Christmas Market Sibiu, Romania

Christmastime in Europe

If you know me, you know Christmastime is my favourite time of year. I try to go to a Christmas market or two each season – though Christmas was a bit different last year!

This year, as we are running out of locations we haven’t yet been in Europe, and because we are broke, we bought the cheapest flights we could find – and will soon be heading to Sibiu, Romania! It’s meant to be a gorgeous Christmas market in one of the most picturesque areas of Romania. G and I have wanted to visit the country for a while, and £50 flights to one of the supposed best Christmas markets in Europe was impossible to pass up!

As we get ready to head out (trip is still two weeks away), I think it’s time to start a new section on the blog – European Christmas markets!

I’ve already written about Berlin, Prague and Amsterdam – however I’ve yet to write about Sweden, Finland, Norway, or Poland, and that is a travesty.

So to kick off December and celebrate the lead up to what I hope will be a wonderful Christmas season, let’s look back on celebrations of years past!

And honestly, everyone thinks you need to visit Europe in the summer, but I truly think there’s nothing better than a December spent sipping mulled wine and looking at local/handmade crafts. If you get the chance to visit in December don’t pass it up!

Buying a Flat!

I know it has been radio silence over here for so long now. Part of that is because life has been so busy I really haven’t had time to do anything with this blog – every time I try to start writing, I have such a small amount of time to fit it in that what comes out is rushed and of such low quality I can’t do anything but throw it out and mourn the wasted time!

But ALSO I’ve had a lot of really exciting things in the works for months, and I didn’t want to share them until completely official. And the first one finally is so here we go…

We’re buying a flat! In South East London (where we’ve always lived), right next to Crystal Palace Park, and the commute will be fantastic, and it’s got two floors and three bedrooms and two bathrooms. And it’s finally official!

Did you know buying a flat in the UK takes an average 6 month to complete? Because I certainly didn’t, and when our offer was accepted back in June I expected to be in end of August at the latest. Very naïve, I have since learned.

Buying a flat in the UK is also different to the states in that it’s not legally binding until the very end. Meaning you can get months in and right before you expect it to be official (and after paying lawyers fees), you can be “gazumped”.

Per Google: Gazumping occurs when a seller accepts a verbal offer on the property from one potential buyer, but then accepts a higher offer from someone else. It can also refer to the seller raising the asking price or asking for more money at the last minute, after previously verbally agreeing to a lower one.

Basically it’s all verbal up until you exchange contracts, which doesn’t happen until the end of the process. Our offer was accepted in June and then July – October our lawyers sorted out the legal stuff, and we finally exchanged October 23rd, which made it all legally binding. We will then “complete” on November 4th, which is the day we get keys and officially own the house.

Another major difference between buying a flat in the UK vs the US are chains. The system here is legally set up so it’s not just your one purchase, but the sellers forward purchase, and so on, down the chain until you find someone “chain free” – ie moving to rented accommodation, moving abroad, or not buying for another reason. Depending on how long your chain is, it adds so much time. For example, we have been ready to exchange with our sellers for about a month, but there was an issue between their negotiations with their sellers which held things up. Then we were meant to all exchange on the 22nd, but the contract hadn’t been received from the people our sellers were buying from, so we had to wait on that. Nothing to do with our purchase, but legally it all happens on the same day. We were lucky in that our chain was just the three of us – the people our sellers are buying from are moving to rented accommodation. But there can be chains of 6 or 7 people, and if one of the purchases falls through, it delays completion for months for the entire chain. As such, a friend’s home purchase took over 12 months. And statistically, an accepted offer only leads to a completed sale 2/3 times in the UK (I’d imagine this is even closer to 50/50 in London).

We’ve been anxiously awaiting exchange – as desperate as we are to move in, we were more desperate to know nothing would fall apart last minute and no gazumping would transpire. And it has all finally happened! We’ll be in so soon – and with enough time to plan and host Thanksgiving!

We want to do a lot of work on the place but have very limited funds at the moment. So I’ll share photos of the “before” and then slowly share the “after”. We currently have a bed and an old, dilapidated sofa a friend has kindly bestowed upon us, and otherwise virtually no furniture. What a fun and expensive and terrifying adventure this will be!

Krka, Croatia

Krka, Split & Plitvice, Croatia

It’s been far too long since our epic journey around Croatia for me to write a proper post about it. However, it was one of our best trips we’ve ever taken, so solely so I have it to look back on, a photo diary of our time there!

Plitvice

This gorgeous national park has 16 lakes that are joined by waterfalls. It’s incredibly beautiful – though the photos make it look quite wild – expect lots of people and clear walkways you can’t deviate from. There is (paid) parking nearby, and depending on when you visit entry is anything from $8 – $26.

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia Plitvice Lakes, Croatia Plitvice Lakes, Croatia Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

Krka

I actually preferred Krka, and if you visit between June and September you can swim in the water! Note that parking is tough to figure out. It seems like the two official options are to drive to Skradin and catch the boat or to Lozovac where you can walk about 2 km to the park – note that this way you don’t see Roski Slap, only Skradinski Buk. We couldn’t figure it out, ended up wandering around a completely unrelated town for a bit (but got some ice cream out of it!) and then just drove as close as we could (it seems like probably to Lozovac), were very lucky to find parking, and walked about 30 minutes each way, along with dozens of other people. Entry is about $20. Well worth it!

Krka, Croatia Krka, Croatia Krka, Croatia

Split

Split was fantastic and we spent an entire day playing cards and drinking at what is probably my favourite pub in all the world. I have no idea what it is called, but it was full of locals and old and wonderful. We also went up Marjan Hill and had some pretty epic views of the city.

Split, Croatia View from Marjan Hill, Split, Croatia Marjan Hill, Split, Croatia View from Marjan Hill, Split, Croatia

This was part of a larger trip I took over Semana Santa (Easter) in 2017. I went to Italy (Florence with Rachel, Venice alone), Slovenia, and Zagreb before meeting up with Gareth and driving down the coast of Croatia, into Bosnia to visit Mostar, and finally to Dubrovnik. Easily one of the most epic trips of my life!

National Garden, Athens, Greece

Two Week Intensive French Classes in Montpellier

I was lucky enough to take intensive French classes in Montpellier because after Madagascar, there was a lot of uncertainty – would I actually go back to London? Would I move back to California* like I’ve been dreaming about for a few years now? Look for another position in the field with a more robust health care system? Or even take a few months off just to focus on language?

Then I got offered my current position back at MSI and the decision was made. I’d be moving to London and happily back in with G! I had a few weeks to play around with before my start date, and learning French is something that has been on my list of goals for years. It would be a huge career boost, and despite taking a course at MSI in early 2018, I still felt like I lacked even the most basic building blocks of the language. So I decided to book in for an intensive two week course in the south of France at LSF French school. I decided on this school because of price, location (I’d never been to the South of France, I liked the small size of the city, and the weather was meant to be lovely – though I had terrible luck in that regard), and reputation – it had loads of excellent reviews.

Place de la Comedie, Montpellier

French Classes in montpellier

Promenade du Peyrou, Montpellier, France

Host Family Life

I stayed with a host family which is very out of character – I highly value independence and privacy. I did it because it’s meant to offer the best opportunity to learn French, and while I don’t regret having done it, I wouldn’t again.

Pros:

  • You can practice French in a natural environment with people who have to be patient with you. You’ll learn how people speak colloquially, learn words about everyday living that may not come up in class, and be exposed to the language basically 24/7.
  • You can see how locals live, which is something I think is important when visiting a new place – to get outside of the tourist bubble. I was quite far out and had to take a 25-minute metro ride into the city centre every day, and while this wasn’t ideal it did allow me to live a bit more like a local than tourist.

Cons:

  • Every family is different, and you’re inserted right into someone else’s family. Two weeks is a bit of an awkward amount of time. It’s difficult to get close, but you’re right there there for long enough to feel a bit involved – there was some personal drama with the host mom that happened while I was there that I was a bit caught up in – very awkward when you’re an outsider who doesn’t speak the language.
  • In my experience, the expectation was very much that I would spend as much free time with the family as possible. I spent 90% of my time in the library studying, and I think my host mother felt a tiny bit put out by this. I didn’t sign up for catered food, but started feeling guilty if I didn’t eat with the family every night anyway (with my own food obviously), and even at nearly 30 years old, they very much wanted to know my whereabouts at all times.
  • I think the biggest issue I had was that I came in as a complete beginner. The family didn’t speak English, and I think a few decades ago the model would have worked where I’d have been forced to gesture until I could speak, and then speak and build from what I was learning each day, etc. Instead the host family used Google translate to communicate with me. I did eventually ask them to at least speak the words as well, so I could hear it in French, and it wasn’t terrible both seeing it written out and hearing it out loud. But I didn’t feel comfortable enough to do that right away, and for a while it felt like the only things I was learning were from listening in on their conversations to each other.

These things all might be very expected for a host family, and even desirable for some people. It’s also just one experience – I’d stayed with one other host family when I was in Guatemala for a few weeks in 2010, and in that instance we had breakfast together every day, but there were no expectation to spend free time socializing together. They were very happy to help when needed and would have a chat in Spanish at the end of most nights, but I still felt quite independent. That wasn’t the case here, and I think will be hard to know what kind of situation you’re getting before arrival.

Promenade du Peyrou, Montpellier, France

What Can You Learn in Two Weeks?

A lot, actually! I was lucky that I was in a small class (there were only four of us) and we were all really motivated to learn. We also came in at complete beginner, so were luckily all at nearly the exact same level. I had class from 9 – 12:30 every day and then and extra 90 minutes in the afternoon on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I spent every afternoon in the library studying, and the library was usually quite full. When I came back I joined an A1.2 class in London, was pushed up to the A2.2 class the next week, and that was actually the right level! This is the result of London labelling classes as more advanced than they are (I found the same thing when I tried to do Spanish classes here as well), but also due to my time at LSF – I really did come back quite good. I learned far more in two weeks than I expected. I’ve since forgotten loads, but I know with a bit of dedicated study, my new class at MSI, and hopefully a few more trips to LSF, I’ll get there.

Promenade du Peyrou, Montpellier, France

Looking to take French classes in montpellier?

I have a lot of good things to say about LSF. I think they’ve nailed the model, have excellent, well trained teachers, dedicated students, and I 100% plan to go back to the LSF for French classes in Montpellier in the future. I think language lessons can be extremely hit or miss, and I am really comfortable telling you LSF is a hit. They know what they are doing – they aren’t the cheapest but this is definitely a case of you get what you pay for, and if you’re serious about French this is a place you can go to improve. Also Montpellier is not a bad place to spend some time! It’s got a gorgeous old town, is a small-sized city, perfect for learning a language, generally has fantastic weather, and has great food. What more could you want?

Montpellier, France

*This would have been difficult to do as I don’t have health insurance in America anymore. If I got sick now, it would be nearly impossible to move home with my family to receive care. Another reason America’s HC system needs overhauling and another reason to vote for Elizabeth Warren in the upcoming primaries and election!

Santorini Hike

Why I Didn’t Like Santorini

First let’s acknowledge that I’m incredibly lucky and privileged to have been able to visit Santorini at all. However, if you travel frequently, you’re bound to visit a few places you like more or less than others. Santorini was one of those places I liked less. That said, it is gorgeous and I’m sure quite a few people feel the magic there that was lost on me. It’s also worth noting that we planned to spend 24 hours there, but due to an ferry strike were unexpectedly there for 4.5 days.

Oia, Santorini

My biggest issue was the amount of tourists in Santorini. For example, take the photo of Gareth and I below. To get it, we had to wait in line for 15 minutes , and once you got there if you took too long people shouted at you. It was stressful and packed and really (for me) took away from the beauty.

Oia, Santorini

Likewise, the sunset was gorgeous. However, to get a good spot you need to arrive about two hours early. This photo was taken 90 minutes before the sunset and believe me it only got more and more busy. Afterwards, it took us about 25 minutes to get back to the road due to the crowds.

Oia Sunset

Every picturesque location was filled with professional photographers doing photoshoots with tourists who had hired them. Everyone was dressed extremely well, and the entirety of Oia felt like one big photoshoot. Like the the main reasons tourists in Santorini were there was just to get a photo of themselves there.

Oia, Santorini

I spent about an hour doing the same, mostly because we needed (free) things to do to fill our time. Then I got fed up with the whole vibe and put my camera away for the next few days. We left Oia, which felt unbearable, and moved down to Perissa which was far less touristy. It was more of a beach town. We spent a day sitting under an umbrella on the black sand beach, having a completely different trip than the Oia focused one we had planned.

Santorini Black Sand Beach

I think I have a fairly high tolerance for tourists. I’m from Martha’s Vineyard and while I much prefer the winter, I adjusted to everything being crowded long ago. I went to Cinque Terre last August and was told I’d hate it due to all the tourists at that time of year, and again not only did it not bother me but it’s one of my favourite places I’ve ever been. There were 100 times more tourists in Santorini than in MV or Cinque Terre.

Oia, Santorini

I’m also going to be a bit controversial and say that while there were many gorgeous parts of Santorini, I don’t think the overall beauty compared to anything we saw in Paros or Crete. There are cheaper, quieter, and more beautiful places to visit in the Greek isles. I think if you only have a limited amount of time, I’d really suggest leaving Santorini off your list!