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Down Under, week one.

December 20, 2016

My eyes ache and I feel my lids begin to drop as I stare at the seat in front of me and its stripes, violet and grey. I'm not sure where I am, nor what the time is but know that I am 40.000 feet above the majestic world below. My second long haul flight in two days is coming to an end and I'm glad. I've only ever flown long-haul once in my life- a moderate nine hours to the west coast of America- and now I've indulged myself in a 21 hour flight to Sydney. I'm craving a deep sleep, outstretched on a human size mattress, and whilst I'm appreciative of Olive from seat 60A sharing her Waitrose Mint Crumbles with me, I'm longing to shut my eyes once more and let the world pass me by. Literally.
Sydney Opera House

Four hours later, a couple of trains and a long wait by the luggage carousel, I find myself at my destination. The warmth greets me like an old friend and I suddenly realise how much I miss the summer. Stepping outside the station, I'm faced with a small town, the early 20th century fascias staring at me like a five year old who's missing his front teeth. There's a certain shabby charm to the town and it's antiquity and I'm yearning to explore. My friend, Nicole, who's been unable to reach me since I arrived in Sydney hugs me with relief when I come into view. With no idea if I was even on the train, she's overwhelmed with relief to see me, the sweaty, jumper-clad foreigner, finally here in Morrisset, NSW. 
Sydney Opera House on a grey day.
I'm insured on Nicole's car, so she asks if I would like to drive home. Having not driven for a year and a half, I felt like she was offering Christmas Day. I always loved driving and when I sold my car before moving to Spain, I felt like I had said goodbye to my freedom. She gestures at a huge Mitsubishi 4x4 and suddenly the nerves of my first driving lesson come back. I'll be driving what?! It's automatic, so I'm constantly searching for the gear stick and trying to drop the clutch. Furthermore, the indicators are on the wrong side, so when I go to turn into a road, my wipers come on instead. It's okay, I've got this. I've got 4 weeks to perfect driving a bumper car on speed, piece of piss. By the time we arrive home, I've only made the mistake about 4 times and drove through one stop sign. Like I said, I've got this.
By the Sydney Harbour Bridge
Four days later and my friend, Holly, from the UK arrives, also. We do the anticipated trip to the supermarket, marvelling at the produce unavailable in the UK, marvelling at how much produce is available in the UK. I haven't been back to England since September, so the sight of Maltesers, stuffing and cordial is a welcome one indeed. In the basket they all go. Although whilst similar to England in many ways, a difference I noted in the supermarket was that alcohol is sold in separate liquor stores, something more reminiscent of America. We leave the supermarket anticipating a barbecue that evening, although a damper is put on that when I open the BBQ lid to see a cockroach the size of my finger running along the wall behind. Maybe another night.
Catherine's Bay and a surfing compeition
Like most foreigners, when landing up the turf of Oz, we were eager to see some kangaroos. Only a five minute drive away, Morrisett Kangaroo park is next on our agenda.(Note that I changed tense and put "were eager to see some kangaroos"?) That's because upon arriving at the park we saw well over two hundred kangaroos , eating peacefully amongst themselves, not jumping. We pull up by the side of the road, grab our bags of bread and head towards and area where a mother is eating with her two babies. It transpires however, that feeding the kangaroos is a similar experience to feeding the seagulls or any other gannet that can smell food from a million miles away; before we know it, the buggers and their giant claws are bouncing towards us from all angles. In this situation, there was only one thing to do- we threw the bags and ran. They weren't vicious creatures in the slightest, however it was incredibly daunting to see the creatures bouncing towards you like characters in a cartoon strip. This week however, I'm eager to return and feed the beasts from my hand and not flee like the Road Runner. When it's illegal to pet a koala I'm New South Wales, I feel like petting a kangaroo is the next best thing. Come on, Mayah, you can do this.

Sydney Harbour Bridge
Between dilatory days at the beach and serene sunsets, our first week has sped to an end. So far, we've had zero road collisions nor any insect bites, so I suspect we're doing quite well. With the next few weeks holding Christmas Day and New Year's Eve, I can't wait to see what adventures Australia has in store for us.

If you look closely, you can spy the bag of bread we threw.

Interrail Diaries- Prague, Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest Gallery

October 19, 2016
Stefan Basilica, Budapest
It seemed that the further east we went, the more enticing the food. Whilst the prices dropped, the temperatures soared and we were in heaven. People had told me beforehand about the wonders of Prague and Budapest, and they were not wrong. The East was enchanting; fairytale cities veiled in orange rooftops, archaic architecture and rambling trams.  As a self confessed history buff, I was more excited about learning about the communist regimes than taking advantage of the party atmosphere that is widely advertised. (Of course I did both, but you get what I'm saying...) Fascinating relics and mementos are omnipresent in the former Eastern Bloc, both pleasant and no quite so. 

Life lesson number 1- Landlords are universally greedy

October 16, 2016
The last time in which I blogged, things were looking up- I’d found a new place, my Spanish was improving and I was getting back into the swing of the Iberian lifestyle. Fast forward three weeks, and whilst my life has been tilted on it’s axis, I’m happier than ever. The biggest lesson that I have learnt in these past few weeks is that no matter where in the world you go, land lords are, on the whole, greedy, thieving bastards. 

The first problem began to surface when I left Ourense in June, for the summer. My flat last year was all I could’ve wished for and more; my double room had an ensuite and walk in wardrobe whilst the kitchen had an american fridge freezer complete with an ice and water dispenser (I’m easy to please, I know). Our landlady, despite having adapted the mañana mañana attitude as her life mantra (she took my broken toilet seat in the October of 2015 and returned it at the end of February 2016..) was an amiable woman. That was, of course, until I, the final occupier of the flat, had left and she decided to take our whole deposit. Within ten minutes of me boarding the plane home, she’d sent us WhatsApp messages, saying she’d conducted an inspection and the outcome was that we’d have to purchase her a new washing machine, table and even new windows. She even requested more money. The worst part of it was that I was supposed to be renting the flat this year. After threatening her with legal action, she finally relented and refunded us half of our deposits. She then proceeded told me that I couldn’t have the flat upon my return, as if it was’t fucking obvious already.

Under the impression that I’d be spending the following year in the flat, I’d left many of my belongings there; things that wouldn’t have been so easy to transfer home, such as kitchenware and home furnishings. Desperate for some sort of kitchen equipment so I could cook the food I’d previously bought, I enquired about picking up my belongings,  When she finally allowed me to collect them from the flat, she’d suspiciously moved it all into one room and claimed that was all that remained. It does’t take a genius to work out that she was hiding many things. hoping that I would’t remember. Not me, fool, not me... I spent a good while looking for my bed sheets whilst she insisted she’d never seen them- until I noticed she was using them on her bed. Having sent me packing with half of my possessions, it took a further two attempts and what felt like 508974905 read WhatsApp messages until I finally managed to reclaim all of my goods. Finally, she was out of my life for good.

My next problem reared it’s ugly head just when I thought everything was going well; upon viewing my new flat, the Landlord had promised me that I’d be living with Spanish students from the nearby university. Fast forward a week, and you can imagine my surprise when I arrived home late one night to find a 55 year old cleaner in the neighbouring bedroom. Dressed in a house coat and holding a mop, you can understand why I presumed she was the cleaner. The following day, another vacant room was occupied by 36 year-old Lourdes and on weekends, her seven year old daughter. Yes, he had lied through his front teeth. And why wouldn’t he? I had been so desperate to find a new home and have some sort of stability that I probably would’ve believed most things.

Now it isn’t that I didn’t like my new flat mates, nor was I ageist- it was more that we didn’t have much in common. They weren’t the type of women who I could go to the cinema with, or dance until six o’clock with at the weekend. In fact, we barely saw each other and when we did, we didn’t act like flat mates; we all had our own cleaning supplies, keys to our bedrooms and own kitchen equipment. Having been the first to move in, I found it extremely bizarre when they refused my offer of sharing- after all, we all needed washing up liquid, and I’d already bought some…  It felt more like a women’s hostel than a home. I began to dread going home, fearing the awkward conversations and the evenings confined to my room, wifi-less and bored to tears.

Reader, I do hope you’ve noticed that I’ve been talking in the past tense because here is my big news- I now have my own flat. A whole apartment all to myself. I feel like Bridget Jones (big pants and all). Perhaps you’re thinking that I was hasty in my decision to move so quickly, but the truth is, I could’t bear to spend a year of my life living with women who took their toilet paper back to their rooms after using the bathroom. Having been offered a second job this year, I decided to cut my losses and become an independent girl. I've been in my apartment for a week now and I feel like an adult;  I spent Saturday night cleaning the flat instead of partying, I've made my guest bedroom look pretty and I own an Airwick air freshener. If Mum's not proud of me now, I don't know if she ever will be. 

So my month in numbers goes as follows-
Room mates-3
Landlord problems-93489382
Apartments with wifi- 0

Fingers crossed for a smoother second month.

Update- my landlord of the care home told me he'd refund me my whole deposit then only gave me 60€ back. Tosser. I'm glad I threw away the lampshade that he keeps messaging me about. 

Interrail Diaries - Scandinavia and Germany Gallery

September 26, 2016

My brother and I recently spent three weeks inter-railing around Europe, starting in the North with Copenhagen, and ending in Italy. Despite planning a rough agenda, we found that taking it day by day meant for a more spontaneous and exciting experience. There is literally no feeling more liberating nor pleasing than being able to jump on any train heading anywhere- akin to those dreamy Hollywood movies when the protagonist just jumps on the next available plane. Needless to say, interrailing was the most thrilling, exciting and tiring experience of my life and I can't wait to repeat it again. Here, I've chosen a selection of my favourite photos from our first week around Scandinavia and Germany. (I had to have strict words with my brother when almost all of the photos he took of me had significant parts of the foreground cropped out... you'll see an improvement in the next post)

Copenhagen, Denmark 
Copenhagen, Denmark 
Rundetaarn, Copenhagen, Denmark
Malmö, Sweden
Malmö, Sweden
Malmö, Sweden
Malmö Castle, Malmö, Sweden (it has nothing on a British castle)
Copenhagen, Denmark
Copenhagen, Denmark
The hostel in Hamburg, Germany
Hamburg, Germany
East Side Gallery, Berlin

East Side Gallery, Berlin, Germany
East Side Gallery, Berlin, Germany
East Side Gallery, Berlin, Germany
Reichstag, Berlin, Germany
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin, Germany
Berlin Cathedral, Berlin, Germany
Museum Island, Berlin, Germany
Trying the delicacy of Currywurst..., Berlin

Bienvenida a Ourense 2.0

September 21, 2016

After a ram-packed summer hopping around the continent, I’m finally back in Spain and ready to start another year of work. Had somebody told me that this time last year that I’d be taking a year out of university to prolong my stay in Spain, I’d have said that they were crazy; completing university with a first class degree, entering a graduate scheme and buying a house in the local area was the agenda. Now, however, that seems like my idea of hell. I absolutely adore education- I have this somewhat annoying thirst for knowledge and I have to know as many things as possible-  and whilst I’ll not formally be attending a university course over the next year, I do feel that I shall definitely be receiving some sort of education.

I’ve been back in Spain for a week now and it feels like I’ve never been away. After grabbing a coffee and a pincho of tortilla, first on my agenda was finding a place to live. Last year, in spite all warnings from my university to avoid living with fellow anglophones, that was exactly what I did. And, as one would expect, my Spanish didn’t improve so much. This year, I was determined not to take the easy way out and to live alongside Spaniards. Having never looked for a room in England, the whole experience is extremely new to me. It’s also a huge -want for a better word- ball-ache. After trawling through the available rooms on the Spanish equivalent of Gumtree and sending copious messages showing interest, I’ve found that it always always leads to some sort of disappointment; when do people respond- and believe me, it’s rare that they do- it’s normally to explain that they will only rent to spaniards, that it’s taken, or that instead of the double room you were interested in, there are cupboards available. This is no exaggeration; I went to a view a flat that looked as if it belonged to Versace, complete and utter decadence… until I was shown the available bedroom- a former servant’s quarters, complete with a Murphy bed. I decided there was more to life than pulling my bed down from a wardrobe each and every night, so needless to say I turned it down.

Fast forward one week, and I stumbled across a modest hideaway- centrally located, modern and very reasonable. One problem that I’ve come across during my flat search is that many flats are extremely dingy. I’m a person who adores the light- perhaps I suffer from SADS- so living in an ill-lighted room isn’t something that appeals to me. I was also delighted to see that the landlord had turned his back on the gloomy oak cupboards that seem to adorn almost every wall of every other apartment in Ourense.  Instead, the flat is a magnolia dream- minimalist and ready to be decorated with all that I can buy from Zara home. (I’m so chic, you know?) It also has one of those showers that blast you from all angles, a talking lift and a bed that it definitely bigger than a double. Yes, you can say it- living the dream. If anybody knows where to source giant bedsheets in Spain, please leave a comment.

Having spent less time studying Spanish than French, my confidence in Spanish has always somewhat dwindled. I spoke no language other than that of my mother tongue over the past few months, needless to say it was a complete surprise when discovering upon my return that I understood everything that was being said to me. In fact, I feel that taking a break from swimming in the Spanish culture has allowed me to develop a more relaxed approach to living with a different language. In hindsight, maybe I was starting to sink, rather than swim- by the end of May, I’d developed a stammer that would rear its ugly head whenever I spoke in Spanish, yet happily hid away the rest of the time. Now however, it seems to have died a welcome death and I no longer linger in a puddle of embarrassment when I make a mistake. It’s taken me a while to realise it, but sometimes it can take time to perfect something. As you can probably tell, I wouldn’t describe myself as a particularly patient person, so it’s been a great, useful learning curve for me. With my new flat-mates being Spanish, I only have a select number of people who I can indeed speak English with. 

They say that nothing is ever the same, second time round- a sentiment of which I completely agree. I understand that I shan’t have the excitement of uncovering a completely new way of life this year.  I do, however, have the excitement of feeling completely in control; understanding that now, I’m a (questionably) responsible adult and I can conduct my life the way I’d like to. I’m excited to live amongst Spanish nationals and completely surround myself in the castellan language and culture. Moreover, I’m excited to learn from last year’s mistakes. I wouldn’t necessarily describe the coming nine months as a do-over nor a second chance, instead I expect a completely new experience, one of which I can conduct with more confidence. (And of course, another year of getting delightfully drunk on fantastically cheap wine every day weekend.)

Interrail diaries- Getting lost in Germany

August 30, 2016
With its diversity and tolerance, alternative culture and nocturnal stamina, Germany is a country with a refusal to be shackled by its past. We stayed in Germany's two largest cities, Hamburg and Berlin, and fell in love with the modernity and hipness they had to offer.

We headed from Copenhagen to Hamburg, the maritime capital of Germany. Boasting of Germany's biggest port, it's been dubbed as "The Gateway to the world". We stayed in the vibrant neighbour hood of Sternschanze, although I provided us with the opportunity of a  magical mystery tour of the infamous district of Reeperbahn, after having noted down the wrong hostel address. Europe's biggest red-light district, complete with dim bars, erotic shops and peep shows, it certainly wasn't what I had been expecting from the wealthiest German city. It was only when arriving at the Pyjama Park hostel- yeah, dodgy name, I know- that we were redirected to the much less seedy area of Sternschanze which was aplenty with al fresco eateries, graffiti murals and hipsters. At night we drank with locals in the outdoor beer halls, sipping at the amber jewels of Germany and soaking in the hazy summer evening heat.

During our stay in Hamburg, we visited the concentration camp of Neuengamme some fifteen km north of the city. Of course, it wasn't a fun experience, but I am certainly grateful to have had the opportunity to visit the memorial and learn in depth about the persecution of the Jews and other nationals during WW2. Something that I like very much about Germany is that it doesn't try to hide its past- neither swept under the rug nor glaring in your face, opportunities to learn are omnipresent should you choose to take advantage of them. (That sounds vaguely similar to a Dumbledore quote.)

In Berlin, I found myself really having to use my imagination to picture where historical buildings once stood, now replaced by trendy, gentrified streets. So many of my friends had told me of their love for Berlin, and it didn't disappoint; fleshy with both nightlife and history, no wonder people are flocking to see its offerings. Being a self-confessed history buff, I loved visiting the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Tor. We did, however, give Checkpoint Charlie a miss; having read so many reviews of it being a "tacky tourist trap" and it not even standing in the original location anymore, it hardly seemed worth a visit.

The East Side gallery certainly didn't disappoint; being both heartbreaking and sombre at the same time, analysing the political graffiti was an integral experience in trying to understand the history of Berlin. And, despite being united almost 30 years ago, the disbelief that Berlin Wall cut through the city was something that I really couldn't digest.

Much like the United Kingdom, Germany was pleasantly awash with foreign eateries that I have yet to find in many other European countries, such as Indian and Chinese (France and Spain, get yo' act together!) Of course, a visit to Germany wouldn't be complete without trying the ubiquitous Currywurst- the sliced and tomato sauce drowned sausage, aka the ultimate hangover prevention. Personally, I'll probably stick to my cheesy chips after a night out, but each to their own.

All in all, I found Germany to be the cool kid of Europe; swimming in mullet-sporting girls, facial piercings and street art. Trendy and inexpensive, I really enjoyed our eclectic short stay in the two cities, and am already itching to return. Our next stop is Prague, where I'm keen to sample more (delightfully cheap) local beers and go further east than I've ever been.

Interrail Diaries- Confused in Copenhagen

August 24, 2016

Denmark is a country I was completely unfamiliar with; I'm not sure I even pronounce Copenhagen correctly. I knew very little about the Fairytale Capital when we decided to begin our Inter-rail experience here, and I can't say that my knowledge has vastly improved since our arrival. On our first night in Copenhagen, when asked by the bartender if I wanted 'Tuborg' I replied "no, just one, thank you." As if my poor brother's coolness wasn't already dwindling by inter-railing with his sister. It isn't only the alcohol situation that I was senseless about but also the currency, language and high standard of living.

I've always considered myself pretty quick with Maths- if you ask me nicely one day, I'll impress you with the speed in which I can say my times tables. However, the Danish Kronor had me absolutely dumb founded. I couldn't work out what was extortionate and what was reasonable (not that many things are considered reasonable in Copenhagen). There are 0.12 British pounds to one Kroner so you're almost always dealing with high numbers- I'd almost break into a sweat when handing over 100 kronor notes to pay for food. A bottle of water cost me £2.50 in their equivalent of Tesco and you even have to pay for tap water.

Furthermore, I'd never fully appreciated the ease of the Eurozone until now. Being familiar with the actual physical currency makes life unfathomably easier; I laughed at my poor boyfriend when he came to the UK and would study each coin before paying and yet this was me throughout the entire stay. (If you're reading this, I'm sorry.) If you're unfamiliar with the coins, imagine magical, medieval looking things covered in love hearts and swirls (some have holes punched through them for an even fancier design.) I've never felt so nervous to pay for something, afraid of the potential embarrassment that I've misunderstood my coins' value.

As a student on a budget, Copenhagen had me haemorrhaging money. It was breathtakingly beautiful, don't get me wrong, and we had a great time however I feel that to really take advantage of what it has to offer, you must be willing to pay around £10-15 for every meal. The high standard of living means that everything is well maintained and aesthetically pleasing, but it also meant that we couldn't take advantage of museums nor galleries due to omnipresent fees. I was warned many times before our departure that Copenhagen would set us back a lot, however I am really grateful that I had the opportunity to wander down the streets that inspired Hans Christian Andersen, feeling like a resurrected character from his stories.

Finally, understanding zero percent of the language had me feeling continuously embarrassed. Whilst I understand the Nords speak English at a wickedly high level, I would've liked to have said "thank you" in Danish to the barista when collecting my coffee rather than feeling like a stupid tourist. Usually, I try to play the charming foreigner, keen to surpass the first layer of a culture. I definitely failed in Denmark.

Yet despite all the confusion, my temporal lobes seemed to be in overdrive, flooding my mind with nothing other admiration . We walked uncountable steps around the city and yet I didn't look at one building nor structure and think "fuck, that's grim." The city boasts of a wide variety of architectural styles; from Medieval to Baroque and Renaissance to Contemporary, there are gasp-worthy buildings to be seen everywhere. My favourite area was Nyhavn, the picturesque promenade where tourists flock in order to witness colourful c17 buildings resting on the waterfront. It's also the place where H.C Andersen lived and died. (He was a lucky man- it is indeed truly handsome). The people were effortlessly cool as they cycled the cobbled streets and I never felt in danger in any place I went.

One day, I will return to the city- after all, two days isn't nearly enough time to uncover it's full offerings- however, perhaps my pockets shall be falling with gold when I do. I'll finish this piece with the only Danish word that I learnt- Udgang! Appropriately meaning 'exit', I still only recognised it because it's similar to Dutch. Ah well, better luck in Germany!