Category: UK Life

Looking back at 2014

I know that I haven’t updated much on this blog, but part of that was because I spent most of 2014 writing on a German blog here where I wrote over 20,000 words in German. Although I could have spent more time writing there, I did spend some effort trying to write decent German instead of just the same German that I was using all the time.

Looking back

In case you didn’t realise, I spent 2014 living in Berlin where I was trying to learn German. Choosing Berlin as a place to learn German may not be the most obvious choice because you can get by far too easily with English but it had a good balance between being a place where I could learn and practice German and being a very interesting city to explore.

My year in numbers

Without counting Berlin, I visited 29 different cities and with a plan to try to travel mostly within Germany, I think I managed that very well although I still managed to visit Spain, Italy, Croatia, Estonia, Hungary and England outside of those cities.

I wrote over 20,000 words on my German blog and complete in total 20 weeks of German language lessons in three different German courses. I didn’t keep track of the number of books I read but I would have estimated that I read about 20 different books (in German) and a couple more in English. According to Get Pocket, I saved and read 1.2 million words on saved web page articles which they equate to about 26 books.

In the year, I took just short of 24,000 photos (168GB worth) and watched probably 50 or more DVD films (in German). Being a member of the library in Berlin rocks!

Finally I also published my second book (although it’s been in the works for a couple of years).

A bit more detail

Travel

I tried to see a lot of Germany, particularly the parts which would be hard to see or I wouldn’t fly to from the UK. I was really surprised at how diverse the landscape and how varied the German culture is and I really appreciated the cheap bus lines between cities which meant I only took a few flights back to Berlin. In German I visited the following cities: Trier, Karlsruhe, Baden Baden, Heidelberg, Tübingen, Freiburg, Stuttgart, Potsdam, Leipzig, Dresden, Görlitz, Weimar, Jena, Dessau, Hamburg, München, Nürnberg, Fürth, Regensburg. You’ll notice that it hits most of the south-west and west cities since I had already been to cities like Köln, Dusseldorf, and Frankfurt on previous places.

I returned to Barcelona (this time in summer instead of winter) and enjoyed the beaches at Sitges. I spent two visits in Budapest (once for a stag do, and the other before a conference), two visits to London and a few quick trips to Tartu, Tallinn, Rome and Prague. I went sailing for the first time in Croatia (via Split).

Work

Although I had a year off work, I still ended up doing a little bit. Obviously the second book I published is work-related but I also gave a few training courses and talks about work related topics, but I was more than happy to do that. I managed to not check my work email so much, leaving on my “I’ll be back in a year” out of office message to respond to most emails. I really appreciate that most people will never ever get an opportunity to do that.

Self-development

My only big goal in 2014 was to learn German. I had done some self-study before then, and I don’t think that my German was so good. Reading and listening skills were reasonably but with little practice, my writing and reading skills were significantly behind. In the middle of this year, I realised the goal to “be fluent in German” was not very specific simply because there is no strict definition of what “fluent” means. I’m happy to report I’m comfortable interacting with German-speaking people on an every day basis and getting bay in strange situations.

I can trade emails very well and can read (some) novels in German without needing a dictionary by my side.

Final thoughts

I was never sure what it would be like at the end of this year. Coming back to work is similar to the same feeling I had at the start of 2014 and what you might experience as if it was the first day at school. The feeling comes with a mixture of anticipation (for something good), fear (for the unknown) and excitement (for something new).

I’m thankful and grateful that I had the opportunity to do what I did as I realise many people do not. There were so many moments this year which were so different.

Back to Brazil

I spent most of November travelling, both away for holidays with the family in Taiwan, touching down in London before exchanging bags for a two week work trip in Brazil. I spent the two weeks across Recife and Porto Alegre and a bit of time in Sao Paulo transiting as there wasn’t much choice in between.

The connection from London to Recife was particularly long – at least like six or seven hours but work fortunately booked a Suite in an airport hotel where I could at least have a shower, leave my bag and get a bit of sleep if I really wanted to. Spending a few hours in this SleepApart hotel made a huge difference to making the journey not feel so tiring.

Fast Sleep Airport hotel
Picture of the hotel “room”, cosy but had a big impact

I spent lunch in the airport and then checked some of the emails that accumulated over my holiday, before reconnecting to a flight that got me into Recife.

Recife

Work had put me in the corporate apartments located about a half hour walk south of where I stayed last time. The area had more restaurants and was also very close to the beach. I met a colleague at the new office (very nice!) to pick up my keys before we went out for dinner and then headed back.

I was still several timezones ahead (Taiwan time!) so I tended to wake up very early for the next couple of days such as at 4am. Fortunately Recife is of Brazil’s sitting closest to their eastern coast meaning the sun rises really early, and consequently sets very early as well. It wasn’t unusual, that even in this summertime period, the sun would be gone by 5:30pm.

Beachside
The morning stroll by the beach

In the mornings, this meant I went for a bit of a stroll along the esplanade with all the active Brazilians doing their runs, work outs by the beach and general goissiping on the streets. I made sure to have some agua de coco (coconut water) from one of the stands each morning. Only R$3 for a freshly cut, icy cold coconut. Yum!

Coconut by the beach

Aqua de coco R$3

Having been introduced and quite addicted to the Amazonian berry, Açai, I made sure to hunt some down when I could. A colleague mentioned an ice cream store near the apartments served some and I knew some of the beach side huts would serve some too.

Açai

Açai tigale (bowl of açai) served with typically banana and granola

I unfortunately didn’t have any weekened time in Recife as I spent most of Saturday transiting over to Porto Alegre via Sao Paulo because the flight connections aren’t great between the two cities.

Porto Alegre

Work put me in a nice, safe neighbourhood that made it easy to get to work. Unfortunately on weekends, there wasn’t that much open. I did find a pretty cool cafe/restaurant that had its own skatebowl and served some local beers (and açai!)


A “strong” 6.2% local IPA. Tasty!

In my previous observation of Brazil, I noted how there’s not really any typical Brazilian look, and people often come in all sorts of shades. Porto Alegre is a little bit of a different story. Despite historically having one of the biggest slave populations, locals told me that something about the larger German and Italian immigrations into the city changed that to the point where you notice the “whiteness” the city has.

Sidenote: I also felt like I was stared at a lot in both cities as I didn’t notice many East Asian people and I felt like I stood out a bit.

Tourist ticket
Ticket for a tour bus. 25% discount using a hotel voucher

I did have the Sunday for free time, and I used that to recharge my reserves for the week (I find training, and facilitation pretty exhausting!) and managed to see the town. I took a taxi downtown to the tourist office, where the local open-air double-decker bus tours around town.

Tourist bus

The double decker bus

The tour gave me a good feel the city, and I felt was a bit of a safer option that wandering into areas I had no idea if they were close to a favela or not. It’s pretty good value, lasting about an hour and half and with good weather, made a nice trip. Unfortunately for me, the tour recording discussing some of the sites was only in Portugese!

Mate tea cup
Mate tea

I also noticed a much more local tradition of people drinking mate (pronounced ma-tay – like how you’d say satay) tea. I know of this from my time in Berlin where it’s the popular thing to drink with vodka as an alternative to redbull. You acquire a taste for it, as the tea is significantly more bitter than most other drinks. You can also spot people drinking it as you’ll often seen someone carrying around a canniser filled with hot water, and a funny looking clay or metal tea cup and a funny shaped straw.

Mate tea cups for saleMate tea cups at the market

Mate tea is a very social thing. My Brazilian colleague introduced me to it on a long bus journey to one of our away days. A person prepares the mate tea by carefully layering all the tea (it looks like grass) on one half of the cup. The other half is kept open for the straw and top ups of hot water. You drink it, refill the cup with hot water and then pass it on to the next person. On this bus journey, a group of about eight or nine people share the same mate tea cup.

On Sundays, a park quite close to downtown is filled with people socialising and laying about in the sun. They also hold a market, selling locally made crafts and clothes. The park is pretty big, with several locations also hosting live bands playing a mix of music.

How I borrowed an iPhone 5C for a week

For just over a week, I have been the owner of a blue iPhone 5C. Here are a couple of pictures of the phone before I returned it yesterday.

iPhone 5C

iPhone 5C

I wasn’t planning on being an owner of the iPhone but it turned out to be an emergency situation. It sort of started out like this…

I had a physiotherapy appointment in the morning and I happened to be carrying a bag I wanted to donate to a charity bin on my way home. I sat in the surgery waiting for my appointment, and like most other people, sat there checking twitter, email and everything else. I got called in for my appointment, and after finishing went straight away to the place I could donate my bag. The charity bin looked like this:

The Charity Bin

I pushed my bag through the slot, firmly pushing the bag and closing the door with acceleration to ensure the bag found its way deep inside the bin where no one could easily pull it out. I turned, and proceeded home. It was about half way home that I realised my phone was missing. Not in my jacket. Not in my pockets. Panic set in as I slowly realised my phone sat firmly inside the bag I just donated, and that bag sat firmly inside a steel bin where I could not retrieve it.

I ran back to the bin to see if I somehow could pull the bag out with a strap, but it was simply not possible. All I could touch was a big metal scoop and I could only see the deep black void of the bin’s insides.

There was a number on the bin, but then I had no phone to call it with. I had a flight to catch in the afternoon, so time was of the essence. I headed straight to the apple store. I was fortunate everything happened very early. I was in the apple store by 10:30am and with a new iPhone shortly after.

Why an iPhone 5C you ask? I would have bought an iPhone 5S but they were all out. The only options were a 5C, or an 8GB 4S. I went with the blue iPhone 5C you see in the pictures above. The salesperson assured me I could return the phone within 14 days and possibly upgrade to the 5S if I came in on a day they had any in stock. That seemed very reasonable to me.

Phone done, but not yet connected. I made my way to an EE store to get a replacement sim card. I was fortunate they could make a replacement on the spot for £10. So by about 11am I was reconnected to a telephone network. Racing home, a quick sync with my laptop brought the rest of the phone back up to scratch with important things I would need for my travels including apps that stored my travel details and contacts for people I needed to reach.

Not yet done, I headed back to the charity bin to call the number. I also made sure I took a picture of the bin that you see above. I’m thankful the number was on the bin. A guy called Kevin picked up who I explained my situation to. He was very reasonable, and I left all my contact details with him. Kevin explained that they only collect from the charity bins once a week, but they could try to send a person around. I told him that I would be out of the country so he said he would call me if they found anything. I understood his sentiment that there was no guarantee they would find it but I was certainly hopeful.

With nothing left that I could do, I headed home and tried to not worry myself about what just happened. The event was past and there was nothing left I could do. Still, I felt quite badly as I packed for my work trip (and I do feel guilty and definitely ashamed about it even now).

Kevin left a message three days later. I listened to the message, expecting the worst. Fortunately he surprised me and told me they had found my phone and I could come and pick it up when I was back in London. I was so relieved and thankful.

The first day I was back in London, I went to their offices in Beckenham to pick up the phone. I dropped off giant-sized Toblerone to say thanks – my last trip was to Geneva and it felt most appropriate.

After this time, the phone was truly drained. I plugged it into a battery pack I recently bought, and 20 minutes later it was back up to about 20%, enough for me to feel happy to try restoring it. iTunes worked seamlessly, I dropped in the new sim and tested everything worked. Phew! Everything appeared to work.

After resetting my iPhone 5C to its original condition, I headed back to the apple store with everything in hand and I was able to get a refund for my purchase. Yay!

The Wedding of Tim and Anne

I have known Tim and Anne for a long time – maybe half a decade at least. I knew them before they got together and I really appreciated their invitation when they asked me to attend their wedding in Devon. It’s the first time I had been down to Devon and a whole bunch of us made our way, which took about a five hour car journey on the way down.

We didn’t have any satellite navigation built into the car on the way down, and went through one iPhone using the TomTom application just to get out of London and my phone was almost tapped taking over using normal google maps. It didn’t really help we got caught up in the roadworks.

Tim is Canadian, and Anne from the region hence the wedding being based in the southwest corner of England. Being my first time to the area, I was surprised by how much of a surfing culture there was in the area. We stayed at The Thatch, a lovely B&B as the manor the couple had hired was housing all the guests flying in from overseas.

The Thatch served a mean breakfast, but with all the travel I’ve been doing for work, stuck to having a hearty breakfast of porridge instead of some fry-up I could have had.

Tim and Anne held their wedding at an amazing Manor, nestled away in the winding roads surrounded by green hedges and only enough space for a single car. We made good use getting taxis back and forth as we were in no state to be driving, particularly after the wedding.

The wedding ceremony was perfect – very British, slightly cheeky, and to the point. It really reflected the wonderful couple and it wasn’t long before the ceremony gave way to drinks outside, an amazing dinner with amazing drinks including a fantastic light-flavoured Zinfandel red wine that I could have just kept drinking all night. But then they had some good scotch behind the bar that I couldn’t resist.

The cutting of the cake was a spectacle but, like other parts of the wedding, this one was well thought out with each tier in the cake being a different cheese wheel. If you know any British person, you’ll probably know their preference for cheese after meals since most of the British desserts tend to be puddings rather than fancy cakes. And good cheese it was.

Here’s me with the lovely bridge and groom.

An awesome evening with some very good friends, and what a blast being able to be part of such a special occasion.

Berlin, Paris, London

I’m sitting here on the August bank holiday weekend and the weather is absolutely spectacular (sarcasm really doesn’t come across online). Actually it’s completely drizzling outside, although not particularly cold. I feel sorry for all the tourists around town.

The last couple of weeks have been busy with a project in the office, but that’s not to say that I haven’t had much fun. I had a couple of weekends travelling to other parts of Europe – both a long weekend in Berlin catching up with some old haunts, nice food and great company.

This visit to Berlin reminded me of all the lovely things about the city – the cycle friendly streets, the beautiful food and pricy offerings at KaDeWe, the reasonable prices (though increasing as times goes by) of the cafes and restaurants as well as the ever-expanding coffee joints brought in my the technology sector.

I also managed to visit my old flat mates, who happened to be in Paris studying a French course for a few weeks on a weekend. I actually can’t say that I have eaten very well in Paris in the past, but with a bit of research and luck, we ended up indulging in some really decent places. Paris was also quite strange this visit because August is the time when all the locals end up on their holidays (even some of the people who run hotels).

During the day the streets appeared rather empty, like a classic zombie movie with the only survivors wandering wandering around being other visitors to the city. Fortunately there were enough places open in the more touristic areas to keep us occupied including a nice game of boules along Paris’s very own beach strip along the river.

We walked along the river for some time before attempting a river cruise that turned out to be, both very awesome, relaxing and resulted in a good amount of exposure to the sun.

Gumtree

I have been based in London the last couple of weeks and it has been great to have a bit of a regular routine, which means eating better, going to the gym and just simply feeling like I have been living life. I recently moved places again (although I’m still in Clerkenwell) and although I’m still settling it, I have definitely taken advantage of the move by working out what sort of things (e.g. stuff I don’t use) I can get rid of gumtree.

So far, it’s been pretty successful selling items that I found myself not really using and I’ve got back more than a few hundred quid using Gumtree to do so. If you’re thinking of doing it, I find that I get the most results by posting on a Thursday or Friday, pictures help as does as useful blurb about how used/new an item is as well as if it comes with a box. There are a few scammers out there, so the usual disclaimer I add is about how I will only deal with cash (e.g. not post an item for paypal) and exchange the item in person.

Some not-so “big data” analysis on my weight

My gym has a nifty scale that measures all sorts of things such as weight, muscle mass, body fat, and indications of where it is distributed. Although I am highly skeptical with how accurate devices like this are, I think they are good as a comparative tool to look at the device. They installed it at the end of October last year and you can email results to yourself (which my OCD side tagged, labelled and archived so they were easy to compare).

After six months I thought it would be interesting to look at changes in the baseline and what I think may have caused them.

Given how much I like to enjoy myself trying new foods and restaurants when travelling I wasn’t so surprised at spikes on the trips such as Christmas or new projects abroad. One really surprisingly (but really shouldn’t be surprising) is the impact that the ski holiday had on my weight. Yes, you’re out skiing all day burning calories but probably not enough to balance out the hearty meals (breakfast, French meals) and the amazing four course dinners we would have (complete with wine and Apéritif)

I’m surprised that Brazil didn’t have as much effect as I thought it would have, although the combination of a bit of food poisoning and most Brazilian foods not really being heavily processed probably had something to do with it.