The New Normal

It was with great luck that a mere two months after our tour ended, I found myself back exactly where I had left off – in France. We had flown over for a magic convention and foolishly hadn’t built in an extra day for sightseeing because of our packed work schedule. But it seems that mes amis, the French, are always looking out for me! The Air France strike that was on led to a canceled return flights, and left us “stranded” in the south of France for a day! “Quelle chance,” as I like to say. So, we decided to head to the charming town of Aix-en-Provence with no agenda but to speak French, wander and of course – eat.

Moments after we arrived we stumbled upon a market while looking for a lunch spot and decided to just buy everything we wanted there and have a pique-nique! As we sat in the sunshine near one of Aix’s famous fountains, feasting on our provisions from the marche and exchanging sentiments of “OH MON DIEU” after every bite we tasted, I thought about how natural it felt to be back in Europe; parle-ing en francais with the locals, spending all my euros on roast chickens and unpasteurized cheese. For one of the first times, rather than having that “we’re on holiday” feeling I felt like “I’m home.”

The Sunday Market in Aix

The Last Few Bites of the Feast

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The Sunday Market in Aix

The last time I wrote we were a mere week away from the end of our European lecture tour. After leaving Carcassonne we headed on to Spain: Barcelona, Sevilla, and finally wrapped everything up on the rock of Gibraltar, a strange, little island just below that is owned and operated by the British.

The mix of Spain & England is certainly an unusual one, and it made for a place that combined two things that never occur together naturally: sunshine and English accents. It also made for odd menus in restaurants attempting to combine the two cuisines with awful things like blood pudding croquettes. By the time we got to “Gib” as the locals call it, I had more or less checked out. I think it was partial exhaustion, partial being totally fried from spending the past three days in the 110 degree sun of Seville, and partial just ready for the work to be done.

As Josh and I got off the train for the last time, we just stood on the platform for a moment, surrounded by our mound of now-battered suitcases and hands raised in jubilation. “NO MORE TRAINS,” we yelled as we danced around until we were reprimanded by one of the Spanish train employees for making too much noise.

The Last Ride!

The Last Ride!

The lecture in “Gib,” the last lecture, was a memorable one.
Josh, who usually changed into a sharp blazer and sleek loafers, lectured in his tank top and sandals. Our typically crowd of 30 or so enthusiastic magicians was down to 5 – none of whom spoke English, and instead of attentively watching the final lecture, as I had promised  Josh I would do, I fell asleep in the back of the room after devouring a pack of dark chocolate digestive biscuits. It was clear that for both of us, this tour was so over.

Our tour ended that day, July 6th. 52 lectures, 20 weeks, 14,000 miles in America, and 12 countries in Europe. Thinking back on it now it really all does seem like there’s no possible way we did it and lived to tell the tale. When the tour was over, we parted ways for a while, each taking a week to go visit friends. For me that meant 8am – 8pm sunbathing sessions with my best friends from college in Juan Les Pins. For Josh, that meant 4pm – 4am magic “jamming sessions” with the most famous close-up magician in the world in Cadiz, Spain. You tell me who got the better end of that deal.

Poolside in Juan Les Pins

Poolside in Juan Les Pins

Josh with Juan Tamariz in Cadiz

Josh with Juan Tamariz in Cadiz

We met back up in Venice a week later and boarded the Celebrity Equinox for seven days of forced fun on the Mediterranean. We are not your typical cruise candidates, but after months of travel, different hotels every night, missing daily meals, and not being able to communicate with people in our native tounge – nothing sounded better than surrendering everything over to the overly enthusiastic, English-speaking employees of Celebrity whose mission it was to make sure we were relaxed, well fed, and entertained.

All Aboard! The First of Many Cheesy Photos.

All Aboard! The First of Many Cheesy Photos.

We instantly found ourselves at home on the ship. We were the first ones at the pool every morning snagging the prime, plush, padded sun beds and barely moving all afternoon. We were the first ones off at the ports and explored some incredible places for the first time together – Dubrovnik, Santorini, Ephesus, Olympia! We gambled in the casino, and of course we lost everything we gambled. Josh ate 7-9 meals a day. We ordered almost every option of every course off the menu each night; a weeks worth of desserts in one sitting. We even participated in some of the activities – like poolside mixology 101, and sunset trivia on the E-Deck. The cruise director caught us dreamily staring into each others eyes one night, and demanded to know what we were celebrating – so it seemed as good a time as any to pretend like we had just gotten engaged! Something we’d been doing all summer to see how many perks we could amount. This announcement was then, of course, joyously proclaimed to the entire Sky Club in between the 60’s standards. Despite all the silly evening masquerades, and cheesy photo backdrops, and people trying to get us to participate in things like “Battle of the Sexes Relay Race,” we had an obnoxiously good time.

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Loving the Village of Oia!

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Josh Taking in Ephesus

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Walking the Walls of Dubrovnik

Our last few hours abroad were spent in Istanbul, and I was surprised to find myself so melancholy. I’d been fantasizing for the last few weeks about being home; about hanging my clothes up in a closet and conversing on the regular in English. I was so ready to resume having a working cel phone, using the washing machine, and knowing my way around without looking at a crumbled map. And yet I boarded the plane to JFK with a little teary-eyed.

“How do we go back to normal life,” I asked Josh as taxied the runway? I LOVE this life. And this tour… it was the most fun I’ve ever had! I don’t want it to be over! We won’t be able to spend our days wandering around cute, European towns trying the pastries anymore, or spend our nights surrounded by the world’s most bizarre and wonderful collections of people. No more midnight gelato cones and beautiful scenery and ancient ruins, and bike rides through vineyards! Our average day will be so boring!”

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last few months, it’s that an average day with a magician is anything but boring.

My old average day was my morning latte before my morning meeting, and then slowly going blind while staring at floor plans and computer screens. It was filled with waiting for checks from clients and dropping off samples and rushing to the gym after work to make the 6:30 class so I could have a chance at being home before 8 in order to put together some type of dinner before passing out from exhaustion.

But on an average day now, you’ll often find my running around the streets of New York, typically Lululemon clad with my “I left my heart in SF” tote slung over my right shoulder. I’m often on the hunt for things “the boss,” as I like to call Josh, needs for a trick he’s developing. Things that I’d know where to get if I could go to Diagon Alley, but require a lot more creativity to track down in the real world.

I may be in the garment district checking out mannequins and dress forms, trying to find the right one to best display the Houdini straightjacket Josh just won at auction, or talking on the phone to a Vanishing Inc customer about the various sizes available for sponge carrots. I could be laying out Josh’s latest book idea, or sitting at the table surrounded my glitter and stickers and photos crafting pages for the thick scrapbook I’ve made of the tour, or styling Josh for the video shoot happening that day. Or we may be having an inspiration day, walking around the Met and stopping for a caramel apple cupcake and card game in the American Wing. But often I’m just in our little magical apartment, being the spectator for The Boss as he rehearses in his boxers.

And while that’s no world tour – it’s still pretty exciting.

Provence Dreams Come True

I’ve dreamed of Provence for a long, long time. I pictured myself wondering through quaint little towns with slim, cobblestone streets and little houses with brightly colored doors and shutters. I imagined parleing all day with tanned, French, cafe owners while they served me homemade aioli. I thought of how wonderful it would be to stand among the endless fields of tall sunflowers and rows of lavender plants: the scenery that inspired the greatest works of Van Gogh and Cezanne. My mouth watered at the thought of eating ratatouille, salade Niçoise sinking my teeth into a fougasse d’olive, and starting off every lunch and dinner with a glass of vin.

I sometimes find that I’m a tad disappointed by the reality of the things I have built up in my head, but Provence was everything I dreamed it would be, and more.

Like America, life in the South is slower, and people are nicer. In Provence, we were talking with the train conductor for at least 15 minutes about the best things to see and do in the city. Each person we passed on our short walk to the hotel said “bonjour!” and smiled at the sight of us, even though we were noticeably tourists. The owner of the hotel spent time calling all her favorite restaurants to get us a dinner reservation for that evening, and when we arrived – the chef popped his head out of his kitchen to smile and waive! I don’t want to say these things wouldn’t happen in Paris, but this these just wouldn’t happen in Paris. It was a total joy to walk into each shop, talk with each street artist about ses oeuvres, and discuss the menu du jour with each waiter. I’ve always felt at home in France, but in Provence I felt especially welcome.

We stayed in Avignon and from there went to visit the smaller Provencal towns nearby. It was a mere ten minutes into the drive to Arles that we pulled over on the side of the road next to a field turned bright yellow with a million sunflowers. I lept out of the car like it was on fire and stood there with my jaw detached. And it wasn’t just the sunflowers… it was the tall, skinny Cypress trees and mountains in the foreground; it was the medieval, stone cottage in the off to the side with turquoise shutters, and the field across the road that was deep purple from rows and rows of lavender. It was the whole landscape, exactly as the post-impressionists painted. And it made me swoon.

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The tiny town of Arles is where Van Gogh lived when he moved south from Paris, in his pre-crazy years. Here he painted The Terrace Cafe, Bedroom in Arles, and of course, The Yellow House which no longer stands. It’s also where he spent time in a hospital recovering post his ear-cutting-off incident. The town is one of the oldest in Europe and was Roman for many years, so there are ruins adding to the standard, incredible beauty of a little, French village. We toured around Arles, stopping to admire each important place and patisserie window, and we had our first fougasse d’olive – a provencal speciality that looks like a pretzel but is flakey like a croissant and studded with sun-dried olives. I’d been wanting to try one for years, and it was worth the wait.

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From Arles, we drove to St-Remy-de-Provence, a town that’s smaller yet and is home to the mental institution, Saint-Paul Asylum, where Van Gogh spent several years of his life and painted some of his most important paintings.

Today, Saint-Paul Asylum still stands, and still operates as a mental institution. But the main form of therapy for all the patients there is art. There’s a separate section, away from the patients, that tourists can visit. As we pulled up a vast field of olive trees was to our left and a beautiful, stone entryway covered in ivy and flowers before us. We began to walk down the entry, which was entirely lined with greenery on either side so thick you could barely see the stone underneath. Big pots of bright, pink flowers and small benches for taking a rest were planted every few meters. The institution itself looked like a small castle, entirely built of smooth stone and rising high above the countryside with turrets and arches. I couldn’t believe the beauty, considering it was a crazy-house. If I lived in France I’d pretend I was nuts just to get to live in this place!

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In the gift shop, you could buy the canvases painted by the current patients there. They a small collection of each person’s works, and we weren’t at all surprised to find several that we wished we could take home.

The village of St-Remy was smaller and more charming yet than Avignon or Arles. The towns kept getting cuter as we went, making me never want to stop going to the next. St-Remy was completely devoid of a ZARA or McDonalds or any name you would recognize. There was, however, a vast collection of old, french, countrymen sitting outside their homes with straw hats and bottles of wine.

But the real heartthrob of the day was our final stop, Les Baux. Tucked away on the top of a mountain, it seemed like the whole village was carved out of stone. There are 20 people who actually live in Les Baux, and over 2 million who visit each year. It only takes about 15 minutes to walk the entirety of the town, in which you mostly just pass several shops full of lavender sachets, AOC olive oil, and hand-made soaps in every color and fragrance imaginable. But it’s so charming that every corner you turn makes you want to cry! And so you grab a table with a view, get out your deck of cards and have a cribbage tournament on top of the mountain in the little town in the middle of Provence.

By the end of the day, every scene and viewpoint I had imagined and dreamed of had been realized. Provence looked exactly the way I hoped it would – and so it was time to taste it.

I ate without fear of consequence. Foie gras stuffed guinea hen, Coquilles Saint-Jacques, truffle papperdelle, baked camembert with fig jam, salade Niçoise, creme brulee, red wine, white wine, sparkling wine! But despite searching everywhere, I couldn’t find aioli.

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Aioli is often called the butter of Provence. It’s a mix of eggs, garlic, herbs, and olive oil that they serve in a big scoop with vegetables, fish, and if you’re lucky – snails. It’s basically like a homemade garlic mayo, but rather than being a condiment, it’s a meal. I first learned about aioli while watching Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations.” He explained that aioli is so delicious and special here because of the olive oil in Provence, which is some of the best in the world. I remember sitting on the couch with my dad, drooling, as we watched Anthony observe some old, adorable french man make the aioli by hand, and thinking “I HAVE to get to Provence!”

Naturally, I was on a mission to try it, but my search came up dry and it came time for our final lunch in Avignon and I still hadn’t had aioli. Josh does not exactly share my passion for searching endlessly until I find the exact restaurant with the atmosphere and menu I’m after each time it comes to eating a meal out, something I learned from my mother. He, understandably, often gets a bit restless as we walk from place to place and I pass on it for one reason or another. So since we were short on time and starving, I gave up on my search for aioli and settled on lunching in a little cafe called Ripert because of how wonderfully French it was. The interior had clouded, stained mirrors for walls, a checkered floor, and wooden tables with round vases of white flowers. Accordion music was softly piped through the corners of the room and the french doors to the place were open, letting the warm breeze come in and out.

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Our waiter came over to see what kind of wine we wanted, and also to tell us that there was a special plat du jour…which as fate would have it, was aioli! He was definitely a bit shocked when this announcement was met with cheering and laughter, but he liked our enthusiasm. I stared back at the young chef in the open kitchen as he whipped it up, thinking Anthony Bourdain had nothing on me now.

The plate alone made me giddy – the final missing piece was before me. The aioli was thick and creamy like pudding and looked like a scoop of ice cream. I promptly smothered it on the white fish, boiled potatoes, sea snails, and roasted vegetables it was served with, and indulged in my final gastronomic dream-come-true in Provence.

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Hiking the Cinque Terre

Josh was not in favor of taking the scenic hike from Montoresso to Vernazza. He was trying to persuade me to board the nice, large boat that takes you from town to town instead, but I protested. “We can’t come to the Cinque Terre and not hike the trails! That’s why you come here!”

My own words would quickly come back to bite me, as we faced an endless, steep staircase made of rock and dirt.

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The people we crossed on our way out that were coming from Vernazza should have served as a warning. A slew of panting, sweaty, sun-burned people uttering things like,

“Oh my God, we MADE it!”
“It’s ALMOST over! ”
“This has been horrible!”
“LAND! LANDDDD!!!”

I laughed as they passed us, thinking, “Out of shape Americans. How hard could it really be?!”

The answer was HARD.
REALLY HARD.

What I imagined was a leisurely, seaside stroll on a nice, paved path was actually a two hour vertical climb up one of the rocky cliffs that the towns of the Cinque Terre are built between.

With the Italian sun beating down on us, we began peeling off layers of clothes until we were both hiking in only our bathing suits, a trend we noticed among fellow hikers.

I quickly saw this hike as a great opportunity for a killer workout – a rare thing to come across in Europe, and was quite pleased with our decision. I was actually going to earn the pasta and gelato I would inevitably eat for dinner! Josh, on the other hand, was in complete misery. Each time I turned around to check on him, he was staring daggers at me.

I attempted to comfort him. “Just think how great this is for our butts!”

About an hour in, we reached the top of the cliff and the land leveled out a bit. The stunning views of the town of Vernazza ahead were a just reward for our efforts. It sat there perched on the cliffs right against the sea. A collection of geometric, candy-colored buildings built on top of each other, like a pastel set of legos. Giant rocks laden with sunbathers stretched far out into the water and a dozen little sailboats floated nearby.

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I had suggested the Cinque Terre when I realized we’d already be in Genoa, a mere hour away. We had originally planned to spend the time off in Lyon, but when I saw how close we were to the “five lands” it seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally visit them. It’s inconceivable to me even that I would choose to spend time in Italy over France, but I’m always interested in visiting somewhere Josh has not been, and this was one of those few places in Europe he had yet to explore.

When we finally took the last step into Vernazza we jumped right into the water for a swim, dried off in the sun, and then went to get a foccacia.

Each region of Italy has different foods it’s famous for and that you can only really eat when you’re there. You want cacio e pepe? You gotta go to Roma; if you want Veal Marsala – you gotta go to Marsala, and so on. The stretch of the Riviera we were on was all about foccacia, pesto, and lemons. Thus, foccacieras, selling thick, square pieces of the heavenly stuff topped with all kinds of things were plentiful throughout the five towns, pesto pasta was on every menu, and limoncello was given to us after meals as disgestif. A meal in the Cinque Terre must include one of these three things – and another requirement – an incredible view.

For dinner that night, we went back to Vernazza after exploring the other towns (this time by boat!). In an old, circular, stone lookout tower is a restaurant called Belaforte, where we were lucky enough to snag a reservation at the table overlooking the sea on the top of the tower. As it turned from evening to night, we wined and dined and befriended our adorable Italian waiter, Marco, who completely freaked out when Josh started doing card tricks for him. The whole waitstaff was eventually huddled around our little table, shrieking. The night ended with warm, carmelized strawberries being poured over a heap of vanilla gelato and us devouring it within seconds.

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I woke up at 8 the next morning to run out and purchase the umbrella and chairs in the prime, front row spot inches from the sea, secured it with towels and then came back inside and went back to bed until noon. We spent a lazy day lounging in chaises and licking cones of gelato, leaving our exploring until later. The beach quickly grew crowded and I noticed the Europeans don’t really swim. They just stand in their speedos in small groups at the foot of the sea, with only their feet in the water, smoking cigarettes. The only people actually in the water were noticeably American, splashing around snapping selfies.

We had been told by a friend in Milan that we had to visit A Pie de Ma’ in Rigamorre for a drink. And so that’s where we spent our last sunset in the Cinque Terre. Approaching from the sea, the towns look like drawings from storybooks. They are all very similar, but something about the arrival in Rigamorre I found particularly surreal. The entrance to A Pie de Ma’ was another vertical climb up to the Via Del’ Amore. The large, sun-filled terrace stretched so far out onto the water that it was all you could see once seated at a table. There we stayed for a few wonderful hours; playing cribbage as we nibbled on a cheese plate. And there we toasted, me with my Aperol Spritz and Josh with his lemonade, to a wonderful week in Italy.

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Meeting the Milanese

Milan is by no means the most beautiful city in Italy, and not really a destination I was in a hurry to get to in Italy. And yet, today was one of my favorite day I’ve ever spent in this country.

Perhaps the absence of the slew of American tourists that I’ve typically been surrounded by when I’m here is what made Milan so great. We weren’t walking down the corso next to fanny-pack wearing Midwesterners, but next to the Milanese themselves, impeccably dressed and smoking cigarettes and they passionately yelled to one another in Italian.

Or perhaps it was because for the first time in Italy, I had no agenda of ruins to see or museums to visit. We just had a leisurely day of walking around the city just enjoying being here. The typical Italian summer of 100 degree days was replaced by a perfectly breezy 75 degree day, and there were no crowds to fight, or lines to wait in.

Or perhaps it was that I finally had italian food that literally blew my mind. When it came time for lunch, we avoided the typical outdoor piazzas around the main attractions that we would usually be drawn to, and ate instead in a charming, little restaurant we passed by that didn’t even have an english menu. Our waitress was all smiles and recommended her favorite dish: macheroni with ricotta and zuchinni blossoms. One bite of the homemade, perfectly al dente cooked macheroni and I had to close my eyes and take a moment of silence. It was, without a close second, the most incredible pasta I’ve ever had the pleasure of devouring.

But I think the real reason was that in my all times in Italy, I had not had a true cultural experience among Italians until that night…

I’ve never been more amused during a meal than I was at dinner with our hosts, Bruno and Jordano, in one of their favorite restaurants outside Milan. Every second from our arrival to departure was pure entertainment, and it was my first real encounter with a big group of 100% Italians.

They knew our waiter of course, who was entirely bald with facial hair that appeared to be drawn on with eyeliner. When we arrived, there was a lot of greeting and hand shaking and talking that went on before we were eventually seated outside. We weren’t handed any menus, but instead our waiter walked over to the table and said,

“Meat or fish?”

We must have looked confused, because he repeated – “Meat or fish? Or pizza?”

“Uh, meat, replied Josh with a nod”
“Meat. Okay. He turned to me, “and you belissima?”
“Fish,” I said, although I wanted to say pizza.
“Fish, okay. You like-a lobster?
“Oo, YES!”
“You like-a- spaghetti?”
“YES.”
“Okay”
“And to drink,” he asked the table? “Red or white?”
The decision for the table was mine to make.
“Red.”
“Alora, gratzi” and he was gone.

I didn’t know if this ordering process was normal or just for our table. But I looked around to realize that no one had menus! He was just going from table to table telling people what they’d be eating for dinner based on their reply to “meat or fish or pizza?” But my favorite thing was that there was no question as to whether or not we’d drinking wine, it was just a matter of “red or white?”

Bruno and Jordano spoke nearly perfect English like a thick, Italian accent that made just talking to them fun. Sometimes at dinner with strangers, there’s not much to say, and several long, silent pauses accompany the meal. But not in Italy. Not with these two. The only time we weren’t chatting was when we were sipping our wine.

Slowly, the carbs started started coming to our table. Things I didn’t know if we had ordered or if our waiter had just decided we should eat: risotto, pizza bianca, ciabatta bread. The amount of carbs the italians can consume and still remain relatively slender is mind-boggling. My favorite moment was watching Bruno scoop up some of his risotto with a piece of bread! Carbs on carbs!

More magicians started to fill the tables nearby, and with each appearance of someone new came a loud cheer of “ehhhhh, Massimo, bueno sera!” and then lots of and hand gestures and bald-head grabbing and hugging. The general state of Italians is so happy, loud, and expressive. It’s really quite unique compared the rest of the Europe we’ve visited. The Germans are so serious, the Swiss so reserved, the Viennese so proper, and the French so, well French. But the Italians are so jovial, so alive, always talking loudly and quickly at each other while they shake a cinched hand in the air. There’s a lot of teasing and heckling among friends, a constant stream of laughter, and an endless supply of wine. Josh and I couldn’t wipe the smiles off our faces as the dinner antics went on.

Bruno was mid-heckling our waiter from across the patio about the food taking too long when my half lobster and mound of spaghetti arrived with Josh’s veal milanese – a local speciality. I twirled my fork gathering a thick bunch of pasta and carefully transported bundle after bundle into my mouth. I’m not sure how many glasses of vini rossi I ended up drinking during our 2 hour meal, so maybe the wine was responsible for my merriness, but I strongly believe it was the company.

The hilarity continued at Josh’s show, where nearly 100 Italian magicians were packed into a tiny room underground together for a few hours. They were, to no surprise, one of the most enthusiastic and fun audiences I’ve ever seen Josh perform for, and the only group that had a full on party afterwards. After the standing ovation came the persecco, pizza, and cake! As corks and the celebrating began, my eyes met Josh’s from across the room as I mouthed, “I’ve never leaving – I love these people!”

 

Un Jour A Paris

I’ve written many a love letter to Paris in the last 7 years, so I’ll begin this one with Josh’s words instead of my own,

“It’s totally unfair actually, how much more beautiful Paris is than any other city.”

As the train pulled into the Gare du Nord, the internal soundtrack of accordion music that plays in my head when I’m in Paris began. “Bienvenue mon vieille amie” the city said to me. “Tu es retourné à moi!” I looked up and swooned over the Haussmanian architecture five stories above and began to twirl down the street as all my favorite things came into view: the beloved bridges connecting the left bank to the right and offering stunning views of the Seine, my old friends, les velibes, resting in rows on les rues. Une boulangererie, une pattiserie, une fromagerie! Les cafes full of parisiens sipping their cafes while smoking and looking so impossibly chic. And of course, La Tour Eiffel, the star of Paris and the apple of mon œil.

We dropped our bags off at the hotel and started to walk toward La Seine, grabbing two seats outside at a little cafe en route for brunch. In Paris, there’s a typical brunch that’s multi-course and involves a lot of choices and a lot cheese. So, of course I got that.

“Alors,” I smiled at the waitress, “je prends un creme, un jus d’orange, un croissant, des oeufs avec saumon, du fromage frais, un croque-monsieur, et une salade des fruits si vous plait. Merci,” the words rolled off my tongue. A lot of French has gone to the way-side in the past few years, but my food-ordering abilities have remained top-notch.

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My feast arrived and as I pulled apart the flaky layers of my first truly Parisienne croissant in two years, I almost cried. I examined the rest of my plate. The emmental on the top of my croque monsieur was perfectly browned and bubbly, my eggs were so fluffy that they sat high in a little tower, my fromage frais was creamy and cold, and my cafe au lait had just the right amount of lait. I finished every last bite and sip while we watched parisians pass and soaked up the summer sun.

Our stomachs now muffin tops, we wandered toward the right bank with the intention of eventually ending up at one of our favorite places – the Musee D’Orsay. But since we were in no hurry we took the long route: winding through the streets of my old stomping grounds, le Marais, wondering through le charmant l’ile de la cite et l’ile saint louis for a Berthillon ice cream, and finally coming to Le Pont Des Arts.

Le Pont Des Arts is a bridge in the middle of Paris that’s only open to foot traffic. The bridge itself is wooden, and the sides made of chain-link – but in the last few years, the chains have grown thick with locks. So thick, that it’s impossible to see anything but a sea of multicolored locks of different shapes and sizes.

The locks are left there by pairs of lovers who write their names on a lock, link it to a bridge and then toss the key into the Seine together, so that it can never be un-done. It’s a sign of everlasting love; a promise you can’t take back. There are so many locks on the bridge that it’s actually in danger of collapsing because of the weight of them all. And while that’s an awful thing, I can’t deny that it’s also a beautiful image: a bridge collapsing because of the weight of the love in the world.

There exists a lock there that says “la blonde parisienne + la tour eifflel.” I placed it there myself a few years ago on a solo trip to Paris. It was my promise to the city that I would always love it more than anywhere else in the world.

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But this wonderful day was the first time that Josh and I had been in Paris together in 5 years, and now that we’re engaged there was something we simply had to do…

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The Musee D’Orsay seems to become more beautiful each time I visit. I could spend my whole day on its 5th floor and have no regrets. I get an ethereal feeling just being there, putting my nose a mere inch from Renior’s actual brushstrokes. We were thrilled to find there was a Van Gogh exhibit on, so not only did we get to see the exquisite collection of the d’Orsay but there were several of the most important works on loan from museums around the world. We soaked up each room until the museum closed, and we found ourselves back on the quai, destination -La Tour Eiffel.

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You would think that after living here for 6 months and all my visits over the past 7 years that my obsession would have lessened, but that first glance of the Eiffel Tower peaking up over the city of lights still does it to me every time. I get instant chills, my pulse quickens, and my heart swells. Each time I visit Paris I fall deeper and deeper in love, and am more convinced that it’s the most wonderful place in the world. I’m weary of people who don’t like Paris. So much so that I’ve developed my own personal motto. “If you don’t like Paris, I’m probably not going to like you.”

My memories in Paris, and of Paris are especially dear because I spent a semester there, and when I did my ballet flats covered every inch of the city. Each petit rue, pont, musee and cafe bring back such wonderful memories, like sipping a creme at a certain cafe with my french class after we visited the Pantheon for the first time. When I walk down the Boulevard Saint Germain I remember how I rode my velib down it everyday after school to drop off my books and then continue on to whatever adventure was ahead. Crossing the Pont Neuf I think back to the day that in the pouring rain I stopped mid-point on the bridge and dropped my umbrella because it was obstructing my view of the Eiffel Tower, which stood there sparking and bright against the grey-painted city. I strolled back to my apartment soaked but deliriously happy.

The sun was beginning to set, so a golden light was cast over the whole city as we headed towards Le Pont d’Alma, the tour becoming larger with every step. After resting for a bit on the Champs de Mars, we hopped on Les Bateaux Parisiennes for a sunset cruise. I take a boat ride each time I visit, because while it’s a bit touristique, it’s the best way to take in the whole city. The banks were filled with people enjoying “la vie parisenne” as we floated by. Near one bench, a grey-haired woman walking a thin rope suspended between two trees. Next to them, a pair of young lovers kissing so passionately and so deeply intertwined it was difficult to tell whose limbs were whose. Next to them, a small group of friends with several bottles of wine and several baguettes, waving at us all as we passed.

It was a long walk from there to Montmarte, but no visit to Paris is complete without taking in the view of the city from the steps of the Sacre Coeur. So up we went, and we ended our day sitting by side by at a Montmarte cafe, eating nutella crepes.

I was holding back tears the next day as we pulled up the Gare de Lyon. One day in Paris is not enough. Fix months living there wasn’t enough! But I know I’ll be back, and so I never say goodbye to Paris. I say, “a la prochaine mon vielle amie.” See you next time, my old friend.

Antwerp & Arras

France is the love of my life, but I have a school-girl crush on Belgium. It’s to the extent that I want to buy a Five Star Notebook and doodle Anna + Belgium on it, and then put on some lipsmackers and kiss the page. It all started two years ago when I spent a weekend alone there and discovered Bruges – the town that is without question, the most charming place on the planet.

Belgium is a small little country that is half French and half Dutch, and it’s truly a perfect blend of the two cultures. From the Dutch, you get the biking, the buildings with pointed facades, the cones of fries, and the speculoos. From the French, you get the chocolate, the moules, the elaborate grand-places, the fashion, and the general atmosphere of wonderfullness. It all blends together to create what I feel is the cutest country in Europe with the best street eats.

I find that In Belgium i’m continuously uttering the same two words: “awwwww” and “yummmm.” It’s not the most beautiful country, but it’s quite possibly the cutest. Everywhere you look there’s lace shops and chocolate shops, and everywhere you go there seems to be flowers. Most buildings have a very unique facade, which is flat all the way up but points into a triangle at the top. They’re candy colored and almost look like little doll houses.

Belgian chocolate is everything you dreamed it would be and more. Each piece is so expertly crafted and displayed that walking into a chocolate shop is like entering an art gallery. And then there’s the fries. Big cones of fries, double fried in duck fat, and served with dipping sauces of your choice, or as a side-dish with les moules – a speciality of Brussels. Wash that all down with one of the 200 some Belgian beers available. My favorite is Kreik, a cherry flavored beer that looks and tastes like Shirley Temple. But the true speciality of the country is the waffle. Not a Belgian waffle, but a liege waffle. The type that’s made from dough with giant pearls of sugar in it that caramelize when it cooks. The result is a hot, thick, chewy, sugary waffle topped with fluffy whipped cream. One bite and your life has changed, forever.

Brussels was the first place on this tour that I had already visited, but Antwerp, were we spent the next day, was new to me. Our fantastic host, Gunther, made the most of the short afternoon we had, starting with a lobster lunch on a outdoor terrace overlooking the river.

Antwerp translates loosely into “thrown hand,” and is named after an old legend of the cities that involves a young hero killing a giant, cutting off his hand and tossing it into the river. There are massive hand statues all over the place commemorating this great feat, and obviously, the special thing to get in the city is hand-shaped chocolates and speculoos cookies.

We walked through the charming town and Gunther led us to what was easily the cutest chocolate shop on the street, where they had a special room you could enter and what the chocolatiers at work! And there he bought us a little engagement gift of a box of assorted chocolates, each little piece a work of art. An apple-shaped piece painted red and filled with caramel and apple-cider balsamic vinegar was my first and favorite bite. We devoured the box before Josh’s show later that night. We simply couldn’t be in the same room with them.

Dutch or Flemish is the official language of Antwerp, so my French practice was put on hold… but only momentarily.

We arrived the next afternoon in Arras just in time to make it to the daily market before it closed. I wasted no time winding my way through the stalls of fleurs, fromage, saucissons, pains. I grinned from ear to ear at everyone I passed, nodding my head as I said, “bonjour,” and thinking to myself “ahh France.”

We spent the day in this little French town near Lille because it is home to one of Josh’s dearest friends, Pascal. He had just celebrated a very important birthday, and there was a surprise party taking place that night for him. We were in charge of keeping him busy during the day, and a long, leisurely lunch at his friend David’s house was the perfect decoy.

We went to the market to get some last minute supplies. There would be 5 people coming, so we popped into the boulangerie and David said, “cinq baguettes si’vous plait,” as I got giddy at how the French calculate one baguette per person. I would certainly be needing my own. Seconds later, five, warm baguettes wrapped in paper were placed in front of us, and I promptly scooped them up and carried them through town like an enormous bouquet of fresh cut flowers.

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I didn’t put them down until we reached the wooden picnic table in David’s garden. Everyone had arrived so we went out back the jardin and all cozied into seats around the table. On one side of the table was an old, baroque style sette with faded silk upholstry and curved legs. The other chairs were assorted and equally as unique. The table itself sat under the low branches of a tree blooming with flowers. We started off lunch with a glass of wine, of course, because it’s France. Out came the baguettes with some cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and olives. We switched from white wine to red, and I pulled a chunk of the end of the baguette traditional as crumbs flew and it crackled just as a perfect baguette should. Being in the company of all french people, it was of course the language of choice for our discourse during dining. We parled while we manged and I felt like I was floating a few inches off the ground.

David brought out the poulets, which he had the butcher kill yesterday, and had spent the afternoon seasoning, stuffing, and roasting. Fresh tomatoes with mozerella and basil from the garden and a large bowl of fluffy couscous spotted with vegetables accompained the chicken.

After my lunch and 5th (?) glass was finished and the sun beamed down on our little party, I began to nod off at the table a little. “Anna, ” David said, “go retire to the sun chair over there and take a nap.”

“Non, non, je veut de parler avec tout le monde!”
But I saw the chair, sitting in the middle of the grassy bit of the garden…. it looked so wonderful. “Ok, peut-etre pour juste un moment”

Seconds later, I was out cold. Lying in the sun chair, in the charming jardin with my French friends, with a stomach full of delicious food and French wine and the breeze blowing across my face. If I’d died right then and there I think I would have been okay with it.

The surprise party that night went perfectly. We drove far out into the country, under the rouse that Dider was thinking of buying a property out there and wanted to show us all. When we arrived, Pascal entered a room filled with everyone he loved, cheering, singing, and waving banners. And then the party began, champagne, dancing, speeches, and of course – eating. I remember learning about the multiple course in a typical French meal, and this was the real life application. The party started around 9, and every hour or so another course would be put out. Appetizers course, salad course, meat course, cheese course. It was 2am when Josh and I had to give into to our exhaustion and go to bed, and at that point they were just preparing to bring out the dessert course.

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It was a very special thing to get to be apart of. Not only to finally meet Pascal and his family and be there for such an important occasion, but to see a true fete francais and spend the whole day immersed in the language, culture, and food of my favorite country in the world.

Discovering Budapest

Budapest is known as “the Paris of the East,” and if you know my obsession with Paris, then you can see why I was so eager to get there. But I didn’t have any assumptions about Hungary the way I have about other countries. Name me a place and I can usually find some stereotypical thing I’ve fantasized about concerning their food or landmarks.

But say, “Hungary” and the only thing I can come up with is goulash. So that was a large part of the appeal – the unknown.

We took the train from Vienna in a first-class car with 2 different American couples who appeared to be recently retired and on a first-time trip to Europe. They were the classic American tourists that have given the rest of us such a bad reputation abroad. They sat in front of and behind us, both complaining about how the train stewardess didn’t speak English and reading identical passages from the same Rick Stevens Eastern Europe Guide Book aloud a few minutes apart from each other.

Beware of pickpocketing in the market halls! What might seem like an innocent nudge from a passerby could be someone stealing your wallet!
“Did you hear that Jim? We have to watch out in the market for gypsies!”

Beware of pickpocketing in the market halls! What might seem like an innocent nudge from a passerby could be someone stealing your wallet!
“Can you believe that Bob? We’d better keep our passports close.”

When their conversation turned to picking up porcelain jars of paprika as gifts for people at home I had to tune them out.

Budapest is one of the many cities in Europe where Josh is hiding an awesome friend. As we’ve gone from city to city, people keep appearing who he greets like family. He’s like the classic traveling salesman with a girl in every city, except he’s a traveling magician with a bestie in every city. This was the case with Soma, who picked us up at the train station Monday afternoon and showed us around Budapest.

Prior to meeting Soma, Josh told me that the last time he was in Budapest, he and Soma sat in a communist pizza parlor for hours discussing few new ideas for a stage act Soma was developing, and months later he went on to win the grande-prixe at FISM. My first questions upon hearing this was, “what is a communist pizza parlor,” but yours might be, what is FISM?

FISM is the most important magic competition in the world. It’s essentially a massive talent show where the top competitors in several categories showcase their act and winners are awarded. I’m still not clear on what a communist pizza parlor is… but I’m assuming it involves small, limited, portions of pizza – and in that case, I want nothing to do with it.

Our first stop in “the pest” was a non-communist hungarian restaurant for a very hearty lunch. Tucked away on an assuming street was one of Soma’s favorite places with carved-out wooden booths with green, checkered tablecloths and a clientele of old, Hungarian women eating their goulash. I took Soma’s recommendation and ordered Jokai Bableves – a bean, ham, veggie and sour cream soup – and Turogomboc cottage cheese dumplings with butter and sugar. We also had traditional cucumber salad with sour cream and paprika. It was a good thing we skipped breakfast, because the food was extremely dense, rich and filling. Based on the cuisine, the country should be called Full instead of Hungary because if you eat there, there is no way you could be hungry at any point.

We took in all the must-see sights during the days – Hero Square, Parliament, The Chain Bridge, and of course – The Castle of Buda. It was all beautiful, but I found myself going from site to site nodding at how beautiful it was, but wanting a little more from the city. And sure enough, it was the off-beat activities that offered a little more insight into the Hungarian culture and stand out as the most memorable.

The first evening we went to a thermal bath house, which in my mind was going to be a massive, fancy spa of various pool, probably lit by candlelight and Hungarians drinking champagne. In reality, it was a million-year-old building that looked like a run-down YMCA, lit with florescent lights and full of hairy Hungarian men in speedos. While it was not what I imagined, it was interesting to me that it was not a tourist thing. You could tell from looking around and overhearing the people next to you that it’s frequented most by the locals, and it was an interesting look at their way of life – which is apparently devoid of waxing for both the males and females.

Later that night, we went to a giant, abandoned warehouse-type building, filled with random tables, chairs, and other things like fishing nets and old cars to provide seating, division and decor. It’s open-aired, and only lit in various neon colors from vintage signs and christmas lights. The cement walls are entirely covered in graffiti of every type and language. No corner looks the same and the crowd of young people inside is just as diverse as the interior furnishings. This is a ruin bar, or a “romkocsma.”
I couldn’t get over how cool it was. I wanted to just keep walking around exploring each little area while the boys got their cards out and started “jamming.” But instead Soma saw that I got down to trying some typical Hungarian drinks – Unikum and Palinka – Thankfully, Soma did not order me the Hungarian specialty called “a twister” which is all the liquid that’s dripped on the bar sopped up in a towel and then rung-out into a glass. It costs about 5 cents, and there’s a good chance you’ll throw it up.

But our most unique Hungarian experience came the next afternoon. A test of skill, and puzzle-solving, and creativity and logical thinking all combined into one. It began in a small lobby where we were given a walky-talky and let into a little room behind a locked door. “You have 1 hour to get back to this point,” Soma said. Everything you need you’ll find inside. Have fun.”

We found ourselves in a tiny room with padlocks on all the doors and cabinets and random items around: a locked briefcase, a grey trench coat, and a variety of un-solved word puzzles and stacks of old newspapers. Little tables were in corners with various games on them we had to solve; a sudoko, a crossword, and math problem made out of shapes rather than numbers. There was no clear direction for where to start, so we just got to work search for clues, solving mysteries, and figure out codes like Sherlock Holmes. Nothing was obvious, so we had to go with our instincts and try things over and over again, and ust when we would reach a dead end, one of us would would yell, “WAIT! Try it backwards!” or something like that and then the lock would spring open. With the camera in the room monitoring us, we felt like we were in an episode of a TV game show.

The first room led to a second, and then a third. By the time we entered the last room we understood how to crack the codes a little better. We instantly started ripping the picture frames off the wall to check the backs and patting down every inch the furniture for clues. When we finally solved the last code and received a final key, we found ourselves back at the door it all started at, and stepped back in to reality.

Apparently these are popping up all over the city and are very popular among locals. But as a tourist, it was an especially unique experience. A typical visit in a typical European city requires very little effort on your part to have a good time. Walk around, sit in a cafe, go into the bakery, enter a museum. It’s easy to just enjoy yourself without actually doing too much or thinking too hard. But this activity demanded a lot from us to have a good time, and I think that’s true of the country as a whole. Hungary demands a lot from you to have a good time. The streets won’t instantly make you swoon the way they do in Paris or Rome. People aren’t going to make your life easy and speak English and the smell of the food isn’t going to waft out of the cafes enticing you inside. But when you put a little thought, and a little effort into it, you can unlock the beauty and uniqueness of Budapest and discover a city that is indeed a treasure.

 

Wowed in Wien

We arrived Friday evening in Vienna, which the locals call “Wien.” We were in starvation mode having spent the past four hours on the train, so we threw down our bags and went right to Plachutta, a classy little Austrian restaurant right down the road from the Hilton. I took a chance on a Priceline deal for our hotel for the night, and was immensely pleased when it turned out to be the Hilton.Truth be told,  I was hoping for some cute, Austrian boutique hotel where the bellmen wear lederhosen and sing, but the Hilton had a proper fitness center and our room had a killer view of the inner circle, so it was all gut as they say in German.

Plachutta was entirely white and green inside with walnut floors and filled with skinny vases holding just 1 flower. I was immediately intrigued by the big, copper pots on each table that seemed to contain the dinners of the diners. I surveyed my menu and learned this was an Austrian speciality called Tafelspitz, or Viennese boiled beef. You choose the cut of beef you want, and then it is boiled in a copper pot with root vegetables, bone marrow, and broth. The pot is brought to your table hot with a side of applesauce, chive sauce, black bread, and crispy potatoes which you eat in the following, particular order.

First, you use the ladle to spoon out the broth and veggies into your bowl for a soup course. Then, you remove the bone marrow from the pot and spread it on your bread with some salt and pepper for an appetizer. Then, when you are already super full from the previous two amazing courses – you remove the boiled beef, put it on your plate with potatoes, sauce, and applesauce, and eat until you burst.

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Had we known that this was more than enough for 2 people to share, we wouldn’t have also ordered the veal medallions in a chanterelle cream sauce with fried dumplings. But oh, what a shame that would have been, because it almost made me cry it was so delicious. We both kept eating well past the point of fullness, and I actually had to pass on the kaiserschmarrn I wanted to so badly and go on a post-dinner walk around Vienna.

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I fell in love with Vienna instantly. The wide boulevards lined with opulent, white, opera houses, universities and museums. The charming coffehouses with cathedral ceilings and glass cases of confections too beautiful to eat. The platzs and parks buzzing with people eating strudel and listening to Mozart. I had been to Austria before, but it was by-way of a disastrous day-trip to Saltzburg from Munich with my sister and as a result we only spent a few hours there so I didn’t get a real feel for it. So yesterday, we talked 13 miles from 1pm to 8pm exploring every little strasse. We walked to Belvedere castle and gardens, where we walked through the museum that is home to “The Kiss” and The Messerschmidt Heads. We sat in the famous Cafe Sacher for a while sipping a cappuccino and a nibbling on a piece of apfelstrudel. We took-in the beauty of the Hofburg, and peered inside St. Stephen’s Cathedral. As we walked around I felt like the city was welcoming me personally. I found a gorgeous jewelry shop called Anna, and next door the Laudree of Vienna called Demel, where they had a chocolate cake aptly named the “Annatorte” that I immediately bought and had later for dinner.

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In the evening, we took the Bahn out to Schonbrunn for a classical music concert in the Orangerie. An orchestra played the best of Mozart and Strauss in a long, marble, crystal-chandelier lit room that looked out over the gardens while everyone in the audience swooned. I noticed at the concert that Vienna has very noticeable level of sophistication to it in every way. Everything from the architecture, to the coffehouses, to the way the Viennese speak and interact seems very polished, grand, and refined. As a lover of all things frou frou, it’s no surprise this city has waltzed its’ way right into my list of favorites.

After dropping the 70lb suitcase on my right foot yesterday and then walking 14 miles –  I woke up this morning with an ankle that resembled a giant Jet Puff marshmallow. So we spent most of today sitting in cafes with Josh’s gang of Austrian friends – one of whom is actually named Wolfgang. How great is that? Before his show this afternoon we went to the Donauturm Wahrzeichen von Wien, or the Danube Look-Out Tower, to see a stunning view of Vienna from 827ft above, and then to lunch at a charming outdoor cafe where yet again there was no English menu. But I definitely learned one German word from my dining experience last week – and that’s spargel. (Asparagus). So this time around I ordered a spargelcremesuppe which tasted like it a stick of melted butter with some asparagus heads and had a few bites of Josh’s weinerschnitzel. As we sat outside in a little garten I thought about how much I love this bit of Europe and feel it’s under-rated in America. Vienna is as fancy, beautiful, and delightful as one of the fine tortes the city is so famous for, and devouring it has been a pleasure.

Czech-ing out Prague

After just two days, we had to say auf wiedersehen to Germany. We spent yesterday in Braunschweig, a tiny town outside Berlin where it poured rain all day – not allowing for much exploration. I don’t think Braunschweig gets many American visitors or has many English-speakers. We had severe language barriers, including a frau on the train presenting me with a mini bottle of white wine when I asked her if there was WIFI.

Both nights in Germany, the restaurants we ate dinner at did not have an English menu and the waitress only spoke German. I recognized the word “pasta” on the menu in Berlin so I went with it and the result was successful. But last night I pointed to something on what appeared to be “specials menu” thinking anything on special was sure to be good, and I ended up with a 1/2 pound of asparagus and side of boiled potatoes. It turned out that it’s currently the season for asparagus, and I had ordered from a menu of all asparagus dishes. #fail

Maybe it was jetlag or maybe it was the raging hunger in my belly, but I was unable to sleep last night. At 2am I was doing pilates in the room. I slept for a bit, but then I was up again at 5.30am and headed outside to do some cardio. It was still pouring rain, so I walked into the parking garage nearby and found an empty space to dance in. The puzzeled looks from the few Germans that passed in and out during this scene were priceless. It’s safe to assume no hotel in Europe is going to have a gym, so I’ll just have to get used to the quizzical stares.

Today we activated our Eurorail Global Pass and took our first long journey on the train from Braunschweig, Germany to Prague. The train was nicer than I expected, with individual little cars that reminded me of the Hogwarts Express. This trip is my first venture into Eastern Europe, and my first time visiting the Czech Republic, somewhere I’ve wanted to come for a while.

When I was in elementary school I had to ask my mom what nationality we were for a homework assignment. She replied, “Dutch on your dad’s side but my family is Czechoslovakian.” I didn’t know what that was or how to pronounce Czechoslovakian properly, so I wrote down German on my form instead. It was much later in life that I discovered what Czechoslovakia was, and then some things about my childhood started to add up; like eating at grandmas.

As a child, eating at my grandma’s always included menu items I found strange and unappetizing. I turned my nose up at almost every dish – except for her dumplings and her strudel. My typical plate at dinner was void of any meat, but piled high with her homemade dumplings covered in salt instead of gravy. Afterward I’d help myself to several pieces of apricot strudel which I covered in a blanket of powdered sugar and then inhaled.

My grandmother stopped cooking large meals in her later years, but she never stopped making strudel. Every time she would come to visit our house she would bring several, long rows of her strudel which she would slice on the diagonal and place into pastel-colored cupcake papers. She would then watch over them closely to see how many were eaten each day, and insist we take a piece each time we walked in or out of the kitchen. Her strudel was breakfast, lunch, snack, and dessert while she was in town – or else. If you were seen eating something besides strudel, she would holler with wide eyes, “why are you not eating my strudel!?!” When she was out of the room, my mom would have to take several pieces and put them in the freezer so that the stock would diminish quicker and we could go back to eating other foods. It was delicious, but there’s only so much strudel that one can eat in a week’s time before you start to look like one.

When we arrived today at 6pm we were greeted by 3 bright faces in the grey rain. Having local guides in any city always makes a world of difference! Had we been on our own we may have gone right to the hotel room, crashed, and wasted the whole night away. But our new friends picked us up at the station, helped with our many, many bags, and then took us out to dinner at a wonderful Italian place right on the Vltava River with beautiful views of the city and the ancient bridges. We walked off our pasta afterward with a twilight tour around the cobblestone streets, and I quickly realized the rumors about Prague are true – it’s definitely one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. Cute hotels, restaurants, and parks line the banks of the river. Most of the old buildings are either marble or shades of pink, yellow, and white. The castle glows high above on a hill. Tall, pointed spires stick up over the red-roofs.  The streets are dotted with thousand-year-old cathedrals. It’s all quite magical.

We ended the night cozied up in the Cafe Savoy drinking hot chocolate and eating cake while the magicians did card tricks for each other until the cafe closed, and then we walked back through the lit city to our little hotel. A night that we thought would be a wash had turned out to be rather incredible. And that was just the beginning. Tomorrow, a full day of sightseeing and the promise of an authentic Czech lunch awaits us.

Since my wonderful grandmother passed away 7 years ago, I haven’t once had dumplings or apricot strudel. So while I’m here in the place my family hails from, I’ll attempt to have both because it would make it extra special. And I know she would turn over in her grave if I made it all the way to Czechoslovakia and didn’t at least eat one piece of strudel.

Back On Tour, Back in Europe

To be back home for a few days and off the lecture-tour-life was a wonderful treat. We had action-packed days, spending time with family, visiting with friends, unpacking, organizing, repacking. I spent hours everyday at Body By Simone, making my body so sore that yesterday on the plane I had a hard time keeping my arm suspended out to scroll through the movie options. It was glorious.

But the week flew by, and now – we’re back on tour –  but this time, Europe is our playground. We left for Berlin Sunday afternoon, flew through the night and had an early morning layover in my homeland, Holland, one of my favorite places to be. I love just walking around Schnipol surrounded by tall, blonde, pale people who love tulips and biking and stroopwafles. I truly fit right in. I requested that Josh call me “Annakoeken” anytime that we’re in Holland to pay hommage to my Dutch heritage and to the fact that the pancakes here are so damn amazing.

We spent our layover in the KLM Lounge at Schnipol thanks to Josh’s Gold Status with Delta. It was my first time in a airline lounge, and boy, I had no idea what I was missing! Comfy chairs, calming lighting, free WIFI, and best of all – a full spread of delicious eats and free booze! I happily poured myself a glass of bubbly and some slices of gouda and toasted to the second leg of the tour. We’ll spend the next two months visiting 19 cities in 11 countries – starting today in Berlin. Now I’ve been sort of obsessed with Europe since I first learned it existed, but I must admit: last week at the end of our USA tour I was so thrilled to be back home that I was a bit sad to turn around so soon and leave for Germany.

We arrived as zombies, having not slept a wink on either of the flights. But I wasn’t going to let that stop me. It was our only day in Berlin, and zombie or not I was going to make the most of it. Josh went straight to the hotel to sleep, and I went straight to Starbucks to pick up a double shot and then to the Zoologischer Garten to take the 4-hour walking tour of Berlin. As I slipped on my worn-in sneakers that accompained me on every weekend exploration I did while I lived in London, I felt a rush of nostalgia.

Two years ago, I accepted a job offer in London. I left my friends, family, boyfriend, my rent-controlled studio in Chelsea, and sold everything I owned to hop across the pond and embrace the unknown. In the beginning, I missed everything about my former life a lot, but I had made a deal with myself before I arrived that I was going to make the absolute most of every single day that I spent there. And so I did.

To me, that meant a lot of things. But one of the biggest was traveling. So in my one year living abroad, I went to 11 countries. I ate whatever I wanted. I spent my entire paycheck on EasyJet tickets and souvenirs. In the summer, I went somewhere every weekend. Sometimes I traveled with a friend, but usually I did my weekend trips alone if a friend could not be found. I had to learn my way around each city, to deal with the language barriers, to get over the fear of eating dinner in a restaurant at night alone. Traveling quickly became my way of life. And while my weekdays were often filled with tears, and rain, and missing home – each weekend as I headed to Heathrow to board a plane somewhere new, I felt at ease.

So yesterday as I was waltzing down the strasse in a sundress, with nothing but a map in my hand and a few euros in my pocket – I felt like I was finally home.

All the things that are typically very strange to Americans when they see for the first time were like old friends. I had forgotten how you have to pay a few centimes to use public toilets. Or how you have to specify “with gas” or “without gas” when you get a bottled water. I smiled when I remembered how much 5 Euro notes look so much like Monopoly dollars, and laughed when by 10am everyone was already drinking beer.

Germany is one of my favorite countries in Europe, because it’s one of most different from America in my opinion. A lot of people only speak German and the words on signs and menus don’t even remotely resemble English the way the latin-based languages do. The only exception is “toiletten” – which means toilets.

The food here is killer. Schnitzel and spatzel, pretzels galore, potatoes smothered in cheese! Everyone eats giant slices of cake in the middle of the day, and there’s no time when it’s not acceptable to be drinking a beer.

And of course the history, which is dark, but essential to learn about. Berlin, of course, is rich in it.  My four hour tour took me through East and West Berlin stopping at all the important things to see: Checkpoint Charlie, Neue Wache, Brandenburg Gate, the Holocaust Memorial, Parliment Building, and countless museums. My aching body should have been begging me for sleep – but instead I walked from place to place with wide eyes trying to take it all in.

 

Josh’s lecture that night was on a quite, little strasse in West Berlin, and we arrived a bit early to find many people already there, standing around outside chatting with a cigarette in one hand and beer in another. When he started his show, I went for a short walk around the neighborhood, a massive smile plastered on my face.

When my VISA expired in 2014, and I got sent back to America,  I was convinced that I would never have a time in my life like that year I lived in London again. But then Josh entered the picture, offered me the best job – ever, and was crazy enough to want to marry me to boot! And so I find myself yet again with a summer traveling around Europe ahead of me, going from city to city and discovering the wonderful things each has to offer.  But this time I have my future-hubby to share all the cute alleyways, incredible castles, and delicious meals with. And it’s all thanks to magic.