There’s More to ‘Murica than Froot Loops (Fortunately)

A little while ago, I had the misfortune of having to get out of bed at 5am on a Sunday morning. But thirteen hours later, I found myself at the other side of the world, in Newark, New Jersey.

As I stepped off the plane, the first thing that hit me was the heat. Why I hadn’t bothered to check the weather before I came, I have no idea. But it was certain the four pairs of trousers in my suitcase would be staying there.

I wandered into the airport and suddenly realised that having drank a litre of water on the plane, I really had to pee. So there I was, through border control and past baggage claim. I turned the corner and… shock horror! Toilet stalls… with gaps in the doors! I half considered waiting but after a six hour flight, I was desperate. (Turns out, this was the case everywhere, and not just the airport scrimping on funds.)

My plan was that I would be staying in America for the month of July, and interning with a youth circus called Trenton Circus Squad in New Jersey. I had absolutely no idea what to expect, who I’d meet, or even exactly what I’d be up to. I was nervous, but also quietly excited knowing this was to be my biggest adventure yet.

That night, I met the five girls and our chaperone that I would be living and working with for the next two weeks. As the very long day drew to an end, we sat on the porch outside watching the sun go down and the fireflies come out like a reflection of the stars in the sky.

For breakfast, finally I got to try one of the icons of great American cuisine – ‘Froot Loops’. Conclusion: blech. “Shall I compare thee to licking a battery?” And so, we left at 7.30am for a 9am start in Camden, NJ where we would introduce Trenton Circus Squad’s new pilot project. The day was spent taking part in workshops, practicing five ball juggling, meeting the rest of the group, and sweating like crazy in the un-air conditioned hall. Yippee. That night we went to the boss’s house for dinner and we made guacamole. I say ‘we’. I supervised. And tried a burrito for the first time – Froot Loops: 0, Burrito: 10.

The next day was the Fourth of July, so we did as what most of America seemed to do that day, and drove down to Washington DC! We spent the day in the sun at the National Mall, (which I expected to be a rather large shopping centre. It’s not.) for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and watched shows and performances from circuses up and down the country. Somehow I ended up talking on the social circus panel for the National Endowment for the Arts which was, as I believe the kids say, “kinda cool” (or rather one of the highlights of the trip!)

 

 

 

On the drive home, it rained. But it was brightened up when we passed a proper, motorbike riding, bandana wearing, denim jacketed, biker gang. Not your average view when cruising down the A90 Southbound. It grew dark as we were passing through Philadelphia and we oohed and aahed at the fireworks lighting up the tower block littered skyline. We drove through five states that day.

The rest of the week was spent improving on our skills, putting a show together with the whole group, and sweating like a cheese sandwich in a warm rucksack. On Saturday we headed into Philly for the Puerto Rico Festival where we spent the day performing, teaching kids how to spin plates, salsa dancing, and trying not to get heat stroke.

The next day we ventured to New Hope – a wonderful little town where trees line the streets, bookshops and art stores are more common than grocery stores, and the Delaware River roars through the middle. The plan for the rest of the day was to hike up Mount Tammney. But we got lost. And instead drove through the mountain roads, listening to music and holding maps the wrong way up. We managed about 45 minutes of the Appalachian Trail but decided it was much too hot and went swimming instead.

 

Week two was incredibly full on. Every day consisted of workshops for young summer camp kids, and shows. Lots of shows. Oh, and attempting to survive a poisonous spider bite that mysteriously appeared on my leg. That was exciting. But nothing was amputated so all was well.

We finished that week with a trip to an American diner. It was incredible. The portions were bigger than the plates. The building, like an oversized jukebox, had a neon red front and the inside felt friendly and welcoming with red booth seats and high pitched chatty waitresses. That weekend, we all went our separate ways – Maimi Florida, Boston, New Orleans, New York, and Trenton. The Camden pilot project was over, and I had to survive two weeks without the group.

That Sunday, the second leg began. I changed lodgings and went to stay in Hillsborough with two rather wonderful families. These two weeks would be spent at the Squad’s headquarters in Trenton. The building was amazing – an old abandoned factory donated by the council. The ceilings were high enough to throw diabolos and feel like they’d never come down, and enough floor space ride unicycles without ever banging in to anyone (anything however, is a slightly different story…)

“Not at home. Definitely alone. Lost in New York.”

I spent two days in New York City. I inevitably began by getting lost and confused and unable to find the right train ticket or platform – something even my 75 year old grandmother is capable of. But in the end I rode the PATH train to NY Penn Station and of course, got lost again. In my attempt to find Time’s Square which was in theory just up the road, I spent an hour wandering around the same three streets. Time’s Square was incredibly busy. I had been warned that New York would be at least ten times busier than I could possibly imagine it to be. That was about right. But it was amazing and bright and shining. There were billboards everywhere and the lights advertising all the theatres and shops lit up even in the midday sun. I wandered through the various chocolate shops and made my way towards Rockafeller Centre, stopping off in the public library and St Patrick’s Cathedral on the way. Rockafeller Centre was much smaller than I thought but still worth the visit, even if it was just to go into the Lego store like the adult that I am…

Afterwards, I headed to Central Park with the intention of finding the zoo. But, I got lost, again (are you noticing a bit of a theme here?) and took the long way around. By the time I had found it, it was due to close in an hour, so I quickly bought my ticket and hurried around the plethora of reptile, bird, and penguin enclosures, giggled at the turtles, and managed to catch a glimpse of the back end of a grizzly bear.

After the zoo, I went to the Museum of Modern Art where I was let in for free because they didn’t recognise my Scottish student ID. Oh dear, what a shame… Over five floors I saw the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, and Van Gogh’s Starry Night. It was definitely worth the free entry.

The next day I took a new friend with me into the city. Our first stop was the 9/11 memorial. We walked down through Battery Park and got the free (yes, FREE!) Staten Island Ferry across the water and right past the Statue of Liberty. Afterwards we had a long trek up to Brooklyn Bridge where we avoided getting hit by cyclists. The bridge made for a great viewpoint of the city; rather than paying $40 to go up the Empire State Building, you get a great, and possibly more authentic feeling view, by crossing the bridge for free. Afterwards we spent a long time looking for a working subway station and headed up to Time’s Square where we visited the Ripley’s Believe it or Not museum. It was fantastic. From the marvellous to the downright weird, there was everything in that museum. Statue of the tallest man in the world? Got it. Train crafted entirely from match sticks? Got it. Hallway made of Cheetos? Got it. The museum was great, and highly recommended.

 

 

The last week finished with a fantastic final show (despite several injuries…) and some incredibly hard to say goodbyes. It’s a little known fact in the circus world that circus is like family. And up until spending a month with some of the most wonderful people I’ve ever met, I don’t think I realised just how true that is. In the hours leading up to leaving for the airport, I was desperately trying to think of any excuse for me to stay. Maybe the dog ate my passport? But the next adventure was waiting just around the corner and the flights were already booked, so I reluctantly got on the plane.

I have to admit, before I left home I was probably the most nervous I’ve ever been in my life. “The other side of the world. By myself. For a whole month!” The entire prospect was terrifying enough that once or twice I considered not going at all. I’m so glad I did. I’ve met people and done things that I won’t ever forget and I’m determined to earn enough money over this year so that I can spend another month next summer with Trenton Circus Squad.

Handsome space rogue: now seeking employment.

 

(I now have a video of the footage I got while I was there too…)

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Picaroons, Parades, and Tripe – The JéMBE Festival 2017 | Monte Compatri, Italy

There’s nothing like a bit of Italian driving to wake you up after nine and a half hours of travelling. I swear traffic lights are just used as road side decoration in that country. But we all survived, all 11 of us, and made it to Monte Compatri ready to start a week at the JéMBE Festival of international theatre and education…

Monte Compatri, which is just outside of Rome, is a small town built almost entirely on a hill.

Advantage: rather incredible views of Rome. Disadvantage: even walking to the ice cream shop was like a fully-fledged gym workout (which, due to the slightly alarming amount of ice cream we must have eaten, was probably a good thing.) Mountain climbing aside, the town itself was lined with cobbled streets, fountains, and yellow houses adorned with shutters, lizards, and greenery. Not a bad place to be spending a week in the sun…

The house we stayed in had two bedrooms; two and a half beds, one shower, one toilet – between ten of us. I think it’s fair to say that boundaries between our group are certainly now a thing of the past.

We were the entertainment for that first night, performing a fire show we’ve been rehearsing for weeks, in the town centre. It was surprisingly well received by the Italian public who out of no-where had a bunch of Scottish misfits spilling kerosene and blaring out bagpipe music in their quaint little square at 9.30pm on a Sunday night. We even ended up in someone’s Facebook live stream – talk about hitting the big time!

Later that night we went to see what would turn out to be one of my favourite parts of the week – a traditional Italian serenade. It felt like half the town was climbing through the narrow streets with hushed voices until we came to a stop outside a tall pale house with two balconies. The unsuspecting maiden inside was about to have her fiancé and his friends sing to her in celebration of their upcoming wedding. The singing began and the crowd fell silent. Eventually she appeared on her balcony and attempted to catch a rose thrown to her by her fiancé. That took a couple of tries and an eventual piggyback but it was all still rather lovely. Soon the crowd joined in whistling and clapping and having fun.

We finished the first day stood on the Belvedere – or ‘beautiful view’. And that it was. The square looks right out over Rome, over the thousands of shimmering lights that could have easily been mistaken for stars that had decided to take up residence on the ground.

Day two. Chased by rabid dogs. Survived. *

The morning started off calmly with croissants, coffee, and fruit juice. Then we trekked down the hill to meet everyone that would be taking part in the festival, play games, and say ciao. We had a group of 12 young people that took part in the stilt workshop we were teaching. Stilts and language barriers are a fun combination. But we didn’t kill anyone so all in all a success.

After lunch we huddled in a shady corner of the park, desperately avoiding the 30 degree heat that would turn us ghostly Scots immediately into scarlet lobsters, and started putting together a routine inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream to perform in the final parade at the end of the week.

* On the subject of the rabid dogs, I partially take responsibility as I feel that had I not been quite so insistent on venturing up a particular street that happened to be their home, they would have perhaps, indeed, left us alone…

The next couple of days of workshops went as planned. Hiding from any direct sunlight, picking up stilt walkers, and repeating “If we shadows have offended” in ever so slightly different tones. We took the stilt walkers a-wandering up to the town and successfully caused a scene. Later on they marched right up to the Belvedere – goodness knows how someone who learnt to walk on stilts 2 days ago manages to walk a mile up a 90 degree hill in the sweltering heat, but I think I speak for all of us when I say we were very impressed.

The day after we taught them two traditional Scottish country dances to perform at the end of the week. They all jumped into it with their best stilt forward and seemed to really enjoy themselves! This was a pleasant contrast to the expectations matching every pupil who is forced to learn them in school. Our Shakespeare routine gradually became more of a performance too and we slowly started to memorise our lines in Italian.

Halfway through the week, we performed our second show – The Blootoon Picaroons! – which is a bouncy pirate show where juggling clubs become bottles of rum, people become pirate ships, and children turn into the Kraken itself when handed water balloons…  The show went  brilliantly, despite a few technical glitches, and it felt great to saunter about in our pirate costumes feeling like we owned the place – right up until the moment where we all got thrown into the fountain and had to climb out chilly and dripping before the audience, but perhaps feeling even more like a pirate… even if it was one who had walked the plank.

We took advantage of the free night after and went in three cars to Lake Albano, a wonderful lake in the top of an extinct volcano, also acting as the view to the Pope’s summer house. As lakes go, this one was quite small which meant that it was actually warm enough to jump into. We spent the next hour splashing about and seeing who could be thrown the furthest. I practiced my doggy paddling.

On the final day of the festival, we did the parade and performances in the afternoon. The stilters did their fantastic Scottish dancing, the clowning workshop made everyone laugh, and we (supposedly the professionals) messed up a juggling routine. Then we climbed up to the Belvedere with about 200 audience members and participants where the puppet and Commedia dell’Arte workshops did their performances overlooking Rome. And then even further up we marched to the Piazza Fanti for the fire, circus, and Shakespeare routines. Everything went brilliantly – even if I did get giggled at for the pronunciation of my Italian lines – and everyone seemed to love our fire routine at the end.

So, festival over, and the next day we ventured into Rome. I’ve done the tourist parts of Rome before, but the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, and the Altare della Patria are the kind of things that are quite incredible no matter how many times you’ve seen them. This time in Rome was different to my last in that we also visited St Peter’s Chapel, which I hadn’t ever seen before. Through the security and past the scary guards who check you’re wearing enough clothes, and through the grand doors of the chapel. The exciting thing was, unlike with the Colosseum or the Trevi Fountain which is pasted all over the internet, I had no idea what to expect from the chapel. I think I spent the first ten minutes of the visit staring, mouth wide open and catching flies. It really was quite mesmerising – all the carvings and paintings and caskets. Luckily for us, there was also a service going on so the eerie sounds of the choir and organ echoed throughout the massive building and drifted around the statues. After they had finished, the priests all calmly walked past and through a door as if there was nothing to see here.

That night we had our final get together and ate dinner with everyone that had been involved in making the festival happen. First off there was a lovely pasta dish that we all wolfed down and hoped there was seconds. There was seconds. But it wasn’t pasta. Tripe. It was tripe. Blech. It was quite a change to the north east fish and chips we’re used to. But I put on a brave face and finished the whole plate. Blech.

The night went on, accordions were played, wine was drunk, songs were sung, and new friends were hugged, all in a little stone building decorated with shields, corn, and a hog’s head. It was nothing like what we would call a community centre here, but I think more so than here, it made you feel like part of a community.

In the end, I think the JéMBE Festival was a huge success and I am so grateful to have gone, taken part, performed, made friends, wondered at the views, and met people that I won’t ever forget. I also managed to eat a few more ice creams than would be recommended – but it was glorious – and I can’t wait to go back next year.

A Small Adventure

The other week, a few friends and I went camping for a night at the beach. Over the two days we were there, I realised that as exciting as the thought of jetting around the world is, no matter how far away from home you are or how long you’re away for, even the smallest of trips can become an adventure.

That weekend we built a campfire, barbecued sausages, climbed the hills, and explored the caves. As daunting as the thought of camping can be, I was surprised at how much I missed the feeling; the smoky smell of burnt wood from the campfire on your clothes, the sound of the waves rolling along the rocks, the warmth of climbing into a sleeping bag at night and being cosy despite the hard ground, constantly having grubby hands and not minding one bit. There’s a carefree air to camping that almost nothing else in the world can provide.

Once I had remembered I’d got my camera with me, I got some footage of what we got up to. I then tried to see how little is actually needed to create a ‘travel video’… (turns out, a mere 5 clips!)

As much as I love exploring and travelling, I also really value having time to recharge. For a while now I’ve been without that wanderlust feeling after my last trip into the big wide world turned out to be a little more taxing than I expected.

But something seemed to click that weekend, and now I’m once again longing for that familiar warm European breeze, and the wonder of being able to have breakfast in Scotland, lunch in the Netherlands, and dinner in France.

Luckily, I’m off to Italy in a couple of weeks! Luckily, because, I think I’m ready for another adventure…

Lights, Camera, Action, and Me

I have been fascinated with the ‘silver screen’ ever since I was little. From the earliest age I would spend as much of my day as I could watching Disney films on VHS tapes instead of playing outside like other kids. I loved how films could transport you to a new world; I could be in the vast green jungle with Mowgli, or exploring under the deepest sea with Captain Nemo.

As I got older I was determined to become an actor. I was that annoyingly geeky kid who would always put abnormal amounts of effort into school plays, memorising everyone else’s lines as well as mine just so I could show off. But I really wanted to act in the blockbusters of Hollywood. Christmas nativity? Pah! My final goal (which seemed doable to an eight year old) was to play the next James Bond. I could see myself flying across the screen in the swanky cars, defeating the bad guys and saving the world…

I then reached high school and opted to take drama as a subject. That was when I realised something that put my dream into perspective: I was a terrible actor. Back to the drawing board!

Despite being a miniature action junkie, I still loved animated comedies. I remember being perched on the edge of the sofa watching ‘Creature Comforts’ with my parents when I was about six years old. Of course, as a six year old, I didn’t quite understand the rules of the Grand National, or really care about what people thought of the current financial situation, but I thought it was really cool how they could make the dogs and cats talk. Wallace and Gromit was another favourite. At nine years old, I got curious and wanted to know how the world worked:

“Dad, how do they make Wallace and Gromit? I mean I know they’re made from clay but how do they move them? You don’t see their hands?”

Naïve little kid that I was. That day, my dad explained to me the idea behind stop motion animation, handed me a camera and a bucket of clay, and like a fish to water, I was hooked. Poor fish.

I made my first short animated film that day and a little while later it was featured on a quiet corner of the CBBC website. My first glimpse of stardom! Or that’s what it felt like to a nine year old anyway. The year after I received a clunky, low-res video camera for Christmas, which at the time, I’m sure was the bee’s knees. It was my absolute favourite thing and went everywhere with me. By this point, I had changed my mind: never mind being an actor, I was going to be the next Steven Spielberg.

I continued making films throughout school and as a friendless nerd who had no one to do it for them, I learnt how to direct, edit, use a camera, edit audio, place lighting, and everything else you need to create a film. Despite this lone wolf approach I’ve had to filmmaking, one of the most fun projects I’ve been involved with was last year when a group of young folk from here, there, and everywhere, worked with a professional filmmaker and a professional dancer to create a short film about our relationship with the city we were in. After an intense week of learning, filming, and being rained on a lot, the team had created ‘OWN’…

One of the greatest things about being involved in making this film was that we were all invited to attend a fancy pants premiere in a proper cinema. It was incredible to see our project on a real cinema screen, and all of our names appear in the credits at the end. I had finally attended my first film premiere and it was amazing.

Now however many years since that first day behind a camera at nine years old, I still make films when I can. I’m slightly limited by time and resources – my main camera is my phone – but my head continues to swim with ideas.

And now I’m off to study Film and Television at university (more on that in a later post) and I can’t wait!

Okay, so in some ways that has felt like a slightly pointless post. The whole time I was writing it I kept thinking ‘and the really useful point I’m trying to get across here is…?’ Honestly, I’m not sure there is one. However, it has perhaps acted as an introduction to a series of potential future posts about making films. Who knows? If nothing else, now you know a little bit more about me. And I have learned to plan posts next time instead of just writing them…

365 Seconds – A Second a Day for a Year | 2016

A year and three months later, this post is finally here! Yay!

It would have been up at the beginning of 2017 but my video software broke in the Christmas holidays just as soon as I’d psyched myself up for the big edit. But now it’s done, uploaded, and waiting for views.

On the first of January 2016, after seeing a similar idea on Facebook, I decided to film one second of video footage every single day for a whole year. So I did. And boy was it harder than I thought it would be. Only filming a second worth of footage sounds like a relatively easy task, and it was. What was difficult was actually remembering to do it and finding something vaguely interesting to film. There were a few times when I would get to the end of the day, about to go to bed, and I suddenly remembered I had completely failed to film anything at all, let along anything interesting (as you will be able to see).

The other thing that was quite tricky was trying not to film things twice. I tried to make sure every shot was unique, but by the time November came around, I had mostly forgotten what I’d filmed in March, a whole 2.102e+7 seconds ago…

One of the things I enjoyed most about making this video was reviewing everything that had happened in 2016 when going through the footage. For many people, 2016 was the year of catastrophes. Meow. But going back through it, it was funny seeing all the great new things that did happen last year…

  • It snowed!
  • I went to Glasgow to see my very good friendly friend
  • I attended the British Juggling Convention
  • I finished school
  • I ate cake
  • I started learning to drive
  • I read a lot of books
  • I went to Italy!
  • I caught up with the family in England
  • I tried sushi
  • I started two new jobs
  • I attended a premiere of a film I worked on in a proper cinema
  • And I got to work with professional filmmakers
  • I went to the Circus Works festival in Edinburgh and met some awesome people
  • One of my best friends started university
  • I was involved with another massive Halloween spectacular
  • I won a bowling game
  • I travelled abroad alone for the first time
  • And I went grape picking in France and got to see some old friends
  • I swung a lot of fire about
  • I had a great Christmas with the family!

And yes, 2016 had its moments: we said goodbye to our dog and Grandad, Trump was elected, and Britain voted to leave the EU. But hey, we live and learn and ultimately came out the other side having been able to eat a lot more comfort cake than we would have done had these things not happened.

Finally, thanking you muchly to all those who appear in the video. Oscars all round. However, if anyone objects to being on screen for a second, do feel free to contact me at: littlemishaps@if-I-remove-you-it-will-spoil-it.com No cake for you…

Anyway, I’m already three months late, and all this waffling isn’t getting anyone to the video any quicker. So here we go. A year of my life in six and a half minutes. I’m not saying it’s going to be interesting, but there’s the occasional giggle worthy clip…

Hoping you enjoyed, dear chums. À bientôt!

Avventure in Italia – Part 2

Back to it. If you ever visit Lake Como, I highly recommend taking advantage of the boat trips that are available all day, every day. For 15 Euros we bought a ticket that gave us unlimited boat travel to seven different places for the day. At 11am we set off from Varenna and made our way across the lake, stopping off and visiting Menaggio, Bellagio, and Lenno. If it weren’t for a slightly late start and getting caught in the biggest thunderstorm I’ve ever experienced, we’d have gone to the other places too. It was interesting to see how the towns around the lake varied in terms of tourism, attractions, and the kind of people you found there. Despite them all being only a ten minute boat ride apart, they were all quite different. Menaggio was a lot more residential than Bellagio which was full of adorable little shops and streets, whereas Lenno was quite open and had some fancy gardens and fountains (including the villa where parts of Star Wars and James Bond were filmed!). It was on our trip to Menaggio that I discovered the most amazing ice cream imaginable. It was dark chocolate but was more like frozen fudge cake than ice cream. That became my flavour for the rest of the trip.

One of the highlights of it all was the 2 days we spent in Rome. We were up at 6am to catch a train to Milan, and then three hours on a high speed train the rest of the way. Unfortunately Rome is another one of those places where the train station is miles away from the touristy bits but it was great getting to experience the hustle and bustle of daily life in the city on the walk down. Although we did almost get run over several times. Eventually we reached civilisation and witnessed what was probably the funniest thing we saw on the whole trip: a pigeon with a cake wrapper on its head. Okay, so maybe you had to be there, but believe me, it was funny. (And I conveniently have a clip of it in the video below if you want a giggle!) We emerged into the Piazza Venicia which was full of columns and archways and the Altare della Patria in the background. For those of you who don’t know what that is, (I had to Google the name) it’s basically a giant memorial built with blazing white stone and adorned with columns and stairs and statues of horses and chariots. Armed guards stood around and whistled at you if you tried to sit on the steps. We also visited the Capitoline Hill (Campidoglio), – where we posed with statues and embarrassed each other – The Roman Forum (Foro Romano), saw a statue of Romulus, Remus, and the wolf, and wandered down the Via dei Fori Imperiali in the sweltering heat, gawking at the street performers along the way. Eventually we arrived at the other end and found the Colosseum. And oh wow – to put it plainly. We stood before this massive ancient building, full of history and stories, and were completely taken aback by its size and structure and stonework and general amazingness. This is another one of those Milan Cathedral moments when something is just so incredible and well known that words don’t really work anymore. Here’s a picture instead…

We slowly made our way back to the train station, passing the Pantheon, a souvenir shop, the Trevi Fountain, and the oldest ice cream parlour in Rome – Giolitti. We hopped on our train and made our way to Frascatti, and then on to Monte Compatri where we stayed with two wonderful, kind friends for the night. We had homemade carbonara for dinner which turned out to be the best meal we had in Italy.

The next day we made our way back to Fiumelatte after warm hugs and goodbyes. The rest of the trip was mainly spent paddling in the lake, walking up mountains, and eating ice cream and pizza. You get how that’s done so I’ll stop here. Thank you for sticking with me this far if you are indeed still reading the second part of this rather long set of posts. Anyway, my dear fellows, if you ever get the chance, go to Italy, any part of it. Just experience the culture, the food, the language, and the amazing people. I came back with a love for espressos and memories I will never forget.

Finally, here is a video I made with some of the footage I got while I wasn’t too busy staring in amazement or eating ice cream. It’s a little shaky but it still gives you a bit of an idea of what we got up to…

Avventure in Italia – Part 1

“Benvenuti a bordo di questo volo Easyjet,” my ears pricked up at the sound of the cabin tannoy. I’m going to Italy… and I hadn’t even realised it until now!

This also wasn’t the best moment to pick to get excited – having been squeezed into a sardine can that was now taxiing along the runway at however many miles an hour, and will soon be thousands of feet above any ground that would be suitable for an excited teenager to be jumping up and down on.

Excitement contained, we landed about two hours later. I stepped out of the plane and was immediately hit with that longed for warm European air. It has the same familiarity as the very British smell of rain on dry tarmac. But this one makes me think of adventure and discovering new things – not sitting inside sipping tea.

We made our way through Milan Malpensa and reached the other end where we were met by a friendly taxi driver holding a sign with our name on it (that was quite cool…) He didn’t speak much English but we were able to communicate through enthusiastic giggles. He drove us to our hotel, and for a terrifying moment I forgot they drive on the opposite side of the road. We arrived at the hotel and were met with locked gates and dark windows. It looked a little like those hotels in horror movies where everyone is gradually picked off one by one, leaving the last person to shut themselves in the cupboard until morning. However, we were pleasantly surprised when we got inside. We had two rooms, and the bed in one of them was about 5 times the size of me. No murderers in the cupboards. And the night was cold and sounded of crickets. Sleep took its time as we waited for morning to arrive and the next leg of the adventure to begin.

We woke at what felt like the crack of doom and hurriedly packed away our pyjamas and made our way downstairs to catch the shuttle bus. We arrived back at the airport and spent a lot of time being lost. Much confusion, a helpful Italian lady, and an hour’s bus ride later, we arrived in Milan and started heading what we thought was towards the cathedral. After half an hour walking down the same street we thought we must be close. Fools! Over the next 10 days we would learn that in Italy, the exciting things are almost always miles and miles away from the convenient train stations.

The first place we found that was worth a wander off the route to the cathedral was a couple of rather quintessentially Italian streets, full of greenery and lovely buildings and the occasional old bicycle. It turned out that this was also where I would feel the most out of place in my whole life. As I plodded along with my 20 ton back pack and a very sweaty t shirt that almost certainly didn’t go with my shorts, I realised that everyone around me was impeccably dressed from head to toe. Each shop door was guarded by a man in a suit who presumably wouldn’t let you in if you looked like you’d have to ask how much something cost. We were surrounded by designer shops and with no confidence to go inside anywhere, we stared in astonishment at the hats and watches in the windows that would set you back sums of money that most people (including us) could only dream of.

Finally we found il Duomo di Milano – it sort of gets to a point when you can’t miss it. The meticulously carved 14th century stonework (although only completed in 1965) towers over the more recent buildings in the city, completely taking centre stage with its amazing detail and sheer amount of carvings, statues, and patterns. The cathedral is just so huge and spectacular, it’s actually quite hard to describe in writing. This was the second time I had seen it, and still I stared open mouthed and wide eyed. We paid nine Euros to climb the 254 stairs to the roof where we could gaze over the city and marvel at the incredible architecture from a new angle. The sun shone and bounced off the white marble floors so brightly I had to spend a lot of time with my eyes closed.

We arrived at Varenna-Esino Station, Lake Como in the afternoon; there we were met by Franco. He was a slightly odd chap but a lot of that possibly came from the fact we couldn’t communicate very well with each other, and he had just realised he was about to rent out his beloved lake side house to 5 bouncy teenagers. “Very young,” was the first, and possibly the last thing he said to us. He drove us (frighteningly quickly) to what would be our home for the next 10 days.

Our house was in Fiumelatte – meaning milky river – home of the river of the same name. It got its name from the fact the water rushes down the mountain so fast it appears a milky white colour. The river is so fast because it’s so short (roughly 250m!) – The shortest river in Italy.

Fiumelatte itself was a beautiful little town nestled at the bottom of the mountains, full of tall quirky buildings of all different colours. With only one restaurant, and a couple of little fresh bread and fruit shops, it’s a relatively quiet place and perfect for being able to step out your front door and straight into the lake with only a couple of fish and friendly ducks and coots to share the water with. No matter where you were you could look out across the shimmering lake at the neighbouring towns and villages, or at the mountains that guard the water in every direction.

The closest town to us was a one and a half mile walk either back along the road path or through the mountains. On our first trip to Varenna, we took the mountain path and nearly stepped on a snake. Which was rather exciting given that tends to be an impossible thing to do here in Scotland. We explored little cobbled streets, full of greens, and yellows, and reds. The sun seemed to make every colour even more intense than normal and the lake look as if it was full of thousands of little stars reflecting in the light. In the centre, down at the water’s edge, there were bars and restaurants, ice cream shops and places full of handmade little trinkets. Of course, we made a beeline for one of the ice cream shops and bought our first ice cream of the trip – mango and passion fruit. Yuuuum.

That night, we had still failed to find a supermarket so walked back to Varenna and had pizza at what was to become our favourite restaurant: Bar il Molo. The friendly, helpful staff spoke perfect English and were really interested to know where we were from and how long we’d be staying. If anyone plans to visit Varenna in the near future, I recommend getting a table next to the lake at Bar il Molo and spending the evening with one of their pizzas.

One of the things I now miss most about Italy was the wildlife. Okay, so we didn’t see any bears or wolves, but what we did see still felt excitingly unusual compared to the hundreds of seagulls and sheep in the north east. There were loads of fish of all different types and sizes swimming about in the lake. Sometimes they’d come right up to the shore where our house was. Along with the ducks, bats, and coots there was also the occasional huge bird of prey including black kites and eagles. Then there was the snake incident. But my favourite was the Italian Wall Lizard, or Run Lizard in some places. The funny scaly little critters were covered in bright colours and patterns. They would often come and sit next to me on the rock when I was down at the beach and sit so still it would take me a while to realise they weren’t part of the rock. I never did catch one. They could run faster than I could blink. But they were fascinating to watch and were generally good at posing for photos. Finally, one of the most mesmerising things I saw in Italy, were fireflies. I had never seen them before and to start I had no idea what I was looking at. There was one night we went for a walk up the mountain in the pitch darkness (sounds intelligent doesn’t it) and on the way back we stopped where the railway tracks meet the path. We stared down the tunnel of black in sheer wonder. Thousands of fireflies were dancing and flickering like a galaxy of stars for as far as we could see…

However, this post is becoming a little long, so check back tomorrow for part two!