The Traveller Returns Home – Part 1

(Rock Werchter 2007 - yes, we looked that good!)
G’Day Folks!

Greetings once again from back on the far side of the world, The Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia.

Before I go any further, I’d like to thank those people that had so much positive things to say about my column; and some of you weren’t even related to me! (You know who you are) It is great to hear (and quite humbling) that some people back home are getting a little enjoyment from my amateurish attempts to be a writer.

Now some of you may already know that I, along with my girlfriend Krissy, have been on a little bit of an extended vacation for the past few weeks (hence the lack of activity on the weekly column!)

For four weeks, we took in the delights that Belgium, Amsterdam, Taipei and of course, my – as well as your - beautiful homeland had to offer.

Presently, after just over a week back Down Under, things have calmed down enough for me to get reacquainted with the intimidating, flashing cursor on my laptop screen as my words chase it across the empty, unforgiving, white blankness.

So here it is - as I offer a (hopefully) brief synopsis of the past few weeks. Although I do feel a two-part series in the making…

Saturday, 23rd June, the night before departing Brisbane, it was a very excited couple that packed their backpacks in preparation for the journey. Even Krissy’s mother got involved in all the excitement as she frantically washed and dried clothes that we simply couldn’t travel without.

Many items that, of which it has to be said, were not employed throughout our trip at all; the unnecessary extra baggage something that I was to curse as we ran through Amsterdam train station frantically trying to get to the airport on time.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

With backpacks packed, we cracked open a bottle of red and toasted our upcoming vacation and spent the rest of the evening excitedly talking about all the things we had planned.

And there was plenty to talk about.

The following four weeks would see us firstly spend eight days back in Belgium, where we were to hang out with some of my closest friends and go to the annual Rock Werchter festival, the barn-storming five-day event which sees upwards of 90,000 sweaty Belgians – with a few foreigners thrown in as well - in a field watching some of the biggest bands on the planet.

Apart from it being the finest music event that I have ever experienced and something that I have enjoyed for the last 6 years, it is also important to me for a couple of other reasons.

Firstly, my birthday always falls at the same time of the year. This year’s ‘celebration’ was to bring me to the halfway of my biblically-allotted time on God’s Green Earth at one score, fifteen years young.

Secondly, the festival was where Krissy and I had met the previous year and a lot has happened in those intervening twelve months, not least of all of course, my departure from Europe for the Southern Hemisphere to live on the other side of the world with her. So it was our first anniversary of sorts. Bless.

After that, we were heading across to spend twelve days in Northern Ireland, quite possibly the longest period of time that I have spent home in the past 10 years.

Our time there was to be spent hanging out with my lovely family, to do some sight-seeing and of course to take part in the Twelfth of July celebrations - bonfire, parade, the whole nine yards.

This has always been a hugely important event for my father’s side of the family - especially seeing as he shares his birthday with it. Or it shares his birthday depending on who you listen to. As a kid I used to listen to him but now that I’ve all grown up I know a lot of what my dad says has to be taken with a huge pinch of salt!

Following that, we were to spend two nights in ‘Amsterdamage’ and then break up the long trip back to Australia with a 24 hour stop-over in Taipei, before arriving back in Brisbane International airport at nine am on Friday 20th July.

After working hard in the weeks leading up to our trip to ensure that our desks were cleared we were more than ready for the vacation. However, the work offered some welcome distraction as I deliberately gave the trip scant thought as the months slowly turned to weeks turned to days leading up to our departure.

As the date loomed ever closer and with us having stayed in on many an occasion to save up our measly Aussie dollars to survive a month in Euro and Pound land, I can honestly say that the excitement became almost overwhelming that Saturday night. Of course it could have been the red wine – a particularly fruity number, priced at around a whole three pounds.

But now, NOW, the trip was most definitely on. Needless to say, we didn’t sleep too well that night. Even with the wine in our system.

**

For anyone that hasn’t realised already, Australia is a long, long, LONG way from Ballyclare but I don’t think even I appreciated just how far I was from home.

The first leg of our trip – a monstrous forty-one hour door to door trip involving planes, trains and automobiles soon put paid to that; and that was only to get me as close to home as Antwerp. Ballyclare would have to wait for another few days.

I would just like to say now to the people of Ballyclare that Belgium really is a fantastic country - definitely not the boring place that I imagined it to be before my career choice unexpectedly took me there. (And no – I’m not on commission!)

Any country that offers a colourful history with grand and glorious architecture, fantastic restaurants on every corner, enough clothes shops to keep even the most fashion conscious interested and – ahem 24-hour drinking – is a country that most definitely gets my vote.

On top of this, in my experience the Belgians are wonderful people – very modest, humble and extremely laid back but with a wicked sense of humour thrown in for good measure. I look back at my seven years spent there with very fond memories. Needless to say, I was extremely excited to get back in amongst my old stomping ground.

So, after dropping our luggage off at our friends’ house in the centre of Antwerp, jumping into a quick but much needed shower, there was only place for us to go to start our vacation, my ‘local’ in the city, Café Old Trafford.

Being a Liverpool supporter, I made a promise to myself to never, ever drink in the place but after being coerced by a drinking partner a couple of years ago, I’ve never looked back; except for the rare time that Liverpool beat ManYoo.

I met some of the loveliest people on the planet in that place - and not all of them even supported ManYoo.

Getting into the bar around two in the afternoon, we were proudly shown the refurbishment work that had taken place in the bar in my absence (in no small part funded by myself I’m sure) by the owners, an English guy called Gerald and his lovely Flemish wife, Gisele, who are affectionately known to the customers as the ‘G-Team.’

The bar – painted Man United red of course – is awash with all sorts of football-related memorabilia, with much of it unfortunately of the Man United flavour. But I’m also pleased to report that a whole wall is dedicated to our favourite son, George Best.

On the “George Best Wall” there are many items that have been contributed by the two proud members of the Green and White Army that frequent the place - my mate from Newtownards who has lived in Antwerp for 13 years and of course yours truly.

These range from Northern Ireland flags, scarves and pictures of the Great Man himself, one of which was supplied by my mum, as well as a Ballyclare Comrades pennant that I crow-barred onto the wall before I left. I was pleasantly surprised to see a wee photo of me outside Sydney Opera House had magically joined my much more illustrious compatriot up on the wall as well.

The afternoon continued in high spirits and it is not without a certain amount of embarrassment that I inform you that I soon fell to the evils of jet-lag. Or could it have been my emotional and enthusiastic reunion with my Belgian girlfriend, Stella Artois?

Either way, this soon-to-be-35-year-old Ballyclarian was walked - or as she likes to put it, carried, home at ten in the evening mid-party by his younger (and a lot more sober) Aussie girlfriend.

A couple of days later, after catching up with some of our other friends in similar drunken environments it soon came the turn of the Rock Werchter festival.

You’ll be pleased to hear that I won’t bore you with most of the gory details (and believe me, there are many) from those five days. Suffice to say that we had a great time, getting our freak on to such luminaries from the music world as Pearl Jam, The Beastie Boys, The Killers, The Kaiser Chiefs, The Chemical Brothers, Faithless, Queens of the Stone Age, Muse and Metallica.

However, the highlight of the weekend had to be the time spent enjoying the performance from our fellow country-men, Snow Patrol. Your two proud ambassadors from our wee country put on our “wee Norn Iron Taps” and brought our “wee flegs” to the festival especially for this performance.

And don’t Snow Patrol know it.

Bedecked in our green, we, along with our very understanding female companions, wormed our way through the masses to take our – as we thought rightful - place at the front to welcome “Our Band” on stage.

As soon as they appeared on stage, the flags went up and the two of us guldered the way only people from home can to welcome them into the festival.

There was no escaping us as Gary Lightbody and the boys took to the stage. Lord knows what they, or the Belgians, made of it all but I have subsequently heard that we made it onto Belgian National TV. The gospel of Our Wee Country spreads proudly throughout the world!

The only thing that would have been better was if our very own Andy Cairns and his band Therapy? had performed as well. Incidentally, Therapy? have performed at Rock Werchter more times than anyone else – a record that they share with REM, no less.

The day after the festival, we had to take our fragile, rock-festival-abused bodies, straining under the weight of our backpacks by train from Antwerp to Schiphol Airport, near Amsterdam.

According to my itinerary, the flight left at 13:15, so the 10:30 train would have been time enough. However, past travel experiences have taught me that it is always better to allow for the unexpected, so with that in mind we caught the 09:30 train which was to take us directly to Amsterdam airport.

Thanks to technical difficulties, our train was first delayed, and then diverted; we had to change trains twice only to be taken to Amsterdam Central train station instead of the airport.

Arriving into the train station, with the time seconds before midday, we had less than an hour and a quarter before our flight was to leave. So, with trains leaving every fifteen minutes, we made a mad dash from our platform to the platform where the 12:00 train was only seconds from departing.

With my overweight backpack slowing me down, it was touch and go getting on the train with the automatic doors almost closing on my backpack as the train departed. Breathing heavily, but relieved nonetheless, we made the short trip to the airport and arrived with 25 minutes until check-in was to close.

Dashing through the airport, we frantically scanned the departure boards to see where we had to check-in. Only to find that there was absolutely no mention of our flight.

Heart sinking, I assumed that we had missed it, so we made a heartbreaking trek to the EasyJet desk to try and arrange a flight home for the following day. When I asked what time the flight to Belfast left, I received a rather confused response from the girl as she explained that the flight didn’t leave until 16:15.

Feeling the death stare of my beloved burning holes in the back of my head, I turned round to face the music which of course, I rightly deserved. Still, at least we hadn’t missed the flight, and so it was that a hung-over, exhausted couple retired to the bar to pass almost 4 hours of time before I was to finally head home.

The trip to the centre of the universe that is Ballyclare was back on!
Please bear with me as next week I recount the tale of my long awaited trip home. Thanks for listening.

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