The Art of Travel

the art of travel

There have been many profound and inspiring things written about the importance of travel. From Samuel Johnson: “The use of travelling is to regulate imagination with reality, and instead of thinking of how things may be, see them as they are.” to my heroine (and one true love) Elizabeth Gilbert: “To travel is worth any cost or sacrifice.” It is a subject that provokes a response in all of us whether we’re fans of the “staycation”, weekend city breaks or trekking through the Amazon; taking time out of our lives, away from work leaves us able to reflect, recharge and other beneficial things that start with “re”.

I like to think I’m a decent travelling companion – over the years I have shared laughter, food and many, many books with my fellow travellers. I also hope that I am humble and down to earth as there is nothing more unbearable than travelling with someone who has developed the dreaded “Traveller Ego” – you know the type: they’ve seen it all, done it all and say things like “You haven’t LIVED until you’ve been to this cafe run by nuns in South Bulgaria”. I don’t say those sorts of things. I present to you: five things you’ll hear when travelling with me. It’s unlikely they’ll ever be quoted or written on one of those memes your Mum’s friend Linda likes to put on her Facebook page but that’s probably OK.

  1. “I’ll pick some up once I get there.”

My mother is a planned packer – she makes lists, then more lists and then spends the week before the trip purchasing and washing the things she needs. It makes sense really. I only realised recently I am almost the exact opposite of this. I think packing light was enforced on me by my many years of relying on budget airlines to get anywhere. After being faced with a smug airline attendant watch me frantically putting on all the clothes in my carry on case in order to board the flight (despite me trying to reason that the clothes themselves weigh the same whether they are in my bag or on my body) I decided that could never happen again. So I learnt the art of packing, what the magazines might call, a “capsule wardrobe” but I call “5 pairs of leggings and lots of t-shirts.” They don’t necessarily create perfectly stylish and coordinated outfits but they keep me comfortable. Obviously there is only so light one can pack for an around-the-world trip and, whilst packing my case last week, I had to make room for clothing that is suitable for Summer in Hawaii and Autumn in New York. In order to do this, I had to sacrifice other essentials that you might expect to find in my case like plug adapters and sun cream. It’s fine, I’ll pick some up once we get there. Globalisation has created a world that is less foreign. Costa Coffee in Moscow, KFC in Bangkok. Most of the thing you will need to make travelling through a country comfortable, will be available in that country.

  1. “I’ll have the cheese burger”

Don’t get me wrong – my main reason for going to any country is the food. I’m already planning what to have on my pizza in Chicago and I’m even considering breaking my “no ducks, rabbits or lambs” rule so I can have the Beijing specialty: peking duck. I very rarely turn down the chance to try a new cuisine. I’ve eaten crickets in Bangkok, borscht in Moscow, intestines in Rome and ostrich in Marrakesh. I’m not fussy, I’ll pretty much eat whatever I’m given – apart from marzipan – because marzipan is an abomination. However, I don’t insist on always eating the local cuisine if I don’t want to. When I’m at home I don’t only eat roast beef, cheese ploughman’s and fish and chip, as amazing as that would be. I eat a mix of home cooked meals, Italian food, Mexican, Thai etc… so why would my tastes be different in another country? I would be sad for anyone who went abroad and didn’t try the local cuisine at least once because you might find something you love but it is also your holiday, your break – eat what you enjoy. Which is why on the first day of our honeymoon, in Paris, I ordered a cheeseburger (with ketchup.) Sorry Paris.

cheeseburger

  1. “Let’s not do anything today”

This is an important one. There’s an overwhelming pressure when you are abroad to always be doing something: to go on an excursion every day or take in a new sight, the only exception is perhaps a beach holiday. In London I make sure that at least once a month I keep a weekend completely free to do very little and it’s exactly the same when I’m away. I decided the things I really want to see and do and make sure I fit them in but in between if I spend an afternoon/entire day reading in a park, or drinking beer and playing cards in a bar – that’s fine. I am writing this on the train from St. Petersburg to Moscow. The rain is hammering at the windows. I don’t write that to paint romantic picture – it is literally pouring – it sounds as if the train is being pelted with gravel. It has done this for hours and by all accounts is going to continue well into tomorrow. Which means for next 24 hours we will be playing cards and reading in cafes or maybe taking advantage of the hotel wifi and catching up with some blogging.* Of course we’ll see Red Square and the Kremlin and eat in a few local restaurants before we leave but there’s no pressure to spend every day “doing the stuff.” I need at least a day in the week where I don’t have to be up to catch a coach or train or queue for an attraction.

*UPDATE: What we actually did was have a long lunch in a local restaurant that turned into a long afternoon of drinking vodka. Sometimes it’s OK to spend the afternoon drinking vodka and talking shit with your husband rather than traipsing round in the rain trying to follow an, increasingly soggy, map from your Rough Guide. It might even be considered more Russian. Possibly.

Vodka

 

  1. “I’m happy to miss that”

Florence

Florence is one of my favourite cities that I’ve ever been too. It is just so incredibly beautiful. Everything about it: the buildings, the parks and the food is a joy to behold. However, and I’m almost embarrassed to admit this, whilst in the home of the Renaissance I didn’t go to a single art gallery. I didn’t get to The Accademia or the Uffizi. Why? Because it was August and it was at least a 2-hour queue to get in, and in 30 degree heat I’d rather spend 2 hours walking around, eating gelato or doing pretty much anything other than queuing. Which is know is terribly un-British – queues are our best thing after all. On that same trip I did queue for 45 minutes for a pizza but it was bloody amazing pizza – it’s all about deciding what your priorities are. My best friend Lizzie shares my love of Florence firstly because of the food but also for the art which, for her, was a huge part of why she loved it and so it was important that she took the time to go and see those things. The point is neither way is the “correct way” of seeing Florence because there is no “correct way” to see Florence; the only thing that matters is that you enjoy your visit. Don’t worry about what you think you’re meant to see – your experience of a country or city is no less valid simply because you didn’t visit a particular building, statue or beach.

  1. “What’s that?”

The reason I am lost more often than I’m found whilst abroad is because, even if I manage to fathom out where I am on a map and by some miracle am able plot a route to where I want to go I, often get distracted. Something will catch my eye; it could be anything from a beautiful building to a cat (it’s often a cat) but somehow I end up straying from my carefully mapped out path. Occasionally this leads to me getting myself so lost I have to resign myself to not finding my way back and end up spending more money than I have to get a taxi back to wherever I’m staying but most of the time it leads to discovering something I may never have found otherwise: a quiet, shady garden, a beautiful fountain or an excellent place to eat pancakes. Don’t worry about just wandering. Once you’ve removed the pressure of having to see everything you are free to walk at leisure and take in your new surroundings. Although if like me you really struggle with reading maps travel with a patient friend who will do it for you.

“So I’m in my map…”

I would like to point out at this point that I’m not a complete philistine or even particularly disorganised. All my adventures have a planned itinerary and a spreadsheet of costs – which is perhaps slightly extreme. However once I’m away the planning stops and I don’t put pressure on my travels to be any particular sort of experience other than what I want them to be. Ultimately all that I urge is that whenever you go away, whether it’s for a day, a weekend or longer you do it the way you want to do it. Oh and order the cheeseburger. With ketchup.

 

That’s What She Read

books

One of my New Year’s Resolutions for 2015 was to read every night. That hasn’t happened. So around Easter I decided I would settle for a book a  month which was far more achievable. On reflection 2015 was the year of comfort reading. I re-read some old favourites and the first time reads were books written by authors I knew well.

January – Stone Mattresses – Margaret Atwood

This was a gift from my lovely sister. If I had to choose a favourite author (and I don’t believe anyone should ever have to) it would be a girl-on-girl battle between Atwood and Elizabeth Gilbert. This book is slightly different to Atwood’s usual style in that it is 9 short stories rather than a novel. Disembodied hands, freeze-dried corpses and husband stealing cancer patients all make an appearance in this dark, pick-n-mix collection. Atwood is stepping away from realism, her default mode, and playing with fantasy, and Gothic themes instead. Does it work? Absolutely. After all if Margaret Atwood can’t mix it up occasionally who can?

February – The Elephant In The Classroom – Jo Boaler

Shamefully this is the only non-fiction book I’ve read this year (unless you include the administrators guide to Rising Stars assessment, which I don’t.) When it comes to Educational research, I think one needs to be wary of reading a book and believing it is gospel. Some people have a tendency to cut and paste findings from research into their School Improvement Plans without ever reflecting if it is right for there school.

That aside, one of the main reasons  I like “The Elephant In The Classroom” because it is accessible to the general reader. As a teacher, I like the fact that rather than just pointing out the many problems (yes, I’m looking at you Sir Ken Robinson) Boaler actually suggests solutions and also goes as far as providing example activities as part of an approach schools can adopt. I think this quote sums up her work nicely:

“Bringing mathematics back to life for school children involves giving them a sense of living mathematics. When school students are given opportunities to ask their own questions and to extend problems into new directions, they know mathematics is still alive, not something that has already been decided and just needs to be memorized. Posing and extending problems of interest to students mean they enjoy mathematics more, they feel more ownership of their work and they ultimately learn more.”

March – Once – Morris Gleitzman

Is it cheating to include children’s literature? Definitely not. I re-read this whilst toying with the idea of teaching it to my Year 3 class as part of our work on WWII. Like all excellent stories you’re hooked in from the opening line.

“Once I was living in an orphanage in the mountains and I shouldn’t have been and I almost caused a riot. It was because of the carrot.”

“Once” tells the story of Felix searching for his Mother and Father in the midst of the war. From the outset, Felix creates explanations and stories for the horrors that he sees but as the story progresses Felix begins to piece tougher what is really happening. The war seen through the eyes of children is well trodden ground because that juxtaposition of innocence and violence is incredibly powerful.

“Once” is also about the power of storytelling. Felix uses stories to protect himself from the reality of what’s happening and when he meets Zelda he tells her stories to distract her from having to confront her parents’ death. The message is stories can move, comfort and inspire; Glietzman successfully does all three.

April – Us – David Nicholls

Remember that book “One Day” that everybody read in 2009? It had a sort of orange cover with the silhouette of two profiles on it? With me? They made it in to a film that I’ve never seen because I refuse to believe it can do justice to the book. David Nicholls is the sort of writer I want to be when I grow up. His stories hinge almost entirely on the depth of his characters and “Us” is no exception. The novel follows Connie and Doug travelling around Europe with their 18 year-old son whilst at the same time deciding whether to stay in their marriage. True to Nicholl’s style the narrative shifts seamlessly between past and present as the reader pieces together the story of how this unlikely couple came to be. Following a best seller come film like “One Day” but this is an excellent novel in its own right and definitely worth a read.

May – A Spot Of Bother – Mark Haddon

Speaking of hard to follow books… “A Spot Of Bother” is the first book Haddon has published since “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night time.” This is novel about aging, mental health, affairs and ultimately – family. The protagonist George becomes obsessed with a lesion on his leg to the point of pathological hypochondria. He is tipped over the edge by finding his wife Jean in bed with David, one of his former colleagues. Being a middle class, middle aged man George is far too polite to let his mental instability burden others and so unfolds the politest nervous breakdown in literary history. Meanwhile George and Jean’s adult children have their own battles: his daughter is preparing to marry Ray; a fact none of the family are overly thrilled with and their son Jamie has a big decision to make regarding his boyfriend Tony. The characters are interesting and well written but I feel as though “A Spot of Bother” could have been slightly grittier given the nature of the issues it is dealing with. It’s all a little bit too nice and polite. A bit like George himself I suppose.

June – On Chesil Beach – Ian McEwan

If I’m honest I made this my June read because it was nearing the end of the school year and, at only 166 pages, “On Chesil Beach” looked quite manageable.  Short yes, but incredibly intense. Set in 1962, a few years short of the Sexual Revolution Edward and Florence arrive on Chesil Beach for their honeymoon. The opening line tells you the entire story:

“They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.”

The entire book is an in-depth study of the two characters and their anxieties about their impending wedding night. It takes an incredibly skilled writer to keep you with the same two characters and just their memories and thoughts for entire book. I found it gripping and read the book in one sitting.

July – To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

This was a “re-read” before the release of “Go Set A Watchman”. Do I really need to explain this one? I have nothing to say other that hasn’t already been said. I will instead leave you with the words of the unlikely literary critic, George W. Bush (yes, really.)

“One reason To Kill a Mockingbird succeeded is the wise and kind heart of the author, which comes through on every page … To Kill a Mockingbird has influenced the character of our country for the better. It’s been a gift to the entire world. As a model of good writing and humane sensibility, this book will be read and studied forever.”

August – Eat Pray Love – Elizabeth Gilbert

I make no apology for this one. “Eat Pray Love” is permanently on my bed side table. I dip into it on difficult days for advice such as, “You’ve gotta stop wearing your wishbone where your backbone ought to be.” As well as using it for general reference I read it cover to cover every Summer. On Thursdays, when I have the flat to myself, I sometimes drift off to sleep to the audiobook. I love everything from Gilbert’s honest, open style to the detailed picture she paints of her travels.

September – Go Set A Watchman

I’m reluctant to say too much about this as I know plenty of people that still haven’t had a chance to read it so I’ll just make the one comment. The main criticism is the apparent change in Atticus Finch, the hero of “To Kill A Mockingbird”. I would argue that instead of the idolised version of Finch as seen through the eyes of his young daughter, we begin to see Finch, as his adult daughter now does, as a flawed character. This is perhaps a more honest and realistic version of the

It is generally accepted that “Go Set A Watchmen” is an earlier draft of Mockingbird and, if that is the case, I want to know what made Lee change her novel so drastically? Pressure from her editor? Or did she just want her novel to have a hero. Whilst I enjoyed “Go Set A Watchmen” you can’t help shake the feeling that you are reading a draft. It’s slightly clumsier, less polished and just a bit… incomplete.

October – The Heart Goes Last – Margaret Atwood

Once again, Atwood paints us her dystopian vision of the future. This time we follow Charmaine and Stan. Stan has lost his job and they are living out of their car – things are pretty bleak. Consilence, the self-sufficient utopia that offers stable income, warm homes and all of the comforts that brings, seems like the perfect solution to their problems. The only snag is that every other month they have to swap their lovely home for prison cell. Throw in sex with chickens, Elvis escorts and women falling in love with inanimate objects and you’ve got a darkly comic tale that’ll keep you guessing until the very last page. I’ve read a lot of Atwood and I might go as far to say this is my favourite of her novels – I could not recommend it highly enough.

November – Big Magic – Elizabeth Gilbert

I first read “Eat Pray Love”  in 2012 then the following year did a solo trip around Italy. Now, as I take my first steps towards writing my own book and sharing my writing through my blog – Gilbert publishes “Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear.” A whole book dedicated to making time for creativity into your day-to-day life. As we’ve come to expect from Gilbet the book is painfully honest, witty and insightful. Gilbert has such a strong voice that the book feels as if she were sat next to you offering advice. So whether its figure skating, gardening or painting stars onto bicycles I’d recommend this book for inspiration, encouragement and a much needed kick up the bum to get going.

December –  The Mayor Of Casterbrige  – Thomas Hardy

This can only just claim a place in this post as I am only 62 pages in. Something about December sends me to Victorian literature. Perhaps its the vivid descriptions of snowy rooftops, plum puddings, miracles and gestures of goodwill that make it the perfect Christmas genre (as long as long as you don’t let the poverty, inequality and Gothic tone bring you down.) I’m hoping to finish this before the Christmas holidays because then it will be time for my pre-Christmas read of “A Christmas Carol.”

Resolution for next year? New authors. It’s time to branch out. I need to read more widely – any recommendations?

For The Love Of Gilbert

Italy 3

From terrorism to the steady decline of the education system, it’s an understatement to say that my posts have been rather gloomy of late. There’s plenty to be blogging about in Politics at the moment – should we bomb Syria? Probably not. Should we leave the EU? Probably not. Is the Chilcot Report ever going to be released? Probably. However it’s been an exhausting month and I  quite fancy writing something a bit lighter, a bit more hopeful. So I’ve made the decision to add a monthly travel post to the site. Like most people with a pulse, I love to travel and visit new places. To date my adventures have taken me to 4 different continents, 16 countries and countless Cathedral cities. My experiences range from typically tourist (hot dogs in New York, neon paint and fishbowls in Ko Pang Yang) to the more unusual (travelling from London to Malta by train and boat, eating fried crickets etc…)

For the first travel post I decided to write about the only time I’ve travelled alone – my summer in Italy. If you want a blow-by-blow account of this trip including detailed itinerary, restaurant recommendations and the story about the boy who decided to bring home a girl to our dorm for some romancing you can find that here. Instead this post is more a tribute to the inspiration for that trip – Elizabeth Gilbert.

Without being too dramatic, I have Gilbert to thank for the Summer That Changed My Life and believe me, I know how trite that sounds. It’s the sort of tagline you might find on a bargain bin novel or teen movie. But (again, without being overdramatic) nothing has been the same since Italy(another tagline.) In the two years following that trip I’ve changed jobs (twice), moved house, got engaged and adopted a cat called Bubbles. All off the back of that one decision and here is the passage that started it all:

“Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings. And once you have achieved a state of happiness, you must never become lax about maintaining it. You must make a mighty effort to keep swimming upward into that happiness forever, to stay afloat on top of it.”

– “Eat. Pray. Love.” Elizabeth Gilbert

I look back on that Summer now as the perfect balance of complete freedom and independence without feeling lonely or isolated. Every day started with “well – what do you want to see today.” Sometimes the answer was “I want to see the Trevi Fountain.” and sometimes it was “I want to read in that garden next to the gelateria.”  I was the director and star of my own little film and, like all good films, well-known faces popped up throughout. (It turns out if you announce that you’re going to Italy for the summer, many of your close friends will happily join you.)

I ventured through Venice alone tying myself in knots getting lost and summoning the courage to try out the small amount of Italian I’d learnt. I drank local wine on a farm in Tuscany with my oldest friends, I swam and sailed through Lake Como with some of the best travel companions a girl could ask for and, when I finally  reached the glorious city of Rome, I had a very special guest in the shape of my friend, The Man On The Piccadilly Line. That summer is a montage of happy memories with some of my best people and yet some of my happiest times were warm evenings sat alone with a glass of wine and a book, awaiting my spaghetti alla puttanesca .

Before booking the trip I’d toyed with visiting one of Gilbert’s other destinations, India or Indonesia but the food swung it in favour of Italy. A country that encourages you to eat pizza, spaghetti, gelato and coffee every day is the sort of place I want to be. My trip was less “Eat, Pray, Love” and more “Eat, Eat, Eat” but despite 5 weeks of a diet based entirely on pasta and gelato I returned to the UK 8lbs lighter – god bless you Italy.

pasta-794464_1280

The most striking thing about Italian food is how simple it is. Most of the meals I ate were made from 4 or 5 really fresh ingredients. I am grateful for this as it means on cold,  winter evenings, 1000 miles from Rome, it’s possible to recreate some of those beautiful meals. Puttanessca, as well as being of my favourites, is as simple to make as it is delicious. I will leave you with this recipe from Naples:

Spaghetti Puttanessca

750g Pounds Canned Pureed Tomatoes
2 Cloves of Garlic, Minced
1/2 Cup Olive Oil
200g large Black Olives
3 Anchovies
4 Tablespoons Capers
Salt & Pepper
1/2 Teaspoon Red Pepper Flakes
400g Dried Spaghetti

OPTIONAL EXTRA: Balsamic Vinegar (because my family believe most meals can be enhanced by balsamic vinegar)

Heat the oil in a medium sauce pan and add the garlic, and cook briefly.
Pit the olives and cut into halves
Discard the bones from the anchovies and thinly slice
Add the tomatoes to the oil and garlic, and then the olives, anchovies and capers. At this point you may wish to add a glug of the Balsamic but y’know – no pressure.
Season with salt & pepper and red pepper flakes.
Cook for 15 minutes over medium heat, stirring occasionally.
Use to top spaghetti pasta cooked “al dente“.

Buon Appetito.

Italy pasta