Mamma Mia…Here I Go Again

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THE hour hand is nudging midnight when I eventually arrive at my Stockholm hotel and for the first time in weeks since I touched down in Europe, I find myself in a less than sparkling mood. In terms of travel days, it hasn’t been the easiest, but you’re bound to strike one of these when you’ve been on the road for several weeks, tackling different countries, airports, time zones and languages.
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It all starts while I’m still in London, where I mistake the British two pound coin for a fifty pence piece, and hence tip the driver the equivalent of $AUD8. He deposits me near Victoria Bus Station where I order a red wine and pizza before my trip to the airport. The colourful Italian feast arrives at the very moment a small child walking past suddenly violently vomits all over the footpath right alongside the outdoor café at which I am dining. Not only can my churning stomach not face the pizza, I fear I may never eat again. I watch in horror as other travellers drag their suitcases through the pavement Picasso.
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At the airport, the budget carrier on which I am travelling is supremely strict about the two kilograms extra weight my luggage is carrying (if only they knew how much lighter I was before my schnitzel and beer tour of Germany), and I am forced to creatively repack in front of an angry queue, who it seems is bemused by my cache of colourful comfy undies. Finally at the other end, the instructions I’ve been given for the bus from Stockholm airport to my hotel are incorrect – as I’ve arrived at a different airport – and after I’ve paid the insanely high taxi fare and refuse to tip the driver I alight from his cab, both of us cranky. As the driver flings my luggage onto the pavement, comfy undies threatening to spill everywhere, a strange Swede appears in the dark from absolutely nowhere, offering to buy me a glass of wine. For a brief moment I think it’s Gerhard, the gregarious German who popped up out of the blue in a Bremen lift a few weeks earlier, and who I will write about in next week’s blog about European men. And if only I’d known at this late hour there would be no food or wine in the entire hotel when I do check in, I might have said yes to the sleazy Swede’s offer. Heck, at this point if he’d possessed a stale bread roll, I would have married him.
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My pilgrimage to see the museum which pays homage to the best band to EVER strut the planet – ABBA – has not launched with quite the bang a boomerang I was expecting. I am feeling less Super Trouper and more Chiquitita. But after a dinner, which consists of the four chocolate marzipan love hearts my German friends have secretly hidden in my suitcase and a glass of tap water from the bathroom, I tell myself things will look better in the morning. And they do.
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Stockholm has turned on a dazzling day, 20 degrees, warm and sunny and I elect to sit atop a hop-on, hop-off bus to familiarise myself with this city in which I have just 24 hours. And I know one of the stops is at ABBA The Museum. I impatiently sit through 13 other destinations which outline the historical buildings for which this city is famous, my mind on Stop 14 and the real reason I find myself taking a side-step to Sweden. There was nothing to do growing up in 1970s country Queensland except listen to ABBA and my three sisters and me were virtual Dancing Queens. Such ABBA tragics are we, that one of my sisters still has the collector bubble gum ABBA cards, including a list of the ones she is missing, in the unlikely event she should meet a like-minded person who happens to possess the others, and this strange quirk should come up randomly in conversation. I was more of an end-of-the-skipping-rope singer, fighting with my best friend over who got to be the “blonde one”. My darker-haired bestie looked more like Frida, so it all worked out in the end, at least as far as I was concerned.
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And on this sunny Stockholm day I wish my best friend or sisters were here, as I discover ABBA The Museum is much more fun in a group, if the funky Frankfurters dressed as Benny, Bjorn, Agnetha and Frida are any indication. But I delight in watching them prancing and dancing and their European enthusiasm is infectious. I may only be a one-man band, but one of us is not lonely, and pretty soon I’m partaking in all of the interactive displays, including standing on stage and becoming the fifth member of the band. It’s not every day I fly to a country solely for the purpose of visiting a museum. The immigration officer at Stockholm Airport was incredulous when I told him my reason for visiting his country and demanded to see evidence of my return flight out of the Swedish capital. At one point I thought I might need to start singing Take A Chance On Me in order to enter the country, but he eventually understood my insanity. And the trip was worth every Kroner. I fly out to Berlin the next morning, the lyrics to The Winner Takes It All swirling around in my head, my Super Trouper ready to tackle the long flight back to Australia.
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The Global Goddess paid for her own flights to Stockholm and stayed at the comfortable Ibis Styles Stockholm Jarva – which does indeed have lovely food and wine if you arrive at a decent hour – on a media rate – http://www.ibis.com. She visited ABBA The Museum courtesy of the museum – http://www.abbathemuseum.com
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From Berlin, with Love

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THE sultry Slovenian peers at me from beneath her glasses. “Where are you from?” she demands in a husky accent. “I’m Australian,” I answer matter-of-factly. “You speak good English,” she replies, before taking me aside and, in a conspiratorial tone, tells me the people on our respective Berlin tours look “old and boring”. Then, with a wink and a wave, she says she’ll see me in a few days in Bremen, where we can “catch up”. I’m not entirely certain, but I think I may now have a Slovenian girlfriend.
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I’m in Europe for the German Travel Mart in which Germany is demonstrating to the world why it’s one of the global leaders in the tourism game. And this year is perhaps more important than most, coinciding with 25 years since the Berlin Wall came down and this country’s two halves became whole again. And I’m travelling around Berlin with a gaggle of international journalists and travel agents, each as interesting as the next to which I’m introduced.
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Shanky, from Mumbai, is not a small lad, and over a breakfast which consists of six pieces of toast, mushrooms, eggs and strawberries, confesses he’s eating a big meal as he will only eat once and doesn’t want to “get sick” on the German food. The irony of his words lost only on the Indian himself, and throughout the trip I spot Shanky constantly grazing on vast quantities of food. Shanky also asks me how hotel staff know whether you have consumed anything from the mini bar, leading me to wonder how much of a party he’s had in his room.
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Which leads me to Suzie, a Filipino Canadian, who only seems to stumble across strife when she is alone in her room, late at night, a little inebriated. On our first night, Suzie found herself taking a late-night dip in the hotel pool, on the second, she awoke at 3am fully clothed and made up, by the third she’d floundered around in a late-night bath and when last we spoke, she was caught smoking in her pajamas in the hotel stairwell, after consuming a midnight schnitzel.
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Kathy, from Chicago, loves Australians far more than she loves technology and has forgotten to switch off her global roaming, thus ensuring a $50 bill on her first day. Kathy wanders the streets of Berlin constantly discovering random, unrelated walls emblazoned with graffiti and asking our tour guides whether they are part of the Berlin Wall. “Yes,” I answer dryly on their behalf, “we are in Berlin and this is a wall.”
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Then there’s Peter, a softly-spoken Bostonian who once managed to miss a kangaroo but hit a bus while driving through a particularly remote stretch of Australia’s Outback. Peter, who says my accent is alluring, collects dirt when he travels. I endear myself to another American, Ellie, by telling her how much I despise George Bush before I accidentally spill a glass of fine Austrian red all over her beige trousers.
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Jenz, our tour guide, runs a tight ship with clichéd German precision and is prone to saying “OK” by which he means “it’s time to go, NOW” at random moments. Add to this a Croatian who looks and sounds like Count Dracula and likes to tell long-winded stories about the minutiae of his life, a jolly gay guy from Wales, the Italians and Spaniards who constantly complain about both the food and the time of dining, a happy Hong Konger who sneaks off to shop, and you’ve pretty much got the picture. The two Lee’s from Beijing are the last to arrive, and for a week I think they are both named Lee, until I realise that’s their last name, but they remain delightful nonetheless.
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These days you’ll find a Berlin that is buzzing. Visit some of the historical sights such as the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, the gorgeous Gendarmenmarkt and Checkpoint Charlie before you explore some of the city’s new. Take an eTrike tour along the historical trail of the Berlin Wall on these new eclectic and electric bikes which whizz around the capital’s streets at 25km/hr. You’ll find some interesting spots in which sections of the Wall still stand, and if you use a little imagination, you can picture what life was like in the old east. There’s 155 museums in this city alone, some amazing shopping and designers, and incredible food and wine.
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It’s been 26 years since I was first in Berlin, a high school student standing on both sides of the Berlin Wall, with a group of other Aussie teenagers, who were as diverse and delightful as this straggle of strangers with whom I now find myself. We didn’t know it back then, but a year later, the Berlin Wall would be torn down, East and West would be reunited and a whole chapter would be written in German history.
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Before I boarded the flight to Europe this time last week, I was a little apprehensive. It’s a long way to go from Australia to spend a week with complete strangers with whom you may have little in common. But I need not have worried. In Berlin, it seems, walls are always coming down. And so I, too, write another chapter, in my history.
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The Global Goddess travelled to Germany as a guest of the German National Tourist Office. To experience your own German escape, go to http://www.germany.travel
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Snakes and Ladders

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DEPENDING on how you view life, it is either a massive coincidence, or pure fate, that Julia Baker now lives in a street called Olympus, in Brisbane. For it has taken this 45-year-old a Herculean effort to get to this point. And if you wish to stretch the Greek mythology a little further, if you’d never met Julia before this point, you’d be forgiven for thinking she may look a little like Medusa, not because this softie would turn you to stone, but because of her love of snakes. In the Snakes and Ladders game of life, of one slither forward and two back, Julia is emerging triumphantly, as Brisbane’s very own Snake Sheila.
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But it’s been quite the journey. Born in Australia to a German father and English mother, Julia spent her formative years in Europe, vacillating between England and Germany where at the age of 10 she moved with her family, learned the language and went to school until she dropped out at 16 to do a baker’s apprenticeship.
“I wanted to become an actress, but it wasn’t really a job back then,” Julia says, not knowing that one day, that dream would come true as well.
“The baking apprenticeship was the toughest thing I’ve ever done in my life, lifting 50kg of flour and 2am starts.
“I still can’t believe I’d get up in the freezing cold and blizzards, but my dad never let me give up and I also completed a confectionary apprenticeship.”
But Julia’s birthplace beckoned and lured her towards an incredible life journey that would be peppered with both the bleak and beautiful.
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“Everyone is besotted with Australia overseas, it is this mysterious country that has no neighbours. I used to dream about Australia all the time and wonder what it would be like if I lived there,” she says.
“I came over here with $2000 in my pocket but because I had such good qualifications I walked into the Hilton Sydney and got a job in a day.” Julia climbed her way up through the chef ranks, working for a number of big name hotel chains. She met husband and gave birth to two girls, before moving to Brisbane 15 years ago. And in the Snakes and Ladders game of life, her marriage broke down, sending her into a downward spiral of depression.
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“I’d never really thought about what I wanted. You get married at a young age and you are never really allowed to dream. You do everything everyone else wants you to do,” she says.
“But you reach an age where you think ‘I’ve done everything everyone wanted me to do and it’s still a disaster’. I could see this pattern of pleasing everyone. I was attracting the wrong kind of people into my life. I looked at my two girls and didn’t think I was a good role model.
“When I split up from my husband I went through six months of depression. I thought I was a loser.” But Julia stumbled across a couple of self-help books and, while not academically minded, something resonated. And she began to dream.
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About 10 years ago, dreaming and visualising her future, she went to Australia Zoo, saw a massive boa constrictor, and “fell in love with snakes”.
“I was watching all the people in the queue and they were carrying on like the snake was some kind of monster,” Julia says.
“I kinda felt that it was like me and they couldn’t see that underneath it had a really good heart. When they put it around my neck I almost cried.
“I thought ‘sod you, I’ll show you’. It just set me off and every time I’d go and see snakes I’d be drooling and I decided to get a pet snake.”
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Julia now has not one but three pet snakes, two pet blue-tongued lizards and a frilly dragon. And then she met someone with a snake catching licence and decided to follow her passion, undertaking a snake-catching course and getting her own licence.
“I started to get call outs and before I knew it, I became the preferred catcher for the Brisbane City Council,” she says.
“I don’t claim to be the best. I have a massive passion for them and what makes me different is I really enjoy people and recognise that they have a fear. I understand them and I try to educate them.
“In the past five years I’ve had a real taste for feeling alive. (Julia also rides motor bikes, acts in plays, performs puppet shows and is a motivational speaker).”
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Then, three years ago, with her life almost perfect, she sat down and wrote a list of her ideal man. Two weeks later, a Scotsman called John walked into her life.
“John is just perfect. He embraces me for being chaotic and worships every little bit about me,” she says.
“I can be me and I don’t have to apologise. On our second date I said to myself ‘he needs to be alright with snakes’ and I flung a snake around his neck while I went to answer a phone call.”
John is not only alright with snakes, he now also has his snake catcher licence.
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Julia’s next big dream is to become an international speaker, and her Snakes and Ladders game continues on its upward trajectory. Brisbane-based documentary makers FlickChicks have just signed with a major international broadcaster for a 10-part series on the Snake Sheila, with filming slated to begin this August, just in time for snake season Down Under.
“My big vision is the TV show and the underlying message you can be in your 40s and get some passions in your life,” she says.
“I will not fit into what society wants me to do again.”
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For more information on any element of Julia’s work, please contact her on 0400 140 800. To find out more about the Snake Sheila series, visit FlickChicks at http://www.flickchicks.com.au
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