Thursday, 27 June 2013

Au pairing in Switzerland

Six days ago I left Scotland with my boyfriend who had just completed his Erasmus year in Edinburgh in order to commence my own Erasmus year. The last night ended up being another limbo moment. I was actually sad to leave, which I never expected, though knew that adventures and experiences awaited. I shed a tear for the passing of the best year of my life so far, and smiled at the thought that this year would just be a continuation of that year.  Since then I have celebrated the summer solstice with music and a vegan buffet at a trattoria/hotel in the countryside outside Cremona, cycled in the heat, ate gelato, got halfway through the book And the mountains echoed and caught up with an old school friend who works in Milan and some Italian friends. The day before yesterday I found myself saying goodbye to the city with which I am now so familiar with, and the guy I have spent the last 9 months of my every waking moment with. 

For the first few minutes, the train journey was full of suspense. I was in first class in an air conditioned carriage on a very comfortable seat, but I did not know where I was going or what the family would be like. Yes-I have heard the horror stories: families who ask the au pair to do more than what was agreed, disrespectful parents, bratty children, a total lack of independence etc. After about 20 minutes the suspense was suppressed thanks to a nice and calm conversation with the Swiss lady who was sitting next to me. We spoke so much that in the end she invited me to stay with her free of charge in her Swiss chalet! Maybe I will take her up on it at some point. The view from the window gradually changed from the industrial suburbs of Milan to the rolls hills and elegant cypresses of the Italian lakes to the majestic valleys and snow tipped mountains that are indeed the Alps. What with the French conversation and incredible landscapes outside, the 3 hour journey passed in no time at all. Before I knew it, I was standing on a busy platform in Lausanne, looking pretty aimless and wondering whether the family would turn up. A very slim little came running in my direction as the platform cleared, "Tu es Elizabeth? Bien, viens avec moi". I was greeted by the father who took my luggage and drove us to their home, a pretty Swiss house with window shutters and a pretty garden.

I am here for a very brief contract. I arrived late on the 25th June and will return to Cremona on the 18th. I get most weekends off, and I have already been told we will be visiting Zurich and the mountains once the kids have finished school on the 6th July. There is no real routine here, as apparently the children have already finished class and their exams, but just need to sometimes attend school for organizational issues. When I arrived I was invited to drink tea with the family, who all seemed quite relaxed and welcoming. I was then allowed to go to my room and rest, use the wifi, do whatever I wanted before going to bed. My room is on the ground floor which the family only use for storage. The bedroom is large, with two windows looking out onto the garden, two desks, a sofa, plentz of room to put my clothes, and a very comfortable bed. There is a bathroom which is basically just for me considering that the rest of the family use the one upstairs. 

The next day I had a shock to the system, setting my alarm to wake up at 6.30am. I thought I woke up early, but this family seems to do it all the time. I didn't even get why it was that necessary... We had breakfast, I waited in my room for an hour and a half then walked with the eldest daughter to the supermarket and her school. I bought the ingredients required to make lunch, returned home to have two hours off before preparing a risotto for the children and the mother. I ended up making way too much as I am not used to cooking for so many people. Fortunately, the youngest who is apparently usually against eating most things loved the risotto and wanted it again for dinner. The children helped me load the dish washer, and I was free again from 1pm-4pm. At 4pm the mother and eldest daughter knocked on my door and invited me to visit the centre with them. We took a bus, which the mother paid for, and browsed various shops before walking through the old town, up the many steps to the cathedral. There, the mother took us to a café where the daughter and I ordered an iced tea. The centre is very pretty and clean, a fusion between German, French and Italian styles and yet with an identity of its own. I only saw the cathedral from outside, though would like visit the interior when I have time to kill. There is a fantastic viewing spot just in front, from which one can see a startling beautiful view of the mountains, the medieval rooftops and of course Lake Geneva. We then began to search for a present for the eldest daughter's piano teacher. The shops in the centre are all elegant, sleek, tempting yet terribly overpriced; I get the sensation that they are aiming to attract people who have more money than sense? They eventually bought a baby bib from a shop which specialized in nothing but sold everything, from cups to cupcakes. We returned home, I played ping pong with the youngest girl for at least an hour before dinner, which consisted of the leftovers of my risotto with a variety of cooked vegetables and marinated garlic. For pudding? A glace à la fraise. After a shower I retreated to my room to read before bed, at this point exhausted.

This morning I woke up at 7am to share breakfast with the youngest girl. I then helped her tidy her room and played a few board games with her for an hour and a half... Her friend is now over, they are quite quiet, watching a film. They are going out for lunch, and it seems as though I will be home alone until 4pm. No idea what I am doing afterwards. During the long break I may catch up on some reading, sleep, and pop out to take a walk down to the lake and buy some Swiss chocolate... 

The boy is very reserved, yet does help out a lot. He loaded up the dishwasher before I had finished eating and does not demand anything from me. I was originally told that I would be teaching him English as he is about to start studying next semester, but I am yet to start. I think he feels a little embarrassed, but I think I would genuinely enjoy teaching him.

First impressions:

-Nice family, polite children (though one of them is very energetic)
-Just the right amount of work really, no more than 5 hours a day at the very most.
-Very weird schedule.
-Scared of Swiss prices, the equivalent of 3 pounds for soya milk!?!?
-Very glad I have my own room to retreat to.
-Not sure whether the family really need an au pair? Am I here to teach English, babysit or as a token of their wealth?

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Getting myself out of the exam frame of mind with a trip to Iceland

Five exams, extreme stress, a sensation that freedom is in the distant unimaginable future. I experienced this for a month before finally finishing the last exam. What did I feel? Relief? Excitement? Not so much as one might expect. I am sure many dedicated students are familiar with the strange void which makes itself felt shortly after walking out of one's last exam. Mine was Italian language, I felt it went pretty well, but of course for a couple of hours I had swirling around my mind doubts about some of my answers. Then comes the feeling of emptiness-no, not emptiness, but a necessity to remember what your life was about before you became a student. During the academic year work is the main priority, with a few exciting distractions like union based societies, television series (I am thinking of game of thrones and Dr who), and pauses for coffee/tea and cake. This 'void', as I consider it, is quite the anticlimax. I felt, as is always the case at the end of an academic year, like I was in a limbo land, just waiting for something to happen.

Fortunately this year I knew that my limbo period wouldn't last too long. We (my boyfriend and I) had five days left in Edinburgh before the busiest day of the summer; we had to move all of the contents of our flat into a small van, clean up any traces of our presence, and depart with just hand luggage. Where were we going? North, to the realm of Ice and Fire. Is it just a coincidence that George RR Martin called his epic fantasy A song of Ice and Fire and that the location chosen to film for the scenes north of the wall in the hugely popular television series Game of Thrones was Iceland? I don't think so. Westeros and the east seem to have a lot in common with the reality of European history, thinking above all of the war of the roses, but also the cultural traditions that were found in Europe throughout the middle ages. The wall in itself is clearly Hadrian's wall on steroids, and what is north of the wall is a wilderness full of mysteries and magic, which most southerners see as pure superstition. It is well known that around 90% of Iceland's population believe in elves. There is also much folklore about trolls and giants, as is also the case in other Northern countries, I am thinking of Norway in particular. As its name suggests, much of Iceland is covered in ice, especially in winter. The Vatnajökul glacier is one of the largests glaciers in Europe (in termms of area), and covers around 8% of the country. People also go to Iceland to see icebergs, such as Jökulsárlón, a reminder that man is quite insignificant in this harsh wilderness. Now let's consider what sets Iceland apart from its neighbours, Greenland and Norway: volcanic activity. Iceland is a tectonic and volcanic hot spot. The eruption of Eyjafjallajökull is known about worldwide, mainly due to the resulting airport closures, which left many travellers stuck where they were. This must have been traumatic for news reporters who found themselves blushing on live television when unable to pronounce the name of the volcano. But the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull is not the only evidence of the fire element in this land... Iceland is full of naturally hot pools, geysers and evidence of the pressure can be seen in the steam which rises from the earth. The Icelandic people take advantage of this fantastic resource which provides them with cheap (but very pungent) hot water, inexpensive and renewable geothermal energy and a fantastic past time: bathing in the all-year round warm open-air swimming pools. 

Taken from this blog.

Sorry for the detour. 

Monday 27th. We were lucky to fly to Iceland, taking advantage of the new low-cost route from Edinburgh to Reykjavik. Our flight arrived at around 8pm (after a two hours journey), and after a brief moment of anxiety when my card didn't work, we took the flybus (£18 return ticket) to the centre of Reykjavik. It took about 45 minutes, and we went past the lava fields and industrial suburbs before arriving at the central bus station. The sky was clear, though it was a little chilly. After 15 minutes of walking through a residential area feeling famished, we reached Laugavegur, the main picturesque street in the centre. We were welcomed at our host's house (we found her through couchsurfing). Although originally from Switzerland, she moved to Iceland 10 months ago after having been a frequent visitor to country for 5 years, which shows just how enthusiastic about the country she is. Her little modern studio flat had a pretty view onto typically Nordic colourful houses. We quickly learnt about how she lives ethically, practising 'freeganism' and having made just about all her furniture from recycled boxes. We had a meal from a shop's dustbin, thai green curry and rice, and it was surprisingly good. Our host was very kind, bubbly and generous, but our conversation lasted a long time, and the light outside was disorientating. We ended up going to bed at around 1am, at which time it seemed like dusk by the light outside.

Tuesday 28th. Despite our lack of sleep, the next day we woke up early to sort out my card problem, buy a few snacks for a picnic and head off on our day trip to visit the golden circle. Unable to eat gluten, I came prepared with juvela bread rolls and a few gluten free snacks. Iceland horizons picked us up at 9am from outside our host's house, and we went off in a minivan with a few other tourists. I usually hate doing tours, but Iceland is not a great place to use public transport if time is limited. Most buses only return to Reykjavik one or two times a day from the major sites such as Gullfoss and Geyser. As far as tour operators go though, Iceland horizons was a great choice. Dave talked a little about Icelandic economics, history and society, whilst we drove through the suburbs, but allowed us thinking space when we were surrounded by natural beauty. It never felt as though he were impatient-on the contrary, we felt we had a perfect amount of time in each destination, and got a few surprises thrown in. 

Dave stopped to allow us to walk around a volcano, see another less famous waterfall and come up close to some Icelandic ponies, which were seriously friendly!

We had about an hour at Gullfoss, followed by an hour at Geyser and another hour at Þingvellir. Gullfoss was beautiful, and that is coming from someone who has seen many beautiful waterfalls in the world. It was quite dramatic, and though touristy, it did not feel like Disneyland, as was the case with Iguaçu falls. We had a quick picnic and then walked along the edge, getting sprinkled by a refreshing mist. 

Geyser was perhaps the most interesting sight for me, as I have never seen a geyser before. The main geyser there was surrounded by onlookers. On average it erupts every five minutes, yet the suspense between eruptions was incredible. The small crater was bubbling, yet it never seemed to be about to explode. Then, the inevitable jet of warm water shocks everyone, despite everyone knowing that it was about to happen. We experienced being soaked by the sulphuric eggy misty which  was blown in the breeze to where we were standing. 

As a Scandinavian studies student, my boyfriend was most excited about visiting the final destination: Þingvellir. Site of the old parliament of the Vikings, there is no trace left of their presence. The summer house of the Prime minister and the postcard perfect little church act as testament to the area's historical importance. Here we stood between  the two continental plates, that of North America and Eurasia. The area was sculptured by earthquakes, cracks and high ledges, and made more poetic by the clear blue rivers and surrounding mountains. We returned to Reykjavik at about 5pm, tired after a long day. We went to bed pretty soon after having dinner with our host and sampling Icelandic herbal tea (a delicious mixture of Angelica, Birch and Iceland moss). 

Wednesday 29th. Having already done a lot on our first day, we slept in late today. After relaxing around the flat and getting fed and watered, we left our host's house at around 2pm to check into our hostel: Reykjavik backpackers. Unsurprisingly for a Nordic country it was quite pricey, costing around £22 a night, but it was clean, tastefully decorated, with a bar, good showers and comfortable beds. They were a little bit creaky but we didn't have anything else to complain about. Most of the staff were really friendly and helpful with booking tours and providing advice about transport etc. We dropped off our stuff in our 6 bed dorm, then immediately left the hostel to take a walk around the city, visiting the top floor of the hallgrimskirkja to get a fantastic view of the city, the parliament building and the upmarket residential area around it, the pond and a few book shops. We attempted the walk towards the lighthouse, but turned right too early, ending up in a monotonous and tiresome industrial area near the harbour. Low of blood sugar I put my hand out in hope we could hitch hike back to the centre. We struck lucky. A friendly local made room for us in his car, I sat with the two toddlers in the back. He talked a little about Iceland, before announcing he had two pubs. Before we knew it, we were ushered out of the car and into one of these said bars, after he said we couldn't leave Iceland without trying a brio. After some whispers to one of the bar staff, he left without another word. We quickly found out what a brio was, as we got given two pints of beer on the house! As a coeliac I couldn't drink it, so my boyfriend got 2 pints, all on an empty stomach!

Thursday 30th. We had a quite substantial breakfast at the Italian run gelateria and creperie Eldur and Is, which made fantastic crepes, usually with spelt, but also a gluten free vegan variety! There were numerous fillings, but I went for dark chocolate and blueberries, washed down with a iced white tea from the nearby 10-11. My boyfriend opted for a cappuccino, which was clearly made by the napoleton owner, as it was quickly drunk and very much enjoyed. Today I had organized something which I had always wanted to do: whale watching. When I was little I used to be really obsessed with marine life, in particular large mammals such as dolphins and whales, and large fish, such as sharks! I was obsessed to the extent I dreamed of being a marine biologist. I may now be a language student, but my love of marine life is still with me. We went with Elding tours, after seeing such good reviews online. It turns out that Elding is also a very ethical company, campaigning against the slaughter of whales for meat, which is legal in Iceland, and promoting whale watching as a more peaceful alternative. Being the eager beavers we are, we went way too early, allowing us some time at least to take things slowly and check out the sites on the way. The most impressive and surprising of these was indeed the Harper building, the main concert hall of the city. Though futuristic on the outside, it was even more so on the inside. On the ground floor were a few shops selling CDs and memorabilia. Upstairs were plush cafés, and the glass walls made for a vertiginous experience. We headed to the Elding office, still ahead of schedule, and got a free hot chocolate to warm ourselves up before heading off. The waiting area for the boat was another boat, with a little exhibition about whales and previous sightings. In the Reykjavik area the most common whale species are minkes, followed by the majestic humpback. There are also white-beaked dolphins, porpoises, and occasional sightings of orcas.. and even the very occasional blue whale! The water was quite rough, and I was terrified that I wouldn't see anything. If it weren't for my warm overcoat I would have probably died of hyperthermia, courtesy of raynaud's disease. I stayed at the hull awaiting some signs of life. After a brief and interesting visit to see puffins, we headed out to the open ocean. After a quick sighting of two porpoises close to the boat, it seemed like we had our luck and fortune had left us. We were wrong. 20 minutes of patiently waiting proved enough, and I got my first glimpse of a minke whale. A few minutes later, and I saw another, and then another! The sea became rougher, the sky more overcast, and I thought it would be time to return to shore. We had one more treat in store for us. A pod of white-beak dolphins rushed towards the boat, some of them diving under, many circling us and jumping around playfully. It was a really unexpected finale. I returned to the bottom deck café/sitting area for the return journey, munching on a dark chocolate rice cake and high from the experience. Next time I will see a humpback whale... We slept for the afternoon in the hostel, before eating one of our many soup and gluten free bread dinners in the kitchen. 

Friday 31st Today was supposedly a day to 'relax'. We went out early to the famous hot pool laugardalslaug. It was drizzly, the perfect day for an outdoor swim right? The price was 550 isk, about £3, which is really good considering the facilities available. For that price you got access to the showers (shower gel included), the lockers (the key is in the digital waterproof wrist band), hair drying and cloth drying facilities! On top of that, there were many pools. Needless to say, being in Iceland we completely ignored the indoor pool, going straight for a warm one, which was heated to around 20 degrees. We then sampled a 44 degree hot pool, which was seriously hot, and ended up needing to switch to the 8 degree large pool, designed for doing strokes. After this slightly more refreshing dip, we headed to my personal favourite, the geothermal heated seawater pool. It was 40 degrees, which was perhaps a little too hot for my liking, but I give into the hype of bathing in mineral water too much, and salt water has always proven great for my skin. After an hour and a half, we actually felt a little too hot and restless, so went home. This is an excellent pool if you want to try something quintessentially Icelandic, which doesn't cost an arm and a leg. The blue lagoon, though beautiful, seems to be extortionate if you think of the cost-facilities relation, the entrance fee costing around £40, and a one way bus around £10... 

Again, we returned to the hostel for a rest and another lunch of sandwiches. The rain returned hard-core by the afternoon, just as we went out to get tea and cake. We went to a cute little vegetarian restaurant just off the road where our hostel was, Ecstasy's Heart-Garden. I opted for the gluten free vegan chocolate cake, and my partner went for the spelt carrot cake. We both tried a different local herbal tea, both of which were rather delicious. When the rain finally passed, we went out, took a walk and then returned in time for dinner (soup and bread again..) While we are on the topic of food, being a vegetarian/vegan in Iceland is rather easy. Soya milk and yoghurt are readily available, there are plenty of vegan options and many veggie restaurants. Being a coeliac on the other hand is an entirely different matter. I found no supermarket which sold gluten free bread/cereal/snacks, and ended up having to get by with what I brought with me, and the rice cakes which just so happened to be gluten free. I did find some good things in cafés and restaurants, however. Ecstasy's Heart-Garden was brilliant, also offering gluten free raw vegan snicker's cake, which I took away for breakfast the next day. Glo have a lot of raw food options, including cakes, one of which I tried on the last day. Downstairs from Glo is also a really good (if not a little bit expensive) health food shop, which sells fresh gluten free bread two times a week and a good variety of gluten free cereal, chocolate, snacks, pasta and other things which are difficult to get hold of elsewhere!

Having filled our bellies a little, we went out to see the sun voyager, a modern art installation on the seafront which is made to look like a Viking ship. We realized we still had a lot of energy left in us, so kept going to the left until we eventually reached the lighthouse for real. The views across the bay were quite stunning, even more so when we reached the lighthouse and could see the South shore stretching out in front of us. It was a nice walk, but the walk back would have been repetitive, so we hitched a lift with some local guys who told us about the hippest thing which happens in the city-the fishermen's festival. 

Saturday 1st.Today we got up early yet again to head off on a Viking horse through an Icelandic valley. I must point out though that Iceland excursions mistook us for their own clients, and the driver wrongly picked us up, dropping us at the main office near the harbour. Though the staff quickly helped us out, I think it is quite badly organised for a tour bus driver to not check the list for the name of the person. He just called us, said it was okay when I said my name, and drove us to the wrong place! This caused us quite a bit of anxiety far too early in the morning... Fortunately those at the Laxnes horse farm picked us up anyway after a few calls, and brought us to the farm. It was located in a pretty area, close to the city, but in the countryside. It is family run, and hence very informal. One of the women treated me in a very motherly way, seeking out small overalls and finding and adequately fitting hat. We were then assigned horses, which were chosen on the basis of our experience. When I said I had had a horse a few years ago, I was inevitably given the mare in season, a pretty little horse called Harper. My boyfriend had a slightly lazier little horse who seemed more interested in munching away at grass: a clear sign that he wasn't planning on bucking, shying or rearing in the near future... We passed through some interesting terrains including rivers, roads, narrows paths, and up steep hills. Though my horse was lovely and the ride was by and large enjoyable, I had a few gripes: the saddle was clearly incorrectly fitted, as whenever my horse went into a trot, it slid to one side and left me feeling a little vulnerable. For this reason I opted to go on the slower ride when we were given the chance to choose midway, whilst I would have chosen the faster one, being an experienced rider. My second grumble was that the riders at the front seemed a little impatient with the paying customers. When my boyfriend, a newbie and nervous rider asked for help with his horse, he got a slightly dry and curt response. They also seemed to think that cantering on roads wouldn't harm the horses feet, and that the rising trot was optional. Apart from that, my horse was lovely, the stable itself was very nice, and the location was really beautiful. 

We both got back with aches and pains, and whilst my boyfriend  rewarded himself with sleep, I rewarded myself with soup and hummus at Ecstasy's heart garden. After a couple of hours we both noticed our aching backsides, yet still decided to do something. We went to the down town flea market, bought some Icelandic herbal tea, and then decided to check out the two pointy towers my other half was interested in. We passed a park and yet another residential area, before arriving at the surprisingly attractive Háteigskirkja church. It was quite typically Icelandic in design, with an Icelandic flag flying high in front of it. We couldn't enter as a wedding was being carried out, though I have since read that the interior is not as interesting as the exterior anyway! We were almost back at the hostel when the rain returned. After eating some glutafin crisp bread, I went to sleep.

Sunday 2nd. This was our last full day in Iceland. Being a Sunday, we soon realized that the buses start running later than usual, and had to wait for 2 hours at the bus station before being able to get the 19 bus to Árbærjarsafn, the open air folk museum in the suburbs of the city. A return trip cost 700 isk each, about £4. The folk museum was very quiet and looking around it was quite a pleasant way to spend the morning. The entrance fee was 600 isk for students, 1200 isk for everyone else. Though quite small, the museum had a good collection of traditional houses from different periods, including a church and some houses with turf roofs. It was great to be able to go inside them and explore the upstairs too. If you can't get to Skogar, this is a good alternative if you want a taster of Icelandic traditional life from the past. This was one of our first sunny days, and we returned to our hostel at around 3pm, had another habitual rest, nachos in the kitchen, and finally walked around the city centre for our last evening. We eventually found an ice cream shop, after much searching. Ice cream was sold by weight, and I opted for blueberry, apple and pecan. It was nice enough, but tasted more like American candy than the naturally flavoursome gelato one finds in Italy or Kulfi that is widely available in India. Regardless, it was a calming evening, walking along the coast, looking out towards the bay and mount Esja. We had a disturbed nights sleep that day, thanks to two drunkards beating up a girl who was screaming. Always the case when one needs to sleep. Slightly concerned about what was happening to this girl at 2am, I went down to reception in my pjs to  ask what happened. "Oh, just some really crazy Icelandic people..." was the response. I moved to another room where there was no creaking, no snoring and no screaming and slept like a baby. 

Monday 3rd. I hate morning flights. You never know whether you ought to go out and do something touristy, or just hang around. I always end up doing the latter, as I don't want to risk missing the flight or having travel complications... We wandered around town for a while after leaving our bags at the hostel, bought some iceland moss for my mum, I bought a salad for lunch, and we passed the entire afternoon sat in a cosy bookshop, free to look at travel books and dream about the next destination, to drink water from the coffee shop and look at what was going on down in the street below. Flybus to the airport at 5pm, the airport seemed like a ghost town, the duty free and restaurants were nearly all dark with shutters downs. No wonder it is so expensive to fly to Iceland-there are hardly any flights. 

Overall we had a lovely time, did and saw some amazing things, and lived on a budget to the best of our abilities, considering the extortionate prices which are found in Iceland. If you are a veggie traveller, you will easily get by, especially if you learn the words for various meats and ask locals for help with translations. You will definitely need local help to track down gluten free products, as it often isn't mentioned, let alone in English. I would advise any coeliacs to bring food with them, rather than rely on finding something in Iceland. I can imagine this being an even bigger issue outside of the city. 

 More or less everyone is bilingual, so despite the apparently massive language barrier, you should get by. Should you wish to learn Icelandic, go ahead, no language is more difficult than another one if you are motivated.