Trip-planning as a couple

As September gets closer, I’m putting final touches on my planned holiday with my boyfriend. This isn’t our first vacation together, but it’s the first one that requires international travel for both of us, and the first one to require substantial planning and booking ahead of time. With our previous trip to Manchester and the Lake District, we showed up at hotels where we’d booked, ate where we wanted and went to whatever museums we wanted. It was generally unhurried and relaxed. This year, though, the planning is more intensive.

I booked my flight for September back in March, and at about that same time, booked tickets to see “Much Ado About Nothing” at the Globe Theatre in London. This was for a play six months away and seats were still mostly sold out or unavailable. This past weekend, I managed to secure tickets for a Yo-Yo Ma solo performance at Royal Albert Hall, part of the BBC Proms concert series. The tickets sold out the same day they became available and I was lucky to get them.

Still ahead for booking: our return flight to Prague, Gatwick Express return tickets, tickets to visit the Sky Garden in London, ghost tour tickets in Prague, the Prague Card combination museum/transit pass, seven of our eight nights in hotels, some restaurants (including the Michelin-starred Alcron in Prague) and Thorpe Park tickets. Some things we’re doing were my idea, some were his idea and some came from both of us. It’s compromise, and it’s wonderful.

Just thinking about the sheer amount of stuff we’re fitting into this week is taxing. But that also makes it unique and amazing, the second in what I hope will be an extensive series of holidays, both long and short, for us as partners.

I’ve heard before that if you and your partner can travel successfully together, you’ll be OK. While we didn’t travel too extensively last time, we were able to catch trains and find hotels smoothly. I’d say we passed the initial hurdle. We didn’t fight or get frustrated with each other. This coming trip will require a little more coordination and put us more to the test, but I can’t wait. I love talking about it with my boyfriend and I love the two of us working together to create an experience that’s ours.

September to remember

I’ve spent the past couple of days meticulously planning a late summer trip with my boyfriend. We have a lot to celebrate, as he recently achieved an internship/training placement with a job offer at the end of it.

We decided to move our holiday from August to September, because his work placement starts in August and he wanted time to arrange his holiday time off.

Assuming he can get the time off, we’re spending a day in London, then heading off to Prague for four nights. Our Prague sightseeing list includes Prague Castle, the Old Jewish Cemetery, Charles Bridge, St. Vitus Cathedral and the Clementinum. The plan is to head back to London on a late flight, spend another day in the city (“Much Ado About Nothing” is playing at the Globe Theatre; it is my favorite Shakespearean play so it feels like serendipity), then visit Thorpe Park on our last day.

If he can’t secure the time off, then I’ll simply stay with him that week and we’ll do what we have time do in the area. The important thing is that we’ll be able to see each other after a year (?!) apart. Everything is coming together, and I couldn’t be happier to head back to my favorite city and discover another one.

Czech mate

My boyfriend and I have decided to spend a few days in Prague this August. The plan is for me to fly to London, for us to spend a couple of days together there, then go to Prague, and then fly back to London for another couple of days.

Prague is one of the major cities I’ve wanted to visit but haven’t been able to yet. We agreed to go somewhere neither of us had been, and Prague fit the bill. Its weather in the summer, numerous museums, gorgeous architecture and inexpensive food and beer made it a clear choice.

So that is my next international adventure. The time should go by quickly, as I prepare to move into a new apartment, visit my parents in July and go through major transitions at work.

Anyone with good tips for what to see and do in Prague, let me have it. Likewise, if anyone has a good language resource for Czech, that’d be great, too!

The Solo Diner

I’ve written before about traveling solo and how invigorating (and, I think, necessary) it is. But what about going solo in the city where you live?

I am a classic introvert. I like people and I like seeing friends, but it exhausts me. Unless something major is happening, I try to stick to about one “thing” with people each weekend. This weekend I’m meeting a friend for a film and dinner and next week I’m going to a happy hour party for a friend’s new job. The rest of the time, I have “me” time.

During the majority of the week, I’m surrounded by people and my time is not really my own. But on weekends I tend to wander around on my own, and I like it that way. I can pick the films I want to see, the coffee shops where I hang out and read and the restaurants where I eat.

I celebrated my raise with a solo dinner at Oyamel. Probably once every other month or so I go to The Coupe and sit and have a meal at the bar. Ted’s Bulletin on 14th? Great solo bar breakfasts. I also did a Restaurant Week lunch last weekend at The Source. It’s just what I do, and it’s great.

I never got the point of being embarrassed or scared of doing things alone. I think it might be a combination of my introversion and being an only child. I’ve always been self-sufficient and have never relied on finding other people to do things with. Do I like going out with friends, yes. Am I mentally exhausted after, also yes. I’d miss out on a lot of experiences, things I want to do, if I only ever did them when I could coordinate with other people.

So make that solo dinner reservation without fear. Just maybe bring a book.

In praise of digital relationships, romantic and otherwise

Earlier tonight, as I prepared to go to bed, I looked up a few old schoolmates on Facebook. People to whom I was never particularly close, even then. The ones I found were nearly strangers to me. I have nothing in common with them now, and the only thing I had in common with them then was geography. Even that wasn’t exactly a matter of agency, given that we lived where our parents had chosen to live.

I’ve long rejected the notion that friendships and relationships should be based on geography. Obviously you’ll eventually want to meet your closest online friends and especially your online romantic interests, and romantic partners would ultimately relocate for each other. But choosing a friend or a partner based on elementary school or high school or even college always seemed needlessly limited to me. I know many people who found their long-term partners in school; I wasn’t one of them. And while I do retain close friendships with many people with whom I went to school, I have just as many close friends whom I met through various online means, based on our mutual interests.

Because of my shyness and, to use the technical term, resting bitch face, I’ve long had difficulty getting close to people I meet first in person. I know that I come off as a bit awkward and aloof. I communicate much better in writing. Even my co-workers compliment my humor and wit in our office chat program. So it makes sense that someone like me would more easily forge written-based relationships. 

One of my best friends now is someone I’d have never met at all, in person or otherwise, were it not for our mutual love of Harry Potter and various other geekery. We crossed paths online over five years ago and up to this point we’ve visited each other and we regularly chat long-distance about other things: cooking, pets, work, moving. I talk to her about things I’d talk to any true friend about in person.

My current long-distance partner (soon to, in a few weeks, hopefully become my short-distance partner for a few days at least) approached me because he admired my online writing about, of all things, “A Song of Ice and Fire.” That was six months ago and we’ve been talking non-stop ever since. Though I’m eager to see him, I don’t consider what we have to be inherently less meaningful because it’s mostly based on written communication.

Finally, the peril of going to school in the Midwest and in England and living on the East Coast is that nearly all of my friends, even if they began as in-person friends, became long-distance friends. Written communication is absolutely essential, whether it’s a tweet, email, text, Facebook message or something else. This is what helps me sustain my friendships, because the vast majority of my friends live hundreds or thousands of miles away.

I have more in common with a handful of people thousands of miles away in England than I do with a handful of people in Kansas with whom I shared a few years of schooling 20-odd years ago. It’s worth it to me to forsake in-person interactions for the time being in exchange for a deeper emotional attachment through writing. I wouldn’t trade a day’s worth of emails with my partner for 50 middling OKCupid dates in D.C.

But I am excited to see him, though …

In search of “home”

I do some of my best thinking on the Metro. There’s nothing to do, really, except think and go over things in my mind.

My little epiphany this morning was in my realization that, while I can safely say that I don’t feel much emotional attachment to where I grew up — without my friends and parents and other family there, I’d have no reason to go back — I also don’t have that many roots in D.C., despite living here for a year and a half. I think deep down, I see my time here as temporary and transient. Will it end up being so? Maybe. Maybe not. Plenty of people in D.C. planned to stay for a year or two, and lo, 30 years pass and they’re still here.

Then I thought about what makes a home. How do you decide to lay down roots? When should you decide? Should you fall in love with a place, and stay out of love for that place, or should you fall in love with a person, and lay roots with them wherever? I don’t think it’s too much to ask to love someone and stay with them in a place that you’d love even if you weren’t with them. I hope to be so fortunate.

I’m also not sure that time expended counts toward a feeling of home. I still think of England as “home” on some occasions, despite only living there for two years. On the one hand, almost two decades in the Midwest hadn’t done much to solidify nostalgia for that place. The jury’s still out on D.C., I have a certain fondness for it, but can’t help this nagging feeling that it too is just a pit stop on the road to … somewhere else.

Traveling is something I have to do, almost compulsively. Even my trips that get planned months in advance receive almost obsessive attention. Is my travel bug some subconscious method of “scouting” a possible home? Maybe, maybe not. Sometimes I’m afraid that I’m destined to just be a wanderer, moving here and there whenever I manage to overcome inertia.

At the end of the day, I think a true home has to combine both people and location. It’s not enough to live somewhere you love if you have no one to share it with, and it’s not enough to be with someone you love if the location makes you miserable or unhappy.

Wish me luck eventually finding that happy balance.

Back to Blighty, for a little while

It’s no secret that I’ve put off going for my Ph.D. Mainly it’s an issue of finances and the fact that my job in D.C. is going well. But I still miss England fairly often, so I decided to head back to visit for a little more than a week in September. I’m flying to Manchester, not London, and seeing some parts of the country that I haven’t before, or haven’t seen in a long time: Manchester, Liverpool, the Lake District and that general area.

I plan to be joined in this adventure by my good friend Deborah, with whom I went to Uni. Kent and formed part of a formidable pub quiz team (Grandma’s Wisdom for life!). I also hope to meet my pen pal (which sounds archaic and quaint but is the best way to describe it), a fellow nerd (we bonded over “A Song of Ice and Fire” and it doesn’t get geekier than that) and software developer/physics enthusiast who lives near Liverpool. I’m hoping a beer or two can help us figure out if it’s worth traveling down the Kingsroad, so to speak.

I have mixed feelings going back, even though it’s just for a brief period. I was probably at my personal and emotional nadir when I left the last time, and I’ll be going back on a far, far higher note, with good friends and a great job and other prospects. I’m hoping that that change in perspective lets me see the country more pragmatically and maybe figure out if going back long-term is really something I still want to pursue. If nothing else, I’ll get to see some great people and have some new adventures.

Since my tax rebate is funding this little sojourn, I splurged for an exit row aisle seat on my flight over and back. Worth every penny. Or pence.

Refusing a bite of the apple

I might be one of a rare breed of female twentysomething journalists who consider themselves city mice: I have never made any serious, good-faith attempt to “make it” in New York, nor have I ever wanted to and honestly, unless an amazing opportunity arises or I move for a partner, I sincerely can see myself never wanting to.

A friend of mine shared this blog entry today, which I read and which maybe finally made me realize why I never sought that city the way so many women my age and in my profession do. New York City, the presumed epicenter of culture, literature and intellectual thought, is crowding out (and has been crowding out) the very people who contribute those things to the city. Creativity must be nurtured, and that requires basic security, energy and time, things that can be difficult if not impossible to attain in the city, especially if, like the blog author, you have to work a “real” job to make ends meet. The author decided to ultimately sacrifice location for that trifecta she needed to do something fulfilling, and left.

Which brings me back to myself; reading that, I have to wonder if I always knew, subconsciously, that I wouldn’t find in New York what I needed to fulfill me. Rather than needing to live there to realize that, maybe I always had a sense that it wasn’t really worth it. It wasn’t worth paying four figures to live with a bunch of other people in some outer borough, or doing a menial and unrewarding job, or going without food, just to be able to say, “I live in New York.” If “living in New York” doesn’t really come with the actual lifestyle implied by “living in New York” (creative freedom and intellectual growth), then what the bloody hell good is it? It’s an empty phrase, designed to impress outsiders or people from home; it would have no bearing on how I actually lived my life. That air of superiority, given the living circumstances of so many people like me in the city, just felt unearned, and I’d be damned if I moved there to perpetuate it.

And obviously it’s different for different people. I have friends there who love it, and I freely admit that I’d feel perfectly happy living in that other New York-esque metropolis with which I’m so familiar (London, I mean London). But after reading the blog entry and seeing a woman who might, in another life, have been me, it clicked. I had “gotten it” before I really even knew what I had “gotten.”

But then again, I never really knew or noticed how prevalent “Good-bye, New York” writings were. Time and again, young women aspire to go to New York, do so and then leave, for one reason or another. Maybe I just cut out the middleman.

In all fairness I do say this as a Washingtonian (via the Midwest and some stints in Britain), living in a place that isn’t exactly inexpensive. Many people in D.C. view it as a step on the way to New York, including at least a few of my friends. The District’s alleged inferiority complex is often remarked upon, and I’d be lying if I didn’t find the Times’s sometimes downright snotty coverage of the city (including, at times, bush-league geographic errors) to be grating. It seems like no matter what D.C. has, New York has more of it. Which is to be expected, as New York has more than 8 million people and D.C. only recently topped about 650,000, although it’s only getting bigger. But often, any criticism of New York by a D.C.-er brings allegations of jealousy or attempts at one-upping.

Which is why I found Andrew Sullivan’s own farewell to New York to be comforting; it’s rare (at least in my experience) to have someone that high-profile in the creative/journalistic community so publicly and forcefully side with D.C. over New York. For once, we’re not the ones being jilted. And Sullivan noticed that, too. It was “incomprehensible” to New Yorkers, he said, that a person might choose D.C. over their city.

And that’s at least partly why he left.

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.

The Hierarchy of Needs

Earlier today one of my friends shared an … edited … version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The base — the broadest, most pressing immediate need — was Wi-Fi. Some days, that’s a very accurate assessment.

Maslow’s hierarchy should be familiar to anyone who took a high school psych class, ever. The actual base is physiological fulfillment: food, water, warmth. Next is stability and security. Love — friendly, familial, romantic — is in the middle. After that comes self-esteem and respect. Self-actualization is the highest point. The idea is that you have to fulfill the lower needs before you can fulfill the higher ones.

Marking my one-year anniversary, both at my job and in D.C., has lately gotten me to start reevaluating my needs and what I want out of my life. Despite seeing so many of my friends starting families, I reaffirm to myself that that’s something I want, but only when the timing is right. It’s not something to do just to tick off a box.

I guess the hardest part of climbing the pyramid is figuring out what self-actualization, on an individual level, actually means. Some days I’m afraid that maybe I’m doomed to be a nomad, shifting from place to place without ever putting down real roots. Then I think of staying in any one place forever, and I can’t breathe. So it’s a pull in opposite directions: fear of loneliness on the one hand, fear of being trapped somewhere on the other.

Ultimately, I think, self-actualization (and the accompanying feeling that you’re where you’re meant to be, doing what you’re meant to do, with whom you’re meant to be) is probably like being in love. When you’re there, you know. And if you have to second-guess yourself, look for exits or wonder if you’re there, you’re not.

So for now, until I do get that feeling of actualization and permanency, I’m going to embrace my nomadic nature and appreciate people and places that I know are probably fleeting. And when I get to the “right” place, I’ll know.