Wanderer

My 5 Travel Site Musts

The verdant limestone bluffs that form the Phi Phi Islands open at Wang Long, a famed dive site with submarine tunnels and caverns. Though hit hard by the December 2004 tsunami, the place has been cleared of debris, and diving is as popular as ever

At a glance, I have about 1050385 travel-related web pages listed in my web bookmarks. I’ve become weirdly OCD about organising my bookmarks, so I know exactly how to find just that exact website whose entire url name escapes me.

Still, out of those 1050385 bookmarked web pages, there are a select few that I use again and again, be it for booking my flights, finding a bed for the night, or reading about the adventures of others.

  1. Skyscanner. Let’s start with the most addictive, shall we? Skyscanner is simple enough: select the airport/city/country from which you wish to depart, choosing either a specific date or the month in which you will be flying, select where you’re flying to, and behold, a list of prices with various airlines. It’s a flight comparison website. What I find most addictive is the ‘fly anywhere’ option… I love browsing and seeing where I can jet off to. Many a spontaneous trip has been born from my Skyscanner addiction, I can tell you. Sure, it has a few hiccups – sometimes it will display an incorrect flight price, but generally it’s accurate. And you always find those mistakes before booking any flights, so no worries there.
  2. Couchsurfing. I have met so many lovely people through this website, many of whom I’m now fortunate enough to call my friends. Thanks to the freedom of modern day travel, I have friends in more countries than I have visited – often due to this website! This is the perfect website for if you’re short of cash, or, like me, you simply prefer to stay with locals when you’re travelling. It’s an online community designed to bring together ‘surfers’ – aka, the adventurous traveller, to you and me – with hosts, who will offer them a bed for the night, or if they can’t do that, their company, a drinking partner, a tour guide – whatever. Yes, there can be some safety concerns. I’ve heard them all from my loving but a tad over-protective friends. You know, warnings about lone young women staying with strange men, in a strange city, in a strange country with a strange language and no money. Blah blah blah. Honestly, as long as you’re careful, and you keep your creep-radar on full at all times, you’ll be fine. There are women hosts too, you know (if it does worry you).
  3. Seat61. While I love flying (a little too much, perhaps. I get such a rush from take off), I like to travel by train as often as possible. The views are nicer (and there are many more window seats, so it’s much less likely that I find myself wrestling with strangers over the best seat), the ride kinder on my ears, and it gives me a chance to say ‘ooo what a lovely little village… I think I’ll go and explore’. Somewhat adrenaline junkie I may be, but I am not about to jump out of a plane because ‘ooo, that mystery space of Earth 30,000ft (at a guess) below me looks pretty… I’m sure they won’t notice if I borrow a chute and just float on down there for a browse.’ This site is the creation of Mark Smith, ‘career railwayman’, who luckily saw a need to breakdown to us wanderlusters exactly how to get from any A to any B via train, from routes, approximate prices and timetables. Very handy!
  4. NomadicMatt. This guy is something of a budget travel king. His blog focuses a lot on money-saving tips, from how to get cheap flights and cruise tickets, how to choose the best insurance and credit cards, to how to build a successful travel blog of your own. While now days he has a base in NYC (though according to his blog he only spends a few weeks there at a time before jetting off again), he travelled constantly as a digital nomad from 2006 until New Year 2013. Six and a half years of travel!? I think he’s definitely earned his crown.
  5. BlaBlaCar. Again, for when I want to see the world pass me by – or I just want to nip to the next nearest city or a quaint nearby village with no public transport links. If people have planned a car journey, they can sell spare seats for a small fee. Tip: even if you think you’re travelling light, always message the driver to check that there is space for your luggage. Don’t just presume that they will have room for your matching LV luggage set – or your teeny tiny rugged canvas rucksack, if you’re me.

Honourable Mentions:

Finding the bare essentials:

Airbnb.
Hostelworld/Hostelbookers.
Warm Showers. <—-so useful when you’ve just stepped off a stuffy train/bus/boat after a day-long journey with no air-con, having spent the entire trip stuffed into a sweaty overweight stranger’s fat folds. Yes, such an event has happened to me. Yes, therapy is ongoing.

Money makes the world go round…

Global Work and Travel. A great site for finding work abroad; paid, voluntary, internships, etc.
‘7 digital nomads explain how they live, work and travel’ <—- very inspiring post, and links to several great blogs.
WWOOF. While it’s really useful that every country has it’s own WWOOF website, I find it a little annoying that each of those websites requires a seperate membership, and even more so that each membership ranges everywhere from £0 to £50. If you’re planning to ‘wwoof’ and travel across many borders, this can get quite pricey. Still, a great source for finding fruit picking/farm work if you’re looking to experience something different than museums and beaches.
Verbling. Teach English online.
’50 Travel Magazines that want to Publish your Writing’

Inspirational bloggers:

Adventurous Kate.
JacksGap.
The Odyssey Expedition.
The Runaway Guide.

A to B:

Hitchhikers.org 

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Panda Palace

Tucked away at the foot of Emei mountain in Emeishan, China, there is, quite frankly, a hotel that is the epitome of unrealised fears: The Haoduo Panda Inn. Personally, I love pandas, but if given the choice of staying in The Overlook hotel or this Inn, I think I’d choose room 237 (or 217 for those of you who have read the book) in The Overlook Hotel than this place. Actually, that’s probably going a bit far. But still, this hotel is just… terrifying. Even more so because it’s real.

It’s not the Panda decor and the multitude of cuddly, stuffed panda toys scattered everywhere that freaks me out – it’s the people dressed as pandas. I mean… is that the hotel’s uniform? In which case, to my lovely friends in America who were just the other day talking to me about your difficulty in gaining visas and experience to work in China… I think experience as a football mascot would suffice for this job. Sorry though, you’ll have to figure out how Chinese work visas work for yourself.

So… If the hotel hire people to dress as pandas… What are the duties of their job? Free panda hugs? Panda tea parties… How do you communicate with a person pretending to be a panda? Are they allowed to speak? Or do they just make… Panda noises?

The thirty-two rooms all all themed – yes, they’re all panda themed, but more specifically, they’re themed around anime, film, tea, cars… and paper cutting. Intermingled with the panda theme.

Perhaps the panda costumes are a complimentary compulsory part of a person’s stay at the hotel… breakfast included, bath towels available, panda suits supplied in a variety of sizes, along with little panda-shaped chocolates on your panda-shaped pillow.

If you were quirky enough to want to stay here, a ‘Mini Panda’ room starts at 688RMB a night, which is about £67, or 2388RMB for a European suite – about £233.

Crazy.

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Vanity Feed

March Wish List

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1. Valentino Blue Scarf. £250. Available here.

I’m a sucker for scarves. They are such a good way to add something special to even a basic white top and jeans – I rarely leave the house without a scarf tied to my handbag (new and cheap scarves only – I learnt the hard way that my knot tying skills are rubbish and therefore I’ve lost a few gorgeous vintage scarves over the years).

2. Regal Rose Blue & Pink lace crown. £17, on sale here.

This is the fashion photographer in me thinking away when I look at this crown – it’s not something that I would have either the wish or the confidence to wear out and about. Just look at how pretty it is? With it’s on-trend ombre pink-blue dye and the laser cut detail… shall we plan some shoots, model friends mine?

3. Stitch a Journey Map. £17. Available here.

I’ve seen this in various little boutiques here and there, with maps of various countries and I just think it’s so cute as a gift for a wanderlust-prone free spirit… but also with a preference to plan their route rather than simply wander around as I tend to. Are they two contradictory types of traveller? I don’t know.

4. George at Asda Aristocats Pyjamas. £13. Available here.

I’ve needed some pyjamas for travelling for ages… that sounds like I sleep naked when I travel. No, I’ve just spent years wearing either fleece winter pyjamas, or, when I’m dealing with 44C heat, a pair of old sports shorts and any old tank top. I want some nice pyjamas… Disney pyjamas. Personally, I’m not a fan of the official Disney line of pyjamas, but then I saw what Asda have done with my favourite childhood movies – Bambi and Aristocats. I love them!  They’re cute without basically looking like oversized kid’s nightwear. I need a pair!

5. Alice & Olivia Dress. £515. Available here.

If only I could afford to wear a completely different outfit everyday – the Sabrina the Teenage Witch TV show springs to mind. Hmm… I think I’d need Mary Poppins’ bag to replace my suitcase too. Ah well, I can dream.

6. Fresh Honey Face Mask. $130. Available here.

Honestly, I couldn’t justify the $130 price tag on a face mask when I make my own honey face mask on a weekly basis, but I saw this in Sephora and I must say, the amazing scent alone almost convinced me that this would be better than my own au naturel recipe. It smells delicious; honey, vanilla and a strange sort of blend that reminds me of freshly cut grass. It’s basically a pot of my favourite feel-good scents, which also (I’ve been told) works wonders for moisturising dry skin. I’ve heard nothing but excellent reviews.

7. Statement ring. £23.25. Available here.

Would I ever wear this? Probably not. The few rings I ever owned were soon thrown away because I simply never wore them, but still… it’s so pretty. Isn’t that the point of a wish list? Admiring things that I know I will never own? Maybe I’ve missed the point. I just think – and maybe it’s just me – but rings seem to have become so much more interesting recently… suddenly it’s all about statement rings, weirdly stacked and chained together rings, knuckle rings, and three-in-one rings.

8. Kora Cosmetics by Miranda Kerr. £157. Available here.

Is this just a Celebrity-related hype that everyone is interested in purely because of Miranda Kerr’s involvement, or is it a genuinely excellent product? I don’t know, but I’m curious, I admit. As someone with sensitive skin, the word ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ always pricks up my ears and makes me pay attention, and looking at the ingredients page of Kora Organics website, it looks trustworthy enough and unlikely to bring my skin out in any of its usual fits of protest. But again… £157 for pre-made products or do I just stick to DIY?

9. Anywhere Travel Guide. $12.99. Available here.

It took me a few moments to quite understand what these are when I first stumbled across them. It’s a cute idea that I would put in the same category as Wreck this Journal; silly entertainment, but with no real purpose. Basically, this is a pack of 75 suggestion cards that say things like ‘ask the next person you meet where his favourite street is, and then go there’. The idea behind it is to inspire you, to shake up your life and drag you out of that rut that is routine.

10. Ted Baker Jewellery Travel Roll. £23.99. Available here.

I love the fabric pattern used for this Ted Baker jewellery roll. I love the florals, the watercolour feel, the pale blue belt clasp… I think this is something that every girl should pack in her suitcase, wherever she is jetting off to, and for however long.

11. Miu Miu Shoes. £440. Available here.

I feel like I have included these shoes somewhere in this blog before? Or perhaps I was going to but didn’t… nevertheless, I still love them. And that is all I have to say about that.

12. Globe Trotters Vanity Case. £630. Available here.

Completely unnecessary, but completely gorgeous.

13. Frozen on DVD. Available as of 31st March in the UK.

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Tips for a Movie-Worthy Road Trip…

We’ve all seen a road trip movie and thought, ok, that’s what I want, right?

I think road trips never work as well anywhere but America. Something about narrow roads, roadworks and swerving around potholes rather kills it for me. It’s supposed to be about open top Cadillacs or Mustangs, long, long straight roads, a group of friends with a tendency to scream ‘wooo’ at the slightest thing, and a great mix tape – even if no one has used a tape since what? 1997? 98? Basically, this:

Take a cross country road trip, without worrying about how much it will cost to fill up!

Or, you know, as this is England, this:

weekend escape = country road, picnic basket, roadtrip

Or if you’re really going for it, this:

I love a good road trip. I can’t tick off the Mustand/Cadillac yet, but I can say that I have been on  road trip in a Mini. And a yellow camper van. Both of which were brilliant.

Top 10 Tips for a brilliant road trip:

1. Company. Obvious, I know. Nothing sucks more than grumpy company. Except for the person who throws up all over everyone else. Luckily that’s never happened, but I imagine it would be pretty hard for a trip to bounce back after that. I’m not even going to bother explaining why good company is such a must for a good road trip.

#friends #RoadTrip | photo shannon lee miller

2. Music. It’s always a good time for music. The Black Keys are perfect. As are Sigor Ros when you hit ‘downtime driving’ mode. You know, when you need to recover from having laughed so hard for so long, it feels like you’ve done about a million sit ups. Not that down time driving ever lasts long with friends about. It’s all about laughing through the pain!

3. Record your memories. I’ve been on a few spur of the moment trips… without a camera to hand, despite trying to always have it within reach. It sucks. Folks, always take a camera on a road trip. Or a video camera, and you can make a lovely movie of your road trip, like these.

4. Picnics. They go hand-in-hand with road trips, I reckon. Especially as I have a few crumb-phobic friends, so snacking in the car is a no-no. I’m a bit of a ‘picturesque picnicker’ too. Pink lemonade, berries, cupcakes. I like my meals pretty.

not a specific place, but fall weather in Dallas is a perfect place for a picnic!

5. Sleeping under the Stars. Sun roof, convertible, or good old fashion sleeping back in the grass, I love sleeping in the middle of no where beneath the stars. You don’t realise just how few stars are visible from the city until you’re on a hill surrounded by mile and miles of fields in a Cath Kidston floral sleeping bag.

6. Fashion. I admit, I tend to be the girl who carefully plans her road trip outfits. Apparently that’s sad, but I’d hate filling a suitcase to find that nothing is suited to my trip, or nothing goes together and everything clashes and blah blah blah. I personally love Free People for the girly, boho-but-not-quite-hippy clothes that I take on my road trips. And of course, good old Asos.

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7. Freedom. It’s the whole nomad-lifestyle calling to me again. When you’re on a road trip, you’re just leaving all of your worries and responsibilities behind and throwing yourself into life. However, don’t be as free as a certain anonymous someone I know who was feeling so free and spontaneous and crazy that he decided to abandon his phone and his wallet at home and just drive… a great idea, but money is needed for petrol, people!

8. Glamping. I spoke about glamping back in May. I still loveit. Again, picturesque. I think this is the influence of years of admiring Tim Walker‘s work. I seem to live my life like it’s one big Walker-esque spread. Minus the over-sized props. I would if I had the budget, though. One of my favourite things to take along on a road trip is a portable projector. Or rather, I love to take along my friend’s portable projector – and my friend too. Not just because he has a portable projector, either. (♥ H) Picnic blanket of food, sky full of stars, a sheet draped over a tree, an old movie projected against it, a cluster of deck chairs and blankets over our legs… perfection.

Love this photo~

9. Getting Lost. I love getting lost. I always find the best places when I’m lost, be it the amazing ice cream bar in Venice that I stumbled into to ask for directions (which, sadly, I haven’t been able to find since), or a tiny village with an amazing bookshop because I’m terrible at map reading and sent my designated road trip driving friend in the completely wrong direction. Oops, but so worth it.

10. Be Spontaneous. I know that spontaneous road trips can mean that packing the above items just don’t happen. Like me and my camera. Picnics and glamping and carefully co-ordinated outfits need a chance to happen, especially if you’re on a budget (I’m sure you could whip up a great picnic of berry-topped-cupcakes and pink lemonade from Marks and Spencers and Waitrose, but I prefer homemade. Still, there’s nothing more exciting then grabbing the car keys, finding a friend or two with a) a license to drive and b) a car (neither of which I have), and just going. No map, no plan, just laughs and that amazing feeling of having no responsibilities for a while.

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Oh… I’m so itching for a road trip right now. Anyone?

I guess it’s not the best time of year for road trips… I suppose I can keep myself busy until the sun finally arrives with a few road trip movies. Little Miss Sunshine, On the Road and the last 30 minutes of Elizabethtown (I don’t even bother with the first hour and a half).

Ah… summer.

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Quirky Corners of the World: Tasmania’s Totem Pole

How amazing would this spot be to climb?

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Found in Tasmania (I bet you’d never have guessed with a name like ‘Tasmania’s Totem Pole’!), which for those of you who are utterly rubbish at geography, is a state island 150 miles from the southern coast of Australia, and a part of its commonwealth. To be honest, you say Tasmania, I think devil:

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The totem pole is in fact, a stacked rock, and, you guessed it, the result of years, and years, and years, and years of erosion stripping away layer after layer of rock, etc etc. Basically from erosion, the cliffs and rocks become arches similar to this one:

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More erosion…. blah blah blah, the top of the arch crumbles away, the sea smooths out the stack, and one day… you have a totem pole. And lo, where you have interesting vertical rocks, soon enough you get a load of skinny, taut-muscled, free-spirited travellers (or you know, Aussies), with dreadlocks, a van full of climbing gear and the same climbing itch that I get – little old dreadlock-free, skinny, invisible-muscled English me.

I don’t really know why I get such an urge to climb any rock I see. Especially big ones like this one. I’m terrified of heights. Skydiving did not cure that fear. Nor has climbing. What is even more unnerving is the fact that the constant base erosion of the waves beating against it, means that sooner or later, the Tasmanian Totem Pole will collapse. Even now, its base stands at just four metres wide. Not something you’ want to topple mid-climb, right?

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I suggest, if any of you are getting the itch to skip on over to Tasmania (or in my case, a whole ten thousand, five-hundred and seventy-one, according to Google Maps), i’d be quite quick about it, because who knows for how much longer this amazing, adrenaline-inducing climb will even be an option!

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Christmas has found Italy!

I’m feeling all Christmassy!

So I spent a couple of days in Naples after meeting the lovely Davide in Rome, who was kind enough to offer me and my friend a place to stay. I’ve visited Naples once before, very briefly in order to meet Pompeii, and frankly, I didn’t like it. It’s noisy, smelly, dirty, the people are often pretty rough around the edges (Davide being the exception there!)

In fact, one thing that I noticed pretty much about Neapolitan guys on this visit, is that they are often questionable in one of two ways: either they seem like pretty dodgy, probably belong in the Mafia kind of guys. The kind of guys who you cross the street to avoid because they can’t help but same some ridiculous comment towards every girl they see. Or, they’re questionable as in.. you just can’t tell if they’re straight or gay. Guys are very comfortable around other guys; cuddling (yes, as in, in bed in the evening while discussing their day with everyone else in the room), holding hands, taking a bite from each other’s rum baba’s (not a euphemism – a rum baba is a cake. Google it, it’s delicious!), and so I think, ok, gay, nothing wrong with that, it’s just a shame because they’re both cute… and then one of their girlfriends arrive, and the guy will give her a kiss while still holding hands with his friend. And this is perfectly normal. Ok, different cultures and blah blah blah, but… I for one found it confusing. And more than once I’d meet a guy and say ‘oh, so this is your boyfriend’ and be met with ‘no, he’s just my friend/cousin/neighbour who I hardly know’.

My bad.

Moving on from the Mafia and confusing sexuality of Neapolitan men… Italy is getting ready for Christmas!

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Naples is famous for it’s Christmas streets or presepe: San Gregorio Armeno, which sells nothing but Christmas decorations and Nativity sets all year round. Lord knows how they can afford to sell Christmas decor all year round, but they manage, somehow. Tourism? Do people flock to Naples in June to decorate their tree just because they can? Who knows.

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They really know how to make a nativity set! Really elaborate miniature houses – towns, even – made from wood, twigs, moss, beautifully crafted. And then there is such a range of figurines and items to fill them with! I saw figurines of bakers, butchers, seamstresses – every profession you can think of (well, every “old-fashioned” profession, so no photographers or tech-wizards, unfortunately) with little motors so that they move their little plastic pies back and forth in and out of the LED oven, or constantly ironing the same dress, or hacking at the same lump of plastic meat.. or whatever.

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Not being one to think much about the religious side of Christmas, needless to say that no, I haven’t bought myself a twigs-and-moss nativity, and there are not little motor run, palm-sized bakers working through the night on the same pie in my suitcase. They’re cute to look at, but definitely not for me. I have, however, started a cute little Christmas tradition; collecting Christmas decorations from around the world. Obviously it’s a collection limited to my winter travels – unless I can find more cities with year-round Christmas markets like Naples – but I think it’s pretty cute to have a tree decorated with memories. Nothing cheesy though, no ‘Rome 2013’ baubles, so I’ll have to make a note in my travel journals as to which were bought where for when I’m old and forgetful.

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Oh, and I ran into someone who was clearly a celebrity (screaming girls, lines of people having their photo taken with him), but I had no idea who he is… clearly his fame hasn’t reached the UK!

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So Naples wasn’t all about Christmas markets, of course. FYI, if you want to try the best pizza in Naples, go to Sorbillo on Via Tribunali. Best. Pizza. Ever. I recommend both the margherita and diavolo (me and a friend of mine shared so that we had half of each – delish!) I’ve already mentioned baba cake, which is basically rum-soaked cake, also delicious but can be a bit sickly after a while… or I found so at least, but everyone else cleared their plates and asked for seconds! There’s also sfogliatella, which I have to refer to as ‘that one, please *point*’ because I just can’t pronounce it to save my life. Sfogliatella comes in two forms; frolla (smooth) and ricca (curly), and basically it’s a sweet pastry. Layers and layers of pastry – to me, it looks like a sea shell! – with a ricotta filling, or most commonly at least. A must try!

And… despite the noise, insane traffic, dodgy reputation, piles of rubbish and general Naples-ish ways of the city.. it can still be so beautiful.

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And then what did I find on returning to Rome? Christmas!!
As ever when I arrive in Rome, even if I was there just a few days ago, I head straight to Piazza Navona, my absolute favourite spot in the city. So imagine my excitement when I round the corner and see this scene!

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The words ‘giddy’ and ‘schoolgirl’ spring to mind.

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They were in the middle of setting up while I was walking around, but I did spy some familiar-looking twigs-and-moss nativity sets lurking in the back of a lorry. No mechanical villagers yet though!

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I’ve been told that Christmas celebrations don’t officially begin until 8th December, on which the Feast of the Immaculate Conception takes place. That’s Mary’s conception, not Jesus’.. apparently the ‘immaculate’ part of of the tradition is because she never sinned.. or something like that. But anyway, so me and my friend will be heading back to Piazza Navona to see the finished market, decorations and celebrations next week. I’m. So. Excited.

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Holy Condoms, scorched Celebrities and Bernini Porn…

My first week back in Rome was quiet, calm, you know. Nothing worth blogging about. And then today happened, and it was one of those days where the world just seemed completely hilarious and you just walk around collecting funny stories and strange observations to later share with friends – and the blog, of course!

The weird and wonderful highlights of today (and the reasons why I’ve spent most of the day laughing so much that it now hurts):

  • Pouring hot coffee over Joaquin Phoenix
  • Having the Pope accidentally bless a condom
  • Spending a bizarre hour with 20 rather confused Chinese tourists who each insisted that I have my photo taken with each of them… and every possible pairing!

First of all, I have to say.. Joaquin Phoenix really needs to pay more attention to where he’s going. I swear he just appeared out of no where, charging towards me – and my coffee – and I had about a split second to consider my options:

  1. I could have jumped in front of the passing bus to avoid him
  2. I could have wildly thrown the coffee in the air, covering us both
  3. I could have chosen which way to tilt the mug – and therefore choose which one of us was about to be covered in coffee.

I of course chose the third. He’s rich enough to duck into the nearest clothes shop and replace his ruined shirt, I’m sure. I wasn’t at this point aware as to who it was who was storming towards me like a raged bull, but I bet that’s exactly what he did as soon as he ran off after our brief.. chat? It wasn’t so much chatting as a lot of ‘what the fuck’s (on his part) and ‘watch where you’re walking, stronzo’ (on mine). And that was that, another minor celebrity story to add to the collection, along with reluctantly sharing a bag of jelly babies with Donny Osmond, saying hi to George Clooney at Lake Como and discussing shoes with Gok Wan… such a thilling collection!

Honestly, if my run in with Phoenix hadn’t happened in front of the Colosseum, I probably wouldn’t have twigged to who it was… though he doens’t look much like he did in his Gladiator days any more.

That’s definitely not the best story of the day, however. The best story came afterwards.

Today I was tricked by a lovely so called friend into enduring a tediously slow few hours eternity in complete silence, and worse, suffering with a completely numb arse after the first twenty minutes. By tricked, I mean tricked, as in, I was told that the ‘free spare ticket’ was for the Vatican museums. And it has been a few years since I’ve last been inside the museums, and then I only saw about 15% of everything on display, so of course, I accepted her invitation immediately.

But no, no tour, no museums. I was tricked into attending the Pope’s weekly audience (not cool, Val), an Atheist surrounded by crying nuns and rosary bead-grasping Catholics, all of whom have a penchant for nonsense muttering… is lying not a sin, Val? Hmm?

So once we were there, it was too late, I had no choice but to sit it through. Well, I’m sure I could have tried to leave, but there has been something so drilled into me over the years, perhaps simply Englishness, that makes it almost impossible for me to cause a scene with a dramatic exit in a large crowd of strangers. And by dramatic, I don’t mean screaming and shouting and jumping around, I mean, they were sitting there so silently, and so patiently, even just to get up and quietly walk away would have turned every eye on me and everyone would have started muttering and wondering why I was leaving. How dare I leave! Because of course I was so fortunate to have a ticket (you know, a totally free, easily available to all ticket)!

I couldn’t tell you what the Pope talked about, even if I had decided to listen, I wouldn’t have understood a word, and even if I could, I probably wouldn’t have agree with most of what he said, unless it was just a simple ‘be good, don’t murder, don’t lie’ (Val), in which case, why do I need the Pope or the Bible or God to tell me that? Surely religious people don’t read the 10 commandments and are surprised that they say ‘do not murder’, ‘do not cheat’, ‘do not steal’ etc.

I swear I started to fall asleep. One minute everyone is sitting there, listening intently while I glare at Val, and the next, everyone starts rummaging, holding up rosary beads, crucifixes (crucifi?), little prayer books, and Val starts nudging me, getting rather pissed off at me and pointing out that people are staring because I’m not taking advantage of his blessing, and again that very English side of me that doesn’t want to offend kicks in, and I think, ‘I don’t believe in this mumbo jumbo anyway, so why not’. And I grab the first thing that my fingers touch in my bag; my travel journal. Yes, my travel journal has been blessed by the Pope. How that would in anyway change my life, I have no idea. Is it supposed to bring me good luck? Or is it a necessary ticket to heaven? Do I have to make sure that when I die I’m carrying it in my hand? Fuck knows.

I just so happened to glance up at my hand, which was mimicking everyone else, holding up my journal, and what do I see poking out from between the pages? A stow-away condom. And my mind begins to panic, because it’s just there, in bright pink foil, about 70% of it clearly visible between the pages, and I’m holding it up in the air, surrounded by hundreds of very devout Catholics, holding it towards their Pope, practically pointing it right at him. And of course, we all know just how much Catholicism hates condoms. I wonder if throwing condoms at a priest has the same affect as throwing holy water at the Devil? He starts his blessing mumbo jumbo, and I just stand so, so still, biting down on my cheeks to stop myself from laughing (because that is literally the only thing you can do in that situation), and hoping that no one notices, because they’re all standing so still, if I moved even an inch, all eyes would be on me, and they’d see what I was holding.

The condom has been taped into my travel journal. I may be Atheist, militantly so at times, but I’m not about to test my beliefs (or lack of) by using a condom that has been blessed by the Pope. Could you imagine what would happen if I was wrong, and if Catholicism was right? Surely there would be nothing more insulting to their God than laughingly using a Papally-blessed condom, and so… he’d be pissed. I’d probably be punished by it splitting and I’d be infected with the 12 plagues of Egypt… the 12 plagues of foo (ew), or worse – yes, worse is possible – impregnated by the anti-Christ… or by octuplets… 8 bearded little Jesuses (Jesi?).

Definitely not worth the risk in my opinion.

As for ‘Bernini porn’… that’s just a strange observation of mine in Santa Maria della Vittoria. I’m a big Bernini fan, I love his art, I love his sculptures, so of course I had to go and see the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, which frankly, I’ve always raised a brow about, because it definitely looks like ‘worldly ecstasy’ to me! There’s hardly anyone in the church, just me and a small group of old women, who I quickly gather to be very devout Catholics. They’re muttering to themselves about how ‘beautiful’ the statue is and how it captures the ‘essence of the holy father’, and so I look up.

I don’t see something awe-inspiringly religious. I see a woman clearly in the middle of a hell of an orgasm, a very child-like guy hovering over her, and on either side, two marble-carved theatre boxes, filled with men. And they’ll all carved to look in her direction, watching her, nudging each other, whispering, generally looking very questionably and.. pervy. How no one but me could see that, I don’t know. Yes, yes, I’m sure you could argue that ‘holy ecstasy’ would make you look rather ‘ecstatic’ (wink), but why did Bernini choose to flank the statue with several gawping men watching from a theatre box?

Religion bewilders me. It’s just completely blind to common sense. Among other priceless ‘saintly relics’ that I’ve heard about since I arrived back in Rome: Jesus’ foreskin, Jesus’ umbilical cord, and – in Germany – the breath of Jesus contained in a vial. And people pay to see this?! Insane.

Oh, and as for the confused Chinese people, I don’t know if they mistook me for someone, or if choosing a random foreigner is a strange travel tradition for them, but I won’t complain because they insisted on buying me lunch, in exchange for about 200 smiling tourist photos (peace signs compulsory) with each of them. I gave one of them my business card in the hope that they’d share a few with me, and then you can see for yourself just how well I perfected my bewildered ‘what the fuck’ smile.

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