Hello, Donkey

Amidst the breathtaking white-washed buildings and blue-domed churches of Santorini, tentatively tackling the cobbled, uneven labyrinth of streets with tanned and handsome beau in tow, one might expect to be beckoned by local business owners into their café / terrace / Swarovski-embellished jewellery shop. This is a given in established tourist destinations. And given that Santorini – an island spanning just seventy-six square kilometres (making it smaller than the English seaside town of Brighton) – welcomes some two million visitors each year, this vocal advertising, one would assume, must be part and parcel of how things work; how the Summertime economy keeps the island afloat all year round. The Greek restaurateurs and shopkeepers did, indeed, try to coax us into their establishments and to buy their wares, but they were, in fact, the most unimposing and polite touts I have ever come into contact with, across Europe and beyond.

Holidaying in Turkey, for instance, was for me a tricky game of ignore and/or eyelash-flutter; anything to avoid being all-but-physically manoeuvred into each and every open door. Tunisia was even worse. Travelling there aged eight I was told to stay with my father at all times for protection, while my mum and sister were constantly accosted by leather goods salesmen desperate to bag their next commission. Though intimidating as a child I have grown to become quite thick-skinned in relation to the hard holiday sell, and have perfected my ignore or eyelash flutter response over years of practice. In Santorini, however, this charade was surplus to requirements. A simple “no thank you” or even a non-committal smile was sufficient in communicating our wishes, or lack thereof to surrender our custom, and resulted in a warm expression in response, and a genuine desire for us to have a lovely day. Wow. I could get used to this.

There was, however, one memorable exception to this rule. It was the fourth day of our week-long holiday and we were making our way down to the port to commence a full-day boat trip. Life was good. The five-hundred-and-eighty-seven steps down to the port made life somewhat sweaty, but still enjoyable none the less. On our descent our senses were treated to a kaleidoscope of information: the sublime views; the dizzying heights; the jaunty stairway; the inescapable sun. Avoiding the deposits of horse poo scattered haphazardly along the path required precision of foot and strength of character; on meeting the stationary horses themselves my heart strings were pulled with an overriding sense that whatever they were there for felt wrong. 

We had decided to take the route down on foot. Many a holidaymaker instead pays just €6 to mount a donkey and let him or her do the hard work for them. No wonder they shat all over the bloody path. As we passed the two dozen or so horses on the steps they stood motionless, almost frozen, with their heads bowed down and their eyes fixed on the cobbles. They were not tied or restrained in any way physically, but adorned with brightly coloured beads and ropes to appear more cheerful to weary passers by. I stopped to take a photograph of them, feeling more like a National Geographic reporter documenting animal cruelty than an avid holidaymaker, and feeling guilty while positioning the lens in case doing so was in some way aiding and abetting the practice. I took the picture even though. At the time, and when I look back, the animals reminded me of the battered wives I had learnt about in A Level psychology: their coping mechanism to deal with the suffering to simply stand and bear it. But I digress.

As we reached the last step, caps now stuck to our heads and leg muscles twitching sporadically in recovery, we entered the port. Not before, of course (?), passing a security guard who scanned our bodies with a pogo stick from a three-metre distance, and waved us through the archway without the will to search our backpack. I couldn’t understand why there was a security guard positioned here (and only here) on the island, and clearly nor could he, if his proficiency was anything to go by. Hey ho. I doubt many terrorists would bother with the trek down to sea level… They’d surely make much more of a killing up on the caldera edge.

Once through passport control we walked out onto the port and I felt the luscious sea breeze calm, ever so slightly, my rapidly rosaceous face. And relax. Just as I was returning to a skin tone and perspiration level of semi-normality (well, what’s to be expected as a pale-skinned Brit abroad), I was called out to by the most insulting, and bewildering, pet name. Literally. “Hello, Donkey.”

Now, I may have felt some kind of connection to, or at least concern for, the four-legged creatures en route, but I certainly hadn’t morphed into one of them. My boyfriend and I exchanged nervous glances. Who was this cry coming from, and what on earth made him deem it acceptable to address one, or both, of us in this manner? Before we had time to come to any solid conclusions he bellowed once more, in a very Greek-sounding voice, “Hello, Donkey.” And then he repeated it again, and again, and again. We stopped in our tracks, determined to discover the man behind the mantra.

Perched upon a tiny – really impractically small – wooden stool, safe in the shade of a large ceiling overhang, was a slightly rotund and grubby looking old man, at a guess approximately eighty-two years of age. In his right hand he wafted a double-size ping-pong bat, plastered with an image of the horses we had encountered moments before and the word DONKEY, written all in caps. Ah. He was not, after all, passing judgement on our equine features or lack of appropriate toilet training. He was seller of the donkey ride, poised and ready to exchange a handful of shrapnel for an equestrian chair lift. But us realising this didn’t shut him up. With him a polite “no thank you” was barely acknowledged; a non-committal smile most definitely beyond his short sight. He was like a broken record, in the figurative sense, and almost the cause of a very broken chair.

His catcall echoed in our ears until we were on board the boat and at least twenty metres away from the port. Six hours of volcanic exploration and Aegean Sea swimming later we disembarked back where we had begun. Donkey Man was nowhere to be seen, nor his chair or ping-pong paddle. I felt an unanticipated sense of loss, and the glorious sensation of quiet. As we waited for the cable car to take us back up to the centre – we certainly weren’t going to exploit the lovely little donkeys, donkey caller or no donkey caller – a slightly rotund old man staggered towards us and joined us in our cable car. It was the Donkey Man, sans signage, now without a voice (or the inclination) to make small talk. Perhaps he felt exactly the same as me about the donkeys; perhaps he was only doing the job to make a living during the summer months, his ethics pushed aside for want of a better life. Or perhaps his bottom was so darn sore from six hours on a pinhead stool that he needed some proper seating for his ascent home. Who knows? All I do know is that I now have a lovely new greeting for when my partner gets home from work. Hello, Donkey. 

Fira, Santorini, Greece

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Race Day

Sunday was a big day. It was the fourteenth edition of ‘s-Hertogenbosch’s Vestingloop. Yes that’s right. The fourteenth annual Fortress Walk of possibly the most unpronounceable of Dutch cities. (I mean when does anything actually beginwith an apostrophe?) Though I have to admit: there was no walking involved, or fortresses, but, you know, it was definitely in Den Bosch (the slightly more pronounceable shortened version of Eindhoven’s next door neighbour’s name). 

There were three options for what I can only describe as a charity run: 5 km, 10 km or 15 km. I chose to spectate. My boyfriend, on the other hand, opted for the 5 km (most importantly deciding to take part, unlike muggins here). But do not be fooled into thinking that this meant that I didn’t break a sweat. Oh no. I did indeed. And was certainly not in the appropriate attire to be doing so. For Gijs, who had to run 5 km with a group of about five thousand others, and whom I was there to support, did in fact beat me to the finish line, as my 2 km jaunt through the backstreets to get to the end became something of a farce.

Indeed, before we even got to the start line the day was a little chaotic. First minor catastrophe was our lack of safety pins, with which to pin Gijs’ race number (with tracking device) to his t-shirt. He asked if I had any in my make up bag. I’m not exactly sure what he thinks I do to my face every morning, but I had to explain that pricking myself or securing myself was definitely not part of the routine. He was a little disappointed. He then proceeded to look through our bucket of mixed-currency shrapnel – ever the optimist – in the hope that four hidden safety pins would suddenly reveal themselves. I am very proud of myself for resisting the urge to question his dead-end search, and proceeded to tell him of my achievement when he came to the conclusion that no, we absolutely did not have any safety pins at home, and that he was going to have to ask a colleague (with whom he was running) if he could pinch a few. He got a reply back in seconds reassuring him that his safety pin needs would be met at the gathering point of his office thirty minutes before the race, and his attachment anxiety was finally laid to rest.

Accompanying Gijs to his office to meet the gang was an exciting experience for me; I had never been to his office before and enjoyed seeing in person the place in which he spent many of his waking hours while I would sit at home and watch re-runs of Friends(I mean work on my latest novel). I was quite impressed. The desks were height adjustable, allowing the workers to sit or stand as they so wished. (In my case all of the height options would require standing, given my stunted appearance in the land of giants.) There was a communal lunch area, with long wooden tables and benches inviting conversation and community; and a small games area involving ping pong and foosball tables, where I could see myself hiding when all the stand-up working got too much. And the main entrance was like a designer furniture showroom! A high wooden bar with perfectly pert stools sat adjacent to a stylish distressed leather sofa and a spectacularly soft oval rug (I didn’t kneel at its feet to stroke it, but golly was I tempted to). Anyway, with the office tour complete we made our way back up to the meeting room where everyone running the race was gathered. Only they were no longer there; the room was entirely empty. We had spent so long admiring the soft furnishings that they had actually left without us…

We both checked our watches and we still had ten minutes to spare until start time – it was going to be ok. Making our way back to the lifts we heard distant calls of “Gijs! Gijs!” from somewhere within the shaft, and we were pleased that they hadn’t forgotten about us all together. Travelling down just one storey, to where Gijs thought his mates would be, we stepped out of the lift to respond to the bodiless voices. “Hello?” “Are you there?” Nothing. We were on our own. We got back into the lift and took it down to the basement, during which time Gijs got a call from a colleague but was cut off as soon as we dipped below the ground floor. The elevator pinged and we disembarked, and caught sight of his sportswear-adorned co-workers at the far end of the underground car park. We looked at each other and did a quick sprint to meet them, trying to act as unflustered and calm as possible, now with just five minutes to go before the whistle was due to be blown and with no start line in sight. Emerging into daylight and rounding the corner we were there, the street filled with Lycra-clad runners filtering into the fenced-off starting lane. This was it. It was showtime.

Taking Gijs’ phone – for documentation and safe-keeping – I made my way slightly further down the route to capture him crossing the start line. It seemed to take an age for him to appear, behind hoards and hoards of equally optimistic starters, but at last he passed and, even though I say it myself, I made a rather spiffing five-second video. My accomplishments beyond this point, however, were a little bit lacking. 

Not that I’m blaming my tools, but the tracking app that was meant to provide me with real-time updates on his progress was singularly useless. According to the app for a further twenty-five minutes he was wachten om te start, which I knew for a fact was untrue. So as soon as he had passed me at the start I made my way in the opposite direction, along with another supportive and unsporty girlfriend, to the finish line to cheer him on when he needed it most. I was very glad that she knew the way we needed to go, meaning my only worries were not dropping his very expensive new phone, and periodically refreshing the app to check if it had caught up with him.

Approaching the city centre we met the running route again. But we needed to cross it, which was a little like playing chicken run with angry motorists (not that I have ever done that, but I imagine that it’s similar in experience). There must be nothing worse than missing beating your PB because of a dawdling bystander stepping on your shoelaces. So I was ever cautious to cross at a sensible place during a wide enough gap between competitors. Successfully dodging the onslaught we took a breath at the other side. At which point a group of his colleagues darted past us; Gijs, however, not in tow. I then had to weigh up the options: would Gijs be quicker than them, and thus have already passed this spot; or would he be behind, and therefore worth us sticking around for a couple of minutes to give him some vocal support… It was a tough one to call. The first group did look quite sporty and fit, so I erred on the side of caution and stayed put to send him some loving whoops and cheers. Another group from the office passed a few minutes later, but Gijs, again, was nowhere to be seen. Now I had another decision to make: was Gijs even fasterthan the first half of the team, or even slowerthan the tail end? This seemed to me a question much deeper than just probability, and I settled – for the longevity of our relationship as much as the logistics of the race – on him having already passed us and now steaming his way into the third kilometre. 

So we began walking again, taking a shortcut across the huge market square – sidestepping market stalls, pigeons and tourists – in the direction of the finish. For anyone who hasn’t been to Den Bosch, it is a lovely, charming little city with winding, narrow streets, quaint independent shops, and it’s very own pastry: the Bossche bol, a 5-inch spherical profiterole coated entirely in chocolate fondant icing. None ideal for navigating from A to B under strict time restraints and with one hand busy holding someone else’s mobile phone. As we entered a labyrinth of passages just off the main square I checked the app once more, just in case. It was now miraculously working, and Gijs was (miraculously) almost at the finish line…oh sh*t! Not knowing exactly where we were on the map, I needed a quick moment to acclimatise myself and judge if we were anywhere near the end. We were, but Gijs was nearer. And so my race began. Clutching his iPhone XS as protectively as I did my undersupported bosom, I started a trot-to-canter-speed beeline to the Parade, where all of the other – better prepared – supporters were waiting with banners and signs for their loved ones to cross the finish line. I was also wearing a backpack, filled with jogging bottoms, a spare t-shirt, a towel, deodorant, water, etc., for my beau, which was bobbing along behind me, almost as buoyantly as those at the front. I must have been quite a spectacle, especially given that I was not a formal participant in the big event.

With less than 50 m to the finish his phone vibrated in my hand: Gijs has finished! it enthusiastically informed me. I, on the other hand, had not. The last stretch became a bit of a blur as I elbowed my way through the thickening crowds to greet my hero and try to pretend that I had in fact seen his magnificent accomplishment. 

The set up was a little confusing and it took me a couple of minutes just to work out where on earth I would find him, but I did eventually spot him on the other side of the railings, sports drink in hand, face red and moist, breath still recovering. He gestured for us both to walk around the side of the area, to where we could be reunited and him adorned with praise and superlatives. 

His first words to me were, “Never again.” Thank God! That was far more physical exertion than I’d bargained for on a sacred Sunday morning. We celebrated with a beer – my word did I need it.

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Yogis and Vegans

As someone aspiring to be both a yogi and a vegan, a full-day yoga and vegan festival sounded like the perfect Sunday activity to reignite my lapsed and not-quite-fully-committed-to holier-than-thou lifestyle. For, before Sunday just gone, I had not taken part in a yoga class, or solitary practice, for at least seven months; and my near-daily chocolate habit is regrettably not confined to milk-free dark varieties. So I was definitely in need of a gentle boost and some yogic and plant-based inspiration. 

The Yogific (yes, Yogific) Yoga and Vegan Festival was just the ticket. Off I tootled on my bicycle on sunny Sunday morning, yoga mat slung slapdashedly over my shoulder, legs peddling at double speed to make it in time for the 11 o’clock session: Fundamentals of Ashtanga Yoga for All. (It was the ‘for all’ of the title which piqued my interest most; I, like you, hadn’t the foggiest what Ashtanga was, but knowing that I wouldn’t be completely out of my yoga-less depth was reassurance enough to give it a go.) The bike ride itself turned out to be a warm up for my core, having to balance (precarious as ever on my bicycle) with the added imbalance of a right shoulder bearing the weight of my Dopper (my Dutch friends will know) and the cumbersome length of my rolled up mat, which proceeded to jab me in the thigh on each and every peddle. I spent the entire journey trying to readjust my baggage while staying upright on my bike, as well as avoiding any bleary-eyed pedestrians who lingered on the bike path just a moment too long. It was quite the journey. I arrived red-faced, on edge and thoroughly ready for some Ashtangic healing.

I realise in hindsight that the ticket collection situation was another preparatory exercise to get your body (and mind, to an extent) feeling flexible and fluid. While at the time, for me at least, it felt awkward, unnecessary and a little bit painful (I suppose the perfect introduction to a day-long yoga session). The three or four ticket attendants were sitting inside the building, the Klokgebouw (Clock Building) to be precise, each with a top hung window separating them from the outside world, which opened approximately five centimetres at the bottom, to give a kind of boob-height crevice through which to conduct their ticketing business. One either had to stand up straight and shout at the volunteer through the glass, or bend down to align mouth with opening to ensure audibility of a more socially acceptable conversational volume. I opted for a combination of the two, which, after my slightly stressful commute there, presented itself as a confused mime artist with passive aggressive tendencies. Anyhow I got the ticket and gained access to the event.

Ashtanga Yoga appeared to me quite similar to how I perceive and know ‘yoga’ as a pursuit to be, with the main difference being the conscious attention paid towards two specific muscle positionings: the Mūla Bandha and the Uḍḍiyāna. Just hearing the sounds of these words made me feel more yogific. Accompanied by hand movements gesticulating an upturned jellyfish contracting followed by the stylised removal of a cloche from said jellyfish, our instructor explained these muscles to us laymen as the pelvic floor and two centimetres below the belly button. Right. That I can understand. Trying to hold them both in while breathing and performing various poses and Sun Salutations, however, was another challenge entirely. I persevered, though, and felt good for it, and definitely forgot the woes of the outside world, which I guess is one of the main objectives. 

Next on the agenda was a series of talks, spanning meditation, mental health and meeting your nutrient goals while following a vegan diet. Each talk and speaker was very different and very good, and each displayed a distinctive yogi / vegan / hippie accent to their appearance. We had the dreadlocks. We had the patterned harem pants. We even had the FiveFinger / ‘minimalist’ / ‘barefoot’ running shoes (you know, those reptile-like ‘shoes’ that separate the toes and look to induce four inescapable toe-wedgies in each foot of the victim (I mean wearer)). We had it all. 

The talk room itself was almost as off-putting as the choice of footwear. It certainly wasn’t made for talks, and clearly had not been adjusted in any way to accommodate them. Bearing in mind that the yoga sessions had a capacity of two hundred, the talk room had an advertised capacity of thirty-five, but in reality could seat ten comfortably, with the rest having to find a section of floor space on which to perch in the lotus position, with (perhaps) an unfortunately closer look at the individual toes of the speaker. Fear not, though, I always managed to bag myself a chair or slice of sofa – anything to not be at eye level with the twinkle toes of Spiderman.

An overpoweringly large silver table also featured in the room, slightly off centre in its haphazard placement, with no purpose or function other than to get in the way of the already limited floor space and provide a strange focal point that the speakers were forced to work with. My favourite speaker verbally acknowledged the barmy layout, much to the relief of the audience who had – for five plus hours – been questioning the choice of furniture individually, and felt a great sense of togetherness when this confusion was out in the open and shared collectively. Ah. There’s nothing like feeling part of a community.

As this was a vegan festival, I had high hopes for the lunch offering. These dreams were quickly dashed on realising that there were a total of two food stalls, between them serving vegan ‘chicken’ for an unbelievable three euros (I can never understand why anyone who choses not to eat dead animal is tempted by fake dead animal…but that’s just me) and vegan poke bowl for an eye watering €9.50 (my dish of choice oftentimes, but on this occasion marred by the presence of broad beans (?), unseasoned non-sushi rice (??) and dubious tasting grated carrot). I went for the poke bowl and was unsurprisingly underwhelmed, and now near penniless. Satisfied I was not. And what better way to compensate then a large piece of vegan (naturally) baklava? Nothing, as it happens, as that put me right back into my Zen-like headspace. Om.

My final session of the day was Yin Yoga for Stress Relief and Ultimate Relaxation. Turns out I clearly needed it. We were in Seal Pose (yes), which involves lying face down on your mat, hands underneath shoulders, then straightening your arms and hollowing your back to look up at the sky. I thought I was doing quite well until the instructor tiptoed up behind me to push my shoulders down, pull my head up, and say to me, very deliberately, “Relax!” Approximately two feet of space opened up between my ears and shoulders after her intervention; it is conceivable that I was holding some tension there. 

On my cycle home I did feel calmer, freer and a little more mindful. I got back in time to watch the second half of the Premier League final, only to discover that our sports channel was solely showing the Man City match, cutting to Liverpool (whoop whoop) only when something exciting was about to happen. This made for some less-than-relaxing viewing of a less-than-ideal result. But I was Zen now. So I just watched those City goals drift into the net; observed their presence, without judgement; and let them pass, as if into thin air. 

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Why the Dutch are Different

A couple of days ago I began reading Why the Dutch are Different by Ben Coates (a Christmas present from my father – thank you very muchly). Now, I’m only on page twenty-five at this point, but I can already confirm that it is a ruddy good read. And not just because it confirms my growing suspicion that the Dutch are, in fact, those of a very different breed. Having lived in their country for just shy of eleven months I have come to understand – or at least recognise – a number of Dutch ways, if you will, and for the past year have been trying to acclimatise myself to these new phenomena, one (clog-footed) step at a time. Some of them I am adopting quite happily; others perpetually make me wince. But through reading this book I am at least gaining a better understanding of some of the reasons behind the differing behaviours I am witness to this side of the North Sea.

I am also, in a matter of just twenty-five pages, becoming acquainted with more of the Netherlands’ history than my Dutch-born and -bred partner. Last night in bed, for instance, we did not whisper sweet nothings into each other ears, nor did we enter into any kind of dirty talk (I am British, after all, and the thought alone sends a subtle injection of embarrassment through each and every vein). No. I sent my boyfriend off to sleep with a lullaby of the history and significance of the Dutch windmill; the dairy industry’s supposed impact on the height of its citizens; and how ‘the need to coordinate the construction and maintenance of flood defences’ has shaped the country’s current political landscape. It’s no wonder we both had a terrible night’s sleep.

But before I delve too deeply into Ben Coates’ – I’m sure highly considered and witty – conclusions of how the Dutch are different, I want to make some of my own. Mostly so that I can congratulate myself on those, if any, that we have both observed, but also in a bid to unveil, slightly, the realities of moving to another country, no matter how similar on the surface, and trying to become fully integrated into day-to-day life and all that is deemed ‘normal’.

First on the list of differences has got to be the language. Of course the vast majority of Dutch people, especially those living in the city, speak near-fluent English, with a better grasp of grammar than I’m sure a large proportion of the British population. (This is not a jibe at the Brits; merely praise of the Dutch and their excellent adoption of our funny old language.) Coates describes Dutch as ‘a language that sounded to an outsider like a drunk man gargling soup.’ He is pretty much spot on. Although I have to say, during my time in the country so far, I have become more used to, and even affectionate towards, the sounds that appear in Dutch dialogue, and am improving, albeit very slowly, my ability to pronounce some of them.

There are many sounds in the Dutch language that we simply don’t utilise in English, which makes learning them all the more difficult, especially as an adult. I have come to realise that it is in the manipulation of the shape and formation of your lips and tongue that produces these otherworldly noises, and I can tell you: re-training your mouth is harder than lifting any set of weights in the gym. But before I feel too down in the dumps about it I must take a moment to think about the Taiwanese guy in my Dutch class, whose native tongue is so far from the position needed to make an ‘r’ sound, let alone a rolling one, that really I don’t have much to complain about.

Aside from the problematic sounds, the Dutch also have a wonderfully troublesome habit of joining words together to create seemingly endless terms consisting of far too many double letters and far too little opportunity for breath. Meervoudigepersoonlijkheidsstoornis, for example, translates to dissociative identity disorder, formerly known asmultiple personality disorder. Split up it is much easier to understand: meervoudige(multiple); persoonlijkheids(personality); stoornis(disorder). But joined together, as one frightfully long single word, it is overwhelming and confusing and enough to make even the most promising of language students run for the hills (if they had any in this country, that is). If only the Dutch suffered from multiple word disorder instead… But perhaps it is intentional, thought up by a secret journalistic society, and meant for people just like me who often have to stick to word counts and have far too much to say. “Just bung them all together and the word count is effectively doubled!” A brilliant feat of Dutch engineering.

Now I’m afraid the time has come for me to get onto the kissing situation. On the cheek, of course – they may be different but they’re not animals. It’s three here. Right cheek to right cheek; left to left; and back once more to right against right, just in case your presence had not yet been registered. The main problem is: I’m not much of a cheek-kisser on the best of days. I’m more of a hug kinda girl. So the already uncomfortable closeness of one skin-on-skin interaction is tripled here, and compounded by the fact that I’m never one hundred per cent sure that the three kisses are going to materialise, so I hover, awkwardly, between the first and second and second and third respectively, creating an even more excruciating situation trying to avoid any unintentional lip-on-lip action.

I’m not sure that it’s the closeness, per se, of the kiss on the cheek that I find so unbearable; I think it is the sound that I find more off-putting. Hugging, after all, if very physical and very intimate; but kissing on the cheek has the unavoidable lip-smacking sound effect, which – especially with elderly male relatives – I find thoroughly nauseating. I tend to make an audible ‘mwah’ sound as my cheek touches theirs, which in itself sounds absurd but it at least masks the stomach-churning gentle ‘kissing’ sound.

On birthdays this ordeal is amplified, with a concurrent handshake added into the mix. It’s almost like rubbing your tummy and tapping your head – you have to really focus and get into the rhythm to complete the act successfully. If you were to get out of flow you would end up holding hands and smooching your father-in-law in the middle of the living room, so concentration really is key. But if all goes to plan at least the extra brainpower required distracts you from the gesture itself, which is a welcome relief.

Last but not least, the Dutch and their behaviours surrounding tea drinking are somewhat of an idiosyncrasy. Firstly, they take their tea – their English Breakfast Tea – without milk. Well. That is just sacrilegious. I mean… I have no words. It is, in my humble opinion, unacceptable in all circumstances, and I am slowly trying to change their ways but have had little to no success as of yet. (I will persevere.)

Their ritual of serving tea is also very different to that back home. On asking for a cup of tea here one is presented with a clear glass mug (no personalised or comic ceramics in this country), filled solely with hot water. One is then presented with a chest (!) of teas, with all manner of flavours to choose from, from the comfort of the sofa. One is also presented with a little dish (that might be used for olive stones, for instance) in which you are to place your used teabag once your cup is brewed to your liking. For most Dutch people the brewing period takes approximately 2.5 seconds – a couple of dunks of the teabag and they are good to go on their slightly seasoned hot water.

While English Breakfast Tea served black is against my lifestyle and life values, the little pot in which to deposit the used bag is a habit I’m more than happy to adopt. I aim for the recommended two to three minutes brewing time for my EBT, and the accompanying saucer allows me to take my brew to wherever I so wish, granting me the ability to continue with my work, or Friendsmarathon, uninterrupted, knowing that a simple lift of the string (the teabags all have strings here) will transform my cuppa from work in progress to gloriously rich hug-in-a-mug. And then it is like I’m transported home, to times gone by, when a Yorkshire Tea and Rich Tea biscuit were all one could possibly ever need. Bliss. Or should I say, gezellig.

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A New Experience

Have you ever been in a room and thought, “what the %$?! am I doing here?” At a zumba class perhaps, or a dubious country hostel in the outback of Romania… While both of these scenarios I have indeed unluckily found myself in, the event in question here is the south Netherlands spectacle that is CARNAVAL. The block capitals are in sympathy to the manner in which the word is spoken inside my head. When I say spoken I mean screamed. And when I say inside my head I mean reverberating inside my skull for time immemorial from the lungs of every native of the North Brabant and Limburg provinces.

It’s a big thing here, the ol’ CARNAVAL. It’s bigger than a British Christmas. And as my mother’s daughter that is truly saying something. People takes days, sometimes weeks, off work to partake and indulge in it. It hasn’t even begun this year and I’ve already attended two absolutely absurd events, and missed many, many more. For this year not only am I residing within the country; my boyfriend’s younger brother has also been nominated / chosen / selected by God / Allah / the Dalai Lama to be one of the Prince’s helpers. Yes. A helper of the Prince. And that makes CARNAVAL a mere ten hundred times more intense. But also a lot more enjoyable. And also makes me – the strange foreigner – the talk of the town.

CARNAVAL, in short, is a three to five day festival (depending on how committed you are, and how far south you live; which for the in laws is very and very, respectively), involving the teeny tiny tots to the unsteady elderly dressing up in garish outfits while men in tights and long-feathered hats ‘get the party started’. The Prince is King of ‘getting the party started’. And the Prince’s two sidekicks, of whom I have a familial connection to one half, are his wingmen, if you will. But that is not all. Prior to the five pre-diarised days of pandemonium, one has the event to reveal and crown the Prince (and his sidekicks), and two weeks later the grand Prince’s Reception.

The first event – the crowing of the Prince – was thrust upon me quite unexpectedly. (As has the whole concept of CARNIVAL been.) I was, in fact, on a rare girls night out on the town, enjoying scrumptious sushi with a Roman (Federica, a girl from Italy’s capital, not a relic) and a Kiwi (Bhamita, a girl from New Zealand, not a luminous healthy snack). We were planning on continuing the evening at a nearby bar, where our partners would meet us following our girls-only dinner. As the last drop of Chardonnay was poured from the bottle my boyfriend walked into the restaurant. He’s come to join us early! I thought. I couldn’t have been more wrong. For he had come to inform me that his brother had just informed him (at 20:30 on the night of the ‘crowning’) that he was, in fact, the Prince’s second hand man, and would we like to watch his big reveal. His parents, too, had been dutifully informed at the last minute, but for them the logistics were a little less challenging as they at least resided in the same town as the party. We were in a different city, 45 km away, not to mention the fact that I was otherwise engaged with some rather tasty tuna tataki.

As my boyfriend went back to our apartment to pack an overnight bag (due to the timing and distance we would need to stay at his parents’ house; there goes the lovely brunch I had just ordered and collected from Too Good To Go), we (the tempura trio) decided it really must be a big thing for him to come in like that, especially given that he had actually been out with a friend of his own, whom he had unceremoniously ditched to attend the great unveil (but the friend apparently totally understood, because, “he was from the south too”). So I needed to get a move on. It was now 9.20 pm and the train we needed to catch was at quarter to ten. I met my boyfriend outside our apartment, overnight bag with all my essential requests in tow, and we made a dash for the station.

On arriving into Horst Sevenum, a ten-minute drive from where the event was being held, we were collected not by one of Gijs’ parents – gosh, no, they were locked in the stock cupboard of the venue, not allowed to be seen by any party-goer’s eyes as that would immediately give away the game of their son’s involvement – but by someone Gijs went to primary school with, who had been sent to fetch us, along with a black cape for Gijs to wear when entering the venue via the back entrance, just in case anyone were to catch a glimpse of him too. There was no need for me to be camouflaged – no one knew who the hell I was, and as the night(s) progressed this fact became increasingly apparent.

We inconspicuously made it up to the waiting room and were greeted by a sea of adolescent males wearing silver trimmed capes and boat-shaped hats, drinking beer and complaining of bursting bladders (as they were not allowed out of the room either (one actually went on the roof to take a leak and got locked outside in the process)). I started taking photographs, naturally, and was reminded not to put them on social media before the announcement in ten minutes. I reassured the master of ceremonies that, in case he hadn’t noticed, no one knew who the hell I was and certainly wasn’t a friend of mine on Facebook! My English accent suitably reassured (and humoured) him (and them all).

When the announcement / reveal / crowning took place we still weren’t allowed in the main auditorium; we had to watch backstage from the gallery, and I felt as if I had won a VIP ticket to an intimate One Direction gig in which the band mates were in a school play and the crowd was everyone but 1D fans. There were no screaming girls here, just a lot of knee-slapping men in tights drinking pilsner and jigging to ear-jarring Dutch ‘music’. I realised there was a lot I needed to get used to.

Once the Prince and his best men had been announced we were allowed to join the masses, and take part in the knee-slapping, pilsner-drinking and joyous jigging. This went on until around 1.30 am, but this was by no means the end of the event. No. For as tradition goes, after this (and other) CARNAVAL events the entire crowd is offered an open invitation to the Prince’s home (or parents’ home in this case), for which no written directions are required because everybody here knows who everybody is and where everybody lives. (Except for me. He he he.) So we trundled on to the prince’s house, which, hats off to his parents, had been pet-cleared and plastic-flooring-fied in preparation for the masses.

The tradition is not only for an after party at the house of the Prince, but an after party involving fried egg sandwiches at the house of the Prince. We arrived at his home, walking straight through the front door without even knocking, to a domestic scene of bread-slicing, plate-arranging and egg-frying from all the Mums. It was quite a spectacle. The egg bap was actually very pleasant, while the infatuation of one Prince friend or relative to my English accent was a little overbearing but nonetheless complimentary. On his fifth utteration of, “heeeeeerlijk” (delightful, wonderful, lovely, delicious), my boyfriend and I decided it was time to make tracks.

The event if this weekend just gone, the Prince’s Reception, was similar in format although there was a lot more hand-shaking, present-giving (one must buy presents for the Prince and his helpers), and a lot of shoulder-saluting when anyone was adorned with another necklace. There were (many) speeches in a dialect I cannot understand, but I have to say that this was far preferable noise to the previous CARNAVAL ‘music’. I managed to escape Sunday’s shenanigans after just two hours, to go back to his parents’ to watch the Liverpool game and have a nap on the sofa, but was back in time for the (earlier than previous) egg session at, this time, the house of the parents of the other Prince’s helper. At 8 pm this equalled dinner so I had three egg baps a bottle of beer and said goodbye to any concept of nutrition.

The CARNAVAL proper is happening this coming weekend, which oh so unfortunately coincides with a friend’s wedding back in England – so I’m only going to have to miss it!!! I will be back in time for the final day, however, next Tuesday, one week today… On this day there is a play of a farmer’s wedding and one must dress how a farmer from eighty years ago would when attending a wedding. Nothing easy here. But with enough pilsner I can pretend I am back at the British wedding and sipping glorious prosecco. Prost!

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SoleCycle

Yesterday was Dutch Day. For me that is. Not a national phenomenon like the recent National Peanut Butter Day (January 24th, USA) or Tag des Deutschen Apfels (German Apples Day) (January 11th, Germany). No. Thursday, for me, marks a day of Dutch language learning. It is as hard as it sounds.

The morning calls for an informal conversation class at the bibliotheek; a large gathering of all the misfit foreigners (myself included) who have somehow rounded up in Eindhoven, with no prior experience of the troublesome Dutch language, who chat, over a free cup of coffee and under the supervision of a native speaker, about just anything they can muster. Personal introductions always begin (which gets a little tiresome if one ends up with the same group every week), of which mine I now have engraved on my frontal lobe for use at any given moment. I am Rachel; I come from England; I am a writer. It can be elaborated on as necessary, but you get the idea. As you go round the circle you learn the forenames of all the others in the ‘Ik (I) spreek (speak) een (a) beetje (bit) nederlands (Dutch)’ clique, along with their country of origin, number of offspring and time spent in Eindhoven thus far. Sometimes the accent in which they vocalise the Dutch words is much more entertaining than their life story (often the case). But none the less, after the five to fifteen minutes of backstories the clan is ready to tackle the theme of the day’s class.

Yesterday we talked about where we lived: the centre or the outskirts; a house or an apartment. You soon learn with the Dutch that no question is a question too far. On multiple occasions during these sorts of shindigs have I divulged the extract street in which I live, the precise location along this street – in response to direct questions, mainly from the native overseer – for which my answers have always, thankfully, drawn a blank from my fellow students. Age is very much a ‘go’ area too, no matter one’s gender or frailty, along with price paid for said apartment or indeed every piece of furniture one has within it. This would actually be the prime place for a stalker or household thief to conduct his research…

We wrapped up the session with a game (eek!), involving laminated red cards with the most impossible Dutch questions that one was meant to read, decipher and, most challengingly, answer. One turned out to be: “Who do you laugh at the most?” – not who do you laugh with the most; who do you laugh AT. I was tempted to say my mother, for instance when she has a ‘Bailey’s moment’ (too much Irish cream) and falls over in slow motion, or mistakes her hairdresser’s dog for a soft cushion, but I refrained (partly to spare her dignity; mainly because I don’t yet know the Dutch for ‘tipsy’ or ‘Cockapoo’). So I settled on my favourite comedian, Russell Brand, who’s name was clearly as famous in the Netherlands as mine, and who I tried to describe be saying ‘comedian’ in a soft German accent. I have just looked in my dictionary and the correct term, in fact, is ‘blijspelspeler’… (When broken down this translates to ‘happy-performance-player’. I think I like this better than ‘comedian’.) Correction: My Dutch boyfriend just read this and said he had never heard of a blijspelspeler before. The correct term, in fact, is actually ‘cabaretier’.

The second and final unexpected (in general) and unfathomable (in Dutch, without the help of the supervisor, Anneke) questions was: “What television programme could you see yourself being in?” Well. We all drew a blank. And then I remembered Strictly. Oh, how I would love to do Strictly. (With Gorka or Aljaž, ideally.) So I let out an “Ooo!”, along with a hand raise, and proclaimed, in my very broken Dutch, that I could in fact see myself appearing in the BBC behemoth that is Strictly Come Dancing, tan and sequins and vajazzle included. I have never before received such quizzical looks.

After a spot of lunch at home (the direct location of which I will not be sharing any more frivolously than I have done already), and a much needed catch up with my favourite Great Auntie Liz (we shared stories of our respective colds and the like), I headed off to Dutch class número dos (or perhaps more appropriately nummer twee (doesn’t quite have the same ring to is, does it?)). A weekly, structured Dutch language course taught at the local Red Cross (Rode Kruis). And this is when my Dutchness really took a turn for the authentic. I was to cycle there.

But I first had to attach my new bell to my very old bike. There was a bell already in place on Lioness (I had assigned her a name, just as I have done with my cars in the past (silent weep)) but it was broken and ineffective, so I set to work on fastening the functioning one onto the handlebars. This must have been amusing for any passers-by. I had no screwdriver and so could not remove the old bell, which I did think was strangely positioned on the left-hand side. Hmm. Maybe the Dutch had a predominant left hand. (My partner, after all, does own a pair of plastic primary-school-type left-handed scissors.) But also curious was the upside down logo of the new bell, once positioned on the right handlebar. The fastening itself, done with nimble fingers, was a little comical due to the dropping of screws, etc., but nonetheless was a good job for a novice in a badly-lit alleyway. I had a quick scan of the other bikes parked there. They all had their bells on the left hand side. I realised the ding-ding dongle was indeed made to be dung in the other direction – from the left hand – which would solve the capsized logo issue and settle in better with the millions of other two-wheeled transporters around the city. Oh well. At least I had a working bing-a-ling in case of emergencies.

Having bought my oma fiets (granny bike) a good six months ago, and with a number of practice journeys met personal assistant (under the watchful eye of my able-cycler-boyfriend), I felt this was the day in which I would complete my first solo ride. We had done pretty much the same journey at the weekend, on search for a less-expensive fish monger than that located in the city centre, but however were met with a dodgy looking dealer serving unlabelled raw seafood produce from the bare hands of a twelve year old boy (but that is another story). But I knew the way, and the difficult junction(s). The first of these I had in fact had a near death experience at a few weeks ago (involving stopping in the middle of the road due to a car which I had not seen; having to walk my bike (while mounted) in reverse to the pavement where my boyfriend waited, in hysterics; and then having an awkward and embarrassing ‘no you go’ to and from with the driver of the car who wanted nothing more than to extend this excruciating experience for me by prompting me to go again and cross the ruddy street. I was too flustered to manage it so we had a stand-off for around forty-five seconds before he finally understood that I was very much an amateur and proceeded on his journey.) This was the junction I was most anxious about. But when I got to it yesterday – all alone and vulnerable – it was a dream. No traffic and no stopping required whatsoever! My lord this cycling lark was a breeze.

The afternoon class was fun as normal; an amusing group consisting of English, French, Taiwanese and South Korean origin, along with the Dutch master, of course, reading Dutch from a workbook in a rainbow of accents, and ending, most cheerfully, with a light-hearted game of hangman. (The fact that the teacher didn’t quite understand the rules just made it better.) Then it was time to fiets back home again.

Mishap number one happened very early on. I needed to turn left at the end of the street, which, like a right-turn in the UK, involves crossing a lane of traffic. I realised I had never before undertaken a turn of this type; from minor road onto more major road (but not a major road by any stretch of the imagination (don’t worry Mum)). I figured it sensible to position my bike towards the middle of the minor road, to allow for other bikes and vehicles to turn right, if needed, while I waited for the traffic from both ways to subside. Turns out this was the right thing to do. I was mightily chuffed. The car in front of me, wishing also to turn left, pulled out and it was my turn on the front line. The problem was, I hadn’t quite got my stopping routine to the fluid art I wished it to be. You see my bike’s brakes are engaged through peddling backwards; not from using brakes on the handlebars. I actually rather enjoy this situation, but the only thing is is that when I need to go again, after stopping, I require my peddles to be in a certain position. My right peddle, for example, needs to be at between five and fifty degrees (on a sideways view) for me to have enough oomph in the first push to actually get going. Due to the short distance I travelled from behind the stationary car at the junction to myself being at the junction, my feet had got in a tizz and were nowhere near the desired situation. So as a reflex I jumped off the bike. (I don’t know where this reaction has come from but it can put one in a spot of hot water.) So I was now in the middle of the road, at the line of a junction, standing next to my bike. It was all a little disconcerting. Another feature of the back-peddle brakes is that to change the position of the peddles one has to lift the rear wheel off the ground and manually, with a foot, peddle the nearest peddle forwards until they sit at the desired orientation. Doing this at a junction was both humiliating and a little dangerous, but to be able to get moving it was somewhat of a necessity.

Another cyclist glided past me while this was happening, giving me an even stranger look than I had received that morning from my fellow Dutch novices at the library on explaining my Strictly Come Dancing dreams. But at least the overtaker wasn’t one of my afternoon class colleagues. That would have been mortifying. I eventually got my pedals to where they needed to be and got on my way. Ah. Bliss.

The second and final hiccup came a little later, at about the four-fifths mark of the journey. There is a very strange road layout that requires bicyclists to cross their side of traffic and move to another cycle lane on the other side. We had talked about this junction at the weekend, during and after manoeuvring it, and I knew exactly what I needed to do. Look over your left shoulder to check for any cars; go if there’s none; judge the speed if there is one; and make a decision on if you stay or if you go. Usually cars are very forgiving of cyclists here (bikes really rule the way), but as a novice I prefer to be overly cautious. Which, I think, causes confusion to the drivers. The car approaching my left shoulder was white (think of that what you will) and seemed to be quite close, in my opinion. I wasn’t sure what it was doing so I slowed and hung back. It wasn’t sure what I was doing so it slowed and hung back. I didn’t have a bloody clue what to do. It beeped at me and I was mortified for the second (or third) time that day. I didn’t actually know if the beep meant “get out of the way and go back to where you came from” or “for goodness sake: GO!”, so I continued to slow and hang back. This, it seemed, was my new accident-aversion technique. (It certainly didn’t prevent deadly embarrassment but it did keep me safe of any cuts or bruises.) The white car overtook and I crossed the line of traffic behind it. I then had to wait at the traffic lights in parallel with the car, simultaneously cursing the driver in my head and doing everything to avoid eye contact for fear of some kind of indecent hand gesture. Finally the lights turned green and I was on the home straight. I peddled up to the shopping street and dismounted, successfully. I locked up little Lioness, clambered back up to the flat and poured myself a very large glass of congratulatory and consolatory red wine. Phew.

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Impersonating a Pilgrim

When in Rome one must do as the Romans do, and when in Santiago de Compostela this equates to attending the highly anticipated Pilgrim’s Mass, held in the city’s mighty Cathedral. With all the steps I had accumulated during my trip so far (remember Cinque Terre?) I felt it only rational that I, too, should be greeted by God / blessed by Baby Jesus / venerated by the Virgin Mary (or whatever one is granted at this kind of holy…communion?) (I had no idea what happened at Mass, let alone a Pilgram’s Mass; the only Mass I had ever been to prior was when we spent Christmas at my paternal grandparents’ house in Suffolk when I was circa six, and all I remembered about that was the chocolate fudge cake that was handed out to the congregation after all the boring biblical stuff – a delight at any time, especially when it is served at 8.30 am and constitutes breakfast. I hoped that this was one of the immovable aspects of global Mass protocol, and I was willing to forgive the city for its lack of free hot chocolate (see earlier blog post, The Beginning of the Home Straight) had this been the case.)

Arriving at the Cathedral I was greeted by hoards of pilgrims, all dressed totally appropriately in hiking boots and outdoor trousers, looking just the part and wholly spiritually aware. My appearance was a little different. With my faux-leather jacket (faux-fur collar in check), artificially ripped-at-the-knees skinny jeans and slightly soggy classic Nike sneakers I must have looked like some kind of Galician reject, getting steadily more damp from the ankles up as the puddle water seeped in through the holes in my trainers and spread, as if I were a paper towel, infiltrating every inch of me – right up to my barnet – to create a limp and lacklustre lump. I was determined to attend the Mass none the less, and joined the queue in between two groups of walkers whom I swear, had they not been waiting to enter a house of prayer, would have liked to bat my illegitimate butt out of the line with their oh-so-snazzy walking sticks. Yet I remained undeterred.

As the previous session ended and hundreds of blessed souls filtered out onto the streets we were allowed entry for our turn. We shuffled in slowly and silently, the cathedral already bursting at the seams once inside, and I took up position at the back of the hall, standing, for all of the bloody pews had already been bloody taken. Not only could I not see a thing (due to my height, or lack of) I was also unable to understand a single word (due to the recitation being in Spanish). Hey ho. But, luckily for me, with it being All Saints’ Day I was treated to a show from the Botafumeiro, otherwise described as a 53-kg incense pot which is operated by eight men (known as ‘tiraboleiros’, did you know) and swung around via a system of complex pulleys. This I could see. Given that said Botafumeiro is only used in eleven solemnities throughout the year, I felt really rather smug that I was able to watch the hypnotic spectacle. Not that I knew what it signified, but I’d never say no to some swinging incense action.

The Mass continued and as it did there was evermore movement from the Pilgrims. There was ever such a lot of standing up and sitting back down, and I suddenly became mightily glad that I was not, in fact, seated in a pew. Obviously I had no idea what the meaning behind the movement was, but, as I couldn’t see anything in the first place, it did not negatively affect my experience (but equally did nothing to help my overall comprehension). What it did do, though, was remind me of my Primary School days when my ‘culturally Jewish’ mother used to come in and do assemblies on all things Judaism, a fond highlight being her rendition of “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem” during which she made us stand up and sit down repeatedly throughout. (I was never quite sure why in that instance, either.)

As the more formal proceedings came to a close it was time for bread-eating and signing of the cross, for those that were willing and confident enough to walk to the centre of the stage. I was neither, and felt that taking a bite of bread would be one step too far in Pilgrim-fraudulence, and so made a dash for it before anyone found me out.

The Botafumeiro (left) during Pilgrim’s Mass at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela on All Saints’ Day 2017

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The Joy(s) of Air Travel

Over the past year I have become rather accomplished in airport protocol. (That’s what happens when you enter into a relationship with someone who lives in a different country.) There have been only a small handful of instances in which my usually slick schedule has been dented, and for each one of them I can confidently claim outside interference the reason for the mishap.

One notable heart raiser was caused by an hour delay on my drive to Stansted (adding 50% extra travel time), and the subsequent scenic route the TomTom took me, which felt like a whistle-stop tour of every village and hamlet known to man and beast in the vicinity of Cambridgeshire and north east Essex. Arriving at the carpark considerably behind schedule, I boarded the shuttle bus (for a further ten- to fifteen-minute journey to the departure terminal) exactly one hour prior to take off time, which, quite frankly, was not a lot to work with. Luckily the security queues were manageable and, ever efficient, I raced through them in record time to find that my flight’s gate was the furthest one possible. I was also getting hungry ( / hangry) which didn’t much help. With carry-on suitcase in toe, I legged it all the way to Gate Far Far Away, hovering, momentarily, at each and every food outlet en route, gazing longingly at the falafel and houmous wraps before rationalising that it was much more sensible to actually make the plane rather than satisfy my hunger pangs, and, either way, I could always get some dry roasted peanuts mid-flight. Eventually I reached the long lost gate, which was mid-boarding but not yet departed. Phew. Obviously I had not paid the £6 upgrade to let me sit on the plane for five minutes longer to watch the hoi polloi file in (I am not made of money, and I am not totally stupid), so I had a few moments to work with and my mind was firmly on falafel. The adjacent W H Smith satisfied my time-poor and houmous-hungry needs. My Middle Eastern dinner and I made it safely onto the plane, and tutted, with everyone else, at the latecomers who held us all up.

The second, far more costly, airport-related disaster involved Ryanair. (Need I say more?) This time I was at my gate with near hours to spare, staring at a constantly pushed-back departure time for my flight, making the hours I had to wait get longer by the minute. Tannoy announcements extended the company’s “sincerest apologies” about the delays, and assured the now growingly disgruntled gathering that as soon as the inbound flight had landed and disembarked we would be right on our way. I found out via my boyfriend over in the Netherlands that the flight had been cancelled before Ryanair deemed it necessary to inform its passengers of the decision. But however much this lack of communication vexed me (a lot), it did give me a head start against my fellow passengers to get back to the check-in desk to re-book onto another flight. This behind-the-scenes journey through secret doors and passageways of parts of the airport one never ordinarily sees was partaken in a speed walk / slow jog tempo, keeping as much of an eye on the (lack of) directions back to the desk as on my fellow passengers, constantly calculating how best I should overtake them. If I say so myself; I got there rather swiftly. I arrived to be third in line at the Ryanair desk, which was yet to be opened. Obviously.

Juggling transatlantic calls to the other half, Skyscanner search engines for alternative flights and listening in to the game plans of those around me, this ten minutes of waiting made me even more stressed than the cancellation of the flight itself. My phone was also on 5% battery and my hanger levels were nearing overflow. Earwigging on the discourse between the passenger in front and the uninterested Ryanair advisor (when he finally got there), I gleaned that there were no available seats on Ryanair flights in the next two days, and the options that stood were a full refund (on your highly discounted Ryanair fare) or, well, that was your only option. (The computer said “no” to transferring you to a different airline.) Helpful. As I was called to the desk I did my best to feign helpless lone female (not sure if there was any feigning required to be honest) to try to get on one of their fully-booked flights, or be transferred to another airline. I achieved neither. Asking if Ryanair would compensate me for a night in a hotel (it was now gone 9 pm and I was in London sans car) and an available flight the following day with another airline, I was responded to with a smirk, a throat-clear, and the ever-supportive, “you can try”. I replied with a “thank you for being so unhelpful” and dropped the mic.

A sassy exit I may have had, but what was I to do now? My Skycanner search now changed to that of Booking.com, and my iPhone battery reduced to 4%. From a quick thumb scroll I realised I had a few options: cheap and shitty; slightly more upmarket with a price tag reflective; totally beyond my means. Although I was more than tempted to go superposh, with Ryanair to pick up the bill, I spoke a little sense to myself and settled for upmarket. (I could’t be doing with any more budget bust ups tonight.) Finding the hotel shuttle bus stop was a nightmare in itself, but once I had walked around the pitch-black airport surrounds for circa forty-five minutes I finally happened upon it, with the desired coach just pulling in. But seemingly the whole of Stansted was against me that night. As I lumbered up to the driver not only did she CHARGE ME! (£3.) What? She WOULD NOT ACCEPT CARD AND I HAD JUST £2.50 TO MY NAME. She wasn’t having any of it. She directed me to the ‘nearby’ (pfft) cash machine, but confirmed that she would not wait for me while I withdrew cash. I soon realised that no amount of puppy eyes were going to work on Miss Trunchball reincarnated, and began my lumber back down to the darkness, praying that another, more amenable, coach would be coming soon. At which point my saviour appeared. A middle-aged Brummy man proclaimed behind me, “I can lend yaouw fifty pee, love”. I have never been so grateful in all my life.

Once checked in, settled, fed (omelette) and watered (red wine) it was time to hunker down before my EasyJet flight in the morning. However. Travelling frequently and ‘light’ means that one does not take makeup remover, toothbrush and toothpaste, or deodorant in one’s carry on. One has everything that one needs at one’s end destination. But with an overnight interruption to proceedings one runs across some basic hygiene problems. I will leave you to imagine the bleary- and blackened-eyed, red-wine-tinged and slightly smelly mess that reacquainted herself with the airport the following morning. All that I will say is that she did eventually reach her desired destination (unrecompensed for any of the losses – monetary or otherwise), albeit nine hours behind schedule.

But for my most recent aviation adversity the compounding factor can only truthfully be put down to forgetfulness (with a small consolation being that I was not alone and so only half (at most) to blame). As I and Mr Unpronounceable arrived at Keflavik Airport in Reykjavik last month to return our hire car and catch our flight home we conversed, rather self righteously, about how excellent our time management and organisational skills were, as we skipped into the airport with plenty of time to spare. Without access to any kind of weighing device during the packing process we partook in (just as prior to our outbound flight) a last minute weigh-in and re-jiggle of our suitcases’ contents at the airport, in order to meet the specified restrictions. This we carried out leisurely and with calmness, not a care in the world with so much time to play with. Waving them off on their conveyor belt ride to the plane, we continued on our journey through the airport system, with nothing left to carry apart from one tiny cross-body handbag (on me) and one (not so tiny but still reasonably small) backpack (on him). The joys of going hands free! We could hold hands and walk at the same time, and even had another hand spare – each – to clutch our boarding passes! What a delightful experience this checked-in luggage afforded.

Security was the next point of call, which we sauntered up to in our now accustomed ease. Then I heard a very Dutch sounding “Fuck” from just over my right shoulder. It was a slightly high-pitched and rapid exhalation of the profanity; a version of the remark appropriate for when stubbing one’s toe or hitting one’s head on a sharp-cornered cupboard door. At first I thought he’d forgotten his passport, and then I remembered he’s really not that stupid. Then I thought he’d forgotten to drink the water in his reusable bottle (greater than the limit for fluids on the flight). And then I realised that was far too extreme a reaction for the requirement to chug half a litre of water. So then I stopped fantasising in my mind and asked him, “Whaddup?” “My suit!” he proclaimed, his eyes growing wider by the second. Oh shit. His suit. Yes. That thing we were supposed to remember on the back seat of the hire car…

I have never before had to un-scan myself backwards through an airport barrier, but it turns out they have a whole system for that and it is probably more common than you might think. We pegged it out of the terminal building and across the vast grey carpark – in the rain (pathetic fallacy) – back to the Thrifty office, a confusing state of embarrassment and urgency making us both a curious shade of red. The guy with whom we had returned the car was still on duty, so we made a beeline for him and explained, between pants (short breaths not trousers), our situation. (He, in fact, could be another outside factor to blame for the whole situation, as he had ‘checked’ the car on its return, but I won’t get into the blame game. (It was all Gijs’ fault.)) As he took us to the car to claim our lost property Gijs remarked, flippantly, that – can you believe – we were almost on the plane before we realised what we had left! The hire guy took this very seriously and understood that we HAD been on the plane and were let off to retrieve our item. So he insisted on driving us back to the airport entrance, abiding to absolutely no road markings and definitely breaking the carpark’s speed limit if it had one, repeating the words: “I won’t let you miss your flight”. We were too embarrassed to admit that we still had two hours to kill before it was due to depart. So we rushed into the terminal building – to continue the pretence of absolute emergency, and got safely inside and out of eyesight before LOLling to high heaven. Our skin tone slowly subsided to a more natural, less tomato-based, shade, and our breathing became more controlled and less audible. I grabbed my Dutchman’s one free hand and squeezed it, encouragingly (with perhaps the slightest touch of blame), as we skipped off to security for the second, and final, time.

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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 hordes 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

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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.

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