Re-visiting my roots in the homeland

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I love surprises. Whether it be picking out a special present or planning out a spontaneous trip, you can always expect me to be game. Last weekend I did just that, as we made an unexpected visit back to the UK to surprise my brother for his 18th birthday. We were heading for the end of the M62, the home of the iconic Humber Bridge, towards my hometown; Hull.

For those of you that haven’t heard of Hull, you should know that it has always been the butt of jokes in the UK. Having been once named the worst place to live in the UK, Hull natives such as myself would often find themselves poking fun at the city they called home once they left the Yorkshire region. In the same way that you complain about your siblings, but you come to their defence the second somebody else criticises them, only born-and-bred Hull-dwellers were permitted to get away with such self-deprecation. From the very moment you call Hull your home, a somewhat love-hate relationship with the city is formed.

You should know at this point that Hull was once a thriving port city, peaking in prosperity just before World War I thanks to its importance in trade and fishing businesses. Being situated on the coast, looking out onto the North Sea, Hull was ideally placed to support these growing industries. However, after catastrophic air-raid damage in World War II (Hull being the heaviest bombed city outside of London due to its docklands and factories) and, later in the 20th Century, the deterioration of the fishing trade, resulted in widespread job losses, poverty and general economic decline. Growing up, there was a feeling that Hull, was a forgotten city, its inhabitants abandoned, left to their own devices. As the Hull poet Philip Larkin once said “I like it because its so far from everywhere else. On the way to nowhere, as somebody put it. Its in the middle of the lonely country, and beyond the lonely country there is only the sea.”

Many would agree that the city’s sporting victories began to put Hull back on the national map in the mid-2000s, with Hull’s ascent to the Premier Football League in 2008, as well as the success of the city’s two Rugby League rivals in the Super League. This tied in with several renovation projects, transforming the face of the city centre, brought a breath of fresh air and renewed hope into the once run-down city.

While I had seen these renovations with my own eyes, nothing had prepared me for the surprise of Hull being named as European City of Culture 2017. As we stopped off for some lunch in town on the weekend, we passed through a newly-paved and pedestrianised Queen Victoria Square to the Weeping Window exhibition – a collection of the ceramic poppies previously displayed at the Tower of London in 2014 to commemorate those who lost their lives in World War I. Inspired, I looked into other City of Culture events on offer. If I get a chance to catch a flight back in the upcoming year, I’ve bookmarked a variety of events, depending on the mood:

  • If music is your thing: Radio 1’s Big Weekend is being hosted in Hull this year with the likes of Katy Perry, Little Mix and King’s of Leon set to storm the stage. The North Atlantic Flux caught my eye too as during my uni days, I was a fan of Icelandic group Sigur Rós, so this would surely not disappoint.
  • If art is your thing: Again I couldn’t decide between these two events. The first, Washed Up Car-go is set to provide hard-hitting truths about pollution and consumerism, by filling cars in an ordinary car park with beach debris. The second is the Hullywood Icons exhibition – recreating famous Hollywood scenes with people and scenery from the Hull area.
  • If eating and drinking is your thing: The Yum! Festival of Food and Drink will feature over 50 stalls celebrating Yorkshire, British and World-inspired dishes, entertainment and live music in August. What’s not to love?
  • If anything else is your thing: The possibilities are endless. From carnival to ballet performances and opera, there is so much to see. Their website is updated on a regular basis as they add more events to their line-up.

Given Hull’s history, people scoffed when the honour of City of Culture was bestowed to Hull, just a mere decade on from being named the worst place to live in the UK. However, even since my last visit home for Christmas, the city has undergone a radical facelift, with numerous renovations, installations put into place and – dare I say it – a real variety of cultural activities on offer. But these renovations and events go further than just simple aesthetics; there is a sense of rejuvenation, bringing hope and restoring pride to its inhabitants, wearing their badges (or their sports shirts) with their heads held high, shouting at the top of their lungs “We. Are. Hull.”

Living in France: An Expat’s Guidebook

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I’ve been a bit absent from my blog recently. This is in partly due to preparing to move in with my boyfriend at the end of the month. We’ve finally fixed the place up with a splash of paint, some done-up vintage furniture and a hell-of-a-lot of cleaning. I was originally waiting to find my next job before moving in. However, being unemployed has actually been a blessing in disguise due to the sheer amount of paperwork, contacting and re-contacting companies and organisations that comes hand in hand with changing apartments.

Now, don’t get me wrong, this move is a walk in the park compared to when I first moved to Paris over three years ago. I was reminiscing with a couple of my expat friends, Lauren W and Lauren B, and inspired by my recent moving dramas, decided there are a few things you should be prepared for before taking the leap into the land of baguettes, cheese and wine connaisseurs.

  • You’ll learn the true meaning of bureaucracy: Be prepared for a stack of paperwork. Since the French administrative system hasn’t yet made it into the digital era, most contact should be sent by post. And on this note, don’t expect this to suffice. My motto is it’s not a done deed in France until you have received written confirmation – signed, stamped, dated, handed over in person after presenting your passport… the list is endless. Let me tell you that the day you receive your carte vitale, allowing you to access French healthcare, will be even greater than the birth of your first-born.
  • You’ll become an expert at planning in advance: The French are sticklers for the rules and the art of dining is no exception. Whether this be strict lunch service times between 12 and 2 or supermarket opening hours, be prepared to plan your meals in advance. The latter is not so much of an issue in Paris these days, except larger supermarkets, you should be able to find a local small shop open to grab those things you forgot in the week. This was however a massive culture shock when, on my first week in Angers during my Erasmus year, we had to head into town for a McDonald’s to not die from starvation, after finding every supermarket was closed on a Sunday.
  • You’ll grow accustomed to chasing down waiting staff for a drink: Speaking of restaurants, you’ll soon learn that if you want to order a drink, you better be ready to hunt down that waiter who you know has seen you and is resolutely ignoring your attempts to get his attention. Of course, there are many exceptions to this rule, with spots that offer great customer service. If you find one, keep it a closely guarded secret, as it is unfortunately a rarity on the Parisian dining out scene.
  • Your sense of style and appropriate attire will dramatically change: For me this was a positive change, as I inwardly cringe at some of the outfits I used to wear back in the UK. Going out in France is a much more casual affair than a night out clubbing in Newcastle. Less is more as far as style goes in France, so you shouldn’t have too much skin on show, unless you want to be cat-called in the street. My go-to is a good pair of skinny jeans, heeled boots and my beige trench coat – a stark contrast to my 18-year-old self who wouldn’t be caught dead with a coat, tights and anything other than 6-inch heels on a night out.
  • You’ll turn into a self-diagnosing hypochondriac: With a pharmacy on every street corner and doctors prescribing antibiotics and medication at the drop of a hat, it’d be hard not to. The French healthcare system is amazing once you have obtained the elusive carte vitale (see above) and the doctors are very rigorous. However, I’ve learnt to take medical advice for non-threatening ailments with a pinch of salt; for a simple cold I know I can still do without a trip to the doctor for a prescription for a million different tablets.

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, this way of life is just something that you will adapt to, given time. Born and bred Frenchies will not think twice about sending a million letters, forms and documents just to achieve a simple task, as they are used to this way of life. If you take that chance and emigrate here, you too will adapt and normalise these parts of everyday life.

It will become so engrained in you, that when you return home or holiday in another country, you will experience, as Lauren B described it, a reverse culture shock – you’ll find yourself irritated by the waiter who pops up every five minutes with a fake smile plastered over their face, or find it preposterous that you should have to wait months to get an appointment with anybody other than your regular GP. In spite of the inconveniences or surprises that you may experience upon arrival in France, these will seem like minor bumps in the road with time, as you get used to the French way of life. Believe me when I say, it is all worth it to be living in such a wonderful, beautiful place and quite frankly, I couldn’t see myself anywhere else.

A busy break to Budapest – Part 2

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Only we could end up at a Michelin Star restaurant without knowing it. My boyfriend and I arrived in Budapest on Friday evening and, being accustomed to the Parisian dining out scene, we thought we could show up to restaurants without reservations and wait for a table, as is our usual weekend struggle. Turns out not all cities work this way. Being a Brit, I should have remembered my roots; actually when I arrived in Paris I was astounded and frustrated by the amount of restaurants that did not accept reservations. Somewhere along the 4 years of living in this city, I realised, I had accepted this as par for the course when eating out.

My usual routine of travelling abroad involves scouting the local restaurant scene, researching online and chatting to my friends who had previously visited to recommend some spots. True to form, we arrived with a shortlist of five or so restaurants renowned for goulash, strudel and other typically Hungarian dishes. After being turned down for a table in several places, we even asked if we could book ahead for the next night – fully booked. I began to despair, starting to believe that KFC was going to be our only option for the weekend.

And so when we arrived at Borkonyha Winekitchen, either the waiter could see our visible desperation or we simply had a stroke of luck. They had a table free – at 10pm. Two hours and a few drinks later, we returned for our booking.

After being seated the friendly waiter asked if we would be interested in their tasting menu accompanied by wine. Perhaps the drinks from earlier had gone to my head or I was hungrier than I realised, but I thought we were onto an absolute bargain with the 20,000 Ft. price tag! Turns out my conversion maths was not up-to-speed; my boyfriend told me the euro equivalent with a smile as the waiter walked away. Despite the higher-than-anticipated bill at the end for me it was worth every cent.

We started with leg of rabbit, served with asparagus tips and cauliflower puree. I’m not usually a fan of cauliflower, but the seasoning made this dish so delicious. This was swiftly followed by a tasty cabbage and bacon ragout topped with confit de canard. It was so delicious, we mopped up every last drop with some bread from our three-bread variety basket, including a very moreish black bread.

We washed down the rest of our Hungarian white wine – seriously, don’t knock it till you try it – with our fish dish; a grilled crumble-topped sea bream served with green beans and my first taste of caviar. Another first was soon to follow with our next plate; tenderloin of deer accompanied by a crumble, rosemary beetroot and jus. We finished off the remainder of our red wine with a sweet treat; a variety of chocolate truffles, paired with orange sorbet and a slice of bloody orange cake.

At this point I was texting my friend Lauren who had recommended the spot to me, when she mentioned that it was in fact a Michelin Étoile restaurant. While I was surprised that we had managed to even secure a spot at this place on a busy Friday evening, I was not shocked by her revelation; the food had been amazing and was quite possibly the fanciest and most indulgent meal I will ever eat. So if you’re in Budapest, I would highly recommend this restaurant – just don’t take the chances I did and be sure to book in advance!

 

A busy break to Budapest: part 1

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“You can’t do Budapest in a weekend,” many of my friends and family told me as I mentioned our planned mini-break “Five days is probably minimum to get everything done.” If I could afford to take a week out, of course we would have planned a longer break together! Yet, being restricted by my boyfriend’s available holiday days and me wanting to be available for any upcoming job interviews, we knew we had to plan carefully if we wanted to make the most out of our busy whistle-stop tour of Budapest.

After a spot of Saturday lunch at the First Strudel House of Pest, we started out on a walking tour I had drafted the day before, making sure we would check off all the main sights on our list within just a few hours of daylight. On our way down to the river, we stumbled across a war memorial in Szabadság Square that is proving to be very controversial amongst the citizens of Hungary. The monument depicts the Archangel Gabriel being attacked by a German imperial Eagle, which -so its critics say- is an attempt to absolve the Hungarian state and its citizens from their active participation in sending 450,000 Jewish people to their deaths under Nazi occupation.

In front of this memorial lies a scattering of flowers, personal objects and photographs amongst some barbed wire. This is the protest from the citizens of Hungary who claim that, by depicting Hungary as an innocent angel being corrupted by evil, the state is attempting to re-write history, choosing to forget the extent to which they willingly complied and collaborated with the Nazi regime. Post-war remembrance and guilt, has always been a fascinating subject to me and was even the subject of one of my university essays on the history of France, and so, this site of protest is a must for any secret history nerds like myself.

After admiring the architecture of the magnificent red-roofed Parliament Building we continued along our riverside stroll, stopping at the Shoes on the Danube Bank – a very different memorial than we had seen earlier in the day. The memorial commemorates the many people, mostly Jews, who were killed on these banks during World War II; after being ordered to remove their shoes on the bank of the river, these people were shot and left to fall to their deaths. The sculpture is a very real reminder of the people who died here through representing the shoes that were left behind on the bank, as the river washed their bodies away.

The next stop of our walking tour was to cross the river on the iconic, albeit very windy Széchenyi Chain Bridge. The Danube may be the longest river in Europe, but while battling the wind on the bridge, it felt like we were crossing the widest river not only in Europe, but in the world. Needless to say, we were relieved to step into the still, sunny surroundings of the Buda side of the river. By this point, my boyfriend had started to complain about his feet hurting, so I agreed to a slight compromise – we would take the funicular up to the top of Buda Castle, taking a slower-paced stroll back down. He agreed begrudgingly. Yet, once we arrived at the summit and took in the magnificent panoramic view of the city, there were smiles all round. Of course, this may have partly been because he knew the torture of my guided walking tour was soon to end – with a trip to one of the city’s famous thermal baths.

We had several popular baths to choose from, but finally opted for the Rudas Thermal Baths, as recommended by our Airbnb host. Upon arrival, there were several options to choose from, but we didn’t hesitate to opt for their “wellness” session including access to several thermal baths as well as the panoramic view from their rooftop pool. It is a very surreal feeling when you step outside to temperatures of 5°C in nothing but your bikini or your swimming trunks (thank God this was not one of the naturist baths). And yet, once your shoulders are safely dipped below the surface of the water, there is no more natural and blissful feeling in the world, soothing your muscles post-14km-hike, all the while with a smug grin on our faces; we had proved to our family and friends that you can do Budapest in a weekend, with just a little determination, some meticulous planning and a very patient companion.