Why? As part of my travels around the world which began in March 2010, I decided that it would be not only useful but necessary to be able to speak some Spanish, since I had planned to visit Venezuela.  My knowledge of the language was near enough as inimal as it could be so I figured I ought to learn a few phrases and words to help me get by at least the introduction to new people without too much embarrasement.

I have cousins dotted across the world and more than I realised pre-travelling live in Venezuela, either in the capital city, Caracas, or in Merida state which mostly lies to the south east, but also contains some, of the Venezuelan Andes.  Before visiting the country, y adventures had taken me to Australia for seven weeks then to New Zealand for three weeks (nowhere near long enough in retrospect, but I shan’t dwell on that mistake).  For those ten weeks I could happily and confidently get by easily and by myself, ordering food at a cafe and meeting new people an asking directions with no problem.  From that point of view it was no different from home.  I did, however, get quite a shock when I couldn’t freely articulate what I wanted to in Venezuela.  Duing my three weeks in New Zealand I attempted to learn from a set of free CDs that came free with The Guardian newspaper and used the accompanying phrase books to support the audio.  Sadly this attempt wasn’t very well sustained and I dismissed the language (or at the very least the method of learning) all too quickly.  Instead I wanted to focus on having the best time possible on the English-speaking part of my trip.

So when I arrived in Buenos Aires for my 12hour stop-over between Auckland (NZ) and Caracas (Venezuela) I had very little local language to get me from the airport to my hostel and in fact it was probably the most fraught part of my trip to date.  I had to resort to gesticulating wildly and using that terrible method of speaking slowly in English, as if that may help.  Thankfully, I somehow managed to book myself transport to and from my hostel and was 100 pesos the poorer.  After my plane landed at 3.20pm and before my connecting flight to Caracas at 7.30am the next morning,  managed to spend just 8 hours in my hostel – the rest was in some ugly, lonely, transient place where I felt dumb, deaf and blind.  The lack of language, it seemed, had got to me.

Determined not to allow myself to be in such a position again, I spent the flight trawling through several chapters of my ‘Learn Basic Spanish’ audio on my iPod but the lack of sleep the night before soon erased any concentration I had.  So I landed in a Spanish speaking country with knowledge of only 4 or 5 Spanish words: gracias, buenos dias/noches, por favor, si/non… that was about it.  Thankfully I had arranged to stay my first week with a cousin who spoke fluent English and who I had met several times before, and the second week with her brother who also had English as his second language.  In their company at least I could feel relatively at ease.  The upper-class chamber music concert and 4 hour lunch, the First Communion of two young relatives and several meetings with cousins I had never met before would change that feeling of comfort, however.  Over two weeks I was thrown into a mix of not only strange food and culture and a corrupt political situation evident in daily life but also the unfamiliar challenge of finding a way to communicate.  My childhood summer holidays were spent with my parents and siblings in the south of France.  I had been taught French ever since I was 5 years old, through private tuition, secondary school classes, pen pals and exchanges as well as first hand through interacting with French friends and locals we met on holiday.  French to me is an easy second language that I was brought up with a used to speak often.  I am by no means fluent but I can happily and confidently get around most situations I come across in a French speaking country.  In Venezuela I was suddenly caught off guard by the debilitating feeling that the inability to converse suffocated me in.

Over the two weeks I spent in the country, I repeated words I heard frequently (e.g. ‘claro’ = of course/sure/obviously) and made an effort to include them in my half-English-half-Spanish phrases.  While I had become accustomed to the stares (my blonde hair and fair skin make me stand out a mile in a country infrequently visited my tourists), the locals such as shopkeepers and security were less than sympathetic.  I did find some comfort, however, knowing that my attempts at Spanish were enough to keep the relatives happy.  To them the fact that I was making an effort was pleasing enough.  By the end of it all, my Spanish vocabulary may not be fluent or even count as basic conversational Spanish, but I certainly expanded my understanding of the language and its formation and became atune to rise and fall of the intonation.  I feel I could recognise somebody speaking Spanish and although I couldn’t converse with them it is something of a step in the right direction.

I’m kicking myself I didn’t learn it at school, though!

Why? Throughout my final year at Uni, the photographs that I took were predominantly for the purpose of supporting stories in the Forge Press, the University of Sheffield‘s student-run newspaper.  As a result, the types of images I found piling up on my laptop were not the sort I would normally choose to take.   I loved having different stories to focus on and meet a whole new bunch of people, as well as a great excuse to put down my revision pen and pick up Colin and a spare battery before heading out the door to shoot something new.  It was all lovely and dandy, although my pre-Forge creative stuff took a back seat as a result.  My photogaphic mind became rather schizophrenic.  This was fine, until after Uni when the demand for documentary and events photography came to an abrupt end along with my degree.  What was left over was a somewhat poor excuse for a creative mind, with a bit of an identity crisis on top of that.  I wanted to get back into my stride so I looked to Flickr for inspiration.  Plenty of Flickr contacts and friends had been giving “365” a shot: taking a photo a day for a whole year (occassionally self-portraits).  I knew it was too ambitious a challenge for me and that I simply didn’t have the stamina, creative or otherwise, to sustain something quite so prolongued.  Instead, I decided to do it for a month and Project 31 was born.

The beginning of the next month came and went, and the next, and over time the idea fizzled out.  Aha, Christmas time – the perfect occassion for photographs – except that my family’s spirit was not so festive and a lot of troubles around that time knocked the art out of me.  The next big thing was New Year.  Yes, I would start the project then and begin the year with a fresh mind, clear head and all that.

January 1st 2010: Wallpapering

January 1st was a Friday and, with a foggy-not-fresh champagne head, I was woken up by the sound of hoovering.  It seems my father had taken up the next instalment in a series of DIY tasks.  One by one, yucky floral wallpaper strips filled his bedroom walls.  He (and the wallpaper) didn’t make a good model, so the pasting brush had to do.  The concept of “Project 31” was to capture an image that summarised something unique to each day and write a few sentences about it.  A daily snapshot through my eyes began to build up and I thought it warranted its own Set on my Flickr photostream.

The photographs are far from being masterpieces or particularly captivating but I enjoyed having a reason to take photographs again.  January was a good month, and February an even better one, for photographs.  Long may the creative momentum last.

Wish #9: Pass my driving test

February 21, 2010

Why? Driving offers a new world of independence and it’s something I feel ready for.  When I was 17 all my friends were eager to get behind a wheel and break free from their adolescent, parent-hating ways and become mature young adults.  Thankfully I never really had a rebellious teenage phase; I agreed with my parents and got on with my siblings.  When it came to learning to drive, though, I just didn’t feel ready at all.  With a new confidence and belief in myself after 3 years at University, I decided I was ready to take the plunge and learn to drive.

The essentials for learning to drive

I telephoned my sister’s old driving instructor, 8 years after she took her test, and was told that he’d retired.  Instead, I was recommended a guy name Haydn, so I gave him a call and we arranged a first lesson to see how we got on.  He seemed very friendly on the phone but little could calm my nerves when I first got in his car.   He drove us to a quiet road and we parked up near a big oak tree protruding through a garden fence.  Then he said we were going to switch seats. The prospect of me having to get in on the wrong side of the car terrified me.  Although I’d seen them countless times, the dials and lights and buttons felt alien to me.  In fact it felt like a spaceship; how on Earth was I going to make this machine move?  Haydn didn’t realise what he was letting himself in for.

Still, some sketches of the clutch and correct road position etc made me a little more confident and I began learning from the word ‘Go’.  Within no time, I was familiar with all sorts of expressions: ‘ten to two’ and ‘find the bite’ formed the very beginnings of my new Car Language.  Somehow, after only 20 minutes of me being in the car, I was making it move forwards, in a straight line and relatively safely, which felt like a miracle in itself.  A new patch of road opened up to me and my heart pounded as the realisation that I was actually driving a car dawned on me.

For the first few lessons we stuck to the same familiar quiet roads and practised a few of the basic technical stuff until I was ready to be let loose on busier roads.  My first encounter with a roundabout was horrific and I still don’t like them much.  The quick-thinking and decision-making sent me all a-fluster and it wasn’t something I was good at.  Haydn kept me calm and talked me through things slowly and he really made sense.  Having him sitting next to me was a real lifeline and the prospect of one day not having him in the car seemed unimaginable.  It didn’t take us long to become well acquainted and he realised I was a bit of a nut case, so our mindless nattering made me look forward to my lessons.  He really built up my confidence and he has the patience of the most saintly of saints.

My flawed but loyal Ford Fiesta, Howard, added another dimension to learning to drive.  He may look pretty in his shiny dark blue coat but underneath he’s a croaky middle-aged grump, much like my father in the passenger seat.  With my seat as far forward as it would go, the clutch pedal still felt a little too far away.  The first “lesson” I had with my Dad was as I was just getting used to changing gear and meeting other traffic, and in an empty carpark he told me to reverse.  REVERSE?  Woah there!  Travelling forwards was strange enough and he didn’t understand what I needed him to help me with.  His mentality was that he could reverse, so why couldn’t I?  His expectations of me were once again as high as the sky and I couldn’t do what he wanted, so I turned off the engine, unclipped my seatbelt and got out of the car.  I didn’t want to drive any more and my self confidence had been smashed in a matter of minutes.

It was a delicate time after that, and Haydn had a tough job getting me back to where I was.  Slowly but steadily I began enjoying lessons again and I could see the learning curve in front of me.  I happily took the car keys from Haydn and no longer needed to be forced into the driver’s seat.  Cockpit checks had become second nature and I wanted to know more, learn faster and get better.  I got to the stage where I was making mistakes and I was very aware that I could do better.  At the end of one awful lesson, Haydn told me I’d moved from “unconsciously incapable” to the “consciously incapable” stage.  Hearing those words made me upset for some reason, and it was a bit of a turning point.  I wanted to reach the “consciously capable” stage in an instant.  Lesson after lesson from then on, I made a mental note of things I had learned that I didn’t know how do to before.  Spirits lifted, I was becoming a much better driver.  All too soon, though, my time with Haydn was coming to an end: four more lessons before my practical test.

Haydn told me he was going to have shoulder surgery and that he couldn’t continue teaching me.  It felt like a massive blow to the chest and I couldn’t help but feel lost.  He said he’d ask another instructor to get me “test ready” but I didn’t want anybody else.  He’d been the one on that took me to the big tree on my first day and the person reminding me why I wanted to learn to drive, after the incident with my Dad.  Haydn spoke fondly of Evan, my new instructor.  I was told he was 28 years old and quite reserved but a “very nice lad”.  Nice enough, in fact, for Haydn to joke about the idea of he and I getting along so well that I’d want to marry him.  I was dubious – I don’t like change – but Haydn was right.  I don’t want to marry Evan but the transition between instructors went much more smoothly that I anticipated.  It was even good practise to get used to having an unfamiliar person in Haydn’s place before my test.

Test day came and I was feeling nervous – really nervous.  I treated it like an academic exam and told myself that fretting wouldn’t do any good.  Stay calm, breathe, it’s no big deal, just do the best I can.  Pretend it’s another lesson. So I did… and it paid off.  Pulling into the test centre after the longest 35 minutes of my life and I was so pleased to see Evan waiting for me, folding his arms and beaming a proud smile at me before I’d even turned the engine off.  It was as though he knew something I didn’t.  I waited in silence as the examiner filled in bits of paper and got something out of his file.  Then, these lovely words: “Right then Olivia, I’m pleased to tell you that you’ve passed your driving test today —“.  Everything he said after that sounded muffled.  I didn’t do a very good job of concealing my happiness from Evan through the windscreen.   Lots of bits of paper and leaflets were handed to me and it was all a bit of a blur.  Before I knew it Evan was giving me a lift home.  It was a good day, I couldn’t quite believe I had passed.

I really like Evan, he’s a great instructor and Haydn couldn’t have given me a better replacement.  But after all of Haydn’s patience and hard work from Day 1, I really wanted him there to see me pass.  As soon as I got home, he was the first person I called.

Why? I have a friend that is part of the Birkenhead Operatic Society Trust (BOST), a local company that put on annual musicals, Christmas carol services and perform at private events.  I love seeing her perform and I’m very proud of her, she’s such a star!  She was involved in the Stage Musical Society in Leeds during her University days, where their production of “Fame!” blew me away.  I do love a good musical and, in 2006, my then boyfriend and I went to London for a weekend and we saw “The Phantom of the Opera” at Her Majesty’s Theatre.  Wow, what an evening that was!  As a child I saw “Blood Brothers” at the Liverpool Empire and I have since seen it a further 4 times, during which I can’t help but sing along.  It has always been tradition since i was very young that my family and I book tickets for a play during the festive period too.  Being surrounded by theatres and musicals, and remembering the thrill of seeing a West End musical a few years ago made me long to go back to London and see another.

My friend in University of Leeds productions of stage musicals "Anything Goes" (L) and "Fame!" (R)

One weekend in January, my Mother and I had planned to visit our cousins living in London as a graduation present. Part of the present was seeing a West End show and, after much deliberation, we settled on “Billy Elliot: The Musical“.  Travelling south by train, I got excited looking out of the window at the changing landscape and felt glad to have a weekend of my Mum all to myself.  We checked into our hotel, had lunch with a friend then went to see our cousins in the afternoon.   Wanting to spend as much time with family as possible, we ended up not leaving ourselves much time for a nice dinner out.  Instead we rushed a sandwich and looked online at the journey from the hotel to the Victoria Palace Theatre.  Marching down Vauxhall Bridge Road, we realised we’d skipped the pre-theatre drinks that we’re used to and debated whether or not to reserve drinks for the interval.  Instead, in the most snickering, naughty schoolgirl fashion, we nipped into a newsagents and bought ourselves a couple of one-glass bottles of wine.

Mum and I outside the Victoria Theatre

Feeling rather giddy as we swigged our wine on the move, we finally found the theatre and joined the back of the queue.   It was clear that the other audience members waiting to be served were divided into one of two categories.  People were either foreigners visiting London for a spot of culture, identifiable by indecipherable languages, or had bought a package deal online, easily spotted by the A4 printed e-tickets that had to be handed to the beefy guys at the theatre doors.  My mum and I were members of the latter category.  On hearing people ahead of us being asked to open their handbags for inspection, I thought of the wine bottles in my bag and panicked.  I did my best to hide them and it took a big grin and a shameless compliment to Security to get us in.  I got us two glasses of ice from the bar and as we settled into our seats, I poured us each a lovely drink (below the level of the seats in front in case anybody spotted our antics).

“Billy Elliot: The Musical” is very much like the original film.  The storyline didn’t deviate and the songs were very apt.  There were some scenes which disappointed me a little since the film equivalents were so poignant (the toilet cubicle scene with Billy and the ballet teacher, Mrs Wilkinson, in particular).  Still, there were very moving moments, catchy songs, heart-breaking scenes and witty jokes, as well as beautifully portrayed ballet.  If you can look past the exaggerated “Geordie” accent, it’s a really fantastic show to see.  My mum and I both loved it, and it was a perfect choice of musical.   I’m glad we didn’t go for a heavy classic like “Les Miserables” in the end, which we were tempted to do, since Billy Elliot was so fun and made the trip to London well worth it.

Why? I feel as though my family is small, since there aren’t many of us living in the UK.  I’m aware that I have an extensive family on my mother’s side who mostly live dotted around the globe.  Whilst this is incredibly convenient and inspirational for my round-the-world travel plans, I’m eager to reconnect with the relatives I have here at home, in England. The last time I saw my cousin Becca and her husband, Dan, was when their first child, Eva, turned 1.  My one remaining grandparent (my mother’s mother), my Oma, lives in Nottingham and Claudia (cousin Becca’s mother) lives in London, not far from Becca and Dan.  We all met up at a grand location in Tixall, Cheshire, as a reunion and to celebrate Eva’s birthday.  Three years have passed since then and it’s about time we met up again.

Cousin Becca and her daughter, Eva (Tixall)

After booking a trip to London less than two weeks before departing, my mum and I were eager to get on the train and head south.  We arrived on a saturday to a bustling Euston station and found our way to our City Inn Westminster hotel which was excellent.  Free Wi-Fi and complimentary The White Company toiletries anyone?!  I met a friend for lunch and a catch up then my mum and I walked to meet Becca, Dan and the kids in the cafe of The National Gallery.  Our brisk 20 minute walk took us past the monumental Houses of Parliament, the limestone Westminster Abbey, Big Ben and the London Eye, a heavily guarded Downing Street and countless other statues and monuments that we sadly didn’t have time to look at since we were running a little late.  Finally, to Trafalgar Square where we were greeted by our cousins.  Two of the most gorgeous looking children in fact ignored us for the most part and continued to squabble over pens.  It was a real treat to spend quality time with family and to catch up on their lives and exchange stories.  Ping, their two-year old boy, has a cheeky grin and a penchant for wearing dresses.  I couldn’t believe how much Eva had grown, she’s so beautifully articulate now.  It is a pleasure to call them both family.

Cousins in London (L-R): Ping, Dan, Becca, Eva.

Hugs and kisses were exchanged in Trafalgar Square after dark, and the promise to not let it be so long until we see each other again.