Ancient Athens (Sept. 15-17)

The Acropolis

The Acropolis 

After going on a solo dinner date (pita and tzatziki, a stuffed tomato, a zucchini patty and moussaka) and making a few friends during my first night in Athens, I woke up semi-refreshed (reminder: I went to bed at 6:30 am on my last night in Bulgaria) and joined my eighth walking tour of the trip through my hostel. We hit up most of the main sites of Athens – mostly ruins of the ancient city – and stopped at an open square for our break, where I bought a kilo of green grapes for €1 and a souvlaki. They were the best grapes I’d ever had (a phrase Europeans like to make fun of us Americans for saying, but it’s true), freshly-picked and perfectly sweet and tangy and juicy, and I ate pretty much the entire kilo over the last hour and a half of the tour, sharing some of them with a few of my new friends from the tour.

Great view of the Acropolis

Great view of the Acropolis

We ended our tour outside of the Acropolis Museum, but my group opted to grab a meal with each other before heading in. We found a small, off-the-path family-owned restaurant whose friendly owner gave us a few free bites. We shared all of our plates and barely spent any money on all of it, a traveler’s success. I would be eating nothing but Greek food for days and days, but this was not a bad thing.

Temple of Olympian Zeus

Temple of Olympian Zeus

After lunch, we stopped at the Acropolis Museum for about an hour to get some background on the Acropolis. The museum has gathered most of the old sculptures that were looted from the Acropolis, but I didn’t realize this until watching a film at the very end of the museum that explained the history and architecture. We sat down for coffee at the museum, where some little kids ran chased each other around and around and forced a memorable frown on one of the waitresses. It started raining, so we paid our bill and ran home under the awnings of the main street of Athens. We would meet again when the rain had stopped.

Watching the sun set from the Acropolis

Watching the sunset from the Acropolis

At about 6:30 in a cloud and rain-free sky, we all met back up and headed up to the Acropolis to watch the sun set. We took a lot of pictures and got yelled at a few times – once for sitting on the ledge, once for taking a jumping photo (not my idea but it turned out cute) and once because it was time to leave. The views of the sunset were stunning, and the Acropolis was impressive after our short history lesson at the museum.

Greek militia taking down the flag

Greek militia taking down the flag

We headed from our sunset viewing to another delicious Greek dinner at some Trip Advisor recommended restaurant. The Trip Advisor stickers are generally pretty reliable signs of a good stop, and we again split all of our food – meatballs with the most incredible tomato sauce, saganaki (fried cheese), Greek salad (which does not include lettuce and tastes much better that way – the tomatoes in this area of the world are ridiculously good), vegetable pies (more like egg rolls), stuffed mushrooms, wine (of course) and probably more things that I don’t remember. It was a great meal with a great group and only cost €9 per person to split everything. After, the group went shopping while two of us headed for ice cream and back to the hostel, getting massively lost on the way. I went to sleep early, having to wake up at 5 in the morning to catch my ferry to Santorini. It was a struggle to find a ferry, and I had to change some of my original route and hostel plans to get out of Athens and get to the islands.

Sofia (Bulgaria Part 2)

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Written September 15.

Back in Sofia, Boyan and I went to dinner with his dad at a wonderful restaurant called Mediterraneo. Sitting in the ambient lighted courtyard, I ordered a mashed potato soup with quail egg, veal scaloppini and tiramisu. The veal was unbelievably tender and flavorful and the soup unlike anything I’d had before. We left the late dinner to meet up with some of Boyan’s friends for drinks in the park and then headed to a house party, where I’m pretty sure a beautiful Bulgarian girl was hitting on me. Sorry ladies.

The Ivan Vazov National Theatre

The Ivan Vazov National Theatre

We woke up late on Saturday morning to a fresh brunch at home with Boyan’s dad – smoked salmon, cream cheese, bread, tomatoes, onion, capers and yogurt with honey and fresh berries. We walked into the city center, grabbing some gelato and walking into one of Sofia’s famous churches and catching a two-hour walking tour in the evening. In Sofia, there is a large open square that is cornered by four houses of worship – The Banya Bashi Mosque, a synagogue that is the biggest Sephardic temple in Europe (Bulgaria managed to save all of its Jews during the Holocaust, most of whom fled when communism came after World War II), the Sveta Nedelya Eastern Orthodox church and the Sveti Yosif Catholic Cathedral. The tour guide called it the Square of Tolerance:

“We’re just a stones throw away from each other, but we don’t throw stones.”

Boyan and I met up with his dad and grandparents at a typical Bulgarian restaurant for dinner after the tour. We all shared some unusual fried bean clusters with soy sauce and garlic (Boyan said you can only really get them at this restaurant and they aren’t typical in Bulgaria) and a tomato/cucumber/cheese salad (very typical), and I ordered a traditional tripe soup and stuffed pork breast. Boyan’s grandparents, who are both scientists (one a professor, one a researcher), spend a month in Georgia each year, his grandfather a frequent guest professor at UGA, and visit their daughter in New York frequently. They made me feel right at home, making sure to keep me going back for food until I was stuffed. It’s always comforting to be around grandparents!

Not sure what I was looking at...

Not sure what I was looking at…

Later that night, Boyan and I met up with some of his friends to go to a club underneath Sofia’s library called “Once Upon a Time Biblioteka.” It was a really fun night – maybe a little too fun – and I ended up going home a few hours before Boyan did. Sometimes you just have to throw in the towel.

We slept in again on Sunday, and Boyan’s dad once again welcomed us to the day with a tasty brunch, this time some Bulgarian flaky pastries with cheese or fruit or nuts in them and some of the juiciest, reddest watermelon I’ve ever eaten. Ironically, Bulgaria’s best and most well known produce originated in America (tomatoes and watermelon) but beats most of the stuff you get at home (okay except Arkansas tomatoes and watermelon are kind of incredible but you know what I mean).

After getting some logistical things taken care of (printing tickets, blogging, uploading photos), Boyan and I left to go shopping at one of his favorite stores. Boyan had lent me a shirt the night before (I only have two button-downs), and I ended up buying the same one. It’s a blue floral shirt, and I do love floral (my other button-downs are floral too…). We grabbed gelato once again and then met up with Boyan’s friend Kosta for homemade sangria (made with homemade wine) and an oversized harvest cookie at a cool bar/coffee shop called The Apartment, which is literally in an old apartment. I actually thought we were going back to Boyan’s place until we got there and I realized that The Apartment was not actually his apartment.

Stumbled across a wedding in one of Sofia's churches!

Stumbled across a wedding in one of Sofia’s churches!

Boyan and I left The Apartment to head to his godmother’s apartment (see what I did there?) for dinner. Her husband is Colombian, so the dishes fell within some unknown exotic but delicious category – grilled peppers (both spicy and juicy red), meatballs, a cold eggplant sauce, homemade bread and fresh raspberries and Bulgarian plums (almost like oversized grapes) for dessert.

After dinner, we met back up with Kosta and another one of Boyan’s friends, Petar, at a chill and cheap bar. We ordered cocktails and some tasty spicy tomato vodka shots with olives (10 for 20 lev, which is about $12). I’ve gained a bit of a fondness for green olives during my trip, and the shots seemed more like hors d’ourves than anything. We left the bar and drove (Petar didn’t drink because he was driving – don’t worry) around Sofia looking for an open kebab shop. It made me feel like I was home, riding around in a car in the middle of the night looking for a late night snack. We stopped at Petar’s apartment for tea, music and conversation and got home at 6:30 in the morning. Just nine hours after and here I am, writing on a plane to Athens, Greece. I can see the coast below me from the window as I type.

It’s always weird getting to a new place, not knowing anything about what it will be like, who I will meet, what I will do. I’m planning on island hopping here, but many of Greece’s islands don’t have a large hostel culture. Ideally I will meet someone who can rent a room with me at my hostel in Athens or Ios, which happens to have a *hopefully* pretty nice hostel. Will get back to you on that one.

View of Athens from my plane window

View of Athens from my plane window

The Rila Mountains – Bulgaria

Six of the Seven Rila Lakes

Six of the Seven Rila Lakes

Landing at the Sofia airport in the evening, I was greeted by my old flatmate Boyan, whom I had not seen in nearly two years. As with the rest of my old flat (which we generally refer to as C6, our block letter and flat number), it felt like old times immediately. Although I have seen almost all of my old flatmates already this summer, I am anxious to spend time with the whole group together again when I head back to England in October.

Boyan and I took one of Bulgaria’s extremely cheap taxis from the airport to his apartment, and hungry after a long day of travel, we ate the dinner his grandmother had sent for us – stuffed peppers, ripe and juicy tomatoes (Bulgaria has some of the best), beans, olives, feta cheese (another Bulgarian staple) and fresh peaches for dessert. We left his apartment to grab drinks and smoke hookah at a couple of outdoor bars before heading in for the night.

On the Rocks

On Thursday morning, a taxi picked us up from the apartment and drove us an hour and a half to a ski lift headed up to the Seven Rila Lakes. As would become a pattern on any transportation in Bulgaria, I slept the entire ride there (regardless of my long legs being consistently cramped). The ski lift went so far up that it took probably 20 minutes to reach the lodge at the top.

Bulgaria’s Seven Rila Lakes are – you guessed it – seven lakes nestled high in the Rila Mountains. Named after their shapes, including “The Eyeglass,” “The Kidney” and “The Eye,” the lakes sit progressively higher in the mountains, connected by creeks and waterfalls. Craggy peaks rise around the lakes and a few flat plains, one of which is surrounded by a semi-circle of inclines on one side and the open sky and clouds on the other. This round field is known for its energies, and a ritualistic religious group called the Great White Brotherhood (not the KKK) holds a ceremony there once a year. The energy field had a pile of white rocks in the middle with more rocks symmetrically circled around it like a dartboard. Boyan and I stood in the middle for a while, arms wide open.

Waterfall

The five-hour hike up and back to the Seven Rila Lakes was exhausting, hiking up past each lake to a peak where we could look over our path and the lakes below, but it was one of the high points of my trip. While traveling, I find myself consistently attracted to natural beauty over anything else – my favorite places are always the most beautiful. Though we were tired, at each stage of the mostly uphill trek I found myself wanting to see more and from a higher viewpoint until we were all the way at the top. Worth it.

Boyan and me on a peak overlooking the lakes

Boyan and me on a peak overlooking the lakes

We got a little bit lost on our way down, opting to take the more confusing lower path instead of the original path that was considerably steeper at some parts but flat for much of the journey. It turned into a little adventure, with us mistaking a house for the lodge with the ski lifts. Just when we thought we were almost at the end (we were hoping to spend part of the evening at one of Bulgaria’s natural hot spring baths), we saw the real lodge off in the distance. It’s hard to get good vantage points with mountain peaks jutting out all around you.

After a long, well-deserved sit, my rubbery-tired legs stumbled off the lift and onto the ground at the base of the mountain. It was all I could do not to fall off the lift after the intense leg workout and sudden rest, and of course I slept the entire (and probably stunning) taxi ride to a small town where we would spend the night. We sat down for dinner at a nearby restaurant and went to bed early.

The Rila Monastery

The Rila Monastery

We had to get up relatively early on Friday to catch a series of three busses and vans to the Rila Monastery. Most of the busses were extremely old (think communist era), but in a way that gave them and the journey some major character. I slept pretty much the entire way there. Three hours later, we arrived at the beautiful Eastern Orthodox monastery, where mountains rose up beyond the walls surrounding the monks’ housing, the church and an ancient tower. Although the Rila Monastery has been around since the 10th century, it was destroyed in the 19th century and mostly rebuilt aside from its stone tower.

Inside the church at the Rila Monastery (photos not technically allowed...)

Inside the church at the Rila Monastery (photos not technically allowed…)

We spent two hours exploring the monastery – the scenic paintings on the inside of the church; the all-stone, narrow-staired tower; the courtyard – and the area outside, where we bought mini-donuts with powdered sugar and jam and sat on a drooping creek. Our one-stop trip home would be easier than getting there, and surprise, I slept the whole ride, even thinking that my iPhone was replaying a song when I’d really just slept through the entire album.

Eggshell painted by hand by Rila monks.

Eggshell painted by hand by Rila monks.

Munich (Aug. 31-Sept. 2)

St. Michael's Church

St. Michael’s Church

After sleeping my way through the seven-hour bus ride from Vienna to Munich, I arrived at my hostel and promptly grabbed dinner at a local bierhall called Augustiner Bräustuben. It was pouring down rain, and the walk was miserable, but I was welcomed into a loud, bustling environment filled with both local Bavarians and tourists. I walked to the far side of the hall and sat near a group of men and women dressed in lederhosen and other traditional Bavarian clothes, playing accordion and singing and slapping the walls. I grabbed a pretzel from a basket in the middle of the table and hung up my jacket and umbrella to dry. My shorts and shoes were soaked, but luckily I would wait out the storm through dinner and walk home in just a light drizzle. I ordered a delicious, massive schnitzel with potatoes and berries, passing up their famed pork shoulder (which I never got to try) because I thought it might be too rich for the night, and a maß (a whole liter) of beer, which I was unable to finish (needed an early, chill night and didn’t realize ordering a “big one” was that big). People say the portions are too big in America, but one look at a Bavarian dinner and I think they might reconsider!

Dragon statue in Marienplatz symbolizing the Black Death.

Dragon statue in Marienplatz – a symbol of the Black Death.

I headed to bed early so that I could be rested for my one full day in Munich and make my morning walking tour, which ended up being one of the best ones I’ve taken. I think walking tours, especially the free ones (always tip of course!), are the best way to get a feel for a city, its architecture and its history. Our tour took us to the Rathaus-Glockenspiel right at noon, when it puts on its show, and inside a few of Munich’s notable cathedrals. We stopped for a break at the Viktualienmarkt, where I snacked on a tasty (but messy) bratwurst and some warm honey wine. It was a cloudy, sweater weather day, and the cozy cup of honey wine really hit the spot. I bought two small bottles for my mom and brother’s girlfriend (you better open them while I’m home).

St. Peter's Church

St. Peter’s Church

The Glockenspiel

The Glockenspiel

I met a few Aussies on the tour (pretty much everyone in my hostel was from Australia), and we headed to the English Gardens and Munich’s surfing wave, which is literally an artificial wave in a river that people surf across. I ended up going to a café by myself shortly afterwards, eating a tart berry cake and a latte – I could really get used to the pastries and coffee in this area of the country.

Surfing Wave in the English Gardens

Surfing Wave in the English Gardens

I grabbed a cheap falafel for dinner and then drank beer in the hostel with some of the people I’d met before heading to another bierhall. The next morning, I ate breakfast in the hostel and packed a sandwich for my flight to London, which required a layover in Copenhagen and two hours of busses and trains from the airport to my home in London – traveling cheap usually means traveling long.

Vienna (Aug 28-31)

The Austrian National Library.

The Austrian National Library.

I got into Vienna after 10pm and was scheduled to leave on a 50-euro train the next morning (Friday) at noon, meaning I would have to spend the night touring the city if I wanted to see anything (à la Before Sunrise). After a little thought and discussion with my friend Paul who lives in Vienna, I decided to skip my Friday morning train and book a cheap bus for Sunday, staying with Paul for a night to make up for the cost. Vienna turned out to be absolutely worth it, so I don’t regret the extra expense to experience the city.

I spent my Friday morning in Vienna alone (for once) and grabbed a seated breakfast and latte at the Nachtmarkt. It was an egg cooked over pan seared halloumi cheese, soft bread, avocado spread, jam, salad and a shot of freshly squeezed carrot and orange juice – simple but delicious.

Schönbrunn Palace through the fountain.

Schönbrunn Palace through the fountain.

From the Nachtmarkt, I headed to Schönbrunn Palace and Gardens. I walked through the gardens and up to a fountain that you could walk into and look back over the palace and grounds. After, I tiredly trekked up a high hill for an even nicer view, stopping to sit on the grass and take in the view of the palace and Vienna beyond.

View from the Hill

I headed back to my hostel after strolling around the gardens a bit more, meeting an English girl who I would spend my evening with. We sat down for coffee at Café Sperl, where I had a memorable plum cake that was one of the highlight foods of my trip. The cake was moist and the fresh fruit topping tartly sweet. Vienna is known for its Café-Kultur, and I was happy to indulge.

The Austrian Parliament Building.

The Austrian Parliament Building.

We left the café to walk through Vienna’s “ring,” the road going around the central area that contains most of Vienna’s most famous buildings (sans the St. Stephen’s Cathedral, also called Stephansdom). Because it was not a guided tour, I had no idea what I was looking at while I was looking at it, but the architecture and buildings in Vienna are the prettiest I’ve seen in Europe.

My companion and I stumbled across a film festival with a large selection of international food stands. We both opted for schnitzel and a stronger-than-expected sangria-like raspberry drink. We took a long walk through the city centre to see Stephansdom and then headed back to the film festival to catch a bit of an opera being projected in front of the Rathaus, which is basically Vienna’s town hall (it looked more like a cathedral).

Film Festival at the Rathaus - Puccini's La Fanciulla del West was playing (obviously I had to look that up).

Film Festival at the Rathaus – Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West was playing (obviously I had to look that up).

At the film, I noticed a guy who I was sure went to Northwestern but didn’t know his name. I figured he must be some Austrian lookalike and didn’t end up approaching him. Later in the hostel, I would confirm that he was an NU classmate when I ran into him on the hostel. He had actually met my freshman roommate in a hostel in Barcelona – small world! I went to bed early for the second night in a row (Marseille/Prague/Budapest really took a toll out of me with late nights).

A piece from the "I See a Face. Do You See a Face." exhibition at Mumok.

A piece from the “I See a Face. Do You See a Face.” exhibition at Mumok.

The next morning, my companion and I grabbed another breakfast at the Nachtmarkt (truly some of the best food in Vienna), a spicy Indian omelet that was as good as my breakfast before. After a quick gelato stop, we split up and I left to visit Vienna’s modern art museum, Mumok, and grab coffee and a mini-obstkuchen (a type of cakey fruit pastry) from Café Halle in the MuseumsQuarter, a stop suggested by The New York Times’s 32 Hour Guide to Vienna.

The only photo I managed to take with Paul, an awkward selfie originally sent to a friend from Marseille.

The only photo I managed to take with Paul, an awkward selfie originally sent to a friend from Marseille.

After my second café visit, I left to grab my luggage and meet up with Paul, my friend from Marseille who lives in Vienna. Shortly after I reached his apartment, which he and his roommates had just moved into earlier in the day, we all sat down for a nice homemade pasta lunch. Paul and I left to explore the city a bit and ended up spending most of our afternoon at Vienna’s Street Parade, which involved numerous 18-wheelers with bars and DJs on them parading through the city’s ring. People were drinking and dancing on the trucks and in the streets; Paul and I both grabbed beers at a food stand nearby. Gotta love European street drinking!

Vienna Street Parade truck

Vienna Street Parade truck.

Later that evening, Paul took me to a friend’s birthday party, where I met a lot of really friendly Austrians (and a few Germans and a Belgian). We conversed on our countries and life experiences before heading out to some clubs on Vienna’s “belt,” or the outer ring that goes through the more residential areas of the city. We stayed out late, and I only had a few hours to sleep the next morning before getting on my bus to Munich, where I managed to actually get some sleep.

We Like to Party (Prague and Budapest, Aug. 19-28)

From the Instant Groove Hostel

From the wall of my hostel in Budapest, Instant Groove.

It’s hard to adequately sum up my time in Prague and Budapest in journal fashion, because these two stops were much more about having a good time (AKA partying) than relaxing or sightseeing. I can tell you it will be a relief to not be drinking or staying out until 6am for the next couple of days in Vienna.

Prague Castle

We randomly found these birds of prey you could take photos with at the Prague Castle.

First things first – the two best hostels I’ve lodged in were on this leg of my journey. Hostel One Home in Prague and Instant Groove Hostel in Budapest. Each of these hostels totally made my time in each city and introduced me to some great fellow travelers.

My New Friend

Going to Hogwarts now see ya on the flipside.

Giant Faceless Baby Statue

These giant faceless baby statues in Prague are supposed to represent the media. Not going to say I work in press…

Hostel One Home’s appeal is firmly planted in its “family dinners,” daily planned activities and awesome staff. As you probably inferred, the hostel hosted included dinners every night so that I pretty much always knew most of the people roaming around the hostel. Usually after dinner, we’d play drinking games and then all go out to a bar or a club (or both), where we could indulge in fine cocktails (seriously some top-tier drinks and spirits for $1-2 each – gotta love Central Europe) and beer before maybe hitting up the dance floor.

Jami and Me

Hostel One Home was also the first place with a staff that actually hung out with its travelers. I actually loved it so much that I tried to get a job there, although it’s basically impossible to stay over my tourist visa without getting in trouble. Don’t get me started on arbitrary borders and the lack of freedom people have throughout the world to live where they want #immigrationreform.

Bone Chapel

Sedlec Ossuary, or the Bone Church.

Tagging the Lennon Wall

(Legal) tagging at the John Lennon Wall – obviously I made a panda.

The touristy parts of Prague were definitely nice – it’s a gorgeous city, cheap and easy to walk around in. It is absolutely overflowing with tourists, though, and the old town is always packed full of people. I managed to see bits of the castle there, the main parts of Old Town (Charles Bridge the Astronomical Clock, etc.), the John Lennon Wall (where I did some of my own graffiti), this random bird sanctuary and the Bone Church (literally decorated with the bones of 40,000 people) in Kutná Hora, a town an hour away. I probably missed some good stuff, but sometimes getting a real cultural and fun experience in a city involves ditching the sights and having fun with the people you meet. A major part of Prague’s culture is its nightlife, so of course I had to take advantage!

St. Stephen's Basilica

St. Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest.

Budapest was similar: it was not until my third day that I even saw any sights in the city (i.e. before I went to the downtown area or the Danube River that separates Buda and Pest, the two cities that joined to create – you guessed it – Budapest). I think I may have partied a little bit harder in Budapest, though, staying up until 6am literally every single night. My hostel was actually part of one of the biggest bars/clubs in Budapest, Instant, so I basically wouldn’t have been able to go to sleep even if I tried.

Instant Groove

Instant Groove Hostel – always a party!

Instant Groove attracted some seriously awesome travelers, although not very many Americans (always cool to be the only one or one of two!). Everyone was there to have a good time and to make friends, which is exactly what I wanted to do. Pretty much everyone hung out together at night, from solo travelers to a group of six, which I think is cool because large groups can sometimes get a little bit antisocial. The hostel was so homey that we would basically have a big house party every night (I think someone said, “it’s not a hostel – it’s a week long house party”) until midnight and then head out to a ruin bar (highly atmospheric bars put in the ruins of old buildings rather than knocking them down – Budapest is known for them) and maybe dance a bit at Instant afterwards. It was nice to be able to go upstairs to sleep after the club rather than having to make our way home through the streets at night.

Hostel Friends

Our hostel was tight-knit enough for us to throw a big surprise party for our friend Dominic’s 22nd birthday. A few of us went out to buy balloons, decorations, donuts that we formed into a cake, candy, candles and ice cream, and everyone pitched in some money. It was, as always, a good time, and we went out in a humongous group afterward. There were 32 people in our hostel, and our group had 24. We must have looked like a school group roaming around the streets with that many people.

The Guys

Donut Cake

Dominic’s donut cake.

Another major appeal of Budapest (the perfect complement to the parties) is its thermal baths. Budapest is built on hot springs and has a number of bathhouses, ranging from quiet and intimate to massive and touristy. I hit up two of them, Széchenyi and Veli Bej, preferring the second because of its chilled out atmosphere and lack of a thousand people (Széchenyi is the biggest bath in Budapest). The baths were a perfect way to sweat out the toxins of the night before and get some good old-fashioned relaxation.

Széchenyi Thermal Bath

Széchenyi Thermal Bath – the best way to get over a night at the ruin bars in Budapest!

I was not ready to leave Prague or Budapest, going as far as to skip my train out of Budapest to head to the baths one last time with my friends. The new ticket cost $35 (the first was $15), but whatever it was worth it.

“Welcome to the Family” (Marseille Part 2)

"The Family"

After Katelyn left, I decided I would just take it easy for the rest of my time in Marseille. I slept until 3:30 in the afternoon after staying up all night and watched some “Mad Men” when I woke up. Of course travel plans never go the way you think they will, and I ended up befriending a girl from Frankfort when she moved into the room. I *shamelessly* made her wait for me to finish my episode before heading to grab cheap burgers with her.

When we got back to the hostel, we ended up making a group of extremely international friends who would join me on one of my best days of the trip.

Afternoon in Cassis

I’ve said before how easy it is to make friends in hostels – sit down somewhere there is English being spoken, ask where they’re from. Our table expanded into eight people in the span of half an hour, with chimes of “do you mind if I join you?” coming periodically. 

“Of course! We’re a group of people who all met by asking the same thing!”

A few drinks later, we all ended up taking an early night and decided that we would meet at breakfast and that I would take them to Cassis in the morning. I didn’t feel like I had enough time there the day before and wanted to get some hiking and ocean time in.

Looking over the Calanque

In the morning, six of us from the night before met up for the day, managing to snag two more to join our party in the five minutes before we left. America, Germany, Spain, Austria, Poland, England and Japan all intersecting in Marseille for reasons ranging from quick holidays to grandiose Europe trips and all coming here alone – well, alone in the never-really-alone way industrious, wanderlusting solo travelers go.

We grabbed groceries before fighting our way onto the bus (we had to ask the driver to let our friend from Poland at the end of the line on the bus with us) so that we could enjoy a nice picnic and get straight to the calanque. Of course I had to play tour guide since I’d been there before, so I took them straight to the isolated rock face on the side of the calanque I had spent with Katelyn only two days before. We found a nice shady spot, fixed sandwiches and almost all jumped into the water, though not without hesitation from some who saw our shocked faces and loss of breath as we jumped in.

Hiking

The sky started to get a little cloudy, so we decided it was cool enough to take a hike around the calanques and walk out to where we could look off into the sea unobstructed. We goofed around and joked like we’d known each other for ages. We talked about our homes, our travels and mostly how much of a good time we were having together. Paul, from Austria, found a big hole in the side of a cliff and jumped in, scaring the shit out of us before we realized it was filled up to only a couple feet deep. We lost it laughing. Paul would later play tour guide and host to me during my time in Vienna.

Team Effort for Dinner

After hiking, we all decided we’d cook a big family dinner when we got back to the hostel to save money and enjoy a nice evening together. We headed to the supermarket and bought the makings for lettuce-less salad (they had one package of lettuce a week expired), nice cheese and toast, pasta with vegetables and homemade tomato sauce and four bottles of wine. Referring to our group all day as “the family,” we joked later about how we even innocently bickered about the type of pasta like family would. All in all it cost less than 7 euro each.

My Homemade Pasta Sauce

When we got back to the hostel, a couple of the group took showers while I started making pasta for eight people (it ended up feeding more than 10). Some of the guys cut vegetables while I made the sauce – it was a really cute team effort. Others would walk into the kitchen and tell us how good it smelled, how much fun we looked like we were having. Other solo travelers saw our ease with each other as strangers and asked to join, making our group explode into nearly 20.

Setting the Table

“Join the family!” became the motto of the evening, and we added friends from Italy, Sweden, Australia and more to our international posse.

Eventually, we were having too much fun for the hostel to manage and we started to get yelled at by a hostel worker. While hanging out in the courtyard, an angry neighbor started throwing eggs at us from his window (no warning, of course), and the hostel worker walked out yelling “f-ing Americans” even though there were only two of us. I guess he heard English and just assumed, but the reputation of Americans in other countries is a whole other post entirely. I was mostly mad he was screaming at us for getting eggs thrown at us when the hostel had no available accommodations for us to spend what was most of our last night together.

Cheers!

We ended up heading out to a bar and sitting outside and talking there, and a few of us snuck into one of the closed common rooms and chatted into the late hours of the night afterward. Saying goodbye to my big international family was one of the hardest goodbyes of my trip.

There’s a tough to encapsulate feeling that comes every one of these amazing nights – nights like the pubs in Dublin and the family dinner in Marseille – a feeling of pure joy and happiness in the moment mixed with a sad dread that this moment is so isolated, so against the odds of having happened in the first place that it will never be repeated after it ends. A long goodbye after a short hello, you enjoy every second but have to accept its inevitable end. It’s these moments that make traveling hard and easy at the same time, and more than anything make me realize how lucky I am to be on this journey. Traveling is more than just about seeing the world and partying, although that’s a great side effect. It’s about being 22 and young and afraid of the future and forgetting that for a moment to see what and who else more is out there than what I’m used to. People around the world are different in so many ways, but we are all the same in how we connect to each other. 

Marseille Part 1

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My trip to Marseille was all about getting out of Marseille – making it one of my favorite spots of the trip (I know I keep saying that but it’s really hard when every place defies my expectations). 

I checked into my hostel, Vertigo Vieux-Port, in the early evening on Wednesday and could not find a single English speaking and/or young person to hang out with. Much of Marseille’s tourism is French people on holiday, although I would later find a large group of solo travelers. Eventually I met two girls who would become my companions.Processed with VSCOcam with c1 preset

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On Thursday, we got up early and headed to an island in the Mediterranean called Frioul, just a 40-minute ferry ride from Marseille. We had a relaxing long afternoon on the rocky beach, occasionally running into the cool, buoyant waters of the sea to float and swim. After briefly falling asleep, we hiked through the rocky hills and forts of the island before pushing our way onto the ferry to head back to Marseille for dinner. Lines in Marseille, especially for its infrequently running transportation, can be really forceful and breed much anger. After missing the first ferry, which was late, we managed to make our way onto the second only 30 minutes after (we thought it would be 1.5 hours).

So Mediterranean

Our first dinner experience in Marseille ended up being one of the more memorable (not in a good way) experiences of my trip. We went to a super touristy (mistake) restaurant that was 15 euro for three courses. The food was some of the worst I’ve had, and after our main meal we could not get the waiter’s attention to order dessert. We kept calling him over, finally asking another waiter who responded:

“Don’t ask me. I’m the boss here.”

He then proceeded to stand awkwardly looking for things to do, like brush crumbs off other tables. 

After 45 minutes of waiting and calling for the waiter, we put down an incomplete payment, which of course I would never normally feel like was okay (we weren’t getting our full meal anyway), and ran off when the waiters weren’t looking. Huge adrenaline rush, slight guilt but less frustration because our dinner was cheaper than planned. Don’t think I’m a normal dine-and-dasher – we could have easily not paid anything, and we were trapped!

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Our third companion left the next morning, so Katelyn (the one who didn’t leave – obviously) and I headed to Aix-en-Provence for the day. Aix-en-Provence is a small(er) town in the south of France but not on the coast. Its cuisine is much better and easier to navigate than Marseille’s, and I had one of the best meals of my trip for lunch shortly after arriving. It was a meat plate of foie gras, chicken and goose breast with a few lovely sides of different vegetables and a potato gratin – wine of course on the side. Always wine in France, obviously. We finished off with two decadent desserts: a rich flourless chocolate cake and a raspberry crème filled cake with raspberry sauce on top.

Our waiter was extremely attentive and suggested everything we had. We hadn’t originally planned on dessert, but after such an enjoyable meal and a quick recommendation, we let him take our order and indulged. This and the following day would be two of my biggest food splurge days of the trip – followed by cheap take out and home-cooked (yum) meals.

Tartare

We walked a bit more around and then headed to another restaurant, where we split a delicious white fish tartare and an overcooked “barely-cooked tuna.” Our waiter suggested a pistachio cake for dessert, which was nice but not comparable to our wonderful lunch. We headed back to Marseille pretty late and headed to bed, although it should be noted that a whole bottle of wine or more was split every night of my time in France.

Beach in Cassis

The following day we woke up early to go to Cassis. In typical Marseille fashion, we couldn’t get on our bus after much pushing and shouting (we did get there 30 minutes early) and ended up waiting another hour and a half to head there.

One of the Calanques

In Cassis, we had a nice lunch at Le Poissonnerie, a restaurant owned by two brothers – one who fishes and one who cooks. We split a bottle of local wine (Cassis is known for its wine) and a hearty portion of fish soup, which you pour over toasted bread with mustard and cheese on it. Our main course, a filet of white fish, was fresh though a little overdone and overshadowed by the buttery vegetables on the side. After lunch, we headed to one of Cassis’s calanques (water inlets from the sea surrounded by rocky landscapes). We found a more isolated rock face to spend the afternoon relaxing in the sun and diving into the water, which was too cold to spend more than a minute in but extremely refreshing.

The Port of Cassis

We headed back from Cassis in the most heated transportation rush we had been in, with two busses worth of people trying to fit into one. Luckily we made it on, and the bus after us was completely stuffed with people.

Travel Companions!

Glittered Up

Later that night, we headed to the Positiv festival, an electric festival with Disclosure, Flume and Cashmere Cat headlining. We danced until 5 in the morning and then had to walk an hour back to our hostel, where a crazy homeless man decided to throw a giant cinderblock towards us (it was too big to make its way anywhere near us). Obviously we ran.

Positiv Festival

 

The Opposite of Lonely

Kilmainham Gaol

A week or two into moving to DC for the second time, knowing only three people, the loneliness of going off on my own inevitably set in. I reached out to all the corners of my real-life social network, hitting up people I’d met once or twice to try to stretch out my friendships and break up my days of constant work. Each weekend, I’d meet new friends and make small talk consisting of “what school did you go to?” and “what do you do?” – which (contrary to what some argue) are perfectly fine things to discuss when starting from a first handshake.

The small talk was exhausting. Sometimes I felt lonelier being around others than I did by myself. I felt like I was having the same conversation for weeks on end. I’d miss my friends from before, but I’d remind myself that it was work to create a new life. It took work to make the friends I had, and it would take work to make new ones.

Of course this changed when I got closer to people whom I’d met, and the lonely months are an unavoidable part of living on your own, and small talk is the first step in ridding yourself of said loneliness. It’s the litmus test of friendships, and eventually, with some, you remove the barriers that these basic questions mask and delve into something more. But the reason I’m saying all of this is that I’m over here traveling alone and meeting people I more than likely really will never meet again, and I haven’t felt lonely once.

Cliffs of Moher

It’s almost impossible not to make friends in a hostel. In fact, I’ve found it difficult to do really anything on my own. I walked into my room in Dublin on Sunday to put my things up before grabbing a bite to eat, and immediately I befriended an Australian girl named Simone who invited me to drinks with her and some Finnish girls she had met before. As a rule, I say yes to pretty much everyone (spontaneity is the foundation for all good things when traveling – never plan too much ahead), so I left with the girls for drinks, knowing I could eventually find food somewhere even if I hadn’t eaten in nine hours.

First Night

Small talk dissolves quite quickly when traveling. The few basic questions quickly turn into broader ones – ones regarding culture, previous travels, whether its acceptable in ones’ home country to cross the street without a walking sign (Ireland – yes, Denmark – no, Norway – yes, Finland – never). You can’t ask someone about his or her studies without learning how the university system works in her country; you can’t ask about their drinking laws without learning about their drinking culture. With the threat of time moving fast (Simone was leaving the next day, the girls were going on a tour) and the looseness that comes with a few pints of Guinness, you ask about relationships and family, and without the threat of judgment (you can always hang out with new people if you’re not getting on), you tell the truth.

It’s beautiful. Barriers that I (and all people) usually put up during introductions cease to exist in the world of solo travel. I feel connected to the people I meet. Our friendships seem to exist in a vacuum where we don’t have to worry about how we present ourselves, where we want to learn everything about each other as fast as we can.

Americans Abroad

I went on a pub-crawl with my hostel in Dublin on my second day. I had bought a ticket for another one, but decided to go on the one with my hostel because the people looked nice and it was right there and again spontaneity is key (I managed to sell my other ticket – phew). There I met Charley from Brooklyn and Brian from Arizona, who would become my companions the next day. I met a number of girls from Australia and England who we would spend the following night with. The English girls were just on a quick trip together and were taken aback by American accents really existing in full, not just on television or overheard at a train station. We drank a lot, we laughed even more. Charley and I bonded over Beyoncé.

Hostel Friends

Sometimes I get nervous about coming out to these people. I usually feel like I need to so that the girls know I’m just friendly and not hitting on them. Some guys asked me about girls, and I cheekily responded that I wouldn’t know because I was gay. Laughter again. I’m always reminded that there’s nothing to be nervous about. No one cares about these things here, and if they did people would think it was strange. People who travel are open – the ones who aren’t are probably holed up in an all-inclusive hotel somewhere doing the most boring museums and paying for the most overpriced, touristy meals.

Cliffs of Moher

After a day at Kilmainham Gaol with Brian, Charley and I befriended two Germans, Britta and Niels, who would be going on the same tour of the Cliffs of Moher as us the next day. We spent a relaxing day together on the tour, most of which consisted of a long but beautiful bus ride broken up by a couple hours at the Cliffs, where I nervously sat out on the edge of the world and let my feet feel the too-cool winds of the coast. Don’t lean up against the fence if you go there – it’s electric (I learned the hard way – ouch).

So International

Britta had broken her shoulder, so the girls waited down at the edge of a rocky shore we stopped at while Niels and I climbed up a rock face to get a view from up high. We sat together in a quaint town called Galway and had a late lunch. We talked about our studies, former travels, our hometowns.

Go Cats?

We decided we would grab a couple of drinks when we got back in Dublin at 8 that night. We found a pub with live music, grabbed a pint and sat in a quiet(ish) table in the back and swapped stories. We left for a livelier pub, where we talked and drank even more. A pint of Guinness turned into two turned into four turned into we can’t afford any more so let’s just grab the ones people abandon on the tables.

Our New Friend

We danced together, with strangers, with an elderly man and later a homeless woman who were both as joyful and happy as we were. We took photos with a bronze statue of a man; I put my Northwestern sweater on him. We climbed on things – a lamp pole, an electric box – on the street. We stayed out until Niels and Britta’s taxi picked them up for the airport at 4:15 in the morning.

Dancing in the Street

I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much in my life. I can’t even post most of the pictures on Facebook because you’d think I’d gone mad, though I’ve given you a few…

Climbing

One of the greatest nights of my life was spent with people I’d known for a day, people whose lives existed so far apart from mine that the chances of us ever meeting were near zero. There were no boundaries between us, no feelings of embarrassment to have fun or to let ourselves go. The night and our time together may have existed in a vacuum, but the memories (though hazy) and the sheer joy towards others I felt that night will be carried with me.

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Maybe one day, like my friend Sisi in Copenhagen, we will all meet again somewhere else.

The joy of traveling alone is never being alone. The joy of meeting strangers is never letting them be a stranger. The joy of small talk is never letting it be small.

Oslo

Written on July 26.

Royal Palace

On Thursday, we finally got to go into Oslo and explore the city. We got off in the city center and walked to the Royal Palace, saw the National Theatre and City Hall and some of the other main attractions of Oslo. After a short time there, we left to go eat on top of a mountain that overlooks the entire city.

Frogner Park

After lunch, we walked down to Oslo’s competition ski jump, a towering metal structure in the summer with zip-liners but covered with snow in the winter. The heat was pretty much unbearable during this time, especially on the train up the mountain, so we headed to Frogner Park to sit in the shade for a bit and look at the Vigeland installation, a series of nude sculptures of men, women and babies, including a giant monolith of naked bodies.

Vigeland Installation

After Frogner Park, we left to get out of the heat and headed home, stopping by Marianne’s old school and the main shopping street (I don’t suggest shopping in Oslo unless you’ve got a lot of extra $$ hiding around).

At some point during all of this, we came to find out that Norway is facing a “imminent concrete” terrorist threat regarding the Syrian civil war and that I’m supposed to register with the American embassy (sorry mom for not telling you, but I didn’t want to scare you). Norway increased security in the airport and main bus/train terminal, with police carrying guns (unusual here), and shut down the Royal Palace and City Hall to tourists. Guess we just made it in time to see them. 

Overlooking Oslo

I registered online with the American STEP program, which alerts the embassy that I am in the country in case they need to track me down. I’m sitting on the plane to London writing this, so I’m fine, but hopefully Norway escapes whatever threat faces them and finds whoever would be responsible before anything happens. We caught a piece on the news interviewing Americans in the country later that week about the scare, which was unexpected in a country that is generally so safe that police leave their guns in their cars.

It’s odd how I managed to be in Oslo in such a tumultuous time, with the burglary and record breaking heat and the terrorist threats. Marianne’s family told me they usually find themselves complaining in the summer that it could be a little warmer, a little less cloudy or rainy, but that this summer they’re complaining that they’re not complaining. The chances of a burglary in Oslo are much slimmer than at home, and targeting Norway with terror threats has been compared to doing the same with Idaho in the States.

Naked Monolith

Marianne’s parents came home Thursday night to deal with the burglary (they had guests at their summerhouse the day before and the police told them there was little they could do by getting back early), having to leave the fjord earlier than planned. Marianne’s brother came by, and we all ordered pizza.

Friday was another chill day mostly spent at the apartment. I had to get some laundry done, and it was too hot to really do much. Marianne, her dad and I went to the Munch Museum. Edvard Munch (pronounced monk) is a famous Norwegian painter known for “The Scream,” and his collection made me a fan. I think he’s got to be one of my favorite painters now!

Lobster at Lofoten

Marianne’s parents had a friend’s party to go to that night, but they sent us and Marianne’s brother and his girlfriend to a seafood restaurant called ­­­­Lofoten recommended in the Michelin guide and The New York Time’s 36 Hour Guides. I ordered Norwegian lobster, which was perfectly cooked, and we all shared a nice bottle of white wine. The waitress was a bit off, but the food was on point. We all headed home and I packed up to leave for London the next day.

 From Frogner Park

Now I’m sitting on the plane, laptop and tray table out before they’re supposed to be and Lana Del Rey’s new album echoing through my headphones. It’s been more than a year and a half since I was last in London, my favorite place in the world. The place that spurred a two-year personal growth unlike any other in my life, where I spent the best three months of my life. My flatmates are still scattered across Europe, though I will get to see three of them and some of my other friends throughout the 19 days I plan on spending here (I may take a few days to go to Dublin and maybe a short trip to Oxford or Cambridge). I don’t know what to expect this time around, but I anxiously await stepping out of the plane and back into a place with infinite personal meaning to me.