Mannheim, Heidelberg, and thinking about life…

This weekend I went with a friend to Mannheim and Heidelberg, two cities to the south east of Trier in Baden-Württemburg. It was a great weekend, and we managed to get a lot of sightseeing done, even if the weather made it a bit difficult at times.

Mannheim was a bit of a strange place, arranged on a rigid grid pattern without relatively little of the features which make other German cities so distinctive. Heidelberg on the other hand was much more aesthetically pleasing, but accordingly far more touristic. I am glad we got to see both.

This weekend has also been marked by Karneval, which is basically a huge party celebrating the beginning of Lent. Today I got to see some of the celebrations taking place in my neighbourhood of Trier.

This week I’m looking forward to trying to get back into my normal life. I have been having a lot of thoughts about the future (as is clear from so many of my posts), and I am starting to feel now that I am getting closer to a resolution…


Back to Normality

I am now back in Trier after having spent nearly two weeks at home in the north of Ireland. I spent these two weeks mainly at home, which was often time consuming, as I ended up visiting a lot of people and spending a lot of time with my extended family. I did not do as much as I had planned with regard to anything else, but in some ways that was probably to be expected! I did however manage to get to Donegal one day for a walk on the beach.


The main benefit however was the time and space I took to myself, to think about my life and where I’m headed, and I feel that I managed to get together a clearer path for myself that seemed to actually lead to a place where I wouldn’t be under so much pressure. I have more or less come to terms with the fact I may need to go back to university, but I have decided to give myself one or two more years to get everything into place and make that move, and have also decided that I would like to spend those years in Spain, which is a country I’ve been wanting to spend some extended time in for a long while.

That said, I am a bit relieved to be back in Germany. The constant busy-ness and need to be around other back home was a bit disconcerting and overwhelming at times, as was the disruption to my routine. I have a lot of exciting plans in place for the year coming, and am generally looking forward to getting on with it.


A Day Trip to Luxembourg

Yesterday I finally managed to do some “travelling”, making the short journey by train from Trier to Luxembourg City. I went with two of the other English Language Assistants based in Trier (whom as you might expect I now know fairly well). We planned out the day loosely in advance, the main advantage of which was that we each brought along some food for the train journey there and back, and an afternoon picnic.

We spent the day wandering around and taking in Luxembourg’s sights, of which there are many. I had expected Luxembourg to be something like Brussels: a bit more cold and administrative, with a few skyscrapers. In actual fact the city is both beautiful and historical, with many old buildings well preserved, as well as some of the city’s fortifications.

Although it was a very cold, frosty day, it was also sunny, with a beautiful light during the day which enabled me to take the pictures above. The multi-level nature of the city is one of its highlights, and contributes to making it so photogenic.`

Another highlight of the day was, of course, a visit to the Christmas market. It was like the one in Trier, but was much larger and featured a wider selection of different goods including a lot of Swiss products and food and drink (including Raclette).

The day was finished off by a döner kebab once we were safely back in Germany. Tomorrow I will be back to work, but there are only three weeks now left until the Christmas holidays begin, and for once I am somewhat looking forward to it!

6 days on the West Coast of Ireland

I have just come back from a six day trip around the west of Ireland with my mother, leaving last Monday morning and coming back yesterday. We went to Galway, Connemara, Inis Mór and Kinvara (with a view to visiting the Burren).

It was one of those trips where things did not go quite as expected.

One of the things that Irish emigrés often talk about upon their return is the sense of a “reverse culture shock”, and the difficulty of resolving their memories of what Ireland is like vis-a-vis what is actually confronting them on their return.

On this trip I was confronted by an image of Ireland as saccharine, parochial, charming. The place was set out for international tourists, particularly on Inis Mór, the largest island of the Aran Islands. We took a pony and trap tour of the Island which was informative and illuminating. Alongside us were an Italian family who snapped pictures over and over of the wattle and daub, thatched houses. It was a little bit funny, because my aunt owns a very similar house in Donegal in which I spent a lot of time during my childhood, and I imagined crowds of Germans and Americans standing outside snapping pictures while we shot air rifles in the back garden or walked to the beach.

Nevertheless, particularly on Aran, I had a sense of resentment from the local people. The service we received in local pubs and restaurants betrayed a lack of training and suggested that hospitality was a profession forced on many on the island rather than chosen; we were informed during our tour that 80% of the island’s income came from tourism. For an island which previously relied on agriculture and fishing, it was suggestive of a way of life in the process of destruction and decline. The disconnect between life as lived and life as presented to outsiders was perhaps particularly startling to me as a domestic tourist.


Another point of interest was visiting St. Nicholas’ Church in Galway, which is Church of Ireland. By chance I came across some regimental banners from the Connaught Rangers, which my great-grandfather had fought in during WWI, having enlisted as a supporter of John Redmond (he had been in the Irish Volunteers and was later in the Irish Free State army). I asked if there was information about the banners, but they had none. (Interesting in itself – in my experience living in England, most Church of England churches would have some information about their regimental banners and memorials).


Moreover, as someone used to travelling alone I found being with my mother all the time at times very restrictive, especially as without a driving licence I could not really go off by myself with the car (and public transport is non-existent). The upshot of this is the realization that I really do prefer travelling solo, at least if I’m going for more than 3-4 days (I was worried I was buying into the hype a bit too much), I ought to finally get a driving licence, and self catering is the way to go (there is only so much restaurant food I can take, but this seems to differentiate me strongly from nearly everyone I’ve travelled with). I ended up buying a pack of amber leaf (the 3-in-1 packs banned in the UK are still sold in the RoI), as being around my mother’s chain smoking all day every day was too much for me – though I can hardly hold her at fault for that. I suppose one of the more interesting things about travel, aside from the cultural impressions made on you by the places you visit, is what you learn about yourself and how you relate to others (particularly travel companions).


Moving from the UK to Germany: a Paperwork Guide

Intuitively this seems like something which should be simple, with Germany being in the EU. Actually I think for the most part it is, but there are quite a few things which have come up which I wasn’t expecting. So here goes.

1. Sort out your accommodation in the UK

This means selling your property or moving out of your rented accommodation and settling up all utilities and bills. It’s an obvious one, but there can be a lot to think about here (phone, internet, water, gas, electricity, insurance, council tax, etc). It is especially important to remember to tell the council you are moving. You should also let your doctor and dentist know.

2. Inform HMRC and Student Finance

Generally you need to inform HMRC that you are moving to avoid paying tax on your earnings abroad (though this depends how many days out of the tax year you are spending out of the UK). You need your last P45 and can fill in the P85 form online.

You also need to inform student finance. Although some people try to escape student debt by moving abroad, SF are now apparently hiring international debt collectors to track you down. You will need to fill in a form and will need your contract, or the last three payslips. If you are a recent graduate, you don’t need to do this until your account enters repayment, which is at the start of the tax year (April) after you graduate. The debt can be paid by direct debit from a UK bank account.

3. Banking

You can generally keep your bank accounts open when you move abroad, and I would advise you to do so, as setting up a UK bank account (which you may need later) while non-resident is almost impossible. However, you will not be able to pay into an ISA, so do that before you leave.

Credit Union accounts in the UK are generally governed by a “common bond” which is often geographical or professional. You should contact yours to find out what they advise.

A few things to be aware of when setting up a German bank account:

  • Cash is used for most day-to-day payments in Germany
  • ATMs are less common and will often charge you for withdrawals
  • Free banking is less common and most accounts will charge a monthly fee

I have decided to set up an account with Sparkasse, who operate the most ATMs and have a reasonable fee. However, it is important to do your own research and chose the bank that works best for you.

4. Register and get a residence certificate 

After you have found accommodation (and that will be another post in itself), you need to register with the Meldebehörde, which will be located in a building called the Bürgeramt or similar. Depending on the Bundesland, you will have one or two weeks to do this. You will then be able to apply for a residence certificate within three months.

Back home in Derry

I flew from Bristol to Belfast last night. The flight had a three hour delay, and easyjet compensated us by offering a £3 voucher, which given we were in an airport wasn’t even enough to buy a sandwich! Nevertheless, eventually I managed to get on a plane and escape back to Ireland, where my mother was waiting for me at the airport.

Today I am mostly relaxing, but also going through all my preparations for moving to Germany. It feels as though I am at the end of a long period of uncertainty and stasis and I can finally feel some mental clarity returning. I feel I know exactly what I have to do and I have no hesitations about working through it, even if that meant I was on the phone to SSE first thing this morning.

I also am working on reigning in my lifestyle and spending. I am off the cigarettes again and also trying to do some exercise. This was helped by going to the Brecon Beacons with my friend on Sunday, where we climbed Sugar Loaf.

It was a strange relief coming home; I felt better than I had done in months, as if I could finally get on with my life. Although it was very nice to stay with my friend, it seemed to continue, or even contribute to the sense of prolonged stasis I was feeling. For the first time in a long time, I am starting to feel like myself again.

My 5 Worst Hostel Experiences

Since 2014 I have been reviewing every hostel I’ve stayed in on TripAdvisor. Since then, at least, I have stayed in 23 different hostels across Europe, so I hope that that figure gives an impression that I (to some extent) have an idea of what I am talking about, and this list is intended to be humorous. No doubt, however, there is much worse out there…

1. The Mosquitoes

It was 2015 and I had just finished a contract at a summer school in the Basque country. I had just travelled to San Sebastian with a colleague and was staying in a hostel in Bilbao before catching a flight back to London.

The hostel I stayed in in Bilbao was clean (very clean), but like most places in that part of Spain there was no A/C. Unfortunately, there were also mosquitoes. The dorm was faced with a choice of keeping the windows open (and getting eaten alive), or shutting them and getting hot. Very hot. This was during the 2015 summer heatwave. It was around 35 degrees outside during the daytime, and unfortunately didn’t get much cooler at night. In the end we opted for open windows. I had never thought that I would need a mosquito net for a holiday in Spain, but obviously I was wrong. For whatever reason, I was extremely attractive to them.

I got less than an hour’s sleep, and the next day was covered in angry red bite marks which itched like hell. Did I mention that I had to catch a flight that day? Well, yeah – I had to catch a flight that day.

2. The Bed

This happened at a hostel in Glasgow a few weeks ago. I went to bed early enough, around 10pm and lay down, hoping for some rest. Then I can suddenly feel something sticking into my back. I toss and turn and try to manoeuvre so it isn’t stabbing me. I realize that a spring is loose in the mattress. No matter how much I toss and turn I cannot get comfortable and my back is starting to get very sore. I go to reception to find it is closed. There was only one option left. I picked up my duvet and slept on a sofa in the common room.

3. The Sales Pitch

This happened at a hostel in Romania in July 2014. I will avoid naming the city, or it will become obvious which hostel I am talking about. I arrived in the afternoon with a large group and we were immediately met with a lengthy (maybe one hour) sales pitch for a number of tours and excursions. I knew from my previous research that the prices being quote were disproportionate to the actual cost, though the Americans I was with all went for it. Any attempt I made to ask the staff for information was met with lies or exaggerations (“The train station is really far away, you should use our taxi service”, etc). I asked for a key to the dorm and was asked for a 50 lei deposit, and getting that back was an interesting experience to say the least…

4. Others’ Indiscretions…

I was staying at a hostel in London in September 2014, for one night only. I had chosen the hostel because it was easily accessible from Heathrow airport: I had flown in from Milan and was flying out to Belfast the next day.

When I went to the dorm I was met by a friendly Australian guy in his late 20s, who was sleeping in the bunk below mine. Although he was quite keen to encourage me to come and drink with others in the hostel despite my protestations, he seemed alright. That is, until 3am, when I was woken up by the bunk shaking back and forth violently. I heard a woman moaning, and I realized immediately what was happening. This did not stop even when I got up and climbed out of the bunk, nor did it stop when I pulled my bag out of the locker beneath them. It continued even as I started packing up my belongings. As I left I noticed that he had left his wallet on the floor and his locker was unsecured. I hope that poor sucker chose his partner wisely.

5. The Fistfight

It was spring 2015 and I had just participated in an Angloville programme just outside of Wroclaw, and was staying at a hostel in the city for a few days afterwards to get a taste of the place. I had just finished my first set of university exams and was feeling optimistic about life.

It started normally, with some obnoxious idiots turning on the light at 4.30am after a night drinking and making a nuisance of themselves. I groaned at the thought of having to confront them, but before I could get up, a man sleeping in the bed opposite me had other ideas. He marched over to the group of guys and immediately headbutted one of them in the face. A loud argument in Polish followed and punches were thrown. I pulled the duvet over my head and waited for it to be over.

Eventually the man who had got violent was asked to leave (with threats of calling the police). Despite all this, it still took two complaints to reception to get the others to shut up and let the rest of the dorm sleep.