Conversations with Strangers: Joel from Ann Arbor

I was having coffee on the lawn of my guest house in Tolka, overlooking the terraced hills of the Himalayas when an older gentlemen with the most soothing voice struck up a conversation with me.

His name was Joel, pronounced Joelle- the Italian way. He was born and raised in Ann Arbor, but has been living on an island off the coast of Tuscany for the last 9 years. He used to live in Nepal- working in the villages to aid the blind, and speaks fluent Nepalese as a result. We talked about Nepal, and it’s kind people and beautiful culture. We also chatted about life, and how the world really is a small and funny place. In life there are no coincidences, and it was certainly no coincidence that I met Joel on the last full day of my trek.

Best advice you could give someone?

“Go slowly.” Everything is going so fast these days, that it’s only when you slow down you can begin to see where you are.

What was your happiest moment?

Nepal.

His answer was simple and direct. Some things just don’t need explaining.

Namaste Joel. Thank you for the serenity you brought me, and for the reminder to slow down. I hope to take that with me on my journey home, and I certainly hope our paths cross again.

Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest

Since I had a free week and no other plans, I took a lap around Austria, Slovakia and Hungary. It’s not too far from Kraków, which is currently home base because that’s where my suitcases live.

I spent my three days in Vienna wandering its spectacular palaces, museums and art galleries, taking breaks to sit in cafés decked with crystal chandeliers. And, as luck would have it, I happened to be there during the hottest day in the city’s history, which is an event I really could have sat out.

From Vienna, I wanted to go to Budapest. Bratislava happened to be on the way, only an hour away from Vienna by boat. So why not? 

I love boats. 

Bratislava absolutely surprised me. It was charming and small enough to visit in a few hours. Conveniently, Polish is very close to Slovakian, so I got along just fine with everyone and felt right at home. 

After lunch and a stroll in Bratislava, I hopped on a train to Budapest. 

Oh, Budapest. Where to begin? Language, history, good people, cool parties and group bathing. It had everything I love.

I spent a lot of time learning about Hungary’s rich history and the Hungarian people. The sovereign nation is fairly new, having been occupied by everyone from the Ottomans and the Turks, to the Austrians, to the Nazis and the Soviets. Their language fascinates me, because it’s not quite Slavic and not quite any sort of anything I comprehend. In fact, it sounds a lot like the how the Sims speak.

But really, if you’re into cool languages, European history, occupations and the war, Budapest is a solid place to go. 

That being said, their nightlife was on point too. 

I don’t usually go out much when I travel alone, but you can’t not go out in Budapest, and I was fortunate enough to find some new international buddies.

The entire population of my hostel consisted of my blonde self and 15 Spanish speaking guys, from all over Spain and Mexico. Fortunately, I happen to speak Spanish, so we got along swimmingly. 

Also, traveling alone has taught me how to pick up women. I met two girls my age during a walking tour, Meitao and Arenike. Meitao was Chinese and Arenike was Nigerian, but they were both from London. Together, the three of us were literally the poster women for diversity in Budapest, and turned a few heads when we went out that night. Mostly due to confusion, though. 

One of the coolest things about Budapest was ruin pubs, which are unique to the city. They’re essentially abandoned buildings and warehouses, filled with broken furniture and confusing art (think owl heads on naked women’s bodies.) Let’s just say that when a bar has 26 rooms, leaving before 6 am is not an option. Fun was certainly had. 

I spent my entire last day at the infamous Hungarian baths, bathing in the city’s thermal pool with a herd of Hungarians and tourists alike. It was a cool immersion into Hungarian bath cultural, and a glorious way to spend a 100 degree day. 

Overall, my spontaneous weeklong trip was loads of fun, from eating Sachertorte in Vienna, to leaving the pubs at daybreak with new friends in Budapest.

Now back to Poland we go! 

  

Selfies in Vienna


  

On Traveling Alone

I’ve come across many people who are in absolute awe that I, as a young, fairly small, blonde female, travel alone. “How very brave!” they say. Or, “aren’t you afraid?” they ask. I don’t really get it. I don’t think traveling alone is particularly brave, and I don’t really see why I should be afraid. 

I want to go places. Sometimes there is no one else to go with. So I go solo.

 That’s all there is to it. 

I don’t find traveling alone daunting or because I am very comfortable with myself. Also, I find it easy to connect with others along the way, and my language capabilities combined with my solid sense of direction make me feel very safe in new cities.

I traveled Italy alone for ten days, I sign up for races alone, I take myself out to eat. I happen to think that spending time alone, really just means that you’re spending time with yourself. 

Besides, if you can’t keep yourself company, what makes you think you’re good company to anyone else?

It’s not always easy, to be honest; I’m not superwoman. Sometimes I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing and sometimes I get anxious when I have to take selfies for lack of a cameraman, or when I’m eating alone. But then, I either get over it or I find a solution. 

See, even when you’re traveling solo, you don’t have to be alone all the time. I have always met people along the way. Even the other day, here in Vienna, I spent the morning with a friend from Chicago who happened to be vacationing here with her parents.

Then in the evening, I met up with an Austrian girl, Lena, whom I met on couchsurfing.com and asked out to dinner. It’s fun to reach out to locals, and also have someone to eat with. Lena was super sweet, and entertained all my questions about Vienna and being Austrian, and we chatted about our travels and tales of creepy men. 

I’m not saying one is better than the other; I have enjoyed both traveling solo and traveling with friends and family. But, the beauty of traveling alone is that you get to set your own pace, do whatever you want and meet cool people while you’re doing it.

Now, please, go do something alone. 

Thanks, Lena!

Slow My Roll

I have spent the last ten days in Kraków, camped out on a couch at my aunt and uncles’, sleeping, reading and watching Netflix. Yes, after weeks of bouncing around from city to city, Seville to Córdoba to Granada to Barcelona to Warsaw to a wild wedding here, it was time to slow my roll.

The truth is that every once in a while we all need some TLC and to just chill out. For months, when I wasn’t traveling, I was at least planning my next travels. I was barely sleeping, insisting that I’ll sleep when I’m dead. And, I had half a dozen books on my kindle, untouched.

So here I am, attempting to do nothing. Quite honestly, it’s one of the hardest things I’ve had to. I don’t really remember how to do nothing. Binge-watching Netflix has no appeal to me, especially since I’ve already finished Orange is the New Black, and sleeping-in is overrated.

That’s why I’ve broken up my rest with exploring this gorgeous city, visiting it’s museums, taking walking tours of the historic neighborhoods and treating myself to ice cream.

I believe in something I call the hometown effect. It’s when you live in a city, or you’ve been to a place so often that you’ve never visited it. I’ve lived in Chicago all my life, and hadn’t gone up the Sears Tower up until a few years ago. And similarly, after visiting Kraków year after year to see family, I still couldn’t tell you the first thing about it. So, I found a free walking tour of the Old Town and another of the Jewish neighborhoods and I tagged along for the day, strolling through the cobblestone streets, checking out the castle and even learning about the former Jewish ghettos of Kraków.

I took myself to the chocolate drinker-y yesterday, the literal translation of “Pijalnia Czekolady.” Yes, that’s a thing. A gorgeous cafe in the city center dedicated to drinking hot (or cold!) chocolate. Not the powdered kind that you dissolve in milk, but the real melted down chocolate that is so thick that you’re actually a little sick after drinking it.

There you have it, that’s what I’ve been up to the last week or so. I am resting. I am on vacation.

But let’s be honest, I am me. I’ve got one eye on plane tickets, and one foot out the door. Only a matter of time until I’m off again!

 

Beautiful streets of Kraków

Wedding Belles

One of my best girlfriends, Kasia, is getting married this Saturday in Kraków, in one of Poland’s most historic and beautiful churches in what is essentially the wedding that fairy-tales, and Pinterest dreams alike, are made of.

The bridal party has spent the first half of the week strolling Warsaw, Poland’s capital, shopping, relaxing and fine dining. The fabulous bride and her lovely family have absolutely spoiled the bridesmaids, showing us the best that Poland has to offer, including private evening concerts from opera singers and tours of Warsaw’s royal gardens. I may actually be ruined after this trip because Mondays without kiwi-basil lemonades and delighting in freshly prepared beef tartar after a day at the spa are not Mondays I want to go back to.

Now, everyone is hanging out in Kraków, in the gorgeous old town square. Being back in the motherland is quite exciting and strange for me. I would spend every summer here, growing up, but it’s been two years since my last visit. It’s changed a little, but for the better. Poland is one of Europe’s most rapidly developing countries, and you can tell; there are more businesses, the infrastructure has improved, and the technology has advanced.

I’m slowly adjusting from speaking Spanish everyday, to speaking Polish. However, the easiest adjustment to make was the currency. Poland, although part of the European Union, still hasn’t adopted the Euro. One dollar is about four zloty, so basically I can live like a king for the next month. Okay, maybe not a king, but some kind of non-peasant.

I don’t know how long I’ll stay in Poland; maybe the entire month, maybe not. In the mean time, I have a Polish wedding to go to!

Please pray for my liver.

Off to Kraków with a few of the bridesmaids and the beautiful bride!

Off to Kraków with a few of the bridesmaids and the beautiful bride!

Guest Post: The Pauline Travel Experience by Jessica C.

I am currently showing my brother and his girlfriend, Jessica, around Spain, and Jess, being the talented writer that she is, wrote a guest blog post about what it’s like to travel with me. I’m very flattered by post and grateful to Jessica for putting up with my tempo and travel dictatorship, I didn’t even need to make any edits! I’ll let her take it from here:

As you must know by now, Pauline is quite the established traveler. Her wanderlust leads her to all corners of the world, inspiring her to see over 50 cities and towns in six months and walking 250 miles on the Camino de Santiago.

She invited Alex (her brother) and I (his girlfriend) to visit her in Barcelona with only a few days to rest in between. Pauline met us at the airport, her tanned face and blindingly bright smile hard to miss in the crowd. Alex and I considered for a moment that we would meet a new, calm and mellow Pauline after all of her recent soul searching. However, after a tight hug and Pauline giggles, she pulls out an itinerary she drafted on the plane and starts talking business.

She’s an energetic, ambitious superhuman and I’m here to tell you about the Pauline Travel Experience.

Sleeping in is never a part of the itinerary. At 6:30am on our first day, Pauline barged into our hotel room after finishing a run around the city and said, “I thought it’d be more lively in here.” She waited for us in the dark to wake up, all the while explaining the details of her plan for the day.

Bring your walking shoes…and mental strength. Pauline walks everywhere at a rigorous speed and measures distance by her new unit of Camino kilometers. Whatever distance you think you’re going, just double it. She would tell us that our next destination was only ten blocks away, no problem. And her Camino stamina didn’t understand how we could possibly be tired of walking, ever.

Trust in the system. Armed with her inner compass/travel guide, Pauline always finds the best places to go, orders the best food and knows where she is going. You have to trust her and let caution go to the wind. When you do, you stumble upon bullfighting stadiums and secret, underground Flamenco shows.

Learn to laugh with her. When Pauline says, “Guys, want to hear a funny story?” It means you’re lost and you’ll be walking in circles for another ten Camino kilometers. Just laugh it off because she’ll eventually get you home.

The Pauline Travel Experience is all about you. You don’t make the decisions, but know that they’ve all been made for your best interest. Even when the situation is dire, when you’ve realized you’ve lost Pauline on her organized bike tour because she never really looked back to see you fell behind, she patiently waits for you to figure it out because she has full confidence in your ability. Find some wi-fi and pull yourself together. That’s your chance to make her proud.

Not to mention, she announces Fun Facts along the way so that you don’t miss out on learning about Dali’s sexual fetishes and Picasso’s five wives.

The gang is in Granada!

Sevilla and Bull

Here I am in Seville, marveling at the Moor influenced architecture, hopping from one tapas bar to the next and touring the city by horse drawn carriage, with a glass of white wine in my hand.

My adventure seems to be never ending, which is a good thing, of course, because the idea of leaving Spain is quite daunting. I’m at the point where I prefer speaking Spanish over English, eating dinner any time before 10 p.m. seems odd and “vale,” the Spanish equivalent of “okay,” has become an integrated part of my vocabulary. I’m making the most of the time I have left in the land of red wine and siestas and exploring the rest of this spectacular country.

Sevilla is a special kind of city; it beats with passion, and breathes fire.

The former because it pulses with the sensual movements of flamenco, the strum of a Spanish guitar and the valor of a bullfighter. The latter, because it’s hot.

Real hot.

Today was about 106 degrees. That’s 41 degrees for any of my friends who don’t live in the five countries in this world that use Fahrenheit.

Regardless, my companions and I visited Plaza de Toro today, the oldest bullfighting ring in the world, where I discovered  the fascinating world of bullfighting.

Although controversial, bullfighting is an art form, as well as a magnificent display of Spanish culture.

Hemingway, my main man, once said, “Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter’s honour.”

You see, a bullfighter enters the ring fully knowing that they may die that day. They put their lives in the hand of fate and say a quick prayer, which I assume goes a little like, “Dear God, please just not a major artery today.”

All jokes aside, fear is a fascinating topic. Are these bullfighters fearless, or are they fully afraid? 

To be fully afraid and to go in the direction of your fear is a very brave thing to do. I believe that being fearless is easy; when we acknowledge our fears and charge towards them like a matador against a bull, that’s the moment we discover our true courage.

Maybe we should all be a little more like bullfighters.  

Colors of Sevilla, beautifully reflected in the ring