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 day in the life of a study abroad student

Studying abroad is full of thrilling new opportunities, but when classes start, it’s easy to get into a routine that’s not exactly “exciting.”

8 a.m.: Alarm on my phone goes off. Hit snooze and go back to sleep.

8:10 a.m.: Alarm goes off again. Hit snooze again and go back to sleep again.

8:20 a.m.: Alarm goes off again. Hit snooze and turn on light, then lay back down in bed.

8:25 a.m.: Finally awake enough to get ready for the day. Pick out an outfit from the same clothes I’ve been wearing for the past month.

8:40 a.m.: Go downstairs for breakfast, which is toast with butter or jelly and tea or coffee. It’s not extravagant, but hey, it’s free.

9:00 a.m. – noon: French class, taught by an awesome man who usually teaches linguistics at the university. We do grammar exercises, listening activities, written work and group discussions. It’s extremely difficult, and my brain feels like it’s melting afterward.

Noon – 1:30 p.m.: Free time. I can get lunch at the cafeteria (usually sandwiches), eat a quick lunch in my room (usually involving Nutella), work on homework, or take a nap.

1:30 p.m. – 4:30 p.m.: European Integration and Politics class. We just started the second half of the course today, which is taught by a Parisian lawyer who speaks five languages.

Lille, France

After class, we’re free once again. On Mondays we usually have a program-sponsored event (tonight is a French and International Aperitif, which will have a sampling of wine, cheese and snacks), and typically once a week we have a group dinner with the professor from NC State. When there isn’t anything planned, I work on homework, go to the mall, walk around town, or go to a bar and watch soccer.

Now that I have this general schedule, which includes six hours of class, it’s easy to say “I’m tired,” and just hang out at the university. I have less than two weeks remaining in Lille, so I want to make the most of it. (If that means missing a homework assignment, oh well. In the long run, I think exploring Lille to the fullest will be more meaningful than preparing for a French debate about Internet pirating laws.)

I originally wrote this post for a local news website in Raleigh while I was studying abroad in Europe in July 2012.


Looking back over this post almost three years later, here are some takeaways:

  • Catch up on sleep whenever you can.
  • Eat the “free” food the program supplies (remember, you already paid for it) so you can save your money for excursions and fun nights out with new friends.
  • Go to class and do the work. Get the most out of our international education and impress the host professors.
  • At the same time, remember: This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so don’t miss out on any unique experiences. Time management is key here. You don’t want to have to stay home to finish a paper while everyone else does something fun!

I traveled by myself and it made me happy

“Solo female travel.” It’s what all the cool kids are doing these days, so being the follower I am, I decided to board a plane all by myself.

Montreal

Everything kind of fell into place for this trip. I had a gift card to use on already cheap tickets to Montreal. I had a “spring break” for work. No friends or family were available to travel on those days. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision for me. The idea popped into my head in the afternoon, and after searching for a good destination, the flights were booked by that evening.

I had a great time in Montreal, despite the cold (although the locals kept talking about how warm it was). I was confused at first because I wasn’t sure if I should speak English or French. The first day I ended up not picking just one language, but instead I spoke in some dumbed-down combination of French and English, in the process sounding incredibly stupid. After that I made a conscious effort to stick with one language for an entire conversation.

Montreal

Here are some of my favorite things about traveling alone in Montreal:

Walking everywhere.

I think walking is the best way to see a city, and in Montreal, I walked over four miles every day. By myself, I was able to walk at whatever pace I wanted for as long as I wanted. I didn’t have to hear someone else bitch about sore feet or being cold.

Me, me me.

Related to point number one, I only had to focus on what I wanted. If I was hungry, I ate at the first place I saw that looked good. If I was tired, I took the bus back home. If I wanted to stay in and watch the French TV channel showing a program about puppies, I watched the puppies. I enjoyed not having to cater to anyone else’s needs.

Montreal

I got a lot for my money.

It was a cheap vacation, for a large North American city. My flight was under $200. I rented a room in an apartment on Airbnb for under $100 total, and I spent about $150 on food/souvenirs/ground transportation/attractions/beer. If my husband had tagged along, our costs could have easily doubled.

Museum time.

I’m a museum person, and traveling alone, I was able to take my time in the exhibits. I saw everything in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts over the course of two days. Again, no compromises: I saw only the museums I was interested in.

Montreal

Me time.

There was something restorative for me in walking around and observing a new place. No talking, no distractions. Just me, my thoughts, and old snow beneath my feet. I wrote every day and I read two books. Even though I didn’t do anything incredibly exciting on this trip, I ended every day in a good mood, and I began every day ready to see more.

While traveling on my own was a great experience, I think I would’ve enjoyed the city even if I was traveling with someone else. I’d do it again in the right situation, especially if I wanted some me time.

Food, fun and friends in Baltimore

When I drove up to Baltimore in November with my friend Carrie to visit our friend Erin, I was mostly just looking forward to having a girl’s weekend. We don’t see each other a lot, so while I wanted to see a little bit of the city, it wasn’t the focus of my trip.

Baltimore, Maryland

We still covered a lot of ground. Despite the cold, some hangovers, and the fact that we only had a weekend there, I felt like I got a nice glimpse of this harbor city. Guided by Erin, who is a Baltimore native, we explored the waterfront, a museum, some trendy shopping areas, and Johns Hopkins University (where she is busy being smart and I’m bumbling around trying to be an adult).

Baltimore, Maryland

Once we were in a neighborhood, it was nice to just walk around and look at the buildings. Baltimore has some beautiful old houses and apartment buildings with brightly painted railings and porch accents. In that regard, Baltimore reminded me of San Francisco.

Baltimore, Maryland

Another similarity – I ate well in San Francisco, and oh boy, did we eat well in Baltimore! Maybe because we had a guide who took us to all the good places, but Baltimore is now a culinary destination in my book. Just a little taste of what I ate: Zucchini and brie pancakes, shrimp corn chowder, peach french toast, cheddar biscuits, hot and sweet salsa, gnocchi and crispy shoestring fries.

Baltimore, Maryland

I’d like to return to Baltimore in the summer for an Orioles game, more seafood, and more shopping!

Links:

The Walters Art Museum: A neat place to spend a few hours. They have all kinds of random things, plus a section on old books.

The Brewers Art: Pricey but yummy food…but my favorite part was the delicious but potent house beer.

Golden West Cafe: A funky place for a good meal. I had the zucchini brie pancakes here; they were savory and delicious.

One World Cafe: A perfect place to warm up the morning we left. I enjoyed a hot cup of coffee and some french toast here.

Nacho Mama’s: Mexican cuisine and humongous hubcap margaritas. ‘Nough said.

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