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5 damn good reasons to visit Amsterdam… or in praise of crooked houses

3 Apr

5 damn good reasons to visit Amsterdam

So this is my mini guide to Amsterdam. Well, sort of. If you want to know about vegan food, a cat shelter on a houseboat and my now favourite flea market, skip to halfway down this post. Ignore the other stuff.

You’re still here? Ok, well, this is the bit where I have a who am I moment while looking at a crooked house. I entirely blame (and thank) Elizabeth Gilbert for that.

Or at the very least, I blame/thank her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear for that moment.

My sister mentioned this book to me first. She’s an actress, so creative living is her bread and butter. Dealing with fear (her tales of auditions give me the shivers) is all part of the job. While she was telling me about this book, we were sitting on the Overground train in London and a stranger – a Londoner even – came up to say that she had also loved this book. It’s some book that can break the first rule of London travel: do not speak to strangers.

Then at Blook Club, the wonderful Jo mentioned Big Magic too (and later wrote this fab post). Everyone should read it, she said. The first chapters are a bit hard going but then there’s so many ah-ha moments, it really changes how you see things. (I’m badly paraphrasing here as she said it much more eloquently, passionately and succinctly than this.)

After two hardcore recommendations, I decided I’d listen to the Audiobook. I had a credit on my Audible account so why not…

And yes, the first chapters weren’t my thing but they were interesting. And sort of infuriating.

But then, I reached the chapters about fear. How everyone has fears, and why fear is boring. Oh so very boring. And I did a sharp intake of breath listening to all this (probably freaking out my fellow commuters) because, oh boy, did I identify. Weird how sometimes it takes someone else’s words to identify the things you’ve been thinking.

So here’s my confession – I used to write stories, screenplays and novels (I’ve even shot a short film with the BBC, had a TV show I wrote turned into an experiential play and been published by Penguin). Since moving to London, I stopped doing that. Why? Because it’s scary. Scary to invest the time. Scary to find the time. Scary to try. Scary not to try. Scary to fail. You get the idea… and she’s right, it’s kind of boring when you write it all down.

So Big Magic really struck a chord. A big loud ping of a chord. A sometimes high-pitched, teeth-clenching chord but heard all the same. Especially when I reached a chapter called In Praise of Crooked Houses. I can summarise the whole chapter as ‘done is better than perfect’ or ‘no-one will die if you create something that’s meh’.

And wandering down the canals of Amsterdam – yes, there is a connection I promise – another thought hit me. That crooked houses are not just imperfect, they’re somewhat magical. 

5 damn good reasons to visit Amsterdam

I mean, how on earth are they still standing? They defy every logic going, which is why they’re so wonderful.

And looking at them, I had a moment of recognition.

It turns out that I have of late been thinking of myself and the things I want to do as a crooked house, focusing on imperfections and that falling or failing feeling. It’s a tiring thing to do.

So scary or not, I’m going to get writing again. It feels a little wonky, a little lop-sided right now, but hopefully there’s crazy logic-defying beauty in there too. We’ll see.

Back to Amsterdam… I think any city that can make you see things differently will always win a place in your heart. It might not be so transformative for you but any place that helps you to give a damn about things again is pretty special.

So here’s my 5 damn good reasons to visit Amsterdam…

  1. Houseboats
    Any city where you can stay on a cosy, cool boat is all good by me. We booked
    this gorgeous houseboat not far from the train station… and were smitten with it. Even in early March, it was properly snug (I can promise it really was as I’m totally adverse to being cold) and had some of the best sleeps we’d had in ages.

    5 damn good reasons to visit Amsterdam 5 damn good reasons to visit Amsterdam

  2. Thrifty finds
    Forget the obvious ‘attractions’ of Amsterdam, you come here for the shopping. In particular, you come here for IJ Hallen – the biggest flea market in Europe. If the houseboat hadn’t already got us contemplating a move to Amsterdam, this place certainly did. We took the early morning ferry to the flea market – which was also a great way to get a very different view of Amsterdam. And then we wandered from stall to stall, trying not to fall for something we couldn’t get home. In the end, we of course found something that was tricky to travel with – a vintage school map of Denmark. (Which caused some confusion at the airport as to whether we could use a roll-up map as a weapon or not… Luckily, they decided not!).

    5 damn reasons to visit Amsterdam
    5 damn reasons to visit Amsterdam
    5 damn good reasons to visit Amsterdam
    5 damn good reasons to visit Amsterdam
    Another favourite was Kitsch Kitchen. Again had me wishing we lived here just so I could visit this shop more often. It’s possibly the happiest shop I’ve ever been in – selling bright coloured oil cloths, every kind of pinata you could ever want, Mexican cooking supplies, pencil sharpeners shaped like tiny irons, and vibrant blankets. It was here we found our Mexican blanket that we nearly had to fight someone to get. (Fight is a bit of an exaggeration – but someone did try to take the blanket out of my hands, and then looked super annoyed when it was clear that we were buying it!)

    Shopping tips in Amsterdam Shopping tips for Amsterdam, Holland
    5 damn good reasons to visit Amsterdam
    Other shops we loved were: Wildernis (one of the best plant shops I have ever been in),  All The Luck in the World (super accessories and homeware in an utterly Instagrammable shop), Blond Amsterdam (for modern twists on Dutch pottery), Anna + Nina (beautiful jewellery and pants, yes pants!), and the amazing A Space Oddity (essentially your inner child will lose its shit in here as there’s every sort of collectable toy, from Star Wars originals to Transformers to She-Ra).

  3. Vegan food

    Amsterdam is a pleasantly vegan-friendly city. Our first night, we visited the super friendly Terra Zen where we had the vegan plate and the Jamaican plate – and forgot to take any pics as we tucked in, so we have no visual evidence of it being good but it was. For our first lunch, we hit up De Bolhoed where the other half had a croissant stuffed with tofu curry! Sounds strange but was amazing. This place also got bonus points from us for having a resident big fluffy ginger cat.

    Vegan eats in Amsterdam
    Eating vegan in Amsterdam
    Eating vegan in Amsterdam

    Other favourites included: Sharp Sharp vegan treats from Mastino Pizza (which also does vegan cheese pizzas),  Soup en Zo for amazing vegan soups with a huge chunk of bread (there’s a few of these in Amsterdam so they’re good for a quick lunch), Vegabond for smoothies and dairy-free treats, and breakfast at CT coffee & coconuts.

    Eating vegan in Amsterdam 5 damn good reasons to visit Amsterdam Eating vegan in Amsterdam

    And a special shout-out to the It’s Not a Dog popcorn hummus vegan hotdog at Bulls and Dogs because it was a thing of ridiculousness but in a good way.

  4. Cats

    If you’re a cat fan, then Amsterdam has a few special attractions just for you – De Poezen Boot (a cat shelter on a boat) and De Kattenkabinet (a museum dedicated entirely to cats, yes really). The cat shelter is a lovely place that’s only open for a few hours a day when you can go in and meet the residents – or watch them get argy bargy with the swans outside. (A cat hissing at a swan while the swan hisses back is certainly nothing I’d seen before!)

    5 damn good reasons to visit Amsterdam
    Five damn good reasons to visit Amsterdam
    5 damn good reasons to go to Amsterdam

    And the Cat Cabinet museum… well, this is possibly the weirdest place I have ever been in my life. It’s debatable if it’s worth the entry fee but inside you’ll find an old Dutch house, decorating in framed pictures of cat photos, cat advertising, cat posters, cat signs, cat statues, even a really creepy cat costume. It’s supremely weird. It feels like you’re in Miss Havisham’s house, if she really, really liked cats. In the shop downstairs, they sell replicas of the best stuff, with thankfully no replica creepy costume.

    5 damn good reasons to visit Amsterdam 5 damn good reasons to visit Amsterdam

  5. The craziness

    You can’t visit Amsterdam without a mention of the craziness that is Amsterdam.

    – There’s more bikes than cars and you really feel like you might get run over any moment being a pedestrian. (I think the pecking order is: bikes, cars, then pedestrians.). You even see people cycling while texting, holding flowers or even children.

    – You can visit a floating flower market – which although very touristy is still lots of fun. (If you’ve read Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, it totally reminded me of the floating market in that with a little bit less craziness.)

    – They have a car park that looks like the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Yes, a car park. We see your world class museum and raise you a car park.

    – The Vincent Van Gogh museum which has a portrait of the artist as Donald Duck. It’s also an amazing, informative and well-curated museum but one that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

    – Oh and you can wear A LOT of pink here and no-one will blink an eye. I know, I tried it.

    5 damn reasons to visit Amsterdam
    5 damn good reasons to visit Amsterdam
    5 damn reasons to visit Amsterdam   5 damn reasons to visit Amsterdam 5 damn reasons to visit Amsterdam
    5 damn good reasons to visit Amsterdam
    5 damn good reasons to visit Amsterdam

Tree-mendous: a weekend in the coolest treehouse in Cornwall

5 Jul

The best ever treehouse in Cornwall, England | Conversation Pieces

Last weekend, we headed out of London for a little birthday adventure… staying in a treehouse in Cornwall. A round, wooden, Ewok-style tree pod in fact, located in a forest clearing.  It’s one of the craziest, cutest and coolest treehouses I have ever seen, and is certainly going to be one of the most memorable places I’ve ever stayed in.

The Ewok-style round treehouse in Cornwall | Conversation Pieces

By the time we arrived (thanks London for having crazy standstill traffic) it was dusk and the way to the treehouse could only be seen with a torch. I had that weird mixture of being thrilled and slightly terrified as we walked through the forest to where our weekend home was.

It was so quiet. Like proper quiet. You could hear the nearby stream and that was it. Both of our phones had died on the long drive which made it feel otherworldly somehow. We lit a camp fire, cooked some veggie sausages, and told some ghost stories until the darkness got the better of us!

Amazing round treehouse in Cornwall | Conversation Pieces

Inside the treehouse, it’s like a wooden tent with a fireplace, a sink, seating that folds down to make the beds and a little shelf to put things on. It’s compact but cosy… and when we lay down we could look up through the see-through panels to the night sky above.

Time to put out this tiny fire while we sing you a song | Conversation Pieces

On waking up (well, if you don’t count being woken up by an owl in the middle of the night), the first thing I wanted to do was actually look at the tree pod as I felt like I hadn’t seen it properly… and then set up some birthday-ness in the forest. Turns out it’s hard lighting a birthday candle with matches that have sat outside all night!

Roadside Neptune carving in Cornwall | Conversation Pieces

We hadn’t brought coffee – and since my other half essentially runs on coffee – we went off in search of some. We drove to Charlestown (where we spotted Neptune) and had some caffeine, followed by fish and chips.

Harbour jump shot in Cornwall | Conversation Pieces

Then we had a little stroll around the harbour, watching the kids leaping into the water and pondering what it must be like to grow up such a water baby. And of course, the other half had to do a jump… always a sign that he’s had enough coffee!

The amazing Eden Project in Cornwall | Conversation Pieces

From there, we were within quick driving distance of the Eden Project… so we headed there for the rest of the day, along with as it turns out a stadium’s worth of Motörhead fans. Yes, the ecological park and home to world’s largest indoor rainforest was also the stage for Motörhead that night. Which meant as we walked around, we heard occasional guitar solos and warm-ups as we wandered. Pretty cool even if neither of us could name a Motörhead tune.

Harvesting sculpture at the Eden Project in Cornwall | Conversation Pieces

With this odd mix, I’d rather fallen in love with the Eden Project – which reminded me of Jurassic World without the dinosaurs – and that was before we’d even explored the indoor rainforest.

A little piece of paradise inside the Eden Project in Cornwall| Conversation Pieces

Unsurprisingly, it’s hot inside… like in a rainforest hot. But it’s also pretty cool. Everywhere you turn there’s something to learn, something to look at, something to be a little bit awestruck by. Did you know that ferns are one of the first ever plants? Essentially, they’re dino plants. (I have a newfound respect for them now.)

Carvings inside the Eden Project in Cornwall| Conversation Pieces

Every corner had another surprise… I was rather taken with these Studio Ghibli style carvings.

Measuring the Titan arum at the Eden Project in Cornwall| Conversation Pieces

But the biggest surprise was this plant… The titan arum (aka corpse flower) is a spectacular AND stinky flower that only opens for about 48 hours. It attracts pollinating insects by basically smelling like a dead thing! It hadn’t flowered when we were there (maybe not a bad thing) but had grown massively overnight. All I could think of was the plant in Little Shop of Horrors!

Road side attraction at the Eden Project in Cornwall | Conversation Pieces

And of course no trip is complete without posing with a giant tyre… there’s also a giant spade for those of you who prefer spades!

Eat at Mimis vintage diner in Cornwall | Conversation Pieces

A slice of Americana in Cornwall| Conversation Pieces

As if the giant tyre wasn’t American enough, we discovered Mimi’s vintage diner on the drive back to our treehouse. It’s a real 1950s American diner which was shipped from New Jersey to the UK… from the tunes to the food and even the dresses the waitresses wear, it felt wonderfully authentic. Which added to the ‘where are we again?’ feeling.

Fries, burger and sweetcorn phones at Mimis diner in Cornwall | Conversation Pieces

Inside, all the little details are so much fun… especially this collection of novelty phones. I was smitten with the French fry phone in particular. I don’t have a home phone but I now want one so I can get one of these.

Root beer float at Mimis diner in Cornwall | Conversation Pieces

And anywhere that serves a root beer float in a watermelon glass is always going to get my vote. The food was delicious too – hot dogs, chilli corn and milkshakes – all freshly made. A good pit stop before heading home to light another fire, barbecue more food, and watch bats flit about as the light faded.

Adventures in a round treehouse | Conversation Pieces

Pretending to hold up the treehouse in Cornwall | Conversation Pieces

And then all too soon, it was our last morning at our treehouse… which meant we had to get every possible photo of it we could. Of course.

Highland cow spotting in Cornwall | Conversation Pieces

Just as we were leaving, we spotted some Highland cows just sitting at the side of the road. I was so surprised that I made us stop the car. Who knew Cornwall had Heeland Coos?!

Stonehenge on a midsummer night | Conversation Pieces

On the drive home, we knew we were going to pass Stonehenge… so rather than stop at a service station to break up the drive, we went here. Possibly the most scenic coffee stop I have ever had. And so much more fun than a Little Chef!

Summer evening at Stonehenge, Wiltshire, England | Conversation Pieces

As we were leaving, we passed around 30 people dressed as druids, with drums and a Lord of the Rings style horn, off to celebrate/worship the summer solstice. It was somehow a fitting ending to a weird and wonderful weekend.

Pink and purple sunset driving back into London | Conversation Pieces

It was such a short weekend (with so much driving) and I couldn’t help but wish we’d had another day or two… but then, as we drove back into London, the skies turned pink and purple as if saying welcome back. This city knows how to keep a girl’s heart…

The London bucket-list for new Londoners (or London lovers)

2 Mar

Take a tour inside Big Ben | Conversation Pieces

Almost two years ago, I was a brand new Londoner. With a list as long as my arm of things I wanted to do here. So I made a bucket list. (Because that’s what people do right?)

My original thought was that once we’d ‘done’ all the things on the list, then we might move home – back to Edinburgh.

Now anyone else who’s moved to London and had a similar thought will recognise what happens next… the bucket list just keeps growing, and growing. And before you even realise it this city – this swirling mass of brilliant and bonkers things to do – is home.

So for any other new Londoners or just London lovers, here’s my bucket list for London… and with some optional advice of things I’ve learned along the way.

1. Take a tour inside Big Ben – and climb 334 steps to get inside the clock tower. To do the tour, you have to be a UK resident and book through your MP. Expect to wait a few months after your request but it’s totally worth it. Standing behind the clock face while the bell sounds out is one of the coolest (and loudest) things I’ve ever done.

Optional: Matching biscuit not required but highly recommended.

On the London bucket list, climb inside Big Ben | Conversation Pieces

2. Visit Aldwych Station, an abandoned underground station… Ok, so Londoners go on the tube every day. It shouldn’t be that special to go and visit another Tube station but it is. It’s abandoned! It’s spooky! And it’s used as a filming location! The station was a bomb shelter (for artefacts from the British Museum) during WWII, then unused and unloved for many years, and then found a new life as a TV and film set. The train sequence in Sherlock was filmed here, and the Prodigy’s Firestarter music video to name a few. Tours are not that easy to come by but keep an eye on the London Transport Museum events page for when they’re on.

Optional: Pretending to be in that Firestarter video and doing a crazy dance while down there.  Or taking pictures with lots of dust in them and then mildly freaking out that you’ve captured a ghostly presence in your photos.

Visit the abandoned tube station Aldwych

3. Walk on the tracks of the Brunel Tunnel – the oldest tunnel in the Underground. When there’s engineering works on, the Brunel Tunnel Museum sometimes run tours of the tunnel – originally built as a ‘tourist attraction and party venue’, then became an area of disrepute, before being converted into the underground tunnel that it is today.

Optional: Stopping to take a snap on the bench replica of Tower Bridge outside the Museum. (Also since you’re here, go to the Museum. It’s tiny, like really, really tiny, but well worth spending 20 mins in.)

Visit Brunel's Tunnel (and sit on the Tower Bridge bench)

4. Breakfast at Duck & Waffle or at Sky Pod inside the Walkie Talkie. To celebrate our first year in London, we treated ourselves to breakfast at Duck & Waffle and sat admiring the view more than we actually ate breakfast. Then to celebrate surviving January 2015 (my least favourite month of the year) we went for a 7am breakfast at Sky Pod, which is the public ‘garden’ at the top of the Walkie Talkie building.

Optional: Go to work afterwards. Feel smug that you missed your normal crazy commute and ate breakfast somewhere pretty damn cool. Feel slightly regretful by 10am when you realise that two strong coffees at 7am was maybe too much.

Breakfast at the Duck & Waffle and The Sky Pod

5. Jive dance at Rivoli Ballroomthe only intact 1950s ballroom in London. It’s like stepping into something from a Baz Luhrmann film with the Chinese lanterns, flocked wallpaper and vintage charm. (It’s also been used as a film locating for Strictly Ballroom and, eh, Avengers Assemble.)

Optional: Realising that despite having done a jive lesson (and learning how to Lindy Hop), none of this has been retained by your traitor of a brain.  If this happens, just go with the flow, fling yourself about and watch out for stray elbows (and men with wet backs!).

Go jive dancing at London's Rivolii Ballroom

 6. Press the champagne button at Bob Bob RicardThis elegant, eccentric restaurant has four person booths (with tiny privacy curtains) and it makes me feel like I’m in a 40s movie (spotting a theme?) but the best bit of all is that button. Even if you don’t like champagne, you have to press it.

Optional: Hmm, the pudding! The Bob Bob Ricard special is a gold chocolate orb that melts when you pour chocolate sauce on it. It’s worth it just to watch it melt – but it’s also one heck of a luxurious dessert!

Press the champagne button at Bob Bob Ricard

7. Go to City Hall on Open House London weekend.  Yes, it looks like a giant bike helmet from the outside but if you’re after some pretty cool architecture and some relatively short queues (the Open House London ones are craaaazy long).

Optional: Lie down on the carpet, ignore the stares and admire the big swirly, whirly staircase.

Inside London's City Hall, looking up

8. Rent a Boris Bike. Ride about London, feeling like a boss.

Optional: Falling off said bike, and landing on your chin. If this does happen, head straight to Stories for gin, meringues and a serious amount of pain killers. Stay there until the sugar, alcohol and ibuprofen kick in. Whatever you do, don’t look in the mirror at what you’ve done to your face. This will only make you go extremely white and feel very sick. Then you’ll need more meringues and gin.  Ride a Boris Bike... falling off optional

 9. Eat in a converted toilet at The AttendantNow I’m slightly obsessed with converted venues I’ll admit. Used to be a bus, train carriage, post office? Then I’m your biggest fan. Converted loo even better. Maybe that’s just me.

Optional: Thinking about the fact that people used to pee in here. Or where you’re eating.

Coffee and cake at The Attendant, converted toilet in London

 10. Go to Secret Cinema. The secret, secret one. It’s an experiential night where you book before you have any idea what the film is. On the night, you’re then plunged into an immersive experience for an entire evening. Oh, and they take your phone off you, so there’s no sneaky snapping. Weirdly, this is also quite cool – you have to actually look at things with your eyes and remember them with your brain. Novel!

Optional 1: Drinking one too many vintage cocktails and waking up still in your 1920s flapper dress. I’m sure that’s how they did it back then. Ahem.
Optional 2: Go to Prangsta in New Cross for your outfit. The head piece I’m wearing here is from them – I would wear it every damn day if I thought I could get away with it.

Go to Secret Cinema

11. Go on the Emirates Air Line I’ll admit I thought this would be scary. So scary that I put off visiting it for ages, but it’s actually really rather cool. The queues can be huge but it’s worth the wait for a different view of London. Also there’s the silliness of getting into a cable car to cross a river, just because you can. Does it make any sense? Nope. But that’s another reason to like it.

Optional: Waving at the people in the other carriage. Yes, you’ll feel like a dweeb but it will put a big smile on your face and theirs.

Take a trip on the Emirates Air Line in London

12. Go late in the day to Columbia Road Flower Market… I think every guidebook ever tells you to get up super early for Columbia Road Flower Market. I’d say go late in the day as you get cheaper flowers, slightly less crowds and you can go for a late brunch afterwards.

Optional: Find the fox door knockers and dream about owning a flat on this road.

Visit Columbia Road flower market in London

 13. Have a drink on a rooftop car park… Frank’s Campari Bar is only open during the summer because let’s face it who wants to drink on the rooftop of a car park in winter? When it is open, you’ll find one of the busiest bars ever with one of my favourite views of London. (Ok, ok, so I have several favourite views but this one is great because you can see everything all at once.)

Optional: PeckhamPlex nearby is the cheapest (and cheeriest) cinemas in all of London so if you fancy doing something more than drinking, head here when the sun goes down.

Frank's Campari Bar in Peckham London

14. Go up BT Tower I was very lucky to do this as part of my old job last year. If you get the chance to go, jump at it. The view is pretty special, especially if it turns from day into night while you’re up there.

Optional: If the restaurant starts revolving, standing on either side of the moving floor and slowly watch as the view changes. Weird but awesomely weird.

Take a trip up BT Tower

15. Capture a London sunset… the thing about London is that you don’t have to be up high to have an amazing view. You just have to be walking home from work one night as the sun goes down and turns everything pink.

Optional: Admire the sunset from the Hungerford bridge as a busker sings No Woman, No Cry – and two tourists join in, singing in unexpectedly perfect harmony.

Capture a London sunset

16. Find ‘your’ London… Yeah, that seems like an odd bucket list suggestion. But I find if you’re a new Londoner then it doesn’t really feel like you live in London. It feels like you’re passing through, like London belongs to other people, but not yet to you.

Every Londoner has their own patch, their own places that they revisit, their own piece of London well-trod… and the nice thing about exploring is that you get to find out where your bit of London is. It’s out there, somewhere, that patchwork of random things that belongs just to you.

If you want any more suggestions, check out my Pinterest board: London bucket list. It’s very much unfinished and I love that more than all the things I’ve done so far. And of course any suggestions of things I should add to the list are very welcome too. Anything weird and wonderful. Especially if it’s another converted loo or a new view!  

Our Roman Holiday… 5 days of gelato, coffee, street art and, er, cats in Rome

25 Aug

Watching the film Roman Holiday on a rooftop in Rome, Italy

We spent the whole day doing things I’ve always wanted to.”
Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday.

Watching Roman Holiday on a rooftop, with St Peter's in the background

Somewhere up on a rooftop in Rome, with St Peter’s illuminated in the background and a glass of cava in hand, I watched Roman Holiday for the first time. It was by far my best outdoor cinema experience ever. The 1953 film stars Audrey Hepburn as the not so perfect princess and Gregory Peck as her not so perfect knight in shining armour… set in the really rather perfect setting of 50s Rome. They whizz about on mopeds, eat gelato, sip coffee, fall in love… and do so without anyone ever breaking a sweat or getting sunburnt.

Liuk – vintage lemonade and liquorice ice lolly

Our Roman Holiday, on the other hand, well in most of the pictures I look less like an Audrey Hepburn princess and more just pickled. Being Scottish means that I can do about 30 mins in 32 degrees before I start to melt. Which meant that in our 5 days in Rome it was essential for me to eat my body weight in gelato and coffee granita. Absolutely essential.

Gelato at Gelateria del Teatro, Rome, Italy

Our favourite gelato places were: Hedera Sweetness & Co, Gelateria del Teatro and Fatamorgana. We experimented with Lavender and Peach, Sicilian Peach, White Chocolate with Basil, Custard and Pine Nuts, Rose Petals and Violet Flowers, Cheese and Cherry, Cheese and Walnut Fig, and even Kentucky” (chocolate with tobacco). Did I mention we ate a lot of gelato in 5 days? 

Rome essential: Coffee granita at Taza D’Oro

Also I now firmly believe that a coffee granita at Taza D’Oro is an essential part of any visit to Rome. The other half took a picture of me while eating mine; I have a really crazy wide-eyed look of ‘oh my freaking goodness’ while I’m devouring it. To say that I was a little hyper afterwards would be the understatement of the year.

Inbetween eating all the sweet icy things, we did take some time to see the sights of Rome… in fact, one of the things I hadn’t realised about Rome is just how many old things there are to see. And when you even start to think about how old they are, you get a bit dizzy… or at least you do if you’ve been living on gelato and coffee for the last few days.

The Colosseum in Rome, Italy

So, the Colosseum. It’s 1942 years old. That blows my mind. So we did what we do when faced with such an ancient artifact… jumping shots!

Getting ready to do a jumpstagram at the Colosseum in Rome Italy

Now the thing with the Colosseum (and all of Rome really) is there’s a lot of people about. Like a HUGE amount. And they will stare at you a HUGE amount if you sit down on the ground to take jumping shots of your other half… the tired, grumpy, exhausted stares of tourists who are hot, bothered and mind-boggled by too much old stuff.

Jumpstagram at the Colosseum in Rome Italy

Definitely a ‘when in Rome’ moment… that was especially hard to capture as I was giggling too much. The other half assured me that jumping in that heat was particularly hard. Not that it stopped him of course.


Now I may have mentioned that Rome is really, really busy… London’s Oxford Street on a Saturday or Edinburgh during the Fringe you ain’t got nothing on Rome. But see in Roman Holiday, Audrey Hepburn eats ice cream on the Spanish Steps and there’s hardly a soul about.

From where I stand in Rome

Standing on the Spanish Steps in Rome

Meanwhile on our Roman Holiday, this was the only way we could take pictures of each other without a bazillion other people in the background. (Well, almost. We do have an ‘arrgh, the Spanish Steps are soooo busy’ selfie of the two of us too. It’s actually one of my favourite pics of the two of us.)

Tourists on the Spanish Steps in Rome

Because in reality the Spanish Steps look like this… yes, there are steps under there somewhere. See those people just standing at the bottom of the steps, contemplating whether they really want to go up them or not? I’m guessing they were surprised by how busy they were too.

Hiding between the pillars at The Vatican in Rome, Italy

Similarly, the Vatican… we visited at the end of the day when officially it was closed, the crowds had dispersed and the sun was beginning to set.

Alone at the Vatican in Rome

If you’re not a big fan of crowds and don’t mind not going inside, I’d highly recommend doing it this way… there was something weird and wonderful about having it to ourselves. Like we’d stumbled onto a Dan Brown film set. (One of those movies I’d only recommend seeing if it’s on TV and you’re having a lazy day on the couch… and you can’t reach the remote to change the channel.)

Roman Forum in Rome

But back to the very, very old stuff… Rome has a way of making you feel rather small and inconsequential (intimidating ruins!) and then you spot the seagulls…

Seagulls at the Roman Forum in Rome

Seagull standing on a pillar in Rome, Italy

Seagull perched on Ponte Sant'Angelo statue in Rome, Italy

Seagull perched on statue on a bridge in Rome, Italy

Seagull perched on ruins in Rome, Italy

Turns out that it doesn’t matter how old you are, how much you’ve achieved, how regal, how impressive, how historic… you will inevitably end up a grand perch for a seagull. (This ‘philosophy’ may have occurred to me around 30 mins after I had the coffee granita. Plato and Socrates did all their best work after having a coffee granita.*)

Largo di Torre Argentina in Rome – where Casear was stabbed and now a cat sanctuary

Or… and this is a big or… as a sanctuary for cats! Now this place (Largo di Torre Argentina) gets a big shout-out in the history books as it’s the place where Caesar was stabbed. Proper epic history right there. But it’s almost impossible to take this information in as it’s also home to a shelter (Torre Argentina) that looks after stray cats.

Shelter cat sign at Torre Argentina in Rome, Italy

We went just went to have ‘a look’… and only just came out without having adopted Nero the black kitty with neurological problems and Stevie Wonder the cat who’s blind. Not to mention the two tiny kittens who made me well up on the way out. (There’s a high chance eating a lot of gelato might make you susceptible to tears!)

Nero the shelter cat at Largo di Torre Argentina in Rome, Italy


Shelter cat at Largo di Torre Argentina in Rome Italy

Shelter cats sleeping at Torre Argentina in Rome, Italy

Shelter cat sleeping at Torre Argentina in Rome, Italy

Shelter cat eating at Torre Argentina in Rome, Italy

We didn’t catch this guy’s name but you gotta love a cat that is helping itself to everyone’s dinner provisions, while putting its tail in some other food at the same time.

Rome’s other surprise was the street art… I really hadn’t considered that there would be any. Let alone cheeky angel themed street signs.

Kissing street sign in Rome, Italy

Angel street art sign in Rome Italy

Angel street art in Rome Italy

Cat being chased - street art in Rome

Life's a bite – street art in Rome

And it’s not just the street art, there’s humour and colour everywhere in Rome… faces in strange places…

Switches with faces in on a wall in Rome Italy

… and dashes of colour in even in the narrowest of winding back alleyways.

Colourful window box in Rome

And all to soon it was time to say goodbye to our little Air B’n’B apartment, and its wonderful rooftop view of St Peter’s, quirky Pinocchio touches, lovely tiles and colourful coffee makers.

Air BnB apartment in Rome, Italy

Soft green Bialetti espresso maker – Conversation Pieces Blog

Rome Air BnB apartment bathroom tiles

Until next time Rome, ti amo. You crazy city of relics, ruins, coffee, cats, gelato and  gulls. 

Rooftops and The Altar of the Fatherland in Rome, Italy

I’ll miss eating watermelon on your rooftops… the only thing I ate more than gelato! (Honestly, I had a whole watermelon to myself one day. That’s how hot I was!)

Rooftop watermelon slice in Rome, Italy


*May not be a historically accurate fact. Though I’m pretty sure Plato and Socrates would have enjoyed them too.

London reflections… one big city, one little marble

2 Mar


339 days ago, I moved to London… 

In those first days, people would ask regularly ‘are you absolutely loving it’? Those exact words.

And I didn’t have a good answer. Did I? I really wasn’t sure.

It was good. I liked it. It suited me. But love? 

It’s hard to love something so familiar and so strange all at once.



But, after nearly a year, I’ve realised that to love London is to admit you’re thrilled by something massive, sprawling, wonky, overcrowded, brilliant, bonkers, irreverent, complicated and altogether glorious.

It’s like a proper relationship. You’ll have your good days, your bad days, and the days that make you feel like there could never, ever be another city for you.



Which is strange to say as I know a big part of my heart still belongs to Edinburgh (and I gave away some of it to Brooklyn and Tokyo too)… but it’s impossible to think of anywhere else when you’re staring up at Big Ben or gazing down on St Paul’s.



It’s the old and new. The history. The heartbeat.

It’s the music that spills out of tiny flats on hot summer nights. It’s the solidarity of waiting on late buses. It’s the smiles in the crowds. It’s the voices you hear in the streets. The laughter, the anger, the humanness of it all.



So here’s to you, you wildly strange place I now call home… this is my love letter to you, all with the help of a shiny marble and a rather gorgeous Spring day.

Yes, I think we can definitely call this love.







Colourful London - @Convo_Pieces

Love you London. Thanks for the last 339 days, here’s to many more xx

Santa, I know him! … and other Christmas New York tales

24 Dec


On 34th Street is where we start this tale… all about a girl and a boy and a big shiny city called New York.

Now, they’d come here before – last time during a hurricane – and that hadn’t felt quite enough.

So they returned to do a re-do. But not for oh so terrifying Halloween this time… they came for Christmas instead, surely the weather would be less scary she said!


And oh New York, you did not disappoint. Yes, it was colder, the days were shorter, and our cheeks were pink from the biting wind… but it was all rather wonderful all the same. Especially as we were treated to a glorious coral-pink-orange sunset every evening.


And then there was this guy… now as much as I love Halloween, well, Christmas is Christmas. So there was Santa spotting to be done.

Turn a corner and all of a sudden, and you’ll find the red suited dude on motorbikes (NYC Santas have upgraded from reindeer). With Santa Claus is Coming to Town blasting out from somewhere. Obviously.


But we couldn’t come all the way without meeting the real deal. Now watching Miracle on 34th Street had led me to believe that the actual big guy is to be found at Macy’s department store. So grinning – like the dweebs we are – we joined the queue to meet Santa…

What we’d expected was a big queue of kids that we could sneak past and get a quick snap – from afar. Instead, we turned a corner and an elf told us to ‘go this way’… and suddenly we were in a room – alone, well, us and elves – with Santa.

Still holding hands, we pressed ourselves against the back wall, possibly terrified, and had to be beckoned towards him.


Which resulted in this awkward photo with the ‘real’ Santa… who clearly might not be the real Santa as…


… as when the legends Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart met Santa at Macy’s too, that’s definitely another Santa. Shock. Horror! (Also they seem a whole lot more onboard with getting their picture taken than us it has to be said. Cooler than us!)


That said, give me the Yeti from the Saks Fifth Avenue Christmas window… and I am this happy. (Yeah, I know I am soooo logical!)


Essentially the window at Saks told the story of a Yeti who makes snow… who travels to New York. So far, so Elf.


It was such a popular window that you had to queue to see it. Yes, queue to see a window! (We may have cheated and just taken these pictures over people’s heads!)


As well as Santa (and Yeti) stalking, there was Christmas tree hunting to be done… so we went to see the Rockefeller Tree. Along with almost everyone else in New York. Nothing more festive that being crushed in a crowd of hundreds while looking at a big tree. Humans are weird when you think about it!


And it is BIG… but then when you look at it next to the Rockefeller Center, it’s pretty teeny really.


Instead my favourite Christmas tree of all was the one at the American Museum of National History with its origami decorations!


Complete with origami dinosaurs… really, really, really wished they had ones to take away!


I can’t have been the only one hoping for an extra huge tree though as these HUGE baubles prove.


Imagine the size of the tree that would go with these lights! (I was a little happy to find these!)


And when we weren’t tracking down all the Christmassy things… we were hanging out in Greenpoint and Brooklyn eating ALL the things.


Like vegan hot dogs from the indoor version of the Williamsburg Smorgasburg… London can we have have some vegan hot dog places, please?


Insanely sized and tasting pancakes that came with honeycomb butter (yes, honeycomb butter!) from Five Leaves


Crazy good ramen burgers for him… so good he went back twice. Really wished they had a veggie version!


And Cheese Pops for me… yes, a cheese plate on a stick. Still confused? See below.


Choux pastry with amazing cheeses and mouth-watering toppings. Each one was better than the last.

I had to run back to the guy who sold me this and tell him just how fricking amazing it was.

Then I didn’t want to eat anything else in case it spoiled the memory of those cheese pops!


And when we weren’t eating ALL the things… there was street art to spot and walls to rock.


You know you’re in an area that’s cool with street art when you can do it when the police are so close by.


Ok. Not entirely sure why ok = rarr in my book but apparently it does. Ok?


A future record cover for a single that has not yet been recorded?


Not a future record cover perhaps… but I get points for being exuberant. I may have just had a strong coffee. (Perhaps we can blame my new crazy ‘getting my photo taken’ style on my recent take-up of coffee?)

And of course no trip to New York is complete without the following:


… a trip to the wonderful High Line. I’ve been now on sunny days and on crazy cold days, and it’s beautiful whichever way.


… some theatre… and my second mention of the legends Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen. We were lucky enough to see them in one of my favourite plays. As they’d you expect they were legen… wait for it… dary.


… doing something totally random… and for us, this was going to a spelling bee. Yes, an actual spelling bee.

I have never felt so stupid in all my life. I knew two words out of everything from the whole night. (And one of them was a Scottish word ‘Strathspey’ so that was cheating!) However, it was very funny though – so many characters!


… and doing something else really random… like driving a NYC bus…


… and did I mention the random… isn’t this the best Christmas decoration ever? Love you NYC!


So ah New York… you were big, you were shiny, you were busy, you were crazy…

You were colourful, you were exhausting, you were sparkly, you were full of calories…

And oh gosh you were rather damn lovely. So until next time…

Have a merry Christmas everyone… and if you see Santa, say hi from me. I know him. (Even if I am slightly scared of him!)

We’ll always have Paris… two days of street art and pretending to be Amelie

7 Oct

Paris - 9

On July 28 2013, 9.49 pm and 32 sec.
A blue fly of the Calliphorides species, 
Whose wings can flutter 14670 times per minute 
lands in Saint-Vincent Street, Montmartre.

At the exact same time, near the Eiffel Tower, 
a girl from Scotland stands amid a crowd of tourists, 
with the biggest grin, perhaps ever, on her face.

Paris 2013 - 112

Approximately 9 hours and 49 minutes and 32 seconds earlier...
She'd been drinking tea in her London flat, listening to the radio
And pondering what to do with today and two days off work...

"What about Paris?" This was her other half, making coffee,
And peering at his ipad with a slight smile on his lips...

Zoë raised an eyebrow, was he being serious? 
That small smile turned into a big grin...
Did she want to go? Mais bien sûr!

30 mins of frantic packing, random clothes chosen, 
A hotel booked in the 19th arrondissement...
A dash to the train station, for once on time...
The Underground behaving itself (it must have known)
And before you knew it, departure lounge.

		Paris - 20
Zoë likes: impromptu visits to Paris... 
Going to the supermarche to buy French crisps... 
Saying merde just for the fun of it... 
And pretending to be Amelie for a day or two.

		Paris - 12
Zoë does not like: windy days when wearing a flippy skirt. 
(This has now happened in Tokyo and San Francisco too. 
You think she would learn but no!)
Paris - 18
Her other half likes: buying a baguette to munch on throughout the day.
And picking up delicious baked goods, with comedy names.
"We got a divorce in Paris... and it was damn good".

Paris 2013 - 132
He does not like: that he slips into Spanish when ordering in French.
Je voudrais deux divorce por favor...

		Paris - 26
Zoë likes finding street art in unexpected places. 
She especially likes this beautiful ones by Alexis Diaz 
(He did a very cool Elephant Octopus in London which she loves.)

		Paris 2013 - 129
She also likes Rue Dénoyez – a much graffitied street in Belleville
Riots of colours, with layers and layers of art painted over art...
And at one end, Aux Folies... the perfect spot for a café au lait.
		Paris - 55
And spotting space invaders by Invader...
High up on walls, perched on street signs, 
Some tiny, down by your feet...

		Paris - 34

Some larger than life... just like Paris itself.
(Can you tell he lives in the City of Light?)
Paris 2013 - 44
In 2001, Zoë first saw a film about a French girl called Amelie, 
Who worked in a cafe called Cafe des deux Moulins...
		Paris 2013 - 25
In 2013, Zoë first steps foot into that very cafe. 
There are no mad eccentric French characters, but... 
She does instantly fall in love with the tiled floor.
		Paris 2013 - 56

She also likes: the Metro station that's in the film.
(But not so much the tourists crowded round about it.)

		Paris 2013 - 10

And the Sacré-Coeur ... where Amelie leaves a treasure hunt 
Of sorts for the equally quirky lost boy she's in love with. 
(But not so much the tourists that are crowded round about it.)
		Paris - 4

And likes the view... with all of Paris laid out before you.
(But not so much the tourists that are crowded round about it.)
Paris 2013 - 130
To escape the crowds,Zoë likes to visit the Louvre... 
(Only kidding. She came here to see the crowds.) 
That Mona Lisa lady sure gets everyone excited!
Paris 2013 - 135

So many people, more impatient than you'll find waiting 
On a train at the Metro station...
So there's fun to be had in standing still,
Just watching them all, hurrying, scowling, 
Underwhelmed by the art all around them.
Paris - 45

Some people are more easily entertained than others though...
Especially when they find a Marilyn Monroe vent in a museum.

		Paris - 43

But even people pretending to be Amelie have their limits.
(This smile says I want to go home now. I have been defeated by The Louvre.)
Paris - 40
But this smile... is the pure joy of spotting gold dinosaurs
On the Champ Elysees. (Who are, ahem, better than the Mona Lisa.)

		Paris 2013 - 59

Zoë likes: returning to their weird but rather wonderful hotel 
Which has Batman masks (and other characters) over the lamps... 
Life is full of surprises is it not?
Paris 2013 - 58
"Luc, je suis ton pere."
Bet you didn't guess this post would end up with a Darth Vader mask!

Today's October 7th, it's 9 o'clock in the evening
At the Trône Fair the marshmallow-mixing machine mixes marshmallow.
At the same moment, at the La Villette garden Félix L'Herbier discovers .
that the number of possible connections in a human brain 
is superior to the number of atoms in the universe. Meanwhile, 
at the foot of the Sacré-Coeur, the Benedictines work on their backhand.

At that exact moment, Zoë publishes this blog post and stops referring 
To herself in the third person, makes a cup of tea, switches on the radio 
And starts pondering what to do with her next days off work.

Idle of Wight… three days of caravans, kitsch and prehistoric creatures

31 Aug

happy holidays - convo pieces

Almost a month ago, we went on a trip back to the Isle of Wight… to be the Idle of Wight.

In my head, it was an Enid Blyton little adventure for two… camping, exploring, stopping for lemonade!

photo 4

We hadn’t been back to the island since our mini moon… originally we said we’d go back on our first wedding anniversary, so we were at least a year overdue on our visit!

photo 3

Home for the 3 nights was a Vintage Vacations airstream again… definitely one of my ‘happy places’ in this world.

Give me a big tin can to stay in, a bbq, a deck chair and some retro Italian tunes (the only CD we played when there!) and I’m in heaven.

Oh yes, and a spot of sunshine doesn’t hurt either it has to be said…

photo 2

Of course, going back here has reignited my craving for a caravan…

photo 1

This little guy with his cat ear lights and jaunty name was possibly my favourite… though I’ve recently spotted a version of him outside someone’s house on my way to work! So apparently parking a caravan outside your abode is more do-able in London!

photo 3

Or even one of these… any will do if I’m being honest!

photo 1

(Evidence of happy place-ness: twirling until you get dizzy. I promise I am older than 5!)

photo 4

Here I also discovered my other new love… tiny blackcurrant Fabs, which are fab indeed. They came in a box of 12. I may have eaten more than my fair share!

photo 1

And then on to our Enid Blyton-style adventures… first to a Lavender Farm for lavender scones, cream, jam and tea, where I saw more bumblebees in about 5 minutes than I’ve seen all year long.

photo 2

I also discovered that taking pictures of bees isn’t the easiest thing… I have so many blurry shots of them bumbling about, and I kept having to move so I didn’t get stung (didn’t want to have a bumblebee’s death on my conscience!).

photo 2

Oh and some butterflies too… who were just happily fluttering around. Less stingy those!

photo 2

And then onto our next destination… believe it or not, this field is at a Garlic Farm!  (Yes, we were hitting all the farms that day!)

photo 4

Having a bit of a Sound of Music moment here… I may have sang. (But I did wait until there were less people around!)

garlic farm - convo pieces

And even the garlic ice cream was rather nice too. (Garlicy in the way that salted caramel ice cream is salty if that helps explain it.)

photo 3

The next day we went to Ventnor… complete with deck chairs and authentic British pensioners…

photo 2

And pretty beach huts, angel wing shells, lots of dried seaweed…

photo 2

And of course dinosaur sand ‘castles’! (Accidental dinosaur hunting might still be a thing!)

photo 2

Then it was off to this tiny little place… which actually is a tiny little place!

Yes, we went to my first ever miniature village, which was very Hot Fuzz (without Timothy Dalton being speared by a small church spire of course).

photo 4

Knocking at a tiny door… and trying to spy if there was any furniture inside!

photo 1

Having a Godzilla moment and threatening to destroy the mini village… everyone does this right?

photo 3

And a train full of dinosaurs! I swear this was like this when I found it…

photo 2

This, on the other hand, was not like this when I found it…

photo 2

On the last day, we went to Seaview (it does what it says on the tin!) to swim in the sea… and idly talk about having a boat.

photo 3

Of course, I don’t really like boats but a girl can let the sea air go to her head!

photo 1

And before we got the ferry home, the trip ended as all mini trips should end… with a scone that’s almost bigger than your head.

happy biscuit - convo pieces

(And a happy biscuit just for good luck…)

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