Travel regrets and learning from my mistakes

I have traveled enough now to realize I made a lot of mistakes along the way. Not big mistakes, like forgetting my passport. They were small mistakes, stemming from my personality and expectations, that impacted my travels. I don’t think I even realized they were mistakes at the time, but looking back now, I wish I had done some things differently. Fortunately, now that I have recognized these mistakes, my travels are much more rewarding.

Edinburgh, Scotland

Thoughts on me being me

When I studied abroad in Oxford I was timid. On my own for the first time in a foreign country, I reacted by setting up new routines in an attempt to make Somerville College feel like home. I ate the same breakfast in the cafeteria, took my usual walk around town, and went to the same restaurants and pubs weekend after weekend. All of these routines were comforting, but I ended up falling into a rut.

I did have brief exploratory spells, like a weekend trip to Edinburgh, but overall, I was unadventurous in Oxford. It’s a shame and I feel like I missed out on some great experiences. I did see wonderful things, like Canterbury Cathedral and the Ashmolean Museum, but there is so much more I could’ve done.

Even though I am introverted and shy around new people, I wanted the company of other students while exploring, so I ended up waiting around for friends instead of venturing out. Honestly, I probably would’ve enjoyed walking around on my own more than trying to make conversation; if only I had given it a chance. I want to revisit Oxford with a new outlook, one that is unafraid and independent, so I can truly see the city on my own terms.

Quai de l'Hôtel de Ville, Paris, France

Thoughts on money

Another travel regret is not spending money. I was stingy while studying abroad, to the extent that I passed up unique experiences. I planned and saved for the trip, and I kept a budget while I was there, which is just fine and dandy. However, I wish I had saved or freed up more funds for things like nice dinners, weekend excursions, or a meaningful souvenir. To save money and stick to my budget, I cooked meals in the dorm and ate cafeteria lunches that were included in the program price, but then I didn’t really do anything with that money I saved. Looking back, it would’ve been worth it to splurge a little bit.

Telegraph Hill, San Francisco, California

Thoughts on photography

Every time I flip through (or scroll, because technology) my old travel pictures I think, “What was I doing??” From my first trip to Paris, I have dozens of Eiffel Tower photos and pictures of me and my friends in front of famous monuments, but very few photos of street scenes, unique architecture, or shots of everyday Parisian life. They are one-dimensional photos that don’t offer any depth or details to my memories. Now I spend less time photographing the sights I’m “supposed” to photograph and I focus on capturing new destinations from my own perspective.

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Yes, it’s true: Americans can’t go a week without a hamburger

My husband and I must have looked like the world’s stupidest tourists but we needed to know what “English American” cuisine was like.

American food gets a bad reputation, I think. (McDonald’s, anyone?) We have numerous indistinguishable chain restaurants, like Chili’s and Applebees, that serve mediocre, filling food at a reasonable price. Still, you can’t go wrong with a juicy hamburger and crispy fries. We were curious to see what the English version of American cuisine was like, so there we were, two American tourists enjoying a meal at an American-themed restaurant in the heart of London’s Covent Garden.

If the restaurant hadn’t looked so nice, we could’ve been back home. The restaurant was like an upscale pub with wood-paneled walls and a mirror behind the bar. In the US, there probably would’ve been all kinds of crap hanging on the walls, like sport jerseys and autographed guitars.

We treated ourselves to the most lurid cocktails on the menu. Mine was fruity; Joe’s was bright blue. This particular meal was in 2012, so I don’t recall what I ordered. I suppose if it was truly a remarkable meal I would remember my dinner, but I finished it all so it couldn’t have been bad.

I suppose this particular restaurant did a good job of emulating American cuisine. What is American cuisine anyway, besides burgers and fries? Meatloaf? Fish sticks? Frozen pizza? Barbecue? The country is so large and diverse, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what “American cuisine” means.

Anyway, after one American meal in England, this tourist was happy to go back to fish ‘n’ chips, kebabs, and pies at the pub. (I stay away from mushy peas, though. Sorry, England.)

Places:

Maxwell’s in Covent Garden: This is where we got our fix. It was busy on whatever random day we ate here, so it can’t be too terrible.

The Blackbird in Earl’s Court: Our hotel was right around the corner, so we ate here a few times during our stay. Really good pies, beer selection, and atmosphere.

Playing trilingual telephone in Italy

Dove andiamo?” I asked for about the fifth time that day. “Where are we going?”

I was following my friend Bruna and her father around Udine, Italy, like a lost puppy. In an effort to communicate, I taught myself a few Italian phrases, like “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Italian,” “I don’t understand,” and “A cup of strawberry gelato, please.” It’s a good thing I learned that last phrase, because we were going to a gelateria.

Udine, Italy

I met Bruna during a study abroad program in England. An in-your-face Brazilian-Italian-American, we formed an unlikely friendship that, in contrast to the other friendships I made on the trip, actually strengthened when we returned home. She’s the type of girl who’s up for anything and is always on the go. You could usually find her at the kebab stand, where the guys working there liked her so much she got free food and got to go into the kitchen. (Lucky.) I, on the other hand, was shy, quiet, and not nearly as adventurous.

Udine, Italy

I was getting ready to study abroad in France when Bruna asked me if I’d like to spend a week with her family in Italy before heading to Paris. I jumped at the chance!

Unfortunately (or not, it ended up being interesting and entertaining), Bruna’s family spoke very little to no English, and I spoke no Italian. If I wanted to ask her uncle a question, we had to play a game of trilingual telephone. I would ask Bruna my question in English, she would ask her dad in Portuguese, and he would translate into Italian. It was complicated but it worked.

Several times at the dinner table, surrounded by Portuguese, I found myself following the conversation back and forth even though I couldn’t understand a word of it. If only I was talented at picking up languages!

Udine, Italy

Bruna’s family led me around Udine, a small, walkable city where I didn’t see any other foreigners. We shopped, ate, and sat in the piazzas. For an entire week I let myself be led around Italy, and it was a welcome change. Usually I would’ve been researching things to do and places to see, but in letting myself simply follow someone’s lead, I had a completely different experience. I have to say, it was a relaxing and stress-free week.

Cividale, Italy

Bruna’s family was incredibly generous to host me. Her uncle had us over for dinner nearly every night and drove us to the train station. Her sweet grandmother served us the most delicious chicken and polenta in her mountaintop home. Her father played tour guide for a week and took us to the best places around town. I hope I’m able to see them again one day.

A walk around NYC in spring

My husband and I went to New York City in April while visiting my grandparents. We took the bus from New Jersey and were in the thick of the city 30 minutes later.

New York City

New York defied any pre-conceived notions I had. In my mind, New York City is the American city, but stories of crime, hardship, “the American Dream,” never-ending noise and lights, poverty and luxury, all merge together and make this an intimidating place to me. I thought the streets would be dirty and the people unfriendly but New York City was such an enjoyable place.

The weather was wonderful and it truly felt like spring. After a harsh winter, the city and its inhabitants breathed a sigh of relief and contentment as Central Park grew greener and flowers bloomed along the High Line under a clear sky.

New York City

We just walked and walked – more than 8 miles that day. When we were tired, we sat and watched the people and traffic go by. The best things to see in the city were the people and the architecture; there was so much variety and color. I saw people dancing on roller blades, kids and adults running to pop bubbles, newlyweds taking photos, hundreds of kilt-wearing Scottish-Americans parading through the streets, a hot dog salesman trudging up 9th Ave with his cart and somehow making all of the lights.

New York City is a mass of vaguely ordered chaos. The streets are numbered but they’re bustling. The crosswalk signs flash red but people dash across the street anyway. Travelers corral into the correct lines at the Port Authority terminal, ready to break free and berate the tardy bus driver. It was easy to fade into the background and just watch the tide of humanity rush by.

New York City

Places:

The High Line: A fine place for a walk where you’ll see some unique people and buildings. We got off at Gansevoort Street and strolled around the cobblestone streets for a bit.

Times Square: We were tourists, so we had to. The highlight was the huge Toys ‘R’ Us store, which features an indoor Ferris wheel, an animatronic T-Rex, and several LEGO displays of famous landmarks. I didn’t realize this while we were there, but the store is actually closing and Gap will be moving into the space. Not as much fun.

Smithfield Hall: It’s hard to pick a restaurant when New York City has so many options and you’re bad at making decisions anyway. I pulled up Yelp for some help and we ate at this restaurant/bar for lunch. The burgers were good, a pint was a reasonable price, and soccer was on TV. Good choice!

Central Park: Another place we had to visit, especially since it was such a beautiful day! Find a spot to sit and watch the world go by.

Beach bliss on Ocracoke Island

I’m not sure what I was expecting when my husband and I booked a night at a camp site on Ocracoke Island, a stretch of sand on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, during the last weekend in May. I suppose I envisioned something similar to other OBX beaches; soft sand and moderate development with some summer crowds. Maybe going in with these preconceived notions made Ocracoke seem even more extraordinary, or maybe we truly discovered an amazing place.

Ocracoke Island

While we didn’t sleep on the sand, the campsite behind the dunes was well within earshot of the ocean’s dull roar, which I could hear all night. The campsite, run by the National Park Service, was clean and quiet. I regretfully forgot to pack bug spray, so the horseflies and other pesky bugs were interested in us while we set up and took down the tent.

On Ocracoke, the beach is bigger, the wildlife is warier, and the crowds are smaller. I don’t think they could even be called “crowds”; just groups of people clustered together in the village, the ferry, or the campground. It’s incredibly easy to find your own private stretch of sand on Ocracoke, especially if you own a four wheel drive vehicle. The island is about 13 miles long, and most of it is part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Protected lands take up a big chunk of the coastline and the village only occupies the island’s southern tip.

Ocracoke Island

One of my favorite activities from this trip was renting bikes in town. We were leisurely riding around by 9 a.m., after watching the sunrise, with a cool breeze in our hair. We were able to see a lot more of Ocracoke comfortably on two wheels. We saw the bay, the lighthouse, several feral cats, the appropriately named “Back Road,” and some of the cutest beach cottages on the Outer Banks. No four-story mansions or luxurious rentals here.

Even the ferry ride (free from Hatteras) was enjoyable. The hour-long journey took us through beautiful blue water under a clear blue sky. Every time we passed a ferry, naturally, everyone waved to each other. (You know you’re in North Carolina when…)

Ocracoke Island

I almost feel bad thinking about it, because I have so many fond memories of Topsail Island, but Ocracoke might be even better. Topsail is wonderful for a big family vacation; however, Ocracoke felt more natural, undeveloped, and local. And that’s even with many of the motels and inns sporting “no vacancy” signs.

Another thing that was painfully obvious to see, when comparing Topsail to Ocracoke, is how much larger and better protected Ocracoke is. The beach is much wider, even during high tide. The dunes are larger and they nearly line the whole island. These towering dunes are covered in waving sea grass, prickly cacti, and warped trees twisted by the constant ocean breeze, all of which help to keep the sand, and the barrier island itself, in place. As North Topsail Beach is currently facing major erosion problems, it’s clear to see the difference between the two islands.

Ocracoke Island

Even though we were only there for a weekend (and technically, we were only on the island for a little over a full day) time seemed to slow down on Ocracoke. Normally my vacation time seems to zoom by like one of those nimble fishing boats passing the ferry, but this weekend was different.

In short, I’m going back to Ocracoke.

Places:

Top Dog Cafe in Hatteras: A friendly, chill place to stop for lunch. The porch is screened in and lets in a nice breeze. I had one of the specials, a spicy shrimp wrap.

Buxton Village Books in Buxton: A decent selection of fiction, nonfiction, and used books. I picked up a book about the Outer Banks, which I intend to read before the summer’s finished. The place looks tiny, but it has some funky additions in the back.

Jason’s Restaurant in Ocracoke: We ate dinner here and had a good, filling meal. I had the catch of the day, which comes with sides. Lots of options, including pizza, make this an ideal family restaurant.

The Slushy Stand in Ocracoke: After watching the sunrise, we stopped here for an early coffee Sunday morning and rented bikes to see the rest of the island. There’s a nice porch at one of the village’s “busy” intersections for people-watching.

Cape Hatteras National Seashore Ocracoke Campground in Ocracoke: A quiet, clean, and inexpensive way to sleep on the island. Camping is just behind the dunes. There is a creek running behind the campground, so bug spray is a must. Facilities include bathrooms, water fountains, showers, dumpsters, recycling, picnic tables, and grills. Rates start at $23.

Words of wisdom:

There may only be a couple of police officers on patrol on Ocracoke, but they make their presence known. Do not speed on the island. The first car off our ferry was pulled over within two minutes. In the village, I would say it’s best to go under the speed limit. The sidewalks in Ocracoke are small or nonexistent, and there are many pedestrians, cyclists, and golf carts using the road too.

Take sunscreen and bug spray. The horseflies and mosquitoes can be nasty. My pale skin needed sunscreen on the ferry over, before we even got to the island!


Enjoy the photos! I’m really happy with how these turned out.

A man and his Pillow Pet in Dublin

I can hardly think of a place more festive than the city of Dublin, Ireland, before Christmas. Music and laughter fills the air as people shop on Grafton Street. Pubs fill with merry revelers. The city glows with light from holiday decorations and exuberant holiday jumpers.

My friend and I drifted into a pub that night, bought a pint each, and found a cozy corner to watch the crowd. A joyful and noisy band was playing on the opposite side of the bar, and everyone sand along. It was a boisterous, tinsel-strewn party.

And then we saw him – belly up to the bar, next to a man wearing a homemade Santa beard. While waiting for his beer, he was loudly singing, hands raised above his head, bobbing a penguin Pillow Pet to the beat. He was also wearing a red onesie.

My friend and I couldn’t help but laugh. He was the most ridiculous thing we had seen in Ireland. We forgot about the man as we started talking again, but several minutes later, he walked toward us on the way to the bathroom. I guess he saw us laughing earlier, because he stopped in front of us, tapped my friend on the nose with his Pillow Pet’s plush beak, and said “Boop!” before walking away.

Nothing is more mysterious than a man with a Pillow Pet. Any other time, it would have been bizarre and awkward, but in a Dublin pub before Christmas, it fit.

Looking back at London and Paris

Six years ago I was 17 and finishing up my senior year of high school. I had good grades, a boyfriend, and I was going to college in the fall. Things were going well, and they were about to get even better, because I was heading off to Europe on a school-organized trip. I don’t think I realized it at the time, but my upcoming voyage to London and Paris was going to change my life.

London, England

It was a 10-day trip: five in London and five in Paris with side trips to Windsor and Versailles. In preparation, I changed dollars into euros and pounds ahead of time. I read through my guidebooks, even though there was going to be a teacher chaperone and a tour guide. I also over-packed my big suitcase with many “just in case” items (rookie mistake).

Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, France

Six years ago today, we were in the middle of our trip, and I can’t help but remember how much fun I had. Getting lost in Harrods, passing around a bottle of wine while sitting next to the Seine, standing in awe of some of the world’s most fantastic churches, and soaking in the sights as they drifted by, beautifully lit, during a nighttime river cruise. I didn’t realize it then, but experiencing two of Europe’s cultural and historic capitals was sparking a fire in my heart. Each new experience – understanding a question in French, haggling at Portobello Market, hell, even watching a male street performer with purple spiked hair and nipple tassles at Covent Garden – was just kindling on the fire. In every new situation, I thought, “This would never happen at home,” and it was a good thing.

Windsor Castle, England

That’s not to say the trip was completely perfect. Even though we were in westernized cities I was still out of my comfort zone. I wouldn’t say I was scandalized, but I was really surprised to see a huge magazine ad on the street in Paris featuring a woman’s bare breasts. And on our third day in London, I woke up miserable: cold, tired, and homesick already. I realized that I was really, really far from home. Eventually, I got over my funk and was able to enjoy the rest of my trip.

After coming home, that fire kept simmering under the surface. I became interested in world news. I bought books that were set outside of the United States and discovered travel narratives. I realized there were thousands of travel bloggers out there. In short, I had caught the travel bug.

Notre Dame, Paris, France

I can’t begin to imagine what my life would be like today if I hadn’t gone to London and Paris during high school. Who knows if I would’ve studied abroad in college, or planned my own international trips, or even made it out of the US at all. As an adult, not a day goes by where I don’t think about going to Greece, or Guatemala, or Iceland, or Turkey, or so many other places, and I am so grateful I was able to go to London and Paris six years ago, where it all began.

London, England

The wolfpack of Versailles

The lavish palace of Versailles, with its exquisite gardens and stunning Hall of Mirrors, is the last place you would expect to encounter a rambunctious, cross-cultural screaming match on bikes.

Versailles, France

I was in France in 2012 for a study abroad program. On a side trip from Paris to Versailles, we took an enjoyable bike tour through the city and extensive palace grounds.

After a picnic lunch (purchased at the local market) and learning some history, we were ready to see the palace.

Versailles, France

For some reason (I can’t remember anymore; wine was part of the picnic, though), as we rode our bikes to the parking lot, we enthusiastically took up one of our university’s cheers – half of the group yells “wolf!” and the other half replies “pack!” We were making a spectacle of ourselves. You can take loud Americans out of America, but we’ll still be loud if we want to.

The next thing we knew, our bikes were surrounded by French kids, probably about 10 or 11 years old, running along with us, shouting “OOH!” “AAH!” in time. They had no idea what we were saying or why we were riding bikes and yelling in the gardens of Versailles, but it didn’t matter.

I like to think that twenty years from now, when those kids are grown up, they’ll remember that trip fondly, not because of some fancy Hall of Mirrors, but because of some happy and loud Americans.

Versailles, France

 

Versailles, France

 

When in Lille…eat dessert

I lived in Lille, France, for four weeks in the summer of 2012 and, like any place, it had its pros and cons. Although upon arrival Lille felt fresh and new, full of restaurants and bars, historical monuments and museums to explore, weeks of attending school there started to wear down on me. The weather especially left much to be desired, as it frequently was in the 60s and rainy during the summer. (When I arrived home in Raleigh it was sunny and a sweltering 102 degrees Fahrenheit outside – the kind of summers I’m used to!)

Lille, France

Remembering this, I basically expected the worst when I revisted in December 2012. I envisioned constant rain and freezing temperatures in this dreary city I’ve already explored. I was mostly right about the weather, but Lille revealed more of itself to me as a visitor than it had when I was just a student.

After catching up on sleep, checking in with family and grabbing a quick breakfast from the patisserie on the corner, my friends and I were ready to explore. Lille’s center is lined with shops and is very pedestrian friendly, so we spent an afternoon wandering through town.

Lille’s Christmas market had a cozy, small-town feel and sold everything from maple syrup to furry moccasins (and of course, the European Christmas market staple, hot mulled wine).

The next day we took Lille’s small but efficient metro to a neighboring suburb, Roubaix, and went to an art museum called La Piscine. It’s a unique and varied art collection placed in an old public swimming pool, even in the showers. A small segment of pool still remains in the center of the building, with sculptures and paintings surrounding it. La Piscine is certainly one of the coolest art museums I’ve been to.

Lille, France

Besides walking and shopping, we did a lot of eating in Lille. Because I wasn’t on a “student” budget in Lille this time, I felt that I could splurge a bit more on my meals (I ate in the cafeteria every day when I was a student because it was included in the price of the program). We stopped by Meert, a patisserie/chocolaterie near Grand Place one evening and splurged on chocolaty, sugary treats. The place had a line out the door and I felt so full afterward, but it was worth it.

On our last evening in Lille we had dinner at a small family-run restaurant called L’Etable tucked away in the old part of town. The regional dishes were delicious and you could tell they were cooked to order. My favorite part was dessert, of course: Speculoos mousse. Speculoos is a kind of shortbread/gingerbread cookie.

Lille, France

I had a very enjoyable visit in Lille the second time, even though the weather wasn’t perfect. It just goes to show that keeping an open mind, even when revisiting a city, might lead to something surprising.

I originally wrote this post for a local news website in Raleigh while I was traveling and blogging in Europe for 10 days in December 2012. 

On being reluctant to travel in my own country

I’m from the United States, and I’ve lived here my whole life. Even though the country is huge, you’d think that in the past 23 years I would’ve seen a fair amount of it. Not true.

The view from Blowing Rock in the mountains of North Carolina.

The view from Blowing Rock in the mountains of North Carolina.

I’ve thought about this off and on since my first dip into international travel six years ago. It’s puzzling, for sure. Why have I been to five other countries’ capitals but not my own? It’s certainly easier and cheaper in many ways to travel within the US as an American, but when I think about “traveling,” my mind automatically jumps to foreign destinations. I’m sure I’m not the only one who does that.


I think two basic mentalities contribute to my thinking:

“More of the Same”

I’ll admit, I find it much more thrilling to visit a new country than another state. There are different languages, currencies, modes of transportation to experience. Usually there’s a long flight, which to me conveys, “Hey, we’re actually going somewhere!”

Traveling domestically is the opposite of that. The people speak the same language, there’s no currency exchange, and you’ll see the same chain restaurants and stores (mostly). It can seem like a new location is way too similar to wherever you started out from, and that’s just not as exciting.

I travel internationally to experience new things and get out of my comfort zone, and sometimes a trip across the state border seems like it can’t deliver that.

A unique take on the Mona Lisa at the North Carolina Museum of Art.

A unique take on the Mona Lisa at the North Carolina Museum of Art.

“Family Vacation Blues”

Growing up, most of our trips were family vacations, either going to visit relatives or the four of us heading out on our own. We also traveled a lot for sporting events, like me and my brothers’ swim meets. The sports left me too tired or busy to do any exploring, usually, and I don’t really count those as trips.

Family vacations to visit relatives in New Jersey or Florida were spent hanging around the house, preparing meals for the group or maybe going to the mall. Occasionally we went to amusement parks, the zoo or the beach, but I don’t remember exploring the cities or visiting many tourist attractions that had any “cultural” value.

Sightseeing was not the main focus of these family vacations, which is fine – I feel very fortunate to see my extended family fairly often – but I think that contributed to this notion I have that domestic travel is somehow sub-par to international travel.


I’ve been trying to dispel that notion. Now that I’m older, with a car and a (meager) income, I can head out on my own for some fun. My husband and I are fans of weekend getaways – we love Living Social for that. Our recent trip to San Francisco was the first trip in a while my family took to a new destination just for fun – no extended family to visit.

Inside the Currituck Beach Lighthouse.

Inside the Currituck Beach Lighthouse on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

I’m making a personal resolution (starting now – who needs New Year’s?) to begin thinking like a traveler even when I’m at home in my own city and country. It’s certainly easier to travel at home. No passport, no customs, no language barrier, and usually airfare is much cheaper. Maybe I’ll visit the state Capitol Building, which I haven’t been to since a field trip in the second grade, or I’ll plan a getaway and explore a side of my own country I’ve never seen before.

I’ll be putting this vow into play with an upcoming belated birthday trip to Asheville, a city in my own state I’ve never been to, which is renowned for its natural beauty, fun-loving atmosphere and artistic scene. And beer.