The not-so-bad British summer

Seeing as I haven’t posted anything since February I thought I’d start with something easy, just so my brain would get accustomed to putting lines of text together.

There has been a lot going on in the UK this summer, more specifically a barrage of bad things. On the bright side, I don’t see any locusts around and there is definitely no flood on the way (only thunderstorms for the moment).

As if to highlight the failings of our society, nature turned up the thermostat to wash the city in bright sunlight.

While the city was slowly coming to a boil I found myself longing for things I was familiar with. I normally miss the sea every day of the year but now, with temperatures that reminded me of home, the thought of being far from the coast was asphyxiating.

Luckily, my housemate fancied a trip to the seaside as well so for once I didn’t take off on my own. After much contemplation we decided to head to Hastings, a place neither had visited before

The train journey from central London to Hastings is a little over an hour, with direct trains departing from Cannon Street. The tickets were expensive as per usual; for some reason though the single ticket at 28 pounds costs the same as the day return ticket. The guy at the ticket booth told us we should have brought another person with us, as you get a group discount for three people.

I told him about our other housemate letting us down and he joked that she was probably hangover. I don’t think my housemate is capable of being hungover-she was the one that happily offered to finish my bottle of raki after I mentioned it was too strong for me. We grabbed our tickets and boarded the train with time to spare.

Arriving in Hastings feels like arriving in any other English seaside town. The architecture is mostly consistent throughout the country so you can expect to see Victorian houses with balconies, a seaside promenade by a main road, amusement arcades (but why?) and a very long pier.

Hastings as a name might ring a bell because of the battle of Hastings, of which I know nothing except that it took place at some point. Hastings is in fact one of Britain’s oldest fishing ports. It has been a maritime center for over a thousand years. Nowadays, Europe’s biggest fleet of beach-launched fishing boats is based on the Stade, a shingle beach by Hastings Old Town. The Hastings Fishermen’s Protection Society preserves the fishing community’s medieval right to carry on using that beach for free.

The sea is at the very core of the society in Hastings. On the way to the Stade you will come across a fish market housed within a complex of tall, narrow wooden sheds, all painted black. These are the Net Shops, where the fishermen used to store their nets. Some of these buildings are listed as national heritage assets. Near the net shops you will find the Hastings Fishermen museum and the Blue Reef aquarium, none of which we had time to visit.

Our destination was the beach, specifically the Stade where the fishing boats were lying on the pebbly equivalent of sand dunes. The is divided on two sections by a car park and a concrete structure that goes into the sea. There are a lot of man-made constructions in English beaches whose purpose I still haven’t understood. Like what’s up with the wooden barriers that go into the sea, do they stop the sand from moving about due to currents or something? I have no clue.

Anyway, we stayed on the first section of the beach for a while and I braved a plunge and a swim. The water was-as expected- freezing and murky but I was satisfied just swimming around as I pleased and not in lanes. It turned out the freezing water was the least of my problems because some idiot with a dinghy boat decided to play a game with his family where he would throw a rope off the back side of the boat, they would hold on to it and he would drag them around, moving about in circles.

Mind you, the back side of a dingy is still equipped with a motor which comes with a propeller, which is the sort of thing you don’t want near your kid. The guy almost run me over twice as I was swimming; the second time I had to physically stop the boat and tell him to watch out. His kid apologised in his place, because I suppose when one is being an ass they might as well go all the way.

By the way, when driving a motor boat you are not allowed to use your engine at full speed past the line of buoys in the water-since there are people that might be swimming in shallow waters. I know people don’t need a licence for dinghies that size but that’s just common sense. Propeller=sharp. People=soft. Keep that in mind all you aspiring dingy pirates.

While I was busy dodging dinghies, my housemate was exploring the area and when I came out of the water she had already decided to go to the far end of the beach, which required quite a bit of walking on pebbles and rocks. It must have taken us around 15 minutes to traverse the rocky terrain and reach a part of the beach that was more isolated. A tall white cliff was separating it from the mainland but it was definitely not shielding it from the sun. Even if you do find some rock formations that cast shadow I would advice against sitting below a vertical cliff. England is not a seismogenic country, but it does get battered by the elements quite a lot. I can’t imagine landslides are that uncommon.

Swimming on that part of the beach was fantastic. Despite the waters being not-so transparent and the fact that I really missed the small background details-like the smell of thyme and the sound of cicadas-it actually felt like being on a holiday. There was even the occasional old man nudist,adding to that feeling of freedom, from life in the city, from being confined within buildings, from reality and from clothes.

Sadly my housemate noted pretty soon that the sea was rising fast and began worrying we would get cut off from the rest of the beach. Despite that little voice in my head telling me ‘you can totally get cut off and just swim back’ I decided that the prudent thing to do would be to follow my housemate. After all, none of us was familiar with tides. On the way back I made a game of running and jumping from rock to rock. ‘Don’t jump on the green one, it looks slippery’ my housemate warned me. ‘Naaaah’ I said as I slipped and fell flat on the pebbles. Sadly I don’t bruise easily, which means there is no evidence of my past mistakes-which means I tend to forget and repeat them.

After leaving the beach we made a stop at the Old Town, which was literally just across the street but still we had to google directions and ask a local man how to reach it. The Old Town is mainly residential; there is one short street with a number of restaurants, bars and coffee shops and then another street going up that is known for antique shops. My housemate had a sudden craving for sea food but alas, most of the restaurants were very busy-and looked quite touristic.

In the end I came across an old lady sitting on a chair, sunbathing in front of an antique shop and asked her for a good place to eat fish. She recommended a restaurant which was just around the corner but didn’t look so appealing at first glance. She mentioned they had grilled fish however, which sealed the deal for us. The place was called the Master and I do recommend it for the fish and the service. Plus, I was really excited to find fish that was not deep fried. It’s not that I dislike the ‘fish’ part of fish and chips, I just think it should be recognized as a crime against cooking at some point (don’t deport me yet).

If you walk around the Old Town you will find some pubs with nice cosy gardens that look very welcoming on a sunny day. I noticed that a lot of them were advertising gigs and a lot of the bands were playing sea shanties. Although this was obviously something for the tourists it did compliment the picture of Hastings as a sea town rather nicely. As we walked along the street where the restaurants were we also came across an outdoor comedy show. Two young guys were handing out leaflets for it a bit further down the road. A lady greeted one of them and told him she really enjoyed his last show and that she had checked out his videos on youtube. I gather these shows take place every now and then and they are open to the public and free of charge.

We didn’t stay long enough to have a beer and watch the sunset unfortunately. It was a Sunday, we had a train to catch (which we only just barely caught) and we both were working the next day. Even for one day, it did feel like a proper holiday. We both joked about how surreal it felt to be tourists on the British seaside. It all felt awfully familiar and at the same time inevitably foreign.

The sea has always been a familiar thing in my mind. Since my early childhood I have a clear picture of it, how it works and how I relate to it. For this reason, there are things here that strike me as particularly odd, from the way the tide works to hearing people say that freezing cold winter days are brilliant for a walk by the seaside. It’s interesting for me to try and put together an English person’s image of the sea.

Maybe if I grew up here I would have fond memories of my parents taking me to a ridiculously long pier on a winter day to eat battered cod. Maybe winter days would make me think of the seaside and the smell of sea weed would be more welcoming than the smell of thyme. Maybe I would also dislike shingle beaches and I would surf on a wet suit in Cornwall on holidays, or travel to the Jurassic coast with my my hypothetical kids to pick up fossils. Who knows.

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Gozo and Comino

Gozo and comino are located opposite the northernmost part of Malta and are well worth a visit. That ‘Blue Lagoon’ beach that comes up on every google search about Malta? it’s in Comino.

Getting to Gozo and Comino is ridiculously easy. There are frequent boat services from Cirkewwa to both islands. You can find tickets for both trips for 10 euros (return). At first I thought I could do both trips in one day, as I didn’t want to take the bus all the way to Cirkewwa a second time (it takes about an hour to reach Cirkewwa from Valletta and I had already done that trip more times than I intended)

The day before going to Gozo I had a look at the land tours available on the island and decided to go with the red sightseeing bus. Tickets for the red bus are sold on the ferry; the English gentleman in the booth gave me a discount on the sly-which I assume he gives to everyone and I think I paid 15 euros.

The red bus has two routes, and I am pretty sure I was on the blue one. I stayed on the open top floor for as long as I could, which was up to the Azure window, which I highly recommend for swimming. The terrain is quite interesting and you can easily swim through the rocky arc (I don’t know why but I always feel compelled to pass through these rocky windows in all countries)

Then I hopped on the next bus to Ggantija, a megalithic temple complex, a UNESCO world Heritage site and one of the oldest religious structures in the world. The museum design was simple but modern, and seemed quite recently renovated (or actually built). The megalithic structures, while impressive in size essentially form four rooms and leave a lot to the imagination. It’s worth spending more time reading up on the island’s history in the  museum than actually walking around the megalithic complex.

Upon leaving Ggantija I made a serious mistake: there are no bus stops for the red buses. They drop people off at designated points, like a crossroad or the curve of a road. In this case, I managed to miss the pick up point and ended up waiting for about half an hour under the burning Maltese sun with no shade in sight. As I have already mentioned I am not particularly resilient to extreme temperatures so I decided to ditch the red bus and get the first public bus that passes to experience the relief of an air-conditioned environment.

I have no clear recollection of what I did next. I remember ending up in Rabat and having to wait for another bus for ages. The next bus took me to Ramla, a beach with red sand that came highly recommended. It was very quiet on that day, and to me it was heaven after the wait at Ggantija.

 

Gozo really did look like a miniature version of Malta to me. I enjoyed the smaller crowds, narrower streets and more beautiful beaches though. Gozo felt more like an actual island to me.

 

The next day I woke up at 7 am and got to the bus stop to get the bus to Cirkewwa as early as possible. I had been warned that the Blue Lagoon got really crowded by midday. I had to wait almost an hour for the bus as it got stuck in traffic (which by the way is very likely to happen in Malta). Then when it finally arrived it turned out the air-conditioning was out of order so the driver had to go and fetch another bus. Regardless, I was still able to reach the Blue Lagoon at an early time.

Now as a Greek person I have seen a lot of places with swimming pool-like bright blue waters; I still found the Blue Lagoon was worth a visit. It was really hard finding a spot to sit already so I had to climb up the rocks and find a high spot to set up camp (put down my towel)

On this note, I have to say I was able to leave my stuff on the beach while swimming all around Malta and nothing ever happened. I don’t really carry much money around or a camera or anything of any actual value (my phone cost 50 pounds two years ago and the screen is cracked) so there was not much to steal anyway, but I did have a literally empty rucksack stolen from me in London so you never know. I kind of felt bad for the thief.

On the way back, the boat took us to the caves on the other side of the Blue Lagoon, which was a nice detour before heading back to Cirkewwa.

A word of warning for those who like their beaches organised (as in with facilities): what you can see in the pictures is all you will get in the Blue Lagoon. A handful of umbrellas and a few canteens serving soft drinks and hot dogs. I think I saw a toilet somewhere high up as well.

I wish I had more time to see Gozo and Comino; I feel like I got to see quite a bit of Malta (minus the archaeological sites) but not a lot of these two islands. If I was to do the same trip again I would probably try to spend a night or two in Gozo and explore it more thoroughly.

 

Malta walk through part 1

There is a standard reaction when a Greek person tells another Greek person that they won’t be spending their summer holidays in a Greek island: they make a face, indicating their disapproval and say ‘but…summer holidays outside of Greece? what are you going to do?’- or something along these lines. The point being, a summer holiday in a foreign country is shunned upon because clearly nothing in the world can match the beauty of our many, many islands.

This summer I was determined to prove all my short sighted fellow country men wrong. First, I stated my position, provoking cries of outrage from family and looks of disappointment from friends. Second, I had to pick a place with sea. Following a process of elimination based on air ticket prices (I am looking at you Croatia), I finally decided that Malta was the perfect place for me: small,old, with interesting architecture and-most importantly-an island with sea that you can actually swim in (I am looking at you UK).

Then I did all the boring stuff, which was asking for time off and actually planning my holiday. I was offered some very helpful tips and a guide from friends living in London and another friend from Greece who had recently traveled to Malta suggested that I stayed in Valletta, which is the capital- and which proved to be a bad idea. Here’s one tip I have for you at this point: if like me you are poor and use a broken (windows) phone as a camera and  fly Ryanair, you are probably not checking in any suitcases.

Now, a backpack is perfectly fine for 8 days but bear in mind that plebeians like ourselves need to carry two types of towel: shower towels (because you are staying in a hostel) and beach towel. I was seriously dreading the moment when I would have to try and squeeze everything into my backpack, until a colleague kindly informed me that it’s 2016 and such a thing as microfiber towels exists. Seriously you guys, these things are thin as a t-shirt, fast-drying, soft, easy to pack magical pieces of cloth that will save you a lot of space and trouble. They can be found at the top floor of JD sports, and in several other places,I suspect.

The flight from London to Malta is about three hours. There are no night buses as far as I remember but you can find a bus that takes you to Valletta up to 12pm. It is possible to buy a ticket from the driver. However, if you are staying for 7 days or more and would like to travel around, I would recommend getting a Tallinja card, which is basically a prepaid Oyster card. The 7 day Tallinja costs 21 pounds and you can use as many buses as you like for the week. On a sort-of-related note, here are some pictures of clouds because flights can be really boring if you are travelling solo:

 

In fact they can be so boring, that you start noticing stuff you wouldn’t otherwise notice like how badly drawn the safety instructions are sometimes. In order to combat my boredom I made an effort to replicate these by using my left hand only. Here is the result:

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Anyway, I arrived to Valletta quite late. The hostel (which is the only hostel in Valletta and I absolutely do not recommend it) was  easy to miss, but I was able to find it with the help of trusty google maps. Valletta is one of these places that make me sort of uncomfortable because they feel very familiar and very unfamiliar at the same time, so I end up feeling like I am in some sort of parallel dimension. It’s the same sort of feeling I had in Izmir, Ankara,Valencia and parts of Istanbul- it’s the architecture, the climate, the way of life that vaguely reminds me of home.

Of course with Valletta, it was even weirder because of these:

Malta has been conquered by pretty much everyone, and most recently by -you guessed it- the British. As a result, pretty much everyone speaks English and you can drink a shandy and eat stuff like fish and chips. I also came across quite a few British people who were working in Malta,which is apparently a popular destination with immigrants from the UK.

Valletta is also basically  Hyrule Castle Town: the main attraction is an old church, there is a main gate, fortifications all around and the Palace square has its own theme  which plays every hour. Apparently it’s a tune by a famous Maltese composer, Charles Camilleri. I kind of enjoyed it but after you’ve heard it 10 times already it starts to feel like Groundhog day.

The defining feature of Valletta is the narrow cobbled streets with the long sets of stairs. The most iconic areas are the main entrance, which is where the buses make their final stop, the upper Barrakka gardens, the Palace square, St John’s co-Cathedral and any place overlooking the Grand Harbour,which is indeed grand. Valletta is also a UNESCO heritage site, so you know it’s going to be good.

One of the things that I found odd about Valletta was the fact that it is a pretty quiet place; it gathers quite a crowd in the morning when the shops are open but the noise dies down quite early at night. There were a few bars and pubs where I stayed but nothing compared to what one would expect to find in a capital city. There are however, quite a few restaurants where you can eat mostly pizza and rabbit. Some of them even have live piano performances at night time, which is really lovely. The food is quite pricey in Valletta though. A salad  (my measuring unit for food pricing) costs around 10-11 euros in most places.

My days in Malta were planned with two things in mind: I had to see as much as possible in about a week and I absolutely had to swim in the sea as much as possible. I woke up at around 8 each morning and walked to the main bus station of Valletta, where things can get quite confusing, but fortunately the staff are always there to point you to the right direction. Keep in mind that there will be delays for all sorts of reasons, from the air conditioning not working to insane amounts of traffic. Also keep in mind that the buses in Malta have the temperature of your fridge at home and boarding while still drying from the sea is a bad, bad idea. This all was beautifully expressed in a graffiti that read ‘I hate the cold busses‘, spotted around Ghajn Tuffieha.

 

 

 

Dorset day trip

From like, two years ago. This was the one summer I spent in England and I was going crazy due to the lack of sea at that point. In the end we went to Dorset, I swam through the Durdle door (this has to be one of my favourite names for a place ever), got out, put a jacket on and tried to remember what it was like feeling my limbs. Then it started raining so basically I spent the rest of this trip wet. Didn’t get sick though. My horrible compact camera was already broken at that point, courtesy of my friend Yichen, so the pictures are slightly blurry- it gives kind of an 80s look though so it was clearly intentional.

Trip to NYC

Trip to New York City with the film school (from about three years ago). Memorable moments include:

  • The Polish guy not getting a visa,
  • The whole multicultural group abusing each other with racist jokes-with all the best intentions of course.
  • Having four hostel beds to two people
  • The sign over the hostel window which read something like: ‘ Do not open the window, air conditioner might fall’
  • Having to follow the group to Irish pubs every time we went out
  • Having to pay a lot for a drink and even more for service
  • the acting exercise where I had to give some ridiculous gift to my fictional husband on our honeymoon and I almost burst out laughing, only to be congratulated by the tutor who said that when I talked about love, he could see my face lighten up.
  • The awkward moment when the two girls after me had to give a gift to their (still fictional, fortunately) stillborn child and they both cried for real.
  • The director of the school getting punched on the face,on our first night there and turning up bloody outside our room
  • What the hell is a Siamese sprinkler?
  • People asking me for directions because I blend in everywhere I go
  • Paying for my breakfast with tickets in the hostel and getting a bagel, an apple and marmalade every day
  • The Serbian bouncer who asked me where I was from and then happily exclaimed ‘ Ah! so we are brothers!’