Friday, August 12, 2016

Stockholm Syndrome

It's been a long time since I last posted and I'm not actually in Europe anymore. But I hate leaving things unfinished so I'll attempt to recount what I did nearly a month ago.

The first interesting part was travelling to Stockholm. I took a bus from Helsinki to Turku (on the west of Finland) and there spent one night with a friend.

Let's go back to that idea of night. There really aren't 'nights' as such in Finland - if a night is something you'd consider dark. I woke up at 3am and freaked out because I thought I'd overslept, only because the sun was shining and it resembled vaguely an early-mid morning sunshine. Thank goodness it was only 3am. I slept for a few more hours, woke, caught the bus, caught another bus, and ended up on the ferry.

Now the childhood ferries I am used to are the type where about 20 cars squash on, you might get out of the car to take a picture 'on the ferry' because Mum wants a photo then 20 minutes later you get back into the car and drive off. The other kind of ferry I am used to is an interislander/bluebridge type thing, and Cook Straight is normally choppy and I'm normally up on the deck chewing ice to stop myself from being seasick.

Turns out, Finns treat these ferry rides as cruises. High school students will take an overnight cruise and pay for a cabin. Me, during the day, will pay only 25 euros for a seat. But the 'seat' was actually anywhere in the ferry's seven decks, several cafes, three bars, or two movie theatres. This thing was huge. We set off into the grey skies of Turku's archipelago, which eventually turned into blue skies and the Swedish coast. As we sailed into Stockholm, the on-board band played Abba and eventually I clicked that this was because Abba is a Swedish band.

Without any real concrete plans as to what I was going to do in my one full day in Stockholm, I decided to join a walking tour in the Gamla Stan, the most touristy part of Stockholm. I stayed in the tour four about 10 minutes before deciding that it wasn't for me and went off on my own. Stop number one was the Museum of Modern Art, which included a pleasant stroll along the waterfront (Stockholm is made up of many islands) amongst basically all of Stockholm's young model type people wearing stylish clothes and riding bicycles.

The mission at the Modern Art Museum was to see Yayoi Kusama's exhibition, an eccentric Japanese artist. But not only did the museum have her artwork, it also had several other famous artists including Matisse.

Post Yayoi's exhibition it was time to do some more wandering around Stockholm - in search of good coffee - then meet with my second couchsurfing host who was going to show another courchsurfer and me around Stockholm. The good coffee I also achieved, at a very cool cafe which now I cannot remember the name of, but it was probably one of my favourite cafes in Europe that far. Although the flat white was about $7 NZD.

Back to the couchsurfing tour. It was great - we all met at 4.30 in the afternoon and spend about four or five hours walking around. I can't explain how cool it was to be in Stockholm, a city built on hundreds of islands. After being in landlocked Madrid for so long, seeing the sea everywhere was so refreshing. There were also so many cool bridges and tonnes of boats and you could look out from one island to another - whether it was also flat, or steep and cliffed with colourful tall houses nearly falling into the water. Amazing.

Although everyone on the Stockholm streets seemed to be dressed to perfection, and there were hundreds of cool looking stores and quirky additions to traffic lights and stuff like that, I didn't spend a lot of time exploring the shops.

Instead we went to a high vantage point to get a good view of the city, which included seeing many different forms of transport at once (something strangely satisfying) - cars, boats, planes and bicycles.

One of the best (and most surprising views) was from the council building in Stockholm. It was a vast, expansive brick building. We walked through an archway and BAM. Views across the sea, to the colourful buildings at the fringes of the islands with the occasional kayaker paddling past.

I have to give a shout out to my amazing couchsurfing host that day. Not only did he give us a walking tour of Stockholm in summer, after work, but he was also fasting for Ramadan, and in Stockholm that means only eating and drinking when it's dark, which is from about 10.30pm - 6am. So while I was tempted to eat and drink, I just couldn't bring myself to do it until 10.30pm as well (although he reassured me that it was perfectly fine to eat/drink). When it was time to eat, he also cooked for me and went to the supermarket and bought breakfast food as well while I was getting ready in the morning - even though he couldn't eat it himself. Now I know there are risks involved in couchsurfing and staying with complete strangers, but if you don't do it, you are missing out on meeting some genuinely lovely, kind people who go to great lengths to make you, another stranger, enjoy your stay in their home.

I departed from Stockholm by bus the next morning and travelled to Linkoping to meet my sister's host family. She returned nearly a year ago after living with them for a year. It was awesome to go to the place that was so special to her and bike around the city, get to know her host parents and siblings and also just to see a smaller part of Sweden.

And the next morning I was off on a train down south, through Malmo and on to Copenhagen - definitely sunnier and warmer than up in Finland and Sweden.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

How I ended up in Helsinki ...

 ... and other interesting observations about unplanned solo travel on a tight time frame with huge distances to cover:

Travel in Europe is an interesting phenomenon. You have the ability to cover large distances incredibly easily, whether it be by bus, plane, train, boat or car. Until I arrived in Helsinki, my main method of transport was bus. Interrailing seemed like a great idea until I discovered that it would cost twice as much for me to do it as I am not an EU citizen. On the advice of friends who had already travelled around Europe, I decided not to plan too much and rely on busses, which actually have been quite cheap so far.

The road from Paris to Prague was an enlightening one. Why from Paris to Prague? Helsinki is not as accessible as other parts of Europe. Flying it had to be, and of course, if it had to be by plane, I had to find the cheapest country to fly from. Which was the Czech Republic. Using google maps and a calendar, I figured out it wouldn't be too taxing to spend a week or so getting from A to B (or from P to P). Obviously I didn't take into account just how many hours I would spend on busses.

But so far no experience on a bus has been as bad as the time I was on a bus in South America and a kid shat their pants; in the same bus that the ventilation from the toilets wasn't working so the allocated seat I was in stank like ... Bus toilet ... Which was really unfortunate for my friend, who had been recently food poisoned from a chicken sandwich sold in the bus station. Adventures...

Anyway, I already booked a flight from Prague to Helsinki, because I had a few dates I was aiming for. One date was to reach Helsinki for my friend's graduation. Before I found out when I needed to be back in NZ, I was thinking of heading back to the 'mainland' via the Baltic States, but then I realised I would have to be back in NZ earlier and so ended up plotting my way through Sweden to arrived in Denmark to catch another friend after she finished exams and before she headed of on an overseas adventure herself.

And that is why I travelled through Scandinavia.

I got to experience the best weather Europe has to offer in Summer - torrential rain and flooding.

The arrival in Helsinki marked the farthest point I have ever been from New Zealand, not a big achievement considering every place I had been in Europe has always been 'the most distance away'. And every time someone asks where I am from, and I answer with New Zealand, there are two answers I get. Number one is 'that's so far away' and number two is 'ah, I'm going/have been to Australia'. That's great that NZ is considered a part of Australian to so many foreigners, and they're always surprised when I say it's the same distance between the two as it is from Spain to Turkey. Nearly.

Helsinki airport was a plethora of blonde, tanned Finnish mums with their muscular husbands and blond children who were possible models. Judging from the weather outside, and the fact that were obviously sun kissed, the tan was most definitely from holidaying in sunnier spots than Central Europe. While they all picked up their nicely coordinated suitcase from the conveyer belt, I waited for my understated grey and blue 50L pack and looked a lot less glam carrying it through the airport, because of the invariable boob-squash from the front straps and the tummy-squash from the hip strap, that I couldn't adjust to make any lower because apparently if I buy a backpack in Spain it's going to be made for the average Spaniard, who is shorter than me. (That's the first impression I make on most people I meet, a sneans-wearing, backwards-cap toting gal with a backpack on her back and a backpack on her front, probably with a slightly lost expression on her face. Hi, I'm Anita).

I was luckily that my friend was there to pick me up from the airport in her car, so the time spent walking in the rain was limited. That evening, I went to catch up with another friend in a bar in Helsinki. I was amazed at how early it still was. Then I looked at my watch and realised no, it was not early, the sun sets at about 11pm in Helsinki.

I awoke with a start by my bedroom being very very light and thought that I'd overslept and missed out on doing activities. Only to realise that not only does the sun set late, it rises early and it was only 4.30am. Back to sleep!

The rain continued in the morning, and I got absolutely saturated walking to the train station. By the time I got off the train and walked to the main square it had eased a bit, so I took shelter by stepping inside the church that crowns the plaza. Unlike fancy Catholic Churches, it was understated and 'functional' (my favourite adjective to describe Helsinki). Everything there seemed to be built for function, not for show. I tend to notice odd little things about cities (not because they're odd themselves, but because they're odd things to notice), and my favourite odd thing to notice about Helsinki was the double windows - needed for the insulation against the extraordinarily cold winters they have. The other thing I oddly noticed was the upside down broom heads, used to dust snow off shoes before entering shops and cafes and the like.

I exited the church and the sun was starting to show! So naturally walked along the waterfront, which was lined with little tented stalls selling berries, snow peas, stone fruit and Scandinavian food like salmon soup and hot dogs. Huge cruise ships dominated the background, and distant green specks of islands in the archipelago.

The sun was well and truly shining when I walked to a cafe to get a coffee, and from another church built on a hill there was a spectacular view of a harbour and tall colourful houses built along the waterfront.

That evening was a party for my friend's graduation, which we celebrated by having a lovely meal of salads, a quiche-type thing, rye bread, champagne, beer and cider and an excellent Finnish musician, who played songs in Finnish that everyone enjoyed listening too and dancing to in the lounge.

On Saturday morning we ventured out to the Natural History Museum, a stone church and Suomelani, a little island that appeared to be a genuine hobbiton. The NHM was full of dioramas from different periods of history, and toddlers whose parents were taking them on a weekend excursion. They had a section dedicated to NZ birds, so I felt at home there for a few minutes.

The stone church was something quite different. You notice the reddish rock appearing a lot in Scandinavia, and this church was large and round and built into the rock. Being a rainy day, there was even water dripping down the sides. The roof let in a lot of light, because it was a mixture of timber and glass.

We took a boat to the island - apparently popular with Finnish high school students who go there to drink. It had cute little houses, a church, and hundreds of what looked like houses built into the bumpy grass. We were lucky with the weather on that count - on a sunny day you can wait for ages to catch the ferry to get there and back, but we were able to get straight on and off.

I had a bus to catch to get to Turku, on the other side of Finland - where my ferry to Stockholm left from. And I was also lucky enough to have another friend from Finland to meet there. We knew each other from when he did a exchange to NZ the year afterI did my exchange to Chile. It was a really cool chance to catch up, ride a bike into town to meet his friends at a cafe, and yet again wake up frightfully early because of the brightness.

Then it was onwards to Stockholm.

Sorry about the lack of photos - I actually can't put any on the blog because of not having a proper computer - but seeing as most of you are reading this via my Facebook page you can see travel photos a plenty. And if you're not, considering a cheeky add on Insta - @anitasidney


I'll try not to make this post too gushing and lovey about this city, but I really truly fell in love with Paris, just as anyone who visit probably does.

I'll start by my arrival in Paris. (How creative, chronological order!) Somehow I'd gained an extra backpack worth of stuff and my suitcase handle wouldn't retract, so I was struggling a bit with the carriage of my luggage. Paris Point #1: three separate men stopped and help me with it in the metro stations.

I was also panicking because of the heavy rains and the flooded Siene and the apparent strike of the people who worked on the metro. I texted my friend, who I was staying with, that I would probably get in quite late, because of having to take a ridiculous number of busses to get into the city. Paris Point #2: none of this was actually a problem and it wasn't even raining.

I arrived at the restaurant where I was meeting my friend and her friends, and was immediately greeted by the chef and a waiter, who I thought were going to complain about the fact that my luggage took up about half the floor space in the restaurant. Instead, they joked about rugby with me and offered to keep it all behind the kitchen. Paris Point #3. And a bonus point for laughing at my weak joke in weak French about cooking my suitcase.

Paris Point #4 was the meal itself. Ravioli in garlic sauce, chicken in mushroom sauce and a caramelised nectarine dish, followed by cookies the chef stole from the other chef and came and sat at the table to joke with us for a while. Point #5 for the banter and free lollipops.

Point #6 and #7 have to go to my amazing friend who hosted me for four nights, and even slept in the lounge of her apartment, giving me her bed (because it would be easier for when she had to get up for work in the mornings, she told me). Fresh pan au chocolate in the morning too. Such a dream.

Another point for not raining, and letting me take photos of the flooded Siene alongside hundreds of other tourists and Parisians alike. I loved the trees dripping with leaves, the art and book stalls alongside the river, and all the cliches about Parisian style are true. Not just in the people but in the city itself. The fonts of the signs, their designs, the composition of that against the old buildings. I loved it. It's a city that is truly a feast for the eyes.

So we must be at Point #9 now, and that goes to the Notre Dame and the Ponte Neuf. I took some pics outside the Notre Dame (not wanting to go in because of the huge line) then wandered to Ponte Neuf, also known as the padlock bridge. Two of the padlock sellers talked to me about how I was taking so many photos, and we chatted for a bit.

Point #10 was the party that night - with friends of my friends slightly out of town in a very green suburb. I thought we were going out for dinner - it turns out, they put out an incredibly spread of quiches, dips, cheeses, fruit, and topped it off with some amazing cakes - a giant macaron and another fruity-mouss-ey type cake. They were super welcoming to me, and made an effort to talk with me despite my very limited French.

On the Sunday we picked up a roast chicken and potatoes from the market, which were like nothing I had every tasted before. Divine and so simple. Point #11 for cheap, yet delicious food.

Palais Garnier (the opera house) gets double points. It was an absolute treat, and also had an audio guided tour that explained the key parts of the opera house in exactly the right amount of time. Designed by Charles Garnier, it is one of the most exquisite opera houses in the world. One room literally took my breath away, I think I said something like 'wow' or maybe swore (can't remember which) out loud when I walked in. Go there if you go to Paris. If I could describe it, I'd say it had lots of gold and marble and paintings, but if you've been travelling and sightseeing you'll probably say 'yes but so many buildings in Europe do'. That's true. But this is literally 10x amazingness.

Another point to staying with my friend and going to an old peach orchard in the outskirts of the city where a band was playing live Italian music, the garden was illuminated by fairy lights, and I ate the most amazing mozzarella it made me want to cry. Would not have seen this side of Paris if it wasn't for my friend.

We must be up to point #15 or something. It's gotta be the Louvre, and it gets a point even though I couldn't go inside because it was closed because of the flooding. I guess I could somewhat call it a sympathy point because while I was there some of the building work caught fire and the police and army turned up, but chur Louvre, you added an interesting element to my photos.

Laduree gets point #16, despite being a bit of a mechanical tourist machine, where you are herded through the shop part with velvet barriers amidst the dim turquoise and gold opulence of the shop. I got a macaron and a cake thing and walked to the Eiffel Tower to eat it (because why not?) along the poncy Champ-Élysées and via the Arc de Triomph. The Eiffel Tower was setting up for the Euro football cup, so boasted a giant blue and gold football hanging up in the triangle part. It was a great way to end the day.

I'll chuck in another point for the Pantheon, and the view from the Muslim centre. And the lady begging from the second floor of a dilapidated apartment by dangling a cup out the window with a piece of string gets a point too. She definitely entertained all of us who were sitting outside the café.

Point #18 goes to the powers of social media for making it possible for me to meet with a friend from law school who was also in Paris and explore the catacombs together. They were creepy, different, artistic and a pleasant relief from the heat of the day. Even if seeing ancient bones piled up and arranged in formations like hearts and crosses doesn't sound like your cup of tea, I'd give it a try.

Point #19 goes to the Sacre Coer and the harpist outside, and the spectacular view over the city. Also to all the people taking wedding photos outside, amongst the hundreds of tourists.

I'll chuck some bonus points out there for the food and the friendliness of the Parisians. I had heard somewhere that French dislike you not being able to speak French, but I never came across anything but helpfulness and friendliness when I said (in French) that I didn't speak French.

Anyway, go to Paris. It's amazing. I really liked it, and it got 20 points.


Currently I am on yet another bus and the driver is particularly good at making sudden swerves, although this road is fairly straight. At first I thought it might be because of the dozens of Porsches overtaking us at high speed (could be 200km/h, not even kidding) but they drove past loooong ago and this swerving side to side business is still happening.

I'm on the road to Budapest, and my stomach has just started rumbling so here I am, hungry in Hungary. Pun city.

Somehow last night merged into this morning, and games of jenga at the hostel in Vienna merged into very deep and meaningful conversations about literature, life and lies. What a night, that was followed by a day of speed-sightseeing around Vienna. Armed with a map, I managed to tick off the Hundertwasser Museum, the Opera House, a church where a choir was sound checking for a performance later on this afternoon, the gardens - and none of that, aside from the Hundertwasser Museum was planned. That's what happens when you give me a map. I get lost and find places, and when in doubt, follow my nose.

The bus ride through the Bavarian countryside to Vienna was something out of a fairytale. Thank goodness it ended up happily ever after, because I spend at least half an hour in the bus terminal in Munich wondering where my bus was, before discovering 5 minutes before they bus was due to depart that 'Vienna' is actually 'Wien' in German. The things you learn.

Back to Vienna. Nice city. Wish I'd stayed for longer. I must be used to the tiny narrow streets of Spain, because like Munich, I found the streets there incredibly vast and expansive.

The Hundertwasser museum conjured a bit of nationalism in me - (another Porsche just zoomed past) when, upon entering the second story, a huge Koru flag was displayed - the one he designed for NZ. He had cool names for things like 'tree tenants' and manifestos written to support his artistic ideas. If you don't know Hundwertwasser, look him up. Wonderful artist.

The Hundertwasser Houses, a few minutes walk from the museum, were unsurprisingly touristy, and I felt sorry for the people who live there and have to deal with tourists snapping pictures outside every day. On the upside, they get cool houses.

The grandness of the Opera House and the church was also impressive, although I was disappointed I didn't have time to go to the opera. Another day, I told myself.

After note:
I visited Vienna sometime in Mid-June (not recently, these posts will be quite out of order!) I spend a lot of time writing posts on busses and transport but can get bored very quickly hence the shortened tone of this one! (And I can't really be bothered going back and making it longer #lazy)

Monday, June 20, 2016

High speed travels across Europe

It's 10.30 in the morning and I am in the Finnish archipelago, somewhere between Turku and Stockholm. The ship I'm on is kind of like the Interislander (times four). It's huge! There are multiple restaurants and cafes, a huge duty free shop, slot and other gambling machines everywhere, several viewing decks, and my idol - a fashionable blonde lady sitting out on the deck drinking a glass of white wine.

The intense-travelling phase of my journey began when I hauled a broken suitcase, a 50L backpack, a 32L backpack, and a handbag to the airport in Madrid, boarded a plane to Paris and set off from there.

A while before I left (and before I knew I'd be returning to NZ earlier than I imagined), I booked a flight from Prague to Helsinki and decided I would slowly and meticulously waltz my way across to Prague from Paris, stopping to enjoy the sights at a slow, leisurely pace.

But things don't always go to plan - so now I have been trying to pack as much in as I can. It's been exhausting, exhilarating and exciting to travel at such a fast pace. It's also made me look forward to a time a few years down the track when I hopefully will have another opportunity to travel and to see more of each country I visit. I never really wanted travel to feel like a matter of 'ticking all the boxes' but at the same time, those boxes are there because they are one hundred and fifty per cent worth ticking. There are some amazing places out there and there's a reason why they are so popular. As I haphazardly reserve overnight busses, day buses, ferries and the odd plane, and find my way to stations in unknown cities with my trusty and cheap backpack, I wonder how much more lost I would be without offline maps on my phone.

The trip so far
Paris (four nights) --> overnight bus to Amsterdam --> Amsterdam, staying at a friend's house in Deventer then visiting Wagingen and Utrecht the next day --> overnight bussing from Utrecht to Munich --> couchsurfing in Munich, then travelling by bus to Vienna --> staying in a great hostel in Vienna, spending a day there then travelling by bus to Budapest --> two nights and one full day in Budapest, then and eight hour bus to Prague --> two nights in Prague (one full day) then a flight to Helsinki --> three nights in Helsinki, bus to Turku and one night in Turku

I wrote a post about Paris, so watch this space.

The Netherlands
I'd heard so many people rave about Amsterdam. Unfortunately, getting about three hours sleep on my favourite method of transport ever (cheers overnight bus and loud passenger who didn't realise that at 2am in the morning most passengers in fact do not want to listen to your music), I looked through the city with glazed over and red eyes, but not for the same reason that most other tourists in Amsterdam have glazed over and red eyes for.

Cliches were all there, bicycles, canals, flowers, narrow houses (because of taxes) and the odour of freshly smoked weed. One thing to be careful of - cyclists! It's not hard though, if you look both ways twice and stick to the specially marked pedestrian footpaths and not the specially marked cycle lanes.

The street art was also super funky, and my quirky tour guide spend a while explaining about the different kinds of street artists (apparently one of the most famous ones is a primary school kid who puts a picture of a cute strawberry up everywhere). After spending the day touristing around Amsterdam, I collected my beloved fourty-euro backpack from the luggage storage in the train station and hopped on board a train to Deventer, a village where my friend lived.

This was where I got my first taste of a real Dutch snack - a croquette. A mixture of mince and potato, coated in breadcrumbs and deep fried. The cool thing about these snacks is that you get them out of rows of mini ovens, which you can open once you've put in enough coin. This is just one example of how quirky yet functional the Dutch are. Vending machines in walls selling hot fried snacks. Amazing and so practical.

The friends who I stayed with lived the outskirts of a small village, where her parents run an organic farm. Despite being in the acclaimed city of Amsterdam, I also loved finally getting a taste of country air. We walked around the farm with the dog and saw where the lettuces grew, the greenhouse for the tomatoes, the irrigation and the tractor. Country lyf. You might think it weird that I enjoyed it so much, but the opportunity to see a friend again, stay with a friend and her family, eat homemade food and pick up freshly milled flour from a windmill isn't the kind of experience an everyday tourist gets, and I loved it.

The next year day we dropped by her cute university down nearby, then I trained to Utrecht and spent a few hours wandering round there before taking the bus to Munich. Utrecht looked quite similar to Amsterdam, but lacked the thousands of tourists that Amsterdam had. Instead, the people on bikes were those who genuinely lived there, the cafes and restaurants didn't have menus printed in English and in Dutch, there wasn't a smattering of weed smoke drifting in the air and the shops weren't selling just tourist paraphernalia. I'd recommend visiting Utrecht if you're in the Netherlands, for a s'more genuine Dutch experience. It was a funny experience ordering food in a fast food place there - I apologetically said to the cashier that I didn't speak Dutch (and like all the other Dutch people I met, he was super friendly and spoke excellent English). But I sat down with my receipt and waited for my food, before realising they were calling out numbers. In Dutch. So I waited a bit then went back to the same nice cashier and asked if my number had already been called, and he kindly said that he would bring it to me when it was ready so I didn't have to listen for a number in a foreign language.

Overnight bus number #2 was later that evening, to Munich.

Tired and sore, I disembarked the bus from Utrecht at about 9am and had the whole day to explore before meeting with my couchsurfing host. Luckily the weather was nice (it was only raining a little bit.)

So what does one do when they only have a day in Munich? Obviously coffee. I researched a decent cafe and followed a map (to moderate success) to find it. This was after having a speed shower at the public bathrooms in the train station, which were amazing. Constantly being cleaned, bright, lots of space and mirrors for make up and also power sockets. But by speed shower, I mean not a proper shower because I was too stingy to pay seven euros for one, instead I had a packed of baby wipes in my handbag. Useful. But not as refreshing as a proper shower.

Munich, like Amsterdam, was a city that breathes efficiency and order. I loved coming across the cute little design shops and flowers coming down the walls. The width ofthe streets surprised me after Paris and Madrid. I was in a bit of a daze from lack of sleep and the ratio of sitting in a cafe drinking coffee versus going out and sightseeing was probably weighted the wrong way.

Anyway, after thoroughly enjoying my coffee and my me time, I wandered around the city, checking out the palace gardens and was surprised by the vast expanse of the park, where hundreds and hundreds of people were enjoying the afternoon sun by picnicking, playing soccer and volleyball and having a few drinks. In one part of the palace gardens, there was a man standing in a belvedere playing music on glass jars filled with water.

Part of the next day I spent doing a 'free' walking tour, with who I thought was a genuine German tour guide - chubby, blonde, red cheeks and smiling. Turns out he was from Dallas, Texas, but was one of the best tour guide I'd had. Unlike other free walking tours, he knew the perfect amount of time to talk for (ie, did not give a 20 minute complex history lesson in every place we stopped at but instead injected humour and sass into his accounts of the history and the places). Unfortunately I wasn't so lucky with the weather there, and it was cold and drizzly. What a start to a European summer. Oh well. The raincoat that I nearly forgot to pack was well and truly getting it's money's worth.

From Munich, it was on to Vienna. I'll leave that out because I wrote a whole post on it in a bus to Budapest (I think?)

Well, Budapest. Probably the craziest and weirdest part of the trip so far, and also the place I regret spending so little time there. It was my first taste of Eastern Europe and that was something you could notice as soon as you stepped of the bus. What does one want as soon as they step off a bus? Food? The shops in the bus station were full of unfamiliar yet delicious looking cakes, pastries, tarts and types of bread. And if I wanted to pay for it, it was time to rip out the Hungarian Forint - not Euros. (Despite the fact Hungary is in the EU).

On the road to Budapest the bus I was in was overtaken by dozens and dozens of Porsche going at about 200km an hour. It was utterly ridiculous - and the bus driver seemed to be scared of them because every time one overtook us he would suddenly swerve.

The first night in Budapest was one of those nights worthy of the name 'Accidental Big Night' - ie when you think you'll be back early enough to get a decent amount of rest before the next day, but things happen and next thing you know it's 4am.

I arrived at around 9pm, found my way to the hostel by bus and tram, had a shower and decided to get some food then head out to the hostel where everyone else goes to have a few drinks. I got lost.

At 10pm I was still wandering around the area, alone and hungry in Hungary, wanting something that wasn't a kebab. I finally got something to eat, and it wasn't a kebab. It was a Mexican wrap.

Then I found the hostel everyone else was at  and some friends I met in Vienna, bought one beer (which was why I didn't expect to be out so late, because it literally was only a one-beer kind of night on my one-beer kind of budget) but we went to a crazy bar/nightclub thing with a glitterboar - yes, not a glitterball but a glitterboar hanging from the ceiling - and then when that part of the club got too hot we went downstairs and found a literal rave cave - a concrete brick encased basement, which was relatively empty, where the DJ's were playing the most intense rave music and there were some dudes there who were literally doing the most insane kind of dancing I have ever seen in my life. And that's how it turned into a 4am kind of morning. Special mention goes to one of the girls I was with. When we went outside to get some fresh air, we noticed metal detectors in the entrance to the club. She thought they were for library books. No no no, they were for metal instruments like knives and guns.

That night being a rather late one, I still got up at a reasonable hour and went for a walk down to the station, about to explore, when it started absolutely pissing down with rain. I can't even begin to describe how heavy this rain was. It stopped people in their tracks. And also trams. And me, one of the reasons being because I was wearing a white tee shirt and had no raincoat with me. That didn't turn out to be a bad thing though - I went back to the hostel in time to sign up for a hop-on-hop-off tour which a rather large number of people from the hostel was suddenly interested in. So we set off, stopping to buy 'water' from the supermarket and jumped on a tour bus to the first destination, where men were doing a strange war dance in front of Heroe's Square. There was also a lake and a castle which was apparently fake. The weather was still pretty foreboding looking, and part of the situation was that not all of the busses we could take this tour actually have roofs.

The best part of the tour wasn't seeing a snail smoking a durry on the path up to citadel, but the amazing view of the city from Citadel flanked by incredibly huge statues. It was impressive and definitely a good idea to take the bus up the hill. Did I mention it was a Monday? Game of Thrones had already been out for a night and a bit. Luckily some others from the hostel were wanting to watch it that evening before heading out. As a group we ventured out into the not-so-rainy Hungarian evening in search of a place we could get some take-away Hungarian food. We stopped outside a restaurant with a sign we couldn't understand (because it was Hungarian) and decided to attempt to communicate that we were after dinner, but wanted take away. Lots of smiles and miming and looking at menus later, I had my goulash in a take away container, they had their ribs and meatballs and mashed potatoes, and we were sitting on a floor in the hostel watching Game of Thrones.

The next morning I got to catch up with a friend who lives in Budapest and we went to a cute cafe a few tram stops down from my hostel. They served a traditional Hungarian treat with our coffee - curd cheese coated with chocolate. It sounds weird, but they are so good! She explained to me what was and I was embarrassed to admit I had already eaten two of them the previous day...

The bus station was also an interesting one. I arrived and confidently walked to what I thought was the platform. It wasns't the platform. I walked to another platform. No. Not the right platform. I tried to figure out if Prague perhaps had a different name in Hungarian, but couldn't figure that one out. Luckily I ran into a guy from the hostel who was looking for a bus to Bratislava but with the same company. He went to the information desk while I looked, who told him that this bus was across the road. Thinking there was a small chance we were on the same bus because we were with the same company leaving at the same time, I also crossed the road and ran into him, two lost Americans (yay, not me being theb only one who was lost!) and some Aussies. But not the bus. We searched high and low, and we still didn't find what we were looking for.

I saw a shed and walked behind it, to the corner of that road an another one. Lo and behold, there was a bright yellow bus with Regio Jet Student Agency written on the side. Here was the bus! Not only was it going to Bratislava, but it was also going to Prague. None of us had any idea what to expect from the bus, but we hopped in and wow. The seats had TV screens! And we got free coffee and tea. Heavenly. And much needed on an eight hour trip. The downside - the toilet didn't work. Not so heavenly on an eight hour bus ride.

I got off the bus and was immediately accosted by a strange Czech dude who didn't give me my personal bubble of space and wanted to change money (I think) but there was no way I was getting my wallet or card out of my bag with a guy who was standing that close to me, so I went to find an ATM elsewhere. Despite that little scare, it didn't feel unsafe there, so Mum please don't worry about me.

Anyway, that little delay proved to be a good thing, because it meant I randomly met some Americans in the train station who didn't have a hostel to go to and led them to where I was staying, where they were fortunate to have enough space for them.

However, you may realise I have an absolutely terrible sense of direction and in Prague for some reason, this was excaberated even more - I can't even use words to describe how lost I got in Prague on an almost constant basis. Before I met the guys, I had actually already gone down to the platform where the train was, then thought I was on the wrong platform, so surfaced again to check if there was any other platform (of course there wasns't).

But wait, there's more. Upon arriving into the city, and following the instructions from the hostel which I had a screenshot of in my phone, we attempted to catch the tram to the hostel. First of all, we caught the tram the wrong way, then caught the wrong tram. Eventually we made it to the hostel.

Then we went out for dinner and got a Czech meal in a quirky restaurant run by a Yugoslavian man. Bread and sausages had never tasted so good - it had been hours and hours since my last meal. We then got ridiculously lost again trying to find the bar via trams and trains, where a friend from Vienna was with some other new peeps from his hostel. We eventually found it, caught up with them, then made our way back to the hostel via tram and Google maps. Also catching the right tram but the wrong way. It was late, and the next day I forced myself to get up and do a walking tour, which I then ditched because the tour guide was giving us a history lesson in each stop and I just couldn't handle the information overload. So I went up the Astronomical clock instead and saw the view.

I genuinly thought Prague was like a fairy tale land. Full of houses and buildings with orange tiled roofs, a castle that looked out over the city and the river. The sun also came out, which was one of the best things that could happen! After checking out the view from the Astronomical Clock, I wandered to a mall to buy a much needed memory stick - and realising how many religions influence Prague. There was an alchemy museum, and so many buildings had starry symbols and signs of the horoscope. There were also several churches and synagogues. If I'd stuck withb the walking tour, I probably could have found out more, but no regrets on leaving it.

I purchased the much needed memory stick in a modern shopping mall (Prague has experienced rapid development in the past twenty years, making it a really cool blend of old buildings and streets but also very modern facilities), I attempted to find my way across the river to the castle. This proved a mission for this very geographically challenged kiwi girl. I was walking around in circles. Thankfully, as soon as I found a bridge across the river, I also found signs that pointed up to the castle, so followed them. I didn't actually end up going in the castle, but looked out from the top of the hill over the city again. Again, another spectacular view but this time with a bright blue sky.

The walk back down the hill back to the hostel led me over Charles Bridge and back (because I wasns't actually supposed to cross the bridge). But at least it was a special bridge. One of the boldest in the city. Since I didn't do the walking tour I can't describe what's so special about it, except for the fact that there were dozens of old statues on each side of the bridge and hundreds of tourists taking pictures from it. Post Charles Bridge, I got lost again trying to find the affamed John Lennon wall.

Although there were tourists there, it was a completely different kettle of fish to the bridge. Shaded by trees and in a quiet side street, there was an amazing busker there playing sixties songs on the guitar while people watched. The wall is an amazing piece of graffiti, with messages of peace and love sprawled all over it in brightly coloured paint, pen, and whatever other medium there is. The other interesting thing about the wall was two older teenage girls, wearing very fancy clothing and high heels, with their hair and make up done, taking literally hundreds of pictures in all kinds of different poses, probably for instagram. They were doing this for a veeeerrryyy long time. The cheeky wall also had wet paint which they also didn't realise for a veery long time.

That was my last afternoon in Prague before I boarded a plane for Helsinki.

I have more blog posts to come, when I get a chance, so please watch this space!

Friday, June 17, 2016

Sola in the South of Spain

Before I left Spain, I really wanted to explore a bit of the country and thus booked Bla Bla Cars to Seville then to Córdoba. Seville was for two nights by myself, then I would meet up with friends on the third day in Córdoba. Not too shocking for a kiwi girl to be travelling around Europe alone, but to Europeans it comes as a bit of a surprise and they often ask why (like, do I not have friends?) and say how brave it is. This is exactly what happened to me on my Bla Bla Car to Sevilla and it got me thinking.

Europe is so easy to travel around, and at times a lot cheaper than just travelling inside New Zealand. Not only are there cheap bus companies and airlines, Bla Bla Car exists, which is comfortable and even more cost effective at times. You just reserve a seat in a stranger's car for a journey, through a website. But because it's so easy to travel around Europe, Europeans travel, and not alone. Families from the Netherlands have summer houses in Marbella, the British love the Balearic Islands, party people take pills in Ibiza... It's possible to do a weekend trip or a summer holiday in another country because it's only a couple of hours or so on a plane and it's cheap. Whereas if I was so say, travel with a friend from NZ, I'd be looking at going to Europe for an extended period of time, we'd both have to make sure we had coinciding time off work (or Uni, of which it's either over the summer in NZ hence winter in Europe) and hadn't already been to the same places before, and both wanted to spend time with each other for weeks. I suppose that's why tours like Contiki and TopDeck are so popular - you get to see a lot in a short space of time and make new friends. But it's not really my cup of tea and doesn't make sense to me - especially knowing quite a few people dotted around Europe who I am desperate to see. I'm happy to travel by myself (most of the time) and if I get sick of my company, it's only me who has to deal with it.


Yeah, so anyway... Bla Bla Car to Seville. Featuring a fast talking, fast driving Spaniard, a possible future Olympic athlete and a beer-drinking, video-showing, singing, middle aged Spanish man. It was actually quite a fun trip. The beer-drinking man sang Spanish songs to us and showed me videos about Spain and Sevilla on his smartphone. The athlete and him both gave me tips and insider info on Seville, so I learnt about the culture and what makes Sevillians tick. And the driver drove, well, fast, so even though it was quite far away we got there faster than I have on a bus.

The first thing I did when I got there was slip over in a puddle and get mud all up the back of my leg, which didn't exactly look like mud when it was up the back of my leg. Gr8 work Anita.

I checked in at my hostel (Black Swan Hostel, would definitely recommend it) and asked the staff for places where I should visit. With a map in hand and the intention to 'practice' my navigational skills, I set off to discover the city, promptly getting lost about two blocks from the hostel.

there's a song that goes 'Seville has a special colour' and it's very true. This is one of the most colourful, beautiful cities I had been to. Just imagine a city dotted with churches, outside of which are huge white pillars with purple wisteria woven around them. Random archways are painted red, white and ochre, and several of the houses also are white and ochre, with multi coloured flowers dripping off the balconies.

Then there was the park, a lush paradise with bird song and palm trees, more tropical flowers and the sound of water. Random tiled sections with more purple wisteria and pink fuschia. I loved the park so much I ran through it the next morning.

The Plaza de España is one of the most well known attractions in Spain. Go me, I thought, when I ended up there at dusk, and the colours really did shine through. It's unlike other plazas in that it's semi-circle shaped, and a canal runs through part of it - and you can row boats around it. Bridges cross the canals, and bordering it is the council building with balconies which you can enter to get a view of the plaza and the park. If you're a Star Wars fan, you've probably already seen it in the movies.

One of the places I was most excited to see was the Alcazar, which the Game of Thrones fans reading my ramblings may recognise as Dorne. Those gardens were also spectacular. Beautifully maintained. The glistening sound of the many water features and birds rang throughout the park. It boasted so many different colours, not just in the plants but also in the tiled designs that were inside the Alcazar building. Sevilla is close to Africa, so a lot of the designs are Moorish and Arab influenced.

I said that Seville had a special colour - it also had a special smell. Not the 'Spanish drain smell' one visiting friend once called the smell of Spain, but the smell of incense and rosemary. On Sunday I stumbled across a Christian procession in the neighbourhood of Triana. Finally it made semi-sense why a lot of men I had seen leaving churches were wearing white pants and sandals. They were marching with a statue of the Virgin. Marching with her was also a band, young children in traditional costume carrying really long candles, and young men in red and gold robes carrying incense. Further along the street were shrines with the Virgin, and people were throwing rosemary at it. I don't know why - maybe she liked roast potatoes.

The streets of Triana were blistering hot and several of the low, two stories houses had hung banners outside, probably because it was a Sunday. They were also covered in Rosemary, other dried plants, and Spanish people in restaurants enjoying a family lunch of beer and tapas. It was lively, happy, family friendly and I really found it quite wonderful.

Later on that night, I met up with an exchange student I met back in 2009 in Chile, who is now living in Seville. It's amazing what social media can do - I'd seen she put a few photos of Seville on Instagram, so commented on one of her photos that I was going to be there, and the suddenly there we were, reunited and catching up on our lives. That night we went to a traditional Seville tapas bar. It was painted white and covered in religious devour, small and crowded, but that's like any bar in Spain and I love it. The next day we wandered around to another neighbourhood and market, and went up Las Setas, the largest timber sculpture in the Northern Hemisphere, which offers amazing views over Seville.

I then caught a Bla Bla Car to Córdoba, to meet with my friend who had already been there for two nights.


Córdoba was more a traditional, untouched Spanish town. We stayed in the old part of the city, where all the buildings were white, flowers cascaded down balconies, and there were hundreds of patios.

What are patios?
It gets really hot there, and they're a cool place just inside the entrance of a house, shaded but in open air, where you can have a spot of tranquility amongst plants that are meticulously maintained. It's really quite something. Our hostel had two patios and a solarium on the rooftop, where we could look over the city to the fields and the hills.

I went to the Mezquita, quite a special place because it's a church yet also a mosque. Back in the day, Christians, Muslims and Jews lived harmoniously together there. It was quite impacting - red and white striped archways, together with crucifixes and statues of Christ and the Virgin.

The Alhambra are gardens in Córdoba, and like the Alcazar in Seville, full of water features and beautiful flowers. We climbed the tower and got more spectacular view over the city and the surrounding hillsides.

Even the Bla Bla Car back was great - more amazing scenery. It's hard to get bored on long journey when you go through completely new and beautiful places. Like most people who travel, I wish I had more time to spend there, but hopefully I will be back one day.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Ups and downs and exams and broken toilet seats

What is wi-fi? It's definitely not something that we used back in 2012 when travelling around South America. Due to this strange phenomenon of not having data or wi-fi, I've taken to writing blog posts in busses while travelling, then never actually getting around to posting them. So here's one on my last few weeks in Madrid.

I am writing this on a bus somewhere in Austria, en route to Vienna. In the space of a few weeks (short weeks on long weeks, depending on whether I was studying for exams or travelling), I can sincerely say that life has had some serious ups and downs. But because every cloud has a silver lining, when one door opens another door closes etcetera etcetera - here's an overview of them in a bullet pointed list that also frames the last few weeks of my time at uni.

Spending hours and hours studying for exams, wondering how on earth I'm going to manage doing this Monday to Friday.

Spending several of those hours studying with friends (and when I say study, yes, we did study) but study breaks are nicer when you can moan about your exams with other people, they can help you plan your trips, and when you place bets with each other (for coffee) about how late you will be to the designated study spot.

Exams. Nobody's favourite part of the semester.
Here's how my exams went.
Exam 1: Delitos contra el patrimonio.
Oral exam. 28 topics to prepare for (and I got the wrong information so studied the most for topics that weren't going to be in the exam.) Arrived 9.15am for 10am exam. Me and two classmates entered room. Professor gave each of us three topics. From those we chose two. We wrote on a piece of paper everything we remembered about each topic. Then when we were ready, we all had a turn speaking about those topics, while the professor asked us questions, if we missed something out. Quite brutal really.

Exam 2: Derecho laboral
Multiple choice exam + one long answer question. Exam began at 3pm, we didn't started the exam until 3.30pm. Multi-choice questions were very snakey, along the lines of (well, for me at least) every answer looking the same except for one word.

Exam 3: Derecho proceso penal
Study 16 topics (that was the hard part in itself, considering I had minimal notes because of how the course was organised and what the exam topics were) and a 600+ page manual organised by topics which didn't correspond with the ones we had in the exam. Not only that, but of the 16 topics, the one I drew out of the hat and had to do a 10 minute exposition on was one that was barely in the manual and apparently I was supposed to prepare for it by looking online (which I actually had done for most of the topics, because it was all higedly pigaldy throughout the manual. I can't express how frustrating and scary it was knowing I had to study enough to be able to talk long enough from memory in Spanish on one of 16 topics which would be selected at random, when I basically had to learn all the material from scratch, not even being certain if what I was learning was actually correct.

Exam 4: European Union law
Yay, an exam in English! I had been steadily chipping away at it, thinking I was well prepared, and even had a 'go-through everything' session with a classmate before the exam. We went in there pretty confidently, got given the paper and were immediately regretting putting in all the long hours studying because the lecturer had given us an absolute brain teaser of an exam, with multi choice answers that required more logic than knowledge to solve. Something like 'A) ...' B) ... C) A is partially correct and so is B; D) A is partially correct and B is partially wrong, so C must also be partially correct'. I really felt sorry for the non-native English speaking students in my class because some of the answers literally didn't make sense.

All in all, compared to Vic exams - much much muuuuuuuch more rote learning, no chance to apply knowledge to a problem question (although in Delitos contra el patrimonio and Derecho laboral we did that in our classes), shorter exams (maybe 1 hour to 1.5 hours), oral exams, and a lot more relaxed - students regularly going up to ask the professor questions and that kind of thing.

Passing exams. Probably could have got away with studying a bit less, to be honest.

Being beautiful, hot and sunny outside while having to study.

Not having to walk to the library/Google campus in the rain.

Goodbyes. It was that time of year that everyone started leaving. Probably the worst goodbye I had to say was to one of my closest friends, in which I had to leave suddenly to run to the train station to catch a train home for a re-scheduled Skype interview, so it never really felt like I said goodbye properly. But that set the tone for all the goodbyes from there on it, because of my travelling there was always a small chance I would actually see someone again.

Having friends to say goodbye to! (Haha). But in all honesty, my 'group' was pretty diverse, from many different Madrid universities and it was a cool thing that we all came together in bits and pieces and because of different reasons to do stuff together.

Dragging a broken suitcase weighing about 20 kgs (retractable handles would no longer retract), two heavy backpacks and a handbag to the train station and on two trains to get to the airport, in 30+ degree heat.

Dem gainz from all that heavy lifting (with the luggage).

Rushedly last minute packing, switching off all the power sockets, having to stand on toilet seat to unplug shower heater and ending up with my foot in the toilet bowl because I broke said toilet seat by standing on it.

Well, at least I know I managed to unplug everything. And I had cleaned the loo before that happened.

Celebrating end of exams at Retiro park by having a picnic. Was great, until the sprinklers turned on exactly where we were sitting. We moved. Sprinklers then turned on in the new spot we were sitting.

Being with people who, like me, saw the humour in this happening and didn't let it dampen the night.

Realising that I was saying goodbye to quite a lot of people who I had only recently started becoming really good friends with, and knowing that if we had more time in the same place there was so much potential for fun times and activities.

Those people (and my closer friends) being such great company and good banter.

I can't think of anymore, but hope that gives an overview of the last few weeks.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Valencia in two days

The best trips always end up with the most unconventional beginnings. On Monday, while sitting at Google Campus Madrid studying for an employment law test, I someone ended up booking a bla bla car to Valencia with a friend. Fast forward to Friday (with hours of study, saying goodbye to a friend, a stressful run to a train station for a mis-scheduled Skype, concerns about cancelling the journey because my travel bud was really sick on Thursday) and I was nearly at the meeting point in Atocha Railway Station when I got a text from travel bud to say that the bla bla car driver had cancelled the journey because something had gone wrong with his car.

Plan B put into action - me taking the metro to Sol (then sneakily getting a much needed flat white from my favourite café) then frantically whatsapping my friend to try and arrange another bla bla car. Within one hour we were on the road to Valencia with Miguel (the driver), a very tanned Spanish woman with frightening white teeth and bleached hair, and in a very comfortable Mercedes car. The joys of car-sharing.

Right from getting off the bus into town and stepping on the smooth tiled pedestrian footpath in the old quarter of the town, Valencia had won my heart. Don't hate me Madrid, but this city is incredible. How common is it to walk past old streets with balconied apartments, flowers, plants, oh - and just the odd castle thrown in there. Super chill, Valencia. 

We wandered around the city, lunched at a fairly generic Spanish restaurant, had cake at an amazing café, and ambled down to the main architectural attraction there, La Ciudad de Las Artes y Las Ciencias. This is the futuristic looking complex that probably springs to mind when you think of Valencia (unless you're a kiwi and reminiscing that time we won the America's Cup there #maynotbefactuallycorrect).

That was one of those moments when you pinch yourself and wonder if you're dreaming. Obviously I wasn't, but it was such an incredible place. Architecture is lord. I can't get over how some people can design something that has such an impact on human behaviour. Cheers to the architects Santiago Calatreva and Felix Candela, you did good. The complex was enormous, with two man-made lakes where people were rowing and playing in inflatable zorbs. Some thousand-odd schoolchildren were rehearsing for a performance so initially we heard drums and choir singing when we got there, resonating over the complex. After they finished up, a stage in the middle of one of the lakes started hosting bands - a dixie band and an electronic group. We also went to one of the high school exhibits and got to try out an oculus rift that a class of 14 year old high school students had programmed. Amazing stuff. Living up to the name of the City of the Arts and Sciences.

Genuinely living up to the reputation of being perpetually lost
The oculus rift experience

Someone several hours zoomed past and we decided to go back to the hostel, swap bags/change clothes and get a glass of Spanish red. That's how we ended up sitting in a quiet courtyard at 10pm on Friday night, sipping on Rioja and eating a fantastic goat's cheese salad. Then helping (well, not me, I don't speak Dutch) some Dutch tourists order Irish coffee instead of the glass of ice they were given.

Unfortunately, not everything was dream-worthy. We were actually quite tired and went to sleep early-ish, given we'd had quite a big day. I was woken up at 2.30am after dreaming that the poles in my bunk bed were stuffed with sliced capsicums (yes, really) by about 50 high school students who had arrived home and decided to shout in the hallways, walked around incessantly, knock on each other's doors and generally make as much noise as possible when coming back from who-knows-what. Eventually I got out of bed and tried to tell them in Spanish to be quiet, but didn't get anywhere because at that point only four of them were actually in the hallway. Another half hour later of more noise and I finally got to sleep. 

So, day two and the last day in Valencia. We'd walked a lot on day one and decided that it appeared to be a very bike-friendly city. This time we set out on two wheels and managed to get everywhere we wanted to go significantly faster. There was a fantastic indoor market - absolutely enormous - and while it was quite touristy, old Spanish men and women wandered round with their shopping trolleys buying their jamón, bread and cheese. We also managed a visit to the botanic gardens, which were the essence of tranquility right in the middle of the city. They also had dozens of cats, which was also something I appreciated. Cats and plants are two wonderful things.

Goal two was to get to the port and have paella at Pepico, apparently one of the best places there is to eat Paella. We made it down the long straight road to the port and cycled along the marina. There we could see super yachts, party yachts, smaller yachts, the Emirates Team NZ shed, many other tourists cycling, yellow sand, and dozens of restaurants lined up along the beachfront.

The Emirates Team NZ shed in the background
After a twenty minute wait to be seated (what are reservations?) we finally were content with pan con tomate, white wine and the knowledge that our paella was simmering somewhere in the depths of the vast restaurant. When it came out 1/2 an hour later, it was perfect. A crust of saffron-y rice on top, juicy prawns and seafood, and still very hot in the huge flat pan. Somehow there was a line of tourists forming in front of the restaurant, which made it taste even better - knowing we had arrived at the right time and were seated right at the front of the place, with the best views.

Our second bla bla car had cancelled on us by then, so we'd also booked another one, who wanted to leave an hour earlier than he published on the website. We raced back home on our bikes, but even that wasn't necessarily a drama. There's a huge park that spans the city, home to joggers, picnic-ers, a great bike lane, wisteria and fuschia trees, and cool dogs. So we cycled through that back to our hostel, got our bags, got on the bus, and arrived at the meeting point with time to spare.

The driving-places part of travelling is never boring when you're in another country because of the beauty of the scenery. Spain is a seriously beautiful country. My travel bud probably got quite sick of me getting excited every time I saw wind turbines, but the juxtaposition of those with the intensely clouded yet still blue sky, the sunlight hitting the fields and the occasional grape vines growing was incredible. Our driver this time had great taste in Spanish rock, so it was a dream-worthy trip home.

Then we were back in Madrid, arriving in the heat of the festivities of San Isidro. The crazy thing was the location of my friends' apartment - two of them lived right on Plaza Mayor, where a stage had been constructed to host some of the performances during the festival. After stopping by the supermarket to buy olives, jamón, bread, cheese, tomatoes and red wine, we got through the police checkpoint by showing housekeys (they weren't letting any more spectators into the square), climbed the stairs and arrived at the apartment, which was already echoing with the sounds from the stage below us.

Thousands of people were gathered there, anticipating Nick Jonas's performance plus some other famous artists. Arronchupa was one (do you know the Albatross song? That got performed live). We sat on the balcony and watched the spectacle, comfortable on chairs and cushions and slightly amazed that this. was. happening. right. there. In the morning there were also more performances, this time it was traditional flamenco (which I still actually hadn't seen yet). I couldn't get over how Spanish Sunday morning was. Eating jamón while watching flamenco - then going out for churros con chocolate - then getting in a crowded metro full of Spaniards in traditional dress, buying bread from the grandpa-cute man at the bakery below my apartment, who even let me walk away without paying (an IOU instead) because I didn't have the right change.

And that brings me to the end of the weekend. 

Also - a call for advice. Has anyone travelled around Europe after studying abroad on a NZ passport? I'm overly confused and lacking the right information (despite looking into it for hours) about travel in and out of the Schengen Zone, what happens when my student visa expires and I'm still in Europe (to name a few of my qualms). Please get in contact if you have!

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Not Smart-agena in Cartagena

I don't say 'no' very often. This is why, three weeks later, my skin is still peeling from lying for several hours in a bikini on a beach in the sun in Cartagena (not to be confused with Cartagena, Colombia, which I'm sure is also a nice place to visit). Even when the ozone layer really exists, the sun can still burn. So I learnt.

Cartagena came about because we noticed buses weren't too expensive there, accomodation looked reasonable too, and there were some nice pictures on Google Images of Roman ruins and the aforementioned beaches.

Photograph of said Roman ruins

Suddenly there were four of us, frantically texting one another to find out how to get to the bus platform, one minute before the bus was due to depart. And on the bus we went and into the depths of the region of Murcia in the south of Spain. The bus had free wi-fi, which would have been nice to know one minute into the trip instead of finding out when I was getting off the bus in Cartagena.

Quick shout-out to the scenery - incredible. You did good. Spain's landscape is every changing - sharp green mountains, ranges, desert-y with palm trees, it has it all. Also expanses of wind turbines, which made the greenie in me very happy.

We arrived in Cartagena, made many unsuccessful attempts to navigate to a bus stop on Google Maps, then finally found the right stop and headed away from the city centre and up, up, up to a rather shabby part of town reminiscent of the desert town where I spent a year as a teen in Chile.

I rather liked Cartagena, but I will add that when you're searching for a backpackers hostel and none come up in a city, there's probably a reason for that...

So we ended up at a hotel, about a 20 minute walk from the nicer part of the city centre. It was still pretty cool to stay in a hotel for once, even though it appeared to be straight out of the 1980's. Yet it was clean, quiet, and had helpful front desk staff, so no complaints there. We frequented Dia (supermarket) across the road way too often and made friends with the young chap at the petrol station when on the hunt for a corkscrew.

The fatal beach day happened on Saturday. I never really sunbathe, and I guess you could say I caught up on lost sunbathing time that day. When I woke up and realised I might actually be mistaken for a tomato, I tried to ask if I could sit inside the beachside restaurant to drink a coffee and get some shade, but after talking to three different waiters who said weird things like the (nearly empty) restaurant was only for people eating lunch and the shaded umbrella seats were the same... a nice waiter finally took my arm and said that I could sit at a table in the shade, and nobody bothered be since.

Beach of the burning sun

It was also the season for wearing nice dresses to the beach and taking pictures. Dozens of formally dressed young girls and boys, in their satin and chiffon best, with stiletto-heeled mothers and fathers sweltering in nylon suits were down on the beach - and all around town - taking photos.

I tried the 'café arabica', a Cartagenan specialty - coffee with 'licor 43' at the café, my 2nd coffee because I felt slightly guilty about sitting in the café for so long. It was nice, but nothing came quite compete with a flat white - a well-made flat white.
Café Arabico

I had the best paella I'd ever had in Cartagena. It was worth the half hour it took to make it and the half hour the waitress dwardled around after we asked for the bill. It might also actually be the best paella I'd ever had because it was the first paella I'd actually had in a Spanish restaurant in Spain. All for very cheap too, nothing like the 30 euro 'tourist' paellas you see advertised around the centre of Madrid and in most touristy cities here.

One of the surprising things about Cartagena is how art-deco is was. The main city centre part is tiled, and the balconied apartments in the centre are all very much 1930's esque. It could look quite tacky if not done well, but it had a Great-Gatsby-esque charm about it. It might not be in the Lonely Planet, but there were still a few tourist milling around. The best part was being so close to the sea - whether it was walking back from the beach and exploring old tunnels and ruins just because, or making the maritime-law-lover in me get a little bit excited about the fact it was a port town and the port was right there, or the rambling water front with palm trees and sailboats, or the fact there were hills with sea views, and hills beyond the sea - it made me miss the sea just a little bit.

We ticked of a few of the main tourist attractions on Sunday before leaving in the afternoon.

Tourist attraction numero uno was a hill with some ruins of a windmill on top. Lots of flowers and wild herbs growing and views of the sea, plus a café where families were having their Sunday lunch, all dressed up. The cray thing about this hill was that, despite not being excessively high, there was an elevator - outdoors - leading up to it.
Random outdoor elevator
The old windmill and some hillz
Tourist attraction numero dos was the Roman Forum, a some Roman ruins going for the Colosseum look but not quite getting there because they were probably smaller than the Colosseum. Neat views from the top of that hill too, however.

Overall thoughts on Cartagena was that it was a sleepy southern Spanish city, a nice place to visit if you want the beach and some beautiful scenery, without the hustle and bustle and tourist of a bigger city. And by no tourists, I mean, the one of the four British ladies sitting in front  of us on the beach on Saturday yelled out "Who has a penis?"to prove the point that there were no tourists and no heads turned. Not even mine, because I had already overheard one of them debating with her friends about whether to do it or not and her friend reassuring her that nobody would understand English.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

A long overdue post on my university in Spain

As the title dictates, this post probably should have been written months ago, perhaps before I'd finished classes for the semester. Now that my last class ever (after five and a half years of university) is over, the time is probably ripe to write a post about what it was like to study at my university, Carlos III.

I accidentally confused the parentals by declaring that university was finally over - by that I meant lectures, not exams. I won't officially call myself finished in a snazzy jumping photo outside my university on facebook until the last exam is over.

I took three papers in Spanish and three in English.

English papers:
EU Law: an overview of the formation of the EU and its legal norms. On the Friday classes each group had to select a movie that had something to do with the EU and write a report on it, and we got to watch the movie in class.

Mercantile Contracting: this was all about making international contracts. I loved it - it applied a lot of aspects of law I already knew (INCOTERMS hola), plus dispute resolution, jurisdiction issues, shipping of goods, negotiation strategies, to name a few.

We were in groups for the two main assignments for the course - making contracts for the sale/acquisition of businesses. One group was with classmates from the class, and the other group was with classmates AND students from Creighton, a university in Nebraska. So to do the project, we had to have Skype meetings, exchange emails and the like. A very innovative and practical way to teach us about building contracts.

Transnational Labour Relations: a paper about the international nation of business - lots on EU treaties to do with working abroad, renumeration of overseas workers. We had a couple of group assignments and presentations. Conclusion from the course: The EU labour force is a lot more mobile than the NZ one!

What I liked about the English papers:

  • They were generally courses that exchange students, but also several Spanish students picked, so the areas of law they covered had more of an international focus.
  • I could follow the classes and knew what I had to do and when I had to do it.
  • Smaller class sizes and other exchange students.

Spanish papers:
Delitos contra el patrimonio: In other words, crimes against the public patrimony. This was all Spanish penal law, where we went through sections of the Penal Code and got taught about the crimes, the variations of the crimes and similarities with other laws in the code. I found it very hard to follow at first, but got more used to it towards the end. In the practical classes, we had to solve problems by applying the law, in a way similar to what we did at Vic, but with slightly different areas emphasis - this is a civil law system, not a common law system, after all. My class was switched on and always asking questions and for concepts to be clarified - it was almost a more relaxed version of Socratic teaching.

Derecho procesal penal: Criminal Procedure Law. The lecturer was an absolute gem, a little bald man who played us music on YouTube before the start of each class and who was a very enthusiastic teacher and also very relaxed about exams (which doesn't mean the exams are relaxed, just that he gave a helpful speech about how to study and exam techniques, and also said that if anything came up and we couldn't sit the oral exam on the scheduled date, we could email him the day before and reschedule - which I actually ended up doing because I ironically lost my voice before the oral exam). I found the structure (what structure) hard to follow when studying for the exam, however. We spent the last few sessions of our practical class in the judicial salon in the university, having a mock trial, which was really fun. He made powerpoints and used helpful metaphors in explaining the different paths to trial a criminal case could take. He was very much a 'teach them by showing them' kind of teacher, so aside from the mock-trial, we also watched videos from court trials and have to go to a real life trial.

Derechos laborales: Labour/employment Law. I discovered that NZ employment law is really quite nice for the employee - in Spain you're only entitled to one 15 minute break in a six hour period. This was a very heavy statute-based course, and had a weekly assignment every week, which was completed in our groups either during the class or before the class. It was probably one of the most stressful classes, but one my Spanish took a turn for the better it got a little bit easier.

What I liked about the Spanish papers:

  • I think learning civil law was really interesting - no studying cases, what we were doing was studying and learning about the law exactly as it was written down in the code.
  • The constant assessment. This might sound weird, but I thought it was a really good way to learn. Participation marks make up part of your final grade, so you have to contribute to the class.
  • My helpful classmates! Course outlines exist here, but not really like the ones that we get given at Vic. But luckily I had classmates who took me under their wing and showed me what textbooks I needed, gave me advice on exams, answered my questions about how to study and gave me examples on what to do for the group assignments.

For each of those classes, we had two 1.5 hour sessions per week. One was normally a 'Magistral', so a lecture and the other a 'Práctica', so a tutorial. In my Spanish papers, the prácticas generally involved doing a group assignment, or going over it, much like tutorials at Vic when you go over problem questions with a tutor. It was either continuous-assessment based or just to cement and apply the knowledge. Some of the prácticas could be quite stressful, with a lot of time pressure to complete a problem or defend your answer - and I didn't quite get to the confidence level of being able to do that myself in front of everyone in the class. However, I thought that this way of teaching/learning was really good - you always had to apply what you learnt in the lecture class, so because of that, you learnt it better. The group work side of things was interesting - a good way for me to meet classmates and contribute to the group work, but I always felt like I was a liability to the group. One hour of work for them was about 2 hours of work for me, and my Spanish wasn't at the same level theirs was. But I tried my best and learnt from it, and that's what's important, right?

I feel like now I am much more used to the system here, I enjoyed being taught by the lecturers I had and the level of participation in classes (with much smaller class sizes, anything from 10-40 people) was great. It's unfortunate that it took this long to get accustomed to it, because now I'm done.

I won't miss having classes in the afternoons and evenings. There was the option of doing morning classes but timetabling was a bit of a problem. But finishing at 9pm twice a week and 7.30pm twice a week wasn't the most practical thing, especially when friends had morning classes and were finished by mid afternoon. On the upside, it meant I was alert and awake in class, not in the process of waking up like I tended to be in my 8.30am classes last semester.

Above all, one of my favourite things about the university was the facilities. I don't have good photos, but I snapped a few on my phone when the sky was blue. It's a beautiful campus, and a modern university. Now that the trees actually have leaves (honestly, bare branches are so depressing) the campus looks a lot more welcoming and inviting.

This is the main area with the cafeteria part right at the end. There's a big square in front of the cafeteria where people go outside and drink (coffee or tinto de verano or beer) on sunny days:

This is just looking at one of the other buildings - they're all numbered big square blocks separated by grassy patches and trees. Lots of people normally sitting outside as well - but when I took the picture it was later on in the evening so less people were about.

And the suburb where my campus is in is called Getafe. It's definitely not the prettiest suburb - there are none of those cute balconied buildings you see in the postcards of Madrid. There's none of that old European charm either. Some parts of it are actually dangerous (apparently). But I like it. It's thriving and friendly. Sometimes too friendly, like when the children are kicking a ball around outside at 10.30pm, or neighbours are yelling at each other across their windows or the alcoholics are making a racket in the square at 3am... But it's also full of families, older people and the occasional student. I have my favourite fruit and vegetable shop (fresh, cheap and the staff know me there which is really cool), my bakery where a baguette is 25 cents (and I have now banned myself from buying them because it's possible for me to eat a whole baguette in one sitting). There's even a cute park with a lake and excessive water features where I studied with one of my Getafe friends. Then we went to an 'old man bar' afterwards and got cafe con leche and pinchos de tortilla and talked about our lives. I made friends with the elderly downstairs neighbour and drank chocolate milk, ate digestives and watched Spanish television there a few weeks ago. It's cute little things like that I'll miss when I leave in a few weeks time. 

Compared to other exchange students who lived in huge flats with other Erasmus students, in the centre of town (where everything happens), living here did feel a bit isolating, but it's paid off in the sense that I saved on rent and still was able to go into town and do things because transport is fine. Rainy walks to the bus stop at 2.45am are not fun, nor when the bus driver decides to turn a 20 minute drive into a 45 minute one by taking the wrong exit on the motorway, but it's all an adventure, right?
Getafe graffiti
 Now it's time to buckle down for exams - one oral exam on criminal procedure law and two written exams on labour law and EU law. The cool thing is that Madrid boasts some awesome places to study - I have switched my preference from good quality cafes to Google Campus, a co-working space slightly out of the main centre of town. It's an awesome concept - a few big tables with power sockets, free wifi and a café, where people go to immerse themselves in a co-working environment or hijack it for study purposes like my friends and I do.

Funny story from Saturday evening that has nothing to do with previous post:
I was waiting to meet up with some friends for dinner at a (delicious and cheap) Senegalese restaurant in Lavapies, so decided to check out a market nearby. I went into said market and it was well... cool but a bit shabby, not what I was expecting, and lots of the shops where shut. I was about to exit, and had just snuck past a group of adults taking a group photo - dashing quickly past them so I didn't get in the shot. But they noticed and one of them said 'Guapa vuelve' (come back pretty girl/babe).

So I thought 'what the heck' and walked back to the group. I don't really understand why they called me back or anything, but the next thing they were taking a group photo, so I offered to take it for them. But no, they wanted me to be in the photo. Ok strangers, I'll jump in your random photo...  And I probably ruined it with my double chin and squinty eyes but oh well.

I decided to play friendly chatty Anita - after all, talking to adults in Spanish when they've had a little bit (or a lot) to drink can be rather interesting. While I was talking to Alberto from Valencia, two of them right behind him started straight out pashing. PDAs in Spain are quite common, but not to that level.

It was at this point when I took into account the ratio of men-women and realised there was a minute chance they were either really drunk 'happy-chatty' or potentially swingers. I've been known to naively discount potentially weird/dangerous situations so decided to play it safe and not drink the half-drunken bottle of beer they had put in my hands, and make up an excuse to leave. Street-wise Anita replaced friendly chatty Anita. I mean, it was probably a completely innocent situation but I didn't want to take any chances.

While I was talking to them (in Spanish and English), one of the women (they were about late 20's, early 30's) was leaning against the wall, sunglasses over her lips, waving her tongue from side to side. It kind of gave away how drunk they all were so maybe they hadn't kidnapped me to participate in swinging, but I still didn't want to run the risk. In the end I said goodbye, it was nice to meet them and enjoy Madrid, but walked away thinking what the absolute heck.

Anyway, here's a picture of some cool graffiti outside the market.