A Sweet Solution

I thought I’d give it a few weeks before I wrote this post so everyone has the opportunity to finish reeling from my recent revelation that I’m actually capable of having feelings.

In the mean time, I’ve been brainstorming so many different scenarios for the next few years in my head, the cogs upstairs now look more like wheels. But, finally, one idea in particular is starting to stick. Well, when I say stick, I mean cling on for dear life like the hair on top of my head, but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense.

The basic idea is this – next year I’ll spend roughly four months, from March to June, exploring Australia, New Zealand, the USA and Canada. Then, in 2019, I’ll take a few more months to enjoy the delights of Eastern Europe and South-East Asia.

The advantages of this plan are obvious. I’ll still get to see all the bits and bobs of the world that I want to see, but don’t have to worry so much about spending too long away from the people (and kittens) that I love back home. Plus it means I can keep a grasp of my youth and go another couple of years without needing to worry about growing old and sensible and settling down somewhere, which is definitely a win.

The astute among you will notice that there are a couple of time periods that I’d need to think about if this plan is to go ahead, more specifically with regards to employment, and topping up the travel fund coffers. Firstly, the idea was that my current part-time work at the casino would end in December, giving me Christmas and New Year to relax, and January to finalise my travel arrangements, but if I’m delaying the sending-off party until March, that gives me an extra couple of months of twiddling my thumbs and not earning any money – should I extend my current employment longer, at the risk of sacrificing my festive holiday? I haven’t decided yet.

The more important phase though is the one between the two intended excursions, from summer 2018 until whenever I head off again in 2019. Obviously I’m going to need to find work, but the nature and location of that work is still very much up in the air. I’ll always have casino-related options available, but I want to be careful not to burn any bridges I may want to walk across when I start thinking about my longer-term future once all this travelling nonsense has escaped my system.

Maybe I’ll find a sugar daddy to pay me for everything, I’ve heard that’s a thing, I’m sure it can’t be that hard…

The Emotion Problem

Ever since I got back from my jaunts around Western Europe, people have been asking me when and where I’m going next. It’s been happening so often that one can be excused for starting to believe that they can’t wait to get rid of me again – or that they can’t handle the excitement of me being around, yes, we’ll go with that one.

I always give the same answer – I’m exploring the other side of the world for six months or so, starting in January – and during the inevitable three seconds of semi-awkward silence as we both desperately search our internal monologues for the most appropriate follow-up comment, I add “I’m looking forward to it.”

Of course, that’s the truth. This is something I’ve been looking forward to doing ever since I started this travelling malarkey way back in 2007 with a three-month tour of the USA and Canada’s out-trousers. The prospect of sitting on the corner of a busy Chinese intersection sampling the local delicacies (food, obviously, you perverts), gawping at a rather sizeable rock in the middle of Australia, or experiencing the madness of Tokyo is one that gets my travelling juices flowing so much that all I can think about is getting on that plane in January and exploring the big wide world.

Only, I might not be.

Let’s get one thing clear, I’m a very lucky boy. I’m lucky in that my current circumstances allow me to take a hiatus from life to go see pretty things that most people don’t get to see. I don’t have a mortgage, I don’t have children, I work in a career that is relatively easy to dip in and out of, and I have no meaningful relationships to worry about.

At least, that’s what I thought was the case, until several (unrelated) recent events catalysed a re-think. No Mum, I’m not about to be a father, don’t panic, I’m talking about my relationships.

For those of you that don’t know already, I’m polyamorous – which means I am involved in multiple relationships simultaneously. Yes, everyone knows about everyone else, yes, they’re all happy with it, no, it’s not cheating. At the time of writing this blog post, I have three meaningful relationships, with a new, fourth one ascending at an alarmingly impressive rate. My attitude towards my travels and these people is that whilst I will miss them all terribly, that is a compromise I am willing to make in order to do something I love and have been wanting to do since I could spell Vanuatu. My girls, despite knowing they would miss me terribly as well (they’re only human), understood this desire of mine, and gave me their respective blessings.

However, over the last month or two, I’ve seen one relationship go through the mill and come out the other side better and stronger than ever, a second relationship reach a stage of human interaction that I didn’t think I was capable of any more, and the aforementioned new girl, who’s just plain fun to be around.

The simple fact is this – the closer I’m getting to D-day, the more I’m realising how much I’m going to miss the people I love, and I haven’t even mentioned my family yet.

For context, when I went round North America in ’07, it took me three months, and during the final couple of weeks or so, I was ready to head back home and see my family. That was at a time when I had no relationships, and was a fiercely independent individual. Now, things are different. As I spend more time and build stronger connections, I start to rely more on the meaningful people in my life, I start to lose my independence, I start to…*shudders*…have feelings.

Is this a bad thing? Absolutely not. I’m loving life at the moment, and all the people that are in it. But it does throw up a quandary when it comes to leaving everyone behind for half a year. That’s something that this time last year I could probably do without serious issue, but now I’m not so sure.

One might say that my mid-life crisis is having a mid-life crisis.

Korea Change

A lot has happened since I last graced you with my eloquent diatribe. Relationships have come and gone and come back again, family members have got ill then better then ill again, my employment situation has changed, I’m about to be living in London again (part time), and I’ve somehow become rather obsessed with NASCAR.

But despite these partly inexplicable adjustments, one thing remains constant – my desire to see the world.

Since returning from my jaunts around Western Europe earlier this year, I’ve been looking forward to, planning, and talking a lot (mainly to myself) about when I’m heading back out again, and to cut a long story short, it will be in January.

But whilst my previous endeavour lasted a mere seven weeks, this journey – thanks mainly to the absurdly wonderful value for money ticket I’m buying – looks set to keep me occupied for around six or seven months.

The basic idea is this:

Jan/Feb – South East Asia

Mar/Apr – Australia & New Zealand

May/Jun – USA & Canada.

Now, if this year has taught me anything, it’s that trying to make any more detailed plans will probably be a waste of time. Nevertheless, I’m still hoping to see many speech-destroying sights including wild tigers, massive rocks, bright lights, and a sex museum. Because why not.

One part of my journey that has changed, however, is my stance on visiting North Korea.

I’ve always been fascinated in the way of life over there, and how it differs from other civilisations thanks to its style of leadership. However, given recent and inevitable future escalations in diplomatic tensions, and for the sake of the sanity of my loved ones, I’ve decided not to go.

Now, those of you with a sturdy memory will recall that I mentioned something about my job situation changing. More specifically, I’m back working as a casino dealer again. Those lucky, lucky customers.

Given that it’s another few months before I once again head off on a big adventure, I figured it would be sensible for my bean collection and my own sanity to do some part time work until the end of the year.

So, if you happen to find yourself at the G Casino just off Leicester Square on a weekend evening, you might just see my cheeky smile and ridiculous ears as I take copious amounts of money from people daft enough to give it to me.

And so concludes my summer update. Now if you don’t mind, I need to remember how to play blackjack…

20. Santa Fiora, Italy

The quietest, loudest place in the world.

If you’re not a close relative of mine, or in a particular one of the many social circles I skirt the fringes of, then you’ve probably never heard of this place. To be fair, why would you? It’s just a small town half way up a hill in the middle of the countryside, with no world-famous landmarks or tourist attractions. You can’t even drive through most of it unless your car is the size of a shoe, and the only supermarket there is closed for umpteen hours during the middle of the day while everyone goes for a nap.

On the face of it, it’s not really worth the ~3 hour drive from Florence. However, if you enjoy wandering around a sleepy town that for 11.5 months of the year is largely untouched by swathes of tourists, getting lost in tiny, historic back alleys before being greeted by spectacular views of Italian mountains, then Santa Fiora is right up your, err, tiny back alley.

DSC_7071

This is not a place for activity seekers and adrenaline junkies, but it is a place that houses pretty bridges, churches with rivers flowing through them, countryside views that will take your breath away, and, if you’re me, a very friendly, very welcoming, very Italian lady who’s been your life-long friend and is happy to give you a bed to sleep in and enough pasta to fill a reasonably-sized Colosseum.

If all that isn’t enough for you, then hopping in a car and driving (which you need to do around here, don’t rely on public transport) in pretty much any direction will see you navigating your way up and down mountains and through similarly beautiful, similarly historic villages. Just keep your eye out for potholes, the Italians have a very…Italian attitude towards mountain road maintenance.

DSC_7101

Possible summer activities include driving to the top of a mountain and taking photos of an abandoned ski resort.

I recommend visiting Pitigliano, which appears to pre-date the invention of time itself, whilst perching dramatically and somewhat precariously on the edge of a cliff. It also has some very lovely wine and cheese shops, if you fancy having a picnic on the top of said cliff.

DSC_7088

The theme of my five-night pit stop in this utterly gorgeous part of the world, was quiet. After spending the last month hurtling around in trains and cars, immersing myself in both hustle and bustle, and gawping at what Western Europe could offer me, it was nice to take a step back, chill out, and embrace the calm.

Have a think about this for a minute – how often do you experience total silence? Probably less than you think, for there’s usually a background noise or three courtesy of cars on a distant road, birds tweeting in the nearby trees, or if you’re in London, the tutting of angry businessmen whose journey you have the audacity to slow down by more than a nanosecond. As a matter of fact, you get to experience complete silence so rarely that when it does happen, its power and presence is so noticeable that it seems like the loudest thing in the world.

In Santa Fiora, I was able to experience this feeling whilst sitting in the Chiesa di Santa Chiara. I’m not a religious man, but I do appreciate religious architecture, both big and small, and this establishment certainly fits the latter. Barely large enough to hold a family dinner (which admittedly is usually a big occasion in this part of the world), this is the place where I sat, closed my eyes, and forgot all about the rest of the world.

That is, until the Italian fighter jets started doing their practice runs through the nearby valleys.

I feel I should point out at this stage that if you’re seeking peace and quiet, don’t come here in the middle of August. The “Ferragosto”, a public holiday observed on the 15th, sees pretty much the entirety of Tuscany descend upon this small town for markets, fairs and other generally noisy festival-based activities. So if you want a good night’s sleep, avoid coming here at this time.

This town is not for everyone, maybe that’s why it’s not very well known, but for me, it served as a perfectly quiet interlude in the middle of my constantly noisy journey, and all whilst being hosted by the lady who gives the best hugs in the world. Thanks Rose.

 

Don’t panic

Yes, I know, I haven’t written anything for a few weeks. Don’t worry, I didn’t get picked up by a dodgy Italian hitchhiker, or accidentally got on a plane to Antarctica.

A combination of some very Italian internet connections, being busy meeting other people, and my own laziness during and exhaustion after the journey are the reasons behind my lack of recent creative juices.

I’m back home now though, with WiFi that actually works, and a fresh pair of legs that is already thinking about the next stage of my adventures now that it doesn’t have to recover from driving for nine hours in one day.

I’ll be catching up with the last handful of places in the first leg of my trip in the foreseeable future.

19. San Gimignano, Italy

Ice cream, you scream

These days, we’re constantly being bombarded by companies over-selling their products by making grandiose claims about them. “The closest, shaviest shave yet”, “The best kebab in London”, “Lose all your weight in five minutes”. It’s all very tiring and unnecessary.

Happily though, there is a little town in rural Italy where such a bold and ambitious claim does actually live up to its billing.

It’s a popular little tourist spot, just off the main road from Florence to Siena, its (mostly) vehicle free town centre characterised by old fashioned hilly streets, with the main square in the middle(ish) of it all. If you can find the main square – which is not always an easy task if you don’t have a map to hand – and you make your way to the “bottom” corner (you’ll know what I mean when you get there), you’ll come across a gelateria that claims to sell the “best ice cream in the world”.

With cautious optimism, I ordered my 4 euro cone with three scoops (other options are available), and gave it a go.

Second best thing I’ve had in my mouth this year.

I quickly realised why this charming little town had become so popular with tourists – mainly Americans, it seemed – with nearly every one of them enjoying a similarly delicious experience as myself, whilst desperately searching for a decent place to sit in the square. My choice of flavours was, of course, perfect. The sweetness of the mango, tartness of the lemon, and richness of the chocolate flavours combining beautifully to create an experience that does actually live up to the self-claimed hype.

Oral explosions and John Torode impressions concluded, it was time for part two of Reasons Why I Drove To San Gimignano – La Museo Della Tortura.

I’ve always had a morbid fascination with medieval torture instruments and methods, and the museum in San Gimignano gave me the opportunity to fully indulge in it, with a fairly impressive display of ways and means of inflicting pain, suffering, and in most cases, death.

DSC_7055

DSC_7049

DSC_7044

DSC_7042

DSC_7038

DSC_7037

With my wallet somewhat lighter and my blood sugar level significantly increased, it was time to hop back in the car to drive to my next destination, my second home.

More on that later.

18. Monte Mauro, Italy

On top of the world

Here’s one for you: you’ve walked a lap of a famous race track in a town that has little else to offer, and it’s still only early afternoon. What do you do? Answer: drive to the top of a mountain and witness one of the best views you’re ever likely to see. Obviously.

Yes, I know, I’ve already raved about spectacular views in other recent posts, and I probably will again in the future, but despite already being treated to the drama of Lucerne and the tranquillity of Bologna, nothing quite prepared me for my experience at the summit of Monte Mauro.

Situated not far South of Imola, reaching the peak of this impressive-but-not-quite-tall-enough-to-be-snow-capped hillock involves driving up a “road”, that pushes the boundary of the very meaning of the word. Successfully negotiating the narrow “I hope I don’t meet a double decker bus coming the other way” dirt track, with all its hairpin turns tighter than a nun’s nethers, is rewarded by, of all things, a church.

Yup, it seems the Italians love to put churches on top of hills, but while the Santuaria in Bologna was a popular tourist destination on top of an easily(ish) accessible hill, the Eremo di Monte Mauro is a modestly sized, quiet little structure that receives far fewer visitors per day. Those that do visit, though, are treated to one hell (sorry) of a view.

Situated right next to the church is a solitary bench, which, occasional massive-quadded cyclists notwithstanding, allows one to sit and contemplate in peace, with the glorious view of the Parco Regionale della Vena del Gesso Romagnola (yes I copied and pasted that rather than trying to remember it) and beyond laid out in all its various shades of green in front of you.

The picture at the top of this post is some of that very same view, as much as I could fit into my lens anyway, but if that isn’t enough tranquillity and fabulousness for you, and you have a decent pair of walking shoes and the ability to climb some steps that would make your health and safety boss at work wince, then there’s an even better view just up ahead.

And when I say better, I mean this much better.

20170501_172434

Now imagine that, but in 360 speech-stealing degrees.

Of course, there are taller mountains and higher spots in the world, but this is the highest peak within the confines of the horizon, so standing at the summit – which consists of little more than around fifteen square feet of flat stone – really gives you the sensation that you’re standing on top of the world, a sensation unlike any that I’ve ever felt before.

I’m often (by which I mean never) asked what my favourite view of all time is, and before I set off on this planetary conquest, my answer would be the view from a bench, on a hill, near the town of Pateley Bridge, in North Yorkshire.

Now? I’m not so sure.