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.

Image result for alliance francaise brussels

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.

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

Thoughts on Brexit

Well, it’s happened. And as one of the 73 per cent of 18-24 year olds who voted to Remain, it’s impossible to overstate the sense of betrayal I feel. My generation, already suffering under the weight of ever-rising university tuition fees and crippling house prices, is being stripped of our future by an ageing sector of society that has reaped the benefits of golden pensions, affordable homes, and free education. Never mind that it seems that a mere 36 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted compared to their eye watering 83 per cent: as one Twitter user aptly wrote, if you hurt someone and they don’t defend themselves, you’ve still caused them damage.

The past few days have been like hanging around a hospital waiting room for news of a hurt relative. Nerves through the roof, desperately hoping and yet dreading the latest news, my stomach shot through with anguish, the heat of helplessness and sadness. Now we have the diagnosis, and the prognosis looks bleaker than ever.

My heart is cracking on behalf of so many. I am grieving for my peers, we the youthful, hopeful, idealistic, who were born European and have been Europeans our entire lives, therefore reel in horror at the prospect of a return to isolated nations guarding their own interests. I am grieving for my wonderful, progressive, international city, of which I am so unbelievably proud, in which almost every borough voted to Remain; for my fellow Hackney residents, who turned out the strongest Remain vote after Gibraltar at 78 per cent, and who adorned their windows with “Vote Remain” posters in the weeks preceding June 23.

I am grieving for my parents, and those like them, for whom England is home, and must therefore live with the dire consequences of this decision. My parents – who try so hard to vote responsibly, who believe so fiercely in the young, who taught me the value of education. For my father especially, whose anger and depression at this referendum result I can barely think of without wincing, who has worked so hard to build his small business and who has employed local British people and Eastern Europeans alike. I am proud of Stroud, the constituency where I grew up and where my parents still live, which suffers massively from youth “brain drain”, has high unemployment and blue-collar workers, but which nonetheless voted narrowly (55 per cent) to Remain. I therefore grieve for all those outside of London, Northern Ireland, urban England or Scotland who are stuck in Leave regions, unable to make their voices heard.

I grieve for the many progressive, liberal older people I know in London and elsewhere, fifty- and sixty-somethings who believe passionately in all the EU’s benefits; who are not represented by the sickening 61 per cent of over-65 year olds who voted Leave.

My heart breaks for my siblings, with all their sensitivity, sense, and progressive values, as they try to reorient themselves. For my dear, outward-facing, worldly friends, almost rendered refugees in a country we no longer recognise, bound by our passports, attempting to find an identity for ourselves in a world which tells us it’s invalid.

I feel a combination of fury and sadness for the abandoned communities of rural Britain which have felt so let down by successive national governments that they used this referendum as an opportunity to stick it to the establishment. I’m incensed at those who voted based on an ignorant or xenophobic agenda despite living in an area with next to no immigration, who fell for the rhetoric of”taking our country back” despite the contribution of foreign workers to every sector of society, who spit venom at other nationalities despite never travelling beyond the borders of their own county, who contribute nothing while selfishly guarding their benefits, paid for with the taxes of hard-working immigrants and people younger than them.

Most of all I am furious at the politicians who caused this mess. The press also has a lot to answer for. David Cameron, weak to the core, put his party before his country. He pressed ahead despite knowing the catastrophe it would cause. He made the ultimate reckless gamble, and scarified everyone for it.

This result was not a surprise to me – I’ve been terrified of Brexit for months now, and I know far too many people (mostly outside of London) who express strong anti-EU sentiment – but it was a shock. It has taken days to emerge from the cloud of grief. Perhaps there is a way for this decision to be reversed; a snap general election with a pro-EU coalition in power, perhaps, or an MPs’ blockage of legislation. The Left needs to act fast to move into the vacuum, and we – the 48 per cent – need a glimmer of hope.

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)

Six books I’m reading this summer

Every year, the sun comes out (eventually) and along with it, a desire to lie with my nose in a good book for hours on end. Each summer I usually get through a good 5-10 books, and have decided to start documenting them.

I’m the kind of person who likes to have several books on the go simultaneously – I like carrying a small one around with me, a fatter one at my bedside, and another to dip into now and then. The result is a mental explosion of sorts as these various sources of inspiration seep into my mind.

This year it’s a bit of a mishmash: Middle Eastern feminism from kick-ass Mona Eltahawy; my first attempt at tackling a novel from the Russian literary Golden Age; a peaceful semi-autobiography set on a remote island in Scandinavia.

Freakonomics (2005) by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner

This book has been lingering in the back of my mind for ages, after seeing it lying on my father’s bedside table years ago. A conversation with my friend Shannon while travelling prompted me to finally order my own copy, and I’ve just finished a revised edition which includes a section with posts from the Freakonomics blog, as well as post-original publication amendments and updates.

All I can say is READ IT. Although it’s a little USA-centric for my liking, it’s full of fascinating facts which are applicable in other countries too. And the fact that it was written over a decade ago doesn’t lessen its impact. It’s pure entertainment, and I was hooked from the opening pages. The writers are very intelligent and witty, and the writing style is easy to follow.

Freakonomics has noticeably altered my thinking; it explains behavioural phenomenons so well, you’ll find yourself questioning everything around you. I spent the week which it took for me to read it going around telling everyone about ‘incentives’ (one of the book’s main premises is that human behaviour is always, always motivated by incentives – both positive and negative). Whether it’s the similarities between sumo wrestlers and teachers (really), how children’s names affect their chances of success, or the impact that Roe v. Wade had on crime rates two decades later, the combination of humour and sound analysis has you wide-eyed with amazement.

Perusing books at the Shakespeare & Co. bookshop in Paris [2010]
The Summer Book (1972) by Tove Janssen

In a word, this short book is adorable. The Finnish creator of The Moomins also wrote adult fiction, and it turns out it’s wonderful. The Summer Book tells the story of an elderly woman and her six-year-old granddaughter, Sophia, who spend the summer months on a remote and tiny island in the Gulf of Finland.

The relationship between Sophia and her grandmother is unsentimental yet strong; every moment they share is simultaneously simple yet meaningful. Their love for one another and the death of Sophia’s mother, which haunts the book, are the only things absent from conversation between the two. They talk about everything, they fight, they curse one another and they explore.

It’s easy to read and relate to; mostly, it just made me want to find my own remote Finnish island and escape there for a summer. At risk of giving me intolerable itchy feet, I still feel that any book that makes me want to travel is worth reading.

I decided to pick it up from my parents’ bookshelf upon returning from a four-day trip to Copenhagen (my first time in Scandinavia). Having fallen for the city and its people, I wanted to absorb as much of Scandinavian culture as possible, and reading literature is a fantastic way of doing this. (OK – so Finland isn’t *technically* part of geographical Scandinavia. But Janssen was part of a Swedish-speaking minority there, so let’s just say it counts.)

According to this review on the Guardian:

‘”[Janssen] lived alone on a small island in the Gulf of Finland, where most of her books were written,” it says in the Puffin biographical paragraph inside the Moomin books. The more adult truth is that she lived with her lifelong partner, the artist and professor Tuulikki Pietilä; they spent their winters in Helsinki and, until they were too old to do so, their summers on the small unpopulated Finnish islands that Jansson and her family discovered and cultivated.’

This is a masterpiece of solitude and quiet reading, and true to its title, it’s perfect for summer.

Angels in America (1993) by Tony Kushner

‘Night flight to San Francisco. Chase the moon across America. God! It’s been years since I was on a plane!

When we hit 35,000 feet we’ll have reached the tropopause, the great belt of calm air. As close as I’ll ever get to the ozone.

I dreamed we were there. The plane leapt the tropopause, the safe air and attained the outer rim, the ozone which was ragged and torn, patches of it threadbare as old cheesecloth, and that was frightening …

But I saw something only I could see because of my astonishing ability to see such things:

Souls were rising, from the earth far below, souls of the dead of people who’d perished from famine, from war, from the plague, and they floated up like skydivers in reverse, limbs all akimbo, wheeling and spinning. And the souls of these departed joined hands, clasped ankles and formed a web, a great net of souls. And the souls were three-atom oxygen molecules of the stuff of ozone, and the outer rim absorbed them, and was repaired.

Nothing’s lost forever. In this world, there is a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we’ve left behind, and dreaming ahead.

At least I think that’s so.’

– Harper, Angels in America: Part II, Perestroika, Act V Scene 10

I was inspired to pick this up when researching a beautiful scene from the most moving film I’ve seen so far this year: Still Alice. (Not only is Julianne Moore amazing, by the way, but I have serious respect for Kristen Stewart after having watched some of her recent films. I didn’t like her that much in her Bella Swann days, but I think she’s chosen some really interesting roles since departing from the Twilight saga, and I find her opinions on fame and being a woman very refreshing.)

Anyway, I was captivated by this final scene – it’s not only incredibly moving in itself, but I took particular interest in the quote. A quick Google search brought up its origin, and I ordered the play immediately. I’ve also combed the net trying to find a place where I can watch it being performed, but haven’t succeeded yet.

This play is full of the kind of magic and supernatural presence which needs to be brought to life on stage. I found myself aching at the subject matter, reminding me of Dancer from the Dance by Andrew Holleran – a bittersweet, melancholy story of gay life in New York City pre-AIDS crisis. Although Angels in America is set in the mid-1980s when the crisis was at its peak, it features similarly irreverent humour to Holleran’s novel and is infiltrated with contemporary racial, religious and governmental references that render its message highly political.

Angels won numerous awards including a TONY Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and it’s not hard to see why – even when only reading what was meant to be performed. It’s symbolic, critical, and very clever; the characters are sympathetic, their language poetic. The theme is tragic; the conclusion is ultimately positive. Anyone interested in LGBT history, in particular, needs to read this.

Worth noting: this scene from Still Alice rolls smoothly into end credits which are accompanied by a stunning song: a cover of Lyle Lovett’s ‘If I Had a Boat’ by Karen Elson. Listen below:

The Shipping News (1994) by E. Annie Proulx

I bought this after re-watching Brokeback Mountain for the first time since I was about 11. I was utterly bowled over by the emotion it brought out in me; it’s an epic, phenomenal love story with an aching aesthetic and lonely take on the human condition. It’s made even sadder for the fact that the brilliant Heath Ledger is no longer in the world.

After researching the film’s background, I found out that it was based on a short story by E. Annie Proulx. I looked her up, and decided I wanted to see more by this intriguing author.

The Shipping News won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction as well as a host of other awards. I haven’t started it yet, and in fact know very little about it; but I’m really excited about reading it.

Headscarves & Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution (2015) by Mona Eltahawy

Egyptian-American activist and feminist Mona Eltahawy is a true force of nature. If you’ve never had the pleasure of hearing her speak, it’s worth making time to do so, such as in this clip on BBC Woman’s Hour. She’s a phenomenal speaker, as well as a compelling writer, and I’ve had her book earmarked ever since she announced its publication on Twitter.

So upon its release this April, I was itching to get my hands on a copy, and ordered one as soon as I was back in the UK after my travels. I am yet to turn the first page, however, as I want to give it my full attention – I’m therefore waiting until I go away next week, when I’ll have more spare time.

I’m well-acquainted with Eltahawy’s strong opinions on women’s rights in the Middle East, North Africa and the West, and I feel no qualms in recommending anything she lends her name to (even if I haven’t read it yet!). I just know it’s going to be a well-argued, informative and, at times, chilling read – and it feels especially pertinent in a time when the region seems to become more turbulent by the day. One of Eltahawy’s most memorable arguments is what she has described as the ‘gender apartheid’ in Saudi Arabia; I hope she’ll expand on this in the book.

The thing I love a lot about Eltahawy is that she provides a lens through which Western feminists can understand – at least in part – the lives of our female counterparts in Middle Eastern countries. Although I’m sure some may disagree, I feel that she’s an authentic and reliable voice for women in a part of the world which is often talked about in a derogatory and misunderstood way. She helps me challenge my own misconceptions and brings silent horrors to life.

Crime and Punishment (1866) by Fyodor Dostoevsky 

I bought this book in the world-famous Powell’s, the largest independent bookstore in the world, when travelling through Portland, Orgeon, six weeks ago. I had a very heavy backpack and limited myself to buying one book only: this was cheap, and it’s considered such a classic, so I couldn’t resist.

The first 100 or so pages were pretty exciting, as the main character, Rodya (though confusingly, all characters have multiple nicknames), builds himself up to committing a brutal murder – but I have to say I have struggled since then. At first I thought it was maybe a bad translation, but the rambling narrative in this unabridged version is true to the original, and it’s damn difficult to get your teeth into. As I’ve found with English literature from the 19th century, descriptions are often long and seem unnecessary to the plot. I’m on page 300 or so now (of 400), and the plot, in fact, has seemed not to progress at all. I’m not going to give up, but be warned: this is not for the faint-hearted…

Sonia exploring in Powell’s Books, Portland, Oregon – the largest independent used and new bookstore in the world. [June 2015]

“People do go back, but they don’t survive, because two realities are claiming them at the same time. Such things are too much. You can salt your heart, or kill your heart, or you can choose between the two realities. There is much pain here. Some people think you can have your cake and eat it. The cake goes mouldy and they choke on what’s left. Going back after a long time will make you mad, because the people you left behind do not like to think of you changed, will treat you as they always did, accuse you of being indifferent, when you are only different.”
― Jeanette Winterson, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit

Returning from a long period away – an ode to London 


Farewell to my final destination: New York City, as viewed from a fabulous balcony in Long Island City

One of the questions long-term travellers dread upon their return is: “so how was it?” You’ve spent three months or more out of the loop, straying from most everything which formed the makeup of your life before, and here’s an old acquaintance asking you to sum up your experiences in a few insignificant sentences. I find I can’t quite bring myself to exclaim what is expected of me; a one-word outburst of “amazing!” followed by a stream of overused adjectives, none of which can really do justice to the world I’ve just come from.

Yet do not mistake me: it isn’t through arrogance or ungrateful ness that the prodigal globe-trotter dispells and despairs at such questions. In fact, she wears the world on her sleeve, bearing the marks of her wanderings, inciting and inviting inquiry – but her recoiling is a result of her own disappointment at realising that travelling is something which is a lived experience, and that by comparison, its verbal replicate is a flat balloon, robbed of the elation that comes with seeing new places all the time. It can be hard to come to terms with when every day used to feel like forever.

Because it simply isn’t possible to describe this kind of travel in conventional terms. People ask, “how was it?” – as though multitudes of cities, all the nuanced cultural quirks you’ve picked up on, all the different and indescribable personalities you’ve spent time with, all the otherworldly sights which have met your eyes, can be narrowed down to a single pronoun. It’s almost like asking, “how was the first six months of 2015?” Well how indeed? How is what is simply life? With everyone taking gap years and air travel becoming more affordable year after year, there’s a tendency to view a long period of backpacking as a necessary rite of passage; a life-changingly significant but ultimately transitory, one-off experience conducted in the throes of youth, before you take on responsibilities and  get serious. As though something life-changing doesn’t have permanent effects, and can be cast off and remembered as a singular “experience”.

In a few days I am returning to London, the place I am so lucky to call home, and I’m expecting such questions. Luckily, I won’t be subjected to reverse culture shock as strongly as if I’d come straight from South America – my past few months in North America and Europe have allowed a mostly painless transition back into the western world. And what better place to touch down? I gave my heart to that city a long time ago, and for this reason there’s a gravitational pull urging my return, to which I’ll always be happy to give in eventually. It’s not somewhere I come back to with the usual dread that things will be exactly as they were when I left – no, London is ever-changing, and it’s continual metamorphosis is what keeps me so excited by it.

Travelling is a wonderful life, and it’s the only life I want. But it’s still a bubble the way work is a bubble, the way being a student is a bubble. You don’t miss anything because you’re so free and happy, yet that freedom still confines you to particular spaces and to a particular life. And it can make you weary. I’m tired constantly; I’m bored with delayed flights and crap, expensive airport food, with not having my own kitchen to cook in, with living out of a bag and having to repack every couple of days just to haul it onto my tired shoulders. I’m exhausted by meeting new people, by always being on the move; by having no money and no purpose other than finding the next place to stay.

I’m not ashamed to admit that travelling is tedious at times. It’s no betrayal to myself, nor to the nomadic lifestyle, to admit that I miss my home comforts. I miss my bicycle, I miss Tesco, I miss reading the newspaper and my Economist subscription. I even miss having some kind of routine, despite this being the main thing I sought to disrupt.

I miss London most of all. London in the summertime, with its outdoor festivals and the sunny splendour of Hampstead Heath. London which has brought together my favourite people, my most beloved and inspiring friends. London with its endless opportunities for exploration, its self-contained diversity; its Sunday markets, its bookshops, its old buildings and 15th century crooked streets, struggling to contain all the modern world. London where I was born, where I came back to, where I wandered as a hapless student and will do so again. London where I fell in love, and fall in love every single day that I ride through it and feel so grateful to be there.

And so as the end of my time abroad draws nearer, I’m actually excited. I know I’ll be planning the next long trip within weeks, yearning to be away again. But I love my city with so much vivacity, I look upon any time I spend there as an adventure in itself. The backpack will be staying at the back of the wardrobe for now.

my journey

What to take travelling – gadgets / accessories

Originally published on Shiny Shiny


So, a trip’s on the cards. You might think that going travelling is about switching off your gadgets and switching into relaxation mode, but even the most minimalistic of travellers can benefit from these electronic essentials.

I’ve put together a list of some of the handiest travel gadgets around today. Not only is it good to be prepared, but these accessories will make your life on the road a lot easier. And if you haven’t got a trip planned, take a look at our list of 10 incredible travelling films for inspiration!

chargetech 2

1. Compact USB charger

This brand new compact ChargeTech charger not only has two USB ports but refills an iPhone battery twice as fast as a regular charger. The universality of USB ports means that this will come in handy for pretty much any device, and it’s small enough to fit snugly in a busy backpack or suitcase. It’s currently being successfully crowdfunded on indiegogo so act fast to get your hands on one.

Available for $19 on indiegogo.

Main image via Joris Louwes at Flickr Creative Commons

mini speaker

2. Capsule speaker

I have used this speaker for years, and it’s brilliant. It clicks down, accordion-like, and the short wire coils up so it can be transported as a neat palm-sized capsule. Not only this, but it gives off really good sound for such a little thing – perfect for any impromptu parties you may want to have.

It’s rechargeable through a USB, really good value for money and plugs into almost any device, making this nifty speaker ideal for travelling.

Available for £8.49 from Amazon.


3. Proporta waterproof sleeve

We’ve previously written about the BeachBuoy sleeve, which is really useful for taking anywhere where water might cause you a problem – a beach, a pool, a river bank.

It’s the perfect size for mp3 players and phones, putting your mind at ease by keeping them safe and dry – it floats, too, and you can take a phone or iPod underwater and take photos through the clear screen. It’s a handy accessory that you won’t regret buying, knowing that your items are safe from water damage.

Available for £9.95 from Proporta

flip flop stash

4. Slot Flops

These clever flip-flops eliminate the need for a bag by enabling you to store important items underfoot. The neat pocket is just the right size for some cash, ID, and keys, and the flip-flops are comfortable with decent arch support. These are great for a trip to the beach or the poolside, or even a night out.

Available for $24.95 from SlotFlops

coil lock

5. Laptop lock

This security lock from Belkin is an affordable way of adding some extra peace of mind if you’re the kind of person who travels with a laptop. This lock is secure and would be very difficult to remove without damaging your machine, which will put off any would-be burglars. This lock set includes a padlock, two keys and nylon travel bag – as well as a lifetime warranty.

When you’re travelling, the last thing you want is to get your devices stolen – so it’s worth getting a rugged piece of equipment to try to prevent this. As one reviewer writes, ‘It’s not pretty but it’s a security lock: if it’s visible, it’s a deterrent to a potential thief.’

Available for £8.50 from Amazon

union jack flag

6. Iron-on flag

As you’ll see if you’ve watched A Map for Saturday, it’s common for frequent backpackers to sew a badge onto their luggage to enable others to identify their nationality/language.

A small patch like this also makes your own bag easier to find in a sea of hostel luggage – it’s iron-on for easy application, or if you’re handy with a needle and thread, it can be sewn on for extra security.

Available for £3.99 from Amazon

luggage scale

7. Digital luggage scale

It can be a source of great panic if you think your bulky luggage might nudge you over your airline’s weight limit (especially if you’re travelling on a shoestring à la RyanAir). But with this small, lightweight device, you’ll get an accurate digital reading (up to 40kg) in seconds, so you can decide in advance what to take out and cram into your pockets. Just be aware you’ll have to be strong enough to lift the bag in order to weigh it!

Available for £7.00 from Tesco

plug converter

8. International plug converter

If anything on this list is truly essential, it’s this one. Without a plug converter you won’t be able to keep any of your gadgets charged – and this one is really easy to use, affordable, and keeps removable parts to a minimum.

Available for £9.99 on Amazon

punc water bottle

9. Punc adventurer water bottle

Made from stainless steel, this cool water bottle is a great alternative to plastic ones. The mouth is wide enough for ice cubes to fit through, and it has a sip-top for easy drinking on the go. They are available in three sizes – 500ml, 750ml and 100ml – and a variety of colours, so choose one depending on the amount of activity you will be doing.

Available for £22.95 at Not on the High Street

noise cancelling

10. Goldring Ns1000 noise-cancelling headphones

There’s little more daunting than a long-haul journey without in-flight entertainment, and these headphones by Goldring will ensure that your film, music or podcast is heard without the interruption of piercing baby cries two aisles down.

They’re a lot cheaper than better-known noise-cancelling headphones like Bose, but still do a really good job of blocking out background hum and distracting noises. If you do a lot of flying, these will become something you can’t live without.

Available for £69.95 from Amazon