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.

Travel plans: Ireland

In December my family is going to Ireland. This is a big trip for us; it’ll be our first international vacation together.

Joining me will be my mom, dad, brother, and husband. Five people in a group is an awkward combination for travel, especially when they’re all adults. Take, for example, a hotel reservation. Should we book two doubles and a single room? Or a double and a triple? Does anyone mind sleeping on the couch? So this has been an interesting trip to plan already, to say the least, and I think it’ll continue to be tricky.

Dublin, Ireland

They key word is “flexibility.” We have plenty of places to explore, so if we get sick of each other, we can split up and enjoy some quiet time. If places are closed for the holidays, we’ll just have to find something else to do. We’re renting a car for some of the journey, so we’re not limited by public transportation. Our plans, other than our accommodation, are fluid.

This will be my second time to Ireland; I was in Dublin for a weekend trip in December 2012 and had a wonderful time, despite severe jet lag. Why do I keep picking cold, rainy European destinations for my journeys? Well, in this instance, it was a place we could all agree on, and the price was right. Flights to Ireland are consistently low from RDU compared to other European airports.

We have roughly eight days to spend in Ireland and are dividing our time between cities and more remote areas. For accommodation, I chose a combination of hotels and Airbnb rentals. (I would’ve loved to stay in a warm, cozy Irish bed and breakfast, but it was just not in the cards around Christmas time.)

Dublin, Ireland

Dublin

There’s so much to see in the capital city, but we only have about a day there. We’ll be getting in early, so we will easily be able to visit a few attractions, unless jet lag sets in. Having been there before, my top sights will probably differ from everyone else’s:

  • Kilmainham Gaol for some insight on the political and penal background of Ireland
  • Trinity College Library to see the Book of Kells, which I skipped last time
  • Dublin Writers Museum, a place I didn’t know existed until I did some research on things to do in Dublin. I’ll have to brush up on my Irish writers beforehand, of course.

And of course, a nice hearty meal, good beer, and a chilly stroll through the streets will be fantastic.

County Wexford

Around Christmas we’ll be staying in a cottage in a small village. Most things in the area will be closed, so I think we’ll just be having family time here. If it’s open, I would like to see Hook Head Lighthouse, one of the world’s oldest lighthouses. I’d also like to do some walking while we’re there…it seems like such an Irish thing to do! Hopefully the weather will cooperate.

County Clare

Jumping over to the other side of the country, we’ll be staying in a cottage fairly close to the town of Ennis. Besides exploring the town, I hope to view the Cliffs of Moher and see the Burren National Park.

Galway

Our last stop is Galway. Other than checking out Galway City Museum and Galway Cathedral, I’m looking forward to wandering around the city. I’ve heard so many good things about Galway!

Do you have any suggestions on things to do during Christmas in Ireland? I’d love to hear your ideas!

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!