The Bernina Express: An Alpine Rail Adventure

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For many travelers, the daydream of a European adventure is not complete without the image of themselves relaxing on a train, looking out across rolling vineyards, church steeples on the horizon and Alpine cliffs shinning in the background. Especially if you grew up in the USA, where those brave enough to embark upon an Amtrak adventure might easily end up stuck on the tracks outside of Albany, New York on a freezing December day for 7 hours while a raging, redheaded conductor from Boston reminds them that she has no idea when we’ll be able to get a move on because the freight trains get preference on the tracks, OK? (Yes, I am speaking from experience here).

Since my first trip though Europe, this image of adventure while riding the rails has intrigued and excited me, though with the realities of real life travel (and admittedly, the notorious difficulties of the Italian train system), some of the romanticism has worn away.

It was on a chilly, Thanksgiving holiday to visit friends in Switzerland that I found myself swooning for rail travel once again.

Through 55 tunnels and over 196 bridges, the Bernina Express train through southeastern Switzerland is not just an example of incredible engineering, it is the highest rail crossing in Europe, traveling through magnificent Alpine scenery the entire way. It’s even listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

“Express” is a bit of a misnomer: this bright red train moves leisurely, twisting and turning up mountainous switchbacks, crossing through tunnels from an incredible vista on one side of the mountain to another. You don’t want it to go any faster though: there is so much to look at as the train sways and whistles, traveling from quaint Swiss villages to glacial valleys.

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Looking down over Poschiavo on the train down from St. Moritz

From Milan, it’s easy to catch the hourly train from Centrale station to Tirano: a 2.5 hour trip along the eastern shore of Lake Como (grab a window seat on the west side of the train if you can!) In Tirano, exit the train station and take an immediate right into the other station in the square: towards the red trains.

Ascending quickly up the narrow, village-lined Poschiavo Valley, you spin around the famous viaduct of Brusio before going up the mountain side, above the tree line and to the sweeping vista over Alp Grüm, where you can stop and eat at the restaurant overlooking a magnificent panorama. From here, it’s a glacier spotting adventure, past the grand Lake Bianco, ringed by snow-capped mountains and through the high Bernina peaks.

After about 2 hours of breathtaking travel, the train pulls into St. Moritz, an elegant ski resort city in the heart of the Alps. From here you can continue north on the Bernina Express towards Chur, the oldest town in Switzerland, crossing the 90m high Solis viaduct and through the area with Europe’s highest density of castles. Alternatively, you can head east or west from St. Moritz along the Glacier Express and glimpse the Matterhorn and Rhine Gorge.

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St. Moritz in the off season: mid November and it’s still lovely.

In the summer, the area is full of hiking excursions and in the winter some of the best alpine skiing in the world can be found throughout the region. And it bears mentioning that on a Wednesday afternoon in November, I found myself completely alone on the train, allowing me to unabashedly rush from one side of the car to the other in order to take in the best views as they shifted.

It was on my way home, back down to Italy and near the village of Poschiavo, that I realized I had found my childlike love of riding train all over again. I wasn’t checking my watch, or even getting lost in a podcast. I was present, watching the scenery go by and feeling the movement of travel. I felt adventurous, cosmopolitan and amazed all at once, like I always dreamed I would when I was a little girl, pining away for Old World adventures.

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Find more information about the Bernina Express, as well as schedules and prices, by clicking here.

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My Favorite Place to Ring in the New Year

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We’re past the hump of Halloween, which means Christmas decorations are hitting the stores and Americans are in for two full months of seasonal music. Luckily, so far in Italy it appears that they don’t jump on the bandwagon quite so fast and I’ll be spared the onslaught until December.

But let’s move past Christmas for now, and jump straight into the next big thing: New Years Eve. I’ll be celebrating the beginning of 2017 in a resort on the Dead Sea in Jordan, and perhaps you’ve already got a plan as well. But just in case you’re not booked up and the travel bug has been getting under your skin, might I make a suggestion?

Edinburgh, Scotland

I’ve spent New Years Eve in my fair share of amazing places. I’m a sucker for significant moments, and the transition from one year to the next hits all the right notes: looking back, dreaming forward and making a ritual out of Midnight on a cold winter night. And I’ve done a lot of cool things to ring in the new year: At the beginning of 2011, I stood on the side of the Mississippi River in New Orleans, dancing to a live jazz band while the New Years Baby got thrown from the roof of Jax Brewery. I passed the first night of 2010 in New York City (but not in Times Square – who has the stamina to wait all day and night for the ball to drop?) I’ve rung in the New Year most often at a good friend’s house in Northern Minnesota, surrounded by my dearest family and oldest friends, popping champagne while my dad plays Auld Langs Syne on his guitar and a bonfire burns outside.

But there was nothing in the world like the Hogmanay Festival celebrated in Scotland’s beautifully rugged, historic – albeit sometimes deary – capital city. When I suggested to my British friend (who had so wonderfully invited me to spend Christmas with her family while I was solo backpacking through Europe a few years ago) that we make our way north for New Year’s Eve, I had no idea that we would be taking part in one of the biggest New Year’s Eve parties in the world.

The traditional Hogmanay (New Years Eve) celebration has been revived in the city of year-round festivals in the last decades. With traditional dances, pop superstar concerts, Christmas markets in full swing, fireworks all over the city and even a 8,000 person torchlight processional to begin the festivities, the party in Edinburgh is truly once in a lifetime.

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The festivities begin on the 30th of December with a torchlight procession of 8,000 people carrying real torches with real fire through the historic center for about a mile. First of all, I’m shocked that they still allow 8,000 (not entirely sober) tourists to walk through the city with live fire in their hands – “This is a grand way to burn down your city,” my friend’s dad noted as we set off behind a crew of particularly rowdy Frenchmen. The tradition of the torchlight procession ties back to the Solstice and signifies burning away the old year while carrying light with you into the new. The cool factor and authenticity of actually carrying a real torch (I kind of expected to be given a plastic flashlight shaped like fire for liability reasons) really made it a highlight of the trip for all of us. We were lead by a group dressed as Vikings, bagpipes were playing all along way and the fire in our hands warmed us against the cold breeze. Looking ahead and behind, we created a river of fire through the hilly city.

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After everyone made their way through the city center, the group gathered at Calton Hill, where fireworks begin the real party.

On December 31st we visited the Edinburgh Castle and spent an afternoon trying to decipher exactly who Mary, Queen of the Scots was in the royal lineage. We ate an excellent dinner – in which I almost tried haggis, but backed out, opting instead for delicious lamb – then headed to the ceilidh: a traditional Scottish dance. This was another one of my favorite parts of the trip because I’m also a sucker for learning traditional dances, specifically those with fiddles and drums. The Scottish waltzes felt just similar enough to those I used to attend to as a child that it was a flashback to some of my happiest memories. Of course it was also complete chaos (no one knew what they were doing) but it was an awful lot of fun.

At Midnight, as one year passes to the next, the whole city lights up again with simultaneous fireworks shows over the castle and Calton Hill. From our place just between the two hills, we were awash with lights, cheers and celebrations. As the colors and bombs die down, everyone crosses their arms, grabs someone nearby’s hands and at least mumbles the first line and the tune to Auld Langs Syne. Even if you don’t know exactly what you’re saying in old English, you can appreciate singing the tune in its place of origin with thousands of others.

There were lots of different street parties during this part of the night, including concerts, bumping discos and general eating and drinking everywhere. Basically, the whole city was out celebrating in the streets one way or another late into the morning.

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Inside the Edinburgh Castle

The next morning, if you fancy, there is a rowdy dive of a thousand costumed swimmers into the freezing water or the Forth River. Significantly less, but still a notable amount, of people participate in this activity – though I imagine it helps with the hangover – and probably makes you almost as tough as any given Highlander out there.

Other highlights of the city included: Edinburgh Castle, The National Museum of Scotland, the Cathedral, Arthur’s Seat and a Ghost Tour with Auld Reekie Tours.

Touring Morocco, From Marrakesh On (Part 2)

I just spent a week in Morocco – my first time in the country and my first time in Africa – and for such a comparatively short amount of time, I have a lot to say about this incredible place. This is my third post on the matter, so if you need to get yourself caught up, check out Touring Morocco Part 1 or enjoy some travel-log-style writing with this post.

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To continue with my advice and thoughts on my own and any future journeys into Morocco, here are some lists, because who doesn’t love a good list in a blog?

Morocco Tips

  • Find yourself a good riad or hostel, because you’re gonna need an oasis as you acclimate. I stayed at Equity Point Hostel which was AMAZING. For 12 Euros a night, I had a bed in an all-female dorm, access to a pool and rooftop terrace and hung around in a beautiful riad setting. The hostel has a hammam, organizes daily excursions to surrounding areas and had some of the friendliest staff I’ve met in a long time. No matter where you stay, you’ll be headed back there to regroup after a day in the heat and chaos of the city, so consider papering yourself a little.
  • Have plenty of small coins in your hard-to-break-into purse for tips. From street performers who catch your eye to a local who helps you find your hotel (trust me, you’ll probably need this the first time so it’s better to just let it happen), to restaurants and bathroom attendants, tipping is an integral part of life here. And really, with 10 dirham being about $1, you can probably spare a couple of coins here and there to show your appreciation.
  •  No matter who you are – but perhaps especially as a woman – it’s best to cover your knees and shoulders in deference to local customs. Yes, even men. Yes, even though it’s god-awfully hot out there. Especially if you are traveling outside of the tourist centers of major cities, you’ll blend in a little better and show respect to the locals (and hide more skin from the hot sunlight) with a little more fabric.
  • One of the many delights of Jamaa el-Fnna in Marrakesh is the nightly extravaganza of restaurants which spring up out seemingly of nowhere. They don’t have names, just a number, and all the food is priced the same, so there’s no need to try hunt for a deal. The eager menu-brandishing staff members of this area were some of the most intense salesmen I came across in the country, so it’s tempting to just sit down at the first place you get swept into, but look for where the Moroccans are sitting. The stalls that start empty tend to stay empty through the night. I don’t think any of the food here is going to blow you away, but by following the crowd you’ll find the best that’s out there.
  • This is an untested hypothesis, but if you are generally allergic to farm animals and/or dust, bring some meds. I was sneezing and sniffling my face off and there wasn’t much plant life to be found which would make my allergies flare. I have been allergic to horses for a long time (much to my personal horror since I adore bareback riding) and with the donkeys wandering the souks, horse-drawn carriages clopping around and general dust of the desert concentrated on such small streets, some Claritin might just have given me some relief.
  • Let yourself get lost in a Medina. Trying to keep yourself straight is probably a hopeless cause anyway, and part of the experience is letting yourself get swallowed in and thrown back out somewhere new, like a tannery, or a neighborhood clean on the other side of town, or the place you were looking for yesterday that you gave up on finding. Also, yeah, there are signs pointing out some landmarks, but I found those pretty unhelpful and often sent me on very roundabout journeys.

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Here is perhaps the question I’ve been asked the most since I’ve come home: Would I recommend Morocco for another woman traveling alone? If you had asked me my first full day there, after a hot afternoon of wandering lost through the Medina and being cajoled and shouted at and even followed for several hours, I would have told you that I honestly didn’t know. Now that I’m back at home, safe and relishing the challenge and adventure of it all though, I’d say: yes of course you can.

No matter what, no matter who you’re with, no matter how seasoned of a traveler you are, Morocco is one of many countries in the world where you’ll need a thick skin. Everyone will talk to you, give you unsolicited directions, try to pull you into their shop, walk up alongside you tell you about a market or a museum you need to visit nearby (“But I’m not asking for money! I promise!”) or just outright ask for money.

And yes, I even got the dreaded “Mademoiselle! You should be smiling! You’d be more beautiful if you smiled!” calls from shopkeepers while I made my way through the maze of streets.

Perhaps it was my inability to understand any Arabic slurs thrown my way, perhaps I got lucky and perhaps as a tourist I was shielded from the worst of it, because this article came out (and was shared with me more than once) while I was in the country. It’s worth a read for a better understanding of the situation Moroccan women face daily, which I think even a tourist should take a moment to recognize.

Trying to balance not being rude with actually moving from place to place without getting sucked into any sort of scam or pushy conversation was hard for me. In the end, all of the advice I heard beforehand was right: the best thing to do is answer politely but forcefully “No, thank you” and walk away. This didn’t mean I was actually left alone. Sometimes, there were shouts from behind, usually there was a moment of pleading, of false promises, then a scoff. Once a faux-guide followed and followed me, asking followup questions about my dismissal of being shown to an argon factory nearby.”But why? Where have you seen something like this? You must. You are in Morocco. Don’t you like Moroccan people?” Showing a vague interest and implying that I’d come about around later didn’t really help. (However with a Minnesota, the real meaning behind “Sounds interesting. Maybe I’ll come back” couldn’t be more clear.) When I finally said “I feel sick and I’m going to my hostel” he insisted he had medicine for me. I finally got away and, though I was flustered, shook it off. I was going back to the hostel anyway and could breathe a bit. But Marrakesh isn’t that big of a city, and I ran into said local every single day. He would come up behind me, inquire about my heath, thank me for finally coming back, accuse me of being an ungracious guest in his country, demand I acknowledge him, follow me asking questions for several meters. I couldn’t help but think that even if I had a girl friend with me, it would be more of an annoyance we could roll our eyes at and less of a daily gut-level worry of how long it would take to shake the guy and his comments.

I will say sincerely that even in the annoyances, the Moroccan people felt genuinely kind. They usually told me “Welcome, you are most welcome to your second home!” and it didn’t feel like they were just saying that. But I also just wanted to shout “Listen, can you just give me a second to enjoy your country?” If I had followed every direction or answered every call shouted in my direction, I’d still be in Marrakesh right now. I felt like I couldn’t pause and take anything in, or so much as glance at a shop (dark sunglasses were my best friend) or snake charmer or juice stand without being cornered and it was exhausting.

Though I never actually felt in danger, got pickpocketed or was groped, in the end, I did spend a lot of the time I was alone wishing someone was with me. But this was where my choice of accommodation did what I needed it to. The beauty of a hostel is there are always other travelers looking for new acquaintances. At night, I always ventured out with others and I was much more comfortable even in the day when with other people. I also got better prices bartering when I wasn’t on my own.

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In the village of Ait Benhaddou, east of the Atlas Mountains.

I won’t lie: there were times when I found myself on streets that were really interesting, in places the guidebook recommended, but where when I looked around and realized I hadn’t seen another tourist for 15 minutes, I turned back. If I had a friend with me, even another female friend, I wouldn’t have been worried, but the situation felt as if it called for a little prudence. I kept thinking about my boyfriend’s recounting of his time in Morocco and felt jealous of how in so many of his stories he described being a part of the local culture, of really immersing himself, of hopping in a petit taxi and riding to a village and finding a guest house and meeting locals. I on the other hand, felt like I had to keep myself at a little bit of a distance for safety and sanity’s sake.

ALL OF THAT BEING SAID, I thoroughly enjoyed Morocco. I met other women who were traveling farther and more bravely alone. I often did find genuine kindness from the locals: even in their cajoling there’s a bit more interaction and welcome than one finds on the streets of Paris, for example.

And there is no where else in the world quite like Morocco. Any traveler is rewarded for their intrepidness here with stunning, star-filled nights in the Sahara, the sounds and sights of Jamaa el-Fnna day or night and the particular madness that is a Moroccan Medina, which, yes, includes a fair amount of cajoling.

Touring Morocco, From Marrakesh On (Part 1)

For a long, long time, I’ve given Morocco a high place on honor on my bucket list of travel destinations. I’d been drawn in by a host of temptations: flashes of rich colors and complex designs, hearing people sigh and nod meaningfully as they remembered their own time in this North African nation and the promise of setting foot on my 5th continent. So when I needed to slip in and out of the Schengen Zone for a few hours – which I allowed to turn into a week – to let my tourist visa renew, I decided to grab a cheap (yay for Easyjet) plane ticket to Marrakesh to see what exactly had been calling to me for so long.

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The patterns and sights of the Marrakesh Medina.

I know how this sounds, but I’ve been ready to go somewhere that felt truly new to me for a while now. The truth of the matter is, we as humans rely on a complex web of novelty and routine to keep our brains exercised and dopamine flowing. After 2 years of exploration, I have in my own way grown used to Europe. Just a year ago in Sicily, as I looked over yet another ancient temple with Greek-style columns, I head myself say, “I think I’m ready for another part of history.”

And my god, I found that in Morocco. Between a complex mix of Arabic, nomadic North African and Mediterranean cultures, an impeccable attention to colorful details and the always-present promise of surprise, I found what I was looking for here.

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The ancient passageway in the heart of the Medina that I’d follow every day to arrive at my hostel.

The thing about Morocco that I perhaps loved the most was that the interesting, historical and richly adorned streets I would spend my days wandering through were not just a small section of the city, more or less left alone by locals for tourists to check off their list and photograph. There was not a single street that exemplified the architecture, one place where everyone took the same photo before the mirage faded into “real” life. No, the whole country was truly a rich example of the way life has been and is being lived.

Between the affordable prices, variety of adventurous activities and cultural richness, as well as the relative safety of the country given the region, I would recommend Morocco to anyone, really. I saw families with children, other women traveling alone and couples who got engaged (congrats Kris and Will!) in the week I traveled the country. For the adventurous at heart, Morocco is certainly manageable, and utterly unforgettable.

Here’s more of the nitty-gritty of what I actually did while I was here.

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My Moroccan Tour

October 6 – 13th (I would highly recommend traveling here between October and April, when the days are only like 80-95 degrees F, not 110+ as in August, and the nights cool off considerably.)

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Marrakesh – My trip centered around this historic, culturally unique city. There are plenty of other amazing cities to visit in the north, but I don’t think anyone’s trip to Morocco is complete without having spent an evening in the chaos of Jamaa el-Fnna, getting themselves lost in the Medina or marveled at the intricate adornments of the Bahia Palace and Ben Youssef Madrasa.

Read more about my time and impressions in Marrakesh here.

East to Zagora and the Draa Valley

It was not hard to find a 2-day 1-night tour from Marrakesh to the Sahara desert. Whether I had waited to book my trip in Morocco itself or found one online before I arrived (as I did), the price and experience would have been more or less the same.

It’s a long, long drive through the hairpin turns of the High Atlas Mountains, then down to the ancient, cinematic village of Aït Benhaddou in the desolate desert, through the Anti Atlas Mountains, descending into the palm oasis-filled Draa Valley where Berber villages hug the road and largest river in Morocco. Through the city of Zagora, you emerge into the dunes of the western Sahara, hop on a camel (I make this sound easy, but after years of riding horses with control and comfort, finding my balance atop the lumbering gate of a docile, gassy camel was not as pleasant as it sounds once the first romantic minutes wore away) and ride out to a Berber camp for a night under the stars.

If I had booked a 3-day 2-night tour (the more popular version which I’d recommend if you have time), we’d have traveled to bigger dunes the next night and seen more of the area. But instead, we turned around and made the same drive back to Marrakesh.

My expectations were not through the roof for this particular adventure (I paid less than $75) and I didn’t get anything more than expected, which was basically a ride with stops at places providing tourist-safe food and some historic sites. What I did get was the chance to see more of the countryside, including glimpses of villages were the locals rode donkeys through the streets, markets were flourishing, and people were maintaining an ancient lifestyle in a harsh landscape. If you like desert landscapes, this drive provides an excellent and interesting example of the subtle changes in a desert ecosystem which you can see as you move east.

Essauoria

Just a few hours to the west of Marrakesh is the windy port city of Essauoria. For a second, you might wonder if you’ve made your way to Greece, with the white walls and blue doors of this town, but you are in fact still in Morocco. With sunlight that shines forcefully and hot, a busy fish market and much less intensity in the Medina, Essauoria is a great escape from the intensity that can overwhelm in Marrakesh.

There is a large beach, but the wind here renders it poor for swimming. Wind surfing is the top activity. (Head a few hours south to Agadir for better swimming conditions). I came to Essauoria for just a day, taking the three hour bus to and from Marrakesh ($8 each way) through more ever-changing desert landscapes to groves of argon trees along the coast featuring herds of goats reaching nimbly up for a bite of the leaves.

Staying in Essauoria is a little more expensive than Marrakesh, and I certainly felt like I saw more or less the entire old city in the 4 hours that I spent there. But if you need a breather and a great ocean view, it’s a great place to rest and see a different side of Morocco.

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The port of Essauoria

These three cities are just the beginning and only a snapshot of what this country offers to a traveler, and I would certainly recommend others expand their adventure to gritty Fez, the blue village of Chefchaouen and any number of other adventures this diverse landscape has to offer. I know that I certainly plan to in the future.

For my tips about making your way through Morocco with relative ease, as well as my impressions of being a blonde girl traveling alone there, check out Part 2 of my Moroccan blog stories.

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Traveler’s Notebook: Moroccan Daydreams

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I went to Marrakesh for many reasons. I went because I needed to leave the Shengen Zone of the European Union for at least 24 hours. I went because it was a cheap plane ticket and cheap cost of living. I went because I’d been tantalized by the colors, lamps, patterns, cushions and architecture which I’d seen recreated in prom and themed parties my whole life. I went because I knew it was a place I had wanted to go for a long, long time, even if I didn’t really know why.

Until I got there.

dsc00223Marrakesh is a dream. A hot, smokey, magical dream. Wandering through the mess of souks that is the Medina is like stepping into another world. You’re dodging motorbikes and donkey carts, passing under dusty slats of sunlight that slip through the ancient or makeshift roofs, looking over shops with leather goods, lanterns, scarves, wooden camels, golden lamps that might as well be hiding genies and a million other treasures. It is a city rich in life and history. Rich in smells – the very human, the very exotic, the very enticing and then suddenly the very familiar and intimate: the musty, leather, cigarette smell of my father’s office. Rich in sounds – the flutes of snake charmers, the drums of Berber dancers, the bells and clinks of horse-drawn carriages, the raspy shouts of the call the prayer, the merchants all around you trying their luck at guessing your mother tongue with, “Bonjour! Hello! Ciao! Excuse me! Ca va?”. Rich in history and intricate beauty: no detail goes unnoticed in the ancient architecture of Marrakesh, from painted ceilings to flowing script across walls and mosaic designs, you cannot trust a dusty, unremarkable building not to be hiding splendid treasures within the inner courtyard.

From Marrakesh, I went east, then west. East on a 10 hour bus ride over the beautifully-named Atlas Mountains through the ever-changing desert to the edge of the Sahara. There we spent the night in a Berber camp. We sat around a campfire under the stars listening to traditional (and some not so traditional) music, rode camels into the hot sunrise and explored ancient mud-caked cities and gigantic palm oasis along the caravan roads crossing the imposing landscape.

West, I went to the Atlantic, to the windy city of Essaouira where I wandered the 18th Century ramparts, looked down into the heart of a busy harbor and fish market, got a little less lost in the Medina and ogled amazing woodwork and a plethora of argon oil products. I cannot remember a time when the sun shone more brilliantly than in this port town of white-washed, blue-tinged buildings, not even in the Sahara just days before. Gulls flooded the air and the street cats looked remarkably happier than in the pandemonium of Marrakesh.

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But at the heart of it all was Marrakesh, an evocative place that sometimes overwhelmed, but mostly inspired me.

Begin in Jemaa el-Fnna (“The Assembly of the Dead”), the sprawling, oddly shaped square at the center of the ancient, walled city. By day, it is a passageway, an entry point, or an “oh, thank god I know where I am again” point. You’ll find henna artists, fresh orange juice hawkers, snake charmers, monkey handlers, musicians and acrobats vying for your attention and change. Past a line of horse-drawn carriages for rent, you can see the Koutoubia Mosque, who’s minaret has stood watch over the market since the 12th Century and reminds us of the importance of detail and a compass: the mosque which was originally built there had to be destroyed and rebuilt because it did not properly align with Mecca.

Choose any of the streets leading off of the north end of Djammar el-Fna and you are quickly swallowed into the Medina. An ancient mess of alleyways that snarl like a spool of thread unwound and left in a heap on the ground, you haven’t visited Marrakesh until you’ve been lost in these shops. Suddenly you’ll find yourself in the pungent tannery, watching leather being dyed, or the handful of stands devoted solely to olives, then among opulent carpet sellers, then a butcher surrounded by hungry cats, then emerge into the florescent-lit tourist souks where faux guides will offer you unsolicited advice and directions. You come upon small squares filled with local produce for sale, or hit a dead end and retrace your steps, twisting back until there’s another road to follow. Dark sunglasses were my best friends here, even when passing under ancient archways or the covered souks, so my eyes could wander without catching anyone’s attention.

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                                It is impossible to capture the energy and magic of an evening in Jemaa el-Fnna in a photo, but this might be a taste.

Return to Jemaa el-Fnna and watch the sun set from a terrace while sipping sweet mint tea, because once evening sets in, the real magic happens here. I think the true spirit of Morocco was most clear in this place in the busy nights: here you can realize that it’s not just a show for tourists. Yes, maybe the snake charmers and the people hawking magnets under florescent lights in the Medina are aiming to get the non-locals to stop by, but as the evening approaches and the final calls to prayer silence the music momentarily, lines of open-air restaurants are constructed, the air fills with the smells and smoke of frying meat, the snakes and monkeys are packed away and the cross-dressing dancers – yes, the men wear makeup, a hijab, skirts and clinking belly dancing gear while they shimmy around – and the storytellers show up.

The thing about Marrakesh that made my heart sing loudest was that every night you could watch ancient traditions come alive as the storytellers would arrive with a bench and a lantern, set up shop and wait. Quickly, crowds would gather around them, leaning onto one another, pushing into the heart of the circle to listen.

I longed to understand Arabic, just for one night, to be able to join in these circles.

Of course, in hindsight, things all look glossy and delightful. In the midst of the magic and sensations, I also find myself challenged as a traveler; truly thrown out of my comfort zone for the first time in a while. There were a lot of overwhelming moments, when the heat, the crowds the maze of covered roads, the approaches from the locals all got to be too much as I wandered alone. But, I would, one way or another, find my way back to my riad, and relax in the courtyard for awhile. And really, I was ready to challenge myself a little, to see another side of history and corner of the world and expand my inner map’s borders.

This short tour was not nearly enough to so much as taste the rich Moroccan culture and beauty, but luckily for me, it’s one of the boyfriend’s favorite places in the world, so I can trust that we will most certainly be back

 

Bratislava, Slovakia – Worth Your Stop

I arrived in Slovakia and texted my mom “Made it to Bratislava!”

Her response: “Where? What country is that?”

This seems to be the central problem of Slovakia. No one knows where or who this country is since they split from the Czech Republic during the Velvet Divorce of 1989. George W. Bush was there during his presidency and congratulated Slovenia on their transition to a democratic state after so many years of Communism. Major international newspapers have even published maps featuring Slovenia in their place, or simply written Czechoslovakia.

The Slovaks are not impressed, world.

Nearly every person I met in Bratislava asked me that if I liked Slovakia, would I please tell everyone I know to come and visit the country and see for themselves why it is so great? Apparently, after the movie The Hostel came out, telling the (fictional) story of several international travelers who wanted cheap beer and hot girls in Slovakia but instead were ax-murdered brutally, tourism went down 75%! I am here to tell you that nothing remotely horrible happened to me in Slovakia, and I had more than one local tell me they would personally sew me back up if I was ax-murdered.

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Charming and easy to navigate, the old town of Bratislava, Prague’s less visited cousin, is worth a stop on your way through the region.

Not only did I not hate my time in Slovakia, I loved it! Friendly, beautiful, laidback and full of history, Bratislava is a must-see if you are in the area, even if you can’t stay more than a half day. Though I lingered longer, Bratislava is an easy city to sweep through on your way to and from Prague, Vienna or Budapest by train bus or boat. And it’s a great place to get an even more robust context for the history that touches the whole region – including Communism and the Austro-Hungarian Empire – while you’re relishing the cheap cost of living and traveling in Southeastern Europe.

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                                                                 The Bratislava Castle

When Czechoslovakia was a single country within the Soviet Block, Prague was the cultural capital and Bratislava the industrial capital of the nation. Today, one can still see the traces of this division when comparing the two capitals, but that does not mean Bratislava is lacking for history or beauty. In fact, in 1536 Bratislava became the capital of the Kingdom of Hungary and over the course of the next 300 years, 11 Hungarian kings and queens were crowned in St. Martin’s Cathedral in the Old Town. You’ll find remnants of the Medieval town gate and cannon balls still wedged into the buildings of the 14th-15th Century Old Town Square from when Napoleon showed up.

It is a town with plenty of modern contradictions though: you can climb the hill to the newly-fully renovated Bratislava Castle and see across the river to the Communist suburbs, where miles of blocky high rises remind you of another era, not so recently passed. You’ll pass beautiful 18th Century opera houses and ornate churches, right next to abandoned Soviet-era hospitals, covered in graffiti and statues of the working man. Then you’ll come upon beautiful, tree-lined boulevards and busy central squares, filled with bean bag chairs and music in the summer evenings.

I started my time in Bratislava in the same way I always do when I arrive in a new city: I find the quickest Free Walking Tour so that I can to get myself situated physical and culturally. I quickly found that every local I met in Slovakia was warm and friendly, eager to know about me and to tell me about their country. From wine makers to hostel workers, it seemed true of these less-traveled countries that overall the locals were much more friendly to tourists than some Western European locations I’ve explored.

The other great treat of Slovakia was that the food was perhaps some of the best I’ve had in all of Europe! From pirohy (pierogi-like dumplings filled with cheese) to halušky (tiny gnocchi-like potato bites covered in rich, sharp sheep’s cheese and topped with bacon) I found myself relishing in rich comfort foods, even on hot summer days. And like most of the region, beer is cheaper than water, so you’ve always got something cool to wash it down with. I’d recommend stopping in the Slovak Pub just outside Old Town, where you’ll sit in rooms designed to look like traditional Slovak houses across the ages. It’s a popular place with tourists and students, but food is reasonably priced and they have their own organic garden from which they source produce.

Pro Tip: As with most European cities, you’ll be disappointed if you show up on a Monday (like I did) to find every museum, including the castle and even the pub crawl offered through my walking tour company, closed.

Trenčín, Slovakia

dsc05054After a full day in Bratislava, I caught a train and headed northeast about an hour and a half to Trenčín, a small city in the foothills of the mountains which continue east to border the Czech Republic and Poland. I wanted to see a bit more of the country, and I had read about the impressive castle on the hill above the city. Outside the castle, there were falconers giving demonstrations, and inside my 13-year-old heart skipped a beat as I wandered the winding stairwells and explored the high-ceiling rooms. At the top of the turrets, flags whipped and snapped in the mountain breezes. It felt as delightfully traditional as it gets, larger, sunnier and more intact than castles I’d seen in countries like Ireland, and amazingly nearly empty of tourists.

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The view from the castle at Trencin, about an hour and a half from Bratislava.

Perhaps a little gritty around the edges at first, once you find your way into the Old Town you’ll be charmed by Bratislava’s history and walk-ability. It’s easy to see in an afternoon or a day, but if you’re looking for an affordable, laid back place to recuperate and relax on the shores of the Danube, the small size of Bratislava makes it ideal for recovery from the hustle and stimulation of Prague or Budapest.

 

Building A New Life: A Primer

It’s been just over a month now since I arrived in Italy. Officially, the boyfriend and I have now occupied the same space for longer than ever before. Good news: we still like each other. In fact, every time we’ve been able to be together in the last two years, it has seemed to me that just as we’re getting comfortable, just as we’re hitting our stride together, just when things feel real and easy, that’s when the hourglass dries out. That’s when we’re once again separated by far too much space and I find myself at a friend’s place on the couch, binge watching Making a Murderer and eating ice cream. Because yeah, every time he leaves it feels astoundingly like a break up.

Once again, now that a month has passed, I feel like we’ve really hit a good stride. The first few days and weeks after such separation – when you are forced by pure emotional necessity to develop a fiercely independent lifestyle and mindset – can be harder than you’d expect. Emotions and expectations are so high, and there’s always jet lag and making space for one another when you’re so used to connectivity for only a few hours at a time.

Now, though, we get to reap the benefits of the distance we’ve held for the last two years: even this far into the relationship, even though we know each other so well, it all feels fresh and new. Tenderness sweeps our house, romantic and exciting as we relish in the extended honeymoon phase of something we’ve been building for so long.

Of course, we live in the real world, too. One where we have bills and want to travel and therefore need money. I spent the last 8 months working at two different restaurants, often back to back from 5:45 am to 11ish pm with maybe an hour off in between, padding the heck out of my bank account to make this happen, so I’ve been doing a little recuperating in the last month. But I’ve never been very good at sitting still for long. While my boyfriend is hard at work, with “real” aka salaried work, I also have created work for myself. Some of these things are actual needs (learn Italian, for example) others are more about keeping my brain busy and focused on goals that may or may not be “real” but are essential to my own mental health nonetheless.

Because this is what I’ve learned about moving and building a new life: having tasks, goals and routine are the keys to settling in. And in those first weeks, the first month, when you are still trying to find your place – literally and figuratively – when you’re watching all your friends at home celebrate weddings and drink beer in canoes on your favorite lakes via social media, when you’re aching for something beyond the overwhelming newness that can suck you down, it can be the accomplishment of a goal – even a simple, arbitrary goal – that let you catch your breath.

I’ve speculated that perhaps I’m uniquely qualified to have moved across the world to be with my boyfriend and develop my own life alongside his. Since I graduated from high school, I’ve moved at least 7 times and had the opportunity to practice my process of developing a new life and finding community and could argue that I’ve almost made a science out of it. So, for those of your setting off onto your next adventure, or if you’re struggling to feel at home in a new place, here’s my 2 cents. For what its worth.

Five Tips for Finding Yourself in Your New Home

1. Expect the Ups and Downs. Transitions suck. You’ve pulled back and cut off the fatty layers of life which on the one hand are the things making you busy and keeping you up at night, but can also be the richest parts of your routine. You also are left with a lot of time. Even if you have a job or school to fill your days, in a new place you are exposed to so much emptiness even a few hours can simply be overwhelming.

At the same time, remind yourself that there’s a great reason for the move. Work, school, adventure, whatever it is, you chose this new place and there’s an excitement in the new place you’ve found yourself in. Some days you’ll find yourself riding high on that emotion that brought you here to begin with. Sometimes, though within even just a few hours you can go from feeling amazement and wonder at how much  you love a place,  to the loneliest evening of you life, where you’d give anything to just grab dinner with friends. And sometimes those roller coaster feelings last more than a few hours. There can be really really crappy weeks or months in the heart of a move. Especially when you’re out of your element, you can feel like it was all a mistake, this place is not your new home, never will be.

Honestly, I’ve moved to places that have turned out to be great homes for me, and places that turned out to not fit me so well. For example, I was fundamentally unhappy in Boulder, Colorado and after 9 months there, I knew without a second of hesitation that it was time to pull the ripcord and get my ass out of there. The thing is, I don’t think anyone really knows how the wild ups and downs will ultimately level out on the good/bad scale for at least 5 or 6 months. Give yourself a chance to really meet some people. Give yourself a chance to get comfortable. To be a master of even a small something in the new place. Then make the call. And even if it’s not a great fit for you, there is something to be learned from being in the wrong place at the right time too.

2. Develop a Routine: The best way to keep your mind occupied on those bad days is to create routine and tasks for yourself. No matter how much I love the idea of limitless open days, I simply cannot function in them. My brain melts fast and the sort of jumbled listlessness of a mild depression quickly takes over. So I make myself get out of bed at a certain time every day (8:10), I make myself do a few Sun Salutations, then I have a pattern of work and house care until I leave for class. If I don’t have class, I go to the library to write for a few hours in the afternoon. Lately I’ve been really leaning into the domestics (meal planning, for example) because not only is it something that’s helpful to our relationship when the boyfriend works all day,  I can also focus on and complete these tasks, which is key. Don’t set yourself up for failure because god knows that won’t help.

3. Get out of the House: It’s amazing how much of a relief it can be to simply get yourself outside. I’m the sort of person that struggles to even spend a whole sick day cooped up at home, much less a healthy, empty day. Changing location is really good for my brain especially when I want to get writing doe. But even more so when I’m new to a place, there are the added benefits of getting to know the neighborhood and simply breaking up the day. You head out and exist in this new home of yours, with your new neighbors, be a part of thins. Even if you don’t meet or talk to anyone, you get the chance to join the ranks. Even though it’s awkward at first – especially in a new county, I know – I always feel better for it.

Luckily in Europe, every village has a gathering spot, a central square in front of the church, a park. I can plant myself in the central square of Legnano for as long as I want and spend my time people watching, reading or writing. And if there is a festival or market or something happening, even better. Go to a class, visit a museum, walk around the downtown area. Even if you don’t do much other than look at people and things that you’ve seen before, it’s like you trick your brain into thinking you participated in something, and as social creatures, feeling like we’re a part of a community is really important to happiness.

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The town center of Legnano

4. Meet Up Speaking of social community, my new favorite way to feel like I’m in fact a part of the community is to go onto the MeetUp website and hang out with some new people. I’m lucky that in Milano there are a lot of expats and English speakers hanging out (doing everything, from yoga to book clubs to happy hours) almost any day of the week. In most major cities though, you’ll find some assemblage of MeetUps happening, and you can filter based on your interests, therefore honing in on your tribe. Spending a few hours chatting with people who want to meet other new people is awesome, and can really make all the difference in feeling like you’re building the threads that will begin to bind and tie you to a place, in that complex, essential blanket called community.

Then, this is the hard part but I mean it, ask people out on friend dates. If you meet someone cool, especially if the MeetUp isn’t regular or the situation isn’t coordinated, find a way to ask that cool person out for coffee or a drink sometime. I made a pretty strong effort of doing this when I moved to California, since I knew if I was going to last there I needed to make friends outside my circle of other interns, and it felt super awkward, but it worked. I found my way into the circle of some of my best friends ever by asking a quiet astronomer/writer out to coffee after a free writing class, in fact.

And really, most people are looking to hang out with other cool interesting people like yourself too. If you feel a connection with someone, it’s hard to imagine the other person is faking it.

5. Give Yourself Some Grace. It’s OK. Lean into the rough nights and wake up the next day fresh and ready to start over. This time sucks and it sucks for everyone who goes through it in some way, whether it looks like it on facebook or not. Call your friends from home, tell them you love them and miss them and I’m sure they’ll say the same to you. Then step out of your comfort zone and walk around the neighborhood.

Remember to give yourself those 5-6 months for those feelings to level off a bit before you declare how awful the decision was and head home, and enjoy the ride, wherever it leads you. You’re growing from this experience, I promise!