Hiking and train rides in Austria: photos

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Learning French in Brussels: reflections on two months of lessons

When I moved to Brussels seven months ago, it wasn’t with the long-term in mind – but as with so many of the best laid plans, this one has gone somewhat awry, and not in a bad way. I’ve been taking semi-intensive French lessons ever since I finished my traineeship at the European Parliament, and I’ve gathered some reflections to share.

For as long as I an remember, I’ve yearned to become competent in a second language, yet lacked the motivation – and the environment – to put this into action. It seemed to me, as a wide-eyed 18-year-old fresh from the rural English countryside, that all my international friends at university had arrived with such fully-developed language competence that I couldn’t see how they’d ever been beginners. It seemed that I would always be so hopelessly behind, I’d never reach the same level.

And thus, I always approached language-learning with the same kind of resigned envy I with which I regard those who can play musical instruments well. Yes, I can sing in tune and have a bit of a knack for strumming patterns; yes, I can pick up a ukulele and strum along to simple songs with ease. But I have never put much effort into practising, and therefore regard these things more as lucky, one-off achievements – something I dip into now and then – rather than an ongoing effort which amounts to something that might be called proficiency. And so, I look at someone at a party who grabs a guitar and effortlessly bashes out “Wonderwall”, and think, I wish I could do that!. In much the same way, I meet someone who’s learned another language – especially as an adult, as opposed to being brought up in a multilingual environment – and I am immensely impressed and somewhat envious.

All this has made me think a lot about what milestones we set for ourselves when learning a new language, and what we mean when we say “fluent”. In fact, there’s a good article on the Education First website about differing perceptions of fluency. Learning a language isn’t like learning to fix a bike puncture – the space between either having or not having this particular skill depends massively on your confidence, environment, and self-perception. It’s well-documented that women, in particular, tend to play down their abilities.

An example of this hitting home for me was when a multilingual EU national I know confidently described themselves as being able to speak French; once we were in Paris, however, they balked – reverting to English after just a few words, they were clearly uncomfortable communicating in French.

Similar experiences have amounted to something of an eye-opener for me. I don’t think my acquaintance was lying, or trying to show off – they just perceive their skills differently. As someone who already speaks three or four languages due to their upbringing and education, it probably didn’t feel like a big deal to add French to that list, even if it’s at quite a low level. Yet I, with a GCSE in French, would never dream of saying I speak it. Even now, I think I’d need to reach a much higher level before feeling comfortable with that phrasing. “Speaking a language”, to me, is being able to confidently and spontaneously communicate in that tongue. But to others, it might be something very different.

Anyway, I decided that, after months of passively picking up words and slowly attuning to hearing French around me, I was going to put my free time to use and finally learn the language properly. I enrolled in a semi-intensive course at Alliance Francaise, a famous language school near the European Quarter of Brussels, and haven’t looked back.

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The classes are lovely and small – between seven and 14 people – and are conducted entirely in French. I began at the latter end of the A2 class, which means that I was an “advanced beginner” (according to the Common European Framework for languages). Now, I’m in the B1 class (the beginning stages of being an “independent user”) and my aim is to complete it, and eventually perhaps even B2 as well (a lot of jobs require B1 level at minimum, and with B2 you can find work easily and even study in French). I have lessons three mornings a week, which last between 2.5-4 hours, depending on the schedule. It’s intense, but so varied and fun is the style of teaching that the time flies by.

My confidence has grown enormously thanks to my great teacher, and I feel more strongly than ever that learning a language is possible whatever your age and background. There’s a great article on the World Economic Forum website on this very subject, which goes into some really fascinating reasons as to why you’re actually better primed to learn a language as an adult.

It’s very telling that in my French classes, at least 80 per cent of the students are women. More prone to self-criticism, women are also therefore perhaps more likely to grasp opportunities for self-improvement. Learning a language can be infantilising; inevitably, you’re going to be taking baby steps, and be spoken to like a child. You have to brace yourself for the fact that you’ll feel humiliated at times, and that this is an area where your achievements elsewhere in life won’t be noticed. I wonder if men – generally speaking, of course – are less prepared for the prospect of embarrassment in front of a bunch of strangers. Plus, as men are still often the main breadwinner (especially if the couple has children), they might have less flexible time for hobbies. It’s a big commitment and it isn’t cheap, after all.

But that’s the wonderful thing about learning a language: it is a great leveller, especially when the classes are all in French. Some people in my class, from Brazil, Italy, and other countries, do not speak English. There are refugees, EU agency professionals in their 50s, students in their 20s, freelancers like me, housewives, and many women who have followed their male partners to Brussels for his job. Not one of us shares a nationality. Yet none of this matters in the context of the lessons – our differences are ironed out as we struggle to become better together. There’s a real sense of camaraderie and shared progress that I haven’t found in many other environments.

Another thing that’s amazing about learning a language is the appreciation it gives you for small achievements. It’s hard to describe the feeling of euphoria when I got through my blood test at the hospital entirely in French; when I first walked into a boulangerie and ordered myself un café à emporter; when I called up one of my favourite restaurants, heart racing, and booked a table for three; when I enrolled onto le prochain niveau at the language school reception desk, and she only had to switch to English once to help me. The best time was when I helped a blind man who had got lost on the busy street, looking for the post office. I was on a high for days.

Inevitably, highs can be followed by lows. I get nervous when I meet French-speaking people whose English is unsteady, feeling ashamed that I can’t talk competently in their native tongue. A lot of cinema and public events are still off-limits. It can be hard to fight off the feeling of uselessness when you say something and everybody looks confused. Sometimes, I don’t ask for help, not knowing how to phrase what I need. I don’t stand up for myself when I’m catcalled; if I’m lacking confidence that day, I shop with my head down, hoping nobody tries to talk to me. I am much less sociable than my English-speaking self, afraid I won’t be understood if I try to make conversation in my local shop.

But at the same time, I’ve learned to be much kinder to myself. I was born and educated in a country that seems to revel in its own lack of interest in other languages (exacerbated by Brexit): where languages aren’t compulsory in schools, where you’re laughed at if you try, and where you grow up with an implicit sense that wherever you travel, you’ll be able to get by in English. Many of the people I’ve met in the EU circle in Brussels are immensely privileged by upbringing; their parents have high-powered, well-paid jobs and so they attended private European or International schools where multilingual education is the norm. This is something I, and my British peers, can never benefit from – you can’t go back and change your childhood.

But you can certainly steer the course of your language learning as an adult. I now see that there is no reason why I can’t become proficient in French at the age of 24. I am slowly becoming more confident in my ability to learn. What Alliance Francaise has taught me is that it is never too late to learn and that with the right teaching, motivation, and being in a country that uses the language you’re pursuing, you can notice real progress in your abilities. I’m proud of how far I’ve come in just two months, and hope to continue this way.

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Donning a beret in Ghent – actually a Flemish-speaking part of Belgium!

A long weekend in Scotland: castles, trains, and fishing villages

It’s been a very, very strange six months to be a Brit. Especially after the EU referendum in June 2016, my thoughts were scattered, anxious, furious; but one positive which emerged was a sense of fervent solidarity with fellow remainers – including dear Londoners, city-dwellers, the young, passionate older folk, the Northern Irish, the Scots. A surprise side-effect has been a lasting excitement about my near neighbours and a refocusing of my attentions on the discoveries to be found just within the British Isles and Europe.

My emerging interest in Scotland was then fuelled further by reading the wonderful book The Outrun by Amy Liptrot, recommended to me by a good friend, in which the author autobiographically recounts her experiences of childhood and recovery from alcoholism on the remote Orkney Islands. Throw in the BBC’s recent series on Orkney’s little-known but rich archaeological history, and a feeling of connection and curiosity about this country has become a fixture in my life.

Scotland feels familiar and foreign at the same time; comfortable, yet unexplored. Like my beloved Wales, it is part of the United Kingdom, yet is demonstrably and recognisably its own country. The politeness, the pub culture, the weather, feel comfortingly familiar, but I am intrigued by quirks, idioms and accent, as well as differences in social attitudes, friendliness, and landscapes.

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Our long weekend in Scotland began in the majestic Edinburgh. The weather was eerily warm for a Scottish winter, and remained so throughout our trip – almost 10 degrees some days, and mostly clear and sunny. It was an amazing stroke of luck. We took a lovely train journey from Edinburgh Waverley to Aberdeen, which took about 2.5 hours.

Once we’d settled into our Airbnb apartment, we took a walk around the city. The discovery which really charmed me was a tiny fishing village which goes by the local name Footdee, or “Fittee”, tucked away at the east end of Aberdeen harbour. People still live in the miniature houses, originally built for fishermen, and which provide squat shelter against the wind. There are rows of tiny gardens, some inhabited by an array of gnomes and decorated with nautical symbols. When we came upon Footdee, the wind was raging down the harbour-front and the sun was setting. It was with a sudden hush that we found ourselves walking alongside this delightful settlement.

On another day, we took a bus to Loch Ness from Inverness – just eight miles away. From the medieval Urquhart Castle on the Loch’s shores, we looked out across dazzling clear skies and took in the tranquillity.

We learned about the castle’s history from a friendly tour guide named Graham. He told us about clashes over the site between different clans, including the Picts. Interestingly, the old Picts language was a Celtic language similar to Welsh. The extant words aber and inver mean the same thing – “mouth of” – hence such cities as Aberdeen, Inverness (“mouth of” the river Ness) in Scotland, and Aberystwyth, Aberavon, and Abergavenny in Wales.

Overall, the trip filled me with a lightness and internal calm that I haven’t really felt since the EU referendum. The low-level background anxiety that hums within me almost constantly about the future of the UK and Europe was quieted by the peace of the landscapes and the convivial familiarity of the Scots. Inverness is the furthest north I’ve ever been, and while it didn’t feel too different to any other British town of its size (around 50,000 people), there is something to be said for how one’s mentality changes with the awareness of being so “remote”. The sense of distance is palpable, somehow – and in a good way. I’m definitely not finished with Scotland just yet.

 

My favourite places in London

One of my favourite quotes of all time is from the 18th-century writer, Samuel Johnson: “a man who is tired of London is tired of life”. It’s a quote, and a sentiment, familiar to many Londoners – and one which I thought of regularly when I first moved here as an 18-year-old. I would be filled with a sense of endlessness as I navigated the streets, this city seemingly limitless in its possibilities.

It took me a long time to feel I knew this place, but no time at all to feel at home. That is one of the many wonderful things about London. Now, almost five years to the day since I returned to the city of my birth, I am leaving it.

Yet I am not tired of London – and certainly not life. My reasons for leaving are multiple, but mainly it’s the pull of a long-held desire to work in mainland Europe, hastened by Brexit. Unlike many who become weary of London’s expense, I think the premium you pay to live here is 100% worth it. But I don’t want to just accept that this is the peak of human happiness; precisely because I love it so much, I have to go. There is so much more to see. I am spilling over with it.

And so partly for sentimental reasons, and partly to ‘put to paper’ what I’ve carried in my head these past five years, I wanted to compile a list of my favourite spots in the city. There are so many places I’ve been; I notice that all of my most memorable are north of the river. Perhaps when I return, I need to dedicate more time to the south, where I spent the first few years of life. But for now…

City farms

I’ve written a whole post about my love of city farms. Visit them all if you can!

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Exmouth Market

A charming, pedestrianised road near Farringdon, I’ve spent many a happy Sunday wandering here. I’d recommend the restaurant Caravan for its great coffee.

Somers Town

I once stumbled upon this area between Euston and King’s Cross. It feels suddenly, quietly Dickensian among the chaos.

Victoria Park

Many students who live in Central London never make it out this far, but Victoria Park is probably my favourite of them all. I love going for a stroll or a run here, watching people walking their dogs, or getting lost in its vastness.

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Victoria Park in autumn

Ethiopian restaurants

I’ve covered, enthusiastically, the places offering my favourite cuisine in the city.

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Fish Island 

There’s an amazing outdoor space called Swan Wharf, with a cafe serving great food called The Plough. I love it because it’s right next to the canal; the surrounding area is known for supposedly having more artists per square metre than any other European city. It feels quiet, industrial, and spacious, reminding me a lot of Berlin.

Stoke Newington 

My life changed when, fresh out of my bachelor’s degree, I was hired to work with the Stoke Newington Literary Festival. I had never been to this part of London before, and it made me realise that it’s still possible to have that village feeling even in a big city. Stoke Newington is adorable, full of independent coffee shops and with the fantastic Clissold Park nearby.

Kelly Street

Just my favourite-looking street in London.

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Kelly Street in Kentish Town – image via Ewan Munro at Flickr

Keystone Crescent

My other favourite street.

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Keystone Crescent near King’s Cross station – image via Barbara Smith at Flickr

Dalston Curve Garden

Definitely one of the best discoveries of my time here. The Dalston Curve Garden is a community initiative, tucked away off the bustling Kingsland Road, and sells pizza, homemade lemonade, and cakes. There are beanbags and benches and a lovely chilled-out vibe – there are blankets for colder weather, and you can stay as long as you like. It’s really one of a kind, and I desperately hope it survives.

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Dalston Curve Garden (I appreciate their flying of the EU flag after Brexit)
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Dalston Curve Garden – image via Alper Cugun at Flickr

Broadway Market

I’ve been lucky enough to live very close to this lovely street for the past year. Every Saturday they have a spectacular (if unaffordable) food market, which draws people from all over without feeling touristy. I’d recommend the Turkish-run Broadway Cafe for their delicious in-house gozleme, a kind of flat bread filled with spinach and cheese, which costs £3 and fills you up for hours.

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My beloved Broadway Market – image via Kotomi_ at Flickr

Highgate

I once wrote about a lovely wintry Sunday spent wandering around Highgate. It’s got such a pleasant village feel, and spectacular views of the city if you know where to look.

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Gothic architecture in Highgate.

My Village Cafe

This friendly, hippie cafe in Camden serves great vegetarian food and is full of board games.

Free bookshop, the Kindness Offensive

Up near Camden Road is this bookshop, perched on a corner and housed in what used to be a pub. Run by the charity the Kindness Offensive, you can walk in and take up to three books, free, and drop off old books yourself. I once volunteered with this wonderful charity and they’re very special people. Plus: they have a very cool ‘magic bus’.

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London Fields lido

I’ve been so fortunate to live five minutes from this lovely outdoor swimming pool. It’s heated, so stays open in winter, and is situated within the lovely London Fields park.

Lee Valley river

A few summers ago, I cycled up the Lee Valley towards the town of Cheshunt. It makes you feel you’ve escaped London for a while, surrounded by fields and nature, and makes for a lovely cycling day out.

Ziferblat 

I wish I’d discovered this place sooner – only in these final few months have I been hanging out at Ziferblat. Run by volunteers, you pay for time spent there rather than what you consume. There’s a kitchen where you can help yourself to cake and coffee, and a truly special community vibe. It’s situated near Old Street.

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Russell Square Gardens

Many a memorable day was spent here during my first years of university. Russell Square will always hold such a special place in my heart.

Natural History Museum

My favourite museum in London. I have very strong memories of my parents bringing me here as a child; the dinosaur collection used to terrify me, but to this day this museum remains a wonder to me.

Lincoln’s Inn Fields

Situated right next to my university this year, LSE, Lincoln’s Inn Fields was a firm favourite for my friends and me when we needed to relax. There’s a cheap coffee place offering student discount, and on hot days people spilled from their offices into the park, filling it with warmth and bustling contentment in the sun.

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Lincoln’s Inn Fields on a hot day this summer

Waterloo Bridge 

I’ll end where I began: staring out across Waterloo Bridge as a girl, this was the place where I felt most in awe of the city. I knew I wanted to be here. I once wrote about which bridges in London have the best views, and Waterloo wins by far.

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Some of my family on Waterloo Bridge – taken the day I moved into my halls of residence in September 2011. (Note how the skyline has changed in that time!)

London’s best Ethiopian restaurants: Kokeb, Wolkite Kitfo, Mesi’s Kitchen, Andu Caf‎é

It’s hard to overstate the transformative effect of Ethiopian food on my idea of “going out for dinner”. Since discovering the cuisine here in London a couple of years ago, the delicious blends of aromatic spices with deceptively simple ingredients have shaken up my palate and induced a ravenous single-mindedness when it comes to choosing a restaurant to dine at. There’s no turning back now!

I was lucky to live in North London for a year or so, in which a cluster of Ethiopian restaurants can be found. My first experience of Ethiopian food was at Kokeb, a tiny family-run restaurant tucked away on a quiet residential street, Roman Way, near Caledonian Road. The place is beautifully decorated and always busy; the food, of course, is heaven-sent.

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Kokeb Ethiopian restaurant on Roman Way. [Image: Kokeb]

Kokeb celebrated its 15th birthday in 2014 and, impressively, is run single-handedly by a lady named Getenesh. You won’t forget her in a hurry – she’s funny, charismatic and stern, and doesn’t allow food wastage, taking it as a personal insult to her cooking.

Because we’re officially regulars there now, I’ve tried pretty much everything on the menu – Getenesh, with her encyclopaedic memory, even calls us out when we try to order a dish we’ve had before, urging us to sample something new.

Even so, I have my preferences: a firm favourite is Key Minchet Abish, a divine spicy beef dish seasoned with ginger, cardamom and onion and described as “a dish for royalty” (I no longer eat this, as I’m vegetarian, but the flavours exist in other dishes so I don’t miss out). I’d also highly recommend the Ye-Misir Key Wot (red lentils) and Ye-Alicha Kik Wot (yellow split peas), both simmered in wonderfully flavoursome spices.

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Image: Kokeb

Ethiopian food is eaten hand to mouth with injera – a flat, spongy sourdough bread with which you can scoop up fingerfuls of the other dishes. Vegetables aren’t merely a side order in Ethiopian cuisine; they actually form the core ingredients of many dishes. This makes it perfect for vegetarians, or even vegans.

The plot of my love affair with Ethiopian cuisine positively thickened when I found Kokeb closed one day. Such was my craving that another Ethiopian restaurant had to be sought with immediate effect. My search led me to the wonderful Wolkite Kitfo.

Situated right near the Arsenal Emirates Stadium on Hornsey Road, Wolkite Kitfo is run by a very friendly, gracious family and offers dishes which are nothing short of sumptuous. Like Kokeb, it’s very affordable; two people can easily have their fill for less than £20.

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A mixture of vegetable dishes served on injera. [Image: Wolkite Kitfo Facebook]

I’d highly recommend the honey wine, as well as the curried beef dish (the proper name of which escapes me) and alicha wot. You also can’t go wrong with mixed vegetable dishes – they’re a great way of getting to sample as many flavours as possible on the delicious spectrum of Ethiopian cuisine.

Another of my favourite Ethiopian restaurants in the area is Mesi’s Kitchen. Run by lovely, smiling Mesi, the best thing about this place is the fact that they serve all the usual dishes in ‘side dish’ form, so you can pick one main and one side and mix them all up a bit. It’s affordable and has a relaxed ambience, tucked discreetly on the busy Holloway Road nearer the Highbury Corner end.

I haven’t yet discovered the magical ingredient in Ethiopian food, but I suspect it might be something to do with the special Berbere sauce, which adds a spicy yet delicate flavour. Anything which contains it, I’m guaranteed to love.

I wouldn’t like to call it an addiction … but it’s pretty close. Having recently moved to Hackney, one of my biggest worries was that my proximity to Ethiopian restaurants would dramatically shrink. Thankfully, there will always be a brilliant excuse to head back to Caledonian Road and Holloway – but in the meantime I haven’t been disappointed, and instead visit the charming Andu Cafe on Kingsland Road. It’s a 10-minute cycle from my home, all the food is vegan, and their takeaway costs just £5 – injera included. It’s spectacular value for money and delicious.

 

 

 

Cyprus heat 

A very dear friend of mine grew up and lives in Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus. It’s been almost a year since we saw him last, and we’d always promised to visit, so it seemed high time that we flew there this summer and reunited.

Cyprus is a fascinating place on a sociopolitical level, with little interaction between Greek Cypriots in the south of the island and Turkish Cypriots in the north. It’s got a turbulent and violent history, but since 2004, you can cross into the Turkish territory (and vice versa) via a couple of checkpoints, where you must show your passport.

The Turkish part of Nicosia has more of a village vibe, but a similar slew of decent coffee shops and run-down, artsy looking buildings.  We went to a cute cafe to drink iced latte and read hippy quotes, away from the 40-degree heat of the day.


We also passed lots of lovely alleyways selling spices and clothes (it reminded me a bit of Istanbul and Marrakech, only much quieter), and some restaurant streets like this lovely one with an umbrella ceiling.


On other days, we decided to “do it properly” and go to the beach. Luckily our friend can drive, so we set off in early afternoon to some of the nicest beaches to avoid the strongest heat, basking in late afternoon sun while swimming in crystalline waters.

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We also visited the lovely mountain village of Lefkara, where we enjoyed delicious meze – tzatziki, tahini, and yoghurt – served with grilled halloumi and warm fresh pitta. There was an amazing view of the mountains, too.

In the early mornings, when everyone else was still sleeping, I would walk up three flights of cool stone stairs to the roof terrace of our friend’s apartment. The warm quiet all around is so peaceful; all you can hear are distant birds, mosque calls, and church bells.

At night, we shared a bottle of wine and a bowl of crisps beneath the stars. Looking out past the minarets, green lights in the formation of a huge Turkish Cypriot flag glitter on the side of a distant mountain in the north. You can sort of make it out here:


This is how it looks during the day – you can see the Turkish flag next to it:

Political situation aside, Cyprus is a mighty beautiful jewel in the Mediterranean and has the crystalline, azure waters which holidaymakers dream of from drizzly British shores. Our friend having grown up here, he took us to his favourite spots all over the island – including a couple of naturist beaches.

Here’s us enjoying the freedom (makes a good postcard, no?):

Now, I don’t want to end on a negative note, but I couldn’t help feeling a pang of pain and sadness when I saw this upon our arrival back in London:


As Theresa May, the new British Prime Minister, is sworn in on my first morning back, I wonder what this continent will look like in a year’s time. Politics changes so quickly these days, yet the land, sea, and sand remain as they always were: it’s we humans who erect the arbitrary national and psychological borders which affect our ability to make a home in the world. Freedom of movement is a massive privilege. I just hope we can preserve it somehow.

Brooklyn, and big decisions

When I went to see Brooklyn yesterday, I wasn’t expecting to be so reminded of myself. Yet Soairse Ronan’s character, the young Eilis who moves across the ocean from County Wrexham, Ireland to Brooklyn, NYC in the 1950s to make a better life for herself, embodied all the emotional turmoil so familiar to me when I boarded a flight to California, three years ago to the day. 

The difficulties with such a move are obviously far less drastic today than they would have been then. We have omnipresent wifi in the global north; we have telephones, Skype, whatsapp, email and even letter-writing. If all else fails, there are affordable flights abound which will jet-set us around the world in under 24 hours. Yet, as someone wisely pointed out to me, while your mind and heart might coexist in multiple locations, your body can only ever be in one place physically. Making the decision to live, and not just exist, where you physically dwell – well, that’s the tough bit.

Because, like me back then, Eilis’s troubles begin when she finds herself torn between places. Her pained decision, in the end, boils down to a brutal choice between her ailing, lonely mother back in Ireland and her gentle, kind-hearted new husband Tony, who waits for her anxiously in Brooklyn.

I’m also reminded of the Murakami novel Norwegian Wood, in which the protagonist, Toru, faces the agonising pull of a beautiful, broken girl into the darkness of her ongoing depression – even as he is drawn to a different girl who glows like a light, and makes him happy. He must choose between a future full of potential, or a past love which promises nothing.

In the end you have to choose. You have to make a decision, or you risk staying the same while the world moves on around you. I have some big decisions to make this year (haven’t we all); this is the time when I shape the outcome of the rest of my life. Eilis knows this. It’s the decisions we make now that matter, that we might not feel the full effects of for another 20 years. But decisions we must make. That, if we want to keep developing, is unavoidable.

pre-departure blues (California>London)