Round Up: Five Months in Europe

Seeing as I’ve been home for several months, it might be time to do a little round-up of my trip through Europe. Probably.

Spain

(Barcelona, Valencia, Alicante, Almería, Granada, Cádiz, Seville, Madrid)

How long? Four weeks.

Favorite Memory: The moment I discovered that space heaters underneath tall, round and tableclothed tables was a thing. My feet were overjoyed and warm.

Another Favorite Memory: Becoming best friends forever with my Couchsurfing hosts in Madrid. I love it when you just click with strangers.

Notable Blog Post: Photoessay: Carneval and Cádiz

If I could go back to Spain, I’d… see what Northern Spain is all about and embark on a Camino de Santiago.

My favorite photograph:When you're driving somewhere and the road is blocked... goat figure.

When you’re driving somewhere and the road is blocked… goat figure.

Ireland

(Dublin, Galway, Aran Islands)

How long? One week in Dublin, one day in Galway, two weeks on Inishmore.

Strangest Moment: Um, that moment I woke up and had a buzzcut? Or maybe the time I became best friends with a donkey. Or maybe the time a sheepdog actually guided me to one of the old forts on Inishmore, by leading the way. A lot of strange things happened in Ireland and I liked it.

Notable Blog Post: The Ridiculous Story of My Buzzcut

If I could go back to Ireland, I’d… just road trip around the entire coastline, since I’m obsessed with coastlines and rock beaches, and then end with some time in Belfast and Northern Ireland.

My favorite photograph:

UK

(London)

How long? Four days.

Favorite Place: I really loved the cafe at the top of Tate Modern Museum (and the Afternoon Tea that came with it!).

Notable Blog Post: On Falling in Love With London

If I could go back to the UK, I’d… probably still spend the entire time in London despite any efforts not to.

My favorite photograph:
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France

(Paris)

How long? Four days.

Favorite Memory: My friend and I snuck into a long-term Catholic hostel, stealthily climbed five or six flights of stairs and sat on the roof. We watched the sun set over the city and Eiffel Tower. Fo free ninety nine.

Notable Blog Post: Photoessay: Paris in Spring

If I could go back to France, I’d… not have a fever and maybe budget a million times more money so I could enjoy all those expensive things the city has to offer.

My favorite photograph:Poor Oscar Wilde.

Poor Oscar Wilde.

Germany

(Berlin, Dresden, Halle an der Saale, Leipzig, Munich, Nuremberg, Weimar, Munich)

How long? A week in February, three weeks in April, one week in July.

Strangest Moment: Seeing my mom speak German was pretty strange. Seeing my dad jump on a street car. Basically just the whole thing with my parents being expats was strange at first. (Now it’s gloriously wonderful!)

Notable Blog Post: True Life: My Parents Are Expats

If I could go back to Germany, I’d… I AM! Over Christmas. Bring on the frozen cobblestone streets. I plan to wear a lot of scarves. It just feels kind of German to me.

Also: One of the most interesting tours I’ve ever taken happened in Nuremberg. I toured the secret tunnels underneath the castle walls, where soldiers hid out in case of attack, and as a bonus to my pride, understood the entirely-in-German tour.

My favorite photograph:
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Poland

(Szczecin)

How long? One glorious, pierogi-filled weekend.

Favorite Food: Pierogis.

Second-favorite Food: Umm… Pierogies.

My favorite photograph:
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Switzerland

(Geneva, Lucerne, Basil, Brienz, Interlaken, Thun)

How long? One week.

My favorite photograph:
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Austria

(Graz, Bad Radkersburg)

How long? Not nearly enough. One week.

Favorite Memory: All of the old friends I was reunited with and the hugs that came with them. I know those are technically multiple memories. But they all lump together into a big happy feeling for me.

Notable Blog Post: My Austrian Homecoming

If I could go back to Austria, I’d… stay there longer.

Also: If you get the chance, go to the Zotter Museum outside of Graz. Best. (Most Chocolaty.) Tour. Ever.

My favorite photograph:
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Croatia

(Zagred, Zadar, Split, Dubrovnik)

How long? Ten days.

Favorite Place: A certain beach on the island of Hvar, between Split and Dubrovnik, comes to mind. I biked down the coast and found a beautiful, quiet place to lay out by myself and fall asleep to the sound of waves rushing over the rocks.

Notable Blog Post: Photoessay: Ugly Beautiful Zagreb

If I could go back to Croatia, I’d… pick an island and stay there for a while. And eat less pizza. I ate way too much pizza.

Also: When I got off the bus to Dubrovnik, I listened to the first old man trying to sell me accommodation and got into his car to see the rooms. They were perfect. I ended up staying another two nights, making friends and enjoying the incredibly beautiful back patio area when I wasn’t in the city. Trust.

My favorite photograph:
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Montenegro

(Budva)

How long? One limp-tastic day. (Got sea urchin in my foot while swimming in Dubrovnik.)

Strangest Moment: Relying on a German guy I’d just met to help me limp to and from the restaurant. He told me about the time he biked from Germany to India. It was strange in a cool way.

If I could go back to Montenegro, I’d… visit Kotor. We drove through it on the way to Budva and it looked breathtakingly beautiful.

My favorite photograph:
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Albania

(Tirana, Saranda, Girocaster, Dürres)

How long? One month.

Favorite Memory: It took me a while to get used to the cold water (which warmed up later in the season and wasn’t actually that cold, I’m a wimp) but once I did, swimming in the ocean felt amazing, especially once I built up a little strength and could stay out for a while.

Notable Blog Post: Photoessay: Albania Blooms

If I could go back to Albania, I’d… try to volunteer somewhere. I’d love to hang with Albanians more.

My favorite photograph:
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Italy

(Bari, Rome)

How long? Barely a day in Bari, five days in Rome.

Favorite Food: Gelato. I was skeptical of everyone saying the gelato in Italy was soooo good, but my first cone turned me into a believer.

Notable Blog Post: iPhone Photoessay: Giovanni’s Mother’s Cooking

If I could go back to Italy, I’d… take my time seeing more cities and spend time in the heel and the toe.

My favorite photograph:

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Whatcha think?

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Photoessay: A Day in Bray

I haven’t written about it yet, but I didn’t really enjoy Dublin, Ireland very much. So one beautiful day I decided that instead of commuting north into the downtown again, I’d instead head south and see what the ocean side had to offer. After all, people don’t travel to Ireland to see Trinity College once and then head home. They come for the green. So 13 miles down the coast from Dublin, I traveled, looking for some green.

My oh my, what I found exceeded my expectations. Not so much the green, but the way the green contrasted with everything around it. It seemed almost neon. And the small mountain the lay south of Bray bordered right up against the ocean, and included what I later learned was the most expensive-to-maintain stretch of railroad tracks in Ireland and is still used to this day. The views are probably incredible on that train, judging from my own incredible views a few feet above.

Near that railroad track, winding its own way around the mountain, is a six kilometer stretch of trail that reaches the next nearest town, Greystones. The stretch of trail overlooks the ocean for its entirety and I felt jealous of the joggers and runners I saw along the way; they would be able to complete and see the entire stretch today, while I could only walk part before it was time to go home.

In the end, it was a wonderful day in Bray.

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Have you ever visited Bray or rode down this stretch of the railway? What did you think? Would you ever run this trail?

You can also find me on the ABOFA Facebook Page or subscribe to the email list, if you’d like.

Photoessay: Animals of the Aran Islands

One of my favorite things about visiting the Aran Islands in Ireland and staying for two weeks on Inishmoor, the largest island, was 100 million percent the animals all around me. I love animals, just because, and since I’ve had my fancy-schmancy DSLR camera I’ve also had a blast photographing animals as well. They’re a challenge. And they’re kinda cute, too. The perfect combination.

I’ve also never seen so many different colored cows on one tiny island in my entire life. It was pure aesthetic bliss, they contrasted so strongly with the bright green landscape and grey rock walls all around them. Perfection. Aside from just the cows, I saw horses, chickens, cats, dogs, donkeys, mules, horses… when it comes to farm animals, you name it and it was there. And taking pictures of it was so awesome, I had to make a photoessay. And then captions of what these animals were thinking at the time. I’m a little strange and I know it, it’s fine, continue on now!

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“I’ve never had my photograph taken while I’m eating, this is new.”

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“I think someone might be there but whatever, I’m too cool to care.”

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“WHO ARE YOU?” Cow behind him: “WHO IS SHE?”

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“If you don’t finish this picture in the next ten seconds, I’m moving.”

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“Love me. Pet me. Where is the food?”

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“What, you think you’re the first person to take pictures of me? Hah! I’m hot shit. Everyone does it.”

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“I’m a seal and I don’t give a fuck.”

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“Thanks for not making me get up for that shot.”

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“You should see me when I’m showered, you know. I’m gorgeous.”

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“Come any closer to me and I’ll… move away.”

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“Indeed, I’m a horse with a mustache. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

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“Take one step closer to my baby and I’ll ram you with my head, ya jerk.”

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“My house. My car. And you’re one step away from trespassing.”

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“Humans. So predictable.”

And the grand finale….

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Which animal is your favorite? Are you also obsessed with photographing animals or other weird things?

You can also find me on the ABOFA Facebook Page, Twitter, Instagram or subscribe to the email list, if you’d like.

The Ridiculous Story of My Buzzcut

If you follow me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, you may have noticed a little change to my look in the last month. And by little, I mean drastic, and by change, I am referring to my haircut. Normally I wouldn’t talk about something as simple as a haircut, but this haircut happens to come with a hilarious story. A story that’s begging to be told.

I (quite ineffectively) let the secret out first on Instagram, when I had less than five followers:

But, Why?

Sometime in Madrid, I woke up wishing I had no hair. I’ve always had a little desire in the back of my head, a voice that said “Someday, I’m going to chop all of my hair off.” And I woke up in Madrid realizing that the day had finally come, and if I really wanted to cut off all of my hair, this trip was the time to do it. Instead of simply a someday desire, I now had a full-fledged drive. Suddenly my hair wasn’t just there, it was annoying. It was a burden. I woke up thinking get it off my head.

But I’m on a budget, and I couldn’t justify paying $20 for someone to run buzz clippers over my scalp, when I could probably find someone who owned hair clippers and do it myself. My flight out of Madrid came and I found myself in Dublin for a week, as annoyed with having hair on my head as ever. The week passed quickly, and finally I made my way west to the Aran Islands to work at a hostel for two weeks. I made friends. And I knew the time had finally come, when someone knew someone who had hair clippers and agreed to let me use them.

The Story

I’m not sure why the whole thing got so hyped up, but my boss at the hostel started telling everyone that I was going to shave my head, and I gained an audience of people from all over the world, asking when I was going to cut my hair. One of my friends made a Facebook event, and we decided to do the deed at night, in the Irish pub next door, because the bartender on Mondays wouldn’t care about some random girl getting her hair shaved off while she was working. One of my friends decided to conduct interviews and make a mini documentary, just for fun. (She’s into film making.) Some of the guests at the hostel decided to come along for the show. That night, some 15 people walked into the bar to see me cut off my hair.

Apparently, it was a big deal.

“No, don’t do it! You’re beautiful!”

“But… why?”

“Don’t do it. No, don’t do it. Don’t cut your hair, it looks good already!”

It seemed like everyone had an opinion about me getting a haircut. Even the guy renting bikes out to tourists. Especially my two brothers, who’d been both angry and annoyed that I would change my hairstyle. I was a little baffled, considering that it’s just hair and it’s also my hair, but my support in the endeavor was small. Me being me, I didn’t really care what anyone thought the best length of my hair was. I wasn’t trying to be beautiful, I wasn’t trying to look good. I just really didn’t want hair anymore.

Some people didn't react so well to the news...
Some people didn’t react so well to the news… but they got over it.

So sitting on a stool in the middle of an island Irish pub, I let a random French guy use his knife to cut off a big chunk of my hair and then hold it up to his face like a mustache.

 

The first cut.
The first cut.

Everyone took turns with the machine. Some people were rough, almost pulling the hair out of my scalp, other people could have been scratching my head for all I noticed. Piece by piece, big chunks of brown hair fell onto the pub floor as the local Irish people looked around in curiosity at the strange party. I sipped a Guinness while my hairdresser became someone else, having to be careful to avoid getting pieces of hair in my drink. I wasn’t completely successful with that, unfortunately, but there’s only so much one can do when you mix haircuts and the bar, eh?

Eventually everyone had their turn and my patchily buzz-cutted head was turned over to a different French guy. He told me that he cuts his friends’ hair when they ask him to, which officially qualified him as a professional among the other slightly tipsy guests at the pub. Taking off the plastic guard for the clippers, he sculpted my fuzz-head into an actual style, short on the neck and near the ears. It didn’t look half-bad for a haircut a bunch of slightly drunk people gave me in the middle of an Irish pub. Several people commented that I looked like Sinead O’Connor and that short hair looked really good on me; these were unsurprisingly often the same people who said “Noooooo!!! Don’t!!!” just a few days and hours earlier. The filming came to an end with a few final interviews and we enjoyed a little encore: one German guy ended the night with a ridiculous haircut and eventually had to shave his entire head to the scalp just to look normal again.

(That’s what happens when you mix alcohol and hair clippers in Ireland.)

And best of all, I finally did what I always wanted to do. I cut all of my hair off. I even have a ridiculous, ridiculous story to go with it.

How Does It Feel?

At first it felt weird. I didn’t recognize my reflection in the mirror. At times I still run my hand over my hair and wonder where it all went. Before bed, I kept trying to pull out an imaginary ponytail and finding nothing there to take out. I suddenly had nothing to do in the shower, anymore, since washing took so little time. A few people looked at me strange, but for a little while I did look like a dandelion running around in clothing.

Now? I picture myself with short hair. I’m excited to try new short-haired styles when it grows out a little more. I can’t say I’m entirely happy with my short-haired-styles thus far (see above re: dandelions) but I am glad that I cut it. I’m confident that it’ll settle in, and I’ve now let a friend of mine (who actually cuts hair) style it into something that’ll grow out well. Based on my shower times and how little my hair gets in my mouth, which is never, I’m not sure if long hair is in my immediate future again.

I’m not “pretty” like I used to be. But that was never the goal. I just wanted to follow through on something I’ve always wanted to do someday, and took the plunge to make it happen, awkward growth stages and all. And for that, I’m happy.

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Note: The video my friend filmed is still being edited, and it’ll take quite some time. When it’s done I’ll definitely share!

Have you ever had your hair buzzed off by half drunk people in an Irish pub too? Do you think I’m crazy? (It’s okay if you do!) Do I look like a dandelion or a more like cotton ball head in that one picture? When are you cutting your hair?

You can find me on the ABOFA Facebook Page, on Twitter & Instagram or you can subscribe to the email list, if you’d like.

The Aran Islands: One Day Isn’t Enough

In March, I flew from Spain to Ireland with two main goals in mind: experience St. Paddy’s Day in Dublin and settle down for some peace and quiet. Through one of the work-for-accommodation websites, I found a promising job: working in a hostel on the Aran Islands. Set up for two weeks, I arrived to peaceful Inishmore, the largest of the three islands, and picked out my bunk bed for the next two weeks.

Wikipedia’s beautiful map of the Aran Islands.

Now, most people who visit the Aran Islands arrive on the early ferry around 10 am to the island and leave again at 5 pm. When the boat lands on shore, groups of young people pour out onto the dock and most head directly to the bike rental place next door. For two hours the roads are filled with tourists, all heading the same direction, towards the old stone fort of Dun Aengus. And by the end of the day they’re gone. They’ve “done” the Aran Islands. Saw what needed to be seen. Time to move on.

Having been there for two weeks and not even setting foot the other two islands, I find it truly hard to believe one day could be enough.

Why?

A million reasons. Two million reasons! Soooo many reasons.

Six Other Forts

Dun Aengus is a really cool fort. It’s big, it’s set on a breathtaking part of the coast and it’s SUPER old, as in before-Jesus old, and some of that stuff (like the outer defensive rocks) is still standing. But did you know that the Aran Islands actually contain seven forts overall? They are less popular and don’t have visitors centers and tourist infrastructure set up already, so when you head there it’s like your own private hike and treasure hunt. Four are on the main island of Inishmore, two on Inishmaan and one on the smallest island, Inisheer. While the forts are all similar in construction (round and made out of rocks), they’re in a few pretty cool locations. In my opinion, the landscape around them is the biggest reason for you to go take a look, in particular the cliffs near the Black Fort. Breathtaking, people.

Watching the sunset from the Black Fort.
Watching the sunset from the Black Fort.

Crazy Beautiful Cliffs

Speaking of landscape, let’s talk about cliffs on the Aran Islands. Unlike the Cliffs of Moher, the striking ocean cliffs on the islands are all free to look at and without barriers (aside from those that are part of Dun Aengus), so you can really feel the reality that if you just walked three more steps, you would be dead. (Please, no one do that.) There is no feeling in the world that can compare to being surrounded by silence and listening to the ocean beat against the huge stone walls while you look down from above. You could spend several hours working your way down the coastline, contemplating your own life, and not tire of the landscape.

Nature's orchestra. #Ireland #AranIslands

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The Seals

The Aran Islands have seals! And they aren’t always out to play. You have to be lucky to see them lying out on the rocks, sunning themselves, and if you’re only around for the day, then you’re likely to miss them. Heck, I have friends that tried three times to see the seals and still weren’t lucky.

Nightlife With The Locals

I can’t really guarantee that locals will talk to you (unless you’re an attractive female, then I just can’t guarantee that you’ll like it). But if you’re in the right place at the right time, AKA in the right Irish pub with the right drunk people, then you’ll have nothing but a blast. There is no culture like the Irish pub culture, and the Aran Islands are one of the most authentically local places to do it. Maybe you’ll end up with some new Irish phrases under your belt, as nearly everyone speaks Gaelic.

I didn't have any photos of locals from my stay, so this picture of some German dudes will have to suffice.
I didn’t have any photos of locals from my stay, so this blurry picture of some German dudes will have to suffice. The one guy had been to the Aran Islands three times already, so that totally counts. Right?

It’ll Probably Rain

Okay, so this is a bit of a downer, but let’s face reality: you’re in Ireland. It’s probably going to rain several times while you’re there. And if you plan out your trip to the Aran Islands and it rotates upon a single day when you can explore, you could be rained out and be one sad puppy. It’s best to plan for a few days and then an afternoon of rain (or two) won’t ruin anything.

Cows Galore

I’m kind of a cow freak, and I know it, so the Aran Islands were a little slice of paradise. Cows are everywhere, of all different colors, of all different ages, and you can often get pretty close to some of them and really gaze into their big ol’ eyes and then take pictures. Some of them have adorable tufts of hair on top of their head. Some of them might be walking down the street with you. Lots of them have babies. If you like cows, you’ll love the Aran Islands, and I haven’t even touched upon the chickens, goats, horses, ponies, donkeys and other assorted animal life all around you. And let’s face it: one day with cows everywhere is just several days too few!

Cow butt! Happy day!
Cow butt! Happy day!

Hidden Old Ruins

In addition to the super old forts, there are also several church ruins that you can find scattered across the island, along with graveyards and a few informative signs posted if you’re lucky. The tourist office can tell you where to find them, or you could just take your bike. head out and see what you run into. I personally have a fixation with graveyards and love looking at all of the different headstones used around the world, and stumbled upon the ruins of a 6th century monastery while I was walking around one. Pretty cool.

Peace and Quiet

Why do you go to Ireland? For nature. (Okay, and Guinness.) Why do we seek out nature? Because it gives us a little respite from the busy world around us. If you want to find that on the Aran Islands, especially during the busy summertime, you need to stay over for a few days and use those early morning times (before the first ferry arrives full of people) to take a walk and breath in the fresh air. When you’re busy doing your day trip from fort to old church to lunch and back in time for the ferry, you’re not able to sit back and really relax, listen to the ocean and enjoy everything the Aran Islands has to offer.

No, I didn't make this picture up. This is real.
No, I didn’t make this picture up. This is real.

What do you think, have you ever been to the Aran Islands? How long would you stay?

You can also find me on the ABOFA Facebook Page or subscribe to the email list, if you’d like.

Searching For My People

Friendship is a fickle beast. One day you’re laughing hysterically, trying to catch your breath and the next thing you know, your friend asks you “how’s work?” and the only thing you can think to say is “good.” Other times you grow up together, attending mutual engagements but keeping your distance, and then a weird circumstance comes out of nowhere, pushing you two together (sometimes with a little alcohol) and it’s like new, vibrant people emerge from your previously static selves. And then sometimes, you meet someone, and it’s like putting on a warm, fuzzy pair of socks. It just fits. (And then your toes are warm, too!)

Over the years, I’ve often found that “my people” are almost always a bunch of dudes. I’ve always been the “cool girl”, the one who rolls with the guys and doesn’t make anyone wait for her to finish straightening her hair before we go out. It helps that my hair is naturally straight of course, but my gang of guys doesn’t usually last. Guys fall in love with me, I fall in love with a guy, we move to different places and it’s not so easy to just hang out (God forbid people put forth effort to meet up!) or any other myriad of circumstances often pull apart my group of friends within a year or so. I keep in touch with the occasional guy friend, but it’s not uncommon that the one-on-one contact throws off the friendship and it doesn’t feel the same. I can count the number of good guy friends I have to this day on one hand, but I can’t say the same for the number of male friend groups I’ve been a part of and fallen away from, eventually. I found the people I was most comfortable with just as quickly as I lost them, time and again.

My original (and forever) crew of dudes: my brothers.
My original (and forever) crew of dudes: my brothers.

In college, I really wanted to break that cycle. So I did what any sane, down to earth “cool girl” would do.

I joined a sorority.

Yep, one of those Greek organizations that stars in all of the USA college movies, the ones that get hammered in three story houses with balconies. I wore the letters. I did the chants. I even did the Halloween frat parties, although I dressed up as a “tree” on at least two occasions by wearing a green shirt, so clearly I wasn’t that into it. And, maybe to your surprise, I even had blonde hair. I was looking for my people.

You probably didn't see that coming.
You probably didn’t see that coming.
Alternative Caption: Pics or it didn’t happen!

And as is inevitable in a group of 60+ girls, I did find a few. We had a warm fuzzy socks kind of connection, we laughed, we lived together and spent a lot of evenings on the front porch with glasses of wine, talking about what we wanted from life one day. They were there for me when my heart broke and when I, more often, broke hearts and felt terribly guilty for it. They were there when I accepted my job in South Korea, I was there when they made plans to move across the country or into a different apartment for their final year of school. And on graduation day, I would have sworn we were inseparable. But the thing about fuzzy slipper socks is that they slip off just as easily as they slip on, and when they come off, your feet feel really really cold.

Two years later, the periphery best friends, the people I wish I could have spent more time with (but didn’t, because I was with my main ladies at the time) are the people that ended up sticking around. I thought I’d found my people in the sorority and I was right, but I just wasn’t right about who those people were. But just because I’d found friendships I could depend on and hold onto, doesn’t mean I actually had someone to hang out with on a Friday night. I was in South Korea. And in South Korea, I was looking for more of my people.

But they never came.

This is what causes me to hesitate when someone asks if I loved living in South Korea. This is why when you ask, “How was it?” I say “It was great!” or “It was an awesome experience,” instead of gushing on about how much I loved living there and can’t wait to go back. Because what I had hoped for, people I clicked with, never came. Old teachers left, new people arrived and yet I felt, to put it simply, friendless. I had friends and people to hang out with, don’t get me wrong, but it didn’t feel quite as natural or deep as friendships I’d had before. I met some Korean girls that I got along with, but it was nothing like my friendships in the States and definitely nothing like my gangs of guys. After a while I began to forget what that instantaneous feeling was. I knew my friendships weren’t up to par with a “war council,” but for the life of me I couldn’t imagine what that would be like, anyways. It had been too long. When I left Korea, I knew that as wonderful as my memories with friends were, I’d come out empty in my search for my people.

I offered him a place as my bestie, but it just didn't work out.
I offered him a place as my bestie, but it just didn’t work out.

A month at home, and spending time with those who used to be in the periphery but had now come center stage, confirmed that feeling. I then made it a priority to find some damn friends. So I put in the effort to meet other travel bloggers, starting with two lovely ladies in Pittsburgh. We were only able to meet once, but I’m fond of them, and more than anything else, it confirmed that I need to get out there and start meeting more of the people I converse with on Twitter. Nobody knock Internet friends, because they’re some of the best people I know.

A month in Spain. Couchsurfing, traveling and generally just meeting a shit-ton of people has been better for me than I would have ever imagined. It all started with Linda, whom I met on a tourist bus in Barcelona. We shared headphone jacks (her side was broken) and I was intrigued by her story, since you don’t see a ton of over-40 travelers who are interested in doing the same kind of things I am. We both do photography, we both wanted potatoes without the sauce, and she’s the kind of dreamer who’ll ask me to film her advertisement video pitch at a random ATM machine in the middle of a mall. As the trip went on, I met more and more people with whom I got along easily. I got to meet Olivia from Halfway Somewhere while in Madrid and we talked a ton about travel (surprise!), a subject many of my friends aren’t able to broach. Old friendships sprung back to life as strongly as they ever were, new people made me erupt with laughter within minutes of meeting them. Not all of my new friendships are people I’ll make the effort to stay in touch with forever, but some of them are. Somewhere along the way, while in Spain, I’d met more of my people. And now I can remember exactly what it feels like.

Getting along with people right away + food = a beautiful thing.
Getting along with people right away + food = a beautiful thing.

I’ve now spent a week in Dublin, Ireland and made my way West to the Aran Islands, where I’ll be working in a hostel for two weeks. When I first arrived yesterday, I was led up to a room where I met my roommates, two Spanish girls from Barcelona. Immediately we hit it off and the more that my true self comes out (read: WEIRD), the better we get along. Later, I met a guy from South Korea and we lamented over how much we missed Korean food, mostly bulgogi and pat bingsu. A coworker from France has offered up her time to teach me French pronunciation while I’m here. There were even several guests from Germany staying as guests that first night and we got to talk both in English and in German about tons of topics under the sun. We imbibed and danced and laughed, all of us together, and today I was able to share mate with two Argentines and other friends, an activity I adored while in Argentina. I’ve been here for 24 hours and I haven’t just found some of my people, I might have found an entire youth hostel of them.

While no one can say what friendships will last or not, I’m resting easily knowing that the people I’ve met here so far are fantastic and I’ve never fit in better. But when my two weeks inevitably comes to an end on these gorgeous islands (well, gorgeous when it’s not raining, but that’s Ireland for you!) I’ll be walking away with not just incredible friendships and hopefully some badass French pronunciation skills, but maybe someone I can say belongs on my war council. And at least for now, I’ve found my people.

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Finally Nailed Down, Travel Plans for 2014

Planning next year has been a long and drawn out affair. I’ve cycled through probably a hundred different ideas. I’ve researched and contacted people in areas where I wanted to go, asked about opportunities galore and looked up flight costs and cost-per-day averages and border crossings and visa restrictions in what feels like half the world. And then I’d fink out on my plans or stumble onto something else amazing, and change my mind. And then I did it all over again.

It’s now less than a week until Christmas and less than two weeks away from the new year, but finally, FINALLY, I’ve figured it out. And booked the flight. And I feel so relieved and happy and excited, because this time, my plans fit like a glove and I don’t have a gut feeling holding me back on a single thing.

Before I reveal anything, let’s take a moment to mourn my discarded travel plans that weren’t able to come to life, at least not yet.

RIP

Backpack & Volunteer Around Mexico

This was plan numero uno, and after plenty of research, I came up with very little to actually do in Mexico. Well, there was one place on the West coast where I could work at an orphanage, and there were about a million opportunities in the city of Oaxaca, but the in-between was dark and unpromising, volunteer-project-wise. I’m sure more opportunities would have opened up once I got on the ground, but then idea numero dos popped up.

Backpack & Volunteer From Costa Rica to Mexico

I was alerted that an old family friend worked for an NGO in Nicaragua. Perfect, an in with a reputable place to volunteer. I also thought about the weather and that it would be a good idea to follow the warmth, so to say, and start South, instead, ending in Mexico during the summer months. My biggest dilemma in planning this was just how much I wanted to see in merely 8 weeks. Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Belize AND Mexico? That’s only one week, per country. Impossible. And for some reason, I just had a weird feeling that kept stopping me from booking my flights.

Sad but true: no Costa Rican monkeys for me, this February.
Sad but true: no Costa Rican monkeys for me, this February.

Volunteer in Tanzania

Then I found a really cool volunteer project that was both local, cheap-ish and had a wide range of really inspiring projects I could work in. This plan died when I looked up how much all the vaccinations and visa costs were, though. I’d still love to volunteer and spend some time in Africa, but I need more than a month to get my ducks in a row, first. This is on my radar for the distant future. I’m 100% sure that at some point, Sally in Africa will happen.

Backpack The Balkans

I’ve always wanted to head through Eastern Europe, and with my parents relocating to an area near Berlin, the timing seemed perfect. The only thing about that same timing, though, is that I only have 10-11 weeks to do this and almost twice as many countries I want to visit. And if you know me, then you know that I can’t stand rushing from one place to the next. But deadlines are deadlines, and I need to be in Germany in April and the USA in July for some non-negotiable events; that’s just how the cookie/my Balkan-backpacking plans crumble into little tiny dead pieces.

So… what have I decided?

Did you catch what I just mentioned about Germany in April? (Now you did!) My parents are relocating to Germany for my dad’s work. So to figure out my plans once and for all, I went back to basics. I want to practice my Spanish. I don’t want to spend a million dollars on flights; I want to be closer to where I need to be for those big fixed events. Which led me to the conclusion that at the beginning of February, I should get on a plane headed for:

Just gonna torture you with this unrelated photograph. (Or is it?!)
Just gonna torture you with this unrelated photograph. (Or is it?!)

Germany!

Only long enough to settle my junk into my dad’s nice new place (he’ll arrive before me, my mom will arrive later), because booking round trip tickets is a lot less of a headache than two one-way. As soon as any jet lag has passed and I’ve had a dark beer and some bretzel, then I’ll be taking a train to:

Spain!

I’m sure you figured that out, right? Where else in Europe can I practice my Spanish? I have about two months before my mom arrives in Germany and I want to be there to help her settle in. So I’ll be… around Spain. I haven’t made those plans very well yet. But I’d like to spend the majority of my time outside of the city, as living in rural Korea has turned me into a little bit of a country girl. On my way back to Germany at the end of my two months, I want to make a stop in:

[February 2014 edit: These plans have already changed again! I’ll be spending only one month in Spain and then heading outside of the Schengen Visa Zone to Ireland and the UK for another month.]

Paris, France!

How could I not? If I had another two months on my Schengen visa then I’d spend it exploring France, as well. Unfortunately I have to choose, so I’ll just spend a few days in the big city, take a picture of the Eiffel Tower and get even fatter than I already will be from eating tapas all day. Solid plan, I know.

Back in Germany…

I get to watch the shock on my mother’s face as she discovers all of these things about Germans are actually true. And pressure her into eating deli meat before 10am. I’ll probably just be doing a lot of boring things like visiting the post office and mapping the way to the local train station, but because it’ll be with my mom, in Germany, it’ll be kind of fun. I’ll also get a taste rural German life, because my parents will be living out in the countryside, thanks to my dad’s work.

Oh, and I’ll say hi to some friends along the way (Vienna, anyone?), but before long I need to head out to my next destination:

Parry wants to know... is this suspense killing you?
Parry wants to know… is this suspense killing you?

Somewhere in Eastern Europe

So vague, I know. Basically I want to be outside of the Schengen zone and not moving around too much, but still in a good place to take some two- or three-day trips. Bosnia, Serbia or Romania are all good contenders at the moment. We shall see! My trip will come to a close at the end of June, I’ll fly back to the USA for a wedding the second week of July, and from there, it looks like a return to Korea is in my future. (But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, planning until July is good enough for me!)

Wait, so… what will I be doing exactly?

Other than eating everything I can stuff in my face? Brushing up on that Spanish that I’ve let deteriorate a little too much. I’d also like to volunteer and maybe also work for accommodation, so I won’t say a WWOOF is out of the question. I would love to make some new friends, using Couchsurfing. And perhaps even run into an old friend or two, reunion-style. Whatever I end up doing, I don’t want to be living with my face in a Lonely Planet book. Sightseeing is great, visiting new cities is great, but I’m interested in a more culturally involved experience. Where will that take me? Well, who knows.

If I could know, maybe I wouldn’t want to find out. It’s the journey, right?

And perhaps part of the journey will involve wild goats. That would be nice.
And perhaps part of the journey will involve wild goats. That would be nice.

How You Can Help

Seeing as I haven’t planned out my time in Spain or Eastern Europe yet, any knowledgeable input would be really appreciated. I can use all the info you can throw at me!

What do you suggest I see while I’m in Spain? Do you know of any volunteering opportunities that I could be a part of?

What’s a good base in Eastern Europe that you would recommend? What was your favorite country, there? How about volunteer projects in the area?

Trip insurance suggestions?

If you can’t tell, folks, I’m excited! And so glad that this plan is complete and set in plane-ticket stone; it’s a huge weight off my shoulders to have this settled so I can sit back and relax this holiday season.

So with that, I wish you guys a wonderful end of the year full of cookies, happy memories, things with bright lights all over them and as many laughs as your diaphragm can stand. I know I’ll be doing the same.

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