WRITER • PHOTOGRAPHER • WANDERER

A VISIT TO OMAHA, NEBRASKA

Posted on October 16, 2014

omaha-mikki-brammer
 
The landscape that ambles past the train window is unyieldingly flat. So flat that I’m almost willing it to provide even a skerrick of topographical variation. The California Zephyr, the whimsically named train that I’m aboard, chugs towards the sunrise, which is lazily spreading its morning glow across the golden fields that hem the tracks. Sporadic, lone houses soon turn into rows, then into neighbourhoods, and soon enough the train is pulling to a lethargic halt in downtown Omaha.

Standing basically at the centre of the United States, I’m overwhelmed by the notion of just how far we are from the ocean. Having always lived within a few hours’ drive of the coast, I find it hard to fathom that I could drive for days in any direction and still see no sign of the coast. I overhear someone getting off the train behind me mention that they’re heading to the beach for the day and I wonder to myself how that could be possible. It turns out that, in Nebraska, spending the day on the side of a lake qualifies as a beach trip. I see my friend waiting for me on the platform, which, in truth, is really just a carpark. The train station itself is a tiny affair, sitting like a square Monopoly house just in front of the tracks.

The California Zephyr passes through here twice a day – early in the morning and late at night – on its way to and from Chicago and San Francisco. Aside from that, the diminutive station stays dormant all day – a sign that Omaha isn’t often inundated with visitors. And from the sea of red-and-white attire (the colours of Nebraska’s beloved college football team, the Huskers), I gather that I’m one of the few getting off the train who aren’t returning home. I’m soon made to feel like a local, however, for as soon as we get into the car, my friend hands me a bright red Huskers sweatshirt. We’re headed to a game tomorrow and she doesn’t want me being the only one not wearing the local team’s colours (to say football is huge here is being modest – on game day, the stadium in the capital city, Lincoln, has a population equivalent to the third most populous city in Nebraska).

Since it’s early in the morning, we head to Omaha’s Old Market for breakfast. Situated downtown, the Old Market comprises glorious, ageing redbrick buildings, many of which are remnants from the city’s early settlers. Back in the mid-19th century, Nebraska was right on the frontier of the Wild West, having only recently been taken over from Indian Territory. With cobblestoned streets still intact in the Old Market, it’s not hard to close your eyes and imagine hearing the clatter of horse hooves and the grating of wagon wheels trundling by. These days the buildings are home to stellar restaurants, tiny bars, charming boutiques and vintage stores of all varieties – books, clothing, vinyl, toys, memorabilia (and cowboy hats, of which I try on my very first) – meaning you could spend the entire day eating, shopping and digging through treasures and consider it well spent. Omaha’s epicurean scene has recently spread to the emerging hipster neighbourhoods of Benson and Dundee, where a fledgling specialty coffee scene has also blossomed in what once was considered an espresso dearth.

Having explored the city’s various creative pockets, later in the day we set off driving through the Nebraskan countryside. With the afternoon sun in full force, we continue for what seems like hours with still not a hill in sight. Stalks of corn cluster together tightly in fields, standing tall as if to live up to their emblematic significance in Nebraska, known as the Cornhusker state. Picturesque red barns with white awnings loom in the middle of fields, surrounded by perfectly rolled bales of hay.

Cows loiter nearby, while a mare canters regally across a field, her shining mane undulating with each graceful step. Rusting farm equipment, awash in reddish browns and weathered greens, lies in eternal rest on the side of fields, basking in the sunshine as if being rewarded for a lifetime of hard toil. We pass through a tiny one-street town, and I notice that the fields are becoming increasingly verdant. And then it appears – the elusive landscape I’ve been seeking all day. As if out of nowhere, green hills begin to grow.
 
This story was originally published in the August 2014 issue of map magazine.

A SOUTHERN COFFEE LOCALE: BARISTA PARLOR

Posted on September 4, 2014

Within the first hour of arriving in a new city, my priority is usually finding where to get the best coffee – often to the great frustration of my travel companions who can’t understand why any old cafe or gas station won’t do. But I would rather drink no coffee than bad coffee, and I love the creative spaces that often come with purveyors of speciality coffee. I first visited Barista Parlor in Nashville, Tennessee, while on a roadtrip through the Southern USA last year (beginning my love affair with the region, which I’ll talk about later!), and it instantly became one of my favourite coffee locales in the world. Housed in a converted warehouse squirrelled away on a backlot in East Nashville, the Barista Parlor milieu is filled with intricate details that were an absolute pleasure to shoot – click on the arrows to see more more images, or you can view the complete photo shoot on The Weekend Edition.

HOW TO ENSURE A LIFETIME OF ADVENTURE

Posted on August 14, 2014

a-lifetime-of-adventure

 

These days, travelling feels like second nature to me, but it wasn’t always that way. I remember the first time I travelled overseas by myself. I’d been many times with my family, with friends, and as an exchange student to study abroad, but never completely alone – where every choice, every experience, every challenge was solely mine.

As the plane took off from Australia, I remember the tears spilling down behind my sunglasses – at the time I thought it was the sadness of leaving my family, but now I realise it was more about the fear of the unknown. It was the first time I’d left my home country indefinitely (something I’ve since become adept at) and I was jetting off to live in Barcelona with very few savings and no fixed address to call home.

When I arrived in Hong Kong on a stopover, and took a crowded shuttle bus from the airport to the centre of the city and my dingy hotel, the smells and sounds were so overwhelming. That first night, I was too timid and unsure of myself to leave my hotel to find something for dinner – so  instead I ate a hearty meal of the chocolate-and-apricot muffins my mum had baked me for the plane trip. I remember how scared I was that night of everything that lay ahead of me. But little did I know, it was the beginning of an amazing adventure that changed my life forever and taught me that travel would always be an irrefutable part of my destiny.

When travelling becomes a normal part of your life, it’s very easy to keep going back to your favourite places. So for many years now, I’ve had a goal: to always have travelled to as many countries as years I’ve lived. My theory is that, this way, I’ll always be putting myself out of my comfort zone, experiencing cultures I’ve never even heard of and seeing the world through new eyes. At 33 years old, I’m currently ahead in my tally of countries visited, but given that there are 196 countries in the world, I hope that, by the end of my life, I’ll have experienced far more countries than years. And above all, I hope that I’ll still be finding plenty of adventure.
 
Can you remember the first time you travelled abroad by yourself?

A ROADTRIP THROUGH ALBANIA

Posted on August 7, 2014

“Don’t worry about the rattling sound in the engine,” the rental-car attendant assures us as he hands us the keys. We are already a little concerned due to the fact that the Tirana airport’s rental-car yard is actually behind an old shed guarded by a rather angry-looking dog on a chain. With only one other car in the lot, we wonder if we were lucky to secure one of the last available vehicles, or that there are actually only a few rental cars in rotation due to Albania’s diminutive presence on the tourist map.

We set off from the Tirana airport – two girls on an impromptu roadtrip through Albania, inspired by tales of its pristine beaches (and me needing to vacate the EU to come back to France on a tourist visa). We had been planning to hire a GPS with our rental car (not possible) and, failing that, use our phones to navigate (no service). So we are left with an illustrated tourist map sought out in desperation at the airport. It’s more of an interpretive representation than an accurate one, and our only guidance from the rental-car guy is to find the main road and follow it.

We turn onto the most significant road we can find. The landscape is rather barren, sparsely dotted with the cement skeletons of houses begun and never finished. As we near a semblance of civilisation, the houses are complete but seem to be built in spite of each other. At first the vivid pinks, oranges and greens of their facades are almost aesthetically assaulting, perhaps because it’s like nothing we’ve seen before. But as our journey continues, we soon realise that the cheerful colour palette is an expression of a simple joy that radiates throughout the local community.

The rudimentary nature of our map and general lack of street signs means that we have to stop and ask for directions – often. But what is surprisingly evident is that no matter whom we stop to ask – at petrol stations, roadside fruit stalls and tiny bakeries – everyone is eager to help us. Most eye us curiously, as if it’s rare to see two girls driving alone through Albania. No one speaks English, and we’ve managed to learn only ‘thank you’ in Albanian, but fortunately the language’s roots lie in Latin, so our basic grasp of Italian, Spanish and French helps us to glean words to send us vaguely in the right direction.

Our destination is the seaside town of Vlorë, which, theoretically, we should have reached long before sundown. But consecutive wrong turns have slowed us down and we arrive just as dusk is falling, driving around frantically in search of our hotel before we are cloaked in darkness. We practically hug the concierge when she tells us we’ve arrived at the right place.

When we slide back the curtains in our hotel room the next day, the sea sparkles before us. Vlorë is to be our base for the next few days as we explore the hidden beach gems of Albania’s southern coast, and we head out towards the mountain range we must conquer in order to reach the best beaches. Virtually every available stretch of coastline is a paradisiacal cove lapped by pristine blue waters, indicating that we really needn’t travel far to experience the beach. But we’ve heard that true paradise lies beyond the mountain range in the small town of Dhermi.

Along the roadside, wildflowers sway in all directions, seemingly to their own individual rhythms. Up on the winding road hugging the mountainside, plump cows mosey precariously close to the edge, as bells hang around their necks and their tails swish happily. It’s clear who owns the roads in these parts, as we regularly stop to give way to flocks of lazy sheep, mischievous goats and the occasional timid donkey.

The aroma of wild thyme, sage and rosemary baking in the sun sails through the open car window and roadside honey stalls dot the roads that nestle in the mountain’s peaks. Near the top, an old couple shuffles down the incline. The man frailly clutches a walking stick, while the woman hoists an overflowing basket of branches on her back. Their tanned faces are like leather, yet filled with joy. I half expect them to pass them again, still trudging along, on our return journey to Vlorë.

We sidle down the mountain into Dhermi and come to a stop at a private beach bookended by two looming rocks and shaded by an enormous tree. The water is heavenly and is immediately deep only a few steps from the beach – enough for me to struggle to touch the bottom in one breath – and yet it is so clear that I can play with my shadow on the sea floor. The dramatic crescendo of La Traviata reverberates from the restaurant above the beach and across the water, as if calling out to its Italian homeland across the Adriatic Sea.

Fresh from our swim, we climb the stairs up a small ridge to the restaurant. Knowing little about what composes Albanian fare, I happily discover that the country’s close proximity to Greece and Italy results in a fusion of two of my favourite cuisines. Tucking into a stellar spread of woodfired pizza, creamy tzatziki, tart olives and Greek salad, I think I’ve discovered paradise.

 

A version of this story was originally published in map magazine. (Click on the arrows for more images.) 

A PARIS LITERARY ICON: SHAKESPEARE AND COMPANY

Posted on August 1, 2014

The lovely abode that I called home whilst in Paris sat in the heart of the sixth arrondissement, which has been the playground for many a literary great. Often when I walked down the narrow streets, I found it almost surreal that  James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Victor Hugo and other iconic residents of Paris had walked the very same footsteps as me while going about their daily lives. They drank at the same cafes, ate at the same restaurants and wandered through the same pebbled pathways of the Luxembourg Gardens. It was almost difficult not to feel their presence everywhere.

One of the most revered haunts of the literati who frequented or resided in Paris was Shakespeare and Company, in its original iterations on Rue Dupuytren and Rue de l’Odéon in the Sixth, a mere stroll from where I lived on Rue Racine. Its third and present incarnation sits on Rue de la Bûcherie overlooking Notre-Dame, and to this day is a refuge for aspiring young writers, who sit in the ageing armchairs in the bookstore’s upstairs and scribble away furiously at their latest work. I was very fortunate to be given free run of the bookstore, which is usually packed with people, for a photo shoot for The Weekend Edition. Creaking floorboards, the heady aroma of old books, and myriad nooks to squirrel yourself away and get lost in the pages of a novel – this is a definitely a visit to include on your next trip to Paris!

Click on the arrows to see more images of Shakespeare and Company.

THE INTRICACIES OF LEARNING FRENCH

Posted on July 28, 2014

learning-french

 

The mastering of a language is somewhat like a blooming plant. You never actually see it physically growing, but each day you notice new details, nuances you hadn’t seen the day before. Gradually it becomes more intricate and beautiful, adapting to its environment until one day you can’t remember a time without it.

French, though a language of beauty, is rather a fickle one. Whereas languages like Spanish have obvious rules for conjugation and pronunciation, French often defies logic just for the sake of it. For someone trying to grasp its intricacies, this can be frustrating, creating a feeling akin to swimming in a deep sea with nothing to cling to. Just when you think you’ve worked out a rule of thumb, you discover equally as many exceptions to the rule.

My first French teacher in France was a handsome polygot named Stephane. It was hard not to be swept up in his enthusiasm for the intricacies of his mother tongue. And his passion for the nuance of language was matched by that of his female students who spent lessons enraptured (though, for some, less by his wealth of linguistic knowledge and more by his deep brown eyes and charming smile).

Amongst the many things Stephane told us about the evolution of French was the fact that its origins come from a time when those creating the language wanted to distinguish between the upper and lower classes of society. In a rather snobbish turn of events, they applied somewhat nonsensical rules to pronunciation and conjugation so that only the highly intelligent or educated would know how to speak it properly. Centuries later, it still succeeds in confounding those who are learning French as a second language.

The greatest challenge occurs when you have enough of a grasp of the language to engage in social conversation, but are limited by a small vocabulary and lack of knowledge of the past tense. Many a time did I talk myself into a corner by starting to tell an elaborate story to someone at a party, only to realise that I lacked both the grammar and vocabulary to finish it. Rather than admit defeat, I would change the ending of the story to fit the vocabulary I did have, resulting in a convoluted – and far less entertaining – story that most likely left people wondering why I thought it was worth telling in the first place (and also probably questioning my abilities as a writer).

But ever so slowly, things begin to sink in. The jumble of sounds and words in your head gradually slot into place, bridging gaps of knowledge to lead you to a whole new level of communication. Suddenly it flows from your mouth without conscious thought and you wonder where it’s come from. Your brain no longer hurts at the thought of conjugating a sentence. And you don’t have to avoid telling stories.

 

P.S. If you’re currently trying to master French, the Coffee Break French podcast series is really helpful!

A NEW WAY TO SEE PARIS …

Posted on July 21, 2014

looking-up-in-paris

 

When you’re accustomed to living in a place, you can quickly get lost in the process of getting from one place to another, mindlessly walking the route you know by heart, lost in your thoughts. Even in a city as beautiful as Paris, it’s easy to wander down a street without taking any notice of the intricate details and remnants of history that surround you. If someone ever asked me the best way to see Paris, I would simply tell them to look upwards, because perched high above the goings on of this beloved city is another world entirely. It could be a glimpse of a lavish chandelier through the window of someone’s apartment (voyeurism is almost essential in Paris). Or a well-tended garden overflowing through the metal curls of a wrought-iron balcony, or identical window boxes growing the same elegant blooms across several floors of a building. It’s also where you will often find old Paris, be it in weathered signage, an engraving, or a street number that may seem like any other, but in fact represents what was once the residence of a literary great, iconic artist or revered thinker. As devout Parisian Marcel Proust was known to say, travelling isn’t about seeking new landscapes but seeing things with new eyes. And by simply looking upwards, I find my perspective shifts entirely and the city is born anew.

A SUMMER SOJOURN TO CINQUE TERRE …

Posted on July 16, 2014

Signore Lucarelli closes his eyes as he moves his hands in time, directing a steady rhythm to the imaginary orchestra that sits before him. The first movement of Mozart’s ‘Clarinet Concerto’ thunders from inside the house, filling the evening air with a passionate crescendo. One by one, the stars are twinkling awake in the night sky above us, creating a vast celestial blanket that only ever reveals itself outside urban life.

Birds natter to each other as the evening breeze swishes idly through the trees of the dense woodland surrounding us. Seated beside Signore Lucarelli at the dinner table, I smile at the contented expression etched into his face. My friend, Allegra, grins at me across the table. “This all must seem so Italian to you,” she laughs, watching as her father conducts his phantom musicians.

It does, but in the most whimsical way possible. The Lucarelli house is perched on the hillside just above the village of Framura, on the northwest coast of Italy. Surrounded by a lush garden of olive trees, hydrangea, rosemary bushes and a colourful melange of flowers, the peaceful abode – painted the salmon pink typical to the region of Liguria – is a picture of solitude, looking out onto a vast stretch of the Mediterranean. The moon is a perfectly formed crescent. “It’s included in the price of your stay,” Signore Lucarelli winks, referring to the marvel that lights up the sky.

We are enjoying dinner outside, bathed in moonlight. On the table in front of us is a delectable spread of pasta with fresh pesto, baked tomatoes with rosemary (cooked with olive oil the Lucarellis made themselves from the olive trees surrounding us) and beautiful local cheeses, known as Caciotta, accompanied by a Sicilian white wine. Dessert is fresh peaches so juicy it’s almost impossible not to slurp. It’s easy to fall asleep later that night, sated by natural beauty and sumptuous yet simple cuisine.

The next morning, as we wait on the platform at the tiny Framura train station, the heatwave that has blossomed over the past few days is in its element. It’s only 10:00 am and already Allegra and I are drenched in sweat, sighing with relief when the noisy but welcome breeze of a passing train provides momentary respite. When our train arrives, the air-conditioning appears to be on vacation with the rest of Italy, and we are left to swelter for the 10-minute journey to Monterosso al Mare, the first of the five villages that cascade down the hillside to compose Cinque Terre.

We take refuge on the shaded terrace of one of Monterosso’s restaurants, refuelling with a coffee and a fresh slice of focaccia while planning our journey for the day. I lean back in my chair and take in the architecture of the petite village, its buildings drenched in dusky pastels that offset the aquamarine sea shimmering in the morning sun.
From Monterosso, we board a small boat that will sail us past the next three villages to Cinque Terre’s other bookend, Riomaggiore. The landscape that eases past us as we glide through the Mediterranean defies logic, appearing to be precariously balanced upon hilltops and sheer cliffs. And yet, at the same time, it seems so harmonious, as if nature and architecture are incongruously one.

Our plan is to walk back through the villages, exploring each endearing laneway and charming crevice before ending the day with a swim at the beach. All good intentions; but seeing that we have chosen the hottest day of the year to embark on this journey, our priorities begin to waver. Our thoughts wander from the charms of Cinque Terre’s winsome architecture to the tantalising blue sea that laps at its feet. By the time we reach Vernazza, the final stop before returning to Monterosso, the only thing preventing us from bounding into the water is the lure of fresh gelato.

We practically leap from the train when it pulls into Framura, skipping down the steps to the beach that lies alongside the station. It’s 7:00 pm and the sun still beams in the sky, quietly pleased with its effort for the day. When we plunge into the heavenly chill of the water, I half expect to see steam emanating from our parched skin. Floating languidly for the next hour, I make a mental note to one day to return to Cinque Terre when autumn breezes will be plenty.

Weary yet content, we cram into the tiny bus that winds up the serpentine road of Framura, dropping locals off along the way. When it finally reaches the top of the hill, we are the sole sardines left in what was once a tin full to the brim. As the sun retires gracefully into the horizon – stopping only briefly to flood the sky with a spectrum of oranges and pinks – the bells of Framura’s sole church begin to ring, echoing ‘Ave Maria’ joyously across the landscape. They fall to silence just as we reach the Lucarelli’s gate, but as we navigate our way through the wild garden towards the house, the silence is broken. I smile as I see Signore Lucarelli raise his baton, as his imaginary orchestra once again comes to life.

 

This story was originally published in map magazine (you can click on the arrows for more images). You can also see the work of my lovely friend Allegra Lucarelli, who is a sublimely talented photographer in Milan, here

A PEEK INTO URBAN COWBOY B&B IN BROOKLYN …

Posted on July 13, 2014

What I love about travelling is that the best things are tucked often away from sight, seemingly unassuming until you decide to look a little further. They’re like a reward for being adventurous. Urban Cowboy B&B in Brooklyn is cloistered snugly away in a renovated townhouse in the backstreets of Williamsburg, not far from the neighbourhood’s hipster epicentre. The only thing you’re likely to notice from the street is the cheerful red door, but inside is a whimsical industrial-urban-meets-Wild West aesthetic that’ s surprisingly sophisticated and instantly makes you feel like it’s your own abode. I had the pleasure of doing a photo shoot there recently for The Weekend Edition (which you can view here) and fell in love with all the thoughtful intricate details that are scattered throughout the dwelling, including dreamcatchers and bunches of sage, a freestanding clawfoot tub and books on how to survive if you get lost in the woods. If you’re planning a visit to Brooklyn, definitely make this your pied-à-terre (and ask for the cute little cabin out back!).

 

(Click the arrows to see more images from the shoot.)

 

P.S. If you’d like to follow more of my everyday wanderings, I’m also on Twitter and Instagram!

A PERSPECTIVE ON HAPPINESS …

Posted on July 10, 2014

 

 

This is Juana. I encountered her a few years ago, while volunteering in Guatemala at Fray Rodrigo, a scarcely funded nursing home for the low-income and impoverished elderly of Antigua. To this day she lingers in my memory as one of the happiest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. Standing at less than five feet tall, Juana was deaf and couldn’t speak (though she could manage a hearty cackle), but she radiated a joy I’ve rarely seen in anyone. Her toothless grin never subsided and she would offer a hug to whomever needed it (or would take it). The residents of Fray Rodrigo were there because they had no other option – they had no family, no money and no one else to depend on. The conditions at the home were heartbreakingly basic, and you could sense a deep sadness in many of its residents, and yet Juana’s joy radiated through it all. It taught me that happiness is a choice. That, no matter what life throws at you, it’s your decision whether you choose a path of graciousness and optimism, or bitterness and sorrow – and no one can take that choice away from you. I’ll be forever grateful to Juana for sharing such a powerful lesson.

 

(Click on the arrows to view more portraits of some of the other lovely old women I met at Fray Rodrigo. You can also read my travel story about the experience, originally published in map magazine, here.)