Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Tavira, Portugal - Sun, Surf, Sand and a short trip to Spain

boats at the waterfront in Cabanas
Hauke and I took the train from Faro to Tavira, 30km east, around midday. It only cost a couple of euros, so I was expecting the same level of service as I experienced in Sicily, but apart from the trains being several decades older than the majority of others in western europe it was great, having an actual timetable and sticking to it!

Tapas on our balcony in Tavira
Tavira is a smaller town, of around 10 000. Unlike Faro, its a small, sleepy town, with no big office buildings and a smaller amount of tourism. I found it much more beautiful than Faro, with old Moorish architecture and castle ruins perched on a hill that gives an amazing view of the town. After lunch at a cafe, we headed to Viva Rio to check in, a new guesthouse on the riverbank with cheap but really nice rooms with a bathtub that I made the most of, our own balcony, and a bigger rooftop balcony with a great view - I really recommend the place!

Me and Hauke on the beach in Ilha de Tavira
The best beaches near Tavira are located on islands a little out at sea past sea pans, so after dumping our stuff we took the ferry to Ilha de Tavira, which is claimed to be one of the best beaches in the Algarve. There are some tiny houses, built in the early 1940s there, and a bunch of restuarants and bars. It was later in the afternoon when we arrived, and I did have sunscreen on, but I still managed to fall asleep and get badly burnt. After a quick mojito, we headed back to the village and spent the rest of the evening enjoying tapas and wine on the rooftop watching the sun go down. Unfortunately, my level of discomfort increased to the point where sitting was painful and after the sun went down I ended up back inside lying facedown with the airconditioning system pointed at my back begging for more applications of aftersun every ten minutes of so!

Old church in Tavira
The following morning was Hauke's birthday so I headed out early to grab food for breakfast, and after deciding to go to the next town over, Cabanas, to reach the Ilha de Cabanas, we killed some time waiting for the bus by exploring the old section of the town on the hill next to our hotel. There is a couple of beautiful old church, a freshly painted convent and many amazing houses on steep lanes or small plazas, but the most incredible is the castle ruins. There is a section of walls still standing, with a beautiful garden planted inside. From there, you can climb up, walk around the walls and have an amazing view from the towers.

Ilha de Cabanas
After a quick beer, we headed to Cabanas, a small village just 7km away. While originally a tiny fishing village, it has been recently developed for tourism, with a new broad walk along the harbour and big resort hotel buildings along the shore. We took a boat to the Ilha de Cabanas only a couple of hundred metres away. This was one of my favorite beaches in Portugal, with raised wooden bridges leading up to a restaurant perched on the top of the island, and down to the main beach on the other side. I was much more liberal with the sunscreen this day, and we had a great time - I'm jealous that I've never got to spend my own birthday lying on the beach!

Tavira by night
For dinner we headed to A Ver Tavira, an upmarket restaurant next to the castle ruins, where we could again pass the evening sitting on a balcony watching the sun set over Tavira. I attempted to surprize and embarrass Hauke by getting the wait staff to stick a candle in his desert but failed by talking too loudly! But it was a nice meal, and we finished the day off with a walk around the city by night, and a few more glasses of wine back at the hotel. Its definitely convinced me to head away for another trip on my own birthday next year!

Convent in Tavira
After talking to a couple at our guesthouse, we decided to take the train east along the coast to Vila Real de Santo Antonio, a town of about 18 000 on the river that is the border between Portugal and Spain, and cross over by ferry into the spanish town of Ayamonte. They'd assured us that both were beautiful, but I'm not sure what they saw in Vila Real - being founded in the 1700s it doesn't have the amazing architecture that Faro and Tavira possess, and has been in decline for the last 50 years. We walked down the main shopping street of stores selling mass-produced straw hats and baskets and cheap chinese plastic crap and past an uninteresting town square to the harbour without spotting anything worthy of interest, and we both grumbled when we had to wait quite a bit for the next ferry, as there really was nothing more to see to kill time.

Main square in Ayamonte
Ayamonte however, was a different story. This town is a similar size, but is much older and still has a beautiful medieval old town with the narrow alleyways that I love! The town square, and many other areas, are filled with palm trees and seats covered in brightly coloured and intricately designed ceramic tiles. We walked around for a while, checking out some old churches and monuments, and stopped in the city zoo to eat a picnic lunch accompanied by the spanish Shandy beer that I had missed so much! Being able to talk Spanish again for a day was great, it was kind of infuriating listening to Portuguese, as it sounded so similar but I could only understand snatches of what was being said. The whole town was dead during siesta time, so we walked up the hill in the scorching heat to yet another church, and were rewarded by an amazing view over the little town, and across the river to Vila Real and Portugal.

Me in Ayamonte
You can notice the difference between the whitewashed walls of the more moorish-influenced southern Portugal, with the bright colours of southern Spain, although the colours of both countries seemed to stand out a lot more against the amazing blue sky and sunlight of the South compared to back in western Europe, and I took a lot of photos of little architectural details - having not had amazing experiences in Spain before, it was great to visit such a beautiful place and have such a nice day. Finally, after one last beer it was time to take the ferry back to Portugal, grab our things from the hotel in Tavira, and head back to Faro for another two nights.

More photos of Tavira are here, and of Ayamonte here.

I've signed up for Live Below the Line, and will live off €1.40 a day for five days to change the way people think about poverty and raise money for charity. Read more here, and Support me here.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Southern Portugal - first impressions of Faro

View of the old section of Faro from the sea
In late June, I headed to the Algarve region of Portugal on the southern coast to spend five days sitting on the beach with Hauke to celebrate his birthday. I took the train down to another delightful Ryanair airport near Eindhoven, and flew down to Faro, the biggest city in the region. There, after a frightening moment when I didn't realise Portugal was a different timezone to the rest of Western Europe, I met Hauke off the plane from Germany. We bussed into the city and after I got us lost (note to self, do not draw a map on the back of a plane ticket that the flight attendant will rip in half!) and Hauke asked for directions (yay progressive European men!) we found the youth hostel, where the world's funniest Portuguese girl checked us in for a night.

Me drinking a cocktail
Portugal was hot! After the horrible grey and rain of Amsterdam, it was amazing to be somewhere where the temperatures ranged in the 30s and we could actually see the sun. There were a couple of interesting Eurocup games on, so we watched these at a small but packed bar, where Hauke was delighted to discover the beer was only 50cents each! In general, Portugal is much, much cheaper than the rest of Western Europe - we paid 15euros for an actual room in a hostel, compared to around 30 for a dorm bed most other countries, and we paid about 6euros for dinner that night at a little alleyway restaurant where Hauke was fascinated by little lizards running over the walls like we had in Costa Rica.

Hauke riding a mechanical bull
The Portuguese had won their game against the Dutch, so everyone was out on the streets celebrating. They had erected a huge screen in a kind of town square on the harbour, and were playing music afterwards, so everyone was kind of milling around there. There were fairground type rides for the kids, and a mechanical bull that Hauke had great fun riding, and even more fun laughing at me attempting to ride it will wearing a very short skirt - I think I became a spectacle that most people in the square were laughing at! Making the most of the cheap prices, we sat at a nice bar with a cocktail, and then called it a night.

Buildings in Faro
In typical fashion for the pair of us, it took us a long time to get up and moving the next morning. We wandered through the city a little bit. Faro is bigger than I thought - there are only around 40 000 people in the city proper, but it's the big administrative and business centre for the region, so there are a lot of office buildings and shops. The centre is all clean and new, with amazing mosaic tiled pedestrian-only streets, but if you head out a little further you find old narrow alleyways with decaying old buildings, and many old defensive walls. Like Costa Rica and Spain, houses are build right up against the footpath with square dimensions and quite flat roofs.

House covered in ceramic tiles
These houses were often covered in beautiful ceramic tiles. One thing that was noticible throughout both Portugal, and Ayamonte which we later visited in southern Spain, was the halted construction work. I never noticed this in Madrid, either the economic crisis hadn't hit so bad, or I simply didn't register it, but in this area you could see half built houses and commercial buildings everywhere, and a lot of men lazing around on the streets when you would have expected them to be working.

The heat forced us to stop mid-way to the train station for a drink in the shade, and then we arrived and boarded a train to Tavira, where we would spend the next two nights over Hauke's birthday, a mystery location that I had organised and he knew nothing about!

More photos of Faro are here.

I've signed up for Live Below the Line, and will live off €1.40 a day for five days to change the way people think about poverty and raise money for charity. Read more here, and Support me here.

Live Below the Line - an explanation

You may have noticed I've been spamming everyone with messages about Live Below the Line. If you haven't actually bothered to read any of them worked out what this is, I have signed up to live on €1.40 per day for five days to change the way people think about poverty and raise money for my chosen charity, the Global Poverty Project. You can read more about Live Below the Line and the Global Poverty Project one the separate blog page I've written here.

You may be wondering why I'm signing up to swap discovering local cuisine and indulging in my passion for local libations for a week's worth of rice and water, and to swap getting out and about in this corner of the world for five days of lying around in a lethargic food-deprived state (hopefully that bit is an exaggeration!).

Those of you who knew me well back in New Zealand will know that I was always pretty passionate about being a global citizen and getting involved in many projects to help others out. While I've attempted to get involved in a few projects over here, lack of the appropriate language skills and a tendency to relocate frequently has really prevented me from doing so. As I mentioned back when I wrote some reflections on my first year here in Europe, this has contributed to me feeling like I've lost a lot of my identity by coming over here, something that really surprized me and has been one of the hardest things I've dealt with so far. So, when I saw this video, I jumped at the chance to sign up for something that will both help others, and help myself a little too. Please support me by skipping your latte today and donating the $5 here, every little bit helps!

I'm really passionate about the project, and will share as much as possible with you all too - by posting links to media released by others involved, like this video, blogging about my experiences, and if time allows, I will even do some research and write some posts about poverty here in Europe.

My spamming won't be going away anytime soon, so save yourself the guilt you'll feel as you read my posts while sipping your latte, and go here to donate! Thanks everyone!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

June in Amsterdam - Bidding Adieu Part II

This is Part II of June in Amsterdam. Part I is here.

One Friday Anissa and I headed north along the Markenmeer to Marken, a formerly isolated island that is now connected by a causeway. First inhabited by monks in the 1200s, they built dikes and began farming the tiny, flat polder land until the Dutch Count kicked them out in the 14th century. Problems with the soil and frequent flooding made farming more and more untenable, so in the 1500s and 1600s the island's inhabitant started fishing. The frequent floods often wiped out buildings and killed people, so the houses in Marken were build on top of mounds of soil or tall stilts. These traditional little wooden houses are a major tourist drawcard today.

In the 1930s, the Zuider Zee that surrounded Marken was turned into the IJsselmeer, an artificial lake, when the huge Afsluitsdijk was built, wrecking the fishing industry there, and in 1957 the dijk connecting Marken to the mainland was built. This dijks were part of the Zuider Zee Works, a plan to dam the inlet with a series of dijks and drain huge sections to develop new agricultural land. These plans have been reformed over the last century, but some sections of land were developed, including that of Almere, a new city built near Amsterdam from the 1970s onwards, now the 7th largest Dutch city. Now, about 1800 people live on Marken, most working in the tourist industry, or commuting to Amsterdam.

We walked around for a bit, checking out the tiny village, the church and the museum, and then walked out to the lighthouse on the north-eastern corner. This is about all there is to do out there - its pretty, but the place is tiny! We then grabbed something to eat at a wee seafood stand and took the ferry across the Gouwzee to Volendam. Volendam was originally just the location of the harbour for the nearby town of Edam (unsurprizingly the home of Edam cheese) but later became a town in its own right. With a population of 20 000 people its much bigger than Marken, and is a huge tourist destination - hordes of tourists were walking along the waterfront and clogging up the entranceways to the many souviner shops, meaning I didn't enjoy it as much as I did Marken. Something about the place remind me of Akaroa - a small waterfront town not far from a big city, but not even Akaroa is so touristy!

Me dressed in a traditional dutch outfit
Anissa and I had many laughs getting our photo taken in traditional dutch dress at a studio. Apparently several people still wear traditional dress on a daily basis in both Volendam and Marken, but we never saw anyone in it! I also let Anissa talk me into spending some time dangling our feet into a Doctor Fish tank. Its a weird sensation, not one that is pleasant in the beginning, but in the end you get used to it, and it feels a bit like really mild pins and needles. We walked around a little, and checked out an amazing second hand store where I found a box full of old camera lenses that were made in the former GDR and Soviet block countries, very cool, before taking a bus back to Amsterdam.

Me and Ollie on the roof of the NEMO building
The next day we visited a couple of photography galleries in Amsterdam, they were both quite impressive and the buildings hosting them were amazing, and then Sunday I was back at Anissa and Willem's place for a roast lamb dinner with Jp (the guy whose boat we'd been out on) and another couple of their friends. I miss throwing my own dinner parties, so I really enjoyed sitting around with everyone and the chance to make a pavlova! The following weekend Anissa and I went to the Anne Frank House, an amazing museum.

Ollie in the monkey house at the zoo
I also spent a lot of time in June getting out and about with Ollie, we went back to the library again one raining day and had lunch in a cafe afterwards, went to the Zoo where giraffes and penguins were the highlights for him, but going into a monkey house where they climb on branches over your head couldn't tear his attention away from the potato chips he was eating! And finally, we went to the NEMO interactive science centre. He was too young to understand anything, but he had a lot of fun running around pressing all of the buttons and watching things work, and the view over Amsterdam from the top of the sloping roof is quite cool. Taking him places is exhausting work, by the time you drag him, the stroller, and our bags on and off buses and trams, keep him quiet and sitting still sometimes, and run around after him other times, but he's always so excited about everything, even just riding on the bus, so its a lot of fun.

Not really a conventional "bachelorette"
And then suddenly it was time to say goodbye! I'd had a pretty good stab at sorting through my stuff and packing everything up, and after a suprizingly unemotional goodbye with the kids, Rogier dropped me at Anissa's where I would stay for the weekend, leave my stuff while I was in Portugal, and return to for a couple of nights before I headed down to Munich. That night we threw a leaving party for me, themed as a bachelorette party as coming over from England to have your stag night or hens party is really common and it sounded like a good idea when it surfaced at another drinking session. 

Me with friends at my "Bachelorette" leaving party
It was a good night, although I didn't like "being engaged" and accepted all of the free drinks offered to the bride-to-be and can't remember very much of the night! I do remember we started off at the Amsterdam Hell's Angel's Bar, and finished at the Irish Pub that Jp works at, and I do remember feeling like death all Saturday and having to repack all of my stuff and try to shed more things. And then I was off to Portugal early Sunday morning, for my first child-free week in nearly a year!

More photos of Marken and Volendam are here, and photos taken in Amsterdam are here.

I've signed up for Live Below the Line, and will live off €1.40 a day for five days to change the way people think about poverty and raise money for charity. Support me here.

June in Amsterdam - Bidding Adieu Part I

Windmill in Kinderdijk

June saw me spend my last weeks in Amsterdam. I had a week-long holiday booked for the third week of the month, so I had only a fortnight to sort out all of my stuff and pack, and fit in as many experiences off my to-do list as possible, before I shifted all my stuff to a friend's house, jetted off to Portugal and Luxembourg for an overdue holiday, and then returned for a couple of nights before taking the train down to Munich in Germany to move in with yet another family as their au pair.

Vemen moving cheese in Alkmaar
I started the month off with a trip to Alkmaar, a city of about 100 000 slightly north of Amsterdam. It is famous for its cheese market. Held on Friday mornings in one of the city squares, the market dates back to at least the 1300s and even in 1916 an average of three hundred tonnes of cheese was being sold every market day. Now, its just a display of the old cheese market traditions. There is a guild of cheese carriers who do the moving and weighing. They have four teams (vemen) of men, each with its own colour. They wear white and a straw hat with their coloured ribbon, and have different names for their rank and which job they perform - there is a lot of detail in these customs.

Tiny shops in Alkmaar
There are other groups responsible for bringing in the cheese on wagons and moving it onto a kind of carrier pallet, that the Vemen then hoist up and run over to the weighing scales. Once it is weighed, they run it back to the wagons, where the others load it back onto the wagons and take it away. Traders negotiate prices with a system of handclaps. I guess its an interesting spectacle, but its pretty repetitive after the first five minutes, and I didn't think it lived up to its reputation as one of the best tourist attractions in the Netherlands. I only spent a little while longer in Alkmaar, walking around the old town with extremely narrow streets and very narrow shopfronts, before I took the train back south to Zaanse Schans.

sawmill in Zaansee Schans
Zaanse Schans is a neighbourhood of a town on the northern border of Amsterdam. Lining a river there are eight historic windmills - three oilmills, three sawmills, a dye mill and a mustard mill, that were built in the 1600s and 1700s, and later moved to the Zaanse Schans museum area. The location also has a bakery museum, a watch and clock museum, a distillery museum, a cheese museum, an overall Zaanse museum, and the relocated first ever Albert Heijn shop (now the biggest dutch supermarket chain). I guess it's a bit of a Dutch Ferrymead.

House in Zaandijk
I arrived at the end of a very grey day, so the lighting was terrible for photographs, but the windmills were really beautiful. After everything closed up, I took a wee "ferry boat", rowed by an enthusiastic dutch couple, across the river and walked back through the tiny town of Zaandijk, which is filled with tiny traditional houses from the 1500s and 1600s. One of my favourite discoveries there was a large disused church, all boarded up and covered in graffiti.

Erasmus Bridge in Rotterdam
The following day I headed to Rotterdam, the Netherland's second largest city. Rotterdam is vastly different from other Dutch cities, and I'd heard it said many times that it was a place you'd either love or hate. The city was leveled during WWII, firstly by German forces who bombed it during negotiations with the dutch after an order to call the attack off wasn't properly relayed, resulting in the loss of the medieval city centre and many residential areas, and then by British forces who attacked the military bases and infrastructure. As a result, Rotterdam has no main city centre filled with market squares and old buildings like other European cities, instead boasting some hideously dated post-war architecture and a more disjointed city centre that reminds me a lot of Auckland - it has a port, neighbourhoods, some interesting buildings and shopping centres, but you couldn't really pinpoint an exact city centre. Rotterdam has now become a hub of modern architecture, and also has many amazing bridges, skysrapers, and office and residential buildings that incorporate traditional dutch elements like stepped gables.

windmills at Kinderdijk
I first headed to the port, Europe's largest, and took two ferries out into the delta to reach Kinderdijk, a world heritage site where 19 windmills built to drain the polder still stand (and also the location of the Cat and the Cradle folkstory). It is a really touristy location, with hordes arriving in buses to walk up and down a path along the riverbeds. I hired and bike, and spent a hour or so biking up and down looking at the different windmills, most of which are now privately owned - its funny to see the inhabitants hanging out their washing or mowing the lawns while hundreds of tourists gawk at them! Despite the crowds, I think this was my favourite tourist experience in the Netherlands, it was really amazing.

Cube Houses in Rotterdam
Taking the ferry boats was also very cool, after living in Wellington for four years, I love living in harbour cities, and I could see myself living in Rotterdam and taking a ferry to different picnic or cafe locations every weekend! There is something about ferry boats that fills me with a small child's excitement, they never get old! Back in Rotterdam itself, I set off for a big walk around the city, taking in the different architectural sights. Probably the most famous dutchman to come from Rotterdam is Erasmus and next to the ferry docks is an amazing cable bridge named after him. The cube houses are also interesting, houses made inside blocks that have been tilted 45 degrees so that one point reaches towards the sky. After meandering back to the train station, I headed home.

To be continued...

More photos of Alkmaar, Zaanse Schans, Rotterdam and Kinderdijk are here.

I've signed up for Live Below the Line, and will live off €1.40 per day for five days to change the way people think about poverty and raise money for charity. Support me here.

Monday, July 9, 2012

My first foray East - Warsaw, Poland

marker showing the placement of the former Jewish Ghetto Wall
I've always though Eastern Europe was more interesting than the West, but seeing as I prefer crashing with friends over forking out for accomodation, I hadn't yet ventured further east than Berlin. But Doug, a NZer AFS returnee friend headed to Warsaw for a semestre-long university exchange, and I booked tickets to go over and see him for a weekend around May 10th.

Soviet-era buildings lining a wide avenue
I took the night train, at 16 hour journey over about 1300km. Id never taken a night train before, and had heard horror stories about them, of things going wrong, of the dodgy people who take them, and of luggage being stolen while you sleep, but the network is pretty big, you can start at Amsterdam and go all the way to Moscow, or branch off to Copenhagen or Munich, and probably a few others I'm not aware of. Its cheap, and seemed like it would be an interesting experience, but they stories I'd heard seemed true when the train pulled up missing half its carriages, and in typical Dutch problem-solving style, the conductors ordered all of us going to Warsaw (i.e. sitting in the four missing carriages) to cram into one carriage until we would switch in Germany. This led to six very uncomfortable hours with far too many people crammed into a very hot small space with the choice of crap air conditioning or an open window with rain coming in. But, in Dortmund we changed into a really comfortable carriage with reclining sleeper chairs, and I belted my handbag to my middle, popped a sleeping pill, and woke up eight hours later as we neared Warsaw.

Me and Doug at the Warsaw University festival
Then another issue surfaced. Unbeknownst to me, and unlike the half-dozen other European simcards I've owned, my Dutch simcard didn't work outside of the border, and I had stupidly not written down Doug's number, thinking that he would just call me. All I could do was hope that he was waiting for me at the station, but after arriving and walking around for a while, and then sitting in the main hall, I decided I would have to be a bit more proactive about the situation. After failing to find an internet cafe, payphone, or currency exchange in the station, I got directions to a payphone in a nearby shopping mall, and headed there. I withdrew money from a NZ account, and then went to a little kiosk to break the note - the woman was not willing to give me change in coins at all, so I threw another chocolate bar at her with another banknote, waited for my change, threw another chocolate bar and banknote at her...and so on. I managed to get hold of Rogier back in Amsterdam, but had to wait for him to head back to the house, then rang again to instruct him in logging into my computor to find Doug's number...but my change ran out, and I had to go back to the ATM, back to the kiosk, and buy another three chocolate bars...Poland was not proving an easy place, but eventually Doug and I found each other!

Warsaw Old Town
Warsaw was hot! It was around 28 degrees and quite humid when I arrived, definitely a change from grey Amsterdam. Doug is living in a university residence hall, where the majority come from former Soviet block countries, people sleep 2-4 to a room, and students stand around the linoleum hallways smoking ciggarettes well into the night. Not really similar to a NZ hall of residence at all! We dumped my stuff and headed out.

View of Warsaw from the Palace of Sci & Culture
With nearly 2 million inhabitants in the city proper, Warsaw is the 7th biggest city in the EU. We walked down past Doug's university to the centre of the city. It does feel very different to other european cities. 80% of the buildings were destroyed in WWII and had to be rebuilt, and most of this rebuilting was done in the basic blockish style typical of eastern europe. In the centre, the streets are really wide and seem well planned, with huge square apartment buildings and offices. It was also notable how clean Warsaw was - the trash I normally associate with big European cities was absent. Also, people wait for traffic lights even when there's no traffic, apparently you get big fines for jaywalking there! I think both of these differences are a hangover from the Soviet police state.

Warsaw Castle
We walked through a nice shopping district and after stopping in a bar/cafe that was one of Doug's locals for some kind of unmemorable polish dish, we sat in a park to drink a couple of beers and then went to a big free musical festival at Warsaw University. There, we met a bunch of Doug's fellow exchange students, watched a whole heap of random Polish bands perform, and consumed a number of cheap beers and food. After we called it a night, four of us walked into the Old Town for a bit, the historic centre that was razed to the ground during WWII, but meticulously rebuilt afterwards using as many of the original elements as possible.

The next day we headed back to the Old Town, and had a quick look at the Warsaw Castle, which was also totally destroyed and rebuilt. Its a strange building, we didn't go inside, but walked into the central courtyard, which showcases the way the different wings are made in different building materials and styles - it looks at bit like the piecemeal parliament buildings in Wellington. In the centre of the Old Town is the Market Square, one of, if not the most impressive Market Square I've seen in Europe. The reconstructed buildings all around it are based on the 17th century Gothic and Renaissance originals, and look vastly different from the buildings surrounding the main squares in more western countries. Part of the Old Town is lined by a section of the medieval city walls, brick walls that were originally built in the 13th century.

Building in Praga district
We then headed out to the Praga district, on the other side of the river from central Warsaw and the Old Town. Praga was originally an independent town, only being linked by bridge to Warsaw in the 1790s. The buildings there mostly date back to the 18th and 19th centuries, but mostly survived WWII. Now most of those still standing are in a state of disrepair, but the area has been taken over buy young musicians and artists, and it has a really cool feel to it. Several Poles who we spoke to later wondered why we'd been out there - all claimed it was a really dangerous area, and many had never been there themselves despite living in Warsaw, but I really liked seeing a different side to the city. I had hungarian goulash for lunch and fell in love with the dish, and then we popped our heads into a beautiful Orthodox church, watching women in skirts and headscarfs enter for service.

Orthodox church in Praga
Finally, we headed up the Palace of Science and Culture. This 231m skyscraper was build in the 1950s and was a gift from Soviet Russia - Doug said Poland was offered that, or a metro system, but picked the first as they didn't have the money to maintain a metro system once it was build. The building apparently looks like a lot of other Soviet era skyscrapers, and currently is housed by offices, museums, theatres and cinemas, shops, a conference centre, a university, and restaurants and bars. It's a pretty impressive building, as is the view from the terrace! Looking out over Warsaw you can definitely note the difference between the reconstructed old town, the huge Soviet era blocks, and the modern western style towers.

Palace of Science and Culture
After a dinner of polish dumplings back at the hostel, we went to see the Multimedia Fountain, the biggest such display in Europe. It uses water, light and sounds, with fountains shooting 25m high light up by different coloured lights to a soundtrack, and lighted pictures projected onto a screen of fog. It was really cool, I don't think I've ever seen anything like it. We then headed to a 'bad taste' themed party hosted by one of the other exchange students, in their tiny one-bedroom apartment. I had to think how many people were crammed into that place, it was so packed that trying to move around felt like being in one of those puzzle games where you can only have space to move one square at a time! Everyone was loud and enthusiastic and consuming a lot of polish vodka, until the rather threatening polish police turned up and gave us five minutes to evacuate the place. We then headed into town, but as it was so late got turned away from all of the clubs, and ended up just going to bed.

Warsaw Old Town Market Square
Sunday saw us head to the former Jewish Ghetto. There, you can trace where the wall once stood - its amazing to see what a small area of Warsaw it occupied, considering the number who lived within it. You can see a memorial representing where the bridge crossed over the tram lines, from the 'big' ghetto to the 'small' ghetto. Most amazing was sections of the wall that still stand, and a ruined apartment building that also survived the war.

Multimedia Fountain
We ended the day at the Warsaw Fotoplastikon. This was one of my favourite experiences in Warsaw. A Fotoplastikon was a viewer for three-dimensional photos, used to show people who could not travel sights of the world before film was invented. This fotoplastikon was installed in about 1905, and has survived ever since, showing shots of Paris, London and prewar Poland throughout the Nazi occupation and Soviet communist era to people from all walks of life, who went to view the photos and listen to jazz music as we go to the movies. People can enter the theatre and sit at one of the viewers around the circular contraption, and the photos flip over as you look in. It makes you really appreciate both how easy it is for us to travel nowdays and see things for ourselves, and how easy it is to immortalize our memories with photography.

Apartment building in the former Ghetto
Then it was time to eat a bit more, blow the last of my polish Zloty currency, and head to the train station. Using the Zloty instead of the Euro was amazing, everything was so much cheaper - I spent about 80euros ($120NZD) over the weekend, impossible to achieve in other european cities, and really felt like I was living it up! It was a great first foray into Eastern Europe, and left me itching to head back  in that direction again soon!

More photos are here.

Friday, July 6, 2012

May in Amsterdam

Ollie, Pepi and me playing in the paddling pool
This blog seems to be dying a silent death! I just got a bit too busy living life to spend any time writing about it, you'll understand why when I catch up on posts! But I am determined to get up to date, if only in brief as a record for myself, and now some I'm having some really cool new experiences. So here goes!

I don't have too much to say about May in Amsterdam, after Hauke was here for Queens Day I got quite sick, eventually being diagnosed with bronchitis, so I spent a lot of time at home trying (and failing) to shake the cough. I did manage a trip to Warsaw in Poland over the second weekend of the month, but I will write about that in another post.

Rollerderby in Amsterdam
I watched Rollerderby for the first time. I'd often thought about playing it myself, as I'm quite aggressive on sportsfields and used to take great pleasure from shoving my elbow into an opponients side while the referree wasn't looking, but I never really new much about the game. Turns out, the point is to go round and round in circles, with one person from each time trying to get to the front and go around the fastest, while the rest of the opposing team tries to block you from doing so. It actually wasn't very exciting viewing after the first couple of rounds.

Ollie on a really hot day
The weather got really really hot for a while, and I spent a lot of time hanging out in the sun with Ollie, splashing around in the paddling pool with both kids, and sitting on Anissa's terrace in the evenings with a few drinks. The nice weather really lifted my mood and made me happier to be in Amsterdam over summer...

...until one morning Jacquie told me that my visa application had been rejected and I had 28 days to leave the country! There was no indication that there would be any problem, so it was more that a bit of a surprize. Their basis for rejection was that Rogier and Jacquie could not prove that they could financially afford an au pair, as their only income source was earned in Luxembourg. Seems a bit silly to me, given the whole borderless Europe thing, but I've heard a lot about the Dutch visa office, and it seems a total mess, turning down a lot of visas for random reasons after they refuse to process visas via their embassies and make you fly all the way here to submit the application.

"Who me? Of course I wasn't playing with it.."
After I got over the initial shock, with the help of a lot of red wine and some amazing friends and family, I actually came around to the idea, and decided that while I would miss Ollie and Pep like crazy, I wasn't really keen to spend much more time working for their parents and was glad to leave Amsterdam. While I had a lot of "wow, look at the clogs/tulips/windmills/cheese, its so cool to be in the Netherlands" moments, I never really felt at home there.

too cute!
I'm going to make some horrible general-
isations here, and say that the Dutch are quite cold people who are hard to befriend and have very different concepts of manners and childraising than I am accustomed too. Unlike some of the other au pairs, I wouldn't say they're rude, because I think its just a different way of doing things, but definitely the lack of pleases and thank yous started to bug me, as did their way of letting their children run wild and do whatever they want unpunished when young, figuring at some point when they grow up they will work out the proper way to behave

Our boat trip, pulling up at the windmill brewery bar
A good example was when I was having lunch with Anissa and a very flashy woman dining with a friend ignored her preschooler while he disturbed the rest of us, and then turned around to order another diner to shut the door, without adding a please or thank you anywhere. I know it seems minor, and the kind of thing you see in most countries, but it seems so much more prevalient in Amsterdam, if not the whole of the Netherlands. Overall, its not a culture I could see myself integrating into. Also, I don't think Amsterdam is my favourite dutch city. The blatant sex, drugs and drunken debauchery gets annoying after a while, as do the hordes of tourists that constantly get in the way. It isn't a big city, but feels quite spread out with different bars, resturants and parks all over the show rather than in a orderly centre, so that it becomes a hassle to do things. I much prefer Haarlem or the Hague.

Me and Anissa at the windmill brewery
And finally, having to move turned into a good opportunity to see a little of somewhere else for a couple of months, before I head to Gottingen in Germany to work in September. Initially, my mind was spinning with all of the possibilies, and I looked at spending the summer in the south of France, or Turkey or Greece. After finding the Netherlands hard to settle down in, my heart really wanted me to go back to Luxembourg, where I felt at home, knew my way around and had friends. I spent hours every day for weeks looking at profiles of families and places to go - hence the lack of blog posts! But, in the end I listened to my head over my heart (and my desire for sun and surf) and agreed to go to Munich for a couple of months, as it would allow me to improve my German. More on that later...

Me perched on the stern
Moving also meant I had to cram four months worth of plans into just one month! Just after I found out I would have to move, Anissa surprized me with a day out on a boat cruising around the canals. This is something I'd always wanted to do, not just go on the tourist trip in the big barge, but be on a little motorboat with a bunch of friends, drinking and partying as the dutch do on the weekends. A friend of hers had gone in with his coworkers on a boat for a year, so he took a bunch of us out for the day. We had perfect weather, and after a stop to get petrol (service stations in Amsterdam have back entrances, steps down the the canal water level so that boats can pull up and get gas, cool ay?) we picked everyone up and spent the whole day cruising around.

Faces of horror as we ventured out into the rough open sea
Memorable moments were me offering to take driving over while someone had a ciggie, and subsequently crashing into a moored boat, heading out into the open sea and then reaslising we were a bit too small for it, then running out of petrol and having to refuel in the middle of the harbour with the waves crashing over the sides and the big boats steering around us, pulling up at the windmill brewery bar to stop for drinks, and the many interesting locations we stopped to pee, including Willem just sitting on the stern and peeing overboard. Willem also ended the day on a funny note by falling into the canal while trying to moor us.

Willem overboard in the canal
I also visited a beach with Jana, at IJBurg, some man-made islands just on the edge of Amsterdam. Its not a beach I would recommend, like the rest of the city its horribly windy, has a view of the suburbs and industrial area rather than open sea, and was a bit icky. I was feeling really sick that day and didn't enjoy it as much as I normally would have, and also managed to get sunburnt. I think my skin has been dutchified, as last summer I spent a whole week lying in the sun in Sicily with no sunscreen on and didn't get burnt at all, this year I had a low-SPF on but still got burnt by the dutch sun, surely one of the weakest in Europe! Not cool!

Me on the beach at IJBurg
So May was not my best month this year, it really drained me emotionally and saw me get really sick physically. Finding out I would be moving again was hard, facing the fourth time I'd have to pack up and start all over again in a little over a year made me realise that this whole nomadic lifestyle is getting old, and I am beginning to crave a solid base, a house I can feel at home in and some close connections with people. It also proved my theory that trying to plan anything while on an OE is a waste of time - six months ago I would have told you I would spend the summer in Luxembourg, a couple of months ago I would have told you I would spend the summer in Amsterdam, and now here I am off to southern Germany! My new mantra is life live by a Plan B - Plan B is what you think you could do, if everything works out right, no doors close to you and no new doors open to you. Plan A is what you actually do when everything turns to shit or you get a better offer! So lets hope my new plan works out better than my previous ones!

More photos are here.