Sunday, 29 January 2012

You know you've lived in Spain when...

Have I mentioned I love Spain? Since I first moved there on my year abroad from university in 2004, the country's been firmly under my skin. Leaving Spain to return to my degree course in England was a wrench, but finding fellow students to talk to about our experiences of life there made it easier. Those little things that foreigners like me observe when we come face-to-face with Spanish culture, such as the fact that topping up red wine with Fanta is delicious rather than deranged, and that open staring at strangers is absolutely fine, turned out to be common to all of us guiris.

My year abroad: where the love affair began. With Spain, not this horse.

Browsing Facebook one day in 2007, I came across a group called 'You know you've lived in France when...'. Written by another year abroad student, it was a list of all the idiosyncrasies of French life that they had spotted while living there. A quick search revealed that there was no such group for Spain, so I decided to remedy that. Half an hour later, I had my own list, and 'You know you've lived in Spain when...' was created.

Initially intended  as a group for students like myself who were homesick for their temporarily adopted country and keen to reminisce about those aspects of la buena vida that made us chuckle, I was surprised by how many expats, former residents and Spanish natives joined. Within a few days, the group had members from all over the world. It continued to grow for the next few years, with members using it as a forum for discussion about life in Spain and to share experiences. It even featured in 20 Minutos. I confess I did very little with the group after the first year: I occasionally updated the list of reasons 'you know you've lived in Spain when...', but mostly I just left the group to grow by itself.

Today I discovered that Facebook has changed the format of its groups, and in doing so has removed most of the group's more than 72,000 members. I decided to create a page with exactly the same information, so if you were a member of the old group or just agree with my guiri observations about life in Spain (or even have some of your own to share), please 'like' the new 'You know you've lived in Spain when...' page.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

2012 travel dreams

I'm the kind of girl who likes to use her annual leave for something special. No duvet days for me: it's all about trips. So, where will my days off take me this year?

Since expanding my travel horizons into Asia in 2010, I've been keen to explore places I consider 'different'. Much as I love Europe, I feel that now is the time to travel to exotic, further-flung destinations far removed from my home country not just by distance, but by culture and lifestyle. 2011 took me to Marrakech, and 2012 will see me visit Istanbul, another city I've longed to experience for years. The flights are booked, and I can't wait to wander around the Blue Mosque in awe; to take a ferry across the Bosphorus, crossing the divide between Europe and Asia by boat; to indulge in plenty of Turkish cuisine.

But this month's Across the Café Table discussion is about travel dreams for the year ahead. Istanbul may still be a dream, but in a few weeks it will become a reality. South America, on the other hand, remains very much an idea; a treasured plan I'm working on with the help of the guidebook which arrived on my doorstep yesterday. And that, for me, is the first step to making this dream come true, too.

My love of the Spanish language means that South America is a natural choice of destination for me, yet the costly airfare and time required to visit enough to do it justice have thus far kept me away. I hope that this will be the year I get to see the waterfalls at Iguazu on the border between Brazil and Argentina...


... explore cosmopolitan Buenos Aires...

Buenos Aires
... and marvel at Chile's Lake District.

Chile's Lake District

Hopefully 2012 will be the year I get to do so! What are your travel dreams for 2012? Where would you like to visit that you've never been before? Head on over to The Travel Belles and share your thoughts.

All photos from Flickr Creative Commons.
Iguazu: santiago_richard
Buenos Aires: ClixYou
Chile: Phillie Casablanca

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Hello 2012: Hogmanay in Edinburgh

Ringing in the New Year in Edinburgh is on many a traveller's wish list. However, standing in the street shivering in high Scottish winds at the Hogmanay street party had never really appealed to me. Spending New Year's Eve with two close friends over dinner and drinks in Scotland's capital did capture my attention though, and so on 30 December 2011, I boarded a train north.


I certainly wasn't alone: thousands of Brits and tourists from further afield descend on Edinburgh every Hogmanay for some of the largest and most extravagant New Year celebrations in Europe. The attractions of the street party's famous bands, torchlight procession, fireworks and funfair aside, Edinburgh's an excellent  place to visit at any time of year. Between the natural beauty of Arthur's Seat, the historical significance of sights such as Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse and the vast range of shops and restaurants to choose from, there's more than enough to keep a visitor occupied for a  weekend.

But on this visit, we didn't come for the sights. Arriving at 4pm on Friday, we started as we meant to go on. Guided by Edinburgh resident A, the three of us kicked off the new year celebrations in style over pre-dinner drinks at swanky bar The Dome, a converted bank which serves up a slice of grandeur with your G&T. Proceedings took on a more, err, down-to-earth feel with dinner at La Lanterna, a cosy Italian place run by matriarch Toni, who A assured us would regale us with tales of restaurant-related woe and stories of how she was soldiering on single-handedly (before rewarding us with a gin for our troubles). No such luck: this time the neighbouring table had to lend their ears, but we did have the joy of the lights going down and the chef banging pan lids together to the tune of 'Happy Birthday ' while in the middle of our meal. One post-dinner drink to recover led to another, and before we knew it it was 4am and we were in a piano bar howling along to Frank Sinatra.

Needless to say, sightseeing wasn't high on our agenda for New Year's Eve. We did manage to squeeze in a visit to Edinburgh's newest attraction though: a visit to Edinburgh Zoo's latest acquisition, a pair of giant pandas. Named Tian Tian (Sweetie) and Yang Guang (Sunshine), these two cuties became the only pair of pandas on the British Isles when they arrived in December 2011.

Sweetie tucks in

Visitors have been flocking to see the pandas, much to the annoyance of the zoo's former star attraction, the penguins. The pandas' next-door neighbours have been experiencing 'monochrome envy' and hurling pieces of poo at waiting visitors, but thankfully for us their jealousy was under control while we queued. Hiding inside on this cold day, the pandas were happily chomping their way through piles of bamboo:  it's a hard life, being famous.

And there's even more out of shot

Night two of our celebrations was a somewhat classier affair, beginning with a late dinner at tapas bar Cafe Andaluz. Much more authentic than many UK offerings, the menu was so tempting we may have over-ordered – with 16 tapas between 5, manouevring the plates around the table was an almost military operation. It was as tasty as it looked though, and at £30 a head (including plenty of drinks), it was also a bit of a bargain for New Year's Eve.

We may not have graced the street party with our presence (headline act Primal Scream aren't exactly our cup of tea), but our chosen venue of chic Scottish bar Ghillie Dhu was close enough for us to pop out after midnight to watch the spectacular firework display. The DJ may have needed a little guidance from yours truly ('can you play something a bit more upbeat, you've got us all borderline suicidal'), but plenty of fun was had and temporary friends were made (largely on the basis of their tartan). It was a great way to  end to 2011 and begin 2012 – street party or not, I definitely understand the appeal of Hogmanay in Edinburgh.

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