Postcard from the Balkans, part 1

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When my great friend B moved to Sarajevo last year, we knew that it wouldn’t be long before we visited her and her family. An investigation into flights quickly revealed that there are no direct flights to Bosnia from the UK, however, so some creative travelling was going to be in order to make a visit happen.

We went to Split two years ago and absolutely loved it, so flying there from Bristol would enable us to hang out there again (and go back for dinner at the amazing restaurant we found.) Then plans started to fall into place – if we were going all that way, why not fly home from a different airport and visit multiple cities? S and I have recently come to the conclusion that we’re just not one-place holiday makers – we get bored if we have to stay in the same place, and that in fact our ideal holiday is made up of multiple city breaks so we can wander, drink coffee and explore to our hearts’ content. So we worked out that we could fly back from Austria, and that we could visit Belgrade, Budapest and Vienna after Sarajevo. Then I read a great review of Mostar, and we added that in as a convenient break in between Split and Sarajevo.

We only had a day in Split but we ticked off everything we wanted to do — found the amazing restaurant again where we had seafood, a delicious potato and kale dish and enough white wine to sink a ship, ate ice cream in Diocletian’s Palace while listening to the live music and had a drink in a bar in the old city. We also climbed to the top of the park (no mean feat in 32 degree heat), where they had the most beautiful views of the harbour.

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Adding in Mostar was an excellent choice, as not only did we get to visit this charming city with its historic bridge (and its random statue of Bruce Lee), but also go on a day trip to the Kravice waterfalls. Located about 90 minutes south from Mostar, these are very similar to the waterfalls at Plitvice that we visited last time we went to Croatia, except you can actually swim in these ones during the summer when the water level is low. And on a 35 degree day, the ice-cold water was a welcome treat.

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We ended up seeing these waterfalls touted all over Bosnia and Serbia, so they’re clearly a huge tourist attraction in Bosnia, but even in the height of summer it wasn’t unpleasantly busy. There are a few bars and coffee shops right on the shore so you can buy food and drink, and it was very pleasant to sip espresso while watching people bob past in the water. In fact, swimming in Kravice was one of the nicest things I have ever done on holiday and is my definite must-do if you visit this part of the world.

Sarajevo was an interesting city — a real mix of east and west, a place that’s still scarred by the war 20 years ago but one that’s definitely looking to the future. It’s hard not to go there and think about the war — I was ten when it broke out, and I remember reading Zlata’s Diary as a teenager, but until our trip I didn’t really have any comprehension of how bad it was and that the city was under siege for three years. We did a private tour of Sarajevo with a guide and one of the places she took us to was the Tunnel of Hope, the tunnel that was dug under the airport in order to get supplies into the beleaguered city. Visiting there was very poignant and it was there that it really hit home about how terrible those years were. And as you can see from the photo below, graveyards are sadly a prominent feature of the city.

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The war isn’t the only thing of course, and it’s important not to focus solely on that. We also visited the bob sleigh track from the ’84 Winter Olympics (soon to be renovated) , saw where Gavrilo Princep had set the wheels in motion for World War 1 and stuffed ourselves on the Balkan speciality, cevpici — sausages in bread, with onions. Not healthy in the slightest, but pretty tasty!

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Of course our main purpose in Sarajevo was to hang out with B and her family, which we did in bucket loads, with lots of coffee sipping, pizza eating, board game playing and beer drinking.

Belgrade was my least favourite place of the trip, but it still had its charm. I loved the Bohemian Quarter – it’s just one street, but packed full of restaurants and bars where you can do some quality people watching while sipping on cheap beer (the most popular brand of which was practically named after me!).

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Due to a problem with our bus from Sarajevo to Belgrade we ended up only having one full day there, so we made the most of it with a free walking tour with Belgrade Walking Tours. I can highly recommend this — it was a great way to get an overview of the city and our tour guide was really knowledgeable. She also touched briefly on the hardships of the 1990s, and we learned about the hyper-inflation that happened in Serbia during that time, and were given a copy of the 5 million dinar note that ended up being legal currency!

Part two to follow…

In which I am not proud to be British

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At the moment, I am not proud to be British. In fact, I am anything but.

The campaigning around next week’s EU referendum has revealed a nasty underbelly to this country that I am disgusted to see. And with yesterday’s murder of MP Jo Cox, something that has really affected me, the tone has become even darker. While the motives of the killer have yet to be uncovered, and it is rumoured that he had long term mental health issues, there’s no denying that the referendum has become a catalyst for some people to reveal a darker side.

Whenever the topic of leave/remain has come up and I’ve found myself talking to people who want to leave, I always ask them for their reasons. And while I can’t agree with them in any manner, shape or form, I’m pleased, for want of a better word, that none of these have been on the lines of immigration (more on political power, governance and economics).

Unfortunately the majority of the Leave campaign has been conducted around the topic of immigration, leading to a nasty ‘us and them’ mentality that is exposing the racist, xenophobic views that so many people in the country seem to hold. Views that I thought had fallen out of favour in the 70s and 80s, and seem completely at odds with life in the 21st century.

The Ukip poster unveiled yesterday summed up just how divisive and horrible the Leave campaign has become, using the refugee crisis and the misery of millions to score a cheap political shot. All this talk of “taking back control”, “making Britain great again” – it’s pathetic, jingoistic nonsense.

We often joke with our German friends about Europe, winding them up when we say we’re “visiting” Europe when we come to see them, just to hear their comically exasperated cry of “but you live in Europe!” I do think that there is a difference between us and the continental mainland, and I have often felt a gap between the UK and countries such as Germany and France in attitudes towards the EU and the role that our country plays in it. But I still think the EU is a wonderful institution, one that I am fully committed to being a part of; one that has an important role to play. We already have a slight divide due to geographical location, and I have absolutely no desire to further distance this country mentally from our cousins across the water.

If we wake up next Friday and have left the EU, that’s sending a clear message to Europe, and the rest of the world, that we consider ourselves to be superior, different and better than other countries. This is not a message that I wish to be associated with. It makes me sad that so many British people do.

 

 

Postcard from Morocco

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When I think back on our trip to Morocco, two things immediately occur to me: colour and scent. The cinnamon-orange aroma of our hotel, a riot of cerise bougainvillea tumbling all over walls, terracotta buildings, endless racks of turquoise, pink, red and orange sandals, the sharp eucalyptus tang of the hammam, bright blue skies: all of these instantly take me back to our week there.

This is a holiday that’s been booked in for about three years, ever since my mom said that she wanted to go to Marrakesh for her 70th birthday. S and I decided to add on some trekking in the Atlas Mountains onto the four day city break, and with direct flights from Bristol, this couldn’t have been an easier trip to plan.

April was the perfect month for Morocco (thanks Mom!) as we had blue skies and warm breezes for most of our week there. The mountains were chillier — there was still snow on some of the passes — but this only added to their beauty.

We booked a three day, two night walk around the Three Valleys of the Atlas mountains, starting and ending in Imlil. Day one was a breeze, but day two was more challenging –eight hours of constant up and downs, accompanied by fog and rain. Still, after our epic hike in Salkantay, I know now I can do anything and my improved fitness definitely made the ascents a lot easier. We were also fuelled by very sugary mint tea, aka Berber whisky!

We thought this would be a group tour, but it actually turned out to be private; just us, our guide Ibrahim and our muleteer/cook Hamid, so I felt a bit spoiled! I was constantly amazed by the meals that Hamid could produce from the back of a mule up the side of a mountain.

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Our choice to do the trekking prior to Marrakesh was definitely the right one, as facilities were pretty basic in the village ‘gites’ we stayed in and I didn’t have a shower for two days. The discovery of a rose petal-bedecked bathroom at La Maison Arabe, the amazing hotel my dad had picked (and very kindly treated us to) was met with sighs of delight. It was from the ridiculous to the sublime in terms of sanitation!

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The four days we had in Marrakesh were a delightful mix of tasty tagines, sightseeing, relaxation (I indulged in both a hammam session and a massage), constant mint tea, birthday cocktails, haggling for leather sandals, reading in the sunshine and taking a very long time over breakfast. Everyone we met was so friendly, and it was one of those holidays that surpassed my expectations and gave me everything I wanted and more.

Since it was a landmark birthday, we all wanted to make it the best we could for Mom. In addition to a gift of concert tickets and inspired by Holly, I contacted friends and family to put together ‘seventy years of memories’. I didn’t opt for seventy envelopes — we’d have still been there now opening them — but I certainly collected a lot of wonderful anecdotes about her. For my part, it was so much fun to get the emails and letters back from everyone, especially since it gave me insight into parts of Mom’s life that I hadn’t known about. I then packaged them up with customised stickers, and prayed they wouldn’t get crushed in my carry-on!

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Watching her open them on a warm night as we ate a superb dinner by the hotel’s pool was itself a memory I’ll treasure forever. There was so much love in the air — it was magical. And in fact that word sums up the entire trip. Morocco, I’ll be back.

In which we crack The Crystal Maze

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Last year, my friend emailed me to see if S and I were up for being part of a crowdfunding campaign to recreate The Crystal Maze, which was being run by someone she had taught at university. For those of you who’ve never seen the TV show, I’ll wait here while you go off and watch an episode of two (or three, or four) — you’ll find most of them on YouTube.

Naturally we said yes, so we pledged our money, and then completely forgot about it.

Turns out that a LOT of people love TCM, and were up for paying £50 for a bit of nostalgia, as the campaign exceeded its £500,000 target and actually ended up raising over £900,000. The maze got built, tickets went on sale, and as crowdfunders, we got first dibs on booking dates, which is why last Saturday saw us outside an office block in Angel and donning a (rather sweaty) bomber jacket.

The production company had built the maze exactly as it was — Aztec, Industrial, Future and Medieval zones, with games played in order to win time crystals to spend in the Crystal Dome. All the games were those featured in the series (although sadly no water based games, due to health and safety). Richard O’Brien only appears as a video message at the beginning, but our host, Dusty, was every bit as exuberant (and also played tunes on the harmonica!).

Before we went, S and I watched about six episodes to refresh our memories, and it was just like being eight years old again. We gleaned some useful tactics (don’t all shout at the person doing the game, give them plenty of warning to get out if they can’t access the door easily), and I also decided that my goals were to a) not get locked in and b) win at least one crystal.

There were eight people in our team, and we got to play two games each. I opted for a mystery in the Medieval zone, which involved a stained glass window puzzle and having to correctly match it to the replica on one of nine doors, to open it and find the crystal.

Then in the Industrial zone I picked a skill game, only to then groan inwardly when I was given an automatic lock-in game — the very thing I was dreading. I opened the door to find a nest of ropes, and the crystal in the top corner of the room. I had to climb up and retrieve it, but without ringing any of the bells attached to the ropes. Three rings, and I would be locked in. I managed to ring the bells twice in quick succession, and then starting panicking. I even called out “I can’t do this!” to the team, who were all anxiously watching me through the windows, but with their shouts of encouragement I succeeded in pocketing the crystal and making a nervous descent back through the ropes without setting the bells off for the dreaded third time. (I found out later that one of my teammates suggested making lots of noise so our maze master couldn’t hear if I rang it again!) Dusty did laugh at me for trying to climb out of the window rather than knock on the door to get out, but it was a heady moment when I got out, crystal clutched tight in my hot little hand.

Rather amazingly, one of the physical games S picked was one we’d seen in our rewatch, so he knew exactly what to do and did it in under 40 seconds, which was very nearly the record!

After time in each zone we had a grand total of 9 crystals (we actually won 10 but we gave one up to retrieve a locked-in team member, who had the misfortune at 6’2″ to be put in an automatic lock-in game involving not tripping over laser beams) and then went “to the dome!” In a slight variation on the TV show, we had to collect gold credits, and were pitted against the other three teams who were in the maze at the same time as us. Our nine crystals gave us 45 seconds, against totals of 9, 11 and 13. And, dear reader, I am so proud to say that despite having the shortest time in there, we whooped the other teams (who were all far too young to have seen TCM on TV the first time around!) and achieved a grand total of 182 tokens. Not enough to put us on the board of fame (already looking very healthy, with a winner of 319 only four days into the maze being open!), but very respectable and enough to make us smile a lot! It was pretty much down to tactics again — we had the two shortest members of the team on ‘posting’ duty, and one of the other members realised that if he held open his bomber jacket, it was the perfect receptacle for collecting tokens en masse!

I cannot recommend this highly enough — it’s pricey but it’s honestly one of the most fun things I’ve ever done, and totally exceeded my expectations. And now I can say that I cracked the Crystal Maze!

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In which there is a spring clean

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I’ve had a bit of time off work recently, as I didn’t have any production shifts booked in and my stuff to do from home hasn’t been enough for a full nine to five. I’ve taken advantage of this glut of spare time, however, by doing a massive spring clean of the house (and watching two daily episodes of How I Met Your Mother, but shh, don’t tell S), which has been extremely satisfying on many levels.

It’s not exactly been a laugh a minute; I’ve had to motivate myself to snap on the Marigolds (ooh Matron!) and get going, but once I have, no stone has been left unturned. I’m talking dusting under the wardrobes, washing out the recycling bins, taking out everything from the kitchen cupboards to wipe inside, scrubbing the white stone tiles with an abrasive polish, washing the windows with a squeedgee and three cloth system, the full works, all followed by an orgy of rearranging and sorting and organising.

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All my cupboards have satisfyingly neat, label front facing and lined up products, although I don’t know how long it will last!

I’ve also gone through my wardrobe and had (yet another) sort through, and this time I’ve actually got rid of the stuff I’ve been hanging onto ‘just in case’ and consigned it to the charity shop bin bag. The result is that I have room in my wardrobe to actually push hangers along the rail, I’ve lost an underbed storage bag and the clothes in my wardrobe and chest of drawers are actually those I wear and like.

This spring cleaning marathon has taught me several important things:

1. Our dust is 90% beard trimmings and cat hair, and it’s necessary for me to wipe my (very white) desk every time I sit at it if I don’t want to stare at muddy paw prints. I’m going to start hoovering Olivia at the door from now on, and try and build an integrated mat for her paws in the cat flap tunnel. And once the weather is warm enough, S is banished to the balcony for his shaving.

2. Despite culling my wardrobe extensively over the last year or two, I still have too many shoes.

3. That having the time to clean the house and get that in order has also been great in terms of having time to look at other areas of my life and give them a whisk over with the duster. This has also been helped by reading of The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k by Sarah Knight. I’d read an extract from in the Guardian (which S also read and said I needed to buy this book) and then I’d seen other people such as Em highly recommend it. And they’re not wrong — while it is a tad overly sweary, at its core is some very sound advice: you have a finite amount of time and you cannot always do things to please other people. I am extremely guilty of this, and it drives S (and me) mad. This book gave me the chance to sit down, assess what I do with my free time and decide, actually, what I give zero fucks about (in a polite way, natch) and instead ensure I do the things that make me happy. Making the zero fucks list are scheduling catch ups with people that aren’t convenient to me, being overly polite to people in work emails and Donald Trump. There are more, and the list is an ongoing process, but just realising that I don’t have to care so much about stuff that’s not making me happy was so liberating. Fellow people pleasers, go out and buy it!

 

I’ve still got one more week ‘off’, as it were, which I’ll be using to forge some new work leads as well as actually taking the aforementioned culled clothes to the charity shop. (And, of course, watch some more episodes of HIMYM and wage the continual war against muddy cat prints and beard hair, but that’s a given.)