Can you believe it? I certainly can’t! I bid you ‘sleep well’ on my 500th night

Forgive the turn of phrase but f*** me, 500 days!  It should come as to no surprise that I’ve loved the past 500 days travelling.  This has been one very long scratch of my itchy feet; I love the planning, the arriving, the exploring and then moving on to the next place.  It’s not for everyone but it makes me happy!

Without a doubt, there have been bad days.  Thankfully and invariably limited to 1st world issues such as bad weather, poor sleep or wi-fi withdrawal symptoms. I relatively quickly ‘get a grip’.  Only 1 major sickness (D and V in a hostel is not fun) due to a Scottish curry of all things!  Weirdly I’ve experienced many aches and pains from a neck issue [except a neck pain ;-)] which I’m 100% sure is due to the many beds I rest my head, hunching over a laptop and carrying the backpack.  Oh and let’s not forget the extra pounds I’ve put on from ‘feeder’ help exchange hosts.  Of course, I was force fed the cheese and the chocolate!  I sent for more… I mean help.

Where on earth have I been?  Not holed up in a bedsit in Croydon stealing photos from the internet I promise.  Here are a few facts and figures:

Where have I stayed longest/visited the most….. drum roll, please.  Poland is the winner!  I kept going back for more; a country that surprised me.  Much more developed, exciting yet easy to explore, relaxing, green, and welcoming than any stereotype I may have subconsciously created.  82 days equals almost 3 months; sounds crazy when I rephrase it.  Check out the photos!  Wroclaw and Gdansk especially recommended – I’ll be going back very soon I hope.

I fell in love with part of my own country, the Outer Hebrides are spectacular.  White sand beaches for 1, in the UK, the UK!  A total of 62 days in Scotland.

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I was lucky enough to spend a month or so in each: Austria, Greece, Czech Republic, Portugal, Hungary, France, Italy and where I am now – Malta & Gozo.  I am in country number 22 since leaving London on Monday 5th June 2017.  I still have to pinch myself that I have been able to achieve this and explore Europe to such a degree.

I could not have stayed on the road for this long had it not been for the wonders of help exchange – I cannot recommend it enough!  I give a little of my time [average is 25 hours a week] and energy in exchange for a bed and food.   243 days to date – think for a minute how much of a money-saving that is.  Two of the most expensive costs when travelling – food and shelter – and no one can be a tourist every day!  It’s just not possible to keep the pace.

I relied heavily on my background and stuck primarily to hospitality – reception, housekeeping, social media, and marketing.  In no particular order, the fabulous places I volunteered in Scotland, Wales and North England.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed exploring places that are on my doorstep.

Throw in over 50 days of conversational English tutoring with people who love to learn, in gorgeous Polish and Czech surroundings with cheap, deliciously tasty red wine.  That was 243 days of my time ‘well spent’.

All but two of my help exchanges were brilliant.  About 10 days too long in both the yoga retreat and the Athens’ hostel; that’s not bad odds really.  Sometimes things just don’t gel.

I do kick myself that I didn’t take photos of my fantastic hosts from all of my volunteering, another reason to return.  Little did I know that 3 of my volunteer locations would also be ‘on the telly’!  Watch 2 of the Chateau des Jalesnes’ hosts Jonathon and Michael in Channel 4’s Escape to the Chateau: DIY.  Stunning!

Château-de-Jalesnes

Graham and Sonia from Loch Ness Glamping had fun in Series 8 of Channel 4’s Four in a Bed (episodes of 21-25) – hilarious viewing however strangely offline currently so alternatively this video shows you how fantastic the site is, worth a visit!

 

bamfordlogoLastly, The Anglers Rest has featured in so many media platforms and yet I cannot find one video!  BBC One Show, BBC Breakfast, BBC Radio 5 just to name drop a few.

The rest of the time I was in recovery or tourist mode, most of the latter you see in my active insta-fakebook-life… follow me 🙂

Places I highly recommend you investigate next time you’re holiday shopping – Budapest, Lisbon, Nuremberg, Cesky Krumlov, Prague… I could go on.  Places I just didn’t click with – Paris, Innsbruck, Rotterdam.  It would be suspicious if I loved every city and town I visited.

At the moment, I’m sunning myself next to the pools above, well, when the thunderstorms pass.  Topping up the tan at any moment the glowing yellow ball in the sky shows up.  I’m back in London from last week in November, who knows what will be next!  But for now, night night, sleep tight, on my 500th night.

 

Whatever your daydream… if I can do it, you can do it!

I’m back in the UK over 5 weeks now.  How?  What?  When did that happen?  How to describe this feeling, it’s surely unique.  Returning first to London and then Redditch, the latter being the place I grew up during teenage years and excessive twenties but I couldn’t say I’m fond of the place.  Hilarious timing that I returned on my 20 year anniversary of purchasing and moving into a Redditch maisonette, now bricks and mortar that my tenant calls home.  To add to that, I am staying at my parents for the festive season in one of the bedrooms I had as a child; yes, I called 3 different rooms mine during my teens – the nomadic trait started early.  My detachment from this red brick town accentuates the part of me that still wants to be somewhere foreign.  I’m torn.

However.  It was right to return to the UK, not only because the money tree was ever so bare, nay stripped of bark, but also to avoid the travelling experience becoming a chore. How could exploring anywhere across the water be a bore? I’m an addict, but uh oh, it was a bittersweet realisation that when I recently stared open-mouthed, captivated by the gorgeous tiled walls of Milan’s immense train station that I had seen something as beautiful before, something as stunning…. but wait a minute, where was it?

That was the eye-opener, it had happened a couple of times already in the last 6 months but not so obvious. It felt wrong to be in this position. I have seen A LOT. I have hundreds of photos and a handful of videos but now I wish I had thousands of both. It was all so wonderful and I don’t want to forget. I am so so lucky, not everyone has the opportunity to do what I achieved.  I do not want to complain about seeing so much that things are, erm, a little confused… #awkward.

I was horizontal at my last help exchange volunteering in Gozo, a relaxed housekeeping gig in a bed and breakfast with only 5 bedrooms during the quietest period of their low season.  A couple of hours to potter around cleaning then the afternoons and evenings to myself.  It was island life personified. 6 weeks of winter sun, 23-degree rays in between thunderstorms, but not truthfully the temperature for all the iced coffee, cake and Spanish siestas I so easily indulged in.

Following a couple of recommendations to north Italy, I love love loved my last 3 destinations.  Thank you to Ryanair for the low fares even if your new luggage/priority rules are simply a money making exercise and nothing to do with better service.  I highly recommend Lake Como, Verona and BergamoMilan, not so hot for me but the obvious is true, if you love shops then you’ll love it too.  Side note the train fares between these locations: less than £35.  Go on, for me, try train travel, it’s easy to book and very relaxing.  A refreshing contrast to Malta and Gozo and the epitome of Italy.

I was getting a little antsy though, imagine the one mini-Rowan on a shoulder whispering in an ear “Hmm, am I sure I cannot squeeze one more country in?” and the other fruitlessly shaking a purse upside down.  Those Spanish siestas hadn’t earned me any coppers.

By chance, Christmas is a perfectly different time to return, a unique month unlike the other 11 of the year.  That said, when I arrived at Liverpool Street Station in London, my timing coincided with the day’s homeward bound peak.  The familiarity of place can take me back in time so immediately it messes with my body clock and memories. Those 18 months did happen! I remember the:

1 spooky cigarette smelling night train from Budapest to Bucharest
1 rocky overnight ferry from Belfast to Liverpool
1 bout of D&V caused by a dodgy Scottish curry
1 hostel check-in missed
1 hacked credit card and 1 hacked debit card but no money lost
1 flight booked for the wrong date – numpty
2 train tickets for the same journey – double numpty
2 stinking colds back-to-back in Athens – it was supposed to be a germ-free Christmas
6 top bunks – yes that’s all!!
8 stunning boat trips
13 Ryanair flights with just 1 delay
17 months and 3 weeks
23 countries
27 cathedrals – architecture ahoy
36 castles and palaces – still looking for the princes or kings
45 quid of spare foreign change
51 days in English conversation schools
75 idioms explained and uselessness recognised
100 ‘and the rest’ train journeys and only 1 train missed
121 days exploring my own country
150 plus places visited … I’m sure I’ve underestimated
215 days back to basics volunteering; ‘working’ in hospitality
300 regional cakes, pastries, chocolates and puddings – totally guessing but I remember I didn’t say no
549 nights of ‘Rowan on the road’
hundreds of amazing people and so much fun!

But back to London. I hadn’t been surrounded by that many people in weeks. I held a glimmer of hope for a welcome home flash mob, err nope, I was knee deep in the rat race and those commuters just needed whiskers and tails. Huge wake-up call I didn’t want, I was a spectator but for how long?

Rhetorical question, I don’t want to think about. In the same vein, the red brick of Redditch is so ingrained in the memory that I don’t just flash back to ‘before travel’, sometimes the last 10 years disappears. Help!

I have been amused by how many people forget, or don’t even think, to ask how my travels have been?  A fair few begin with an impressive nod or surprised stare at my brief sharing “23 European countries in 18 months” and the person follows up by recalling their own recent holiday.  Funny, surreal, ironic.  Even one of my past help exchange hosts remembered the limbo land she felt after returning to the UK following 3 years in Asia; no-one was overly fussed to hear about her adventure.

We’ve all feigned interest in a 2 week holiday the work colleague or neighbour took, well I completely understand my time was 36 times that.  You do not want a photography slideshow invitation from me.  The world doesn’t stop turning, other people’s lives continue as they choose and the stories us, we, travellers could share have an enormous caveat that can get in the way: “you had to be there”.

I am happy to be back?  I did Google Sky Scanner flights 3 weeks ago.  It took me a fortnight until I caved.  To where?  It doesn’t matter, I just love looking and the ‘everywhere’ destination function on the Sky Scanner website is the equivalent to filtering ‘no maximum’ for house sale value on the Right Move website.  Then I received a tax rebate, a much-needed surprise, I had to fight the temptation.

What has been a relief, is the limited sights and sounds in Redditch. I am relaxed knowing I’m not missing anything out there.  Locals be reassured, I’ve previously explored the Cistercian abbey ruins and the national needle museum.

I did not leave the house for 4 days, I do not advocate this, certainly the laziest I’ve been in 18 months.  My body subconsciously said stop!  BUT ahh, the juxtaposition, the urge to jump on a train, a plane is strong.  I miss the arriving and leaving of new destinations.

I have occupied my time with a little temping, not too busy (as I write this) but a snapshot of the Mon to Fri, 9 to 5 world gives me the heebee-jeebees.  It serves a purpose; I’m out of the house, I’ve still got bills to pay and I have had the opportunity to finish off MY MAP – if I’m ever in doubt that this was one busy 18 months!

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This gives me great pleasure. From my most westerly location of Sintra in Portugal to Bucharest, Romania, in the east. Then a tight match between the southern spots of stunning Greek island Santorini or Malta [the latter is the furthest south) to Inverness in the north, the gorgeous highlands of Scotland. I did this!

I highly recommend Googling my favourites for festive winter fun – visit a real German market in Rothenburg ob der Tauber and Nuremberg, there are mountains galore surrounding Innsbruck and Salzburg in Austria, and one of Europe’s ever-growing winter sports resort (and more): Zakopane in Poland.

As much as I love a flight to anywhere, I cannot stress how impressed I was exploring and living in parts of my own country especially north Wales and Scotland – a staycation to the Scottish Highlands, Outer Hebrides or Anglesey would suit any rambler, cyclist, beach or wildlife fan.

My ‘to do’ list has no rhyme or reason except wow, why not! St Petersburg, Granada, Chernobyl, Tbilisi, Colmar to name a few.  My world destination wish list is at least 10x this little selection.  Never any harm in daydreaming of new adventures.  One day I will buy my own little hostel, campsite or B&B!

todoWhatever that new adventure is to you… whether it is life changing like buying a property, changing jobs, becoming a nomad, or simply wanting to learn a new sport, a language or how to juggle.  I wish you good luck and good fortune.  As Nike says, “just do it!”  I thought I’d travel maybe 6 months, ideally a year, but here I am 18 months later.  If I can do it, you can too. It all starts with the can-do attitude!

Who doesn’t love [to cringe at] some self-help-self-motivating speak.  The ‘next chapter’, for me, is in motion. I’m going to be a tour/trip leader in the UK and possibly Ireland. I still get to travel whilst boasting to Australians and Americans how wonderful our country is. No doubt I’ll have to field questions about how we’re potentially going down the pan too but I’ll think about those answers closer to the time.

Training starts in January and the season starts in April, you can bet your life my Instagram will pick up again.  I’m going for PMA, the training is also assessment so fingers crossed; this feels like an exciting and successful start to 2019.  I hope yours is too.

happynewyear

POP QUIZ – Can you guess how many territories and countries that drive on the right side of the road… that’s on the LEFT if you’re unsure

Even after nearly a year of crossing the road with traffic on the ‘other side of the road’, I still have no idea of my current Green Cross Code and end up crossing roads frantically looking left and right confused. Rightly so, some drivers are crazy unpredictable.

Surprisingly the internet has varying numbers of who drives on the left and right, with varying sources, however according to Wiki, there are 78 territories and countries in the world that have chosen or likely ordered by the British Empire to drive on the correct side of the road; that is left-hand-traffic [LHT]. How many can you guess?

I love a quiz like this so hope you do too.  A few pointers to help… countries and territories of said countries:

  • 4 countries in Europe and 15 territories/crown dependencies of European countries
  • 14 in Africa
  • 15 Asian countries and 1 territory of Asia
  • 11 countries/state and 5 territories of Oceania
  • 2 in South America
  • 10 in the Caribbean Basin
  • 1 Other territory/group of islands

I’m sure a good number of you will say the left is wrong and the right is, well, right! You know, there’s good reason why the left-hand side has to be correct… call it myth if you will but this makes sense.

Imagine days when your transport had 4 legs. Whether stallion, donkey or ass then I’m sure you also had a weapon.  Swords are usually worn on the opposite side to your strongest hand, the right hand. knightsOnly 10% of the world population is left-handed. So to draw your sword whilst galloping along, playing a game of ‘chicken’ with your opponent.

Which side of the track do you need to be on?

Since most people are right-handed, swordsmen preferred to keep to the left in order to have their right arm and weapon nearer to an opponent and their scabbard further away.

In the past, almost everybody travelled on the left side of the road because that was the most sensible option for these feudal societies; protecting land was a large proportion of daily life. To support this, riders would also prefer to mount a horse on the left and guide a horse’s reins with a right hand so the person could be walking on the left-hand side of the road with the horse in the middle.

horsebusThis logic remained when holding the reins of a horse-drawn wagon and for the driver to embark and disembark their seat. Even in the age of the car, it also makes sense to drive on the left.

The principle of car design is for the driver to be as close to the centre of the road and it was decided that using the right eye [said to be stronger] is in better position to see oncoming traffic, as well as the stronger right hand, remains on the wheel while the left changes manual gears or mucks around the car controls.

Then there was Napoleon! He was the conqueror of the majority of Europe, he was also Napoleonan egotistical left handed tyrant. It is said, he forced everyone to swap sides. There is no real proof of this, or even if he was left-handed, but it was his empire that standardised or revolutionised, much of Europe.

drive on the leftIt should be no surprise, most countries were previously British colonies. The legislation to make traffic left-sided in the UK was made in the 18th century in London. This law required the traffic on London Bridge to keep left. The Highway Act of 1835 made this law applicable to the whole British Empire.

Many colonised countries had left-side roads following the British laid railways. With left-sided tracks, I can’t imagine platforms or stations would have made a difference but the placement of signals, track change switches, how engines were refuelled with water and coal did. This was the foundation of formal left-sided driving.

The flurry of countries switching from left to right began in the early 19th century for the United States and multiple countries in Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, the Philippines, South America and Korea joined the ‘drive-on-the-right’ bandwagon only in the last 100 years. For example, former British colonies including Sierra Leone and Nigeria changed to right-sided driving because they border former French colonies.

Travelling from one country to the next without border controls should be seamless, travelling with a passport control would slow the transit but then change from left to right or vice versa I imagine as a logistical nightmare. Few nations switch traffic at a land border, however, left-hand-traffic in Thailand is unusual with 3 of the country’s neighbours driving on the opposite lane side; Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar are all RHT.

These photos show the Lotus Bridge, a more elegant approach to continuous traffic; Macau to/from Hengqin Island in China. I cannot believe I have never considered the Channel Tunnel for all travellers in cars from the United Kingdom to France. The internet tells me even the service tunnels constructed 250 feet under water swap sides half way.

I’m not sure I’d be confident in a right-hand-drive car in the right-hand side lane. You’d find me in the middle of two lanes! I have only ever driven the appropriate car for the country, in the United States of America and France, a left side driver’s seat for the right side lanes. I’m not sure how easy it would be to swap lanes but not swapping driver’s seats. This could be the future of cars?

So.. to the 78 answers! I hope you didn’t cheat. The territories are hard, some I had never heard of (scroll down for a map – Blue LHT / Red RHT)

4 countries in Europe and 15 territories/crown dependencies of European countries

  • Cyprus / Ireland / Malta / United Kingdom
  • Akrotiri and Dhekelia / Anguilla / Bermuda / British Virgin Islands / Cayman Islands /  Falkland Islands / Guernsey / Isle of Man / Jersey / Montserrat / Northern Cyprus / Turks and Caicos Islands / Pitcairn Islands / Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan de Cunha / South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands

14 countries in Africa

  • Botswana / Kenya / Lesotho / Malawi / Mauritius / Mozambique / Namibia / Seychelles / South Africa / Swaziland / Tanzania / Uganda / Zambia / Zimbabwe

15 Asian countries and 1 territory of Asia

  • Bangladesh / Bhutan / Brunei / East Timor / Hong Kong / India / Indonesia / Japan / Malaysia / Maldives / Nepal / Pakistan / Singapore / Sri Lanka / Thailand
  • Macao

11 countries/state and 5 territories of Oceania

  • Australia / Fiji / Kiribati / Nauru / New Zealand / Niue / Papua New Guinea / Solomon Islands / Samoa / Tonga / Tuvalu
  • Christmas Island / Cocos (Keeling) Islands / Cook Islands / Norfolk Island / Tokelau

2 countries in South America

  • Guyana / Suriname

10 countries in the Caribbean Basin

  • Antigua and Barbados / Bahamas / Barbados / Dominica / Grenada / Jamaica / Saint Kitts and Nevis / Saint Lucia / Saint Vincent and the Grenadines / Trinidad and Tobago

1 Other territory (a group of islands)

  • U.S. Virgin Islands

Hope you enjoyed the challenge 🙂

LHT map

Let’s be serious… the important question is: Why do the continental Europeans not have more crisp flavours?

I have missed the British variety of crisps. Chips to some of you speaking your own version of English. Ultimately I am a huge – literally – fan of potent flavoured crisps. I have missed them a lot more than I should have.

I binged during my 2-week hiatus in the UK during December 2017. I am sure my Monster munchnumber 1 favourite should come as no surprise to most British – pickled onion Monster Munch. Thankfully a friend visiting me in Lisbon last month indulged my request.  I promptly took the top layer of cells from my tongue following the quick consumption of 2 packets.  For those that do not know, the flavour is intense, a distinct vinegar taste rather than onion.  It mellows after each bite.

national obsession

 

Other favourite flavours are spicy Space Raiders, plastic cheese Wotsits, super vinegary Squares and melt in the mouth Skips. I’ve not forgotten bacon Frazzles, BBQ Pringles, Steak crinkle cut or deep ridged, sweet chilli Walkers Temptations and, well you get the picture. So the food in Britain is full of additives, I’ve just given you much evidence of my addiction.  This is not only me, it is a UK national obsession.

In continental Europe, I have struggled to find strong flavours. Especially hearty meat or ultimate spicy options. I did purchase a packet that assured me of ‘packing a punch’ from the bag picture and name but I was as deflated as the packet when these crisps clearly had missed part of the taste production line in the factory.

The crisp section in the majority of shops is 2 or 3 small shelves of sharer packets, a larger packet than I really need. Maybe 6 flavours in the shop selection, at a push: original salted, lightly salted, dodgy cheese, paprika, tomato or sour cream & dill. I should be happy to find such a shelf. For the most part, it is salted or paprika. Then I munch on my snacks trying to eke out some flavour, they must save a lot of cost by only wafting the E numbers and flavouring near the potato.

Why the fascination of these unhealthy but delicious fried potato or maize snacks in the UK?

They have become a staple in our Brit ‘diet’ if you have any doubt of what I’m saying crisp aisle 2then visit the crisp aisle in a Sainsbury’s or Tesco supermarket extra. The UK consumes an estimated 6 billion packs of crisps and that’s in addition to 4.4 billion other savoury snacks A YEAR. Around 150 packets a person which really means one little old lady is eating 25 packets a year and a fanatic like me will be gorging on 275+ a year. Worrying.

The typical British would see this phenomenon as quintessentially ‘ours’ but of course, it isn’t. We are akin to the seagulls in Finding Nemo; “mine, mine, mine”. Not 100% documented but the crisp was allegedly created in Cary Moon’s Lake House restaurant in Saratoga Spring, New York. August 1853.

The story goes that George Crum got fed up with a customer (who may, or may not, have been rail magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt) sending back his fried potatoes because they were too thick. Following a third or fourth time, Crum, sliced the offending potato into wafer-thin slivers, deep-fried them and over-salted the result. Sending the dish out hoping the guy would choke on it. But Vanderbilt (if it was him) loved them. Of course, he did – starch, fat and salt – who wouldn’t?

Also a recipe for “fried potato shavings” was reportedly printed in America as early as 1832, in a book based on an even earlier collection of recipes from England. Woohoo maybe it was a British creation, however, a confirmed sighting of native British crisps was reported in 1913, made in London by a man called Carter, who had supposedly stumbled across them in France.  The origin really is a mystery.

The UK has Mr and Mrs Smith to thank for the beginnings of an empire. In 1920, Smith’s Potato Crisps Company Ltd was formed in Cricklewood, north London, with Mrs Smith peeling, slicing and frying the potatoes in the garage and Mr Smith packing them into greaseproof bags (later with a pinch of salt in a twist of blue paper inside – for Brits of a certain age, we remember the little blue packet of salt in modern-day packets, “salt ‘n shake”). The firm was so successful it had moved to new premises and hired 12 full-time staff before its first year was out. The rest, they say, is history.

It’s not clear who created the first flavoured crisps (ask any crisp company of sufficiently lengthy years and they’ll say, ‘It was us’) but thank you to the multiple genius inventors. Flavoured crisps entered the marketplace in the 60’s and the crisp sales doubled. Technologists embraced the challenge for new foods as did the public. Even creating the British Society of Flavourists in the 1970s. The fad and craze for new flavours began slowly but by the 80’s, the UK public wanted fast food combined with experimental tastes based on continental dishes or oriental spices. The dawn of the ‘prawn cocktail’.

With each decade the greater consumption of sandwiches and beer has a direct positive impact on the sale of crisps. The ideal accompaniment for the latest UK food obsession of store-bought pre-packaged sandwiches at lunch.

I read on the European Association Snacks website – yes, I did – that consumers in the Netherlands, Norway and Spain purchase more chips/crisps, savoury snacks and snack nuts (per capita) than UK consumers. Well, blow me down. They are the last countries I’d have guessed, they have many other foods in these countries to snack on such as stroopwafel, liquorice, potato pancakes and olives.

By chance, I’ve yet to travel through any of these countries. I’m heading to the Netherlands in 11 days so I’ll be checking out the supermarket aisles.

Peanut puffsFor the countries such as Greece, Italy, Poland, Germany, Czech Republic I know for sure they do not have the wonder of Monster Munch. I did try the equivalent of a peanut Wotsit – a puffed crisp. Absolutely the devil’s food, this was wrong for me on a lot of levels.

Ali Payne, Vice President of global snacks innovation at PepsiCo. explains in a National Geographic article with Hannah Steinberg that cultural cravings affect seasonings. Emerging flavour trends and local cuisines are tastes that resonate the most. The restaurant trends transfer to the crisp world.

Travellers are being exposed to ingredients from other countries and this is desired as snack flavours in the US and UK but not in such great demand for continental Europe.

Looking at general diets within each country, I think there is a more traditional palate in some countries. It is still possible to venture into more wonderfully obscure flavours such as goulash in Hungary, Pierogi in Poland and salted cod in Portugal but I have the feeling it is too frivolous and no guarantee of sales for the producer.

I believe the sharer packet makes a difference in taste choice, the bigger packet of crisps is for the family or a group of people [so I’m told]. The buyer’s choice is to please the masses rather than satisfy an individual yearning for an unusual flavour. I am inclined to try a newly released flavour when in a smaller, cheaper packet.

I believe the habit of eating a larger hot lunch in many continental European countries results in less demand for the savoury snacks. The opposite to the UK and US lunch routines.

In my research to find how many weird and wacky flavours we Brits have access too, I book cover pagefound 2 funny and informative websites about crisps.

www.chipsandcrisps.com/europe

www.crispnation.com/the-crisp-list

We all know how to consume information about any topic from the internet as well as actual tangible food! You can even purchase the book – A Brief History of Crisps, by Steve Berry and Phil Norman.

I couldn’t find a definitive number of flavours however the Chips and Crisps website lists 56 UK producers, let us estimate each producer has 30 flavours. I know this will be overestimated for some and massively underestimated for the larger names. My ‘back of a napkin’ sums = 1,680 different options.

They already share over 1300 reviews of crisps from far and wide so it is safe to say the crisp/potato chip is here to stay.

From the lists and reviews, I am planning to search out the following crisps.  Whilst I am now being careful what I eat on my travels, everything in moderation is ok 🙂  Hopefully, I will find a little more adventure in the European crisp aisle at some point in the future.

In the Netherlands, I will search out Patatje Joppie (Joppiesaus is a regional mayonnaise-style sauce that is usually put on chips…erm french fries), and Indonesian Grilled Pork, or Babi Pangang, as it is called.  In Belgium they have a brand called Croky and a bolognese flavour – I never knew this was a Belgium dish?  Hmmm.  I will let you know if I succeed.

If you are from continental Europe and love wacky favours – please tell me what and where I can find them!

In the words of Stevie…Superstition ain’t the way

If you believe in it or not, country superstitions are ancient myth and legend that has lasted. The specific root and source of every idea are unknown but somehow the tales have been kept true by generations.

You could say most continental Europeans believe nothing is an accident, however, personally, I don’t think it’s good to rule your life with superstition.

It can be said religion is related to the next life, superstition is related to the now and in opposition to the divine. Broadly defined, superstition is a belief in the existence of forces and entities that do not conform to the laws of nature or scientific understanding. In essence – the supernatural.

During mediaeval times, before proof of scientific theories and confidence in science, witches.jpgwhen bad things happened this was magic.  Black magic; sinister, mysterious and demonic. The hunting and punishment of witches was extensive and successful in the 1500-1700s. Wikipedia tells me, Janet Horne, from Scotland, died in 1727, was the last person to be executed legally for witchcraft in the British Isles.

Lonely Planet and http://www.smithsonian.com report that a museum dedicated to Anna Goldi’s life and legacy was opened in Ennenda, Switzerland, last year. Hers was the last ever execution for witchcraft in continental Europe, 1782.

General ideas are the belief in good and bad omens; charms to encourage the former and rituals to combat the latter. Cosmic forces such as fortune-telling and astrology remain hugely popular in the modern world.

13One of the best-known superstitions of the western world is today!  The idea that Friday the 13th is the unluckiest of days – one very unlucky number. In some countries, hotels will not have rooms numbered with 13 or the 13th floor.

However, if you travel across the seas, different numbers are foreboding: China fear 4 as it closely resembles the word for death, in Japan 9 sounds like the word for torture and very odd but 0888 888 888 is said to be jinxed or cursed in Bulgaria after a number of high-profile people with the number all died.

The majority of people participate in occasional superstition behaviours. Informal belief when you think it would benefit you. You don’t agree?

touch woodI’m sure you have one or two superstitions that you do without realising. I regularly use ‘touch wood’ if I mention something good I want to happen and greatly desire. The idea that this action will ‘help’ my wishes come true is better than the uncertainty of it, or worse still that by talking about ‘it’ will have been a jinx – oh, have I a traditional belief in bad omens? No way, not actively and consciously, I do it out of habit and for fun. I think…

It’s scientifically proven that an individual’s expectations can be manipulated.  Studies point to the positive and negative results from the placebo effect caused by good and bad superstitions. I actively promote positive thinking so good superstitions will not necessarily do you harm unless you are convinced your good life is unfolding solely because of the superstition.

In the worst case scenarios, superstitions can impact a person’s life such as the compulsive gambler or the fearful and anxious phobic. To me, there is no such thing as magic forces however if I can encourage good things in my direction then hey, I’ll join in for the craic.

A number of the countries I have travelled felt more superstitious than the United Kingdom. Here are a few superstitions I heard and read to bring you good luck and those to avoid, just in case!

wine spill

In Portugal, it brings bad luck to walk backwards because it teaches the devil the way you’re walking. However, if you spill wine on the table, this will bring happiness to the whole house. I won’t feel so bad if I do now!

Bum tickle cartoonAccording to old Flemish belief, if you should sneeze during a conversation, this proved the truth of the remark.

You may know that if your ear is hot someone is talking about you, well in Belgium, if you bum tickles it means that you will soon eat pie!

Also, the Belgium men are discouraged to whistle as this may decrease their chances of good luck especially that of attracting a girlfriend.

First and foremost in Hungary, they do not toast with beers. This is said to bring bad luck from an old tradition to remember soldiers killed in the 1848 revolution, whereby it decreed no Hungarian would toast with beer for 150 years.

Something's watching...
To Ward-off the Evil Eye

The most commonly talked about Greek island superstition is the evil eye. This is a curse believed to be cast by a malevolent glare, usually given to an individual when they are unaware. Many cultures believe that receiving the evil eye will cause misfortune or injury.  The photo shows multiple nazars [an amulet or talisman], created to protect against the evil eye.

The pomegranate is a symbol of happy times, fertility and prosperity. In some parts of Greece, the natives will take the fruit to visit friends and family on New Year’s Eve and smash it on the threshold so the household will have good luck.

Car poopIn Russia, there is a belief that if birds defecate on you, your car, or your property it’s a sign of good luck and may bring you riches. The more birds involved, the richer you’ll be!

GOOD LUCK, hope a bird heads your way today!

The tale of travel and the ever expanding waistline

How many of you have put on weight whilst on holiday? Imagine 10 months of holiday temptation and a girl with very little willpower. It is no surprise that my waistline has grown, as have my thighs, belly, boobs… the list goes on. The wardrobe full of elastic waist trousers and skirts doesn’t exactly make me think twice about each meal choice either.

I will never be slim, I have never been slim and over the years I have thoroughly enjoyed all the creamy sauces, cheeses, steak, lager, the fast food, the mayonnaise and the coca cola but uh oh, I’m over 40 now and the size of a small bungalow.  Eeeek.

They always say how hard it is to maintain a good size or lose weight in your forties and above. I will admit I’ve not exactly tried, travelling continuously has not been good for my already poor food choices.

I only need to share my variety of food porn pics to show you the challenge I face and yep, failed! Look at all these country delights – Portuguese egg tarts, Munich gingerbread, Zurich apple strudel and German Quarkballchen [like doughnut balls].

I know what needs to be done but oh phooey, it takes a lot of willpower. I’ll start by saying, out of all the pros and cons of eating positively to maintain a good weight, I have some excellent habits if I do say so myself. I am not someone who thinks about food all the time. This is a big contradiction. I don’t get hangry, I don’t talk about what I’m going to eat for dinner as I’m eating my lunch and I definitely don’t get all Pavlov’s dogs and start salivating at meal times. Maybe I should?

I eat extraordinarily slowly [much to the frustration of my family], what can I say? I chew! I love vegetables and only make meat-free options when I’m cooking on my travels, I’m not that fussed about bread or large portions.  I’m ‘usually’ proactive at moving my plate away or covering the leftovers when I’m feeling full.

I drink but not that much at all compared to years ago and I’m no fan of drinking alone.  I like the taste, it’s too good to decline so I’m careful.

The cons and food nightmare starts with missing meals then cheating with the short-term kick of sugary treats. Anything with pastry is a definite weakness, as is savouring the flavour of fast or restaurant food… Who doesn’t like someone else cooking for them but wowzers sometimes I could feed a family of 4 from my one plate of food.  That schnitzel was huge, as was the plate of Pierogi, home-made flakey pastry Chorizo tarts, one plate sized potato rosti with my veal or Portuguese steak, eggs and mushroom sauce.  Have to stop, the mouth is watering.

Not forgetting a Bologna deli is a snackers ‘taster’ heaven.

I can make food to survive but I don’t relish cooking.   My accommodation occasionally has a kitchen to cook in, these have varied from a fully kitted ‘almost industrial’ kitchen with multiple hobs, all the equipment you’d have at home or at the other end of the scale, I had a microwave/fridge/kettle… I fed back that it was a stretch to call it a kitchen.

So what can I prepare that’s easy? It always ends up being pasta, maybe noodles. Little ingredients needed for a passable dish and a long shelf life for the main player. I carried around a packet of spaghetti for about 4 weeks at one point. The hiccup is buying veggies that don’t go off too quickly and how do I eat the same foods but not the same dish. Eating tomato, peppers, onion and pasta can get boring quickly.

Funny when I did forget foods in my backpack – wondering what the garlic smell is and it’s my half a lettuce or a leek gradually bending out the pocket over time.

Eating lunch while travelling is problem number one – what types of food are in train station shops or cafes, even airports are as awkward? I’ve may have had a reasonable breakfast or nothing at all then purchase a white baguette [some countries don’t know what a brown baguette is] sandwich with some fruit and maybe nuts but probably crisps and chocolate.

What else do you eat on the go when there are no pre-packed salads. The UK has a whole country-specific multi-million industry of prepackaged lunch options. I miss the range of options in a British supermarket. The continental European alternatives are the dreaded and delicious pastries: equivalents of pasties, pies or sausage rolls. Not forgetting, the croissant and doughnut. The carb-heavy grab and go food is not good for me and then I sit on a train for 10 hours. You can see the dilemma.

Problem number two. I believe the biggest calorific vice on my travels are McDonald’s and coke. After the same said long train trip, I do mean long, I arrive and 90% of the cities I have visited have the golden arches in the station and resolve dissolves. It’s a strange hankering because I don’t do the same for KFC, Burger King, Pizza Hut or any of the other big fast food brands. I don’t like the taste so I can walk past as I would if it was tofu or pig trotters.

Sadly, there was even McDonald’s in Pompei, Rothenburg ob der Tauber and a ‘closed for the winter’ Fira, Santorini.  The latter didn’t make much effort with their signage.

 

coca colaSparkling water is my go to, was my go to. Athens does not sell sparkling water, hardly any 2-litre bottles let alone in 500ml. Pains me to say, I like the reduction of plastic use though annoying to purchase a pricey glass bottle of Perrier.

After a low day feeling snotty, bunged up and heavy-headed, I treated myself to the nectar that is kryptonite to me. How can I tail of coffee and cigarettes to nearly nothing but the coca cola? Nope. Obviously, the sugar hit.

I have been lucky as hell with the food provision for most of volunteering for example, in France, we dined on 7 Euros per day, per person – an amazing weekly shop for the 6 of us. For every AngloVille location, daily lunch options are always 2-course and wine every night.

I am a night owl with erratic insomnia, yes still, these biological traits don’t disappear just because I’m travelling. However, I don’t HAVE to rise for work anymore so I can still get the hours of sleep and lie in till 9am or 10am; no rush to get up. But. The consequence is an unbalanced diet of eating breakfast one day and not the next.

Easy to say I can rectify all of the above but to do is a different story.

I am pleased to have walked miles every day I’m sightseeing. I easily average the recommended 10,000 steps, unfortunately for any weight loss effect this is not at ‘bugger, I’m gonna be late for my meeting’ speed. No longer striding to the bus, harder and faster. Well, except the time I ran for the airport gate and the 2 trains I caught by seconds. Regular touristing is at a simpler pace, no fat-burning heart rate that’s for sure. The old work routine was naff but kept the body moving.

Living in London equals no car and walking to the public transport. Continuing exercise I used to enjoy, aqua aerobics and long distance walking have faltered at the first hurdle, I haven’t chased down details of the closest swimming pool nor countryside walking routes. I do still get nervous on my travels, I’m not immune and not keen on being lost, solo, in the middle of a Romanian forest or Greek island.

Diets don’t work. Denying myself certain foods, counting calories or ‘sins’ don’t work for me. I know the logic of ‘eat less, move more’ but y’know this takes a lot of effort. Lifestyle changes are harder rather than short-term. My genetics are fat sensitive 😉 I smell someone else’s calories and put on weight. A couple of years ago I lost around 3 stone [19 kg] with the help of hypnotherapy, eating the bare minimum and much exercise.  Way more exercise than 30 minutes a day. It took over my life and once I’d passed my activity goals of completing 2 walking marathons, it all went to pot. Oh to be a person who can do one and not the other.

For many years, I’d think of myself as the chubby-cheeked happy plump girl you’d read about in a Famous Five novel. ‘Shucks, c’mon gang, let’s eat the cake, the toffee and the ice cream with lashings of lemonade’. If I like it, I’ll eat it and enjoy every mouthful!

But it’s kicked in…a little age concern. The aches and pains of being overweight and sitting in one spot on my bed when typing up blogs. My bum hurt! That is not normal. I’m only 41, not 81. I had felt a little inspired to tackle this in December when I had such a disappointing experience in Athens, I ate a lot of crap.

I have hard work ahead of me. I need to be focused. Now I’ve told ya, I have to do something. If my folks, 3 decades older than me, can lose lots of weight by a better control of food and no huge aerobic exercise routine then age is only a number.

I need to make food a priority. It’s an oddity to me but it’s not like I don’t have the time. I can work my day around my meals. I can menu plan around the days I’m volunteering or in a hostel with no kitchen. I can’t weigh myself each week so I will judge it by my blouse that doesn’t button up and a skirt that no longer sits on my hips as a guide.

My plan, my action assurances to me and to you:IMG_20180409_153844.jpg

  • Everyday breakfast: water, banana and protein – scrambled eggs and ham
  • Fish or vegetarian dishes when eating in restaurants with water
  • Meat once a week
  • Preparation snack attack: 1-litre water, nuts, carrots and apples
  • Dig out my old hypnotherapy mp3s. The power of positive influence to your subconscious. I have no scientific proof that this will perform miracles but I am an advocate of positive thinking. The general overview of the past hypnotherapy was to imagine 2 paths – one is being overweight and one is where I want to be. Goes without saying which the mp3s focus on.
  • Lastly, YouTube exercise gurus offer multiple yoga, Pilates and aerobic workouts online. I commit to 2 routines a week – 15 minutes or 45, either is better than none.

I’ll come back to you in 3 or 4 weeks with an update and hopefully, this blouse will button and this skirt will be too big again.

Raw food pyramid.jpg

If you have any recommendations for exercise You Tubers or if you have tried the raw food diet? I won’t use the diet but I am interested in the dishes for when I don’t have a kitchen.

Wish me luck!

The Volunteer Voyager presents their first movie night

It has been fun watching movies set in the cities I’ve been travelling. Thank you to my VPN technology. Some were a completely new viewing when in the city whilst I have also included a few firm favourites that highlight European delights. It’s Monday, what better way to spend a quiet night in recovering from work or the kids. These are a few recommendations for either scenic excellence or respectful Hollywood-ed history.

Vienna

The Third ManThe 3rd Man is gripping. Black and white mastery, a simple premise and hardly any characters required. A few shots of Vienna that’d you’d recognise after visiting but not vice versa. I thoroughly enjoyed even with the slower pace of movies from the time. I can’t say much more as it’ll give the plot away. The mystery thriller screenplay is written by Graham Greene with a not so well-known Orson Welles skulking fantastically in doorways. Dark and atmospheric, Vienna is shown to be beautiful even in its post-WWII dereliction and ruin.

A must see.  In 1999, The British Film Institute spent the year questioning 1,000 movers and shakers within the film business, including the likes of Terry Gilliam, Neil Jordan, Mike Leigh and Jeremy Irons.  To vote for the best of British.  This film was voted number ONE!

If you watch it and like it, there is a museum in Vienna dedicated to the film, it is played twice a week in Vienna’s Burg Kino and you can tour the locations used.

 

Woman in Gold is a biographical drama about Maria Altmann’s attempt to recover five Gustav Klimt paintings stolen from her family by the Nazis in Austria, 1938. The paintings included the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I. Adele being Altmann’s aunt and the portrait being re-titled as Woman in Gold. Altmann took her legal battle all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, which ruled on the case Republic of Austria v. Altmann in 2004. I knew nothing of the real-life news story at the time. Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds do well to hold up a pretty run-of-the-mill script. I think it could have been darker. I knew I would love it though, I will happily watch Ryan Reynolds do anything and I appreciate the subject. The portrait is from Klimt’s “Golden Period”. A collection of enigmatic mosaic and shimmery pieces that appeal to my magpie ‘all that glitters’ gene.

Salzburg

The Sound of Music is an institution. It is a tradition of our formative years, especially at Christmas time. I say our, this is a Brit thing. The Austrians have only just welcomed the stage performance at the Salzburger Landestheater in 2011! The first time, an astounding 46 years after it was filmed. I love, love, loved taking a bike tour in Salzburg with the tour guide projecting the music in front of us participants. While we have the words to sing along fixed to the handlebars. Cycling through the fields and parks of Salzburg singing the Hills are Alive was hilarious and extremely satisfying. I just needed my favourite things in my bike basket. The film is family fun with catchy tunes and a surprisingly upbeat pantomime feel considering the background story of a family escaping the Nazi invasion of Austria. A heroine in Maria, a gruff tough Captain needing softening up and the Baroness is the wicked witch of the west.

Sound of Music

The Czech Republic pretending to be Poland [maybe Lithuania]

YentlYentl was one of my mum’s favourite films, I think… that list seems to frequently change. But then so does mine. We saw it a lot as kids… I think. My memory isn’t hot so maybe it was my 14-year-old sister putting the videotape in the player. I could be wrong. The film is a 1983 American romantic musical drama based on the play of the same name by Leah Napolin and Issac Bashevis Singer. An Ashkenazi Jewish girl in Poland circa 1905 decides to dress and live like a man so she can receive an education in Talmudic Law. Her father had been secretly teaching her even though this was prohibited. Her father dies and her determination to learn grows even with the threat of being found out.

The Barbra Streisand vocals of ‘Papa Can You Hear Me’ are ingrained in the membrane. A must watch for romance and musical fans once you get past the slow beginning. It’s beneficial if you like Barbra – she’s in 99% of the scenes and sings every song. Golden Globe winner and Razzie nominee tell you what the reception was. Like Marmite, you’ll love it or hate it.

Poland

The PianistI was very slow to watch The Pianist. Only taken me 15 years to get round to watching this Oscar-winning Roman Polanski drama. Based on the autobiographical book The Pianist, a World War II memoir by the Polish-Jewish pianist and composer Władysław Szpilman, starring Adrien Brody. I’m not sure about Adrien’s Oscar win but yes, I was crying buckets at the end. I struggle when a filmed has been hyped so much, my expectation is too high. There were 3 moments when I held my breath at the action. It did make me think about the despair. This is based on true life, it is good not to forget that.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

 

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a heartbreaking film based on the novel by John Boyne. A novel that was a fiction set in a time and location of the horrific real-life concentration camp tragedies. You know what is going to happen but watching the unravelling is what is heartbreaking. I prepared myself for the worst but still bawled. It’s easy to watch, this in itself caused controversy – maybe all a little too easy. However, it is a children’s book adaptation.

I agree with historian Kathryn Hughes writing for The Guardian:  in relation to the implausibility of the plot, she argues that “Bruno’s innocence comes to stand for the wilful refusal of all adult Germans to see what was going on under their noses”.  I do not know enough detailed history but I do know the film is a haunting start to a conversation that needs to be had and should be watched by both adults and children alike.

 

Never watch…ever

Eat Pray Love.jpgYou’ll never get the time back. Eat Pray Love. Corny as hell. Julia Roberts should know better however I did enjoy spotting places in Naples and Bali.  India is on the ‘travel to do list’.

The film should be renamed. After my experiences of these countries, it should be called Graffiti Pray Sweat.

“You’re at a different stage of life” what poppycock!

The phrase drives me crazy when said in the comparison of one individual to another, that modern society has a sequence of events, pre-ordained and pre-agreed, as we humans age.

I agree the masses follow a certain number of same activities. I don’t believe these are destined and must be adhered to or bad things will happen. A very specific phrase in that so-called plan that winds me up the most is ‘settle down’. As do the words and phrases – childless, finding another half and ‘going through a stage’ is patronising as hell. All terms likely created when women were in a very defined pigeonhole.

I am a very single 41-year-old woman and I’m surprised I don’t hear the “let’s find you a nice man” and “you don’t want babies?” [implied with exclamation marks at times] more frequently. My tendency for a devil stare does put people off testing my reaction. I usually have to caveat ‘single’ with ‘happily’ for those that don’t believe the two can actually co-exist. This is very much applicable to the male of the species too yet this subject is hardly ever said to or about.

The concept of stages of life has been discussed since the 17th Century and I would hazard a guess they were held true of society in the late 1800s to the 1960s but really, now c’mon, I am not the only one bucking the steps and yet currently happy, single, especially older, child ‘less’ women are considered newsworthy; somehow unusual and in need to explain themselves. If you’re unsure what I mean by the chronological stages. Note, scientists define better. Not AA’s 10 steps but here goes…

  • lifestyleBorn
  • Education
  • Employment
  • Meet a partner
  • Move in together / Marry
  • Buy property / ‘Settle down’
  • Parenthood by procreation
  • Retirement / Grandparent-hood
  • Death

Most countries in the 2nd or 3rd worlds also have an unspoken expectation but a stripped back, minimal list based even more heavily on family.

I imagine each decade had a rebellion against this tradition. I bet there was an influx of babies outside of marriage in the 60s and 70s. The UK used to dictate marriage was only applicable to a person of the opposite sex, however, I’m sure same-sex couples have been together for over a 100 years. Even retirement had a positive change recently that those who enjoy work over 70, can. This is the simple human evolution over time. Humans question their existence, environment and consequently change.

What I ask is that we stop presuming this traditional thinking applies now.  That your choice to follow the above – consciously or not – is the only way.

To suit the modern world the list is no longer linear but includes offshoots:

  • Divorce
  • Second marriage
  • Blended families
  • Parenthood by adoption, fostering, surrogacy, artificial insemination or IVF
  • And… those that do not want children
  • Those that do not want marriage

I find the phrase ‘to settle down’ to be such an oddity. I know the positive intent is to become familiar with a place and to feel happy and confident in it [with or without a significant other]. I, on the other hand, see the two individual words a little negatively. Settle: to accept, make do. Down: despondent, dispirited. I cannot imagine it, just not for me.

I joke that I have itchy feet to ease the confused and quizzical. That I’ve not yet found a location that keeps me entertained and happy – that is a little white lie. London is most definitely my city because it is multi-faceted and always exciting. However when sucker punched in the last 2 years by the mundane routine of commute, work, eat, sleep, repeat. This ‘settling down’ was not necessarily a happy one even in my beloved London.

life is simple

While I have clarified I am a happy single person. How many of you readers who are in couples probably thought ‘ahhh, you haven’t met the right person’. That the mundane routine wouldn’t have been bad if I’d been coupled up. This could be the case yet the routine of ‘settling down’ is what I push against.

Am I content with this routine? No. Do I need to just get on with it as ‘this is life’? How saddening that a good majority of people believe this. I can only say my motto is that ‘if I’m not happy, do something to change it’. It doesn’t have to as extreme as giving up work to travel Europe with no return ticket but then again, why the f not. If I did meet a one person I’d like to spend the rest of my life with – supposedly my other half [Don’t worry I know I need to keep this blog length down so I’ll leave this one for another posting.] – he’d need to be happy with not settling down just yet.

Childless speaks for itself – all of a sudden the word suggests I am without because I am without. In my very early twenties, I fleetingly thought the stages above would apply to me, that I would be a wife and mother before I was 30. It may be strange to you but I am grateful I am neither. I can assure any doubters that I do not feel any loss that this word ‘childless’ suggests. My hopes and dreams do not include these scrappy, noisy creatures [can you feel how maternal I am] but this does not mean my hopes and dreams are not any less ‘grown-up’.

I do object to explaining it to you, these days I still make a jokey reply so the inquisitor will move on from the subject. Internally I am raising an eyebrow, shaking my head and rolling my eyes – you get the picture. If you could resist the question unless I bring it up and use the term childfree that’d be grand. A far more positive sway to describe my choice.

After all these years of societal development, we still stereotype, I believe we always will. The spinster and bachelor have long since been an old-fashioned joke that the former ‘old before her time’ lady is on the shelf because no man would ‘have her’ and lives with her 5 cats. Even the Oxford Dictionary recognises their definition is an aged stereotype: An unmarried woman, typically an older woman beyond the age of marriage. Now, what was that limit to marry again? Whilst the suave rich bachelor has chosen his singledom to gad about town seducing the ladies at his whim.

Not all political correctness is needed. We only need to be more considerate and aware of how we compare others to ourselves and our ideals. Think before we speak.

Consider the many women that struggle to conceive and would give anything to be a biological mother. This is a pain I will never connect with but I can have empathy and quizzing her about her maternal plans is too close to the bone. I recognise I do it and have resolved to stop; if a couple are happy and stable – I would ask when is the wedding, when can I buy a hat? If a couple has had baby no. 1 then I raise the query about baby no. 2. If a couple have just got wed, it’s too easy to ask are they ‘trying’ for a baby.

With friends and family then, of course, their lives are of interest to me, I want them to be happy and hopeful for whatever their wants and future plans are. Its none of my business to ask outright.

If you feel happiness and well-being with the achievement of each stage then I am eternally happy for you too. What I am requesting is that we not compare one life to another by these so-called stages. That we even align success by these stages is ludicrous – the ownership of brick and mortar is deemed a success yet do we admit to the 25 years or more of mortgage debt we actively signed up for. And I include myself in this craziness.

Is procreation in an overpopulated world a success if you cannot afford to provide a secure future for the child? If you have ever watched the Jeremy Kyle Show on UK television or Jerry Springer in the states, the characters featured attest to a lack of financial stability combined with a frivolous attitude to having children.

That said, this was their choice. They chose their path. I prefer ‘path’ to ‘stages’. Simply a journey, no not an X-Factor or American Idol journey. A roller coaster to some, a route to the trig points you have chosen, in any order you so desire. Ultimately, don’t compare yourself to others, whats the point, it serves no purpose, the path is entirely up to you. Throw those preconceived ideas in the bin. Relish your own path now and enjoy others exploring their way.

fork-in-the-road

We all have one guarantee.  We are all gonna see the very same ending no matter how long it takes us or how we get there.

Tell me, especially any happy long-term travellers, do you have a question that irks you about how your life has evolved or a phrase how society thinks ‘we’ should live?

Well, I had to add my two-penneth about the UK’s number one news story this month

Ant McPartlin gets out of his car following an alleged drink driving accidentThe subject of drink driving has recently intrigued me what with the Ant McPartlin stories in the UK headlines. I love these boys. I’m one of Dec’s biggest fans! He just delivered a masterclass of presenting on Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway without his best mate next to him.

I feel for Ant, he and his TV partner Declan Donnelly have successfully kept their off-screen lives private. Even their ‘tell-all’ biographies are carefully scripted and the duo has proved to never court the media with past sordid tales even if they had escapades to share.

Till now.

Ant and DecAs always with the UK press, the lines are blurred with Ant’s history of prescription drug abuse caused by mismanaged pain relief after a botched knee surgery, leading to a need for rehab and acknowledgement that he was having more than day-to-day stresses. I will never know what happens behind closed doors; celebrity or not. He has reason to be troubled and reasons to need support, to get better, to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

BUT mental health issues and driving under the influence are 2 separate issues.

It is not standard to say a person with mental health issues is immediately excused from making the right decision to be behind the wheel of a car after drinking.

What I do know is that over the past 4 decades, the UK Government marketing campaigns have created a positive culture that frowns upon drinking and driving however what was a surprise to read is that the legal drink driving limit in England and Wales has remained the same since it was first introduced in 1967.

I was surprised because whilst the alcohol content of drinks is unlikely to have increased over the years, the number of cars on the road has, the speed and technology of the cars has, the amount of booze we consume has and the pub/bar culture has.

Euro drink drive limits

To add to this surprise, I read further to find that England, Wales and Malta have the highest limits in the EU. I have witnessed and experienced crazy driving in continental Europe without a drop of alcohol, yet, all other European Union countries have a better, lower limit. [Whether the residents of the country adhere to this is another conversation!]. The Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia have 0, zero, acceptance of drink driving. The limit is zero for everyone: standard, commercial and novice drivers.

Euro drink drive limits 2

The UK police force are unable to allocate all their resources to scour the roads searching for culprits, as there will always be some that flout the rules, but if stopped or in an accident then the procedure is rigorous and the consequences concise – not necessarily absolute though.

From what I gauge thanks to our ‘delightful’ tabloid press is that Ant McPartlin crashed into one oncoming car and then likely to have bounced off this or overcompensated into another car in his path. A breathalyser test is mandatory for all traffic accidents attended by the Police, he failed this roadside breath test so he must have to be exceeding the limit.

After a couple of drinks, he may have thought “oh it’s okay, I’m only heading home, only round the corner”.  He probably didn’t even think of the laws of the land. I bet many of you have done the same. Why do we do it? Why do we think this ‘one time’ won’t be an issue, won’t be the cause of an accident. I don’t think any of us really consider the consequences of our actions – to ourselves, those closest to us and definitely not anyone in our path.

The effect alcohol has on us is variable, the ability to drive is skewed in different ways on different days. Among the drinkers reading, I bet we’ve all thought about what we’ll eat before going out drinking for the day. We too automatically presume a petite 5′ woman will react differently to 4 pints compared to a bulky 6’2″ man.

When I lived in a town called Redditch in the middle of England, it was beneficial to have a car. A new style of town planning for the 1970s, everything was designed around a maze of dual carriageways. A town with multiple bus routes, it was still much easier to drive. In the 2000s I thought nothing to drive to the pub, consume 2 pints of lager and drive home. I’m only 5′ tall and drinking before eating; this could easily have taken me over the limit and the cause of accident or injury.

chart

Then there’s the morning after, I put my hands up and admit I have been in charge of a vehicle on back roads and motorways when there is absolutely no way I should have been. Looking back, I was easily further over the limit than the 2 pints at my local. Now, what was your initial instinct – did you just judge me? Did you inwardly tut me or shake your head? This is a good thing. This is what we should do.

Going back to our star in the car. To add to the questions I have, he was not driving alone, it is reported his mother was in the passenger seat at the time. Did she knowingly sit in the car with a driver over the alcohol limit or did she also consider her son Ant to be more than capable of driving after a few drinks? So many unknowns.

What if this had been you. What would happen to your life if you lost your license? Can you complete your job if you do not drive? Imagine the sales manager who travels up and down motorways for a living with a 6-month ban – would employers be sympathetic? Who would take your kids to school?

Then what happens to your insurance after a crash you’ve caused? If you lost a game of chicken against a lamp-post or a tree then I’m guessing your premiums have doubled or more. Lastly the most morbid and extremes of all the consequences, how would you feel if you injured another person, dare I say it even killed someone?

If you think I’m being overdramatic, I just want you to think twice. Booze delays the messages from the eye to the brain, we process that information slower and then any reactions needed are also delayed. Whilst sitting at the control seat of a 3500 pound [1600 kg] metal can.

1 unit 1 hour

A rule of thumb is that it takes your body 1 hour to process 1 unit of alcohol and yet we drive home straight after drinking 1 or 2 drinks.  One drink is not 1 unit of alcohol.  Think of these unit values as hours.  My 2 pints take over 4 hours to process through my body.

It was bad enough being a passenger in a vehicle doing doughnuts as my friend lost control of the rear of the car on a roundabout. It was heart-stopping to be in a car when the tire blew on a motorway, up the verge and heading straight for a solid road sign that could have scalped us. Neither incident involved other cars nor alcohol and both were scary enough thanks.

Ant was due to appear in court today, now adjourned.  It will be interesting to see how they sentence. If Ant was over the limit he does need to feel the pain of consequence.  A driving ban and huge monetary fine immediately come to mind.  Though I really do hope he doesn’t get used as a pawn, no need to make an example of him to show Joe Public what extremes can apply when caught.

This is a first offence and it doesn’t excuse it but a small part of me does have a little empathy that he’s not thinking straight at the moment. Am I being too soft?

The penalties are listed in black and white online but appreciate the use of the words MAY and POSSIBLE:

Being in charge of a vehicle while above the legal limit or unfit through drink – YOU MAY GET: 3 months’ imprisonment / up to £2,500 fine / a possible driving ban

Driving or attempting to drive while above the legal limit or unfit through drink – YOU MAY GET:  6 months’ imprisonment / an unlimited fine / a driving ban for at least 1 year (3 years if convicted twice in 10 years)

Causing death by careless driving when under the influence of drink – YOU MAY GET:  14 years’ imprisonment / an unlimited fine / a ban from driving for at least 2 years / an extended driving test before your licence is returned

We have to agree we are no longer exempt from “tonight, this occasion will be fine”. Remember what damage we can do to others. In the case of Ant McPartlin, he was on suburban roads, I’m guessing travelling 40 miles per hour and ended up crashing into 2 other vehicles. The consumption of booze distorts your ability to drive even if you think you’re invincible.

Is it time to reduce the limits in the UK to zero acceptance? Do we need to uphold this and refuse to get into the car if we know the driver has consumed alcohol?

Ad 1They say the risk of being knocked down by a car is higher than ever, what if that ‘one night’ you’re the pedestrian?  Do you want this parking space?

Uber is just too easy, get a bus, ask a friend to pick you up, walk! Is it really that hard to arrange and leave the car keys at home? What do you think?

Have you got behind the wheel for that super short 5-minute journey you know like the back of your hand, even though you should have been nowhere near your car?  What about our Ant McPartlin, what sentence should he receive?

As 2

 

Graffiti – art, statement or defiance?

I surprised myself. I was actually angry about it. I knew it is the result of a culmination of factors but this gawd damn graffiti pissed me right off.

Is it right to deface your public environment? Is it defacing? It certainly didn’t feel hip or edgy to me and I am clearly both of those things 😃 It looked dirty, inconsiderate, shabby and definitely not chic.

The more I absorbed it, the angrier it made me feel. Like ‘the people’ just don’t care and didn’t see it.

No surprises that ancient Greece is involved in the evolution of graffiti. Language is one of the many legacies of how the Greeks have hugely influenced the modern world. The Greek language has the longest documented history of any living Indo-European language, spanning 34 centuries of written records. Who knew but graffiti is the plural word! From the Italian word graffio (“a scratch”) and graffiato (“scratched”), originating from the Greek word γράφειν — graphein — meaning “to write”.

Additionally, evidence of the first known ‘modern’ graffiti survives in the ancient Greek city of Ephesus now modern-day Turkey. BUT is it graffiti? Local guides say it is promoting prostitution so is this not early proof of the ‘ad man’?

The current Oxford English Dictionary definition is:  NOUN – treated as singular or plural

Writing or drawings scribbled, scratched, or sprayed illicitly on a wall or other surface in a public place.

The public canvas. A very important factor. Does the person creating the graffiti consider this? A big white wall in the heart of a city must be an attractive proposition to paint but what if this wall is a hospital, a church, a restaurant? Is this art or vandalism?

Prague's Lennon wallWhat is art? The expression of creative imagination producing something in visual form to solely be appreciated for its beauty and the emotion it can convey. A branch of art is painting, therefore, graffiti ‘must’ be art. Or is it?  Do you like the Lennon Wall in Prague pictured?

Art is also considered to be a skill and a craft, is graffiti a skill? The biggest discussion relating to art is that it is subjective. What I like and appreciate may be completely nonsensical to you.

So, a modern definition then is that graffiti IS street art. If it were that simple.

Since the invention of the spray paint can, the individual would covertly tag walls in the night. Possibly to communicate a gang area or just to occupy a bored brain. For me, this is plain vandalism. No great art or skill to spray a circle or graphic text on the property of someone else’s business or home. No consideration of the consequences to the person who owns the wall now adorned. Public opinion on whether tagging is acceptable remains very divided.

In Athens, for me, the graffiti was everywhere. On the walls of the shops, cafes, empty derelict houses and the list continues. It was part of the fabric of the city but its the capital of the country, approximately 5 million tourists visit annually to delve into mythology and history to be greeted with more than half a city that’s neither pretty to wander nor atmospheric or in places, safe to wander. Generally, the residents don’t seem to see the issue.  It felt like they didn’t care enough about their own city then why are we, tourists, coming to explore, to spend our time there and even more so, our money.

I was completely ignorant of the history of a modern Greece and I do mean modern; 1950s onward. They have never had it easy. After reading up on the state of play for their last 60+ years, Greece has undergone many reasons to not care. Most of us are aware of the 2010 European sovereign debt crisis of which the country’s stability remains off kilter. The current population is still suffering from high inflation, unemployment, immigration and 7 years later it didn’t feel like there was a light at the end of the tunnel. In September 1999 and February 1981 the city was hit by devastating earthquakes, damaging housing and industry. The country was under a military dictatorship from 1967 to 1974.

I’ve listed just 4 human experiences from the last 6 decades that must have impacted greatly on the Greek individual. I can imagine that the urge to look after only yourself and your own becomes greater in time of crisis and strife.

I felt the people may have lost a connection to their community, their environment and the effect each has on their neighbour. One lady I worked with stated there is no sense of society. No great pride for environment. It feels like the pride for their history is also deteriorated too.

Maybe too much has happened for the locals to recognise how important the city was, it should never be forgotten that Athens was the birthplace of democracy, philosophy, theatre, medicine and science.

Others say Athens is a paradise for graffiti artists, however, I didn’t see much quality just the quantity. The usual spray can tagging is put down to high youth unemployment, a general sense of unrest, and authorities being stretched too thin to do much about it. Frankly, the police have bigger problems if they deigned to show they actually do want to uphold the laws of the land.

Whilst I was there, I also heard from the locals working at the hostel that the police do nothing hence there is little to no respect for authorities even if they did try to clamp down. Few walls were spared. If these ‘defiant artists’ are broke then why are they wasting their money on spray paint?

Now let’s look at street or urban art. Graffiti has evolved, murals are much more considered.

Banksy Pulp Fiction

I’d be surprised if you have not heard of Banksy, one of the UK’s most prolific street artists.  Now internationally renowned.Banksy Bristol

 

 

 

 

Plus Blek le Rat and Stik below – all said to be the Picassos of urban art. I don’t know if I’d go that far but the fact their works are in the public domain, they must have more visibility than a framed picture in a gallery.

I am a walking contradiction because I believe the urban murals to be colourful, provocative, accessible, stylistic and opinionated. I have to admit I like it and I do consider it to be art. Yet it is still a crime if the owner of the public canvas did not give consent. My simple reason for accepting it, at least it shows a talent and is almost always aesthetically pleasing.  The rubix cube from Budapest and the women’s face in Poland.

Potentially created to portray a message, a statement that can be connected to the location. I don’t mean it has to be frescoes of Athens, all twee olive trees and sunsets belying the real Athens life. It can still be gritty and aggressive. Graffiti art is a form of communication and self-expression. I believe the art adds dignity to the message.

Athens what nextThe photos above and below are two examples I saw hidden away in Athens.  I particularly like the one below as it communicates exactly how the artist and community are feeling – Zero cent-iment. 

0 centi-mentThis is what the city needed more of. I encourage and promote examples such as this. This can add character to a city location and not forget this can result in visitors and visitors bring money.

In a city as advanced as Athens then why not ask business owners to connect with street artists, why not permit large-scale public areas such as bridges or parks where people are allocated specific spaces for their creations – sounds far too organised and regulated for it to happen.

What do you think? Does it make a difference to you on holiday or at home? These are just a couple of impressive features I’ve seen on my travels – art or vandalism?

Bratislava street artSalzburg underpassLodz urban mural

Day 1 of month 11, can you believe it, no April fools’ joke. I lost blog focus but I am back and we need to talk

It started in beautiful Budapest, early December 2017, the lack of volunteering opportunities over the festive period was disheartening. This was my first obstacle, everything else had fallen in to place quite simply. I imagined the festive price peak and working for my bed negated the overinflated holiday price hike. I’d always wanted to visit Athens… it’s, THE Athens. Filled with millennia of mythology, philosophy, the Olympics and sun!  So when this opportunity came up I was chuffed but not necessarily as confident as previous placements. Transpires my gut was right.

Overlooking AthensTravelling always has its ups and downs but I felt like a fish out of water.  Too many loud unpredictable Mediterranean personalities. All too lawless for me. Exaggerated by my fellow hostel guests.  Not personally showing aggression to me but the city feels negative; citizens ready to break rules at any point with little thought of the consequences to others. I felt a bubbling mutiny and no, I don’t think this is new because of the current economic situation, but I am sure it has heightened it.

Only just a couple of days after I left protesting turned to rioting.  Anti-establishment protesters and the Greek police clashed outside the parliament house.  The tensions at the end of 2 marches ended in Molotov cocktails and Police using tear gas and stun grenades.  The clash between the people and the authorities is not new in this city.


This location was my lowest point.

I had committed to 4 weeks over Christmas and new year, I managed 3.  Giving a little notice was the polite, ever so British, thing to do.  I’ve known some ‘help exchangers’ give only 1-day notice because their experience was extreme.  Mine was only annoying.   I felt I couldn’t immediately leave my pre-agreed commitment to the host, even though she was part of the problem, it was Christmas and I didn’t like leaving her in the proverbial.

My greater challenge was to find an easy ‘next location’ as the only Greek island I’ve ever had on my wish list was Santorini.  Especially as islands are basically ‘closed’ season over Christmas and New Year.  I am surprised that the destination has not boomed like the Canary Islands for sun seekers in the winter but the Greeks have decided no – they need holiday time too.

I caught up with a lot of box sets, I know I could have travelled out into the country but I just wasn’t ‘feeling it’.  I only had to work 2 nights a week which I quite enjoyed except for clearing up their trash.  In the words of Christina Aguilera that hostel felt diiiirty.  The type of rebel without a cause guest hung out smelling of weed or unwashed bodies in the cold communal areas. Cooking up a storm then leaving a trail of curried fish, beer cans and cigarette tobacco & filters behind them

My annoyance about their lack of effort just made me, sadly, too quickly, join their ‘why bother’ brigade.  Accentuated by winter germs that got me twice. Two different colds in 3 weeks.  Sharing a dorm with different people has this risk. Plus their infuriating desire to breathe so-called fresh air.  The locals are used to open doors and windows but I’m not a fan when the temperature is only 10 degrees compared to the usual Greek 30+. Not the paradise I was hoping for.

There were other lovely guests and volunteers in the same boat as me, even the catching of colds, I was reassured I was not irrational.  I tried, with little success, to find warm places to work, the hilarious contradiction of being cold inside turned to frustration.  I was losing the battle to close the sources of cold draughts, I’m wearing a scarf and 2 jumpers in a building with lots of cold hard surfaces but this wasn’t obvious to others, I should have worn a sign around my neck.

Their summer lasts so much longer than winter so it seems they just grin and bear it. This was 3 weeks of 1st world grumbles and it wasn’t all bad but I’m not so good at positive thinking when cold.  I certainly couldn’t complain about the amount of free time I had yet I couldn’t get the sunny disposition of a character out of the films Mamma Mia or Shirley Valentine.  They were loving Greece, why wasn’t I?

Yes, ok, some of it was fun!

Talking to only 2 friends who have visited Athens, opinion is different.  Having 1 day, 3 days or 3 weeks in a city will obviously expand experiences and feelings.  Both friends liked Athens to varying degrees, I remember their enthusiasm encouraged me to go.  A tour guide I met, an Irish chap, moved to Athens for a girlfriend.  The girl long gone, he remains in Athens nearly 2 years on, because he loves it.  His words “I like that anything goes, there are few rules.  The people including the authorities just look the other way”.  I quite enjoy reminiscing through rose-coloured specs now but no way could I have stayed longer.

I highly recommend a whistle-stop 1 day or even a long weekend but that’s about it.

I fell into my duvet, acquired a second to create a den and continued with the Amazon prime box set addiction (Watch these: very good!  Please Like Me, Black-ish, and This is Us – you’ll need tissues for 2 of these).

The best type of procrastination is the rabbit hole of the internet, sightseeing, recovering from sightseeing or working to pay for the travel.  Not my blog though.   I recognised I didn’t want my blog to be a travel guide there are many to compete with.  But what had I initially thought it would be?

I had not achieved the volunteering in the true sense of the word, for each country.  This needed a lot more advance scheduling of destination and route than I wanted, getting answers from country government bodies is nye on impossible and with the language barrier too. Nightmare.

SnoopyIn December I had over 15 unfinished blogs to edit but I felt stuck: definitive writer’s block.  A creative dud.

Then the penny dropped. I absorb my world around me.  I have questions, observations and much opinion. I absolutely believe this is because I’m a solo traveller. In a couple or group then your focus is elsewhere or you may immediately debate and share right at the moment.

I left the ‘Aguilera’ hostel and moved to another for only 3 nights.  What a difference!  My shoulders relaxed knowing that the bedroom and front doors wouldn’t be wide open allowing Joe Public access if they were curious.  My nose wasn’t filled with stinky substances in the public areas.  I had my quiet space to recover from germs and I was warmer!

I decided in my little cubicle bed, like any product or service, I needed to ‘re-clarify my brand’.  I never really thought about who is reading before just that I make the text flow and enjoyable to read when I’m 70.  BUT NOW…I do want to know who’s reading and start a conversation, with you.  Conversation

I’ll consider and share my factoids and ponderings about place or people, more of the former no doubt.  What you’ll be pleased to read is – fewer words, more frequency. A print columnist delivers an average 800 words. I’ll be happy if I can keep under 1400.  I’m starting well with this adding up to around 1375 🙂

So here goes, it has still taken me time to get ahead of myself, to combat my travel procrastination but my revitalised blog starts today.  A big contribution to why I felt negatively of Athens and how it’s not a tourist destination for more than a cruise day trip or pre/post-island hop stop off – “Graffiti – art, statement or defiance?”.  Available online and in your inbox in exactly 45 minutes.

My request to you. Please contribute, please comment. Look forward to it.  Your opinion is as interesting and as valid as mine. Though for you trolls and spammers beware, don’t bother, you’ll just get deleted.  To the rest of you, loving our chat, it’s healthy to have an opinion. We can do fun, educated and eloquent, can’t we?  Hope to hear from you tomorrow!

My 6 month map and me

Map Jun to Dec 17Well how fabulous, I finally found a website that allowed me to plot all the locations I visited on one single image!  A successful 6-month adventure, don’t ya think?

I hadn’t set out with a statistical goal in mind such as how many places to tick off a list.  Mine was more a duration exploring the continent.  I am back in good old GB for a 2 week holiday to see family and friends faces, to eat home-cooked favourites, to see a West End show or 3.  All the personal activities I’ve missed.  I’ve been surprised I didn’t have time to miss physical ‘things’ and technology enables us to communicate in exactly the same way I do if I was in my home country.  I didn’t feel far away at all.

If you’re interested then it’s been fun to look at some figures:

  • 184 days in Europe excluding my current time ‘at the folks’
  •   12 countries
  •   37 cities
  •   28 hostels
  •     4 hotels including 3 volunteering locations
  •     3 Airbnb
  •   85 days volunteering and help exchange
  •   42 train journeys
  •     2 plane journeys
  • Way too many local bus, tram and metro journeys to include!

Looking back, in no way did I stick to my initial plan of #slowtravel.  During the summer, I was more excited and inclined to stay in a city or town for 4-7 days and then move on, so many sights to see and supposedly so little time!  Working online or blogging, pah I’ll do tomorrow.  This should come as no surprise and now will be quite the change of focus to keep on adventuring.

Favourites!  Difficult to say because all destinations had plus points, sights that made me speechless, good beer and even better wine!  Prague was one of the most beautiful cities, Budapest one of the most cosmopolitan, Rothenberg ob der Tauber and Cesky Krumlov are immediate recommendations for weekend breaks or longer holidays.  If I list anymore this will become a copy of my route.

Bad memories usually fade but I really dislike sausages, not a fan of overnight trains, failing technology when you really need it to work, smelly food in a hostel… I’m clearly wearing my rose tinted specs, I’ve gone blank with my grumbles and groans.  Nothing was that bad, I lived a simple life, not much happening to moan about.

I’m going back to Poland in March 2018 and action always speaks louder than words.  I did fall in love with the country and the people; the food, not so much.

Hope you enjoy the photos as I blitz the upload with my mum and dad’s wifi.

It truly has been amazing, I am a different person.  I have seen much good in people, weirdly I have enjoyed spending time with people as much as I have satisfying solitude.  I have learnt their history and geography while being immersed in their country and culture.

I hadn’t met as many people ‘on the road’ as I thought I might; us solo travellers can be happily cocooned in our oneness and pairs insular in coupledom.  Albeit all very content.  Thank you to social media as those I have connected with, whilst our time may be short in proportion to our travels, I can easily keep in touch with you and see you again very soon.

I was horizontal in my relaxation during most of my travels.  I feel extremely lucky to have the freedom and opportunity that others don’t.  Let alone being born an English native speaker and a Brit [even though our nation really did do some despicable things in the past!].

I love being an explorer; the wanderlust remains and the travels continue.  The anticipation and research of a new location, the excitement to view a sight or sound that I’d absorbed from articles and images online or in a travel book.  You must know by now how much I love train transit and looking out the window as the scenery unfolds and there is so much to see in the world.

I love catching up and seeing family and friends but the itchy feet start after only a week.  Being in one place is not for me right now.  After the clocks changed, I registered how little I like autumn and winter even when not conforming to the London rat race dark commute to and from work.  I am flying south with the birds!

Ryanair booked Sunday 17th December to ATHENS for Christmas and New Year [via Poznan in Poland for a cheap deal].  Volunteering help exchange for 4 weeks, maybe more.  The general plan is to head north from mid/end of January to Poland by mid-March.  Much to see along the Dalmatian Coast or popping in and out of Balkan countries on my way up!  Details to be confirmed, it’s too early for specifics.

I’m searching for an NGO volunteer position or even better a cat rescue centre in Croatia – if you’ve heard or seen anything on your personal travels then please contact me.

I’ll be completing my Teaching English as a Foreign Language in Poland with AngloVille during March and following this, the international world will be my oyster.  That is a whole different chapter.

I set off in June to go ‘miles for smiles”; this has been 100% achieved!

The fun of the unwritten hostel etiquette

To date, I have seen 23 hostels and including my volunteering, I have enjoyed 121 bed nights in 27 shared rooms with anywhere from 1 to 9 room companions; all of those roomies have very different ideas of how we should interact and share space.

I’m ‘relatively’ chilled about it, I certainly have pet hates that invariably feature on my Facebook feed to air my grievance. I appreciate it’s not forever, roommates change all the time and whilst you may have concerns, don’t worry there is a code.

I have shared rooms whilst travelling since joining Scouts aged 15 in 1992. Tent, hostel dormitory, university digs, hotel room – it’s all the same. Are you a person who keeps themselves and their stuff relatively compact or are you a loud, messy cuckoo “your space is my space”.

From the tone of that sentence, you can guess, I’m the former.

I can write this blog in jest and be chilled because my saviour is the earbud! A soft gentle earplug that will dull sound even if the battery on my mobile phone or laptop is dead and gone. The ideal distraction is music or podcast.

Torture would have been losing my mind listening to the rustling and faffing of people, or the munching of food, and the shuffle of flat-footed adults that cannot walk in slippers…. the list goes on. Don’t heed all my of grumbles, I have an inability to block out certain sounds. I am unphased in the cacophony of coffee shop peak hour but sit next to me in the same cafe and repeatedly sniff, I will want to punch you in your drippy nose.

What surprised me was the varying ages of the inconsiderate [oOoo I sound stroppy] and that culture and nationality could be a potential factor. Consider too, I am a Brit expecting my version of hostel etiquette in a European hostel with international travellers.

Here are a few examples of the actions of others; acceptable or bad form? A heads up really, if you do any of the above then it’s likely you are getting evil looks.

  • Alarm on loud and early – Should the whole room wake up because ‘someone’ has a check-out at 5am?
  • Packing and repacking of bags uber late or early – is that the time to be jangling padlocks, rustling bags and zips, opening and closing locker doors or drawers?
  • Turning the room main lights on after 10pm – someone could be sleeping here!
  • Slippers – love or hate, they definitely don’t belong in the access and egress routes to the toilet in the middle of the night
  • Using all the plug/power sockets with multiple devices for one person – now don’t be a hog
  • Leaving the room door open early in the morning or late at night – the lock on a door usually means it wants to be closed
  • Stage whisperers – you’ve been out all day with your companion/s, what’s so important to say now?
  • Noisy neighbours – No one wants to hear TV shows and 3 genres of music all at the same time.  Nor Aunt Flossie on Skype or your tales of last nights exploits whilst you’re on the phone.

I had a maniacal situation in my 20s where I’ve wanted to throw daggers at a young girl obsessively packing and repacking her plastic bags before 7am.  To then find out on my check-out that this was a ‘thing’ that some Eastern Asian guests like to do. As your atypical Brit abroad, I was nursing a hangover and the last thing I could handle was the rustling of plastic for hours.

Fast forward 20 years and the plastic bag rustling continues! Many more backpackers, no matter the nationality, separate their belongings in plastic bags or the ziplock bag that also crinkles and crackles. I need to invent a backpack or suitcase insert that’s made from fabric with no zip or velcro or anything that makes noise…. hmmm, I caveat that with a copyright, trademark, inventors registration…what ever the word, that’s MY IDEA!

I have been the cause of a loud stage “sshhhhhhhhhhuush” mid-guffaw, the person stumbling from a top bunk ladder trying to get to find the toilet in the darkness and the post-alcohol snorer! How can such a short person produce the decibels whilst asleep? It’s both a blessing and a curse.

I have heard excessively weird noises from beds; I shudder at the thought. Even the rhythmic bang, bang, bang of an old bunk bed knocking against a tall metal locker whilst my roommate decided to bring a bloke back home. To the room, she shared with 3 other people.  What!?!?!? My poor friend had to leave her rocking top bunk and find alternative sleeping arrangements. Even then I was prepared for noise, just not that particular noise! A portable tape Walkman and a beloved Crowded House cassette on maximum volume. Those traditional foam earphone pads were not as successful blocking out peripheral sound but at least I could get back to sleep. Don’t worry this WAS NOT a hostel but the ‘fun’ of shared accommodation whilst working abroad when I was 19.

I’ll stop putting you off by regaling the worst of incidents that honestly don’t happen often.

Hostel etiquette 101, that makes hostels fun for everyone

  • Hours of activity, chatter, noise, and light is usually 8am to 10pm
  • Bedrooms at night are, surprise, surprise, for sleeping
  • In the day, imagine the bedroom is the quiet carriage of a train i.e. no phones calls
  • Earphones are mandatory for music and TV
  • Don’t walk around in shorts and a t-shirt then complain it’s cold [and vice versa]
  • Exhibitionists take note; some don’t want to see your bra and thong, or six-pack/beer-gut and package
  • Think before you hit the light switch
  • Take a moment to inhale your odour
  • Don’t be a slob
  • Leave the romance outside
  • Acknowledge your roomies, a nod or a smile will do

Hostels vary as much as hotels. Amenities such as kitchens, bar service, cafe or lounge seating, TV, programme of activities or only a breakfast room that closes after 11am.  The choice is wide and another nod to Tim Berners-Lee for the wonder-web; you can use aggregate websites such as Hostelling International, Hostel World, Booking.com, Hostel Bookers or Hostels.com. Each has a search engine for your location, price range, facilities, size of bedroom, same-sex bedrooms, customer ratings etc.

The future is here. The Japanese thought of the capsule bedroom hotel and this has now been tweaked to hugely improve the hostel dormitory experience. I am typing this cocooned in a lower bunk bed; the days of the exposed unsteady squeaky metal bunk bed is widely disappearing. All sides of my capsule are fixed wood panels except one, the side I access the bed has a curtain to pull across when I’m all tucked in. I have my dedicated lamp on, 2 plug sockets for my devices, shelf for bits and bobs plus a long mattress that even a 6 footer would be comfortable in.

 

I have stayed in 6 hostels with their version of a capsule/cubicle bed and even with the worst [the pink one], it felt more private and that makes such a difference.

My absolute favourite is the capsule bed at the ’boutique hostel’. It sounds a little pretentious but I recognise the name is PR, a need to differentiate from the party-hard hostel or the family-friendly hostel.  The Katowice Pinball Hostel was the best mattress and most uniquely themed, shame they only check in till 8pm!  The Old Kings Fussen Design Hostel is an easy recommendation.

The upcoming breed of uniquely themed and stylish hostels is growing. I appreciate the interior decoration in a hostel as much as I do a hotel, maybe more.  The Art Hotel and Hostel in Passau and The Secret Garden Hostel and Apartments in Krakow are 2 locations I stayed where they invested in their own styling as well as maximising the bed space and offering shared bathroom facilities.

The Benefits

  • Cost savings
  • Make friends with other travellers
  • The average guest age is older than you’d think
  • Cooking and kitchen facilities
  • Location, location, location
  • Social communal areas, possible bar and/or cafe discounts to residents
  • Hints and tips of sights and sounds, what’s ‘worth it’ at your destination
  • Free WIFI
  • Lockable storage lockers
  • Inclusive breakfast at many
  • Cheap services and facilities such as on-site laundry, towel hire, board games & pool tables, even swimming pools!

I have stayed in one hotel throughout my near 6 months of travel. Just 2 nights in the equivalent of a 4* hotel with en-suite bath and shower, full continental breakfast buffet including an omelette station, swimming pool, jacuzzi and a petite room balcony overlooking the Austrian village and stunning mountain sunset views. It was a well-deserved treat after my alpine volunteering albeit Innsbruck’s lack of hostels did almost insist that I do it BUT it was different. It felt a little detached. It’s not to say I couldn’t have but I wouldn’t naturally start talking to the guests about their trip and travel experiences. Unlikely to have bonded over red wine and cigarettes. Lastly, I used to work in hotels similar to this setup and it felt like a busman’s holiday.

Hostels do have other options to the dormitory.  Rooms can be single occupancy plus double beds, twins, triple and even quad options. Some have en-suite toilets and showers. I have a feeling this decision would be based on whether you like to spend hours in the shower, like to take your time in front of the mirror and important to us all – the want to poo in peace. You won’t be the first or the last.

My primary expectation is a shared bedroom and a shared bathroom in exchange for the clear financial saving. My average cost per paid hostel bed is £18.50 per night. If budget and price is the driving decision factor for you, the trick is to use these search engines to source your top 3 and then double check against the property website as you may get the bed even cheaper.

You may also be interested to hear when I include my free shared accommodation during volunteering projects this massively diluted my cost of sleeping to a pleasingly low £10.04 per night. I have been impressed with over 2 thirds of my hostels for varying reasons and that’s a fantastic ratio.

Whether you’re 18 or 38 or 58, hostels can offer you more than you expect at a fraction of the price of a hotel.  With my continued travels, I want to stay at Generator Hostels.  This brand looks like the one to watch!

 

Why volunteer?

Do you know what volunteering is?  Do you know the benefits to you are huge?  Do you know where to volunteer?  I am happy to help!

Volunteering is defined as ‘freely offering yourself to a service or undertaking, to do so willingly and without pay’.  Sounds ever so formal.  Let’s break it down.

For me, I believe we are genetically disposed to give and as reward we feel what I call the ‘warm and fuzzies’.  Both my sister and mother contribute a lot to their interests.  Both have much busier diaries than I.  I cannot commit quite so much time, and that’s all volunteering is.  Can you give a little time to those in need?

Over the years I have volunteered with Scouting, leading groups of Explorer Scouts aged 14 to 18 in Redditch and London.  I thoroughly enjoy supporting charities such as being a cheer squad steward on The Moonwalk route.  I have taken part in Volu-tourism; volunteering with young people in Peru and Vietnam.  I have had enormous once in a lifetime opportunities as a Games Maker for London 2012 Olympics and a poppy planter at the Tower of London.  Most recently teaching conversational English with AngloVille in Poland and the Czech Republic.  I have loved every minute!

“it makes me proud to be a part of something that can improve and impact other people’s lives”

Time is a precious commodity but volunteering doesn’t have to take over your life. Research shows that just two hours a week can provide many rewards, to both you and your chosen cause.  That said, the most important thing is to volunteer only the amount of time that feels comfortable for you.  If you can only give time monthly then you will still receive the ‘warm and fuzzies’, and your cause will benefit from your support.

Volunteering is to be fun, not another task on your to-do list.  You can and you will get so much from it, I promise you.

I asked a couple of friends who volunteer, what do they do and why they do… it’s not just me.  Go for it, don’t think too much about it, as Nike says ‘just do it!’

My childhood friend Kathryn, whom first invited and introduced me to Scouting continues to be involved, previously with Cubs for over 10 years, and now a Scout Leader with a weekly group of 10.5-14-year-olds in Northwich:  “To help give others the fun, great opportunities I have had with Scouts. I enjoy seeing them develop, mature, learn problem-solving, life skills. Passing skills I have learnt on to others. Seeing mixed groups of children come together and appreciating them for who they are without the pressures of education and school life. Lastly, it keeps my own skills up and makes my life busy and interesting.”

My mum is always busy with her bowls club committee, public speaking and church activities “When I volunteer I always get something special back!” 

My sister Bernice volunteers with City Pastors Birmingham once a month. To support the police and street wardens to keep the vulnerable safe on the streets and be a presence especially at night. It’s run by volunteers from 16 different churches in Birmingham.  “A great chance to meet people from other churches and very rewarding when I know I have helped someone who might otherwise have been ill, injured or at risk.”

The benefits

Contribute to a cause or your community

Volunteering offers vital help to people in need, worthwhile causes, and the local community. It doesn’t have to involve a long-term commitment or take a huge amount of time out of your busy day. Giving in simple ways can help.

Julia from Wellesbourne, UK recently joined her elder son’s football club committee:  “I joined because when Ethan [younger son] was in hospital over Christmas last year, the Wellesbourne Wanderers donated Christmas presents to the children on the ward and it really touched me. I got approached to help with their committee to help organise events that the children can get involved in within the community and thought it was a good way to give back. Their actions meant a lot to me during hard times and thought it would be nice to be a part of that.”

Make new friends

One of the easiest ways to make new friends or strengthen existing relationships is to experience a shared activity together. While some people are naturally outgoing, others are shy and have a hard time meeting new people.   This will give confidence as you are meeting regularly with people and a common interest. Volunteering will easily broaden your network of friends and volunteer acquaintances.

Michelle from Kentucky USA, now living in Poland “As an expat, I volunteer to make a difference in my new home country. It’s my way to learn about Poland and give back to the people that have made my time here an amazing experience. Plus, I feel like I’ve made new lifelong friends.”   

Support your mental and physical health

Volunteering helps counteract the effects of stress, anger, and anxiety. The social contact aspect of helping and working with others can have a profound effect on your overall psychological well-being.   Volunteering combats depression. By measuring hormones and brain activity, researchers have discovered that being helpful to others delivers immense pleasure. Human beings are hard-wired to give to others. The more we give, the happier we feel.

Volunteering increases self-confidence. You are doing good for others and the community, which provides a natural sense of accomplishment. A sense of pride and identity. The better you feel about yourself, the more likely you are to have a positive view of your life and future goals.

Volunteering provides a sense of purpose. Older adults, especially those who have retired or lost a spouse, can find new meaning and direction in their lives by helping others. Whatever your age or life situation, volunteering can help take your mind off your own worries, keep you mentally stimulated, and add more zest to your life.

Volunteering helps you stay physically healthy. Studies have found that those who volunteer have a lower mortality rate than those who do not. Older volunteers tend to walk more, find it easier to cope with everyday tasks, are less likely to develop high blood pressure, and have better-thinking skills. Volunteering can also lessen symptoms of chronic pain and reduce the risk of heart disease.

Advance a job or new career

Volunteering offers you the chance to try out a new career without making a long-term commitment. It is also a great way to gain experience in a new field. For example, if you’re interested in nursing, you could help at a hospital or a nursing home.   Your volunteer work might also expose you to professional organizations or internships that could be of benefit to your career.

Learn a new skill

Just because volunteer work is unpaid does not mean the skills you learn are basic. Many opportunities provide extensive training. For example, you could become an experienced crisis counselor while supporting a women’s shelter or expand your art history knowledge while donating your time as a museum guide.

You can build upon skills you already have and use them to benefit the greater community. For instance, if you hold a successful sales position, you raise awareness for your favorite cause as a volunteer advocate. Developing and improving your public speaking, communication, and marketing skills.

Explore your interests and passions.

Doing volunteer work you find meaningful and interesting can be a relaxing and a motivating escape from your day-to-day routine of work, school, or family commitments.

My travelling buddy Fiona was a member of her hockey club committee: “To keep the sport alive, and encourage people to play for fun. I was never the best player but I’m good at organising, so it enabled me to give back, by paying it forward.”     

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How to start volunteering

  • Ask yourself if there is something specific you want to do.
  • Do you want to improve the area you live in?
  • Do you want to meet people different to you or try something new?
  • Do you enjoy a specific sport or pastime?
  • Are you creative? Social media or IT expert?
  • Do you enjoy organising activities?
  • Do you enjoy talking to the older generation or entertaining the younger?

 

Just a few organisations needing volunteers

Where can you help?

Contact and visit the club or group you’re interested in.  Find out more out the expectations and meet people you’ll be volunteering with.   Be comfortable with the organisation and understand the time commitment. Consider starting small so you don’t over commit at first. Give yourself some flexibility to change your focus if needed.

If volunteering overseas, choose carefully. Some volunteer programs abroad can cause more harm than good if they take much-needed paying jobs away from local workers.

Enjoy yourself. The best volunteer experiences benefit both the volunteer and those who need your help.

Brandon from Texas: “Each opportunity serves a different purpose, however, one thing that all my experiences have in common is that they help those in need. I enjoy serving others and I am fulfilled knowing that I made a difference in someone’s life.”

If you are in Europe or international please look at the country pages, I am endeavouring to update as quickly as possible!

If you are in the UK then information on available volunteer positions in your areas can be found online or contact organisations and charities directly:

I would love to hear about your experiences and any possible volunteer vacancies I can share on my website and social media. Good luck and have fun!

European geography for dummies

Just a little fun for some and much needed helpful information for others! Don’t worry, no one is judging, I’m sharing 😉

Pop quiz to see where you’re at.  This is the consequence of hilarious conversations in many hostels throughout my travels.  You’ll find the quiz answers in the blurb I’m about to impart! Good luck.

  • What country is the largest island in the European continent?
  • What and where is the smallest country?
  • How many countries, as well as England, are in Great Britain?
  • Gibraltar is part of which country?
  • Where do you find Lapland?
  • Where is Yugoslavia?
  • What is the most westerly EU capital city?
  • What is the most easterly EU capital city?
  • Which Scandinavian country is not part of the EU?
  • How many EU countries use their own currency and what are they?
  • Which 4 non-EU countries are part of the Schengen Zone?

Feel happy?  Feel informed?  If not, read on…

There are 50 countries in the continent of Europe with a total of more than 852 million people living on the continent. Only 28 of the European states/countries belong to the European Union.

Great Britain is the largest island in Europe!  Did you think it was Greenland? Greenland is economically and politically part of Denmark however geographically (but not culturally) is part of North America.

The Vatican City is the smallest country in Europe and the world, both by population and by size.  Located within Italy’s capital city of Rome.

What’s in a name?

Let us start with my homeland.  Yes, I’m from England which is just one small country within the British Isles. This handy diagram may help

British Isles, GB and UK.jpg

  • So… the British Isles includes The United Kingdom, the Isle of Man, and the Republic of Ireland.
  • The UK’s full name is The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
  • Great Britain or Britain comprises 3 constituent nations: England, Scotland, Wales

Did you know?  The ‘Great’ in Great Britain (Britannia Major in Roman times) is to distinguish it from the other, smaller “Britain”: Brittany (Britannia Minor) in northwestern France.

It’s important to remember that the Republic of Ireland is a completely separate state from the United Kingdom, that seceded from the Union in 1922 and gained full independence in 1937.

Benelux

Benelux is a name for 3 counties: Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg.

The Low Countries is a coastal region consisting of the Netherlands and Belgium, and the low-lying delta of the Rhine, Meuse, Scheldt, and Ems rivers (in France and Germany) where much of the land is at or below sea level.

Strictly speaking, Scandinavia consists of Iceland, Denmark including the Faroe Islands, Sweden and Norway.

In broader terms, Finland and Iceland are in addition to Scandinavia when talking about the Nordic Countries.

Scandinavia

The Balkan PeninsulaThe Balkan Peninsula is more or less equivalent to the region known as Southeastern Europe. This great map shows the Balkan Peninsula which includes areas that were the former Yugoslavia. The Balkans or Balkan states are defined differently, by political borders rather than geography. I’ll not confuse you too much.

Those not considered as ‘the Balkans’ are Greece and the European part of Turkey, depending on which book or website you’re reading. That’s politics for you!

Slavic states are those countries with Slavic-speaking communities. These include many of the Balkans: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia.

Baltic States

The Baltics or Baltic States. were once occupied by the Soviet Union, but they were among the first to break away in 1990—1991 and today are proud members of both the European Union and NATO.

On my map to the right, can you see Kaliningrad Oblast under Lithuania? A small exclave of Russia that you need to get a Russian visa and proceed through customs to enter.

Europe has a number of island dependencies and lesser known territories in proximity to the mainland continent.

  • The Isle of Man is part of the UK. Gibraltar is not an island but a peninsula of Spain yet also part of the UK.
  • The Faroe Islands and Greenland are autonomous territories of Denmark.
  • Svalbard is administered by Norway; a land frozen all year round except for 3 weeks of summer.
  • A different one: Åland is an autonomous territory of Finland however culturally belongs to Sweden with a majority of native Swedish speakers.
  • A really confusing one: The Channel Islands are an archipelago (group of islands) in the English Channel off the Normandy coast of France. Divided into two British Crown Dependencies, the Bailiwicks of Guernsey and Jersey. The former includes the islands of Alderney, Sark and Herm, and smaller islands are divided between the two bailiwicks. The islands are not part of the United Kingdom or European Union, but rather are possessions of the British Crown with independent administrations. Their inhabitants are British citizens. Told you that wasn’t exactly simple!

Lapland!  On my travels I have been surprised many have not heard of Lapland. More than one country has a Lapland; derived from the Sami people (also Sámi or Saami) traditionally known in English as Lapps or Laplanders.

Ultimately the most northerly regions of Finland, Norway and Sweden; traditional areas inhabited by the Sami people. Plus this is a rare term for the Russian province Murmansk.  Lapland is synonymous with Christmas due to the herds of reindeer, links to Santa Claus and abundance of pines, spruces and snow.

The Mediterranean countries are those with a coast in the Mediterranean Basin:  Portugal, Spain, France, Monaco, Italy, Slovenia, San Marino, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, Malta and the British territory of Gibraltar.

Catalonia is an autonomous community of Spain located on the northeastern extremity of the Iberian Peninsula. It consists of four provinces including all important Barcelona.  As of October 2017, the Catalan regional parliament voted to declare independence from Spain as Madrid prepared to to impose direct rule.

The Amalfi Coast lies in the southwestern region of Campania, Italy.  Not to be confused with The Dalmatian Coast which is Croatia’s dramatic limestone cliff shoreline and islands scattered offshore.

Alpine countries have the Alps and Danubian countries lie along the River Danube.  Are you noticing a naming trend?

Those that were…

Yugoslavia WAS divided in 1991 and 1992. It no longer exists. The huge area consisted of current countries: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia.

The USSR WAS the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics or shortened to The Soviet Union. A socialist state that existed between 1922 and 1991.

Prussia WAS once the leading state in a huge German Empire, existing in various guises from 1701 to 1947. I’ll be attempting more on this subject in my ‘European History for Dummies’. It will take this dummy a while to compile and simplify!

Czechoslovakia WAS the combined countries of now independent Slovakia and the Czech Republic. They completed a conscious uncoupling in 1993. A once troubled country. Forced partial incorporation into Nazi Germany between 1939-1945. Shortly followed by Soviet bloc command 1948-1990.

Europe and the EU are different folks

EU countriesThe EU is the European Union. A politico-economic union of European nations. It consists of 28 members as of 2017 (I’m ignoring the UK’s Brexit till the deal is done).

The most westerly EU capital city is Lisbon, Portugal.  The most easterly EU capital city is Nicosia, Cyprus.

People think Norway and Iceland are in the EU – nope!

As part of the EU membership, countries can opt in or out of the Euro currency.  Nine European country specific currencies continue.  Did you get these answers below?

Currency map

 

For many international travellers the Schengen Area is all important.

The zone consists of 26 countries where internal border checks have largely been abolished.

Formed of 22 EU countries and 4 non-EU – Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein.

The Schengen Agreement was signed on 14 June 1985, near the town of Schengen, Luxembourg, by five of the ten member states of the then European Economic Community.

Shengan Area

My last did you know…?  Europe is named for the Greek mythological character Europa, mother of King Minos of Crete. The god Zeus turned himself into a bull in order to seduce Europa. She climbed on his back and he dived into the sea and carried her to Crete.  Why was she so easily seduced by a bull?   Worrying.

Hope you feel smug and/or enlightened; full of knowledge!  Hope your answers were correct too.  Happy travelling.