Travel is part of my DNA and with it comes a love of photography. I share a bit of both on Footsteps and Photos. I write fiction, so expect musings about the writing process to appear on that blog too. My first novel is available on Amazon: The Broken Heart Repair Plan.
I'm setting up a new blog, to track how I get on giving up dairy products - I can no longer justify consuming it but I'm not convinced I'm going to be able to. I thought a blog would help me.
I’ve visited Boston many times in the past three decades, as my Aunt moved there when she got married. I love the city but don’t go as often now, as Margaret lives in Atlanta. But I’ve been back recently for Christmas and weddings, as two of my three wonderful cousins are still there.
So I thought I’d share my tips. They are probably well known but I if they’re useful for even one or two people about to go there, then that’s a job well done.
Walk. Boston is a small enough city to get to know on foot. Walking from Boston Common, to Quincy Market, to the North End is a great way to spend the best part of a day. Even better, you can have a fantastic Italian lunch and cake in the North End.
Do visit the Holocaust Memorial when you’re walking in the Quincy Market area. There are many around the world but I find this one particularly haunting and moving.
Book a table one evening at the Atlantic Fish Company on Boylston Street. Not only is the Lobster simply supreme but pretty much everything else on the menu makes my mouth water. It’s a blow out because it isn’t cheap but it is very much worth it if you love fresh, perfectly cooked seafood and fish.
Sign up to ‘Secret Boston‘ – it’s an email service that lets you know of cheap/exclusive/unusual things to do. They’re all at really short notice, so it’s best to sign up shortly before you go.
Have a drink in the Top of the Hub – the bar at the top of the Prudential Center. The views are fantastic and the drinks are not outrageously priced. Obviously it makes sense to do this on a clear day, though! Now that the John Hancock tower observatory has shut, this is the place for views and if you want the full 360 degrees, you’ll need to pay $17 for the Sky Walk a couple of floors down, as that’s where the full landscape can be seen.
If you have time for more than one museum, make your Number 2 visit the Museum of Fine Arts. It is fantastic. A great collection and they always have fantastic exhibitions too.
If you have time for a third culture vulture experience, go on an Art and Architecture tour of the Boston Public Library. I did this for the first time on my most recent trip and I was very glad I did. It has a gallery upstairs filled with murals created by John Singer Sargent and they are a wonder to behold.
Visit Harvard. It’s lovely just soaking up the atmosphere but there are good museums too.
Trinity Church on Copley Square has free lunchtime organ recitals. If you want an unusual break during the day, it’s impressive. This is on a Friday only.
Here are my photos from the Art and Architecture tour of the library and the views from Top of the Hub.
“Years ago I decided that the greatest need in our Country was Art… We were a very young country and had very few opportunities of seeing beautiful things, works of art… So, I determined to make it my life’s work if I could.”
Isabella Stewart Gardner, on the creation of her Museum, 1917
Whenever I walk up to the Floral Hall of the Royal Opera House in London, my spirits lift. Even if they are good to begin with, they lift. I call it my ‘happy place’. I find it impossible to be anything other than filled with joy when I am there.
The same is true of my favourite museum in the world; the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, USA. Even though I now feel I know the collection well, I like to go there each time I visit Boston, revelling in the courtyard, the cloisters and delighting in discovering a piece of art I missed last time or simply enjoying my favourite painting.
Isabella Stewart Gardner was a wealthy art collector who created her museum in 1900 and opened it in 1903. She had travelled extensively and had a profound love of Italian art and architecture, so she had the building designed to look like a 15th-century Venetian palace.
Walking in through the modern entrance and arriving at the old part of the museum, first-time visitors gasp with pleasure when they arrive at the courtyard. Even though it no longer surprises me, I still have a mental gasp as I look out onto the atrium-covered terrace, as its beauty staggers me every time. With a central square of roman mosaics, the courtyard is filled with Greek, Roman and Egyptian sculptures nestled among seasonal flowers and plants.
A cool, calming cloister surrounds the courtyard and it is almost a struggle to drag oneself away from it but delights and surprises are tucked away on three floors of galleries, so it does pay to move on when you can bear to.
The Spanish Gallery houses the best jewel; El Jaleo by John Singer Sargent. I will never tire of being drawn in to this picture. I am transported to a cave in Granada or Jerez, and want to stamp my feet and clap along. It is so intense that I can almost hear the guitars and mournful wailing of Flamenco singing.
There are many more Sargent’s to discover, along with two ground-floor rooms stuffed full of glorious early 20th-century paintings and two floors that offer an A-Z of masterpieces from Fra Angelica to Anders Zorn. Play the ‘which one piece would you take away, and only one’ and you will struggle to decide. Will it be a haunting Whistler landscape or a priceless renaissance masterpiece?
If you do ever get the chance to visit Boston, prioritise The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Yes, you need to troop around Faneuil Hall and do the Freedom Trail, I’m not going to tell you not to. But give yourself a wonderful cultural treat and get to Fenway for art and not the Red Sox!
In the meantime, here are my few photos to give you a flavour of what’s in store!
If that sounds complacent or boastful, trust me, it isn’t. It’s relief and joy. I had an up and down (more down than up) 15 months leading up to the New Year, so to be able to say with confidence that the first 10 days of the year are good is a remarkable feeling.
I published my first novel on 30th December. After two years of sitting on it, too scared to put it out in the world, I realised that I wasn’t going to be able to move onto ProjectP (as novel number two shall henceforth be named until I publish it!) until I had released ‘The Broken Heart Repair Plan’ into the world.
January 1st dawned with a nice handful of sales and a heart-warming and loving reaction from friends and family. Then, on my first day back at work, I made it onto the New Year Woman’s Hour phone in, which focused on big changes that we women were planning to make in 2016.
Having taken five years in total to produce Novel Number One, I have resolved to write, edit and publish ProjectP within the year and it felt amazing to say that out loud, live on air to circa 4m listeners. It made it a commitment, not a resolution, and that feels different; more solid, more planned, much more achievable.
Yesterday, I put that commitment into action. I went to the first Writers’ Circle brunch of the year and wrote the first few paragraphs of the first chapter of ProjectP. I read them out to three friends later in the day and the reaction was wonderful – ‘more please!’ It doesn’t get much better than that.
And today, here I am, starting my writing day with a new blog post, which will be the first of many and regular ones.
So for what it’s worth, here’s my New Year’s advice for any writers who might be struggling to turn a resolution into a commitment:
Join a writing group. The support is tremendous and the encouragement to keep writing is regular and a vital top up.
Just write. Kevin, one of the guys in my group, said he writes at least 500 words each day and he works full time like I do. If he can, I can. Make it a habit.
Publicly voice your commitment to your writing project – put it on Facebook, Tweet it, tell all your friends, blog it, write it in capital letters in your personal journey. Commit to it publicly and you increase the chances of making it happen.
Write. Even when you feel dull and lacking in inspiration, just write.
If you don’t have a specific project, then find competitions to enter. Even if you don’t send off the finished piece, you will at least have a rich source of writing prompts to choose from.
Happy New Year to all writers, everywhere around the world. Here’s hoping 2016 is a stellar year for all of us.
I have sorely neglected my blog for many months. But there’s a good reason. I have been finishing up a project that has taken over five years to complete – my first novel.
I fell in love with Jordan way, way back in 1994 and the inspiration was so deep than when I turned to writing, I knew that my first novel must be set there. If you love the country, I think you’ll enjoy the descriptions of Petra and Wadi Rum, two places that stole my heart and still rate as my favourite in the world.
If anyone has been to Jordan – either recently or in the past – I would love to know what you think of the descriptions in the novel. If you haven’t been but are toying with the idea, then I hope it might provide a bit of inspiration to start off 2016 adventure-planning.
And if you have travelled there in the past couple of years, I would dearly love to hear what this gorgeous country is now like. Did you receive a warm welcome? Is Petra still the beguiling, mysterious, beautiful place it was? I hope so.
Above all, I have to start my first day as a published novelist with a plug – please do buy the book. If you like it, please recommend it to your friends!
Five minutes drive into the Simien National Park we came across our first group of Gelada monkeys. Our driver shrugged when we asked to get out. What was an amazing sight for us was, we now know, just part of everyday life 3,000m up in the mountains.
Our guide, the wonderful Eshete Berju, was thrilled at our enthusiasm. He urged us to go nearer.
“Are you certain?” I asked, looking nervously at the 100 or more baboons frantically tearing at grass whilst grunting at each other. Posing for a photo we were urged nearer and nearer by Eshete and by the total lack of reaction, it was clear the monkeys didn’t give a monkeys about visitors!
It was a glorious introduction to the Simien Mountains and hanging out with Geladas became a necessary and magical part of each day’s trekking; and one that never bored.
The trip up to the Park was easy and fun. It started really when we got to Debark, to the park office. Craggy, rugged rangers hung around outside, ancient guns slung over their shoulders like troubadours would wear their guitars. Assigned to us for the four day trip was Fantoun, whose museum piece wouldn’t scare a five year old, let alone a hungry leopard. In the truck, Kate asked: “When was the last time you fired it?” Eshete translated and everyone laughed – Fantoun, our driver, Messi the chef and his sidekick. “Well?” Prompted Kate.
“Oh, he’s never shot it,” declared Eshete, seemingly amazed.
“So how does he know it works?”
“Well, he takes it apart and puts it back together all the time, so he knows all the parts work.”
Our laughter set them off again. It was going to be a fun trip.
Debark is at 2,800m and our first camp was 3,250m.
It’s not much of an elevation but when you’re trying to acclimatise the heart starts to pound and the breath shorten the very second that a path heads uphill. Thankfully that first day, nothing was too steep. Once the driver left us to trek, taking Messi and his assistant onto camp, Eshete, Fantoun, Kate and I set off for a few hours to walk to camp.
Just twenty minutes in, Eshete chatted to a couple of children and then pointed off track into a flat, almost treeless plain.
“There is a big group of geladas across there.” We couldn’t see them but we set off. It took me a long time to spot them but when I did, I was astounded. Hundreds of them. Hundreds. We had lunch with them. Geladas have absolutely no interest in the food we eat, so we were sitting surrounded by them. It was weird. And amazing. The noise is fascinating, as mostly it’s the sound of constant tearing and munching of grass. Every now and then, there would be a minor squabble about nothing and a minor game of chase, but mostly just tearing and munching, munching and tearing.
Eventually we set off again and the afternoon was filled with great views and birds of prey. As Kate said, “The Simien Mountains: a great place to be a buzzard.” I think I could watch birds coast the thermals for hours on end. It was hard to tear ourselves away from each and every cliff face.
We arrived at camp to find our tent up and a camp table laid out with flasks of tea and coffee. Popcorn arrived within minutes. It’s the snack of choice in Ethiopia – it’s part of the coffee ceremony that takes place all over the country in most houses, hostelries and hotels.
The view just beyond our campsite was fantastic; a gorge so peaceful that the only sounds were bees (do they have bees that high up or is this a figment of my imagination?) and the occasional distant chatter from the campsite. It was a lovely place to sit as the light mellowed.
The minute the sun started to sink, however, it got cold. Suddenly we were very grateful for the fire in the cooking hut and layering up, we rushed inside. Expecting a simple supper, we were staggered at what Messi had achieved. He had one big gas ring and about eight different pots. Vast quantities of vegetable soup were followed by a main course of about six different veggies and pasta. As if that wasn’t spectacular enough, we had banana fritters for pud. I had been expecting very simple one pot cooking on the trip. I couldn’t have been more delighted.
And to top it off, we were given a hot water bottle each to take back to our little tent.
Although this blog is primarily for travel and photography, today I have to break with the norm, in the name of democracy.
Like many of my friends, I have spent the last couple of days feeling shell-shocked that the Conservative Party was re-elected with a majority. Those of us who voted Labour because we believe it is the party that stands the best chance of promoting social justice, protecting human rights, that will strive to maintain the NHS, work towards inclusive growth and address poverty, have been in a whirlpool of dread. We fear that the next five years will bring a return to the brutal days of Thatcherite Britain. Those were dark days that saw the persecution of people of ‘non straight’ sexuality, caused large numbers of teenagers to become homeless, saw the NHS ripped into, saw social housing stock sold off, and the neediest in society left to sink.
We share a dread of how the EU referendum is not just the start of an era of isolationism but also a fundamental betrayal of the generation that witnessed war followed by decades of co-operation.
We fear that the proposed Bill of Rights and Responsibilities – set to replace the Human Rights Act – is constitutionally dubious and marks a denial of the universality of human rights.
We realise with a sickening pit in our stomachs that TIPP looks inevitable and will (to borrow from Will Hutton) allow foreign companies to ‘plunder our national jewels’.
Personally, I don’t trust the Tories with the economy. The reduction in unemployment they have achieved is a) small and b) not directly related to an increase in prosperity for the least well off. Many of those jobs are part-time and badly paid. GDP is low and growth too.
And so the list of dreads goes on.
Over the last few years many of us Labour voters have sadly shaken our heads and bemoaned that ‘they’ chose the wrong Miliband; that Ed was unelectable. This morning I woke up to a fact that should have been obvious to me. A fact that I would urge all fellow L-voters to consider carefully.
‘They’ will be electing a new leader soon. If Labour is ever to stand a chance of being an electable party again, the right leader is critical. Every Labour voter has the opportunity to switch from passive to active at this precise moment. We can become members of the party, read about the candidates, hear what they have to say, get educated and decide who will do the best job of turning around the party’s – and therefore the country’s – hopes.
All we have to do is switch from being voters (passive) to members (active). I realised this morning that if we don’t participate in choosing the leader of the party we want to govern us, then we don’t have the right to moan if ‘they’ elect the wrong leader and fail to reform.
If I fail to switch, then I am no better than non-voters at the general election who complain bitterly that they don’t like the government that has been elected, or the system that saw them elected.
Petitions and protests will be there always as a vent for our frustrations. But we only have one opportunity to shape the direction of ‘they’ for the next five to ten years. That opportunity is now. That opportunity is to become ‘we’. I’ve joined the Labour Party today. I’m opting for participation because protests and petitions aren’t enough.
The Amber beer was cold and refreshing; our host’s smile warm and welcoming. Twelve hours into our two-week trip to Ethiopia and I was already feeling embraced by its people. From the minute we stepped off the ‘plane to be directed by a smiling airport official, I had a good feeling about Ethiopia; a feeling that told me this trip wouldn’t just be about the wildlife, landscapes and history.
With every beautiful smile and twinkly-eyed laugh, I fell a little more in love with Ethiopia.
By the time we reached Gonder and Mayleko Lodge, we were ready for that beer. While the domestic terminal of Bole Airport in Addis Adaba had proven surprisingly comfortable, thanks to its body-curve recliners that allowed us to snooze, 24 hours of travelling were taking their toll. A spacious cabin with big beds was just what we needed as we adjusted from British winter to African summer. A beautifully quiet place, 16km outside Gonder itself, Mayleko Lodge is a complex of about ten cabins, each with its own terrace – the perfect place to drink the owner’s favourite beer, Amber. A few minutes later, she sent over a plate of home made fries as an evening appetiser. Nice touch!
As the sun softened and the beer softened us, my friend Kate and I contemplated our trip with huge grins. The flights had been booked back in December, and nearly three months in which to plan and anticipate had added to the excitement of setting off on our first big trip together. Finally, we were here, in the cradle of civilisation and coffee.
With one day to see Gonder, we were keen to get going the next day, thinking it would be a rush to fit everything in. Not so. It’s a lovely place, full of 17th Century palaces, but most of them are grouped together in one site, making it neat and easy to see everything. The complete lack of hassle immediately marked Ethiopia out as different from many other African countries we’ve been to. I’m not really one for a guided tour, although I’ve been on many of them. I don’t absorb historical facts well, so for me, the enjoyment of a place is much more aesthetic than factual. We entered by the ticket office, expecting to be followed round by guides touting for business. But after a polite enquiry and an equally polite refusal from us, that was it. No-one pursued us and no-one looked at all put out that we weren’t hiring a guide.
It was a gorgeous complex of palaces to meander round, mostly crumbling. It was wonderful to imagine the grand court of Emperor Fasiladas meeting, greeting, scheming and partying. While we focused on photos of the ruins, Ethiopian tourists posed for photos. And while they were immaculately dressed, we were in traveller’s gear of baggy t-shirts and deeply unpretty walking trousers; not ideal when they asked us to pose for photos with them! There’s nothing like a stunningly beautiful Ethiopian woman to make you feel frumpy and dishevelled. It wasn’t the first time that I wished that I’d packed some make up and I came to regret deeply the absence of hair conditioner in my wash bag.
Quitting the palace complex we hailed our first tuk-tuk. There’s something about a tuk-tuk ride that makes me feel ‘yes, I’m away’. The noise, the dust, the drivers (and in some countries the crazy traffic) signal ‘other world’ in one gloriously loud and frantic snapshot.
The tuk-tuk driver wound up a short hill to Debre Berhan Selassie Church, one of the area’s most richly decorated. Every square centimetre of the walls and ceiling inside are covered in religious murals – wide-eyed cherubs above and bible scenes on the walls. It was fascinating.
But this was my favourite photo from the site.
All this history made us hungry for shade. And lunch. The tuk-tuk trundled uphill, struggling and bumping, to The Goha Hotel. It was recommended because of the view; perched on the edge of town, it’s truly panoramic. It was full of tourist groups and was deeply disappointing because of this. I think it was just too European for us on our first day of sightseeing. The view, though, was superb.
Suitably rested, we realised our beginners’ mistake; don’t let your tuk-tuk go when you’re in the middle of nowhere. Negotiate a price for the day instead. Still, the long hot walk back into town meant that we chatted on the way to a few people and had lots of nods and smiles.
Thirsty for our first real Ethiopian coffee, we eventually found a tuk-tuk and asked for the EEPCo Coffee House (praised in the guide book as the one with the best coffee in town). Much to our amusement (and that of our tuk-tuk driver) they had no coffee. So we went round the corner to Habesha Coffee Shop. I loved the fact that although we were the only women there, no-one gave us a second glance. I’ve been in plenty of African and Middle Eastern countries where we would have been objects of intense interest. Ethiopia was wonderfully refreshing in this respect.
The coffee was stunning – as strong as an espresso but beautifully rounded and deep without a hint of bitterness. And no grounds, unlike Turkish coffee. Ethiopian coffee made the traditional way is the best coffee I’ve ever drunk and probably ever will.
Next stop was the ceremonial baths, which in Fasiladas’ time was a summer house and party central. These days, it is the focus for Timkat (Epiphany, on 6 January), when hundreds of people are ‘re-baptised’ in a raucous, joyful celebration. In the quiet season, the pool is empty and a gentle wind breezes around the walled enclosure, leaves fluttering to the floor. It was a serene, lovely place.
The highlight of the day wasn’t the sight-seeing, although everything we saw was superb. The highlight was getting on a little minibus, crammed in with local shoppers and workers. We couldn’t chat, as we had no Amharic, but there were many smiles and nods and laughter. I think my bleached, cropped hair was a good source of entertainment but mostly I think it was just that tourists tend not to hop on the bus.
It was a pretty fine start to the holiday but the best was yet to come. The Simien Mountains beckoned…
It’s not often I use this blog for work things (hell, it’s not often that I use it these days – that will be changing). However, an article flagged up by an industry colleague (@chrisdate) needs a PR response.
Twitter is partnering with Google to put tweets into search results in real time. So what? Well, it’s designed to get marketers to start focusing on Twitter as a way of driving search engine optimisation.
The Advertising Age article lists how brands can best respond to the initiative. As a PR expert, I think our industry needs to respond robustly.
IF you want to use Twitter to support your SEO, then absolutely follow Advertising Age’s advice. It makes sense. But note the emphasis on IF. If you go down this road, then just be aware that if you decide to ‘leverage this new reach’ and start to ‘treat tweets like ads or landing pages’, then you lose the very thing that users of Twitter value – conversation. And if you lose that conversation, then you will lose followers.
It all gets back to thinking about your audience. If your influencers are engaged on Twitter (journalists, bloggers etc), then they are highly unlikely to retweet or reply to Twitter posts that are nothing more than keyword-optimised ads designed to push traffic and improve SEO. And consumer audiences? Yes, they do react to ads but that’s not Twitter’s strength – consumers love the interaction and conversation on Twitter, as it’s not replicated elsewhere.
The article advises: “In order to leverage this new reach, brands need to treat tweets like ads or landing pages. Have a meaningful call to action in your tweets or have a link to the brand site with more information. A simple message is not going to get your user to take action.”
Not every tweet does need to have a call to action. Reputation, influence and engagement are built by conversation, which includes retweeting good stuff from other brands, replying to other users, and commenting on relevant trends/news.
PR professionals, I think we need to work hard to ensure that we lead on Twitter and don’t lose the very things that make it so valuable.
And please note, I am not saying that SEO doesn’t matter. Of course it does. It’s just that not every single online activity should be about SEO. Reputation and engagement are just as important to building brands. Let’s not lose sight of that.
Am I alone on this? Have I misinterpreted the Advertising Age article? I don’t think I have but I’m sure my PR colleagues in the Twittersphere will let me know if I have. I really want to know, so tell me!