From Seattle skyline to Spanish seaside.

Guest Post-New Culture, New Climate: Sweating through Christmas

Fitting in perfectly with Christine’s summer-inspired posts about the best beaches in and around her location in Southern Spain, I thought it might be nice to add some of my own perspectives now that I’m heading into my second summer of 2011. Plus, Christine’s at home in cold, rainy Seattle this holiday season, so what a better way than to bring her some warmth! 

After seeing the beginnings of what was shaping up to be a beautiful and toasty summer in Florence, Lorenzo and I jetted off to spend a summer in the U.S. back with my family. Weather-wise that was a disappointment to say the least as the only real glimpses of summer we caught were in our short weeks in Southern California of days marred by smog and humidity held in by grey clouds.

Now that I’ve finally arrived in Sydney, and had a bit of time to get settled in, the summer has began showing its lovely face. In fact, Sydney seems to have skipped spring all together. With soaring temperatures and days that are generally a mix of brilliant blue skies and sun followed by evenings of balmy tropical thunder storms I’m feeling right at home.

 As I walked to work early in the morning this week, I passed by light poles and terraces strung with brightly colored strands of Christmas lights and wreaths adorning every corner of the popular main street of Sydney.

 I keep forgetting that it is the holiday season; it doesn’t seem right to be walking down the street, flip flops clapping along, sweating in the early dawn hours, and seeing wreaths and Christmas trees. Just outside the hotel where I work there is a giant banner along the road saying “Sydney Wishes You a Merry Christmas”. And although we haven’t began playing Christmas carols just yet, I can’t help really starting to feel the holiday spirit as these decorations start popping up.

 As the climate has changed over recent years, I’ve found it difficult to get into the swing of things when Christmases were no longer the white winter wonderland I remembered from my youth. Last year, our wimpy Charlie Brown Christmas tree was a tremendous effort but somehow the apartment still felt empty and void of family-filled Christmas love.

 Last year in Italy, I was introduced to a whole new holiday tradition, one which involved eating strange bits of animals (tongue and hoof are traditional holiday fare) and an entire day of eating. Literally, eating from mid-morning to late night. Family from every angle and even a short visit to the other side of the family led to an exhausting day. This year, I’m in for a completely new treat. As we roll around to the time of Thanksgiving in the States, I’m left without my amazing expat friends to cook me up a turkey, but I think I’ll survive as I know that I have days celebrating in Santa hats along the beach to look forward to. Lorenzo and I plan to celebrate, just the two of us, with a special Aussie tradition. Lunch on the beach, soaking up the rays of summer. I can’t wait. I’m a beach bum at heart and my love of Christmas can only be magnified when sand and surf are involved.

Sure I’ll miss the feeling of bundling up, Starbucks holiday cup in hand, scarf wrapped tight as I stroll through the downtown shops of Seattle or the famous Pike Place Market. But guess what? They have the same holiday treats at the Starbucks in Sydney! The simple difference is that they are iced rather than hot!

I’m excited to welcome yet another holiday season, slightly out of my comfort zone but still one that I can add to the list of holiday traditions that I have had the opportunity to enjoy.

Annie is an American expat living in Sydney, Australia after a year of Italian life in the art capital of Florence. Follow her adventures at waywardtraveller.com.

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Guest Post: What NOT to Do in Paris

I have to say that I struggled to write this – Paris is an exceptional city and it’s hard to put a foot wrong there. However, like any place that is so popular with tourists there are traps to avoid and some lesser-known attractions which don’t occur to the everyday traveller. Here’s a helpful list of things not to be done in Paris:

© zhijie zhuang

1. Don’t be frightened of venturing out of the centre of Paris

Some of the best attractions in France are outside of the centre, away from the loveliness of the River Seine. Among them is the unmissable Palace of Versailles. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is huge and has many things to see and do including the spellbinding Hall of Mirrors. Experience the best of French opulence.

2. Avoid the Gare du Nord train station in Paris

The central and premier train station of Paris is so packed that it will make London rush hour look like a movie theatre showing a Mel Gibson film. The escalators here often malfunction meaning you have to carry heavy bags and there is always the threat of pickpockets. Don’t do it unless absolutely necessary.

3. Don’t believe the stereotype – not all French people in Paris are rude

Stereotypes do often have some basis in truth and it surely adds to the appeal of the French that they are perfectly happy in their own country without caring whether anyone visits. But I have also had some fantastic friendly service in both hotels and restaurants in France; so give them the benefit of the doubt.

4. Don’t waste time seeing the Mona Lisa painting in Paris

Everyone will tell you this – in real life the Mona Lisa is overrated and not really worth all the fuss. You have to queue for absolutely ages to see it and it is quite small which means that much of the visual effect is lost.

On the other hand, the Louvre museum is full of amazing artworks and the building itself is a masterpiece, so use your time wisely. If you want to beat the crowds try the Carrousel entrance to the Louvre which is off of the Rue de Rivoli as it is usually less busy than just standing in line in front of the main Pyramid.


© Lukas Gojda

5. The Moulin Rouge in Paris might not be the most savoury place to visit

The Moulin Rouge may be one of the iconic nightclubs in Paris and the world, but people who become entranced with movies may forget that it built up a reputation as a den of iniquity for a reason. Women on their own may want to avoid walking around here late at night – however it is no worse than comparable places in comparable cities.

6. Don’t miss the Christmas lights on the Champs Elysees

It is a magnificent sight, but unfortunately the sparkle gets shut off at 11pm on the dot. Therefore, you need to get there before enjoying your other evening plans.

© Sergey Borisov

7. Don’t leave Paris without experiencing the view from the Eiffel Tower

Yes, it is expensive and the lines are long, but the view from the top of the Eiffel Tower (especially at sunset) is one that you will remember forever.  Many visitors to Paris believe that the experience at the Eiffel Tower is one of the highlights of their travels. Avoid the queues and save heaps of time by pre-purchasing your tickets online.

This guest post is by Ben from offtoeurope.com, a website that focuses on travel to Europe. Ben loves to travel and has visited over 200 destinations in 46 countries. Some of his favourite places to visit include Istanbul, Melbourne, Whistler, Dubai, San Sebastian, New York City, Rome, Tokyo, Mykonos, Niseko, Tallinn, Damascus, Boulder, Prague, Macau, Queenstown and Paris. You can follow offtoeurope.com on Twitter @offtoeurope or become a fan on Facebook.

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Guest Post: The Five Greatest Challenges of Immersing Yourself in Spain

Will Peach is one of the site editors over at Gap Daemon, the gap year community website for backpackers and gap year travellers. You can find out more about his adventures living in Spain at myspanishadventure.com.

Judging by the mountain pile of English speaking bloggers, travellers and teachers who head out to Spain to live, work and travel every year, one thing appears certain: Spain is a pretty easy place to get to grips with.

So when I first surfaced here in Cáceres, Extremadura over a month ago, I thought it would be simple: I’d just rock up and slip right into that sweet ass lifestyle that all these expat bloggers have been talking about right? Wrong.

 The truth is quite the opposite. Adjustment has been a grand struggle. That gloriously eroticised image of Spain as the capital of food, fun and fiestas? It’s not without its challenges.

Are my biggest five anywhere close to yours?

Number 1: La Comida Española

Before I moved out here lots of people had warned me: Spain loves its meat. They weren’t wrong. From juicy chunks of chorizo, to sumptuous little croquettes of chicken or pork, everywhere you turn in this country someone, somewhere, is devouring animal flesh. Especially here in Extremadura; the land of jamón!

For a vegetarian like me? Not ideal. Even eating out at restaurants (a single vegetarian one in a city of 120,000), dining in cafés or simply shopping in a neighbourhood store can all be challenges unto themselves. Not just because it’s difficult to find healthy, meat-free, options - there’s only so many tapas de vegetales (coleslaw) I can take – but also because the general understanding of Spanish people toward the principles of this lifestyle is one firmly rooted in the dark ages.

Now it probably wouldn’t be so bad if I didn’t feel like I was offending people. I can still easily get by on fruit, vegetables, salad and lentils from the supermarkets. But when going out with a group of hungry Spaniards (as is the cultural tradition) and las tapas are on the way, how then am I supposed to excuse myself without feeling that small pang of embarrassment?

That “tiny taste of tostada con jamón?” No I won’t make an exception. This whole not-eating-meat thing I’ve got going on here? It’s for life.

Number 2: El Idioma

As any student of Spanish will know, the two verb forms of “to be” in Spanish; “ser” and “estar”, are likely to bring our English speaking brains to a quick and timely death. Mine is on this verge.

Earlier this month my Spanish housemates were asking me about a fellow teacher, Tim, who they were acquainted with. Unbeknown to my housemates, Tim had just fallen sick a few days before, so when it came time to respond to their question I fell into the old two-verb trap. The error? A case of the wrong one: “el es malo”, meaning, quite literally, “he’s evil”.

Yet Tim isn’t the devil incarnate. Nor should he never be trusted nor seen again. But to my housemates, a usually quite hospitable bunch, he isn’t exactly flavour of the month. A wide berth has grown.

My mistake of mixing the two verbs? It’s already sealed the reputation of one young guy. I wonder how many more are to follow?

Number 3: La Mentalidad

Being British there are some things you simply just take for granted. Queuing is one of them, service is another. Our efficiency and commitment toward these things is sometimes even a great source of pride.

Here in Cáceres however, walking into a tienda (a small corner shop) or a supermarket is something akin to entering battle. Not only do you have to meander desperately around crazed old ladies bombing towards you with baguette spears, but then you have to wait a good 10 minutes while the conversation between the cashier and the customer in front comes to a slow and painful end.

This devil-may-care attitude? It’s the same with the table service in any restaurant or café where you have to flag down a waiter, much like I imagine an air traffic controller does when bringing in a Boeing 747 to Heathrow.  Want any kind of food or drink? Allow yourself a good hour. Ask for the bill well in advance too.

In fact, the next time I’m eating out and in a rush, I think I’m just going to have to leg it. This mentality invites every opportunity for a dine-and-dash.

 Number 4: La Calle

Imagine every conceivable obstacle known to man travelling down a street when all you want is a bag of sugar? That’s my daily reality.

Stepping outside of my apartment into what, at first, appears a quiet neighbourhood street is always a bit of an adventure. Not only do the cars come the wrong way to the one I’m expecting (damn the rest of the world driving on the right), but they come bloody fast too.

Yet the cars aren’t the half of it. When there aren’t any of those to contend with – I live in the old part of town so it gets a little quieter during the day – then there’s the Mexican kids booting footballs at me. When they’re taking a break? It’s the drunks’ turn to accost me for what tiny amount of suelto I may have.

Suddenly that bag of sugar or that carton (yes, carton, it’s hard to get chilled here) of milk turns into one of life’s big challenges. A lot more hectic than journeying down to your streets cosy little cornershop!

Number 5: La Marcha

Spain was supposed to rejuvenate my sense of youth and freedom yet I’ve never felt so old as I do now. Partying until 6am in the morning, as a Spanish lifestyle rule, is ruining me. My body? A shade of it’s former caña-starved self.

 Don’t get me wrong. The nightlife in this part of Spain is great. There’s always stuff to do, the bars are friendly and the people too, but their stamina? Unbelievable. Spanish people are like well-oiled partying machines, never resting, yet eternally fresh.

 Us Brits on the other hand are more accustomed to a beer or two at 8pm in a good ol’ British pub, home for a movie afterward and finding ourselves tucked up in a nice warm bed by the early hours.

Here in Spain nights out don’t even get started until way past my normal bedtime.  To join them I have to put up with being a weary, yawny, little mess. Those old British sleeping habits? They need to change!

What challenges did you face upon moving to Spain?

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