24 Hours: Vienna

Before a trip, I’ve mentioned that I try to keep my expectations/pre-conceived ideas to a minimum. Travel porn can really mess with your head and make you feel like you’re missing something when you see the real thing.

Gee, I guess real porn might do the same.

And I’ll admit it, over the years I’ve looked at plenty of Viennese travel porn (I have a problem, ok?), and my romantic visions of the city were at completely unrealistic levels. Confectionary Baroque architecture, the home to the only surviving building lived in by Mozart, rich coffee, chocolate cakes, luxurious furs, sweeping waltzes, classical music . . . I mean, come on, how could any romantic not be a sucker for that?

And you know what? It’s true. Parts of the city really are that way! But, it’s also a modern, bustling place with people, you know, going to work in plain old suits and ties and unfortunately not powdered wigs.

I wanted powdered wigs.

Actually, I wanted Miloš Forman to art direct my vacation.

WTF, Austrians? You were supposed to dress like this upon Kiki's arrival.

But even with the lack of powdered wigs and Miloš, I still really liked Vienna, and I really needed more time there. I don’t feel like I fully maximized the time that I did have, but here are a few tips:

 

LISTEN

You know something that Brahms, Strauss, Schubert, Beethoven, and Mozart have in common? Ok, yes, they’re all classical composers, but they’re also all buried in Vienna. In fact, you can even pay your respects to all of them at the Zentralfriedhof if you’ve got the time, which is absolutely on my list for next time. Even if classical music isn’t really your thing, you should at least have a little listen for some ambiance. Try these:

–          

–           (he wrote The Marriage of Figaro while living in Vienna, dontcha know)

–          

 

SEE & DO

–          Schoenbrunn Palace – it’s probably best to visit this gorgeous palace in the warmer months so you can enjoy the gardens, but there is a great, non-cheesy Christmas market around the holidays, so brave the cold! It’s a bit outside of the city, but it’s a quick metro ride.

Schönbrunn Palace

–          Mozarthaus – this is the only surviving structure that was home to the Mozart family, which is now a museum at Domgasse 5. The admission includes an audio tour, but it’s sort of slow moving and a little repetitive. I spent about an hour there and it was good enough for my pace, plus, it was cool just to be in the building itself.

Domgasse 5, Mozart's Former Home

–          Stephansdom – who doesn’t love a cathedral? Well, Damian wasn’t too fond of them, but for the non-antichrist among us, they’re beautiful old buildings to walk through and marvel. This is the focal point of Stephansplatz, which is the center of the old city, and a good place to start your day.

Stephansdom

–          Kärtnerstrasse – this is the “main street” of Vienna, pedestrian only, and full of shops, cafes, and plenty to see

 

EAT

–          Figlmüller – home of “Vienna’s most famous schnitzel”! This might seem a little touristy, but you’re a tourist, so who cares. You can’t go to Vienna and not get a good wienerschnitzel, and this is a great spot for lunch. When we were there around 12, the crowds weren’t terrible, but by 1:00 it was a madhouse, so plan accordingly.

–          Der Naschmarkt – Vienna’s open-air food market

–          Café Sacher – again, another tourist spot (and the crowds will remind you of this), but when in Vienna. If you have the opportunity to have a torte and a coffee at Café Sacher, you should just go for it! And if, like me, you don’t have the time to wait in the long line for a table, no worries. There are plenty of cafes in this style where you’ll be served your yummies on a little silver platter.

–           Käsekrainer – ok, this is a really disgusting cheese-filled sausage, but it’s really kind of awesome during a night of drinking in the cold. You’ll find this at every wurst stand on the street, and I highly recommend it. It is definitely not kosher.

–          Mozartkugeln – you won’t spend more than 30 seconds in Vienna without seeing these Mozart-themed chocolates being hawked everywhere. We have these in the states, but here you’ll find not only the Wolfgang variety, but the Constanze, and the Mozart children and grandparents and giant crystal-covered versions. Hey, they’re delish and they make good token gifts.

Mozartkugeln - too much?

 

SLEEP

Vienna was where my group of eight had a slumber party in an 8-bed dorm room, so I can’t give you a ton of skinny on the lux digs available to you, but here’s what my initial research found:

–          Vienna Westend City Hostel – we stayed in this hostel on the Westend of the city, which wasn’t a terrible location, but wasn’t within the Ringstrasse. Clean, friendly, not too many frills, but very near the subway, about $20 per person  for the dorm

–          Wombats – this is a well-known, popular hostel in Vienna. There are two locations: Base and Lounge. They’ve won all sorts of awards and look like great places to stay if you’re in the market for a hostel, plus it’s the most awesome name ever

–          Some hotels that were cheap options on our list of potentials: Hotel Am Konzerthaus and Austria Classic Hotel Wien (doubles for both were under $120)

 

IN SHORT

Vienna is a very bustling city; it’s much more crowded than I expected it to be for some reason. That being said, I was there the day before New Year’s Eve, so that might have had something to do with it. There is plenty to see and do in Vienna, but even with limited time there, you should take part in their storied kaffeekultur. Sit down in a cozy café, relax with a friend or a book or both, have some dessert, and just people watch. It was so crowded when I was there that it was hard for us to get a table anywhere, but it’s worth it to fight for one.

You should also familiarize yourself with Princess Sissi, who was the less controversial Princess Di or Kate Middleton of her day, but even more so. The movie based on her life is beloved by German-speaking girls in the way that The Sound of Music is by Americans.

And ladies, if you have any fur in your wardrobe that you’re sort of nervous about wearing in your own city, bring it to Vienna. Ladies here love them some fur.

Looking forward to more time there  . . . and maybe in warmer weather!

24 Hours: Budapest

Ok, so 24 hours in any one given destination hardly seems worth it to some people. What’s the point, right? It’s this “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium” type of travel that conjures images of Asian tourists with visors and cameras around their necks and fat Americans in shorts piling into large buses. I know; it’s not a pretty picture.

But I like to stretch that dollar, and if I find myself in a trifecta of destinations, I’m going to do what I can to hit all of them. And what’s the worst that can happen? You have a day somewhere and realize that you love it and want to return, or you get a so-so vibe and can at least check it off the list.

I don’t regret my whirlwind visit to Budapest, and here’s how I spent my time.

24 Hours: Budapest

Budapest is an intrinsically beautiful city. It’s hilly, there’s a river, and the architecture is ornate and overwhelming. The Danube cuts through it creating two distinctly different cities, with Buda on the west and Pest on the east. As it seems to go for many cities, the western part is more business oriented, and the east is a little more residential and artsy. I didn’t have many preconceived ideas of what Hungary or Budapest would be like, namely because there aren’t many movies with Hungarian characters, and so they don’t make for great stereotyping material. Blast. Unfortunately I had to think for myself, and here’s what my initial research told me:

1.) Baths

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2.) Goulash

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3.) Chain Bridge

 

 

 

 

 

 

And, you know, when I think back on my short time in Budapest, those really are good places to start. One of the best things about Budapest is that it’s a steal in terms of European traveling, so you can really feel like you’re splurging without blowing your entire budget. Throw in a little Liszt soundtrack, and you’ll have yourself a good intro.

 

Listen

 

Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 – Liszt

Liebestraum – Liszt

Hungarian Dance No. 5 – Brahms (even though Johannes Brahms is from Germany, this ditty will provide the manic energy you’ll need to get you through the fast-paced 24 hours in store)

 

See & Do

 

Budapest has more thermal springs below it than any other capital in the world, so when in Budapest, take a bath! To be completely honest with you, I (nor the rest of my group) had the greatest time at the baths, but I think it’s just something you gotta do. Relax in the hot springs, plunge into the cold bath, take a steam, and check out some naked people. That can never be a totally bad thing. . . . I guess. We went to the Gellert Baths, and while I definitely wouldn’t say that the atmosphere is snooty, it wasn’t the most relaxed place in the world either. The ticket for the day was about $15 with a 30 minute massage costing about the same. English was not widely spoken here, and it’s not the most intuitive of places. Please, for a moment, imagine our group of 8 wandering around in bathing suits aimlessly, huddled together like a school of fish. An employee directs us to a door, which we quickly realizes leads us outside – outside to the bitterly cold, Eastern European winter. We see nothing resembling a bath, so our scantily-clad group hesitates for a moment, takes a deep breath, and then exits. Abruptly, powerfully, horrifyingly, the heavy door slams behind us and we wonder if maybe we’ve just been Budapunk’d. We all internally freak out for a moment, and then burst into uncontrollable, hearty, undeniably American guffaws of laughter. Once we reclaim some semblance of composure, we climb the stairs, giggling, and find a pool full of silent, unamused bathers. Like much of Europe, I think they want quiet people there. Oh, and another side note, remember when I wrote about my indestructible Rainbow sandals? The Budapest Bathwater destructed them. Forever.

Gellert Spa & Bath – this is the “fancier”, more touristy bath that our group went to

Szechenyi Bath & Spa – this looks like a gorgeous place and sounds like it’s a bit more “local”

Chain Bridge (Lánchíd) – there are eight famous bridges crossing the Danube in Budapest. All are lovely in their own way, but the Chain Bridge is the grandest. It’s beautiful, but it’s also a great way to get to/from the foot of the Castle Hill district to Andrassy Ut, which is sort of like the 5th Avenue/Rodeo Drive/Champs Elysees of Budapest. You’ll also have a fantastic view of Hungarian Parliament, which is a gorgeous, fancy wedding cake of a building. It’s about a 20-30 minute walk from/to either of those points, picture taking time included.

Castle Hill – an absolute must-see in Buda. You can either walk or take a tram to the top of the hill to explore the winding streets of the district, plus catch amazing views of the city. Here you’ll find cute tourist shops and cafes, the Royal Palace, Fisherman’s Bastion, and Matthias Church.

Hungarian State Opera – tickets range from literally $2-$60, and since this is known to be one of Europe’s most beautiful opera houses, you should try to check it out. I went into the building, but I didn’t join my cousins for La Bohème, which they said was lovely.

 

Eat

 

When traveling, one of my favorite things to do is to go to a local market. I love the European-style open-air places, replete with stalls filled with a variety of local goodies. It’s not only a great microcosm of the culture, but they’re usually delicious and cheap places to eat. The market in Budapest is called Központi Vásárcsarnok, or the Great Market Hall. It’s a beautiful old building in Pest with a gorgeous tiled roof and soaring windows. In it,  you’ll find a wide variety of meats, produce, sweets, and spices (they are cray cray for paprika), plus places to find typical Hungarian dishes, like good old goulash.

Great Market Hall – the main floor is mostly a market, but the top level is full of food stalls where you’ll find traditional Hungarian dishes (and lots of chintzy souvenirs)

Baldaszti’s – there are three locations of this lovely little outfit, and I was lucky enough to go to two of them: Grand and Kitchen. John and I, after being apart for a few weeks, snuck away from the group (shhh) and had cocktails at Grand, a very chic, “sparkly-rustic” (my current favorite style) little nook on the Andrassy Ut. The next morning, we were happy to find that a second location, Kitchen, was right down the street from our hotel. We had a great, relaxed breakfast in the beautifully designed, adorably decorated space, and all for quite a steal.

Entrees and cocktails were all about $10-12 USD.

Chagall Cafe – we stumbled upon this cozy café on our first night in the city. The menu was a delicious offering of  hearty, rustic style food like deer ragout and confit duck leg: exactly the sort of thing you want after on a cold night after a long day of traveling. Everything was really beautiful, and again, no entrée was more than $13.

 

Sleep

 

We stayed at a really cool boutique design hotel in Buda, right near the foot of Chain Bridge. I highly recommend this hotel. The rooms are fun and funky, the staff is really helpful, it’s in a nice location with fabulous views of the Pest riverfront, and it’s a great deal!

Lanchid 19 (doubles about $90/night)

Others that I came across that look like excellent options:

Atrium Fashion Hotel (doubles about $80/night)

Home Made Hostel (dorm, $13/night; private room w/ bath, $50/night)

New York Palace Hotel (the winter rate was $149/night for a double – not too shabby for what the New York Times calls the best hotel in Budapest)


General

After all is said and done, I enjoyed Budapest, I’m glad that I went, it’s fair to say that I could have used more time there, but I didn’t have an instant connection with the city. The food was great, the people were (generally) welcoming, but I don’t have a strong desire to return. Budapest is like Eliza Doolittle, pre-Henry Higgins: she’s obviously beautiful, but with a foul-mouth and dirty face.

Just you wait, 'Enry 'Iggins!

One could argue that this mixture might give a place more character, and that could be true and perhaps explored with more time, but my initial reaction was not one of unadulterated swooning.

Prague on the other hand . . .

Stay tuned!

Occupy Vacation

 

“Hey, how was your trip?!”

 

Whenever you come back from any sort of excursion, very nicely, this nicety will follow you for weeks. How have I been answering this question? The first adjective that pops into my mind is “exhausting”.

 

I was exhausted before the trip, exhausted during the trip, and here I am, a week after returning, still exhausted.

 

But there’s nothing technically wrong with exhausted, right? Exhausted is good! Exhausted means that you are getting the most out of yourself! Why buy a bottle of wine and only drink half of it? Or eat only one slice of a pizza? Or not eat an entire box of Oreos in one sitting? Stupid! Much better to exhaust every last drop, crumb, what have you, even if what you’re left with is useless, rotting garbage. I may be useless rotting garbage, but this garbage was, at one point, seriously delicious.

 

I just mentioned to my friend Rachael that I have not really had a day to just relax since December 18th, even though I did just come home from this vacation. Really tragic stuff. And let’s talk about that word “vacation” – does it come from the word “vacate”? I’m just going to go ahead and assume that it does because I took Latin in high school and that should be useful for something. Some synonyms for the word “vacate”:

 

* leave * quit * evacuate * empty * abandon * clear * void *

 

A vacation is meant to be an opportunity to leave your cares behind, to empty your brain of all the daily stresses of home and work, to delve into, nay, surrender to the void and abandon all of the eventually-pointless-because-we’re-just-going-to-die-anyway things that worry us in our day to day lives.

 

Antonyms for “vacate”, on the other hand:

 

* fill * occupy * overflow *

 

I believe that in this case, we would call this trip an “occupation”.

 

I’m not complaining because I saw a lot of worthwhile, thought-provoking, experience-garnishing, beautiful things, and, you know, my family . . . so it was worth the exhaustion. So don’t worry – you don’t have to feel so badly for me.

 

I’m going to write a bit about each destination as their own separate post, which I resolve to get done quickly! Funny stories, remarkable good luck, and lots of cool experiences and subsequent advice to ensue.

 

For now, here are some pictures.

 

Boldog Új Évet!

Šťastný Nový Rok!

Frohes Neues Jahr!

Happy New Year!

New Year, Old World

As I experience more and more years of being, um, alive, I’ve learned three important lessons:

1.)     There isn’t a magic age where people figure things out: everyone is generally clueless for the vast majority of life;

2.)     Stick to one kind of alcohol per night; and

3.)     The time between August and Christmas is 10x faster than any other period of the year

You guys, really . . . is this the next stage of old age? No more prolonged anticipation periods? Am I going through anticipation menopause? No more anticipatory cramps? No more moodiness? Because it wasn’t that long ago when, if I had something exciting coming up on the horizon, the time would s l o w l y  d r a g  b y  f o r  w h a t  s e e m e d  l i k e  f o r e v e r .  .  .

Now, everything happens in the blinkofaneye and it’s really disturbing me.

For example, I’m going on another trip, a relatively big trip, in 13 DAYS and it’s coming up so quickly that I don’t even know how to feel about it. I haven’t even had time to brag about it!

For those of you who don’t know, my sister has been living in Berlin since May. She’s in an au pair program, taking care of two little boys, and living with a German family. I don’t know why my family is being infiltrated by all things German, but it’s starting to get a little ridiculous. Thank god my brother doesn’t like white girls or else I’d be calling the History Channel. I think they’d be interested in a conspiracy theory about Germans weaseling their way into American families by seducing their most promising youth.

Oh, right, I’m not a youth.

Or very promising.

Aaaaaaanyway, when my sister moved to Germany, it was always my intention to go visit her at some point during her year there, but again, time has passed in a blink and half of her year has already passed.

Luckily, my parents must be part of this conspiracy and had the great idea to send me and my brother to Berlin for New Years’ as our Christmas presents. So perfect and amazing and so, so generous! Great parents to the rescue yet again!

Somehow (these things tend to happen in my family), this little rink-a-dink snowball of a sibling trip to Berlin has rolled into an 8-person, multi-country, multi-city, multi-currency gigantic snowman of a trip that can only be described as nothing less than a Euro-Extravaganza! Final headcount is me, my sister Brighid, my brother Conor, John, my cousins Katie and Colleen, Brighid’s best friend Cheyenne, and Brighid’s German boyfriend (see! it’s happening!) Erik.

I mean, why would 3 people meet in Berlin? That is so ridiculously boring. It’s much more fun to have 8 people travel from Budapest to Vienna to Prague and then to Berlin to ring in 2012 at a pace that would disturb Usain Bolt. Duh.

And if you can believe it, we actually have everything pretty much under control and at a low cost. All hotels/hostels are booked (including one slumber party night of all 8 of us in one dorm room), buses and trains are booked (well, mostly – anyone know the cheapest bus or train from Vienna to Prague?), and fun stuff to do and food to consume has been thoroughly researched. We’re going to be stuffing ourselves full of currywurst, goulash, schnitzel, glühwein, beer, and trdlo!

Haha, trdlo.

Traveling with a group as large as this is really challenging – I think especially when you all know each other. It’s hard to make sure that everyone is included and no one feels like they’re compromising their (especially in this instance) precious time by doing things that they don’t want to do. I don’t really know the best way to go about it, but I’m thinking that it’s probably good for everyone to be up front about what they want to do and feel free to split up into groups or go off alone, and then have a meeting point . . . whether it’s a meal or drinks or just hanging out in the hotel.

But, as we all know, when you travel, shit happens. Hotel reservations get lost or end up costing more, buses are cancelled, you miss a flight, you get freaking pink eye or the bubonic plague – you name it. I guess the best thing that you can do is to be prepared but remember that plans don’t normally work out the way you, uh, you know . . . planned.

But enough with the Greek chorus!

I just can’t believe that I’m going on a trip with this group of people! I can’t believe that I’m going to visit my sister who lives in Germany! There are so many crazy parts to this crazy trip that I can’t even really wrap my head around it, and as I said, it’s seemed to have happened so quickly that I can barely believe it’s real. Christmas time in Central Europe! With a very good selection of some of my favorite people on Earth! Unbelievable. When will it seem real?

Oh, probably when I contract some bizarre gum infection in Budapest.

That’s when I will be par for the course and shit will get totally real.

Can’t wait!

Christmas Market in Prague

28: #5, #6

Well, this is only very slightly overdue, but over my birthday weekend (10/10) John surprised me with an awesome gift that allowed me to check off half of the 5th item on my Life List AND a ¼ of the 6th! What a guy.

You may have noticed a trend of me writing “John surprised me”, and you’re probably getting super bored by it, and maybe you’re wondering if I’m still surprised by all of this surprising.

Well, sort of.

See, my birthday happened to land on the Monday of Columbus Day weekend, and we had been talking about going to Salem, MA around Halloween, so I had a hunch that we’d probably go then, and I was right.

BUT, I never suspected that he’d also want to drive all the way to Acadia in Maine! I was totally floored and so happy.

I was not so happy when he urged me to rush home from work at 5:30 one recent evening, and instead of the flowers or elaborate dessert I thought would be waiting for me, I found a locked, dark apartment.

SURPRISE!

I guess he tries to keep me on my toes.

Anyway, so on that Friday evening, John and I shipped up to Boston and stayed downtown for the night thanks to my mom, Queen of Marriott Rewards. The next morning we picked up our rental car and headed over to Concord, home of Louisa May Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne so that I could cross off the MA portion of #5 on my Life List.

And really? Someone should study that coordinate. The air just felt smarter and more transcendenty. I was most interested in visiting Orchard House, home to Alcott and the setting for her most famous work and one of my personal favorites, Little Women. My grandma gave a copy to me when I was pretty young, and it was the first “classic” I read on my own. I loved reading about girls who, even though they were living over a hundred years before me, were genuinely relatable, which is why the book was so popular when it was published, and continues to be today.

To see the inside of the house you have to take a tour, and even though our ancient tour guide was a little repetitive and slow, it was still worth it. So many things that belonged to the Alcott family have been preserved and restored, so it looks very much the way it did when the family (on which the book is based) lived there. Really fascinating to hear how intertwined the lives of the famous philosophers and writers of the day were, which is obvious in their work, but in Concord, MA, the evidence is geographical.

Afterwards, we stopped at another literary hot spot, Walden Pond. The weather was unseasonably warm, so families and their cars were out in droves which made things probably slightly less peaceful than, say, when Thoreau was hanging out  . . . but it’s so beautiful that you can understand how one would be inspired there.

From there we headed to Salem to check out their Halloween festivities. We picked a good weekend, because it was the day of the Annual Zombie Walk. Salem takes their spooky Witch Hunt history very seriously and so this is a great time to visit an already really cool city. My cousin and his husband live there and, being the good citizens that they are, fully partake in all of the festivities! It was a total coincidence that we ran into them at the festival! The ghost of Tituba must have been working some magic. We were having so much fun that we really wanted to stick around, but we had a long drive to Maine ahead of us, so we left that evening . . . you know, after I had my tarot cards read. She didn’t mention anything about brain tumors or lottery winnings or George Clooney, so I don’t really remember what she said.

Boring future read, off to Maine we drove, figuring we’d find a place to stay on the way. I mean, it’s Maine, right? Who goes to Maine? Like 40 people live in Maine – why would anyone possibly need to go there? I began calling hotels on the road to find that this is not the case. EVERYTHING was sold out. Did you know that Maine’s slogan is “Vacationland”?? No? Well it is! And apparently EVERYBODY knows that but us. We couldn’t stay at a Motel 6 if we paid them. Even a creepy roadside knock-off, Motel 5, was totally booked. We were beginning to think that we’d have to sleep in the car when finally we got the very last room at the Lakeside Motel in Winthrop which was totally creepy and obviously haunted by angry deer-hunting ghosts. Very surprisingly, we weren’t killed or haunted or eaten alive by bed bugs, so all in all it was a good night. We survived! Onward to Acadia, 1/4 of #5 on the Life List!

sign outside of the fabulous Lakeside Motel

The weather was gorgeous the next day, and after my big outdoor adventure out west, I was really excited to have another National Park experience. I had my tennis shoes and sporty looking pants on, and this adorable Lululemon hoodie, which I wore even though it was too hot because, hello, it’s outdoorsy and cute and so am I, damn you.

The foliage was just beginning to change, the clear blue water was sparkling in the warm October sun, I looked like an outdoorsy Californian who knows what she’s doing and it was a birthday surprise: what could be better?

The park. The park could have been better.

I mean, ok, yes, it was beautiful, but it was east coast beautiful, meaning pretty, but not impressive; awkwardly good looking, like Anne Hathaway, but not staggeringly mountainous, like Courtney Stodden.

Look, I just went to Utah. It would be like going to Paris and then, a few months later, going to whatever city the “Paris of Alabama” is.

Ok, just kidding, it’s not that bad. At all. It’s gorgeous and the foliage really was just starting to turn and the colors were radiant and the water really was unbelievably clear and sparkling, and we did have a great time there. I think I was just expecting the kind of overwhelming wow factor I got at other National Parks. I mean, I’m like a super experienced outdoors woman, so I really wanted to be challenged with a strenuous hike that my outfit was clearly meant to handle. This is a different kind of park.

ok, fine, it is beautiful!

Fall or summer is probably the best time to go . . . which I guess is why we had to stay at the Lakeside Motel. Make reservations!

The park is right outside of Bar Harbor, which is a darling, typical New England coast resort town, full of pubs, lobster restaurants, Victorian-style houses, and t-shirt shops. We rewarded ourselves for all of the driving that John did with delicious lobster rolls, blueberry ice cream, and Allagash. Luckily found a hotel in Portland that night, which is a weird, but cool, but not really, city. It sort of reminds me of the hipster sections of Baltimore, but also sort of like Alexandria, VA, with a population of rebellious suburbanites whose suburb was an hour outside of the city and not on a Subway line.

Make sense?

But it was cool, and I’m sure that with more time and more exploration I would have really liked it, however it was an early night because we (meaning John) had to drive all the way back to Boston in the morning . . .

But not without stopping in Kennebunkport!

We really don’t like to relax.

Anyway, it was a totally packed three days, but that’s how we like to do things and that’s how we get things done.

Seeing as I’ve only completed 10% of my still incomplete list, I think we might have to move a little faster.

#45 – Go Camping, Legitimately, in a Tent, in the Middle of Nowhere

This past trip was very nature-centric and unlike any I’ve done before, and so I was very excited to be able to be out of my element and check some things off the Life List.

When we were planning out logistics, the idea of cutting camping from the trip came up and I probably did one of my “wide eyes, tight lips” glares at John in which he could sense my internal freak out.

That was the end of the camp-cutting convo.

We don’t have room in our apartment for an ironing board much less camping gear, so it’s not something we’ve ever thought of purchasing. Plus, we’ve never seriously considered going camping before this. Plus, how would one suggest I travel cross-country with a tent? And a lantern? And those roasting marshmallow pokey things? Am I allowed to carry those on? And a small stove, right? Because we’re going to be cooking fancy campsite meals, aren’t we? OMG sleeping bags! Duh! But those are kinda big . . . but maybe we should bring our air mattress, too?

This was not helping the case for camping.

So we decided that the easiest solution would be to buy all of our necessities before we headed out on the road at a Wal-Mart outside of Vegas.

Wow, this really was an All-American trip.

When we got to Wal-Mart, there was some more hesitation about whether this really was a good idea or not. Pretty valid points like, “uh, what are we going to do with this stuff when we’re done?” and “is it worth spending all of this money on camping stuff when we can probably find cheap hotel rooms for the same price or less? Isn’t staying at a Motel 6 kind of like camping anyway?”

Even I was being swayed.

Plus, everyone was speaking German and so I was off looking at bullets and bait and DVDs.

Eventually, however, it was decided that we were doing this for the experience, not to necessarily save a ton of money, and so we started piling stuff into the thankfully gigantic carts.

We ended up buying the very bare camping necessities: two small tents, two fleece “sleeping bags” (in quotations because these were more like thin, cheap blankets that had zippers), an LED lantern, and that’s it. No tools for s’mores, no fancy-pants camping stove, no fun stuff. We then bought copious and completely unnecessary amounts of snacks. I chose surprisingly sensible things like granola bars and apples. Omesay othersay oschay ingsthay ikelay an eakingfray FUN PACK of 24 agsbay of ipschay. Oh, and a Halloween bag of oppersWhay.

Ateverwhay.

It wasn’t totally planned out where or what nights we’d camp, but I definitely tried to slyly suggest instances in which it would work out to be a day that I had taken a shower in the morning and wouldn’t need to wash my hair that night, things like that. “Tonight? What? Didn’t you just feel that raindrop?” It pretty much worked out for me. I think the trick is to be high-maintenance one or two nights a week so that you can be low-maintenance the rest. I did that with the following tools:

Flat Iron: straight hair is just easier to take care of and wear for a few days of non-washing

 

 

 

 

Oscar Blandi Dry Shampoo – this makes the non-washing thing possible. I’ve been intrigued by the idea of dry shampoo because I don’t like to wash my hair everyday. Sprinkling a good amount of white powder into my hair made me a little apprehensive, but it works!

 

 

Andrea Eye Q’s – the best eye makeup remover I’ve come across. Is gentle, works like a charm, and no water necessary.

 

 

 

 

 

Huggies wipes – ditto. There are fancier makeup removing wipes, but I don’t mind using plain old Huggies because they’re cheap. You can clean your whole face in-tent, without having to trek out in the dark to the slightly creepy bathrooms.

 

 

And no, not wearing eye makeup is not an option. My ipchay-ovinglay endfray was earingway ivefay oundspay of akeupmay every day, and I didn’t want to look completely slovenly. Plus we were taking like 5,000,000 pictures . . . I don’t want ugly memories.

Anywhoo, where was I? Oh yes, right, camping.

This trip was the first time I’ve heard the term “backcountry camping”, which basically means camping in a place, typically after hiking to the bottom of some canyon with your crap strapped to your back, that has no facilities . . . like toilets or showers or power hook ups. Like real manly man camping. This is what I wanted to do, but . . . see the photo of “dry shampoo” above.

We camped on campgrounds with campsites and toilets that flushed – the fancy kind. I was sort of disappointed but mostly relieved. I don’t know about the backcountry campers, but the campsite campers? Soooo hoity-toity. They’ve got all of this sexy camping gear and gadgetry that, I mean, I’m my pathetic little “sleeping bag”, I really looked down my nose at. Why not just stay home if you’re going to completely replicate the comforts of your own living room to a campsite? Wusses.

Not us, though. We didn’t even have pillows!

Correction: I didn’t even have a pillow! I brought one inflatable pillow because over the years my mom has given us some really random crap that at the time seemed totally useless. “Um, thanks mom, a solar powered radio, wow, cool, this is going to be, like, totally useful to me seeing as I don’t even listen to electric-powered radios.” Or, “yeah, this mini-flashlight with your company logo on it is super-rad, thanks.” “An inflatable pillow, how did you know?” I let John have it because I’m the perfect girlfriend like that. Plus he was doing all of the driving and, you know, he sort of deserved it.

It turned out that all of her weird, random cast-offs were completely and utterly useful on this trip. It’s like she’s a Jedi or something.

All in all, my introduction to camping was a good one, despite one night of absolutely inhumane temperatures (upper 40s! Come on! I slept in JEANS!), and I’d like to do it again. As with other experiences on this trip, this was a great introduction. Now that I know a bit more about this world and know what to be prepare for, I think I’d actually like to try out the backcountry stuff.

If not, I think I could do something like this . . .

Where Do I Begin? To Tell a Story of How Grand a Canyon Can Be?

Well, here I am, back from my trip, and I am now a full-fledged, red-blooded, low-maintenance, rootin-tootin’ outdoors woman. Bring me a tent and I will pitch that bitch like there is no tomorrow.

No, seriously. Time me.

Well, kinda.

Ok, probably not.

But I loved my trip to the Wild Wild West! I always get a little nervous that places won’t live up to the hype or that I get so excited that things won’t meet my expectations . . . but they do! They always do!

They usually do.

I really can’t wait until I have the chance to go back. There is so much more to these parks than I got to explore, and while it was a great overview and introduction, I am dying to go back and focus on one park to really have a full experience. It sounds like most people do what we did and spend half a day to one day at each park, and that’s awesome, but if you’re serious about hiking or canyoneering or biking or rafting, you really need a couple of days at least to do the real trails, and I have now decided that I’m serious.

No, seriously. I told John that I want to move to California and be a two-armed Aron Ralston.

This is a trip that every American should do. It’s like nowhere else in the world, and I have to say, I did feel some pangs of patriotism . . . even though I had to constantly explain why people are so fat. And why there are so many fast food places. And why people are so poor and dirty. And listen to why everything is better elsewhere. There were times at which I felt like I understood the mindset of Sarah Palin. Mostly the gun part.

So anyways . . .

There is a lot that happened on this trip that I really, really, really want to write about because it would be so entertaining and hilarious and gossipy and fun, but it would come across as mean and when I was little and really into writing in a diary (because I loved Anne Frank and Jo March) my mom taught me not to put anything in writing that I wouldn’t want to have read. Which, hello, is the point of a diary for a young girl, but nevertheless it kinda stuck with me. But you guys . . . really. Some of this stuff is golden, cannot-make-this-scheiss-up stuff that I would LOVE to gab about, so let’s plan a dinner, you’re all invited, and I will fill you in.

Let’s just say:

Me = Maureen O’Hara

Someone-else-on-the-trip-that-shall-remain-nameless-let-me-throw-in-some-untranslatable-words-into-this-like-skidamarinkydinkydinky-cromulent-embiggens-atchison-topeka-santa-fe-dinglehopper-so-that-it-confuses-non-english-speakers = forgettable actress that plays the stepmother

Such an understatement. And while it didn’t uinray the iptray, it did idday akmay emay an ittleay . . . annoyed to say the eastlay.

But whatever, it got to the point of being comical, so not too big of a deal.

Bitching aside, this was the (loose) itinerary . . .

Vegas – fun, but you know, it’s Vegas . . .

Stop in Williams, AZ – typical little town on Route 66 with stores wherein you can/should buy things like this . . .

Grand Canyon – it’s just so . . . grand. Too grand. Literally too large to even conceive.

Petrified Forest/Painted Desert – Interesting. Sort of cool. Skipable, so here’s a picture of the group . . .

Hubbell Trading Post – The only reason I’m including this is because this is an example of precisely the kind of dorky, historic places that I wanted to stop by, but was met with glazed eyes and bored stares. OH god I mean azedglay eyesyay and ordbay arestay! Oops.

Canyon de Chelly – Amazing. So beautiful. Astounding. Needed more time there.

Monument Valley – This is in Navajo Nation, and you can pay an entry fee ($5 per person) to drive and see the “monuments” up close and personal. We did this, but the roads aren’t paved and our family van couldn’t deal. We drove through the “normal” road, however, and it was just as impressive. I think.

Camp in Bluff, UT – You can drive for very long stretches in this part of the country without really coming across any civilization. Or having any 3G connectivity. But then every once in a while, little towns like Bluff pop up and have a campground and a few restaurants. We found (meaning, drove down the one street in town) a really cool restaurant here.

Arches – More amazing than I thought it would be. It’s hard to believe this wasn’t a movie set or an art installation. Visiting this park was #12 on my life list, so I’ll write about it in greater depth soon.

Moab, UT – Not one of the little towns. This place is relatively booming and full of outdoor adventure outfitters, hotels, restaurants, & shops. We went rafting.

Canyonlands – This is sort of like a miniature Grand Canyon. In fact, Thelma and Louise, who supposedly died driving off the GC in actuality died driving off a cliff in Canyonlands. It’s gorgeous and compact in comparison, plus nowhere near as crowded. I’d like to have spent a few days here.

Camp in Capitol Reef – We didn’t really have plans to go to Capitol Reef, but we read that the campground is really nice so we decided to visit there for a night. Gorgeous, not fun. So cold. So, so cold. Ground, so hard. But, we did wake up to a beautiful view and ate goodies made from apples from the orchards in the park, so it was in a way worth it.

Bryce Canyon – When we first got to Bryce, I wasn’t that excited. It’s weird looking. But it’s got a few easy-peasy hiking trails, and going that extra mile really changes your experience. I ended up loving it and it turned out to be one of the most memorable (not to mention picturesque) points of the trip.

Zion – Was. Not. Expecting. Zion is one of the most incredibly beautiful places I’ve ever been. Have you seen the Land Before Time? No? Well they make this trek to a place called The Great Valley, a wondrous place where everything is lush and there is water and happiness and an endless supply of love . . . this is Zion. Unreal. I need to go back for a week at least.

Back to Vegas – Ick. Don’t get me wrong, Vegas is fun. And it’s funny. But I’d rather have been in Zion. There is absolutely no reason to be in Vegas for longer than 2 days. You can only eat and drink and spend money for so long. OMG, listen! I really am a wilderness girl now!

I crossed a few things off the old Life List, so stay tuned. And let’s plan that trash talking dinner.

Don’t Let the Sound of Your Own Wheels Drive You Crazy


Stereotypes, you know, in general, are kind of annoying . . . I mean, not to stereotype them or anything.

One that’s particularly loathsome (and yet one often ensuing of much slapstick hilarity) is that of the prissy girl who isn’t “outdoorsy”. “Ugh, (hair flip) I don’t do camping” is a phrase that has come out of many an uptight, high-maintenance city girl’s mouth according to modern pop culture.

As such, we’ve been led to believe that there are only two types of women on the planet: the Mary Anns and the Gingers:

. . . or better yet, the Vickys and the Maggies:

What we can assess from these characters is that nice, smart, cool girls are just as comfortable in the wilderness as they are in pig tails or flannel shirts. It’s the manipulative, sequin-wearing, gold-digging whores that would ship sweet little Hayley Mills(es) off to boarding school who can’t hack it out there in the wilderness.

There’s just one problem, though . . .

I, like, don’t do camping.

And yet, here I am, finding myself in a position where, yup, I’m probably going to be doing some camping-like activities in the next few weeks. I need to un-Vickify myself posthaste.

My next trip is something that every American should probably do, and so naturally it’s something that, as a bad American, I haven’t really done much of: visit National Parks.

It appears that, like the stereotype or not, I am kind of a city girl. I am usually drawn to places because of cultural attributes, not necessarily by nature. I like food, art, architecture . . . “things”; scenery is nice, but it’s most beautiful when one is looking at it from the terrace of a really lovely restaurant, holding a glass of wine. Is the ocean not more magnificent while looking at it through rosé colored glasses?

It never even occurred to me to question this mindset until I met John, and his ability to inspire me to see all sorts of things from a new perspective is one reason why I fell in love with him. We’re like a reverse Pocahontas & John Smith.

Ok, I really need to lay off the Disney movies.

While John has never sung to me about painting with all of the “colors of the wind” or anything (that I’m allowed to talk about in public, anyway), he has been on three cross-USA road trips. He’s got photo albums full of impressive canyons and arches and mountains and wide open space: things that I’ve sort of seen while playing Oregon Trail, but never really felt the need to see in person. He’s done these types of trips several times, so obviously he really enjoys them, and when you love someone, you get a particular kick out of seeing them in their “element”, even if it’s not necessarily something that you get. The last USA road trip John took was with his very good friend from Germany, and so for historical accuracy, he will be joining us along with his girlfriend, which is really cool.

We’re retracing some of their steps, meeting in Vegas, and then heading off into the sunset to the Grand Canyon, followed by Canyonlands, Monument Valley, Arches, Zion, Bryce Canyon, and all sorts of other anti-Vegasy things that will allow me to expand my horizons. Jury is still out on whether the other girl is a Vicky or a Maggie, but the point is, I’m really going to try to not be an uptight whore: I want to be outdoorsy. I want to prove that I can sleep outside and do things like raft or bike or eat beef jerky. I want to be able to survive without my flat iron. I want to wear a flannel shirt, and if I didn’t just have my hair chopped off at Frederic Fekkai, I would try out ponytails too.

These things, combined with living in Manhattan and craving the novelty of unused space, are why I’m particularly looking forward to this trip.

Right now I’m in my typical travel-only-type-A mode, mapping out a route and doing all sorts of research on must-sees and creating The Perfect Playlist on iTunes, you know, the most important stuff. Next, we’ll talk packing for a trip unlike any I’ve ever been on.

Anyone been to these places and have any suggestions? More importantly, what are you favorite road trip songs?

#51: Learn the Basics of How to Play the Piano or Violin

I have a new respect for rednecks.

I mean, seriously, it takes a special kind or person with a special kind of patience to learn how to fiddle, or play any instrument really, and I, my friends, am not one of them. There seem to be hundreds of thousands of rednecks playing away like Charlie-fecking-Daniels below the Mason-Dixon line alone, however, so how hard can it be, right? OMG HARD.

But, in an effort to continue the checking-off my way towards my impending demise, I enrolled in a class called “Absolute Beginners Fiddle” at the Irish Arts Center of NYC. The class was described as one suited “for those with no prior fiddle experience”, with instruction on how to hold the fiddle and bow, tuning, and producing a good tone. Best of all, it declared that “by the end, students will be able to play one or two Irish fiddle tunes”. Intriguing – tell me more.

The class was to meet once a week for an hour for two months (that’s 8 hours, BTW), and I immediately pictured myself fiddling away like Sharon-fecking-Corr and participating in jam sessions at local pubs, you know, wearing like an Aran sweater, or perhaps something more sleek and all black, like they do in Riverdance. “Who knows, maybe I have an unrealized gift? Maybe my destiny is to play the violin! Maybe I will be an adult prodigy!”

No, you guys, seriously, these thoughts went through my brain and I now know what it’s like when fat people see weight loss pill commercials on TV: “Wow! You mean with through hardly any work at all and very little commitment I could be on the cover of Shape magazine?! And wear jeggings?! Sign me the hell up!”

Ah, but what do we live for if not those momentary glimpses of hope?

So I rented myself a violin (by the way, a violin and fiddle are the exact same instrument – the names are just more descriptive of the style of music being played, sort of like “piano” and “piany”) and was ready for my first class.

If there is one sound more horrifying than nails on a chalkboard or silverware scraping a plate or a baby crying for more than 5 minutes, it’s the sound of beginning violin players en masse. Unlike with small children, there’s nothing really endearing about beginning adult violin players.

Oh my god, I cannot even begin to tell you how horrible I was – by far the worst in the class. Everyone was supposed to be an absolute beginner, but I was the only one without any real training in instrumental music. One guy’s mom was even a violin teacher! Come on! That’s just not fair. How can I compete with that? Needless to say, I was an absolute beginner in the sense that it sounded like I drank a bottle of Absolut and then headed off to class.

But, I did learn how to hold the violin and bow, finger placement, and the got the general idea of the instrument, which I suppose is something. An earnest attempt was made, so I think it counts.

I can’t play any songs.

I sort of tried.

Fiddle-dee-dee.

Number 13: Go to Paris with John & Picnic in the Jardin du Luxembourg

 

I love Paris. I’ve always loved Paris. You know that song I Love Paris? I could have written it and maybe even have done a better job than Cole Porter. In fact, I love Paris so much that I loved it before I ever even went there – it was love before first sight. That’s how much I love Paris.

But then, who doesn’t love Paris?

Paris is the most beautiful city in the world. There’s really no contest. And I’m saying that without having been to all of the cities in the world, so you know it must be true. Its dense beauty is just overwhelming, like humidity or a huge, dripping willow tree. It hangs heavily on your being, drenching you in butter, Chanel No. 5, and all of the other things that make life special.

So much imagery sparked my appreciation for and deep-seated desire to visit this city from an early age . . .


 

 

 

 

 

 

. . . but unlike so many things that are built up beyond reality, Paris did not disappoint when I visited for the first time. I fell in love with the style, the innate romance, and the Parisian appreciation for beauty and history. Oh, and the food and wine aren’t half bad either.

 

If you love Paris or have the feeling that you will love Paris, I get the impression that it’s the sort of place that you want to visit with someone special or like-minded. It’s too wonderful to waste on someone who won’t get it. John had never been to Paris before, so I’ve really wanted to experience the city with him. I knew he’d get it. Unfortunately, it just didn’t seem like it would be in our travel plans for the near future since I had been there relatively recently, but he surprised me.

 

I’m not big on my birthday. I don’t want a party, I don’t want a lot of attention, and I really don’t want you to get me a gift. It’s not really the age thing, it just hasn’t been in my personality since age 11. My last birthday, however, happened to be 10-10-10, and since that was something unique I wanted to do something special. Obviously this trip counted a million times over and I couldn’t believe we’d be making our way through Europe on the big day.

 

So on 10-8-10 we had made our way into France from Spain, to Avignon, to attend our friends’ wedding on 10-9-10. It was in a gorgeous cathedral built in the late 1300s within the really cool, picturesque, artsy walled city. Their reception lasted well into the wee hours, and it was a fantastic way to ease into 10-10-10. Not only do we love celebrating with these friends, but they also served a traditional Provençale meal that was one of the best I’ve ever had: lamb, endless cheese, brûléed foie gras, some of the best wine I’ve ever tasted, just to name a few highlights, and all until well past 3 AM when we left the party early and headed back to our secret garden of a B&B, La Violette.

I won’t go into all of the details because it makes me look really horrible and we really don’t need to discuss anything that makes me sound less than awesome . . . but I said some things to John on our way to the hotel that could have been taken in a slightly, ahem, bitchy context were you someone as obviously sensitive and insecure as he. I mean, surely it couldn’t have been me and we don’t need to go into any of it, but the point is, it was 3:30 AM on 10-10-10 and I had single-handedly already ruined my birthday. Shocker.

We were both mad, and I said in what I’m certain was a snippy, clipped “Jesse Eisenberg does Mark Zuckerberg” tone, “so, where are we going tomorrow? Nice? St. Tropez? It’s going to rain all day so it doesn’t really matter”, and I probably threw in an eye-roll for good measure. John sighed, exasperated, and asked me why I have to ruin everything all the time or something like that, and let me in on his secret: we were taking the high-speed train to Paris at 7AM where, unlike Provence, the weather would be sunny and warm, so I’d better shut up and go to sleep.

And then I cried. And apologized for being the worst person in the world. And went to sleep.

 

I am the worst person in the world.

 

It’s very rare that I’ve been somewhere that John hasn’t, so I relished in playing tour guide as best as I could. When we got into the city I knew exactly where we should go, and so we headed straight for the Louvre, walked around the courtyard and then down to the Seine where we had a little breakfast underneath the Pont Royal. From there we walked to Notre Dame, the Latin Quarter, down Boulevard Saint-Germain to the St-Germain-des-Prés, Invalides, the Eiffel Tower and the Champ de Mars, the Trocadéro, the Champs-Elysées, Place de la Concorde, the Tuileries, Les Halles, and all the way back to the Rue de Rivoli and the Louvre. We had no real destination, no place to go, just took our time and wandered the whole day in perfect 70 degree, sunny weather.

So, ok, we didn’t technically picnic in the Jardin du Luxembourg, but we drank champagne on the waterfront of the Seine and split a crepe on the Champs-Elysées, so I think it counts. Once again, there is wiggle room.

As usual, I didn’t deserve it at all, but it truly was the best birthday present of all time and a thousand times life-list worthy.


I love Paris in the springtime.
I love Paris in the fall.
I love Paris in the winter when it drizzles.
I love Paris in the summer when it sizzles.
I love Paris every moment,
Every moment of the year.
I love Paris, why oh why do I love Paris?
Because my love is here.

 

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