North Korea, or the DPRK I should say

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This post is simply about my time in the DPRK. I never saw hardship up front, nor did I visit any of the notorious labour camps.

School Concert, Pyongyang, DPRK, October 2017

Sometimes I think I haven’t learnt anything new about North Korea after spending six days there. Since we’re back in France the question we’re consistently asked is, are the people happy? The Koreans I met seemed to be, but they were also extremely talented in talking in circles, leaving me always unsure about what was real or not. I never really figured out what our guides felt about anything. And, the guides were the only Koreans we had any long conversation with.

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I actually had stopped telling people I was going to visit North Korea before I left, partly because I was doubting our decision to visit when Little Rocket Man and the Dotard were ratcheting up the warlord rhetoric, but mainly because every reaction I met with was loaded with moral judgement. Either we were immature to go to a country on the brink of war, or it was morally irresponsible to be giving money to a bloody dictator.  Of course we had considered the ethicality of going there but concluded, as we always do, visit before you judge. Constant newsreels on a nuclear war, pressure from family and friends and the long detailed emails from our tour operator on what to do and not to do, stressed me before leaving. I was afraid of saying the wrong thing, which after a few beers everyone knows, I’m very good at. JF’s unadulterated excitement about going didn’t make me feel any more at ease, it just irritated me.

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Going through passport control and customs makes me nervous anywhere I am, but seeing the huge serving dish military hats, which communist countries are partial to, sitting precariously on small, slight heads with frowning faces made me stand up straight and keep a respectful manner. My soldier stamped my visa card after a few silent minutes (understanding the difficulty having a DPRK stamp on your passport could cause in the future, they kindly leave it blank). Behind me I heard JF and his custom’s guy laughing together. How do you pronounce your name? Jea Frrrancoi. Ok Jea. No, it’s Jea Frrrancoi, it’s very French I know, JF says in his best French-English accent. I look over my shoulder and the serving dish hat is nearly falling off the soldier’s head as he tries to pronounce JF’s name in mirth, Ja Fa Ca. I instantly relax. People are people. Our phones were taken for an hour to be checked, though I doubt they were. Our bags were opened and questions asked about the books we were taking in with us.

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Two hours after getting off one of the three planes in the North Korean Air Koryo company, a Russian tupolev plane, we were put onto a small bus with 6 other tourists, two guides and a driver. Apart from the cigarettes we were told to buy the driver, he didn’t really play a big part in our experience, until the last night. We visited the second brewery of our trip and we invited the driver in for a beer. At least 4 pints later he drove us back to our hotel, proving yet again, the wise and grumpy Australian was right when he surmised our driver had the face of a secret drinker.

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The Australian was the oldest in our group, beating JF by only 3 years, and I called him the cynic. It’s probably for that reason I was drawn to him. At least there was one other person who lost patience after five minutes in yet another war museum. It would be fair to say, that these very sophisticated memorials to the DPRK’s history played liberally with the truth. We spent a few hours in one such museum where we were told that the Americans, not the North Koreans, started the war in 1950. There was a Danish couple, very nice and respectful people, who were just as difficult as the Korean guides to read and who I called the parents. Because, when we were in Kaesong, they were given a room like a suite, while myself and JF were in a tiny room next door. There was the Argentinian, who I called the ideological teenager. A firm believer in socialism, especially with a South American twist. A handsome guy, with an easy smile who was late all the time and was lost in some situations. He signed up for dog soup, only to find out too late that it wasn’t duck soup like he thought he had heard. At every meal he’d ask JF to try all the green stuff to see if the vegetables were edible; another reason why I called him the teenager and JF the child. And the Croatians. The only name I have for them is that. Croatians. For me, they epitomized all my preconceived notions of people from the Balkans, serious faces that look extremely unfriendly at first sight, but soon break up in a hearty laugh. They were kind, ironic and drank a lot of beer, even more than JF and I. We even left them drinking a few nights when we went to bed. Unusual but it happens.

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We had two female guides, we’ll call them The Boss and The Deputy. There are a good few tour operators working within the DPRK and here’s how it works, I think. They find the tourists and hand them over to a driver and at least two guides. We presume there are always two guides to keep an eye on each other. The DPRK tourist board gives a list of suitable must-sees of which the operators choose from, depending on the group and the time the group has. We were told by our tour operator that if we were well behaved and do as the guides say, there was a good chance they would relax by the end and we could get a more candid insight into life in the DPRK. Both guides were extremely firm, cross even the first two days. Our schedules were busy as we had a lot of patriotic monuments and museums to visit, it probably didn’t help that the Argentinian was always late and got lost quite often. The panic on the Boss’s face when we were all squashed into the metro, waiting for the doors to snap closed when she saw the Argentinian absentmindedly looking at the mural of the General (Kim Jong-il), oblivious to the fact, or maybe not, that the rest of the group was on the train to the next station. We were allowed to visit three stations, and passed through another three stations. The Boss screamed from the train for him to hurry. He just made it. I think we all wondered what would have happened if one of the group had been left alone, without a guide, for any period of time. I suppose the Boss would not be a guide anymore. JF started talking to some young guy he was pressed up against on the train and the Boss did not take her eyes off the two during the short stilted conversation. Maybe she was worried JF would slip him a bible or a usb key, we’re not sure.

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When we were taking the deep escalators up and out of the station, our group stood one behind the other in a line to the right, leaving the left side for those in a hurry. The Deputy told us to come closer to listen to her and laughed when we didn’t move. You don’t need to stand in a line she said a little exasperated, it’s forbidden to move on the escalators anyway. We spilled out into the dark and cold night where our bus was waiting to take us to another restaurant that evening. We were always taken to restaurants where tourists were allowed and where other tour buses were parked outside. Chinese and other nationalities doing the same controlled pilgrimage as ourselves. The food was always fine, fresh and wholesome, but a little bland. We had to do our own cooking at times, which I liked. We barbecued our own duck and the side dishes of kimchi, rice and pickled vegetables were tasty.

What made that meal stand out was the wine. We had been taken to a supermarket (co-owned with the Chinese) earlier. It was packed with Pyongyangers perusing everything from noodles to cookies to tents and electric bicycles. The guides made sure we left our phones and cameras on the bus, it wouldn’t do to have photos of good socialists in a capitalist frenzy of consumerism. The Croatians and ourselves stocked up on beer and I noticed a very expensive carton of Spanish wine that I couldn’t resist. It was my third week without wine after all. I was delighted to have the Australian and the Argentinian to share it with me, as the ‘out of order’ French man drank his beer.

Cold noodle soup is the country’s specialty. Buckwheat noodles in a clear cool broth that’s mixed with spring onions and chilli paste. We were served an array of dishes with every meal, cucumber salad, rice noodles, dried seaweed, deep-fried chicken, stewed pork to name a few. Every meal was served with rice and beer. One evening we made our own individual hotpots. We all had our own burner with a saucepan of stock bubbling on it and we were told when we should toss in our cabbage, bacon, tofu and chillies. The cooking of it was more fun than the eating of it. I always found it difficult to imagine that the skinny Koreans I saw on the street ate as much as we were given at mealtimes.

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It was night when we drove into Pyongyang for the first time and it was the darkness and the silence that impressed me. Not at first, like adjusting your eyes to the dark, it took me some time to realise that this city was not like I was used to. Huge, soviet-style boulevards were lined with pastel coloured high rise apartments, clean and organised looking. There were lights on inside, but it seemed as if the bulbs were of a very low wattage. The few street lights lit up statues of the great leaders. Not many cars illuminated the night either. The government owns all the cars and taxis and only a few special citizens are given a car of their own. But it was the lack of flashing neon signs, stark florescent shop lights and gaudy advertising that caused the real disorientation.

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The absence of a commercial buzz was a relief at the beginning, but soon the heavy statues of social realism and the glitzy cult of the great leaders began to have the same oppressing effect as western consumerism. When we drove in the dark to Kaesong, we presumed we were driving through the empty countryside, only to see the next day as we drove home that many villages were wedged between communal paddy fields. We didn’t see them because there was no electricity. Only a handful of cars passed us. But on each side of the wide highway men, women and children, often on the same bike, were cycling two lanes deep.

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The countryside guesthouse we stayed in Kaesong was built in the traditional style. A complex of individual square, low houses built around a courtyard with a persimmon tree in the middle, and a river running through the houses. We all slept on thin mattresses on the heated floors. We were allowed to walk in the town’s streets the next day, which surprised us. Even though the Boss stayed in front and the Deputy guarded us from behind, it was more freedom than we had expected. We were taken to the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) later that day. We lined up with 4 other tourist buses before entering with an army man in our bus. It felt like entering a museum and not the 38th parallel that divides two ideologies at a constant face-off. People gave cigarettes to soldiers to shake their hands and vied for photos with them. It was farcical. (JF didn’t give any cigarettes for his handshake. The Boss told the soldier that JF was a soldier too. He did a year’s military service in France working as a doctor, and sailing…). Suddenly receiving the first text message in days in the DMZ affected me more deeply. Getting a signal from South Korea, two miles away, highlighted how cut off the DPRK is from the outside world.

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Arriving back into Pyongyang the next day, JF asked the Boss why there were queues of people at a checkpoint entering the city. After gentle probing it was understood that not everyone is allowed into the city. Of the 25 million North Koreans, only 2.5 million live in the capital. The regime tries to keep the poverty to the countryside, and to areas tourists are not allowed to visit. Of course the Boss never gave any information in a direct manner. I learned to decipher what was meant by what was not said, but by the end I was losing patience and stopped asking altogether. JF, on the other hand, as stoic and as stubborn as ever, flirted with The Boss and she finally succumbed to his charm and opened up to him.  Every day she’d say to me, you are so lucky to have such a generous and charming husband. I barely contained myself from laughing out loud and setting her straight, but I bit my tongue and swallowed one for the group.

When I think back to our week in the DPRK now, it’s the colour red that comes first to mind. Bright red party flags bellowing against an overcast sky, the sickle, hammer and paintbrush symbolizing the regime’s faith in Juche, a belief in the hard work and self-reliance of the society. Red sticks out too in my memory against the somber colours of the people. The streets swarmed with uniformed officials, brown, black and blue. The men generally wore the same type of slacks and an army-style jacket, not unlike the Mao suit, in dark colours. Some women wore brighter clothes, but again, red or pink is what  I remember them wearing. At tourist attractions the women were quite often in traditional dresses, bright  satin puffs that fell from a big bow at the breast.

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It appeared as if everyone was in uniform. Even university students wear different shawls to indicate what profession they study. Every morning groups of women and men gather at street intersections and create a brass band. They sing and play to motivate all workers on their way to work. It was between six and seven in the morning when we looked on from our bus, amazed at their motivation, or perhaps their fear of not being motivated enough. When we were reluctantly taken to the top of the Juche Tower we looked down on Kim Il-sung square where around 60,000 students and workers were practising a synchronized dance for the 30th of October, Party Foundation Day, a national holiday to celebrate the founding of the workers’ party in 1945. From high above the city it was mesmerizing to watch thousands of people below forming lines and circles in unison. When we went to the square to see them up close, we were amazed by the order and discipline. To think one man with a loud speaker was conducting so many people to dance choreographically, left us in no doubt again as to the control the authorities had over the people.

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60,000 people rehearsing for the Party Foundation Day, Pyongyang, DPRK

Also looking down on all the loyal citizens marching to the beat in the square were the two ubiquitous paintings of The Great Leader Kim Il-sung and The Great General Kim Jong-il. Their well-fed pudgy faces smile down on their people from all public buildings. The present leader, The Great Marshal Kim Jong-un has successfully carried on the tradition of creating a cult like reverence towards him and his forefathers. Since he came to power, the number of statues and paintings have increased. I never once sensed any irony from our guides when they talked about the leaders. When we had a picnic and drank some rice wine with a family in a park, the grandmother toasted reunification with South Korea and dared America to attack. As she sang with her face and chopsticks raised into the air, her family cheered her on. The Deputy translated what she said: we don’t want to attack any country but we are ready and strong enough if Trump attacks us. JF noticed that they didn’t drink to the great leader. Was that a sign of a lack of respect, or are the great leaders too sacred to drink to? We’re not sure.

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Singing and dancing in the park, Pyongyang, DPRK,

When we visited The Great Leader and The Great General lying in state, the Boss asked if the mummified Moa Zedong and his mausoleum were as elaborate as her great leaders. We assured her that neither Mao, Ho Chi Minh or Lenin were as well preserved as the Kims lying in the middle of Pyongyang. An email we received while in China informed us that JF would need to have a shirt and tie if we wanted to visit the mummies. No tie, no entry. We were once again told to leave all our possessions in the bus, no scarves were allowed and we had to be formally dressed. We walked for an hour through corridors lined with photos of the leaders being met by foreign dignitaries or visiting the people. The Deputy took four of us in a line in front of Kim Il-sung and with a seriousness that made me want to giggle, gestured for us to deep bow in front of the corpse. A small figure, white skin and dark hair lay wrapped in red velvet and was encased in glass. The lighting and the speed with which we had to bow and circle the body, made it difficult to make out any details. The Deputy then led us to the side and we did it again. We passed around the back of the body, no bowing allowed from this angle and we bowed for the third time at the other side, before being ushered out. There were queues of people, North Koreans and tourists alike, performing the ritual. We did the same performance for Kim Jong-il, walked more cold corridors adorned with photos, before finally spilling out onto the square in front of the mausoleum. There was a sense of relief in our group then. We all looked at each other in such a way as to say, we didn’t mess up or laugh out loud, because we later told each other that’s exactly the urge we had all tried to suppress.

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As the bus was taking us to the train station on the last day, where we’d get the train to Beijing, JF turned to me and said, it’s probably just as well we’re leaving now. Why, I asked. We’re becoming too relaxed, he said, and that’s when silly mistakes could get us into trouble. It was true. Each night in the revolving bar, on the top floor of our hotel (one of the two hotels where tourists are allowed to stay), our tongues became loser. We all agreed, as a group, that our rooms were probably bugged but that didn’t stop us from speaking more freely as each day passed. It was time to leave. Time to go back into my own world, steeped in its own sophisticated propaganda.

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Malawi and Mozambique: today the adventure begins

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I’ve avoided going to Africa until now. I’ve always found it condescending how people gush about the lovely people and how simple life is. Apart from the fact that these friends are westerners questioning their own comforts and caprices, they are nice people, the type who see the good in everyone. Frankly, I’m too cynical, and often look over a kind person’s shoulder in search of the hidden snag. And so, I was afraid that, unlike JF, who falls into the former category, I’d be disappointed. Worse still, I was afraid to be proven right. Neither happened. I’m back at home for a few weeks now and exotic memories warm the cold French winter, but I am contented to know that the Africans I met, regardless of their poverty, are as good and as bad as the rest of us.

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On our first night in Lilongwe we booked a reasonable hotel. I wanted to be eased in slowly. It was the only thing we’d reserved, apart from flights, before we landed. The Lonely Planet mentioned a bar called Harry’s, and considering that’s the name of my local pub at home in Donegal, we had no choice but to go there. The taxi took us to a barn, in what seemed to me the outskirts of the town, but which was the centre. I never really got a feel for the city. We were staying in the old centre apparently, but it was a pell-mell of eighties style malls. We hoisted ourselves up on the bar stools and asked for two greens (Carlsberg). If there’s one thing myself and JF are very good at, it’s figuring out the best and cheapest local beer. I asked the black man behind the bar if he was Harry. He laughed and pointed to a tall, skinny and formidable white man on our side of the bar. ‘French and Irish, that’s a complicated combination!’ Harry winked and turned the TV on to the Ireland vs All Blacks game. ‘If the Irish win you can buy me a whisky’. They didn’t and he bought us plenty of gin and tonics. Malawi makes a good gin and hence the night became like a dream, where I was sitting on an armchair outside watching JF and his new friends roaring with mirth. I found it difficult to move my bones never mind my lips.

 

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The next morning, pushing scrambled eggs around my plate, I was surprised and a little anxious when the waitress handed me a slip of paper with Harry’s name and number on it. ‘Good Morning Madame. Harry will be here at midday to take you for lunch.’ ‘Quoi?’ I looked wide-eyed at JF. I had no memory of making any such arrangements. ‘Ah oui, ba oui, I forgot to tell you. He’s taking us for lunch.’ Harry collected us in his pickup and took us to The Duck Inn about an hour outside Lilongwe. He kindly shared a magnum of French wine with the party, which was magnanimous of him, considering he recounted how I called him an arrogant English man the night before. We ended the evening with Rita and Philippe, finishing off every last bottle of alcohol they had and Rita trying, and failing, to show me how to dance like an African.

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‘Today the adventure begins’ was our mantra from that day on to our last. And the mornings usually began like this:

‘Is there a bus to Senga Bay today?’

‘Yes, there’s a bus to Senga Bay.’

‘Great, what time does it leave?’

‘Oh sometime.’

‘Does it leave at 10am?’

‘No. Before that.’

‘What time?’

‘It’s left already.’

All we knew was that we needed to get from A to B, but how was always a mystery. As JF well noted, nothing seems to work as scheduled but there’s always a plan B, especially if you can pay for it. Malawi, as the distances are short and the roads are in good condition, is a good introduction to Africa, as all the guide books said. The first few days in minibuses and matolas were a novelty for me, but after hours of cramped traveling with no control over our timetable it soon began to wear off.

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The minibus system is efficient, if you’re not in a hurry. It only leaves when it’s packed with people sitting, standing or slumping. The longest day travelling on the same chapas was from Lichinga to Cuamba in Mozambique. The night before had been one of our wilder nights, we went to bed at 10pm. While JF was looking for the shortest queue to get cash from an ATM I ended up talking to a prisoner officer and his friend. They asked us if we needed a drink, we looked thirsty they said. We got into their car and they took us to a secret little bar in the back streets of Lichinga; Philamon did not want to be spotted drinking in his uniform. From there, he and Symitone took us to see the airport (we still don’t understand why), a basketball game, an insult competition and dinner in another bar. JF took part in the insult combat and he was surprisingly good. Arguing with me for the last many years has obviously paid off! It was Philamon’s aunt or cousin or mother, her status changed with every beer, who cooked. Grilled juicy chicken, matapa (cassava leaves in spicy peanut sauce) and xima, a mushy white cassava-based staple. That was generally all we ate in Mozambique but it was always fresh and mostly tasted very good.

 

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The next morning therefore was a little difficult at five o clock. We walked for an hour on the red rusty roads of the city looking for the bus station. I asked directions at every corner as JF pretended he wasn’t with me, which was pointless considering we hadn’t seen any other white people in days. I was convinced everyone was sending us on a wild goose chase. ‘Where is the bus station please?’ and whoever I asked flipped a hand, lazily, one way or the other and said ‘that way.’ We found the station without as much as walking one hundred metres in excess, JF pointed out with an annoyingly knowing smile. He reminded me again that I needed to trust people.

We sat on the chapas from 6am to 8am, waiting for it to fill up. Outside the driver and his conductor were hawking for customers, shouting the destination and the price. The sun was coming up and the dusty heat was beginning to make the eyes water. Young children sold soft drinks and doughnuts; bananas and mangos through the open windows. The conductor packed chickens and ducks under our feet and strapped bags to the roof. No-one seemed to care that we were the only white people on the bus. When the bus for fifteen people was filled with about forty-five we took off at a fierce speed on dirt roads for the next seven hours. I had a young mother breast feeding her son beside me. We were so close the child’s head would fall on my lap and her elbow jabbed my ribs with every bump. My knees were wedged like intertwined fingers with the man in front of me. Nobody seemed to mind so I tried to relax. I looked over at JF who gets a sore back driving ten minutes to work and he looked serenely ahead of him. ‘Since when have you become so damn patient’ I growled.  ‘I’m not patient, I’m stoic’, he replied. I wanted to hit him, and after the long and painful trip, I probably did, verbally. Another reason I wasn’t so keen on going to Africa was that JF had been to many countries on the continent before with his ex-partner. It’s bad enough spending hours on a cramped minibus with someone who starts every sentence with, ‘the last time I was in Africa….’, but having him babbling about stories with his ex-wife became too much in the hot and smelly heat.

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We travelled many days and hours in such buses, some journeys were harder than others depending on the seats and the amount of passengers. We took bikes, motorbikes, boats, trucks and pick-ups. We even ended up in an ambulance when we needed a taxi.

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The most stressful adventure for JF was in a small fishing boat across Lake Malawi (50 nautical miles), which is ironic considering he crossed the Atlantic in a sailing boat. I wasn’t stressed at all. It was Nkhata Bay and the ferry we had planned to take to the other side was not running that day as we had thought. It was broken too, so it wasn’t clear if we’d ever get the ferry. On the lakeshore beach we saw the fishermen coming in from their night fishing and went to ask around for a lift. Two young guys bargained a price and we said we’d think about it, so we went for a beer. I wasn’t too keen on them, they were already steaming drunk on gin at nine in the morning. Soon word spread around the village that two mzungus (white people) needed to cross the lake. Different boatmen came to us at the bar to offer their boat and their services. We had become interviewers looking for the right candidate. I had a good feeling about Frank and his son Winston and so we arranged to meet them at our hotel to talk about a price. At this point I believed JF and I were of like mind regarding the plans. They came, we gave them half the money for petrol and arranged that they’d come and collect us at four the next morning.

‘Did you see the boat Úna?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Did you notice it was full of water?’

‘Yeah.’

‘And you’re not nervous about crossing an empty lake for seven hours in it tomorrow, with those guys?’

‘Na.’

‘I don’t understand you at all sometimes. You get nervous with me when we sail but you’d go anywhere with those guys.’

‘Yes.’

‘Really? Just like that?’

‘I never used to be nervous sailing with you at the beginning either. And then I got to know you.’

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They arrived at six, by which time I was losing my nerve. We had to then wait till nine until the ATM worked again before setting of. The crossing was pleasant. We read and slept and swam and talked. JF woke up every two hours to bail out the water, I was glad he did, but Frank and Winston didn’t seem to notice. I hadn’t realised that we all had been a little nervous until we got closer to Likoma Island. The relief of seeing our destination and waving to a few fishermen in hollowed out trunks, the first we’d seen in hours, was palpable. Winston started to joke around, the serious Franck cracked the odd smile and JF started to talk again. As usual, we hadn’t booked the hotel that we had read was on the island and so we were delighted to see a friendly face behind the hut bar on the lakeshore.

‘Hello my friends. Where did you come from today?’

‘Nkhata Bay, the other side of the lake.’

‘Really?’ and he tried not to laugh ‘On that boat?’

‘Yes! On that boat,’ JF nearly roared and ordered two beers.

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It really felt like we had reached paradise, the adventure accentuating the pleasure. Our room was a little hut by the water. We swam by sunset and snorkelled before our breakfast in the morning. It was our last night in Malawi and the electricity went off at 8ish like it had done every night. It didn’t matter. We were used to going to bed early by then and we had a candle lit spaghetti Bolognese dinner on the shore with the other guests who were also mzungus. That night, in crispy clean sheets and guarded from mosquitos with a high falling net, I tried to articulate my feelings about Malawi to JF. It’s a poor country and when we were there people were going hungry, for the want of water. The rainy season takes longer and longer to come and when it does it often results in floods. Many of the hotels we stayed in were of a high standard, run by white people for white people. The beaches and the prime land is bought by expats or white Africans, many of whom we met, it seemed to me, luxuriated in a sense of superiority. I took JF’s silence to mean he was enthralled by my rant and I waited impatiently to hear what he had to say. I looked over at him lying flat on his back, his hands rising softly with his snoring chest. I elbowed him roughly, by accident, before falling asleep to the sound of the Malawi lake water lapping for the last time.

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Tosh in Senga Bay, a friendly and audacious young father, had explained the selling of land to us. Until recently the tribal chief distributed the land among his people, or to outsiders who proved their worth in the community. Now however, the chiefs are offered an unrefusable sum of money by foreigners that they sell off the land, leaving local people with nowhere to live. Tosh shook his head with regret as he was telling us this, but conceded also that he makes some money himself acting as an intermediary between buyer and seller. We sat on small seats on the dusty road drinking our greens in the local bar. Tosh had just taken us around the long tables by the lake where shoals of tiny fish, usipa, are left to dry. All passer-by’s stopped to have a look at the TV before the electricity cut for the night, kids wanted their photos taken and my e-cigarette was the funniest thing they had ever seen. I agreed with them, all I wanted myself was a real smoke.

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In Cóbuè, the first village we stayed in Mozambique, on Lake Malawi, didn’t look that different from across the water. Later walking around, we noticed a grand but neglected church in a square, an echo of a not so distant colonial past. Thick electricity poles crisscrossed the scorched earth, again a subtle but important difference between the two countries. There was a street with shanty shops blaring music late into the dark, selling sweets, vegetables and hardware goods. There was no running water though and the next day, seeing a teacher waving her stick at a rowdy crowd of kids under a tree hit home. The children were bare footed and some had swollen bellies from malnutrition. We sat awhile as if we too were in class, getting nervous we’d be asked something difficult. A 4×4 whizzed past and covered the whole scene in a cloud of red dust.  Maybe the discernible gap between rich and poor was what put me always slightly on edge in Mozambique. People seemed less shy accosting us for money and at times others tried to do us out of a few dollars. When we confronted them though, they’d smile and pat us on the back telling us not to worry.

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Mozambique Island too was full of contradictions. Only us and the odd scraggly cat wandered the Stone Town, on the north of the island. This was once the administrative capital of the country which the palace, the fort and the oldest European church on the continent give credence to. Apart from the musty grandeur of the past the town was dead. Makuto Town on the south, in contrast, was moving to the beat of a busy everyday life. Fishermen shouted out the price of their colourful fish on the beach while punters bantered them down to their own prices. Children walked with plates of samosas and fruit on their head. They walked silently but seemed to sell with their eyes. A wink and a nod and the deal was done. Women pounded maize between houses in the dark alleys with ferocious energy, or maybe anger.

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We had dinner on the island with Sara and Jimmy, a Portuguese woman and her Mozambican boyfriend. Her mother was a schoolteacher there before moving back to Portugal. Education was bought and not earned she explained, which breeds corruption. The droughts of recent years were not the only cause of the lack of food. Her boyfriend remained silent as she told of how he voted in the last election. Before leaving in the morning he was going to vote for the new guy who was going to change the system, but when he came back he admitted he had voted for the status quo. ‘Not only the family but the extended family rule how business is still done. Jimmy’s cousin was presiding over the casting votes and warned him that if he didn’t vote for the ruling class his life would be made difficult’. ‘Life is tough enough,’ she said, and ‘so what can you expect?’ ‘One thing leads to the next’ she continued, ‘people use mosquito nets to fish now because they can’t afford the real ones. The problem is that they catch all the small fish leaving no food for the big fish. There isn’t even enough fish to eat anymore.’

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Our last night in Maputo exploded in an electric storm, the likes of which I’d never seen before. We stepped off the sidewalk into a dingy little bar, a street or two behind the fort, just before the torrents of rain started. It was the cheapest, but worst beer we’d had in Mozambique. ‘Nevertheless Úna, the girls at the table beside us were very friendly’ JF commented. ‘Indeed’ and I shook my head in disbelief. It was only later, as we huddled in doorways to shelter from the storm JF noticed that the only other souls out were women in short skirts and knee-high boots. They wondered if he wanted to come in from the rain. They were very friendly indeed.

I haven’t become one of those people who, after spending two weeks in Africa, come home declaring their lives have changed. The ground didn’t tremble the moment I pressed my foot into the dry soil. Nor did spending time in the company of many friends we met, who were full of joy and humour despite their hard lives, make me want to change anything about my own. But it is true; I have a desire to go back again. Apart from their recent colonial history, not so different from my own, which is only a blip in their long narrative, there is a myriad of cultures and traditions and languages which are exotically colourful compared to mine. When I was there I felt like I was drawing back a curtain, but behind that curtain was another one and another and on and on. It was like unwrapping a present with infinite layers of paper, never getting to what’s inside but loving the anticipation all the while. And that’s magic.

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The Itinerary

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Lilongwe

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Senga Bay

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Nkhotakota

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Nkhata Bay

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Likoma Island

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Cóbué

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Lichinga

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Cuamba

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Nampula

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Mosambique Island

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Maputo

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Friends

It’s difficult to write how I feel when my eyes roam from one friendly face to the next. I know whatever I write will sound cheesy, but this time, that’s ok. The people in these photos made our trip. When I think back to Sarajevo, it’s not the Stari Grad that I remember, but the stories Enes told us about the siege. It’s not all the heartache the Beast caused in Iran, never mind the money spent on it, that I think of when I look at the smiling faces from there. A warmth spreads from my innards that makes my heart flutter when I recall the kindness and generosity the people in Iran showed us. It’s not an exaggeration to say that every single character in the following photographs changed JF and I in some way or another, and our life is much richer because of them. Every story or smile shared opened up another little door in our minds that shaped our experience. It’s true to say too, that without each and every one of you in the following frozen memories, JF and myself would probably be divorced. As much as I find him interesting, seven months on the road alone would have been a bore!

I speak on behalf of myself and JF now when I thank you sincerely for making our trip what it was. I hope someday to see you again, and we’d love to be as good to you as you were to us.

 

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Christophe, Paris, France

 

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Carla & Erich, Winthertur, Switzerland

 

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Miha, Lubljana, Slovenia

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Enes, Sarajevo, Bosnia – Herzegovina

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Koprivshtitsa, Bulgaria

 

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Bitola, Macedonia

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Daiana, Ionut, Alexi, Vadu, Romania

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Sibiel, Romania

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Caliu, Clejani, Romania

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Caliu & Family, Clejani, Romania

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Somewhere in Moldova

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Soroca, Moldova

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Marina, Odessa, Ukraine

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Teacher & Students, Odessa, Ukraine

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By the river, Ukraine

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‘Beerless’ & friends, Minsk, Belarus

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Minsk, Belarus

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Alexander, Minsk, Belarus

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Nina, Moscow, Russia

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Transiberian, Russia

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Transiberian, Russia

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Irina & Vladimir, Irkutsk, Russia

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Dima, Lake Baikal, Russia

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Tuya, Ulan – Bataar, Mongolia

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Bataar, Ulan-Bataar, Mongolia

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Ulan-Bataar, Mongolia

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Transiberian, Russia

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Larissa & Igor, Nijni-Oudinsk, Russia

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Valentina & Larissa’s Mother, Nijni-Oudinsk, Russia

 

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Olga, Yuri, Andrei, Elena, Nijni-Oudinsk, Russia

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Maria & Katarina, Moscow, Russia

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By the Volga, Russia

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Elbrus, Zalina & Family, Beslan, Russia

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Regan, Olivier, Darren, Tbilissi, Georgia

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Shoka, Nikoloz & friends, Mestia, Georgia

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Tomas, Ushguli, Georgia

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Kristine, Vardzia, Georgia

 

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Walter & his wife, Gyumri, Armenia

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Mikoyan’s niece, Sanahin, Armenia

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By the river, Dilijan, Armenia

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Dilijan, Armenia

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Srbuhi & Mary, Yerevan, Armenia

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Kirsty & Mark, Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh

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Gan, Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh

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Tabriz, Iran

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On the motorway, Iran

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Mehdi & Amir, Qazvin, Iran

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Mehdi and Amir family, Qazvin, Iran

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Saeed & Hossein, Tehran, Iran

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The mechanics, Tehran, Iran

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Tehran, Iran

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Zhoubil, Tehran, Iran

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Takin & Shabnam, Tehran, Iran

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A., Isfahan, Iran

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A & friends, Isfahan, Iran

 

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Henrietta, Yazd, Iran

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Mohamed, Parandak

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On the road, Iran

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Jamar & Family, Sarandaj, Iran

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Hoda & friends, Sarandaj, Iran

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Dogubayazit, Turquey

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Senol & Tayfun, Trabzon, Turquey

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Senol & Tayfun, trabzon, Turquey

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Selime, Turquey

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Egirdir, Turquey

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Foça, Turquey

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Mehmet, on the road to Kusadasi, Turquey

 

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Carmel & Lochlann, Kusadasi, Turquey

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Jay, Loic, Lisa, Istanbul, Turquey

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Thierry, Istanbul, Turquey

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Irish crowd, Thessaloniki, Greece

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Dion, Greece

 

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Siobhan & Connor, Acquasparta, Italy

 

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Catherine, Nice, France

Reminiscences from the last leg home: Italy, Nice and Lyon

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  1. Bari

Smelly socks and body odour polluted the air. We courteously asked a German, who was sleeping on our seats, to move. I vill not. I must sleep. And he pulled the sleeping bag over his head. We were told that the seat numbers we paid over two hundred euros for, meant nothing. Driving out of the ferry and through Bari as fast as we could was our sole objective.

  1. Naples and Pozzuoli

Only for Airbnb we would never have known Pozzuoli. It’s a small port town outside Naples. Before the family arrived, JF and I walked around the centre and had a beer in the square. The small city is not beautiful, but colourful. The pastel coloured street buildings creating the square’s borders reflected the multi-coloured cocktails that young and old were drinking. All of us seemed oblivious to the large Roman remains of a market dated 194BC, sitting adjacent to the square. Watching the Friday evening crowd we concluded that the modern world reigned in Pozzuoli. An obvious gap between rich and poor was evident in the clothes people wore, from labels to rags. Tattooed youths hung around the square, pulling on fags and clinking beer bottles. And yet, Tripadvisor offered an array of expensive restaurants that could not be seen from the streets.

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We didn’t have much luck eating out in Pozzuoli all the same. All our food fantasies were shattered when we sat outside a busy restaurant on the square.

Do you have pasta?

No.

Do you have pizzas?

No.

Do you have any hot dishes?

Sandwiches.

Do you have coffee?

No.

(Jesus Christ, what kind of restaurant is this? Ultan could not believe his ears.)

JF and Kevin, like all good in-laws, said nothing

Do you have wine? I asked.

Yes.

Ah well, we are alright then, Nancy, Madge and I sighed with relief.

Nobody had what they wanted to eat, but the waiters were charming and the atmosphere was Italian.

The following night we ended up in a stuffy, upmarket fish restaurant. The waiter tried to confuse me into buying a more expensive wine. Little did he know who he was playing with. JF and Kevin, like all good in-laws, said nothing. Madge never ignored the price of anything and Nancy does not like to think anyone can pull the wool over her eyes. The man had to deal with a very grumpy, verging on a rude table, all night long. On the way home I asked who liked fish anyway. Nobody except Madge, and she was the only one of us who ordered the single meat dish on the menu. I watched her all evening pick the tough chunks of God knows what animal out of the pasta and put it to the side, adamant not to take one morsel in her mouth.

The highlight in Naples was visiting the Catacombs of San Gaudioso and having a pizza across the road afterwards.

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  1. Pompei

We walked Nancy and Madge out to have lunch in a restaurant, outside the gates. Kevin, Ultan, JF and I decided to run in and have another quick look around. I wanted to see the wall painting of Priapus, for obvious reasons, and JF wished to see the bordello. Ultan and myself were anxious to tick off the cultural ‘must sees’ and get out of there, while JF, the little cherub, kept disappearing into small alleyways and courtyards; and Kevin, the Greek God, fell into the few potholes on the site. Impressive is an understatement to describe Pompei. An ancient city fossilised in time is a rare historical gift given to humans. We strolled around the city, 2000 years old and mused how little we have developed since.

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  1. Capri

JF surprised me by going off schedule and not telling me. He booked a room with a view on Capri Island. We walked around the island in the rain, climbing up and down steps. JF skipped with excitement when we came across Villa Maleparte, from one of his favourite Godard films, le Mépris. Walking back from the sea paths we stopped off in a busy local bar and had a spritz with the locals. The quixotic Michel, who never lost an opportunity to remind us he was a slightly touched Italian and an Australian woman married to a local, who slipped into the bar for a sly spritz or two. She had left her husband with her six month old child to go to the shop, but decided she needed a sneaky drink and a cigarette before going home.

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  1. The Amalfi Coast

We slept in a car park by the little cove of Praia, steep cliffs giving the impression of being lost at the bottom of a deep hole. A small family-run restaurant was carved into the stone. The pass-remarkable father’s father sat in the corner, looking over his glasses. Fresh pasta and creamy sauces steamed up the window. We rubbed away the fog on the glass and saw the loyal Beast parked and waiting by the moonlit sea.

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  1. Gaeta

Empty cobbled streets and closed restaurants in the town of Gaeta gave the impression of walking into a coffee table photo book, beautiful but dead.

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  1. Sermoneta, Todi and 8. Acquasparta

If Italian towns were packed with Greeks, they’d be much more fun, we often thought. We stopped off at more medieval towns before landing on the doorstep of Siobhán and Connor in Acquasparta. A little haven of Ireland in the Umbrian hills. Letterkenny gossip and the general trials of being an expat filled our evening. Massimo and Ilaria played and talked as the aromas from Connor’s kitchen brought on a hunger which was duly satisfied by the best chicken I have ever eaten.

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  1. Assisi, 10. Perugia and San Gimignano 11.Siena

I have a very fond memory of JF acting just as I usually would. We marched around Assisi and gave a nod to Francis, before rushing off to absorb more beauty in Perugia and San Gimignano. I noticed JF’s camera hanging limp over his shoulder, abandoned and disused.

Mais, es-tu malade JF?

Non, pourquoi?

Tu prends pas des photos?

J’en ai marre des villes moyenâgeuses.

Oh ok, I said, delighted to realise during our last week, that he is actually human.

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After hesitating over the price of a spritz on Piazza del Campo, we consumed the ambience like the other tourists there and relished in the romance of it all. We ate fresh truffle pasta (which I had been dreaming about) in a local restaurant outside Siena, and slept amid vineyards on a hill. We awoke to the sound of gun shots. Looking out the windows of the Beast we saw game hunters prowling quietly, rifles cocked.

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  1. Lucas and 13. Cinque-Terre

In Lucas we were bored but ate deep fried pasta in the alluring circular Piazza del Anfiteatro. Later, the Beast snuggled up beside the large and homely campervans in Monterosso, while JF and I did an express tour of Vernazza, Corniglia and Riomaggiore, taking train rides that last only a few minutes between each village.

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  1. Genoa

Walking down Via Garibaldi, we fell back into step with an era of decadence and imagined ourselves floating down grand stairways. Every second building is a UNSECO villa, yet, move one small street away from the grand avenue and buxom prostitutes stand in the shadows of doorways. As if to ease us back into our French life, our hotel room was sea-themed. We celebrated our last night in a foreign land with a bottle of prosecco under the covers.

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  1. Nice

Catherine and Pascal welcomed us once again into their new home. The last time we burdened them with our presence was in Hong Kong. Catherine showed us around her upside down home – instead of building up or out, they extended downwards, digging into the rocks below the house to create an entire new floor. Sitting around a hearty dinner of Chile Con Carne, we laughed and teased JF about the incorrect French he had being teaching me throughout the trip. Many types of vodka from different countries showed their exotic labels on the table later.

  1. Lyon

Inside a house on the outskirts of Lyon, Antoine and his band, Beauty Camp, rehearsed. We sat on a damp couch and listened to them run through their set one more time. I tapped my foot in time with their catchy melodies and looked at Antoine’s socks, one red and one blue, stuck into white dirty runners and over them hung his eighties styled rolled up jeans. I think I concluded that it looked so bad it was probably cool. Even though it was I who asked Antoine to book a fancy restaurant, I later regretted it. It was cold hearted and overpriced. JF was appalled that people actually still eat turnips, never mind that they constituted his main dish which cost over twenty euro. Didn’t the English only feed turnips to the pigs and to the Irish? he asked innocently. I did not answer. We had left France a long time ago and had forgotten JF’s golden rule: a restaurant that is too posh to serve rosé should be avoided at all times. It was a pleasure though, to dine with Antoine’s girlfriend for the first time, although we felt he had already met her. Antoine talked of nothing else during our week in Moscow.

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  1. Nantes

We drove for seven hours to SNO sailing club in Nantes. There, Mouches helped to attach the fireball dinghy to the back of the Beast before taking me to the train station.

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  1. Saint Nazaire

I travelled home alone. I missed JF but longed for time on my own and in my home. The weeks since that night have been tumultuous.

    19. Maubuisson

JF drove for a further five hours to sail the next day. He won the race and arrived home on the Sunday evening at 11pm, to start work for the first time in 7 months at 8am the next morning.

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Greece, back home in Europe

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Greece became the prism through which we viewed our entire trip. It became our little jewel, reflecting the experiences we had gathered just till then. It was our stepping stone back into our life we left behind six months before. We sped through the border, no one bothering to even look at our passports; we were back amongst our own. We stopped off in a small super market in Alexandroupoli where we were once again faced with familiar products. And while we fumbled in our pockets for long disused euros, we knew our adventure was coming to an end. Greece was the perfect setting to look over our venture with nostalgia: secluded beaches and small mountain villages all to ourselves; fresh food with no fuss; historical sites next to unpretentious towns and friendly people laughing over frappés. We closed our eyes and let the warm sea breeze caress our memories. The tourist mass exodus left restaurants empty for us and waiters with the time to talk. Traveling out of season was a luxury we never took for granted. We were sipping the last of the summer wine and we knew it.

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It was frightening too, because I knew JF spent much of the fortnight in Greece wondering how he managed to put up with me at all. On one of the many mornings, after having breakfast by the sea he threw away the end of my coffee and shook his head.

Qu’est-ce tu as? I asked uneasily, not wanting to know the answer.

Rien.

Quoi?

Pourquoi tu termines jamais ton café le matin? He was smiling but his head was still tilted in disbelief.

Je ne sais pas trop, c’est toujours trop froid à la fin. Pourquoi? Ça t’énerve? I wasn’t looking for a fight. I just wanted to know.

C’est incroyable qu’on est toujours ensemble quand même, après 6 mois.

Yeah, I suppose. But I didn’t want to know anymore.

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I could see him surmising sometimes, as I slowly let the light of day brighten my dark mood. His slanted, ironic smile gave it all away. ‘Quoi là maintenant?’ I’d sigh, already knowing the answer. Yes, it is amazing we haven’t killed each other in the morning yet. We were parked in a maize field near Metéora and when I woke up I had a view of monasteries perched on top of pointed cliffs. It looked like I had been transported into a mystical world where people lived in the sky, I should have been content.

What’s wrong with you? I asked JF first thing after opening my eyes.

Nothing? Why? I could tell he instantly regretted asking two questions at once, he knew it was a risk.

Well, I was sound asleep and you woke me up with your big deep breath.

Sorry.

Why were you sighing?

Dunno, I’m happy.

Happy. I choked on the word as if I had swallowed a fly.

Look, are you going to get out of bed or what lá? I barked.

Yeah, ok.

You know we both can’t get up at the same time. So I’ll wait for my coffee.

Okaaaay. And he got up to make my coffee, like he did every morning.

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On the coast beside Itea I drank my coffee, almost all of it, and watched as JF flapped and splashed in the sea. I followed his childish body with my eyes, as he scrambled over rocks into the water with his camera and then climbed a hill, giggling with delight. All the while, I dragged on my miserable cigarette, daring the day to begin.

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Throughout our trip I’d turn into a moaning teenager if we visited more than one historical site a day. Greece had an abundance of places and although the history and mythology that coloured my view of the world was given context, I still complained. Will you die? I’d ask, if you don’t visit the tombs of the Macedonian Kings in Vergina? The Beast is like the donkey in The Quiet Man, I’d say, but unfortunately it stops at points of interest and not pubs.

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Names of heroes and Gods that peopled my past were given a place of birth or a temple. Dion, at the foot of Mount Olympus was Zeus’s sanctuary, its impressive 200 AD mosaics almost in one piece.

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In Delphi I was thankfully persuaded to see the stadium: stone seats and starting blocks from the 2nd century BC, not so different from today.

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Tu vas ou là maintenant? I felt lazy and I wanted a sneaky cigarette.

Bah, je vais voir le stadium.

Mais pourquoi faire, c’est loin, j’ai la flemme. Allez-toi.

Ok, he said and turned to go. But he knew well I hate him seeing something I don’t, in case it’s the most amazing spectacle of our entire trip. It was only a matter of seconds.

Attends. Attends. J’arrive. Putain, ça sera nul, je sais en plus. Tu m’énerves. Pourquoi tu as besoin de tout voir et tout le temps. C’est trop chiant.

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Like all the tourists in Olympia too, we got ready, set and went on the track, thinking about the burling men that ran there naked thousands of years before. If married women were caught trying to get in at the time, they’d be thrown off rocks into the deadly crashing waves of the Ionian Sea. Single women were invited, with pleasure, to watch strong male bodies shudder and thump the ancient world.

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Even in antiquity, the unmarried woman benefited from certain advantages. If I were single, for example, I would never have visited the 2000BC site of Mycenae and the medieval city of Mystrás on the same rainy day. The deluge damped the cultural experience.

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Some days, we happily concluded, had just been perfect during the six months. Driving around the Inner Mani was one such day. It started with a frappé by the blue and yellow harbour of Gytheio. JF steered the Beast through narrow streets and high mountain roads, while I looked at the omnipresent defensive towers in amazement, built by hot headed feuding families in the 15th century. Every now and then I’d slap him on the knee and tell him to brake, to indicate, or to turn, shouting in irritation at his bad driving. You can’t drive and look at the scenery JF. O my heart, be careful. I’ll do the looking; you do the driving. Just another day in paradise.

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We walked for hours in the village of Monemvasía, known as the Greek Mont Saint Michel. And while that is slightly exaggerated, the village toppling into the sea is very seductive. What made the day special however, was watching Ireland beat France later in a restaurant by the sea. The owner kindly let us watch it on his computer. One section of his restaurant was packed by Albanians watching soccer and the Greeks were in another area shouting at some local team on a hanging screen.

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History looked disapprovingly over our shoulders as we took a break in the graffiti-covered modern world of Athens.

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Finding a place to wash after days of pulling the same underwear on, because there’s no point putting clean on dirty, is a true relief. I washed only my hair in the icy Lousios river as it was too cold, while JF literally got caught with his knickers down. He stripped off all his clothes and jumped in. He happened to look up while palmoliving his tender parts (probably singing) all over and saw a tourist covering his daughter’s eyes on the bridge.

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We met many people in Greece too, which was our greatest pleasure in every country we travelled in. I insisted we drive (JF drive) for hours around the mountain villages of Dimitsana and Stemmitsa looking for a restaurant I had read was excellent in various guide books. We finally found Panaghia to find the restaurant was closed. It’s closed? Really? J’ai voulu rien dire mais, I can’t say I’m surprised. A village of seven inhabitants in the mountains in Greece, in October, having a restaurant that is open? At least he kept his rant till we got there. We had a beer in a small bar in the next village of Zatouna, a local bought us a few tsípouros and we had a fine meal in the local taverna. That night we slept in the village square, and although it was a little difficult for the morning toilet, it was very pleasant.

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One afternoon we set up home outside a campsite, on the beach by Dion. When the owners pulled up on their scouter and asked if we’d like to pay and sleep in their place, we said no. I asked them if we could offer them a drink instead. We were sleeping in their front garden with a prime view of the sea, after all. The evening ended eating fish and pulled pork in their kitchen, while sharing many a tsípouros. The Russian lady was flamboyant and outrageous. Her Greek husband sat stoic beside my own and lamented the fatal female flaw: jealousy.

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In Thessaloniki we watched the rugby in an Irish bar, which was a rare experience. Cavorting with non-locals is a serious faux-pas in JF’s world, especially in Greece’s second biggest city, as the Thessalonians were partying in every open space.

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In the Beast, just like being on Hakuna, there’s always a hitch. Niouniou, who used to sail on Hakuna would say before every race: J’aime qu’un plan se déroule sans accroc. I like a plan without a hitch. Greece highlighted how we had learnt how to calmly follow whichever turn the road took. And although JF passed unfazed from one minute of the day to the next, like a cow chewing his cud, he did blame me for all the unpredicted twists in our Greek itinerary. It was late by the time we reached the island of Lefkáda and finding a romantic beach for our last night in Greece proved more difficult than expected. George (the GPS* see below) was hesitant in accepting Greece as part of Europe and didn’t show all the roads. The island rises steeply out of the sea and accesses to the beaches are by corkscrew roads that fall in steep curves to the bottom. JF had picked a beach from the map on our phone, a secluded cove that was at the other end of the island. I believed we should check all the beaches on the way, in case we drove by the best one. The sun sank lower in the sky. JF and the Beast heaved and turned up steep hills before descending into another bay, some were inaccessible and others were privately owned. I was finally taking us to JF’s golden beach, to his personal Tír na nÓg, when suddenly the road on my phone disappeared and I saw a little blue boat floating in space. Just then JF, or perhaps the Beast, ground to a halt. The road in reality had disappeared too. We were stuck between beautiful, high stone walls with no way forward and only one long reversable-way back. I took a deep breath and let the green pastures below us sooth my panic. The three churches that enveloped us did not help calm me, until I saw a pleasant little green garden by the humblest of the three.

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Regarde-moi ça! I feigned cheerfulness.

C’est beau non? On a tous qu’il faut, une église, de pelouse. C’est tranquille. Je suis sûre que la plage ou tu voulais aller était privé ou nul ou quelque chose, c’est sûr.

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Eating later, in the little local at the bottom of the hill, JF checked the internet and showed me pictures of the beach he had wanted to get to. It looked beautiful. We decided to go the next day, but when he was awoken by drops falling on his head that night we changed our plans again. Because of my incredible talent of organising the rain with pattering efficiency we left Lefkáda without seeing his paradise. JF attributes all rainfall in his life now to me, simply because I’m Irish. Thanks to the bad weather and my curse, we had the pleasure of walking around Ioánnina, visiting the island and talking to the locals in a lesbian bar.

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Because we missed the return trip on the 19th century Kalávryta – Diakoftó train, we ended up in the holocaust museum of Kalávryta which commemorates the annihilation of the town by the Germans in WW2. Had everything ran according to schedule we would have missed an important lesson in history.

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It was difficult to leave Greece, not just because we had such a wonderful time there, but because we knew Italy was the last country before France. We ate our last gyro in Igoumenitsa, letting the grease drip down our chins like already forgotten memories and took the ferry to Italy.

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*George the right-wing and racist GPS, who JF spoke more to than me, by the time we were back in Europe. I’d hear him whisper sweet nothings in his ear: Ça va mon chéri, c’est pas ta faute. Tu ne peux pas avoir raison tout le temps. Or worse, I’d realise we were going backyards and ask the two, who were always in cahoots with each other, ‘Pourquoi on va en Turquie là et pas en Italie comme prévu? Tu sais on fait de l’est là depuis quelques heures et il faut qu’on va ouest mon chéri? And Jf would simply reply: C’est George. Ah il est quelque chose eh? And would sigh with affection.

Turkey

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I crashed into the Turkish border. I didn’t walk over it; I didn’t even drive over it. I ripped the top off the customs building and bashed the edges of our boxes, creating small, fat, round metal sacks. This was the first 20 metres I had driven since France, and so I was mortified. The Turkish men hanging around, shuffled awkwardly on their feet, not looking at me, but pointing to JF and then to the boxes. JF marched over towards the Beast, me with my head hanging inside it, and his mumbling accelerated to grumbling. Don’t start JF, I pleaded, pas maintenant! And when he saw the colour of shame on my face he thankfully shook his head and walked off. The dent my ego suffered was made all the worse by the fact that I had been showing off, driving my big car in front of the men. I had pulled off my Iranian scarf and got behind the wheel with an inflated sense of my liberated femininity. But, this was one of the first of many lessons Turkey was to teach us.

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Just when we were beginning to believe that we were weathered adventurers, that we had acquired a little more je ne sais quoi than the regular tourist, Turkey put us back in our box. Even before I knocked over the border, we were confronted by two important facts which we had forgotten. Two out of the three border crossings from Iran were closed and there were threats that the third could be closed too. We decided we’d cross from Armenia if need be; completely forgetting that due to the tensions between the two countries there is no border. We would have driven hundreds of miles for no reason, la route negative, which we try to avoid but take too often. Regardless of the soured relationship, Armenians have left their mark on Turkey; their simple churches are scattered throughout the country. Only a few have been left in their original state like on Akdamar Island, most have been converted into makeshift mosques. When I finally made it to the desk to get my passport stamped, I was told that I couldn’t enter Turkey because I was Irish. I needed a visa as Ireland is not part of the Schengen Arrangement, a fact I’m not so proud of. But when JF muttered that it was really about time I got French citizenship, I was angry nevertheless.

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We questioned our intelligence again while driving through the east. The Turkish army swarmed the land, their presence hung heavy like a threat. The PKK use them as targets and they know it. As we drove through Doğubeyazit, we passed many small tanks topped with a revolving gun that aimed at passing cars. ‘Ah c’est un Land Rover comme le Beast,’ I said to JF as we passed by one. We looked again and realized it wasn’t a Land Rover, but very similar. We smiled and drove on, never once thinking that if it looked like us, we looked like them. A day later we drove up to the crater lakes of Mt Nemrut, feeding the Beast water as he overheated. The Beast toppled along the small road by the lake and when we pulled up to a few men drinking tea around a shack style café, they told us they thought we were the army coming. ‘I’d be very careful driving that thing’ they said. ‘Don’t go further south than Lake Van and don’t drive at night’. We took their advice.

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The men left us alone by the warm crater lake, where we slept in silence, apart from the occasional low flying plane on its way to Syria. Before sunset we had noticed rabbits and turtles were everywhere, and so when we were awoken in the middle of the night by the sound of our plates banging to the ground, JF mumbled ‘silly turtles’, before falling back to sleep. The crashing plates had awoken him and not the Land Rover rolling over and back which had startled me awake. ‘Turtles my ass’, I thought and lay flat on my back trying to listen for more sounds over JF’s innocent snoring. We had a cup of tea with the man in the café the next morning and I asked him what animals were around. ‘Oh the bears, the bears, there are many bears here and they come out at night. Did you have any problems?’ ‘Not at all’ I said ‘We just had a turtle that violently shook our car, ripped open our rubbish bag, scattered all our plates over the field and ate the stew that was left in the saucepan!’ ‘Isn’t that right JF?’ Luckily we didn’t get out of the Beast to look at the turtle.

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We weren’t always so sharp at choosing our sleeping spots either in Turkey. We saw on the map that the Ihlara Valley, not far from Cappadocia, would be perfect to camp: a deep gorge with a river running through it. When we got there we realised the only access into the valley was a descent of 400 steps. In Gallipoli we visited a few of the many graveyards and memorials dedicated to the thousands who died on the shores of the Dardanelles during WW1. We set up camp that evening in a park with a beach. We swam and had our shower by the water. As we were having a beer a park ranger came over to us and politely informed us that alcohol was forbidden and that we could not sleep there. Behind some trees, not even 20 metres away, there was the perfect place to sleep, which wasn’t in a public park. We wondered how we had missed it. On the sea from Ephesus, not far from Kuşadasi, we stopped off at what looked like a quiet campsite. It was late and dark. We looked for an office or someone to pay for the night. We found it strange that there was no-one around. We noticed old couches outside big dark tents. There were cars parked outside some of the tents, but there were no children. We had a pleasant dinner by the sea, a dog insisted on licking JF’s neck and we went to bed. The next morning, as JF made my coffee, he put his head into the Beast and said, ‘Je pense qu’on a dormi parmi les SDFs’. It wasn’t a campsite. We had parked up, as innocent and as insolent as only the bourgeoisie can be, and slept among the homeless.

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One would think that after 35,000km covered, we’d know how to avoid going backwards. Not JF and I. Friends of my auntie Madge have a house in Turkey, but by the time I remembered to contact them we had already passed them by 150km. The morning after spending a lovely evening in Foça, we drove back to Kuşadasi to spend the evening with Carmel and Lochlann McGill. It was worth the U-turn, and we met Mehmet on the way. It was special to catch up with old friends of my parents and my aunt, even if JF was a little lost in Donegal lingo and gossip. They took us on a sunset tour (after the sun had set) and showed us how to eat fish in Turkey. They bought the fish in the market and brought it up to a restaurant above, looking over the sea, where it was cooked to perfection. I don’t like fish, but that night was one of the best meals I had in Turkey. Grilled fish and raki, tout simplement.

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We walked through Izmir during the Kurban Bayramı Festival. The centre was deserted. Shops and restaurants were shuttered closed. It’s the one day of the year the busy market sleeps. Bright orange life jackets and thick black rubber life rings swung from phone shops and jewellery stores. They caught the wind and moved the hooks they hung on. The creaking sound was all the more sinister in the silent streets. JF had read in Liberation that anyone with a shop in Izmir was profiting from another’s misfortune, selling life jackets to refugees desperate to get to Greece. Is olc an ghaoth nach séideann maith do dhuine. Apparently some life jackets are filled with sawdust; cheaper to manufacture but would sink like a stone, with the person inside them, to the sea bed.

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The same day we noticed lone sheep being carted off to their deaths, their little heads peeking over the top of trailers, nodding up and down in wonder. ‘Ils partent pas en vacance, ça c’est sur’, JF nodded his head sadly. Outside Izmir we stopped by a slaughtering field and watched as hundreds of sheep were butchered in the name of religion. Men and women took charms off the sheep’s necks and watched as the thick bright blood spilled and mixed with mud. I was surprised by how religious life in Turkey was, and wondered how Ataturk would feel about morality slipping back into affairs of the state. I was taken aback to have seen many more burqas in the east of Turkey than in Iran, and on our first day we had to search beneath the surface to be able to buy beer in a supermarket. Bars are few and far between and alcohol is not sold in many restaurants. Walking through Trabzon with Tayfun, we squeezed through the busy streets lined with cafés, packed with young people drinking tea. We finally found one of the two bars in a city of over one million. The Government has increased the tax on selling alcohol, thus making it more difficult to go against religion. The cafés spill over with men of all ages drinking tea. And while it was pleasant to see men enjoying each other’s company, I wondered where all the women were. A country where the leader suggests women should not laugh, so as not to tempt men, does not leave much to the imagination. One evening two young boys on a motorbike took us to an empty field where we could camp. It was in the wilderness and I decided to take a shower in the pink setting sun. The boys returned with a basket full of food for us, but when they saw my naked white skin, they took off in the direction they came, leaving a cloud of dust in their wake, never to return.

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As always, we never knew where we were going to sleep, but in Turkey, we found mountains, deserted beaches, rivers and fields. It was dirty quite often, rubbish thrown everywhere, but it’s a country with a diverse landscape. In the east we stayed in a few campsites, not wanting to look like a conspicuous army tank lost in a field. Our first night we slept under Ishak Paşa Sarayi, but other times the campsites were dirty and expensive. And, even if they were useful for showers and clothes washing, as we moved west we abandoned them, never knowing what to expect. One night, on Cunda Island, we had a beach and a port to ourselves, our view was a castle on an island in the sheltered cove. The next night in Iznik, we slept outside fishing huts on the lake. Bins had been torn apart by dogs beside us; cars sped past on the road not so far away and the insistent rain caused a muddy puddle around the Beast, making the night time pee a dirty procedure.

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Turkey was the most touristic country on our trip, and it took us a day or two to adapt. When we drove into Göreme in Cappadocia we were stunned by the mushroom shaped limestone structures firstly and secondly by the amount of tourists in the town. From Göreme we visited the underground city of Derinkuyu, 8 levels and 60m deep. We slept under the cave houses of Selime, after having lentil soup in a local café, where we met the only person who supported Erdogan. Before walking the ancient streets of Ephesus and admiring the still standing 117AD library, we washed ourselves in the hot springs in Pamukalle. The water deposits limestone, creating rolling white calcifications under the pool Temple of Apollo. JF’s favourite site was Boğazkale: the Hittite capital city of Hattaşuş. The Lion’s, Sphynx’s and King’s Gates are still standing since 1600 BC.

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Perhaps it was the crowds that rendered us more featherheaded than usual, but twice in Turkey we didn’t pay for the bill. We had two beers on our hotel terrace in Cappadocia which we never paid for, and in Amaysa, after visiting the Pontic Kings tombs (333BC – 44BC) we had lunch in the town. On the road later, JF asked how much the lunch was and I said I didn’t know because I hadn’t paid.

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If not wanting to spend money foolishly is a travellers’ trait as opposed to a tourist, who splashes out on a two week holiday, then we are definitely travellers. We met Lisa and Loic in Istanbul and after they brought us a bottle of champagne to our Airbnb flat, we headed out for dinner. We walked in the rain down a street close to Istiklal, which has nothing but restaurants and bars. As we walked down the street, we were not only accosted, but attacked by waiters trying to pull us into their restaurants. It was raining, it was cold and it was our first night together. We were hungry and simply wanted to eat, no-one wanting to impose their wishes too forcefully on the others. The hackling waiters only added to the confusion. We eventually cracked and went into a loud seafood restaurant. The food we saw on other tables looked wan, and the prices we read on the menu, we all knew, were too expensive for any kind of food. The waiter opened a bottle of water on the table without asking us. Lisa and JF simultaneously caught his arm and from Lisa came ‘We didn’t ask for that!’ and JF says ‘We are not paying for that, take it away. We don’t want it!’ Loic went to the toilet, Lisa and I looked around uneasily and JF started spurting ‘awful, oh la la’ and ‘the worst meal we ever had’ and after more tutting, ‘Extremely over priced for what you get’. He continued, ‘décevant’, ‘qualité médiocre’. When he got to ‘à éviter absolument’, on his trip advisor reviews, he stood up and declared he was leaving. ‘Loic won’t like this’ says Lisa with a glint in her eye, ‘but he’s in the toilet. Let’s go, go go’. And out we marched. We ate in the same restaurant Loic’s friends had taken them to the night before, and it was excellent. The four of us like our food and being French(ified) we like a bon rapport qualité prix.

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Loic worried about the freshness of our dishes. A plate of calamari was set down in front of us once. Loic looked it over, smelled it, felt it between his fingers and put it back on the plate. Je mange pas ça moi. Je le crois pas que le poisson est frais. As we sat at another ‘overpriced fish’ restaurant in Anadolu Kavağı, we realised that none of us had ordered fish. Cats jumped on our table and tried to eat the bread. We had ordered a beer, but there was none. Loic again: J’ai un doute que le poisson soit frais. Et même si c’est congelé, ça m’étonnerait pas que ils le recongèlent, freeze, unfreeze, plusieurs fois. We all looked at him and laughed, knowing with dread that he was right. I had ordered chicken. Et le poulet? I asked him. He looked at me and said, je commanderais pas ça non plus. Loic became like our father in Istanbul. JF and I were delighted to let others make the plans and do the organising that we just followed. And in Istanbul when Lisa or Loic suggested doing something, we happily agreed. Lisa and I would chatter away, stopping every now and then to ask where we were going or what was happening. We spent one day walking around the crowded and busy streets of Kadikoy. The cobbled streets and beautifully displayed shops with olives, nuts and pickles were extremely charming. The day we spent on the Bosporus and later visiting the roman cisterns, I decided that I wanted to visit Istanbul again soon.

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The best part of travelling is that you have time. And having time means meeting people. After an extreme sailing race we had a beer with one of the competitors, Thierry Douillard. Later that evening, Loic’s friends Clare and Jean-François, both Sciences Po lecturers in the city, invited us for a delicious meal. Once in Istanbul, as I sat around a table in a busy restaurant, I took a mental picture of the scene and smiled, because it reflected travelling at its best. Loic read Jay’s future from the coffee dust, while Lisa looked on lovingly. We had met Jay in Lviv, sitting alone in a bar, waiting for his Ukrainian girlfriend. He was wearing a sailing jacket and so we asked could we sit with him. When we rang him in Istanbul, he laughed, telling us his girlfriend was arriving that day.

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The Turkish people we encountered were warm and generous, traits often associated with Muslims. Ladies invited us to taste their freshly cooked bread on Lake Eğirdir. A woman invited us in for tea in Semile, giving us tomatoes and chillies from her garden. When the Beast finally chugged its way to a Land Rover specialist in Trabzon from the Sumela Monastery, Tayfun, who was there with his own car, soon became our translator. He took us to eat while Ṣenol worked on the Beast and later showed us around the city. Tayfun insisted we stay with him and treated us to a delicious brunch by Hagia Sophia the next morning. We were fascinated by the years of graffiti on the church’s walls: mariners looking for guidance before setting sail.

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Turkey was our last country before Europe and the contrast between East and West was stark as we crossed into Greece. It’s the eve of another election, in which Erdogan would like to consolidate his power under the guise of creating a coalition. He created stability and in return enjoyed Sultan-style admiration from many of his people. Not many we met throughout our short stay there supported him, accusing him of abuse of power. Europe must tread carefully too. Turkey holds 2.5 million refugees, who Europe hopes will stay there. With borders being created again in Europe and the Schengen being threatened, the West would like a stable Turkey, at whatever cost.

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