Amsterdam, Netherlands

When I first arrived, walking along the canals from the central station, I stumbled into the excitement of a Saturday afternoon. The city was bustling with tourists and very alive! People tend to be very excited to be in Amsterdam because of its reputation as a place to party (just a hunch). However, that's not why I felt giddy with joy. In brisk February air, with snow still on the ground, I smiled a big toothy grin: I made it to the first destination of my bicycle pilgrimage. A holy site for all things bicycle related:

A M S T E R D A M !

The capital of the Netherlands is an ancient city on the sea which has since been retrofitted with a modern transportation network attracting bicycle enthusiasts the world over to pay homage, and appreciate an urban culture that puts the bike as king above all other modes. I like to joke and say that the bicycle is my spirit animal, and yes I am knowingly and intentionally being dramatic. But with good reason! For me, bikes represent a simpler, cleaner, healthier way of life. Amsterdam boasts having more bicycles than cars: 800,000 to 260,000! This is a kind of transportation future I believe in and want to see it happen in more places around the world. It’s entirely possible, all it takes the will power to make the change.

There is something very attractive about the canals spreading across the city like a web, under bridges and linking everything to the water. Rightfully named the Venice of the North because it has more kilometers of canals than Venice, with over 100 km of canals and 1,500 bridges. It's an entire water network that was once used by sea faring merchants to load and unload goods right to your door or warehouse. During my stay, I found myself constantly wandering, admiring the beauty of the stone buildings and drawbridges, with boats passing by. It’s a hypnotizing beauty that doesn’t seem real at times. On the opposite side of it’s partying reputation (where visitors come to try things that might not be legal in their home country) I enjoyed the museums immensely. I went to the Van Gogh Museum, Rijksmuseum and saw a Banksy/Dali exhibition.

On strolls through Vogel Park, I admired the daffodils and crocuses peaking up through the snow, the first blooms of the year and afterwards devouring pickled herring sandwiches for lunch from the street market with Stroopwafel for dessert. What a marvelous place.

This period in my travels, was a period of profound reflection and personal growth. Most of it had to do with the fact that I was on my own for the first time since Lisbon, Portugal. Perhaps I am not unique in wanting an escape, a break from all the distractions of everyday life: social media, work, friends etc. About a year ago, I realized I didn’t make time for myself (just me). What I did was avoid being alone with myself and my thoughts. Rarely, if ever, did I just sit in a room in silence, allowing any thoughts or emotions that bubbled up to flow freely. That was too terrifying. So, I became determined to figure out why the thought of being alone was so discomforting. I wanted to understand this feeling I ran away from exactly because it was scary and unknown. Here is an important distinction. I always occupied nearly every moment of my time just to avoid being alone with my thoughts, not because I got lonely or missed people or don’t like being on my own, but because sitting with my thoughts felt like sitting in a hot tub while wearing a parka.

I set out to fix this in November of 2015. The goal was to feel comfortable on my own so that I could walk into nature and sit on a rock in peace and enjoy the moment without any gnawing anxiety. After much reflection, therapy, spiritual books, mediation, and hot yoga over a year, I determined that there was clear no cause or origin to this feeling. Perhaps it’s a feeling that just happens in some people. I’m not so sure because as a society, we don’t talk about it very much. The best theory I came up with for how to tackle this, is that I needed a break so that I could spend time with the person that I rarely sat down with to share a cup of coffee, just to enjoy their good company. Me! This break would coincide with a grand adventure to see all the places I’ve never seen before and always dreamed of visiting. I embarked on this trip seeking 'aloneness' and it wasn’t until Amsterdam that it hit me. On the train from Breda it sank in. So there I was on Monday morning in Koffiehuis De Hoek on the west side of town, eating breakfast, getting to know me a little bit better, one day at a time.

Famous pancakes that inspire Beastie Boys lyrics, 19 year old cafe cats and a robust bicycle network all contributed to me getting to know myself and finding comfort in solitude. For that, I am grateful to Amsterdam and they wonderful people I met there.  

Breda, Netherlands

Day 1 - Breda

I was invited by a distant relative to stay with her and her family in Breda, a moderately sized town in Southern Holland that you've probably never heard of (I hadn't either). I felt as though I couldn't pass up this very kind offer as get out of the major cities for a bit. I gleefully imagined being in a single family home with a yard. So different from the pullout couches in multi-story apartments and much more pleasant than the packed/smelly hostel rooms that I had not yet become accustomed to. My cousin Andrea had kindly offered to take a few days off work so we could go exploring together, an added incentive to visit! 

So it was decided I would go and on Tuesday evening I took a train from Brussels, arrived at the Breda Central Train Station, nervous to meet the relatives I had never met before. I met Andrea and immediately felt at ease. It must be the shared Finnish blood between us! I met her partner, Joris, and we all stopped at the grocery store before heading home. I marveled at the price scanners used to tally the cost of your cart as you shop. Such genius! You simply hand the cashier the device with your pre-scanned items, pay and away you go. Random checks of your cart keep you accountable. The Dutch have modernized food shopping, take note world! 

Day 2 - Rotterdam

First thing Wednesday morning, Joris drove Andrea and I to a Waterbus pick-up dock in Dordrecht. Our goal was to head down the Nieuwe Maas River to Rotterdam for the day. The water bus ride itself was very enjoyable, the best way to appreciate the massive infrastructure of water works the Dutch have constructed: dams, canals and ships all making a intricate liquid highway system. Sometimes they let sheep roam on the manufactured islands in the channels to keep the vegetation under control. I learned that Finnish people have a word for beer on the go, kassiolut. A freezing rain began to fall in Rotterdam as we crossed over the iconic Erasmusbrug, a suspension bridge built like a sundial. We visited the Netherlands Photomuseum to see an exhibit, "Europe, What Else?" featuring photos, past and present , from all over Europe. Very nice way to see the blend of old and new.

There is a really cool area in downtown Rotterdam we accidentally stumbled upon called Witte de Withstraat. This is hipster central! A complete hipster wonderland with pop-up boutiques selling industrial style lighting next to unusually decorated cafes with stuffed gorillas set as the entrance to youth hostels. Metaphysical thought was stimulated by the single word metal decorations hung from the brick buildings so they hovered over the center of the street. Yes, we eventually found our cafe and sipped on drinks prepared by a barista with a handle bar mustache, a long orange beard and arm sleeve tattoos. What more could you want in a barista?

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When visiting Rotterdam, one must pay homage to the Markthal for yummy local and international food vendors in a very large space across from the Kijk Kubus (yellow cube houses, not practical for use of space but very cool looking). There, we guiltily enjoyed a late afternoon lunch of stroopwaffel and poffertjes with chocolate sauce. Also, when you have the chance for a Heineken in the Netherlands, take it. Heineken is Dutch, in case you didn't know.


Day 3 - Breda Centrum & Kinderdijk

Breda is not a very big place, but just the right size. Its downtown has a vibrant shopping district and beautiful, ancient churches. There's also plentiful street art adorning the tiny passageways off the main streets. Everything is so walkable and cars can't drive in the center of town (what a revolutionary concept!). Andrea and Joris showed me one of their favorite spots, next to the Grote Kerk Breda, called De Bruine Pij (the Brown Pie). After some drinks in the warm cafe, we strolled back to the car and I was introduced to some rare Dutch delicacies. Since Holland had colonized areas in Indonesia, (among other areas) elements south-east Asian cuisine fused with the Dutch frying pan. My stomach thanked me greatly for eating a cheese souffle and a Bamischijf, which is spicy noodles breaded and fried. You can unlock these greasy snacks from walls of glass compartments, putting money into a corresponding slot next to the junk food calling your name. There's something very satisfying about it. You haven't truly lived until you visit a FEBO, and you won't live long if you go there often.

With cheesy fried noodle goodness in our bellies, we took a drive to the iconic UNESCO World Heritage Site of Kinderdijk. Windmills! Walking along the water next to these windmills, some of which are as old as the United States, was a great outing. The stone structures are still home to some people even if they no longer serve their original purpose of pumping the water out of the lower lying areas in Holland to create more area for living and farming. There are modern water pumps for that now. Sounds pretty cool, but it's actually quite muddy! Also, when we were there it was freezing cold. The air and wind were so cold, in order to take pictures I had to unlock my phone's camera by swiping with the tip of my nose to avoid taking my hands out of my gloves. No, I don't have smart gloves that allow me to use my phone. I suggest you invest in those for a winter trip to avoid an unfortunate case of frostbite and smelling your phone unnecessarily.

Day 4 - Camp Vught & N.A.C. Football Match

Yes, Southern Holland is very scenic and quaint, filled with wooden shoes and tulips, but there are some darker moments in the region's past. I'm always one to seek out the variety of a place, the good and the bad. During World War II, the Nazis had set up concentration camps in the Netherlands. Having already been to a few holocaust museums, including the one in Berlin (a must see), I wanted to visit a concentration camp. Joris offered to take me to Camp Vught, a former S.S. operated concentration camp about forty minutes east of Breda by car.

As we arrived, a light, quiet snow fell in the parking lot. My mind could not help think of the tiny snow particles as a terrifying allusion to crematorium ashes as if it were a memory of the place reliving itself. 

A mental institution, sort of prison, currently operates next to the Camp Vught museum. It was slightly ironic, in an uncomfortable way, that vans with armed guards shuttle prisoners to "Justice Institution Vught" through the very same parking lot where visitors make their way to the museum, memorializing a Nazi prison from decades before. Perhaps ironic is not deep enough of a word.

Seeing the camp itself was much different than any holocaust museum or memorial I've seen before. The place itself, the concrete, bricks and dirt hold a darkness. Everything felt stained. It is difficult to imagine what the remaining original structures, even the very ground had seen. I wonder if the trees old enough to have watched what happened here? The fact that there are still living survivors from the camp is proof that it wasn't all that long ago. Sometimes I think we like to push it further into our past than it really is. The barracks remind me of the slave cabins I once stood in at the Destrehan Plantation in Louisiana. Cramped and depressingly simple. Instead of a plantation swamp, sticky and humid, there is a frozen winter fog. My skin burns in the cold if exposed for too long so the snow to make prolonged contact. The camp's watch towers have been recreated, ghosts manifested beyond the icy water filled ditch. Two barbed wire fences stand between me, the ditch and the forest.

This is place is a reminder. A reminder of the capacity humans have for evil. Let us not forget this reminder of what we have done, what we are still capable of doing to each other, to our fellow human beings, when fear and hate take root inside us. We may be capable of doing great evil, but I also know we are capable of profound acts of love and kindness. I'll hold on to that. 

Note: I believe it is important to acknowledge our collective mistakes as humanity, because if we forgot evil acts committed in our past, what is there to prevent similar evils from happening again? The capacity for good and evil is inside each of us. It is our choices and actions that determine whether we ourselves are good or bad. Currently, in the western parts of the world, there is a rising tide of conservative ideologies, increased nationalism with isolationism and a growing fear of the other. It isn't hard to see this global trend and it is important to guard against the possibility that fear and hatred will hijack the logical, more loving parts of ourselves. The alternative is too costly.

So, that might not been uplifting, but I feel it's important to share. For those of you deciding to not read on, don't leave now! There are more highs and lows to come in my time away from The Shire.

The next event in my grand adventure was to attend my first European football match (that's soccer for the North American readers). My host family and I biked across town in a snow storm! That was a magical bicycle trip I won't ever forget. I laughed the entire way! In Breda, they have a rambunctious football club called N.A.C. Also known as the Yellow Army or De Ratten (The Rats). Oh and NAC holds the record for the longest name for a football club in the world. Where the full name expands to Nooit opgeven altijd doorgaan, Aangenaam door vermaak en nuttig door ontspanning, Combinatie Breda. Meaning this: Never give up, always persevere, Pleasant for its entertainment and useful for its relaxation, and the C is for Combination. Pretty cool right?!

The match was a high scoring game where they ended up losing with two goals to their opponents' three (but that was with NAC scoring three goals that were discounted due to offside penalties!) The yellow army fans were out in force. Thousands wore yellow and black scarves and jerseys and chanted rallying cries. The whole stadium erupted in songs every few minutes and there were some moments when one side would call and respond to the other. Flags flew, insults were shouted, and beers were thrown (I'm glad I had a hood on my jacket). An experience I won't ever forget.

Leaving Breda was really hard to do. I felt so at home with Andrea and her family. The kids like Lego Star Wars as much as I did (still do) and dinner at the table each night felt so nurturing for someone constantly on the move. There were so many laughs, good food and the experiences in Breda were something very special. Thank you for everything!!!

As the train pulled away from Breda towards Amsterdam on Saturday afternoon, a very distinct shift was felt. I was no longer going to be staying with friends or family for a few weeks. I was off on my own into a solitude in the Venice of the North. A solitude I welcomed like an old friend I've been waiting to meet after many years. More on that next post.

Brugge & Ghent - Belgium

Brugge, Belgium

I love trains! I confidently know that trains are my favorite form of travel. (Refer to the earlier blog post where I confessed my fear and dislike of flying). I woke up around 8:30 in the morning in Brussels and headed to the train station, Brussels Midi, to catch my first train of the day. I wanted to see Brugge, a popular tourist destination for its canals lined with adorable fairy-tale-esque brick buildings and quaint restaurants serving fish soup. I arrived around noon, excited to see what all the hype was about. In the end, I found Brugge was enjoyable mostly for its aesthetic as it feels like tourism has overtaken the Venice of Belgium. I only spent about an hour and a half in total walking through the entire town, which is not very big, seeing most if not all of the landmarks.

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Prices for meals were dramatically over inflated to take advantage of the constant stream of tourists. Lunch plates of stew for 30 Euros?! Luckily, I found a waffle stand that offered a fluffy snack with sugar in the batter and powdered sugar on top for a cheap price. I figured I could snack more later. Many faux-museums lined the streets, like a torture museum. These sort of things seem like tourist traps to me, not offering anything worth the cost, but hey, if you like seeing how medieval criminals were disemboweled, then go for it! Just not for me. So I continued to stroll through the ancient streets, appreciating the architecture while locals on bicycles angrily rang their bells to get photo happy tourists acting like road blocks to move out of the way. I'm very glad I decided against spending a few nights here. Great spot for a beautiful walk while the weather was gorgeous, maybe not the best place to stay in a hostel. A sunny February day in Belgium is a rare thing I thoroughly enjoyed. On to the next stop!

Ghent, Belgium

JanVan Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece

JanVan Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece

I made it back to the train station in Brugge around 1:30 and made it to my next destination only thirty minutes later with plenty daylight left to see all that I came for. The energy of Ghent was noticeably and immediately different. It felt like a trendy college town, with young people heading in every direction and plenty of locals not outnumbered by visitors. I soaked it all in and boarded a tram, I was on a mission to see the famous Ghent Altarpiece (a.k.a Adoration of the Mystic Lamb) painted by Jan Van Eyck and housed in the Sint-Baafskathedraal. Because Art History was my favorite subject high school (thanks Mr. Nascimento!) I have made a few journeys during my travels in Europe seeking out some notable works of art. I was not disappointed with seeing the Ghent Altarpiece!

The feeling I had in Ghent was light, the atmosphere was electric and exciting. There were also canals! (Take that Brugge!) This place was dynamic, it had medieval castles near modern and older shopping centers. There are strange coffee shops like Mokabon and passageways devoted to graffiti. The contrast between old and new is something I thrive off of and Ghent made me so happy, with the balance between the two.

graffiti street

graffiti street

The Korenmarkt was a bustling square with bikes darting in front of trams as a  spectacle for the people sitting out on restaurant terraces having beers. It felt like everyone collectively was embracing Friday evening, welcoming the weekend, and enjoying themselves with food and drink. I giggled at the man producing a flurry of bubbles from ropes soaked in soapy water, entertaining the tourists. Can you imagine a life as someone that makes bubbles in a public square for a living? A mythic existence. After a cappuccino at Mokabon, I wandered down the graffiti street before I found a cozy Bierhuis (I highly recommend) to grab some beers. It was on the main canal that cradled the center of Ghent and had the perfect interior, called Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant.

There, I overheard conversations of German visitors mingling with a boisterous group of British blokes. Trump and Brexit were the topics of conversation. I sipped my Kriek Boon (cherry beer) and smiled to myself, content not to get involved. They described and all agreed to a perceived disaster in America while the British asserted their recent vote as an act of independence. Once finished with my beers, I decided to head back to Brussels but not before a quick detour on my way to the tram. Darkness revealed a different beauty, lights reflecting off the water to make the landscape sparkle. I resisted my temptation to get yet another waffle or some frites. Made it back to Brussels in about a half an hour, meeting my hosts around 8 in the evening, just in time for dinner. If I could do it over again, I would skip Brugge and spend the entire day in Ghent. I am craving to return to have another taste of all that Ghent showed me during such a brief visit.

Ghent, Belgium - Photo Gallery

Brussels, Belgium

February 1-6
I will admit that the reason I was so excited to visit Belgium was not for its grand architecture or history, not even to see the capital of Europe. I have been dreaming about the simple things Belgians have to offer, I lusted after waffles, frites (fries) and beer!

I was not disappointed at all in my quest for Trappist monastery creations and fried doughy goodness. In fact, I was blown away by the waffles and frites acquired on the streets. Oh and the beers... the beers are really good! Maybe the best I've ever had. Those Belgian monks have learned a few amazing things from continuously brewing beer since the twelfth century. That's something I can't do a great job conveying through a blog except to say: you have to go. If you enjoy beers and fried food, this is a place you must visit. Go and experience the thousands of beers available, all at the highest quality and good prices, afterwards stumble or saunter our of the drinking establishment to the nearest frites shop or late night waffle stand. It's perfection. When you're in Brussels, do as the Belgians do!

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First thing I did was head to find some frites from one from a highly rated stand. These fries are fried twice and come with a variety of sauces (I went with Andalouse as it is apparently a local favorite). Not a few hours after my train arrived in Brussels, Val, my gracious host, arranged for us to meet his friends at a local bar called Stam. It was a fantastic start to my stay because 4 different beers were ordered for me after much discussion among the locals about which ones I should try.

Previously, when I had mentioned that I was going to visit Brussels, some people mentioned that Belgium is mocked because it's sort of a hybrid combination of cultures that isn't entirely Flemish (Dutch) and not completely French. My experience showed me a country diverse and caught between two cultures, blending into a unique fusion of both. Brussels is officially a bilingual city, signs are both in Flemish and French. The Brussels inhabitants are from all over Europe, likely working for various governmental entities of the European Union. Beyond that, it is diverse with cultures beyond the continent. Walking along the street I could hear many different languages. The energy is of a vibrant, eclectic place. It may not be a top destination for weather, but they have lots of politics and chocolate too. What more do you need?

Now, while I wasn't especially excited about the architecture or history beforehand, after my first full day, I was blown away. My former colleague connected me with their cousin living outside the city. We sped away first thing in the morning in her tiny brown Mini Cooper to first see Atomium, a futuristic structure built in 1959, before cutting through the countryside to Waterloo. No, not Waterloo, Iowa, THE Waterloo. The site where the great Napoleon Bonaparte, emperor of France was finally defeated in battle to usher in a relatively long era of European peace (the Concert of Europe) from 1815 until the Crimean War of 1853. It was quite a sight to see the gigantic mound of earth taken from the battlefield. To me it represents our willingness to admit that our societies are fragile, and our freedoms are continuously lost and hard won. Tyranny is always lurking around the corner, "The history book on the shelf is always repeating itself. Waterloo knowing my fate is to be with you, Waterloo finally facing my Waterloo." -ABBA. Yes, that song was stuck in my head for two days on endless repeat. I've linked it here for your easy viewing convenience.

The Monument at the site of the Battle of Waterloo

The Monument at the site of the Battle of Waterloo

I really appreciated my trip into the countryside. Thanks Diane! In the evening, one of Val's friends arranged to show me the center of Brussels. That's when I had my first waffle (1 of 4) with warm chocolate inside. A stroll through the streets lined with restaurants and bars, filled with people out enjoying their Thursday night. It was this night I first laid eyes upon the magical spot that is Grand Place of Brussels while I enjoyed waffle number two (Caramel and Cream). my mouth dropped open as I walked into this square, lit up light a dream, each building adorned in statues and gold. It is so impressive, I can't believe something like it actually exists.

Grand Place of Brussels at night

Grand Place of Brussels at night

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Brussels is a special place that I enjoyed visiting immensely! Thank you Val, Thibauld and Yanni for your generous hospitality! I felt very at home. The capital of Europe has made its home in fun and unusual place. A city that features multiple statues of peeing children (see the photo gallery) and where it's perfectly acceptable to pee on the side of a church, this one to be specific. You can buy clothing at a second hand store based only on the price per kilogram but you can't get Brussels Sprouts (I know, I thought it would be a thing, but apparently it isn't). I was so determined to eat those little green cabbages so I cooked some myself. Luckily I could find them in the supermarket!

The oddities of this place are endless, even the fact that the European Parliament's address is 60 Rue Wiertz. Who is Wiertz? Well he was a not-so-famous, neglected artist who created dark, demented paintings and somehow, quite miraculously managed to convince the government of Belgium to subsidize his studio and keep his art open to the public for free in perpetuity. I'm impressed, this man missed his calling in life to be a negotiator. Thus, you can wave to the members of the European Parliament at their desks from the Wiertz Museum just across the street. He painted some really dark stuff, like babies being cooked in a pot over the fireplace. I'm not making this stuff up. The most shocking thing, he had envisioned Brussels becoming the "capital of Europe". He wrote that in 1839. There you have it Europe, your selection in capital cities was foreshadowed by a demented Belgian painter in the 17th century, albeit he was a skillful negotiator.

Until next time Brussels! I'll always have dreams of your waffles in my heart!

Brussels Photo Gallery:

Some Challenges of Backpacking: the not-so-glamorous side

This purpose of this post is to highlight a different side to extended travel. There are challenges and not so glamorous parts of a backpacking trip that I feel are worth mentioning because it is part of the experience of life, you can't have the good without the bad. Many of us are guilty of a dreamlike idyllic holiday in our heads, away from all our stresses and problems. Truth is, they follow you and new things arise despite being removed from "normal" life. Some of my examples I have thought of or experienced:

1. A strict daily budget

For me, I saved enough money in order to average out to a daily budget of around 30 Euros for each day. This includes, transit within a city, museums tickets, hostels, food and drinks. I plan to stay with friends and family where possible to get the best experience because for me the places I visit are experiences determined by the people there. Other things I plan to use to save money are couchsurfing and some working programs WorkAway and WOOFING. It's all about diversifying! No hotels, no fancy restaurants every night. 

2. Family Problems or Tragedies

There is a possibility that a family tragedy may occur while you're on a trip you've planned for months or years. Someone could pass away unexpectedly or become ill etc. A whole list of random and terrible can things pop up in your family or with friends. Life happens no matter where you are or what you're doing. It's an awful feeling being removed and thousands of miles away, feeling like you can support in the way you want to or normally would. Maybe taking some time to grieve for a few days would be reasonable if you were home, but while traveling, you've got to keep moving because flights are booked and the visa restrictions won't be flexible. Deportation is something to be avoided. Feeling like carrying on with exploring a new destination while others you care about are in a difficult place is what seems like the only option. I found patience and taking some time to not stick to the schedule is best, take it easy, be flexible. In the end, worry about what you can control and don't stress about what you can't.

2. Getting Sick

Chances are pretty high, you'll get sick. Could be a minor cold or a prolonged stomach illness. Being sick without your own bed to crawl into is not fun. Bring all the medicine you can think of. Praise to the French Pharmacie!

4. Bad Weather

The weather is something unpredictable and can change the experience of a place. It's nearly impossible to avoid bad weather so being flexible and having little to no expectation is key. If you happen to find yourself in a place like Barcelona, where it's 4 degrees below zero (in Celsius of course), the city changes, people turn inward and the homes are not equipped to handle usually cold weather. Poor insulation and small space heaters are not what typically comes to mind when you think of Spain. Seeing your breath inside and wearing most of your clothes and jackets to sleep to keep warm isn't the ideal Barcelona. But you have to accept it. Yes, I know I chose to visit Spain in January but still, this is something to consider! If you want to do a prolonged tour on a small budget, it's impossible to hit the peak season in each place you visit. So, enjoy the snow, skip through the rain and be prepared to mix up your itinerary to accommodate a cloudy day and icy streets.

5. Missing a Connection

Yeah, that doesn't need to be explained. Don't miss a flight or a train because it will screw up everything else after that. It hasn't happened to me yet, but it very well could. A train delay here or there isn't too bad but I don't want to pay through the nose for am extra unplanned night at a hotel somewhere because I got to the airport late. Just go early!

Stating all of these things, isn't meant to be me throwing myself a pity party about how hard traveling is. Traveling is a privilege and I am thankful for every day I get to live out this dream. This trip is something I have dreamed about since I was probably 13 years old. The reality is different than our dreams sometimes. Mentioning the challenges is my intention to present an alternative narrative you might not see on a social media travel account that selectively shows you nothing but breathtaking landscapes with the perfect sense of place and fun. A dream-like experience starts to form in our heads. Thanks Instagram for building up our hopes and showing us beautiful real places in a pretty filter!

Here I am, over a month into this trip and it's the greatest experience of my life. The ups and the downs. The smelly hostel rooms, cold showers, snow storms, blisters, new friends, old friends, exhaustion, tears of joy and tears of longing. All of it. Getting through the hard parts to enjoy the good moments is putting into practice the concept of living in the moment. This is something I've been working to incorporate into my thinking for a year now. While I'm improving, it's not perfect. Planning is required and doesn't always fall into place. I don't have high expectations and I'm truly loving all the moments along my journey, not just the good ones. (Okay I could have done without the stomach problems).

"pain is temporary, suffering is optional" - a wise person said this

Lyon, France #2

January 23-31
I felt very at home in Lyon all because I was able to stay with a good friend I met in University in San Diego. She was an exchange student for one year in 2011-2012. Five years ago we became very close, we traveled to Harvard together while we were on a Model United Nations team, she taught me French and since those first lessons I'm proud to say my pronunciation has greatly improved. Through staying with her in her cozy studio apartment above Café 203 a two minute walk from Hôtel de Ville (City Hall), I met her friends and shared her life for a little over a week. We talked about everything from technology to the refugee crisis.

One thing I was contemplating a lot in the week after a transition of power in the United States: What role does technology play in the governments of the future? There are some massive bureaucracies in the world. Could a greater efficiency be achieved through using peer-to-peer network systems? Blockchain, the same technology behind Bitcoin, is being reworked and applied in other ways. There could be a database for health records, transparent and easily accessible anywhere in the world. Not advocating for anything here, merely pointing out the possibility. Topics like this were usually discussed while the locals of Lyon roll their own cigarettes and drink tea or Bordeaux wine.

Talking, and sharing with others over a week, observing how often I heard another language besides French spoken along the streets, slowly I learned about a feeling towards immigrants and refugees. This topic came up at a Saturday night gathering of friends when I chatted with a person born in France, to foreign born parents. They grew up in Algeria for over a decade before being their family was forced to flee from war as refugees themselves. This person now works in various NGO's and non-profits around the world to help refugees transition into their new host countries. The point was made that refugees have a huge value to add to society if only for the fact that they value freedoms that many in Europe or the United States may take for granted. I've always existing in a society with freedom of the press and can't imagine what's its like to not have that. Refugees have lived through terrible things forcing them to leave their home. Losing the freedom to worship whatever religion you choose or the freedom of media not being controlled by the state, free speech, it is all possibly in democracies. The loss of freedoms happens because freedoms are not won forever and can always be at risk. It was argued that immigrants can emphasize how essential it is to fight for these freedoms and I agree. I've noticed a recent trend of various western countries not welcoming immigrants or refugees from non-western countries despite crisis. In the face of a rising frequency of terrorist attacks and an increase in fear of "the other" I can see many want to turn inward. This issue is of course complicated and controversial. I present no answers, only that complex problems do not have easy solutions. 

Lyon, a city devoted to the consumption, production and enjoyment of food at its best. Home to generous and thoughtful people. Here is where the metro runs on the left side of the tracks, entire neighborhoods are overrun with fancy art galleries on streets covered with graffiti. And don't miss the tea shop with a fifty page book for a menu. For now, Lyon is my French experience and I hope to return someday. Thank you Myriam and Charlelie!

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Below is a gallery of more images from Lyon:

Lyon, France #1

January 23-31

brillat savarin cheese with black truffle

brillat savarin cheese with black truffle

Lyon is all about food! The most important component however, is sharing good food with good people. This is what made my stay here so wonderful. What seems like hundreds (thousands?) of fine cheeses, cured meats, freshly baked breads and local wines are all found at a specialty butcher, baker, fromagerie (cheese shop), each taking pride in the quality and unique flavor of Lyonnais products. This is where world famous Paul Bocuse built his gastronomy empire, making Lyon the capital of gastronomy in France and perhaps the world? Here, life revolves around exquisite french cuisine and social gatherings, where not having a taste of a local cheese and a wine to match at each meal is rare. My favorite cheese I've ever tasted so far is the brillat savarin which has a shaving of black truffle in the middle. Yum!

In Lyon, the French culture has expressed itself as one of appreciation and respect for the finer things in life whether it be food, drink or the arts. For example, I've never experienced a deafening silence like the one in a movie theater in the south side of town just before a screening of the new film Jackie where Natalie Portman plays Jackie Kennedy. A room full of adults sat ready, excited, motionless in anticipation to watch a film, a work of art, and became so quiet I think my slight stomach noises could have been heard by all. This demonstrates the respect of both the film and others around you and it is something I found quite pleasant. I could get used it. There wasn't a toddler with light up shoes blinding me from two rows ahead of me while also walking and talking back in forth between oblivious parents. (Yes this has happened to me in San Diego, twice.)

When the locals begin listing things off for me to do while in Lyon, the journeys that don't include a local food or drink specialty, include Fourvière for example with a gorgeous view to see across the entire city. There is the massive park, Parc de la Tête d'Or, with geese speckled lakes and expanses of interconnected botanical greenhouses. The city itself is nestled between two rivers and crossing any of the dozens of bridges over either of them you can see boats hibernating. In January, they sleep along the banks of the Rhône River, waiting to reemerge as gathering places to have a drink with friends on a hot summer day. Everywhere in this city is beautiful even in winter and I found the people that live here very proud of it and extremely friendly. The old architecture and culinary tradition mix to create a powerful experience impossible not to fall in love with.

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Barcelona, Spain

January 15-22

Barcelona is something I've spent a while wrapping my mind around. Amazing architecture, an ancient past and a strong cultural identity. Where Gothic cathedrals are embraced by ruined watchtowers, remnants of the Roman city Barcino. This place housed former headquarters for Spanish Inquisition tribunals and hundreds of year later hosted the 1992 Olympic Games. It was told to me that the Olympics changed the city drastically, making it a top tourist destination and much bigger in population than before. It's possible the negative impacts of tourism have made the locals take on a not-so-friendly attitude towards tourists. If you speak a little Spanish and get to know them though, what a wonderful and welcoming people. Tapas, drinks, singing and dancing made any night a party. 

Cathedral of Barcelona

Cathedral of Barcelona

Okay, so about ten years ago I saw someone on the travel channel on TV go to Barcelona and place a churro on top of hot chocolate that was so thick, the churro sat defiantly on top. I've dreamed of doing that myself ever since and I was successful! It was amazing, sitting in front of architect Antoni Gaudi's Casa Batlló lit up brilliantly at night. It was nearly freezing but the churros, hot chocolate and modernist architecture kept me warm!

It is important to note that Catalunya is a semi-autonomous state within Spain, and most people in Barcelona identify with being of Catalunya before Spain. There is a separate set of Catalan language, food and customs. Many want this region, the wealthiest in Spain, to become an independent nation. it could be compared to the French speaking province of Quebec in Canada wanting to become it's own nation. Debates and tensions around the question of "who can govern better, local control or a federal government?" can be found all over the world. This region with its violent past resisting the four decades of dictatorship under Francisco Franco. I pondered the balance between local and national interests. What if California were to push for its independence because many consider it the wealthiest state in the United States, but if it were to leave out of a difference in political values, would the repercussions of leaving the rest behind help only California and hurt everyone else?

Just a garden variety political protest in front of the Palau de la Generalitat de Catalunya, where the President of Catalunya works.

Just a garden variety political protest in front of the Palau de la Generalitat de Catalunya, where the President of Catalunya works.

Some interesting experiences to mention: I did not have my passport checked by anyone once I arrived at the Barcelona airport. In Portugal, my first stop in Europe, a customs officer scanned my passport and gave me a stamp without uttering one syllable, but she was a living human checking people entering the country! There was no such equivalent in Spain. Even a simple hello would have been nice. Another thing, not once did my metro pass get checked by transit enforcement. What is the incentive to pay for metro passes? Their transit system could be in dire straits, but perhaps not. I'm being a bit too dramatic here. Spain has a struggling economy and for a while recently the country did not have a functioning federal government. The European Union is more or less keeping it afloat. 

I would like to return to Barcelona in warmer months. I believe the energy of the city would really come alive on a warm. There is so much this city has to offer. Modernism architecture! Delicious food and wine (cheap and good, 3 Euros for a good bottle worth 10 dollars in the U.S.) Thank you to everyone who made it an unforgettable time!

Não se preocupe, a vida é bonita - Lisbon, Portugal

Imagine finding yourself waking up in a fairy-tale world, having a drink at a bar in Manhattan the night before, now you're in a colorful place of magic and legend. It’s a place that time has not so much forgotten, but more that the place itself and its inhabitants have chosen to forget time. The land is lush with green forests. Moss coats every tree and nestles in between every stony crevice. Pink pronounces itself prominently in unexpected ways; in the sky, on the streets and sidewalks (all hand placed polished stones), even the President's house is pink. Bright splashes of a mustard yellow adorn the houses, trains, palaces, and buses, while Mediterranean blues on the buildings and in the sky appear to remind you the ocean is nearby. The air smells sweet nearly everywhere, like sugar caramelizing in the distance, even if there isn’t a bakery nearby. They're a proud people with thick accents and a  nostalgia for a heroic era of discovery and adventure in their blood. It’s possible to imagine a reality where this place wouldn’t exist today without that age that connected Europe to the rest of the world by sea. The one word to sum up Portugal: magic.

Everything seems slowed down, timeless, longing for a past and unconcerned about the future. Portugal feels overlooked by the very globalization the Portuguese explorers initiated in way back in the 13th century. Neglected by the present day international financial markets, the prosperity they once enjoyed is mythical and visible in the remnants of the magnificent palaces and Gothic monasteries. It becomes difficult not to daydream about the prominent role this very Catholic kingdom once played in the early development of the modern world. It is now a relatively poor country by Europe’s standards, money for food and travel goes far. Today, their main exports are olives, some wines, and a few other agricultural products. Not exactly the center of the world's economy anymore.

Portuguese Proverb: “Paciência excede sapiência”
— “An ounce of patience is worth a pound of brains”

The people that live here are happy, carefree and in no hurry because their days don’t pass at a normal pace compared to cultures beyond. They can sit patiently in (some would say) pointless traffic caused by a conversation between a delivery van driver chatting with his friend, blocking a narrow, one-way stone street barely big enough for a single car to fit through. "There is no hurry, we’ll get there when we get there," I can imagine them thinking.

It is here, on my first morning in Lisbon, where I found myself wandering up a steep hill in the middle of the older part of the city. It's adorned with a castle, Castelo de Sao Jorge, extensively renovated in the 14th century. The royal castle was the setting for the reception by King Manuel I welcoming Vasco da Gama upon his return from discovering the sea route to India in 1498 to give some context. An old fortress still carrying on as the guardian of the evolving civilization below, not having accepted the reality that its services are no longer required. As I tried to navigate the spiderweb of medieval streets to the top, I came across a pair of stray dogs looking for food. The three of us accompanied each other upwards with the sound of a guitar floating on the air from ahead. Entering a sunny clearing where nature had began its slow reclamation of ruined houses, a man sat on a crumbling wall and played absolutely beautiful music. It was similar to Spanish style guitar however distinctly Portuguese. Without knowing the lyrics it felt like his message was “don’t worry, life’s beautiful”. The warm melody was mesmerizing as the stray dogs chased each other through the long weeds while a yellow butterfly darted overhead, as if it was summoned by the musician. The Portuguese are not “worry free,” they are “sitting under a banana tree”. (Estar a sombra da bananeira.) 
I just sat and began to cry, overwhelmed with emotion that this scene invoked in me. The feeling was, confidence and happiness. I knew without a doubt that I had arrived at the first part of my life changing journey and reflected on the decision to do this. The commitment it took and the challenge of putting a previous life on pause, it all felt so right. No more looking back, only living in the moment, appreciating each experience to best of my ability and looking ahead to the unexpected, keeping an open mind.

Portugal is one of those places that can’t be described to others, where the pictures don’t do it justice, it can only be experienced. It wasn’t so much the things I saw as it was the combined experience of the flourishing forests, delicious food, ancient fortresses and genuine friends made. Sintra and Arrábida, both 40 minutes outside Lisbon by car are filled with enough picturesque landscapes and cultural heritage for exploring that could take weeks. Local knowledge is a must, and you definitely need to find Duarte! He’s got his own tour company now called "Keep it Local" and he’s the best guide to navigate the tight twisting mountain roads and reveal Portugal’s biggest secrets. He’s more than willing to share his home’s beauty and delicious dishes with you. Best octopus I’ve ever had! 3 days was not nearly enough time. I want to return at the end of my journey and can’t recommend Lisbon highly enough.

New York City #2

January 10, 2016
It took a full 24 hours to adjust to the size and energy of NYC, and now I can see myself falling in love with the city. I couldn't have asked for a better pit-stop on my way to Lisbon, Portugal. Despite the icy winter blast that threatens frost bite each time you have to go outside, every place is still full of activity. Unfortunately, I didn't get to witness any pants-less subway riders today on my way to the Museum of Natural History, as January 8, 2017 was the annual "no pants subway ride". 

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A friend and I decided to find discount tickets to a Broadway show. This  may sound like it could be complicated or very simple, because most people rave about seeing a show on Broadway. I discovered that it was much harder to figure it out than it should have been. The answer to "how does one see a discount Broadway performance?" is this: find out what you would like to see, find out when and where it is. Once you know that, it seems standard to go to the actual theater where that play is located (there are many theaters) and get to the box office two and a half hours before the start of the show, enter the lottery(which should start about 2 hours before), and either get discount seats or super discount standing room only. We're talking $25 for a show some people sitting down in the seat in front of you paid over $100 to see. An important note! This is all while your feet hurt. An ache that is like a walking across snowy Manhattan in 19 degrees all day, now standing in the back of the theater behind the last row. Worth it. The staff give a speech to the standing room patrons before the show that goes something like, "don't annoy anyone, be invisible and at intermission shuffle over to that stairway over there to be out of the way." 

While chatting with over drinks not far from Times Square, my friend and I both agreed that everyone should live in New York City at least once or a city like it. Even if it is only for a short amount of time, it has a valuable perspective to offer members of the human race. Yes it's crowded and loud and you can't park an SUV on your lawn because there is no space and everyone takes the subway and walks to get around. Yes it's expensive and yes, it is not a permanent home for everyone. However, it is a mass of humanity, a cross section of hundreds, maybe thousands of cultures, religions all living together in proximity and interacting daily.

Lunch with my grandfather's cousin, Susan Jappinen

Lunch with my grandfather's cousin, Susan Jappinen

New Yorkers don't care about what their neighbor is doing, you can't keep track of all 8 million of your neighbors. I come from a city that is so spread out, you need a car to get from one suburb to the next. Unintentionally, and in general this facilitates people keeping to the groups of similar experiences or economic wealth and then we can tend to rely on ideas and stereotypes about the people that are different from us if we never interact, the ideas are all we have to go off of. A dense city, with great public transportation leads to a high level of acceptance if only for the fact that no matter your wealth, ethnicity, nationality or no matter what you believe and choose to do, people tend to respect each other, look out for each other and mind your own business. There can be positives from this especially in an era where politically charged individuality is on the rise in its popularity. The every person for themselves mentality isn't going to solve the problems that are so big, a single nation can't solve them. It requires working together with those different than us, collaboration that starts with acceptance. Going to New York and staying for a while can be a reminder that we are all of the same species with so many different stories and backgrounds and that we should learn to look out for each other, respect and love one another, instead of fear and hate what's different. If you think I'm reading too much into this, try it out for yourself. Take a trip to that part of town you never visit because of your own fears and prejudices and make a friend. We're all human and you never know what you might learn.

New York City #1

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For my first 24 hours in New York, I may have over done it. I am blown away by the art this city has to offer in its museums and I have been overwhelmed at first by the high energy level everywhere. The size of this place is hard to wrap your brain around.

My first stop in the morning was the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is huge and spectacular with its medieval armor, Egyptian tombs and Van Gogh paintings. I spent a couple hours wandering around and certainly didn't see everything. 

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After my time in the Met, I took a stroll through Central Park in the 33 degree winter day. Large patches of grass are still green peeking through the snow and barren leafless trees. It was a very nice place for a walk among so much metropolis. I can only imagine how magical the park must be in the summer time when it's warmer.

Next I wandered south towards the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and for the second time in one day, I became overwhelmed by masterfully curated collections. Andy Warhol's pop art, top impressionist pieces like Van Gogh's Stary Night. Two stand out exhibits for me were Nan Goldin's Ballad of Sexual Dependency and a five decade career display of Francis Pacabia's work. Truly inspiring awe. 

After MOMA, I foolishly thought that I could make it to the Top of the Rock for a nominal charge before heading to Times Square. That would have cost me $34! I suggested to myself that I Google the view from atop Rockefeller Plaza for free instead. Times Square was certainly something that should be seen, but not somewhere to linger. Plenty of tourist traps. I ended the night by meeting my friend for happy hour in the Financial District (FiDi). 

It was a great first day and I needed to recover from being overwhelmed by all that is New York. 

Leaving The Shire: San Diego to New York

January 5, 2017
It hasn't hit me yet that I am leaving home. I'm on the plane with an open seat between me and a grey haired retired engineer with a thick Jersey accent. Apparently he owns a condo in Solana Beach and visits San Diego in the winter. Now he's returning home to New Jersey and begins telling me all the things I must do in New York. I didn't ask about any of this but was made aware regardless. I assume he must have bad hearing because he was shouting loud enough for the whole plane to hear. "So you've never been to New York, eh?!" I shake my head and appreciate the empty seat between us. "Is there going to be a movie on this flight?!" he yells to the nearest flight attendant who looked a little frightened. ($10 tablets for rent) 

It was raining at Lindbergh Field as we took off in reverse direction. I've never left home in the rain and was shocked when the vent above started dripping on me a few minutes after take off, probably from all the water outside. It hasn't hit me yet that I won't be home in my bed for over half a year. I have committed to a vagabond life for an undetermined amount of time and yet it seems as if I'm only going for the weekend.

There's an east coast millennial hipster dad in a green flannel with massive head phones over his beanie carrying his hipster baby in a matching red flannel. How interesting it must be to be born and raised as a hipster kid. I feel like a stowaway on a plane filled with ordinary people going back to their ordinary lives, or maybe taking a break from their usual routine, and here I am about to wander a strange continent with not much stuffed into a small backpack, with such things as only 6 pairs of socks and laundry soap with a plastic sink stopper bought off Amazon so I can do my laundry in a Hostel sink.

I feel I must mention that I detest flying, it is in fact my least favorite thing to do that I continuously do on a regular occurrence. People are packed in like sardines as my grandma says. You get to meet interesting people and it looks like a couple two rows up could be falling into a romantic moment, but one can also meet people and make connections on a bus, which is also on the ground and has a very low risk of hitting turbulence. I generally prefer buses, but we shall see how I feel about that after I diversify my public transportation experiences among the cheap and paltry options Europe has to offer: Blah Blah Car, what the heck is that?! Stay tuned...

I'm sure it will hit me at some point. Perhaps once I make it onto the New York subway en route to Brooklyn. Many people are surprised when they learn I've never been to New York City before. I'm not sure why because it doesn't strike me as a top destination for a native Southern Californian to hit up by the time he's two dozen years old. I mean, I've never been to Las Vegas either! So New York, I have no expectations, no reservations. Let's see what your temptations to pull people in can do for a vagabond passing through.