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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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.)

Dummies Guide to Surfing

Following the thoroughly needed boost from the best friends in Portimão, I was back on top form and ready to embrace true travelling life once more. And on the south coast of Portugal this could only mean one thing: surfing. Gulp.

Having been put off sailing at a young age by the interaction one has to have with water during said activity, and having worked in nautical publishing for four years during which time I did NOT ONCE partake in any kind of water-based pursuit (except for the horrific photoshoot carried out on a large motorised RIB on the choppiest of days on the Solent wherein my understanding of seasickness reached a whole new height (literally)), one could conclude that I was not the biggest watersports lover that Europe had ever been witness to. But I was travelling; I was free; I was going to try out surfing.

Settling into my newest abode in Lagos (Olive Hostel – highly recommended (daily doses of complimentary port and sangria especially welcome after a day drowning while attached via right ankle to a surfboard twice your size)), I asked the staff for Surf School recommendations. There were plenty to choose from, but naturally I opted for the one with the “really fit surf instructor”. I booked one day’s training which consisted of two hours in the morning, lunch and sunbathing time on the beach, followed by two more hours in the water in the afternoon. Having been told a group of four were already booked onto the day’s trip, I was expecting to be joined by four twenty-something males who would embarrassingly show me up on the water and emphasise my total lack of aptitude. Arriving at the pick-up point I was delighted to see that the party of four was actually a very normal, unintimidating German family: fifty-something mother and father with young teenage sons. What a relief.

After an hour’s drive through the Algarve countryside we arrived at the chosen beach, which was swarming with long-haired, caramel-skinned surfers unpacking their wares from big vans, and not a whole lot else. It was quite a spectacle. Clearly this pastime was a way of life for many of the locals, and at that precise point in proceedings I had no reason to doubt that the surfers lifestyle wasn’t my true calling too. (This daydream did not last more than four minutes.)

Once we had unpacked the van and taken all the equipment down to the beach we set up camp and changed into our provided wetsuits (assigned by a thirty-second up-and-down by the “really fit surf instructor”. (I wasn’t complaining.) (Although I think the (however flattering) bestowment of the size 6 wetsuit (two sizes too small (at least)) to me did not help me get into the role seamlessly.) I couldn’t get the bloody thing on. The calves were about as far as I could manage on my own. The one-to-one tuition that the surf lesson turned out to be soon commenced with the careful stretching and easing of the neoprene over my posterior. (Thank God I’d gone with the attractive instructor.)

Wetsuit on (virtually ripping at the seams), it was time for the theory. (Yawn.) Luckily this just consisted of some rudimentary drawings in the sand of the students, the sea and the safety flags, and we were soon onto the first stage of the practical: surfing on the sand. Well. This was brilliant! I was loving it! I was amazing! This (I naively believed) was going to be a super duper day. (In case you haven’t tried surfing yet yourself: it is slightly more difficult when you are attempting it on the water.)

Once we were out in the sea the day suddenly took a turn for the worse… I was terrible. Truly terrible. Utterly useless. Exaggerate I do not. And the German family of four? Bloody fantastic. The boys were standing in no time; catching waves and making breaks (is that even a term?) like they were pros. And the parents were just as good. Even the friggin’ fifty-year-old mum!! They were embarrassingly showing me up on the water and emphasising my total lack of aptitude. The surf instructor soon realised that I needed a little more instruction than my fellow surfees. (Again – I was not complaining.) He positioned my board, held it still, looked out for the approaching waves and pushed me in the right direction as the water took me towards the shore. Before I could even contemplate attempting to stand, I needed to master simply staying on the board as the instructor, Jorge, let me go. I found this a little challenging. On the successful runs I ended up washed up on the beach with the board still below me, lying on my front with my head in the air like I was practising the back-bending Cobra Pose. Which, as I’m sure you can imagine, must have been a rather ridiculous sight. On the unsuccessful few (thousand) I ended up immersed in the water, surfboard God-knows-where and all facial orifices pumped full of water. Again, a rather ridiculous sight.

Just as I had been washed up for the seventy-sixth time it was time for lunch, for which I couldn’t have been happier (you know me). I took the executive decision to reward my (deplorable) efforts with a beer with Jorge alongside my cheese sarnie and mini-Mars. It certainly helped my (rapidly depleting) optimism, but not so much my waterborne abilities. After a post-lunch Super Bock-induced snooze in the sun, I slithered into the wetsuit once more (just) and took to the water for the second half of the lesson. The medicinal quota of lager consumed did nothing to help my hand / eye / body / closing facial orifices balancing act, but it did – somehow – enable me to fight the fear and get up on my feet (for a grand total of about 0.35 seconds). With a couple more mili-second-long verticalities, and a lot more underwater near-fatalities, it was time to wrap up the session, unpeel the wetsuit and crack open another beer.

Overall opinion of the day? Great fun. Overall opinion of my surfing? Abominable. Overall seawater intake? More than the recommended daily consumption for the whole of the Portuguese south coast. Boy was I looking forward to drowning in the complimentary port back at the hostel.

[Post-beer (that’s why I look like I’m enjoying myself)]

Pie Yay Ya

If you thought Barcelona (or my cooking class instructor Alfredo) might have paella’d me out you would be very, very wrong. Turns out it had merely whet the old appetite. Because the next destination on my list was in fact the place in which paella was born (, raised, and catapulted into a national, neigh – international – superstar. (I’m sure Simon Cowell has shares in that partnership somehow.)) And when one is in the home of such a renowned (and often butchered) dish, one simply has to taste the original creation (or one of the three hundred claiming to be at least). Now let’s get the technicalities over and done with right away. Paella is not a dish. Well. It is. It is a dish. Literally. It is the pan within which the cooking happens. The contents therefore are referred to by ingredient: seafood paella, chicken (? 😱) paella, vegetable paella, etc., etc.. One must never go to a Spanish (particularly Valencian) restaurant and order just ‘paella’; the best outcome would be a hearty side portion of ridicule and pity, the worst being presented with an empty pan with which to cook your own meal. So that’s your first piece of insider know-how. (You’re welcome.) Second up is timing. Paella is always eaten at lunch time, never in the evening. The (very sensible in my opinion) reason for this is that YOU SHOULDN’T EAT A BLOODY GREAT (in both senses of the word) PORTION OF RICE JUST BEFORE GOING TO BED! Seems sensible, hey? The Spanish prefer to have their bigger meal at lunchtime to allow themselves the time necessary to properly digest the heavy food (and then snack on a little tapas in the evening if the tummy rumbles start to holla (or should I say ola)). So never order paella (seafood / snail / something else) in the evening as a) you will again be served an appetiser of mockery and shame, and b) you will be served the lunchtime service’s scraps. So (to recap for the over 60s readers 😉) go at lunchtime, order a ‘seafood paella’, and celebrate with a jug (or five) of sangria (you always deserve it).

I became a member of a very bizarre threesome during my stay in Valencia. (NOT sexual in ANY way, THANK THE LORD.) The first member of the group was the Danish post-grad student Johannes. Never out of his royal blue football shirt (literally never (we were in the same dorm which makes me a reliable eye witness (even post-shower (of which I was definitely not a witness) the shirt went straight back on))) and barely ever out of bed (I arrived at 5 pm and he was still napping), Johannes had (in the least offensive way possible) wild, unbrushed, overgrown hair; a questionable wardrobe; and a less than impressive conscious to unconscious state ratio. However. Appearances can be deceiving, and luckily, despite the very tangible, questionable hairdo, dress sense and sleep pattern, Johannes was fun and chatty and, most crucially, up for some tapas for dinner. Completing the trio was the American bartender Chad. At just 21 years old he was a calm, contented and cheery traveller (after the first 30 minutes of our co-existence, during which he made no noise whatsoever, made not a second of eye contact with anyone in the room (which was probably just me and sleeping Johannes, though, to be fair to him) and kept his headphones firmly in his ears). But with my friend-making neurones furiously firing I soon got beneath the near silent exterior and had myself a dinner date for three at a local tapas bar. (Chad was even up for sharing some sangria which gave him multiple bonus points.)

Following our calamari-fuelled bonding session, naturally we attended the city’s daily free walking tour the next morning as a well-established posse (we definitely gave the current Sugababes line up a run for their money). If you have never before partaken in a free walking tour you will be unaware of the fate you put in the hands of your guide when you sign that sheet / scream your nationality / walk with the group to the first talking point. You will either have signed up for two to three hours of entertainment, insight and great recommendations, or two to three hours of annoying, unfunny, cringeable jokes, boring history about the city (featuring the country’s past three thousand Royal Heads of State) and unjust, clearly paid-for, plugs for the most touristy spots in town. This tour was unfortunately one of the latter. Let’s start with the guide herself. A perfectly chirpy young Spanish woman (my word do you need to be chirpy to get through multiple hours worth of Civil War stories without wanting to shoot yourself in the head) led our group, but who’s ill-fitting attire was so offensive to me that I do believe it negatively impacted my overall enjoyment of the outing quite substantially (or at the very least added to the shitness). Her bright orange company t-shirt (I know I can’t blame her directly for that) was not only blinding the old retinas, but also showed off her three-cup-sizes-too-small bra which housed (just about) her buoyant bosom, which got more and more animated as the climax of each story neared. I honestly didn’t know where to look. And it wasn’t just the bazookas that had me bewildered. For the first HOUR (no exaggeration) we did not move from the main square in which we initially gathered. We did move within the square (by distances no greater than 25 metres each time) which just made things even more disconcerting. Eventually we (and the bouncy boobs) moved from the main square to other areas of the city, and for a further two hours were fed (un)interesting facts and dried fruits (I kid you not – pulled out of dear María’s rucksack (actually one of the highlights of the tour)), before the three-piece dream team made a run for it without paying the voluntary (100% expected by every tour guide there ever was and ever will be) tip, and escaped to find some lunch in the home of the sacred paella.

And oh was it pie YAY ya. Seafood paella for three, served in one large paella (the pan, remember), after enough of a wait to suggest they definitely made this thing from scratch and to order. It was sticky. It was chewy. It was dark and tempting. Spread thinly across the vast pan it had just the right amount of char and crunch around the edges while being comforting, rich and melt-in-the-mouth. We scraped the dish clean in ten minutes flat. And thus the tour, the square and the jubilant jubblies were all forgiven in a matter of mouthfuls.

As for the city itself? Beautiful cream, brown and rose gold hues adorned the decorative buildings, and every spare wall was crammed full with the most bizarre and wonderfully grotesque street art, creating an enticing, almost hypnotic juxtaposition which I, for one, ruddy loved. Right up my street, honey. (Literally.) Adding yet another dimension of magically misplaced construction was the Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències (I’ll let your translation skills flex with that one), just a short walk away from the central (bloody) square. Comprising of futuristic, spaceship-type structures (one of which I’ve now (almost three months later) discovered is a huge digital 3D cinema (!)); large hatted-head sculptures (my personal favourite being a rather serene and eloquent lady donning an oversized, slanted cowboy / floppy sun hat hybrid, named Pamela); and a great expanse of water filled with multiple human-sized hamster wheel / bubble type sphere situations, each of which inhabited by an energetic youngster trying to stand up and roll around on the water (a great invention by frustrated parents wanting a break from the little rascals if you ask me). A relaxed sunset stroll through the seemingly never ending stretch of adjoining parks and gardens took me along the outside of the city and back to the hostel in the intriguing and beautifully mis-matched centre. Surely it was time for some more paella by now?

Hell on Earth

My absolute minimum Hostelworld requirement is an eight out of ten star rating. Usually. (From now on you’ll be lucky if I stoop below an eight point nine.)

Between my cousin in Marseille and my sister in Barcelona I had a window of five nights to play with. With a list of French cities worthy of research in my left hand and a map of the French / Spanish border in my right I plotted my route from A to B, choosing Montpellier and Toulouse as my two stop-off points. ‘A city with style’ followed by ‘life in the slow lane’ (according to my tried and trusted travel guide, Lonely Planet). Perfect. Exactly what I needed to leisurely ease myself out of the beautifully serene south of France and into the eclectic, charismatic and cobble-tastic Catalonian capital (we’re talking pre-referendum). Next job was finding accommodation. Toulouse was booked first – a ‘charming’ (not the most hospitable) ‘family-run’ (one-woman front of house show (who valued eating at the table (her, not the guests) and answering personal calls above all other reception-related duties (including checking guests in and staying behind the reception desk for the entirety of a conversation))) guesthouse ‘just outside’ (ten-minute walk followed by thirty-minute bus followed by five-minute tube) the city centre. To tell you that arriving here couldn’t have come quicker will give a little indication of the quality of accommodation sourced in Montpellier. Hostelworld had absolutely nothing to offer (not nothing worth looking at – nothing full stop). Booking dot com had absolutely nothing to offer (nothing worth looking at anyway). But I really wanted to visit Montpellier. So I either needed to drastically lower my standards or drastically increase my budget. Only one option was feasible. Like the ex-boyfriends of all of my closest friends, I bed-hopped from an eight (minimum) to a six (barely even that) and booked two nights at the less-than-raved-about Jimmy’s Guesthouse. (Never EVER downgrade from an eight to a six. You will make yourself crazy with constant comparison and continually ask yourself why you ever left the eight in the first place. You will spend your nights awake wishing you could turn back time, play things out differently and regain some of your ground floor (perhaps basement (or, more fittingly, dank, dark depths of the underworld)) level of self respect.)

But off I trotted (cousin Kate in tow (remember her flight-cancellation-fiasco)) to my latest accommodation, eager to show her what life in the world of the backpacker truly looked like. Her first impression: this is what my nightmares are made of. (If only I had been able to un-tense enough to drift off one of the following two (long) nights, I’m sure my nightmares would have looked remarkably similar.)

First I will start with the kitchen situation. Oh what a situation it was. And a situation, at that, which could not possibly be described as a kitchen. The ‘kitchen’ was an interchangeable description for the owner’s bedroom – no joke – and, not even just that, also the bedroom of the owner’s latest best friend, a perfectly nice Asian guy who, in the circa ten days he had been residing at the shit tip (sorry – hostel) had been appointed as the institution’s head chef. (Seriously not kidding.) As CK (cousin Kate) and I were just about to escape having dropped our bags I was approached by Jimmy with an offer: a family dinner at the hostel cooked by Jimmy II (cannot remember his name but he looked like a kinder, more approachable version of Taboo from the Black Eyed Peas (when he had long hair) with a drastic undercut and a nervous giggle) for a reasonable €5 (reasonable is very questionable but it’s not extortionate, I grant you that). My query regarding the vegetarian nature of the dish did not go down so well. I offered to cook my own thing (God knows how in their cramped twin bedroom) but Taboo insisted that he would sort something out for me. Slightly worried about the quality of food I would be served, as well as the certainty of its meat-free creation, I announced boldly (and over excitedly): I can be your sous chef! (Anyone who knows me well / has cooked with me / has merely witnessed me in the kitchen will know that I would (and do) make a truly terrible sous chef – I am far too controlling, nit-picky and struggle to keep my mouth shut (in the nibbling sense as well come to think of it), so provide more of an annoying, judgemental omnipresence than a constructive and helpful aide.) Luckily for everyone involved (Taboo’s self esteem most crucially) that evening the chef was unneeding of any extra hands, so I was able to sit back and relax (as much as one can in a dirty, god-forsaken hell hole) and was presented with a beautifully simple and truly delicious (isn’t that a relief) spaghetti / vegetable / garlic concoction which, I can testify, contained no dead pig. Hoorah!

And then there was the bedroom side of the room (in the subsidiary, not locational, sense). During my first day (of two (I know; I’m mad)) there was just one single bed occupying the master bedroom. The proud owner of which was Jimmy: entrepreneur hotelier sleeping soundly each night in the cluttered ‘communal kitchen’. (His parents must have been proud.) So where on earth did Taboo sleep? The thought did cross my mind, but there were certainly not enough fireworks between the two of them to seriously suggest a top-and-tailing situation. Obviously (being the nosey guest that I am) I enquired where the bloody hell was Taboo laying down his half-a-head-of-hair (of the half which remained long gushing locks) every night? Why, in the makeshift fold-down bed, of course! Interesting. (And there was me thinking that their sleeping situation couldn’t get any worse… (imagine not be able to go to bed at 7 pm if you wished to… scandalous!) (Totally serious.)) Then came the second night and an upgrade (of sorts) for the resting place of dear Taboo. Interrupting the plating up of dinner (NOT impressed) was the delivery of a second-hand bunk bed, due to replace the single and fold-down contraptions currently housing the chuckle brothers. Even more alarming than the pause of food preparation to accommodate the back alley furniture delivery was the strategy adopted by Jimmy to source a suitable mattress for his new (slightly smaller) bed frame. With the delay in dinner in full flow I popped to my dorm room and found a shifty looking Jimmy eyeing up my lower bunk. Everything OK, dearest host and friend? Oh, no problem, he was just scouting out the IN USE (by VASTLY OVERPAYING GUESTS) mattresses to see which one would best fit his newly revamped chambers. Well. I certainly wasn’t bed hopping with Jimmy this evening. After standing uncomfortably close and breathing uncomfortably loud for long enough I managed to bump him on to the next bed and the next (unaware as not present) mattress-theft victim. I didn’t see it happen but I do know that it did, and I send my deepest sympathies to the lovely German girl who was in the bed to my immediate left (and hope that you didn’t catch any deadly diseases from Jimmy’s potentially SAD mattress). This was all done, too my knowledge, without said German girl’s knowledge… that’s the type of guy who was running this joint (and most probably smoking it too).

Now onto my bedtime situation. Spoiler: it was not five star. Not only was I trés trés cold (nothing new there) and trés trés on edge (could be argued the same), I was also trés trés physically and mentally STRESSED. (To the extreme. (Just in case the block capitals weren’t indicative enough.)) I don’t believe I slept for longer than an hour (IN TOTAL) on the first night, spending the majority of the twilight hours peering at my iPad under the sheets, researching getaway hotels in which to spend the following night, being unimpressed by the talent, telling myself to bloody well suck it up, turning my iPad off, attempting to sleep for another thirty minutes, failing, and then turning my iPad on again to repeat the sequence again (and again (thrice more)). This night was so horrifically bad for me that I actually developed spots. Like actual big, bulbous, ruby red volcanoes on my actual freakin’ face. Five of them! And: I don’t get spots!!! Two of them (TWO) were on my mother fucking left eyelid. Can you believe it? So even when I closed my eyes and tried to remember happier times there were two Belisha beacons warning every innocent onlooker of the terrible fate I had been subject to. (On leaving the squat the blemishes faded in under a week (thank the Lord) which just proved to me how utterly allergic I am to a six out of ten hostel, but equally how quickly I’ll heal following a short-lived but deeply intense exposure to such monstrous conditions.)

And finally onto the bathroom situation. The title, for sure, was not an embellishment or sugar coating of the facts in any way whatsoever. It was a room which contained a bath. (One room. One bath. (No shower…)) The room also contained an old ironing board (no iron in sight), numerous towels (the cleanliness of which your guess is as good as mine) and the leftover cosmetic goods from approximately two years of the six-out-of-ten-rating-approving houseguests of the less-than-hygienic landlord. My first (and only) ‘wash’ was quite traumatic. After talking myself into staying there for the pre-paid-for two nights, I knew at some point sooner or later I was going to have to clean myself. First on the conundrum superlist was where to rest my towel while I was otherwise engaged. The hooks on the door were full, the floor was not to be looked directly at for fear of instant vomiting, and the edge of the bath was to be avoided at all achievable costs. So the ironing board it was. (I folded it in the slimist possible fashion to ensure the smallest possible surface area was to touch the board itself, and tiptoed to the tub in flip-flop flourished trepidation.) Big mistake strike one: I stepped on the soft-and-fluffy-looking bathmat (in flip flops, don’t worry too much) only to sink over an inch in the water (and who knows what else) drenched floor covering with a frightfully audible squelch. Lovely. I thus decided the sanctity of the dry footware was more crucial than the sanctity of my bare tootsies, and clambered into the bath tub unprotected. There was a shower head (someone was watching over me) but no holder (let’s not get carried away) so the following 3.5 minutes (quickest shower since records began) consisted of a one-handed, eyes-squinted, toes-curled ordeal which far greater represented an I’m A Celebrity bushtucker trial than any regular morning ritual I had ever experienced. But I did it, I survived, and I was clean – and that’s always something to be proud of. Having not thought through the positioning of the towel in relation to the dry footware and myself, the dry footware went out of the window as I donned the flops on exiting the tub to seek refuge in the travel towel, and dried, dressed and departed as quickly as physically possible. The following night was not quite so bad thanks to a fabulous help desk called Sauvignon Blanc, and the following (slightly cloudy-headed) morning my alarm went off at 7 am and I ecstatically left the building at not a moment past seven thirty. I sure had learned my lesson.

P.S. Apologies for the lack of photographic content. I toyed with the idea of including my ‘save me I’m dying’ selfie sent to CK during the long (LONG) first night, but decided on artistic (and vanity) grounds that it was better omitted.

P.P.S. Apologies for the lack of recent posts. This is due to being robbed in Seville (😩) and a subsequent three-week hiatus in Apple product usage (just wait for the blog post about that). But thankfully I am back up and running, with embarrassing stories aplenty!

The Calm Before The Storm

Marseille may well conjure up (especially given recent events) thoughts of decay, poverty and dangerous criminality. Luckily my five-day mini-break there with Cousin Kate (CK) was relaxing, luxurious and – most importantly – attack free. We were in Marseille exactly three weeks before the recent fatal attack on two young women at the city’s main train station, Saint-Charles, which happened to be literally (used literally) across the road from our apartment. We must have visited the station at least eight times during our stay. All I can conclude is that the world is an increasingly terrifying place at the moment. 

Our biggest worry, thank God, was the logistics of getting CK home (to make her all-important sofa delivery) amidst a nation-wide strike on the majority of forms of public transport scheduled for the day she was due to fly home, which we only became aware of at roughly 7 pm the prior evening. (That and the opening of an impossible-to-pop bottle of prosecco with an impossible-to-handle corkscrew – obviously a major worry on any girls’ holiday (but actually, in the end, yielding a more successful result than the retaining of the sofa delivery slot (more on that later)).)

Onto the calm: CK was arriving by air from the UK earlier than I was by bus from Grenoble, so I had the pleasure of calling out “Hi honey, I’m hoooome!” as I was greeted at the door by my long-lost relative. (In actuality she was far too busy sunbathing on our sun-lounger-fitting balcony (😍) to hear me knock, so after a good three and a half minutes of gormless waiting at the door I realised that she’d left it open, let myself in, bounded (as much as one can bound with circa 20 kg luggage on their person) up the entrance stairs and greeted her with an awkward front-and-back-backpack-hindered hug and air kiss on the cheek (I couldn’t  have reached any closer even had I wanted to (not really) due to the sizeable frontal baggage).) After a much needed cuppa (she is from the north after all (English breakfast tea addict)), catch up and toilet stop (you know I like details) (I won’t go into further detail don’t worry) we headed out for some lunch as we were both starvin’ freakin’ Marvin. Was trés bon. The wine? Not quite so bon, but it was wine none the less – so who were we to complain. Following a strenuous post-lunch wander and mooch around the basilica we headed back to the apartment to recoup with a good sit down and cup of tea. (It’s tiring when your days are so physically demanding.)

The next day we did actually partake in activities other than sitting, gossiping and drinking tea / wine / both (although these did all feature (quite heavily)). Having been recommended the Calanques National Park as a great place to walk, sunbathe and swim we formulated a plan (after an unnecessary amount of hours getting more and more frustrated with Rome to Rio and Google Maps) which involved getting a metro followed by a bus followed by a 30-minute downward hike to a lovely little cove – Sormiou – where we would then sunbathe, swim and contemplate a further hike to next-door Morgiou which, if undertaken, would be followed by another (equally as strenuous) sunbathe and swim. I will start with the public transport. Metro journey? Tick. No memorable mishaps. Bus journey? Ahem… Finding the bus stop? Tick. Realising everyone had a ticket already and we did not? Tick. Asking a random bus driver in the most broken, incomprehensible attempt at French possible “is it that we are able to sell ticket on le bus?”? Tickety tick. And the answer was a firm, albeit extremely friendly, nada. (It was at this point I realised my mistake when boldly telling CK we could bin our metro tickets after taking the metro – as, it transpired, these could also act as bus tickets for our continuing journey.) The bus was due to depart in four minutes and we we needed to buy tickets from the metro station. Queue a bobbing boob in bikini holding situation while skidding down the escalator, running to the ticket machine and purchasing two tickets while trying to fend off gypsies trying to sell us (and indeed anyone in the ticket machine vicinity) their tickets. Tickets successfully bought. Boobs successfully intact. Back up we bobbed. We made it onto the bus, onto seats and on to enjoy fourty minutes of the most aggressive, abrupt and appalling bus driving I was yet to witness. (One man was carrying a very cute baby (along with a week’s worth of groceries) whose precious life I worried for every time the driver lurched to a hault and almost catapulted the father, son and vegetable bundle into one of the many vertical holding poles. (I did offer him my seat and he profusely refused.).) But eventually we made it (with no vomiting on my part).

Believing that we were being so original and intrepid with our chosen outing, we were rather put out to realise that precisely half the bus load were also venturing down to the not-so-secret Sormiou. (CK tried to pick up pace and undercut the crowds but then remembered that my legs are about half the length of hers (daddy long legs) and slowed to a more sympathetic speed (I for one was mightily relieved).) We reached the national park’s car park and managed to loose the group (there’s no such thing as a wrong turn), making our way to the cove amidst the most beautiful scenery – through woodland, along rocky roads (unfortunately no marshmallows or chunks of brownie to be seen (or eaten)) and down jagged, boulder-filled cliffs. It was truly spectacular (and the perfect backdrop for our first selfie on the week). On reaching the beach we pretty much collapsed into a blissful state of sunoozing (sunbathing & snoozing (a pastime I’ve become quite a pro at over the last few months)), with the occasional dip in the sea when the rays got too intense, which was MOTHER FUCKING FREEZING. I exaggerate not. More than 30 seconds in that water and I’m certain a migraine would have ensued. (Neither of us got past the mid-thigh mark. (Obviously mid thigh for me is upper calf for CK (but I sure don’t blame her for not venturing any further).) As I’m sure you will have guessed, with us having not even had the guts to get so much as our bikinis in the water, we did not have the slightest inclination to hike further to next-door Morgiou, instead enjoying our sunoozing at Sormiou to our hearts’ content. 

The following days were a lovely amalgamation of eating fresh bread from the nearby boulangerie for breakfast, exploring the various districts of Marseille and other nearby villages (Cassis) and cities (Aix-en-Provence) (both worth a day trip), taking selfies in the sun and drinking lots – whether that be tea, wine, vodka… (and boy did we need the wine on the fateful last (correction: supposed last) evening).

Returning home from Aix-en-Provence for our last evening in the pad (the evening had already gotten off to a good start when the ticket inspector declared his undying love for CK, to which she replied, ever the linguist, with a very British sounding “merci beaucoup” (I think he probably had kittens at this point)), our plan was to enjoy the last of the rays on the balcony (with a cuppa and a biccie (of course)), head into the city for a celebratory drink (or three) and return home to enjoy a nice light spread of all of our leftover food (along with the fiendishly problematic aforementioned bottle of prosecco (CK defeated it in the end (when CK wants prosecco, CK will have prosecco (and this was post-disaster, so the prosecco was a critical necessity))). So we started our evening on the sun-loungers, tea and biscuits in hand (maybe even the odd dunk here and there (we are British after all)). And then CK received the first – of MANY – airline communications. BA had cancelled her flight home scheduled for the following afternoon and had booked her onto a replacement flight for the following following morning. But this would not do. CK had a sofa delivery planned for 10 am the following following morning (after OVER A YEAR in her new flat), and so was desperate to receive her new piece of furniture. She got on the phone. (I stayed in the sun.) I checked in half an hour later (nothing to do with the fact that the biscuits were in the living room where she was set up). There were no other BA flights that would get her home in time for the sofa, so the re-scheduled flight was cancelled and a new flight with Ryanair for the following day was booked. It was earlier than her original flight so messed up our brunch plans, but we both agreed that this was the best solution and that the long-awaited sofa took precedent over two portions of Eggs Florentine. So that was that. The new flight was booked, the sun had gone down and we headed over to the port to enjoy our final celebratory drink(s). After some earlier scrupulous research we  settled upon the bar in which the scene where Jamie (Colin Firth) proposes to Aurelia (not famous enough to bother googling her name) was filmed for Love Actually (arguably one of the very best films of all time). We hadn’t even reached the bar when the second less than welcome airline communication pinged through: Ryanair had cancelled her flight scheduled for the following morning. Now. This was really rather rude. We still didn’t know why the first flight had been cancelled, so realised something bigger must be going on for it to be affecting two entirely separate airlines. We arrived at the bar, ordered our drinks (deux verre de vin blanc, s’il vous plait), and started researching what the hell was going on. (We were not, initially, all that successful in finding out any helpful information whatsoever. Then the drinks arrived and our creative juices started flowing.) We started looking on French language websites, combining our very limited French with Google Translate (the copy and paste function on my phone having never seen such action) and finally deciphered that the public transport network of France – as a whole – was striking. Brilliant. Luckily not all French cities were affected, so Plan C was formulated: CK would join me on the (unaffected) FlixBus to Montpellier the following morning and catch a flight home from there that evening. Phew. We were now free to enjoy our wine, reenact the Love Actually proposal, and head back for The Last Supper. 

Day of Travel Extraordinaire got off to a less than pleasing start. Having been able to revert our plans to the initial brunch-before-bidding-byebye, we had conducted our research and set off in the direction of highly rated (and conveniently close by) Cafe l’Ecomotive (famed for their delicious vegetarian breakfasts). We managed to arrive exactly one minute after breakfast service finished, 59 minutes before lunch service began. What a bloody tofu scramble. Second on our list was another recommended authentic bakery which, when we arrived – sweaty and panting after a tough ten-minute luggage-laden uphill struggle – greeted us with baguettes, quiches and whole ruddy loaves of freshly made bread. Not exactly the cinnamon infused bircher muesli we were hoping for (but I can’t turn down a slice of quiche at the best of times, so may have indulged in an extremely premature spot of lunch (just to show willing)). CK still only had eyes for brekkie, so opted to hold out for another café, simply ordering a cup of English breakfast tea (to keep the hunger pangs at bay) which, of course, they did not have. Quiche devoured and herbal tea tolerated, it was onto bakery numero trois. With a queue spilling out onto the street, a scent that wafted deliciously into your very core, and an owner so fierce you left the counter quivering; we knew that our search was well and truly over. Having stated in the queue that I was full to the brim and couldn’t possible fit another morsel in, I (droolingly) left the shop with a seductive, irresistible almond-encrusted pain au chocolat, and a rather unseductive, definitely resistible five-pound weight gain (and couldn’t have been happier about it). It was divine. Suddenly the morning was taking a sugar-coated, butter-drenched, baked-to-perfection turn for the better.

My first accompanied FlixBus ride went by in a flash (no vomiting, no dodgy smelling next door neighbour, no fear-inducing driving), during which we were mainly occupied with a split-headphone Netflix viewing of I Give It A Year (surprisingly bon), which even left us friends on the ‘I would go for him’ front (for me the funny but out-of-work writer (Rafe Spall), for her the suave but boring businessman (Simon Baker). (Who knew we would arrive in Montpellier with a joint wedding to plan.) My first accompanied hostel check in, very much on the other hand, went by like a slow, rat-infested I’m A Celebrity coffin-themed endurance challenge (of which the unabridged description will be published in due course (the hellish experience can’t possibly be condensed to a mere sentence or two (it, unfortunately, requires a whole post’s worth of attention and brazenly scathing adjectives)).

A couple of glasses of wine and bag of cheesy doritoes later it was time for CK to collect her suitcase from the hell hole (quite miraculous that she actually left it there unattended in the first place), take an Uber to the airport (at this point she had done her time living the life of a frugal traveller) and catch her third booked flight back to London. Before reaching the airport she received the (now almost comical) third airline communication: EasyJet had cancelled her flight home scheduled for that evening. I mean, you could barely write it. A fourth flight booking, hotel assigning, taxi catching and – most importantly – sofa delivery rescheduling later, she was back in Montpellier city centre (at the Crowne Plaza no less) ordering a room service dinner and filling me in on the latest shenanigans of the utterly ridiculous saga (I had popped round for a cup of tea and to escape the squat masquerading as a hostel). After filling up my water bottle (I didn’t trust the water at my ‘accommodation’), stealing the hotel’s complimentary slippers (my current ones from Hotel Bologna were going to have to be burned after making contact with the floor at the ‘hostel’) and pocketing as many of the mini-toiletries I could stuff into my handbag (what can I say… I’m on a budget!) we said our goodbyes (for the umpteenth time), closed our eyes and prayed with the upmost sincerity that the transport strike would be over tomorrow as planned, and that I would survive my first night at Jimmy’s Guesthouse.

(Both prayers were gratefully fulfilled, although ‘surviving’ was the full extent of my night at the hostel – relaxation, let alone any sleep, was seemingly far too difficult a feat for any ethereal power to muster.)


I Really Really Really Like Leipzig-a-zig-ah

My high hopes for Leipzig were well and truly satisfied; this city a vast improvement on my slightly disappointing first stop in the land of the Deutsch. As soon as I got off the train I knew I was going to enjoy my time here. The locals seemed friendlier, the streets safer, and the atmosphere in general felt light-hearted and arty in a non-pretentious way. They clearly don’t take themselves, or their city, too seriously, which I really (really really) like (Leipzig-a-zig-ah). (Sorry.) One of the main ring roads is the Martin Luther Ring (lol), and even the light signals at pedestrian crossings come with a sense of humour. For STOP you get a luminous crucified scarecrow, and for GO the side profile of a radioactive Mario who has lost his kart and in somewhat of a hurry on foot.

The hostel I’m staying in is slap bang in the middle of the action, and possibly my favourite hostel thus far (and the cheapest by far: ker-ching). I arrived on Tuesday, which, as I waited patiently to check in at reception, I learned to be ‘Free Pancake Tuesday’. So my dinner that night was two freshly made Nutella and banana pancakes – gratis… I don’t think life gets much better?

And the people here just add to the charm of the place. I have met an aspiring German architect (Greta) who invited me on an evening walk around the city, post-pancakes (❤️); a one-part German / one-part English busking duo – I think the first buskers I have ever met?! – who have the best anecdotes; and a Sudanese classical singing student whose voice is like a warm chocolate fountain melting a marshmallow covered palace of diamond encrusted silk pillows. Seriously.

Right now it is quarter past three in the afternoon, I am sitting in the courtyard of a bar right next to my hostel, a glass of cool (temperature not temperament) dry white wine in hand (almost gone), a water fountain in front of me, and the afternoon sun for company… I really really really like Leipzig-a-zig-ah.

From Frikandel to Frankfurter

My last stop in the land of the Dutch was Utrecht. A university city, it was full of students and much less touristic than Amsterdam. However this meant that the hostel bar was full of local students working on their laptops which is not the ideal environment to meet fellow solo travellers. I checked in to my room and was surprised and disappointed to be the first to have arrived. On the upside, though, this enabled me to swap my allocated top bunk to a roomy bottom bunk (every cloud) and make my bed in peace. After a tasty tuna nicoise in the bar (see previous post) I headed back to my room to see if anyone had arrived. I was in luck! As the flush went on the toilet I wondered what delightful new travelling buddy I was about to meet. Out walked Matt from South Africa*, an early twenties, eagerly friendly, uber talkative type. I introduced myself and shook his hand (straight away) and then swiftly regretted my eagerness (hygiene wise…).

We went for a wander in the city and I tried my first Belgian waffle (lol – even my geographical knowledge sees through that). Smothered in Nutella, it was a calorie-laden matrix of unadulterated indulgence. Yum. Post-sugar high I soon came to realise that Matt from South Africa was a philosophical, “spiritual” (his words) individual who required such a depth of meaning to each and every sentence to be conversed that, frankly, to me, was a little tiresome. My talk about the latest shenanigans in towie really wasn’t going to cut it. So I humoured him. After a few hours (long hours) we were back at the hostel, and eager (desperate) I was to see if any newbies had landed in room 501. No luck.

We headed down to the bar to claim our 50% off your first drink voucher, and I couldn’t be happier to see a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. It wasn’t the best but…it contained alcohol. After dinner we went back to the room – high hopes again, again to no avail. We had discussed going to a wine bar with live jazz but, at this point, a date with Netflix, my headphones and the second series of Fargo seemed much more appealing. As I settled down on my bunk, trading vino in Utrecht for violence in Minnesota, I did not hear the door to room 501 open. My eyes flickered from the screen and fell upon a slightly portly, big-bearded, friendly looking sixty-something man, followed by his wheely suitcase, come trundling into the dorm. Hallelujah! I mean, he wasn’t a perfectly sculpted Greek Adonis with a rose between his teeth by any stretch of the imagination (no matter how many Sauvy Bs you had consumed) but he was ANOTHER PERSON TO SAVE ME FROM THE SOUTH AFRICAN! He turned out to be Ludo, a Belgian professor living in Bruges who was in Utrecht for a conference, and reminded me of a cross between Santa and the curly-haired male doctor from Holby City (I don’t even watch it so don’t know where that came from) who I have just Googled – Elliot Hope. Ahh. Now I could sleep easy.

The following day I had another mooch around the city, going to the cathedral (average) and the Miffy Museum (when the ticket lady warned me it was for children she really wasn’t lying). Touristy to-do list ticked off, delicious traditional frites and EXQUISITE mayonnaise (in nifty cardboard cone with balcony for sauce – genius) were for dinner. Despite the fact that I’m ‘not a huge chips fan’ these organic hand-cut fries from Frietwinkel (😉) were, in my opinion, the highlight of my stay.

Next morning I was off to Cologne – my first time in Germany. As I entered the city I immediately sensed a difference in feel. People seemed less friendly, the city somehow more gritty, and as I walked to my hostel I clutched my phone just a little bit tighter. The city itself was interesting once explored; the nicer, quirkier and more authentic side of town was the opposite end to my hostel, which was situated in the midst of the more touristic, run-of-the-mill neighbourhood.

I had a chilled few days in the Colognial sun, but would say that my experience in the fourth largest German city was not much to write home about (oh the irony)… I am now en route to Leipzig, ‘The New Berlin’, which I have high hopes for. Due to arrive in an hour or so, so, for now, Auf Wiedersehen, pet.< i>*Name and identity has not been changed in any way – praying he doesn’t stumble across this blog.< a href=”https://insearchofhappydotcodotuk.files.wordpress.com/2017/05/img_4317.jpg”&gt;<<<<<<<

Finding Netherland 

Prelude
I just want to point out that I had written one third to one half of this blog post already, and then deleted it by mistake. Gah. Therefore I would urge you to be even more appreciative than normal of the below, as I am so bloody frustrated that I have to write it out again. Thanks v much.

***

I had high hopes for The Netherlands after a disappointing, lack lustre, boring, [insert derogatory adjective of your choice] twenty hours or so in Antwerp. (Twenty hours that I will never get back.) To my delight I arrived at my hostel in Rotterdam – King Kong – to find it was, like, totally the coolest place ever. The walls were decorated with signs made of lights and teddy bear apes and the staff were of the Urban Outfitters / The Breakfast Club variety: I-can-pull-off-even-the-most-ridiculous-of-outfits-because-of-my-vibe. Their over-enlarged personal sense of coolness didn’t fool me, however, but, you know, I just went with it.

Too early to check in and with Belgian beer withdrawal symptoms intensifying by the second (it had been over an hour since crossing the border), I took a seat in the hostel’s quirky and mismatched cushion adorned bar (continuing the UO theme nicely) and ordered my new favourite tipple. Ahh. Now? Lunch. After a quick perusal of the menu I HAD to go for the falafel and houmous on toast (totally up my street). It was everything I thought it would be and more, and will be one I recreate back in the UK (you can thank me later).

In my post-houmous happy place I checked in to my room to find ropes and monkey bars hanging from the ceiling; new elements to the playground of bunk bed ladders I am becoming ever more accustomed to. (I only now – well, the first time I wrote this post in actual fact – have realised the reason behind these objects (if you’re as slow as me, clue: hostel name). I can’t believe I didn’t catch on sooner. Haha.) Also in my room I met the super cool (and super tall) Trine from Norway. Four years younger than me and about four feet taller, I spent the following two days trotting along about a yard behind her, out of breath trying to keep up with the effortless strides,  wondering what an hilariously ridiculous duo we must look. (Now I have an understanding of how my mum must feel when walking with me when I’m in a hurry…sorry Moo.) Despite the disparity in leg length we were mature enough to put our differences to one side (isn’t that what travelling’s all about?) and set out to plan our first night in Rotterdam. Having left the UK a good five days before the EuroVision song contest final, I thought (naively) that I would escape the lengthy and painful experience that is watching it on the TV. Wrong. Turns out Trine is a super fan… So I spent my first night in The Netherlands in a gay bar watching the EuroVision song contest surrounded by Trine’s fellow Dutch super fans. It was actually quite a good laugh.

The following day in Rotterdam marked the final of a national football tournament in which the local team – Feyenoord – were playing for gold, a feat that they had not achieved for 17 years. We watched the game in a little Dutch pub that was full to the brim of die-hard football fans (plus the little and large blonde duo), and managed to get a spot right by one of the screens. Feyenoord scored their first of three goals within the first minute, causing the entire pub to go absolutely mental and what felt like an entire pint of beer to be poured straight over my head… They went on to win 3-1 and it was fun to experience such sporting patriotism in another country (albeit a little bit sticky).

After a thorough hair wash the following morning I headed to the second ‘Dam (this time of Amster). Again, this city did not disappoint! It was chilled, interesting and beautiful (if you ignore the omnipresent scent of weed) and is the city I have felt safest in thus far. (I think everyone is too high to care about pick-pocketing or being leery.) My time spent in the capital was an equal mix of culture and…cocks. The high brow Van Gough Museum was balanced with the raise of an eyebrow Sex Museum, and the picturesque canalside walks were cheapened by attending my first (and last) peep show. Without getting too graphic, picture an out-of-shape bold man dunking his undercooked supermarket own brand frikandel into an out-of-date and overcooked steak pie that is lacking some gravy… Given I was in the capital of sex it was truly the least sexy thing ever. If you weren’t turned off already a stroll around the red light distict past window upon window of desperate looking ladies really does the trick. But, it was an appropriate way to end my last night in the city!

I have now touched down in Utrecht – unknown to me before being recommended by fellow travellers – for my last couple of nights in Holland before moving east to Germany. The hostel seems cool so far, and I can recommend the tuna nicoise (although it is nothing on the houmous and falafel on toast).


Belgian Beer

I am delighted to report I have survived my first FOUR (can barely believe it myself) nights in a hostel, which now makes me a fully fledged travelling pro. No?

I managed to get the bottom bunk in both hostels (wahey) but this fortune was instrumental in the 157 bangs to the head I have suffered thus far (not so yay). The showers proved better than I was expecting, and with my trusty flip flops on foot (complimentary from Dormy House Hotel, obviously) I can confirm I have stayed clean and smelling fresh all week. (Except today, as I forgot to take my towel – apologies in advance to the people of Antwerp (next stop).) The only slight hiccup was on the first morning, during my post-first-pre-breakfast-run-in-Belgium shower. I couldn’t detach my brand spanking new travelling watch (rose gold, digital display, H&M) from my wrist (which I think was faulty in the first place as it required a pair of pliers to put on back in the motherland (with the mother). (She can vouch for the palaver.) So after spending 10 minutes in the shower cubicle in nothing but my secret bum bag (I can’t remember what the term is but not at all crude), breaking my fingernails like New Years resolutions on February 1st trying to get the ruddy watch off my wrist, I decided: enough is enough. This watch was not going to stop me getting my free breakfast, the time limit for which was rapidly decreasing. So I had my first one-handed shower, with my left arm outstretched throughout to protect my beautiful and infuriating watch from the spray. The following day was hair-wash day, which definitely requires a two-handed shower. As painful as it was, as attached we had become, as elegantly it told the time; Mr Watch had to go, and we haven’t spoken since.

Other notable disasters include: trying to pay with a 10 kuna (Croatian currency) note for drinks in a bar on my first night in Ghent (very much in the Eurozone). It took me a good 30 seconds to realise why the barman was a real-life boomerang video, eyes flicking from me to the money, me to the money, with one eyebrow fiercely raised. Another was while eating a money-saving supermarket dinner in my dorm room on my first night in Bruges. Bread, houmous, cheese, red wine…what more could one want? A mixed pot of olives, sundried tomatoes and mozzarella balls – belissimo! That was until I had my first ball of mozzarella…which turned out to be a whole clove of GARLIC. Eughehgh. (That one’s for you, dad.) The third and final mishap mis-happened just last night. All week I have been droning on about getting (sorry father – having) moules frites. And last night – my final night in Bruges – was going to be THE night. I researched online (obvi) “where does the best moules frites in Bruges?”. After some deliberation I settled on Poules Moules. Poules Moules! So we got dressed up, strolled into the city and arrived at said moules joint. Unbeknown to us (and the lack of watch did NOT help), it was 10pm already and Poules Moules were serving no more. Distaster! We then trekked round the ENTIRE city (I was in heels) to find every single restaurant was closed (even McDonald’s, which, yes, we did try). Thankfully someone was looking over us (who goes by the name of Siri) and we managed to find a relatively busy bistro on the corner of the main square. And what was their special of the day? Moules Frites! Thank f*ck for that.

Anyway, I digress. Back to the point. Other than the aforementioned travesties, my time in Belgium so far has been beer, beer and a little more beer. A beer flavoured Belgian chocolate (incredible), a beer tasting with a twee-looking long-bearded kind of elf man (interesting) and generally just getting on the beers son (init).