Learning to Travel (in Lille)

I've travelled a lot recently and have been reflecting on the experience.

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I love this clip from the Netflix series Master of None 1 where the main character Dev wants Tacos, so goes on a quest to find the best ones.

This is me most days when trying to make dinner plans. When I travel to a foreign city it's even more amplified.

Overwhelmed with choice, with no frame of reference, trying to find the best place to eat often ends up feeling like work instead of relaxation. Websites like TimeOut and TripAdvisor become an all-encompassing part of the travelling experience.

I recently spent a few days in the Northern French town of Lille, close to the border of Belgium. We mainly chose Lille not because it was a destination in and of itself, but because of it's proximity to London on the train. 2

We went not really knowing what to expect, or what we would do.

operahouse

The Art of Wandering

Lille is a beautiful city. It's small enough that you can get a fairly good grasp of it quickly, but the meandering streets of it's old town allow you to get lost in them. 3 It was August, a busy month for Edinburgh, but quite sedate in the North of France as everyone is on holiday. We had often had the streets to ourselves.

There were some days where we just walked. Without purpose, without Google Maps, without knowing where we were going, or how long we were going to walk for.

We stumbled on an open courtyard and drank Belgian beer in the sun.

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We found an amazing cocktail bar late one night in which some locals shared their food with us.

We had lunch in one of the estaminets, trying to figure out what the regional dishes were being served up on tables beside us. 4

Most of the memorable places we visited came from simply exploring.

Ask a Local not your phone

On our last night looking for dinner, we asked a barman for recommendations. His English wasn’t great but he happily obliged. He scrawled the name of a restaurant on the back of a napkin and pointed us in the direction of a little bistro not too far away.

Was it the best food in the city? Maybe not, but it was good. The cosy small restaurant had buckets of charm; it made for a memorable evening. It felt more personal, as though we had been invited into someone else's world.

Using your eyes and not your GPS. Asking people and not Google.

Obvious advice, especially for the generations used to travelling before the internet. But when ratings websites and food blogs have made finding the 'best of the best’ the ultimate goal it was helpful to be reminded of these things.

I don't want to over-romantise it - I have been to some amazing places around the world based entirely on online research, and will continue to do so. But I also want to recognise that a huge part of the pleasure of travel is discovery.

And for that to happen sometimes my phone needs to stay in my pocket.

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GENTLE SUGGESTIONS

I'm going to contradict my own advice here by making suggestions on a blog but if you do find yourself in Lille:

  • Whatever you do get the waffles (Gaufre de Lille) from Méert.
  • Try the local Flemish dishes, which seem to be a combination of beer, sugar and cheese. Unusual, delicious and calorific.
  • Wander round the Fine Art Gallery and walk the gardens near the Citadel.
  • Find a bakery and some baguettes, because it is still France. Paul bakery started in Lille, and while it is a chain, I can confirm their bread was delicious.
  1. If you've not watched it stop reading and do so right now. There's only 2 seasons.
  2. I can also wholeheartedly recommend the Eurostar as a way to travel. Train beats plane everytime.
  3. Lille is a major shopping destination however. There are a lot of shops, especially for fashion. And an Apple store of course.
  4. These are local cafe/restaurants selling beer and Flemish food - there were several of them around.

August

There probably isn't a time of the year I love more than August in Edinburgh.

Royal Mile

Royal Mile

For sure, a lot of us locals like to complain about it. Buses take twice as long, trying to get anywhere beyond the royal mile requires a steely determination and flyers seem to make their way into every bag and pocket.1

Much like when we complain about the weather, complaining about the festival is just an easily accesible topic of small talk. Doing so may bring us together and cement our identity but deep down I don't think we really want things to be any different. Edinburgh without the festival season just wouldn't feel like Edinburgh at all.

We are proud of the fact that the world's biggest arts festival descends on our little city. Speak to a local and it won't be long before they tell you how the population of city doubles during the month of August.2 Edinburgh comes alive with a vibrant and pulsating energy and it's hard to be entirely cynical.

I find this energy contagious. Wandering around the sea of posters advertising every available show, I feel the buzz that I get when I visit major cities like London or New York.

One of the thing that brings me the most pleasure is walking back home late at night, camera in hand.

George Square and the Pleasance are still abuzz with people who don't have work in the morning. Musicians and jugglers still perform to small crowds in the dim light of the Royal Mile.

Performers are wandering back to their accomodation with spray painted faces wearing hoodies over ornate costumes. I wonder what kind of crazy show they are a part of.3

Food trucks and pop-ups are everywhere making it almost impossible to resist the urge for a for a late night slice of pizza.4

Pizza Geeks

And every night is accompanied by the familiar soundtrack of fireworks. Right on cue.

This year I tried to embrace it as much as I could. It was my most festival-y festival ever. The Fringe is often synonomous with comedy but it is also home to some unique experiences you won't find elsewhere. In total I saw 22 different shows, bands and events.

I saw Edinburgh Castle light up with 350 million years of history.

Deep Time

I saw Driftwood, an engrossing and gasp-inducing display of acrobatics inside an intimate venue.

I saw Mark Watson deliver another set which proved himself to be one of the most reliable members of the Fringe establishment.

Wifi Wars

Wifi Wars

I saw an elaborate technical show, Wifi Wars, go so horrible wrong that they resorted to singing Eminem covers on a Ukulele while someone tried to restart all the routers.

I saw Nish Kumar deftly switch between innocuous material on his desire to be the drummer in Coldplay to Brexit, bankers and gentifrication by the middle classes.

I saw Sigur Ros at the playhouse where they were not so much making music as a providing a sensory experience.

I saw Louis CK at the playhouse received like a rock star with comedy that took cynicism to a whole new level. In the best possible way.

I saw a somewhat crass, Australian foul-mouthed puppet reflect on the nature of life and whether we should sacrifice being a decent person in order to make good art. I loved it.

I saw Abandoman improvise a rap about my problems getting Wi-Fi reception in my bedroom.

I saw quite a lot of improv; including an improvised musical and an improvised album.

Abandoman

I saw a musical about the true story of a group of migrants from Glasgow fighting to have the law changed. With feel good song and dance numbers.

I saw Last Dream (On Earth), an immersive, technically astounding live audio experience recreating both a refugees journey to Spain and Yuri Gagarin in space.

I saw some alcohol experts turn a drinks tasting into an hour long show involving dodgy puns and cross dressing. The drinks were a lot better than the jokes.

I saw James Acaster deliver a slow-burn of a stand up set that was exceptionally well crafted and delivered with immense precision. Mainly about honey.

I saw James Thiérrée, grandson of Charlie Chaplin in a surreal, strangely beautiful, Dali-esque piece of theatre. And in which everyone ended up getting eaten by a giant polythene toad.

I (eventually) saw Kieran Hodgson in a charming hour of autobiographal character comedy after what was surely the most stressful and insane queuing system in the entire city. It brought everyone together.

I saw Sam Beam (of Iron and Wine fame) and Jesca Hoop bring their beautiful harmonies to end the month in the most perfect low-key way.

Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop

Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop

And I gathered with friends in Princes Street gardens, drank some wine, shared some food while we watched it all finish with a bang.

Thank you Edinburgh. See you next August.




  1. This is despite the fact you spend most of your time coming up with inventive ways to avoid taking them.
  2. Even though it might not be strictly true.
  3. Amongst all the shows in the festival 'crazy' is a pretty relative term.
  4. Although I was also pretty partial to a late night crème brûlée.



One Year with Apple Watch

Every day for the last year I have worn a tiny computer on my wrist.

Tiny iPhone

Tiny iPhone

The Apple Watch is the kind of thing that people notice because, to be honest, as hard as Apple have tried to position it as a fashion item it's not quite there yet. I often get asked about it and the response is a mixture of excitement, bemusement, skepticism and genuine intrigue. It's a high profile device and it's been around a while,1 yet there's still a degree of mystery surrounding it. It doesn't have the ubiquity to not demand questions.

It arrived with all sorts of bells and whistles. Apps, glances, complications, pulse reading, wrist-tapping, step-tracking. It can take phone calls. It can send tiny doodles to your watch wearing friends. It is almost useless when out of range of your phone. You need to charge it daily. It was clear when the iPhone arrived why it was an improvement over what came before. The Apple Watch seems perplexing by comparison.

So in order to demystify it, this is a list of everything I still use it for after a year.

Fitness Tracking

The best feature is it's fitness tracking. I believe Apple Watch is at it's core a really good FitBit. Without the fitness features it becomes, for me, a much less appealing device.

Streaks

Streaks

Apple doesn't get enough credit for creating a fitness tracker that is so 'sticky'. Fitbit devices have a reputation of losing their novelty after a few months but I've found Apple Watch's fitness rings to be a persistent motivator - even after a year I am still a bit obsessed with trying to fill them.

It's one thing to have a general sense of how active you are on a given day; it's another thing to have that visualised every time you glance at your wrist. In no small way this has changed my day to day life - motivating me to walk when I might have been tempted to stay in or take a bus. I dutifully oblige in the office when it reminds me to stand up every hour.

It does a decent job at logging runs but it doesn't have GPS so those who are really sold on the idea will still need to look to dedicated running watches.

Notifications

Notified

Notified

The Apple Watch sends me a silent tap on my wrist for certain notifications such as text messages, Facebook messages and important e-mails. It's hard to describe why this would be useful because to most (normal) people it sounds incredibly aggravating. After all it's not doing anything my phone wasn't already capable of.

But checking a notification on your wrist is a significantly different interaction than checking it on your phone. I can process it, but I don't have to let it disrupt me. If a notification requires a yes/no/emoji response I can reply with the click of one button.2

The nature of the device means I can't get immersed into it or too distracted from what I am doing. It's a way to triage the many ways my phone is always asking for my attention.

Apple Pay

Anywhere that accepts contactless cards will also accept Apple Pay. You would have thought the novelty of contactless would have worn out but it still feels like future sci-fi magic.

Apple Pay on the watch has some slight advantages over using a contactless card; it's technically more secure, you can spend more and you don't have to fumble with your wallet. That is how I justify it to myself at least; honestly the main reason I pay for things with my watch is because it's quite a lot of fun.

Time and Weather

To the future

To the future

I stopped wearing my old analogue watch 8 years ago when I got an iPhone. In the rare moments where I haven't worn my Apple Watch I find myself constantly staring at an empty wrist. I check the time a lot more often than I realise. Having information there is useful.

When you scroll the dial on the side the watch 'time-travels'; it can show you how the weather will change or if you have upcoming meetings. This is one of my most used interactions; as I leave the house I can very quickly get a sense of the next couple of hours.3

All the Small Things

  • Music Controls: I spend a lot of time listening to audio. The watch is my go to remote control when wandering around. Skipping adverts in podcasts, adjusting volume. It's particularly handy when it's raining and I don't want to get my phone out.
  • Directions: If walking somewhere in unfamiliar surroundings, you can program the Apple Watch to display where you need to go and tap when you need to turn. It makes you look less like a tourist. At home I've found the most useful aspect is being able to glance at my wrist and get an updated ETA, thereby allowing me to see if I need to up my pace.
  • Finding my Phone: If you have a tendency to lose your phone behind the sofa cushions the Apple Watch can ping it. This has saved me a lot of frustrated searching over the last year.
  • Timers/Alarms: I make a lot of coffee. A watch is a pretty good place to set a timer or a stopwatch for espresso. There's a satisfying silent vibration once it's finished.
  • Siri: I use Siri fairly often to turn on and off the lights in the flat.4 Occasionally I will ask Siri to play particular music when I'm out walking.

There are, however, many aspects of the Apple Watch which are fundamentally broken leading some to give up on it completely. I've basically stop trying to use third party apps. They are slow, unreliable and developers don't seem to be pushing them. I forget that glances exists because I use them so infrequently and they update inconsistently. I've never opened the 'Photos' app on my watch. Digital-touch, the little miniature doodles you send to friends is a ridiculous feature that Apple should quietly hide or remove.5

Apple could, and probably should, have limited it's scope and released a more focused device. But the broken parts of the operating system don't detract from the parts that work. You can pretend they don't exist and they won't frustrate you. I enjoy using my Apple Watch by ignoring large parts of it's functionality.

Damning with faint praise perhaps, but at the end of the day wearing the watch still wins over not wearing it. If it broke I'd buy a new one without hesitating because I've grown so accustomed to all the small gains it brings during a day.

I feel apprehensive about ever recommending it to people. A recommendation feels like an affirmation that this is a revolutionary product in the same vein as an iPhone. It isn't. At least not unless Apple significantly re-thinks aspects of it.

It's a fun accessory but it certainly isn't essential. At £300 (and upwards) that's a tough sell for a lot of people. If you're in the market for a fitness tracker you should consider it. Just don't expect it to come close to replacing your phone. Yet.


  1. It was first unveiled in late 2014; Scotland was in the midst of a big vote, the new Star Wars film didn't even have a title yet and Donald Trump was still just making The Apprentice.
  2. If you've asked me a question and received a creepy animated hand emoji as a response, this is why. I'm sorry.
  3. There are plenty of third party complications to display this information but the only ones I use are the snarky weather app by Carrot and calendar app Fantastical.
  4. This is pretty much as ridiculous as it sounds. Yet I still do it.
  5. If you compare the current Apple Watch website with the initial marketing material you get the impression that Apple has already sensed this.