Given the Arctic conditions at home right now I feel like I shouldn’t really complain about the weather here. We’ve had the obligatory December snow, but for the past week or so the temperature has been hovering just below zero – which, compared to the minus 18°C back in Manchester last night suddenly seems quite tropical. But mild as it may be, I am just not a winter person. So why did I choose to spend the coldest part of the year in Austria? Well clearly I didn’t really think this through…
Luckily for me though, one of the greatest perks of the year abroad (of which there are many) is that most of your friends will also be away overseas, and this 3rd year student diaspora seems a very good excuse to do a bit of mid-term travelling. So eventually I bailed on the Alpine weather here, and went to visit my other half down in sunny Portugal.
Now I love Vienna, I really do, but nowhere else can quite make you appreciate just how wonderful it is to step outside in December wearing nothing more than jeans and a T-shirt. The weather down in Lisbon was an absolute dream, and as I slowly reacclimatised to a life with sunshine, we filled the first day with all the mandatory sightseeing that goes hand-in-hand with visiting a European capital.
All that sunshine can be deceptive though, because let me tell you that even in Portugal it can get pretty cold overnight in the middle of December. Unfortunately that’s an observation that seems to have eluded Portuguese architects and very few flats come fitted with a central heating system. Zach’s of course is no exception, and I wish I was exaggerating when I say that I could see my own breath when I woke up in the morning there. And as luck would have it, his plug-in gas canister used to heat the water in the taps and shower ran out the day I arrived. Great.
But hypothermia aside, I’m glad I had the chance to see a completely different Year Abroad experience to my own. Zach took me into the school where he works as a teaching assistant and introduced me to the children and teachers alike. The reception I got from everyone I met there was so different to anything in Austria. They treated me as if I was a part of their family, inviting me into their homes, taking me out for dinner, and offering tours of the local area (despite the obvious communication difficulties, given that I don’t speak a word of Portuguese). In my experience, Austrians tend to lack that same easy familiarity; here, there is always a certain distance with strangers. And more often than not, that’s putting it politely.
On the Sunday I was there, one of the school’s teachers decided it was about time to introduce me to a bit of local culture, and offered to take us to see a play. This was no ordinary play however: it was a 5-hour long drama, set and performed in a 12th Century monastery (Tomar’s Convento de Cristo for those that are interested), requiring the audience to follow the actors from room to room, and during which an authentic 6-course medieval banquet would be served by the nuns (no, I kid you not). Performed at night, many of the sets were virtually pitch-black and actors would frequently appear from unseen doorways, shoving their way through the audience to reach the action. The atmosphere was absolutely incredible – the whole thing was a far cry from Vienna’s Staatsoper I can tell you.
So with my itchy feet settled for a while, it was time to head home for Christmas. It would take too long for me to try and tell you all about the nightmare that was my journey back to Manchester, but suffice to say that after 5 separate flights and several days spent on the phone to various lost-luggage departments I would rather not see the inside of another terminal building for at least a good few weeks, and I have made a mental note that I shall never again fly with BMI.