Helsinki, the Final Stop

The grand finale of my 10 days in Scandi-Land was Helsinki, Finland. To be frank, which by now you’re probably use to, it was a great last stop because it made me okay with going home.

Helsinki felt like stepping into Soviet Russia, (or the show Chernobyl for those of you who are terrible at history but have binge watched HBO instead).

I found the architecture rather somber and dreary, not that it isn’t interesting or aesthetically appealing to some- it’s just not my cup of tea. (I prefer buildings decorated and decked out in gold, remember?)

Nordic minimalism, functionalism, with traces of Art Deco and hints of Art Nouveau. All of it pulled together with a unifying element: lots of concrete.

Contextually, it all makes sense. Finland was an autonomous part of the Russian empire until 1917, and the two are neighboring countries. The heavy use of concrete and abundance of state sanctioned housing comes from the rise of the welfare state in the 60s. If you couldn’t tell, I did a lot of investigative work because I was trying to better understand why I constantly felt like someone would come marching down the street singing «калинка».

(Bet ya didn’t know I can read and write Cyrillic, huh? Finland is strangely the only place this mildly useless skill has come in handy since a lot of their signs are also in Russian.)

Speaking of languages, Finnish is WILD.

Throughout the trip people kept speaking to me in their native languages (which is fair because I’m blonde and light eyed liked the Scandinavians, but I would have thought that my short Slavic stature was a giveaway that my people were NOT Vikings.)

I found myself able to understand Norwegian decently enough to get by, and piece together a few Swedish words, but Finnish lost me. It is so different, so fascinating. I assumed it would either be similar to Russian or any of the Scandinavian languages, but it’s actually an Uralic language and it’s closest language is Hungarian.

God speed to anyone learning it- you’re a brave soul.

I’ll wrap my Helsinki thoughts with food because I found their cuisine strangely comforting. Herring, roe, potatoes, lots of pickled things- some of the basics you can find in polish foods.

But, the one thing I cannot forgive the people of Finland for is Salmiakki Koskenkorva, a black liquor made out of ground ammonium chloride-based candy. Salty licorice is a taste I have not yet acquired… nor do I plan to.

Catching my flight home now- thanks for coming along on my Scandinavian adventures!

Let’s go have a Swedish Fika

I have Stockholm Syndrome. All of the good, none of the bad.

Stockholm Syndrome is a condition which causes hostages to develop a psychological alliance with their captors. Though in this case Stockholm isn’t a captor, rather, a captivator, and I’m here of my own volition and honestly this analogy doesn’t really work but I wrote it before I had any coffee so I thought it made sense.

Don’t you worry, I won’t be quitting my day job anytime soon to become a writer.

Alrighty then, back to Stockholm.

Where do I start? Do I start with their food? The fact that they gave us the musical geniuses otherwise known as ABBA? Do we start with the pretty Scandinavian boys? Or do we talk about the Swedish Fika?

From the first few moments of being in Stockholm I was immediately devastated that I only had 36 hours there. I could have stayed a week. (Perhaps a lifetime if I had found my Swedish prince….where are you? Call me.)

Stockholm’s old town, Gamla Stan, is gorgeous and the perfect size for a day of wanderings. The Vasa museum is one of the coolest museums I’ve seen- it houses a full preserved Swedish ship that sank on its maiden voyage in the 17th century (my favorite “whoopsies” story ever.) And, I sang and danced my heart out at the ABBA museum, having reminded myself that 1. I know almost every word to their songs and 2. I’m still tone deaf.

Stockholm is such a fun city to hang out in, and they’re food isn’t half bad either!

First of all, Swedish meatballs are real and not a brilliant marketing scheme invented by IKEA. (I genuinely believed that until Swedish people told me I had to eat meatballs in Sweden. They also confirmed that IKEA’s meatballs are actually pretty good by Swede standards.)

Speaking of balls, I discovered chocoballs, which are literally balls of chocolate about the size of a mandarin orange. I don’t think that requires further explanation. You can have these during a Swedish Fika, which is a term that describes socializing with pals over coffee and a pastry. Please watch this video for additional information: Swedish Fika

Kanelbullar are pretty dope too- they’re basically cinnamon rolls that don’t feel like you’re going to get diabetes from them. Also acceptable Fika fare.

The one thing that I missed out on was Swedish fish- as I wasn’t aware that the Swedes refer to the candy as pastellfiskar, which like…what?

Anyhoo.

Stockholm sparked an incredible amount of joy for me and I look forward to returning.

While I once dreamt of being swept off my feet by an Emirate prince, I’ve changed the narrative to Scandinavian Viking (they are significantly taller and muscular, and I’m heavier than I look so this is just more practical.)

Guess I’ll need to come back for longer next time to find a Swedish hunk to have a fika with!

Heart of Oslo

The theme of my day in Brussels was indulgence. A day in Oslo provided a stark contrast to that.

While Brussels is adorned with ornate gold accents, Oslo is a modern looking city with clean lines and buildings that kind of look like they belong in Soviet Russia.

I will say they do have beautiful people, and while I thought I would be breaking hearts in Oslo, instead I was burping hearts.

Yep. Hearts. Reindeer heart to be exact.

I went from Belgian chocolates and fries to trying out reindeer heart, smoked whale, stockfish brandade, reindeer sausage and all sorts of fun stuff.

While these weren’t my favorite meals I do believe in trying everything at least once, and if I can stomach fermented shark in Iceland, I can handle smoked whale or reindeer heart. (Both were chewy, very meaty.)

Aside from sampling Norwegian delicacies, I spent my day in Oslo learning about vikings in the Viking Museum (which by way was awesome because Vikings are totally badass), basking in the 6pm sunshine which was so high up in the sky it felt like 2 in the afternoon, and riding scooters around their gorgeous opera house.

It was a neat place to spend a day, but between how expensive it is and how generally uninteresting it is- I was happy to be here for only a day and move onto one of the most beautiful places in Norway: the Lofoten Islands!

Waffles, chocolates, fries and beer!

Any guesses as to where I might be referring to?

Yep-Belgium!

My flight to Oslo included a 10 hour layover in Brussels and it was everything I ever could have asked for from my first double digit hour layover.

I’ll start by saying I’m not usually a big fan of layovers. Mostly because I’m frustrated by the fact that I have been in Germany about 18 times in my life without having left the airport, and layovers are a sore subject for me.

I realized that I just haven’t been doing them right until now.

See, the key is to pick a small city and concentrate on the important things…in this case:

Belgian Waffles. Belgian chocolate. Belgian beer. Belgian fries.

Oh and the statue of the little boy peeing.

That was my entire itinerary. Sounds like the recipe for the best sight seeing day ever, amirite? (Except for the little boy peeing, I don’t understand why it’s such a famous statue. Mannekin Pis- look it up.)

First off, the city is a super easy 30 minute train ride from the airport and the train takes you almost directly into the main square.

I have seen my fair share of European city squares, and while I’m biased towards Kraków’s and Prague’s which are just gorgeous, the one in Brussels gets a solid ten from me.

It’s teeny tiny, but decorated entirely with gold.

I like gold. I like it a lot.

We snapped a few photos (okay fine, I snapped a couple dozen) and then explored the smaller side streets. By explored, I really mean I got waffles and then walked from one chocolate shop to another.

And before you know it, we had crossed off all the important sights and it was time for a beer.

Those of you who’ve ever gotten drinks with me (okay, so like a lot of you) know that I absolutely do not like beer. But- Belgian beer totally swayed me. (Hehe get it? Cause I was totally swaying after just one of those 8.5% suckers.)

My father, brother and I ducked into a Delirium beer house, and I exited a convert- newly obsessed with Delirium Red.

We ended our city tour with thick cut and freshly prepared Belgian fries (washed down with another beer, Floris, another new love of mine) and floated on back to the airport for the second leg of our flight.

If you ever have a chance to have a longer layover in Brussels, I highly recommend it. It’s an indulgent experience, that’s for sure.

I Need a Vacation

No, I don’t. I’m quite alright actually. My life is exhausting, sure, but in the most wonderful way. I’m always out and about checking out the hottest restaurants or bars in Chicago, dancing my way through the weekend, and bopping around the States for the occasionally work trip.

And work? I’m fortunate to be doing something I genuinely enjoy. Yeah, sometimes I find myself sending emails at ten at night or trapped at the Newark airport in Jersey for five hours, but all in all I find my job more energizing than exhausting.

So, what’s up with this obsession to give a reason for a trip?

I don’t “need a vacation”.

I travel, not to get away from my world, but to go see the rest of the world.

I like to travel. That is all.

An opportunity came up to go on an adventure with my father and brother, so I took it.

This feels like a very simple concept, but it’s something I’m starting to realize that not everyone can grasp.

I’ve gotten a few snide comments recently after sharing that I’m embarking on another trip, this time to Scandinavia for two weeks, after having just been in Poland and Italy for ten days in May.

Things like “oh, you’re going on vacation again?” Or “do you even work?”

Yes. I am. And yes, I do. Very hard. Thank you very much.

If you love something, you want to spend all of your time and money on it, right?

I don’t judge people who spend hours in front of a television watching baseball, or spend hundreds of dollars on tickets to a game because they love sports.

I don’t judge someone for spending all their time with their spouse or thousands of dollars on a wedding, because they love their partner.

I love exploring this beautiful world, so I spend my time and my money on traveling.

Simple.

This flight is about to take off, so the only thing I really have to say at this point to anyone with snarky comments running through their mind is: I hope you find the one thing in life that makes you feel alive.

I hope you find it, and I hope you go spend all of your money and all of your time on it.

And I?

I’ll be somewhere on a flight, happy for you.

Sardinian Luxury

It started with a late night phone call to my mother- the two of us were going to Poland for ten days and decided that we needed a vacation within our trip. (Note: a trip and a vacation are very different, and visiting family in Poland is definitely a trip and not a vacation.)

We sat on the phone for over two hours each with our Google Maps and Google Flights tabs open (does this qualify me for sponsorship?) and investigated destinations that were a quick flight from Kraków.

I suppose both of us are spoiled when it comes to travel because it was nearly impossible to pick a place.

“Nice, France?” Pass. I’ve been and I don’t like their beaches- too many pebbles.

“Baltic Sisters?” Sounds chilly.

“Cyprus?” Hard no to driving on the left hand side of the road.

“Sardinia?” Oh..what’s that?

Sardinia caught our eye because it’s a short Ryanair flight away from Kraków, and although I’ve been to Italy a few times I love it enough to explore new parts.

Plus, a getaway to an Italian island sounded nice and sunny.

What really sold us though was a gorgeous five star independent resort on the coast, about an hour away from the city. It was gorgeous, and because it only had 48 rooms and a no children policy- we knew it would be quiet.

We spent three days at the resort being spoiled by their lovely staff of charming Italians. Breakfasts with champagne and full spreads of local cheeses and prosciutto, poolside drinks served with cute little snacks, afternoon tea service with cakes, cookies and scones galore. Then of course dinner- a show worthy production of wines, fresh lobsters or salt baked sea bass, always followed by exquisite desserts and local digestifs.

It was basically a three day bender of wine and indulgent foods, but it’s Italy and I’m on this planet for a good time, not a long time.

This was the kind of place where people ordered a $200 lobster without batting an eye and ladies wore Hermes sandals to the beach (which by the way sounds really impractical and I cannot fathom why you would want a $650 pair of leather shoes anywhere near sand and water.)

I, on the other hand, almost hand an aneurysm ordering lobster, and my beach footwear consisted of knockoff Havaianas sandals that I got for eight dollars at a street market in Thailand years ago.

It’s ritzy, and I’m not 100% there yet- you get the picture.

So, this is where my humble brag comes in.

Instead of paying the $1,500 something that our stay would have come out to- I was able to get it almost entirely off of points. I paid right around $100 in just taxes and fees to stay at this magnificent resort by points accumulated from hotel stays and my credit card.

Realistically, I spent a chunk of those savings back in food and booze at the resort, but I would still consider that a huge win.

My mother and I loved living our extraordinary little Sardinian lifestyle for a few days walking miles of white sand beached and sipping on Aperol Spritzs, and I would go back to the resort in a heartbeat.

But, the main moral of my story is that you can still be bougie on a budget. All you have to do is get a little creative, even if it means awkwardly having to ask the hotel staff to consolidate the multiple nights you booked via separate channels. They’ll get over it.

A quick bop: Paraguay & Uruguay

During my ten days in the Southern Hemisphere I had the chance to visit the two “guays” of South America. (I highly doubt anyone calls them that, but the word “guay,” means “cool” in Spanish slang and I thought it was clever so just go with it.)

I visited each of them for less than a full 24 hours- enough to get a feel for the countries, and to leave wanting more.

Paraguay was a sharp inhale. Alive and bustling streets that were colorful and vibrant, but also you could totally get mugged or struck by a vehicle on.

Uruguay was a slow exhale. A cool breeze, empty cobblestone streets. Quaint and quiet.

Visiting both was the perfect balance.

In Paraguay, I visited Ciudad del Este, which was a twenty minute drive from Iguazu Falls in Brazil. It’s a commercial city and is mostly known for being one of the largest free-trade zones in the world.

Their main attraction?

Shopping!

Imagine a duty free store, but it spans an entire city. They really don’t have much more to offer otherwise, so I bought myself a knock off pair of sunnies, and called it a day.

Colonia del Sacramento, the city I visited in Uruguay, was the opposite for me. I could have stayed for days.

Uruguay is sandwiched between Brazil and Argentina. But, what’s the best part of a sandwich?

The middle. Hahaha, get it?

Colonia del Sacramento had what I would like to call, “sneaky charm.”

It’s a picturesque beachside town that many Argentinians vacation in. It is accented by cobblestone streets and crumbling buildings that have layers of plaster and paint peeling off of them, yet still hold their elegance in their ornate doors and gorgeous balconies.

Uruguay is known for two things: Tannat wine and their exquisite cheeses. (They may be know for much more but those are the two I have chosen to better get to know there.)

As such, I spent the better half of the afternoon tucked away in the loveliest wine bar, a charmingly quaint and small nook with a hidden outdoor courtyard, eating cheese and drinking wine.

The dream.

All in all, these two day trips were a nice bonus in my South American adventures, and I would be curious to return. I’ve made all of my assumptions about these two countries unfairly, given I’ve only been to one city in each of them for a few hours. Maybe Paraguay is actually the calm and quiet one, and the rest of Uruguay a little more rambunctious?

I suppose there is only one way to find out!

 

The Big Fifty

Remember when you always wanted everything you now have?

I read that somewhere once (refrigerator magnet or Instagram caption, can’t remember, doesn’t matter) and I can’t help but repeat that to myself as I bask in my own contentment today.

I wanted to travel to 50 countries before I turned 25. And I did that. About 25 days shy of my 25th birthday.

Poetic isn’t it?

And pretty fucking cool.

(Sorry mama.)

When I first sat down to write this piece, the word fifty autocorrected to “gift”, and I have to acknowledge how fitting that was.

What a privilege to have seen 50 incredible and unique countries across 6 continents, and too many cities and towns along the way to even count.

I have eaten sushi in Japan, pho in Vietnam, gelato in Italy, shark in Iceland, guinea pig in Peru, and dhal bat in Nepal.

I learned how to surf in Australia, how to tango in Argentina, and how to white water raft in Costa Rica.

I rode camels in Morocco, swam with whale sharks in Mexico, rode elephants in Laos, and fed the monkeys in Indonesia.

I drank Tokai in Hungary, Soju in South Korea, Sangria in Spain, and Caipirinhas in Brazil.

I could sit here and write something about the 33 other countries- but you get the gist: I’ve done a lot of really cool things in a lot of really cool places.

No really, if you look up “things to do around the world” I’ve done most of the major ones.

Which leads me to the question…what happens when you get what you’ve always wanted?

I’ll admit this is something that use to give me a lot of anxiety. I like the idea of always having something to work for. A goal, a North Star, a light at the end of the tunnel, whatever you want to call it.

Yet, today all I felt is a quiet and calm sense of accomplishment. (Perhaps because I was day drinking in Uruguay and they make really fantastic wines- who knew?!)

Jokes aside, my sense of calm came from the fact that I already know the answer to my own question. When you get whatever it is you wanted or achieve whatever it is that you wanted to accomplish, you just go and figure out the next great thing.

(You’re probably thinking, “no shit, Sherlock,” but sometimes simple things have to be verbalized as a reminder that there is no need to to over complicate things.)

And in my case, my next big thing is just to keep on keeping on. There are still many more countries to visit; my 50 isn’t even a full third!

And while I don’t have a numeric target in mind anymore, I do have a goal in mind for myself: to venture into the unknown, the unpopular, the inconvenient. The places that are far away, the ones that scare people just a little bit. Perhaps the places you can’t pronounce, and couldn’t find on a map either.

Myanmar, Turkmenistan, Botswana, Azerbaijan, Liechtenstein, Moldova…just a start.

There’s a whole beautiful world out there to fly away to.

Heck, my next trip is already booked!

PS: For the record (not that any of you are keeping a record anyhow), I do not count territories that are not independent countries, nor do I count countries I have travelled through but haven’t left the airport in – I earned my milestone fair and square and I’m pretty damn proud of it.

Rio is a dangerous place

Rio is a dangerous place.

Dangerously beautiful, that is.

Haha see what I did there? Funny? Nope, okay, moving on from the dad jokes.

It first occurred to me that Rio was a stunner while drinking caipirinhas with my father on the beach the evening we landed. The beach was alive with Brazilians, all scantily clad and proud, a six piece band played samba in the background, and the curve of the beach allowed for breathtaking views all the way to the end of the bay.

It occurred to me again while I was having my copacabooty handed to me in the mighty waves of Copacabana beach. The ocean water was perfectly warm, and even though the sun was long gone, replaced by the glow of street lamps, there were dozens of people alongside me, laughing and letting the waves tumble them around. Pure joy.

Of course, there were dozens more of those moment where I would pause and think, “wow.”

Rio hands down has the best geographical location for a city that I have ever seen. It pains me to admit this because Barcelona always held this honor, but between the beaches hugging the bay, the jungle heart of the city, and the sharp mountains and small islands peppering the ocean view- Rio has it all.

Their version of street food is Açaí bowls for a few bucks and caipirinhas so strong that you feel a slow burn in your belly after just one. (Two make it hard to walk, and three make it hard to keep the first two down.)

Pretty much all of the beach goers are clothed just enough to cover the fun bits, and you immediately notice how proud and comfortable people are in their bodies. The women have the tiniest waists and greatest butts ever- and those who don’t are still rocking the teeniest bikinis (power to ya!) And while I really didn’t need to see so many old dudes in banana hammocks, I respect anyone who unapologetically does their thing. How refreshing from the States where we are all either prudes or plagued with some sort of body dysmorphia.

Last but not least, there is plenty to see and do in Rio de Janeiro. You can catch a Samba show, cruise through the jungle in a Jeep, or sightsee in the old square if architecture is your thing. You can stroll all the way from Copocabana beach to Ipanema beach, while singing their respective famous songs of course.

“Tall and tan and young and lovely…the girl from Ipanema goes walking…”

Sorry, started humming.

The famous statue of Christ the Redeemer is incredible and can’t be missed, though I must admit tight sweaty crowds give me anxiety and I preferred the view from Sugar Loaf- a mountain that overlooks the entire bay.

Plus you get to take a cable car up to the top to Sugar Loaf, and fun fact about me- there is a very special place in my heart for cable cars. They’re magical and soothing, and I understand none of the physics behind them.

Friends, I’ll admit this is a longer post than usual (I clearly have lots to say about Rio!) so feel free to take a snack break or something.

Back? Okay. Good.

I started this piece with a joke about safety in Rio, but it would be remiss not to comment on it in greater depth.

Most people believe Rio is dangerous, perhaps too dangerous to visit.

It is a city with the same problems as any place with millions of inhabitants, but I truly believe that if you are cautious and aware of your surroundings- you’ll be fine.

I wore my favorite jewelry (with the exception of necklaces on a long chain since those are an easy target) and I did not dress down (which, to be fair, I don’t think I am physically capable of doing…) I wandered the beach alone and walked around the neighborhood by myself in the evenings. I even visited a favella, the well known slums of Rio de Janeiro.

There, I had an incredibly informative conversation with a man who worked as a social worker in the favellas, providing support to women who were survivors of assault. I asked him about safety in the favellas and where the perception came from that they’re deadly. (Media, of course.)

He explained to me that the favellas are actually quite safe, often safer than the rest of Rio. Most of them are controlled by drug lords who do their own “policing.” If you commit a crime, they will find you down and they will decide your fate (I didn’t ask for details, though I imagine it’s not a merciful sentencing process.) Tourists are actually very safe in most favellas for a simple reason. If a tourist is harmed in a favella, the entire police force of Rio (mind you the entire very handsome police force of Rio) descends on the favella. And you know who doesn’t want that? Drug lords. So you know who will make sure you’re safe? Yep. Drug lords.

Fascinating isn’t it?

I am not at all saying that you should go on your own and wander about with your Gucci belt and gold chain out, but I am encouraging you to visit a favella if you do come to Rio.

Almost a million of the city’s inhabitants live in them, so it’s worth seeing the city from their perspective. Literally though? Because the views from the favellas are pretty amazing!

I certainly hope to return to Rio one day because three days just wasn’t enough. I didn’t get a chance to perfect my Samba dancing, or party til dawn to Tropical Funk music, which I have a strange amount of saved to my Spotify, or even the opportunity to fall in love with a famous soccer player. Not that I can name more than two of them, but still.

Heavy sigh.

Obridago for reading.

(Pssst…that means thank you!)

The girl running through the airport

I have been on two flights per week for the last eight weeks straight.

Every single one of them, yes all 14, has either been on time or landed early.

This is obviously an anomaly, and I’m a firm believer that if too many good things are happening to you in sequence- it means that the universe is getting ready to screw with you.

And I was right.

(For anyone disagreeing with my theory, I never promised to be an optimist so zip it.)

My connecting flight to Atlanta was delayed and set to land at 7:30; my flight to Rio boarded from the international terminal at 7:05.

Now, I’m no mathematician, but let me tell you- that math doesn’t add up.

Here’s something you should know about me: I do not condone running in public places unless you are being chased, or doing cardio. Both equally unpleasant things that I do not wish upon anyone.

I do not chase things.

If you want to get all deep on me- sure, fine, whatever- I chase dreams and aspirations, money and highs. (And fine maybe the occasional boy, but only the really terrible ones after one too many tequila sodas.)

However, I don’t run to catch the elevator, or the train, or the light at a cross walk. There will always be another one. (This applies to boys too.)

But the thing about my flight to Rio is that the next one wasn’t leaving until the next day…

So you bet your ass I laced up my new Allbirds (they’re very comfy and super cute, thanks!) and picked up my suitcase (there is NO time to roll that shit even though AWAY cases roll smooth like butter on a warm bun) and I SPRINTED through Hartsfield International.

And not even the cute “oh I’m going on a light jog in this unsustainably bouncy ponytail and matching two piece athleisure set,” but the ugly and breathless “get out of my way, I will bulldoze your ankles with my suitcase” run.

It was certainly worth it as I made it on my flight with five minutes to spare, and treated myself to a window seat in Comfort Plus (sans neighbor) for my troubles.

And by treated myself I mean I sat down, sprawled across the row and never got kicked out. (Pro tip, no one will ever actually check your boarding zone, or your seat number on a half full flight.)

Anyways, thanks for reading a post that could easily be summarized to “this one time Pauline ran for three minutes.” You all are too kind.

I’ll be spending the next ten days dancing the Samba through Rio de Janeiro and tangoing my way through Buenos Aires so I promise I have some good stories and fabulous outfits coming your way.

(I’ll be in Uruguay and Paraguay too, but I have no idea what they dance there so I had to cut it out of the above sentence for literary purposes, obviously).

Besos!