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.

DSCF2522
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?

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

What is This Place? Notes on a Return Home

Everyone asks about culture shock, about strange foreign customs and scary food. But as strange as living abroad can sometimes be, particularly in Asia, there is one ugly monster that never fails to rear its head and make me scream while I try to run away at full speed. That horrible nightmare is also known as reverse culture shock.

Now, I’m no stranger to culture shock or reverse culture shock. I’ve been around the block, as they say. I’ve lived 5 months in Austria and had to readjust to the big, bad, high-school world in my hometown. I lived another 5 months in Argentina and had to come back to my University and deal with a mate deficit and loads of people who just couldn’t relax, in stark contrast to the Argentine lifestyle I’d learned to love. Arriving in South Korea and trying to figure out how life works wasn’t always a walk in the park. But coming back from 18 months of expat life? Now that’s some heavy hitting culture backlash. I knew what was coming but I definitely couldn’t have been prepared.

And to be honest, I may have needed all 18 months to be prepared for the return. Somewhere between six and sixteen months, a sickening feeling began to emerge every time I imagined a visit home. The stupidity of uneducated Americans, the ignorance about life outside of its borders and the thought of even having to discuss my “adventure abroad” all seemed like incurable diseases I didn’t want to face. But in the final two months I started having intense cravings for American food, missing Pittsburgh sights and attractions and looking forward to happy holiday times. Without these small bits of homesickness to overcome my fear of a return, I would have had quite a tough time getting on that plane headed back to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Home sweet home, after getting adjusted.
Home sweet home, after settling in.

But, I did. And I’ve been back. And unsurprisingly, it’s hasn’t been quite as horrible as I originally envisioned. Actually there have been some wonderful parts. And some weird parts. And an incident or two after which I realized that my social skills were a little rusty and maybe those Korean tendencies to be direct and extremely nosy weren’t really appropriate for conversations with USAers. But I’m pretty sure I can declare myself adjusted and look forward to fun times ahead.

Now that this serious talk is over and dealt with, let’s have some giggles at my expense. Here are five things that made me tilt my head and nearly curse with confusion, because I’d forgotten that’s what the USA is like for a hot second.

Cleavage, Everywhere

Korea is not so big on cleavage, and their standards of modesty are pretty much the exact opposite of what the USA calls modest. In the USA, showing your upper body (arms, shoulders, chest area, cleavage, back) are all pretty standard and accepted, provided it’s in moderation. In South Korea, those parts of the body need to be covered and if you want to be a little risqué, then a sleeveless shirt or a little collarbone will do the trick. In the USA, a short skirt screams sexy and if you can almost see someone’s butt, then you’re probably trying to force down super judgmental thoughts about that person’s life choices. In Korea, short shorts, skirts and dresses are the norm and there are plenty of times that I’ve caught a glimpse of someone’s undies.

Anyways, I’m rambling. The point is that I arrived in the USA and immediately thought “Oh my gosh, boobies are everywhere! What is this place?” and was very uncomfortable for a long period of time.

Flushing Toilet Paper

In South Korea, toilet paper goes in the trash can next to you when you’ve finished using it. We can debate the merits of this versus flushing TP all day, but that doesn’t really matter. After 18 months of being in the same toilet-using routine, I was pretty caught off guard during my return to the USA. It wasn’t really glorious, it was just weird and flushing toilet paper just felt… wrong.

People “Dressed Up” in Sweats

I understand that everyone has their bad days, but there has to be an end to this weird fashion trend of wearing sweatshirts, sweatpants and other junk clothing, just to straighten your hair and put it in a messy bun on top of your head. And then put on a face-full of makeup. I guarantee you that person showered, too. It’s just ludicrous. What’s so hard about clothes, again?

Wearing Shoes Indoors

“SHOES ARE DIRTY!” Korea said. And now I’m supposed to walk into my house, still wearing them. Because if I don’t, I’ll end up with a wet sock from some puddle of ice that someone else tracked in, while wearing their shoes inside. Because apparently that’s how things work in this weird country where I was born and raised. Whatever.

Massive Portion Sizes and Nothing Healthy on the Menu (Except Salad)

This one seriously drives me crazy. I cannot order healthy food off of a menu, unless it’s in the salad section, and even then, it’s questionable. Or unless I go to one of the “hipster” health food restaurants, which seems a little counter-intuitive to me. Why would I eat unhealthy food, when the whole point of food is to make our bodies keep working? Why are healthy meals not mainstream? Man, the USA needs to get its shit together so I can eat a sandwich that isn’t ten thousand calories or perfectly healthy but three times the size of what a meal should be. (Please note: the exception to this frustration of mine is Pittsburgh’s iconic Primanti Brothers’, where you arrive expecting to clog your arteries and almost explode post-meal. Then it’s okay.)

My diet at American restaurants: bread, bread, bread and bread.
My diet at American restaurants: bread, bread and bread.

It’s not all weird, head-scratching moments, though. I’ve encountered a few things while being home that I forgot were so damn awesome about the USA. And I rejoice every time I’m able to partake in these luxuries.

The 24 hr Pharmacy

I know that Korea has really cool convenience stores, but RiteAid, CVS and the like are America’s version of the same kind of awesomeness. I love walking through the aisles and staring at garden gnomes, Valentine’s day chocolate boxes galore, twenty-five different kinds of hair brushes and my favorite section, the drink refrigerators with Arizona Green Tea. They’ve even got all the candy you could ever need, ugly Pittsburgh magnets, horrible stationary and cards and the print-it-yourself photo booths. All open 24 hours. It’s glorious and I love it.

Delicious Beer, On Tap

Oh, Korea… if there is anything you cannot do for the life of you, it’s all things made of wheat. Your bread is sugary and lame and your beer tastes watery and sad. In the USA, there is a beautiful beer culture where you go to a bar, order a delicious, flavorful beer that you’ve never tried before and then you enjoy it. Sometimes it’s a locally made craft beer, sometimes it’s a local chain, sometimes it’s a popular beer but only in Michigan. In any case, I am soaking up every moment I can with amber ales, dark lagers, bright hoppy brews and all of the other incredible, tasty and wonderful beers that the USA has to offer.

(Oh, and I can’t WAIT to go to Germany again in April.)

Drip Coffee

I’m a coffee addict, and South Korea tried to placate me with those sugary instant coffee horrors. It didn’t work, Korea, you hear me?! I am enjoying opening a bag full of aromatic beans, grinding them, filling the coffee maker with either six or eight cups (depending on my mood) and enjoying cups of coffee all morning, while I’m still in my pajamas. And visiting the coffee shop or a breakfast restaurant and getting cups after cups of delicious diner coffee, instead of an Americano.

Yeah, I probably couldn’t have worked this out in Korea if I had tried harder, but I didn’t and I really missed it.

Although I did have the best coffee of my life in Korea. An exception.
Although I did have the best coffee of my life in Korea. An exception.

Full-Sized Towels

No one will understand why this is so great until they’ve lived somewhere that forces tiny foot towels upon you for all of your post-shower drying needs. May I also remind my readers that I said “foot towel”, as in a towel that is only sufficient for drying feet? And that my hair needs a foot towel of its own, since it hangs only a few inches above my waist? Full-sized towels are angelic, warm, fluffy awesomeness that blankets your cold, shivering and wet body and then makes life happier and full of rainbows. Also known as a bath towel. Also known as the kind of towel the world needs to start using after baths and showers, everywhere. Cough, cough, Korea. *Points an angry finger across the ocean*

Cheese

Korea, why couldn’t you do cheese correctly? I’m so glad I can eat delicious mozzarella and melted cheese that actually stretches and add cheese to scrambled eggs without ruining them. It’s great. And enjoy sharp cheddar and the cheese that’s both orange and white and fresh cheese from a block instead of in slices.

And there are a few things that I miss, now that I’ve departed kimchi-land (and one of those things is not kimchi). I’ll just list them, as they don’t need much explanation.

  • Pat Bingsu
  • Saunas
  • Rice
  • The Korean Won (and prices in 100 won instead of 1 cent increments)
♫And I----I, will always love youuuuuuu.♫
♫And I—-I, will always love youuuuuuu.♫

Time has flown by this month, but it’s now to move on to warmer pastures, literally, because I’m going to Spain in a few weeks. And then I’ll have another five months of travel and I’ll have to face the reverse culture shock beast all over again in July. But hey, I’ve done it before and there’s not a bit of doubt that I’ll be facing it plenty of times over in the years to come. Because in the end, reverse culture shock is the reason we travel. It causes us to question what it is we once accepted as par to the course and it creates appreciation for small things we never realized we would miss. It’s what we’re scared of and overcome, because we have to. Friends and family and loved ones are waiting on the other side. Your life doesn’t change by going abroad, your life changes when you go abroad and come back. That’s the hard part. That’s the part that makes us who we are.

And I wouldn’t change that monster hiding under my bed for any reason.

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Sacrifices of Travel: Thanksgiving Away From Home

If I had to pick a favorite holiday, I’d stop for a moment on Easter, because of the copious amounts of chocolate involved, then I’d debate over Christmas and the great times with family and gifts and hot chocolate, but eventually, I’d conclude that Thanksgiving, with all of the aromas and haste, rows of seats and unearthly amounts of incredible food, is definitely it. Something about the big table, mixture of gravy, stuffing and mashed potatoes and the fact that it’s usually not terribly cold, not just yet. So yes, after serious though, my favorite holiday is Thanksgiving. Hands down.

One of the sacrifices that expats and long-term travelers, study abroaders and other world explorers all make is missing family events. Sometimes they are birthdays, graduations, unexpected funerals or just regular, annual holidays. As the missing family member abroad, I often try to Skype in for parties, send messages and generally just let my family know that I wish I could be there for the event. It’s never quite the same, but it’s something. And once a year, that event I’ve missed is Thanksgiving.

Three years ago, after my semester abroad had ended in Buenos Aires, I spent a month traversing the country and visiting every city I could get myself to. I made a choice to miss Thanksgiving in exchange for the adventures, a choice I wouldn’t take back. But not being there for the turkey, the stuffing, the family shenanigans and occasional mishaps was hard. Three years ago, in a mountain city of Argentina with friends I’d only met a week prior, we came together and did our best to celebrate. Me and Zoe, an American working in Bariloche, cut and boiled potatoes, prepared a casserole and readied chicken to be baked. Someone else would bring the pie. Ironically, the Argentines showed up, saw our cooking attempts and immediately fixed everything; turning up the heat on the potatoes and slicing open the chicken to cut cooking time in half.

Making Thanksgiving dinner in Bariloche, Argentina.
Making Thanksgiving dinner in Bariloche, Argentina.

We ate and laughed, and though the food was good, we enjoyed the holiday more for the people. But just as the smiling faces of friends were comforting to me, they were also a reminder of exactly what I was missing.

Almost two years ago, I signed my contract to move to Korea and teach English. On Thanksgiving, last year, I worked. The foreigners in town chose the following Saturday to get together and have potluck style Thanksgiving dinner. Two homemade pumpkin pies arrived, mashed potatoes were devoured (before I even got any!) and chickens were roasted, turkey hadn’t made its way into town. We had all of the classic fixings of Thanksgiving, aside from Turkey, and we stuffed ourselves to the breaking point in true Thanksgiving tradition. As the night wore on, it developed into singing and merriment which had to be taken outside. A long line of foreigners poured into the streets of this small Korean town, celebrating their holiday, like a single bit of sun on an otherwise cloudy day.

Last year's Thanksgiving dessert spread in Korea.
Last year’s Thanksgiving dessert spread in Korea.

A week ago, I labored over a cutting board, slicing carrots into strips, peeling ginger with my fingers and adding clove after clove of garlic to the mixture. The end result was far from pretty, but finger-licking good and I dutifully carried my Tupperware containers to the annual foreigner’s Thanksgiving potluck. We packed ourselves into the tiny apartment, ate a strange mix of foods including spicy pasta, bacon mac and cheese and roasted chicken. Mashed potatoes had been promised but not delivered, stuffing arrived almost an hour late and gravy was nowhere to be found. Pumpkin pie, store bought but a god-send nonetheless, was delivered several hours after we’d finished our food. Wine was consumed, ice cream was spilled and space was tight and cramped; what last year had felt very Thanksgiving-like, this year felt nothing of the sort.

The food was good, though, and the laughter was still there. What was supposed to be a Thanksgiving potluck was more of a strange miscellaneous potluck drinking-fest with pumpkin pie and stuffing. I had my fun, I enjoyed spending time with my friends, but at the end of the night, I wasn’t hesitant to go home. More than any year before, this Thanksgiving reminded me, painfully so, of what I was missing. Of what I’d given up to live abroad, teach and earn money in another culture and expand my horizons.

My five months in Argentina, one month of it backpacking and my year and a half of life and work in Korea are experiences that could never be replicated at home. They’ve brought me trials and lessons, laughter and new ways of thinking. My brain expanded to accommodate new languages, faces and customs. I’ve grown as a person and become more confident, daring and content with what I already have. But I haven’t lived as an expat without sacrifice; missing my favorite holiday and the family that go with it are a price I pay. Missing Thanksgiving three years running is part of that cost.

Is it worth it?

Yes.

Do I miss my family and mashed potatoes?

More than they’ll ever know.

-~-

Have you missed holidays while traveling or living abroad? What do you miss the most from Thanksgiving? Is there one holiday you refuse to miss?

Find me on the ABOFA Facebook Page or subscribe to the email list, if you’d like.

11 Christmas Gifts for Travelers, Vagabonds and Wanderers

christmas gift traveler
Gifts! Whoopie!

Shopping for a traveler, let alone a perpetual traveler can be tough. Those who spend a lot of time on the road usually tend to reject the notion of “stuff” and try to be as minimalist as possible. If the traveler you know has sold their home, then it’s even harder to shop; if your gift isn’t well-received, it will probably be left behind somewhere, maybe re-gifted to someone you don’t know or left at the local Goodwill donation center. So what should you buy someone who is easily burdened by the unnecessary? What should you give a traveler for Christmas?

Being a traveler myself, a person without a house to keep things in and someone who is constantly shedding their belongings to fit them in a suitcase, I thought I’d offer some tips. But I, just one person, can’t speak for everyone. Each traveler is different, but hopefully this list at least sparks an idea for you. Christmas shopping is hard, I know, and my mom can vouch that it’s especially hard when you’re shopping for a moving target.

So here are my suggestions.

eBooks

Provided your traveler enjoys reading and has an eReader (many of us do!), then eBooks are always a hit. Not only can you buy and deliver this gift from the comfort of your chair, but the traveler doesn’t have to jump through any post office/redemption hoops. They just need to find WiFi. And within minutes, they’ll be reading.

The tricky part is which book to get them. As this is a highly personal choice, I’d recommend getting a third-party to ask if they have a wish list somewhere and shopping from there. If you have to shoot blindly, then a wanderlust-inciting story is usually a safe bet.

Note: if your traveler doesn’t have an eReader, then you may need to help them. I’d recommend the Kindle Paperwhite; I’ve had mine for two months and it’s revolutionized my (literary) life.

I wish I could own these, but having them in E-book form is the second best option.
I wish I could own these, but having them in eBook form is the second best option.

Thin, Versatile Clothing

Folks on the road are constantly wearing their clothes out. While it’s easy to buy clothes abroad, it’s also nice to be gifted quality threads. Traveling clothes usually need to be lightweight, frill-free and easy to wear in a variety of situations. Think t-shirts, thin sweaters and undershirts, neutral colors or classic patterns, like stripes. For most jet-setters, trends fall to the wayside while comfort and usability become paramount.

I packed for five months in one bag; sadly, there wasn’t a lot of room for fashion.

A Custom Map Key Chain/Necklace

A nomad’s life is place-independent and yet, completely fixated on location; a strange mix. Getting a traveler a small token of a special place they’ve been, where they are from or where their loved ones are is a sure way to put a smile on your wanderer’s face. And the gift is small, which is a must.

You can find several shops on Etsy that will put any map into a necklace/key chain/tie fastener/etc and for not too much money. This shop, Brass and Chain, has a nice mix of items and won’t break the bank.

map necklace christmas gift traveler
A little bit of home, wherever you go. (Or a little bit of Rome, no matter how long you’re at home!)

Small Notebooks

Situations pop up all the time when traveling where the vagabond in question needs to write something of importance down for later. Scraps of paper are easily lost and memory can be faulty; sometimes language barriers require a drawing of some kind. A small, portable notebook is always a big help on the road and serves as a principle place to put down directions, phone numbers, the address of that night’s hostel or anything else of importance.

I’m a Moleskine girl, all the way. I use this small, soft-covered version with a grid inside, but you can also get notebooks hard-covered, lined or blank inside and in different sizes.

moleskine notebook christmas present vagabond
When you gotta write, you gotta write.

Socks

You know when you were younger and opened up a present, then hid your disappointment with a big exaggerated thank you, because Aunt Susan gave you socks, again? Well this is the opposite reaction of those always on the road; socks are destroyed and smelly in short order and constantly need replaced. If you give socks to your favorite traveler, the thank you and accompanying smile will be genuine. Their feet will thank you, as well.

socks christmas gift wanderer
New socks are pure happiness.

An Unlocked Smart Phone

This gift is only for the rich among us, as buying smart phones out of contract is tremendously expensive. Any traveler can tell you that their smart phone is their life and not because it can make phone calls. Essentially a smart phone can be used simply as a mini computer, when it has access to WiFi, and in-country SIM cards can be purchased just about everywhere, so wandering foreigners can call their hostel if they’re in a jam. If your traveling friend has an old or broken smart phone, no phone or even worse, a Blackberry (!!!), then they would likely be very appreciative of an iPhone 5, for instance. The obvious downside is this gift is pricey.

This is a real stock photo that came up when I searched "iPhone". I'm dying of laughter. (I'm sorry, I couldn't not include this in the blog post.)
This is a real stock photo that came up when I searched “iPhone”. I’m dying of laughter. (I’m sorry, I couldn’t not include this in the blog post.)

A Wide Scarf

Travelers all know of the usefulness of a good scarf; not only can it keep your neck warm, but it can cover your head in conservative places, double as a towel when in need, cover legs in the middle of doing laundry, keep breakables from breaking… the uses go on. Just make sure you buy a scarf wide enough to be versatile and lightweight enough to bring everywhere.

While I haven’t purchased from FashionABLE myself, I’ve heard tons of positive things not only about the scarves themselves, but also the business. Ethiopian women make these scarves by hand and get the opportunity to leave poverty behind at the same time.

Erm, yes. Scarves can also be headbands.
Erm, yes. Scarves can also be headbands. [Source.]

Camera Gear

Chances are your vagabond wants to document what they’re seeing either for themselves, for you, or possibly a wider audience. While I don’t have one myself, every traveler and their mother mentions GoPro cameras as a must-have. It’s essentially an ultra-durable and waterproof camera with excellent video capabilities. If your traveler already has one, they may be lusting over the GoPro head-strap for situations where they need both hands. If your vagabond is more of a DSLR kind of guy/gal when it comes to photography, they may want a GorillaPod when extra hands are unavailable. Camera gear can become heavy and burdensome, though, so proceed with caution and understanding; this gift is a hit or miss.

The days of disposable cameras are over, please don't give one of these to anyone with itchy feet.
The days of disposable cameras are over, please don’t give one of these to anyone with itchy feet.

Buy What They’re Selling

If your wandering friend is on the road long-term, chances are they are offering some kind of service to make money while mobile. Lots of travelers have written and sell eBooks, some people offer web design services, yet others offer prints of their photographs (like me!) or the chance to buy a postcard from them. Whatever it is that your friend is offering, consider sending them a big order. You could even buy from your favorite vagabond as a Christmas gift, and then give that product to someone else who’d appreciate it more than you. Two birds with one stone, my friend, you’ve just double Christmas shopped.

The well known Hecktic Travels, one of many bloggers selling an eBook.
The well-known Hecktic Travels, one of many bloggers selling an eBook.

A Gift Receipt

Aside from straight cash, this may be the best gift you could give a traveler. Whatever it is you decide to buy, always remember to include either a gift receipt or contact information for doing a return/getting a refund. No wanderlusting friend wants to leave your gift behind because they couldn’t figure out how to return it and pick up something more useful. And you wouldn’t want them to: always give the option of returning/exchanging your present.

The magic little white piece of paper.
The magic little white piece of paper. (Okay, this is not a picture of a gift receipt but I didn’t have much to work with, when it comes to stock photos…)

Money

Plane tickets are getting more expensive, but your friend’s desire to see the world is probably still on the rise. There’s nothing better than receiving money, and if you want to make sure the money is put to good use, write a little note about what you’d like your friend to put it towards. Flights always need paid, hostels booked, and buses paid for. If your vagabond is young, chances are they have a loan or two that is keeping them from total freedom. If they blog, then they may have yearly web hosting costs. Sending them $50 to help them on their way, even just a little bit, is a gesture that every traveler appreciates.

Every traveler's dream: a green Christmas.
Every traveler’s dream: a green Christmas.

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Travelers, what’s on your Christmas list this year? What’s the best vagabond-related gift that you’ve ever received?

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

iPhone Photoessay: (Delicious) Things I Consumed in Argentina

First of all, I want to start with a moment of gratitude. This morning, I finished my morning run and had not accidentally adopted any dogs by the end of it. Pfew, a sigh of relief.

This blog began back in 2011, when I wanted to document my semester abroad in Argentina. Since then, I haven’t written a whole lot of meaty posts about the experience. The writing I was doing back then (on Tumblr) was mostly short, anecdotal or quick story-based with a photograph or two. I’ll have to remedy that, in due time, but for this post I’d like to reminisce on delicious Argentinian food. Because I’m hungry, and looking at a bunch of juicy steak is going to make that better, right? Right.

24 Jul 2011 1 Ovieda Apple Pancakes

Ordering in restaurants did not start out on the right foot, in Argentina. This was “pancake”. It was literally sugar, baked onto a metal plate with a little breading in it. Way too sweet!

27 Jul 2011 2 Alfajor y Cafe

A traditional alfajor, or sandwich cookie biscuit thing, usually covered in powdered sugar. For some reason, I just couldn’t get into alfajors, unless they lacked the outer covering and were straight dulce de leche. Then I was totally into alfajors.

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Speaking of dulce de leche, it was a key culprit of my horrible eating habits during this semester. I could never say no!

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STEAK! This was the first steak I ordered in Argentina, three months in, believe it or not, because I was actually a vegetarian before studying here. Needless to say, that didn’t survive my trip.

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The best part of studying abroad might be the melting pot of cultures all coming together in one place. His face hiding behind a camera, pictured is a friend from Argentina who studied in Germany. The cook, not pictured, is a German who was also studying abroad in Argentina and decided to make us a German meal.

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The panaderia’s, or bakeries were both my best friend and my worst enemy. I wanted to try all of the different pastries available, ever, so I made it my mission.

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This sandwich was literally as big as both of our heads combined. So we each ate half, and died finishing it. Gotta love absurd portion sizes.

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My attempt at “healthy” by eating a whole grain medialuna. or butter croissant. It was unsuccessful, but deliciously so.

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My apartment was directly above one of the most incredible empanada shops. They made them open faced, with little bread bowls and I ordered take out several times a month. So. Good.

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Oh look at that, more pastries. More dulce de leche. More drizzled chocolate, powdered sugar and other creamy white sugar concoctions stuffed into a butter-saturated pastry from heaven.

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I lived 20 minutes away from “Chinatown” (actually Asia-town), which meant I could go into the grocery and get an uncut giant roll of sushi, unwrap the plastic and just eat it while walking or sitting or on the train. It was awesome.

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Okay, so I didn’t consume all of this, but it was consumable. Bariloche in Argentina, or the little Switzerland of Argentina, makes their own chocolate and it’s SO GOOD.

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Sometimes you order a meal, and it’s just three different kinds of potatoes. Argentina has a LOT of different potatoes that you can buy, though, so that’s pretty awesome. Did you know there are 5,000 different species of potatoes? Now you know!

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THIS PIECE OF CAKE WAS DELICIOUS and I’ll never forget it. Ever. As you can see, Argentina is pretty talented in the cake/pastry/fattening sweets area.

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Argentina and wine go together, and tasting wine at a winery while in Mendoza, a wine producing capital? That’s just a must-do. Not tipsy scraping and destroying your knees while falling off of a bicycle on the way back, though. You don’t need to do that. Trust me on this one.

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Argentina is famous for its asado, or barbequed / outdoor grilled meat. This asado was a king of asados, I’ve never seen a layout quite so big.

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Bondiola, or grilled, huge pieces of pork put on a nice bun, covered in weird sauce and stuffed into your face as quickly as possible, before it gets cold or drips on you. I miss bondiolas.

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Instead of just plain ketchup, you should probably also opt for the mini fries on your hotdog. I don’t know why, but you should just do it.

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I wandered around Bahia Blanca for a long time, unable to find anything I wanted to see. This cupcake shop and peanut butter cupcake literally saved the day, and made sure I wasn’t a grumpy grumpy monster when I got back to my accommodation.

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Thanksgiving in Argentina: though I missed my family, I didn’t miss out on great food and company. Or eating bird.

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More asado, because it’s delicious. This time in someone’s backyard. Sausages and huge slabs of beef are the usual.

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And to round this little photoessay off, only more pastries would be fitting.

Did I mention I gained 15-20 pounds in those five months? Well, I’m sure you can figure out why. How is anyone supposed to say “no” to food this delicious? Or even stop at reasonable amounts? It’s just not possible. If you can stay skinny without upping your exercise in Argentina, I’m assuming your taste buds don’t work.

Good thing my next stop was Asia, or I’d have been in real big trouble. (Hehe punny me!)

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Confession: I’m No Vagabond

There are so many travel blogs on the internet and so many people who make their living heading from one place to the next and writing about it. It’s an exciting life, full of novelty and fresh faces, beautiful scenery and the percentage of the world that they’ve seen is constantly creeping up a little bit higher. It’s an important rite of passage into the well-traveled community to do a year long RTW trip, or something along those lines. But I have a confession to make: I don’t want to perpetually travel. I don’t want to wander without limits, forever. I don’t even want to dedicate a year of my life solely to seeing things in different countries. I’m not a vagabond.

I don’t feel compelled to walk down the untraveled path, just because I’ve never been down it.

So, why do I write a travel blog? Why did I go to Istanbul or Germany or Argentina and why the hell do I live in South Korea of all places? It’s not that I didn’t enjoy going to all of the places I’ve been privileged enough to see, on the contrary, I’ve had the time of my life and hope to continue the trend. But I don’t want to simply travel the world. I want to be a part of it. I don’t want to see all of the UNESCO Heritage sites. I don’t want to color in all the countries of the world on a map, one day. I want to do something in each of them.

How vague, Sally. Let me elaborate.

I want to spend time with the people in each region and make their lives better in whatever way I can. I’m talking about volunteering or meaningful employment, sharing, discussion. I really believe that every single person in the world has something to offer someone else that can improve life for both of them. It could be simply getting a cup of coffee and filling an hour with mutual laughter, or spending the time to braid someone’s hair or just sitting on the ground and creating sidewalk chalk art with a neighborhood kid. I’m not talking about monetary resources or marketable skills, although those certainly can be used to create happiness in someone else’s life. But those aren’t necessary: I believe that everyone has something to give, regardless of wealth of experience. It’s one of my priorities to use what I have, wealth, experience and otherwise, to add value to lives around me. It’s not enough to see the world for me, I want to create something positive in it.

My favorite lady monk did nothing but tell stories, but my life (and Korean!) was better for it.
My favorite lady monk did nothing but tell stories, but my life (and Korean!) was better for it.

One of the ways that I believe I can add happiness to the world around me forms the second and maybe the biggest motivator for my travels: I want to learn. The more you know about the people around you, the better you can make decisions that are considerate and kind. The entire world would be vastly different if each and every one of us took the time to understand and appreciate the strange cultures on the other side of the ocean. I think national politicians from every country should probably be reeducated in that regard. But that knowledge, that understanding and appreciation is why I want to see the world. It’s because I want to learn about it… all of it.

So while I’d be thrilled to spend a year traveling the world, I would hate spending that year only traveling the world. I want to volunteer with the world, I want to talk to the world, I want to learn about the world. The Taj Mahal is breathtaking, but the story behind it is infinitely more valuable and fascinating. Just like Croatia: the scenery is spectacular and it’s a beautiful place to vacation, but the history of Yugoslavia and each individual city in Croatia makes my eyes light up. I want to see the evidence of a different life in older times, or perhaps evidence that life was the same. I want to see how today’s economy is influenced by that history. When the history is sad, I want to cry with it and remind myself that there are things that we can prevent as moral human beings and it’s ultimately our responsibility to do so: the monkeys and camels of the world aren’t likely to intervene in an ethnic cleansing.

So while I don’t have itchy feet, longing to see something new and discontent with where I am, I certainly have a curiosity that has me by the neck. My insatiable thirst for knowledge and history and understanding cultures has the reins and is pushing me to ask questions. It pushes me to read books and talk to people and investigate the lives already lived and those that are still living. I’m a student and the world is teaching me every step of the way: division, reunification, love, hate, war, peace, destruction, restoration, cries and laughter. The how and the why of the past and their connections to everything going on today are what drive me forward, onward to new lands and people.

Germany isn't the only country that's faced division.
Germany isn’t the only country that’s faced division.

Traveling for the sake of travel has benefits and there are countless articles on that topic. Self confidence, understanding of your own culture, empathy and the release of materialism are all wonderful reasons to leave your hometown and set out for a bit to see something new. I’m not knocking the good in this, it’s real and it’s valuable. But, for me, travel has pushed me into all of this and then into a new arena: passion and a sense of justice. Everyone should have the chance to worry about “first world problems.” The entire world should be able to complain about their significant other buying the wrong kind of jelly at the grocery store. I’m not saying it’s a good thing to forget perspective, but it’s an evil thing to have perspective forced upon you by poverty, war, dying family or dysfunctional government. I want to contribute to eliminating circumstances like this, because I can and therefore I feel a responsibility to do so. I can’t simply sit back and watch, traveling country to country, buying the souvenirs and checking off the list. I need more.

So this is my confession: I’m not a perpetual wanderer of the world. I’m not a vagabond. I’m not pulled by adventure to see new horizons or complete a list of things to do before I die. At heart, I’m really just a slave to my curiosity, my need to know more about someone else, my desire to understand better and contribute where I can and add something positive to another’s life. At the end of the day, I’m nothing more than a naive, compassionate and curious nerd with no limits. I will go anywhere, give everything and talk to anyone in pursuit of knowledge and then follow that up with my time and dedication to making life better for all of us. That’s my big secret. My full, written and signed confession that I’m not a gypsy soul and I never will be.

And with that, I’m completely happy.

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Lessons Learned About Myself in Argentina

book coffee happiness

When you travel, especially when you travel by yourself (as I am currently doing), you learn a whole lot about yourself. You also learn small things, such as how to get around on public transportation, how to use and find maps, how to pack your backpack more efficiently. As helpful as these lessons are, though, they aren’t the real ones. The real lessons are about who you are and what you’re like, separate from home and perhaps despite home. These are the lessons that I am talking about.

Five personal lessons that I’m willing to admit to:

I am Cheap

I am really, really, really cheap. I buy the same three things when I go grocery shopping for a few days of food: bread, bananas, and sandwich meat. This usually costs about 20 pesos, or 5 US dollars. When I have the choice between reloading my card to take the bus or not, I won’t, and then I’ll end up walking 35 minutes uphill because I just couldn’t bring myself to spend the extra pesos. I also get uncomfortable when someone talks about going out to dinner; that’s for rich people.

I am Physically Lazy

When given the choice of two activities, one that involves physical activity but is worth it and one that doesn’t, I will generally choose to be lazy. If asked, I will claim that I like the former.

I Always Get Lost

I will, inevitably, without a single doubt or exception: get lost. No I am not joking. It always happens. Need to get to my hostel? Lost. Need to find the grocery store? Lost. Trying to find that one museum? Lost. This wouldn’t be nearly so bad, except for the next point…

I am Stubborn

One of these days I am going to wake up half transformed into a mule, like Shrek. This point plays into all of the other ones: I am stubborn and won’t spend money (hence being cheap) and if I get lost, I won’t ask for directions more than once. Even if I don’t understand the answer. If someone invites me to do something that I’m clearly not physically fit for, I’ll accept their invitation and then push myself to do the whole thing. You know, since I already claimed I would. My family can attest to this and now that this is on the internet, I really can’t argue when they say, “I told you so!”

I Only Need Two Things: Coffee and a Book

I could spend a whole day reading and writing in any cafe and I would be content and caffeinated. This may or may not be the first thing I do when I visit a city. Does this make me a bad traveler? Maybe, but I don’t care and I’m vividly aware of my lameness. Thankfully, that also means extra good posts for you guys to read!

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What has traveling, backpacking, studying abroad or just visiting a foreign country taught you about yourself?

You can also find me on the ABOFA Facebook page, Instagram and Twitter. There’s also an email list, if you’d like to subscribe.