Saturday, June 29, 2013

Locked hearts in Cologne

Have you heard about love padlocks? It the last decade it has become increasingly popular in Europe, especially after the succes of the novel I Want You, by the Italian writer Federico Moccia. This book inspired many couples in Rome to affix a padlock to the Ponte Milvio as a sign of their endless love this trend  seems to know no frontiers as now many European countries have at least one city with a bridge covered by love padlocks.

I was in Cologne today and I found out that the Hohenzollern Bridge is covered love padlocks. Big and small ones, new and old, many colourful padlocks and some heart-shaped plates were attached to both sides of the bridge, especially to the right side. Cologne was probably the first place in Germany where love padlocks started to appear. The German railway company wanted to have them removed, however, people opposed and until now the number of padlocks just keeps growing.

If you're thinking about declaring your endless love to the world with a love padlock, tradition -if there's already such thing - says that you should write your name on it, as well as the name of your loved one. The you can just lock it, better in company of your loved one, and throw the key to the river. After that your love should last forever, well, at least your padlock will.

What do you think about this idea? Have you seen these love padlocks somewhere?

Have a lovely weekend!

Sunday, June 23, 2013

See you at Bloglovin' in a week!

Rumour has it that things will never be the same in blogland in a week time. By now, I'm sure that most of you have heard or read the news of Google closing GFC and its reader service and 1st July is the date set for this to happen. I don't really know what will happen then, as I've read somewhere that nothing will change for blogger users as the reader is totally integrated with the blogger service and after all, Google itself uses this to promote its newest features via the Blogger Buzz blog. But just in case, I think it's a good idea to join the thousands of bloggers out there who have been helping to make this trasition period easier. And just like most of you have already done, I would like to invite you to follow this blog and all your favourite reads via Bloglovin'.

Bloglovin' is a very user-friendly platform which will bring you the latest post from all your favourite blogs together. All you have to do is sign up for an account, browse your favourite blogs and follow them. One of the great things about Bloglovin' is that it is really easy to use, independently of whether you're a blogger or not. It has a beautiful and appealing layout as well and its reader homepage looks way better than any g+ circle ever will. Bloglovin' also allows you to search content by categories and countries and you can group your favourite blogs by topics of whichever way makes it easier for you to read them. Apparently, it is also better for your SEO than the traditional Google Reader, but as I'm still taking my first baby steps in the complicated world if internet marketing I don't have much more to add about this.

Right now, it is even easier as Bloglovin' gives you the choice to import your list of Google Reader subscribers directly.

All you have to do click into the Setting tab.

Once you're on your settings page, scroll down and you will find there an option to import blogs from another service.

Click into it et voilá! Right before you eyes is the option to import blogs from Google Reader. Go ahead, click on it and it'll only take a couple of minutes before you can enjoy your daily reads via Bloglovin'.

I probably come a bit late with this tutorial, but as they say, better late than never! I've already imported my Google Reader list so that I will not miss anything of all the blogs I enjoy reading. 

*     *     * 

And because sharing is caring, another interesting feature I've discovered recently is direct comment reply and this has rocked my blogging world. It is so nice to get a reply to any comment I leave straight into my mailbox! I didn't know any better than replying in the comment thread but now that I know, I'll try to get used to replying derictly to your mail if possible, otherwise I'll stick to the thread - and I will probably stop replying to one-liner commenters asking to follow altogether. So, if you want to stop being a no-reply comment, here's a funny and easy to follow step-by-step tutorial by Casey of We Took the Road Less Traveled. After that you might notice how the conversation really gets going.

That was all for today! Sorry for this boring post full of technicalities, but blogging is a ever-lasting learning process and I think this is really worth sharing. 

Have a lovely Sunday!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The bright side of the expat life

Basel, 6 weeks to go!

Two days ago I was at a great birthday party of a lovely friend of mine. It was a casino themed evening with black tie dress code and because we would play a mistery role game we have to dress accordingly to our character. I will not bore you with the details but it was so much fun - just for the record, I played a French jewellery designer and got proposed by an English Lord. You get the picture! I had never played such a game before and it was a really entertaining way to get know all the new faces around. I've always found it really interesting to meet people from all over the world and that's one of the perks of being an expat, you're usually surrounded by more people from many different backgrounds and nationalities than you normally would if you stuck to your homeplace and your known and trusted circle of friends.

After giving some thought to this and other beautiful facts of the expat life I decided to share with you what, in my humble opinion, makes the expat life so enjoyable. Some of my dear readers are expats as well, so I'm sure that you'll agree on most of this and probably could add some extra points - after all, each person is unique and we all value things in a different way. And for all of you still living in your home country, well, this is an ever-changing world and should you ever be given the opportunity to spend some time abroad, then you can already read about some of the advantages of moving abroad.

Being an expat opens your mind: you're suddenly surrounded by so many unfamiliar sights, everything is new and you have to somehow adapt to all the newness that this still strange country is constantly throwing at you. The good thing about this is that you'll learn a LOT! You'll meet many new people with different mindsets, you'll be confronted with customs and food which might look totally weird at first, you might even have to learn a foreign language. It can be a tiring and at some stages depressing process, but it'll teach more than any formal education ever could. It won't necessary make you a better person but you'll probably be more curious and understanding about the world we live in.

Being an expat broadens your horizons: back at home, we all take many things for granted. Time goes by in the same fashion, day after day, you know when and where to catch up with your family and friends and life usually becomes a comfortable routine to stick to. However, when you move abroad nothing is predictable anymore - at least while you're still adapting. Life is suddenly a very exciting adventure with many new things to do and places to explore and as a result you'll be more eager to get out of your comfort zone and give a try at things you might have never considered before. Like hiking and peanut butter, guilty for that!

Being an expat makes you more aware of your own culture: talking about taking things for granted, it is also the case that too many times we don't know or appreciate our own culture enough. Too often we understimate the traditions and special features which make our culture unique. But when you're facing many cultural differences on a daily basis, whether subtle or not, and start learning about the culture of your host country your eyes suddenly open. You'll see your own culture in a new light and become aware of the rich cultural heritage you carry with you. You'll probably cherish your culture more from then on and you'll want to share it with the world.

Being an expat improves your career chances: if you're abroad because of work, then this is clear - you wouldn't have moved if that wasn't a better position. But no matter what reason takes you abroad, you can always make it work your way. In this globalizing world experience abroad, flexibility and tenacity are highly regarded by employers and as an expat (or former expat) you already bring those traits with you. It may also be the case that you might be more willing to relocate or travel frequently, which are also constant aspects of the 21st century career world. Besides, you might have the chance to learn some new skills or a foreign language, never pass on those opportunities, as they'll enhance your cv and make it outstand from the rest. When I did my study exchange in Belgium I learnt Dutch just for fun without realizing that it might be useful in the future. Little did I know that I would end up in the Netherlands and knowing Dutch would be key to land a job in many a Dutch company.

Being an expat makes you a citizen of the world: you realize that nationalities do not define people. Everyone is different and nowadays most countries are a cultural melting pot with people from many different countries and regions building a future together. You also notice how beautiful this planet Earth is, how diverse nature can be and how many architectural and natural wonders can be found spread around the globe - and back at home, as well. You learn that, no matter where you are, there is always kindness and beauty to be found and that tomorrow might be there but it is today that you must enjoy.

When it comes to me I can tell you that I enjoy life more since I live the expat life. I find joy in simple moments I neglected before, I appreaciate natural wonders in a way I never did, I travel more and meet many interesting people and I get to experience more enriching moments than before. I've also learn to let go of material things, which can be a burden when moving frequently, and I focus on the things that really matter in life: family, friends and happiness - even though I love shopping for clothes way too much! However, not all things look rosy down the expat lane. There will be low moments too but the good moments usually outnumber the bad ones. I'll be back to the odds of the expat life in a future post; for now I will only add that the expat life is, most of the time, a good life.

I hope that you enjoy this post and find it somehow useful if you are ever to draw such a difficult decision as choosing to move abroad or not. Let me know what your favourite part of being abroad is.

Have a lovely day!

Saturday, June 15, 2013

A day at the beach: Scheveningen

Last Saturday I decided to treat myself to a day at the beach, as a reward for having done my last exam. I was thinking about the different options and in the end I chose to go to Scheveningen, the beach by The Hague. It is a beautiful and family-friendly place with many options to practice water sports and it is easy to access by public transport. I was very excited about it because I hadn't been to the coast for a year and the weather had been incredibly warm the week before. After two hours and a half by train and then fifteen minutes by tram I made it to the beach and even though the sun was shining brightly, it wasn't very warm. Probably, because of such mild weather conditions, there weren't any big crowds around and the beach was very calm and enjoyable. As soon as I stepped out of the tram I spotted the sea and it was extremely rough and when I got nearer and took a closer look I saw that the shore was lined with thick, whitish foam formed by the sea, which looked a bit disgusting. So, even though the water was clean and I was really looking forward to strolling along the shore and get my feet into the water, I didn't dare.

Scheveningen is a wealthy, coastal neighbouhood of The Hague and it has a 3 Km long beach with fine, white sand and many, many shells. It can be reached by tram (lines 1 and 9,among others) and by bus - a bit less than 15 minutes away from the central station. There is a wide promenade besides the beach dotted with restaurants, cafés and souvenir shops and crowned by the impressive Kurhaus, a hotel and restaurant opened in the 19th century and slightly reminiscent of Amsterdam's central station and Rijksmuseum. The restaurants and cafés offer a great variety of food, from quick snacks and kebabs to more refined fish and meat options. I stopped at an understated restaurant with a small terrace which offered menus for 7.95€ including a main snack, a portion of frites and salad and a drink. I hadn't eaten any kibbeling in a long time and I went for it and I have to say that it was the best kibbeling I ever had! Kibbeling is a traditional Dutch snack, which is especially popular in all coastal towns, and consists of small battered pieces of fish, usually cod, seasoned with paprika and some other spices. It was so delicious! The biggest pieces I ever had and the fish was so tender and the seasoning so tasty ... my mouth is already watering just at the thought of it! After such a heart-warming meal I was ready so set foot on the beach and continue enjoying my day.

Along the main beach there are endless beach clubs, one after another and all of them looking really inviting. And there is the pier - the iconic pier - which starts at the promanade and crosses the beach to end at the ocean. It is a long corridor with more cafés and exhibitions inside. The beach is great for long walks and it is possible to take some wind-surfing or kite-boarding lessons. I decided to walk northwards, after having read that not far from the main beach there are some open beaches and a natural reserve of sand dunes. It is approximately 1 Km away and the walk is really relaxing. On the right side there are still several bunkers dating back from the WWII and on the left side the sea was waving to and fro to the shore incessantly. The walk along the sand dunes is even prettier as the sand begins to ondulate ahead and delicate vegetation and many a bird start to appear here and there. With the sea on the horizon it is a breathtaking sight, until you realize you're surrounded by many an aged man laying naked among the dunes. Ahem, let's move on!

It was a lovely day by the beach and while on the tram to Scheveningen I also enjoyed the views of The Hague and it reminded me of what a beautiful city The Hague is, especially when the sun is shining. I'm even thinking about going back to The Hague for a day in July if I have some time left. 

If you want to read more about the Dutch coast you can check a previous trip to Zandvoort aan Zee.
Have a lovely day!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Maastricht salutes the Royals

Following the recent coronation of Willem-Alexander as the new king of the Netherlands, King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima have embarked on a short tour around all twelve provinces of the Netherlands. With a very hectic and fast-paced schedule of two provinces per day, today they finish their royal tour of the Netherlands in Limburg and North Brabant. And the tour began early this morning right in Maastricht. And there I was to see them sailing along the Maas river amid rowers and boats. It all happened really quickly. At 9.07am a couple of cannon shots announced the start of the parade. Rowers of Maastricht University (as well as of Aachen and Liege Universities) preceded the cruise boat of the royal couple. Willem-Alexander and Maxima were simling on the upper deck, waving their hands to all the people who had come to greet them over the bridges and at the banks of the river. By 9.20am the parade was already over - well, Maastricht is a small city after all. Several organizations had put some acts together at the bank of the river to showcase the lively cultural scene of Maastricht.

I was wandering around some 15 minutes earlier to make sure that I had a good spot to watch the celebration but being Wednesday, it wasn't as crowded as I expected it to be. I was on the first row between an Australian couple and a woman whose husband was on one of the smaller boats sailing along. I am pretty sure that I look quite stupid waving my left hand while trying to take photos with my right hand, but it was lovely to see them - a lifelong memory! So, here are some photos of their quick visit to Maastricht. Sadly, my camera seems to have just broken. The zoom control does not work and I have the feeling that photos are not that sharp anymore (maybe I'm just being paranoic). Time for an upgrade? 

You might have noticed that I'm doing some cosmetical changes to the blog layout. I'd like to make it look more polished, but as I am dealing with all the technicalities myself and my HTML knowledge is not as sound as I wish it was, I can only proceed by trial and error, which means that I might be doing many slight changes in the upcoming weeks before finding the perfect formula. In the meantime, bear with me -pleaaase - and let me know what you think.

Have a lovely day!

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Is that a naked man?!

"I think that man is naked" I said.
"He is," my travel companion replied, her eyes trying not to look in that direction, "but how does he dare? It is so cold".
"Maybe the garbage bin he's hiding behind is stopping the wind for him".

When I was daydreaming about my daytrip to the beach I wasn't planning to end up in a nudist beach. But that's already halfway through the story, so let's go back to the beginning.

*   *   *

H and I were really excited about our day at the beach. It would be our first daytrip to the coast this year. The sun had been shining for over a week and it was really warm in the southern part of the Netherlands, so we were really looking forward to forgetting about work duties for a day and relaxing somewhere in the Dutch coast, to soaking up some sunrays and getting our feet into the cold waters of the North Sea. We met at midday in Eindhoven and took a train together to somewhere near the coast. During the trip we were discussing what to do next. H had heard of some lovely sand dunes nearby the beach we were heading to and I said that I had read about it in my guidebook of the Netherlands. It seemed that we had a winning plan. We would leave tacky buildings and touristy cafés behind, walk our way into the wilderness - if there's such thing in the Netherlands - and search for the wonders of Dutch natural landscapes.

It was very windy by the coast and not as warm as it was in the south, but the sun was shining brightly and the sea breeze was really invigorating. We were starving by the time we reached the beach and decided to have lunch before walking any further. There are many terraces offering fish snacks, meat dishes, hamburgers, pizzas name it! We spotted a tiny bar catering typical Dutch fried snacks and enjoyed a delicious fish menu sitting on the sunshine. Ah, the good summer life, it can't hardly get any better than that. We were then ready to go.

After having checked the map we started walking northwards to a natural reserve just one Km away from the main beach. The sand was golden and really thin and big patches of the beach were covered by tiny shells. Walking was harder than expected, especially with such a heavy wind blowing against us. Suddenly H pointed alarmed to sign standing in front of us, 'Nudist beach'. Oh, my guidebook hadn't warned us against that. We didn't see anyone naked and assumed it was too cold to be sunbathing naked on the beach, so we went further. The dunes had just appeared in front of us when we saw him, the naked man. He was lying there without any clothes on and his head next to a garbage bin, as if trying to avoid the blowing wind.

Still laughing, we took up the path to the dunes. There was a second 'Nudist beach' sign and we assumed it marked the end of the nudist beach. The path was really pretty. Coastal vegetation and grass were now covering the sand dunes, the sea was waving on the left and the dunes seemed to go on and on to the right. Every now and then we would spot some other men walking and all of a sudden we spotted another man sanbathing naked among the grass. Slightly puzzled we went further, only to find more men laying naked on the sand, partially hidden by the vegetation. Some of them were alone, others in small groups, some were totally naked, other were still wearing their t-shirts, and not a single naked woman around. Eventually we gave up on the dunes, went back to the beach and returned to the starting point. Giggling all the way back, we decided it was about time to explore the overcrowded and touristy part of the beach.

Photos of this beautiful corner of the Netherlands will follow shortly - no naked man in sight. You might have noticed that I haven't mentioned yet where it is ... any guesses?

Have a lovely Sunday!

Saturday, June 1, 2013

June 2013: To move, or not to move, that is the question

Blogger or Wordpress? Blogger or Wordpress? Ah, the difficult choices we face in life! If you follow this blog you might already know that I'm feeling quite tempted to move to WP and if not, basically, the situation is that I'm quite annoyed with Google's recent decisions to push all its users to have active profiles on its social network G+. It was not coindence that I decided to give WP a try the same day that Google Developers annual get-together was scheduled to start. There was a sense of anticipation in the air and indeed expectations were met: many new cool products were presented during those three days but the entrance door to these new extensions of the Google world would inevitably be G+ - could they be any more pushy?! I was doing some research and I found out that I was not the only concerned be the possiblity of G+ taking over the internet world (and all the data it contains). Some people were already a step further, fearing the day that Blogger will be shut down and become a poor and powerless feature of G+. But until that day, Blogger is the best free blogging platform and I would like to share with you some of the things I've learnt during this trial and research period.

First of all, I want to thank all you comments and reply mails answering my questions and sharing your opinions and knowledge on this topic. It was a first and very valuable source of information. After gathering some basic information I created a WP account and started playing around. WP has some fine features which make it a really interesting option. However, their free version - the one I intended to use - have some serious pitfalls, as well. But let's start with the good points:

  • WP allows you to import your reading list from your previous blogging/reader service. You simply have to introduce the email address or link containing your reading list and in a couple of minutes all your favourite reads are there for you to enjoy daily. As easy as that! And the reader service looks more polished with bigger photos. WP also allows you to browse blog content by topic, which is a great way to find new blogs.
  • WP has a very complete statistics page. While it may not beat Google Analytics, it is better than the statistics Blogger provides. It accounts for unique visitors as well as the total number of pageviews, the total number of clicks, and besides displaying the most popular post and pages, it also informs you about your most popular labels and categories. 
  • WP has hundreds of beautiful and sleek themes to choose as a template. Pure eye-candy! However, and this is already a prelude of the bad points, customization options are really poor and usually restricted to just adding a header image. You won't even be able to change the font unless you upgrade to a premium account (i.e. unless you pay).

Now it's time for the minus points. As I already hinted, you cannot make your blog look the way you want unless you're willing to pay. There are many template options to choose from and you can customize them a bit. I even managed to change the font size and colour, but I didn't like the was it looked - maybe I should have spent more time on it. Another terribly weak point, is that HTML is kind of a foreign word to free WP and according to what I've read, upgrading to a premium account will not change that. The only way to have total control over the design of your blog is to self-host (i.e. to pay a bit more). Finally, the last main minus point is that you only get 3Gb of storage space for a free account. I don't really know what that means - maybe that's a year of blogging or maybe a lifetime. But I know that I don't want to be afraid of hitting the publish button everytime I write a post in case this might be the post that surpasses the 3Gb storage limit. I should also say that the options to monetarize your blog on free WP are almost inexistent, but I didn't pay enough attention to that point, as I'm not planning to monetarize my blog (at least for now). Also, I read way to often that WP is quite prone to security breaches and the thought of having my blog hijacked is a major turnoff.

So, I've made up my mind and I'm staying in my known and beloved Blogger and hope that Google will not spoil this wonderful service it offers for free. As I said, I was doing research, reading and learning A LOT. If you are interested, this article gives a very complete overview of both free blogging services. The author has always been a user and advocate of WP and much to his surprise, by the end of the article he had to acknowledge that Blogger is actually the place to be if you want to blog for free. If you want some more basic reading, this other article offers another comprehensive comparison of both platforms. And this is exactly my point, as well. If you don't want to jump into paid-blogging - and I don't - Blogger offers the best and easiest options. So, Google, you have a great thing going on with Blogger. Please, let it stay the way it is.

After all this profound talk of such serious matters, time to switch to more light-hearted issues. It's already June and that means that I'm almost done with studying. Yay! I had my very last lecture past Wednesday and I'm taking my last exam next Tuesday. After that, all I have to do is to spend one some more weeks working on my thesis and hopefully by the end of June I'll be rewarded with my MSc degree. Can't believe it! I really don't know where time went. It seems like yesterday to me when I was wandering along the corridors of my new school looking for that C-1.05 classroom, scanning all those faces I was seeing for the first time, learning all those names and meeting some nice people. Oh, the long evenings spent studying (and crying!) thinking I would never make it and now the end is here. Just one more month of hard work to go and I can already see Freedom awaiting me at the end of June. Can't wait to greet her!

All this studying has also taken its toll on my 365 project. May has been a terrible, terrible month with very bad photos. But still, I'm happy I'm holding on and taking a photo a day. You can view the whole month of May here.

And I'm not sure that this is my favourite photo of the month but I like the story behind. I first spotted these sandals in the summer catalogue of Mango and after a month hesitating I finally decided that I wanted them. I needed them, actually, as my last pair of sandals is totally worn off. So, when I went buy them in Maastricht they were sold off. No more size 3 for my tiny feet. Same thing in Heerlen, and in Aachen, and in Hasselt! Despair, despair. I finally gave up my search and it was then when I found them in Eindhoven in all colours and sizes. Lucky me! Besides, you can see that I've found a new favourite magazine, the German edition of In Style. And It's quite a illustrative photo for this post, because if you're going to be in the move, better be it in a stylish pair of shoes!

Wow, this has turned out to be a very long post, so thumbs up for those of you who've stuck with me till the end! 
Have a calm and stylish June!
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