Sunday, 30 August 2015

On Self-Disclosure

When I was younger, I used to write a diary online. It was a kind of precursor to blogging - you could create your own page and write entries like a regular diary except you could then decide whether you wanted to make that day's thoughts public, private or available only to an exclusive list of community members.

That community was my favourite part of the site (well, aside from being able to choose whether my page colours were going to be hot pink and turquoise or storm grey and mustard, and which song lyrics to post up on my homepage which was, more often than not, Iris by the Goo Goo Dolls). It was a social network before social networks really took off; the way you could instantly access the latest diary entries from all over the world at the click of a mouse and discover someone else's entire world, what they did that day or what they were really thinking at that moment, instead of just a snippet of a tweet or a picture.

I was searching for that site again earlier today. I've been thinking about it a lot lately - what I'd written, the comments I'd shared on others' diaries, the ones I'd received, the friendships gained. It's been a long time since I read it. You see, like many people I look back at my old diaries, both physical and digital, with a mix of reverence and horror. I have a whole stack of them in my room and the words behind those covers are not always pretty. Unlike the posts I write on here, I really revealed myself in those pages - and it's not something I wanted the people who knew me in my real life to ever see.

Yet after a few years of writing in heavily guarded notebooks, I wanted some kind of feedback. Was I completely out of line when I argued with my friend that day? Was I being paranoid, thinking that my boyfriend was flirting with that girl? Writing to myself every night wasn't getting me anywhere, allowing my same thoughts to circle each other like vultures. Finding that site was like coming home - I could finally share my true self and seek alternative viewpoints without having to worry about its effect on my relationships.

That undiluted self-disclosure is also a very uncomfortable thing to read back on. Sometimes I wonder whether I should just throw them away and move on from those earlier versions of myself that make me want to cringe so much I could cry (and I could also really do with the storage space). Other times I wonder whether I'll want them one day in the future, to understand myself better and realise why I might feel a certain way in particular situations. It's incredible how much the brain forgets; alighting on any page at random can teach me entirely new things about myself that were once all-consuming.

It turns out that I didn't get a choice with the digital versions of my teenage self; the site closed down last year and all of our words were scattered to the winds of the internet.

I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this. Part of me is sad that those chapters of my life that I once felt were worthy of recording are now lost. Part of me feels relieved and almost cleansed of the troubles of that time. And part of me is kind of pissed off because I was also seeking that site out so I could start writing on it again.

I know I could just take up writing in little notebooks to hide beneath my mattress again but I liked the way that online diary was much harder to find than any physical journal could have been. My next thought was turning to this blog yet it's not quite the place to just write out everything I'm thinking and feeling (although I'm certainly making a start of it right now!) I hunted for a half hour or so for another online diary community that would give me that same satisfaction, that same feeling of secrecy and community, but nothing quite matched up.

Self-disclosure, to others, is important. It helps us feel accepted and safe and like we have a place in this world. It's why psychologists have found that getting two people to sit down and work their way through a list of questions about themselves can lead them to fall in love. It's why we feel so much closer to other people after a good old bitching session. It's why we feel the need to share something of ourselves with the world and why we can feel hollow and empty after simply posting another edited Instagram shot.

So I've decided to be a little more open on this blog. For too long now I feel that I've been writing in a completely fake voice that doesn't really tell you anything at all about me and my experiences in the places I've visited. Sure I won't reveal absolutely everything like I would in a real diary but I might just start pretending that fewer people are reading than those that actually are.

Fingers crossed that Blogger doesn't shut down too.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

The gardens at Hever

As I write this, I'm on a family holiday in the Dordogne region of France.

This basically means that I'm spending a very picturesque week in the company of absolute loons. Michele is here too, as is my sister's boyfriend Andrew, so we've at least got two non-Porters to dilute the usual madness (e.g my Mum's incredibly whiny French voice, manic driving on behalf of my Dad into the middle of nowhere, fights over who ate the last Lu chocolate biscuit or Crunch bar, desperate attempts to dodge hole-in-the-ground toilets...)

Right now, everyone else is playing Scrabble whilst Michele and I sit here on the internet, oops. I'm definitely ready to sleep after a day walking around caves and swimming in the pool (ok, ok and eating a hell of a lot of cheese - pavè d'affinois is the food of Gods) so I can't say I'm particularly jumping to get my holiday photos blog-ready.

But to keep in the spirit of family days out, here are a few shots from our trip to Hever Castle last summer!

As you can tell, it was a beautifully sunny day.

We'd chosen Hever as the gardens are so beautiful and we had our cheeky pup with us, back when he was actually, technically, a pup. Jess, Mum, Michele and I whizzed around the castle whilst Dad stayed outside with little Bertie on the grounds that he'd been around the castle a hundred times.

Which admittedly he probably had, as had we all. But it definitely didn't stop us playing princesses again.

We've been coming here since Jess and I were old enough to toddle across the drawbridge. When I was younger, I had a real fascination with the Tudors. The idea of those opulent costumes and romantic castles made me feel nostalgic for an age I'd never experienced. I imagined open countryside undisturbed by the concrete towns and cities of today, just endless fields and meadows and winding rivers accompanied by weary willows.

Of course, I didn't pay any attention to the fact that I would most likely have been a peasant and not destined for such romantic finery, nor did I consider the poor healthcare, low life expectancy and unstable political environment of the times. If you forget all of those things of course, Hever is a dream day out for a girl obsessed with all things medieval.

As I said, we had our little mutt with us so didn't spend too long inside the castle, instead spending the afternoon taking a walk together in the beautiful gardens. They've really used the castle grounds well, creating beautiful flowerbeds in the Italian gardens whilst also leaving space for open lawns to show the sheer scale of the gardens.

Michele and I decided to race to the water maze (always a bad idea, I was not built for sprinting yet am painfully competitive - I practically had a panic attack trying to get my legs to move in time and still lost horrendously) and back again whilst my family had a nice calm walk by the lake, my favourite part of the Hever gardens.

We finished the afternoon off having tea and scones in the pretty cafe next to the garden shop. As it was the end of the day, they were just closing up but that also meant that there was nobody else in sight; we had the whole place to ourselves.

I could finally pretend that I was that Tudor princess after all! Although perhaps not the princess of Hever Castle.. we all know how that one ended..

Keep your eyes peeled and you might just spot a handsome prince... ahem!

It was just one of those lazy days out with the family that I love so much during the summer holidays. I'm so sad to think that this year might just be my last proper summer holiday! Admittedly 23 is a pretty decent age to finally be weaned off the months-long summer break but I just don't feel ready to give it up!

Even Bertie's sad about it:

And how could you disagree with that face?

Friday, 21 August 2015

Our mini Italian road trip II : San Gemini

San Gemini was by far one of my favourite trips in Italy.
Have you ever been given one of those experience boxes? The sort where you can choose between barman courses and horse riding and Nordic walking? We had one for a whole year, caught in indecision. 

We kept saying that we wanted to use it to try something new, push the boundaries a little and go for a sport or activity we wouldn't otherwise have tried. But in the end there were just too many things to choose from and we needed to book a hotel to break up the long drive from Puglia to Milan.

I'd recently read that Umbria is the new Tuscany - all the glorious food with fewer tourists - and as neither of us had been yet and we could book a last minute room using our Smartbox, it was the obvious choice.

And I'm so glad it was!
We arrived late in the afternoon. As the car wound up through the hills, we were furiously debating dystopian novels and whether true originality in the genre has been exhausted. The atmosphere was already a little fraught as it was. Even though we had split the driving, we were both tired, cramped and frustrated with being in the car. The sight of the town, as it finally, finally came into view, was a welcome one.

Our bedroom was up in the eaves of the Albergo Duomo, a hotel nestled within an old palace in the centre of San Gemini. It had air-conditioning, comfy beds and a beautiful rooftop terrace area for us to view the rooftops of the town from.

As tempting as it was to stay there all evening and rest our weary souls, we ventured out into the town to explore.
Within minutes, I was in love with the town. San Gemini has all the ingredients for a magical trip in Italy; narrow, cobbled lanes, a mountain-top location with views across the valley, a peaceful atmosphere with signs of a vibrant community life scattered about everywhere and, of course, excellent local cuisine.

Each little alleyway was worth exploring to see cats slinking along walls, to admire potted plant displays, to hear the clatter and chatter of families dining together and to discover panoramic viewpoints hidden around sharp corners.
Just as we rounded one corner near the top of the village, we came across a small group of old women pointing at the sky and chatting excitedly in Italian. They had seen something in the sky, and whilst I didn't quite catch exactly what they were saying, it sounded as if the sun had suddenly flashed a silver streak across the sky. They happily included us in their discussion as they debated what it could have been.
Aside from that friendly gaggle, there were very few people on the streets. I was quite surprised by this as San Gemini has been voted one of the most beautiful villages in Italy. When we first turned up, it had felt like the town was bustling with life with people sprawled across benches soaking up the sun or having early pre-dinner drinks on pavement cafes.

Although it was kind of nice having the place to ourselves.
We circled the streets until our stomachs began to rumble which we took as a sign to dip into the first restaurant we came across. This just so happened to be the warm, welcoming lights of Ristoro del Cavaliere. 
Now, unbeknownst to me when we booked the trip, Umbria is a very prolific truffle producer. And it just so happens to be one of my more middle class traits to be an absolutely crazy truffle lover. I'm not so obsessed that I'll pay huge amounts for those fine dining plates, topped with a sliver of truffle that instantly adds £30 to the price, but I am a huge sucker for that rich, savoury flavour, especially when it accompanies cheese.

And the first thing they placed in front of us, completely on the house? Cheese on toast. With truffle.

Angels were singing.

(Oh and if you don't believe me about my truffle fanaticism, one look at Michele's face will prove just how excitable I can get:)
As this little teaser of a dish left me wanting more and badly, we shared the truffled eggs in a crispy parmesan basket (which Michele quickly decided he was stealing away from me).
Both of these starters were delicious; rich, salty, truffly and cheesy. They weren't particularly fancy or beautiful, just good, honest local food and we devoured the lot.

Obviously, this was still not enough truffle and cheese for me though as I then ordered the stuffed pasta with parmesan sauce and, would you believe it, truffle.
I just can't help myself! And when the prices were as reasonable as they were in that beautiful little slice of truffle heaven, why not indulge?

After the pasta, I was pretty full. After all, both truffle and parmesan are not the most subtle of flavours and my palate was feeling a little overloaded. My extreme greed and need for self-indulgence had taken me so far but I was pretty much ready to stop. 

Until the good lady told us about the local dessert.

Hazelnut semi-freddo smothered in hot, melted, dark chocolate sauce.

We ordered it in a flash. And then I had a little happiness blackout.
When it arrived, it was everything I wanted it to be. The semi-freddo itself was nothing particularly special but the sauce was exquisitely rich.

Just look at that:
That is just happiness on a plate!

By the time we finally emerged, it was nighttime. 
We wandered back to the hotel, a little drunk, a lot full, and pretty much collapsed on the bed. Not before taking a sneak peak at the Duomo all lit up beneath the stars though!
I was pretty sad to leave the next morning; we didn't have any time to explore the local area and it was straight back in the car despite the glorious sunshine that cascaded across San Gemini.
Sulking slightly (ok, a lot - as in, stony silence being directed towards Michele, the perpetrator), I dragged myself away from the views, down into the lobby and into the driver's seat. If only there had been more time! But San Gemini, we will be back for you. And if you're planning an Italian road trip at all this summer or next (or the one after etc. or just, you know, ever) I would wholeheartedly recommend making this beautiful little place one of your destinations.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Our mini Italian road trip I : Le Marche

First things first; I just got back from the USA/Canada and oh my God why am I still awake? I didn't really sleep last night but my body is adamant that it's only 6pm in New York right now so we're going to stay awake until it's a decent time to go to bed. In New York. Hmm.

I spent most of this evening going through pictures with my family until they literally started falling asleep (I guess 2,500 is quite a few to get through but hey, I was there for a month!) As my computer is out of action and currently in my cousin's trusty tech-xpert hands, I'm assuming it will be a while until I can start spreading the Canada love. Sob.

So for now, I'll share a few pictures of food from our little trip to Le Marche that I'd already got online. You might have seen my Puglia posts from this summer; we actually drove down from Milan (North Italy) to Puglia (tip-of-the-heel South Italy). It was no mean feat, especially in the summer heat.

But luckily we have friends in all the right places (or at least Michele does!)

To break up our journey, we spent one night in the town of Civitanova in the Le Marche region where some of Michele's friends were spending the holidays. I hadn't seen them since their wedding two years ago before they moved to Germany to pursue their careers. It was so fun being able to finally chat to them as my Italian had picked up enough for me to be able to understand!

Although admittedly I spent most of the night in silence, staring in wonder at all of the food before me.

If you like seafood, this ain't a bad place to get it.

The promenade is lined with restaurants serving up fresh fish from the sea. We were only a few steps away from our home from the night and happily watched dusk settle over the waves whilst we feasted on their mixed antipasti - my favourites were the charred, garlicky anchovies.

You can probably tell that there was more food than we could ever have hoped to finish. I was a little bit shellfish-ed out by the end of the antipasti and was so grateful for having ordered the anchovy pasta (although in Michele's words, the shellfish stew-thing that they ate was so good, it would still have been delicious "if you shat in it"). Even so, I struggled to get through even half of my pasta but doggedly persevered like a true glutton.

It's lovely evenings like this, spent chatting with friends in beautiful locations and eating delicious food that are my absolute favourites. Now that summer is well and truly upon us, I'd like to get out and do it more often. Picnic anyone?