June 2011

In the U.S., it’s a common weekend practice to head to the movies, grab a bucket of popcorn, and enjoy the newest release.  After all, the American movie industry is known as the gold standard in cinema (even though Bollywood does produce more films per year, but that’s another matter), and we Americans love our movies.

So, it was only natural that even when I was overseas, I would crave a good movie outing.  Thus began adventures in botched subtitles, creepy art films, and 3-D Polish eyewear.

My first international adventures with movie theaters began in Europe.  Now, most Europeans can’t get enough of the latest American blockbusters, so I assumed that going to the movies over there would be similar or pretty much the same as heading to my local theater in Texas or D.C.

Nope, not so much.

In Madrid, some of my classmates and I decided to test our language skills and go see a movie that our Spanish teacher told us we absolutely had to see while we were in Spain.  So, we headed to a movie theater and were really excited to see what a Spanish summer movie would be like–would it be an action film with an Antonio Banderas lookalike, only he would actually be speaking Spanish?

Not even close.  The film was pretty much about a little boy growing up in Madrid when the Franco regime came into power and he was ripped apart from his friends.  As an adult he returned to Madrid and had flashbacks of the past.  Now, it was great to get a local perspective on the difficult times that Spain went through under the dictatorship, but it wasn’t what we were thinking for a lazy Saturday afternoon.  We left pretty depressed, actually.  But, the next weekend we saw “El Fantasma de la Opera” (The Phantom of the Opera) and enjoyed that, minus the fact that the phantom almost fell while doing the scene where he swings in on a chandelier.

My next movie experience overseas was in Rome, where I lived for a summer while interning with the State Department.  They showed movies at the American embassy each week, but I wanted to stick to the local movie theaters to get the real Roman experience (as a result I missed meeting Matt Damon, who apparently showed up at an embassy event when they were showing one of his films).

And experiences they were.  The three movie theaters that I tried out in Rome only showed a couple of American movies at a time, and way after they premiered in the U.S. I tried to watch Italian movies, but the thing about European movies, whether Italian, Spanish, or French, is that they are pretty depressing for the most part.  We Americans know how to do r0mantic comedies with happy endings–in European films, they often start out as a typical rom-com and then end up with someone getting hit by a car or something.

I convinced two of my friends to check out an Irish/American movie that was showing, that looked like an indie film but was being shown in English (usually in Rome they dubbed over everything, and there were times I just wanted to hear English-speaking actors in their normal voices and not in breathy dubbed ones).  My friend Sophie hesitated and said that it looked a little weird, but I insisted that it should be fine.

We walked out of the theater in states of shock and quietly headed to dinner without saying a word.  Lesson learned that day:  don’t see an artsy, weird looking movie unless you do some research.  Let’s just say that the movie was about a teacher who, well, took a liking to his young pupils in 1940’s Ireland.  I can’t say anything more without throwing up.  After that, to be safe, I saw “Harry Potter.”  Twice.

Going to the movies in South Korea was also interesting.  In Korea, they usually left the English sound and did Korean subtitles, which was a relief since I was learning Korean at the time but didn’t have great listening proficiency.  They loved American movies and showed more recent films than I had encountered in Europe, interestingly enough.

One day, while out with one of my dear Korean friends, we decided to see “Shrek 3,” which had just opened and was received enthusiastically by Korean moviegoers.  I was the only non-Korean person in the movie theater, and that became obvious during one scene in particular.  In one part of the movie, the three little pigs yell out, “Pigs in a blanket!” before slinging one of them out of a blanket.  I laughed my head off, and quickly realized that everyone else in the theater was silent (and looking over at me with curious looks on their faces).  My friend Chi-hye whispered to me that the subtitle in Korean had read, literally, “Sausage in a blanket,” and that the Koreans were all confused because it didn’t make sense to put sausage meat in a blanket–you put it on a plate.

Another memorable movie outing was in Warsaw, Poland, while I was visiting my friend Kora.  We planned to head to Berlin for the weekend when she finished work, so I hung out and killed some time at the train station before she left her office.  The train station in Warsaw is attached to a really nice shopping center with a movie theater inside, and since it was a hot day, I decided to see a movie.  I said “jin daubbre” (“good afternoon” to the teenager working at the box office and asked for a ticket to “Step Up 3.”

I didn’t realize that the movie was in 3-D, so when I walked into the theater, the other Polish moviegoers were decked out in giant 3-D glasses.  Okay, random, I thought–but just go with it.

It ended up being one of the most fun I’d ever had at the movies.  Watching a dance movie in 3-D was by itself randomly hilarious–add in several Polish audience members dancing in their chairs with their big glasses on, and you have movie magic.

In conclusion, when heading to a movie theater overseas:

–Proceed with caution when a film looks artsy or you’re not sure what it’s about.

–Don’t expect foreign films to be uplifting.

–Don’t expect the popcorn to be fresh.  In some countries, I gleefully ordered popcorn but then spit it out in disappointment (sometimes they’ll have it, but since the locals don’t go for it like we Americans do, it sits there until an American comes along and orders it).  Unless you’re in South Korea, where they have the most addicting caramel popcorn ever.

So, while traveling, consider heading to the movies for a taste of home and/or a bit of local culture–just make sure to take your sense of humor with you.

As a traveler, as I’ve discussed before, packing light is key to one’s sanity.  This translates to every form of travel, from leisure travel to studying abroad to working overseas.

Since I was on the go so much, and never felt sure of if or when I’d have a more stable life, I took the concept of packing light and applied it to everything. I found myself living the nomadic bachelorette dream.  I preferred language books to cook books, plastic utensils to real plates, takeout instead of home-cooked meals, and so forth.

I was the epitome of a bachelorette, in every sense of the word.  I ate whatever I was craving that particular day, set my schedule the way I wanted, and let whatever quirky tendencies I had to have full reign in my lifestyle.  Some would call these quirks “secret single behavior,” those little things you do but that you know full well you won’t really want to do when you’re married.

My “secret single behaviors” were wide ranging, and I never had them challenged by anyone.  I hated having an overflowing trash can, so I’d often keep a trash bag by the door and take it out when it was full.  Sometimes if I wasn’t really hungry I’d have popcorn for dinner.  I didn’t like to decorate, so unless my living space overseas was already furnished, I’d usually hang up a world map or something just to look like I was putting forth effort.  The list goes on, but I’ll stop there.

While most of my friends were marrying and having children, I was planning my next adventure.  I told myself that, eventually, I’d meet someone and transition from a bachelorette traveler to a domestic goddess.  Would it be easy? No, probably not, but it would be necessary.  I wanted to be a wife and mother, after all, and I didn’t want my husband and children to get food poisoning every time I cooked.  Or see my own kids throw a bag of Orville Redenbacher in the microwave and announce that dinner was served.

The initial step of my transition from bachelorette traveler to domestic goddess (ha) arrived when my fiance moved to the D.C. area and we went from a long-distance relationship to a close proximity one.  I hadn’t realized how ingrained my bachelorette behavior was until “the kitchen incident.”

Leon had a couple of days in D.C. to kill time before his larger household items arrived to his new apartment, so he was itching for something to do.  He graciously offered to do some stuff around my apartment that I hadn’t taken the time to do (another bachelorette tendency–you ignore a clogged sink as long as you can):  plumbing DIY projects, restocking the fridge, and so forth.  I was happy to have the help and appreciated his gesture.

After work that day, I headed home trying to ignore my craving for macaroni and cheese.  As a bachelorette, I ate whatever I felt like for dinner, guided only by my cravings.  Things were changing though–Leon was more of the mindset that you plan out your meals each week, shop accordingly, and cook healthy meals at home. The plan was for us to eat out less during the week and enjoy going to restaurants more on the weekends.  I loved the idea, in theory.  In practice, it was tougher.

Take that evening, for instance.  Leon and I had planned to cook shrimp stir fry together, and we had all of the ingredients ready.  I wasn’t really craving shrimp stir fry though.  I wanted mac and cheese.  But, I told myself, I needed to eventually break my habit of eating whatever I wanted and get into a healthier routine.  Shrimp stir fry it was.

I got home to find Leon starting the stir fry and gave him a big “thank you” hug for being my maintenance man that day.  The apartment looked so much better, and my sink was actually draining at a normal speed.  I tilted my head to the side, though, and noticed that the kitchen was totally different.  I had to investigate.

By totally different I mean, well, totally different.  My kitchen was tiny, as I lived in a tiny studio in Arlington, Virginia.  There wasn’t much space, so I had organized everything on top of each other–spices, paper towels, cereal boxes, and so forth.  It was cluttered, yes, and a little stressful to try to cook in that space, but it was my clutter.

Now there was no clutter.  Leon had reorganized everything, putting items in different shelves that I hadn’t thought to use as storage, put spices in a basket on top of the fridge, and cleared enough shelf space so that we could actually chop vegetables on a flat surface.  It was completely different.

I stood there with my head still tilted to the side, and took a deep breath.  He looked at me like he knew he had tested me a little, and I was going to have a bachelorette moment.

Oh, and I did have a bachelorette moment.  I’m not talented at hiding my emotions, and I had a mini meltdown.  I think that the gist of the meltdown, to which Leon patiently listened, was that everything was changing and I wasn’t sure how to deal with it.  My life had been structured according to my wishes, and those wishes had not included planning out meals, cooking at home, or having someone else organize all of my stuff.  It was tough, I ranted, and he had to understand that I was used to being independent and on my own, and I wouldn’t transition overnight to being more domestic, and what if I never did, and on and on and on.

Once I calmed down, Leon smiled, gave me a big hug, and said, “Oh Linds, you need a man’s touch in your life.”  Then he looked at me, and we both busted out laughing.

So, lesson of the day–transitioning from being a 100% secret single behavior indulgent bachelorette traveler to a domestic goddess won’t happen overnight.  It’s a process.  I know it won’t be easy, but I also know that it’s time.  I’ll never lose that traveler side of me, but it’s also time to grow up a little and allow myself to share my life with someone.  And use real plates.

One of my wonderful friends (love ya Vicky) asked me to list how many countries I’ve been to, and it was fun to sit down and write it all out.

I had calculated that the number was close to 40 countries, or less than 20% of the world, but I hadn’t saved a full list for my own reference. After all, the beauty of making a travel list is watching it grow and looking forward to the day when you can say, “See? Grandma was pretty cool!” to your not-so-easily impressed teenage grandchildren.

I started making a travel list when I was 17 years old and was getting ready to go on my first international trip, a tour of Europe with Baylor University.  As I grew older, and traveled more, the list grew longer and longer.  When I lived in London and later in Seoul, I carved out time to cross off most of the places on my list.  I did, however, save a few, with the hopes of sharing new travel experiences with a husband and/or kids one day.

Which places did I leave on my list, you ask?  I plan on revealing those at a later time.  For now, I present my travel list as of June 2011, at the age of 28 and 11 years after my first trip.  The grand total comes to 36 (40 if you count Caribbean territories and Gibraltar),with hopefully more to be added in time.  I’ve counted a couple of countries from when I was actually heading somewhere else, but had a long layover to do a little shopping. The list also includes countries of the UK listed out separately–yes, I know that the UK is technically considered one country, but anyone who has been to the different areas will, I think, agree with me that they should be counted as separate experiences.  (If you have a death wish, for instance, ask a Scot if he tells everyone that he’s British).

My travel list, ladies and gentlemen:

  1. The United States (obviously)
  2. Canada
  3. Mexico
  4. Chile
  5. Argentina
  6. Brazil
  7. Italy
  8. Vatican City (Holy See)
  9. France
  10. Spain
  11. Portugal
  12. Monaco
  13. Ireland
  14. England
  15. Northern Ireland
  16. Scotland
  17. Wales
  18. Germany
  19. Poland
  20. Norway
  21. Greece
  22. Austria
  23. Turkey
  24. Russia
  25. Morocco
  26. Egypt
  27. South Korea
  28. North Korea (South Korean guards allowed me to stand in North Korean territory at the DMZ—Demilitarized Zone, a.k.a. the tensest place I’ve ever been to)
  29. Taiwan (flight layover)
  30. Vietnam (two flight layovers)
  31. Japan
  32. China
  33. Thailand
  34. Cambodia
  35. Indonesia
  36. India
Places that aren’t technically countries, but sure were fun to explore:
  1. Grand Cayman Islands
  2. St. Croix
  3. St. Thomas
  4. Gibraltar
Let me stress, however, that whether you’ve been to one country other than your own, or all of them, the important thing is that you learned something from each place you’ve been to.  The purpose of traveling should never be to cross something off of a “To Do” list–it should be to get out of your comfort zone, explore something new, and possibly discover something about yourself along the way.

For many travelers, the most stressful part of planning a trip is not choosing the destination, booking the tickets, finding the perfect hotel, or carving out vacation time (well, at least for us overworked Americans).  On the contrary, the most headache-inducing part of traveling can be packing for your trip.

Over the years I have personally struggled, as have friends and family, with this simple concept:  you pack it, you carry it.  There’s nothing more tiring than dragging an overstuffed suitcase through an airport while worrying that the zipper will pop and your underwear will scatter for the public to see.  In London, I helped a friend of mine take her luggage to the airport, and we were told that her bag was too heavy and she had to shift items to her carry on or throw some things away.  Granted, we entertained everyone else in the airport check-in line (at one point we were both sitting on the suitcase trying to get it to close), but it sure wasn’t fun.  When I traveled to New York City for the first time, I took one backpack and a carry on, while my fashionable friend brought two large suitcase filled to the rims with shoes and extra outfits.  Needless to say, getting all of the extra luggage to the hotel took up precious time that we could have spent scouting for New York pizza or cheesecake.

Whether taking a weekend jaunt to a nearby city or spending a few weeks in a non-English speaking country, a valuable lesson to learn is how to pack for a trip.  And by pack for a trip I don’t mean throw in half of your wardrobe or items that weigh you down so much that you risk having a hernia on your way to the beach.  Travel 101 says that how you pack for a trip should include packing effectively.

Some simple tips for how to pack effectively:

–Stick with one color scheme.  My personal preference is to stick to a black palette and mix and match from there.  For a weekend or even a longer trip, I’ll pack black pants and/or a black skirt, dark jeans, and a black sweater for chilly evenings or to layer. From there you can take an appropriate amount of shirts.  I like to take a couple of different colors of shirts, plus a necklace or statement earrings that go with everything I packed.  Black shoes, usually flats, are my go-to shoes for travel, as they go with everything, you can walk around comfortably, and they look more fashionable than sneakers.

–Wear your heaviest clothing on the airplane.  If you need to wear a coat or heavy boots while traveling, wear them on the airplane.  It will take you a couple of extra minutes to deal with them in airport security, but it will keep your bag from being heavier than needed.  Plus a coat or sweater on the airplane is not a bad idea–some people take a blanket to keep warm, but that’s another thing to haul around.  You’ll need the coat or sweater anyway, so why not use it en route to stay warm?

–Roll, roll, roll your clothes…From underwear to pants, rolling clothes, in my experience, takes up less space than folding them.  It also seems to me that rolling clothes prevents wrinkles more than folding.  If you roll clothes and place them strategically in your luggage, you’ll have more room for other things.  General rule of thumb:  the more space in your bag, the more room for souvenirs.

–Throw away as you go.  One of the oldest tricks in the book is to take items that are on the older side (note: older side, not disgusting side), use them while traveling, and throw away as you go.  This goes for underwear, socks, shoes, and other clothing items.  One of my biggest coups was taking enough clothing for an almost two month trip to South America and returning home with about a week’s worth.  Think of it this way–we all do spring cleaning, or at least most of us do, and we throw old stuff away anyways.  There’s nothing more inconvenient, or unnecessary, than having to lug around a full bag of dirty clothes.  Just don’t do it.

–Take a cue from TSA on your toiletries.  Most of us know the drill–you step up to airline security, take out your little Ziplock baggie with your liquids and toiletries in it, and accept the fact that you’re limited in how much toothpaste and shampoo you can bring on the trip.  Regardless of my destination, I try to stick to a TSA-sized bag for my toiletry items.  Usually hotels will provide some toiletries, and if you’re staying with a friend or relative they probably won’t balk at loaning you extra conditioner if you need it.  As you use up travel-sized items, throw away as you go, and see more space open up in your bag.  I’ve seen too many friends pack family-sized bottles of shampoo, conditioner, hairspray, and so on, even if they were going away for one night (I once asked a friend who packed like this how many times she was planning to wash her hair in one evening, and a light bulb went off).  Don’t waste precious space in your bag on toiletry items that, if you need more of them, can easily be purchased in your destination or are given to you where you’re staying.

–Consider ditching the suitcase altogether.  When I spent a few weeks traveling around Asia, I took a large travel backpack and my purse.  There was no way I was going to drag my suitcase around Thailand or India and scream even more that I was a foreign tourist.  After traveling with a backpack with my clothes rolled, my Ziplock baggie of toiletries, and old pairs of underwear/socks that I could throw away as I went, I got hooked on the suitcase-free experience.  Suitcases tend to bog you down, while backpacks are easier to maneuver with.  So, on your next trip, consider taking a backpack instead of a suitcase–eventually you might see others dragging their suitcases behind them, arms awkwardly extended, and you’ll be glad you did.

Packing effectively provides a traveler with countless benefits that enable the trip to be more fully enjoyed.  You’ll save money, since you often won’t need to check luggage and pay extra baggage fees (more money to spend on food or treats in your trip destination). You’ll take care of some spring cleaning on your trips, as you’ll rid yourself of older clothing as you go.  Your suitcase will end up with more space as you travel, making it way less stressful to grab that extra souvenir or splurge on a larger item to take home.

By following the tips outlined above, you’ll be a leaner, meaner traveler, and will feel lighter and freer as a result.  That feeling of being streamlined and uncluttered will leave you more relaxed and ready to face whatever adventures lie ahead.  And that, my friend, is the state of mind all travelers should aim for.

As a traveler, it almost seemed comical (and perhaps fitting) that the relationship which led to my getting engaged to a wonderful man began as a long distance one.  I liked to think that my years of travel experience had allowed me to sharpen the skills needed to give a long distance relationship a real shot at working out.

Not only were Leon and I long distance, but we were on opposite ends of the country.  I was in D.C., and he was out in California working as an attorney for the U.S. Army.  We met through mutual friends back in 2005, while I was interning in D.C. and he was in law school.  Our first meeting was at Lauriol Plaza, a great Mexican restaurant in D.C., and we were both there for our friend Chris’s birthday dinner.  I was focused on finishing my internship, and he was focused on his law books.  The main thing I remember about our first introduction was that I argued with him when he tried to pay for my dinner.  I protested that he was a law student, and he responded that I was an intern–I conceded defeat and let him pay for my enchiladas.

Fast forward to 2010, when I had been living and working in D.C. for about a year.  He was in town for an Army conference, so our scheming friends Rose and Chris (well, mainly Rose, my friend with a knack for matchmaking) planned to get us together once again.  We met at a Thai restaurant in Pentagon City, and after reconnecting with Leon I remarked to Rose that he was such a great guy and whoever ended up with him was truly fortunate.

I ended up being the fortunate girl (yay), and even though we were on opposite sides of the continental U.S., Leon pursued me.  He flew out to D.C. just to take me on our first date, and things progressed smoothly from there.  We tried to see each other at least once a month over the next year, arranging visits in different cities, whether to meet up with his family in Colorado and mine in Texas, or to visit his sister in North Carolina. Our relationship let me use my hard-earned traveling skills, from packing super light to finding decent airfare to coordinating logistics.

There was a light at the end of the tunnel, however, and we just concluded the long distance chapter of our relationship.  He was able to move out to D.C. for work, and we are looking forward to being in the same city and enjoying being engaged.  (I have also made it my goal to learn how to cook well, emphasis on the word “well,” but that’s a whole other story).

It was interesting to see what travel skills came in handy to conduct a long distance relationship with a man I felt was worth it, and I made this little list:

–Patience in Communication.  Whether talking with your significant other, airline companies, tour guides in foreign countries, and so on, you cannot assume that others can read your mind.  When frustrations or difficulties arise, sometimes you have to take a deep breath and patiently explain what’s going on in your frazzled head.  If you are having a bad day and just want your fiance to listen and not try to fix the problem, tell him.  If the airline is asking you to give up your seat because they’re overbooked and you’re traveling to see a loved one, communicate to them that you aren’t in a position to do that–it’s okay to say no (you might get kicked off anyway).  If a tour guide in a foreign country is rushing you through the sights and you want to stop and smell the roses, tell him or her.  You have to speak up when appropriate.

–Flexibility.  This skill goes a long way, as anyone traveling to a far off destination will attest.  Things happen in travel, from luggage being lost to things being lost in translation (in one country I went in for a haircut and came out with my hair bleached white blonde, not a good look for me).  You have to be flexible, understand that things sometimes escape from your control, and adapt to the situation.  If your train derails in Egypt and you’re stuck on the rails for an extra 8 hours, be thankful that you brought reading material–or take that time to look forward to when you’re not stuck in the middle of the Egyptian desert (true story).  Relationships need the same amount of flexibility–when you’re dealing with two complex, flawed human beings, sometimes you have to exercise adaptability and just roll with it.

–The Ability to Pack Light.  Whether referring to literal luggage or emotional baggage, it’s best to travel light.  Many women I’ve talked to think that dragging their two overstuffed suitcases filled with extra clothes and shoes they don’t really need for vacation might tell themselves that it will be worth it to have everything with them, but they certainly don’t enjoy the process of traveling.  There is nothing better, in my mind, than showing up to the airport and going through security with a small bag and a purse. Similarly, a long distance relationship taught me the importance of prioritizing time together and not bringing along unnecessary emotional baggage.  When you’re traveling around the country to see your significant other, it’s vital to appreciate each moment together, since those in-person moments are limited.  That lesson also relates to relationships in general–appreciate the time you have together and don’t weigh yourself down with extraneous “stuff” that doesn’t benefit you or your loved one.

–The Ability to Savor the Simple Things.  When you’re in a long distance relationship, the little things become those which you miss the most.  I found myself looking forward to the day when my fiance and I could go to the grocery store together, pick up items to make dinner, and cook together.  Nothing fancy, nothing extravagant–just everyday activities that are better when you share them with someone.  On similar lines, traveling is most rewarding when the simple things are appreciated.  Some of my favorite travel stories come from times when I wasn’t standing in front of the Mona Lisa or Great Wall of China (although those were incredible experiences), but from when I just strolled around a new city and picked up a local treat to enjoy (I’m looking at you, Italian gelato).

I learned a lot, and grew up a lot, from having a long distance relationship with my fiance, but I will be the first to say that I’m relieved it’s over.  Even when we have “off” days, or we’re both grumpy after long days at work, my goal is to think back to the days when we couldn’t see each other often.  Plus, we both gained more experience using the skills mentioned above, which will come in handy for future travels.  This time, though, we’ll be able to get on the same airplane–in record time too, since it won’t take us long to get our small bags through security.

Last April, I submitted an op-ed to the Daily Caller website that was not explicitly linked to politics, but in my mind was both relevant and important:  fighting the nasty stereotype that my fellow Americans and I have overseas.

I wasn’t saying that we should obsess about what others think about us, but after years of traveling I had seen firsthand how deeply ingrained the ‘ugly American’ stereotype was in the general psyche of the global populace.  It made me sad (and a little frustrated at times), because I love the U.S. and my fellow Americans, and overall I think our country is amazing and we’re pretty cool.

I also told the editor of the website that my op-ed topic was relevant to politics because, as a graduate student in London, I had studied the link between political ties between countries and the undercurrents of public diplomacy conducted between those countries.  I specialized in cultural diplomacy, or how countries export and promote their cultures around the world in the hopes of fostering greater understanding and cooperation.

With this in mind, when Americans travel overseas, they aren’t just tourists.  They are full-fledged diplomats (minus the immunity).  I’ve had several conversations with locals in Cairo, London, Seoul, Buenos Aires, and so forth, where they regurgitated typical stereotypes about Americans and I tried to listen patiently.  By tried to listen patiently, I mean I sometimes had to grit my teeth a little.  But, it was fascinating that sometimes after just venting, the people would look at me and say, “Oh, but you’re American, and I like you. Hm.”  I tried to tell them that their perceptions of Americans were not necessarily correct, or even close to being accurate.

So, while traveling, there is a degree of responsibility that travelers have to represent their countries well.  In little ways, they’re contributing to the political/social/economic success of their homelands, even if they don’t realize it.  The op-ed I wrote was just a short, simple compilation of suggestions for how my fellow Americans and I can travel with the intention of enjoying ourselves and showing others how great our country is, because it is, and it deserves to have traveling ambassadors who do it justice.

The op-ed I wrote is below:


When I first began to travel, I thought that going to another country meant that you were obligated to play the hectic tourist.  In order to maximize your time overseas, you needed to walk around at a clipped pace, arms outstretched holding a big map, crossing the “must see” sights off of your list and ending each day exhausted.

Yeah, that didn’t last long.

While studying abroad in Spain, I lived in Madrid but spent a large amount of time traveling around the country between Spanish classes.  Naturally, I had to study for my classes.  I lived with an older Spanish woman and a roommate, and between the typical European lack of air conditioning and tight space, studying in my little room was not ideal (unless I wanted to have a heat stroke while conjugating verbs).  So, one day I decided to do a little sightseeing around Madrid and hunt for a good place to study.

Enter the coffee shop.  In most countries, coffee shops are places to go when you need air conditioning, when you need a casual place to meet friends and chat, or when you need to arrange a non-threatening place for a first date.  They have everything you need-outdoor tables when the weather is nice, indoor tables when you need to escape from the weather, different coffees to keep you alert, assortments of teas when you want something lighter, and of course sweets and other food.  Usually there is music playing, or at least the rhythmic sounds of coffee grinders humming or people typing away on their laptops.

After checking out some of the beautiful sights of Madrid and just getting to know the city (it’s important, in my mind, to just walk around and explore), I found a coffee shop and hunkered down to write a paper in Spanish and brush up on vocabulary.  Before I  knew it, several hours had flown by, my homework was done, I felt a little more confident to engage locals in conversation, and I was ready to go home since the evening brought cooler temperatures.  My love affair with coffee shops around the world had begun.

No matter where you go, coffee shops are international houses of conversation, fellowship, relaxation, contemplation, and overall delight.  I thought about some of my favorite coffee shops around the world and wanted to list a few below:

–Chocolateria San Gines, Madrid:  Okay, so it’s not technically a coffee shop, but it has the same feeling as one.  I was told that I had to visit this place while studying in Madrid, and I was definitely glad that I did.  This was my introduction to real churros con chocolate–churros are availalble in the U.S., of course, but they are so not the real deal.  Real Spanish churros are light, crisp, and have the perfect blend of cinnamon and sugar.  When you dip them in the warm, thick, drinking chocolate, it’s a match made in heaven.

–Cafe Tortoni, Buenos Aires:  Founded in 1858, this is the oldest cafe in Argentina and immediately transports you to another time and place when you enter through the doors. I had wonderful churros con chocolate there and just hung out and enjoyed people watching (watching South Americans have coffee is truly entertaining–they do everything with a little extra flair).

–Antico Caffe Greco, Rome:  This coffee shop was founded in 1760 and is considered Rome’s fanciest coffee bar.  It’s not necessarily the greatest place to plop down with a book, but sipping a caffe latte there while enjoying the gorgeous antique decor makes you truly feel like you’re in the gilded days of Italian prominence.  The Italians certainly know how to impress, and between the incredible quality of the coffee and the history of the cafe, it is a memorable experience.  Plus, Antico Caffe Greco is located on Via Condotti, the poshest shopping street in Rome with designers ranging from Prada to Chanel, so after a cup of coffee it’s fun to stroll down the street and window shop (or buy something, if you want to spend a significant portion of that month’s salary).

–Caffe Florian, Venice:  Far and away one of my favorite places on earth.  The cafe is located in Piazza di San Marco, in the shadows of St. Mark’s Cathedral, and is even older than Antico Caffe Greco in Rome (Caffe Florian was established in 1720).  I know that some people think that Venice is a little cheesy, but I love it.  The gondolas, the canals, the Venetian palaces…I can’t get enough of it.  Caffe Florian has a live orchestra several nights a week, and the orchestra players wear tuxedos and play their instruments with graceful gusto. Add that to the fact that you’re in Venice, sipping a vanilla latte, and it’s surreal.

Chain coffee shops around the world can also be a source of great delight.  In my homeland of Texas, I like Saxby’s coffee shops and am always looking out for local mom and pop shops as well.  In Washington, D.C., I go to Caribou for a good cup of dark roast.  While studying in London, I spent a lot of time at different Caffe Nero and Coffee Republic shops around town.  When I lived in South Korea, I got hooked on 7 Monkeys and other random coffee shops that are springing up in the country.  In Santiago, Chile, I found a great Starbucks that served really good dulce de leche lattes and had a great study area.  Russia has Starbucks now as well, and I enjoyed visiting one in Moscow with some friends.  Poland has a great chain called Coffee Heaven which serves good caffe mochas.

In the end, it’s all about exploring.  Obviously, coffee shops are not part of the culture everywhere–in Cambodia, Thailand, and Egypt, for instance, you won’t really run into a plethora of coffee shops.  Each place has its own version, though, often in the form of tea houses (especially in Asia) or restaurants that serve tea or coffee after your meal.

So, let coffee shops serve as a reminder to take a break, sip on a delicious beverage, and enjoy your location, whether you’re at home or far away.

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