Walking in a Winter Wonderland

Or should I say walking in a wet, slightly muddy, oversized fairground? Obviously, the weather can’t be helped, but I did imagine that the well-known Winter Wonderland, which is an annual event held in Hyde Park, would be a little more magical. I was hoping for fake snow, and a beautiful frozen backdrop, where I really could believe, or at least pretend, that I was walking around an alpine ski resort.
The organisers were certainly part way there. Upon entering the site, dozens of little log-cabin type huts, beautifully decorated with fairy lights sell an array of gifts and food, and the lovely warming aroma of mulled lingers pleasantly in the air. We arrived early evening, with little expectations. Having heard such mixed reviews, I thought it best not to form an opinion, but go with an open mind.
After walking through the wannabe ‘alpine village’, the lights, sounds and screams from the huge rides dominate the eyes and ears. It would be easy to slate this aspect of the ‘wonderland’ and name it tacky and unnecessary, but seeing the delight and smiles on people’s faces, it was impossible not to become overcome with giddiness.
DJ and I got consumed by the mulled wine and lager, found ourselves watching a sixties style band, which was good fun. But our really good find, was the Bavarian Village, a huge tent, which resembles an Oktoberfest type event. Long tables line the tent, and at the far end a huge stage was lit up by lasers, and a German band playing the most eclectic mix of music I think I have ever heard in one set. The atmosphere was truly incredible, and although I only heard one Christmas song, every single party goer was certainly merry and revelling in the festivities. The fake snow which poured from the ceiling at regular intervals made the atmosphere that bit more magical, and I can definitely say it was an incredible day. Fully consumed by the band, we unfortunately didn’t get to enjoy other parts of the ‘wonderland’, although I would love a return trip to visit the Ice Kingdom. I guess it would be rude not to stop by the Bavarian Village for a mulled wine or two again though!

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A good market trawl

One thing big cities are renowned for is shopping. London is certainly no exception, with hundreds of high streets sprawled across the city, selling the same things, from the upmarket to the downright drab. I’m certainly not a shopping fiend, and I particularly find clothes shopping tiresome and frustrating. Coupled with the crowds and queues, which are particularly bad during the run up to Christmas, I’m currently doing everything in my power to avoid Oxford Street at all costs. This was clearly reinforced for me, when I had to make a last minute dash to Primark last week to ensure I had a Christmas jumper for the charitable ‘Christmas Jumper Day’ that my workplace was supporting. Apparently, the rest of London, like me, had left their jumper buying until the last minute, and had, like me, decided to descend upon Primark. An hour and a half was spent scouring the floors for a hint of sparkle or a trace or red wool, and I was beginning to lose hope and give up on my quest. Just before I declared my quest a failure, I spotted, what looked like a scrunched up, abandoned jumper in the men’s section. It was red, and when I ran towards it, and opened it out I noticed it had a large fluffy Christmas tree sewn into the centre of it, and to top it off the Christmas tree sported googly eyes and a smiley face. It was certainly far from flattering, but it would do. My arduous trawl had paid off however, when the following day I was awarded a prize for ‘best Christmas jumper’. The large box of chocolates certainly made the charitable affair that bit sweeter.

Now, since completing my Primark quest, and claiming a Christmas jumper, I have vowed once again to stay well clear of the high streets. With still many a Christmas present to buy however, I have been concentrating my efforts on procuring purchases from some of London’s many famous markets. Last Sunday, I managed to enjoy and savour not one, but two of London’s markets, and miraculously, both were pleasantly quiet and crowd free…

I have recently been introduced to the foodie heaven, known as Borough market, which was the first port of call on Sunday’s jaunt. On previous visits, I have found this market to be incredibly busy and chaotic; however I was surprised to find that it was pretty quiet and utterly stress-free on our recent visit. A handful of the stalls were closed, but this really didn’t alter my view. Borough market has an incredible mix of traditional food hawker type stalls, along with delicatessen’s and speciality ‘shops’ selling products like oysters, alcohol, meats and cheeses. The aromatic scents of Asian street food, fish and chips, and hog roasts could entice even the strictest of dieters to falter, particularly when offered free tasters of cheeses, pastries and chocolate. What’s not to love? With free samples galore, and a typical vibrant market atmosphere, I could easily have spent another three hours meandering through the many stalls. I also adore the ‘old-fashioned’ feel of the market, which makes me reminisce, and pretend I’m on the set of Oliver Twist, imagining that I’m about to bump into Dodger hurtling through the market at any moment. It’s only when I notice the Shard poking through the skyline am I drawn back to the present modern day.

Our next port of call for the day was a little further out of town, and somewhere I have been meaning to return to for years. I haven’t visited Greenwich since childhood, where I have vague memories of standing on the Grenwich Meridian line, and some hideous photos of a younger self standing upon the Cutty Sark. The town is made up of little winding streets, all twinkling prettily. The area itself reminds me of Brighton’s Lane’s, with a lovely smattering of independent shops, cafes and restaurants, with a very friendly, welcoming feel. The market itself is small and compact as far as London markets go, but it also made a refreshing change, as sometimes, the likes of Camden and Brick Lane markets, can at times become overwhelming as there is just so much to see. We first, concentrated our efforts on the shops which surround the market, the majority of which are independent or small chains. Immediately, we had our purses out, and began buying – I won’t divulge however, in case any of the recipients are reading! There’s a great mix of arty shops, eco-friendly jewellery, and beautiful accessories. Once the shops were conquered, and some cash had been burned, we decided to focus our efforts on the market, not before sampling some cake and ensuring a mulled wine was in hand however. Again, the market has some really unusual stalls, some of whom trade at other markets, such as Camden. We found the atmosphere and the stall holders to be incredibly friendly, and I will definitely be planning a return trip soon.

As much as I’m avoiding the high streets at the moment, I will be trying to sample a few more of London’s markets before Christmas creeps upon us. I would love to hear about some of your favourite markets?

From the sand to the smog

A lot has happened since my last blog entry. I have swapped the long stretches of sand in Spain for the skyscrapers of London. The relaxing summer days have been replaced with frenetic days, where I am slowly starting to accept that I will have few moments where my personal space is truly mine. However, I am willing to pay the price of a few sweaty armpits in my face during my daily commute to work, to live in this fabulous non-stop city. It all happened in such a whirlwind, and I still feel as though I am in the eye of the storm, and life is one big tidal wave of energy and excitement at the moment. Instead of running or fighting, I’m attempting to surf the waves.

After whiling away a long, hot summer of tanning, teaching and cocktailing, I wanted a drastic change. I craved a buzz, bright lights and a big city I could get lost in. After living in a resort, which at times, felt extremely insular with stereotypes fitting the stereotypes remarkably well, I needed to be somewhere where I needn’t try to fit in. Somewhere, I could blend into the crowd, and be anyone I wanted to be. London was the answer…

Planning to escape to said lights and city in the New Year, changed when DJ landed himself a job to start in November. This resulted in us leaving Spain sooner than anticipated and unpacking our summer clothes, to repack winter ones, and relocate with only a week to spare to enjoy some quality time with family and friends, whilst slightly freaking out about the fact that we had nowhere to live and only one source of income.

I think we only survived suffering from a major meltdown because we had so little to lose. With no jobs to go to in our hometown of Carlisle, we were no better or worse off, and I figured there are much more opportunities in a huge city like London. In fact, I felt quite giddy not knowing where my roots would next be planted. Not knowing where I might live or work felt very liberating, and gave me an utter sense of freedom.

Luck came our way however, when a friend of DJ’s offered his spare room to us for a few weeks.  The ten days we stayed with him were an intense time. DJ started his new job as a Technician, mixing with the rich kids of Chelsea. Now, I must note, that although there has been a change in job title, I will still refer to DJ as DJ, as let’s face it ‘Technician’ just doesn’t sound that cool! Meanwhile, I was applying for every job imaginable, attending several interviews a day and using up every spare moment to scour the net for suitable accommodation, whilst having to accept the extortionate cost of living in the capital.

Having acclimatised to the cost of living, I made a snap decision, and secured a flat. Now, I say flat, but really I mean studio, and when I say studio, I really mean a small room, with a kitchen and bathroom attached. Now, luckily for us, both rooms are separate, however, considering the price we are paying; we are getting very little for our money. Back in our northern hometown of Carlisle, we had a good size maisonette apartment, which was bright, airy and warm. Now, paying more than double, our ‘room’ is cold and damp. The lettings agent had assured me that we would “barely use the heating” as we’re on the top floor, but five duvets later, and sleeping in a hoody and socks, I can assure her that the heating is still being used at all costs.  Along with the sweaty armpits, it seems I am also willing to endure suffering from potential hypothermia to live in the capital.

The days are long and non-stop, but I am utterly mesmerised everyday by London’s famous skyline. I adore walking round the city’s streets, and getting lost amongst the buildings. I have found the buzz, the bright lights, and the big city I was craving. I am home.

To move or not to move – that is the question

I’ve always loved travel, and relish the opportunity to experience all things new. When the opportunity arose to move to Salou, a costal resort in Catalonia, I was apprehensive, but said yes regardless. A twenty something, with no real direction or ambition since leaving university, I was stuck in a major rut, and it was getting me down. Around me, friends were getting promotions, engagement rings or pregnancy bumps, and I was giving up my job to follow my DJ boyfriend, with no job to go to, and no real conception of what to expect.

That was six months ago. The following is an honest account of what I’ve experienced, and although there have many low’s, saying ‘yes’ was the best decision I ever made.

Firstly, let’s address the apprehension part. Giving up my job was difficult, knowing I was giving up a regular wage, my work colleagues, whom I’m sure I’ll never find better, and the security and respect of working for a corporate organisation. I’m used to leaving behind friends and family, having previously travelled and between uni, so I wasn’t too concerned about that, although I will come back to that. Having travelled around South East Asia, many parts of Europe and The Gambia, I couldn’t remember the last time I had been on a beach holiday to a resort, which is so typical of thousands of Brits every year, I generally prefer to go off the beaten track, and steer away from the ‘typical’ and so called ‘norm’, and yet, here I was going to be living in this resort environment I so avidly avoided.

In many ways, my fears were confirmed. The streets are littered with tacky touristy shops selling gimmicky fans, magnets and everything in between. The food and restaurants are all catered toward tourists, and the British reps are everything I hate about resorts, yet I was being thrust into this crowd unwillingly. On paper, living abroad in a sun-soaked town. with long stretches of sandy beaches and laid back locals sounds idyllic, and yes , many may be jealous, and I’m sure my constant stream of photo’s uploaded to Facebook at any given moment won’t help my case, however, perhaps err on the side of caution before you say ‘yes’ so quickly like I did.

Before packing our bags, quitting our jobs and saying our farewells to the UK, we were promised a better life; picture for a moment endless days of sunshine, jugs of sangria, delicious tapas served in a xiringuito (beachside bar), and a laid back slower pace of life. A life that could be savoured and enjoyed. Now you have that wonderful picture, don’t write your letter of resignation just yet. As good as it sounds, the DJ had to do just that, and DJ seven nights a week for months on end until, he inevitably cracked, and came to an agreement that he would get one night off per week, something I hasten to add, that had been promised long before we packed our bags, quit our jobs and said our farewells. Other ‘promises’ were too made, but all done so in informal conversations – which is something to bear in mind, should you be planning to up sticks and leave for sunnier climes. You probably wouldn’t accept a job in the UK without a contract and written agreement of what salary and holiday entitlement, so why do the same elsewhere? It’s easy to make excuses – things are much more laid back, or the employer is more lackadaisical, however, this is definitely something we will consider when the time comes to move on.

With DJ working 7 nights a weeks, I found finding work difficult. As a qualified CELTA teacher, the majority of teaching posts had been taken in schools, and it was ultimately the wrong time of year to be looking for work in that field. I had to pick up bar work, and promotional work, to fill in the gaps amongst teaching. If I had a little more regular work, and DJ a little less, our life would have been near perfect, and the long lazy beach days, and exploration of the local area I yearned for, would have been achievable. That, however is just the risk you take, and I’m so glad we took it. Things rarely work out perfectly, or how you imagined, and the grass definitely isn’t always greener on the other side, and we have committed financial suicide, but our lives have been enriched with much more than just a coastal resort, playing host to Brits abroad, and many other nationalities for that matter. I’m amazed at the sense of community in the area we live, and the warmth and hospitality of the locals we have met. The real Catalonia is there somewhere, lurking under the façade, and as the time approaches for our lease to run out and DJ’s work to expire for the season, we suddenly feel at a loss of what to do next, and this little touristy coastal resort named Salou that we have called home for more than six months will be dearly missed.

Looking back, I would have always said ‘yes’ to the move, but I would have done more research into the job market, DJ should have got his time off and wages agreed in writing, even if that writing is in the informal manner of Facebook or an email! We have learnt about the culture of the people, picked up some Catalan and Spanish, and have seen beyond an area I would never have dreamed of coming on holiday to. To move, will always be the answer for someone like me, who doesn’t strive to own a mortgage, and have a 9 -5 job. I dream of living an unconventional life, searching for the road less travelled. If you can relate, just move and always say ‘yes’.