Sweet Sixteen

Sixteen. That’s how many flights I have been on in the past two months.

I’ve seen Les Misérables live in London, been bathed in Istanbul, met GRiZ in Switzerland, and flew home to Chicago for a party. It’s been a fun ride. But, I’m tired now.

All too often people don’t talk about travel in an honest way. You see, it’s not all sunshine and butterflies. It’s delayed flights and heavy backpacks. It’s a fair share of blisters and having all of your credit cards blocked in Turkey. It’s racing to the airport Thursday after class, and racing back to class Monday morning. Then it’s three days of planning your next trip before it starts all over again.

I know I do a great job of making all of my weekend trips sound spontaneous, but in reality each is a culmination of hours of researching, planning and reading reviews. Anyone who has traveled with me knows that I can make an itinerary like no other. My travel planning sessions always involve at least fifteen open tabs, and typically end in a headache. In fact, I’ve taken Advil more often after a night of planning than a night of drinking. Not sure if I’m proud or not.

Don’t get me wrong, I love it. Every damn minute. The scars from my blisters and dents in my bank account are my badges of honor, and every mishap is just another story to tell.

But, I am not afraid to admit that I am tired, and maybe just a little burned out.

The last two months have been incredible. They have left me speechless, and simultaneously have turned me into a storyteller. There is plenty more to come; I still have Italy to conquer, Malta to celebrate my birthday in, Ibiza to party on all weekend and Morocco to visit, just to name a few. But, for these next two weeks, it’s time to play in Barcelona.

Left my heart in so many places. And a curling iron too, somewhere along the way.
Left my heart in so many places. And a curling iron too, somewhere along the way.

Conservations with Strangers: Juan from Barcelona

How we met: Juan and I met while boarding our flight to Istanbul Thursday night. We ended up sitting in the same row in window seats on opposite sides of the plane and insisted on obnoxiously yelling to each other in Spanish across the aisle for most of the flight. Needless to say, the other passengers were not particularly pleased about it.

About him: Juan is a fashion designer and wine connoisseur. He had a bruise on his nose because the other night he was laying in bed wearing a new hat and decided to take a selfie using his laptop, but dropped it on his face. We’ve all been there.

Coolest experience: The most incredible thing that has happened to Juan is when he got a puppy, a yorkie named Roque who helped him through some tough times and whom he loved dearly.

Life dream: Juan’s big dream is to play the piano. Unfortunately, he has the fingers of a Chucky doll. He showed me his hands and I can confirm they are ridiculously tiny and would make piano playing quite the task.

Airplane selfies always warrant a duck face.


A Day in the Life

You’re probably wondering what I do on a daily basis. Or not. You probably weren’t wondering at all. Which is all very valid, considering I do nothing 86% of the time.

I have officially mastered the art of doing nothing and everything all at once, and it’s the best thing to ever happen to me.

I have zero obligations here. I’ve been reading more, working on manual photography, and honing my writing skills. It’s like an extended “me workshop.” I spend my days lounging in cafes, people watching from my balcony, shopping the European fashions and exploring the beautiful city of Barcelona. In the evenings, I check out a new tapas place for dinner, or head to a bar for a beer.

I have learned how to be Spanish. Nothing really phases me; it is what it is and I’ll get there when I get there. I have learned that set times are just suggestions. For example, if class starts at 11 am, I don’t leave my apartment until after 11:05, and still get there before the professor usually does.

Today was a gorgeous and sunny day, so I wandered down Las Ramblas towards the ocean. I love walking down Las Ramblas, because it is the most disgustingly touristy street in Barcelona, and the people watching is prime. It’s like a melting pot, one which you desperately want to get out of because you’re annoyed by everyone, but simultaneously so fascinating that you can’t help but be in the middle of it.

I love watching tourists. They wander around, map in hand, trying to understand signs in Spanish while taking picture with their iPhones of literally everything they see. I watched a man teeter over the edge of the dock today to take multiple photos of the fish. It’s not like they were special or colorful, just regular fish that probably contained too much boat fuel to consume safely. I waited for the man to fall or drop his phone into the water, but to my dismay, he did not.

That’s pretty much what a typical day looks like, with a coffee and pastry stop somewhere in between, of course. I lead a very tranquil and relaxed life here, and I think it’s having a very healthy affect on me.

No, really, I feel like Buddha. Just as Zen, and slowly just as round.

A collection of Barcelonian noms
A collection of Barcelonian noms

Liverpudlians, Big Cats and Canceled Trains

During my weekend in London, my best friend and I took a day trip to Liverpool to visit my friend, Ryan, who was an exchange student at U of I last semester.

The first night, we only saw the bottoms of bottles, glasses and a few pitchers. But the next day, we visited Albert Dock and The Beatles Museum. Granted, I was hungover all day and was trying not to vomit on John, Paul, George and Ringo.

I really enjoyed Liverpool, but I suppose it has something to do with Ryan’s adorable puppy dog eyes and British accent. I’m not quite sure how he put up with me interrupting him every two minutes to repeat British things like, “I reckon,” or “cheers”. But then again, I’m not quite sure how most people put up with me, anyways.

After Liverpool, it was time to make my way back to Barcelona, which was a mess of buses, trains and planes.

It was 3:30 am on Monday and I was standing at a bus stop in London, beginning my arduous journey to the airport, when I was suddenly approached by a rather large cat. I realized it wasn’t a cat, but actually a fox. He proceeded to prance around me, and I stood still because I was not versed in man-fox interactions. Like, do they bite? Are they territorial? I just don’t have the time for rabies, so I made no sudden movements until my bus came.

I arrived at the train station to see that all of the trains to the airport were canceled for the next hour. After about five minutes of panic, I decided to roll with the punches. The only place to sit at the train station was an empty information booth, so I took a seat and pretended I worked there. It was all rather sadistic, as people would come up to me with hope in their eyes to ask about train information, and I would crush their spirits by telling them I don’t have a clue about the trains.

I made it safely home to Barcelona, but learned a very important lesson that day: If you’re out and about in a foreign city at 3 am to catch a flight, you should probably call your mother once you arrive at your destination.

I checked my phone around 4 pm that day to find about 17 missed calls and texts from my mother asking where I was and if I was alright. As well as emails. On all my email accounts. So for next time, note to self: tell Mama Kulka that I have not been taken.

Albert Dock, romantic don't you think?
Albert Dock, romantic don’t you think?

Tripe, Bidets and Nutella

Today is the big move, and I am most definitely ready to be in my own apartment. Yes, I actually did find an apartment and will not be a homeless.

I’m very much so looking forward to living more comfortably, which means being able to identify my dinner, not shaving my legs in a sink and being able to freely eat drunk food.

The other night, dinner was a combination of chickpeas and mystery meat. It looked like a plate of gravy with some rice on the side, and since I’m not a very picky eater, I decided to go for it. The texture was that of poorly cooked lobster, so I decided to pretend it was, in fact, lobster and managed a few more bites. I finally asked Hans what it was, and immediately knew mistakes were made. He explained it was cow stomach; I had unknowingly eaten tripe.

Bathroom comfort is another thing I am excited for. The only time that it’s acceptable to shave your legs in the sink is when it’s winter and you’ve been lounging around all week in yoga pants, but suddenly bae texts you and says he’ll be over in ten minutes.

Also, almost every bathroom here is equipped with a bidet and I’m not sure how to feel about it. I just don’t understand how you would want to share one with other people, but I suppose it’s no different than sharing a toilet. The other day, I dropped my shampoo bottle into my host family’s bidet and promptly decided that I would just never wash my hair again.

Lastly, I think it will be nice to not have to be a house guest anymore. Last night, Kelly and I stumbled home around 5 in the morning and decided it was a great idea to break into the kitchen. By “break in”, I really mean we just walked in, but we’re not allowed in there so it was all very exciting. We hit the jackpot, and found a jar of Nutella.

I think it’s best we leave before they open that jar to find half of it gouged out.

Tequila, Jäger and Sambuca shots, tequila sunrises, sangrias and a two pint  class of vodka redbull. Cause of the nutella incident.
Tequila, Jäger and Sambuca shots, tequila sunrises, sangrias and a two pint glass of vodka Redbull. Cause of the Nutella incident.

Eat The Damn Bread

I think I have eaten more carbs in these past two weeks than I have in the past year.

And I am happier than I have ever been.

Breakfast is always cereal with either toast, croissants or muffins. Lunch is a foot-long baguette. And not the Subway five dollar foot-longs that are actually like 11 inches. We’re talking the whole damn foot here. It usually contains about three thin slices of salami or ham….which is practically the same as eating just bread for lunch. Dinner is usually pasta, rice or potatoes.

Oh, and can’t forget about my daily 5 p.m. pastry, because what kind of monster would have just a coffee.

I walk pretty much everywhere in the city, which I think gives me this kind of food freedom. I have been eating like this all week and my pants still fit just fine. Granted, they’re actually just leggings with pockets that look like pants. But hey, they still fit.

I want to return to the States as the savior of all woman who are afraid of carbs. I’ll be the Oprah of bread, throwing baguettes and pastries left and right, yelling, “You get a baguette, and you get a baguette!

I think what I’m trying to say is that bread makes people happy, and I think the world needs more happy people.

Yes, I'm holding bread. Yes, I am that happy.
Yes, I’m holding bread. Yes, I am that happy.

Update 1/23/14 11:18pm: Mama Kulka called and said I should probably stop eating bread…

The Spanish Host Family Experience

For the first two weeks of my study abroad program, everyone was placed with a host family. I live with a rather nice Spanish family in a small apartment in the northern part of the city. I share a room with another girl in my program, Kelly.

My host mother is Montserrat, a sweet woman in her fifties who wears a different pair of pajama pants every day of the week. She’s convinced that I am Jewish and insists that all Polish people are. I tried to explain that 90% of Polish people are Roman Catholics. She then asked if I was sure that I wasn’t Jewish.

Montserrat’s son, Hans, eats dinner with Kelly and I every night so that we can practice our Spanish. Hans may be the only 15 year old boy who has ever disliked me. I think it’s because I always ask him if he can take us to the skate park with him to hang with the cool kids. But, I think I’m slowly growing on him.

Living here is very humbling. The water in the bathrooms is always cold, Kelly and I share a room the size of a broom closet and dinner is essentially peasant food: pasta or potatoes. I like to think of it as Sparta, but without a half naked Gerard Butler.

I think what bothers me the most is that I was expecting to be part of a family. However, Montserrat always has students in and out of the apartment as a form of income. Kelly and I are treated a bit like hostel guests: we have to buy our own water and we can’t shower for more than ten minutes. That basically means that I have to choose between washing my hair or shaving my legs and the struggle is very real.

My host family experience isn’t very glamorous and it’s not necessarily what I expected, but overall I can’ t complain. They are good people and I’ll kind of miss them.
Hans was nice enough to let us take a picture with him.
Hans was nice enough to let us take a picture with him.

Conversations with Strangers: Roman from Kazakhstan

How we met: I was trudging through Brussels airport with two bags that collectively weighed more than me, so I flagged Roman down in his airport golf cart. He was hesitant to help at first, but when I spoke Russian to him he immediately drove me across the entire airport to my gate and even carried my bags. I got to see the secret corridors of the airport while uncomfortably listening to his very Putin-like political views. It was interesting to say the least.

About him: Roman is from Kazakhstan, but he likes living in Belgium and working at the airport. He plans on moving to Russia because he prefers being in a more conservative country, “where they don’t allow gay people.”

Coolest experience: Shooting weapons. He didn’t elaborate. I didn’t ask.

Life dream: Time travel to a roman orgy.

Roman took many selfies before finding the perfect Russian smolder

How I survived a total of 24 of travel (And unsolicited advice on how you can too)

Be polite to airline personnel.

At the airport, they are god. Do not underestimate them. Ask them how their day is, say please and thank you. I got a free upgrade to business class on my connecting flight, an extra bag checked for free, unlimited international phone calls and a ride across the expansive airport just because I was nice to everyone that I came across.

Smile often. At everyone. Always.

I got an extra Belgian waffle at the café I was eating at because the clerk liked my smile. Smiling is pretty much the secret weapon to getting whatever you want.

Refresh, I guarantee you smell.

Nothing feels better than freshening up after hours on a plane. Wash off your makeup and reapply it fresh, change your shirt and reapply deodorant. Also, change your underwear; it’s a total game changer.

It’s okay to cry.

If the world is falling apart around you and you are tired and you are hungry and you missed your connecting flight and you don’t know what you are doing or where you are going and no one is picking up the phone and you do not have Wi-Fi and all of your bags are too heavy and your arms hurt from carrying them and you are sweaty and gross and really need to take a shower and you have a wine stain on your shirt: CRY. Cry for a minute, then quit being a bitch and get your shit together.

Call mom.

Just do it. She’s probably worried about you and needs to know you haven’t been abducted. Also, she’ll talk you through your mini 18 hours of traveling break down.

Belgian waffles are clutch.
Belgian waffles are clutch.

“Be brave. Learn a lot. And know that God is always with you.”

I leave for Barcelona today.

Naturally I had about a million errands to run. I was nervous and stressed, and going 100 miles per hour. I had forgotten about the joy of my upcoming adventure and was letting my last few hours at home slip away.

Comfort came in the form of kind words from the most random of places, my dry cleaner.

My dry cleaner is one of the kindest and most hard working people I have met. He knew that I was going abroad and saw that I was stressed, so he told me about how he came to America in 1979 not knowing anyone or any English. Now, he has a thriving business, a daughter with a masters degree and a son in industrial engineering at Northwestern University.

Then he smiled at me and said, “Be brave. Learn a lot. And know that God is always with you.”

I think I’m ready now.