Being a bush
“Which is when I said to the others, ‘We have to have Flora in the blog house! She’s like a great big bush of potential!'”
Kate and I sat in the airy, leather chaired board room of our luxury Spanish villa. Through the open door came sounds of laughter and the clink of wine glasses, inter-spliced with the occasional social media name drop: Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest. Comments about SEO and WordPress. You could almost hear the gleeful click of iPhone cameras as they prepared to Instagram the #hashtag out of the #surrounding #scenery.
Kate turned to me, a gleam in her Bostonian eye.
“You just a little pruning, that’s all. A bit more of an identity.”
I nodded fervently, scribbling away in the battered Moleskine notebook I’d been carrying around since Thailand.
“Think about who you want to be online, and with that pruning – you could be a dolphin! A wonderful topiary dolphin!”
As I digested this hedgerow analogy, a voice from outside rose clearly above the alcohol induced melee. Michael Hodson of Go, See, Write, was regaling his happy audience with a classic travelling tale of old.
“…So I hid an alarm clock in a locker, stole their shoes and then gave them to some homeless people outside the hostel. But it’s fine – they deserved it.”
Welcome, ladies and gents, to the Besalu Bloghouse.
A meeting of minds
The first travel blogger I started reading on a regular basis was Adventurous Kate.
Before her, I didn’t know what being a travel blogger meant. I didn’t really know that such a career choice existed. But I read her posts about shipwrecks and ping pong shows, and over the months that followed, I discovered just how far the travelling rabbit hole goes; a vast and spidery network of bloggers whose primary domains involve every social media site possible, as well as most hostels and bars the world over – and, occasionally, the monopolisation of entire cities for a few days at a time.
So when Kate and four of her fellow ‘professional’ bloggers invited me to take part in their latest project, the Bloghouse in Besalu, Spain, I jumped at the chance. And when I say invited, I mean I applied for a spot, crossed my fingers and jubilantly accepted their acceptance of my presence. As you do.
For a few days, me and a posse of nine other newbie bloggers were able to follow the movements of the pros, and gain an insight into how a full time blogging lifestyle actually pans out. All the while getting a taste of the high life by living it up in Casa Marcial, a gorgeous villa provided for us by Charming Villas.
Sadly, a few people I talked to at the blogger conferences were under the impression that the pro bloggers must have spent all their time talking down to us: boasting about their travels and their press trips, using the occasion to have some eager newbies rub their egos. Not so. And I feel very defensive of being part of this experience, so I’m duty bound to set the record straight.
Let’s first just address the fact that these guys were willing to share their expertise (which they have in spades) with a group of unknown and inexperienced bloggers, which was, quite frankly, awesome.
And secondly, there’s an element of this industry that I hadn’t fully realised until I arrived in Besalu: for every experienced pro blogger who’s ‘done it all’, there’s a newbie blogger who’s been somewhere even crazier and done something more unexpected.
In other words, we all have our own particular niche that makes our travels unique.
So what did this bunch of bloggers have going for them?
To the untrained eye, we numbered a couch surfer and a cruise expert, an English teacher, two photographers, a somewhat clumsy writer, a self confessed Disney park obsessive, a military wife and a man in love with his flip flops.
Or, more accurately, we hold the following strings to our collective bow.
Victoria, a fellow hippy trousers lover, currently lives in Ecuador and has an interviewer’s eye for catching just the right story.
Emma, a Scottish loudmouth, has found a niche in her love of cruise trips that most people her age know nothing about.
Liz, a blonde bi-linguist, is a perfect example of a slow traveller: she’s spent four years living and teaching in Spain and is about to make the move to New Zealand, to start the whole process anew.
Naomi, fresh from a Trans-Siberian train adventure, picks countries at random and heads out to teach and photograph. Her next stop was about to be Thailand but she suddenly changed it to Georgia. As you do.
Ed, an incredible photographer, uses his pilot’s training to transport himself around the world. He’s exploring Iceland with his camera at the moment – in a car, for once.
Erin, a Japan junkie, is the definitive expert on the Disney bear. She and her husband Brett have home bases the world over but are currently travelling extensively through Asia.
Jen, an expat American, moved to Venice for her husbands career and is now travelling through every country in Europe, just because she can.
Cole, one half of ‘New Zealand’s adventure couple’ with his girlfriend, Adela, is now based in Edinburgh while they journey around this side of the world. But he’s still wearing flip flops in the heinous Scottish weather (I simply can’t call them jandals though).
These guys are renowned in the travel blogging world. They have Travel and Backpacking and Writing and Adventurous behaviour written all over them: figuratively and literally. Well, on their business cards, anyway. They helped us out with every one of our burgeoning blog queries, and took the helm of their specific areas of expertise.
Cailin gave great advice on photography, food and how to combine the two, while Kate told us succinctly how best to organise ourselves for everything press and media related. Michael Tieso became the house tech god when the internet broke (aka a bloghouse’s worst nightmare), but he was also my own personal saviour, as he talked me through the purchase of a new domain and navigating WordPress. Michael Hodson’s wonderfully brutal take on how to utilise social media opened my eyes completely, and Steph’s tips for better writing has the inspiration flowing like never before.
But over the two days, we spent so much time getting to know each other that it was great to realise that (obviously) these five pro bloggers were just like anyone else. Steph shares my love for a plate of ham; Cailin is a perfect person to gossip with; and while ‘Adventurous Kate’ may indeed be the best solo female travel blog, Kate herself is a veritable master of dodgy Google searches when she’s had a drink or three.
For me, the whole blog house experience culminated in the wonderful moment in the villa’s garden, surrounded by wine bottles and plates of Spanish ham, when my vague request for a new blog name was immediately answered by a chorus of voices proclaiming ideas. One of which stuck resolutely out.
Which is why I can finally introduce myself by a new blog name that I don’t have to immediately and embarrassedly explain with the handover of every business card, because its simplicity is evident.
Flora The Explorer, at your service.
Being at the Bloghouse also forced me to readdress exactly why I’m choosing to document my thoughts online – something that’s taken me almost three weeks to actually put into a cohesive idea.
What’s my angle?
I could easily write about Besalu – the city’s winding streets and brickwork arches, the chef who came to the villa and cooked paella, our visit to a local artist’s gallery, the dinner we had at a restaurant that looked out over the gorgeous picture-perfect bridge. But I know I’m not that kind of blogger. And it’s taken me a while to realise that I shouldn’t feel bad about it.
The numerous drafts I wrote for this post were factual and wholly positive, but they didn’t have any emotional connection to the experience of being at this house. And I didn’t like the direction they were headed. I want to write about how I feel, how a place affects me and what I learn from it. That might sound self-centred, but it’s the way I’ve been writing for the past eight months.
I’ve found it an immense pressure to feel like I ‘have’ to write about these places in Portugal and Spain because I’ve been sponsored; while I seriously appreciate said sponsorship, I know it’s not the be all and end all. And honestly? If I never get another travel-related sponsorship again, it wouldn’t stop me from blogging.
That said, my time at the blog house taught me that this partnership with sponsors is an integral part of ‘the business of being a blogger‘. To get work from your blog, you have to be prepared to work.
I was educated in how to write a pitch, the absolute necessity of a good media kit, instructed to never undersell myself and to always ask, because ‘you never know until you do’. I learned a huge amount about how to create and maintain a successful blog.
But more than that – I learned how to be a blogger.
I realised the importance of retweeting other people; of taking and offering guest posts; of making Twitter friends and interacting with my Facebook followers; even meeting a blogger I’ve never met who’s recently arrived in my home city for a beer. Creativity, ingenuity and simply being friendly.
I learnt that every blogger is ridiculously proactive – that they have to be. They’ve all been the sole instigators of the crazy adventures they’ve undertaken. And nobody asked them to write about it online.
So I’m pruning away, ever striving to become that elusive topiary dolphin that Kate imagines me to be. Some day, my friends. Some day.