New Years in Lisbon

 

Three years ago, my friends and I were celebrating new years in Cardiff, when we met some people who told us that every new years they travelled to a different country. Three years later and I find myself arriving in Lisbon with the girls, our fourth new year’s destination after Cardiff, Amsterdam and Cork, Ireland.

Over the years, we’ve learnt a lot…

  • Don’t book the holiday at the last minute. Travelling at new years is expensive and you have to be smart about booking club nights in advance.
  • Or don’t book a club night at all. This new years we planned to spend the special moment on the streets in Lisbon’s famous Comércio Square and then find somewhere to party.
  • Go somewhere warm… or as warm as it can get mid-Winter. Amsterdam was freezing and this year we were looking for somewhere slightly above 0°

With all these things in mind, we had a pretty successful trip. We stayed in GSpot Party Hostel, a place that is exactly as you can imagine it is from its title. They were fully booked on New Years Eve and had a nice programme all planned out for us.

We paid 25 euros for a 12-course dinner buffet, all you can drink sangria, and our own bottle of champagne to take with us to Comércio Square to see the fireworks. And in case you were wondering, the buffet wasn’t the usual standard hostel food – it was proper buffet that did not leave us disappointed. With their free pancake breakfasts and dinner meals that included, tapas, flaming chorizo, Portuguese stew and mash, it was suffice to say I kinda fell in love with the chefs at GSpot.

The atmosphere was amazing on New Years Eve. In the hostel we met people from all over; America, South Africa, Italy, Australia… It’s one of the reasons why I love staying in hostels, because of the cultured experience and opportunity to meet new people, even if its only for the couple days they’re in Europe.

The fireworks display at Comércio Square was amazing. It was fully packed though which meant that it was very easy to lose people and our group quickly broke up. Nevertheless, I made it to Barrio Alto, a street near the Square which has apparently been published in the Guinness World Records as a place with the most concentrated number of bars.

As most clubs were closed after New Years Eve, Barrio Alto was a place we returned to on the other nights and every time we went, we found somewhere with a different vibe and different music. Lisbon is definitely a great place to party, and the drinks were very cheap as well which is always a plus.

 

Cristo Rei (Jesus Statue) in Almada

During the day we visited a couple sites. We were nearly swept off the ‘Jesus Statue’ in Almada due to the rain and wind on Monday.

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Maritime Museum in Belem

Belem is a small town, just under an hour away from Lisbon. We didn’t have enough patience for the queues in Pastéis de Belém, a café with a 200 year-old pastry recipe that comes highly recommended. Instead we tried Portugal’s famous ‘Pastel de nata’ in a café outside the Maritime Museum after having a wonder inside, and it was still delightfully delicious.

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Castle dos Mouros in Sintra

On our last day, we took the train to Sintra, a beautiful resort town that has many beautiful gems like Sintra’s National Palace. As it was our last day we spent all our time exploring Castle dos Mouros which provided us with a great view of Lisbon.

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After five days the end of our trip came only too soon. The moment we stepped out into the cold English winter air outside Stansted I instantly wished I was back in Lisbon with its mild 18° weather.

What did you do this New Years Eve? Do you have any strange traditions?

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Hometown Holland

Firstly, I’m aware that I have chosen alliteration over geographical truth in my title – I live in the Netherlands not Holland which is a small region in the country and not the official name for the country. And while my ‘hometown’ may not qualify as a new place I’ve travelled too, I’ve been feeling a lot of love for the Netherlands recently. So I thought I’d blog about the top five reasons why I’m glad that my family still live in the Netherlands and I can visit them in the Summer.

  1. cycling

This is what I miss the most when I’m living in England and studying at University. The Dutch are crazy about their bikes, something my family and I quickly learnt when we moved to the Netherlands in 2002 and our neighbours expressed their astonishment that at age 8 and 7, my older sister and I did not know how to ride a bike. This was soon remedied as my neighbours had my sister out on their bike, somewhat roughly, somewhat kindly, insistently teaching her the way to do it. I learnt the following year and then in secondary school, no matter the weather, (and I really mean no matter the weather, come rain, snow or hail) we were out cycling the fifty-minute route to school. It gave us the kind of freedom we would never have had growing up in South-East London. We could get ourselves to and from ice-skating and swimming lessons, meet up with our friends in town and even cycle home safely and easily after a night out without having to disturb our parents.

Years on and one of the best things about coming home is still being able to get out and cycle in Waalre and Eindhoven.

bikes-pixabay

  1. The People

Dutch people are very chill. And not because weed is legal, but because I believe it is part of their culture. They’re often described as being quite ‘blunt’, meaning that they’re very open and direct which can sometimes be perceived as a bad thing. Mostly it’s nice to be around people who say hi to you on the street, strike up a chat while you’re shopping. I remember trying on a coat in a shop and a lady coming up to me and abruptly helping me into the coat, sorting out the collar and declaring I had to buy it because it really suited me. When I got into a minor accident with my bike and a car, a couple cars were quick to stop, pull up on the side of the road and make sure I was okay. I’m aware that I’m generalising here, but based on my experiences, Dutch people are more often, incredibly nice and welcoming. Which brings me to my next point…

Waalre

Waalre

  1. Safety, NL is childhood heaven

The Netherlands regularly tops the list of the safest country to raise your children and I can easily see why. It was great growing up there. I had much more freedom to go out cycling and rollerblading in our neighbourhood without any parental supervision, something we would never have been able to do in London.

High-Tech Campus in Eindhoven

 

 

  1. The countryMy street leading from Waalre into Eindhoven

My family lives in Waalre which is a tiny, suburb like village, which means we get all the peace and qui

et that comes when you live in a small town, but we also reap the benefits of living twenty minutes away from Eindhoven, a much bigger town that has lots to do without having all of the intensity of a bigger city like London. In addition the small nature of NL means that Amsterdam is just over an hour train ride away, a city that is so picturesque it almost feels like no matter where or when you take a snap over a canal it always ends up looking like this the picture below; unfiltered, natural, city beauty.

 

Canal in Amsterdam

  1. Dutch pancakes

I have a confession to make; I prefer Dutch ‘pannekoeken’ to french crepes and American pancakes. Crepes can be too thin and small. Give me a thick, pizza sized dutch pancake with apple, bacon and cinnamon and I’m happy. Proffertjes – tiny pancakes are delicious as well.

Bacon and apple cinnamon Dutch pancake

So there you have it, five reasons why I’m going to miss the Netherlands in October when I head back to England for my final year at University.

Do you miss your hometown when you’re away? What makes it special for you?

Goodbye Paris, Goodbye EU

Two weeks ago my parents drove to Paris to take me home. We had chosen the worst day and worst hour to move out as France were playing against the Republic of Ireland and the fan zone in the Eiffel Tower Park was crowded with hundreds of football fans. Nevertheless, we eventually finished carrying all of my boxes and bags down the seven flights of stairs, I said goodbye to my lovely landlords and to the small chambre de bonne in which I had been staying in for the past nine months and finally, goodbye to Paris.

I’ve had an amazing year. Paris is expensive and working part time as an au pair and having the Erasmus grant gave me some breathing space. It’s also meant that I’ve had privilege to travel to Ireland, Bordeaux, Valencia, Brussels, Germany and Italy from Paris.

IWP_20160207_21_00_22_Rich‘m going to miss a lot of things; seeing Parisians carrying and already eating their baguettes on the streets (back home they call them French sticks…?), the fresh bread, pain au chocolat, art museums, sitting by the Seine, the French brasseries, the crêperies, the tiny, but very chic Parisian bars where my and friends and I often ended up drinking over-expensive glasses of wine on the terrasse, being in the fan zone for the free David Guetta and Zara Larsson concert, the two girls I looked after, the Versailles gardens… even just having to constantly try to speak French. I think my brain will miss the extra challenge! But most of all I’m going to miss, walking down Avenue de Suffren in the evening, after a long day and seeing the Eiffel Tower light up and sparkle on the hour.

It was strange seeing many of my friends who chose not to do a year abroad post on Facebook results of their degrees and how they are relieved their dissertations are over. I still have to go back to Warwick for my final year and yet I know choosing to do a year abroad was the right decision for me. It wasn’t always easy, being in Paris when the attacks happened and my friends and I have had our fair share of disagreements with how some of the ways things are done at Paris-Sorbonne. But it has always been a learning experience, through the highs and lows.

For anyone considering doing an Erasmus year; if you’re looking for a bit of an adventure, a time when for once your studies do not have to be your priority, the chance to travel, to experience a new culture and meet people all over the world then I cannot recommend this experience enough.

We live in an increasingly globalised world where unlike hundreds of years ago, it is much easier for some people to jump on a plane and cross continents in a matter of hours instead of months. Growing up in an international school at Eindhoven has definitely shaped my perspective on how I view the world, but I think it was the first time that I travelled without my parents to Spain, for a volunteering camp where I helped Spanish students with English, that I first really caught the travelling bug.

I was devastated to find out on the morning of 24th June that the UK had voted to leave the EU. Two days before officially ending my Erasmus year it was very sad to know that in the future, other UK students may not have the chance to be part of the Erasmus programme anymore. In such an increasingly globalised world it seemed shocking that the UK were taking steps away from unifying with other European countries in terms of valuable trade and services, instead it feels like we are taking fatal steps back into our past stances of isolationism.

I don’t want to go on a political rant, however I felt that I could not write my goodbye post to Paris without mentioning the referendum. I of course voted Remain, and it seemed that most people in my social circle, young people, students and English expats voted the same.

Because I am:

  • An ex-English expat,
  • A student at Warwick University where a large portion of the students and staff are EU and international students,
  • An Erasmus student
  • And the grandchild of grandparents who moved from Jamaica to London in the ’60s in the hopes of a better life,

I voted Remain. I stand by that vote after Boris and Farage suddenly left their posts as head leaders of the leave campaign and several of their promises have revealed to be lies. I stand by that vote after hate crimes against immigrants have been seen to be on the rise in the UK.

I don’t think the EU is perfect and I’m aware that serious changes need to be made in the EU and in the UK; with the NHS and poorer areas of our country where unemployment is leading people to desperation.

I don’t think that leaving the EU was the right change we needed to make. And so I will head back to the UK in October, slightly scared and worried about the divided country I will return to. Hopefully we are only going through the worst of it now, and things will pick up politically and economically for the UK. Now that the deciding vote has been cast we can only wait and see. I am just thankful that I will have my many, warm memories of ‘Pah-ree’ to look back on when I return.

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One Month in and I’m Learning

It is 14:20 on a Friday, the last of my first week of classes and we’re starting late because half of the class struggled to find the room in the Latin area of Paris-Sorbonne University. Nevertheless it’s a beautiful room and a reminder that we’re in a university that is hundreds of years old. The back wall is made up almost entirely of large square windows that look out to the rooftops of the Sorbonne and central Paris. It’s a warm day so the classroom is filled with bright sunlight that filters in through the windows. The tutor begins the session with a hopeful smile on her face but is quickly interrupted by a loud SKREEEECCH that goes on and on. All of the students’ head swivel to the windows that once seemed so great as windows of light that have now become windows of noise to some building works that is going on nearby.

I start with this story because I think it pretty much sums up how my first two weeks at the Sorbonne have gone. This Monday marks my first month in Paris and while I continue to settle into my new home there have been many obstacles and challenges. And when I say obstacles and challenges I mean dealing with French administrative matters!

I knew it was going to be difficult leaving one university in one country and transferring temporarily to another in France and I had heard the stories about French bureaucracy. Nevertheless after having two weeks of practically a mini extra holiday in Paris, the first week of classes was a sharp contrast of intense paper-work drama.

Some things that I have learnt:

  • The French love their queues.
  • Check and check again forms that you send off because when filling in pages of paperwork you’re apparently almost always guaranteed to miss a section or two and have to start again.
  • If there’s something you want to get straight in French, numbers is definitely a good way to start so as to avoid any mistakes when making appointments.
  • While the Sorbonne is a beautiful building it is a MAZE inside.
  • No matter how much you try and prepare for things sometimes the best thing you can prepare for is to expect for things to go wrong.

Looking back on the ups and downs I know that no difficulty was really worth stressing over and when I say that sometimes you have to prepare for things to go wrong, I mean it in the best way. Saying goodbye to my average six hour schedule at home to change it for the 20 hour schedule I have in Paris has been hard but also an opportunity to try out new academic experiences which I’m already beginning to enjoy.

I like the French system of having the choice to be graded for sports. I love LOVE being able to stop at a boulangerie in between classes and pick up a croissant or baguette for later. I love walking through the streets and goggling the beautiful Parisian apartment buildings. In addition, while I spend much more of my time travelling on the metro than I’m used to, I love the fact that every arrondissement in Paris is different. There is almost always something going on and twice now I have stumbled out of the metro to find myself in the midst of some exuberant parade.

When I was younger the image I had of Paris was of city full of romantic, chic people and painters wearing berets and black and white striped shirts or musicians playing melancholy tunes on the corner of every boulevard. In some ways it is like that. My friends and I can’t help but comment on Top Ten Things you’ll never see Parisian Girls Doing, and walking down Rue du Faubourg Saint Honore in the 8th quarter with all of the high end fashion shops does make me feel a bit like I’m in one of the later episodes of ‘Sex and the City’. However for the most part Paris is a city just like any other with its grit and noise and angry drivers.

The most ‘real’ experience I’ve had so far was when attending a party for a new-born baby in Vincenne. In one of my first weeks I found myself in a house, (which was strange as Paris seems to be full of apartment buildings) amongst many French people. We drank champagne and ate some strong cheese that I wasn’t sure if I was in love with or if it was going to make me sick. It was intimidating but for some strange reason it made me feel more settled and less of an outsider/tourist than when my friends and I had taken selfies eating macarons in front of the Eiffel Tower. Instead it was being surrounded by French people and understanding only around fifty percent of what was going on, but in knowing that one day I might be just as fluent and chic, made me think; yes, I can do this!

 

*Site à voir: Mussée de L’Orangerie*

Famous for showcasing Monet’s ‘Waterlilies’, which are amazing. What I didn’t expect was the other numerous collection of paintings from other French impressionists such as Henry Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Auguste Renoir and Marie Laurencin downstairs! Definitely a great art museum.

Impressionists

Pictures: ‘Nympheas’, Claude Monet; ‘Femmes au chien’, Marie Laurencin; ‘Paul Guillaume, Novo Pilota’, Amedeo Modigliani

Touring the Tourist Traps of Paris

It has now almost been a week since I moved into Paris and passed a traumatic night of driving blindly around the Arc d’Triomphe and carrying all my luggage up seven flights of stairs. The change from being a slightly clueless tourist to an actual resident happened so quickly, or not at all depending on how you look at it, (I still get lost on the metro!).

But there are some changes. Now when I walk past the Eiffel Tower I like to look at the funny faces people pull when trying to get the perfect selfie. The Tower itself will never cease to amaze me but now that it is officially my neighbour I feel myself slowly moving further from the frantic crowds. And it’s a lovely reassuring feeling to know that the new city panic won’t remain forever.

Only a month ago I was in Paris for a week, very much part of those bustling crowds and very much a tourist trying to fit in all the major sites within the five days my family and I were in town. I think we did quite well.

Cruising through the waters of the Seine…

On our first day we decided that instead of walking around gaping at the grand buildings lining Paris’ beautiful river we could gape at them from the comfortable seats of one of Paris’ many boats. It’s a good idea to buy a day ticket and use the boat as your mode of transport for the day, or as we did spend the hour and a half travelling the full circuit without getting on and off.

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Exploring the Louvre…

I knew the Louvre was popular and yet I couldn’t help wondering if we were overdoing it by waking up extra early to get into this museum. Turns out we were right. Fifteen minutes before opening and the Louvre had already attracted a half hour queue.

Inside, the famous art museum did not disappoint with room after room of beautiful paintings, ancient artefacts and stunning statues. Just as grand as the beautiful exterior, the interior of the museum is magnificent with high ceilings often covered in beautiful paintings and marble columns.

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The Notre Dame

Located in the historic heart of Paris at ‘Pont Neuf’, the Cathedral of our Lady of Paris the Notre Dame is a beautiful old church. We finally got caught out though by the long queue to climb the towers which was just a bit too much for us.

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Le Musée Rodin

All of Auguste Rodin’s sculptures are worth seeing and it was great to see the practice sculptures in his workshop and discover how some of the more well-known sculptures came to be. My favourite bit of trivia was finding out that Rodin’s famous ‘Le Penseur’ (The Thinker) was originally going to be called ‘The Poet’, as it symbolises a figure in poetic philosophical thought!

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Shakespeare and Co.

As an English Literature student and book worm we had to visit this well-known bookshop in the Latin quartier, not far from the Notre Dame. Though you do not have to be any of those things to be charmed by this unique bookshop which has made a name for itself by visits from greats in the past such as Ernest Hemingway and appearances in films such as ‘Before Sunset’ and ‘Midnight in Paris’.

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Arc d’Triomphe and Champs-Elysées

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(Disneyland Paris)

Even though Disney Land Paris is located just outside of Paris at a forty minutes’ drive away, we had to leave a day free to visit the park!

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I generally like to keep my holidays balanced with some time for relaxing and some time for energetic cultural exploration. This trip was much more focused on the latter and yet we managed not to ruin any of our trips to the extent that we rushed the experiences. Even now that I am living in Paris its hard not to try and rush off to visit the Catacombs and the Sacre-Coeur. I have to remind myself that my time can now be spent by doing a more relaxed touring of the city; browsing the local shops, practicing my french, comparing supermarket prices and so on – much smaller and yet equally necessary and interesting activities.

 

How do you like to spend your holidays?

Countdown to Pah-ree!

It has been a couple months now since I found out that I was going to be spending the next year studying at the Sorbonne in Paris and the news is barely sinking in. I feel as if I have gone through most stages of excitement; first the simple euphoria at finding out the news, then the frenzied worry and stress as I went through the exhausting process of finding accommodation and finally, a more practical excitement as I began to make administrative preparations.

For many of my peers the decision to do a year abroad seemed like a difficult one and I’m not denying it is. Even as I tell my family and friends that I will be living in Paris next year and they ask the inevitable question, ‘What will you be doing in Paris?’ I find myself going ‘Aarrgh’ because that proves to be a surprisingly difficult question.

As a student of English literature and Creative Writing, a year in Paris is more of a year for new experiences, learning the language and trying ‘escargots’ instead of a year focused on exams and grades. No, the year does not count towards my final degree and yes, it does add an extra year onto my three year course. But hey, as a former student from the Erasmus program said, ‘When will there ever be a time in your life when you get paid to live in Paris?’ – thanks to the Erasmus programme that is exactly what I hope to do, seize this opportunity even though it was awful saying goodbye to friends that will graduate a year early.

As the start date at the Sorbonne looms closer I enter my final phase of excitement; nervous anticipation for the fresh start that Paris will be. It will almost be like being a fresher all over again, making new friends, getting used to a completely new environment.

Then there’s the question of how to prepare. I’m trying to suck up all the babble and ‘Collins easy learning French’ guides as quickly as I can. But there’s more than the language. I’ve tried to dive into the most famous, accessible literature and films about and set in Paris as possible, ‘Midnight in Paris’, ‘Before Sunset’, ‘Paris J’taime’, The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford…

I’m aware that the list above includes Americans and British perspectives on Paris. Which led me to wonder if an outsider perspective is something one can ever get past if you were not born into the country. After living in the Netherlands for eleven years I still wouldn’t call myself Dutch but I am definitely no longer a foreigner.

What is the right way to experience a city? Are you just a ‘tourist’ – whatever that means, when you stop to take to a snap of the Eiffel tower, or is it really a crime to visit Paris and not climb the Eiffel tower? Can I visit the Louvre, Arc de Triomphe… walk the less well known streets and still advance from status of British tourist to a true Parisian?

I imagine the answer is different to everyone, that we all experience foreign countries and cultures in our own way. And my approach will e to try and do as much as possible in the time I have and in the words of Christopher Isherwood, become, “a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” ( – through the noble art of blogging instead of by diary of course).

Photo: Wikimedia