Recovery and Pain

A few days ago I was limping into the desert town of Los Arcos questioning why I would submit myself to such an onslaught of repetitive pain. I think I naturally have a wide emotional scale but I have felt particularly stretched on the walk so far. Incredible highs with beautiful scenery and meeting many inspiring people to various lows of dealing with the heat, long walks and physical tiredness.

Navarra
My flatmates have recently completed a cycle ride to Fort William (check out the accompanying great blog) and I messaged Mike talking about the relationship between physical and mental tiredness. Ideally your alert brain could push past any physical barriers and assess a situation without being overly influenced by the reluctance in your legs to take one more step. Tiredness and pain can make the view above seem like a never ending journey to the next resting point instead of a glorious amble amongst golden Spanish scenery. I'm currently listening to 'Thinking Fast and Slow' which has provided a fascinating analysis into how our thought processes occur. I need to adjust the balance slightly so that it can continue to be a physical challenge but also a time of peace and exploration.

I wanted to do this walk as I needed a bit of clarity and to rediscover that feeling of discovery, hope and expectation that had been suffocated by long Edinburgh winters and ugly Italian grammar. Reading back through my journal, I can see that this has been in part successful. There is a lack of distractions and with a mind that is able to make the most out of the simple authentic existence there is a lot to be gained. Pushing myself too hard has been and will be detrimental to what I want to get out of the next couple of weeks so instead of a relentless 40km pace, I think I will drop back to 25km and continue next year if I fall short of the final destination.

Edinburgh is full of incredible people who I feel blessed to know and spend time with. I am currently having a rest in the south of Menorca and these last few days with Jamie, Richard, Lawrence, Emily, Tash, Amelia, Lizzie, Bel and Issy have been a welcome break with people I feel completely comfortable around. Thanks to various year abroads it will be over a year till I see most of them again.

The people I have met on the camino couldn't be more apart and distinct from the typical Edinburgh demographic and this immense diversity opens you up to new perspectives that occupy your thoughts as you wander from village to village. I met an American Vietnamese war veteran called Harper on the walk from Ventosa; He had a silver pony tail and volunteered as a firefighter in his native state of Colorado, he has recently sold his house and is travelling the world with no plans and only a one way ticket. You don't get to meet this person in your student halls. I've bumped into him twice on the way, latterly when we stayed in a tiny village of 17 people called Ciruena. There were 4 people in total staying at the albergue and we shared an incredible 3 course traditional Basque meal. It was my second favourite evening behind the night at Logrono, which I will leave for another post.

Today is the last day in Menorca and I will be back on the path by Thursday. If any of you have any book recommendations then please drop me a message!  - I'm currently enjoying Mediations by Marcus Aurelius and Bank 3.0 by Brett King. Till next time - TJP



Arrival in Saint Jean

I stumbled into a foggy Saint Jean Pied de Port half asleep from the winding bus journey through the French Pyrenees mountains. Edinburgh had fulfilled its yearly obligation to give me the latest possible exam and after the standard rapid 48 hour turnaround I had landed in this strange, small French town close to the Spanish border.

Fifty pilgrims were searching for the respective raincoats and ponchos and realising that most of us were going to be heading to the same solitary pilgrims office, I decided to lead the way up the hill. The queue to get the pilgrim credentials was already twenty deep while the hostels and albergues, that lined the steep rue de la citadel, all had signs outside stating their respective lack of capacity. A door opened and a bustling Frenchman exchanged the ´no space left´ sign to a ´2 beds available´, needing no further motivation with the rain starting to turn into a menacing downpour, I stepped inside.

It was a perfect start. The owner of the albergue was hosting an welcome ceremony just as I walked through the door. Over various glasses of port and wine (free wine is included in every ´menu del peregrino´) all the travellers introduced themselves, talked a little about their background and some of their motivation in wanting to complete the camino. The people ranged from ages 19 - 60+ walking in groups of 1 to 4. This variety coupled with the diversity in nationalities give the camino so much depth.

Italian walkers have been a blessing as I have been able to practicar mi Italiano for 20 minutes+ each day. My A level Spanish is also being slowly revived. Grammar is the main issue with most of my sentences being a collection of words stringed together. Meaning is more or less translated thankfully and today I enjoyed a 10km section with 3 Basque walkers from Navarra. Football and politics were the topics of choice.

I am relying on the albergues having a free computer to write on here so it might be a while till I next get a chance. I love this new way of life I have find myself in. I sleep 11pm-6am, meet people from all around the world in the day and read and write in the evening.

The occasional picture might work its way onto here if you are interested. The scenery over the last 3 days has been epic, changing from misty mountains at the start to far stretching golden corn fields that I found past Pamplona today. I have a huge 44km+ walk tomorrow with my goal of reaching Burgos next Tuesday still on target. Then I am having a short break with some friends from Edinburgh before hopefully reaching Santiago within a couple of weeks.

Hasta Pronto,
TJP

Camino Preamble

Three weeks today I will be starting a long walk. Starting in south west France and, if all goes to plan, ending in north west Spain 800 kilometres and about 23/24 days of walking later. Clarity is something easily lost and often forgotten.

From the start of term it will have been 19 weeks till the start of this trip, an endless countdown till I could start something new. University is much more than simply the work which is why I have probably survived it till now. I've been able to get enough perspective to realise I'm not fully happy with this current situation but a solid alternative is tricky to find. Breaking out is a difficult thing to realise as ironically many of the best ways to be challenged in new environments is by sticking out the status quo for just another 24 months. I'm relatively optimistic of scraping through the latest examination ordeal which would culminate in an exciting but daunting new life in Rome this September.

This walk has intrigued me for the last 2 years and the idea of doing it has grown in my mind till it was inevitable that it had to be done. I've often sat on a thought for a while and suddenly you revisit this thought or desire and it has grown to something where you can't ignore it any longer. I might write a few thoughts on here as I go along but mostly it will be an individual thing, learning from the other people on the way and reflecting on the hows, whys, shoulds over the past year and hopefully the next few steps going forward.

One of the things that I feel most fortunate and grateful for is the sheer variety of people I have come across over the past 3 years. Inspiring people who have a talent and passion for business and others who forsake the typical western lifestyle to explore the world. People who share my enjoyment of climbing, sailing and sport with others who are incredibly creative and simply aspire for beauty. Travelling with the girls last summer, opened my eyes to a more creative side of travelling that particularly encouraged me. I guess I find it hard to wade through it all and find some kind of order and rationality.

One of my aims of the walk is to rediscover some kind of purpose or order. Maybe a shift of priorities. I'm going pretty open minded. It will be quickly followed by a sharply contrasting London lifestyle and harmonising these two contrasting worlds will be a strange and difficult adjustment to make.

The start is tangible now and I've allowed myself to look forward to those nervous first few steps from Saint Jean Pied de Port...

Selective Inspiration

After coming back from my gap year, I wanted to see more of Europe. Powerful, diverse cultures in such a relatively small area, make me feel particularly fortunate to live here.


This is a beautiful little video about brief travels through the continent. Taken from 3 films by STA Australia: Move, Eat, Learn. All of which are worth seeing too.

Casey Neistat is one of my favourite guys on YouTube, I think I've seen pretty much all of his videos. He is primarily a story teller with a passion for exploring and being the best he can be. His work studio is insane and he makes a living by shooting films or advertisements for companies. 




The above are two of my favourites. Crazy, courageous out of the ordinary thinking and the ability to follow things through to conclusion. His tremendous self belief is something I particularly admire.



Having a clear destination/aim in mind allows you to think about how you do something with some kind of framework in place. Road trips give that clarity as do extreme events like marathon running or racing to the Arctic circle. It places things in context which maybe gives you some added purpose with what you are trying to achieve. 


Finally, you're never too old for an adventure...

Answers

What you 'should' be doing is never clear. University is such an expected obligation that any rebellion against it is immediately questioned. Placing yourself in the right environment is critical to success. At the weekend I was fortunate to be able to do some conservation out at Aberlady Bay which is on the west coast past Edinburgh. The sparse, open, beautiful expanse provided a welcome contrast to the hustle of normal Edinburgh living. A rare chance to think. 

It's incredible how we all see the world so differently. Any kind of superficial agreement is mainly down to being in a place which naturally joins people with common interests. In January I spent a few days at a eco community in the south of Scotland. I was volunteering with a group from the university and we were helping with conservation on the estate. It provided a unique insight on a way of life that was so far removed from my own. The people there had found a sense of belonging with the rest of the community who likewise shared their views of a outward society swayed by pride and greed. It was overly insular for my liking but provocative and attractive in comparison to the ugly ambition in many people at Edinburgh. I don't think there is a right way anymore. Most people continue in the direction where they have been led by their previous circumstances and the ones who get away from the route in which they have been led, usually find something else in which they believe works better but ultimately provides no perfect answer.

Those who continue down their predetermined route can often be content in their existence, so it would seem premature to condemn them for not questioning where they are heading. Alternatively those who attempt to break free of the 'status quo' can be left unfulfilled in where they end up. In the past couple of years I have mixed with wide range of people. Some of the friends I met on my gap year who are mid to late twenties have shunned the typical western lifestyle to travel the world with a wider aim to find ways to aid development. It's a more radical existence yet one I can happily relate to and understand. On the other side, I have friends at Edinburgh who are firmly focussed on a finance/city route after university. It's a world I'm familiar with and I appreciate the appeal of that lifestyle. They are typically talented and ambitious and are provided with  a range opportunities by the companies who are courting them.

I don't know which of the two areas I lean more towards. A more nomadic, free lifestyle is currently more appealing. But as I make my way through university, with requisite banking internships in the summer, I am placing more value in the standard graduate route. I don't think either is wrong or right but maybe one could be more subjectively healthy? You can have respectable intentions with both. Likewise it doesn't have to be polarised and you can attempt to blur many lifestyles into some kind of harmony. As I live in Edinburgh I have tried to keep doing many of the things that I discovered in my time away. While it can be frustrating to be not be as immersed or concentrated, the intention coupled with some tangible results is enough to provide some satisfaction.

For now, things won't be changing.

Aberlady Bay





(Missed) Opportunities

Typhoon Haiyan had just hit and I was meant to be working my way through some 14th century Italian literature but I was distracted by the seemingly importance of what was going on over there and the contrasting pointlessness of what I was doing. It was easy to slip into feeling that I was in the wrong place, questioning the worth of what I was currently doing and wanting to go over there to help.

So what started as a form of extended procrastination resulting in sending off an application to one of the charities out there that that I was familiar with. They were called All Hands and were about to launch a project to help with the disaster relief. I got an email a few weeks later and was offered a place for 3 weeks over Christmas. As you can tell by the title of this post, I had to turn it down in the end.

It's easy to fall into a trap of ranking value and importance. On one utilitarian level you can work out numbers, for example how many people you can feed with a certain amount of money and maybe you could compare this with a country in sub-Saharan Africa to a country in Central America and work out where you should go. Of course life isn't like this, circumstances are different and if you were to be judged it should be on helping people where you are and not where you're not.

Life is also a balance. You need to be able to look after yourself before you can look after others. This is not about being selfish but realising you will do more good with a sustained effort over a year rather than throwing yourself into something for a couple of months and then burning out with exhaustion. It's like the classic advice you get on a plane to put your own gas mask on before you put on your children's.

Of course, I still wish I was getting on a plane next week. I have worked once before with a disaster relief organisation, albeit a few years down the line, and it was probably the best thing I have done in my life so far. Everything that seems to bother you in the western world is no longer present and you have a 'simple' task of waking up everyday to work on projects helping people get their lives together again. 

Ultimately, I guess there are jobs I have to do in Edinburgh and they have value even if isn't as emotionally invasive as working in the Philippines would have been. People uplift education as the ideal that people should aspire to. I am fortunate to have been given the opportunity to study at one of the worlds best universities yet I regularly don't appreciate this for its full worth.


Edinburgh Hang Outs

One of the best things about Edinburgh is the wide selection of independent cafés/bistros/coffee shops. Can you do a blog about coffee without sounding a bit pretentious? Probably not

Credit goes to Mike who helped me over a lazy evening in the flat.

This list is focussed on places near George Square and a few places near to where I live around Bruntsfield. There's 15 here but there is easily 40+ places around central Edinburgh if you're looking. Explore!

Selection: One safe thing or can you experiment?
Atmosphere: Comfortable/relaxed/chilled, could you stay for long?
Personality: Is it interesting/unique/weird?


Brew Lab - S 8 A 7 P 9 = 24/30
Love it or hate it, Brew Lab is something different and I'm a fan. It's always full but worth it if you can locate a table. Famed for it's scruffy interior some claim it's a bit too 'try hard'. Great food, great coffee and it even has its own app - what more could you want?
Brew Lab in 3 words: Packed, Pretentious, Happening

Artisan Roast Bruntsfield - S 8 A 6 P 8 = 22
It's a small little place tucked away in Bruntsfield. Originally meant to be a temporary pop up in the fringe, it has persevered due to a loyal set of regulars and a unique atmosphere. It's small and quirky (check out the Lord of The Rings makeshift wallpaper) - ideal for a chilled afternoon chat.
Artisan Roast Bruntsfield in 3 words: Indie, Low-key, Interesting  


Black Medicine Bruntsfield - S 7 A 7 P 8 = 22
Black Medicine Bruntsfield is the cooler younger brother to Nicholson. It's quieter and doesn't have the same rushed vibe. Go up the stairs to the balcony and you are in a cosy corner with a tree house feel. One of my favourite places to go to.
Black Medicine in 3 words: Calm, Solid, Tree House


Mosque Kitchen - S5 A 6 P 9 = 20
There are 3 mosque kitchens, all of them claim to be the original and all are slightly different. Loosely separated as the 'mainstream' one on Nicholson Street, the more 'sophisticated' one as you enter the Mosque on the right and my favourite of the three, the back alley kitchen in between the previous two.  Massive portions and great vibe. 
Mosque Kitchen in 3 words: Substantial, Quick, Easy

Café Gourmand - S 7 A 8 P 5 = 20
This is a solid place to go to if want somewhere a bit quieter that lacks the pretentious buzz of some of its close neighbours. Its menu revolves around its selection of pancakes but also has a few choice milkshakes. Good place to get some work done.
Café Gourmand in 3 words: Plain, Pancakes, Productive


Snax - S 6 A 4 P 9 = 19
Snax is another polarising favourite of mine. The rough, bustling atmosphere combined with a killer breakfast make Snax a must visit location. It is in no way a refined venue nor is it somewhere where you should attempt to do work. It's designed for the hungry not the aloof.
Snax in 3 words: Hi-Viz, Irn-Bru, Glorious

Elephants & Bagels - S 7 A 5 P 7 = 19
It does bagels which is enough to make it stand apart but coupled with a quirky interior and it's a place worth going to. Possibly a little expensive for what you get but it's surprisingly filling.
Elephants & Bagels in 3 words: Lit Student, Elephants, Chilled

Project Coffee S 7 A 7 P 5 = 19
Project Coffee sits in the centre of Bruntsfield and is owned by the same family as Press, Rotato and Kilamanjaro. It is light and fairly spacious with an expected selection of drinks and snacks. Think business meeting rather than friendly chat.
Project Coffee in 3 words: Efficient, Light, Open


Tea at 94 S 7 A 5 P 6 = 18
A little place on Buccleuch Street, it has a huge selection of tea if that is your thing but also enough for a quiet lunch. Perfectly pleasant without being exciting.
Tea at 94 in 3 words: British, Tea, Cake


La Barantine - S 4 A 6 P 7= 17
A little French café in Bruntsfield. It's different to anything around it, the staff speak French and it offers a more refined breakfast than snax.
La Barantine in 3 words: Cosy, Relaxed, French  

Café Kilimanjaro - S 6 A 6 P 5 = 17
It's in student central and delivers chunky, home made food, it's good just not especially noteworthy. They do notable paninis and good selection of smoothies.
Café Kilimanjaro in 3 words: Student, Standard, Casual


Black Medicine Nicholson - S 7 A 3 P 6 = 16
If Brew Lab is literally at capacity and it is raining then Black Medicine is where you would end up. It's like Snax but you can't laugh at it. Plus points are vaguely interesting furniture.
Black Medicine Nicholson in 3 words: Aggressive, Woodland, Average


Brazilian Pancake Hut - S 5 A 2 P 8 = 15
It's a little hut at the top of quarter mile which is definitely worth a visit. Go for the signature steak pancake and chat with the friendly couple who run it. There's some outdoor seating but we are in Edinburgh...
Brazilian Pancake Hut in 3 words: Tasty, Meaty, Friendly 






Rotato S 4 A 3 P 8 = 15
They have 4 things on the menu and I barely change from my regular choice. Basically a jacket potato with a few tasty fillings, it's a worthy place to drop into in between lectures. Check out the collection of Mr Potato heads on the window sill. 
Rotato in 3 words: Simple, Tasty, Cheeky

Press S 5 A 4 P 3 = 12
There isn't really anything exciting about Press apart from the fact it's the shortest walk from DHT and if we are in routine Edinburgh winter weather, location is key.
Press in 3 words: Convenient, Small, Pleasant

__________________

Honourable mentions go to Peters Yard (expensive but decent), Beetle Juice (quality food but tiny), The Library Café (on necessity), The Edinburgh Larder (more expensive but relaxed), Teviot (nachos, pizza, library bar), Two Thin Laddies (Tollcross business scene, good food), Beanscene (average but spacious), Bees (now closed but it used to be the go to place), Affogato (for ice cream...)

The walk to Uni

The world has failed our nation

Firstly, watch this. That world can seem so far away, just a news story, just something that doesn't really effect us. But within seconds you can drown in the feeling of injustice. Why are they so helpless? The doctor at the end sums up their sense of abandonment: "We don't matter, the whole world has failed our nation".

David Cameron rightly said yesterday that there is no certainty that military action will calm any violence. As it happened, Labour hijacked any possibility of that by voting against the motion. They wanted black and white proof that chemical weapons had been fired and wanted 100% assurances that these came from Assad. All we have at the moment is a blood stained dark grey.

The use of these chemical weapons would contravene United Nations law, and as a result, Britain would be legitimised to intervene. Legitimacy in front of their Russian and Chinese counterparts at the security council clearly being the key focus rather than any suffering Syrians. The quote by the British doctor implies some sort of moral duty and how we have neglected it by not acting.

British politics looks particularly feeble after last night and I find it hard to question their rational for not supporting a watered down condemnation of chemical warfare. Humanitarian aid has been looted by Assad, UN advisers have been kicked out of the country, if we want to act and stop attacks it is hard to see past some kind of military action.

There are always going to be problems in life and black and white solutions rarely exist. In War & Peace, Tolstoy tried to emphasise how our hindsight judgement rarely correlated to reality; in other words people rarely make decisions to create the legacy of a future consequence but instead they make decisions to deal with a present set of problems. So for Iraq, the decision to go to war was to stop the problem of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship. They didn't make the decision to showcase a legacy of smooth government transition. The inadequacy of the Iraqi police force and army wasn't part of the initial problem yet came to help define the war as Britain and the US were unable to pull out till there was a self sufficient structure in place.

Winning in politics is impossible, however you can try and make good decisions. You can act with integrity and have the end in mind. The end in mind for Syria should be enabling the people to find some sense of normality again without the daily fear of survival. After last night, that doesn't look any closer.

Castello di Potentino: Coming Home

I left Potentino after 5 weeks. I was able to begin to relate and empathise with a way of life that was so foreign to me only a few months previous. I engaged in a hard working community in a beautiful inspiring setting. It was quiet and detached, the background noise was a slight whirring of insects, the flowing of the river and the gentle breeze running through the valley. Potentino had its quirks, its own way of doing things; but now having emerged through the other side it is as if I can see that all the quirks were necessary for it to be what it is. Having candle lit dinners outside for 25 people, rising at 6am to prune some overzealous vines, spending the weekend at the waterfalls these are the experiences which slowly add up to what it is like living there. One thing by itself isn't enough to explain it but by slowly immersing yourself into this unique community you will be changed and as I retreat back to civilisation I have a different outlook on my old routines and patterns.

View from the Potentino garden

Pisco had over 50 people living in its dusty walls. Potentino was more intimate and intense. Small changes instantly affected the dynamics. It was a conflicted but enjoyable contrast between the tranquillity of the vineyard and the changeable group dynamics between the many people who live and work in the castle walls. You were working under a system with authority but around the obligations of work people found a way to express themselves. Some people wrote, others spent the early evening light running in the surrounding estate, a few displayed their cooking prowess. 

I had a break from updating thoughts on here and focussed on the little black moleskine that contained my thoughts from the previous 9 weeks. I enjoyed reading again. I listened to the guests, friends and workers who would come in and out of the castle. People from the city who were escaping the noise and artists who came looking for new ideas. I had that special, rare realisation that this place was significant and it will be somewhere which I will continue to look back on.

I am in Chester now taking a few days to sort some things out and plan for the next couple of months. Till next time, Italy



For anybody wanting to see what life is like on a vineyard, join WWOOF Italia and find Castello di Potentino in Grosseto, Tuscany

Castello di Potentino: Brief Extracts

Here is a brief edited extract of my thoughts from the past week.

Day 1, Friday 28th June

I had no phone and no idea where I was. I was told I was in Castel del Piano but all I could see was a mechanics garage whirring across the road with a sleepy clay tennis court behind me. My only weapon was a phone number which I had managed to scrawl down the night before and after avoiding the inevitable for 15 minutes, I tentatively crossed the road to face the only sign of life. 

An old lady was walking down the crumbling pavement towards me and I decided to approach the situation with a 2 prong approach; Firstly I used my Italian and then secondly reinforced my efforts with my well honed hand gestures which I was fairly adept at. After a few minutes of struggling I had encouraged an unwelcome crowd with 3 of the overall clad workmen peering into the discussion. The crux of the problem was trying to explain that I wanted to use their phone when I had my English phone in my hand. Ten minutes later I had managed to work my way into the owner's office at the back of the garage to call Charlotte and with a broken signal I left the conversation with some assurances that I wasn't completely abandoned.

I found a bench and was awoken by a horn across the road. Charlotte had managed to find the anomaly amongst the locals and we started our journey back into the country. I shared my car seat with a Great Dane called Minerva and a Chocolate Labrador called Cocoa. We slowly pulled up to the castle and I tried to take in all of the surroundings. The sun was coming down over the mountains and the vineyards were lit up with a warm orange glow.


Day 4, Monday 1st July

Uran, the Albanian Italian speaking estate manager, had a cheeky grin on his face as the 6 of us gingerly clambered into the back of the tractor. It was 8.30am and we were starting work. Soon we realised the source of the grin as Uran mercilessly pushed the tractor to its speed limit while cruising down the bumpy terrain to the forest. It was reminiscent of the PSF truck with Andy at the helm. There we would be drifting around dusty outskirts of Pisco as we worked our way to Earth Bags. Fifteen months on it is a similar uncomfortable feeling with the objective changed to avoiding any wandering children to trying to avoid any of the prized vines or olive trees which we were taught to love if everyone is to get along happily.

Day 7, Thursday 4th July

Independence day. We celebrated with 3 Americans who I am working alongside here. It was a classic Potentino dinner which you would start sometime around 7pm and emerge 4 hours later after a hearty meal and plenty of interesting as well as obscure conversation. Knocking American foreign policy can be a favourite dinner topic amongst members of the various dinner parties (usually between 10-15 with a combination of workers and guests) but on this occasion it was outlawed and we had a non ironic or sarcastic chat about hunting Elks in the North of the States. Apparently there is a children section of the rifle stores where you can buy guns that will fit snugly into the arms of a 10 year old. We duly held our tongues.

Day 8, Friday 5th July

Working in the vineyard can be tiring work but also slightly satisfying as you move between the lines pruning and tucking any stray vines into the wires. I have also rediscovered the world of audio books after my last childhood experience of Steven Fry reading Harry Potter. On a similar cliché I have started the Lord of the Rings and Frodo and the boys are just approaching Rivendell. Reading is a big part of my life here and I'm having a brief respite with Michael Lewis' The Big Short before considering any more heavy novels.


The weekend has finally arrived and we escaped a wedding at the castle to head to the coast. A picnic and impending Wimbledon glory surely awaits me and Andy tomorrow...

Cinque Terre and Castle Life

A lot can change in a week and 7 days from hopping on a train to Genoa, I am sitting in a Tuscan castle where I will living and working amongst the vineyards. I feel alive being here, the castle is full of quirky rooms, a library and a beautiful little chapel just next to where I am living. It is set in a valley surrounded by vineyards, forests and a flowing river with waterfalls.

The last 7 days have been largely split between the incredible coastal village of Monterrosso and the walled city of Lucca. Monterrosso forms one of the five towns in the Cinque Terre national park which I had heard so much about  before coming to Italy. There is a stunning collection of walks joining the various places and the two days I spent walking along the ocean and through the vineyards were not enough for the pristine tranquility of the place to fully settle in.

If anybody remotely enjoys a good meander through the countryside then I would fully recommend making plans to visit this special area. I was fortunate to be living with some Italian friends who allowed me to settle into the Italian way of life. Focaccia bread is renowned in the areas around Genoa and breakfast was always something to look forward to with large varieties of this special bread on offer.

Being away from the noise of the city has allowed my kindle to make an appearance but this might be short lived considering I'm fortunate to be living amidst one of the most impressive book collections I have ever seen. Apart from the two storey library there are books in every room and once I finish my current book of Catch 22  I will go for an exploration to see what I can find.

Over the next month I will be integrating myself into the way of life here. Wine is a key aspect to living in the castle. I am writing this after a particularly brutal wine tasting session and combining this with unlimited glasses at lunch and at dinner you can begin to understand the daily volume you go through. Just as Boodles has forever changed my expectations of jewellery, after 2 days I am already fearing the almost certain probability of me being too aloof for the £2.49 bottle of Sainsbury's house wine when I return to England. It is exciting living in this place and there is so much waiting to be discovered throughout the next 5 weeks.

Brief Tuscan Memoirs

Sheer terror decends onto my face. The 500 stone beast bellows "un momento" to the waiting queue behind, in a deep American accent. The man has his fist plunged into an inconspicuous brown sack before releasing forth, like Arthur pulling the sword from the stone, some greasy goodness with the brand of the golden arches.

His obese offspring wait patiently. Unlike the chirping chicks tucked away in the nest, they know there is more than enough grub to go around. Within seconds their chubby fingers are clenched around their prey.

Satisfied that his children have had their fill, his gaze turns to me and then painfully shifts to the empty seat to my left. I say empty but it is currently providing the vital service of supporting my big shot, North Face rucksack. Such a bag would get so much more out of the juicy leather seat than the prowling 'bald with a moustache' American.

With one lengthy stride I know the game is up and I resign myself to my fate. I take one last gasp of fresh air and then join my bag on the seat next to me. Just 3 hours to go to Genoa...

This blog has been slightly neglected of late but all for good causes. I have been binging on a cultural feast through Rome, Siena and Florence. Interspersed with a delightful week isolated amongst the Tuscan planes.

Florence is a dream. It goes about its cultural dominance with a sophisticated swagger. A couple of nights ago I left our central appartment for a long walk through the pristine streets, bridges and piazzas. I wistfully walked by the locals at play. All of them beautifully dressed, talking beautifully, being beautiful. I know my place and I ventured on.

Even with my rose tinted glasses - watch out for the 3 euro sunglasses - there is an obligatory acceptance that Florence is a special place. I'm calling shot gun for my third year abroad.

Having been travelling for 24 days with the other 4, I am departing to see the chilled out coastal town of Monterroso. I am yet to have plans for past Sunday but I'm looking forward to the freedom. A presto

Alone on Vesuvius

The mist had fallen and the clouds had opened. Hard, powerful, intense rain slipped through our clothes and onto our skin. Vesuvius was releasing a gentle slipstream of smoke into the sky. We reached the top of the walk and looked firstly into the vast, depths of the crater and then out to Naples and the surrounding forests that resolutely clung to it's dangerous ally. Everyone else had left and the only thing that remained constant was the consistent hammering of the water.

I like these rare moments in life. A rare shattering of perspective through the everyday routine. Where you feel humbled and inspired. I wanted to record that moment and put it on the shelf to experience when I felt the urge to escape. 

We had been to Pompeii in the morning and it was easy to reflect on the juxtaposition between the lingering sentiment of death in the ruins and the vivacity and life that surrounded the volcano. Standing on the top was the most alive I had felt for a while and I just wanted to stay in that moment.

The next day the clothes had dried and Napoli was forcing itself through its winding streets once again. After briefly facing the knife in a Neapolitan barbers we were back on the train to the capital. Rome proved to be one of the most incredible places in the world.

Edgy Napoli

I came to Napoli with only a few prejudices; firstly the reputation of their hostile football fans and secondly the need to keep an extra keen eye on my wallet. But after a nervy journey finding the hostel I quickly become a huge fan of this quirky place full of passionate, strong characters.


The vespas tear through the city weaving through the crowds at ridiculous speeds. The pizzerias jostle at every corner and if you escape the tourist piazzas into the back streets you will find the restaurants running at factory like precision. We were pointed to 'Di Matteos', one of the top 5 pizzerias in the city according to the hostel owner, and found ourselves surrounded by Neapolitans and without a fellow Brit or American in sight. 


These places survive through word of mouth, otherwise no one blindly following their nose would wander into Di Mateos; It looked closed when we first walked past and only when we tentatively stepped inside were we gruffly pointed upstairs to discover a whole new world of food delight. Dozens of families tightly packed into 3 rooms all chomping down on humongous pizzas in routine fashion.


The pizzas range from 4 to 7 euros with the extra suicidal option to go for 'maxi' which is only recommended if you are trying to push for diabetes or to give added padding to your vespa waiting outside. Despite our best efforts at the cool, casual Neapolitan dress  (I wore an Australia tank top, flip flops and shorts), we all failed miserably and one waiter finally plucked up the courage to approach the Brits.  I ordered a Diavolo which translates to pepperoni but means devil in Italian. After making it clear that I couldn't handle the 'picante' version our pizzas arrived in  the purpose built pizza lift a short while later.


Unsurpringly the restaurant was packed for a reason and as Bjorn, an American traveller we met at the hostel, pointed out, sometimes the food here is so good here you want to cry. I didn't cry but I realised that my love for pizza has, despite many fond memories of post night out dominos, grown stronger.


Aside from this anecdote of a few short hours in Napoli, we have visted the ancient Greek ruins of Agrigento, climbed the smoky volcano of Mount Etna from Catania and endured a brutal overnight train flying through the south of Italy.


Rome now almost feels a bit too clean. I will miss Napoli, maybe one day I can wear the slightly aged black leather jacket and ostentatiously over-sized aviators and fit in with the cool, young Neapolitan crowd. Well, we can all dream.

Sicily

We are currently staying in an unnaturally large apartment in Agrigento having been upgraded by the excitable owner we found through hostelworld. Five days since leaving Chester and I have already lost track of time. It feels like we have been in Italy for weeks and we already have a slightly familiar expression when we clamber into the picturesque, grandiose train stations ready to be whisked away to the next location.

It's a surreal feeling traveling through somewhere you have heard so much about. It doesn't feel like true reality until you get lost through the crumbling back streets, until you try that sensational pasta norma or until you try that famous gelato looking out over the Mediterranean. I like Italy, but I'm still working my way through the first impressions and it has yet to fully sink in.


Towns and cities so far include Palermo, Cefalu and Agrigento. Highlights include seeing a concert at the Teatro Massimo in Palermo (apparently the 2nd biggest in Europe), the dramatic backdrop to the beach at Cefalu and experiencing the strange Thai/Vietnam/Hong Kong-esqu nightlife we experienced in Palermo. Heading North through the city in a group of 15 travelers, we were shown where the nightlife in Palermo was centred. Giuseppe, the owner of the hostel, pointed us to bar where we purchased the obligatory €1.50 bottle of Forst beer and then we headed outside to the street where a few hundred people were gathered. I loved the atmosphere and the range of conversations that followed with the Australian/Canadian/Israeli travelers that surrounded me.

Having traveled with Joe last year it has been interesting to see how the dynamics change now I'm in a group of 5 (Issy, Lucy, Emily and Anil). Everyone has different plans for after ranging from Au Pairing in Spain to a trip to Zambia and I'm looking forward to these next few weeks before we all head our separate ways.


Next we head to Catania and then the looming prospect of an overnight train to Napoli. We could have easily spent more days here in Sicily which I don't mind as it will be an excuse to come back at another time!

Palermo

The Start

I like the anticipation, the build up as you get everything ready before you leave. From finishing on Friday, to leaving Edinburgh on Saturday and to setting out today, it's been a pretty busy few days.

Although I'm not going as far this time, the plan is less concrete. Oxford, London and then a one way ticket to Sicily. After doing a year of Italian, myself and 4 friends from my course are going to interrail through Italy. I'm looking forward to a slower pace of life, reading again and hopefully discovering the beautiful Italian countryside that I have heard so much about.

Couchsurfing and hostels will be the accommodation and I think I might try my first workaway at some point over the next couple of months. A friend recommended an organic farm at Castello di Pontentino in Tuscany which I might check out.

I will keep some thoughts on here as I go along. Here are links to instagram and tumblr.
  
Arrivederci!

Edinburgh Sunrise | Revision Zone Out

Here is a link to some of the background revision music I've been listening to.

A few of my friends had birthdays last week and we decidedly to go up Arthur's Seat at 4am to see the sunrise.



Memories and nostalgia are more powerful than we realise. We can selectively remember the good or bad, polarising whatever was the overriding feeling. Looking back in a few years I don't think I'll remember that morning from the cold temperature or how I felt having 2 hours sleep but I think I'll remember it as a slightly surreal experience shared by 20 people who were all experiencing the same thing for the first time. 


                                                                              Credits to Rachael Gilfillan
The year finishes in one week. After negotiating Boccaccio's Decameron and some tricky Italian grammar next Friday, the whole Summer will lie ahead. I'm looking forward to it.


Edinburgh

Surreal Films

Sometimes you leave the cinema with this surreal haze over you because you are still lost in the reality you left behind. You watched something powerful that changed the way you look at the world. It made you want to experience new things, it gave a new edge to the things around you and it gave you a glimpse of something that is removed from ordinary.

Often a casual trip is cinema is nothing more than a brief 2 hour jolt to your week before returning to the standard routine. But sometimes you experience something more. A world that lingers on.

Here are 5 films that left me with this feeling of separation:



Not an easy film. I watched this with a couple of friends and I remember the near silent car journey back as we tried to absorb and understand what we saw. It's about a young woman's experience of a cult and her attempt to rejoin the society she left behind. It's tense and makes you think about how you see yourself and how others see you.


The best soundtrack you will hear. Ryan Gosling in impeccable form. A lost character drifting through danger and him finding something that he valued enough to question the meaninglessness of his current existence. Essential to watch, turn the sound up.


I loved this and having only saw it last week it's still fresh in my thoughts. Ryan Gosling along with Bradley Cooper. It makes you think about human character and how and why we make our decisions and the unexpected consequences to the people around us. 


A gruelling Danish film that examined injustice and how brutal it can be. It forces you to think about the assumptions we make and how dangerous that can be. Worth watching, be prepared to lose any feeling of joy for 90 minutes.


You can't not be overwhelmed by this. Six 30 minute stories all inter wound and connected with various powerful themes of hope, love, war. Edinburgh is featured and it made me want to do something and to do something important. It's probably one of the most underrated films, ever.

I hope this encourages you to watch a few of these. Let me know thoughts!

Trees For Life - Skye

I needed to break things up, to do something different and to do something that will allow me to break out of the uni bubble that it is easy to get caught under. About 5 weeks ago I heard about an interesting charity called Trees For Life. Their mission is to replant the Caledonian forest that has been gradually removed from the Scottish landscape over the past 200 years.

If you have watched Brave you will get an idea of the kind of expansive and varied forests that Scotland used to enjoy. But much of the Ash, Aspen, Beech, Scottish Pine, Oak etc have been removed with less than one percent of the original forest remaining. Trees For Life aim to reintroduce this ecosystem and one of the ways they do this is by running a series of work weeks throughout the year where volunteers come and plant trees.

Myself and a friend applied for one of these weeks in the beautiful Isle of Skye, on the West coast of Scotland. We were joined by 8 other volunteers and we would spend 5 days working with Wednesday spent exploring the island. The incredible scenery in Skye surpassed my high expectations and it was a relief to escape the city landscape I had been living in for the previous 12 weeks.

Our 8 fellow volunteers were an eclectic group of people who allowed me to see into new ways of living that is far removed from my student life. I haven't turned into a tree hugging hippy over night but I was provoked by a more simplistic way of doing things. Edinburgh has pushed me away from this and it was powerful to see people in all walks of life with a different set of priorities.

This was the first time I had done work of this kind. While my sister's first reaction was that I had justified all the Christmas trees for the rest of her life, I was more intrigued by being surrounded by an environment that was foreign to anything I was familiar with. Not just the beautiful scenery, but the conversations I was having with the fellow volunteers and a depth of knowledge and skills into new areas that have real importance to the people I was working with.

Our priorities in life are reflected by what we do and who we are. By taking 20+ flights in the last 12 months, saving the planet for future generations is evidently less important than some of my other interests in life. When you spend a significant amount of time with people who have on principle not been on a plane for 8 years you  are forced to question why you do what you do. I guess I would justify it by saying that taking opportunities when they arise is key to who I am and this often leads me to hopping on a plane. Also, there is much we can learn and appreciate by going out of our normal environment. We can bring things back that will help and improve ourselves and the people around us and learn to value the things we are blessed with right now.


Removing some American Spruce
I gained a lot from Skye. The objective of the week was to plant trees and as a group, we planted 2,500 Birch and Willow trees over the first four days with the last day spent removing non-native trees. It will take over 20 years for that area to develop into a forest, so I will be 40 before I can come back and see the end result. You get a glimpse of how fragile that and the worlds environment really is. In a space of a few hours a fire could wipe out decades of development or tree fellers could come in and clear it out just as they are doing right now in Brazil at crazy speeds.

I also realised that I missed getting outside and going for walks. On the Wednesday we took a boat from Elgol to Loch Coruisk and then walked back along the cliffs by the sea. It was an incredible day from seeing eagles to witnessing some beautiful scenery that was reminiscent of the Andes last year. You get a lot of thinking time of walks and I missed that no pressured silence to just experience what is around you.

Coming back I already miss the feeling of going somewhere new. It was a powerful week and I'm glad I've been able to see more of this country which I now call my home. Five weeks of reality as I face exams before I can tentatively check my bank balance and start the Summer.

Beats: