View from hilltop, El Nicho Waterfalls, Cuba

Where Have I Been?

I’ve been a little absent from my blog recently, and I thought it was time for a catch up. I’ve been tweeting and Instagramming, checking my notifications, occasionally scribbling in one of my notebooks, but every time I go to click that big blue ‘Write’ button on my blog dashboard I shrink away from the command and turn to something less daunting. This post is more personal than I would usually get on my blog, but it’s been brewing in my head for weeks and maybe it’s the thing I need to write to get my mojo back…so here goes.

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Endings & Beginnings

As I write this I’m sat in a cafe, doing something I’ve never done before; taking two days off work just to do nothing. No holiday, no visits to friends, no plans at all except reading books, quietly working through some life admin and recovering from an intense week. A week of extremes, of mourning and celebration, of endings and beginnings.

During the week we said our goodbyes to my grandma, a warrior of a woman who was such a force of nature the universe saw fit to name a storm after her in the week that she died. In contrast, I then spent the weekend with the other side of my family watching my cousin get married and sharing in the start of a new phase of his life. Continue reading

A Day of Belonging

Yesterday was a day of belonging. One of those warm, comforting days where you fit like the last jigsaw piece into every situation you’re in, snug and safe in the perfectly imperfect life you’ve built for yourself. In a world where we all feel unsure of ourselves so much of the time these days are hard to come by, so I wanted to share mine with you. Continue reading

A Last Look Back: 2015 Highlights

New Year’s Eve is looming, and all over the internet I’m being met with news articles, blog posts and think pieces about 2016 goals, resolutions and new beginnings. As much as I love the idea of rebirths and the chance to start over, I’m struggling to buy into it this year – the calendar may flip over but it’s not going to wipe my slate clean.

At last year’s New Year’s Eve party, shortly after midnight, I drunkenly declared to one of my close friends that 2015 was going to be an amazing year. “I can feel it in my bones”, I said. A month later to the day, something happened that blew that statement clean out of the water. It turned 2015 into the hardest year of my life, and I can’t say I’m sorry to say goodbye to it.

But it would be misleading to claim that this year has been all bad. A lot of good things have happened to me too; I’ve started this blog, been on some great holidays, got involved in the exciting world of blogging events, went to my first festival, found a new relationship, and learned a lot along the way. So before I consign 2015 to the history books, it seems only right to take a look back at some of the year’s highlights.

March: Budapest

In March I went to Budapest for 4 nights with one of my friends who turned out to be a fantastic travel buddy – after this we also went to Croatia together in August and are already planning another adventure for 2016! I fell completely in love with Budapest; the sights, the food and the achingly cool ruin pubs are all things I was itching to go back to as soon as I’d left.

View of Budapest, Hungary

April: TBEX Europe

This was my first of two work trips this year; I and a colleague were sent to the Costa Brava to attend one of the world’s largest travel blogger conferences, TBEX. We spent a mad day running around Barcelona collecting photo and video content for the company website, then had 4 days of meeting bloggers, attending lectures…and going to the odd boat and/or beach party. Hard life I know.

TBEX boat trip, Lloret de Mar

June: Dublin

This was my annual jaunt to visit some lovely friends I met while travelling in Australia, who I still keep in touch with. Two of them are a couple who bought their own house this year, where I stayed with our other friend, and instead of going into Dublin we went walking in the countryside and kayaked on a lake. In 2016 I’ll be attending the wedding of aforementioned couple, and I couldn’t be more excited.

Kayaking, Dublin

August: Blog at the Beach

Inspired by TBEX, my workmate and I were tasked with organising a blogger event for our company. With a small budget and limited resources the early days were a bit stressful, but we put together a fantastic day with speakers, cocktails, and a pop-up beach! We got a 100% attendance rate and some amazing feedback from the bloggers who came – this was one of my professional highlights of the year, not to mention a lot of fun.

icelolly.com Blog At The Beach

Photo by icelolly.com

August: Croatia

Somehow I reached the age of 24 without ever going on a girls’ holiday with my high school besties; this year four of us finally managed it! We rented an apartment in the beautiful old town of Zadar and had a heavenly week of sunbathing, drinking and exploring. We went on a speedboat tour of the Kornati Islands, and my personal highlight was ticking Plitvice Lakes National Park off my bucket list. Photos do not do that place justice – the colours are beyond description.

Plitvice Lakes National Park

September: End of the Road Festival

Another first for me this year was going to a festival – in September I went to the magical End of the Road Festival on a free press ticket from one of my best friends. The bands were amazing and the festival has an incredible setting in a forest in Dorset, but one of the best parts of the weekend was just getting to hang out with one of my favourite people, who I’d barely seen that year.

End of the Road Festival, Dorset

October: Ibiza & Majorca

On my second work trip of the year, I got to spend 3 days in Ibiza and 3 days in Majorca, travelling around the island armed with a camera and GoPro seeking out the best beaches and things to do. It was a pretty exhausting week and I missed Leeds Rhinos winning the Super League Grand Final, but how many other people’s jobs allow them to swap desk chairs for beach loungers every now and again? It’s a pretty sweet perk.

San Antonio, Ibiza

November: Edinburgh

In November my boyfriend and I decided to take the plunge and test our travel compatibility with a long weekend in Edinburgh. Admittedly that may be better described as ‘dipping a toe in the water’ than ‘taking the plunge’, but I’m still counting it. We went to lovely restaurants, climbed Arthur’s Seat, and he let me do most of the organising, which though I won’t always admit it is the way I like to travel.

Top of Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh

What were the highlights of your year? Good luck to you all for 2016!

Me, Myself and I: Going to the Theatre Alone

Last week I did something I’ve never done before. I went to the theatre, alone. I know, shocker right? People don’t do that. But it was the Shakespeare Schools Festival, I was interested, and nobody else I knew was. So I decided to fly solo.

I’ve always had a mindblock about doing certain things by myself. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a pretty major introvert and need regular alone time to recharge my batteries, but there are a lot of social situations where I just don’t feel comfortable without someone beside me. Eating in a restaurant is one. Going to the cinema or theatre is another.

The restaurant complex I can rationalise; I treat eating out as a social occasion and enjoy mixing food with good conversation, which is pretty hard to generate when all you have to talk to is the wall. The cinema thing is harder to explain away. Going to the cinema entails simply sitting quietly in the dark and watching a screen – it’s actually one of the most antisocial activities out there, so why does “one ticket please” sound so unnatural?

Social pressure plays a large part; when everyone around you is in pairs or groups it’s easy to feel conspicuously alone, even when engaging in an activity that doesn’t require group participation. It’s easy to feel like all these incredibly social, popular people are looking at you, wondering what you could possibly have done to have so few friends that you’re forced to venture out alone. The big revelation? They’re not. In fact, they’re so wrapped up in their own thing they probably haven’t even noticed you.

Understand that I’m not proclaiming this from some pedestal of enlightenment. Even having done it, I would not say I faced my solo excursion with confidence; I was initially perturbed that my theatre seat was in the middle of a row, and consequently arrived early to avoid having to disturb half a row of people as I struggled to my lone chair. I fiddled obsessively with my phone as I waited for the performance to start, and loitered uncertainly at the interval. I would usually have sat comfortably at the bar discussing the first act over a drink, but with no companion or conversation a large G&T seemed out of the question.

But if you want to talk about the performance itself – I loved it. I loved watching alone. By turning a cinema or theatre trip into a group activity, the watching also ceases to be an independent experience; I realised that even when I really enjoy a performance or film, there are always moments when I’m looking to my companion to see their reaction, or I’m aware of them doing the same to me. This time, I was free to absorb myself completely in the performance and focus solely on my own experience, and it was strangely therapeutic. I was alone, but I wasn’t lonely.

Would I do it again? I’m not writing it off. One of my favourite things about seeing something amazing is discussing it afterwards, so I did miss raving about the ‘West Side Story meets Baz Luhrmann’ mash-up of Romeo and Juliet on the way home, and I also missed my interval drink. But I like to think I’ve shook off some of the ridiculous insecurities, and in the future I won’t let a lack of an interested second party stop me from seeing something I really want to see. Here’s to being the lonely weirdo at the cinema – now if only I could raise a toast to myself…

The Perks of Working for a Travel Company

As a member of the marketing department for a holiday company, I’m pretty used to friends and family responding to my job title with “Oh yeah, can you get me a free holiday?” I’m also pretty used to smiling as if this is the first time I’ve heard the joke and telling them…no. No I can’t. However, as a content writer, the big perk of my job is that I do get the odd company-funded trip myself.

Now, these aren’t holidays, by any stretch of the imagination. The last work trip I went on was for TBEX Europe in Lloret de Mar, and between conference seminars, meetings, networking events, live tweeting and responding to emails from the office, we were working about 16 hours a day. There was no sunbathing, no sleeping late, and when we got home late Sunday night, running on empty, it was straight back to the office on Monday. That being said, there was the odd moment that looked like this:

TBEX boat trip, Lloret de Mar

So yes, if it’s honesty hour…it could be considered a pretty nice perk. Even when it’s exhausting, it’s still exciting and interesting and just an all-round pretty fantastic job.

So today I’m being sent away for 6 whole days to the Balearics – my workmate and I are spending 3 days in Ibiza and 3 days in Majorca, running around with cameras and trying to pack as many experiences into our time as humanely possible. I’m missing a few awesome things happening in Leeds during that time, but I must admit I’m pretty excited.

A few things I’m looking forward to:

  1. Getting out of the office for a week – I love my job but I hate spending 8 hours a day trapped behind a desk in a stuffy office! It’s nice to have a change of pace from time to time, especially if that change of pace is in Spain…
  2. Playing with a GoPro – When I go on a content research trip I get set loose with a GoPro camera, which I love! I can’t justify buying one for myself, so playing with the company one for a few days is awesome. Now I just need to learn to edit my own footage!
  3. Making my Periscope debut – Yes, my colleague and I are hopefully kicking off the company Periscope account with some live streams from Ibiza! I’m horrendously awkward on film and hate hearing my own voice, but life begins at the end of your comfort zone and all that…

    Comfort zone-where the magic happens

      Image credit: oklanica on Flickr.

  4. Reviving my fading tan – My Croatia holiday seems a million years ago, in part because my skin has almost completely returned to its naturally pasty shade. I’m very cautious of sun damage and never tan excessively, but who can resist a lovely golden glow?
  5. Putting my creative brain to work – I’ve been doing a lot of dry, research-based stuff at work recently, and a different setting and some new experiences are really going to get the creative juices flowing.
  6. Getting back to my hostel roots – I love hostels but it’s been a while! We’ve got a private room in a hostel in Ibiza, and in true hostel form it’s super cheap but has loads of awesome stuff a cheap hotel never has. Including a roof terrace decorated with beds and sofas…

Of course, first I have to pack. See you in a week!

5 Things To Do Before 25

In less than 6 months I’m hitting my next landmark age – 25. I know, super scary right? When I was little I thought of 25-year-olds as these big adults who had high-powered careers and mortgages and marriages, but as I approach this milestone with my low-level marketing job, tenancy agreement and ringless finger, I’ve realised that those things are so not my style. Maybe for 30-year-old me, but not yet.

However shunning the traditional markers of a ‘successful’ life doesn’t mean I don’t want to progress and develop myself. The idea of getting older has never scared me that much as long as I’m happy with where I am in my life – I reason that time passing is no disaster as long as you’re using it well. It got me thinking about the things I want to achieve by the time I’m 25, and I came up with a little list…

Learn basic coding

Kids nowadays are having HTML lessons at school, but my generation wasn’t so lucky. I’m not naturally techy, in fact I’m pretty much IT-illiterate, but I’m becoming increasingly aware that having some HTML and CSS knowledge would be really useful for my job. I’m already tracking down free courses online, and maybe in the future I’ll be able to nudge my employer to hook me up with an actual qualification…

Take control of my money

I’ve always been pretty good with my money – I don’t often splash out on non-essentials and I’ve never lived outside my means. However I do know that I should be doing more; as of October I’ll have a work pension and before 25 I’m going to get my first ever credit card so I don’t end up with a Nick Miller-style credit rating. I also know I’m not saving as much as I could be, so I’m going to make more of an effort to budget. There may even be a spreadsheet.

Go to a festival

That’s right; I’ve never partaken in that rite of passage where you go get drunk and muddy in a field with your best mates while listening to some music. A travesty. This one is cheating a little as it’s already happening – in September I’m going to End Of The Road with one of my best friends. Should be an awesome introduction to festivals – my friend just happens to be a journalist so she’s scored me not only a free ticket but also backstage access. Hell to the yeah…

Take a wine class

I know, I know, this sounds more than a little pretentious, but bear with me. Wine fascinates me; there’s something undeniably sophisticated about it, and after first getting a taste for red wine last year I’m now totally in love. I’m starting to get to grips with what I prefer, but I’d really like to be able to peruse a wine list and actually understand what I’m reading. Plus, the classes always include free tastings!

Plan an epic solo holiday

I’m aware how much this looks like a cop out (‘plan’ a trip? really?), but as my birthday is in January and I have about 5 days of annual leave left for this year it’s basically impossible for me to actually take a solo trip, so my aim is just to decide what the trip will be. I’ve been lucky enough to visit a fair few countries for someone of my age, but I’ve never done a lone trip. 2016 will be the year that changes!

Does anyone else have a list like this for before they reach their next birthday? Share your ideas!

How to Go From English Graduate to Dream Job

A while ago I was on the phone with one of my best friends, who I met and lived with while we were both studying English at university. I now live in Leeds and she lives in London, and we were trying to find a free weekend to meet up.

“I can’t do the bank holiday weekend; my company are sending me to Spain to attend a blogger conference,” I told her. “That’s fine,” she replied, “I’ve got to go to a festival that weekend to report on it for my magazine.” We both paused. “How did we get such awesome jobs?”

It was a good question. Our English degree course was punctuated with regular quips about how we were all doomed to unemployment; a couple of years of crying over rejection letters while hugging volumes of Chaucer before finally taking a low-paid job that wasn’t even related to our degree. We were all joking, but underneath the laughter was a hint of fear, a little voice in our heads whispering that the jokes might not turn out to be so funny in a few years.

I’ll always remember a particularly unpleasant talk that I had to sit through in my third year; the title was something vague about ‘Personal Development and Your Degree’, and the focus turned out to be our employment prospects post-graduation. I remember nothing about the presentation itself; what I do remember is the speaker asking us to raise our hands if we knew what we wanted to do after we finished the course, and seeing about 25 hands go up in a room of at least 200 students. My own not included.

Most Maths, Science, Law, Engineering and Medicine students know exactly what their end game is, but for the vast majority of Arts & Humanities students the future is not as certain. The subjects are more open-ended and therefore so are the career paths; our ‘transferable skills’ make many jobs a possibility, but it can be hard to figure out which one you want and even harder to convince an employer to hire you when your only proven skills are memorising Renaissance drama quotes and writing 5000-word essays on Post-structuralism. Incredibly, these talents are not so useful in the real world.

Between 16 and 21 a range of career possibilities floated through my head including teaching, journalism and publishing, but all I knew when I graduated was that I needed a break and a chance to clear my head. I worked full time in a supermarket for 6 months to fund a round-the-world trip, and although I had an amazing time I returned as unsure as ever about what I wanted to do. I started applying for jobs with nothing to my name except a degree, a few part-time service industry jobs and a small travel blog, and by some miracle managed to get a job as an Online Marketing Assistant at a holiday website.

Great Wall of China

Flash forward a year and a half to that phone conversation with my friend. It certainly didn’t happen overnight, but gradually I progressed from Marketing Assistant to Social Media Exec to my current job as an SEO Content Exec, taking responsibility for all the content on my company’s website as well as learning about technical SEO and helping to coordinate the company’s first blogger outreach campaign. It took me a while to get here, but my job now is pretty damn good.

But here’s the funny thing. I originally went to interview for a Content Writer position – the interviewers liked me but felt I lacked experience, which was why I ended up being offered the assistant job instead. I took it because I needed a job and liked the idea of working for a travel firm, but if I’d seen an advert for a marketing assistant job I’d probably have skimmed right past it and my life would have taken an entirely different path, probably not including the amazing colleagues and all-expenses-paid trips abroad.

TBEX boat trip

I suppose the point of this is that there is no solid gold formula to get to where you want to be. I spent so many years stressing out about my future, about what would happen if I didn’t decide what I wanted to do early enough, or I didn’t get the grades, or I didn’t do work experience placements or make the right connections. Turns out all I needed to do was work hard, follow my interests, and trust that great opportunities can come from the most unlikely places. I’m not saying that you should drop the reins and leave everything to the ‘powers that be’ – I’ve always believed that you make your own destiny – but don’t ruin your life stressing about how to make it good. If you’re an English grad, chances are you chose your course not for the high-powered career it would lead to or the wage you were likely to get, but for the simple fact that you loved it. If you keep making decisions on that basis, you’ll never go far wrong.

Summer Book Haul

It recently came to my attention that my To Be Read pile had all but vanished, and it put me on edge. Although other life commitments mean I’m not as prolific a reader as I once was, I still always find it comforting to know that there’s a stack of books available to rifle through if I feel the need to pick up a new one, so to discover there was only one unread book in my bookcase was slightly disconcerting.

A visit to my favourite second-hand bookshop immediately shot to the top of my weekend to-do list. The Oxfam bookshop in Headingley is an absolute treasure trove with shelves catering for every genre you can think of; I literally don’t think I’ve ever left without making a purchase. The books are absolute bargains as well – with the price of a book averaging out at around £3.50 you’d be hard pushed to find cheaper on Amazon, and this way you’re paying for instant gratification instead of a painfully long delivery time, and helping a good cause!

After an especially successful trip I now have five new books, which at my current shamefully slow reading pace should be enough to last me the summer. Let’s have a look at what I got…

Summer book haul

Closing Time – Joseph Heller

This is actually my one remaining book from my last buying spree, and I’ve been putting off reading it because I’m still not sure what to think about it. Until now I never even realised that Catch-22 has a sequel, and I’m terrified that it’s going to be mind-numbingly mediocre. Even if it’s good, the book revisits the characters contemplating death as old men, and I can’t bear the thought of a character as remarkable as Yossarian dying of something as commonplace as old age…

The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood

For a feminist bookworm I’m still a relative Margaret Atwood newbie. I read Oryx and Crake at 20 and really enjoyed it, but I followed it up with Cat’s Eye and felt underwhelmed so neglected further reading in favour of more tempting prospects. However a row of Atwood books caught my eye and I remembered reading a lot of praise about The Blind Assassin, so at £2.99 I reasoned it was worth a try. I have very little idea what it’s about – even the blurb is cryptic – but I’m happy to leave it as a surprise!

The Beach – Alex Garland

I’ve seen Danny Boyle’s adaptation of The Beach and (Leo-swooning aside) struggled to pay attention for the full two hours, but I’m a firm believer in books being better than their film adaptations. Besides, most of my purchases are pretty heavy subject-wise, and with the adventure storyline and Thai island setting The Beach feels like a slight break from the serious stuff. I’ve got it earmarked as holiday reading – feels like the perfect material for a lazy day of sunbathing.

The Goldfinch – Donna Tarte

Possibly my most exciting find – I’m super thrilled by this one! Considering how relatively new this book is and the good condition it was in, I almost felt cheeky paying just £4 for it, but I wasn’t going to argue. I read The Secret History earlier this year and fell completely in love – the story was so intensely absorbing, the prose so breathtakingly flawless, that I couldn’t put it down. I haven’t been affected so deeply by a book in a long time, and I can’t wait to see if The Goldfinch measures up.

The Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess

Eeeesh. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve picked this up before chickening out and putting it back on the shelf. Even the saleswoman winced at me as she scanned it through the till. Getting used to the slang is going to be a challenge but I’m cautiously optimistic, and I like the idea that I can pick up a made-up language while reading. However I might have to set aside a few hours to really get into this one; somehow it doesn’t feel like casual commute reading…

So there’s my reading list for the summer! What’s on yours?