Saturday, 5 November 2016

Swimming in October, All Saints Day, olives, visits to police...

 
Quiet Gatwick
What a week! I arrived in Dubrovnik early last Saturday in a state of nervous exhaustion. London, with a three day trip to the north, had been a whirlwind of friends, family, and general catching up. Thankfully it had been a relatively stress-free return journey, and with 16 of us on the flight, then the only person on the bus to the ferry port, it was like Croatia was trying to tell me something. London transport had been manic as usual, so it was a ridiculous contrast. My bags and I were eventually safely on the ferry - after the usual wait - but for superstitious reasons that I shall explain shortly, I decided against the usual huge trip to the supermarket. Given I was also lugging an awkward suitcase and massive backpack, perhaps it was just sensible.
 
As I sipped my welcome home cup of tea on my bright terrace, it took a moment to hear the silence. My ex-flatmate's place was actually quieter than I anticipated, and certainly more peaceful than she had billed, but that's only because the permanent white noise is turned up louder to counter the intermittent peaks. Either you stop noticing it all, or you take to your own headphones to drown out everything. This deafens everything including your own thoughts, which is scary. The overwhelming sensory experience of a big city is partly what makes it stressful. Although the senses are strained and pummelled here, it is extremity of a different kind. Artificiality v nature; people v isolation; choice v seasonal availability; grey v green.
 
This time of year is so 'familiar' at home. I only have to smell sweet ginger, clean woollen jumpers, burning leaves and green wood, damp misty mornings, and I'm transported back to the parties we had as kids; warm spices scenting the air, lit candles in dark places, happy friends and family gatherings. Our focus in the north is necessarily on damp, dark and spooky nature, and perhaps we tend to conflate US style Halloween, 5th November and later, Armistice Day. Having only briefly experienced southern European All Saints Day with the masses of flowers, and focus on remembering the dead, it nonetheless reminds me - again - how similar we all are underneath. Our different cultures, religions, ways of celebrating only serves to highlight what is universally important to humanity.
 
Not spooky
The masses of flowers in the park and market in Dubrovnik that welcomed me, were stunning. Everyone was buying a formal flower arrangement for family graves. I was asked how we remember our dead loved ones and whether a particular time is set aside to visit cemeteries. There was a stunned face as I explained that my most missed loved one isn't buried, but was scattered in a wood by the side of a reservoir. My father is everywhere and nowhere; in my heart; in the open, in the nature he loved. I confirmed that, for me, that was as close to a 'heaven' that anyone could ever wish for! I don't need a special time to remember, it's impossible to forget. The unhealthy concern for bodily remains I find the most disturbing and curious aspect of many religions, but perhaps that's why I can't be doing with Halloween - unless it's a nice piece of gingerbread, with a bonfire and sparklers.
 
Still, it reminded me that I am very far from the UK and very much out of my comfort zone. Swimming in October, fish BBQs, tractors and olives, visits to police...this life is beyond anything. The landlord worried about my wish to be cremated, and that I hadn't brought slippers back. Some people have very strange priorities.
 
I had been invited to go up to the olive oil factory on my arrival but for one reason and another, it didn't happen. In retrospect, I'm glad that I had a few days in the groves before going up for the final part of the process. Instead I was welcomed home in a blaze of sunshine, and it wasn't just the unaccustomed hills that left me breathless on my late evening run. The sunset was incredible and augured well for a sunny few days. I've even managed a final dip in the glorious sea; the chilly fresh water springs that pour into the harbour had definitely made their presence felt. The light which I'd missed for two weeks was pouring into my bedroom on Sunday, which meant I was woken up bright and early, and I dashed outside on to the terrace to see the golden sparkles on the bay. Without slippers, obviously.
 
The coffee places in the village are now very limited and I wondered if the buzzing metropolis of Sipanska Luka could offer more choice. Taking a gentle stroll in the sun to the other side of the island, I knew that I should be starting work but it was pleasant to delay for another day. I also knew that I had to face the possibility that I could be asked to leave the country any time after Monday 1 November, which is why I had held back on doing a huge shop for provisions.
 
Whilst in the olive fields that afternoon, I asked about the next day's trip to Dubrovnik for a new tenancy agreement and some police lady sweet talking. It had to be done on Monday because of the All Saints holiday on Tuesday. There were grumbles. And more grumbles. The forecast was consulted and the 6am ferry was agreed upon. Just as olive season was really picking up, I was dragging the two gentlemen to town. Little Miss Popular, I was not. Still, I made myself useful in the fields.
 
The next day I was feeling sick by the time we were due to leave. As it happens, regardless of weather forecast, we had to take the fishing boat and car into town because the amount of running around we needed to do. The police station is right at the top of the hill, a good 30 minutes walk from the port. We started with the lady at the police station, did the paperwork, got it notarised, went back to the lady...didn't have copies of stuff, got copies and went back to her. I was to come back Friday for my registration certificate. By this point, after three times up the hill, the human blood pressure matched that of the car's, which demonstrated its displeasure by expiring in a puff of evil smelling engine smoke. It refused to start.
 
If you remember, I have one other experience with this car. It had failed to start back in June and we'd needed to jump it, then we were too nervous to switch it off whilst dashing around for the same paperwork. I pointed this out, and now it seems women are banned from his car. Luckily his mate was in town and we got a lift back to the village where their boat was moored. It was an extremely wet and bumpy ride back to the island as there was a strong wind blowing. I can report that my new yellow coat is wind and waterproof. All of this on a Monday before 2pm and we hadn't even started the day's olive picking yet...
 
To be continued...

Thursday, 3 November 2016

The show must go on.

Yesterday I was sitting in a tavern on Park Avenue enjoying a drink or two and reflecting on what had been a pretty good day. And then my world imploded.

I received a message at 17:26 that opened with “I regret to inform you…”.

Five words to strike dread in to anyone. The message, whilst appearing to come from a very close and dear friend of many years was actually from his nephew. My reply was as lucid as I could manage given the flowing tears and waves of regret, but I had to be fast as he had stated that the phone would be switched off after the message.

Regret. Regret for having not seen somebody one last time, this is not the first time in the last month as my father-in-law also passed away and I was unable to see him one last time. In fact to compound the emotions yesterday was his funeral and I was unable to attend, as apart from being in New York I don’t think I would have been particularly warmly welcomed. Though I understand and accept why this is the case.

So now I have two new holes vying for position with others.

One of those past holes was made in New York. At 8:46 a.m. on the 11th of September 2001 one of my closest friends was in the wrong place at very much the wrong time. She had arrived early for a meeting at Cantor Fitzgerald in the North Tower of the World Trade Centre.

So I too am in the wrong place at the wrong time as multiple memories are conspiring to turn me in to a gibbering jelly.

But I will bounce back. I always do. And in the dark of the night I will remember, smile and mourn in isolation. And be grateful for what they all brought to my life.

Life that inevitably goes on.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Run fatgirl run...

In April you might vaguely recall that I had to run. Not for a bus or a train of course, honestly darling if you have to do that you need to review your life choices. No this time it was for a plane. And not as you might think that I was late to the airport but rather because I was sat at the champagne bar doing what every Contrarian should do, drinking fizz and writing. More specifically I’s been updating the new landlord with the Economy-7-not-working-so-we-had-no-hot-water problem.

A bit awkward really.

The thing was I had put that incident out of my head until this afternoon when I was standing in Gatwick’s departure hall and saw said bar. You see I had been so engrossed I’d not heard my flight called and being blind as a bat couldn’t see the display. So when I checked and saw that the gate was closing in just a few minutes time I actually ran.

And this is what I remembered. Me. Running. Me.

I’ll leave that to sink in. No giggling at the back.

So here I am at 40,000 feet somewhere over the North Atlantic en route to New York. A place that I realised would mark an important milestone. When I run there I will pass one hundred miles in my running shoes. Not sling backs, actual running shoes. It’s been a difficult journey.

So what went wrong?

Well back in August my ex announced that they would be doing the couch to 5k program. I was vaguely aware of this as I knew of one or two other lunatics who had done it. But me? Well I had sort of praised myself that I would start running when I was down to weight which, needless to say, never happened as a mixture of chrimble, road trips and general comfort eating did its very best to reverse all may good intentions.

In short dear reader, I was back to being a bit overweight. And when I saw a  bit I don’t mean a bit.

Inevitably I had to do some research, after all if the ex was seriously considering it then really anything they can do… And it didn’t look so bad. She says. All I had to do was install an app, do a little bit of walking and a little bit of running et voilá 9 weeks later I’ll be able to run five thousand metres. Or roughly the distance from my apartment to St Pauls. What?

Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha.

I honestly wasn’t sure this was a good idea but I did at least see that the idea was to slowly break you in. Well, that or just break you. So off I toddled to Sports Direct, found some running shoes in my size that owing to their shocking colour were much cheaper. I suspect this is what is known as unfashionable.

Or a little something I call normal.

Anyway, I decided that there was no time like the present so on getting home I felt there was no time like the present, changed in to something vaguely sporty that I used to wear for roof exercises in the old place before the roof terrace burnt to a crisp. And fuelled by a fury from a text message I’d received I stomped out to try and make sense of the app and do a run.

Having chosen Sarah Millican as my voice of encouragement, she at least speaks like me, I headed off for that first brisk warm up walk. After the five minutes had passed it was time for a minute running. It didn’t seem so bad. This was easy, I was a natural! This was followed by a walk then another run. Still okay. In fact there would be eight one minute runs. How hard can this be?

Very. Bloody. Hard.

The first run/walk
By the last run I wanted Satan to rise up and point out that it was my round at the No Hope cocktail bar in hell. Jeez.

The 25th of August would go down in the annals of time as being the day I lost my good sense and sense of decorum.

By the time I got home I’d caught my breath and though I looked like somebody had thrown a bucket of water over me it didn’t matter. I actually felt pretty good. I mean shaky legs is good. Right? The next run would be at the weekend. This time though I
would have the ex with me as it sort of made sense for us to do it at the same time. It seemed harder this time, my body had clearly realised something was going on and it throughly disapproved of whatever it was.

Things seemed to be going well. Sort of.

The third didn’t seem as bad as the second and I decided maybe it would be okay. Well except that the next run was, well worse. The same idea but the intervals had changed a little. And it was harder though on the plus side it now meant I only had to contend with six running bits. Six perfectly formed little steps of torture.

By this point I’d decided the best time for me was to run in the morning as otherwise I would get home feeling too tired to go out again. Ladies and gentlemen, I had a routine!

Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday I would *leap out of bed, pull on my running clothes, head out in to the dawn and listen to Sarah both encouraging me and giving tips. She’s a canny lass.

There was an upside to all this, I was getting to see some spectacular sunrises as summer drifted in to autumn and the sun gradually sunk lower in the sky. And there were more useful benefits, my recovery time was definitely better, my heart rate and breathing becoming normal far more quickly. It was still horrible but now it was doable horrible and whilst I couldn’t quite see how I could manage to run for thirty minutes I could see that Sarah really believed it.

By week five things were getting serious, three five minute runs with a pair of breaks. But day two was different, run eight minutes twice with a break. That wasn’t so bad. Or at least it was better than what happened on Friday and day three… Run. Twenty. Minutes.

What? No, no, no, no. I can’t do that.

Turns out sometimes I’m wrong.

Week six followed a similar changing pattern but things were getting longer. Oh crikey. Friday though… Twenty five minutes. I was by now urging myself on by saying run to the next lamppost. Or any other handy landmark that was a very short distance away. It was a case of mind over body and body was presenting a very persuasive argument.

Week seven took me by surprise, I was expecting it of course, but what I wasn’t expecting was being back to the runs being the same. Or that each would be twenty five minutes. Oh hell.

Week eight topped that as we moved to twenty eight minutes. I also now had a problem, I’d run out of places to run. I had been walking to the Thames, then running through King Edward Park, around Shadwell Basin, through Wapping Woods, along the ornamental canal and then turning around at Vaughn Way before retracing my steps. And those extra three minutes… Dear lord.

Finally!
The final week coincided with Missy being back in Blighty so we agreed that she would run with me on what would be my final week of the program and the point where I would run for thirty tiring minutes. Trouble is… She’s an experienced runner so our pace was up a bit. But. Incredibly…

I did it.

I couldn’t quite believe it. Fortunately I didn’t burst in to tears as I did when I reached twenty minutes but it was still emotional. As expected we ran out of track so we had to run on a way through Limehouse which I wasn’t entirely comfortable with but by this point I had to just keep moving or fail.

The second thirty minutes wasn’t much better. In fact if anything it was harder because I found that being tired has a massive impact on my ability to run and if truth be told I was running on mental and emotional empty. The route was different again, this time we ran along Limehouse Cut and past our old apartment. In fact we kept running all the way to the A12 before we had to turn around. It was difficult but doable.

For the final run we took the route up Regent’s Canal turning around at Victoria Park. We agreed that the trouble with the canal routes was that owing to the number of cyclists it was fairly unsociable as you spent a lot of time running in single file.

So what have I learned? Well the programme clearly works. And being tired is a really bad idea so I need to try avoiding late nights before a day I need to run. Similarly walking seventeen miles up and down hills and around Wiltshire is a really bad idea just before a run. I also learned that it’s nicer to run with someone, I suppose this shouldn’t really come as a surprise. But the big thing I learned was
Headphone health warning...
about me and about my sheer bloody mindedness in doing something I’ve not done in 35 years. And, incredibly, that I quite like it though this is tinged by frustration of my body and lack of stamina. Only time and effort can fix that. I've also learned that sweat and headphones are poor companions, if you look like the picture to the right after running then get yourself some waterproof ones. Just saying.

So what now? Well since then I’ve run another week and even this morning though I’ll admit the runs didn’t go as well owing to a number of very late nights taking their toll. I can’t promise that the first New York run will be any better but I can tell you this, I can’t wait to put the 100th mile on my running shoes.

Now that has to be an achievement.


*force myself to move as I really wanted to sleep more

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Unconsciously Uncoupling from London

Places are so important to me. But it turns out people are too...

It's strange how I always start these ramblings with a geographical and temporal moment. I'm currently in a traditional British London pub, as far away as you can get from the Riva cafes, or seaside kiosks, or buses/ferry boats that have been the birth place of many a blogpost. Still, I continue the Croatian tradition of drinking a coffee in a bar, despite the fact that the British guys are drinking a beer. I'm not sure saying where I am is really important, but it acts like a type of mental pause or new 'life' paragraph. More a confirmation that I am still here and alive, and coping wth whatever is going on. In a satisfyingly circular way, this pub was where I celebrated the leaving of my old job back in February. Events of that evening came back to me as I was strolling up to the Brunswick Centre earlier, and I recall it continued my usual leaving-do tradition. This explains why I've only had around 5 long term jobs. I just can't take my gin.

Today has been a mending sort of day, where London and I have tried to set aside some differences. I've always known my year off was to give me and my favourite city 'some space', you know, to take a break from each other. But as any person knows, if someone says this in a relationship, it's utter bullshit. It's actually a cowardly way of ending it. To be fair at least a city isn't going to throw your stuff out of the window, or post nasty things about you on social media... So even though I've experienced tears of horror, and utter culture shock about being back in this great metropolis, there have been some watery smiles of remembrance.

I class the day I mentally 'moved' to London as the day on which I had my first successful job interview. In mid September 1995, I found myself in Moorgate, the heart of City of London, terrified and elated at the same time. And on the brink of the longest relationship of my life. It's been a love affair which has transcended many others, and for twenty years I've been proud to call myself a Londoner. Even when I was away this year, I often had a yearning for the variety and atmosphere which would regularly carry me home joyously when I was truly emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausted. But as I sensed at the time I started seriously preparing for this trip, there was clearly something coming to an end between us. 

This feeling has developed into certainty over the travelling during the past week. First of all there was a brief trip to Split to round up the rest of my Croatia belongings, and then an unavoidable trip to London where I have dealt with some essential finance and health matters. In each place there was an important reconnection with some very dear friends. Seeing the contrary one in London, and the kaotic one in Split leaves me in no doubt that the personal spirit is far more valuable than the cold heart of the cities. And how I felt when I arrived was nothing short of horror at being back.

I was strangely disengaged when I was planning my time here. The change in how I am is immediately evident because as dutifully scrolled through my favourite 'what's on' sites, I found myself overwhelmed and suffering a certain level of anxiety. I stopped looking because ultimately I just don't care. I've already had a quiet meltdown in the peaceful surroundings of the Limehouse flat because of the sheer mental strength required just to face the outside world - there had also been a minor incident at a train station which had shaken me, and given me the first taste of adrenaline in many months. 

This was a shock. It served to remind me that I had been living on this drug for years, and related panic attacks were a regular part of life. These not normal, and neither should they be. As I've gone through the week and had the time to assimilate and observe the physical and mental changes, I'm succeeding in keeping my heart rate down, and ensuring my newly found calm-centre is generally anxiety knot-free. The peace has come at some cost, but I think ultimately it has been an incredible thing to capture, and I'll be damned if I lose it again. To continue the place-as-partner analogy, I'm happy to snuggle up quietly on the sofa with Šipan.




Thursday, 6 October 2016

Buy my olive oil?

I've not blogged since returning from my jaunt, which suggests that I haven't been doing anything. This being precisely the view of my landlord, he allowed me to catch up with the usual post-trip shopping, washing and housekeeping, and then he asked, 'Klara, želiš posao?' Rather cunningly, he then said it was so menial that I wouldn't be interested. Making like one of the mussels here, he closed up and ambled off, not telling me what it was. Infuriating man. If you want to guarantee my interest, it is this is the only way to do it.

Don't you hate it when people read you like a particularly easy book?

Eventually, after much more wine and cake-based bribery, he admitted that it was something we had discussed some weeks ago but hadn't followed up. Throughout the summer, a couple of people in the village had been selling oil, liqueurs and other local delicacies to all our island visitors. These regular faces by the harbour have now disappeared, partly because they have run out of produce and it is pretty much the end of the season.

Apparently this house isn't even close to running out, despite my best efforts at drinking it all. There are a couple of thousand litres of the highest grade 2015 vintage olive oil in the storeroom downstairs, and we were now looking at a particularly sunny end of September. They had thought about selling bottles of this glorious stuff on the harbour/town square a few months ago, and even asked a few people if they could do it on their behalf. They are so busy here with other aspects of business that taking five hours out of the middle of the day is impossible. Anyway, as a last resort and being the only mug available, they asked me...

So the next warm and sunny morning, there was a mad dash to get things sorted before the various ferries and boats arrived. We stuck labels on glass bottles, they were filled and sealed, and then popped in a basket. I took my wares to my finely crafted market stall. Oh, you mean the rough hewn cube of limestone in the square? You know, the one near the Tomislav monument. Perfect. I nervously set out my bottles, complete with bread, a tasting dish, and waited for customers. 

Not. A. Soul.

Oh well. I was soon joined by Marija and we settled in for a cosy few hours in this idyllic spot. We
chatted, caught up with the village gossip, quipped with local passers by. Work was going on around us; boats being painted, apartments being emptied, nets being mended. The activity here can be subtle but it is there if you take time to look. For instance, a boat today brought someone who was taking away branches of olive trees to be tested - what do they need, how can they be improved? Everything here has a purpose, everything has a rhythm, and it works like clockwork.

Speaking of which, you can set your watch by visitors who arrived on boats, old and new. After a real mixed summer, unusually they were mostly English this week - with a few French, some Poles - and happy to soak up some sunshine. Most people were too terrified to make any form of eye contact with our hard-nosed sales techniques. Some deliberately went the long way round the square to avoid my basket of oil. With a friendly good afternoon, a smile and nod, clearly we were moving in for the kill each time, Moroccan-bazaar style. I didn't think I was that scary.

However, thankfully some people were interested in learning more, and happy to spend a few moments chatting about life on this island. My sales technique is purely information based; you can take the girl out of the library but...! Even as people stood looking at the monument or church, I wanted them to enquire. But as one of the local ladies sadly told me today, she is regularly asked, 'where am I?'. People get off the boats and have no clue what the island is called. So I'm simply valuing the several conversations I had with people who cared enough to natter.

So forgive me if I get mildly tetchy with people who come here for 45 mins and write articles based primarily on wiki research and €€€. You see, the olive oil is a symbol of this place - you need peace, love and time. The effort it takes to get from terrace to plate is incredible; weather, olive flies, harvest, pressing, all of this takes time. The money made by selling is actually the least important because the end product is the way of life. Money is obviously vital but it's not the focus.

Anyway sales is another avenue that I clearly won't be pursuing in future! About 10 bottles this week, no one's retiring yet.


Fishcakes!

Rocket and Dandelion
In return for selling copious quantities of olive oil this week, payment has been made in the shape of fresh fish. If you work for fishermen, I suppose this reward was inevitable, but it was very welcome. They were waiting for me in the big fish fridge; four huge beautiful shiny mackerel. Before I cleaned and filleted them I admired their colours and brightness. Inspiration was needed as I wanted do something slightly different than the usual tasty oil, garlic, and hot grill combination.

The previous day I'd been out with Marija and her family. She had promised to take me to the fields to get what she described as 'grass' and I was puzzled. I was handed a knife and shown the plant that we were going to collect. Turns out that it was dandelion! We picked a bagful, and I was then handed the lot, as well as some wild rocket for a salad. She told me how to cook it and off I went with leaves that that my granddad used to curse. She said to clean and sort it, then wilt like spinach. I added garlic, oil, wine vinegar, salt and pepper and allowed to sit and cook for a little longer. I wondered how to use this rather acquired taste veg...
 
Pesto Mackerel Fishcakes

Delia had an idea which combined mackerel and pesto mash. I don't think that putting potato into fish and baking would work for me - far too much effort and perhaps a little bland. So I made a few changes using the basic idea.

  • Pat four of the fresh raw mackerel fillets dry and sprinkle a little salt on them
  • Put 3-4 medium potatoes onto boil and cook until soft. Allow them to dry a little over the residual heat and then mash as usual
  • Whilst they are boiling make a good antisocial pesto - one which makes even the garlic-immune fisherman here run scared. First of all, tussle with a small green caterpillar about whose basil it is...he won, as he wouldn't go down the plughole and waved at me pathetically when I threw him out of the patio door
  • Mine is a large handful of basil leaves, a really big glug of the excellent olive oil, a handful of toasted pine nuts, a couple of crushed garlic cloves, salt, pepper. Whizz up with whatever blender/mortar and pestle you have, then add some grated hard cheese. Add more oil to loosen if it's too 'tight'
  • Throw the lot into the mash and stir in thoroughly. At this stage I also added a rather interesting ingredient. I roughly chopped up a load of the cooked dandelion leaves and threw them into the mash
  • When the cooking oil in a frying pan is smoking hot, add the fillets, skin side down, and cook until just done. Allow to cool a little and then flake into the mash mix. Taste for seasoning and add paprika, or whatever to adjust
  • Add an egg and a little flour to bind. Then clean and re-oil the frying pan to heat again
  • With floury hands to prevent sticky mayhem, form into burger sized cakes and fry on each side until brown and crisp

East London Mackerel Cakes

Given that I'm going home in a week, and I enjoyed the previous day's cakes, I thought I'd try a curry flavour as I'm serious need.

Melting a butter/oil combo, I fried up a small onion, curry powder, cumin, chilli, some finely chopped red pepper, and popped in the final two raw mackerel fillets and sizzle thoroughly. Once it's all cooked and soft, I flaked the mackerel into the new batch of mash and scraped in everything from the pan. Add an egg and a little flour to bind, I chopped up more dandelion and stirred it all together. Cook as above, and add more tabasco for fun.

Serve both versions with a good dollop of hot ajvar.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Lecce - and the return to Šipan

I hadn't really considered the reputation of Bari before deciding on a day and night there, but it certainly struck me as cleaner and more tidy than Naples or Rome. People tell me that it should have been filthy, scary and a place to avoid. Which is why I'd seriously consider going back there for another visit. I've now experienced many Italian port cities and this one, along with Ancona is probably my joint favourite. Bari's old city is a warren of tiny streets, with people living their lives outside on them; from noisy shop keepers conversations and football exclamations, to hushed musical Italian gossiping and lovers' seafront murmurings. The golden buildings were colourfully adorned with painted Madonnas, bright plastic flowers, and clean washing. The low stone archways between buildings framed the scenery like monochrome rainbows, picture perfect and a photographer's dream.

As I headed out of the old town into the new on my way to the train station, the atmosphere changed and suddenly I was in a shopper's paradise. I sat in an ice-cream bar waiting for a morning coffee but I didn't feel at ease. After the natural beauties of Macedonia and the uncertain dirtiness of Albania, the likes of Prada, Gucci, and other labels didn't sit right with my jeans and rucksack so I got up and headed through town to find something more suitable. The little portable espresso bar in the public park was perfect - 2 euros for a chocolate bun and an excellent caffe latte was just the job. I was inevitably joined by a gentleman who was compelled to tell me about his marital difficulties. In Italian. It's not my strongest language to be honest. I was torn between annoyance at having my musings interrupted, and compassion at his loneliness, after all, making time for people has been my biggest lesson of this year.

After an uneventful ticket purchase, a quick trip to a supermarket for sundries, and clambering on the right train, I was smoothly making my way to Lecce. It's a sign of how immured I've become to travelling under difficult circumstances. As much as I love Croatia, train travel in other parts of Europe is something I've missed - efficient, cheap, clean, convenient, comfortable. Balkan buses are certainly cheap and relatively efficient, but I'm a bit fed up of them and the roads. So I just sat back and admired the Italian scenery; dramatic clouds, blue seas, green olives and vines, and towns with romantic names. Brindisi, I am determined to return to you....not to mention Monopolis!

I arrived in Lecce just under two hours later, calm and unruffled, with back symptoms under control. I can definitely recommend the loos at the station and after a quick tidy up, I was strolling into the quiet town. The weather was stunning and there was a photograph around every corner. Unexpectedly for an ordinary southern Italian city, it felt cosmopolitan and the population there is very diverse; I haven't seen ethic clothing like that since leaving east London. The supermarkets reflected the foods of the people and it made a change from the predominant Mediterranean flavours I've been used to. It helped that I was sharing a house with a young Argentinian and we compared travelling notes over a brew of yerba mate. I later shared my mushroom risotto!

Italy is very expensive after Albania etc, but despite this I quite enjoyed making myself at home there. I went to the hairdressers, indulged in a bit of clothes shopping, and wandered around many of the churches, parks, museum grounds and the incredible cemetery. The latter should be on everyone's list. It's like a mini-city of tiny desirable properties; it makes London's Bishop's Avenue look a bit cheap. I particularly loved the Egyptian temple with the sphinxes. I probably should have gone further afield but I was happy just to relax in the town and catch up with my rest. Such a party animal! Sadly, the contacts that I had in Lecce didn't materialise so there was no socialising.

I was happy to experience yet more interesting weather conditions but it was polite in comparison to Albania. The sky threatened to really throw a tantrum but just ended with a some rain and a dramatic double rainbow. The following days were generally settled and I was happy to compare yet another Roman theatre. I wasn't planning a Roman architectural trip but it had been a delight to find these classical gems in each town - what a wonderful part of the world this is!

My break now thoroughly wound down, with nothing unexpected on the horizon, I was gladly thinking about heading back to paradise. The journey was a dream. It was almost too easy getting back; train was on time, pizza and beer demolished and a slow stroll along the sea to the port. Although the Jadrolinjia office in Bari port decided to give me last minor panic by remaining determinedly closed come check in time. I had clearly missed the memo about needing to take a bus a few kilometres down the road to another terminal. A kind lady there took my money for a private cabin and I have never been so relieved about having guaranteed access to a private space the size of a wardrobe, in the bowels of a ferry. I was waved through passport control quickly.

As soon I was on the ferry, I couldn't believe the contrast with the Durres-Bari experience. That same ship happened to be moored nearby, and I looked at it and the same harbour-side in disbelief, remembering the chaotic scenes of immigration. The Dubrovnik was an ordinary car ferry but somehow it felt civilised - probably something to do with groups of ladies sipping wine in the bar, and signs pointing to a 'children's snug', and the excellent looking restaurant. Oh, and the fact I was clutching a key to my own private bunk. I ignored all of these social gatherings, and I was undressed, in bed and asleep before we even disembarked at 10pm.

I've already said that I was in tears on reaching my favourite port of Dubrovik café but it honestly felt like I'd returned home. The friendly welcome from passport control, the flirty Croatian exchange with a local taxi driver, and the sight of the little Postira - not to mention the fact that I was looking respectable, showered, refreshed and no longer tired and in pain. It was an epic trip and it had turned out to be a lot more arduous than I expected, but as usual difficult trips leave more of a mark and it was definitely one to remember.



Friday, 23 September 2016

Would you open a door for me?

Chivalry - courteous behaviour, especially that of a man towards women
Synonym - Gallantry - gentlemanliness, thoughtfulness, attentiveness, consideration
Antonym - Rudeness, boorishness

Why is Chivalry only thought of when a man does something nice!?
Why is chivalry being lost amongst the youth?
Why do the Older generation not believe in patience anymore?
Why do the older generation not tolerate the youth any more?
Were they not young once? Will we not reach an old age?

I sit here befuddled!

A topic was brought up today, do we ladies like chivalry, or is it dead? I sat and thought, then I questioned. I am always the person holding the door for others, I am always the person giving up my seat, I am always the person moving out of the way so that somebody else can get a better view.

Yes, I would say I am a courteous person but what of others?

When Reuben was a baby, I sat in a cafe to get out of the house. For those that know me that was a huge achievement. But oh dear... yes, oh dear... he started to cry. Frustrated tears, unhappy tears, tears that wish teeth to go away! There wasn't many of us in there, just an elderly lady and gent and another couple.  As I tried to quieten him, a voice came out "can't you put IT outside?"

IT, IT. I spun so quick I nearly knocked a glass flying!?

Now stereotypically you think it is going to be the couple, young and in love, and not a care in the world but for each other. A noisy baby interrupting their lunch is just not ok! But it wasn't. The elderly lady again muttered "IT should go outside". Now usually I would never of said anything and continue on, but coming into that cafe, I could see her struggling, so I had helped her in, I had helped her to that table, I had pulled out her chair and tucked her in.

Yet, all that was very easily forgotten, when the same patience and courteousness that I needed from her had quite literally, sank with the Titanic! I didn't let it go. I told her quite frankly, "it is not a dog, it is a baby, it has a name. If you are uncomfortable with the noise, then feel free to take yourself outside, and of course I will gladly help!"

Her face had utter bewilderment on it!

I only look back at this incident as I see it more and more. My elderly neighbour of 85 years is the most kind, caring individual I know, yet upon getting off her very frequent bus journey, she appeared saddened. I asked if she was ok, and she retold a story of youths; school children messing around on the bus. She is unable to sit, and not one of them cared about how old she was or how in need she was of a seat, no one offered her theirs, and no one offered to help her get off with her shopping.

Are we now alone?
Have we become such an independent society, that if nobody asks for help, we just simply won't offer?
Why is it, that in a disaster, the women and children are rescued first?
Why should a man give up his seat to a woman if he is elderly?
Why should we open doors for people?
Why should we say please and thank you?
Why should we do anything for anyone?

Because the world is round....

Do keep being courteous, whether or not you are male or female, old or young, and let's not stop teaching; not just children but the elderly too!

As we are taught to respect our elders...teach patience to the older generation.

For the world keeps turning, and as the days grow darker we need chivalry from everyone, not just specific gender.

I'd open that door for you...would you for me?




Down and out in Bari

It seemed apt the the sun was behind us; don't get me wrong Bari glistened in the golden light and the port looked truly beautiful. But I just didn't feel ready for Italy. It turns out that Italy didn't really feel the love either as the queue for passport control didn't move. For 2 hours. When it finally got going an hour later, people were trickling through one-by-one. Some of the guys around me yelled out to the officious numpty that I was an EU citizen. I was eventually squeezed through the crowd. I asked simply 'perché?' of an official guy, shrugging, he suggested that I should have shown my passport earlier in the process. 

Just how, precisely? You're at the back of such a thick mass of humanity which couldn't even get a sick child through, let alone a privileged EU passport holder. Bags went through the x-ray, keeping in mind that as I left Bari, bags weren't checked! By this point, if it hasn't again for a wonderful gentleman, I don't think I'd have been queuing upright. Once outside the port, basically I wasn't. I lay collapsed on a bench watching some black-clad elderly women moving bags - they were still the other wrong side of the barrier, I wondered about their stories. 

I lay there chatting to Petrit; he was off to Germany, and I admired his strength - I was dreading the 20 minutes just getting into Bari town centre. Still, things were looking up, I remembered my Albanian cake from the previous day. It was squished, sweet, sticky and utterly delectable. Finally as the ibruprofen was kicking in again, it was time to leave the port and head our separate ways; me to my overnight stop, and he to his bus north. I ambled over to a promising looking local bus stop and I was soon heading the wrong direction into town. Excellent. 

Airbnb decided to further test my endurance and ingenuity by sending me to Via Carduzzi, rather than a Corte of the same name. I looked up at the modern office block and sighed. This wasn't it. Thank goodness for technology and booking.com having the right address. So more accidentally rather than any map reading skill, I headed in to the right part of the old town. I asked a cheery gentleman where this place was, and it caused a conversation which can only be described as heated. One way was directed, then an entirely opposite one was shouted; a priest was consulted, and soon several shopkeepers and a waiter was involved. 
 
Oh. My. God. 

'Go back, down the way I'd came, and it was third on the left'. This was the short answer and I said hvala and was on my way again. Wrong country. Wrong language. Tears and hysteria welling, I arrived in a pretty little court yard - only 5 hours after the ferry docked. The place was still being cleaned but the lady on seeing my condition brought out a chair, and I sat there vacantly examining my boots. They, like everything else, were filthy. What was I thinking coming to Italy dressed like a hobo!? 

Finally I was in! I stripped, scaldingly showered and thoroughly soaped, and lay clean and fragrant on the gloriously comfortable bed. The place was beautiful and the curved vaulted ceiling like a wine cellar. Wine! Food! Of course, I fell asleep and missed the Italian lunchtime window. By the time I was smartly and appropriately dressed for an Italian dinner, it was raining. And by the looks of it, it was Durrës all over again, settling in for a second bout of Thunder v Lightning. If I didn't know better, I could be forgiven for thinking that this trip was really doomed! 

Thankfully by 8pm the storm had passed over and Sunday was obviously late opening for every restaurant there. I was told to come back in 30 mins, an hour,  so meandered around the city quite happily, if hungrily. I kept meeting a colourful and noisy band which was rather random; they seemed to be playing to every Virgin Mary shrine in the place. I hope she appreciated it, I certainly did. Heading back to the first place I had tried, there was a warm welcome. Cheese, wine, meaty ears - there was a calorie explosion of the best type. And for the first time since Macedonia I ate heartily. 

I quite like Bari and, as I shall continue, the small city of Lecce. Bari has a relaxed, civilised charm, with glorious designer shopping for those that way inclined. I'd definitely go back. But Italy has really lost its charm for me - I've never really thought about Italian warmth because when you're going round Florence, Rome, Venice, centuries of tourism has taken its toll. You're just another visitor, no matter how friendly you are. Croatia easily beats Italy in terms of friendly acceptance. Croatia, your people are gems. 

Addendum. I've just arrived back in Dubrovnik told the passport man I loved him and burst into tears! Now the cafe is playing klapa - Daaaalmacija!! 

Thursday, 22 September 2016

To Durrës and beyond

Some travel posts are harder to write than others. Words flow when you relive incredible experiences because they have enriched your view of the world. But sometimes when you've been challenged it takes longer to process what has happened and perhaps you just want to forget some stuff! I started this from the comfort of Trenitalia's regionale service Bari to Lecce - without back pain - a comfortable train which departed at a time convenient to me. And I'm finishing it lying in bed after a restful time in Puglia. 

So Durrës. Despite being unable to hobble more than a few kilometres, thankfully I managed to see some of the town. My first afternoon I got as far as the port to check out where I'd be going the following day, and more importantly obtained some money. Again - same in Macedonia - I failed to check the exchange rate so stood at the machine looking blankly at the numbers. 3000 seemed low-mid range. Pizza and a coke turned out to be 200 lek, so I felt quite rich. I shuffled back to the apartment to eat on my balcony and enjoy the warmth. Sadly, that afternoon and evening I did nothing more interesting than read, have a very hot shower, and retreat into sleep. What can I say, I had been invited out by my hostess but my back had defeated me. 

The next day I tentatively tried again. There was a little improvement but I remained cautious as I was already anxious about the 10 hour ferry journey later that evening. It was a glorious day and remembering the bakery I saw the previous day, I was suddenly famished. Once again, I ventured out of the apartment block, which was having serious amounts of noisy building work done, and slowly went down the hill towards the main street. This time I was happy to admire the impressive remains of the Roman forum, and then get distracted by a coffee shop with a beautiful sunny garden. 

I joined the locals enjoying their leisurely Saturday morning, and ordered a coffee, it was a perfect hour or so. Finally hunger drove me across the road and I got drinking yogurt, cheese burek, a small cake and some focaccia for later on. With my picnic I meandered down to the sea front so I could take in the air. 

Oh. 

Another distraction before consuming breakfast with the discovery a huge amphitheatre. Although bigger than the one in Ohrid, it wasn't in quite the same state of repair. As it happens, and purely by accident, this trip could have been billed as a Roman entertainment odyssey, as there was another incredible theatre in Lecce. Like Ohrid's, Lecce's was also set up for events. These elegant buildings are extraordinary and I really hope that Durrës gets around to making use of the space there. 

Finally reaching the large expanse of concrete which constitutes the parade, I perched on a wall. Not because there were no seats, just I didn't want to aggravate my already complaining nerve. I munched my salty pastry and pulled faces at the yogurt. Fruit or plain are the only acceptable options, and this one was salty. My breakfast was like a bucket of sea water. Still, at least the architecture was something to behold. The ugly rawness of this place has to be seen to be believed and I'm actually keen to go back there and relive it. The beach was covered in evil smelling brown residue, and the abandoned dismantled summer attractions provided a suitably macabre colour. 

Frankly it suited exactly how I felt. 

I watched the men hauling in their fishing nets, thigh deep in the murky water. The comparison to my other Adriatic fishermen was profound. How can this even be the same sea? What the hell are they thinking, why is this place in such a state? The islanders spend so much time protecting and worrying about their environment, and yet a few hundred miles south, they are dragging nets through filth, catching plastic and unidentifiable detritus. 

I turned sadly away from these workers, via a surreal square containing bronze statues of Tina Turner, Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger. What!? There was also a real man in too much denim sat there but I don't think he was a rock great. I continued on and went in search of non-salt based snacks for later.  Peaches and bananas were perfect antidotes, and I spent an afternoon resting and dozing on the sofa with the radio. Pain is such a helpless feeling, and there wasn't a thing I could do about it. 

Four hours or so before ferry check in - yes, my confirmation said I had to be there - my lovely hostess came to consult me about a lift to the port. She was so disbelieving of this timing, she called and spoke with her friend who also scoffed at it. We decided to wait another couple of hours. Excellent, I had time to go sample food at the nearest restaurant. After all I'd not eaten properly since Macedonia - the pain from my back had kindly referred itself to my stomach. 

The weather had other ideas. By the time I had got myself ready to set out, the storm had arrived. And the rain was lashing down; for the next two hours I had prime amphitheatre style seats for a gladiatorial tussle between thunder and lightning. It was terrifying and awesome in equal parts, terrifying mainly because 1. I had to go out in it later and 2. Was it going to be a repeat of the Šipan no-electricity-for-12-hours drama? Would the port shut? When my hostess turned up she looked concerned. The traffic was spectacular, she said, and the main roads had turned into rivers. 

Why me?

Heroically she got me to the port, the town square was now essentially a water feature. Security on the port gate weren't interested in us, and we drove straight in and immediately we joined the hellish queue of traffic. Everyone was trying to get to the terminal building to avoid the rain and it was chaotic. She abandoned the car with all the others and came into the building with me. The check in had been affected by a power cut and we were on emergency generators. If I'd thought to panic, I might have started... 

With a hug from my last friend on the planet, I went through security and passport control. I didn't think to get a stamp for my passport, sadly. So there I was, painfully stood with a mass of people, some just clutching small bags, others with what looked like entire households. Actually including their carpets...this is surely what Armageddon feels like. I had no idea what was next, as people were heading in random dribs and drabs through the rain to the ferry. I wasn't even sure I had a ticket at this point, let alone which of the two ships it was. 

After about an hour, no one around me had moved. Drastic action was needed. I weaved through the crowd, out of the shelter, avoided the articulated lorries, and braved the ferry ramp. When I was finally noticed, I was told I was on the wrong metal tub. Biting back tears, I went back out into the rain and over to the other one. I was waved up the steps and up into the dry safety of the passenger decks. 

It turns out that people had already boarded and there were no banks of seats on which to lie down. No, I hadn't booked a cabin because I'm stupid. To my horror, more people continued to pour on, and every available piece of floor space was filing. Not giving a damn now, I collapsed between some chairs, and claimed my 5 foot spot. I lay there and drifted in and out of sleep until about 4am, exhausting my comforting stash of podcasts. The bright lights, wooden floor and hubbub made for an interesting night. 

I gave up, staggered upright  and went to get a drink. I forgot the word for coffee in every language. A kind gentleman at the bar who was clearly a more seasoned traveller than I ordered a caffe latte for me, which baffled the barman. I think he was only used to doing espressos for Albanians. I headed out on deck with my perfect coffee to join the chain smokers, to watch the sun come up. 

The beauty of which made the entire exhausting trip worthwhile. It was a new day 




Saturday, 17 September 2016

Bussed and bust!

In true British style, I would like to apologise to the people and city of Durrës in Albania. It turns out that you can't travel all night on a bus with a dicky sciatic nerve without some serious consequences. Either that or I'm out of practice at being up all night. After nearly 15 hours sleep and some serious bed rest yesterday, I realise now that getting off at the wrong bus stop in Durrës was probably the least dangerous thing that could have happened. I was certainly in no fit state to run away from trouble, let alone try to explain where I wanted to be! But the exhaustion and pain does mean that I've missed some of the city's classical architectural highlights, evidence of recent struggles, and certainly not done it justice. Once again it's tapas tourism, with a promise to return to this incredible European/non-European country, preferably with company. 

I left Ohrid reluctantly; mostly because of its beauty, but partly due to the 3.30am start. Yes I know, again no rest for the wicked. Sensibly opting for a taxi to the bus station, I had already checked that there was an actual real life bus. Balkans and the Internet are not necessarily reliable witnesses and I was assured that there was a 4.30 bus. I arrived and the taxi driver assumed I was off to Skopje. Dumping my bags I waited. And waited. The ticket office opened and I asked for a ticket for the bus to Durrës. 

What 4.30am bus?

Suppressing an eye roll, I enquired if/when it went. 4.50am. Ok, that I can live with. Carefully stowing my ticket, I went to the waiting room and joined the diverse bunch of people there. Someone asked me when the next bus to Skopje was...another lady asked if I was going to Tirana airport. It must be the air of resigned painful calm on my face that screams 'librarian'! I got chatting with the lady going to the airport because she was on the same bus as me. Finally a minibus/people carrier turned up and the two of us got on board. 

The red neon and gold glittery bus interior barely registered as I collapsed across the back seat. The lady was horrified, and immediately offered paracetamol and ensured my bags were on board. Every. Single. Bump. From Macedonia to Albania went through that nerve and I was pretty much shrieking inside. As I relaxed into the pain and the tablets kicked in, I was able to hold a slight conversation with her. She was heading back to Istanbul after a holiday travelling around the region without her family. Blissful, she said! We talked about London and life, and the unwise judging of people by nationality. 

The border crossing happened, and she held her breath, anticipating issues due to her Turkish passport. We could have been there 3 mins or 3 hours, I think I fell asleep again. All must have been well because we reached our Albanian coffee/loo stop, and I eased myself out of the spangly red cocoon. There was discussion as to where this bus was going and it turns out we were diverting miles to Durrës because of me.  Otherwise they could have gone direct to Tirana. 

Oh. 

As we clambered back on, there was rapid discussion and I was told to get off. The other van at the stop - which happened to belong to the company that I'd emailed the previous day - contained passengers that were going to Durrës. So I was hustled aboard this one, bags popped in the back, yelled at for a ticket, and I waved, boggling, to my friend. This bus was definitely not glistening, it was thoroughly basically and had seen many many miles of mountain road. We took off in a cloud of oil, and I closed my eyes against the dubious overtaking, radio fiddling, and left it all to the hands of fate. 

I think I'm now done with buses for this trip. There will be a train in Italy but my next mode of transport is ferry, so I only have a couple of massive international ports to negotiate. What could be more simple!? 







Friday, 16 September 2016

Overwhelmed in Ohrid

I left you in Kotor wondering if I was going to get out of there, and whether a bus would arrive. The suspense was maintained for at least another half hour, before it turned up; clearly late because it had come straight out of the 1970s. Comfort, style, fashion - all of those buses were going elsewhere. Still, there were no annoying chaps, it was quiet, clean and I was on my way. I'd actually had a very pleasant time in Kotor, a lovely lady called Tracy had given me use of her shower so I was fresh for the 10 hours. We'd shared a beer and compared Balkan notes so it just goes to show that delays whilst travelling aren't necessarily all bad. 

All things considered the journey wasn't bad. Not for the faint hearted, delicate, or easily tired. Which is why I arrived in Ohrid feeling like a teddy bear which had been through a spin cycle. My first experience of Albania was endless curling mountain roads, a bright moon, a dark sky and cold which froze the breath. On a 2am comfort break, one touching episode was the kindness of people on the bus to a polite dog; clearly famished, quivering and nervous he hoovered up every crumb of bread offered. The other memorable episode was the kind Singaporean promising to hold the bus for me as I was last in the queue for the loo - the sympathetic look he gave me when he came out of there told me everything about the cleanliness. Character building...and germs are good, right?! 

My presence on the bus was clearly a matter of some debate and I'm not sure if a bet was won or lost. A lady, who was returning to Ohrid from a holiday in Montenegro asked me where I was from, and a number of people said 'aaaah' in that relieved 'we would never have guessed' way. My new colouring is confusing everyone, not to mention an ability to be friendly. Not a normal Brit apparently. Ok so my warmth didn't extend as far as hugging the guy at an Ohrid garage/service station, but the open and clean toilet was incredibly welcome. 'Gdje je WC' is pretty much the best Croatian/Macedonian I've ever learnt. 

Where was I? Ah yes Macedonia.  Don't be fooled by the Albanian excursion, it's better than coming to Macedonia via Kosovo, so I'm told. It was 5am by the dark deserted bus station, on a wide main road in a strange country. I had no idea where I was going and I was being pestered about a room by an elderly man on a bicycle. Armed with my best 'ne hvala, imam sobi' and google maps I headed into the old part of town. Inevitably the winding roads on the map translated into a steep climb, and a walk through a quiet park. I paused at the top; the pink light was coming over the hills and a call to prayer sounded up from the new town. I was later to discover that these three-hundred-year old mosques were mere new comers to the religious mix of the town. The dreamy atmosphere of the place would have been very much in evidence, even without the sleepless high I was experiencing. 

I entered the town through the ancient and very narrow stone gate, and the fortress rose up to the right of me. A man sweeping the streets looked as if he knew the area and I asked him the whereabouts of 27a ulica ilidenska... again I thanked the language fairies for being able to understand his answer. My host was thankfully waiting for my message as I was arrived and he welcomed me and made coffee. This was the start of a firm friendship, once again, the warmth of people was to leave me totally charmed. After promising me a tour of the city, and pointing out the 4th century basilica mosaics unearthed at the end of his tiny street, he left me to fall face down on the biggest bed I've ever seen. 

The sciatic nerve which had been brewing a storm for a few days finally broke that morning and it has made anxiety of the non-arrival of buses fade into the background. In short, it's been agony for the past 24 hours, leaving me enjoying ibruprofen inspired sofa rest all yesterday morning. I was supposed to be in Durrës but frankly I was going nowhere. My kind host wouldn't let me stay on my own in misery, and after a trip to the colourful food market for fruit, invited me to make myself as comfortable as possible whilst he mended a load of iPhones. I chortled at him as he performed delicate operations on dead technology, saying he was destroying my illusions of what was inside my phone. Surely it's all witchcraft, not shiny odd shaped parts?

However for that first day, it didn't stop me from enjoying a slap up brunch with mandatory homemade rakija, walking all around the captivating little town, getting a proposal of marriage from an elderly guy in speedos on the beach, climbing King Samuel's 10th century fortress, talking opera and Prodigy in the ancient amphitheatre, admiring the truly astonishing newly cleaned frescos in St Mary Peribleptos, and boggling over the recently unearthed mosaics from the early Christian era. 

All I can say is, if you enjoyed Pompeii, Macedonia has its very own smaller version and it's just as impressive and well worth a visit. Finally hunger and thirst caught up with us, and over beer (for me) and Italian brandy (for him) I said I felt guilty for keeping him out site-seeing all afternoon. Apparently he doesn't have many guests that are art history- music- archeology- culture- foody- nuts  so he was just happy to see someone fall for the town he also loves. 

That evening was unwisely for my back  - in hindsight  - spent on a high stool in a cool bar. However nothing can detract from the feeling of this place; the ancient spirits of nature have been here for thousands of years. The classical mosaics whispered of the wild and domestic animals that lived here and were a part of everyday life. The goats, pigeons, pheasants, wild cats, horses, deer, and of course, the fish. Although the landscape has seen such terrible human struggles, still the mountains and water teem with life that is as familiar today as it was then. Everyone should experience the sun setting over Lake Ohrid just once in their lives, and just say thank you for the experience. That's clearly why there are so many churches here... 

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Homeless in Kotor

So one of my worst fears realised, I was homeless in Kotor. It was as if the calm I'd imbibed of the island was being tested - how long would it take before my heart rate increased? Heading into town, I saw a sign for rentals and apartments and popped in. A lovely lady offered me a place for €40 which would make this the most expensive place of my trip. 

Damn. 

I was directed to the office at the town gate and she said there were cheaper options available. The annoying man on the bus - there is alway one who talks loudly, takes phones calls, and tells strangers his life story - was in front of me. He rented a place for €45 a night which didn't reassure me. Luckily the woman got my measure and marked on the map a hostel in the Old Town. 

A hostel!

I went to investigate. There was a dorm bed at €13 + €6 for dinner. The guys at reception were helpful and confirmed there was no way into Macedonia that evening. Using the wifi I investigated carrying on to Budva but, you know, it was so tempting to consider sleeping in a dorm. I haven't done that since I was on a school trip to Germany. What could go wrong? So I opted for a top bunk, dumped my stuff, realised I had no nightie, shrugged and wandered into town. 

It was beer-o-clock. As I was wandering through the town I came to a pretty square containing the Cat Museum. Over lunch today I've discovered that there used to be a girls' boarding school here so it was completely closed off at one time. The name of the cafe - Ombra - is a reference to the beautiful plane tree in the middle of the square. It was planted in 1667 to commemorate the devastating earthquake. The sun is currently greenly shining through the leaves and brightening the grey stoned buildings and pavings. 

After a soothing beer I was ready to meander down to the sea to work up an appetite for dinner at 8. The weather was looking a little uncertain but it was nice to be out and about with time to kill. I stopped to read a boat trip sign and was accosted by a gentleman. Apparently there was a speed boat waiting for me...I hate to disappoint, so I joined two French people on a ride around the bay. Given I'd saved a fortune on the room, €15 for a couple of hours seemed OK. We went out to St Mary of the Rocks and it was suitably somber and quiet, made more atmospheric by the storm rolling in from the mountains. It was given colour by one young American who was waxing lyrical about a white chocolate/strawberry magnum which is only available in Europe. She talked about it non-stop for all the time I was in earshot. Oh to be young and vacuous again! 

We jumped back in the boat and headed back over the darkening sea; skilfully the pilot skirted the clouds and drove us under a rainbow. We waited for the storm to pass around us and he apologised for the speed he was going to have to do to get home. The rain felt like darts on the skin - it was brilliantly invigorating. The mountains above the town truly showed their majesty. And we weren't too wet thankfully. 

I headed home to a remarkably quiet dorm and made my bed ready. Turns out you have to make a list if you're on a top bunk and mildly forgetful; water, phone, charger, bathroom. After I'd climbed up and down several times, I was happy to just chill before going down for dinner. Potluck was roast chicken, vegetable rice, cabbage and bread. Very tasty it was too. I was joined by a cat and two lovely German ladies and we nattered happily until it started to get noisy in the dining room. 

The gentlemen were in full swing and had started a loud drinking game. Frankly this was our cue for going to bed...the jollities of the town, combined with the music downstairs meant that the hubbub in the first floor dorm was fantastic. It was at that background level which I find it easily to be lulled to sleep by. Odd, but better than sudden loud noise in the quiet. That was to happen later when a couple of very drunk guys came in, and when two persistent morning alarms went off. I was inwardly chuckling at what the Furious Bad Tempered One would do to the inconsiderate pissheads. But overall the sleeping experience wasn't that bad. Maybe that's the island calm? 

Over lunch today, I was briefly joined by an elderly Norwegian man and I told him about my stranded night. He was a hostel veteran because they are generally more convivial to solo travellers. He queried a mixed dorm but it hadn't even crossed my mind. It had felt perfectly safe; at midnight I'd been chatting to a local guy who the hostel employed as a guide. It seemed normal to have the usual 'pub' chat about the history of the place, politics, seasonal lifestyle, lack of opportunities for young people, then say good night, and go to respective bunks. People were remarkably relaxed, and I would definitely stay here again. 

I could say this place left me climbing the walls. And it truly did! After visiting this place for the third time, I finally climbed up to St John's Fortress, and it was incredible. In hindsight I wish I'd gone up there earlier to avoid the crowds and see what would have been an incredible sunrise but, still, next time! As a reward for lunch I ordered some fries, and whiled away the afternoon on a sofa in the hostel living room. I'm actually looking forward to getting on this infernal bus just to get some sleep! 

Let's see what happens.. 

More fictional plans

The thrilling night of no electricity will have to wait for its moment in the light for a bit longer because I'm on a jaunt. I've promised myself a bit of travelling all summer but held off until now because it's cheaper, less crowded and I've been busily testing Šipan's beaches. It's been an amazingly relaxed few months but it's time to bestir myself in preparation for a London visit in October. So what better way than a whistle-stop tour of south-east Europe?

I was having a moment of fear and indecision on Saturday. I had all the relevant computer windows open and all it needed was the first step: that initial bus from Dubrovnik to Kotor. And once I had the place in Ohrid booked then I was fully committed to getting there so late the next evening, it was basically morning. According to the online timetable*.  Precisely why I was avoiding Tirana which doesn't even have a bus station. I've never done a late night scary transport terminus alone. The elegant Kings Cross/St Pancras one late night for 2 hours doesn't count because there was a Starbucks and a lady with whom to natter. And in Roma Centrale and St Petersburg I was with people. So I wasn't doing a random street in a city I don't know. 

So anyway my fears boiled down to -  what if I missed the connections? What if even coastal touristy Albania was too scary? What if the ferry ports were too confusing? And worst of all, what if I was overcome by nauseating baroque-itis in Lecce? Basically I was nervous about leaving my safe island bubble, which has become a kind of 'life detox' place, and I was thinking of every excuse possible not to go. And I'd made chocolate brownies...

After a stern talking to by a travel addict friend I took the laptop by the horns and formulated a plan. Because some of the logistics were complicated - some overnight travel - I downloaded a nifty little app called TripHobo and started booking rooms and ferries. The plan is to go from Dubrovnik to Kotor, and that same day overnight Kotor to Lake Ohrid. Then after a couple of days chilling, on to Durrës on Albania to see a different seaside town and also so I could get the ferry to Bari. I've never been to the heel of Italy so a quick jaunt to Lecce, Florence of the south sounds fab. I thought this would be better than just getting a bus back from Ohrid to Dubrovnik via Skopje. Ferries are fun and I would be straight back to Dubrovnik from Bari. Anyway in summary it is a reasonably ambitious schedule for a 12 day trip. And it was a plan which is scary in itself. 

This morning I fell pretty much at the first hurdle. To be honest it might even have been last night. I've been helping the landlord with some cleaning and to say thank you he took me out for pizza. He'd offered me fish but pizza meant a screechingly exciting scooter ride across the island, so no brainer! He turned up at 8pm and was horrified at my inability to pack. Or wash up. Or be in anyway ready. He continued being horrified as I made free with the Tabasco, and then ordered rum and coke. Good job he didn't see the pre road trip champagne shenigans... 

As we got home I remembered my bus ticket and ferry confirmation needed printing. Problem. His printer had no ink. Fine, there must be an Internet point in Dubrovnik bus station you can**. I continued packing, put things ready, set the alarm for 6am, and collapsed into bed in a pizza/beer/rum stupor. No I still hadn't washed up but I had put the brownie and emergency paprika crisps in my backpack. Priorities. To my horror the alarm woke me up as requested and I completed the general clearing up, legging it down to the car ferry with 10 mins to spare. For the first time ever I lay down on one of the seats and fell asleep! I was so bewildered when we docked I got lost at the ferry port and found myself wandering up to a massive cruise ship. That wasn't right...

Turns out you can't print your tickets at the bus station. So I turned around and went back to my favourite cafe which has an information point next door; this is what happens when you deviate from the norm. And go out without caffeine. After finally drinking coffee and waiting til 9am when they opened, I spoke to a nice chap who managed to get evernote to talk to his printer. I had a ticket! I returned to the bus station and rearranged my bags. At 10am sharp we were off, and I was looking forward to a pleasant afternoon in Kotor. The next leg of the journey would hopefully commence at 7pm

As promised and expected the landscape of this region always leaves me gasping. The road hugging the coast is incredible and worth the price of the ticket alone. The last time I was here the weather was indifferent so it was lovely to see the sun twinkling off the bay. We arrived and I retrieved my overly large backpack, then popped over to the ticket office. 

Dobar dan. Molim Vas jednu kartu u Ohridu. Jedan smjer. 

Hahahaha! Oh how the travel gods laughed and mocked my optimism and pronounciation. She showed me the screen and it was blank. No buses today as the winter timetable had kicked in. So here I was in one of the most expensive cities in the region, my beautiful accomodation 10 hours away, with only a few euros to spare. 

Bugger. 

*Fiction. Lies. Perfidious bastarding timetable. 
**Dubrovnik. Seriously sort this out!!

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Another welcome visitor to Suđurađ

Dubrovnik Shoes
The island is pretty much the centre of my universe, and so my capacity for excitement has perhaps shrunk to fit a slightly smaller place. Outsiders may feel that bowling competitions, film festivals, klapa concerts, saints' day processions, tiny classical concerts, and good pizza is perhaps stretching the definition of 'excitement' too far. I notice when the local bench is repositioned, the seasonal changing of the field's fragrance and, like every other local, roll eyes at the weekly youthful Antipodean incursions who enjoy very loud music and occasionally ring the church bell at 3am.
 
So when friends visit I like to push the boat out for them. As it were. All visitors here are subjected to hours on ferries! As you've read there is usually wonderful swimming and incredible beaches, long hot walks in the fields, early morning kayaking, hours of paddle boarding, and really lovely food. Louise was no exception and I'd been planning for her arrival for a few weeks. She adores Croatia and so was really looking forward to the trip. She was coming in to Dubrovnik to see me especially, before flying up to the bright lights of Zagreb a few days later. Last time I saw her, we had both ended up there but I wasn't going to be persuaded this time.
 
I had the usual early morning start to greet my guest, with the treat of coffee and a fresh bun. We corresponded with each other from our respective modes of transport; me from the bus station, to her on wifi in the sky, and we had already starting laughing. Apparently one of her suitcase was looking forward to being pulled by aunty Clare. As her cases are legendary for their mischievous antics, I was already regretting not bringing a muzzle and ankle guards. My rucksack was already full as I'd picked up some extra essential bits from konzum. Deodorant, for instance. Not to mention crisps and wine.
 
Considering we'd had so little sleep - 3am start for her - we were surprisingly chipper and had a sunny journey back to mine. Given I have so much sun cream at home, she hadn't brought any so fair skin was already starting to glow on the ferry. The cases had already caused a commotion and were busy chasing other patrons. As we arrived into Suđurađ, and hauled everything past the bar, the big one must have caught a whiff of previous parties and ran over her toe in its hurry to order a round of Sambuca shots. Naughty case.
 
Finally with a little help from landlord senior we were soon in my little flat making a cup of tea. And checking out Jenny's abandoned beach shoes...no joy there as they were a little large. We chilled out on the terrace with some melon and peaches and just enjoyed the tranquillity. I demonstrated the local way to deal with wasps *SHOOOOO*. Then she spotted one of the best insects I've ever seen. Climbing the grape picking ladder, we watched him for ages wondering how we could help him, as frankly he was going nowhere. A ceramic plate didn't work but we were able to coax him onto a piece of paper and then on to the bamboo screen. We assumed he would head up to the safety of the vines.
 
We finally hit the town beach where, without Adriatic Sea shoes, pebbles are a little pebbly. It was good to stretch and refresh after a day of travelling. Before I can assure Marija that my guests are kayak safe, I like to see them swim! We paddled around for a bit, then diet talk made us think about food. So whilst she went for a shower I prepared stuffed peppers, which take a couple of hours to cook. In the meantime the stupid insect was waving precariously at a seagull. We left him to it. I was hazily aware that the weather could turn nasty at the start of the week so suggested we make the most of the evening sunshine. We put on appropriate footwear and went up to my favourite look out to see the sunset. The timing was perfect - the lighting effects were spectacular.
 
After swimming and hill climbing, the hearty peppers were welcome, and washed down with a glass of white they were suitably local and tasty. We enjoyed the sounds of the evening, discussed a Sunday 'plan of action' and decided on a short post-dinner stroll. We were accosted by a young gentleman who offered to buy us drinks. This place is fabulously friendly! By 10.30pm we were all falling asleep - middle aged party animals - and looking forward to an action packed day of walking, paddle boarding, food and laughter. As the weather forecast was doubtful we also had contingency plans for baking and make-up practice but that is another story.
 
Oh and we still had Adriatic Sea shoes to track down.

Friday, 2 September 2016

Change of mind, change of growth and what to do when the sand runs out?

My body aches. A 26 hour labour and five epidurals later I was given a child. I looked into my husband's eyes which welled with satisfaction and completeness. This was our child! On 6th of August 2010 at 9.28am I was declared a parent. I knew that after  nine months of carrying him, I was sure to love him and look forward to cuddles, not so much the lack of sleep but the love I would give him would be indescribable.

So why did I feel empty?

He was so innocent; he looked at me, he looked in my eyes with longing. He was new to this world and needed care and protection. He was how I felt - extremely vulnerable. For the next two nights I desperately tried to feed him, for 18 hours straight. I was doing it right, I wasn't holding him right, I was just inept at being a mother! When the nurse finally came round, they eventually realised that he had tongue tie. The tongue had fused to the bottom of his palette, not allowing him a good suckling motion.

After three days, 4 variants of catheters later, and one to go home with for three weeks, I was told I could leave. Chris (my husband) clambered in with all sorts of excitable goodies with which to lavish him. Car seat being a priority obviously. We loaded the tiny thing into this mechanical transporter and my dad arrived with his own form of mechanical device to take "us" home.

By this point, the bewilderment of one minute having a growing something inside myself, to now having a real breathing screaming - screaming did I mention screaming? - somebody now sat next to me was dawning.

23 years old and the oldest out of my siblings to become a parent, still felt like my innocence was stolen. You see, I was never given a childhood. I had a hard testing upbringing, for which perseverance had become my life-line and friend. My innocence was stolen from a young age, and my eyes had witnessed horrific events that could never be erased. There was never a device to quite literally take your eyes from your head and wash away hurt and pain. If the eyes were truly the gateway to the soul then mine had become broken.

What does this have to do with a baby, right?

Well I never loved mine, not straight away! It became quite apparent that a week in to being "mummy" my main priority was cleaning. I had just been told, after the fourth rush back into hospital, that I had gall stones and would need my gall bladder removed. Great, so not only was I now incontinent but I now needed surgery! Twenty minutes of sleep in a week and manically cleaning became my obsession.

I knew how to clean, I knew how to make everything sterile, I knew how to make everything safe! Safe enough so that this thing didn't die on my watch. Every few seconds I would go in to make sure it was breathing. Chris became the father he was destined to be. He was kind, he was caring, he was affectionate and endearing, all the qualities I lacked. I turned into a mechanical robot trying to preserve a life, terrified I might kill it.

The thing was, I  was terrified of the responsibility, terrified of the uncertainty,  terrified to love.
I had spent most of my life wishing to be dead, and now something needed me, depended on me, to live. Needless to say my behaviour didn't go unnoticed. A crisis mental health team were called in and I was carted off to hospital!

Instead of me checking it, someone was checking me. Ten minute checks to make sure I hadn't hanged myself became normal after the 5th check. It was inevitable. They gave me 800mg of Quitiapine and 400mg of sertraline and after a week or two, they were happy that I had stopped calling my baby "it". He had a name: Reuben.

And it is a wonderful name.

After what seemed like an eternity I was getting better, resuming night feeds and learning to look at my baby. I was told I had post partum psychosis and was bi-polar. Ok, what did that mean? I never really found out, all I knew was that it meant some kind of mood disorder! As I learned more, and found out about my illness, my medication changed and I became more stable. Correctional surgery was given and after spending countless therapy sessions, of talking and helpful strategies I started to feel like a mum!

By the time Reuben was one-year old, I came to love him. I never really understood love, but my child everyday showed me what it really meant to love somebody unconditionally. He wasn't aware of my affliction or pain, all he knew was that a cuddle from me and a kiss on the hand meant he trusted me enough to slip blissfully into a protected sleep and dream.

He turned 6 a couple of weeks ago!

It now breaks my heart he is growing up so fast. It took along time for me to realise how much I could love this boy, and by god, I would kill anyone that tried to hurt him! I can not turn back the clock, I can only wish that I could have been the perfect mum. But a few words from him "you're the bestest mum" melt my heart and touch my soul more than anyone will ever know.

I love you, Reuben.

You are my world!