Gatecrashing Europe

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Here’s a video of an interview I did with Brighton’s Juice 107 about my book Gatecrashing Europe.

If you want a copy of Gatecrashing Europe, go to either the publisher Valley Press, or Amazon, or if you’re old school you can go into your local bookshop on the high street, for example Waterstones.

And don’t forget, 10 per cent of all royalties go to Cancer Research UK.

 

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Africa Solo – Talking to Guinness World Record Breaker Mark Beaumont

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On Christmas day 2007 I was freezing my balls off under the Eastern European snow, midway through my challenge to visit every capital city in the European Union without spending any money, for Cancer Research UK. What I didn’t know until a bit later was that I wasn’t the only 24-year old British guy roughing it far from home in the name of charity and adventure. That same Christmas day, somewhere in the middle of nowhere in New Zealand, Mark Beaumont was getting battered by the driving rain as he rode his bike up the country’s steep Alpine hills, on the third continent of his challenge to become the fastest man to cycle around the world. Later that day he found a motel and, after inadvertently interrupting a family Christmas Dinner, was brought a plate of leftovers which he ate alone in his room.

A little under two months later Mark pedalled into Paris, breaking the previous world record by 81 days. He had gone around the planet, with just his bicycle for company, in 194 days and 17 hours. His adventure raised over £18,000 for charity.

I found out about Mark’s feat a few months later when, flicking through the TV channels one afternoon, I stumbled across his BBC documentary – The Man Who Cycled The World. The complete four-part documentary is available on Youtube, and I highly recommend it to everyone. A bit later on, Mark also released a book of the same name, detailing his epic journey. I’ve read it and it’s excellent. Since then I have followed with interest Mark’s adventures.

Last year, Mark set a new Guinness world record when he cycled from Cairo in Egypt to Cape Town in South Africa in 41 and a half days, smashing to bits the previous record of 59 days. For those of you who were smoking behind the bike sheds when you should have been in geography class, Cairo sits up in the north-eastern corner of Africa, close to where the Nile River drains into the Mediterranean Sea, while Cape Town lies around 6,500 miles away, down on the south-western coast of the continent. But despite how it might look from a cursory glance at a map, do not be fooled into thinking this is an African version of John o’Groats to Land’s End. It is so much bigger than that.

cairo to cape town

This is no John o’Groats to Land’s End venture. And if you don’t want to take my word for it, you can ask Mark yourself. He rode that famous route  himself. Solo. At the age of 15.

Riding your bike from Cairo to Cape Town is like riding your bike from London to Tokyo. And then doing another 300 miles on top, just for shits and giggles. It is going to hurt. Endurance feats like this were nothing new for Mark, who, on top of cycling around the world rode solo from Alaska to the bottom of South America in 2010; and in 2012 had to be rescued whilst attempting to break the world record for rowing across the Atlantic when the boat he was in capsized, 27 days and over 2000 miles into the journey. Mark’s journey through Africa, which he called Africa Solo, raised over £100,000 for the charity Orkidstudio. I caught up with Mark recently to find out about Africa Solo among other things.

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Hi Mark, Let’s cut to the chase: Africa Solo – Why did you make the journey?

Well the background to this is that I’ve always looked at the Around the World, the Length of the Americas, and the Length of Africa as the ultimate hat-trick, in terms of ultra-endurance cycling. You know, there’s tons of other great bike rides out there, but if you look at a world map that pretty much crosses the inhabited continents of the world, and having gone round the world, and top to bottom on the Americas, the African one was the obvious last one.

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RIP Terry Wogan. You Never Knew That You Inspired It All

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R.I.P Terry Wogan.

As anyone who has read my book Gatecrashing Europe will already know, Terry Wogan was the man who inspired everything for me, just by presenting the Eurovision Song Contest on the BBC. In a world without Terry Wogan and his Eurovision, Gatecrashing Europe would never have been written. Without Terry, I doubt that I would have lived in Italy, Slovenia, Spain and wouldn’t currently be in France. Without him, I wouldn’t be an English teacher. And without him, I wouldn’t speak the languages that I now do. He was genuinely a hero of mine as a kid, and remains so up to this day. So much so that the first two words in my book are ‘Terry Wogan’, in the title of the first chapter, no less. Because as I said, he was the inspiration behind it all, instilling in me at a very young age a love and fascination for all things across the water. I went out there to find it all, all because of that man and his personality, wit and charm.

So I am genuinely sad today to wake up to the news that he has died. I know we all have to go at some point, but I thought Terry was different. I thought he was immortal. Like Highlander, only Irish.

Over the past month or so my publisher Valley Press had been trying to get a copy of Gatecrashing Europe into Terry’s hands, for no other reason than I thought it would make him smile to read about the influence he had. They let me know that they were finding it difficult. I wish that we had managed to get one to him before he became ill.

For those of you that haven’t read Gatecrashing Europe and don’t know the influence that I am talking about, these are the opening words of the book:

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And a bit later in the chapter I write: “It took just a couple of months working a night shift in a Marks and Spencer’s to save enough money to make my next move and in February 2004, armed with a teaching certificate and £1000 in cash, I flew one-way to Ljubljana where I rented a cheap studio flat, found myself playing football for a team in the national league and got myself a job at the country’s best known language. And all because Terry Wogan had planted that seed in my young, impressionable mind.”

All because of Terry.

I’ve just been reading some of Terry’s best quotes, and I’ll finish this little tribute with my three favourites:

“I don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s a major musical event. I love the Eurovision Song Contest and it will continue long after I’m gone. Just please don’t ask me to take it seriously.”

“Go out and face the world secure in the knowledge that everybody else thinks they are better looking than they are as well.”

“If the present Mrs Wogan has a fault – and I must tread carefully here – this gem in the diadem of womanhood is a hoarder. She never throws anything out. Which may explain the longevity of our marriage.” – I live with a great woman who also happens to be a hoarder, so this one I can relate to more than any other.

Terry, you will be missed.

To read the whole of that chapter Terry Wogan Plants A Seed, click here.

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 And click here to find out more about the book or to order one. 10 per cent of all royalties go to Cancer Research UK, which, considering the sad way in which Terry has been taken from us, is pretty apt.
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Playing With Guns In Georgia

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We were driving at speed in a little Lada, away from the Georgian border town of Vale towards an unknown stopping point. Neither our driver nor his two friends spoke English, but we were able to communicate enough through broken Russian to ascertain that they weren’t headed anywhere near Armenia, our target destination.

For a recap of how we ended up in this situation, click here

“Pochemu Armeniya?” our driver asked, ‘Why Armenia?’ in a tone that suggested he was slightly offended that we didn’t want to spend some time seeing his Georgia.

“Priyatel v Armenii,” I replied. ‘Friend in Armenia.’ I then indicated that we would be coming back to spend time in Georgia later on. This seemed to appease him.

Squeezed into the back with Adriana and I was a tall man with the dark features common in the Caucasus, in his late thirties. The man in the front passenger seat was younger but with similar features. The driver was different. He looked like a Russian ex-special forces man. He was in his early fifties and had a huge barrel chest, a neck thicker than my thigh, with a head perched on top of it, about the size of a watermelon. All three men came with a hospitable warmth that put us at ease. We learnt that our driver was called Georgi, and that he lived in the Ukrainian capital Kiev, where he owned a bar. He was just visiting his friends in his home village. The other two in the car, Gocha and Levan, were these friends.

Afternoon would soon be turning to evening, and we were keen to get to the Armenian city of Gyumri before dark.

We drove for about 40 minutes, leaving behind the greyness of Vale and climbing a hill that cut through rolling green fields and lush countryside. Down in the valley below us ran the Kura river, known to Georgians as Mt’k’vari, which sits at the feet of the Lesser Caucasus mountains. Houses were few and far between, but we passed a church every five minutes. Each time we passed one, all three men silently marked the cross on their chests. Around us, peasants made their way along the dirt paths on carts pulled by donkeys. We knew we had left the main road to Armenia, but we trusted the men we were with, so decided to wait and see where we were heading before making any efforts to leave the car and get back on track.

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Smoking French Babies

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Every time a train makes a stop at a French railway station, it is mandatory for every man, woman and child to jump up out of their seat and to get on to the platform to try and squeeze in a crafty smoke before having to sit down again for the journey to continue. And when I say every man, woman and child, I really do mean every man, woman and child. I actually saw on more than one occasion in France an adult ask an infant if he could bum a cigarette, and each time the child obliged.

smoking french

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I Loved That Georgian Dog

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We were in the city of Kars, Eastern Turkey, and we needed to get to Gyumri, just 40 miles across the border in neighbouring Armenia. This would have been an easy task, if the Turks hadn’t murdered over a million Armenians 100 years earlier. But they had, in what is now recognised by most of the world as the Armenian Genocide.

The Turkish Government, however, to this day refuses to acknowledge that what took place in 1915 was a genocide, and so no diplomatic relations exist between the two countries, and the land border that separates them has been closed for the past twenty years. This meant that we would have to take a 210-mile detour through Georgia. Bit annoying.

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The blue line shows the detour we’d have to take, the purple arrow shows how it would be done if the world was less messed up.

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Trying To Win Cigarettes In Armenia

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“If you want to shower today – and trust me, you seriously need to shower! – you have a window of about 15 minutes before the water is turned off,” Adriana told me, whilst gently shaking my face to annoy me just enough to get me up and out from under the covers.

The two of us had had to share a tiny camper bed the previous night, and so only for the past 45 minutes or so, since she had got herself up and ready for the day, had I been able to enjoy enough space so as not to have pins and needles in my left hand from keeping my arm tightly folded under my head. The diarrhoea that had been my constant companion throughout the previous day had vanished while I slept, but still my body felt weak and achy. The past few days of cross-border hitchhiking, drinking and staggering around under the heavy Caucasian rain had taken its toll, and all I wanted was to sleep. However, one thing my mother taught me as a child was, ‘If you can smell yourself, then it is definitely bad,’ and I could smell myself.

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Chatting In The Bath With A Turkish Man

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The sixteen year old boy had succeeded in his mission to make his friends laugh. In fact, the whole group of about seven or eight was now sniggering behind us, repeating over and over the word that had triggered the giggles.

“Hey, Grinpis!” one of the group called out.

To this bunch of well-presented highschool students from Turkey’s middle class, enjoying kebabs on their lunch break under the warm March sun in the city of Samsun, Adriana and I apparently looked like representatives of Greenpeace. Adriana, in her oversized military coat, Palestinian scarf, bumper platform boots, and bright green hair. Me, in a pair of camouflaged shorts, a vest, canvas shoes, sporting a four-week beard and with a large tattoo of Cat Stevens’ face on my arm. Both of us marching along under the weight of our backpacks, and with me carrying a tent under my arm.

“Grinpis!” they all called out in unison.

We carried on walking,  flashing the peace sign as we did. The kids laughed raucously. We reached the footbridge that would take us to the other side of the busy dual carriageway, when one of the group left his friends to run to us and initiate conversation.

“Hello,” he said, “Where are you from?”

His pals quickly caught up, and now we were all stood at the foot of the bridge, introducing ourselves to one another. The group was divided evenly between boys and girls. We told them that we were from Romania and England.

“What are you doing in Samsun?” one of them asked.

One of the lads quickly answered for us, “You are here with Grinpis!”

Everyone giggled.

“Nope, not here with Greenpeace. Just a couple of travellers, spending some time trying to get to know your country a bit. We are hitchhiking through, from west to east. We started in Istanbul, and eventually we will make it to Kars, before carrying on to Georgia and Armenia,” Adriana filled them in.

“Why did you come to Samsun? We don’t get foreign tourists here. If you are in Turkey, you must go to Akdeniz, it is much more beautiful than Karadeniz,” said one of the girls.

This was an opinion that had been voiced to us by Turks in every town and city we had passed through so far. Akdeniz (literally, ‘White Sea’) was the Turkish name for the Mediterranean on the country’s southern coastline, while Karadeniz was the Black Sea of the country’s north; where we now were. Everyone wanted to send us down to the south, fearing that unless we went and experienced the idealic setting of the country’s majestic southern seaside, we would go away without having experienced the best of what Turkey had to offer. The question almost every single Turk had asked us on finding we were travelling in their country was, “Have you been to Antalya?” Always followed shortly by, “Then you must go to Antalya!”

But we weren’t in Turkey to lie on a beach, in a resort crawling with sun-burnt, sandles and socks wearing, fat couples from Birmingham or Leeds, in matching Union Jack shorts and bikinis. We had come to Turkey to see Turkey and to meet Turks. My rule was simple: If there was anywhere in the town that offered a Full English Breakfast, then it was a town that we would not be staying in.

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Goat Problems

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‘If you have a goat, you have goat problems.’

George was jolted back to the here and now by the words as they entered uninvited through his left ear. He hadn’t noticed anyone taking a seat next to him on the bench. He thought he was alone in the park. But now, as he lifted his eyes from the ground to take in his surroundings, he realised that he had been wrong. He wasn’t in a park. He was in a city square. The only thing that didn’t come as a surprise was the bench. He didn’t have time to search his memory for any clues as to how and why he’d arrived in this position; a stranger had just invaded his space. He turned his head to the left and met the eye of a man that looked noticably similar to him. This in itself was strange because people don’t tend to notice when someone else looks like them. It is other people that notice. But this guy, although visibly a few years older, perhaps early 40s, definitely bore a close resemblance. George noted that even the man’s stubble grew in the same way as his. The man didn’t say anything, although he did have a knowing smile on his face, like he knew that George was thinking, ‘This bloke looks like me.’

‘I’m sorry, mate, I didn’t hear what you said. I was in my world,’ George said.

‘No worries, I just said if you have a goat, you have goat problems.’

‘Okay. Then I did hear what you said the first time. I just thought I must have misheard.’

The man smirked, but not in a smirky way. Not everybody will understand that line. It doesn’t matter. There was silence again. George looked down and was pleased to see half a spliff had gone out in his hand while he’d been away from the physical realm. He put it between his lips and lit it, facing forward, not looking at the man that had a face like his. The air was chilly, the sky black. The man had also turned his head back towards the world.

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90’s Kids Nostalgia – The Dancing Flower

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Remember when we was kids in the mid 90s and there was that advert for Vitalite on the telly, some sort of margarine, and the song went ♫ Oh, oh, Vitalite ♫,’ to the tune of The Israelites which I think was by Desmond Decker. And it was sung by, if I remember right, a giant cheerful sunflower. Class advert that was. Hats off to whoever came up with the idea. And remember how at the start of the 90s we all had one of them fake plants that would dance when you clapped at it. Fuck me, didn’t take much to keep people amused back then! Hours of fun! Clapping at a fake plant. Made of plastic. In China. I don’t mean we was in China. I mean the plastic plant was made there. We was just in the living room at home. Sometimes we took it into the kitchen. I digress. And remember how everyone had been given that dancing plant by the uncle who thinks he’s hilarious. You know that uncle. And remember how we used to deliberately leave him turned on while we went to watch telly, probably Fun House or the Turtles, and every now and then one of us would unexpectedly clap at it, trying to catch it out. But it always danced. Kids today can play games against anyone anywhere on the planet, all from the comfort of their bedroom. Online. We didn’t have that. A competitive game for us meant trying to catch out a plastic, dancing flower, with a painted on face. While Fun House was on the telly; background noise. And Gordon the Gopher. And Phillip Schofield, and Going Live on saturday mornings, which later became Live and Kicking. I still remember the jingle for their phone number, ♫ 081 811 81 81 ♫ And then in 1994 or 1995 all the area codes in the country changed, which meant the tune had to change too. Now it was ♫ 0181 811 81 81 ♫ Why am I remembering this now? 20 years later. And Phillip Schofield’s still going strong on our screens. Well, not on my screen, but on some people’s screens. And you feel like you know him cos he used to talk to you through the telly when you was little. Funny to think that on any given day that we was watching Schofield on the telly as kids, undoubtedly somewhere else there was a 30-something-year old, stoned, writing fondly of the 1970s, and not adjusting too well to change. Good times.

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Click here for more 90’s Kids Nostalgia

If you’ve enjoyed this, you’ll probably enjoy my book, Gatecrashing Europe. Available from all good book sellers, including Amazon.

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