Tag Archives: Travel

Making a Splash in Cologne, Germany

Our decision to visit Cologne, Germany, went something like this:

“There’s a really cheap flight to Cologne.”

“What’s in Cologne?”

“They have a chocolate museum.”

“Sold.”

Up until that point, my friends and I knew of Cologne only as a men’s fragrance, but when the guidebook promises a “Willy Wonka-esque” chocolate fountain,  you heed the call.

We left our home base in Padua, Italy, with visions of candy bars dancing in our heads.  Nine hours of missed bus and train connections later, we arrived starving, exhausted, and about ready to punch a sugar plum fairy.

Emerging from the train station, the ominous shadow of the Kölner Dom immediately enveloped us.  Cologne’s towering cathedral broods over the city, justly earning its title as the largest gothic church in Northern Europe.  Beholding the dark behemoth against the bright blue autumn sky, we couldn’t help but be impressed…and slightly less disgruntled.

The Dom towers over the city of Cologne

From the imposing square of the Dom, Cologne breaks off into smaller cobblestone streets with modern stores that perhaps aim to counter the church’s heavy dose of history (it dates back to 1248!).  Ambling through the city on the way to our hostel, we came across another prevalent feature of Cologne’s landscape: street art.

A graphic series of poster-sized photographs depicted the lives and deaths of struggling drug addicts.  A huge wooden sculpture of rainbow-colored, nesting squares let us climb inside for a picture-framed view of the city.  We were amused, but not appeased, still grumbling over our traveler’s misfortune and regrettably empty stomachs.

Colorful 3-D street art

And then we saw it.  In the middle of a small, tree-lined square, it was unassuming but irresistible.  A man-made puddle, no more than 20 feet wide, with a turquoise plastic cube at its center for one to perch upon.  Along its edges were at least a dozen pairs of white rain boots, beckoning to be worn.

Without hesitation, we threw off our shoes and grabbed a pair of galoshes.  Never mind the dozens of questionable feet that had occupied them before us–we had some splashing to attend to.  For nearly a half-hour we waded around in the Kölsch puddle–almost two feet at its deepest point–laughing and taking pictures and forgetting all about our rough journey there.  It was as if Cologne had anticipated our unhappiness upon arriving, and it knew just the cure.

Kölsch puddle!

Even after our puddle jumping had concluded, Cologne continued to intrigue and delight us.  We ate bratwurst alongside mustachioed old men in a traditional beer garden and danced recklessly to German Top 40 songs at a student nightclub.  Along the banks of the Rhine river, we explored Cologne’s Old Town and finally tasted milk chocolate from the Lindt Museum‘s golden fountains.  We stuffed ourselves with pretzels and potato pancakes and washed them down with the signature Kölsch brew.

When we stepped into that puddle, Cologne had christened us, allowing us brief access to its finest secrets.  A city rife with history, Cologne honors its roots, but somehow manages to stay young at heart.  Both the young and the old gather at the same outdoor restaurants to eat, talk, and listen to a street band honk traditional tunes while the beer flows until the drinker sets the coaster atop her glass.

Cologne is often forgotten alongside the more popular German cities of Berlin and Munich–but it doesn’t mind.  Cologne will wait for you.  When you arrive, you might find–just as we did–that it’s all too easy to dip your toes in…

Fellow puddle jumpers test the waters.


Your trusty boots await!

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Now You See Me…

MNphoto

It’s 1 a.m. in Minneapolis, and my friend and I are sharing a 20-inch tall, boot-shaped glass of beer with three young professionals we just met. Polka music is playing in the background, and the air smells like cinnamon and wood smoke.  With each sip of dark brew, we become more pleased that we heeded the advice of a random article about “best hipster bars” and took a cab across town. We each take turns allowing a 75-year-old man to waltz us around the room to the rhythm of the accordion.  We laugh at each other’s expense when he gets a little too close for comfort.  The lights dim and the polka fades into hip hop and the old man disappears.  My friend gets caught up in conversation with a dark and handsome stranger.  I forget myself and approach the attractive guy I spotted when we first walked in.  He’s all-American – blonde hair, blue eyes, and built like a football player.  I grab his hand and lead him into the crowd, knowing that after tonight, he’ll never see me again.

_____

When we travel, we try to absorb as much about a destination as we can.  That’s the point: to discover some place new and discover more about ourselves in the process.  So it makes sense to believe that the longer we stay somewhere, the more we learn.

But there’s something to be said for fleeting getaways.  The quick trips we take just to escape for a moment, where there’s not enough time to adapt to a new environment – there’s only the present.

When we travel somewhere briefly, we remove the stress around doing things “right.”  We don’t have to worry about running into someone we know, or ordering the wrong food, or mispronouncing a word from our phrasebook.  We’ll be gone tomorrow.

Short-term travel might seem a little selfish, but only because it’s liberating.  For one or two days, we can be bolder, braver versions of ourselves.  We can come into people’s lives suddenly and leave them just as soon – and that’s okay.  We can throw ourselves right into the heart of a city with no preparation and little hesitation – and often learn more than we ever would have with more time.    Maybe we don’t come out with lasting friendships, or a new outlook, or a list of best restaurants, but we still leave with memories.  And those are always worth the trip.

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Monthly Musing: Small Talk

There’s just something about a great view.  City skylines, mountain valleys, the deep blue expanse of ocean thousands of feet below the airplane window.  Views are often earned–after a long climb up narrow staircases or rocky hills–and sometimes surprises.  No matter how we arrive at them nor the scenery that awaits, the feeling is always the same: that removed quiet.  Lost in our thoughts, in the beauty and the vastness of it all, it is always quiet.

And despite how many people are around us, or however many have witnessed the same sight before us, we always feel that it is ours alone.

“I have to show you my view,” we tell friends. “One day, I’ll take you,” we say, as if we are its sole keeper, and it is only ours to share.

A great view is the traveler’s gift and his curse.  We travel to seek out the world, to absorb it, to conquer it.  A great view shows us everything and nothing at the same time.  It deludes us.  “Now I’ve seen it all,” we think, when deep down we know that though we’ve seen scope, we will never be able to see every detail.

We often gasp at the sights our eyes behold.  But are we really stricken by the beauty?  Or is this intake of breath just our minds remembering that we are small?  Just one tiny object occupying space, silly enough to think that this entire view could ever be only ours.

We try to claim things as our own in hopes that we’ll leave our mark on the world.  Travelers are especially guilty of this.  We take pictures, buy mementos, write articles, just to ensure that others know where we’ve been.  But there’s a reason why the picture of a view never turns out quite as good, why it’s beautiful, but no longer awe-inspiring.  A great view refuses to be contained.

And this is how it should be.  We can never fully comprehend a great view and we should never try.  When we are stuck in the real world, tirelessly working to forge a name for ourselves, a great view brings us back down to Earth by presenting us with a glimpse of its wonders.  One look and we realize that sometimes, it’s better to let go and lose ourselves in the “big-ness” of it all…

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Monthly Musing: Off the Map

Everyone has his or her own list of dream destinations, places where, if we had the time, the opportunity, the money, we’d drop everything for the chance to experience.  Places that we are so compelled to that we’ll flip right to an article about them in the latest issue of our favorite travel magazine, or suffer through PBS’ ceaseless contribution requests to hear the scoop straight from Rick Steves.

My friends and I often discuss our travel wish lists, exhausting an extra hour at dinner with visions of street souks, petit bistros, and Icelandic hot springs.  New destinations are easy to add to the list.  We catch a photograph of a place we’ve never heard of before and we’re hooked–we have to go there someday!  And while it’s fun and magical to imagine the moment we step off the plane and into that long-awaited adventure, our travel fantasies are undoubtedly biased.

Because, in addition to our Must-Gos, we also have the Oh-Nos, the places that violence, politics, and war have figuratively wiped off the map for anyone not a soldier or a native.

As eager travelers, we like to think that “the world is our oyster.”  Advancements in cultural and eco-tourism encourage this notion–that even far, far away is still within reach.  We always think about all the places out there for us to explore, but rarely do we dwell upon the reality that there are some places we never will.  There are countries that will never have their own guidebooks, that will only occupy our fears and never our dreams.

Dismal circumstances have marked these places with a foreboding “X,” and we quickly write them off as “too risky.”  To do so may be quick, but it should not be easy.  Because when we erase a destination from our personal maps, we also erase all of its stories–the people we’ll never meet and the things we’ll never see.  And the world we try so hard to understand, to capture and contain with our words and our photographs, becomes a little bit smaller.

 

Above image found on Google Images is an illustrative example. I do not own the book rights.

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Burano, Italy: Le Case Colorate

While the budding flowers and leaves of spring are finally introducing some color back into the Boston scenery, the Venetian island of Burano remains vibrant all year long.  On Burano, small, square houses are splashed with every color on the paint palette, ensuring that even the cloudiest of days seems bright.  Tourists often ferry over from Venice to behold Burano’s residential rainbow.  Yet, those who wander a little further down the winding canals will find that inside houses of pink and orange and green live true Italians.  They hang laundry from shuttered windows to dry in the sun and wind their way down narrow passages to get to the market, venturing to the main island only when absolutely necessary.  Because it’s easy to live simply when your life is already in color.

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Finding Faith in Caimito, Puerto Rico

The building was hardly threatening. Dirty white labeled with a large “Bienvenidos,” and a few hand-painted crossesStill my stomach turned as we entered the Christian Community Center of Caimito, Puerto Rico for Sunday mass.

I have never been a religious person.  My parents chose not to christen me, marking me a heathen child and forever freeing me from the Sunday school obligations that plagued my childhood friends.  I know embarrassingly little about the Bible, and Catholic churches make me nervous.  It always seems painfully obvious that I don’t belong in a church, like a silent alarm warns God of my intrusion.

My intentions for being there were good.  I had joined a group of like-minded students from my university to volunteer at Iniciativa Comunitaria, an organization for HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention in neighboring San Juan.  We were put up in the Christian Community Center’s guesthouse.


Front view of the Christian Community Center.

Driving into Caimito had been my first real introduction to poverty.  Faded houses lined the winding, narrow streets, their laundry lines sagging with worn clothing, backyards piled with junk.  Locals eyed us warily, sitting on plastic chairs outside the corner store, a hub for the local drug dealer.

None of this seemed to faze Reverend Juan.  He left Puerto Rico after high school to study medicine in New York.  Instead, he returned to Caimito and found the power of God.  Forty-one years later, he remains the Christian Community Center’s unshakeable leader.  His smile was magnetic—the wide kind that spreads all across the face and crinkles the eyes. Why is Puerto Rico better than where we came from up north?  Under the yellow warmth of the sun, Juan reminded us, “Here: no snow.”

He told us about his life, his family, his work.  How we didn’t need school to follow our passions—that the answers are in our hearts and not a textbook.  We were all entranced.  As I write down Juan’s advice now, the words seem cliché.  Coming from him, they sounded like truths.  I had listened to sermons before, listened to men of God deliver similar messages. I always thought they were nice—warm and fuzzy ideas that never left an impression.  But here we were with Juan in regular conversation, and I couldn’t tear myself away.

It was decided we would all attend church the next day.  We wanted to pay Juan our respects and thank him for letting us stay, and what better way than by seeing him in his element?  My head agreed that it was the right tribute, but my stomach still tightened anxiously.  Talking with Juan outside, eating pinchos and arepas—it had all been informal.  I knew that, setting foot inside his church, the informality would disappear, replaced by unfamiliar rituals, this time in a language I barely understood.

We filed into the church early, interrupting Juan’s wife as she led the morning lesson.  The room was small, white, sparse.  No more than thirty chairs made up both sides of the aisle, and there was a small platform stage by the lectern with a rainbow mural backdrop.   About five people–and Juan—sat in the rows, all with their books open, sneaking peaks at us as we took our seats. We listened patiently until the lesson concluded, and I shifted in my seat worrying what would come next.

Juan wanted us to each introduce ourselves.  I grasped the microphone. “Hola,” I said and was answered with a chorus of holas. I said something terrible like, “My name is Samantha. I can’t speak Spanish because I speak Italian. But thank you for everything,” and everyone smiled politely and refrained from wincing.

One of the women seated got up and approached the pulpit.  She was small and hunched, dressed in a long skirt and shawl, and she closed her eyes in front of us and began to pray out loud.  Every now and then the doors to the church opened and closed, a couple teenage girls crossing back and forth to the attached Sunday school room.  No one seemed to heed the interruptions.

At one point, the girls settled by the other church members on a nearby bench with two toddlers in tow—a little boy and an older girl, their skin fair with only a hint of underlying pigment, both with wide blue eyes.  Everyone’s focus shifted from the old woman’s prayer to the babies, fidgeting on the girls’ laps.

And all of a sudden there was singing.  The woman stopped praying and broke out into a warbled hymn, and the rest of the church joined in.  The teenage girls smacked tambourines and everyone clapped.  Another woman stood up, lost in the song.  They were out of pitch and off-beat.  I wasn’t even sure they were all singing the same hymn.  The baby boy wriggled free and ran across the room, his shaky steps matching the beat as one of the girls chased after him.  All at once it had become joyful chaos, and we all clapped along.  This was not the calm and ordered mass I was used to—and yet it made perfect sense.  The young and the old, singing to God in loud notes and baby shrieks, sincerity and laughter.  Here in Caimito, a perfectly intimate display of what they were all praying for: life.

The song faded away and Juan finally spoke.  In Spanish and English he thanked us for volunteering our time to help the community.  The baby barreled toward him, and Juan crouched down to let him leap into his arms.  He lifted the boy up and passed him around to us as we prayed for gratitude and kindness and meeting one another.

And just like that, the service was over.  I was not relieved because I had forgotten my anxiety, completely entranced by these people on a regular Sunday in their tiny church.  We went around hugging and kissing the church members, saying “Mucho gusto” and “Muchas Gracias.” I thought about what Juan had said as everyone clasped our hands firmly, looked into our eyes, and held us close: “We are a family.  Our family is your family, our church is your church.”  Blindly and absolutely, I believed him.

Reverend Juan. Photo taken by Amit Persaud.

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7 Ways to Avoid Looking Like a Tourist in Italy

This post is a re-blog of an original guest post for A Girl and a Suitcase. Make sure to check out Adria’s blog!

Can I Get A What? 

Incredible food. It’s likely one of your main motivations for traveling to Italy, so you should know how to pronounce what you’re about order. Meals are a great source of pride for Italians, and by butchering the name of your dish, you’re disrespecting the work that went into it. Skim through a phrasebook and familiarize yourself with some common food pronunciations. Also memorize a few courtesy phrases like, “Could I have…?” Your Italian doesn’t have to be perfect. Just putting in the effort will please the waitstaff and ensure that the cook is the only one doing the butchering…

Put Your Foot Down

Italians are notoriously pushy when they’re stuck waiting in line. Market stands and cafe counters often teem with people and can be overwhelming to tourists. Stand your ground and don’t be afraid to push your way to the front. Always know your order ahead of time. At the counter, speak clearly and have your money ready so you don’t slow down the fast-paced service.

Riding Dirty

Trains are a great way to get around Italy–if you know what to do. Tickets are easy to purchase at electronic booths, but make sure you’ve chosen the proper fare and destination. Riding the wrong train or taking it further than your fare allows can get you kicked off the train or fined. After you buy your ticket, STOP! Find the yellow validation machine and stamp it. An unvalidated ticket can also warrant fines.

Big Spender

In the US, it’s normal to pay for small purchases with large bills. In Italy, it’s like the 8th deadly sin. Cashiers hate making change and can be rude if you deny their request for exact coins. Use your larger bills for larger purchases and save your 1 & 2 euro coins for gelato money. It’s always smart to be on the cashier’s good side, especially if you plan to go back for more gelato (you will).

Under My Umbrella

If you want to see that piazza when it’s less crowded, wait until it rains. Italians scatter at the first sign of precipitation and those who can’t escape come prepared. Sleek raincoats and long umbrellas are rainy day essentials. Check the forecast and always carry a compact umbrella so you don’t end up the only person in Italy who’s drenched.

Energy Boost

There are no Starbucks in Italy because coffee is an art form. It’s perfectly acceptable to sip an early morning cappuccino or latte. This window closes after the clock strikes noon, when true Italians drink only espresso. Other coffee drinks are still served throughout the day, but show that you’re a newbie.

Food Rules!

The typical Italian dinner doesn’t start until 8pm and many restaurants don’t even open until then. If waiting to eat late is difficult for you, have a late lunch or buy a snack to tide you over.

Good gelato is always served in metal bins, which signify it’s homemade. Gelato should appear smooth and fluffy, and never grainy.

You’re probably used to eating pizza by hand and by the slice. Many Italians actually use a knife and fork and most order a whole pizza for themselves. Take out is frowned upon. Hope you’re hungry!

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An Ode to Paris

Today marks the one year anniversary of my first visit to Paris.  There’s something about Paris that stays with you–my memories are still so vivid it seems more like one week ago, not one year.  Sipping champagne at an open-air bar, strolling along the Seine, breaking a fresh baguette under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower–each moment held a certain magic that can only be found in the City of Light.  The following are a few of my favorite shots I took along the way.  Although the champagne is long gone and the magic now faded, these photographs remind me that I’ll always have Paris…

Pond reflections at the Luxembourg Gardens

Striking a pose while the Capitol Building looms in the background

Morning sunlight strikes the Seine

Approaching the Louvre

Sacre-Coeur Basilica sparkles white from the top of Montmartre

The Eiffel Tower overlooks city side streets


Bonsoir!

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7 Perks of Learning a Foreign Language

With English on track to becoming the “global language,” it almost seems unnecessary for travelers to know the languages spoken in their destinations.  Going with what you know may be the easy route, but it’s not always the most rewarding.  Read below to find out why learning a foreign language is still a worthy endeavor!

Image found here

The Obvious

Communicating with local people in their own language can provide a more rich and authentic experience in the country you’re visiting.  You might strike up an interesting conversation, learn about a secret hotspot, score a bargain at the local market, or even be invited to a home-cooked meal.  No matter the country, most people will consider your efforts as signs of respect and treat you accordingly.*

*Parisians, as a rule, are the exception

The Logistical

Sometimes it’s just plain hard to get around in a foreign country.  Signs look funny, maps don’t make sense, and you could have sworn that train was supposed to arrive an hour ago!  When you know the local language, it’s that much easier to (GASP!) ask for directions, understand airport announcements, or negotiate your fare with a pesky cab driver.  We travelers all get lost–we’re used to it.  But if you use your skills to arrive successfully at your destination, you can proudly declare (in your new language): “Not this time!”

Image found here

The Motivational

Nobody wants to mess up and look stupid.  Unfortunately, you have to be vulnerable to learn a foreign language–even though you might say something completely wrong (…you will).  Constantly putting yourself out there seems tough, but it makes you more resilient and builds confidence when you finally start getting things right (you will!).   The eventual comfort you develop speaking with foreigners will translate to a greater self-assurance meeting new people in any situation.

The Empathetic

Those who pursue a new language will often find it frustrating, embarrassing, and downright exhausting.  Experiencing the process for yourself will make you understand how difficult it can be for foreigners to learn English.  You’ll come to fully appreciate the people with “a little bit of English” who have helped you in your travels all those times when you didn’t have the words.


Image found here

The Practical

Language skills are an impressive addition to any resume.  You might find a job in a country where your secondary language is spoken, or land a position that values capable translators who can deal with certain clients.  Even if language proficiency isn’t part of a job requirement, it shows prospective employers that you are focused, dedicated, and culturally sensitive.

The Journalistic

When you first start learning a new language,  your reading and writing skill levels will be roughly on par with children’s books (e.g. I eat the pasta.  It is good!).  Although you may not be the next great Italian novelist, your simplistic writing style in a new language can actually improve your writing in English.  A limited vocabulary trains your brain to communicate ideas in a concise but effective way.  When you return to English, you’ll realize you can better recognize any extraneous words or phrases obscuring your point.

The Confidential

Calling all companions!  This perk applies to those who learn a language with a friend.  Not only do you have someone to practice with and confide in, you also have a partner in crime.  When you return home, you’ll be able to speak to each other in your new language–it’s like your own secret code!  Just be careful!  You never know who’s listening and can understand…

Image found here

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One Hour in Valletta, Malta

A country’s capital city is usually an urban metropolis bustling with frenzied energy.  Not so in Valletta.  The authors of Let’s Go Europe claim you can explore Malta‘s capital in only an hour–and they’re right.  Sandstone buildings line quiet, narrow streets that lead downhill to the sea.  Old haberdasheries and family silversmiths snuggle in with modern stores on the island where Italian, Arabic, and American influences combine to make the perfect escape.  In Valletta, the views are breathtaking, the people friendly, and the traditions strong.  So take just an hour to meander.  You’re sure to feel right at home.

 

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