Pushing Yourself to Do the Hard Stuff (AKA driving in a foreign country)

Many people do difficult things. They raise children, join the army, pass the bar exam, care for sick loved ones and run marathons, to name a few.

Though I’ve always loved a challenge, especially when it comes to school/studying/work/projects, I think I’ve forgotten how important—nay, critical—it is to do the hard stuff. The really hard stuff.

In a way, doing the hard stuff like crying. So many people, myself included, feel ten times better after a big cry. Not only are you letting out years of pent up frustration, anger, and sadness in each sob, but you’re also emptying out your emotions to create space for new, better ones. You start seeking happiness. You smile. Things don’t seem so bad anymore.

You get that same feeling after accomplishing some great feat. Even if you don’t have your scores back yet, you feel relieved finishing your exam. Even if you didn’t get the best time, you finished the race. You struggled, you panted, you panicked, you nearly shat yourself. But you did it. And now, you can smile.

Where am I going with this?

It’s nearly August, right? Seven months of memories have gone by this year. If you know me, you know I chase happiness and am in a constant state of reflection. Recently, I’ve been bored and a bit down and I’ve been trying to figure out what I can do to lift my spirits. I’ve been trying to think back to the moments this year when I felt my happiest to see if I can replicate those feelings here and now. And of the seven months, I can think of one specific time when I felt pure euphoria.

It was the moment I parked my rental car at my hotel in Fort William, Scotland.

You see — (lmao, love that expression) in March, I had booked a tour that would take me from where I was staying in Glasgow via coach bus through the Scottish Highlands and drop off in Edinburgh the next day. I was beyond thrilled for this little trip because it was my mini vacation while I was working remotely, my chance for escape and enjoyment, and a chance to see the countryside.

But two days before the departure, I got a message that the trip was cancelled due to a shortage of attendees. I was super bummed. After thinking about it long and hard and conversing with a friend or two, I decided on a whim to take the situation into my own hands, rent a car, and make the trip myself. Why not?

It all seemed like good and fun, until I got to the rental car place in Glasgow the morning of my escapade. After inspecting my Nissan, the attendant handed me my keys, pointed to the exit, and said, “You’re good to go. Have a great day.”

Then, boom. It hit me.

I was all alone.
In a foreign country.
With a car I’d never driven.
A driver’s seat on the wrong side.
Street signs on the wrong side.
About to drive four hours in a direction I didn’t know.
Through land I didn’t know.
Without anyone on the continent to call if I got stuck.
I had to figure out how to get out of the garage.
And then through the crowd of pedestrians.
Then out of the city.
Then… Oh my gosh.

For the first time in a very long time, I was terrified.

But I had already spent $260 on the rental and booked my hotel in Fort William (my halfway point) that night. And I booked my hostel in Edinburgh the next day. Time and money were of the essence. There was no backing out.

So I did it. I told myself I could do it and drove that car out of the garage. I found my way to the highway after about six wrong turns and a speed well below the limit. I got to the countryside. I made it to see the rolling hills and greenery. (Absolutely breathtaking, btw.)

This photo does NOT do it justice.

Of course, the Scottish weather held up to its reputation and it was pouring on and off the entire trip. And get this— I even had to stop and fill up with petrol. That honestly made me more nervous than driving on the left! How do gas pumps work in a foreign country?

I was literally shaking the entire journey. My hands, trembling, were glued to the steering wheel. I was leaning forward and driving slow like a Grandma (sorry, Grandma). My eyes were peeled.

Nevertheless, she persisted.

By the time I got to my hotel a few hours later, I was physically exhausted. Stress, anxiety, and terror do that to the body, you know.

But seconds after pulling into the parking lot, I smiled. Really smiled.

Then I laughed. Then I squealed. Then I teared up. Then I laughed again. Another squeal.

I F*CKING DID IT!!!!!! (Again, sorry, Grandma.)

And that was the happiest I’ve felt all year. That utter bliss carried me through the next few weeks, with nothing but pure jubilation emanating from my body. The world was perfect. I was in love with it.

Okay, okay, so I know driving in a foreign country does not come close to the great challenges people face all the time. It wasn’t climbing Everest or being launched into space. Or getting my MBA (now that’s scary).

But it taught me an invaluable lesson. I’m happiest when I’m working really, really freaking hard, bitch-slapping my comfort zone, shaking in my boots, and just doing the damn thing.

And maybe I’ve been so bored lately because I’ve done so many things that I find few tasks daunting anymore. Work is challenging, but it’s not driving-in-a-foreign-country hard. Zumba is challenging, but it’s not racing-against-the-clock-to-find-a-gas-station-in-the-middle-of-nowhere hard.

So if you’re reading this—or if I’m just talking to myself here—challenge yourself MORE. Go do the hard stuff. The really hard stuff.

It is utterly, completely, unequivocally worth it.

A 2019 Revelation: yet another post where I announce I’ve “realized” something and vow to make a change

When I started this blog it was meant to document my findings as I did research for upcoming trips. And then, once I went on those trips, it became a way to chronicle and memorialize the adventures I went on every day that I was abroad.

So, when I left last year to start traveling full-time, I expected my blogging to continue. Naturally.

Well, a year of travel went by, I only posted one post.

And I’ve been beating myself up about it all year. I kept telling myself that the reason I wasn’t writing was that I was too busy living and having fun, and that’s justifiable since it was my mission and fuel all along.

But today, January 9, 2019, I’ve had a revelation (and a sh*t-ton of coffee).

I wasn’t avoiding blogging because I was “too busy.”

It was because I didn’t feel like I was on a little “adventure” anymore. My trips didn’t have a start and end where I could sum up my itinerary and post about what a great time I had.

My journey was ongoing. And, as a marketing professional, I’m married to the construct of brand consistency. So anything I would have written would have risked diverting from the brand.

Plus, I started the year with a comfortable income, so I didn’t feel “broke” anymore. Another brand diversion.

So I let myself become unmotivated. I didn’t feel like I had anything exciting or relevant to share, so I, myself, became unexcitable and irrelevant. And motivation is EVERYTHING when you’re working on a side project with no one holding you accountable but yourself. This blog is supposed to be a fun l’il journaling exercise anyway, not a chore. I ain’t getting paid for this ish.

But part of my revelation was that this has all been total BS and I have a ton to share!

I mean, look at what I’m doing. I’m 25 and I have no home. I sold everything and moved to a foreign country for a year. I work 100% online in a professional career. I live out of a CARRY-ON suitcase. I lived in hostels for a year. I managed to get in the best shape of my life while on what many would say was a “vacation.” I studied and practiced opera virtually. I’ve been treated for a mental health disorder in a foreign country. I’ve had both a serious relationship and a few casual flings while on the road. And I’ve broken through my self-critical, introspective, antisocial bubble to make numerous lifelong friends in a matter of weeks.

So while I’m may not have come out of this year with a “10 Free Things To Do in Brisbane” or “49 Hours in Melbourne: How to See it All” post, this l’il mama still has plenty of advice to give.

So, help me, dear readers. All 15 of you who have actually made it down this far in my musings. Is there anything, in particular, you’d like to know?

I have some free time and a really nice MacBook so let’s get this flowing….Comment box below. Right. There.

XOXOXO

Lexi

What I’ve been doing in Australia for the past 5 months

I want to say sorry for not updating y’all sooner, but I’m working on not saying sorry as much. Let’s just say, I’ve been busy!

I’m currently laying in my bed in my 6-person hostel room (mixed, so ladies and fellahs) in Cairns, the main tourist city near the Great Barrier Reef in the northern coast of Queensland, Australia. It’s raining outside, and somehow my body, adamant in acclimating to the Australian atmosphere, is freezing in 65-degree weather. But hey, what can ya do.

So, now, kids, let me fill you in on what Alexis has been doing for the past five months. Shall I start from the beginning? (Yes, Lexi, that’s the obvious choice!) Okay, then, we’ll go in chronological order.

January

I arrived on January 20, 2018, beyond excited to meet my friend Sasha and begin my Australian adventure.  She selflessly picked me up from the airport, took me to her place in Brunswick, a suburb of Melbourne to where she had recently transplanted, and gave me about two hours to freshen up before hitting the town — at 3 p.m. We ventured into the city center, celebrating my arrival with cocktail after cocktail, meeting up with more friends, and dancing into the night. My first night was both a blur and the best possible welcome to any city a nomad could receive. I slept about 18 hours the next day.

Espresso Martinis in Melbourne
Espresso martinis were welcomed after my 30-hour flight.

My first full week in Melbourne was more stressful than I had hoped it would be. I didn’t want to burden Sasha with hosting me for more than a week, so I quickly jumped on the housing boards to find long-term accommodation and house shares. Meanwhile, I was finally adjusting to working remotely and balancing a transatlantic work schedule, which was more difficult than I had envisioned.

During this week, I settled into the domestic life, joining Sasha’s gym with her and adopting a healthy, structured routine. Simultaneously, I fell in love with the little Brunswick suburb. With time running out to find an apartment of my own, I booked into a nearby hostel — literally down the block from Sasha’s — to have a place to lay my head during the continued search.

February

I moved into the Victoria Hotel, at 380 Victoria St. in Brunswick, Victoria, on February 1st. Sasha and I had visited the bar, located underneath the hostel at ground level, the night prior so I could get my grounding, and I knew I’d like it there.

Victoria Hotel Brunswick
My home for nearly five months. Courtesy of victoriahotelbrunswick.com

At first, I was soooooo intimidated. Here I had gone from living with one person in our own apartment for more than a year to sharing a room with three strangers in a hostel of 30 international people. How the hell did I fit in? Do I just go up to people and introduce myself? Do they even care? How does one even make conversation? What was my name again?

But my social anxiety was subverted by a few glasses of wine, and by the end of the first night I had met a slew of people out on the hostel balcony and stayed up until 3 a.m. enjoying my new company.

The next day I gave up my search for an apartment.

In a matter of weeks, I blossomed from thinking I would never be able to make friends again to being fully betwixt in the hostel’s social climate. I did it. I was 100% Lexi, the best and happiest version of myself. All was good.

img_1506-e1530018900151.jpg
An afternoon in the park with my hostel mates. No, that wasn’t my beer.

I should mention here as well that during this time, I met a boy.  Well, not really a boy — a nearly 30-year-old British dude who I hit it off with. I’ll fast forward through the details, but let’s say it kicked off a whirlwind affair (just in time for Valentine’s Day) that was neither expected nor warranted — but God works in mysterious ways, amirite? We had two weeks together in the hostel before he was off to New Zealand for a few weeks, and we made plans to rendezvous in Queensland upon his return to Aus.

March

The final weeks of February and the first week of March were marked by partying, dancing, flirting, more dancing, eating, working out, and not getting nearly enough work done. I fell in love with the people at the hostel, and I was delightedly content being wrapped up in the juvenile hostel drama while also being able to step away to spend time with Sasha and her friends.

It was hard to say goodbye, even temporarily, but I jetted off to Brisbane on March 10th to visit my friend Alex for her birthday and then meet with Rob, the old Brit, a week later in the Gold Coast.

Brisbane was a blast. Though I was working during the days, I spent the evening and weekends with Alex and her mom and boyfriend. I went to a Rugby game, walked around the local market, went out dancing, walked her dog, and celebrated Alex’s birthday at a quirky arcade bar.

Then, I was off to the Gold Coast to meet Rob for his birthday. We spent the first few days celebrating his 30th while also attending his skate competition. Yeah, like professional skateboarding, y’all. It was all new to me. Then, we went back to Brisbane together where we spent our days getting work done in the library and the evenings exploring the bars and restaurants of the humid, industrial, culturally ambiguous city.

Following Brisbane, we headed up to the Sunshine Coast where we stayed a few days in Mooloolaba and visited with Rob’s friend to see the beautiful town of Noosa. Then slowly, we worked our way back down to Brisbane, then back to the Gold Coast, then flew back to Melbourne on Easter Sunday, March 30th.

Side note: Think that spending this much time with one person is a little overwhelming? Well, it gets better.

April

Upon arrival back to our hostel in Brunswick, we were offered not just a private room at the hostel, but a fully furnished studio apartment for the same price as the dorms. Hesitant at first to move in together, we accepted the offer on a trial basis and settled into our new home.

We quickly grew to like our little abode and agreed to stay there for a few weeks. Away from the bustle of the hostel but still close enough to be involved on our time, April for me was a period of creative productivity. I worked on my music, homed my photography skills, caught up on my freelance work, and did some writing.

Rob was granted some time off from his job toward the end of April, and we took that opportunity to go on a road trip to the Great Ocean Road and Grampians National Park. I’ll share a separate post on those at some point, but I’ll say that the views were utterly spectacular and I cannot wait to go back.

The trip was a testing one for us, but also a bonding opportunity, and we navigated our budding relationship much like the winding road before us: with extreme caution for most of it and careless acceleration for the rest.

I’ll reluctantly mention that in the midst of this, a conflict in my social circle turned a blissful period into an uncertain one, which I share only because it’s a part of this story and it lays the groundwork for some of the movement I’ve made since.

May

Early in May, Rob and I made a second trip to the Great Ocean Road, visiting and photographing the sights we missed the first time. It was cold now, finally entering winter, and clouds began taking over the blue skies.

Following our trip, the rest of the month was filled with more creative production (we released a music video for a song I wrote and he produced!), long walks in the winter rain, Netflix and wine and homecooked dinners. Yet again I found myself enthralled in this domestic lifestyle amid my international adventure.

At this time, the hostel was getting quieter and quieter as the long-term guests began traveling to warmer lands or finding work and settling into local house shares. Between the domiciliary lifestyle, the interpersonal conflict that lead to isolation, and a withering social scene at the hostel, I started to feel those same horrible feelings of loneliness that had plagued me in LA and whispered awful things in my head.

It was time for a change.

On the 31st of May, Rob got a call back from a company where he had applied for a factory job. On our working holiday visas, we’re required to do 88 days of “regional” work to qualify for a second-year extension. He was offered the job, which was in the middle of nowhere, about eight hours outside of Melbourne, and started in a week.

Knowing I wasn’t going with him, I spent some time that night doing some research and then booked a one-way flight to Cairns.

June

The first five days of June were filled with scrambling to pack up our apartment, sort out our belongings, and say goodbye to our friends at the hostel. Rob was off to work as a potato sorter for three months in a barren town of 1,400, while I was off to start a new chapter in a tropical paradise. It would be an adventure for both of us.

I arrived in Cairns on June 5.  After a day of falling in love with the weather, the shore and the people, I decided to stay and find work here to fulfill my own 88-day requirement. A dozen applications and a few good interviews later, I was offered a job on the photography staff at the Cairns Aquarium.

Staff Photo
A shot of my beautiful new family, the aquarium photography staff.

And thus, here I am now. I’ve been with the aquarium staff for two weeks now, loving every second of it. I’m staying at a new hostel, and while it offers a more vivacious social scene, it’s less homely, and I have been too busy now with work to really get invested in the people. We’ll see how this story plays out, but regardless of my actual dwelling spot, it looks like I’ll be in Cairns for the next few months. More music, photos, and stories to come hopefully.

—-

So just like that, it’s been five crazy, character-building, life-altering months in this land they call Down Under.

My roommates have turned off the lights now which means it’s time for bed, so I’ll end here for the night

I want to say more on this reflection, but honestly, it’s all happening so quickly I don’t think I’ve really had time to process how drastically life has changed since I hopped on that plane five months ago. I just know that everything happens for a reason and I’m on the path I’m meant to be on. I’ll reflect later.

 

On my escape to Paris (and beyond)

One day, I’ll go back and finish the posts from Germany. One day, I’ll finish the posts from Sweden. And then, eventually, I’ll go into full detail about the reasons behind my sudden departure and escape to a new life.

For now, I’ll leave it at this: I was unhappy, and now I’m on the road to recovery. In what seemed a few short days, I sold and donated my belongings back in LA, transitioned to working online, and bought a few one-way tickets. The first ticket was to home in Maryland, where I desperately needed the love from my family whom I had not seen in a year and friends whom I had not seen in more than a year.  Step one complete: feel a sense of belonging.

Then, I was off to Paris, the first leg of my multi-city pit stop on my way to Australia where I had applied for a working holiday visa months prior.  My pit stop includes Paris, Salzburg and Madrid, with maybe a few excursions tied in. Turns out that the cost of a one-way ticket from D.C. to Melbourne this time of year ($900) was roughly the same as a trip from D.C. to Paris ($250) and Madrid to Melbourne ($700). Of course, making this 2,000-mile detour includes the additional costs of lodging, intercity transport, food, activities, etc., but in my pursuit of happiness, the chance to spend alone time in some of my favorite cities is worth any cost.

Chaos erupted at the Anthony house on Jan. 8 when I got an email from WOW Air, the budget airline I had elected as my vehicle into this new passage, that my flight that took off in three hours was canceled. A storm in Iceland (the layover city and WOW Air’s central hub)  was the culprit. My parents remained calm while I threw a fit, deranged from the lack of sleep I had gotten over the last few days, and went into panic mode. I called the airline to get on the next flight out and was told there were no flights till Saturday. It was Monday.

I’ll cut out the details of my mini-crisis here and say that with the help of my vastly under-appreciated angel of a mother, I found and booked a new flight to Paris on a different airline out of a different airport. It left only 4 hours after my original flight and arrived in Paris 8 hours later. But at least I would arrive the same day and not forfeit my Airbnb. The catch: it cost $900.

I forked it over willingly, hopeful that my travel insurance would cover it. But the initial blow to the wallet was not a great way to start a tightly budgeted trip.

We rushed to the airport in the freezing rain (not cold rain, I mean real ice crystals falling from the sky), and soon enough I was seated in my window seat I had specially selected as a treat to myself: 25A. It was my favorite number and favorite letter all wrapped in one delicious windowed package.

As we took off, I made friends with the 20-something, friendly-looking girl on the aisle seat (the seat between us being empty, thank heavens), and was alarmed by our coincidence. She had also been on the same WOW Air flight to Paris from the other airport and rerouted to this flight. She was even traveling alone on a two-week trip through Europe. And she went to my school. Like, universe, C’mon!

Whereas I typically go out of my way to avoid speaking to anyone on a flight, I was somehow ecstatic to have someone to talk to and commiserate with about our delayed trips. We had a good time goofing off on the plane and made plans to catch up in Paris once we arrived. I’ve always sought solitude in the notion that everything happens for a reason, and this was one prime example of divine intervention at play. If I had been on the WOW flight, I probably wouldn’t have talked to anyone as usual, despite us all making the voyage from the same point A to the same point B. And I wouldn’t have met a companion to explore Paris with. I only wish this happy circumstance hadn’t cost a small fortune.

I also want to note here that I ironically watched the movie Paris Can Wait on the flight. It felt clever.

We arrived in Paris on time, and my friend and I parted ways after exchanging contact info. It was dark out when I caught my bus to my Airbnb, and watched the rain fall on the highway out of my window as we approached the city’s center.

When I made my first steps on the wet sidewalk in Paris, I felt an instant surge of energy, a healing force, like a squirt of Neosporin on a fresh booboo. I was here. After months of dreaming, yearning, contemplating and hoping, I was finally on the first brick of the long yellow brick road ahead. I felt warm, though Paris was wet and cold. I felt awake, though I had gotten little sleep on the plane. I felt full, though I had spent months feeling empty.  This is where I’m meant to be, I thought.

After a few failed attempts at navigating, I finally arrived at my Airbnb. I was renting a private room on the top floor of a small, very French, flat a few hundred meters from L’Opera. The host was delightful, the room was quaint but charming, and I was very pleased. But I couldn’t get too comfortable just yet. Despite the late hour, I knew I had one item on the agenda that had to be conquered before the day was gone.  I donned a few more layers and an umbrella and set out of the Eiffel Tower.

If you’ve been keeping up with my travels, you may remember my tales from my last time in Paris. If not, I’ll fill you in: it was a 2-day trip as part of a large group tour and due to some unfortunate circumstances we were not able to see the Eiffel Tower. But it turned out I would have missed the tower anyway because I spent the entire second day vomiting (and sometime diarrhea-ing) around the city, namely on (not in) the Louvre.

I was determined to improve round two.

I didn’t take my AirBnB host’s advice to take the bus to the tower because I wanted to stretch my legs after 11 hours of awkward airplane seat yoga. And I’m glad I did. As I strode down the Parisian alleyways, I stumbled upon street after street lined with dangling Christmas lights. Set upon the backdrop of, in my opinion, the most beautifully architected residential buildings in the world, the scene was utter magic. I giggled gleefully as I walked through this winter wonderland, watching the lights dance in the reflections off the wet pavement. I didn’t know where I was or what the buildings and monuments were that I passed by but it didn’t matter. Everything was beautiful.

I logged about 15,000 steps on my step-tracker on my walk to the Tower. I walked along the Seine once I got close enough to it and let the glimpse of the top of the tower that peeked in and out behind building be my guiding light. I thought I was nearly there when I turned a corner and wham, as if walking in on someone right after a shower, there I stood before it in its naked, natural glory.

The Eiffel Tower was everything I had hoped it would be. Though the grounds around it were blocked off for what looked like the remnants of some enormous market or festival, I was still able to walk right under the underbelly and gaze up along the spiraling metal vines and hatches, all the way to the top. In the midnight fog, the tower illuminated the sky like a torch. In the next few minutes, I walked around and through it, finally trekking away far enough to snap a few photos of the monument in its entirety.

In my walk to the Tower, I had given heed to the devil in my head that was predicting something would happen to prevent me from seeing the Tower once again. Maybe it would be closed off for some construction reasons. Or worse, perhaps something would happen to me on my walk, which, to be fair, was an astute prediction as I, a young tourist woman, walked alone at night in a city I hardly knew.  I am a firm believer in Murphy’s Law because I live it, experiencing disappointment after disappointment when I have my heart set on some grand outcome. It has led me to expect the worse, only to be surprised when plans work out.

But this night in Paris was even better than I had imagined. It was not a disappointment but an improvement, ten steps in the right directions when I had sought only one. Once again I was full, more full than I was in my first few steps in the city, and I felt like life was on the up and up.

I hope it was a forecast of what was to come not only in my next few days in Paris but in all of my travels ahead. Things work out.

I was genuinely excited for the first time in a very long time.

 

 

 

 

An Ode to McDonald’s

mcdonalds-berlin

I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge the real MVP of my travels: McDonald’s. No, not because I like fast food or get excited about nuggets and a red-footed, red-haired clown. Let me take a second to explain.

When I arrived in Berlin on a chilly, windy, wet April morning, I was running on less than three hours of sleep, a few granola bars and 8 oz. of water. I was not the best version of myself. I was parched, exhausted, jet-lagged, irritable, and not ready to face the day, let alone take on a new country with a language I don’t speak a lick of. Of course, I was excited to have touched down in Europe, the land I love more than my own, but that excitement was diluted by my physical stupor.

After stumbling through the airport and finding my way to the train stop, then navigating to the station closest to my hostel, I took my first steps in East Berlin. First impression: not great. It was dreary and grey; the people who shuffled up and down the sidewalks were dressed in varying shades of black, grey and navy. Heavy boots clapped on the ground and chains clinked on pedestrians’ jeans. Graffiti stretched as far as the eye could see on buildings, walls, fences, sidewalks, construction zones…everywhere.

I was dressed in a preppy tan coat and riding boots, with red lipstick on and my hair in a tight bun on the top of my head. I didn’t quite fit in. I got a few sideways glances and I lugged my suitcase off the platform and made my way to the street corner to look for signs. Since I didn’t have WiFi, I had screenshotted the directions from the station to the hostel before I had let the airport and I figured that would suffice to get me there. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

I first walked about 10 minutes in the wrong direction. I realized it and walked back to the station, and then went 10 minutes in the other direction. Then, realized the first direction was the correct way and I had just read a sign incorrectly. So 30 minutes later, I was on my way. I was so delirious and growing more frustrated by the minute that even when a man saw me frantically scrutinizing my map and asked if I needed help, I said no thank you because I didn’t feel like talking to humans. Yeah, that bad.

Finally, I made my way to the hostel. Of course I arrived before I could check in and could only drop off my bags. I wanted nothing more than a meal and a coffee and gallon of water to drink and a shower and a nap and a comfy bed – was that really too much to ask for? Apparently yes, it was. So I used the hostel bathroom, freshened up with some tap water from the sink, stored my luggage in the safe room, and took off on a quest for food.

Usually, when I travel, I have no issue eating alone. I’ll find a cute café with outdoor seating and will order a glass of wine to ease my nerves, and then dig into my meal. But on that morning, I was not so optimistic. I was simply hungry and tired. I passed by a few hole-in-the-wall kebob places but to me they looked questionable and definitely didn’t have warm-fuzzy vibes to them (though of course I saw everything though my lens of irritability and probably didn’t give them the chance I should have). So I didn’t stop.

I continued to walk, passing a few more uninviting-looking eateries and eventually ended up in an industrial area that was even more intimidating than the goth/punk rock area wherein I had begun my journey. Every sign and poster was in German and I didn’t know what I was looking at. I passed by more questionable characters on the streets and got more glances and I was just so uncomfortable I wanted to cry. I was so done.

But then off in the distance, I saw the golden arches. I can’t remember the last time I have eaten McDonald’s in the U.S.  Like every other person born in the early 90s, I definitely had my share growing up, but eventually stopped eating there post “Super-size Me” movie, as the world grew more aware of the health effects of eating fast food.  

But when traveling, it’s a different story. It’s not about the food at that point. It’s about taking a break from risk-taking and going somewhere where you know what to expect and you can read everything on the menu. It’s a little home away from home, a refuge when you’re feeling how I was in that moment.

So I made my way to McDonald’s, ordered my food, and for the first time in 24 hours, felt at ease. I plugged my phone in to charge in the outlet by my table. I logged into the free WiFi and looked up where I was. I stayed there for nearly an hour, browsing the web and planning my next few days in Berlin.   

I thought about how many times I have resorted to McDonald’s when traveling alone. I did it in Sydney, Australia, when I was fed up from getting lost in the city all day and just needed a place to go and recharge. I did it in Casablanca, Morocco, when I felt so uncomfortable trying to eat anywhere else because women typically don’t go out by themselves, let alone eat at a restaurant, and I had gotten lots of uncomfortable looks from hopeful men at every other restaurant I tried to enter. I did it in Buenos Aires, Argentina, when the power went out at my yucky hostel and I just needed to go somewhere with light and power to charge my phone and get a coffee.

It’s interesting how a place that doesn’t enter my brain space at home becomes my sanctuary while abroad. But then again, I don’t need a sanctuary when I’m at home because everything is already familiar. It’s like going to a party by yourself, finding the only person you know (a kid you knew briefly from high school), and clinging to that person the rest of the night just to survive the party. It’s really all just survival, isn’t it?

McDonald’s Corporation has undeniable flaws, but it has done a great job keeping its interiors and its in-store experiences consistent while assimilating to the demands of international consumers. And while I sat there in Berlin, drinking my signature diet coke and dipping over-fried French fries into sugar-infused ketchup, I couldn’t have been more appreciative for the fast food chain. I left feeling content and ready to take on the rest of the day.

This is my Ode to McDonald’s.

One week in Germany and Austria for less than $1,300 (including flights)

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Image via Wikimedia Commons

Germany — the land of the castles and the home of the beer. That sums it up right?

Almost. While my knowledge of Germany is wanting until I can get my butt there and discover it firsthand, I have at least enough know-how to find a way to get there for cheap.

Now the following outlines my budget for an upcoming trip. Meaning there’s a chance a wild boar might escape from the Berlin Zoo and pummel me on my way to the train station, causing me to miss my transport to Münich and have to find a new train the next day and pay for another night in a hostel — costing an extra $200 or something plus hospital bills for the boar attack. That would completely discredit my claim in this post.

But that probably won’t be the case. Especially because the Berlin Zoo doesn’t have wild boars.

So, given that all goes accordingly, here here’s how my boyfriend and I are doing a week in Germany (and a day in Austria) for less than $1,300 each:

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WOW Air connects US to Europe by way of Iceland – image via wowair.us.com

Flights: $531.00

I prepared for the worst when I first searched LAX to SXL on Skyscanner and watched the results start to roll in. I thought that the move from East Coast to West Coast (3,000 miles in the opposite direction from Europe) would mean nearly double the cost for a flight to Germany. The first result was $1,200 (okay, what I was expecting), then I saw $830, then $600. My heart fluttered. $600 – I can afford that!

But the wheel kept spinning and more results loaded. $580, $530, $500. I felt like I was watching my tickets fly out of the dispenser at an arcade. The wheel stopped spinning and the final result beamed at the top. LAX to SXL for $420.

Whut.

So I had heard of WOW Air before. But in the time that the airline had evolved into a major player in the budget travel community, I hadn’t searched flights in regions the airline serviced.

In my last semester of college I completed a mock PR plan to revamp Spirit Airlines’ reputation, and I consequently learned all the rules and facets involved with their bare-bones business model. WOW Air draws many similarities to Spirit in that its prices include the bare minimum fare to get from point A to point B — meaning you’re SOL of you seek such luxuries as in-flight entertainment, leg room and food. But if you’re prepared with a preloaded iPad and 8-hours worth of protein bars and Goldfish, you’re peachy and you get a cheap flight.

WOW Air offered a smattering of flights from the U.S. to Germany for around $400 each, and on the day I am flying, $420. So why does the header of this section say $531? Because they charge $50 for carry-on luggage each way — and then extra taxes. So tack on $100 to the tab, but even that $531 ticket was cheaper than the next cheapest option. I of course have my hesitations about doing such a long journey without common airline inclusions; but I’ve had it too good for too long and it’ll make me feel young again to be cramped up in an uncomfortable seat with a bag of homemade granola and a juice box.

The nifty part about this airline is that every U.S.-to-Europe flight includes a stopover in Iceland as a way to entice tourists to explore (and spend money) in the country. We’ll have 16 hours to explore Reykjavik before our 3-hour connecting flight to Berlin.

Post-trip, I’ll share a review of my experience with WOW and determine if it was really worth it. It will either be my new favorite way to travel to Europe or my favorite horror story to share at dinner parties.

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What our double room should look like at Grand Hostel Berlin – image via hostelworld.com

Accommodation: $221.50

This is where we splurged a little. We kept costs low by booking only hostels, of course, with help from my favorite hostel booking site HostelWorld. We could have stayed in hostels for as cheap as €15 per night. But for the first time, I didn’t sort by price “low –> high.”

I chose each of the hostels based on a rigid criteria of rating, reviews, location and amenities. This will be my boyfriend’s first experience in a hostel and I didn’t want to overwhelm him with the crowded summer camp cabin ambience of some of the hostels I’ve stayed in before. So I booked us private rooms in top-rated hostels and saved money by choosing hostels that:

  • are located within walking distance to most tourist hubs so we will save money on transportation
  • have breakfast included or available for less than €4
  • have proprietary bars/restaurants because it’s almost always cheaper to drink at the hostel bar first before going out
  • offer social activities or – at minimum – free walking tours
Here’s the list:
Berlin  – 2 nights

Grand Hostel Berlin (Private room: $30/person/night)

Munich – 3 nights

Euro Youth Hostel (Private room: $33/person/night)

Salzburg – 1 night

YOHO International Youth Hostel (Private room: $38.50/person/night)

Back to Berlin – 1 night

SleepCheapHostel (Private room: $24/person/night)

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We’re taking the Deutsch Bahn from Berlin to Munich – image via railwaypro.com

Inter-city transport: $96.00

Through my research (aka gleefully reading through travel blogs), I’ve found mixed opinions on whether or not to pre-book trains. I’ve traveled both ways before, and there are always ups and downs – like the risk of missing your pre-booked train and not getting a refund, or, on the other hand, arriving to the station without a ticket just to find all the trains are booked or cost twice as much as they did online. I’ve chosen to pre-book for this trip because, from my understanding, inter-city trains can get pretty pricey in Germany and you can save if you book in advance. I used GoEuro.com to book as it seemed like the prices  on that site were the most reasonable, but if there is anyone reading this who know of a better rail-booking site accessible from the U.S. let me know!

I compromised departure time for price here, going for the cheapest tickets I could find (at odd times) that were at least late enough in the morning that I knew we wouldn’t snooze through them.

Here’s the breakdown:

Berlin-Munich: $26/per person
Munich-Salzburg: $40/per person
Salzburg-Munich: $30/per person

Per Diem (total): $450.00

This is the area that could push us over the $1,300 mark but I’m confident we can survive on this amount.

For 10 days, I’m allocating $45/day to cover food, souvenirs and entertainment. (Luckily the USD to Euro conversion rate is happily in our favor now so the following prices estimates are in USD but should roughly be the same in euros.) If we stick to free or cheap hostel breakfast, we’ll clock in around $4/day maximum for breakfast $10 lunch, and $16 for dinner and cheap beer. That leaves $15/day for things like museums and “free” walking tours. Our itinerary is filled with free things to do in all three cities so hopefully we won’t even spend the entertainment ration. On days when we don’t spend the full amount the rest will go toward souvenirs (or more beer).

Annnnnnnnd there you have it folks!

 
$531.00
$221.50
$  96.00
+     $450.00
= $1,298.50

Post-trip, I’ll do an analysis of how closely we stuck to our budget. Fingers crossed the boars stay at bay and we can proceed as outlined.

People say they can’t travel because it’s too expensive or they just don’t have the money right now. I get that, and I’ve been there. But I don’t think many realize just how cheap travel can be if you 1.) do your research and 2.) are willing to sacrifice a few luxuries for the trip of a lifetime. No, my travel style isn’t spending a week at a resort and spa on the beach. Yeah, that could get pricey. My style is being immersed in a new culture, discovering unfamiliar foods and traditions and languages, and meeting people who have a completely different perspective on life — and that doesn’t have to cost a life’s savings.

Next stop: Germany (it only took a year)

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Image via Wikipedia

Well here’s a pleasant pivot from my last post. My boyfriend Sam and I have happy news (usually this statement is followed by an engagement announcement or pregnancy reveal — not yet world, not yet). The news is……..we’re going to Germany!

Since returning from Europe after graduation in 2015, and subsequently realizing I didn’t have the funds to move abroad as planned,  I vowed that the next opportunity I had to visit Europe, I’d go to Germany. While I’ve visited 11 countries in Europe to date, I’ve somehow circumvented Germany every time. There is so much allure in the rich history, the castles, the Romantic Road, pretzels, Oktoberfest, Rhine River cruises… (Yep – all I know of Germany is the traditional, stereotypical German icons. But that’s why I need to go there to experience authentic German culture.) And I was *this* close to realizing this dream last year.

It was a few days after Christmas 2015 that I was getting my plans together. I had finally accrued my whopping eight days of vacation for the year and could take time off. I had chosen my travel dates, filled my Pinterest board with allllll kinds of Germany travel tips, and identified the hostels and AirBnBs I would book. I’d fly into Berlin, spend a few days there, and then head to Cologne for another three to four days before moving down to Munich.

As I was organizing my itinerary on Tripomatic, I heard a little electronic chime and looked to read the news update on my phone:

1,200 women assaulted on New Year’s Eve in German cities

Yikes. Not good. I poured over the news coverage and read witness accounts of the attacks across the exact cities I wanted to visit. For those who may not remember, there were more than 1,200 reports of organized sexual assaults on women in open, public places across Germany, especially in Cologne, over the course of a few hours.

Had that been the week I was there, I would have been a prime target — tourist, female, alone, likely meandering through the train station or major plaza… mhmm. And I’m not one to often be perturbed by news like this. Horrendous events happen all over the globe, all the time, even in our own backyards, and we live our normal lives. But something about the proximity of these attacks to the exact locations on my itinerary was unsettling.

Choosing safety first, I went to Australia instead.

Alas, one year later, with the chaos subdued and my fears subsided, I’m finally going to Germany. Excuse me, we’re going to Germany. This is the first international trip my boyfriend Sam and I will take together and it’s an exciting milestone in our relationship. Naturally I’ve chosen one of the three European nations Sam has already visited, but he was in Munich for only two days three years ago and there will be plenty of new gems for us to see and discover together.

I am fortunate to have a flexible job with an accommodating boss. My position is project-based position, I can take off work as long as my absence doesn’t affect a deadline. I talked to my boss about the trip and told him the dates I wanted to take, and he consented without hesitation (Hallelujah!). Sam’s work was more difficult to work around but after enduring months of my unrelenting nagging, he asked his boss for PTO and was cleared.

We’ll be gone the first week of April. With the blessing of work flexibility, I was able to squeeze in a more days than Sam could, so I’ll fly out two days earlier for a total of 10 days in Germany (and a bonus day in Iceland!). My next post will cover how we’re managing the trip for less than $1200 each, so I’ll save those details. In summary, we found very cheap flights and great deals on hostels and intercity transport.

I’m known to often use the phrase “excited doesn’t begin to cover how I feel!” to talk about upcoming travel, and as much as I want to use my beloved platitude again, I’ll forgo it for something with more depth. Indeed, I am excited. I’ve been bugging Sam to go on a trip together since we started dating more than a year ago so he may experience budget travel the way YBT does it. And during that time, he’s had to deal with miserable, mopey Alexis prattling about her adoration for Europe and unquenchable wanderlust. Finally, he’ll get to see me in my element, happy as a freaking clam (I hope), doing that traveling thing I’m always so keen to talk about. It’ll be good for us.

Layered on that is my hope that the trip will rejuvenate my spirit. I remember returning from my month in Spain during which I cherished every little detail about the terrain, architecture, people and experiences and applying that sense of discovery to my environment at home. I began to question the history behind those run-down buildings I usually overlooked on my way to class; I photographed certain scenes I would have before found mundane; I found tranquil spots on benches in D.C. to people-watch for the simple joy of observing cultural behaviors; I hung out with new groups of people to satisfy a curiosity about others’ backstories, beliefs and routines. Those were habits I had developed traveling abroad and by filling my soul, they carried me through the rest of undergrad. I don’t mean to say I expect this 10-day trip through admittedly the most touristy parts of Germany to change my life  — but I think that leaving LA for a while and doing something I love will make me more inclined to appreciate the nuances of this smelly city when I return. We. Shall. See.

In my next post, I’ll share our money-saving tips for booking the trip and probably ramble more about my excitement. So I’ll end here. Let’s just say you should expect a surge of posts in the coming weeks covering our plans, travel stories, and reflections on the trip, which I pray will be good ones.

‘Til then, travel well.

How I’ve felt after nearly a year without travel

So….

Last I wrote, I was headed off to Australia in April 2016. My post was about the adjustment to post-grad, full-time working life and missing the freedom to roam.

In some ways, not much has changed since then. I’m still adjusting to being a real adult and to be honest, I don’t love it yet. I miss spending  a few hours of the day inside in a classroom and the rest of the time walking across a beautiful campus, stretching my legs, choosing how I spent the hour-long breaks between lessons and meetings and rehearsals and work. Now its about spending two hours in traffic commuting to and from work, sitting at a desk indoors for eight hours, getting back home when it’s already dark and making dinner before going to bed. I didn’t like this a year ago, and I don’t like it now.

But if you look at it from the other side of the tracks, a lot has changed since my last post. On October 15, 2015, my boyfriend got a call that the a spot had opened up in Los Angeles for a job he wanted, and after 24 hours of deliberation, he accepted. Ten months later, there were were driving 3,000 miles cross country with our parents to start our new life on the West Coast.

It’s been a strange year. During the months between graduating college and moving to LA, I’ve experienced a range of emotions. I loved my job at a creative agency in D.C., but it wasn’t enough to make me feel fulfilled. I didn’t see my friends. I didn’t have anything going on after work. I would come home and do nothing, or continue working on projects for work to fill the time. I watched a lot of Netflix. I gained a lot of weight. I stopped wearing make up. I saw my boyfriend on weekends but I would feel empty every Sunday night when we would part. I didn’t have any motivation to wake up in the mornings, I didn’t see a greater purpose for everything I was doing.

When I was in school, I had plenty of motivators: work hard in class, get good grades, earn my degree, work long hours to earn money for travel. Everyday I woke up with a mission and at any point in those four years, if you asked me why I was doing something I would have a definitive response. After graduating, I didn’t know what my mission was. Of course I wanted to perform well at work, help my company, help our clients, make a good name for myself, etc. But why? There wasn’t a degree to work towards. There wasn’t an award. And most importantly, there wasn’t a big trip that I was saving up for, because I only had a few days of vacation for the year. That coupled with everything listed in my last paragraph lead to a downward spiral in my mental health.

I felt the symptoms of depression taking over and I did everything I could think of to feel better. I did yoga, tried online therapy, meditated, took up therapeutic coloring, talked to my boyfriend about how I was feeling, even tried vitamin supplements that are supposed to be natural mood boosters. Nada. I still cried at least once a week and donned a painful smile for work.

Okay — I know by now you’re like, “Alexis, stop feeling sorry for yourself.  You have a good life. And besides, you’re in control of your life and if you want change, make it happen!” I hear you. But sometimes when you’re that far down in the trenches, you’re paralyzed; you can see the bright sky up above but you can’t seem to move toward it.

I thought going to Australia would be the answer. It was on the opposite side of the Earth, I was visiting one of my dearest friends and I was finally off of work for several days. But instead of  escaping those feelings, I brought them all with me. I felt tired during the trip, not alive. I wanted to sleep instead of party. I was timid around Sasha’s friends. I ate a lot. It was wonderful to see Sasha and meet her friends, and I did have a good time. But when I got back home to D.C., I didn’t feel any different. It was back to the grind as usual, and I still didn’t understand my purpose.

Still, I knew the move to LA was coming up. I hated to say goodbye to my coworkers, but I was looking forward to new work opportunities. I turned my attention, and my hopes, to that. I thought, okay — warm weather, beaches, art: check, check, check. It’s not Barcelona, or Dublin, or Zurich, or one of the many gorgeous European cities I really wanted to move to, but at least it was different. I drifted through the last few months before the move.

But despite the change in scenery, Los Angeles hasn’t been the solution I was dreaming about. It’s  different, but not necessarily in a good way. It’s smelly. People wear a lot of make up. Traffic is horrendous. Even the pretty streets you see in Instagram photos with colorful buildings and palm trees are wrought with litter and graffiti. My boyfriend travels for work, and when he’s not traveling, he is studying for his accounting exams. I spent my first several weeks feeling lost. I was looking for jobs and felt a new wave of discouragement after going weeks without a hit. As my savings dwindled, I accepted the first offer I received, doing marketing for a family-owned jewelry company in downtown Los Angeles.  It’s been a great position so far, and I’ve enjoyed learning about the industry and applying my creative and digital skills to help evolve the brand. But I still struggle to wake up each day and I coast through the weeks on autopilot, without direction.

ALL OF THIS BEING SAID, I’m still hopeful. I made a new years resolution to invest in hobbies and subsequently joined a choir, registered for a local photography class, and started working out with a personal trainer. At first, being busy felt great — but after a while, I just felt more fatigued than ever.  I’ll continue to try out a schedule balance will work best.

If I am completely honest with myself, I know that no matter what I do, I will never be truly happy unless I’m traveling. The contentment I feel when I’m abroad, in a country where I don’t speak the language, learning about how other people live, is so intense that I don’t think anything else will compare.

So, YBT is back. And she’s planning her next move.