26 stories for Oxfam | The Two Point Six Challenge

As we are currently in lockdown, I am not going on long walks or on trains for now. Today, in honour of the London Marathon runners who won’t be running the 26-mile marathon – I wrote 26 flash fiction stories to help keep charities alive, fundraising for Oxam.

The coronavirus knows no borders. But neither does our common humanity. Oxfam is supporting people at home and worldwide, as they stand up for each other, protect each other, and demand fair treatment for us all.

We need charities now more than ever. Fundraising has been hit very hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Charity shops including Oxfam’s have been closed to protect the health and safety of staff, volunteers and shoppers. And thousands of fundraising events have been cancelled or postponed meaning many charities are struggling to maintain services because of this huge reduction in income. This is a serious threat to their ability to respond to the pandemic.

So I’m doing whatever I can do to help!

 

I have put the 26 stories from my #TwoPointSixChallenge in order below.

Asylum

After the devastation of the second disease and the completion of the Gibraltar Tunnel, a train carried her from London to Casablanca to meet her new family.

Bridges

During the time of the second disease, ten years’ on from the first, she had been living alone. They had been living alone too.

Every day on their allotted walk, they stood at the same moment, each on a separate bridge over the river.
They were upsteam so, gloved, would put a message in a jar and lower it to the river.
It would float toward the bridge she stood on where she would hopefully catch it in her net.
One day, they turned up and she wasn’t there. They waited and waited but were not allowed to loiter for too long and devasted, returned home.

In the days that followed they walked with tears in their eyes to the bridge and waited.
She was nowhere.

On the twentieth day, they turned to go but as they did so saw something moving and turned back around.
It was a jar in the river with a message.

They ran along beside it until it was stopped by an upturned tree and fished it out.

The message in the jar said I LOVE YOU.

Climate

He opened the Unity Box on the table.

It had arrived that morning, sent by Prime Minister Maria Murphy.

Everyone had been sent one.

It was for the Unity Project.

After the 2019 – 2021 disease there had been signs of desertification spreading too fast. Planes had eventually all been grounded indefinitely.

A ten-year Fixed Crossing project had seen the opening of the Gibraltar Tunnel among others. The vacuum left by the planes had been filled by electric trains travelling between continents. And governments had been forced to work together to support the global population financially to avoid further catastrophe.

Ten years after the first new disease there came an even more devastating disease that travelled to all countries and killed millions.

During the first, people had learned to live in smaller spaces and had grown sunflowers and tomatoes and salad greens. After the second, it was clear that without immediate changes, humanity would not survive.

World Leaders had pooled their knowledge together and come up with a mass planting plan – the Unity Project. Drawing on expertise from, let’s call them, seed scientists, they had mapped out the best planting options for each area worldwide. And then each government had commissioned Unity Boxes for every citizen.

Those in flats grew indoor gardens as well as helping plant in the vast number of public spaces that had opened up – including the roads, which had all been grassed over. Some contributed to helping plant living walls outside their windows too. Meanwhile, people with gardens filled them with trees and grew vegetables and fruits and everyone shared what they had among them.

He followed the link on the paper inside the Unity Box at the time stated to open a video chat with the farmer he’s been assigned, Yahya. They waved at each other and smiled.
“Are you ready?” Yahya asked.
“Ready!” he said. And he opened the box.

Democracy

The company had nearly gone bust in the deep recession that followed the pandemic.

When they’d reached out to employees to help, their employees told them they couldn’t care less, because the relationship had been an abusive one.

So they shuffled some things around and offered senior positions to some of their junior staff and let some of the senior staff go.
Then they offered all employees a stake in the company and a vote on how it was run.

The employees came back.

Together, they pulled the company out of the depths and it became successful for everyone equally.

Eid

They were not religious but admired their friends who were fasting during the day, in the heat at home.
So they called a baker and ordered a cake to be made for their friends for Eid.
And on the cake they wrote:
‘We have much to learn from you – happy Eid!’

Family

It was weird suddenly being shut up together in a house of six.

They were four people working for companies and organisations and two academics studying for their PHDs in their mid twenties to mid thirties.

They had decided not to go home to their parents, as most were in their 70s and 80s.

So they decided to eat together each evening and once a week to have a special dinner they cooked together.

They were lucky, they had many friends who were suffering living with housemates that were not respectful.
During that time they became a funny kind of lockdown family.

Gratitude

During the lockdown he learned to make bread.
And he was grateful.

Health

A vaccine was created.
People went to their local polling stations to get it.
Then they went out and changed a lot of things.
And then they were happier.

In the middle of the night

In the middle of the night he heard her screams through the wall as her husband beat her.
He called the police.
She was taken to a new, safe place with her young children.
All in the community helped.

Joy

It had not rained for a long time.
At last, clouds gathered, and rain fell.
And they felt pure joy.

Kites

The long call followed by three short two-syllable echoes made her think of eagles, which teleported her to another world. A world with forests covering wide, wide spaces and deer and bears and rivers with salmon. She closed her eyes and rested in the other world a while.

Lighthouse

The light beam flashed across the blackness of the choppy water. They had made it.

Maze

The labyrinth stood on Bodmin Moor, a wild place were beasts were said to roam and ghosts to haunt.
It was built of Cornish hedging, funded by ‘hedge pledges,’ – one of many public planting projects.
It was covered in hundreds of flowering plants.

She walked to its centre and closed her eyes.
When she opened them again, she was standing in front of a mossy rock near Tintagel. A labyrinth of the same design was carved into it.

No Entry

There was an out-door museum at the border.
They took the electric train to go and visit it.
They’d heard the centrepiece was an enormous sign.
When they arrived at the outdoor museum they saw the fabled sign at the centre of the gardens that comprised the museum.
NO ENTRY, it said – like an anti-Rosetta Stone.
The plaque beneath it read:

This sign was one of many variations with the same message, as well as similar no exit signs, that were placed at the borders of most countries worldwide at the beginning of the century.
Millions of people died in those years.
It was only afterwards that we saw the healthcare system restored through our contributions and the introduction of Universal Basic Income, the National Carer Service, to relieve people of all the unpaid care they’d put in, and the Unity Project, that saw us all planting trees to heal what we had lost.

They looked at the sign for a while in silence, then moved on to the next exhibit – an original concrete school complete with concrete playground.

Opportunity

Alongside digging for unity and reviving the nation’s immune system – the healthcare system, carer support, and universal Basic Income, there had been other, newer ventures that had taken root.

All schools now had access to nature every day for forest school as well as wellbeing guardians who made sure children had someone to talk to.

Today they were going to plant walnuts at forest school.

‘These are like time capsules but that grow into something we can see above ground in a few years time,’ their teacher said.

Then they were shown how to put their walnut into the soil and put little stakes next to them.

She planted her walnut and wrote ‘George’ on its label.

Past Time

In the Before Time there were a lot of things that needed changing but everyone was too scared to do anything about it.
Forced inside at the start of the Now Time, they for the first time saw that there was not an infinite amount of time,
So they pooled their ideas together and everyone was assigned a role in changing course.
And that is how we will arrive in the Next Time.

Quarantine

She was alone.

Great sheets of plastic surrounded her in the hospital bed.
Shadows passed behind them –
Doctors in hazmat suits – like something out of the movie E. T.
And then a heart-shape projected onto her bed, made by a red laser pen.
And she knew it was her Dad come to visit.

Reflection

Reflection was a luxury that those not run off their feet in the hospitals or serving lines of frightened people in supermarkets had time for during lockdown.

Some with time to spare used it to listen to those without it.

And this was the start of a path that would eventually lead to a happier world.

Sanctuary

You can travel anywhere in your memories.

Today, she travelled to Angkor, where ancient tree roots wound themselves round the doorways of stone temples. At one temple, further from the grandest of them all and the one with the many stone faces, where there was not a soul in sight.

She perched on the windowsill of the temple, with her knees up to her chest, out of the sticky heat in the shade and breathed slowly and deeply.

And she was happy to be alive.

Together

They had felt alone and been alone, physically.
But really they were alone together.
And alone together they had all they needed to turn the ship around.
And sail to a land where they walk out onto the shore.
And hug each other once again.

Underwater

A few cities were submerged until only the tops of buildings poked out above the water – like the village that John Piper once captured but on a great scale.

A man still lived on the roof of one of the taller skyscrapers and people brought him food by boat.

Video call

The men on screen were sitting suited at each of their desks at home.
Many had important looking books on shelves behind them.

They were busy congratulating themselves over jobs well done by others and talking about what a drag it was to only have a couple of private acres of land each to play golf on alone.

They talked about their wives as if they were their mothers – managing the households and children, always nagging.
‘Susan asked me to do the dishes last night. Imagine! As if I have the time right now,’ one said.

Right at that moment, two women entered his room and asked him to go with them.
Susan appeared on screen in place of her husband.
The men went quiet.

‘Hello,’ said Susan.

And she proceeded to tell the men what needed to be done to save the country from catastrophe.

And then she fired them all.

Wise women

There had been a time – for most only depicted for them on the series Cadfael, that not many remembered now – when people knew which plants could heal.

And there had been all of the 20th century, when the Industrial Revolution had spat on that knowledge and some of the wise women and men who had known how to use the plants in medicine had been sent to workhouses to work for next to nothing to line the pockets of the wealthy.

Later, women, men and children worldwide worked for next to nothing picking and processing food and clothing to feed, clothe and line the pockets of wealthy people in other countries.

Everyone who had worked close to nature had been identified as more useful elsewhere for someone else’s gain.
But after floods and drought decimated the places that served the wealthy in protected climates, the world’s eyes turned to them and they fell.

People returned to the earth with great spirit and learned the old ways again, led by wise women.

X (ten)

Her Unity Box contained 10 units to grow.

She had a small patio which had needed to be grassed over as temperatures had risen and concrete had become unbearable in cities.
The trees that would grow in the four corners of the small front garden were a crab apple, hazelnut tree, rowan tree and white bean.
She already had back-up walnuts and acorns too.

Next were mushroom spores, tomato seeds, rocket seeds, potato roots, soy bean seeds and carrot seeds.

All the fields had been taken over for grains and rapeseed for oil.

The food to grow to eat she started inside, the tree too.

And by the next summer she had enough to eat.

A tiny hazelnut tree had appeared and, with it, fresh hope.

Yes, I do feel better

One of those telly choir leaders had had the idea of the nation all going out and singing a song on a particular evening.

The BBC loved the idea and asked the public to suggest songs they might like to sing.

Some suggestions had to be taken out but somehow, the song Yes – by McAlmont and Butler made the list.

The nation voted.

It won.

Then, at 6pm one Saturday evening everyone went outside and sang:

‘Yes, I do feel better,

Yes I do, I feel alright,

I feel well enough to tell you

What you can do

With what you got to offer…’

Zen and the art of garden maintenance

The flat-ish black-and-white seed, beloved by hamsters, had been placed beneath the soil.

Within a week it had proudly shot up to five inches tall and shed its seedy head to reveal baby leaves that would fall away later.

Soon, it grew so tall that it was moved to the outside.

It was so happy that it grew new leaves and then was joined by more and more sisters.

Up they grew, and grew until they were ready to bloom.

They opened wide and bright.

Everyone who passed them smiled.

Thanks for reading!

 

Walk 2020

Activity Level: Not Very Active

I don’t exercise.

Ever.

I hate the gym.

More than 10 years ago I was running for a bus and when I got on it, my friend who’d saved me a seat said if I ran like that again I’d damage my knees.

Becoming a walking convert

Then last year a friend suggested a walking holiday and without properly reading my WhatsApp messages (I was busy at work) I accepted. It was only the day before we were going to head off, reading back through my messages, that I realised we weren’t doing some nice two-hour circular walks over three days and staying at a lovely spa hotel – I’d signed up to walk all the way from Stroud to Bath over three days along a stretch of the Cotswold Way. Oops.

So ignorant was I of what I’d signed up for, I had to borrow my friend’s husband’s luminous yellow waterproof and, by the end of day one, another friend’s hiking shoes (she had read the WhatsApp messages and was only walking with us for a day). I complained some of the time and tried to ban jovial singing. When one friend suggested picking up the pace I sharply replied that I’d go at my own pace thank you very much. I was a joy to all.

But something clicked over the three days (my knee?) and by the end of it I was a walking convert.

Walk 2020

So this year I’m walking. I started using the hashtag #walk2020 on Twitter before realising some people were using it because they intend to walk 2,020 miles in 2020. I’m not here to walk a mountain. I’m just here to walk.

2,020 miles in 2020 would be 39 miles every weekend. I’m mostly walking between 5 and 12 miles one day a week, usually on a Saturday.

I bought three of the Cicerone walking books that have routes in the south of England (where I live): the Ridgeway, The Thames Path and the North Downs Way.

The Ridgeway is an ancient path of pilgrimage, so it makes sense to work up to that one and do it over a week or more in one big burst. Probably in May. But I thought it would be fun to collect the other two in stages. And break the stages into smaller stages if I wanted to. Because I’m not climbing a mountain.

So far, my partner and I have walked from Abingdon to Oxford, and from Oxford to Swinford Toll Bridge. The section from Oxford in the book ends in Newbridge, so we’ll get the bus to Swinford Bridge and walk on to Newbridge another weekend. With shorter days in winter it’s just more comfortable than walking through the mud in the dark. And give us some credit, we walked Oxford to Swinford Toll Bridge AND BACK yesterday. That’s like 33,000 of my steps and 28,000 of his.

 

Italian Lakes by Train + Cinque Terre Trains

Food. Community. Warmth.

What else do you need on a trip?

For me, trains.

And so it was that I roped my partner – a gentle and homely soul – into…

An 8-day European train adventure – including Italian lakes by rail and Cinque Terre trains.

I’m not currently employed full time (free for odd-jobs, castings, shoestring adventures), so I don’t like to overspend. Actually I can’t overspend – what the hell was I thinking going on holiday?!

Anyhow, with a new-found super-thrifty outlook, my partner and I made our own itinerary, rather than booking a tour.

If you can’t be arsed to read about what we liked and didn’t – from the creepiest, most mosquito-ridden World Heritage site I’ve ever seen, to an absurdly indulgent stay at the Royal Savoy in Lausanne, Switzerland (really, what WAS I thinking?!) – you can just take a look at the itinerary below. London to Milan by train, trains from Milan to the Cinque Terre, trains from Milan to the Italian Lakes – it’s all here.

Maybe it’ll save you some time when planning your own trip.

The itinerary

Night 1

Clink78 hostel, London. Private double room. (this really is the cheapest comfortable way to stay in London if you don’t mind shared bathrooms and young people loving life at the bar).

Day 2

Eurostar from London St. Pancras International (Depart 11:31) – Paris Gare Du Nord (Arrive 14:17)

TOP TIP: buy Paris Metro tickets in the Eurostar dining car, just ask at the counter.

Get the Paris Metro Gare Du Nord – Gare De Lyon (consult the good old-fashioned Metro map or use Citymapper if anxious about which lines you’re using. The journey takes around half an hour but why not leave an hour just to be safe).

Night 2

Gare De Lyon (Depart 19:10) – Milan (Arrive 06:00)

You are now in Milan.

Day 3

Train to La Spezia Centrale – Intercity #35333 Milan (08:10) La Spezia Centrale (11:21)

Night 3

Stay in La Spezia (Cinque Terre) at Dreams Guest House – booked on booking.com. The owner will recommend taking the bus to Portovenere “#1 in all of Cinque Terre!” while pointing to a painting of it on his wall. Check in 14:30.

Day 4 

All day in Cinque Terre – If you don’t fancy the large Cinque Terre crowds, get a bus to Lerichi, they stop on the street outside the station on the opposite side to the station. From Lerichi, if you want to go even smaller, there’s a bus to pretty Tellaro.

TOP TIP: In Italy, you mostly buy bus tickets from Tabbachi shops BEFORE you board the bus.

Night 3

Stay in La Spezia at Dreams Guest House.

Day 4

Check out of Dreams Guest House 9:00 – 9:30 to get trains from La Spezia Centrale to Orta-Miasino – the station by Lake Orta, one of the smallest (and therefore quietest) of Italy’s lakes.

Orta-Miasino (depart 10:46) – Alessandria (arrive at 12:48) Frecciabianca #35666

(Interchange 57 minutes)

Alessandria (depart at 13:45) – Novara (arrive at 14:53) Regionale #10176

(Interchange 22 minutes)

Train to Orta-Miasino (15:15 – 16:04) Regionale #10256

Night 4

Stay in Orta at Hotel Bocciolo

Day 5 

Orta all day

Night 5

Stay in Orta at Hotel Bocciolo

Day 6  

Orta all day, with the train at 18:54…

Orta-Miasino (depart 18:54) – Novara (arrive 19:43). Regionale #10257

(Interchange 21 minutes)

Novara (depart 20:04) – Milan Centrale (arrive 20:46). Regionale #2029

Night 6

Milan, Private ensuite room at Ostello Bello Grande, check in 14:00, check out 11:30

Day 7

Milan Centrale (depart 12:23) –  Lausanne (arrive 15:42) EuroCity #34 

Night 7

Lausanne Royal Savoy Hotel & Spa. Check in from 15:00. Check out by 12 (train at 12:23)

Day 8

Lausanne (depart 12:23)  – Gare De Lyon (arrive 16:15) TGV Lyria #9268.

Metro (hope you kept the tickets bought on the Eurostar at the beginning of the trip safe!): Gare De Lyon – Gare Du Nord (takes around half an hour but why not leave an hour just to be safe)

Gare Du Nord (depart 20:10 – remember that check-in closes 30 minutes prior to departure) – St. Pancras (arrive 21:39)

A word of advice

 

  • I pretty much always book European train travel with Loco2. I’ve met Kate, one of the founders, a couple of times. I love that her and her brother Jamie built the company because they believe in travelling more sustainably – not just because they wanted to get rich (nobody sensible starts a company the latter way)
  • For the sleeper train Paris to Milan, I booked the Thello with TrenItalia. I was anxious I’d booked the wrong thing because I don’t speak Italian. It would have been less stressful to book it with Loco2, rather than tweeting Mark Smith of Man in Seat 61 in a panic later (he assured me I was fine)
  • I usually book the London to Paris Eurostar (or the London to Amsterdam Eurostar, or the London to Brussels Eurostar) through Eurostar directly, because I like the app. I’m not saying this is logical
  • I wish we’d had a day or two more in La Spezia

Highlights?

 

Travelling on the Eurostar together was fab – it’s a great first train trip for couples or friends because it has a dash of glamour about it and you’re transported from London to Paris/Brussels/ Amsterdam so quickly.

Despite my partner not getting the best night’s sleep on the Thello train, we most enjoyed watching pre-downloaded episodes of The Misadventures of Romesh Ranganathan on my iPad while sipping our complimentary Prosecco

There’s a lovely man who makes decent pizza at Pizzeria La Scorza a short walk from La Spezia train station.

La Spezia is a great choice for those travelling around the Cinque Terre because it’s a nice city, there are numerous accommodation options, it’s not full of tourists and it has buses to Lerichi and Portovenere.

We travelled at the very end of summer, when the temperature is a bit cooler (although not a lot cooler). This meant that Cinque Terre was less busy than at the height of summer. We took a couple of day trips to in Lerichi and Tellaro. We only took the train to Manarola from La Spezia for sunset from the Nessun Dorma bar (highly recommended and totally worth the queue, which was about the same as the queue for Dishoom in King’s Cross London but with the most incredible queue view you’ve seen.

To visit Cinque Terre in its entirety, we’d probably go in November or another chilly time when there wouldn’t be too many people there.

Highlights of Lake Orta included the beautiful and peaceful Isola San Giulio (although we couldn’t find the dragon backbone in the church) as well as the lake itself, which you can swim in.

Hotel Bocciolo had rooms with terraces and a good restaurant that we ate at each evening. It was ideally situated for the train station and getting to the lovely the main square, where ferries go regularly to Isola San Giulio and back again.

We also took the market-day ferry to the other end of the lake to visit the Alessi factory.

Because of where Ostello Bello is situated, 5 minutes from Milano Centrale station, we used the side entrance/exit rather than the front entrance/exit. This gives a completely different introduction to Milan, somewhere I’ve previously avoided because it didn’t feel safe. The side entrance/exit leads to the taxi rank. In future I’ll always use the side exit! The hostel itself was one of the best I’ve ever stayed at. There was a live swing band, free dinner buffet and a free drink. We had a gorgeous private room with an ensuite bathroom. Thumbs up for Ostello Bello and for Kash Budget Traveller for recommending it.

After the Milan stopover, we headed to Lausanne for our big blow-out stay at the Royal Savoy Hotel and Spa. We spent as many hours as possible in the spa, before dinner in the bar. In the morning I had an incredible massage (it was a special offer listed on the hotel newsletter in the room).

After that it was a lovely trip to Paris, where we had lunch at Parisii by the wonderful food market. I took my market-bought chanterelles and smoked fish with us on the Eurostar home and had a drink to a successful very well planned trip!

Lowlights?

We wished we’d brought picnic food for dinner on the overnight Thello train Paris to Milan as the restaurant car was rammed.

Been aching to find out what the creepiest World Heritage site is? After a glimpse of the Cinque Terre, we headed to Orta-Miasino. The Sacro Monte di Orta is a hill with 20 chapels on it. This sounds delightful, until you enter any of them. Inside each are lifelike statues of religious scenes with many of the characters painted in a way that makes it seem they are staring at you. It’s more the kind of place I’d feature on my other blog, traveldarkly.com. The amount of blood loss suffered from the vampyric mosquito population up there didn’t help

The downside of the trip to the Alessi factory was that it was very difficult to find the bus that supposedly goes from close to the ferry terminal to close to the factory. We walked in the heat. My partner is much better suited to cool climates and I don’t think I’ll be able to persuade him to go on any 30 degree hikes any time soon…

You’ll see we took the Paris to Milan sleeper train on the way out but travelled back via Switzerland, stopping overnight at a hotel. While I’m a big fan of sleeper trains – even if you’re in third class in India – my partner found the lower berth too uncomfortable. I’d suggest that the taller person of two travelling together sleeps on the top berth for this reason, head at the window end of the bed. Next time we travel by train together, my partner and I will take day trains. (I’ll do all my exciting sleeper train adventures solo).

I wish we’d had a day or two extra to have time to visit Portovenere.

Eurostar Paris Business lounge – elegant update

Travelling Business Class

Seeing the Eurostar Paris Business lounge means travelling Eurostar Business Premier. Which is a treat.

Breakfast on board

There is a pre-breakfast of croissants, rolls, yoghurt and juice, followed by breakfast breakfast…

The frittata’s flavours are delectable – the addition of leek beautiful.Tasty enough that when I (spoiler alert) meet Raymond Blanc later on, all I can do is congratulate him on my breakfast.

The Eurostar Paris Business lounge

In Paris, travellers can now enjoy the new Eurostar Paris Business lounge…

On the top floor of the original 19th century building and designed by architecture and design studio, Softroom, the lounge evokes the “spirit of a Parisian apartment.” The light-filled space has high ceilings and original fireplaces yet feels very contemporary. The booths (above) are gorgeous and with an enviable view of the Gare Du Nord. The main light fixture is reminiscent of Alexander Calder’s mobiles…

The contemporary artwork throughout the Eurostar Paris Business lounge has been curated by the Hospital Club.

Exclusive Eurostar cocktails

There are three cocktails designed by London Cocktail Club exclusively for Eurostar. The signature is the Angelique, which is comprised of Eurostar’s own Toujors 21 gin – with its lavender notes, lemon juice, chartreuse, chardonnay and Cointreau. It is delicious.

A menu created by Raymond Blanc

Raymond Blanc has created everything from beautiful canapes to a scrumptious chocolate cake (“It’s gluten free!”) the Michelin-applauded chef is also a lover of sustainability, which complements the more eco-friendly option of travelling by train nicely.

“Business travellers are looking for flexibility and a variety of food options when they are on the go. The new lounge features a selection of dishes which we hope will satisfy all appetites. All made with high quality sustainable produce.” Raymond Blanc says.

Travelling Eurostar Business Premier London to Paris one way is £245. It is possible to travel one way in Standard from £29 if you book far enough in advance. Thanks to Eurostar for inviting me to see the Paris Eurostar Business lounge.

The Train Hostel and Train World, Schaerbeek, Brussels

Having missed the train to Schaerbeek by a minute, I decide to take a taxi to the Train Hostel.

We drive past the ornate Schaerbeek station and reach the hostel. The taxi driver gets out and points up, “look!” A dark blue train carriage with its lights on juts out at an angle atop the roof.

trainhostelexteriornight

The carriage on the roof of Train Hostel, Brussels. © Sophie Collard

I thank the driver and cross the street, knocking on the window to get let in. The words ‘train hostel’ from the glass above the door cast shadows on the wall in the entranceway inside. There are old luggage bags stacked beneath the reception counter. Nicholas, the owner, asks if I’d like to look around.

Train Hostel Suite Exterior. © Sophie Collard

Train Hostel Suite Exterior. © Sophie Collard

We go up to the suite first – the room inside the rooftop carriage. It was designed to look like a double room you’d find on a luxury train. Train doors at the end touch the night sky and a long wicker chair sits in a corner. An original dressing table with railway objects beneath its glass top stands near to the door. There’s a grey stone bathroom adjoining the suite in the main building and the room costs €190 a night. “Do you think that’s too much?” asks Nicholas with his French accent.

Train Hostel Suite Interior. © Sophie Collard

Train Hostel Suite Interior. © Sophie Collard

“No.” I reply, “Not for what they’re now calling a, ‘poshtel.’”

“Ah yes, yes – I’d like to position us like that,” he says. He’s incredibly passionate about the project, which has taken four years from concept to finish.

“At first, the hostel was just going to be a smart revamping of a 100 year-old building, but with Train World being built just around the corner, it made sense to do something different and give it the train theme. We’re really turning the area on its head – years ago I wouldn’t have come to this part of Brussels, but the buildings are beautiful, the station is beautiful and now we have this glorious new Train World too.” Says Nicholas as he closes the door to the suite and takes me down to the next level.

There’s a door that opens to another carriage, but the interior of this one is divided into many rooms with berths for beds, just like you’d find on a European-style sleeper train.

Train Hostel carriage berths. © Sophie Collard

Train Hostel carriage berths. © Sophie Collard

“This can be booked out for schools, with the teacher sleeping at the end of the carriage. The kids can make as much noise as they want here.” Nicholas smiles. “And here, you can see the balcony – he opens the train door at the end and we step down onto the balcony, which looks across a courtyard complete with a gigantic waterer for steam trains, and metal tables and chairs. There’s a view of the other carriage from above too. It’s really quite something.

Back inside, we walk down past the standard hostel rooms. All have additional trainy features, like train tables, old station telephones and maps.

trainhostellounge

Back on the ground floor is a common room with a train set on the coffee table and a model train on the top of the bookshelves, filled with books to be taken when replaced with others. There are old wooden station benches and armchairs. Next door, the breakfast area also features model trains and steel containers. I point to an old wooden highchair and say, “I love this!”

“That was mine as a baby,” Nicholas laughs.

The next day I have breakfast with Nicholas before we head to Train World to be shown around by François, the wiry grey-haired bespectacled comic book artist and scenographer for the museum. He is followed faithfully by his glossy black-coated dog Jim, the pair’s relationship reminiscent of Belgium’s TinTin and Snowy’s.

First we stop at the hall of Schaerbeek station. There are small intricate models of both the Gothic cathedral-like Antwerp station and modern white-curved Liege station and railway workers clothes behind glass-fronted wooden ticket booths.

Antwerp Station model at Train World, Brussels. © Sophie Collard

Antwerp Station model at Train World, Brussels. © Sophie Collard

From here, we go past the courtyard with two trains, one a carriage for schoolchildren to eat in – complimenting the sleeping compartments in the carriage of the Train Hostel.

We enter the new, square metal building. At first glance it seems like any other railway museum – three old steam trains polished and proud up front, but as we go through to the next space – a room filled with railway clocks – grandfather and wall – from all over the country – a series of clock-themed visuals projected onto the wall in-front, we are suddenly standing firmly in a work of art plucked from François’ mind.

Railway Clocks at Train World, Brussels. © Sophie Collard

Railway Clocks at Train World, Brussels. © Sophie Collard

 

Next there’s a room with walls covered in railway memorabilia, arranged in a way the V&A might choose to do it.

Train World train-related stuff. © Sophie Collard

Train World train-related stuff. © Sophie Collard

Beyond this, an unexpected and harrowing display – an original deportation carriage used to transport Jews to Auchwitz in the Second World War. There is a screen on one wall that plays video footage of Jews being put onto the same style carriages, with up to 75 per car.

The deportation carriage at Train World. © Sophie Collard

The deportation carriage at Train World. © Sophie Collard

A centrepiece in another area is an entire railwayman’s house with 60s style kitchen complete with humorously faux-steaming coffee on the table. In the living room there are newspapers laid out with screens where the frontpage photographs would be playing black-and-white footage of the railways, just like something out of Harry Potter.

The news comes to life at Train World. © Sophie Collard

The news comes to life at Train World. © Sophie Collard

On the top floor – there’s a simulator that allows people to drive a train, and next to that, the real frontages of a new Eurostar train and a new Thalys train. There’s a cinema with first class seats from trains around the world that plays a sort of Eurovision-esque film about how trains connect people.

At the end of the tour I catch up François Schuiten, who is autographing a book for someone by drawing him on the first page.

“How long have you been involved?”

“10 years. SNCB organised a contest to find someone and I was chosen because they wanted to tell a story. The story is the most important, the spirit, the emotion, the atmosphere.”

“And has your dog, Jim followed all the way?”

“He’s five, so for the last five of ten years he’s followed me. I work on the project in the morning and the evening, which is good for him – my house is nearby and it’s a very local project so that’s a great advantage. I like the station too, I had it in my comic books years ago.

“What will you do now the project is complete?”

He smiles, “It’s a secret but it’s a very good project, impossible to say at this moment.”

Tampere Theatre Festival, Tampere Finland

If I didn’t live in England I’d say being introduced to a country by its most native type of theatre would be a good thing. Not because English theatre is bad – it isn’t, we have some great theatre – but because pantomime productions are supposed to be inherently British. Going to one to gain an understanding of British culture is a mistake, in my opinion. Because as far as I’m concerned there isn’t a more uncomfortable audience experience than one requiring participation with the unfunny.

On the other hand, being thrown into a sort of Finnish equivalent of panto, complete with a walking vagina, was a pretty excellent introduction to Finland, even though I had absolutely no idea what was going on. Because vagina. There were subtitles that translated what the actors were saying, live – but nobody can translate improvised theatre that fast, so a lot of the time there were witty remarks on the screen like; ‘NOW THEY ARE TALKING ABOUT POLITICS.’

From what I could gather, the man wearing chain mail and representing Bacchus was highlighting the perceived attitude men have historically had to women – that women are sexual objects. This went some way toward explaining why one of the two female actors was dressed as a vagina – (she was representing all that the central male character thought about when he looked at her).

The vagina.

The vagina.

There were parts where Bacchus walked into the crowd and talked a lot. The audience laughed a lot. And the personified vagina eventually got sick of being just a vagina, and with the help of the other female actor went to rip it off. Here the subtitles really came into their own;

Personified vagina: “will it hurt a lot?”

Non-personified vagina: “C***loads.”

After the show, some of the theatre festival team took me out for drinks on a boat called Suvi in the Tampere harbour. We talked about whether or not humour is translatable, while drinking Hard Lemon. Then talked about who lives on the Finnish Islands, what the Finnish word for wasp is (ampiainen), and what it’s like to study English Literature in Finland.

Suvi, Tampere

Suvi, Tampere

Over the next couple of days in Tampere I visited Moomin Land at the city art gallery, with its small collection of original Moomin drawings and Moomin House. I saw a woman called Tia Cohen doing an impersonation of Edith Piaf in the red-and-white striped tent in the central square and took the bus to one of the saunas for my first Finnish Sauna experience – a swim in one of the expansive tree-lined lakes and a sit on a wooden board in the heat of the sauna, with a sauna elf. And of course I was taken out for more drinks until late by the ever-hospitable Finns.

There is a sightseeing tour in Tampere too. Theatre friends informed me that Tampere is nicknamed Mansch because it is called ‘the Manchester of Finland’ due to its ties with industry and geographical position in the country. The tour went a way to explaining the history and geography of the region with the tour leader announcing the tour would be in ‘Finnglish.’ I’d seen the gigantic statues on the bridge by sculptor Wäinö Aaltonen, the Tax Collector, the Finnish Maiden, the Tradesman and the Hunter. Now I was taken past Frecknell, the first factory paper mill and told about the the factory workers who had worked from the age of eight, the 168m tower in the city, old wooden church in the town centre and my favourite part, Pispala – where factory workers built their own houses freestyle in about the 20s and 30s on hilly forest land that overlooks the water.

I also saw street performers Les Dudes standing on bicycle handlebars and each other and throwing fire. Plus two more plays, one called ‘The Crazy Locomotive,’ that I needed a lie down after (too much crazy), and the other, called ‘NOIR?’ a dance foray into what it means to be black, from a black Finn’s perspective. Of the four black performers, the three dancers are the only professional black Finnish Dancers in existence. Themes of ‘blackploitation’ were explored through a dance to a remix of the soul-wrenching song ‘Strange Fruit’ in the beginning before the performance became more darkly comic – at one point the choreographer donning a blonde wig and dancing about the stage to Lil B’s ‘Paris Hilton’ (“Bitch I’m Paris Hilton, Paris Hilton…”) the choreographer explained, “If you’re black or a woman you’re always labelled – there would never be a random black cast in Finland. But we don’t want to teach people, we just want to share our experience. There’s not a common black experience in Finland – there is no common blackness.”

I loved the warmth and hospitality I found in Tampere. The Tampere Theatre Festival was a wonderful way to get a feel for Finnish culture while having enough time to explore the city and the things that made it.

London to Finland by train and ferry

Moomin on the train.

Moomin on the train.

My journey from London to Tampere:

  • £39 one way Eurostar ticket London to Brussels booked just over two weeks in advance
  • 10 days in 22 Interrail pass kindly provided to me by Interrail.eu. A standard adult pass for 10 days in 22 costs €339 (£271) or €534 (£425) for first class. Be careful to purchase only what you need, as in the end I could have gone for a 5 days in 10 pass, which would have cost €239 (£191) in standard or €375 (£300) in first class
  • I made reservations on all the trains I needed to take to get to Stockholm through International Rail. The reservations cost £57 in total, for all the trains as far as Stockholm. I didn’t need to make all those reservations (although you do have to with high speed or overnight trains for the pass to be valid), but it would be taking a chance on delays not to, especially on the German trains which were very full
  • The Viking line overnight ferry was €70 (£56) for the budget four bed dorm, so if I’d had three friends it would have been just £14 each (instead I could play Goldilocks with all four).
  • There was no need to make reservations for trains in Finland
  • Total = £357

Point-to-point London to Tampere would look something like this…

  • £39 for my one way Eurostar ticket London to Brussels
  • Brussels to Cologne from £41.50
  • Cologne to Hamburg from £79
  • Hamburg to Odense via Hoeje Taastrup from £71
  • Odense to Copenhagen from £35
  • Copenhagen to Malmo £12
  • Malmo to Stockholm, £42.50
  • Viking overnight ferry Stockholm to Turku, £56
  • Turku to Tampere from £23
  • Total = 399

London to Hamburg by Train via Brussels and Cologne with Interrail.eu

Shockingly, it’s my first time traversing Europe with Interrail.eu. And after the Eurostar from London to Brussels, which I booked in advance to secure the £39 one way fare – on a very early train that I have to run for, dropping strawberries at the Tube barriers on the way – I’m ready to begin the first leg of a trip to Tampere, Finland, to cover the Tampere Theatre Festival for the mustlovefestivals project. The first leg is the London to Hamburg by train. I’ve always booked journeys point-to-point in the past because I’m always going somewhere. With an Interrail pass – or Eurail pass, for those of you in the US – you can be going nowhere in particular. That’s the whole point. I guess if I took long holidays I’d do Interrail more frequently. As it is, for this trip, I spend hours on the phone meticulously making all the reservations I need for the specific trains I’d usually book point-to-point.

London to Brussels

The cheapest Eurostar tickets are also non-exchangeable and non-refundable, so don’t do what I did and decide to do the washing-up just before you leave the flat because you forgot to do it the night before, miscalculate the length of time it takes you to walk to the tube station and then gallop full pelt to check-in once you reach the station, cutting in the queue when you get there, and reaching the train with only five minutes before it’s due to leave, sitting down in a puddle of your own sweat, gasping and sucking in dry air and wondering where your water is.

To secure the £39 one way fare from London St. Pancras to Brussels Midi, I booked two weeks in advance and chose the 06:50 train because it was the cheapest. The journey takes about two hours twenty minutes and I had just under twenty minutes at Brussels before the next train for the day…

Brussels to Cologne

On the Deutsche Bahn (DB) train to Cologne I learn that seats with ‘Freigeben’ on the teeny monitors above are ‘sort of unreserved.’ This means they were unreserved up until the last minute but might potentially still be reserved. This, I think, is a little disorganised. As my reserved seat is near to a man with frighteningly bad B.O. I move to a Freigeben seat. When smelly B.O. man sees this he seizes his previously unrealised freedom and follows. So I move to a window seat away from his musty underarms.

Liege, in Belgium is the first stop. The station is an architectural delight, and the same architect has been commissioned to design the new station being built in Mons.

Liege Station, Belgium. © Sophie Collard

Liege Station, Belgium. © Sophie Collard

Liege Station © Sophie Collard

Liege Station © Sophie Collard

Shortly after this, Aachen Hpf is announced by the German flags on buildings just before it. Forest and very tidy fields and windmills follow and before long the train arrives in Cologne.

DB Train at Cologne Station. © Sophie Collard

DB Train at Cologne Station. © Sophie Collard

 

Cologne Station with the Cathedral in the background. © Sophie Collard

Cologne Station with the Cathedral in the background. © Sophie Collard

If you have a gap between trains, leave the station and take a look at the cathedral, it’s right outside the station and is big and beautiful. After that, pop back inside and find a local beer for the onward journey.
The Brussels to Cologne journey time is just under two hours and the reservation to ride with an Interrail pass or Eurail pass is €5.

Cologne to Hamburg

Dom beer on the Cologne to Hamburg train. © Sophie Collard

Dom beer on the Cologne to Hamburg train. © Sophie Collard

After a look inside the nearby cathedral and a Dom beer purchase, I board the 13:10 to Hamburg. The train first passes over a bridge that crosses a river then stops at Dusseldorf, which has a disappointingly uninspiring station, all small and concrete. Then the train continues past trees and trees and trees, a lake, more trees. When Germans get on to the train they say hello, which is nice. At Bochum, two cocky guys get on. They lie over two seats each and put their legs in the air. When they get bored of pretending to sleep, they sit up and talk about their cars and how on the whole German cars are the best in the world, even though Italian cars look good. I pretend I can understand less than I can, and they show pictures of their cars to the electrician sitting near me instead. They are still talking about cars long after Dortmund. I sigh a breath of relief when they get off at Bremen. Not long after that I reach what I absentmindedly think is Hamburg Hpf.

Hamburg Station. © Sophie Collard

Hamburg Station. © Sophie Collard

The Cologne to Hamburg journey time is four hours and the reservation fee to ride with an Interrail pass or Eurail pass is €5.

I’m pretty much past the point of wanting to stay in dorms with other travellers, but still enjoy access to ‘hostel atmosphere,’ so I book a private room at the original Superbude in Hamburg.

I’d accidentally alighted before Hamburg central station so have to go to the U-Bahn (Metro) a little earlier than intended. This means I then get a bit lost figuring out the system. It’s like having to figure out the London Underground or Paris Metro in ten minutes. If you alight at the main station like you’re supposed to, it’s a lot easier. Thankfully I have enough broken German left over from school to ask station staff what the hell I’ve done wrong. From the central station, Superbude is just one stop to Berliner Tor. As with any unfamiliar place, it’s best to print a map of the area before you go. 

As I only have a few hours in the city, I walk round the corner from Superbude and find a light-filled hotel restaurant called Essraum, in the Junges Hotel. There are elegant pink flowers on each table. There I eat a wonderful schnitzel that reminds me of a half-German family friend’s home cooking. I have a glass of German red wine to go with it. It is glorious. One of the best solo dining experiences I’ve ever had. The waitress even winks at me.

In the morning, Superbude provide an impressive breakfast buffet, for €8, which featured waffles you can make yourself, juice and coffee, fruit, rolls, hams and cheeses, yoghurts, muesli and fruit. When I explain I have a train to catch, the staff gave me a takeaway paper bag. No hotel or hostel has ever done that for me before. I put some rolls and kiwi fruits in the bag, plus a couple of colourful chocolate ladybirds.

The next leg of the journey would be Hamburg to Odense with a ferry crossing and a change at Hoje Taastrup…

If you are travelling London to Hamburg in a day, and Hamburg is the final destination, book point to point – it’ll cost from £159.50 when booked in advance, maybe even less. The cheapest pass is £191 on its own for 5 days in 10, so only get one if you’re travelling for longer.

I paid £56 for the room at Superbude last minute, with the breakfast. Dinner at Essraum was a bit of a treat and I spent about €30 (£24) on it. A local transport ticket was less than £2 and I used the machines to get one.

With an Interrail or Eurail pass, my entire journey, London to Tampere costs from £343, and less without making reservations AKA winging it. Point-to-point costs from £399 – although the day crossing on the ferry from Stockholm to Turku might have been worth it, it’s cheaper and you get the wonderful scenery of all the Swedish islands for longer.

Here is a full breakdown of my journey from London all the way to Tampere:

  • £39 one way Eurostar ticket London to Brussels
  • 10 days in 22 Interrail pass was kindly provided to me by Interrail.eu. A standard adult pass for 10 days in 22 costs €339 (£271) or €534 (£425) for first class. Be careful to purchase only what you need, as in the end I could have gone for a 5 days in 10 pass, which would have cost €239 (£191) in standard or €375 (£300) in first class
  • I called my friends at International Rail to make the reservations, these cost me £57 in total, for all the trains as far as Stockholm. I didn’t need to make all those reservations (although you do have to with high speed or overnight trains for the pass to be valid), but it’s risky not to 
  • The Viking line overnight ferry was €70 (£56) for the budget four bed dorm, so if I’d had three friends it would have been just £14 each
  • It wasn’t necessary to make reservations for trains in Finland

Point-to-point London to Tampere would look something like this…

  • £39 for my one way Eurostar ticket London to Brussels
  • Brussels to Cologne from £41.50
  • Cologne to Hamburg from £79
  • Hamburg to Odense via Hoeje Taastrup from £71
  • Odense to Copenhagen from £35
  • Copenhagen to Malmo £12
  • Malmo to Stockholm, £42.50
  • Viking overnight ferry Stockholm to Turku, £56
  • Turku to Tampere from £23

Vlaggetjesdag 2014: A Fish Festival in Scheveningen, The Netherlands

Herring. Buckets of it. Raw, fatty, fresh fish. The first catch of the season and an entire festival devoted to it. Vlaggetjesdag 2014 on 14th June brought me to Scheveningen by the sea. I’d eaten herring a year ago at Van Kleef‘s in The Hague, but cut into small squares and served with jenever, that good old Dutch gin, in their sunny back garden. This time I travelled from London St. Pancras to Brussels Midi by Eurostar, then Brussels Midi to Den Haag HS via Roosendaal on a Sprinter. All to get to the festival and eat the fish in a different way.

Herring with chopped onion. © Sophie Collard

Herring with chopped onion. © Sophie Collard

Here, I was to hold it, covered in raw chopped onion, by its tail, tilt my head back and open my gullet, like this:

Head back, fish in. © Sophie Collard

Head back, fish in. © Sophie Collard

The onion goes well with the herring, as the jenever does, because the taste is strong and takes away any undesired ‘fishy-ness.’ The fish itself is very soft and expertly cleaned by the venders at the herring stands. If there are any bones, they are tiny and flexible enough to eat without noticing.

Me eating a herring. © Sophie Collard

Me eating a herring. © Sophie Collard

The festival spills out into several areas; along Keizerstraat, where there’s a live music stage and women dressed in traditional garb holding out platters laden with, you guessed it, herring. Flags of all the world’s countries hang above the street, which has stalls offering pastries, cheeses and potatoes fried in curls on skewers. As well as beer, lots of it.

Would you like some herring? © Sophie Collard

Would you like some herring? © Sophie Collard

World Cup Holland pastries. Hup Holland Hup!

World Cup Holland pastries. Hup Holland Hup! © Sophie Collard

Then there’s the bigger part of the festival, all around the harbour, where, my information tells me, there is, ‘so much more than the omnipresent herring’ on offer. Here there’s the tastiest goddamn battered fish I ever had in the large warehouse space to the side of the harbour. It’s called ‘kibbeling’ and comes with a delicious sauce.

Kibbeling. © Sophie Collard

Kibbeling. © Sophie Collard

All the boats are decorated on Flag Day. © Sophie Collard

All the boats are decorated on Flag Day. © Sophie Collard

Back outside, there are lifeboat demonstrations and a choir of what appear to be elderly mariner’s wives in white. There are crowds of people having a good time on the boats, which honk their horns and do little trips around the harbour, and for some reason there are bagpipe players playing Auld Lang Syne even though it’s June. It all adds up to a lovely fishy community festival and a fun family day out in Scheveningen.

I attended Flag Day as part of the #mustlovefestivals project, the brainchild of fellow blogger Kash, who writes about luxury hostels. The trip was supported by The Hague tourism board while I was there and I stayed at the Carlton Beach Hotel, which was right on the beach. Owing to some things going on back home, I did for the first time book my Eurostar and Sprinter tickets last minute, costing a dear £174 return (ouch) but you can read about the time I did rail and sail for less on the TNT blog, and I have just booked a one way ticket to Brussels in advance for the end of next month, which cost just £39 – so do always book in advance if you can. I booked the trains through my lovely friends at International Rail, who you can still speak to on the phone, which is nice.