From Fife to Aberdeen: Escapades in the northeast of Scotland

Aberdeenshire Fife Scotland United Kingdom

From Fife to Aberdeen: Escapades in the northeast of Scotland

The Scottish Highlands is the region not to be missed when visiting Scotland, yet another area whose landscapes and assets are to be valued is sometimes overlooked. During several trips from Edinburgh, I had the chance to discover picturesque and authentic places in the East of Scotland. Places that deserve more exploration but which, without a car, are sometimes difficult to access.

So, instead, I set out to discover a few towns by means of a guided tour from Edinburgh and another day by train. A change of scenery from the beautiful capital.

Thank you, Wikipedia

Fife

The fishing villages of Fife

There are many companies offering guided tours for all tastes. In search of unusual landscapes, we chose to head east, where a series of cute little fishing villages are nestled on quiet, sun-drenched beaches (mostly in summer). 

So, with my Swiss travel companion, before returning home, we decided to take a guided tour of Fife and St. Andrews. We took this trip from Edinburgh with Rabbie’s Tour. I highly recommend it. And then, even after 4 months living in Scotland, I was still surprised by the strong accent of our guide. It was as if I couldn’t understand a word.

What is always interesting when I undertake group activities like this is the sharing of being with people from all walks of life. We had been living in Scotland for a few months, but we were the two Swiss “tourists” surrounded by American and German tourists, discovering a particular part of Scottish culture, the fishing villages of Fife.

Our programme was as follows, according to the company’s official website Rabbie’s Tour :

«Contrast elegant architecture with sweeping coastal views. Compare the ruins of a wind-swept castle with the curves of an ancient golf course. And visit Scottish villages and towns that offer far more than their small size should allow.»

  • First stop : South Queensferry
  • Second stop : Anstruther
  • Third stop : St Andrew
  • Fourth stop : Falkland
  • Fifth stop : Loch Leven

In the end, the programme will be somewhat modified in view of the period in which we were doing this tour. Indeed, we were in mid-December and therefore the hours of light are not numerous, and it starts to get dark around 4 pm. So we would not have the opportunity to see Loch Leven which was the place where Mary Stuart was imprisoned. The place I was most looking forward to, given my interest in the woman. But, well, that’s only a postponement.

So we started the tour by discovering South Queensferry. This place will be the subject of an article soon, on the getaways at less than an hour from Edinburgh, so I simply tell you that this village is known for its architectural monument, Scottish emblem: The Forth Bridge. This allows you to cross the Firth of Forth estuary to land in Fife, the object of our visit today.

This part of Scotland is officially called the Kingdom of Fife and is located in the Forth Estuary. Where the River Forth meets the North Sea, you will find five beautiful fishing villages in the Firth of Forth.

The Scottish coast of Fife is rugged and beautiful. In addition, small fishing villages are scattered as far north as St Andrews. We didn’t visit all of them, but we did stop at Anstruther, which is the best known. So, if you are planning to explore this part of Scotland, don’t hesitate to venture to Crail, Pittenweem, St. Monans and Elie.

So Anstruther is the largest of the five fishing villages, with a bustling harbour area featuring an award-winning fish and chip restaurant and a fishing museum. So far it looked promising, but no chips were available as the area is not very touristy during winter. My lunch will have to wait until St. Andrews. Our guide advised us to try the delicious ice cream from the village ice cream parlour, a rather paradoxical idea, but having been in Scotland for a while, nothing surprised me anymore. Not really warmed up, with the strong wind that seemed to want to turn the whole of Scotland upside down, we decided to skip the ice cream and go explore the village docks as we only had about 20 minutes in Anstruther (pronounced Enster by the locals).

This is perhaps one of the disadvantages of taking part in organized tours, that of not being free to roam wherever you want. The schedule is precise, and you don’t want to be late. I wanted to explore a bit of Scotland, and this was the only way to do it at the time.

We didn’t have the opportunity to visit the village’s main attraction, the renowned fishing museum. Anstruther is also a valued place because you can take a boat trip to the Isle of May, where, depending on the season, you can see all sorts of birds, the most famous of which are of course the puffins.

But hey, it wasn’t time to take the boat, but rather to get back on the bus, frozen from a cool temperature and see our American friends, in shorts, quietly eating ice cream. We are not all alike.

St Andrews

The Scottish town of St Andrews is world-famous for one thing: golf! I don’t pretend to understand this sport by any means, as it doesn’t particularly appeal to me, at least not in practice. But there is always an interest in knowing what goes on around a famous sporting activity, especially the fact that in St. Andrews you can get away with playing the oldest courses in the world. I prefer miniature golf, but this is not associated with the town of Fife. Indeed, it is known as the home of golf and has no less than ten courses, including the Old Course, one of the oldest in the world, which lives up to its name. Golf enthusiasts can also visit the nearby British Golf Museum, which is where the bus dropped us off, but as I only had 2 hours in the city, I preferred to focus on the heritage and cultural side of what it has to offer.

St Andrews has a unique place in Scottish heritage. The town takes its name from one of Christ’s apostles whose relics, according to legend, were brought here by St Rule. It is thus the ancient religious capital of Scotland, which has developed with a priority to establish a centre of knowledge. As a result, it has many recognized structures: Scotland’s first university, a cathedral and a historic centre. It is a very pleasant place to walk around and has everything I like in a small town. Indeed, the city is cute around every corner and is perfect for relaxing, exploring and enjoying; with historic places, independent shops, nice cafés and great beaches. All in all, I’ve discovered a little sister to Edinburgh.

The city centre is lovely, it has a branch of the Topping & Company bookshop, which was described in an article on my literary favourites through a visit of Edinburgh and Scottish bookshops. I simply advise you to wander around as you please, the centre is small, and you will always end up stumbling across a little nugget, depending on your curiosity; such as the Ryman Stationery store in Market Street or the Bouquiniste bookshop, also in the extension of Market Street.

However, my favourite place was the former cathedral; former because there is not much left of it.

Indeed, when I saw this ruin, I wondered how it could still stand. And then it is surrounded by a rather gloomy cemetery. Everything I love! I also imagine the thousands of Scottish legends that emanate from this place, and I thought that this place would be interesting to discover, at dawn or at dusk, or during a traditional pagan festival like Samhainn, the Celtic religious festival that inspired Halloween.

Looking at the picturesque remains of the cathedral, I could only imagine how spectacular it must have been in its former glory. Once the largest church in the whole of Scotland, it was a very important religious centre, attracting pilgrims from far and wide in centuries past. Entrance to the cathedral ruins is free, but you can pay £5 to visit the cathedral museum and climb St Rule’s tower. This looked like an interesting activity to undertake, but our tummies were screaming, and we wanted to enjoy our picnic lunch bought in Market Street instead.

Which we did at St Andrews’ harbour. Very picturesque and in the same spirit as the fishing villages we visited that morning, this place has facilitated travel and trade in St Andrews for hundreds of years. Today, small fishing boats continue to bring in much sought after local shellfish. The harbour provides a quiet and authentic place to escape from the hustle and bustle of the town. The pier is the perfect place to enjoy a good picnic, however, watch out for the seagulls, they are voracious in Scotland… And then, the colours of the boats and buildings brighten up even the darkest or rainiest of days. Because yes, as usual, the weather was typically British.

Once we had had our fill, we continued our exploration by walking along The Pends path to discover St Andrews Castle. On the way, we discovered new ruins of a castle on the shoreline, but could not put a name to it. Until we realized that it was St Andrews Castle, but from a different perspective.

It was again an interesting atmosphere because it is in ruins and overlooks the sea with the waves crashing on the dyke below. It dates from the 13th century and was both a palace and a prison. The castle is not free to visit but can be combined with the cathedral for the price of £9.

Afterwards, we continued our walk through the meandering streets of the town in search of the historic buildings associated with the University of St Andrews. It was founded at St Andrews Priory by Scottish scholars who had studied abroad. It was founded in 1410 and three colleges were subsequently endowed – St Salvator’s (in North Street), St Leonard’s (which is now combined with the former) and St Mary’s (in South Street).

The university boasts many ‘glorious’ titles: the oldest in Scotland, the first woman to enrol as a student in Britain (1862), the first marine laboratory (1882), the first student union and the place where Will met Kate. Gossip time!

Like Edinburgh, it is a university town that promises incredible academic wealth in a city with an amazing heritage. And if you can also meet a prince, what more could you want?

Before continuing the tour, we finished our visit to St Andrews by discovering the magnificent beach called The West Sands. It is really a wonderful place to stretch your legs, especially when the tide is out. Some people were actually quite ready to swim, but I invite you instead, if you are there in the middle of December, to walk quietly, and well-dressed, on the 2 kilometres of sands that are offered to you.

Falkland

We returned to the bus to continue exploring the rolling countryside of central Fife, eventually ending up in Falkland.

At the heart of this historic village is Falkland Palace, once the principal residence of the former Scottish royal family, the Stuart. Falkland is also one of the most charming and well-preserved villages in Scotland, with many quaint cottages and winding lanes.

I am writing these few lines about this village while watching the phenomenon series Outlander, and I was not surprised when I discovered, from the first episode, that the protagonists are in Falkland. Well, the plot is set in Inverness, but the setting is indeed Falkland. Throughout my stay, I heard about this series and the filming locations in Scotland, but it’s only two years later that I’m watching it and remembering the wild beauty of Scotland. As well as that of the Scots, led by Jamie Fraser, but that’s another story.

Back to Falkland! We didn’t have time to visit the palace, but we did have time to wander around the very authentic historic centre for about ten minutes. Walking around, you get the impression that this small village has not moved since the comings and goings of the Scottish royalty. And that’s its charm. The main street culminates in a beautiful combination of the Victorian Gothic Bruce Fountain, a set of colourful shops and a turret.

I would have greatly enjoyed exploring the palace, but fortunately, the guide was able to enlighten us on many aspects of the Stuart. The palace is now mainly managed by the National Trust for Scotland but remains in the Stuart family.

Built by James IV and James V between 1501 and 1541 on the site of an earlier castle, it is considered one of the finest examples of French Renaissance architecture in the UK. Mary, Queen of Scots, used to go there to hunt and play tennis. In fact, the palace has the oldest tennis court in the world.

We headed back to Edinburgh. The last stop of the tour was normally Loch Leven and its castle, where Mary Stuart was imprisoned in 1567. But as mentioned before, it was already dark, and we headed straight back to the Scottish capital.

Grampian

Grampian is the administrative region in the North East of Scotland. With the idea of discovering another aspect of Scotland, we took the train to discover Stonehaven and Aberdeen. The rail network is well-developed, although expensive compared to the bus. But I really enjoy discovering places by train.

There are also some great scenic routes, including the one over the Glenfinnan Viaduct. You can find all the information here.

I would just advise that when you get on the train, you should make sure you know how the door opens. It may be, and this is astounding, that you have to open the door from the outside by putting your arm through the small window in the door. Not being in pole position at Stonehaven, I discovered this trickery only on the way back to the Edinburgh Haymarket stop where I wanted to get off, but I never figured out how to open the door… Luckily, the conductor was passing by and could explain to me how to open the door… In the end, it wouldn’t have been dramatic, I would have arrived at the terminus of the line, Edinburgh Waverley Central Station.

Travelling by train also allows you to see a breathtaking sunrise all along the Scottish coast.

Stonehaven

Located a few miles south of Aberdeen, Stonehaven seemed like a nice stopover before reaching the coastal city. This pretty harbour seemed to me to be the ideal starting point to reach the amazing ruins of Dunnottar Castle.

We took the train from Edinburgh and after just over 2 hours we stopped at Stonehaven. The station is on the upper side of the town, so you’ll have to walk a few dozen minutes down to the centre of the town to get to the path along the coastline to the castle.

The burgh of Stonehaven is an attractive place from which to explore the area. However, the town centre is not essential to explore, but it is always good to wander around a Scottish town. And like most places, it is the harbour and the beach that give Stonehaven the name of a pretty village. It is also where the deep-fried Mars bar was invented, the Mars chocolate bar that is fried in a doughnut batter… Besides the haggis, I think it is a typical dish that I absolutely had to try during my time in Scotland. I had one in Glasgow, but I was relieved to share it with my friends, as it was so inedible…

Just walking around and feeling the fresh air was invigorating, before a 40-minute walk to the famous ruins of Dunnottar Castle.

Arguably one of the finest castles in Scotland, the medieval fortress of Dunnottar stands atop high cliffs two miles south of Stonehaven. Although the castle fell into disrepair nearly 300 years ago, it has lost none of its charms. In fact, that’s all that makes it more attractive than some fully restored castles. And ruins are synonymous with legends and mystical atmospheres.

To make the experience perfect, I recommend that you start walking along the coastal path before you see the ruins unfolding in the distance. The scenery is stunning, with countryside and sea, sheep and seabirds and cliffs and pastures.

On the way, you can also pass the Stonehaven War Memorial. This memorial was built in 1921 to commemorate the dead of the First World War. Designed to resemble a ruined Greek temple, it serves as a symbol for the lives cut short and ruined by the war. More names were added to the monument after the Second World War.

And then, after a short 40 minutes, Dunnottar Castle finally appears resplendent in absolute beauty, standing proudly on its hillside overlooking the sea. It is said that on a clear day you can even see seals, puffins and sometimes whales going about their business. Of course, we will not see any of them, despite the bright sun.

As we had to take the bus to Aberdeen, we did not have as much time as we would have liked to explore the interior of the castle. As it sits on a steep promontory, you have to climb some stairs to get to the ruins and then visit the castle and learn more about its history. I’ve already given you enough of the history of several monuments in this article, so it will be easier to go here to discover Dunnottar’s past!

The A92 national road passes by the monument, which allowed us to take a bus towards Aberdeen. The bus stop is called Dunnottar Junction and after 45 minutes you will disembark in the granite town.

Aberdeen

We arrived in Aberdeen in the early afternoon and were surprised to discover a city different from those we had previously visited in Scotland. Aberdeen is not as charming at first glance as Edinburgh and is more likely to be compared to Glasgow, for its industrial aspect. It is the third-largest city in the country, after the two mentioned above.

But it is unique in that a large majority of the buildings are made of granite, which makes it look white and shiny on a sunny day, which it was for a few hours before the city became dull and dark when it rained. Yes, granite gives the city an attractive glow, but when low grey clouds roll in from the North Sea, it’s sometimes hard to tell where the buildings stop and the sky begins. Irreversibly, a Scottish city: always two-faced.

We got off the bus at Union Street, Aberdeen’s main street which is full of shops, boutiques and shopping centres. It really is a shopping destination, even offering shops that are not available in Glasgow or Edinburgh. With the weather becoming a bit unpredictable, we will end our Aberdeenshire trip doing some shopping, but this is not the tourist option we came to Aberdeen for. However, one fact is undeniable: this is one of the richest cities in the UK. I’ll come back to that later in this article, as Aberdeen is the offshore oil capital of Europe.

Although the city is industrial, it does have a few places of great beauty. The city centre itself is not really attractive, only the alleys of Belmont Street or Back Wynd are charming. Perpendicular to Union Street, Belmont Street is indeed the charming asset of Aberdeen. Several small shops and a slightly gloomy church make it a lively place, especially with the establishment of a cult place for students and visitors: Books and Beans, a café-library from another time!

You can then head to Old Aberdeen in the north of the city, which feels like a quiet, cobbled bubble of medieval history against the frenzy of the city centre; it is here that you can explore the university, which is also one of the oldest in Europe, and St Machar’s cathedral. It’s a 30-minute walk, however, which made us hesitate about our next move. As a result, we preferred to stay in the centre and focus on the economic side that gives the city its splendour, its maritime appeal.

Indeed, the coastal town is the gateway to the North Sea for first Scotland and then the UK. This is because of the prolific oil activity that has developed off the coast of northeast Scotland, making it an important economic hub. Aberdeen is fuelled by the North Sea oil industry. Indeed, oil money has made the city as expensive as London, with prices matching the depth of the oil pockets, although regular downturns in the industry see prices fluctuate or fall.

So we set off towards the sea. We passed Castlegate and its famous Mercat Cross. This was built in 1686 by John Montgomery, a local architect. This open-arched structure is a large hexagonal base at the centre of which stands a tree with a Corinthian capital, on which stands the royal unicorn. The base is highly decorated with medallions depicting Scottish monarchs from James I to James VII. According to local legend, the ghost of a unicorn can be seen circling the Castlegate when the full moon is visible.

Interesting, waiting for this one, but we continued walking for about ten minutes and discovered a sort of abandoned amusement park, surely, this being due to the fact that it was December. This kind of park is typical of British seaside resorts, as evidenced by the one at Portobello near Edinburgh or in the southern cities of Brighton or Eastbourne.

Although the weather was overcast, it was nice to walk along the water’s edge, to see these long stretches of sand, and this without deckchairs galore. It stretches for 3.5 kilometres from the mouth of the River Don to Aberdeen Harbour.

It is to the harbour that you should then head, walking along the pier. The harbour is huge and includes an industrial zone. Between big ships, ferries, and small boats, there is something for all maritime tastes. I was even going to check on the internet for potential northern island destinations from Aberdeen. The appointment was made for Orkney and Shetland.

There is even an area in the heart of the harbour that was specially designed for fishermen. It is called Footdee. A small town within a town where the fishermen had their own dialect and created a nice community in the middle of the industrial area.

The harbour really took off in the 19th century with the fishing of various animals, then shipbuilding and the steel industry.

If you are interested in all this in more detail, you can visit the Maritime Museum. You won’t be able to miss it with its modern glass entrance, even though it is housed in an old building. And it’s free!

As the weather cooled, we decided to go for a coffee, before our meal at the best burger restaurant in town (according to friends in Edinburgh). My paper guide advised us to go to the Bonobo Café in Skene Street. It’s a great place for a coffee break.

Then we finished this northern Scottish escapade, at Angus & Ale (don’t you think that would make a nice name for a folk music band? I just have to find a guy named Angus…). Well, Angus here is the name given to Aberdeenshire beef, reared with respect and with an art that gives its fame an international sphere. And Ale, I’m not kidding you that this is related not to me, but to beer. So Aberdeen Angus beef and craft beers are the specialities of this little gem located in an alley off Union Street. Probably one of the best burgers of my life!

Essay on my cultural identity

Reflections

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*The cover photo was taken by the talented Léa

Long before I thought about my own cultural identity, I was telling myself that three simple facts could define me: my first name, my age, and my nationality. Then, growing up and traveling mainly, I realized that other, much more significant features could also characterize me, although putting words or theoretical terms which, such as “cultural frameworks” or “small cultures” on all this, does not really help to understand the complexity of this issue.

I had to leave, travel a little to understand something: I am constantly changing, I open my eyes to the world and I confront my opinions, which transforms my identity. Traveling and becoming more adult, has taught me that you cannot be associated with one feature only. I am still Alessandra (although few people call me that, but rather Aless or Ale) and still Swiss, my age differs over the years as does my identity. It’s not something that is anchored or stabilized. Over time, it changes.

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Situated at the foot of the Black Forest mountains, Freiburg im Breisgau is a quiet little town in south-eastern Germany, which is easy to visit and where there is a lighter and kind of carefree atmosphere. With almost 1,800 hours of sunshine per year, it is the warmest city in the country. Thanks to its geographical position, many Germans, Swiss and French people take advantage of coming for a weekend, or sometimes just for a short visit, to soak up what it has to offer.

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With my eyes fixed on the gloomy sky that covers Lake Léman with an opaque mist, I see no ray of sunshine emerging from my balcony. I am simply reading but my thoughts are elsewhere. My heart too. I am nostalgic, happy to be back in my beloved Switzerland, but I can’t repress the tiny depression that hugged me when I returned at the beginning of the year 2020. It seems that students often feel this feeling when they return from a university exchange. I miss it, I miss my adventure, I miss my Scottish life, and above all I miss Edinburgh!

This state of mind doesn’t go away but, life goes on, you get used to it again, you start classes again. Then, Covid-19 takes over… It’s almost a year since I left for Edinburgh. But I look back and ask myself: How did this city manage to fascinate me so much, to give me an incredible feeling of freedom? Everyone is different and will experience the same thing in a totally distinct way, yet Edinburgh is worth visiting, worth living, and I will reveal its secrets in this article. This is the complete guide to discovering the Scottish capital.

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With over twenty destinations located throughout Quebec, according to the organisation’s official website, these parks list more than “6,995 km² of protected areas”.

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Edinburgh Europe Scotland United Kingdom

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It is true that culture, in all its forms, is present in Edinburgh, but literature is the one that stands out the most, or I would say that has touched me the most. My only desire is to return in August for the International Book Festival, which is one of the most famous in the world. And then, I discovered the history of these writers linked to the city but also to Scotland.

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The Gaspésie was my favourite stop on our Canadian road-trip! The Gaspésie is an encircled peninsula where ocean, mountains and wilderness come together. Indeed, it is this piece of land that looks like a small paw when you look at the map of Quebec. Its name comes from the Micmac “gespeg” which means “where the land ends”, and it is true that arriving at the extremity of this piece of land, I am surprised to think that indeed, facing the Atlantic Ocean, the impression of being at the end of the world is perceived.

We spent a few days discovering the Gaspesian land and its many assets that make it a popular destination for Quebecers and a destination that is as big as Belgium! As soon as we arrived in Matane with the ferry, we took route 132, which splits in two in the gaspésie to form an itinerant loop of about 885 kilometres. We decided to take the northern route of the island in order to arrive in the Bas-Saint-Laurent region while having seen the vast majority of the Gaspésie.

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Edinburgh Europe Scotland United Kingdom

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Who doesn’t know Harry Potter? I may not be a fanatic, but it is a universe that is fundamentally rooted in my generation (I was born in the year the first book came out). And then, when I arrived in Edinburgh during my university exchange, I learned that the Scottish capital was the birthplace of the young wizard.

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Highland Games: an expression of the Scottish culture

Europe Perthshire Scotland United Kingdom

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I have always wanted to attend the Olympics, indeed, as a huge sport lover (yes watching sport on television is a sport to me) being able to attend such a competition would be phenomenal. Then, two weeks before I left for Edinburgh, I discovered a documentary about the Highland Games. For twenty minutes or so, I was stunned on my sofa by what I was seeing on television – no, but who has the idea of taking a tree trunk and turning it into an event? I absolutely had to go and see it for real, but it quickly went off into a corner of my head with the last final touches before I left for my university exchange.

However, what was my surprise, when I saw the list of events for the university’s fresher’s week, to see a one-day expedition to the Pitlochry Highland Games. I could not resist the temptation.

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Behind the scenes of Guinness fabrication in Dublin: Slaìnte!

Dublin Europe Ireland

Behind the scenes of Guinness fabrication in Dublin: Slaìnte!

Dublin, the capital of Ireland, had long been on my list of European cities to discover. As you know, I have in mind to visit all the European capitals before I turn 30 (see bucket list) and for 2019, the only one that was discovered is Dublin. Apart from crossing this city off my list, Dublin was to be explored for two main reasons: Trinity College Library and Guinness Storehouse!

I will tell you more about my adventures in the library in another article, as this one will talk about Guinness, my favourite beer! So, coming to Ireland and not visiting its famous brewery would be like a serious crime for any self-respecting beer lover or who wants to spend 18,50€. But anyway, we decided to pay the entrance fee for the Guinness Storehouse, since I couldn’t leave without having discovered the secrets of this beer and above all, I also wondered if it tasted different in Ireland, but I’ll come back to that later.

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Québec guide: from Fjord-du-Saguenay national park to the Côte-Nord

Around the world Canada North America Québec

Québec guide: from Fjord-du-Saguenay national park to the Côte-Nord

This is our third step of our road trip after having spent some days at Lac Saint-Jean, which is famous for its microbreweries (I wasn’t expected Canadians to be so good at making beers). We are quietly heading towards Saguenay, a region well known for its fjord and its beautiful national park. While spending a few days in Saguenay, we had the opportunity to visit two national parks and then gently make our way to Tadoussac, a famous place in Quebec for observing whales. We were also able to discover a bit of the Côte-Nord region before boarding a ferry to reach the Gaspésie peninsula.

GUIDE TO THESE DESTINATIONS IN QUEBEC

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Piran and Izola, the pearls of the Slovenian coast

Europe Slovenia

Piran and Izola, the pearls of the Slovenian coast

During my road trip in Slovenia, we stopped for the day in Piran and Izola before starting our return to Switzerland.

DISCOVERING SLOVENIAN ISTRIA

Its history is particularly rich and long and goes back to times before the Roman Empire. This past can be felt by strolling through the narrow streets of the coastal towns but also by exploring a little further inland. Although tourism has developed greatly in this region, the human atmosphere of a very welcoming Slovenian people, open to passing travellers, is noticeable.

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An unusual Sunday at Mauerpark in Berlin

Berlin Europe Germany

An unusual Sunday at Mauerpark in Berlin

Berlin is fascinating! The German capital bears many scars left by the Second World War and by an iron curtain that split it up until 1989, yet you go there once and want to return as soon as possible.

Being a Berliner at heart and visiting this city every year, during the month I spent in this incredible city in 2016, I heard the name Mauerpark for the first time.

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Québec guide : A day in la Mauricie National Park

Around the world Canada North America Québec

Québec guide : A day in la Mauricie National Park

Vastness territory where nature is omnipresent, Québec represents a world of discoveries. During our road trip in the province, we focused on this wild natural side of the region, which led us to explore several national parks.

Quebec national parks are grouped under the name “SEPAQ”, literally “Société des Établissements de Plein Air du Québec”, administered by the Quebec government, although some of these parks are part of the Canadian national parks network. Only three parks in Quebec are given the appellation of “Parks Canada”.

With over twenty destinations located throughout Quebec, according to the organisation’s official website, these parks list more than “6,995 km² of protected areas”.

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Moravian gateway

Czech Republic Europe

Moravian gateway

CZECH THIS BEAUTIFUL REGION!

Moravia? Absolutely unknown to the battalion would you tell me. And yet, it is a magnificent region of the Czech Republic that deserves to leave the vibrant Prague to make a diversion for a few days.

Spending two days in Bratislava, I seized the opportunity to discover another aspect of the Czech Republic since Moravia is located on the Slovakian border. It also interested me to confront these two countries which, during a good part of the 20th century, were grouped into one nation: Czechoslovakia! The history of these two countries is absolutely captivating, especially because of its Austro-Hungarian past and then, of course, the Second World War and the consequences that followed (Warsaw Pact).

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Bratislava, capital in vogue

Europe Slovakia

Bratislava, capital in vogue

I decided every year to try to visit at least one European capital, in the hope of arriving at the age of 30 and having discovered them all. I made a commitment, about ten of these cities remain on my bucket list and for the year 2018 (yes, I am late in my articles), Bratislava intrigued me. Taking advantage of the extended Easter weekend, I ventured there for two days and then continued my exploration in the Czech Republic, in the Moravian region.

You don’t drool over Bratislava, but the Slovakian capital arouses curiosity. As a young emancipated city, Bratislava confronts the advantages and disadvantages of the small and recent capitals that are still developing. However, it seems to be starting to emerge from the shadows of its sisters Prague, Budapest and Vienna to become one of the new Central and Eastern European destinations that count.

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Bern, discovering Switzerland’s capital

Bern Switzerland

Bern, discovering Switzerland’s capital

For a Zurich or Geneva resident, time in Bern passes more slowly. Overcoming a hard-skinned cliché, it is true that hurry and frenetic activity are foreign words in the capital. The Bernese naturally declare that they are celebrating a true “art de vivre”. They even have their adage for their city: “Bärn i ha di gärn”, which could be translated as, “Bern, you are in my heart”. And you have to admit, you let yourself be carried through the historic town and take the time to appreciate what the town and its people have to offer.

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SRI LANKA – POL ROTI

Asia Sri Lanka Sri Lanka

SRI LANKA – POL ROTI

It was in Sigiriya that we experienced a typical breakfast for the first time. We stayed in a guesthouse which allowed us to discover the local cuisine of a multitude of flavours, somewhat spicy but delicious.

The national dish is the famous rice and curry, which will be different in each restaurant. However, although extremely good, it was the roti that was my favourite taste of the island.

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Ella, a haven of peace and greenery amid (many) tourists

Asia Sri Lanka

Ella, a haven of peace and greenery amid (many) tourists

Ella, a haven of peace and greenery, was my favourite destination in Sri Lanka. After a night’s rest in Nuwara Eliya, we said goodbye to our driver and took the train to Ella. I have already told you in the article on the itinerary that this train ride was not as beautiful as I had expected, although it is still a route that I recommend to soak up Sri Lanka. And if you’re lucky, if the weather is nice and if there are not too many people in the train (that’s a lot of ifs though), it’s the most beautiful track on the island!

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Discovering southern Sri Lanka

Asia Sri Lanka

Discovering southern Sri Lanka

When I prepare a trip, I will always “stalk” photos of the country or place in question on social networks and mainly on Instagram, in the hope of discovering places off the beaten track. There are so many places in the world that have gone from singular activities to viral places to visit during your trip. A few popular Instagrammers or Bloggers expose a simple location and then, little by little, it becomes a must-see when visiting the country!

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Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage: Is it a suitable environment for elephants?

Asia Reflections Sri Lanka

Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage: Is it a suitable environment for elephants?

*This article has been first published in April 2019 in French. Since that date, many things might have happened which is not mentioned there.

This is the question that has been debated for some time about this place, which is well known from the tourist circuits and which I also visited during my stay. By doing a little research before our trip, this orphanage seemed interesting and reliable, mainly because it is under the aegis of the government. Hotels in the area are also well rated on various sites (I always rely on Booking.com) and we had found just the right accommodation, the Elephant Bay Hotel, from where we could see the elephants bathing in the river.

The orphanage was created in 1975 by the Sri Lankan government to collect, care for and protect the elephants, the sacred animal of the island, which are victims of malicious owners, hunting, poaching and deforestation, and which have been thrown out of their natural habitat. Located in a national park, when it opened, it had only five baby elephants. Nowadays, the orphanage, located in the village of Pinnawala, is home to nearly 90 elephants, males, females and young elephants combined.

So, at first glance, it seemed like a fantastic place where we could make a positive contribution to the well-being of these animals and then when we hear “elephant orphanage”, it seems like it should be legitimate, shouldn’t it be?

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The ascent of Adam’s Peak, a stairway to heaven?

Asia Sri Lanka

The ascent of Adam’s Peak, a stairway to heaven?

When we were preparing our itinerary, this stage was very welcome, in particular knowing that we would have the opportunity to witness a magnificent sunrise. And then we also learned that it meant a lot to many cultures. Indeed, the idea of joining a stream of pilgrims of all religions for a night-time ascent seemed interesting to us, although we have no particular beliefs. Moreover, as we liked to walk in our Swiss mountains, it seemed within our reach… However, indeed, we did not expect what we discovered in terms of effort.

This summit is revered by Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians, at the crossroads of religions, since the giant footprint at the summit is variously claimed to be either that of Buddha, Shiva, Adam or St. Thomas. Several legends mention this trace. It is said to be one of the oldest and most sacred footprints ever made (this footprint was even cited in the writings of Marco Polo)!

Aerial view, image taken on the official website

Adam’s Peak in English is the most important peak on the island of Sri Lanka, but by no means the highest, an honour that goes to Mount Pidurutalagala, also located in the part of the country known as the “Central Highlands”. At 2,243 metres, the peak is located 7 kilometres from the village of Dalhousie, commonly known as Nallathanniya. The ascent consists simply (what we thought at the beginning!) of climbing steps, more than 5’500 (yes, this is where it gets complicated) to reach the summit. To give you an idea, the Eiffel Tower has 1665 steps, and the Empire State Building has 1860. As a result, in just a few hours, we climbed up and down the famous New York landmark almost three times.

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“Ayu Bowan”: Itinerary and transportation in Sri Lanka

Asia Sri Lanka

“Ayu Bowan”: Itinerary and transportation in Sri Lanka

Although not fading away immediately, the tears of the 2004 tsunami and particularly of the civil war which will have caused thousands of deaths until 2009 have calmed down and dried up so that Sri Lanka can start smiling again and above all open up to tourism. Nearly 10 years after the declaration of the end of the war, this small country has become a fashionable destination that travellers love since Sri Lanka was crowned “major destination” for Asia and “best adventure destination” in 2017 by the World Travel Awards in the Asia & Australasia category.

So it was not innocently that I ventured into these faraway lands. Firstly, with the accounts of several of my friends who had spent holidays there, this island, formerly called Ceylon, seemed to have a lot to offer, and in particular, would allow me to spend a stay filled with adventure and relaxation. Besides, I had never set foot in Asia.

Asia is a continent that at first sight does not really attract me. In fact, you evoke with me South America or Europe and I am already looking at the flights, my bank account and my availability to fly to these destinations that amaze me, whereas when you mention Asia, my heart doesn’t make as much excitement. It is true that the Asian culture and its landscapes, although so rich, have always attracted me the least. So, I also had hope when planning to go to Sri Lanka, to discover and why not fall in love with this part of the world.

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Marvel at the Iguaçu/Iguazu falls

Argentina Brazil South America

Marvel at the Iguaçu/Iguazu falls

Exhilarated, this is the feeling I had when I arrived in Brazil and met up with my two friends.  Having arrived around noon in Foz do Iguaçu, I gently acclimated myself to this country and its atmosphere. The girls took me directly to eat the traditional feijoada: in Brazil, they are the guides!

We soak up the quiet city (although some 200’000 Brazilians live there) which doesn’t offer much interest but allows us to feel safe, to tame the Brazilian culture and to enjoy a bit of rest. And then, looking back in the evening on the rooftop of our hostel, how could I be more pleased than at that moment? I’m surrounded by Argentina and Paraguay and the next day, I’m finally going to discover the Iguaçu Falls, the ones I missed on my previous trip, the year before in Argentina and Chile.

Far away, Paraguay and Argentina
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Teufeulsberg, theatre of Berlin’s history

Berlin Germany

Teufeulsberg, theatre of Berlin’s history

Sunday morning, families are cheerfully wandering, by bike or on foot, elderly people do the same, sometimes at a nicer pace, in the largest forest of Berlin, Grunewald.

Letting the walkers go deeper into the forest, we amble on the main road when suddenly a wood panel tells us to take that direction (actually, we didn’t know which way was going to the top). Heading to the hilltop, we eventually arrived up: but not on the right hill… 

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Around the world Brazil History South America

Brazil’s history

*This article has been written in January 2019. Since that date, many things might have happened which is not mentioned there.

View from the Corcovado, taken on this website

Towards independence

Despite some independence movements, Brazil became ” popular ” when the Portuguese royal family arrived in the country in 1808. As a result of this and the economic boom, many foreigners, mainly Europeans, immigrated to what they called “the new world”. A year after the return of the royal court to the country, the king’s son proclaimed the country’s independence and was crowned emperor in 1822. Without bloodshed, the transfer of power was easy but left slavery behind, which was in contrast to the reputedly liberal regime of the time. Slavery was abolished definitively many years later in 1888.

Subsequently, the republic was proclaimed in 1889. From these years onwards, a great deal of political and cultural change followed (a period of industrialisation and nationalism, but also of foreign modernist movements), which reinforced social inequalities.

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Brazilian clichés: reality or fantasy ?

Brazil South America

Brazilian clichés: reality or fantasy ?

*this article was first published in French on the 3rd of January 2019

Being the subject of fantasies or apprehension, Brazil generates a lot of clichés that are a bit hard-skinned. But are they really accurate?

For example, to mention just a few negative comments about this country, I was asked why I ventured there, apart from waddling my booty on beaches with a caipirinha in my hand, or that it was too dangerous to be an unaccompanied girl (three in this case for this trip) of a man to avoid being bothered!

To sum up, although I was a little annoyed by these prejudices about a country that does indeed have stereotypes but like every country on the planet; I challenged myself to deconstruct them and make my own analysis. Because of course, I also have my own preconceptions and I often ask myself a lot of questions about what I am going to discover while travelling. It is precisely this curiosity that allows me to change my points of view or to strengthen them, to open my view of the world and particularly of our society today.

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Tine de Conflens

Switzerland Tine de Conflens Vaud

Tine de Conflens

I am always so surprised when I talk about the Tine de Conflens and my interlocutor answers me that she/he doesn’t know this place at all. Then, I show her/him a few pictures and here I am once again on my way to make her/him discover this magnificent place.

However, more than a year ago, I didn’t know this place either. And what a discovery! Only a few kilometers from Lausanne, we can’t imagine the wonder that we are going to discover well-hidden at the heart of the Gros-de-Vaud!

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Reflections

Report on volunteer tourism

While sorting through my academic records, I came across a report that I had to submit in December 2019 as part of my Intercultural Organisational Management course at Napier University in Edinburgh.

So it occurred to me to add a new page to the blog, around travel and my reflections (click here to get there). So I am posting this report here, which has been very well received and which allows us to take into account important information when we think about voluntary work. This report stems from my personal experience but also from a reflection made throughout the semester in this course, which was very interesting and enriching. This puts certain practices into a better perspective.

Introduction

Volunteer tourism, or voluntarism, is a growing trend. But the sector is controversial (Wearing & McGehee, 2013; Guiney & Mostafanezhad, 2015). Halfway between tourism and humanitarian volunteering, the economic model of these companies has been booming since the 1990s (Miller, 2019) and continues to play a significant role in the idea of post-colonialism (McMichael, 2016) and in the exploitation of the Global South (Bandyopadhyay, 2019).

There are many discussions around volunteer tourism in terms of positive and negative effects on the different actors involved (Wearing & McGehee, 2013). Indeed, moving from a simple term of “volunteering” to “voluntarism”, we can definitely ask ourselves today whether the objective of volunteer tourism is to bring the Global South to the same level as the developed Global North or to force them to remain the same different, exotic and pure as they are projected (Bandyopadhyay, 2019). Therefore, does volunteer tourism make a real difference?

By referring to academic sources, stakeholders involved and intercultural issues, intersectional power, the role of the media, and the language will be analyzed. Finally, a brief part will examine my own reflection on volunteer tourism.

Stakeholders and intercultural issues

Voluntarism has become a real industry that brings together different stakeholders. These aid projects exist all over the world, determined by the same configuration: volunteers from the North who go to help poor communities in the South, through a wide variety of tourism or profit-making organizations, such as private companies, universities, or associations, which organize the project against expensive remuneration.

In this context, the volunteer thinks he/she is doing good while traveling. As Bandyopadhyay (2019) states, a volunteer’s vision ranges from « mixing travel and work, hedonism and purpose, charity and self-growth.” However, what are his/her real motivations? Does he/she have the skills to care for children in orphanages or to work in hospitals?

Ethical limits come into play that cast doubt on the real investment of volunteers who find themselves in an unknown place, where they do not understand the language and where their role is ambiguous since volunteers perceive themselves as helpers but, in reality, this ideal designation proves unrealistic, once the unusual and difficult cultural conditions and their reduced skills have been added to the equation (Palacios, 2019). The image of the volunteer can be compared to the one of the “White Savior” (Bandyopadhyay, 2019) or the one of the “Barbie Savior” (Wearing, Mostafanezhad, Nguyen, Thanh Nguyen & McDonald, 2018), which refers to the idea of colonialism and to the real motivations of volunteers in terms of how they perceive and do volunteer work. 

This instagram account has also tried to raise awareness on the subject

Moreover, Gray & Campbell (2007) mention that “while it is important to understand the volunteers, they represent only one half of the story”. Indeed, there are very few studies that focus on the benefits or negative aspects towards host populations. Guttentag (2009) states that there is great neglect of the desires of locals, a reinforcement of the conceptualization of the “Other”, and encouragement for cultural change.

Intersectional power

There is still a great complexity of power issues and relationships in contemporary global voluntary tourism contacts (Wearing, Young & Everingham, 2017). We must look at the structural inequality that is reproduced at each encounter. Indeed, volunteer tourism brings economically powerful volunteer people (Mostafanezhad, 2013), who have sufficient resources to afford a trip abroad, and disadvantaged host communities where poverty is a criterion for which voluntarism exists.

Concerns about helping reinforce this inequality of power and privilege and can lead to neo-colonial thinking, since the discourse (see the section below on language) of volunteering is based on the idea that a Westerner, even inexperienced and unskilled, can be an agent of change and development.

This inequality of power is enhanced by the fact that it is only Western companies that offer “volunteer packages” to see and help the “spectacle of the Other” (Hall, 1996). This is reinforced by the comments of Sardar (1999) who explains that “the real power of the Global North does not lie in its massive economic development, but rather in its power to define, represent and theorize the “Other”.” 

In the end, power is in the hands of volunteers who have paid to assume the role of specialists in local communities of which they know little (Wearing, 2001; Raymond and Hall, 2008) and sometimes for which the host feels inferior and lets the volunteer do it his/her way because he/she needs the money given by the helper (Stanley, 2017, p.112).

Role of the media and language

The volunteer tourism imagery is based on a discourse of saving and helping others. Indeed, companies that send volunteers abroad use language to make a difference to attract volunteers which reinforces the fact that volunteers leave for unreasonable reasons (Simpson, 2004). This advertising role builds a cultural and racial self for volunteers while for hosts, we find an idea of “otherness” (Stanley, 2019).

The role of the media and advertising for volunteering is clearly a kind of profiling of volunteer tourists and not of people in need, in order to express through a marketing objective the motivations of these people to be volunteers in order, then, to better meet their desires (Guttentag, 2009) and not to meet the desires of local communities. Palacios (2010) expresses the fact that the denomination of “volunteer” is also an important social marker of identity, what companies have understood and try to promote.

These companies offer catalogs with locals, often with children, that promote what Westerners find exotic and not the reality. To find volunteers, they will never, for example, highlight the traffic jams in São Paulo or the slums in India. Indeed, if we take the website of Projects Abroad (n.d.), which defines itself as “an international social enterprise specializing in the organization of volunteer missions abroad”, we quickly notice that its offer is worthy of a major tour operator with many destinations around the world. They highlight people to make a difference by going abroad but as Kascak & Dasgupta (2014) would say, can individuals taking pictures surrounded by poor children be ever justified in making a difference?

My own reflection on volunteer tourism

My feelings about volunteer tourism are simple but also complicated. As such, I have no problem with people who want to help and travel through volunteer tourism, since it can create good for communities and can be mutually beneficial. I don’t mind if people want to spend a lot of money to go and help, but it would be better to turn to local and not international agencies. In addition, I think it might be good that qualified people work in developing countries where there is a need.

However, I think that in order to avoid contributing to this business and maintaining all the criticisms that have been made on this subject, we should simply ask ourselves the right questions before leaving abroad. What I don’t like are projects that are not needed at the local level, that don’t take cultural differences into account, and that are more focused on the aspirations of volunteers than on the community they are trying to help. Indeed, I find that the motivations of volunteers are very paradoxical because the final aim is never really to help people but rather to help oneself, to contribute to one’s own development

Conclusion

It cannot be denied that volunteer tourism is the subject of strong criticisms and there are valid concerns. It is true that with all this, as Wearing, Young & Everingham (2017) state, we are missing what voluntary tourism should be, which is bringing together volunteers and host communities, whether through preservation or community-based projects to cooperate in reciprocally valuable cultural interactions.

I think that a greater awareness of the possible negative impacts of the sector is needed so that missions can be developed in an optimal way for all stakeholders.

References

Bandyopadhyay, R. (2019). Volunteer tourism and “The White Man’s Burden”: globalization of suffering, white savior complex, religion and modernity. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 27:3, pp. 327-343. DOI: 10.1080/09669582.2019.1578361.

Gray, N. & Campbell, L. (2007). A decommodified experience? Exploring aesthetic, economic and ethical values for volunteer ecotourism in Costa Rica. Journal of Sustainable Tourism 15(5), pp. 463–482.

Guiney, T. & Mostafanezhad, M. (2015). The political economy of orphanage tourism in Cambodia. Tourist Studies, 15(2), pp. 132–155.

Guttentag, D. A. (2009). The possible negative impacts of volunteer tourism. International Journal of Tourism Research, 11, pp. 537–551. DOI: 10.1002/jtr.727

Hall, S. (1996). Ethnicities. In D. Morley & K. Chen (Eds.), Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies. London: Routledge.

Kascak, L., & Dasgupta, S. (2014, June 20). #InstagrammingAfrica: The Narcissism of Global Voluntourism. Pacific Standard.

McMichael, P. (2016). Development and social change: A global perspective. New York: Sage Publications.

Miller, M. (2019, 28 May). Les dérives du « volontourisme » chez les étudiants. Le Monde. Retrieved from https://www.lemonde.fr/campus/article/2019/05/28/les-derives-du-volontourisme-chez-les-etudiants_5468320_4401467.html

Mostafanezhad, M. (2013). The politics of aesthetics in volunteer tourism. Annals of Tourism Research, 43, pp. 150–169. Doi:10.1016/j.annals.2013.05.002.

Palacios, C. M. (2010). Volunteer tourism, development and education in a postcolonial world: conceiving global connections beyond aid. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 18:7, pp. 861-878. DOI: 10.1080/09669581003782739.

Projects Abroad. (n.d.). About Projects Abroad. Retrieved from https://www.projects-abroad.org/about-us/

Raymond, E. & Hall, C. (2008). The development of cross-cultural (mis)understanding through volunteer tourism. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 16(5), pp. 530–543.

Sardar, Z. (1999). Orientalism. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.

Simpson, K. (2004). “Doing development”: The gap year, volunteer-tourists and a popular practice of development. Journal of International Development, 16, pp. 681–692.

Stanley, P. (2017). A Critical Auto/Ethnography of Learning Spanish. p. 112. Routledge.

Stanley, P. (2019). Lecture 11 – Case study: volunteer tourism. [PowerPoint slides] Retrieved from https://moodle.napier.ac.uk/course/view.php?id=31088

Wearing, S. (2001). Volunteer Tourism: Experiences that Make a Difference. CABI Publishing: New York.

Wearing, S. & McGehee, N. G. (2013). Volunteer tourism: A review. Tourism Management, 38, pp. 120–130.

Wearing, S. Young, T. & Everingham, P. (2017) Evaluating volunteer tourism: has it made a difference?. Tourism Recreation Research, 42:4, pp. 512-521. DOI: 10.1080/02508281.2017.1345470.

Wearing, S., Mostafanezhad, M., Nguyen, N., Thanh Nguyen, T. & McDonald, M. (2018). ‘Poor children on Tinder’ and their Barbie Saviours: towards a feminist political economy of volunteer tourism. Leisure Studies, 37:5, pp. 500-514. DOI: 10.1080/02614367.2018.1504979.