Into the unknown

Two different trips. Two different cities. Absolutely no planning.

Ghent, Belgium

I’m by no means a control freak, and I like going with the flow…to an extent. I have always enjoyed being organized. My mom didn’t even have to tell me to make my bed when I was a kid. My books are sorted into alphabetical order by author’s last name. I keep my keys, watch, glasses and wallet in the same place every day so I always know where they are. I usually do a lot of reading and some basic planning when traveling. I like knowing where I’m staying, how to get there and my options for public transportation. I don’t make itineraries, but I like to keep a list of places, museums, and attractions I want to see, their daily hours, and addresses so I can have that important information at my fingertips.

That’s why it was a nice change of pace to visit two cities, Florence and Ghent, without much prior knowledge or planning (at least for my style of travel). The experiences were as different as night and day, but both stand out as wonderful cities to which I would like to return.

Florence, Italy
Florence, Italy: May 2012

What’s one of the best things about traveling, especially in college? Meeting someone, becoming good friends, and getting invited to stay with her and her family during their annual trip to visit Italian relatives.

Big ass plates of pasta and walking helped me get over jet lag pretty quick, and soon we were ready to explore. One night, in the middle of dinner at her uncle’s apartment, we decided to go somewhere new the next day. We checked the rail website, saw Florence, realized the train left early in the morning, ran home, got in bed for a few hours, woke up, went to the station, bought the tickets (through her dad, who was translating) and hopped on board.

Florence, Italy

We were in this warm, sun-drenched valley city before I knew it. For simplicity’s sake, we bought a hop-on, hop-off bus pass so we could shuttle around Florence at our own pace and hit some of the major sights. Without a map or any information about Florence, other than some rudimentary “oh yeah, the Renaissance happened here” knowledge, we floated around in a warm sea of gelato, art, sun rays and hillside villas.

What a wonderful day! It passed by so quickly, even though we didn’t do much except enjoy the sights and whatever was happening at that moment. We almost fell asleep on the bus at one point, so we had a lazy coffee break. We looked at leather goods we couldn’t afford in our wildest dreams and said grazie mille to the wonderful saleswoman at Zara who let us use the bathroom after more coffee was consumed and we couldn’t find a public toilet.

Florence, Italy

This taste of Florence was just enough to whet my appetite, and I want to go back. Even a trip as spur-of-the-moment and fleeting as this one is no less memorable to me than any of my well-planned journeys. A good friend, a new city and a beautiful day – what more could you want?

Florence, Italy
Ghent, Belgium – December 2012

That winter I found myself once again in Europe, this time traveling with another good friend. We were visiting our BFF who was studying abroad in France. While she was finishing up exams, we were going to take a side trip to Belgium – starting in Brussels, we took a train to Bruges, a train to Ghent, and then a train back to Brussels.

We had our tickets and hostel booked, but that was about it. We had just finished up our fall semester, and with our jobs, exams, and final projects, there was not a lot of time to research what to do once we got to Belgium. We barely found the time to book the dang trip!

Ghent, Belgium

When we arrived in Ghent it was cold, raining, and the sky was dark…but the city itself was bustling, shining into the night, cobblestone streets shushing under tires. Ghent was already one of those “this is better than I expected” cities.

Taking the tram to our hostel, right in the city center, was a snap. We wandered around that first night and found some sort of music festival going on. We ate hot soup from a food truck and took it all in.

After a night in the nicest hostel I’ve ever stayed at (not that I’ve stayed in too many, but still) we took off into town for another rainy day of adventure. We had a map this time, but no real plans, so we meandered around the city looking at the castle, churches, chocolate shops, cuberdon candy carts, city markets, cute kids.

Ghent, Belgium

One of the best things we accidentally found was a “home video” museum that was a collection of old videos and voice recordings people had made of their families going on vacation, children’s birthdays, anniversary parties. The tapes were donated, found in thrift stores or yard sales and arranged in exhibits. It was intriguing to get glimpses into the lives of these strangers.

This trip could have, at first glance, gone miserably due to the cold, wet weather and our lack of local knowledge. But our “accidental discovery” of Ghent made the city even more spectacular. I would love to head back over to this surprising city.

Ghent, BelgiumHas anyone else had wonderful travel experiences while taking a random side trip?

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Lost in London: Our first trip abroad

“So, we’re lost in the middle of London, and you don’t know where we are. Great,” my husband said, growing crankier by the second as we walked out of the Earl’s Court tube station.

We were on our first international trip together. At the time we were still engaged, and I had somehow convinced him that spending spring break in cloudy England would be a great idea.

“We just went out the wrong exit,” I tried to explain. “I know exactly where we are.”

Tower Bridge, London, England

London was the first place I visited outside the US, and it immediately became – and has stayed – my favorite city in the world (not that I have seen so many, but whatever). I was so excited to show Joe, the currently grouchy significant other, everything I loved about the city, and traveling in general. Before this trip, he had never traveled outside North America, or even his own time zone, and I hoped to show him how much traveling meant to me. But right now the jet lag was bearing down hard on him.

Joe grumbled and started following me, our carry-on suitcases jolting over uneven cracks in the sidewalk.

Thankfully, I navigated us back onto the main road, where the correct exit was located, and Joe didn’t have to complain anymore.

Albert Memorial, Kensington Gardens, London, England

In my excitement for the trip I had scoped out the area on Google maps. There’s the adorable red mailbox with so much more character than our oblong navy ones in the US! Boots! In case we need to buy “plasters!” And look, on the corner! That pub is just a couple doors down from where we’re staying, and according to the online reviews they have really good pies! Everything was wonderful again.

Until we got to the door of our hotel, locked, and had to wait for about thirty minutes. Joe, looking more frustrated than before, didn’t trust himself to speak.

London Eye, London, England

The rest of the day passed in waves – fun and exhaustion, irritation and blisters, clouds and rain. In an attempt to help Joe beat his jet lag slump, we walked around the city. Buckingham Palace, the Thames, Monument, St James’ Park. It wasn’t enough, and we headed back for a nap in the afternoon. I woke him up to get dinner around 6 – pies at the pub – and we both nearly fell asleep at the table. It was pitiful.

Fortunately, the rest of the trip was uphill from there. We saw a show, visited museums, drank porters and stouts after rainy days, laughed in the frigid wind blowing off the Thames as people in The City hurried to work, tried a British Chinese buffet, and looked at the city laid out tidily beneath our feet from a cozy bubble on the London Eye.

St Paul's Cathedral, London, England

I hoped that would have been the first of many international trips for us, but since then we’ve only traveled to one other country together, on our honeymoon. I’m trying to convince him to pack a bag and jump on a plane with me again – I’m thinking somewhere cold and cozy this winter – but he’s such a homebody. He really needs to be forced, not nudged, out of his comfort zone.

If I can guilt him into traveling with me again, it’ll be a “guilt trip.” Ha!

Travel plans: Asheville, NC

Next month my husband and I are heading to the mountains of North Carolina for a “belated double birthday getaway celebration weekend.” It’ll be good to get away for a few days and relax!

You're never far away from a hike or a scenic waterfall in the North Carolina mountains.

You’re never far away from a hike or a scenic waterfall in the North Carolina mountains.

During our Saturday-Monday stay, I’m hoping to:

  • Check out the Biltmore Estate, the country’s largest private home. Originally built for the Vanderbilt family starting in 1889, it’s still owned by one of the Vanderbilt’s descendants. We’ll be getting there just in time to see the estate all decorated for Christmas! Tickets are expensive, so we will be booking an advance.
  • One thing Asheville has certainly earned a reputation for is beer. We’re going to visit one of our favorite breweries there, Highland Brewing Company, and have a few pints in their tasting room. Hopefully we’ll be able to squeeze in a tour as well.
  • Another perfectly-timed accident, we’ll be in Asheville the same weekend as the River Arts District Studio Stroll. I’m thinking this will be a good activity the day we arrive – strolling around, looking at local art is a good way to stretch out after a four hour car ride.
  • A friend recommended I visit Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar. It’s a book store that also serves wine and champagne! AND they specialize in books about North Carolina and the American South. My husband will just have to bear with me, because I need to see this place.
  • Hopefully we will have good weather, but if it’s cold and rainy, the Asheville Pinball Museum seems like a fun option. For $10 you get all-you-can-play pinball on over 35 machines. Some of them date back to the 1940s!
  • Asheville is a great city to eat in so I’m hoping to splurge on a nice meal somewhere in the city.

Recently read: ‘Tales of the City’

I started this series before my trip to San Francisco in August and I raced through it! Luckily, my small local library has all of the books in the series, as well as a few more by Armistead Maupin that I haven’t gotten to yet.

  • Tales of the City
  • More Tales of the City
  • Further Tales of the City
  • Babycakes
  • Significant Others
  • Sure of You

The books, originally published as serial novels in San Francisco newspapers, follow the lives of a group of people who live in the city through the 1970s and 80s.

San Francisco

The books touch on a little of everything: Love, loss, death, marriage, wealth, sex, gender, orientation. There were parts of the series I found a bit outlandish (a journalist with amnesia discovers a cult at the cathedral, for instance). I most enjoyed reading about the characters’ relationships and how they changed through the years. Friends fall out of touch, children are born, folks die and remarry – life moves on, and Tales of the City features strong and dynamic relationships, just like in reality.

I can’t remember the last time a book made me laugh out loud like these did, sometimes from a ridiculous situation or from a character’s snarky comment. I flew through this series and will probably move on to Maupin’s other books soon.

Links:

Armistead Maupin on Goodreads

Armistead Maupin’s website