Don’t Live for Fridays

I lazily walked through my yard this morning, surveying the overgrowth and clumpy, late-summer plants that have taken over the perimeter of my lot. I ran my hands over the knots in my hammock, sighed and plopped down. For about a half-hour, I just rocked back and forth feeling the wind rustle my sun-bleached hair, letting the sun hit my skin in the hopes I wouldn’t lose how the brown my skin had become.  My chin started to quiver, I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. The tears didn’t come, but I could feel it… the high of returning home had worn off.  I’d seen my mom, my brother and sister-in-law, my niece and nephews and my travel buddies from the first part of my trip. I’ve gone out to lunch, dinner, and drinks with friends I missed so much when I was away.  I’ve chatted online with people I met while I was away, curious as to how they’re doing, what they’re doing. Are they still traveling?   I’ve restocked my fridge, done laundry, and watered my plants. I’ve gone to the gym and I’ve even gone into work to prepare for the next school year.  And as I sat there on my hammock, eyes closed, I realized I want to go back- to traveling. It’s only been 10 days.

So many travel bloggers have written about post-trip depression- about coming home and immediately wanting to be back to the thrill of being on the road. So, that’s not what I’m writing about here. You can google it and get a dozen articles. No. what I’m talking about is the let down of the travel high.  No matter how thin the hostel mattress, or how long the bus rides were- it was an adventure, it was exhilirating. Being constantly surrounded by people (even when you didn’t want to) was oddly comforting. I traveled solo for the last nearly 6 weeks of my vacation. But today I never felt more alone.

Being home to reality took 10 days to hit me, and today is tough.

The whole purpose of me starting this blog was to help myself and others to find balance with their day-to-day lives. That it’s ok to love the routine and monotony as much as loving the uncertainty and unparalleled freedom that comes from traveling in a foreign country. It’s ok to have both. Yet… it’s difficult going from one extreme to another. For two months I felt free. I had zero home stress. I didn’t have to be anywhere, to do anything or answer to anyone I didn’t want to. Sure I had “survival” stress, where’s my hostel? Is this city safe? Is the person I just agreed to spend the day with safe? But that stress, to me, was tantalizing, it was freeing, it made me realized I needed to have that excitement in my day-to-day life.

Shortly after I returned home, I read something that said,  “Don’t live for Fridays”. Well, damn wasn’t that just the perfect thing to read. Cause we do it. All of us. We complain about Mondays, and exclaim, “TGIF!” at the end of the week.  But every day when you’re traveling is a Friday.  You wake up, and you do something amazing… you can’t help it- even if it’s just walking down the street in a new city, or eating a shitty hostel breakfast with 10 strangers, it’s still an adventure, and your senses are on massive overload. The stimulation I get from traveling is like a drug. You are on sensory overload and you seek out the next best thing to top the day before…. and when I get home, that feeling just isn’t the same. But why can’t it be? Why can’t I live every day like I’m on vacation? Ok, ok, maybe not every day, after all, this is all about balance.  But I can’t tell you how many times last year I said, “Oh, I can’t tonight, I have work tomorrow” or the weekends that would go by so quickly I’d have a panic attack on Sunday night thinking about work the next day, and wondering how I’d make it through five days until Friday.

So. That’s what I’m working on this year. Join me if you want- no more Fridays. No.More.Fridays. I’m taking my week back. I’m taking one day at a time, saying “yes” more, shutting off work when work is over and living & loving the world around me. Using all my personal days, quick weekend trips, more stamps in my passport… more plans with friends… more non-feeling guilty nights in… more trips to the gym….more going to see my friends play music… more trying new recipes… more taking classes… and more saying “no” to things don’t give me joy.  After all, it is all about balance. Time to start collecting more moments. Who’s in?

Hisa Franko

I took a sip of the my wine, sat back, and smiled. As the server was clearing the most recent course and re-issuing me silverware, I tentatively asked, “So, does Ana cook anymore?” The server looked at me, smiled, and although I knew the answer, she said it so much more eloquently than I could have imagined. She simply said, “Ana creates.” Such a simple statement, but such a powerful testament to Ana’s success. She has worked so hard, and surrounded herself with such a solid team, that she gets to do what she is passionate about- creating delicious works of art to fill the senses of diners in search of just an ounce of that emotion. And emotion is what comes across in Ana Ros’s cooking.

Rewind to about a year ago. My best friend, Tony and I were waking up after a night of hanging out at my house and we casually flicked on “Chef’s Table” on Netflix. We both sipped our coffee, and then I’m not sure we spoke for the next several hours. We watched episode after episode of some of the most premier chefs in the world who talked about their inspiration, their lives, their hard work, what they gave up and what they gained by sticking to their passion of creating edible works of art. It’s truly the best way I can describe it. If you haven’t watched this series, it’s binge worthy and so beautifully done. From the music, the images, the cinematography of the whole thing makes this casual foodie’s heart soar. Although, perhaps it’s not the food. I am inspired by passion. Passion turns me on. Passion takes a person from mediocre to the most attractive human in the world. And I think I fell in love a dozen times watching this series. Tony eventually left my house, and I continued binging on Chef’s Table. An episode began with lush, green, vegetation and a young woman with blonde fuzzy hair who looks like she could potentially be my family member. I remember stopping what I was doing and watching intently as she introduced that this magical place I was seeing was Slovenia. I sat back and watched Ana Ros tell her story- she talked about how she was trained to be an international diplomat… that her family had plans for her and expectations. And she chucked it all for love, and a passion for creating and cooking. And now, after years and years of hard work, Ana has one of the 50 best restaurants in the world (2018). Ana is unlike a lot of chefs, she is completely self-taught. She read books, watched others, and found her path using ingredients indigenous to her surroundings. I was enamored with the verdant hillsides and valleys by which she was surrounded. The fact that this was the same country my great-grandmother left many years ago, made it even more alluring.

Fast forward a few months and I was planning my trip to the Balkan Peninsula trying to figure out where to begin and end my trip and this episode of Chef’s Table popped into my head. Slovenia. What if I could end my trip in Slovenia and have an experience at Hisa Franko? A bit of excitement bubbled up inside me as I sent an email to the restaurant to see if it was possible for a single diner to get a reservation at this incredible place. A few days later, my email was answered. Yes, of course they could accommodate me, but it was a bit early to make reservations (it was February, I was looking for July). They asked me to email back in March. And I did- I had my dates set and 27th of July I would sit down and experience a production of 11 courses with wine pairings in the beautiful Soca Valley in Slovenia.

For the last seven weeks I have been backpacking up the Balkan Peninsula. I’ve wound my way up via bus, plane and ferry from Greece to Albania to Montenegro to Bosnia & Herzegovina, to Croatia and finally to Slovenia. I’ve been staying in dorm beds in hostels, eating free breakfasts, eating pizza for dinner, and watching every penny. However, last night, I shook out my one nice dress, sprayed it with some febreeze, put make up on, and put on my “fancy” flip flops. It was like I was getting ready for a first date. I was ready an hour early, and would chatter to anyone who would listen about my excitement. Being all dressed up, I stood out at my outdoorsy hostel where hiking boots and smelly hiking gear was the norm. I could hardly contain myself as my taxi picked me up and we made our way down the valley, hugging the blue-green Soca River down to Kobarid, and out a few kilometers to Staro Selo where we arrived at Hisa Franko. I actually had to remind myself to wait until the car stopped before getting out. My driver, named Danilo, laughed and reminded me that I turned into a pumpkin around 11:00pm. After some obligatory photos in front of the Hisa Franko sign, I walked across the parking lot, hoping my footsteps would drown out my heart that was beating so fast, I was sure everyone could hear it. I breathlessly walked to the restaurant which can be best described as going to dinner at someone’s country home. The restaurant actually is where Ana, Valter and their two children live (I’m unsure if they still do, but they did while building the restaurant up). There is also a bed and breakfast on the property- I had tried to get a reservation there too, but they were booked up even before March! Mountains surrounded the restaurant, while green fields stretched out in every direction giving the feeling that you were truly in the middle of nowhere. Flowers blossomed and hung from baskets, and grew in vines up the buildings. A simple plaque hung by the front double doors that said “Hisa Franko”. I steadied my breath and opened the door.

I was greeted by a lovely hostess who confirmed my “no beef” preference for the menu. I truly hate putting limitations on this menu, but after not having eaten beef for going on 23 years, I didn’t think now was a good time to introduce that to my belly. That said, I told myself no matter what I was served I would eat it all. I had the option of doing a vegetarian menu or a fish/seafood only menu- but I felt that was too restrictive. So here we go. As I was escorted to my table, I was taken with the simplicity of the decor. A simple, but elegant, egg shaped spotlight was strung across the wood beam and white ceiling over each table. Each table had a crisp white table cloth emblazoned with a pale purple flower which matched the linen napkin perfectly rolled in front of my seat. My purse had its own seat next to me so it didn’t have to hang on my chair or rest on the floor. A thick, cylindrical white candle, a stone, and a vase with pale red, but not quite pink, flowers were the only decor on the table. A simple stone bread plate, a sleek butter knife and a small stone bowl containing the creamiest homemade butter I’ve ever had in my life, made up my place setting.

I was immediately presented with 6 thick slices of home made sourdough bread fermented with apple peels. My mouth immediately started watering. Sourdough is my absolute FAVORITE bread in the whole world. The person who presented my bread explained that it took four years to get the recipe right and this was their “house bread” now. Next up was the Sommelier who poured me a glass of sparkling wine as an appertif. Then a crunchy cheese lollipop made from cheese from Tolmin which had been aged 2 months and then another 4 months in Valter’s cheese cellar. Everything happened swiftly, it was like a waltz, I was spun around, slightly disoriented, left a little breathless, but wanting a little more. I couldn’t even imagine what was to come.

As I settled into my role as “madam” (that’s what they called me… “Certainly madam”, “My pleasure, madam”, “Here’s another piece of paper for you to take notes on madam, I noticed you were running out of room”) I realized that I was here to be taken care of. I was a guest- not just a customer. The sommelier would refill the glasses of my wine without hesitation, my water glass never was empty, and silverware specific to each course was placed at my setting along with a casual comment or conversation from the servers. That’s the thing about this place. There was no pretentiousness. The servers spoke like humans, not robots. They indulged my silly questions and comments. The sommelier even warmed up to me when, after telling me one of the wines was from near Maribor, I told him my great grandmother was from there. He said, “Oh, so you have roots here” And he seemed a little flustered as we had a little conversation about the region. The servers helped each other… I caught them laughing, smiling and enjoying the experience. Dining alone I was able to be a conscious observer of others, and it was fascinating. There were newlyweds, friends, and groups together. They delighted in each bite, being little food critics, taking pictures- smiling at these creations. That’s the thing about food. It’s a medium that truly uses every single one of our senses. It’s not just about filling our bellies- it can be so much more than that. Watching people get excited to try things, and with wide-eyes, exclaim that they were NOT expecting that- I loved watching how food brought people together.

A smiling server set down a sliver tray with a single dish and a small glass cup on it at my side table, took a breath and began to explain. My Eleven Course Symphony was about to begin, and I couldn’t have been more ready. I hope you enjoy my memories of my favorite restaurant experience to date.

My journey began with something called “Salty Recycled Bead and Tarragon Story” which was a tiny dish of a whipped bone marrow with salty creaminess and a chip of recycled bread (they use the day old bread so it doesn’t go to waste). The dish was accented with tiny flowers and a small glass of buttermilk sprinkled with tarragon. The idea was to use the chip as a dip of the marrow, take a bite and then a sip of the buttermilk. Such a surprise that I liked this. But the salty-creamy-crunchy balance was outstanding with the pop of herb and tangy sour of the buttermilk. The sparkling wine I had been served as an appertif was perfect for this very full-of-fat dish.

Next up was “Apricot, fermented cottage cheese and hibiscus flowers” This was such a neat dish. The meat of the apricot was pressed out, rolled super thin and filled with a fermented cottage cheese mixture. It was like a dehydrated fruit roll up, and then rolled up with a creamy center. Somehow the apricot was also flash fried, but the dish wasn’t warm. It was topped with dehydrated onion chips, hibiscus flowers and salt. Maybe the best part was that it was served with their version of an apricot bloody mary! I picked up the apricot roll, took a bite and immediately took a sip of the Bloody Mary. Wowza. The slight crunch giving way to the creamy cheese inside, and the pop from the onion chip with a little floral from the hibiscus was actually hilarious to me. I couldn’t believe that this all went together so perfectly! I tried to make this one last… but in 3 bites it was gone.

The sommelier joined me again for the next dish and poured me a glass of wine which was called Zelen. It was a great white that went well with the funkiness of the next dish. The next dish was called “Fermented Fig, different textures of yeast and wild clove flowers”. A tiny slice of fermented fig was surrounded by a creamy sauce of the fermentation liquid, yeast chips and Ethiopian spices. There were a lot of textures going on here, and I wanted to absolutely love this dish, but it was just ok for me. The best part was the way the texture played with each other. I wanted more fig flavor- but I got a mouthful of yeast really instead of a good balance of fig. That said, the more I mixed everything together, the better the dish became, my final bite gave the union I was looking for and it ended with a bang.

My favorite dish was next. The sommelier poured a glass of red Pinot Grigio- I had never had that before! I listened intently when he said that the Pink Grigio grapes were left with skin contact for 8 days before they were removed. It went perfectly with the dish called “ Garden cucumber, emulsion of chocolate, plum usmeboshi and salted lemon” This tiny, seemingly simple show-stopper was everything I ever wanted in a salty-sweet-savory fruit dish. Compressed and fermented cucumbers paired with green strawberries, compressed watermelon, bits of salted lemon peel, over a bed of salted chocolate emulsion with vanilla oil and olive oil. In my very uneducated opinion, the salt in this dish is what made these flavors go boom! Every little bite was like a burst from a very grown up bag of Skittles.

A close contender for best dish was next, “Green bean scogliera II/sea snails, clams, mussels, razor clams in black garlic”. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I saw this on the menu, but it certainly wasn’t the little swirl of a birds nest of green beans that I was presented. It appeared to be a pasta dish, but the green beans acted like pasta, julienne strips, thin like vermicelli. Then they were tossed with/soaked in a sea broth of the sea snails, clams, mussels and razor clams which gave a massive “I’m in the ocean” punch when you bit into it. The black garlic beautifully balanced out the saltiness. I was surprised with the addition of a crispy chicken skin on top of the dish, but after eating the chip first (as I was instructed to do), I think it prepped my mouth for the saltiness of the dish while providing a coating of fat on my tongue too. Whatever the reason, it was fabulous!!!! The sommelier paired a Sauvignon Blanc that was perfect for the salty/sea taste of this dish. Well, at least according to the sommelier. I tried to keep up 🙂

Next was a dish with a fun name: “Black Cod Bob Marley/Pink Floyd Style”- pick your favorite band. It was a piece of cod that was lightly grilled and served with a “Bob Marley” green sauce (I know what you’re thinking and no, there was no marijuana in this dish) the green sauce was mellow and smooth and then a splat of pink sauce that was raspberry sour and bolder. It had a small forest raspberry salad that played with the savory and sweetness of the two sauces. Mixed together there was an infusion of flavors that made me want to lick the plate. The sommelier paired a Pinot Blanc that had been aged in Chardonnay barrels, which was perfection!

“Lick your fingers/Goat Kid & Crab” was the next dish and every single person who knows me should be so proud of me that I ate this ENTIRE dish. This was a tad beyond my comfort zone… but I did it. And although it wasn’t my favorite dish to eat, it was very pretty in its presentation. Two little rolls, not unlike sushi, of a mixture of goat and crabmeat were presented on a slice of a tree, surrounded by pine and leaves. The goat and crabmeat were wrapped in chard from their garden, and beside it was a small dish of a very delicious broth, accented with a dumpling of…. kid goat organs… gulp. But, yep. I ate it all. It wasn’t bad- just a very strong flavor. I feel like the goat and crab was such a powerful combination- for some I bet was incredible, but for me, just was very strong. Again, not bad, just not my cup of tea.

Since I don’t eat beef, I lucked out and didn’t have to force myself to eat the tripe… they served me an alternate which was. “Trout, whey, roasted poppy seeds, beets in Tonka vinegar” And if I could order a single dish again from this menu, this would be it. I wanted seconds after I took my first bite. I wanted this to be a typical 6oz main dish portion. I wanted to swim in the whey sauce. It was a beautiful expression of this indigenous Soca River fish, and the additions of toasted poppy seeds, and pickled beetroot and tonka vinegar provided the acidity this dish needed with the creaminess of the whey. Listening to the scraping of forks and spoons on the dishes makes me realize that I’m not the only one who wants this dish to last just a little bit longer.

The next course made me question why I was a vegetarian for 11 years. Admittedly, staring at a medium-rare piece of meat had me learning to control my gag-reflex, but once I told myself to suck it up and enjoy it, this roebuck just melted in my mouth. The dish was called “Roebuck, anchovy, spruce, wild mushrooms” These two, little, perfect pieces of meat were topped with anchovy butter, sprinkles of spruce powder, crispy wild mushrooms and it all just WORKED. This dish and the next was paired with a great merlot that I wish I had paid attention to more, but all I know is that it was perfect.

My final main dish (that should have been beef tongue, again, saved by my aversion to beef) was Slovenian wild bear. Yep, you read that right… BEAR. And it was delicious. It was prepared so it just fell apart when I put my fork into it… similar to a pulled pork. The sauce that surrounded the tender meat had honey and berries in it, and it was accentuated with trout roe, crispy trout skin and trout foam. It was like she brought the forest to this plate and truly gave a dish I could only find here in Slovenia.

After finishing the main courses, the frenzy of the service swirled around me once again. It all happened so fluidly though, it was like someone had waved a magic wand and my table was cleared of all unnecessary things. I had a blank slate to begin the dessert courses. I was poured a deliciously sweet, but not too sweet, muscat that was just apricots all over the place, it was perfect. Floral but not too floral, fruity, and perfect.

Placed in front of me was a dish that, visually, I liked immediately. It was garnished with popcorn, my FAVORITE snack, and I didn’t care what it was, I just knew it would be great. However, to my excitement I found out that this was actually a cheese cream with walnuts & white chocolate. In the bottom were crunchy bits of caramelized local beer and a beer gelee. Whatever they did to bring out the yeasty-ness of the beer and the sweetness of the cheese balanced with the bitter of the walnuts and foamy crunch of the popcorn was like I was watching football in my living room- if my living room was a mansion on the French Riviera. It was familiar, but elevated and it was so, so great.

Next was a very pretty peach dish, with peaches sliced so thinly they were translucent. It was served with an ice cream made from the sheep and cow milk they had, accented with sweet woodruff (a plant) and local saffron. The crumbles made this dessert like a peach cobbler, reinvented. The coolness of the ice cream and the sweetness of the peaches was the perfect ending to the meal.

I ordered my cappuccino to reflect on what I had just experienced and was then presented with a final end to my “story”. It was a “Sweet Tarragon Story” to book end the first “Salty Tarragon Story” This was a little dish of sweet tarragon cream with another recycled bread chip, but also with two tiny cookies: one of tarragon and one of gingerbread (my FAVORITE). Also with a little piece of fried bread dusted with sugar. To finish it off there was a little kefir lime juice cocktail with it. The acidity of that drink helped to balance out the sweetness of the cookies, cream and bread. But that tarragon – such a unique isolated flavor, brought the whole meal full circle. That little spice brought me back to the beginning of the meal and had me reflect on the three and a half hour performance with such clarity. .

This truly was a performance for the senses. No where else, besides a meal, can all the senses be stimulated at the same time. The stage where the scene is set begins the visual journey with the additions of perfectly placed items on the tables, tiny works of art lovingly created just to be destroyed. The aromas wafting from dishes, creating a reflexive action of salivation makes you experience the dishes sometimes nose first, even before your eyes. The external auditory stimuli that turns your head as you experience your dish- the music so perfectly subtle in the background, the scraping of cutlery on dishes, telling you that the dish was so delicious that people don’t want to leave any morsels on their plate, to the internal sounds as food crunches, pops, melts, tears in your mouth. Actually feeling the items around you, from the perfect chair you sit in, to the softness of the linen napkin in your lap, to the smooth stone plates, the bumps of the sourdough bread, and the delicate stems of various wine glasses. And still yet, feeling the food in your mouth- not the taste— that comes last. But the actual texture of the foods. The balance of chewy and crunchy, smooth and sticky, soft and hard creates an experience with every bite. These dishes come with some instructions at times, and it’s for the diner’s benefit. Finally, taste. Anyone can make great tasting food. However, to create tastes that dance together, that play off each other in such a subtle way takes such skill and knowledge of how we taste food. When you have an experience with a skilled chef, you simply say “of course that works” because it’s perfection.

My experience took three and a half hours, roughly the same running time as when I went to see Hamilton. And I left equally as breathless. Passion in creativity stirs my soul. Passion for caring for a guest, passion for “leaving it all out there”. I don’t know Ana, I didn’t get to meet her, but, she is the real deal. Ana creates dishes that aren’t aggressive. She caresses and encourages the unions of flavors and textures and truly creates a symphony of flavor. She is proud of the region in which she lives which is evident in her food. The whole dining experience fires up every reflex, stirs your senses and evokes strong emotions firmly solidifying this experience in the your memory. Course after course, the experience leaves the diner wanting to throw their head back saying, “Yes! More! More! More!” (Think: Meg Ryan in that classic scene from “When Harry Met Sally”) Instead you silently squirm in your seat, palms a tiny bit sweaty, smiling, not wanting it to be over. But when it is, you’re left glowing, a little breathless and satisfied- at least if they do it right. And Ana and her team, they know what they’re doing

40 before 40

I started traveling abroad, on my own volition, on February 13, 2001. I was 21 years old, barely, and I was headed to Australia for 5 months and New Zealand for a month. There’s no way I could have known at that moment, when my family walked me to the gate of my plane (yes, this was pre-9/11 when you could still walk with your family to the gate to say goodbye) that traveling would become an addiction, an obsession, a passion.

Who knew that every extra penny I had would go toward planning for my next trip.

That I’d subscribe to travel magazines, adventure magazines, ripping pages out, put into a box of dream destinations…

That I’d take on 2, sometimes 3 extra jobs so I never had to say “someday”…

That I’d learn that traveling didn’t always mean staying in the nicest resorts…

That I’d jump from planes, pet tigers, bathe elephants, swim in waterfalls, walk with lions, stare at stars from a yacht, jump off bridges, raft down a raging river, hike mountains to ancient cities, jump into crystal clear water, eat food I can’t pronounce, watch the final World Cup game in the country who is in the final game, party till the sun comes up, walk the Great Wall, swim in The Great Barrier Reef, explore places I had never heard of and so much more.

Who knew that I was capable of making friends in 5 minutes, of trusting strangers, of walking alone at night in a strange city, of navigating a place where they don’t speak my language simply by smiling.

I’ve learned that life truly is what you make of it and no one holds the key to your happiness. I’ve learned that luck has everything to do with where I started out in life, and hard work has allowed me to appreciate and take advantage of the luck I have.

Today marks an incredible moment for me. July 23, 2018, 17 years after that first trip, I will set foot in my 40th country. What seems like a million years ago, I had this idea of getting to 40 countries before my 40th birthday, and today, two years before I turn 40, I will do just that.

One thing I have learned traveling though is that the number doesn’t matter to anyone but you. There will always be someone traveling longer than you, who has been to more countries, who has been to more remote places… and there will always be someone who is traveling for the first time, has been to fewer countries and likes to stick to the landmarks. There is no right or wrong way to travel. Traveling is as individual as each person. Reflecting back on the last 17 years of travel makes me want to cry. The magnificent things I’ve seen, the people I’ve met, all that I’ve learned about myself.

I can’t think of a better country to have as my 40th. My great-Grandmother left Slovenia (Yugoslavia) with her friend when she was 18 to go to The USA. My mom says I get my adventurous spirit definitely her. It’s a special moment that I will end this trip where part of my roots began.

Cheers to 40!

Traveling alone vs Traveling Solo: Part 1

Being alone with my thoughts is strange. I keep reflecting on my brother’s words…. “You take care of everyone else, use this month to take care of you”.

There’s a difference between traveling alone to join a group and traveling solo. I’ve traveled alone heaps of times- but traveling solo? This is new for me. Decisions are mine, but down time is also mine, too. In my 17 years of travel I have never been alone for this stretch of time. I have no context, no previous experience from which to draw. For the first time in a long time, I feel like a foreigner to traveling. I have no one to play cards with, no one to make sure I’m on the tour bus unless I make the effort to talk.

I look around at couples- young and old, families wrangling little ones who don’t (and may never) realize how lucky they are for getting a different world view. But mostly I’m drawn to the couples- how neat it is to see the smiles they exchange, the kisses, the playful slaps… young and old the actions and mannerisms are the same. It doesn’t matter the language they speak, they’re all connected by their actions. Is this their first trip abroad together? Their honeymoon? Is it their 50th wedding anniversary? Two people with silver Grey hair stand at the bow of the rocking and rolling ferry I’m on to the island of Kefalonia. They stand adjacent to each other, their arms barely touching- but still touching. The human connection. A young family sits beside me, a son’s head in his dad’s lap lulled to sleep by the rolling waves, his dad’s arm carefully, but securely tucking him safely away from falling off the bench on which he sleeps. A group of three friends (I assume) playfully flick and smack each other. Mother and daughter laugh as they try and stay upright while walking across the deck on this bumpy ride.

I watch these moments with people and I’m not entirely certain what I’m feeling. Feelings have context, you know? I’m not sure if I’m feeling lonely because my traveling partners left yesterday (geez, was it just yesterday?!) or am I feeling lonely because I’m not at home where everything is comfortable and easy? Maybe it’s not lonely at all. Perhaps this new emotion I’m not used to is feeling uncomfortable sitting with myself, in the moment, with thoughts whirling. No one to think or worry about except myself. Perhaps my brother is right. Take this month to figure out me. To take care of me. I guess living alone I always thought I did so that. But being away in a foreign land where so much unknown lurks ahead of me, it’s a different beast all together. Kefalonia‘s port looms on the horizon… the tour bus waiting to take my tour group to see the natural beauty of the island in the Ionian Sea. I don’t have anyone to share in this experience today- and that’s ok. Time to become content sharing this experience with myself.

Not Always Easy

Traveling for long periods of time isn’t always fun or easy. I post pictures on FB of the overwhelmingly happy moments and incredible sights I’ve seen, but yesterday was not a FB day. I didn’t take a single photo that inspired me. I had a rough day yesterday after dropping off my aunt and uncle at the airport. My eyes brimmed with tears giving them hugs and as I drove away, the tears cascaded onto my cheeks. My Greek taxi driver patted me on the shoulder and said “mama? Papa?” I just nodded- it was easier than trying to explain and maintain composure. I was alone in paradise and crying. I immediately began to beat myself up for feeling this way- how pathetic. Pull it together, Sauer! You knew this was coming! This is what you wanted!

I checked into my budget accommodation in what I can only describe as a place that made a Super 8 motel in the States look like the Ritz. Thank god my room was ready because I collapsed I the bed (no blanket- only sheets) and cried myself to sleep. I woke up a few hours later and, determined to feel better, I decided to take a walk and find some lunch. After staying in some incredible accommodation, I assumed that Greek Hospitality would extend everywhere. Not a chance. The two women at the “reception” of my place looked as though they had been out partying all night and were taking long drags on skinny cigarettes as I tried, in vain, to ask them if they had a tourist map for me to mark where I was and point out some places of interest. Their response, “you can go find one at the store.” Awesome. I wandered down to the road, and walked down the dirty street littered with last nights party favors- empty bottles of beer, half eaten slices of pizza- and oh look- a dead rat. Awesome. I somehow made it down to the beach and immediately stepped into a patch of wet cement. My foot sank about 3 inches- I yelped and yanked my foot out, but my flip flop stayed behind along with my pride. I laughed (fortunately my sun tan covered up the bright red I likely flushed), grabbed my flip flop, and hobbled down to the beach to wash it off. Not a great start.

The beach was overcrowded with chairs bottle tops and takeaway wrappers and I had no clue where to walk to get to the Main Street. I walked into a shop to inquire about SIM cards and a map of the area and a Greek woman snapped “what! What you want! No! No we no have!” Strike two for Greek Hospitality in Laganas. After the morning I had, I put my head down, started to cry behind my sunglasses and wandered down the street. I eventually (somehow) found my way to the main drag and was blasted by the smell of stale beer, pee, and the sick-sweet smell likely of some red bull drink designed to keep the hordes of 18year olds amped up for the night. I immediately hated it. But. I am stubborn and if anyone could find a positive side to this disaster of a place, it was me. I was bound and determined to find a damn SIM card for my phone so I could get around independently since my introduction to this area was less than friendly. Fortunately I found two wonderful shop owners who helped me and were patient with this newbie to foreign (but simple) technology! I sat down for lunch at a spot near the sea and realized I needed to sort out a tour for the next day because I’d be damned if I was going to stay another day in this shithole.

I sent out an SOS message to my brother Kyle for a pep talk. I needed someone to tell me that my feelings were ok and it this was just temporary. Damn you time time difference. Guess I’d have to wait.

I picked up some things at the store and walked back to my place, past throngs of skinny and pasty white groups of boys and groups of bikini-clad girls being hustled into “the best club night ever tonight!!” I smiled to myself and remembered not long ago, that was me. It’s so strange- even though daily I don’t feel old- but when I’m around certain experiences i realized I’ve so outgrown them.

Back at my hotel (if you could call it that) I set up shop on my little terrace and decided to catch up on my blog… (yeah this one will likely come out before the others). I managed to book a tour to a neighboring island of Kefalonia tomorrow and return to nature a bit. Sea Kayaking was my first preference, but the trip I wanted was fully booked, of course.

I was able to chat with my brother and he made me feel better. Made me realize that this is my month to figure out me. To take care of me.

Well here we go.

Day 1, solo adventure in the books.

Roaming around Northern Africa…aka Egypt

There are several places in the world that I always dreamed of going, but never imagined that I would set foot. Egypt was definitely one of them. Everyone that I told that I was going to Egypt would look at me with this incredulous look and say, “Is it safe?” I guess my answer these days is, “Is any place really safe?” I mean, kids are afraid to go to school in the USA, and tourists/citizens get hurt in Spain, England and France… so, as far as Egypt goes, I wasn’t so afraid for my safety as I was hoping that I didn’t offend anyone. I wasn’t sure how strict they’d be on the dress code- I had no idea that Cairo was an “open” country, that, despite being predominantly Muslim- was a little more lax in their rules for dress for women.

Our flight from Rome to Cairo went off without a hitch. In fact, the service was even better than our United flight to Germany at the start of our trip! We had arranged a private guide for us in Egypt- and wowza was he enthusiastic! When we set foot off the plane, before we even got to the spot where we got our visa, there was this guy who met us to help us to get to the right place. It was WAY more casual than I read it would be! We spent $25 on Visas for entry into Egypt- and got a fancy, shiny sticker for our passports. Once we were through customs, getting our bags was easy, getting an ATM for Egyptian Pounds was easy, and getting to our driver was so easy. So far- we all looked around at each other-and we all said that Cairo was lulling us into a an eerie sense of security from what we all had anticipated.

The first thing I noticed about Cairo is that everything was very brown, and the sky was hazy. We were definitely in the desert, and whether there is sand or pollution in the air- it was difficult to see very far around. I also noticed that Cairo was very, very poor. There were unfinished buildings, tall towers of apartments with unfinished windows and doors- clothes and fabric waving in the wind. So many trash heaps and kids running around. We passed by an accident of watermelon spilled and cracked all over the road, and by billboards in Arabic for google, Apple, and Coca Cola. The lane markers were merely a suggestion as people formed 2 lanes, then 5 lanes, and 3 lanes and weaved through traffic creating an interesting chaos that was humorous if you could get past the feeling like your life would end at any moment with a truck T-boning your car! Side note- I had NO idea that there were 26 million people who live in Cairo proper! No wonder there was a constant traffic jam!

As we were driving, it took about 45 minutes to our hotel- I wasn’t sure which directions the Pyramids were- I kept darting my eyes around to see if I could see them. I had read that they were rather near the city- but I wasn’t sure what that meant. We were staying at the Le Meridien Hotel & Spa in Giza. I had booked us “Pyramid View” rooms and was excited to see if our hotel lived up to the photos. Just as I was daydreaming the possibility of the view, the pyramids suddenly popped into view and… there they were. Just a little peak over the left side of the highway, it was like they were playing “peek-a-boo” with us. Looking around at everyone we just kind of looked like little kids pulling up to Disney World….craning our necks to try and catch a glimpse of what we had come all this way to see. Pulling into our hotel, we were all a bit speechless as the pyramids were literally across the street. As we checked into our hotel, everyone was very nice…. and we soon learned that everyone also had an outstretched hand. Tipping was more common here than I’ve ever experienced. Granted the US Dollar to the Egyptian Pound was 17:1 so when we tipped it was all of a couple dollars, but it was just funny that we literally had to tip anyone who talked to us… the guy who helped us with the visas… the guy who drove us to the airport…the guy that took our luggage from the car… the guy who brought the luggage to the room… the guy at the pool… the tour guide… the driver… the papyrus scroll maker… EVERYONE. And they got MAD when you didn’t.

When we drove up to the hotel, the car was searched and a bomb/drug sniffing dog circled the car. Entering the hotel we had to pass through metal detectors and put our bags through a security screening not unlike the airport system. To that I say: Have at it. It actually made me feel safer to know that they were scanning everything. By the time we checked in and were able to get up to our rooms, we rushed over to the windows, pulled back the drapes and I think we melted into 5 year-olds meeting their favorite superhero. The shrieks and giggles we had staring at the Great Pyramid and one of the others as the sun was setting was enough to make me pinch myself to see if I was dreaming. Seeing these great giants didn’t seem real. It looked as though I was staring at a massive Hollywood movie set. Our room also overlooked a massive pool and the whole thing left us pretty speechless.

As we were getting ready for dinner, a laser light show started and lit up the pyramids with sparkles, neon lights and spot lights. I had to laugh a little- it really was like a Disney show on a pile of bricks that are 1000s of years old. We spent the end of our travel day having some delicious food out on the patio of the Hooka Lounge, listening to some live music, having overpriced drinks, and just relaxing before our long day of touring the Pyramids the next day.

Stay tuned.

Quiet Moments

As I’ve gotten older, switched careers, and learned to enjoy the quiet, I have slowly become a morning person.  To be fair, I really only LOVE being a morning person during summer vacation.  My house sits facing East-West and when I’m up in the morning, my back yard is bathed in this beautiful glow that filters through the towering oak trees in my “wild” backyard.  Now, those of my friends reading this who live in Tahoe,  Alaska, or other gorgeous ACTUAL wild backyards- my tiny slice of heaven may make you smile at the thought of this being labeled as “wild”.  But in Chicagoland, Illinois, where the chaos of traffic and tiny square plots of land is the norm- I’ll take my 1/2 acre that makes me feel like I’m waking up in a cabin in the woods.  The blue-jays and robins land on the trees outside my window, the squirrels and sparrows fight over a hole in a knot in the giant oak tree. I watch the chipmunk scurrying across my deck- he stops in front of my screen door and I smile at him- I have to smile. I can’t think that he’s burrowing into my house somewhere- ha.  I look at my herb garden, and my vain attempt to grow tomatoes in a space that I know has far too much shade.  But this is my little slice of paradise, and it’s quiet in the morning. The songs of the birds, the rustle of the leaves in the wind, mixed with the occasional car going by, creates a symphony of sounds that makes me feel so very peaceful and so very lucky.

Today is my last day in my home for two months. Today drive down to Naperville to stay with my mom before we’re on a plane to Europe. Leaving this place I’ve created into my home is more difficult than I thought it would be.  I’m trusting it to a young woman I just met a few weeks ago- a college student who will be staying here while I’m gone. She is a wonderful, smart, easy-going- person- but it’s a little unnerving knowing I have to throw so much trust in someone that my house will be standing when I return.  Pondering over this thought, though reminds me of the trust that you have when you travel- trust in the kindness of strangers, in taxi drivers, in your online booking sites.  Sometimes you just have to take a sip of coffee, look around, shrug and trust the process.

Looking around, though, I have this place of which to return. I’ve never really had that before when I’ve gone out traveling- oh, sure- I’ve returned to apartments, my parent’s home and even my brother & sister-in-law’s home… but never my own. I kinda like the feeling.  My heart, my brain, my entire being yearns to travel- to explore-to learn about new cultures- eat new foods and be a global member of society. Sometimes I want to say “screw it” and throw on the backpack and never look back.  But then there are other days, like this morning, where I look out onto this little paradise that I created and realize that having a home is a great thing to return to.

 

Packing… & Procrastination

I could plan a trip for months… I love scrolling through travel sites, looking up hostels… trying to get good deals. But when it comes to packing all of the sudden my sheets need to be washed… the shelves need to be dusted… the bathtub needs a good scrubbing. Ugh, I hate it. It’s not that I pack too much or want to pack too much, I get that traveling light is the way to go- it’s just making sure I take what I need and only what I need. It’s a head game.

I honestly started packing for my current trip over a month ago. This involves putting everything I am even considering packing onto the bed in my guest room. The pile has grown to Mt. Kilimanjaro proportions. I am CLEARLY not taking all this crap- but it’s just the initial “gather”.  Next step. Trying it all on. If I don’t love the way it looks here in my room, I’m not gonna like the way it looks in Europe. I try everything on and it goes in one of three piles- 1. Yes, I’d wear it  2. Nope, back in the closet it goes or 3. Return it (I tend to like to buy fun new things for traveling- risky little game to be honest).

Then, I do a dry run packing to see how ridiculously over packed I am. Oh, yeah- that was a hilarious moment for this trip. Even with packing cubes. I had convinced myself that I was only going to travel with a carry-on and another backpack. Riiiiight. I know there are those people who can do that- but I’m not a size 2… my clothes take up a bit more space than the tiny humans. So- back to my trusty Kathmandu Backpack that I picked up in a discount bin in New Zealand for $50. This thing has been around the world with me and is still in incredible shape. But yeah- One large traveling backpack and a smaller backpack for carry-on. That’s it. For 2 months.  I’ll write another post when I’m done… clearly writing this blog is just another form of procrastinating!!!

Traveling Sick

Well, the flu got me. Like REALLY got me this year. Think: 102 fever for 4 days. Miserable. Thankfully, I was able to curl up on my couch and move very little for the past 6 days.  I did, however, drag my butt to the convenient Walgreens clinic less than a mile from my house where I got a quick check up, confirmation of Influenza and my insurance paid for my Tamiflu.

But it got me thinking about traveling when you’re sick. Cause it happens.  I’ve been there. And not having any clue what to do or where to go when you’re traveling sucks. I’ve actually laid, quietly crying, on my top bunk in a dorm room of a hostel wishing someone could just go get me some soup and cough medicine, trying so hard not to disturb the rest of the travelers in my room.  It’s not fun.  So I’ve learned to prepare myself. It’s still not easy- but a little preparedness goes a long way.  So here are some tips for you.

Tip 1: Pack a good first aid kit.  Here’s what I include: DayQuil & NyQuil pills, cough drops, Vicks Vapo Rub,  Aleve, Advil, Immodium, Benadryl, mosquito repellent- the strong stuff depending on where I’m headed, I used to carry Cipro (a very strong antibiotic) but i don’t anymore as it has been associated with severe and horrible side effects. That said, I do ask my doctor for a short course of antibiotics to bring with me.  It’s a good idea- I’ve had an infected blister, severe food poisoning, and an eye infection abroad and if it wasn’t for the antibiotics, it would have been miserable.  As a woman I also bring a couple doses of Diflucan (yeast infection medicine) Trust me- there is no dignified way to try and explain this ailment in another language so I just bring it now.  I am also one of the very lucky humans who have gotten coldsores since I was a little girl- nothing ruins a good travel photo like a nasty coldsore so, I’ve started carrying Valocyclovir and a small thing of Abreva.  I am lucky and don’t take any prescription medication, but if I did its a good idea to keep the prescription paperwork and the original packaging (yes, I know annoying for space- but did you know some medications are actually illegal in some countries without all the packaging?? You never know if they’ll check)

Tip  2: Know yourself– what happens when you get sick? Is it usually sinus infections? Is it allergies? Do you throw up?  Make sure you have what you usually need when you’re sick at home.  Can you buy  the exact stuff on the road? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Do you really want to be googling “pharmacy” and trying to figure out the closest one to your hotel/hostel while you’re feeling miserable?

Tip 3: Know where you’re going– do you need vaccinations? Some have to be done several weeks out to be effective. Some countries REQUIRE (and will check at the border)  Yellow Fever vaccinations.  Talk about a rough border crossing- in Africa we all were screened for Ebola at every border crossing. Terrifying. Even though I knew I didn’t have it, we heard horror stories of anyone with a fever being detained until it passed.  Also- will you be in an area where malaria is prevalent? If so, you’ll need to take anti-malarial medication. Get that before you go. Sometimes your doctor can prescribe this stuff, but sometimes going to a Travel Doctor is helpful.   Be aware of symptoms of things like Dengue Fever and other common illnesses in the areas you’re going.

Tip 4: Get travel insurance– Just get it. Seriously.  You’re taking a trip likely worth thousands of dollars- what’s another 100 bucks?  Unless you’re staying for a week at a resort and not doing much- I definitely recommend travel insurance.  I’ve fortunately never had to use it- but a girl on our trip in Africa dislocated her knee and ended up in the hospital, with a brace and crutches after an accident on the 4wheelers.  Ever see the movie “The Impossible?”  The family had travel insurance and was able to be evacuated when that freak tsunami enveloped Thailand.  I use World Nomads and it’s very reasonable. I’ve heard people have had good luck with filing claims too as it’s insurance through Nationwide.

Tip 5: Foreign Medicine can be amazing.  When in Italy, I got sick and was just looking for some cold medicine- apparently you have to ask the pharmacist for any kind of medicine, which I didn’t know at the time- so I kept looking in the aisles at this store that had a cross outside of it (pharmacy) until this nice man came up to me and asked (in Italian) if I needed help. I proceeded to mime out “I have a cough, fever, lethargy, and stuffy nose” and he went behind the counter and produced some of the best medicine I’ve ever taken for a cold in my life. I couldn’t read the label, but what the heck! Ha! I felt better within a couple hours and continued with my sight seeing.

Tip 6: Take a break…. I twisted my ankle caving in Budapest, Hungary. That sucked. So now I travel with an ace bandage. But instead of seeing a lot of the city- we ended up just taking a break (forced because I couldn’t walk) and planned out the rest of our trip. Sometimes you don’t get to see all you want to see because you get laid up with an illness, but make sure you take a break otherwise the rest of the trip will be miserable.

Tip 7: Let other people help you!  Ugh, this one is hard for me. In the middle of the Andes, in the middle of my trek on the Inca Trail up to Machu Picchu, I got extremely ill. I had 103.5 fever and collapsed in my tent after a particularly grueling stretch of the hike (Dead Woman’s Pass). Our guide came and took care of me. Apparently she was going to get me airlifted down- and stubborn me said “No way”. I got a high dose of antibiotics and my fever was better by morning.  I asked people to get me water, they brought me some food- and even though I’m very independent it was nice to be taken care of.  Ask your hostel for help if you need it. Hell, ask random travelers for help if you need to. Trust me- these are the nicest groups of people you’ll ever meet.

Tip 8: All Hospitals are NOT created equal:  Be mindful of hospitalized in non-westernized countries. Your perceived standards of care are NOT going to be met. Just get over it. That said, it’s absolutely ok to make sure you’re getting a clean needle stick before anyone sticks you with anything.  Often, however, you’ll find great care abroad and you’ll be in good hands. Try and take someone who speaks the language with you. Be prepared to pay in cash. Insurance is an American thing.

Tip 9: Save your Receipts: Since you’re smart and got travel insurance…. right? RIGHT??… keep your receipts from hospital visits. They might be covered, they might not… but I do know you’ll need all the documentation, so don’t leave without it.  Most often you’ll have to pay and get reimbursed- it’s not like the USA where you do a co-pay and they bill you. That said, often the cost of care is SIGNIFICANTLY less than you’ve come to expect from that terrifying EOB you get in the mail at home.

Tip 10: Get up. Just go.  Unless you’re severely injured or connected to an IV in the hospital, grab some tissues, your Advil, and just get out and see the sites. Sure you’ll be coughing and not as great as you’d normally be- but it’s like when it rains when you’re traveling.  You’re not going to sit inside and wait for the rain to pass- you throw on your rain jacket, expect to get wet, and still stare in wonder at the sites you’ve always dreamed of seeing.

Sorry Mr. Bourdain, that’s not quite right.

 

So, I recently read an article where Anthony Bourdain- you know the tall, lanky chef-turned-traveler on “No Reservations” and “Parts Unknown”- well, he gave an interview and the article was entitled, “All the Things You’re Doing Wrong When you Travel, According to Anthony Bourdain”.

Before I read the article I knew I immediately hated it.

I truly, truly hate articles about travel that tell people how to create their own memories. Articles that tell people that their dream about going to stand atop the Eiffel Tower is “wrong”.  To eat at a McDonalds or Starbucks in another country is “wrong”.  To go to 7 cities  during a 10 day vacation is “wrong”.

So, I already had my guard up. Then I read the opening line to the article, “Anthony Bourdain thinks traveling to Paris just to stand atop the Eiffel Tower is lethal to your soul. And a selfie in front of the pyramids in Giza? Completely overrated. Bourdain is on a mission to change how we see and experience the world. Skip the tourist traps. Avoid the lines. And please, please, never book a prepackaged tour.”

Oh please. Vomit.

Seriously? You’re going to tell someone that their dream of going to the Pyramids and taking a selfie is overrated?! When the majority of Americans have just two weeks of time off per year many don’t have the luxury of just “getting lost” or going to a remote island that takes 3 days to get to, and there’s only one flight off of it, 5 days later.  Sorry Mr. -I-spend-250-days-of-the-year-traveling on-someone-else’s-dime-AND-get-paid-for-it. We don’t have your life.

As for pre-packaged tours- my god. Have you ever been to a Travel & Adventure Show?(https://travelshows.com) If you haven’t GO! You would not believe the incredible INCREDIBLE pre-packaged tours that exist out there that are not cruises (forgive me if you love cruises- I personally do not- but do your thing, baby!)  gAdventures, National Geographic, Intrepid, and so many other amazing travel companies exist out there that allow you to have that intimate experience all while making things comfortable so you can actually relax from your life. Cause I don’t know if you know this- but “travel” is different than “vacation”- and that’s a post for another time.  I spent 70 days in Africa on a ‘pre-packaged’ tour- and I got to camp under the stars, pet a lion, bungee jump off a bridge, sleep in the desert on a rock and watch the sun rise. I got to sit on the edge of a waterfall, listen to an incredible South African band at an Arts Festival in Zambia, walk through a spice plantation and ate street food in Zanzibar, stay on an island in the middle of the Okavango Delta and feel like I was in the Lion King watching the most beautiful animals I’ve ever seen in my life.  Yeah- that was a pre-packaged tour.

Now.

Don’t get me wrong- I so truly understand Anthony Bourdain’s sentiment. Essentially he wants people to escape their typical lives, and push themselves out of their comfort zones.  And I get it. Do I agree that it’s amazing to get out and see more than the “sights”? Sure I do. Do I think it’s incredible to wander around and let the experiences just happen- of course. Does talking to people enrich my trip and create incredible moments? Sure! But here’s the thing about travel. Those things are going to happen regardless of the way you travel.  They just are. Unless you are a hermit and literally talk to no one, these things will happen.  So let’s just ease off the gas here a minute and jump off the judgement train.

Listen, if you like taking cruises and just stopping at a port of an island- good on ya! It’s not for me, but who am I to tell you how to spend your relaxation time!?  If you want to go to Finland and spend 3 months there exploring the culture, immersing yourself, GO FOR IT! Oh my gosh, that’s amazing!  If you want to “chuck it all” and do an “around the world” trip—well, please take me with you! I’m in. But please, PLEASE don’t judge people about what they’re excited about. You think Paris is overrated and want to go to a little farm village in the countryside of Paris and learn to make cheese- AMAZING. Get those hands gooey. But guess what, that person who is standing on top of the Eiffel Tower smiling from ear-to-ear because she always dreamed of this moment. Yeah. That’s pretty special. Let’s not take that away from her.

Anyway, I suppose my point is this. Ignore all travel “must do” lists. Or if you want to read them, use them as resources. Pinterest is also great for that. I have a whole board with hundreds of things to do on my travels this summer. It helps me to plan and prioritize my time away. I don’t have the luxury of traveling 250 days a year. And I certainly am not rich enough to be throwing caution to the wind and hoping for the best.  That said, I will keep my eyes open and just enjoy my time, no matter how I choose to spend it. I hope you’ll get out there, wherever you go, and enjoy your time too- no matter how YOU choose to spend it.