Saturday, 1 August 2015

Returning to Malawi, the first country I have returned to

People often asked me if I would go back to Malawi and I always answered "Of course". Malawi is a place that is, and will hopefully always remain, somewhere that is very close to my heart. Yes, I didn't leave in the best of head spaces and yes, one of the people who was a huge part of my life there is no longer part of my life, but I felt I owed it to myself to go back to this country. At the very least I needed to say a proper goodbye.

I booked my flight on a cold, snowy afternoon in March when I was hungover from one of my best friend's wedding and I had just driven across Ireland in the snow in my little Opel Corsa. This could potentially become a very expensive hungover habit! Immediately I started dreaming of the sun rays hitting my shoulders as I gazed out of the expanse of Lake Malawi and downed a cold MGT with friends. A few short emails later and I had a few people every bit as excited as me. A vague planned involved a side trip to Mozambique but lots of time with friends.

As I checked in in Dublin airport I had those familiar butterflies. Every time I get on a plane, I get a twinge of excitement. I hope that I can continue to travel for as long as it is exciting for me. Even an unexpected layover in Frankfurt was a bit exciting although the ensuing rebooking of delayed flights nearly made me want to pull out my hair. Once I landed in the Warm Heart, I realised that my shoulders which had been tense relaxed. My worries about how I would feel being back melted away and as I sat in Lilongwe bus depot waiting for the bus to fill and head north, I realised I felt at home. Buying hard boiled eggs and apples out the bus window, the thumping Africa pop music resonating through the bus and the smiles of children shouting "Mzungu, mzungu". The further north the bus travelled, the more excited I got. Yes, I was a day late and yes I had been sitting on the same bus for nearly 6 hours and was as yet not even half way to the Bay but I was in country.

Was I nervous? Yes, a little. Would coming back here taint my memory of the place? Would my experience be totally different when so many of my friends no longer lived there? Should I just leave my fond memories as that, just memories? All those nervous thoughts disappeared the minute I stepped into the bar at Mayoka when, at 1 am, I was wrapped in a group hug and had many people say "Welcome Home". This was a trend that continued over the next 24 hours, from walking into Butterfly the next morning and getting hugs from Ez and Thoko (and AJ and Josie), to getting fist pumped from the rastas on the beach and my first MGT watching the sunset over Lake Malawi after a Chikale Sunday.

I easily slipped back into the relaxed, laid back Nkhata Bay lifestyle, lazy breakfasts with Eimer and Benjie, afternoon swims or bobs depending on our energy levels, sundowners on the deck at Butterfly or afternoons spent hanging out with Alice and the kids become part of my life. I felt at home, I felt at ease and I at once knew that this decision to come back was a the right one.

Between nights spent in Mzuzu, reliving my time spent living there, eating delicious Korean food at Joy's Place, drinking too many greens at Mzoozoozoo and hunting in the second hand market or chitenje market, I felt contented. This country, and indeed, the Northern region, was a place i could return to. A place I could slip back into and be enveloped by the warm hands of old friends.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Paris: A city in turmoil and my trip there in June 2014

Paris: the city of love, home to the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, some of the most famous art work and churches in the world and until just before Christmas, my friend Rebecca. However in the last few days, Paris has been in the news due to the horrific attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices and subsequent man hunt and hostage situations. A city that is showing solidarity, that is rallying around Charlie Hebdo to fund the most recent one million run and that will, no doubt bounce back.

After nearly 2 months back home in Galway, my feet were starting to get itchy. My friend Rebecca, an RPCV who I met in Malawi, was working as an au pair in Paris and I took the opportunity to visit a friend, and explore a city I had never been to before. 

Now Paris in June is a delightful place. The sun is shining, the city is not too crowded and I had a permanent smile on my face. Ever since I was a child I have had an obsession with Paris. I was a nerd, a child with an obsession with far away places and museums and learning about other countries. And Paris, a city full of history, museums, beautiful cathedrals and one of the most iconic landmarks in the world had always fascinated me. Why had I not visited before? I really do not know. Heck, I even bought my parents flights there for their anniversary one year. So now it was my turn to explore the Parisian streets and who better to show me than someone living there. 

And of course the city did not disappoint. From wandering the streets of Montmartre to picnicing by the banks of the Seine, and in view of the Eiffel Tower, and in view of Ile de la Cite (we did a LOT of picnicing), to jazz Chopin in Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris was everything I had hoped for and more. 

Rebecca lived in the 17eme arrondissement, within an easy stroll of Montmartre and only a few Metro stops from the Champs Elysees or Ile de la Cite. Our first day of exploring involved a jaunt around the Montmartre district capped with a trip into the beautiful Sacre Coeur Cathedral. I do not pretend to be very religious, despite being raised in Catholic Ireland but I find churches beautiful and peaceful (for the most part). The stained glass windows, the architecture and the solitude of just sitting in a church and admiring the building for what it is, are the perfect antidotes to the hecticness often associated with travel and sightseeing. Stepping outside of the cathedral, you are greeted with a beautiful panoramic view of Paris.

Now, I don't know about most people, but I can get overwhelmed in large cities after a while. The hustle and bustle, the toing and froing and the constant people can be tiring. So, every now and then I like to escape somewhere with a book to relax and unwind. That can be a coffee shop, a beach, or in the case of Paris, a park on a sunny day- Parc Monceau. I passed an hour reading, people watching and wandering around this vast park. A perfect way to recharge before continuing on to to the Arc de Triomphe and Champs Elysees.

In true Parisian style we picniced a LOT. When in France it would be rude not to make the most of the delicious breads and cheeses on offer as well as the cheap wine! SO MUCH CHEESE. One of the highlights was picnicing in the Champ de Mars with a view of the Eiffel Tower while a band were rehearsing for a concert that night in front of the Ecole Militaire. Wine, cheese, baguette and big band tunes all under the afternoon sun.
Vin pamplemousse with a view of Notre Dame

Along with climbing the Eiffel Tower, strolling along the Champs Elysees, watching a memorial service at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe we managed to catch the France-Switzerland match in a small French bar where, after each of the French goals (all 5) the bar man turned down the TV and blasted music from the speakers and danced around the bar. And just when we thought the night could not get any better, we stumbled on a neighbourhood party in a bar around the corner from Rebecca's apartment where there was a conga line, karaoke and the cutest little old lady who did not stop dancing for the hour we were there.

Course 1 of 3
Now, people who know me well, know my obsession with brunch. As far as I am concerned, it is the best meal. So as a thank you to Rebecca for hosting me (and feeding me with cocktails when I got a terrible email) we went to brunch one morning. An amazing 3 course lunch of breads and spreads (croissants pain au chocolate, baguette, honey, jams) served with fresh juice and bowls of coffee, followed by a choice of cooked breakfast (I went for Eggs Benedict and it was DELICIOUS) which were served with herbed fried potatoes and to finish yogurt and fresh fruit. We both considered asking them to pack up the final course as there was no way we could attempt to finish it all. All of the above served while we were sitting on Rue Legendare in the beautiful late morning sunshine. The place Les Puces des Batignolles.

How could I talk about Paris and not talk about the heart of this city, the site where medieval Paris was founded, an island housing the famous Notre Dame Cathedral. Wandering around Ile de la Cite, eating gelato in the sunshine and seeing Pont de L'Archeveche, one of the many bridges along the Seine covered in the love locks.

Notre Dame, was predictably beautiful but I found it more crowded and less peaceful than Sacre Coeur.There was a long queue that moved very quickly but once inside I didn't find the solitude and reverence that is often found in places of worship. Now this is not to say that I did not enjoy my visit to Notre Dame, it is a beautiful building and the treasury with artifacts from the Church's history is well worth a look.

But, my fondest memory of Paris, and the one that will make me laugh out loud for years to come, is Rebecca complaining about a loud American lady at a Monet exhibit in L'Orangerie. We moved into the next room and this lady came in and sat beside in while loudly proclaiming to a teenage girl that "This one is my favourite". As we rolled our eyes, I stole a glance at this woman and said to Rebecca "She looks like that one from Million Dollar Baby." Rebecca replied "Hiliary Swank? No. Surely an actress would know how to whisper, and that woman's eyes are much closer together." So not only did we insult Ms Swank's ability to whisper but insulted how she looked also.