Well, everyone needs a hobby…

In 2010 a rather marvelous film called Exit Through the Giftshop introduced me to a French artist known only as Invader. He’s been “invading” cities across the world for more than 10 years, hiding space invader mosaics above doorways and on bridges, over railway tunnels and shop walls. Some are huge and imposing, others so tiny they’re easily missed. I find this quirky, beautiful, and, well, frankly, the whole thing fills me with boundless joy, and it didn’t take long before spotting Invaders as I travelled developed first into a hobby then into an obsession. A few days between work engagements in Melbourne turned into a triumph after I spotted an Invader hanging out on the corner of Chinatown, and threatened to ruin my husband’s holiday in Bangkok as I dragged him, with increasing frustration, through the sticky-hot streets of Sukhumvit muttering “I know there’s one here somewhere!”

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Blink and you’ll miss him: Melbourne

 

From Manchester to Melbourne, London to Ljubljana, I’m currently up to 70 sightings across 8 cities, but with the tantalizing knowledge that there are still hundreds more, out there, somewhere.

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Cologne

And so, with the rest of the world having long since moved onto (and subsequently abandoned) Pokémon Go, I’m still seeking out Space Invaders.

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Tasteful in Brussels
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The Land of Ice And Fire. And Elves.

When I look back on my travels over the years, I do have a tendency to seek out the extremes where weather is concerned: a Dubai layover in the middle of summer (a toasty 35 degrees as we left the aircraft at 1am), Vietnam in the midst of the monsoon season…and Iceland in December.

There’s a clue in the name: Iceland. There’s a lot of ice. It’s bone-chillingly cold. It’s also cardiac arrest-inducingly expensive. But if you can get over all this it’s also a wonderful place to visit. You can even do it as a layover – Icelandair are now pushing stopovers en route to and from North America of up to 7 days at no extra cost.

Our main objective was to see the Northern Lights, Iceland being one of the most accessible places to see them (unless you happen to be up in Durham on one of the occasions they grace the skies up there. And actually Reykjavik is arguably more accessible and considerably cheaper to get to from London.) If seeing the Northern Lights in December is your aim, it will actually unfold like this:

  1. Run the 10 metres or so from the hotel lobby to the waiting bus of your chosen tour company
  2. Drive in pitch darkness into the Icelandic countryside (pretty much anything outside of Reykjavik)
  3. Pull into a deserted, snow-covered carpark and wait
  4. Wait some more.
  5. Someone shouts “OH MY GOD THERE THEY ARE!”
  6. Clamber out of bus and put on your hat and gloves, because it’s the coldest you have ever been in your life; marvel at the sky; take out your camera; take your gloves off again because you can’t operate the camera with them on; take a series of blurry pictures that frankly could be of anything; realize you can no longer feel any part of your body
  7. Get back on bus and continue to view lights from the comfort of a temperature something above freezing point, despite your tour guide telling you the view is better from the outside. Lights subside. Gratefully accept underwhelming hot chocolate from your tourguide, who is sniggering at the lack of will of the non-Icelander.
  8. Repeat.
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Underwhelming Northern Lights Picture

 

We spent the vast majority of our time in Iceland in darkness. Intriguing though this seemed to me as a tourist, I felt it would very quickly wear thin were I to live there. I have photographs taken of the cathedral at 11am that might as well have been taken at 11pm, and bathed in the incongruously warm Blue Lagoon as night fell…at 3pm. Daytrips attempted to cram the sights into the 3 hours of daylight, meaning most driving took place in the dark. During these long drives we were told in detail the history of Iceland and its folklore – this is a country that, on the one hand, had the first parliament in the world, and on the other, but, on the other, has made huge and expensive changes to infrastructure projects so as to appease the elves. It was during this story that my husband inadvertently made a huge cultural faux pas. Our guide was laboriously telling us of how, back in 1971, they encountered problems with a road-building project. The construction equipment was constantly being damaged, and they suspected that the culprits were the elves, furious that the road was being built over the rocks that were their home.

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Reykjavik…at 11am

 

“So, the authorities called in an elf expert,” she said, with great gravity.

Cue my husband: “Was he in Elf and Safety?”

I laughed. Nobody else did.

The guide continued to tell us how government funds paid for the Elf expert’s advice, and how he spoke with the elves, and eventually brokered a deal with them whereby they agreed to let the road go ahead provided their home was not damaged and was transported across the country…to his back garden. So, Iceland got a new road, the elves got to keep their home, and the Elf Expert got a big cheque and a new rockery.

So, the moral of the story: don’t mess with the elves; don’t make fun of the Elf Experts; but do go to Iceland – it’s beautiful, mysterious, awesome.

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Here be Elves

Brief Encounter

We were staying in the sprawling Bethlehem Hotel, a huge establishment too large for the now relatively small groups of pilgrims who positively opted to stay in Bethlehem, on the “wrong” side of the wall. These days, the staff told us, most stayed outside the Palestinian territories, driving in to see the sites, then back out again to the more upmarket establishments in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The hotel did have a certain air of having seen better days. With free run of the place, we relaxed after each day of sightseeing with bottles of Taybeh beer (Palestinian-brewed) in the comfortable lounge, and tried to outsmart the sporadic internet connection (this was in the days before smartphones), sending home emails from the single computer in the lobby. In the morning, we were roused early by the sounds of competing calls to prayer from the minarets across the city, enjoying the sunrise over a still recognisably-Biblical landscape, and at night we roamed the otherwise empty streets of Bethlehem, stumbling upon Afteem in Manger Square, purveyors of by far the best falafel I have ever tried. To this day it remains one of the greatest trips of my life.

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View from the Bethlehem Hotel

 

During the day, we made our many trips out to the plethora of famous sites within Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Obliging tourists and pilgrims that we were, we bobbed up and down in the Dead Sea, queued to gaze upon the spot that convention had chosen as the exact site of Jesus’ birth, paddled in the Sea of Galilee and gazed in awe across Masada.

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Masada

Our schedule meant early starts, and it also meant navigating the tight security to get out of Bethlehem. Where it was easy for us privileged tourists with our shiny European passports, strapped into our air-conditioned excursions coach to cross the checkpoints, it was nonetheless time-consuming. Palestinian citizens must obtain permission to travel between different areas, and the checks on the vehicles in front of us were tedious. On one occasion, Israeli officials boarded our bus, unsmiling, and demanded to see our passports, guns slung across their shoulders.

 

Our third day was hot. It was November, and there were already Christmas lights slung up across the town, incongruous in the 24-degree heat. We had got up at 5 and were tired; my friend and I had found ourselves popping the immodium before boarding the bus, so were not necessarily at our best. The novelty of being in a foreign city had worn off, and the checkpoint irritated us.

The conflict in Israel is horrendously complicated. I have friends with strong views on both sides – Jewish friends both in London and in Haifa, Palestinian friends, and people we met across a range of cities during our visit. I would never profess to be qualified to hold a firm opinion on it, let alone to write about it. Sitting in that bus, however, I couldn’t help but feel that these measures, whatever the reason for them being there, were heavy-handed, with hugely negative intended and unintended consequences. People had been separated from their land; many could not leave at all – they were effectively trapped in what was not an especially large area, needing to seek permission both to leave it and to leave the country should they wish to travel – as someone who travels nationally and internationally countless times a year this seemed unimaginable; those who do leave – for work, for travel, for medical care – must face the indignity of these checkpoints on every occasion. We watched as those on foot went through – we saw no mistreatment, no abuse, and yet the situation was a sad one.

Gazing out of the window, my anger at the whole state of affairs growing and my stomach groaning, I inadvertently caught the eye of one of the military personnel from the checkpoint, who was standing by the coach. He smiled.

I look after students for a living. This young man was possibly on his (compulsory) military service. At any rate, with his smart haircut and a gun rather too big for him in his youthful arms, he looked barely more than a teenager. I smiled back. His job, at best, was probably overwhelmingly dull, and at worst held the daily possibility of danger; many if not most of those he met in his job would have viewed him with resentment.

He looked away, waved someone on, went about his business for a while as we pulled forward. Minutes letter, checkpoint cleared, we pulled away and out of Bethlehem. I looked down and smiled again. He waved. I waved back.

This strange and unexpected encounter has stayed with me, though this trip was now years ago. Here was a young man caught in an awful situation, a dragging conflict that was not of his making, mishandled, misunderstood for decades, subject to endless UN resolutions, the hot topic of many a conference, many a “peace talk”. It was not his fault, or the fault of the countless people we saw queuing during our trips beyond the Wall, or of those we met in Jericho, Jerusalem and beyond.

During that trip we were met with incredible kindness by Israelis and Palestinians alike. We witnessed great beauty in the astounding range of landscapes, from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River. But the biggest connection of the trip, unexpectedly, beautifully, was the smiles exchanged with the young man stuck on a military checkpoint in the city where, over 2000 years ago, it’s claimed the man who would bring peace and goodwill to all men was born. I wonder what that young man is doing now.

Merry Christmas, and a positive 2017.

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Christmas in Bethlehem