Back to work

I spent the night in Budva, Montenegro and explored the old town before heading to Zagreb which I had visited in April. I made a day trip to Plitvice Lakes National Park which were lovely, but a few too many tourists for my liking, however I did manage to find a couple of quiet spots. I indulged in some retail therapy and went to one of my favourite vegetarian restaurants – …Nishta.

Old town, Budva

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia


I took the train to Budapest which was a bit of an experience. A soviet era train that seemed to make quite a few strange stops then we all had to get off a take a bus for 30mins where there was track work going on. When we got back to the train to get on again there was no station or platform, just a train in the middle of nowhere. With no platform, this meant the first step was almost as high as my hip off ground, needless to say, mind the gap between the train and the platform.

I was in Budapest to start my first official government work in a year, I was off to a UN conference. I had to present two papers from New Zealand that were written by a colleague. It was quite exciting sitting behind the little New Zealand sign.

The last time I was in Budapest I didn’t get a chance to see everything and I had a friend come to visit while I was there so it was a great chance to explore the city some more. Highlights included climbing up to the Citadel and seeing the excellent view of the city, witnessing an engagement, going out to some bars, having a relaxing afternoon at the Gellert Baths after the conference, eating far too much delicious food and attending the conference dinner with Hungarian food, music and wine. It’s pretty great when the dinner organiser tells you “drink as much as you can”.

I also had my birthday while I was there and despite having to spend a long day listening to talks, and then presenting early the next morning, I had a great day, dinner and drinks out with friends.

I am now at Schiphol airport about to start the long journey home. I came from Hungary via Hamburg yesterday.

I have a short stopover in Singapore, so I might write another post once I am home.

Amanda xx

Six days in Albania

Well how can I even start a post about Albania? Go there! It’s a great place with lots of under visited sights, plenty of solo travellers and lovely locals. Actually ignore that, don’t go there, I want to keep it all to myself.This post is going to be very detailed and I will provide some advice about travel to Albania too, so friends and family, bear with me.

My summary of the last 100 or so years of Albanian history: in 1912 independence was proclaimed, subsequently Albania was occupied in WWI by nearly everyone and in the 20s it became a monarchy after the interior minister over threw the government. Mussolini invaded in 1939 and two years later the Albanian Communist Party was formed. They fought the Italians and then the Germans before alining with the USSR. In 1960 they decided the USSR wasn’t communist enough and re-orientated itself with China. When Mao Zedong died Albania went all North Korea and isolated itself after deciding China too was too liberal. The borders were closed and movement was restricted. With the changes in Europe in the early 90s, Albania was encouraged to end communist rule. People were allowed to drive (this explains some of the bad driving and road conditions) and the country became more open. With religion again allowed, Islam reappeared as the main religion, but in a more relaxed way, however I was still woken most mornings at sunrise by the call to prayer.

I took a ferry across to Saranda in the south of the country from Corfu. My first impression of the country was that it’s a relatively poor place, but with lovely people and plenty of flash cars. (Aside: here’s a joke about the Albanian’s and their cars: A German, an Italian and an Albanian meet at the pearly gates. When asked how they ended up there, the German responds, “I bought a Porsche and while driving too fast I had an accident”, the Italian agrees and says “I bought a Ferrari and crashed it at high speed too”. When the Albanian is asked why he’s there, he responds “I bought a Mercedes and couldn’t afford to eat”).There is also a large expat population living in Detroit, USA and working in the automotive industry.

After a day in Saranda with the nicest hostel owner ever, I headed up to Berat. The journey was one of the most interesting experiences I’ve had on this trip, or maybe ever. I paid my €8 for a 6 hour journey and got on board a small bus/mini van. The roads were very windy and the bus was overloaded at some points by up to 8 people. Additionally it was hot, the van didn’t have AC, so the ticket man spent most of the trip hanging out the open door. Three people threw up but we made it there safe and sound.

Buses in Albania run sporadically and often leave from various different places around the city. Getting from one city to another isn’t too hard however, as long as you do it before 3pm when everything tends to wind down and people go for a siesta.

Berat, Albania


Berat’s claim to fame is a hill of ottoman era houses (1000 windows) and a castle. The first day was spent drinking Rakija (a clear spirit made from grapes, usually bootlegged with the person serving it to you having made it, so alcohol content can be around 50/60% or higher). It’s seen as rude to decline a shot (or two or three…) In the evening I went out for dinner with people from the hostel and some American peace corp members who are living in Albania.

Berat Castle, Albania

Early morning climb up to the castle to beat the heat was very rewarding (paid for it the next day with sore legs). People still live within the castle walls making the most of the excellent views over the region.

Next I was off to Tirana and the heat had really set in! Up to 37 degrees carrying my giant pack. Some of us from the hostel hitched rides to the bus station which was a little out of town. Hitch hiking is quite easy and safe in Albania since the locals like to connect with outsiders (as I explained, they were shut off to the outside world for so long). They won’t pick other Albanians up, just foreigners.

I arrived in Tirana which has no main bus station and immediately had to navigate the public transport without a map all in nearing 40 degree heat. That night I went out with some others from the hostel with some Albanians to watch the Denmark vs Albania football game. We watched it in a big square outside the prime ministers office with all the locals, there were celebrations afterwards despite it being a 0-0 draw. I’m pretty sure I featured on Albania TV. The Albanians took us to a couple of bars where some more Rakija was drunk and it became very obvious that it was going to be hard to blow the budget here (€35 for a couple of rounds of drinks for 6 people and some more Rakija).

Gazi telling a story in Tirana

Day two in Tirana started with a walking tour of the city and learning all about the communist past from our guide Gazi. He was asked about the Albanian mafia which he thought was becoming less of a problem. Although, it’s thought that most of the drugs in Europe come from or are trafficked by Albanians. After lunch, making friends with a Portuguese guy on the street and a nap it was time to eat far too much food and try various different “flavours” of Rakija, although all I could taste was alcohol. I taught friends from the hostel some drinking games and then we headed out to the Skybar and got chatting to a group of ladies on a hens night. Things are still very traditional in Albania when it comes to meeting people (even friends), and they couldn’t understand that we had met the day before and called each other friends. 

I was sad to leave Tirana, but I was heading north to Shkodra and a day trip on a lake. I had heard lots of great things about this boat trip on a lake that was created in 1978 by damming a river. The lake Koman ferry is mainly used by locals to get to their houses along the banks/hills next to the lake. For most of them the ferry is the only way in and out. They scramble up rocky cliffs in some places with necessities they have bought from town (or as one man did, a case of beer). The scenery was also stunning. While on the boat a local family and I shared snacks despite not being able to communicate verbally. It’s was a nice moment.

Lake Koman, Albania

On the ferry, Lake Koman, Albania

Lake Koman

After heading back to Shkodra, I started my journey north through Montenegro and Croatia to Budapest. I’ll write about my last week of travel next time.

Amanda xx

The end… or maybe not?

I flew to Berlin from Paris and met up with Yoshi and his friends, I was staying with them in Mitte. Three excellent days were spent eating, drinking and a little sightseeing. We went to a club that I quite liked called Griessmühle which was right by a canal and we stayed out until the sun came up. Otherwise I ticked off all the regular tourist stuff like the Brandenburg gate, Reichstag Building, Holocaust memorial, check point Charlie and the still remaining section of the Berlin Wall called the East Side Gallery.Next stop and I was on to Amsterdam. This was supposed to be the end of my trip… BUT thanks to my work for stepping in and asking me to continue the adventure with a conference in Budapest three weeks later. (More on what I did with my extra three weeks soon).

Berlin Wall


I met up with Lynsey, an ex-colleague from NZ and we drank plenty of beer then went to the Rijksmuseum the next day to see all the Rembrandts and Vermeers. Unfortunately after visiting the Gallery of Honour, our next stop was to Dutch A&E, Lynsey having missed a step and badly crunching her foot. Luckily they were fast and we were on our way pretty quick. 

The Berghof, Amsterdam

Amsterdam


For the rest of my time I explored the Jordaan area and Nine streets, the Begijnhof, visited the Van Gogh Museum, the Stedelijk Museum, FOAM (photography art gallery), hired a bicycle and explored Vondelpark, ate frites and watched some people pulling a lost bicycle out of a canal. I had a nice time once I had escaped any tourists.

Corfu


I then flew to Corfu for four days of getting tanned, food poisoning and losing my necklace. The beach was lovely and the water perfect.

Since I have a lot to say about my next location, I’ll be devoting an entire post to it! It’ll be coming your way next week.

Until next time,

Amanda xx

Goodbye France

It’s been more than a month since I last wrote a post about my travels. After my last post I did indeed head north to a cooler climate, all the way to Calvados to help Nick and Sue.My first task was helping show two young future race horses at a national show in Haras du Pin. I helped groom the horses, run around and find out what we had to do and then take some photos.
Once the excitement was over with the horses I spent three weeks with Nick and Sue, eating very well and helping out with all kinds of things, from feeding and walking dogs, to herding sheep, preparing the raspberry patch, stacking wood, building fences, cleaning the house when it was too wet outside and a few more things with the horses for good measure.

Haras du Pin


In my spare time I read more books, did more yoga, walked and talked as well as tried to write two presentations for the upcoming conference. I also watched some of the first TV I’ve watched in almost a year (and decided it was still bad)!

I also met some of Nick and Sue’s friends at dinner parties, fashion shows and at the local Tabac on a Friday night. The percentage of expats in the north of France is high. At the end of three and a half weeks I was very sad to be leaving but I had a whole week in Paris to look forward to. 

Galleries Lafayette, Paris

Jardin des Plantes, Paris

Eiffel Tower, Paris


A week in Paris was a perfect way to say goodbye to France. I stayed with Emma (thanks!) and did my last sightseeing and visiting. It really was a great week, here is some of the stuff we/I got up to: visited the Opera Garnier, Gallerie Lafayette department store, watched The All Blacks playing Australia at Café Oz (go the AB’s!), went out to the Comptoir General (a bar with an African general store feel near Canal St Martin), wandered the streets of the 6th with Emma, Jardin des Plantes, the Grande Mosquée de Paris (mint tea and middle Eastern treats), saw a partly naked man sunbathing in the Jardin du Luxembourg, got throughly creeped out at the Catacombes, visited the Cité de L’Architecture et du Patrimoine, said goodbye to Naomi over some beer, visited CF for one last day trip, where I finally climbed to the roof of the cathedral and ran some errands.

Clermont-Ferrand


For my last pastry in France, I got a raspberry and almond croissant, must have been about 1000 calories, going out with a bang!

More next post,

Amanda xx

A blog about French culture

With only a couple of weeks left in France before leaving for my last month of adventures before heading home, I thought it would be a good time to write a blog about some of the cultural differences between France and NZ.At first glance, things aren’t so different. The main differences I noticed were school related (obvious since I was working in one). Kids are in school for longer, high schoolers generally have classes from 8/9am to 5pm with some getting a two hour break for lunch. 
Some kids go home for lunch, which is probably there main meal of the day and the rest eat at the school canteen which they pay a small amount per meal. Lunch consists of several courses, like dinner (usually 5 courses).

People in general are not seen snacking and drinking soft drinks in public, they usually eat in the privacy of their own home. They eat their main meal late in the evening, around 9pm.

When you get invited to a dinner party, you can expect a long night of eating and drinking with many courses. Aperitifs and champagne, main course, cheese, dessert, coffee and if you stay for too long, orange juice (that’s the clue to leave).

As for wine drinking, choosing the right wine for a meal is seen as a big responsibility for the person who has to choose.

With eating much later, clubbing happens later too, don’t expect anywhere to be going off until after 2am. Bars and clubs have different hours and bars must be closed at 1am. 

Normal clubbing attire is jeans and a t-shirt. Not many people wear heels. If you dress at all sexily, expect lots of comments, wolf whistling, and glares.

If you’re in a relationship, your man will get extremely jealous of this behaviour. Even chatting with a person of the opposite sex is enough to make him jealous. 

Some other things:

Getting your drivers licence is much more difficult and expensive. You must take many hours of lessons through accredited driving schools. Once you’ve got your licence, insurance for your car is extremely expensive for young people and most have to put their car on their parents insurance.

What do French houses look like? Pretty much all have shutters and are kept shut up quite a lot of the time. Windows are smaller and there isn’t a desire for indoor/outdoor flow. 

Each set of suburban shops also has at least once pharmacy and a boulangerie (bakery).

Shop hours differ all around France. All shops are closed on Sundays except for boulangeries. Some shops are closed over lunch time, but most (including pharmacies) are open until around 7pm. Supermarkets aren’t open much later, the latest ones around 10pm. On Saturdays some services such as banks, doctors offices and pharmacies are open in the morning. On Mondays some shops are closed, mainly services such as banks.

I’m sure I’ve missed a few other things, but hopefully that gives you an idea about life in France.

More on my travels next time,

Amanda xx

A hot and quiet three weeks

I finally made it to Paris after my extended stay in London. We were slightly delayed coming through the Chunnel as more migrants had managed to get inside the the tunnel the night before. I was so glad to be back in France! I helped a woman navigate the metro and then headed to my hostel.
In the next two days I went to the Louvre (twice, since I have my teacher card and it’s free, why not?), the Orangerie and saw Naomi an assistant doing an internship in Paris.

View from one of the Louvre galleries, Paris


I then spent two weeks at a homestay near Guéret. I helped with the garden, the horses, the dogs and keeping the grandma entertained. Also having a look around the area, relaxing, walking, yoga, and sorting out much life admin for the next destinations!

Guéret


I also made a couple of trips into Clermont-Ferrand to pick up mail from the school, my payslip, say goodbye to the office staff and to see my doctor and pharmacist. I also had to put fix a problem with my phone plan, go to the post office, sort out stuff for my insurance claim and send many emails for a conference I’m heading to in Budapest in September. Thanks Jon and Jenna for having me to stay. Not many people are left in the city, it’s summer and it’s pretty hot so most people are heading for the seaside or north to Normandy, just like I’m about to. 

Clermont-Ferrand


More news next time,

Amanda xx