Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans

That’s it. The end of the first term. If you had told me 6-months ago today I’d be where I am today, after everything that’s happened since, I’d never have believed you.

dscf3540This year has been incredible, painful and fascinating all at once. Many ups have been counterbalanced by a great deal of downs. Huge geopolitical changes, the astounding Olympics, Trump and of course, Brexit, seem to signal a world that’s on the brink of colossal change. On a more personal level there have been big changes too, and not all have been good. But I feel positive about what’s to come: with such big changes there are inevitably big opportunities too.

When things seem to be going off-course, switch direction

I started this year in Brussels, working for the Commissioner for Science and Research on my NEPT. It was a good start. Brussels was great place to live and my work was fascinating. Perhaps the most surreal day was walking past Nigel Farage on the day of the first meeting of the new Scientific Advice Mechanism, before getting to meet the scientists themselves and seeing the culmination of months of work in the first meeting. But every day was an amazing and worthwhile experience.

Then, after a truly wonderful trip to Stockholm, it was back to London. I was lucky to find such welcoming housemates and really settled into the work with a really forward-looking ‘digital’ team. It gave me a huge opportunity to work in something I would never normally have considered and to build up skills and interests I’d never have believed. In fact. it was so interesting, I’m now writing my Thesis on social media!

Even the Brexit vote couldn’t take away the beautiful summer. Climbing, running, Crete and looking ahead to Poland were complemented by long, sunny days.

I’ve been keeping this blog since late August and so I won’t recount all that’s happened since then. In any case, if I were to, it would take probably twice as much again as I have already written. But this year, and especially these last 3 months, has really marked a landslide shift in where I thought life was taking me.

Choosing the right direction

If 2016 has taught me anything, it’s that it is the people around you that are most important. Perhaps a close second is your work and how much it really drives you.

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The reason I loved that (purportedly) grey city of Brussels so much was that the work, my colleagues and my community there were all excellent. My role was engaging and varied every day, and whilst the social scene was a bit of a bubble, it was full of driven, open-minded people.

My team at the Department of Health were busy, but they looked out for one another, cared about their work and still found time to go for a drink every now and again.

I’ve had some of my hardest times this year whilst at the College and at every single one of those moments, I’ve found support in my fellow students. I hope they’ve found support in me too. It’s not all been plain sailing, but we really are that little family I mentioned in a previous blog. Perhaps it is inevitable amongst such a small, liberal and open-minded group, but it has definitely been a good combination.

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So, as Allen Saunders (thanks for the quote David) said:

“Life is what happens when you’re busy  making other plans”

It’s been an interesting year. But I’m not going to say it’s been a bad one. Every year has its ups and downs and although big changes seem afoot, I’m going to look ahead with positivity. As long as I’ve got good company, good work and good health what can go wrong? Life is what you make it, after all, even if you can’t plan it!

Snow is falling, all around me…

Really. And it’s beautiful. It’s always a funny time of year though, with lots of ups and downs. Expectations, combined with that inevitable urge to hibernate in light of the changing season, often create a rather mixed bag of emotions and experiences. It’s a good time to realise what really matters though and, despite all the distractions, I always find its a time when I can start getting my head together about the new adventures to come.

Time for parties and celebration,
People dancing all night long

How  you do Christmas varies not just between countries but between families too. It’s a recurring topic here now – perhaps as it’s a rather convenient means of diverting the conversation from exams and which question you completed in the last one – “how do you celebrate Christmas?”

But in all honesty, it really is fascinating. In most countries, the idea of turkey and cranberry sauce being a decadent Christmas treat to be repeated every year is met with a rather blank stare of bewilderment. In Ukraine for instance, they typically enjoy 12 different dishes and in France or Luxembourg a magret de canard is not uncommon as the main dish.  It begs the question of how different traditions evolve, what their roots are.

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Celebrating Sinterklaas Fest College of Europe style!

One tradition we don’t have in the UK, but which I really rather like, is the Sinterklass Fest. This takes place on the 6th of December and involves Sinterklaas arriving from Spain to give presents to children.

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Me with my cosy gifts: Pooh Bear Tigger and the all important Kinder Surprise

We aren’t really children (although arguably ‘student’ is sometimes a synonym), but Nadia, Luc and Sarah had a fabulous idea to arrange a little Sinterklaas festival of our own. Everyone was assigned a name (randomly by the magic of computers) known only to them and had to buy a present for that person. They then wrapped it anonymously and placed it under the tree, accompanied by a poem giving hints about the contents, or about the giver. People went to such great efforts and we had a tremendous laugh reading the poems out, it was a really pleasant way to take a break from exams.

Having brought 18 mince pies and 2 Christmas cakes from home, I’m hoping to run a little British Christmas tea soon too – I’m sure it will go down well, especially with a few renditions of ‘Spaceman’ and ‘Stop the cavalry’ playing in the background – but I hope there will be the chance for trying out more exotic Christmas traditions!

Room is swaying, records playing,
All the old songs, we love to hear…

It’s a nice time for reflection too. But you do need to look to the future and always remember that things get better with time. Seeing everyone having fun can really exaggerate feelings of loneliness and this tends to get compounded when you’re stressed. People are getting closer together, but it’s important to see those who are perhaps not feeling so included, especially at this sensitive time of year.

It’s hard when we’ve got exams, as well as presents and cards, not forgetting the prospect of travelling home to think about. But there is always time to spend with others and yourself.

I was lucky enough last Sunday to go to the Wilanów Palace for an afternoon out for Reece’s birthday. It’s getting harder to leave the golden cage at this time, as every moment outside feels a little like trespassing on that all important study time, but it was well-worth it and I think he had fun too!

It was built in 1696 and is absolutely stunning. Throughout December, they also have a light show. Whilst it would have been better with music, it was definitely up to the 5pln we paid. Afterwards, accompanied by Reece, Craig and Roman we celebrated both Reece’s 22 years and the reassuring Austrian election result with a fire, a cat , mulled wines and pierogi: I haven’t felt so cosy and satisfied for ages.

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Heartwarming homemade pierogis and pickled cucumbers by the fire: what more do you need?

It’s the season,
Of love and understanding

So it’s getting rather snowy and cold here, and there will inevitably be a post dedicated almost solely to artsy-pictures of the white stuff in the forests coming soon. But I’m trying to stay busy, and warm here, both inside and out.

Merry Christmas everyone.

 

The Offensive-Defensive

My last post talked rather a lot about nationality and how we are always trying to define ourselves by the other. This phenomenon seems to be increasing with nationalistic rhetoric growing in many countries, in spite of globalisation. The trouble is, once you have that identity, you can immediately begin identifying threats to it. Perhaps more worryingly therefore, is how rhetoric has been mounting everywhere for ‘security’ and ‘protection’ from these menaces.

Since its creation, the EU has continuously been defining itself. That process is not complete. However,  some elements of its character do seem to be widely agreed upon, including a commitment to democracy, rule of law and (slightly fuzzy, but) fundamental rights. As this identity has crystallised, we now, naturally perhaps, perceive threats to it.

Why are we so obsessed by threat?

Security was the subject of a recent student-led conference in Warsaw. The conversation was surprisingly balanced and I was amazed by how much my colleagues knew and how clearly they articulated their ideas in such a  grand setting as the Łazienki Palace. But what also struck me was how the conversation focused almost exclusively on identifying the threats to Europe and, to a lesser extent, how Europe should respond (with greater coordination of military forces).

Whilst some of these threats undoubtedly are real, by building up our own defence, we will only heighten the threat we pose to others, who in turn will see their identity threatened and respond accordingly. It is not uncommonly argued that the EU’s huge successes at the recent Paris Climate Summit, and as an economic and normalising power, largely stem from it not being a military bloc. It embodies its own principles. Whilst of course this could be seen to create weaknesses, in no cases are other major actors on the world stage truly overawed by the prowess of other powers. In any case, Europe could not rival the other big powers but can definitely act as a powerful mediator. By contrast it is a huge economic power. And money and wealth themselves can do more than just talk.

My point is that if Europe goes down the road of seeing itself as threatened, it will go on the offensive. Indeed, there are already huge calls for a ‘European Army’ to compensate for the threat of the withdrawal of support by the USA from NATO, and to capitalise on the potential loss of resistance following a Brexit.

Going on the offensive will only aggravate the problem.

An offensive Europe will be perceived differently – and not in a good way. The EU will no longer carry the same ‘righteous weight’ as it did before and will be seen as ever more hypocritical.  But beyond this, 2 stronger reasons lie behind my fears about the impact of an EU-led European Army.

First, I fear that any EU army would simply not be strong enough to have a real impact on conflicts (as member states wouldn’t even commit 5% of their armies: they contribute about 3% of their GDP to the EU budget and complain at this as too much) and they could never decide quickly on courses of action.

Secondly, a European Army would cost too much. The Horizon 2020 Programme commits the EU to provide 80 billion euros over 7 years to excellent science, research and innovation. Research and Development funding is estimated to have a return of at least 30-40%: that is, more money comes out than goes in. By contrast, military spending adds nothing to prosperity. Moreover, it drains it.

The problem is, if we spend more money on defence, we spend less on promoting prosperity and store up more discontent. Politicians inevitably look for scapegoats to explain the dire economic situation (as is happening now) and we ramp up further our protectionist and defensive policies.

The logic that prosperity increases stability is not new: just look at the Marshall Plan which gave 5% of US GDP just to stabilise Europe.

I may be considered too soft. I pre-empt that some will say I’m too far away from the hostpots where decisive EU military action would be welcomed to have a realistic view on the usefulness of a European Army. However, I simply do not believe such an army could ever be large enough, or well-governed enough to be effective. A military alliance in its place would duplicate NATO (with or without the Americans involved), impeding any reform or possibility of greater European leadership there, and would irreversibly change the perception of the EU by others. The EU was never conceived as a military bloc. Unless there is a drastic change in its circumstances, it probably shouldn’t be.

Defining without difference

Political scientists and academics seem to spend as much time explaining what something is as they spend explaining what it shows or does. To do this, they often also have to state what something is like and therefore also what it is not. The problem of defining phenomena keeps coming up in lectures, especially when it comes to the question of identities. At the most mundane it might just mean that if you are if you are right you are not left, if you’re  Conservative you are implicitly not Labour. However, a recent course on national identities really got me thinking: what if we didn’t define ourselves by our differences?

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Pierogi/Vareniki-making with Olena: tasty tuition in another culture!

 I’m British, not French. I’m Belgian, not Dutch.

Nations haven’t existed that long. In fact, before the 19th century, there were ‘peoples’ in some respects, but the modern nation, the sovereign nation, only really came into being with the French Revolution in 1789. In many ways, the nation is (like some believe religion), a means of controlling people and of legitimising power. We form  community with shared values; a shared patronage and a shared future. However, what struck me in our recent “construction des identités nationales” course was that nations define themselves by their differences.

Of course, this can create a lot of banter, and there are countless jokes between many nations who find the other’s bizarre quirks amusing – but what if it’s harmful?

If we’re so different how can we work together?

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Onions: perhaps the most cross-cultural vegetable ever

Whilst it sometimes seems necessary, for instance in politics, defining by our differences can often be barrier to recognising common aims and common ground. By establishing the other as the complete contrast to us, recognising only either perfect matches in opinion and outlook, or stark difference, we close off our community (our nation) and build up a  protectionist wall.

When we define ourselves by our nationality, and implicitly or even explicitly contrast ‘us’ with ‘them’ across the border, we close ourselves off to recognising what we share or how we can work together to achieve both our aims.

 Too close for comfort?

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Enjoying the varenikis of our labour…

If the results of recent national referenda and elections are anything to go by, nations are stronger and more protectionist than ever (Moldova, Hungary, UK, USA, to name a few). We are increasingly isolating our communities, building walls to protect ‘our values’ and ‘our interests’, trying to keep out the threat if the ‘other’ who is, by definition different.

The College of Europe is a real mix of cultures and nationalities. Here, 131 students from 34 countries are juxtaposed against one another. Surely, this should be a still pot, magnifying small differences and amplifying asymmetries. In a melting pot of differences, where the common language between two people might not be either’s first, or even the second of their repertoire, how can we expect to communicate effectively?

And yet, here more than anywhere else, I feel united. Yes we share a common understanding. We’re all studying the same overall Masters for one thing. But it is deeper than that. The day of our first opening ceremony saw our Vice Rector tour the room, asking different nationalities to stand up: hardly any were sitting together in closed, national groups.

I think that by not just exposing people to difference, but by creating an environment where people have to interact and talk, you come to realise that we’re not that different after all. And where there are differences, they are more something to celebrate than fear. European integration won’t succeed unless we have greater exchanges between countries and abandon the restrictive idea of nations being defined by their differences. I was never fortunate enough to do an Erasmus exchange, but from what I’ve seen here, it should be more common.

The world seems a bit scarier than it was at the start of 2016. But it doesn’t have to go down the route of fragmentation into blocs defined by their great differences. I’m a forever-optimist (and perhaps misguided), but maybe there could be new opportunities for greater dialogue arising in the world, if we just try to stop seeing differences and celebrate more a common humanity.

 

Take an interest in everything

Even if you know where you want to go, don’t be afraid of opening up to other ideas. Sometimes, especially when studying, you’re so busy and your one task seems so important that you don’t have time to do anything but that. However, if you don’t do anything but work and never take a peek down those other avenues, you’ll never know what opportunity you missed. You also risk losing the reason for working in the first place. I’m trying to keep this in mind this week.

Revision, revision, re-vision?

Coming to the end of our courses, I’m faced with a daunting stack of readings, lecture notes (more or less useful depending on what I’d had for breakfast or, perhaps, the night before) and numerous Wikipedia avenues I could go down for revision. There is no way I’ll be able to read it all,  so part of me asks why I should even try at all.

By all means, there are some things you have to do. But the trick is knowing what that is (namely what was in the lectures) and then reading your interests. If you do what interests you you’ll both do it quicker and actually learn it.

I think I’ve learnt when to stop now. When it’s time to say, ok, I’ve done that, now I can do something else. If I were to just give myself all night to read and finish a task, I’d probably spend half of it on Facebook (simultaneously eating chocolate) and then resent the fact I didn’t spend that time sleeping and/or doing sport. It’s one of the reasons I give myself until 9:30pm latest to finish a task and then move on.

Yes it makes me slightly inflexible (I really do want to work when it’s time to) and sometimes I have to move my schedule a little bit, but setting reasonable periods helps discipline me and make sure there’s time for other things.

Keeping open and keeping perspective

So what have I been doing whilst not studying? Well my go-to activity is definitely sport and this is something I’ll never drop. However, the same sports week-in, week-out despite being fun, don’t provide that diversity that helps keep things in perspective.

It can be hard to find new things, especially in a Golden Cage. Thankfully, within the Golden Cage of campus there are plenty of sources. 131 educated, open people, from 34 countries ensure that.  There’s always something going on and always something new to try. For instance, tomorrow is National Independence Day in Poland, so I’ll head down the bar and enjoy the celebrations there. I’ve also been trying out new sports I’d never really gotten into at school but found outside that environment I like, such as volleyball.

Not everything has to be new though, it just needs to be different enough to give you some variation and perspective. Amateur photography is not new to me, but it’s not something I do extremely often either. Stepping back from the routine of running, work, eating and sleeping, I took the opportunity to go and take some pictures of the first day of snow yesterday with Ronan. These contrasted with the ones I has taken the sunny day before and you can see some of the products in this post!

Of course, you need to know when to say no: you can’t say yes to doing everything or you won’t be able to do what you want and need to do. For instance, I’m not going to the beer tasting as I’m pretty sure I don’t like beer and would rather give the Polish night and walk a try. But I think that by being open-minded and allowing yourself just a bit of doubt about what you might enjoy, you can make the right choices.

I’m not always successful, but trying to keep these principles in mind helps!

Golden Autumn Walk

Before leaving for Poland, I was warned about the cold. The smirks of those who have visited central and Eastern Europe during the dark months of the year when I said I’d be here in December were enough to strike more than a slight jolt of apprehension. What wasn’t quite so emphasised was the stunning Autumn.

I’d heard whispers. But Autumn in Poland is much bigger, bolder and breathtaking than   such murmurs could have ever revealed.

It’s passing so quick though. Only a  few days ago the trees outside my  window were full of (golden) leaves, and now they are all but bare. A morning run through our campus nature reserve shows that there is enough variation in the forest that some trees have still kept their leaves, but they are falling fast. Not only are the roads strewn with carpets of crimson reds, rubies, apricot, orange and golds, but you can see the leaves falling in droves whenever a wind blows, like some kind of snow storm (a warning?).

Despite a lot of work, I took the opportunity to play with the settings on my camera. The lowered sun offered a nice opportunity to experiment with the exposure, whilst the colours have been really drawn out with filters. It’s all just a bit of fun – I’m not artist but it would have been a shame to miss these!

It’s slightly stereotypical from a Brit abroad, but look out for a new blog on the weather if the hints of expected wintry flurries come to fruition in 9 days time…

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Just yellows.

Stronger together

There is an interesting field of research which suggests humans can only meaningfully keep up a limited number of friendships. Some estimates place the number of close friends that an average human can maintain at just 5, whilst others place the figure a little higher and even suggest that some ‘hyper social’ people can have up to 20 close-friends.

The point is you can’t maintain very many friendships. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t have a wider circle of less close but still good friends (the limit of close friendships is probably around 30). So, whilst we might know hundreds of people, especially on social media, this doesn’t mean we invest in or care about all of them. In fact, some research suggests that we invest 60% of our effort in maintaining relationships with only 15 friends.

Despite these figures, I can’t believe how much people in the College of Europe invest in and care about their fellow students.

Oxford College life did come very close to this.  Nonetheless, I have honestly never been in a place where so very quickly so many meaningful and caring relationships with so many people have developed. After a week at home, missing the study trip, arriving back on campus was a daunting prospect, but I was met with huge smiles and hugs.

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Back in the Golden Cage…

It has been fantastic to hear the stories of the trip – from the good ones, to the perhaps a bit more strained (freedom of movement having been literally pushed to the limit by students physically forcing the bus across the Ukrainian border!)

I was also incredibly touched by how despite not being there, so many people sent me messages and thoughts during their trip. Thanks to Roman, Ronan, Fabienne and Claude, I’ve also been able to enjoy Ukraine a bit more physically: I’m not appreciating the Ukrainian cold but can definitely feel the warmth of some beautiful wool socks, chocolate and tea! I really hope I can give something back soon.

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Beautiful Ukrainian socks from Roman…

It definitely wasn’t Ukrainian but we did enjoy a fabulous afternoon tea in our new non-study room this afternoon. Everyone is a bit weary from their intensive week, and yet they still took the time out from catching-up on work to sit and enjoy the goodies I’d brought back. And there were no jokes about the food being both British and good!!

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Who knew scones (sk-on-s: sorry Elie)  with jam and cream might be Britain’s next greatest export?

Perhaps it is the fact that we are all in such close proximity all the time, and that we are put through such an intensive programme of work that we have all become so close and like a true (very big) ‘little family’. But I don’t think it can just be that. People are really united by a sense of common-purpose and friendship. They are intelligent, driven and mature (yes, even on Friday nights down the bar…) and maybe that is contributing factor. But that magic touch? I think it is a realisation that we are stronger if we support each other and a real community where everyone wants to see the best in everyone less.

Seize only as many opportunities as you can make the most of. But seize a lot.

It’s an enviable dilemma. A true non-problem, even. When there are just too many opportunities, how can you make the most of them?

 

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Seized the moment…

 

 

The answer is perhaps not to.

By no means do I mean not to take opportunities. You should always be on the look-out for them, as you never know what’s out there and what will come in handy. But I do mean that you should choose carefully.

So many possibilities… not enough time

This enviable dilemma is facing me now at the College. Sure, I’m taking salsa (which is awesome – and when others are relaxed and keen it makes it even more enjoyable), studying Russian (это хорошо!), taking a journalism course, in the bar committee, sports committee, swimming, running and trying to make theatre when it doesn’t clash with working in the bar. But therein lies the problem, things clash and I really can’t take any more on whilst still studying.

Moreover; time to reflect; time just for yourself; is vital. I’ve had to choose and by choosing, I’ve had to forego some opportunities.  The choir, zumba and debating being three examples.

SO how to do it?

Decision-making is rarely easy, and it’s perhaps just as hard when choices are bad as when they are fantastic. You’ve got to think what you really want to do – and then stick with the decision. As I tell myself at least once a week, only do those things you really want to do and not what you feel you have to, because then you’ll do those things better.

In a balancing act, don’t make the rope too thin

Those things that you really want to do might not be easy, or they might be more time-consuming than others, and you have to take that into account too. The journalism course is only 8 hours long, whilst the Russian course is held two to three times a week and is much more exhausting. However, the people in my class are great fun and I still look forward to the lessons (plus our trips for pierogi/sushi after, Luc and Nadia!). Therefore you need to balance what you do too – the bar committee is a social thing, whilst sport is just that.

What should I be doing?

It could be argued that I should be using the ‘extra-curricular time’ for developing ‘skills’ and ‘competences’ for the professional environment. What I’ve learnt from my undergraduate course and the real world however is that you benefit most from, and build-up the skills you need when you enjoy what you do. Plus, if you develop skills doing something you hate, you won’t have the skills to do what you want to do anyway.

More importantly, I believe, is to do everything with conviction. Again, to do that, you need to be able to spend time on what you’re doing.

Be spontaneous!

Finally, I’ve realised you also need time to be spontaneous. To go out for a meal with friends, grab pizza instead of the restaurant and tout d’un coup practice salsa. Every Friday evening we go down the bar and dance until the early hours (and trust me, they can dance here), which you just couldn’t do if you were exhausted trying to balance everything else.

Yes it’s tiring, but with such enthusiastic people around me, who all take on just the right amount of things, you can make the most of all the opportunities you can seize.

A little family

It’s been really hard these last few days. Keeping busy has been crucial to keeping going – but it’s been the type of busy which has mattered most.

When dad told me what had happened, I felt really lost. It was as though a ball had been thrown into my chest at 70 miles per hour and had pushed out all sense of direction. It was so unexpected. Dad suggested though that I try and keep busy and that’s helped no end.

I took part in the Theatre Group that night. It’s defined by the purpose of letting go, not competing and having fun. Led by Simone and Simona, we spent the first half hour doing ‘trust exercises’. In these, you spend a lot of time with your eyes closed doing things you would never do even with your eyes open: this leads to a lot of laughs and really takes your mind off things. Plus it’s amazing how running into a wall of people with your eyes closed makes you feel better.

We then role-played for the next half an hour, again soliciting huge volumes of laughter. Whilst it couldn’t make it better, keeping busy at least gives you some more time to accept.

What has been more incredible though is the support from fellow students. Whilst the workload has accelerated more than let up, it’s astounding how many people have given time to talk and make sure I’ve not been alone. The little and the big things, from an unprompted Facebook message to say their room is open, to inviting me over for tea and Georgian honey (thanks Irakli), have meant so much. I’ve had time to cry but I’ve had time to carry on too, which is vital.

The students here have been the best support I could have ever have hoped for. Even though we have only been together for a month, as Nina said, ‘we have to be a little family here’. The thing is, they really mean it.

Last of the summer on the Vistula

I wanted to write a longer post but am not feeling quite like it after such a heavy week. However, here are some photos from our trip in to Warsaw  when JL came to visit.

We were blessed with a  rare ‘unscheduled’ weekend and so, capitalising on what may be the last burst of sunshine before the descent into that infamous Polish Winter*, we ventured into Warsaw for an explore.

*Our tour guide Gawel told us that each year there is a period of at least 2 weeks where temperatures reach minus 20. Fabulous.

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First we took a free walking tour of Communist Warsaw with Claude and his girlfriend Michelle. Whilst it was interesting, perhaps unsurprisingly, I do prefer the Old Town. The Medieval Old Town itself however, is not so ancient. In fact, it is less than 65 years old, as it was almost entirely rebuilt after the war. The result is stunning.

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In the evening, we met up with Claude and Michelle again at a rather exclusive-looking restaurant called Dom Wodki**. We had a fantastic meal, with each course accompanied by a special shot of vodka to start and one to finish. When in Poland, well, you know the rest.

**Dom Wodki means house of vodkas

The next day we took a cycling trip along the great Vistula river. Warsaw is unusual asa capital city in that it has a whole stretch of Natura 2000 reserve along one side of the main river flowing through it. It was as if we had ventured a hundred miles from the city. The trip was even better as our group only consisted of 4 people, meaning we got plenty of time to hear stories and make acquaintance with our fellow tourists. Afterwards we even joined them for a beer (/ice cream…) and free ping pong in another quarter of the city.