“It’s the Ciiiiiiiiircle of Liiiiiiiiife …”

I went to Hamburg again; it was not purely a family visit, as I had an appointment set up for the afternoon, but Anna needed to cancel it last minute due to health issues.

My stay was still put to good use: First, I visited my uncle and aunt for a couple of days and then stayed with Jen for a further two days. We did something I had never done before – we went on a harbour tour, spending a sunny afternoon ferry-hopping, commenting on other passengers, and laughing our heads off (Jen was particularly amused by me reenacting Simba’s introduction scene from The Lion King with a bag of M&Ms whilst singing “The Circle of Life”).

Even though my appointment fell through, I still had another great time in Hamburg … and Anna and I will have another try in about two weeks.

Und wieder stand ein Besuch in Hamburg an; ausnahmsweise ging es mal nicht vorrangig um meine Familie, da ich heute Nachmittag einen Termin gehabt hätte, aber Anna musste aus gesundheitlichen Gründen kurzfristig absagen.

Meinen Aufenthalt habe ich trotzdem gut genutzt: Zuerst besuchte ich meinen Onkel und meine Tante für ein paar Tage und blieb dann noch zwei weitere Tage bei Jen. Wir haben etwas unternommen, das ich noch nie gemacht hatte – wir gingen auf eine Hafenrundfahrt und verbrachten einen sonnigen Nachmittag auf diversen Fähren, lästerten über andere Passagiere und lachten uns immer wieder scheckig (Jen hat sich köstlich darüber amüsiert, wie ich die erste Szene von Simba aus Der König der Löwen mit Hilfe einer Packung M&Ms und gesanglicher Untermalung von “The Circle of Life” nachgestellt habe).

Obwohl mein Termin ins Wasser fiel, hatte ich mal wieder eine schöne Zeit in Hamburg … und Anna und ich werden in circa zwei Wochen einen neuen Versuch starten.

Hamburg.

The weekend brought along a quick trip to Hamburg to see family and organise some appointments (travelling one day later than planned, as a lovely stomach bug had gotten the better of me and made me faint twice). After first stopping at Jen’s place, we made our way to the stadium to stock up on some merchandise from our favourite team, finishing the day with a little home-made food orgy.

The next day, I travelled on to my uncle and aunt; my aunt and me spent a rather lazy Saturday evening and Sunday morning watching quiz shows and biathlon respectively, while my uncle prepared some rather delicious dinner and breakfast. After 48 hours, I caught the train home, but the next trip to Hamburg is already booked.

A Christmas Dinner in November.

As Robert’s birthday was on a Friday this year, I decided to spend a long weekend in Birmingham; the best flight available was taking off at 6.50 am, which meant leaving the house at 4 am. Hmpf. The only positive thing I can say about this God-forsaken time is that the autobahn was as deserted as Birmingham Airport, which meant that I stepped out of the building a mere 15 minutes after walking off the plane – and that included the luggage reclaim. New personal best, me thinks.

After Neil had dropped me off at home (he needed to go on to work; not everybody can just take a Friday off whenever they like), I went to bed to catch up on some sleep. Barkly had the same idea, so we cuddled under the blanket and blissfully snored away most of the morning – when Robert came home at about 1 pm, I had just made it into the shower … The relaxed afternoon turned into an equally relaxed evening; Robert had asked for Boeuf Bourguignon (I think; I always mix up bourguignon and stroganoff), which Neil had dutifully put on the day before.

Boeuf Bourguignon.

On Saturday, Helen and Don came by; for reasons I still don’t fully understand, Robert and Neil had decided to cook a full English Christmas Dinner, including Christmas crackers and all. Mind you, I am not complaining – the boys are fantastic cooks, and the meal was as excellent as one could hope for; it was just confusing to have Christmas Pudding in November. Loved the fact that all were up for it, though, including wearing paper crowns for the duration of the dinner (or in my case, for the rest of the evening).

Helen and I drove the others crazy by intoning the theme song of “Strictly” about every two minutes, which led to Helen cheerfully asking Robert, “So, how much do you regret introducing us to each other?” I am pretty sure I heard Robert muttering “I have opened the gates of hell” under his breath at one point.

Christmas Dinner.

Around midnight.

Helen and Don stayed until Sunday lunchtime, leading to a very hearty English breakfast (I take in more calories in one day with Robert and Neil than in a week on my own …). The rest of the weekend was spent on the couch (Robert and me) respectively in the garden (Neil and Barkly), with the soothing tones of David Attenborough, commenting on a nightmarish ‘baby iguana vs snake army’ scenario, finishing off the Sunday.

Rennes.

More than a year after I had finished my degree, I finally made it to Rennes to pick up my certificate. So for the first time, I actually visited the university I had studied at for two years – a situation only possible thanks to distance learning… In hindsight, it was a great decision to do my second Master at l’Université Rennes II, in particular regarding my professors. Even though we only communicated via email, phone or skype, I developed a really good relationship with them, especially with my supervisor Lesley and head of programme Stéphane.

So although I was in Rennes for just 36 hours, I insisted on inviting them for dinner in a typical crêperie in the evening. I spent the day taking a look at the university and the city centre (surprisingly interesting, with a mix of grand buildings, lots of antique, almost derelict houses, and colourful graffiti), having lunch at a bistro, going shopping, buying flowers for the ladies, and finally meeting them at a pub for a pre-dinner drink.

Given that we had never met in person, it was amazing how well we hit it off straight away: We spent about 5 hours together, with not a dull moment in sight. In fact, we were laughing so hysterically in the crêperie that other patrons gave us amused looks (Lesley: “Oh God, we can never come here again…!”). After a heartfelt farewell, I walked home and fell face first into bed, sleeping a sound 8 hours until it was time to get up for the train back to CDG airport.

If I had known you were so much fun, I would have come much sooner and more frequently, Rennes.

Parliament.

Boulanger.

Cityscape.

Café Montmartre.

Stairs.

Hotel de Ville.

Opera.

Satan vous attend ici.

Paris.

I had to cancel the original trip back in May due to unforeseen circumstances, but this time everything went according to plan. I arrived in Paris at lunchtime on Sunday; after checking into my apartment at Gare de Lyon, I headed straight out into the city.

The avid reader of this blog knows that when it comes to exploring a new place, I prefer walking around aimlessly to guided tours. Paris is not exactly an unknown destination for me, as I have been here before, but the last time I visited the city, we were still in the 20th century (yes, I am that old). I am not really sure why it took me so long to come back; I guess I was just busy exploring the world, living in Australia, the USA, and the UK, and then travelling to places such as Asia or the Middle East. With France, for a long time I had the feeling of “been there, done that”, but lately I have realised that not visiting a place for such a long time means it almost feels like uncharted territory again.

The second “rule” for my travels (if you can call it a rule; this is me travelling, not Fight Club) is to avoid most of the touristy places, or at least give them a wide berth during rush hours, which is why I often wander around cities at night (fitting nicely to my night owl personality). It also means that I cannot offer many photos of monuments or famous buildings; I am more interested in the people and the individual atmosphere of a place (the je ne sais quoi, as the French say).

One of the things that struck me here is that while it has become increasingly unpopular to smoke in Germany, the tobacco industry in France seems to be doing just fine, especially with girls. I saw a lot of fashionable young ladies, sitting in bistros, lively discussing the world with their friends, waving around their lit cigarettes; they did not look too concerned about their health, to be honest.

Speaking of bistros, the sheer amount of cafés and restaurants is staggering. I know that Paris is renowned for its gastronomy, but you can’t walk for more than ten feet without coming across a place with marquees, blackboards, and a pavement full of tables and chairs, usually frequented by groups of Parisians with wine glasses and baskets full of baguettes in front of them, chatting with everybody within a ten foot vicinity. Yes, it sounds like a cliché, but the eating out culture in Paris is certainly alive and well (and very entertaining to watch, by the way).

Another thing I noticed is the immense popularity of longboards, roller skates, and scooters; children and adults alike seem to love them and can be observed rolling or pushing their way through the city. I have to admit that guys in suits pushing a scooter down the street look a bit ridiculous, though.

What I like, however, is the architecture in Paris: Although there is the occasional skyscraper, the general cityscape is very level – the majority of buildings does not go beyond six floors. It gives Paris a feeling of being a somewhat quaint place, as the city spreads out into the adjacent municipalities instead of skyrocketing; when I then think of London and its construction plans for the next decades, it makes me want to weep.

But Paris also managed to make me cry, and not in a good way: I was walking down the Quai de l’Hôtel de ville when I came across a shop with hordes of children inside. It took me a second to figure out it was a pet shop, and another second to realise that the animals in what I had misidentified as aquariums (albeit without water) were actually puppies and kittens. I stopped dead in my tracks and just stared at the scene: About 12 “aquariums” (there is no better word for it) with puppies of different breeds, usually one in each, and in the next row, another 6 of these glass cages with pedigree kittens. Looking at these animal babies, being held in glass spaces of less than a square metre, without any physical contact to other creatures, let alone their mother, made me almost physically sick. How on earth is this still a thing in France?! While I was staring in utter horror, a man decided to buy a chihuahua puppy; the shop assistant took it out of the glass thing and handled it with the same clinical interest I display when I clean my bathroom. It was enough to make me spin on my heels, go down to the Seine, and have a bit of a cry. Sorry, France – as much as I like you, this is a shitty way of treating animals, and it really needs to change asap.

Apart from that particular attitude towards animal welfare, the people are just lovely and often try to engage me in a conversation, which fails miserably as my French is shit. The problem is that I can remember a couple of sentences from school, which I utter with a beaming smile and at my usual speed (= velocity of light). Coupled with a pretty good pronunciation (the only thing I manage to do well in French), locals hence think I am fluent in French and start chattering away, leaving me completely clueless as to what is going on. It makes me realise again that a) I should have paid more attention back in school, and b) that even though I can read a lot of French thanks to my knowledge of English, Latin, and the aforementioned basic French, it is a whole different story when it comes to listening to a native speaker. I guess it is time to finally start that language course I have meant to do for years.

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Rue Cremieux

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Trocadero.

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A Silver Wedding.

Helen and Don celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary on the Sunday before Bank Monday. I was rather touched by the invite, especially as Helen was so keen on having me there, even checking several times in the weeks before whether I was going to make it.

Their garden party was a highly entertaining affair: Helen introduced me to a friend of hers, stating “And this is Tinka, who is not my friend!” – at least that’s what I understood, resulting in a rather confused “Huh?!” on my part. Turns out she said “… who is now my friend”. Ah. Ok. About two hours into the party, my phone screen broke when my mobile slid off my skirt and hit the tiled floor of the terrace (Yes, alcohol may have been a contributing factor in this incident). Another hour later, Mark managed to nick a bottle of Vodka from Jordon and his friends, which made the youngsters frantically search for it for a couple of minutes, at loss of how it had managed to suddenly vanish. We laughed so hard that we cried; Alison in particular was having a ball. As usual, I slightly embarrassed Robert with my casual innuendos, but I think that him quietly keeping me in check has now become part of our “evening out” routine. Neil, on the other hand, seems to be rather unfazed by my banter. That, or he has already given up.

There was some fantastic food on offer, also thanks to Robert, who had prepared very delicious meat, leading to more innuendos – but this time from Neil. And even though I had second servings and only three glasses of wine, I was the one who managed to fall on her arse when crossing the garden late at night – not because I was drunk, but thanks to a bump in the lawn. Honestly.

Garden Party.

Strawberry Trifle.

In the Limelight.

PS: Robert also introduced me to Snapchat, resulting in some bonkers photo sessions during the weekend …

Amsterdam.

We arrived in Amsterdam 1.5 hours late, thanks to the Deutsche Bahn messing around with the trains to the point that Eika (who had organised the summer school) was ready to cancel the whole trip and return back home. But we somehow made it to Centraal Station, ushering a herd of very tired students (and just slightly less tired lecturers) first to a workshop, then to dinner, and finally to the hotel. While us lecturers decided to call it a day and have an early night, the students went out and partied until 3 am. I honestly don’t know how they do it.

On Saturday, we went on a sightseeing trip by boat, resulting in some nice pictures of Amsterdam taken from sea level, so to speak. While the others decided to go shopping or visit museums, I was more interested in walking around; I have been to Amsterdam before, but there are still spots I haven’t seen, so I enjoyed the sunshine and had the camera at the ready.

Amsterdam.

Boaty McBoatface.

Illusion.

Chillin'.

Prinsengracht.

Phone yoga.

Kitsch Kitchen.

Coffee Dealers.

Wrong side of history.

I returned back to the hotel at about 6pm, ready for a short nap before going out again; when I entered the lobby, I noticed Stacey, one of our students, sitting alone in the corner. I asked her whether she wanted to join me for dinner, to which she replied that she would love to, but couldn’t – she was out of money. After my initial confusion, I sat down and talked to her, only to realise that she had not only miscalculated her expenses, but had also been robbed at knife point some days earlier – something she had not mentioned before as she was afraid of being sent home. Good gracious.

So I took the girl to dinner to a nice Italian restaurant in the vicinity; we had a really good chat and enjoyed some first class food. At some point, Stacey wondered how old I was; when I told her, she was dumbfounded: “But you look like 27!” Thanks, Stace, but you don’t have to flatter me – I will pay for the food anyway. She insisted on me looking much younger than my age; then again, she is from Hull, and I remember my last visit to the city – most of the people looked about 40 when they were actually 25. She certainly earned her dinner, though.

Sunday meant another day of shopping for most of the students (I have no idea how they are going to take all this stuff back home by plane), while others joined us for a walk through the red light district.

Haselhoff.

Cat Bouncer.

Spes Altera Vitae.

After a while, Eika, Raffa, George, and I became separated from the others; as it was another very warm and sunny day, we decided to sit down and celebrate the last day of summer school in style. My memory is a bit hazy, but I think we had 4 litres of alcohol between ourselves – within 2 hours.

Wine o'clock.

In retrospect, it is actually a bit of a miracle that we managed to get everybody back home without any major incidents.