Walking along the promenade on a stormy evening in Thessaloniki it was the girl with the bright red hair that caught my eye. Sitting with her friend the two teenagers were laughing and chatting together as they rested by an ancient monument celebrating Alexander the Great.
I felt it summed up the area perfectly: a mix of old and new, past and present, ancient Greece meets modern day. A place with a youthful vibe steeped in thousands of years of history.
Located in Macedonia, 540km north of Athens, Thessaloniki is the second largest city in Greece and home to more than one million people. Founded in 315 B.C by Cassander of Macedonia it was named after his wife, Thessaloniki, the sister of Alexander the Great.
I spent five days there as part of this year’s Blogtrotters Greece tour, exploring both the newer and older parts of the city, checking out a selection of the local restaurants and mixing with some of the locals.
I found it an intriguing place with its lively bars, restaurants and pretty cobbled backstreets all set against a backdrop of ancient historical buildings, monuments and relics.
Modern apartments have built up around Roman ruins as if someone dropped a jigsaw puzzle and mixed up the pieces.
The modern restaurants opposite the ancient Turkish bathhouses, and the office blocks that rise up in the background, all exist in sharp contrast to one other.
There are cosy coffee shops, outdoor markets, boutiques and shopping malls, all a short walk from each other. You’ll find churches next to apartment blocks and small family run businesses just a street away from larger international brands.
There are fish markets and flower markets with one smelling substantially more pleasant than the other.
Overlooking it all is The White Tower, the most famous landmark of Thessaloniki, built during the Ottoman era falling the fall of the Byzanitines.
It’s a former prison with a grisly past, now a museum telling Thessaloniki’s history over five floors and offering stunning views over the city (that would probably look better on a sunnier day).
To the visitor the different pieces of Thessaloniki shouldn’t fit together, but oddly they do.
A clue as to why it works lies in its history and its people. Greeks, Ottomans, Jews and Armenians lived together for 500 years, which has resulted in a city rich in different tastes, languages, traditions, beliefs and cultural values growing and existing together.
The city itself has built up in layers over several centuries with influences from King Philip II, the father of Alexander the Great, the Romans, Byzantines and the Ottomans, merged with western ideas and eastern traditions. The result is something unique.
What keeps the city alive and gives it its vibrant and welcoming feel is its young people. It has a strong student community thanks to the presence of Aristotle University and the University of Macedonia.
Areas of the city, such as the port, have also been developed in recent years to appeal more to the younger generations.
Old warehouses have been converted into bars and restaurants, which have increasingly grown in popularity, like the Kitchen Bar overlooking the water’s edge – all changes that helped Thessaloniki become the European Youth Capital, 2014.
Old and new, past and present. The girl with the red hair and her friend were sitting metres from the waterfront, relaxing away from the lively buzz of the city. It is an area where young and old alike hang out. Couples sit together looking out into the water. One elderly man sat there fishing, alone with his thoughts.
An old city with a young heart, more characterful than beautiful, Thessaloniki is like a treasure trove waiting to the explored, with something to offer everyone and many hidden gems along the way.
Many years ago when I used to blog every day and spend the majority of my time on Twitter, I’d grow twitchy if I missed a day’s blogging or if I found I had nothing to blog about.
The solution would have been to go out and do something worth blogging about. Instead I stayed indoors staring at my computer screen waiting for inspiration to strike.
Then I would click around the internet and comment on a few blogs before tweeting some more.
I’m not sure Instagram existed in those days, and there were certainly no Pinterest. If they had been around no doubt I’d have spent my time on there too.
In many ways those were happy, special times. Unique times in the evolution of the blogosphere.
I look back with fondness even if far too much of my life back then was spent online. It gave me the confidence, eventually, to seek a life offline and I’ve ended up with the slightly more balanced life I have today.
The purpose of writing all this is because today I’ve had the same twitchiness. The same urge to write a blog post. The same feeling of unsettledness struck when I realised it was nine o’clock and I hadn’t posted anything new on here.
So I’ve logged back on after logging off to write a quick post.
There’s not a lot to say except returning to the daily routine after my Greece trip has been far easier than expected. There’s reassurance in the nine to five, of regular bedtimes and early morning school runs.
The main highlight, all of that aside, was looking up from my mobile phone and noticing the virtually cloudless blue sky. Not in Greece, but here in the UK.
Plus this eagerness to blog, to put something down on screen, even if it is mindless waffle, it’s a blog post, it’s blogging. During my trip to Greece, surrounded by 40 other bloggers, I realised I’d missed it.
So here’s to blogging, routines and mindless waffle. Without them, life wouldn’t be quite the same.
My fingers have now stopped twitching.
There’s something slightly unsettling about the day after returning home from a trip, as if you’re not quite in one place, but not quite in the other either.
You’re no longer in holiday mode but not quite ready to return to reality and all the preparation, organisation and routine that brings.
You’re left somewhere in between, which means it hasn’t been an ordinary Sunday.
School uniform hasn’t been washed; there’s been no supermarket shop and the majority of unpacking hasn’t been done.
I’m living out of my suitcase, not quite ready to return everything to its rightful place.
Part of me is geared up for the next country, the next adventure, not quite ready to settle at home.
The solution turned out to be forgetting it all and heading out into the forest. Alice Holt near Farnham to be precise.
It felt good to be out exploring somewhere new again, camera in hand.
The calming effect of nature.
Just enough to make the mind wander a little.
Just enough to make you think you’re somewhere else.
Just enough to help you cope with the fact that you’re not, and tomorrow it’s back to reality.
Just enough to leave you knowing there will be more travelling, more experiences.
And all is well.
I’m not a huge fan of flying after the fire incident at Charles de Gaulle Airport when I was flying off to Africa. Thankfully the passing of five years has eased the anxiety that plagued future plane journeys to the point that I can now relax and enjoy the ride a little more, which is a relief because there’s something uniquely special about viewing the world from a seat 35,000 feet above land.
Perhaps it’s the lack of an internet connection that frees up some precious thinking time. Perhaps it’s the fact that there’s not a lot else to do. Perhaps it’s the view. Flying over The Dolomites as I type this, with one eye on the computer screen and the other on the window, it’s hard not to feel inspired by the planet we live on. Right now I want to explore every single bit of it.
To set the scene more fully, I’ve just spent four action-packed days in Thessaloniki, Greece having flown there via Athens earlier in the week. I’ve been part of the team of bloggers that make up this year’s ‘Young at Heart’ BlogTrotters Greece tour. I was part of the very first tour last year when I spent the same amount of time in Athens looking at street art, visiting the historical sights, spending an afternoon on the beach and eating my own body weight in food.
So that gives you a hint at what is to come in future posts when I write about the trip in more detail. I’ll be posting more once I’ve caught up on some sleep, had some time to reflect on it all and spent some time with IJ. I’ve missed her a lot, although the sun and sand certainly helped compensate, and thank goodness for WhatsApp.
Right now I’m doing what I always do on the return leg of a trip whilst sitting on a plane. Feeling calm, relaxed, without a distraction in the world and knowing I’m heading home to IJ – I’m reflecting on life a little and making some decisions.
Having just spent four days with a group of creative bloggers from the travel, fashion and beauty sectors, I’ve done a lot of thinking about the issue of age. I was acutely aware at the beginning of the trip that I was almost two decades older than many of the bloggers. I wondered how they viewed me, if they were aware of my age and if they were thinking I stood out as being different to them.
I found myself looking back with fondness to the time when I was young, keenly interested in fashion and photography and spoke with excitement about the places I’d visited in the world and where I wanted to go next. Then I mourned the passing of time a little.
But then I got a grip, realised the age paranoia was mostly in the head, and decided the attitude that I was too ‘old’ to view the world with the same young, excited mindset where everything is there to be discovered, wasn’t really getting me anywhere.
So the decisions I’ve made, inspired by the young creatives I’ve been around and the places I’ve visited, include taking the photography course I’ve wanted to do for years, continuing the children’s book I started writing last year, travelling more and exploring more.
As well as that I’m not going to view the childlike excitement I often have about the world as age-inappropriate.
Who knows where this will lead. Hopefully a lot more blog posts. How appropriate that the theme for this trip was Young at Heart. I’m sure there’s a part of us that never really grows up, nor wants to.
Flying over Paris and starting the decent into London Heathrow as I revisit this post and type a little more, the layer of cloud that previously looked like frothy whipped cream has become thicker, a little greyer and the gaps now nonexistent.
But it doesn’t matter. It can mean only one thing. And it has to be the best thing about the return leg of a journey you’ve made without your family: the realisation you’re almost home and they are waiting for you.
Let the adventure continue …
As we powered along the Mexican coast in a catamaran, the spray from the water a welcome relief in the heat, a small island began to emerge in the distance. Remote, uninhabited, and lined with row upon row of lush green palm trees.
As we got closer we spotted the hammocks in the water, the line of sun loungers on the beach and the whitest sand I’ve ever seen.
It was one of those moments when you quietly think to yourself: I’ll remember this forever.
We’d arrived in paradise, officially known as Passion Island, a 45-minute journey by catamaran from the Mexican port of Cozumel. It was the final stop on our Western Caribbean cruise with Carnival Cruises for Cruise International Magazine.
The island was beautiful, small enough to explore in a couple of hours and extremely well maintained.
It was the perfect tropical island hideaway on which to escape it all for a while. It’s long stretch of beach never felt overcrowded. I could genuinely see myself living out my days there, never returning to the UK, surviving on a diet of fresh coconut and sea air.
There would be plenty of IJ to do too. With a supervised children’s play area, trampolines and basketball nets, I was confident she’d adapt quickly to island life, should we decide to make it our forever home.
I could have spent our time drinking at the small bar in the centre of the beach or shopping in the handful of boutiques dotted across the island. Instead I chose to do nothing except relax and soak up the sunshine.
IJ, who will tell you she can’t exist without the internet, played happily for hours without a computer screen in sight.
If you’re travelling with children, the fact that they can play under the watchful eye of the staff, while you relax a little, is perfect.
There was a slide, craft activities as well as old-fashioned games.
We did enjoy the sea although there was rather a lot of seaweed, which put IJ off initially, but once you get into deeper water it quickly disappears.
And then there were the hammocks, which once you’ve managed to manoeuvre yourself into, you could relax and enjoy the sea air, which many of the visitors did, glass of ice cold beer in hand.
There were inflatables on the water too from which you could dive into the sea, if you were brave enough, which neither of us were.
Instead we relaxed and enjoyed the setting, not quite believing we were really there, until it was time to leave.
Our guide, Alejandro, had somehow managed to remember the names of every single person who travelled with him on his catamaran. That meant when it was time to leave he called each one of us by name.
So reluctantly we were escorted safely off the island and back to our ship.
Had his memory not been quite so incredible, we’d perhaps still be there.
There’s an exceptional piece of writing in today’s The Sunday Times by columnist India Knight called ‘Facebook’s grieving chief shows the Internet can speak human’.
It refers to Sheryl Sandberg’s recent Facebook update following the death of her husband, David Goldberg. In it Sandberg shares her extreme grief and torturous last month at a time when she would have been forgiven for hiding away, for leaving her job, for never being seen in public again.
As Knight mentions, not only has Sandberg sparked a global discussion on grief and shown it’s acceptable to talk about it, she’s highlighted the more human side of the internet away from online attacks, trolls and Twitter abuse. An Internet where people share, care and support each other and discuss aspects of their life. Knight refers to it as Internet B.
The idea of Internet B made me think immediately of the blogging community. Sharing raw grief, cancer treatment, marital breakdown and survival. Sparking conversations, gaining support, showing life in all its colours. That’s what bloggers have been doing for years. Sharing, supporting, surviving. There’s a wealth of human experience out there. Perhaps we could go as far as saying bloggers created internet B.
But there’s something more.
While not everyone wants to share aspects of their life online, for those that do – like Sandberg last week – it offers readers a more rounded view of life and places a value on being real, not keeping the more difficult aspects of life out of view as if they don’t happen and can’t be talked about.
On the page before Knight’s column there’s an article on eating disorders. It makes reference to the perfectionist traits often seen in anorexics. And that’s the point here. By being real online and not being afraid of sharing the more difficult aspects of life, we’re being far more human than any magazine article that glosses over the truth and airbrushes out the parts we might not like.
We’re painting a far more realistic picture about life. We’re showing that no one is perfect and life isn’t perfect, so striving for perfection is pointless. We’re speaking human.
Long may Internet B continue. As for Sheryl Sandberg, I hope one day she is able to post online that she’s okay, that she has survived this trauma, that she has found her new normal. I hope her recent post isn’t the last we hear from her for a while and that she continues to update us all.
Internet B is here for her like it’s here for all of us.
*Warning: this post might act as a trigger for anyone who has experienced baby loss*
I stood behind a lady in the supermarket queue yesterday. She was holding in her arms, very carefully, a plastic doll. A nurse stood by her side.
When the pair reached the front of the queue, the lady with the doll in her arms stepped forward to pay for her shopping. She wasn’t buying much, just two outfits for a baby.
The clothes were the size of her doll. Judging how carefully the doll was cared for, it was mostly likely the clothes were for her. She didn’t have a baby with her. The doll was her baby.
My heart broke for her and, perhaps selfishly, I tried to put out of my mind the reasons for her carrying round a doll in her arms. The reasons for her caring for it, for clothing it and for holding it so close.
Although I only saw her briefly, I felt an overwhelming sense of loss. A loss for what she didn’t have. For the gap in her life that doll was replacing. For what or whom she’d lost. For the obvious impact it had had on her.
She paid for her baby clothes and quietly walked away with her nurse. I don’t know where she went. I don’t know what the future holds for her. All I do know is that wherever she is she’ll stay with me for some time.
I’m a little more grateful today for what I have in life, particularly the little girl sitting opposite me.
But I’m sad too for the lady with the doll. And for all those like her, who don’t carry a doll round with them, but who feel that loss just as deeply.
If feels only appropriate here to mention the following websites for anyone in need of support:
At one time I would have said that blogging and full time work don’t mix. Not, at least, if you want to spend some time each day away from a computer screen.
The solution, it turns out, is speed blogging. It’s literally writing a post in a matter of minutes. There’s no planning involved, no drafting and only minimal editing (it’s got to be readable after all).
It’s just a case of putting fingers to keyboard and blogging the words that come out.
It is in fact what I always do if I’ve got a deadline for a piece of writing and I’m not sure where to start. I just start typing on the keyboard and viola! – no blank page, or translated into blog language – no blank post.
Suddenly the whole task becomes a little easier.
The only issue now is that I haven’t actually done anything worth blogging about since I posted yesterday.
I’ve watched several episodes of Mad Men but as the rest of the world has just watched the last ever episode and I’ve only just started on series two, it’s a topic of conversation that’s off limits. Don’t tell me anything.
So that leaves the part of the post where I share something interesting or insightful completely blank as there is nothing to say. I’ll share where I ate my lunch. It’s about as interesting as it gets.
So that’s it. My first (and I suspect last) speed blog.
Now it’s your turn to give it a go.
I used to say a lot on this blog. I’d post about work news, the latest course I was taking, the frustrations of freelancing (although I think I only wrote that post in my head) and I’d ponder on where I thought my life was going next.
I’ve done less of that recently, wary of tempting fate by posting good news, nervous about sharing too much of life’s frustrations when all is not going so well.
Recently a couple of people who have read my blog for some time contacted me privately and asked me how things were going, saying I’d been a little quiet and asking me for my latest update, which is lovely.
So I realized an update was overdue. And here’s the thing about tempting fate if you share good news and worrying about sharing bad. It leaves you with very little to write about, and the more I write on this blog the more I realize how much I’ve missed it, and the community, and writing.
So here’s the longwinded version of where I am now. Stick with it as in my usual fashion I have a point to make.
Many years ago I took an eight-hour round trip to a PR company in Manchester hoping for some work. I’d been invited in to speak to the PR manager and was hopeful that this was a good sign. Unfortunately it was her secretary who had invited me in. The PR manager hadn’t even looked at my CV.
I was there for all of five minutes. I’d travelled for hours at great expense and with the need also to arrange a whole day’s childcare. I was told I’d never work for a PR agency as I didn’t have an agency experience. And that was that.
A lot has happened since then. Google being the most significant, which wouldn’t have happened if I decided to give up. I was determined to continue building a career no matter what.
Now, several years after being told I’d never work at a PR agency, I’m working at a PR agency. It’s a small boutique agency not far from my home. Not wanting to tempt fate but all is going well.
It’s often wise to ignore the people who tell you you can’t do something, and keep trying until you come to that conclusion yourself or you prove them wrong.
I’ve just proved them wrong.