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.

 

Off Track

train tracks

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 manifestation of your own blessing. 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.”  

Elizabeth Gilbert

It’s been nearly three weeks since my last post. In that time there have been several legal challenges made against the Labour Party by erm, the Labour Party, the Conservatives have announced that they are planning to build more Grammar Schools (shock), Donald Trump continues to insult and abuse everyone he meets: from the parents of a dead soldier, to a crying baby and Nigel Farage has grown a moustache, one assumes in an attempt to look more statesman/German porn star-like. Lack of inspiration is not my excuse for not writing it is just, for once, I have been somewhat distracted by some more uplifting news: Tim and I got married last week. It was a beautiful day filled with the most incredible people. I won’t bore you with the lovely details – I’ll just leave a few of our photos here:

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I should just mention our wonderful photographers Neil and Lisa who are responsible for these beautiful pictures – not just because I know they read this blog!

Last week was also significant for a second reason. We finally activated what we refer to as: The Plan (capital T capital P.)
The Plan

Tim and I have made no secret that we were really struggling with the state of the education system. Earlier this year we both publicly resigned and we’ve documented our ongoing frustrations on our blogs. If I’m honest the decision to leave teaching has been made for a while. Our head teachers knew long before our public resignations and our friends and family long before that. In fact, the moment that exit poll flashed up on the screen on May 7th 2015 we knew it wasn’t a matter of IF we’d leave the profession, just a matter of when and, more importantly, how. Neither of us has ever done anything else; we’d both imagined we’d stay in teaching until we retired.

But handing in our resignations in January filled us with a sense of optimism and hope that we hadn’t felt for long time. We were young(ish), educated and free to choose the direction our life was going to take – we just had to decide what direction that was. It’s the sort of decision most people are faced with when they are 18 and fresh out of school or at 21 as a young graduate. At the age of 11 I knew with such certainty that I wanted to be teacher so I was never confronted with that crossroads. No difficult decisions or soul searching was required, just a few forms to complete to secure my place on the PGCE course. Now here I was at 29, resigning from a successful career that I had, until recently, enjoyed. It was as terrifying as it was exhilarating.

We had three big decisions to make: what our next jobs would be, where we were going to live and, even more importantly, where we were going to go on our honeymoon. What followed was months of discussions and several draft versions of “The Plan.” You name it, we considered it. From buying and renovating a windmill, to buying a plot of land and building an eco-friendly lodge complete with allotment and solar panels to retreating to a cottage in the Hebrides to write stories and make/sell/eat fudge. We researched every career we could possibly do next: from politics, to cheese making, writing, plumbing, developing a scheme that would help Primary school teachers teach politics even foreign currency trading.

“Life is what happens while you’re busy making (lesson) plans.”

All we knew for sure was we wanted to ensure that the next stage of our life had more of a work-life balance than that last. We’ve been good at the work bit but the life bit requires serious improvement. Two teachers/school leaders does not equal a lot of quality time together. It means evenings spent too exhausted to talk or hunched over data or books and weekends spent trying to catch up on sleep – and we haven’t even got children to factor in at this point. It’s not a sustainable model and it’s certainly not a happy one. We’ve both been in the education system since we were four years old. That’s 25 years of the day being structured into hourly lesson slots, set lunch hours, bells ringing to let us know when we can go to the toilet or have a hot drink. What I think we’re both craving more than anything is more autonomy and control over our time.

After much deliberation, discussion and number crunching, we decided we would kick start our married life with a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Inspired by Phileas Fogg Michael Palin we decided on a round-the-world trip – by train. Which is why I am writing to you from a café in Leningradsky station, Moscow, not from a sofa in Wood Green. We’ve spent the last two days on a sleeper train from London, because nothing says honeymoon like 48 hours confined to a small cabin with an old Russian lady and an unwashed student. Our plan from here, after a few days exploring St. Petersburg, is to take the Tran Siberian Express to Lake Baikal where we’ll hole up in a chalet before continuing to Mongolia to stay in a yurt with a Mongolian tribe and a few goats. Then it’s back on the train all the way to Beijing. After we’ve done London to China by train, it all gets a bit more honeymoon-like. We get on a plane to cross the ocean to Hawaii where we’ll kick back for three weeks before continuing on to San Francisco to do coast-to-coat America on, you guessed it, more trains. All being well, we’ll be back in the UK at the end of October to catch up with our loved ones, wash our clothes and repack in time for our move to Amsterdam in November.

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Why Amsterdam? A few factors swung it: we needed to be somewhere accessible that meant we could still get back to London, somewhere we could get by with English whilst we learnt the language (Tim has multiple languages up his sleeve where as I have only a smattering of Italian phrases at my disposal which will only get you so far in Holland.) We ideally wanted somewhere politically left-leaning and we didn’t want to live somewhere that would mean relying on a car. So Amsterdam it is. We’ve got a place for 6 months and we haven’t decided the plan from then on. Tim’s got to be back in London for a short time because he’s starring in a one-man show about education – yes really – more on that another time.

So my posts for the next few weeks may be slightly more sporadic depending on whether I can get access to the internet. For the next few weeks I may even venture away (just slightly) from education and politics at times. That said, we arrive in Washington about three weeks before the Presidential Election so I’m sure I’ll have a word or 1,000 to say about that. The Labour Leadership Election takes place whilst we’re in Hawaii and, whilst it feels wrong to dwell on the dilemmas facing the Labour Party whilst sitting in a tropical paradise, I imagine it won’t be far from our thoughts; it has already dominated our conversation whilst travelling through Belarus yesterday.

 

If you’re interested you’ll find be able to follow our adventures and musings here. Normal service will resume in October  but, for now at least, The Girl on the Piccadilly Line is off track.

 

 

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