Europe: Living Like A Local

There are many forms of vacation. Growing up, my ideal holiday comprised of a well-equipped hotel room (e.g. Disney Land hotel) and lots of shopping. My ideal changed throughout the years as I observe backpackers and people living abroad. I think the notion of living like a local, at least among my age group, is picking up on popularity and it's easy to understand why. When I try to live like a local, I pick up native habits, preferences and culture. In return, the locals are more than happy to reveal the best and underrated hideouts. Instead of crossing off a list of "must-sees" determined by the city's tourism guides, I'm better off experiencing recommendations of the like-minded. As this is a collaborative post between Nigel and I, his words will be marked in green!

Personally, I feel I'm pretty well-traveled but if you ask me about my previous travel experiences, I'd struggle to tell you much, reason being: my previous travels were all with my family and mostly on tour groups. Hence, I'm sure it will resonate with many readers when I say I hate tours because the schedule is always so packed, making the travel experience a rushed and unpleasant one. I'll always choose free and easy travel over tours. 

One of the best things about that is that you can choose your accommodation. Today, we can experience a myriad of accommodation through the numerous accommodation portals online (mentioned in the previous post) and it's easier to meet people from different cultures who are nice enough to host you and show you how the locals live.  Often, these mean eating local food, living in a local neighborhood, exploring what the locals frequent instead of the over-rated touristy landmarks and sharing conversations with locals which allow both parties to learn more about each other's cultures. Isn't all these what travel is about?

In this blogpost, Uli and I will share with you the homes that we lived in during our month long trip to Europe.

Gloucester/ Ledbury, England

As guests we were treated to fresh eggs and home baked bread
Among the home's free range poultry were peacocks which enjoyed hanging out at our front door
One of the two adopted lurchers I fell in love with

This was the perfect country home I could ever ask for. Well hidden in a remote spot of Gloucester, the loft was a place of quiet retreat. Growing up in a bustling city, live animals are a rare sight. Hence, it was absolute pleasure to share our space with the host's animals – a flock of chickens, Mabel the cat, two hunter dogs, three peacocks and two ponies. The retired couple's love for animals and their environment is evident through their consistent use of eco-friendly products and an attitude for self-sustainability. For example, a small but supple garden which supplies the family with berries and herbs. Guests can also feel relieved that their chickens will never be killed for meat. There's an unexplainable sense of happiness living by the country side where air is so fresh and animals run free.

When you go to the English countryside, what you probably want is an authentic English home-stay experience. For me, that means rolling fields of green, carefree animals roaming freely, home-cooked food, and less people/tourists. In other words, a slow-pace lifestyle. Sometimes, that's what we all want when we travel, to escape the hustle and bustle of city-life and relax in a slow-paced environment.

And that's what Uli, our friend Jeffrey and I got in this loft apartment. If living with a host is not your cup of tea but you still want some level of interaction with the host, this apartment checks all the boxes. What you get is a private apartment capable of hosting up to 7 people with 4 beds but don't worry if you only have 2 persons, this apartment won't feel overwhelmingly huge either. The level of interaction with the host is great. John and his wife shared openly about their home, animals, jobs and gave us a brief introduction to our loft and the Cotswolds area. Numerous maps and guides were provided as well. It has a washing machine and a kitchen. We made great use of the kitchen to prepare breakfast daily and even cooked Tom Yum Soup one evening and shared it with our hosts. 

Besides, this is an animal/garden-lover's dream home. How often do you get to wake up to the sounds of roosters crowing, a gorgeous peacock at your doorstep, dogs bounding up to you when you get home, graceful horses, a cute little cat craving for affection and a fresh and home-baked loaf of bread? Here, you get a sense of home, away from home; the essence of Airbnb. 

Best part: it has a great location to use as a base to explore the Cotswolds, an area in Central England. Think: rolling hills of green, meadows, stone-built villages, English homes and gardens.

The Manic Mansions
London, England

Queen Pika
Lord Louise the cat

Home to three busy musicians, the house has a mind and soul of its own. The massive amount of stuff, collected over the years, give this space an eccentric, museum-like quality. We saw random objects all over the most unexpected places, such as hanging pans and pots on a tree branch and a dislocated mannequin in the backyard. No corners were left untouched. Our host, Oli, is a pro violinist who used to play for big time musicians like Florence Welch and Cold Play! The true lords of the house were two cuddly cats – Pika and Louise – who purred endlessly and were impossible not to fall in love with. Leaving London felt like a farewell with an old friend. I could only imagine parts of the home yet to be explored.

I'll call this place "The Manic Mansions Museum". Oli likes to call it "Ollywood". I'd caution those of you who can't stand clutter. Case in point, my mum said,"How can someone list such a messy apartment online?" 

But for me, this was the best airbnb I had throughout the trip. I felt comfortable living in this beautiful mess. Oli the host might not be around all the time given his busy schedule as a professional violinist (he recently contributed to Mi 5's soundtrack) but simply by living in the house, you get to experience the mind and soul of this home by looking at the myriad of random collected objects in the house. For example, I had a bad tummy-ache once and I had to run to a bathroom I hadn't used till then but once I sat on the toilet, I realized I didn't know how to turn on the light! I couldn't do much so I just looked at the amusing objects and signs on the bathroom's walls and shelves  (yes, even the bathroom is as entertaining as a museum) till I saw a toy soldier hanging by a string. On the wall beside it wrote,"Who hung this man?" I pulled the soldier down and violà! The light came on. 

Another experience I had wasn't the most pleasant but I appreciated it in the end. One day, Uli and I was fast asleep after a long day in London when we woke up in the middle of the night to electronic/ lounge music playing and the chatter of party conversations. I hate having my sleep disturbed. While I lay on the bed enraged and considered talking to the host, I thought about the fact that I had paid money to stay here and yet my sleep is disturbed because the host is having a party despite knowing that there are guests in the house. Eventually, we fell asleep as the party died down. I woke up still seething with angst but as the day went on, it dawned upon me that I would never have experienced this if I had stayed in a hotel or a boring apartment without a host. My host is a musician and I got to experience a party in a musician's home for the first time in my life and boy, Uli even remarked that the music was actually good! Besides, the house is the host's after all and who was I, as a guest to tell him what to do? I'm a guest after all and while I'm not saying guests are without rights, do know clearly where you stand and align your expectations with the host before staying. 

In the end, what makes a home-stay memorable are the interactions with the occupants and the house. We got to interact with 4 different people who frequently stay in the house, 2 adorable cats and 3 other guests. Just imagine the amount of things and people in the house, probably not for OCD-people! Oli openly shared with us about the history of his eccentric house, his personal life,  his friend Stephanie shared with us about the cool, underground, hipster neighborhood of Dalston, Tom welcomed us with tea and Tom with the dreadlocks was such fun to be with. I'll never forget the time Louise the affection-seeking cat entered our room and napped on our bed. 

Before you get the wrong idea, this doesn't mean you don't have your personal, private space. Just close your room door. (:

Paris, France

As Paris is also known as the "city of love", it came natural to me to find a similarly beautiful apartment that was charismatic. It has always been my dream live in a vintage home and I guess my dream came true in this girly and pastel apartment. Its sole resident, Amelie explained how she enjoys shopping for her home at charity shops. Her super neat personality ensured that nothing was an eyesore despite most of them being individually mismatched for obvious reasons. 

Firstly, our journey from London to Paris wasn't ideal and it wasn't easy initially to find Amelie's apartment but once we got there, I was glad we picked it. How often does one get to stay in a home with vintage decor and furnishing, in Paris! I was charmed by how all the furniture had a matching pastel tone. I was pleased to see a vintage piano too so I played "Comptine d'un autre ete" from the French film Amelie, haha!

La Spezia, Italy

Alessandro's place was by far the most masculine. It's funny because for some reason I always assume beautiful homes are only possible with a female's touch but this two-room flat proved otherwise. Its brick walls and wooden panels gave the home a distinctive cave-like quality. Ale fills his apartment with sentimental objects such as rank badges and his fireman hat, and his music collection tells me he's quite a rock and roll fanatic.

It always helps when there's a nice person to welcome you when you are in a foreign land and Alessandro was that man for us. His home felt like a grotto cave to me because of the stone walls. That might sound cold and clammy to you but I bet you not, it was warm, there was air-conditioning, ample towels, television, a stove, free sweets and bread, cheap beer and ice cream in the fridge! Alessandro didn't live with us because this isn't his home but we still managed to interact with him over coffee and trips to and fro the train station. I'll just say that a sincere and friendly host makes a home feel so much more hospitable.

Rome, Italy

Grafitti is a common sight in Pigneto, Rome

In a bohemian town in Rome, Pigneto was the closest we've been to living in an artist's studio. It was a tiny loft apartment among a shophouse setting. As we reached the town, it's easy to see why it's so hyped for its artistic energy and nightlife. Our home for two nights was a small studio apartment with a loft which held the mattress. Our host is an Italian film artist who decorates her apartment with surreal art, late 1900s furniture, ancient photographs and other oddities. If you're a fan of Rene Margritte, you'd go bonkers for this studio. It was also a bonus to be surrounded by some of the tastiest Italian restaurants around the area.

This was the most artistic apartment I had ever lived in, I felt like I was living in an artist gallery! Well, it is an artist's studio after all that rightly belongs to the artistic and creative neighborhood that is Pigneto. Our home was a simple home without wifi and sparse hot water but I certainly got a idea of Surrealist art here. I found it fun and quirky that we had to climb up a ladder to get to our bed. 

To live like a local, it's not just about the accommodation, it's a lot about the neighborhood as well. In Pigneto, we got to experience a town where locals live, work and play in. We chanced upon local restaurants serving the best Italian food I've ever tasted, saw creative graffiti and enjoyed the vibes at a happening stretch of pubs and restaurants a street down from our place. For me, a rule of thumb of how local a neighborhood is whether there is a free expression of creativity and art in the area. Pigneto certainly possessed these traits.

Venice, Italy

Camp Rialto was a super cheap way to explore the Venice city. At less than 20 euros per person, you could rent a basic roof over your head with shared facilities. Depending on needs and number of people, alternatively you could opt for a group chalet or a huge tent. Caravans are welcome too. It's a great way to go "glamping" and access Venice within 20 minutes. People who know me know that I hate camping, but surprisingly it wasn't that hard at all. I love how simple the camp site is. 

When I picture Venice, I picture a lagoon of picturesque Venetian Islands with gondolas floating gently down the grand canal. So when Uli told me about camping near Venice, I wasn't too sure after 2 years in NS. However, I was pleasantly surprised by Camp Rialto. It wasn't difficult to get to and the washrooms were clean and well-equipped for a campsite. There was a decent pizzeria and a convenient mini-mart too, albeit an overpriced one. We had experienced an intense heat wave in France and Uli was anxious about whether it would be too hot to literally camp in the blue tents, which we had initially booked. Thankfully, there were vacancies for the little wooden houses which we upgraded to for some shade and security. Worries about whether it would be hot at night were dispersed by the damp and chilly air after nightfall. 

The whole package of low prices, convenience, reasonably comfortable accommodation and facilities made this accommodation a steal at its price! 

Munich, Germany

Every night, guests of the tent are invited to sit around a camp fire

Similar to camp Rialto, tent Munich is a campsite except that everyone slept under a massive tent. Now, you might wonder how could this be enjoyable? I can only tell you briefly as you have to experience it to understand. The tent's function is extremely simple but it provides a warm, welcoming atmosphere that can be very soothing. This is a heaven for hippies and young, open-minded travelers. I knew I would enjoy the place the moment I was there. Meals were sumptuous, healthy and low-cost. Oh and did I mention it only costs 10.50 euros for a decent bed?!

Tip: if you're a light sleeper, sound proof ear plugs and eye masks are recommended.

Tent Munich is my favorite out of all our non-airbnb accommodations as I really enjoyed the communal feeling of many people staying at a tent together, sitting around a camp-fire daily, enjoying good, sometimes live, music and tasty, fresh yet affordable food. You get the feeling that the tent is a feel-good, social-enterprise project. The food is grown in the backyard, the coffee is good, the food and accommodation prices are cheap, there are people playing ping-pong, chilling on outdoor daybeds. The vibe is of a relaxed, laid-back kind and everyone is happy. After a long day out exploring town, you feel comforted to return to the tent even though you have to take a 25 minute tram ride back as it's not in town. 

The Music Studio
Berlin, Germany

Before I even talk about the room itself, I think its neighbourhood is worth a mention. Neukölln was an amazing spot to be as it's surrounded by cool bars, thrift shops and Turkish food. Originally known as a town popular with immigrants, Neukölln has evolved to house many artists and adventurous newbies. I am just naturally drawn to musician homes (likewise in London), and maybe it's because I feel I can relate more to their personalities. Our host Deniz's recommendations were incredibly cool and to my liking. His stereo system prompted a nightly Spotify party no matter how tired I was.

I was awed when I walked into Deniz's bedroom. The creative and quirky decor with a random mish-mash of furniture gave off such good vibes you almost feel like making music too! And that's just what we did by making a fool of ourselves on the Craigslist-acquired organ player while playing Susanne Sundfor/ Grimes music from the eargasm-inducing stereo speakers. 

When you have such a charming apartment, it usually means the host is awesome as well! And sure enough, Deniz even provided us with complimentary usage of his smartphone which was equipped with free mobile data and useful apps like FourSquare, where he created many lists for us such as "Thrift/Vintage Shopping", "Cool Neighborhoods" and "Markets". First day, I had my own list of places to go in Berlin. 5 minutes after we chatted with Deniz, his recommendations became my only list. How else could we have known about a popular local rooftop bar with a gorgeous sunset view of Berlin and an abandoned airport converted to a public park?!

Final thoughts

To fulfil my interests gaining an authentic experience of each city, I made it a point to live with or among the locals as much as possible throughout my Europe trip. Neighbourhoods were important too as they are what makes the city. I have provided the links to each one should you intend to find out more. Thanks for reading and I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts!

Sometimes, we go to cities and towns with lists of places to see and we spent so little time in our accommodation and/or the neighborhood. My tip is to allocate at least a day to sleep in, savour the apartment that you have handpicked and take your time to explore your very own neighborhood to see what the locals are doing. Living like a local is the way to travel.