My Top 5 Wanderlist

Everyone dreams, some of us of fancy cars and others of simply a day off. I dreamed of pizza last night, but that’s not the kind of dream I’m talking about. I mean the dreams of the heart, the mental bucket list. My fantasies are actually filled with solitary retreats and books or alternatively, spectacular jaunts abroad in fascinating locations. That probably comes as no surprise to readers, considering my recent Reading Roundup Series and the topic of this blog.

So, while thinking about all the places I’d like to visit, I decided to put them together in a definitive list. Why not? I found it too hard to rank them, though, so I’ve put them in alphabetical order. Enjoy this little trip across the world, though only in thought this time. One day.

Note: I’ve not included any photographs, since I didn’t want to steal and I don’t have of my own. I’d recommend doing a Google image search, if you’re curious about what these countries look like.

 

Egypt

This first one needs a provision: I want to visit Egypt, but as a man. I’m really put off by the sheer number of stories of sexual harassment coming out of such a gorgeous country. So if I could be a man for a month or so, I’d love to spend that month traveling around Egypt and seeing all the beautiful, super super old sights. The Pyramids, the Red Sea, desert landscapes and access to an ocean; the sheer variety sends my head reeling. And the food, oh the food! Legumes and vegetables? Right up my alley. An image search of “Egyptian Food” sets my saliva production into overdrive. As much as I’d love to do all of these things, I’m fairly sure that dealing with sexual harassment for the entirety of my trip would kind of ruin it. So I’d like to be a man, or I’ll just have to wait 10 years for the social climate to improve. Shame.

 

Iran

These days, the only things we see in the news about Iran are things like “nuclear weapons!”, “negotiations”, and “WWIII?” But the Iranian government is a far cry from representative of the people, fortunately (and unfortunately). I took a semester of Farsi, the language in Iran, and it sparked my interest in the country. My teacher was a strong, fierce woman with a palatable love for her culture and people; it must have rubbed off on me. I want to see the landscape, the rock sculptures and old ruins, but I more than anything want to try the food. Once again, that image search just blows my taste buds away. Warning, don’t look if you’ve not eaten lunch/dinner/breakfast yet, you’re only asking for it.

 

Norway

I’m not sure why, but I’m really fascinated with extreme northern climates, particularly the Arctic circle, these days. Norway seems like such a beautiful country, with Oslo down “south” and then extreme, gorgeous landscapes farther north. I may or may not have spent at least an hour or two recently pulling that little figure on Google Maps around and looking at the street views all over northern Norway. I’m also fascinated by the concept of 24 hour nights in the winter and the opposite, constant sunlight in the summer. Though in reality, I’m pretty horrible at enduring cold weather, so I fantasize about testing myself and getting through an Arctic Circle winter. Maybe I need to stop reading books about Siberia…

 

Tunisia

There are a lot of random reasons why I’d love to spend some time in Tunisia. First is the landscape; it straddles desert regions and the Mediterranean Sea, which means extreme land transitions. Rad. It’s also in Northern Africa, which means a fascinating coming together of Middle Eastern and African influences. That’s a culture I’d be ecstatic to learn more about. Then, the official language, Arabic, is one I’d like to tackle one day. And the cherry on top, the food looks pretty lip-smacking. If I had to rank these five places, I’d be tempted to put Tunisia right at the top of that list.

 

Vanuatu

I had never heard of Vanuatu until this week, when I was reading about seven volcanic eruptions that happened at the same time. It’s a tiny island, east of Australia, formed by several volcanoes, some that are still active. One of my life-list items is to see lava, so I was immediately interested in this tiny country. It also has a lot of cool indigenous cultures, which are known to be friendly and picture-happy, and it’s an island. Beaches! And one more big plus, one of the official languages is English, which means travel there is infinitely easier. Lastly, a quick Google search of the food there reveals some dishes that look straight up crazy; I’m in. Send me!

I could go on for several pages with places I want to visit, but these five are absolutely at the tippy top of my wanderlist. And now that I’ve written myself into a hunger and wanderlust frenzy, I’m going to try and deal with the half of that problem I can remedy at the moment: feeding myself. If only it was delicious Persian food!

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Have you been to any of these countries? What places are on your wanderlist? Did you also dream about pizza last night?

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The Superpower You Can Cultivate: Foreign Language

This morning is a Saturday, and Saturdays are always a tough day to write a blog post. I dug through my purse to find my external hard drive, hoping that going over some old pictures would spark something that I could use. I quickly realized that I’d accidentally left my external hard drive at work and there would be no access to photographs until Monday. Shucks.

So, I headed over to the Daily Post, who has been posting different prompts for NaBloPoMo writers everyday. Most of these have been much more geared towards personal blogs, and I haven’t had a chance to use a single one yet. But the most recent prompt was a strike of luck. It read:

You get to choose one superpower. Pick one of these, and explain your choice:

– the ability to speak and understand any language
– the ability to travel through time
– the ability to make any two people agree with each other

Now, as a travel/expat blogger, I’m sure you can guess which one of these superpowers I would choose. Time travel, obviously! Jokes. No, I’m convinced that being able to speak and understand any language would be the ultimate superpower, for a myriad of reasons. I’m going to tell you about each and every one of them

Easier & Carefree Travel

This is a pretty obvious benefit. You could literally go anywhere in the world and find a place to sleep, eat and sightsee with minimal effort. Your safety automatically doubles, because if you’re lost you can ask for help, you can get warnings ahead of time about unsafe areas of the region and you are more likely to talk yourself out of any potentially bad situations. You can ask about bigger towels at some tiny, cheap motel and you can read the street signs in the area. Learning the language in a country you’ll be traveling in just makes everything, all around, way better.

A good Spanish word to learn is "Peligro", which means danger. Which is also not something you'd expect on a hill filled with bright yellow flowers.
A good Spanish word to learn is “Peligro”, which means danger. Which is also not something you’d expect on a hill filled with bright yellow flowers.

Hear People’s Stories

Sit down with your hostel owner and a cup of coffee and learn about his family, how he came to open a hostel, what makes him happy in life. Ask the person next to you on the plane where they’re going and what they do for a living. See an elderly Jewish grandmother in Germany and be able to listen to, understand and learn from her experiences in World War II. Ask a little girl what her favorite color is, her favorite book is and whether she has any younger siblings. People are fascinating and they have incredible stories to tell, especially those that live a different life than you. And from people like that, there are endless amounts to learn.

Always Find A Job

This reason is a bit superficial, but you instantly have job security. If you’re ever, and I mean ever, unemployed, speaking rare, difficult languages will solve your problem and quickly. Where there isn’t a translation position (which there always is), there are other corporate positions that just need someone to relay information between two global units of the same company. Talk about breathing easy!

Secret Eavesdropping

Oh, the things people say to each other when they’re alone… or think that no one can understand them. This one is especially lucrative, because you can always pretend you don’t speak a native language and hear both sides of a negotiation. Of course, this also comes with a downside: people say stupid, annoying things all the time. You’ll never again have the illusion that people abroad are less obsessed with the superficial than people in your country.

This line full of Korean people wanting to buy Prada is one example of conversations I'm happy not to eavesdrop on.
This line full of Korean people wanting to buy Prada is one example of conversations I’m happy not to eavesdrop on.

Insane Dreams

Have you ever had one of those bilingual dreams, where one person is speaking English and then in your dream you’re trying to come up with the German words for your response? And then French or Korean or Spanish comes out of nowhere and you wake up super confused? No? Just me? Well, if you can fluently speak and understand every language, everywhere, then you’re going to have some absolutely crazy dreams. That’s pretty cool.

Better Informed

You know when the news only reports one side of an international story? You know when all the newspapers all say the same thing, because there was only one person who was able to translate the Cantonese and that exact translation is the same source for every TV station? Speaking every language would put an end to these limited information scenerios. You could tune into foreign broadcasts, read the newspaper in Spain and even shoot out an email to a contact in Ghana. You would be the best-informed person around.

LEARN spanish travel informed
Learning Spanish means you can read about news in all of South America, from South American sources. That’s pretty valuable.

I’m going to let out a little of my teacher side, now. While it’s probably impossible to learn all of the 6,000 or 7,000 languages in the entire world, it’s totally possible to cultivate a little slice of this superpower. Just by virtue of being able to read this, you’re already able to communicate with nearly 10% of the entire world (a little over half of those people speak English as a second language). If you learn Mandarin, just one second language, you’ve just upped your percentage to 20-25%, depending on that ESL overlap. If you learn Spanish, with 406 million native speakers, you’ve just racked up another 5% of the world with whom you can have a conversation, not adding in second language learners.

You see what I’m saying here? You can actually have 1/4th of a superpower, if you want. Yeah, it’ll take a few years of hard work and looking like a fool (with your pants on the ground! Sorry. Couldn’t resist.) And true, it’s not something you can mindlessly do, you’ll have to put in the time and effort. But you could have one fourth of a superpower! Isn’t that awesome?

That’s why I’ve written a language resource page for Korean and shared other updates on my life, while studying other languages. If other people are inspired to study a foreign language, then they are actively making their own lives better. I’ve experienced these benefits firsthand and they are real. They are significant.

And for me, all of those reasons are what keep me going in my own language studies, be it German, Spanish or now Korean. It’s always, always been worth it. And I can promise it would be for you, too.

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13 Reasons Why Pittsburgh is the Best

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When it comes to people, distance doesn’t always make the heart grow fonder. But that phrase came about for a reason, and I think that perhaps, the inventor of that phrase was actually thinking of their hometown when they said it. Ever since I’ve spent time away from home and in other lands, I’ve returned with more and more love for Pittsburgh. Maybe at that exact time Pittsburgh was also getting more and more awesome, which could be the case, but I think I was also wising up to the fact that it’s not such a bad place to be.

And with my upcoming short-term return, my mind has been dwelling on the things I’m looking forward to doing in the city of bridges. I figure that it’s about time that I sing the praises of this random US city to the travel community. Someone has to represent, right? And I’m not just saying Pittsburgh is the best because I’m from there and everything has a nostalgic feeling for me, but I truly think it’s an incredible city to live in and to sight see through. Somehow, Pittsburgh has managed to hold onto its history and past, while also making crazy futuristic advancements in a variety of areas. I love that mix; old and new, past and future. So as a city it’s got a lot to offer, my favorite of which are these following thirteen things.

1// It’s Not Dirty Anymore

So when you think of Pittsburgh, I’m guessing you think of steel or industry or possibly Heinz. Well, the factory central days of Pittsburgh are over, and have been for quite some time. The steel production has all but ceased in the areas near the city, and the air is clean, gloriously clean. One of the old steel mills was actually turned into a giant shopping center with an awesome movie theater and some nonfunctional smoke stacks as a reminder of history. Lovely. The days of black-stained-stone suburban homes are gone, Pittsburgh is as clean as can be these days.

2// Riversides Galore

Downtown Pittsburgh is situated on this triangle of land, surrounded by two rivers and a technical third, created by the rivers merging. Obviously it spills over onto both sides of all three of the rivers, which leads to one wonderful development. Riversides, glorious, river fronts and river walks and river trails galore. There’s a riverside biking/hiking trail, an entire park on “the point”, where the two rivers merge, over the river balconies and restaurants, and other random uses of riverside space. And that doesn’t even touch the boating, river cruises and just ducky tours. Pittsburgh does rivers right.

3// Market Square & PPG Plaza

Market Square and PPG Plaza are a street away from one another, so they’re kind of the same entity. In summer, Market Square has outdoor tables and plenty of restaurants and coffee shops to make sitting outside beautiful. PPG Plaza has cool automated fountains at ground level, so kids can come and run around getting soaked with water on hot days. The mood is always friendly and relaxed, even inside such a busy urban area of downtown. In winter, PPG Plaza is transformed into a giant ice skating arena with a massive Christmas tree in the middle. Tell me that isn’t awesome! You’re wrong! It’s awesome!

Awesome, I tell you.
Awesome, I tell you.

4// It’s Bikeable

There are some parts of the city that are a little terrifying on bicycle, particularly the busy downtown/fifth avenue areas. Thankfully, though, that area is very small, and the majority of the city is actually very accessible to bikers. The Southside always has a million bikers, head East over to Oakland and there are two million bikers, go deeper into Squirrel Hill, Bloomfield and Lawrenceville and you have yourself a biking party at every intersection. You can even bike over bridges. So if you’re visiting, the bike-ability should be a great help, as you can transport yourself places more easily. (Except for Mt. Washington which just can’t be helped, because it’s a giant effing mountain. Sorry.)

5// Kennywood

Do you like amusement parks? Do you like places that have history and character? Do you like really terrifyingly awesome roller coasters and delicious french fries covered in gravy? Then I can assure you that Pittsburgh’s nearby amusement park, Kennywood, is going to be one of your new favorites. It’s been open for over a hundred years, the signs are old-timey, the rides are new-timey/terrifying at times and the food is delicious, heart-attack-inducing deliciousness.

The swings are from the 80s and they're STILL fun.
The swings are from the 80s and they’re STILL fun.

6// The Pirates’ Recent Comeback

So while the last ten years were the Steelers’ golden years, they’ve since fallen into disarray that involves rape lawsuits and less than spectacular game performance. Somewhere in there, the Pens also blew a few people’s minds, but now it’s the Pirates’ turn. While for years Pittsburgh’s baseball team has held records, those have been of the depressing variety: the most consecutive losses, the most years in a row with a losing average, etc. This year, the Pirates came back, kicked butt and advanced pretty far into the playoffs. Pittsburgh baseball has officially gone from zero to hero and that’s pretty damn awesome, if you ask me.

7// The T

If you’re a public transportation nerd and addict, then Pittsburgh public transportation will satisfy you somewhat, though like most US cities, it has a ways to go. But what I love most about Pittsburgh’s public transportation system has been the continued use of the Trolley, affectionately (at least by me) called “The T”. It’s an above ground rail car that also heads underground, depending on the area, and serves most of the southern suburb areas, bringing people into the downtown area and back out. I’m not sure why I like it so much, considering that it can’t get you very far within Pittsburgh and there are only two main lines (and a couple other side shoots), so maybe this item is more nostalgia based than the others. It’s still great. You can’t tell me otherwise.

8// It’s Kind Of Hipster

Recently, someone somewhere said Pittsburgh was more hipster than Portland, Oregon. (So specific, I know!) Looking around areas like Lawrenceville and Squirrel Hill, you could easily believe it. Small businesses abound, fresh produce and fair trade, gluten-free menu items, biking as previously mentioned and farmer’s markets are all getting some solid business in Pittsburgh. You can find grocery store co-ops, tons of local breweries, a restaurant/brewery built inside an old, converted church. The Southside hosts a population that seems to be 100% tattooed and pierced from first glance. I could go on, but just suffice it to say that Pittsburgh is kind of hipster and for people looking for interesting dining/walking experiences, this is a huge plus.

Yep, you go here to drink beer and eat delicious food.
Yep, you go here to drink beer and eat delicious food.

9// Primanti Brothers

Do you like sandwiches? Primanti’s is a city-wide chain that started the way the best places do, as a hole in the wall in 1933, in a busy industrial district. Why is this place still around? Because putting french fries and coleslaw on an Italian bread, deli meat sandwich is GENIUS. Every time I come home, one of the meals I look forward to most is my first Primanti Brothers sandwich. Is it unhealthy? You bet. Is it difficult to bite, because the sandwich the size of half your face? Absolutely. Is it my recommended daily calories, in one meal? Yep. Worth it.

10// The Southside

The Southside isn’t just home to tattooed people and tattoo parlors, it’s a mishmash of interesting things, all down one very long street. (Technically the area is all the Southside, though most people mean East Carson Street when they say the name.) I’d recommend biking down Carson, but if you have the leg power and the time, walking is also a great option. All along the street you’ll find the most eclectic collection of shops: gyro places, tattoo and piercing parlors, pizza shops, independent coffee shops and a pricy sushi restaurant, some hardware stores and fair trade shops, my favorite Burger place Fatheads (that also has a huge selection of local beers), another million piercing places, a hookah bar or two, some normal bars, an Irish bar that has a little person come in on Tuesdays? Thursdays?, and towards the end of the street, a super developed area with fancy designer clothing, H&M and a favorite restaurant, the Cheesecake Factory. Talk about a weird mix.

[Note: I’ve just been informed that the aforementioned little person has passed away. RIP.]

Oh, and aside from the newly developed end of E Carson, all those eclectic shops are housed in old, historic buildings. Coolness.
Oh, and aside from the newly developed end of E Carson, all those eclectic shops are housed in old, historic buildings. Coolness.

11// The View From Mount Washington

If you want to get a view of the city (which you do, believe me), then it’s mandatory that you take the incline (trolley up the mountain) up to Mount Washington and go see the overlook. It’s a traditional spot for prom photos, engagement pictures and other picture-worthy occasions, so you won’t be alone up there. But it’s a stunning view, especially at night, and the view does not disappoint. Nor does the intro picture of this post, taken from Mt. Washington, do it justice, you’ll have to go see it yourself.

12// The Newly-elected Mayor Actually Cares

Nothing drags a city down like a crappy government, and while this may have been the case in the past (cough, cough, Ravenstahl and strippers), the future looks bright. Bill Peduto will come into office this January, and he’s already accepting applications for transition committees to get things running smoothly is a bunch of areas. As far as I can tell, Peduto is actually…. ethical. Insane for a politician, right? And when the mayor actually cares about the city he’s supposed to work for, then good things are on the horizon. Hurray.

13// Green Things

Did you know that Pittsburgh is actively trying to make the city buildings environmentally friendly? In the USA, Pittsburgh is 4th in line for having the most green buildings. The convention center is LEED-certified, seven Carnegie Mellon University buildings are “green” and the list goes on. The commitment to green space within the downtown area is easy to see and if you head farther East, towards the city neighborhoods, you can find tons of park and grass areas. Who doesn’t love green?

The Phipps Conservatory has a "green" visitors center, too!
The Phipps Conservatory has a “green” visitors center, too!

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Have you ever been to Pittsburgh? What do you love about the city? Do you disagree with anything? What’s the best sandwich from Primanti Brothers?

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Photoessay: Stunning Sunsets in Rural Korea

My area, particularly Waymok Beach is actually quite famous within Korea for its incredible sunsets. I live a few kilometers from the famed beach view, but my view of the sunset is usually pretty stunning, regardless. Framed by seemingly endless rice paddies, some beautiful cloud formations and a distant ocean, I’ve managed to capture a few killer shots. I also took a little trip to the nearby seawall to capture the photographs with the pagoda in them.

So enjoy this assortment of the most gorgeous sunsets I’ve seen in my area, and my attempts to catch them on camera. Whoever said that the countryside was boring obviously didn’t look around long enough to catch these beautiful moments.

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Photoessay: Bikes of Germany

Germany is one of those countries with its ducks all in a row when it comes to transportation. Public transportation is everywhere, convenient and cheap. Cars are small, sometimes battery powered and gas is expensive, which prohibits people from driving for dumb reasons. Scooters and motorcycles are more common than uncommon. Walking for long stretches is considered usual, and when you can’t walk, then the answer is to bike.

Biking is everywhere. Bikers have their own lanes, either part of the road or the sidewalk, and if you’re walking in the bike lane someone will yell at you and possibly just fly past you at high speeds, scaring you poopless. Most people have mastered one handed biking, biking with heavy bags, biking around sharp corners without wiping out. It’s amazing.

So, yeah, I took a lot of pictures of bicycles while I was in Germany. Why not?

motorbike germany berlin
Moto, moto, on the wall…
bike bicycle germany berlin
Biking gets you places and prevents heart disease!
beach travemunde germany bike sand
Bike to the beach, sit your butt in the sand, swim in freezing water, bike home and dry off in the process. Smart.
beach bike travemünde germany
Travemünde, Germany.
bike germany berlin street
People lock their bikes onto anything they can find, including street signs.
bike child seat germany building
Baby goes for a bike ride!
leipzig library bike bicycle
Everyone in Leipzig bikes to the library. Everyone.
munich bike bridge street
You can always drag your infant child around, too.
bike lane street munich germany
Brave souls, biking with the traffic.
bike woman street germany
Bike and sightsee at the same time!
bike germany graffiti wall
Bicycles and graffiti somehow go together quite well…
bike river bridge germany
Some people bike to the river, then relax for a while outside.
bike bush germany green
Or people just stick their bikes into the bushes.
germany potsdam bike tour path woods
Biking through Potsdam was one of the best things I did during vacation.
bike german berlin street river
If you didn’t bring a bike to Germany, you can always rent one.

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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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Your Crash Course in K-Pop

If you’re anything like me before I came to Korea, you figure that Korea probably makes its own music, but you know nothing about it. This is your crash course in Korean Pop music, or K-Pop. It’s weird, it’s wonderful, it’s sung in both English and Korean and it’s kind of a big deal. Dive in. Your life may never be the same.

Image is Everything

This isn’t surprising in Korea, where image is already important. In music videos, it’s ten times more important. Everything you can imagine is done to the maximum: hair, makeup, set and backgrounds and more than anything, fashion.  This is pretty similar to any culture, but this is Korean style. Dialed up, it can look crazy. Oh and most of the artists have huge budgets… so it just gets insane.

Example: Hyuna – Ice Cream

Coordinated Dancing Rules

Remember Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time” and N*Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye”? How awesome were those dance moves? If you’re a fan of coordinated dance, then you’re already a fan of K-Pop and you don’t even know it yet. While the USA music video industry grew out of their coordinated dances phase, the K-Pop world just made them bigger and badder than ever.

Example: Girls’ Generation – I Got a Boy

Boy/Girl Bands

Did you notice how many girls were dancing in the last video? They weren’t all back up dancers… that was the actual group. Girls’ Generation is one of the most famous artists with a million people in it (okay, so there are nine) and the boy band EXO, between their Korean and Chinese members has 12 people. INSANE! Most groups are less, and the magic number seems to be about 6. And if you haven’t guessed this yet, yes, the Boy/Girl Bands and coordinated dancing pretty much go hand in hand.

Example: BEAST – Bad Girl

Single Girl Singers

The alternative to the groups, are the solo singers, which are almost entirely women, with few exceptions. They sing plenty of sad ballads about being heartbroken or lonely, but there’s always the occasional single girl mantra or happy song. These tend to come and go in fame, one hit wonder kind of artists, sadly. Some of them are extremely talented (even if their choice of ballad is not).

Example: Lee Hi – It’s Over

K-Pop Fans

I’m going to put this simply: K-Pop fans can be obsessed and insane. More than you’ve ever seen. Belieber fans on cocaine. It’s a little bit cult-like and people all over the world go crazy for K-pop. If you’re not 300% in love with an artist’s music, it may be more stressful than fun to go to a concert, since K-pop obsessed teenage girls are known to scream, push, kick and let nothing get in their way of a potential sighting of their idol. God help you if you’re accidentally in a public space when a K-Pop band shows up to do a signing and fan meet… you will not be able to move and your ears might break open.

Example: A news story about international K-Pop Fans, one of which shows off her tattoos of the group ‘Super Junior”

It’s a Machine

Here’s a fun fact: K-Pop celebrities are fully manufactured. Scouted out in elementary or middle school school, the label takes them under their wing and makes them “trainees”. For years. Rigorous singing, dancing, music, English, everything under the sun lessons and a full-time life dedication are required. For years. And then when the label decides you’re ready, you pop out into the popular music scene like an egg freshly hatched. Awww, so cute. Except kind of torturous…

Example: This guy that was a trainee explains his daily schedule (in English, don’t worry!).

G-Dragon

Yeah, you’ve heard of PSY and that’s great, but in order to know anything about K-Pop, you NEED to understand who G-Dragon is. He is the biggest deal, biggest name, most famous, most insane and most arrogant, with a lot of reason. He’s legend. In his earlier videos, he’s androgynous as all hell, why does he look like a woman now? A man? Who knows. He doesn’t care. Basically G-Dragon doesn’t care about anything, except for his music, which he makes incredible. I could keep explaining, or I could just make you watch this music video.

Example: G-Dragon – “미치Go” (or “Go Crazy”)

Because he’s G-Dragon, here’s a second video: G-Dragon – One of a Kind

Congratulations, you’ve just graduated from your crash course in Korean pop music! YouTube can provide all advanced lessons on the subject.

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What do you think of K-Pop, do you like it? Is it insane? Do you want to sign up to be a trainee and slave away for years, too?

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How To Stay Warm in Winter Like a Korean

Before I left for Korea, my grandmother asked me one question that I remember clearly: “Are you bringing a warm winter coat? I heard winter in Korea is bitter cold.” At the moment it was June, and I knew her knowledge of Korea’s weather primarily stemmed from news that troops were freezing their balls off during the Korean war, which (at least during the winter months) was fought closer to North Korea. So I brushed it off, seeing that the latitude was similar to Pennsylvania and thinking that yeah, North Korea is probably bitter cold in the winter, but I’ll be in the South!

Well, imagine my surprise later in the year when the freezing rains became freezing snow and then it was dry and just plain freezing. Freezing, I tell you! I’ve never been so cold. I’ve also never been to Russia, Canada during winter months or anywhere with much of a temperature drop in comparison to Pennsylvania. So I was caught off guard, to put it simply. Grandma, you were right, dang it! (That’ll teach me to ignore advice from smarter, older people.)

I suffered a lot during my first winter, because I didn’t have a good jacket at first, didn’t own a lot of leggings and couldn’t figure out how the heating worked in my apartment. Eventually I figured it out, though, and I’m much more prepared for this upcoming winter. Part of my preparation comes from picking up tips from the Korean winter experts, themselves: Korean people. They look stoic in the winter months, not shivering, not uttering words of complaint. Sometimes I like to imagine that Koreans are actually just immune to temperatures and have special Asian skin made for horribly, painfully cold temperatures. Totally not true, they just know what they’re doing cause, you know, they live here. All the time.

Except for those girls in short skirts, there is definitely magic going on there. You girls be crazy.

So, if you’re new to Korea and don’t understand why your coworkers aren’t chattering their teeth and losing limbs to frostbite, I’m about to break open their secrets. None of them are particularly genius, really, but for those of us with little cold-weather sense, they make a big difference. This is how to stay warm in the winter, like a Korean.

The Clothes

First, you need a serious thick sweater that goes with everything, so you can wear it everyday. You’ll want all of your shirts and sweaters to cover your butt, so buy them as long as you can find. Bonus if it has a hood. Then you need thin, warm underlayers. They are the foundation of everything: under your pants you’ll need thin leggings, under your long sleeved shirt you’ll need a thinner, long sleeved shirt. Those girls you see in Seoul wearing only leggings in the bitter cold? They have a secret weapon, a fuzzy, fur-like lining inside the leggings. Back to the top, even better if you have a thin tank top underneath that thin long-sleeved shirt. Think layers, tiny layers and way too many layers. Don’t just embody an onion in layers of personality, dress like an onion. (Don’t smell like an onion, though.) As for your footsies, buy the super fuzzy socks or if you need to put shoes on top, wear two pairs of socks.

Like these!
fuzzy socks

Outerwear, you’ll want a scarf and a hat (duh), maybe with cute ears attached to it (double duh). Get cell phone friendly gloves, the ones with magnetic magic in the tips of the fingers so you can use your phone from the warmth of your finger blanket. Your jacket needs to be hardcore: multi-layered, fuzzy or fur inside, rain resistant and long. Spend money on your jacket because it will become your dearest possession when those temperature digits start growing, but in the negative.

Most popular among older people and children, cloth face masks must be mentioned, even if they make people look like they’re sick and trying not to spread disease. In reality, they’re just keeping the air warm before they breathe it into their lungs, and I can attest from personal experience that not only does it work but it’s wonderful for freezing cold morning runs. (I just look ridiculous, that’s all!) You can grab them in plenty of colors, with cute pink animals adorning the front or in a simple frill-free white.

I mentioned so much about underwear/clothes, because that’s the big secret: be the onion. And then wear a good jacket.

The Housewares

The big Korean secret that you’ve probably heard about but don’t quite understand the gloriousness of (until you experience it) is ondol, the underfloor heating system, where warm water flows through pipes below your feet. There is nothing better on a freezing cold winter day than putting a blanket on the floor and laying down on a warm surface. Nothing compares.

Another secret, which once again isn’t such a big secret, is using an electric blanket. During the worst months when six blankets isn’t cutting it because your face is still exposed to cold air, the electric blanket will do the trick. (But making a cave and tunneling under all your blankets won’t hurt, either!)

I do a stock image search for "blanket" and this is what it comes up with... really?
I do a stock image search for “blanket” and this is what it comes up with… really?

If you must, there are also space heaters, but that opens up a whole new can of worms called “how not to set your house on fire while you’re sleeping”, so I’d advise just figuring out how the ondol works and cuddling up with the below.

The Noms & Drinks

Asians are pretty stellar at having seasonal foods and drinks that should be consumed dutifully only during particular times of year. Koreans are no exception.

While Koreans eat hot food for pretty much every meal, throughout the year, no matter what, the fare gets a little heavier when it’s cold outside. Rice porridge becomes more popular, instead of only among sick people. Soups become meat-heavy and rice is given in excess. While roaming the streets, one of the most popular (and spectacularly tasty) items to buy is hodeok, a pancake-like thing filled with warm cinnamon and nutty goodness. Also good are red-bean-paste filled pastries, served warm, mandu or Korean-style dumplings and pretty much anything else warm that can be eaten. Another one of my winter favorites is no nonsense, baked sweet potato, peeled and eaten as is.

It's warm, but ANYTHING BUT THIS. [Read about how I got food poisoning and it was all my fault, here.]
It’s warm, but ANYTHING BUT THIS. [Read about how I got food poisoning and it was all my fault.]
As for the drinks, there are a plethora of coffee/milk/unidentified warm drinks ready to go at every convenience store. My favorite of these is definitely the honey and ginseng drink, which is exactly what it sounds like: honey, ginseng and water. (Ginseng in general is considered a winter necessity, in whichever form.) Koreans use warm drinks essentially as hand warmers in the cold months while at work, cupping their little instant coffee and only occasionally sipping it. While this goes for all year round, as well, drinking soju and makgeolli warms even the coldest body up.

The secret: eat warm, drink warm, and be warm.

[For a full list, see Seoulistic.com’s article: 15 Popular Korean Winter Foods and Snacks]

The Big Secret

You’ve become the onion and draped a giant coat on top, embraced the ondol (and the heating bills that come with it) and begun consuming a steady stream of warm food and drink. If you’re still cold, the last secret I can give you is this: ignore it. Pretty much your only other option would be to become Korean, and if possible, I’m both impressed and in favor of that transformation. But as far as I can tell, if a Korean is cold, they’re not talking about it. They’re ignoring it. I think that’s the final weapon, the last ditch effort against a constant affront of freezing wind and really cold feet. Don’t think about it. Go where you’re going. Move on.

And with that, you’ll be warm enough.

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NaBloPoMo, Yo

Are you confused? Allow me to explain.

National Blog Posting Month, or NaBloPoMo, is organized by a site called BlogHer.com. The goal is pretty simple: post something new everyday. The serious writers among us may instead be participating in NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, and kudos to them. I’ll be blogging.

Coming up with new ideas everyday will be a stretch, particularly coming up with ideas worth expanding on. That’s one of the main reasons that I’m choosing to participate in this: it’ll exercise my brain, get me thinking about different things to write about and hopefully, in the long run, make me that much better of a blogger. I have a feeling I’ll be digging into the archives of my experiences, my semester abroad in Argentina or even as far back as my high school adventures in Austria. I’ve completely neglected talking about my three days in Northern Cyprus, back in January, and I’m sure there’s more material to find and work with. Interesting things are a-comin’.

So, get ready for a lot of blog posts! And get excited! If there’s anything specific you’d like me to write about this month, then please contact me. I’m sure I’ll be hurting for ideas at some point. (Blog prompts are available, but they’re more directed towards personal blogs.) In the meantime, sit back and relax while I do all the work.

To writing!

NaBloPoMo Progress to Date

1// This introductory post, you’ve just read it 🙂
2// Weird Noms: Salt & Seaweed Flavored Pringles
3// An Honest Review of 16 Months Studying Korean
4// Working in a Small, Private Middle School in Rural South Korea
5// The Characters of Sambong
6// You Know You’ve Been in Korea Too Long When…
7// iPhone Photoessay: (Delicious) Things I Consumed in Istanbul

8// How To Stay Warm In Winter Like a Korean
9// Foreign Movie Pick: “Friend” (2001)
10// Mini iPhone Photoessay: A Week of School Lunches
11// Pepero Day in Korea
12// Typhoon Haiyan, Human Suffering and Responsibility
13// iPhone Photoessay: St. Hilarian Castle in Cyprus
14// Featured Photograph: Red, Green, Yellow, Orange
15// Your Crash Course in K-Pop
16// The Slow Decline of Days
17// Random Snippets of Life in South Korea
18// Language Misadventures: How I Adopted and Unadopted a Dog Before 8am
19// iPhone Photoessay: (Delicious) Things I Consumed in Argentina
20// Photoessay: Bikes of Germany
21// Photoessay: Stunning Sunsets in Rural Korea
22// 13 Reasons Why Pittsburgh is the Best
23// The Superpower You Can Cultivate: Foreign Language
24// My Top 5 Wanderlist
25// 11 Christmas Gifts for Travelers, Vagabonds and Wanderers
26// iPhone Photoessay: Ruins of Salamis in Cyprus
27// Sacrifices of Travel: Thanksgiving Away From Home
28// Featured Photograph: White on Water
29// A Look Ahead: The Last Month in Korea

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