One Year Later.

A year ago, I flew to Vienna.

It was the beginning of a great experiment: to see if I could sustain myself through freelance copywriting while living for two months in Europe. It worked, mostly. I made enough to keep going, but not enough to do so indefinitely. I wanted to bring my German back up to the proficiency level I’d achieved during the year I spent as an au pair after high school, and it certainly improved but not as much as I wanted. I traveled more than I expected, but was less productive than I imagined I would be. (I blame my imagination for that.)

Nevertheless, a lot of that trip went super well. I had a friend living with me my first month, which probably helped to get me up in the morning and kept me motivated to work through the day. It was summer, which left plenty of daylight in the evening for me to wander around and enjoy the city after work finished. I knew the language and had a good reference point for the culture, so a lot of the experience felt familiar and comforting. The entire trip left me full of inspiration and a sense of possibility. I came home bursting with ideas and motivation.

Most of that didn’t pan out. But more of it has than I give myself credit for. From June 1st, 2016 to June 1st, today, it’s been an intense year. I spent four months of it living abroad, I learned new career skills, I met some great people, pushed my boundaries, regretted pushing my boundaries, learned some really useful things about the boundaries that I pushed and later regretted pushing, changed my mind about some things, disassembled some of my Islands of Personality and started reconstructing them, found focus, lost focus, re-found focus. All-in-all, a bit of a rollercoaster for someone who doesn’t really like rollercoasters.

But I’m glad the whole thing started from Vienna. When I think back, I feel grateful for the sunshine in the park, for the waiters who left me be while I wrote, for the long walks at night, for the vaulted ceilings and marble tables and coffee served on silver trays, and for the pianist playing Für Elise while I nursed an Aperol spritz and listened. I wrote when I left that I could see myself going back one day. I still think that ways sometimes, much to my surprise. Whether it’s nostalgia or the beginning of something bigger, I don’t know.

Maybe I’ll know more this time next year.

 

The Alhambra.

One day, about a decade ago, while shelving books at my library, I came across a book which intrigued me.

It was Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra, and because at the time I was reading through a lot of classic fairy tales, I checked it out and brought it home. But I didn’t manage to read it. Who knows what got in the way: work, school, other reading material. I probably only read a chapter or two, and then returned it to the library before heading out of the country again. And that was the last I thought about the Alhambra for some time.

I wasn’t even particularly thinking about it when I booked my ticket to Spain. But somewhere along the line, the dots connected, and suddenly the Alhambra became one of my top travel goals during my visit. For someone all too used to winging her travel plans, it felt a bit odd to have such a specific destination. So, true to form, I procrastinated, delayed making specific plans or buying any tickets until one Wednesday I finally sat down and purchased a bus ticket and booked a hostel for the coming weekend. I was going to Granada.

I didn’t purchase my ticket to the Alhambra, however, for another two days. Every guidebook I read said that I should book tickets ahead of time, but I figured: it’s winter, I’m sure it’ll be fine. And then on Friday my anxiety overcame my procrastination, and I spent the last few hours before I had to catch my bus to Granada tracking down and purchasing a guided tour for the very next day. I was lucky: had it been summer, it’s likely the tickets would have been sold out weeks in advance.

My trip got off to a rough start. I’m quite used to using Google Maps to navigate cities, but it is not always the most convenient for using public transportation. The routes it gives are fine, but they often rely on your flawless ability to make a connection from one transport service to another, and if you happen to miss that connection, suddenly your “fastest route” changes to something completely different. It didn’t help that the bus station I needed was waaaaaaay out on the other side of town, and that the only transport system I really knew was the metro, and that for some reason this wasn’t on any of Google’s fastest routes. In any case, I gave myself 45 minutes to make a 28-minute trip, but partway through I caught a train in the wrong direction and so missed my bus. Happily, I was able to purchase a new ticket for a bus which departed only a half-hour after my original trip, and bus fare is cheap so I only lost about €18 in the whole fiasco.

That said, these sorts of near misses proved to be a rule for the trip. My tour of the Alhambra was set for 9am the next morning. As before, I left with what I thought would be plenty of time. And, as before, I made a wrong turn and nearly missed my tour. The way up to the Alhambra is easy to find, but once at the top it’s easy to head toward the entrance rather than to the visitor parking lot where the ticket booths are and where my tour was meant to begin. By the time I realized I was in the wrong place, it was 8:53 and I had a 10-minute trek to get to catch my 9:00 tour. I hustled, made it to the parking lot, frantically showed my tour reservation to 3 or 4 people who finally pointed me in the right direction. I managed to join my tour group just as our guide started to lead us up to the palace. Had I missed it, it’s quite possible I wouldn’t have been able to buy another ticket for the day, and I may not have been able to book a new tour for the next day. And either way, the tour cost far more than the bus fare, so I lucked out.

PRO TIP: if you want to see the Alhambra, especially if you’re traveling during the summer, book well in advance and give yourself plenty of time to find your tour group. During peak tourist season, the Alhambra gets 6,000 visitors a day. You don’t want to be navigating that mayhem while you’re late and frantically searching for your group.

That said, once we started the tour everything became instantly amazing. I’m not used to booking tours, and usually opt for an audioguide, which I then find more annoying than worthwhile often as not. On this tour, our guide passed out radio receivers that you wore around your neck and which came with an earpiece that covered one ear. The tour guide was then able to talk into a microphone so that we could all hear her, and none of us had to push to get close to understand what she was saying. I think this made all the difference, as it allowed me to explore and look around whatever area we were in without feeling like I had to stand directly next to the guide to catch every word.

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A view of Albaicín, the medieval Muslim quarter, as seen from the ramparts of the Alhambra.

Once the tour started, we had to pass through multiple checkpoints depending on which area of the complex we went to visit. The Alhambra wasn’t just a fortress: it was a walled city, meaning it extends over an impressive amount of territory. And because of it’s location on top of a hill, it commands an impressive view of the surrounding city. To one direction you can see the old Muslim quarter, and a view of Sacromonte where the gypsy caves are. In another direction rise the Sierra Nevada, the tallest mountains on the Iberian peninsula. I couldn’t see them well during my visit, because although the sky shone blue, the atmosphere was thick. You would not have called the day “cloudy” at first, but yet the horizon seemed closer than it ought to be. Nonetheless, the views were stunning.

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An example of the decorative plasterwork which adorns the walls. Note the Arabic calligraphy: much of it repeats the name of Allah, or forms the words to prayers or holy verses.

Inside the royal complex, the wall decorations are almost overwhelmingly complex. Between molded plaster, tile work, and carved wood, the intricacy of pattern and detail are almost too much to take in. This is where our tour guide proved particularly helpful. She drew our attention to a number of elements I would have overlooked or else not understood on my own, including different religious symbols hidden in the math of the geometric forms. In particular, the significance of the numbers 8, and 7: 8 is the number for God, because the Arabic numeral 8 represents infinity, while 7 is the number of heavens, with the seventh heaven being closest to 8, or in other words to God. The subtlety here struck me, because of how pervasive this symbolism was throughout the entire structure, each archway, courtyard, and carved panel meant to draw the mind abstractly to God in one form or another. Through mathematics, of all things.

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The Alhambra means “The red one” in Arabic, due to the red clay with which it was made.

The whole tour, from the fortress, through the palace, and then to the gardens, took about 3 hours. The gardens were our last stop, and as relaxing and beautiful as the rest. The fountains you see in the photo below, however, are a new addition: our tour guide grumbled about how noisy they were, and seemed to feel they ruined the tranquility of the space. The original gardens had a much smaller fountain, whereas these struck up quite the cacophony. I found myself agreeing with our guide, and wishing for a more peaceful sound.

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Part of the gardens known as the Generalife, derived from the Arabic Jannat al-Arif, which means “Architect’s Garden.” The “architect” in this case probably refers to God.

We had one small break during the tour during which I tracked down a coffee vending machine. Then I wandered around looking at the cats. There were several, each glorious and beautiful it a different way, serenely meandering through the visitors, almost demanding attention as their due. They did not shy away when I went to pet them, although I wouldn’t have called them affectionate. One was kind enough to pose for me, as you can see in the photo below.

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One of several very content cats which I noticed wandering around the Alhambra. This one was kind enough to strike a regal pose and let me pet her for a bit.

It feels cheesy to say, but the Alhambra felt like stepping into a fairy tale. The entire time through, my mind kept wandering to all kinds of tales and legends. I wouldn’t say I’m a romantic person, generally speaking, but it’s hard to stand in a place of such splendid beauty and not give in to it a little. As a place, the Alhambra was meant to be a small piece of heaven on earth—somewhere which could draw one into a peaceful and meditative mindset. Not a place of revelry, pageant, hedonism, or war, but of quiet self-reflection.

In reality, it was certainly a fortress, commanded by a mixed bag of rulers. From my brief exposure to their stories, some seemed genuinely noble, living their lives to some degree according to the piety displayed in every detail of their architecture, and extending religious toleration within their city to Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. Another ruthlessly beheaded an entire family (according to legend) because one scion managed to seduce one of the sultan’s wives.

Nonetheless, while walking through the Alhambra I felt strangely at peace and at home. In terms of architectural beauty, I have certainly never seen anything which could compare, and it may not have its equal in the world. Probably for that reason, I feel at a loss to describe it, drawn irrevocably toward clichés which undermine the true beauty of the place. In the week before my trip, I found Washington Irving’s account on Audible and tried listening to his stories. But I couldn’t quite connect to them as I’d hoped to. They felt too romantic, too starry-eyed, not quite real. Having now seen the Alhambra for myself, it’s true they don’t do it justice. Now I doubt anything ever could.

 

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The Alhambra, viewed from the Generalife gardens.

 

The better Toledo.

I hadn’t planned to visit Toledo when I arrived in Spain.

That’s mostly because I didn’t know where it was. Turns out, Toledo is super close to Madrid. As in: a half-hour ride by train. This came as awesome news to me! And it left me full of questions:

  • What’s in Toledo?
  • Is it a nice city?
  • Was it important?
  • What should I do when I’m there?
  • Is it worth going?

Basically, what all this should tell you is that I am profoundly ignorant of a lot of things in this amazing and beautiful country I’ve come to visit. My closest association with Toledo has been with it’s namesake in Ohio, a city about forty minutes south of my home town in Michigan, and the chief point of conflict during the Toledo War of 1835—proof that Michigan’s feud with Ohio has roots far deeper than football.

With a population of not quite 300,000, Toledo, Ohio is a reasonably sized midwestern town, good for its minor league baseball team and the occasional roaming Broadway performance. Somehow I expected its Spanish namesake to be much larger, but in reality, Spanish Toledo‘s historical consequence is far greater than it’s size might suggest. With a population wavering at the 84,000 mark, it feels almost diminutive. But oh boy, does it pack one heck of a historical wallop.

In short, it’s played host to a succession of rulers, from the Romans, to the Visigoths, the Moors, and the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. That makes the art and culture of the place a fascinating blend of Arabic and European, which—I am coming to realize—is somewhat characteristic of Spain more broadly.

This became readily apparent almost as soon as I stepped off the train. The moment I walked into the station, I (and half the other passengers) paused to gawk at the stunning distinctive arches and stunning tile work on display.

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Inside the Toledo train station.

Only, to be honest, it wasn’t actually on display. It was just there. Casually hanging out like it was no big deal. Honestly, Toledo: way to make a first impression.

Being, as usual, unprepared, I hadn’t made any particular plan for getting in to the city. Would I have to take a bus? Could I walk? I checked Google Maps, and the answer was yes: I could walk. I headed off in the appropriate direction, and a few hundred feet down the road the city came into view.

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Why yes, that is a city I would like to go explore, thanks.

This is one of the few moments where I’ve looked at a city and thought: Oh yeah, I see why this would be of such great strategic importance. Not that I’m an ancient military commander by any means, but the whole thing is built on a big rock with a river making a natural moat around a decent chunk of it. Add in those walls you see and some fortified gates and bridges, and I’d definitely want this to be my medieval stronghold.

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The Puente de Alcántara, the Roman bridge leading into the city.

I should also add that the moment I looked at the map on my phone, I knew this would be the place for me. Just check out those streets:

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A map of the old part of the city, looking like the cross-section of a brain.

Hardly a straight line among them! You could get so lost in there! And all built on a giant freaking rock promising all the ups and downs and twists and turns? YES PLEASE.

Again, actually being in the city did not disappoint:

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A narrow street in the more tourist-friendly part of town, a spire of the cathedral rising ahead.
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Well lost at this point, my strategy basically being: Ooh! This street looks promising!

I had a few things I definitely wanted to see, but as I’d arrived late I knew I probably wouldn’t make it to all of them. I decided to head first to the Cathedral, as I understood it was not only an incredible piece of architecture but also housed a small-but-impressive museum with some more El Greco, and a Goya, and super famous and also gigantic monstrance.

I spent way longer inside than I’d intended, and because I’d rushed straight there I was feeling nearly faint from hunger. And then, by the time I’d finished eating, most of the other places I’d wanted to visit were closed. Most importantly, the Alcázar.

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The Alcázar, the fortress which made Toledo such a strategic key.

Apparently, this has been a major fortress for years, and unlike some of the other castles I’ve visited, was actually used as such. It played a significant military role as recently as the Spanish Civil War, and I hear there are places where you can still find bullet holes in the walls from that conflict. Today, it houses a museum, crypt, and documentary room.

By this point I was also too late to visit the El Greco house, so instead I wandered around the city looking at the tourist shops. Most of the time, this isn’t of particular interest to me, but it turns out that souvenirs in Toledo are actually incredible, and may even be worth more than sentiment.

Toledo is famous for its steelwork, which wouldn’t sound like glamorous souvenir material until you see what they make of it:

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Toledo is famous for its gold and steel. These decorative plates are made by hand, with the drawings inlaid in gold and the steel blackened afterward.
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More examples of Toledo’s signature souvenir.

The black and gold form a truly stunning combination, as does the mixture of European and Arabic influence in the design. And these don’t come cheap: unlike what you find elsewhere, these are the kind of souvenirs that you might want to actually use.

Most of the rest of my time I spent wandering the city, taking pictures and admiring the views. One thing I appreciated about my sojourn from Madrid was getting a chance to see a bit of the Spanish countryside. I’d seen pictures, but part of me always feels pictures are portraying the most stereotypical features, and that the reality will be quite different.

In this instance, although pictures I’d seen showed the country to be fairly sparse and rugged, I’d yet expected there to be more trees and foliage. Instead, I was surprised by how much scrubs and bushes dominated the landscape.

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The Río Tajo, which encircles a good two thirds of the city. This is about as lush as the land ever looks.
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Looking out over the rugged, sparse countryside.
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More rock, crowned by the Academia de Infantería, which I don’t think is actually meant for tourists.

In short, Toledo delighted me at every turn. And since I missed some of the key sights, I’ll have to make a return trip some other day.

I’m already looking forward to it.

10,000 steps.

I started running a pedometer shortly after I arrived in Madrid.

This was part curiosity, part health goal, part desire to measure and track various habits and behaviors. I’d read that it’s recommended to walk about 10,000 steps a day, but that many Americans only manage closer to 3,500 due to our driving habits and generally more sedentary lifestyles.

This passed my sniff test, as I know from experience how my own habits shift between the United States and when I’m abroad. I’ve written before about my love for walking, and the sheer walkability of many European cities is part of what draws me back. I hate driving everywhere, the entire experience of navigating traffic, searching for parking spots, walking to and from my car through parking lots. I often feel like the parking lots themselves increase the need for cars, because they spread everything so far apart that they make areas less walkable. Part of what thrills my imagination at the thought of autonomous vehicles is that it may mark the end of parking lots.

So I was curious to see, here in Spain, how much I would walk, and how quickly I might burst that 10,000-step barrier in a day. It turns out that it’s very easy to accomplish on any given day, but much harder to do consistently.

Essentially, we’re talking about 5 miles of walking. That sounds like much more than it actually is. Almost any time I leave my flat, I’m likely to pound out 3- or 4,000 steps, just from walking to and from the grocery store (and wandering around inside trying to find some surprisingly elusive ingredient).

And yet, if I don’t particularly do anything in a day, it’s all to easy to miss that mark. It’s essentially the difference between one good walk and two. Did I not leave my flat at all? 3000 steps. Did I leave it once to walk to a coffee shop or do some grocery shopping? 6000 steps. Did I have a good day today? 10,000 steps.

Literally: there is a super high correlation between how many steps I walked, and how good of a day I had. And it’s not just because “walking” is code for “exploring this amazing European city where I happen to be living at the moment” (although that’s obviously a factor). No, it also has quite a bit to do with fresh air, sunlight, blood flowing through my brain.

I’m not sure where I’ll go walking once I’m back home. I’ve tried parks, and they’re nice when I remember to drive to them. Up and down the road can be a bit repetitive. Obviously, whenever I’m downtown I have plenty of walking to do. But I miss exploring. I miss wandering. I miss the feeling of endless discovery that comes when I step out my door, choose a direction, and head down the street.

It’s no wonder 10,000 steps go by so quickly.

Manhattan observed.

Late January is probably not the best time to visit New York City.

Granted, I assume the few days I was there were more hospitable than otherwise: The temperature ranged from mid 30’s to low 40’s, and it only properly snowed on my last day. Nonetheless, I had not dressed for the occasion. After a week of monitoring the weather forecast, and from a desire to not bring a winter coat with me for just that weekend (I did not think I would need one in Spain), I decided to take a risk and pack only my blazer and a sweater.

It almost worked. My first day was warm enough for me to feel justified in my decision, particularly after briskly walking up and down a few Manhattan avenues. By by my second day, I quickly found myself ducking inside for coffee, just to try to warm up a bit, or else grabbing an Uber ride rather than walk a half mile to the nearest underground station. I mean to explore more of the city than I did, but in the end I really only saw Manhattan. My apologies to the rest of the boroughs: I’ll be back to explore you all later.

In the end, my trip to NYC presented a number of highs and lows, which I will present to you here, in no particular order.

1. The distance between one street and the next is not equal to that between one avenue and the next.

The grid is real, and a bit helpful, and a bit boring. Streets run the width of Manhattan, with the lower numbers being further south than the higher numbers. This means it’s really easy to figure out whether you’re trying to go uptown or downtown, simply based on the street number. Avenues run the length of the island, with the numbers running east to west. (Basically, this is all the same as our highway system.) However, the grid is not evenly spaced: it’s about four street blocks to equal the distance between one avenue and the next. It’s basically nothing to walk from 42nd Street to 47th. It’s a hell of a lot more to walk from 5th Avenue to 9th.

2. Google Maps delivers excellent restaurant recommendations.

I came to rely on Google Maps more than I’d ever done before to guide me toward good places to eat. It almost never did me wrong. Top of my list are Penelope’s, where I got a fabulous breakfast my first morning in the City, Cafe D’Alcase, where I went for Sunday morning brunch (and brunch cocktails), and Black Iron Burger, where I got both the best and most affordable lunch of my stay. I also appreciated Kashkaval Garden for serving great wine and tapas and being chill about me sitting at their bar and reading a book for a couple hours.

3. The Upper East Side is over-priced for what it delivers.

Cafe D’Alcase excluded (because I loved them), I found most of the Upper East Side to be subpar. Maybe the presence of the museums and its more residential character mean it doesn’t have to compete as much as the rest of the city, because people haven’t come to the area for food? Or maybe this is a totally wrong conclusion that I have drawn from an admittedly limited experience. Nonetheless, I found it harder to find a place I really enjoyed in that part of town compared to other parts of town that had more of a restaurant scene. But again: I could very well just not know what I’m talking about.

4. Death & Co. is the greatest, and I would have gone there every night if I could.

I am a huge fan of The Last Word back in Ann Arbor, so all the people I know who are in the know when it comes to cocktails told me I needed to visit Death & Co. while I was in New York. So obviously I went my first night, straight from Broadway. I arrived (about 11:30) at exactly the same time as a party of six, who asked for seats and told it would be about a two-hour wait. As they left, debating what to do next, I stepped up and asked if there was seating for 1. The bouncer peaked inside, asked if I would be OK at the bar, and seated my right away. The couple after me were also told it would be at least a two-hour wait. The lesson? I’m not sure if they take reservations, but if you want to get it and you’re a party of more than one, you will want to plan ahead.

As for the cocktails themselves, Death & Co. literally wrote the book on contemporary craft cocktails, so they were as mind-blowing as you’d expect. I seriously could not stop grinning when the bartender set my first one in front of me. Beyond how fabulous the drinks are, I was also impressed by the staff. Being on my own, I decided to try writing a bit in my journal as I enjoyed my drink. In a busy place with high demand, I usually feel conscientious about doing this, and try to make sure I’m ordering enough to justify my presence at the bar. The staff were actually super respectful of this, and the one time the bar tender asked me if I wanted another drink, he not only seemed to time the question at exactly the moment when I wanted another drink, but he also apologized for disturbing me, which made me feel like I could have gone on writing as long as I liked, as far as he was concerned, he was just trying to make sure I was properly served.

All that said, about the time of my second drink an Irish fellow by the name of Al took the stool next to me, and struck up a conversation that lasted a good hour and a half, at least. I felt glad of the time I had to write, but equally glad to have a nice chat with another human being after a long day. By the time I left (about 2AM), I decided it was too cold and too late to walk the half mile back to my flat, and called an Uber instead. The bouncer at the door noticed I was cold and told me to wait inside till my car arrived. Again: I kind of love the staff.

Where they expensive? Oh hell yeah. Was it worth it? Absolutely.

5. Ubers everywhere.

Everyone Ubers. I suspect because it’s not too expensive (usually) per trip, and often more convenient than the subway. Honestly, I was not impressed by the subway. Possibly the cold made me resent walking more than otherwise, but it seemed like the stops were farther apart than I’m used to, it was far dirtier than other metros I’ve taken, and harder to navigate. That said, I felt obligated after buying a metro card to try to use it as much as I could—and I did use up my card before I left. But at almost every turn, the option of using Uber (which came up every time I looked for directions in Google Maps, along with the time it would take compared to other methods of transport) was hard to resist. Harder still with the option of UberPool, which lets you share your ride with others going the same way and can lower the cost of a trip substantially (down, in some cases, to a mere $4–6).

In the future, if I were in the city during warmer weather, I think I’d rather balance out the cost of using the subway by walking as much as I could, and using Uber for the rest.

6. Mood Fabrics.

OK, so I sew a lot. Not as much as I used to, but a fair amount. A few years ago, I grew tired of the low-quality fabric selection at my local Jo-Ann’s, and took to Google to see if I could find a better alternative.

Thus, I became possibly the only person in America to discover Mood Fabrics independently from Project Runway. I’ve been ordering fabric from them online ever since, but I knew they would be one of my primary destinations once I hit the Big City. I had a moment of panic my first day when I reached the street address and found only their selection of home fabrics shop, which faces the street and takes up a shop front. I’m not sure why it doesn’t connect to the fashion fabrics branch of their store, or why they don’t have more obvious signage, but in order to find what I had come for I had to go into an arcade area and take the elevator to the 3rd floor.

Mood’s fashion fabrics section takes up three whole floors, and is so extensive as to be overwhelming. I left my fist day wondering if I could make up my mind enough to buy anything, because with that much selection, how do you even choose. But I took some time to think it over, and came back two days later on a mission: I wanted to try sewing with leather for the first time, I’d found a cute cotton print which I thought would make a nice dress or loose shirt, and I wanted to explore their brocades for material to sew a fancy jacket. I made some choices which I’m really excited about, and Mood was even able to ship them home for me so that I wouldn’t have to do so myself (or take them with me all the way to Europe). Safe to say they exceeded all expectations, and I’m very much looking forward to some exciting projects once I go home. And in the future, I may just plan out an entire year’s worth of sewing and make an annual pilgrimage to buy my fabric in person at the store.

7. Broadway.

So I saw Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. My only previous experience with Broadway shows were Joseph and the Amazing Technicolored Dreamcoat, which I saw in Detroit as a child and barely remember, and Wicked, which my brother and sister-in-law took me to see in Toledo and which totally blew me away. I expected to really enjoy Phantom, and I did. But the elaborate set design surprised me more than anything. Perhaps I should have remembered this from Wicked, but I think my jaw dropped when the chandelier began to rise in the opening scene, and I probably jumped once or twice when some of the pyrotechnics went off. Also, props to the Phantom for singing that one number while suspended in midair from a detachable part of the stage edifice. This is not a thing I would ever want to do.

Also neat was that at the end of the show, the actor who played the Phantom came out on stage to deliver a little speech, in which he talked about how the whole cast and crew are family, and that he wanted to say goodbye to a couple folk who were leaving, one of whom would be coming back after a few weeks, and other who had been part of the original crew. Since Phantom is the longest-running show on Broadway, that’s a pretty impressive feat. It seemed to me that some of the people in the audience had come specifically to cheer for these two people, and that made the whole show feel more cozy and homey. I can’t wait to come back for more.

8. The Opera.

I went to see Rigoletto my last night at the Metropolitan Opera, which was a whole lot grander than Broadway, but also a lot cheaper. As before, I found myself super impressed by the set design, which in this instance was made to look like Las Vegas in 1960. I think it has something to do with watching so many movies: I somehow expect certain things need studios and special effects to make them work. But when you see a performance live, and you witness everything they’re able to do with on a physical stage, it adds a whole new level of awe to the experience. It made me feel like a child to watch it all unfold.

Being honest, I’m not sure I like opera much. I keep trying, and I will probably continue to try, but it’s often a struggle for me to stay focused. However, this performance was in another league. I’ve heard people sing opera and thought they had nice voices and did a good job, but it was nothing like the control and the emotion I saw here. It took my breath away.

That said, the story of Rigoletto raised some eyebrows for me. Like, if you want a morality tale about the dangers of sheltering your children from the world so that they aren’t able to make well informed decisions about the characters of the people around them, this one’s for you. Other themes include: men raping (?) women and then singing about how fickle they are, and also blaming a curse for what is, in fact, the consequence of your own lust for revenge. Don’t get me wrong: the opera does not condone anyone’s actions, meaning you can watch this and come away feeling like it accurately portrayed a lot of very poor and twisted decision making. I understand it is based on a play by Victor Hugo, which portrayed Francis I of France as an “immoral and cynical womanizer.” So… I guess that explains some things.

I also had the good luck to sit next to some Russians visiting from Chicago, who are apparently huge fans of the Opera, and often watch Met performances on television. I enjoyed chatting with them a little in Russian, and they were kind enough to share their binoculars with me. At the end they commented that one of the singers was nice, but obviously not some other famous opera singer whom they’d obviously seen perform before. I felt slightly in awe to be in the presence of such connoisseurs.

All the museums.

I wish I’d had more time in almost every museum I visited. I saw the Guggenheim (which had some of my favorite painters: Kandinsky and Gaugin), although they were installing a new exhibit in the spiral part so I couldn’t explore that area. The Natural History Museum was excellent, but I thing I accidentally walked through half the exhibits in the wrong order. On the one hand: I like getting lost in museums. But when they displays are meant to have a certain structure, which can also be nice, I prefer to follow the path the curators intended. Not sure if I fudged this all on my own, or if they simply failed to provide adequate signage.

Finally, the Metropolitan Museum. I didn’t have nearly enough time. I think I might need to go to New York sometime for a few months, just to feel like I can truly appreciate everything there. Of everything I saw, I most enjoyed the full rooms they had on display, most especially the Frank Lloyd Wright room. Not gonna lie: it was empty, so I sang a few bars of Simon and Garfunkel under my breath while admiring the display. I also loved the Tiffany glass on display.

Also of note: the giant wing dedicated to an Egyptian temple. At first I thought they’d built a scale model, but turns out it was the real deal: Egypt was building a damn on the Nile, and realized they would be flooding a number of ancient artifacts in the process. Since the Egyptian government couldn’t save them on their own, they put out a call for aid to the rest of the world. The United States gave a huge donation, and the Egyptian government sent an entire temple in return.

Oh, and another part of the Egyptian display I thought was fabulous: I wandered into this room full of these little models of Egyptian life. Again, I first thought they were reconstructions built by the museum to show off what different kinds of Egyptian boats looked like or something. Nope. Turns out they were actual 4000-year-old models discovered almost entirely intact in an alcove of someone’s tomb. Seriously, my favorite part of Egyptian displays is how mind-bogglingly old everything is, and yet how artistically detailed. I think there’s a part of me that just assumes that more ancient worlds weren’t as detailed or skilled as modern ones, and every time I see these things the arrogance of that attitude is thrown on its head.

In summary:

High points included breakfast at Penelopes, brunch at Cafe D’Alcase, Mood Fabrics, the Metropolitan Museum, Broadway, and Death & Co. Can’t wait to come back for more.

Why you should travel alone.

At this point, it’s fair to say I’ve done a lot of solo traveling.

I had a taste of it while exploring Berlin during my off-hours as an au pair. The first time I booked an overnight stay on a solo trip was during year one at Edinburgh: I went to the Lake District and spent a night on my own in Windermere. I did Helsinki mostly on my own, although I had the great pleasure of fulfilling a promise to a Finnish friend to come see her in her own country. I’ve been on my own in Reykjavik, Prague, and Zürich. And while Vienna wasn’t 100% on my own the entire time, I was mostly solitary for a good month of the experience. And now I’m alone in New York City, with the very likely probability that I’ll also take several trips on my own while in Spain.

I’ve had some people ask me what it’s like to travel alone, and wouldn’t I rather have other people, and the short answer is: yes of course, I would rather have friends. But if the choice is between “alone” or “not at all,” which in my case it usually is, I’ve found it’s better to go.

Solo traveling comes with plenty of positives and negatives. Here’s my run down of the highs and lows, for anyone considering a trip by themselves.

1. Your day is your own.

One of my biggest struggles when traveling with other people is adjusting my rhythm to theirs. I may want to get up and grab an early start one day, and want to relax and laze about the next. I’m also not the type of person to create a detailed itinerary of a trip before hand. I’ve found that my best coping mechanism is to read my traveling companions and adjust accordingly: if someone in the group is ready to take charge, I let them. If everyone is indecisive, I start making decisions.

The trouble is that often in the compromises of group-travel politics, some of my priorities get lost. That’s just how it goes. But when I’m on my own, I get to do exactly everything I want to do, in the order I want to do it, and at the pace I want to do it. If I decide I want to linger for a full quarter-hour in front of a particular painting, I’m in no danger of being left behind by my more impatient companions. If I find an attraction unexpectedly not to my taste, I can move along. I can change plans without consulting anyone. And I make better use of my time, because I’m not having to follow anyone along to something that doesn’t especially interest me.

2. The experience is part of your sacred memory.

I’ve had several times while traveling where I wished I had someone to share the moment with. Most distinctly, I regret being on my own at the Blue Lagoon spa outside Reykjavik. There’s simply not a lot to do in a spa on your own save lounge around in the warm water, and while I enjoyed the experience, I also found myself wanting someone to talk to. The clouds of dense, sulfuric steam combined with the chill air temperatures of an Icelandic December put me in a philosophic mood. I would have liked to share the thoughts that sprang to mind at that time, or at least to have been able to write them down, but obviously I couldn’t because: water.

I had a similar feeling for just a moment last night as Phantom of the Opera began. Just as the opening scene started, I felt this dual excitement and disappointment: excitement at seeing a show I was very much looking forward to, and disappointment that no one was there to be excited with me. It wore off quickly enough, but I still felt that way for a bit.

That said, one of the things I’ve learned from these experiences is that when you have them on your own, the memory of them forms like a special secret you hold with yourself. Some of my most serene moments have occurred during solo trips, especially in the Lake District and Prague. You learn to know yourself better when you are your own company.

3. Invisibility is hard.

I remember one of the most disorienting and lonely moments of my life happened just as I arrived in Edinburgh for my first year of Uni. As I got off the plane I realized that no one within several thousand miles could distinguish me from Eve. In theory, a complete stranger could take my place, and no one would know the wiser. No one expected me, save staff at the University, and to them I was just one more Fresher among hundreds.

I think this sensation triggers some sort of survival instinct. We all want to be known—or at least recognized. The anonymity which comes from traveling through strange territory feels dangerous, even when you firmly believe that no real danger is any more likely to come your way than if you were at home. Nonetheless, you sense you are out of your tribe.

Yet, I’ve found this kind of terror quickly retreats once I start talking to another human being. Even if that person is a waiter or bartender, knowing they’re there to look out for me feels reassuring. After all, if I suddenly disappeared I know they’d come running after me—if only to make sure I paid my tab.

4. Bars can make good company.

I’ve never been the kind of person who hangs out in bars hoping to meet people. It always felt sleazy and shallow to me in a way that was well outside my comfort zone (and not in a way I wanted to change). As it turns out, however, you can totally hang out at a bar without people creeping on you. Heck, you can even bring a book and read a bit, and as long as you’re ordering drinks the bar staff will totally respect you.

This took me a while to get used to, but now that I am used to it, the right kind of bar can can feel like a pleasantly bustling living room. When I say “the right kind of bar,” I mean: not at a club, and not anywhere that’s overly fancy or crowded. I stay aware of the space around me, and if I feel like it’s starting to fill up, I’ll either order something more to retain the claim to my seat or else move on. But as long as it’s rather slow, I’ve gotten over any compunctions about nursing a drink while I read.

I find this usually goes over best when I’m actually at the bar, rather than seated at a table. When I’m at the bar, I’m only claiming one seat. At a table, I’m claiming not only my seat, but that of anyone else who might otherwise be using the other seats at my table. But then, I’ve also come to enjoy sitting at the bar. I feel like the bar tenders keep an eye out for me, because I’m always in sight. Also, when you’re at a table, the waiters sometimes give me my check preemptively, which I assume is because they’re busy and they don’t want me to have to wait for their attention if I’m anxious to head out the door. But it can also serve as a subtle signal that it’s time to go. Bartenders ask me if I’m alright or if I want anything more, which tends to make me feel more welcome.

5. Sometimes, strangers turn out to be really interesting people.

I’m sometimes a bit terse with strangers who try to strike up a conversation when I’m at the aforementioned bar. Maybe I don’t want to talk, or maybe I don’t know what to say, or maybe they have an off-putting vibe. No matter the reason, I find I usually keep my head down and avoid eye contact—which is not hard to do if your nose is in a book.

That said, when I have allowed a conversation to move forward, it’s usually gone well. So, for instance, I ended up talking to an Irish fellow by the name of Al last night for about two hours, even though I didn’t particularly want to talk to him when he first sat down. It was a great conversation and made the entire evening better. I could easily have killed that conversation early, but I made the decision to keep it going and I’m glad I did. Unless you actually don’t want to talk to a person (which can be for basically any reasons you’d like to name), getting over your nerves can pay off.

6. Solo traveling is hardest for ambiverts.

I’m speculating here, but I sense that most introverts don’t get particularly bothered by the idea of several consecutive days of alone time. And I also have the impression that extroverts are much more comfortable striking up conversations with random people and therefore don’t mind being on their own because all people are potential ad hoc traveling companions. But if you’re somewhere balanced in between—what some folk term “ambiverts”—than you may find yourself in the position of being neither 100% comfortable with all that alone time, but also not 100% comfortable with initiating contact with the people around you.

That said, you will definitely find a way to muddle it out. Mostly because the prize for all your hard efforts is pretty obvious: you’re traveling, LOOK AT AL THE COOL THINGS YOU HAVE TO SEE/TASTE/EXPERIENCE!!!!!!!

Most of this post has been about being alone, because that is the distinguishing feature of a solo traveler. Spending time alone with yourself can be a great thing, but even if it seems intimidating or dull, most of your time you’ll be so preoccupied by all the things you came to do and see that you won’t be bothered by it.

So, if you’re thinking of going on an adventure by yourself, my advice is: do it.

Going is always better than not going.

How to pack for two months in a carry-on.

Stuff sucks.

Every now and then, I see people post these “packing hack” videos showing how to fit as much clothing as possible into a carry-on bag. Often these are labeled dumb things like “how to pack two week’s worth of clothes into a carry-on.” And then you see the person packing five hoodies. Seriously. Has this person never packed before? BECAUSE NO ONE NEEEDS TO BRING THAT MANY HOODIES.

In packing for Madrid, my goal was to bring as little with me as possible. Seriously: I have packed for enough trans-Atlantic voyages that I have well learned how annoying it is to pack and transport baggage. It is the worst. I hates it.

Possessions limit you in a way you don’t understand until you have to worry about them. Once you decide to bring them with you, you have to protect them: shepherd them through security, search for them anxiously from the plane window as you see the luggage trolly heading for your flight, guard the luggage carrousel lest someone try to steal your suitcase, sit with one leg through your duffle bag handle in the café while you wait for a bus to come pick you up… It’s exhausting. And the more you do this, the more you resent all the things you’re expending so much energy to protect.

Not to mention the exhaustion of hauling said luggage through a public transport system or down a street. Before long, you find yourself wondering what on earth could be causing your bag to weigh so much, and why you thought such-and-such a thing was so damn essential. And then, if you have multiple destinations, there’s all the packing and repacking you have to do as you move from one place to the next.

When I travelled to Vienna this past summer, I packed for two months in a carry-on—and I still packed too much. So for Madrid, I plan to bring even less. Here’s how I cut my luggage down to the bare necessities:

1. Pack a capsule wardrobe.

I saw a graphic on Pinterest once that changed how I pack and purchase clothing. The graphic showed how many people purchase and pack multiple pairs of identical jeans, and how this limits your outfit variations. Imagine 3 tops and 3 identical jeans. No matter how you arranged it, you only ever have 3 outfits, because the only variable is the top you wear with all your identical jeans. However, if you have 3 different bottoms (for instance, 1 pair of jeans, 1 pair of differently-colored trousers, and a skirt), suddenly you have 9 outfit variations.

This may sound trivial, but it’s easy to get bored of your clothing. The main reason why most of us over-pack is that we want to include wardrobe variations. Instead of packing 3 pairs of blue jeans and 12 tops to vary it up, pack 3 tops and 3 bottoms. Include one or two dresses and a nice blazer. Done.

That said, I know some people who enjoy wearing the exact same thing every day. If your closet contains identical copies of the same articles of clothing, only pack enough to get you through a week.

2. Don’t pack anything you haven’t used in the last week.

Honestly: if you don’t use it on at least a weekly basis, it’s probably not worth bringing along, because it’s not something you need on a survival-level basis. Obviously you’ll make exceptions for items that you have a specific intention to use. As in: the book you plan to read once you finish your current novel, or the fancy dress you want to pack because you plan to go to a special event while you’re abroad.

The point here is: stop packing for contingencies. Once you expand your luggage needs beyond “things I know I definitely will have to use ” to include “things which I have no intention of using but which may come in handy,” you go beyond the essential and into a subjective zone of varying probabilities. “Things you know you will use” fall within a very specific boundary. “Things I might use” include basically everything.

3. Plan everything in advance.

What do you expect to do on a day-to-day basis while you travel? What special events should you plan for? Given the clothes you’re packing, what jewelry/make-up/nail polish go with your wardrobe?

It’s easy to look at a vial of nail polish and think “Oh, I like this color! I should bring it along!” But then you don’t realize how it doesn’t go with any of your clothes, and if you pack the nail polish you’ll feel obliged to pack nail polish remover, and then you’ve basically fallen into a “if you give a mouse a cookie” situation from which there is no escape.

Don’t give the mouse a cookie. Don’t pack the nail polish.

4. Don’t pack what you may as well purchase.

If you’re gone long enough to go through an entire bottle of shampoo, don’t pack your shampoo, just buy it when you get there. If you’re anxious about a certain item because you think you “might need it,” ask yourself: how much would it cost to purchase in the event you did actually need it? Would that be worth it?

Things you should pack (beyond the obvious):

  • Things you use on a daily basis that can’t be purchased (medication/ some toiletries)
  • Power and outlet adapters + an external battery for your cell phone
  • Reading material
  • Computer/tablet
  • Notebook and pen

Things I have packed in the past which I could easily have done without:

  • Framed photographs
  • A teapot
  • Decorations for my room
  • Items of sentimental value that I wanted for comfort (quilts, stuffed animals, desktop knick-knacks, books I had no intention of reading but wanted “around” just in case)
  • DVDs (because streaming wasn’t a reliable thing yet, I guess?)
  • Various art supplies (eg. watercolors and watercolor paper) that I never used
  • An entire ream of printer paper

I’m not perfect by any means. In spite of being super scrupulous in only packing items I had a serious intention of using during my stay, I still probably allowed my ambitions to override my common sense. The two biggest culprits on this trip? An DSLR camera which I don’t know how to use (but have every intention of finding out, and which to be fair I bought for the express purpose of taking cool pictures while in Madrid), and a 1000-page history book on top of all the other reading material I actually probably will finish.

If I make valuable use out of all these items, I will consider my packing a success. If I don’t, it’s lessons learned for next time on what not to bring.

Long story short: don’t be afraid of under-packing. It’s the overpacking that will kill you.