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Posts tagged ‘history’


Tell us about your Tartan…

We were disappointed recently to find that – somehow – we had missed National Tartan Day. I know! We’ll do better next year.

Although you might think National Tartan Day is a Scottish endeavour, it actually stems from North America and seems to have developed into rather a massive Celtic festival. Which leads us to wonder, what exactly is tartan and why is it so important?

When we think of tartan, we generally think of a woven patterned cloth which belongs to a particular Scottish clan. Most clans will tend to have both a dress and hunting tartan, the hunting tartan being a sombre version made up of dark colours whilst the dress usually swaps a colour from the pattern out for white, making it much brighter. There is a lot of etiquette around tartan, and I for one would not try to wear a tartan that I had no connection with, sticking instead to the tartans from my family’s history.

Or, I might wear a Cornish tartan, because in recent times tartan has become increasingly used by regions, ethnicities and businesses. Cornwall’s tartan was created in the 1960s and has really caught on, being widely available on tourist knick-knacks and formal clothing. At a wedding I recently attended, the groom and best men were all wearing Cornish tartan waistcoats, and the Cornish tartan kilt is not an unusual site at a festival. What is perhaps especially nice about this regional tartan is that anyone Cornish is entitled to use it- there’s no difficulty in etiquette- and even if you’re not Cornish but want to celebrate Cornwall, you’re more than welcome to help yourself to some Cornish tartan, as long as you can stand the slightly weird and bright mustard yellow of it…

If you want to wear tartan but don’t really feel a particular affiliation with a particular clan, then a good option for British and Commonwealth citizens is the Hunting Stewart tartan which, being Queen Elizabeth II’s personal tartan, can be used by all of her subjects. The other good option is Black Watch, also known as Government Tartan, which is traditionally available to those who don’t have a tartan of their own.

Do you have a particular tartan you wear, or thoughts on tartan etiquette? We’d love to hear from you!




Going back to my roots to learn Polish

Alex Koszykowska is the newest member of the EuroTalk team, joining us last month as our new sales and marketing assistant. In today’s post she explains why she’s learning Polish.

Alex family photo

My grandma, dad, sister and me. I’m the little one!

It is said that a million people in the UK class Poland as their ancestral home in some way. This is the case for my family; my Granddad came to England from Poland during the second world war (my Gran also came over to England but from Russia – she and my Granddad met when she was a nurse in the army). Over the years my Gran has adapted to my Granddad’s ways, and will now only speak Polish or very basic English to us. Growing up, my dad and his brothers were all brought up speaking Polish as their main language, with English as their second. Even today they can slip into Polish very naturally – leaving my sister and I completely oblivious to what was going on around us. My mum and aunties all learnt to speak Polish – mainly to get brownie points from my Gran; but really it is only my sister, my cousins and I who cannot speak Polish in our family.

This means regularly at our family’s favourite restaurant (which of course is owned by a Polish family), we would be pretending to understand what everyone was talking about.Whenever we entered the hotel, I would always greet the family with ‘Cześć’ (hi). My sister and I have also mastered how to say ‘Dziekuje ci bardzo’, which means ‘thank you very much’ (and rolls off the tongue much more easily then you think it would). We have managed to get away with this throughout our childhood. However, now I feel a certain responsibility to carry on this tradition in our family. Working for EuroTalk has shown me that language learning isn’t as intimidating as many people make out.

Katarzynki, Polish snackPart of the reason it is so enjoyable to be learning Polish is that I love everything about my Polish roots. From the tradition of whenever we go to my Gran’s she hands us a pack of Katarzynki (which are like soft biscuits with a ginger flavour in the middle and chocolate around the outside) to our rather impossible to say, spell and write surname (with a lot of people finding the change from ‘a’ if you’re female to ‘i’ if you’re male for the last letter of our surname confusing!).

The four words I do know (five if you include dobrze – ok) make my Gran so happy; she loves seeing us take an interest in our Granddad’s language. Even basic language skills are so important and can make a huge difference. My family heritage is my motivation to learn more Polish, which is why the uTalk app is so fabulous, as it is designed so you can learn how to say key phrases. For example ‘proszę mówić wolniej’, meaning ‘please speak more slowly’, which is vital to know in my family!

Are you interested in learning a language, or do you have family members who are bilingual and you’re keen to join them? Try our uTalk app to get started!




A couple of days in Berlin

After volunteering in a hostel in Riga for six weeks, I decided to take the long way home via a series of overnight buses. With everyone raving about how beautiful a city Berlin is, I decided to make it my next stop on my journey home.

It is easy to see why people like it so much.

I stayed in a huge hostel in the Turmstrasse area and this seemed like a really good location to stop in. Just twenty minutes away was the Victory Column, or Siegessäule, which overlooks a large portion of the city. A little further was Potsdamer Platz; the centre is all commercial with cafes and restaurants as far as the eye can see and business reaching high up into the sky from a series of highly polished skyscrapers. But the surrounding area has a lot of history and culture to offer too. Personally the Topography Of Terror, Holocaust Memorial, Friedrichstrasse and Reichstag were the things that grabbed my attention the most. An early evening stroll in the local neighbourhood turned into a several hour stint that saw me leave my hostel, walk the length of Turmstrasse, past the Victory Column, down to the Holocaust Memorial and back on my first night.

Reichstag building, Germany

There is no one ‘centre’ to Berlin, but it seems most tourists and locals end up at Alexanderplatz. Walking out of the station the first thing you see is the iconic tower that overlooks a pedestrianised area. Walking behind this and into a little blissful shade after a journey on an overheated train was very refreshing. There is a lot to see from here, and I personally headed over towards the galleries and sat under the pillars looking out over the river for a while.

The Zoological Gardens are definitely worth a visit, and if you like zoos and aquariums then it is a must. There’s a very cute windmill of sorts that sits along a section of Budapester Strasse which is worth stopping at to admire.

The Brandenburg Gate was such an impressive sight first hand, you can really understand the sense of power there and the thought of those streets being lined with people waiting to see a glimpse of their leader is both disturbing and breathtaking.

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin

The area around Nordbahnhof was one of my favourite places, full of gardens, interesting architecture, and of course the Berlin Wall Memorial.

The main station, Hauptbahnhof, was also worth looking round, whether you like trains or not. There are so many levels, platforms, different types of train, shops, places to eat and drink, you could spend hours within this huge complex and not get bored.

Of course, one of the best things about Berlin, from my perspective at least, is the cake. Much like Greggs back home in the UK, there is a bäckerei (bakery) wherever you turn, and such a choice of sweet and savoury treats it can be a little overwhelming.

I spent the best part of two days in Berlin and I have to say, it isn’t enough. I could have happily stayed another week and I am still not sure if that would have been enough to have seen everything that I wanted to. A return trip is definitely in order!

Berlin Cityscape


Planning a trip to Berlin? Remember to learn a little German before you leave with uTalk – or try our free Talk Now demo.



10 reasons to visit… Venice

We’ve all seen the Italian city of Venice in the movies, but does it live up to its reputation as one of Europe’s most beautiful and historic cities? Amy says yes; here are her ten reasons to check out Venice for yourself.

1. Boats

I think this has to be a very obvious point, as of course Venice and boats go hand in hand. I was rather taken aback by the beauty of the boats, especially the private taxi boats, as they were all immaculate. If you’re landing when it’s still light, get a private taxi from the airport; it is magical and makes you feel like you’re in a James Bond movie cruising along the Grand Canal.

Boats in Venice

2. Get lost

Once again I think this is quite a popular theme, but honestly just wander about taking little side streets, because you never quite know what you are going to find, maybe a beautiful street, bridge, shop… or possibly a dead end. As long as you have a map with you when you’re ready to head back, you will be absolutely fine. Once you get to grips with the city it is relatively easy to get around and soon you’ll be wandering off to places without even needing any guidance.

3. Churches

The first world that comes to mind when thinking about the different churches in Venice is WOW. There are a vast number of churches across Venice and the ones we went into were simply stunning. We managed to see several, including St Mary of the Friars, where you can see the famous painting Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin, which caused a lot of commotion when it was first revealed. We also saw San Moisè and Santa Maria della Salute, as well as many more. Each church has a different history so you can never get bored of going into different ones.

4. Bridges

There are over 400 bridges in Venice and rather frequently you stumble upon one that’s just beautiful. They vary from concrete to iron; the concrete ones are traditional Venetian bridges, whereas the iron bridges are Austrian.

5. Islands

If you have the time I would definitely recommend hopping across to the different islands. Murano is the closest island, while Burano and Torcello are a little further away but still very easy to get to. We stopped off at Murano, which is famous for its glass, and we were fortunate enough to see the incredibly talented Glass Masters at work. Next was Burano, known for its lace and its colourful houses; this was so the fishermen could spot their house when they were out at sea. Finally we went to Torcello, which is tiny; there are only 15 homes on the island. Sights on Torcello include the Cattedral di Torcella, which was built in AD 1008, and the Santa Foscafe, which is very impressive to look at from the outside.

Houses on Burano

6. Beauty

I knew Venice would be beautiful, but what I wasn’t expecting was all of the detail that can be seen everywhere, in the churches, the bridges, and even engravings on some streets to represent different districts. Maybe I had rose tinted glasses on, but whenever I thought I had seen something beautiful I rounded a corner and there was something that topped it. It may sound like a cliché but Venice really does take your breath away.

7. Tour

This is an absolute must, because otherwise you can walk past something and have no idea you have passed a major piece of history. The tour means you really get to know Venice and learn about its history and culture, I can’t even begin to describe how much I learnt about the city and how relieved I was that we did a tour. Without it you could be standing in the square where Shakespeare based The Merchant of Venice and have no idea.

8. History

I can honestly say that I had no idea about the extensive history behind Venice, from the several plagues they suffered, to the different Dukes in power and of course Napoleon taking over the city. You definitely get a better feel for the city once you know more about its history, as well as starting to notice different things yourself when walking around, like the different types of bridges I mentioned earlier, or how the Austrians had to have their own cafés as they were not welcome anywhere else. I would read a little about the city before you go, just so you know a little about the Venetians’ background.

9. Food, Drink and Ice Cream

In Italy you expect great pizza and pasta; however Venice is very much based around seafood, although we also discovered an incredible steak restaurant called Vini Da Artur where we had the best steak we have ever eaten. Of course we had pasta and pizza too, but there is really something for everyone. For drinks, I recommend the Hilton Skyline Rooftop Bar for views of Venice and of course Harry’s bar, which originally opened in 1931 and was where the famous Bellini was invented. It is expensive, but just go for one Bellini to say you’ve experienced Harry’s bar, because the atmosphere in there is fantastic. Finally, ice cream was a must for us over the few days we were in Venice, due to it being very hot. There is a different ice cream shop on all of the busy streets, and they do not disappoint. Because you have to have at least one gelato while you’re in Venice, right?

Gelato in Venice

10. St Mark’s Square

We’ve seen it in lots of films and pictures, but you can’t beat going and seeing it for yourself. Stepping into the square, the first thing you notice is how big it actually is. The main attraction – the church – is simply beautiful; the engravings all across the church and the different colours used are stunning. Going inside the church is a must, and you can pay €2 to go to the back of the church. Do it, you’ll see why. All across the square there are intricate engravings in the marble and different statues everywhere. I don’t want to spoil any surprises for anyone wanting to learn the history of the square, you have to go and experience it – and if you’re going with someone special, go at night too as it’s very romantic.

My only warning about Venice is that you do get harassed to buy a selfie stick or to feed the pigeons, so be prepared to say no!

And of course, don’t forget to download uTalk before you leave; even if you don’t have time to learn some Italian in advance, it’s a really useful app to have on your phone when you’re searching for the right word – we used it a lot!

Have you ever been to Venice? What did you think?




10 reasons to visit… China

China is an amazing country, one that should be on every traveler’s must visit list. Few countries possess the wide variety of experiences you will find in the Middle Kingdom. While you are in this amazing country, be sure to visit the province of Yunnan, one of the lesser known, but most beautiful destinations within China. Here are ten terrific reasons why you should visit China, by Anna Smith, who studies Chinese in China at Keats School.

1. Breath-taking landscapes

As one of the largest countries in the world, China boasts incredibly diverse landscapes. Virtually whatever scenery you find most beautiful, you will find it in China. From the Northwest deserts to the Southeast seacoast, high mountain ranges to fertile plains, the frozen beauty of Harbin to the lush warm tropics of Xishuangbanna, China has it all. Hangzhou is famous for its stunning West Lake views. Suzhou has beautiful garden views and winding rivers with traditional architecture. And Hainan is the tropical paradise of the Orient; known as the ‘Eastern Hawaii’; it is China’s own paradise island.

Xihu Lake, Hangzhou

Xihu Lake, Hangzhou

2. Wonderful people

As the most populous nation in the world, China has plenty of people to meet. Chinese people generally love Westerners, so most are quite friendly. Everywhere we go, people want to stop and chat and take pictures with us. You can meet some amazing people and hear many intriguing life stories in the Middle Kingdom.

3. Awesome language

To a native English speaker, Mandarin can seem intimidating because it is so different to European languages. But this uniqueness makes it all the more beautiful and amazing to experience. Chinese characters are stunningly beautiful. Listening to tonal Mandarin can be like experiencing a new kind of music for the first time. If you already playing with the thought of challenging yourself, then you should definitely check out these reasons to study Chinese at Keats School.

4. Incredible food

While known for its tea and rice, there is much more to Chinese cuisine than is commonly known by most Westerners. And this cuisine varies greatly by region. In the north, noodles are the most common meal staple, but in the south, almost everything is served over rice. Different regions, like Sichuan and Hunnan, are known for their unique spicy food, while coastal regions boast a variety of seafood. Some of the most fun and interesting foods to try are street foods, such as roasted sweet potatoes and Chinese barbecue, shao kao.

Street food, stinky tofu

Street food, stinky tofu

5. Rich history

Few places have such a vast and rich history as the Middle Kingdom. The Great Wall of China and the Terracotta Warriors are some of the most well known ancient tourist attractions. The Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven in Beijing are also must-see attractions to learn about Chinese history and culture.

Royal Palace, Lijiang. Ancient traditional buildings can still be easily seen in many cities in China.

Royal Palace, Lijiang. Ancient traditional buildings can still be easily seen in many cities in China.

6. Modern development

At the same time, China boasts some of the largest cities in the world and is becoming more modern everywhere you look. Nowhere else have I ever seen so many high rises or amazing skylines as in China. Shanghai epitomises modern day China, with the famous modern riverfront skyline known as the Bund, large European style buildings, and its particularly distinctive Pearl of the Orient tower.

Night View of Shanghai

Night View of Shanghai

7. Amazing markets and exciting products

True, China makes a wide variety of products that are exported all over the world, but they have many unique products as well. Fine silks, exquisite China tea sets, elaborately carved jade, and expensive aged tea are some of the most sought after high-priced commodities. But Chinese Calligraphy, bamboo baskets, traditional Chinese knots, and other handcrafted items are distinctly beautiful as well. Provinces in the southwest of China have a wide variety of unique items hand crafted by the many minorities within its borders.

Street Market in Xi’an

Street Market in Xi’an

8. Fascinating diversity

One of the most amazing things about China is the variety of experience that can be enjoyed in one place. Old and new, sweet and spicy, rough and smooth, all combine into a rich cultural tapestry. Because of its ethnic and topographical diversity, Yunnan holds incredible diversity in one province.

On the stage, the minority group De’ang people are playing a traditional song.

On the stage, the minority group De’ang people are playing a traditional song.

9. Mind-blowing memories

Because there are so many unique and diverse things to experience, a trip to China is sure to create some incredible memories. These experiences will travel with you for the rest of your life. My family and I have experienced so many wonderful memories. Especially exciting to my young boys are eating jiaozi and watching fireworks during Spring Festival. Our experiences shape who we are as people. One of the best reasons to visit any new place is to literally expand your horizons, as it can change your thoughts and life. China’s incredible variety allows you to enjoy a multitude of new experiences and will forever change you.

Traditional Styled Chinese Restaurant

Traditional Styled Chinese Restaurant

10. Charming calligraphy

The ancient art of Chinese calligraphy cannot be fully appreciated without visiting China and seeing masters create their works of art in person. Even in the smallest shop, a true master can create amazing works of art. Words become art to be enjoyed be all, even if you don’t understand the meaning. But there are many places where you can learn famous Chinese sayings and begin to learn Chinese calligraphy for yourself, which deepens your admiration for its beauty even more. Being able to write in Chinese is a very valuable skill, but often feels impossible to learn. Once you understand the fundamentals, you will see that this is indeed something that you can learn.

Brushes for Chinese Calligraphy

Brushes for Chinese Calligraphy

Anna Smith

You can’t beat visiting China for learning the language – but before you go, remember to learn a few basic words with uTalk to get you started.