September 14, 2010

I realized today that I’ve been doing this blog for a year, which amazes me. Maybe next blog I’ll do some reflections about my first year of blogging. But today I want to celebrate with the perfect anniversary (blog-iversary?) memory: Paris. What better way to round out my travel blog than with stories about Paris?

I’ve already mentioned my second visit, a quick stop on route to and from Normandy last winter. My first trip was more special. I was 23 and nearly at the end of a very long trek around the world during which I’d held Paris out in front of me like a carrot. When exhausted by Italian train schedules or eager to leave Germany, I looked up 3 star Hotels in Paris City Centre and daydreamed about the Louvre. Whenever I went without to manage my tight travel budget, I promised myself a splurge in Paris.

I landed in Paris exhausted, knowing how to say only three phrases in French (and one of those was “I am a feminist vegetarian. I would not like any ham or patriarchy,” taught to me on a Dutch beach). I rested in my charming hotel for a bit, then dove into the city hungrily. Literally in that I stuffed myself with chocolate crepes, cheese, fruit, quiche and pastries. And figuratively with the Louvre (twice), Notre Dame, cafes like a fiend, the Eiffel Tower (where I watched people break dancing and liked it more than you can imagine), Musee d’Orsay, the Luxemburg Gardens, and all the rest. I spent a day wandering Montmarte, because I love the movie “Amelie,” and after a hearty climb up to the top of Sacre-Coeur basilica, I ate more crepes and pretended I was in the movie. Another afternoon I walked along the Seine on a gray day and considered how romantic and literary my life was.

On one of my final days I went shopping for lipstick. I’d gone almost seven months of traveling without any make-up at all, and I’d been promising myself lipstick in Paris for months. I walked around a big, gorgeous Parisian make-up store, every brand and style available, totally overwhelmed. What color? What qualities and characteristics was I looking for in this grand lipstick? After twenty minutes of staring at my incredible range of delicious-looking choices, I was overcome by a realization: I didn’t need anything. I was beautiful as I was. There was a whole thriving, bursting city for me to explore a little longer. I wanted another squeezed in memory more than I wanted something I could buy. I left the store empty-handed and triumphant. It’s one of my most cherished travel memories.

But if I went back today, I’d buy the lipstick. I know what color I want now.


I Pretend to Live Here

August 18, 2010

Okay, it’s beautiful in the San Francisco Bay these days, but it’s also the end of summer, and I haven’t gotten a big trip in. I was daydreaming about what that trip would be and remembered a holiday my mother took a couple of years ago. If I were going to steal somebody else’s travel memories, I’d steal these. My mom’s friend and fellow schoolteacher, Nancy, decided to go to New York City for a summer, sublet a place, and pretend to be an artist in New York for a couple of months. My mom got inspired and joined in for a few weeks.

New York Holidays are always worth writing home about, but this was above and beyond. Unlike my sight-seeing fueled New York vacation, Nancy settled in as though she were home. She learned her neighborhood, found favorite out-of-the-way cafes, sampled markets. She bought groceries, used laundry mats, chatted with old ladies on the subway. And because Nancy’s an artist, she toured NYC’s art scene like a fiend. Galleries, museums, funky art shows–Nancy checked them out. She also makes jewelry, so she found shops to supply her and markets to sell her wares. And she dabbled in world-class art classes.

My mom jumped into this with a huge smile. She enjoyed all Nancy’s faux-insider knowledge. But more than that, she went fabric shopping. My mother loves to sew, and New York gave her a chance to tour the world via fabric. She bought up quirky polka dots cotton prints, raw silk remnants, imported textiles, flea markets finds and boutique-y clothe. And then she bought another suitcase.

“If I lived here, I’d just sew all the time,” she said. “I’d spend all my money.”

Nancy felt the same way about art and art supplies. But I think you could do that anything in New York. It has everything you need to indulge your dreams, whatever your passion might be. Foodies or sports fans, literary geeks or club kids, fashionistas or activists. Whatever you love, New York lets you dive into it big time.

I love my life here, but I wouldn’t mind a semi-extended stay in New York. It’s not that I want to live there. I just want to pretend I do.


August 13, 2010

Okay, honestly, prior to my trip to Scotland a few years ago, everything I knew about it came from Trainspotting. This isn’t exactly inspiring, but the soundtrack was great and I did want to see the Loch Ness monster, so off I went. I wasn’t thinking about castles, but I should have been. It wasn’t thinking about some of the best Indian food in the U.K., though Glasgow’s known for it. I definitely wasn’t thinking about hotels in Edinburgh city centre with swimming pool–heck, I didn’t know such things existed in the bustling city–but now I know better.

So let’s get the obvious out of the way. All those things exist. Plus beaches. Who knew about Scottish beaches? Incredible! I went in early spring, when it was wintry and stark and beautiful, but I do occasionally regret missing them in summer. (Though hotel-with-pool is probably a better bet for serious swimmers). In any case, though, Scotland has an eerie beauty, the kind that makes you want to read mystery novels and shiver and take a lot of photographs.

Then there’s art. Scottish museums do not disappoint, offering everything from history and art to religion and science. There’s also food, something little vegetarian me had not considered as an option. But in cities, plus all those curry spots, I ate well.

Most important of all, there are kilts. If you want to see kilts in action, you can go to a Scottish wedding, or you can go to Edinburgh. (Or both!) While in Edinburgh, I toured a kilt factory, saw quite a few folks wearing them, and then I went to a CASTLE. I really can’t stress the castle enough. There was nothing Trainspotting-like, except for the access to awesome music.

For the record, I did go to Loch Ness. On the way I saw the cutest woolie sheep ever. Nessie, however, was shy.

Cruising the Mediterranean

August 6, 2010

While enjoying my busy California life, I’ve been considering my next vacation. It’s hard to write about travel without itching to get on a plane. Though at the moment I’m not daydreaming about just a plane; I’m fantasizing about Mediterranean Cruises. I’ve never been on a cruise, though I have been to the Mediterranean more than once. My friends who have sampled the cruise ship life talk up it’s advantages. You get on the boat and then you don’t have to worry about anything but having a good time. No frantic rushes to the train station, no tracking down lodging, just beautiful water and floating from destination to destination.

My Mediterranean travels were a lot more hectic, but still gorgeous. I spent a month traveling around Italy a few years ago. Of course I went to all the standards and I dove headlong into the museums. It was like a crash course in art and history. I marveled at David, stared at The Birth of Venus, and even saw the Sistine Chapel. The art alone was worth the trip.

But you know why you really go to Italy? The food. Pasta, sure, but more importantly, artichokes, which were in season while I was there. Not to mention cheese, which served with fruit and honey is your dessert, or buffalo mozzarella with tomato slices and basil.  Then there’s the dreamy olive oil, the addictive coffee (I don’t even drink coffee in my normal life!), and all that gelato.  Seriously, I ate gelato every single day because there were just so many flavors. Plus, the pizza. Don’t just think round bread–think gorgeous square slices loaded up like crazy and available by weight for a couple of euros. Think pizza in Naples. Think saffron-and-orange risotto.  Oh, risotto, you are so labor-intensive but when served in Italy, you are so creamy and perfect.

Now set the whole thing against a stunning backdrop, sprinkle charm, and say it in Italian. It’s a little less fun when you’re trying desperately to get directions from the bus stop to your youth hostel, but still I have nothing but love. And of course, a lingering desire to pause, take a Mediterranean cruise, and sample every flavor of gelato.

Summer in Seattle

July 21, 2010

After a few international travel tales, I wanted to go back to the whole City Breaks USA theme I started a couple weeks ago.  As much as I love brandishing my passport, I’ve traveled more in the U.S. than anywhere else.  And honestly?  I’d be fine keeping it that way.  I have too many adventures in too many fabulous American cities to list.  So today, let’s talk about Seattle, one of my favorite holiday escapes.

People think they know Seattle.  Rain, clouds, Space Nettle, coffee, grunge.  To which I roll my Northwest-born-and-raised eyes.  First of all, Pacific Northwest summers are prettier than almost anywhere: mild, sunny, and green, green, green.  The rest of the year is mild, a blessed break from the snow piles you get further inland.  Yes, there’s lots of good coffee, and it’s grown music like nobody’s business–not just grunge.  And sure, it has plenty of tourist sites if you like that.  But I have another Seattle trip, one I take over and over, and honestly would like to take right now.

I stay in a bed and breakfast in the U District, which is near the mammoth University of Washington.  The U District has funky coffee shops, vegan sandwiches, and all other manner of delicious, cheap eats.  It also has a fantastic chai lounge, bookstores, record shops, and people to watch.  I love to spend an afternoon wandering around and snacking.

I also love checking out Seattle’s art museums, but the city’s live music is hard to pass up too.  Depending on what’s showing and who’s playing, I sometimes fill up my evenings more than I plan to on my relaxing Seattle holiday.

The Botanic Gardens are another whole afternoon (note that I do not schedule things for mornings–that is the time I lie around a comfy bed and eat piles of fruit-and-powered sugar sprinkled pancakes at the B&B).  Because Seattle is one of the most plant-friendly cities I can think of, their Botanic Gardens rock.  I can spend hours in the arboretum just roaming, scribbling in notebooks under gorgeous trees.

And after the gardens and arboretum comes the most important thing: Cafe Flora.  Oh, Cafe Flora, how I love your coconut tofu.  An incredible vegetarian restaurant that serves the kind of gourmet awesomeness we vegs are so often not associated with, I find Cafe Flora completely irresistible.  Rosemary lemonade?  Portobello mushroom French dip sandwiches?  Desserts to faint over?

Sometimes I go there twice.

The next day is devoted either to the Fremont District or Pike Place Market.  Fremont has zany public art (including a random statue of Lenin) and shopping.  No, really good shopping.  Boutiques, vintage clothing, dreamy shoe stores.  Pike Place Market is one of the oldest farmers’ markets in the country, with all sorts of quirky crafts to be bought and seen.

I always intend to trek out to the rain forest an hour and a half away, but I get too caught up in Seattle delightfulness to leave.  Because I used to live in Eastern Washington, most of my visits have been quick visits.  One of these days I’m going to go for a proper visit and do the city justice.

London Calling

July 17, 2010

Sometimes my friends ask me how, on my meager teacher-and-writer salary, I’ve done all this traveling.  It’s all about thinking creatively, investing your time and planning ahead.  But even if you don’t (and I don’t always), you can still have a fabulous trip and have enough left over for another fabulous trip.  For example, a trip to London.

London can be mad expensive, but it’s also a perfect chance to hone your amazing-trip-on-a-dime skills.  First, don’t buy into the myth that you have to pay pounds of pounds for a place to stay.  There are in fact cheap hotels in London city centre, and with a little planning you can stay somewhere awesome without blowing your budget.

Second, think outside the box when it comes to transportation.  Getting here, sometimes there are cheap flights, especially in the off-season.  If you’re lucky enough to live close by, track those trains, and look into buses, which are pretty comfy.  Once you’re there, you’ll save a ton if you don’t rent a car.  Taxis eat up budgets too.  The tube is great, but if plan ahead to avoid zipping back and forth.  If you can, pack your walking shoes!  (You can even start training to be up for all the walking).  Oh, and you wanted to ride the doubledecker bus, right?  I certainly did, and it was an affordable way to get around in addition to being part of my London fantasy.

Third, you don’t have to buy your memories.  Okay, I bought the coolest t-shirt from a designer at Greenwich Market, but awesome photos of Kensington Gardens are nicer than keychains.  My crafty mom turned tickets from her favorite museums into decoupage coasters.  Think creatively about souvenirs before you shop (but if you’re like me, do go ahead and buy one hella unique piece of clothing that you’ll never find elsewhere.  It’s why you came to London, right?)

Finally, all the daily life stuff is what makes your holiday special.  People watching on your way to Piccadilly Circus, stopping for a cup of tea to get out of the rain (and yeah, it will rain; it’s London), getting lost and discovering a beautiful old church through your wrong turns–these are the reasons to travel.  They’re just as precious as the play you’re dying to see, the view from the London Eye, the tour of Buckingham Palace, or whatever else you’re dreaming of.  Treasure those, and your trip will be rich.

Married by Elvis

July 13, 2010

Three years ago, my best friend managed to rope everyone in for one of the ultimate Las Vegas Holidays. By “everyone,” I mean all her friends, every member of her family, and of course, her husband’s family too. Because, you see, this holiday wasn’t just a holiday. It was also their wedding. In Las Vegas. With Elvis officiating.

They didn’t elope. They just brought the wedding party along with them. But they lived up every Vegas cliche. Their wedding invitations were Two of Heart playing cards. They hit up casinos and slot machines, watched glitzy showgirls, and indulged in swanky glamour.

Now, I’m not a lounge kind of girl. I don’t gamble or drink, and I’d rather see stars than neons signs. But here I will admit: I couldn’t have picked a better wedding for the two of them. My bestie doesn’t just bring the party–she IS the party. Where better to celebrate that than Las Vegas? She and her husband love playing pool, loud music, rockabilly style, and of course, Elvis. Their Las Vegas wedding was romantic, fun, and wild, just like them.

And Las Vegas isn’t just dice and sequins. It’s home to some of the best aerial dance performance in the world. Oh, you know I’m talking about Cirque du Soleil. For the five readers out there who don’t already know, I dabble in low-flying static trapeze (as in, not swinging and six feet off the ground instead of 50). This exists as an art form largely because of Cirque du Soleil. Instead of tradition circus tricks, the new circus movement focuses on circus arts (trapeze, lyra hoop, fabric, acrobatics, etc.) as part of dance and storytelling. There isn’t an aerial dance fan who doesn’t dream of seeing Cirque du Soleil up close. Where better to do that than Vegas? (Plus their new show at the Bellagio is semi-aquatic! I’m kind of aching to see it).

They say what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but I don’t think so. Mel and Jeff have been happily married for more than three years, and they’re still going strong.

Sunset in Santa Monica

July 2, 2010

Last week I had so much fun writing about a trip that was closer to home that I thought I’d do another Holidays in America blog.  In college I took a spring break trip to Los Angeles, just a quick getaway from our college in out-of-the-way Santa Fe to the glitzy city of angels.  I’d been to L.A. as a kid because my grandparents lived in Southern California and we’d go into the city for visits to the La Brea Tar Pits or the incredible museums.  I loved it, but my little-kid memories also involved waiting in traffic forever and getting a headache from all the smog.  I was excited to see L.A. again as an adult, but a little nervous about the cars and smog.

Ah, but things do change.  Los Angeles had indeed fought the pollution problem, and my grown-up visit was headache-free.  By avoiding rush hour, we even managed to stay mostly traffic-jam free.  We visited the Los Angeles County Art Museum (LACMA), where the classic collection and the edgy exhibit where a perfect combination for our range of art tastes.  We ate at Vegan Express in Hollywood, a cheap, tasty hole-in-the-wall where vegan celebs are occasionally spotted (we didn’t see any, but the mock duck was tasty).  We zipped around coffeehouses feeling trendy, then acted like ultimate tourists by photographing the Hollywood star walk.  Staying with a local friend, we dipped into his pool, and loved the fact that it was swimming perfect weather in early April.  And, you know, all year long.

I tried to collect all the beautiful details: the glittering lights at night, the rush of music as we stood outside Whisky A Go Go, the bougainvillea growing in defiance of so much concrete.  Our last day we drove out to Santa Monica, and even the prettiest bits of L.A. seemed like nothing.  We ate Thai food near the pier, then walked to the beach. The sun was starting to set, and the beach was just chilly enough to scare off the normally abundant crowds, but still warm to us.  The sand was endless and pure and all ours.  We chased the waves like little kids, rolling up pant legs and shrieking when the water splashed us.  We giggled trying to find our shoes as it finally got dark.

It wasn’t the glamourous Los Angeles of movie stars I’d thought of, and it wasn’t my little-kid exotic vacation either.  It was better.

San Francisco Adventures!

June 21, 2010

I’m finally back to blogging after my trip to Canada and a hectic couple of weeks. It’s beautiful here in California and I’ve been enjoying some holidays to San Francisco, and I paused my adventures long enough today to write about them.

For a city that’s only about seven miles by seven miles in size, there’s an overwhelming amount to experience. I’ve been sticking mostly to the Mission. The burritos are tasty and plentiful and bright murals decorate every street. On the burrito front, I particularly recommend Pancho Villa Taqueria, but it’s hard to go wrong anywhere with Mission burritos. And if the murals make you hungry for more art, there’s Galeria de la Raza, which is a pretty amazing gallery packed with art from Latin@s. For blocks in the Mission all the signs are in both English and Spanish, and for a second I think I’m in Mexico, but then I turn another corner and it’s hipster cafes and fancy Pan-Asian fusion restaurants. One of my more fashionable friends shops exclusively in the Mission’s boutiques, where the up-and-coming designers concentrate. What I love about this is that the hippest little shops are a stroll away from a store selling luchador (Mexican wrestler) masks.

But it’s not just style and food. The Mission’s bookstores melt my heart. There are long-standing funky favorites everywhere, authors reading their work and “staff recommends” pointing you to books you’d never otherwise knew existed. There’s also Needles and Pens, a gallery with ‘zines (homemade magazines), quirky jewelry and clothes, books, even adorable baby outfits, all squeezed into a space the size of a living room. It’s that true San Francisco combination of random and original that thrives here.

Of course, the Mission is nothing without Dolores Park. True to Bay Area form, the second the fog burns off everybody heads out to enjoy it. Dolores Park is beautiful, never empty on nice days, and has monthly movie nights. Art, food, clothes, books, and a rocking park? Oh, and not to mention nightlife, including the Make Out Room (adorable) and the famous Lexington Club (probably SF’s best-known lesbian bar). Sure, there are plenty of obvious things to do visiting SF–Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz, cable cars, Golden Gate Bridge–but I love the unique little neighborhoods like the Mission. I think to myself, “This is why I moved to California, so I could hop on Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and in an hour be in this small place that contains whole worlds.”

Blogging Pause

May 13, 2010

I won’t be blogging for the next couple of weeks because I’m headed to Canada.  I know, I know, I intended to stop traveling for a while, but there’s a meditation retreat I want to go on, and have you looked at flights to Toronto lately?  Not so bad.  So I’m off.

Most of my time will be spent on the cushion.  My spiritual teacher lives in Canada and will be leading this retreat.  I’m completely excited about spending time with him and my other Dharma friends.  I haven’t been on retreat since my time in Europe and it feels like time.

But it’s also frightening to sit with my own mind.  I’ve gone on retreat almost annually for more than a dozen years and I still feel nervous before I go.  Every time.

On the plus side I have a little down time before and after the retreat.  Many of my retreat experiences have been in the same Canadian locale, so I have all my favorite haunts.  There are a few fav cafes and restaurants that I visit every time, a quirky candy shop I reward myself with afterward, even a spa (though I rarely indulge there) that I’ve loved.  I’ll be staying at the retreat center this time around, but I often stay at an adorable B&B.

My regular visits, usually around retreat, have made this a home away from home, even though I’ve never actually lived there.  I’ve gone so many times, visited the same places and explored new ones for over a decade, that it feels familiar.  One of my favorite ways to travel is to stay in a place for a while and imagine that I live there.  “This is my life in Canada,” I pretend.  I dream I’m a local.  I’m not a fan of being tourist-y, but I can’t resist trying on life in other countries.  Since graduating college I’ve moved five times, across states and internationally.  I think it’s my fondness for imagining myself in new places that seduces me.  One minute I’m imagining staying, the next I’m booking a ticket, and before you know it I’ve relocated.  I’m trying to keep my moves imaginary at the moment, though I am glad for a little adventure.

And for the record, I don’t intend to move to Canada—yet.  But I do love imagining that I already have.