Vacation truths

When I go on vacation with my sister, some things are guaranteed:


1. We will try – and fail – to stay still and relax.
We did chill out on the beach and at Twin Falls, but we also drove for five hours yesterday. We can’t stop (won’t stop) moving!

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2. We will get sunburnt – our Polish/ French skin is no match for the morning sun glinting off the ocean, as this week’s snorkel adventure reminded us.

3. We will take jumping pictures. It wouldn’t be a sister-vacation without a carefully timed photo session – we also got into someone else’s cheesy photos when I was asked to be the O in their OHIO!

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4. We will sing show tunes. All those years of practicing our parts in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” really show when you get us alone in a car for hours!

5. We will have a blast. My sister is a badass, great navigator, good meal-sharer, and overall awesome friend, and I wish we could have this kind of adventure every day. For now, I’m soaking up every minute until we go back to our own cities and then immediately planning our next trip. Huzzah!

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Questioning my life choices in Hawaii

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I’ve been here exactly one day, and I get it.

I get why people come to this island and never leave.  I understand the appeal of the sunshine and the clear blue ocean and the fresh fish.  And also, did I mention the perfect 75-degree days and that where I come from, we have had seven feet of snow this winter?

Sitting on the beach today, it was hard not to wonder why this isn’t my everyday life.  Why do I sit in an office instead of a lounge chair, why not trade email for books marked with sunscreen fingerprints? Why didn’t I go to a college somewhere tropical? Why am I not a professional volleyball player (related not to my skill but to the fact that the college women we saw playing today looked like they were having a TON OF FUN!)?

Such is the joy of vacation – forcing you to question the world and your place in it, even if you don’t quit your job (don’t worry guys, I’m not done saving the world – be back next Monday as planned!).  Because really, I loved my New England school and the winter makes me appreciate the sunshine more (or something).

Stay tuned for more deep thoughts and hopefully no sunburns over the next week!

As we say in my family, go if you're going!

As we say in my family, go if you’re going!

Euro Top Ten: #10 – Dinner in Istanbul

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#10 – Dinner in Istanbul

Sometimes, a layover is more than just a layover. And a dinner is more than just a dinner.

Sometimes, a single inexpensive meal can be the perfect bookend on an amazing journey – and open your eyes to a new world of possibility.

Our layover in Turkey, during our flight home from Europe, was a bit of a crapshoot.  It took a while to get out of the airport, and then I thought there was something wrong with my visa (turned out the issue was that the immigration agent was so busy flirting with me, he forgot to save my info and had to chase me through the airport. No biggie…).  We had no idea if we were going the right way on the train, or if our luggage was really safe being left on the plane (we only took carry-ons off), and we were holding fistfuls of money, since the exchange rate in Turkey was in our favor.  But as we got off the train to the sound of the evening prayer, all our anxiety faded away.  It was replaced with awe, and reverence.

Over the previous month, I had danced in British clubs, seen top-notch theater, admired famous works of art, eaten croissants on the bank of the Seine and wine on plazas in France, been massaged on a beach and hustled by someone at a train station, and more.  But the magic of Istanbul made dinner here my favorite moment of the trip.

The restaurant we stopped at, Mesale Cafe, had it all. Cushioned benches.  A cat at the table next to us that was bold enough when it was being fed to jump right up onto the table.  The sweet smell of hookah from people smoking around us.  And a perfect view of the live music and dancing – really spinning – on the stage at the front of the place, which drew us in initially.

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We ate like queens, tasting marinated chicken and meat crepe-like pancakes, made by women sitting mere feet from our table.  We drank literally every tea on the menu, and when we were done, our waiter said “just one more!” and then brought us a syrupy-sweet concoction that was a mix of all the teas together.

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We sat back against the pillows.  We paused and didn’t check Facebook.  We watched the dancers and smoke and shifting lights – and we realized that this was only the beginning.  If this city, that seemed so foreign and daunting, could be so sweet and beautiful and welcoming, nothing should hold us back.  We immediately started dreaming bigger – Katie of Thailand, me of rural Turkey, to visit a college roommate.

By the end of the meal, we were only out about $18 total – and in addition to our full stomachs, we gained an awareness that no adventure is inherently off-limits in this vast and wonderful world.  Even if you start with a layover, getting your feet on the ground is a perfect beginning.

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Spice market, Istanbul

 

Read my initial post about the best layover ever here.

The #10 is brought to you from the streets of Carcassonne.

All photos are my own unless otherwise stated.

Click here to read the other posts in this series.

Euro Top Ten: #9 – Carcassonne

#9 – Carcassonne

My name is Sally, and I am a giant nerd.

I’ve been this way my whole life, but this trip to Europe really cemented the title.  When Katie and I first started planning our trek through France (before we even knew who else was coming) one of us had the brilliant idea to go to Carcassonne.  We love the board game of the same name – it’s one of the best two-player games ever.  In it, you build walled cities, claim roads, farm fields, and complete cloisters.  You know, typical activities of the French countryside.

Because this isn’t some made-up place (ahemahemCatanahemahem) – it’s an honest to god city in France, and we planned basically our entire lives trip around going there.

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It was everything we dreamed it would be and more. The walled city itself was incredibly beautiful – cobblestones, winding paths where you have no choice but to get hopelessly lost. Abandoned fountains in courtyards, chip shops run out of literal holes in the wall, a beautiful cathedral.  Everywhere we turned we saw sunshine slanting between towers and over the stone walls.

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The main castle at Carcassonne – Château Comtal – was built in the 12th century.  Over the years, this French city actually served as the border with Spain (which is crazy, if you see if on a map today). The city had a turbulent history which mostly involved many phases of people taking over the walled city, driving out all the old inhabitants. and gradually developing suburbs (from which they tried to lure people back into the city to actually fill it).

The castle was restored in 1853, back when preservation/restoration was still a relatively new idea.  It was a challenge to find a single period to restore the castle to, so they went with a bit of a mish-mash and the result is fascinating.  Horseshoe shaped towers stand next to ramparts that are separated by hundreds of years. My favorite parts were the views from the top of the hill (way to pick a prime castle location, builders of yore!) and the simple, practical design of the entire place – like the carefully crafted yard by the drawbridge that was designed to give archers easy aim at anyone who snuck in.  Imagine shooting fish in a barrel and you’ll know how likely it was that the people on the ground weren’t going to make it to see the inner courtyards.

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Our day in Carcassonne was nothing short of spectacular.  It was a reminder of the value of the past – and the joy of the present, which lets NH nerds visit the land from their board game dreams.
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Tips for visiting Carcassonne:

  • You don’t need to stay overnight – we took a train in the morning from Toulouse
  • Spend some time winding you way up to the castle – the bridges leading there are gorgeous (but you can skip the museum in the city center)
  • Take the audio tour – it gives you some seriously amazing history
  • Splurge on some fun souvenirs – where else are you going to get a Carcassonne shot glass or tea towel? NOWHERE.
  • Generally, follow your weirdest, nerdiest dreams and you’re bound to find some pretty great adventures in the real world along the way.

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The #9 is brought to you from a playground in a schoolyard in Carcassonne.

All photos are my own unless otherwise stated.

Click here to read the other posts in this series.

I CLAIM THIS ROAD!

I CLAIM THIS ROAD!

Mic: check!

I’ve never been shy about taking the stage. I remember being in third grade and singing the solo in the Hanukkah song in an elementary school holiday concert.  As I got older, I sang with choirs, played my clarinet in band, even tooled around on a bass guitar in jazz band.  I had a few lines as a lovely lady in Les Mis and was a Bali Ha’i dancer in South Pacific.  But since I didn’t take up acoustic guitar until after I’d graduated from college, I never had a chance to play in public – until this weekend.

I headed back to my hometown in NH for the weekend to play at the local (read: only) coffeeshop’s open mic night. The shop itself is related to my theatrical past – it’s housed in the old train station, which was actually the hardware store when I was growing up. Katie and I used to go there about twice a week (or day) to buy paint for flats and signs and furniture. In the audience were old friends, my middle school shop teacher, the town librarians, etc. So much hometown love.

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And SO MUCH FUN.  I played two songs – cut out the middle one because the program was running a little long.  First my dad and I sang “Jolene” by Dolly Parton – I was inspired by a first date I went on a few weeks ago where I heard a woman kill it. Thanks for taking me to that bar, Ryan! And then I sang and played “You and I” by Lady Gaga alone – an anthem to my “cool New Hampshire guy.”

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After all that time of planning, and all that hype, it was so much easier than I expected.  And so much more exhilarating. I added this to my five year plan because it seemed like something good to try “before I got too old” but actually, it struck a serious chord (teehee) in my heart. I think I’m going to have to look at going bigger… maybe even seeing if there are any bands that need guitarists…?

Lesson learned: always push yourself and try new things – it might not only make you tick, but also inspire some further desire!

So much love to my mom and sis for cheering me on, bro-in-law Wes for also playing for the first time, cousin Sophie and uncle Andy for rocking it, dad for always playing by my side, and Ashley, Zak, and Rachael for coming to cheer me on.

Now, onward to the rest of the fun adventures on my list, and all those I haven’t even thought to write down!

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Euro Top Ten : #8 – Airbnb

#8 – Airbnb

I like to think of Airbnb as the totally unofficial sponsor of my latest journey abroad.  Of the 31 nights I spent in Europe, all but one evening was spent in an Airbnb.  It’s what made it possible for me to afford a month of rent in London.  It’s how we were able to stay in four cities in one week, and how my parents were able to stay with me for no extra cost.

Airbnb is part of the new “sharing economy” that allows people to rent out their homes to travelers.  It’s free to register, and the rates for housing vary by location.  My apartments in London were a steal at $100-120 a night to have a one-bedroom to myself, including fees, exchange rates, and the fact that I had lots of nights when my friends and family were staying with me. In our upcoming trip to Hawaii, my sister and I are paying $100/night for two twin beds in a guest house in Maui.

But more than just the price, Airbnb gives you a home.  It gives you a kitchen, and a bath, and your own space (as opposed to a hostel where you share everything).  It comes with a washer, a dryer, a wonky floor where the tiles creak under your feet as you walk to the balcony for your morning coffee.  Someone else’s books to leaf through and closets to resist looking at (though one host did tell me I could wear his sweaters if I got cold!). It includes a friend to text when the hot water doesn’t run in the morning (“just wait until everyone else goes to work!”) and a recommendation for a coffee shop where the locals really do go, along with access to neighborhoods and cities and experiences that you’d never get if you stuck to the beaten path.

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Our home away from home in Montpellier

 

Airbnb really did lead me to some amazing places.  In London, I stayed a bus ride away from Big Ben and then right off Gray’s Inn Road and found that I loved the more remote location better.  In Paris, we rented a space the size of a trailer (too small for what ended up being four of us!) and had to check under all the fourth floor doormats for keys because we had no idea which apartment was ours – luckily no one caught us in the act.  In Montpellier, we stayed in a gorgeous apartment with the most comfortable couch I’ve ever slept on in my life. In Toulouse, our adorable host carried ALL OUR BAGS up the stairs himself, and invited us to go through his DVD collection (he and his wife have also written to me since we returned to say Merry Christmas, etc. Merci Amelie et Manu!). And in Barcelona, the weird dorm-like place we rented was perfectly located for late nights out and coffee at the bakery downstairs.

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Rooftops of London from Airbnb #2

 

I know that in some parts of the US especially, Airbnb has had some negative press lately for people who are using the service to operate what are essentially hotels, or to undermine the rental market. I can’t speak to the economic impact of Airbnb (I was an English major…) but I do know that it opened doors to me that surely would have stayed closed without this housing option, and I’m grateful.  I hope the regulations can be worked out so that people with good intentions can keep lending their spaces and encouraging adventures, here and abroad!

As a 29-year-old woman, I think I’ve outgrown the youth hostel scene – I want more personal space than they allow.  And as a solo traveler, it’s key that that space is safe and centrally located, and I can stay much longer since it’s also affordable. When I did have a problem with one of my London apartments, Airbnb tried to help me solve it (then I fixed it myself, because I’m badass like that).  I’d go back to the rest of these places in a heartbeat, and would love to be a host myself some day.  Until then, I’ll just keep dreaming of the treehouses, igloos, mansions, and islands I could rent with the click of a button!

Check out Airbnb – use my code and get $25 off your first reservation!

The #8 is brought to you from somewhere in Paris.

All photos are my own unless otherwise stated.

Click here to read the other posts in this series.

Euro Top Ten : #7 – A geek’s paradise

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#7 – A Geek’s Paradise

Confession: #7 was going to be the Harry Potter Experience, outside London, because it was easily one of the most fun things I’ve ever done in my life.  But it’s also one of the few things I covered well in the midst of my travels (you should read about it here!) so I’m expanding this superlative to include a wider swath of geeky adventures.

This post is dedicated to the literature nerd – the girl with her nose in a book, the one who bought a wand even though the conversion rate was ridiculous, who was late to meet her friend for dinner because she was too busy trying on deerstalkers and seeing which one would go best with her pipe.

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On duty at 221B Baker Street

 

It’s for the roommates whose very first piece of art in their apartment was a reprint of an oil painting of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy.  For those travelers who dance on the steps of the Mirabell Gardens just like the Von Trapp children, and those whose itinerary is driven by their favorite board games (more on that later…).

Just posing with some french bread, waiting for the town to wake up and saaaaaay - BONJOUR!

Just posing with some french bread, waiting for the town to wake up and saaaaaay – BONJOUR!

While people around the world dream of seeing the Big Apple (which is lovely, don’t get me wrong), my heart belongs to the rooftops of London, where Bert and Mary Poppins could appear on the horizon any time.  To the corner of Covent Garden where you expect to see Eliza Dolittle selling her flowers, to the Notting Hill bookstore where Hugh Grant would fit right in.  Europe may be the land of culture and history, but to me, it’s also the land where my wildest, nerdiest dreams come true.

Exchange rates be damned - YOLO!

Exchange rates be damned – YOLO!

And yes, that’s the elder wand.  Go big or go home, right? In the end I had to do both – but I left some of my nerdy heart in Europe.  As if I needed a reason to return!

 

Read more about my Harry Potter nerdiness here.

The #7 is brought to you from a train platform in France.

All photos are my own unless otherwise stated.

Click here to read the other posts in this series.