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.

Advertisements

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.)