Time and place

I’m not so keen on the idea of luck. I think good things happen to good people through some kind of sharing scheme; rewards in return for other good things, or a little extra incentive to make good on your own responsibilities to look after people. I’ve been collecting the good deeds of others over the last few weeks, and I’m now in the great position of having to repay them.

So what am I talking about? I’ll get to the point. This weekend, I enjoyed three days of all access VIP treatment at the Alpine Skiing World Championships in Schladming, Steiermark, Austria. What I did to deserve such treatment is still a matter I am trying to unravel. What I did do was buy a 20 euro train ticket on the super expressways the Austrians depreciatingly call ‘trains’. They are in actual fact, luxurious bullets of connected Wi-Fi, excellent coffee and free newspapers.

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I left Innsbruck bright and early on Saturday morning with little idea of what I was heading into. Throughout my childhood, I regularly watched the BBC TV show ‘Ski Sunday’, the 45 minutes of skiing coverage that is deemed acceptable in the UK. But through this I’d never got the chance to be one of the crazed cowbell clanging, flag flapping lunatics lining the ‘Strecke’. I put all of my warm clothes into a bag, and headed to the train station. It soon becomes apparent that although it was 5:30am on Saturday morning, I was not the only person making the Austrian pilgrimage to ski racing. The first train only had hints of what was about to hit. Occasional glimpses of cheeks bearing carefully painted white and red stripes. The sight of a schladminger being consumed very early in the morning. By the time I switched trains at Salzburg, the platform was a sea of red and white. People of every walk were crowding onto the extra trains provided to ferry the baying fans onto the slopes of the Planai Mountains. The Journey up the hill in thick snow was accompanied by ever increasing volumes of incomprehensible song and chants, and the opening of the doors onto the platform beckoned a sea of people moving up the mountain.

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40,000 people. Each of them paying at least 20 Euros for a ticket to the stadium, most of them paying much more. Every person was holding a a Gratis Austrian flag, handed out by one of the multiple companies hoping to get their logo onto TV for the biggest thing to happen in Austria for a long time.

Let’s do some explaining. The English love football, the welsh rugby. These sports consume the whole country. The Americans are the same with hand-egg. In Austria, it’s skiing. The buses are plastered with ski racers endorsing every imaginable product. The TV runs continuous analysis of the top performers, the ones to watch, the tactics, the lifestyles. The Newspapers report it in the part you can read before finishing your coffee. It’s big. For a country of Eight million, the sole focus on this sport is mind boggling.  So, having the World Championships on home soil is a very big deal. When Austria walked away from the London Olympics with no medals, of any kind, there wasn’t a national outrage, because their time is in the winter. Their athletes are held to a different set of standards, and most often, these happen within Austria. The famed Streif in Kitzbühel is normally the pinnacle of the skiing calendar, the chance for an upcoming racer to make it big with a podium place, and potentially gain lots more in sponsorship. Although this year’s Kitzbühel race was still massive, it was seen as the build-up to the World Championships, too.

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With the festivities well and truly underway, I took my place on the terraced snow banks at the top of the 40,000 other screaming fans. The snow was coming down pretty heavily, the visibility was close to naught, and the floodlights were fully lit. Although you don’t get to see much ski racing at a ski race, being that close to the racers as they negotiated the last couple turns into the finishing chute were reward enough. Let’s just say that the TV doesn’t do it justice. Although the Austrian team failed to perform, the crowd pleasing Viking Svindal took the crown with some messy looking (who am I to judge?) but powerful skiing. Great way to spend a day.

It was on Brad’s invitation that I came up to Schladming, and it was in the afternoon he was free from his duties as an officialé so we could have some beers. The odd quirk of being involved in the racing is that I knew significantly more about the days events than he did, and managed to bluff my way through a ski racing conversation with hopefully not too much exposure of my complete lack of knowledge. With the town absolutely rammed, we went back to the hotel for our dinner, and enjoyed a magnificent 6 course meal. Thanks FIS!

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Sunday morning I was lucky enough to hang a VIP pass around my neck and head to the Höhenhause; a multi-level terrace bar on the edge of the stadium, overlooking all the action. With free food all day (and no, this wasn’t a toast and cereal kind of breakfast) and endless alcohol served to your seat, I could have easily over-indulged, but I had racing to watch, and I’m not the biggest fan of champagne anyway. The sun was shining; the stands were packed again for the women’s downhill. With the reigning World Champ and plenty of other big names, the Austrians were looking to capitalise on the absence of Lindsay Vonn and finally win a medal at the championships, but again it failed to happen. Some weird snow conditions made for entertaining viewing as racer after racer crashed into the nets. The big screen makes the racing look just as tame as on TV, but when you turn and see the skiers flying down the final pitch and into the finish, you realise how difficult the rest of the course must be.

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With a hard day of spectating successfully completed, I met up with a Colorado connection to watch the medal ceremonies. Ellen is in charge of the racing at the upcoming 2015 World Championships in Vail, and thus had an ‘in’ with the producers of the TV coverage at the event. We walked into their ‘makeshift’ hospitality building to watch the podium presentations above the sea of faces looking up at us, everyone wondering why we were so special.

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I thought that was going to be the highlight of the evening, but it got better when the producer invited us upstairs to the live broadcast studio overlooking the stadium. We walked in a minute or so before they went live on air, and watched as they conducted interviews with the medallists from the women’s downhill I’d spent all day watching. The wonders of modern TV were pretty confusing at first. The host would talk to the French gold medallist in German, she would get an instant translation in her ear, respond in French, which was then translated to German for the TV audience to hear. This also happened for the Italian bronze medallist too. Crazy stuff.

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After the shock of that experience, we headed back out into the throngs of crowds dispersing from trying to get a glimpse of their stars, and walked through the beautiful centre of Schladming to the “House of Switzerland”. The big teams use these events for publicity, and obviously the best way to do this is to take a large fancy hotel in the middle of the town, and rebrand it accordingly. The House of Switzerland was serving up Swiss Raclette with Swiss wine, served by Swiss people, and surrounded by everything covered in Switzerland. It was fantastic. I hadn’t eaten proper Raclette since our childhood holidays to visit family in Geneva, and it was every bit as good as I remembered. Let’s just say that I drink a little bit more wine than the last time I ate it. Being back in Europe has reminded me that choosing your own wine is completely unnecessary, and whoever was responsible for choosing this one did a great job.

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So, it was 4:30am on Monday morning that I hauled myself out of bed and across Schladming for the 5am train to Salzburg. Changing in Salzburg, I had the most amazing view of the sun rising over the Northern Alps, as we chugged through southern Germany on the way back into the Inn Valley.

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This was taken just outside of Traunstein. It’s Beautiful; I’m adding it to my list.

Christa Came to England

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London, England. There’s a light flurry of snow on the motorway, and taillights are flashing in front of me as nervous drivers negotiate the increasing volume of traffic that appears in the shadow of the great city. I’m following road signs, an old fashioned and unpopular way to navigate in the age of mobile information, but the road signs don’t move, and I’m making good time, with only an iPod to distract me from the road ahead. The car smells fantastic. The grey and dismal outside looks cold, but the smell of the flowers on the front seat next to me is warm and colourful.

I get to the airport. Early. Eager. I’d told myself to be patient, arrive 20 minutes after the flight landed, and I’d still have time. But I got there 15 minutes before the plane was due. Christa was probably still somewhere over the north Atlantic at that point. I find a good position, bustled between families waiting for parents and children to arrive, and bored taxi drivers holding up scrawled names on dog-eared pieces of paper. I have a direct view of the sliding arrivals doors, and my heart races just a little every time they open. I know I’m too early, but I stand there anyway, just waiting.

Finally, the status board tells me the flight is landed, the bags are delivered, and I find myself looking through the doors longing the next person to be Christa. It finally is. We both have tears in our eyes, and we don’t say a word. I feel like everyone in the hall is watching us, and I’m glad to be holding the centre of attention. Together again.

Saturday January 12th wasn’t that exciting for everyone else, but getting lost in the outer reaches of London was paradise for me. We turned out of the airport on the hunt for Windsor Castle. A massive hulk of medieval building on the banks of the Thames. Somehow we ended up in Hounslow, a massive hulk of beat-up Indian restaurants. At least Christa had seen that not all of England was like The Holiday! We found Windsor 15 minutes later, the castle towering over the pretty shops and restaurants by the river. We walked alongside the grand castle walls in the twilight, and strolled down past the river, before settling on a nice pub for a quick evening meal.

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With the light truly fading, it was time to make the journey back to Devon. Although not many miles, the sinewy roads mean the drive would be four hours at least. Late on a Saturday, though, the roads were clear and we sped free of London and towards the countryside. Past Bristol, the biggest port in England, we were within reach 3 hours later. Winding down from the hills into Combe Martin, it felt like magic that Christa was coming home with me.

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We awake to something strange outside. The sound of waking throughout my childhood was the pattering of rain, light or heavy, onto the tin-roofed shed opposite the house. This morning though the gentle winter sun, hovering just over the greens hills, was reflecting off the roof. We woke quickly and booted up. Rain jackets a necessity, no matter how sunny it looked outside.

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We walked down past the Combe Martin seaside as the tide receded to its furthest point, and then followed the edge of Exmoor National Park up a small footpath and into open pastures filled with sheep. The track was muddy from continuous rain, and we negotiated sliding down a couple of cliffs to open up into a huge view of the North Devon coast. As we climbed up the last reaches of hangman, the true expanse Exmoor becomes visible. Although the sun was shining, a heavy haze filled the horizon blanketing the distant sea and keeping Wales undercover for another day. Day one success.

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With my parents off work, and the rare fact of the sun shining for a consecutive day, we unanimously agreed to show Christa perhaps the most idyllic spot on Exmoor. We drove East into the National Park to Watersmeet; the confluence of the East Lynn river and Hoar Oak water. We followed the east Lynn through a mossy and humid gorge along a windy and leaf covered trail leading to the small village of Rockford; only one road in or out; this is the British idea of solitude. The steep sided oak clad hills tower over the river, and the path to the top was equally as muddy as the day before, but we made the top of the hill in no time. The distinctive rolling tops of the moorland contrast with the secluded valleys.

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The windswept hedgerows are known for their sideways growing trees, and we sheltered along their length as we made our way to the top of Countisbury hill. On the border of Devon and Somerset, this hill is a famous climb for British cyclists, but today it was desolate. At the top, seemingly impervious to the gale coming off the sea 1500 feet below, a herd of Exmoor Ponies grazed on gorse bushes and tough grass. Their nonchalance to our advances showed that there were certainly more suited to the Environment than we were. From the top of the hill, we descended to Countisbury church, a small and bare church tucked into the hill. Just below that, the Blue Ball Inn, a welcoming pub filled with open fires and friendly dogs waiting by the hearth. We ate heartily, knowing the walk back to the car was all downhill. It was difficult to re-dress and head back to the cold outside, but we eventually mustered the courage and found ourselves back among oak trees as we descended our stored elevation on a winding singletrack path. The steep valley meant we were within 200 feet of Watersmeet before we could see the bridge over the river. With rain clouds just building, just got back to the car in time to avoid getting wet. Two dry days in a row; someone up there must have been in a good mood.

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Day three, the contrast to the rugged North facing Exmoor Coast is the smooth sandy beaches of Western facing Woolacombe. We parked in the empty village and strolled down to the beach. Three miles of almost untouched sand, with only a handful of people in sight. We walked almost the full length, taking in the vast expanse of headland jutting out from the sea. Morte Point lies to the North; named for its jagged and dangerous rocks that have claimed many ships in darker times.

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With a low tide, we could see all the rocks, and why sailing here is a skilled past-time. We hopped onto the sand dunes and made our way back towards the village, before getting back onto the beach to find some pretty driftwood and take some photos. We were soon to discover that being the only ones on the beach was a problem. Everywhere was shut, apart from a small shop tucked into a side street. Christa enjoyed hot chocolate with a side of chocolate cake, and I devoured my first cup of tea since breakfast. We drove back towards Combe Martin, but detoured into the valley that half of my family would trace to be their ancestral home. Simply named ‘Lee’, which is a local term for a sheltered valley, the name is apt. I had to stop and show Christa the steps carved into the rock, during a time where the quickest route was along the coast. We skipped stones across the incoming waves and once again enjoyed being alone with the sea and the sand. Unlike before, Wales was now sitting high on the horizon – the towns and hills clearly visible 30 miles across the coast. Back in the village, we saw a restored cottage, with rounded walls, low ceilings and small windows, typical of North Devon. Its thatched roof had just been refitted, completing the picture.

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With three days of exploring the natural beauty of my home county, it was time to head towards civilisation once again. Devon is old, its history rooted in farming and fishing. The houses are humble and quaint, built for warmth and purpose. They show what happened in England before the idea of industrialisation was ever conceived. We had to move on to the ‘big’ city. We caught the train to Bath, stopping briefly for a change of trains. Christa survived the backwards seating and we got to town in the middle of the morning. The same population as Boulder, but very different, Bath sits in a bowl of wooded hills, the river Avon snaking through the centre of town. We had 8 hours to explore before we’d get back on the train and head to London. The uniform sandstone architecture is the responsibility of two 18th century architects; John Wood and John Wood Jr. They constructed a grand town with little financial or physical constraints in their way. The fortuitous fact that Bath suffered little damage in World War two means its beauty remains unaltered. The most famous buildings are the ones we visited first.

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Bath Abby, a huge and magnificent Cathedral, is one of few inhabited monasteries left in the UK. We sat and marvelled at the grand arches reaching to the ceiling. We sat in silence and absorbed the total absence of sounds inside the great hall. The kind of warm quiet that fills churches. After a tour up the main street, we visited the Royal Circus and Royal Crescent. The most desirable residences in Bath, these arcades of huge houses typify Bath. The light snow falling just added to the winter magic. With the sights seen, we ate lunch in a small cafe next to Pultney Bridge overlooking the River Avon. With refreshments consumed, we had to do some history

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The town of Bath has been inhabited continuously for over 2000 years. The romans invaded Britain before Christ was born, and made their settlements during the late first century. The thermal waters rising from the ground signified something special for them, and the location became a shrine to Minerva; the roman goddess of art, education and trade. Named Aquae Sulis, the town was created around the bathing complex that still survives under the main streets of the city. The shrine survived until 300 AD, when Christianity was brought to the country, and worship of pagan gods died out. The town that replaced it remained powerful and constantly changing. It wasn’t until the last phase of construction in the 1700s that the roman baths were uncovered, and once again rebuilt to utilise the warm waters. These bath houses still stand, but the roman foundations, and locations of the shrines, can be seen under the ‘modern’ buildings.

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A long day was finished off with a carafe of wine and good Turkish food in a small restaurant. Turkish, although entirely foreign to Americans, is common in the UK and a great example of how one culture can become part of another. With the wine finished, we sat back and enjoyed the relaxation of train travel to London. Two hours later, we stepped into Paddington station, and walked towards Hyde Park and our hotel in light flurries of snow.

With snow falling heavily outside, we buttoned up and headed out into the morning to see the sights of the great city. We rode the tube under Hyde Park to Kensington, and the grand building of the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum. Set up to show the splendour of the British Empire by the Queen who formed it, the V&A now holds collections of culture. It makes no attempt to catalogue the life of a region or country, but takes the finest examples of art, sculpture and fashion across every age. We walked around the display of western fashion from the 1300’s to the modern time with amazement, and marvelled at Japanese samurai swords, before walking around the corner and seeing the world’s best examples of marble sculptures from ancient Greece. We left before we ran out of capacity to look at anything else, and recaffeinated in anticipation of the Science Museum. Encyclopaedic collections of technology and innovation. Full size replicas of space crafts, and a whole room filled with what makes a human a human. We played in the ‘Google Lab’ creating music with people across the world, and saw how a robot can draw our own faces. Sometimes, tourism feels a lot like education!

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With hunger building, we jumped back on the tube and went to Covent Garden; the famous glass house that used to house the market stalls of fresh fruit and flowers brought into the city by traders and farmers. Now, the area is full of restaurants; we picked a pie shop and Christa tucked into a heart Pasty. With the light fading (yes, at 3pm!) we made the walk into Leicester Square; home of the west end and the biggest theatres in the world. We wanted to see a play, and found ‘Spamalot’ to be exactly what we were looking for. Light hearted comedy with no pretence of anything else. As we ran out of time to head back to the hotel, we headed for the Thames, and walked across the Embankment Bridge to have dinner.

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The snow was falling hard, filling the sky with a reflective orange glow from the city lights. The London Eye towered over the houses of parliament, but with no little visibility, we decided to give it a miss. Walking into the theatre after dinner, we climbed up four flights of stairs to find our seats in the upper stalls, high above the stage but with a perfect view of the action. The place was packed, and the cast enjoyed endless laughter and applause from the crowd. It was perhaps the best money we spent, and a great first experience of theatre in the west end. Tired and with aching feet, we made it to our hotel just before midnight, ready to start again the next day.

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Saturday in London. So much to see and do. No trip would be complete without seeing the seat of British power. Buckingham Palace, grand and old is a magnet for tourists, and we dodged the crowds to see the Union Flag flying high over the rooftop; a sure sign the Queen was currently in residence.

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We walked through St James’ park to Parliament square and Westminster Abby. The site of royal weddings and national remembrances, the Cathedral beats Bath for size and grandeur. It sits up against the bank of the Thames, next to the houses of Parliament; Parliament Palace and Big Ben adding huge towers to the skyline. Christa and I both seem to be equally crowd averse, so we danced around the hordes of people to find our very own phone box in which to pose. What could be better than me and my girl living it up in London?!

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Lunchtime. Again. We dashed to Kensington and found a seat in a cafe for soup and coffee, just the energy needed for a trip to Harrods; the emporium of everything expensive ever made. Four stories and countless departments filled with Dior, Armani, and thousands of other people! We viewed the boutique clothes and daydreamed of driving off in the Aston Martins parked outside, but left on foot, back to the tube, happy to be happy and not caring about anything else. With one stop left on our whistle-stop London Experience, I found my good friends from University to be in town for the evening. We dashed to the Tower of London and Tower Bridge for a quick photo in the frigid cold, but cruising across town to our hotel. We freshened up and hit Covent Garden once more for a late night meal with Trevor and Sarah. Conversation, like normal with four cyclists at one table, revolved around cycling. We drank beer, ate burgers (which could not live up to their American competitors), and didn’t leave the restaurant till 11pm. Our idea of a late night film dissolved as we realised not even London cinemas show films that late, so we called it a day.

The last day. No time for being sad though, as happiness is the cure of all ills. We ate Croissants until we could no longer move, and drank coffee until it seemed like a bad idea. The heavy snow coming down in sheets outside the cafe was causing panic in the British media, but we kept a close eye on the departures board, and could see no reason why Christa would not be getting back to Colorado. The train lumbered slowly out of Paddington station on the way to Heathrow. We held hands tightly. No words are needed after 7 days together; we knew what we were both thinking. Goodbyes suck. The airport formalities distracted us from the inevitable, but soon enough Christa walked through security and out of sight. A heavy heart is never a bad thing though; the negative emotions of leaving are the balance needed for the next hello to mean more than the last. Absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Travel itinerary

Every so often, I find myself deep inside a map. I’ll be splayed across the floor with the map pulled out in front of me, dreaming of the places I need to go. Google maps is no better; I search the name of a town, and five minutes later I’m on the other side of the continent, panning the map across acres of imaginary contours rising out of my screen. I dream of stepped paths climbing into the mountains out of eastern European towns. I dream of pedalling along the coast of Northern California among gargantuan trees, and hitching a ride up the eastern coast of Vietnam. I can escape anywhere with a map. The kind of escapism that really allows me to find myself.

This post is simply a reminder to me. A note in digital time to remember the places I’ve searched. All too often, I dream these big dreams just for them to fade away into the ether, and to be forgotten; replaced by the next whim of cartographic wandering.

I’m fascinated by the non-countries: mainly in continental Europe, but elsewhere too. I first thought about them in more detail after living in the US, and trying to explain what Wales is. Country? State? Nation? Region? Principality? It’s really hard to define, and that’s one of the clearer examples. I’ve been to Wales, experienced the mind bending language so far removed from other European lexicon that it hurts to think about. I’ve seen the huge hills, and felt the strange vibe from the locals when you tell them you’re English. Almost every European country has at least one of these kinds of semi-autonomous regions. Breakaways, territories, enclaves. Call them what you will, they are a staunch rebuff of nationalism, let alone globalism. They often march towards progress whilst holding dearly to customs on the edge of extinction; languages spoken by just dozens of Children, whose heritage may only forge one more generation ahead.

In the Iberian Peninsula, there are multiple examples. I’m sure most minds jump directly to Andorra, but this tiny country is well established, even more so than Wales. I’m thinking of Llivia; an exclave of Spain trapped in the foothills of the southern French Pyrenees. Its only town has a rich history; once the capital city of a country that no longer exists on modern maps. Its independence from surrounding France now a tradition that will likely never change.

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What about the Basque country? The rugged northern Spanish region is well known to cyclists for their vociferous fans and bright orange apparel, but its status as just another region of Spain has been fought hard. ETA have bombed and burnt, killed and tortured in the name of publicity for their cause. What’s missing from the headlines is the beauty of the coastline, the empty wonder of hills that abut the shores. The small towns 15 km up winding roads that go nowhere else, but somehow have full service restaurants just waiting to serve you amazing food. Similar in location, but equally independent is Asturias. I spent a week cycling through the Picos de Europa when I was 16 years old, and have been firmly in love with mountains ever since. I would love to go back. Love to see the things I missed the first time around, and love to go to the places that we skipped past on the last visit. Ski resorts that no one’s heard of, endless untouched single-track in the summer and powder snow in the winter. Ripping curls of surf breaking cleanly against the deep blue of a cold Atlantic sea. Don’t go here and expect to speak Spanish, no matter how good your tongue is. These people have an identity which will persist no matter what the formal status of their homeland is. Their persistence of character is one of the biggest reasons to go visit.

Let’s move from Iberia to Tirol. Most often thought of as a region of Austria, the identity of Tyrolean’s is much different. Many generations have considered it a country in its own right, but now it falls equally between Austria and Italy. The mountainous and isolated region spans some of the highest peaks in the Eastern Alps, with few passes traversing all the way between the Italian and the Austrian ruled areas. Masters of either German or Italian will not succeed in communicating with most people. The strong and muddled German dialect is often specific to each town and valley, and in a few places, not accepted at all. Ladin, an entirely untraceable language is also spoken, and with a history separate from modern languages of the region, not be understood by any outsiders.

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From the Alps back west; to Alsace. More commonly known for its canine namesake, Alsatian is a German dialect with half a million speakers all within this small department. The regions name derived from the Germanic for ‘foreign domain’, it sits at the border of central Europe, skirting France, Germany and Switzerland. In just 75 years, it exchanged nationality four times. It’s now French, with the distinctive laissez-faire language floating away from the towns. Those towns, though, have distinct German architecture and restaurants more likely to serve schnitzel than moulles frites.

These few examples of overlooked cultures are an inspiration for me to find more. To travel with an open mind of what will be found when I arrive. I don’t want pre formulated ideas to cloud the culture I have travelled to see, I don’t want my own inept language skills to separate me from communicating with local people. And I don’t want those local people to be afraid of telling me their identity. Belonging to a region, rather than a country, should be celebrated rather than laughed at. Being Devonian, or Tyrolean, or Coloradan should be announced with honour and pride – it reveals more about you than the name of a country could.