Ein Wochenende in Basel

Am letzten Wochenende traf ich eine Deutsche Freundin in Basel. Weil ich in der Nähe dem Genfersee wohne, war es gut, einen deutschsprachigen Teil der Schweiz zu besuchen. Basel ist eine kleine Stadt, aber sie hat eine charmante Charakter. Auf die Treppe neben dem Rhein ist ein toller Ort, Mittag zu essen. Die meisten Supermärkte sonntags geöffnet sind, deshalb sorge nicht über ob man genug Schweizer Schokolade hat, das ganze Wochenende zu dauern…

 Last weekend, I met a German friend in Basel. Since I’m living near Lake Geneva, it was good to visit a German-speaking part of Switzerland. Basel is a small town, but it has a charming character. A great place to eat lunch is on the steps near the Rhine. Most supermarkets are open on Sundays, so no need to worry about whether you have enough Swiss chocolate to last the whole weekend…

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Die glänzende Weihnachtsbeleuchtung wurden über der Brücke hängend. Wir hörten die Glocken von der Pferdekutschen kling und in der Ferne hupten die Straßenbahnen ihre Horner als der Himmel sich zu verdunkeln begann. 

Sparkling Christmas lights were hanging above the bridge. We heard bells clang from the horse-drawn carriages and in the distance the trams sounded their horns, as the sky began to darken.

Das Rathaus ist ein schönes Gebäude mit einer markanten roten Farbe. Wir hörten die Stimmen von innen und neugierig waren, also gingen wir zu sehen. Die männlichen Sternsinger wurden lässig gekleidet und sie sahen aus wie sie gerade zufällig innen von der Straße gekommen waren, aber sie sangen wie die Profis.

The townhall is a beautiful building with a striking red colour. We heard voices from inside and were curious, so went to look.  The male carol singers were casually dressed and looked like they had just come inside from the street, but they sang like professionals.

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Danach gingen wir in die Altstadt, wo die Märchenwald wie das Paradies eines Kindes war.  Ich sah raffinierten Aktivitäten wie die Glasbläserei und den Schmiedekunst. Familien geröstete Marshmallows am Feuer. Ein kleines Zug piepte, um die Leute aus dem Weg zu bewegen – und die jungen Passagiere winkten. Die Weihnachtsmärkte haben viele abwechslungsreiche Artikel verkauft. Man könnte das Fondue, das Raclette, den Glühwein und die Waffeln riechen. Einige Gerüche waren schöner als andere…der Käse im Fondue ist zu stark für mich.

Afterwards we went to the Old Town, where the Fairy Forest was like a child’s paradise. I saw refined activities like glass-blowing and blacksmithing. Families toasted marshmallows around a fire. A small train beeped in order to move people out of the way, and the young passengers waved. The Christmas markets sold many varied products. One could smell fondue, raclette, mulled wine and waffles. Some smells were nicer than others…the cheese in the fondue is too strong for me!

10864030_10155107071370495_1554012416127597403_o    Später gab es eine carol Service außerhalb der Münster. Gesangbücher und Kerzen wurden ausgegeben und dann begann der Chor. Wir hatten keine Ahnung gehabt, dass dieses schönes Ereignis geplant war, deshalb hatten wir das Gluck!

Later, there was a carol service outside of the Münster. Hymn books and candles were given out and then the choir began. We’d had no idea that this lovely event was planned, so we were lucky!

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Die glitzernden Straßen waren hübsch und einladend. Am Abend wurde ‘Otello’ im Theater gezeigt. Zu unserer Überraschung und Freude hatte der Rezeptionist für uns heimlich die Tickets organisiert, damit wir die besten Sitzen haben würden. Und außerdem war das Theaterstück eigentlich eine Oper – meine erste! Ich glaube sie großartig war.

The glittering streets were pretty and inviting. In the evening, ‘Othello’ was showing in the theatre.  To our surprise and delight, the receptionist had secretly organised the tickets for us so that we would have the best seats. And on top of that, the play was actually an opera- my first! It was terrific.  10383811_10155107071810495_568027071841661920_o

Andreasplatz befindet sich in eine gemütliche Ecke und hat ein schönes, ruhiges Café, das ‘Cafe zum Roten Engel’ heißt. Er ist der ideale Rastplatz nach einem Morgen voller Erkundungstouren durch weitere wunderbare (aber überfüllten) Weihnachtsmarktstände.

Andreasplatz is located in a cosy corner and has a nice, quiet café, which is called ‘Red Angel Café’. It’s the perfect resting place after a morning spent exploring more wonderful (but crowded) Christmas market stalls.

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I spent a brilliant weekend with a fabulous friend 🙂

There are more great photos of Basel’s Christmas markets here.

Clogs and Canals: Highlights of Amsterdam

It’s hard to believe that already two months ago two friends and I were in Amsterdam for a New Year trip. It only takes a couple of days to fall in love with this small and charming city, which has much more to it than hash cafes and sex shops…

Vondelpark

A large public green space in the west of the city,  this is an ideal starting point for your first day. Cyclists and joggers abound, there was a sense of youth and vitality in the crisp air; no lethargy from the end of another year. Blauwe Theehuis (The Blue TeaHouse) serves hot chocolate with rum and is a good place to get the map out…Fireworks would blast off in the distance while we sat planning our day – the party starts early in Amsterdam!

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Cultural Mixes

Leidseplein was a hub of human activity. Conventional Christmas carols were swapped for pumping latino beats at the ice rink that sat surrounded by beer houses, with people milling around laughing in their snug winter coats. The non-stop chatter of people as they swarmed the streets was only occasionally interrupted by the clang of a tram gatecrashing the party.

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Tasty Bites

The smell of sizzling onions lured visitors to the bratwurst stalls. I followed it up with an Olliebollen – a Dutch doughnut with raisins inside, dusted with icing sugar. Somehow I managed to avoid the fudge stall, but pancakes would come the next day…

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A City of Canals
Reflections from the street lights dazzled off the calm water of the canals, creating sparks of romance as we followed the crowds on our pilgrimage to the city centre, with beaming lamps showing us the way.

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Dam Square

Even the rain shower failed to dampen the glow over the central square from the festive lights, as people wandered around for the last few hours of 2013 with open minds and open wallets.

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Bars and Banter

Many choices for drinking, but we chose the Irish bar ‘Yip Fellows’ for its free entry, fair-priced drinks, old-school music and welcoming atmosphere. We met no Irish, but a bunch of Austrians instead, who were just as fun-loving…

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Street Celebrations

Huge crowds filled the Square ready for the countdown, with fireworks shooting off in all directions and beer cans clinking. We managed to make out an ‘eight’ and were on our way.

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My friend Alice took this great photo below – it almost looks like Amsterdam has been struck by anarchic riots..!

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Bloemenmarkt

A lovely way to welcome in the New Year was to stroll down the Singel to the flower market. If you manage to come away without buying a souvenir, you’ve done well.

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Aesthetic Architecture

The crow-stepped and clock-gabled buildings are a defining feature of Amsterdam, complemented by the trendy gangs of bikes huddled nearby and boats dozing at the sides of the canal. It’s no surprise that the Canal Ring is classed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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The Bloemgracht below is one of the prettiest areas of Amsterdam, oozing peaceful tranquillity.

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The Red Light District

The next day we followed a red dragon to the Red Light…an area which is, sadly I think, one of the reasons Amsterdam is so popular with foreign visitors.

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But this aspect of the city fails to tarnish its overall class and beauty.

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Thanks for a lovely stay!

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For thoughts on New Year’s Eve in general, click

Who gives a ‘Dam about New Year?

New Year’s Eve can be a funny occasion. Once the clock strikes midnight in Britain, strangers hug and hold hands as they sing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ out of tune; friends drunkenly proclaim their everlasting love for each other; and shy people seize the moment to try it on with the person they’ve fancied for ages. People seem to love everyone and everything, and happiness is all around. They regard the evening as a unique event where they have an excuse to say or do something that they normally wouldn’t. The New Year is accorded a special status, with some speaking confidently of ‘change’ or ‘progress’ in any field, whether work or relationships. It’s as if they seem to think they have to wait for the beginning of a new year to form this new attitude. And yet when they wake up a few hours later, nothing really will be about to change. They will simply wake up with a sore head feeling grumpy and sluggish. It will feel just like any other normal day, with the only difference being that they get to open the glossy new calendar Father Christmas put in their stocking. What’s more, the emotions and actions of the night before will have vanished: just like they didn’t speak to each other when sober on New Year’s Eve morning, people will no longer talk to strangers on the street; having commemorated another year of friendship, friends will soon grumble to themselves about their BFF’s embarrassing behaviour the night before; and the shy person will deny any recall of that awkward kiss, stating that it must have come from being ‘so wasted’. People talk about New Year’s Eve like it’s an event of huge significance but really, it’s just another day on the calendar. Its subjective value is invented by personal choice. And yet every year, the same scene repeats itself.

When two friends and I made plans to go to Amsterdam at the end of 2013, I think we too were expecting something huge from our New Year’s Eve abroad – the biggest and best NYE party that we’d ever had. Being scattered around the country doing different things and therefore unable to see each other that often, we’d wanted to go on a city break together for a while. £50 each for a return ferry from Newcastle was the perfect justification for a trip that would involve a mixture of celebrations and culture. We made no specific plans for NYE, deciding we’d go with the flow on the night. Friends naturally made jokes about drugs and brothels, as if assuming our reasons for choosing Amsterdam had been based purely on these factors and not the other elements of the city. Nevertheless, whilst celebrating New Year’s Eve wasn’t the only reason we were going here, it was inevitably the main thing on our mind. But it was my New Year experience in one of Europe’s biggest party capitals that actually made me realise how sensationalised the sentiment surrounding this event is.

Catching the ferry to Holland is always an entertaining, sometimes disturbing, experience. And with New Year approaching, the intentions of the groups of lads on board smelled even stronger of Jaeger bombs and condoms. After our boat docked at 9.30am, a bus took us into Amsterdam. Bike bells rang as the hungover boys and girls stumbled off the bus straight into a cycling path. Crossing the road to the central station, you have to take a few moments to make sure you don’t get run over by an oncoming tram. The blue and white carriages are a trademark of the city and the most convenient form of public transport for getting around (apart from bikes of course…) In the tourist office you can buy a 3 day travel card for all public transport for 16.50 Euros.

My friend had found an apartment on booking.com, situated a few kilometres from Central Station.  As we hopped off the tram and walked along Jan Evertsenstraat wishing we’d invested in a proper map, a loud bang erupted from the other side of the street. Jumping in shock we instinctively turned to look. Something small appeared to have exploded, yet other people on the street seemed unperturbed. We soon realised it was a firework, and went on to see small groups of people casually setting them off along the pavements and in parks. On meeting our apartment owners, we discovered that this is a New Year’s Eve tradition here – residents are allowed to set off their own fireworks in public areas all day.

Our afternoon was spent in the lovely Vondelpark, where we sat in the Blue Tea House café admiring the regular sight of cyclists, runners and walkers amongst the on-going blast of fireworks.  One of my favourite things about Holland is how active everyone is. It’s a lifestyle choice that people prove their commitment to by getting up and doing it, instead of saying they will and never doing so.

Just before 6pm we put on our boots and coats and joined the great pilgrimage of all nationalities towards the city centre. Cracks and bangs of fireworks still cut through the air as we deviated slightly south, the sporadic noise contrasting with the peacefulness of the canals that dazzled with gold and red reflections off the houses and Christmas lights. Bikes lined the route, with light glinting off the wheels like baubles on a Christmas tree. Later we saw the shining beacon of Leidseplein. Here Latino pop beats blared from a stereo next to a large ice rink situated outside a group of Bavarian Bier bars. Food vendors attracted throngs of people with their Bratwurst, waffles and ‘olliebollen’ – the Dutch doughnuts dusted in icing sugar and with raisins inside. Swarms of people crossed excitedly over the tram routes, following the glowing path of Christmas lights down the streets towards Dam Square where a huge Christmas tree greeted us.

It was only around 19.30 in the Square and people seemed to wander around with no set plan. The smell of more waffles led us down a side of the road hosting a long line of stalls. Sausages sizzled amongst the sweet smell of onion as people bustled up and down. I managed to tear myself away from staring at the fudge stall, just as it began to rain. We pressed on further down the street, splashing through puddles towards the other side of the road where the flashing signs of ‘Sex Shops’ showed us we were entering the Red Light District. I silently asked myself what percentage of the guys milling around here were from our ferry…

The heaving ‘EuroPub’ in Dam Square cost 15 Euros to enter,  so we moved on from its flashing lights and thumping music to a small Irish bar nearby called ‘Yip Fellows’, which charged no entry. It had a cosy, intimate feel and we were probably the youngest people in there.  5 Euros bought us a generous glass of wine, followed only by a modest two or three more. Bartenders wandered around with a smile offering re-fills. Music began to play and as ‘Summer of 69’ came on, I realised from the lack of tuneless singing that there was a lack of British people around. Nobody was dancing, just laughing over drinks. We were able to hear ourselves talk because there was no sense of need for pounding music; no DJs constantly shouting at us that it was New Year’s Eve to the extent that we felt we were being told off. It wasn’t the scene we’d been expecting, but I preferred it – sharing stories with a bunch of Austrians was more fun than dancing to a song I could dance to on any night out. Fumes of smoke later began to flow through the room, sending us into a hazy state of merriness.

At 11.45 people started heading outside into the packed Square, the sea of people dotted with an array of umbrellas. Fireworks were going off in all directions. Suddenly we heard shouts of ‘nine, eight’ and joined in with the countdown, as people stood on the statue punching the air with their arms in time. Their silhouettes blackened against a shock of red as the sky became a circus of different colours symbolising that 2014 had officially arrived. My friends and I of course cheered loudly and hugged madly, calling ‘Happy New Year!’ to one another. I then watched with amusement as they got dragged into a Hogmanay dance with a bunch of British men, who then proceeded to belt out a pointless rendition of ‘Country Roads’. These men grasped each other tightly, as if they had been reunited for the first time in years. The spell of New Year’s spirit had been cast.

After the rain picked up 15 minutes later we went to return to our bar, only to find they’d introduced an entry fee, and in our rush of excitement to get outside we hadn’t got a wristband. Our giddiness suddenly turned to tiredness and we decided to walk to the bus stop, knowing the night buses weren’t running regularly. As ‘bombs’ continued to explode behind us, the streets ran red with rivers of the last remnants of the day’s firework materials. Hoards of people headed down Damstraat, kicking beer cans absent-mindedly. Some broke off down other streets to continue the party in the Red Light; for others going home was clearly the plan. Fireworks still shrieked loudly above the crowds gathered at the bus stop, committed to entertaining those still keen to continue the celebrations. The buses were taking forever, and as the rain grew stronger and impatience rose, there were signs in people’s faces that the New Year’s glow was already beginning to fade. Any elements of New Year character slowly started to lose resonance, until the night was just viewed as the end of another night out now with the mammoth task of ‘how-to-get-home’.

We had so far to walk back to our apartment, but after half an hour of shivering in our coats waiting, we decided to set off on foot before the cold weather threatened to ruin our night. Loud music thudded from clubs and people dashed here and there, rickshaw drivers calling out to offer lifts. A bunch of girls in a doorway held a bucket under their friend’s face, looking around sheepishly. Crying out ‘Happy New Year!’ seemed like ages ago as our upbeat emotions turned into pessimistic thoughts of ‘How much further?’ In our urge to get home out of the cold and wet, we no longer shared any sense of connection to the people still cheering on the streets, if anything finding their good mood annoying. Relying on the soggy remains of a simple map, it took us an hour and a half to walk back, and once in our apartment we collapsed down in relief, with our hair dripping wet and scarves stinking of smoke, exhausted by the evening’s events.

The night had ended unlike we’d expected it to – we were cold, sober and on the verge of being in a bad mood.  But in the later morning we would look back on the evening with smiles, recalling all the funny moments, and even the slightly irritating ones which could now be laughed at. All our senses had been ignited by the events of the evening like no other previous New Year celebration. Even though we’d imagined that we would drink more, dance more, and stay up longer, the atmospheric culmination of the rainy street markets and friendly vibe in that little pub meant that it had indeed been the biggest and best New Year’s Eve party we’d been to, regardless. But just like always, an hour after midnight the novelty of the New Year had worn off.

It was lucky then that we hadn’t just come to Amsterdam for a New Year’s Eve party. We eased our way into New Year’s Day by wandering down along the side of the canals on Singel to the Bloemenmarkt, admiring the flowers and many souvenirs on show proudly presenting some of Holland’s national symbols – clogs, tulips, windmills and bikes. Amsterdam is such a charming city; its tall houses with their crow-stepped and clock gables radiate elegant charm. The pretty architecture’s settings amongst blissful canals and secret alleyways have enchanted the people at UNESCO, who designated the Canal Ring a World Heritage Site in 2010.

There are hardly any sounds of noisy traffic here – no beeping taxis and screeching brakes – just the occasional calling-clang of a tram and ‘tickety-tickety’ of the green man on the traffic lights. The city values its cyclists and their safety. Their right on the road is so respected, that you’ll rarely see anyone wearing a helmet. Bicycle bells rang at us as we meandered dreamily along the canals, their riders looking fresh despite the antics of the night before. In fact, the whole area was bustling with people. For them, last night clearly wasn’t about drinking until they couldn’t stand; just an ordinary date that didn’t require extraordinary behaviour.

From the flower market we headed north again to Westerpark. A lovely area around here is the Bloemgracht, which for me epitomises all of Amsterdam’s significant aesthetic features in a haven of peaceful tranquillity. The Anne Frank Museum is nearby and it was my second time visiting, having been here 10 years ago. Anne writes about her frustrations of not being able to go outside and speak to people, and having walked around the city so much, it really was heart-wrenching to stand in her old home being reminded of how such a young girl was unable to explore and appreciate such beautiful surroundings so close by, when this is something the millions of tourists coming to this museum every year do so absent-mindedly.

I wondered whether the boys on our ferry and those we’d seen in the Square would have even come to this area of the city, or if now that New Year’s Eve was over, their trip had lost its purpose, with the remainder being spent in hash cafes and bars throwing their money away carelessly. It seemed like a pretty gross concept when one considered how much the Franks and all those other families in hiding would have given to be able to walk around the beautiful, quiet parts of the city at their own leisure.

The next afternoon we boarded our bus back to the ferry port, recognising some of the lads from our journey out. They seemed zapped of energy and hardly spoke a word to one another, as if they’d fallen out. I thought back to the ‘Country Roads’ boys hugging each other fervently in the Square. Looking back it all seemed so fake. And looking at the state of these boys, it was a probably trip they didn’t remember much of, all because they’d felt a necessity to lose all control of their wills and wallets. They had come here with the sole intention of going on one drunken night out, with no interest in any other aspect of this wonderful city. They’d let themselves believe that this blown-up date on the calendar was a reasonable excuse for spending all their week’s wages in one night of mad ecstasy. And had it really been worth it?

Within a few hours we had been returned back to the reality of late night Bingo and cringy cruise ship entertainers singing ‘Mysterious Girl’ (rap section included). It seemed like only two minutes ago we had touched ground in Amsterdam, yet I’d almost forgotten that we’d celebrated New Year here. This was even though I’d expected that its celebrations would be the most memorable part of the trip. But why? Afterall, you can dine and drink and dance anywhere – and that’s essentially what New Year’s Eve is about. I thought back to the fireworks going off all day in Amsterdam, recalling how surprising they were at first. But they made any spirit of the day feel more genuine and prolonged, rather than something formed by alcohol that would last a few soon-to-be-forgotten hours.

When I got home, I knew that in asking how my trip was, friends would probably be envisaging brown cafes and crazy nightclubs. But for my friends and me, it was the sweeter side of Amsterdam that had left a soft spot in our memory. All the bikes had highlighted how life is an ongoing cycle, with no need for people to change course every once a year. New Year’s Eve has developed a superficial element whereby, under an invented spirit of the occasion, people develop a new persona out of a combination of alcohol and the feeling that they ‘should’. But people can stop pretending on this evening that there is deep meaning behind their warm words and future promises, because at the end of the day, nobody seriously believes them, and their behaviour won’t last. Insisting on the need for huge celebrations filled with lovey-dovey words won’t guarantee an enjoyable New Year’s Eve. After spending mine in the city famous for its party scene, I learned greater that when it comes to celebrating this day, less is more.

10 Reasons to do a Help-Exchange

When planning a trip, I tend to split it into two sections – part of it involves true hostel-loving backpacking, the other a help-exchange. We’re living in a day and age where students and ‘gap yah’ kids will spend huge amounts of money to volunteer in an orphanage in a developing country for two weeks, in an attempt to boost their CV with extra credentials. Personally, I’m not a fan of this organised travel; partly for the reason that I believe it does little to encourage independence and travelling skills; partly because I’m not convinced that continuously passing young children onto different groups to be ‘cooed’ over and have photos taken with is beneficial for their mental well-being and social development. (This article sums it up brilliantly). Students may also be lured into paying extortionate amounts of money for holiday package tours, where they only mingle with fellow tourists and essentially see the country for five minutes.

If you do a help-exchange in contrast, you’ll spend so much less money, yet probably get so much more out of the experience. The system is simple – you register with a website, pay an £18-£20 membership fee that’s valid for two years, and create a profile for yourself. You can then scout the website’s host listing, or hosts can contact you. The idea is that you do four-six hours of work a day for your host in return for free meals and accommodation, so that you’re both doing each other a favour. In your free time you’re free to go off exploring on your own. A help-exchange can be done in any country on any continent, with an incredible range of options on offer – from helping an Eco camp in Africa build a school for six weeks, to looking after huskies in Norway for one week. Below are ten extensive reasons why you should consider doing one yourself!

1. Develop social skills & independence
The process of organising a help-exchange requires the sole effort of the applicant: you yourself have to find an appropriate host decisively but considerately, noting their requirements whilst taking into account your relevant skills and other travel plans. Instead of filling out an application form, you have to contact the host directly either by phone or email, ensuring you come across as friendly, coherent and suitable in a few sentences without referring to your ‘exceptional’ A level results. You have to organise how you get to your host – sometimes you might be asked to turn up at the door – in which case you need to plan travel arrangements. And finally, you have to introduce yourself to your host using communication skills that convey your genuine personality rather than the one you might use to impress someone in a job interview, and conduct yourself aptly for a guest. The process is like a less formal version of applying for a job – there are fewer competitors, no strict deadlines and no daunting interviews. Help-exchanges are also a great way to boost one’s confidence at meeting new people.

 2.  Save money & recuperate
A help-exchange is budget travel at its best. Even staying in hostels that only cost £17 per night starts to add up if you’re on a long trip. The particularly great thing about a help-exchange is how spontaneous it can be – you can contact somebody even when you’re in the country having commenced your travels – ideal if you’ve suddenly found yourself short of funds or there’s been a problem with your current accommodation. Staying in one place for a while also allows the weary traveller to rest their body and mind – it’s nice to have some time off lugging a backpack around everyday, or constantly thinking about public transport timetables and hostel bookings for the day ahead. Saving money on the practicalities of food and accommodation also means your pennies can be put towards more exciting activities in your free time. Plus, being given free meals in return for your help makes a nice change from a cheap ‘on-the-road’ diet of cheese-sandwiches, bananas and biscuits…

3. Develop new practical skills
The wide range of jobs that hosts advertise for help with means that you can guarantee learning a new skill, ranging from knitting to carpentry. Sometimes I’ve not contacted a host whose description sounded perfect in so many ways, just because I had no experience of the specific work they needed help with. But one occasion where I didn’t let this feeling of inadequacy put me off was with a family on Vancouver Island. They owned a vineyard, and as much my mum might have tried to encourage me over the years, I had no experience of pruning. As I was shown what to do on my first day thoughts of: ‘Oh crap, I’m totally going to ruin this guy’s vines, he’s going to be annoyed with me!’ filled my head. Then I remembered that it wasn’t a test, and I wouldn’t be judged for asking questions, but was actually more likely to be respected for trying to ensure I did a decent job.

Even when you’re not working, you can still learn new skills in your free time from family members. The first time I went fishing was during a help-exchange in southern BC (I wasn’t very successful). On another exchangeI learned the basics of lacrosse and after a few attempts (and one fall) had (almost) mastered the art of longboarding. It’s unlikely I would have accessed such activities so easily when travelling around alone.

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4. Inspire youth
Being the youngest of five children, I’ve never had much of an opportunity to be a ‘big sister’ to anyone, but taking part in help-exchanges has changed that, as I’ve been able to become a confidante to those a few years younger than me. Being trusted by an adult you’ve never met to take a position of responsibility over their children is a humbling gesture, and as a result makes you determined to live up to the duty and set an example. In my case this has mainly involved listening to problems, sometimes of an everyday form and sometimes more serious, and using my experience to give advice for the short or long term. With young teenage girls I think, being female myself, that it’s a particularly rewarding process. They’re going through a stage when older authority can be resented, and being a good role model without alienating them can be quite challenging. But if you get the balance right, you’re likely to see reserved body language become more confident and bored facial expressions develop into expressions of curiosity and familiarity, as they realise that the new girl in their house is actually not that bad, even though she travels by herself/is single/wearing scruffy clothes and no make-up/into running/a bit of a geek. I hope that as a result of this, most of the girls I’ve stayed with have decided that they too would like to embark on their own independent travel adventure one day. Help-exchanges demonstrate that you don’t have to be in a less-developed country (or pay lots of money) to have a strong impact on someone’s life.

5. Expand human knowledge
Taking part in help-exchanges has made me become a better reader of both individual people and families, reminding me in the process that despite any cultural differences, certain human emotional dilemmas occur universally. As a result I feel like I’ve gained greater maturity and sensitivity, which can be applied to everyday life. It’s something that can’t be taught, only obtained through observational experience. An example is from Canada, where I lived with a 15 year old girl whose life, at the insistence of her mother, revolved around horse-riding and ice hockey. Most of the time she was reserved around the household. Then at the end of the week the two of us went to the cinema and I saw an excitement in her that I hadn’t seen before, realising that it was simply because she wasn’t used to going out for social events. Away from her normal routine and slightly domineering mother, she felt freer and more open. Meanwhile on an exchange in Germany, the 18 year old daughter started tearing up as she said goodbye to her parents before they left for their holiday. She wouldn’t see them when they got back as she would be on holiday herself. “I just feel bad because by going away and doing my own things I see them less, and they’re only getting older,” she explained to me after they’d gone. I could completely empathise with her, having experienced similar feelings of guilt in relation to my own parents. It was an irrational feeling that I hadn’t considered might be felt by others. Doing a help exchange can make a ‘foreigner’ seem more familiar, while also giving you something to take back to your own family; be that a greater appreciation of or the inspiration to change its dynamic!

6. Practise a language
The best way to learn a language is through immersion – visit the relevant country and spend time with native-speakers, listening to their conversations and attempting to initiate ones yourself. Even if you’re not planning to learn the language (mastering Icelandic in two weeks would have been asking a bit too much), it’s nice to simply listen to the different sounds and watch people interact through it, sometimes being able to guess what they’re talking about from their actions. While staying with a small family in Germany, I would carry a notepad around with me, at times randomly asking the daughter, “How would I say this?” or “What does that word you keep saying mean?” She would also ask for clarification that her English was okay too, so that both of us were benefitting. I was then able to use what I’d learned after I moved on from the family. It makes a nice change from hostels and charity volunteering camps where, on the whole, English is the international language. And even better: the tuition is free.

7. Learn about other cultures
Living in a family’s home creates an intimate environment where you can witness the everyday native lifestyle – it’s the best way to learn about the values and norms of the country, either through conversations or general observation. Whilst on my Icelandic help-exchange I was told about Christmas traditions (including a detailed description, involving a picture book, of the 13 different Santas), as well as the less obvious and random traits of the country’s culture. For example: when trying to establish ages, an Icelander will always ask for year of birth over the actual number; a wife doesn’t take her husband’s surname – instead it is always the father’s name, ending with the prefix ‘dottir’ for girls and ‘son’ for boys; names of all residents are written underneath the house number next to the door; dried haddock is a popular snack, and so forth… Staying with locals gives one a greater awareness of and access to the signature brands and dishes of that country, such as ‘Tim Hortons’ in Canada and Skyr yoghurt in Iceland.

Doing a few help-exchanges in different areas is even better, as you get to witness the variety of the country for yourself, just like someone travelling to England would notice changes between London and Yorkshire. For example, I could sense varying attitudes towards immigration, marriage and careers in different areas of BC which, as a History student, I found really interesting. What’s more, if there are other foreign helpers staying at the house, you can learn more about their culture too. The first time I had a proper conversation with someone from China was during a help-exchange in Canada, while meeting a few Germans there partly inspired my decision to travel there the next summer.

8. Integrate into a family and community
In previous posts I’ve written about the overwhelming effect of being welcomed into a host’s life so warmly. Sometimes the ‘click’ won’t happen, either inevitably from significant differences in outlook, or as a result of events during the exchange. But when it does, especially in such a short period, it’s a very touching experience. This, combined with getting to know the local area well, can make you really feel ‘at home’. Doing errands for a host in Germany such as going to the post office and doing the shopping required me to familiarise myself with the area, making me feel like part of the community by the end of the exchange. By the end of my week with a family in Reykjavík, I was on greeting terms with an old man who walked his pug at the same time as I walked my host’s border collie. At family dinners or parties, I’ve been involved in the conversation almost, at times, like a member of the family. Such moments can lead to a bond with a family – a long-term bond that hasn’t been formed through the influence of alcohol and consolidated by the desire for a companion to provide temporary convenience and security, as is quite often the case with volunteer-travel friendships.

For me having no younger siblings, forming a bond with a child or young teenager is particularly special. At first introduction they are often quite shy and making conversation isn’t so easy. My Icelandic help-exchange also involved babysitting an eight year old. His English was exceptional, but there still seemed to be a barrier as we sat eating breakfast on my first morning. After getting a shrug in response to “What’s your favourite subject at school?” I asked if he wanted to walk the dog with me: “Nahhh”; or go swimming: “No thanks.” Hmmm. ‘It’s going to be a long week,’ I though despairingly. “Maybe you’d like to play a game?” I asked hopefully. The boy said nothing. Then suddenly his eyes lit up: “Do you like Star Wars?” Ermm… “Yeahhhhh!” I replied enthusiastically. I know nothing about Star Wars. The next two hours was spent playing a game with no idea what I was doing. But it was worth it, because by the end of it the boy was interacting with me more. Within the next few days I was making him laugh as we played toy soldiers or football, and chatting animatedly with him. Then came the day when he asked “Will you be here this time next week?” followed by a sad “N’owhh” when I said no, and upon hearing that I welled up.

One might say that the same emotion can be experienced after looking after an orphan as part of a charity project, but I would disagree. A charity scheme essentially requires a bond to be formed, by expecting volunteers to devote complete attention to a child who is not already emotionally attached to a regularly-present biological relative. In contrast, children from a host family are less likely to require or crave a new bond, simply because they already have a strong and satisfying connection with their family.  The process of forming a bond is therefore more contingent on both characters involved, which subsequently makes it feel more treasurable.

9. See incredible places & do amazing activities for free
They say that guide books shouldn’t be relied on as source for travel ideas, and help-exchanges prove it. A key reason I’m such a big fan of them is because of their potential to help one discover a phenomenal area of the world, or be given a rare opportunity to do something wonderful. For example, one of my help-exchanges in BC involved working on an Andalusian horse farm, where I helped care for and exercise the horses. Being allowed to ride such beautiful animals as ‘work’ made me feel so lucky, as I thought about what some people would give to be in my position. Another family took me tubing down the Similkameen River, and on my final night with them we drank beers and ate ‘smors’ around a campfire in the Okanogan forest, giving me a true rural Canadian experience. This was an area that I would probably not have considered visiting had I been touring the area independently, because of both the lack of tourist accommodation and lack of attention given to it in my guide book. On Vancouver Island, my hosts lived five minutes from the beach, from where I could admire some of the most enchanting sunsets I’ve ever seen. I was given a tour of Victoria and taken out on the family’s boat for an evening cruise. Meanwhile in Germany I was taken on an afternoon sight-seeing tour of Frankfurt with all the benefits of local knowledge, and in Iceland I got to experience the brilliant Culture Night celebrations with native company. For just a few hours work a day, you can receive something back in return that no salary, no matter how big, could buy.

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10. Form special memories & valuable contacts
The sense of accomplishment after discovering or arriving at a stunning place completely on my own is what makes me love travelling alone…but I’d be lying if I said that some of my favourite and strongest memories from trips haven’t come from help-exchange experiences. Some of them are from the examples stated in #9, while some weren’t necessarily so treasured at the time but in hindsight have provided extraordinary tales of great humour that, without a help-exchange, I probably wouldn’t have experienced. Take the time I went to a house party in Canada, only to find myself constructing a sling out of a tea towel for a guy who broke his collarbone after falling off his quad-bike whilst riding under a very very large influence; or the time a host asked me to give her daughter a lift to a bonfire party in her car (as if having to quickly adjust to driving in an opposite way to what I was used to without damaging her car wasn’t enough, I then had to reverse half a mile along a dyke in the dark after we took a wrong turn); and last but not least was the time one family’s 12 year old daughter jokingly drove a lawnmower towards where I was sunbathing on a downhill slope before parking up, only for someone to start screaming at me to move (she’d forgotten to put the handbrake on…)

Then of course, there are the friends that can be made from a help-exchange, either host’s children or fellow helpers, who themselves account for many of the memories formed. I’m still in regular contact with many of those people I’ve been fortunate to stay with, one of whom I visited in Germany after meeting her in Canada, and one of whom I travelled around the USA with three years after first meeting. These people provide a travel contact either for at the time of the exchange or in future, and meeting them has inspired me to become a host one day myself, in the hope of meeting even more special people and creating even more special memories.

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Being involved in a help-exchange is beneficial for a range of reasons: the potential to help a person develop for the better whilst allowing them to have an impact on someone else; the potential for new knowledge, exciting opportunities and significant experiences; the potential to form strong friendships; and simply for the potential to produce a fulfilling sense of knowing you’ve done someone a favour, whilst also feeling extremely grateful for what they’ve done for you. And the best thing about it is that these elements can be attained without having to spend thousands of pounds.

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Been convinced? Check out some of the websites below and get your own help-exchange adventure started!

http://www.workaway.info/
http://www.helpx.net/
http://www.wwoof.net/

Saturday Nights in Hamburg

One of the first words that springs to mind when one thinks of Germany is ‘Oktoberfest’. The world-famous festival brings natives and tourists alike to Munich to engage in plenty of dirndl-donning, beer-drinking and würst-eating. In the past few days, friends in Germany have been filling my Facebook newsfeed with updates about and photos of the festivities. Apart from making me feel extremely jealous, these posts also brought back memories of just how fun partying in Germany can be.

But for once, Berlin is not the destination of topic. Whilst the capital may boast a circus of energetic youth, Hamburg is actually regarded by many Germans as the country’s best city. And after spending a week there in July 2012, I can see why. Situated on the River Elbe in the north, this city has many options to help ensure that during a summer visit, you have a memorable(?) Saturday evening.

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 If the weather is good, a perfect place to start your Saturday evening in Hamburg is at a river-beach bar, such as StrandPauli. Sand and rustic umbrellas created an authentic setting and the youthful summer vibe was completed by a sound system playing the likes of MGMT and Empire of the Sun. Guys on deck chairs nudged their mates in the direction of groups of girls gossiping over glasses of sparkling rhubarb punch, daring each other to go over. Order a bottle of the refreshingly fruity Schöfferhofer Weizen-Mix, pop your shades on and your feet up, and you’ll forget that you’re actually in a city…

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Around 7pm, get rid of your hunger pangs by sampling some German cuisine. ‘Frank und Frei’ is situated near the Sternschanze S-bahn directly north of StrandPauli. This laid-back mixture of a pub and restaurant had plenty of outdoor seating, and you might even make friends with a local cat or two…Flammkuchen was one of the specialities – it’s a bit like pizza but with a thinner base and no tomato sauce. Cheese and pear were a great combination.

A trip to Planten un Blomen is a must on a Saturday evening in summer. If you carry on along the S-bahn and exit at Dammtor, the beacon of Heinrich Hertz Turm will guide you the short way to the beautiful park, home to a flurry of flower-beds showing all kinds of colours. A large pond sits in the middle of the grounds, complete with a little family of ducks. Every evening in the summer season, columns of water illuminated with different colours are projected from a machine beneath this pond in time to classical music. It’s a very enchanting performance. Visitors sit on the banks or stand, watching in respectful serenity. The tranquil environment that results from the combination of sounds and sights makes these outdoor concerts popular with all ages of people wishing to be serenaded after a busy day in the office, or as a treat for the family.

What’s particularly great about Planten un Blomen is that it’s free to enter, so you could enjoy the concerts every night, even in the rain. With its quintessential romantic setting, Planten un Blomen offers visitors the chance to enjoy both music and the outdoors in perfect harmony (pun intended). Bring a rug, some wine, and a date.

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I soon learned just how much variation Hamburg has to offer on that same night when I visited St Pauli, home of the Reeperbahn – aka Hamburg’s red light district. The streets were bustling with party people as women paraded around selling condoms and sex toys alongside clubs flashing ‘Table Dancers’ in bright lights above steamy windows. I’d joined up with an international youth camp for my visit. The male tour guide looked quite uncomfortable as a scantily-clad lady in a window beckoned him over…

The Reeperbahn is a popular choice for hen and stag-do parties, and I myself was approached in a bar by an English man out with a groom-to-be and friends, who greeted me with a cocky “Now my German isn’t great, but…” Awkward. The fact that 16 year olds are allowed in bars until 12 midnight could make this a potential cause for concern, but on the whole (ignoring the Herbertstrasse which prohibits all women apart from, you know, from entering), the area felt safe due to the large but not over-bearing police presence.

Along with offering various restaurants, clubs and all that other naughty stuff, the Reeperbahn is also home to a number of music venues where the Beatles used to perform before hitting the big time. One of them was the club Grosse Freiheit 36, situated right amongst all the street action. This could explain the large queues to get inside. A more intimate and chilled place to have drinks is Albers Bar. Located on the outside street of the Reeperbahn, this had a fun vibe inside, playing requests which included Stevie Wonder’s ‘Happy Birthday’. The super-chilled staff would sing along behind the bar as they made cocktails and drank shots with customers. I was handed a Pina Colada “with extra rum”.

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The U-Bahn conveniently runs until 3am which made a nice change from London’s 12 midnight deadline, and I was able to walk back in the dark alone from Altona station to my accommodation with no problems. If you wake on Sunday morning feeling unsatisfied with your antics from the night before, you can head down to the Fischmarkt situated just below Langdungsbrϋcken. I arrived just as the stalls were clearing up, although the smell still lingered…Evidently this is the place where the hardcore party-lovers stumble to at 5am in the morning to complete the hair of the dog in the Fischauktionshalle, which also shows live music.

My Saturday night in Hamburg provided so many different experiences, each of which brought a fresh new mood to the evening. Whether you’re looking for peace and romance or parties and risqué, Hamburg is guaranteed to have something up your street, whichever colour of light is your favourite…

Good Things Come in Small Packages: Reykjavík Culture Night

If you were to ask an eight year old where Iceland is, they would probably start giving you directions to their nearest supermarket branch. Realistically, Iceland is a country that many people of my generation probably didn’t think about that much until the infamous 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull (I’ve officially learnt how to pronounce it properly), angry that it had cancelled their family holiday. Apart from that though, they would probably know little else about what goes on in this weird and wonderful land, or the name of the capital for that matter (it’s Reykjavík by the way, meaning ‘Smoky Bay’). Only recently whilst here did I hear from a lady about how when visiting Alton Towers in England some years ago, she was unimpressed to see that Eskimo people had been drawn on a world map to represent Iceland. And yet in a country that has around 320,000 inhabitants compared to the 60 million or so of the UK, it might be easy to assume that Icelanders live a basic life off the land, where fishing is classed as a party.

If a Londoner was to visit Reykjavík, they wouldn’t even class it as a city. There is no underground system and there are no skyscrapers; no smelly fumes and sounds of beeping as taxi drivers yell at each other; and no huge crowds of people in high heels and fancy suits dominating the pavements as they rush off to work, talking too loudly on their mobile. The word ‘capital’ does not apply here – try ‘simplicity’ instead. Capital of a country deeply affected by the 2008 global recession, Reykjavík can be described as a timid child, reluctant to follow in the footsteps of other big and bold European cities. But if you visit Reykjavík on its annual Culture Night (Menningarnótt), you will see a very different side to the city, when the shy child comes out to play. It’s a side that shows you don’t need millions of people and a load of money to show just how vibrant your country’s culture is.

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I’ve spent the second week of my trip to Iceland doing a help-exchange with a family who live in the capital. On Saturday August 24th my host bought me a copy of the ‘Reykjavík Grapevine’ – a magazine written in English for tourists to find out the latest news and events in the capital. Three of its pages were filled with free events going on all day as part of the cultural celebrations. I highlighted those I was interested in seeing, getting giddy with excitement when I saw that one event included the chance to ride around on the back of a Harley Davidson…unfortunately I would be too late to make that though. The list of options seemed endless: dressing up in vintage costumes; wood carving classes; make-your-own-Viking soap demonstrations; photography exhibitions; boat-making workshops; Icelandic calligraphy lessons; poetry readings and outdoor concerts. My host played me some Icelandic songs as I read the magazine. One band was called ‘Retro Stefson’ and one member had been in her eldest daughter’s class at school.

The family and I packed our umbrellas ready for the rain and squeezed onto a bus heading downtown. They were running for free today and took us on a slight detour as the roads were closed of traffic. Red bunting draped from the trees as we walked along Laugevegur, brimming with people consulting the events list. Soon we heard the sounds of a drum beating behind us as a group of men and women dressed as Vikings marched along the road. A policeman on a motorbike followed behind, stopping to flash a thumbs up at a little boy dressed in a Superman costume.

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Smells of raspberries and chocolate sauce greeted us as we walked off the main street. Certain houses were offering waffles to passers-by for free and my host’s eight year old son shyly approached the table to ask for one. After managing to avoid a second helping we went to my host’s cousin’s house to set up for a second-hand sale. As we stuck poles into the ground to set up a tent, the cousin’s three year old son pranced around in the garden, showing off the medal he’d received for walking 5km in the city’s marathon that morning. A small Icelandic flag hung from the porch steps.

Guys in their mid-twenties in skinny jeans flocked to see my host’s collection of old records, jokily reminiscing with her when they saw the likes of Duran Duran and Wham!. Elderly ladies next to them nosied over the shoe collection, whilst pram-pushers gazed with interest at children’s books and an old Karate kit. My host asked me to swap a 1000krona note for some change, so I jumped into the hustle and bustle of the main street once more. The sweet shop was packed with little children wearing face paint and begging their parents for treats. On the way back, salsa music began to fill the air and people gathered to form a circle as a couple danced in the middle, before grabbing others from the crowd. “That’s my teacher!” my host’s 15 year old daughter exclaimed with embarrassment. Teenage boys on bikes stopped to watch then blushed as they were called to join in.

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The atmosphere was alive with anticipation and excitement. As I went off for a wander alone, people were walking around with a purpose that I hadn’t seen before whilst here. Choir singing sounded from the Hallgrímskirkja, the large Church, and provided a calming comfort from the wet weather. I walked down to the Skúlagata near the harbour, passing groups of people coming to and from the Harpa, the big music hall. The ladies looked like they were attending a fashion show, heels clacking on the concrete as they paraded through town in their woolen coats without a care about the rain. They clearly saw the day as an opportunity to dress up and put on a show. Forget Paris or Milan, today it was time for Icelandic women to hog the limelight.

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I walked up from the harbour with no idea where I was going or what I was heading towards. It didn’t seem to matter – there was something going on everywhere. To my right I saw a stage being set up, and a small crowd of people stood around chatting with friends as they waited for the gig to start. Suddenly I spotted one of the guys from the music video my host had shown me that morning – a lucky coincidence! As the music began the size of the crowd increased until it had formed a mosh pit of umbrellas. People of all ages came to watch, standing on the grass banks and making space for others. A group of pram-pushers gathered in one corner, chattering away. The singer motioned for everyone to jump up and down, and children and adults alike joined in. You couldn’t help but smile seeing it. The music was so youthful but it was as if all the parents felt like they were 16 again, and yet nobody was embarrassed by their behaviour.

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Back at my host’s cousin’s house they were grilling steaks. We turned the TV on to watch the 10 Year Anniversary Concert of one of the country’s main radio stations. It was being held ten minutes down the road but we didn’t fancy standing in the rain. “Ahh I hate these presenters!” my host said indignantly, as a pair resembling the Icelandic version of Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby came on our screens. Then a band came on that were popular when she was a teenager and she sang along happily again as a greying singer attempted some sort of hip motion that he soon looked to regret.

Around 10.30pm, we set off through the rain to go and see the fireworks that would be held near the concert venue. People swarmed through the streets like a bunch of crazy flies and I got caught in a web of laughing and shouting as people lost their friends in the crowd. Little boys almost took me out as they sped through the streets on their scooters, hyper from the candy floss that had been selling all day. Suddenly dance music filled my ears and I saw a  massive group of people in front of me having a random rave in the middle of the street without a care in the world about what they looked like. ‘This…is…mental,’ I thought to myself, as I almost got my eye poked out by someone’s umbrella.

A huge mass of people was gathered on the grass above the concert stage, some of them dancing around the statue of Ingólfur Arnarson, the first official Icelander to settle in Reykjavík. It felt like the whole population of the city had gathered there, determined not to let the rain put them off. 99% of everyone there seemed to be wearing Icelandic jumpers with their lovely striking patterns, as if wanting to show pride in their country and its native products. Children perched on their dad’s shoulders and couples snuggled up under their umbrellas. A boy came round handing out free sparklers to young children, and in the light they cast you could see the sparkle spread to their eyes. Then the music stopped and everyone chattered in low voices excitedly, only to gasp as the sky lit up with a stream of red. And then green. And gold. And purple. Then they rocketed into the sky behind us and everyone turned around in fascination, mouths wide open like little kids in front of a sweet shop.

The fireworks lasted ten minutes, and then at ten past 11 it was time to go home. The buses were still free and extra services were being offered from the airport coach terminal. Hoards of people trudged through the puddles in the same direction, absent-mindedly kicking the occasional beer can as they cheerily reviewed the evening with their peers. Suddenly I felt freezing cold. The energy of everyone around me had warmed me up before, and now I was feeling exhausted, as if the batteries had run out with the last screech and bang of a firecracker.

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We squeezed on a bus that soon got caught in a traffic jam – a rare sight in Reykjavík – watching as people clambered into their cars, some of them probably still drunk. Finally we got moving, only for me to wince as someone trod on my foot, losing their balance after the bus jerked to a sudden halt for another jam. Then I heard a retching noise behind me and looked back to see a girl my age in ripped tights slumped in her seat, vomit on the seat in front of her. Her boyfriend mumbled “takk fyrir” sheepishly as some people handed him tissues, with kids making “urghh” noises. We got off the bus with me breathing a sigh of relief, ready for my warm bed.

 

But as I lay snug under my covers, picturing that poor girl with her head down a toilet, I couldn’t help but smile thinking back over the day’s events. For such a small city, Reykjavík sure knows how to throw a big party and what it lacks in human numbers it definitely makes up for in its giant character. There was something refreshing about seeing people of all ages take part in events together – a genuine sense of community spirit as the people proudly showed off Iceland’s origins and trademark features. The culture night was for everyone, with all interests recognised and catered for. I have no idea how much putting on all the events during the day will have cost, but there was definitely a big voluntary aspect involved, and much co-operation between different organisations and societies, all with the aim of making people, Icelandic and foreign, have a good time.

It made me wonder how often you can use the word ‘community’ when talking about London, or England and the UK as a whole. It seems that the closest our country gets to a united national celebration is when Liz has reached another Jubilee or the royal baby has popped out, but even then these aren’t events that everybody is willing to celebrate. Yes, the 2012 Olympics were a great cause for celebration, but why should we have to wait four years for something to celebrate as a nation, and why should it just have to come from sport?  Danny Boyle’s one-off Olympic Opening Ceremony display is essentially the kind of thing that Icelanders celebrate every year – the historical stories and cultural traits that make the country what it is. You can’t just blame Alec Salmond or Plaid Cymru for our lack of cultural celebration – if we’re just talking about England, does anyone even remember when St George’s Day is, never mind do anything about it?

The only thing England seems to have over Iceland in relation to national celebrations is a bit more money to spend on them. Snobs could say that the firework display in Reykjavík was too short and nothing spectacular in comparison to our annual New Year’s Eve display, but that’s not important. I’m not Icelandic and yet even I could immerse myself in the community spirit. Even without fireworks, there would have been enough pride and happiness in the small city that night to light up the whole sky.

And so next time you want to poke fun at this sparse island for only being good for puffin-eating and shutting down European air travel, go along to Culture Night and see for yourself how actually, Icelanders have a lot more to laugh about.

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Details of the event can be found here.