A Hoarder in Brindisi, Italy

Leaving Greece was easier than I thought it would be…

As much as Greece surprised me at every turn, with reasonably priced food, sensational natives and a truly one of a kind night-life experience, I could practically feel my feet growing itchier by the minute.

The three weeks that I spent bumbling around the city streets of Athens and Northern Greece were enough for me to feel like the country wasn’t as sad and destitute as some news outlets led us to believe it was. With the smiles and laughter of the wonderful people that I’d met echoing in my mind, I pushed forth into the unknown and boarded a ferry bound for Brindisi.

trastevere-2394554_1920I’d been to Italy before some years ago, on an abortive Gap Year trip that had seen me spectacularly fail at every task that was required of me. I missed trains, I misplaced passports and I just kept on getting lost. That was my first attempt at travelling, back when I had just turned 18.

At that time I was obsessed with Roman archaeology, I wanted nothing more than to wander around the ruins of Italy and pretend that I was back in time with them myself. With my head so far up in the clouds, it’s no wonder that I always losing my way.

This time around would be different though. This time my mind was trained more on the people I would meet and the bars that I would drink at, as opposed to imagining what every street would have looked like thousands of years ago.

If you’ve not heard of Brindisi, then I don’t blame you. After all it’s probably not the most well known city in Italy, a country apparently cursed with an abundance of picture perfect tourist towns. It certainly wasn’t on my agenda the first time round.

vittorio-emanuele-monument-298412_1920On my first trip to Italy, I walked the well trodden tourist route, beginning in Venice where I was frequently turned around in the dark, sewage ridden alleys after daydreaming myself away from the tourist traps. From there I’d travelled South to Verona, Florence and then Rome. The only people I met were travellers around the same age as me and I didn’t speak a word of Italian for the entire trip.

Had I approached this trip with the same mindset, then I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to get to know Tatiana: an Italian widow, septuagenarian and compulsive hoarder.

If ever someone was in need of a professional organiser it was Tatiana.

I first stumbled into her home because I thought she was selling bric-a-brac. I’d just got off the ferry from Patras, my eyes a little gluey from sleep and in desperate need for some caffeine. Her home had tables and chairs carelessly tangled in front, on what appeared to be a street populated with cafes and souvenir shops. As I sat down to take a breather, not noticing the lack of other customers or waiting staff, she emerged from her home. Her arms bent and undulated, reaching for the sky as her mouth rattled off, what I could only assume was a plea in her native tongue to the Lord above – she was clearly in some distress and wasted no time in sitting herself next to me, clutching my wrist and desperately trying to explain her situation.

home-100205_1920The fact that I could not speak any Italian didn’t seem to deter her in the slightest. Soon she was tugging me by the sleeve and pulling me inside her home, or what I could make out of it. I had to leave my rucksack at the door, as we had to crouch just to get through the front.

As we snuck through the entrance I began to understand her predicament. The tables and chairs at the front of her house were clearly surplus to requirements – her small flat was packed with furniture. Chairs were stacked on top of stools, wardrobes were packed on top of these and, most precariously, glass tables were stacked at odd points everywhere, just a nudge away from falling to oblivion.

As she warbled away pointing at one chair here and stroking a chest of drawers there, I made a promise to myself that I would never allow myself to get into such a mess. I never found out how she got into such a situation. After she’d led me through to her back yard, we sat down, drank a coffee and shared a cigarette. Once she’d settled for a minute, she seemed to relax and a smile crept across her face, as if all her worries had disappeared.

I left her there in that position, looking at peace in the few square feet of open space that she owned – I wonder if she ever cleared her home out…

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Adventures in Bankrupt Greece

It was only when I was in the air when I began to consider why it was that my flights to Greece were so cheap.

A quick Google search of the news in the country answered my question pretty succinctly.

The country’s unemployment is currently twice that of the average country in the Eurozone. At a staggering 23.2%, Greece’s financial situation is worse than it has ever been. Over 1 in 5 people without a job. Growth is minimal. Violent attacks on politicians, by dissident members of the community pepper the weekly news reports and they are continually being refused bailouts from the EU.

What does this mean for the travelling tourist then?

Although you might be at risk of getting taken for a ride by a few cab drivers, you’ll find that when it comes to places to drink and eat, you’ll be spending a lot less than you might think. Greece has always been a country that highly values eating and drinking, as such there are more than enough bars and restaurants to pick from, even in the sleepiest of towns. Of course, in Athens you’ll find the highest concentration of these places. Greece may well be going through some of the toughest financial times that it’s ever experienced, but you wouldn’t think that with the bustling vibe that invades the street when the scorching sun (temperatures get well over 30 degrees on some days) sets.

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When the climate cools down to a more manageable 18 degrees, the locals work their way outside into the maze of larger sidewalks and side streets. Populated with cramped bars and even busier eateries, you’ll see Grecians truly letting their hair down on a Friday night when the Ouzo flows steadily and dinner parties are extended over extraordinary lengths of time.

As far as accommodation goes, if you’re planning on keeping costs down there are a tonne of great AirBnbs, ranging from the super-chic to the charmingly rustic. Although you could stay in traditional hotels, the prices will always be more expensive in these kinds of establishments. A decent single room in a good area of Greece can cost as little as £20 a night with Airbnb, if you’re more interested in hostels then you’ll find similar prices at some good locations in the city.

If you visit Athens then you can’t avoid Greece’s rich historical heritage. It’s everywhere, from the food cooked in the restaurants to the music blaring from radios pointed out of apartment windows. Visit this city during peak tourist season and you’ll find that the main attractions will be swamped by tired, sweaty tourists. These big sites, such as the Acropolis and Temple of Hephaestus, are open pretty much all year round though – so you may as well visit when the crowds have thinned out a bit in the cooler months.

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If Art, Archaeology or Museums aren’t your thing at all, then you can always make the most of the copious variety of walking tours that wind their way through the very best eateries that the city has to offer. You can get stuck in to a huge range of Greek food and meet fellow travellers along the way for as little as €50 for the day. When you consider how much food you’re getting at the same time, this is a great deal.

Greece may be struggling on the international stage, but you’ll be pleasantly surprised to see that Athens is still an exhilarating place to visit full of colour, quirk and charm.

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Then Let’s Begin…

scottish weddingCarol’s Wedding was wonderful. An intimate group of 50 people were gathered at the lodges in the Highlands, and I was honoured to be one of them. It had been a while since I had travelled to the countryside, the air was so clean and fresh – I’d forgotten what an atmosphere without smog was like. The food was prepared by a local catering company that specialised in Scottish dishes, the fish was fresh and the beef was a deep red – my soul felt enriched by the whole experience.

ol ladyTaking a break from the dancing at the party, I had a chance to talk to Carol’s Aunty, a proud Scottish woman of at least 80 years. Her knees had given in, so she was content in watching the merriment from the sidelines. We talked about her memories of Carol as a child and discussed the excitement she had for her niece starting a new phase of her life. Aunty May insisted that times of great change were the best of times for a person. When the world around them shifts, intentionally or not, a person must learn to adapt and thrive in a new situation.

As we watched the ecstatic couple twirl around the dance floor, I thought about my own changing situation. In a day’s time I would be in another country, surrounded by strangers and with no plan. That’s what scared me the most; not the alien environment or foreign languages, but the prospect of having no game plan – just free time.

Although I would have been fine with taking the train down to Liverpool (First class travel is always so hard to resist), I was fortunate enough to run into some old course mates at the Wedding who were on their way back to Liverpool themselves. Sophia and James were a couple that had been together since our time spent at University.

We took our time driving back down South, hitting the scenic roads and stopping off along the way. It had been years since we’d had the chance to properly talk to each other and a lot had changed. On the way down they suggested eating at the Airport before I left to toast the start of my adventure, which sounded like a grand idea. I made sure to quickly book a space for Liverpool John Lennon airport parking, not wanting to sting my gracious drivers with an unexpected charge.

I must have fallen asleep, because when I opened my eyes we were pulling into the Airport Car Park. As they helped me with my bags, Sophia and James happily discussed all the possibilities that were out there awaiting me. During our meal, they mused over the plethora of different people I would meet from different cultures and joked about romantic meet cutes. When I asked if they would ever consider taking a similar trip, they laughed off the suggestion – their adventure together was enough for them.

Leaving them at departures, I left them at the security gates waving me off. I had successfully eased myself in to the notion of travelling the world. The memory of London was slowly fading in my mind, and the anticipation of starting my own adventure was firmly in its place.

Are you sitting comfortably?

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Plan’s Derailed By A Forgotten Wedding!

bag packedI was so close to booking my flights! Hours, if not minutes, away from pulling up a website and putting down the cash. My bag has been packed for a few days now, the bare essentials all crammed into a conveniently sized carry-on rucksack. I’d even found someone to look after the flat whilst I was out of town. The mortgage is sizeable and I figured, if I was going to be off work for half a year, I may as well have someone help me pay it.

My research was complete, my route was planned – the only step left to go was to book the flights.

I was on the precipice of booking when I received an email from my Assistant. She had a few questions regarding her new responsibilities during my time away, and in the post-script casually told me to ‘have a great time in Scotland!’ This final message triggered a memory that I had buried under months of work. There was a reason why this weekend was special, and it was more than just the beginning of my travels. I needed to go to a wedding.

Carol, one of my best friends from University, was getting married. She’d moved to Edinburgh around the same time I’d made the move to London. We hadn’t had many opportunities to see each other since then, but we always made time if we were in the same neck of the woods. I’d received the invitation well over 6 months ago – and would have missed it had it not been for my excellent Assistant. If she’s still there when I get back, that woman is getting a raise.

best girliesSo, instead of spending one last weekend inside my comfortable routine, I’m going to Highland Heather Lodges in Scotland!

I’m pleased really. Although I would have liked to have bought one last Starbucks and said goodbye to Michaelangelo, it’s better this way. I’ll be able to pack up my bag and head to the Highlands in full on travelling mode. There’ll be a load of old friends there as well as a whole bunch of new people that I can get to know, it’ll be like a trial run for my first night away – all set within the gorgeous Scottish wilderness.

The lovely cottages they have up tskye islandshere were booked months ago, after a brief chat with Carol she’s confirmed that all I have to do is turn up. She knows how little I care for taking on a role at a wedding. I much prefer to just be a slightly swaying face in the crowd, with no responsibilities so I can relax and have a good time. This should be a glorious weekend of comfort and luxury before I lower my standards and hit the hostels.

As I’m writing this, I’m confirming my flights out to Greece – my first port of call. I’ll be flying out of Liverpool to save on flights, and landing in Athens in the evening. So, for now, its time to say goodbye to my lovely flat for the next 6 months, and say hello to the open road. Wish me luck!

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Escape From London: Train to Edinburgh

busy tube manI found the mousiest Arts student in existent to stay in my flat whilst I’m away. When she arrived, breathlessly stuttering her apologies for being late, she had all her possessions clutched in her arms. Her frayed, stressed hair had clearly been dyed several times, yet the rich chestnut of the roots growing through was the most prominent colour. She was forever pushing her large rimmed spectacles up her nose, like a film star overacting at being nervous. Most of all she seemed in awe of the flat. Speechless, in fact.specs

I’d had to list the property and accept a tenant on pretty short notice. I had no worries about finding someone, it was just the right person I was looking for. Someone who would appreciate how lovely I’d made it and want to selfishly guard its protection, like myself, instead of sharing it with others. This student was paying an absolute steal for the place, and it looked like she could barely believe it. I left her dumbfounded in the living room with the keys in her hand and a faint smile on her face.

Leaving my building with a rucksack on my back, I finally felt like I could start letting go of my city troubles. But first, one last ride on London’s infamous tube system. Now, after 10 years, I like to think that I’m a seasoned pro when it comes to conducting a smooth journey on the Underground. However, all of that changes once you’ve got a rucksack on your shoulders that’s as big as you are. I felt guilty for all the times I’d glared at tourists fumbling with their bags, whilst I was trying to get past. Never again.

A-train-approaches-Ribble-005The train up to Edinburgh takes just over four hours, I’d booked first class for the sake of ease. Don’t guilt me now – I thought if I had to endure a long train journey on the UK’s famously poor train network, I might as well make it as comfortable as possible. Sipping a beer and nibbling a ridiculously small sandwich, I slipped by headphones and felt the worries and stress of the city slowly start to melt away.

As I started to drift off, I thought about the little London bubble that I was leaving behind for the next 6 months. I thought about the mousy Art student, nervously exploring my flat before jumping on the bed with glee. I thought about Jeff, who cleans the floors, finding another younger woman to swap newspapers and surreptitiously flirt. Then I thought about Michaelangelo, looking in vain for me whilst subconsciously forgetting my name and drink order.

Then I remembered how little I knew any of those people. How little any of them mattered to me then and how little they would matter to me in 6 months time. I fell asleep, looking forward to waking up in a new country.

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Goodbye London Routine, Hello New World!

granola-with-fruitAfter nearly 10 years of working in the same building, living in the same borough of London, I’ve got into some comfortable habits. Six days a week, I wake up at 6:30am, eat breakfast and go to the gym at the top of my building. With the granola and fruit in my stomach, I try and burn 800 calories in the space of an hour. After taking the elevator back down to my apartment, I shower and change, leaving for the tube station at 8.

baristaOn the way to the station, I stop off for my Starbucks. If it’s a Monday, Thursday or Sunday, I’ll be served by Michaelangelo who’s Italian and gorgeous. He’s the only barista there who knows my name – so three days a week I’ll have “Maddie” written on my cup instead of any number of variants. After leaving with my Grande Soy Sugar-Free-Vanilla Latte, I briskly walk to the tube, grabbing a copy of the Metro on my way through.

When I get into work, I’m usually the first one in the office. I greet the exiting cleaners with a ‘good morning’ and trade my Metro for a copy of The Sun with Jeff, who does the floors. By the time I’m sat at my desk with my paper, coffee and inbox open, it’s 8:45 and I’m ready to start my day.

hostelIt’s a solid morning routine, but one that’s started to grow old in the last couple of years. I’ve been swapping newspapers with Jeff for over half my time at the company, the cumulative minutes and hours we’ve spent in that brief exchange probably comes to nearly a week. Yet, all I know about him is that he’s married and has been buying The Sun ironically, to joke with an uptight Marketing Executive for 6 years. I hope he doesn’t think something is going to happen. This lady’s heart is forever dedicated to a certain Italian coffee-maker.

Soon I’ll have to bid my myriad of acquaintances goodbye. I’m serving out my last week in work, starting next Monday my comfortable routine will be no more. In a month’s time, I will have grown accustomed to sleeping in dormitories with a dozen strangers and I’ll be waking up in cities where I won’t know where the nearest Starbucks is, let alone the language to order in.

I’ve got 6 months of time to fill. My company were kind enough to let me go for half year, a ‘micro-sabbatical’ they called it, granted to me for the decade of good service I’d provided them with. For my colleagues who already have families, I’m going through some kind of crisis. I’m just taking my chance while I can. The older you get, the more you fear change. The idea of acting out of your set routine can become a launch pad for unease even panic.

I’m just shaking my life up, whilst I can afford to. I could travel through the finest of Hotels and dine out at the best Restaurants, but I’m not going to. I want to seek out the seediest of Hostels, discover the food stalls that the locals frequent and drink beer every night. I’m going to spend half a year without needing to wear heels or make-up. I’m going to measure my life in unquantifiable units of enjoyment, rather than calories and minutes spent on the treadmill.

I just hope Michaelangelo doesn’t miss me too much!

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