The washed out wintry light of the early morning sun was just starting to peep over the hedgerows. The road was still damp from the rain that had fallen soft and slow throughout the night. I looked over at my husband, his face deep in concentration as he wrangled our recently acquired left-hand drive camper van around the twists and turns of the Irish country roads. I looked back to check on the dogs and I smiled as I spotted Billie peeping out at me from underneath the table and Zara sitting up on the seat, her head resting on the tiny lip of the window – determined not to miss a thing.
I looked back out onto the road and I smiled some more, this smile warming me from the outside in. We were doing it. We were finally calling time on all the shit luck that had plagued us in recent years. We had already covered the first few miles on an adventure we had planned for months.
We had no idea where we were going. We had no idea what we were doing. We had no clue as to what the future held for us but we were throwing caution to the wind and just going for it anyway. The presenter on the radio announced it was Thanksgiving Day in America and wished everyone a happy thanksgiving day. I smiled again, somehow it seemed appropriate that we were setting off on our journey into the unknown on a day when people celebrate that which they are thankful for. At that point in time I was intensely grateful to be physically putting some distance between me and so much that had happened in the years before.
A few months previously we had sold up everything – our beautiful home, our cars and anything else of value we’d had. We’d paid off the tax man and our debtors, glad to finally be free of crippling debt that had arisen from a business deal that had gone horribly wrong.
However, it wasn’t just our business that we lost in those few years but also the dream of being parents. Our tiny babies lay dead and cold in a grave on a hillside in the west of Ireland. We were emotionally battered and our souls were weary. We needed to step off the merry-go-round of life for a while and take some much needed time out.
And that’s exactly what we did. For the next nine months we trundled along the highways and byways of Europe. We ate all manner of wonderful food and we washed it down with cold beers and fine wines. We walked for miles on golden sands – I don’t think there is an inch of European coastline we missed. We hiked through sun dappled forests and swam in lakes the colour of earth and sky. We gloried in freshly fallen snow and we skied and fell in love with the granite peaks at the heart of Europe which we’d never visited before and at night we warmed ourselves with the heat of a log fire and the local firewater.
We got lost, gloriously lost and yet somehow managed to find our way. We met great characters that enriched our journey beyond measure. Bit by bit we healed and started to feel the joy of life flowing in our veins again. We dared to believe in dreams once more and we even dared to dream.
A year later we found ourselves back in Ireland patiently awaiting the birth of the child we were told we’d never have. From one thanksgiving day to another our lives had changed beyond belief and we had so much to be thankful for. A few weeks later I gave birth to our beautiful baby girl – a precious gift that I will spend the rest of my days being thankful for.
However, on Thanksgiving Day I always remember that wintry morning in Ireland as myself and my husband bumped our way along to the early morning ferry that was to deliver us to Europe and from there to God only knows where. I remember and give thanks for the small bud of hope that still remained somewhere deep within me. Sometimes you’ve got to let go of all you think you know and just go – go with your heart and feed your soul. You’ll be thankful for it more than you can ever know.
It’s one thing to commit to a blog. It’s another thing entirely to find the time to actually write it! When I committed to this blog a number of months ago I had a long hard think about whether or not it was a good idea to even start it if I was never going to have the time to attend to it. I looked at all the commitments I have, sized up where I could adjust my schedule, allowed for contingencies and decided I could manage it. My aim each week is to have a post up by the weekend and failing that at least by Sunday morning at the very latest. So far I’ve been doing ok…… until last week and the week before that……. And here is the problem – when it came to allowing for contingencies I couldn’t have imagined a total crash of my computer system or, just the week after that catastrophic event, the arrival of a super-storm! I had been thinking along the lines of sick kids, school holidays and unexpected visitors. Obviously I need to up my contingencies game. So, note to self – when it comes to planning contingencies in the future perhaps I should plan for bigger contingencies than most. Mind you, contingencies don’t come much bigger than the super-storm that hit Brisbane last Thursday!
Two storm cells came together and formed The Beast – A Supercell Thunderstorm that unleashed hell on Brisbane in just over an hour. One minute I was out the back of the house in blazing sunshine and sweating my tooshie off and the next I was looking out my front door, with my jaw on the floor. “Oh dear,” I whispered as I stared at the sky with cold blasts of air rushing over me, “what’s this?”
Within seconds, a strange cracking sound started, then a blast of thunder exploded over the house. The sky was totally dark by now and it was as if night had descended upon us but not for long as sheets of lightning lit up the landscape. And then they came – golf ball sized hail stones catapulted out of the sky and pummelled everything around them. The noise was deafening.
Now, it should be said I’m from an island on the west coast of Ireland and am no stranger to the fury of mother nature. Storms on Achill are brutal and fierce and I’ve experienced some of the worst. However, in all my days, I have never seen hail stones the size of golf balls! And we were lucky, as the storm intensified, hail the size of tennis balls fell in other parts of the city and how it fell!
It rained down mercilessly, like God was emptying his Eski (local slang for cooler box.) Nothing was safe and the damage has been extensive.
Cars in particular were badly damaged.
Many houses had their windows smashed and the office blocks of the CBD (Central Business District) also suffered.
So it’s all eyes on Brisbane this weekend as the leaders of the world’s twenty most powerful nations descend on the city for their annual pow-wow. Coming along with them are all the admin, support and security staff and of course no international backscratching event would be complete without the accompanying posse of media.
It’s estimated that Brisbane can expect an influx of approximately 10,000 visitors over the next few days. So, what will they find when they get here? Lonely Planet recently named Brisbane “the hippest city” in Australia – no mean accolade. Having lived here for the past two and a half years, I have to say I agree with them. Brisbane is one cool town. G20 attendees will find streets with jacaranda and bougainvillea in full bloom. Having a sub-tropical climate the city is known for its al-fresco dining and it’s pretty unbeatable when this takes place along the river such as at the Eagle Street precinct. When it comes to after-hours entertainment much of the action is to be found in The Valley – home to some pretty cool bars and music venues.
The Brisbane river is the life-blood of the city and affords the visitor one of the most effective and fabulous ways to see Brisbane and to connect up with its many diverse neighbourhoods. One of my favourite things to do is hop on the Citycat (the highspeed catamarans that go up and down the river day and night) and let the wind tug at my face as we zip from stop to stop, looking at all the amazing riverside properties.
One of my favourite places to head to on the Citycat is the Southbank area with its city beaches. Yes you read that correctly – beaches in the middle of the city. Originally developed as part of Expo ’88 the area has since been re-developed and improved and provides an amazing place to meet, chill and relax in the heart of the city.
With Temperatures set to soar to 40+ degrees over the weekend – that’s 105 Fahrenheit! – I’d be willing to bet you might find a few delegates cooling off at Street’s Beach. This is one of the things I’m not crazy about Brisbane – the extreme temperatures in summer. Last summer saw some of the highest temperatures ever recorded in Australia and it looks like this year isn’t going to be any different.
If there is one things the G20 delegates won’t find in Brisbane this weekend however, it’s a Brisbanite. The past few months have seen a heavy emphasis on security and traffic restrictions with road closures. The city centre is on lock-down and the locals have been given the distinct impression to stay outta town!
We even have the day off! Which means only one thing to a Brisbanite – the chance to get to their beloved beaches on either the Sunshine or the Gold Coasts – which offer an embarrassment of riches when it comes to golden sands. All roads led out of Brisbane last night and this morning.
And they were chocca – as my Aussie friends would say. Brisbane city centre is effectively a ghost town. Realising they may have gone overboard and empty streets aren’t exactly the image they want to portray, city officials have recently announced the availability of 1000 free car parking spaces over the weekend. In a city where it costs $30 per hour for parking – this is rather generous of them.
That’s one thing all the delegates will find in Brisbane – shocking prices for food, drink and taxis. Then again hip and cool was never cheap.
It’s hard to believe it has only been 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and yet in another way it seems like a life-time ago. I suppose in a way, for me, it has been. I remember, as a student of sociology and politics, being fascinated with communism and wanting to spend time in a communist country, to experience it first-hand. I wondered if it really was just totalitarianism dressed up as a high “all people are equal” socio-political ideal or if there was something more to it than that. The fact that a structure such as the Berlin Wall existed at all made me suspect communism was simply a euphemism for fascism, after all its primary purpose seemed to be to keep people IN eastern Germany rather than keep westerners out. Still, I wondered and set my sights on one day going there to find out.
However, on 9th November 1989 the wall came tumbling down and with it the end of communism in what was known as the Eastern Bloc. I remember watching the news reports, incredulous that this structure of oppression was coming down and not one person was harmed or killed. Only months beforehand that would have seemed impossible.
I was truly happy for the people of eastern Germany and watched their jubilant celebrations continue into the night. History was being made and I almost felt like I had a front row seat. A twinge of disappointment nagged at me though, that I hadn’t made it to Eastern Germany to see what life was like behind the Iron Curtain. The champagne bottles were barely empty however, when a sense of “what happens next” crept throughout Europe. Again, I wondered what life was going to be like for the people of the former German Democratic Republic.
This time however, I got a chance to find out. Not long after the last Soviet troops had left in September 1994, I rocked up to Chemnitz, East Germany in my blue Volkswagen Golf. Re-unification was in full swing and Eastern Germany was under re-construction. My new husband was tasked with overseeing the construction of a city block.
Chemnitz was decimated by the Allied bombing campaigns of the second world war and the only construction that had taken place during the Soviet era was primarily Plattenbau style tower blocks.
This town, and many others, desperately needed a facelift. As my husband settled into the monumental task ahead of him, I took up a position as an English teacher with a local language school. This meant I was in close contact with members of the local population and I soon learned just what life had been like under communist rule. As I had suspected, communism had meant oppression. From the stories I was told, life had not been easy under Soviet rule and in keeping with human nature, some chose to ease their hardships by informing on others. Even five years after the fall of communism and with the last of the soviet troops gone, my students still lowered their voices and looked nervously around them when they spoke of the dreaded Stasi. Detention, torture and disappearances had been common.
Apart from the insidious repression there had also been day to day challenges for the people of East Germany. They didn’t have supermarkets like we had in the west and shortages of all sorts of goods were common. A type of bartering system existed where goods, produce and services would be exchanged for each other. When the wall finally came down, many east Germans spent what little they had and their west German welcome money on items such as television sets, microwaves and other gadgets that all too often were faulty goods sold to them out the back of vans by con-men, many of whom had been English speaking. This did nothing to alleviate their inbuilt suspicion of strangers.
The first night myself and my husband entered the local stube (bar) the place fell deathly silent and one could sense a hint of hostility. Most people would probably have left but the problem was, I was hungry and thirsty and the cupboards at home were bare. So as far as I was concerned the locals – mostly dirt-on-boots working guys – could be as hostile as they liked, I wasn’t letting that get between me, my food and a cold beer. Unknown to our new drinking buddies my husband is fluent in German and there were a few raised eyebrows as he rattled off our order in flawless Deutsch. We took our beers and made our way to a table by the window. Conversation resumed but in a more hushed tone than before. Eyes glanced over at us, some curious, more of them suspicious. It wasn’t long before a representative was sent over to interview us. “Abend,” he said in the unique Chemnitz way, drawling out the “A” .
“Abend,” (evening) we both smiled back. I can still see him standing in front of us, his bushy blond hair sporting something of the mullet look and his startling blue eyes full of unspoken challenge. “Woher kommen Sie?” he asked.
“Ireland,” I replied. His eyes switched from challenging to surprised and I could see him searching his internal database. It was obvious when he located Ireland within his memory bank as his face lit up in shock.
“Irelanda?” he asked and I’m willing to bet I was the first Irish person he had ever met.
“Ja, das ist richtig,” (Yes, that is right) I answered, somewhat amused.
“Und was tuen sie hier?” (And what are you doing here?) he asked.
I explained I was a teacher and my husband was an architect working on the new city block just around the corner. He eyed us up, decided we weren’t con artists or even worse – condescending west Germans – and welcomed us to Chemnitz! The welcome included two more beers. We bought a round for the Stammtisch (locals’ table) before we left and every night we dined there afterwards, a steady stream of beers would miraculously appear with our meal.
Our time in east Germany was much shorter than we had planned and I have to admit to the drab architecture and overwhelming greyness getting to me to the extent that the weekends would find us on one motorway or another out of Chemnitz. However, the more I got to know the local people they beguiled me with their friendly, warm nature and by the time Sunday night rolled around I was always happy to be dodging them in their Trabants and making my way back to their smiling faces again.
Later that year as I pointed my Golf west I couldn’t help wondering how the whole re-unification project would go. It was only five short years since the wall had come tumbling down and tensions simmered on both sides of the now defunct structure. But as the amazing scenes of celebration on Sunday night showed, the German people pulled it off in spectacular fashion and are incredibly proud of what they have achieved, and so they should be. As Angela Merkel, who was raised in east Germany, said:
“The fall of the wall showed us that dreams can come true.”