Debut Poetry Book!

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Hi folks,

I wanted to let you know that I just released my first poetry book, Away from Shore. If you’re interested in checking it out, it’s currently available on Amazon (where you can also get a preview of some of the poems) and CreateSpace. You can read the description on Goodreads.

Please help me spread the word! If you have friends, family, coworkers, etc. who might like the book, let them know about it. If you read it, leave an honest review on Goodreads, Amazon, and/or anywhere else people might see it!

The first challenge was writing the book; now the challenge is connecting to all the readers out there!

So far, it’s been a lot of fun.

 

~Mary

Getting a Haircut in Poland

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Photo Credit: Pála Stefánsdóttir

Photo Credit: Pála Stefánsdóttir

I’ve had long hair for pretty much my whole life. I had a bowl cut, as my brothers like to call it, when I was in first grade. And I had bangs up until eighth grade, but then I hit high school, grew out the bangs, and never looked back. For the next twelve years, I pretty much always had the same exact hairstyle—about shoulder-length, straight cut across the bottom.

Photo Credit: Caít Ní Aonghusa

Photo Credit: Caít Ní Aonghusa

I like to keep things simple. I’m not super into style and fashion, so I’d only get my hair cut about once a year, nothing fancy…in fact, my mom would cut my hair for me. I wasn’t picky. I’d often just put my hair back in a ponytail, anyway, so if I’d had layers or something of the sort, no one would have noticed.

Well, recently I started to think, why not try out short hair? Sure, it’d be a big change, but change is exciting. And showers would be so much faster. My hair would dry quickly. I would be cool in the summer. When I’d go swimming, I wouldn’t have to worry about hair getting in my face.

On the other hand, I have to admit, I was a little nervous about getting a “boy’s” haircut. What would people think about me? Would I look bad? Would I have to get a haircut every few weeks to stop it from growing out in weird, awkward ways?

All of this was running through my head one day during my recent trip to Europe. I was in Görlitz, Germany, a town just across the river from Poland. Amazed at how easy it is to cross borders in Europe, I decided to cross a bridge over the Lusatian Neisse River to get to the Polish town of Zgorzelec on the other side. I have Polish, German, and Irish ancestry, and Poland was the only country of the three that I hadn’t yet visited.

It was a hot day; my hair had grown longer than I wanted; and I thought to myself, if I see a place to get my hair cut, I’m going to go for it. Unfortunately, the town wasn’t nearly the hub of activity that Görlitz was, and I thought it unlikely that I’d come across any salon. There was some activity along the waterfront, though, where a few restaurants were attracting some business, so that’s where I headed first.

I was hungry, and curious to try Polish food, so I sat down at a lovely little place and ordered an unknown item off the menu. I can’t remember the name of the dish right now, but it had sauerkraut and sausage and plums. For dessert, I ordered “the forbidden fruit.” It was a baked apple with ice cream and cinnamon.

When the meal was over, I continued walking along the waterfront to see if anything caught my eye. I didn’t have far to go! Just a few blocks along, I saw a tiny storefront window with the image of a pair of scissors on the glass. This must be it, I thought, and ducked inside.

The hairdresser, Ania, was finishing cutting a woman’s hair, and she didn’t take any note of me when I walked inside. In the states, this would be a bad sign…terrible customer service. But I thought, I’m not home, and this is probably normal here. I’ll wait till she finishes cutting this woman’s hair, and then I’ll tell her that I’d like a haircut. A man was sitting in one of the seats next to me (he was the only other person in the place), and it appeared that he was with the woman getting her hair cut, because he kept on looking at her with a huge smile on his face. (He also didn’t say a word to me.)

About five minutes went by. Then a young man came into the place and, in German, presumably asked the hairdresser if she could give him a haircut. At this point, she turned to me and asked me, in Polish, if I was waiting to get my hair cut.

I was pretty certain that I knew what she was asking, so I started nodding my head, but the confusion must have shown on my face. The young man who’d just walked in translated into German what the hairdresser had said in Polish (at various points on my trip, I was mistaken for German, Polish, Irish, Scottish, English, Icelandic, Canadian, Portuguese, Danish, French, etc.). I still had a confused look on my face, and I started to say, in English, that I didn’t understand.

Well, it turns out that the man sitting next to me was American, and he translated into English what everyone else had said. When I said that yes, I wanted a haircut, he and everyone else seemed to be amazed that I’d want to get my hair cut by someone who I wouldn’t be able to communicate with.

But that’s just what I did. Everyone else left, and it was just me and Ania. I showed her a couple photos of women with short hair, that I’d found in some magazines that were lying around. None of the haircuts were exactly what I wanted, but then again, I didn’t even know exactly what I wanted. It was the first time I was doing this.

Ania, clearly not wanting to make a drastic mistake, verified with me several times that I really wanted my hair cut short. She was a little shocked, but also excited. We both ended up laughing a lot—me, because I could barely believe what I was doing, and Ania, because she could barely believe what I was doing.

Ania–a wonderful hairdresser

Ania–a wonderful hairdresser

She was also amazed that I was from Chicago…she’s probably telling this same story, but with a different twist, back at home.

Anyway, I remember sitting there, looking at myself with long hair in the mirror, and getting a little teary eyed. I almost decided not to go through with it. Long hair had become part of my identity. It was part of what made me feminine. And then I thought, ridiculous!  Ridiculous, Mary. The length of a person’s hair has nothing to do with a person’s femininity…f*#% societal beliefs. If anything, the realization that other (unknown!) peoples’ shallow opinions were threatening to interfere with my own actions made me decide a hundred percent to follow through with my plan. I gave the nod to Ania to start doing the scissor work.

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I took a photo of all of the hair that I left in Poland….

Photo Credit: Ania

Photo Credit: Ania

And Ania took a photo of me!

Photo Credit: Sara Hamdan

Photo Credit: Sara Hamdan

A month later, my hair had already grown out a bunch. I’m loving it. :-)

Photo Credit: Sara Hamdan

Photo Credit: Sara Hamdan

 

Portugal: Aveiro, Costa Nova, Porto, and back to Lisboa

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It’s a wonderful feeling to be heading out from a big city into the surrounding countryside…especially when you’re heading toward coastal regions. Sara and I had read that Aveiro is the “Venice of Portugal,” and that had us intrigued. We’d never seen towns with canals running through them. We decided—mostly on a whim, since we really hadn’t done much research—that Aveiro would be our next destination after Lisboa.

What a good choice! Partly, we had a great time there because of our AirBnB hosts, Maria and Domingo. They picked us up from the train station, gave us a small driving tour of the area, provided us with a map, and in general were super sweet and friendly. We sort of wanted to just be members of their family and share dinners together and hang out. As it was, we didn’t see them much because we were out and about each day we were there…but we did always see Domingo in the mornings when he’d come by with fresh bread for our breakfast!

fish street

Aveiro isn’t a huge place, but it’s fun to explore for at least a full day. One street, in the summer, is decorated with netting and fake fish.

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Many of the streets had tiling in the shape of seahorses and other such ocean life.

People in the shops were very kind, often interested in where we were from and how we’d chosen to come to Aveiro. It’s not completely off of the tourist track, but it had a much more laid-back feel than Lisboa.

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We wandered along the canals, ate in outdoor seating areas (I tried snails for the second time in my life!), and bopped into tiny stores that sold beautiful scarves. We also tried some more Portuguese sweets. Ovos molhos are a big favorite, so much so that there’s a little kiosk that sells them! In the evening, we enjoyed beautiful views along the canal and then headed back home.

Costa Nova houses

The next day, we were off to Costa Nova, famous for it’s striped houses (fishermen used to paint their fishing houses like that to make them look more colorful and interesting). Maria and Domingo drove us there (about half an hour by car), and we spent the rest of the day enjoying waves and sun.

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The cool thing about Costa Nova is that on one side you have a river and on the other side—the ocean. We’d brought sandwiches with us, and we bought peaches there that were absolutely divine…the kind that are so perfectly ripe that they just about melt in your mouth. Also, we indulged in ice cream again; I tried fig and mascarpone…fabulous!

For our last day outside of Lisboa, we decided to take a train from Aveiro to Porto. (We’d gotten a late start, and it was tempting to just stay put and enjoy some down time…I do always miss reading lots of books when I’m traveling.) We accidentally got off one stop too early, at Porto Campanha instead of São Bento. Whoops! Luckily, we were able to hop on another train and get to the correct destination.

What a great city. We only had a few hours there, but we thoroughly enjoyed our time. First, we happened upon a bookstore that apparently inspired J.K. Rowling. Yes, J.K. Rowling lived in Porto for some time when she was teaching English abroad. So that was pretty cool.

Porto Bridges

My favorite part of Porto, and the reason I like it more than Lisboa, is its waterfront. The waterfront was alive with people—tourists, musicians, swing dancers, you name it. Anywhere you looked you saw restaurants. And the bridges that cross the river are really spectacular. I was awed.

Both Sara and I were reluctant to eventually leave; the city was just so vibrant and fun. But we caught a train back to Aveiro, and then the next morning caught another train back to Lisboa.

It’s always nice when you’re traveling to be back on familiar ground, to know how to read the map, to recognize plazas and restaurants. Difficult as Lisboa is to navigate, Sara and I made it to our last AirBnB place okay (though we had a long, difficult walk uphill with our luggage). It was situated in the middle of a neighborhood that, we found out, is much more alive at night than during the day. Unbeknownst to us, we’d chosen to live in party central. Literally, at midnight, when we were getting ready to sleep, all of the bars were just revving up. There was constant foot traffic on the street, from midnight onwards. Music was thudding against the walls. Lucky for me, I’m a deep sleeper, and I’d brought earplugs with me. I may not have taken advantage of the party scene, but it didn’t bother me.

The great thing about that last place we stayed in was that there was a small grocery store next door, and a bakery about two blocks away. We’d wake up, buy chocolate croissants and peaches, and then head back to our place for a marvelous breakfast.

Cabo da Roca

On one of our last few days in Lisboa, we took a day trip to Cabo da Roca, the furthest westernmost point of mainland Europe. There were some really spectacular views, and I discovered a hiking path that virtually no one else was walking on. Most people walked a little loop around a lighthouse; posed for dramatic, smiling photos (it’s ridiculous how insistent people can become on getting the perfect photo); and then got in their cars or on a bus and went back to where they’d come from.  I was amazed that more people didn’t linger.

Scenic Overlook

Aside from that day trip, we spent the rest of our time in Lisbon, venturing into interesting shops, going to scenic overlooks, and heading toward the river to listen to the beautiful sound of water.

It was nice to have a relaxed last few days in Portugal; I was nearing the end of my three-month trip in Europe, and constantly being on the move was getting slightly exhausting.  Lovely as travel is, it can be work, too; an hour of downtime, a bed in the same place for three nights in a row—these things become small luxuries.

 

Portugal: Days 2 and 3

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Day Two:

Part of the attraction to Lisbon (Lisboa) is that it’s easy to take public transit to a number of nearby places. Sintra, for example, is less than an hour away, and trains go there frequently from Rossio. They do get super crowded and warm (in the summer at least), but it’s just an hour.

Sintra from above

Sintra from above

Do some people watching, and you’ll keep yourself occupied. Check out everyone’s style! Trust me, I’m not usually one to care much about clothes, but I really enjoyed seeing all of the beautiful summer dresses, skirts, pants, scarves, and so on. I felt a little clunky with my hiking pants (you know, it feels weird to write “pants” after being in Ireland and the UK, where “pants” means “underwear”) and t-shirts, and I actually went into some stores to look for dresses/skirts, but I kept finding clothing that was super upscale…not what I wanted. Ah well. I’ll have to save looking stylish for some other time.

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Anyway, Sintra is a beautiful place, well worth the train ride. The town is full of cute souvenir shops, restaurants, gelato places (Possibly for the first time ever, I got a double scoop…mint chocolate chip and passion fruit! It was so fun.), and tourists. Begin the climb up to the Moorish castle, though, and the number of tourists is greatly reduced. You walk through gardens and then along wooded paths to get there, and whenever there’s a gap in the trees you can see the town and all the land below—stretching until the ocean.

View from Moorish Castle

While it’s hard to beat that view, once you get to the Moorish castle, it’s pretty spectacular to stand on the ramparts and look out at Pena Palace—a colorful palace that has been described as “Disneyland for adults.” To be honest, I preferred seeing it from afar to exploring its hallways and rooms…but that may have been due partly to the throng of tourists at the palace and the fact that I’ve simply started to get used to palaces. (An easy way to tell how long an American has been traveling, and in which countries, is to mention that there’s a castle/palace nearby. Towards the start of my trip, I literally took a ferry, a bus ride, and hitch-hiked to get to a castle. Now, castles are no longer a top priority.)

View of Pena Palace

Closer view of Pena Palace

Kitchen in Pena Palace

Sara and I both could have spent more time in Sintra, but one full day was a nice amount of time.

Day Three:

It’s time I mention the pasteis de Belem, the famous little egg custard pastries from Portugal. On our third day, after exploring the São Jorge Castle in Alfama, Sara and I decided we had to try these, so we went to Pasteis de Belem, a huge bakery in Belem (about forty minutes on the tram from downtown Lisboa). The tram ride was very humid and hot, and made the prospect of eating something warm not that exciting. But I was happily surprised at how delicious the pastry was. I loved it. Freshly baked, it melted in my mouth. And with a little cinnamon and powdered sugar sprinkled on top…fabulous.

Pasteis de Belem

Pasteis de Belem

After trying this new dessert, Sara and I tried to get to the water’s edge. And we did get there, but I have to say, the waterfront in Lisbon and Belem is not that accessible. It’s very industrialized, and I think that there’s a naval base on one section of it; you can’t even see the river there because of the fencing they’ve put up. Very disappointing, especially in comparison to Porto. I’m glad we were able to get to the water in the end, though. It’s wild to look out and imagine the river in the past, everything that happened here years ago.

A lot of big ships used to set sail from Belem to explore (conquer) the world. Vasco da Gama, a famous Portuguese explorer, is buried in Belem, in Jerónimos Monastery. I did a school project about him in fifth grade. It was strange to see his tomb.

Jeronimos Monastery

Jerónimos Monastery

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Belem, all in all, wasn’t my favorite place, but we didn’t explore it in depth. Instead, we returned to Lisbon to wander around Alfama some more and listen to fado music. We got a little lost again and came across one street that was decorated with all sorts of streamers; apparently that’s what Lisbon looks like in June, and they were creating a movie set for a film that takes place in that season. Very cool!

Street in Alfama

When it got to be almost dark, we decided to head home for the evening. Looking out over the whole city—lights twinkling on—you feel like you’re in a magical place, some other world.

Nine Days in Portugal: Intro and Day One

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Rossio train station, Lisbon

Pretty much from the moment I arrived in Lisbon, I knew I would love Portugal. It started with taking the bus from the airport to the hostel. The bus driver recognized that I wasn’t from around there (my accent in Portuguese is super obvious), so he told me that he’d announce the stop I had to get off at. A small thing, but so nice. None of the bus stops were labeled very well, so without that announcement I could have easily gotten off at the wrong place and had to walk an extra distance with my big backpack.

As it was, I got off at Rossio and walked about five minutes to get to my hostel (Lisbon Destination Hostel)…which was in the Rossio train station. Yes, I slept at a train station for a night, and what a train station it is! A really spectacular building.

Again, people were super nice. The guys behind the front desk offered suggestions on where to eat, showed me where my room was, and were in general very fun and friendly. They got me excited about breakfast the next morning, which not only was included in the price of a night’s stay, but also sounded much better than the typical bread, cheese, cereal, and juice. This breakfast included freshly made pancakes and lots of fresh fruit!

I was super hungry after the flight from Brussels, so I went in search of a restaurant. On my way, I came across a group of street performers. The athletics they performed were captivating. A huge crowd was gathered to watch.

Later on, eating my to-go sushi in the plaza, surrounded by the sound of music emanating from restaurants, I smiled to myself, knowing that this had been the right destination to choose. I was meeting an old friend of mine, Sara, the next morning, and we had an adventure ahead of us!

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We spent the first three nights in the Alfama district in Lisbon, the next three in Aveiro, and the last three back in Lisbon, but in the Príncipe Real district.

Day One:

If you have just a short amount of time in Lisbon, go to Alfama. Definitely my favorite place there. It’s the oldest neighborhood in Lisbon, and it feels that way. The roads are narrow and mostly only for foot traffic. They twist and turn so much that you’re bound to get lost (as we did, several times). And be prepared for lots of stairs! Lots of little shops hide around corners, selling such things as souvenirs, fruits and veggies, and ginjinha (cherry liquor that’s sometimes served in small cups of chocolate).

The souvenir shops were full of colorful tiles, cork products (Portugal is the world’s largest producer of cork), cans of sardines, aprons, scarves, and so on. Really fun to explore since the things being sold weren’t just the usual magnets, keychains, and t-shirts.

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The ginjinha was fun to try, though, to be honest, the chocolate cup was my favorite part. More than this famous sweet cherry liquor, I’d recommend having some of the gelato in Lisbon and elsewhere in Portugal. Between the two of us, Sara and I tried lots of great flavors: kiwi, honey walnut, mascarpone and fig, apricot, plum, pistachio, peach, chocolate, mint chocolate, vanilla, and lemon basil. Delicious.

Food is always one of my focuses when traveling…so I’ll get back to that later.

For now, let me just tell you that Portugal is a fabulous place to visit, that you’ll likely fall in love with the country, and you’ll find reasons to go back. There’s more to write about Alfama—I haven’t even mentioned the fado music yet—but that can wait. There’s too much to tell in one go, so over the next week I’ll be sharing stories about the rest of our trip in Portugal; hope you enjoy!

 

 

 

A Day or Two Wandering in Brussels

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I spent a relaxed morning talking with my new friend/couchsurfing host, Delphine, and eating kiwis and croquettes with fig jam. The big window in the kitchen let in lots of light, though the sky looked somewhat foreboding. I hadn’t decided what I wanted to do for the rest of the day, but I wasn’t concerned. Sometimes it’s nice to be without a plan, and to just see where life takes you. In fact, that’s pretty much my motto when traveling.

The way I travel (and, simply, live) can be hard to explain to people. I have a curious way of making decisions.

I often trust my intuitions. I’m sometimes superstitious. Let me illustrate this for you. I was in a chocolatier shop, and I realized I’d have to go to the bathroom pretty soon. I asked the woman behind the counter where the nearest public bathroom was, and she pointed me in the direction I’d come from.

Most people (I think) would head straight to the bathroom. But I didn’t. I didn’t feel like going back in the direction I’d come from. Not yet. Something told me, wait a bit. So, I walked to the end of the row of chocolate shops, took photos of exquisite-looking truffles, and enjoyed the ambience of being surrounded by pralines and ganache.

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Then I took a small cobblestone path back in the direction of the public restrooms. Passing by a restaurant on the way, the waiter/host in front tried to get me to stop and eat there. Sometimes I don’t acknowledge that I’ve heard people (because it can be exhausting if everyone keeps trying to sell you things), but in this case I happened to say, “Sorry, I’m just looking for a bathroom.”

And what do you know, he said I could use the one on the second floor of the restaurant! So, mission accomplished, but not in the way I’d expected. A lot of times my intuition leads me to talk to people, or to linger longer in a certain spot, and then things happen like I get to use a bathroom for free or I’m invited to dinner with new friends. It’s great to take off the blinders that come with having a list of things to accomplish. It’s great to experience a place without starting off with a million expectations and desires.

The way I walk through a city, forest, etc. is determined not by perhaps typical factors like, “The most famous museum is two blocks away,” but rather by factors like what street musicians are playing, if the sunlight is shining on the other side of the street, if one route is packed with cars and the other is full of quirky shops.

Today I wandered down a street full of restaurants that all sold mussels and French fries. In Belgium, or at least in Brussels, it’s actually very common to see people eating just French fries for lunch or dinner, and there are little food trucks that sell them (with a number of sauces to go with) all around the city.

Yesterday I wandered down a street full of waffle shops, and tried one with fresh strawberries and cream. Delicious. Food is important. It’s one of my favorite things about travel—so many new things to try!

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I went into Mary’s Chocolatier and tried a single “Mademoiselle” truffle…milk chocolate filled with salted caramel. Divine. And it was served to me on a silver platter! There’s something special about ordering a single truffle, about limiting yourself to just one. It makes you savor it more, treasure the taste. It makes each coin in your purse feel precious.

Money is a strange thing, the way it can change the way people interact with you, or how you interact with them. What is it but a bunch of bills that have symbolic meaning? Who among us could feed and clothe ourselves if those bills all of a sudden meant nothing? What we have today might not be there tomorrow. These are the thoughts I have when walking through some areas in Brussels, where the street smells of spilled alcohol, and homeless people sleep on outdoor ping pong tables.

It’s hard to make sense of all the contrasts—how one street turns to another and another (in every block a new name: Rue de la Violette, Rue de la L’Hopital), and suddenly it’s like you’re in a different world. But it’s good to see a city like this, to understand it more, to see beyond the insides of museums and the outsides of monuments.

I notice more when I have no specific purpose. I see plastic covering a window and realize it makes the shape of a harp; I go into beautiful, tiny art galleries; I admire old buildings; I interact with vendors; I talk to street musicians; I try out speaking a little French.

And when I go “home” for the day, it’s because my feet have twice taken me back to the same metro stop, not the one I was intending to go to (that would have taken me to other places in the city), but the one I eventually needed to take to get back. I decided that yes, I actually did want to relax early, to think about everything I’d seen, to enjoy the company of Delphine’s two cats, and to sit by the window, writing.

Aachen: City of Kings

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For those of you who like history or who enjoy fantasy (Game of Thrones, for example), here’s a throne for you!

I’m in Aachen, Germany—a city named after water. It’s famous for its healing hot springs, its medieval coronations, and maybe more than all that, as being the place where Charlemagne ruled from, and where he was eventually laid to rest.

It’s pretty wild to look at a throne—just an uncomfortable seat, really—and to imagine all of the history behind it.

It’s also incredibly tempting to sit on it. I mean, maybe I’m unique, but I think that everyone else in the tour group (the only way you can see the throne is to take a guided tour of St. Mary’s Cathedral) must have thought the same thing at some point. If there’d been any kids they might have tried stepping over the ropes surrounding the throne and climbing up the six steps. As adults, I guess we manage to repress some of our impulses, but at least in my imagination I sat on the throne and looked out.

And in my imagination, there’s something special about a throne. If you sit on it, it transfers something to you—power, certainly. Magic? Maybe. I wonder what it felt like to all those rulers. To Charlemagne. Were they excited to be crowned king? Or did they feel the weight of the crown, the cold seat beneath them, the terrible, awing responsibility of being at history’s helm?

Photos from Prague

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From palaces to cathedrals to synagogues to bridges, the architecture in Prague is certainly amazing. Some buildings are very obvious standouts, but others might be easy to overlook. For example, as seen below, lots of buildings look fairly normal…except for the statues of men holding up the pillars!

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Even though I know they’re not real, I can’t help but feel a little sorry for them. Then there are the statues that make you think twice before walking through the gates….

Sometimes it wasn’t a building or statue that would catch my notice, but rather a sewage grate or door handle. The closer you look, the more interesting things you find!

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You have to remember to look up and down and every which way when you’re traveling. Some buildings would be hard to miss, though, no matter where you’re looking. For example, this colorful synagogue was attention-grabbing even from far away.

 

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While it was nice to see so many interesting buildings close up, one of the best views of the city is up above it all. There, you can find a quiet spot in a park and look out over the red rooftops and spires, the green domes and the white walls that make everything seem so peaceful, quiet, quaint.

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The Other Side of Travel

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There’s the fun side to travel, of course. It’s what all the stories tend to be about (including my own so far). But I think it’s important to keep a balance when telling stories. Life doesn’t automatically become a fairy tale when you’re traveling, and for all of the amazing things about travel, it has its downsides as well. So here’s the other side:

Let’s take today as an example. I woke up feeling slightly off, not exactly sick, but with a rumbly stomach (the sort where you’re not quite sure if you’ll keep everything down, and you just eat because you know you have to for energy). I took the tram to catch a train from Dresden to Prague (Praha). Carrying both my large backpack and small backpack while buying a ticket from the automated machine on the tram was a little tricky. I almost fell over onto someone. I also had no idea which ticket to buy (there were about fifteen choices!), so I just bought the least expensive (I think it was the right one) and hoped no one would check.

The train trip itself was fabulous; it was along a river, with views of forest, mountains, and beautiful homes. I sat with two friendly Australian travelers who were equally awed at the scenery.  The trip passed quickly. The problem was, all three of us got off at the wrong stop. Instead of getting off at the central train station, we got off at a train station on the outskirts of town. So, instead of taking twenty minutes to walk to my hostel, it took two hours (the first twenty minutes or so were mostly spent trying to figure out which way to go). Poor planning? Yes. I should have downloaded one of those offline maps of Prague, and then I wouldn’t have had to spend time trying to find an information booth and/or a friendly and knowledgeable person with the ability to speak some English.

I like to know at least some basics of the language of the country I’m going to, but sometimes it just doesn’t happen. I don’t always have or make the time to learn new languages, partly because sometimes trips are last minute (like this one). I obviously don’t mind at all if people don’t speak English; it’s not something I expect. I do mind, however, when people are unfriendly about it. I asked one woman in a shop at the train station about an information center. A lot of times people can pick out a word or two (information, toilet, etc. In fact, a Polish woman and I recently had a fun conversation where she spoke entirely in Polish and I spoke entirely in English, and we were able to communicate). This particular woman, though, just looked at me with a completely stoic/distinctly unfriendly expression, and shook her head (body language for “go away”). Some other people on my travels so far have been like this, but thankfully they’re outweighed by a majority of friendlier people. One woman who I ended up asking for directions (I was just double checking that I was on the right path) actually gave me her own map, which was super nice.

Anyway, after two hours of walking with a heavy backpack on my shoulders (I was greatly regretting that the strap in between the two shoulders doesn’t work, because that would have made the burden lighter), I was hungry and I desperately needed to go to the bathroom. You have to pay to use bathrooms here (and in Germany, and a number of other countries too, I believe), and since I didn’t have any Czech money yet, I’d decided to wait till I got to the hostel. (But you know when it’s super hot and you’re sweaty, and you’re hoping that your underwear is just wet with sweat and nothing else?…)

At the hostel at last, I was so happy to be off of the busy streets. It had been frustrating to sometimes have pedestrian sidewalks disappear, leaving no easy way to cross main roads/bridges. I was exhausted and spent fifteen minutes or so recuperating. Then it was off to lunch at a Czech place one of the hostel workers recommended. It was nice, with great staff, but as soon as I looked at the menu, my stomach reminded me that I shouldn’t eat too much, and probably no meat. So I went with a salad, which was tasty, but there was so much cheese in it! I’ve never seen so much cheese in a salad. I mean, there was literally more cheese than lettuce. I couldn’t finish it all (and I love cheese!).

I considered going straight back to the hostel after lunch because I wasn’t feeling a hundred percent, but as those who know me well will tell you, not feeling well doesn’t always stop me from whatever it is I’ve set my mind on doing.

My husband’s favorite example of this is when we were traveling together in the Yucatán peninsula, México. We’d just gotten to Tulum, where we were planning to enjoy the beach for a few days before heading home. Unfortunately, almost as soon as we got there I started feeling sick. I played it down, but when we were walking along the street and I was so light-headed that I had to sit down, it was clear that I wasn’t just “okay.” In fact, I’d come down with Montezuma’s revenge (look it up, but not while you’re eating). Despite that, I insisted that we could still walk to Akumal, a place where there are sea turtles. (That argument lasted about a second…because I could barely walk, to say the least. I spent the next two days in bed, my husband keeping me alive by making sure that I drank rehydrating liquids and ate bread).

A more recent example of this craziness/stubbornness is when I was in Iceland. About a week had gone by, and I was going to couchsurf with someone in a small town. I hitchhiked to get there, but was dropped off a few miles away. Again, I had my backpack with me, and again I wasn’t feeling well. That day was worse though. I knew that I was going to be sick. Still, when I was dropped off I was “simply” feeling light-headed. So I walked a few miles, met my couchsurfing host, helped him move furniture into the new house he’d bought (he didn’t know I was feeling ill), and then went to the bathroom, threw up (so weird to do this in the bathroom of a person you’ve only just met an hour before), and felt a little better, though very weak.  My immune system being down is probably what led to the cold/headache that lingered for the rest of my few days in Iceland.

Anyway, back to today’s “series of unfortunate events.” I decided to go to the old town, cross the Charles Bridge, see the Palace, and see whatever else along the way. I did enjoy myself; the whole area is very nice, but the problem is that it started to rain. Not just any rain. No. It started out as big, wet, splotches on your head. Quickly, it turned into a full blown thunderstorm. The heat had been swelling like a giant balloon, and it burst. I took shelter under an archway, but then decided to buy an umbrella because I wasn’t sure how long the rain would last. Lots of people were using umbrellas.

I don’t know about everyone else, but my umbrella broke within the first five minutes. The wind was way too strong for it. I got completely soaked. My bag got soaked, too, though I managed to find a small plastic bag to stick my phone, wallet, and passport into.

The heat that we’d just been wading through turned to a slight chill. The walk would normally have been wonderful, but my mind was partially on getting back to my dry clothes at the hostel.

Almost there, five minutes away, I came to one of those places where the pedestrian sidewalk ends, completely stranding you. There was no clear way to get to the other side of this huge road that I needed to cross. In the end, I went down some steps to the subway so that I could emerge from a different exit….which worked, but I slipped on the way down and landed heavily on my left side. I’d almost been expecting it to happen, the way the day was going.

Two guys immediately stopped to ask if I was okay, which was nice of them, but as those who know me well can tell you, when people ask me if I’m okay, I start to cry. I don’t know why. It just happens. I mean, I cry more easily than just about anyone else I know. I cry when I listen to beautiful songs. I cry when I read some of the news. I cry when I watch movies. I cry when I’m happy, when I’m sad…and definitely at the end of a long, lonely day. Luckily, I managed to keep the tears in (mostly), and luckily I wasn’t badly bruised and only ended up with a small scrape. We’ll see how I feel tomorrow.

As Annie (from the musical) says:

“When I’m stuck with a day that’s grey and lonely
I just stick up my chin and grin and say, oh

The sun will come out tomorrow
So you gotta hang on
’til tomorrow, come what may!
Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love ya, tomorrow
You’re only a day away!”

 

Celebrating a Birthday Abroad

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There are just about twenty minutes left of my birthday (at least, in this time zone), and it’s been a wonderful day so far. It started with a phone call from my husband, and then the friend I’m staying with in Dresden made a delicious breakfast for me which included heart-shaped cakes, fresh fruit, cereal,  porridge, and elderflower cordial.

birthday breakfast

After breakfast we went for a walk along the river Elbe, and I tried a new flavor of ice cream—woodruff (waldmeister in German). I’d recommend it, but I have no idea how to describe it other than it was green (my favorite color).

river Elbe

The walk took a few hours so we worked up an appetite for lunch, which we had at a small Indian restaurant. We each got a thali (several different dishes served with rice and naan), and I had a lassi (yogurt drink) with mango, orange, banana, and ginger. Ginger in lassi is amazing!

The funny thing is that I haven’t had much traditional German food yet, despite being in Germany…I still have more than a week here though, and am eager to try some German dishes soon.

After lunch I went for a solitary walk in the forest (how nice that you can walk into a forest from a city), and then came back to my friend’s place to spend a little time emailing, talking with my parents, doing logistical things, etc.

forest

Again it came time to eat, and after a quick dinner of leftovers my friend and I went out to a biergarten to have beer that’s from Dresden and to watch an episode of a German crime series (lots of people gather at the biergarten to watch it every Sunday evening). Crime series aren’t really my thing, but it’s sort of fascinating to see how much you can understand just from body language and context.

Now I’m back, ready to sleep, but wanting to share some writing with all of you after a while of not posting anything. As we say in my family, “no news is good news.” When I’m not writing much, please assume that it’s just because I’m having so much fun and am so busy meeting people and exploring that there’s simply no time to be sitting in front of a computer, typing.

Thanks to all of you who sent birthday wishes my way, and thanks to all of you who make this life a joy, and each new year something to cherish.

Love,

Mary