Tuesday, 6 September 2016

The Story of an African Adventure - Chance meeting with adventurous author Roxana Valea

It was obvious as soon as I arrived in the plush beach club that I wasn't supposed to be there. It appeared to be a networking event for Germans. Not any old German, but rich German business men.

Conversation dried up seconds after I shook each hand. It didn't take long for people to discern I wasn't a CEO of a huge company and move away to talk to someone who might be. 

It was supposed to be a social meet up, an event forwarded by a friend of my husband's. I may as well have stumbled into a board meeting.

We sipped our free champagne and did our best to engage the stiff audience. It was so awkward it was funny. A woman wearing a blazer complained of the heat. I could have suggested she took it off, but I don't think she wanted to upset her uniform. We hadn't got the memo about the uniform. Everyone was wearing the same: suit jacket, shirt, smart jeans and loafers with no socks. In 35 degrees heat. Rock on.

We might have gone if she hadn't arrived. Dressed in a pretty blue and white dress and sparkly earrings, the woman seemed brighter and bubblier than the whole party put together. Hearing she spoke English I headed over hoping for a bit of relief from the stilted small talk. I didn't know that this woman and I were about to become firm friends. That we would end up touring Mallorca together and sharing ideas for our future books.

From the very first conversation, my husband and I were gripped by Roxana's stories. She told us how she had given up a stable job in Switzerland to travel through Africa with two strangers she'd met over the internet. The eight month journey in 2002 had taken her from Morrocco to Nambia, travelling through war-torn countries and desert, surviving threats from corrupt official and enduring the most challenging modes of transport!

She must have told these stories a million times, and yet she delivered them with so much enthusiasm and humour. I was utterly hooked. We invited her to watch a football game in a much less posh tapas bar the next day. Being the sort of person who says Yes, she came.  

Roxana gave me her book a week ago. It's called Through Dust and Dreams, and recounts her journey through Africa. I was slightly concerned. There's nothing worse than someone you like giving you their book only for you to discover it's rubbish or badly written. You then either have to pretend to like it or tell them you haven't got around to reading it yet. I told myself that if her verbal storytelling was anything like her written, it couldn't be that bad!

I'm relieved to say, her book didn't disappoint. Her journey is epic. As a reader I thoroughly enjoyed being taken to places I doubt I will ever go in real life. Places I feel curious about, but am quite happy to learn about from the comfort of my sofa! Through deserts, down rivers, piled into boats and squeezed into trucks, there are moments of great exhaustion and great elation. 

It isn't just the story of a demanding physical voyage, it's also a story of an internal one. She describes the tensions between her travel mates and the struggles within herself. 

"Africa taught me that as soon as you give up trying to find a solution, it finds you," she writes. Many of the lessons she learns on her journey will make you pause to reflect. Some might even inspire you to start living a little differently!

When I find a book I love, it gives me great pleasure to share it. If you're in need of an adventure, if you want to escape to another world, if you want to switch off from the order of your life, go ahead and buy it. But let me warn you, this isn't the Africa of safari parks, this is far more gritty and uncomfortable! 


Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Moving Country: What do you miss when you're away?

"You've got to watch the meat," she warned me. "Spanish meat is a bit funny."

I was on a flight to Mallorca. This was it. I had no return ticket or any intention of getting one. I was heading to my new home. Beside me were two young women who were going to the the island to work as night club promoters in Magaluf for the summer. It was 9.00 in the morning and they were already on the booze. Between their alcohol intake and my excitement we'd struck up a conversation.

"When we're there we survive on pasta," her friend went on. 

I nodded and pretended to be on the same wavelength. The truth was, I wasn't at all concerned about the meat in Spain. When I thought of Spanish meat, I thought of tender lamb chops on the barbeque and peppery sausages.  Growing up, my Mum only visited the butcher when were in Spain. Lately my Dad had started bringing over packets of the finest cured ham, Jamon de Bellota, to London. Now I was moving, he wouldn't need to do that any more. 

"It gets cold too around October," the girls said. "We had to wrap ourselves in towels last year."

My eyes widened in sympathy, but really I was wondering why they hadn't bought a blanket. Spain might not have meat to their taste, but it definitely had lots of shops!

It's been over a year since I moved and for the first time I woke up the other day and I wished it would rain. I wanted it be cloudy, rainy and cold. Ha, I thought, Mallorca has finally cracked me. But to be honest the feeling didn't last. I wouldn't give up this sunshine without a fight!

I bet lots of Brits abroad miss the taste of British milk and butter. However I've been coming back and forward to Spain all my life and have got used to the flavour of their milk. As for butter, I haven't eaten much of it in years. I'm happy rubbing tomato, oil and salt on my bread. In Catalunya they call it pa amb tomaquet, in Mallorcan pamboli.

I miss ginger beer. Yep, Enid Blyton would understand. I bought some rum for a party the other day and suddenly craved the fresh taste of ginger beer and rum mixed together with lime. It was one of my favourite drinks in England. Here, the option is coca cola, and I hate mixing drinks with coke because in the end it just tastes like coke.

And other than food and drink?

Boots. I miss Boots. Not the shoes, but the shop. In Boots everything you could ever want is on display. Over here, you have to go to the pharmacy and ask for everything over the counter. What can I say? I get embarrassed easily. I love the anonymity of Boots.  Plus medicine and vitamins here are a lot more expensive.

Among the cast of characters in the new novel I'm working on is a retired British couple. They are facing the challenge of life in a new country with varying degrees of enthusiasm. It got me thinking...  

BACON! Sorry. I forgot about that one. Britain does the best smoked bacon. Once my relatives brought serrano ham to England, now they bring British bacon to Spain. I didn't predict that one!

What do you miss when you are away?

N.B. To friends and family, don't be offended, obviously I miss you a bit!

Friday, 19 August 2016

Will our narcissistic selfie culture ever end?!

I know what you're thinking. Who am I to judge, right? 

My social media accounts are all about me. I've got a blog, a Facebook page, a Twitter account and I'm on Instagram. I write a lot about little me and my wonderful little life. 

But at least it's about writing, travel, books...  At least I'm not just taking the same picture of my face over and over again. If that ever happens, unfollow me and send a therapist. 

Last week I went to the beach and watched as a girl spent over an hour standing in the water taking selfies of herself with the aid of a tripod and selfie stick. I'm not exaggerating the time. She was still at it when I left the beach. She probably is at it now. She'll probably emerge at some point and discover fish have nibbled off her legs. But as long as her pictures make it look like she's having the best time ever, she probably won't care.

I get it! A solo traveller wants to show they are somewhere nice. A group wants everyone in the photo together. Fine! A couple of photos is okay. A lovely memory. But a whole photo session of yourself endlessly posing, trying desperately to prove what a fabulous time you're having is pitiful.  

Every time I go to the beach it's the same story. I want to shout at these desperate photographers, That's enough! Put a snorkel on! Go explore! Live a life worth documenting!

Half the time selfies don't even show the background. No I can't see that amazing sunset because your face is taking up the whole screen. If you'd just asked one of the dozen people around you to take the shot, like we did in the old days, it would have made a decent picture. Instead no one knows where you are, plus you've got a double chin. 

Frankly it's a big bonus if there's a fancy background at all. Plenty of selfie-takers are satisfied taking their picture in the bathroom. It's always the same practised smile. The same arranged hair. These photos are so boring I want to cry.

When will it end? When will we stop feeling the need to photograph our face every time we move. Please God, let it be soon.  

N.B. Quite possibly illustrating this post with a selfie has come across as hypocritical. My other option was...

...but I thought this was more about oversharing than selfies, which I've also ranted about in my post The Oversharing Sickness, do you have it?

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Life change: Time, Time, Not Enough Time?

Life used to be about fitting in as many things in to a day as possible. I was never someone who tutted at queues in the post office, but I was aware of time ticking by. 

In London I always walked at top speed. I wrote lists and meticulously measured out my time, getting annoyed with myself when I didn't accomplish my daily goals.

50 minutes to write, 10 minutes to hang out the washing, 50 minutes to write...

My driving lessons are supposed to be 45 minutes long, but my instructor says he does it as a hobby and our classes regularly run over. Not just ten minutes, but whole hours. We'll stop for coffee and put the world to right. And a part of me will think, this is crazy, I've got stuff to do! But another part of me, a part that's growing louder, will think, What's the rush? Whatever I need to get done, won't get done faster by thinking I should be doing them.

My hunger for routine has started to fade. I've begun to feel more relaxed about time. Walking to the supermarket is not a waste of writing time, it's something that needs to be done, so I may as well enjoy the walk.

I'm going with the flow a little more. If things take longer than planned, so be it. 

The last time I went back to London I met a friend in Waterloo station. I felt like a little villager making their first trip to the metropolis. I was overwhelmed by the pace of the crowds threading seamlessly through each other like ants. I kept standing in the wrong place, upsetting the order of things. It took me ages to cross from one side to the other because I couldn't get into a rhythm that had previously been so natural to me.

It's a huge station, of course everyone was heading somewhere. But it wasn't just that. I got the sense that everyone was in a race against time. Everyone wanted to be somewhere other than where they were and the present moment was an obstacle. At any rate, that's what I used to feel speeding from one platform to the other.

Eckhart Tolle says, Since there is no escape from the Now, why not welcome it, become friendly with it?

It makes a lot of sense when you think about it, doesn't it?

Monday, 18 July 2016

New challenge - Palma Half Marathon!

One of the first purchases I made when I arrived in Mallorca was a pair of bright pink running trainers. Time to embrace my new healthy outdoor lifestyle! - I thought. 

I remember my first jog lasting all of five minutes because I was being cooked alive in the summer heat.  

After a few more attempts, I swapped trainers for rollerskates. Skating is so much faster and easier. I probably have done quite a few half marathons on skates without realising it.

Skaters also look like they're having more fun than the average panting, red-in-the-face jogger. 

In short, it appeared my brief running days had ended and I had no regrets.

And then on Saturday, I registered to run Palma's half marathon.

Wait! Stop! What do you think you're doing? my inner voice cried. 

But it was too late. I'd paid my €30.

The problem is lately I've been feeling restless because I don't have a new idea for a novel. Because I'm unfocused, I've been having boozy weekends leading to tedious hangovers. I was starting to feel that life was going around in circles. Signing up forces me to refocus and take care of myself. (Actually, it's probably a form of punishment! I always feel guilty when I'm not writing enough!)

I have yet to dust off my trainers and get running. It's boiling out there. I'm either going to have to go outside at the crack of dawn or late at night. An optimistic assures me that Palma's pretty scenery will help me along. 

I told a friend that I ran Hackney half marathon, so I'm sure I can do it.

"Was it flat?" he asked.


He laughed. "You're going to die then!"


Oops. Sorry!

Donations really appreciated!

I'm also unofficially raising money for ProActiva Open Arms. They are a charity made up of coastguards from Barcelona, who were so horrified by the amount of refugees drowning in the Meditarranean, they headed over to Greece to help. While governments talked, these guys got practical! Their facebook updates reveal how hard they are working and how many lives they save each day. I know there are so many charities needing our help, but I'd love to be able to raise 100 euros for this inspiring crew of people! I've got until October. Thank you! 

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Help! Brexit Blocker App Required!

I need a Brexit-blocker application for my computer. I'm not getting any work done as I'm too busy getting distracted by every article, tweet and facebook rant. Being my own boss, I should probably fire myself. I would if I could find the time but reading about Brexit is a full-time job!

I did consider making my blog a Brexit free space, but clearly haven't been able to resist. Brexit brexit brexit. It's a new kind of tourettes. I'm slowly getting over the shock of the result. Now it's dawning on me that I've been living in a bubble where everyone lives and thinks like me. Perhaps most of us live in a bubble like that. Perhaps that's part of the problem.

Mike Walker wrote about not being surprised by the results in his article, I walked from Liverpool to London  . He paints a sorry picture of a country where communities feel forgotten, unrepresented by the rich boys in government and blame immigration for everything that's going wrong.

I guess if someone I trusted had assured me leaving the EU would radically improve my country, I'd have voted to leave too. Then again, as someone with mixed European nationality, I'm pretty attached to Europe. Plus, I've experienced what it's like to marry a foreigner who needs visas for everywhere and I value the freedom of movement too much to risk losing it.  

One thing I feel strongly is, it should be illegal for one man to control so much of the media. On why he wanted Britain to leave the EU, Rupert Murdoch reportedly said, 'Downing street do what I say, Brussels takes no notice'... Little surprise his newspapers made the EU out to be the enemy then! The world is run by a few powerful men. While we're all blaming each other they're laughing at us!   

Oh dear, now I'm insinuating all leave voters read The Sun. How insulting of me! I knew this blog post was a mistake! Especially as there are plenty of bloggers already articulating their opinion far more succintly, (and a lot more boldly), like this post, "So. You Want me to be Happy?" by Claire Broadley

I'm just mumbling to myself over here because I'm alarmed and not quite sure what's going on... oh wait, it's not just me, no one in the country knows what's going on either!

What? Keanu Reeves is going to be the new prime minister? 

Just one more peek at the news and I'll get back to work...

Meanwhile, can we all make an effort to be kind to each other please? We are fellow human beings and that's a far more important connection than any nationality!  

Monday, 6 June 2016

The Underrated Art of Accepting a Compliment

I met up with a group of friends last week.

"You look lovely!" one said, giving me a big hug.

Not an unusual greeting by any means, and yet I reacted as if I'd just been put on the spot and asked to give a speech on Tanzanian politics.

"Nooohsdhcnjtyxsoowciylshzo," I replied.

She looked surprised. "I have no idea what you just said."

It was then that my whole life flashed before me and I realised that I have always been terrible at accepting compliments.

On my wedding day, the priest said, "That's a beautiful dress."

Instead of saying thank you, I immediately informed him that it was from the Sale rail and hadn't cost half as much as it looked.

Does anyone else do this? Try to undermine a compliment by giving the person the price of your outfit?

l like your dress! - This old thing? It only cost a tenner.
I like you shoes! -  No, they're only Primark.

I want to just be able to say: THANK YOU.

I don't think it's because I'm modest either. 

I have a similar problem when I write birthday cards. I can't stand leaving a blank space so I scribble across the two sides until I've made an inarticulate mess. Invariably I'll make a spelling mistake or repeat a word (a TERRIBLE thing for a writer to do!) and so turn the error into a doodle of a fluffy sheep, a cunning trick passed down by my Mum. 

The trouble is it's much harder to produce a fluffy sheep off the page when I'm trying to cover up for an inarticulate response to how lovely I look.