Poland: Krakow (Nov. 5-8)

Entrance to Auschwitz, translated as "Work makes you free"

Entrance to Auschwitz, translated as “Work makes you free”

Josh and I took an eight-hour Deutsche Bahn bus from Berlin to Krakow, which was probably the nicest bus I had been on with far-reclining seats and great wifi. Arriving at Let’s Rock Hostel, we put down our things and went to a fantastic burger restaurant called Moaburger (although we did spend about 30 minutes trying to find another would-be-favorite called Koko, which serves Polish food for cheap). I got a bacon avocado burger, which was probably the first burger I’d eaten in months. We sat in the lobby of our hostel for a bit afterwards, me drinking ONE beer, until two drunk girls kept accusing me of being drunk and stroking my leg. If there’s one thing I cannot handle it’s a girl flirting with me. That was my cue to go to bed – we would be getting up at 6:45 the next day anyway.

Victim Monument at Auschwitz

Victim Monument at Auschwitz

Somehow actually getting out of bed on time, Josh and I woke up Thursday morning and caught an 8am bus to the biggest Nazi concentration and extermination camps, Auschwitz and Aushwitz-Berkinou. The five-hour tour was pretty tough to get through, seeing rooms full of human hair or suitcases or other things that didn’t even come close to representing the number of those killed there. I think it’s important to remind oneself of man’s capacity for evil and hate – and that in some ways we are still far from past the kind of brutal violence of the Holocaust.

Auschwitz took a heavy toll out on the two of us, and the early morning didn’t help much with that, so Josh and I went back to the hostel for some R&R. I caught the previous night’s episode of “American Horror Story,” which had some disturbing enough scenes for my dormmates to ask me if there was something wrong as they listened to my squealing and gasping. Josh and I left to eat at Koko, which we successfully found and serves soup and a hearty meal for about €4. I got cauliflower soup and a fried pork chop and tried pierogies for the first time – cheese and onion – which were pretty delicious. We then headed back to the hostel to watch more TV, myself finishing the last episode of “Mad Men” and all of the sudden not knowing what to do with myself after watching maybe 72 episodes during my travels.

Prisoner bunks

Prisoner bunks

We slept in the next day (sometimes you really have to even if you only have a limited time in each city – traveling was my life for four months after all) and ate lunch at Moaburger again. This time I tried a fried goat cheese burger that was also pretty amazing. I’d also recommend their fries (they have about a half-dozen homemade sauces, my favorite being their sweet chili) and milkshakes. Ironically I had dreamt of going back to America for a milkshake on my way to Poland and found an abundance there.

After lunch, we left for a late tour of the Wieliczka Salt Mine, one of the oldest salt mines in operation until it closed in 2007 and an UNESCO World Heritage Site. The mines are massive, and I think you only see like 1% of them on the tour. Most of the rooms we explored were filled with salt carvings and statues, and there’s even a big cathedral inside. After the tour, we went on an optional free tour through the mine’s museum and ended up having our guide all to ourselves for a private tour.

Josh and me at the Wieliczka Salt Mine

Josh and me at the Wieliczka Salt Mine

We decided to eat at Koko again since it had such a wide-ranging menu and it was so cheap, this time bringing a Swiss girl whose friends had left early that morning. I had a presumably more traditional duck with berry sauce alongside a tasty broccoli soup.

We left for the hostel after dinner, picking up some cheap drinks along the way. We had heard great things about Krakow’s nightlife and planned on experiencing it firsthand that night. After drinking with some new friends in the hostel, we went to a communist-era-themed shot bar called Pijalnia Wódki, which is actually a chain found in Krakow and Warsaw. The place was very charming, the bartender’s uniforms looking straight out of the 50s and newspapers lining the wall. The shots were €1, and they had a particularly good one called a Monte with milk and hazelnut vodka. Eventually, some drunk man decided he wanted to try to get in a fight with our friend, so we left to find another bar nearby.

The other bar had similar prices and shots but none of the atmosphere, so we ended up spending most of our time chatting outside. I made a new Polish friend who took me to see Krakow’s castle while I thought everyone was going home. It ended up that they too made some Polish friends and ended up going to an actual club, but I didn’t regret leaving – I was tired anyway.

Salt sculpture in Wieliczka

Salt sculpture in Wieliczka

On our final day in Krakow, we went in search of a pierogi restaurant recommended by our hostel. Similarly to Koko, the hostel staff’s directions were not correct and we spent about 45 minutes wandering aimlessly trying to find it. We ended up eating at another one that was still pretty amazing – I tried a salmon filled pierogies and realized the necessity of the soy-like sauce that comes on the side and Josh accidentally ordered dessert pierogies (it was sweet cheese flavored).

Josh and I had both wanted to see Interstellar and decided that we had seen most of the city (although we never made it on a city tour – the mines and Auschwitz I think were enough). We found a movie theater that played it with Polish subtitles and I was mildly underwhelmed by the movie as a Christopher Nolan fan. It wasn’t terrible, but I thought it was a little cheesy and somewhat unexciting.

Before catching our train to Warsaw, we ate at (surprise) Moaburger one last time. I attempted to order their vegetarian fava bean burger, which was sold out, and ended up with a chicken avocado burger that was as tasty and reliable as all our meals had been. Running low on time, we rushed to the train station and boarded with only a few minutes to spare. We would be in Warsaw in just a couple of hours.

My Favorite City: Berlin (Oct. 30-Nov. 5)

Graffiti on the East Side Gallery

Graffiti on the East Side Gallery

Berlin just might be my favorite city in Europe.

Its great nightlife (which I still have only had tastes of), hip markets and stylish food joints make it a very livable city, and its minimal fashion and modern urbanity give it a contemporary charm unlike most older European cities. The people pride themselves on a liberal, easygoing attitude that clashes with a tumultuous history, making you wonder how one city can come so far in such a short amount of time. Berlin is a Western city at its finest.

#glamourcat

#glamourcat

After a long train ride from Brussels and a night in, I woke up on Halloween day in Berlin and met up with one of my travel companions from my time in Greece, Mirjam, who is from Berlin. She and a friend met me at pretty much the only costume store in Berlin, where we waited in line for maybe 30 minutes during the Halloween rush. I had a limited budget and limited clothes (I’ve been living out of a 13 kilo bag for four months), but I happened to have a pair of leopard print pajama pants (affectionately known as my hot pants) and a leopard print blanket (only because my mom gave it to me before I left). Obviously I would be a leopard, so I bought a €2 face mask and was ready for the night. Later I would mention the availability of leopard print in my bag to a German girl, whose response was: “and you’re not even gay! … are you?”

I eventually headed back to the hostel for a short break, meeting my Australian friend Josh who was going to be traveling with me for the following 11 days. He also knew Mirjam and her boyfriend Felix from our time together in Ios. Felix and Mirjam invited us for dinner at their house, so we went over an hour before the party for a home cooked meal. When the party started, I somehow ended up being the designated makeup artist and turning Josh and Mirjam into zombies… you can decide for yourself whether I was any good (the answer is no, not really).

Would you hire me as your makeup artist? (Note: Mirjam added her own line details)

Would you hire me as your makeup artist? (Note: Mirjam added her own line details)

At one point in the party, which was pretty much all Germans except for a few people from Felix’s roommate’s lacrosse and running teams, I started talking to a guy who I assumed was German. When I asked him where he was from, though, he said, “Arkansas.”

I assumed he was messing with me at first until he mentioned that he was from Fayetteville, which there’s no way he would have known about if he was from anywhere else. After talking for a few minutes, I learned that he had moved to Berlin to teach English through a company called Berlitz that didn’t require him to know any German. He seriously may have changed my life because I’ve thought about living in Berlin for a long time.

The next day, Josh and I got out of the hostel pretty late and headed to Winterfeldt Markt, a neighborhood food market in Winterfeldtplatz. We got a lot of small dishes, which means we ended up eating a ton – brats from the Bauer Lindner stall, a smoked fish sandwich, zucchini fritters, spring rolls, fresh squeezed juice, tiramisu and cappuccinos.

I had almost forgotten that I should show Josh the touristy things since I had already seen them when I visited in 2012, so after the market, we walked to the Holocaust Memorial, Brandenburg Gate and the Neue Wache. After a longer-than-expected walk back to the hostel, we met up with Felix and Mirjam for dinner at a modern Asian restaurant called Toca Rouge, which had a really cool vibe but somewhat underwhelming food. We were all pretty tired, so we said goodbye and Josh and I walked back to the hostel.

We were debating whether to go out since it was Saturday and Berlin but we were also tired, so we thought we’d go grab some drinks at the Wombat’s Bar in the rooftop of our hostel and decide after. We ended up meeting some cool people (along with some very, very loud American guys) and taking some Jäger bombs and eventually we realized that we were keen on going out.

Jesse and me at Roses

Jesse and me at Roses

One of my friends living in Berlin suggested a club called Ritter Butzke, so Josh and I, along with our new friend Jesse, made our way to the area of town it was in, running away from the American guys knowing that they would potentially cause us not to get in the club (they were yelling and running around in the metro and Berlin clubs are known for stringent door policies). Not ironically, they wouldn’t let Josh in because he said he was 19 and didn’t have ID. Jesse and I went in anyway – Josh understood.

After about 45 minutes in the club, Jesse and I decided to go to a gay bar called Roses, which must be where the expression “stroke the furry wall” came from because the entire place was lined with pink fur. There was a really interesting and diverse clientele and the two of us hung out there until probably 5:30 in the morning. Berlin clubs don’t get going until late, so we hadn’t left the hostel until maybe 1:30 anyway.

Homemade robot at Mauerpark - it could spit out water!

Homemade robot at Mauerpark – it could spit out water!

Josh and I slept in again on Sunday morning and went to a really good Korean restaurant by our hostel called YamYam. I think it was Josh’s first experience with Korean food – I got the bibimbap and he got the bulgogi, which I preferred. After lunch, we left for the Mauerpark Flea Market, which was basically recommended by everyone and did not disappoint. I bought a photography print and a screen-printed canvas bag for myself and some cartoon prints for my friends and me, although I could have bought way more. There was a ton of really cool stuff for sale there, along with talented street performers and artists keeping us entertained in and around the market.

Josh and I left Mauerpark to meet up with an English girl, Chloe, who I had met briefly in Berlin in 2012. If you read my post about Copenhagen, I had met up with our friend Sissel there whom I met at the same time. We met her at a nice bar/café in Mitte called Zur Rose and caught up for a couple of hours over coffee. Chloe recommended a nice German restaurant called Schwarzwaldstuben for Josh and me. We sat at the bar and both ordered schnitzel and cold potato and cucumber salad – yummmmmm.

Chloe and me after two years!

Chloe and me after two years!

Belgium (Oct. 26-30)

Brussels Grand Place at night.

Brussels Grand Place at night

I took an early MegaBus from Paris to Brussels, getting to Hostel Grand Place around midday and relaxing for a bit after lugging my stuff up the stairs (the elevator was under maintenance, of course). It was the first time I’d stayed in a hostel since Croatia and my first time staying without someone I knew around since Belgrade (Sept. 25). It’s always exciting to go somewhere by yourself, but I had really enjoyed traveling with fellow backpackers and new friends.

Taking a tip from the hostel receptionist, I headed to a restaurant called Chez Leon for moules frites (mussels and fries), a traditional Belgian specialty that I often enjoy in the states. The tip was actually not great, and the mussels weren’t anything to write home about. Unfortunately I would not get the chance to have more during my time in Belgium. I went to bed early on my first night, but not without watching a few episodes of “Mad Men” in my bed.

I woke up semi-early on my first full day in Brussels to catch a walking tour, which I think was my tenth of the trip. It was relatively interesting, although the guide suggested a place for “the best frites in Brussels” in a “really cool square” that happened to be a 20 minute walk out of downtown. First off, the place was closed between 2 and 6, and second off, the square was dead and likely is only happening at night. A large group of people from the tour left the square annoyed, myself with a girl I met on the street who knew a guy I interned with last summer. I’ve been meaning to contact the tour guide (who had only started a week before) to tell him to stop suggesting that place post-tour since I’m sure the same thing happens to dozens of his tourists. Maybe someone has already done it – I’ll just go with that.

The girl I met and I headed to a restaurant the guide suggested, which was also closed, and finally back to a frites place near my hostel by the Grand Place. We went to the grocery store afterward to find chocolate, since “Belgians actually buy most of their chocolate at grocery stores,” but we couldn’t find anything we wouldn’t see at any European grocery store. We decided to cave in and go to a nice chocolate shop, Neuhaus, and pick up some truffles. Her card wouldn’t work, so she went back to her hostel to contact her bank and we parted ways for good.

I headed back to the hostel to try and meet some new friends – I was keen on going to some bars that night, namely the famous Delirium with its world record number of beers. Three American girls walked in who I’d seen at reception earlier in the day, so I struck up a conversation and told them I was alone and was seeking company. They wanted to rest a bit but were planning on going to the bars later. I told them I would be hanging out in the lobby until then so I would catch them on their way out.

One of the girls came down maybe an hour or so later to me conversing with another American who had been teaching in Madrid. The three of us headed out for some cheap, mediocre Chinese food before picking up one of the other girls from the hostel. We headed to The Big Game for €1 beers before heading to another called Celtica for even more happy hour drinks. We met the third of the girls there – she wanted to nap a bit longer than the others.

We were really enjoying our beers – I mean Belgium is known for that – and were getting more and more friendly with each other. Eventually I befriended a British couple at the bar and invited them to head to Delirium with the group. We tasted our way through some more Belgian beers and finally it was time for me to go home. I got all of their contact information, but I would only see the British couple the next day.

New friends at Delirium

New friends at Delirium

I woke up the next day earlier than my body would have liked to head for the European Parliament. My flatmate Connie’s mom is an MP from Portugal and had her assistant take me on a tour around the offices. Unfortunately, the MPs were all on a week where they go back to their home countries to do work, so there wasn’t a lot going on. Nevertheless it was cool seeing the modern office buildings and chatting about the European economy and Russian aggression (and the potential effects on each other, especially with winter coming).

I walked back from Parliament to my hostel to take a long, well-needed nap. I briefly left the hostel to eat some frites and these boiled snails from an established streetfood stand called Jef & Fils, and then promptly went back to the hostel and probably watched some “Mad Men” before realizing I should do some more tourist things and headed to the Atomium. The Atomium basically Brussels’s Eiffel Tour and is a giant model of a unit cell of an iron crystal made when the 1958 World Fair was held in Brussels. It was pretty impressive, maybe even more so than Eiffel, and I made the long journey back to my hostel after admiring its towering atoms.

The Atomium

The Atomium

Back in the hostel, I met a DC-native named Gaby, who I invited to go to Bruges with me the next day. We talked a bit – I found out she worked at a popular student bar that I was familiar with – and then I headed to meet up with my British friends for more drinks at Celtica. We had a long chat with a Swedish guy living in Brussels and then called it a night probably around 1 am.

Canal in Bruges

Canal in Bruges

The next day, Gaby and I headed to Bruges, eating a traditional beef stew and frites (I literally ate frites at every meal, many times the only thing I ate for my meal) for lunch and then wandering around the town. We bought chocolates at a famous storefront called The Chocolate Line (you have to go there if you are ever in Bruges), though I made the mistake of letting the salesman, a teenager younger than me (the rest looked like old pros but were busy helping others), choose my chocolates. The fruity ones were not up my alley (very tart), but the marzipan-filled chocolates were some of the best chocolates I’ve had.

Gaby and I grabbed a drink at a backpackers bar in the town before getting the train back to Brussels, where we ate a dinner of *surprise* frites and went down early since we both had trains to catch in the morning.

Chez Georges: Greatest Bar in the World?

Chez Georges - the underground wine bar

Chez Georges – the underground wine bar

We met Lily outside an unassuming café/restaurant in the Saint-Germain area (the sixth) of Paris, the rest of the group not knowing the charms of the wine bar hiding below. I led them down the stairs into a stone arched cellar, cramped with people and lined on the walls with tables and chairs. At one of the room was a small counter where you could order wine by the bottle – I ordered the first one, their house white at €21.

Chez Georges has a charm unlike any other bar I’ve been to, and I can say with all honesty that it is my favorite place to grab a drink in the world. The music playlist is quirky and sweet, consisting mostly of oldies and a few modern songs that fit the oldie vibe like “Happy” and “Blurred Lines” and throwing in some Arabic music, lots of ABBA, the occasional French classic and crowd favorite “Hava Nagila.”

Nights at Chez Georges seem to have a standard progression from the two times I’ve visited (once before in 2012 with a friend studying in Paris). They start out slow – at a table if you’re lucky – and with casual glasses of wine and conversation. It’s definitely a conversation joint, although it’s a bit loud, and you’ll most definitely at points in the night have visitors to your table wanting to get to know you. Who says Paris isn’t friendly? The crowd consists of mostly French students and young people, with a few foreigners familiar with the area.

Conversations get interrupted with bits of sing-alongs, usually quite calm and intermittent at first, and by the second bottle of wine you’re much more relaxed into the environment. By the inevitable third, there’s someone in the room standing on a table or bench singing along. You laugh and smile at the guy (in our case) and comment on how good of a time he must be having. This is usually about the time the *first* play of “Hava Nagila” comes on and everyone stops talking to clap and sing along.

By the fourth bottle of wine (we did have four people!), you realize that you’re the one standing on a bench or table singing and dancing but that almost no one is really sitting down at that point and there’s not enough room to dance without using some of the place’s higher ground.

By the time you make it through the fifth bottle, it’s probably time to stumble over home and say goodbyes, and somehow we managed to make it without getting lost. You’ll wake up the next morning feeling not great but wondering how a cramped little wine bar creates such an amazing atmosphere. You’ll ask how you started talking to the five new French friends you made the night before. And most importantly, you’ll ponder when the next time you’ll make your way to Chez Georges will be and who you will bring to experience it.

Doctors in Paris (Oct. 22-26)

The gardens at Versailles

The gardens at Versailles

I had originally scheduled a Megabus out of London for a Tuesday, but come 1am in the early hours of my departure date and I start puking for hours.

Of course being sick with a cough and sore throat and indecisive snot and exhaustion wasn’t enough – I had to get food poisoning. I think I woke up the whole house with my dry heaving and at that point I realized there was no way I’d be getting up at 8 in the morning. Apparently my flatmate Connie came down to try to wake me, thinking I’d accidentally slept through my bus, and couldn’t get me up shaking my leg and calling my name.

Paris's famous "Love Lock" Bridge

Paris’s famous “Love Lock” Bridge

I spent the whole day in my sleeping bag, not eating but also somehow enjoying my sick day because it meant I got to spend another day with my flat – if any of you are reading this, thanks for the vitamin water and plethora of donated medicine.

I managed to get out of bed Wednesday morning and catch my bus to Paris and eventually to an airbnb I would be sharing with Josh and Jess, two Australian friends whom I’d met in Greece and met up with again in Croatia.

After a couple of hours chilling in the apartment, the three of us went to meet up for falafels with my English friend Lily who I’d met over the summer. It was surprising to see a falafel pita at such a steep price – €8 – but the place was really good and I couldn’t finish the falafel due to my still-weak stomach. The dinner was enough of an event for me after a long day of travel and after days of being sick, so we called it a night early.

Jess and me on the Seine

Jess and me on the Seine

The next day started out lazy, as I needed a lot of sleep those days. We all watched our respective television series – me catching the new episode of American Horror Story not too long after airing back home. We finally made it out of the apartment in the early afternoon to do some sightseeing. We walked to the Pont de l’Archevêché (the love lock bridge) and along the Seine for a while before heading to grab macarons at Laduree, at which point the walking had gotten to me and I needed to head home and sleep. My exhaustion was getting worse by the day, which is always a drag when you want to take advantage of the city you’re in.

After hours of napping and rest, Josh and Jess came home with a baguette and some cheese for dinner. I still couldn’t eat very much but knew I’d need something in my stomach since we were going to meet up with Lily to go to my favorite bar in the world, Chez Georges, which is a cool enough joint for me to write a separate post about it.

Chez Georges wine bar - my favorite bar in the world!

Chez Georges wine bar – my favorite bar in the world!

Josh and Jess were supposed to leave for Barcelona the next day, Friday, and I was going to store my bag in the train station until I could bring it to a friend from Northwestern’s apartment. We exhaustedly made our way to the train station (we had stayed out until probably 3am and had to check out before 10) and waited for nearly an hour at the ticket counter, where all tickets to Barcelona were sold out until the next day. We spent another hour in the train station trying to find accommodation for the night and then made our way to a cheap hotel to drop off our stuff.

At this point, I had started to feel so sick and exhausted (our night at Chez Georges definitely did not help) that I decided that I needed to see a doctor. We spent an hour and a half waiting in a walk-in clinic to hear what I already knew: “you need to be on antibiotics.” Of course I can’t just walk to the store and pick those up without a prescription, which my dad usually writes for colds and the like, and my dad couldn’t write one for Europe. Ironically, the last time I was in Paris, I had to go to a doctor and ended up with antibiotics.

Shakespeare and Co. Bookstore

Shakespeare and Co. Bookstore

I don’t know if it’s medically possible, but I started to feel a little better not even an hour after taking my first pill. Since we had spent most of our day trying to fix unfortunate problems, we decided to take a visit to Shakespeare and Co., the famous English bookstore that’s original location’s patrons once included Hemingway and Joyce. I had also watched Before Sunset on the bus over, where the shop was also featured. I bought a book (On the Road), which they stamped with their famous emblem, and we sat down for crepes afterwards. I don’t think it’s humanly possible to get crepes without getting a savory and a sweet one – I opted for smoked salmon and finished with Nutella banana. Because it was late, I ended up staying in the hotel instead of taking my things over to my friend’s.

Josh and Jess left early the next day and I went to visit Versailles, the old Chateau and gardens of French royalty, including Marie Antoinette. It was a nice morning surrounded by annoying tourists who don’t know how to walk without stopping in front of you, something I hadn’t really done in a while. I enjoyed exploring the area and even ran into a girl who I recognized as a Northwestern student.

Gardens of Versailles

Gardens of Versailles

After Versailles, I met up with my friend Kelley who I’d be staying with for the night in Montmartre. We grabbed coffee at her favorite café and explored the area before grabbing bread, cheese and wine for dinner. She roasted up some veggies she had in her fridge to complement.

Later we would out for her coworker’s birthday at a bar, where I met a large group of international people living in Paris. I couldn’t help but think how much I would like this to one day be me – a foreigner living in Europe, an expat, part of an international community. The real question is how I’m going to get that visa (marriage please?).

Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?

Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?

How Traveling Changed My Life

Motto

Trying to write about the end of this four-month journey in the Istanbul airport and subsequent flight to Chicago is a little awkward, because whenever I think about what this trip has meant to me I get pretty emotional.

Irish West Coast

Irish West Coast

I came to Europe with only two companions, an orange synthetic rolling bag and a small backpack, also orange but a clashing shade. I left the rest of my baggage at home. I remember sitting on the plane out of New York, scared of being lonely but obviously very excited – the lack of any real plans or timeframe was exhilarating, nerve-wracking and somewhat comforting at the same time.

What would follow would be four months of adventure, nights out and days in, romance, reunions, excruciating bus journeys, unpleasant sleeping situations, homey hostels, new cultures and most importantly, new friends. Friends from Australia and Germany and the UK and America and Austria, Ireland, Spain, France, Bulgaria, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, India, Japan, Poland, Canada, the Czech Republic and definitely more. Friends who taught me about their cultures, their education systems, their politics – whether air conditioning is common in their countries. Groups who let me tag along for dinner five minutes after meeting and two drinks in felt like old friends. A couple that could have had a romantic vacation in Greece but instead chose to spend a week in an 8-bed dorm with me. Friends who would meet up with me in four more countries or spend weeks with me in one. Friends who taught me that I don’t need much time to feel close to someone. Although I traveled mostly alone, I was never lonely, and I can’t thank every individual I’ve met enough for that.

Traveling is all about the people you meet.

Traveling is all about the people you meet.

Though the people I’ve met have really been the best part of this trip, traveling also gave me a crucial realization about life: you never know what tomorrow could look like.

I think it’s important that I said “could” there, because you likely know what tomorrow will probably look like if you’re caught in the day to day of normal life. But hopping from country to country alone, knowing I’d have to make new friends and learn phrases in a new language and having no idea what my hostel or the city would look like – that lack of control – weirdly made me realize the kind of maximum authority I can have over my life.

What was at first an impromptu decision to rent a car ended up in one of the great adventures of my trip.

What was at first an impromptu decision to rent a car ended up in one of the great adventures of my trip.

If I didn’t like the people I met, I could meet new ones. If I hated the city, I could get a bus out (though that never happened); if I loved the city, I could skip my train and stay for a week (my bank account hates me for that one… ok those three ones…). I never had to be stuck in situations I didn’t like, and I could stretch my plans to fit ones I did. I had a control and freedom that I had not experienced in the last 16 years of school and camps and internships and jobs and stringent, mandated routine.

In turn, this taught me that there is no right narrative for my life either. I don’t know where I will be in a year and a year ago I didn’t know where I’d be now. That lack of control and foresight in life is just the same as in traveling. Maybe I’ll find the job of my dreams in Washington and love it so much that I want to stay and make it to work every day and settle back into routine, hopefully getting to travel sometimes still and have a good work life balance. Or maybe I’ll move there and not find what I’m looking for. But then I’ll do something else. I’ve been taught for so long that I had to finish university and go right into my career and do it forever and ever and it better be an impressive one that would make me look smart and interesting and earn me lots of money. But now I realize that I’m not going to accept any life narrative that doesn’t bring me happiness. I think that’s a much better measure of success.

Creating our own party on our Sail Croatia trip

Creating our own party on our Sail Croatia trip

(An aside – I am very privileged to be able to say that, but I think it’s as much of a universal lesson as I can speak to after romping around the world for four months.)

I could go on and on about the things I’ve learned traveling – the incredible cultures, which countries you can cross the street on red without being an obvious tourist, how to travel cheaply, how to make friends like a pro, how to make decisions in a group, how to document my travels (both for myself and publicly), how to cook for a bunch of people with different preferences and fall asleep literally anywhere and know when I need to take a break, how to get someone to stop snoring (cough really loudly until it partially wakes them up and rush to fall asleep before they do) and a hundred thousand other things I could rattle off.

Reuniting with old friends is one of the best parts of traveling.

Reuniting with old friends is one of the best parts of traveling.

More than anything, though, I’ve learned so much about who I am. These last four months, I’ve felt the depths of human connection in short microcosms of friendships with strangers. I’ve talked about my country’s reputation in the world and learned how I am an ambassador of that at all times. I’ve felt happiness like I have never felt before, and I’ve gained so much confidence in so many aspects of myself. Being the only constant in my travels, I’ve become my own best friend and learned to love myself without exception.

Breaking the rules and into an abandoned theme park in Berlin.

Breaking the rules and into an abandoned theme park in Berlin.

I think the one last thing I want to say about my travels is about why I blog about them. First of all, I’ve still got quite a bit to post after this one (almost a month’s worth, most of which is already written), but it was important to me that this one was actually timely. I think in some ways could look like a self-indulgent form of a personal journal, but I really do write these things for myself. The other reason is that it’s strange doing so much, going so many places and experiencing so many emotions and having no constant person to share them with, so blogging has become my outlet for that.

If you’ve read just one post, made fun of my cheesy outlook on literally everything or even just looked at my pictures, thank you so much for letting me share a piece of this experience with you. If not, I’m going to be looking at this until I’m dead anyway and happy that I’ve got it all at my fingertips. This has really been the time of my life.

And after it all, I'll never be the same.

And after it all, I’ll never be the same.

London: Home Away From Home (Oct. 7-22)

The house in Forest Hill

The house in Forest Hill

My third and final trip to London would be by far my favorite. I would see my old flat (C6) from study abroad together for the first time in two years, although I had seen most of them at some point in the summer in visits to their homes or at the house in London. I’d be spending nearly two weeks with them, and those were two weeks at home.

Family breakfast

Family breakfast

At the house in Forest Hill, I have my own key. Fixing an extra cup of tea for me was automatic. We would clean together, cook together – spend pretty much all of our time together drinking tea and chatting and watching television on someone’s computer. I rarely left the house, which was a welcome break from the constant movement of traveling.

Nothing beats that feeling of not seeing someone for a long time but picking up like no time has passed at all. We could talk about anything, be weird around each other. We could cuddle watching TV, chat nonstop or sit in silence without it being weird. When one of us went to the store, everyone else would shout requests, knowing the others would return the favor. “Bring us some munchies,” was regularly shouted before the front door shut.

I cooked a full English for the house

I cooked a full English for the house

We were all quite sick by my second week in the house, and when I got sick later than everyone else, my flatmates would give me their medicine. I got food poisoning before heading to Paris, and my flatmate Boyan brought me vitamin water. When my flatmate Connie left for the weekend to go back to Portugal, she gave me her room (I had been sleeping on a futon in the living room).

Hanging out in the living room (AKA my room)

Hanging out in the living room (AKA my room)

The house was and remains a magical place. It’s not even a sense of welcoming in C6 – to be welcome is to be a guest. I was not a guest – I was home. It was so much my home that when I got back from a two-night trip to Brighton on the coast, Connie welcomed me with “it was weird not having you here.” The sense of belonging I feel with these friends is one of the most beautiful things about my life travels. I consider my flatmates family, and the only thing that makes saying goodbye to them okay is knowing that I will see them again soon, somewhere and sometime unknown.

From our Christmas dinner in 2012

From our Christmas dinner in 2012

Shaunagh and I met up with some friends from Sail Croatia for a night out in West London

Shaunagh and I met up with some friends from Sail Croatia for a night out in West London

Brighton Pier

Brighton Pier

Met up with some girls I met in Budapest at their university in Brighton for a couple of nights

Met up with some girls I met in Budapest at their university in Brighton for a couple of nights