It felt like this day would never come, but winter is at last over and it’s time for le blog to come out of hibernation!
The first signs of thawing came at Christmas, where my first reprieve from winter (and work) came with two weeks ‘forced’ holiday while work was shut. After various things either falling through, or not getting off the ground, I ended up with a jam-packed ten days of solo travel.
First stop was Bristol to spend Christmas with my brother who is studying there. Needless to say, this was NOT reprieve from the cold, and I was absolutely freezing the entire time. The numbers on the weather app did not seem to equate to what I was feeling. All the hardened Bristolians thought I was being a big wuss.
It was a short and sweet visit as I arrived on Christmas Eve and left again on the 27th. It was definitely a chill (and chilly, ha ha) few days. James took care of EVERYTHING for Christmas, so I was left to twiddle my thumbs, which I’m not very good at. By the time I got there he’d already done all the shopping, food prep, and timetabling so that things would go off like clockwork. And they did! We spent two days basically lounging around, eating, and watching bad movies, as is tradition. At my insistence though we did also get out of the house to see his stomping ground and despite the odds caught a carol service at the local church. It was an afternoon kids’ one featuring costumes and Christmas jumpers aplenty, what more to ask for.
One thing that did stand out to me while I was in Bristol was the culture shock, and not even because I was in the UK – just because I wasn’t in France any more. Lots of little things kept standing out to me that made me realise I have clearly assimilated French ways more than I might have realised. For example – being hugged hello by a stranger before my brain could even register to not do la bise, everyone wearing shoes in the house, having carpet, not all cheersing individually and making eye contact before drinking, not saying bon appétit before eating, not to mention how COLD and uninsulated James’ old wooden flat was, with condensation in the windows and heating just coming on before going to bed. These are all things that I grew up with in NZ that I have just forgotten or become un-adjusted from.
Also, the French have a general view that the British are a different species of human with perplexing ways and I honestly saw things through their eyes on this visit. For example, the church service started with an announcement about where to find the exits in case of emergency, and ended with an invitation to come and enjoy a special Christmas biscuit, but not before a disclaimer about wheat and soy. That kind of stuff would NEVER happen in France. While I understood it, it just seemed so OTT. A few years ago my Kiwi friend Lucy commented on finding London overwhelming with the constant ‘nanny state’ announcements and notices in the tube, whereas in France people are just kind of left to get on with things. I hadn’t noticed it on previous trips to London but I definitely got what she was talking about this time.
From Bristol I flew to Lisbon, which was where the adventure really began. The sun was out, the sky was blue, the weather app said 17 degrees although the sea air brought that down. Nonetheless, definitely good for the soul after Bristol.
After a delayed flight threw my initial plan into question, on the recommendation of my friendly hostel receptionist I ended up spending the first afternoon wandering Alfama, the old district, making my way up the various hills to higher and higher lookouts (Lisbon is the ‘city of seven hills’; I think I made it up five in total). It was in fact the worst day of the trip to head up there as it was totally overcast/foggy, but c’est la vie. Still good views and I even managed to a) ride and b) survive the infamous number 28 tram. That evening I didn’t have much luck with the hostel guy’s food recommendations but did end up with some takeaway croquette-type things from a local place he recommended. Which I ordered…in Spanish. This was a recurring theme of the trip. Not for want of trying! General travel advice for Portugal is don’t try and speak Spanish, it won’t be well received. But each time I recited my basic ‘sorry I don’t speak Portuguese, do you speak English or French’ more often than not ‘español’ would come back at me so I did my best.
The next day I headed off at the crack of dawn to Sintra, a historical resort town about an hour out of Lisbon that is today a UNESCO world heritage site due to the many lavish palaces and fortifications dotted around it. It’s a bit of a logistical nightmare to get to, as it’s a hilly town with very narrow roads, so cars are discouraged; there’s a tourist ‘hop on hop off’ bus that only goes in one direction – but if you hop off, you basically can’t get back on because it’s too full. Fortunately, my last minute logistic-ing served me well and things went off without a hitch, apart from some long wait times (but which would have been a lot worse had I not been so well prepared). My number one goal was to visit the Palácio Nacional da Pena, an incredible, multicoloured Romanticist Palace perched right on top of the hill. It was a summer retreat for the royal family in the nineteenth century and is surrounded by over 200 hectares of grounds. These were just as interesting as the palace itself, as there is a diverse range of plants, most notably ‘Queen’s Fern Valley’ of Australian and mostly NZ ferns. That was a very unexpected find and really weird to experience as it felt like I was at home in the bush for the first time in four years.
After spending a good few hours there, I had a brief wander around the town centre (fortunately, the bus had changed it route from the info I had found online, and it was actually doable to get off there, then back on to the station) before heading back to Lisbon. There I meandered around the city at night before it was time for dinner at my hostel, mostly watching an awesome band entertaining the crowds waiting to go up the Santa Justa elevator/viewing platform which links the lower and upper parts of the central city (remember: city of hills). They were actually a band called Clover, although I preferred the singer they had invited to join them when I first passed. Then it was at last time for dinner – as it got dark early, I had the same ‘problem’ every day where it was too dark to really do anything outside, but too early to eat/go to bed. Luckily the band was there the next day too to save the day. Anyway, dinner: my hostel had a chef who would cook an in-house dinner if enough people signed up for it during the day. Such a good deal at €10 a head for a soup entree, main dish, dessert, salad and wine. And of course, a great opportunity to meet other people in the hostel. That night it was a full house of a dozen of us for traditional watercress soup, bacalhau à bras – shredded cod, onions, potatoes and egg – and warm chocolate cake. It was delicious, but more importantly, everyone at the table was really interesting. I first talked with a Brit and an Indian who have lived in Sydney for 10 years, then befriended a Brazilian names Guilherme who was travelling with his mum, and later two Québécoises who were having a well deserved child-free vacation. The three of us stayed talking with Luís the chef until nearly 1am – I was so shattered but just too awkward to abruptly interrupt the conversation to announce I was leaving before then. I did earn some free port for my efforts.
As if I wasn’t already tired enough, my last day in Lisbon was spent walking EVERYWHERE. In the morning I did a general walking tour where I learnt so much about the history of Lisbon and Portugal in general. I didn’t even know there had been a dictatorship! Then in the afternoon I did another tour with the same host, this time in Belém, a historical port to the west of the city. I’m always wary of the ‘free’ tours sucking you in to paying for things but I was planning on going to Belém anyway that afternoon, and my guide Fred was so knowledgeable I knew it would be a good idea. And I’m so glad I did! I learnt so much from him about Portugal’s colonial history. Although we didn’t go into any of the monuments except for the church, I feel like it was so much more worthwhile than had I gone there myself. There were only five of us in the group so it was really like a private tour.
Post-Belém it was back to the centre of town for a rinse and repeat of the night before, watching the band until it was time for dinner. Interestingly, apart from Guilherme and his mum it was a totally different (and younger) crowd. I mostly talked to three German girls, but there also some VERY young (and rowdy) Americans, and a mysterious Russian American who kept disappearing but seemed very cool. After what felt like hours of dithering a group of us FINALLY headed out to a pre-New Year’s concert that was on at the Cais do Sodré, the main square…only to get there literally as it finished and the crowds were dispersing. From there we tried to find a bar and en route ‘accidentally’ got separated from the American siblings (I think it was deliberate on their part, but to be honest, suited us all. They wanted to go out-out. The rest of us were old/tired and just wanted a civilised drink). We ended up at a very nice bar where I had some local vinho verde (although with the ambient lighting, you could barely tell). It was a really nice time but we were all pretty shattered so headed home around 1am. It’s always weird to abruptly say goodbye hostel friends like that in a ‘have a nice life kind of way’. The Russian disappeared again alas, but I did exchange details with the Brazilian. Then, bedtime as it was up early yet again in the morning for…
After three days in Lisbon it was time to move on to Porto. The trip was in this order for the simple reason flight prices. Mistake. In exactly the same way as I visited Spain in 2013, I had a fabulous time in the first city, met heaps of wonderful people, and then left that behind only to find myself alone in a less exciting place. Things got off to a bad start as my walking tour in Porto – with the same company – was underwhelming. While everyone around me loved it and was eating it all up, I just felt like the guide’s schtick was so obvious – yeah he was full of information, energy, and jokes, but I just felt like it was such an obvious routine. Even if I know it’s the same for all guides, I just felt like Fred in Lisbon came across so much more naturally, and it seemed like he was genuinely interested in sharing his knowledge and exchanging with the group, not putting on a performance.
Add to that my hostel where I was on the fourth floor with no lift, and top bunk with no plug or light, and there was no kind of communal life, AND I didn’t hear back from friends and friends I was supposed to be meeting up with, and I was feeling seriously down. Again, the ‘getting dark early and struggling to find things to do’ factor didn’t help. I got some tips from the nice receptionist who was feeling quite sorry for me (and nearly let me take her dog out for company – but I put my foot down that that was a Very Bad Idea) and headed out to mooch around to kill time. Well, as always, ~life finds away~ and a series of unlikely sequence of events meant my evening turned out quite unexpectedly. As I was mooching around, I came across a whole lot of people playing music and dancing in the middle of the street. I presumed that this was local dancing, à la what I had encountered while travelling throughout France and Spain during the summer. I awkwardly loitered and watched from the sidelines, as I definitely could have joined in, but was waiting for an opportunity to do so. Some people were clearly a lot less familiar with things than others so it looked pretty all-inclusive. The band then announced that they were upping and moving to a new location, so having literally nothing better to do I followed them. I noticed people were mostly speaking in English but still didn’t really know what was going on. Until we were ‘symbolically’ walking across the symbolic _ bridge, when what did I hear but a Kiwi accent behind me. Not to be overly dramatic but it was basically a sign from the heavens in my hour of need. So of course I (casually) pounced on it and learnt from new friend Andrew who grew up two streets over from me (obviously) that it was a festival called Folk Marathon that takes place for five days over New Year’s in a different European city every year in which ‘a bunch of folk musicians & dancers meeting in a semi-structured way for a few wild days of music, dancing & general merriment!’ It took a while to establish that no, I was not part of the event, and had literally just wandered up off the street. I felt like a total gatecrasher, but as everyone was strangers from all over, nobody knew (and I could manage the dancing just as well as the rest of them). One thing led to another, and after moving to a few different locations I ended up continuing with the group to have dinner cooked by ‘mama’ (whatever the Portuguese equivalent is) in basically a converted garage with a handwritten sign on the door. €4 for soup and a hearty black bean or chicken dish with rice. There must have been about twenty of us from all over the world, speaking several different languages at once, some playing instruments, some singing…you honestly can’t make this up. Afterwards, they were continuing the festivities into the night but I politely declined – I didn’t want to push my luck too far, and I was more than ready for bed at that point. Andrew from Wellington disappeared at some point pre-dinner but I did make a new friend, Felipe from Lisbon who I am still in contact with. Overall, a turn up for the books indeed!
The next day though was New Year’s Eve and yet another looong expanse of day (and night) stretching out ahead of me. I took things easy, meandering all over the city, but Porto’s really not very big. I did a tour of a port house primarily for something to do – though it was very interesting. Despite my efforts, the wait till midnight was a long one. New Year’s Eve was incidental rather than instrumental in my trip, but nonetheless I could hardly go to bed at 6pm could I. What I hadn’t thought about was the chaos of trying to find something to eat. All the local places I had looked up were of course closed. The rest were either super touristy, or offering only an expensive set menu, or totally seafood/MEAT; in any case there was no room at the inn anywhere. After an hour of helpless wandering I ended back up at a place I had clocked at the beginning of the night and committed to waiting there. It was basically a hole-in-the wall that sold two options: suckling pig with chips in a sandwich form, or loose. While I queued on the street, I aggressively befriended a young woman who lined up behind me (she seemed willing). Turned out she was from Paris and had decided to boycott the usual NYE festivities with a last minute getaway to Portugal. It was really nice to chat to pass the time and eat together. But it turned out she really was boycotting NYE and headed home to bed at 10pm! So I was once again staring down the barrel of more standing around and waiting alone for another two hours. At least by this point the entertainment had started, and after what felt like an eternity, a local singer and an extensive fireworks display heralded in 2019. The occasion even merited me a ‘happy new year’ from my Korean roommate, the first words he had spoken in three days!
The next day I got up earlyish to race around for a few last minute photos in good light and then it was time to head to the airport. I made it just in time. Unfortunately, I had been so busy with work and other preoccupations in the leadup to my trip it was totally disorganised. I had done enough research when planning it to figure out how much time to spend in each place and the key things I wanted to do, but then kind of forgot about it. This meant that I felt like I spent the whole trip constantly planning the next step (for example, using the hour on the train to Sintra to figure out what I was going to do the next day, realising the night before I left Porto that I had no idea how difficult it was to get to the airport and discovering that due to the public holiday factor I would have been in trouble had I missed the connection for the half-hourly airport train). While everything worked out fine in the end, I did NOT enjoy it. I’m a neurotic planner, and that’s how I roll. OF COURSE I’m capable of going with the flow but right place, right time – having two days in a city was not the time for that. I did feel somewhat vindicated that my usual efforts are ‘necessary’.
In terms of my overall impressions of Portugal, it was a mixed bag. Everyone I know who has been there has raved and raved about it, so I had high expectations going in (disorganisation factor notwithstanding). While I wouldn’t say I was disappointed, I came away feeling a little…confused, or with unfinished business at least. While I was only there for a short trip, I definitely saw and learnt a lot, and most of that from locals (with the walking tour, and in my hostels as well). However I felt upon leaving that I just didn’t really have a feeling for the identity or vibe of the place. I don’t know how to explain it. I don’t think it’s the fact that I was solo travelling, or even the fact that I don’t speak the language – as most of my travel has been solo and to places where I can’t have more than a basic introduction in the lingo, and usually I would have a lot less contact with locals. I couldn’t help but compare it to Barcelona, where I’ve been several times and for me that city has such a strong character that I just didn’t get from Portugal. This didn’t detract at all from my time there or my enjoyment of what I was up to, but was rather a notable observation I made at the time.
After that manic ten days I had exactly one day to blob around and do nothing (I think I stayed in my PJs all day on principle). Despite my ‘holidays’ not being at all relaxing, I nonetheless had a really good break from work. I came back to the office feeling like I had been gone for a very long time indeed, and felt like I couldn’t remember how to do my job – we all did. It was the first time we had had ANY time off since starting, and been away from each other for that matter, so was definitely a good mental break. Then, straight back into things and it was like we’d never left.
Hot off the press is that at long, long last, after six months of chipping away at it off an on for a few hours a week as my timetable allowed, I have at last vanquished my bête noire that was TOEIC course creation. TOEIC is one of the many standardised English tests used to certify a level of English proficiency, but that is most popular in France. After two years working at an engineering school I have accidentally become rather familiar with it and as a result become the resident expert in our 350-employee company. Long story short, I have had the great honour of conceiving not one, not two, but three versions of a TOEIC preparation course based on various lengths and intensities. The main one was finished before I headed away for Christmas (the first great success and sense of achievement), but the other two have taken their time with lots of nitty gritty details that aren’t very satisfying at all but nonetheless needed to be managed with a fine tooth comb. Throw in a malfunctioning hard drive and a computer on its last legs and it’s definitely been a crawl to the finish. But, it’s done! Another colleague is fine-tuning the technical details for our computer system, but my work is done…until we have students actually wanting to take the course (my brain has a sort of forced disconnect with that part of it).
Aside from TOEIC, work’s continuing to go from strength to strength; we’ve got more students, which means more varied types of classes – lots of one on ones for individual coaching for various endeavours, going into companies for corporate lessons, more business/legal/professional English classes. We also have a new teacher and receptionist who have joined the team, so slowly but surely we are growing. So too are our weekly events – I think the long awaited Irish dance workshop for St Patrick’s Day holds the record for greatest attendance, but numbers are on the up in general.
Crazy to think that choir was but a wee seed of hope planted when I wrote last. Since then we have had two weekends in a gîte in the countryside for singing and teambuilding, one concert to critical acclaim, one weekend spent taking part in an improv tournament, as part of the challenge for the actors (which finished with an impromptu concert in a square outside a bar at 1:30am), one roadtrip to Grenoble, several nights dancing rock and roll and countless other outings and social occasions. Alongside all that, we have managed to prepare 15 songs for our end of year concert in June which is going to be here before we know it. I’m really excited to share what we’ve been beavering away at all year! Video evidence is scarce, but here is one that’s emerged from our first concert:
The gym is going well, and I’ve been getting into classes (my fave = bodypump). I’ve even managed to feel enough of an attachment to actually participate in the competition to get the most people to sign up. I peaked early on with two signups and got prematurely excited about my future prize; needless to say over the following weeks I slid steadily down the leaderboard to the point where I didn’t even win a towel in the end. I do get a month free for each person I managed to sign up so it wasn’t for naught, but that’s the deal at any point in the year. Oh well. Worth the effort to make a facebook post and badger my colleagues!
My gym attendance has been somewhat dwindling of late however as a new athletic project has taken over…Fabio has managed to succeed in roping me in to training for a 10k run. It didn’t take much persuasion to be fair. He planted the seed last year, left it to germinate while I clean forgot, then sprung it on me again in February. Somehow he has managed to appeal to my stubborn sense of not quitting-ness over my thorough unenthusiasm about running. The initial target was the Run in Lyon event in October, which is the only reason I agreed to do it as it’s so far away it’s surely doable without having to actually rigorously train with some kind of considered routine etc. Well, as we determined after our first trial run (and fortunately supported by evidence from every subsequent attempt), that goal might be in fact be too lax as we are accidentally a lot closer to it than we anticipated. Still can’t run more than 2ks without stopping, but we manage six or seven overall with a bloody consistent pace every week, with no other prep in between. Dare I say it, perhaps this whole saga will be done and dusted by the time I next manage to write a blog post?!
Book club is still going strong, with the fourth instalment – my turn – last week. The chosen food/wine location went down a treat; the book not so much. BUT for the first time, all four of us had actually finished it! And at least it was an easy, if uninspiring read. It was Normal People by Sally Rooney, which I’d got for Christmas and is winning accolades all over the place. We were all just a bit underwhelmed. However we did have perhaps the most robust discussion about the book yet – and the cheapest night out! So all around, great success.
My reading en español is not going so well alas as my fortnightly magazines seem to pile up like Harry Potter’s letters, though I have made inroads on clearing the backlog over the past week (helped by the fact that I have allowed myself not to have to read every article if I’m not interested in it!). However, the Spanish goal overall is going well – kickstarted at the very beginning of the year by marathoning La Casa de Papel (yes, worth the hype, no, the trailer doesn’t do it justice). I was itching to start a new series after that and have a whole lot of recommendations waiting, but at the time had to force myself to focus on other priorities and haven’t got back on the bandwagon. However, I have been doing something arguably much more constructive: going to a Spanish language exchange on an almost weekly basis! Unfortunately it’s on Tuesday nights when I finish work at 9pm, and usually start again at 9am on Weds, so hardly ideal. But really worth it – my comprehension and writing is pretty good, but there’s no substitute for working on oral production. You just gotta put yourself out there and poco a poco it gets easier (and less excruciating for those you’re talking to). I can’t be that bad though as I seem to be making friends who willingly choose to talk to me week after week.
Last post I wrote about our wonderful crémaversaire; well, alas, that wonder was shortlived as my beloved flatmate Raph finished his work project in December and moved back to Paris. Swings and roundabouts: I just visited him there last weekend, and for the first time ever was able to stay with someone I know there! Unlike my usual visits back when I was young and the museums were free, where I’d go up for a few days, meet up with a few friends and otherwise marathon as many free monuments as possible, this time I had no agenda at all. I was just going to see friends and chill with them (disclaimer, and the only exhibitions I was interested in were booked out by the time I discovered them). It was wonderful, and a totally different experience – for the first time I was seeing Paris from the perspective of locals. On the Friday night we heading to a flatwarming on the other side of town (one hour on the metro), where everyone was totally lovely. On the Saturday I was at last reunited with my favourite Canadian, Sarah, though we managed not to take any photos to commemorate the occasion. We hadn’t seen each other in the flesh since December 2017! It felt totally normal though, as our entire friendship has been long distance apart from the first five months when we met on exchange in 2013. In contrast, seeing Raph was kinda weird at first because it reminded me that I DON’T see him any more and that we used to see each other literally every day while we lived together. But if anything, the weekend confirmed that we had become fast friends beyond the fact that we used to by default by living together. Best of all, I was able to introduce two very dear friends who got along like a house on fire, and I am confident that future exploits are in the works! Watch this space. On the Saturday evening we went to a cabaret show in Pigalle. The venue was cool – an old, converted theatre, as was the setup – cabaret show, music quiz, second cabaret show in smaller side room, then it turned into a club. Unfortunately, it was ENTIRELY French music – and French music of a very specific genre, that nobody likes or listens to but everyone knows, as Raph’s friend put it. I recognised literally two songs over the whole evening. So that limited enjoyment. However it was a cool experience and another occasion to spend more time with some of Raph’s friends who I’d met before. Sunday was spent chilling, wandering, and eating homemade tiramisu for breakfast, just as it should be. I got back to Lyon at midnight and feel like I’m still recovering – losing an hour this weekend with daylight saving has not helped matters. Now that the blog catchup is out of the way, perhaps sleep is on the agenda for the rest of the week! Until next time…