Family, climbing and a movie (Tilburg, The Netherlands)

It’s my first full day back in Holland and the weather has turned foul. I was going to cycle to my uncle’s house about an hour from where I am staying (with another uncle and aunt). Thankfully my aunt offers to drop me off. As a migrant child, my family in Holland have been an ever present distant reality. I love the ones I know and always love to see them and hang out. Coffee soon turns to lunch as my uncle, aunt and I catch up on the years (almost 20) since we last spent time together. It’s a wonderful way to spend the morning.

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I’ve made an arrangement to climb with my cousin and a mate of his at the climbing wall in Tilburg. I first saw it almost two months ago but didn’t get a chance to climb then. I’ve been dreaming about the 20m indoor walls since first seeing them and, now, here I am.

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We start on the easy 10m wall with a 3+. It’s fantastic for a warm up and the three of us all scamper up like we’re climbing a ladder. A 4- is next and then a 4. We’re still on the 10m wall warming up. The 4 has a slight overhang but nothing to stress about. It feels fantastic to hit it strongly and make it through the slight overhand and get some confidence.

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We tackle a 4+ and a 5+ down on the 20m wall. Now I’m starting to feel like I’m getting a work out. My arms pump out as I climb the 20m 5+. I get up but it’s not pretty. I definitely could do with some work on my technique. My cousin’s mate gives me some pointers. I try them out upstairs back on the 10m wall on another 5+ climb. Now we’re talking.

I keep my hips close to the wall. I think about my moves more. I turn side on, rather than hanging spreadeagled on the wall. I see how these slight shifts of my body give me more options, they stop me from feeling like I am holding on to prevent the fall. Suddenly my arms aren’t pumping as much. I am feeling smoother and less like someone clutching for anything to hold. It’s wonderful.

We climb for just over three hours. I shower and eat dinner with my uncle and aunt at their house. We talk about the evening and decide on catching a movie. That’s the perfect way to end the day. My uncle likes action films so we watch 13 Hours: Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. It’s action packed and a good watch.

Today was pretty much a perfect day of family, physical challenge and story telling.

First impressions of Madrid (Madrid, Spain)

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My Iberia Air flight is quick, comfortable and on-time. I say my goodbyes to Paul at Schiphol Airport at make my way to my gate for the 8am departure. He will leave from another part of the airport at 10:30am to fly back home to Australia.

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It costs me just five Euros to catch the Metro into the city from Madrid’s international airport. There’s a change part-way and I find myself navigating multiple layers of Metro station to find the one that I need to get onto. But it’s okay. I’m used to this now. I’m not the same person as the one who was totally discombobulated arriving in Seoul all those months ago.

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I step off the Metro at Tribunal and am greeted with my first sight of the city proper. There’s narrow cobble-stoned streets, buildings painted in the orange spectrum and tiny little balconies. It’s like I’m in a whole new world just 90 minutes flight from where I’ve been the past weeks. It’s crazy.

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I drop my bag at the hostel I’ll be staying at and set off in search of some lunch. It’s Sunday but there’s a green grocer open around the corner from the hostel. The fruits and vegetables look so fresh and delicious, and the prices are incredibly cheap. I buy a bunch of stuff then duck across the road to the bakery where a full French stick sets me back just 60 Euro cents. I’d seen a plaza near my hostel so head back up there to eat a banana sandwich and take in the sights. Children play soccer and dogs wander dragging their leashes behind while the owners chat.

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I return to the hostel and put my groceries in the fridge before settling in for an afternoon of work. I have about four days before Mum arrives so want to make the most of it by knocking over some work. This will allow me more time to spend with my mum. It’s well and truly dark by the time I’m ready to hit the town. There’s a free rock climbing area about 4km from the hostel so that’s my destination. Out in the streets I notice the difference between Spain and every other country I’ve ever visited. And it’s most visible in one thing: couples kissing passionately on the streets as if no one were watching.

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I find my way to the bouldering wall without any trouble. It’s well lit and there are other people working out. The graffiti is disgusting and over the coming days I will learn this is a normal part of Madrid’s landscape. Personally, I hate it and it makes the city feel unloved and dirty. But for now I focus on my training. I pull off a couple of overhang moves and put my body through a good session.

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I feel invigorated so take a long winding way back to the hostel. It’s late by now but the city is still alive and kicking. I take it in and photograph some of the more beautiful buildings.

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The architecture is passionate and voluptuous. There’s no other way to describe it. Nothing could be further from Holland’s classy old styles and Poland’s romantic beauty. Here the shapes are sexy and the sizes grande

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And the lit up delicacies seem to pop up at every turn. It’s a feast for my eyes and a massive culture shock after the past month in the north. But more on that later because this is nothing compared with the culture shock I will experience later. This is just a taster … my first impression of Madrid.

Indoor climbing and more indoor climbing (Wroclaw, Poland)

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Paul has caught the rock climbing bug. He’s keen as mustard to join me at the indoor wall in Wroclaw, a short 10 minute drive from the city center. The wall is pretty cool with it’s high walls and creative overhangs. Most of the routes are set up for sport climbing but there are a few top ropes for those of us who don’t yet lead.

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Unlike in Lodz where routes were marked with coloured post-it notes stuck under the holds, here the climbs are clearly colour coded using different coloured holds. It makes it possible to identify the colour of the holds, even when you are already above them. After a few “any colour” warm up climbs I start to focus methodically on working my way as far up the grades on each rope I climb as possible. It’s busy so it’s not so easy to just change ropes but that’s okay because each rope has at least three routes. Paul takes a couple of turns up the wall too, climbing higher each time.

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There’s a very cool bouldering area upstairs in the gym. It includes some straight up the wall climbs, a massive overhand, corners and a range of styles of hold. There’s a few coaches working with their charges setting routes and encouraging improvement. I take a few turns on the wall where there is space. By the way, do not be fooled by the photo above. I just jumped on the wall to pose because there was no one using it. But here’s the thing, even just jumping up and holding onto an upside down hold every time I hit the gym will improve my head space, balance and strength for overhangs. And it does make for cool pics. Haha.

We went back to the gym the next night too for another couple of hours climbing and bouldering. Backing up was tough on my body and I definitely felt the effects of fatigue. What that did do though was force me to focus more on technique and using the big muscles in my legs, rather than the small ones in my hands and forearms. I’ll definitely have to do some more back-to-back climbing sessions when I am home.

Indoor climbing and city shenanigans (Lodz, Poland)

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Lodz has an indoor climbing gym in the Manufaktura complex. It’s only about 2km from our hotel and in the same area a most of the town’s entertainment. Paul doesn’t need to be asked twice: before I know it he’s harnesed up to belay me and I’m on the wall climbing to my heart’s content. It’s much tougher climbing alone than taking turns and, before long, my forearm are pumped and I’m sweating. This gym is nowhere near as good as Krakow and the routes are poorly set (or set by someone who assumes all climbers are over six foot tall). But I still have a great time and the challenge does me good. I have to think about the next move and how on earth I’m going to stretch my body far enough to have one foot on a hold, one hand and foot smeared on the wall and the other hand groping high with fingertips outstretched to grasp the next hold. I work out for about 1.5 hours before my arms and fingers are too sore to continue. Besides, there’s still things to see here in Lodz and we only have one night.
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As I mentioned, Manufaktura is the main entertainment precinct in Lodz. It houses a cinema (we didn’t go because it was far too busy), glitzy shopping center (as are all Poland’s shopping centers), restaurants and what looked like a nightclub. This used to be a textile factory during the days of Soviet occupation but with the fall of communism the factory also failed. According to my Poland travel app, Lodz struggled after the demise of the factory but is now working to become a tourist destination in its own right. After-all, this city was once the Hollywood of Poland, complete with star walk.

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We enjoy some time playing with the statues that line the main street. Well, let’s be honest, I play with the statues while Paul plays photographer.

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I’m not alone. While we were walking towards the meeting in this photo a group of young guys also approached to do exactly what I did. And when we passed the piano player later in the night there was a whole group of people hanging around taking photos with him. Interactive art at its best.

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As you can see, we had a bit of silly fun during our night in Lodz. The Tiger shop was still open and Paul has been wanting to see what’s inside since we first saw one in Krakow. So tonight was the night. Tiger is cool. It’s essentially a discount shop like the Japanese Daiso chain. They sell a bit of everything and it’s all quite cheap but adds up when you buy lots of things (haha). After I played with the hats, Mr Security Guard followed us around the shop like we were trouble makers or thieves (or both). The irony of his concerns is that we were almost the only people in the shop who actually purchased anything and we purchased more than any of the other people at the check out when we were up there. But hey, he’s just doing his job. And he actually added to our sense of fun because hiding our naughtiness from him became part of the game.

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We ended our day at the only desert bar that we still found open (it was after 10pm though). Despite all the chocolatey options available, I went with this fruit and ice cream treat. It was so good. It’s funny how after a while my body just craves fresh fruit and vegetables. And given that vegetables a dessert do not make, the fruit had to do the trick.

Indoor climbing (Krakow, Poland)

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I was just starting to get back into climbing before I left for Europe and didn’t want to lose motivation. So I threw my climbing harness and shoes into my pack for this trip. A quick Google search was all it took to locate the Forteca climbing gym about 10 minutes drive from our apartment. We made an appointment for Paul to get a session of instruction given that he’d never climbed before. It was interesting and I had to do some translation for the instructor (not that I speak Polish but I have climbed a lot in the past so knew the subject matter).
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The gym was amazing. While the walls weren’t high, the standard of the holds and ropes was high. While in Brisbane climbing gyms use caribeeners to tie in climbers and grigris to make belaying fail-proof, Polish gyms are old school so you use a figure eight to tie your rope to your harness and it’s bring your own belay device (I had mine with me). I was proud of Paul for giving the sport a go and pleased he was able to belay me confidently. We spent about 1.5 hours playing at the gym, including a pretty solid bouldering session on a reverse sloping wall.

The gym was so professional. Climbers trained intently under the watchful eyes of coaches who set routes for them using long poles as pointers. Children as young as 5 or 6 years old spider manned up the bouldering and climbing walls. And men and women alike with superbly toned bodies made difficult routes look simple. I learned heaps just watching them train with their calm meditative approaches; something I tried to mimic and will continue to work on because I have a long way to go.

The rest of New Year’s Day 2016 (Coevorden to Hilvarenbeek, The Netherlands)

It’s dark when my alarm goes off. I want to get up early to sneak in a New Year’s morning bouldering session at the small bouldering rocks in the park about 1.5km from my godparents’ house. We saw it yesterday on our walk.

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It’s about 7am when I reach the wall and the sky is still a deep blue. The moon and stars are the only light in the sky other than the red lights flickering on top of the electricity windmills across the nearby German border. The rock wall isn’t big but it is a fantastic place to train with a mix of natural and man-made holds.

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I work a few different problems with increasing levels of difficulty. My fingers ache from the cold (it’s probably 1’C (34’F)). But I am having fun making this the very first activity for 2016 and setting my intentions for the year. I stay at the wall for about an hour, watching the dark blue sky slowly change through the shades until the dawn proper breaks.

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I am back “home” in time to share breakfast with Paul and my godparents before my cousins arrive to go for a walk. We take a turn around parts of Coevorden that we missed yesterday (hard to believe we missed anything given the town is so small).

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But there’s a park and an animal petting zoo and my cousin’s soccer club where his family has a special plaque on the ground.

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And there’s the Vancouver House, which is said to have inspired architecture in Vancouver, Canada. My family tells me about how Vancouver was established by people from Coevorden and that this is why the city has that name (literally translated to “from Coevor”. The Vancouver House is quite cool with it’s drooping walls and higgeldy piggeldy angles.

The New Year’s Day swim takes place in the affternoon. No one else in my family participates and apparently they never have. After the swim, we say our goodbyes to my godparents and cousins, traveling back to Zwolle with my cousin who lives there. She takes us to the train station where we catch a late afternoon to Tilburg. The train ride is uneventful but for the thick fog that rolls in, reducing visibility to nil outside the windows. This is more normal for Holland.

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My grandmother picks us up from the train station in Tilburg and drives us to our B&B in Hilvarenbeek, the village she lives in. After a shower we walk down the road to her house. It’s easy to find because I pretty much now the address by heart, having sent my grandmother post cards from every place I’ve ever visited over the past 8 years. It’s wonderful to see her and to see her home in real life. We eat eggs with tomatoes and I introduce her to Paul. I hope they like each other because with any luck they’ll be in each others’ lives for a fair while. We while away some time chatting before we again find our eyes struggling to stay open and we have to toddle off home. I have to say, the constant changes from cold outside to warm inside are making me feel sleepier than usual. Something that continues to bother me even now a fortnight later (I am writing this post on 15 January).