Category Archives: Travel

Portugal, part one — the Dão wine region: heavy on biking, light on wine.

This past week, Alastair and I took a vacation to Portugal. It had been on the top of my list of places to visit for years, and since we hadn’t gotten a chance to go while we were in London, as soon as Al got the opportunity for vacation, we took it. (Incidentally, for my insane husband, who has traveled more than anyone I know, Portugal was his 99th country visited. 99th!! We think he’s going to hit 100 this summer when we go to Belize. Like I said: insane (in the membrane)). Anyway, our trip can be neatly divided into three parts: 1) the Dão wine region; 2) Sintra; and 3) Lisbon. So, without further ado, I give you: Portugal, part one: the Dão.

Azulejo, Nelas train station

Azulejo, Nelas train station

In the Dão, we hoped to bike through lush vineyards while stopping frequently to taste wine. That was pretty much our entire plan. But, as we soon found out, things would not go exactly to plan.

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Making the best of things = kind of our strong suit.

Immediately upon arriving in Portugal, we took a couple of trains from Lisbon to Santa Comba Dão, the tiny town where we’d be staying at an agro-tourism cabin. We have no real interest in agro-tourism, unless you consider drinking large amounts of wine to be agro-tourism, but the place we were staying, Quinta da Abelenda, advertised that it was situated near a bunch of vineyards, and it rented out bikes, so it sounded perfect for our purposes. We pictured ourselves biking idly along country roads, stopping every couple of kilometers to booze it up in some beautiful vineyard. I had a really clear vision of us laughing over a baguette and clinking wine glasses in a sun-dappled meadow. What a fool I was!

Quinta da Fata

Quinta da Fata

We arrived in Santa Comba Dão quite late at night and went to bed as soon as we got in, after lighting the cozy wood stove in the cabin. The next morning, we were eager to get a move on our wine adventure, so we asked the proprietor of the establishment what route we should take. He seemed utterly baffled by the idea that visitors to the well-known wine region in which he owns tourist lodgings would be interested in tasting wine. He literally — literally — scratched his head with confusion and told us that it would perhaps be possible, in some theoretical sense of the word, to taste wine, in the same way that going to Jupiter is possible. But he didn’t have any clear ideas on how we would go about doing it.

Wood stove in our cabin

Wood stove in our cabin

We decided, since we had gotten a late start on the day, to just try for a full day of wine tasting the next day, and take the bikes out instead, assuming that we’d pass at least a few wineries along the way. Our cabin was situated along the Ecopista do Dão, a paved biking and walking path that stretches ~50 km (~30 miles) from Santa Comba Dão to the bustling city of Vizeu. So we set off on our bikes for a leisurely journey.

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Fifty kilometers and zero wineries later, we were crabby, sore, hot, starving, and thirsty. We walked our bikes around Vizeu, a pretty disappointing town, considering the vast effort expended to get there, until we found a restaurant, where we shoved food into our mouths like urchins. When it was time to go, I found that my butt was actually too tender from the last three hours of biking in jeans to remount a bike, so we found a bus to take us back to Santa Comba Dão. After quite a to-do involving taking the wheels and the handlebars off the bikes so that they’d fit in the hold of the bus, and then struggling to put everything back together again once we arrived at our destination, we sighed with relief to be back in Santa Comba Dão, butts intact. However, we found that the bus had dropped us off quite far from the cabin, and since I physically could ride no more, we had to walk our bikes several miles back to the cabin, as it was getting dark. Then we got lost. I think the low point was walking our bikes in the pitch dark along the side of a highway, semis and cars roaring by us, with no clear idea of where the hell we were. I should also add that we were hungry, I was cold, and, as I’ve already mentioned, my butt hurt. Not my finest moment.

Ecopista path

Ecopista path

The next day, we awoke with renewed vigor, determined to go wine tasting if it killed us. Long story short: the Dão did not feel like opening its welcoming arms to two eager wine tourists, and we were stymied at every turn. Long story long: We took a train to a town called Nelas, where we had heard that there might be wineries that actually allow people to taste their wines. After fruitlessly driving around in a taxi and passing several wineries, none of which were open, we finally made it to Quinta da Fata, a beautiful winery that, lo and behold, had wine available for tasting! [Cue heavenly choir!]

Lemon tree at Quinta da Fata

Lemon tree at Quinta da Fata

Although Quinta da Fata does not do traditional “tastings,” the bottles are very cheap (and very good!), so they encourage people to just buy a bottle and sit outside to drink it. So we did that, and it was lovely. The woman who owns the place was very kind and gave us an extensive tour of the winemaking facilities, the house, and the bed and breakfast, all of which were empty when we were there. After sitting in the sun, admiring the view, and sipping some wine, we left feeling optimistic about our prospects for finding other nice wineries in the area. That optimism ended up being misplaced, because the next place we went, while open, told us they couldn’t do a tasting because the wines “weren’t the right temperature” (huh?), so we just bought a couple of bottles and took the train back to Santa Comba Dão, accepting defeat.

Tiled bench at Quinta da Fata

Tiled bench at Quinta da Fata

That evening, we sat out on our porch at the cabin, admired the horses, dogs, chickens, and cats that came to say olá, drank some of the wine we had bought, ate prosciutto and sheep’s cheese, and read. Here’s a fairly uneventful (but short) video of what our evening looked like.

Once we accepted that we were not going to have the wine tasting experience we had anticipated, a burden was lifted, in a way, and we felt free to enjoy just sitting around and watching the world go by. I think there’s some sort of life lesson in there, about keeping expectations low, not trying to plan everything, going with the flow, and so on. Lesson learned, I guess. I think we had such high expectations for wine tasting in Portugal because we had done a similar thing in the Wachau Valley of Austria in 2010 and it was magical. As I recall, everything was easy and charming and boozy and fun. But actually, re-reading my blog post from that trip, I see now that a similar thing happened then, in which our expectations, at least at first, did not meet reality, and we had to adjust. Lots of the wineries were closed, we were turned away by an angry ogre at one of them, and it poured rain on us as we were biking. I had sort of forgotten about all of that. I guess it’s easy to forget mishaps in the past because they all get lost in the fond haze of vacation nostalgia.

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Overall, though, the Dão was beautiful and relaxing. We did eventually taste some nice wines, and I’ll never forget our cozy cabin with the wood stove and friendly horses. I’m calling it a success!

Next post: Portugal, part 2: Sintra.

Lessons from 2013

It’s the last day of 2013 and I feel as if I should write a post reflecting upon the year: the places I went, the lessons I learned, the ways I grew. But quite honestly, to quote Sweet Brown, ain’t nobody got time for that. Plus, I already did one of those posts, way back in October. And all of the stuff I said in my earlier post still applies: I still like routine, I still like putting things away in drawers, I still hate getting rejected. So today, I’d like to add just a few additional (and surprising) things I’ve learned over this past year of living abroad, moving constantly, and trying new things.

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1. Writing takes perseverance.

I’ve said this one before, and I’ll keep saying it, if only to remind myself that this writing thing isn’t meant to be easy. When I started off on my professional writing endeavor last October, I knew, intellectually, that it would be challenging and would require a certain amount of stick-to-it-iveness. I didn’t realize, though, just how much stubborn, unflappable perseverance it would take. I’ve learned, after a year of trying, that to hack it as a professional writer, you must develop a skin of rhino-like thickness, constantly muddle through morasses of confusion and disappointment, and force yourself to continue to pursue a goal that might not actually be reachable. Because it’s worth it. (And I’m still not giving up.)

2. You don’t need that much stuff.

Since moving to London in July, Al and I have moved apartments (and/or hotels) eight or nine times (we lost track of the exact number after a while — I blame PTSD). And the main thing one learns very quickly after being forced to haul one’s stuff around London in a taxi cab at rush-hour is that one simply has too much stuff.

When we moved to South Africa last October, Al and I put most of our earthly possessions into storage in Virginia and brought only a fraction of our belongings with us to South Africa. Then, when we packed up for London, we took only a fraction of THAT. And now, after living in a series of one-room corporate apartments, that amount of stuff even feels like too much. At this point, we’ve each pared down to two suitcases of stuff, because we only have a month left in London, and traveling with more is just too hard.

When we move back to DC in a month, I’m really looking forward to getting all of our things in one place and doing a giant purge of our belongings. We did a purge once before, a few years ago, and man, it feels great (and it’s cheaper than therapy, a spa day, and/or buying more stuff). By the way, anyone interested in doing a purge, or even in just decluttering, should read the excellent book The Hoarder In You. (Don’t be put off by the title!) The book breaks down the emotional reasons why we hold on to stuff and gives the reader strategies for simplifying, decluttering, and lightening. Highly recommended!

3. However, some stuff enriches your life. Keep that stuff.

I could never get rid of ALL my stuff. What would I do without yarn, knitting needles, books, and my running shoes? What about my underwater MP3 player, my pink leather gloves, and my Le Creuset Dutch oven? Sure, I COULD get rid of that stuff — but it would negatively impact the quality of my life. I’ve learned that some stuff is not just necessary, but happy-making. My advice is to figure out what those things are for you and hold on to them. Get rid of the rest (or at least, a lot of the rest).

4. Coming home is still the sweetest part of travel.

I love to travel, and I wouldn’t trade our last year of adventures abroad for anything. But I’m really looking forward to coming back to the States and starting my life there, with Al. We’ve enjoyed being away, but we’re so excited to come back.

So, that’s it: just a few life lessons I’ve picked up during the past year. What have you learned this year? Was 2013 a good one for you or an absolute stinker? For me, it was one of my best years — but I’m optimistic that this next one will be even better. Happy New Year to all of my readers, whoever and wherever you are. I wish you success, peace, and joy in the new year. See you in 2014.

Dashing through the snow

I know I said in my last post that I’d write from California, but I just didn’t get around to it. Sorry. The truth is, I spent ten days in San Francisco relaxing and didn’t do one ounce of writing the entire time I was there. Sometimes you need a break, and I figure Christmas vacation is the perfect time to embrace laziness. And embrace it I did!

Hanging with Dougal on the back porch

My mom hanging with Dougal on the back porch, San Francisco

Now I’m in Bangor, Maine, with Al’s dad, step-mom, two brothers, and his family’s two dogs and three cats. It’s a full house but it doesn’t feel crowded. It just feels cozy. I love coming to Maine around Christmastime because it really feels like Christmas here. It’s cold (and getting colder). There’s snow (and there’s a lot more on the way). We all sit inside near a blazing pellet stove and eat unhealthy food. Like I said: cozy.

Hanging out in Bangor

Hanging out in Bangor

 

It’s quite a contrast from San Francisco, where the weather during our visit was stunningly gorgeous: warm and bright, with clear, blue skies. We took walks to the beach in short-sleeves, I went on a bunch of perfectly temperate outdoor runs, we had drinks on the back porch, and we saw some beautiful sunsets. I love a good California Christmas, and always will. But Maine in late December provides that classic, wintry feel that reminds me of growing up in Michigan, where Christmas was always white.

California Christmas weather

California Christmas weather

Yesterday morning, I went for a five mile run around Bangor and enjoyed the snow. (Ginger, Al’s step-mom, let me borrow her snow cleats, so I didn’t fall on the ice — always a risk with me). I paused to take some photos of the streets as I ran, and tried to remember the last time I saw snow. It must have been Christmas two years ago, when I went to Ottawa to visit Al’s mom and step-dad. Crazy!

Snowy Bangor

Snowy Bangor

Since Al and I have lived abroad for the past year, we’ve totally missed out on seeing any snow (not that I’m complaining, mind you), so it’s quite a shock to be surrounded by it now. And Maine’s just getting started: the weather report says that there’s a big blizzard on the way, and the high temperature in Bangor on Thursday will be negative 4 degrees Fahrenheit. I repeat: NEGATIVE FOUR IS THE HIGH.

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Those kinds of frigid temperatures are mind-boggling to me. I guess I’ve been away from the North for too long to be able to even process what negative temperatures mean anymore. Not that I’ll be venturing outside to experience them for myself. No, no: you can find me by the pellet stove.

Flying

I’m writing this post from Boston Logan airport, where I have a six (!!) hour layover before my flight to San Francisco. Oh, and I took a seven-and-a-half hour flight from London to get here. So by the time I arrive in San Francisco, I will have been in an airport or plane (most likely without sleep) for a full twenty-four hours. Yippee.

The view from the airport window, Boston

The view from the airport window, Boston

 

When you live abroad for extended periods of time, you have to do this kind of travel fairly often, at least if you want to ever see your family or attend milestone events, which I do. Things get complicated when one’s family lives in San Francisco, which seems to be the furthest city on Earth from every other city I’ve ever lived in or have wanted to live in. (São Paulo-San Francisco was bad. Joburg-San Francisco was ridiculous. London-San Francisco, perhaps not surprisingly, is also not great). But sitting on long plane rides is one of the tradeoffs you make to live in cool, far-flung places. And, as I pointed out a while ago, living abroad does involve some tradeoffs.

My attitude on long-haul travel has shifted over the years. When I was a kid, I loved riding on planes and thought going to the airport was exciting and even a touch glamorous. Then 9-11 happened and I started to get really rattled by turbulence, which, I realize, is not logical, but there it is. (I guess my brain thought the terrorists were shaking the plane? I don’t know. Don’t question it). This new phobia meant that I no longer enjoyed the experience of being on a plane. Airports also no longer seemed glamorous, but instead seemed vaguely menacing. To make matters worse, over the years, my patience for sitting on my butt in a cramped plane seat has decreased as the hassle of air travel has increased. I mean, for the last twelve years or so, going to the airport has become such a colossal pain in the butt, you know? International travel is an even BIGGER pain in the butt, because of customs, and passport controls, and long lines, and time zones, and threat levels, and so on. Just the thought of it is exhausting. But you grit your teeth and you get through it. What’s the alternative? Don’t travel? Come on.

Of course, I miss the days when I looked forward to travel, but my attitude toward flying has improved a bit over the years. I no longer white-knuckle it through turbulence, unless it’s really bad. (This blog helped). Today’s travel, so far, has been really smooth, and even had a few moments of luck thrown in. The first bit of luck was that the guy in Heathrow decided not to charge me for my grossly overweight bag (which, oddly, never happens when I’m traveling with Al — hmm!). Then, I got an aisle seat on the plane (score!) and every single time I went to the bathroom (approximately 20 times), the lavatory was empty (double score!). That has NEVER happened to me on a flight before. Normally, I’m the small-bladdered lady standing in the aisle, impatiently waiting for someone to get out of the bathroom, already. But not today! My good luck sort of ran out in Boston when I couldn’t get on an earlier flight to San Francisco and I got charged $50 for my ginormous bag, but at least they let me check in for my flight six hours early. So things aren’t all bad.

Next time I write, I’ll be in San Francisco (and not on a plane OR in an airport). Can’t wait!

Oslo

I turned 31 this weekend, and to celebrate, Al planned a surprise weekend getaway for us to Oslo. He didn’t tell me where we were going until the night before, but, as I mentioned, he gave me cryptic little clues along the way.

Oslo

Oslo

On Friday night, we took the train to Stanstead Airport and flew to Oslo. When we got off the plane, it was rainy and cold and so dark we couldn’t see anything out the windows of the shuttle bus to the city center. But the next morning, when we emerged into the Oslo daylight, we saw this:

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Leaves, glorious leaves!

 

As you may know, I’m a sucker for fall colors. And Oslo seriously kicks butt when it comes to fall colors, you guys.

To wit:

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Apart from goggling at the beautiful leaves, Al and I packed a lot of stuff into our brief weekend in Oslo. On Saturday morning, we walked around the city and took in the major sights. As it turns out, there aren’t a ton of “major sights” in Oslo because it’s quite a small (but very pretty) city. First, we checked out the Opera House, which was designed to look like a glacier floating in the harbor. It’s a pretty stunning sight from afar, and it’s even cooler to be able to walk on top of it and get a view of the city and the harbor.

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In the afternoon, we headed to the excellent Norwegian Museum of Cultural History. Part of it is a traditional museum, indoors, with exhibits behind glass (including an exhibit about Norway’s long knitting tradition!). But another part of it is an open-air museum full of traditional Norwegian buildings (farmhouses, storehouses, lofts, churches) with restored interiors that you can peek into. Many of the buildings (such as the Stave Church, which was originally from circa 1200) were refurbished and brought to the park by King Oscar II in the 1880s.

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My favorite exhibit was an apartment building that you could walk through that showed various apartments of both fictional and real families from the late 19th century to the late 20th century. Since Al and I saw Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House here in London for Al’s birthday a few weeks ago, we were interested to see the recreation of the Helmers’ (fictional) apartment (it was cool!). After that, we also paid a visit to the Viking Ship Museum, which, I’m sorry, was overrated (and kind of a rip-off). Save your krones and just go see the cool open-air cultural museum.

For my birthday dinner, we ate at the wonderful Smalhans, which specializes in fresh food and organic wines. We had an eight-course dinner and it was SO delicious. After dinner, being the big nerds we are, we set out to find the apartment of Harry Hole, one of our favorite (fictional) alcoholic Norwegian detectives. After some searching, we found it!

Outside Harry Hole's house

Outside Harry Hole’s house

 

We also found Harry’s local bar/restaurant, Schroeder’s. We were going to go in, but it actually seemed to be full of locals (like, REAL locals) and we got intimidated. But we saw the outside, so. Mission accomplished.

On Sunday, we spent part of the day wandering through the sculpture garden at Vigeland Park, which includes more than 200 sculptures designed by Gustav Vigeland. Some of the sculptures were nice. Some of them were weird. And others were, frankly, disturbing. See for yourself.

Parenting: what not to do.

Parenting: what not to do.

Arm wrestling?

Arm wrestling?

A Scorpio and a scorpion

A Scorpio and a scorpion

After gawping at the weird sculptures, we went and grabbed some lunch at a cozy cafe, where I chowed down on elk tartare (first time for everything) and Al had a tiny bowl of French onion soup that cost more than our monthly rent in South Africa (well, almost). But it was worth it! It was such a great birthday weekend! I’m so glad I got to see Oslo, even if only for a weekend. Thank you, Al, for a great trip. Now let’s get planning that weekend trip to Finland…

 

 

 

 

One year later

It’s been a whole year since I wrote my first post on this blog, in which I fretted about moving to South Africa while recovering from a bout of typhoid fever and an über-traumatic last week at the law firm. In the intervening year, as with most years, a lot has happened. We’ve moved from the US to South Africa to the UK. We’ve traveled to a bunch of new countries. I’ve launched a fledgling writing career. We’ve made new friends. I’ve discovered sewing and rediscovered knitting. Overall, my life is a lot better than it used to be, and I wake up most days looking forward to the day to come.

But when I stop and think about it, it actually doesn’t feel like a whole year has passed. Perhaps this is because all of the big life changes over the past year — quitting my job, moving abroad, starting a new career — happened in rapid succession, and I’ve just spent the rest of the year adjusting to a new routine. The year marker also feels a bit arbitrary, because we’re still in the midst of our big International Adventure, and it doesn’t seem appropriate to do any real retrospective thinking until I’m back in the US and can look at my time abroad with some remove.

A year in, though, here are a few things I can say that I have learned so far:

  1. I like routine. And I like feeling like I have a home. I wrote about this here and my feelings on the matter have only become more acute, because Al and I have had to pick up and move within London several times since then. We’ve been in our current apartment for less than a week and we’re moving again tomorrow. It’s a giant pain. When you move so frequently, and with such short notice, it’s not even worth unpacking your suitcases. I hate that. As much as I love seeing different parts of London, I long for a settled place in the city, somewhere I can use the drawers and closets and get into a comfortable routine. I guess there’s nothing like living like a (reasonably well-to-do) vagabond for an extended period of time that makes one appreciate the comforts of home. Also, it teaches you flexibility. And flexibility is good, right?
  2. South Africa was a mix of good and bad, and that’s okay. Just the other night, I was telling Al that there are certain things I miss about South Africa. The weather, for one. The intense, clear blue of the sky. The vivid sunsets. That wintry wood-smoke smell. Our big, roomy apartment with the little balcony and barbecue. Our car, as unreliable and beat-up as it was. The cost of living. The steak. The wine. But, I realized, it’s possible for me to miss all of that and still never want to live in Joburg again. It’s also possible to say that I disliked Joburg as a city but liked our life there. Life is tricky like that.
  3. Rejections are tough. Enough said.
  4. Having a support network is important. Duh.
  5. I miss the US, but I’m not desperate to go back. I think maybe in the spring, or even after New Year’s, I’ll feel really ready to go back to the States. But right now, I’m content to stay in London a bit longer; I really like it here. (It would just help if we could nail down the housing situation.)
  6. I wouldn’t want to do this with anyone but Al. The thing that no one tells you about having an international adventure is that it’s full of annoyances. Living abroad, it turns out, requires juggling an immense amount of logistics. And logistics are a pain in the ass. It helps to have a partner who you like when you’re trying to figure out how to not go bat-poop insane when you have to move for the fourth time in a month, or when your power goes out, or when you get not one but two flat tires in a foreign country, or what have you. Living abroad, even in a cushy, convenient place like London, is always a challenge. If you and your partner come out  of it still liking each other and wanting to travel together, so much the better. Being here with Al has reinforced what I already knew about him: he’s patient, adventurous, and flexible. He also listens to me when I whine about having to pack up my knitting stuff. He gets it. Getting it is important.  IMG_4334
  7. Being abroad makes me more aware of my Americanness. There are two sides to this coin, of course. Occasionally, I’ll see something that will make me feel smug and superior because I know my country has its s**t figured out on that issue. Walking on one side of the sidewalk, for instance. America has that DOWN. England? Not so much. Another example: Chinese food. England, please take notes on this. And don’t even get me started on Mexican food. But then, there are other things that make me realize how a**-backwards certain things are in my beloved country. There are the obvious examples (healthcare! education! Miley Cyrus!) but there are also subtle things. Like, in London, MOST movie theaters that I’ve been to serve booze. In DC, I can only think of one movie theater off the top of my head (The E Street Cinema) that does that. What gives, America? Also, London’s public transportation system is great, the post office is quick and efficient (which, as an American, is mind-blowing), and they have double-decker buses. Makes me think America needs to get on the ball, and fast. But then I’ll watch an episode of Hens Behaving Badly or see a drunk girl peeing in the street at ten o’clock at night and I’ll go right back to feeling smug and superior. So, it’s a mixed bag.
  8. I am officially too old to stay in hostels with shared bathrooms. There, I said it.

I’ve probably learned other things along the way but those are the big ones. So, I’m just going to continue enjoying my time abroad and figuring things out. Maybe I’ll check back in a year from now and tell you what else I’ve learned.

Traveling v. settling in

For almost a year now, Al and I have been lucky enough to live abroad: first in South Africa and now in the United Kingdom. When we signed up to do this international stint, we wanted an adventure: namely, the opportunity to live in and travel to new places. And we’ve certainly gotten that. When we were in Joburg, we got to travel all around Southern Africa, and now that we’re here in London, we’ve gotten to go to Scotland (twice!), Denmark, and Corsica, and hopefully we’ll get to do a bit more traveling before we leave. It’s pretty awesome. Al and I look at each other sometimes and reflect on how lucky we are to be able to do this.

BUT. (You knew there was a “but” coming, right?)

The truth is that the price of being mobile (or, to put it differently, being hobos) for a year and a half is that there is a crap ton (i.e., a lot) of uncertainty about where we’re going next, and when. The way we’ve chosen to do this within Al’s company has meant that we must go where Al gets staffed, with little notice ahead of time. So, although we’ve been in the UK for three months now, we don’t know how much longer we’ll be here, or even where we’ll go next if we don’t stay here. There’s always a cloud of uncertainty hanging over our heads in the short term, which means that we have to be really flexible. And being flexible is hard.

Have international driver's license; will travel.

Have international driver’s license; will travel.

The other day, for example, we had to move out of our corporate apartment and check into a hotel for one night and then move back into the corporate apartment. In preparing to do this, we realized how much stuff we had accumulated (and I will take credit for a lot of it: my sewing and knitting habit adds up to a lot of crafty detritus) and how annoying it is to have to haul all of it around London. We resolved to do a purge of our stuff when we get back to DC, and in the meantime, to put a lot of it in storage so that we can move more easily on short notice, if we need to. This is the sensible solution; it’s always better to have less stuff.

BUT.

The stuff I’ve accumulated — sewing books, knitting needles, yarn, cloth, thread, scissors, the handmade products of my labors, and so on — represents, to me, a life in one place. And, despite my love of travel, I really like living life in one place. Don’t get me wrong, traveling is great! But I enjoy having a home to come back to afterwards. And home, to me, means a place where I have bags of yarn and needles, books on shelves, tea and edibles well-stocked, and clothes put away in closets and drawers. When you’re living out of suitcases for extended periods of time, it just doesn’t feel like home. I’ve realized that the main tradeoff to being wild and crazy guys/gals who travel around the world on a moment’s notice is that you must leave behind the stuff that makes a place feel lived-in. Al and I have always differed a bit on this front: he relishes the thrill of traveling to new places. I do, too, but I’ve always preferred settling into a place. I like traveling somewhere and then putting down roots, getting to know the place, pretending to be a local. This is what I did when I moved to Brazil, for example. And to be honest, I’ve really started to settle into London, which means, if we have to leave, it’ll be hard.

I’ve been trying to adjust my attitude about uncertainty. I remind myself how lucky we are to be doing this and how exciting it will be to see new things. If the trade-off for traveling to marvelous new places and having adventures is that I have to put away the cozy trappings of home and shake up my comfortable routine, so be it. That’s what we’ve chosen to do. But it’s nice to know that when this adventure is over, we’ll be staying in one place for a while.

Until then, I’m going to take my knitting bag with me.

Copenhagen

We spent this past weekend in Copenhagen, and I absolutely loved it.

Bird statue

Bird statue, Copenhagen

I had wanted to go to Copenhagen for years. In fact, I found a note in my iPhone from January 2010 reminding myself to tell Al about an Oprah episode I had seen in which Oprah reveals that the people of Copenhagen are some of the happiest people in the world. (And if Oprah says it, you know it’s true, right?) After visiting Copenhagen this weekend, I see what Oprah was talking about. Copenhagen works so well, it’s off-putting. Everyone is tall and attractive; everyone bikes to work along picturesque canals lined with pastel buildings; everyone gets off work at 4 pm and goes to hang out with their families, eat hot dogs, drink beer, and stroll along the promenades dotting the city; everyone lives in stylish yet cozy apartments; there’s no litter; children play by themselves in public parks; the buses come on time; the food is good; people are polite; no one so much as jaywalks.

Hard to take a photo in Copenhagen without someone biking through it.

Hard to take a photo in Copenhagen without someone biking through it.

After spending a weekend in such an idyllic place, I started to wonder about the inevitable seething, dark underbelly that’s lurking under the perfect exterior. There has to be something, right? There has to be some dark force threatening to tear the fabric of Danish society apart, because otherwise, the Danes have got it made. They’ve figured the whole society thing out! The only downside to Copenhagen is that everything is brutally expensive. But, you know, we were just there for a weekend, so we decided not to worry about it too much and just enjoy what Copenhagen had to offer.

Copenhagen

Al and I don’t like to over-program our sightseeing, but Copenhagen is a small city and it’s relatively easy to see a lot of stuff. We walked around and saw Nyhavn, the cutesy, slightly cheesy waterfront area where Hans Christian Andersen used to live; Christianshavn, the leafy neighborhood bordering Christiania, the self-proclaimed “free state” in the middle of Copenhagen; the Latin Quarter; the Stroget (or “Stroll”), the fancy-schmancy pedestrian shopping area in the heart of town; hipstery Vesterbro; Slotsholmen; Tivoli, the old-timey amusement park in the middle of the city; and a bunch of other areas. We also made time for plenty of eating and drinking, a bit of running, and lots of walking.

Nyhavn

Nyhavn

Canal tour

Canal tour

Christiania

Christiania

The old stock exchange - the tower is intertwined dragon tails

The old stock exchange – the tower is intertwined dragon tails

One of the things that struck me most about Copenhagen is the attention to design. There’s a healthy mix of the old and grand and the new and sleek in Copenhagen’s city architecture. And  within their buildings, the Danes manage to conjure up a feeling of coziness and warmth while keeping things simple and streamlined. According to my Lonely Planet Guide, “The Danes love all things hygge, loosely translated as ‘cozy,’ but encompassing everything from flickering candles to bonhomie.” Turns out, I also love all things hygge, so I felt right at home in Copenhagen. Fairy lights and candles as far as the eye can see! The city won even more points with me when I noticed that bars and restaurants, many of which have outdoor seating, don’t just put out heat lamps, but also BLANKETS, so patrons can wrap themselves up while enjoying a beverage outside. SO COZY.

Mesteren & Laerlingen - cozy bar!

Mesteren & Laerlingen – cozy hipster bar!

I think my favorite sight in Copenhagen was the Royal Library, which is stunningly beautiful and so clean that I wondered if it was actually a working library or just a really large movie set of some sort. Coming from a country in which most public libraries smell like pee, I couldn’t believe how beautiful and peaceful the Royal Library was. To be fair, Al claimed he saw some guy shaving his face with an electric razor in one of the reading areas, but if that’s the most outrageous behavior that takes place in a public library, I still think Denmark’s doing pretty well.

Entrance, Royal Library

Entrance, Royal Library

Information desk, Royal Library

Information desk, Royal Library

Al’s favorite part of the weekend was that everyone thought he was Danish. People would speak Danish to him every time and he loved it.

Al, looking Danish

Al, looking Danish

We stayed at the very Danish (and very reasonably priced) Wake Up Copenhagen, which was on the water and a not-terrible walk from all of the main attractions in town. It was also right next to the Central Station, which made getting in and out of town really convenient.

View from our room at Wake Up Copenhagen

View from our room at Wake Up Copenhagen

Our favorite meal was probably brunch at Bastionen & Loeven, a hidden-away cottage-style restaurant with views onto peaceful green gardens and water. We also had good meals at Pate-Pate and Madklubben Grill Tivoli, which was right in the middle of the Tivoli amusement park/gardens. After dinner, we walked outside and stumbled onto a big band concert. We stayed a while and watched a bunch of cute Danish people swing dance. It was pretty charming.

Brunch at Bastionen & Loeven

Brunch at Bastionen & Loeven

So, all in all, we loved Copenhagen. I told Al that I want to learn Danish and move there, so I can ride around on a bicycle with a basket and eat smoked salmon and walk along the canals every day. This probably won’t happen. But a girl can dream.

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Edinburgh

We spent this weekend in Edinburgh, one of my favorite places in Scotland, visiting family and attending some shows at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. I hadn’t been to Edinburgh (or the Festival) since 2008, so it was fun to be back in such a beautiful, charming city and to hang out with Al’s family, some of whom I hadn’t met yet.

Edinburgh sunset

Edinburgh sunset

Al and I took the train from London on Thursday evening, got in quite late, and then spent Friday working; playing with Sweeney, the dog owned by our hosts, Steve and Alan; walking around Leith, their neighborhood; and attending a show at the Festival.

 

IMG_3979I managed to snag us two tickets to see David Sedaris speak on Friday evening. Sedaris is one of my favorite authors and I love his speaking voice. I had actually seen him speak years ago in San Francisco, back when I was in college, but it was at a big venue (The Warfield, I think) and I was in the nosebleed seats. This time, the venue was much more intimate and, to my delight, Sedaris did a book signing after and Al and I got to meet him! This was terribly exciting for me. I was a bit nervous when I approached, clutching my new copy of Me Talk Pretty One Day, but Sedaris is utterly charming and immediately put me at ease. We talked about TV and he recommended that I check out two shows (Inside Amy Schumer and Please Like Me). He also expressed his fondness for Tim Gunn, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and Tabitha’s Salon Takeover. All the more reason to adore this man. And, of course, he signed my book (and drew a little owl). I was on a high for the rest of the weekend, post-Sedaris encounter. 

Recommendations on TV shows

Recommendations on TV shows

I would like to note that David Sedaris' handwriting looks a LOT like mine. Just saying.

I would like to note that David Sedaris’ handwriting looks a LOT like mine. Just saying.

On Saturday, while Al was working, I went for a run along the Water of Leith. Everything was going great: the sun was shining (through sprinkles of rain), birds were chirping, the world was in harmony — and then I fell. Hard. I fell so hard that I managed to scrape both knees, both hands, and my left thigh. I also seemed to have sprained the little finger on my right hand (did I do a full-body roll? I can’t remember! It’s all a blur). But the worst part, beside the fact that my tumble was witnessed by several kindly (read: pitying) Scottish people, was that I shattered my iPhone screen. Here’s the thing: skin will heal. Bones will knit. But a shattered iPhone screen is forever. The last time I shattered my iPhone screen, four years ago, I was in Boston and took it to the Apple store. They glanced at it and told me that my phone had clearly suffered from “customer abuse” and was therefore not under warranty, and I was forced to pay $180 for a new screen. The outrage! But in the UK, if your iPhone screen breaks, you just bring it to a phone repair store — not an official Apple store — and they’ll fix it for you in an hour, charge you 50 GBP, and be done with it. So I got my screen fixed at a kiosk in the mall, and all is right in the world again. Except for that sprained finger. But whatever.

Edinburgh

After recovering from the excitement of my fall, I headed into town with Al, his cousin Kathryn, and her boyfriend James, to attend our next show at the Festival, The Ginge, The Geordie, and The Geek, a three-man sketch comedy team. I enjoyed it, especially the last sketch, which was a reenactment of the final dance scene from Dirty Dancing featuring a man on a diet and a giant slice of pizza. After that, we met up with Steve and Alan and went to see Tig Notaro, an American comedian who I love. I had never heard or seen her standup before, but I listen to her podcast, Professor Blastoff, and I’ve heard her perform on This American Life, so I was expecting good things, and she did not disappoint. I was laughing my face off — almost crying, I was laughing so hard — so when it was over, I was pretty shocked that Steve and Alan didn’t like it. They thought her style was “awkward.” Um, yeah, I thought. That’s the point. It got me thinking about the differences between American comedy and UK comedy, and the fact that some American comedians play on timing (especially long pauses) to make their jokes funnier. I think awkwardness, done well, can be hilarious — and I wonder if I think that way because I’m American and we’re more used to that style of comedy. Steve and Alan told me that in Britain, comedy is more straightforward and fast-paced, which is fine, I guess, but it surprised me that they didn’t appreciate Tig’s style, which was unscripted and involved a lot of audience interaction and improvisation. Then again, I’m sort of a comedy nerd, so maybe I’m just accustomed to the weirdness. But to be fair, reviewers seemed to love the show, so it’s not just me (see, for example, this review from The Telegraph). In any case, I had a blast and came away from the Festival feeling satisfied with everything I saw (although, to be honest, I could have just gone home after meeting David Sedaris and called it a day).

We spent the rest of our time in Edinburgh visiting with Al’s family, playing with dogs, eating good food, and hanging out. It was a great weekend.

Breakfast at the beach, Portobello

Breakfast at the beach in Portobello with Steve, Alan, and Sweeney

Kathryn, James, and me at the Festival

Kathryn, James, and me at the Festival

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Gratuitous selfie

See you soon, Edinburgh!

Corsica

We were lucky enough to spend our vacation in Corsica this past week, staying at the lovely villa owned by the family of Al’s cousin’s wife, Camille. She’s French and her grandfather bought the property decades ago (before it was cool, in other words). Not a bad investment!

View from villa of town

View of town, from villa

View from balcony, villa

Another view from balcony of villa

The villa is located in Morsiglia, in Cap Corse, the northern tip of Corsica. This part of the island is known for being rugged, with sweeping views, winding roads, steep hills, and rocky beaches.

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Cows on the beach, Barcaggio

Cows on the beach, Barcaggio

Wind farm

Wind farm

Corsica is an interesting place. It’s a territory of France, even though geographically, it’s closer to the Italian mainland. France has been in charge since 1769 (before that, Corsica was briefly independent, and before that, it was ruled by the Genoese). Although everyone speaks French (seeing as Corsica is, technically, part of France), the island also retains Corsu as its native language, although not many people (i.e., perhaps only 10% of Corsicans) speak Corsu natively anymore, and it is a “potentially endangered language,” according to UNESCO. Corsu, as far as we could tell, is basically Italian with lots of u’s and j’s and h’s. According to our Lonely Planet guide, though, you should never even hint that Corsu sounds pretty much exactly like Italian, because the Corsican people will become deeply offended. The Corsican people, according to our Lonely Planet guide, get deeply offended by many things, including foreigners attempting to speak Corsu to them. (By the way, I’d be willing to hazard a guess that the author of the Lonely Planet guide might have tried to speak Corsu to people and received a blank stare back either because he was butchering the language or because not a lot of people actually speak it.) Anyway, almost everyone we encountered on the island seemed quite friendly and not prickly (although we didn’t attempt any Corsu, just to be safe). Most road signs are in French and Corsu, although we did see a few signs with the French spray-painted over and/or crossed out, which I suppose is some sort of Corsu nationalist statement, although I’m not sure.

Signs in Corsu

Signs in Corsu, with smaller French sign

We spent most of our time in Corsica eating, hiking, sleeping, and lazing on the beach. Pretty great. I especially enjoyed local Corsican cured meat (they’re known for their charcuterie, especially coppa) and sheep’s milk cheese. We also sampled some Corsican wine, some of which is quite good, especially the Muscat. I realized later that drinking three glasses of Muscat a night is probably the equivalent of injecting sugar crystals directly into my blood, which explains why my jeans were tight when I got back to London, but dang, it was tasty.

Domaine Pietri vineyards

Domaine Pietri vineyards

As with any vacation, there were a couple of wrinkles in the trip, including the fact that we were redirected to Milan on the way there because our plane had a crack in its windshield (good job, EasyJet) and the fact that I suffered from a mysterious stomach ailment for half of the trip (but once I recovered, things were great). Overall, though, we had a great time and I’m happy we got to see this beautiful little corner of the world. À vedeci, Corsica!