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.

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.

One week in

It’s been about a week since I set up shop in D.C., and things are going great. I’m catching on at work and really enjoying my new co-workers and the work I’m doing for Pro. I’m especially excited for the legislative recess to end and for the new verticals to launch.

I have also been exploring Petworth, my residential neighborhood, and other parts of the city. In the past week alone, I’ve discovered new pubs, restaurants, shops and coffee houses. I went to a party in the Shaw neighborhood last night and met new people, and I’m making notes of fun upcoming events that I see on Twitter (such as a September ice-cream expo at Union Market in NoMa).

I really love the city so far. There’s so much going on, so many little intricacies that differentiate the neighborhoods, and so many people doing a lot of cool things. I’m following the political scene with one eye and the food scene with another. I’m excited to keep trying new things, and hope to continue making the most of my time here, both personally and professionally.

Paris: Day Four

Read about the first, second and third days in Paris.

Monday, our long weekend in Paris came to a close.

Lauren and I rode the Metro to Gare du Nord and stashed our bags in a locker, so they’d be safe and we wouldn’t have to carry them . We had breakfast — crepes, coffee and apple juice — at a cafe by the train station.

We spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon up in Monmarte, visiting the beautiful Sacre Coeur basilica, which is on a hill and can be seen from across the city, and walking around the district. We stopped outside the Moulin Rouge for photos.

We had heard about good flea and farmers markets in Marais, but unfortunately the ones in which we were interested were closed.

Our next stop was the area around the national opera. After taking photos of the building’s exterior (the interior of lovely also), we visited the Apple store for the free WiFi and got coffee at a very opulent Starbucks. We’re talking chandeliers, tiles ceilings, shiny metal fixtures. It was swank. I also dragged Lauren into the United Colors of Benetton and picked up my souvenir of the trip — a UCoB shirt with “Paris” on it. I have one from London, too. It may just be my new collection.

With the afternoon left to kill, we went back to the Eiffel Tower so Lauren could see it in the daylight. It was so cloudy out that going to the top would have been pointless, as the view would have been obscured, so we hung around down at the bottom, took photos and watched souvenir peddlers run away from the police. Good times.

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We walked across the Seine to the Trocadero, a complex of gardens and museums. The complex has an impressive history in international affairs — the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed there in 1948, and it also housed the first headquarters of NATO.

Lauren and I had one last late lunch together in a restaurant off the Trocadero, before heading back to Gare du Nord. I set up shop in a cafe with a coffee and a croissant, waiting for my train depart. Lauren took an overground commuter train to Orly, from where she was flying back to Germany.

So there you have it. Four eventful days in Paris. Très bon, oui?

Paris: Day Two

Read about the first day in Paris here.

Saturday was our second day in Paris, and was our busiest day. Luckily it was extremely warm and sunny, so it was a great day to be outside.

We had breakfast at a little cafe down the street from the flat. Lauren had a macchiato and a Nutella crepe, and I had a hot chocolate and a chocolate-and-chantilly crepe. I love crepes and it’s hard to find good ones outside of France, so I knew we had to take advantage.

Our first major stop of the day was the Catacombs. They are not for the faint of heart. Basically, a couple hundred years ago, the cemeteries started overflowing and neighborhoods were getting diseased. Officials cleared out a lot of the cemeteries and deposited the bones in the remains of the city’s underground quarries. You can walk through the Catacombs and see piles and piles of bones and skulls “artfully” arranged, each area marked based on from which cemetery the bones originated. It’s dreadfully dark, dank and creepy, but really cool.

After that we headed over to the Louvre, where we were pleasantly surprised to get in free based on our EU residency visas and ages (under 25). We landed in the middle of the Carousel, a large shopping center complete with an Apple store and McDonald’s, that adjoins the museum. We saw the major pieces — the “Mona Lisa”, the Venus de Milo and the statue of Nike. The Louvre traditionally “frowns on” modern and Impressionist art and trends toward classical art. No Monet, Van Gogh or Cezanne to be seen.

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Next was the Tuileries, a lovely long stretch of garden with fountains, cafes, hedges and flowers. We got drinks and sat watching the birds, then headed down to the Champs-Elysees. The Parisian Christmas market was on, and there were dozens and dozens of stalls selling chocolate, hot mulled wine, pastries, meat, cheese, arts and crafts and all sorts of other items for the holidays.

We crossed the river to see the National Assembly building, crossed back over between the Grand Palace and the Petit Palace, and continued down the Champs-Elysees. We stopped at the Ladurée bakery, reputed to have the best macaroons in the world. It was packed, and while we waited in line we looked at the wares. Tarts, croissants, pastries, pies, cookies, macaroons, puffs and sweets of all kinds. The shop itself is very ornate and prettily decorated. We each got some macaroons and headed out.

At the end of the Champs-Elysees is the Arc De Triomphe. We climbed it — too many steps, a few hundred at least — and got nice photos of the view. I daresay the view is better than the Eiffel Tower’s; you’re able to see more clearly and recognize what you’re seeing. We ate our cookies atop the arch. I had: two chocolate, one raspberry, one red berry, one coffee, one lemon, one pistachio and one vanilla. They were absolutely delicious.

We had a late lunch/early dinner at an Italian restaurant near the arch. Lauren had a cheese pizza with ham, olives and mushrooms. I had a cheese pizza with prosciutto and we shared water and spent a couple of hours chatting, before we retired to the flat.

Whew! By this time my legs were getting quite sore. Stay tuned for days three and four.

An afternoon in Whitstable

My friends (Deborah, Hannah and Rachel) and I had planned to head up north to Whitstable, a small satellite village on the North Sea renowned for its oysters, today. After a couple of weeks of drippy, overcast weather, we couldn’t have expected a truly gorgeous day, as you can tell from the photos at the bottom.

After a lovely Anglican service early this afternoon in Eliot Chapel (during which I read the liturgy and after which I indulged in some lemon cake a few local ladies brought in), I met up with my friends and packed into Deb’s car and drove up to Whitstable.

The beach there reminded me a lot of Maine — more rocky than sandy, windy and cool. We didn’t swim, obviously, but I’d wager it was chilly. Lines of lovely houses, some private, some turned into bed-and-breakfasts, stood up and down the seaside. You could see people swimming and on their boats. I lost track of the number of dogs: spaniels, terriers, retrievers, labs and shepherds of all kinds, some on leashes, some not, all well-behaved. We also found oyster shells to collect.

Up the beach is Whitstable Harbour, which has a fish market and several fresh seafood restaurants. A few boys were catching nice-sized crabs right off the pier using nets. We headed into the town centre, passing all sorts of little shops, cafes and pubs. When we’d exhausted the high street options, we settled in for a late lunch at Coach and Horses. All four of us had a typical “Sunday roast” dinner: Beef (cauliflower-and-cheese bake for Hannah), yorkshire pudding (not really pudding; it’s a pastry used to sop gravy), roasted potatoes and vegetables.

On the way back, we stopped for a few minutes at a penny arcade (I won some sort of magnet game) and then at a little ice cream parlor called Sundae Sundae, where we got cheap waffle cones. Then we had a nice leisurely walk back up the beach to the car. All in all, a lovely day, and it makes me want to go back to Whitstable on a Saturday morning (the buses go there) for the farmers market.

Perhaps most importantly, the evidence of an actual beach in England torpedoes my uncle Tim’s rationale for not coming over in July to see my graduation.

Enjoy the photos below.

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Note: The period from now until December is VERY busy! So be sure to check back for photos and news from Bodiam Castle and Rye, Guy Fawkes night, Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows, Bruges and Paris.