Oh, the Places I’ve Missed (Writing About)

We’re approaching the end of the year, and as one often does at this time, I want to reflect backwards and evaluate how I’ve moved forward.  I’ve certainly posted enough lately about personal changes and growth, so I want to focus a bit more on the living-abroad side of my experiences.  After all, the end of my second year in Amsterdam is in February, and living in Europe for two years is quite an accomplishment in itself.

The first part of looking back is about places I’ve been, particularly those I didn’t write about.  I realize that of the 17 trips I took in 2015 (18, if we count next week’s trip back for Christmas), I wrote about only two (Norway, and my Italian Heritage Trip).  Bear with me, so I can reflect on the changes that have taken place even in travel patterns.  This is not to boast.  Mostly it has been quite exhausting and it has helped me realize that bouncing around from place to place wanderlustfully is great, but also having a sense of home and order (as I get older? as I realize the relative importance of things when losing loved ones?) also has a valued place in my life.

Of the 17 trips, let’s take away the 4 times (5, if we count next week’s trip) that I went back home to the US for planned visits and unplanned funerals, support for family, and support for myself. That leaves 13. Repeat visits to the Lorraine region of France, twice back again to Paris, once again to Barcelona, once again to London, and once again to Chamonix. And two trips about which I’ve already written.

So… 6 new places: The Italian Dolomites/ Venice, Stockholm, Brugge, Milan, and Berlin.  I’ll touch on each of these in a series of postings and then come back for a final posting on some cultural observations from my second year living among the Dutch.

The Italian Dolomites (Cortina D’Ampezzo) and Venice

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In January, Uri and I took a week for what you do in Europe in the winter — a snow holiday.  We originally booked so Uri could get a taste for his love of snowboarding, but as he then also booked a trip with people more apt to snowboard than me, we then planned to indulge in lots of different winter activities instead, and the snowboard stayed at home.  We chose the Italian Dolomites mainly because it was less expensive than the ritzier large locations in France and Switzerland.  We chose Cortina D’Ampezzo for its size, access to Venice, number of bunny slopes for me, and non-ski/snowboard related activities available.

First things first, Uri proposed to me on our first night in Cortina. 🙂 Resolute on avoiding a proposal in Venice (how overdone!), he popped the question on our first night, so we could have a full week of enjoying our “fidanzanmento!” in Italy.  We drank many Aperol Spritz’ in celebration.

This trip was almost a year ago, and there are a few things that stand out in my memory outside of our engagement. First, eating canaderli (also called Knodeln in German), which are dumplings made of bread chunks and ham, served in a soup broth or with butter and cheese. The area of Cortina, being so close to the German border, has many crossovers in Italian and German cultures, with canaderli being one of the culinary similarities. My second clear memory is of how much I love the mountains and their views, fresh air, and ability to give perspective, despite my aversion to downhill skiing and to being out in the damp cold for hours a day, and days at a time.  Third, how much I love Italian food (PIZZA!  PASTA! BREAD! CHEESE! WINE!) but how after a week of it at three meals a day, you just would die for clean cooked chicken, or fresh veggies not soaked in oil.  I’m sure my ancestors are turning in their graves, but I remember one night of deciding to go to a fruit stand and eat two bananas for dinner, after a huge pizza lunch and previous days of carbs left me begging for anything I could find otherwise. And there was another night with me requesting plain chicken and a side of whatever the shop had that was green in the kitchen.

Cortina was also a week of experimenting with new sporty activities.  In addition to Uri taking one day to downhill ski with me (instead of his usual requisite snowboarding), we tried alpine/ cross country skiing for the first time, which for us, was swishing our legs back and forth in a preset track with absolutely no control over our speed or direction. Despite our “noviceness”, we had a blast and look forward to trying it again in a few months.  We also went snowshoeing, which must now be my favorite snow-related activity.  I’ve found I just do not get a thrill from careening downhill on skis, nor do I enjoy high speeds, having a fear of falling, or actually falling.  Snowshoeing for me was fantastic, because I was up in the mountain for a long time, enjoying gorgeous views that are really missed in those few moments you get off the ski lift before you head down the mountain. We walked high-kneed over and through the mountain with our guide, and he even brought us to an old bunker that was previously used in fighting the Austrians on the other side of the Dolomites during WWI.  Truly riveting!

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After five days in Cortina, we took the bus back to Venice and spent two days exploring the city. Not surprisingly, Venice was overwhelmingly touristy (gahhhhh the selfie sticks!), but we had some really good meals there (particularly, I had the best Pasta Fagioli I’ve ever had in my life at a place called Osteria Ae Cravate). We walked the old Jewish Ghetto, drank bombardinos and prosecco (Venuto is the home of prosecco!), and reached our breaking point for mass tourism on the island of Murano and its blown-glass sculptures.  Venice was undeniably beautiful, but perhaps its touristic hysteria and hyperbolized greatness left us feeling a bit underwhelmed overall.  It’s a wonderful city to visit, and I’m glad I saw the blue canals in person, but given the opportunity to go back again, I would probably pass.

Stockholm

In February, Uri had a work trip in Stockholm so I tagged along and we stayed the weekend.  Even though we visited in the dreary winter, I LOVED Stockholm.  It is such a livable city with a great combination of charm and modern living, with trendy and artsy-bohemian areas, without being too gritty.  There is a livable combination of Swedish and English infused in the city, and people are notably friendly and welcoming.  That said, I may have formed my bias solely from my experience at one fantastic restaurant we fell upon for brunch.  Again, without hyperbole, I had one of the best sandwiches of my life at Nybrogatan 38.

Another standout during our short time in Stockholm was the Vasa Museum. In the 1600’s, a ship experienced the biggest fail possible by sinking in her maiden voyage only after traveling 1300m in the Stockholm Harbor.  It was salvaged in 1961 as one of the best preserved and historically important shipwrecks ever. The museum, in my opinion, is a must-see.

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Traveling in winter in Europe outside of Christmas market season can be a bit discouraging.  Days are extremely short, sometimes with sun setting as early as 3:30, and sometimes it seems the sun never really rises at all. At least in the north, what makes the best of cities is often lost in the rainy dreariness.  The best things a traveler can do, I think we did well, and that is to be one with the snow and to eat good food.

 

Up next: Brugge, Milan, and Berlin.

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Finding New Life Currencies

It’s been almost a year and a half since I started this blog, and things have changed quite a lot.  

Since moving to Amsterdam, I’ve seen over 30 places across 14 countries, some multiple times.  95% of these places I’ve visited have been first time visits to new countries or new cities for me.

What happens when you go from seeing 1-2 new places a year to 30+?  You get used to it.  Just like a fish that grows bigger in a bigger fish bowl that it is given, or people whose “needs” become inflated when their income rises, everything in life normalizes around your new level.  I find myself having to watch for how I present travels to my friends and family at home. I have to remember what it was like before I moved here, to hear what people that had these opportunities or this access sounded like to that version of me.  I have to put myself back in my old shoes.

You learn to become comfortable with being uncomfortable, because it is your new normal.   I bounce greetings and thanks across different languages without being ashamed at my poor accent. I meet new people from countries around the world regularly, and I learn new cultural nuances, witty phrases, political stances, and social sensitivities. On a more practical level, I don’t think twice that I will not understand emergency announcements or delayed train explanations on a platform. I am comfortable that my iPhone may very well not work, and that I’ll need to find my way without the blue dot of Google Maps.

This concept of normalizing to new levels, spun negatively, feels like you are never satisfied.  Spun positively, you can always handle what you are given.  Other things that happened this year that are pretty major: I got engaged, I’m planning two weddings (thanks to my marriage to an Australian, I get a legal we-need-to-apply-for-a- green-card-stat ceremony with family, as well as our dream wedding in France), my father died unexpectedly when I lived across the world away from family and friends, and as a result of the overwhelmedness, lack of motivation, and severe lack of focus, I’ve decided to reevaluate the career I’ve been had for the last 10 years.  

So I’m in a place I never saw myself in even 3 years ago:  in a loving and committed lifelong relationship, fatherless, and questioning my career.  Re-defining who I am now is quite a feat; I call it, “finding my new life currency”. What is that thing that now defines my value?  I thought that once I “made it” in my New York career, that I had everything figured out.  I figured out how to define my value in life, and anyone doing it differently was not as smart, not as motivated, not as strong-willed.  Having my job and excelling in my career defined me. Working hard and late, having many projects running at the same time, spending my hard earned money on rent, eating out, and drinking defined me. Being a New Yorker defined me.  

I wasn’t unhappy, but there was a time limit to this way of living for me.  Once I hit a certain age or time of my life, I suddenly realized that I didn’t actually care about the job I was doing; I was just really motivated that I was really good at doing it.  I realized that this was not enough for me – being really good at something I really didn’t care about.  It was time to move to a different place and change my perspective.  

Throughout this process I am finding a way to learn and believe that parallel or sideways growth is just as much a movement upward as moving upward in your job or your income level. My first mentor once told me that a great and fulfilled life does not look like a ladder that only climbed up in the end, but instead is a mosaic of different points, skills, jobs, and experiences.  And when you stand back to look, it has actually resulted in a beautiful piece of art.

Israel for a Beginner, or Trip to the Holy (Crap this is Amazing) Land – PART 1

Uri was invited to a wedding in Caesarea, Israel, in June. When I first learned about the opportunity to go on a trip to Israel, I was pretty hesitant. I didn’t know much about Israel, except that it was filed away in my head in “places frequently on the news for reasons to do with war or infighting, or airstrikes, or whatever… I would never have a reason to go anyway.” I didn’t understand the difference between an Israeli and a Palestinian, and I honestly didn’t know what side America even supported.

I was raised Catholic, but more influentially, was just raised in a place where I just didn’t have the motivation to learn much about things outside of my little world (see my previous entry). I also wouldn’t describe myself as an adventure traveler, keen to tick off the most risky places in the world. I am more of an experience-traveler. With every place I visit, I learn more about the world, the people in it, and how I fit. But ever since my extraordinarily well-traveled and adventurous great friend, Erik, made a video for Discovery Channel Travel, my mind had changed and I very much wanted to see this place for myself. Plus, I was dating a Jewish guy who answered my questions patiently and allowed me to grill him on risk aversion and current states of affairs, and his own opinions and experiences.

With all of this, I was very nervous to talk to my parents about making my decision to go. My mom’s reaction was as expected–she didn’t know much about the place, but she heard on the news that there was fighting and it could be dangerous. She didn’t want me to go, but trusted my decision. My dad’s reaction was less predictable. A history buff and a bit of a war alarmist-I was very afraid he would have a lot to say about going to a country where bombs have exploded on public city buses twice in the last few years, and where the U.S. Department of State travel site warns against visiting. His reaction was that this was a place as much for Christians as it is for Jews, or even for us agnostics who want to experience the historic significance. He wished it was something he could experience, and encouraged me to “go find out where I came from.” And with that, I was off to Israel.

Middle Eastern Arrival

My first touchpoint with the Middle East wasn’t even the Middle East, it was Turkey, and it wasn’t even reality, it was the #7 best airport lounge in the world (#1 to me!), the Turkish Airlines Lounge in Istanbul airport. As a layover to our overnight flight, I wished the 2 hours was longer… we arrived at around 4am waiting for the stalls to open. It was 3000 sq. meters (32,000 sq. feet!) of endless space, cold food stations, stations with 15 different types of nuts (10 of which I’ve never seen), stations overflowing with fruit and a fresh honeycomb, fresh omelet stations, a bakers corner where fresh sesame seed bagels were being twisted and dipped, coming out of the oven served with Turkish country butter, and best of all, the gozleme station, which I waited (im)patiently to open. I watched a Turkish lady prepping what became my layover breakfast: spinach, cheese, or potatoes, grilled inside paper thin, crispy sheets of dough (like phyllo), and basted with fresh garlicky butter. Delicious!!! The whole experience can only be described as opulent as was the experience of the ladies of Sex and the City 2 when arriving in Abu Dhabi. Hah!

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After two hours of bliss and a reminder from Uri of, “This is not what our trip will be like…,” we were off to Tel Aviv.

Tel Aviv

After arriving at the airport, we took the train to Tel Aviv and hailed a cab from the station. That’s a lie. We didn’t hail a cab–we were accosted by snarly, screaming Israeli men, who yelled at us as if we were doing something wrong requesting a cab in the cab line. Apparently that is how it goes there. We watched as a cabbie tried to coerce a solo female traveler to travel with us in our cab without a discount on price or a proper explanation. We all refused and we were all again shouted at by the impatient cabbie. Once in the cab, we fought about price throughout the ride as he continued to give us the run around, until I finally snapped with “50 shekels – no more discussion!!!”

My first impression of Tel Aviv was, “Soon we will drive out of this dirty, rundown area, and into the city, yes?” But then we pulled up to our hotel, right in the middle of said area. I can only describe the area as something of a bombed out desert town with dilapidated buildings, stray cats everywhere, crumbling sidewalks, and trash strewn in all the streets. Then, someone decided they wanted to build Miami over it. They didn’t bother to fix the building facades, or to clean the streets. They just gutted the insides of the buildings, and opened up a bunch of restaurants a la the trendiest styles of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and beach clothing shops.

The good news is, my impression of Tel Aviv only gets better from here. Yes, it is run down city that needs a lot of love and care, but we eventually found the strips of streets and neighborhoods that give it its charm. Would I feel comfortable walking these streets at night alone? Probably not. But as with any other place, you become desensitized to certain things that initially stand out (throngs of tourists in Midtown NYC on your way to work, or smelling pot on the tourist streets in Amsterdam). If I spent more time there and explored more neighborhoods, I would probably grow to feel even more comfortable with the difference in what was “normal”.

Tel Aviv is also a city to eat amazing food. Coming from New York City and moving to Amsterdam, I have been coping with the adjustment to the suburbanized lifestyle (in comparison), and struggling with the dearth of decent food options. Tel Aviv, like New York City, is a city to eat delicious food. I had many memorable meals: kebabs, hummus, pita, tapas, pork chops (yes, pork chops), shaksouka, sweet potato and yogurt chive dip, and on and on. My favorite restaurants were Orna and Ella, Vicky Christina, and Gedera 26. I cannot say enough about how amazing the food was!

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Tel Aviv is also the city of contrasts. A beach next to a previously hollowed out desert town (at least by appearances), Old Jaffa next to the new ports, hedonistic tendencies in a place where the entire city shuts down for Shabbat*… And then the Israeli women. They are pretty looking and pretty tough. I’d go so far to say they were some of the bitchiest women I ever met as a combined group, as far as the shop keeps, waitresses, and observances of vacationers and city dwellers we crossed paths with goes. The locals explained to me that this is how Israeli women are built to deal with Israeli men. If the men are anything like the cabbies, then I understand 😉 Over and over again I was astounded by how stick skinny and gorgeous (not related) they all were as well. It must be something in the hummus???

*Don’t let anyone tell you Tel Aviv doesn’t shut down on Shabbat! Sure, it wasn’t dead quiet like Jerusalem would be, but every restaurant we wanted to try was closed and every store was as well. We eventually parked ourselves on the beach for hours, and found a few open restaurants to eat, but our options that day were definitely more than limited. Not to mention that there is no public transportation running. And remember those snarly cab drivers? They know your lack of options and will gut you accordingly for those extra shekels.

Next up: Jerusalem, the Dead Sea & Masada, and a Jewish wedding…