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Perhaps time to upgrade my travel planning technique

travel planning

Photo of a wall in Warsaw, Poland. On our Eastern Europe trip, the Midget and I did a lot of making it up as we went along.

Some people are meticulous when it comes to planning a holiday.

On taking a suitable map

The first real travelling I did was driving to Sweden with a friend. It wasn’t a long trip. We were gone all in all only three weeks and we took the ferry from Kent to Denmark, so we only had to drive through two countries.

I’d never driven on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. And this was a time before blind following of the satellite navigation propped up on the dashboard. Or a phone with worthwhile mobile internet. What we had was a road map – of the whole of Europe – and a guidebook which explained speed limits, keeping your lights on and the importance of having the right number of high visibility vests.

I drove out of the ferry terminal in Denmark, turned left across four lanes of traffic, window wipers screeching, lights on.

A surprising reality of ad hoc navigation

travel planning

“Which way up?”

That first half hour of driving felt comparable to escaping Rome (which involved an emergency switching of drivers just before hitting the Rome ring road). We stopped at a McDonalds for coffee and to breathe.

A few days later, we reached Copenhagen. It felt an impressive feat, driving in, parking, going out for lunch, and then driving out, following the signs for Sweden. Copenhagen on our map was entirely contained in four inches squared. Squinting didn’t help. We drove into Malmo, circled around a bit, found the hostel we were staying at, and parked without nothing much more than an address.

And I’ve got no idea how. In hindsight, blind faith is not a navigational technique I’d advise, but it did somehow work for us.

More miraculously, on the way back, we also drove into Copenhagen, parked in exactly the same parking spot – this is without any idea of which side of the city we were on – and went out for lunch.

On itineraries and spreadsheets

Very soon, I’m going to Portugal with the Grump. I’m getting the impression that the Grump wouldn’t turn up in a foreign city without an adequate map. I’m imagining his luggage being 50% paper print outs of tickets and plans. For me, this is going to be an education.

I wrote an itinerary and made a spreadsheet. I’ve emailed booking confirmations and asked AirBnB hosts for their precise addresses more than 24 hours prior to arrival. This is all new for me. While I’m normally pretty good at booking longer trains and planes in advance, having all the information neatly arranged is somewhat foreign.

It takes some urgency to make me think, where am I going next.

I can be adaptable and accommodating though… I think…


[Written mid-March.]


“Don’t pick the prickly pear by the paw, when you pick a pear try to use the claw.”

prickly pear

When I first saw one of these in a greengrocers, I had no idea what it was.

“When you pick a paw paw or prickly pear.

And you prick a raw paw, next time beware.

Don’t pick the prickly pear by the paw, when you pick a pear try to use the claw.”

Baloo, The Bare Necessities, The Jungle Book

Prickly Pears in Napoli

In a greengrocer’s, in the outskirts of Naples, DeepThought and I had a minor argument about an aubergine. Apparently, I shouldn’t have bought an aubergine; he didn’t like them. But how was I supposed to know when he was busy enjoying having the delights of a fig of India, known to me as a prickly pear, peeled and sliced for him by the smiling young Italian woman behind the counter.

A prickly pear: it’s a fleshy fruit, with largish seeds which like seeded grapes remind you that what you’re eating has a purpose other than tasting sweet. You can eat the seeds. They crunch. These cacti fruits grow prolifically in southern Italy. But don’t just yank one free with your bare hand. This isn’t a fruit that’s smooth like a sweet mandarin, it’s covered in tiny spikes.

We took a couple home with us. Alongside the aubergine. And inevitably, a couple of hours later, (after DeepThought had been surprised by liking aubergine), it was necessary to dig out a pair of tweezers.

prickly pear

If you take off one of the big paddles and plant it in a pot, it grows. And grows. And grows.

Prickly Pears through History

Reading through Colour: Travels Through The Paint Box by Victoria Finlay I discovered that prickly pear plants are the homes of little white cochineal bugs which when crushed make a beautiful red dye. Lipstick red.

The journey of these plants from South America is a story of this dye. A plantation of prickly pears sprung up in Madras as part of a plot by the East India Trading Company to crack the Spanish monopoly and produce the dye themselves. The plants were brought from Kew Gardens and men began dreaming of the riches they would have if only they could get hold of the live bugs. The bugs though had other plans.

Prickly pear cacti were also taken to Australia with the intention to start up a cochineal industry there. Unfortunately, not only did all the bugs die, but the cacti went wild and have since become a prolific spiky weed.

prickly pear

Harvesting tools.

Prickly Pears in Sicily

In Sicily, in the middle of a grey siesta in a break from a storm, I went hunting my own prickly pears. Sicily is a good place for prickly pears, the Sicilian variety is apparently high in all sorts of wonderful vitamins. I didn’t have to hunt very far – I found pink pears on the driveway.

I took with me the prickly pear picker (I lack suitable claws) and a plant pot in which to place my pears. The trick is to place the cup around the pear and then twist. It’s easier said than done. My pears went rolling down the drive.

The next morning, I ate them for breakfast. They taste a bit like watermelon.


Why I travel but think you shouldn’t


Another square, another equestrian statue. Lyon, France.

The words that feel the least helpful to hear as someone who travels are ‘good luck on finding yourself’, ‘running away from your problems doesn’t help’ or ‘what are you going to do when you get back?’. It kind of assumes you’re going through an identity crisis, got a major emotional problem you can’t face, or you’re having an extended holiday.

If you need to find yourself, your life or the courage to deal with your problems, a foreign country probably isn’t the best place to begin the hunt. If you want to travel for travel’s sake, you just have to grit your teeth and get on with it.

Travelling doesn’t help you to find your place in the ‘real world’

You might be under the unfortunate delusion that travel is somehow a magic path to ‘finding oneself’. Finding oneself is aptly described as discovering who one is and what one wants to do with one’s life.

It doesn’t quite work like that. By travelling you expand who you are, but you do that whenever you face anything new or challenging. Travel is just one source of novelty. It can only stretch who you are in the way you engage with it. It can’t alter the past. As for discovering what you want to do with your life, isn’t it more convenient to discover one of the many options closer to home?

Rather than trying to discover my place in the real world, I’ve given up on it. Giving up is less poetic and doesn’t fit the ‘find yourself’ travel genre, but it comes with less illusion.

Travelling changes people, but so does a new job, a new house or a break-up. Comparatively, travelling seems a rather small agent of change.

Why running away never works


Wall art in Calvi, a small Italian hilltop town.

I’m sitting in row 26, either seat A or F, a window seat. I breathe in the enhanced aeroplane air and tug my beautiful red Indian shawl tight around my body, like a small child. Inside my head, a war is taking place.

I’m supposed to be excited that I’m going home. Home is filled with people who love me, people who are desperately eager for me to return (I hope). Home is full of the familiar – my bed, my clothes, my balding pink teddy bear. It is supposed to be the place I treasure the absolute most.

Once I get back to England, I know I’m going to be fine. Once I feel my mother’s arms around me I’m going to wonder how I could possibly have stayed away from all this love so long. When I see the smiling faces of my friends as we plonk ourselves down in our seats, twisting our bodies towards each other like jigsaw pieces that fit smooth, I’m going to be so grateful to see them.

And yet, high above the clouds, there’s a battle going on in this crumpled body. When you travel to run away, all you do is postpone the inevitable. You’re still you. The enemy is still the enemy. The problem is still a problem. Hurt still hurts.

How to guarantee that you don’t belong where you are


This weed does not belong in the beautifully tended lawn in front of the tower of Pisa.

Travelling can sometimes reduce a painful feeling of alienation by making not-belonging feel expected and normal.

I don’t feel I have to belong wherever I’m travelling. Fitting in doesn’t matter. I can wear summer dresses on a crowded Italian piazza where every other woman under the age of thirty is in skinny jeans. My uniqueness is what entertains people, and as the traveller with hopefully plenty of stories to tell, I can entertain. But even more importantly, you can practice your English with me, you can get your sheep fed by me and your children dragged home from school. I have value.

However, most of the time, when you’re away, you’re alone. There is nobody to disappoint when you’re alone. Nobody who is going to laugh at you. Nobody who is going to ask you awkward questions about your bank balance, your pension or your prospects. There is nobody who knows you. Nobody.

Loneliness. Is it worse to be the valued guest in a foreign tribe, or feel like an alien in your own?

While you’re busy validating your feelings of loneliness by making yourself well and truly alone, the people back home are talking to one another. They’re going to the cinema, going out for birthday meals, they’re hugging and laughing together. They’re giving each other those minute signals that say – I like you being around.

Happiness comes from friendship, not travel

Happiness, according to Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, and assuming that you’ve covered your basic survival needs, comes from living in a space of friendship, finding freedom through fulfilling work and giving time to rational analysis and insight so that you understand your anxieties and needs.

Epicurus lived among friends, worked alongside friends, spent time conversing and hypothesising with friends. But Epicurus could do this because his friends wanted to live in a house with him, wanted to work alongside him and wanted to philosophise with him.

If you’ve got friends you can live in close proximity to, meaningful work to do and time to think, lucky you. Don’t waste to much time travelling.

Some of my friends enjoy a somewhat philosophical conversation. Others it makes uncomfortable. Some of my friends don’t mind me staying over a couple of nights on the sofa. Others would prefer that we just have coffee somewhere so they don’t have to worry about the inconvenience of hosting. Some of my friends would be happy to do a small contained project with me, if it didn’t get in the way of their actual jobs and actual lives and all the other things they need to get done.

Home is an unsolvable puzzle; travel is a beautiful illusion


Could be an Italian lake, or it could be in Yorkshire.

I travel because when it comes to getting the volume of interaction I want from friends whilst doing meaningful work I am a failure. As is typical in our modern society, when we left university my friends scattered all over the place to build their own busy lives.

Travel provides an environment where the expectations have changed. Nobody expects you to spend your entire life travelling. Nobody expects you to spend your entire life with them. But for the time you’re there, they’re more than happy to discuss different worries and outlooks with you – your judgement doesn’t scare them. They’re happy to work alongside you and they appreciate your efforts. You’re teaching their children, cleaning their plough, felling their trees, sawing their wood. And for the short time you’re staying there, you’re welcome to a glass of wine, to sprawl out on the sofa, to eat the last slice of cake and join them for a barbeque at their parents.

It’s not ideal, but it is something.



Above the clouds: thoughts on a flight

Flying by Plane

England from the sky.

The flight is full. Demonstrated by the flight attendants’ silent looks at one another as they try to get all the hand-luggage into the overhead compartments. A baby cries. A woman whines about not being able to sit beside her husband. I imagine she’s probably a little afraid of the rush down the runway to a sense defying lift-off and the screech of brakes forty-five minutes later when we hit tarmac again in Dublin.

This flight is so full that my companion is in the next flight. And in a moment of unfairness, is travelling business class.

Seatbelts on and the wheels roll. The baby cries throughout the safety announcement. Although I expect myself to find such a noise annoying, by my sympathy goes to the parents and I can’t fault the babies rationality. It takes a fair amount of social conditioning to think that being flung into the sky in a crowded metal box is a good idea.

My conscience winces at the thought of this flight and the volume of fuel it takes to rise us so high. It’s not like I can blame my actions on being ignorant of global warming. I know I’m dooming the planet to abrupt change. Yet there’s another part of me which feels free in that moment the plane leaves English soil, and with the nervousness of a first date, my heart expands with glee. I’m in the air again.

The shadow of the plane passes over school fields marked out for a game of football. As we pass over a cloud, I’m delighted to see the shadow being magnified on its fluff. Another plane passes below us. I stare so intensely that I no longer notice whether the baby cries.

I follow the roads, and then I see it. There, beyond the winding river, over the railway line, up the hills which I cycle, right at the  junction, is the buildings of the manor house of our landlord, and the tiny terrace of three. Earlier, in that middle house, I woke, ate breakfast and dressed for this adventure.


Just in time, for thick cloud is lathered across the land, obscuring it from view. Bright white in the sunlight. Like alpine snow.

The ferocious air conditioning is on full blast.

Height: 6400 meters. Location: Cirencester, then the Cotswolds.

Complimentary orange juice and a packet of crisps.

We skirt the Welsh coast. Below us, the land is a dark, rich green. We’re too far south for it to be ‘my’ Wales, but I stare at the beaches along the coast with fond memories.

Height: 7924 meters. The sky is an amazing blue. The sort of blue that invites you to admire its blueness. Yet it has a gradient, fading towards the cloud line.

And then the deep, dark sea.

My ears pop.

My friend will be in the air by now.

Tarmac approaches.

And we’re down.


[From the diary.]


An English cook in Sicily (and the commotion this entailed)

Sicily Cooking

Ok, this is the neighbours outdoor over, not the actual one I cooked on.

The morning began when I asked where the coffee was – in the fridge duh – and Maria started making tea. That is tea with rosemary, red berries and orange peel.

Maria looked at me, “Candle?”

Being English wasn’t working.

Sicilian Cooking

Ingenious or crazy?

At eight in the morning with my coffee unmade I observed the commotion in silence. What does anyone want a candle for anyway? I figured it was the wrong word, and that the ideal word was lighter. We needed to light the gas to use the hob to heat the hot water for the coffee and this so called tea. Either way I couldn’t help.

It turned out, the candle was for the tea. A lighter was, as I presumed, also required, and found. The kettle boiled. Maria poured the hot water into the teapot and stood it above the tealight – to keep it warm. A jam jar lid went on top because the original lid is missing.

That was breakfast. We worked for a while, until lunch, which Maria forgot, half started and then abandoned with flamboyance. Moving faster than I’d ever seen her move before, Maria instructed me to tell Leonardo to stop working. We were late and… the children. Until this point there had been no prior mention of any children. Missing or otherwise.

I said, “Ok.”

Confused because my instructions had been given in Italian, I went to the workshop where Leonardo looked at me and had the same panic as Maria. He ran out of the house behind her. I’m not sure either of them were wearing shoes.

The children appeared sometime later trailing behind a joyful Maria and a singing Leonardo. We ate. Thankfully. Then Leonardo made them wooden toys out of the scraps of wood that remained from making the Christmas letters.

In a moment of chaos, mid-afternoon, when numerous neighbours appeared, the children disappeared again.

I discover, that due to Maria’s need to be productive, I’m cooking dinner. But I don’t know what dinner is, or when we’re having it. Nor do I know what I’m cooking. Lentils and carrots float around in a pot.

A debate, in Sicillian/Italian/French, followed about how one doesn’t need a fork for soup. With Leonardo shouting from the workshop that Maria had to ask me how to say spoon in Italian. All I could think of was the French, which I started shouting back. At least I now knew I was making soup.

To add to my difficulties, the stove required constant feeding with wood. But hey.

Furthermore, dinner required salt. It was my job to taste the food and add the correct amount of salt. I’m ungenerous with salt at the best of times. I save it for special occasions.

And the ‘sale’ jar was empty.

If it was just dinner, or just the salt, I might managed to remain restrained.

Just as we’re sitting down for dinner, there was a commotion about the ladle. I waved my hands in despair. Some shouting and laughter. Leonardo handed me the ladle and I repeated its name three times.

Everyone laughs because I’m saying the wrong thing again.

I lift my hands in a big Italian gesture.

Now I’ve raised my voice, it’s feeling more Yorkshire.

And I’m like, “What?”

Although tempted to swear, I don’t. This is just what it takes to adapt.

As we sit down for dinner, everyone seems more relaxed. I realise it’s me. And my English restraint is as hard on them as their Italian cresendo.

What’s the most challenging kitchen you’ve ever had to cook in?


[Read more about my adventures in Sicily.]


How to deal with that day of travelling when nobody likes each other

Travelling with friends

Icarus, crash landed in the ancient Roman forum of Pompei, telling us it’s inadvisable to get too close to the sun.  Sculptures by Igor Mitoraj.

For good reason, travelling alone is not everyone’s cup of tea. However, it can, on occasion, seem preferable to travelling with a friend.

Travelling with a friend can stir up a whole set of small irritations that in normal circumstances would pass unnoticed. Imagine spending every waking, and non-waking moment with someone, more time than if you were in a relationship, every little friction intensifies. Happy interdependence heats up, until you realise you’re bound together and can’t escape. Or at least can’t escape without breaking an unspoken contract.

You entwine your plans around each other, because you love each other, and only later wonder why in this travel – which is supposed to be freeing – you feel trapped. Aren’t you having fun?

I’ve travelled alone, but not everybody has. Alone, with nobody else to please, I’m capable of walking around the central streets of a city for half an hour trying to decide where to have coffee and a croissant for breakfast (Modena). And that’s without anyone else to appease. That’s just taking in my desires for the right looking croissants, happy clientele, serving staff who smile. Coffee that smells good. A week of such behaviour and even my most loving friends are going to be going batty.

Expect the friction

DeepThought and the Circumvesuviana

In Italy, on the first Sunday of the month there’s free entry to the tourist sites of Pompei, Herculaneum and the scattered villas that Mt. Vesuvius buried with its volcanic spread of AD. 89.

DeepThought and I had been going crazy visiting places and seeing things. Neither of us are concerned by a 40-minute walk here or there, so we’d also done a lot of walking. Mostly searching for an elusive pizza restaurant with a chimney, but that’s another story (and all my fault).

Sunday morning, I overslept. We disagreed on the urgency of lunch. At the train station, acting out of habit, we got on the wrong train. On realising, we then got off the train, took another train back and then a third train to get to where we’d wanted to be. Finally at the station we were heading to, we became uncertain as to whether we were at the right station. There were no obvious signs to the mysterious villas, and this being lunch time on a Sunday there was nothing open and nobody about.

We started walking in a direction. The threat offered by the grey sky was no bluff. Only I had a coat. We began again, walking in a different direction. Changed our minds, and finally ended up at a cross roads where a small sign pointed down the road to a villa.

Since it was the first Sunday of November, in the ticket office there was a visitor book that one had to sign. I signed my name in all the boxes, recording DeepThought’s home city as a squiggle of my own name.

At Pompei, the rain would have been miserable, but although the villa wasn’t architecturally as exciting as anything we’d seen in the previous few days, it was at least mostly covered. This was something to be grateful for.

After viewing that villa, we walked along the road to the next villa (taking another wrong turn along the way). There was no path. And it was so late when we finally arrived that the villa was closed. Quiet.

Ravenous, I bought and consumed a large packet of chocolate brioche from an open supermarket.

Sicily and the loud house

It’s not such a different story from what happened only a month later, when, confined in a house with two Sicilian’s and not enough space I found myself angering at the slightest provocation. It felt like an impossible situation but it was simply a matter of too much all at once.

Sometimes it’s just not so easy to be having fun.

“But we’ve been friends forever.”

Sadly, it doesn’t matter how well intentioned the other person is. Neither Maria asking if I was alright, telling me that my happiness really mattered to her, nor DeepThought gritting his teeth and behaving with supreme English gentleman’s reserve was enough. It happens every time I travel with anyone.

And it’s not just me.

When I pull up my chair in a café or bar, and start listening to people who have travelled a lot, everyone seems to have stories to tell about travelling with friends. Home friends, that put up with our not being there and don’t let our never-ending supply of photos of sunny beaches grate on them too much, especially while they’re in the office on a Monday morning, are valued and precious creatures. These are people who know us by more than first impressions. And that mix of history and knowledge makes for an intimacy and belonging that lonely travellers long for.

And yet, everyone seems to have cautionary tales of mixing close friends and travel. I’ve witnessed enough exchanges of horror stories where one person ends up leaving the other in South Africa or India alone. Or two people have a spat and a breakdown in the supermarket, on a hostel floor, or in the middle of some tourist’s photo of the Arc De Triumph

Don’t waste your time blaming, plan space

I’m going to irritate anyone travelling with me.

I’m going to get crabby at some point as I wear out if they have too much time without a decent and whole chunk of solitary space to recover and rejuvenate. The least I can do is be upfront about it and encourage whomever I’m with to call me out on any sharp or snide comments that escape. It’s not personal.

Sometimes it seems like a waste of good time that you could spend together, to have days apart, to visit coffee shops alone, or endeavour to accomplish a lone 10km run. But space is what makes getting along possible. If I don’t read a book, write my diary and go for a walk or a run I’m insufferable.

I used to feel bad about not always being attentive. But now I know that in the long run, escaping a while is a kindness.

In the Bay of Naples, with DeepThought, when we arrived back at our apartment, I hid in the kitchen and cooked. Cooking is a great solace. An apartment offers more space than a hostel or hotel.

What to do if being alone scares you

Budapest. I’ve pushed Midget for days, forcing her beyond her comfort zone. Her feet ache from the walking I’ve made her do.

Budapest is big. It’s heavy and it’s dirty. The stunning buildings scream the richness of Vienna but look like Miss Havisham is in charge of the housework. Midget, quite frankly, had reached a point of enough.

So, she curled up on the bed and read a book.

And I went outside, not so far because when she’s feeling uncertain about things it’s not worth worrying her about where I might be. But I went outside, leaving her alone in our apartment, and I sat on a bench which she could have seen if she’d peered out her window, and I sat and sketched the parliament building.

And when she’d finished her book, she was ready to play again.

Don’t let intense emotions surprise you

“Which of us was crying?”

“I think it must have been me.”

“By the coffee shop by the metro station.”

“Yeah that’s right.” Understanding pause. “So where shall we go next?”

It’s just an acknowledgement of reality. You can’t keep up an illusion or pretence of perfection, which is itself a precious freedom. Travel isn’t about just exploring the scenery. It’s as much internal as external. When you travel with a friend you’re taking them on that journey with you. You’re going to have intense moments, deep conversations and as cliché as it is, you’ll change.

Laugh about how you’re going to get it wrong

So, if I were to give one piece of advice to any friends travelling together, it would be this, laugh at how you’re going to irritate the hell out of each other.

As one friend joked, on a particularly vexing afternoon: “At least being stuck with me is good practice for when you have children.”