Thursday, May 29, 2008

A moment to change your life

Indulge me for a moment or two while I tell you how my life changed three years ago this week.
I was in Malawi, one of the world's poorest countries, with a pack of twelve Scottish journalists, several government colleagues and a First Minister.
We were there for the visit of Jack McConnell, who as Scotland's leader had decided to strengthen old ties between our two countries. Ties that stretched back to the days of Dr David Livingstone and had been kept alive for one hundred and fifty years by generations of Scots - medics, teachers, missionaries, engineers and others.
The First Minister was speaking at a welcome ceremony, next to a feeding station where young children, many orphans, came to get their one meal of the day.
I had spent the last hour or so talking to the children, while keeping an eye on the hacks.
One of them, who will remain forever nameless, was showing a group of young boys their image on his digital camera.
Their shrieks of delight, pure, undadulterated, human happiness, suddenly brought a tear to my eye. I had not cried when visiting a maternity hospital where young mothers-to-be lay on a concrete floor waiting to give birth, and perhaps die in the process.
I had kept my professional poise when visiting schools where children had walked five miles, some barefoot, to attend. And again when speaking with women whose life expectancy was half mine.
But the sight of those wee boys, laughing with joy at their faces in a camera which would have kept their family in a maize for year, made me cry.
And the nameless hack cried too.
It was at that moment I knew that somehow or other, my life would never be the same again.
One of the purposes of this trip is to help me decide what I will do with the next phase of my life, but whatever decision I reach, Malawi will be a factor.
Jack McConnell had his critics during his five and half years as First Minister. Most of them either didn't know him, or were simply playing politics.
He is one of the best people I know. He cares about his country, about its people, and his ambitions for Scotland were motivated by a desire for all of us to be the best we can be.
I am biased of course, as I used to work for him, but I am old and wise enough to know the difference between a good heart and an monstrous ego. He has a good heart.
He did many good things while First Minister, and one of the best was to renew the friendship between Scotland and Malawi.
Cynics in the development world pooh-hooh people like Jack McConnell, Sir Tom Hunter and Professor Jeffrey Sachs who say that the solution to global poverty is for us, together, to roll up our sleeves and simply get things done.
This can-do approach is seen as naive, when in fact it is the only way we are going to support countries such as Malawi meet their many development challenges.
A partnership with Scotland is not the miraculous answer to Malawi's prayers, but our friendship and our practical support will make a difference. A big difference. It already has.
And that is down to one man. A man who had the courage in the face of national cynicism to do the right thing. Not for himself, not for Scotland, but for those wee boys.

The road to Paradise

We emerged, blinking, into the Greek sunshine, from Bulgaria on Tuesday afternoon, having spent the previous night and much of the morning in Paradise. But more of that later.
Our first impressions of Bulgaria were not good.
To be fair to the latest member of the European community, first impressions are often wrong.
When we were planning this trip we were determined to cut and run through Serbia.
Our scant knowledge of the country had been gleaned from grisly TV footage of war and ethnic cleansing and the foul image of Slobodan Milosevic was hard to erase.
But Serbia was great fun, if slightly surreal. We danced with young, and old, Serbs at the Belgrade street party on Eurovision night. We spent the night in a modernist motel whose 1970s fixtures and fittings would make the editorial staff at Wallpaper magazine prespire with lust, and had dinner in one of the best fish restaurants this side of the Danube.
The people we met were invariably friendly, yes even the hordes of surly looking police officers who spend Eurovision weekend mooching around Belgrade, smoking.
The countryside is very lush and while the tourist infrastructure is still in its infancy, we could only find one campsite, hence the motel, there seems to be huge potential. A few years of stable government, some Euro cash and Serbia could be the next hot spot.
Apparently the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria is currently one of Europe's top destinations, with property developers snapping up land as fast as Bulgarian lawyers can draw up the contracts.
The region between the Serbian border and Sofia, Bulgaria's capital is rather different however.
Things started to go badly when the border guard snatched our passports and threw them back with barely a grunt.
We had to queue for what seemed like hours to be told that we had to pay five euros for "sanitary" clearance.
Fair enough, we thought. Poor countries have to raise hard currency any way they can, but they could at least take it with a smile.
Then on to the toll booth, in front of which stood a large signing bearing the legend: five euros for one week's vignette.
"Twenty five euros please," smiled the man behind the screen. He ignored my pleas that his government's own sign, only inches from his desk and the RAC travel advice clutched firmly in my sweaty hand, both suggested the charge was only five euros.
"Twenty five euros," he said, smiling again. "If you do not have the vignette, you will be fined by the police."
He waved it, tantalisingly, in front of us.
Normally we would have paid up without a quibble. Bulgaria is renowned for its corruption and organised crime, and there was no point in us fighting a battle when the EU can't win the war. But we only had twenty euros.
"There is a bank over there," he said, pointing with glee. He knew we had an honest, anxious look about us.
But the bank had no cash machine and the surly teller refused to advance us cash on any of our cards. Visa, Visa Electron, Maestro (twice), Mastercard, American Express, she turned her lip up at all of them. "If only Harvey Nichols had done the same," I heard my husband cry.
She almost spat at us when we proffered Serbian currency and we knew it was pointless to flash our remaining Scottish bank notes.
We trundled back to the toll booth. "Okay," grinned our tormenter. "Let me see what I can do."
He pressed a few computer keys. "You say you are going to Athens soon, okay, I give you vignette for...let me have twenty euros. Okay, give me sixteen."
And the deal was done, as simple as that. He gave us four euros back with the precious five euro vignette. No receipt of course.
We went on our not so merry way to Sofia in search of a campsite and cash machine. Instead we found Paradise.
To be continued...

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Hello Serbia

The five men were straight out of central casting. Sunglasses, no, shades, heavy gold watches, Parliament cigarettes and sharp suits and overcoats, even in the warm late spring sunshine.
They were discussing a land deal, in a heady brew of English, Serb and Portugese, in a service station café, only a few kilometres from the Danube.
“The pump station has the entrance,” crowed the largest, but not the most powerful of the men, “but we have the only exit”.
“Time to go,” said Nigel. Damn I thought, now I will never find out who they are, and what they were discussing. That is the problem with people watching. You usually miss the final episode.
Serbia, because that is where we are, is beautiful. I had no idea the Danube, or the Dunav, ran through it. I had no understanding that it was the agricultural heartland of the former Yugoslavia, but that is obvious as we drive through endless acres of flat, fertile farmland, peppered with thousands of wild red poppies.
And everyone we have met has been very friendly, even the border guards, who smiled broadly as they extracted 125 euros from us for car insurance. Not to mention the lads at the motorway toll booths who demanded, again with a smile, 1200 dinar every 100 kms – roughly £12.50 per 60 miles.
We spent last night in the small lakeside resort of Palic, which is just over the Hungarian border.
In the first decade of the 20th century it was a fashionable spa for the wealthy, as the Art Nouveau buildings testify.
It is now struggling to drag itself into the 21st century European tourism market. It has huge potential, but no campsites.
There was one – we even found it on the internet. Karavan camping, 200 metres from the lake, next to the Sport hotel it said. The photographs suggested a delightful little site.
Except it was closed, and had been for at least six months judging by the overgrowth.
What to do? More experienced motorhomers, or people who couldn’t care less, would have simply pitched up by the lake, but we are too polite and too nervous to “free camp”, at least in Serbia.
We eventually found the much advertised tourist information centre, in the reception of a small state-owned hotel.
“Can you speak Hungarian?” asked the tall and rather nervous receptionist hopefully, after he told us he couldn’t speak English.
We disappointed him with our smiling no, and instead drew a very crude picture of a caravan on a leaflet for Palic zoo, and said please a lot.
He accepted the challenge of finding us a campsite with relish. A small blonde woman appeared from nowhere to help and two phone calls later they presented us with a photocopy of an old Palic street map marked with the address for the Pizzeria campsite only a few kilometres away.
We couldn’t thank them enough, until that is, we arrived at the aforesaid Pizzeria campsite and it too was closed.
We gave up, wimps that we are, and booked into the four-star Prezident hotel, which boasted free wifi, a very powerful shower and cable tv, all for less than the average Travelodge. And I forgot to mention the thermal swimming pool, balcony with a view and free chocolate on our pillow.
We felt we had betrayed the aims of our trip, but only as long as it took to log on to BBC Sport to see the pictures of Manchester United winning the European Cup, run a hot shower, and find, on the Sportklub cable channel, a documentary on Eric Cantona.
What more could a girl want?
But tonight we have come back to our roots. We are parked under a cherry tree, in a campsite on the edge of the Danube, the awning is up, the last of the Czech beer cooling in the fridge and the barbecue is waiting to be fired up.
What do we care that it is the industrial edge of the Danube and that the site is an insect infested, overgrown swamp whose heyday was surely under the genial General Tito. We are back on the road again.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Budapest: an audacious city

The pretty, and slightly camp, waiter with an appealing lisp, kept winking at Nigel.
“He fancies you,” I whispered, loudly. “He probably thinks that I am your mother.”
My husband had the grace to immediately pooh-hooh any suggestion that I looked old enough to be his big sister, let alone his mother.
“He’s probably got something in his eye,” he muttered. “Let’s go.”
But not before the camp waiter whispered in Nigel’s ear: “the tip is usually 10 per cent sir.”
You have to admire his audacity. And his home city, Budapest, is quite audacious too.
Hungary’s capital is split in two by the Danube, with Castle Hill and the Royal Palace gracing the Buda side of the river and the nation’s largest building, the Hungarian Parliament on the Pest side. Buda and Pest. Budapest.
The Parliament’s architect, Imre Steindl was certainly audacious, shameless even. His design for the neo-Gothic building is a homage to the Mother of Parliaments, Westminster.
No, I am too kind; it is almost a carbon copy, half close your eyes and you are on the bank of the Thames looking across the House of Commons.
The rest of the city centre feels a bit like central London. It is monumental in scale. Imposing buildings suggest a city, and a nation, that has a strong sense of itself.
Even the Westend City Center shopping mall, the scene of Nigel’s embarrassing encounter, has a touch of Trump Tower about it, with a waterfall at the main entrance and large leather couches for lounging scattered around the three floors. St James Centre please note.
Thirty-six hours is barely enough time to work out Budapest’s road system, let alone get to grips with the city, but Serbia is calling us, so tomorrow morning we set off for Subotica.
Now where is that map?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

A rainy night in Zvolen

How do you pass a rainy night in Zvolen, in a space that is roughly 12 square metres with no TV, intermittent internet access and a radio which only seems to pick up Slovak dance music?
Before I reveal the secrets for staying sane during a thunderstorm in a campsite next to a motorway with only a silent Dutch couple for neighbours, I must tell you about Zvolen.
Six months ago I had no idea the town existed. I only discovered it when looking for a stopover between Poland and Hungary.
It is in Central Slovakia, has a population of around 45,000 and, like most towns and cities in central Europe it has a castle and a town square.
And that is about it. Sorry Zvolen. I know that you are surrounded by beautiful skiing countryside, with thermal spas close by and a history that stretches back thousands of years, but as it says in my Alan Rogers campsite bible, your glories probably lie more in your past than your present.
That said, we found a half decent bottle of Valpocelli in the Billa supermarket, and the castle is very fairytale.
The red wine is a clue to how to survive a rainy night in Zvolen, or any other small town.
Take one bottle of red wine, the best you can afford.
Some dark chocolate, again the best you can afford, or in our case the best we could find.
One lap top and a set of travel speakers.
Series one of the West Wing.
Sit back and enjoy, it will be midnight before you know it and episode seven…
But before we settled down to watch the drama of President Jed Bartlet’s presidency unfold, we had a bit of fun.
On Saturday we are going to be in Belgrade. So what? I can here you mutter, how much fun can that be?
More than you can ever imagine, because we are going to be in Belgrade for the final of the Eurovision 2008.
No, this was not part of our grand plan. I promise you, it is coincidence, but what an opportunity. The world’s most camp and cheesy international song contest in what is probably Europe’s most battered and careworn city of recent years.
It is a civil partnership made in Heaven.
We got on the phone to try and book a cheap hotel room for Saturday night so we can enjoy the party without worrying about getting back to our campsite, 12 kms out of the city.
Seven calls, and a few confused Serbs late, we landed lucky: a double room in the Splendid Hotel, next door to the Serbian Parliament and a beauty salon.
We can’t wait.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

A cracking city

Krakow was never high on our hit list of cities when we started planning our breakneck tour of Europe.

I am ashamed to say it only made the itenerary because of its proximity to Oswiecim and the Auschwitz Museum, so when we reached the tram terminus at the outskirts of the city this morning we weren’t expecting much.

We weren’t even very sure where we were heading. The castle? Probably, it seemed churlish not to.

The old town market place? Yes, it was billed as Europe’s largest, but once you’ve seen one town square, you have pretty much seen them all. The Jewish quarter? This was added as a late entry, just in case.

We didn’t even know how to find our tram stop, until a cheery lady in her Sunday best decided to help out. We explained in English where we wanted to go, she explained in very rapid, but very expressive Polish where we should get off, and between us we decided we should disembark at the Filharmonia stop and take it from there.

We didn’t understand a word any of us had said, but we all knew exactly what we meant. I was beginning to like this city.

She gave us the thumbs up when we parted, and off we set to explore Poland’s second city.

Within minutes of getting off the tram we were entranced. The map ripped out our Europe on a Shoestring 1284 page guidebook was, as usual, worse than useless, so we simply meandered along.

First past an exhibition in a park titled “In the footsteps of John Paul II” which seemed nothing less than a not so subtle attempt to persuade Poland that Pope Benedict XVI was a worthy successor to their very own Holy Father.

Then up Wawel Hill for the obligatory castle and cathedral circuit. Then down to Kazimierz, the Jewish Quarter, famous for its association with Oskar Schindler who saved thousands of Jews from the gas chambers, and now re-emerging from its post war isolation as the city’s most run-down area to its hippest.

It has the feel of a slightly down at the heel Greenwich Village, with coffee shops that serve proper espresso macchiato, a street market, antique shops by the dozen, synagogues, churches, there is even a Cuban bar if you like that sort of thing.

We could have stayed there all day but thought we should at least stop by Rynek Glowny, the famous town square.

It is simply stunning, 200 metres square with a 16th century Renaissance building, the Cloth Hall, slap in the middle. Inside you can buy chunks of amber the size of a baby’s fist, traditional Polish dress, or a postcard, depending on your budget – and tastes.

Outside an octet of Polish B-Boys (my husband assures me B-Boys are what people in the cultural know call break dancers) delighted a large crowd with their impossibly agile dance routines.

Children cheerfully queued to sign a giant inflatable football to mark Euro 2008, and everywhere you looked were families, young lovers, tourists, all enjoying the spring sunshine in an atmosphere I can only describe as happy.

Walking back to the tram stop we mulled over our day. Krakow was cracking we agreed, one of the best cities in Europe, how had we missed it?

“We will come back for a longer visit next time,” my husband said as we approached the stop.

And there she was, our lady in her Sunday best who had helped us at the start of the day.

We laughed and hugged each other in our mutual delight at the coincidence.

“Krakow is a beautiful city,” I said. She gave me a big cheery smile of agreement. We understood each other perfectly. 

Saturday, May 17, 2008

A lethal bureaucracy

We have just left the small Polish town of Oswiecim, the site of Auschwitz and Birkenau, the Nazi death camps.
The scale of the massacre at Auschwitz – between 1.1 and 1.5 million men, women and children were slaughtered there in five bloody years – is so inhuman that it is impossible to fully comprehend it.
What I have always found one of the most chilling aspects of this most disgusting of human acts is the bureaucracy behind it.
Display after display case at Auschwitz show the documents the Nazi regime used to organise their final solution.
Forms to give permission to compulsorily sterilise women or conduct medical experiments on children.
Forms that list the names of Polish men and women executed because they did not meet their Nazi masters quota for food production.
Forms, no doubt many in triplicate, to justify the calculated, cold-blooded massacre of millions of European citizens.
I have never understood how any government official could have coldly drafted those terrible forms, apparently with the same objectivity and precision they drafted run-of –the mill paperwork.
And I hope I never do.

One of the good guys

Barry Winter was a young man with his life ahead of him: happily married with a young child, enjoying an interesting career, but on Thursday 8 May he died. He had been diagnosed with liver cancer last year, two months after his daughter Marianne was born.
I worked with Barry for nearly five years, in the Scottish Executive press office. I never once saw him angry, he was never rude, sarcastic or even grumpy.
“He was”, said one senior politician after his funeral on Friday, “one of the good guys”.
Life is bloody awful sometimes.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The hero of the revolution

Prague is an amazing city, as good as everyone says it is, and as someone who has spent the last two decades traipsing up and down Edinburgh’s Royal Mile in some guise or another, I was struck by its uncanny resemblance to Edinburgh.
Both cities boast a castle on a hill, though Prague’s is much more fantastical than Edinburgh’s rather dour, but very practical, edifice. Both have a long narrow street heading down from the castle to the national parliament, though in this case it is Edinburgh’s building that is of the stuff of fantasies.
And both boast a New Town, where courageous city planners of old built a spectacular modern addition to an ancient settlement, transforming both cities from the ordinary to the extraordinary.
But only Prague has a Museum of Communism, tucked away in its New Town, in the faded, but still elegant Palace Savarin. It shares a landing with a casino and is one floor above the city’s largest McDonalds.
The museum, which was created by a young American Glenn Spicker, tells the story of Czechoslovakia’s Communist regime, from the post war euphoria of liberation to the brutal reality of Stalinism and the Russian invasion of 1968.
It tracks the growing democratic movement, from the “psychedelic band of Prague”, the Plastic People of the Universe (who says pop music can’t change the world?), through to Charter 77 and the Velvet Revolution of 1989 when hundreds of thousands of Czechs stood up to the guns of the communist regime with nothing more than flowers, right on their side and placards of Mikhail Gorbachev.
Remember Gorby? The Soviet leader whose smiling face was once as well known as Tony Blair’s. The man whose innate understanding, and cheerful acceptance, of democracy led directly to the ending of the Cold War and the liberation of Eastern Europe from the shackles of totalitarianism.
It is no exaggeration to say his courageous diplomacy changed the world for the better. He is still quietly active in world affairs, but he is no longer the political superstar he once was. We should never forget, however, that without his determination and bravery, the Soviet empire would probably still exist.
It is not just the people of Prague, in their hip European capital, who have cause to thank Gorby, it is all of us. He changed our world for the better.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Very happy campers

Why a motor home? For regular readers of this blog, you will know that my husband and I are currently travelling round Europe in a motorhome, before setting off for a few months in southern Africa – sadly not in our own sweet home on wheels.
Those who know us well were slightly taken aback, nay gobsmacked, when we announced our intention to throw in our jobs and take to the road. Their shock intensified when we revealed our mode of travel for the first leg – a second-hand, Hymer Camp 544 motorhome.
Not as surprised as we were it has to be said. We, like most people of our sensibilities: Waitrose shopping, Guardian readers of the punk era, held the staunch view that caravanners, motorhomers and others of that ilk were sad, boring people who read the Daily Mail, wore polyester slacks and drank copious amounts of tea.
But when we researched the best way to get round as much of Europe as possible in eight weeks we came to the sad conclusion that a home on wheels was the only way to do it.
After much research – yes we did buy Practical Motorhome magazine, we found a company in Kent that offered a buy-back scheme, which suited us perfectly. It was cheaper than hiring, with the promise of a guaranteed sale on our return.
We fell in love with our little Hymer on first sight. It is German made, so every last detail has been thought through, from the copious storage space to the hidden toilet roll dispenser in the loo. It has hot and cold running water, a fridge, electricity, a shower and a full size wardrobe for all the clothes I am never going to wear.
The upholstery may be early 90s grotesque, think shades of purple, turquoise, mustard yellow and tan and you won’t even begin to imagine how awful it is. But that is a small price to pay for freedom.
As I write we are parked under a cherry tree, in a small park in the outskirts of Prague. We are the only vehicle so we have the shower block to ourselves. There is a restaurant next door and a shop selling beer and fresh fruit and veg. The city centre is 8 km and we are a few short steps from the bus stop. Over the next few days we will visit Poland, Serbia and Hungary before heading to Athens.
We have added a few personal touches including a memory foam mattress topper from John Lewis that has turned the cabin bed into five-star luxury. I haven’t slept this well since I was a baby.
We have an MacBook, an i-Pod and several mobile phones, so are always in touch – if we want to be, and we have cheered up the rather bland – okay – horrible fake cherry wood walls with some postcards, family photographs and, of course, a Barack Obama campaign poster.
We have a pullout awning to protect our picnic table and chairs from the midday sun, and I have perfected the art of two-pot cooking – red wine always helps.
We are proud, and very happy campers.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The busman's holiday

I will never again criticise Lothian Buses. Not even on a cold, wet, grey Tuesday morning when the number 27 storms past my stop, full to the back seat with pupils from Heriot’s.
Not even on a Monday holiday, when the only people on leave are council staff, yet the Edinburgh bus service is reduced to one an hour on each route.
But at least the 27 does eventually come, unlike the number 305 yesterday to Radeburg. Okay it was a public holiday, but both the campsite owner and the bus timetable promised that there would be a bus to Radeburg at 9.25 “precisely”. From there we could catch a train to Dresden.
We waited, and waited and waited. It was sunny, so the waiting was considerably more pleasant than an Edinburgh morning in November.
But by 9.48 we had decided that the driver of the 305 had thrown a public holiday sickie. Do we wait another hour for the next scheduled bus, or walk the eight kilometres – five miles – to the station?
“Let’s walk,” I said. “It will be good for us.” You need to know that the only exercise my husband I get is walking to the bus stop and back, all of two hundred yards. That, and the occasional, desultory meander around the supermarket when we need to replenish the wine rack.
But walk we did, and several blisters and only two foul-mouthed rants later we reached the train station and our carriage into Dresden.
We were so exhausted by our forced march (okay, okay, it was only five miles), that we dragged ourselves around Dresden without much enthusiasm. But even in our exhausted state we couldn’t fail to be impressed by the determined restoration work that has brought this ancient city centre back to life after it was almost destroyed in 1945.
The city’s landmark building, the Frauenkirche, Church of Our Lady, was raised to the ground by Allied bombers, but it has been painstakingly rebuild since German reunification.
The over-sweet interior resembles a Battenberg cake – far more baroque than any Scottish Presbyterian church and looked, to me, too new, fake even.
Coventry took a different approach. Its cathedral was also destroyed in the war, but the city fathers built a defiantly modern replacement next to the ruin of the original.
It made me wonder. If Edinburgh Castle – that most symbolic of Scottish buildings - was destroyed in some awful disaster, should it be rebuilt, stone by stone, so that an exact replica stands where the original once did, or should a new edifice emerge from the rubble?
Answers on a postcard please.
It was also Nigel’s birthday yesterday. We celebrated with Kir Royales and fresh asparagus. He says he has forgotten what age he is and I believe him.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Almost there

Well not quite, we still have several months and thousands of miles before we reach the end of our journey. It looks however as if Barack Obama is almost at the end of the first leg of his journey to the White House.
I have taken the title of this entry from the front page of the latest edition of The Economist which I picked up in an underground station in Berlin.
This bible of progressive capitalism is slowly coming round to Obama’s side. Its leader writer is concerned that his rhetoric on the economy is too left wing, but the magazine does seem intrigued, maybe even hopeful, at the prospect of an Obama Presidency.
As it points out, in 1960 when Senator Obama’s white mother and black father married, their union was illegal in over half the states in America. 
Now their son, whose granny still lives in a village in Kenya, is on the threshold of the most powerful office in the world. His personal experiences, which have shaped his political thinking, are of a world where we are all interlinked. Black and white, north and south, rich and poor. His view of humanity stretches way beyond Texas, or even Washington.
Perhaps, just perhaps, we are entering a new political era, one where an internationalist view of the world prevails over the narrow mindset of old.
Many of my friends, and most of my family, find my interest, some would say obsession, with politics to be a rather quaint character trait.
They regard me as slightly eccentric as, like most people, they only engage with the political process when they can be bothered to drag themselves to a polling station every few years, or when reaching for the off button the minute a politician graces their TV screen.
But politics – and democracy - does matter, in the most fundamental way possible. I spent yesterday morning at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. There are no words adequate to describe the horror of the Holocaust. So I will end with this sentence from Primo Levi, the scientist and writer who survived Auschwitz, only to commit suicide in 1987.
“It happened, therefore it can happen again. That is the core of what we have to say.”
So it does matter who is in the White House, Holyrood or the council chambers. It matters more than anything, yes, much, much more than handbags.

Friday, May 9, 2008

The journey begins

You catch up with me on the A24 autobahn on my way to Berlin. Nothing inherently interesting in that, I hear you say, and you would be right. The road is full of people, all travelling, like me, to Germany’s capital city.
But very few of them, if any, will have chucked in their jobs, rented out their flat and put their ordinary life on hold to make the journey.
I have. Six months ago, sitting in a Turkish café in Hawick, a small town in the Scottish Borders, my husband and I decided we had had enough. Enough of work, of the daily commute, of the relentless march to the weekend, enlivened only by a glass, or two, or red wine. Our weekends had turned into a two-day grind of domestic chores –stopping only to read the Sunday newspapers and mainline Fairtrade coffee.
Our careers had ground to an impasse. I had spent the last few years working in government communications, but that fascinating period of my life had come to an end last May, and I wasn’t yet ready to become a full time communications consultant – whatever that is.
And Nigel my husband, a gentle, hard-working, very clever economist had had enough of poring of labour market statistics.
There must be more to life than this, we cried as we entered our middle age. There was nothing unusual or particularly interesting about our state of mind. This plaintive plea can be heard across the UK, in sitting rooms, offices and commuter trains every moment of the day, and deep into the night.
What was perhaps unusual was that we were reckless enough, or sufficiently courageous, depending on your point of view to say, “right, that's it, we’re off.”
We had inherited a small amount of money – sufficient to pay off the mounting credit cards that had financed the numerous treats that had kept us sane over the last decade – so we did the only sensible thing open to us. We decided against solvency, put enough cash in the bank to service our direct debits and are about to blow the rest on a seven month tour of Europe and south-east Africa, finishing up on the East Coast of the USA helping out in the campaign to elect Barack Obama as the next US President.
What will we do when we return to home to Edinburgh? Who knows, because I sure as hell don’t, but that is what this journey is all about.
We have thrown all our cards up into the air: financial, career, personal. It is going to be fun watching where they land.
A final word about the title of this blog. I had originally planned to name it The Road to the Stars, as one of our destinations is Lake Malawi, one of the most beautiful places in the world.
But a friend of mine, Andy Nicoll has just had his first book published – The Good Mayor. I was lucky enough to read an early manuscript, nearly three years ago. It is an amazing book of love, redemption, and the search for something more than the mundane. I urge you to read it, and then you will understand why this is called the Road to Dot.