Boats and clouds and rainbows

Last week we went sailing. Over water that lapped and trembled, all the colours of the sky.

Past clouds stacked like tower-blocks, through a sunset that lasted an hour.

I got to steer. I loved it.

Michael looked rather dashing in his lifejacket.

I looked like a cloud myself.

We had cakes and coffee in the hull. It was great. Reminded me of one of my favourite picture books, where a girl and her little brother go sailing. They even grow plants on the boat. It’s a brilliant story. So adventurous and so cozy. Can’t remember what it’s called. The little boat we were on had everything – a kitchen, a shower, several beds. Sometimes, they sail to Scotland.

We sailed to a town where Munch used to live, Asgardstrand. I guess that means something like beach of the gods. Or, more precicely, beach of the city of the gods. We saw his house. We stood on the pier where he once stood. I thought of his clouds and curves and small dark islands.

There was a rainbow. The first I’ve seen in years.

And the clouds burned all the way home.

Days and Years

It will never be today again. Never. He would not, in all his life, make another discovery more shattering.

Randolph Stow, The Merry-go-round in the Sea

In the last few hours of being 29, the loss of my twenties felt like some kind of a death. When you are in your twenties you believe you will be in your twenties forever. That is, until you reach 28. Or, more worryingly, 29. But although I spent most of last year thinking ‘well, I’m nearly 30 now’, the actual cut-off point approached with alarming finality.

Most people tell me that being 30 is just like being 29. And it is. And it isn’t. I guess the contrast is pretty stark for me because I just passed my PhD two weeks ago. It feels pretty good to have passed, I must say. It felt pretty good to hand in, too. But in retrospect, the two months between submission and my viva were strangely liminal. Not a student, not a doctor. The thesis was finished, but not examined. I wasn’t overly worried, and made the most of the spare time, traveling and hanging out with my family and eating cake. But I feel so much better now. So much better. One identity is lost forever. But another one is offered to me, one that I can put in my pocket like a magical golden coin that no one can ever take away.

I loved my twenties. I worked as a care assistant for people who needed it. I picked some pears. I wrote some poems. And a long complicated story about a dragon. I finished quite a lot of degrees. I won quite a lot of scholarships. I learnt to fly. I climbed some mountains. I was sad for a short time but I got over it. I lived in seven different houses, in four different towns, in three different countries. I changed my mind. I crashed my car. I met my beloved. I flew very high indeed, high above the mountains and the wrinkled sea, right up to the belly of the clouds.  I moved to England. I fell in love with the dales and the grey stone walls. I gave conference papers. I moved to Norway. I wandered around Pompei, Assisi, St Petersburg, Berlin, Bergen, Petra, Budapest, Jerusalem, York, New York, Las Vegas. I slept on many people’s couches, and futons, and floors. I rode my bike in the rain.

I know I have been extraordinarily lucky. And there’s nothing to say I can’t keep doing any of those things. Although I hope I will never again need to do so many degrees! Numbers and years remind one quietly of mortality. The thirties might be very different. But that’s just fine.

More flyings


That’s me.

And there are the gliders zooming around the cliffs.

The view into Monaco.

The view towards the landing beach. The beach is long, but there are hazards. Picnicking families. Recently landed gliders. The sea. The cliffs. And, er, a small and thankfully very clean stream right in the middle of the beach. I landed right next to it and dipped the edge of my glider into it not once but twice…

Coming in to land.

Landing! (This time my glider came to rest a full metre away from the stream. Hurrah. Possibly still need to work on that…)

Photo credits: Michael. It also must be said, he gets the taxi credits too. The shuttle bus wasn’t running till yesterday, and he has done more than his fair share of driving me up the mountain! I had three flights today, including a lovely thermal flight of nearly an hour. Michael had two flights, including a long one. Yesterday I had two short flights (15-20 min), and M had one long one. On Dec 29 I had one flight, and on the 30th I had two, the first one from the east-side launch in mild cross-wind. (Have included all these details for the purpose of our log-books, which we left at home.)

All in all it’s been great fun. There are loads of Germans and Austrians and Swiss here at the moment, which makes it a bit easier to understand what’s going on. It’s a nice change from indecipherable French. Michael said everyone must think I’m a bit strange for flying in my green coat (didn’t have space in my bag for two coats, and didn’t want to do without my green one). Most people have flying coats or suits or walking jackets. And true to form, a German approached me on the beach as I was folding up my glider, asking if I was wearing a flying coat. I was worried he was going to tell me I was doing something wrong, but he just wanted to tell me he really liked it! Heh.

An eventful journey

Today we explored a windy Monaco. (I mean windy as in lots of wind – but I guess the streets are windy as in curvy too.) There are extremely posh Christmas decorations. The buildings are a strange mix of extravagant and tumble-down. A miniature apartment will cost you two million euros.

There are steps and elevators everywhere. Driving (and helping whoever is driving avoid crashing into cars or pavements or the walls of the underground car park) is terrifying. Locals park their cars on footpaths, half a centimetre away from stone walls and the cars behind them. But the sun shone brilliantly and from the window of our warm apartment it looked positively summery.

Getting here was another matter altogether. We drove up from Barcelona, setting off at about half past four on boxing day, planning to get half way. (What were we doing in Barcelona, I hear you say – cheap flights.) It rained and rained. The motorway was closed because of snow, and we were re-routed around the coast. We drove slowly, taking comfort in the caravan of other re-routed traffic. As we descended into a seaside town, I looked down at the fierce white waves through the blackness. The ocean’s going crazy, I said. We drove lower and lower, towards the sea foam. The road was on a cliff above the sea, but the waves were reaching it. Traffic slowed to a snail’s pace. I was afraid. It was a different fear from a customary – oh this is a bit hairy but we’ll be ok. It felt like there was a small but undeniable possibility that things could go badly wrong. A wave buffeted my window. I decided that being swept out to sea in a little car would not be my preferred way to go. And then another wave, huge, hovered above us before smashing down and completely engulfing the car. The car didn’t budge, but we couldn’t see a thing. When it cleared, we inched forward. Shortly after this we reached the town centre, and it was clear that the worst weather had already passed. The beach and the roads were covered in rubble. Two telescope machines – you know the ones you put money in and then you can look out to sea – were completely smashed. The police directed us onwards, upwards, towards snowy roads that snaked around the cliffs.

We kept passing abandoned cars stuck in the snow. Again the worst had passed, and we travelled on without a problem. The motorway was still closed. The third time we tried to rejoin it, we had to negotiate our way through a traffic jam of cars that wanted to go the other way (the road toward Spain was shut). Finally, we made it on to a near-deserted motorway. On the other side, a long, silent line of at least one hundred lorries had decided to call it a night.

Looking at the bright blue sea, you’d never know.

The view from the sky

Here are some photos of our two gorgeous flights last Sunday. (Yes, I realise not everyone is as obsessed with this as I am, but bear with me.) That’s the launch site. It’s covered in carpet and is smooth and beautiful. (You don’t want too many stones and twigs and things, as they get caught in your lines.)

And here’s someone taking off (not either of us, but isn’t he elegant!).

And that’s the view from the sky. There were lots of pockets of lift around, and I managed to stay up for about forty minutes. Michael took the aerial shots, though. Here’s the view in the other direction, over Monaco. It’s a bit hazy from the sunlight.

We flew over houses and skyscrapers and tennis courts and swimming pools and highways and trainlines. The best fun of all was zooming around this hotel. How’s that for a swimming pool?

Then, when it’s time to land, you fly over the beach. The water is blue and clear and mesmerising. You have to fly quite low over the water in order to get low enough to land on the beach. This is a little disconcerting, as whatever happens, you don’t want to land in it!

Over the water, the air is quiet and silky. Then you turn in, and there is the small matter of not landing on the sun-bathers. They seem to have no fear. Luckily, we didn’t disappoint.

It was still warm after our last flight, and having forgotten our swimsuits, we made use of the nudist corner of the beach to jump right in, before watching the sun set over the mountains. A perfect day.

Sea Song

Walking by the sea in the strong air

you think of girls who lie pebbling

the small rocks

who wait the echoing nights

by the hard sea’s moan.

You’ve seen them often

at the edges of sleep –

the girls with wind tangling

their hair and their skirts, waiting

not for war or love

or the tall ships battering

their grey stone coasts

or lonely eyed sailors

with gold caskets and cloth

from failing empires, jewels

from mountains beyond the sea.

They burn smoky sea weed

to warm the slow nights

the quick fading footprints in sand.

In your mind they wait

among red anemones with pointed hands,

driftwood shaped like water

and the salt bleached shells

hollowed by fingering waves.

Your songs twist in their ears

slip like pearls from their necks

but they wait to risk drowning,

to grow gills and slip to the old world

far from waves and wind

and sailors and their lonely eyes.

I wrote this several years ago, but Fifi’s lovely posts about the ocean, such as this one, and especially this one, made me remember it.


We hired a car over Easter and did two trips down the Swedish coast, one trip to the islands near Fredrikstad, and one trip on the ferry across the fjord into central Norway. Halden is right in the south east corner of Norway, next to Sweden. It was good to finally explore the area further afield than you can reach with a bicycle! We also spent an eminently horrible day trying to look at used cars in Oslo (me in charge of directions, not a good start…). Unfortunately the weather, which had been glorious, turned a bit nasty on us, but it wasn’t too bad.

The rocks on the Swedish coast are amazing. I love bleak landscapes – bare rock and sea and sky. It’s why I love the North York Moors, and the Dales, and the Australian desert. It was fun to get away from the pine trees. Unfortunately it was too windy for ground-handling (paragliding practice where you try to get the glider above your head and keep it there), but that didn’t stop Michael trying, resulting in several frenzied efforts to fold it up again before it blew us away.

And then on Sunday it snowed! You can see it through the windows of our flat. Snow on the spring branches of the tree outside, snow on the riverbank and the rooftops, snow on the little car.