A Change of Perspective: My Second Trip to Warsaw

The first time I visited Warsaw was in October 2012 for a wedding. On a morning trip to the Old Town, a bleak sky took a little life out of the town buildings, merging their pastel colours into a blend of blandness. If you closed your eyes and listened to sounds of horse hoofs clomping on the cobbled streets, you could imagine being in the era of Soviet rule, hunched figures hurrying through the drizzle to buy their bread before rushing back home to their duties. Driving to the local salon to get my hair done for the ceremony, I remember pulling up outside a run-down building with peeling paint, the smoking staff scowling up at the cloudy sky. The weather had dimmed the mood of the town and its subsequent memorability.

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Fast forward to June 2015 and I was back in the capital on a brighter day. Driving past the hair salon, the sun shone on a freshly-painted building complete with a new sign and clean windows. Traffic levels boomed on the long weekend as people drove into the capital for a sunny day out. Status appears to be important in Poland as it strives to distance itself from its Communist connotations and develop into a more prosperous country with a greater preference for Western lifestyles. If you have money, you buy a fancy car. Branded clothing and accessories that many English people would find tacky are sought after here. Whilst many Londoners dream of a country mansion where they can work from home and avoid the urban grind, city life is the ideal in Poland, and the countryside is for the peasants. As someone who grew up in the countryside and gets frustrated with life in the city, this view is intriguing to me.

It never ceases to amaze me how influential the sun can be psychologically on one’s attitude towards a place. Summer scenes were vastly different from those I had seen in the autumn nearly three years ago. Approaching the Old Town, the buildings stood strikingly against the perfect blue sky, looking incredibly rich in colour like skin bronzed from the sun’s rays. Tourists in shorts and dresses ambled around slowly in a warm state of relaxation, the only sense of rush in the area being from the kids jumping around in excitement trying to pop the bubbles that ballooned from a man’s bucket. There was more energy around the place since I was last there, but less tension at the same time. People moved slower, but more progressively too.

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A group of runners milled around doing calf stretches and lunges as we looked for a restaurant to eat at. ‘Zapiecek’ is the place to go for traditional Pierogi – deep-fried dumplings stuffed with cheeses, vegetables or meats. Sat outside under white umbrellas, little conversation was exchanged between diners. Instead people sat lazily, smoking pensively or reading the newspaper. I drank a dried fruit compote whilst the waitresses stood in the doorway in their red and blue aprons, basking in the sunshine. 091099

Then as I was eating, a young girl of about 12 approached our table and asked for some change, none of which I had. Seeing her be ignored by the diners around me made me feel slightly uncomfortable, as I began to consider how increased prosperity makes members of society change their perspective towards the lesser fortunate. It made me think of those real-life rags-to-riches stories you hear about, and question whether these people really do stay humble, or if they inevitably become too embarrassed to acknowledge their past and those people growing up in situations similar to the one they did.

Destroyed by the Nazis during the Second World War, Warsaw has had to renovate itself dramatically. It doesn’t have the number of tourist attractions or social venues to be found in London, but I find that this simplicity makes the capital attractive. Hopefully the increasingly Westernised perspective that the country now holds towards consumer and lifestyle choices won’t make it sacrifice the quiet, modest charm of areas like the Old Town for big brands and brash buildings.

Communicating through Different Languages

Languages are commonly noted as a cause of difficulty when travelling. How are we supposed to know where we’re going if we can’t read a sign? How are we supposed to understand people telling us something in a foreign language? How are we supposed to be understood ourselves? Afterall, we can’t and shouldn’t assume that everyone we encounter can speak English. English-speaking travellers are fortunate in that most countries have English versions of documents and signage. However, there are inevitably moments when no translation is available and one finds himself frozen in speech, blocked by a barrier. This isn’t always a bad thing though; instead, it can teach us to use body language to express our thoughts and emotions. There is something heart-warming about ‘conversing’ with strangers without opening your mouth.

As a bridesmaid at a Polish wedding a couple of years ago, I was taken to a local hairdressers before the ceremony to get my hair done. I’ve always had long hair and my mum has always been my hairdresser (as well as my taxi-driver, nurse etc), therefore I was slightly anxious about how this would turn out.  A fellow bridesmaid drove the two of us down the highway before we turned off and entered a quiet village. Pulling up outside a small salon, a group of ladies stood outside smoking, leaning lazily against a wall with peeling paint. The oldest had platinum blonde hair tied back in a tight bun, and was accompanied by four girls who looked around my age. As I got out of the car they stood upright, surveying me curiously like prisoners checking out the latest arrival. I smiled a ‘hello’ nervously as my acquaintance explained what we’d like done, before following her tentatively inside. The blonde lady gestured to a chair and I sat down, feeling twitchy like a criminal waiting to be questioned. I found it quite daunting to allow a stranger who I could not issue with verbal instructions to have physical power over something that represents such a strong part of my identity. I gulped upon feeling the lady’s long, painted fingernails run through my wavy strands, but as she began massaging shampoo into my scalp, I began to relax.

Soon it was time to move to the other chair and my apprehensions returned. I approached it as if it was electric, unsure what the outcome would be. The lady opened her mouth to speak and then caught herself, remembering that I didn’t speak Polish. We looked at each other through the mirror as she gathered my hair into a bunch and moved it up the back of my head, wanting to know how high I wanted my bun. “Tak!” I said with a thumbs up, and she nodded her acknowledgement. Then she repeated this physical demonstration to ascertain how much volume I wanted on top.

As the lady played with my hair, I found myself unsure of where to look. I didn’t want to just stare at myself in the mirror the whole time, but I was unable to begin a conversation with the girls, and the other bridesmaid was busy chatting with her hairdresser. Instead, I looked down at my lap, playing with my hands and occasionally flashing glances at the girls in an attempt to assess how things were going. As if noticing my awkward discomfort, the lady doing my hair uttered something to one of the girls, who nodded obediently and turned around. On her return, she placed a bowl of chocolates in front of me, looking at me with a side-glance to them before backing away and putting her hands behind her back shyly. I smiled my thanks, unsure whether it was just a polite gesture or they actually wanted me to take one. Seeing the girl glance at me with embarrassment, I instinctively leaned forward and unwrapped the purple paper, enjoying the sight of her blush as I smiled and nodded a ‘delicious’.

Suddenly the lady’s hands stopped still. I looked up in the mirror with my mouth full of chocolate to see her looking at my hair uncertainly, biting her lip. The girls stood warily around her, eyes fixed fearfully on my hair as if it was about to explode. A sense of unease surged through me and I worried that if I attempted to swallow, I might start choking. What was wrong? The woman frowned in concentration and I could only sit helplessly wondering what she was doing back there, imagining her cursing the thickness of my hair. A few anxious minutes later, she stepped back and breathed out with a smile of relief. I returned it hesitantly. Then she got a mirror and held it up so I could see the finished result, checking my reaction with wide eyes of hope. It was exactly what I had wanted, and I flashed her a (double) hands up to show my approval, to which she beamed proudly. “The lady says you have beautiful hair,” the other bridesmaid told me. In the mirror the bridesmaids were looking at me and I said “Dziękuje” with a bashful smile.

The ladies waved us off with big smiles, looking rejuvenated. As a new face, I had made their day interesting (and challenging!)

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During the next summer, I spent some time travelling around Iceland. During my travels, I exchanged a smile and wave of recognition with members of a Chinese family after seeing them again only hours after a silent goodbye. I will never forget the look on their face when they saw me, with no words being necessary to express their delight. Then I spent a week doing a homestay help-exchange in Reykjavík. Painting the outside of the house on my penultimate day, I looked behind me to my right to see the cutest little boy from across the street watching me with interest. With his blinding blue eyes and white-blond hair, he resembled my brothers as six year olds. After a moment I said simply, “Ég tala ensku,” in an attempt to explain that I wouldn’t be able to understand him if he spoke. He nodded quietly…and of course began speaking Icelandic to me anyway. I looked at him to guess what he was communicating and after assuming that he was being a normal curious child, carefully presented him with my roller, pointing at the wall with an encouraging nod. His face breaking into a grin, he stepped forward and, taking the roller in two tiny hands, rubbed it up and down a foot’s length of the wall a few times. Then he looked at me expectantly and I said”Gott!” cheerfully, before he flashed his adorable smile again. 

Having a language barrier reinforces the value of observation. Helping supervise a children’s party during my job as an au pair, I could tell through my eyes only what the dynamic of the group friendship was. There is always the annoying hyper kid who laps up all the attention by putting on the Spiderman costume and shouting wildly, dashing around and almost breaking the plant pot. This contrasts with the ever-present shy, sweet boy who quietly plays in a corner with the jigsaw, expressing a wider interest in the things around him and showing his intelligence. I desperately wanted to go give him company but it wasn’t really possible; I could only smile at him encouragingly and hope that someone else would play with him. From greater observation over hearing, I could see when the adorable little boy wearing a bow tie with a pirate hat couldn’t open his lollipop, looking around worriedly as others opened theirs with ease, before relaxing as soon as he saw my outstretched helping hand.

Whether it’s the short-and-sweet smile of gratitude from someone to another offering a service; the lingering eye contact between two strangers at first sight; or the silent sign language of the hearing and speech impaired, communicating through body language can be quite a beautiful thing. Sometimes there is too much talking in the world without anything really being said. By using universal body talk to break down foreign language barriers, one can look deeper into the meaning of communication.

Life as an Au Pair in Switzerland: Closing Curtain

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I returned to Switzerland in early January for the final two weeks of my au pair job before having to return home for another commitment. The first week shot by, then after a day in Bern on the weekend with a friend, I was on the home straight! On the Monday morning of my final week, I was feeling fresh. ‘The best is going to be saved until last,’ I told myself as I strode upstairs energetically. Unfortunately, the ‘best’ comprised of the boy throwing up after breakfast and having a terrible cough all week, the path of which I was inevitably caught in. On the final day, I couldn’t believe that the end was almost here, and that the next day I would be heading home. It seemed like only the day before that I had arrived, wondering how I would last until Christmas, never mind now. But now looking back on the period, regardless of the difficulties I experienced at times, I can safely say that I am glad to have been an au pair.

What have I gained from being an au pair?

Many notable things. For example, I’ve cooked food for people without getting a hair in it once; I’ve not broken the large stack of glass bowls after lifting them off and onto a shelf;  and I still have my hair and hands after going ice-skating! But being serious, I feel proud of myself for seeing it through despite there being times when I really felt like quitting. I’ve integrated into a family and adapted to their household regime, as much as I may have disagreed or been unfamiliar with certain aspects. I’ve thrown my all into the role despite moments of being unhappy or fed up, and put myself out of my comfort zone many times, gaining resilience and patience along the way.

The immersion in two foreign languages has been extremely useful and I’m determined to keep practising when I return to England. I’ve learned much about Swiss culture, having interesting conversations about the national identity of a country with four official languages. I was even informed about the state of the economy following the recent soar of the Swiss franc. (Understanding economics was hard enough before a foreign language came into it…) I’ve also put aside my pickiness and tried many different (mainly cheese-based) Swiss palettes, of which one genuinely tasted like feet.

Having taken most of my instructions from the father and been under pressure many times, I’ve become less sensitive and better at taking criticism. All the stressful scenarios and red-faced moments were made worthwhile when, cooking on Tuesday evening with the dad, he gave a big compliment. He basically said that I take cooking instructions really well considering that 1. I don’t have a written note of them to work from, and 2. they are in a different language. He said that he really believed I would have no problem working as a cook in a kitchen as a result. Whilst I’m sure he was just being nice, and I have no desire at all to become a chef, this put a huge smile on my face.

With no teaching experience, and with little experience in general of children at this age, I’ve improved someone’s English. Whilst it has been very frustrating at times, with me wanting to scream “How do you not understand that this says ‘pin?'” etc, it’s also been hugely rewarding. I’ve had to think about how I explain things to both younger children and younger children of a foreign tongue, and have become more coherent as time has gone on.

From my observations, I’ve gained a greater understanding of younger children and how raising them works, including the importance of compromise. I didn’t become an au pair to learn how to be a parent, but the experience has made me think a lot about the value of a good upbringing – something that I have clearly taken for granted. How did I understand from early on to always wash my hands after the toilet? How did I turn out as a polite, well-mannered child? How did it come to be that I chose to be diligent and work hard in school? It was all because of my parents and their hard work. I now have an even greater appreciation of this role, and of the word ‘thankyou’.

I’ve also gained even more appreciation of the importance of family, and childhood. Watching this girl and boy play together, it’s quite sad because I know that in several years as puberty commences, they will gradually feel less inclined to play with each other. Then there was the time I explained to the girl during a lesson that our next one would be the last. “Owhh,” she said, making a disappointed face. “Why you have to go? Because your mummy said so?” I smiled and explained that I had to start a new job. “With your mummy?” she asked. “No, on my own! Because when you’re a grown-up you do more things without your mummy,” I said. Then I pictured her as a grown up, and found it strange to believe that here I was at 22, when it seems like only yesterday I was the age of this girl. “When your English gets even better, you can write me letters!” I suggested encouragingly. She said:”I can come visit. I will drive!” It was sweet that she said this, especially following what I had said, because it showed her understanding that she will become more independent. And yet I’m aware that by the time this is possible, I may very well be a distant memory. On the same evening, I asked the boy what he’d like to be when he grows up. He wants to be ‘the police’, catching ‘naughty people’ and putting them in prison. I can’t imagine him being an adult, and I don’t really want to…but it will come round before he knows it.

Will I miss being an au pair?

Err…

By Wednesday evening, I was getting super excited to leave, especially after what felt like a particularly long day. I started packing my bag, imagining reaching the airport (and changing my Swiss francs for a higher amount of sterling!) I envisioned the privacy and lack of having to clear up snotty tissues and what not, and couldn’t wait. But then on the last two days, I started feeling really emotional at the thought of saying goodbye. ‘What’s wrong with you? Previously you couldn’t wait to finish!’ I would think. I decided that I was partly upset because of the issue of saying ‘goodbye’ in general, based on past occasions. I really suck at it. I struggle to watch the scene in ‘Love Actually’ when Colin Firth has to say goodbye to his Portuguese maid without blubbering, even though I know they eventually get married. I also felt upset because of a slight sense of guilt for leaving after seven weeks, which is fairly short for an pair. Many times I’ve criticised ‘gap year’ projects where people volunteer in an orphanage for six weeks before leaving, because of the effect this coming-and-going can have on a child. But am I not now a bit of a hypocrite? These children have finally made a strong connection to me, only for me to drop it. The main reason I felt upset however, was because of that connection. I’ve inevitably become part of a family and got so used to a routine, that I can’t help but feel slightly moved. I’ve felt every emotion being an au pair, but it’s because of this that leaving feels like a big deal.

In the past two weeks there have been moments that illustrated just how integrated into this family I have become. For example, once during my French-eavesdropping, I noticed that the dad was asking his son to name the family members, after the boy asked who a present had come from. I heard my name mentioned after the boy’s parents and sister. Cue melting-heart moment. Another evening as the girl and I were making banded-bracelets together (meaning that I was watching her whilst offering encouragement, because that’s far too girly for me!), I asked if she liked being the oldest. She said she wished she had a sister rather than a brother, then her eyes lit up and looking at me imploringly, she exclaimed: “I want you as a sister!” Cue lump-in-throat moment. The next day, she wrote her name on a little piece of paper before asking me to write mine. Then she folded it up and put it in her special box, “so that I will never forget.” Cue watery-eyes moment.

‘Miss’ is a word that’s often over-used, perhaps because it’s felt it should be said to show that an experience has been enjoyed. However, I know that I will move on perfectly fine after this experience. I will feel no dependence on its existence in my life, unlike how at times I might really crave the hug of a distant loved one. Nevertheless, there are habits from this experience that I’ve got so used to, that I know I will fondly recall them.

I will fondly recall those little voices calling my name when they wanted my attention. I’ll fondly recall the childish naivity and gullibility – how I could convince them to eat their carrots because it would make them grow loads taller, and how the girl still believes that there is a mouse in that tree…I’ll fondly recall making their cocoa in their special little breakfast mugs, and always giving the girl an orange straw. I’ll fondly recall laying their clothes out in the morning and putting on the boy’s socks for him so that he could be ‘faster’ than his sister. I’ll fondly recall doing the girl’s hair before school followed by the standard: “No I didn’t want it like that!” I’ll fondly recall folding their tiny tops and trousers and putting them away in their wardrobe, always amused by how many clothes they had, and tactically organising the piles so that those clothes at the bottom had a chance of being worn (Yes, I did do this.) I’ll fondly recall making their beds and hoping I put their cuddly toys back in the right place. I’ll fondly recall spooning food onto their plastic plates at lunchtime, giving them the same colour so they wouldn’t bicker, only for them to inevitably start telling on the other to me. I’ll fondly recall the repetitions of ‘tan/gap/pig/sip’ with the boy during his English lessons with me and the feeling of elation when he read a story all by himself. I’ll fondly recall the moments when I would let the girl play with my hair (having decided she could be trusted not to chop it off) and she would say: “Tell me if it’s hurting you.” I’ll fondly recall the cheery tune of ‘Peppa Pig’ playing on the TV (and the programme itself – genuinely witty stuff). I’ll fondly recall sitting between the two of them on a Friday night after bathtime, eating pizza and watching CBeebies. I’ll fondly recall reading ‘Rapunzel’ over and over again to the girl at bedtime, her eyes wide with tireless fascination.

I’ll fondly recall eating dinner with the parents whilst watching the evening news, hearing the dad mock the French and the mum tell him to shut up so she could hear. I’ll fondly recall the moments when the dad and I experienced a language barrier (the best example being when he asked about my ‘Indian boyfriend’???) I’ll fondly recall One Direction ‘Story of my Life’ playing on One FM radio in the car all the time. I’ll fondly recall things from the wider community too, like the weird looks I got for wearing sno boots when it was sunny. I’ll fondly recall the teenage girls at the school with their skinny jeans and handbags, looking like they were going to shop rather than study. I’ll fondly recall looking out from the living room window at the snow-capped French Alps behind Lake Geneva, watching a train go past now and then in the distance. I’ll fondly recall walks alongside the vineyards and how dog-walkers would say ‘bonjour’ every time they passed someone. I’ll fondly recall the nice man who drove the 725 bus on two of my journeys, with a cheery ‘au revoir’ after I thanked him. I’ll fondly recall walking back from that bus stop near the local hospital in the dark, feeling completely safe. I’ll fondly recall the sound of beeping cars on Saturday afternoons following a wedding (having initially been quite bewildered, I learned that this behaviour is a tradition, and not that it was because my purchase of tampons and chocolate had caused a frenzy…)

The Goodbye

On my last day, I was asked to go and spend lunchtime with the girl at school, because the family car was in service and walking back home to eat before returning would be too rushed. It seemed fitting that I was spending my last day outside of the house more, doing different things. We sat in the cafeteria with the ‘big’ pupils and I got out the pesto pasta and fruit I had prepared. The girl looked around timidly at the students on their Iphones, whispering in my ear when she wanted to ask something or make an observation. Then she held my hand affectionately as we walked around the town, before I took her to a café where she could do some drawing. I bought us a cream bun to share, glad that I could speak in French and the lady did not feel a need to resort to English because this was what I spoke with the girl. The girl was really well-behaved, accepting when I said no to buying her an ice-cream. When we walked home later, we were jumping in puddles together. Then during her last lesson, she was lazy and naughty, drawing silly pictures of me (with ’boutons’, hmmphh) rather than doing as I asked. I threw the paper away and whilst she finally worked, drew a nicer picture instead, with my name written underneath. But she was cross with me for throwing the other away and later ran off to her room in a huff, saying she didn’t want this picture I had put on her table. But when I went in the room later, my smiling face was next to her pillow.

The boy had a tantrum so I didn’t say goodbye to him before he went to bed, even though I would be leaving very early in the morning. I read the girl a bedtime story for the last time, and managed not to start crying when she gave me her toy piggy to kiss, and held out her hand for me to shake like an adult. I gave my thank-you gift to the parents and watched the final news bulletin with them, before saying goodbye to the mum. I told her that this had been a very valuable experience, and she said “For us too.” The dad would drive me to the station in the morning. When I lugged my luggage up ready to leave at 7.30, I saw that everyone was awake waiting to wave me off again, and felt really touched. The little boy turned shy and didn’t want to give me a hug, instead looking at me in bashful silence with his lip turned down. The girl demanded a photo with me and her piggy. Then it was time to leave. During the drive, I told the dad everything I wanted to say – how whilst there were probably times when I made no sense, speaking German with him was really useful, and how it had been frustrating because sometimes I wanted to say more about a subject, but couldn’t find the word. “Tschüss, Shan-non,” he said sadly, before the customary three kisses. Then I got on the train and waved as it set off, before collapsing on a seat. I had a little cry, and then slowly the relief and optimism began to sink in. But now I’m crying again as I write this…

I would definitely recommend being an au pair, because the benefits, even if it may not seem like it at the time, will definitely outweigh the costs. Thank you for following my experiences, and a big thank you to the family and friends who were very supportive during the difficult moments! I leave you with my official au pair playlist…

The Delfronics – ‘Didn’t I Blow your Mind this Time?’ (The first impressions)

MC Hammer – ‘Can’t Touch This’ (The pervy moments)

Culture Club – ‘Do you Really Want to Hurt Me?‘ (The vicious moments)

The Police – ‘Don’t Stand so Close to Me’ (The ill moments)

Katy Perry – ‘Hot and Cold’ (The bewildering behaviour)

Guns N’ Roses – ‘November Rain’ (The despair…during November)

Eric Clapton – ‘I Can’t Stand it’ (The onset of anger)

The Supremes and the Temptations – ‘I’m Gonna Make you Love Me’ (The determination)

The Foundations – ‘Build me up Buttercup’ (The moments of promise)

Whitesnake – ‘Is this Love?’ (The turning point)

James Taylor – ‘You’ve Got a Friend’ (The sweet moments)

Boyz II Men – ‘End of the Road’ (The goodbye)

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My Morning Walk around Geneva: A Mixed Bag of Luxury and Comfort

‘Luxury’ and ‘comfort’ are two words often associated together when discussing travel. Luxury is defined as ‘something that provides pleasure or comfort’. Comfort is defined as being in a ‘state of physical ease with freedom from pain or constraint’. However for me, it came to be that during a morning in Geneva, Switzerland, the two did not fit agreeably in the same bag, and instead made quite an uncomfortable experience.

Having rushed to catch a train to Geneva on a Saturday, I arrived in the city on an empty stomach having not had time to eat breakfast. I studied the station map closely to look for lockers where I could store my backpack, and went wrong twice. When I finally found the area shown on the map, I still couldn’t see them. Commuters were rushing around so it was hard to find anybody to ask, and I couldn’t seem to find any staff. Fed up and not wanting to waste time exploring, I decided to just take the backpack with me. Big mistake.

If you walk down the Rue des Alpes onto the Quai du Mont-Blanc, you can admire the famous Jet d’Eau which shoots seven tonnes of water into the air, towering over the flock of yachts that look up at it in silent awe. Flicked by the sun’s rays,  the water was sometimes painted with rainbow colours. Swans glided over the shimmering water (the blue colour of which was a pleasant change from views of the Thames) which flows in from the River Rhône.

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Crossing the Pont du Mont-Blanc, you reach the (supposedly) English Garden. It’s a pleasant enough place, but unfortunately being located next to a busy road, it’s difficult to escape the noise of traffic. It’s a bit like Russell Square Gardens in London, with joggers and dog-walkers meandering around its paths (albeit without the squirrels). The Doobie Brothers ‘Listen to the Music’ played outside a café as I walked through the garden towards the main town, passing an Asian couple taking a zillion photos posing with their fore-finger ‘on top of’ the Jet d’Eau.

10900222_10155252362780495_84661736624735382_o Geneva’s atmosphere evoked the characteristics almost typical of what one associates with Switzerland as a nation – impersonal and rich. Walking past the likes of Rolex and Louis Vuitton with my grubby backpack, I felt slightly out of place. Nevertheless, I was stopped twice to be asked for directions, so I must have looked like I knew what I was doing! I scanned the sides of Rue du Marché for a supermarket but was unsuccessful, seeing only cafes and bistros instead. All I wanted was something small, quick and cheap! But it seemed my stomach would have to wait.

The sights grew less ostentatious and the atmosphere less snobby as I approached the Old Town. By now I was getting tired from hunger, and my shoulders felt sore as I trudged upwards along narrow streets. A man on a bike rode past with his son sat behind him, the little boy’s open mouth rattling “ahhhh” as they bounced over the bumpy cobble roads. I noticed a Co-Op bag in the dad’s hand, but could only watch helplessly as he cycled away.

My feelings of hunger were temporarily forgotten when I was greeted by the striking sight of the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre, built in the 12th century. Visitors can climb 157 steps to reach the top of the North Tower for views of the city. With my backpack however, that seemed to be too much of an ask, although looking back I should have checked if there was somewhere to put it.   10841895_10155252360695495_182192141877632288_o

Walking west from the cathedral, the smooth stone on the buildings reminded me of that seen in Bath or Edinburgh. Ahead there was a balcony overlooking the Parc des Bastions, famed for having a giant chessboard and monuments of famous figures from the Reformation. In summer I can imagine it to be a lovely area, with a tree-lined promenade and space for picnics and games. But seeing the muddy grass and dull, leafless trees, I decided not to make the journey down to it today, especially in my state of soreness and hunger. Instead with a sigh of relief, I released my backpack and sank onto a bench. A young mum sat opposite me with a pram, looking depressed. In fact, there weren’t many cheery-looking people around at all! I could probably discount myself as one of them too. By now, my stomach was rumbling loudly with hunger and I could feel two tight knots forming on my shoulders.

A flashy Range Rover drove down the Rampe de la Treille as I set off back towards the city centre. Private cafes and boutiques lined the quiet Grand Rue. They seemed to say ‘Only enter if you have lots of money’. Reaching the bottom of the hill, the traffic noise vamped up and a tram clanged its horn. I quickly explained to an approaching charity rep that I wasn’t a Swiss citizen and, dodging bikes, crossed the road determined to find a supermarket. I had no idea where to look, choosing to walk up a random street, only to stumble across a Manor shopping mall. Hurrah! I rushed inside like a kid desperate for the toilet. The food court was manic. Two Brazilian men asked for my recommendation of which brand of chocolate to give someone as a gift. I said Lindt. After nearly clearing some shelves and taking a child’s head off with my backpack, I was outside with food in a bag.

My energy rejuvenated from the knowledge that I would soon be able to eat, I strode back over the Pont du Mont-Blanc, back to the Jardin Anglais. Just as I was about to bite into a sandwich, I noticed a scruffy man sat on a bench 20 metres away drinking from a Heineken can staring at me, and stopped myself on the basis that I might have to move away. After deciding that he posed no threat with his drunkenness, I carried on gorging, watching with amusement as more Asian groups posed on the fountains. An old man with ragged clothes and a backpack greeted me with a “bonjour”, dragging a trolley next to him. Glancing at him and the drinking man, I realised that on the first impressions of others in this city, I probably had more in common with these two than the majority.

I still had an hour and a half to kill before I needed to be at the airport, but with my backpack, I felt no desire to wander around anymore. There are many interesting places in Geneva north of the river that I’d love to visit, such as the Palais des Nations (UN), CERN and the International Red Cross museum, but today wouldn’t be the day. Not only was my back cursing, but my bladder was now almost bursting. Instead, I forced myself to heave my backpack on again and walked back alongside the lake, amongst lycra-loving cyclists and tourists ogling at the water fountain.

In summary, I didn’t get a great impression of this small city. Through its display of luxury, it seemed quite uninviting and too money-orientated for my liking. But this impression wasn’t helped by my lack of travel comfort. Without this, I was restricted in my options and my views were tarnished by my self-pitying frustrations.

Lessons learned: 1. Eat breakfast; 2.  Even if it takes a while to do so, find a luggage locker.

In different circumstances I’ll happily give Geneva a second chance and see if I feel the same way!

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If you plan to tour Geneva and would like to use this article as a guide, with GPS included, please follow this link to download it!

Life as an Au Pair in Switzerland: Settling In

I’ve been an au pair in the French-speaking part of Switzerland for a week so far and I’ll admit, I definitely under-estimated how tough this job would be. It brings a lot of challenges, some of which are general and some of which are house-specific. I decided to become an au pair because I wanted to fill my time with a new experience in a new country whilst waiting on other jobs. A chance to travel to a country I’d never been to and earn money on the side seemed perfect. I signed up to an au pair website and within a week, had arrived in Geneva. It was the most spontaneous travel decision I’ve ever made. However upon starting, I realised that in my desperation to get out of the UK, my rationale had not been quite right, and my priorities did not fit with the reality of being an au pair.

The particular family I was hired by offered more pay than most families and I’ll confess that in my graduate state, this was a key factor in me deciding to take this offer. I did not consider that there might be a deeper reason why it paid more than most. I had assumed that I would have plenty of time to myself, to read and write and run, alongside the free weekends for travelling. I believed it would be similar to help-exchange homestays I’ve done, only that in this particular house, I would be looking after younger children than I am used to. But I figured how hard can it be to entertain a five and six year old for a few hours a day? Surely they would be in school for most of the day anyway? Then after agreeing to the role, I was emailed two days before I left with further instructions about my duties and details of the kids’ daily routines. It was then that I realised things weren’t going to be as simple as I had imagined. Perhaps this was why I seemed to feel the most reluctant I’ve ever felt boarding a plane to a new country.  This wasn’t going to be a working holiday; it was going to be a job abroad. And just because a job is in a foreign country doesn’t mean it will be a walk in the park.

Below are the key issues that au pairing has raised.

1. Free Time

Upon starting, I quickly realised that I wouldn’t have quite as much time to myself as I originally hoped, and have consequently realised just how much I value my free time, and being alone with it. Partly because of the weather and partly because of the family’s requirements, I have mainly been confined indoors doing little jobs and therefore not got outside to explore and exercise as much as I intended to. The view outside my home is like that on a postcard – Lake Geneva with the Alps behind. Many times I have gazed outside the window at the glistening water and snow-capped mountains longingly, yearning to be outside exploring.  ‘Why didn’t I just go WWOOFing or house-sitting somewhere over here instead?’ I have asked myself, knowing that these forms of homestay travel would offer more opportunities for being outdoors.

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The house is also surrounded by vineyards, the bronzed colours looking lovely when the leaves catch the autumn sun.

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I soon clarified that money really isn’t important to me; I value my free time much more, especially while I’m young. Since agreeing to work for this family, I have received emails from other au pair families in Switzerland, as well as from families in Germany, Norway, Italy, Spain and China. All are keen for me to stay with them for the same amount of time, and all pay less than this family. But most of these places would probably be more suited to my interests and aims, because of the older ages of the children and greater free time.

I can’t complain too much about this though, because I am being paid a generous wage amidst receiving wonderful hospitality. My host family parents are very friendly and accommodating people. The mother, who is around very little during the weekdays because of her job, regularly checks up with me to make sure I’m comfortable and has been marking pieces of French that I write. I have my own floor downstairs with a separate bathroom, and they insist I help myself to any food. They respect that I am a young adult and hence treat me like one. We have been watching TV together on an evening. Watching ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ with the dad, I explained that Judy Murray was Andy the tennis player’s mother (he doesn’t like him too much, but in the land of Roger Federer that’s understandable). I have also survived the first film-sex-scene moment without too much embarrassment (“Ooo, salut!” was the father’s comment.) They have explained train passes to me, and are just as encouraging for me to leave the house to explore somewhere new for a whole weekend as they are me to stay and go somewhere with them. On my first weekend, I decided to stay with the family because I wanted to get to know them better. They took me to an Arboretum which is basically a conservation park hosting various species of trees. This was lovely, and in the lead up to Christmas I will undoubtedly be invited to a few family outings.

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2. Young Kids

Being the youngest in my family and therefore not too experienced at looking after young children, I definitely over-looked how dependent five and six year olds are. They require constant supervision for health and safety reasons, and constant motivation to do things. How do you get them out of bed in the morning when they stubbornly refuse to get up? How do you get them to eat their breakfast when they moan that they just want chocolate? How do you drill it in their heads that they must wash their hands immediately after the toilet before touching anything else? (I expect I will catch a bug some time soon.) It drains your emotional, mental and physical energy. Sitting bored out of my brains smiling and making encouraging comments as the boy plays with his toy cars and the girl cares for her baby doll, I’ve realised that there is a large difference between liking children, and liking to devote all your time and attention to them. I’m used to home-stays involving teenagers or others closer to my age, who are less restricted in their capabilities to do certain activities and with whom I can have more mature conversations with, and I definitely prefer this.

Young kids are extremely unpredictable, testing your patience to the max when they love you one minute, only to throw a tantrum the next. The five year old has started shouting “You leave the house!” whenever he doesn’t get his way with me. Ouch. 10 minutes later after one of these outbursts, he was asking if he could come to my house and wanted me to get in the bath with him. He’s definitely going to be a heartbreaker when he’s older. Then today, the girl asked me about a knot in a tree. I told her that a mouse lived in there who only comes out when humans are asleep, and began telling her what he was saying. It was adorable seeing her (believing that it really was a mouse making the squeaking noises) press her face against the tree and plead him to come out, promising she’d give him some cheese. I felt super proud of myself for winning her engagement and getting her to describe in English the clothes she would give him (because he said he’d be too cold if he came out of the tree). Then when I explained that he’d gone to sleep and therefore couldn’t come out and say hello, she began balling her eyes out. Bugger.

Kids of this age are sneaky and devious, lying to you so that they can get what they want from you/to their parents when they don’t get what they want from you. This is quite daunting should they make a very serious allegation. Another difficulty is when the mum and dad give conflicting instructions, especially because I don’t want it to seem like I’m listening to one parent more than the other. Little kids also invade your privacy, literally. Many times I’ve played ‘Where’s [boy’s name]?’ knowing full well that he is hiding behind me, trying to pull my trousers down. And once when home alone with him on an afternoon, I told him to continue playing lego in his room whilst I went to use the bathroom. He proceeded to follow me, opening the door (which doesn’t have a lock) with a grin on his face so he could watch me ‘pee pee’. I told him to count to 20 outside the door. Unfortunately, I under-estimated how quickly he could count in English…

Many times during my first couple of days, I would ask myself ‘What was I thinking?’, believing abandoning my favoured age-range for a younger one to have been a big mistake. I thought about the remaining weeks ahead and wanted to shoot myself for advocating the amount of time that I had to the family, pondering excuses I could make to leave. However, as I get to know the kids better, I’m learning more how to crack them and deal with their stroppy, sulky ways. I’ve impressed myself with my ability to be strict when necessary whilst remaining composed and without shouting at them (although let’s face it, they probably wouldn’t hear even if I did).

3. Foreign Languages

For an au pair, there is a lot of information to take in. Au pairs tend to be almost-fluent language students who want to practise speaking in the relevant country. I have therefore thrown myself in at the deep end since my French is very rusty following years of little practice, and I am only a mid-level German speaker. The dad is Swiss-German and works from home, so I’ve been receiving daily instructions from him in German (with some French thrown in), because he is not so comfortable speaking English (and at the end of the day, why should he speak a foreign language in his own country?) But it is easy for me to sometimes misunderstand things and subsequently feel awkward and useless when I have to be reminded about something, or am told I’ve done something wrong. I normally discover this after being asked about something I have done, for example how much of a certain ingredient I’ve used. Concerned to have done it correctly, I have to quickly translate what’s been asked, quickly clarify to myself what the answer is (heck, I probably don’t even know) and then quickly express it coherently in another language. A few times, my mind has gone blank and I’ve gabbled out a muddled mixture of French, German and English.

Meanwhile, on a few occasions when adult or family guests have come round, I have sat smiling blankly whilst everyone sits around chattering away in French, with me only understanding tiny snippets of conversation and subsequently feeling a little left out. This and the constant company of young children contributes to an occasional sense of loneliness, which is what I had most feared feeling before arriving. My room is my point of escape where I can finally be alone to return to my own world, and yet it’s easy to feel distant from the friends in that world, busy with their own agendas in different countries. I have missed being mentally stimulated by people my own age. I’m emailing my mum every day, because her advice is reassuring and her news is a distraction from any stress. I never get home-sick, but there are sometimes moments when I come very close.

However, language practice has by far been the biggest advantage of being an au pair. In working in the French part of Switzerland, I hoped to improve my French, and that is definitely happening. Nothing beats listening to a conversation and having that ‘aha!’ light-bulb-moment when you recognise a sentence. On top of that. I have spent way more time than I expected to speaking in German, and this has been really useful for my confidence. As the days have passed in my short time here so far, conversation has been picking up and becoming more detailed. Immersion definitely is the best way to sharpen up at a language, especially if your listening skills are your weakest area. Improving at foreign languages really makes this job, with all its downsides, seem worthwhile. At the same time, the main reason the family offered me a job was so that I could help the children with their English. Taking lessons gives me something to focus on, and whilst I think I would find teaching older children more rewarding, the effect my help has makes me feel like I have more value to offer in my role, therefore compensating  for any little mistakes I’ve made.

4. Comfort Zone

Living in someone else’s home means that you must adapt to their household customs. This can lead to you doing things that you would rather not, especially if, like me, you are pretty wimpish when it comes to advocating your preferences if they are in the minority. Here are a few examples so far:

  • I haven’t had a huge appetite in my first week. But whenever the father asks me if I would like more food and I say “Non merci, je suis plein”, he makes a face which I think is jokey, but in case he is actually offended, I feel obliged to take up the offer, subsequently forcing food down into my bemused belly.
  • Whilst I can tolerate it, I’m not the biggest fan of roast beef, lamb or pork. But I don’t want to come across as fussy, knowing that red meat is a major feature of many peoples’ diet, and therefore I have only said “Je déteste les champignons” and “Je ne bois pas le thé ou le café” when it comes to dietary requirements. Then, eating lunch one day, I saw roast beef on the table. My stomach went queasy at the smell of it. The father cut it to reveal a rather red-looking meat, and put some on my plate, saying that I could have it cooked for longer if I preferred. But everyone else was tucking in keenly and I didn’t want to seem too picky. So I chewed on this meat and hoped I didn’t look like I wanted to vomit.
  •  I mentioned above that I don’t drink tea or coffee. But when I found a cup of tea placed in front of me after a meal during one of the children’s crazy birthday dinners, it soon passed the point where I could politely refuse, because everyone was busy talking and the dad had already turned around. So I sipped my tea and hoped I didn’t look like I wanted to spit it back out.
  • On Sunday morning, the dad got out a bottle of something and asked me if I’d like a glass. I politely refused as it looked like sherry.  Reading the ingredients in English, I saw that it contained brandy and definitely knew I didn’t want some. But he held the bottle in front of me with an encouraging smile, saying the particular brand was a Swiss speciality and hence making me feel rude not to try. So I had a glass and hoped I didn’t look as light-headed as I felt.

However, situations like this can also be beneficial. There have been times when I’ve suddenly been asked to help with something that I’m normally not great at, for example: wrapping presents and tying balloons. Yes, you read me correctly. I can of course wrap a present, but it’s normally a pretty shoddy job, and I’ve always for some reason struggled with tying knots in balloons. And then there is perhaps a slightly more significant one: cooking. I’m having to do more of this than I expected (mainly because I had assumed the children would eat lunch at school, and upon finding out that they in fact come home for lunch, learned that this would not be a simple sandwich-and-apple job…) I’m happy cooking for myself, but for others you don’t know too well, there’s always that little bit more pressure (especially when you are reading a recipe or hearing instructions in a foreign language!) and giving the kids food-poisoning probably wouldn’t go down too well. So it’s crazy what difference it makes when you are in an environment where you feel you must impress. Your performance peaks and as a result you actually feel like a capable grown-up. (I have also now explained that I don’t tend to eat much red meat…)

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Am I regretting my decision to be an au pair? If you asked me this in the first few days, I would say yes without hesitation. I will always wish I had more freedom, but what’s been a great help is being told by an ex-au pair friend of mine that my struggles are common for an au pair. My mum has also made me review my perspective by reminding me that au pairs used to be paid peanuts and rarely got weekends off. I am now starting to get more used to this family’s routine, and have realised that I will probably come away from this experience having got more out of it than is perhaps obvious. It’s useful life experience to overcome a struggle without giving up, which I am determined not to do. I have adapted to the needs of the household, and tell myself that persevering through all the tantrum-handling and relentless-requirements will only be useful in the long run when I have kids myself…many many many years down the line. In coming to be in this position through a slight error in judgement, I have been the most out of my comfort zone within a confined period of time. But I believe that as challenging as it will be, and as much as I will want to pull my hair out at times and have my own tantrum, this will be a mistake worth having made.

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This post and others about au pairing are now featured on AuPairConnect.de

Nudity and the Solo Traveller

‘Tis the season to lose one’s clothing. Out come the bikinis and boardies, Pimms in the park and strawhats on the sand. The combination of summer heat and fewer clothes changes people. They become more cheeky and flirtatious. Van drivers whistle from their windows, runners cast sneaky glances at the others they pass, and Facebook becomes filled with bikini-selfies. Flesh makes people frisky. When it comes to actual nudity however, something happens to Brits and their flirty chat remains to be just that. In Britain, our ‘stiff upper lip’ appears to display itself at the sight of a naked body, particularly towards one whose owner isn’t exactly in their prime. Naturists tend to be mocked as tree-hugging hippies who are an embarrassment to society. By contrast, my experience of other areas of Europe so far suggests that attitudes towards nudity in these countries are a lot more relaxed. I’ll never forget kayaking past a beach in southern France during a school trip ages 13, an old man’s legs spread wide open bearing all. Rarely in Britain would you see such sights.

If you’re ever in Baden-Württemberg, Germany, make sure you spend a day bathing at Bodensee, near the Swiss border. It seems like the region’s entire 18-25 year old population descend on the town of Konstanz on a hot summer’s day. Boys jump off the bridge into the bright blue Rhine in attempts to impress the line of ladies lounging on the side of the river. Further along on the Strandbad Horn, the noise gets quieter and the people fewer. Sun-lovers sunbathe behind bushes on the edge of the lake, sometimes in the nude, or at least topless. I found myself lying metres from a tall tanned hunk with dark hair and black shorts. Jimi Hendrix played from his speakers as he read a book. I peeped sneakily from under my sunnies as he rose to his feet and dived into the water. Ahhh.

Lake Constance

I like to think that I’ve put myself out of my comfort zone a few times whilst travelling, and that I would continue to try new things. In previous posts, I’ve been writing about how travelling alone makes you more likely to do things that you otherwise might not consider in your home country. Looking back to that day, I felt completely comfortable being surrounded by sights of nudity. The area wasn’t very open, the bushes being a useful cover. Everybody was just doing their own thing and it didn’t feel like one was being perved on (well, apart from Jimi Hendrix guy by me). Those who wanted to bathe topless could do so and not feel like all eyes were on them, and those who didn’t feel like undressing could carry on as they wished. It was difficult for me to think of places in Britain where one could sense so much tolerance towards nude bathing. Whilst I didn’t feel any inclination to be pursuing this activity myself, I thought that I was totally cool with public nudity.

Go forward a year to my trip to Iceland. Nauthólsvík Geothermal Beach was opened in Reykjavík in 2001. It’s a small and cosy haven of golden sand and warm water. You won’t get the temperatures of Bodensee, but the same sight of people bathing. Another key difference from Bodensee is that no chemical cleaners are used in the heated water, so visitors are expected to wash beforehand, naked. Ignore this expectation and you will not be too popular with the Icelanders. It’s a bit like the offence caused in Britain when a Yorkshireman moves to London – you’ll never be viewed with the same amount of respect again.

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I arrived at the beach and saw a large group of people sat in the hot tub, chatting with each other. They all seemed to know one another. Suddenly, shyness enveloped me and I couldn’t walk any further. I spent five minutes waiting near the entrance as men and women – mostly 50+ looking – passed me to enter the changing rooms. I was pretending to look out into the bay, but really I was psyching myself up to shower naked in public. I imagined myself stood among old ladies in a communal shower, and I was petrified. ‘Just walk in and scout the area – the showers might not be communal, and you can always walk out,’ said a voice in my head. ‘No!’ retorted the other, ‘If you walk away, they will know you were afraid of getting naked.’

I paced from one foot to the other, weighing up the options. It wasn’t like it would have to be awkward. There needn’t be any judging. All I had to do was be naked in front of other women for about 20 seconds. I would never have to see them again. We were all in the same boat. I was 21 years old, I needed to stop being a pansy. The place was free, it wasn’t like I was paying for potential cringy-ness. Surely it would just be like the many other things I’d done after originally being nervous about them. Afterwards I would look back and laugh at my anxiety, right? Was I really going to miss out on this new opportunity just because of feeling bashful about potentially seeing an old lady’s vagina? Oh jeez. Just the thought made me shudder.

There were a few large rocks around the edge of the beach. They signaled safety, and I tactically decided to take a long walk around the perimeter towards them, my sense of relief increasing the further away from the changing rooms I went. I sat and looked back at the building. It looked so innocent and inviting, yet so sneaky and devious at the same time. The close proximity of the changing rooms to the hot tub meant that nobody would be safe from stranger’s eyes. It wasn’t like at Konstanz, where nudity could be a lot more inconspicuous.

Nearby, a few ladies swam in the bay, grimacing as the cold water first touched their skin; the price they were paying for perhaps also being reluctant to shower naked in front of others. I decided that I would rather be in the warm water, and therefore take the plunge and have that shower…But really, would I? ‘Yes! Don’t be a loser. Go get naked,’ the voice said. I hesitated again.

Suddenly, music began to play from the changing rooms. It was the Baywatch theme tune. The distinctive sound of that thumping piano brought a smile to my face as I was reminded of Wednesday sports nights in the student’s union bar – drunk rugby players pulling off their tops and waving them around wildly without a care in the world. That was the attitude I should have. I quickly made up my mind – I was going to do it, I was going to shower naked in what was potentially a public place.

I rose from my hiding place and began bounding across the sand towards the changing rooms purposefully, determination surging through my veins, arms swinging resolutely, my heart beating faster with the adrenaline. I felt good. I was ready. Bring on the nudity! As I approached the facility, I saw a few people leaving. ‘Perfect! Even fewer people to shower with,’ I thought to myself happily. Then I noticed a sign with the word ‘Closed’ on it. Oh. So that song was the cue for the lunchtime break. I’d missed my chance, just as I had finally prepared myself to get nek’ed. I looked at the changing room entrance and shrugged my shoulders in defeat. Then I breathed a sigh of relief and strode out of the exit feeling content.

Of course, looking back now I think of how silly I was to get all shy about the prospect of being naked in front of a load of random women. I had both surprised and slightly disappointed myself with my bashfulness. But nudity happens to be a particular subject that can make even the most confident-sounding people blush. Was my behaviour inspired by the British outlook towards nudity that I’ve grown up witnessing? Or are there just some things that it’s not so easy to do when you’re alone? Afterall, as stated before, familiarity is a comfort in strange situations. This scenario highlighted the potential restrictions one may experience travelling alone. But hopefully this is a lesson in how letting timidity determine your decisions will only lead to regret. I would like to put my hands up and say that one day, I hope to visit a beach like this one and shower naked with lots of ladies.

 

Familiar Faces in Foreign Places

You’re in your home country at a bus stop or in a lift or some other enclosed space, joined only by an older stranger. The stranger begins speaking to you and so you engage in polite small talk to fill the time, almost because it feels necessary in order to avoid an awkward silence. Then you part ways and forget about the other person. A few days later, you see them again in a more public context, but they are not looking to be busy themselves. They don’t notice you and you have no reason to speak to them. What would you do – walk right past them whilst looking in the opposite direction, or go up to speak to them, regardless of hardly knowing them? ‘It would depend on how attractive they were,’ I hear you say. Removing that element from the equation, it is hard to believe that one would feel any desire to approach them. Even one’s sense of legitimacy to go up to the person would probably be quite low. The social-networking generation seems almost too afraid of the potential gawkiness of human interaction to strike up conversation with a random person they share no established connection with. Familiarity is a comfort. When someone is certain of their position in their nearby surroundings, they are less likely to feel the need to communicate with a vaguely familiar human being. If you go on a solo trip to a foreign-speaking country, you might find yourself amazed at how easily the rules of the equation can change.

Day One in the Black Forest, Germany. I had spent the night in a youth hostel in Freudenstadt, a market town in the north of the area. Before a day of hiking commenced, I dropped into the tourist office to quickly find inspiration for a route. Walking out of the door whilst running the rough directions through my mind, I almost bumped into a man chaining up his bike. “Hey there!” he said cheerily in an accent I instantly recognised as Canadian. “You’re staying up at the youth hostel, aren’t you?” I was taken aback by his genial approach and said “Yeah” uncertainly, wondering how he knew. “I cycled past you on the way here – I’m at a guesthouse in town,” he added, as if recognising an initial look of suspicion on my face. He looked to be in his early forties, but despite his older age I still found his confident chattiness quite surprising, and a tiny bit unsettling too. Even so, it seemed only polite to ask a short question or two.  After sharing his plan for the day, he remarked, “You’ve picked a great day for a hike,” nodding at my outfit and then up at the blue sky. This seemed like an appropriate time to move on, so I wished him a good trip and we parted ways.  My thoughts having been interrupted, I returned to recalling the name of the path I was looking for, and my brief encounter with the man was promptly forgotten in favour of sign posts and sweet little streams.

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A few days of moving southwards later, I ended up in Freiburg im Breisgau, where I would spend a few hours of the morning before heading back to Heidelberg. The town is famed for its Minster and for being Germany’s sunniest city. Sunlight wasn’t out on show today though. Thick clouds looked down lethargically as I dawdled through the large hoard of tourists and students in the university town. It was market day and I squeezed and side-stepped past people looking at various cheeses and vegetables and wines, feeling like a mouse amongst the mania. Elbows knocked me and I looked around dazed as the air was filled with rapid German chatter. The past few days had been filled with walking and my legs felt sluggish. The weather and the people were draining, and I suddenly felt a little overwhelmed by my surroundings. I needed to stop and recover for a minute.

 

Freiburg

An ice cream sign called me over. One scoop of mint choc chip – heck, why not two? I walked on past a row of picnic benches filled with tourists gorging on bratwurst and burgers. Suddenly, one of the munching men caught my eye. I realised it was the Canadian man I’d seen a few days earlier. Without thinking twice I bounded over to say hello, feeling a wave of respite from the mass mouth of unfamiliar tongues. Caught unaware, the man looked up mid-ketchup-spurting-bite with wide eyes of surprised embarrassment, to see me standing in front of him holding an ice cream in my hand with a big grin on my face, like a little kid. We both laughed at how innocent and pitiful we looked. After a proper greeting, he asked if I’d like to join him for a drink at a nearby beer garden that served only Swabian speciality beers.  I said yes without hesitation.

My initial dubious impression of the man had completely vanished. In the last three days I had only uttered about 50 words. I was craving some human contact through which I would be able to have a fluid conversation in my own language for a few minutes. Having felt lost in and exhausted by the busy state of the town, his familiar face provided an element of reassurance. So I went ahead and did something that would have probably been classed as ‘breaking a rule’ back home – going to have a drink with a male I hardly knew, and a much older male at that. But the man’s age wasn’t on my mind at all as we found a table on an upstairs terrace and chatted about Canada. He said I seemed to know the western side of the country better than him. His name was Kevin and he worked in the civil service, but loved cycling in his free time. As he ordered and paid for our drinks, attempting some basic German with our waitress, I realised that he was a genuinely good-natured person.  I told him about my degree and my hobbies, and that I would be volunteering at the Olympics when I returned. With a big smile he said, “Well it seems like you have a lot going for you, Shannon.” Those words have stuck with me since.

Once we had finished our beers (I tactically ordered a half-pint so he wouldn’t have to wait for me), we headed back downstairs into the street. I felt rejuvenated – my batteries had been recharged within an hour by a device I was accustomed to. Now I would be able to finish the trip with no more feelings of disorientation and detachment.  Kevin planned to spend a few more hours in Freiburg, while I needed to head back to the station. After a standard hug-and-kiss-on-the-cheek goodbye, we parted ways for the second and final time. There would be no sharing of contact details to keep in touch, as is so often the trend amongst young travellers who have spent a few drunken hours together; it was just simply an hour of shared company that made the day a little more interesting for both. I’ll never see that man again, and so he will never know how valuable I found his company for that short time (unless, of course, he finds this blog!) I had never felt so glad to see such a familiar face whose owner I was so unfamiliar with.

My dad told me two things before I went travelling: 1) that travelling alone makes one more open to new people and new experiences, and 2) that it makes one realise that people are nice. After that morning in Freiburg, I realised that I had underestimated the applicability of his statement. It’s something that is not just relevant to people you meet in bars or on a tour, someone sat next to you on the bus or sleeping in your dorm; it can also be relevant to random situations where there is no expectation of speech and interaction. If someone is alone abroad, they are likely to feel more receptive to the company of an unfamiliar person, if that person seems more familiar than the alternatives. A person’s slight sense of vulnerability can make them more willing to do something that would probably never enter their intentions back home. This can perhaps explain why study abroad students or immigrants tend to hang out with those who share their nationality. It’s not that they are reluctant to integrate into the new culture; speaking with someone who shares their native language simply acts as a maternal comfort – a cuddle to reassure and settle when one is feeling insecure in or disillusioned by their unfamiliar surroundings. There is no shame in craving some ‘home-away-from-home’ moments – everyone is bound to experience that need at some point whilst travelling alone.

The rare coincidence of seeing someone again in a foreign land makes it seem stupid to avoid approaching them out of reluctance to risk getting involved in uncomfortable communication. Would you rather feel lonely and bored, or sociable and entertained? Yep, thought as much. So if an older male (or female) stranger starts talking to you enthusiastically, don’t be quick to make assumptions about their intentions, subsequently trying to dismiss them out of uncertainty. A few days later, you might find that their bold and unconditional friendliness would be very welcome.

 

Sharing Cars with Strangers

What was one of the first things your parents told you when you went outside to play? I can imagine it was either “Don’t talk to strangers” or “Don’t get into a car with a stranger”. Well, now you’re older, you can be a little more flexible with that advice. If you’re on a trip at home or abroad alone and make a spontaneous decision to travel somewhere else located a few hours away, chances are that you will pay a pricey fee for a last-minute train. Buses may not run regularly and will take a long time, whilst planes can be an expensive hassle. So why not share a lift with someone? A stranger, that is.

I first became introduced to carpooling when I was in Germany. Help-exchanging at the home of a teacher in Hamburg for a week, I then had to make my way to a village in the Rhineland-Palatinate. As I searched for trains on my host’s laptop one evening, she suggested I try ‘Mitfahrgelegenheit’. I looked at her blankly. Advertising lifts was something that I hadn’t even heard of in my own country – hitch-hiking yes, but not organised car share. My host proceeded to show me a website where drivers offered space in their car to travellers heading in the same direction, in return for a contribution towards fuel costs.  Drivers were asked to state details including whether or not they smoked, the make of their car, their mobile number and a copy of ID. I was open-minded about travelling with a man, however my host, perhaps feeling responsible for my welfare, was insistent that I travel with a female. We soon found a lady heading in the same direction as me.

At this time my German was pretty minimal. I began writing an email to this lady, in which essentially only the first and last couple of sentences were written in German. Her reply was written in good English. (It ended with the line: “I’m sorry, I know that my English is not good. I hope you can understand me.”) The lady asked for 27 Euros for this journey – about 50 Euros less than what a train would have cost. She gave me her vehicle registration number and asked to meet outside Hamburg’s Hauptbahnhof.

On a rainy Wednesday morning, I made my way to the parking lot outside the main station. I was quite excited for this new experience, but a little nervous too. What if the lady didn’t show up? What if she was a terrible driver? What if her car broke down and we were left stranded somewhere on the autobahn? What I didn’t worry about however was whether she would turn out to be different from her profile. The media will often feature horror stories of women being kidnapped by strangers posing as someone else, but I’ve had enough positive experiences to have faith in the kindness of strangers.

The street was bustling with chanting protesters. Police officers in smart blue uniforms formed barricades as they came closer to the station. I approached one officer to ask him what was going on and was told that it was a protest against a neo-Nazi demonstration.

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I wandered along the pavement, feeling very conspicuous with my big rucksack as I scanned the cars parked along the side of the road. Suddenly I spotted a navy blue Renault Clio with the registration number I was looking for. Beside it watching the protest stood a rather large woman with a pixie haircut and scruffy trainers. I introduced myself and she shook my hand with a shy smile. There was little room in the boot and so I sheepishly squeezed my backpack onto the backseat amongst her own things before sitting down in the back. A few minutes later, I heard a backpack being thrown in the boot behind me and then the passenger door in front of me opened. The smell of thick smoke, body odour (as well as a slight whiff of urine) swept through the vehicle as in jumped a male skinhead dressed in black, looking like he’d just run away from the police monitoring the protest. He turned to shake my hand and say hello with his stale breath. “Ich komme aus England,” I stated, trying not to wrinkle my nose. He nodded with an “Oh” and said no more.

As we set off, I had to bite my lip to stop myself laughing at the thought of what we must have looked like to other drivers – a bizarre combination of a rather butch-looking woman with short hair, an emo-type guy with no hair, and a standard girl with long bright blonde hair. A painfully awkward silence suffocated the car. Eventually the two Germans started to chat briefly whilst I stared out of the window, trying and failing to understand them. However, their conversation soon ran out of steam and as we joined the autobahn, the driver turned on the radio, flicking between radio stations sporadically as if realising that there was unlikely to be one which we would all enjoy. Smelly-skinhead-guy reclined his seat backwards so that his smell lingered closer and I became even more cramped. Desperate to avoid any awkward speech, I remained with my legs jammed tightly together to one side, wishing I could jam my nostrils shut too. Two hours later my driver turned off and I looked up disorientated. “We will stop here for 10 minutes,” she said to me slowly. While the guy lit a cigarette with jittery hands outside the car, I followed her into the service station to use the bathroom. One had to pay 90 cents to use the facilities. “You can use the ticket for food,” she explained again simply, pointing out a sign which showed a 50 cent discount on confectionary.

Smelly-skinhead-guy would leave us at Frankfurt airport, where he was evidently flying to South America. I didn’t probe on his motives, only pitied the passengers who would be sitting near him. I jumped into the front seat and wound the window down with relief to remove his musty smell. I hoped that the driver and I would be able to speak more now. However, as is common with languages, the lady was less confident at speaking English than writing it. Carefully-phrased questions by myself in English would receive stammered and uncertain responses from her, upon which I would attempt the question in German, with no further success as I struggled to make myself clear. It became a rather frustrating process, until eventually the conversation fizzled out helplessly. In defeat, I turned to look out of the window at the wind turbines on the side of the autobahn, before we entered rural land and the views were replaced with fields lined with vines and Church steeples poking up out of small villages. I felt bad, wishing my German was better so that I could make the experience more interesting for both of us. At the same time, my driver said apologetically, “Normally there would be more speaking.” She dropped me off on the street of my next location and I handed her the money, thanking her for the helpful lift. Then she wished me a pleasant stay and I in turn wished her a safe onward journey, before we said goodbye with an awkward wave.

The experience was a reminder of the social restrictions that a language barrier can bring, particularly in such an intimate environment as a car. Now my German is so much better that, had I the opportunity to do it again, I would have got so much more from the journey. Nevertheless, whilst conversation between the three of us was limited, it was rare that I would find myself in that context with such different characters very often. It’s a story that I can look back on and chuckle over. Carpooling in general is something I would highly recommend. It might not be the most comfortable form of travel, but it depends on your priorities; some people want luxury, others just want to get from A to B for as cheap as possible. By choosing the latter option, one has more money to spend on the more important things! One is essentially taking the same journey as one would on a train or bus, albeit for less money and with fewer people, in a more close-knit setting. Perhaps it’s because participants are more expected to talk with other unfamiliar people that they might be put off by this travel option…

Whilst I didn’t have much luck with this myself on this occasion, ride-sharing provides an opportunity to make interesting contacts, and the act of doing a favour for a stranger is a nice, refreshing prospect. As much as I like to joke about how suspicious the guy in the car seemed, carpooling is an experience which reinforces that strangers are not to be fundamentally suspected or feared. I also wanted to mention the neo-Nazi demonstrations to highlight the importance of not letting hate fuel hate, and not letting the actions of a few people influence your opinion about an entire nation collectively.

Bensheim – my final destination

I would definitely consider using carpooling on future travels around Europe, and I’d hope other travellers would too. Something that can be regarded in this technological age as the modern version of hitch-hiking, carpooling is cheap, convenient and certified. Maybe just bring an air freshener with you as an advance gesture of gratitude…

Would you ever consider car-pooling? Have you any weird and wonderful carpooling experiences to share?

Romance on the River: Summer Evenings in Germany

July 2012. My first year of university was complete and I was spending three weeks away on my own. Whilst back home in England, thousands of tourists from all over the world were being welcomed into London for the Olympic Games, I was following various rivers up, down and across west Germany. On the way I would encounter scenes of romance that would both captivate and torment me.

Heidelberg is the epitome of ‘charming’. It’s a town bustling with activity but it still manages to retain an intimate, personal feel. During one afternoon there, the sweet sound of Spanish guitar distracted tourists from admiring the cuckoo clocks in shop windows, causing them to stop with ice cream in hand, in order to watch a juggling act. The guitarist watched the juggler carefully, corresponding his chords with his partner’s fluid movements. Wedding bells rang through the town as I began the ascent up the 300 steps to the famous Schloss. Newly married couples had their photo taken here, with its charismatic backdrop of the town and River Neckar. Even cloudy skies couldn’t dim the glow of this place.

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In the evening the sun came out. After casting a proud glance over the coverage of the Olympic swimming from London in my hostel’s bar, I ventured outside for a walk. Everything smelled fresh after the late afternoon rain shower. Squelching sounds of trainers on the puddled path recurred as chatting couples jogged past. Upon reaching the central hub of town, the activity picked up: boys and girls flirted over a game of volleyball; children charged around the water fountain, shrieking wildly in their swimsuits; elderly men and women chatted on benches, walking sticks by their sides, as middle-aged couples walked past hand-in-hand. The sun dazzled off the surface of the River Neckar and enclosed the Schloss in a perfect bubble of radiance. Groups of swans gathered together under the bridge near the river bank, before gliding off together towards the glittering path laid by the sun on the water, its cheeky twinkle promising excitement. They joined a sole rower slowly oozing his way down the river, his oars making faint ripples in the peaceful water. Topless boys on mopeds rode over the bridge, beeping at girls in short shorts in a way that made one laugh rather than feel repulsed. There was an infectious energy in the town, playful and cute.

Warmth from the evening sun on my skin made me feel relaxed and animated at the same time. I felt glad to be alone just so I could watch all the different people doing their different things, wanting to absorb all the activity around me. The moped boys came round on another loop of the bridge, whistling and calling out to the giggling girls. Normally I would have ignored them or made a face; tonight if they had offered I would have jumped on the back and rode off with them around town. It was that kind of evening – the ones that make you wish it could be summer all year round, when the sun is out and it feels like anything could happen.

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A day later I was in Mainz. On paper it’s pretty similar to Heidelberg – another river town that attracts plenty of tourists, runners and cyclists. But here I felt a completely different set of emotions altogether. An evening run took me through the Volkspark with its pretty flowerbeds and along the bank of the Rhine. Couples sat on the steps kissing, or snuggled up looking over the railings into the river. I crossed the Theodor-Heuss Bridge onto the other side, where the cosy couples continued. As my legs began to grow more weary, so did my patience. Suddenly it was no longer sweet and touching to see these scenes of affection. My shoulders were sagging as I reached the former Kaiserbrücke. Padlocks dotted the partition between the railway bridge, souvenirs left by travellers and etched with love notes – S.A ❤ T.H – and so on. I stopped to read over them pensively, wondering what the love story was behind each one. Cyclists would occasionally ride past, but there would be no interaction this evening. I turned to lean my elbows on the railing, chin in hands as I watched the sun go down wistfully. As it fell lower in the sky so did my mood, until I’d dropped into a lonely state of melancholy, the most alone I’d felt in a long time. My thoughts drifted off with the river current, and I felt sad.

We’ve maybe all been there once, experiencing that moment when you suddenly realise something about that person: that person whose perfectly-sculpted face with the dimpled smile had mesmerised you for so long, giving you butterflies every time you saw them, to the extent that there were times you couldn’t look them in the eye for fear of blushing; whose hot and cold behaviour was always excused by you out of desire to believe they felt the same way, telling yourself that you could help motivate them to become a better person; that person who you had waited on for so many months, only to be repeatedly disappointed; someone whose company could be so magical, and yet leave behind a curse of confused questions. Finally there comes a time when you realise that you were completely deluded out of desperation, and they never really had felt the same way ever. Your feelings had been governed by a vision rather than by reality. You realise how humiliatingly and obviously un-reciprocal the whole affair was. Then you think of the people in the past who actually did care, whose friendship you had possibly sacrificed because of your obsession with this other person who was so emotionally unavailable. And now, that loyal friend was perhaps no longer available either, just when you would have truly cherished their company.

I stood gazing down into the water lost in my thoughts. Suddenly a lone swan glided out from underneath the bridge, as if it had been left by its friends back in Heidelberg and come wandering upland on its own. It was a pitiful scene – a bit like those drippy ones in American films where the guy/girl has just been left by their loved one and everyone seems to ‘have someone’ apart from them. I wanted to laugh and cry at the fact that my state of being was essentially being portrayed by a swan. Any minute now someone would probably come up and implore me not to jump. I decided to leave before things got too ridiculous…

The next morning I felt completely fine again, as if I’d been spring-cleaned of some dusty, lingering substance by an emotion that had arisen purely from the environment around me. A long-awaited cleansing. Funny how two similar places can arouse completely different emotions in someone, with no apparent warning. Rivers are continuously flowing and changing direction, just like romance. It’s the extreme emotions on either side of the water that people look for, or run away from. People cross the bridges over rivers in search of a new direction to follow, or to return back to something out of need. The river below contains the memories that people try to ignore or forget about, because of the uncertainty that they create. When you’re alone and stop halfway over the bridge and look down, you might find that they come back to you unexpectedly. There and then can you finally confront the feelings that you’ve been repressing. And after you do, the current of life will carry on as normal. It will possibly be one of the most valuable experiences of loneliness and sombreness that you’ve ever felt.

Travel & New Year’s Resolutions

I’ve been studying in London for almost three years. The more that I’ve gone home or gone travelling in this time, the more I’ve realised how life in London is so rigid. Every day I walk the same route to university, or the library, and every day I see the same scenes: businessmen in suits storming along the pavements, phone pressed to their ear, frowning with impatience as they deliver an order to someone whilst frantically waving their arms at a taxi; women in pencil skirts and high heels gossiping with their co-workers about that lady who works on reception, Starbucks lattes in hand, handbags perched on their lower arms pretentiously. Their lives seem so ordered – everyday they must go through this same routine. Some of my friends aspire to have this lifestyle when they graduate. They want the smart work clothes and the City jobs. But to me it just epitomises stress and restriction – something I don’t want to feel on graduating from university at the age of 22. Yes, it may also involve lots of money, but are these people actually happy? Are they content with the thought that this same daily routine may be their life for the next 30 years or more?

One day, I decided to walk home a different route from the library. It took a little longer than my normal route, but in doing so I discovered different sights and sounds, and that made it worth it. There were fewer people in suits and ties shouting down phones, fewer taxi beeps and red buses, no men outside tube stations trying to hand me leaflets I didn’t want. Instead I walked along quiet cobbled streets past quaint little private wine bars playing music, my route decorated with planted shrubs and couples walking hand in hand. It was a refreshing change. ‘Why be boring and go the normal route as always?’ I thought. The walk reinforced my idea that after university, there is no essential need to follow one path. Instead, one can be spontaneous, find a starting project, and go from there, seeing where it takes them. There are so many options, so why not start exploring them?

A key motive of this mindset of mine comes from my time in Iceland. My night in Selfoss was the last I’d have on my own before staying with a host in Reykjavík for a week. My plan the next day was to head back to Reykjavík and spend the day wondering around before going to meet my host. I could go visit a few of the museums I hadn’t been to, and maybe check my emails for the first time since arriving, in case someone had contacted me about something important. It seemed like the sensible thing to do.

In the morning I woke early to catch my 8.30 bus, dressing in jeans and normal trainers. The sun was out again. It was a shame my plans for the day involved being inside. I sat down on the kerb near the bus stop, leaning my weight on my backpack, and going over what I’d done so far whilst here. It seemed like a lot for four days – national parks, whale-watching, glaciers, waterfalls, volcanoes. I hadn’t been to all of the key areas, but the list seemed decent enough.

Suddenly a bus arrived around the corner. It was headed to Landmannalaugar, a place I hadn’t seen but had heard lots about. A couple next to me walked over to it with their backpacks. I watched them go, feeling curious. In my jeans pocket was my dog-eared bus passport. I’d paid a lot of money for it, and it hadn’t been completely used up. Landmannalaugar was one of its valid destinations. I sat upright and looked over at the bus again. The driver was stood outside, resting his head against the side in the direction of the sun, eyes closed. I was tempted to go, and there didn’t seem to be any reason not to, especially not financial. ‘But you already decided you’d go back to Reykjavik, and you’re not dressed for hiking,’ a voice in my head said. I slouched down again.

Then I thought about my plans for the day. Did I really want to be in an urban area, when I could be outside in a rural landscape? Was I really bothered if anyone had contacted me? Did I really want to wonder around a museum when I could do this anytime in London? I imagined my dad watching me now, and how boring he’d think I was. So I got on my feet, picked up my backpack and walked over to the bus. As I buckled my seatbelt and the bus got moving in the opposite direction to which I’d originally intended, I felt an almost rebellious sense of excitement.

The journey to Landmannalaugar takes a few hours. Most of that seems to be spent driving over gravel tracks as you get further into mountain terrain. You’ll pass the proud Mt. Hekla at one point. The ‘thud thud bang’ of the bus as it manoeuvres over the rocky surface, jolting you upwards every now and then, makes you feel like you’re making your way over a minefield. It’s amazing that the tyres don’t get punctured. Every so often you’ll think they have when the bus pauses, and for a second you’ll fear that you’re stranded. But fear not – it’s just the bus pulling over for another vehicle, and you’ll see the other driver looking nervous and sucking in their cheeks as if trying to create extra space on the thin tracks. The views will be quite unexciting for a while, as the bus twists it ways slowly around corners and up steep hills. Reading my guidebook to get some inspiration for something to do in my three hours, I soon felt queasy from the constant jolts and turns.

Then just as it feels like your head is forever going to be filled with the sounds of squeaks and rattles, and dusty gravel is all you’ll see for the rest of your life, a wave of soft green rises up into view. On your right you’ll see the idyllic sight of Lake Frostastaðavatn. Its calm face is lined with faint wrinkles and around it, conditioned by the air’s freshness, lie layers of soft brown tones of hair, primped by bounces from its natural character. From here the bus winds its way along twisty paths and splurges through a river crossing to take you to the campsite. People on the bus start collecting their hiking sticks and supplies together, as Landmannalaugar is the starting base for the 55km Laugavegur hiking trail to Pórsmörk.

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I got off the bus with no plan, but as I went to fetch my walking boots and another hoody from my backpack, the lack of organisation felt strangely nice. There was a tall mountain in view, and so I made my way there. Bláhnúkur mountain is 940m high, and very dusty. As I started my ascent I felt a bit like the bus, pulling over cautiously to let those coming down pass. It was so windy, but you have to keep looking down at your feet to make sure you don’t slip. I stopped halfway up the mountain, thinking I might go blind if I headed any higher. The views are wonderful. Lava fields lie in front of an patch-worked array of pastel-coloured mountains, tinged with soft greens and browns that run so smoothly like oil on a painting. The scenery here was a big contrast from most other places I’d seen in Iceland, evoking warmth and tenderness rather than cold wildness.

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As I stood gazing at the views, amongst rubbing my eyes free of dust, a girl my age came up behind me, and we got chatting. She was French, and this was her first time travelling alone. We ended up spending the remaining hour and a half together, walking over to the hot springs where people bathed lazily, as sheep grazed around them. She was the first person I’d met on the trip who I’d actually like to keep in contact with, not just because I felt I should after spending a few hours with her. And I wouldn’t have met her had I not jumped on that bus.

The day had brought me a new visual perspective to Iceland, allowing me to see a different side to the country, just like taking the different route home from the library allowed me to see a different view of London. The day had signified freedom and impulsiveness, and my trip had been replenished as a result. I knew that had I simply gone on to Reykjavík as originally planned, the day would be nowhere near as interesting and fulfilling.

If people were more spontaneous in life, they’d get so much more out of it. As we approach 2014, my New Year’s Resolution is not really new as such. I just want to keep exploring the unknown and not play safe, but take a new opportunity that arises and see where it takes me.