A Whole30 Experience

I’m one of those people that dives more or less headfirst into things I don’t actually know how to do. So when my friend asked me if I would do a “diet” with her called the Whole30, I said yes with very little hesitation or actual background research on what I’d just committed to. I use the word “diet” very loosely, since I was (technically) allowed to eat unlimited amounts of bacon and avocados. I call it a “food thing”.

So what exactly was this food thing?

  • No added sugar (of any kind).
  • No dairy.
  • No grains (even gluten-free ones).
  • No legumes (or peanuts, because they act like legumes).
  • No alcohol.

Woof. People looked at me like I was crazy. “So you just eat vegetables?” Um, also meat, fruit, fish, some oils and nuts. But yes, lots of vegetables. I’ve been a vegetable-lover for years, though, so I was on-board with upping my intake of green (and red and yellow and orange) things. The goal of Whole30 is to eat only those good foods for 30 days, detox your body of all the inflammation and bad-news-bears (insulin spikes, unhealthy gut bacteria) those foods cause, and then slowly reintroduce them later to see how each one feels in your system.

It was kind of brutal, at first. I learned of something very, very unfortunate.

Yes, you can be hungover from not eating sugar and grains. It was horrible. It was several days of horrible. It was constant headaches and an upset stomach and… some other things I won’t describe for you. (You’re welcome.) And then came the angry days… I was mad at everyone and everything. Thankfully I was also happy, because I’d started a new, awesome job which balanced it out a little. But also really pissed off by everything for a solid 36 hours straight, and then some. Somewhere in there, I also became lethargic.

My runs got shorter, slower and more painful. I felt like a big old blob of nothing. If my neighbor had been offering me a delicious muffin, I wouldn’t have had the energy to walk across the street and get it. Just living life was a pretty tall order, for a few days. I had vivid dreams, or maybe they were nightmares, that I’d accidentally broken the rules and slurped down an entire Diet Pepsi before realizing it wasn’t Whole30-approved. Every time I walked past a cupcake, experienced a short bit of that rage coming back. I kept on walking.

But there was so much awesome yet to come.

Like so, so, so many sweet potatoes.

My energy levels began to level out and I didn’t have that mid-day slump that’s always been a killer. I slept like a rock, consistently. I became significantly less bloated and lost some love handles I didn’t realize I had. I was able to run again and tackle those longer miles, and my knees didn’t bother me as much. I obsessively read every food label and for the first time ever, realized just how much added sugar is tucked into the simplest of foods. (Like breakfast sausage. Rage!) I saved a ton of money because eating in restaurants was a special kind of hell.

But none of that really compared to the biggest benefit of all:

I learned how to cook so many things.

Spiced sweet potato "latkes" and bacon. I am in heaven.

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Together with my friend, we got together at least weekly in her fancy-schmancy kitchen (it’s beautiful) and planned meals for the week. We crock-potted. We sauteed. We baked. We chopped. We spiralized. We took recipes from the internet, altered them, and over and over again ended up with an incredible dish (or 6, we cooked in bulk). I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much time in a kitchen nor tried out so many new recipes in such a short amount of time. And I’ve definitely never had so much success doing it. By the end of the month, we could prepare and cook two separate family-style dishes in a matter of a few hours, plus a small dinner.

I learned how to cut butternut squash, sear different types of beef, that salt and baking soda react with each other, what thyme tastes like, that guacamole is delicious (refresher), how to poach an egg and how to cook the perfect sweet potato. I ate kale. I discovered cashew butter. I revoked my analysis of celery as a sub-par vegetable, because it’s actually the perfect vehicle for eating cashew butter, which redeems it entirely. I know just how much of a very tiny, very spicy red pepper will turn my face into fire and you might as well call me Queen Zucchini, because I can cook the shit out of that vegetable and you will like it.

You will.

Spoiler alert: it takes very little.
Spoiler alert: it takes very little.

It was a hard 30 days for me and an even tougher time for my friend, who dealt not just with a death in the family but a friend’s wedding. (Are you impressed? Because I’m impressed. I’d have stuffed my face with approximately 25 brownies if I were her.) But both of us pulled through the thirty days, successful, triumphant and seriously ready for some freaking pizza. (Which we both ate shortly thereafter and had horrible stomachaches from, but it was kind of worth it.)

The website says that a Whole30 will change your life. Did it?

Yeah, it kind of did.

I’ll never cook the same. I didn’t miss cheese, which shocked even myself, so I probably won’t eat cheese anymore. I’ve had my eyes opened to some incredible foods I didn’t even know existed, like cashew butter. (Mostly cashew butter.) And I’ll never pick up a package of food again without scoping out the ingredients and seeing if there’s any secretly-added sugar. That stuff is in literally everything, it’s absurd, and there’s no one you could ask who wouldn’t agree that excess sugar wreaks some havoc on your body.

I ain’t about that.

But will it change the way I eat when I travel? Doubtful. I’ll be in Germany over Christmas (travel plans!) and there’s no way I’ll be turning down delicious, German food because it’s not that good for me. Puh-lease. I ain’t about that, either.

So yeah, in the meantime, I’ll be perfecting my sauteed zucchini. And looking forward to that currywurst waiting for me across the ocean.

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Have you ever done a “food thing”? Did it change your life? How great are sweet potatoes? And how great is currywurst?

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Instagrams of a Recovering Expat

No one comes back to their hometown from extended amounts of time overseas and feels immediately at home, or even like they fit in. I’m in my third month of living in the USA and sometimes I still feel like a weird outsider intruding on someone else’s world. But I’ve had to cope somehow, or else abandon my sanity, which doesn’t sound like a great idea. So I’m coping. (Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to be where I am and working the job I have and in this position. But drastic transitions can be rough, dude!)

How? By surrounding myself with all those things I missed while I was abroad and just love to do, in general.

Like drip coffee and sitting in coffee shops for hours.

Like at-home cooking (in a full kitchen!) and farmer’s market finds.

Like arts and crafts and knitting scarves while listening to Beyonce.

Like dogs. So many dogs. All the dogs.

Dog versus lizard over here, ya'll. #dog #pug #puppy #toy #usa #pittsburgh #domestic #cute #ugly #play #datface

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#westvirginia #dog #portrait #cabin #oglebay #usa #familyreunion #puppy #lookforthelight #indoor #pets

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The ugliest dog in the world. // #englishbulldog #bulldog #dog #winston #ugly #animals #pets #usa #pennsylvania #pittsburgh

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Like running everyday.

Like hanging with friends I’ve missed dearly (before they relocate to Guatemala like a jerk).

oh hi @hadleymeetsworld. #NewJersey #selfies #sneakattack

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Like bringing home real, physical books from the library.

Good things. // #recoveringexpat #bookworm #books #amreading #lookforthelight #happy #good

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Like roadtrips to awesome cities.

#newyorkcity #lookingup #skyline #sky #summer #urban #nyc #travel #usa #newyork #roadtrip #moma #architecture #lookup #bluesky

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And lastly, like enjoying the city I’m in. Because Pittsburgh is kind of awesome.

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“Sally, What Are You Doing With Your Life?”

So the phrasing isn’t usually so direct, but the gist is about the same. When you return home and you’ve finished your undergraduate education, everyone wants to know about the big picture. You’re 24, what are you going to do now? Did you finish dealing with that pesky travel bug you’ve been plagued with for years? (Haha, funny joke!) Wow, you’re going to be here for at least a year? Is it time to settle down, now?

No.

No.

No.

But maybe for a little bit.

If you’ve been following my Instagram recently, you’ve probably noticed that my life consists of a lot of domestic things at the moment. There are dogs, scarves I’m in the middle of knitting, running shoes, neighborhood street lights… not so many foreign things. Unless you count that sushi I ate two weeks ago, which I definitely do. It’s almost the same as going to Japan, right?

Anyways, that’s what I’ll be telling myself for the next few months. Not that I’m unhappy to be back in Pittsburgh, because that’s not the case. Pittsburgh is awesome, especially in the summer. But I think it’s always a hard adjustment to start a routine when you’ve been living a country-to-country, city-to-city kind of life for any serious amount of time. And even harder if you spent a year and a half prior to that living in Asia and eating strange foods on the regular. It’s just tough to go back to your neighborhood grocery store or bar or mall and feel very excited about it; I’m experiencing that first-hand and certainly not for the first time.

What’s different about this time is that I have to learn how to work through it.

I’m going to be back in Pittsburgh for at least a year.

Why, you ask? Well, let’s start with the most obvious reason: I’m broke. Thanks for all the cash, South Korea, and you’re welcome, Europe, for spending all of it within your borders. Even if I was planning to move to another city in the USA, I’d still need to take some time and work in Pittsburgh until I could afford to do so. But that’s not the plan at the moment, because I’m waiting to hear back from an application to the Peace Corps that I sent in last month. There’s no guarantee that I’ll get in, but in the chance that I did, it would still be about a year (or more) until my departure date and it makes the most sense to stick it out where my friends and some of my family are, and where the flexible timing of it all wouldn’t strand me.

But, if I needed more reason to stay, it arrived last week when I accepted a writing and social media job in Pittsburgh. This job would have been tough to pass up no matter what my plans were; it’s what I love to do and do well, but with room to grow. So while some of my readers may be sad to hear that my next job isn’t overseas (I just couldn’t work with kids in a classroom again, I’m sorry!), the rest of my friends from Pittsburgh are pumped to see me stick around for more than just a few weeks here and there. And I’m pretty happy about the new gig, myself. A job I enjoy is a first, solid step in the right direction for a recovering expat like me.

Which leads me to my personal goal for this year or more (who knows?) in Pittsburgh: I want to make Pittsburgh work for me. I don’t want to feel like I’m just passing the time here. I want to put things into my life that I enjoy and which are fulfilling. Part of that process will be dissecting what exactly about expat life and travel abroad made me smile. Was it the new foods? The broken English and prevalence of foreign languages all around me? The chance to meet people with different cultural upbringings? Or just the sheer variety of cheese in Germany? Because if that’s the case, I’m pretty sure the USA has a few stores that won’t disappoint in the cheese arena, and all I need to do to feel better is visit them.

So my plan is to find activities and organizations in Pittsburgh that scratch my international itch. And see if I can’t recreate some of the things I love about life abroad, but do so while staying in one place for a bit.

This is going to be one heck of a challenge, folks. Wish me luck.

 

 [Begin shameless self promotion.]

Did I mention I’m poor?

And I’m selling blank notecards with my photography on them! If you’re interested in grabbing yourself a set of 4, head over to this page and order yourself a few. Contact me with any problems or questions or haikus you’ve written for me, anything!

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Are you also in a transitional move home? What have you done to scratch those itchy feet without jet-setting across the world again?

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Displaced, But at Home

It’s always an interesting feeling to come home when you’ve been gone for several months, and one I’m not all too unfamiliar with. I’ve come home from five months in Austria, five months in Argentina and eighteen months in South Korea and while each homecoming was not quite the same, they all had one factor in common: I had a place that was my own, no matter how much time had passed.

But this time, coming back from five months of travel in Europe, even I was caught off-guard by how un-homey it felt.

Times are hard.

It all started a few months ago when my parents moved to Germany. As part of that arrangement, they didn’t sell our home in Pittsburgh, but they cleaned out several rooms for rental. My (now former) room, being the fantastic, spacious and bright room that it is, was obviously prime real estate to someone wanting to move in. My belongings were packed up into several boxes and put into another room for storage. The house’s Internet was shut off and the kitchen cabinets were cleaned out. On one hand, I’m extremely impressed with my parents; that must have been a ton of work, because those cabinets were packed to the brim. On the other, I wish I could still rifle through there for some oatmeal every once in a while. None of these developments were unexpected, in fact I knew exactly what I would encounter walking through my old childhood home. But it’s still weird. Thank goodness my bookshelf is still largely intact and as it was, though moved, because I don’t know if I could handle missing books on top of missing oatmeal.

So each morning, now, I instead wake up in my Aunt’s spare bedroom in the house next door. The first few days, I used to wake up and look over to see a giant collage of my cousin’s face all over the wall. And the room isn’t completely empty, in fact there’s quite a few things held in storage in what’s now “my” room. But once I reorganized some drawers, claiming one as my own and unpacking my suitcase from the floor, and also moved my cousin’s (beautiful, lovely, marvelous!) face and senior pictures over to her bedroom, the space felt a little better. It feels slightly more like my own. (That’s probably also because I put some books on top of the drawers; I’m instantaneously at ease.)

How to make any room instantly become Sally's room: lots of books.
How to make any room instantly become Sally’s room: lots of books.

There’s one factor, though, that has me totally disoriented, but has been a complete non-issue for the past five months of travel: I don’t have a car. Or a motorcycle or a scooter. I have a bicycle and my feet. In Europe, I had no issues with this as the public transportation was fantastic. I would have been thrilled to have a bicycle in Spain or in Austria; I loved biking in Germany during my last week there. Walking aimlessly through new towns was one of my top five activities. But now that I’ve moved back home, into my neighborhood which is quite descriptively called “Mission Hills”, I’m finding that I’m not so enchanted with the idea of riding my bicycle around town. Even just walking the serious hills in my area has been an adjustment both for me and my poor calf muscles.

It was particularly hard during my first week back; I had a dentist appointment, bachelorette party and a wedding to go to, which were all completely inaccessible via public transportation in the area. Between asking for rides from my cousin, two friends, and my grandmother, I’ve never felt like such a useless, ride-begging invalid. Even visiting my friends in the city is complicated; the nearby streetcar only takes me into the downtown area, where my friends often have to pick me up to get to their neighborhood. As much as I’d like to see car-less life in the city suburbs as a cool challenge I should take on, it’s just not so. I’m becoming more disenchanted with Pittsburgh’s public transit system daily.

One of a million of Pittsburgh's beautiful overlooks... because it's full of giant hills. Womp womp.
One of a million of Pittsburgh’s beautiful overlooks… because it’s full of giant hills. Womp womp.

But it’s definitely not all bad.

I didn’t write that article, 13 Reasons Why Pittsburgh is the Best, on a whim; I truly do love this city and am glad to be back. And among the dizzying spin of trying to become settled, there are bright and shining moments during which I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

I love being back in my favorite coffee shop culture. Sitting with a coffee and a book, or laptop or just a notebook and pen are all perfectly accepted and encouraged behaviors, and if you sit for hours, no one will look twice. Refills on black coffee are half-priced. And heavy ceramic “For Here” cups feel at home in my hand. It’s great to be back in a place where I can really sit back and relax again, outside of my home.

Of course coffee sometimes comes with great reunions. Since I’ve been back, quite a few old friends have come out of the woodwork to meet me, and it’s been nothing but a pleasure. While I definitely don’t have a good answer for them when they ask, “What are you doing now?” (A post on that is coming soon!), it’s still great to catch up. I love seeing familiar faces again and spending time with some of the wonderful people I’ve been privileged enough to call my friends. Being away so long has really made those relationships that much more meaningful and I’m really excited to be seeing them not just once or twice, but regularly in the next months to come.

There’s also a cultural quirk of the United States that I’ve really learned to appreciate since the last time I lived here. People here live out loud. Maybe it’s the sheer time away or maybe I’ve grown older in the last few months and years, but where I once scorned other Stateys abroad when they were loud and obnoxious, I recently started looking at them with smiles. Those are my loud, obnoxious and overwhelmingly alive people. That’s my culture that will crack jokes in line, even though you’ve never met any of them. People from the USA are generally friendly to all kinds of strangers and aren’t afraid to laugh loudly anywhere they go. And for some reason, even when it’s obnoxious, I kind of love it.

So while I’m still settling in for the long haul, here, things are progressing. It may be the strangest transition I’ve ever had to go through, which is unexpected, considering that I’m at “home”. But I’m learning that even home can be another world, and maybe it’s one I’ve just begun to really discover.

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What’s the hardest or strangest transition you’ve ever gone through? Have your parents ever abandoned you for Germany and sold all their cars? Have any advice for me, if you’ve gone through a similar thing?

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My Austrian Homecoming

Some readers may already know this, but when I was seventeen, I moved abroad for the first time. It was in Austria, as an exchange student (through AFS, a fantastic organization, might I add!), that I first got a taste of a world outside of my own. I lived with a family who, ironically, was Croatian in origin but spoke German while I was around and went to a Gymnasium (high school) during the day. It was the first time I created a world completely outside of my own. I had friends, a family, old teachers and even some dirty laundry in Bad Radkersburg, Austria, a small city on the border of Slovenia. (You haven’t lived in a place until you’ve got dirty laundry there, amiright?)

Leaving was heartbreaking, but I visited twice in the next two years; once, for my host sister and classmates’ graduation party (called Maturaball) in 2008 and another time in 2009, when I got to see the big city of Vienna and spend some time with old friends in the nearby city of Graz. Shortly after, University swung into full effect, I joined a sorority (goodbye money, but hello friends!) and began blazing a trail in other, new parts of the world. I studied abroad in Argentina, graduated and moved to South Korea to teach English, and suddenly it had been nearly five years since I’d visited with my other life in Austria.

So when I planned five months in Europe, and my parents moved to Germany, there was absolutely no question about it. I was headed back to Styria, Austria, where my travel feet were first grown. I was going home.

 Cue music: I’m coming home, I’m coming home. Tell the world I’m coming home.

Seventeen-year-old American on the loose in Austria... beer in hand. Sounds about right.
Seventeen-year-old American on the loose in Austria… beer in hand. Sounds about right.

I arrived in Graz, Austria in a rather tumultuous emotional state. I’d just spent the past week with my boyfriend in Switzerland, who’d flown in from South Korea to see me for the first time in four months. In a week I won’t be writing much about, we swung from fight to hugs to fights to tears to a strange, mellow last few days of peace. It all sounded like a romantic love story: girl meets boy in a foreign country, they endure long distance for a time and have a romantic week in one of the most beautiful countries on earth, sitting together, talking while staring out onto a lake surrounded by towering mountains. But life isn’t a storybook and I left that week confused, because it didn’t feel right and I couldn’t pinpoint why.

Walking out of the train station in Graz, I found my way to Claudia‘s apartment, who had offered to put me up while I was in town. It was a strange feeling; I’d been in Graz before, but I had no orientation whatsoever as to where certain things were or where I was. Grabbing a map first thing from the tourism stand seemed a bit odd to me, but I was lost without it. In the first few days, I wandered around, map in hand, and saw corners or streets that suddenly hit me in the face with a memory.

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Most unfortunately, I didn’t rediscover this delicious schnitzel restaurant.

Ah, that’s where Hjördis and I took the bus home at 6 am, that first time I ever stayed out bar-hopping an entire night!

My two host sisters live and study in Graz, and seeing them was one of the highlights of my time there. (My third host sister has moved to Vienna to be a big-shot singer! Yay!) We met for drinks, caught up on the last five years of our respective lives, and then settled into laughing and group meals as if we’d been living together all along. I’d later move myself to Nika’s couch for my last few days, so I had time to catch up on blogging and a shorter walk to the center of the city. Seeing them was everything I’d hoped, with a little extra joy sprinkled in. It was also exactly what I needed; talking through my then-current boyfriend situation helped me see clearly that it didn’t matter if I could pinpoint it or not, something didn’t fit. (I made the difficult Skype call sometime later, once I was alone in Croatia.)

graz 1
Circa 2007.

Yes, I remember now! That weird organ-like building I kept picturing as Vienna is actually here, in Graz, and it’s an art museum!

I also got to reconnect with ancient friends, some of the few I have from my teenage years. Mona, who’s since grown dreads, spent significant time in India and is as sweet and intelligent as ever, introduced me to pumpkin seed oil ice cream (only in Styria…) and we spent a few hours laying out in the sun on some of the city’s green. Sigi took me on an amazing tour of Zotter’s Chocolate Factory which included so much tasting, my stomach rebelled for several hours afterwards. I also met another friend whom I haven’t kept in touch with, but who remembered not only me but most of my horrible, drunken shenanigans from that semester abroad seven years ago. (It wouldn’t be a visit home without more of that dirty laundry coming out of the woodwork, amiright, amiright?) In a lucky turn of events, I also caught up with my host dad and we took a nice selfie together to commemorate.

SELFIE WITH MARIO!
SELFIE WITH MARIO!

Graz, Austria is where most of my friends now live, but it isn’t the city I studied in all those years ago. I took one day to stroll down memory lane and visit the small border town where I went to school: Bad Radkersburg.

There’s a very special family that lives in Bad Radkersburg, and I’m not talking about my first (unsuccessful) host family. It’s the family that saw me through it all; the uncomfortable beginning, my host family transition and the ever-too-soon end of my time. We passed so many evenings with dinner and a bottle of wine, talking late into the night on the outdoor porch. When I get a package of chocolate from Austria in the mail over Christmastime, I can guarantee it’s from the lovely family who watched me grow up in Bad Radkersburg: Claudia, her mom and sister, and when he’s in town, Uncle Edmond. (Plus the endless kitties!) They met me at the train station and I was able to spend one night in the good old way, with wine and real conversation and chicken and stars soup, minus the chicken. It was hard to tear myself away the next afternoon; those 24 hours were a visit long overdue, much enjoyed and over much, much too quickly.

Just as my slightly longer visit in Styria was also over much, much too quickly.

The Hauptplatz in Bad Radkersburg, Austria where I spent 5 months in high school.
The Hauptplatz in Bad Radkersburg, Austria where I spent 5 months in high school.

I remember this H&M! Sara and I went shopping here, one time, and I bought that awful striped purple tank top.

A lot of hugs and new (but just as beautiful) memories with old friends later, I gathered my belongings into my little blue suitcase and made my way to the train station. Just like I did in Berlin, in Geneva and as I would again do in Zagreb, I turned my head up to locate the correct track for my train. Coming to Graz, I’d been home for a moment. But it was once again time to move.

I settled into my window seat. The train rolled on.

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Do you have another life in another country that feels like home when you visit? Was this super depressing? (Sorry!) Have you ever tried delicious pumpkin seed oil ice cream or does it freak you out a little bit?

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The Truth About Couchsurfing

Does the thought of contacting a stranger to sleep on their couch or spare bed freak you out? You’re not the only one. That’s about how most of my relatives react, with a bit of fear in their voice, when they hear I’ve been Couchsurfing. The first time I used it, traveling through Argentina three years ago, I didn’t even tell my parents what I was doing until after the fact. It sounds scary, and for some people it can be. It took me all of thirty seconds to find four different articles about how to Couchsurf safely, most of them centered on the idea that some people have ulterior sexual motives. But there’s more to it than that.

So what’s the point of Couchsurfing, anyways? Here’s the mission statement, straight from the website:

We envision a world made better by travel and travel made richer by connection. Couchsurfers share their lives with the people they encounter, fostering cultural exchange and mutual respect.

It sounds great and when it works, it is. But before you plan to travel several months without budgeting for accommodation, there are some things you need to know about Couchsurfing.

My very first Couchsurfing host, back in 2011.
My very first Couchsurfing host, back in 2011 in Bahia Blanca, Argentina.

Reading is Required

When you find someone on the website, you have to read their profile. Then you have to read through their references. Then you need to read about their couch, apartment location and any rules they have concerning staying there. It’s not an option, it’s a requirement. If you send a request to someone who’s profile you haven’t read, it shows, and you’ll either be denied or end up somewhere you’re not prepared to be. Either way, it’s much better to just read a potential host’s profile thoroughly before contacting them. You’re staying with a probably really awesome stranger, but even so, do your research.

It’s an Exchange

How would you feel if someone walked into your house, used your toilet paper, slept on your couch, ignored you throughout the morning and then left? Couchsurfing is not a free hotel. While money is off the table, you’re still expected to give something to your host in exchange for their time and hospitality. Think a small magnet from your last destination, a recipe from your home country, a note of appreciation or just a willingness to always wash the dishes are often well-accepted. Couchsurfing has a “Teach, Learn, Share” section of their profile that asks you to describe what you could teach or share with someone hosting you, and what you’re interested in learning. For most people, good conversation and some stories are enough, though in truth it’s just about the effort. I personally like to keep notecards with a photograph of Pittsburgh on them and write small thank-yous on the day I leave, or bring a bottle of wine from the region I’m coming from. Intangible or otherwise, you need to give something back to your host.

What You Save in Money, You Spend in Time

Going to Hostel World, picking out a hostel and making a reservation usually takes somewhere between five to ten minutes for me, depending on how lost my credit card is in the depths of my purse. It’s easy and your bed is guaranteed the second you click ” confirm”. When you Couchsurf, the opposite is true. While I wholeheartedly believe that the experience is worth every minute you put into it, dear golly, I have put a whole lot of minutes into finding hosts on Couchsurfing. First there’s the reading, then there’s more reading of more profiles just to be sure you found a good one. Then comes the writing of a good couch request or two. Then you wait for a response, which could come immediately or never (check those response rates before you choose someone!), and when you’re trying to surf in Europe in the middle of July, for example, you’re bound to get several rejections before finding a suitable place to stay.

All in all, sometimes Couchsurfing takes forever. And if you’re traveling on a more fast-paced trip, one or two days in each city, it may not be worth it to you to spend an hour or two daily on the Internet, trying to find your next place to stay, when you could be out soaking up your current destination. Whatever your circumstances, it’s important to know that Couchsurfing is going to take you a lot of time and weigh that into your decision.

You Will Live Like a Local

On one hand, this can be an amazing experience to see what people really live like in cities all over the world. On the other hand, they may not live as well as you’re accustomed to and this may mean grungy bathrooms, tiny kitchens and less than beautiful apartment complexes with way too many stairs. One time my host didn’t have air conditioning, and I sweat buckets in a windowless room and in the heat of summer for two nights straight. But I didn’t complain because she was sleeping in the same house with the same temperature, and it was part of her everyday life. Just know that when someone welcomes you into their home, it’s not always roses, but it will be authentic.

Some People Want Sex

I know, I know. Nobody wants to hear about this, least of all my mother. But it’s been talked about before, and it’s a fact of life that some people use Couchsurfing as a way to have exotic one night stands. I can firmly say that I’ve encountered no such unsolicited situations myself, over three years and about 30 different hosts, a third of them men. But it’s something women and men alike have to watch out for, and some Couchsurfers have even deleted their profile over. This usually happens more in man-centric cultures, though that’s not to say you shouldn’t keep an eye out for it surfing in the West as well. You can easily tell what someone’s intentions are, though. Just read through reviews people have left for one another and you’ll quickly find real people who are in it for the cultural exchange of ideas, not fluids.

R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

You gotta have it. You’ll need to respect not only your host’s home by keeping clean and not going through their things (duh!), but you’ll more importantly need to respect their rules and boundaries. If they only have one key and need you to get up in the morning at the same time they do, you’ll need to do it with a smile, 8 AM and all. If your host is vegetarian, it would be respectful to not cook hamburgers for breakfast, lunch and dinner each day or offer them a casserole with meat hidden in the folds. If they need to work or study during the day, you’ll need to respect that they can’t show you around and be independent, sightseeing on your own. Because Couchsurfing is a mutual agreement based on trust, respect is huge. HUGE!

The Kindness and Trust of Strangers is Real

I’ve had so many hosts go out of their way to make sure I’m having a great experience; everything from cooking me specific foods I wanted to try, calling their history-buff friends to give me an impromptu city tour, to bringing me out with their friends or to their work and even going so far as paying for my meal, when I’m the one sleeping in their space. I can’t even count the number of times my host has met me and immediately given me a spare key, so I could come and go at my leisure. If nothing else, Couchsurfing will give you a deep and life-long conviction that people are kind and good at heart, and then create in you the desire to be just as kind and good to the strangers you meet.

 

Just a few of the many, many faces from my Couchsurfing experiences.
Just a few of the many beautiful souls from my Couchsurfing experiences.

 

If you do it wrong, you could end up in an uncomfortable, or worse, compromising situation. But if you do it right, it may change not just the way you travel but the way you live and think about humanity.  And that’s the real truth about Couchsurfing.

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What have your Couchsurfing experiences been like? Any other truths you think I’ve missed? Completely disagree?

You can also find me on the ABOFA Facebook Page or subscribe for email updates, if you’d like!

 

True Life: My Parents Are Expats

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There they stood, lurking in their small town’s daily market, among stalls of horse sausage, cheese-galore and asparagus, acting like they fit in. They walked like the others, but they did not talk like the others. These two adults were different. They were expats.

And so might begin the saga of my parents, who’ve just begun a brand new chapter in their married lives: expating. In Germany. I think the empty-nest syndrome must be a real thing, because why else would two perfectly happy people pick up and move somewhere that doesn’t have bagels?

Yeah, no idea.

My Dad’s job sent him to a new position outside of Halle an der Saale, Germany, a city which I explored for a few days (and found quite charming) when I first began this five-month trip around Europe. When I first arrived in Halle with him, he was going solo; my mom had been left behind to tie up loose ends around Pittsburgh before heading over herself. He was still living out of a hotel room when I left and the house they’d agreed to rent wasn’t quite ready for them.

But when April rolled around, I rushed into town as well. And by “rushed”, I mean stumbled in with baggage… I came down with a fever in Paris a few days earlier (plus a lingering chest cough, yuck) and had to spoil my poor parents’ fun with sickness. But I got better. And I wasn’t completely useless the entire time, in fact I was almost always up for eating cake.

Almost always = always.

We also spent a lot of time shopping, which is what happens when your parents sign a two-year lease for a house with literally nothing in it. My poor father spent several weeks building basic furniture – beds, tables, chairs – after work each day before my mom arrived, so they would at least have something to sleep on. In the three weeks I was there, the furniture grew by four patio chairs and an outside table (co-opted to be a dining room set in the interim), a large area rug, a grill and a very comfortable, if I do say so myself, corner couch.

When we weren’t shopping for furniture, we were outfitting the kitchen. Cutting boards and spatulas and a blender (Mom’s smoothies, hurray!) and the proper knifes and the list goes on. Then there were the actual food items that one needs in a kitchen; cinnamon and other assorted spices, almond butter, olive oil, Greek yogurt and where is the spinach? Are these sweet onions or normal? I’d almost forgotten about all those small details that can drive an expat mad before they’ve gotten into the swing of things. Bless my mama’s heart, she doesn’t even speak German and she strolled down those grocery store aisles and pointed to the cheese she wanted with confidence, and succeeded.

During my last week there, she even strolled down the street to the meat shop and got extra bratwurst for dinner, all by herself. Boom. She does a lot of strolling.

In between the shopping madness, my parents got to try some new foods.

Mom digging into her first currywurst. Needless to say, she approved.
Mom digging into her first currywurst. Needless to say, she approved.
One of many, many bratwurst my dad's consumed since arriving in Germany. Nom.
One of many, many bratwurst my dad has consumed since arriving in Germany.

And me? Well… I also ate. I ate so much, so well, so many different great foods while I was with my parents, that I’m going to have to put together a separate post on that once my final week in Germany is over in the beginning of July. Prepare to drool. Unhelpful Hint: Cake.

But, like any expat adventure, it’s not an adventure until hilarious and uncomfortable things happen.

Here’s an except from an email my father sent me sometime in early March:

I had a great Sunday morning here in Halle. At Jon’s behest I did 25 minutes of intense exercise outside. Maybe 42degF.  While in push-up position after about 10 reps I heard someone coming and maybe a pet in tow. I kept to my business of doing my reps but could not ignore the presence of an animal right next to me who was not going anywhere. I turned my head towards the presence and was dutifully licked in the face by a large dog twice as big as Finn with a face like Finn. The dog was not on a leash but was with the owner– a 30ish eastern euro looking man who didn’t care or wasn’t alarmed at his unleashed dog licking the face of a defenseless and vulnerable man on the ground. He said nothing to me, just calmly called his dog to keep going. I finished my push-ups and stood up to see what was going on. I guess dogs are irresistibly drawn to me.

As for my mom, she’s just had to try a lot of different ways of ordering a decaf latte, because what they have on most menus isn’t quite right. And she would also dropkick me from across the continent if I posted any actually embarrassing moments on the entire Internet, and so I will stay mostly silent on that.

The biggest challenge for my parents during the three weeks I was there was undoubtedly attempting to get Internet. Every single morning, my mother and I would wake up and head to a local cafe with our computers in tow and use up our daily allotted two hours on their network. We struggled to find a better cafe with unlimited WiFi and enough outlets for us, and both of us had high hopes that the Internet conundrum would be solved before each week was up. But each day and week passed, and the kind-of-crappy satellite still wouldn’t pick up a good signal and the software was outdated, to boot. Dad’s work friends came over, the landlord came over, the company was called and complained to, the local experts were asked how much they might charge to fix it. For three long weeks (and more), Internet was illusive. When I left to continue my trip, it was still unresolved.

Turns out, the router just needed a good restart. They finally got Internet in the house about a week after I left: mission successful.

Now that they’ve settled into the house, gotten a long-term rental car and set themselves up with Internet, the news is that my parents are very happy at the moment indeed. And I’m very excited for them; these are going to be two years to remember.

And so they laughed over a cup of coffee as my father eyed up a strawberry shortcake on display a few feet from him, wasting away a lazy Saturday in a place they now called home.

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Have your parents or family ever lived abroad? What do you think of my parents living in Germany? Do you need recommendations for restaurants in Halle an der Saale? (My dad can help you out!)

You can also find me on the ABOFA Facebook Page or subscribe to the newsletter, 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.

Celebrating My 3 Year Blogiversary!

Holy crap, I’ve been blogging for three years today.

My first ever blog post, posted on the original Tumblr blog was short, sweet, and the beginning of a whole lot of writing.

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There I am, off to Argentina for a semester of getting fat and learning Spanish! And boy, did I do both of those very, very well.

After one last semester at University, I graduated and accepted a job teaching English in rural Korea. The Tumblr blog started up again and as time passed, my writing style evolved to be longer form and with more of a purpose. I had a hard time deciding at first whether I should move my blog to WordPress or not, deciding at first that I didn’t really want to be a “travel blogger.” But a few weeks later I changed my mind and went for the plunge.

On May 31st, 2013, I announced my move to WordPress and the A Breath of Foreign Air that you know now was born. (What do you think, a coming-of-age-Blogiversary?)

A lot of things have happened in the past 10ish months, let alone the last three years. I’ve transformed, the blog has transformed, my coffee addiction has remained just as gripping as ever and well over 500 blog posts have been written between my original Tumblr and this site. I’ve connected with way more people than I’d ever have dreamed of three years ago.

I’ve visited 9 new countries and spent 26 of the last 36 months of my life abroad; that’s over 70% of the last three years. (No wonder I don’t really have friends anymore…) I’ve learned Spanish, learned some Korean, re-learned Spanish and sharpened up my German. Last month I began learning French. I’ve grown exactly 0 inches, or 0 centimeters (0.000 millimeters) and remain vertically challenged, despite the fact that people often overestimate my height by several inches. I’ve eaten so many delicious noms.

NOM.
NOM.

So thinking about these past three years, one word comes to mind. I’m grateful. I’m so thankful to all of the support I’ve gotten from readers all over the world, whether they stuck with me for a few months or a few years, or even just a few days. My words are just words on a page, your responses and reactions are what bring the discussions to life and make this blog alive. And for that I’ll always be indebted to my readers.

Finally with three years down, the last thing I have to say is let the good times roll on. 🙂

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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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