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How To Make Resort Travel Culturally Immersive

How To Make Resort Travel Culturally Immersive

Now that summer is here, many people are gearing up for their summer vacations all over the world.  And really, what better place for a good R&R vacation than a beach-side resort?

You can have these views:

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These drinks:

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And the sand between your toes with nothing to think about besides what you’ll have for your next frozen beverage.

I love resort vacations as much as the next girl, but one thing that has become increasingly irksome to me is how little I get to see of the city or country where my resort is located.  I was recently asked whether I had any local friends in Nassau after having visited the island almost annually for 16 years.  And I was embarrassed to admit that no, I don’t really have any local friends.  I’m sure you know this feeling, too- you get off the plane and take a car to your hotel, and then you spend an entire week never leaving the property.  And, you haven’t even noticed, right?

In the last few years, I’ve begun to notice how little I actually knew about the resort destinations I’ve visited, so here I am with some helpful tips to help you get both the needed rest and relaxation you’re craving, along with a good dose of local culture to keep your mind and spirit active.

  • Get to know the geography. I know that this sounds like incredibly useless advice, but you’d be surprised at how important it can actually be!  I’m sure that you know all about the resort you’ll be staying at long before you get there, but do you know anything about the city or town closest to your resort?  Often times, resorts are located a bit outside the towns that host them, which makes the resorts such quiet and relaxing destinations, so you may need to get creative with how you get from your hotel to the town or local attractions.  With that being said, usually it’s fairly easy to manage with a taxi or local bus- this is something that the front desk staff at your hotel should be able to help you with.

 

  • Find the locals. In the towns surrounding tourist destinations, you will often find restaurants created for tourists, souvenir shopping, and other places that you wouldn’t ever actually find a local person. Instead of going to those places, figure out where it is that the locals actually spend their time, and there you will find the most authentic version of the place you’re visiting.  For example, during a trip earlier this year to Nassau in the Bahamas, I heard of a place called Da Fish Fry, which was meant to be a local spot to grab great seafood. Screen Shot 2016-07-08 at 9.24.57 PMDespite my absolute loathing of any food that once swam, I decided it would be worth checking out.  Well, this experience absolutely changed my view of downtown Nassau, and I spent way more time outside of my resort, but also outside of the touristy Straw Market, and now I feel like I know Nassau a little bit better.

 

  • Attend local events. Whether you’re religious and want to attend a service at a local place of worship, or you want to attend the Junkanoo festival that Nassau holds on New Year’s Eve every year, there are plenty of opportunities to get involved in the local culture through their local events and celebrations.  The local tourism website will typically have a list of local activities, from farmer’s markets and artisan markets to music or cultural festivals.

 

  • Talk to the locals! Usually when you’re at a resort, all of the people that you meet are other guests who are also enjoying their vacations.  This might be a great way to meet people from across the world, but it’s not a good way to learn about the place that you’re actually visiting!  Lucky for you, there is an easy solution: talk to the employees at the resort.  Most of the time the people working at resorts are some of the friendliest you’ll meet as they work in a very customer service-focused business.  You can have a great chat with a bar tender, casino dealer, off-duty lifeguard, taxi driver, etc. to find out who they are, and maybe even what’s happening in town that night!

Resort vacations are an amazing way to relax and rewind, but they also offer a great opportunity to explore shockingly little-explored cultures around the world!  I encourage you to get off property for a day or afternoon to get some good local food, have some good conversations, and learn something new about the world around you.  The bonus to getting out of the resort for the day is the saved cost of buying typically expensive resort food in favor of less expensive food in town.  All around, exploring your surroundings while on a resort vacation will only help to improve your experience and allow you to make fantastic memories outside the confines of your hotel!

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Best of the East Coast: Lower Hudson Valley, NY

Best of the East Coast: Lower Hudson Valley, NY

Just slightly north of New York City is the lower Hudson Valley, one of the most beautiful regions of the state of New York- and hardly ever visited by the millions of tourists flocking to NYC throughout the year.  This area features beautiful mountains, scenic river views, orchards, wineries, and all sorts of activities to keep you occupied throughout the year.

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Source: http://www.travelhudsonvalley.com/

I should probably come clean at the beginning and confess that I grew up in the Lower Hudson Valley (Monroe-Woodbury in Orange County to be exact), so I may be a bit biased in saying that this is the best of the East Coast (even though it is).  But, I’m happy to share with you the list of all of my favorite things that this incredible region has to offer!

West Point (aka United States Military Academy).

It may seem strange that my top spot in the Hudson Valley is a military base, but once you see it, you’ll understand why!

Credit: Eric Luding

Founded at the beginning of the 19th century, the USMA is one of the most historic institutions in the US.  Its history goes back to the Revolutionary War, where a great chain constructed in the picturesque bend of the river prevented British ships from sailing north into the rest of the colonies.  Now, West Point is one of the top universities in the country, training and educating future army officers in exchange for military service.  There is a visitor’s center outside the gates of West Point where you can learn about the academy, and a museum where you’ll find information about the base’s history.  Visitors can enter the base to visit the historic Thayer Hotel, which serves up an excellent Sunday brunch and has a great rooftop restaurant/bar, Zulu Time.  You may also take a bus tour of the base to learn about its incredibly interesting history, and to get an inside look of some of the incredible buildings. Alternatively, you can enter the base on your own to explore Trophy Point, the Cadet Chapel, and the West Point Cemetery where many famous Americans are interred.  In the summer, be sure to check out the outdoor concerts at Trophy Point, or the shows and events at Eisenhower Hall from September-April.

The view from Trophy Point. Credit: Eric Luding
The view from Trophy Point. Credit: Eric Luding

The best time of year to visit West Point is most certainly the autumn when the leaves take on glowing red, yellow, and orange colors, there are Army football games to attend, and the mountains seem like something out of another world.  Restrictions on entering the base are being tightened, so be sure to plan ahead if you do not have a DoD ID card; more information for visitors to West Point can be found here.

Perkins Peak.

 

This is a tough contender with West Point for my favorite spot in the Hudson Valley, but actually, the hiking trails at Perkins Peak butt up to West Point property, so we can almost consider it the same.  The Appalachian Trail runs right through Perkins Peak, but you don’t need to do any strenuous hiking to get there if you don’t want to.  This is a scenic overlook with incredible views of the Hudson River, and on a clear day, the Manhattan skyline.  A lot of people will drive up (via Perkins Memorial Drive) to Perkins Peak just to climb the lookout tower and have a picnic lunch on the beautiful, flat rocks overlooking the river.  If you’re feeling a little more adventurous, you can hike a short loop of the Appalachian Trail (definitely worth doing), or one of the other many trails that run through the area.  In my opinion, this is one of the most beautiful spots in the world. *Keep in mind that Perkins Peak is open only April-November.*

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Hiking a piece of the Appalachian Trail

Bear Mountain State Park

Located nearby to West Point, Bear Mountain is a gorgeous natural park with lots of activities to keep you entertained year round. There is the Bear Mountain Inn with a restaurant to visit, but also a ton of outdoor activities. Nearby to the Bear Mountain Inn is the Bear Mountain Ice Rink which is a beautiful place to skate outside in the winter.  In the summer, there are a ton of hiking trails and outdoor events to explore.  Sometimes you’ll also find Redhawk Native American pow-wows held in the park which are amazing events to attend- a good way to explore some of the native culture of New York!  And as with West Point, the most beautiful time to visit is in the autumn months when the foliage lights up in beautiful colors.  Be forewarned, this is also one of the most touristy parts of the year in the Hudson Valley, but seeing the beautiful mountain colors are more than worth a little extra road traffic!

Warwick, NY.

Warwick is a small town about 45 minutes from Bear Mountain State Park that’s full of beautiful farms, quaint restaurants and shops, and a lot to see and do.  The main street in Warwick is full of cute shops and restaurants that make a great afternoon stroll, but there’s a lot happening outside the commercial center, too.  In fact, I have so many top spots in Warwick that it justifies its own list:

  1. Masker’s Orchard.Maskers Found just outside the main streets of Warwick, this spot is a step outside the mountains I’ve been raving about.  Masker’s Orchard is a massive orchard with hundreds of pick-your-own apple trees of all different varieties.  My all-time favorite fall activity is visiting Masker’s with a picnic lunch and finding a spot to eat under an apple tree.  You can spend as much time in the orchard as you’d like, and you pay for any apples you bag by weight on your way out (after taste-testing one or two in the orchard, of course!).  Even after leaving the orchard, you’ll find a country store with local products (definitely try the apple butter), and a food stand selling all home-made apple products like apple cider, apple pie with vanilla ice cream, and apple donuts.
  2. Bellvale Farms CreameryLocated on one of the highest hills in Warwick, the Bellvale Farms Creamery has arguably one of the most beautiful views in the area, served up with what is most certainly the best ice cream I’ve ever had.  Plus, you can go meet the dairy cows right at the bottom of the hill- it doesn’t get more fresh than that.  This spot is nothing more than a local ice cream shop with a view, but it is absolutely worth a stop for the view and dessert!Bellvale
  3. Warwick Valley WineryThere are many wineries in the Warwick area, but the Warwick Valley Winery tops my list because of its tasty wine, great scenery, and other amenities.  Not only does the WV Winery grow excellent, local wine, but they also have their own cider and distilleries that offer great alcohols from almost any fruit you can imagine.  In addition to their tasting room, they have a restaurant/cafe and outdoor patio where live music can be enjoyed in the summer months. This is a great place to spend an afternoon trying some local products and enjoying the adult beverages of the area.

Walkway Over the Hudson

This a relatively new Hudson Valley attraction that has gained local interest very quickly.  Spanning the Hudson River between Poughkeepsie and the New Paltz area, it brings you a bit further north into the Hudson Valley, but well within the natural beauty of the region.  While not directly in New Paltz, but rather in the town of Highlands, the New Paltz side of the bridge is close enough to the town to include on your Walkway itinerary.  New Paltz, home to one of the State Universities of New York, is notoriously a “hippie town” with a beautiful and walkable main street, plus excellent shops and restaurants.  There are also many important historic landmarks in New Paltz, most notably the Historic Huguenot Street.  The Poughkeepsie side offers great restaurants and activities along the waterfront, making it a great end-point to your walk over the Hudson.  The Walkway itself provides you with beautiful views of the river and surrounding scenery- it’s definitely worth a visit!

Even after traveling through so much of the world and visiting so many beautiful places, I can genuinely say that the Hudson Valley is still one of my favorite places to be.  In my mind, nothing beats visiting Perkins Peak in autumn when the leaves are changing colors and looking out at the Manhattan skyline in the distance.  Likewise, there are few better ways to spend a day than sitting in an apple tree at Masker’s munching on a fresh Delicious Red.  I encourage anyone with a free weekend in NYC to make the trip up north to explore some of the great things that New York State has to offer; these are the things that make New York the Best of the East Coast.

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This post is part of an East Coast link up with bloggers all up and down the coast- check out the other posts below!

 

How to Change the World Through Travel

How to Change the World Through Travel

“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.” — “Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now” by Maya Angelou (1993)

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Changing the world may seem like an incredibly lofty goal, especially in today’s world of intolerance and hate being slung by even those in positions of power in supposedly “great” nations.  So many people all over the world have such incredible and unfounded hatred for others , and it may seem like an essentially insurmountable hurdle to change this cycle of misinformation and misunderstanding.

I do, however, have a solution, and it’s largely inspired by my all-time favorite quote from Maya Angelou:

“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”

How powerful is that?  How powerful is it to consider that there are millions of people all over the world that you’ve never met and likely never will meet, and they’re all living in essentially the same way as you are.  We all have these fundamental needs and behaviors that are built into our very essence, but it’s so easy to forget that “other” people also experience all of these things.  So, the solution: we need to experience how other people experience these things at the expense of our own comfort.  Simple, right?

I have a very embarrassing confession to make that I hope will demonstrate the point that I’m trying to convey:

Years ago, when I was completing my first year of university in central Pennsylvania, I was strolling through the local grocery store with a friend.  We came across the greeting card aisle, and as it was getting close to Mother’s Day, there was a plethora of Mother’s Day greeting cards.  A handful of those cards were written in Spanish, and I distinctly remember thinking, “Why?  Why are they selling greeting cards in Spanish in central Pennsylvania?”  It’s inconceivable to me now that someone, especially myself, would actually think this way, but when I come across people expressing these sentiments, I have to understand.  I have to understand that people who have always lived in one place and haven’t truly experienced other people from other cultures, or culture shock, won’t understand the concept of people living differently than they do.  I understand this mentality, but I do not excuse it.

I had traveled before I started college.  I had traveled abroad several times, in fact.  But I had never been shocked in the way that I was when I first studied abroad in Aix-en-Provence, France.  Before, I had recognized that the people I saw when I was traveling were different, but they were also the “others”, and therefore unlike myself.  When I arrived in Marseille, I was immediately dropped in a place where I didn’t understand the people, language, or way of life, and I was shocked.  I was shocked that people lived so incredibly differently there than I had ever lived before, and yet, they were still living in much the same way that I did at home.  They went to school or work, ate and drank, slept and relaxed.  They had dogs and cats, and went grocery shopping, and ran into friends in the city.  They just did all of these things in a different way than I had experienced before.  And then it became clear I was expected to assimilate to that new lifestyle.  Some of these new facets of life were welcome, and others not, but regardless, I had to deal with it.  But beyond dealing with it, I had to understand it.  And with even more difficulty, I had to come to terms with what it meant to live within a culture that was unlike my own, and not have people adapt to meet me on my level.  I was expected to speak French because I was in France, and I had a newfound appreciation for anyone willing to come to my level and tolerate my Fren-glish.

Which brings me back to those Spanish greeting cards- a year earlier, I was looking at “foreign” cards and not understanding why they were even there in my English-speaking world.  After about a week in France, I truly understood what those cards could potentially mean to Spanish-speakers still struggling to learn English.  I made my first weekend trip to London despite having had already been there because I couldn’t WAIT to have English-speaking people surrounding me and signs in English to follow.  It took just a couple weeks of my first real time living abroad to understand what it felt like to be the “other”, and to appreciate the struggles that the “others” go through in my own culture.

I feel so lucky that I was able to have such a shocking experience that moved me so violently to the point that I was able to reconsider my view of “others” in such a significant way.  And this is precisely how travel, especially immersive travel, changes the world.  It forces us to confront ideas, people, and situations that aren’t familiar to us, and that makes us better, more tolerant people.  This development of tolerance and understanding in the midst of uncomfortable situations is exactly the reason that I believe everyone should travel or live abroad at least once in their lives.

I doubt I would recognize now the person who I was when I graduated from high school.  After having that first immersive experience, it became immediately and deafeningly clear how important it was for my world to be rocked.  I needed to cry myself to sleep out of confusion and frustration in order to understand that there are people all around the world living in even more different ways than the culture I was living in in Aix.  And there are people all around the world living in cultures other than their own faced with locals who simply do not understand what it’s like to be in their position.  I will never again judge someone who is struggling to speak English, as I know now what it feels like for someone to judge me for struggling to speak French, or even more painfully, Czech.

If you haven’t already, I first encourage you to go somewhere that’s different from the places you know.  Put yourself in an uncomfortable (albeit safe) situation, and learn what it feels like to be there and be the “other” despite trying to “fit in” by learning the customs or language.  And when you go to that place, don’t consider those different things to be wrong, but merely different.  Appreciate the difference for what they are, not what they aren’t.  And if traveling like this isn’t in the cards for you at the moment, get involved at home- find people who are struggling like this to fit in to your own culture, and offer to help.  Be a conversation buddy or a culture buddy- who knows, you may even get a new language or friend out of it!  Above all else, remember that we’re all human, and our humanity must come first.  Always.

Diaries of an Expat: Rediscovering Love

Diaries of an Expat: Rediscovering Love

Have you ever had the feeling that what you used to love, or at least, what used to excite you no longer does?  I have.  It’s the worst feeling to know that the things you strived for and once cared most about doing no longer hold your eye as they once did.  For me, this is a fairly common feeling that I get whenever I feel overwhelmed or anxious because I’m exhausted, and travel is exhausting.  Or, it can be for some people, and it often is for me.

This feeling is something that I’ve come to endearingly refer to as “travel fatigue”, and I know that I’m not the only avid traveler who experiences such a thing.  With that being said, I absolutely understand that not all avid travelers experience this feeling; everyone travels and experiences travel differently.  But, since I’ve traveled to New York, back to Prague, off to Singapore, and subsequently returned to Prague, I have had an unimaginable number of things to do- I think that I was jet lagged for all of January when all was said and done.  So by the time my new 107 students arrived at the beginning of last week, I was nearly unable to empathize with their excitement to travel Europe for the next four months.  I mean, does anyone sleep anymore?

After a crazy week working 10 or 12 hour days, I’ve finally had a second to breathe.  More importantly, I had a tour to run with 30+ of my students around the exterior of Prague Castle, which served as an opportunity to wander around a beautiful part of the city, outside, and enjoy what was happening around me.  I absolutely love traveling with my students because it helps me see things again for the first time, just as they’re usually seeing these things for the first time.  I’ve written before about the tendency for us to consider the extraordinary things around us as simply ordinary, but it’s tough to break out of that mentality and experience the seemingly “normal” things again as things which are truly incredible.  When I travel with my students, I get to see them experience things which are seemingly “normal” to me as something absolutely beautiful, new, and exciting.  Today, I spent two hours walking around the Prague Castle complex on the first tour of the semester for my new group of students, and while I was mainly focused on ensuring the tour was going well and photos were being taken, I was able to re-examine a place which I’ve now walked through dozens of times without really giving it a second glance.

After the tour was over, and my work was done, I took myself up to the top of the tower at St. Vitus Cathedral, which is the iconic neogothic structure in the center of the Prague Castle complex, and I am so glad that I did.  After realizing that I was incredibly unprepared for making the ascent to the top of the tower (you’d think all of this walking around Prague would mean something…), I finally reached the summit and sat down for a 5-minute breather.  Then, I looked at the view.

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In the 20 seconds it took for me to take in the massive expanse of the Prague city skyline, I instantly realized why I live here, why I’m doing what I’m doing, and why I love traveling so much.  It’s that feeling you get when sitting at the highest point of any new and beautiful city, and I can think of countless places I’ve sat and thought how absolutely incredible it is that these cities all exist simultaneously and relatively independently of one another, but still exist in all of their beautiful glory.  But looking out at the orange and green Bohemian rooftops of Prague and its most famous architecture, I realized that this city is special.  At least, this city is special to me.  Usually I look out at cities from these viewpoints and I wonder what it’s like to live inside of those roofs, or what life might feel like in that place once you’re past the beautiful exterior.  Here, I understand.  I understand exactly what it’s like to live in an awesome neighborhood, what it’s like to work at the oldest university in the country, what it’s like to show a new group of people the magic of this place every four months.  I realized, upon looking out at the city, that I could identify all of the major landmarks I was seeing, the neighborhoods those landmarks were located in, and I could find my own apartment amongst the beautiful rooftops spread over the horizon.

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Today, I got the urge to travel again to a new place in an effort to try to understand it.  I felt the desire to sit at the top of a hill in a city where I know no one and marvel at its beauty and mystery.  Today, I fell in love with Prague again.  I can’t wait until I get to fall in love with it again.

If you’re feeling lost in your own city, whether you live abroad, in a new city in your own country, or in the house you grew up in, I encourage you to go experience something new.  Go hiking in the nearby, unexplored forest.  Go try that restaurant that you’ve always said you’d like to visit, but haven’t gotten around to yet.  Go to a park you’ve walked through a million times, sit on a bench, and take in the surroundings.  No matter where you are, there is something magical to be found, whether it’s in the gorgeous rooftops, surrounding nature, or in the people that inhabit the place.  I’ve said it before, and I’m sure that I’ll say it again, I will no longer take this place or this opportunity for granted.  And I hope that you don’t either- every place you visit, everywhere you live, you will leave a part of your heart there, so you might as well get to know it well enough so that it leaves a part of its soul with you, too.

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Diaries of an Expat: A Year in Review

Diaries of an Expat: A Year in Review

It’s been just over a year since I moved to Prague to start my new career and life as an expat, and I’m just now returning from my first trip home.  Being away from home for over a year has been incredibly challenging, but has also been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done thus far.  Even with my little travel habit [sarcasm], if you’d asked me 2 or 3 years ago if I thought I’d be semi-permanently living abroad, fully employed, and traveling all over Europe (and the world) for work, I would have told you that I thought you were crazy.  Even crazier if you’d told me this would all be happening in the Czech Republic, a country I had only visited once and spoke so little of the language it was nearly negative comprehension.

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But, here I am.  I live in Prague, I occasionally speak Czech, and I’ve even been successful in making some pretty great Czech (and non-Czech) friends.  So although I’m not big into the resolution thing, I think this might be an appropriate time to review my year, and make some goals for the next.  After all, I have another year in Prague to contend with!

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My 2015 in Review:

  • Traveled to 39 cities in 14 countries on 3 continents

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Istanbul, Turkey

  • Learned Czech acceptably enough to prevent most Prague inhabitants from wanting to kill or verbally assault me
  • Coordinated study abroad programs for three cycles of university students, 258 students total
  • Made some incredible (mostly Czech!) friends who have generously and graciously introduced me to their home city, and who have become excellent travel companions

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  • Cooked my first full Thanksgiving dinner, and while I seriously overestimated the amount of required food, I think it was a success!

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  • Came home and rediscovered my love of Prague, travel, diverse cultures, and my career

Needless to say, it’s been an excellent year.  I’m absolutely honored to have experienced everything I have, and to have met all of the people that I have.  Every single person I’ve met this year has taught me something, and I’m grateful for all of them. With all of these incredible things under my belt, I recognize there is always room for growth and even more experiences, so I’ve decided to make a list of goals for 2016.

My Goals for 2016:

  • Book and take trips to Morocco and Iceland for personal vacations
  • Continue to appreciate exactly where I’m living, and don’t let a day go by where I don’t marvel at the beauty, history, and culture of this city
  • Explore Prague more often!  I often get so bogged down by my work that I forget to explore in my free time.  I haven’t climbed Petrin Tower since 2011, and I’ve never been to the top of the Astronomical Clock in Old Town Square.  It’s time to get my butt to the top of both, among other beautiful things in this city.
  • Run more, particularly in beautiful places in Prague- it serves two purposes!
  • Watch the sunset from Riegrovy Sady as frequently as possible.  The view from this park is insanely  beautiful, particularly at sunset, and I live too close to not appreciate it more often.
  • Travel in the Czech Republic to a few new places I haven’t visited yet- this beautiful country deserves to be explored, too

And finally…

  • Write a blog post or travel guide at least once a week.  If you have any suggestions for topics you think I should cover- let me know and I’ll get to it! I’d love to be able to build up this blog and community in 2016, and your continued involvement will only help us along!

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Solo Traveling: To Tinder or Not to Tinder?

Solo Traveling: To Tinder or Not to Tinder?

When I travel, I make every effort to get my eyes off my phone in order to actually experience what’s around me.  What a concept, right?  But with increasingly accessible data and wifi around the globe, it can be tough to meet the people standing around you when everyone is too worried about checking their Instagram feeds or Snapchats.  When you’re traveling alone, this can be especially challenging, as meeting new people is often one of the best advantages to traveling alone, but can be quite difficult to manage.  Sigh.  There’s nothing we can do to change this in our current social media and selfie-obsessed culture, right?  Wrong!

On a recent trip to Visby, Sweden, I decided to try to give the “if you can’t beat them, join them” mentality a go.  I got myself on Tinder, and I started swiping in an effort to find someone that I could meet that didn’t massively creep me out.  I felt that Visby was a pretty great place to do this for a couple of reasons; the city/town of Visby is so tiny and it seems like everyone knows everyone, which is a pretty comforting feeling.  Visby is also an incredibly safe and cosy city, so the risk didn’t seem as great as it might be in other, bigger cities.

I ended up talking to someone via the chat function the first night I was there, and we agreed to meet for a drink the next day at a pub right off the the central town square.  Even before I met my Tinder friend in person, he was surprisingly helpful by giving me ideas of things to do in Gotland while I was there.  I actually received a lot of great tips from people I ended up not even meeting with, which goes to show the friendly and helpful nature of the beautiful people in that city, and how useful Tinder can be in other areas, as well.

Anyway, after an incredibly long day of site-seeing (I walked nearly 40 miles while I was in Gotland!), I met with Charles (Tinder friend) to try the local Visby beer at a small Irish pub.  We spent a few hours in the pub talking over some great beer- it was really a nice and unexpected experience.  We talked about politics, current events, Swedish/American/Czech/British/French cultures (there was a lot of experience to draw on from both sides), language, and about this beautiful town of Visby with which I’d already fallen in love.  This is exactly the kind of meeting I hope for every time I travel, and I’m not always so lucky to find it given that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to meet people.  I think that in those few hours I learned as much about Visby as I had while walking all over the city for hours over the course of three days.  I felt more connected to the people and the culture of this place as a result of this exchange with a local Visbian (if it wasn’t a thing, it is now).

After a couple of beers, we decided to take a walk around part of the old city, which was an equally interesting and engaging experience.  I had already walked down almost every passable street earlier in the day, and had spent an unimaginable amount of time staring at the beautiful architecture, but it was a very different experience walking around with a local in the evening.  We walked to one of the many ruined cathedrals in the town and stood admiring the architecture and view for quite a while.  I found it so interesting that Charles mentioned on multiple occasions that he hadn’t stopped to look at some of the things that I’d become so infatuated with in the city- I guess this may work both ways!  His comments to that effect also demonstrated to me how easy it is for me to do the same in my home environment.  While I recognize that I’m in an incredible unique and fortunate situation to have a view of Prague Castle from my office window, I can’t help but think how many times I blew through the beautiful country roads near my hometown in New York without admiring the natural beauty of the region.

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I digress; walking through these streets in Visby for what seemed like the hundredth time that day was actually one of the best walks I had through the city that week.  Walking through a city, any city, and having the opportunity to look at it through someone else’s eyes is an incredible experience, and one that will likely teach you even more than you thought possible about your perceptions, as well as the city itself.

So, for the result of my experiment: I vote yes to Tinder While Traveling.  I think that it’s an interesting way to meet new people, especially local people, and can be a great cultural immersion tool.  With that being said, I think it’s incredibly important to “Tinder safely”, as it’s obviously necessary to be safe and smart while meeting any strangers while traveling.  Make sure that you only meet with someone in a very public place, and also be sure to tell someone else where you’ll be, even if they’re out of the city/country.  I think it’s also good to recognize that it’s absolutely fine to use Tinder for non-romantic purposes as I did in Visby!  Tinder can be a great resource for meeting new people while out traveling in this ever-increasingly digital atmosphere where it’s hard to even make eye contact with a real human.

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Tinder and travel safely, my friends!

 

 

Diaries of an Expat: Rediscovery

Diaries of an Expat: Rediscovery

After months of having very little time or energy to give exploring the full attention it deserves, I decided to take a trip with my good friend, Ivana, to her hometown of Třeboň. Her hometown is actually a much smaller town next to Třeboň (which I’ll never be able to remember the name of), but we made our way around much of the region over the course of a delightful long weekend. Now that I’ve been living in Prague for nearly a year, I find myself too content to just sit in the city, or my apartment for that matter, instead of exploring all of the beautiful and historic places surrounding me. I guess that’s what having a full time job does for you, right? Well, no longer! My new Fall Resolution (which will henceforth be a thing) is to continuing exploring, trying new things, meeting new people, and truly taking advantage of all that this place in my life has to offer.  Because the Czech Republic is too incredible to ignore any longer.
Now that this grandiose statement has been made, the weekend:
On Friday, Ivana and I drove deep into Bohemia with two of our friends, Rita and Lukaš. Once we arrived at Ivana’s sister’s house, our homestay for the next few days, we all made our way to actual Třeboň to have dinner. We decided to treat ourselves to a wonderful meal at a restaurant whose name translates to “White Unicorn Restaurant”, and given that things are cheaper outside of Prague, it was a truly excellent meal without a terrifying sticker price. I even had a dessert, translated to “chocolate mass”, which was actually a chocolate blob with homemade ice cream- the best thing about going on holiday! Afterward, we grabbed a drink at a local bar where everyone seemed to know Ivana- it was really nice.
The next day, Ivana, Rita, and I made our way to a local castle, which was much different than I expected for whatever reason. The whole area around the castle was magical, it was so lovely to be out in the woods and park surrounded by incredibly beautiful architecture.
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Afterwards, we wandered to České Budějovice to have a cup of coffee and grocery shop for our dinner. We grilled meat and veggies on a raclette grill and played Cards Against Humanity, aided by a few bottles of wine. Nights like these really make me feel like I’ve been able to make a life here- it all felt so normal and comfortable, and I realize how truly lucky I am to have these people in my life.
On Sunday, Rita and Lukaš left for Prague, so Ivana and I took the opportunity to explore Třeboň by daylight. I was so pleasantly surprised by this town! In the daylight, the colors of the buildings absolutely glow, and the atmosphere is just that of a small European village- people are friendly and there is just enough to see and do. We started our adventure by walking through the castle grounds, past the local brewery, to the lake. I’m sorry, pond. Well, you see, the definition of this body of water is up for debate because, as you can see from the photos, it’s a lake. Unless you ask Ivana. Anyway, we walked around the lake and enjoyed some autumn sunshine before stumbling upon a small winery which was selling the local delicacy of Burčak. This is a drink which can only be sold from August through November, and is the young form of local wines. It’s very sweet (as the sugar hasn’t had time to ferment yet), and very delicious.
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We decided to forgo the mid-day wine festival (complete with an outdated and poorly translated Czech DJ), and continue walking around the lake. On our way, we noticed a tourist train coming around the bend on the dirt path along the water. This train is not an actual train, but one you might find at a zoo meant for moving people from one attraction to the next. We moved over to given the train room, and the next thing we know, we’ve been been hit full-force by the little engine that could. The only way I knew how I was one minute standing and the next minute sprawled across the dirt path was from the crunching sound I heart as the front end of the train hit both of our backs. The conductor said that he’d swerved to miss a child on a bike, and hit us instead. How sweet. Fortunately, aside from some sore muscles and bruised egos, it was a no harm no foul situation. Still hilarious, and still made me wonder how my life has not yet been turned into a sitcom. Anyway, after our near brush with death (or a chilly September swim), we continued along our way, a bit more slowly, as Ivana had been talking about a crypt that we could visit. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, but I don’t think it was this:
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It felt like we’d stumbled across Snow White’s chapel in the middle of the forest along one of the most beautiful lakes I’d ever seen. Saying this is a crypt does the structure a huge disservice, because even if it really is a crypt, it’s also a magical little spot in the forest of Třeboň. We wandered inside and admired the chapel, and then made our way back to the town, careful to avoid any more rogue tourist trains.
Back in Třeboň, we grabbed a cup of coffee, wrote out some postcards, and then took a climb up a tower in the city center to get a view of the rooftops. The climb up was certainly worth it, as the rooftops and surrounding nature of this town were breathtaking. Or I was out of breath from the climb. Regardless, I loved every minute (shout out to Ivana who made the climb despite a sore back and fear of heights- this girl is the best, ladies and gentleman).
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Once down from the tower, we made our way out of town, grabbed some dinner and a bottle of wine, and spent the evening drinking that wine while watching Eat, Pray, Love and painting our nails.
I had the best time this weekend, and I’m so glad that I decided to come despite how tired and grumpy I’ve been recently. Finding a work-life balance is tough, particularly when you’ve established your life around your work. And I love my work. I love my work so much, and I am so glad I’ve chosen to dedicate my life to international education. But I also need to practice what I preach, and this excursion into Bohemia was exactly that- a much needed and thoroughly enjoyable weekend with some of the best people I know.
What I Learned Living in a Tourist Capital for 4 Days

What I Learned Living in a Tourist Capital for 4 Days

I live in Prague, which is a touristy city, but I don’t live in a particularly touristy area.  The neighborhood I live in is full of other expats, artists, families, and a truly incredible amount of adorable puppies, and living here affords me the opportunity to pretend that millions of people don’t invade this city every year.  Living outside of the tourist center of the city has also caused some…encounters…with Czechs that aren’t particularly thrilled that I don’t speak Czech very well, and with Czechs who think my attempts are either laughable or adorable (I’ve never been able to tell which).  Regardless, my experience living in Prague 3 feels “local” to me.  I feel like I’m part of a community here, and that I’m adapting to this beautiful city well enough to start calling it home.

All of this changed last week when I had to temporarily leave my apartment while some repairs were being done.  Because I work in Old Town, I decided that I would take my rent reduction and book an Airbnb apartment close to work so that I’d be able to cut down my commute for a couple of very lazy days.  I had no idea that 3 nights spent living in Prague’s Jewish Quarter would be so incredibly different than the past 7 months I’ve spent living 4 metro stops away from the heart of the Old Town.  Experiencing my (current) home city through a tourist’s eyes gave me both a deeper appreciation for tourists, and for the city itself.  In light of my most recent revelations, here are some things that I learned while living in the tourist district of Prague:

  1. Using the local language will (usually) earn you major brownie points.  I’ve been learning Czech for 3 or 4 months, and I can say basic things.  Very basic.  So basic that people in my own neighborhood usually get frustrated or angry with me, and if they don’t, they usually just laugh at the “cute” attempt.  In my laziness, I visited restaurants in the Jewish Quarter that I probably wouldn’t have ever gone to otherwise, and did my usual “attempt to order in Czech” thing, and it was met with such gratitude I felt like I was going to be thrown a parade.  I had one waitress apologize to me for greeting me in English as soon as she heard me say “ja si dam” (“I’ll have”) when placing my order.  …She actually apologized- and in a very heartfelt way at that!  I had another waiter come over to me when I finished a meal to thank me for attempting Czech, and he said it so earnestly that I could believe he’s never had another customer make the attempt.  I’ve never been thanked for butchering a language before, I guess I can check it off the bucket list…
  2. Not using the local language can be a serious detriment.  It’s not often the case that I can pick and choose when to speak the local language, and to be fair, if I can speak the local language I almost always give it a shot.  In these three days, I certainly ran into moments when my Czech wasn’t sufficient, and it became a truly interesting exercise.  In these moments, it was clear that my quality of life in Prague is significantly better when I’m attempting to speak Czech.  Or in any case, I pay less for wine.
  3. Tourists are both incredibly annoying and incredibly charming.  When you’re trying to get to work in the morning and have to walk through Old Town Square, it’s much like the feeling you get walking to an important meeting through Times Square at 2:00 pm on a Saturday.  It’s not a happy feeling.  On the other hand, seeing the city you’ve lived in for more than half a year through the eyes of those tourists is a great path to rediscovery.  I usually blow past them on the sidewalk in an effort to get home, but because I was living so close to the office I had a lot more free time to appreciate what was around me.  Part of what I found to appreciate was the amazement with which many of the tourists see Prague.  It’s also a great feeling when someone asks you for directions, and you can help them.  It’s even better when you can see the pure joy in their eyes when they realize that you speak English- a feeling I can truly understand!
  4. Prague is beautiful, and I’m incredibly lucky.  I read a HuffPost article today which named Prague “Europe’s Prettiest City”, which may be an exaggeration, or maybe not.  This city is truly beautiful, there’s no denying that.  I live and work in one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, if not the world, and I almost never actually think about that in my day-to-day life.  It’s so easy to get caught up in work, friends, and traveling outside of Prague that I forget to appreciate my own city.  It’s actually ridiculous that I’m saying this, because it’s the one thing I always tell my students- “remember to live in and love Prague, it’s just as amazing as all of those travel destinations you have planned”, but I’m so guilty of the same mindset.  While I was staying in the Jewish Quarter, I walked down Parizska ulice (Paris Street, reminiscent of the Champs-Elysees) and admired the beautiful architecture surrounding the incredible store windows of the most expensive stores in Prague.  I even took a walk down to Charles Bridge at sunset and parked myself on a bench to stare at the rooftops on the other side of the river.  Not many people get to experience that feeling ever in their lives, I can do it whenever I want.  So I’ve decided that’s exactly what I’m going to do- something to appreciate Prague every week, if not every day, I owe it to this magical place.

This week’s revelations aren’t Prague-specific, I think they’re travel, study abroad, or expat relevant, in general.  So many of my expat friends and students tell me about how boring it is in their host city, or how they can’t wait to travel somewhere else, and it kills me!  Learning to appreciate the beauty surrounding you, no matter where in the world you are, is one of the greatest rewards and lessons you can gain from traveling.  Learning to respect and appreciate the local people and language is another great, albeit challenging, lesson to be learned from traveling and living abroad.  Once you make that step towards immersion and adaptation, it’s become clear to me that your life abroad will become significantly better.  I’m so happy to call Prague home for now, and I’ll be even more happy when I’ll be able to officially add Czech to my “languages spoken” list.  Living in the Jewish Quarter for 3 nights was a great experience, and I would recommend anyone living abroad to experience their city as a tourist would- it will certainly breathe new life into your experience!

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The view from my bench at Charles Bridge.  Did I mention this city is incredibly beautiful?

Diaries of an Expat: What Does it Mean to Be American?

Diaries of an Expat: What Does it Mean to Be American?

By Katie Ford

As I sit in the Dallas Fort Worth Airport, I find myself surrounded by “American” cultural icons- a cowboy-themed bar, country music, multiple fast-food options, and a steakhouse.  But the thing is, I don’t really identify with any of these things in the way that many of the people around me seem to.  I actually feel like I often do when I’m traveling in other countries; I recognize the similarities between myself and those around me, but the difference are also glaringly obvious.

I’ve been traveling in the United States for various conferences and meetings over the past week and a half, and it has given me an interesting insight into my own culture, and that of different regions around the USA.  Probably the most valuable part of the time that I’ve spent back in the States is that I was visiting places I had never traveled to before, despite those places being located within the confines of my own country.  Furthermore, in New Orleans, the culture is significantly different than the culture in New York, my home state.  I felt as if I was visiting another country while I was there, and it was shocking to notice how little I fit in as a “typical American”.  So much of what I noticed people saying or doing seemed so foreign to me as I wandered through the streets of the Big Easy.  Is it possible that I’ve already lost fundamental components of my “American” culture?  Is it possible to actually lose culture?  At what point do you become a foreigner in your own country?

These are the questions I began asking myself.  It’s particularly interesting because when you live as an expat, you’re often defined by the place that you came from.  For instance, whenever I meet someone new in Prague, I’m always first asked where I’m from, as I am obviously not Czech.  As soon as I say, “the States”, “New York”, or any variation thereof, there is always an immediate judgement that you can practically see and feel.  I’ve never particularly minded that people tend to initially judge me based on my home town, state, or country, as those are certainly things that have played a large role in who I have developed into as an adult.  I also usually find that after I spend more time with those people, their judgements tend to shift as they realize that I don’t fit into most of the typical American stereotypes (thankfully).  Despite this, I have always been proud of being an American, of my home state and all that it offers, and grateful for the opportunities I’ve been afforded because of those things.  On the other side of the coin, when I’m in the United States, and where I live somehow comes up in conversation, I am instantly judged as a foreigner.  An American who isn’t quite an American that lives a crazy and exotic life that seems essentially incomprehensible to many.  It’s hard for some people, especially those who haven’t traveled, to relate to me anymore, and it’s an interesting byproduct of becoming an expat.  You can’t relate to those who are native in your host country, as you’re obviously still foreign, but those at home also find you hard to relate to because you’ve made yourself somehow foreign.

The question of whether or not it’s possible to “lose” culture came up at one of the conference sessions I attended this week, and I thought it was a very interesting question.  There wasn’t really a general consensus in the room, although some of those in attendance had some very thought-provoking responses to the question.  I personally like the response from one woman working at a university in Barcelona.  At her university, they teach classes in Catalan, Spanish, and English in order to give all students, local and international, the opportunity to develop a wide array of language skills in order to better prepare them for the world.  The concept of culture is particularly poignant in Barcelona because of the ever-lasting Spanish versus Catalan culture contention.  She said that she doesn’t think her students lose anything in terms of culture when they take courses in a language outside of their own.  In fact, she said that she thinks that no matter where your cultural roots are, you will always have the ability to gather other cultural insights to incorporate them into your own, but that growth doesn’t negate your own culture, which will never change.  I feel like this fairly accurately describes how I have developed personally over the last 5 or so years since I first studied abroad in Aix-en-Provence.  Living abroad in three different countries has taught me how to learn from and truly appreciate other cultures while still maintaining my own identity.  The key thing, for me, is to recognize how my identity may be perceived by other people depending on what their previous exposure has been, and accepting that as something I can do nothing about.  The most important responsibility I have is to continue growing, developing, and learning about everything around me in an effort to become the most compassionate, well-rounded, and forward-thinking individual I can be.  Yes, I am an American.  I am also a global citizen, and part of this experience means reconciling the two.

 

5 Mistakes to Avoid When Traveling

5 Mistakes to Avoid When Traveling

By Katie Ford

Everyone will make mistakes while they travel, that’s a given.  And if I’m being honest, mistakes are often the best way to explore a new city, or even to learn about yourself.  With that being said, there are some mistakes that just aren’t worth making, and they’re ones that most beginner travelers end up making most frequently.  Here is my list of 5 mistakes to avoid when traveling:

1. Keeping your nose in the guide books. Guide books are great, but they’re not the end all be all.  More than that, the more you read your guide books, especially as you’re walking around the city, the more you’re going to miss what’s actually around you.  You should also keep in mind that guide books are primarily meant for tourists, which means that they’re going to direct you to all of the things that tourists want to see.  If you want to see parts of the city that locals tend to favor, most guidebooks will not be your friend.

2. Being glued to your phone.  Whether you’re using your phone to communicate with friends and family at home, or to research the next place you’re going to see, you’re guaranteed to be missing some great things right where you are!  Any research you need to do can be done at the hostel the night before, and unless there’s an emergency, any communication with family can be done when you’re relaxing at night.  Why pay to go somewhere awesome, and then spend all of your time virtually living at home?  The best traveling I did was when I had a cheap track phone and no smart phone- I couldn’t Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat until I got back to my room at night, and so I could physically live in the moments as I was experiencing them!

3. Viewing your travels from behind a lens. Speaking of ways to avoid living in the moment… This one is my most common travel mistake because I always get stuck somewhere between wanting to capture every single moment and actually experiencing those moments without my camera attached to my face.  Try to find a happy balance between capturing beautiful memories, but allowing yourself to create them as well.

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4. Spending all of your money on useless things.  Do you really need that coffee mug or key chain (for an exorbitant amount of money)?  Probably not.  I will never understand why people spend so much of their hard-earned travel money on t-shirts when there are so many experiences and likely more meaningful items to spend it on.  My favorite souvenirs to purchase are actually postcards.  They’re a great way to collect a small memory of where you’ve been without spending a ton of money (or hardly any at all if you find cheap ones).  The other great thing about postcards is that you can do some really cool things with them when you get home.  Try writing yourself a postcard when you’re traveling, and then mail it to yourself from the city you bought it- this way you’ll have a reminder of your thoughts at the time you were there, you’ll have the stamp and postage from the city, and you’ll have some fun mail when you get home!  You can make these into a book or even into wall art afterwards to make it even more meaningful.

5. Falling for the never-ending assault of tourist traps.  Tourist traps are everywhere, and sometimes they’re simply unavoidable.  Other times, they’re completely avoidable.  For instance, when a man dressed as a gladiator approaches you in front of the Colosseum and asks you if you’d like your photo taken, you should say no, or else this happens:

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and then you’re stuck paying the third gladiator 20 euros so they will give you your camera back.  We live and learn, right?

 

Everyone is guilty of at least one of these travel mistakes, and none of them are earth-shattering, but you’ll likely have a much more pleasant experience if you’re able to avoid them!  If you’re looking for travel guides to use before your trip to get your nose out of those guidebooks, check out the travel guides page on Study Hard Travel Smart.  Happy travels!