Bart Och - Travel Journalist
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I woke up early though it must have been past midnight by the time I fell asleep. A bunch of house parties in the neighbourhood reminded me of the time I lived on the high street in Romford, a small town just outside of London. Weekends there were always loudly intoxicated and, for the most part, sleepless. I didn’t care for it at first because I would often be working till late and then, after the shift, go to one of those pubs. And it doesn’t bother me here in Rome either. I am usually quite exhausted from all the walking because we simply don’t use public transport; the nearest metro station is about the same distance as the city centre. Then, it would be a shame to commute beneath the cobbled streets and miss all the beautiful monuments in between each more recognisable landmark: opulent churches and bustling plazas with active fountains where people chow down on their fast-thawing gelatos and thin-crust pizzas and sip Aperol on ice served in old fashioned glassware. Envious and hopeful that “an ice cream a day keeps the doctor away” (is it only appropriate to say so in Italy?!), I fervently partake.

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It appears I have the tendency to turn every short evening stroll, most often down to the nearby gelateria, into a six-hour amble through town. This is easy because most places in Rome seem to stay open throughout the night or at least way past my bedtime. And there is an endless supply of refreshment in Rome, on the house – over 2,000 fountains called “nasoni”, literally meaning “large nose”, scattered throughout the city. They quench my first frequently, though I have never learnt to use them as gracefully and proficiently as the Italians do, and, almost always, I wind up looking like I take a bath with my clothes on.

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An urban legend says that if you toss a coin over your left shoulder into the Trevi Fountain, you will be guaranteed to return to the Italian capital. More than 1,000 people visit the landmark every hour to join in the wish-making ritual.

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People often say it is important to look inward in order to find the strength or meaning of life or whatever else people say. But the most enriching moments, the most enlightening experiences, what keeps life worth living, I think, are when you are looking outward, at least metaphorically. For most of us, almost all the time, we are looking inward, at ourselves, thinking about how things matter to us or because of us or with us at the focal point, concentrated on how we look and how we act and how important we are – or aren’t. But if you really look inward, there is nothing there. We are out here. In every little detail, of every little thing, in every little moment – in immersing into all the unfathomable features of the simple and mundane, and in realising, viscerally, what it means that you can perceive at all. That is where, I think, life is. I believe if there is any kind of spiritual experience, it isn’t when you look in to find yourself, but when you look out to lose yourself.

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Isn’t being religious fundamentally in opposition to science? I am a thoughtful and sceptical person, and I am not a person who believes blindly in anything. So, how is it that I believe in God, and what does that belief look like? Maybe it is easier to start with what I don’t believe God is. I don’t believe God is an old man with a beard who sits upon a cloud and grants you magic wishes if you recite the right words or feel guilty enough. I don’t believe that God can award you a parking space if you pray hard enough. And I don’t believe that God has set up some code of behaviour, and if I don’t live by it, I won’t be given my place in heaven among angels.

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The thudding and clonking rumbles riotously through the carriage. Ardent skiers in heavy boots, like armed troops, stomp into the small cogwheel train that in just under an hour will put us on the gelid peak of Rochers-de-Naye. It is the start of the Winter holidays and everyone wants to enjoy what is left of the season.

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A familiar, rhythmic “clickety-clack” sound permeates the wood-panelled carriage adorned with gold-plated decorations as the wheels roll over rail joints and squats. Terraced vineyards gently slope on one side and the chic, palm-studded Swiss Riviera stretches along the shore on the other. In and out of the morning light, we glide beside crescent-shaped Lake Geneva, or as locals prefer to call it, Lac Léman – at 72 kilometres in length, it is the largest Alpine lake in Europe explored by four submarines! The clear sky and the water appear to merge into one. Small fishing boats, heavily laden with the fruits of their labour, slink on the glimmering surface of the lake as the careening gulls gather above and await their chance to swoop on the leftover feast of perch, fera, pike, and char. Although it is only February, spring is poking its head through majestically-towering, snow-capped Alps. At just over 2,000 meters, Rochers-de-Naye’s gunmetal icy peak looms beside the train. High up, rocky outcrops crawl with pine trees that look like they were dusted with confectioners sugar.

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The view of the mountains on Hà Giang Loop in Northern Vietnam.
Photo: Hà Giang, Vietnam / December 2020 / iPhone SE 1

Two years ago, I was celebrating Christmas on the beach in Mũi Né in Southeast Vietnam. I complained about having to sleep in a tent and the sand in my hair. A year later, I was driving a motorbike in the North of the country. There, I whined about the rocky, uneven parts of the long and winding road that seem to have inspired every terrifying rollercoaster.

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Sitting on the windowsill at home in Amsterdam, Netherlands with Lagertha, the white cat.
Photo: Amsterdam, Netherlands / December 2021 / iPhone SE 1

I decided to spend about a month in Amsterdam. Recently, the Netherlands has announced a strict lockdown over Christmas amid concerns over the Omicron coronavirus variant. Non-essential public venues will be closed until at least mid-January. This isn’t the first time I am in town, so I am taking the opportunity to get some seriously long-overdue work done, meditate, finish midway-abandoned books, and drink lots of tea.

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Delicious, healthy vegan food bowl at Benji's restaurant in Amsterdam, Netherlands.
Photo: Benji’s / Amsterdam, Netherlands / December 2021 / Apple iPhone 6s

I miss Asia, primarily and not in that exact order: the nature, the weather, the people, and the food. I have been thinking a lot about where I would be right now if it wasn’t for the pandemic. I don’t think I would be here in cold and wet Amsterdam, which, by all means, is an amazing city – much nicer in the Summer. I doubt I would be anywhere near Europe, to be honest. I would probably still be in Asia.

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“There is nothing you can do, I am afraid,” I was denied boarding for the second time this year. Travelling has become particularly complex and stressful ever since the pandemic outbreak. Long gone are the days when my only concern was to make sure I got all the liquids stored in a re-sealable plastic bag and that my backpack looks as if it fits in one of those cumbersome luggage gauges.

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Victoria’s Secret quite recently became succumbed to ‘woke culture’ so that things would be getting a lot better for their brand. They will no longer be employing the disgustingly attractive supermodels known as Victoria’s Secret Angels because their body types are undesirable and a terrible influence. Instead, they hired a new team of representatives known not for their proportions but their achievements … because why should modelling be done by professional models?

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How cliché … In the French capital, the glorious city of love, while drinking café noisette, a shot of espresso with a drop of milk, and gorging on copious amounts of pain au chocolat, I felt the way you feel when your stomach flip-flops over and drops to the ground when you stare into the eyes of someone you want to spend the rest of your life with. A feeling that can be measured by the enormity of emotions that swell your heart when you hold hands and kiss for the first time.

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To most people, it seems that life on the road and all possessions jammed into a small rucksack is kind of a dream come true. The truth is a little less quaint. Backpacking is laborious and tiresome. It forces you to talk to strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comforts of home, family and friends. You are constantly off balance. You are always reminded that nothing is granted or yours except dreams, memories, the air, and the sky.

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Almost from the moment I boarded my flight, life in England became meaningless. Seat-belt signs lit up; problems switched off. Broken armrests took precedence over broken friendships. My anxieties were gone, replaced by a peculiar emotion. An emotion seeped in balance and possibilities.

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