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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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.

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Nudity and the Solo Traveller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.