Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Traveling with a Significant Other: Are you Ready?

The image of traveling to new, exotic places with a [handsome/beautiful] loved one by your side is exceedingly romantic. Definitely high on the list of most coveted travel fantasies (perhaps bested only by meeting a mysterious foreigner to show you his/her city and teach you a few passionate words in the local language).

If you are looking to fulfill the first fantasy, you need three things:
  1. YOU: willing and ready to travel 
  2. A significant other willing and ready to travel
  3. An intimate understanding of the contents of this blogpost --> read on for the secrets of a successful trip and to discover whether or not you and your sweetheart are ready to take the plunge into couples' travel!
First of all, let's answer some questions:

  • Why might you want to travel with your s/o?
    • Obviously, the aforementioned romantic fantasy 
    • Traveling is an intimate experience, sharing it with someone you love can make the colors more vivid, food and wine more rich, and language more beautiful. 
    • The intense highs and lows of travel can strengthen a relationship, increasing shared experiences and emotional connections- it's basically lovers' bonding. 
    •  You'll never be lonely on the road
  • What kind of couples should consider traveling together?
    • New couples: Jump start your relationship by creating a solid base of common experiences during the fledgling stages of your romance
    • Established couples: You know each other well, but there is a side of people that only comes out when you travel; you can support your partner through travel mishaps and share the incredible wonders you discover with your favorite person
    • Married couples: Take a step back from the routine of your daily life- a trip away will reinvigorate your relationship and remind you why you fell in love in the first place.
  •  At what point in a relationship are you "ready" to travel together?
    • There isn't a timeline with a mark on it "take a trip" after a certain number of months, and if anyone tries to tell you otherwise, ignore them!
    • If you are both people who already travel often, the right time might be whenever you were already planning your next trip, or whenever tickets are affordable
    • If you don't travel often, it can be a bigger deal. Even though I insist there are no hard and fast rules, many people see taking a weekend trip together as a sign that "things are getting serious" or you're ready to "take the relationship to the next level"- just make sure that expectations and understanding of what a trip together means are clear for both partners. Open communication is the key to every relationship!
  • Who takes the lead?  
    • There are lots of online women's magazine quizzes you can take to determine your "couple style," and as cheesy as it sounds, it's actually a useful thing to consider (with or without the magazine quizzes) 
    • A leadership formation naturally arises in any social relationship. Maybe one person generally makes the decisions, or maybe it's more collaborative. Maybe you tend to compromise, or when you disagree you each just do your own thing
    • It's useful to think about, before your trip, how you will make decisions. Daily life is a routine built on a set of pre-made decisions, but traveling is a constant stream of new choices 
    • Some traveling couples trade days (or weeks) where they take turns being the decider, others kind of go with the flow, but in any case, remember to always take your partner's wishes and desires into account and try to come to a decision that will satisfy you both. 
    • Once again, open and honest communication is key!
  • Is this is a test? 
    • Many people see taking a trip together as the ultimate evaluation of a relationship's potential or as a test to see whether you should move in together. Sure, it can be a useful barometer- if you can't stand sharing a hotel bathroom, you probably won't be happy sharing an apartment. 
    • On the other hand, try not to read to much into it. There are many compounding factors that affect a trip's success that have nothing to do with the relationship. So if you go on a beach vacation and it rains the whole time, or you miss your flight, or someone gets sick- don't assume it's the relationship's death knell
    • What you SHOULD take into consideration, is how your partner reacts to setbacks and his or her style of planning and leadership. Ask yourself:
      • If something goes wrong, does being with them make you feel more secure or more stressed?
      • How does being with them affect your reaction to stressful situations? Do they encourage you to be the best version of yourself? Do they bring our ugly traits?
      • How do they treat the new people you encounter together? Service people, people of other ethnicities and nationalities, people of dramatically differing social and political opinions

General Tips

Remember, there is no magic formula to a happy couples' vacation- it's completely dependent on the dynamic of your relationship and individual personalities.

Planning the trip together beforehand is a fun bonding activity, and the perfect opportunity to discuss your expectations- for both the trip and the relationship in general.

Lena + Kostas 4ever
There are certainly varying levels of difficulty for a couple's trip: if you don't travel often, I wouldn't recommend starting with backpacking Southeast Asia. A weekend getaway to see the foliage in Vermont may seem cliche, but there's no harm in starting with something simple and less risky.

Two of my favorite travel blogging couples:
Trav and Heather at EPoP   http://www.extrapackofpeanuts.com/
Mish and Rob with their various successful ventures   http://www.makingitanywhere.com/

If you still need more encouragement, check out this steamy study  ;)
After all is said and done, you might be saying to yourself, "but who are you to be giving me relationship advice?" and I would say, "well I've traveled pretty significantly with my long-distance boyfriend and we're still together" and despite that, you still may not take anything I say to heart- and that's okay. Every relationship is different and there is no pee-on-a-stick test to determine if a trip together would put too much stress on you, or be the perfect pick-me-up...so, regardless, best of luck and happy travels!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Should I Have?

Traveling is a series of choices:
  • Barcelona or Madrid?
  • Eurail or Ryan Air?
  • Schnitzel or bratwurst? 
  • Taxi or combi bus?
  • This cathedral or that one?
  • Make new friends or stick to yourself?

That last point is where this post begins.

With so many choices, more significant than in your daily life at "home," it's not hard to make a few questionable decisions. I frequently reflect on a day on the road with "what was I thinking? [Whatever thing I didn't choose] was obviously the much better choice!" But there's only so much time, money, and energy, and sometimes we make decisions on the spot that we wouldn't have had we thought it out a bit more.
Sometimes these less-than-the-best decisions can be harmful or stupid (series of bad decisions that led up to me missing my flight in Milan back home to St Petersburg last August), and sometimes they're just frustrating (spending two rushed, boiling hot days seeing every single tourist attraction in Rome instead of spending an extra two days relaxing in Cinque Terre...).
Perhaps the most challenging, however, are the decisions where it's still not clear whether you made the right choice or not. 

Let's rewind about 355 days: April 2014, my friend Kaley and I are in Kazbegi, Georgia (read more about that here and here). Early one morning (lol no it was 10 am), we set off to hike to Gergeti Trinity Monastery.
Gergeti is the speck way up on the left peak
On our way towards the trail head, we passed a group of 5 or 6 guys on motorcyles coming down from the church, thick mud caked to their tires and boots. We had been warned about the mud since it had rained the night before, so we stopped and asked them about conditions of the trail. We chatted for a few minutes, and it turns out they were all from different countries, and had met up to motorcycle across the continent!

They gave us some recon about the mountain, we thanked them and kept walking.
Then like two minutes later I heard the roar of an engine behind us and the Georgian guy of the group had pulled up beside us. He basically said he was happy to meet two fellow travelers, and being Georgian he knows the area well, and invited us to meet up for drinks that night. I gave him my phone number and we pressed forward.

We climbed the mountain and made it to Gergeti!


They seemed like really cool guys! I would have loved to swap travel stories with them and hear more about their motorcycle adventures, but we never met up...
that night Kaley and I went back to our homestay family's house and had a super fun night. In the afternoon, we discovered the adorable puppy Nagaz and played with him in the yard for a while. Later we convinced our host-brother David and his cousin David to give us a ride on their horses. Unfortunately, brother-David's horse was grazing somewhere in the mountains unknown to him at the time, so we rented another horse from another friend/cousin (I forget exactly how much it cost, but really cheap), and the two David's took us up to a recently built, very sweet church called Ilya where most locals go to worship. We laid in the open, grassy fields for a while, before galloping back down the mountain!
Kaley didn't love doubling up haha

Gergeti Trinity close up
I wasn't with my phone most of the evening, and when I retired to bed that night I saw I had a text and two missed calls from the Georgian motorcyclist. I had completely forgotten about them...oops. I knew they were leaving Kazbegi in the morning, and it was already late, so I never replied.
I still wonder, though, about that missed connection.
Was going riding and exploring the town with the David's the right choice? Definitely.
If I hadn't forgotten, could we have done both? Probably.
Did I miss out on amazing conversation and new friends or did I avoid an awkward and boring meet up? I'll never know.

Do you have any travel regrets, missed connections, or lingering questions about what might have been? Comment below! I'd love to hear from you.

Bonus photo: me trying to pose with a cow running away from me

 **Sorry I'm the worst photographer ever, better pics here: CLICK THIS

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Scariest thing that's Ever Happened to me while Traveling?

You'll notice the title of this post is punctuated with a question mark. While, objectively, the experience I describe here is probably the scariest thing that ever happened to me while traveling, I don't have any kind of traumatic aftereffects, I felt pretty okay about it even just the next morning, and I while I remember thinking I was terrified, crying, shaking, I only remember feeling the adrenaline. So take from this what you will, maybe I'm just weird like that, but I am very rarely afraid while traveling. I think something about being out in the world, especially on my own, is empowering. I feel more confident, more in control, like I'm choosing to affect the world rather than just sitting, shuffling through my daily routine, letting the world passively shape me. So this experience perhaps has made me more cautious, I make different decisions in certain contexts, but on the whole it has not definitely shaped or changed any of my travel decisions, my perceptions of any place or people, or my daily life.

**This was just one experience that happened to me once. While I don't want to try and sweep under the rug any serious issues that underlie society or disregard others' similar experiences that may have a more traumatizing effect, I do not intend this story to scare you or make you think deeply and critically about the dangers of traveling or sexual assault. In fact, I have been reticent to share it exactly because I was worried that it might scare solo female travelers (or my parents). But I feel like I should share it, mainly to show that yes, sometimes bad or scary things do happen while you travel, but there are ways out of bad situations and if you keep your head and make smart choices, even a bad situation can turn into just an interesting blog post.**

So, here goes nothing:

Summer 2013 I was selected, along with nine other American students, as a winner of a national essay contest sponsored by the Azerbaijani Ministry of Youth and Sport and received a twelve day, all expense paid educational trip to Azerbaijan.
On one of our last nights in Azerbaijan, we were in Baku and I was feeling very confident in the city. It was a beautifully warm night and several of us went to a restaurant/bar on the Bulvar, about a 10 min walk from our hotel. This is the main drag, the most developed, safest, most touristy area of the city. The Bulvar is well lit and there were still plenty of restaurants open, plenty of patrons sitting and chatting, and a few strolling along the waterfront.

the Bulvar
So we ended up sitting down and smoking hookah, but I wasn't really into that, and some other stuff happened with the personal dynamics of the group, plus I was exhausted so when 2 am rolled around I was ready to head home. Everyone else wanted to stay, so I just left on my own. As I said- it was brightly lit, there were plenty of people on the Bulvar, and the hotel was like 10 minutes away. Probably not a great idea, but it wasn't without conscious thought.
I walked about halfway down the strip and I passed a group of waiters hanging out at an empty bar. As I had experienced consistently in Baku, I got calls of "devushka" (girl in Russian) because they probably thought I was Russian since I'm obviously not Azeri. (also, absolutely not that it matters, but I was wearing knee length khaki shorts and a loose tank top- nothing more revealing than any other Baku woman would wear). As I passed I just ignored the calls like always, but after several meters I still heard a man calling after me. I could hear him trying to get my attention, walking behind me, and getting closer. I snuck a glance behind me and saw one of the waiters about 15 meters behind me. I sped up and continued to ignore him. I heard his footsteps pounding- he was running. I didn't want him to see him see that he was scaring me so I didn't run, just walked faster. As he closed in I reached the end of the Bulvar. I had a decision to make to reach the hotel:
  • keep going forward off the Bulvar into some other buildings. The area was deserted except for three middle aged men sitting on chairs on the sidewalk talking to each other. I couldn't be certain whether those men would side with me or the waiter. Especially colored by my immediate experience of being followed by an Azeri guy, I wasn't feeling very trusting, and the last thing I wanted was a 4 against 1 situation- so I rejected that option.
  • stand at the edge of the street and wait for a break in the traffic to cross to the hotel. Unfortunately, even at 2 am traffic in Baku is insane. I was worried that if I was standing at the curb and things got physical, I might get pushed into traffic and smushed. Also, we had seen a really bad car accident quite close to that spot the night before, so I rejected that option.
  • cross through the under pass beneath the street- this is the main way to get between the hotel and the Bulvar. Of course, that would mean isolating myself with the creep following me in a dark, confined, underground space. Unfortunately, that was my best option. So I prayed there would be no other potential threats in the mysterious underpass and scrambled down the stairs.
He caught up with me about halfway through the tunnel and grabbed my arm. I stopped an confronted him. He was skinny and short and I probably could have taken him, but I thought he might have a knife or something and that would have made the situation much more dangerous. I tried to yell at him in English, demonstrating I wasn't Azeri or Russian. I tried to tell him "fuck you" in Azeri but I probably said it wrong and just confused him because there was basically no reaction.

At this point I gave up and just started running. He was inches behind me, and I didn't look back. I put some distance between us, but there was a final set of stairs leading up out into the city, basically to the doors of the hotel. Halfway up the stairs he reached out for me again, this time one hand on my ass and one grabbing my arm. I turned around, pumped full of adrenaline, with freedom just a few steps above, and I pushed him with all my strength down the stairs back into the underpass. He disappeared and I never saw him again.

I tripped up the last few steps and there were several taxi drivers standing around the entrance that heard the commotion and asked me if everything was okay. I nodded and quickly ran into the hotel. Thank God for those men, because they really balanced out my experience. One bad man, three unknown but doubted, and three or four good guys reminded me not to generalize.

My roommate listened to me and let me cry on her shoulder (shout out to Rhys!) and I went to sleep, and in the morning I felt fine. Anyway, that's basically the whole story. What do you think- was it worth being scared over? Should my fear have lasted? Did I scare you??? (plztellmeno)

**please refer to my disclaimers at the beginning**

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Throw Back Thursday: Lent in Russia

Христос воскрес! Воистину воскрес!
Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!

As we close the season of Lent, I wanted to take a moment to talk about how Russia, a primarily Orthodox Christian country, expresses Lent!

This season unexpectedly made me extremely nostalgic for Russia, more so than the actual weather season outside (since we randomly had blizzard conditions for a few weeks in Charlottesville...).
I think it was around this time last year that I really started to reach out and explore my community in St. Petersburg more, that I felt I started integrating better, and that I had a direction in my daily life rather than just learning Russian.

For those who don't know: for Orthodox Lent, similarly to the Catholic tradition, you don't "give something up" like TV or chocolate, you undertake a strict fast. Great Lent (Великий Пост) is the longest and strictest fasting season of the year. The rule is: for all weekdays in Lent, meat and animal products, fish, dairy products, wine and oil are avoided.
So, basically vegan + oil - shellfish. There are lots of regional interpretations, exceptions, qualifications, etc. (This website does a great job of explaining if you're interested in reading more.)

In Russia, most restaurants have a "biznes lanch" (business lunch), which is a prix fixe menu and is usually extremely cheap- ranging from $4 to about $9 or $10 in very upscale restaurants (at an exchange rate of 50 rub/1 usd). During Lent, there will also generally be a "fasting menu" offered. Restaurants will advertise their fasting menu with a sign on the door or maybe post it outside on a chalk board. Grocery stores will sometimes put little "fasting" stickers on products and some companies even have special "fasting" product lines they roll out for Lent (I've seen this with frozen/ready-made food). All of this makes it extremely easy to keep a Lenten fast, especially since just saying "I'm fasting" or "do you have anything fast-friendly?" to a waiter or clerk is immediately understood and accommodated.

Most Russians don't keep a strict fast during Lent. Even those who are religious will often fast only the last week of Lent (Holy Week). I've also met a few people fasting simply because they want to lose weight and it's easier this time of year. Although it's not the norm, no one will judge you for fasting, and you won't feel marginalized. The health and spiritual benefits of fasting are well documented.

The week before Lent is Maslenitsa (Mardi Gras, Carnival, and Shrovetide are all related). The tradition is to eat blini (Russian thin pancakes) until you pop. Learn more about it here. Maslenitsa is recognized not only in the Church, but by public festivals at parks, cultural performances, specials at restaurants, and of course cooking a ton of blini at home. 
It is much more widely celebrated and recognized than the last week before Lent in the United States (except for Mardi Gras in new Orleans).
a Maslenitsa blin with sour cream and home-canned blueberries

Last year, when I spent Easter in Russia, I had the opportunity to celebrate at Navy Cathedral in Kronstadt at the midnight service- it was AMAZING. I was really tired and at first didn't want to go, but I forced myself out of the house and went. At first everyone was just kind of milling around in the church and there were some relics that people were lining up to see and pray at. Then the service started- lots of unintelligible chanting and crossing and bowing. Then right before midnight, the priests head out the big main doors and lead the worshipers in a circle around the church carrying banners (gonfalons) with saints on them. At midnight, the church bells ring and everyone starts smiling and hugging their neighbors and shouting " Christ is Risen!" Then everyone squeezes back into the church and prays more. It was really very powerful to be a part of, especially in such a big, beautiful, important church. I love the chanting, the incense, and the gilded icons and pillars of the cathedral.

Inside the Navy Cathedral
Roman and I in front of the Navy Cathedral in Kronstadt

Easter Sunday in Russia is spent eating this pretty but actually gross-tasting kulich, playing a game with eggs (dyed previously, often with natural dyes made of onion or potato skins) where you hit your egg against another person's to see whose will crack, and greeting people with "Christ Has Risen!" There is usually a family meal with lots of no-longer-forbidden foods- meats, cheese, milk, eggs.
Some half-eaten kulich and Imperial Easter eggs

Anyway, this post kind of got away from me, but basically, Lent is expressed in similar but distinct ways in Russia and the US- no surprise there. I found it much easier to maintain an Orthodox fast in Russia because of the social acceptance and subsequent unconscious support system.

One interesting thing to note: just because people won't ask you 100 questions about why you're fasting and what it means and did you convert to Orthodoxy (actually, I get asked that in Russia too...), doesn't mean they agree with you. I met a lot of people who were pretty shocked by what I was doing- partly because I was a Protestant foreigner adopting an Orthodox tradition and partly because I was actually attempting to keep the fast throughout all of Lent. I've heard many times that Orthodoxy is the core of the Russian soul, that you cannot be Russian (Русский) and not be Orthodox, but in an interesting paradox, people who regularly go to church are outliers and considered a bit strange. Orthodoxy is a very strong cultural identity factor, and actual religious practices such as fasting and attending masses are less important.