Autumn in Utrecht, The Netherlands

Whilst this weekend has been a quiet one, last weekend was completely the opposite, and I have only just got round to writing about it! As I had a long weekend off from uni, I had booked a flight to The Netherlands to go and visit my friend Nyree in Utrecht. Yay!

The journey started with a train to Edinburgh on Thursday night, where I crashed with my friend Kirstie. She probably regretted this decision somewhat as I had to set my alarm and get up at 4am. NOT FUN. It was also pouring with rain as I walked for 20 minutes to the airport shuttle bus, pulling my pathetic little pink suitcase behind me and shaking water out of my hair like a dog. The shuttle bus driver then turned out to be an incredibly angry man, screaming at people to “Get off the stairs!! Yes, you!! I CAN SEE YOU ON THE STAIRS!!!” But we arrived at the airport without problems, I bought a tuna sandwich and everyone piled on to the plane. As it was easyjet, British manners went out of the window and it was every (wo)man for themselves, fighting off mothers and babies in the mad struggle to get a seat. I managed to grab a seat both near the front AND by a window, immediately ate my sandwich and fell straight asleep.

After arriving in Amsterdam, Nyree met me at the airport where we bought our tickets and jumped on the next train to Utrecht. It was great catching up with each other and the 30 minute journey passed very quickly. Nyree lived only a short walk from the train station – we took in some of the city along the way, and then had a much needed cup of tea in her flat. That night her boyfriend, Lars, was having a joint birthday party with the theme “-ISM”, and Nyree had come up with a great costume for us – Animal Magnetism! (more…)

Hello, new camera!

So this weekend I aquired a lovely new camera, courtesy of my equally lovely parents and a muddled up Christmas present. My first DSLR, a Canon 550D. I’m been wanting to take up photography for a long time, and I’m really excited to start experimenting and master as many of the features as I can. So far it’s still very much a matter of pressing a lot of buttons and seeing what happens, but hopefully I’ll start to get the hang of it soon.

These are my first few shots, that I will hopefully be able to look back on and think how terrible they all are! I like to think I can use this blog now to capture my adventures as a beginner photographer… we’ll see how it goes. For now, these are a few of the photos I (and my Dad!) took in Edinburgh.

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Thoughts on my Au Pairing Summer

So, I’ve now left sunny Spain and am back home in the rolling green hills of Scotland. And HOLY CRAP is it cold!!

Now that the au pair adventure is over, I thought I should write some kind of “reflection” on the whole experience. Oh dear, it looks like the medical school have finally succeeded in getting me to reflect on everything I do….

But anyway, I can say easily that this summer has been one of the best I have ever had. Can it beat 2 months of chaotic backpacking around South America? Probably not in terms of excitement and the most ridiculous stories I will ever have. But maybe I needed something that was a little bit calmer this year (and my purse definitely did). In the end, the decision to au pair was definitely the right one for me, and has been hugely rewarding. I know a lot of au pairs that describe their time as “an experience…. but not something I would do again!” As for me, would I do it again next year? Absolutely.

It all comes down to the fact that I couldn’t have asked for a nicer family. I really, REALLY lucked out on this front, as being landed with a bad family is a complete deal-breaker. And there are so many ways for the family to be bad; they can either care too much and smother you, or not care enough and leave you abandoned in an unknown city. They can either give you too much work and treat you like a slave, or not enough work so you feel completely useless. And they can either discipline their kids so strongly that you are constantly walking on eggshells, or let them get away with murder so you end up working with a load of spoilt brats. It’s a very delicate balance, and I’ve heard enough stories from both sides to know how difficult it can be to get the family right. As I said, I was VERY lucky. The two months I spent with the family were brilliant and went without a hitch, and the girls seemed to genuinely like me, which counts for a lot!!

So, over the course of the two months I have far too many memories to write down! But here a few of my favourite moments from au-pairing this summer:)

  • Madrid Babel’s summer party, overlooking Real Madrid Stadium. Yes the wine was pretty expensive, but you can’t pay for a better occasion. AND I had an excuse to wear makeup and a pretty dress. It was also the first time I’ve gone to any kind of party by myself, so it all turned out pretty good. Even if we didn’t make it back to Tres Cantos until 6am, and then I couldn’t figure out where I lived.
  • Toledo – a fantastic day out with my friend Jose. It has it’s own blog entry, so I won’t bother here!
  • Obviously, my Mum and Sister’s visit to Valencia. Again, I’ve written a lot about this, but it was amazing to share it with them.
  • Meeting some incredible people in Valencia, and having some brilliant (and very long) nights out. They were sometimes a little odd, like the time we met two Spanish men and ended up going back to Liam’s flat and all playing an extremely explicit game of “I Never…” and drinking huge amounts of Tinto de Verano. I was having a lot of fun and eyeing up the tall, dark and attractive one, and all was going well until his friend (short and tubby) casually inquired if we would be having a foursome after this. SO MUCH NO. A hasty retreat was made after that.
  • La Tomatina – this really deserves a whole blog entry to itself. The fight itself was insane and I was feeling sure I was about to die. Think less “fun filled food fight” and more “violent mosh pit down a very narrow street”. However, the atmosphere was incredible. After the rest of our friends headed home, me and Tara (fuelled on by our midday 1 euro vodka shots) decided to stay on and “find the party”. After several hours of wandering around looking for the river (on the prowl for sexy dutch men), spending our last coins on a bag of cheetos and a terrible chocolate croissant and trying desperately to swap hotdog vouchers for more drinks, trying to help a drunk man called Albie before being shooed away by police, we eventually stumbled back to the train. Upon arriving back in Valencia, we decided immediate tapas were more important than a shower and a hair wash. This prompted all the waiters to ask “soooooo… how was the tomatina?” But the tapas were incredible.
  • My final dinner with the family – we had Spanish omelette, they gave me swimming related presents, they went crazy over the presents I gave them (never has a Justin Beiber poster been so well recieved), and we watched the last two Harry Potter movies.

So, based on my good experience, I thought I would write down a few tips for anyone else thinking of au-pairing:

First, the country. For me, this wasn’t a question, it was always going to be Spain. I love Spanish, and wanted to seize the opportunity to improve. South America was too far and the plane there was too expensive, so that was out of the question. I had also only travelled to Spain once as a teenager with my parents (and at my standard grumpy age had practically refused to leave the hotel room) so I was really keen to explore the country a little. But if your choice isn’t that clear, think about it a little. Things like the language, how expensive things are, opportunities for travel, etc… most people usually have an idea in mind. But do some research on what it’s like to be an au pair in the country. In terms of location, think about whether you want to be in a big city or in the countryside. I would say it’s not good to be too isolated, as however nice the family are, you need to get away once in a while!!

Because finding a family that you get along well with is so important, I would definitely recommend anyone to search independently, rather than through an agency. Yes, both ways have their advantages. The main advantage (in my eyes) of going through an agency is that is everything goes tits up, at least you aren’t completely alone. (Although saying that, I’ve also heard of some agencies turning a blind eye to everything once they have your money.) If you head out independently and things don’t work out, you are out there on your own, and it’s up to you to sort it out. However if you do you research, exchange lots of emails/skype with the family and make sure you are compatible, you should be ok. Oh, and it’s cheaper than going through an agency – plus!! I tried a few different websites, but the one I found to be most successful and where I found my host family was http://www.aupair-world.net/.

Once you get there, be nice to the kids, but don’t let them walk all over you! This is very important. If you have little kids, they will probably scream and cry over nothing to test the waters. Don’t let it bother you. Sometimes they just need to sit in the corner for a while, and the parents won’t feel angry about you leaving them to get over their tantrum. (At least not if you’ve managed to pick understanding ones!) At the same time it’s ok to treat the kids from time to time, nothing wrong with bribing their friendship with a few sweets!!

Make an effort to learn the language. You might be lucky enough to find a cheap school, if not language exchanges are a great way to practice for free – plus you can make some friends too. Couchsurfing is a good way to meet people, local or travellers, and will give you something to do when you need to get out of the house! On that same note, try and meet some people as soon as possible, because having another life away from the family home is always good. Living somewhere new can be dull and boring if you don’t know anyone to go out with in the evening, and you will leave with a whole different set of memories!

GO FOR IT. I had heard some pretty scary stories, which at one point nearly put me off the whole thing. But I’m so glad I went through with it! If you genuinely like kids, living in a family home, and don’t mind doing some chores, then au-pairing is great. You get the chance to live in and experience a totally different place – whether it is the sunny South of France, or freezing your butt off in St Peterbourg – and pick up a lot of the language, which you would otherwise pay a huge amount of money for. Free accommodation and food means you can save your pocket money and go home with a small profit, travel on your days off… or blow it all on food and wine. (I went for a mixture of all three.)

Happy times with my au pair family in Segovia:)

Now I am back home, feeling a bit deja vu-ish as my brother gets ready to move to uni for the first time. Just remembering how nervous I was before Freshers week makes me nervous for him!! But, I know that he will be fine, and I’m only an hour away on the train. Yesterday I moved all my stuff into my new Dundee flat, and got it looking all lovely and homely. Now I can’t wait to move in, see my lovely flatmates again, and start another year of all-day napping, cheap cocktails, hungover McDonalds… and maybe the occasional bit of studying too…

Valencia – the perfect city break

It´s true that with just under a month in Valencia (1 week down, 2 to go…) I have considerably longer here than the average city break. However, the first four days I spent in Valencia, I was lucky enough to have my Mum and sister come and visit. (And lucky enough to have a wonderful au pair family, who let me spend each day with them.) In the four days they were here, we managed to see nearly everything in the city, from the innovative park of arts and sciences, to climbing the old bell tower of the cathedral, to enjoying paella and tapas in the Barrio del Carmen. And there was still plenty of time for rest, relaxation and frozen yoghurt!!

We spent the first day visiting Valencia´s famous Bioparc. This had been one of the things I was most looking forward to, and it was a brilliant day out! I fear the computer might implode if I attempted to upload all of my photos, so here are just a few highlights.

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Toledo, city of three cultures

Toledo was another of the places on my “Spanish hit list”. Just one hour from Madrid, the guidebooks and photographs I had seen painted a fantastic picture of a beautiful city, full of small, cobbled streets and stuffed full of culture (and good places to eat). It is known as the city of three cultures (according to lonely planet), due to its diverse history of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Everyone I had spoken to either raved about Toledo, or had heard the same great things and also wanted to go. Needless to say, I was keen. But with temperatures soaring over 35 degrees, and three young children, I could tell the family weren´t mad on the idea. So at the last minute I went out on a limb, and on Friday night asked my new friend Jose if he fancied a day trip to Toledo. Happily, he did! Hooray!

We left at 10am on Saturday morning, and the drive was a measly 1 hour to arrive in Toledo (although we did accidentally mistake a large factory for the city, and nearly took a very inconvenient detour). After parking the car at a gorgeous viewpoint, we set off for Plaza del Ayuntamiento, which is home to not only the cathedral but also the tourist office – very convenient. We quickly discovered that Toledo is cute and small enough to make it the perfect city to explore on foot. Yes, the blazing heat and the fact that that the city is extremely hilly make it slightly more challenging… but it´s just a good excuse to stop for lots of cold drinks. And that was what we did as soon as we had acquired some maps from the tourist office, with the highlights of Toledo neatly circled for our walking pleasure. Tinto de Verano makes everything SO GOOD.

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Sizzling in Segovia

On Saturday I went to visit Segovia with my Spanish family. This had been one of the places on my “I really want to see list” and it definitely didn´t disappoint! Just an hours drive from Madrid, Segovia is packed full of old school charm, and even the throngs of tourists can´t take away it´s appeal. What follows is a brief account of the visit, with the pictures doing most of the talking for me.

Segovia is dominated by its famous aqueduct, which was constructed at the end of the 1st century (fair to say, it´s been around a while). The aqueduct is the most important roman civil engineering work in Spain, and (alarmingly) the huge granite blocks have no cement between them, or anything else to hold them together. The sheer weight of the bricks holds the aqueduct together. I suppose if it´s lasted nearly 2000 years, they must have done something right.

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Off the beaten track… literally.

Now that I have settled into a “routine” in Madrid, writing about my day to day life seems a bit mundane! Let´s just say that I am continuing to enjoy myself very much, fall in love with the city and the people, meet other au pairs here and improve my Spanish day by day.

On Sunday we drove around 45 minutes outside Madrid, to the sierra (the countryside and mountains). It was a beautiful day, although difficult to walk with the sun blazing down on us! Our first stop was the local ecological farmhouse, which was surrounded by trees and farmland, and seemed to be home to several foreign girls, although they spoke perfect Spanish. I wanted to be one of them! We bought fruit, a jar of yoghurt and some brown sugar, and set off on our way.

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