SIGNED COPIES FOR CHILDREN WITH CANCER

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I’m selling signed and personalised copies of Gatecrashing Europe to raise money for the charity Children With Cancer. Each copy will cost you just a tenner, that’s even cheaper than if you buy it in the shop or on Amazon, and a fiver of your money will go directly to the charity. Not to mention the 10% that already goes to Cancer Research UK.

So you’ll be helping two charities with one purchase, plus getting a book at a discount on its RRP.

I’m not making any money out of this, so don’t think it’s for my benefit. And to give you confidence that the money’s definitely going directly to the charity, I’m selling it through Ebay, who take care of all of that.

If you’re interested in a copy, CLICK HERE TO CHECK IT OUT. 
And here’s a copy of the link, if you could be so kind as to share it around: http://r.ebay.com/lKvvZS

Thank you. Love you all.

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Unfair Punishment

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So this is pretty wrong, but it happened. I had to kick two Americans out of the hostel earlier tonight. They’d only checked in a couple of hours earlier and had paid up for the next five nights, but now they’re wandering the streets of Rome looking for another place to stay. On top of that, Mario refused to give them their money back, so they lost around 90 Euros each.

I had just started the night shift and although technically the smoking terrace was shut for the night, I told these two lads that they could stay out there a bit longer so long as they were quiet. It was fine because Mario was gone for the night, so no one was going to bother them. They only wanted somewhere safe to be able chill out and smoke the nice lump of hash they’d just bought. I was going to go out there and join them once everything was under control at reception, leaving Amin to man the desk alone for a bit while I got stoned, to be able to float nicely through the rest of the night shift. I turned off all the lights in the communal area and closed it off to guests and waited for the last remaining stragglers to piss off out for the night. The unmistakable fragrant aroma of marijuana filled the air. It smelt delicious.

Amin was balancing the books for the day and Matt and I were just stood chatting about nothing in particular when fucking Mario walked in the door. He didn’t need any time to smell what we could all smell. ‘What the fuck is that? Drugs in my hostel!’ Mario’s policy is zero tolerance. I’d been unaware until that moment of how seriously he enforced it, but now I found out. He flew out onto the terrace; they never had a chance. He grabbed one of them by the collar. I’ve never seen him that angry before. ‘Pack your bags! Get the fuck out of my hostel!’ They tried to reason with him but he was having none of it. He came back to reception and told me that I was to make sure they were gone in 10 minutes. Then he gave Matt and me a bollocking for not smelling it sooner. Continue reading

The Italian Job 2003

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And then he had the cheek to put his hand out to shake mine. I stared him in the eye and laughed in his face as I shook my head. He didn’t like it, and told me that if that’s how I was going to be then he wanted me out of the hostel by tomorrow evening. And that was the moment when I knew I was going to rob him. My options were pretty limited. I said ‘Yea, whatever, prick,’ and walked out of his office. I felt stunned. As I reached the top of the stairs it hadn’t really sunk in yet what had just happened. Fifteen minutes ago I’d been sleeping peacefully, nothing out of the ordinary going on in my world. And now I found myself without a job, without a place to stay, without a ticket home and without cash. In the staff bedroom Matt was still asleep. He woke as I walked in and turned his head to the door to ask what they’d wanted with me. ‘He just sacked me. Mario got Julian to fucking sack me.’ Matt’s reaction was laughter, accompanied by ‘What you gonna do?’
‘Rob him. You in?’

Matt had no interest in robbing Mario and fleeing the country. ‘I’m comfortable enough here, thanks. I like this job; I like living in Rome. I’m not ready to leave. You can do what you want, though. You’ve just been sacked!’

I said ‘Fair enough,’ and started packing my bags, while Matt went downstairs for breakfast. He returned to the dorm ten minutes later. ‘Julian just sacked me. Mario got him to do it.’ Too fucking funny. ‘You don’t wanna rob him, though.’ ‘Well actually, I do now.’ ‘OK then.’

The brief meeting between Julian, Mario and Matt had been as amicable as mine just a little while earlier, meaning that Mario would be in vigilant mode, aware of the risks posed by two disgruntled and hostile ex-employees wandering around the premises. So before doing anything else, we had to trick him. Together, we walked downstairs and knocked on his office door. He was alone inside; Julian gone. I apologised for refusing to shake his hand earlier, and told him I had just been shocked in the moment, but deep down I knew he was a good man and I was grateful to him for even allowing me to stay until tomorrow. Matt said some words of similar description. Mario bought it. We all smiled like old friends and shook hands and patted backs. Then we asked if actually we could stay until Tuesday morning, in two days’ time, as there was a cheap flight back to London that we would grab. He agreed. Thank you, you’re a legend. More back patting and we left the office. Too easy.

We went back up to the fourth floor and finished packing our shit. Somehow we had to get everything out of the hostel without anyone clocking us. We couldn’t just walk past reception with our gear, not when we’d told Mario we were staying until Tuesday. In the dorm next to ours a group of cheerleader type American girls were chatting loudly. We tapped their door. ‘Ladies, you couldn’t do us a favour, could you?’

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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.

 

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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