Saturday, August 20, 2016

A weekend in Miffytown: Utrecht, The Netherlands

Back in July, to celebrate a long weekend due to Belgium's national day we naturally headed out of the country. Both of us fancied something low-key, preferably without having to fly, so we decided it was high time to check out a bit of Belgium's northern neighbour. There are any number of interesting cities within a few hours' drive (The Hague, Delft, Leiden, Maastricht, Rotterdam to name a few) but after some deliberation, we settled on Utrecht. Basically just because it seemed quite a pleasant place.

On the way, we took a small detour through Baarle-Hertog/Baarle-Nassau, a place I've wanted to visit for some time. If you google Baarle, you'll find all manner of enthusiastic articles that basically make it seem like a wonderland of geographical oddities. Basically, although the whole area is surrounded by the Netherlands, you have scattered bits which belong to Belgium, and within these are further Dutch enclaves. It looks like this:


These articles make the town sound super-exciting: you have a restaurant where the clients all have to switch tables at a certain time of night because the Dutch side can stay open longer than the Belgian! You have houses which have their kitchen in Belgium and their dining room in the Netherlands! The insanity! Truth is, it's actually a pretty boring place. We thought you'd see borders running back and forth all over the town centre, but, although there were some, they're just lines on the road. There's a reason all the photos in those articles look pretty much the same. It's hard to find a spot that isn't just the border running across some tarmac and terminating in a garage wall with a wheelie bin next to it. Anyway, fun enough to visit for half an hour on the way to somewhere else, but if we had driven out there specifically I would have been a grumpy bunny.

Jules astride the border
Utrecht proved to be pleasant indeed. It still had the vibe of a laidback student town even in the middle of summer. Its main feature are the canals running through the centre, which are the perfect places to go for a drink and to watch the world go by.





Enjoying a drink right next to the water 



The canal area was also a prime location for Pokémon Go players. This was maybe the week after the game was released in Europe, and there were a crazy amount of people playing outside on the fine summer evenings.

Including me!
The Dom, or cathedral, is another prominent feature. The inside of the cathedral itself was not that exciting, but next to it is a really pretty cloister garden we liked a lot. You can climb up the Dom tower, but only as part of a guided tour that takes like an hour, so on the first day we were too tired and then the weather was not as good on the other days, so we didn't bother. The Dom tower is actually no longer attached to the cathedral proper, because the section in between was destroyed in a storm in the 17th century.

View of the Dom tower


Canal and Dom tower by night

The beautiful cloister garden

Heading in to the cloisters





The only thing of note we really did was a visit to the Catharijneconvent museum, which focuses on religious art. Long-time followers of the blog will know I'm a sucker for that sort of thing. It had a beautiful treasury, full of reliquaries and monstrances and such things, and a nice collection of paintings through the ages. Probably not for everyone, but nice enough.


"You wanna go? I'll take you down mofo!"

When he tries to sneak out without waking you up

A creepy modern version of the Pietà
Finally, Utrecht is the birthplace of Miffy, the adorable little bunny! Did you know Miffy's real name is Nijntje? We didn't make it to the Miffy museum but we saw Miffy's traffic light!








High excitement! All in all, Utrecht is a great place for a short break if you're looking to eat and drink and take it easy. Pro tip: we left the car in a park and ride outside the city which cost 5€ for the whole time we were there, plus a day bus pass for both of us. Versus parking in the centre near our hotel, which was 30€ overnight! As you might expect from a Dutch city, the place is car-unfriendly and bike-friendly. Try not to get run over!

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Lucky (move) number 13

So I worked out when preparing my "Decade in Review" that I've moved 13 times in the last ten years. Oof! In fairness, most of the early moves just involved me and as much stuff as I could carry (which, contrary to my father's nay-saying, was around 40 kilos). But on the other hand, all except two moves (in Tours and Brussels) have involved changing cities and/or countries. That is, how you say, a pain in the arse no matter how much stuff you have.

The most recent move was prompted by the boyfriend moving in last October. My old place was 45 sq metres (I think? Like my glasses prescription, this is something everyone else seems to know - for themselves - but I always forget), which was great for a single gal plus cat but not so much when Jules moved in and inconveniently insisted on bringing things like books and clothes with him.

So we gave notice just before our trip to NZ and once we got back the hunt was on to find a new place before the end of May. We actually only saw three places, ending up taking an apartment one street over from our old place. I would have liked having a direct transport link to work, but otherwise, we know and like the neighbourhood, so it made sense to stick with this area.

Plus the new place ticked pretty much all the other boxes. It's way bigger, a duplex (two floors) around 140 sq m (although a lot of space is lost to things like the stairs and the sloping roof on the top floor. Talking of which, a slopey roof was, unsurprisingly, not one of our requirements, but we are very pleased to be on the top two floors. As my sister can testify, in the old place a demon child lived above us who loved nothing more than to rampage up and down on our ceiling making as much noise as humanly possible. So now we get to be the ones annoying the downstairs neighbours, with no retribution. The third big problem with the old place was that it only had a small fridge with a freezer compartment. Even the motorhome we stayed in in New Zealand had a bigger fridge! It was a real pain having to shop basically every other day since we couldn't have much frozen food and anything big like a big bag of spinach basically took up 1/4 of the fridge space. Lastly, it met the terrace and bathtub requirements, so pretty much a home run.

New terrace. On, like, the only sunny weekend this summer, in which we spent 90% of the time indoors moving house
Finally, a move with a furniture lift! I'm so easily impressed

Bob surveying the empty (old) apartment. He has been a super trooper with the move! Even knew how to go up and down the stairs from day one!
 A bigger place meant more furniture, so we have spent the last couple of months busily shopping at IKEA and assembling our purchases. We had the idea to get a nice mid-century sideboard and found a few in antique shops that were gorgeous (and expensive!) but we didn't get our act together to buy one before the move, and then afterwards there would be the problem of how to get it into the apartment. It would basically mean hiring a lift, with all the hassle and the expense that involves. So, sadly, we stuck with our all-IKEA decor since that, at least, we can haul up the narrow stairs ourselves.

The light in the kitchen was the worst. Ugly as hell and hung down too low

We switched it out and added extra bench space - the right-hand side is all new, from IKEA (I'm sorry I didn't take a before picture of the kitchen, because this was where we made probably the biggest change)

Then the finishing touch (almost, there's a couple of bits and pieces we still haven't sorted out) was the long-awaited arrival of a few boxes of things from New Zealand. Mostly books and a few paintings, this was stuff I'd left behind 7 years ago when moving to Europe. I'm so excited to have all my old university books back, many with notes and highlights, all reminding me of my student days. I don't tend to over-sentimentalise books too much (it irritates me if you see some craft project using books online, like a découpage or something, and all the comments are HOW DARE YOU DESECRATE THIS BOOK? Yeah, this mass-market paperback of which a billion copies exist. It's not a sacred object. End rant) but yeah, my uni books are still special to me!

It was like Christmas when all my stuff arrived from NZ
The finished product

I still dream of a room with floor-to-celing built-in bookcases. But a wall of Billys (already full!) is a start

My (and Jules's) preciouses
The week of the move, we had just come back from Berlin (I swear, I can't move without sticking an international trip in the mix, just to stress myself out), and that weekend was also the Brussels Food Truck festival. The evening before M-Day, we snuck out after a full day of packing to get some fresh air and sunshine and conveniently have dinner without needing any of our packed-away utensils. Win win! This year, for security reasons, it was held in the Park Royale - which was actually great on a hot day, with plenty of shade and grass to lounge about on.

It was a popular event on a Friday evening

Jules tucks in

Peko peko was one of our favs from last year

Wine and some sort of fried cheese-chorizo lollipop makes a happy Gwan

This is actually a different park. But another nice day (rare)
So, as moves go, #13 was relatively stress-free. It's been fun decorating and fixing up the place and we're pretty happy so far. Signed a three-year lease, so long may that continue!

Monday, August 08, 2016

Gwan's Decade in Review

Now here's something to make me feel old. Today is my tenth anniversary of blogging. I sprang into the world's almost no-one's consciousness on the 8th of August, 2006, with a post detailing my movements over the next six weeks for the edification of my "random stalkers". Since then, the blog has seen me through good times and bad, with a pause for most of 2008 and 2009 when I was back in New Zealand, followed by a triumphant revival when I came roaring back to France as a language assistant. I don't recommend going back and reading it all, but here is my vainglorious Decade in Review.

2006 - Move to Europe, Take One

These were tumultuous times for young Gwan. Fresh from finishing my Masters, I came to Europe with a vague plan - do a CELTA English teaching course in Prague, find a job, preferably in Russia, and see how things panned out. Things panned out as planned for a short time, before derailing as I discovered I pretty much hated teaching and was bad at it.

Highlights

  • Visiting the "bone church" at Kutna Hora, a spooky spot that had been on my bucket list from back when I never really thought I'd go to any of these places

  • I visited Vienna, and it's not hard to see why it always ranks highly in the lists of "most liveable cities". It's clean, orderly, and has more grand, imposing imperial sites than you can shake a stick at. The Kunsthistorischesmuseum and Schönbrunn Palace were particular favourites.
Fountain near the town hall

  • Cesky Krumlov is also a destination I heartily recommend if you ever find yourself in the area. The town is encircled by a loop of river and overlooked by a cute castle. Plus you might see the CK goat if you're lucky
    • I had my wallet stolen or otherwise misplaced just before I had to buy a visa and plane ticket to Moscow, leaving me with only a 100€ traveller's cheque (omg, remember traveller's cheques?!?), no money, no cards, and an appointment to be in Russia in a week to start a new job. I kind of look back now and marvel at my resilience and determination. I can't imagine organising myself to move to Russia within the space of a week with no money now, but somehow I managed. It's also weird to look back at what a different world it was. Sure, we had the internet at home since I was about 13 years old, but I headed off to Europe with no laptop (and no smartphone, obviously) and had to do all my organising and blogging from internet cafés. Finding the Russian consulate was a matter of wandering to vaguely the right part of town, bothering the guy at the embassy in broken Russian, and then using a paper map to get to where I actually needed to be. We've come a long way, baby (but maybe travel isn't quite as exciting as it used to be?)
    • Life in Moscow mostly consisted of commuting a lot and teaching badly, but it was pretty interesting to see Russian life from the inside. I studied some Russian language/culture/history at university, and I've long been fascinated with the place. I'm glad I went when I did, because it's pretty much off the table for me at the moment. I used my time there to make observations about moneythe poorpublic transport, and (Western) Christmas in Moscow. And best of all, the broom in our apartment was just a bundle of sticks.

    2007 - I quit and moved to France (the first time)

    So, I didn't stop hating teaching, and shortly after my mini New Year break, I quit. Thus lasting a glorious two months or so in Moscow. After a brief and unfulfilling stint in London and a surprise trip back to Prague, I moved to the Nord-Pas-de-Calais (or is that the Hauts-de-France?) for five months, then down to Chamonix before quitting again in a blaze of glory. I see a trend here...

    Highlights

    • New Year's Eve in Moscow is definitely something to experience once in your life. A mix of abject terror as people throw fireworks at and around you, and wonder at the pretty colours (and concern about losing toes to frostbite).
    I'm still annoyed I lost my nifty detachable hood somewhere
    • Going to the Kremlin and Lenin's tomb was pretty cool. Still annoyed with myself that I never went in St. Basil's Cathedral.
    Hooded again, at the Kremlin
    • Am glad I made it to St. Petersburg - still one of the best cities I've ever been to. The Hermitage is amazing, and the city itself is gorgeous on a sunny winter's day. I also went to Tsarskoe Selo, a palace outside St. Petersburg.
    The Bronze Horseman

    • Living in a holiday camp in northern France was a bit of a weird one. It instilled camaraderie, but also intense irritation and boredom. I compared it to living in the Big Brother house at the time. I got paid to see all the wonders of northern France and Belgium, but five months was definitely enough.
    Beamont-Hamel
    • Then it was on to Chamonix, where I got a job that I hated about as much as teaching. To this day, I pretty much hate speaking French on the phone after two months of being shouted at and hung up on by mean French people. On the bright side, Chamonix is a super place to party, and I fitted in quick trips to Italy and Switzerland while I was there.

    2008 - Back to school

    The blog was not busy in 2008, as I packed in the Chamonix job before the New Year, retreated to England to be looked after by Mum and Dad, and had a couple quick trips before heading back to New Zealand and back to university.

    Highlights

    • I got robbed again, yay! This time, the thief struck on the sleeper train between Prague and Krakow, which I later heard is notorious for such things.
    • We then visited Auschwitz, which feels a bit wrong in the "highlights" category, but was a moving experience.
    • My last trip before heading home was to Istanbul, which was chaotic but fun. Here, it was my friend who got pickpocketed, not me, score! It also houses one of my all-time favourite sites, the Chora Church.



    2009 - Europe calling

    After wrapping up my Masters, I quit my job (yes, again) for the chance to move to Nice as an English teaching assistant. This time around, teaching didn't suck quite so much (the "assistant" part of the deal helped a lot). I was poor and had some I-hate-you problems with a flatmate, but I had plenty of free time and was living in a really beautiful part of the world.

    Highlights

    • Before heading to Nice, I had a couple of weeks in Italy. I got to go to my first Formula One race, in Monza:

    • I saw the works I studied in high school Art History classes, sometimes via black and white photocopies, for realsies, and soaked up some history in Rome:
    The Brancacci chapel (Florence)
    • Between cultural visits, I walked between the villages of the Cinque Terre, pre-floods, before heading to Genoa

    • And then to Nice, where for the next seven months I continued exploring the coast on foot. As I write, it's just a few days after the terrorist attacks there, which makes reflecting on my time in the city somewhat bittersweet. Yes, the lives lost are not more important just because it's somewhere I know well, but I think it is only human nature to be more affected if you feel a personal connection.
    A ship heading out from the port at Nice

    2010 - Get a real job

    Working 12 hours a week (maximum, I ALWAYS had cancelled classes) was fun and everything, but not such a sustainable lifestyle option. So as my assistant contract drew to a close, I sent my CV around not so many places, as I recall, and was lucky enough to net a non-teaching job in Tours.

    • I wrapped up my time in Nice with lots of enthusiastic walking around the place, which was generally beautiful and made me feel good and is now making me feel bad because of my general laziness and lack of exercise. Let's hope Pokémon Go takes the place of beautiful landscapes and mild weather of the Côte d'Azur \s
    Near Monaco
    Back in the days when I walked places

    • And then in October, I took a trip to Venice, which turned out to be a great time to visit, since there weren't the hordes of tourists which, I am reliably informed, plague the city in the summer, and I got to see the very photogenic acqua alta


    2011 - Annus horribilis 

    2011 was meant to be just about plugging away in the same job and the same flat, making friends, exploring the Loire Valley, and finally having enough money for a proper summer trip. But while my work contract was renewed for a second year, But then, one evening in June I came home to find - long story short - that my flatmate had been stealing my rent money, not paying her rent either, and we were being evicted. So that was fun. Cue stressful and sometimes insane house hunting, eventually having to borrow (or "borrow") a ton of money from my parents to finance a move, and ending up living by myself for the first time ever. Well, only for a few weeks until I got house-invaded by my cute little furry sidekick, that is. 

    Highlights

    • I made some friends, which was nice. The group of friends I eventually had was definitely one of the highlights of my entire time in Tours, and I still feel a bit sad that a bunch of them have now moved away, even though obviously I did too. But we have a pretty solid schedule of meeting up for the wine festival every year (at least for those of us still in this hemisphere).
    • Just after the rent stealing bombshell, I got a much-needed mini-break to Strasbourg to stuff myself with choucroute, flammekueche and spätzle. And admire the incredible cathedral and gorgeous medieval centre, of course. The frescoes in the Saint Pierre le Jeune church were a particular highlight.
    View from the cathedral
    One of the best bits: climbing 91 metres up inside a giant woman
    Jess enjoying her Michelin dessert

    2012 - Encore pire

    Well, maybe 2012 wasn't worse than 2011, but after having been promised a contract renewal by my old boss, she left and I abruptly got the axe (well, not renewed, technically) by the new boss. By letter. Without ever speaking to me (like, he literally never spoke to me once). So that was bad, and I was pretty depressed and poor (although French chômage is like unbelievably generous), and thus it was for the rest of the year.

    Highlights

    • Before this all happened, the Loire froze over, which was really pretty (and cold)



    • I was visited by friends, and used my unemployed status and subsequent free entry to things in order to see some of the sights of the region, such as Fontevraud AbbeyLoches,  Le Mans, and, a particular favourite, Angers. (Or Gladdens, as I henceforth rebaptise it.)
    Part of the Apocalypse Tapestry in Angers
    • Being a bum also got me free entry to the Louvre, where I saw an amazing manuscript exhibition, very fondly remembered years later, which is not always the case with exhibitions
    •  *The* highlight of the year had to be our family trip to Norway. We drove from Oslo to Sunndalsora, about halfway up the coast, and then to the incredibly picturesque "Trollstigen" road. It's superlatively photogenic and breathtaking, I can't wait to go back some time.
    Super lucky with the weather, too
    • Then at the end of the year, I turned 30, and managed to celebrate it in three different locations for the big three-oh: at Disneyland Paris (this was free, too), in London, and at home in Tours




    2013 - All change

    Not one for stability, in 2013 I had two different jobs and moved across France to Metz. Metz made me pretty miserable, considering I had to work long hours and commute to Luxembourg. But at least it was a job. Moving was monumentally stressful, once again. Between Ryanair screwing up and a train strike, I managed to lose crucial pre-move hours stuck in England and then Nantes, then got into an argument with my rental agent and almost failed to hire a van, but we managed it in the end.

    Highlights

    • Early in the year, I cashed in my meagre air miles for a one-way ticket to Bologna, and also swung by Padua to see some fabulous Giotto frescoes. This is another part of the world I'd really love to go back to and explore further. Tuscany gets all the love (and I want to see more of it, too), but there's such amazing stuff all over Italy, it's been too long since I was last there.
    One of Bologna's many covered passages


    • I went to my second Grand Prix, at Spa. Didn't get the result we were hoping for, but got to enjoy the atmosphere at one of the all-time classic F1 tracks.
    • Somehow also fit in a trip to the Amalfi Coast with my parents. It seems to be a super speciality of mine to end up with a hectic travel schedule on the books at the same time as planning and executing major moves. We stayed in Sorrento, visited the coast, PompeiiNaples, and Capri. Super beautiful, mostly relaxing, great food. We just cracked open a bottle of limoncello I brought back with me, which has been hanging out in my freezer/cupboard ever since, just waiting for some sunshine.
    Capri

    2014 - #ForeverAlone gets a boyfriend and almost immediately abandons him

    2014 was another year of changes, but mostly good ones for a change (lame pun intended). The job in Luxembourg I moved for was originally only a three-month contract. I was kind of desperate, so I took the gamble, and did actually get an extension, but in the meantime, news came down the wire that I had been offered another job in Brussels. Complicating matters slightly, I had only been dating the boyfriend for a few weeks at that stage. I had no clue whether he would be amenable to moving to a "medium-distance" setup, but luckily we gave it a go, and it worked pretty well until I successfully lured him to Brussels full-time. And I was so pleased to leave my dank, mouldy, piss-soaked, dark, soulless box of an apartment, not to mention the spirit-sapping daily commute that left me too tired to do anything other than heat up some pasta and flop into bed at the end of the day. Bob the cat was excited to get a new home with amenities such as light and fresh air, too. So much so, he stopped weeing all over the place, #result.

    Highlights
    • started the year in the UK, as a Christmas waif and stray taken in by my friend Liz's family in the Bath area, before heading to London for NYE with other friends.
    Bath Abbey ceiling
    Saint Maclou, Rouen
    • Before leaving Metz/Luxembourg, I hopped over the border to Trier, Germany, and discovered a gorgeous little church, filled with wonderful stained glass, as well as plenty of Roman ruins in "Germany's oldest city".

    One of the unbelievable frescoes in Cologne cathedral



    RIP Susi :(
    • We had a family (+ Jules) holiday in Madrid in October, which turns out to be a beautiful, cultured and chilled out city. For whatever reasons, I didn't have super high expectations (not low ones, either, but I hadn't really heard much about it), but I loved it. Tons of amazing food, cool architecture, and really world-class art museums (could have skipped the Reina Sofia though).

    Calamari sandwiches to kick off our tapas crawl
    • The year ended with a sprinkling of snow and a visit to Reading Between the Lines, my favourite "unknown" Belgian tourist attraction (this and Vitiloire, I swear I should be getting paid for promoting).


    2015 - Hey, that's last year already!

    How time flies, except when you're preparing an ultra-long retrospective blog post so anyone stumbling across this can profile most of my adult life with ease. Anyway, FOR ONCE, I neither changed jobs nor accommodation, except for the fact that I did get a new job (started on the 1st of January 2016 though!) and Jules moved in with me after more than a year of shuttling back and forth between Brussels and Luxembourg every weekend.

    Highlights


    • I headed to Marrakesh with Liz for some winter sun. And that's about the best I can say about Morocco. Okay, there were some nice/interesting sights to see, but not mind-blowing and definitely didn't make up for the constant (mostly) low-grade harassment, sexual and otherwise. It was definitely a different experience though, so I'm glad I did it once, but not in a rush to go back.
    In the Madrasa
    • It was back to Champagne for our first anniversary. This time, we ventured outside Reims and enjoyed a drive to Epernay, via a fondly-remembered champagne and local food tasting sesh at Au 36 in Hautevillers. And we saw a giant boar statue on the way back, which is fondly memorialised chez nous in the form of a fridge magnet.
    
    • Hot on the heels of Champagne, we took an Easter trip to the Lake Constance/Bodensee area of Germany, stopping off at a three Michelin star restaurant on the way. This happened to be on April 2nd, and to be honest, Jules still has not forgiven me for texting him the day before and saying I didn't think I'd be able to take the train down to Luxembourg to meet him because I had an upset stomach. I didn't really think he'd buy it, but I had to quickly reveal the truth just in case he cancelled the reservation! Our trip took in Freiburg, a drive through the Black Forest, and a quick stop at Titisee before winding up at the Bad Hotel in Uberlingen. We saw very old frescoes on the island of Reichenau, and generally enjoyed the region's cute little towns such as Meersburg.
    Meersburg


    • We also popped over the border to Macedonia/FYROM, specifically Ohrid, which is also super cute and reminiscent of (pictures of) the Croatian coast, but without the cruise ships.
    

    At Peyreperteuse


    2016 - Here we are

    It's been a crap year for the world so far (let's hope it doesn't get even worse, *cough* Trump *cough*), but a pretty good year for me. I started my new job in January and then, shortly afterwards, absconded for five weeks for my first trip back to New Zealand in more than 6 years. There was a terrorist attack my first week back at work, Britain Brexited, and it seems at the moment we go hardly a day without another horrific attack somewhere. 

    Highlights so far








    • Since then, I've been lazy as hell on the blogging front. Hopefully coming soon: we visited Berlin, moved house, went to Vitiloire (an annual highlight) and saw the hunting dogs being fed at Chevernay, and just last weekend we were in Utrecht. Otherwise, things are quiet on the travel front since I've had to take on some extra duties at work and Jules is changing jobs. But that means extra travel days saved up for later at least!



    Just for fun, here are my most popular posts (not quite of all time, since it reset the statistics some time, when Blogger was taken over by Google, maybe?):

    • Becoming an auto-entrepreneur. Read all about how I became self-employed in France and did, like, one job back in 2012. Honestly, there are probably better how-tos out there.
    • How to date a Frenchman. This one I like, since people presumably think they are going to get the sort of Cosmo-style insights which I am mocking in this post.
    • Flying UK visit. Went to the UK, visited a friend, celebrated my sister's birthday, went to Greenwich. Dunno why this is in the top three.
    • Hwæt ræde ic? Ælfric's Colloquy. In which I talk about and translate a little of an Anglo-Saxon manuscript. Kind of like that this one is inexplicably popular. I guess it must be people desperately googling for any help with it. But how many people are even studying this?
    • Soirée raclette. As it says in the title, we ate some raclette. I can only put this one down to how much people like cheese.

    

    Thanks to everyone who has read and commented over the years. I've made some lovely friends (virtual and otherwise) and really enjoyed interacting with you and being able to catch people up with what's going on with me. If I had started blogging today, well, first maybe I wouldn't have. I'm a lot more aware of the potential for accumulating information about people and using things like face recognition than I was ten years ago. (But not so much that I didn't make this epic "here's all the details in one handy place" post, of course.) I also know my blog is a bit old-fashioned compared to the slicker, more marketable efforts I see these days, which is reflected in the number of people who read it. I probably write sentences which are too long, make too many jokes which only I think are funny, and go vague on concrete details and long on idiosyncratic observations about the places I visit. But I hope at least it's authentic to my point of view and experience, and if nothing else, it's a pretty cool time capsule for me.