Special recognition

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed my friend to the left counting on her fingers, almost but not quite silently, “One... two... three... four... five...”

It was in retaliation to the woman with the microphone who was making the speech about the wonderful worker who had coached a team to perfection, met company targets week in week out, always had a smile on her face and had only been a manager for five months.

My friend – my colleague – leant over to me with baited breath and whispered, “Do you by any chance do you think she's talking about me?” And then, a nervous giggle. As if to represent a non-worded translation of 'no-way-it-can't-be-me...can-it?'

Of course, I already knew that it was her. I knew it before our boss had even took to the stage and began on the touching personal account of her shiny little baby manager. I knew it, despite there being plenty of worthy contenders: the gentle soul who worked 70 hour weeks for almost two months straight in times of crisis with not a single complaint; the countless souls who had met and exceeded expectations more than could ever be desired; the assistant managers who had accidentally fallen into the role of manager, and wowed us all with their chutzpah and enthusiasm; and even myself.

But I knew that it was her, from the moment she fell into my hands as a quiet but driven red t-shirt trainee. A compact little human being with all the beans and determination in the world to understand the brand that she was a part of, and the culture that flowed through the centre of it. We worked together, day in day out, and helped to create something marvellous of the store that we were in. And we did. We became the greatest pals in the process. A gang, even. We were two parts of the world's greatest team – the 419 – and we were unstoppable. She is unstoppable.

I remember the days and evenings we spent, papers and folders sprawled across hastily joined together tables, beakers of half-finished cold coffee bordering the table edges and keeping all these documents from flying onto the floor. The Indian takeaways we shared during, and the sneaky tequila-salt-lime shots we downed over and over to wash it all away afterwards. I remember the day she interviewed, with my bosses boss. Her bosses bosses boss. She passed with flying colours and her epic journey continued.

Soon after, we parted working ways and she was taken under the wing of my best lady, who helped me in guiding and coaching her further along the path of success. But it was her herself who had shaped and moulded into something quite unique. A softly spoken, yet firm management style. You'd do anything for her because she was so polite; you'd never have to get on the wrong side of her because you'd never want to. The kind of skill and execution that only somebody who truly feels the passion for what their doing, can deliver.

Back in the present, after receiving her accolades and an obligatory bottle of bubbly, she flew into me like an army tank with a hug full of love. A grin crept upon her face from ear to ear – one that the Cheshire Cat would have been jealous of – and then all of a sudden her face crumpled and she burst into tears. But it was nothing to worry about.

“I just...” She began, dainty little sobs taking over for just a second. “I just... never thought... it would be me...” She breathed in and her cheeks, coated in soggy salty tears, returned to it's winning smile. She grabbed my hand under the table and squeezed it so tight. “Thank you! Thank you and everyone who's helped me and been there for me so much, thank you! I couldn't have done it without you.”

“No, no, no.” I squeezed her hand back and tried to stop myself from crying too. “You did this all by yourself, Iris. You're amazing and it's all down to you. Thank you for being you. Thank you!”

I don't know and I won't know for years yet, but I'm certain that this is what it feels like to be a mother. Having the kids grow up, leave home and do good. This is what happens when you create; you feel forever proud.

Wieliczka Salt Mine

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Here's a little something that I held out from featuring on my previous Poland post (nice alliteration, huh?) because I felt like it deserved a post all of it's very own. I am about to present to you probably one of the most beautiful things/places I have ever had the pleasure of seeing.

Situated about a forty-minute bus ride from Krakow lays Wieliczka Salt Mine, or Kopalnia soli Wieliczka. It has gained famed for being not only one of the oldest salt mines in operation (it was still producing salt up until a few years ago) but for being an original UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the first (#32) at that. The salt mines are also well known for playing host to an entire cathedral that has been hand carved out of rock salt by the miners. How about that? The mines reach a total depth of 327mtrs but visitors are only permitted to go down to 135mtrs. The entire mine system itself is so huge that on a visit, tourists cover less than 10% of the mine - and it's still predicted you wander ~3km throughout your tour! However, there are so many twisty-turny corridors and pathways that lead to - I'm not even kidding - such magical sights, that you could never in a million years get bored or stop being so damn awestruck at Wieliczka. Did I mention it is all made out of salt?! As the tour guide (Grzegorz, such a wonderful name to attempt to say) told us: even the crystals in the chandeliers are carved out of salt. Whoa!

This museum-come-wonderstuff really does provide an amazing day out if you're in Krakow with some spare time and is totally worth all the złotys you pay for it - which, let's be honest, is hardly anything at all.
Anyway, enough jibber-jabber. This is what it's all about:

Carved statues of historical Polish figures.

See that flooring? Yep? It's also salt. *mindblown*

The last picture shows the "story" (well more of a legend really and in real life, it had an audio to go with it) of how rock salt was first brought to Poland in the 13th century, and in my loveable Cockney manner I'm going to attempt to recreate this story...

So, this Hungarian princess called Kinga was due to be wed to the King of Krakow and she asked her Pops for a salt mine as a gift to her beloved, because there was, like, no salt in Poland. Before leaving for Poland, she threw a ring into the salt mine and when she arrived at her new home, she asked people to dig a deep pit and so they dug, and they dug, and they dug... until lo-and-behold, there was a batch of salt and wrapped around a salt crystal was none other than *gasp* ... the princess' ring. Ain't that a beaut! Now she's the guardian angel of miners in Poland and all that. [/cockney]

Oh, before I completely endgame Cockney, I couldn't leave without sharing this:

Oh East London (oh East London)
Is wonderful (is wonderful)
Oh East London is wonderful...

One day in Krakow

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

It's fair to say that I am completely and utterly head over heels in love with a country that you may already be aware of. It's called Poland, and I may or may not of spoken about it already once before. I'm lucky enough to have become friendly with a few Polish people, past and present, and it was thanks to one of the aforementioned from the past, that I found myself in Krakow a few Novembers back. Something that I love about travelling with somebody to their hometown, is being able to see it through their eyes. While you might automatically make a beeline for all the sights that tourists tend to go for, your national travel buddy can prod you in the right direction of all the little secrets of their city. I absolutely love visiting new places in this manner.

Highlights from my little Krakowian visit included seeing the colourful Wawel Castle, walking in Planty Park (which is a thin green belt that encircles the city) and eating super cheap salted soft pretzels from the wide range of street vendors. I would love to tell you so much more, but forgetfulness occurs when you only blog about a trip almost three years after you took it. To be honest, nobody says it better than Wikitravel anyway! However, I managed to take some pretty alright photos that I haven't managed to lose for once, so I'll leave you with those and be on my way.

...and while it wasn't strictly in Krakow, while in Poland on this occasion I managed to take what can only be described as one of my all-time most wanted photographs: a sunset over a lake. I guess I make it sound as if photography is a bit like bingo for me but I guess that's the case. I believe that a good photo is indeed part-skill but part-luck also. You can go looking for a great photograph and never find it, or they can just happen right before your very eyes. So as luck (and skill) would have it, I made one of my dreams come true. Sometimes it truly pays off to be a such a massive photography lover/g33k. As the kids would say these days, #nofilter.

My London, my home

Saturday, 21 March 2015

It's the sidewards glances I get that evoke something within me. The sneers when I announce that I'm leaving London. That yes, in my 27th year on this planet, I am going against the heavy flow of whippersnappers fighting their way into the capital to make something of themselves; to be somebody. Instead, I am fleeing the bustle.

To be fair, I'm only going to Manchester. It's hardly a revolutionary change. Same 24-hour multi-layered city, different size, 200 miles away. But it's not London and that's what appears to incite panic in these people. The family and friends, colleagues and customers, and strangers that I meet in every day life. It's like I've announced that my life is over and I'm taking myself away to die. But I'm not. Actually, I feel totally the opposite - like my life is finally beginning.

I think I've been somewhat of a late starter. Too busy worrying about the what ifs and might happens. Just safely plodding along until things were all aligned, and then I could plot my escape. But escapism never came. I never ran away to university and I never took a year out to go travelling. While these opportunities can still definitely happen in my lifetime (and no doubt will at some point) just being content with what I've made of myself so far isn't going to cut it for me. You know me, I can't sit still. I crave adventure and I crave change. Why do you think I dye my hair so much?

I was lucky enough to have been born in London, a proper shifty-but-streetsmart East End kid. I grew up discovering all the different journeys I could take from point A to B, both literally and metaphorically. I was immediately immersed into the hustle of city life, where sights like the beautiful winding River Thames and the tourist attractions that are poetically placed along it cease to amaze from an early age. I wondered, why on earth would people from all across the globe save for a lifetime to visit my London?

But now I'm faced with the possibility of only visiting the capital every few months or so, I get it. I finally get it. It's the comforting hue of red postboxes and telephone booths and TfL buses. The bedazzling smog that surround our many skyscrapers, executing that amazing photo. The evening walks, night buses and the morning tube commute. The theatres, the street performers and buskers, the cast and characters of everyday life. The differing suburbs and the alleyways that link them. The little glimmers that pop-up here and there, and the stalwarts that never die. The vastness of it all and yet, the way it feels so small. The fact that we hosted an Olympics just three years ago, and what a bloody good job we did of it too.

Now, when I see droves of tourists blocking up the streets and pointing in amazement at something that I once felt was so mundane and trivial, I no longer feel wound up and think to myself why? Instead, I am proud. Proud to call this my home. You can take the girl out of London, but you can't take London out of the girl.

I saw Warsaw

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Again in January, I enjoyed a quick hop over to Warsaw in Poland. I am lucky enough to have a great friend who hails from this spectacular country and even luckier to have joined her on a visit to her home. On one of the days we hopped in a car with some more friends and treated ourselves to a daytrip to the capital, Warsaw. It was a very cold, grey and quiet Sunday in this extremely historical city and it wasn't long until we were bundled up with fat scarves and hot coffee, ready for the next stop on our trip, but I still managed to squeeze in a little bit of photo time! Warsaw is definitely somewhere that I'd love to revisit and spend more time within, soaking up the history and the culture. Poland is genuinely one of my favourite countries to travel in (piwo & pierogies being an unashamedly mitigating factor) and I'm certain I will return before long.

The statue of the little boy in the final photo is quite profound. Located next to the Old Town and known as The Little Insurgent (Mały Powstaniec in Polish), it's a commemoration to the child soldiers who fought in the uprising in 1944, and lost their lives as a result. The oversized uniform and helmet and tiny stone machine gun only highlight how poignant and heart-rendering a memorial this is. We shall remember them.

My love affair with Budapest

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Budapest, youdabest.

No, I'm completely serious. I've definitely said this about plenty of European cities I've happened upon, but I've never actually fell head over heels quite like how I did with the Hungarian capital on my first (and so far, only) trip there in April 2013. If ever you were umming and ahhing about whether or not to visit this colossally beautiful city, then let these 10 reasons attempt to sway you.

// As soon as I clapped eyes on it, I was in love.

This was one of my first views of the centre of Budapest, as I drove into the city from the airport. We drove across the Danube from Pest to Buda - the two different halves of the city - and I immediately clapped eyes on the Parliament Building, which looked fantastic against the pinky evening sky. I had a little feeling straight away that this city was going to be special. Four evenings later and a little bit later indeed, I had the chance to see this remarkable building all lit up for the night. It was a lovely way to end my trip, almost coming full circle.

// Love London? Love Paris? It's a marriage of the two.
For me, the bridges remind me of London, but the style of the buildings make me think of Paris. It's even referred to as the Paris of the East.

// It's a simplistic city that doesn't ask too much of you.

If you want a city that is perfect for just walking around, then Budapest is for you. It's indescribably exhilarating, and an hour can slide away so quickly as you amble the myriads of streets and alleyways, rooftops, little squares, landmarks and hidden treasures>. Just arm yourself with a comfortable pair of shoes, a camera and a map and you are good to go.

// At the same time, there is so much you can possibly see and do.

This is where all the big tourist attractions come into play, and boy there are a whole hoard of them. Create a tick-list in your brain with the four most important things: Heroes Square, The Chain Bridge, St Stephen's Basilica and Buda Castle. But don't stop there - breathe in the beauty of all the unsung heroes. The historical values of The House Of Terror; the peaceful and idyllic Margaret Island; the other delights on Buda Hill such as Matthias Church with it's delightful mosaic rooftop; one of Budapest's many natural thermal spas; the 360-degree view of the entire city from the heights of Citadella. I guarantee, you will not be stuck for things to do in Budapest.

// The beauty is in the buildings...

There's something about the buildings that make my heart dance a little. They have that cool vibe about them, where they're not new but certainly not old enough to be stripped and renovated yet. They all host balconies and pastel paintworks in pinks, yellows and greens. They punctuate the streets that you walk on in such small glory. Small, but undeniably attractive.

// ...but it really lies in the magnificent Danube.

This river is majestic. It's an international waterway: running through not one, not two, not even three but eleven different countries and a plethora of cities, four of them being capitals. It is gargantuan. You can enjoy it in so many ways - take a walk across one of Budapest's many bridges, such as the iconic Chain Bridge, to the very classic but regal feeling Elisabeth Bridge, to the quirky and yellow and not-quite-straight Margaret Bridge. Or hop on a river cruise which tours you along the heart of the city from the very inside. There are dozens of river cruise companies adorning the banks of the river but the one me and my Mum opted for was called DunaYacht, and it had a port just next to Elisabeth Bridge. It cost 2100 HUF (about £6) which is a bit brilliant considering the tour is an hour long.

// It's a true 24-hr city with fantastic transport to boot.
It's recommended that you orientate yourself with Budapest's extensive transport system. This is because Budapest as a whole is such a big place, while you will find lovely things to see all within walking distances, it's inevitable that tourist's lag will kick in at some point. But not to worry! Budapest has a metro system very similar to the London Underground... except it has just three lines: blue, yellow and red. They all cross through Deák Ferenc Square which makes it the unofficial centrum for the metro. There are also at least a double-dozen of tram lines zipping all the way over the city, and boy do they zip! They're a nifty little way of getting around all the main spots while still having a great view. And the ticketing is absolutely brilliant! Ask any Hungarian and they might grumble about the price of a travelcard but if I told a Londoner that a 24-hour travelcard in Budapest costs just £4.50 (1650 HUF), said Londoner would die and go to heaven. Yes. And 24-hour undoubtedly means 24-hour, meaning that a travelcard bought at midday on a Monday will run out at midday on the Tuesday. Boom.

// The history is heart-rendering.

You may think it's depressing to go somewhere so sad on your holidays but personally I think museums such as The House Of Terror give you more of an insight into history than you ever could have read about in a book. To see the portrayal of the Iron Curtain and to wander around the house where decades of unthinkable torturous acts were committed, really connected you to the heart of Hungary.

// It will leave you hungry for more.

Pastries and paprikas. What more can you want? And lest we forget gulyas and palinka. Hungarian cuisine is quite reliant on the spice paprika so you can guarantee your dishes will be extra tasty. And their cream pastry cakes are gorgeous! I recommend buying up a big plate of 4-5 and sharing them with a friend. Believe me, you'll find the room! Great cakes to try are the Dobos Torta and the Rigó Jancsi. Mmm!

// What's great on ground level, will astound you from above.

Ask me the question and I'd tell you time and time again: I'll never, ever forget that view from Citadella. And I'll tell you just how to get there in a three-part journey. From Deák Ferenc Ter, take the red metro line two stops west to Batthyány Ter. Exit the station and from the tram terminus outside take #19 or #41 to Móricz Zsigmond Körtér. It's about eight stops and both trams are very frequent and speedy. From there, take the bus up to Citadella - it's bus #27 and it's handily displayed as the Citadella bus. This may sound like a brainbuster of a journey but it honestly isn't. It takes no longer than 40 minutes to get up to the top. You'll know you've reached Citadella when most of the bus disembarks! Then it's just a five minute walk to one of the most swell views in your entire life. Trust me. We fully intended to make it in time for sunset but just managed to miss it, however the lighting was still a beaut. This was, put simply, the highlight of your trip.

Have you ever had the chance to visit Budapest?
What were your best bits and what are your recommendations?

My love affair with Budapest is in no way, shape or form over.
I'll certainly be back for it next year. That's a promise!