Climbing Out Of Germany’s Administrative Nightmare

Having made the brilliant/psychotic decision to become a freelancer at the start of the year, only now am I finally getting my head around what this means. In Germany, becoming a freelancer is notoriously difficult with their bureaucracy issues compounding when you dare step out of the line of full-time employment. So far I’ve had to deal with:

Getting a work visa as a freelancer - Immigration told us it was near impossible. Just get a normal job they said. You need to register the companies you want to work for with the Government they said. You need at least two job offers at once before they’ll consider it they said. You can’t get a freelance contract with any details relating to how you’re going to perform for the company they said. We got it anyway. Only two months of going back and forward from the offices and my poor boyfriend hounding them on the phone every day.

Registering with the tax office - This was a much easier process, and in fact it was the tax office who helped us with immigration when we were getting incorrect information out of them. Send an email to the right person and it’s done - having said that, if I didn’t have a partner who speaks German this may have been a lot more difficult.

Registering for proper health insurance – On my travel visa I’ve been getting away with paying towards an expat health provider for less than 30 euro a month. Now I have my work visa I think it’s time to join the rest of the German population, particularly if I’m going to be using their health services for anything other than emergencies in the coming years. I believe the rule is that when you earn over 400 euro in the month you have to contribute to a health insurance company and with that looking very likely in my first month of self-employment I have contacted an agent to help me. I’ve heard horror stories about how this has gone for expats in Germany, with some having to pay half their salary towards such insurance. Hopefully all my bad karma has been used up on the visa and with some good luck this won’t cause any issues.

Finding an accountant - That process has also just begun, with my boyfriend insisting we need to look at some local options as well as ones specialising in helping expats. To help get a tax number the company I contacted quoted me 200 euro – I’m glad I did that myself. And when we get a few more quotes to compare over how much it costs to do a tax return and get a definitive answer on what point I pay tax then hopefully this will be sorted rather quickly.

Licence changeover - One company has already asked me to do some driving in their car to a class and the thought of that is making me wet my pants a little with fear. I’ve never driven on the other side of the road, apart from during a holiday in Greece where I nearly caused an accident in the roundabout, then cried, then let my boyfriend at the time take the car back to the hire place. Not the best experience, and I’ve also never driven a manual car which seems to shock a lot more Germans than it did Aussies. Starting the lessons has been tough – I feel like I’m 17 again and so far can so only get to second gear without bunny hopping – and the whole process is going to cost around 1000 euro, with official translation of my Aussie licence needed, as well as a day-long first aid course and a driving and theory test.

It’s been a lot of work to get this far and there’s still so much to go – and it means that I’ve spent the last few months almost entirely on the couch researching, writing and learning. My life in London, where parties filled the time away from work, feel like a distant memory. Will it be worth it? I hope so. In a year from now I hope I’m happily settled into my freelance life, with work in both writing and teaching, and that illustrious book I plan to write is in my hot little hands. For now, it’s all about enjoying the little moments in between, and working hard for the future.

 

xx

A Wonderful, Relaxing, Hyggelig Time in Copenhagan

The Danish have a special word for the feeling of contentment and the experience of a good time – Hygge. If you mess with their hygge, you mess with the whole of Denmark and the entire country will fight to the death to protect their hyggely lifestyle and sense of being. That’s why the country is one of the most equal in the world in terms of minority and gender rights and that’s also why they saved 99.7% of their Jewish population when Hitler was desperately trying to send them to concentration camps. And after visiting Copenhagen for a long weekend, I can see why this country is so intent on preserving a state of mind which is so positive and has made them the happiest nation in the world, despite their abhorrent winter weather.

Walking through Copenhagen will lead you on a host of interesting trails, from the canals to the Hans Christian Andersen sights to the beautiful streets and the palace and parliament with horses always guarding out front. The weather was on our side as we arrived from rainy Berlin and quickly dropping our things at the Sleep in Heaven hostel, we headed out for the free walking tour at 11am, which leaves from the town square every day.

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Danish Parliament

Danish Parliament

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Markets in the town square

Markets in the town square

Our guide, who was a born-and-bred Dane, was the perfect person to show us through the sites from the second oldest theme park in the world, to the war sites with tales of Danish James Bonds and a Parliament standing tall against the Nazis, to the reasons behind the rivalries between the Nordic countries. Finishing near the Little Mermaid we wandered along the docks where every building had an artistic story behind it and music, food and festivals lit up the shoreline. By night we headed for the nightclub district and found bars to fulfil our need to dance and have jager shots. The prices weren’t cheap, but the happy hour deals made it affordable, and at around 3am we wandered home past the waterfront with a brightly lit boat that looked more like a castle from a fairytale.

The next day we headed for Christiana. Arriving at the train station we were a little confused; it looked a lot like the rest of Copenhagen and not the hippy town I had pictured. But after getting orientated and heading up the Church of our Saviour for a good view of the city – and catching a wedding while we were doing it – we found this place were there is a law unto itself and anything goes. Proclaimed the ‘green light district’, it’s no surprise that no photos were allowed to be taken inside the area. I did, however, get some good ones of the outside.

The church we climbed before heading into Christiana

The church we climbed before heading into Christiana

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The night brought a search for sushi, and after finding the Trivoli hotel was booked we headed for our area in Forum and found multiple places offering deals on our favourite Japanese fanfare. Of course, it was ridiculously expensive compared to Germany – in Berlin we had all-you-can-eat sushi for 13 euro. In Copenhagen? 20 euro for six pieces and a small drink.

I found that making a visit to the supermarket in the mornings helped to ease my cash flow to an extent; Copenhagen has a Lidl, which is a German supermarket well known for being cheap, and dropping in there for some water, fruit and baguettes to take along the way made the search for cheap food a lot easier throughout the day.

After another night out we had to check out by 11am and found Danish hotdogs to soothe our hangovers as we sat in the park in the sunshine. We questioned how people can afford to live in a country where tax is at least 50%, VAT is 25% and car taxes are 200% and then food is triple the price of Germany. But like our guide explained with the metaphor of a bumble bee, somehow Copenhagen makes it work even though the fat body and the little wings make it seem impossible to fly.

Copenhagen was my first taste of the Nordic countries and now I desperately want to see more. Luckily my mother is visiting in November and plans to do Norway and Sweden, and will likely be paying for me if I join her.

Denmark is were Lego was invented and the store is lots of fun even for grown ups!

Denmark is were Lego was invented and the store is lots of fun even for grown ups!

Watching the changing of the guards, worth doing as they're right in front of you

Watching the changing of the guards, worth doing as they’re right in front of you

Where Hans Christian Andersen lived, and coined the term 'to travel is to live'

Where Hans Christian Andersen lived, and coined the term ‘to travel is to live’

The little mermaid - a little overrated but I'm glad we saw it

The little mermaid – a little overrated but I’m glad we saw it

Berlin; not a town for the faint-hearted

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There’s been a slight amount of radio-silence over the last week as I’ve been away in Berlin, Copenhagen and sorting the beginning of two teaching jobs and making sure I actually have a working visa. Now, today is the first chance I’ve had to rest and recover from what has been a manic seven days, and a very successful seven days at that. I’m now the proud owner of German residency and after the hoops we’ve had to jump through to get this it’s quite a miracle; and having taught my first business English class on Tuesday it feels like everything is coming together.

Heading for Berlin last Wednesday, it would be the third time I have visited Germany’s capital and one of Europe’s top cities for art, nightlife and culture. The problem is though that the last two times I’ve been to this place I’ve left feeling worse for wear; the city has something about it that makes you forget the need to sleep and find solace in one of the many brilliant bars on offer. I love a good party and I love to go out late, but in the last year these habits have dwindled as I start to consider my health more and make plans for the future, as well as making friends with people who feel the same. But Berlin is like a bubble where the party will never stop and no matter how much you insist it won’t be a big night because you’ve got an early flight/want to do some sightseeing/want to make it for the free breakfast, somehow at 1am you’re looking for dinner and complaining that you can’t find any sushi (possibly happened on this trip).

So we went to Berlin to see Robbie Williams and thought we’d start the trip with a bang, attending the Alternative Berlin pub crawl on our first night. The bars they take you to are more interesting than what the usual pub crawl offers and after making friends with some Australians and visiting death metal, ping pong and upside-down (yep, this actually exists) establishments we ended up at a reggae club dancing for hours on end.

It got to 3am and felt like time to go home. But as we were walking through one of the best nightlife districts we couldn’t help but hear some fantastic music coming from one well-lit bar. Wandering in to see what it was all about, in what felt like minutes later we were still dancing as the sun was coming up through the windows. At about 6:30am we headed out for some of the finest currywurst and walked home to find our hostel friends getting ready for their day ahead.

Before this visit, I was in Berlin with a group of friends and my family for New Years Eve. We spent the night on a boat and New Years Day was mostly spent at McDonalds and the hotel club room with my parents, trying desperately to get over our hangover. The time before that, I was in Berlin on the back of a two week trip to Poland for the Euro football tournament. My voice was on it’s last ropes and as a result of a night out with the hostel staff it was completely gone for three days afterwards.

While I don’t think I could live in Berlin at this point in my life – I loved big-cities throughout my 20s, but as I edge closer to 30 I appreciate things like space and peace - to visit this place is like entering an alternate reality where night and day don’t exist, everyone is your best friend and art is all around you in every form. I’ll always love travelling to Berlin, though I think I’ll always need a day to recover when I return.

My favourite nightspots in Berlin:

Matrix – Great for if you want to spend the night in one place, the music is really good (mostly commercial) and there’s lots of rooms to mix it up. Expect a long wait in the queue and have your ID ready.

Yesterday Bar – Where the Alternative pub crawl starts, but it’s great to visit on it’s own as well – the cocktails are lovely and the decor is vintage and will keep you amused for hours.

Monster Ronson’s Karaoke Bar – One of my favourite things about Berlin is the multicultural nature of it, and there are certainly a number of karaoke bars that have a great atmosphere. Monster Ronson’s is the best I’ve been to, with booths galore and foosball and pool as well.

Berlin Warschauer Strasse U Bahn/S Bahn - One of the great things about Berlin is that you can just head for an area and wander around checking out any bar that takes your fancy. If you get off at this station and walk across the bridge (passing the view of the o2 arena) you’ll find countless bars behind a host of currywurst stands to provide breakfast when you’re done.

Boat parties – the summer brings a host of boat parties all over Germany and the prices are very decent and often include drinks. We spent New Years on a boat (this one) and it was perfect – 70 euro for all we could drink (with good quality ones on offer) and although it wasn’t exactly summer there are indoor areas and the music is always good. So if you’re visiting Berlin it pays to have a quick google to see if there’s any going on!

Learning to Predict the Weather

The last couple of weeks I have once again been hit by the phenomenon of springtime rain, a concept that has taken some getting used to since moving to continental Europe. In Australia it hardly ever rained as we were in a shocking drought during my second decade in the country; meanwhile in England, while the country holds a visual reputation of never ending rainy days, I found it to be more of a whimper than a full blown storm most of the time, resulting in constantly getting your umbrella out and putting it back in your bag.

Springtime in the south of Germany is like London’s rain on steroids – every morning as the sun comes up it buckets down, leaving me feeling quite glad that for these last few weeks at least I haven’t had to go out there on my way to work. Next week that all changes though unfortunately.

My boyfriend and I were woken up by the storm the other night, not quite understanding what it was at first. Some workers have been doing scaffolding on the side of our house and he automatically thought it was falling down with the loud banging noises jarring in our ears. I, on the other hand, had thoughts of the apocalypse in my head. which I put down to the vivid dreams I tend to have quite regularly. So we clutched hold of each other like two little children for about 5 seconds before realising that it was just a bit of thunder. Our ridiculous reactions made us laugh for quite some time.

On the flip side, it’s lovely to be living somewhere where the seasons can be so easily pigeonholed. Reading children’s books I never quite understood what they meant when they referred to the spring rain, the long hot nights that only happen in summer and the snowy winters that took them inside for the Christmas holiday. Germany has very set actions during each particular season – in the winter they celebrate the lead-up to Christmas and then spend the next three months riding out the cold with growing frustration until the first signs of spring peep through in March.

Then this constant rain, until a few days over 25 degrees start to mix in with the springtime glow. June will likely be as it was last year, bringing more of those hot days and allowing you to turn the fan on for the first time and buy ice-pops for extra relief. And July and August… that’s the time for getting away on a beach holiday (an all-inclusive one preferably if you’re really German).

I like how these things are becoming annual traditions for me, and are allowing me to gauge exactly how far I’ve gotten through the year. It allows more time for reflection and celebration of what you’ve achieved since the last time you were doing these things.

I fly out to Berlin today and then onto Copenhagen for the weekend and I’m hoping the rain will be at least a bit limited for us to see these beautiful cities. When I return, I’m hoping the June weather will have well and truly hit and rain is a distant thought in my mind as I rejoin the daily grind.

 

xx

A Trip To Our Local Palace

Coming from Australia, continental Europe’s palaces never fail to impress me. Our country is not nearly as old as many of these beautiful buildings and the places in history which they hold are so interesting - they’re like time machines that take you back to a time that you can only imagine what it would have been like to live in.

On Friday afternoon, my boyfriend surprised me with an early return from work and some wine. ‘We’re going to Ludwigsburg to take advantage of this weather’ he announced, and with that we were on the bus in half an hour and headed for the residential palace.

I can’t believe it’s taken us so long – we’ve been living here nearly three months now – to finally see this wonderful place. It went beyond my expectations and I imagine we’ll be having many summer picnics here in the coming months. The best thing about it is how quiet it is – we arrived at 7pm on a Friday night with hours of sunlight left, and at one point it felt like we were the only people in the park!

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The gardens felt like they went for miles and every one had perfectly manicured flowers

The gardens felt like they went for miles and every one had perfectly manicured flowers

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The baroque style gardens had a quirky touch

The baroque style gardens had a quirky touch

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Rapunzel's hair!

Rapunzel’s hair!

An old-school carousel

An old-school carousel

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The gardens remind me of Versailles

The gardens remind me of Versailles

Can you find the pig?

Can you find the pig?

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In Defence of Social Media

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When I moved away from Australia I got a job working for a social media company in London. It had taken advantage of the rise of Facebook and quickly built millions of followers by setting up credible-looking pages for sportsmen. Off that, a successful business was born and now the company represents lots of athletes and sports organisations across the world, keeping fans in touch with their heroes on social media.

It was the only company that had replied to my application, and having sent out about 100 applications I felt very lucky to get the call back. I almost hadn’t applied on the fact that you had to work six weeks for free on an ‘internship’ basis, but I figured while I wasn’t doing anything else I might as well try it and work there while I applied for other jobs.

It turned out to be a job that wasn’t right for me for a number of reasons and within six months I was out. But my social media experience at that company propelled me into my current journalism position, which has in turn given me the opportunity to move to Germany and have immediate work, supported me throughout my many visa issues and above all, has allowed me keep writing about one of the things I love most; football.

Meanwhile, after finally getting out of a toxic relationship and feeling comfortable with myself in London for the first time, I travelled to Oktoberfest with some Australian friends feeling on top of the world. It was there that I met a guy who didn’t speak English but asked for my Facebook details anyway. I’m on a super-private setting where people who aren’t my friend can’t search for me, so I asked for his instead. He gave me a really weird name, making it obvious he was just as concerned with privacy, and I assumed it would be impossible to find him. But alas, the nightclub we were at that night posted a picture of us and I found him after his friends tagged him. I added him, not expecting anymore contact, and a year after writing to each other constantly we were quickly realising there was something more going on. Another year on, we were planning on moving in together.

Since being away from Aus I’ve prioritised keeping in touch with people around the world; I’ve talked about the difficulties of this before, but as well as the down points of trying to juggle past and present lives there are so many benefits I enjoy from the ways I can keep in contact. Without Skype I wonder if I would have left in the first place; it’s unimaginably wonderful having family there at Christmas and birthdays and all those times you’d feel pretty lonely otherwise, and it’s a massive bonus that you don’t have to be rich to enjoy the privilege.

My relationship with Facebook has changed over the years like my relationship with real-life friends. I, like many 20-somethings, went through the stage of obsessing about having as many friends as possible, and staying friends with people for far more political reasons than simply liking their company. I grew out of that, and got rid of a lot of the ‘quantity’ friends in real life as well as on social media when I moved to Germany. Now I feel good about Facebook, much like my real-life social interactions; and I use it a healthy amount. When I was travelling last summer my mother asked if I could post pictures on the way. At first I felt uncomfortable about it as I didn’t want to look like I was spending my holiday on Facebook. But then I thought, who exactly is this page for? Me and my friends and family to stay updated on my life or the people who might bitch about what I’m posting?

The constant ‘oh you shouldn’t post baby pictures, and people who post they’re drunk are so annoying…’ whinging should surely be put into perspective. You’ve chosen to be friends with that person, you can easily block them from your newsfeed without deleting them if social politics ask for it. And like in real life, there will be people who are annoying and weird and attention seeking. This is just another way to display those qualities.

So when I’m having stupid ‘social media is bad, get off your phone and see the world’ stuff thrown at me on, ironically, Facebook’s newsfeed – and the majority of the time by people who post the annoying stuff in the first place – it does get a bit tedious. Especially the Youtube video with the bloody spoken poem - next thing we’ll have someone preaching at us with puppets and interpretive dance telling us that real life is so much more important than the communicative services we use to make it so wonderful in this day and age.

If you’re sitting on your phone constantly posting at the expense of spending time with loved ones, you obviously need to change your habits. But I have a sneaking suspicion that these people would be doing something else just as lazy and obsessive (video games, watching TV, sleeping even) if they didn’t have a phone/laptop. So maybe when we’re all up in arms about social media taking over our lives we could remember it also enriches our lives a lot too and accept that some people are lazy, and some are annoying, whether it’s on Facebook or in reality.

Planning ahead of time; A fourth trip to South Africa

These last couple of weeks have been a mixture of job hunting, settling, exploring, language school searching and travel planning. Normally around this time of year I’m looking ahead to summer travels, but with the uncertainty surrounding my work and how I’m going to juggle everything, my attentions have turned to where we will spend our next Christmas.

The option of Australia was always unlikely as my boyfriend is also unsure of where he’ll be job-wise around then and with flights going up in price we decided to leave the big Aus trip for when we are both settled in our work and know how much time we can take. He still wants somewhere hot though, leaving Europe and Russia out of the question, and after fleshing out the possibilities South Africa brought so many positives we had to get on the planning straight away.

The beautiful Morgan Bay in South Africa, where we plan to spend Christmas this year

The beautiful Morgan Bay in South Africa, where we plan to spend Christmas this year

As an Australian living in Germany, for me the prospect of calling one place home has become rather complicated of late. And though I don’t have any relatives or connections to South Africa apart from my best friend coming from there, for some reason the country feels like a place I can certainly relate to in many ways and despite going there three times in the last seven years I want to visit more.

South Africa is a lot like Australia in certain aspects, with it’s vast landscape offering so many things to see and do. I was there for six weeks during the World Cup, and only got part of my list of things I wanted to do finished. I have been to Cape Town twice and still haven’t gotten around to climbing Table Mountain.

South Africa obviously can bring up some uncertainty when travellers are considering their next getaway, with safety a huge concern for someone who isn’t aware of local customs or cultures. I wouldn’t claim to be even close to understanding how life really is in South Africa; on my second trip there I was nearly robbed at a cash machine and had my car stolen, for reasons of which I only have myself to blame. I let my guard down at particularly important moments because for me, having grown up in Australia, safety has never been a great concern. If someone tells me a cash machine isn’t working I believe them, if someone says a carpark is safe they have no reason to lie. Such thinking can potentially be life threatening in South Africa, and because of this, even though I’ve been so many times already I’m taking advice from locals all the more seriously as I plan to return for the third time.

Having said that though, I’ve noticed how differently locals look at their own country and the great things to see and do compared with visitors in general. I was recently talking to an English friend in Aus who said the Whitsundays are at the top of her list of things to do. To me, those islands are overpriced and overrated – all-inclusive resorts aren’t the real Australia, seeing beaches that are undiscovered will give you a much better idea of the beauty of the country than these manicured surroundings ever will.

In the case of South Africa, when my friend got married there we all travelled over for the festivities, and went to a small private safari park before the big day. It was so amazing, we saw all of the ‘big 5′ and then some, washed and walked with elephants and went a quad bike ride around the park that left us covered in dirt and me feeling like I was having one of those perfect travel days that remind you why you spend all the money and make all the effort.

White lions at Inkenkwezi private park... Such an amazing creature and to see them so close was magical

White lions at Inkenkwezi private park… Such an amazing creature and to see them so close was magical

But for my friend, this park is only ‘ok’ and certainly not the kind of place she would consider having a wedding. To her it’s cheesy and has nothing on Kruger National Park, a place which costs 5 times the price to visit and shows you exactly the same animals from what I understand.

But that’s the thing about us being tourists in our own country; we don’t want to follow the path most other tourists do, we feel like we know it better because we’ve seen the highs and the lows of the place over years of existing there. This whole experience of preparing for South Africa has taught me to be a little more careful about dismissing some of the more cheesy – in my mind anyway – touristy things to do in Australia. And in turn, when my South African friends tell me to give a lion park on the way to Cape Town a miss, I will kindly explain that I do in fact want that ridiculous photo playing with a tiger cub ;)

Learning To Relax Around Naked Germans

The scene of the nakedness...

The scene of the nakedness…

I went to an all girls school in Melbourne and while you might think that would make it a lot more comfortable changing for gym classes and in front of one another, it was quite the opposite. I perfected being able to change a whole outfit without showing an inch of skin to the outside world and I turned my nose up at any girl who showed off her half-naked physique while doing something crazy – like changing into her uniform or coming out from the showers. I don’t want to see another naked girl! What is wrong with her!! My prudish nature continued until my late 20s, with changing after adult gym sessions taking place in the toilets when I couldn’t be bothered to manoeuvre my outfit with the above-learnt process.

Meanwhile, when I moved to Germany and heard about the wonderful-sounding natural spring baths in Wiesbaden, just half an hour away from Frankfurt, I put it at the top of my list to check them out. That was until I found out they were naked ones. ‘I knew someone who wore a bikini in there, and someone actually complained about them because they said it was distracting!’ a German friend told me, as my eyes widened with shock. ‘Everyone is naked and all the men are with the women, that’s the case throughout most of Germany.’

She was certainly right about that, and it was nothing like the spas I had experienced in Australia, where the masseuse hiding her eyes with a towel as I rolled over being the closest another woman had come to seeing me naked. As expected, I found England to be equally prudish about such matters, unless you played cricket with the boys in the country for some reason…

Anyway, my boyfriend found it laughable that I would have a problem with going to a sauna and being sans-clothes around other people. Having grown up in this culture, he is much more comfortable with the whole being naked in public thing. After discussing it for a while I figured maybe it was time to get over my hang-ups about getting my kit off and jump in the deep end; it’s worked before when I’ve been problem solving, why couldn’t it now? So we got a Groupon voucher for the best spa in Frankfurt and headed out to relax and have what was for me a very new experience. When we arrived, everyone was in bikinis. I was entirely confused. But there are sections for clothed people and unclothed people, it was explained, which made me feel a lot more comfortable.

We went for a swim in the clothed pools first and it was really enjoyable – I haven’t really been to a public pool since I was quite young, so experiencing the cool whirlpools, diving board, waterslides and the outdoor pool where you could swim indoors took me back to being a kid again. After an hour or two RZ suggested we go into the more adult area and my heart started to pound.

We went into the changing area, and while he slipped off his shorts with the upmost confidence, I resorted to my school days of taking my bikini off underneath my towel. It wasn’t so easy this time around, with me trying not to make it obvious how uncomfortable I was, but I got there eventually. Never have I been so thankful for a towel in my life – it would become my shield for the next six hours or so whenever I was experiencing feelings from slightly bashful to completely embarrassed.

Having said that, RZ assured me that everyone uses their towel in the sauna. This is fine I thought, I can just chill out in there whenever I’m feeling a little less comfortable with my nakedness! But as it turns out, people take their towels in, lay them out and just sit on them showing off all their best and worst assets. It took me a few hours to become comfortable with that, but by the end of the day I was at the point of happily lying down on my towel with my legs firmly crossed, which I would say is serious progress.

My comfortable-ness came slowly as the day turned into night. Seeing so many different people in all shapes and sizes around me just going about their business naked made the whole process a lot easier as I acclimatised myself.

I’ve grown up only ever seeing photoshopped and skinny pictures of other women naked, so it was quite refreshing to see what real bodies looked like, though I made a huge effort not to stare and to try and, like everyone else, just do my own thing.

We ended the day with a swim in the outdoor heated pool before getting our swimsuits back on and having a hearty schnitzel in the cafeteria for supper. It felt like I’d been on holiday for the day, my skin felt fantastic, and I no longer felt so horribly scared of being around other people with no clothes on. It’s something I definitely want to do again soon and for Christmas both my boyfriend and I gave each other presents involving spa trips.

While I’m not quite at the stage of heading there with my girlfriends or anyone apart from the guy who sees me naked on a normal basis anyway, I certainly feel a lot less inhibited about my body and any issues associated with it, and can see the benefits of relaxing in that feeling. Once again Europe, you have taught me something lovely and new! ;) xx

What I learnt About Europe During My First Eurovision Screening

Last night I fell in love.

Last night I fell in love.

I have a confession to make. I had never watched Eurovision until last night. I had no idea who the acts were who won it in the past (apart from ABBA, though I didn’t know they were on Eurovision), and I didn’t even really know what the structure of the show was, or what was involved. I have a friend who travelled to Europe to see the Eurovision final from Australia and he’s obsessed with it, but when he would talk about it I wouldn’t really pay attention. I’m not a fan of pop competition shows like Idol or The Voice, why would I find this interesting?!

After watching the show from the beginning to the end last night I cannot believe what I have been missing for the last 28 years of my life. The ridiculousness of it all, the glitter and the lights and the creativity, the hilariously weird presenters and how seriously every country takes the voting and all the accusations of political influences and cheating… it’s absolutely amazing! For so many reasons I loved Eurovision and here’s just a few…

- The women are fantastic role models, of all different sizes and body types and showing a much more diverse and interesting picture of a pop star than all the naked ones that keep coming out of America at present. I grew up idolising the likes of The Corrs, Alanis Morrisette and the Spice Girls, and yes Geri Halliwell wore short dresses but you never really noticed it when you were a kid. I do worry for young girls growing up with constant imagery suggesting to them that women must be as naked as ratings will allow and as often as possible to be considered sexy. And excluding Poland on this occasion (laundry porn seemed slightly out of place), 2014 Eurovision offered an alternative style, from beautiful skinny women to tall and short, curvy and big and even men dressed as women. There’s no shame here and that’s something I would love for a possible future daughter to witness and enjoy.

- It certainly improved my geographical knowledge of Europe. San Marino a country? You don’t say! More to add to my travel to do list…

- People might criticise it for being political but last night’s political involvement was all positive from my point of view. With Russia currently making it all the more difficult for gay people to feel comfortable in their own skin, it was great to see viewers protesting with their votes and voices during the show. And Austrian cross-dresser Conchita Wurst winning the contest will help people struggling to deal with their sexuality all over the world feel more comfortable with it and have a role model to look up to. That is bloody fantastic.

Conchita Wurst won the contest last night despite objections from some homophobic countries.

Conchita Wurst won the contest last night despite objections from some homophobic countries.

- I love bubblegum pop, there, I said it!! I had a friend in London who hated all mainstream music and was always trying to convince us to go and see bands that sang about depressing subjects. The way I see it, music is supposed to make you happy. I love listening to pop music because it puts a smile on my face, it makes me thing about one of the most positive and simple things life has to offer – love – and it puts a spring in my step as a result. Coincidentally, said friend was a pretty unhappy person. And probably would detest Eurovision. I know which camp i’d rather be in ;)

- Somehow, without even meaning to care, you get really involved in the results and towards the end you’re insisting you will never watch again if the Netherlands or Sweden or Armenia win. To end up being so enthralled in the result of something I didn’t care about until 2 hours before… they must be doing something right entertainment wise!

- The games that you can play during Eurovision (from the drinking ones to betting and guessing what the judges will say) are almost as much fun as watching the show itself.

So after watching the show I suggested to my boyfriend that we go to the next one. He didn’t particularly like that idea too much. But being able to partake in this European tradition, whether you love it or hate it as a European, made me feel a bigger affinity with this great, strange and wonderfully interesting continent.

 

xx

How a travel screw-up turned into a fantastic 36 hours in Italy

Ever had one of those travel moments when everything your entire itinerary falls to pieces because you realise you booked the one thing that held it all together on the wrong day?? On the back of a very busy summer in which I’d been to England, Hungary, Croatia, Czech Republic, Ireland and Oktoberfest, I had organised everything perfectly with the only major stuff-up being our terrible decision not to hire a GPS system while we attempted to drive across the Irish countryside. So, on the back of all these wonderful travels, as my mum prepared to come and visit Europe I made plans to take her to Italy and France, with the latter country setting the scene for our national football team to play in a friendly. Both myself and my mother are massive sports nuts so it was perfect timing for her visit to Germany.

While we were packing for the trip I texted a friend about meeting up on the Saturday before the game. She responded, ‘but the game is on Friday?’ and then it all started to fall apart. Mum was desperate to see a football match in Europe and we were arriving in Paris on Saturday morning after three nights in Pisa, Italy. Suddenly I was calling Ryanair and hoping that a flight might be available to get us from one place to the other earlier, changing accommodation in both places and hoping it would all work out. Luckily it did and we would have to squeeze what I had planned in Pisa over three full days down to just 1, with our flight leaving on Friday at 6am.

We arrived at our apartment thanks to a lift from the owners at around 9pm on the Wednesday night. While they were lovely, their English was limited and they explained it was probably better to have hired a car in this area with a 20 minute walk on the side of the road to the nearest bus. We didn’t have time to learn to drive on the opposite side of the road, let alone deal with Italian drivers, so we agreed for them to give us a lift into town at 8am the next day.

We made it to the leaning tower early on and although there were tourists around it wasn’t as packed as I remembered from my first trip there. The rain was threatening and the cafes nearby were almost empty so we found a lovely little restaurant to have some breakfast – pizza and prosecco – then we had our obligatory pictures with the tower and looked around the area. Considering many call it a tourist trap, I feel like I’ve been to a lot worse places than Pisa in that respect (Paris being one) – the locals are so lovely and the buildings are fantastic to look at even if they are swarmed by said tourists.

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Breakfast in Pisa – Pizza and prosecco, delicious!

 

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The picture just has to be done…

 

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By the river in Pisa, you feel like you’ve gone back in time – the buildings are all so old and have so much history

So after breakfast and our stroll around the area we headed for the train station to take us to Florence. Buying tickets and finding the right train was easy enough and within just over an hour we were in one of Italy’s most historical and artistic cities.

A walk around the town with a tourist map was all we needed to keep us busy for hours – the winding streets full of markets and interesting shops, as well as the beautiful churches and historical buildings gave us lots to see and do. When we eventually got hungry and the clouds gave out with rain, we headed for a small restaurant off the beaten track with mussels and spaghetti – one of my favourite dishes in the whole world – and lots, and lots of Prosecco. Two hours in, the restaurant had closed and the owner started talking to us about where we were from and our plans for the day. When I mentioned I wanted to go to the Accademia Gallery to see Michelangelo’s David she insisted on taking us through the back door as she knew the security worker. When we saw the line out the front we couldn’t believe our luck! And she refused to accept any tips for having helped us.

The beautiful church in the centre of town

The beautiful church in the centre of town

 

Even when you look up Florence is amazing

Even when you look up Florence is amazing

 

Mussels and spaghetti - after living in a landlocked city for so long any seafood is divine!

Mussels and spaghetti – after living in a landlocked city for so long any seafood is divine!

A quick snap of David before I got told off :p it is a magnificent statue though

A cheeky snap of David before I got told off :p it is a magnificent statue though

This was something I noticed often around this part of Italy – how nice everyone was and they were simply doing it out of the kindness of their hearts. You get a lot of horror stories from the touristy parts of Italy like Rome and Milan, and I still remember having to pay a tip and a waitress fee for every meal in the Amalfi Coast because of small print in the menu that was impossible to find without assistance. But in this corner of the country it was a different story completely, and a good reminder of how we should all be with people visiting our own parts of the world. After seeing David and the many wonderful artworks in the gallery we made our way back to Pisa, just in time to visit a small restaurant for dinner with a big sign out the front insisting it had no touristy food (i.e. no spaghetti! in big letters). We had lasagne but not like I’ve ever tasted it before – the main ingredients were pasta, different types of mushroom and beans with some cheese sprinkled on top. It was absolutely delicious.

We got a taxi home and on the back of a brilliant day in which we covered two Italian cities, we packed our bags and got ready for Paris. It might not have been the way I planned it, but 24 hours in this country had been grand and we were both rather proud of how we fitted everything in.

Of course just 12 hours after arriving in Paris we got to got to the football match we had changed all our plans for, to see Australia lose to France 6-0. :)

 

xx