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Destination: Valencia, Spain

Next up on our list of top holiday destinations is Valencia – here’s Ioana to explain how the Spanish city captured her heart…

The fact that it’s not one of the top touristic destinations in Spain, had me not really knowing what to expect of Valencia. Of course, I was looking forward to amazing paella, sunny skies and tapas, but Valencia has its own special charm that makes it feel like everything that you’d expect of Spain but better. Valencia has surprised me in a delightful way and I want to share my excitement and love for this place.

Not too big and with very good public transport options, it’s a very “manageable” city, as a former local told me. They love bikes over there so if that’s your thing, research on how you can rent a Valenbisi. Walking is a pleasure – beautiful old buildings and orange trees that decorate many of the pavements.

What used to be the bed of the the river Turia was transformed into a huge park with plenty of vegetation, sports courts, fountains and the futuristic looking Calatrava buildings and bridge, collectively called the City of Arts and Sciences, including a planetarium, an oceanarium and an interactive museum. Feeling like you’re about to embark on a spaceship, the beautiful buildings make it hard to take your eyes off them. All white and with bold curves and angles, decorated with light blue water fountains all around, it’s very easy to be impressed by the architect’s talent and vision.


South of the park is the old city centre, which is best explored by foot. All the little streets are beautiful and each neighbourhood has many cafes and bistros where you can take a break and indulge in the delicious Spanish cuisine. One of my favourite places is Plaza de la Reina. The fact that we had some amazing chocolate con churros at one café of the many around the plaza does not influence my decision at all 😉

Plaza de la Reina in Valencia

Where do the cool kids hang out? I hear you ask me. The answer is Russafa. It is the hip neighbourhood with a rich cultural mix which makes it the favourite social place for both tourists and locals. The classic Spanish buildings are home to many restaurants and cafes with delicious pastries. The nightlife here is very lively and is the kind of place where on a hot summer night you might accidentally walk right into a street festival.

In only four days Valencia has managed to make me fall in love with it and quickly climbed and reserved a spot in my top 3 favourite places in the world. Characterful, filled with culture and history, great food, amazing weather and happy palm trees, Valencia surely knows how to impress.

Heading to Spain this summer? Remember to download uTalk before you go so you’re prepared with some basic Spanish conversation!



Ramadan: what’s it all about?

Eid Mubarak!

Today marks the start of the holy month of Ramadan, where millions of Muslims around the world will spend the month fasting and praying. It is believed that 1400 years ago the Quran was shown to the Prophet Muhammad in this month. The start of Ramadan varies around 11 days each year, as it is all to do with the lunar cycle; this year the new lunar moon was seen on Sunday evening in the Middle East.

Potentially the most well known part of Ramadan is the fasting that happens. Muslims are not allowed to eat or drink during daylight. For those who miss a day of fasting they have to make up for this on another day, for example those who are travelling a long distance are allowed to eat and drink; but must make up for this another time. During Ramadan, breakfast or ‘Suhoor’ as it’s known, must be eaten half an hour before sunrise, this is also where people have the chance to drink water to be hydrated for the day ahead.

At the end of the day after sundown a communal meal is made, called ‘Iftar’, which literally translates into ‘break fast’. This is where people come together and they can eat until the next morning’s Suhoor. At both meals, fresh fruit and vegetables are served, along with halal meat, cheeses, breads and sweets. The meal caters for all of the food groups needed for a healthy body. Following the main meal different snacks can be prepared such as dates.

As well as having to follow strict eating and drinking guidelines, during the month of Ramadan, Muslims will visit the Mosque regularly. The month is used as a way to improve morality and work on themselves. Last year 14 million Muslims visited the city of Mecca within the first 2 weeks of the holy month. Mecca is the holiest city in the Islamic religion, and is the place where Muhammad first saw the Quran.

At the end of Ramadan, Muslims celebrate ‘Eid al-Fitr’ which translates as the ‘festival or breaking the fast’; here they gather at the Mosque for a prayer and spend all day with family and friends. The celebration goes on for three days and marks a new beginning for each individual.



The weird and wonderful language of tennis

I’m not generally much of a sports fan, and the less said about my sporting ability – or lack thereof – the better… but I do love a good tennis match. I’m a regular supporter of the British Davis Cup team (which is a lot more fun since they started winning; our humiliating weekend in Lithuania back in 2010 is, thankfully, a distant memory). I’m going to the US Open for the first time this autumn (squeal), and don’t even try booking me for any social engagements during Wimbledon fortnight – if anyone needs me then, I’ll be in front of the TV drinking Pimm’s, eating strawberries and cream and biting my nails every time Andy Murray’s on court.


Wimbledon, summer 2013

Like any sport, tennis has its own unique language and growing up watching it on TV, I had to get fluent at an early age. Besides a frankly baffling scoring system (15, 30, 40, advantage… it makes no sense at all) the game features a good few terms that may not mean a lot to newcomers, and take a while to get used to. So as the French Open comes to a close and we look ahead to the grass court season, here’s a quick guide to Tennis-ese for the uninitiated:

Love: ironically this is not something you want in a tennis match, because ‘love’ means a score of zero points in a game (or games in a set). It’s generally assumed that this comes from the French word l’oeuf, which means ‘egg’ – the same shape as a zero.

Deuce: when the score reaches 40-40 in tennis (3 points each), one player must score two consecutive points in order to seal the game. If they only manage one, the score returns to deuce, and keeps doing so until someone wins the game. ‘Deuce’ could derive from deus, Old French for two, or from à deux de jeu (‘two points from the end of the game’)… and yet, ironically, in France 40-40 is referred to as quarante à the first time, then egalité after that.


Davis Cup, GB v Japan, in Birmingham, March 2016

Let: when a player serves, the ball must pass over the net and bounce in the service box diagonally opposite. If it goes into the net, or misses the service box, this is a fault; do two faults in a row and you forfeit the point. But if the ball touches the net and still lands in the correct service box, this is called ‘let’. Nobody seems quite sure why, although one possibility is that it’s a shortened version of the French word for ‘net’, filet. Or it could just be because if this happens when you serve, the umpire lets you try again as many times as you need to 😉

Bagel: depending which side of the net you’re on, this is either something to celebrate or a very, very Bad Thing. A bagel occurs when one player wins a set 6-0. If this happens twice in a match it’s a double bagel. I’ve also heard a set that’s been won 6-1 referred to as a breadstick. Who knew so many tennis terms were named for the shape of food?

And finally, a couple of tennis terms with less interesting linguistic origins:

Break and Hold: the players in a tennis match take it in turns to serve. If a player wins a game on their own serve, this is called ‘holding serve’ or just ‘a hold’. On the other hand, if they manage to win a game when their opponent’s serving, this is called a ‘break’, or ‘breaking their serve’. To win a set, a player must be ahead by at least two games, so a break often proves crucial. During a tiebreak, you can also get a ‘mini-break’, which is not, as one might suppose, a short holiday but just means you’ve won a point on your opponent’s serve.

Ace: a serve that goes in but is untouched by the opponent’s racquet, automatically winning the point for the server. John Isner currently holds the record for the most aces in a match, at 115, but then again, that was also the longest singles match ever played – 11 hours, 5 minutes – at Wimbledon 2010, so perhaps it’s not so surprising.

These are just a few examples of the weird and wonderful language of tennis. What’s your favourite tennis term? And – far more importantly – who will you be cheering for at Wimbledon this year?




Destination: Hanoi, Vietnam

As the warm season is slowly approaching, our minds are starting to wander off to far away places, where we can explore, relax and have some adventures. We did some research (purely for selfless reasons, obviously) and found some great places that seem to be becoming more and more popular as holiday destinations. Over the next few weeks we’ll be giving you our thoughts about each of these amazing places.

Destination: Hanoi, Vietnam

An online friend of mine, Loes, lived there for a while and she was kind enough to share her local experience with us.

Old quarter is very nice! I suggest going in early morning. In the area there’s also an authentic market and it’s not too crowded. There are a lot of nice shopping places, mainly around the cathedral.

They have really good food there, my favorite is bun cha (only eat it at a restaurant that serves nothing else than bun cha, you can get it between 11-12:30 or so), then there is bun bo nam bo, nem (spring rolls) and apparently the best coffee in the world though I can’t vouch for this because I don’t drink coffee. But the cha da (literally tea ice) is pretty good, and the fresh fruit smoothie too!

At the lakes Trúc Bạch and Tây Hồ is also very nice, there you can get bo bia (a very nice coconut snack) and go for a walk or cycle on a water cycle.

Ha Long Bay is amazing! That’s a day or two-day trip from Hanoi. I think it’s around 4 hours to drive there.

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Tam Coc, is a beautiful place also known as Ha Long on land. It’s also a day trip from Hanoi. You can rent a cycle there and cycle through the rice fields. Cúc Phương is also super cool, it’s a wild national park. I would combine that one with Tam Coc, two day motorbike trip. Very nice!

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There are also some very nice food markets to go to, Chợ hôm and one close to Trúc Bạch lake, not too busy. The Vietnamese street food is known to be one of the safest street eating places in the world, everything is fresh so don’t be shy in trying everything you find appealing!

Needless to say this got us thinking about booking a flight to Hanoi ASAP. If you’ve been inspired too, don’t forget to install uTalk before you go, it’ll help you get along with the friendly locals in all the situations that you could need to speak their language!  If you want to see my friend Loes’s pictures of Vietnam you can check them out here




Overcoming anxiety when speaking a foreign language in public

Thanks to guest blogger Eve Pearce, who’s written today’s really helpful article about something every language learner has had to deal with at some point – overcoming the fear of actually speaking it. If you have any other top stress-busting tips, we’d love to hear about them in the comments!

Seasoned foreign language teachers will probably tell you that one mark of a successful student in terms of language learning, is ‘openness’, ‘daring’ and sometimes, even ‘cheek’. The more free of self-consciousness and shame a student is, the more likely they are to progress, since one vital part of language learning is using it – having conversation with other speakers, communicating, living the language one is learning.

It is easier said than done for some learners, however, especially those suffering from anxiety. Far from being an exotic condition, anxiety is actually the most common mental condition in the US, the UK and many other countries. The daily stresses and demands of life can invoke our ‘fight or flight’ response, raising our heart and breathing rates and sometimes, even causing debilitating panic attacks.

As a language learner, anxiety may have stopped you in your tracks. It may have made you fear situations and people you do not know well. It can stop you from making many important changes in your life, or from learning a new language and interacting with other students and foreign language speakers. Anxiety can play big tricks on body and mind; excess oxygen levels (produced by breathing too rapidly) can cause muscles to cramp and can cause hyperventilation. Sometimes, the problem is mild but still uncomfortable – for instance, a person may fear having to get up in front of a class and make a speech in another language.

Overcoming Your Anxiety when Speaking a Foreign Language in Public

If you are suffering from anxiety, and you feel like it is interfering with your ability to progress as a foreign language learner, try some of the most effective relaxation techniques known to those who have recovered from this condition. Foremost among these techniques is abdominal breathing. It is quite simple – just breathe in a large amount of air through your nose, allowing your abdomen to expand. Keep the breath in for a few seconds then exhale, slowly, through your mouth. Do this various times and you will note that your heart rate drops, even when you are very stressed.

Yoga is another highly successful technique at quelling anxiety and stress, so much so that it is offered at practically every top rehabilitation centre for addiction and for eating disorders. Yoga is such an excellent way to battle anxiety because it can be practised by people of all fitness levels and ages, it is cheap, and also a proven method of lowering stress hormone (cortisol) levels. It involves a connection between body, mind and spirit. Controlled breathing is also used, and various poses (asanas) are performed.

Sometimes, mindful meditation can be practised during a yoga session, yet meditation is also useful on its own to calm stress. If you have anxiety, you should definitely set aside a few moments during the day to meditate. There are numerous free online meditation sessions lasting minutes, as well as meditation and breathing apps for your phone, which you can follow while you are in the car or on the bus to work or school.

If you try these methods out and you do not improve, or your anxiety is very severe, then expert help may be required. A good therapist will be able to help you in a handful of session, by utilizing techniques such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), which aims to help patients identify stress triggers and find positive ways to channel tension.

If you have an upcoming talk in a foreign language and you are worried about what others will think if your delivery isn’t perfect, remember that most speakers make mistakes and even suffer from nerves before they begin. Language isn’t a competition; it is a progression and it pays to keep in mind that even if the worst possible outcome occurs (e.g. you forget your speech or you feel too nervous to speak), the event is not the be-all, end-all of your language learning experience. There will always be another chance, further down the line, to do that exam or speak before an audience.

Through relaxation techniques, breathing and therapy, you soon discover that anxiety is little more than a trick – it is your body’s way of choosing ‘flight’ (escape) when the ‘fight or flight’ response kicks in. By simply breathing for a few minutes until your heart rate settles, you can stop anxiety in its tracks – and begin to view language learning as the enjoyable pursuit it really is.

Eve Pearce