The Little Things You Miss.

Today marks Day 45 of a 52-day European adventure. It’s been mostly great. I love the walkability of European cities. I love that most places aren’t overly air-conditioned. I love having a minuscule wardrobe. And here in my Budapest neighborhood, I love how even the most mundane apartment or convenience store is housed in something old and ornately detailed. I love how you can walk down the street openly drinking a really inexpensive beer, but there’s a zero-tolerance policy for drunk driving. I love that my adorable Airbnb is two minutes from Parliament and the Danube, yet completely protected from street noise by a courtyard. Most importantly, I love where I am mentally, writing with focus, seeing my book’s end draw near just ahead of my July 31st deadline.

But there are so many things I’m looking forward to getting back to. Small things. Silly things. In no particular order:

  • conversations. About anything. I spoke briefly to someone today on my English-speaking tour of Parliament, and my voice sounded straight-up weird. Since being on my own this past week, I’m not sure I’ve had a single conversation. Speaking is rare and comes in bursts of six syllables or fewer, “Americano, please?” “Do you have a bathroom?” and my favorite travel phrase, “Oops, sorry. Excuse me.” Let’s frame this as an intense period of vocal rest. Good for the cords.
  • the quiet comforts of home and the pieces of my morning routines: a fuzzy robe, coffee brewing, a stretch, a run, a Shakeology smoothie with ice and berries (not the sad clumpy version I’ve been making abroad).
  • humidity aside, Charlottesville’s running community and my well-worn running routes.
  • abundant produce. A good honeycrisp apple. Butternut squash and kale.  And even baby carrots, which seldom excite me, which often go bad before I can eat them all.
  • The Sunday New York Times and the crossword, which I pretend to be good at but I really just sit there while Joe does it. I occasionally answer questions about Broadway musicals.
  • the quiet of UVA’s Corner and the Lawn in summer.
  • driving over Afton Mountain on a clear day.
  • paddleboarding at Beaver Creek
  • my favorite wineries: Pippin Hill, King Family, Veritas, Jefferson…
  • and my favorite Charlottesville eats: Dr. Ho’s, Lampo, MarieBette, Bodos…
  • even Trader Joe’s. Crazy, crowded Trader Joe’s. Fine, and Target.

And then there are, inevitably, those things I miss and realize I don’t take nearly enough advantage of:

  • the Downtown Mall coffeeshops, just three blocks away.
  • ACAC’s many offerings, especially that weekly yin yoga class, which I went to for an unprecedented three weeks in a row before leaving on this trip.
  • hiking in the Blue Ridge.
  • farmers markets.
  • the opportunity to cook in my own (tiny) kitchen.

And don’t get me started on all the friends and acquaintances I see far too infrequently.

The question that follows is, “Ok, so what are you going to do about it?” Can I start walking more? Actually get myself to the gym, the market, and out to the Blue Ridge? When will the window of motivation close and old habits take over?

Of all the benefits of travel, renewed appreciation for the small joys of home might just top my list.

The Toughest Best Thing I Do

It’s been two weeks since I said goodbye to my second summer study abroad class. It’s officially called Exploring the Good Life in Scandinavia, offered though James Madison University. Last year – the first time out – was hard. I mean, I was alone in a foreign country and in charge of eleven students, taking them places even I had never been before. Our hotels and restaurants hadn’t been vetted. I had never met the Malmo University staff who were to host us for a week. I didn’t understand how to use the JMU-provided Excel spreadsheet to document my expenses. I didn’t really understand how to use Excel, period. (Ok, ok. I still kind of don’t.) Shoot…I didn’t even know what I didn’t know!

Malmo bike tour.

This time, with my Excel-savvy boyfriend along and a year of experience under my belt, I expected it to be a breeze. I knew how to navigate the streets and the public transportation. I had a list of decent restaurants suitable for groups. I had class materials prepped. And everyone there speaks English. Yes, I was feeling fine.

But, guess what. It’s still hard. Like, really hard. In no other realm of life do I wear so many hats, trying to be an unflappable, savvy tour guide/professor/accountant/surrogate parent with a steel trap memory and encyclopedic knowledge of Scandinavia.

To be sure, some of the pressure I feel is absolutely of my own creation. For example, one night we were at a very fun and hip taco joint. I was required to pre-order our dinners because we were such a large group. A few days prior, I told the students they could choose between cod, steak, or vegetarian tacos. I dutifully emailed the restaurant our order, and as the food came out, I saw that it was not tacos, but full entrees. The students were pleased, actually: it looked delicious and the portions were huge. But I felt weirdly awful and incompetent. How did I screw this up? Even as I was surrounded by happy, laughing students, I seriously thought, I just can’t do this anymore.

Later, I remarked to Joe, “It’s just so hard being responsible for everyone’s happiness all of the time.” And then it hit me: no wonder I was a stress-case! Part of my job is to set the stage for happiness, yes. To create a feeling of safety and comfort and acceptance. But I can only get them so far up the hierarchy of needs. While this job does require many hats, “perfection ensurer” is not one of them.

So, this time around one of several lessons I learned was that it’s really hard to be a die-hard people-pleaser in this role. I can only control so much. Food orders will be wrong, buses will be late, it will rain at inopportune times, and wifi will sometimes be spotty. Very little of this is my fault. Self-compassion is essential. So are head-clearing, early-morning, pump-up runs. img_7488

I also learned that taking students abroad will probably always be really hard. Maybe it should be. A big group, in a foreign country, with goals of connecting, learning, and feeling safe but also challenged. It’s not something to be cavalier about.

No one's favorite.

No one’s favorite moment.

But it’s also the most rewarding thing I do: sharing fascinating and beautiful places, hearing the appreciative and awestruck reactions of my students, helping to set the stage for new friendships, teaching techniques for happiness, exposing students to new ways of living, and maybe even instilling a lifelong love of travel. So, when I step back and big-picture it, botched food orders and slow wifi fade from view. Instead, these recent memories mesh with my first time abroad and the way it shaped me. The fact that I might have some small role in doing the same for these students is both humbling and a great privilege.

And when the students want a key class concept permanently etched onto their bodies, I have to consider it a success, right?

 

“The Good Life” Comes to an End.

As I write this, I’m three hours into a five-hour train trip, heading south from Stockholm to Copenhagen. A few cars up sit twelve drowsy college students who are probably alternating between napping, snacking, working on their final course presentations, and – quite possibly – reflecting on the fact that it’s almost over.

We’ve just spent the past 16 days touring Sweden and Denmark on a study abroad called “Exploring the Good Life in Scandinavia.” We have just one last evening together in Copenhagen, and then they all start to disperse: some are off to Norway, one to Iceland, another to Berlin, and still another to Amsterdam. Others are going back home, back to their parents, siblings, graduate school prep, and summer jobs. And two of them graduated last month, don’t really know what comes next, and – understandably – really don’t seem to want to think about it.

While our main objective was to study the well-documented high rates of Scandinavian happiness, we also did a Color Run, learned to make moose meatballs, biked through Malmo, and cruised through the Stockholm archipelago. We played hilariously bad beach volleyball, danced around a maypole on Midsommar’s Eve, and visited the Christiania commune just one day before it was infiltrated by cops on a drug bust. We found a cure for culinary homesickness at a TGI Fridays, laughed through a border crossing snafu at the Copenhagen airport, celebrated two birthdays, survived the rides at Tivoli Gardens, took a ghost tour of Stockholm, and sang karaoke at a Swedish dive bar. And I’m sure they would add things to this list that I will never know about. As it should be.

img_7361

What I do know is that three weeks ago, these twelve were virtually strangers, but now, I see the potential for life-long friendships. The time has been brief but intense. They’ve shared experiences that no one else will really understand. They have inside jokes and nicknames that would be lost on anybody on the outside. And they are united in the knowledge that their experiences here will never be replicated.

I hope their transition is an easy one. Because as nice as it might be to see their families and friends, to return to comfort and predictability, no one back home will really get it. They’ll try, asking questions and expressing interest at the photos and stories they are bringing home. But it’s just impossible to bridge the psychological gap this trip has created. Reverse culture shock is very real and experiencing it doesn’t make anyone an ingrate. (But the guilt associated with that belief, like “I shouldn’t feel so unhappy when I just had this amazing experience,” can actively heighten the distress.)

As for me, I’m equal parts relieved that a stolen cell phone was our biggest disaster, happy to be free and responsible only for myself, and sad to be saying goodbye to this thoughtful, curious, and hilarious bunch. A few of them, I know I’ll probably never see again. A few will be in my class this fall. The rest may pop into my office once or twice. Maybe we’ll try to put together a reunion dinner. But, the cold reality is that we will never be together again, as a group, in this part of the world. This experience will never be repeated.

Stockholm Marathon Recap

On Saturday, June 4th, I ran my first international marathon (my sixth overall) on what turned out to be a glorious, humidity-free, 60-something degree day in Stockholm. In the weeks prior, I had an increasing awareness* of a nagging left achilles and various, undiagnosed sensations in my feet. Plus, I was probably undertrained, having done only one twenty-miler. And I had some vague memories of really, really hating the late stages of marathons, which explains why I hadn’t done one in six years. This could be ugly.

The race started at noon, which I expected to be completely jarring. However, lingering jet-lag, a penchant for getting lost wandering Stockholm, the logistics of staging a 18,000 person event, and moderate temperatures made the late start-time pretty ideal. I started in the correct pace group (about 8:30 min/mile), which was good since there was no getting past the pack of Scandinavians I was trapped in. Backlogged podcasts** got me to mile 16 and then I shifted to my inspirational running playlist*** which got me home. Around mile 24, I was more than ready to be done, sure, but somehow I never hit the wall.
The home stretch: I entered the Olympic Stadium, sure that the finish line was mere steps away, as I was already past 26.2 . But we still had to circle the track, which created some sense of ceremony but also made for a race of 26.7 miles! What?! Despite that injustice of this, I ran a three-plus minute PR of 3:45. And, I guess I also inadvertently ran the longest distance of my life.


Here’s a hodgepodge of my impressions of an international marathon:

  • I was saying how, although I had no real desire to run a marathon again until a Boston-qualifying time was a real possibility (i.e., this fall! Bring on age 40!), I wanted to do this one as a way of seeing this beautiful city where I’ve started to teach and visit every summer. Funny, then, how little I was focused on the scenery around me. It was more like, “find the water!” “don’t step on that person!” “focus on your music!” Marathon-survival mode rather than savoring mode.
  • The cardinal rules of marathoning – don’t eat anything new or weird! Rest up a few days before! – are in direct opposition to the rules of travel and exploration – eat all the weird things! Walk around and see everything! I walked 6 miles the day before and was worried I’d blown it. I hadn’t. But the temptation was there in a way it isn’t at home.
  • I don’t know if it was this race in particular or non-U.S. races, but it felt much more serious. Very few runners in costumes, no spirited bunches running for a cause, zero funny signs about pooping, loud cheering, and – mercifully – only one deafening cowbell.
  • The men all peed in a communal porta-potty thingie beforehand, which cut back on lines dramatically. Could American men do such a thing outside of Foxfield? Do American porta-potty companies even make such a thing?
  • Having the race marked in kilometers instead of miles was a mental challenge. Like, “Oooh, I’m at mile 21 already! Oh wait, that’s 21K…13 miles. Crap!” I had to stop looking at the markers. On the upside, I took some perverse joy in confusing the metric-minded around me when my Garmin chirped at each mile.
  • Course fuel: pickles, vegetable broth, coffee, cola. Glad I brought my own Gu.
  • Stockholm’s “hills” have nothing – NOTHING – on Charlottesville’s.
  • The finishers’ shirt was hot pink. European men don’t mind hot pink.
  • The post-race hot dog: the first I’ve had in years, and nothing could have tasted better.
  • If you don’t have cell service and hope to meet up with someone after the race, in a crowd of many thousands, when you’re likely to be utterly exhausted, have a fail-safe plan. Despite a plan of-sorts, Joe and I only found each other through sheer luck.

    Best cheerer and photographer ever.

  • Look who I finally saw at the finish line. 
  • If I can just slightly improve on this time for the fall, the BQ should be mine, fulfilling a goal I’ve had for almost ten years. This race was great mental preparation, as it was the first marathon I enjoyed from start to finish. No wall-hitting, a perfectly even split, and full mobility for sightseeing the next day. Oh, and I even was awake and chipper for a nighttime dinner cruise afterwards, where one of the editors of German Runner’s World said, upon hearing my time, “Oh, you’re a real runner.” That’s right.  A. Real. Runner.

* awareness is not the same as pain or injury, and is at least 50% psychosomatic.

** deepest gratitude to Slate’s Double X, Getting In, The Moth, and Embedded.

*** mostly selections from the Hamilton soundtrack, but with some Styx, Sara Bareilles, and Shakira peppered in.

The Chowdown Is On

Vacations create the perfect storm for weight gain. Delicious, unusual food lies at every turn, we have a ton of time in which to eat it, and the plausible justifications for chowing down are endless:

  • “I’d better eat this while I’m here!”
  • “I came here for the food!”
  • “But I’m walking so much!”
  • “Vacation is the time to treat myself!”
  • “YOLO!”

Shoot, even our gut microbiome is hard at work against us.

Not surprisingly, people admit to gaining an impressively quick ten pounds on a week-long cruise and packing on the “foreign fifteen” while studying abroad. Tips for avoiding both abound, but maybe a small gain is worth it. No one wants to regret missing out on gelato, croissants, or deep-fried Snickers bars out of fear of gaining a pound or two, right? But that’s a topic for a different day.

I’m dealing with an unexpected and unspoken challenge: overeating at home, in anticipation of all the delicious Charlottesville foods I’m going to miss while I’m traveling. Yes, the mere thought of traveling is making me chow down. With two months of foreign travel set to begin in just ten days, I have an embarrassingly long list of must-eats. These won’t mean anything to those outside of Charlottesville, but topping the charts are:

  • The Hellboy pizza from Lampo.
  • The Bellissima pizza and world’s best nachos from Dr. Ho’s Humble Pie.
  • The El Jefe from Roots.
  • A this-barely-qualifies-as-a-salad salad from Mezeh.
  • Anything sweet from MarieBette.
  • My standard turkey and cheddar on sesame from Bodos.
  • Take-out drunken noodles and spicy eggplant from Monsoon Siam.
  • Anything from Pippin Hill, just so I can sit out and take in the views.
img_6298-1

Pineapple, pepperoni, and roasted garlic pizza from Crozet Pizza – CHECK!

This list comes with its own special set of rationalizations, mostly along the lines of, “But I won’t be able to have this for two whole months!”* When we have a big trip looming, looking ahead creates a sort of anticipatory nostalgia for the everyday things we’ll miss while away. This is mostly good, encouraging us to appreciate what is so often overlooked. Needing to buy new pants at the 11th hour, however, is a considerable downside.

So, forget travel weight gain — I’m not too worried about that one. Walking and protein shakes will probably cancel out the occasional Swedish cardamom bun and Hungarian langos, and a post-trip 21 Day Fix will take care of the rest. But what about pre-travel weight gain? Is this a thing, or is it just me? And…umm…is there anything important missing from my list?

 

*Do I eat these foods so frequently that a two-month hiatus is reason for panic? No, I do not.

 

Reflections on study abroad, one year later

In exactly 38 days – not that I’m counting – twelve JMU students will meet me in Copenhagen for a class on happiness in Scandinavia. To help prepare them and get them psyched, last week I asked students from last year’s class to come talk to my new crop.

SAMSUNG CSC

Last year’s class in Stockholm

I wanted to let the conversation flow naturally, but just in case no one had any burning questions, I asked them to prepare responses to these:

  • What do you wish you could’ve done more of while in Scandinavia?
  • What were your favorite memories?

I’m not sure what I expected them to say, but I was startled and touched by their responses, which I asked them to email me after. Here are some:

**********************************************************************

“My favorite things to do were to find a restaurant I liked or a building or something like that and just stay there for a while (versus trying to see and do every single thing). It was cool to use this time to really savor and soak it up. In Lund, for example, I laid in the grass and just hung out by that large church for a large part of the afternoon and I think it was more enjoyable than running all over the town. I still felt like I got a good feel of Lund without seeing every single street and building.”

“I really enjoyed riding around Copenhagen aimlessly on those motor bikes, wish I did it more.”

“Two of my favorite memories from the trip included the bike tour and our visit to that bakery in Lund. The bike tour gave me a lot more information about Malmö while I got to explore the city like the Scandinavians do, which was a blast. That bakery in Lund was indescribably good. I dream about their pastries and breads sometimes…”

SAMSUNG CSC

Those unforgettable treats.

“My favorite memories were two conversations I had with two men in Stockholm. One was an artist and I bought one of his paintings, he was from Russia. The other was a street performer from New Zealand. I also very much enjoyed our free day in Denmark when I walked around in Christiania. That entire day was great because I was by myself and able to soak in my surroundings without any distractions.””Sitting at a restaurant by a river in Copenhagen was cool because I got to watch a festival and a mother and son came to my table and chatted with me. And talking to the old guy on a bench!”

“Lund, walking around, eating at the bakery, getting strawberries there! It was so much fun hanging out with the people in our group and eating such delicious food. Lund was so vibrant- I loved all of it. Even going to the botanical garden.”

IMG_4254

Spoiled forever by Danish strawberries.

“One of the big things I regret from the trip is not planning for more spontaneity. Even if you’re a compulsive planner, you’ll have more fun if you make time for random activities that are done on a whim. I wish I had found a way to arrive in Denmark early like some of the others had. It seemed like they really got a better feel for Copenhagen since they had more free time there.”

“Things I regretted not doing more of: Interacting with the people who lived there, even if it was just waiters, etc. And spending so much time at night emailing or connecting with friends at home (I didn’t do this a lot, but I could’ve been doing something else instead!)”

“So my favorite memories from the trip were things that we said “when in _______.” (Copenhagen, Stockholm, etc.) In the sense of, if we’re having any doubts about doing something because it costs money or we’re tired or whatever it may be, we would say that as a way to remind ourselves that this is probably a once in a lifetime experience.”

IMG_2936

When in Stockholm, you celebrate Midsommar…rain or shine.

**********************************************************************

I was happy that the students didn’t voice major regrets, but was even happier to hear about the things that ended up being their most cherished memories. They were, for the most part, pretty small things: a unique and delicious food, talking to locals, walking or cycling around aimlessly. Not one person listed visiting a top tourist attraction as a favorite moment. Like Anthony Bourdain said, “It’s never the Eiffel Tower and Louvre you remember for the rest of your life.”

None of this should have surprised me, of course. Their favorite moments were not unlike my own: Biking around Copenhagen, feeling – almost – like a local. Early morning runs through parks and around palaces. Getting lost, then seeing something familiar and almost feeling my mental map get filled in with a new connection. People-watching by the water. And, yes, eating those pastries and berries.

These really are among the best moments of travel, but we just don’t always realize it. We overestimate the importance of the “must-sees” and neglect to think about how to be truly present in more ordinary moments. I think it’s because we can’t always plan for them. They tend to – or maybe they need to – arise spontaneously.

But we can set the stage for them. As some students said, they wished they had spent less time online, had structured their time less, been more spontaneous, talked to people more, and used their free time differently…lessons I could learn, too.

So, this time around, I’ll remember what I just learned from my former students, encouraging my new ones to wander, to explore, to observe, and to just be. They can write their term papers when they get back to the States.
image

For my money, there’s nothing finer.

From Book to Blog

I start this blog on a meaningful day: April 17th, the day I submitted 50% of my forthcoming book, The Happy Traveler, to my editor.

Back in January, I started this project with a swell of excitement like one I hadn’t felt in ages, but also with a bit of apprehension. The looming deadline, writing while attending to all the other things I care about (teaching, relationships, fitness, tidiness), and the fact that people will actually read the book created a perfect storm of worry.

Then, a godsend: snow. Lots of snow. Housebound, with nothing to do but lie around in jammies, I took out the computer and started putting down ideas, and that was the start. It wasn’t always easy or fun, but it was always easier and much more fun than I imagined it would be.

And now, I have five chapters chock full of – I think – useful and surprising advice on how we might all make better travel decisions.

image

To celebrate this milestone, I took my stand-up paddleboard out to Beaver Creek Reservoir today. It’s about 20 minutes west of me, in Crozet, yet a world away. I saw a blue heron, a flock of scary geese (am I alone here?), and turtles who plopped into the water one by one as I approached. I felt both gleeful and guilty watching this unfold. You really can be a traveler in your own hometown!

I plan to use this blog to get you as excited as I am about The Happy Traveler, while also keep you informed of my own happy travels.