Saturday, 5 November 2016

Swimming in October, All Saints Day, olives, visits to police...

 
Quiet Gatwick
What a week! I arrived in Dubrovnik early last Saturday in a state of nervous exhaustion. London, with a three day trip to the north, had been a whirlwind of friends, family, and general catching up. Thankfully it had been a relatively stress-free return journey, and with 16 of us on the flight, then the only person on the bus to the ferry port, it was like Croatia was trying to tell me something. London transport had been manic as usual, so it was a ridiculous contrast. My bags and I were eventually safely on the ferry - after the usual wait - but for superstitious reasons that I shall explain shortly, I decided against the usual huge trip to the supermarket. Given I was also lugging an awkward suitcase and massive backpack, perhaps it was just sensible.
 
As I sipped my welcome home cup of tea on my bright terrace, it took a moment to hear the silence. My ex-flatmate's place was actually quieter than I anticipated, and certainly more peaceful than she had billed, but that's only because the permanent white noise is turned up louder to counter the intermittent peaks. Either you stop noticing it all, or you take to your own headphones to drown out everything. This deafens everything including your own thoughts, which is scary. The overwhelming sensory experience of a big city is partly what makes it stressful. Although the senses are strained and pummelled here, it is extremity of a different kind. Artificiality v nature; people v isolation; choice v seasonal availability; grey v green.
 
This time of year is so 'familiar' at home. I only have to smell sweet ginger, clean woollen jumpers, burning leaves and green wood, damp misty mornings, and I'm transported back to the parties we had as kids; warm spices scenting the air, lit candles in dark places, happy friends and family gatherings. Our focus in the north is necessarily on damp, dark and spooky nature, and perhaps we tend to conflate US style Halloween, 5th November and later, Armistice Day. Having only briefly experienced southern European All Saints Day with the masses of flowers, and focus on remembering the dead, it nonetheless reminds me - again - how similar we all are underneath. Our different cultures, religions, ways of celebrating only serves to highlight what is universally important to humanity.
 
Not spooky
The masses of flowers in the park and market in Dubrovnik that welcomed me, were stunning. Everyone was buying a formal flower arrangement for family graves. I was asked how we remember our dead loved ones and whether a particular time is set aside to visit cemeteries. There was a stunned face as I explained that my most missed loved one isn't buried, but was scattered in a wood by the side of a reservoir. My father is everywhere and nowhere; in my heart; in the open, in the nature he loved. I confirmed that, for me, that was as close to a 'heaven' that anyone could ever wish for! I don't need a special time to remember, it's impossible to forget. The unhealthy concern for bodily remains I find the most disturbing and curious aspect of many religions, but perhaps that's why I can't be doing with Halloween - unless it's a nice piece of gingerbread, with a bonfire and sparklers.
 
Still, it reminded me that I am very far from the UK and very much out of my comfort zone. Swimming in October, fish BBQs, tractors and olives, visits to police...this life is beyond anything. The landlord worried about my wish to be cremated, and that I hadn't brought slippers back. Some people have very strange priorities.
 
I had been invited to go up to the olive oil factory on my arrival but for one reason and another, it didn't happen. In retrospect, I'm glad that I had a few days in the groves before going up for the final part of the process. Instead I was welcomed home in a blaze of sunshine, and it wasn't just the unaccustomed hills that left me breathless on my late evening run. The sunset was incredible and augured well for a sunny few days. I've even managed a final dip in the glorious sea; the chilly fresh water springs that pour into the harbour had definitely made their presence felt. The light which I'd missed for two weeks was pouring into my bedroom on Sunday, which meant I was woken up bright and early, and I dashed outside on to the terrace to see the golden sparkles on the bay. Without slippers, obviously.
 
The coffee places in the village are now very limited and I wondered if the buzzing metropolis of Sipanska Luka could offer more choice. Taking a gentle stroll in the sun to the other side of the island, I knew that I should be starting work but it was pleasant to delay for another day. I also knew that I had to face the possibility that I could be asked to leave the country any time after Monday 1 November, which is why I had held back on doing a huge shop for provisions.
 
Whilst in the olive fields that afternoon, I asked about the next day's trip to Dubrovnik for a new tenancy agreement and some police lady sweet talking. It had to be done on Monday because of the All Saints holiday on Tuesday. There were grumbles. And more grumbles. The forecast was consulted and the 6am ferry was agreed upon. Just as olive season was really picking up, I was dragging the two gentlemen to town. Little Miss Popular, I was not. Still, I made myself useful in the fields.
 
The next day I was feeling sick by the time we were due to leave. As it happens, regardless of weather forecast, we had to take the fishing boat and car into town because the amount of running around we needed to do. The police station is right at the top of the hill, a good 30 minutes walk from the port. We started with the lady at the police station, did the paperwork, got it notarised, went back to the lady...didn't have copies of stuff, got copies and went back to her. I was to come back Friday for my registration certificate. By this point, after three times up the hill, the human blood pressure matched that of the car's, which demonstrated its displeasure by expiring in a puff of evil smelling engine smoke. It refused to start.
 
If you remember, I have one other experience with this car. It had failed to start back in June and we'd needed to jump it, then we were too nervous to switch it off whilst dashing around for the same paperwork. I pointed this out, and now it seems women are banned from his car. Luckily his mate was in town and we got a lift back to the village where their boat was moored. It was an extremely wet and bumpy ride back to the island as there was a strong wind blowing. I can report that my new yellow coat is wind and waterproof. All of this on a Monday before 2pm and we hadn't even started the day's olive picking yet...
 
To be continued...

Thursday, 3 November 2016

The show must go on.

Yesterday I was sitting in a tavern on Park Avenue enjoying a drink or two and reflecting on what had been a pretty good day. And then my world imploded.

I received a message at 17:26 that opened with “I regret to inform you…”.

Five words to strike dread in to anyone. The message, whilst appearing to come from a very close and dear friend of many years was actually from his nephew. My reply was as lucid as I could manage given the flowing tears and waves of regret, but I had to be fast as he had stated that the phone would be switched off after the message.

Regret. Regret for having not seen somebody one last time, this is not the first time in the last month as my father-in-law also passed away and I was unable to see him one last time. In fact to compound the emotions yesterday was his funeral and I was unable to attend, as apart from being in New York I don’t think I would have been particularly warmly welcomed. Though I understand and accept why this is the case.

So now I have two new holes vying for position with others.

One of those past holes was made in New York. At 8:46 a.m. on the 11th of September 2001 one of my closest friends was in the wrong place at very much the wrong time. She had arrived early for a meeting at Cantor Fitzgerald in the North Tower of the World Trade Centre.

So I too am in the wrong place at the wrong time as multiple memories are conspiring to turn me in to a gibbering jelly.

But I will bounce back. I always do. And in the dark of the night I will remember, smile and mourn in isolation. And be grateful for what they all brought to my life.

Life that inevitably goes on.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Run fatgirl run...

In April you might vaguely recall that I had to run. Not for a bus or a train of course, honestly darling if you have to do that you need to review your life choices. No this time it was for a plane. And not as you might think that I was late to the airport but rather because I was sat at the champagne bar doing what every Contrarian should do, drinking fizz and writing. More specifically I’s been updating the new landlord with the Economy-7-not-working-so-we-had-no-hot-water problem.

A bit awkward really.

The thing was I had put that incident out of my head until this afternoon when I was standing in Gatwick’s departure hall and saw said bar. You see I had been so engrossed I’d not heard my flight called and being blind as a bat couldn’t see the display. So when I checked and saw that the gate was closing in just a few minutes time I actually ran.

And this is what I remembered. Me. Running. Me.

I’ll leave that to sink in. No giggling at the back.

So here I am at 40,000 feet somewhere over the North Atlantic en route to New York. A place that I realised would mark an important milestone. When I run there I will pass one hundred miles in my running shoes. Not sling backs, actual running shoes. It’s been a difficult journey.

So what went wrong?

Well back in August my ex announced that they would be doing the couch to 5k program. I was vaguely aware of this as I knew of one or two other lunatics who had done it. But me? Well I had sort of praised myself that I would start running when I was down to weight which, needless to say, never happened as a mixture of chrimble, road trips and general comfort eating did its very best to reverse all may good intentions.

In short dear reader, I was back to being a bit overweight. And when I saw a  bit I don’t mean a bit.

Inevitably I had to do some research, after all if the ex was seriously considering it then really anything they can do… And it didn’t look so bad. She says. All I had to do was install an app, do a little bit of walking and a little bit of running et voilá 9 weeks later I’ll be able to run five thousand metres. Or roughly the distance from my apartment to St Pauls. What?

Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha.

I honestly wasn’t sure this was a good idea but I did at least see that the idea was to slowly break you in. Well, that or just break you. So off I toddled to Sports Direct, found some running shoes in my size that owing to their shocking colour were much cheaper. I suspect this is what is known as unfashionable.

Or a little something I call normal.

Anyway, I decided that there was no time like the present so on getting home I felt there was no time like the present, changed in to something vaguely sporty that I used to wear for roof exercises in the old place before the roof terrace burnt to a crisp. And fuelled by a fury from a text message I’d received I stomped out to try and make sense of the app and do a run.

Having chosen Sarah Millican as my voice of encouragement, she at least speaks like me, I headed off for that first brisk warm up walk. After the five minutes had passed it was time for a minute running. It didn’t seem so bad. This was easy, I was a natural! This was followed by a walk then another run. Still okay. In fact there would be eight one minute runs. How hard can this be?

Very. Bloody. Hard.

The first run/walk
By the last run I wanted Satan to rise up and point out that it was my round at the No Hope cocktail bar in hell. Jeez.

The 25th of August would go down in the annals of time as being the day I lost my good sense and sense of decorum.

By the time I got home I’d caught my breath and though I looked like somebody had thrown a bucket of water over me it didn’t matter. I actually felt pretty good. I mean shaky legs is good. Right? The next run would be at the weekend. This time though I
would have the ex with me as it sort of made sense for us to do it at the same time. It seemed harder this time, my body had clearly realised something was going on and it throughly disapproved of whatever it was.

Things seemed to be going well. Sort of.

The third didn’t seem as bad as the second and I decided maybe it would be okay. Well except that the next run was, well worse. The same idea but the intervals had changed a little. And it was harder though on the plus side it now meant I only had to contend with six running bits. Six perfectly formed little steps of torture.

By this point I’d decided the best time for me was to run in the morning as otherwise I would get home feeling too tired to go out again. Ladies and gentlemen, I had a routine!

Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday I would *leap out of bed, pull on my running clothes, head out in to the dawn and listen to Sarah both encouraging me and giving tips. She’s a canny lass.

There was an upside to all this, I was getting to see some spectacular sunrises as summer drifted in to autumn and the sun gradually sunk lower in the sky. And there were more useful benefits, my recovery time was definitely better, my heart rate and breathing becoming normal far more quickly. It was still horrible but now it was doable horrible and whilst I couldn’t quite see how I could manage to run for thirty minutes I could see that Sarah really believed it.

By week five things were getting serious, three five minute runs with a pair of breaks. But day two was different, run eight minutes twice with a break. That wasn’t so bad. Or at least it was better than what happened on Friday and day three… Run. Twenty. Minutes.

What? No, no, no, no. I can’t do that.

Turns out sometimes I’m wrong.

Week six followed a similar changing pattern but things were getting longer. Oh crikey. Friday though… Twenty five minutes. I was by now urging myself on by saying run to the next lamppost. Or any other handy landmark that was a very short distance away. It was a case of mind over body and body was presenting a very persuasive argument.

Week seven took me by surprise, I was expecting it of course, but what I wasn’t expecting was being back to the runs being the same. Or that each would be twenty five minutes. Oh hell.

Week eight topped that as we moved to twenty eight minutes. I also now had a problem, I’d run out of places to run. I had been walking to the Thames, then running through King Edward Park, around Shadwell Basin, through Wapping Woods, along the ornamental canal and then turning around at Vaughn Way before retracing my steps. And those extra three minutes… Dear lord.

Finally!
The final week coincided with Missy being back in Blighty so we agreed that she would run with me on what would be my final week of the program and the point where I would run for thirty tiring minutes. Trouble is… She’s an experienced runner so our pace was up a bit. But. Incredibly…

I did it.

I couldn’t quite believe it. Fortunately I didn’t burst in to tears as I did when I reached twenty minutes but it was still emotional. As expected we ran out of track so we had to run on a way through Limehouse which I wasn’t entirely comfortable with but by this point I had to just keep moving or fail.

The second thirty minutes wasn’t much better. In fact if anything it was harder because I found that being tired has a massive impact on my ability to run and if truth be told I was running on mental and emotional empty. The route was different again, this time we ran along Limehouse Cut and past our old apartment. In fact we kept running all the way to the A12 before we had to turn around. It was difficult but doable.

For the final run we took the route up Regent’s Canal turning around at Victoria Park. We agreed that the trouble with the canal routes was that owing to the number of cyclists it was fairly unsociable as you spent a lot of time running in single file.

So what have I learned? Well the programme clearly works. And being tired is a really bad idea so I need to try avoiding late nights before a day I need to run. Similarly walking seventeen miles up and down hills and around Wiltshire is a really bad idea just before a run. I also learned that it’s nicer to run with someone, I suppose this shouldn’t really come as a surprise. But the big thing I learned was
Headphone health warning...
about me and about my sheer bloody mindedness in doing something I’ve not done in 35 years. And, incredibly, that I quite like it though this is tinged by frustration of my body and lack of stamina. Only time and effort can fix that. I've also learned that sweat and headphones are poor companions, if you look like the picture to the right after running then get yourself some waterproof ones. Just saying.

So what now? Well since then I’ve run another week and even this morning though I’ll admit the runs didn’t go as well owing to a number of very late nights taking their toll. I can’t promise that the first New York run will be any better but I can tell you this, I can’t wait to put the 100th mile on my running shoes.

Now that has to be an achievement.


*force myself to move as I really wanted to sleep more

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Unconsciously Uncoupling from London

Places are so important to me. But it turns out people are too...

It's strange how I always start these ramblings with a geographical and temporal moment. I'm currently in a traditional British London pub, as far away as you can get from the Riva cafes, or seaside kiosks, or buses/ferry boats that have been the birth place of many a blogpost. Still, I continue the Croatian tradition of drinking a coffee in a bar, despite the fact that the British guys are drinking a beer. I'm not sure saying where I am is really important, but it acts like a type of mental pause or new 'life' paragraph. More a confirmation that I am still here and alive, and coping wth whatever is going on. In a satisfyingly circular way, this pub was where I celebrated the leaving of my old job back in February. Events of that evening came back to me as I was strolling up to the Brunswick Centre earlier, and I recall it continued my usual leaving-do tradition. This explains why I've only had around 5 long term jobs. I just can't take my gin.

Today has been a mending sort of day, where London and I have tried to set aside some differences. I've always known my year off was to give me and my favourite city 'some space', you know, to take a break from each other. But as any person knows, if someone says this in a relationship, it's utter bullshit. It's actually a cowardly way of ending it. To be fair at least a city isn't going to throw your stuff out of the window, or post nasty things about you on social media... So even though I've experienced tears of horror, and utter culture shock about being back in this great metropolis, there have been some watery smiles of remembrance.

I class the day I mentally 'moved' to London as the day on which I had my first successful job interview. In mid September 1995, I found myself in Moorgate, the heart of City of London, terrified and elated at the same time. And on the brink of the longest relationship of my life. It's been a love affair which has transcended many others, and for twenty years I've been proud to call myself a Londoner. Even when I was away this year, I often had a yearning for the variety and atmosphere which would regularly carry me home joyously when I was truly emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausted. But as I sensed at the time I started seriously preparing for this trip, there was clearly something coming to an end between us. 

This feeling has developed into certainty over the travelling during the past week. First of all there was a brief trip to Split to round up the rest of my Croatia belongings, and then an unavoidable trip to London where I have dealt with some essential finance and health matters. In each place there was an important reconnection with some very dear friends. Seeing the contrary one in London, and the kaotic one in Split leaves me in no doubt that the personal spirit is far more valuable than the cold heart of the cities. And how I felt when I arrived was nothing short of horror at being back.

I was strangely disengaged when I was planning my time here. The change in how I am is immediately evident because as dutifully scrolled through my favourite 'what's on' sites, I found myself overwhelmed and suffering a certain level of anxiety. I stopped looking because ultimately I just don't care. I've already had a quiet meltdown in the peaceful surroundings of the Limehouse flat because of the sheer mental strength required just to face the outside world - there had also been a minor incident at a train station which had shaken me, and given me the first taste of adrenaline in many months. 

This was a shock. It served to remind me that I had been living on this drug for years, and related panic attacks were a regular part of life. These not normal, and neither should they be. As I've gone through the week and had the time to assimilate and observe the physical and mental changes, I'm succeeding in keeping my heart rate down, and ensuring my newly found calm-centre is generally anxiety knot-free. The peace has come at some cost, but I think ultimately it has been an incredible thing to capture, and I'll be damned if I lose it again. To continue the place-as-partner analogy, I'm happy to snuggle up quietly on the sofa with Šipan.




Thursday, 6 October 2016

Buy my olive oil?

I've not blogged since returning from my jaunt, which suggests that I haven't been doing anything. This being precisely the view of my landlord, he allowed me to catch up with the usual post-trip shopping, washing and housekeeping, and then he asked, 'Klara, želiš posao?' Rather cunningly, he then said it was so menial that I wouldn't be interested. Making like one of the mussels here, he closed up and ambled off, not telling me what it was. Infuriating man. If you want to guarantee my interest, it is this is the only way to do it.

Don't you hate it when people read you like a particularly easy book?

Eventually, after much more wine and cake-based bribery, he admitted that it was something we had discussed some weeks ago but hadn't followed up. Throughout the summer, a couple of people in the village had been selling oil, liqueurs and other local delicacies to all our island visitors. These regular faces by the harbour have now disappeared, partly because they have run out of produce and it is pretty much the end of the season.

Apparently this house isn't even close to running out, despite my best efforts at drinking it all. There are a couple of thousand litres of the highest grade 2015 vintage olive oil in the storeroom downstairs, and we were now looking at a particularly sunny end of September. They had thought about selling bottles of this glorious stuff on the harbour/town square a few months ago, and even asked a few people if they could do it on their behalf. They are so busy here with other aspects of business that taking five hours out of the middle of the day is impossible. Anyway, as a last resort and being the only mug available, they asked me...

So the next warm and sunny morning, there was a mad dash to get things sorted before the various ferries and boats arrived. We stuck labels on glass bottles, they were filled and sealed, and then popped in a basket. I took my wares to my finely crafted market stall. Oh, you mean the rough hewn cube of limestone in the square? You know, the one near the Tomislav monument. Perfect. I nervously set out my bottles, complete with bread, a tasting dish, and waited for customers. 

Not. A. Soul.

Oh well. I was soon joined by Marija and we settled in for a cosy few hours in this idyllic spot. We
chatted, caught up with the village gossip, quipped with local passers by. Work was going on around us; boats being painted, apartments being emptied, nets being mended. The activity here can be subtle but it is there if you take time to look. For instance, a boat today brought someone who was taking away branches of olive trees to be tested - what do they need, how can they be improved? Everything here has a purpose, everything has a rhythm, and it works like clockwork.

Speaking of which, you can set your watch by visitors who arrived on boats, old and new. After a real mixed summer, unusually they were mostly English this week - with a few French, some Poles - and happy to soak up some sunshine. Most people were too terrified to make any form of eye contact with our hard-nosed sales techniques. Some deliberately went the long way round the square to avoid my basket of oil. With a friendly good afternoon, a smile and nod, clearly we were moving in for the kill each time, Moroccan-bazaar style. I didn't think I was that scary.

However, thankfully some people were interested in learning more, and happy to spend a few moments chatting about life on this island. My sales technique is purely information based; you can take the girl out of the library but...! Even as people stood looking at the monument or church, I wanted them to enquire. But as one of the local ladies sadly told me today, she is regularly asked, 'where am I?'. People get off the boats and have no clue what the island is called. So I'm simply valuing the several conversations I had with people who cared enough to natter.

So forgive me if I get mildly tetchy with people who come here for 45 mins and write articles based primarily on wiki research and €€€. You see, the olive oil is a symbol of this place - you need peace, love and time. The effort it takes to get from terrace to plate is incredible; weather, olive flies, harvest, pressing, all of this takes time. The money made by selling is actually the least important because the end product is the way of life. Money is obviously vital but it's not the focus.

Anyway sales is another avenue that I clearly won't be pursuing in future! About 10 bottles this week, no one's retiring yet.


Fishcakes!

Rocket and Dandelion
In return for selling copious quantities of olive oil this week, payment has been made in the shape of fresh fish. If you work for fishermen, I suppose this reward was inevitable, but it was very welcome. They were waiting for me in the big fish fridge; four huge beautiful shiny mackerel. Before I cleaned and filleted them I admired their colours and brightness. Inspiration was needed as I wanted do something slightly different than the usual tasty oil, garlic, and hot grill combination.

The previous day I'd been out with Marija and her family. She had promised to take me to the fields to get what she described as 'grass' and I was puzzled. I was handed a knife and shown the plant that we were going to collect. Turns out that it was dandelion! We picked a bagful, and I was then handed the lot, as well as some wild rocket for a salad. She told me how to cook it and off I went with leaves that that my granddad used to curse. She said to clean and sort it, then wilt like spinach. I added garlic, oil, wine vinegar, salt and pepper and allowed to sit and cook for a little longer. I wondered how to use this rather acquired taste veg...
 
Pesto Mackerel Fishcakes

Delia had an idea which combined mackerel and pesto mash. I don't think that putting potato into fish and baking would work for me - far too much effort and perhaps a little bland. So I made a few changes using the basic idea.

  • Pat four of the fresh raw mackerel fillets dry and sprinkle a little salt on them
  • Put 3-4 medium potatoes onto boil and cook until soft. Allow them to dry a little over the residual heat and then mash as usual
  • Whilst they are boiling make a good antisocial pesto - one which makes even the garlic-immune fisherman here run scared. First of all, tussle with a small green caterpillar about whose basil it is...he won, as he wouldn't go down the plughole and waved at me pathetically when I threw him out of the patio door
  • Mine is a large handful of basil leaves, a really big glug of the excellent olive oil, a handful of toasted pine nuts, a couple of crushed garlic cloves, salt, pepper. Whizz up with whatever blender/mortar and pestle you have, then add some grated hard cheese. Add more oil to loosen if it's too 'tight'
  • Throw the lot into the mash and stir in thoroughly. At this stage I also added a rather interesting ingredient. I roughly chopped up a load of the cooked dandelion leaves and threw them into the mash
  • When the cooking oil in a frying pan is smoking hot, add the fillets, skin side down, and cook until just done. Allow to cool a little and then flake into the mash mix. Taste for seasoning and add paprika, or whatever to adjust
  • Add an egg and a little flour to bind. Then clean and re-oil the frying pan to heat again
  • With floury hands to prevent sticky mayhem, form into burger sized cakes and fry on each side until brown and crisp

East London Mackerel Cakes

Given that I'm going home in a week, and I enjoyed the previous day's cakes, I thought I'd try a curry flavour as I'm serious need.

Melting a butter/oil combo, I fried up a small onion, curry powder, cumin, chilli, some finely chopped red pepper, and popped in the final two raw mackerel fillets and sizzle thoroughly. Once it's all cooked and soft, I flaked the mackerel into the new batch of mash and scraped in everything from the pan. Add an egg and a little flour to bind, I chopped up more dandelion and stirred it all together. Cook as above, and add more tabasco for fun.

Serve both versions with a good dollop of hot ajvar.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Lecce - and the return to Šipan

I hadn't really considered the reputation of Bari before deciding on a day and night there, but it certainly struck me as cleaner and more tidy than Naples or Rome. People tell me that it should have been filthy, scary and a place to avoid. Which is why I'd seriously consider going back there for another visit. I've now experienced many Italian port cities and this one, along with Ancona is probably my joint favourite. Bari's old city is a warren of tiny streets, with people living their lives outside on them; from noisy shop keepers conversations and football exclamations, to hushed musical Italian gossiping and lovers' seafront murmurings. The golden buildings were colourfully adorned with painted Madonnas, bright plastic flowers, and clean washing. The low stone archways between buildings framed the scenery like monochrome rainbows, picture perfect and a photographer's dream.

As I headed out of the old town into the new on my way to the train station, the atmosphere changed and suddenly I was in a shopper's paradise. I sat in an ice-cream bar waiting for a morning coffee but I didn't feel at ease. After the natural beauties of Macedonia and the uncertain dirtiness of Albania, the likes of Prada, Gucci, and other labels didn't sit right with my jeans and rucksack so I got up and headed through town to find something more suitable. The little portable espresso bar in the public park was perfect - 2 euros for a chocolate bun and an excellent caffe latte was just the job. I was inevitably joined by a gentleman who was compelled to tell me about his marital difficulties. In Italian. It's not my strongest language to be honest. I was torn between annoyance at having my musings interrupted, and compassion at his loneliness, after all, making time for people has been my biggest lesson of this year.

After an uneventful ticket purchase, a quick trip to a supermarket for sundries, and clambering on the right train, I was smoothly making my way to Lecce. It's a sign of how immured I've become to travelling under difficult circumstances. As much as I love Croatia, train travel in other parts of Europe is something I've missed - efficient, cheap, clean, convenient, comfortable. Balkan buses are certainly cheap and relatively efficient, but I'm a bit fed up of them and the roads. So I just sat back and admired the Italian scenery; dramatic clouds, blue seas, green olives and vines, and towns with romantic names. Brindisi, I am determined to return to you....not to mention Monopolis!

I arrived in Lecce just under two hours later, calm and unruffled, with back symptoms under control. I can definitely recommend the loos at the station and after a quick tidy up, I was strolling into the quiet town. The weather was stunning and there was a photograph around every corner. Unexpectedly for an ordinary southern Italian city, it felt cosmopolitan and the population there is very diverse; I haven't seen ethic clothing like that since leaving east London. The supermarkets reflected the foods of the people and it made a change from the predominant Mediterranean flavours I've been used to. It helped that I was sharing a house with a young Argentinian and we compared travelling notes over a brew of yerba mate. I later shared my mushroom risotto!

Italy is very expensive after Albania etc, but despite this I quite enjoyed making myself at home there. I went to the hairdressers, indulged in a bit of clothes shopping, and wandered around many of the churches, parks, museum grounds and the incredible cemetery. The latter should be on everyone's list. It's like a mini-city of tiny desirable properties; it makes London's Bishop's Avenue look a bit cheap. I particularly loved the Egyptian temple with the sphinxes. I probably should have gone further afield but I was happy just to relax in the town and catch up with my rest. Such a party animal! Sadly, the contacts that I had in Lecce didn't materialise so there was no socialising.

I was happy to experience yet more interesting weather conditions but it was polite in comparison to Albania. The sky threatened to really throw a tantrum but just ended with a some rain and a dramatic double rainbow. The following days were generally settled and I was happy to compare yet another Roman theatre. I wasn't planning a Roman architectural trip but it had been a delight to find these classical gems in each town - what a wonderful part of the world this is!

My break now thoroughly wound down, with nothing unexpected on the horizon, I was gladly thinking about heading back to paradise. The journey was a dream. It was almost too easy getting back; train was on time, pizza and beer demolished and a slow stroll along the sea to the port. Although the Jadrolinjia office in Bari port decided to give me last minor panic by remaining determinedly closed come check in time. I had clearly missed the memo about needing to take a bus a few kilometres down the road to another terminal. A kind lady there took my money for a private cabin and I have never been so relieved about having guaranteed access to a private space the size of a wardrobe, in the bowels of a ferry. I was waved through passport control quickly.

As soon I was on the ferry, I couldn't believe the contrast with the Durres-Bari experience. That same ship happened to be moored nearby, and I looked at it and the same harbour-side in disbelief, remembering the chaotic scenes of immigration. The Dubrovnik was an ordinary car ferry but somehow it felt civilised - probably something to do with groups of ladies sipping wine in the bar, and signs pointing to a 'children's snug', and the excellent looking restaurant. Oh, and the fact I was clutching a key to my own private bunk. I ignored all of these social gatherings, and I was undressed, in bed and asleep before we even disembarked at 10pm.

I've already said that I was in tears on reaching my favourite port of Dubrovik café but it honestly felt like I'd returned home. The friendly welcome from passport control, the flirty Croatian exchange with a local taxi driver, and the sight of the little Postira - not to mention the fact that I was looking respectable, showered, refreshed and no longer tired and in pain. It was an epic trip and it had turned out to be a lot more arduous than I expected, but as usual difficult trips leave more of a mark and it was definitely one to remember.