Healing Waters

Famed as the ‘Land of Fire and Ice’, a trip to Iceland is to experience nature in its rawest, purest form. Its landscape, once – not so long ago – described as barren, desolate and uninhabitable is now revered for its beauty, diversity and unparalleled atmosphere. (No wonder it has become one of the favoured filming locations for the little-known television series Game of Thrones, which, incidentally (or not), is an adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s series A Song of Fire and Ice.) Fire and ice by definition are the opposite extremes of nature’s miraculous powers; both are intrinsic to our survival yet both have the capability of unmitigated destruction. Perhaps this is why the island is such a magnet for travellers from all degrees of the intrepid scale: beauty and danger on a knife-edge are always going to get hearts racing. But combine the country’s two intrinsic elements – the heat and power of fire with the virtues of the clear and fresh Icelandic water – and you have the recipe for the most abundant, truly organic and (in my opinion) thoroughly enjoyable aspect of all Iceland has to offer: the exquisite geothermal pools and springs.

With the grand Blue Lagoon arguably the biggest Instagram hotspot (pun intended) in the ‘Most Instagrammable Place on Earth’ (according to Cosmopolitan) (I’m not going to disagree), one would be forgiven for thinking that said lagoon was the pinnacle of all hot pools that Iceland has to offer. No doubt it is the best attended, with hoards of tourists visiting the destination whether they are exploring the island for four indulgent weeks or four hurried stopover hours. The Blue Lagoon certainly has the wow factor and facilities (and price tag) to attract attention (and a plethora of plastic-wrapped selfie sticks). But there is so much more to Iceland’s breadth of geothermal bathing than simply its flagship store. From dipping into a blissfully deserted mountain spring to delving into a blissfully decadent seawater bath (with mountain views inclusive throughout), during our two-week foray in and around the magical island we indulged in more geothermal experiences than we would care to admit, and relished each and every moment like it might be our last.

Commencing our anti-clockwise circular trip from the country’s south western capital, we – somewhat predictably – began our geothermal exploration at the aforementioned choice check-in; the turquoise hors d’oeuvre set to whet our silica-craving appetites ‘fore our multi-course extravaganza of, what felt like, all the warm waters that Iceland possibly had to offer. We also figured – somewhat ingeniously – to cross off all of the tourist-heavy spots (namely the Blue Lagoon and Golden Circle) at the start of our trip, so that by the time we were truly at one with nature (and Icelandic waterfall aficionados) we did not have to withstand the infuriating crowds of, let’s face it, infuriating (and mainly American) accents and photograph requests. I am intolerant and impatient at the best of times so this was definitely a wise tactic. As anticipated, perhaps even more so, the Blue Lagoon was seething with visitors – and selfie sticks – and miraculously the problematic lagoon-like nature of the attraction did not seem to deter many a guest from bringing their latest iPhone with them right into the water. The fact that they had to purchase a waterproof phone jacket (for, I’m sure, vast amounts of króna), and keep their right arm at a permanently acute angle so as not to let the tech slip into the pool seemingly did not put them off; if anything added to their sense of hardship as a nomadic social media influencer.

The complimentary silica mud mask and alcoholic drink (prosecco for me, darling) were welcome additions; the near death chocking experience at the in-pool water fountain was not. (Should’ve gone for a second prosecco.) But even worse was the moment when I discovered that the shores were lined with seaweed, feeling the silky smooth, nourishing strands gracefully floating between my toes. Seaweed! How amazing! I lifted my foot above the water to closer inspect the algae, and realised that what had been caressing my toes was in fact strands of hair from all of the many guests who had frequented the lagoon up until that point. It was not green or marine-derived; it was long and black and from the heads of annoying Americans!!! My toes curled (as soon as I untangled them from the clumps of hair) and I suddenly needed to get out of the pool, like, NOW. The boyfriend was very understanding and supportive and escorted me immediately to safety, but later admitted that he had in fact predicted that the seaweed I had discovered was something more sinister, but hadn’t wanted to dampen my mood.

Around 75 km east of Reykjavik was the so-called Secret Lagoon (supposedly the oldest swimming pool in Iceland), but, judging by the number of Asian’s with whom we shared the lake, awareness of the lagoon had stretched a little further than the confines of Fluðir’s native population. Much less grand and polished than it’s Blue counterpart, the Secret Lagoon felt more authentic and au naturel, with the invasion of foot hygiene this time provided by a jagged, rocky flooring, and the near death experience experienced this time by my companion, during his scantily-clad dash in bitterly cold Icelandic winds to save my left barbie-pink flip flop who was rather taken with the Nordic gale. (Both survived virtually unscathed.)

Circa 800 km later on the renowned Route 1, on the opposite side of the country, lay Mývatn Nature Baths, a perfect balance between luxury and unpretentiousness; by all accounts the ideal geothermic encounter. Due to its proximity to the ‘sulphuric martian landscape’ Námaskarð (i.e. a great moon-like expanse of rotten-egg-scented hell), however, I was unable to fully relax in its surrounds because of the lingering, inharmonious, almighty hum. (My concerned partner kept asking if I was ok, in reaction to my persistent pained expression, but I was fine – really – just trying to achieve respiration through a facial orifice which would not also ingest the rotten ruddy aroma.)

On the opposite extreme entirely to these relatively orchestrated geothermal experiences was the largely untouched and totally at-one-with-natured Reykjadalur Hot Spring Thermal River. Being in the vicinity of the Golden Circle we were aware (as ever) of the potential for what was intended to be a morning of serene seclusion to be overrun by another heard of selfie-stick-sporting sightseers. So we set our alarm for 5 am sharp and made sure we got there before anyone else. An hour-or-so hike took us to the crystal clear waters; this hour-or-so spent playing overtaker and overtakee of a group of three fellow early birds with whom we were quite shamelessly racing to beat to the stream. Thanks to a number of outer clothing readjustments (on my part) and a number of unmissable photo opportunities (on their part) it was touch and go for most of the hike. But down to sheer determination (on our part) we beat them to it, disrobing quicker than we thought possible (if it hadn’t have been for the adrenaline I’m not sure we would have got down to our swimwear in the ice-cold air) to position ourselves safely in the stream for their delayed arrival. Oh we enjoyed the supremacy.

The stream, barely a couple of feet in depth, was deliciously warm and comforting and like a big molten marshmallow embrace. The air above was cold and crisp (and deep and even?), and the reason behind my swimsuit and bobble hat ensemble. (Quite a look, I’m sure you’d agree.) When our fingers began to wrinkle we emerged; saintlier, softer and slightly soggier versions of our former selves.

But if we were going to go down the authentic path then we simply could not omit a visit (or five) to ‘the local’ public swimming baths; institutions which could be found – without exception – in every town across the country, no matter the lack of inhabitants in the area. Attending these baths afforded us (even more) (much-needed) relaxation time; an insight into local life; and washing facilities included in the entrance fee, which often cost less than a five-minute speed shower at the campsite would. Here one really got a feel for the locals – why you were sharing tiny hot tubs and nudity-enforced showers with them, dear! – and in particular developed an understanding of the comfort they felt within their own skin, and the absolute absence of concern about their own, or their neighbours, naked bodies. It was very refreshing. Everyone was natural and normal: there was big, small, lumpy and bumpy, saggy, pert, and everything in-between. No one looked but more staggeringly no one cared. This was just totally normal for them, going about their business with absolutely no clothes on and no sense of urgency to grab a towel. Young and old and all sorts of ability – everyone was the same. But different. And that was simply accepted.

Last of all, and my personal favourite, was the newly-opened (and not yet completed) GeoSea, found on the outskirts of the north coast’s whale-watching town of Húsavík. As the name suggests, these baths are filled with naturally warmed seawater, which – thankfully – had none of the repulsive nasal interruptions as was the case at Mývatn. Housed within a hobbit-like grass-roofed mound, albeit its slightly unfinished state it was classy and clean and understated and just cool. Once you’d done your thing in the changing room (naked, of course) you came out to the sea-facing baths; infinity pools which led to mountainous backdrops, and were backed up themselves by a swim-to bar. We were in there for over three hours, enjoying the minerals, the views and, of course, the multiple glasses of wine.

Reykjadalur Hot Spring Thermal River

The Beginning of the Home Straight

Once satisfied with my pursuit of Portugal’s picturesque coastline I crossed the border back into España, now very much on the last leg of my trip. As much as I endeavoured not to start the countdown to my return home – having just a couple of week’s worth of pitstops (and barely a week’s worth of budget) left to go – I couldn’t help but gaze fondly ahead to the Eurostar journey back to London St Pancras and the already-planned champagne reception met Moeder Moo Moo. Whether it was the anticipation of home, the grey autumnal weather, or the utter exhaustion of one hundred and seventy six days on the road taking its toll (yes, I did just count), I was starting to feel lethargic, lacklustre and a little bit lonely. And I couldn’t think of what better a state to be in to empathise and converse with those who had just completed the mighty Camino de Santiago.

Having only first learnt about this network of pilgrimages during earlier stages of my trip (feeling an utter pleb for the duration of my first conversation concerning it; a scholarly superior during my second), I was eternally grateful for my crash course four months prior as I entered the holy land, swarming with travellers far more saintly and spiritual than I could ever hope to be. Not only could I name-drop Eliot and Stuart, two real-life people that I had met in other countries, at separate instances, who had completed the Camino themselves (somehow I felt this made me a more legitimate visitor to the city), I could also, on occasion, blame my lack of energy on “all the walking”, and hope that people believed that I, too, was a now-enlightened pilgrim who had trekked all the way from the French Pyrenees and was deserving of free hot chocolate / private accommodation / a deep tissue foot massage. (I was offered not one by the people of Santiago de Compostela, and frankly rather disgruntled by this.)

But before I had even reached the city’s bus station, neigh – before I had even embarked on the bus out of Porto – any early signs of loneliness were to be curtailed, cut short, deemed utterly kaput, by a red-haired, toe-ring-wearing, fifty-year-old hippy from Finland. At first when she started talking to me (in Finnish) at the pick-up point I did my usual stranger-danger trick of pretending not to hear. This is a little more difficult to sustain when sitting on the same bench as the suspect; even harden when she starts to touch your arm with her henna-adorned hand. I concluded that I would have to acknowledge her presence at some point, or it might start to look like we were some kind of estranged inter-generational couple with severe communication issues. So I turned to her, my mouth smiling sweetly while my eyes shot out laser rays of irritation and hostility (at which point the handful of henna was removed from my forearm), and admitted, ever so politely, “I’m so sorry, I have no idea what you are saying.” “Ohhww!” howled the now even more animated Finn, “You are not Finnish?” Well. This changed things completely. Being assumed to be Scandinavian? I don’t think I’ve ever received such a compliment. We became then, immediately, bosom buddies, and spent the entire journey gabbling away, lamenting the lateness of the bus, the merits of Porto and our shared longing to partake in the grand Camino but, you know… ouch.

First on the agenda once checked in to our respective hostels was going for a beer, a pastime which I soon learnt to be more of a constant state of being for the Helsinkian. She liked her beer. A lot. I don’t think she ever ordered a glass of water or similarly non-intoxicating beverage, no matter the hour, and I concluded that this was half for the hippyness it afforded her, and half for the plate of free nibbles it was always accompanied with in this part of the country. Unfortunately for me these dishes always contained – mostly only contained – some kind of cured meat, of which I did not care for any more details, and did not care to put in my cake hole. So when we both had a beer, she got double helpings. (Perhaps that’s why she hung around me for so long.) She explained to me, though, that she was really actually a vegan, back home, and couldn’t stand the the concept of using animals as food. But that she broke this rule when travelling, especially when in Spain, for she could live fully-sustained buying only five-to-ten beers a day, and who could say no to that?

But before I realised the slight alcoholism, along with the elastic vegan tendencies, we had to find somewhere for our first (or, for her, first five-to-ten) bevvies. We stumbled upon this lovely little café-cum-bar, in the middle of nowhere, which was really rather busy on this random Tuesday night. With a beer in hand we sat down with some very strangely-dressed people at a large communal table, and soon realised that: a) we had gatecrashed their Spanish conversation class, and b) it was Halloween. I had a headache brewing and a stomach rumbling and was not overly keen to partake in either. Helsinki, on the other hand, had other ideas. (After all, she could line her stomach with all the free jamón she was stockpiling, and her day to day appearance (with all the henna, piercings, red hair) was kind of naturally Halloween-esque.) So after a couple of beers and an attempt to converse in Spanish small talk with a bunch of witches and draculas, I decided to bid bon voyage to my new, spooky, friends (my reason: “all the walking”), heading back to my hostel to make a microwave jacket potato and get a nice early night. (Hashtag living.)

I awoke to a number of photos and videos sent to me via Helsinki (gosh they must have travelled fast) detailing the night before, confirming that it entailed copious amounts of beer, witches, gratis jamón, draculas, and Finnish selfies. I did not regret my decision to pass.

Into The Wild

Camping. A dreamy night beneath the stars or a nightmarish dream interrupted by the elements, mild claustrophobia, and the incessant need to use the bathroom whenever the sleeping position gets fractionally bearable? Both, really. But campers-to-be always go into their trip in one of the two camps: the optimistic romantic versus the cynical realist. Members from both teams will no doubt end up being surprised (whether pleasantly or otherwise), but whether you approach the challenge with scepticism, or your idealism gets slowly weathered during the course of the getaway, one cannot deny that there is a sense of magic and intrigue in the notion of rocking up somewhere – anywhere – at any time of night, with the only requirement being a flat(ish) plot of land on which to pitch your tent, and in just a matter of minutes (after some careful practice) you can transform the wilderness into your humble home.

I most definitely entered my twelve-night camping stint, to be conducted on and around Iceland’s picturesque coastline, in Camp A. I was ready for the star gazing, the bonfires, the exquisite seclusion and the at-one-with-nature-ness. Privately viewing beautiful sunsets and rises were top on my to do list, as was waiting up – and out – for the elusive northern lights (while, of course, enjoying marshmallows speared by fallen branches melted to molten decadence over said roaring bonfire). The mornings, too, would be spent enjoying the surroundings of our temporary abode, which would more often than not overlook a lovely little lake or the glistening sea, preparing a batch of freshly scrambled eggs or warming porridge to provide the necessary sustenance for the day’s undoubtedly intrepid activities.

This vision, I regret to add, was nothing more than a pipe dream. Not one sunrise was observed; not one glimpse of the aurora borealis enjoyed; and not one even lukewarm breakfast delicacy consumed. But my optimistic romanticism would not be dampened that easily. Yes, we may have had to erect the tent in the dark / on soggy grass / against off-the-scale winds, but, in each and every case, once we were securely inside and wrapped up nicely (which for me meant three pairs of trousers, three pairs of socks, six tops and jumpers and, on occasion, a hat and gloves), and had zipped up the front door (I’m going to call it that), we were in a world of our own, away from anyone and anything else, which felt pretty bloody spectacular.

But then we had to engineer ourselves into our respective sleeping bags, at which point the minisculity of our immediate environs became very apparent indeed. With zips already the default fastener of our tent and outer clothing, the idea of YET MORE ZIPS on the sleeping bags brought a mild sense of agitation to both inmates (the narrator in particular), and that was before one had got one’s fifth jumper / hair / inner lining / index finger lodged in the ruddy thing’s mechanisms. My specific sleeping bag had the added utility (complication) of a zippable inner bag which, although on first impressions seemed a marvellous addition, got frightfully in the way of ultimate closure, and made mid-night fidgeting that little bit more suffocating. Anywho. Each evening as we settled down into the boudoir I endeavoured to position myself within the duo-layered sleep suit, often having to seek assistance from the other half when I accidentally zipped myself (or any other unsuspecting item) into the sleeping bag seal one too many times. The tightening of the mummy-hole followed; a procedure wholly impossible when one is actually within the sleeping bag and zipped up, so again I pressed the call button and lay, my eyes resting closed, wistfully, my mouth reaching out for one last goodnight kiss, and surrendered myself to the total enclosure achieved with the drawing of the strings, and to the resulting breathing hole with which I was left. And last of all was the excruciating task of re-positioning oneself to adopt a more comfortable pose, while attempting to keep all fastenings secure; remain – as much as humanly possible – out of negative swivilation with the inner (or outer) bag; and show the upmost sympathy and respect for the limbs and designated air-mattress-half of your bedfellow. It makes me weary just thinking about it.

So falling asleep – once the above routine had been painfully completed – was not, in fact, a terribly difficult job. One was so utterly exhausted from the physical and mental exertion that one would generally cross into the unconscious somewhat seamlessly. The problem, it entailed, was when one wanted – or one’s bladder needed one – to get up. This was a test for the willpower, abdominals and, perhaps most crucially, the pelvic floor.

One reacts differently to the need or want to go from lying, horizontally, on a blow-up mattress within a small but perfectly adequate tent enclosure to standing, upright, in the open air depending on the reason behind the task. Most frustrating of all scenarios is the need to pee, especially when the demand comes fast and furious, and introduces itself immediately after the completed execution of the going-to-bed procedure. In this case a quandary hits: do I undo all of my hard work to relieve my bladder and have (hopefully) an interruption-free night; or do I try to ignore the niggling tingling of my (unfortunately unzippable) urine chamber, pretend I am as empty as my bank account, and continue to try to fall asleep while knowing, deep down, that this need just ain’t gunna go away. The second option always prevails. (Something to do with romantic optimism?) Anything is better than undoing the just-fastened zips (upon zips upon zips) to relieve oneself immediately. Which of course results in, most often, a few hours of uncomfortable denial / at best a short stretch of restless light sleep / at worst a bout of mild-to-moderate cystitis. After which time one realises that they really must use the bathroom NOW, and must proceed to unlock themselves from their temporary coffin, waking up their partner, no doubt, in the process, while admitting to themselves that they should have bloody gone when they first bloody needed.

The donning of the outdoor gear thus follows: glasses (for those like myself who are not naturally blessed with functioning eyesight); head torch (to help alert the tent-mate to the ever-increasing kerfuffle); and hiking boots (with which to protect your three-plus layers of socks from the treacherous terrain en route to the toilet block). Perfecting the order of bedecking oneself with the three props remains to elude me. Glasses being the main stumbling block. How do you find them when you have no light? You can’t. But how do you find the light when you cannot see? You can’t. But how do you find your glasses when it’s pitch black and you are totally blind? You somehow manage to do it (after turning the entire contents of the tent (and your partner) upside down). The glasses are on (phew). But it is still pitch black and thus they are not doing a great deal. (They are also bloody cold for they have not, unlike oneself, being zipped shut in a almost air-tight sleeping bag for the duration you have been needing the toilet.) So now you search for the head torch which, in the aftermath of searching for the glasses, is now on the opposite side of the tent under four layers of clothes and in your boyfriend’s shoe. Let there be light. Now it is light but you still cannot see a thing. You are wearing your glasses, of course, but with the coldness of the air and the warmth of your face they have steamed up to high heaven and are, in fact, masking your already shoddy vision to worse than would be the case without them. So you place them on your head, the handles tucked into the head torch strap for extra support, and readjust to the world as you now see it: a big blurry mess (but with, thankfully, less fog than when bespectacled). Now one must put on one’s shoes, which have been sensibly placed by the exit of the chamber, requiring merely a quick bum-shuffle to the end of the bed, a partial opening of the inner tent door, and a feet-out / head-in situation as you try to ply them over your thoroughly insulated – and thus thoroughly enlarged – tootsies. With all your equipment in place it is now time for the crescendo: the getting up and out of the ruddy thing. Once the inner door is fully unzipped comes the hamstring and glutes workout – the sitting to crouching manoeuvre – to achieve a position which places you in the entrance hall, if you will, of the home, ready to close the inner door on your partner before opening the outer door to the world outside. You inevitably fall over when performing this trick, and have the head torch shining nice and bright to highlight the incident to anyone else in the campsite who happens to still be awake. If you haven’t wet yourself by this point… I salute you.

What follows is a drunken-like saunter to the facilities, more often than not assuming an alternative, highly detourious, route, involving a number of unforeseen obstacles and near-misses. But you make it, eventually, to the cubicle, and relieve your burning need, finally, which now presents itself as the slowest of river trickles due to its overdue nature. But you wait, you persevere, and at long last your bladder is light and free.

The reverse performance of the getting-to-the-toilet act is just as troublesome and clumsy as its predecessor, but once you are wrapped up warm, once more, in your little private haven, free from any lavatorial constraints, you can – finally – drift into deep, restorative sleep. (Before your alarm goes off and you need to go through the whole friggin’ drama again.)

One Year Ago Today

Having dropped out of university after one year because I wanted to live in the ‘real world’; having moved out of my family home and into a one-bed flat at the age of twenty-one; and having somehow fallen into a rather responsible senior executive role at an independent book publisher, by the age of twenty-five I felt somewhat trapped by this ‘real world’ which I had so deeply longed for while living my (worst) student life. What was this concept dubbed ‘real life’? I got up every day at 7 am, spent the majority of my waking hours in an insipidly lilac office, went straight to the gym after work and then got home in time to cook myself dinner – alone – and watch an hour of mindless TV before hitting the sheets to get some rest before doing it all over again. And again. And again. This wasn’t what I’d signed up for. So I handed in my notice – without a job to go to or any kind of plan of action – and used my notice period to figure out what the hell I was going to do that was not working nine ’til five office hours (that kind of reality was far too real for me); not going back to university (the idea alone made me shudder); and not (heaven forbid) becoming a totally jobless bum. So I opted for travel.

I hadn’t taken a gap year before starting university and was not overly au fait with the notion of backpacking or hostel-dwelling. More precisely, I had never done either; I had never contemplated doing either; and I was not entirely sure what either would entail. My biggest concern was whether I needed to take my own toilet paper with me for the duration of the trip. (FYI – I didn’t.) Toilet paper fears aside, I borrowed a backpack, became a master of clothes-roll packing (a crease-reducing art) and bought a bumper pack of condoms to keep me going (for the first month at least).

Given my inexperience alluded to above, the far-flung lands of Thailand / New Zealand / South America were very much off the cards. Anyway, I didn’t want to meet a load of ‘Brits Abroad’ or get drunk at the Full Moon Party with the wannabe cast of Geordie Shore; I wanted to meet the locals, experience the culture and perhaps bag myself a terrifically tanned and deliciously dark-eyed Italian husband. (Definitely not too much to ask for.) I could picture the meet cute… we would lock eyes on a sandy beach in Puglia, or a busy terrace in Veneto, or a beautiful vineyard in Tuscany. He would teach me how to make fresh pesto and spaghetti, we would unintentionally recreate the iconic scene from Lady And The Tramp. We would fall in love, he would propose and we would live happily ever after (and make lots of lovely little Italian babies). So I decided to take my trip around Europe.

Whether out of support or doubt or ridicule, my dad bought me a book on how to find an Italian husband as my leaving present. (I mean, I would have preferred a travel towel or €50 in cash but, hey, if the book worked I wasn’t complaining.) So I set off on my trip, Italian-husband-bagging-guide and condoms in toe, and travelled through Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, Slovenia, Hungary and Romania before flying into Bari, Italy, to commence my south-to-north tour of the country’s fascinating regions, and my nationwide swoop of their available suitors.

In Bari – the very first stop – I did indeed lock eyes on the beach with an Italian male, but on closer inspection his eyebrows were plucked to within an inch of their lives and his speedos were covering barely an inch of his flesh, so I quickly endeavoured to unlock eyes and vacate the area. Lecce, Naples, Rome, Florence and Pisa all followed. Admittedly I did meet a number of pleasant men of varying degrees of tan and distinctive features. But none of them, I deemed, were husband material. And then came Bologna.

Joining me on this stint of the trip was one of my best friends from back home; a lovely and crazy full-of-beans kind of girl who is always up for adventure (and the only one of my friends I considered willing (or indeed able) to stay in a multi-bunkbed dorm). After a couple of nights in an Airbnb in Milan, the city into which she flew, we headed to a small and friendly hostel in Bologna for the real ‘travelling’ experience. The hostel itself was wonderful. It felt cosy and caring; there was a chest of looseleaf tea into which one could dip at any time of day; there were privacy curtains on each of the bunks and the most spacious of little wooden cabins within which each mattress was placed. After a handful of truly hideous experiences, this hostel was thoroughly top notch.

Making dinner in the shared kitchen that evening – exactly one year ago today – I immediately spotted a rather handsome looking fellow guest sitting at the large communal table. He was speaking in English with a slight accent that I detected (and later proved to be correct) as Dutch. He may not have been Italian, but at least he wasn’t British.

A group of us decided to head into the city that evening for a couple of drinks and, much to my delight, the dishy Dutchman was going to join. (The Lady And The Tramp music was already playing in my head.) But what was his name? Perhaps Hans, Pieter or Luuk. Or maybe Jan, Jeroen or Jurgen. Alas, no. His name was definitely Dutch, but, on first introductions, it was not distinguishable as a word let alone a form of reference. It was a sound – an unknown, unfathomable sound – that seemed to fuse the hiss of a snake with the rasp of a phlegmy sigh, and there was definitely some kind of ‘I’ or ‘Y’ sound in there. But further than that I could not comprehend. I just stared, dumbfounded, at his deliciously Dutch eyes, blinked a couple of times and exclaimed, “right!”. Getting to know Chyuiys was going to be interesting. (Correct spelling: Gijs; correct pronunciation: God knows.)

So my best friend and I, mister unpronounceable, and a handful of other much less good looking fellow inmates made our way into the city centre, stumbling upon a graffitied and fairy lit alleyway en route which was littered with cute little VW-type vans offering a whole manner of weird and wonderful alcoholically-spiked concoctions. This was to be our destination. We placed our orders at the bar – best friend opted for a cocktail featuring lavender (yuck); I went for something more citrusy; the poison of the delectable Dutchman I cannot quite remember, but it most definitely would have been strong, stylish and indecently sultry. Our glasses were quickly drained and followed by seconds and thirds. The conversation was fun and fiery and, of course, alcohol fuelled. I had placed myself intentionally opposite the Nederlander for the best vantage point from which to admire his facets, and there were definitely a few seconds of fleeting eye contact. This was it. This was the moment. This was my Dutch Italian. And then the world as I knew it turned upside down.

After three cocktails half of the group were ready to go home. (What?) Best friend and I were the only British representation, and we were only just getting started! Devilishly handsome Dutchman had a devilishly inopportune bad stomach and was going to join the party poopers (pardon the pun). I was mightily pooped. Even my most convincing persuasive arguments could not change his mind (not that I blame him – sometimes that kinda shit’s just got to happen). So off he went, out into the darkness and lost, potentially, from my future life. This called for another cocktail (or three).

The remaining clan moved on to another drink truck further along the alleyway, and placed bets on the likeliness of Chyuiys’ return. I was the only one who predicted a higher than 50% chance, and that was admittedly more out of willing than wager. But what do you know, half an hour later as we gathered at the makeshift counter to place our umpteenth order, a certain Dutchman sauntered towards us through the rows of twinkly, dangling fairy lights, like a reincarnation in a climactic movie scene. He was back. And he was back for me. (I prayed.)

Best friend and I took our seats at the table, far enough away from the bar to confer on the recent events. We confessed to one another that we really, really fancied him. Ooh! Which one? The Dutch one! Ah. Agh. This did not go down so well. With either of us. We discussed the troublesome situation we found ourselves in, and like all good friends came to a mutually-agreed consensus: f*** you, he’s mine! The battle was on.

Suffice to say, as the evening progressed and the drinking came to an end, my mate and I returned to the hostel separately, neither of us alone, and she spent the next three weeks trying to block a random Aussie from all of her social media accounts. (I did feel for her.) Chyuiys, new nickname Gigi, became acquainted with my bunk (thank God for the privacy curtain), and my (potentially ex-) best friend up above had to listen to a night full of smooching and sweet nothings. (Luckily she didn’t hear the part where I suggested he come meet me later on during my Europe tour, and he politely declined for he was “really busy right now”. Yikes.)

Over breakfast, however, (shared with fifteen of the hostel’s other guests) we became Facebook friends, and proceeded to ‘message’ every single day from then on in. After two months of emoji-filled love letters he decided he did have a spare weekend, and our first date was arranged: three nights away in a studio Airbnb in Lisbon. (Not that I’m encouraging spending seventy-two hours straight with an almost-complete stranger in a foreign city, but, you know, I was in travelling mode…) I told my mum, hesitantly. (You know how mums can be.) I did not tell my dad. (I didn’t want any more relationship-coaching literature Fed-Ex’d direct to me in Portugal.) I arrived at the apartment first, and waited anxiously for Gigi to join me. It was a nerve-wracking, restless and exciting couple of hours. Until he arrived. And then we both knew, in roughly five minutes, that this was going to be a bloody good first date. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Porto: Part Two

In Porto one simply must partake in the pastime of port drinking, darling, and Daddy Dearest and I are not ones to do things by halves. Probably the highlight of our stay in one of the fortified wine capitals of the world (the lack of decisiveness due only to the memory-reducing qualities of the sheer quantity of consumption) was our Port Wine Tour of the Douro Valley, which took us through the tumbling hills home to the abundant grape crops; up and down the valley on a lovely wooden vessel; and right into the heart and home of one of the region’s family-run estates.

The fun and games started before we had even been collected by the tour company’s minibus, which was due to pick us up at exactly 08:05 at a crossroads nearby to our accommodation. We dutifully arrived at said crossroad at 07:50 – to be on the safe side – where we then waited for fifty-five minutes, rather awkwardly pacing up and down the street, assessing each and every vehicle which drove past, trying to look prominent yet not vulnerable, all the while not knowing where the bloody hell the car was, or what it was going to look like. (Turned out they’d given us the wrong pick-up time.) As 08:45 drifted upon us so too did the minibus, into which we hobbled, trying to show our frustration yet not alienate ourselves as the complainers, and commenced our trip to the valley of the vinho do Porto.

What the trip had lacked, thus far, in punctuality was definitely made up for, during the journey, in comedic value. Accompanied by two couples who were holidaying together, Dad and I were also joined by the lone ranger John, a marketing consultant from the Black Country, and the fresh-faced driver-cum-tour guide Gonçalo, who was clearly doing this as a summer job, but did a mighty good job at keeping us all amused. The hour-long drive went something like this: the couples at the back conversed freely amongst themselves; John would inundate Gonçalo with trivial questions and suppositions; Gonçalo would respond to John with wit, maintaining a professional level of calm and an enjoyable level of sarcasm; Dad and I would observe the John and Gonçalo debacle, finding it highly entertaining. John’s one of those guys that you roll your eyes at and nudge your pal about, but underneath the incessant point-proving and fact-sharing is a fun, friendly and free-to-tease kinda guy. (This made for great banter as the port began to flow.)

Our first stop was in fact an Olive Oil Museum – which is grown and made in a similar way to port – but fear not; along with the oils for dipping there were aplenty of wines for sipping. All were exquisite and all were consumed on a sun-drenched terrace overlooking the picturesque valley. And this was still pre-lunch! Once suitably lubricated we hobbled back into the minibus and were driven a short way to the day’s lunch venue, a typical Portuguese restaurant stuffed full with locals (win) and with wine waiting for us at the table (double win). To start with we were served an array of exotic and traditional nibbley sharing plates (who doesn’t love a nibbley sharing plate?) featuring delicious fresh olives, delectable açorda de camarão (a kind of fishy and fresh houmous situation) and divine bolinhos de bacalhau (waist-defying cod croquettes). Most of the clan went for a meaty main but, as I love animals too much to eat them, but clearly show no similar regard to those with gills, I went for the bacalhau, naturally, which certainly did not disappoint.

The post-lunch slump was short lived: we were soon on our way to the Quinta de Marrocos estate, high in the hills of the beautiful Douro region, where we were welcomed by owner and should-be politician César Augusto Coreia de Sequeira. His opening line lasted fifty (long) minutes (indeed), during which time he recited chapter and verse about the current state of the port industry, and how the household names (think Taylor’s, Graham’s, Warre’s) were sucking the blood of the family producers like him, and were by all accounts the devil incarnate. This soliloquy was both tedious and illuminating, made even better by the exaggerated regretful facial expressions and gesticulations of Gonçalo, standing behind César, who clearly didn’t have this in his script, but didn’t have the heart to stop the maturing port producer mid flow. But eventually it came to an end, allowing us all to breathe a sigh of relief (including César, who I’m sure had not taken an in-breath since starting his address).

We were led inside the estate, shown around the vineyards and the pressing room (the grapes are pressed with the feet, in a particular rhythm, which, of course, was demonstrated by dearest César) and on – finally – to the tasting room. Here we tried four LARGE glasses of port, which, just incase everyone wasn’t entirely intoxicated by now, got us well and truly sloshed. These glasses went from sweet and sickly to dry and sharp, each served alongside a homemade conserve. Unfortunately the conserves were totally and utterly disgusting, like really really yucky, but the port, in all of its guises, was totally and utterly sumptuous. With our 3,458th glass of port down we slid, quite literally, back into the minibus, and strapped up ready for the long drive home.

The post-port slump was now well and truly let to roam, and a lovely, harmonious crescendo of snoring entertained Gonçalo the entire way back to Porto.

I’m Still Alive (Ah, Ah, Ah, Ah, Staying Alive, Staying Alive)

Sincerest apologies for the lack of highly amusing blog posts during the past few months (I hope you have survived without the bi-weekly update, and if you haven’t… my thoughts go out to your family and friends). The thing is… I’ve only gone and bloody emigrated! Yep, I just couldn’t deal with Boris any more. Or Brexit. Or Bangers & Mash. (Linda McCartney, obviously.) (OK so I can’t remember the last time I ate bangers and mash, and would never buy a fake sausage, but, you know, it might be the newest reincarnation of the Johnson and Davis post-cabinet two-piece boyband (both have exceedingly mash-like hair, but I think David would have to take the sausage half due to Boris’ slightly yellow tinge up above).) Am I rambling?

Back to me. (Yay.) I returned home to Blighty in November last year, after my six-month bonanza getting lost in much of wonderful Europe. (The accounts of which, which stopped rather abruptly mid-Porto com Darling Daddy, will recommence – you’ll be thrilled to hear – and will take you step-by-step (bite-by-bite) through the last stages of my trip.) The grand homecoming was great. Aside from the lovely welcome from Mummy Moo Moo at St. Pancras’ exquisite Champagne Bar (the longest in Europe, did you know), I thoroughly enjoyed the proceeding home comforts: the use of non-microfibre towels after showers within which I did not, for hygiene reasons, need to wear flip flops; the comforting feel of the fridge door handle which was never covered in an unidentified suspect stickiness; the ability to dress and undress in peace, and in a space larger than the average toilet cubicle. Oh it was bliss. And then there was Christmas. (I love Christmas.) And then there was the first Valentine’s Day I spent with my new, exotic, European, name-impossible-to-pronounce boyfriend (he came to England and we indulged in some PROPER (greasy) fish and chips). And then there was my birthday (more presents – yay!). And then I thought, “humpf”. “Now that I’m a fully-fledged nomad,” (thought text), “I may as well move to another land, where I cannot speak the language and don’t even own the right currency.” So I did!

For the past couple of months I have been settling in to life in the Netherlands, and settling in to life with an unpronounceably-named roomie. (Both have been testing in their own ways, but I can now officially say that I own a bike (and can ride it with semi-confidence) and can correctly pronounce my boyfriend’s name (at least that’s what he tells me, with semi-confidence). So all in all things are going rather swimmingly!

The language is by far the most difficult obstacle, especially given that I am British and, you know, Brits don’t really do second languages. But I am giving it my best shot. I Het is heel moeilijk. I’m starting to realise that it’s all about the facial expressions pulled while speaking to achieve the correct sounds. It’s the exaggeration of the lips which helps our ‘potato-stuffed’ mouths pronounce these moeilijk words (apparently speaking with an English accent is like speaking with a potato in your throat), and the occasional widening of the eyes for words like watermelooooooon. I am slowly learning to loosen my face muscles in a bid to try to recreate these frankly ridiculous sounds, and in the meantime, while I’m still in the beginner stage, at least people will be captivated by the faces I am pulling even if they can’t understand a word I am saying. (Maybe that’s why everyone finds me so witty?)

Anyway, best get back to the mirror and practice loosening my lips… this language isn’t going to learn itself. But I will leave you with a new Dutch word to add to your one-word repertoire (moeilijk = difficult (if you hadn’t already twigged)). Alsjeblieft = please / you’re welcome, with the ‘j’ pronounced as a ‘y’. (And if you want to say it in a Chinese accent, just for fun, pronounce it ‘asha-bleed’ – I was for a good number of weeks.)

Dutch Football’s Lucky Charm

This time last year in the Dutch Eredivisie calendar (‘the highest echelon of professional football in the Netherlands’*) I was in Rotterdam, on day six of a six month sortie around much of Europe’s captivating lands. When I woke up that morning, one lifetime of a year ago, I was blissfully unaware of the chaos that was about to descend on the Netherlands’ second largest city. I was also blissfully unaware that I was to have a pivotal part in the success that would cause the ferocious football-mania. I know this now because yesterday I caused the exact same dogged delirium in the country’s fifth largest city, Eindhoven.

Pure coincidence? I think not. Granted, PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord Rotterdam may be two of the ‘Big Three’ of Dutch football, but, really, who actually takes notice of these league tables anyway? I’m confident that it was my presence, rather than any so-called tactical tenacity or innate voetbal talent, that secured both teams their glorifying wins. Don’t you agree?

Firstly, last year, Feyenoord had gone eighteen years without winning the Dutch league. So of course they were not the favourites to beat Amsterdam’s Ajax. They needed a helping hand. And I gave them two! Along with my new international mates from the hostel, I headed to a chock-a-block pub on the corner of the main street and joined the local crowds in fist pumping, beer swigging and general patriotic merriment (which did include, to my utter embarrassment, slurring some Dutch-sounding noises to the tune of the home team’s anthem).

This time round I went, along with my new international boyfriend, to the chock-a-block ‘bar street’ (which he has been sure to shield me from thus far, but wanted to take me to for the ‘full experience’ of the footy final) to join the local crowds in fist pumping, beer swigging and general patriotic merriment (which did include, to his utter elation, slurring some Dutch-sounding noises to the tune of the home team’s anthem). Unable to actually enter a bar premises due to sheer volume of people (clearly Eindhoven fans are more committed than those from the ‘Dam), we took up a spot on the street, where we were to be surrounded by the tallest and drunkest of Dutch hooligans with a penchant for standing on my feet, dripping beer on my head, and shoving me here, there and every which way possible. I’m not sure if this was the ‘full experience’ anticipated by my personal city guide, but it sure was an experience I’ll remember for a long time to come.

Both times the ratio of beer being flung out of plastic cups, cans and bottles to that which remained within its vestibule was rather dampening. The first goal in Feyenoord’s winning match was scored in under five minutes; for PSV Eindhoven it was at the twenty-third minute. I did appreciate the extra twenty minutes of dry hair and clothes in this year’s final, before the celebratory Bavaria rainstorm. This time I was slightly more mentally prepared for the hoppy onslaught, and even managed to blag said boyfriend’s jacket to save mine from the ever-lasting sticky coating (savvy, hey). But no matter one’s level of preparedness, when one is suddenly thrust upon with gallons of lager, one automatically experiences a shock to the system. But once this initial shock has subsided a little, one must immediately start jumping, fist pumping and celebrating with the rest of the crowd.

The festivities post-match in both cities were (and still are here in Eindhoven) extremely over the top. Shops shut, bars stay open, and people actually take the following day off work. Seriously – most of the city’s inhabitants had already booked it off in preparation for celebration or commiseration. And celebration it was, both times, to be. As the evening unfolds the bars get EVEN BUSIER. The floors get even sticker. The songs get even more Dutch (😱). As you can imagine, it is all a rather inebriated spectacle. One of the few times I can confidently feel less embarrassed about my own nation’s drinking problems, I was quickly brought back into line by one of the group who responded to my (polite) refusal of yet another glass of beer with: “are you even British?”. Seemingly no matter the positive effect I have on their football, I am not any closer to improving the Dutch opinion of Brits as brash, uncultured, binge-drinking messes (I must do better in the future).

With the music still blaring (twenty-four hours post-victory) and the final festivities still to come, I can only bask in my own lucky charmedness. (I certainly can’t face basking in any more beer.) For next year’s tournament there’s still all to play for… if any Dutch team would like to hire me for my fortune services I come at a very competitive rate and can make up convincing sounds for the words to any Dutch anthem after just one-and-a-half beers. Let the bidding war commence.

*Source: the highly reputable and trustworthy Wikipedia.

Porto: Part One

Porto. The home of port. A haven of sea breeze and beers by the river. A hubbub of freshly caught, cooked and incandescently consumed bacalhau. The ideal destination for a visit from Daddy Dearest. (Did I mention the port?)

The long-awaited meet-and-greet between father and daughter was, in all honesty, nothing short of hopeless. We were Airbnb-ing it (courtesy of said father’s credit card), and I was the first to arrive (I always like to welcome my guests, darling). One thought one would be waiting for one’s father for approximately one and a half hours. (Due to meticulous estimations on his flight, train journey and walk to the apartment.) One couldn’t have been more wrong. One was, indeed, waiting for one’s father for approximately four hours and fifty-seven minutes.

Problems arose when Daddy Dearest landed in Francisco Sá Carneiro (Porto) Airport… (Doesn’t one feel for one. (You for me (obviously).)) Firstly he had to battle with the city’s metro system, which was a little bit of a challenge for someone who hasn’t caught a bus since 1967 or used a self-service ticketing machine since, well, ever. To be fair to him, I found the ticketing system perplexing myself, and I had been abroad and using public transport possibly daily for the past five months. And this was just the beginning of the long, drawn-out, unfortunate saga.

On reaching the desired metro station – just a ten-minute stroll from the apartment – Darling Daddy was (unbeknown to him (and me)) still 70 minutes away from the final destination. (You know the film franchise? Things were close to resembling a Portuguese-backed sixth instalment.) Turns out not only is Dad unable to read a map; he also has trouble with locating and reading road signs which, when trying to find your way – sans-sat nav – in a foreign city, makes navigation rather troublesome indeed. On about the two-hour-post-expected-arrival mark I texted Father Unfound to check that he was still in the country / alive. He responded, reassuringly, with the word ‘Yes’. (I could sense a little frostiness so decided to refrain from getting into an emoji-heavy text convo.)

Another hour passed and there was still no sign of the old codger. Then my phone began to vibrate. It was only bloody Dad (who knew he could make a telephone call unprompted?!). Baring in mind that I had not seen the man in over five months, and had spoken to him once – while in Nice – since setting off on my adventure, his opening line was: “I give up”. Well. This was going to be interesting. We tried to ascertain where exactly he was. This proved difficult as he hadn’t the foggiest, he couldn’t see any road signs, and also his ailment of slight colour-blindness meant that me shouting out the colours of passers-by’s jumpers down the phone was not a great help. Somehow, however, he was actually just around the corner (probably took us about twelve minutes to figure this out), and he was soon in the apartment and lamenting to me the abominable lack of road signs in the city. (There were, in fact, road signs – on every street, including ours – which I happened to point out each and every time we walked past one for the duration of the trip. (What a sympathetic daughter I am.))

Anywho, with Dad safely at base, and me finally able to relieve myself (I couldn’t go for a wee for the four hours that Dad was due to be arriving any minute), the holiday could properly begin. Within a couple of hours we had beers in the fridge (and one dropped, smashed and seeping all over the open-plan floor (but that’s a-whole-nother story)), our glad rags on, and were headed into the city centre for a riverside meal and a much needed bottle of wine. With that down (approximately seven minutes between the two of us) the trials of the afternoon were forgotten, repressed, seeping away almost as quickly as the beer on the floor of our stark and stylish Airbnb.

Now it was definitely time to move on to some port.

Sintracalifragilisticexpialidocious

From the romantic whirlwind of Lisbon, I moved on to the much smaller, stiller, slower paced town of Sintra, set in the scintillating (Sintrallating) Serra de Sintra (Sintra Mountains to you and me). Though lesser in size, the charm of this little fairytale suburb knocks that of its adjacent capital sister right out of the park (literally (it’s housed in its own Natural Park)). The sights in store are second to none, but first I must introduce you to the interesting individuals (read: whacky-fucking-weirdos) I encountered at my hostel.

First up was the resident AAA (Annoying-American-Accented) ‘life coach’. No, he wasn’t employed by the hostel to improve the mindset and wellbeing of its guests; he was clearly a bit lost, a bit of a loner, and his business model was clearly not earning him the big bucks with which to avoid sharing a bedroom with up to sixteen total strangers. However this did not detract from his dazzling good looks, which made him even more of a confusion to me. (Kind of a cleaner-version-of-Russell-Brand vibe; excellent diet (slices of fresh apple with a dollop of nut (I am going to guess almond) butter were a regular favourite); enviable posture.) How can one be so much of an interesting individual (as above) when one is so ruddy handsome and healthy? It’s beyond me.

On asking him about his business model (obviously (I am unapologetically nosey)) he explained that he currently works with clients from all over the world via the telephone, taking to them about their lives, goals and how to improve on both. Feasible, yes. (But all my sceptical mind could envisage when spotting him on a ‘business call’ in the garden was his boring (but lovely) old mum – or a phone sex operator – at the other end of the line. But I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt; he must have been earning something to afford the organic, palm oil free, 100% nuts almond butter he was slathering all over his nuts (I mean apples).

The second interesting individual put the nut butter maestro firmly into the categorically of totally normal human being. II2 (Interesting Individual 2) was, unfortunately, in my dorm room. And this was especially unfortunate because his interesting behaviour happened (mostly) when he was in his bunk bed (thankfully not the one above me). He was trying his hand at being a YouTuber, I believe. (Or at least that was the impression he gave when filming himself talking to camera for lengthy periods, saying not much anything of use, interest or comedic effect.) (I am aware that the very same could be said for me, just via a different creative medium (but you are choosing to read this and you are on the fourth paragraph free willingly).) The first of his videos was about Harry Potter. Yes. Harry Potter. Late to the party in so many ways (he was at least in his early-twenties). And this first video lasted for at least twenty-five minutes (at which point I opted for a change of scenery and moved to the living room to escape his monotonous tones which were really, truly bleeding me of my soul (and any fondness I may have had towards the Philosopher’s Stone). I do not believe he had any concept of space-sharing, consideration of others, or the publication years (and target audience age) of the Harry Potter book series.

My second interesting interaction with II2 was in the kitchen, and an event during which my behaviour was thoroughly unkind and for which I am still regretful (though which does not retract from the fact that it was a FUCKING STUPID THING FOR HIM TO DO). It was the morning and therefore it was time for breakfast (yay). I entered the kitchen and who was there to greet me but my wizard-wannabe roomie who was talking (a lot) to no one in particular (definitely not to me (maybe my leaving during his Harry Po Po monologue the evening before had hurt his feelings)). I moved towards the fridge to retrieve something (let’s say it was milk – it’s the most probable candidate at this time of day (no matter how much one is partial to a swig-from-the-bottle of chilled sauvy-b at a quarter past nine)). (That last bracketed clause was purely for comic effect, before you get in touch with the AAA man about my worrying habits.) I pulled on the handle, opened the fridge door, and to my utter fright and surprise (it was a quarter past nine so one should be able to sympathise with my delicate reflexes at this early hour) something fell from the top of the door and onto the floor with a bit of a splat. (Don’t worry – we didn’t have an almond butter emergency.) It was II2’s GoPro, with which he was filming a ‘breakfast special’ for his YouTube subscribers (that explains all the senseless talking). He ran to the device and huffed EXAGGERATEDLY. He held it in both hands and stroked it as if it was a beautiful robin who had injured its wing and needed some TLC. He grunted and retreated from the fridge. My reaction: I looked at him strangely and then got back to finding my milk.

I FEEL SO HEARTLESS!!! I didn’t even say sorry. I may have just ruined his chances at a multi-million pound vlogging empire. But: why the EFF would you leave your GoPro balancing PRECARIOUSLY on top of the DOOR to the COMMUNAL FRIDGE at BREAKFAST TIME? I couldn’t help but huff exaggeratedly and continue to assemble my bowl of granola. II2 – if you’re reading this – I’m sorry for opening the fridge door at an inopportune moment, leading to the cutting short of your ‘breakfast vlog’, and the potential cutting short of your journalistic career. I am sorry for not saying sorry (although I don’t believe that I was in the wrong, sometimes it is good just to say sorry, even when you do not believe you ought to be sorry). And I am sorry for reacting to your STUPIDITY with a strange look and an exaggerated huff. But, dear lord, am I sorry that I had to endure your tedious, time-consuming and, frankly, terrible attempts at capturing an audience’s attention with the most un-topical topics known to man, woman and child. (You are now on paragraph six and a good 1,000 words deep so do not even think about projecting this belligerent observation onto me and my (captivating and incredible) writing (please).)

With all this talk of interesting individuals (and I haven’t even mentioned you yet, Dad!) there’s barely time to give you a run down of the Sintracular (a nod to its spectacle as opposed to its abundance of vampires) Portuguese town. So (without boring you too much more) I will just make a list of adjectives I have assigned to the resort, and leave the rest up to you: alluring, beautiful, charming, decorative, enchanting, fascinating, grand, happy, interesting, jubilant, kaleidoscopic, luscious, majestic, natural , ornamental, peaceful, quirky, ravishing, sublime, topnotch, unspoilt(ish), vibrant, wonderful, xtremely wonderful, zig-a-zig-ah.

Palàcio de Pena

First Dates

Good, bad, sometimes too cringe worthy to recount to others (let alone publish on the world wide web). We’ve all been on our fair share of first dates and, most probably, a lot of yours have left you singing along solo to U2 (I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (obviously)). So interesting, in fact, they have their own TV show (one of my favourites I have to admit). Needless to say, I was as eager as you no doubt are to see how this one turned out…

Coffee? No. Dinner? Nein. Picnic in the park? Mais non! This first date was in fact a weekend away in Lisbon – yes – with someone I had spent approximately two hours with two months prior – ja – and of whom I could not properly pronounce their name – oui madame. (Still can’t to be honest.) Said Dutchman will go by the name of Gigi* (a name which he has since grown to despise exponentially, and the best part is I’ve got my dad calling him that now too).

Gigi and I met during Caren’s** stint with me in Italy. (Brownie points for those of you who spotted his subtle reference in the post about Bologna.) First problem was: Caren and I both fancied him. Second problem was: he didn’t fancy either of us. It wasn’t looking good. On suggesting we keep in touch while saying our goodbyes I was politely informed that he was “rather busy at the moment”. It really wasn’t looking good. Oh well. You’ve got to love a trier!

Through some miraculous, well, miracle (clearly my casual Facebook Messengering is second to none (who knew?)), I found myself, two months later, sitting in a little Airbnb in the Pena district of Lisbon, waiting for my date to arrive. (And then, all being well – no domestic violence / sexual assault / unknown drug problem – he would remain for… the next three nights. 😳.) (My mother was a little nervous, to say the least. I was quite optimistic but, you know, you never really know…)

First task was sourcing the ingredients for dinner. (He was arriving in the evening and I wanted to fully take advantage of the situation and wow him with my culinary talents.) I was hoping for an oven but no such luck. This was going to have to be a two-ring hob kinda dish. (Was not going to let it phase me.) He told me the only thing he did not like was gorgonzola cheese. Great. Nice and easy and not a fussy eater (though obviously I judged him for his aversion to blue cheese). I had planned olives and nuts for nibbles (always got to be nibbles), with a fillet of sea bass on an aubergine / butterbean / basil bonanza of some description as the show-stopper. Turned out he does not like olives or aubergine, either. (Those closest to me know how I feel about aubergine and know that this could have been a deal breaker. But I was turning over a new leaf, and wasn’t going to let this potentially catastrophic revelation get in the way of what could turn out to be true love. (I hope you’re all very proud of me.))

The food shopping experience was one I’d never like to repeat. Without a phone (still) (imagine the added complications of organising the first date) or an internet connection, I rather struggled to even find a supermarket and wondered, at times, if I would ever make it back to the apartment after walking in so many circles around the centre of the city that I was starting to feel a little dizzy. At last, alas, I found a supermarket. It was like something out of the olden days (or how I imagine them to be, anyway). A counter for everything (even a wine buff to help you choose your bottle!). I liked it a lot. I liked the fish counter lady a lot less. We had an almighty communication issue. (Even with a semi-English speaking butcher to help us out.) After watching her massacre one poor sea bass-ish fellow to barely two unbattered fish fingers (not the desired cut), and an awful time trying to explain that WHO ON EARTH WOULD WAN’T TO PAY FOR THAT? I managed to use enough hand gestures and mimes to describe “two fillets, skin on, pin boned and scaled”, and walked away with my dinner (phew).

When Gigi arrived I think we both knew there was going to be a make-or-break two minutes, which would lead to either the best first date we had ever had or the longest three days one could ever care to imagine. Luckily we totally aced these initial two minutes. He seemed to enjoy the aubergine-based dinner (or at least he certainly acted convincingly), and we knew it was going to be, like, totally the best date ever. The weekend was spent exploring, eating (you know me) and unapologetic eye-gazing. I spent about three-month’s worth of travelling budget in three days, but (old romantic that I am) it was totally bloody worth it.

As I sit and type this, exactly six months and one week since we met, I am writing from my ‘secondary office’ in Gigi’s flat in the Netherlands, waiting for him to get home from work so I can cook an aubergine salad for dinner (I kid you not (aubergine will always come first in my heart)). I may have to change the name of my blog because I think I have just stumbled upon happy…

*Much hotter than Hadid.

**K changed to C to protect identity.

[Gigi is not the cartoon male from 1866]