Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Year of Travels

As the year ends, I, like almost everyone else, am reflecting on what I have done during 2013. There's no way I can deny that it has been an incredible year for me. But it has also been the most unsettled year of my life and changed me in ways I never dreamed possible. I've lived in four in cities in three different countries: Chicago, Illinois; Turate, Italy; Manhattan, KS; and Auckland, New Zealand, and each one has shaped me in a very unique way.

Collage of some of my favorite places in Europe.

I have seen so much of the word, but it still feels like I have seen so little of it. I feel like I have both become wiser to the "ways of the world" and simultaneously realized how little I know about all but a few things. I think I could travel and study forever and still feel the same way.

I think what I have really gained is the ability to understand how complex, rich and utterly different a culture can be while realizing that people are very similar. I think my Italian host dad said it best, "Cultures are different. People are the same." Ultimately, everyone wants the same thing from life. They want to take care of the people they love and want to be happy. Everybody faces that same crap: politics, religion, traffic, drama with friends and family--the details may change, but in the end, it's all the same thing. After living with four different families this year, one being my own, one in Manhattan, one in Italy and one in New Zealand, I feel certain that I could live with a "normal" (if such a thing actually exists) family from any country on Earth, and after adapting to different cultural standards, feel perfectly comfortable.

Knowing the goodness of people takes the world from being a scary, foreboding place, to a place where people want to help you and genuinely want to know you. I'm not saying you don't have to be wary while getting out, but it has cemented my belief that the world is inherently a good place, and people are kind. If I ever was, I am no longer scared of places that are different from what I know because I know that most people, at worst, will ignore me, or at best, will go out of their way to help me.

For example, I have been lost in almost every single city I have visited. Sometimes it was on purpose... a lot of times it was not. From the back alleys of Venice (on purpose) to the slums of Naples and Genoa (on accident), I have found people willing to go out of their way to help me find my way even when I was wary of them.

Realizing the depth of goodness in people has also led me to greater awareness of myself. I feel challenged to become one of the selfless people I have encountered. And even though I continually fail to do that, I have learned so much about who I am as a person. However, this knowledge, instead of making everything in my life  more clear, has made my sense of self murkier because I realized I am capable of more than I ever thought.

Reading back through my blogs, I remember meandering through Saronno (I didn't realize until I left that this is the same Saronno as where amaretto was invented. How cool is that?)  from one train stop to the other. I felt so incredibly competent. Now, I am not trying to suggest that finding my way through a random city in Italy where I don't really speak the language and don't have a map isn't an impressive thing, it's just that I did it so many times after that, it seems common place now.

I've gotten lost in so many random cities that the whole idea seems more thrilling to me than scary (After all, safe travel is only a cab ride away.) I forget that before I went to Paris, was handed a map and literally forced to figure out how to navigate, ("well you took us a really long way, but I guess we got there eventually") I had never done such a thing in my life.  Reflecting on the year has made me realize just how far I've come and makes me wonder just how far I have yet to go.

And I have to wonder what I would do differently if I could do it all again. My instinct is to say that I would get lost a lot less. And on the surface, that seems like it might be a good thing. But those times when got off the train unsure even of such basic facts as what city I was in, got taken advantage of by scam artists, and talked to a man with red teeth are what really made me grow. Seeing museums and eating authentic food certainly makes for good stories, but if I hadn't struggled my through living in two countries (especially Italy), I'm not sure if I would be the same person.

Before I traveled, I used to know that I am good at X,Y and Z, and I am not good at all these other things. But since I have been almost reduced to tears in Milan, pulled muscles walking through Venice and been yelled at in Germany (and Italy several time, but I attribute that more to the Italians' love for yelling than any particular transgression of mine), I have learned that I can do and survive so much more than I ever imagined I could.

This knowledge may have muddled my ideas of what I want to do with my life and where I want to live (spoiler: I have NO clue), but it has given me a much richer sense of myself. I have found so much more strength and self respect. My journeys this year, good and bad, have profoundly changed me. So, if you'll allow me to be cliche and (mis)quote one of my favorites songs, "who can say if I've been changed for the better? I do believe I have changed for the better... but I have been changed for good."

So, as friends, family or random internet go-ers, I thank you for your support through my travels, and I sincerely hope you have had a fantastic 2013 and that 2014 is even better. Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Healthy Kiwis

The first time I tasted potato chips here ("crisps"), I thought they tasted really strange. Being curious, I wanted to know why, so I flipped over the package and read the ingredients. It said, "Potato, Olive Oil, Salt."
That's it. Nothing else. On potato chips. I was shocked and excited at the same time. I almost didn't feel guilty about eating them. I can't even pronounce the myriad of ingredients on chips in the U.S.

This one example is indicative of a larger trend in the healthier nature of food here. In the U.S, I have to specifically search out uncured bacon to avoid the preservatives in it. In New Zealand, all bacon is naturally cured.

Same with beef—I have to seek out grass-feed beef in the U.S. In New Zealand, there's no other choice. Nearly everything just seems to be made without being heavily processed and preserved. With all of my weird stomach problems, I appreciate this so much.

The naturally healthier approach to food coincides with a huge emphasis on outdoors activities.
Think back on gym class in the U.S. I remember playing tag, basketball, volleyball, floor hockey and the like. In high school, I took my mandatory one P.E. elective where we "learned" to play the basic sports. I basically remember having to run around for an hour 3 days a week.

Meanwhile in New Zealand, they learn water safety—things like sailing, surfing, swimming, kayaking—as well as taking outdoors trips camping and hiking ("tramping") and so many cool, practical, engaging things that would never happen in the U.S. with the emphasis on testing.

And it seems like this activity just carries on into adulthood. All the Kiwis I've meet seem to have at least one or two sports/activities. Rock climbing, surfing, paddle boarding, hiking, running. Whatever, there's just something to keep them active. 
Kayaking to the island in the distance. It took just under an hour each way!
Obviously, I climb trees. 
Rock Climbing!!
It's really rare that there's a day I don't do something semi-active. Sometimes, it's as basic as taking the kids swimming or for a long walk with the dogs. (I usually end up carrying one or more of them—dog or child—so it turns into a real workout.) Other times, it's something really challenging, like kayaking for two (non-consecutive) hours. And whenever I can, I make it to the gym to work out and boulder so that I can be physically fit enough to do everything else.

I have noticed a huge increase in my strength in the past month. All the activity is doing wonders for my upper body strength. (I can finally do a pull up!!)

One of the things I enjoy about living in different countries is learning the things from other cultures I want to adopt. I picked up some things in Italy, and I've picked up some things here. I know now that I definitely want to settle somewhere that affords me "heaps" of opportunities for outside adventures. I have always valued being physically active and now that I live somewhere it is so easy to be so active, I don't want to give that up.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Heaps Easy As, Bro

Heaps easy as, bro.

This phrase was the name of one of the routes at a climbing gym, and while it may sound like unintelligible gibberish, it is actually a logical, if slightly exaggerated, Kiwi phrase.

Now, I wrote a post about trying to understand Italian, and Kiwi, obviously, is much easier, but for something that is actually English, there are surprising number of moments when I don't understand what someone is saying.

Kiwi bird approves these translations.
I'll throw out a few examples**

"Bring your togs and jandals this weekend."

Togs is the generic term for a swimming suit. Jandals=Sandals.

"Be careful driving on the loose metal"

I was genuinely terrified the first time someone told me this. I imagined scrap metal flying all around me, but fortunately, it just means gravel.

"Oh yeah the water there is mean."

Mean and Mint are all alternates to cool. Mean gets used the same way "wicked" gets used. And mint seems to be more like "awesome."

That's not to say that they don't use "cool" or "awesome;" they just also use these other things

"He lives in this posh as house."

In Kiwi, for whatever reason, they add "as" on to a lot of their descriptions. So really, this quote just means he lives in a posh house. Sweet as means cool and/or sweet.

So back to the title of the blog, heaps is what they use instead of "a lot" or "a ton." easy as just means easy. And bro is a way less douchier thing to say here. So basically it means "really easy, man."

One thing that was a bit startling to me was that the "n" word is not really as taboo as it is in the US. It's not exactly a polite word, but you also aren't the worst sort of person if you're white and you say it. But it's still not something I like to hear. I think given the lack of historical context and black people in general, it doesn't matter as much. (That's not to say that NZ isn't diverse. It is. The diversity is just more Maori, Asians, Brits and Pacific Islanders)

On the flip side, "granola" isn't a word here. I've said it a few times and people have NO CLUE what I'm talking about. They call it muesli. There actually is a slight difference between the two, muesli tends to be a lot healthier than granola (as is almost everything... I'll save that for a later blog though.)

So that is a few examples of the slang here. And even though I know or can use context clues to figure out most of it, I still have to contend with a very different accent.

If you want to hear what Kiwi sounds like, listen to this:

80 percent of the time I don't have any issues understand anything. But if the environment is loud or I'm distracted, I might have to ask someone to repeat what they're saying.

As an example:
Last night at dinner, I was so mentally exhausted that I couldn't understand anything my soft spoken waitress was saying. At one point she came over and said... I have no clue what. I just stared at her, trying to make sense of the sounds. Nothing. I asked her to repeat it. My brain couldn't even process it as a language. I felt like an idiot. And my friend across the table looked like he was concerned about my sanity. "What?" I asked again, this time to him. "Do you want dessert?"

It was embarrassing.

Now obviously this same concept holds true when I talk, but I find that native English speakers are a lot more familiar with American slang than we are of theirs. It's because books and movies will actually change or re-edit movies for American audiences and British or Kiwi slang gets changed into more recognizable forms.

So the fact that they are more well versed with the slang I use and the fact my accent lends itself to fully enunciating words and the kiwi accent definitely doesn't generally means I am slightly better understood than I understand people. Or at least that's my impression... I could be wrong.

**All translations were approved by a real, live Kiwi.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Battle Scars

Sometimes, being uncoordinated... adventurous... can be quite painful. I've spent my past two weekends kayaking, hiking, swimming and rock climbing. I have loved every second of it, but these fantastic moments have come at the expense of several layers of skin from my hands, feet and legs.

Not that I'm complaining, but I don't think I've ever been so beat up around the edges.

I acquired my first set of bruises and scrapes on my weekend at Coromandel. For the most part, we just hopped from beach to beach and enjoyed the sun. But four hours of kayaking left me with very cold, blistered hands!

The kayaking was exhilarating and definitely different than anything I was used to.
We kayaked from Hahei beach to Cathedral Cove, which was gorgeous. We sipped hot chocolate on the beach and generally enjoyed the sites before setting off for the two islands we paddled around. The weather was great, and the sun was out. But the water was still a balmy 16 degrees (about 60F), so I was definitely chilly by the end of it. 

That night my group decided to go to Hot Water springs, where hot water bubbles up to the surface and you can sit and enjoy the water. We thought it would be a relaxing and easy way to end the day. I don't know what the other girls were expecting, but I certainly didn't know that you had to dig your own hole in the sand to get to the hot water. 

So instead of sitting in a lovely warm pool for an hour or two, we had to fight through a throng of other beach goers and spent nearly half of that time battling the tide, trying to dig a hole deep enough to sit in. The other girls and I took turns with the shovel, scooping out great chunks of sand, only to see the sides of our little pool crumble back in. It was really disheartening, but eventually, we got a decent hole dug. 

And I found that Hot Water Beach should really be called "Boiling Water Beach." The water was incredibly hot. We found a decent spot that combined hot spring water and cool ocean water, so ours was a reasonable temperature. But the poor kids next to us weren't so lucky. Their water was literally boiling to the surface and steaming. 
Beach Hopping #1

Beach Hopping #2
Beaching Hopping #3
The next day was beach hopping at its finest. We saw so many lovely beaches, but the best one came at the behest of the woman working the desk of our camp ground. She told us to "talk the lovely walk to New Chum Beach." So we all popped out of the car, thinking we'd walk a few hundred meters or something to the beach. 

That was not the case. We took a several kilometer walk across large boulders and eventually through the jungle. And in true Kiwi fashion, we were barefoot. The path was pretty smooth, so it didn't bother my feet too much. 
The beach was incredible and definitely worth the trek. 

New Chum Beach!
I made it!
That's when we spotted people sitting atop the extremely large, steep cliff, and decided obviously,  we had to hike up there. The hike was about 20 minutes of scrambling up a mixture of dirt paths and rocks. The view from the top was even better, as we had a complete view of two beautiful beaches and the surrounding jungle (probably it's actually a forest, but jungle sounds so much cooler.)

The intervening week took me rock climbing indoors once or twice, but nothing much by way of injuries, until the following weekend's rock climbing. 

The whole trip was awesome, and I met some cool climber friends who definitely pushed me into much harder climbs than I'd ever tried when I was in the States. We climbed volcanic rock called new ignimibrite, and according to Mountain Project, the rock is soft. Now, I don't know what they were smoking when they said that, but I have a whole host of cuts on my hands and forearms that would gladly protest the "softness" of this rock. 

Each time I started a climb, all I could think was, "Ouch. I hate this.  Ow. I hate this. I hate this. Why. What's wrong with me?" Until I got maybe 20' up and either got use to it or just lost feeling in my hands because I stopped noticing the pain. 
The climbing was so much fun, but a few unexpected crack climbs, stems, and lead falls later, I found myself quite cut up. 

And I can't wait for my next trip. 

The final (well... for the moment) set of battle scars came as a result of a freezing ocean swim. I know. I'm as surprised as you are. 

Another Au Pair friend wanted to go for a 1.5k swim from one bay on the North Shore of Auckland to another. we swam out a safe but reasonable distance from the shore and began swimming until I kicked and slammed my foot into a rock covered in oysters because where we were swimming became quite shallow. It felt like my entire foot was split open. And I did that several more times. 

Eventually I gave up and walked where it was shallow, but I still tripped and fell a few times, slamming my shins into the previously mentioned oyster-covered rocks. 

Despite the brief bouts of pain, the swimming was quite exhilarating. I'd been in the ocean heaps (as the Brits and Kiwis say) and swam around, but I'd never gone for a serious swim. So I view my cuts as a sign of accomplishment, instead of an inability to walk without injuring myself... just go with me on this guys. Don't judge my lack of coordination; it's a life-long struggle. 

My next adventures involve things like surfing lessons and going to the zoo. So there's no saying how I will manage to slightly injure myself next.


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Pushing My Limits

If you've talked to me for more than a minute, you probably found out that I like to rock climb. I started two summers ago, but while I was student teaching and in Italy, I didn't have good access to a gym.
Naturally, one of the first things I've done in New Zealand was find a gym. So the following is a very cheesy story about what happened when I first climbed here.
This past summer, I made good progress climbing, moving from climbing at a difficulty of about 5.8 (pretty easy) to 5.10a (intermediate). (The climbing scale goes: 5.5-5.9 then 5.10a, 5.10b, 5.10c, 5.10d then on to 5.11a.) I was able to work with a great trainer from Kites (s/o Brady!) to really increase my strength and build upon all of the training I did with my great first trainer (s/o Paul!)
I was pleased with the progress I had made, but I felt like I wasn't pushing myself as much as I could. Maybe I could climb harder than I was allowing myself...?
On a climb in Colorado!
Moving to New Zealand afforded me the opportunity to test that idea because they rate how difficult each climb is differently. I purposely didn't look at a conversion chart before I went. I wanted to see what I could do without knowing my "limitations."
I looked around at different routes and saw the lowest number was about a 15. To warm up, I climbed a 17 and 19. Neither felt too bad. So I asked my kids which route I should climb and they pointed at a 22.
Sure... why not?
So I started climbing. And I fell. And I climbed and fell again. I wondered if this was too difficult for me. I used just about every bit of strength I had, fell a lot, gained a few beautiful bruises, shed several layers of skin from my fingers, but finally, I made it.
That one 35ft climb took it all out of me. I knew it was the hardest climb I had done, but I still didn't know exactly what that would convert to in the US. So I looked it up, and it was a 5.11a. That's four levels of difficulty higher than I'd ever done before. I was shocked. I figured I could get somewhere around a 5.10c.
I will say that rating climbs is highly subjective, so it was probably on the easier side of a 5.11, but I don't let that take away from what I did.

Now, my point in sharing this wasn't to talk about my rock climbing achievements but just to show what you can do if you don't get in your own way. Pushing myself, growing, and achieving new things is why I travel. I want to become a better person all around, and that comes from taking risks and doing things I never thought I could do. And this experience just shows me that I am my biggest limitation.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Life in Kiwi Land

The following post is a hodgepodge of things that don't belong together, but I have several things to update about my life the past few weeks.

I'm going to let you in on a secret that no one else in the world knows.

Packing is hard. Really Hard.

I know. You are shocked.

I aspired to be like this guy who literally only owns 15 things (plus socks and underwear), and my friend who went to France with the tiniest of suitcases. I didn't do quite that well, but I did manage to fit everything in my big backpack and two smaller bags.

And not only is preparing to go on a trip hard, it's expensive.

Now Krayton, you might say, you spent four months in Europe; didn't you have all the traveling supplies you could possibly need?

Do you hear that? It's the sound of my credit card statement laughing at you.

Ignoring that (like I try to do every month... sorry dad),  I managed to fit it all in, and, as far as I've noticed, haven't left anything.

I didn't precisely time how long it took me to cross the Pacific, but including the time I spent waiting at the airport and clearing customs, I believe it was around 24 hours.

Susie, the mother in my New Zealand family, warned me that I was going to be "thrown in the deep end" with the kids. After picking me up from the airport around 6:30 am, she had to go straight to work, and I was left with the kids for the day. Fortunately, the kids are great, and we were able to hang out and play without any issues. I've spent my first week here getting to know them and getting settled into the family's routine.

I have successfully done something I always thought I maybe couldn't do: drive on the "wrong" side of the road. It took me a few trips over a few days to really feel comfortable doing it. The mental adjustment isn't too hard but making right turns terrifies me because intersections are so different.
Every time I drive, I have at least one wave of overwhelming panic because I think a car is going to slam into me.
The most difficult part is trying to get the correct perspective on the far side of the car. It's surprisingly hard to get a feel for where it ends and how close to get to objects. And New Zealanders park all along even the busiest of streets, meaning you have to squeeze between cars to go anywhere.
What I actually mess up the most is the blinkers because they are switched with the wipers. It's such a mindless thing--I can't even tell you how often I've hit the wrong one.
Yeah. Figure that out.
After some rather complicated turns, I always reflect: am I on the correct side? Fortunately, the answer has always been yes. I feel accomplished even though I try to enter the wrong side of the car at least 50% of the time.

I didn't take this picture, but this is just about the view I get driving in from the suburb where I live into Auckland.
I have managed to socialize a little bit in my week here. Sunday, I met a friend of a friend (and some of her "mates") out for drinks and dinner. It was the first time I'd had time away from the kids since I showed up and I was so grateful. We went to Mexico for dinner (the name of the restaurant), and I had some incredible tacos. I was so glad to find good Mexican food here because it simply doesn't exist in Europe.
 And every Wednesday a group of Au Pairs meet in a coffee shop. I went there and found that most of the girls were German or from elsewhere in Europe, so it was a nice joining of cultures!
At this meeting, there was a group of about 6 of us talking (out of about 30 girls). Two of us were from the US and the rest were from Germany. Now, I try to be aware of American stereotypes and break the bad ones, but I immediately noticed this girl was dominating the conversation and talking about herself a lot. She wasn't rude or self-centered; she was just very chatty. I wondered what the other girls thought about this, but on the way out, I was saying goodbye, and they told me they were so glad some "English" girls showed up because "All the German girls are so boring." I had to laugh, but I was also relieved that they thought our chattiness was a good thing!

On a rather different note, in my last post, I said I'd be arriving in New Zealand at the end of September, but I had to postpone my trip at the last second because my grandmother passed away.

I have written a number of different things about her and about the process my family went through, spending 5 days with her in the hospital and 10 days in hospice care through her funeral. I did it because I have to. If I can't write, I end up just swirling the thoughts around in my head incoherently until I break down and find one of my journals (I keep three, all for different reasons), or if I get really desperate, ask the person closest to me for a piece of paper.

At this point, I really can't write very much that's worth reading. It's hard to put words to how incredibly difficult everything is. Every happy reunion with family who live far away is tinged with sadness. And there's heavy-heartedness from watching nearly your entire family break down, and a deep weight that settles on your heart whenever grandpa cries.

My grandma was a truly wonderful person, and she will definitely be greatly missed by my entire family.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Next Chapter

The End of My Last Adventure:

I didn't really ever wrap up my time in Italy. But this quote does it well enough:

“But that's the glory of foreign travel, as far as I am concerned.  I can't think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can't read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can't even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.” Bill Bryson

I spent my last two weeks in Rome, Naples, Sorrento, Pompeii, the Amalfi Coast and the Isle of Capri. It was incredible. Seeing Rome was at least half the reason I wanted to go to Italy, leaving broke my heart. The more I did in Rome, the more I realized I hadn't done. I genuinely want to live there for at least 6 months.
This is how I spent most of my time in Rome.
That and cranking my neck to stare up at all the awesome stuff.

I spent the first week or so back in the US in such a blur of jet-lagged sadness of leaving and joy of returning home that by the time I was clear headed enough to write about my last trip, everything had faded away. Like something that happened to someone else. Or maybe more accurately, a different version of myself. And once I returned, I shed that sense of self I acquired in Italy and resumed where I left my life.

That's not to say I am wholly the same. I feel different on a fundamental level. I now know I am capable of doing what I never dreamed possible. I don't know if it is a "visible" change. But I've now seen a strength and competence in myself that will drive me to continue plunging into new adventures.

Part I: I hope I like Kiwis

If you talked to me about what I was doing after summer for most of June and July, I probably just shrugged my shoulders and generally avoided any kind of answer. As you may have read, I had a job teaching, but for many reasons, it didn't work out. So I felt very lost. I didn't want to teach. I wanted to travel, but I couldn't exactly figure out what I wanted to do.

So I signed up for a few Au Pair (basically being a nanny in a foreign country) websites. I assumed I wouldn't find anything until November at the earliest. Then, just about a week later, I found myself committing to a family who live in a suburb of Auckland, New Zealand for the end of September. It was mind blowingly fast, and I'm still reeling at the prospect of actually leaving fairly soon.

I'm not going to reveal the family's private information to a whole bunch of strangers on the internet, but from what I've read and talked to them about, they seem like a great match for me. The two kids rock climb in national competitions!!

Part II: I Guess I'm Going

Right there. Where that A is. In Beach Haven.
 I've actually gotten my visa approved and my (one way!)  ticket booked. And this whole process has just been so easy. Or as easy as these things can go.

One huge thing that traveling (especially planning the travels) has taught me is how well things work out when I am open to them growing naturally. I have been lucky to have the freedom to go where I feel (what my sister calls) "the Wind" taking me.

I spent a lot of time and energy into trying to find a place to live in the Fall in Manhattan. I found a couple of prospects but they kept falling apart. Maybe it was my fault because my heart wasn't in it or maybe it was theirs, but the point is I was trying to force something that just wasn't meant to be.

On the flip side, I put the same amount of time into setting up Au Pair profiles and doing research (I've spent a lot of time in the past few months looking into working holiday visas) and found many, many wonderful opportunities.

Not only did I click with the family and their environment, but apparently, I clicked with New Zealand immigration because they waived my visa application fees and approved it in a matter of days. I spent several days researching flight costs and found that, much to my delight flights were cheapest the week I wanted to leave.

It was like there was a flashing sign in my face. I couldn't ignore it. So now, I am going to New Zealand to be one with the Kiwis.

And all of this, my self revelations in Italy, my soul searching this summer, has taught me something I keep trying and often times failing to put into practice.

It is something I've always thought: what's meant to be will find a way to work out. And I can save myself a lot of trouble and heartache by not trying to force what isn't there.

I'm not saying there aren't things worth fighting or struggling over. That's not how life works. There aren't always or even often an abundance of "signs" telling you what to do, but when I catch myself saying "if I could just make this happen..." or "if he'd just listen to me..."  about the same things, I need to just let it go.

I don't know that life always works out for the best, but I believe it always works out how it's supposed to.

So now, I'm about to plunge into a new, exciting, and slightly scary adventure living in New Zealand. I don't know how long I'll be there. I could be there for a month, or a year or anywhere in between. I am just going to take my own advice and see how it works out best.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Under the Tuscan Sunset

After my quick, exciting adventures through London, my dad and I headed straight to Florence. I will tell you what we did wrong in Florence maybe so you won't make the same mistake.

Before I left to Europe, I spent months researching Paris, figuring out the best way to do everything, finding things to see and places to eat. I mostly did this because I was so excited to go. It was a way of building anticipation and trying to make sure I got the most out of my time there. 

As I have gone on more and more trips, I have done less planning, just going with the flow. I didn't even make hotel reservations before I went to Genoa. So, I hadn't done too much research on Florence. I had my dad bring us a guide book so we could figure it out day by day. 

That was a mistake. Florence's museums really want you to make reservations otherwise you wait in really long lines. I didn't realize this until the morning we arrived in Florence. I knew you needed reservations waaay far in advance to see the Last Supper in Milan and for the Vatican. But I didn't know that was an option other places. Oops

It didn't turn out too badly. We did wait in some fairly long lines, but we got into the Gallaria dell'Academia to see the David (amazing) and a cool collection of musical instruments, including a Stradivarius violin. We also got through the Uffizi and saw some incredible art. I was slightly disappointed that about 1/3 of the rooms were closed for renovations, but I still saw all the major works. 

I have reach my saturation level for art. Since February, I have been to 5 major museums in addition to an innumerable number of smaller museums and churches. I have seen so much art. I really like and appreciate art, but at this point my eyes sort of glaze over when I see yet another "Madonna and Child" or "Madonna Enthroned." I feel like I'm in my art history class again. It's just so much to see. And I still have to see three museums in Rome including the Vatican. Hopefully I've had a long enough break between then and now.

Inside the Duomo

Neptune in the Piazza della Signoria. 
Doors to the Baptistry outside the Duomo.

 While Florence's art impressed me, Florence itself did not. It's not that I didn't like it or it was bad. It just wasn't impressive. Especially compared to some of the stunning cities I've seen in my traveling. Look at me. I've become a snob. 

This view was quite pretty from Piazzale Michelangleo. 
I did love Chianti. My dad and I rented a car and drove through the hills of Chianti and saw all the vineyards. We spent the first evening there just driving around and watching the sun set in a few of the sleepy little towns. We ate dinner in Greve in Chianti and saw the wine museum. The museum itself was closed but the tasting center was open!

Tuscany at sunset is breathtaking. It's the kind of scenery that could never get old. I spent the whole time running scenes of "Under the Tuscan Sun" and imaging packing up and moving there. I would do it in a heart beat. I probably could live there forever. But for a year would be incredible. 

The next day we went for another drive and then made our way to a vineyard that had a free tour and wine tasting. It was really cool to see an Italian vineyard and my dad nerded out, learning how they grow all the different grapes. Obviously, the Chianti was quite good and I bought two bottles to take to my Italian family. 

Sweet wine aged since '07. 

This vineyard also made Olive Oil and had the best olive oil I've ever tasted. I never thought anything in my life would allow me to judge differences between olive oil, but apparently I can. I think I will forever be dissatisfied with the rest of the olive oil I ever eat. Don't judge me. 

By car is definitely the way to do Chianti if you can. Driving through and stopping at your own pace is a must. My dad would pull over the car and we'd stop and take some pictures and then keep driving. It is worth the gas and rental money. It can be done by bus or train, but I feel like it can't be the same.

Now I am in the last leg of my trip in Rome. Rome has been the stuff of my dreams since I was able to understand it existed. I learned from my mistakes in Florence and pre-booked everything. Information about that will come in my next update.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Literary London

Harry Potter, Sherlock Holmes, 1984, Bridget Jones, A Little Princess. 

All books I love. All books that are set or have scenes in London. I've been dreaming about seeing the stage for so many of my beloved books since I started reading them.

Finally, my chance came. My dad had a business meeting outside of London, and I was fortunate enough to get to three whirlwind days seeing as much of the city as I could.

I flew in early Tuesday morning, dumped my luggage on my dad, and headed out for the city.

The day was long and by the end of it, my feet hurt so bad I didn’t think I would physically be able to keep walking, but I got a lot of sight seeing done!

The first day I saw, Hyde Park, Big Ben and Parliament, toured Westminster Abbey, went on the London Eye, ate real hamburger and sushi, and walked around seeing different famous streets I read about time and time again.

I didn’t go into London on the second day (I’ll get to that in a minute), so on the last day, I toured the Tower, ate in Piccadilly Circus, and saw Buckingham Palace before I had to make my way back to the airport.

All in all, I enjoyed London. It was a great city. And it felt nice to be somewhere everyone spoke English even just for a few days. I think how unbelievably expensive everything is kind of marred the experience for me. I spent well over $200 in one day there without doing anything special or buy any souvenirs. Between meals, tickets into various attractions and public transportation my money was gone. I know all of it went to a good cause, but usually if I spend that kind of money, I have tangible items to show for it.

What I really liked the most was just being all of the different places I’d read so much about. It was just cool being on Tottenham Court Road and Charring Cross Road because I’ve seen them referenced so many times.

That has been one of my favorite parts of traveling. I have a firm setting in my head when I read about the cities I've been to now. Now I know, when I read about Paris or London or Florence what the cities are like. I know what Luxembourg looks like and how far away it is from Montmartre, so when a character has to rush from one to the other, I actually know how far away it is.

I got my ultimate literary fan girl on in Bath. If you have heard of Bath, I’m willing to bet it has something to do with Jane Austen. Since I was actually staying in Swindon, about an hour outside of London, I decided to take the 25 minutes train ride to Bath instead of paying another 40 pounds to go into London.

Bath is a splendid town. It’s very quaint, charming, and clean. The town is a book lover’s paradise. I stepped of the train and the first thing I saw was a bookstore. I popped in and discovered it was a run of the mill store; it sold first editions and classics. I never knew I wanted a first edition copy of Jane Austen’s works, but I do now.

Everywhere you turn in the heart of the city is a bookstore, or a store that also sells books. Clothing stores sell books, music shops sell music specific books, make up stores sold girly books. It was incredibly. I could tell I was in a city of like-minded people because many shops (even the non-book ones) had literary names like “Through the Looking Glass” and “The Raven.”

The epic culmination of all of this fun was the Jane Austen Center. Jane Austen lived in Bath for 5 years and set two of her novels here, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. They have a house that was modeled after the one she lived in full of information about her life, and on the top floor, they have a café. I went up there and had tea with a cheese scone served with chutney. I still can’t exactly tell you what chutney is but it was kind of like jam, but not really. Mine was gooseberry and coriander flavored which was incredibly bizarre but quite good. Later, I even got to walk the path that serves as the setting for Anne Elliot’s engagement.
I loved my time, however brief it was. Fortunately, I headed straight from London to Florence with my dad. And Florence is the subject of my next blog that I will hopefully post shortly. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Are You Scared to Go Home?

A stranger asked me a scary question after I told her I was from the US.

“Are you scared to go home?”


I was confused.

“Well, just because of everything that’s happening. You might get shot somewhere or blown up or bombed by North Korea.” She said it nonchalantly, like it was as foregone conclusion.

And I just stared at her. I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t say anything. How do you respond to something like that?

And I wondered, “Should I be? Is that the kind of place the US is turning into? Where people need to be afraid?”

I realized that I already am.

I didn’t go see The Dark Knight Rises in theaters because I knew there’d be copycats. Not that I really seriously thought I would get hurt, but the thought of going to see it made me sick.

And though I tried not to think about it, I was scared some days at school while I was student teaching. The school didn’t have locks on many of the doors and teachers didn’t have keys to their doors for part of the semester. One of the side doors was always open, so students from the other campus could get in without hassle.

And that scared me. Not because I ever once felt unsafe at East Campus. Not because any of the students seemed dangerous. Not because of any particular reason at my school, but because the world has shown how scary it can be.

My school was a safe, welcoming environment with such great faculty and students, but so was Sandy Hook. And so were so many other places that have been ravaged by violence.  

There’s been so much violence in the past year, my head can’t even think about it. I can’t even read anything about the explosions in Boston. It’s just too much.

I got a text from a friend that said, “I can’t handle this coverage on the bombing. I’m going to bed.”

I am saturated. Full. Done. My heart can’t take any more of this. We, not just as a  nation, but as a world, have been through too much.  People weren’t made for this. We are being bombarded with wave after wave of death and hatred. It crashes over us, eroding us, dragging us down.

And in the face of such a terrible force, we come together. We stand united. We pray. We send care packages. We raise money. We do all things we should to help those in the wake of the horror.

We fight evil. Our prevailing goodness shines through. We read (or perhaps are a part of) the stories of the heroic people who rushed toward the explosion. The kids who raised money for the survivors. The churches that went on missions to help rebuild.

We see the light overcome the darkness, and try its best to heal the deep wounds on our society. We are strong. We endure. We carry on.

And we say never again. We draw up bills or regulations that inevitably get stuck somewhere in the government machine. We make speeches, make videos, write blogs. We sit and debate. We try to make progress. Maybe we even make a few steps. But then the next wave comes, and it feels like nothing has changed.

We say if we had better gun control… If we were better at dealing with mentally ill people… If the “system” didn’t fail...

If… if… if…

And though I strongly believe we need reform in areas like gun control and the culture surrounding mental health, it doesn’t take a gun to kill someone. And it’s not only mentally ill people who do harm. We are fighting deeper problems.

And after so much senseless violence, we all desperately want to make a change. We want to do what it takes, whatever it takes, to heal the brokenness. To put stopping force behind our “never agains.”

We all desperately want the same end results. We want peace. We want the safety and security, the love that we are all entitled to. And so we ask ourselves, I ask myself, how do we end this?

There isn’t an answer. There’s no magic fix. The safety we want can’t be found simply. It will take a profound shift in our culture to make it a reality.

Whether you seek it out or not, violence is everywhere in our world, and I don’t mean just the US or just the Westernized world. On the news, video games, movies, books, advertisements. There’s no end. I know violent video games aren’t why people shoot other people. But enactments of death, destruction, power, and greed saturate our entire lives. And they are and valued in our culture, making millions in all types of media. I’m not blaming the media exclusively. I can’t say whether the media reflects us or we reflect the media, but in what is being shown there, you see the roots of our extensive problems.

We can’t ban violence from the media, and even if we could, it wouldn’t make the problem go away. I’m not naïve enough to think that stopping kids from watching R-rated movies or playing violent video games will fix the problem. I know it won’t.

Instead, it will take all of us, choosing light over darkness, valuing all life, all life, above all else and respecting all people.

One of my favorite quotes touches on this idea: “We must live by the conviction that each human life—even the humblest—is of infinite worth. Each soul is an icon of Christ.” Sophia House.

It will take all our strength and conviction to make this happen. We must choose to fight against the bullies, the racists, and those who seek to harm us. Ignoring the problem is no longer enough. It’s not going away. We have to stand above the violence, meeting its hate with our love.

I ask myself, how can I help? How can I actually make my idealized version of life a reality? What can I do that will make a difference?

I don’t know. I wish I did.

But I know the answer doesn’t lie in waiting for someone else to start the movement, letting someone else show love and compassion. We each have to make the decision to show everyone love, and it won’t work if we all don’t change. I have faith. I believe that the goodness of people can conquer the evil we are faced with, if we choose love and life.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Perfect Moments

This past year I’ve been lucky enough to have several what I like to call "Moments I Don’t Want to Leave." The most recent one happened to me just the other day while I was hiking around Laveno on Lake Maggiore, but I’ll briefly tell you about the first two.

The first moment came on my very first outdoor climbing adventure on the first Flat Iron in Boulder. After waiting hours to even start climbing, I finally made it up the first pitch and it was incredible. We ended up getting stuck at that spot for quite a while because someone climbing a head of us broke their leg.

I climbed the one on the far right.

So I just got to sit, all by myself and enjoy the spectacular view. Below me, I could see the entire town in the distance and the mountains and forest surrounding it. From such a distance, the town looked perfect, nothing was broken or dirty. It appeared to be a perfect man-made community living along side the power and beauty of mother nature. I could see everything happening in the town; the stream of cars hurrying about their day.  Their frenzied movements contrasted perfectly with the stillness and calm of nature around me. And that moment was just perfect.

The second one came my last day in Venice. It was the first truly warm day I’ve felt since last fall. I grabbed lunch and sat on the sidewalk by the beautiful, blue-green water. The hum of the city seemed to fade away, leaving me with the sound of the water gently rolling in and the warm sun on my face. I watched the ships float by for what felt like hours.

The third one is similar to the first one, but how I got there was different. I knew it was going to be a nice day, and I wanted to go to a farmer’s market/fair that happens in a neighboring town. When I showed up, nothing was happening. So I thought I would just continue on the train to Lake Maggiore and catch a ferry to a few of the islands that looked pretty.

But when I got to the ticket office they told me that ferries only went there in the morning, which I am pretty sure was a lie, but I just accepted it and moved on. I almost went home, but I decided I should at least take a look around the town and that’s when I saw it.

It basically was a ski lift, but instead of seats, there were buckets to stand in. If you know me well, you know I am a heights/adrenaline junkie, so this was right up my ally. Though I prefer climbing, I’ll take any chance I can get to get my feet off the ground. I made my way up, down and around the hills to the platform. The views on the way up were incredible. I took waaay too many pictures. Here are some of them.

I got to the top of the funivar and saw that while there isn’t much up there besides a restaurant, there was kind of a trail heading the rest of the way up. I say “trail,” but what I mean is if you have an active imagination and a strong desire to roam around in the trees, you can find a suitable path. So I picked my way through the leaves still coating the ground and scrambled up a series of rather large boulders. 

Unfortunately, I was only wearing my Birkenstocks which aren’t exactly made for trailblazing, so I took them off and went barefoot. I love being barefoot as much as possible. People always tell me something horrible is going to happen to my feet, but the only time I've stepped on glass was inside. So, I’ve been okay for 22 years.

But I digress. I made it up the hill and the views were beautiful. I saw a guy paragliding and ended up helping him get his equipment set up. As he was taking off, I wanted to grab a hold of him and shout “take me with you.” But I didn’t. I just watched him jealously.

After helping him, I just sat at the top of the hill and soaked in the view and the sun. It was beautiful to see how the towns all melted together, connected by the train tracks until they reached the edge of the dark blue water. The towns seem to exist without interrupting the beauty of nature around them. 

It says "Sasso del Ferro" which means something like rock of iron. 

Eventually, I realized that I had find out when the next train was coming to take me home. I hiked back down and discovered I had some time to kill. So I decided to order whatever drink was cheapest at the restaurant which was, of course, wine. I sipped that sweet wine and enjoyed another great view. So in the end, what started as a series of busted plans turned into one of the most memorable experiences I've had in Europe.