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.

 

 

 

 

How To See Oslo, Norway on a Budget

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Oslo, the beautiful, historic capital of Norway, is known to be one of the most expensive cities in Europe. And not take-the-bus-instead-of-a-cab expensive, rather walk-everywhere-because-you-can’t-afford-transportation expensive.

But not to worry — this doesn’t mean anyone on a budget can’t explore this Scandinavian tourist hub. There are plenty of ways to beat the high prices, if you do a little homework.

Eating

Sorry folks, but eating out is pretty much out of the question if you’re on a budget. A typical meal in Oslo costs between 200 – 400 NOK ($25-$50 USD or €22 -€44 EUR). Multiply that by three meals a day and, well, you get the idea.

The best solution is to visit a supermarket, such as Rimi or Kiwi, and stock up on local goodies you can prepare in your hostel’s kitchen. I managed to scrape by with the basics — eggs, bread, veggies, chicken, yogurt and fruit — and saved tons of money.

With few extra bills in your wallet, you can splurge on one or two meals out without breaking the bank. (If you’re like me and love visiting restaurants in other countries, try simply ordering a coffee or a crescent, then eat a full meal when you get back to the hostel).

Free things to Do


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Frogner Park and Vigeland Sculpture ParkProbably my favorite spot in the city, this 79-acre (32-ha) stretch of land is the largest sculpture park in the world made by a single artist. The 212 life-size sculptures in bronze, granite and cast iron depict the human experience and are positioned in parallel lines that guide you through the park. It’s a must-see for anyone visiting the Norwegian capital and entrance is completely free.

Changing of the Guard – Enjoy watching soldiers march, toss their rifles and salute each other? Every day at 1:30 p.m. catch the Changing of the Guard ceremony at the Royal Palace of Oslo for free. Look out for a few ponytails sticking out from under the helmets; many of the guards are women.

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Oslo Opera House – Attending a show may be be a distant dream, but you don’t have to spend a dime to visit the outside of the Oslo Opera House and walk around its artsy exterior. The majestic structure sits on the the Bjorvika waterfront and looks like an iceberg emerging from the fjord. Climb to the top for an amazing 360 view of the Oslo waterfront.

Oslo City Hall – See art for free. The entrance of Oslo City Hall is an art gallery, showcasing modern paintings, sculptures and photographs from Norwegian artists. It’s no Prado Museum, but the small gallery is a free way to get a glimpse of the contemporary Norwegian art scene.

Cheap things to Do

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Akershus Fortress – This medieval castle-turned-fortress is one of the coolest attractions in Oslo. Entrance is 50 NOK ($6 USD or €5.5 EUR) for a student ticket; but you can forgo going inside and walk around outside for free. Walk along the hill outside the fortress and it will take you to an overlook where you can see all of Oslo’s harbor and cityscape.

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Viking Ship Museum – As usual, have your student ID ready. Admission to this museum that features some of the oldest Viking ships and artifacts in the world is 50 NOK ($6 USD or €5.5 EUR) for students. Bonus! Your ticket will also get you admission to the Historical Museum, so save the stub! Learn from my mistake, though: the Historical Museum is closed on Mondays so don’t plan to go then.

Transportation

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Walking or biking will always be the cheapest (and healthiest) option, but for some attractions, like the Viking Ship Museum, you’ll want a lift.

Ruter, Oslo’s tranport system, is *reasonably* priced at 30 NOK ($3.70 USD  or €3.30 EUR) for single use,  90 NOK ($11 USD  or €10 EUR) for a 24-hour pass, and  240 NOK ($30 USD  or €27 EUR) for a 7-day pass. Note: if you’re in Oslo for three days or more, the 7-day pass is the cheapest option.

A transport ticket will give you access to buses, trams, subways (t-bane), local trains and ferries. Yes, I said ferries. Hop on a boat to a neighboring fjord and get a relaxing ride with a great view of the Norwegian waterways and islands.

Olso may be one of the most expensive cities you’ll ever visit, but that doesn’t mean you need a small fortune to be able to see some of the best sights the city has to offer. Follow these tips and you’ll have a few bucks to spare for a few troll doll souvenirs.

 

Welcome to Oslo, Norway: the most expensive city in Europe

Well, the headline pretty much sums up this leg of our journey. After flying out of Schipohl Airport in Amsterdam and landing in Oslo, Norway, Sarah and I were immediately shocked by the horrendously high prices — $8 USD tall Americano at Starbucks? But…why?

We had prepared ourselves for the unpreventable blow to our wallets due to crazy high prices, but we we didn’t expect all of the extra fees we would have to pay. We had to take a train from the airport to Oslo’s central train station ($25 USD for adults, $12 for students if you remember your student ID!) and then from the train station take another street car to our hostel. We decided to forgo the second train and go by foot.

As we wandered through the streets, looking for our hostel, I took in the sights around me. Pained as I was by the high prices, I will admit Oslo is a beautiful city. The buildings stood tall and dark, and something about the architecture screamed power. The wide streets accommodated hoards of pedestrians, cars, buses and trains, but somehow the chaos seemed orderly, purposeful. Though the city is located right on the coast, there was no beachy vibe, rather an industrial, highly urbanized one. It was a place of productivity. And the people were tall, good-looking and surprisingly diverse in appearance.

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After a few wrong turns and a lot of “Didn’t we already pass this?” we spotted Anker Hostel. Again we were taken aback by the expenses. We had to pay for our linens (about $7 USD each) and were told kitchen supplies were to be rented from the front desk with a deposit of 100 NOK (or $15 USD) for three hours.

Welcome to Norway.

We were pleasantly surprised by our room, however. We had an incredibly spacious private room with a private bath, a large wardrobe, a coffee table with two chairs, and big bright, windows. But the best part was the full kitchen, equipped with stove, sink and mini-fridge, and a dining room table. We squealed with delight at the sight. With these amenities, we could avoid high prices at restaurants and cook our own meals – which is exactly what we did.

After settling in, we headed out to figure out the transportation system and find a grocery store. We struggled with both – from discerning which tickets maximized our budget to time ratio, to finding a grocery store that was open past 6 p.m. (weird), but we finally succeeded in both.

We made a healthy dinner of chicken and salad that night with our rented utensils from the hostel and headed to early. So far, Oslo was beautiful, but it seriously was a pain in my wallet.

First look at Amsterdam: Canals, Van Gogh Museum and the Royal Palace

Sarah and I were in Amsterdam for only three nights and two full days. With so much to do and so little time, we did our best to pack as much as we could into our brief stay.

We took different flights to Amsterdam, and she arrived hours before I did and checked us in to the hostel. I arrived at the airport late afternoon and found the train to the stop near our hostel (see my last post about transportation!).

It was late by the time I rolled up to Lucky Lake hostel, so Sarah and I decided to stay in that night and just hang out with the other guests. We made a few friends in the hostel’s lobby — mostly Americans, go figure — and enjoyed the night hanging out with them. At some point we took the metro to the next station over in search of wine, and we came back with pre-mixed mojitos. The rest of the night was spent in one of the lounge cabins at the hostel where a group of us chatted, drank and played music until bed.

We rose Tuesday morning and took the metro into the city after a quick breakfast at our hostel. Our first stop was the Van Gogh Museum. The hostel staff recommended that we book our tickets in advance online so as to avoid the queue at the museum. I’m so happy we did.

We arrived in Amsterdam’s Central Station about an hour before our ticketed museum entrance time, so we enjoyed a leisurely walk along the canals and crowded streets. We even ran into one of Sarah’s friends who she had met at a convention weeks previously. On our way to the museum, we passed one of the IAMSTERDAM signs (there’s another one by the airport, and probably more?) and of course had to snap some photos.

We finally made it to the museum where the line stretched almost all the way around the building. Printed tickets in hand, we strolled right to the front and went in a special side entrance. No waiting!

The Van Gogh Museum (EUR 17) was ah-mazing. He is Sarah’s favorite artist and she therefore had more pre-existing knowledge of Van Gogh than I did, but I was blown away by everything I learned. The museum was oriented such that each floor represented a stage in Van Gogh’s life, from his first painting to his last (though there is controversy over which piece was actually is last). I learned about his conservative up-bringing, his transformation in Paris, his friends and family, and finally his final years spent painting in the insane asylum after he sliced off a bit of his ear. Truly captivating.

Leaving the museum, we headed to a cute café and grabbed a bite as we sat European style (both sitting on the same side of the table, facing the street) and people watched for an more than an hour. We then walked through Dam Square, the main shopping area, and grabbed a few necessities — a new jacket for Sarah and a pair of sunglasses for me. Pleased with our new goodies, we walked around some more, passing the Royal Palace and watching the street performers. We could have taken a tour of the alace but it cost a few euros and we were trying to budget. The outside was pretty though!

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After a little while longer of walking around, we headed back to the hostel. It was a long day full of lots of walking, but we decided that night we would head back into town and visit the Red Light District.

Greetings from the Netherlands!

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I haven´t posted in ages; school became the top priority in the weeks following spring break. But I finally GRADUATED FROM COLLEGE on May 22, and I am now free to roam about the cabin. And by cabin, I mean Europe.

In December, my travel-partner-in crime Sarah and I planned a two-week trip to Amsterdam, Oslo and Stockholm following my graduation. Three days after I walked across the stage and received my diploma, I hopped on a plane to Moscow, with a connecting flight to Amsterdam.

I’m writing from Amsterdam now after a three-day stint in this electrifying city, and let me just tell you…I like it…a lot.

Accomodations (EUR 21/night)

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We’re staying at Lucky Lake hostel, a badass summer-camp styled hostel 30 minutes outside of the city by train. It’s a little out of the way, but I’d recommend this hostel for anyone staying in Amsterdam on a budget. Lucky Lake Hostel consists of 15 or so mini campers, brightly colored and absolutely adorable, situated in a rectangle around the central courtyard. On the exterior are wooden cabins to accommodate larger groups.

In the center of the courtyard are hammocks, picnic tables, an outdoor kitchen covered in a canopy, ping pong tables, a foosball table and the bathhouse. A few campers even act as lounges (one smoking, one non-smoking) and a movie-screening room. The facilities alone make the hostel awesome, but add on the friendly and hilarious staff and free shuttle to the train station, and Lucky Lake makes the top of Sarah and my list of favorite hostels.

Transportation

Arriving in the Netherlands was easier than I thought. I don’t speak a lick of Dutch, but seemingly everyone here speaks English, so it’s easy enough to ask for help. My flight came in to Schiphol Airport, one of the biggest airports in Europe. A train station sits right below the terminal and I found the line that took me right to Holendrecht, the stop near my hostel (I had to change lines once).

To get into Amsterdam and for roaming about the city, Sarah and I found the metro to be particularly helpful, as it took us right from Holendrecht to Amsterdam’s Central Station. From there, the above-ground trams took us anywhere throughout the city. Because the trams are so open, Sarah and I used riding the tram as a quasi-guided tour of the city. Haha, clever, right?

My First Impressions of Amsterdam

What a captivating city. The dark, narrow cobblestone streets and tall, thin buildings made it feel like each street gives you a tight hug. The canals were freaking beautiful, and we took several breaks to sit on benches and watch the boats pass through. Bikes lined every walkway and canal; I’m pretty sure there were more bikes in Amsterdam than people. Every road had a bike path between the sidewalk and the street.

The coffeshops gave the the city a potent, uh, herby smell, though it didn’t permeate through all parts of the city. (Confused? Coffeeshops = cannabis stores). I can’t describe how weird it was to see people sitting outside these shops smoking casually. In the U.S., this behavior would land you a one-way ticket to the slammer.

The people. Damn. I’m a street style kind of gal and I was obsessed with what the Dutch wore: lots of sleek, black clothing, sunglasses, dresses with black tights, and funky, chunky shoes. The Dutch are some of the tallest people in the world, and that was evident. Everyone looked like models! And they were nice for the most part! Friendly waiters and store clerks, helpful authorities…. The only thing I wasn’t so jazzed about was that people don’t say excuse me when they pass by or bump into you. Being a person who says sorry to chairs when I bump into them, I was a little taken aback by the rudeness, but I’ll attribute it to a simple cultural difference.

Overall I was feeling such incredible vibes from Amsterdam. The city has character and depth, kind of brooding and enchanting. I wish we were there for longer, but I’ll be back in a few days to explore on my own after Sarah flies home. In my next post, I’ll share all the cool schtuff we did in Amsterdam!

Ta ta for now!

How I fell in love with Florence

The Ponte Ponte Vecchio looked like a post card.
The Ponte Vecchio looked like a post card.

Sevilla, Spain will always fill the biggest space in my heart. But Florence came close to giving Sevilla a run for its money. Our time there was pitifully short, giving us only a taste of what the amazing city has to offer. But what a we did taste was so good, I think everyone on the tour will be going back for seconds. (Hehehe excuse my cheesey metaphor).

We had another long drive from our campsite in Antes to Florence. The coach drove along the coast, allowing up to glimpse the amazing views Riviera as we made our way into Italy. We made a rest stop not long after entering the country, during which I bought my first slice of Italian pizza. Oh my gosh it was so good. Even for a rest stop.

Then, we continued onward to our campsite in Florence. It was perched up on a hill with an amazing view of the city through a heap of branches. We had some time to set up camp and eat dinner, but soon we headed back out to the city. One thing our tour guide was skilled at doing was downplaying the amazingness of the places we went on the trip. She told us we’d be spending some time that night at a karaoke bar in Florence. But what she didn’t say was that it was one of the most extravagant karaoke bars any of us would go to, or that they had 20 euro pitchers of cocktails, or that the place turned into a nightclub at night.

Soon enough the night got a bit crazy. I think my favorite part was getting up on stage and shamelessly singing “Rolling in the Deep” by Adele to a crowd of tourists and Italians who I will hopefully never see again in my life. We stayed up into the late hours of the night (well, the early hours of the morning) and eventually caught cabs back to the campsite, though not before stopping for some late-night pizza.

The next morning came too soon and we sluggishly ate breakfast and got ready to go back into the city. I was feeling a little out of it after the long night we’d had, but I powered through as we embarked on a guided walking tour with a local Florentine guide. The city was bright and beautiful. We walked by the Duomo and other major buildings, stopping by the location from where the statue of David was removed.

The Duomo was so big, it was actully hard to see all of it from the ground.
The Duomo was so big, it was actually hard to see all of it from the ground.

The Ponte Vecchio was just as beautiful as it was in pictures. The impressive bridge looks like a city on its own from the distance, and feels like a market on the interior. Though I was feeling sickly, I was still frustrated with the speed at which we went through the bridge. I had no time to stop and really take in what I was seeing because I was too worried about trying to keep up with the group and hear what the tour guide was saying. I will definitely need to go back to Florence to experience this amazing city again.

The tour dropped up off in the center of town, then we had a few hours to explore on our own. I broke off with a couple of friends and headed to a pizzeria (surprise, surprise) for lunch. I had an amazing white pizza, though I had to custom order it because the waiter seemed to think the idea of a sauce-less pizza was crazy. I washed it down with a cup of coffee, and then we paid our tab and went back to exploring.

We did not get far because right next to the pizzeria was a street market that stretched for at least a kilometer and broke off into a few side streets. We spent nearly our entire day there, grazing through the fake leather bags, statue of David magnets, glass earrings and Italian shoes. Every little stand sold practically identical items, yet we went stand to stand, expecting to find new treasures along the way.

Ah, the fake leather smells...
Ah, the fake leather smells…

After a few hours, I managed to get some souvenir shopping done and my friends found some great buys, and we made our way back to the meeting spot where we were to catch up with the rest of the group. Along the way, we stopped for all of our very first gelatos. And let me just say, MMMMMMmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. Holy crap it was so good. I had a small cup of pistachio-flavored gelato, and though it was essentially the same thing as ice cream, something about eating it in Italy made it exponentially better than ice cream. In fact, I had to stop for another scoop before we hopped back on the coach. Totally worth it.

It doesn't get much better than pistachio gelato.
It doesn’t get much better than pistachio gelato.

Our free time in the city over, we went back to the campsite with the group to freshen up for our formal group photo. We hopped back on the coach and drove to Piazzale Michelangelo, a small plaza atop a hill overlooking Firenze. With everyone all dolled up and the breathtaking view behind us, we captured a beautiful Contiki group photo (which cost 11 euros, of course) to remember each other and our great time in Florence.

Here's one of me and the Florentine skyline!
Here’s one of me and the Florentine skyline!

Afterward, those of us who has signed up and paid for an optional Tuscan dinner at a fancy Florentine restaurant headed out to get out meal. While the others enjoyed their additional free time, we feasted on bottomless bruschetta, lasagna and salad. Our meal of course was accompanied with authentic Tuscan wine. The food was absolutely amazing, and I could have kept eating the lasagna forever, but I had to save space for the best part — dessert. We were all served fresh, gourmet tiramisu, deliciously coffee-tasting and overflowing with creme. To wash it all down, we were served shots of limoncello, a strong but sweet lemon liquor that apparently helps the body digest. It was possibly the best meal I’ve ever had. Thinking about it makes my mouth water.

This lasagna was made without tomato sauce!
This lasagna was made without tomato sauce!

I had signed up and paid to go to a night club with the rest of the group after dinner, but I was still recovering from the karaoke night and decided that I wasn’t ready for a round 2. So I said goodbye to my friends after dinner and headed back to the campsite for a night of much needed rest.

I’ll say again that our time in Florence was too short. The city was small, but I know there is so much more to it that I didn’t get to see in the few hours we were there that day. The yellow and brown buildings call to me to come back someday, and I know that I surely will. I truly loved Florence and cannot wait to reunite with it.

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How can you walk away from this?!

 

12 things to know before studying abroad

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Studying abroad in Spain changed my life. From the learning how to salsa dance to learning about the intersection of religions in Toledo, found that every minute of every day was a learning experience. Some of the best lessons I learned, though, were general tips about studying abroad — and I think these are tips that every person studying abroad should know.

1. If you’re wondering whether or not to leave it at home – leave it at home. Anyone who has studied abroad will agree that packing too much is a problem. I promise, whatever it is, you won’t need it. Shopping is the first thing you will want to do when you get to a new place. You’ll see what the locals are wearing, realize you want to look like that too, and then head to the store. The five-months-worth of adorable outfits you packed in your 50-lb. suitcase will sit in the corner of your room as you pile on more and more indigenous clothes and accessories. And when it’s time to go home, you will be at a loss to figure out how you’re going to get all of your stuff on the plane. So leave PLENTY of space in your luggage for souvenirs, and leave your three of your four favorite pairs of heels at home.

2. Pack simple pieces and neutrals. To make the most of your experience, you want to blend in – not stand out like a tourist. Wearing crazy patterns and busy accessories will make you stand out and immediately tell the locals that you are not one of them. Plus, you’ll be wearing the same clothes over and over again, so you’ll want pieces you can easily mix and match and ones that won’t immediately denounce you as a tourist. And as a bonus, it’ll be easier to incorporate your new clothes into your simple wardrobe!

See this and other pins on my Smart Packing board on Pinterest!
See this and other pins on my Smart Packing board on Pinterest!

3. Speak the local language. Just do it. Even if you’re a just beginning to learn it and even if you mess up. Locals will appreciate your effort and you’ll be able to practice your language skills so much more than you would be able to in a classroom at home. See my post on an awesome app to help you learn or brush up on a language.

4. Take pictures. And BE in them. I had no problem with the former – but the latter was an issue. I happened to take a class on photography when I was in Spain, so I had to take photos – and I’m so happy I did. It’s been eight months since I’ve been home, and I still reminisce daily. Every time I want to remember that one bar my friends and I went to, or the sight from the bridge overlooking Toledo, I just scroll through my photo album. And though I came home with hundreds of pictures, there are so many more I wish I had taken. On top of that,  I keep kicking myself in the butt for not being in any of my pictures. Being in the pictures is the only way to put your stamp on a picture any person standing in that same spot could take. Years down the road, you’ll be happy you did this.

5. But look before you snap. While I insist upon taking pictures, make sure you don’t spend your entire study abroad experience behind a camera. The pictures are for when you’re home and looking back on your experience. But when you’re there, make sure you take the time to absorb the moment with your own eyes. Take in the smells, sounds, and tastes, too – those things you can’t capture in a photo.  That way, the full memory stays only with you.

While I loved taking this snap of Toledo, it was so much more magical to experience the view without my camera in front of my face.
While I loved taking this snap of Toledo, it was so much more magical to experience the view without my camera in front of my face.

6. Don’t take hard classes. If you have to – okay. But if you can get around it, take fun classes and ones that won’t bog you down with work. You’re only in the country for a few months (or in my case, one!), so spend your free time exploring, taking pictures, traveling – not having to study for you next exam. That being said, make sure you still do all of your work! Just have fun with it.

7. Really think about whether or not you want to do a homestay.  I did – and it was an enriching experience – but I wish I had chosen to stay in an apartment with fellow students. There were definitely perks to living with a host family: my host mom and her daughter were as sweet as can be, and I was able to practice my Spanish around the clock and see how locals live day-to-day. On top of that, I had delicious, authentic Spanish cuisine every day. But the downside was that I felt guilty every time I went out with my friends at night or traveled on the weekends instead of staying at home with my host family. Of course, I loved spending time with them – but I was only in Spain for a few weeks and wanted to spend as much time as possible exploring the city. My host mom worried about me when I was out late or gone for extended periods of time, and I hated putting that stress on her. In retrospect, I would have been more comfortable staying with other students who were as restless as I was.

8. Don’t spend every weekend traveling. Cut it back to every other weekend or every third weekend. Indeed, when studying abroad, you’ll want to travel to neighboring cities or countries while you have the chance, but remember that you chose your host city or country for a reason. I spent three out of my four weekends in Spain in cities other than Madrid. And while I’m elated that I visited Toledo, Valencia and Sevilla, I regret missing out on events and attractions in Madrid. There are numerous discotecas, museums, restaurants, festivals, markets and concerts that I could have visited had I not been away from Madrid almost every weekend.

9. But when you do travel, stay in hostels. This one a given, but if you were on the fence about it, now you know. Hostels are an unparalled gateway to meeting other travelers and locals. Plus, they’re almost always guaranteed to be less expensive than hotels. As a bonus, hostels usually host activities such as walking tours and bar crawls for the visitors to explore the town. Just make sure to travel in numbers or book private rooms (especially for the chicas) if you’re traveling alone. I definitely suggest Hostelworld for finding the best places to stay.

My friends and I had a blast during our first hostel experience in Valencia. (Photo courtesy of Aly Nagel)
My friends and I had a blast during our first hostel experience in Valencia. (Photo courtesy of Aly Nagel)

10. BUDGET, BUDGET, BUDGET. Now, don’t be a stingy, money-obsessed brute. But at the same time, don’t be like me and realize halfway through your trip that you’ve exhausted your bank account and have to ask your parents for a loan. My best advice is to figure out roughly how much you want to spend per week, including weekend trips, and do your best to remain within that budget. Don’t skimp on meals or must-have souvenirs. But don’t buy EVERY souvenir you see (plus you won’t have space in your suitcase), and don’t buy 15€ drinks every time you go out.

11. Keep an eye (preferably two) on your belongings. My friend Susan was traveling alone in Rome. She went to a shoe store and set her purse down to try on a darling pair of Italian kicks. She bent down to fasten the straps across her ankles and when she arose, her purse was gone. Lesson: make sure your belongings are never out of your sight. In Spain, I always held my purse under my arm with the zipper in the front where I could see it and the clasp against my side.  Backpacks are tricky because they stay behind you; but in crowded areas and on public transportation, keep your backpack on your front or in your lap. It might look silly, but it’s better to look silly than be stuck in an unknown city without your wallet, passport, keys, phone and map because someone stole your bag.

12. Write stuff down. Keep a journal, blog or scrapbook. You don’t need to write a novel every day, or even every other day – but at least once a week, write down the highlights of your week, including people you met and restaurants you loved. Another idea – if you’re not a fan of writing – is to keep a photo diary, with captions that remind you of what you were doing or where you were when you snapped the photo. With Instagram and Facebook, this shouldn’t be a chore. Seriously, you’ll be elated in five years when you have a self-narrated depiction of your study abroad experience.

This list could go on for pages (in fact, I may have a follow-up post), but I think these twelve tips are the most useful for people, especially the YBTs, who are studying abroad for the first time. No matter what advice you accept, however, your study abroad experience will be one you will never forget.

Do you have any tips to add? Comment below!

 

Contiki Holidays: afforable tours for young travelers

Image from www.tntmagazine.com
Image from http://www.tntmagazine.com

I’m sure most people prefer to make their own travel plans, selecting their own destinations, accommodations and traveling pace, but I’m not prepared for that yet. This will be my first time traveling abroad by myself, and I would prefer to do it as part of a group. I’m cognizant that I’d be able to meet people while staying in hostels or joining day-long activities, however, my preference is to spend an extended period of time with the same people to build relationships and, hopefully, lasting friendships.

CONTIKI HOLIDAYS

Hence, through my quest to find an inexpensive trip, I stumbled across Contiki Holidays, a company that provides tours for travelers ages 18 – 35. As a 20-year-old, I am part of the younger crew, but I was very pleased with the age range. It looks the tours are geared toward people who are agile and love adventure — which is definitely me!  Their tagline is:

TWENTY YEARS FROM NOW YOU WILL BE MORE DISAPPOINTED BY THE THINGS YOU DIDN’T DO THAN BY THE ONES YOU DID DO.

YOU ONLY HAVE ONE LIFE, ONE SHOT, SO MAKE IT COUNT #NOREGRETS

Cheesy, yes, but it’s still the kind of sentiment I’m seeking.

THEIR TOURS

I looked into the tours Contiki provides, and found they have a dynamic and reasonably priced selection. They have tours through North and South America, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and, of course, Europe. Most of the tours are multi-city and entail sightseeing during the day and free-time during the night. The tours range from two days to several months, and they come in different accommodation options:

Superior Easy Pace (hotels & relaxed pace)
Superior (hotels)
Budget (a mix of hostels, cabins & budget hotels)
Camping
There are also different methods of tours, including sailing, snorkeling and skiing. Contiki even plans trips based around events such as New Years and Oktoberfest.

Image from lukehimself.net
Image from lukehimself.net
Prices, of course, vary according to length, type and accommodation. Lengthy “superior” trips are way out of my budget, but fortunately Contiki compensates for expensive trips by offering the budget and camping tours. They’re fairly cheaper, and provide most breakfasts and dinners — though I cannot vouch for the food yet.

REVIEWS

The reviews of Contiki are mixed, but generally positive. The majority had fantastic descriptors. These are a few from the review page on Contiki’s site:

“I could not speak more highly of Contiki if I tried. It was an absolutely fantastic trip.”

“Incredible experiences, Booze, Friend for life”

“Party, Long-Lasting Friendships, Adventurous”

“You’ll be tired and you’ll want to sleep for days but it’s all part of the experience. YOU’RE IN EUROPE! This may or may not be a one in a lifetime opportunity, so make the most of it. Seriously, have NO regrets… do everything you want to do and I promise you’ll have an amazing time.”

My personal favorite:

“I have travelled a ton before, but never with a tour, so I must say Contiki is great for new travellers and experienced travellers! The great thing about Contiki is that everyone is young and wanting to experience the same things as you. Everyone has the love for travel and adventure!”

Of course, with every positive review there are the negative ones:

“You will spend a lot of time on the bus—about 40% of the trip…A lot of people spend their time on the bus sleeping off their hangover or socializing.” (thesavvybackpacker.com)

“I have heard from multiple sources that many of the tours quickly turn into drunken parties with lots of sex.”

“…tours on Contiki tend to be filled with parties, young people, and alcohol.” (nomadicmatt.com)

“I was not happy with the accommodation…The tour guide and bus driver were awesome, and they tried their best but the group dynamic was poor and awkward at best.”

Image from broke.travel
Image from broke.travel

Essentially, it sounds like Contiki tours will be drinking-heavy and action-packed, but I am definitely okay with that. Most of the negative reviews were written by people who said they preferred solo travel or were not fans of drinking –but they did have positive comments otherwise. I think Contiki Holidays will be able to suit my needs for my first time travelling to Europe alone, and I am looking forward to the adventures I am going to have.