Can you believe May is almost over? And I don’t just mean Theresa (poor thing, could anyone do that job though, really?) It was a month packed with travels, but the place I’ve been most excited to tell people about is Slovenia. I think I might base a book in Slovenia next. Here’s why.
FOOD & WINE TO DIE FOR
Slovenia has no less than 24 gastronomic areas, and three wine-growing areas. And Ljubljana (the colorful capital) has some of the best food I’ve ever eaten! If you’re headed over, check out the tour by Ljubljana Yum. We munched, chewed, sipped, slurped and giggled our way through 3.5 hours of unbelievably good cuisine and wine with our local guide. We got the lowdown on the city’s history too, so our PacMan style guzzling route doubled as an historic tour. Bonus!
In a romance novel… a bold British wine-merchant gets a tip about the perfect Slovenian blend. But to swill, pour or sell it (and reap the rewards) he must first get past Katja Kovač, heiress to the country’s biggest wine estate. Too bad her daughter is as headstrong as her.
YOU CAN’T BEAT LAKE BLED
Fog clings to mountain peaks, and silver clouds cast reflections in the eye-poppingly pretty Lake Bled. Just an hour and a half from Ljubljana by car, Lake Bled is Slovenia’s most popular tourist haunts, but don’t let that put you off. It was definitely one of my favorite stops. We took a boat to the tiny church in the middle of the lake’s island, where the bell is said to grant wishes!
In a romance novel… Destined for an arranged marriage to a man she doesn’t love, tourist/successful lawyer Melissa (?) makes a wish in a tiny island church. But what happens when the bell brings three very different men, each with the potential to be perfect?
WEIRD STREET ART
Metelkova is the coolest part of town… if you enjoy the feeling of being judged by an army of skin-less bone gremlins, or an oversized spider. This autonomous social and cultural centre in the city centre of Ljubljana is basically a bunch of squats/art spaces covered in graffiti, and it makes for some seriously fun selfie-taking.
In a romance novel…an anonymous, impoverished artist works his talents to the max, creating heartfelt sculptures by night. Who is he? Why does he paint tears on all his women? One snooping reporter vows to locate and reveal him… but what happens when they fall in love?
I love when my travels get the creative juices flowing. Where have YOU been lately, that you’re set on writing more about?
My friend T told me a spooky story last night. I love all things that go bump in the night, unless they’re mice, which in my case they have been this week – I live in Amsterdam after all. But this particular story gave me chills before I went to bed and I woke up wanting to share it.
With 800 years of history, Amsterdam is not short of ghost stories. Bloedstraat (Blood Street), which connects an old church to Amsterdam’s oldest canal is named after the blood of executed prisoners, which drained down the streets from a dungeon into the waters. Those ghosts still moan and groan. Probably as much as the people behind certain curtains.
Others here talk about tortured souls floating through tourists in Dam Square. Now the home of frozen smiles in Madame Tussauds, this was once the site of public executions, where suspected witches were burned along with anyone else being “weird” about the Spanish Inquisition.
The Red Light District – that’s something else. It’s the oldest part of the city. A friend of mine once pointed a camera at a prostitute in these parts. It was an accident (she swears) but no apology would appease the femme fatale, who stormed through the door, snatched it from her hands and flung it into the canal. In her knickers.
See? It’s a scary place.
So, back to the story. T was walking through the Red Light District with a friend when they stopped to wait for a table in a rather modern-looking Brewery called Brouwerij de Prael. As they stood waiting, they couldn’t help notice a painting on the wall. A grubby looking woman with fair hair in two stringy braids, seemingly pissed off, or maybe a bit sad. Amused they started giggling over it:
“We were looking up close at her face. She was a bit cross-eyed. She had a weird expression. We were talking about her for five or ten minutes… and also wondering why the picture was framed in some old carpet.”
Nothing too weird, right? Apart from the carpet. Just two girls having a giggle over a painting in a busy brewery. They were ushered to a table, where they feasted on beer and satay brochettes and forgot about it.
When they went to leave a couple hours later, T stopped in front of the painting again. Her blood ran cold. She turned to her friend:
“WAIT. Was that girl crying before?”
They stepped up close to the painting they had studied meticulously just a short time earlier. On the grubby cheek of the troubled looking girl was a tear stain. A small, unmistakable streak of smudged, watery black, just trickling from her left eye.
“It was NOT there before,” T told me. “We would have noticed it, we were literally looking at it for ages.”
The tear was dry, she said. There was no water anywhere, nothing that could have smudged the painting. Baffled, they took that photo up there and left. Quickly.
I did a quick Internet search and surprisingly, or maybe not surprisingly nothing comes up for ‘crying painting red light district Amsterdam’, but could this woebegone woman be…. Helena?
Helena was a tanner’s daughter in the 18th century. She lived on Spooksteeg, just one street over from the brewery, with her dad and sister, Dina. Young Helena fell in love with a sexy sailor, but alas, alack, the sailor was in love with Dina.
Overcome by jealousy, Helena shoved her love-struck sis into the cellar, and covered up her death as an accident. She married the grieving sailor but spent her life in a weepy, guilt-riddled puddle, no doubt, and eventually confessed on her deathbed in 1753.
Helena begged forgiveness, but the sailor said: “Never in a thousand years, you killed the love of my life, you wretched beast!”, or something like that in Dutch, and issued her an actual sailor’s curse. He cursed her soul to roam the dark alleyway in misery for all eternity. Some people have seen her sniffling away near the tannery.
Does she wander through the neighborhood into paintings, do you think? Does she beg for help from beer-addled tourists, and weep when they laugh and call her cross-eyed?
I also read that in the sixties, as prostitution grew and grew in the Red Light District, sex workers in windows would often have a painting of a crying gypsy boy in the room. They believed it would bring good luck, fortune and happiness. (Although, further research revealed to me that some of these paintings may have actually been cursed).
I couldn’t find anything about crying gypsy girls in my searching… and yes, this might all be clutching at straws, and maybe there was a baby pigeon in the brewery who had a tiny pooh on the painting… I don’t know.
But I say, never let the truth get in the way of a good story. And it’s still all a little bit exciting, don’t you think?
Anyone planning any ghost stories now the nights are black and gloomy? My next Medical Romance From Doctor to Daddy is out in the new year. No ghosts in it, but bits of it might haunt you. 😉
There’s something so glorious about feeling your feet in the earth. Getting dirt under your nails and not caring. Leaving home without your phone.
I went to Burning Man a couple of years ago and I’m actually heading back to Black Rock City again in a couple of weeks – something I’m sure I’ll write about afterwards. But the Garbicz Festival last week, set in the magical surroundings of a Polish forest and lake, was my first foray into festival life away from the dusty Nevada playa.
The Garbicz Festival marked the first time (in my late thirties I might add!) that I’d been to a festival with friends, slept in a tent and danced in a forest till dawn. I’d do it all again. Maybe with a bigger tent.
Festivals are medicine to me. They’re the perfect chance to switch off and re-connect with what matters most…. people.
Also, when you’re free to clear your mind in the open air, it’s amazing how many more creative thoughts bust through the doors and beg to be written down.
My imagination was on fire out there; a thousand story-lines inspired by these enchanting settings. The breeze rippling the lake at sunset, singing with a Spanish musician and his guitar in a neon purple cape; the way the Music Ashram went from one muttering shaman to a full on orchestrated dance party in a clearing. We lounged, we bounced, we blew bubbles.
While some friends were entranced by trance at epic sound-stages, others sat by a fire and made up songs. No pressure, no rush, no worries.
The Garbicz Festival really is a special affair; every part of it felt crafted with pure love! You can read about its history here, of how two brothers bought the land to build on and deemed it far too beautiful in the end. Who can blame them? There’s magic in the air here – you can feel it.
I had to let my new potential story ideas go for the most part, and trust that the best ones would come back. I might be waiting a while. Let’s not get carried away. Festivals also tend to hurt your head… a lot.
So maybe a book about a festival is in order, at some point. I’m not sure how the leads would fare, losing each other, finding each other, finding themselves. There’s also a thin line between a person who loves the odd weekend in nature, and a hippy who no longer feels the need to shower (I went three days, don’t judge).
Hmm. There are lot of details to iron out here. Maybe I’ll go find a tree to lie under, and think about it some more.
With frozen fingers I swiped a handful of coleslaw from the skip-sized container beside me. I slopped it into the plastic pot and felt another slice of my soul slipping away, smothered like those slithers of carrot.
Factory life was not for me; I knew that the second I donned that bright blue hairnet on day one, and joined a lady I’ll call Mable at the conveyor belt. Mable had pet rats. She didn’t specify how many, just that they were free to run around her home, and that her favourite rat had just died.
Mable now had to save hard to pay for his cremation ceremony, but luckily, ramming coleslaw into pots for Marks & Spencer’s would pay enough – eventually – to put her beloved pet to rest.
I was 18 when I started the summer job at the factory, in my humble home town of Spalding, Lincolnshire. Before that, at age 14, I worked in a fish and chip shop, earning £1.50 an hour. I remember someone ordered a fried egg with their haddock once, and I panicked. I didn’t know how to fry an egg. I went to the small back room and cried. Then I told the poor, hungry customer that we were out of eggs.
My boss took me downstairs to the back room: “WE HAVE ALL THOSE EGGS!!!!” he cried, charging the air with fishy, facetious masculinity whilst pointing at what looked like 30 huge crates of them, some still covered in feathers.
I cried again. He sighed and begrudgingly taught his chip-shop prodigy how to fry one. I was good at it. It was the greatest day of my life.
The people in the factory… and pretty much all those crappy jobs I had to endure in the name of making my own way in this world were passageways, transitional periods that I now realise were the makings of me as a writer; as a woman. As someone who’s now not afraid to turn new corners, try new things (and sometimes fail).
When rodent-fan Mable started up about funerals for pet rats; when I realised it made people happy to be served a good friend egg, and me happy to fry it, something shifted inside me.
Not only I was I meeting characters. I was becoming a whole new character myself.
At McDonalds (age 19), I made up my own special sauce and started putting it on burgers. I was fired. You’re not allowed to make up new sauces at McDonalds – I guess someone in a lab does that, or someone in a clown suit – probably both. I learned not to mess with fast food staples, or science.
When I moved to New York at 21 I took a job as a jello-shot waitress, as a side-job to answering phones for a production house on Broadway. I accepted a $20 tip for letting a CEO called Bradley take a tequila shot from my bellybutton. All his mates moved in for their turn, and I learned that saying yes to everything that sounds OK isn’t always OK.
Throughout my life, I’ve had loads of jobs I’ve hated and loads more that I’ve loved – like the time I spent at a Sydney radio station, meeting celebs! Each one has taught me something that’s changed me, kept me ploughing forward, kept me focused on my dreams and in the end… my writing. Lots of the character traits and scenarios in my books are now based on people I’ve met, stories I’ve heard and experiences I have personally had – good and bad.
In the factory, many people I met had grown content to let their biggest dreams pass them by, slowly but surely, like the items on that conveyor belt.
But I grew stronger, and way more grateful, and a hella-lot more driven! I worked as a freelance writer, traveled the world on my own; worked from campsites, bars, even a nudist beach in Vancouver (maybe I’ll tell you about that one sometime – ahem). As I write from here in my latest spot – Amsterdam – I feel lucky to be able to access this memory bank of mayhem, laughter and tears. I feel lucky to be able to twist these tales and adventures, and fill hundreds of pages with stories!
As any motivated ‘character’ would have you learn, you fail at something, you pick yourself back up. You keep your goals in sight and you keep a positive attitude. When something doesn’t work out, you try your damned best to move on with grace (even if your best pet rat kicks the bucket, or your McManager yells at you for your special sauce in front of everyone).
You simply have to trust that after all that crap, just like in a Mills & Boon novel, you’re surely headed for a happy ending.
How exciting. And so is the day of love, love, love! There are so many different kinds of it, aren’t there? One sided, unrequited, knocks-you-sideways, uninvited.
Cuddles on couches, dances in kitchens, screaming in bedrooms, yelling on streets, crying at it, pining for it, going with it, knowing it’s worth it.
It’s usually worth it.
And then there’s the love we surround ourselves with always; cocktails with friends, walks by the water, wind in our hair, smiling at strangers. Love is everywhere. How you give it is usually how you get it back.
Sometimes when we’re single on this day, we forget how much love we already have in our lives.
So… having sent all manner of Valentines this morning in the form of texts and WhatsApp gifs I thought I’d reflect on the love this day has brought me in the past, even though for the majority of those years I was single, on the road, working my way around the world with no idea what was ahead!
Facebook tells me February 14th hasn’t been dull for a while. There was 2012, when I found myself in Bali in a posh resort with my friend Jen. I don’t think the staff realised we were just friends:
Interesting. How I loved Bali! Life was never, ever boring there.
Then there was 2013, in Rio! That was one amazing trip, woweeeee. I met four good friends for the Carnival. We climbed Sugarloaf Mountain on Valentine’s Day and I found this abandoned pink headpiece at the top. Who would abandon such a thing of beauty?! Clearly I fell in love, and took it for myself… and then had to abandon it too because it was just not practical for a backpacker to be in possession of such a thing. Hostels only have so much locker space, after all.
At this time in 2014 I was in Spain with mum and dad, escaping the cold. We had a lovely apartment with about a million steps up to it, so the majority of the time was spent huffing and puffing uphill, and then ‘recovering’ by drinking cheap wine. My friend came to stay and we went V-Day shopping, as displayed here:
I loved spending that time with my family. I also loved being away from a cold British winter for a while.
Last year I was lucky enough to have a Galentine’s Day with my good mate Hannah in Lisbon. We had a lovely seafood dinner by the harbour and made plans to take over the world, without men. Actually, I think I had a boyfriend this time last year, but I wasn’t with him. He didn’t call me either. Hmmm. Well, he’s an ex now (obviously), but this was one lovely dinner, with or without him.
We could also go back to 2009… when this happened in Dubai….
…but to be honest I’m not entirely sure what’s happening here, or what my friend Alex was thinking, biting my head like a lion, but that was a long time ago and my younger self probably thought such a pose was hysterical. You’ll be happy to know I’m much more mature now. (ahem).
So, tonight? Well, I’m somewhere just as nice. I’m in Amsterdam, where I live and where I finally chose to stay still for a while. And a special person is cooking me dinner. He’s a very handsome man and I plan to put him in my next book in some form or other… but that’s another story. Literally.
Happy Valentine’s Day everyone! Whether you’re single or with someone special, spread the love. xxx