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…

10380952_10155107067785495_7186195716791810834_o

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.

10869837_10155107068285495_1465488396174343115_o

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!

10365512_10155107071415495_6268723845165434905_o

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.

1496456_10155107072405495_9047771893727872347_o

Ich habe ein hervorragendes Wochenende mit einer fabelhaften Freundin verbracht 🙂

I spent a brilliant weekend with a fabulous friend 🙂

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

Advertisements

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.

317846_10150818528330495_967448782_n

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.

296149_10150810495360495_1363672671_n

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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

 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…

561093_10151990415700495_1904369071_n

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.

544483_10151990401830495_1900281542_n

I soon learned just how much variation Hamburg has to offer on that same night when I visited St Pauli, home of the Reeperbahn – 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 non-working women 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”.

391612_10151990403510495_1161604444_n

The U-Bahn conveniently runs until 3 a.m. 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 5 a.m. 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 fun, Hamburg is guaranteed to have something up your street, whatever 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.

***

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.

1176377_10153297319855495_1310954289_n

 

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.

1238786_10153297320155495_1199312402_n

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.

1005818_10153297318700495_1104581091_n

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.

1233489_10153297320400495_1980221143_n

 

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.

1003058_10153297320920495_1490680901_n

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.

***

Details of the event can be found here.