Skyrim, or Iceland

Iceland has been extremely high on my wanderlust list for several years, and February truly seemed to be the time to visit. A few of my pals were travelling there the week before us and had gorgeous photos and stories enough to whet my appetite.

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We knew we wouldn’t have time to see as much as we wanted, which is the traveller’s curse, but also gives me an incentive to come back! In light of this, we booked several Airbnbs along the West coast of Iceland and planned to loop back around, giving us a few days in Reykjavik at the end of the trip.

After spending a night in Reykjavik gathering our bearings, we drove from Reykjavik to Þingvellir, quickly realising that we wouldn’t be able to pronounce anything correctly. As well as the runic symbols I vaguely remembered studying in Old English, combinations of letters we considered familiar were actually pronounced completely differently. Usually I strive to speak some of the native language to be courteous, but I felt like Icelandic was a bit of a stretch.

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It was incredibly liberating and humbling driving around a country with such an iconic and striking landscape. The population of Icelandic is so small that every town felt almost interchangeable and strange, juxtaposed against the mountainous skyline. We could drive for hours, almost snowblind on the brightest days, with our view of volcanoes, craters and mountains unobscured. We stayed in a small cabin in Varmabrekka, near Borgarnes, and I was struck by the glorious silence of the evening. Waking up to see the river and being surrounded by mountains was such a change from the bustle of London and one I always relish.

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The next day we set off from Varmabrekka, resupplied at Borgarnes and drove further West. We drove towards Snaefellsness in search of the elusive Landbrotalaug, a secret hot spring not to be found on Google Maps. Following directions from other travel blogs, we found the ‘hot pot’, a tiny two person hot spring next to the gorgeous Eldborg crater. After this, the idea of going to the Blue Lagoon seemed unthinkable. This was our secluded adventure. It began snowing, which made staying in the hot pool for eternity a very appealing prospect. After running back to the car, pink as newborns and half-dressed in damp socks, we continued our journey to our destination for the evening, Hvammstangi, or the Land of the Seals.

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We didn’t see any seals, but the cottage we stayed in was lovely. There were some cabins nearby, and someone from next door came by in the evening to tell us that the Northern Lights were out. I didn’t take any photos as they weren’t bright enough to be captured, and I was too gripped to do anything but stare. The sky cleared just long enough for us to get a good look at them, as well as the myriad of stars out that night.

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The next day we began meandering our way back to Reykjavik. We drove South and stopped by Grabok, walking a hill to get some stunning views. It was a clear bright day, and so we decided to take advantage of the daylight. We kept driving towards two of the Golden Circle attractions, Geysir and Gulfoss. I’m really glad we decided to do something traditionally touristy. We spent most time by Stokkur, one of the smaller geysers near Geysir which erupts more frequently. The whole area, while busy, is gorgeous and generally didn’t feel too overwhelming and crowded, even after our unbroken isolation.

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Gulfoss is a gorgeous waterfall, which in February was partly frozen. It was pretty darn majestic, but I was much dismayed at other visitors who ignored the safety barriers which warned of falling rocks and traversed across the ice (frequently in inappropriate footwear) to get closer to the waterfall. Even in my hiking boots with good traction, I didn’t feel very comfortable getting close to the safety rail near the edge.

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I look like a marshmallow

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After that we drove back to Reykjavik, which felt somewhat bizarre after staying in remote cabins for several days. We walked about the city, which didn’t take long, looking at the iconic sights such as the Harpa concert hall, which we named ‘the fish building’ because the glass windows look like scales. Hallgrimskirkja is the largest church in Reykjavik, which I found surprisingly pretty, considering the architecture is more modern than my taste.

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The next day we got our Icelandic culture education from the National Museum of Iceland, an extensive and eclectic collection of historical objects detailing the history of the country from the settlers to the modern day. My favourite part was the children’s dress up section where you could dress like a settler and play with a toy farm, but yeah.

After that, we decided to lower the tone and visit the Museum of Phallology. When I read this on the list of recommendations, I really hoped it was what I thought it would be. Oh happy day, penis specimens abound! The museum was founded by a retired teacher, whose interest in phallic specimens began when he received a bull’s pizzle to be used as a cattle whip when he was a child. The museum is somewhat informative, but mostly silly. I enjoyed standing next to a pickled whale penis which was was possibly taller than I am.

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Ooh shiny
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For vegetarians only
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I’m almost as tall as a penis!

On our final day we visited the Volcano House, a fascinating free little museum which has samples of past volcano eruptions and was very informative. There was also the most enthusiastic guide I’ve ever seen – it was incredibly endearing how passionate he was about geology and answering people’s questions.

There’s still so much I want to see and I definitely hope to visit Iceland again. It truly felt like some kind of fantasy landscape, and I kept thinking of Skyrim or the Lands Beyond the Wall from A Song of Ice and Fire.

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A Decadent Week in Amsterdam & Bruges

A Decadent Week in Amsterdam & Bruges

As we’re incredibly classy adults, our idea of decadence involves carbs for breakfast, purdy old buildings and alcoholic beverages with every meal!

Our first full day in Amsterdam coincided with a snowy Valentine’s Day, so we felt satisfied in our best decision to forego touristing in favour of hanging out with one of my best pals, who is currently studying down in Maastricht. She came up for the day and we wandered between cafes, catching up and staying warm. The centre of Amsterdam is formed of canal rings stretching out from Amsterdam central station. Here you’ll find most of the attractions, including the Red Light district. We stayed in a lovely apartment on Airbnb, which was just on the edge of the central rings but close enough to be accessible by the transit system, which is efficient and well connected. It’s a very walkable city, but the meandering narrow streets mean you can stray far from your destination if you’re not paying attention!

Amsterdam Begijnhof
Amsterdam Begijnhof
Rijksmuseum
Rijksmuseum

Luckily the weather improved over the next few days, with crisp clear days. The last time I was in Amsterdam it had been for a few days in the summer, as part of an extensive trip around Europe. We spent a full day in the Rijksmuseum, behind which is the famous ‘I Amsterdam’ sign. The Rijksmuseum was huge and fascinating, with three extensive floors of paintings, art objects and sculptures ranging historical eras and artistic movements.

 

Tiny dolls houses
Tiny dolls houses
Awkward Nazi chess set
Awkward Nazi chess set

 

We visited Anne Frank’s House which was, as we anticipated, a moving and sombre experience. You weren’t allowed to take photos, which made sense considering the cramped space and nature of the museum. The space is the preserved secret annex for the Franks, with quotes from Anne Frank’s diaries and information about the living conditions and atmosphere during the time of hiding. There are lots of interviews with people who knew Anne and her contemporaries, and more general discussions of persecution and discrimination. It’s a claustrophobic and humbling experience, but an absolutely essential one.

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Canals
Canals

On a much lighter note, we visited the Sex Museum. Apart from groups of giggling teenage boys, the museum was actually quite edifying and entertaining. There are lots of mannequins and animatronics, which I found terrifying, but it’s mostly photos and objects. There’s info about sex throughout different cultures and time periods, views on sexuality, promiscuity, contraception and fetishes. Phallic and yonic symbols abound! In general it’s pretty tame and there’s only one room with some hardcore kink, but it’s well sign posted for those who wish to skip it.

We took the free public ferry across to Noord Amsterdam, where we indulged in some local swing dancing in a beautiful building that overlooked the river.

 

Van Gogh Museum
Van Gogh Museum
Too many bloody people
Too many bloody people

My highlight was the Van Gogh Museum. Van Gogh has always been one of my favourite artists, and Impression and Post-Impressionism are some of my favourite artistic movements. In many ways Van Gogh’s life is the archetype of the tortured artist, and it’s poignant that he is so highly regarded now when he died unrecognised in his own lifetime. Anyone who needs a feels trip should watch “Vincent and the Doctor“. The relationship between depression and creation is a fascinating and complex one, but what I found most enlightening was the pivotal roles Vincent’s brother and art dealer Theo, and Theo’s wife Johanna Van Gogh-Bonger. Theo died within the same year of Vincent’s suicide, leaving Johanna to raise their young son (also named Vincent, who went on to established the Van Gogh Foundation and the Museum). Although Theo and Johanna worked tirelessly to help Vincent promote and sell his work during his lifetime, after the death of the brothers, Johanna was key in raising the artist’s profile. In general she was a bit of a boss, raising her son, translating stories and promoting Van Gogh’s art. She was also a founding member of the women’s socialist movement.

And of course, no trip to Amsterdam would be complete without sampling the local delicacies…

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We spent a wee bit of time in Bruges – and the main influence in our deciding to go Bruges was Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy In Bruges. It was gloriously sunny as we biked around the cobbled streets. The architecture is gorgeous and it truly did look even better at night. We climbed the infamous Bell Tower with it’s 366 steps and geeked out over the mechanics. The view from the top is stunning and worth the narrow climb! We visited the Basilica of the Holy Blood, and indulged in some waffles and Belgian chocolate. I even found a beer I like! Yes it’s a froofy fruity beer but at least I’m trying. The whole town is very bicycle friendly, and there was something lovely to look at down every street. We definitely could have spent longer here – we didn’t get enough time to sample the local museums and galleries, but puttering about in itself was wonderful.

Bell Tower
Bell Tower
366 steps to go!
366 steps to go!
View from the top
View from the top
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Sacrisant

We parted ways in Brussels. There was an ongoing joke about how much I disliked Brussels, because last time I passed through I had a bloody awful experience. I hoped this time would change my opinion, but it didn’t. Sorry Brussels. We did look at some pretty buildings in the pissing rain, but I’m glad it was only the pit stop before heading home all travel weary.

Our next big adventure will be Iceland in a week’s time, so get ready for all of the beautiful snow-laden landscapes!

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Town square
Town square
Brussels Cathedral
Brussels Cathedral
Asking For It

Asking For It

Rarely have I read a book which is as relentless as ‘Asking For It‘ by Louise O’Neill. I was familiar with ‘Only Ever Yours’, but I didn’t expect this novel to be as harrowing and essential as it is. Trigger warning: this article discusses rape, depression and suicide.

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Rape culture is a complex set of beliefs which encourages societal normalisation of sexual objectification and violence, minimising the legal and societal repercussions for perpetrators of rape. While rape unfortunately happens to people of all genders, rape culture is most prevalent in terms of male attacks on women. Men and women are taught that rape is inevitable and the dynamic between these two genders becomes one of predator-prey, casting men as wild sexual aggressors and women as helpless victims and objects to sate men’s lust. It goes without saying that this kind of dogma is dangerous, and does a disservice to all genders by prescribing these kinds of behaviours and attitudes when people are far more complex, and hopefully capable of treating others with respect.

Rape culture often includes victim-blaming, using the victim’s sexual history or appearance as a reason to excuse the rape, citing things like: “She was asking for it“, “Why was she out at that time alone?” and “What did she expect?” Rape culture fails to recognise a fundamental truth that if someone does not or cannot give consent to sexual contact of any kind, then it is rape. That’s the bottom line. We need to do a much better job of teaching people what consent and healthy relationships look like.

Asking For It‘ follows eighteen-year-old Emma O’Donovan in the small Irish town of Ballinatoom. The atmosphere is almost stifling; family ties go back generations and every town event is rife with social slights and speculation. The novel splits between ‘Last Year’ and ‘This Year’, juxtaposing Emma’s optimism for graduation and the promise that university life might bring, with the fraught O’Donovan family working through the impact of that fateful event.

O’Neill presents a fair portrayal of being a teenager, but with a harder more bitter edge. Let me clarify, there is a severe absence of body-positive, encouraging and supportive interpersonal dynamics, which I hope is not the case for most teenagers. Emma is a dislikeable protagonist, which at times makes it harder to sympathise with her, but also makes her a complex and tangible character. She is beautiful and intelligent, but also jealous and petty. Many of her unappealing traits stem from insecurities and, what seems at times, the toxic social milieu of Ballinatoom. Emma’s friendships with her female school friends is predominantly competitive and bitchy, and Emma herself has been explicitly part the system that perpetuates rape culture by telling victims to stay silent. Emma already has some unhealthy ideas around sex. Instead of seeing sex as a way of experiencing pleasure, she tends to see the act as a way of gaining male approval, which is linked to her obsessive body monitoring, and there are implications in the text of non-consensual acts happening in the past.

The incident itself had stark comparisons with the very real travesty of the Steubenville case. In ‘Asking For It‘, Emma is gang raped while she is unconscious at a party, and photos are spread across social media by her peers. She remembers very little of the night itself, found by her parents and brother the next morning abandoned on her doorstep. O’Neill juxtaposes the two halves of the book with gathering momentum to a crisis which completely alters Emma’s life. In ‘Last Year’, it is the party, whereas in ‘This Year’ it is Emma’s decision to drop the case against her attackers.

The reader only gets glimpses into Emma’s life immediately after the rape. Her world becomes even more stiflingly small as her social circle moves on without her, and the wider community resent her for bringing negative attention and particularly for ‘ruining’ the lives of the boys who raped her. There is also the impact of global social media; Emma resents the fact that she has become an icon or martyr for the cause of rape victims, and understandably cannot move past the personal destruction within her own life.

O’Neill’s technique of repeating comments from the Facebook photos of Emma’s attack becomes a sickening mantra for both Emma and for the reader. Emma has been reduced to those words and those photos because she has no memories of her own of that night. She is pressured into making the rape allegation itself, and she cannot ‘move on’ with her life because her sense of selfhood has been damaged by the violation of her body. She is expected to be ‘fixed’ by a therapist or find closure in the impending trial, but Emma experiences severe depression and tries several times to end her own life. For her, there is nothing else.

Emma knows these boys, they were her friends or acquaintances. I think it’s important to note this: most victims know their attacker. Immediately after her attack, Emma engages in sexually promiscuous behaviour as a way to reclaim her own body, but she later worries this will be used against her in the prosecution. The same occurs with other factors, such as her being on illegal substances on the night of the party. While Emma’s case never goes to trial, O’Neill highlights some ridiculous and disgusting aspects of the justice system when it comes to rape convictions.

I’ve already written so much and feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. And I’m sure that’s how Louise O’Neill felt while writing ‘Asking For It’. I was in a state of shaking anger and hot tears for the entire time I read this book. And so we all should be. Because no one is ever asking for it.

Here are two of my fav BookTubers discussing Louise O’Neill, which is how I first heard about her

Only Ever Yours and The Handmaid’s Tale

Only Ever Yours and The Handmaid’s Tale

When I was seventeen, I read Margaret Atwood‘s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale‘. It was one of the first texts which awakened me to the idea of feminism and it remains on my bookshelf to this day.
From a flurry of recommendations, I read Louise O’Neill‘s ‘Only Ever Yours‘ over the festive season. On her website it’s dubbed “The Handmaid’s Tale meets Mean Girls“. I was so engrossed in this I frequently missed my stop, and startled commuters with very un-British exclamations. This review does contain spoilers and discusses rape and eating disorders.
Both Atwood and O’Neill use the backdrop of a dystopian society as a platform to discuss gender issues. ‘The Handmaid’s Tale‘ envisages a future world called Gilead run by a totalitarian theocracy which affirms ‘traditional values‘, which include return to patriarchal gender roles and conservative dress. An unnamed virus outbreak causes low fertility rate and birth rates are a priority and obsession for the government. In ‘Only Ever Yours‘, O’Neill shows us an ultimate patriarchy where women, referred to as eves, are genetically engineered commodities for male consumption, and vessels by which the next generation of men are born.
In both Atwood’s Gilead and O’Neill’s future, infertility is considered the fault of the woman. In Gilead, any children born with deformities or disabilities are termed unbabies or shredders and are exterminated. In ‘Only Ever Yours‘, Companions unable to produce a satisfactory amount of healthy sons or are exiled Underground and there are mass girl-graves of unwanted daughters prior to science eradicated natural female birth. Anyone who does not prescribe to the heteronormative values is considered a dissident. Women are taught fear and obedience, while men are taught competition and disciplineBoth societies have rigid hierarchies for both men and women, with women in the lower echelon of the society. Men are taught to aspire for influential positions in ambitious careers in the realms of politics and law, whereas the glass ceiling for women is being a Wife (Atwood) or Companion (O’Neill) to these powerful men.
ThugNotes on ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’
In Atwood’s novel, female roles are divided still further into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and Offred, the protagonist, is a Handmaid to Commander Fred, hence Offred or literally ‘Of Fred’; she is his property and has been renamed after she was “re-educated“. The social function of a Handmaid is to bear children for their assigned Commander, and one of the most harrowing passages in the novel portrays the ceremonial rape of Offred by Commander Fred, with his Wife‘s assistance. O’Neill’s protagonist is freida, a sixteen year old eve in her finally year of school before the Ceremony where she will be assigned her lifelong role in society as either the ideal companion (wife and mother), concubine (prostitute) or chastity (teacher to the next gen of eves). freida has been trained from her creation to scrutinise herself and others on their appearance, to learn obsolete ‘decorative’ skills like baking and indoctrinate to value herself only based on the opinions and desires of society’s men.

While Offred has been indoctrinated, she still retains echoes of her former individuality. In the past society, she had her own name, a career and a family. In her new situation she is detested by the Commander’s Wife while also under pressure to bear the Commander and his Wife a child. She tries to negotiate her bizarre situation while Commander Fred attempts to engage with her on a human level, and she becomes emotionally entangled with one of the Commander’s workers. freida is a product of complete indoctrination, as are the other girls in the school. Whilst there is the usual adolescent interplay, there is also an insidious atmosphere of female rivalry exacerbated by ranking, insecurity reinforced by body dysmorphia and a total absence of accurate and useful information, open discussion and mutual support. The girls are isolated from the world and each other, seldom intellectually stimulated and their confidence constantly undermined.

 

Two of my fav BookTubers discussing Louise O’Neill

Both novels present harrowing dystopias of intolerance and inequality, with a focus on gender and sexuality. While we’re constantly progressing towards a more equal society, there is still so much to be done. There are places where aspects of these novels are closer to reality than a dystopia. I’m so glad more people are having open discussions about feminism and there is a greater understanding of why patriarchal societies are detrimental to people of all gender identifications.

Louise O’Neill discusses ‘Only Ever Yours’

The protagonists of both ‘The Handmaid’s Tale‘ and ‘Only Ever Yours‘ are inherently products of their society, but they reveal an awareness of something lost from former times. For freida this is the nature channel, which represents a sense of scope and history; for Offred this is the remnants of her self-hood and individuality represented by her former life, half-remembered. In these fictional worlds, gender is a hard binary, gender roles are prescribed, and society is divided and hierarchical. Femininity is a performance and the idea of woman is stripped down and separated to the point of fragmentation. A woman cannot simply be, she must belong to someone else.

 

 

 

 

Star Wars

Star Wars

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There’s something intimidating about not being part of a fandom, especially one which is as large and omnipresent as Star Wars. Despite my parents being a film geek and Sci-Fi nerd between them, the Star Wars films weren’t something I grew up with. I gleaned a fair bit from pop culture and I’d say I’m definitely a fan of Sci-Fi, but I kept putting off watching them. Then The Force Awakens happened and I thought: “It’s now or never…Wait, in which order do I watch them?

This should be blindingly obvious but SPOILERS.

Princess Leia being a bad ass

Suddenly the internet made way more sense and I had that strange almost deja-vu I got the first time I saw Hamlet performed and thought: “I’ve heard this speech before”. Star Wars is such a cultural phenomenon it was like I had experienced it before I’d seen the films. I was terrified I would hate it. As someone who regularly geeks out about things they like, I know that people can project feelings of hostility towards new fans. This is usually from a subconscious desire to ‘protect’ the fandom, but I think it’s healthy to critique the media we consume, and to welcome change and fresh perspective.

Thankfully I really enjoyed the original trilogy. I binged it with a Google tab open asking very obvious questions like: “Why isn’t Leia also a Jedi like Luke?”, “What exactly is The Force?” and “Why are Stormtroopers so inept?”

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The First Order commit genocide just because

I did a lot of forum lurking, but tried to form my own opinions. While I have issues with the fandom, there’s a lot about it which I love, such as the world-building and engaging action sequences. Some of the flaws are endearing, but in general the characters can be flat and I think a lot is left for the audience’s imagination. When this is done well, it leaves possibilities for great fan fic, when it’s done badly it seems lazy. Although I think prospective genres like Sci-Fi and Fantasy should try to push our ideas of cultural norms, I can be more forgiving of the original films as a product of the time.

I have no such feelings for the prequels…

https://youtu.be/4l5eZp8Ae9c

Much ink has been spilt over this, but I think folk get angry about the prequels because they had the potential to be amazing. I wanted back story, but instead I found my immersion killed by a hokey script and some offensively one-dimensional characters.

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Cheeky cameos from Han Solo and Chewbacca (amongst others)

The bar was so low The Force Awakens could have tripped over it. I went in knowing pretty much nothing about the new film, and yet it still surpassed my expectations.

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Finn’s Stormtrooper existential crisis

It’s not without it’s faults, such as tendencies to pay lip service to the franchise, and tired themes and scenarios, to the point where parts felt almost satirical. The trouble with Star Wars is, it’s all good fun (yes BB-8 is cute and lasers are cool) but after the credits roll I find myself bombarded with unanswered questions and no longer willing to suspend disbelief. Many of the scenarios feel hollow and the characters have broad brush strokes of personality, without nuance. While The Force Awakens is a solid film, it could have been more challenging and stimulating. While there were some attempts to bring complexity to characters and their motivations, such as the internal conflicts of Kyle Ren and Finn, I felt many relationships and actions were borne of plot convenience, and the weary battle between good and evil meant nothing.

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Kylo Ren vs. Rey and Finn

On the other hand, I was very impressed with the strong performances of the cast (both new and familiar). Honourable mentions must go to Daisy Ridley as Rey and John Boyega as Finn, and I was delighted to see more diversity in the fandom. I found Rey’s character to be the most genuinely complex person in the franchise, and she’s the only character other than Princess Leia who I’ve ever really connected with. Rey is independent, empathetic and resourceful to name a few of her characteristics. I was intrigued by Finn’s origin as a Stormtrooper and we didn’t get any real insight into why he would alter his alliances after being trained from birth to fight for The First Order. Rey and Finn felt tangible, and gave me hope that I could expect more of the same. My hopes for Episode VIII include fleshing out and developing the characters and backstories of Finn and Rey, without falling into the franchise’s pitfalls of simplifying characters and plots to formulas and archetypes.

 

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The Man in the High Castle

The Man in the High Castle

Amazon Studios released Season One of ‘The Man in the High Castle in late November, catering to our desire for instant gratification and the modern trend towards binge-watching TV shows.

It’s been almost a year since I read the book, and I’ll admit I found the (rather short) novel dense at times. The main premise is an exploration of an alternate world where the Axis powers have won World War II. I thought the show did an admirable job of weaving together the multiple narrative strands and focusing the deliberately obscure geographical locations of Dick’s alternative history.

I have to mention that controversial ad campaign. Well that was super awkward. I wonder if perhaps stirring up some controversy was part of the aim to get people talking about the show, but the show’s creators were evidently familiar with the source material and executed a tactful adaptation which was belied by the ad campaign. Luckily the trailer is way better:

The overall themes and questions of patriotism, duty, family, cultural identity and fate were explored tactfully, and the ideological conflicts between Capitalism, Fascism and Taoism are presented subtly, without huge info-dumps or obvious bias – save for the final scene in Season One which felt contrived, and in my opinion began to present ‘real history’ and the familiar post-war 1960s America as a Capitalist utopia.

Dick’s novel has a metatext, a banned book called “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy” by fictional author Hawthorne Abendsen (also the novel’s eponymous Man in the High Castle who is said to live in an impenetrable castle where the Nazis can’t find him). In the show they’ve changed this to a smuggled film reel to incite revolution, or rather, several different film reels. This works much better for the medium, and actually I found it more effective because the Grasshopper reels used in the show contain what the viewers will recognise as famous historical footage from World War II onwards such as the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. One is not historical footage (or they may have edited it onto historical footage), but is almost prophetic, showing two of the protagonists in events that may come to pass.

One of my favourite scenes is an awkward dinner exchange between the wealthy Japanese Kasouras and antique American art dealer Robert Childan, which builds on this idea of cultural appropriation, colonialism and historicity. The Kasouras have Anglicised given names, have a fetish for Jazz music and what we might consider mass-produced trinkets. Childan hatches a revenge plan with Frink’s help to create a forgery, and has a wonderful speech about historicity. However, when Betty is presented with the forgery, she claims Frank Frink‘s (Rupert Evans) jewellery contains “wu” (balance or harmony) and is therefore valuable after all. Juliana’s necklace, a gift made by Frank, is admired but also scorned because it doesn’t adhere to the prescribed ideas of aesthetic value.

While many iconic scenes from the book are adapted well, there are others that either I don’t remember from the novel or were embellished for the show. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, but I do wonder about the show’s pacing. The novel isn’t particularly long and I wonder how many seasons will be commissioned; I assume Season Two is in the works as the finale did leave many questions and there are definitely some big plot bombs to drop. Many of the scenes involving Obergruppenführer John Smith (Rufus Sewell) were captivating, but there were some performances I didn’t find as compelling, and while I grant it’s difficult to portray character arcs that involve deception and impersonation, this makes it all the more important to be convincing.

In the novel, I found myself disliking all the characters or finding their actions exasperating, whereas in the show I think the writers tried to make characters relatable or at least fascinating to watch. There are characters who are morally questionable, but I felt even they had agendas or belief in some kind of code or truth. In essence, I gave a damn what happened to most of the protagonists. While the show honours the book’s ensemble cast, I was pleased that Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos) was given a more central role and was more proactive. This move towards giving the female characters as much complexity and agency as their male counterparts may be an inevitable, and hopefully conscious, part of a 2015 adaptation of Dick’s 1962 novel. The show doesn’t shy away from the gender issues of that society, with Juliana exploiting and being exploited for her gender, and explorations of masculinity, especially in a military context – both with the Nazis officers and the Kempeitai and shown through the characters of Rudolph Wegener (Carsten Norgaardand Inspector Kido (Joel de la Fuente).

Further reading:

  • My student essay for a Sci-Fi course, discussing ‘Othering’ and post-colonial theory in Dick’s novel, which can be read here.
  • Den of Geek’s raving reasons to pick up the novel.
  • i09 on the differences between the novel and the show’s pilot.