You Probably Shouldn’t Study Abroad

Yes, you read that right. You really should NOT spend that semester in France, dear reader.

I mean, after all, a semester (or even a year!) away from home is a long time! Think about all the things you’d be missing – you know, those Friday night parties at your best friend’s apartment that you and your group of friends go to every week and, well, do the same things you always do together? You definitely wouldn’t want to miss out on those just to gallivant about Europe or Asia, would you?

And speaking of friends, think of how much you’re going to have to put yourself out there to meet new ones while you’re abroad. School-sponsored weekend excursions, weekly conversation hours at the bar, classes every day with strangers? Strangers who also probably won’t know anyone else and may be just as homesick and nervous as you are? Is that a can of worms you even want to open?

Not to mention that those new friends will probably come from totally different cultures and all walks of life. They may even challenge everything you thought you knew about a particular cultural group, or even your own culture and perspective – could you imagine?

And forget about the language issue – what if French is the only language you have to communicate with all these new people? An entire semester or year of only French, with minimal (or even no) English at all. What’s even the point?

Don’t even get me started on the food.

And when it’s all said and done, think of the heartache you’ll experience when you have to leave this brand new home you created for yourself, the family you chose, to return to a place that feels almost as foreign to you as your destination did six months ago. How could you possibly withstand those pangs of nostalgia when you stumble across a photo from that night on the banks of La Maine, that longing deep in your gut when you remember how it felt to wander the cobbled streets and drink wine on the terrace at night and that last bise goodbye before you got on the plane, not sure if you’d ever see this place or these people again?

No, no. You should probably never study abroad.

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Five Years Since France

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Five years ago today, I stepped on a plane and my life changed forever. I had just gone through a major transition in my life and wasn’t sure what would be waiting for me when the plane landed in Paris. I was excited, terrified, sad, nervous – everything, as I faced the prospect of spending five months living and studying in a foreign country, away from my friends and my family and my familiar.

It wasn’t easy at first. Landing at the CDG airport was a shock – we (I was with two other girls from my same university) were greeted by a clearly homeless and mentally ill man with no pants or underwear on who was lighting magazine pages on fire inside the airport. The first time I ever spoke French to a real, live French person was to buy train tickets (I planned out everything I was going to say, word-for-word, before I got in line). The bathrooms were filthy and cost money to use. It was freezing cold in the train station, and the only area with heat was a closed-in waiting area that smelled so strongly of urine I could practically taste it. The jetlag caught up with me once I sat in my seat on the train, and though I was so exhausted I could barely keep my eyes open, I was terrified of falling asleep and missing my stop.

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And then we arrived in Angers, met our host families and went to our new homes where it really started to sink in – this is it. I won’t see my home or my family again until June. I cried the first night as I Skyped with my mom.

But slowly, Angers started to feel comfortable. My French exploded, and I felt more confident in my second language that my first, wanting to avoid betraying myself as an outsider. I made friends with my host mom’s daughter, fell in love with a little café and their amazing lattés, and even reconnected with some friends that I had originally met during my time in New York, who I thought I would probably never see again after they announced they were moving to Paris (life is so funny sometimes). I got to know people from all around the world. And then when June rolled around, I didn’t want to leave.

I’ve been back to France many, many times since then. I even revisited Angers in 2013 and had lunch with my host mom in that big, old house. It felt like slipping back into a favorite old sweater. Five years – it seems like so long ago but just yesterday at the same time. Even so, I can’t help thinking that I’m not quite done with Angers yet.

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The Middle Village: Corniglia

On our trip to Cinque Terre, our “home base” was the middle of the five villages, Corniglia. We actually came by our lodging a bit by accident; originally, we had hoped to stay in Vernazza or Riomaggiore. In fact, we had found an AirBnB that the both of us adored and in the time it took us to come to a consensus, the room had been snapped up! And so it goes with such popular destinations, I suppose.

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Well, we couldn’t agree on anyplace else in either Riomaggiore or Vernazza that also happened to be within our price range and so we clicked on the next listing we found which was a room in a B & B in the very heart of Corniglia (not that it’s that big of a town but really, it was the dead center of the village). Once we saw the pictures of the roofdeck, we knew – this was it!

When it came down to it, we could not have been happier with our choice. Our hostess, Lidia, was utterly charming and kind; she provided us with maps, directions, suggestions on where to eat, and checked in on us each day during our stay. It was clean, centrally located, had an amazing view and oh, yeah – was literally just steps away from the best gelato I have ever eaten in my life! I mean, we’re talking about a village that counts about 250 year-round residents, but still. If you’re ever in Corniglia, do yourself the favor of getting a scoop or two at Alberto’s – the basil/lemon combo (made with fresh basil from the garden!) was the stuff of which dreams are made.

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Corniglia is distinctively different from the other four villages in the Cinque Terre in a couple of ways. First, it’s the only village that doesn’t touch the water. There are two ways to get into the village:

  1. By hiking in from either Vernazza or Manarola.
  2. Arriving by train and walking up 245 stairs.

To be fair, there is a semi-reliable shuttle that runs from the train station to “downtown” Corniglia, but you do have to buy a ticket to use it and it only runs until about 5:00 PM each day.

Once you get into the town itself, though, it’s markedly different from the others. Quieter. Far fewer tourists. There’s no beach – just a man-made swim spot at the bottom of a steep, rocky staircase. More laid-back restaurants. None of the chintzy souvenir shops that make up the bulk of the businesses in the other villages. Corniglia just seems much more untouched – perhaps it’s the hassle involved in actually getting there, but something about its realness made me love it so much more. While we visited the other villages during the day, we returned each afternoon to Corniglia to enjoy our daily aperitivo and to eat dinner. We also couldn’t bear to miss the sunset from the roof of our B & B! I miss just sitting in the warm evening breeze, listening to the sounds of life down below – the cathedral bells, the rumble of a car rolling past, silverware clinking on plates, laughter. If you find yourself in the Cinque Terre, do yourself a favor and spend at least one night in Corniglia. I promise, you will not regret it!

 

Charming Cinque

I’ve got a thing for villages.

Don’t get me wrong, I love cities, too – I’ll never pass up an opportunity to go to New York or Paris. But there’s just something about tiny streets, quaint cafés and locals who all seem to know one another. The quiet and solitude. The realness of it all. I love villages!

The first time I saw Cinque Terre was in a photograph at a local art fair. It was Vernazza, I think, at dusk. Its colorful buildings and harbor with little canoes was lit up against a midnight sky and I turned to my Partner in Crime and said, “We have got to go there.”

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The view from our rooftop terrace in Corniglia.

At the time I saw the photo I didn’t think I’d have my feet in Cinque within a year but it just so happened that it worked out that way. We knew we were flying into Rome, and had to make the trip up to Lyon, France and Cinque turned out to be an easy stop between the two. We were there for about four days, which was just enough time to see each of the five villages. Each one was just as beautiful as I imagined it; I don’t think that I could ever, ever get sick of staring at the Mediterranean. I’ve never seen a more beautiful blue – it was just impossible for us to capture on camera. Sitting on the rooftop terrace of our AirBnB, with a glass of wine, staring out over the sea and watching the sun set beyond the horizon while the cathedral bells of Corniglia chimed from across town…it’s a memory I will always cherish.

Rome: Bite by Bite

There are few things I love to do more while traveling than eat really good food. Looking up restaurant recommendations (and asking for them from locals!) is one of my favorite ways to prepare for a trip. And what better place to stuff myself to the gills on amazing food than Italy?

One thing to know about Rome: it’s incredibly full of tourists. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course, but it can make finding real, authentic restaurants – ones at which an actual Italian would eat  – kind of difficult. And I don’t take eating crummy food very lightly!

So when my traveling Partner in Crime found out about Eating Italy Food Tours – well, let’s just say we signed up, no questions asked. We chose the Twilight Trastevere tour, which is an evening walking tour through one of the coolest neighborhoods in Rome, that’s still relatively off the beaten track for most tourists and where you’ll find a lot of Rome’s young people hanging out well into the night (and you may even catch a glimpse of Owen Wilson, who lives in the neighborhood!).

The tour (which had a maximum of 12 people) stopped at SEVEN different places at which we sampled a variety of traditional Italian cuisine. Let me tell you – I thought we’d be having tiny samples of everything but by the sixth stop on our tour (a full dinner) I was stuffed. And there was still one more stop afterward for gelato! Did I mention that this tour also includes a full glass of wine at several stops (including as many bottles as we could drink at dinner)?

Oh yeah. Now that’s my kind of tour.

So, what’d we eat?

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On the terrace at da Enzo.

1. Da Enzo al 29 – Our first stop was at the family-owned restaurant (a hole in the wall, really) da Enzo al 29. There, we got to know our guide, Sebastiana, a bit better and were able to chat with the other members of the group while we dined on prosciutto, melon and cheese and toasted the beginning of our tour with a nice glass of prosecco. This particular trattoria has award-winning food but is almost impossible to get into for dinner without a reservation – try it at lunchtime, instead!

2. Next we stopped by the wine cellar of Spirito di Vino, a restaurant that prides itself on being part of Italy’s “slow food” movement, which started as a reaction against Rome’s first McDonald’s and the concept of fast food. The wine cellar also happens to be 150 years older than the Colosseum and is also where the statue of Apoxyomenos was found (now he lives in the Vatican museum). At Spirito di Vino we sampled two varieties of red wine and four small samples of food that included an amazing baked spaghetti and roasted pork over apples, while taking in the eery (but awesome!) atmosphere of their wine cellar.

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In the wine cellar of Spirto di Vino

3. Feeling a little heady from three glasses of wine, we wandered slowly to Biscottificio Innocentea famous family-owned cookie factory where the owner Stefania loaded us up with sweet treats. The buttery lemon-filled cookies were my personal favorite, with the Brutti ma Buoni (ugly but good) hazelnut meringues as a close second.

4. I Suppli – a tiny, hole-in-the-wall snack shop where we were able to munch on a Roman classic called suppli, a deep-fried ball of bolognese sauce and mozzarella cheese. We washed it down with a square of pizza rosa, a cheeseless and slightly spicy red pie that I still fantasize about sometimes.

5. Antica Caciara – Porchetta. Pork that’s been heavily salted, seasoned, and slow-roasted for hours over a woodfire spit. Need I say anything more? I think not.

6. Dinner at a local Osteria – Unfortunately, I cannot for the life of me remember the name of the osteria at which we ate dinner (I know, dinner, after all of that)! Of course I couldn’t refuse a few servings of cacio e pepi, gnocchi or the breaded ravioli. To say nothing of the wine!

7. Fatamorgana – Shockingly, we had all managed to save room (however little) for dessert: gelato! Fatamorgana is a local gelateria that serves up the real stuff which, unfortunately, is less and less common as quick-and-easy gelato mix has become relatively popular. Want to know if the gelateria you’re visiting is authentic? Check out their version of pistachio – if it’s the real deal, the pistachio gelato will be brown-ish in color (as is the real nut). If it’s bright green, it’s probably not real!

The tour lasted about 4 hours and was the absolute highlight of our time in Rome – I absolutely cannot recommend it enough for anyone planning on visiting the area.

Buono apetito!

 

 

2015 in Travel: A Retrospective

Now that we’re a full two days into the New Year, what better time to take one last look back at the travels of 2015? Since this is also a brand-new blog, this particular post is also a look forward to content that is soon to come. These memories are still fresh in my mind and I’m looking forward to sharing all of them very soon!

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2015 was an interesting year for me travel-wise because not only did I get to take time for myself, but I was also got to do my first bit of work-related travel.

That’s right. I took high school students to Europe. Without their parents. For 10 days. I know. I’ll write more about this experience later, but in short – it was wonderful. Everyone had a great time, including me! So much so that I’m already planning another student trip for 2017.

So, where did Megan take her carry on in 2015?

I hit two major European destinations this summer – France and Italy (super original, I know) but I got to see them both through an entirely different lens. France, because I went to some new-to-me cities and also got to see a few old favorites through the eyes of my students. Italy, because I got to experience it as a traveler with a little bit of money in my pocket instead of a flat-broke college student (more on that in a later post).

Destinations in France

1. Nice

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The looks on my students’ faces as they saw the absolutely gorgeous landscape of Nice, with its palm trees, mountains, and the shocking blue water of the Mediterranean was priceless. Out of all the places we visited in France, Nice was overwhelmingly the kids’ favorite.

 

2. Avignon

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Seat of the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages, Avignon is a quintessentially French town with old stone homes, narrow, winding streets and oh yeah – a gigantic old palace that held six papal conclaves during the 14th century.

3. Cassis

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Cassis is a stunning small town on the Mediterranean coast, a sort of halfway point between Nice and Marseille. We took a small boat into the Mediterranean for views of the impressive calanques and the crystal-clear water below. This was easily my favorite new “discovery” in France!

4. Paris

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Of course, no trip to France is complete without a stop in the city of lights. I’ve been to Paris many times, but this stop was purely for the students – no personal travel to Paris this year, unfortunately, but the kids had a blast exploring this amazing city.

5. Lyon

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My personal travel in France kicked off with a short weekend in Lyon. I’d never been to France’s second-largest city but my Partner in Crime and I had an awesome time exploring the traboules (hidden passageways) and sampling the bouchon lyonnais with our lovely friends Célia and Laure. Bonus – Laure lives in the heart of Croix-Rousse, one of the oldest and most historic neighborhoods in Lyon and allowed us to spend the weekend in her awesome apartment. Merci, Laure!

6. Strasbourg

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The city where French and German culture collide – the mix of cultures is everywhere, from the wooden-beam houses, enormous gothic cathedral and the French twist on spaetzle, flammkuchen, and choucroute (sausage over a sauerkraut-like mixture).

7. Besançon

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Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

We got a personal tour of Besançon from Célia, who went to university in the city. Besançon isn’t a place that gets a lot of foreign tourism, so we were able to enjoy it without feeling like we were being pandered to as tourists and as a French speaker, I could more easily blend in and just enjoy myself without being marked as an outsider – definitely my preference when I’m in France.

Destinations in Italy

1. Rome

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I had been to Rome before, in 2011, and had an unfortunately negative experience in the city. I wasn’t super keen on returning but the Partner in Crime and I knew we wanted to hit Europe again in 2015 and flying into Rome was the cheapest option. Thankfully my experience this time was much improved and we had a blast!

2. All five villages in the Cinque Terre

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Could I be anymore of a traveling poseur? No, probably not. Is Cinque Terre one of the most stunningly beautiful places I have ever been to in my life? Absolutely. Do not try to shame me, travel blog readers of the world, for I have zero regrets in visiting this Instagram addict’s paradise.

Domestic Travel

Of course, as much as I enjoy traveling abroad, I also really love exploring the places around me. Much time was spent gallivanting about Detroit, but a trip to visit my brother in Grand Rapids, on the western side of the state, was also in order. And what’s a trip to Grand Rapids without a stop at craft beer Mecca – Founder’s Brewing Company?

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So there you have it – a glimpse back at 2015! More stories and in-depth posts on these locations will follow, and I’m looking forward to sharing more about my plans for 2016!