I’m a Morrisons kind of girl.
And when I look longingly into my box of Yorkshire Tea and see nothing but tealeaf dust, I miss it.
When you are far from home and craving custard, and the mere pronunciation of the word ‘vanilla’ fills shop assistants with mirth, you too will experience saudade at the thought of your local supermarket. Because supermarkets abroad sell all manner of things that you would not expect to find. And asking for help when you aren’t exactly sure what you’re asking for is everything from embarrassing to adventurous.
It’s tricky out there.
My fellow Brits abroad: on returning home, don’t be surprised if you feel the sudden urge to run into your nearest supermarket and pull the fishmonger into a tight embrace. Just make sure he doesn’t have a fish filleter in his hand when you do.
Still, never let it be said that there aren’t delightful discoveries to be made Out There. Here is a selection of my own that I haven’t yet decided if I am looking back on with fright or fondness.
China might be a bit of an outlier in the joy of supermarket shopping. The ones I went to were the full several-floor ‘we sell everything you can think of and probably some things you have nightmares about’ flavour, with counters offering up an array of unknowns and unidentifiables.
If you are an avid coffee drinker, it might be wise to take a stash of your own. Those crimes-against-coffee all-in-one sachets of coffee, milk powder and sugar are enough to make any coffee aficionado turn and weep.
Something that truly delighted me in Chinese supermarkets (and yes. I am easily amused) was that you can buy milk in pouches. Rather than the cartons we are used to in the UK, milk here – and expect a wide variety of dairy, soya and rice milk – is often sold in these thick, plastic pouches that have a satisfying squishy feeling when you juggle them in your hands. Not that you should really do that. Unless you want an audience.
Hungary is the land of paprika and sour cream. Paprika comes in different strengths of spiciness and there are either ‘regular’ or ‘sweet’ varieties to choose from. Sour cream (tejfol) has all sorts of uses in both sweet and savoury dishes, and you can buy it in all manner of sizes – from the small cartons arranged like pots of fromage frais, to the litres of the stuff in containers the size of those value packs of magnolia paint at B&Q. (It is also apparently a very effective ‘after sun’, but I’m not sure about that.)
Supermarkets in Hungary are generally smaller than you may be used to at home, but they are pretty well stocked. For some reason, apples are on the pricey side, but the fact that you can buy cherries (both normal and sour, which are delicious) and all manner of berries for a fraction of the price you’d pay at home more than compensates. Another surprising thing is that Spar is an actual supermarket, rather than the emergency-chocolate-fix kind of place that I am used to.
Pig legs. Whole pig legs, right down to hoof, are dangled from ceilings and fanned out on counters in enticing displays. This is not a delicacy, but an everyday food product that you will find in many a Spanish kitchen. Ham is so important to Spaniards you could say it is part of the culture. From jamón serrano to jamón york, and a whole spectrum in between, you will never be short of ham if you need it.
For those of you who like to bake, be prepared to make some product replacement choices. Butter and margarine is available here but since most cook and bake with oil instead, and pour oil on their toast in the morning, you might not find exactly what you were looking for.
Alcohol is incredibly cheap here, and very good quality. Good wine is pretty much a given, and when you can buy nice cava for under two euros, or a can of beer for less than 30 cents, you can wonder at how people aren’t walking around constantly merry all day long.
There is a huge range of disposable products in Spanish supermarkets, including napkins, tissues and kitchen roll. And plates, bowls and cups. They even have the ‘balloon’ glasses in plastic form, just in case you decide on a cheeky gin and tonic on an impromptu picnic.
Our last whistle-stop on the supermarket tour is in the beautiful Finland, with large supermarkets of enough content to satisfy even the most dithering of customers (me). There are more varieties of sausage here than I have ever seen in my life, delicious rye breads, and very good cheese and salami.
One thing that threw me a little was an ‘addition’ to the toilet tissue aisle that I hadn’t anticipated. Since Finland is the land of the sauna, and more importantly, the all-naked sauna, there are disposable sauna ‘tissues seats’ for you to sit on that you can purchase in multipacks, ready for your public sauna experience. If you have your own sauna, and what self-respecting Finn doesn’t, you should of course purchase your own special sauna ‘pad’, which comes in a range of covers, colours and thicknesses. It is a whole new world.
These items might seem like an odd collection of things, and in many ways they are. But on a day when all you want is the home comfort of knowing in which aisle to find a tin of beans, good tea bags, and a bakewell tart, the call of the home supermarket is strong. Especially the bakery aisle. Oh, how I miss the bakery aisle…
I was lucky enough to visit one of the most notorious party cities last December; I, however, can not comment on what the night life is like in Vegas as I was only 19 and therefore not allowed to step foot into a bar or club! However, even without the partying there is so much to do in Vegas, as well as lots of places to see. We flew out on the afternoon of Friday 13th, on a plane which contained a lot of nervy people as well as plenty of bachelor and bachelorette parties. We were only there for four days and it was non-stop. Here are my top ten reasons to visit Las Vegas.
1. The Shows
Walking down the strip you can see endless advertising for different shows, concerts and celebrity residences. They all seem that much better over in Vegas; maybe this is because of the additional glitz and flashing lights, or just getting caught up in the buzz of the city. I would highly recommend going to see at least one type of show, as it is a completely different energy and atmosphere.
2. The People
Everyone in Vegas was so friendly. People couldn’t do enough for you, they were always trying to make your experience the best it could be. This didn’t just include staff working in the hotel but everyone on the strip; if people saw you were a group and one was taking a photo of everyone else, someone would always offer to take a group photo of you. People were all so chatty and friendly and even when you were approached by a salesman on the street once you said no they didn’t pester you, they still smiled and said ‘Have a great day’, how often does that happen here in the UK?
3. The Buildings
When watching the films, you expect the strip to go on for miles and miles. However, when you are there it isn’t nearly as long as you expect. Also all of the different styles of buildings you see, ranging from the classic Bellagio to the new styles such as the Wynn. You also have character buildings such as the New York, New York and the Luxor; just viewing them from the outside there is always something different to see.
When you are walking along the strip there is always someone or something to see. Ranging from the famous fountains at the Bellagio, to a volcano exploding in front of the Mirage and the pirate show in front of Treasure Islands, which was unfortunately under construction when we were there. There were many different types of people in fancy dress, ranging from Alan in The Hangover to Bumblebee from Transformers, who can actually turn himself from a car to a person! It is simply not possible to walk down the strip and be bored.
Every hotel has a casino and each one is slightly different. When sitting at a slot machine or one of the numerous machines they have spread throughout the floor, you can really lose track of time. There are no windows and you see people sitting at the tables for hours on end. Often in the morning when you walk through the casino you see people still playing who haven’t left from the night before. Long gone are the days of inserting ‘quarters’ into the machine and pulling the handle; it is now dollar bills and pressing a button. It was rare to find a machine with a handle and it was so exciting when you did find one. Once you are there you can see how people do become addicted; just waiting for the sheet of paper to come out of the machine to tell you how much you have won, and then queuing in anticipation to collect your money. You quickly get into the ‘oh, just one more time’ mind set…
6. Lobbies of Hotels
Each hotel lobby holds something different to entice you in further towards the casinos, restaurants and shops. You want to walk into each hotel and see what they have on show. Most of the hotels were truly spectacular, especially in December where lots had a Christmas theme.
7. Grand Canyon
Undoubtedly one of the most beautiful sights you will ever see. Even if you aren’t there for long, there are various trips you can pick from, ranging from a short helicopter ride over the canyon, to an all-day adventure including having lunch in the canyon. It is a sight you will never forget and you will never see such a vast range of colours anywhere else.
8. The Shopping
An experience I have never had before. In Caesar’s Palace, walking from shop to shop, even though you are inside, you would never know. The ceiling is done in such a way that it feels like you are outside, and even simulates rain and thunderstorms. Or there is the Venetian, with the canal running throughout the ground floor where you can catch a gondola and be serenaded by a gondolier. You won’t experience shopping like this anywhere else in the world.
9. The Chocolate Fountain in the Bellagio
Something you can stand and stare at for hours wondering how it was possible to make – at first it is very hard to tell that it is even real. It is the world’s largest chocolate fountain and took a year and a half in planning and designing alone. For all of the chocolate lovers out there, it is a sight not to be missed.
10. The Food
Every different type of food you could possibly want, you can find in Vegas. The portions are huge, so sharing is definitely recommended if you aren’t overly hungry. At breakfast, when you order pancakes you don’t just get one or three, you get a stack of at least five. Vegas is also renowned for its buffets, where you pay a fixed price and you can go up as many times as you want. These aren’t just any buffets though, they have everything you could possibly want: Chinese, Italian, Seafood… anything and everything.
Even without the partying aspect of Vegas it is still the best city I have ever been to; the list of reasons to go could go on for a very long time.
Have you been to Vegas? What were your best bits?
I must admit that Algeria does not feature highly among people’s bucket list destinations.
While most tourists visiting the region flock to Egypt or Tunisia, Algeria is still very much off the beaten track. Nor does it help that it has attracted a rather bad press over the last year or so: much of the country is a security risk and the FCO advises against all travel to half of the Algeria, and all but essential travel to much of the rest.
Chickened out? Well, there is always its next door neighbour Morocco, which admittedly has done much to develop its tourist industry over the years.
‘Ah but I’ve been there already’, you say, ‘I’ve stayed in a posh riad, I’ve had a ride on a camel and I’ve stocked up on more of those pointy slippers than I’ll ever need.’
Quite. So you’re looking for the real deal, are you? Well, the good news is that Algiers, the capital, is very much worth the detour, untouched by Easyjet, and better still, firmly in the ‘OK to visit, but be careful’ bit of the country. I was lucky enough to go twice, and here I am writing this: all bodily parts present and correct, wallet intact, and dignity unscathed.
As it happens, I was working on a project with one of the government ministries. This meant that I was fortunate enough to be met at the airport and whisked through immigration and customs in seconds. I also benefited from a security detail which picked me up and accompanied me wherever I went: a pair of friendly enough goons, wearing shades and Blues Brothers suits (sans hats), constantly tailing us in a slightly scruffy VW Polo – not a Bluesmobile.
So here are my ten reasons to visit Algiers (and a bit of the surrounding area):
1. The city centre
Algiers has a faded, run down beauty. The centre of the city is full of white stuccoed buildings in the French colonial style and you’ll love exploring the up-and-down streets and avenues. Pack a pair of stout walking shoes though, as it’s a hilly place. And as you take a break, sipping a coffee and people watching at one of the many excellent cafes dotted around town, you may be wondering where all the tourists have gone. Don’t worry: the last ones left circa 1962, so you really will have the place to yourself.
2. The view
You may find yourself in accommodation higher up and somewhat away from the city centre, with the city stretching out below you. Not for nothing is the city called ‘Alger la Blanche’.
3. Public transport
I found a little cable car that takes you down the hill (i.e. from the residential suburbs to the city centre) to the sea and Botanic Garden in just three minutes. There’s also a one-line metro that crosses the city, which, when I used it, was virtually empty. I wondered whether people had in fact been told it had recently opened – or maybe they simply refused to pay the 15p fare.
4. Cheap fuel
Petrol in Algiers costs only around 10p per litre. No, this is not a misprint for 110p. Algeria is, after all, still one of the world’s leading oil producers.
5. No retail chains
Should you require a fix from KFC, McDonalds, Zara, or any other global retailer for that matter, please leave Algiers immediately. To remind you, this is not Morocco. However, with your 4 X 4 filled up with 10p petrol you could probably drive there.
6. The food
If you enjoy your French food, you might like Algiers’ version of it. The seafood is excellent, especially when washed down with a glass of Oran wine, which is not bad at all. Alternatively, if you enjoy your coucous you’ll love the Algerian varieties. Do not expect Michelin star joints: most eateries are small and family run.
By the way, you will need to hone either your French or Arabic speaking skills when you negotiate your way around town, as very few people speak English. I strongly suggest a purchase of uTalk prior to departure.
7. The treats
Do you have a sweet tooth? There are countless well stocked patisseries wherever you look, with everything from tiny sugar dusted and intricately decorated almondy cakes to classic croissants on display.
8. Le Jardin d’Essais du Hamma
The botanical garden, Le Jardin d’Essais du Hamma, is lovely: classically designed, it is formal, tropical and a respite from the heat, especially if you’re visiting during the summer.
One day we were taken along the coast to the sleepy little seaside town of Tipasa, which goes back 2,000 years, and where it is possible to visit the remains of the Roman city. In fact Tipasa became one of the most important ports in Ancient Rome.
10. Notre Dame d’Afrique
If you are determined to venture high enough in the city you’ll find Notre Dame d’Afrique, a 19th century Catholic church, which is an official monument and commands views of the Bay of Algiers and the harbour. Its architecture is fascinating: a successful blend of Eastern and Western influences.
I can’t end my snapshot of Algiers without a quote from one of its best known sons. In his 1936 essay, ‘A Summer in Algiers,’ Albert Camus wrote: ‘In Algiers one loves the ordinary places: the sea at the end of every street, a certain volume of sunlight…’ What more can you ask for?
Have you ever visited a city that managed to change your mind?
I visited Bruges earlier this year. Unfortunately, I’d accidentally timed my visit to coincide with the enthusiastically named ‘Amateur Arts Festival’, and consequently spent Saturday night with tissues rammed in my ears and arms clenching pillows to my head, as my hotel room shook with the relentless noise of amateur bass. I thought then that the chances of coming up with ten reasons to visit Bruges were pretty slim. Yet on Sunday morning, with the loudspeakers in the square finally silenced and the sun out, I became enchanted with this town that everyone always refers to as a peaceful haven of canals. These are the things which managed to turn my opinion around in the space of just one morning.
I get a bit excited about foreign trains, I know, but going to Bruges presented me with a new wonder: the double decker train. True, this is not localised to Bruges alone but most of the IC trains from Bruxelles seemed to be two storeys high, giving a fantastic view of the very flat countryside (and occasional windmill!) from the top deck. The trains are smooth and cool, and the conductors wear an amusing flat cap as part of their uniform. If you’re just planning a short visit to Bruges, you can get the Eurostar to Brussels and travel on from there (it’s about an hour on the fast train, two hours on the slow train).
2. Canals and boat trips
I wouldn’t say the town is riddled with canals in the same way Venice or Amsterdam are, but they linger in the backstreets and circle the centre so that you stumble across them when you wander off the main street. Surprisingly, there didn’t seem to be any locals drifting around on pleasure boats, although there were a few promising houses whose main doors seemed to lead out directly onto the canal. Activity on the waterways instead seemed to be wholly dominated by the tour boats, taking cargoes of visitors on half hour drives up and down the canal, streaming off fluent speeches in three languages as they went. If you’re only there for a short time, I’d advise a boat trip to get your bearings on the town, and to see some impressive buildings from otherwise undiscovered angles.
Belgium is world-famous for chocolate and there are lots of chances to sample it in Bruges. Having been there just after Easter, lots of independent chocolate shops were still displaying elaborate chocolate rabbits and chicken-shaped Easter eggs, as well as the usual array of picturesque truffles and pralines. It being the weekend, there didn’t seem to be anyone around making the chocolates, which was a pity, but I imagine that in the week you’d get a good look at the chocolatiers at work. I was particularly impressed with a small boutique called Stef’s, which sold chocolate tools dusted with cocoa to make them look rusty – I was entirely taken in until I decided it was highly unlikely that a food shop would fill its window with rusty tools.
Bruges, although it also has lots of famous sights, is perfect for the lazier tourist who just wants to meander and drink in the tranquil beauty. Cobbled streets with broad flat pavements and gentle bridges over canals provide a little haven to lose yourself in, and since the whole town is very small you soon enough stumble upon some familiar street or building to set you back on route. Horse drawn carriages trot past every so often, carrying bands of eager-eyed tourists, A particularly pretty walk turned out to be the wide promenade from the station into town (a very short stroll and definitely not worth getting the bus unless you have heavy luggage), which passes a beautiful pink-flowered war memorial and glides into the centre of town and some pretty little cafés.
5. Houses and architecture
The typical Flemish façade presides here, and people seem to take enormous pride in their property, keeping every gate neatly painted and every tile in place. With a maximum height of 30m for any building in the city, the scenery is all low-lying and the views from any high points are panoramic. Some interesting and very modern architecture brings a new sense of style to the traditional steep-roofed old houses.
At one point home to over 50 breweries, Bruges now has only one active one, De Halve Maan brewery, which runs daily tours around its compact factory in the heart of the city. The tour, in Dutch, French and English, is definitely worth going on as it is stuffed full of information and lots of insights into why beer is healthy (an argument I always like to hear). They’ll also tell you that back in the ’50s the breweries would do home deliveries – you just had to ring a bell for the cart to stop and dispense beer to you directly. I imagine it’s no longer feasible to re-introduce this practice, but we can always dream… Having climbed right to the top of the factory and experienced the lovely view, you are released at ground level to claim your free beer in the spacious bar-restaurant, where one beer can easily turn into a happy afternoon sampling all the brewery’s many offerings.
7. Bike pumps
I’ve seen these around a little more recently – the free foot-operated bicycle pump – and I’m always impressed with a town that spends its money on something as practical and helpful as this.
and cake. This doesn’t need much explanation really: in Bruges, you can sit at a table on a cobbled pavement outside a bakery with exquisitely executed cakes and sip a small cup of intense black coffee. Although waffles seem to be the thing to have in Belgium, my favourite snack is the florentine – not a native Belgian sweet but nonetheless available in every cake shop.
9. Beers and beer glasses
Almost as attractive as the idea of sitting in a bar all day trying all the different beers is the idea of trying out all the different glasses. That may sound geeky but there are some really fun ones, including the absurd Kwak beer glass whose bulbous end makes it impossible to put down without the proper stand, and the La Corne drinking horn (which you can clink with a fellow Viking over a drinking toast and which, again, cannot be propped up except with the stand it comes served in). Good bartenders, the Belgians will tell you, will never serve a beer in the wrong glass, and each beer has its own glass, most of which are shaped like a chalice or a tulip.
If this is what you’re after, you won’t be disappointed in Bruges. With a long, meandering high street full of clothes and chocolate shops, as well as a large market and side streets offering endless souvenirs, you could spend a day just in the shops. And if you’re looking for a bigger centre, Brussels is only an hour or so away by train, and Ghent is neatly stuffed in between the two, to make a weekend of it.
Have you been to Bruges? What were your highlights?
We had a great response to our recent language learning survey; thank you to everyone who took the time to complete it. First things first: we’re delighted to announce that the winner of the iPad mini prize draw is Konstantia Sakellariou. Congratulations, Konstantia – your iPad is on its way!
We wanted also to share a few of our findings with you. Some of the results from the survey were as we expected, others were quite surprising. Here are just a few of the things you had to tell us. Thanks again for all your thoughtful responses, we’ll put them to good use.
Which language(s) are you learning (or would like to learn)?
The first question was pretty straightforward. A couple of people ticked every language on offer (over 100) – now that’s what we call ambition! – but most chose between 1 and 5. Here are the top ten most popular languages: Other popular choices included Greek, Swedish, Dutch, Brazilian Portuguese, Norwegian, Irish, Polish and Icelandic. We also got some requests for languages we don’t yet offer, like Guernésiais and Twi – we’ll do our best to add those languages to our list, so watch this space!
Why are you learning a language?
Next, we wanted to know why you’re learning a language. Nearly half of the respondents chose travel as a reason, and almost as many said they were learning a language just for fun. 36% of respondents said it was for family reasons or for a relationship, and 27% for work. The results were quite evenly split though, showing that there’s no one overwhelming reason – everyone has their own motivation. Among the other reasons, we had a range of answers, including an interest in the culture of the language, personal challenge and wanting to follow literature, film and music in other languages. Many people are living in another country, which was their main motivation for learning the local language. And one person said that their heart asked for the knowledge, which we loved 🙂
What prevents you from learning a language?
We were also interested to know what stops people from learning a language, so we asked you to rate the following reasons out of 5. The most common barrier to learning is a lack of time, followed by not having found the right method, and then the cost involved. Incidentally, if you’re facing any of these barriers, you may like to check out our recent posts, on finding time to learn a language and learning on a budget. And if you’re looking for resources, did you know you can try out the EuroTalk learning method for free? Either visit our website, or download our free app, uTalk for iOS, to give it a go. We believe learning a language should be fun, because our research shows we learn much better if we’re enjoying ourselves, and this in turn makes it a lot easier to overcome the obstacles that get in the way. See what you think! Other answers included not having an opportunity to use the language, a lack of motivation and difficulty finding resources for the particular language they wanted to learn (we may be able to help there – we’ve got 136 languages and counting…).
How have you used your language when travelling?
Finally, we asked how knowing another language has been useful when you’re travelling. There was no clear winner here, which just goes to show knowing a language is always useful! But the top response was that it gives you the ability to talk to locals in their own language; many people added that they felt more welcome as a result and that it gave them independence so they could make the most of their trip. There were lots of practical reasons too, with getting around and eating out narrowly beating shopping in the poll.If you missed out on the survey this time, don’t worry – we’re planning another one soon, so keep an eye on the blog (you can subscribe by email above to get the latest updates), or follow us on Facebook or Twitter. And if you didn’t answer this survey but would still like to have your say on any of the questions, you’re very welcome to email us or add your thoughts in the comments below.
Data above based on 877 survey responses.