Top 10 things to pack for Europe

As my cousin Elena gets ready for a semester abroad, I wanted to share my best tips for what accessories and tools to pack for a good trip to Europe. These are the top items that made my last trip a success – what else would you add, dear readers?


  1. Locks. They’re not just for (illegally) adding to bridges in Paris, these are also great for keeping your stuff secure – I got this TSA-approved duo. This is especially helpful if you’re sleeping on a train, putting your suitcase in the other end of a train car where you wouldn’t be able to see someone reaching in, or leaving your valuables at your hotel. Honestly, if someone is desperate enough to steal your stuff, they’re going to take your entire bag – but if a thief is just fishing around for something easy (as was the case when a cousin had her iPad and nothing else stolen in Europe…) this can be the first step in thwarting them.
  2. A travel power strip. I bought the Belkin travel charger and it was great for expanding my charging power while keeping all my devices in one place (the easier to collect when packing or locking up for the day!). Get one and then get a local power converter and you won’t have to worry about blowing your fuses or having one of your devices go without a charge.
  3. A portable charger. One more technology item I recommend – portable chargers are great if you’re using your phone as your camera / map / texting device / place to keep tickets and confirmations / etc. Get a small power cell and a retractable (or just short) power cord to make a little power-on-the-go kit that will mean you never need to cut an adventure short because your battery is running low.
  4. Ear plugs. Whether you’re sharing a hostel with a snoring roommate or your Airbnb is next door to a building with an alarm going off 24/7 (true – bad – story), it sucks to pay exchange prices for something so small that you can get so cheaply before you leave home.
  5. Printed copies of documents. You know what else is no fun? Finding out that you needed to have that ticket to Versailles or wherever on paper and then needing to find an internet cafe in Paris to print it at. Just don’t do it. Keep at least one copy of all important travel plans and bookings – including a copy of the first page of your passport – on paper so that when you wake up in the middle of the night and want to confirm that you didn’t miss your plane, you don’t need to frantically search through your email to be reassured. (Also leave a copy of that front page of your passport, insurance card, etc. with your family at home so they can help you out if all your stuff somehow disappears.)
  6. Passport organizer. Then, keep that all organized! I almost bought many beautiful passport cases before eventually getting a neat pencil bag from Target that became my go-to for traveling. My passport lived in here (which in turn lived in a locked pocket of my suitcase) and it also held my American money, extra credit card, visa for Turkey, etc. It’s nice to have one place that you don’t constantly mess with where you know everything is safely stored.
  7. US medicine and a prescription plan. Do you know how to say “decongestant” in Spanish? How badly do you want to try? For me, the answer is not at all, so I pack as many US meds as I think I might need before I leave home. Painkillers in particular can be quite different between countries, and I prefer to know I’m having a drug I’m familiar with in a dosage that’s proven to work for me. I always bring decongestants and allergy meds, since I get stuffed up from planes and need to recover quickly to enjoy my trip. I also recommend refilling / reactivating any prescriptions you think you could need – whether that means getting a spare inhaler just in case or asking your doc for a z-pack if you always get sick in a particular time of year – even if they won’t pre-authorize it, at least you can have it on hold and quickly call it in as needed.
  8. Packing cubes. I am a devoted follower of packing cubes and their ability to help you keep your clothes neat, compact, and organizer. Having all your running clothes, or all the clothes you need to keep clean for the plane right home, or all your underwear in one place can reduce the stress of hauling so much stuff around with you. It also makes it much easier to find the small things (chargers, souvenirs) in your bag than if everything were floating around. Ikea has a good set but you can also find really good deals at most Marshall’s – I propose getting a mix of closed, waterproof packs and some that are more meshy for when you don’t need things to be so tightly packed (or just get the top seller on Amazon!).
  9. Word Lens, Duolingo, and WhatsApp. Download these before you go and they will change your interactions (and maybe even your life?). WordLens is an app that automatically translates photos into different languages – so if you end up in Germany, you can point your camera at a menu and order with confidence (warning: organ meat is still just organ meat…). No internet connection required! If you want to prepare further in advance, get Duolingo and its free suite of language training programs. Hearing phrases before you actually get into a country can help break through barriers and put you at ease when you actually arrive. And finally, WhatsApp is the preferred way for expats and others to chat with folks back home. It’s a free messaging service that works just like texting but uses only an internet connection. That way, no matter what someone’s area code is, you can start chatting and send photos, etc.
  10. A good scarf. Last but definitely not least – scarves are a staple of my wardrobe, and a great thing to have when traveling. They dress up an outfit, help you hide coffee mishaps, double as blankets when picnicking… the list goes on and on. Scarves make great accessories to hunt for during your travels (Katie got a great one in Paris that got compliments throughout Spain and Turkey) but you should also have one you love before you hit the road.  I splurged on a travel infinity scarf from Boston-based Speakeasy Supply Co, mostly for the hidden pocket. Whenever I was wearing a skirt or leggings, this provided me with an easy pocket and also let me hold my passport and phone close to my body when out in public or dozing on a train.

On top of all this, you’ll want a classic wardrobe (that doesn’t brand you immediately as an American), a good purse, great walking shoes, layers, nice clothes for going out… the list is as endless as your suitcase! But if you start with some good, functional tools, you’ll be on the right track for a successful trip.

Bon voyage, ma cousine!

Climb ev’ry mountain

One of the coolest things I did in Hawaii – or maybe in my entire life to date – was to drive to the top of Haleakalā, a massive shield volcano that makes up more than 75% of Maui.  It took hours to get to the top of the crater, switching back and forth slowly up the side (emphasis on slowly – those turns were not for the faint of heart).  But what we saw at the 10,000 foot top made the dizzying drive worthwhile.


It was like being on another planet – Mars, specifically.  I lost all depth perception in the sweeping hills of red and black dust. Rocks looked like I could reach out and touch them, when in reality, they were miles away.

We didn’t stay up there too long – we were originally going to watch the sunset, but decided it wasn’t worth driving down in the dark.  We did catch a glimpse of the splendor on the way down, but it was really the scene from the top that stuck with me the most.  It was a breathtaking reminder of just how unexpectedly awesome a view can be – and how worthwhile it is to make the trek (though maybe pack your inhaler next time, lady…).


And it gave me a final push to take on one of the last big challenges I wanted to tackle before I turn 30 in October: Mount Washington.  Despite growing up in NH, I’ve never once set foot on the top of this giant mountain.  My good friend Kate, who rowed crew with me back at Mount Holyoke (aka my twin because our coach thought we were the same person…) is going to hike it with me this summer.  I don’t know what path we’ll take yet (but I’m taking suggestions!) but I’m more convinced than ever that the view at the top will be mind-boggling and worth every step. Leave your hiking advice below, please!

Sunset on our descent

(All photos are my own!)

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!


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!


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!


Questioning my life choices in Hawaii


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


#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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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.


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.



Euro Top 10: #5 – Barcelona’s beaches


#5 – Barcelona’s beaches

This was originally going to be #9 because it was definitely one of the top moments of the trip, but after the month we’ve had, I needed some sunshine a little earlier in my life.  Boston has been walloped with more than seven feet of snow in the last three weeks, making this the snowiest month since weather was first recorded in the city in 1872.  Let that sink in.  But don’t get frostbite while you do it – the temps are so low that you can be at risk of losing fingers in just 10 minutes.

It’s hard to believe that just a few months ago, I was lying on a beach in Spain.  Yes, it was fall.  Yes, we had about 10 total hours of daylight each day to work with. But coming from New England, I was more than satisfied with the mere moments we were able to spend on the warm sand.


Le Barceloneta


This is the beach in Le Barceloneta.  We walked all the way down to that harbor area with the ships, where there was a concert going on, including food truck and a DJ, whose smooth jams we heard up and down the beach all day.

We lay on the beach on the two small towels we brought with us, and Sara told us about how in Valencia, people give massages on the beach.  Alas, here we “just” saw people selling mixed drinks out of coconuts, big beach blankets, bottles of water, etc.  We liked to watch the drama unfold and see who else on the beach was giving into these passing temptations.  And I declared that if Sara could materialize a masseuse for me, I would be the happiest person who ever killed her back lugging a suitcase for a month.

Then, behold! Someone did come by.  An older woman who Sara was able to negotiate with in Spanish.  She gave me one of the best massages of my life, and it only cost 5 euros for about 15 minutes.  Ridiculous.  It was a surreal, lush experience, to be lying on a blanket with my bare back to the sky, my friends sitting next to me, getting my shoulders rubbed.  I would like to go back there right now, pretty please!


Barcelona beach stones


The other amazing thing about the beach was the sand itself.  It contained so many large, beautiful stones, unlike any beach I’ve been on before.  They were all about the size of your fingernails, and the most beautiful colors (the photo above has had zero editing!).  They hurt to walk on after a bit, but Katie and I had a blast digging through them and filling our pockets with treasures.


Le Barceloneta with the W Hotel in the background


Because October is the off-season, we didn’t have to share the beach with many people, which was perfect for us.  But getting here at all was a good reminder that even though we might not think of ourselves as beach people, even though we love the culture and history and gourmet food the actual city has to offer, we all need some time on the sand every now and then, whether or not we know it in advance.  This has already played a big part in planning my next trip to Hawaii with my sister, where we’re trying to limit what we book ourselves for and instead leave ourselves lots of time for just soaking up the sunshine.

And next time I go back to Barcelona, I’m aiming to get a massage AND a drink out of a pineapple.

The #5 is brought to you from a sign in the Barcelona metro.

All photos are my own unless otherwise stated.

Click here to read the other posts in this series.