Turning 21 with an Amsterdam Adventure

For months on end, Ellis and I had been planning on taking a trip together abroad before she moved to Ibiza and the Easter break granted us that opportunity. Amsterdam had been at the top of my travel to-do list for a long time, so to be going on a foreign adventure with one of my closest friends was an exciting prospect!

Day one (31st March 2016): Newcastle-under-Lyme/Manchester/ Amsterdam

On Thursday morning we woke up early and Ellis’s lovely mum Dawn made us a quick breakfast before we hit the morning traffic on the way to Manchester airport. I’ve never personally flown from Manchester before so this was a new experience for me too. We were out the door at 7:08am and made the airport with plenty of time to spare, having already checked in the night before. We went straight through customs, both of us tired out of our minds. I forgot to take my transparent bag of liquids out of my bag and had to wait about twenty minutes just to get my bag back. The security at Manchester Airport were probably the nicest I’ve ever encountered though, so I didn’t feel bad about my rookie blunder. After this we went spritz crazy in duty free and got ourselves coffee as Costa. As we waited at the gate, a toddler kept going over to a group of lads and asking them for crisps which was adorably amusing.

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View from the Manchester Airport runway.

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The flight itself was short and sweet. We chatted a bit and took photos of the wonderful countryside of North England. I love these views of England, it’s the small things like this that make me wonder why on earth I would want to leave this country on a permanent basis. I only managed a small portion of my book before we touched down in The Netherlands for the first time at Amsterdam Schipol Airport. And it was a HUGE airport! We went through immigration where the official noticed that it was nearly Ellis’s birthday. He didn’t speak much English but said to her: ‘almost…birthday’, which was highly amusing because it was unexpected. We then headed outside in search of a shuttle bus to our hotel when we were greeted with the huge ‘I Amsterdam’ sign, which I’ve seen so many times on my social media and was therefore glad to be able to get my own photo. We took some selfies before getting individual photos. Ellis said: “get in the d. In it, not on it” –innuendo fully intended. People were helpful outside the airport and it wasn’t long until we arrived at our hotel and checked in. After freshening up we bought day passes for the bus and headed into the city centre.

It took us about 30 minutes to get to the city centre on the bus but it was so great to finally be in Amsterdam! We were both extremely hungry so we got a hot dog (we’d read recommendations to try the street food and who doesn’t love a hot dog?) but this failed to fill a hole. We decided to have a proper meal and get a snack later on. We went to a fairly cheap Italian restaurant with me getting pizza and Ellis getting spaghetti bolognese. We sat for a long time talking before heading out and walking the busy streets of Amsterdam. Bicycles and scooters were everywhere and we saved each other’s lives many a time! We walked up to Dam Square as this was on our list of places to see. I got myself a replica Van Persie shirt before losing my cool at the sight of so many macaroons where a girl told me the shop had 21 different kinds of, so naturally we went in and Ellis got to try her first ever churro.

After this, we headed towards the palace which was truly glorious building. It was getting a lot colder outside so we needed to keep walking. We decided to head to Jordaan since Ellis had read about it online. We walked a fair distant before deciding to ask a shopkeeper of a fancy dress shop for directions and he congratulated me on the success of Leicester City in the Premier League. We had to backtrack on ourselves and eventually ended up in Jordaan. We saw some street art of Van Gogh and took some pictures alongside it as well as some giant plastic clogs. We sat in McDonald’s for a while before heading back to the hotel and staying up later than we had originally planned by watching True Movies that were too good to turn off.

Day 2 (1st April 2016): A Slice of Culture and a Slice of History

As a result of our film binging we ventured out around midday into the city of Amsterdam, heading straight for the Anne Frank House as we felt that it was important to visit such an iconic, symbolic and historic place after reading her diary. We queued for about an hour before finally getting inside. The staff had given around little booklets about the house whilst we were waiting in line and one quote from Otto Frank really made me think about how much society has and hasn’t changed since then and now. It made me think a lot about Donald Trump’s presidential campaign- using a religious group as a scapegoat for the nation’s failings.

Anyhow, the house itself was bigger than I expected and being in the house of such oppression and isolation was both humbling and harrowing all at once. Watching interviews of those who had known Anne Frank at school etc made my heart ache because their words really brought her to life. She was, by her own admission, not a saint and the raw quality of her diary shows that. I think what made the diary so successful is not just the tragic death of its writer but the fact that as someone said in of the videos played in the house, unlike other Holocaust narratives, you could feel Anne’s pain without seeing the horror side that was the cold and callous concentration camps. The most striking thing for me of all though was the actual size of ‘Kitty’ (her diary) itself. That tiny diary touched the hearts of millions. It opened people’s eyes to the suffering that propaganda, prejudice and persecution can cause. All that suffering just because of their religion. I wrote in the visitor’s book: ‘at the end of the day, human life must always come before any religious belief.’

After the house we headed back to the bustling city centre that we’d become particularly familiar with our time in Amsterdam. We’d got McDonald’s and eaten it on the way to the house so we went to a small café for lunch after a coffee in Starbuck’s. We decided to split up for a couple of hours to see the different things that we wanted to see. We’ve both travelled solo before so we didn’t offend one another by doing this. I headed to the Van Gogh Museum because although I’m no expert in art, I distinctly remember falling in love with Sunflowers in primary school. I noticed that Vondelpark was on the way to the museum and I’d read about it in Madison’s blog the night before so I decided to take a walk there first, in order to carry on our tradition of ‘walking in each other’s footsteps.’  It was such a relaxed and quiet place sandwiched in a bustling city and I really enjoyed such a simple walk alongside people just going about their lives, whether they were hanging out with friends, dog walking etc. what I enjoyed about it was that I could just simply BE for a while and not think or worry about what’s ‘next’, in every aspect of the word. I watched a dopey dog drop his ball twice in the pond and be too scared to reach for it and his owner would smile and come and get it for him every time (is that not true love right there?) Little things that made life enjoyable. ❤ When I eventually arrived at the museum, I was in awe. It housed not only the works of Van Gogh but also the people who inspired him and the people his work inspired. It was truly surreal to see his works with my own eyes and learn more about him too. I’ve taken to buying postcards of paintings I like on my travels since I can’t afford the real deal and I bought new Van Gogh ones for my room.

After two hours I left the museum to meet up with Ellis again but in typical me style, I got lost. I tried not to panic but when I realised I didn’t know where I was going I headed back to city centre so that I could use wi-fi to contact Ellis, and thankfully she wasn’t far away! Ellis bought some Chinese food and let me finish- all those memes you see about this in the perfect summary of our friendship. We took a VERY long walk to the Ice Bar, only to be told that they were sold out for the night. We’d been on our feet all day and by that point my knee was killing me. We instead decided to wonder over to the Red Light District to see the infamous place for ourselves. It says a lot about the representation of women in the media that we weren’t shocked by what we saw. It was basically just a live viewing of Mulvey’s Male Gaze. The way they were propped in the windows reminded me of Barbie Dolls in their boxes. Woman as commodities. I was surprised that there were no male prostitutes but I later learned from my cousin Lauren that it existed by wasn’t nearly as well known. We didn’t stay there long before heading back to the city centre again and getting the shuttle back to our hotel.

Day 3 (2nd April 2016): Flower Power

On our final morning we ventured out the church by the Anne Frank house as they offered view of the city from the top. However, only six people were allowed up there at a time and we couldn’t get a suitable time slot before our flight. We headed to The Bulldog for brunch and ended up staying in there for a while. We walked over to the Flower Market after lunch and just strolled around looking in various shops despite not being able to buy much because we only bought rucksacks with us. We bought some sweet treats after some more walking. The day ended up being very relaxed as we knew we needed enough time to make our flight at the airport. We sat by the fountain for a while, talking and eating our churros and pancakes. It got cold fairly quickly and as Ellis was telling me a story I got stuck in my snood but didn’t want to interrupt her story- it was very amusing. As the evening dawned, we made our way to the bus and went to the airport. We took a final selfie before we boarded and my rucksack and I accidentally sent a man “flying” as I snapped the photo.

Although our break was short, we had a lot of fun and it was our first trip abroad together. I liked Amsterdam a lot despite the overwhelming smell of weed!

 

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Dumped by Normality

Tuesday 28th JuneCrash. Bang. Wollop. Normality was over in a one short phone call. I was standing in McDonald’s by Wembley Stadium getting some breakfast with Madison before we set out on our final day of adventures when Nana rang me, asking me where I was before stating: “I’ve got some bad news.” I thought she was going to tell me that I couldn’t park my car at the house that night or something similar, so when the words: “Roger just rang and said that Nanny has had a stroke and she’s at Leicester Royal Infirmary,” I couldn’t believe it. Immediately the shock turns into hot panicked tears, and I’m crying my eyes out in McDonald’s whilst getting more frustrated with the inadequate service of the employees. When Madison realises I’m really crying she pulls me into a hug but I don’t let it last long because I’ve got my glasses on and it’s uncomfortable, not to mention the fact we’re in public. My chest feels raw, like a cactus lodged in my airways reminding me that the dark cloud of grief is on my tail, waiting to break my heart once more. A stranger asks me I’m okay and I tell her what I’ve just been told. She takes my hand in hers and does her best to comfort me, asking me about university and not at all being the kind of person I’d expect to meet in McDonald’s. I call both of my sisters and I get their voicemails. They either know what’s happened, are at the hospital or they’re not awake yet. In a panic I call Katrina, choking on my tears because I don’t know what to do and my parents are out of the country. She repeatedly mentions putting me on a train there and then to go back home a day early because driving is not recommended by the DVLA when you’re upset and unable to focus. I know that seeing Nanny immediately will bring out the rawest of cries from my chest and make other loved ones around me feel even worse, because that’s how it was last time Nanny was in hospital and the thought of an extra drive to London to get the rest of my things is unbearable. I agree to go home the next day, even though I can feel the weight of withheld judgement from Katrina and Madison for not going immediately, even though there is nothing I can do to help at this stage. I finally manage to get hold of my sister Louise and Katrina is a Godsend, taking them both to the hospital and checking up on me throughout the entire day.

Only last month Nanny had fallen and broken her hip. The fall brought some other health problems to light and I was in a flood of tears when in one indescribable scene, we thought we’d lost her for good. She was making good progress in her own home now with Roger having returned from India, so the stroke is a huge blow. Only a few days ago I’d gone round in a hung-over state and had a cup of tea and some breakfast with Nanny before the drive down to London and she asked me about the extensive travelling I’d undertaken with Madison all across England. I sat on the sofa and confessed and complained about how tired and unwell I felt each day at driving more frequently than I’d ever done in my life, despite the fact I’d enjoyed being busy with new adventures and new places. We talked about the EU referendum and she felt sorry for David Cameron, claiming that: ‘he seemed a nice chap’, to which I responded: ‘Nanny, it’s not about who’s nice and who isn’t.’ My Nan is the kind of person that would buy us all presents on one of our birthdays so that the other two don’t feel left out or any less special. I’m convinced that she literally has a heart of gold and I’ve got letters sent to me in America and a lifetime of memories to know that she is the person I get my ‘gentle nature’ from.

As I slowly chomp on my meal, Madison says: “it’s not your fault this happened, I don’t want you to think that.” I don’t respond. What can I say? It’s obvious that she’s uncomfortable, who wouldn’t be? I can’t find the words to warrant any kind of response so I let the silence fall around us. It hits me that I’ve been well and truly dumped by normality and it’s unlikely we’ll be the same once we get back together in the future. It strikes me how we leave the days or normality without a second thought, but we never know when the days of normality are going to leave us. So my guilt is placed in what I perceive in hindsight to be wasted moments of my life, with temporary friendships and hasty drives back to Stoke to finish my readings for the upcoming week, when I could’ve spent lost minutes with my Nanny Pat. Something is my fault, and the guilt is ringing in my ears as the cactus in my chest continues physically remind me of my devastation.

When we eventually leave McDonald’s, Madison says that she we should just go back to Nana’s house because I’m just going to be thinking about this all day and she isn’t interested in seeing Wembley. That stung. Wembley is important to me and I love having a 5 minute walk around the outside of the stadium when the opportunity presents itself, but I get in the car and drive back, knowing that she must be thinking awful things about me right now but Nana already told us she’d be out all day so we’ll have to continue with our plans and head for the tube station. I’m also not ready to say goodbye to her before necessary, even if I do go and visit her in Paris. The thing about having international friends is that every goodbye you have could potentially be the final one and after 2016, I’ve no idea when/if our paths will cross again. It takes reaching our destination and answering a few phone calls before I’m fully composed and we end up having a really good last day together, even getting to watch Coldplay warm-up for a concert in Kensington Gardens. I get my university results and it takes a spike or two off the cactus in my chest- a 2:1 in English and American Literatures and a 1st in my dissertation, which I wasn’t at all expecting!

The next few days that follow upon returning home are difficult. I quickly learn how to get around Leicester Royal Infirmary and Roger prepares me for what I’m about to see when I visit Nanny. As the days pass, the visits become more difficult as Nanny refuses to be helped by the doctors and nurses and keeps taking out the force feeding tube. Her mood varies daily due to the medication for the stroke and it’s not easy to make sense of the words she’s saying to you. It’s incredibly difficult to watch someone you love more than life itself deteriorate in front of your eyes. My heart doesn’t feel like a jenga wall anymore but a burst dam, with every crack of heartbreak leaving tears surging from my eyes or forcing my throat and I into silence before we draw attention to ourselves. I stop wearing my glasses during visitation because I’m pretty sure she doesn’t recognise me with them on anymore and that’s not because of the onset dementia. Whilst I acknowledge my sensitive nature, others do not and I’m constantly bombarded with the lines of ‘she’s had a good life’ and ‘that’s life, Lisa’, when I confess that I’ve never known life without Nanny and I’m ready to find out what that’s like. It’s not like I expect Nanny to live forever, but after every health scare and fall over the years she’s gotten back up and continued to live her life, so I’ve come to expect her to always be okay. She even refused morphine when she broke her hip!

Losing someone in stages is just as difficult as losing them all at once, regardless of their age. Long gone are days of normality where I could pop round to Nanny’s for tea and chat aimlessly. Long gone are the days when Nanny would be so happy to have company that she’d stock the house with all the junk food your heart desires and you’d go home 3lbs heavier the next morning. Long gone are the days when I’d get a phone call each time Keele University was on the television. It’s hard not to feel robbed of the future photographs I intended to take with Nanny. I knew she was unsteady on her feet so I’d planned to spend more time there once university was over and take her back to the cities and towns she had fond memories of from thirty odd years ago. That was supposed to be our quality time, not endless hours on hospital wards watching her slowly give up the fight and I’ve a right to mourn what won’t now be and the loss of normality. I know that I’m blessed to have had the opportunity to form such strong attachments to my grandparents, but it doesn’t make the pain any easier to deal with, even if things ‘could’ve been worse.’ It doesn’t matter how many times you experience grief, (or even end up writing a 12,000 word dissertation about the representations of grief in Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees) it doesn’t make it any easier knowing that the dark cloud will eventually envelop you. Because at the end of the day, ‘nothing hurts like love.’ So for now we continue to run the hamster wheel of not knowing what is going to happen, but sitting at her bedside remaining positive that she’ll make enough progress and return home to Burbage, to the place where she belongs. ❤

‘What I Call’ My English Adventure: Part 1

I recently embarked on an extraordinary road trip across the UK with my American pal Madison. Read all about the first part of our journey here in Madison’s own words. 🙂

madleigh in love with travel

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Twenty-four hours of non-stop travel (including four-hour layovers, aisle seats, and time changes) could make anyone want to give up on adventure. Even watching the sunset hover on the Boston horizon until it became a sunrise somewhere over Greenland didn’t eradicate my grumpiness. My heart suffered a tiny fracture when I had to leave Iceland-an airport meal and ten minutes of the fresh air on the landing strip were enough to entice me to stay forever. But Lisa was waiting, and I’m glad I did leave, or we wouldn’t have had that wonderful embrace in Arrivals that had been a year in the making. After she surprised me with some ever-thoughtful gifts, we headed to Birmingham’s town centre, because apparently I have “hit the ground running” tattooed on my forehead. We meandered around the city, catching up over selfies, a museum, the iconic B’ham Bullring (shopping centre), my first trip…

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