Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Malaysia & Singapore II: Eating my way around South East Asia

Holidays provide an excellent opportunity to eat. Perhaps that's why I like them so much. With buffet breakfasts, lazy three-course lunches, ice creams, afternoon cake and gourmet dinners all potentially on the cards, it's no wonder the only thing coming home lighter is our wallets.

My two-week trip to Singapore and Malaysia didn't disappoint on the food front. With a variety of Chinese, Indian, Malay and Western treats on offer, those who like to tuck in are in luck. Although in Singapore it's sometimes possible to find yourself facing a bill on a par with UK restaurants, there are plenty of budget choices too. And in Malaysia, prices are lower still.

Based on palate- and wallet-governed research, here are my favourite places to eat in Singapore, Melaka and Kuala Lumpur.

Long Beach, East Coast Seafood Center, Singapore
This shellfish favourite has several branches around the island, but this outpost at the East Coast Seafood Center comes with a vista of ships off the coast of Singapore, illuminating the sea at night. Serving traditional chilli crab, salt and pepper calamari, spicy prawns, lobster and more, Long Beach offers tasty, beautifully-presented seafood dishes in belt-busting portions. Crab first-timers may want to ask a waiter to crack open their crustacean, or at least don a bib if they want to attempt solo demolition. The flaky crab meat in its sweet chilli sauce, mopped up with Chinese bread, is a holiday memory I'm still savouring.
Meal for two (including chilli crab) around $100.

 Raffles Hotel, Singapore


Skip the overly-sweet, overpriced Singapore Sling and opt for a slice of elegance: high tea in the Tiffin Room at Raffles. Sunday afternoon is the perfect time to relax with a pot of tea, a selection of cakes and sandwiches, and a buffet of sugary confections, fruit salad and Chinese delicacies. It's perhaps best to bypass the average dim sum and load your plate with old-school delights such as bread and butter pudding, battenburg and Victoria sponge. Waiters in smart white uniforms bustle around the room topping up cups of Earl Grey to the soundtrack of a harpist. Truly the most refined way to get a taste of Singapore's (post-)colonial side, darling.
High tea costs $55 per adult.

Little India, Singapore

VIP thali

As C's favourite Indian restaurant, Komala Vilas, was closed for a post-Diwali break, we took a punt on the Lonely Planet's recommendation of Madras New Woodlands instead. A no-frills diner serving South Indian dishes to both Singapore's Indian population and tourists, Madras New Woodlands is a great choice if you're looking for vegetarian food on a budget. The enthusiastic waiter steers travellers towards the VIP Thali ($8), a good way to try a variety of tastes (includes a number of curries, vegetables, rices and comes with a choice of bread). Those with a smaller appetite should try a dosa instead: a type of savoury pancake either served plain or filled with vegetables or cheese, served with dipping sauces.
Madras New Woodlands is at 12 Upper Dickinson Street. A meal for 2 costs $20 or less.

Calanthe Art Cafe, Melaka

This cosy cafe's selling point is its wide range of coffees (hot, frozen and blended), served in the styles typical of Malaysia's thirteen states. But if you keep flicking towards the back of the menu, you'll also find a selection of Malaysian dishes, such as my choice of spicy butter fish. Fried in erm, spices and butter and served with rice and salad, this dish was excellent value at approximately £2, and the cafe's terrace is a lovely place to while away an evening chatting to fellow travellers.
Calanthe Art Cafe is at 11 Jalan Hang Kasturi. Dishes cost approximately RM10. 

Saravanaa Bhavan, Kuala Lumpur

After developing a taste for dosa, I satisfied my craving two days running at Saravanaa Bhavan in Kuala Lumpur's Little India. A short walk from Masjid Jamek and Merdeka Square, this busy vegetarian restaurant has an extensive menu of South Indian dishes (as well as a few Chinese options, including naan bread, that classic Chinese choice...). Curries are served on banana leaves and portions are generous. The service is a little erratic, but I can vouch for both the vegetable and the paneer dosa: delicious, filling and potentially addictive. Follow up your meal with a digestive stroll around Little India's colourful markets and shops, selling everything from 'Dior' mascara to swathes of fabric.
Saravaana Bhavan is on Jalan Masjid India. Dishes cost from RM10-20.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

A Brit abroad in Italy

In this month's post, Roxanne Bridger shows how to make the most of your time abroad by trying your best to integrate into the local culture.

Whether you plan on visiting another country for a few days or several months, the only real way to get to know how other cultures live is to live like the locals do. And that is exactly what I did when I lived in Italy for a few months back in 2009. I think travel should be much more than ticking off a list of places you've visited and famous landmarks you've seen – you need to understand how the locals live their day-to-day life to truly experience a new area or culture.

While I was in Italy I lived in Milan for two months and Tuscany for the rest of my stay. Tuscany is an area rich in history and culture and there are plenty of sights to be seen. But before I had even set off on my trip, I knew these things weren't what I wanted my photo memories to be full of. I wanted my photos to be of the friends that I was planning to make and the fun times we were going to have. Seeing the famous landmarks is only a small part of any trip I take.

Whenever I visit a new place, the first thing I want to do is try the food. I'm a real lover of all things edible and enjoy nothing better than tasting local delicacies. It's one thing to go to a restaurant and try them, but my goal is to try and learn how to cook them for myself. I was really lucky in Florence, as the apartment I was living in was right above a small family-run restaurant. When I first arrived I didn't know anyone, and because I've travelled alone before, I'm not afraid to sit in a restaurant alone and pass the time people watching. So that's exactly how I spent my first few nights. 

Thankfully, Italy has a very welcoming culture and it wasn't long before I had made a few friends and had people to go out for something to eat with. However, there was one person in particular I instantly became friends with: a girl called Carys, the daughter of the owner of the restaurant I lived above. She was incredibly warm and friendly and took me under her wing. She got me a waiting job at the restaurant and taught me how to cook like the Italians. The restaurant was known for its range of ice creams and desserts, and I quickly became a pro at recreating these in my own kitchen. My favourite is the Castagnaccio (chesnut cake), a classic dessert from the chestnut woods of Monte Amiata in south Tuscany. Chestnuts are harvested all over Italy with many regions having their own version of the cake, notably Montella in Campania. This makes for subtle variations in the Castagnaccio recipe. I learned to make it the way they do in Florence, and it has since become my signature dish.

Food is something that connects us all and I was so grateful to have been accepted in an Italian kitchen and feel like part of the Pizzeria Da Giovanni family. I feel that being so close to the locals meant that I had no choice but to embrace the Italian way of life. 

With Carys and her cousins at Pizzeria Da Giovanni

Whenever you are in a foreign place, not knowing the basics of a language can be a bit daunting. It's always important to at least know the basics such as 'please' and 'thank you', but it's worth trying to go beyond the most common phrases and finding out a few of the local sayings. Many regions have their own sayings, and learning these will help you feel part of the community. The first one I learned was while I was sat in the pizzeria, complaining about where all my money was going and how I had been spending it so quick. Carys' uncle, Marco, turned and said to me 'le mani bucate', which translates as 'they have holes in their hands'! A very original way of explaining how people have gone over budget! My excuse was that because I had made friends with people living in the area, I got to know about the hideaway bars they visited and what markets were best on which days. I felt like I had to fully take advantage of this information and buy whatever took my fancy!

Eating one of Carys's family's famous ice creams

For anyone moving abroad for a while, my main pieces of advice are as follows:
  • Learn to cook like the locals, you can be sure to impress your friends and family when you return home. When you do dine out, eat wherever the locals eat. You can sit with them, chat, gossip and share the same meal.
  • Smile and don't be shy about speaking another language. The first mistake is worrying that you look out of place. You might, but that's not a bad thing – people will you see you respect them, and in turn, open up to you more.
  • When it comes to local dress, don't just assume that the shops you will find in the town centres are where the locals shop. Don't be afraid to ask your new friends where they bought that dress that you really like. You will probably be introduced to a range of markets with excellent quality goods that you may ever have found on your own.

If you staying in a completely new place, it may seem like it will be hard to try and fit in but as long as you are willing to make friends, you will. Introduce yourself to everyone you meet. You don't know what doors this could open to an otherwise inaccessible world. Your experience transforms from travel to immersion, and the connections you make along the way will help you with this.


Roxanne Bridger lived in Florence for four months during 2009. She is a travel blogger for Simonseeks.com, a community of travel experts, enthusiasts and celebrities sharing their tips on the best places to eat sleep and visit, ranging from the best nightlife in Amsterdam to the cheapest hotels in London.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Malaysia & Singapore I: From budget flights to classy coaches

In November 2010, I flew to Southeast Asia to visit my friend C, who's now a Brit abroad in Singapore. Over the next couple of weeks, I'll be recounting my Asian adventures.
I may have been up there among EasyJet's most frequent passengers in 2010, but even I baulked at the idea of a long-haul flight with a budget airline. Twelve hours of being flogged scratchcards and informed that the last vegetarian pizza had just been sold? It sounded like hell on wings. However, when Air Asia's direct flight from London Stansted to Kuala Lumpur shaved a massive £300 off the average price of a ticket to visit C in Singapore – even after luggage, meals and a bus transfer had been added on – this sceptic reached for her credit card. After all, the saving on the fare could fund a few days in Malaysia, and I've never exactly been one to turn down a holiday opportunity.

A few days before boarding, my building nerves were only slightly settled by the Guardian's review of Air Asia's inaugural Stansted-KL flight. Pre-assigned seats removing the scrum at the gate sounded more refined than the usual budget argy-bargy, but would the on-board comfort really match that of a 'frills included' carrier?  It wasn't exactly reassuring that their online check-in failed to work every time I tried it, but one lengthy airport queue later, I was on my way to the boarding gate. Unusually for a budget airline, nobody harangued me for having both a handbag and a piece of hand luggage; no cases were dropped in gauges to check their size. Hopefully this boded well for the lack of smokeless cigarettes on sale.


The plane was certainly smarter than those of most low-cost carriers – in fact, the difference was indistinguishable. My aisle seat near the rear of the plane wasn't the roomiest width-wise, but my 5 ft 4 frame was certainly happy enough with the leg room – although the 6 ft something chap next to me was no doubt rather less comfortable. There was none of the usual scramble for overhead locker space so common on European budget flights, and after a safety demonstration from the shiny-haired, heavy-eyelinered hostesses in their neat little red uniforms, we were on our way. As it was a night flight, the 'pre-booked' (formerly known as booked) meals were wheeled round quite quickly. As the flight from West to East lasts twelve hours, I was certainly glad of the meal, but I noticed that plenty of passengers had opted to bring their own sandwiches on board instead. With no offer of the media players loaded with films and music that I had read about, lights were dimmed and I had to press the bell to purchase one of Air Asia's 'comfort kits', comprising a blanket, neck pillow and eye mask (£7).

Three and a half hours before we were due to land in KL (at 20.30 local time), the lights snapped on again and our second meal of the flight (pasta) was served. Apart from the lack of entertainment, the overall flight experience wasn't too different from that of a 'normal' carrier. Yes, you have to pay for any 'extras', but they weren't noisily announced over the tannoy and carted past every five minutes. In fact, it was sometimes difficult to know exactly what was being wheeled along and to get the stewards' attention if you did want anything – which was actually almost as annoying. But for less than £400 return minus the extras, I wasn't exactly complaining.

The next day, I upgraded from budget to luxury on Transtar Travel's First Class Solitaire coach from KL to Singapore. At 40 Singapore dollars for the five hour journey, a Transtar ticket is the most pricey on this route, but as that only amounts to £20, I decided the price was worth it for a swanky service which included entertainment and an airline-style meal served by hostesses (only minimal eyeliner in evidence here). As I settled my jet-lagged body into the enormous reclining chair (its seat pitch occupying that of 4 seats on a normal coach), complete with massage function and footrest, I was glad I'd opted to travel by road rather than taking another budget flight. All sixteen passengers on the double-decker Solitaire have their own personal TV screen loaded with up-to-date films and games (to the delight of one hyperactive child), so I lay back, snuggled up with the blanket provided and got engrossed in a Harry Potter flick. Another vegetarian curry, two cups of a tea and a snack later, we rolled into Singapore right on time. Budget bus? No thanks! National Express, take note.

  • Air Asia flies daily from Stansted to Kuala Lumpur, where passengers can connect to fights to Australia or other destinations within Asia. On the return journey, we were offered the chance to rent a media player loaded with recent films, TV programmes and music for £7. Transtar offers a variety of services between KL and Singapore several times a day. The First Class Solitaire is their most expensive and luxurious service.

A Brit Abroad in Sydney, Australia


In November's tale of a Brit abroad, expat Russell Ward tells us of the reasons behind his 2006 move to Sydney and the challenges he and his wife faced in their search for 'a life less ordinary'. 

In search of a life less ordinary
   
The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, so the saying goes. It's simple human nature to look at other people's lives things that we don't have through rose-tinted spectacles.

Most expats-in-waiting spend every available minute researching and watching other people's lives on other sides of the world, dreaming of one day living their own new life in a different country. We did… and, upon moving to Australia in 2006, we found the grass to be not only greener, but a far more interesting and exciting shade of green, as we went on our search for a life less ordinary.
   
The trigger for our move
   
We arrived in Australia in the summer of 2006 with our two dogs and the entire contents of a 3-bedroom house, looking for a change to the monotony of our life. Bored with our humdrum 9-5 routine and keen for a more stimulating existence, we opted to head to my wife's home city of Sydney.
   
Now that I look back four years later, I wonder what exactly was the catalyst for our decision to leave. Oddly enough, I think it was a conversation with a gym buddy that did it. He was moving to Australia, we wanted to move overseas, and that was that.
   
I'm not sure at what point Sydney became a serious contender. My wife's Australian citizenship obviously played a large part in the decision but her family was from the Blue Mountains, a fair distance from Sydney, which appealed to us on an altogether different level. Maybe it was the large number of world class beaches within a thirty kilometre radius, the sparkling blue harbour with its delightful inlets and waterways, the generally laidback way of life, or the ability to go for a long run on the sand in the morning, put on your suit and work in the bustling, cosmopolitan city in the daytime, then go out for a quick sail in the evening. Whatever the reason, in mid-2006 we flew across the ocean and into Australia, as Sydney welcomed us into its sun-kissed arms.



 

The Pacific Ocean meets the Australian mainland

Leaving friends and family
   
It was a traumatic time, saying farewell to family and friends with no idea if, and when, we would ever return. Emotions ran high and tension was ever present. Loved ones were inevitably upset or annoyed; friends questioned our decision; work colleagues thought we were mad. Yet the key was being brave and reminding ourselves of the reasons for leaving in search of a better life.
   
Make no mistake: picking your life up and moving it to a foreign country is no small undertaking. It's fair to say that leaving loved ones, selling the house you've worked hard for and giving up the job you've worked at for the past five years is a huge deal. But we'd decided to make the break and now there was no turning back. We broke the news to family and friends, we dreamed of our new life in Australia, and we visualised getting on the plane and leaving for that beautiful new environment.


Our new life down-under
   
The visa process
   
There was just one small matter to take care of: the visas. To emigrate to Australia, most people apply for a skilled workers visa by way of a points system. For us, it was more straightforward. My fiancée (now my wife) is Australian, which meant that I could apply for a spousal visa. The paperwork was still significant but the process was relatively quick and painless.

We also did plenty of background research to inform our decision. We attended immigration fairs, signed up to expat forums, spoke with distant relatives in our chosen new home and trawled the web for information. This culminated in a fact-finding trip to Sydney one year before our move to look at areas to live in, potential jobs and things to see and do. We were now ready to go.
   
In January 2006, the envelope with the good news from the High Commission landed on the doormat. We immediately put the house up for sale and got our dogs ready for travel. I left my job early and began readying us for the move and, in June 2006, we departed for our adventure on Sydney's Northern Beaches.



One of the local Northern Beaches
   
The odd one out
   
It's worth pointing out that living in a foreign country is harder than you could ever imagine.  I'm not referring to the hardship of moving to a new town or city, or the issues associated with buying houses, cars and other material possessions.  I'm referring to the difficulty of simply fitting in.  In short, you're a stranger in an alien environment.  Your family is absent, you're pretty much mate-less and, unless you do something about it fast, that's the way it's going to stay.



Trying to fit in
   
In my previous life, I'd spend Friday nights down the local pub with my chums, Saturday mornings in the gym or in town bumping into old acquaintances, and maybe Sunday afternoons catching up with school friends, their partners and, of course, my family.  However, in moving to Australia, I created a situation in which I left behind those friends I'd have a 'bit of banter' with.  My family were no longer present, no cousins or aunts and uncles to visit nearby.  I didn't recognise passers-by in the street and heard no warm "hello" from familiar faces in the shopping mall.
   
I initially found it hard to adjust, and I plain and simply missed my family.  I was pining for friends and craving familiarity. I had plenty of good pals back home so I was reluctant to join social clubs or make enough of an effort with new acquaintances.
   
When moving to a new country or even city, it's often assumed that fitting in is easy and happens naturally but it isn't and it doesn't. The lesson I learned was that you need to leave your comfort zone and put yourself out there. To really make the most of your new life as an expat, you simply have to be positive and outgoing. Most of all, you must always cherish and respect the home you've left behind whilst embracing your new environment, new friends, and new life less ordinary. Don't ever look back – you're about to embark on the most exhilarating adventure in making your home from home!



My wife and I on Sydney Harbour

Russell V J Ward
  
Russell is a British expat living on Sydney's northern beaches in New South Wales, Australia. A keen writer in his spare time, Russell also spends time travelling the world and enjoying life by the ocean. Russell lived in the UK until 2003, before emigrating to Canada (Vancouver and Ottawa), then most recently to Sydney, Australia (his wife's home country).
 Read more about his expat adventures in looking for a life less ordinary at http://www.insearchofalifelessordinary.blogspot.com.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

A Brit abroad in Montreal, Canada

This month's Tale of a Brit Abroad comes from journalist, filmmaker and broadcaster Anne Kostalas, who lives in Montreal. Anne will also be on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour on Friday 8 October.

The lookout at Parc Mont Royal, or 'the mountain' as locals call it. It gave the city its name.

Montreal is often described as the coolest city in North America. Just say you live here to folks out west and there will be a gasp followed by a declaration of how they've always wanted to live here. I never used to get that very much with Newcastle upon Tyne.

For me the greatest difference in my life is how safe and friendly the city feels. (That and how often I go out for breakfast) Coming from a Northern town in Britain I still flinch if I hear a raised voice in the street. This will sound like an exaggeration but people here haven't even heard of anti-social behaviour. I'm always having to explain it to them. Don't get me started on chavs, glassings, yobs...

We had them before you London. The Bixi Bike, invented in Montreal, outside the Bonsecours Market.

I'm sure this drives the Canadians crazy but I always think of it here as how I imagine 1950s Britain used to be. It feels all together more innocent. They don't see it of course. They complain like everyone else about crime and rowdiness but drop them into a Newcastle street on a Saturday night and bless, they wouldn't know what had hit them.

One of the greatest things about Montreal, and this goes for the rest of Canada, is how much of life is lived outdoors. In the summer it's the pavement cafes, open air festivals, swimming in lakes and cycling on the city's bike path network. In the winter, outdoor ice rinks, tobogganing, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing beckon.

Grab your paddle, we're going outdoors for six months

I remember a summer in Newcastle when we only had one evening when it was warm enough to sit outside. We were in sweaters.

The ability of Montrealers to have a good time outdoors never fails to impress me. My husband called me to our apartment window last winter, during a particularly heavy snowfall, to see a chap skiing past our door with huskies. God love him.

My birthday party on ice. This was going to end badly.

In the city centre I sometimes take a bus up the mountain, surely Montreal's greatest asset, to skate with a friend. Clambering on to the bus are hoards of cross-country skiers plus skis - off to explore
the trails. It's completely bizarre to me in a city centre. Shouldn't they be spending the day in a shopping centre wearing a comfy shell suit?

 After a good snow fall, we get an average of two metres, if you walk through the woods in Parc Mont Royal you become aware of a buzz. Only when you reach the clearing do you see the source of the strange noise. Hundreds of families gathered at the toboggan runs, screaming and shouting as they hurl themselves down the hill towards Beaver Lake for the umpteenth time. These people know how to make the most out of winter.  I celebrated my birthday this year with a skating party. What
am I, six?
Maple taffy. Shouldn't that be toffee?


Strangely a lot of new immigrants seem afraid of Montreal winters and hibernate. For me it is part of the pleasure of living here. You're not really a Montrealer until you have had the stuff in your nose
freeze solid and your polo neck and trouser hems become stiff as boards. Get out there or you are in for a long wait till the Spring. A really long wait.

Not surprisingly when Spring comes people go slightly bonkers. The timing coincides with the annual maple syrup harvest ('that stuff grows on trees?', to quote my friend) As Quebec produces more than three-quarters of the world's maple syrup supply you just know they are going to go off it. Locals head into the woods for Sugaring-off: no, not some weird spa treatment but music, dancing and most
importantly, eating to celebrate the end of the harvest. A real Canadian experience.

Just a few more feet and I'll make it.

This happens in late March-early April and friends like to argue about which is the most authentic sugar shack serving the best traditional meal - a meat fest  with more than just a hint of maple syrup in it. Look our for the oreilles de crisse (Christ's ears), which are actually deep fried pork rinds (shades of porky scratchings). Vegetarians stay well away.

Not another gorgeous day! The Laurentians.

Summer is heavenly. We just had a great one. I swear the sky is actually bluer here (or is that grass greener?) and many Montrealers have access to a cottage near a lake. So when it gets too hot and
humid (mid to high 30s anyone?) in the city of festivals (jazz, comedy etc.) you can head out to the woods, chop logs and enjoy lakes warm enough to swim in every day. We go to the Laurentians - just an hour away.

Canada is a country of extremes and when I'm taking my bags of summer clothes down to the basement and bringing up my winter coats I wonder how it all happened so quickly. We are able to ski every winter on the same lake we swim in during summertime. (No we don't fall through, as all the Brits ask). A temperature hovering around -20C sees to that.

Englishwoman attempts snowshoeing.

 Although I've lived here two years I still feel nervous about explaining the French thing. Most of my Brit friends are highly amused that these North Americans are pretending to live in France. Just don't say that anywhere near me, please. Lots of sensitivity about heritage, domination by English-speakers, etc. but fortunately no longer any terrorism and it's been 15 years since the last referendum calling for separation from Canada.

A June sunset in the Laurentians

I might live in a unilingual province but I'm in an anglo enclave in a French province. Try learning French in it. Very difficult. One whiff of a bad accent and everyone just speaks to you in English anyway. It can seem like a strange world. Even the homeless here have signs in French and English and imagine waiting for your friend's long answering machine message in two languages. Very tedious. Kissing on two cheeks is standard so prepare early to leave any party. However
there are lots of free French lessons for new immigrants.

The Plateau: the coolest neighbourhood in North America?

The coolest part of the city is the Plateau - an area inhabited by artists and students. Not the sort of students you used to find in my local Tesco's  screaming down their mobile phones, "Love you, mummy" but real hip dudes. Better still, they frequent hip bars, restos, clubs and galleries which we can visit too and pretend to be hip. Well, I am a Geordie after all.



Anne Kostalas is a freelance journalist, filmmaker and broadcaster who emigrated to Montreal from Newcastle, England in 2008. You can read her regular blog here Dear England, Love Canada.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Kites and changes on the Algarve's Praia do Garrao


You can keep your windsurfing, your banana boats and your volleyball: give me a kite any day. And not one of those fancy stunt kites either, just the normal sort. When it comes to beach activities, I'm of the opinion that simple is best: sunbathing, reading, kite-flying.

The Algarve's Praia do Garrao, a quiet, sandy beach between the chi-chi villa-filled areas of Vale do Lobo and Quinta do Lago, proved a perfect spot for a bit of autumn kite-flying last week. The odd sunbather, stroller or jogger aside; my family and I had the beach to ourselves to launch our kite and watch its ribbon tail swirl in the breeze. Costing just 6 euros from the local supermarket, the smiley-faced kite attracted more than one admiring glance and the attention of a few photographers.


Praia do Garrao is a laid-back pocket of this gently developed area, overlooked by a charmingly ramshackle collection of bars and restaurants. These mostly wooden constructions perch above the beach, linked to the sand by a rickety boardwalk. The six premises are unpretentious places, particularly That Shack, the most tumbledown-looking of that lot. Owned by the jovial Jerry, the bar's menu says it all: 'When you're lucky enough to dine by the beach, you're lucky enough'. No linen napkins and white-shirted waiters are needed here: a post-kite flying tuna steak burger served with a smile is more than sufficient. From its rear deck, That Shack has the best view of the beach; an uninterrupted vista taking in the dunes, the boardwalk and the Atlantic Ocean. During our few days in the area, we spent almost every afternoon idly admiring that view, sipping a glass of Portuguese rose.

The view from That Shack


But sadly, the area has been earmarked by the authorities for development. Not understanding that Praia do Garrao's peaceful setting's appeal is enhanced by the low-key, low-gloss nature of its beachside bars, plans are afoot to demolish the existing establishments and replace them with just two or three fancy food outlets, a bigger car park and improved access to the beach. The announcement came as a shock to the bar owners, who were only able to submit blind bids with detailed plans for new, more 'suitable' (and large-scale) restaurants. Part of the Polis development programme which will affect a large area of the central and eastern Algarve, the plans will be put in place during 2011, meaning that there are just a few months left to enjoy Praia do Garrao as it is now. Once the winds of change revamp the area and stamp it with sanitised 'boutique' appeal, kite-flying on the beach will still be possible: but you won't be able to follow it up with a cheese toastie and a stunning view of the sands from That Shack's wooden terrace. If only the Algarve's authorities understood that sometimes the simple things in life are the best.

Monday, 6 September 2010

A Brit abroad in wild Wellington, New Zealand

Now that I'm resident in the UK again, I've turned to Brits abroad in other countries around the world to share their stories. Starting the series is Kerry-Ann, who lives in Wellington, New Zealand.

"In January it will be five years since my husband and I disembarked slightly green at Wellington airport. All I knew about my destination was that we had a bank account, accommodation for two weeks and our shipment of belongings arrived in 6 weeks. I was also told Wellington was famed to be the only capital city situated in the roaring 40’s zone. (As if I really wanted to know that!)

My relationship with Wellington has been rocky. It started with incredible disappointment after my first sighting of Wellington housing. I slapped myself a couple of times to make sure I wasn’t having a bad dream. No, it wasn’t a bad dream: I really had entered a time warp. I thought I was coming to a first world country; instead I seemed to have landed in a pioneering village. This shock and disappointment was soothed only by the incredible beauty of the bays, sea and mountainous area.

View of Wellington and suburbs

First on our agenda was finding somewhere more permanent to stay. Because my husband had already started working, it was left to me to find a place. Armed with a bus timetable and a street map I invariably got so lost that I rarely made the rental viewings, and the viewings I did make always ended up being up a steep hill accessed only by slippery, mouldy stairs. How anyone was supposed to do grocery shopping and get the shopping home I had no idea!

Most of (but not all) of Wellington suburbs are built on hillsides which means the roads are narrow, twisty and steep. One day while complaining about another twisty street on a bus the passenger next to me told me that the streets of Wellington were designed in London. However, when they came to building the roads in Wellington they realised they had forgotten one very important feature: mountains. This means in some areas you drive down a road, carry your car up 70 steps or so, set your car down and continue driving as though nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. Only in Wellington!

Houses in the Wellington suburbs

Our first month

When I look back on our first month in Wellington, we now live in luxury. I eventually found a rental for six months, which had 10 stairs to the front door and an oven. We had no car, no washing machine and no fridge. To do my washing I walked to a lady’s house on the opposite side of the valley then walked back with wet washing. Once a day I walked to the corner shop and bought ice to keep our stuff cool and we borrowed a mattress that served as our bed at night and sofa during the day.

That house taught us that houses are not insulated; they do not have central heating, do not have double glazing but are incredibly well ventilated. The gaps in the floor board were so big that the wind used to lift the carpet up. Two heaters and jumpers were just enough to stop us from turning into ice men! It also taught us what was most important when we bought our own house. A North-facing house. We were so particular that if we stopped at an open home and our compass said anything other than north-facing – we drove straight on. We didn’t even go in and have a look.

View from our house

Getting to grips with Wellington's atmosphere

When I was in the UK I lived just outside London. London taught me what vibe, buzz and culture was. I loved London and spent hours exploring and enjoying its liveliness. Wellington on the other hand was quite different! Cuba Street and Courtney Place are the main cultural hubs. When we first arrived my cousin took us to explore this heaving, buzzing centre, thinking it would cheer us up.


Cuba Street

I still believe that my cousin was hallucinating when he made this suggestion. Or maybe he just forgot I was a Londoner? Whichever, my first walk through the heaving culture centre reminded me of walking through a ghost town. Since then I have discovered the wonderful riches and gems of Courtney Place’s international restaurants, cinemas, theatre houses and tea shops. I love spending time there and don’t need much of an excuse to meet a friend at a coffee shop.

One other thing I learnt about Wellington is that during the summer holiday the population halves. The masses disappear, So if you want to experience Wellington, don’t come during January - you'll probably be the only one around!

Wellington Wharf area

Settling down

It took me a while to learn to appreciate Wellington’s roughness, its friendly locals and relaxed lifestyle. And now I cannot bear the thought of leaving this rugged capital city. It has so much going for it. Where else can I walk across the whole capital city in 25 minutes? Or walk between client meetings via the beach front? And where else could I be among the ‘heaving’ city throngs and five minutes later be lost within mountainous beauty, or driving down the rugged beach front miles from the nearest person?

I have loved and hated Wellington – in turn Wellington has thrown tantrums, produced the unexpected and wooed me with its beauty. It has been a fiery relationship in which I was determined to make a break at the first opportunity, and Wellington has been determined to keep me here. I think Wellington has won the struggle!"


About the author:
Kerry-Ann is an entrepreneur, Internet Marketing consultant, outsider, foreigner, traveller, hybrid-nomad, and home maker.
She says: "My blog Audacious Freedom is a diary of the highs and lows, the personal growth, challenges, obstacles and triumphs I have had, as I have learnt to be flexible and adapt to life on the move, from travelling to international relocations. Join me on this journey and if you are thinking about moving abroad – then take the step. If you don’t like it you can always go back!"

Friday, 3 September 2010

Hasta luego Madrid


After almost a year of living the expat life in Madrid, I received an offer that seemed too good to refuse in London and decided to go for it, putting career above lifestyle, better weather, good coffee and cheap tapas (err... remind me again why I thought this was a good idea?). Leaving behind the life and friends I made was difficult, but I hadn't quite bargained on feeling like a stranger in my own nation.


It's now been a month since I left Spain's capital for my home country's and, while there are no regrets at present, I'm certainly very aware of what the experience taught me. I learned how to conceal half an enormous holdall behind my back to outwit EasyJet staff and not have to pay to check it in. I learned that you can in fact find good curry in Spain. I learned that despite the fact that some people expected me to come home for Christmas with a tan, winter in Madrid is bloody freezing and saw the deepest snow I've ever seen in the nearby sierra.
 

Accustomed to the more stereotypically Spanish way of life in Andalucia after my previous experiences of living in Seville, I also saw a more fast-paced, businesslike side to Spain in the hustle and bustle of Madrid. That said, bureaucracy remains as maddeningly inefficient in the capital as in provincial outposts: my most memorable brush with the authorities involved the funcionaria at Social Security putting me down on the database as a Dominican citizen, and my new place of work frantically calling me to tell me I couldn't work legally in Spain. After a few days as la dominicana, I managed to convince the mistake-maker's more efficient (or even just more awake) colleague that I did not in fact need to be deported and got my nationality back. 


I also witnessed the paralysing effects of la crisis, as Spain struggles with one of Europe's highest unemployment rates. Friends found it hard to get jobs; beggars on the street with placards claiming 'I'm hungry and unemployed' were commonplace. Yet despite the obvious economic slump, most Spaniards seemed just as keen to have a good time as ever, with nightlife still as hedonistic (and late) as before.


On a more personal level, I was reminded that voluntary exile brings together expats who might not be friends other under circumstances, but who happily reminisce together about the joys of Marks & Spencers over cups of the Yorkshire Tea that every visitor from England is obliged to bring as a 'thank you' present. When in Spain I feel incredibly English with my blonde guiri looks and different dress sense (yes, I think bare legs are OK before July, I'm from Preston). I was unfathomably proud of the kettle M and I scouted several chinos for, and was known for being polite and punctual (and for leading the office tea consumption stakes). But whenever I returned to England I felt like a foreigner, moaning about the weather and so confused by the London tube map I had to ask an attendant if the complicated route I had planned was in fact the only way of reaching my destination (it wasn't).


Returning to England on a more permanent basis was a shock, not least because the tube is ten times more crowded than the lovely air-conditioned metro in Madrid and most coffee tastes like dishwater compared to the smooth café con leche prepared by office favourite Gerardo at the downstairs Haagen Dazs. London is more expensive, more modern, less traditional, trendier, more frantic. After the initial struggle to adjust  and the odd attempt to pay in Euros, I'm now reacclimatising and attempting to make sure I remember that I found life in Madrid hard at first too. Getting used to the stares on the metro (especially when wearing open toed shoes), being treated like a criminal every time I entered Banco Santander (gotta love internet banking) and coping as a non-meat eater all took some time, but the perseverance paid off and I became accustomed to big city life and grew to love Madrid. It was one hell of a year: I started a new job in a new country, made some wonderful new friends, my blog was born, I saw my first Easter parades and had my first swim in a natural mountain pool, Spain won the World Cup and I proposed marriage to Sergio Ramos. Apart from Ramos's lack of response and the near-brawl in the bank, I wouldn't change one second of it.


If you're interested, you can read about my London adventures on my new blog This Reluctant Londoner. Now that I'm no longer a Brit Abriad (sniff, sniff), I'll be handing the reins over to a series of expat guest bloggers until my inevitable next move. Watch out for the first post from the new Brits Abroad, coming next week.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Getting sweaty in Granada

The Alhambra, Granada
On my first visit to Granada, it snowed. This made the trip to the Alhambra picturesque, full of rare photo opportunities and... freezing. Arriving five years later in the July midday heat, the city was almost unrecognisable, largely due to the copious quantities of sweat spilling down my forehead and streaking my sunglasses. Granada in summertime is hot, there are no two ways about it. And not in a pleasant 'I'll be going home with a tan' way, either. Sensible residents flee the city during the summer months, and the rest presumably take refuge in their air-conditioned homes, leaving the streets to the tourists.

Falling into the latter category, my family and I sallied forth into the deserted streets of the Albayzin, Granada's rambling hillside Moorish quarter, catching not one glimpse of the dangerous muggers mentioned in our guidebook. They were clearly all at home enjoying their air con. Wandering through the quiet streets fringed with huge white carmenes (villas particular to this area of Granada), we hoped to stumble across a tiled taverna to retreat into for an extended Spanish-style lunch. No such luck: the heat got the better of us before we had chance to seriously search, and we retreated to the central Plaza Nueva and lunched at vegetarian-friendly cafe Green and Berries (after liberally splashing our faces with water from the nearby drinking fountain). Suitably panini-filled, we gave in and did as the locals do: headed home for a siesta.

At 7pm we dared to venture out again from our hotel, the central, cheap and friendly Hostal Lima, heading for the nearby Plaza Bib Rambla, a pedestrianised square with a fountain at its centre and cafes all around its circumference. After a leisurely drink, we were keen to get to grips with Granada's famed tapas scene. The southern city is one of the few in Spain to retain the custom of serving customers a free tapa to accompany each drink ordered. Apparently they usually improve in quality and extravagance the longer you stay: you might get olives or ensaladilla rusa (a mayonnaise-saturated egg, potato and miscellaneous vegetable salad) with your first tinto de verano, but as the night wears on you'll move through the ranks of Spanish omelette, pincho moruno and so on. Our first choice of bar presented us with a healthy dollop of ensaladilla, which sadly wasn't tempting enough to encourage us to linger. It being Sunday evening, pickings were unfortunately on the slim side as many Spanish restaurants close then - highly-recommended seafood bar Los Diamantes, which we'd been hoping to try out, was sadly one of them.

A little tired of trekking Granada's scenic streets in search of free food, we took a seat in Plaza El Cristo and opted to pay for the pleasure, choosing a mixed plate of tapas for €8. Refuelled and re-energised by sitting at an actual chair rather than perching on a bar stool (as required for the freebies), we headed to the city centre, finding plenty of lively bars to quench our remaining hunger pangs on Calle Elvira, with the tortilla de patatas sandwich dished up at friendly El Espejo proving particularly filling. The riverside Paseo de los Tristes, with its view uphill to the hulking Alhambra fortress (our destination for the following morning), provided the perfect post-tapa walk.

Palacios Nazaries, Alhambra
Fortified by a substantial breakfast at traditional churreria Cafe Bib-Rambla, we made the steep ascent to the Alhambra palace, Spain's most-visited monument and prime example of the country's Moorish heritage. Begun in the 11th century, the Alhambra was added to during numerous dynasties of Moorish rulers until they were finally driven out by those bloodthirsty Catholic monarchs, Fernando and Isabel, in 1492. The later Christian additions may not blend well with the rest of the complex, but prove beautiful in their own right, particularly the Palacio de Carlos V, which we wandered into prior to our timed entry to the main attraction, the Palacios Nazaries.

Busy year-round, the Alhambra gets especially crowded during the summer months, so we opted for a 9.30am slot (the earliest is 8.30) with the aim of beating the crowds and the heat. This was perhaps a bit optimistic, but our wander round the palace was quite enough to be able to contemplate the views of the city and the valleys beyond; the intricacy of the multicoloured mosaic work on the wallks and the Arabic slogan of 'There is no conqueror but Allah' inscribed throughout. Spain is notorious for its relative lack of explanatory plaques at attractions, but at the Alhambra this absence works to the visitors' advantage: courtyards and chambers are uncluttered but for fellow tourists, allowing imaginations to roam and conjure up visions of tea-sipping Nasrids reclining on colourful cushions. The immaculately-preserved splendour of the Palacios Nazaries is all the more impressive given the cheap materials used in its constuction: brick, wood and adobe, all skilflly manipulated to create a truly beautiful monument.

Generalife
As spectacular as the palace is, having already toured it once, it was the gardens of the Generalife that really caught my eye. A well-tended yet still pleasantly rambling series of patios, shaded walkways and fountains, the former pleasure gardens of the Moorish rulers make an ideal spot to rest after a trek around the Alhambra. Filled with a vast variety of species of flowers, shrubs and trees, the new generation of gardeners have aimed to recreate the style of their forebears, and the result is a charming (and somewhat less crowded) space for visitors to enjoy. The views from the Generalife are particularly photogenic, with the Alhambra in the foreground, framed against a mountain backdrop.

As the mercury in the thermometer started to creep towards the unbearable, we decided it was time to flee the pretty little city of Granada and return to our air-conditioned seaside apartment. Compact enough to explore in a weekend, interesting enough to linger, Granada is certainly a tempting destination - just don't go in summer if you want to get the most out of it!

Calligraphy close-up

Thursday, 5 August 2010

My Madrid: The story of pizza at La Perla di Napoli


My 'hasta luego, Madrid' dinner took place, perhaps inappropriately, at an Italian restaurant. Following a recommendation from a friend of A, who claimed that it served the best pizza in Madrid, my lovely flatmates and I made our way to La Perla di Napoli to see if this claim proved true.

First impressions were far from overwhelming: while it's not exactly cutre, the restaurant certainly doesn't fall into the chic category either. Downstairs is a bar area, which filled with a very random selection of punters as the night wore on, while the main L-shaped dining area is upstairs. One wall is dominated by a night-time scene of Naples, under which sits a large fish tank devoid of aquatic life. You get the idea: it's a pretty strange place. Our growing suspicions were compounded by the very short menu (a few starters, pastas, pizzas and some meat and fish options) and lack of wine list: what kind of restaurant was this?

Upon ordering a bottle of lambrusco (there was no ordinary rosé to be had, believe me we asked), the lone waiter came to the assistance of the lone waitress, who found herself unable to open the bottle. The evening began its descent into farce when the waiter regaled us with an account the origins of the wine; an informative tale which included the memorable line 'Did you know that Italy is the shape of a boot?' Our starter of melanzane parmigiana (oven baked aubergines with parmesan) improved our opinions of La Perla: it was robust, just the right side of greasy and heaped with cheese. Our stone-baked pizzas followed suit: two proscuitto e funghi for the brothers and a vegetale for me. We eyed them with suspicion: they looked smaller than expected for €13 a pop, and the crust was thicker than anticipated.

One bite and our cynicism melted away: the base was delicious and much thinner than the puffy crust, and the cheese and tomato topping was beautifully rich. There were just enough vegetables scattered across my pizza; a selection of aubergines, artichokes, peppers and courgette. But the best part was the accompanying explanation, which began in a manner similar to children's bedtime stories: Os cuento la historia de la pizza? Suppressing wine-fuelled giggles, we listened and learned that the margherita pizza was created in Naples in honour of Queen Margherita's visit to the city: the mozzarella, tomato and basil were chosen to represent the colours of the Italian flag.

Too stuffed for dessert, we were offered a 'shot' of limoncello. Thinking of my friend C, a lover of this lemon liqueur who is currently exiled in Singapore, I readily accepted, only to be presented with an entire glass of the stuff. Naturally, the alcohol inspired further hilarity, leading A to ask for the story of the drink. In case you wondered, it's from Sorrento.

La Perla di Napoli isn't the cheapest restaurant in Madrid: €70 for one starter, 3 mains and a bottle of wine. But for the best pizza in the city (that I've tasted anyway) and guaranteed hilarity, it's a fair price to pay.


  • La Perla di Napoli is at Calle de Santa Engracia 51 (metro Iglesia).
Photo by wEnDalLcious/Flickr.

2014 update: La Perla di Napoli is no longer open. You'll have to go elsewhere to learn about the shape of Italy, sadly.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

My Madrid: Traditional tapas and tweed in Salamanca

As nostalgia is setting in before I've even left Madrid, I thought I should share my favourite after-work haunt with my dear readers. Unlike the trendy barrio Salamanca cocktail bars that host 'after works' (pronounce with a Spanish accent for full effect), El Rincón de Goya is a traditional taberna with tiled walls serving tapas and vino tinto to a tweed-wearing crowd.

Despite the tweed, the atmosphere is far from stuffy. Once the clock hits 7pm, the bar quickly fills up with  from nearby offices keen to tuck into some ali-oli soaked potatoes, jamón or pimientos de padrón. For those with more exotic tastes, the 'special' section on the chalk-board menu offers such delights as crispy prawn rolls on a bed of balsamic vinegar-dressed rocket. And although the menu does feature beds of rocket, El Rincón de Goya is friendly and unpretentious, with waiters dishing up free plates of tapas with every drink order. Varying from olives to montaditos to some rather mayonnaisey options, the freebies aren't the bars finest offerings, but they're certainly far tastier than the plates of slop on offer at a certain often-touted bar which also offers tapas gratis with the purchase of a drink.

For those looking for more than just a little bite to accompany their copa, there's also a dining room serving raciones.
  • Taberna El Rincon de Goya is located at Calle de Lagasca 46 (metro Serrano).

Monday, 26 July 2010

Brushing shoulders with Brits on the Costa del Sol

People can be very sniffy about the idea of the Costa del Sol, instantly associating it with 2 for 1 drinks offers, red-raw sunburnt shoulders and overdeveloped towns filled with holiday apartment complexes. Goodness knows there's some truth in these images, my own blog being based on the idea of my 'alternative' Brit Abroad experience, so far removed from jugs of sangría in Torremolinos. But the thing is, the Costa del Sol is where my love affair with Spain began: as a teenager, we spent a couple of family holidays at a villa in the hills above San Pedro de Alcántara, exploring nearby towns, the coastline and further afield to the most famous pueblo blanco, Ronda. So it was with these memories in my (relatively open) mind that I returned to my adolescent holiday destination, joining my family for a long weekend of relaxation and culture. Yes, culture on the Costa del Sol, you read that correctly.

After arriving at Málaga airport, my break began in untypical fashion with a visit to the city itself. Overlooked by many visitors to its nearby resorts, Málaga is a typically Andalusian city with a smart centre made up of pedestrianised streets, inviting squares and a number of attractive monuments. Although it can't compete with the sights of Granada or Seville, as Picasso's home town Málaga boasts an enviable cultural heritage, with the Museo de Picasso and Picasso's birthplace tempting fans of the city's most famous son to visit. For those more into architecture than art, Málaga's Alcazaba (Moorish fortress) is an oasis of archways and fountain-filled gardens perched on the hillside with a view of the sea, well worth the couple of euros entry fee.

Alcazaba, Málaga

After acquiring a flavour for the seaside city, we moved on to the famous 'auction-style' restaurant, El Tintero. Located on Playa El Palo a couple of kilometres east of the city centre, El Tintero specialises in Málaga's signature pescaíto frito (fried fish) and seafood. The food on offer is tasty enough, but the novel dining experience is the real attraction: a team of waiters patrol the shaded terrace carrying armfuls of steaming plates, shouting out the name of the dish they're carrying in their best market-trader voices. 'Llevo paella, ¡ay qué rico la paella!' and 'Gambas, ¿quién quiere gambas?' are common calls as the waiters weave their way through the tables; customers signalling to them as they pass by. With most portions just €7.50, lunch at this atmospheric joint certainly won't break the bank: we paid €55 between four, including drinks.

La Virgen del Carmen
After eating our fill, it was time to head to our home for the weekend, Estepona. West of trendy Marbella, this little beachside town still maintains a fishing industry in addition to its role as a holiday hotspot. Much more low-key than resorts such as Benalmadena and Fuengirola, development in Estepona has mostly taken the form of small apartment buildings rather than high-rise horrors, and the old town is a typically andaluz area of white-painted houses. It boasts a number of beaches and a wildlife park, and is an easy drive to other resorts as well as the interior of western Andalucia. My family had rented a comfortable apartment in a small gated complex in a quiet area close to Playa El Cristo, just ten minutes to the main beach and half an hour to the old town. Our first night coincided with the Fiesta del Carmen, a festival in honour of the patron saint of fishermen. Walking down the seafront promenade, a few British and German voices mingled with the cheery chatter of heavily-accented locals, but unlike flashy Puerto Banus, foreign strollers were merely a sizeable minority rather than the dominant group. We took a seat at one of the many chiringuitos (beach bars) overlooking Estepona's Playa de la Rada, waiting for the procession carrying a figurine of the saint to come by. As is typical of these processions, a marching band headed the parade, with the heavy image of the virgin following behind, wielded by a number of muscular men calling out ¡guapa, guapa, guapa! (pretty) in honour of the saint. Behind the elaborately decorated float came local dignitaries and a number of penitents, some walking barefoot as a symbol of their atonement.

The next day was spent as so many days on the Costa del Sol are: soaking up the sun on the beach. As it was Saturday, plenty of Spaniards mingled with the foreign holidaymakers, their children playing together (or more accurately in one case, terrorising each other) despite the language barrier. I was amused to overhear a young Spanish boy proclaiming to his English playmate that 'We don't speak English here, we speak Spanish!' With only some minor sunburn to show off, we dined at traditional restaurant Casa Pablo in the aptly-named central square, the Plaza de las Flores. Prices were reasonable and my huge swordfish steak attracted plenty of admiring glances from passers-by. Afterwards, we made our way to the holidaymakers' end of town, the waterside puerto deportivo, a strip of restaurants and relaxed bars far removed from the quayside area of Puerto Banus, which turns into a parade of designer clothing and top-of-the-range cars as soon as the sun sets. Installing ourselves on the terrace of a busy bar, we sampled some rather ropey cocktails (caiprinha with lemon and no sugar, anyone?). Disappointing drinks aside, the lively area was ideal for a bit of people watching, with some more serious nightlife options available for those who want them.

My remaining days passed in much the same fashion: sunbathing, swimming, sampling a Greek restaurant at the puerto deportivo. I departed Estepona with a tan and an improved opinion of the Costa del Sol: yes, it's overdeveloped, but there are still relaxed resorts and pockets of charm. With sandy beaches, an interesting city in the form of Málaga and good transport connections from all over Europe, plus easy access to the rest of the region (we also drove to Granada in just 2 hours 20 minutes and spent the night there), holidaymakers could certainly choose far worse destinations.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

My Madrid: Aperitivo Italiano at El Naranja

If you're on a tight budget but don't want to limit your social life, look no further than cosy cafe El Naranja. Every Wednesday and Thursday evening from 20.30, this little Malasaña hangout loads its bar with Italian food. For just the price of a drink, punters can pile their plates high.

Bringing the Milanese tradition of aperitivo to Madrid, El Naranja offers a variety of salads, pasta, bruschetta and some items with a more dubious connection to Italy such as brussels sprouts and cous cous. Still, it's pretty much free, so you can't argue. If you're hungry, make sure to get there early - by 10pm El Naranja is always packed with buffet-hounds.

  • El Naranja is located at Calle San Vicente Ferrer 53 (Metro Noviciado).

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Spain's World Cup victory, near hysteria and the goalie's cheekbones

6pm on Sunday 11 July 2010 and the streets of Madrid were already filling with flag-wielding folks dressed in red and yellow, excitedly chanting 'Yo soy español, español, español' in anticipation of the World Cup final match that evening: Spain versus Holland.

7pm and the metro was packed with screaming girls and sweaty bodies. Our aim to watch the match in an Irish bar near Cibeles, the major scene of football victory celebrations in Madrid (well, unless you're an Atlético fan), was quickly abandoned when we saw the crowds. Heading to the calmer - but still lively - calles of Chueca instead, we found a suitable bar and settled in to watch the match.

And what a match it was, marred by dirty tactics and dragging on into extra time. Concentration was starting to flag and the smoky atmosphere was taking its toll on our band of Brits plus an enthusiastic Swede. But then Iniesta scored and the bar was open-mouthed: finally, goooooool!! Vuvuzelas sounded, strangers embraced, I was lifted into the air. A few minutes later it was official: Spain were the world champions for the first time.

The streets rang with cries of 'Campeones, campeones'; men inexplicably took their shirts off (guys, you didn't score the goal, it's really not necessary); revellers sailed down Gran Via perched on office chairs and wheelie bins. The scene around Cibeles was a sea of red and yellow; police vans restraining would-be fountain jumpers. Taking the sensible option given that I had to work the next day, I made my way home, surrounded by happy faces and over-exuberant Spaniards.

The next day, the victory parade route was announced. Shameless glory-supporters K and I headed to Moncloa, at the beginning of the route, where the team's bus would begin its tour of Madrid. Half an hour before the scheduled departure, we took our places: one and a half hours later, standing in something that vaguely resembled a flowerbed (not an actual one, Mum, in case you're reading), we were still waiting. There's a reason the Spanish aren't famed for punctuality. Finally, the bus swept by us and cameras flashed, but we were surprised by the lacklustre crowds and matching responses from the players. As we watched, the proceedings burst into life further down the street: we took one look at each other and decided to follow the boys down Calle Princesa to get closer to the action.

Dashing down a series of sidestreets, we emerged just as the bus was passing again. The Spanish national team was now on form, with Casillas and Torres waving flags, Ramos larking about and a couple of players sipping cans of Mahou. The crowd was overjoyed; chanting, singing, frantically photographing. Although my Swedish partner in crime and I can't claim to be remotely español, there was something about the atmosphere and the sense of being a part of history (and Casillas's cheekbones - incredibly chiselled close up) that turned us two sensible young women into something reminiscent of a pair of teenage groupies at a boyband concert. We still hadn't had enough: we took to our heels again and raced down back streets to emerge on the other side of the bus. With a little help from our elbows (and K's tall, blonde good looks), we were somehow in the front row. Never a Torres fan until now, I was almost reduced to dribbling as he grinned down at us. It's amazing the effect a few sportsmen wielding a trophy can have on a girl. But my finest moment was yet to come: in true teenage style, I screamed at Ramos 'I'm your future wife!' Oh dear. Fortunately I wasn't the worst though: a minor TV presenter standing in front of me pulled down her T-shirt to reveal breasts painted with footballs. Classy.

An estimated 1 million took to the streets of Madrid last night to celebrate and welcome la selección home. Of course, some think this public outporing of joy is ridiculous and excessive: after all, the boys just scored a goal, they didn't broker world peace. However, coming at an uncertain time for Spain, with 20% unemployment and a troubled economy, the victory arguably meant much more to the population. Of course, winning the World Cup is no small thing, and this was Spain's first taste of such glory, but their success also gave the country something to celebrate, a reason to be happy and to feel proud. Some have even analysed the effects on regionalism, observing the attitudes and celebrations in the Basque country and Cataluña, but many believe that football can't even begin to solve the issues of separatism. Still, there seems to be no doubt that the victory has caught the national imagination and united the population behind something, if only temporarily. Let's just hope this feeling lasts longer than my teenage behaviour... Better leave it there, I'm off to pore over photos of my beloved. Did I mention Jesús Navas's blue eyes?


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