Tuesday, 25 August 2015

'A teenage dream's so hard to beat'

Teenagers. Everything is so apocalyptic.

Teenage years are the worst, everyone says so, especially when you’re a teenager. They patronise you about hormones and ‘changes’ and promise you it gets better. But I want to talk about whether it ever really does. Last week, friends and I were talking about our teenage years: what we remember, what they meant to us, how they shaped us. The conclusion was unequivocal: being a teenager wasn’t that bad at all. Not compared to your twenties.

Let me take you back to my teenage years…

My most treasured memories are of my friends, lots of them, different ones at different times. I think I had 6 best friends (bffs, bezzie m8s, bmfls, bffls & 4EVA) in my teenage years and, apart from 2, I’ve lost touch with them all – but I am infinitely grateful to each of them for making being a teenager so happy, so fun, and so manageable. My best friends were the ones that spent Saturdays walking around Brighton with me, trying on clothes our pocket money would never afford, and leaving with a packet of sweets, a discounted CD from HMV and a tummy full of Nando’s that our parents had given us lunch money for. We stayed up all night at sleepovers, eating popcorn, watching shit films and discussing the hilarities of school, all the girls we both hated that week, and pretend we had serious and urgent boy woes. We chatted on MSN, on the phone, by text, on Skype, Facebook chat, Bebo ALL THE TIME because sometimes there is just so much to talk about, and the 8 hours spent together at school does not suffice. We did our homework together, got dressed up for parties together, babysat together, cooked together, did all the embarrassing things that we hope no one will ever know about, together. We helped make each other the people we are today.

Friends are the good bit, though. There were also bad bits: new worries, bigger worries, one that we thought were totally insurmountable…

It was almost like the day I turned 13 that spots appeared, and not just one of them; they were all over my forehead, sometimes my chin, sometimes even my nose or cheeks. The only conceivable option seemed to be to hide them (and all my shameful sensitivity about them) beneath a long, sweepy emo fringe. One that would ultimately make my skin even greasier. It was at this time I discovered how absolutely necessary some concealer, powder, mascara and an awful lot of eyeliner was to my general well-being. I needed it to cover up my spots, mostly. I also needed it to appear suitably cool and grown up: what teenage boy doesn’t love a mysterious, fringe-heavy girl with a nice thick helping of eyeliner? And with spots came periods. I’d anticipated it, but I’d anticipated it making me feel like a woman: sophisticated, worldy, can get out of PE if necessary. It made me feel gross. All girls, women, have battled with the total horror and embarrassment of someone discovering we’re on; with the confusing masterpieces that are tampons; and the horrendous stomach cramps, vomiting and hot flushes experienced every time it feels like your ovaries are simultaneously trying to eat themselves and burst through your stomach (and/or back).

Next was school: the best and worst days of your life. Retrospectively, school was great. At the time, it was utterly ridiculous. Why did I have all that homework? Why did my hair scrunchie need to be navy blue? Why was my blazer so itchy? Was it really necessary to have a bag bigger and heavier than me to carry all my books and folders? What if GCSEs made me die of stress? Why did THAT teacher do THAT really annoying thing ALL THE TIME? How do they always know when I’ve rolled my skirt up? WHERE DID I PUT MY LOCKER KEYS?

And parties. Your first real party, with boys, a barbeque not cooked by a dad and alcohol (a hearty selection of Bacardi Breezers, WKDs and maybe a cheeky Smirnoff Ice) makes you feel like you’re unstoppable. You’ve left the house with a skirt over the top of your really short dress, which you promptly remove to make sure you look bangin’. You’re having THE BEST TIME. This is nuts, this is the new you, you might even try a cigarette or take a drag of a spliff. All fun and games until you’re sick, and it’s blue WKD, and you’re so relieved you said you’d stay the night because you cannot go home like this. Eventually you crash in a tent, amongst some hay bales, in the back of your car.

Boys. Being at a girls’ school I was fairly protected, oblivious. But there was still the first real crush which, at the time, was MAD ADORATION: year 8, I know he looks like a shark, but he has a 6 pack and that’s really cool (but secretly freaks me out). It’s a shame he doesn’t love me back and I have to send him emo texts to get him to notice me and maybe sympathy fancy me. Then there’s the rebellion: the one you secretly want your parents to know about because it’d really piss them off, but you’re also repulsed by the repercussions. This doesn’t stop you flaunting him to your friends and doing dramatic readings of the texts he sends you. There’s the MSN boyfriend who tells you he loves you, that you’re the best thing that’s ever happened to him…but is completely terrified of you in person. The boy you ‘brb’ and never return. The unrequited love you still wonder about today. The boy at the party who agreed to make out with you even though you had braces. The first kiss, messy, the first time you had sex, even messier.

It’s a beautiful, horrible, confusing, exhilarating, upsetting and overwhelming experience. But is it anything on your twenties? 

Today marks my 618th day into my twenties, and it has already been much more difficult and confusing than any of my teenage years. The friends are the constant, but suddenly you find yourself spread out at unis or doing jobs all over the country. You are no longer the only thing going on in your friends' lives, and neither are they in yours. You make new friends, lots of them; but it's not quite like school where you spend 8 hours with them every day, where you all live down the road from each other, and where you can't chat them for 2 hours every night because you pay your own phone bill now. You'll still see lots of some friends, but some you'll lose touch with, some you'll catch for a coffee or lunch a couple of times a year, some you'll always make plans with and never end up seeing. It's more work, it's not as easy.  

Your spots are mostly gone, but they come back when you least expect them and when you're least equipped to deal with them. Having spots makes you angry because you're not a hormonal teenager anymore, no one expects you to have spots now; it isn't fair, in fact, it's a damn right injustice. You are better at make up now though, and you can afford concealer that isn't made by Miss Sporty. Periods go from being a tummy ache and a day off school to trying every contraceptive pill available in the hope of finding one that doesn't make you sick/grumpy/fat/rashy/pregnant...and still settling for one that gives you disgusting, painful periods half the time anyway. It means buying your own tampons and being horrified at how expensive they are - then buying them in bulk when they're on offer in Tesco and avoiding eye contact with the boy at the check outs who must think you're having the most aggressive period in the world. It means worrying about when it's late, why it's late, why it's different, whether you're pregnant, how on earth you get an abortion if god forbid you are which you almost certainly aren't. It means secretly looking forward to the menopause so you never have to endure this monthly warfare again. 

School becomes uni, which is harder and more responsibility. You're required to make more choices: no longer is it 'pick 10 subjects you vaguely like and are interested in' but 'pick one to study for three years, make sure that you really like it, but also make sure that you're going to be able to get a job at the end of. Oh, and make sure you pick the right place to do it: the right course, the right location. Can you afford it? Do you want to live there?' Suddenly you have to make plans, set your own routine, work out what you're going to do with your 36 working hours a week that you're not at uni. And then, at some point, you're supposed to work out what you want to do with your life. When you're a teenager it's fine not to know, but when you're 21, 10 months away from graduation, somehow it feels concerning not to have any idea. You haven't got your life sorted out, and everyone else seems to, and that feels problematic. Very quickly you realise no one knows what they're doing either, whether they're at their desk in their uni house, in their classroom, or in their office. 

And parties become clubs. It's not ok to get smashed on WKDs anymore, and that's a sad realisation we all must come to. Feeling fab in your friend's garden with the shortest skirt you've ever worn aged 16 isn't as fun when you're being touched up by a middle aged, high, Iranian man in a club in Shoreditch who, every time you try to escape, shouts 'you fuck me' at you. You have hangovers when there's nothing in the fridge. No longer do you just have a cheeky kiss in a disused caravan with a friend of a friend; in your twenties it translates into the idea that you could have a one night stand with a guy you've just met - a notion that simultaneously terrifies, intrigues and repulses you. You realise you got the night bus back with friends, but none of you remembers any of it. You drive to your friends, then realise you're too drunk to drive home, and instead find yourself sitting in a pub, surrounded by old men on a Saturday night, waiting for someone to come and get you. You're expected to be an adult when all you want to be is a teenager. 

Boys are still boys, you think they're going to be men now, but they're still boys most of the time. The end of your 6 week relationship with the boy you only really spoke to online, a week before your Maths GCSE which seemed like THE END OF THE WORLD doesn't compare to the unrivalled guilt (and relief) of ending a 2 year relationship. You've now realised that all those things that you thought were making you appear really sexy really weren't, and you're now just a bit confused about what it is that makes you attractive to other people. You try be chatty and not too weird, put on some liquid eyeliner and hope for the best. You're still not really sure if they're flirting with you, but 17 year olds have stopped sending you unwanted dick pics now so that's good. It's not long before your Facebook newsfeed is full of engagements and wedding pictures. When you realise that your friend from year 8 is now married with 2 kids and a dog, and you and your boyfriend can't even work out what to watch on Netflix, you wonder what's going on. You start thinking about commitment: what it means to be in a 'long term' relationship, what would happen if it all ended tomorrow, what it is you want, and whether this is it. It's exciting when it is; it's awful when it isn't. It's lots of time, worry, contemplation, feelings. It's not just dumping a 13 year old boy because he wouldn't hold hands with you yet. 

Being a teenager was hard sometimes. But being a twenty-something is harder. You're expected to grown up for yourself and make decisions for yourself. But did they lie when they said it got better? I don't think so. It's got harder, much harder, but also more fun and more free. The bad times suck even harder but the good times are awesomer. I've decided it's ok to miss being a teenager, but it's also important to enjoy being a twenty-something. I figure thirty-somethings are going to be marriage and babies and mortgages and jobs, and that definitely sounds worse. 


Thursday, 20 August 2015

Recent Reads #3

Second Life - S J Watson
This wasn't the best book in the world: the plot was slightly obscure, the twists a little bizarre, and I didn't like any of the characters. But I couldn't put it down, and that must count for something. I felt like this novel was really about the dangers of the internet, disguised as a thriller, and this was actually quite interesting. We follow the life of Kate, whose sister has just been murdered in Paris. Kate's hunt for her sister's murderer very quickly becomes lopsided, and we're drawn away from the theme of death to one of sex. It's in this world, one of secrets, lies and adultery that the plot develops, thickens and finally explodes. Whilst part of me didn't care about the ending, because I wasn't rooting for anyone and the story had become slightly far fetched , I was absorbed and read this for 6 hours solidly. It's not as good as Before I Go To Sleep but it's not far off. Definitely worth a read. 
3.5 / 5

The Bone Clocks - David Mitchell
This is a really difficult book to review. I did enjoy it, eventually, but I really, really struggled with it. The novel is split into 6 chapters, following different parts of Holly Sykes' life. It's very cleverly written in this way but, for me, the sections didn't link up closely enough or quickly enough. I felt like I was reading very separate stories with no real plot or ending. We started with teenage boyfriends and ended with global apocalypse - and a very complex, difficult journey in the middle. So it did all come together in the end, and I could definitely appreciate how well thought out and prepared the novel was, but I just didn't really enjoy it as I was reading it. Having said that, it was funny, mad, but amusing and varied. David Mitchell produced a technically spectacular novel and I want to recognise that, but it just wasn't really my cup of tea.  

3 / 5

Wise Children - Angela Carter

I love Angela Carter and I love Emma - and this was one of her summer read recommendations. But this is absolutely, definitely, 100% not a book to read on a Kindle. Ever. It's confusing, it's bizarre, it's blurred, and it's magical. It's a novel you want to flick back and forth through (hence why you shouldn't read it on a Kindle) because there are so many characters and so many ideas that it's impossible not to lose track of who everyone is and what they're up to. What I love about Angela Carter is that her novels are seemingly childish and fantastical in their style, but twisted, challenging and totally sexy in their content. Wise Children is no different. It's riddled with Shakespearian references, directly and indirectly (so a knowledge of Shakespeare helps!), which I loved and follows a completely crazy journey down memory lane with Dora and Nora. On the way, we engage with dysfunctional families, theatre, incest, rejection, responsibility, growing out - to name but a few. It's insane. Crazy but joyous. A novel to be troubled by, and inspired by. A novel so succinctly summed up in its final words: 'what a joy it is to dance and sing!' 
4 / 5

The Versions of Us - Laura Barnett

I had really high hopes for this one, and I was pretty disappointed. I am going through an ultimate period of 'fear of missing out' and 'what might have been' and this novel explores these ideas through 3 parallel narratives - the same situations with different outcomes. But it just lacked. The narratives, for a start, were too similar. I often felt like I was reading and re-reading the same bits over and over again; I don't mind a bit of repetition but it just seemed a bit lazy and uncreative. It was another novel where I struggled to relate to the characters. Where is your character development?! So I found myself fairly disinterested in the lives of characters who didn't seem real and who I didn't really like. I did like that it followed a couple's life, together and apart, and explored the different priorities and experiences at different times of life. 
Ultimately it was a really good idea not pulled off especially well.  
2.5 / 5

Have you read these? What are you reading? Recommendations always welcome! X


Wednesday, 19 August 2015

'What do you mean there's milk in chocolate?'

When I started writing this blog I promised myself I would never write about food or baking or cupcakes. But this isn't a post about food really, this a post about tummies and, more specifically, tummy aches. I think I have some sort of stomach pain every single day: sometimes it lasts for 10 minutes, sometimes it lasts most of the day. I've been to the doctors countless numbers of times and been diagnosed with everything from IBS to anxiety to lactose intolerance to 'maybe there's something wrong with your thyroid...but only maybe'. I think it's probably a mixture of everything, but since I'm a chronic worrier, there's nothing wrong enough with my thyroid to warrant medication, IBS is a mystical tummy destroyer, I've decided to give lactose intolerance a go. Again. 

Today marks the sixth day on my committed journey to kick lactose intolerance's butt and I'm already struggling. We'd run out of almond milk, I wanted butter in my sandwich and there's chocolate in the fridge at work. I've found myself staring at a wheel of brie, and repeatedly looking on the ingredients list on a packet of chocolate biscuits in an attempt to convince myself that there must be some sort of chocolate (that isn't fancy) or biscuit that I can eat without being subjected to epic bloating. I haven't found any yet. I've also, much to my dismay, discovered that more foods have lactose in it than you think. Who knew that some breads, crisps, supermarket meats and cereals (and god forbid CEREAL BARS) contained lactose? I even discovered that some contraceptive pills contained lactose. Bizarre. It's slowly becoming a reality that basically everything I eat I now can't. And that's very upsetting. 

But I am feeling better, much better. I wake up in the morning and don't look pregnant, and  I can eat a meal without having extreme hot flushes and feeling like I'm going to be sick. I'm eating much more healthily. It turns out that when you can't eat cake or ice cream or biscuits, you actually eat a lot more fruit and veg. Houmous becomes your new best friend because it tastes kind of creamy, like it should have some cheese or something in it, but it doesn't. Savoury is the go to because it seems like everything sweet is dairy based. I sat watching my brother eat a chocolate chip muffin last night and wondered whether giving up dairy was worth it, and then I remembered that I'd scoff it, then curl up on the sofa for an hour cramping, go to bed and be forced to lay on my back because I'd be too bloated to be comfortable in any other decision, and wake up feeling 5 months pregnant. I had some strawberries instead. 

I've decided that if I'm going to continue with this, potentially for the rest of my life, I need to start being a bit more creative and making my life easier for myself (and any help doing so would be hugely appreciated). I'm already worried that I won't get enough calcium, and am eating broccoli like it's going out of fashion whilst in the search for calcium supplements that don't make you feel like you're about to vomit a pint of milk every time you take them. I want to try and bake some lacto-free cakes/biscuits/cereal bars for when I fancy something sweet, but am yet to be inspired by much other than a tried and tested carrot cake recipe (though it's not the same without buttercream). I need to invest in all dairy free products ever, including almond milk, coconut oil, soya yoghurt, dark chocolate to make cooking and eating the few remaining things that aren't fruit/veg/fish/meat possible. It's a bit of an adventure I suppose, just a really inconvenient one that makes eating out a pain. 

I'll keep you updated on the journey to a pain-free tummy but, in the mean time, if any readers have food intolerances (or are vegan!), get in touch! Please share your tips, recipes, survival techniques for when you accidentally eat dairy and destroy yourself. Help, before my diet becomes almost entirely houmous based!

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Recent Reads #2

I was doing so well with my reading pledge, and then suddenly it all seemed to go downhill. Season 3 of Orange is the New Black happened, and then I had to catch up on Pretty Little Liars, and then I occasionally went out and to work, and reading took a back seat compared to all of these other, mostly, less important and totally mindless things. But then my summer holiday arrived: 2 weeks in Italy. Travelling with only a rucksack, with minimal space for books concerned me so I borrowed my mum's Kindle and it was the best decision I have ever made. For a start, I was pleasantly surprised by the Kindle. I was extremely sceptical about reading a book on a screen, but it didn't feel like that at all. And secondly, after several train journeys, flights, airport waits, afternoon in cafes, and stifling days in the Sicilian apartment, I found the time to read a lot more novels than I had room for in my rucksack. I'm a speedy reader and got through 8 books whilst on holiday, so here's part 1 of my holiday reading review series: the first 4 books I read. 

The Girl on the Train - Paula Hawkins
It felt like this book had been everywhere for months and I'd never quite got round to reading it. Described as a new, better 'Gone Girl' I had pretty high expectations since I'd enjoyed that a few summers previously. It sort of disappointed, because I didn't think it was better, but I still thought it was a good holiday read. Much like 'Gone Girl', I had an interesting relationship with the novel because I didn't like any of the characters and wasn't really rooting for anyone. Nevertheless, I found the plot gripping, as any good thriller should be, and was pretty absorbed from the moment I started reading it. I am sucker for multiple narratives, and thought that the story really benefitted from having our 3 female narrators - it make a fairly simple novel slightly more challenging and convoluted. Hawkins developed the characters well, and I particularly liked the relationship between Rachel and Scott. As much as this is a novel about a murder, it's also one about relationships and I think these sub-plots were explored really carefully and became a fully formed part of the story. The ending wasn't bad by any stretch, but it wasn't as surprising as I would have liked it to have been: it's no 'Gone Girl' twist, put it like that. Overall though, I did really enjoy the novel. I don't think it helps it having been consistently compared to 'Gone Girl' in the media (and now incessantly by me), because it's difficult competition. It was a good, convincing story with well developed characters, and I remained intrigued all the way through.  

4 / 5

Us - David Nicholls

It's always nice to read a book about someone who's in a similar situation to you. Whilst I'm not a middle aged man, with a failing marriage and a son off to university, I was travelling Italy with Douglas, our protagonist. But this wasn't really a novel about travelling; it was about love and marriage, when you're middle aged. Without giving too much away, we follow Douglas and Connie's failing marriage around Europe, a journey overwhelmed by the curiosities of travelling, simultaneously educating and constraining an 18 year old, and meeting new people along the way. Nicholls is good at emotions, and inciting emotive responses in his readers, and he does this particularly well in 'Us'. I experienced Douglas' troubles with him, but also Connie's with her, and Albie, their son's, with his. The content itself wasn't hugely inspiring - the plot moved quickly, echoing the momentum of the travels, but there was nothing to be blown away by. It's the emotions that got me! But I finished feeling kind of empty, cathartic perhaps: knowing the ending was the right thing, upsetting, but inevitable. Nicholls has a way of doing this - the same in 'One Day' and 'Starter for 10' - he writes a novel with an inescapable ending, but we don't always realise this is the case until the end. I like that, and I think it's really clever. In this case, I just wish the journey had been a bit more stimulating. 
3 / 5

What You Wish For - Mark Edwards

This was, without a doubt, the weirdest book I have ever read. Not good weird either. I was sitting in Naples ferry port, flicking through what books were already downloaded on the Kindle, and I came across this and thought I'd give it a go. This book can be accurately described in 3 words: UFOs, Alien Porn. It was described as a 'psychological thriller' which it was not. We meet a local newspaper reporter and follow his relationship with a UFO enthusiast who goes missing. The novel is mostly about his journey to find his girlfriend, involving UFO conventions, alien cults, and alien porn producers. It wasn't funny, it wasn't well written, and the ending was disappointing (which isn't saying much because the whole story was pretty dire). The one star owes to the fact that it was innovative and weirdly captivating; although I knew I wasn't enjoying it, I felt shocked and confused into finishing it. It was like nothing I'd ever read before, and hopefully like nothing I'll ever read again. 
1 / 5 

The Children Act - Ian McEwan
McEwan is back, well, back on my reading list - and this was a good one. It is two fairly separate stories in one novel that become very well connected. On one hand, it's a novel about 'The Children Act', a legal construct designed to protect children's health from the decisions of their parents. Most notably, we follow the story of a dying teenage Jehovah's Witness who would benefit enormously from a blood transfusion. It becomes a question of what is more important: life or dignity, and who's decision we must respect even if it's different from the one we would make. It's challenging and provocative, and I was fully invested in this part of the story. On the other hand, McEwan explores the marriage of the lawyer dealing with the case: her crumbling relationship with her husband. McEwan juxtaposes this dying marriage with a dying boy, putting both cases into perspective, and posing two huge challenges for our protagonist to deal with. I love a book that leaves me pondering, and this one definitely did. The story had integrity, honesty and challenged me. Maybe not an ideal 'holiday read', but I'd definitely recommend it. 

4 / 5 

Saturday, 8 August 2015

An Italian Adventure

6 months of planning, preparing and waiting went very slowly. 2 weeks of travelling much more quickly. We wanted to see Italy: I'd only been to Rome before, my friends only Venice. But there is so much Italy, and so little time. After much deliberation we decided on:

Days 1:  Milan
Days 2-4: Lake Como
Days 5-7: Florence
Day 8: Naples
Days 9-10: Rome
Days 11-14: Catania, Sicily 

It was a bit of a whistle stop tour of all 6 places, but a fun one. I'm going to try and give you a snapshot of each, mainly because that's all we had, with the best bits, the worst and my recommendations. 

Destination uno: left with very mixed thoughts. It was fine, but just fine, I'm not writing it off but I'm in no rush to go back. 

Best of Milan: The Duomo di Milano was extremely impressive. Unfortunately we weren't dressed appropriately enough to go in (it was way to hot for sleeves and trousers!), but it was beautiful. It, of course, dominated the main piazza but I was a little disappointed by what else was there - or not there, as the case may be. I was also surprised to see a castle in the centre of Milan: the Sforza Castle, which looks a lot like Fort Boyard and not very Milanese. Originally built in the 14th century, the castle was restored in the early 20th century so there's definitely a very stoic, and still operational feel to it. Definitely worth a visit if you're in Milan! 

Worst of Milan: The hotel we stayed in, Hotel Adelchi, was pretty dire and has definitely tainted my memory of Milan! With no air conditioning on our first night, and temperatures at night exceeding 30°c, it was pretty uncomfortable. The heat soared up to 40°c in the daytime in Milan which made it difficult to walk around, do much, or enjoy very much. Much of the day was spent looking for shade, cold drinks and air conditioning! I generally disappointed with the lack of character in Milan. I knew it was an Italian business centre, but anticipated that the city would exude the creativity and flare it's known for through its fashion. It didn't really, remaining very systematic. I imagine it would be like going on holiday to Reading would be like, but sweatier. 

Cool things I learnt in Milan: the Italian army wear feathers in their hats; they all look like Robin Hood. They have outlet stores for sweets. A disproportionate proportion of its residents have horrific tattoos. 

Destination due: I loved Como. It was beautiful; the weather was perfect; and there was so much to do but it was the ideal place to do nothing. We stayed in Carate Urio, about 6km north of Como - and 40 minute boat trip, and spent a day in Como town. I left feeling like there was so much exploring still to be done, and I can't wait to go back one day. 

Best of Como: Como town was lovely, full of restaurants, ice cream parlours and quirky shops, it felt like a real 'holiday town'. There was a real mix of holidayers here too: lots of older couples, but also families and younger groups like us! It felt very safe and friendly, like the perfect, relaxed holiday destination. Carate Urio, where we stayed, was slightly more remote. We rented a beautiful Air B&B villa with its own lakeside garden, and steps down into the lake. It was the ideal location to spend a few days with friends, relaxing in the villa, lounging by the lake, swimming, cooking, and the odd game of Beer Pong! I loved that it was so peaceful, that we had plenty of space to ourselves, and that we could swim and lay in the sun without all of the people/sand/wind/faff of the beach! On our last night in Como, there was a huge thunderstorm and we all just stood at our bedroom windows, listening to the thunder and watching the lightning illuminate the mountains. It was pretty extraordinary. 

Worst of Como: the 'exclusivity' was something to be both admired and annoyed by. It was amazing to be surrounded by such a magnificent natural and constructed landscape, but at the same time, it's stupid when you can't hang your washing up for fear of tainting the aesthetics of the house. Oh, and the trains. I think we were quite unlucky, but we had a bit of a nightmare with outward trains - cancelled trains, signalling problems, missing connections. Chaos! 

Cool things I learnt in Como: takeaway pizza in Como (and probably Italy more generally) is the tastiest thing you've ever put in your mouth. You can cut a hole in a watermelon, blend the inside, and drink it - but there's a lot of juice, even for 6 people. The millionaires from 'The Millionaire Matchmaker' holiday there; we were on the boat ride with one. 

Destination tre: Florence was on par with Como in the competition for my favourite part of the holiday. I knew there was plenty to do in Florence, but I think that it's a common misconception that it's all art - and it definitely isn't. Florence felt very calm and laid back, despite the huge number of tourists, and this made it really enjoyable to be in. 

Best of Florence: My favourite memory of Florence was the hotel we stayed in: Soggiorno Livi. We were all a bit uncertain since it was pretty well hidden, and the front door just looked like the front of an apartment block. But we were welcomed by a fairly elderly, eccentric, excitable Italian woman; she didn't speak a word of English but told and showed us everything we needed to know through rigorous pointing and hilarious gestures. The hotel felt very traditionally Italian, much like staying in an Italian grandma's house! We also had some of the best food in Florence. There seemed to be a lot more meat, and variety from pasta and pizza, and we had 2 tasty meals (the first tastier than the second) at Trattoria Antellesi, an Italian steakhouse.  Florence was also the best city we visited for just wandering. It was cooler than other cities, with a lovely breeze, and there was so much to see in the way of architecture, sculptures, shops, churches, palaces just from aimlessly walking. We were also really impressed by the street art in Florence; it was everywhere, but it was clever and seemed to tell little stories. It was all the little things like this that gave Florence so much character, and made it just an interesting city to visit. 

Worst of Florence: tourists. American tourists. Everywhere. Having mundane discussions about which fast food they'd give up first if they absolutely had to. Our 2 full days in Florence were, unfortunately, a Sunday and Monday - the two days of the week in which things close. It was a real shame because we probably would have seen lots more if things had been open. 

Cool things I learnt in Florence: they have lots of elaborate door handles, many of which have faces on. There's a lot of wild boar on restaurant menus. There's also a lot of art and sculpture relating to Greek mythology, which is all really interesting and creative.  

Destination quattro: I was really sad to be leaving Florence, but glad that we were moving on to Rome. I'd been to Rome once before, aged 13/14, and had great memories of it. Once again, Rome did not disappoint. It's such a varied, fascinating city with so much to offer - I only wish we'd had more time to make the most of it.  

Best of Rome: Rome is the city to be an avid tourist in. Day 1 was reserved for the Vatican, and day 2 the Trevi Fountain, the Colosseum, Palatine Hill and the Piazza Venizia. Nothing beats the sights of Rome. I'd expected them to be crippled with tourists and was surprised at how (relatively) quiet it was. Returning to the Colosseum was probably my favourite sight: there's something about being there that makes you feel like you're really being transported back and getting a true taste of ancient Rome. I also loved wandering in Rome. Since our hotel was a bit of a way out, in the Trastevere district, we enjoyed a 45 minute walk to the Vatican, encountering beautiful views on the way, and a much more relaxed, ice cream fuelled wander home from Palatine Hill the next day. 

Worst of Rome: The Trevi Fountain was closed for restoration. STILL. I'd seen friends' disappointing pictures of the fountain months before our visit, and was hoping it would be finished in time for us. Alas not. 

Cool things I learnt in Rome: The Vatican has a post office from which you can send Pope-themed postcards. There's a lot of coconut water. Also more selfie sticks than I've ever seen in my life. Everyone drives a Fiat. You can basically drive wherever you want, there don't seem to be any formal lanes or lines on the road. 

Destination cinque: It's probably not fair to give a review of Naples because we didn't see enough of it or spend long enough there...even though it felt like the longest day of my life. Our stop in Naples was simply practical: to catch the ferry to Sicily. 

Best of Naples: My memories of Naples are not fond. I'd never heard anything positive about Naples, but it was worse than I'd anticipated. The best thing about it was the train we got to Naples: somehow we'd managed to bag ourselves a private train cabin, with free drinks and snacks. It was shame the journey was only an hour long!

Worst of Naples: It was like stepping off the train into a third world country. It was bizarre. Admittedly, we didn't venture into the centre of Naples, but headed straight in the direction of the ferry port. Here we waited for 10 hours. Mostly in a cafe in a car park. Also on the pavement for 2 hours outside the ferry whilst we waited to be allowed on. In this time I read a book about UFOs and Alien porn. It wasn't a day I wish to repeat. It was followed by a night on a ferry that I also don't wish to repeat. 

Cool things I learnt in Naples: There's an enormous, beautiful building at the ferry port with a view of Vesuvius (but it has nothing in it apart from a few tacky tourist shops). 

Destination sei: Although we spent the longest amount of time in Catania, it's the place I feel like I know the least about. The combination of it being really hot there, Simon being in bed for a couple of days with food poisoning, and having a lovely apartment (another Air B&B win!) that we could just chill in meant that we didn't get up to too much exploring. 

Best of Catania: On our final day we took a tour of Catania on a miniature train (well, it was more like a bus that looked like a train), visiting the main sights of the city. It was only €5 and took us to the amphitheatre ruins, the cathedral, the Bellini Gardens, and past one of the largest churches in Italy. Whilst some of the commentary couldn't be heard over the noise of the train, it was a really nice way to be able to see quite a bit of the city it was too hot to walk around! Another thing we noticed was how cheap everything was in Catania: we're talking €5-7 for a pasta dish! We ended up eating in quite a bit since Simon wasn't well, and buying and cooking our own food, but it was great to have so many other inexpensive options as well. Although totally unintentional, we ended up getting the ferry to the wrong side of the island - and then had to spend over 3 hours on a coach to get from Palermo to Catania. By that point, we'd been travelling for over 20 hours and I wasn't looking forward to it - but actually really enjoyed the coach ride. It took us by the sea, across mountains, and we actually had the chance to see some amazing views. 

Worst of Catania: It was pretty hot which spoilt the trip for us a bit - but that wasn't Catania's fault, but ours for going there in August. It was also a shame that the nearest beach to the city is right next to the port and therefore, it's recommended, too polluted to swim. Had we known this, we probably would have stayed further down the coast, closer to Syracuse where the beaches are absolutely beautiful. I also couldn't find an ATM in Catania that would let me take out money without an Italian bank card; the only option was to go into the bank, with your card and passport, and take out a minimum of €50 at a time. 

Cool things I learnt in Catania: Spending 10 hours at an airport isn't as bad as you think it might be. You can't buy alcohol/cigarettes/things with duty on them from Catania airport if you're an EU citizen. They called Mount Etna 'Enna'. They put pistachios on pizza. 

So then it was time to say ciao to Italia! It was a really fun 2 weeks - slightly chaotic and frustrating at times, and very sweaty most of the time, but we got to see a lot of amazing places in a really short space of time. If I were to do this trip again, I'd probably do it over 3 weeks instead of 2; miss out Milan; spend longer in Como and Rome; try and make it across to Verona and Venice; stay somewhere different in Sicily, with a pool or lovely beaches; and book up some of the popular sights (i.e. galleries in Florence) in advance. But all in all, we had a lovely time. Now on to planning the next adventure....

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