Up and Down Italy

It’s only been almost a year(!) since I visited Italy, so I figured now was as good a time as any to finally finish my travelogue and share a few of my favorite photos from the last stop of my whirlwind European study abroad tour.

If you don’t know much about Italy (other than its cuisine, of course,) you probably at least know that it’s shaped liked a boot; a long, narrow country whose northern and southern regions are virtually polar opposites in numerous ways, and so it only seemed right that our 10 day Italian tour-de-force take us from top to bottom.

Time and money constraints (this was the last trip of my five-month study abroad experience, after all,) made going off the beaten path to places like Lake Como and Cinque Terre out of the question, as highly-recommended as these places were, and so it was decided between my two travel companions and I that we would stick to the major cities.

After much deliberation and careful planning, we finally had our route mapped out; flying into Venice, and then traveling by train down to Florence, onto Rome, and finally ending our trip in Naples and Capri, alotting about two days for each stop. I had heard rave reviews of northern Italy from friends who had been, but knew I couldn’t leave Europe without seeing Rome for myself, and the sun and sandy shores of southern Italy were certainly inviting after many rainy months in London.

And so, with 10 days of clothes and toiletries crammed into our over-stuffed carry-ons, we boarded an early morning flight for Venice, leaving London just as the sun was rising, and arriving in Italy with the whole day ahead of us. Venice Treviso, like many European airports, is seemingly postage stamp-sized, but this at least made our arrival into Italy relatively quick and painless. Within minutes of deplaning, we had gotten our passports stamped and purchased bus tickets to take us into Venice proper (the city is, after all, essentially an island with a narrow land bridge.)

While we had envisioned leaving rainy London for the sun-soaked terra cotta of Italy, our time in Venice was quite the opposite. It was raining the day we arrived, though not quite a London drizzle, but more of a humid, misty rain, and I was surprised by just how swampy and lush-green the land surrounding Venice seemed to be. As we passed peeling gray stucco estates with wrought iron gates and ivy crawling up the walls, I got the sense that maybe this would finally be a city that looked exactly the way I had envisioned. And ultimately, Venice was everything I expected it to be and more.

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DSC_5160In many ways, Venice doesn’t quite feel like a real city. It’s all narrow, winding alleyways, ornate gondolas and turquoise blue canals, rainbow colored stucco and eye-popping, mouth-watering gelato around every street corner. It feels a bit like being in a theme park, or wandering through a movie set, its essence is so charming and foreign and quaint. After some difficulty navigating through alleyways that all look the same and often lead to dead ends, opening onto the canals or brick walls, we finally found our hostel, on the third floor of an unassuming building demarcated by only the smallest of signs. Though we had booked a six person room for frugality’s sake, we were shown to one set up for three people, essentially our own private suite. We each had our own wardrobe and single bed (no hostel bunks!), were able to simply latch our bedroom door instead of using lockers, and best of all, had a window with rustic old shutters that we could lean out of and take in a view of the rainy alleyway and canal below (I’ll admit to feeling a bit like Juliet as I did so.)

Before arriving in Italy, I’d heard all about the supposed rudeness of Italians, and was prepared for anything in Venice. Looking back on it now, though, not only do I not recall any negative experiences, I hardly remember interacting with people at all. Venice felt the most dream-like of any Italian city I visited; it was rainy and muggy and mysterious, romantic and historic, electric and exciting but also incredibly calming, as though there were a hush over the city, a perpetual siesta. We dined on coffee and croissants at open-air cafes, ate entire pizzas ourselves, indulged in gelato every day (sometimes more than once a day, actually.) We wandered through a bookshop brimming with vintage, tattered novels, alcoves opening onto canals and an emerald-eyed resident cat. We walked from one end of the city to the other, beginning at the bus stop and tourist center and ending in what I can only describe as the “suburbs” of Venice; a quieter, greener part of the city where we ate paninis among locals at a tiny cafe where hardly anyone spoke English, and felt a little like we’d stumbled upon someplace secret in a city that already felt like a magical world all its own.

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Due to train schedules, Florence ended up being the shortest of our four stops, but it was memorable nonetheless. It’s a richly historic city nestled in the iconic mountainous region of Tuscany, a picturesque postcard of everything quintessentially Italian. The streets are cobblestoned, the skyline is dotted with topiaries and cathedrals, the wine is free-flowing and the sunsets spectacular. Our first stop in the city, a biker bar down the street from our hostel, was deciding un-Italian, but with cheap food and beer, friendly locals, and even a dog or two, it made for the perfect dinner stop for hungry, weary travelers, and we were quickly welcomed with open arms by raucous locals watching the night’s soccer match on the edge of their seats.

Requisite stops included the Il Duomo di Firenze, which affords breathtaking, 360-degree panoramas of the entire city and surrounding region — once you’ve braved the 400-plus steps to the top. Despite being relatively uncrowded the day we visited, we ultimately waited more than an hour to get inside because, as we later discovered, a woman had twisted her ankle on the climb up and required paramedics to be brought back down. At more than 600 years old, the Il Duomo understandably has no elevators, and its narrow staircase is both the only way up and down, slowing the journey considerably and causing a number of headaches when several young children decided to abandon the climb and throw fits right on the staircase until their parents begrudgingly agreed to fight against the oncoming foot traffic and turn back.

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Other memorable stops included the Boboli Gardens, which are about as Tuscan as anyone could ask for, offering even more incredible views of Florence and surrounding vineyards, ancient sculptures and artwork, and even a wine and coffee bar in the outdoor lounge at the top. We also toured the iconic — and incredibly crowded — Ponte Vecchio Bridge, ate gelato at sunset along the Arno River, and feasted on what was easily the best pizza I’ve ever eaten in my life at Gusta Pizza, where the lines are long (but completely worthwhile) and the pies are heart-shaped.

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Next up was Rome, a city I’d never felt a strong pull to visit (and yes, I’ve seen The Lizzie McGuire Movie,) and actually being there didn’t endear it to me any more. After arriving into the capital on a late-night train from Florence, we navigated the cobblestone streets to our hostel, which had been ill-advisedly booked because it was the cheapest place we’d found online. Our hostel was an…experience, to say the least, one which I have neither the time nor the energy to recount here, but suffice it to say that being taken to another building in the middle of the night, placed in a bedroom without lockers or a door that locked, and receiving at least one remark from the male hostel owners about our being “too pretty to pay” raised more than a few red flags and was cause enough for us to high-tail it out of there, even with nowhere else to stay.

Going door-to-door in an attempt to find a hotel room in the middle of the night in Rome, travel-weary and saddled with all of our valuables, is one study abroad memory I won’t soon forget. Eventually, after many rejections, we were able to secure a single hotel room, which contained one bed the three of us slept across sideways and a shower in which I could barely turn around. While returning to our hostel to retrieve our things, we happened to run into a concierge who had apologetically told us his hotel was full, but who remembered us and whose inquiry about whether we had found somewhere else to stay helped restored my faith in people that night. The next morning, we were well-rested enough to return to the hostel and demand to be reimbursed for the subsequent nights we had booked. I was painfully aware of embodying the ugly American tourist stereotype throughout the rather heated interaction, but having been ignored, lied to about our accommodations, and literally laughed at as the hostel owners contradicted their own stated policies, I certainly wasn’t about to let us be taken advantage of.

Eventually, I deployed just enough stubbornness and steely-eyed resolve to get us all our money back, but I was still rattled by the experience, and though we were able to find a safer hostel for the remainder of our stay, Rome never really redeemed itself for me. It’s a beautiful city, obviously steeped in history, and the Coliseum and the Vatican are certainly once-in-a-lifetime experiences (ones we waited about 2 hours and 4 hours for, respectively.) The food was also incredible, though no more so than anywhere else in Italy. My sense of the city was ultimately overshadowed by the fact that everywhere we went, we were accosted with offers of selfie sticks and trinkets and tour-group scams, with catcalls and leering glances and men literally taking our pictures and laughing in our faces when we tried to protest. I couldn’t shake the sense that we were constantly about to be taken advantage of, even in spite of our vigilance, and as such could never quite let our guard down. Even as tourists, as Americans, as three young girls traveling alone, we’d never had an experience anywhere else in Europe like the one we had in Rome, and I can’t say it’s a place I’m eager to revisit anytime soon.

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When our time in Rome was up, it was all we could do to keep ourselves from walking rather than running onto the train, giddy with excitement over the turquoise waters and sandy shores of our next stops — Naples and Capri. Surely, we told ourselves, anything had to be an improvement over Rome. This, we soon found, wasn’t entirely true. From the moment we stepped of the train in Naples at sundown, I could tell that our presumptions about this coastal city had been fairly far off base. Naples is not a resort town, by any means, but rather a working-class, rather rough-around-the-edges seaport. The streets are dirty and lined with graffiti, the traffic was the worst I’d seen anywhere in Europe, and docked cruise ships puffed clouds of black smoke into the air. It was crowded and humid and remarkably unglamorous. That said, the pizza, gelato and coffee were easily the best we’d had anywhere in Italy, and the cheapest, too, and people were more amiable than in Rome.

Naple’s best selling points, however, are its day-trip options: the ruins of Pompeii and the island of Capri. As we’d already visited National Archaeological Museum, where many artifacts from Pompeii are on display, we opted for a visit to the rainbow-hued island of Capri. Though the ferry schedule was a bit difficult to decipher, and the actual journey wasn’t inexpensive, the visit was completely worthwhile and the perfect end to our visit in Naples and Italy trip as a whole.

Unlike Naples, Capri truly is a resort town — tourism is its industry, from boat tours to souvenir shops brimming with every incarnation of Limoncello liqueur (of which I am not overly fond) imaginable, from candies to candles. There are two sides to the hilly island — Capri, where tourists disembark from the ferry, and where the shops, restaurants and pebbly shores keep most visitors entertained — and Anacapri, which can be accessed by an especially precarious shuttle, into which tourists are packed like sardines, many standing, as the bus makes its way up steep, narrow and white-knuckle windy streets (one passenger advised we all kiss the ground upon arriving at our destination.) In Anacapri, we ate lunch and browsed a few more shops, but the real excitement came when our return shuttle, already paid for, failed to arrive on time, and we risked missing our returning ferry (also already paid for.) Fortunately, an American couple was understanding of our desperate plea to split a cab back to the other side of the island, and we breathed a sigh of relief as we hopped onto our ferry without a minute to spare.

We experienced a similar sort of stressful excitement en-route from Naple’s airport back to London (a story for another time,) though a fitting experience given, as I was reminded without fail during each and every day of our trip, there’s no such thing as a dull moment in Italy.

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Ultimately, my ten days in Italy were a tour-de-force of travel like I’d never experienced. I’d never traveled much with my family, I wasn’t used to spending extended lengths of time away from home, and I am, understandably, partial to creature comforts; hot showers, my own bed, familiar food, etc. Of course, Italy is still relatively familiar and comfortable as far as foreign countries go, but there were certainly moments that were less so — moments that in retrospect I’m grateful for having strengthened by resourcefulness, and what I hope was grace under pressure.

There’s little I can say about Italy that hasn’t been said countless times before. The food is to-die-for (Italy has officially ruined all other pizza for me,) the architecture and art is stunning, the natural beauty breathtaking, and ultimately the country is what you make of it. Personally, I found myself to be much more partial to the northern end of Italy than its wilder southern tip, but I’m grateful to both regions of Italy for having added to an arsenal of study abroad stories that I’m already anticipating will last me a lifetime.

The Long Goodbye to London

With my feet firmly planted back on American soil for what feels like a truly staggering six months now, these little reminders of a life I led in London can be more than a little jarring. Polaroids tucked in mirror frames, receipts crumpled at the bottoms of bags, social media posts that only seem to reel backward into time and space as the days and weeks since I left London fly by with little distinction. They’re precious, if melancholy, confirmations that my adventures weren’t all a dream, and life was different once, if only for a fleeting, flickering moment in time.

This long goodbye is long overdue, months in the making and far later than I had anticipated, but I find that often I need to step back from things to see them more clearly, to leave the forest entirely in order to see the trees. Life abroad was all-consuming, in a way that was frequently, sometimes frustratingly, exhausting. It was a constant dance between grasping so hopelessly at what I had hoped my experience abroad would be, and realizing that my reality was a thousand times more precious than anything I’d ever dreamed, if only because I’d never let myself believe that those dreams would actually come true.

For nearly six months this spring, I managed to traverse eleven countries across Europe, sleeping in hostels and borrowed beds and Airbnbs, boarding and deplaning at least a couple dozen flights and expending countless hours of my life waiting in lines—an hour at immigration, another two in the pouring rain above the Catacombs, an interminable four hours melting in the sweltering heat outside the Vatican. As the clock ran down on my time abroad, I felt the walls closing in around my wanderlust, and so I was hell-bent on catapulting myself across the continent. I was greedy for more stamps in my passport, I was desperate to prove something, driving myself crazy by regretting things that hadn’t even had the chance to happen.

In my fervor and my furor, I was giddy and I was anxious, I was a perpetual sugar-high and its inevitable low. I managed to book myself three separate seats on the same flight to Stockholm, I was conned out of money at a market in Budapest, I left a beloved (faux) leather jacket at the airport in Naples, I found myself near-tears as I was brusquely interrogated by an immigration officer on a London-bound train from Paris. Of course, my challenges were nothing compared to those of people for whom travel is not a luxury, but a necessity. And my status as an American, as a university student, as a young white woman, granted me relatively free access to a continent and places and experiences that certainly not everyone would have the same opportunity to see. This said, travel can fill the soul, but it can deplete it too, especially if embarked upon for the wrong reasons. I found that, the more I lived my experience for other people, posing for Instagram likes, posturing to ensure that my study abroad experience appeared as life-altering as everyone else’s, that I was doing this whole thing exactly as I was “supposed” to, the less bearable and the more soul-crushing the 2 a.m. wake-up calls and questionable hostels and financial strain I’d placed upon myself all became.

I don’t mean to be melodramatic; even with the hiccups, I wouldn’t trade my experience abroad for anything, and I was inexplicably grateful and constantly, keenly aware that even my worst day in Europe outpaced my best days back home by miles. But I found that the most beautiful, most memorable, most soul-settling and truly breathtaking moments were the ones that were the least carefully crafted; they were the experiences that just were. Those moments of being that feel as natural as breathing, and as surreal as dreaming, that you find yourself helpless to do anything other than simply exist in them.

I watched the sun set over the Cliffs of Moher and Dublin drunk on St. Patrick’s Day, experienced one magical English snowfall in Cambridge and another as night fell across the Scottish Highlands. I fell asleep beneath the sun while picnicking among tulips and windmills in Holland, ate macaroons and sipped champagne in Hyde Park, drank sangria and feasted on paella in Barcelona. I biked Amsterdam’s canals and walked the Berlin Wall and watched the sun come up over the Mediterranean. I saw the locks of love above the Seine, cruised along the Thames, sailed out into the Swedish archipelago and watched Scandinavia go by. I drank absinthe in the shadows of Hemingway’s old hideaway in Prague, explored the ruins bars in Budapest, and danced the night away in a German club that didn’t open until 2 a.m. I saw the British Crown Jewels sparkle and the Eiffel Tower glitter at night. I craned my neck to see the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, said hello to the bones down in the Catacombs, tried to catch a glimpse of the mythical monster at Loch Ness. I saw Churchill’s War Rooms, Marie Antoinette’s Versaille home, the Beatle’s Abbey Road and Mona Lisa’s smile. I ate gelato on the Bridge of Sighs, climbed 400 steps up Florence’s Il Duomo, stood in the shadow of the Roman Coliseum, saw Venice from a gondola and twilight fall across the Italian countryside from the window of a passing train.

And then there were the people, and the friendships made, and the moments so strange and memorable I couldn’t have ever dreamed them up. There were late, drunken nights and impossibly early mornings. There were missed flights, mix-ups, mishaps. There was getting lost on the Tube and making friends in our hostels, there was pining for WiFi and refusing selfie sticks a thousand times over. There was arguing with budget airlines to accept our overstuffed bags and too many toiletries, there were sleepless nights spent dozing in and out of consciousness on cramped buses and too-small hotel rooms. There was getting sweated out of our apartment because the radiator broke, and taking ice-cold showers because that somehow broke, too. There were Italian glass friendship bracelets and talks of matching souvenir tattoos. There weren’t nearly enough afternoon teas, and a few more cream teas, and then mostly beans on toast when our money ran out. There was a champagne toast at the Shard as we watched the skyline turn gold and felt a certain surrealness, weightlessness, this-isn’t-really-happening-ness, as summer creeped in and we said goodbye to this city, this second home so far away from home.

DSC_5402In so many ways, returning to the states feels like waking from a dream. Not because every moment spent in London was magical, or because my experience was a particularly jarring culture shock, either. But there was a sort of freedom there, an internalized challenge to see how far I could push myself from my comfort zone, whether I would clip all the loose threads and finally shake everything that had been weighing me down for so long. This isn’t to say anything against the existence I’ve cultivated on the West Coast, with friends and family I adore, at a school I owe everything to and a career I wouldn’t have any other way. But at the risk of sounding cliche, I have always been a wanderer, a dreamer, with jittery feet and a restless soul. I have always had a tumultuous relationship with reality; it is simultaneously tenuous and all too real. I have always been grounded, and driven, and yet so too have I always suspected that I might just run from it all if ever given the chance.

And this year, that chance came. Five months of freedom, on a new continent, with new people, far from the same old problems and structures with which I’ve grown familiar, of which I’ve grown so tired. A chance to live my life on a different stage, to be someone else, or at least a better version of myself, a place with few deadlines, loose timelines, with scarce expectations and a whole world unfolding before me.

I didn’t make a gaggle of new international friends-for-life, I didn’t fall in love with an English royal, I didn’t leave all of my problems behind in the States or find the meaning of life somewhere on the British Isles. I still find myself a little lost, a little uncertain of my footing, of who I am and where I’m headed. But when I close my eyes now I see flashes of places I couldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams, and now my actual dreams are filled with this reality, and I carry with me in my waking moments too these memories precious enough that I will never have to wonder whether it was all worth it.

Eastern Excursion

I remember someone once telling me to save traveling Europe for when I’m old, to utilize my youthful energy in places a little wilder, a little realer, a little more worthy of open-minds and wide-eyed readiness for the world. And after five months of calling it home, I can understand why.

When traveling Europe, it’s easy to become entranced by the beauty of romance languages and Mediterranean beaches, to experience an entire continent solely through its fashion and cuisine and postcard-perfect scenery, a perpetual tourist eager to see everything and leave with nothing but souvenirs.

But Europe, and travel as a whole, is what you make of it. It can be idealistic and comfortable and surface-level, but it can also be moving, thought-provoking, and even a little uncomfortable at times, and knowing what I know now, I’m glad I had the chance to see it while I was young.

While my peers mostly favored Western Europe, with occasional excursions to Turkey or Morocco in true tests of their parents’ trust, I felt a pull toward Eastern Europe that I couldn’t quite explain, but knew I had to explore. Something about these countries seemed so foreign and yet so familiar, mythical and yet utterly real, rich and romantic and just a little bit sad.

19913483011_8da1fd85f0_kI suppose this is partly to do with the fact that I’ve always been fascinated by history. I spent most of my childhood reading memoirs and fictionalizations of Anne Frank and Anne Boleyn, finding myself more of a kindred spirit with the girls and women in these pages than with the people I encountered in my actual life.

Berlin had always been a place at the back of my mind, in my proverbial back pocket, somewhere both painfully real and mercifully mythical. I’d get there someday, and someday I did, on a 6:30 a.m. (though $30) flight out of rainy London, to the green and gold melancholy of Germany.

19913478091_fa0175dd16_k19720406570_87de24b54f_k 19720363730_740b089607_kWe found ourselves on the outskirts of the city, waiting on a platform with Cold War-era signage for the only train of the hour to take us into the city, past crumbling cottages and more graffiti than I’d seen anywhere in my life, scrawled across brick walls and abandoned train cars and tattered billboards. Berlin is not objectively beautiful, but I suppose its appeal is in the eye of the beholder. I’ve always had a soft spot for urban decay, likely a contributing factor in my abnormally high tolerance for Los Angeles, and I think this is why I was always so certain I’d feel at peace in Eastern Europe. And even before we stepped off the train in Berlin, I knew I hadn’t been wrong about this assessment.

Standing where East and West Germany were once divided, following the Berlin Wall for miles, getting lost within a maze of monuments honoring the victims of the Holocaust, it all took my breath away. I won’t lie, Berlin was taxing; physically, mentally, emotionally. Our two-and-a-half hour walking tour of the city turned into an epic five hour excursion through countless neighborhoods and landmarks and I was ready to lay down and wave a white flag of defeat by the end of it. And by the fourth or fifth Holocaust memorial, my blood was boiling and my heart was heavy, and I couldn’t reconcile how so much hatred could still be alive and well in this world after we claimed to learn from these atrocities.

Mostly I felt immeasurably grateful at being able to see such powerful things in person, and reminded of just how much I can sometimes take for granted. When I thought of how I had learned all of this history in a classroom in a high school in a claustrophobic small town I sometimes thought I’d never have the chance to leave, touching the Berlin Wall took my breath away, and there was suddenly this cognitive dissonance; I am so far from where I started, literally and figuratively. I am both immeasurably privileged and inexplicably grateful.

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We took a train from Berlin, through the stunning small towns and green fields of southern Germany, to the second stop of our tour, Prague. It’s a stunning, fairy tale town, home to a glittering river and gilded bridges and an actual castle rising high above the cherry blossom city down below. There were horse-drawn carriages and sugary local delicacies and our hostel was housed in a 17th-century building located at the top of a windy cobblestone street.

Prague was home to some fascinating, and sobering, history, particularly in the Jewish Quarter, but it was personally the city to which I felt the least connected. It was gorgeous and quaint, but after little more than a day I was ready to move along. I’d heard incredible things about the city, and perhaps I was there for too short a time to have given it a fair assessment, but I didn’t feel quite myself there, and that’s just fine, sometimes.

19687828733_b6c50e5696_k20308838585_d3aa76fc14_k20314800531_f5c1abe24c_kFinally, we boarded an overnight bus to Budapest, a place of which for which I had precious few expectations, just openness, only a willingness to learn and experience and be. I remember first hearing of Budapest, this far-off, perhaps not-quite-real place years ago, and despite having not even the slightest inkling of where in the world it existed, I thought it sounded like the most exotic place I could have ever imagined.

For whatever reason, this seemed to be the year of Budapest. I never in a million years would have imagined it would be a place I’d reach during my semester abroad, but it was a surprisingly popular destination among my peers, due at least in some part I’m sure to the natural thermal baths I’d heard likened to giant, rowdy pool parties. The fact that I hadn’t the faintest idea what to expect of Budapest made the prospect of visiting even more thrilling, despite the fact that we had to endure a less-than-glamorous (though dirt cheap) seven hour bus ride to do so, arriving with a pink sky as a new day dawned.

Budapest is sparkling clean, almost a little too clean for my taste, and surprisingly new, at least in terms of architecture, thanks to a rather powerful flooding of the Danube in the 20th century. The first city I thought to liken it to was, oddly enough, Washington, D.C., though perhaps not so strange as I am quite fond of the Capitol. But Budapest is home to many museums, monuments, grassy areas, decent public transportation, plentiful street food, and an oddly muggy, stormy mix of spring weather that reminded me of summers in the south.

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Having suffered tremendous losses and setbacks during World War II, the Holocaust, Communism, the Cold War, and more, Budapest is a city heavy with history. There are monuments and museums around every corner, and I would highly recommend taking advantage of free walking tours in order to get acclimated to the city. Our homey hostel was also a tremendous resource, with friendly staff who thoroughly annotated our maps and gave us local insight into the best restaurants, bars and attractions.

In terms of historical must-sees, I never could have anticipated that a favorite stop of mine in any city would be a place called the House of Terror, but Eastern Europe is not for the faint of heart, and this museum is not to be missed by anyone with an interest in history or, frankly, the human race. I can think of few experiences that affected me as deeply as this one, tracing the footsteps of Nazi leaders and Soviet dictators, I found myself amazed at how the 20th century had absolutely devastated Budapest, from World War II to Communism, and yet it has flourished in the decades since. It was truly an immersive experience, the closest I’ve ever seen a museum get to a theme park exhibit, and yet it treated its subjects with utter respect and seriousness, and despite the special effects and ominous music, the crowded, darkened elevator that deposits visitors down in a dungeon where unthinkable things occurred, the constant reminder that all of this really and truly happened, that human beings committed these acts, that all of these people once lived and breathed the same as me, made this more chilling than any house of horrors I’d ever visited.

Frequent stops for rose-shaped gelato and Hungarian trinkets were necessary to counteract the heaviness of the city’s history, but so is the case with many places. I’d highly, highly recommend Budapest’s outdoor markets over the indoor ones (havens for scammers and pick-pocketers, speaking from my own personal experience and those of others.) Not to mention that, on a beautiful day, the outdoor markets are absolutely blissful, emanating pure Old World-Europe, with vendors selling hand made soaps, traditional marionettes, local paprika, and other Hungarian wares. The food is much cleaner, fresher and tastier at these markets, too. Other absolute must-visits are St. Stephen’s Cathedral (the 400-step trek to the top is definitely worth the city view,) the Fisherman’s Bastion, the Citadel, and the Budapest’s many ruins pubs, which are fairly self-explanatory and yet really must be seen to be believed. Trust me, they’re a truly Hungarian experience.

After seven days of soaking up history like sponges, of scrounging for vegetarian food, of exploring three richly fabled cities on foot until we could barely walk anymore, it was time to head back to our little makeshift home in the UK. We bought our tickets and boarded a public bus out of Budapest, with a blood orange sunset following us west, past the Danube and the dilapidated city outskirts that seemed to sigh, streaking through the dusty windows and seeping into my soul just a little.

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We were one of the handful of flights out of Budapest that night, we practically had the airport to ourselves. I sampled a local favorite cuisine, Burger King, for dinner, and we queued up out on the tarmac to wait for our plane in the dark, arriving back in London to April rain and an immigration line that made us miss our train. We arrived home in the early hours of the morning, exhausted, feet aching, wanting to crawl into bed and keep the world at bay for a few days. But every line, every penny spent, every minute spent waiting, every mishap and headache and disagreement, it was all worth it, I knew that much within an instant of being back.

20282186736_dcaec78540_zI didn’t feel quite myself anywhere in Eastern Europe, but I did feel at peace. And I felt in many ways as though I was more than myself. This was not my culture, this was not my history, not my burden to bear or my stories to tell. And so I was there to listen, to be an open book and a blank slate, ready to become a student of events I didn’t witness, of a world I never thought I’d get to see.

I’ve always been comfortable with sadness, perhaps a bit too much so, and in turn, people who are uncomfortable with it make me just a little uncomfortable. It’s important to learn about history so as not to repeat it, and to be reminded of what we have so as not to take it for granted. I could have gorged on history my entire time in Eastern Europe, but I don’t think my psyche could have withstood it. I’d recommend this trip in a heartbeat, and yet I don’t think I could bring myself to do it again. I could write about my experiences in this strange, utterly unforgettable region forever, and yet I think I’ll end things here, with an encouragement to go to Eastern Europe but also somewhere, anywhere, that scares you a little, makes you uncomfortable a little, that makes you feel so much smaller than history and so much more than yourself.

A British Beach Day

Never mind the fact that I’ve unfortunately had to bid a goodbye to dear Britain (more on that later,) alas, the travel posts will keep coming! As I toil away at work in the good old US of A in the blistering heat of summer, a part of my soul is already itching to be roaming around Europe again, and as Los Angeles chokes and coughs with drought and wildfires, I’m yearning particularly for a crisp Atlantic Ocean breeze and proper British beach day, torrential downpours and all.

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Even with its technicolor pier, Brighton Beach is no Santa Monica. And despite what some of its fun-loving inhabitants might have you believe, its isn’t England’s answer to the Jersey Shore, either. At least, not on the day I visited, when sideways rain and hurricane-like gusts of wind and easily the best scones I ate in all of my time in the UK made Brighton a distinctly British experience.

As an Oregonian, I consider myself to be pretty tolerant of wind and rain, but I knew from the moment I stepped off the train on England’s South Coast that the weather would likely try to put a damper on my beach day. Still, having grown up with a Pacific shoreline that was more “coast” than “beach,” I thought I knew what I was in for, and thankfully, despite being a beach city, Brighton is still fairly well-equipped for rainy days, and frequent stops for tea and warmth made the biting sea breezes more bearable.

The day was mildly warm, even sunny, right up until when we made our way to the shore and out onto Brighton’s famous pier, at which point the winds picked up and even walking became a struggle. I managed to get in just a few snaps of the beautiful arcade signs and carousel that make Brighton beach so iconic before the weather drove us further inland.
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Umbrellas were no match for the gusts of wind, so the best option was to run from place to place, seeking shelter from the rain. Also distinctive are the city’s labyrinth of winding, narrow, cobble-stoned streets, slick with rain, glittering with antique jewelry, and sweet with the smell of ice cream, fudge and saltwater taffy.

A few favorite stops along Brighton’s streets included a tasty Thai lunch at the Giggling Squid, an hour or two spent at the the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery (the Brighton wartime and fashion exhibits are especially worth checking out,) and an afternoon tea at Mock Turtle Tea Shop that was memorable for good company and the freshest, fluffiest scones I had in all of my time in England.

Brighton is certainly a far cry from the beaches I’ve come to know living in Southern California, but its charm, even in the most charmless of weather, speaks to the enduring magic and mysticism of long-fabled afternoons spent by the English sea.

European Whirlwind

With the travel period of my study abroad semester in full swing, this past month has been a whirlwind of airports and landmarks and exploring iconic, awe-inspiring places I thought I’d only ever dream of seeing. And with summer fast approaching, and travel and exams leaving me little time to write and sort through (far too many) photos, I thought I’d take write-up a quick recap of some of my recent travels to four European cities, and offer up my thoughts on what I loved, what I didn’t, and what I’d do differently if I were to ever revisit or recommend these cities to anyone else.

Amsterdam

I think the general theme of my travels around Europe thus far has been me being a bit let down by places I expected to love, and absolutely enamored with places I didn’t expect anything from at all. Amsterdam is an example of the latter, and though prior to visiting I’d essentially only heard the tales of Amsterdam that everyone hears of Amsterdam before they visit, I can confirm that this city is so much more than its world-famous vices.

First of all, yes: weed is legal. Prostitution, too. But outside of the Red Light District, by the light of day, you’d might never even know Amsterdam has this slightly seedy underbelly. In fact, it’s a city with almost no crime, and with plenty of parks and playgrounds and green spaces, its general atmosphere is surprisingly family-friendly.

I felt even more connected with nature in Amsterdam than I did in Stockholm, and the maze of canals that wind through the city truly are breathtaking. No matter how many times I’d walk or bike over a bridge, no matter how similar the view was to the last photo I’d taken, I couldn’t help but stopping to take a picture. The architecture is absolutely stunning, too, with the city known for colorful row homes lining the canals, as well as gorgeous old churches with steeples spiraling skyward, and an open-air cafe or bar just around every corner.

My travel companions and I were especially lucky with to catch such incredible early-April weather, in the high 60s and sunny throughout our trip, and seeing the city by bike was absolute bliss on a breezy spring day. With such narrow, maze-like streets, it isn’t a wonder that most people in Amsterdam get around by bike, and it’s a cheap and fun way to see the city, although I will say that the Dutch take their biking very seriously, and if your reflexes aren’t quite fast enough you will hear about it.

Amsterdam is definitely more of an activity-based city than some of the other places I visited; we saw the Anne Frank House, the Tulip Museum, the Cheese Museum (unlimited samples of the absolute tastiest, and freshest, cheese you will ever taste, need I say more?) the “I am Amsterdam” sign, plus the city offers countless canal tours and plenty more museums. Given that it’s spring, we also took a day trip to Keukenhof, Holland, where there are more tulips in more colors than I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s absolutely gorgeous, although for the steep admission price I would liked to have seen a few more actual tulip fields, but the ticket did include round trip transportation from the city, and really, how can you pass on seeing spring in Holland if given the chance?

Even with a million amazing things to do in Amsterdam, some of my favorite moments there involved doing nothing at all; just sipping a Heineken along the canals, snacking on piping hot French fries (trust me, Dutch fries are a must) and wandering around the city, or sampling Dutch cheese and wine falling asleep in the sunshine at Keukenhof.

My takeaway: Amsterdam manages to be sensory overload by night, and yet an incredibly relaxing place (not just because of its tourist industries) by day, and the city can offer a number of different atmospheres and itineraries depending on the traveler and the budget; whether you’re a college student crashing in hostels, a couple looking for a romantic getaway, or even on a Dutch family holiday, there’s plenty to see and do for people from all walks of life. I would go back to Amsterdam in a heartbeat; for the food, the people, the scenery, and the overall relaxed vibe, and it’s honestly somewhere I think everyone should try to see at least once in their life.

Dublin
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The simplest way I can sum up my expectations for visiting Dublin is to say that I’m Irish, and I’ve heard about Ireland my whole life. My hopes, and those of my family, for visiting my ancestral homeland were based less in reality and more in folklore and shamrock-and-leprechaun-filled travel shows. All my lofty hopes for Ireland were essentially asking to be dashed, and though I ultimately enjoyed my time there and have every intention of returning to the country to explore more someday, I can safely say that St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin was not quite the vision of Ireland I had always had in my head.

Though this will come as no surprise to most, Dublin is not a land of shamrocks and rolling emerald hills; it’s a working class city, rather rough around the edges, and not really a place I would choose to revisit for more than a few days a time. The Guinness Storehouse tour, while, well, touristy, turned out to be quite a memorable experience and actually a bit of a bargain (on the day we went, we were offered two free tastings with a light snack and a free pint of Guinness up in the Gravity Bar at the end of the tour.) St. Patrick’s Cathedral, St. Stephen’s Square and Trinity College were all beautiful must-sees well worth a walk through, but I have to say my favorite parts of Ireland were well beyond the reaches of Dublin.
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Given the length of my stay in Ireland, and the size of the country, it only made sense to make a day trip tour to the Cliffs of Moher, a truly breathtaking natural wonder that wound us through Galway and the emerald, sheep-dotted hills of Western Ireland. We stopped for a hearty lunch at a roadside Irish pub and then it was off to spend a couple of hours climbing around the cliffs and marveling at the sparkling turquoise sea. In an age of Instagram and the internet in general, it can feel impossible to be truly awed or surprised by anything these days, but the cliffs certainly did the trick. I could have easily stayed there for hours more, perched thousands of feet above the ocean, the sea breeze in my hair, the Atlantic stretching on for miles and miles in one direction, and the Irish countryside rolling forever toward the horizon in the other.

A third and final outing took us to the seaside village of Howth, which is sleepy and quaint and a foodie paradise only about 45 minutes outside of Dublin by train. We stumbled upon a charming cafe just outside the train station and stopped for tea and scones, then wandered around the seaside and the pier to take in a view of the “Eye of Ireland” isle before treating ourselves to a fresh-off-the-line lunch of authentic fish and chips.

My takeaway: St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin was a bucket list item for sure, in more ways than one; it’s certainly a story I’ll always have to tell, but it’s also something I know I’ll only need to do once. The St. Patrick’s Day Parade, and really the entire day (or week, really) of festivities were quite possibly the least Irish thing I’ve ever experienced, but my five days in Ireland were a memorable experience nonetheless. I wouldn’t rush to recommend St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin to anyone over the age of 30, or anyone who doesn’t enjoy (or can’t at least tolerate) large crowds, drinking and general debauchery.

All in all, I didn’t particularly feel a personal connection to Dublin, especially given that all the St. Patrick’s Day festivities were less Irish than anything I’d encountered even in the United States. Speaking completely subjectively, Dublin isn’t a particularly scenic or exciting city, but I loved the other parts of Ireland I was able to see, and I have every intention of returning to my ancestral homeland someday, hopefully this time with my family in tow.

Paris

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I wasn’t ever the little girl who had a room adorned with the Eiffel Tower prints and t-shirts scrawled with French phrases. I never considered myself to have any particular affinity for Paris; it always seemed to be a bit stuffy and pretentious for my taste, not to mention the fact that I’m not a huge fan of French food, and above all, I had heard one horror story after another about the supposed rudeness of Parisians.

But between living in London for six months, and having a close friend studying in Paris, I knew I couldn’t leave Europe without paying a visit to the City of Lights, and I truly couldn’t be happier that I did. I was fortunate enough to spend four whirlwind, rain-soaked days in Paris, and each one was memorable. Though I was able to cover a lot of ground in that time, I feel as though I still could have stayed longer, and I never thought I’d leave wanting to come back, but Paris certainly has a pull.

There are things that everyone must do when visiting Paris, and for good reason. Sample street crepes, pay a visit to the Louvre, get up close and personal with Picassos and Van Goghs at Musee D’Orsay, feel the love at Pont de l’Archeveche (the bridge of locks,) stroll up the Champs Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe and make a trek to the Eiffel Tour after dark, where twinkling lights make the landmark sparkle every night, on the hour.
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Paris is a city with a reputation that any place would find hard to live up to, but it’s a place that doesn’t disappoint. There’s a little something for everyone; the romantic, the history buff, the foodie, the fashion-lover. Despite three straight days of rain, despite waiting two hours in said rain to see the famed Parisian Catacombs (an incredibly and surprisingly un-touristy experience) and another two hours to see the Palace of Versailles on Easter Sunday, despite overcrowded Metros that stop running at midnight, Paris endeared itself to me in a way I never expected.

My takeaway: Paris is a must for a reason. If you’re into high fashion and high-brow art, there’s plenty of it there. But the City of Lights has a lot more to offer, from the Catacombs to the Jewish Quarter and lush green parks, from board game bars to killer crepes and the most efficient Metro system I’ve encountered in Europe thus far (at least before midnight.)

I also couldn’t have been happier to find that, despite my elementary knowledge of French, Parisians were overwhelmingly friendly and helpful, or at the very least, effortlessly cool and easy-going. It’s a world-class city, a place oozing with history and plenty of mystery, and one of the absolute last places I ever expected to leave a little piece of my heart behind. But I guess that’s all the more reason to plan a return trip sometime soon.

Stockholm

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Thanks to a number of travel mishaps, the most stressful, high-adrenaline parts of my Stockholm trip occurred just in trying to get to Sweden, but once there, things slowed down considerably. Stockholm is not a cosmopolitan or high-energy city, and it’s hard to believe it’s home to more than 1 million people, as it often felt like my traveling companion and I were the only people wandering about the city streets. Sweden is a place known for a slower, stop-and-smell-the-roses pace of life, and though I know that Stockholm won’t be every traveler’s cup of tea, it was certainly a welcome change of scenery from the hustle and bustle of London.

April is essentially the start of Stockholm’s renowned summer tourism season, and as such it was a bit of a mixed bag in terms of things to do. The Swedish capital is known for its long (almost endless) summer days, and its archipelago, a collection of thousands of islands that stretch all the way east to Finland. Unfortunatelym during our visit, ferries to Vaxholm, the so-called capital of the archipelago, ran only once a day, and in the early morning, so we were left with the option of a two-and-a-half hour archipelago cruise that didn’t actually let us disembark anywhere, but was beautiful nonetheless. It was quite pricey though, as are most things in Stockholm, and as such may not be an option for the budget-conscious traveler.
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Due to heavy taxes, which provide the quality of life for which the Swedes are known, the cost of living in Stockholm is quite high. Our hostel wasn’t exactly a bargain, and we didn’t eat a single meal for less than $20, even when we bought the food to go. On the other hand, I can say that we didn’t have a single sub-par meal, the city wasn’t overrun with tourists, even on the weekend, and the weather was absolutely beautiful. Furthermore, English is as commonly spoken as Swedish, and the locals are incredibly friendly (and especially considerate of pedestrians.)

Stockholm is a charming mix of old and new, known for its colorful, cobblestoned Old Town and rustic boats docked in the archipelago, as well as its edgy street fashion and modern shopping malls and hotels. There aren’t necessarily tourist attractions in Stockholm, per se, but rather little vignettes around the city that are well-worth seeing; Old Town (Gamla Stan,) the shores of the archipelago, and shopping areas like Sodermalm. There are some palaces and monuments, but they didn’t seem to be much of a draw once we were actually there. And if you want to traverse a more cliched route of Stockholm, the ABBA Museum and ice bars await.

My takeaway: Sweden is a land known for its distinctly Scandinavian winters and summers, so it makes sense that during the in-between seasons there is a bit of a lull. Stockholm is beautiful, friendly, clean and generally very easy-going, and while I wouldn’t say that it’s a must-see destination unless you’re interested in experiencing a snowy Swedish winter or endlessly sunny Scandinavian summer, if you’ve got the time, money, and yearning for a few days of fresh air and sunshine, you really can’t go wrong with Stockholm.

Overall, each of the four cities I paid a visit to in April had a distinctive vibe, each with its own story to tell, and each left a different mark upon me. Inevitably, I found myself loving cities I didn’t anticipate loving, and not quite gelling with some of the cities I had been most looking forward to visiting. And this is the double-edged sword of traveling, as I’ve come to realize. With each new place, you risk losing everything you once believe to be true about it. And yet, with every destination, you also stand to gain another city, another culture, another people, and another place in this world to which you just might completely connect and wholly belong.

All photos taken and edited with Samsung Galaxy S5. 

Take Me Back to Barcelona

Aside from having a little, nearly long-forgotten bit of Spanish blood way back in my family genealogy, I’ve never felt much of a personal connection with or inclination to visit Spain. Not that I didn’t have a vague notion that it was stunningly beautiful and perpetually sunny and home to that one verb tense I learned in my high school Spanish class but never really had a reason to use, but, to tell the truth, I didn’t have particularly strong feelings about it either way.

That was, until studying abroad meant that a flight to Spain was shorter, and cheaper, than a one-way flight between Portland and Los Angeles. Then, well, Spain moved to the top of my travel list, and after a quick Google image search edged out technicolor Barcelona over a rather drab-looking Madrid, and reminded me of just how much I’ve missed sunshine, there was no question that a mid-winter Spanish holiday needed to happen.

Making our way to Gatwick through a drizzly London evening, I couldn’t imagine anything better than a weekend of sun and surf, and in about the time it took me to settle into my window seat and get a few songs into my travel playlist, we were already touching down among the sand dunes of Barcelona International and, after a quick taxi ride, at our beachside Airbnb. The flagging Spanish economy combined with the falling Euro meant that spending the weekend in a private apartment a block from the beach made more financial sense than a hostel, and aside from what I understand to be a nation-wide lack of central heating in homes, our humble abode was perfect for our needs. And it proved to be the perfect home base for me to fall in love with Barcelona in no time at all.

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Maybe I’m just a little homesick for my adopted home city, but Barcelona reminded me frequently, and distinctly, of a sort of rustic Los Angeles; the mountains, the beach, the breezy palms and open-air cafes bypassed by bikers and joggers. And yet, it is distinctly un-LA in its lack of smog and loud tourists, bumper-to-bumper traffic and frequent crime. Even late at night, the streets were peaceful and safe and neighborhood parks teemed with children, and all the pick-pocketers I had been warned about were nowhere to be seen (though perhaps this has something to do with the fact that Barcelona is so walkable we never had to use public transportation.) Whether we were buying fresh baguettes from the bakery around the corner or mingling with locals at hole-in-the-wall bars, Barcelona felt instantly comfortable and familiar. It is a place that in many ways seems to be a crossroads between the Mediterranean and the Middle East, with a bit of a Southern California sensibility, a place where English is spoken just as frequently as Spanish and Catalan, and where Arabic and Indian cultures mingle, too.

Despite having an initial, though very minimal, worry that we might run out of activities to fill our three days and four nights in Spain, actually being in Barcelona quickly dissolved this fear, and in fact each time we thought we had nailed down our must-sees, more cathedrals and parks and museums appeared as if out of thin air. Between the Gothic Quarter, La Sagrada Familia, Boqueria Market, Park Guell and so many more incredible sites, Barcelona is ripe with history and culture. Most attractions, like the famously rainbow-bright Park Guell, were fairly affordable, and those with admission costs on the steeper side, like La Sagrada Familia and the National Museum of Catalan Art, were just as impressive from outside. Other free and inexpensive experiences not to be missed are a coastline tram ride up to Montjuic Castle and the old Olympic stadium, sunset on Barceloneta Beach, biking along Port Vell, and taking in an awe-inspiring panorama of the city from Placa Espanya.

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Processed with VSCOcamProcessed with VSCOcamWith beautiful weather every day, Barcelona was an absolute breeze to get around whether on foot or by bike. Barcelona is an incredibly bike-friendly city, the rental are cheap and plentiful, and it’s a fast and fun way to cover a lot of ground. And once you’ve burned off all those calories and worked up and appetite, there are dozen delicious restaurants, bakeries, gelaterias and more mouthwatering eateries waiting on every block. Spain, and Barcelona in particular, is known for its seafood paella, and it certainly lived up to the hype. Also worth writing home about were fresh made tapas like spinach empanadas and crispy tequenos, basically cheese sticks with a sweet chili sauce, as well as creamy gelato and indulgent, but necessary, churros con chocolate. Barcelona didn’t slack on the beverages, either; between fruity sangria, fresh squeezed orange juice, Spanish beer chilled to perfection and to-die-for pina coladas, we were certainly well-hydrated for all of our adventures.

Throughout our three days of meals and excursions, I had an overwhelming sense of calm; having left my laptop at home, and frequently without WiFi and completely off the cellular grid, disconnecting had never felt so good. Sure, there were still the obligatory Instagram posts and status updates, I couldn’t resist in a place so beautiful, but (at the risk of sounding like a tourism advertisement) I truly felt the deadlines and commitments and general stress of city life melt away as we strolled along the beach, wound our way through the labyrinth of narrow streets, found ourselves serenaded by street musicians and squealing over Barcelona’s many resident dogs.

I think the best word I can use to describe Barcelona is captivating. It’s absolutely charming, transfixing, all-encompassing, it has a warmth that washes over you, a magnetism that pulls you in and doesn’t let go. The people are friendly, the food is filling, the sea breeze feels like it’s clearing your lungs, while the sun turns everything it touches into the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen. The whole city feels like a little piece of paradise, a hidden oasis, like it’s keeping secrets and concealing mysteries from the outside world, and the visitors who pass through are lucky enough to be in on it, just for a moment. The weekend after we visited, Barcelona paid host to a study abroad music festival, and I can only thank my lucky stars for missing it and the hordes of rowdy tourists that came with it, because the city felt like the realest place I’d been in a while, like everything was unequivocally true, and yet a sort of waking dream, the escapism I needed, a safe resting place for my body and mind and a chance to chance to catch my breath for a little while.

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I’ve always found one of my greatest difficulties is to be fully present in any given moment and contented with where I am. No looking ahead, no mulling over things said and done, just breathing and being and experiencing something to the fullest. Fortunately, in Barcelona, this was as effortless as it’s ever been. I suppose the thought that there are already places I’ll never visit again, that I risk losing something irreplaceable in stepping outside of a moment for even a second too long, may sound melodramatic to some, but in truth I think it’s always somewhere at the back of my mind. I’m not sure when, if ever, I’ll return to Spain again, as much as Barcelona captured my heart, though I’ve already found myself plotting my way back. Europe is thousands of miles away from my permanent life, from the people and things I’ve committed myself to, and so here I find that I can be who I want to be, even if just for a weekend. Here, I have an obligation to live fully and deeply and experience to the fullest what might never come again.

It isn’t all that often that I miss a place while I’m still there, that I replay in my mind memories that are still being made, that I allow myself to be cognizant enough to realize when something perfect is unfolding, and that I should take it as it comes. I know without a doubt that my time in Barcelona is an experience that I will remember dearly and distinctly above many others, not only from my time abroad, but from many of the things that I’ve been able to experience in my life thus far. It was a much-needed reassurance that, somewhere within an effortless mix of natural beauty and delicious food and wonderful people and a weekend without worry, there are layers of myself that haven’t been eroded by worry and doubt, haven’t been armored by self-consciousness and fear. That there remains a part of myself that can attempt a nearly forgotten foreign language without hesitation, that can pose for pictures and smile without reservations, that can laugh and let things roll of my shoulders because it’s all going to happen anyway, and everything is going to be okay.

All photos taken and edited with Samsung Galaxy S5.

A First Look at London

I suppose three weeks is a reasonable enough amount of time for a person to settle into a new city and organize one’s thoughts enough to sit down and write about it. Except, it somehow feels as though I’ve been here in London for something like two months now, so this all seems to be far more after-the-fact than it actually is.

Touching down in Heathrow already feels like a lifetime ago, and I suppose between slogging through jet lag and being forced to become acclimated to a new country and university at break-neck speed, it only makes sense that my sense of time would be a bit jumbled. Aside from the slightest bit of jet lag, I have to pride myself on basically hitting the ground running here in the UK, and though I keep hearing that homesickness and culture shock will catch up with me eventually, I remain skeptical. Having previously lived overseas, and having lived out of state for college the past two and a half years, I wasn’t expecting too many curve balls in moving too London, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised that the transition has gone even smoother than expected.

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Sure, looking the opposite direction when crossing the street, and having to convert pounds to dollars in my head without audibly gasping at the pitiful conversion rate and sky-high price of everything in London may take some getting used to, but for a city I’d never previously visited, London sure feels a lot like an old friend. For a capitol city, a metropolitan hub, a home to millions of people who are (seemingly only) thin, fashionable and successful, London has a comfort, an easiness to it, making me feel simultaneously like I’m on a glamorous vacation and visiting home for a holiday.

It’s hard to generalize a city of 8 million people and counting, but I can count on one hand the number of rude people I’ve met or unpleasant experiences I’ve had since I arrived. Everyone here has an air of good humor and easy-going sensibility, and aside from testing locals’ patience by taking a bit too long to fumble through coins in sizes and shapes that confound my brain, most people have been more than willing and helpful to play along with the dumb American.

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It’s crazy to realize how quickly I’ve felt myself pass through the tourist phase to something else entirely. I suppose studying abroad is inherently sort of a limbo between tourist and transplant, not quite a local but eager to shed the stigma of being a visitor. I’ve asked and been asked for directions, seen the touristy sights and ventured off the beaten path.

London isn’t exactly what I expected it to be, but in the best way possible. It’s astoundingly historic and mind-blowingly modern, with centuries-old churches dwarfed by spiraling glass sky-scrapers and iconic red telephone boxes outfitted with WiFi. It’s impressively clean (for a city with hardly any garbage cans and no recycling bins,) surprisingly non-rainy, and serviced by one heck of a public transportation system that I can already see giving me withdrawals when I return to the states. I haven’t missed the freedom of having a car at all, and in fact the thought of driving here both terrifies and confuses me, as the roads seem to be constantly clogged with cars and yet parking lots and garages are as rare as Pret-a-Mangers are common.

It’s a hip city, but not in an intimidating way, and its population leans younger, but not in an obnoxious way, either. I’ve been able to get my fill of hipster coffee shops (though usually without iced coffees, an American establishment that hasn’t quite caught on here yet,) low-key pubs, independent book stores and cheap clubs that pander to tourists while still being fun, though I’m still looking forward to exploring more of London’s music, theater and art scene in general.

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These past few months, whenever I told people back home that I was leaving for London, I usually drew questions as to why I didn’t seem more excited. In part, I’m a worrier, and I told myself I’d be excited when I got here. And I am, but I suppose it all still somehow feels a bit unreal, like it hasn’t quite sunk in that I get to call this city my home for a while, that I’ll be spending the next 6 months of my life in Europe, that so many things I’d hoped and planned for these past few years have actually come to fruition.

Just the other night, after seeing a theater show in London’s West End, walking home over the Waterloo Bridge, crossing the Thames River illuminated by a full moon with St. Paul’s Cathedral to my left, Big Ben and the London Eye to my right, I couldn’t decide if this all made things more real, or more surreal. Part of me still feels a bit like one of these mornings I’m going to wake up from this dream, but as long as I keep dreaming on London time, I think everything will turn out just fine.

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All photos taken and edited with Samsung Galaxy S5. For more of my travel photos, check out my Flickr.