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 that 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.

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Every Blonde Needs A Brunette Best Friend

Prelude
Caren Kollis* has a secret talent. A fashion-forward superpower. She is, alongside many other charming and quirky qualities, a curious clothing chameleon. Somehow, without any observable algorithms in use before changing, she manages to dress herself in camouflage for the interior décor of that day’s outing, almost without fail. I don’t know how she does it, but she does. We went to the Milano Duomo and low and behold her navy, brown and cream dress flowed seemlessly with the ancient marble patterned flooring. We checked in to our Bolognian hostel to find the bunk bed privacy curtains were the very same grey and cream stripe of her newly purchased co-ord set, which she obviously happened to be wearing that day. We attended the opera in Verona and her floor length, feather embellished ball gown was an exact replica of that worn by the actress playing Tosca in the grand Arena di Verona. (Ok, last example may contain a touch of poetic license… (It’s always nice to provide examples in quantities divisible by three.))

Blog Post Proper
I had a window of approximately five hours in Milan between bidding farewell to my beloved Moo Moo and welcoming my next long-lost guest, Miss Kollis. I decided not to squeeze in a third trip to Budapest as I felt the timing might be a little tight. Instead I headed to the Airbnb which Caren and I had booked for our first two nights in the city. A teeny tiny studio flat on the eighth floor of a teetering tower block in the outskirts of the city; it was not the Regina Palace of Stresa but it was good enough for a couple of short arses to kip in for a couple of nights. Learning that the weather in the UK had been quite frightful, I was looking forward to welcoming my latest guest to the warm, sunny climes of the Italian capital. So, when said guest caught sight of me waiting for her at the metro station – looking as if I’d just taken a fully-dressed shower – she must have been a little bemused. The heavens decided to open 30 seconds after I left the apartment block, and instead of releasing a quick two-minute drizzle, the clouds decided to keep on whaling, with increasing fervour, for around 30 sodding minutes; drenching me completely and reversing the just-washed hairstyle I was previously sporting. (Maybe they just wanted to make Caren feel more at home. (With the weather that is, not the bad hair do.))

With all the best intentions of the first day of holiday, we booked Skip the Line tickets to the Duomo for the following day, setting our alarms for 8 am in order to get up, get ready and arrive at the ticket exchange office the moment it opened. At 11.30 am we were just finishing breakfast at the Airbnb and contemplating packing our bags for the day ahead. We arrived at the ticket office way ahead of schedule (if you use Hong Kong time), and did, literally, skip the whole flipping queue. It was bloody fantastic! We were escorted by our own guard through an alternative entryway, waving like the queen at the long line of tourists melting in the heat (the weather was now back to normal) waiting to enter the Duomo the conventional way (pity). The inside of the cathedral was big and grand and beautiful (and of course in sync with Miss Kollis’ OOTD). With such a tiring morning under our belts we needed to refuel and found THE MOST AMAZING BURGER PLACE EVER just a few streets behind the Duomo, with prices that were surprisingly budget friendly (especially for me as I didn’t pay a thing!!!) (love you long time Caren). Quinoa & vegetable burger + prosecco for me; salmon & avocado burger + aperol spritz for her. We knew this was going to be a good week.

Following the afternoon’s low-key activities of exploring the roof – roof ! – of the Duomo and discovering the best – BEST – gelateria on the whole of planet Earth (HEAVENLY liquid chocolate-filled cone (your choice of white, milk or dark (for me: dark)); DIVINE scoop of 80% cocoa dark chocolate gelato; SCRUMDIDDLYUMPTIOUS scoop of the creamiest, nuttiest, most indulgent pistachio gelato** I am yet to encounter (and I have met a fair few) with the FANDABBYDOZICAL addition of whole roasted pistachios; all topped with a circular wafer to crown the masterpiece with the halo it rightly deserved) we headed back to the penthouse to watch Midnight in Paris (thumbs up from me (Caren started snoring halfway through so I wouldn’t trust her verdict whatever it may be)) before getting a good night’s sleep ahead of travelling to Bologna in the morning.

Bologna was an interesting experience. Ninety percent of the city’s shops and restaurants were “closed for summer” (eh?) so we had to do a bit of detective work to seek out the open gems. Spoiler alert: we are great detectives. First for the hostel. Once we had found it (after standing directly opposite it for around ten minutes wondering where the holy moly it was) we were thrilled to discover it was one of the best hostels (like, ever). In the reception area there sat (permenantly) a giant penguin teddy (in penguin scale probably three-times life size) which pretty much secured the hostel’s ranking in my personal hall of fame. Then there was the loose leaf tea selection. Approximately sixteen varieties of floral / herbal / medicinal blends. All. For. Free. 😱. And then there were the dorm rooms. Humongous handmade boxpark-esque bunk bed set up with the most fashionable privacy curtains (remember – the perfectly matched grey and cream stripe). We were given the two bunks at the furthest corner of the room, allowing us space to be messy with our luggage, change in (semi) privacy and, most importantly, conduct a mini indoor workout using the wall as our resistance and water bottles as our weights. (Lol. What a couple of tossers.)

Our first day here we dubbed ‘alcohol-free Monday’. Well. That lasted about three hours. Walking back from our initial sortie into town we passed through a cool graffiti-laden street with a collection of street-food-type vans posing as cocktail bars, each with outdoor seating, fairy lights and hip-looking bartenders (not a beard-free chin in sight) inticing us with their toxic, herbalacious mixology. We looked at each other and we knew: ‘alcohol-free Monday’ was totally doomed. (What had we been thinking?) After dinner at the hostel (à la Rachelle 😉), a couple of beers and a rounding up of a posy of multi-cultural mates, we headed out to our recent hipster find (and were not smug about this excellent location scouting in the slightest). An evening of delicious twists on the popular classics ensued: rosemary-infused G&T’s, passionfruit-spiked mojitos and a supremely floral lavender rendition of the mai tai (the latter was a positively abominable concoction but – somehow – Caren enjoyed it). The following day was, without our consultation, alcohol-free Tuesday (due to the bloody horrific hangovers).

Next stop was Verona, home to a mammoth opera-focussed amphitheatre, all things Romeo & Juliet and our eccentric Airbnb host Catia (crazy cat lady is definitely unfair, but gives you the vague gist). Her first welcome was via the intercom to the main gate: “Caaarun?”, she hollered from the other end of the line, buzzing us in. We climbed the white marbled staircase (couldn’t have dreamed of a better first impression) and met our wide-eyed, charming and hospitable host. Her English was the perfect combination of Google Translate, demonstrative facial expressions and exuberant hand gestures, which made her even more adorable. (Teaching her how to pronounce ‘corkscrew’ was my personal highlight of our short-lived but meaningful relationship.) Verona was the city in which Caren and I spent the longest period – a whole three nights – so we were able to enjoy the city while also devoting a full day to topping up our tans, the amalgamation of which equalled a very happy travel buddy. (Albeit a couple of hitches: our pool day involved a leisure centre with the essential requirement of a swimming cap to gain rightful entry into the pool (we were without); the second half of Caren’s already disappointing smoked salmon and cream cheese sandwich got attacked by a swarm of ants (chucked straight in the bin); Caren’s mini portion of farro salad from the supermarket deli counter (of which I had a pre-packaged full portion (deli-cious)) was most definitely off to the point of tasting fizzy (after thoughtful consideration chucked in the bin); and Caren made a less than pleasing choice on the cheer-up-have-an-ice-cream front (Magnum double raspberry – not to her liking in the slightest) (should’ve been chucked in the bin), but she was encouraged with the day’s impact on the progression of her tan.)

Along with the strenuous sunbathing and city strolling, our three days in Verona featured a hefty portion of eating (no surprises there). And it was all freakin’ fantastic. (Bar Caren’s aforementioned unfortunate food day at the pool.) Thanks to some extensive culinary research (I just can’t help myself) we ate at some truly delicious little finds. We frequented a tiny family-owned restaurant specialising in parmigiana (the best we’d ever tasted), cured meats (not to my pesky palate, but ideal for that of my ten-year-long-suffering pescetarien turned biggest meat eater in the West Midlands companion) and (in true Italian style) fresh pasta – what else?! (no, not pizza – we’re not in Naples anymore, darling) – on our first night in town. Had you asked me before my visit to Parma a Tavola if a great big hunk of parmigiana would serve well as an antipasti you may have been in receipt of one of my ‘is that a serious question, you barbaric fool?’ looks (regrettably a semi-frequent expression of mine). But this parmigiana was SOMETHING ELSE. And the wine… Don’t get me started on the wine! One of the cheapest glasses of red going (obvi babe; I’m travelling) was a crystal boule of delicious liquid red velvet yummyness, which complemented the parmigiana, the pasta, and even the ruddy walls simply superbly. (After the second glass even the prosciutto tasted rather nice.) The pasta (duo de ravioli) was, of course, buonissimo, and I went home a merry (mood) merry (state) girl. Ending our Veronese jaunt in a highly acclaimed fish and seafood restaurant was an equally excellent decision (thanks a mil’, Lonely Planet). To start we shared red snapper tartare – surprisingly sensational, then I devoured a sweet (😉) sweet pea soup with the most delectable scallops this seafood-loving cake hole has ever demolished. The evening was a fully-fledged fish-filled fea-esta.

Back in the capital for our final night (Miss Collis flew home from Milan at an unearthly hour the next morning) we of course used our last few hours effectively; spending the majority of the time sitting outside Cioccolati Italiana – revisiting our favourite gelateria and reliving our out-of-this-world, orgasmic, omnipotent, (pistachio-based) ice-cold taste sensation. (Karen moaned at me for being a boring bitch, flavour choice wise, so this time I substituted the divine 80% cocoa dark chocolate for a divine salted caramel (all other variables exactly the same – I’m not a total maverick) and it was just as orgasmic – what a relief.)

The hours that followed (in post-pistachio bliss) involved reminiscing about the past eight days’ LOLs, the comically-timed outfits, and, of course, the indecent amount of pistachio gelato which had been consumed. And you know what? We didn’t regret one mouthful.

*Name changed to protect identity.

**Potential blog post title which just missed the cut: ‘If Pistachio’s Not Your Favourite Flavour You Can’t Sit With Us’.