May 18, 2014

Introducing travelers to Europe’s riches

This summer I’ll be spending several weeks helping to guide travelers through Europe’s best sights. A dream job to be sure, but the stakes are high; the task of introducing people to the richness of Europe can be a heavy burden. Being in charge of a group’s travel safety and general exposure to the rich cultural treasures of any place is a daunting responsibility.

Tuscan countryside

Tuscan countryside

Curating a group’s travel experience is not for the faint of heart. The question is always how best to introduce people to the buzzing urban intensity of Rome, the humid, decadent decay of Venice and the vertigo-inducing heights of the chilly Swiss Alps. One person’s death march through the hot, crowded streets of Florence is another’s carnival of once-in-a-lifetime Renaissance sights. On the other hand, consider that same tour member’s restless boredom in an ancient half-timbered German hamlet. It’s another’s perfect medieval village vacation under the shadow of a ruined castle looming in the hills above.



The main task of any good tour guide is, of course, to help people connect to the history, the people and the culture of the place they’ve come so far to see. And different people connect to the culture in different ways. Some come for the food, while others could care less about the cuisine scene. Some just want to take in the sights, while still others need every historical detail you can offer them. One tour member’s Michelangelo is another’s gelato; it’s not right or wrong. It’s just different, because people are different.

Swiss Alps

Swiss Alps

A good guide can gently expose a conservative American mom to the permissive hedonism of canal-laced Amsterdam, and inspire her to think about the Dutch culture’s success in keeping drug abuse and teen pregnancy to record lows compared to our nation’s sad stats. Or bring the history of an otherwise lifeless site to life through a well-rendered story detailing the intense human drama it witnessed. The same guide can introduce the tired, indifferent sightseer to the majesty of the Louvre and the Uffizi Gallery, and walk out with a convert to the flashy, fleshy vividness of Renaissance humanist art.


So the tour guide’s other main challenge, then, is to help one connect to the place in their own way, on their terms. In other words, help them find what they’re looking for—and sometimes what they didn’t know they were looking for. Some come for enlightenment and some come for a good time. There is no reason they can’t leave with both, their bag filled with insights and fun memories that will last a lifetime.


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Category: Europe, Notes from the collective travel mind, On The Road, Working Abroad

May 17, 2014

Experiencing travel: A taste is never enough


Chocolate lava cake at Melbourne's Lindt Cafe

Chocolate lava cake at Melbourne’s Lindt Cafe

Travel, like chocolate always leaves you wanting more. With the first bite of chocolate lava cake-I was hooked. Dark chocolate may be my addiction, but travel is my vice. A three-week journey in Israel was the longest I’d ever been on a holiday and it was magical. That trip left an indelible memory in more ways than one. At twenty years of age, it was the first one without family, the first that far overseas, the first on a tour and the start of a journey sparking an interest in travel that was longer than just a few days. After university, backpacking through Europe for five weeks was my next big adventure. Again, longer than the norm of my childhood family travel, it still left me wanting more. Each time, extending a bit, but leaving that lingering need for so much more.

Ask any traveler and they’ll tell you it’s never enough. Two weeks, one month, six months or several years-regardless of quantity, once you’re hooked there’s no turning back. We know we’re lucky to have the option and ability to make the choice to travel, but clearly, a beautiful travel bug has bitten us. There are far worse vices to have in the world, but travel is mine. It’s always on my mind. Planning an adventure, dreaming of one, helping others source one, returning from one or in the middle there’s always travel on my brain. If you ask me ‘how long do I need to visit x’, my answer is ‘how long do you have’? No matter the time frame, travel is always beneficial. When asked, ‘should I go?’, my answer is always a resounding ‘YES’.

‘Round the world travel clinched it for me. Gifted with a year of travel, I’ve never since been the same. I still believe each type of travel has its merits. Whichever kind works for you is the right type. A few days on a beach, up a mountain, or sharing a trek on your favorite hike all offer incredible value. Short stays feed the travel desire and fill the soul with new lessons, perspective and sights, but, there’s something special about extended travel.

That first step into extended travel (whatever that means for you) leaves us longing and wanting more. Trying to return to that one weekend a summer or one week a year holiday no longer feels adequate. After that taste those sick days or weeks of leave are consolidated to put together to form a larger holiday. You go to work with a headache just to know that there will be a few more days to add to that trip. You ask the questions, ‘can I buy a week of leave or can I take leave without pay’ or even consider leaving that job just to have the time to travel. Its pull is often stronger than anything you’ve ever before felt. You look agape at those who even suggest ‘haven’t you gotten it out of your system yet?’ There’s more to see and more to explore. With each trip the list gets longer. Not necessarily the list of sites or destinations, but the desire to experience the wonder and watch in awe as your own perspective changes and eyes widen. It’s not about the boxes to tick or the pins in a map, but the personal journey that’s too good to pass up.

That wonderful chance to attempt life as a local for a short while or to delve a bit deeper into that cultural experience takes hold. There’s something special about long-term travel. The daily routine becomes filled with observing, listening, learning, sharing, tasting, savoring and enjoying. You take the time to stop and hear a person’s story or even share one of your own with a stranger you may never again see or one you’ll soon call friend. You get the opportunity to breathe a different air, meet people you’d never before meet, view with your own eyes and experience that which before was solely an image searched on Google. You’ve jumped into the book and are now your own guide.

How many people ever utter the words, ‘I wish I worked more?’ Once bitten, it’s hard to return. Extended travel is chocolate personified. It’s the best bit of that lava cake. From the first bite you taste, savor, smile and can’t believe how good it is but you know there’s more to come. And then you reach the center, the warm gooey chocolate dances on your taste buds and they are forever changed. Could you possibly imagine returning to a life without more of that fabulous deliciousness?

What was your first taste of travel? How did that jump to long-term travel change you?

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Category: Notes from the collective travel mind

April 12, 2014

Leaping Without The Pile in the Back of the Closet

The pile in the back of the closet

The pile in the back of the closet

Petrified, excited, invigorated, exhilarated, daunted…I felt them all in the weeks leading up to my first round the world journey. So many emotions, so little time. All the planning for this idea of taking a hiatus from the everyday was thrilling, yet frightening. From visa applications to inoculations (those weren’t fun) and new passport pages to hotel bookings the excitement continued to grow. But then it was six weeks before, one-month prior and days ahead of wheels up and the packing began. First world problem, no question; but all the worries came to a head with this-will I be okay without the ‘just in case stuff’ in the back of my closet?

You know that pile with the favourite t-shirt from university, the worn out jumper from sleep-away camp or those old standby jeans for the ‘I’m feeling fat’ days…where would you be without them? Was I really worried about stuff? We’ve all experienced that tug and pull in our own way. At this point, on this day, this was mine. Hindsight is twenty-twenty; was it really the stuff or was it something else? It’s what many who have made the leap to long-term travel have experienced with similar stories about managing on far less than in their pre-long-term travel days. But, I was stuck. Collapsing in a heap beside the flung open closet door staring at the ‘stuff’, I sat. The fashion consultants on What No To Wear would have thrown it out years ago since it’s been that long since I put my hand on it, but it was comforting to know it was there. Smaller after bouts of culling and donating, but, still there. I knew that pile held far more than clothes.

One backpack was all I allowed myself. If it didn’t fit it wasn’t coming. If it didn’t have more than one purpose or matched with three other things it wasn’t making it. I cried. Having looked forward to this journey for over a year, was I really crying over STUFF? Really? Wrapped up in this stuff were worries of everything and nothing. Would we be okay? What if something happened to someone I love? Who would keep in touch? What if everything changed when we were gone? The anticipation and worry manifested in that tiny pile in the back of the closet. The pile, that metaphor for the ‘what ifs of the world’ had taken hold and had me in its grasp. There were memories of time passed mixed with the notion of the unknown possibilities for a time yet to come. The crying continued. Logically, I knew how lucky we would all be if this truly was one of the most difficult decisions to make (perspective is a wonderful thing), but still, it was hard. On a precipice filled with greater meaning, this felt like one of those teachable moments. Either choice was fine, but I knew one led to a new journey in both destinations and personal growth while the other stayed stuck with the unchanging ease of ‘the devil you know’. Getting to the place to make the jump was a journey in itself and this felt like a turning point. Stay with the comfort of the pile or embrace the idea that you hold the key to the meaning of the pile? The rest is just that, ‘stuff’.

It didn’t make it into the backpack and after awhile I got up off the floor. I wasn’t yet ready to get rid of the pile but I was ready to close the closet door and leave room in the bag for the unknown future. The pile didn’t win. It remained, for the time being, in the back of the closet (to be revisited at a later date) and I took comfort in the knowledge that it was there. This journey to a place open to the risks and rewards of the frightening while slowly disentangling from the worries of the ‘what ifs’ is a continual one but each step does make a difference. Long-term travel was ahead with indeterminable adventure and experiences far greater than the stuff could ever hold. It is worth the risk. Maybe I wasn’t yet ready to discard the pile from the back of the closet entirely, but I was able to close the door and open a new one.

Traveler 1-Pile 0.

What’s your ‘pile’? What helped you make your leap?


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Category: Backpacking, Notes from the collective travel mind

March 29, 2014

Perspective: The road’s gift


“No journey is too great, if you find what you seek” – Anonymous

When I was little, I met counselors from all over the world at sleep-away camp. If you told me the ten year old who acquired a koala singlet from her counselor, would later marry an Australian and live down under; I would have told you, ‘you’re nuts’!

The travel bug bit hard during my first non-family trip. After university, a backpacking journey kept hold. Not far from the traditional American story there was college, graduate school and then a job. As a teacher, I traveled on every break and worked every summer at camp. The world continued to spin on its axis and adult life, as I knew it, was underway.

Meeting my husband on a trip in New Zealand changed everything. Relationships take work (especially long distance ones) and breaks now included international travel finding a spot between Australia and America. After many kilometers (and large phone bills), we married in 2009 and decided to go on a one-year adventure to follow the sun. Bucking tradition of everything I knew, we leapt and had no idea if any net would appear.

Travel lesson #1: I realized, my husband is my net…and gives me the strength to be my own.

That year, everything changed. I could tell you about the adventures, the people, and the sights, but that’s for another time. Most importantly, the vagabonding experience transformed me. It didn’t happen overnight. Sometimes a whisper, while at other times change screamed loudly. Fears packed in luggage were left behind along the way leaving me lighter in personal and tangible baggage. Certainties that allowed me to go were dropped out of airplanes unnecessary upon return. Vagabonding’s gifts are long lasting and perspective changing.

Travel lesson #2: People change but true friends will always be there.

We knew that the two of us could manage distance, but we didn’t know if our ‘home’ friends could. Those who truly wanted us in their lives did make the effort. Staying in touch mattered. We found that the more we traveled, the more like-minded individuals we met. We embraced and befriended locals. We felt a kinship with those who found that the more they explored, the longer their ‘list’. We learned that no matter where in the world, we were lucky to have close friends.

Travel lesson #3: Comfort Zones: Love ‘em and leave ‘em.

Comfort zones are never easy to leave, but more growth happens outside rather than in them. Like it or not, travel forces you outside of your comfort zone. For me, that was change, but the greater gift was realizing what to do with those newfound feelings is what truly matters. The more you venture outside of your ‘zone’, the more the comfortable one swells. Before we left, the uncertainties were frightening. The leave of absence and keeping the apartment minimized risk and allowed me to jump. How did I know if I was going to enjoy this travel/expat life or not? It was scary, yet exciting.

Somewhere along the line, my comfort zone expanded. Maybe it happened when we literally leapt off the edge of Devil’s Pool in Zambia. Maybe it was getting sick on a trip having to use our travel insurance to find a doctor. Maybe it was the search for a new dentist in Melbourne, bush-camping in Botswana or learning to dance in the rain. Little by little, the bigger picture mattered more. Once anxiety producing experiences became a welcome challenge. If I could write Travel her very own thank you card, I would. Foods I never would have tried, places I never thought to visit and communities I didn’t know existed provided direction, and a door to the outside of my comfort zone. Once outside, I couldn’t go back in.

Travel Lesson #4: Perspective-a traveler’s gift.

Travel Lesson #5: Lessons from the road.

It’s been almost four years since we returned from our first venture in ‘round the world travel. Since then, we’ve continued to travel, been touched by a natural disaster and thought a lot about the type of life we want. We relish knowing we are part of a bigger world and are grateful to have both roots and wings. Last year, we took a second ‘round the world trip (three months) seeing more of the world and interacting with new and interesting people. I took another leave and Mathew quit his job for that journey. We were less bothered by the risk. Change continued. Eventually, I resigned from the very structured world of public education and have found a new freelance career. It’s risky, but; I jumped. Maybe we’ll even take the leap to location-independent one day. Regardless of choice, it’s worth the chance to bring out our happy more often than not.

Travel, has been the gift that keeps on giving. It’s how we met and how we experience life. We don’t want to ‘get it out of our system’. We embrace the itch. Travel opened our eyes to what is out there and has given us the courage to take risks to live the life we imagine. The road provided an incredible gift…perspective. Now, there’s no turning back.

“Fate is what happens to you…destiny is what you do with it”

Best Exotic Marigold Hotel


Read more by Stacey at the gift of travel

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Category: Notes from the collective travel mind

February 6, 2014

Giving free travel talks—A great way to share knowledge and ignite travel dreams

Last weekend, on a sunny Saturday morning at a local Seattle-area library, I kicked off the first of several ninety-minute “Travel talks” I plan to give this year. The seminar-style presentations, which I call “Traveling The Best of Europe Independently & On A Budget” will be free, presented at assorted libraries in the Seattle metro area.

I began doing these talks several years ago after answering the umpteenth question about how to travel independently in Europe (since that’s my specialty), how to plan it, and where to go. I realized there was a hunger for this type of straight-up advice from a trusted source. Since then I’ve done several, and I’m always stuck by audiences’ desire for useful tips and, more importantly, a much-needed infusion of “Hey, I can do this!” confidence.


Some have asked why I bother doing these talks when it’s basically free work and free advice. My answer: Sharing my hard-won tips on budgeting, itinerary-crafting, and other how-to essentials is a joy. Moreover, it’s a public service. More than just the mere nuts-and-bolts information, I’ve found that it’s the message of “you can do it too!” that is truly valuable, no matter what destination you’re discussing. Any guidebook will have a chapter on the basics needed to plan a trip and where to go, but it’s a presenter’s confidence and palpable love for the subject that can inspire someone to finally book that plane ticket.

Tiber River in Rome

Tiber River in Rome

So, if you’re inclined to spread your knowledge and love of whatever destination you choose, please consider offering a ninety-minute “how to travel independently & on a budget to…” presentation at a local library. Impart your wisdom and fill the room with your enthusiasm for the places you’re talking about. You might just motivate a reluctant adventurer to take the trip of a lifetime, and that is time well spent indeed.


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Category: Adventure Travel, Backpacking, Europe, Images from the road, Notes from the collective travel mind, On The Road, Solo Travel, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Advice

December 25, 2013

Christmas in England: music, food and decoration

In the final entry in my series of posts on the subtle but interesting variations in how European cultures celebrate Christmas, I take a look at one of the finest places to spend the holiday season, England. It’s not just a beautiful country with a joyous approach to the holiday; it’s also the spot where some of the most cherished Christmas traditions originated.

Throughout Europe, the sound of carols spill out from churches great and small, and the youthful choir’s heavenly harmonies are carried to the rafters on the cold air, just as they’ve been every year for centuries. Families cluster together and listen to the joyous sounds as their ancestors did, often in the same place.

But the singing of carols is especially beloved and ingrained in the Christmastime traditions of England. In fact, they’ve been a staple of the holiday in England since at least the sixteenth century, as many of the country’s Christmas traditions are. The great cathedrals of England—Wells, Canterbury, Durham, Bath and Salisbury to name just a few—hold spellbinding choral events by candlelight. Outside of the massive churches, colorful Christmas markets buzz with activity.

Once a pagan country with a large Druid population, England is also to thank for the tradition of the Christmas tree. The custom originated with the Druids who would decorate their places of worship with evergreen trees in the dead of winter, which to them represented life that could not be extinguished despite the cold and the dark. The later Christians appreciated this symbolism, as it reminded them of Christ’s promise of eternal life, and adopted the custom.

The holiday dishes are of course a pivotal aspect of any celebration, and the diversity in food served on the big day is one of the widely most varying customs of Europe’s Christmas celebration. In England the regulars like turkey and veggies are served, but desert is the real treat: The all-important Christmas pudding, a fruity desert usually made with figs and brandy, and mincemeat pies, both fixtures since the sixteenth century.

As if England didn’t have enough influence on Christmastime rituals, it was also the originator of the “kissing under the mistletoe” tradition. Dating from the medieval period, there was a tradition of hanging a small treetop called a “bough” upside down in one’s home as a blessing upon the occupants. As the years went by this custom lost its popularity, but was resurrected by the Victorians (nineteenth century) as a holiday decoration under which sweethearts would kiss for good luck.

A particularly English tradition also includes the wearing of a colorful paper crown—everyone is a king or queen at Christmas. Needless to say there is tea involved on this wintry day as well, often at 6pm on Christmas to warm the soul, because every proper English event involves tea.

Trees, teas, carols, and mistletoe: England is a fine place to enjoy the warmth, food and music of the season. Attend a carol performance at a magnificent old church, decorate the tree, have some pudding and kiss your honey under the mistletoe. It’s the most joyous time of the year and England is a great place to spend it.



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Category: Europe, Expat Life, Food and Drink, General, Notes from the collective travel mind

December 24, 2013

5 More things I’m learning from life and travel


Last week I shared five things that life and travel are teaching me. 

This week, I’d like to share five more…

1. To figure it out

There is nothing like having everything go to perdition on a far off continent when you don’t speak the language. In epic ways: like the stock market crashing and taking all of our money with it, and small ways: like having to get a delirious kid to a hospital, pronto, traveling teaches us to figure it out. When there’s no friend to call for help, no safety net in place, and no option to pass the buck, I have to figure it out. What I’ve learned: I can be trusted to figure it out. That’s a good thing to know about myself.

2. To have faith

Faith in the traditional, religious sense, hasn’t worked out too well for me over the long haul; it’s a long story, but suffice to say I’m best defined as a skeptic. When I say I’m learning to have faith, I mean in juxtaposition to fear. To have faith in my own ability rather than to wonder if I can pull it off. To have faith in my fellow man, rather than fear his intention. To have faith in humanity to move forward for the collective good. To have faith that there is, indeed, light at the end of many a long tunnel. When I live my life from a point of faith instead of a point of fear, everything becomes possible.

3. To dream big

Perhaps, to some people, an open ended world tour with their family is a big dream. It was for us, once. It was the big dream that we sacrificed everything else for, and it’s been infinitely worth it. But now, it’s our “inside the box.” Long term travel isn’t hard. No where on the planet is out of reach. If anything, the problem is that we have so many options that it’s hard to choose which adventure to have next. We are learning to dream bigger, to open the next box and crawl out. The view from the tipping point of the lid is spectacular, clear to the horizon. That’s the cool thing about cultivating and achieving your dreams, one at a time; you realize that the really big, really epic thing that you worked flat out for, reached clear to the edge of your current horizon to grab hold of… is actually just the next wrung of the ladder, and there’s another rung, almost out of reach, waiting to be grabbed. One dream leads to another. I just have to keep climbing.

4. Be generous

I’ve never understood the impulse to hoard stuff, money, time, people, or anything else. I was raised in a family of givers, and to me, it’s just “the way we live.” Travel has just deepened those lessons and reinforced my natal belief that we are here to share and to give. I love to give. Stuff is just stuff, we share it where we can. Money is just money, if we have it, we give it. Time is the real gift, the true treasure in life, and when we have the opportunity to give time, that is the most precious form of sharing of all. The thing I’m learning from travel is how to receive as generously as we strive to give. The great blessing of being taken into a stranger’s home, life, kitchen, and heart. The generous friendship that results when we allow ourselves to be taken care of. The opportunities that then present themselves to reciprocate. I’m fortunate to live among, and call my friends, some of the most generous people on the planet. It’s great fun to strive to out-do one another in giving, sharing, loving and meeting each other’s needs. One of the best parts of our long term travel has been the many opportunities we’ve been presented with to give generously, and the many times we’ve been gifted with more than we could ever imagine.

 5. Keep walking

Life is hard, isn’t it? Work is hard. Parenting is hard. Sometimes marriage is hard. Keeping all the plates spinning is hard. Travel is hard. Staying home is hard. Struggle seems common to man. My Dad has been known to say that, “Time carries us away from all things.” The older I get, the more I wade through, the more I realize the truth of his words and the layers of meaning below them. I thought I knew what they meant at 18; I did not. I hope I know now, but I suspect there is more to learn. The only trick I know for getting through the hard is a lesson learned every day we travel: just keep walking. Through the literal, the figurative, and the metaphorical, the emotional and the physical hardships. Just keep walking. Moving forward is the only answer. I can’t go back. Get over that thought right now. To stop is to start sinking, to mire in my own mental state. Drowning isn’t an appealing thought. So I must move forward. Of course I walk a lot, in the physical sense, it’s my own form of therapy, but really, the important walking is internal, and it’s there that I’m learning to keep pressing forward, to insist on proactive measures and growth towards productive ends.

What is your journey teaching you?

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Category: Notes from the collective travel mind, Vagabonding Life

December 17, 2013

5 Things I’m learning from life and travel


It is raining this morning, and I am sick.

It’s one of those mornings where I long for a bathtub and a big fluffy bed and endless documentary television to while away a day when I’m too icky to do anything else. Instead, I’m tucked up in my little cave bed with my second cup of tea, listening to raindrops and resting. It’s almost as good! ;)

Instead of hiking the coast of the Coromandel Peninsula and digging out big pools of thermal water on a hot water beach this afternoon, we’re tucked in under a solid rain, making the best of our camper life. I was awake most of the night (did I mention that I’m sick!?) thinking about the things that travel is teaching me. Care to take a midnight wander through my brain?

1. Flexibility

Travel is yoga for the soul. By nature I’m a planner and an organizer and a low-level control freak. The road is doing its best to bend that out of me, one country, one culture, one mini-catastrophe at a time. I no longer expect anything to run on schedule. If well made plans for a day crash and burn, well, there must be something else more important for the day. Mealtimes are flexible. Bedtimes are flexible. The definition of “food and lodging” are flexible. There really isn’t much in life that can’t be flexible, if I’m willing to bend with the wind and go with the flow… which, incidentally, is the key to reducing stress and increasing joy in the journey.

2. What I do not need

I have more than I need. I have always had more than I’ve needed, without exception. I do not “need” most of what I have, and knowing that has increased my gratefulness for the small things and the many comforts. I don’t have a bathtub, a big fluffy bed, or a TV this morning. But my little camper bed, my cup of tea and my cheese plate are still more than I need and I’m so glad for all three! Realizing what I don’t need has increased contentment and lowered my expectations and pretty much removed the anxiety that surrounds collecting “stuff” to pad our existence.

3. This is my life

A camper van cab top bed, my hubby’s knit hat on my sick noggin, a cheese plate and a cup of tea. This is my life. My life is no more than the moment I’m in. Where I’ve been doesn’t matter as much as where I’m going. Where I’m going doesn’t matter as much as where I am. There’s nothing to be gained from comparison to anyone or anything else. I am where I am because of the choices I’ve made. If I don’t like it, I can change it. All I have is today, this moment, sick in the rain. What will I make of it?

4. Who I am

I suppose all of life, from cradle to grave is an exercise in peeling back the layers of the onion, defining and redefining this, for all of us. The growing and changing and continual evolution of self is something interesting to me to watch, from somewhere outside of myself. Of course it’s a horrible cliche, that travel introduces you to yourself, but it’s true.  Getting outside of all of the preconceived constructs that define a person is educational indeed. When there are no walls, no fences, no comfy confines, what will I do? Who am I really? How do I meet the world? Where do I fit in it? What can I give? These are the questions that define us, and redefine us. The questions that have brought me to my knees in places, both geographically and internally.

5. To Make my own box

The idea that we can get “outside the box” in this life is just silly. Just about the time you climb out of the box you think you’re in, you climb into another one. We have people say to us, regularly, “Wow!! You guys live such an “outside the box” life…” And I get what they mean. Yes, we do in some ways: no house, nomadic, alternatively educated kids, careers outside of the cube wars. But we live a very “inside the box” life in the world we exist in: there are tons of other families what we call friends who live just like we do. We’re nothing special. They aren’t impressed. We’re in the box for them. So, at the end of the day, the thing I’m learning is that it isn’t about escaping from some mythical box, it’s about creating your own, according to your own passions, and your own definition of normal. My life is delightfully “in the box,” I’ve just created it myself and plastered the sides with travel posters!

What is life and travel teaching you?

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Category: Notes from the collective travel mind

December 10, 2013

Christmas magic in Germany

Christmas in Germany 3

One of the many great things about Europe is the magnificent way it celebrates the Christmas season. Throughout the continent, a spirit of festivity can be felt in the wintertime air. The traditions of the season are still strong in this thoroughly modern part of the world, where bustling Christmas markets fill the main square of big cities and bucolic, half-timbered villages alike. In the cathedrals, choirs singing the great medieval Christmas hymns fill the cavernous spaces with angelic harmonies.

With that said, this is the first in a series of posts on the various ways Christmas is celebrated in Europe. While each country has its own festive quirks, many of them share the greatest of the ancient traditions and it’s a joy to be enveloped by it.

Germany, for example, is one of the most magical places to experience the season. This seems ironic, as it’s arguably Europe’s most progressive, twenty-first century nation. But old traditions die hard and Germany reaches far into its medieval past to embrace and celebrate the season. From the Austrian border to the Baltic Sea, from the Black Forrest to Berlin, Germany comes alive at the holidays. Its people break out the gingerbread recipes, the carols, and the colors of the season.

Christmas in Germany 2

The sprawling Christkindle Markets fill the squares of communities across the country, bursting with music and food and seasonal décor. Traditional favorites such as gingerbread and sweet prune-and-fig candies are served at stalls under a kaleidoscope of Christmas colors. It’s not unusual for a small chorus to be serenading the bundled-up shoppers and sightseers with classic old Germanic carols, their puffs of visible breath ascending into the sky on the frosty air.

Performances of the Nutcracker are to be found in theatres across the country, while well-built manger scenes adorn the cobbled public spaces of both the predominantly Catholic South and Protestant North (this, after all the birthplace of Luther and Protestantism). Jolly St. Nicholas looms in the dreams of children eager for the big day to arrive.

It’s a good reminder that there is more to Germany that Oktoberfest and the Autobahn. They keep the best of their ancient traditions very much alive as they indulge in the classic sights, sounds and tastes of Christmas festivity.

Christmas in Germany 1

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Category: Europe, Images from the road, Notes from the collective travel mind, On The Road, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Life

November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving overseas: chocolates and rasperry beer in Bruges

Growing up in the Midwest, my Thanksgiving was the traditional spread of turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie, devoured at a relative’s home in suburban Chicago. But I grew up to be an inveterate traveler and spent the holiday in many places—one of the best was the historic, colorful Belgian city of Bruges.

Several years ago I was serving an internship at the US Embassy in London, and received a four-day weekend as per federal law. I packed a bag, recruited a friend, and took advantage of the holiday to visit one of my favorite Northern European locations.

Once a prosperous medieval port city, Bruges saw its fortunes vanish when its waterway silted up. The Flemish jewel’s centuries of slumber had an unintended boon for twenty-first century travelers: its cobbled alleyways, picture-book canals and magnificent Market Square survive to thrill romantics and history buffs alike.

My friend, a fellow American who was visiting me from back home, had never heard of the place. This presented another great opportunity I relished: playing tour guide in Europe. At first she was skeptical of spending the holiday in an unfamiliar city, but my description of a city that offered authentic Gothic architecture, romantic canals and Crusader-era cathedral housing an ancient relic piqued her interest. She also seemed to warm to the idea when told that Belgium makes the finest chocolate and beer in the world (in fact, Belgium has almost as many beers as there are days in the year).

Having won her interest, we met up in London on a Wednesday, flew to the Brussels and caught a train to Bruges. A steady rain greeted us as we settled into a little bed and breakfast I’d enjoyed on a previous visit. I promised my exhausted buddy that tomorrow would be a lot more fun.

Thanksgiving was spent showing my hometown friend some of Bruges’ charms, like the bell tower that has overlooked the Market Square since 1300 and the historic Basilica of the Holy Blood (home of a priceless relic brought home to Bruges from the Crusades—the reputed blood of Jesus—and the Gothic artistry of the ancient City Hall.

Under a chilly drizzle, we munched on hot, greasy French fries from a stand in the Market Square and admired the pointy gilded architecture. After licking our fingers we checked out the Michelangelo kept in a nearby church and then continued wandering along the canals that lace the city. A major part of the experience was, of course, browsing the numerous chocolate shops lining the alleyways just off the colorful square.

Our thanksgiving feast was in a little Italian café off a cobbled lane, where a pizza was washed down with a delicious locally-crafted strawberry-flavored beer (Frambozen). Dark chocolate, freshly made by a nearby confectioner’s, was the dessert. After introducing my pal to a few more fine Belgian beers (Trappist monk-brewed dark, and a white beer called Dentergems), a post-feast stroll around the backstreets capped off the night.

The following Sunday I returned to London while my friend flew home to Chicago with a bagful of delectably pralines, a well-earned hangover, and a few good stories. I relished playing tour guide in Europe, and I still do.

I’ve had many interesting Thanksgiving experiences before and since, but my holiday spent in the historic, idyllic little Belgian city still brings a smile. Stuffing and family is great, but I really miss that beer.

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Category: Europe, Expat Life, Food and Drink, Notes from the collective travel mind, On The Road, Travel Writing












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