Monday, June 26, 2017

Reykjavik: 24 hours, 24 notes

I did the thing. You know, the thing that's all the millennial rage where you can get a "free" layover in Iceland for up to 7 days when you fly transatlantic with WOW or Icelandair?

[First, a warning: it's nothing new, but budget airlines are not as cheap as they seem.
Every time I fly budget, I tell myself "never again" because of all the extra fees and the added inconveniences, but then when it comes time to book, those sweet sweet low fares always reel me back in...there are many times when flying budget is a good idea - if you are going on a short trip without much luggage, if you're a person who doesn't need much leg room, if you don't care about the frills of regular air travel (which are sparse enough as it is). Don't just compare airfares; before you book, make sure you factor in the additional fees that generally come with flying budget, such as:
  • transportation to/from the secondary airports budget airlines often use (WOW flies out of Baltimore, not Dulles; Ryan Air often uses Stansted or Luton instead of Heathrow)
  • the food and snacks you'll buy (at airport prices?) since the airlines generally don't have free meals on board
  • high fees to check a bag - and sometimes even to carry on more than a "personal item"
  • sometimes you must print your own boarding pass before check-in or pay a fee - will you be able to find a printer while traveling? 
  • having to buy stuff in-country that you couldn't fit into your carry on
Anyway, that's my warning, now on to Iceland!]

I was in Reykjavik from 3:30 pm on a Wednesday, until 3:30 pm on a Thursday, here are 13 things I learned, saw, or noticed in my 24 hours.

1. It's we taxied on the runway after landing, my first glimpse of the landscape was the wind whipping up twisting coils of red dust across a low bumpy field of volcanic rock.

2. It's COLD! Late May, and I was wishing I had gloves and a hat. I only had a light, thigh length coat, and a scarf, and I was getting pretty creative with layering and wrapping so I didn't freeze! Especially with the whipping wind - worse near the port (although that's where you get the best views from the city).  

3. Many shops don't have set hours - they either open "upon request" or, for some bakeries and small cafes, just whenever the owner arrives; this is particularly true in the winter when there are less tourists in Reykjavik and locals tend to stay inside more.

4. The city seems to me a sort of Alaskan fishing town in the Swiss Alps. It has a definite European/Nordic feel, but mixed with the wild nature of the vast, empty North American expanses. When you walk down the center of the city, with Hallgrímskirkja Church at your back, the streets are laid out so you can see all the way down to the harbor, and the mountains* across the water - that is an amazing view, flanked by small colored houses, that really creates the fishing town feel. On the other side, with the harbor behind you, looking past Hallgrímskirkja, you see mountains rising up in the distance along with church steeples that have a strong Alpine feel.

5. I knew Iceland was expensive, but hot damn! In 24 hours I spent $132: airport transfer, dinner, a magnet souvenir, coffee and pastry dessert, breakfast (skyr, coffee, pastry), coffee. Prices at the airport are actually less than outside, because they avoid some tax - I recommend stocking up on basics there. 

$13 for a Ben and Jerry's pint!!

6. I spent $43 just on the airport transfer. It was soooo easy and convenient, though, I would recommend it - I purchased it on the plane from the flight attendant (available on WOW and Icelandair, just ask), and it was a door to door, round trip service, no hassle, minimal wait

7. The famed Icelandic yogurt, called skyr, is great!! As I consider myself a yogurt connoisseur, I was so excited to try skyr in its homeland, but while it is delicious and smooth and rich, it's not really miles above Greek or other 'traditional' yogurt products...

8. Icelandic people are broad shouldered and tall. Lots of blondes, but lots of brunettes too. Lots of beards...

9. Icelandic people (by the admission of three locals who I accosted with my cultural questions) are not particularly romantic. I was told that people rarely do big proposals or grand gestures. More of a snuggle up fireside bunch.

10. Icelandic people have a wicked sense of humor. From the sarcastic, self deprecating comments of my waiter and the tourism officer workers, to the bawdy comics of Hugleikur Dagsson (and others) that are popular amongst locals and tourists alike, Icelandic "gálgahúmor" (black humor) is itself worth a visit!

11. Icelanders are more religious than I would expect for a northern European country. 94.8% of people are registered in some religious group...but actually, nowhere near that many people regularly attend church. 
pic courtesy of Moore Travel Tips

12. As every article about Iceland is obligated to mention, more than half the population believes in elves! Interesting historical folk and traditional roots - worth a read. 

13. They have some great pastries in Iceland! Many are borrowed from Denmark, but there are a few originals as well. And THIS is the correct way to eat a kleina

*I read here that, in fact, Iceland has no mountains - it's just rocky ground punctuated by deep glacial valleys that make it look like mountains...but I find that quite hard to believe - regardless of the geological classification, it certainly looks like Reykjavik is ringed by mountains!

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Grey Skies Over the Autobahn

One cool, rainy day in early May I took a bus from Frankfurt, Germany to Eindhoven, Netherlands. The sky was so full of clouds and fog that it was just a dense grey ceiling. We drove through forested hills and crowded truck stops. It had been raining a lot the few weeks prior (April showers), and the highway is lined with bright green trees, thick fields of tiny yellow flowers, and occasional patches of enormous white windmills. 

We drove through serious, functional Frankfurt with its Sunday afternoon shop windows shuttered.

I went to use the on board bathroom and bounced against the walls, trying to touch as little as possible but feeling like a single tic tac being shaken around in the box.

We skirted the graffiti scrawled edges of Bonn.

I tried to stretch out my tired legs and got stabbed by some little metal rods sticking out from the bottom of the seat in front of me.

We made a quick stop in the little town of Leverkusen which included the pub "Uncle Sam's Food, Drinks, and Fun."

I made t-rex arms while I tried to type this blog post in the tiny, cramped bus seat.

We rumbled past Koln, along the Rhine River, looking slow and muddy and underwhelming. A sliver of sunlight poked out of the clouds and glinted off a set of long flat barges loaded with mounds of black something...coal? Silt? Central European licorice? 

probably licorice

We drove slowly through the crush of Turkish shops and restaurants in the southeastern edge of Dusseldorf, turned off the engine and sat for 20 minutes with cold air seeping in through open doors pooling at my ankles.When we got going again, the wide open river front downtown of the city was finally the charming, attractive scene I'd been missing - even under grey clouds yellowed by factory smoke.

I used two full blotting sheets on my face...18 hours on the road down, 2 to go...

Have to pee again but trying to keep it together for the next hour so I don't have to battle the cubbyhole again.

I need to buy germ x immediately.

The small city of Mönchengladbach is best know for its football/soccer team, and as the home of Joseph Pilates, founder of pilates (lol seriously), but I noticed the plethora of large, beautiful, 3 and 4 story homes...I wonder how people here make their living.

Just over the Dutch border, in Roermond, horses graze along the river, then cows!

I broke down and went to the bathroom again. Someone broke the plastic faucet off the sink...

This part of Holland is more agricultural (and sooooo flat) than the part of Germany we went through.It's a wide rural area dotted by livestock pens, small barns and homes, and country pubs

The suburban streets of Eindhoven are lined with beautiful ivy-covered all brick duplexes and triplexes

okay I'm here, time to meet Bacho, bye!!!!!   :*

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

9 Songs (you've never heard) that are Getting me to Graduation

By "getting me to graduation" I actually mean distracting me from work I need to do in order to graduate...but at this point, it's all the same, right?
Anyway, you probably need a break too, so check out these sweet Europop tunes and do a little shoulder shimmying while you work   ;)

ALSO - added benefit - this will prep your auditory receptors for the Europop extravaganza that is Eurovision Song Contest, finals this year on May 13th, 2017!

(and yes, a few of these are kind of old, but I never said they would be new songs! Just probably new to you...)

1. "Uh Baby" - Kida ft. Xhensila
Country: Albania
Year: 2016
Popularity: 24 mil YouTube views
English Lyrics

2.  "Bow Down" - Enca ft. Noizy
Country: Albania
Year: 2016
Popularity: 70 mil YouTube views
English Lyrics

3.  "Sapés comme jamais" - Maître Gims ft. Niska

Country: France
Year: 2015
Popularity: 268 mil YouTube views
English Lyrics

4. "In bucati" - Glance ft. Elena Gheorghe and Naguale

Country: Romania
Year: 2014
Popularity: 30.5 mil YouTube views
English Lyrics

5. "Marre" - Ronela Hajati
Country: Albania
Year: 2016

Popularity: 8 mil YouTube views
English Lyrics 

6. "Pey Sartse" - Galena and Tsvetelina Yaneva ft. Azis /
    "Пей, сърце" - Галена и Цветелина Янева ft. Азис

Country: Bulgaria
Year: 2016
Popularity: 20 mil YouTube views
English Lyrics 

7. "Gna Gna" - Mihran Tsarukyan

Country: Armenia
Year: 2017
Popularity: 13 mil YouTube views
English Lyrics 

8. "Feel" - Mahmut Orhan ft. Sena Sener

Country: Turkey
Year: 2016
Popularity: 177 mil YouTube views

9. "Time Won't Wait" - Filatov & Karas
Country: Russia
Year: 2017
Popularity: 1.4 mil YouTube views

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Amateur Traveler Podcast Feature!!

I was interviewed on this podcast talking about Georgia!

Amateur Traveler

Press about Amateur Traveler

Click below to listen, or you can listen on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts and it will come with pictures, ooh

Amateur Traveler Episode 541 - Travel to Republic of Georgia

Or listen and find a transcript on the Amateur Traveler website

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Today I Miss Virginia...

I fear I have made some bad decisions.
I am feeling anxious and trapped and social-media-fueled jealousy. I am antsy and restless and angry. At times spending my days immobile on the couch reading Peace Corps blogs and political books and watching wedding-themed reality shows and eating cake for breakfast went from cherished holiday relaxation to feelings of uselessness and depression.
Why do I feel like this? Well, I have been at home in Yorktown with my family for exactly 20 days now.
The first week I was finishing school work - not so bad.
The second week I was catching up with my sister and preparing for Christmas - not so bad.
Then Christmas (all four iterations) came and went, and now the New Year has come as well. I tried to maintain some holiday cheer until New Year's in the post-Soviet style, but compared to New Year in St. Petersburg, my feeble attempts at making Russian food and forcing my family to watch Soviet New Year's classic movies (Ирония судьбы, или С легким паром! for those who know it - it was subtitled!!) were pretty pathetic. 

For most of this semester, I was planning a winter break trip to Cuba with my sister. At the semi-last minute that trip fell apart. Then, for the past month or so, I tried to salvage my winter travel plans by finding scores of cheap flights to Caribbean beaches that were surprisingly poorly received by my family. Then, I held out hope for a road trip through some southern states, anchored on New Orleans, with my sister. That ended up not working out either.

So here I am. On the couch. 20 days into my self-inflicted cloistering with another 2 weeks to go. 
I haven't spent this much time with nothing to do and nowhere to go in 5 years.
I'm starting to go crazy.

I can blame many people and many circumstances, but in the end I made choices.

And there are some really good things that have come from staying here - quality time with my family (although Riyana has spent most of this time in her room), lots of great food, learning a lot from reading constantly, making a little progress on some projects I've been trying to get at for a while, and discovering some new podcasts on my daily dog walks. Generally, though, I am quite uncomfortable at this point. Jittery and snappy and having my "trapped" dreams again. Eating too much, sitting too much, staring too much...I am unproductive.

Anyway, as I mentioned, I have been reading a lot of Peace Corps blogs which made me want to write again myself. But, as you now know, I have nothing to write about...but plenty of drafts I never finished/published! So, here is a throwback to a day that I was actually craving Virginia. Helps me get a little perspective, I suppose...

Originally written June 26th

This weekend, I got the startling and emotionally confusing news that my security clearance has been approved, and I can begin my internship with the US embassy here in Tbilisi, Georgia.

I miss country music
I miss the wide open spaces, knowing that you can drive for hours on half empty rural roads
I miss having a car and being able to drive whenever I want, wherever I want
I miss pickup trucks
(wow this list is very focused on cars...)

I miss the Blue Ridge Mountains
I miss comfortable coffee shops with drip coffee
I miss Alderman library
I miss grits and good bagels and the farmer's market
I miss having a familiar list of places to go
I miss speaking English without thought or effort
I miss clean air, unmarred by the scent of cigarette smoke or car exhaust
I miss being able to go somewhere in public and be invisible
I miss central air conditioning
I miss being able to listen to Morning Edition when I wake up instead of at 2 pm


to those who would say:
"no one forced you to be in Georgia"
"you choose to leave the US"
"stop complaining, many people would love to be able to travel like you"


When I am in the US, I usually feel (well, the way I actually feel in real time - Jan 1, 2017)
bored, unchallenged, overly safe, trapped, relatively useless and unproductive. 

So, while there are many negative aspects to living abroad, and many challenges particular to the "second world," no life anywhere is perfect or undeserving of criticism. For me, though, spending last summer in Georgia was the best life I could work out for myself.

In June I missed Virginia. In January I miss movement and not-Virginia. The grass is always greener...

Saturday, December 17, 2016

8 Things I Learned in the Netherlands (in November)

1. Dutch people are huge. Tall and broad shouldered and big-footed. Statistically the tallest people in the world, Dutch men and women average out at around 6' and 5'7" respectively. I went into an H&M to see if they sized clothing differently here because it just wouldn't even make sense to have little feather light mini dresses in size 0 - literally no Dutch people would fit into that. Turns out they do have small sizes, but the designs are a bit different, more flattering to the sturdy Northern European figure.

2. You might as well not even wear makeup on the bottom half of your face because 9/10 times the scarf you have tourniqueted around your neck is going to rub it off.

3. It's dark. So dark! I can't put my finger on why it seems darker...maybe the street lamps are different, or maybe since it's been constantly cloudy the starless, moonless night feels darker. It certainly doesn't help that sunset is around 5 pm.

4. It's so diverse. I thought the Starbucks workers at Amsterdam Centraal Train Station were a great example of this: one tall blonde Dutch girl with Delft blue eyes and a near perfect American English accent, one dark skinned girl, one girl with olive skin and hazel eyes wearing a hijab, and a tall boy with the most hipster mustache and trendy half-shaved head.

5. Spinning off of that last point - everyone speaks perfect English. Some older Dutch people stumble a bit with grammar, maneuvering around the bulky accent you imagine of an idyllic country milkmaid in wooden shoes. For the most part, however, anyone you meet working in a cafe or a bike shop or on public transportation, anyone you stop to ask directions on the street, or any back-house cook stuffing your Dutch fried into a paper cone will speak excellent English. Even more surprising was how many non-ethnically Dutch (either immigrants or children of immigrants, many from former Dutch colonies such as Suriname or Indonesia and others refugees from conflict in the Middle East or African economic migrants) people spoke beautiful lilting Dutch comfortably alongside English.

6. The Netherlands is the 28th most densely populated country in the world (406 people per sq km), and the most densely populated "real" country in Europe (Monaco 2nd, Vatican City 7th, Malta 10th, Guernsey 14th, Jersey 15th, San Marino 22nd). It's even denser than India!

7. The bike thing is real. So real. More real than you are actually imagining if you have never been to the Netherlands. In Amsterdam, there are more bikes than people! I met a girl who owns three bikes. They dredge 15,000 bikes out of Amsterdam's canals a year. Across the country, people expect to have their bike stolen about once a year - but I find this quite surprising, as I'm not sure what kind of bike resell market there is seeing as everyone already has a bike!!!

8. Holland is a little country. Amsterdam only has a population of about 850,000 yet sees more than 5 million tourists a year! 14 million tourists visit The Netherlands annually!  

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

10 Things I Would Rather Do Than Write This Paper

1. Write this blog post! 
because it is much easier than trying to reform both the IMF and the World Bank (that's the paper topic)

2. Learn the dance from this video: 
I've almost got it down! There are only like 4 moves...

3. Learn all the words to this song: 
It's sad and moody and beautiful and Dagestan-y <3

4. Read every article about drinking collagen and then decide that is a terrible idea

5. Drink all the water in my water bottle. Go fill up water bottle. Have to pee. Repeat.

6. Eat an entire bag of pretzels. 

7. Start every other paper I have to write for finals.

8. Suddenly recall all the little tasks I have been meaning to get to...
-downloading those new songs I found!
-updating my computer background!
-texting grandma back!
-snapchat my sister to remind her not to hang out with boys!

9. Catch up on my Georgian studying
Just the really important phrases. Can you say "Lasha likes coca cola with ice" or "I like food without salt" or "toasts" (okay, that one's actually super important)??

10. Learn to read Armenian. 
because that could have been useful that time I was not kidnapped.