The past few weeks have been taken up with yet another attempt at travelling – so far the longest venture to date. It has been centred upon, and initially prompted by, an intriguing premise. That is, a travel writing – or blogging as we are in the digital age – conference, in Israel, a country which has long since intrigued me. Therefore the decision to go basically made itself and I built an itinerary hinging around this conference. Time to try travelling again…
On this occasion, what marked it out immediately from other attempts at travelling was an official reason to go other than “I’m in the mood again” – from previous experience people tend to puzzle over why one might suddenly, in the midst of doing not much day to day, pick up for no apparent reason and take off on a seemingly random adventure. But a few months ago I heard about the Travel Blog Exchange conference for the first time, and that one was about to happen in Jerusalem, Israel’s ancient and complex capital city, and all but took it as a sign that it had to happen. It was my hope that, if nothing else, it would spark something new in me writing-wise, and be an interesting venture.
However initially I had a significant reservation about participating because as far as I could tell one had to identify as a travel writer, and as of then I was not entirely sure it was a place I would belong. In fact I was quite certain this would be the case, as I have not yet managed to sustain a full, or even part, time living from this website. But after some deliberation, and the realisation that visiting that part of the world might not always be feasible, I should pounce upon the opportunity, in the FOMO spirit I referred to a few blog posts ago, and signed myself up for the conference.
Of course I immediately felt like I had done something crazy because of 1) me not being a “legitimate” travel blogger (as described above) and also 2) the fact that it was to take place in one of the most politically and socially contentious places in the world. Despite my age, it takes enough reassuring of my parents that I’ll return in one piece when I go to a perfectly safe and stable place so announcing my intention to go to Israel was… nerve wracking. But before too long it became one more thing I was doing, another “venture” to add to my ever growing catalogue.
Also because there are no direct flights to Israel from my country I looked at the places I could fly from and decided to add on a couple of days each in two cities I’d only ever visited once each long ago: Amsterdam and Paris. I would fly to Amsterdam, stay a couple of days then take the train to Paris via Brussels, and reacquaint myself with cities of which I had fond but extremely vague memories. I’d then fly from Paris to Tel Aviv then proceed to Jerusalem where I’d attend the conference, but not before all the inclusive tours they had planned for us in and around Jerusalem which sounded amazing. This is a blog post which focuses on the TBEX conference (and indeed as one of the lectures advised to do, is the focal point around which I hope to paint a picture of my bigger trip so that’s what I’m doing!) but I’ll include here a brief outline of my interlude in Amsterdam and Paris before proceeding to talk about TBEX.
I flew from Glasgow to Amsterdam where I would spent just under two days (more like a day and a half) but in typical me-fashion I’d need some settling in time in the room first which took up… most of the remainder of the first day. It was my intention to wander around the town and the famous canals and see if anything jogged my memory, taking in a few more museums this time. The only two things I remembered doing in the city the first time (on a school trip way back when I was twelve) were visiting the Anne Frank House, well worth doing if you haven’t done so, and going for a canal boat ride. The reputation of the museums in Amsterdam – and the vegan scene – made me want to have another “go” here, armed with internet technology to be my guide this time! After an interesting and confusing first evening, during which I debated with myself whether I really wanted to sample Amsterdam’s infamous nightlife alone (short version – after a brief sample, not really), I ventured round the city the following day, first seeing the Oude Kerk, the traditional site of the “intersection” between the church and the local prostitution scene (not even gonna go into that right now) where there was an intriguing exhibition by a local artist taking place, which apparently consisted of suspending mirrors from the ceiling of the church and then allowing drafts, over time, to cause the mirrors to fall to the floor and shatter into pieces – it certainly solved the brief puzzle as to why there were broken shards of mirror everywhere. Then I went to a raw vegan cafe to alleviate the night before, opting for a cashew cream “cheese” wrap and a big-ass smoothie. Next I went to the Cat Boat, which is exactly what it sounds like: a boat full of cats, which is a visitor centre, in addition to a sanctuary and adoption centre. It was an excuse to see some local cats in a nice setting so that was a must-do…
It was then that I realised how short a day can be if you cannot for the life of you work out the local transport system, and I had time for only one museum now. I choose the Rijksmuseum, which was meant to be THE museum to see in the Netherlands. It was a good enough museum, as all museums are, but I ended up leaving with the wish that I’d focused on one of the smaller and more “alternative” museums, such as the photography museum I also had my eye on. After an incredible falafel sandwich which I ate while wandering down the flower market (rushing because google maps was in danger of disappearing due to low battery) I prepared to leave early the next day for Paris – another place I’d only visited briefly on a school trip long ago.
I caught the train from Amsterdam to Brussels, expecting to spend a couple of hours pottering about there before continuing on to Paris, but due to a sudden and unexpected glitch in my mobile data (it cut me off when I left the Netherlands for some reason) I was unable to navigate and therefore, unable to do the brief exploring I’d been planning. Adding to that the acute police presence in the station, I concluded that I’d be safer simply waiting in the station. Due to an hour long delay I ended up spending far more time in the station than I wanted to but not before taking a few quick photos to prove I’d been in Belgium… then finally onward to Paris. And still no mobile data.
After checking in and another embarrassingly early night (in possibly the least soundproof room I’ve ever stayed in – a strong throwback to my time in college) the next day I spent a good while fretting about why I had no mobile data despite signing up for it before leaving home – it seems like a piffling issue but for someone who relies entirely upon internet access to navigate new places and find vegan eateries nearby it was basically disastrous. But I tried to seek out wifi hotspots wherever possible, and my first stop was the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore. I had about as good a snoop round as was possible when several Americans were there on “spring break woo!” and it was then that I learned that one should never attempt to play the music from Amelie on the piano unless one knows the entire thing…
Next I made the decision – on the fence until the very last minute – to go to the Catacombes, which was just as spooky and sombre as I was expecting. I didn’t take many photos because at first I didn’t think it was allowed but also because it felt slightly disrespectful to the millions of deceased we were walking past continually, and it seemed slightly wrong that people were laughing and snapping away the entire time, so I had to tread a fine line between trying to get some quiet time down there and also keeping others close by enough that I didn’t end up inspiring a future horror movie… then off for a slice of vegan pizza, a big salad and another early night, trying to focus on my Kindle while the party people next door were revving themselves up for a night on the (Parisian) town.
An early rise (which would turn out to be merely one of many) to see the Palace of Versailles. It turned out to be one occasion where I couldn’t have been more glad to have bought a skip-the-line ticket, when I saw just how long the queue was to get in. I couldn’t figure out how to work the audio guide (an example of how I once again earn the title of Silly Goose) so I settled for just absorbing the palace and trying to dodge heads and selfie sticks aplenty in order to get some decent pictures. The Hall of Mirrors was well worth seeing, although would have been far more atmospheric had the room not been reflecting hundreds of other tourists. Also I’m not sure if I’ll get into trouble for saying this but the mirrors really seemed to need a good wipe…
Then onto the gardens, specifically the area which I most wanted to see, the domain of Marie Antoinette. I had seriously underestimated just how vast the grounds were, and it took almost an hour just to reach the queen’s hamlet. But when I got there it was worth every step – it was truly idyllic and an oasis of peace, with the cherry blossoms in full bloom, the fountains and the little hidden paths within the gardens, which are a photographer’s paradise. I could have spent all day there, and had by then fully forgiven the long-gone unfortunate queen for causing me to have such a hard time getting to the mini-palace, and in fact felt like I could relate to Mme Antoinette all the more. If it had been me I’d have wanted to have just such a place to call my own, although the onsite farm, reminiscent of the “farm play” which the queen allegedly liked to participate in, was perhaps a tad excessive – I only hope the animals are well cared for and not being bred and exploited just for tourism as they all too often are.
When I finally returned to Paris it was far later, and I was far more tired, than I had expected, and after stopping in for a bite in the most eerily quiet canteen I’ve ever been in, I conceded that unfortunately I’d have to forgo the evening tour of the Louvre (and the fee I had to pay) because I was utterly spent and, at this point, preparing for flying to Israel, and the conference, early the next day, now took priority. So another night of packing and making sure I was prepared to face the infamous airport security on the other side then yet another early rise.
The fated attempt to take public transport to Charles de Gaulle has been the only time, to date, that I’d ever seriously thought I’d end up missing a flight, as I nearly got on the wrong bus several times and even when on the right bus I had the latent fear that it was taking me in the opposite direction and would drop me off in an unknown rural area of France. But eventually I got to the airport and then… I can now proceed to Part II.