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This month I returned to my roots — I took a nice juicy solo trip to some countries I hadn’t visited before. Man, that always feels great. I took long walks. I photographed everything in sight. I drank lots of coffees in lots of cool cafes. Absolute bliss.
Since settling down in New York last year, I’ve been surprised at how much I’ve struggled with my identity. When you earn your salary based on your personality and then you make a major shift in lifestyle, on top of going from a moderate cost of living to a high cost of living, it can be quite disorienting. But after a year and a few months, I’m finding myself more relaxed.
Now, I think I’m getting pretty close to where I want to be — one week away per month, or two weeks away every two months, plus an occasional weekend trip thrown in. And the rest of the time I get to hang out in fabulous New York City. That feels right to me now.
New York, NY
Odessa, Kiev, Chernobyl, and Pripyat, Ukraine
Odessa. Far and away. I’ve been dreaming of visiting Odessa for so long, and it didn’t disappoint me in the slightest.
Bucharest was a lot of fun. I visited for the #ExperienceBucharest campaign, designed by volunteer tourism professionals to promote Bucharest to an international audience. Everyone was so passionate about sharing their hometown with us!
And I discovered a fabulous city. It felt a lot like Berlin in that the strangest little cafes and restaurants were hiding behind innocuous looking doors, but it also had a grandeur reminiscent of Paris. I loved getting to know the people of Bucharest, from formerly homeless tour guides to artists and entrepreneurs to the expats who had made Bucharest their home. It’s a special city. And while many Romania tourists skip Bucharest, you really shouldn’t.
At the conference portion of the event, I spoke on a panel about visual storytelling and didn’t mince words: “I am so sick of travel bloggers posting a million acro-yoga photos.” (Seriously, bloggers…no offense to my friends who are really into acro, but I hate looking at tons of photos of you balanced on the hairy legs of some random dude in short-shorts. Plus, doesn’t taking tons of photos of yourself doing yoga kind of defeat the mental benefits of doing yoga in the first place?)
Ukraine was awesome. Man, did I love that country! I had plans to visit Odessa, Kiev, and Chernobyl, and I partnered last-minute with JayWay Travel, a boutique Central and Eastern European travel company, for a custom itinerary they built for me with hotels, transfers, and tours throughout the country.
There is so much beauty and pride in Ukraine — a sharp contrast from Moldova. And it is by far the cheapest European country I’ve visited. Much cheaper than Albania and Macedonia! Think 95-cent lattes in fancy cafes and two-course meals with both wine and water for $8.
Odessa was my favorite spot, with its elegant streets and pastel colors, but I also really liked Kiev (especially the parts without Soviet architecture).
Chernobyl was unforgettable. It’s so hard to find the words to describe visiting the location of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986. (Yes, it’s safe to visit today. It’s the equivalent of staying in Kiev plus eating two and a half bananas. There’s radiation in everything.) It’s a site of great tragedy, but it’s also moving to see a town left frozen in time, as well as the effect of nature reclaiming a whole settlement.
Learning Cyrillic. I did learn a bit when I traveled to Macedonia and Bulgaria back in 2013, but I had forgotten most of it. This time in Ukraine, I jumped in and worked hard — and it paid off. There’s nothing more rewarding than sounding out a word and recognizing it. Once, I yelled out, “Oh! Sushi Bar!”
Some strange and lovely New York adventures. Like finally making it to Punderdrome, a monthly pun competition in Brooklyn. About a dozen people, some of them professional comedians, get up on stage and out-pun each other until there’s only one winner remaining. I loved it!
And, um, I ventured to HUMP!, Dan Savage’s independent sex-positive pornographic short film festival. If you ever feel like you’ve seen everything…that festival will assure you that nope, you haven’t.
I also made an appearance at Smorgasburg, a weekend food festival in Brooklyn, for the first time in forever. If you visit New York on a weekend, you should try to attend — they have tons of delicious and unique food offerings. It’s not a cheap outing, but it’s lots of fun!
Making lots of new friends — and connecting with two people in particular. I usually keep to myself when traveling solo, so that’s a bit of a novelty for me. And on this trip I met two different people — one in Bucharest, one in Kiev — with whom I connected in a deep, unfiltered way. The kind of connection you can only have with a stranger. It’s crazy to feel like someone can hold your soul in their hand for a few minutes.
Moldova was a bit of a bust. After a few hours of walking around Chisinau, I felt like I had made a huge mistake choosing to spend three nights there. Over time, I found a few cool businesses and developed a bit of affection for the city, but I feel no need to return to Moldova and wouldn’t recommend Chisinau to the vast majority of travelers.
I wanted to see more of Moldova — Cricova Winery and Orhei Vechei — but Cricova wasn’t doing wine tastings (and what’s the point of visiting a winery without tastings? The visit is the boring part!) and the minibuses ran on a schedule that would have left me in the middle of nowhere for hours. I would have hired a driver, but I couldn’t find a professional and as a solo woman, I would only hire a professional, not some random dude wanting to make a few bucks.
By that time, I was just exhausted and didn’t even feel like venturing to Transnistria.
Illness in Bucharest. Conferences are a hotbed of germs to begin with, particularly when you combine it with party nights and lack of sleep. I usually get sick a few days after a conference, but this time it hit me earlier. Probably because everyone was sick. When it’s that bad, you know it’s a matter of time before you get sick, too.
Yet another far-longer-than-necessary journey home. It wasn’t quite as bad as my 48-hour Broome-Perth-overnight-Singapore-London-long layover-Boston journey last fall (which I am NEVER REPEATING), but my Kiev-Bucharest-overnight-Amsterdam-New York journey was 24 hours long. It pained me when I realized that I could have flown nonstop from Kiev to New York in just 10 hours, but alas, circumstances brought me elsewhere.
The older I get, the less I can tolerate those long journeys. I need to keep that in mind.
The Raindrop Cake is a lie! New York’s Raindrop Cake, a clear gelatinous half-sphere became an Instagram star a few months ago, and when I saw it at Smorgasburg, I wanted to give it a try. Well, it wasn’t anything great. It didn’t look THAT good, and it tasted like plain sugar-flavored gelatin.
Honestly, this was the most “the emperor has no clothes” trend I’ve found since moving to New York. And the fact that it cost $8 added insult to injury. Skip this one and walk to Ample Hills for ice cream instead.
And I dealt with a stye. I don’t get styes very often, but if you’ve had one, you know how unpleasant they are. They hurt, your face looks like you’re having a stroke, and you may need to throw your eye makeup away. A few days of tea bag compresses and baby shampoo washings got rid of it. Though several people told me that the best cure for a stye is URINE!
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The First Step to Quitting Your Job to Travel — The best resource toward starting to work online, The Paradise Pack, is only available one week per year and that week is NOW. Check it out — ASAP.
TBEX Zimbabwe: An Unethical and Irresponsible Choice — TBEX, the largest travel blogging conference, is taking money from Robert Mugabe’s murderous regime in Zimbabwe in exchange for promoting the country.
Things to Do in Stellenbosch: A Guide to South Africa’s Wine Region — The absolute best way to wind down a busy trip to South Africa is to spend a few days lounging and wine-tasting in Stellenbosch.
Scenes from Košice, Slovakia — I loved this little Slovakian town and got some colorful pictures!
The Art of the Chilled Out Trip to Paris — Paris is so much better without a solid itinerary.
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Want likes? Post the Eiffel Tower. Pretty simple. I actually posted this photo to celebrate the election of Emmanuel Macron in France.
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I’m officially in the worst fitness rut I’ve been in since the beginning of the year. I’ve just gotten lazy and I need to pick things up again.
I was so determined to work out throughout my Eastern Europe trip, but it didn’t happen. As a result, when I had my first zumba/training combo day after my trip, I was PAINFULLY sore for the next three days.
The good news? My trainer asked if I could keep my weight steady while away, and I actually kept it exactly the same, despite consuming tons of dumplings and wine. That’s something.
This month I also took the “Dance!” class at Equinox. The description said it could be from any genre of dance and I hoped it would be hip-hop…no. It was jazz. A jazz routine. I felt like I was back in high school drama class. Yeah, that one I won’t be repeating. I didn’t even break a sweat!
I’ll get back in there. I need to.
I’m also thinking about expanding to a global Equinox membership. It doesn’t make the most sense, since I live in Harlem and all the gyms are south of me, but it might be worth it to take classes with my favorite instructors on a more regular basis…
What I Read This Month
I’m up to 28 books read so far this year — I’m now officially more than halfway through the 52-book 2017 PopSugar Book Challenge! I had actually hoped to have read six to eight books this month rather than just five, but I’m working on a few others and will get there.
Also, I keep meaning to read literature from the country I’m visiting, but of course I spent two weeks in Eastern Europe and only read books set in Oklahoma, Florida, and Kansas. Go figure.
Losing My Virginity: How I Survived, Had Fun, and Made a Fortune Doing Business My Way by Richard Branson (updated 2011 edition) — I knew “a book that’s mentioned in another book” would be a challenging category — somehow, I could only think of the books that were mentioned throughout the Baby-Sitters Club series (Little Women and Baby Island?). But when I read You Are a Badass by Jen Sincero earlier this year, she had a list of recommended books and said that while you should always read books by people you admire, Richard Branson’s memoir was her absolute favorite. I was sold!
And what a thrilling ride this book was! It’s an in-depth account of Branson’s wild journey as an entrepreneur, as well as his adventures through love, life, and record-breaking. And I found it fascinating to see how he sees the world and makes decisions. He is just so optimistic and willing to jump into anything that seems fun, without even putting that much thought into it. I was also surprised to hear that Virgin had very little cash on hand until the mid-1990s, when they won a huge settlement from British Airways. (Consequently, I never want to fly BA again. They spied on Richard Branson and his family!!)
The best memoirs are ones that either show a major transformation or bare the soul of the writer. This book falls more into the latter category, and it’s absolutely worth it. Category: a book that’s mentioned in another book.
Nyssa Glass and the House of Mirrors by H.L. Burke (2016) — You know, I’ve made an effort to read a good book in every category, even the ones that aren’t really my thing, but when it came time to read a steampunk novel, I just wanted to get through one quickly. So I found the Nyssa Glass series: a set of mysteries about a teenage girl who solves mysteries in Victorian times while aided by cutting-edge steam technology. Steampunk has always made me roll my eyes a bit, but I’m sure it can be done well in the hands of a skilled author.
And this book? Just a quickie Young Adult book that wasn’t that compelling. I think younger readers might get more out of it. Category: a steampunk novel.
Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann (2017) — I chose this book from Book of the Month because it’s one of the hottest nonfiction releases of the year and it tells a fascinating story forgotten by history. In the 1920s, the Osage Indians of Oklahoma were the richest people per capita in the world because there was oil on their land and the rights couldn’t be sold, only inherited through family. Then dozens of Osage began dying unexpectedly — some from illness, some from gunshots. Eventually the newly formed FBI discovered a mass conspiracy to murder as many Osage as possible.
In addition to learning about this heartbreaking and forgotten chapter of history, I found it fascinating to see how Native Americans were treated by white people and how it differed from other races. It was common for Native Americans and white people to marry, and rather than being segregated, the attitude was more, “They need to assimilate and start doing things our way.” Like other forms of racism, it never ended — it just changed form. Also, I was very interested in the FBI parts and think I might want to read a biography of J. Edgar Hoover next. Category: a book recommended by a librarian. (PS — Library Reads is a great resource to find books recommended by librarians.)
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937) — I had been meaning to read this book forever, along with more Harlem Renaissance authors, and when I saw it in a used bookstore near my gym, I snapped it up. In this novel, taking place in Florida not too long after Emancipation, a teenage girl named Janie yearns to fall in love — but she feels nothing for her first husband and runs off with a second, controlling husband. Then finally, as a 40-year-old widow, she meets a handsome 25-year-old and falls in love for the first time.
I love a good romance, and this delivered. But more than that, this book was about Florida, its stickiness and humidity, and its fledgling all-black communities created in the years post-slavery. And the only thing I love more than a good romance is a good ending — not necessarily a happy or sad ending, but an ending you’ll never forget. This falls into that category. Category: a book you got at a used bookstore.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1965) — This was my book club’s pick for the month, and I was glad to read a book that I’ve always heard about. Truman Capote invented the nonfiction novel! It’s because of him that one of my favorite books, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, exists today! At the time of publication, it was unheard of for a nonfiction book to be written in the literary style of fiction.
In 1959, four members of a family were murdered on their farm in Kansas. There were no clues and no motive — but eventually an unlikely source led to the case cracking open. Capote tells the story of the murder from the points of view of the victims, the perpetrators, and the local community.
The writing is captivating but something felt wrong to me — it felt so voyeuristic. These people died, and there was no reason for their deaths. (It’s the same reason why I don’t listen to murder podcasts, despite their popularity — it feels cruel to me to geek out over the deaths of people.) But I appreciated it as a piece of literature. I also enjoyed that my hometown of Reading, Massachusetts, made a most unexpected appearance near the end of the book. Category: a book with an eccentric character.
What I Watched This Month
Master of None, Season Two. This show means so much to me and I’m glad it’s finally back after a year and a half. Not only is it the show I relate to the most, it somehow hits me straight in the feels and brings me nearly to tears, even when it’s not that sad. HOW DOES IT DO THAT? Do they have a blueprint of my brain?!
And then it was like Season Two was even more precisely tailored to me:
–They had a performance by my favorite singer, John Legend.
–They cast my favorite celebrity crush, Bobby Cannavale (yeah, I say it’s The Rock, but it’s really Bobby Cannavale) playing an Anthony Bourdain-like role and it’s the hottest he’s ever looked onscreen.
–They filmed in two of my favorite small towns in Italy: Modena in Emilia-Romagna and Pienza in Tuscany.
–They had a discussion about the Italian word allora that was pretty much lifted from my time living in Italy — I had no idea what it meant, but somehow I always knew when to say it!
–There was an homage to my favorite American quirk: giant pharmacies. Which is one thing I talk about all the time — I always LOVE returning to giant American pharmacies when I come home from my travels! They have everything you could possibly need!
At any rate, it was such a lovely season and I highly recommend you watch. It’s tough, though — Netflix hit us hard this month with new seasons of House of Cards, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Bloodline simultaneously…
Image: Jon Roberts
Coming Up in June 2017
After having a big trip in May, I’m taking it easier in June with only two short trips scheduled. First, I’m heading home to Massachusetts for my dad’s (milestone!) birthday at the beginning of the month.
And later in the month, I’m visiting Asheville, North Carolina, for the first time ever! I’ve wanted to visit this mountainside city for so long, but I was hesitant to visit North Carolina while HB2 (a.k.a. the bathroom law) was in place. The law has since been repealed by the new Democratic governor, so I feel comfortable going now. (Many LGBT advocates think that the repeal doesn’t go far enough. I agree with them. But I also know that political progress is most effective when it’s incremental and the repeal is a necessary step in gaining full equality for LGBT citizens in North Carolina.) Additionally, as one of the state’s liberal enclaves, Asheville has long been welcoming to LGBT Americans.
North Carolina is actually a new state for me — my final state to visit on the East Coast! And I’ve been working with Explore Asheville to create a responsible and ethical itinerary that’s heavy on outdoorsy pursuits and features small local businesses. I’m really excited about it.
Any suggestions for Asheville? Let me know!
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