Sunday, 31 August 2014

Advice for September: Taking an Unplanned Gap Year

A few years and a few months ago, I was just as excited as the next person to get to university. September approached and day by day, the prospect of starting the most anticipated period of my life bloomed before me.

I had always been a bit of a nerd. It quietened down during secondary school, where it wasn't cool to be clever and to be seen striving for the best of the best was the surest path to self-alienation around, but the nerdiness remained. I longed to be in a new place, standing on that proverbial blank page, with other people just like me all around. Those who would understand my need to drive myself into the ground to achieve my potential but who would also want to hit the pub and fill it with our laughter and wit. We would support each other through the deadlines before grabbing each other by the hand and running out into the world to shake our hair loose and enjoy the best time of our lives.

Life doesn't always go to plan.

One minute you're planning your future, the next you're eating Ben & Jerry's from the tub. Two tubs. (Yes I know there are bowls but look how sparkling clean they are and look at the ice cream level in that tub. I am the new Sherlock.)

Joking aside, not getting into uni sucked. Suddenly there was a year stretching ahead of me and I had absolutely nothing to do except work in a clothes shop where the customers insulted me for being a sales girl (really). The first few months were seriously depressing but after a bit, I began to perk up.

Here's why and how you can too if you find yourself in a similar situation...

1) I had an image overhaul.

Why the hell not? I had nothing else to do. It didn't put my feelings of failure to rest but suddenly having flaming red hair got people talking about something other than accommodation, freshers fairs, societies etc.

2) I went exploring.

I didn't have the time or the funds for a traditional "gap yah" experience so I stayed at home, earning some money for the costly years ahead (not enough money as it turned out, oh second year you absolute beast).
With all of my friends gone away or otherwise occupied full-time, I had lots of time on my hands and there's only so much Gossip Girl you can watch in one go. I slung my trusty DSLR over my shoulder and went for long walks in the area, ambling down roads I had only ever driven down. It gave me a completely different perspective on the area and helped me see that life wasn't so bad after all.
(Disclaimer: the whole of Thanet is most certainly not as picturesque as the quaint country road above).

3) I reconnected with old friends.

Most of the people I had spent most of my free time with were suddenly off carrying on with their lives. Luckily for me, there were other people still stuck at home! (Although notably doing more productive things with their time such as studying for extra A levels and going to college and working full-time...)

Some of the people I spent time with on my gap year were people I hadn't seen properly for a few years and it was really great getting in touch with them again.

4) I let my hair down a little bit.

I'm not sure that Magro knows this but this guy was actually the first Italian who kissed me (on the cheek). My friend Tam and I went to Brussels for a long weekend to see the Christmas markets. It was absolutely freezing so the only option was to drown the frostbite in mulled wine and mulled mojitos (yes really!) We managed to get mildly assaulted by these two Italian guys trying to lure tourists into their restaurant but we were too drunk to care.

5) I went on holiday!

Saving up for uni didn't go 100% to plan... my trusty travel buddy and I booked up a trip to the USA for two weeks. I was never going to be able to do the six-month-travels-in-Asia package but it seemed right to treat myself to a proper holiday after months of sorting coat-hangers.

It's funny because at the beginning, my gap year was one of the worst periods of my life. I felt like a failure and was overcome by loneliness and jealousy as my social media feeds filled with excited updates of freshers week and new friends. 

But as time went by, I began to appreciate the time out. I could read whatever I wanted, go wherever I wanted and do whatever I wanted. I loved having flexible shift work as it meant I could fit my working life around the things I wanted to rather than it being exclusively the other way round. Friends would come and go as they visited home for weekends and at holidays and I began to form a different kind of social life.

By the end of the year, I was confident that it had been one of the best years yet. 

Just before I went on to uni at the end of the year, one girl at work insisted that uni would change me.
"It's just the best experience ever." She said in a matter-of-fact tone. "It changes you. It just... changes you."
"I'm pretty sure that this year has changed me too though." I said.
"No, trust me." She replied. "There's nothing quite like uni."

And whilst I can't dispute what she said, I have to tell you now that I was right. My gap year changed me - for the better - like no year at uni ever would have been able to. 

It's easy to feel negative if your life doesn't go to plan. But just remember that there are still opportunities out there for you to grab and that by the end of it you will have learnt the greatest lesson;

It's really not the end of the world.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Pretty Parma

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Bank Holiday Monday in the middle of the summer must be in want of a good old rainstorm to keep the Brits in their place.

I am currently sitting in my parents' gloomy kitchen watching a cool and breezy summer evening being positively stolen before my own eyes. Raindrops are sliding down the slick window panes, slowly and lazily like big fat snails. Our little garden looks as if it has been dowsed in shades of green and grey by a depressed artist (mostly thanks to Dad's shed and Mum's penchant for Farrow & Ball paint). Even the puppy doesn't want to play outside in the verdant damp. 

A rainy Bank Holiday is no fun.

I woke up this morning at 6am, bright and early and ready to get to the pool for the usual training session. Until I remembered that the pool was shut. No matter, I would get on with some of my uni work (beware all you future year-abroaders, it isn't just fun and games!) Six hours later and I was positively shaking from hunger, dehydration and stress (I'm a pretty hardcore essay writer). 

Needless to say, that went out the window. I jumped in the car with mum and went for lunch at Wyatt & Jones in nearby Broadstairs (which you must visit if you're ever in the area), got absolutely sozzled on Kentish Bramley apple cider and elderflower liqueur, stuffed myself with pea and celery soup with quails egg and walnut oil, homemade potato and onion bread, root vegetable Pan Haggerty with mushroom croutons and cider cream and finally a cherry and apple crumble with cold custard.


We battled through the coastal wind and rain for approximately five minutes before giving up on all of the closed shops (not before I bought myself a rather robust hole-punch from Staples, what a wild child) and collapsing at home to watch soppy films on TV. 

And now I am back here. At my laptop. With the essay in front of me. The essay which is actually a journal which I took to mean chatty, casual diary but actually means proper piece of academic writing (shit) which I have now overdone which is now... 50,000 words. Yeah.

SO enough of the British rain! Time for a little escapism.

Three weeks ago, I was here...

The first time I ever visited Parma was on August 3rd 2011. I remember that day because I was on my way to Milan for the first time to meet Magro. I hadn't seen him for a couple of months since we waved goodbye to each other in Las Vegas and I had no idea where we stood. In short, I was terrified.

That day, I wandered around the streets with a friend, tried to stomach some pasta and ended up getting pissed in a park on prosecco (a rather prominent theme in the past year I must say).

This year, we pursued slightly more cultural pursuits.

The cathedral looked rather sorry for itself from the outside and was covered in scaffolding.

Inside, we could have been gazing upon it days after its completion.

A lone nun sat in one of the chapels that flank the main hall, praying to the saints. A lone fossil went virtually unnoticed in one of the cool marble slabs of the floor.

We wandered around under hundreds of pairs of eyes, seeking some brief respite from the choking air outside.

Outside the heavy summer sun was still dousing the piazza in heat so we hid away in the baptistry for ten minutes.

A little excitement ensued when somebody left the tap on and water began to flow across the floor. In a scramble of staff, a very old plug was pulled and the problem was resolved.

There was nowhere left to hide.

Now I can't imagine being wrapped in such warm, drowsy air. Back then we couldn't escape it.

Or so I thought anyway. It turns out that if you go to the Dolomites in the Summer, you will get stuck in snow. But that is a much chillier story for another day. Perhaps a long, hot day here in England.

Yeah right.

This is what the cathedral and baptistry should look like and hopefully will when you go and visit.

Obviously no trip to Parma would be complete for me without sitting in a park.

There was no prosecco this time but we did waste at least an hour and a half sitting in the shade and lazing. With some chilled bottles of water, we were blissfully happy watching the locals in their park.

A group of young men were playing cricket in the middle, completely engrossed in their game whilst the sweat ran down their backs. Little girls cycled around the track, their dads running manically to try and keep up, their little peals of laughter filling the air. Dogs bolted across the grass, barking and bowing and chasing balls and generally being impervious to the heat.

Unlike us.

Many of the towns and cities in Emilia Romagna are resplendent in the honeyed hues that you see here. It gives the impression of a permanent dusk settling over the roofs and reflects the city's heritage - yellow for parmesan cheese, pink for Parma ham.

Back in Milan, we headed to Baobab for the best burgers in town. Well the veggie burger is pretty damn good anyway! Courgette and ricotta patty nestled amongst the rocket and the tomatoes and the avocado.. with a good healthy dose of handcut chips!

I loved this beautiful piece of street art on a doorway just across the road from Baobab. The colours and the detail are fantastic, I hope whoever did this comes back and paints more across Milan's less scenic walls and doors.

So now it's time for me to stop lusting after holidays and get back to my journal. 50,000 words... should you be wishing me luck or the guy who has to mark it?

Monday, 18 August 2014

A Gem in the Heart of the City [Restaurant Interior]

El Tombon de San Marc sits on a rather special corner in the heart of Milan.

Just in front of it, the road widens out and an open sky yawns overhead where usually apartment blocks and ancient palazzi tower over us in this crowded city.

This is where water once flowed through the Navigli canals, a complex system of waterways designed by Da Vinci himself to transport huge hunks of marble to the centre of the city for the construction of the Duomo cathedral.

This link here shows how Milan used to be a lot more similar to Venice than you may have thought. The first few pictures were taken just around the corner from where Magro and I have been living, where the old locks still stand and you can walk along the bottom of the canal.

But there's another way to wonder at the charming old world of this part of the city. 

I had been intrigued by the little restaurant with the whiteboard menu and the dazzling chandeliers for quite some time but we had always been on our way to somewhere else whenever we walked past.

One evening, with nothing to do and feeling too lazy to cook, we decided to take a stroll down there and have a look at what was on offer.

Of course I was instantly awe-struck by the mirrored panels, dazzling green walls and smooth wooden and metal fittings. Just on appearance alone, it would be the perfect place to slip back in time to after an afternoon peruse around Villa Necchi Campiglio (from this post).

Dinner at Gatsby's, anyone?

I couldn't quite understand why the restaurant was so deserted on a Friday night. We went at the beginning of July when the city was still bustling with people. Whilst the decor might be rich and extravagant, the menu is astoundingly affordable.

And they brought us a little appetiser before we'd even closed our menus. I can never say no to free nibbles.

We shared the asparagus risotto to start and as such, the very kind waiter brought us an extra large portion (I ate far more than my fair share!)

Next it was tartare all around; classic beef for my love and salmon with citrus fruits for me.

The salmon was absolutely beautiful; deliciously fresh with a light yet creamy flavour that matched the orange and grapefruit perfectly.

We polished the lot off within minutes.

But I always have room for dessert, don't you?

I usually pass on chocolate desserts when I'm out as I'm a bit of a chocolate snob and when the cocoa content dips below a certain percentage... well, I'm not a happy bunny. 

But the chocolate torte here was described as having a salted crust and after the salted chocolate/caramel craze, I couldn't resist getting stuck in to more salty/sweet goodness. 

I was not disappointed.

Quite honestly one of the most fantastic chocolate desserts I have ever tasted. And that is a high accolade coming from me!

Outside the quickly fading day shrank into shadows and with the help of a bit of vino, I began to feel as if I truly had been transported back in time, to a city before cars were the supposed right of everyone and the evening was reserved for post-dinner strolls rather than TV marathons.

It's hard not to feel like you're in a decade gone-by with surroundings like that.

Dinner for two (cover charge, water, wine, one risotto, two tartares and two desserts) hit the €70 mark and the service was prompt, friendly and sure to lure me back again. The restaurant is closed throughout August but once the city kicks back to life in September, it's a must for any traveller looking to capture the essence of old Milan on a budget.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Still AWOL!

Just checking in quickly to say that I will, someday, get back to posting regularly. I'm currently in the Dolomites with Magro, eating far too much cheese and butter and apple strudel, and the wifi here isn't fantastic.

So whilst I can, I thought I'd say I am still thinking of this little blog and I am taking lots and lots of pictures of the incredible landscape around here.

A presto!

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Dreaming of Mozzarella (Picture Heavy)

If you've never been to Italy before and you're stopping by Milan, there's a place you really should know about.

If you're into mozzarella in a big way and can't think of a better way to spend a lazy summer afternoon than sipping a chilled glass of white whilst nibbling on breadsticks and cutting fleshy hunks off a great, creamy ball of cheese, accompanied by olives, salamis, sundered tomatoes, whatever takes your fancy.. then Obika is your place.

I believe the original Obika mozzarella bar opened in Rome but my attention was first drawn to the delicious haven in Milan.

I had walked past the sign outside La Rinascente in Piazza Duomo and wondered hungrily what a mozzarella bar would be like. Yet I would always forget; the city centre isn't usually my dinner destination and Magro always had a new place to visit up his sleeve.

But one day, as we ambled lazily down Corso Garibaldi, we decided to stop by at the Brera branch.

First things first, mozzarella is not the only thing on the menu (although it wouldn't be too terrible if it were). You can also find a range of pasta and pizza dishes although these are a little overpriced in comparison to the fare found throughout the rest of the city (individual restaurant menus can be found complete with prices on the Obika website).

We began with a selection of their fried antipasti (finger-lickin' good) which came with a delicious spicy sauce. My favourite were the fried cauliflower florets and sage leaves.

Trying to keep things healthy, we also went for a plate of seasonal grilled vegetables and a butternut squash, pumpkin seed and cacio salad on the side of our cheese.

Everything was delicious although we had definitely ordered more than we could chew! Even so, my curiosity wasn't satisfied and whilst the dessert menu looked exquisite, I was still in the midst of my sugar wean so I refrained (that took serious willpower people!)

I dreamt of a day I could sit there in the fading evening light with my girls and a glass of fresh white wine, picking over a huge range of delicacies.

Wishes do come true.

Ok fine there was a boy at the table too. But he was Sophie's boyfriend and he was absolutely lovely so we'll let him into our girly secret.

I was too busy scrutinising the menu anyway.

Having just got back from Puglia, there was only one thing on my mind: stracciatella di burrata.

You have probably heard of burrata, that wonderful creamy mozzarella with an incredibly messy heart. Well stracciatella is literally just those scrappy, sloppy strands of cheese that didn't quite make it into the finished product. It's everything that's brilliant about burrata without the prim exterior.

I wasn't sure whether it was worth going for it seeing as I'd just been eating the real deal for a week so whilst we oohed and aahed over the menus, we got stuck into the thing I'd been missing the most the last time; il vino.

You have probably seen Jess and Sophie pop up in various posts before. These two lovely ladies were also doing their Erasmus in Milan at the same time as me. Jess was studying music at the university and Sophie was working in a law firm (scary!)

We clinked glasses to celebrate just being in Italy and having survived the year with the beautiful, eternal Duomo as our backdrop.

The decor at Obika is fresh and simple with monochrome tones and splashes of red. We wanted to keep our little pot of rosemary on our table but as they're used to show waiters which tables are still waiting to have their order taken, we had to content ourselves with the next table's instead.

The sun began to set, positively sloshing the normally pink Duomo in gold.

We also drank in the gold...

...and drizzled it on our food.

Yes, that's right. I went for it in the end.

I'm a best of both worlds kinda girl.

I like to have my cake and eat it.

I wanted burrata.. but I wanted the smoked mozzarella I had had last time too.

So I had both.

Burrata for starter (ok, really it was stracciatella but burrata is easier on the keyboard) and smoked for my mains.

Here's how to eat it like a lady.

It really was that good. I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised.

As stracciatella and burrata have to be eaten pretty much as soon as they're made for the best gastro-experience, it's a pretty risky business to eat them outside of the region in which they're made. It's why they're so difficult to track down even though the entire world is secretly obsessed with them.

How could you not be?

Let's get another look at that.

Slopped into my chilled tomato soup with a generous drizzle of olive oil, it's something I won't forget for a while.

Don't ask.

So for my next cheese-laden course, I plumped for the smoked mozzarella with Sicilian caponata on the side.

I have never quite tasted a smoked cheese like this. I can't really describe it except to say that it is the smokiest cheese I have ever tasted. It tastes like a bonfire but in a really, really good way.

I couldn't think of a better accompaniment than the Autumn flavours of caponata.

Before any time at all had passed (or so it felt), the sunlight had faded completely and we were treated to a magnificent view of the duomo lit up by night.

You would have thought that this would be enough to content me for one night. No.

I had pudding.


...ok three times.

And it really, genuinely was all mine. And I ate every last morsel! And I don't regret a thing! Hooray!

The pudding wine may have helped with that though.

There were just too many delicious things and like I said, I like to have my cake and eat it. Suffice to say I was incredibly full by the time we waddled back through the food hall and took the lift down to the real world.

I couldn't fault Obika on anything. Being up on the terrace overlooking the duomo, you pay a little extra on each item you order but really you're paying for the view...

...and a truly magical evening.