Always striving to reach new heights, I have outdone myself by failing to write for a solid five months and thus eclipsing an entire season (and beyond).
Winter came to an end with a hiss and a roar with the infamous ‘beast from the East’ bringing literal Siberian temperatures – at its worst, three solid days of ‘-10, feels like -15’. The timing could not have been worse as this arrived right after I had had two all-nighters out on the town with the Perpignan crew, and by the end of the week I had an ear infection and conjunctivitis. Great way to cap off a season of being continually sick. That said, in February I DID manage to successfully give blood for the first time in a year, so I was pretty stoked about that!
Spring arrived slowly but surely as we gradually defrosted from winter. I think it was starting to feel ‘warm’ around mid to late March. Late March is also when the post-winter flurry of activity really kicked off as I headed away on the first decent trip since I’d been back from NZ to…
Why London? My mum and brother were in town while he was auditioning for theatre school, and Easter weekend was the perfect time for me to pop over. Unlike most trips, I didn’t have anything on the agenda as the objective was ~family time~. Nonetheless, we managed to get up to some pretty cool stuff.
I think the highlight for all three of us was Mary Stuart Play, which greatly exceeded expectations. The play focuses on the dilemma faced by Elizabeth I about what to do about Mary, Queen of Scots – a period of history that I was pretty obsessed with when I was younger. There were two lead actresses, who flipped a coin on-stage at the beginning of each performance to determine who would play whom. The set was simple, and there were only a couple of supporting characters, but just the whole way it was put together was really effective – especially in really getting you to feel for each of the queens and their perspective as they alternated on stage.
Late at the Tate: Who wouldn’t want to start their Saturday evening with a stylish meal out (at Rabbit, Chelsea) and finish it by heading into the city for late night at the museum? We were there for a Modigliani exhibition which was in its last days, and had strictly allocated entry times for its tickets. Why not go at 10pm on a Saturday? To be honest, the novelty of being there at that time, and the installation of swings in the Turbine Hall were more exciting than the exhibition itself (though I did enjoy the feedback left at the exit).
The only thing that was in fact on the agenda was a jaunt back to Greenwich, were we lived for a few months in 2002. Sadly, a gate has now been put in so we couldn’t see our old house, but it was nice to roam around the old stomping ground, catching the old faves Jubilee Line and the DLR. We had an added challenge of recreating some old photos, with mixed success.
We also visited the Cabinet War Rooms, the underground bunker from which the war effort was directed, accompanied by a museum on Chuchill’s life. Not for the claustrophobic, this was an interesting visit. However, the real highlight for me was the gift shop and specifically the many postcards of wartime motivational posters.
The trip wasn’t without its lowlights, however. The first was the weather – yes, we all know England isn’t known for its weather, but worse than being grey and drizzly it was FREEZING, like ‘should I put on long johns or will I be too hot when I go inside’ type freezing. Secondly, mum sprang some hefty legal documents on me that I had to get witnessed by a stranger. That was two days of fun carrying them everywhere until at last a friendly librarian obliged.
Lastly, truly a disappointment was our visit to Red House, former home of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement. Mum’s a big fan of his textiles, and I’d learnt about this period while on exchange in France, so it seemed only fitting to make the trip just outside of London. It was off to a bad start, however, with Easter Sunday timetables coupled with bad luck meaning that it took us nearly two hours to get there. The real disappointment came with the house itself. The house has indeed been preserved and is managed by the National Trust, but there was just so little information available about it, and its significance, and Arts and Crafts in general. The rooms were pretty bare, and had tiny booklets with a couple of sentences about what it might have been used for. Even the room that had a couple of the plates used in making the wallpapers mentioned nothing about the fact that William Morris designed wallpapers! One of the volunteers was lovely, and a fount of knowledge if you showed an interest, but it was just such a shame that there such knowledge was not being made use of in such a way that a wide range of people could become interested in and find out more about the topic. We stayed barely an hour, then had another long commute back into the city.
After London it was back to Lyon for one week of classes, and then the real holidays kicked in. I stayed put for a week, before heading off my next adventure to…
Getting there was a miracle in itself, as my trains were cancelled thanks to the railway workers’ strike which kicked off at the beginning of April. Initially scheduled for three months, it’s seemingly on hold now for the peak summer season, but as far as I’m aware the issues haven’t been fully resolved so it may well be resumed in September. Anyway, going by train was already a long trip (around 7 hours), but I still had airport fatigue from the NZ return trip in August, so like with the London I opted for the train – honestly my preferred way to travel in any event (such a novelty! So efficient when there’s not strikes!). With the train cancelled, and wanting to maintain my trip as planned, my only option was…12 hours on a bus. Miraculously, I managed to sleep most of the way.
Destination numéro uno was Zaragoza, in Aragón, about halfway between Madrid and Barcelona. I was going there to visit my friend Rafa who I worked with on summer camp in Switzerland in 2016. The goal, aside from catching up and visiting the city, was working on my fledgling Spanish, and I certainly got what I asked for: four days of total immersion from dawn to dusk. It was exhausting. But, so worth it. Even from the second day I noticed that my brain had switched into Spanish mode, and while I was still limited in what I could produce, at least I was already thinking in the right format. At the end of the day when I got a chance to reply to messages, it took a while for my brain to compute in both French and English! The first day trying to speak in Spanish was tough, and oddly enough it was only French expressions and structures that wanted to come out (rather than English). Similarly, everyone told me I had a French accent, to the point that even shop assistants said ‘au revoir’ to me unprompted after a whole exchange in Spanish. Their jaws literally dropped when I told them that not only was I not French, but I was from New Zealand. It makes sense given that I speak French, I live in France, and I have most recently been learning Spanish with French people, but on the other hand I’m still surprised that that managed to outweigh my native tongue! Taking it as a compliment though.
I had no idea what to expect from Zaragoza itself, but the city nonetheless exceeded my expectations. It was bigger than I expected, and had lots of varied architecture, interesting history and street art everywhere! The people were also great, and I couldn’t have asked for a nicer welcome especially from Rafa’s flatmate Chechu, and his sister Esti, who were so friendly and unbelievably patient, and actually willing to initiate conversations on complex topics despite the herculean effort it required.
We also spent a day at the Monasterio de Piedra about an hour and a half south west of Zaragoza. Despite the dismal weather, we spent most of the day in the park, where geologist Rafa was in his element. The tour of the actual monastery was underwhelming, and my Spanish brain had switched off by this point. The tour the day before of Zaragoza’s Aljafería (11th century Moorish palace turned 15th century Catholic palace turned current Aragonese parliament) was much more engaging, and worth the energy.
Language aside, the toughest thing about my time in Zaragoza was the weather. Based on the forecast, I had packed for it to be around 15-20 degrees every day. What I wasn’t prepared for is that it would be freeeezing all morning, then got hot in the afternoon. Hard to plan for when out and about all day! Despite the simple nature of the visit, after four days with the gang I was feeling quite sad to leave my new bubble. But, bigger and brighter things were calling:
I’d been to Barcelona before, in 2013 when I was in France on exchange (and could still string a sentence together in Spanish after a year of study at home). So, I’d done all the sightseeing essentials that time, and really had nothing planned for this visit – I was just going back to one of my favourite cities to chill. After being with people – lovely people, but nonetheless people – literally 24/7 in Zaragoza, some time on my own was exactly what I needed. I mostly just wandered around, seeking out hidden courtyards and gardens to plonk myself down and catch up on my writing.
Even though the plan was to chill, I still didn’t want to not do ‘anything’, so each day I ended up doing a walking tour for some social interaction/learning new things, then explored based on where I ended up. The first tour I did was a street art tour in El Raval. We saw heaps of cool stuff, and the guide had good knowledge, but I just took a dislike to him from the get go. Things started badly as he was hard to find (not where the instructions said he would be) and he just had an attitude/schtick that me up the wrong way. Nonetheless, the tour was worth doing; info about it here.
That evening, I met my Airbnb host and had a good yarn with him, before disappearing for a run. Neither of us could believe it. Conveniently I had the foresight to bring running gear ‘just in case’, as I really had everything handed to me on a platte, staying five minutes from the Barceloneta beach front promenade. Add to that that I had spent four days in Zaragoza eating veeeeery fatty food, with nary a vegetable in sight, and I owed it to myself (despite my aversion to running). One hour, 7km and some fresh vegetables in hand later, and I was feeling pretty pleased with myself.
The next morning I went on a walking tour of the Gothic Quarter. While I had explored the area before, I had (unusually for me) managed to bypass learning much about it, so this tour was perfect for that. Turns out the history of Catalonia is not exactly straightforward. This guide was not annoying like the previous one, but also had his schtick of being VERY FULL ON and SLIGHTLY UNHINGED. He was very informative, but I couldn’t help thinking of all the non-native English speakers in the group who would have had a hard time keeping up.
After winding through the nooks and crannies of the Barrio Gótico for several hours, we ended up in El Born, and after being set in the right direction from my guide (= away from seafood), I wandered until I found a local restaurant to have lunch in. The criteria: not tourist trap prices for the menu del día, and no English on the menu board outside. I had my work cut out for me, and while I was beginning to despair after walking round in circles I struck gold. If there’s one recommendation from this blog that someone actually takes up, let it be this: El Atril restaurant. I cannot overstate what a pleasant experience it was. My waiter didn’t try to speak to me in English, but didn’t speak to me like I was stupid either. He waited for me to get my words out, and even made conversation and jokes! And…the food! For €12,90 I had two courses: first up was a salad, which turned out to be the best salad of my life. It was HUGE, and I realised later that the reason I enjoyed it so much is that there was not a single thing in there that I didn’t like (which is rare): lettuce, tuna, sundried tomatoes, cucumber, parmesan, sesame seeds, balsmic and pesto. I raved and raved about this salad to anyone in the vicinity that week, and have remade it several times. DE-LISH. The only downside was that as it was so generous, I struggled with the second course which was lightly spiced chicken and potatoes. It was perfectly balanced, suuper tender, but just too much for me – after the salad, but also because I rarely eat meat (food-based holidays are obviously an exception). Even so, my friendly waiter tried to convince me to get dessert even when I insisted I really was full, even suggesting ice cream to help digest…I would have burst.
From there I explored the area and the Parc de la Ciutadella, then hiked right across town and up a mountain (via cable car) to Mount Tibidabo. It was a dogleg and a half to get there, but I was determined for the sake of doing/seeing something new. There’s an amusement park there, which was shut (as expected – not my reason for visiting), an iconic church, and an expansive view across the city and along the coast in both directions. While I was happy to be there and to have accomplished something, I’m not sure it was worth it to be honest. I prefer the view from Park Güell, where you can see the layout of the city more clearly. The cable car was also expensive for the time I spent at the top (it is possible to hike all the way up, but it wasn’t the right occasion). After recovering in the rooftop hammock at my Airbnb, I went out for a drink/tapas with my host that evening. I was still full from lunch, so the couple of snacks we had at a modest local bar (standing room only) was perfecto.
On my final day I did another walking tour on Gaudí and Modernisme. Again, the host was great, and there were only three of us in the group which was excellent. We spent a cool couple of hours together, but I left the tour feeling like I hadn’t really learnt or seen anything new (apart from at the Sagrada Família, where notable progress had been made since I was there in 2013). The rest of the day I spent SHOPPING. Not being a shopper, I had been mentally preparing myself for this all trip, but much like the run I just couldn’t let the opportunity pass by. It was lucky I didn’t, because I was welcomed back to Lyon with a sweltering 28 degrees – summer had arrived out of nowhere, so the new wardrobe was in use straight away! Barcelona’s 20 degrees and sea breeze had been perfect – enough to dress like summer, and walk all over the city (nearly 20km every day) without it being unpleasant. Despite the rocky start with the bus, the trip worked out perfectly: four days of language immersion with friends in Zaragoza, and three days to relax alone in Barcelona. When I got back to the office I felt like I had been away from it and the world of work much longer than two weeks. I can’t remember the last time I had such a refreshing holiday.
Other bits and bobs:
Le Misanthrope – Way back in Feb, flatmate Noémie and I went to see Molière’s classic at the TNP next to where we live. I had been there last year with other flatmate Mathilde for Rom&Jul, so it felt only appropriate. Interestingly enough, the play was actually in the same theatre, but totally reconfigured for theatre in the round. While most of it went way over my head, I thoroughly enjoyed the performance. Just like Shakespeare, it’s written in verse, and though even though I didn’t necessarily know what they were saying, I was able to appreciate the way the actors spoke in rhythm and rhyme yet still in a way that felt totally natural. Perhaps the language barrier was actually an advantage in this sense. Not for Noémie’s neighbour unfortunately, who kept nodding off/waking up in a rather dramatic fashion.
Opera – long story short: spent my St Patrick’s day at a 5-hour opera. Verdi’s Don Carlos to be precise. Fortunately, it was fantastic, much better than my one other opera experience last year. Emma and I had said that we would play it by ear and maybe leave at the intermission, but the first three hours flew by. The sets were elaborate and staging excellent, and the story was simple enough to follow. There were lights-up pauses between each scene as they changed the sets, which was good for a breather. It was only when we got to the final hour that it started to drag, mostly from being physically uncomfortable after sitting for so long. But we stuck it out. We had dressed up for the occasion, but weirdly, so had everyone else (not usually the case here). We eventually realised that it was in fact opening night, hence a lot of ‘in the know’ guests attending, and surrounding us with many different languages (including one we eventually identified as Flemish) at the interval. I also discovered later that apparently it is rare for this opera to be performed in French, and in its entirety, so it was a very special occasion indeed – and worth writing off St Patrick’s day for (even if that was veeeery unfortunate timing).
Rugby – Mealiny and I went to the Top14 (French super rugby equivalent) semi final between Paris and Castres, and Castres won. We were happy, as they were the underdogs (and not Paris). They ended up winning the tournament too. The whole stadium experience was much better than when we went for the first time for the All Blacks game last year. It helped that it was an afternoon game on a Saturday, and we went the public transport route with a bit more walking but which involved much less waiting round than the paid shuttle option (a source of great disappointment last time).
All of these highlights were in fact few and far between, and a lot of my time in Spring (a solid 6 weeks) was spent being a hermit and job hunting. This eventually paid off, but more on that in the next post! I’m now staring down the barrel of a very busy summer, so no idea when said next post will come, but as this post proves I’ll get there eventually no matter what.
Merci beaucoup to everyone who still continues to read!