Thursday, 6 July 2017

Adventures in bureaucracy

It used to be (ie until a few months ago), Australian citizens could apply for their long-stay student exchange visa by mail. Simply gather all the required documentation, whack it in an envelope and send it off. Easy peasy. Now, we need to present ourselves for an appointment in Sydney (so they can do fingerprint scans, and take your photo). On the one hand, I get it. You don't want to be the shmuck who lets in the next person to blow the place up, but on the other, I would have thought we're still a pretty low-risk category. But, as Justin pointed out, there's a reason "bureaucracy" is a French word.

So here is my step-by-step guide to applying for a Long-Stay Student Exchange visa.

Step 1: locate the relevant checklist of documents on the French Embassy website. You may need to visit it multiple times on multiple days, as often it won't load properly. If you do manage to get the form you're after to display, download that sucker. You may not be able to access it again for weeks. (I'd link the form, but it's currently failing to load.)

Step 2: repeat above for other documents that also need to obtained from the website. Note that the only way to access the other forms you need is via the checklist, which may or may not load (even if it worked a minute ago). Download those suckers too.

Step 3: closer to the date of your appointment, repeat steps 1 and 2, as the forms may have changed. Note that the version number might be identical, but the form is different. Yes, really.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Random things to take to/acquire in Europe

I will be taking stowed luggage this time, so I have the luxury of taking more than the bare minimum. (I'll need stowed luggage because I'll need to take textbooks and a full-size laptop, and so on.)

I'll also be staying in the halls of residence, which come with a single bed, a desk, a chair, a wardrobe, and a (VERY compact) ensuite. For €25, you can get a starter kit of bedlinens (two sheets, pillowcase, pillow, duvet), but nothing else is provided. So there are a bunch of things I'll need, and I need to decide what I'll take with me, and what I'll source locally (given I'm doing this on the cheap).

So this is intended to be a list of things as I think of them, and whether I'll buy in France, or bring from Oz, and why. (Much of my information is from a fellow UNE student Sue, who spent the first five months of 2016 at Angers.)

If you can think of anything else I should add to one or other of these lists, would you please let me know?


  • A towel - and not just because the Hitchhiker's Guide says so. Also because the hostel I'm staying at in Edinburgh doesn't supply towels, and I'll need one in Angers too. A travel towel just isn't the same thing.  EDITED TO ADD: I just found out about Turkish towels: same size as a regular bath towel (1m x 1.8m), but super light weight (<300g), fast-drying, and can double as a scarf/shawl/blanket (eg like a pashmina, but light cotton not wool).
  • A decent laptop computer, and possibly a full-size wireless keyboard - the French keyboard layout is different to what I learned to touch-type on, and that's not a pain worth going through.
  • A small alarm clock - the Ikea Klokis or equivalent will probably do fine.
  • My good gamer headset (SteelSeries Siberia), plus adaptor, so they'll work via a single jack
  • Aus power board and adaptor(s) - I picked up a really good one from Aldi a few years ago, it includes four USB charger points too.
  • Textbooks - I'll have half a semester plus exams for my UNE course while I'm away
  • Stationery? - apparently it's nigh on impossible to get regular 7mm feint lined exercise books etc. All their notebooks are in this weird grid format.
  • Laundry bag - lightweight, not always easy to find
  • If I have the capacity (weight, volume), I'm hoping to take the quilt I made for Malachi with me. It will be a comfort if I'm feeling cold or homesick.
  • Mouthguard - I don't expect to be doing any contact sports, but it's custom-made, small and light, and the kind of thing that would be hard to borrow/get locally.
  • Night guard - I grind my teeth in my sleep, and this makes a huge difference. Can't sleep without it.
  • Champagne stopper - always a travel essential!
  • Travel clothesline - excellent thought from Sue!


  • Kettle - bulky. Will need to order online, as the French (like Americans) don't seem to do electric kettles. 
  • Coathangers - yes there's a wardrobe, but no hangers
  • Second towel, bathmat, handtowel - because none of those are supplied either.
  • Two sets of cutlery/bowls/plates/mugs etc - I'm sure there'll be a kitchen starter kit type thing at the equivalent of Kmart
  • Rudimentary cooking equipment - frying pan, saucepan, knife, chopping board, wooden spoon, egg slice, ?rice cooker (also works well for pasta, risotto, etc, and hot plates are a rare commodity)
  • Other stationery items - stapler, hole punch, ring binder?
  • External DVD player? - Sue ended up watching a lot of DVDs. If I can get tolerable internet, I might go for Netflix or similar.
  • Hot water bottle (if needed)
  • Waiter's friend/corkscrew - I generally drink sparkling not still wine, so this may be less critical.
  • Suction-cup soap dish - I use solid shampoo, conditioner, and cleanser, so a simple wire soap dish is essential.
  • A good French monolingual dictionary (?and thesaurus), for study purposes.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Next adventure: 10 days in Scotland (and then a semester in Angers, France)

Ok, so I'm now starting to waste time, um, I mean, research what I might do with the ten days I'll have in Scotland starting 20 August. I need to be in Angers, France by the morning of 1 September 2017, as my semester at the University of Angers will begin very soon afterwards.

So, ten days in Scotland in late August, starting and ending in Edinburgh, and I need to work out what I'm going to do. I will be hiring a car (and need to get my fantastic travel agent Emma onto that as soon as she returns from her own holidays in Canada).

Things to note:

The Edinburgh International Festival (and Fringe Festival) will be on, which might make it a little trickier to find accommodation (but I really hope not!). I'm not really a theatre-goer, but I should try to get to at least one show!

I will need to go via Oban, as my something-great grandfather was the postmaster in Oban when the postage stamp was launched. (My paternal line descends from the McGregor clan, whose patronym became Whyte during proscription.)

I loved the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, so I will need to go to Inverness at a minimum, and possibly Craigh na Dun (which doesn't exist). However, Clava Cairns may well be worth visiting.

I prefer grand architecture over grand landscapes, but trust that I will see plenty of the latter while travelling between examples of the former.

But what else should I make sure I include?? Give me your suggestions, please!

Buenos Aires

For various reasons (mainly ease of publishing photographs taken on my phone), I recorded my experiences in Argentina on Facebook. You can easily find them by searching "AB in BA" or navigate directly there at

At some point, I may transfer them here, but it won't be this week :)

You can also check out my other blog called The Ivory Bower, where I play around with words and their histories. (That's why I'll be posting as "Ivy" from here on.)

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Day trips from Buenos Aires

So I've all but ruled out going to Iguazu Falls. They might be mid-blowingly spectacular, but for a 24 hour bus ride each direction from BA, iffy weather and overpriced motel rooms, it's really not worth it.

Instead, I'm looking at a few day trips. From my brief googling, I've come up with these possibilities:

Directly across the wide river mouth from BA is the historical town of Col del Sacramento (UNESCO World Heritage Site). There are a few ferries daily (fast and slow) with a number of companies. For the price difference, many recommend the fast ferry (and book at least a week in advance). Some visitors recommend an overnight visit, while others say it's small enough that you can see it all in a day. Others recommend avoiding summer weekends, as that's when the porteƱos (locals) descend on the place.


Important tip: don't forget your passport - Uruguay is another country (proof of yellow fever vaccine required for entry). And has a different currency to Argentina, but US dollars are universally accepted.

While in Uruguay, I might consider going to Montevideo or Punta del Este

A 45 minute train ride from BA, Tigre is on the northern outskirts of the BA sprawl. Given this area is about the waterways, islands, and delta, it might be worth doing a tour. With stilt houses and colonial mansions, it might be another place to stay overnight. There are many water-based activities, including hiring a kayak as a way to meander around the area (and work off a few of the steaks I'm likely to have eaten). As before, this is where the locals escape to in the summer, but I'll be there in spring, so less of an issue.

Note to self: Take insect repellent - you know how the mozzies love you.
A stop-off at San Isidro, another historic quarter, might also be worthwhile.

I'm not sure if I really want to go in for gaucho (cowboy) culture, but hey, when in Rome...
Typically, tours include transport, a gentle horse ride, and asado lunch.


Rough Guides include these under Estancias (cattle/sheep ranch), and asados (barbecue)
Others suggest Estancia Puesto Viejo, to learn polo rather than herd sheep (although that might be more high-end than I'm looking for).

The Welcome Argentina site has some more ideas to meander through. In the meantime, I need to do some study - I have an exam in nine days!

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Um, next up Argentina!

Okay, so I'm a slackarse about updating this blog, but if you hadn't worked that out by now, you're not paying attention.

And we've actually got a week in Airlie Beach in June, but that's with extended family, so will be fun, but not quite so over-the-top.

But I just booked flights for me to go to Buenos Aires for ten days (plus a day's travel either end) on my own. Wheee!

I've chosen BA for this adventure for two reasons: one is that I've been learning Spanish off-campus at UNE and want to go somewhere to use it, and the other is that when I asked my friend/work colleague MT what place in South America she'd most like to return to, she replied Buenos Aires without a moment's hesitation. So I'm going!


What I would like from you, dear Reader, is suggestions for day trips, things I should definitely see (or not bother with), accommodation recommendations and any other input or experiences you can offer me. And I'll post my musings here as they come to me.

Te hablo pronto
(I'll talk to you soon)

Tuesday, 21 October 2014


Please accept my apologies, dear readers - I think there's more than one of you - for not adding the final week of our trip, nor yet updating with photos.

We got home to the marvellous news that the renovations on our home are almost complete, and we can start moving back soon. I'm also back at work, the boys are back at rowing, and after a week, we've nearly all gotten over our jetlag. Oh, and I'm now into book six of the Outlander series, which is probably the main reason I've not done anything.

I think I warned somewhere that I tend to run out of steam for the last 10-20% of a trip, and photos are rather a pain in the arse to select, resize, upload, and embed. And I've got a book to read :)

I will try to update, and will post once I've added photos to the previous month's worth of posts. So drop by from time to time/subscribe so you can see if, I mean, when I get around to it.


Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Day 25 - Erice: another medieval hilltop town

When talking with Mum and Dad in Brive for some highlights we should aim to see while in Sicily, one of the first ones they scribbled onto my tiny guidebook map was Erice, just outside Trapani. It was also one of the closest ones to where we were staying, after Palermo. The Michelin guide book I'd acquired in Palermo gave the town three stars, rating it as highly recommended.

At my insistence, we set off reasonably early, around 10am, and following the bizarrely circuitous route demanded by the GPS system, we eventually got to the A29 freeway. The GPS shut down periodically, freaked out if the cable was slightly askew, and insisted that it would send us to Via Erice in Trapani. With the help of the map in the guidebook, we were able to bully it into sending us to a street in Erice instead. The only really useful service the GPS provided was to advise the speed limit for various sections of the freeway.

We climbed the hill into Erice (~750m/2500 ft above sea level), arriving about 11:30 (our parking meter ticket was stamped 11:47am), and then set off to investigate the town.

Erice is an old town perched on a triangular outcrop overlooking Trapani in one direction, and the Tyrrhenian Sea in another. I overheard a guide tell a group that on a very clear day, one could see Africa (specifically, the port of Libya) some 80km to the south across the Mediterranean Sea. As someone who has lived mainly in NZ and the south of Australia, the concept of seeing another country, let alone another continent, by standing on a readily accessible hill is gobsmacking. Today was not a crystal clear day, so we couldn't see Africa. Instead, the sea blended into the sky, the horizon barely discernable, like one of those photographer's backdrops, but made of shimmering shades of blue.

[Pretty pics of buildings on blue backdrops]

The origins of the town are steeped in legend, but long associated with Venus and her predecessors (according to my guidebook). It was reputedly named by Eryx, king of the Elimi, for the temple thereon dedicated to his mother Venus Erycina. It was later associated with Astarte by the Phonecians, with Aphrodite by the Greeks, and later still with Venus by the Romans. It still styles itself the 'Mountain of Love'.

The Elimi-Punic wall, built ca 8C-6C BC, runs along the northeastern edge of the town. It protects the only exposed side of the town - the other two are precipitous cliffs. Within the three sides of the roughly equilateral triangle, the are some 60 churches and monasteries, in various states of repair (several presently undergoing restoration), as well as a scattering of piazzas, connected by a maze of cobbled streets, some potentially wide enough for two cars, many barely sufficient for one car, some barely wide enough for a large person.

[More pretty pictures of walls, churches, and cobbled streets]

We enjoyed an excellent lunch (the 'Antipasti Rutica' was outstanding, a selection of local salami, cheese, and mixed baked vegies), and a bit more of a walk, making it back to the car just before our parking display ticket expired at 3:47pm. The boys were both knackered - Ky was asleep before we were halfway down the mountain - but we  wanted to have a squizz at Segesta on the way back.

Segesta has an exceptionally well preserved Doric temple, built ca 430 BC, but likely never completed. There is also a well-preserved amphitheatre, as well as some other, Norman, remains at the archeological site. Unfortunately, the boys were too tired (and stayed in the car), so we couldn't visit either of the structures. [Pics below will be borrowed from the interwebs.]

Back on the road, it was already 5pm. We weren't sure what time the little local supermarket closed, but it would likely be before we got back. With no internet with us, and a bloody useless GPS system, we decided to pick an exit from the freeway, and just ask for directions to a supermarket. Quite by chance, the exit we happened to choose was right next to a large shopping complex, whose primary tenant was a massive supermarket. We stocked up on requisites (speck for the cabonara for dinner, more bread and cheese and wine, some toothpaste, a couple of large coffee mugs (the demitasse in the holiday apartment not really sufficing for a large cup of tea), some cannoli for the kids to try for dessert, and some oranges (JD is missing his daily megadose of vitamin C). We also got a bottle of softdrink for the boys, and a couple of bottles of water, although the latter turned out to be 'frizzante' (lightly sparkling) and therefore barely acceptable to the kids.

Once past Palermo, we again had to put some faith in the GPS system, which again freaked out (ie turned itself off) at inopportune moments. The GPS's main use when in town is to help identify a path through the warren of one-way streets and to give the driver sufficient confidence to push into a stream of on-coming traffic which has right of way, being the only way to get across some intersections.

In Bagheria, at the end of the exit ramp, we again encountered the single worst intersection I have ever had the misfortune to drive through. It has five roads, all of them two way, with nothing more than a couple of give way signs, and a heavy volume of traffic, into and out of each. In the morning, we had to turn sharp left across five different lanes of traffic to get onto the on-ramp, where as best as I could tell, we ranked lowest for right of way. On the way back, we only had to deal with other cars trying to do what we did that morning (oh, and in peak hour traffic). Such an intersection in Australia would have both roundabouts and traffic lights, and would still be hideous, but nothing compared to the clusterf**k of this one. Still, it worked, we didn't see any prangs, and we got through relatively unflustered.

Of course, the GPS then flaked utterly, having decided we weren't going to Solunto, but to some random street in Bagheria, and then shutting down completely. At that point, I went with my gut and said, I'm going that way, let me know when the GPS agrees with me. Thankfully my gut proved more reliable than the GPS, and we were soon home.

Dinner was linguine cabonara, followed by cannoli, with a lovely ginormous mug of tea to take with me to bed.


Tomorrow is JD's choice, and he's not telling anyone yet where we're going (but he is threatening Ky that we might go to the catacombs in Palermo where mummified, dressed bodies are interred and on display).

The day after, Thursday, we're up and out early as we have a 11:30am flight from Catania, and not only have to drive back, but also return the car (a process that may take an obscene amount of time given our experience a week before).

We then have two nights in Naples (Pompeii, Herculaneum, Vesuvius), and finally will head homewards, departing from Rome on a 10pm flight via Dubai and Singapore

Day 24 - Solunto: washing and ruins

JD and I set off earlyish to take the washing to the laundry place, telling the boys we'd be back in half an hour or so, and would then head out to do something.

Except the laundry place turned out to be a dry cleaners, and our massive bag of washing (8kg or so) would have cost a helluva lot to get cleaned. On talking to the proprietor, he offered to do it for 50 euro (AUD75), which would be a loss for him, but a lot for us. While we appreciated his generous offer, we hoped to find a laundromat.

Back at the house, our internet searches revealed that there were only a handful of laundromats as we know them in Sicily, the nearest ones in Palermo. I spoke with our host, but after working through several options, and me getting absurdly wound up (and freaking her our with my tears of frustration), JD ended up handwashing a fair bit of it, and Marida, our host, offered to use her washing machine for the jeans and my (still unbelievably stinky) fleece jacket.

At least one of my frustrations was that if I knew we'd be handwashing, we could have bloody done that yesterday when we were sitting around doing not much, instead of losing another day to doing not much. At least the mega-sized travel plug, and quarter bar of Sard laundry soap got used!

After lunch, we went up to the local ruins of Solunto. We had been told it was walking distance, but after the last few days efforts with the rain, we decided not to risk it, and drove up, with the brollies in the car. In the end we probably should have used them, as parasols - it was quite hot up on the top of the hill.

[Lots of pictures, and some more info, to come]

On the way back down the hill, we went into town to pick up some more groceries (speck or similar for cabonara, more wine, few other items), but discovered the route blocked - some kind of festival or other going on. We found a park a block above the supermarket and walked down to discover the supermarket closed up tight even though it had only just turned 5pm. We moved the car, and this time left the hot and tired kids in the car while we went to find the little convenience store we'd spotted on our first night. Turns out the festival was some kind of major local religious event, with every shop shut, and people either lining the street, or waiting in groups with a big banner and some kind of uniform, as the parade slowly progressed up the main drag, collecting the waiting groups as it went.

No shopping was happening in Porticello today, so we headed back and made bolognaise out of whatever we had left over. It wasn't bad, but it was a little lacking, and particularly lacking wine. Ah well, a sober day wasn't going to kill us.

Day 23 - Solunto: another lay day

We identified that we really need to do some washing, but that the laundry place recommended by our host is closed on Sundays. The heavens opened aggressively again before we'd decided what we were going to do for the day, which put an extra vote towards the 'not much' option for the day.

After the frustrations of yesterday, I was happy enough to sit around a read for a bit while the boys played in the pool in the arvo. We did another supermarket run (having found that it was open Sundays, but not sure when), and puttered about.

On the one hand, it feels like an utter waste to be sitting on our arses while on the far side of the world on an island that was host to dozens of civilisations (Punic, Carthaginian, Greek, Roman, Norman, Arab, and plenty of others) over more than three millenia. On the other, the lads are all a bit burnt out, and this is as good a place as any to have the 'holiday to recover from the holiday' that is often missing.

Lunch was fresh bread, pesto, salami, fresh local cheese (tuma fresca, a very mild somewhat flavourless cheese, a bit like fresh mozzarella, and excellent with) tomatoes, and some vino for the grown ups.
Dinner was risotto made with the rest of the speck and dried mushrooms.