Sunday, April 5, 2009

Sun, Seals, Sex...and Wales!

Well, spring has now officially sprung. The tulips are everywhere. Am I living in Holland, by any chance?

Amid all the rain, grey skies and drizzle, my month has been full of metaphorical sunshine in the form of being able to spend some quality time with friends. It's been a month of visitors and visits.

Jess and Nick were the first to arrive for a long weekend split between Groningen and Amsterdam. We had a very relaxing few days catching up and hanging out in Groningen's cafes and bars. I also got to know the city a bit better as we ventured into almost every furniture and lighting shop there is in order to provide Nick with some interior inspiration! We also went on a mini(-bus) adventure along the backroads of the province, past various windmills, to the small village of Pieterburen, not far from the coast. Pieterburen is home to the Lenie 't Hart Seal Rehabilitation and Research Centre.

I first heard of the seal sanctuary when I was a student and it was offering one of four work placements available to me and my fellow Erasmus Scheme students on my Environmental Management degree programme. All four of us put our names in a hat for the chance to work there. I was one of the ones who lost! In hindsight, I don't think I'd have coped with all the fishy goings on if I'm really honest so perhaps it was a bit of a blessing. I ended up working somewhat further south for Natuurmonumenten in the Oisterwijkse woods and fens instead.

The seal sanctuary was established in Lenie 't Hart's back garden where she nursed sick seals back to health in a tin bath. It has since expanded and now houses a museum as well as various swimming pools containing various species of seal in different stages of recovery. Most appeared to have been suffering from wounds caused by nets and worms. Despite their motley appearance, however, they seemed to be full of character and we had a good laugh watching one seal 'couple' who were clearly having a love/hate relationship!

The following week I experienced a Geordie invasion when Mick eventually arrived having fled from a burning train en route. When he later told me the plane he went home on had an aborted landing as well, I started to get quite worried about his karma! However, the sun shone on us this particular weekend and we spent an enjoyable Saturday afternoon sipping (rather small) beers in the fresh air overlooking the main square, known as the Big Market (with one 'g'), just to make him feel at home. For those of you who know Mick, you'll probably also know he has a penchant for what I call, 'funny food'...the best I could conjure up that weekend was chips and peanut butter sauce - a Dutch speciality. I'm not sure if its unique taste was fully appreciated.

The next day, after a rather epic journey that involved various train changes, buses and much blustering from both of us about how rubbish the trains in Europe are, we eventually arrived in Amsterdam. I was then led on a circular tour of De Wallen area, otherwise known as the red-light district. It's actually a rather attractive part of the city with lovely old buildings and pretty canals. However, lining the canals are the sex shops, peep shows and coffee shops selling marijuana. There's also the infamous 'windows' where prostitutes openly display their wares and legally ply their trade. We spent the rest of the day observing the window action from a distance (in a bar) could say it was a kind of anthropological study, I suppose!

The following week I flew back to the UK and spent a lovely weekend visiting friends in both Brighton and Windsor. It was great to spend time with Jo, Jules, Leo and baby Seth in their newly extended home. I had lots of fun blowing bubbles and playing swingball and, no matter what Leo says, I’m still laying claim to the Swingball Champion’s Trophy! In Windsor, it was lovely to see my godson, Alex, and the rest of his clan: Annie, Jon and baby Olly. I now do a very good rendition of ‘Chick, chick, chick, chicken, lay a little egg for me…’ having attended a singing class given to fifteen under-4 year olds (and myself) by the very enthusiastic ‘Music Lady’. Even Annie later admitted she’d dragged me along in order to scare me. It worked!

Later in the week, I moved on to Cardiff, capital of Wales. My colleague and I were attending the IATEFL Conference, a gathering of TEFL teachers from all over the world. Although there were some interesting sessions and a chance to see a few of the TEFL ‘gurus’ speak, it was also a chance for me to catch up with some former colleagues/friends from my Cairo and Leeds days: Sue, Julie, Laura and Rachel. I was very fortunate to stay with Rachel (who was not actually attending the conference) and be given a guided tour of her city. The new Cardiff Marina area is great with some really innovative architecture in the form of the Welsh Assembly Building and the Millennium Centre, nicknamed 'the armadillo'. I also managed to squeeze in dinner with my parents, who happened to be in town on one of their caravanning trips. I shall see them again next week for Easter. So, on that note, I shall finish and wish you all a Happy Easter full of chocolate delights!

Chick, chick, chick, chicken…