Saturday, 12 November 2011

All the fun of the (Andalusian) fair

Here's my post for this month's Across the Cafe Table: where the Travel Belles ladies (and you, if you like) get together and discuss a travel-related topic over a virtual coffee. This month, the question we're discussing is 'What's your favourite shopping find?'

I'm not the best holiday shopper. A lack of patience and the fact I usually travel with carry-on luggage means that I generally return home from my travels with little more than a pair of earrings (one of which I will invariably lose within two weeks) or something as exciting as a pen. So, this month's topic left me stumped: until I glanced at my wall and saw this poster.

A souvenir from when I lived in Seville, this poster is a daily reminder of the whirl of colour, food, music and fun that is an Andalusian feria. Almost every town in southern Spain, no matter how tiny, has an annual fair: a celebration lasting several days (usually Wednesday to Sunday, but then there's the pre-feria: call it a week). During these days, which fall between April and October, most of the town decamps to the recinto ferial. For 51 weeks of the year, this is a nondescript plot of land on the outskirts. Come feria, it's the town itself: 'streets' are created, lined with marquees known as casetas, food stalls and fairground rides. From noon until the early hours of the morning, the streets fill with locals dressed in their best, enjoying a few days' holiday from work and getting together with friends and family over drinks, dancing and plenty of food.

Welcome to feria

A huge illuminated archway known as the portada marks the entrance to the recinto ferial. At Seville's Feria de Abril (April Fair), Andalusia's largest fair, the design of the portada changes each year, drawing on key elements of sevillano or andaluz culture. Past designs have included a flurry of open fans and a recreation of one of the city's landmarks, the costurero de la reina (Queen's sewing room) in 2008.

My first feria was about as far from the glamour and grandeur of the feria de abril as possible. Keen to introduce me to Andalusian life, the friends I made on my year abroad in Alcala de Guadaira took me to the first local fair of the calendar, in nearby Mairena de Alcor. In fact, they were so keen that they took me to the pre-feria, where just the main caseta is open for drinks and dancing, and the trademark farollilos (lanterns) that line the streets of feria-town hang unlit. This first taste was enough though: sipping the traditional rebujito (a mixture of fino sherry and 7Up that goes down far too easily) and dancing with my friends, I was an instant feria convert. Returning twice during the real feria, the deal was sealed. Feria is an escape; a chance to catch up with friends and family in an exuberant party atmosphere, sampling whatever food takes your fancy, trying out a couple of fairground rides (and regretting that battered fish), moving from caseta to caseta in search of the music that suits you - be it traditional sevillanas or the latest chart hits and dancing all night, before a breakfast of churros con chocolate as the sun comes up.

The warm-up


Better than a kebab at the end of a night out

Friday, 4 November 2011

A Brit abroad in Seoul

After an extended break, Brit abroad guest posts are back. This month's post comes from Ruth Dear, who's currently living and working in Seoul, South Korea.

I think wanderlust is in my genes. It definitely runs in my family. My parents used to take me and my two older brothers on holiday when we were still babies. There are numerous pictures of me in a nappy running around on different beaches, and certainly we didn’t go to run of the mill places either. 25 years ago, Greek islands and Portuguese towns that are now tourist traps were small seaside villages where we could wander around interacting with the local people. I was too young to really remember these places, but I think some of my parents' desire to see new and exotic places was instilled in me and my brothers too. We are now a family spread across the globe: one brother is in Copenhagen and the other is currently in Afghanistan (he’s an RAF officer). This appetite for exploration led me to inter-rail around Western Europe after university and then pack my bag for a British Council teaching job in Suzhou, China about a year later. I wasn’t finished with being an expat after China; despite returning home and managing to find a really good teaching position. I have nomadic itchy feet! So I upped sticks and moved abroad yet again, much to the dismay of my mum. This time I made the move to Seoul, South Korea.

When you’ve made the decision to live aboard, people always seem to ask you ‘Why did you decide to live in ____?’ My answer about China was a simple one: ‘It’s a developing nation, it has a fascinating history, and it’d be cool to speak Chinese!’ I’m afraid my reasons for moving to Seoul weren’t as innocent. I was lured back to Asia because I feel there is so much more to explore and discover. I wanted to see the beaches of Thailand and Bali, float down the Mekong delta, explore the temples of Angkor, dance all night at the full moon parties of Ko Pha Ngan, witness the splendor of Laos’ 4000 Islands. Basically, I wanted to travel more. I came to Korea because of the fantastic public school teaching programme run by the government. Although there are more private language academies in Korea than you can shake a stick at, a teaching job there would have meant only 10 days holiday a year. The public school programme allows me to plan extended travels around Asia for my winter and summer vacation. It also offers me a good salary and rent-free accommodation. Why did I choose South Korea? Because it was too good an opportunity not to.

Having said that, of course you can’t live somewhere you don’t like. It really is great to live in this part of the world. Seoul has a fantastic amount of different neighbourhoods, perfect for exploring at weekends: trendy Sinsa-dong, posh Gangnam-gu, vibrant university districts like Hongdae and Kongdae, tourist-friendly Insa-dong… and foreigner town Itaewon (where the US military base ensures your fix of all things western). Korea is a country of national parks and a nation of hikers. Even in Seoul, the city is surrounded by mountains. Travelling around the country is simple, quick and cheap so it was convenient for me to visit the friends I had down in the seaside town of Busan; a great place to visit in the summer months.

My favourite experience out here so far happened almost exactly a year ago. A group of us spent the afternoon at Lotteworld, a (mostly) indoor theme park right in the middle of the city. We had a great day on all the rides, even witnessing a rather early Christmas parade. Lotteworld is situated within a wider entertainment complex so after we’d exhausted the rides, we headed down to spend an hour on the ice skating rink; after one too many falls we then headed into the bowling alley. As day swiftly glided into evening we headed to the gangnam area and a BBQ restaurant we’d been regulars at for a while. The proceeding shenanigans saw us become a little bit more than tipsy, taking over the music choices, blasting out ‘Wonderwall’, digging into an ice-cream cake and generally filling the places with much joviality. It was one of those days that just keeps on going, and no one wanted it to end.

Living in Asia can be tough though; along with the homesickness that every person living abroad encounters, this area of the world couldn’t be more different to England. The concept of personal space doesn’t really exist here, as it does in the west. You can quickly and easily become agitated by the amount of pushing and shoving that goes on in Seoul, particularly on the subway. Public transport is incredibly reliable, clean and cheap, but travelling on the bus can be dangerous! Just this morning I had a maniac bus driver, accelerator on the floor one minute and slamming on the brake the next, woe betide any passenger not gripping onto the hand rails! I quickly learnt to hold on for dear life and only relax once both feet have made it safely to the pavement. The weather here is another thing you have to get used to. I never thought that as a Brit abroad, I would actually prefer the weather in England but seriously, I miss it. Korea boasts about its four seasons. Yes, it has four seasons, but spring and autumn both last for about a week each, and are squeezed between 5 and a half months of blistering heat and humidity combined with torrential rainfall, and bitterly cold days full of snow and ice. Korea has a climate of extremes.

Seoul is the largest capital city in the developed world, with a population of 10 million. It is the world’s second largest metropolitan area with the third largest subway in the world. With these statistics in mind it might be impossible to see how living here could be lonely. However, the friends I made during my first two weeks of orientation all live in different parts of this huge city. The availability of transportation makes it easy to see each other, but the journeys can take over an hour sometimes; making popping over to a friend's house for a cup of tea rather a mission. I think this is the biggest hurdle to overcome here in Seoul, and one that I still struggle with. In the heady first 6 months of being here everyone is filled with the energy to travel everywhere and meet up as regularly as possible. But as this desire gives way to the reality of budgeting and burn-out, mid-week outings die out. This is perhaps a natural progression of life abroad, and it forces you to enjoy your own company and explore at your own pace.

I enjoy living in Korea though; in August I re-signed to stay another year. It’s a long commitment, especially for someone whose soles get itchy quickly. But so far second year is moving along smoothly. I’ve pro-actively made a list of things I never got round to doing in my first year: hiking the mountain nearby my house, picnicking in Seoul forest, skiing, volunteering and plenty of eating. I’m more settled in a job than I’ve ever been before. Things have become more mundane as expat life starts to just become normal life, but for now I’ll continue to explore my city at the weekends, plan my next holiday adventure and try to avoid any more bruises on the subway...

Ruth inherited wanderlust from her parents and shortly after graduating from the university of Liverpool embarked on her own travels. They have led her into a career of ESL teaching. She's currently based in an elementary school in Seoul, South Korea, and has previously taught in China and the UK. Originally from a small town in Essex, she plans to explore the world a little more before returning to her homeland. You can follow her journey online at
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