The Solo Traveler

It was after 11 p.m. Saturday by the time I was finally able to sleep. I had been awake for almost 24 continuous hours, barring some bad sleep on a plane. My trip back to D.C. had involved a long-distance ICE train, two planes, an airport shuttle, a bus, a subway and a taxi. I was exhausted and sore and still I’d rarely felt more personally satisfied.

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I’d spent the last week away, first in New York City for a day visiting a friend, then in Germany over Thanksgiving. It was the first time I had traveled abroad on my own, without going (back) to school or doing something for work. I’d done a European circuit in college with my best friend and had just gone to Sweden with that same friend. But this was different. It felt riskier — apart from simply wanting to go, I had no good “reason” to, no justification. It felt empowering.

I planned and booked the entire thing myself, asking some advice from friends who’d been to the cities I was visiting. I ditched my normally strict tendency to plan every day to the detail, and just did what felt right, whatever I wanted to at any given time. One day this involved eating a plate-sized Schnitzel with fried potatoes and a Frankfurt-style green herb sauce, washing it down with half a liter of beer (that was somehow the smallest glass available). I ended up visiting a modern art museum, wandering around Frankfurt’s Dom before the sun had risen, strolling through a giant food hall. 

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I went to Bonn for a day and wandered around its Münsterplatz, which was packed with stalls for the annual Christmas market. I found a present for my mother, ate sweets from the stalls and just took in the atmosphere.

Thanksgiving morning, I sat alone in an empty first-class train compartment as we zipped through early-morning fog. I saw glimpses of little villages along the river, buildings that looked ancient and sleepy. I wondered, sleepy myself, what it might be like to chuck it all in and settle down in some little burg.

When the train arrived in Cologne, my last stop, the first place I went after dropping off my luggage was to the Dom. More than any other cathedral I’ve seen apart from perhaps York’s minster, it evokes the phrase “pillar of the Earth.” Photos of it, though I took several, do it no justice. It is simply mind-boggling in its enormity and it amazes me that the people living in Cologne must just get used to it, like a stone Godzilla just sitting there.

Cologne’s Christmas market seemed to go on forever; it actually has several of them and they just bleed into each other. I had mulled wine and hot potato cakes covered in apple sauce. Everywhere there are sausages, sandwiches, cookies, cakes, pretzels, wine, hot chocolate and arts and crafts. At night, with the strung-up lights illuminating the sky and the Dom in the background, it’s downright ethereal.

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I perused Cologne’s Greco-Roman Museum in the afternoon, admiring the mosaics, jewelry and pottery on display. Later that night, I went on a date and ended up drinking Kölsch in a Brauhaus and sipping hot mulled wine in the Christmas market, snuggling up to stay warm. Thanksgiving indeed.

I’m in that buzzkill-ish period right after a trip, when it’s over and done and you just think, “Well now what?” But going on this trip, short though it was and to a place I’d been before where I more or less knew the language, gave me a lot of confidence. It might be the introvert in me, but I really believe that you have to be able to manage on your own before you can manage with anyone else. So for that reason I enjoyed my taste of solo travel (although I still plan to travel with friends, obviously), and I feel brave enough to do it again. It was also exhilarating to go somewhere just to go, because I could, without it being for school or anything else or anyone else but me. 

I think I owed myself that.

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Overcoming a mental block

This is very hard to write about, but I think that if I do, I’ll feel better about it.

Sometimes it’s hard for me to loosen up and let go and just let things happen. I like being in control of myself and having a plan, knowing what I’m going to do, and when, and how. But it’s hard to do that when another person is involved. So right off the bat, that lack of control is kind of frightening. At the same time, I have to respect the other party and accept that in this situation, I’m along for the ride.

I’m pretty personally bruised in this area, having been hurt deeply before. It’s been more than a year and I’m still not sure I’m completely over it or if I’ll ever be. But I don’t want it to affect my future with anyone else, and part of making sure that doesn’t happen is overcoming this sense of dread. This fear that at any moment, the other shoe will drop and I’ll be left alone, that I’m unlovable or not worth the effort. That other women are more interesting, or friendlier, more outgoing, prettier, or otherwise superior to me. It hits me at varying times: on the subway, at night in bed, when I walk to the Metro.

It’s a sick, nagging feeling. I have to tamp it down every day. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don’t. I try not to let this persistent sense of self-doubt affect the new things, but it’s hard. And I’m terrified of explaining how and why I often feel this way, lest I prove myself right.

I just have to keep at it, keep blocking out the noise and realizing what I really do have to offer.

(Baked goods.)

Just a little bit of wanderlust

It’s been about a week and a half since I was in Stockholm, and traveling again — especially traveling abroad again — just made me want to do it more. Rather than sate my need to move, it just spurred me on.

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Stockholm, while beautiful and full of friendly people and gifted with perfect weather, just didn’t “grab” me the way cities like London, Paris and Florence did. I might not be being fair there; London and Paris are the twin jewels of the continent, and Florence has perhaps the best art collection in the world. Still though, I left Stockholm with a niggling feeling, like I was missing something.

I recently decided that in lieu of spending Thanksgiving in the U.S., I was going to make use of the two paid holidays and take a week-long trip back to Europe. But not to the U.K. — I’m going to Germany. It’s been about two and a half years since I’ve been there, and that was a rushed visit to Berlin to sit the Foreign Service Exam. I’ve only ever been to Berlin and Munich.

This time, I’m taking an early morning train up to New York City, spending a day with friends there, and then flying on a red-eye flight to Frankfurt. I’ll spend two days there, two in Bonn and then two in Cologne. I’ll hopefully see a combination of old and new friends, browse the Christmas markets, practice my (very rusty …) Deutsch and see the Dom in Cologne.

This won’t be my first (or my last) Thanksgiving spent overseas, and I’m excited to see some friends, see parts of Germany I haven’t seen before, and just, in general, escape for a few days. I think that’s what appeals the most to me about travel, especially now that I’m working full time: It’s the chance to fall off the map for a while and to just be accountable to yourself.

See you in a few months, Deutschland.

A Life in Coffee Shops

I currently hold a Level 7 Fresh Brew badge on Foursquare. That’s 30 different coffee shops, 30 different venues for leisurely chats with friends, afternoons reading the paper, quick pit stops before catching a flight or caffeine acquisitions before work. In a probably-not-unrelated note, I reached gold-card status at Starbucks earlier this week.

I frequent the Starbucks in Rosslyn, Va., a few times a week, primarily because it’s close to work, inoffensive and predictable. On my own time, though, I patronize locally owned places. There a few that I love in D.C.:

1. Qualia, a neighborhood gem in Petworth that roasts and grinds its own beans and toasts your croissant for you. Sipping a cold latte out on the back patio on a hot day makes me feel like I could do anything. Earlier this week, when I needed a break from non-stop fiscal cliff updates with work, I went to Qualia.

2. Chinatown Coffee on H Street, a utilitarian oasis of hard floors and spare tables and a long bar. I’ve met friends here, and I’ve simply snagged a table and read the news. The 7th Street pandemonium is only a few minutes’ walk away, but you’d never know it.

3. Peregrine Espresso; I’ve been to its Eastern Market cafe and its Union Market counter. No fuss, quick and efficient and potent. It’s a superb quickie in between shopping stops, owned by a husband-and-wife pair.

Each place serves a different function. I go to Qualia to unwind, Chinatown Coffee to socialize and Peregrine for the pick-me-up-and-go. I vividly remember my first experience with each and I anticipate being a regular at all three for as long as I’m a Washingtonian.

Coffee shops, whether independent ones or chains like Starbucks, seem to be compartmentalized: They’re either homogenous big-box stores, or annoyingly twee. I love these three because they avoid falling into either trap. They offer moments of rest, sanity and, yes, sweet sweet caffeine when I need them the most. And for that, I’ll hold onto them always.

Welcome to 2013

I have, unfortunately, been delinquent at practicing my own writing while editing the writing of others. Shame on me. Right now, I’m taking a break in between holiday on-call shifts, posting news and updates about the dreaded fiscal cliff. I fluctuate between thinking that what I’m doing is important, and wanting to never, ever hear or see the phrase “fiscal cliff” again.

I will not miss 2012, or at least, I won’t yearn for it the way I still do 2011. The second half of it, at least, was exciting and interesting and challenging: moving to a new city, meeting new people and starting a job I love. But that just leads to a continuation of that in the new year.

I already have a lot planned for 2013. I’m celebrating my birthday a week late, when my best friend comes to visit and I expose her to the awesomeness that is The Passenger’s cocktail menu and Founding Farmers’ brunch. Sometime in late February, if the weather isn’t atrocious, I’m planning another long weekend in Boston. I’m playing restaurant hostess for my parents again in late March, and hoping to visit Europe again (I’m thinking Stockholm) in June. And of course I’m hoping to see how POLITICO Pro keeps on trucking and growing, and maybe try my hand at some reporting.

I feel like I’ve grown up a lot in the last few months, and I’m hoping to spend enough time in Washington to feel settled. Since I graduated high school, I’ve never stayed more than a year in the same place (although England the last time was about 14 months all told), and I’m at a point where I want to just stay still for a while.

So that’s where I am now — working and still getting the hang of a truly wonky city. Stay tuned.