Domestic Travel


As the famous author John Steinbeck once said about Texas, “Texas is a state of mind.  Texas is an obsession.  Above all, Texas is a nation in every sense of the word.”

As a native Texan, that statement definitely resonates with me.  I’m proud to be a Texan–and I’m not alone.  As friends from around the world have pointed out, when most Americans are asked the usual “where are you from” question overseas, the answer is usually, “The United States.”  When you ask someone from the Lone Star State, however, the first answer is, “Texas.”  If pushed further, the second answer will be, “The United States.”

Texas is indeed a state of mind, and I loved growing up there and attending college there (sic ’em Baylor Bears).  As we Texans like to mention to non-Texans with pride, we were our own republic for almost a decade, from 1836-1845 (if anyone wants to know).  And since President James Polk signed legislation making Texas the 28th state on December 29, 1845, it was pretty much ten years anyway.

Speaking of Texas pride, we all know that March is a busy month with that thing we like to call “March Madness,” but it’s also a busy month for Texans and Texas history celebrations.  I like to call it “March Texness.”

To start the month, March 2nd marks “Texas Independence Day,” the day that Texans celebrate the 1836 signing of the Texas Declaration of Independence that created the Republic of Texas.  Then, four days after the new republic was formed, on March 6, 1836, the famous stand-off at the Alamo occurred, in which all of the Texas troops fighting under Colonel William B. Travis were killed (think Texas legends like James Bowie and Davy Crockett).

The bravery of the fighters at the Alamo inspired Sam Houston and his men, who on April 21, 1836, waged the Battle of San Jacinto against Santa Anna and his army.  The battle cry at San Jacinto was, of course, “Remember the Alamo!” as the Texas soldiers defeated Santa Anna and started the process of independence for what would eventually become the Republic of Texas (after a few more years of battles and bloodshed).

Texas has a long, complicated history, and as my grandparents and parents like to say, the people who inhabited the volatile territory so many years ago were “tough as nails.”  I vaguely remember my great grandmother, who raised my grandfather and his siblings on a farm in central Texas that has been in our family for almost 100 years, and she was indeed one tough (yet charming, in the Southern way) lady.

Being Texan means more than having a heritage.  It means being able to say “ya’ll” without it sounding like improper grammar, having the ability to say something not so nice with a drawl that makes it sound pleasant, getting antsy when you haven’t had Tex-Mex or good barbecue in a few days, and still feeling Texas pride no matter how far away you are from the motherland.

In the words of the country band Little Texas, “God blessed Texas!”

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Each new year brings a new discussion of what hot spots travelers should pay attention to.  There are lists floating around the Internet of what cities to visit, what beaches to frequent, and so forth.

I often find myself feeling like the lists miss out on some great destinations, which is no surprise given how subjective travel lists are.  After reading Frommer’s list for 2012, I liked several of their suggestions (Beirut, Ghana, the Yucatan Peninsula), but wanted to add some of my own “hot spots” for 2012.

Below are my travel picks for this new year, a year hopefully filled with travel adventures (international or domestic)…

1)  Dublin.  I spent a few days in Dublin several years ago and fell in love with the easygoing, friendly locals (most likely laid back on account of how many Guinnesses they can put away before 10 a.m., but no matter).  After feasting on some incredible Irish stew with soda bread, it’s easy to arrange a tour to take you out to the emerald hills and waterfalls that make Ireland so breathtaking.

2)  Dubrovnik.  In recent days, Croatia has been touted as an “up and coming” tourist destination, on account of its great location on the Mediterranean but cheaper prices than other European countries.  Some friends of mine visited recently and reported back that Dubrovnik is a great combination of quaint history and emerging modernness.

3)  Tahiti.  Leon and I are spending our honeymoon in French Polynesia, and I am counting the days–I developed a fascination with the islands back in college after seeing pictures of the bungalows suspended over turquoise water.  The area is also famous for its vanilla and black pearls, not to mention that Tahiti hosts a Paul Gauguin museum chronicling the intriguing life of the artist who left his family in Paris to morph himself into an islander.

4)  Tel Aviv.  It has always been a dream of mine to make it out to Israel at some point to visit the Holy Land, and to experience Tel Aviv.  Known as the cultural capital of Israel, the city has everything from beaches to the famous Old Jaffa neighborhood to incredible museums.

5)  Auckland.  New Zealand has the whole Lord of the Rings-esque scenic beauty, to be sure, but I mainly want to visit because all of the New Zealanders I’ve met are just so cool.  When I lived in Korea, I worked with several New Zealand natives and loved them to death.  They love their homeland, and after seeing one picture of Auckland, my attention was captured.

6)  Seoul.  It seems like yesterday that I left Seoul to return to the States, and I cannot believe that it was actually three years ago.  The city is a mix of vibrant intensity, chic cosmopolitanism, and traditional heritage.  In one neighborhood of Seoul, you can find the newest gadgets that aren’t even available in the U.S. yet, while in another you can observe Koreans participating in a cultural festival wearing their native hanbok (traditional dress).  And don’t get me started on how incredible the food is…

7)  Colorado Springs.  Obviously, the U.S. has incredible travel destinations that bring in tourists from all over, so I had to include a great American city in my list.  Leon and I have spent time in Colorado recently, since he hails from Pueblo, and we took time over the holidays to meet up with some of my college friends in Colorado Springs.  The snow-capped mountains were breathtaking, and the view of Pike’s Peak does not disappoint.  There is a cute downtown area where we grabbed some fondue one evening, and I remember being impressed with the city’s laid back, fun vibe.

These are just a few suggestions for 2012–I’ll of course be interested to see what locations emerge as promising destinations as the year goes on.  In the meantime, happy travels!

 

Last week, as I wrote about, Leon and I found ourselves preparing for our first Christmas as an engaged couple with two sets of families (in two different states) to visit.  I’m happy to report that, besides being delayed en route from Denver to Colorado Springs due to ice, things overall went pretty smoothly.

We knew heading out that spending Christmas together with each of our families would be new territory for not only us, but our families as well, and to be honest we didn’t really know what to expect.  We prepared to the best of our ability, i.e. trying to get everyone gifts that would travel easily, confirming flight information, and just not having expectations over how things “should be.”

The week absolutely flew by, as holiday times tend to, and it felt like we were arriving back in D.C. right after waving goodbye.

Our first stop was McKinney, where we spent some time with my family.  It was a good visit, and I’m glad that we were able to have face-to-face time (as everyone who lives far away from family knows, it often feels like you inhabit a separate world from your loved ones and it’s difficult to figure out a way to merge the two).  We exchanged presents, and my heart melted when my parents gave Leon a gift for the first time, as it symbolized that soon he would officially be a part of the family.  We enjoyed some Tex Mex, saw a movie as a family, and just hung out.

After spending Christmas morning in Texas, we caught our flight to Colorado and made our way to Pueblo to visit Leon’s family Christmas evening.  Since the ice delayed our trip by a couple of hours, by the time we got to Leon’s parents’ house it was pretty late and I don’t think either of us really knew where we were.

We had a great visit with Leon’s family in Pueblo, and enjoyed catching up with neighbors and friends that Leon had known since childhood.  Being in small town Texas and small town Colorado is so different from D.C., and it’s easy to forget amidst the hectic pace of Washington that we both grew up in places where things just didn’t move so frantically.  It was a nice change of scenery, to say the least.  I was also reminded of how blessed I am to have great in-laws–they welcomed me into the family from the beginning, and Christmas was no exception.

It’s also fascinating to observe your fiancé in his hometown.  I knew early on that Leon had grown up playing the organ, but I actually had the chance to hear him play at his parents’ house.  It was amazing to peek into that part of his life, long before we ever met, when he would diligently practice hymns and other songs.  (I’m also glad that one of us is musical–my parents kindly paid for seven years of piano lessons that didn’t really yield much besides a few piano recitals where people had to clap because it was polite).

Before leaving Colorado, we were able to meet up with Abby and Brian, friends of mine way back from Baylor days.  We grabbed some fondue in Colorado Springs and caught up in person for the first time since their wedding six years ago, and like it always goes with good friends, it seemed like no time had passed.

Then, in the blink of an eye, our plane jolted down on the runway in D.C. and our first Christmas as an engaged couple running around the country was over.  As we celebrated New Year’s with Rose, Chris, and Adam in D.C., Texas and Colorado seemed eons away.  I found myself, as I often do after visiting family, torn between two feelings:  happy to be “home” but sad to have left loved ones behind.  (I also found myself at the gym–who can resist either Texas pecan pie or Pueblo green chile gravy?)

According to news reports, about 300,000 people traveled from the D.C. area to other parts of the country for the Thanksgiving holiday last week.  I was one of them.

Although most of my friends think I’m crazy, I absolutely love airports.  As I headed to Ronald Reagan National Airport to catch my flight from D.C. to Dallas, I could feel myself begin to relax.  Perhaps this isn’t normal, but airports actually have a calming effect on me.  After all, going to the airport means that you’ll be transported somewhere and have a change of scenery.  Not to mention that at the airport you can curl up in the waiting area with a good magazine or book and let the world pass you by until it’s time to board.

I landed in Texas happy to see my family, but also wishing that Leon was with me.  He spent Thanksgiving with his family in North Carolina; his sister Julie is in the marching band at UNC and had to perform during the football game, so his parents flew in from Colorado and he drove down from D.C. so that they could all spend the holiday together.  We decided that I would head down to Texas to visit with my family, but would travel together to see both sets of families for Christmas.

But back to Thanksgiving.  I arrived safely in Dallas, and my dad and I chatted while we drove to my parents’ house in McKinney where I had grown up.  I already felt myself becoming sentimental as I put my backpack in my old room, and as I usually did, walked around looking at my things still perched where they had been for so many years.  I looked at old pictures from high school, shuffled through the Prom dresses still hanging in my closet, and thumbed through college textbooks still on the bookshelves.  Every time I go home it’s a trip down memory lane.

Then it was time to cook.  My grandmother was visiting, and she, my mother, my sister-in-law Leah, and I worked together to cook a traditional Southern Thanksgiving meal.  (This meant that several dozen sticks of butter lost their lives that weekend).

After a whole lot of work, the table was set and it was time to celebrate Thanksgiving as a family.  My dad was home from work, my brother Taylor was home from Baylor, Mimi was there from Groesbeck, Texas, and my brother Andrew and sister-in-law and Leah came from Frisco, Texas.  Mom and I gave each other a congratulatory hug before diving into the goodies.

The thing about cooking that I am still fascinated by is that it takes hours–or days–to prepare a feast, but less than half an hour to actually eat everything.  We all scarfed down turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes with toasted marshmallows on top, lime congeal salad, mushroom and broccoli casserole, pecan pie, and everything else that constitutes a Texas Thanksgiving offering.  It was all wonderful.

After enjoying a semi-comatose state from eating so much, my mother and I went shopping in Dallas for my wedding dress.  It did cross my mind that that was perhaps a very unwise thing to do…But I figured that if I looked okay in a dress after Thanksgiving dinner, it would probably look okay under normal circumstances.

There’s something about a girl going shopping with her mother.  In the course of one afternoon, amidst the crowds congregating at shopping centers for post-Thanksgiving sales, my mother and I managed to find my wedding dress, veil, sash, and shoes.  We probably burned off about half a stick of butter running around Dallas too–mission accomplished.

It was a good Thanksgiving, and had a mix of sentimental aspects involved.  For nostalgia, I was in my old room, where I had grown up, and ate all of the traditional Thanksgiving food that we’d had since I can remember.  For present day consciousness, I found my wedding dress and was hit with the exciting, fluttery feeling that in the next few months I would get to marry my best friend.  I felt very humbled by how much the Lord had blessed me over the years, through good times and bad times, and was overwhelmed by a sense of thankfulness for friends and family who had walked with me every step of the way.

I guess that those are the best kinds of holidays to experience–those in which you pay homage to your past, keep your eyes focused on the great things to come, and take time to be thankful for previous and present blessings.

As we all know, life gets busy.

I had tried all September and October to plan a time to head to New York City to enjoy its full-blown autumn splendor, but work and everything else zapped up the time.  So, I had pretty much resigned myself to the thought that I would have to try again next year.

Then my very considerate fiancé stepped in and surprised me with a trip to NYC for my 29th birthday on November 12.  It worked out perfectly–my birthday fell on a Saturday, and Leon worked quietly behind the scenes to plan a great present.  When he told me the surprise plan, I squealed and could hardly contain my excitement.  After all, by that point I was fine with the idea of spending the beginning of my last year in my 20’s in front of the TV.

It turned out to be an incredible birthday, and also an incredible culinary tour of NYC.  I realized after we returned to D.C. that, in every single picture I took in New York, we had a plate of food in front of us.  (Good thing that calories don’t count on your birthday).

Leon and I hit the road early and made it to New York with plenty of daylight left to spare.  The weather could not have been more perfect–cool but not cold, crisp but not too chilly.  The leaves were all vibrant shades of red and orange, and the entire city looked  like it was dressed up for the season.  It was a fantastic sight to see.

We certainly managed to cram plenty of sightseeing and eating into our trip.  To start, we took a walk around Midtown to see the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree being set up, strolled through Times Square, and visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  I also had the chance to fulfill my autumn fantasy of getting a pumpkin spice latte at Trump Tower on 5th Avenue and strolling down the street admiring the window displays.

And of course, we ate.  I read somewhere that, even if you ate at a different place in New York City for every meal, it would take years to try every single place.  Leon and I certainly did our best to put a dent into that number–we packed our Tums and hit the town, hungry for gastronomic adventure.

To start, we grabbed steak at Gallegher’s Steakhouse for my birthday dinner.  Gallegher’s is a favorite haunt of celebrities, apparently, and is in a great location.  Madonna was playing a concert across the street, and the coat check lady (who looked like she was about 80 years old and, according to her, had been around New York forever) informed us matter-of-factly that she had met Madonna years ago, and, “you wouldn’t look at her twice if you saw her on the street!”  We laughed and proceeded to dig into our steaks with gusto.

Being in New York, we also had to grab some real NY style pizza while we were there.  Leon and I tried to do a proper pizza crawl, but after enjoying pizza from Angelo’s and Ray’s, we both had to take a break.  The pizza was delicious, but we had to save room for dessert.

And boy, did we save room for dessert.  I took Leon to two of my favorite dessert spots in the Big Apple, Lindy’s Cheesecake and Serendipity 3.  I don’t know how, but our stomachs were able to handle slices of creamy NY cheesecake and decadent frozen hot chocolate alongside the copious amounts of steak and pizza.

In between eating, we also strolled around the city and made our way down to see Ground Zero.  The last time I had been down to the site, about a year ago, there was not much construction going on, and the giant craters were still present to bystanders.  This time, however, the initial work on the new 9/11 Memorial and the new structures (fountains where the original buildings stood, a new World Trade Center building, and a transportation hub for new subway trains and ferries) looked like they were coming along nicely.  It always makes me emotional when I go down to Ground Zero, and Leon and I both stood there quietly for a moment reflecting on that sad day in our nation’s history.  We agreed that it will be interesting to see what it looks like upon completion.

Then, in a New York minute, it was time to head back to D.C., and back to reality.  We both laughed on the way home that we had managed to squeeze about 10 meals into our trip, and we talked about how good it was to get away and explore such an exciting city.

It was a wonderful way to celebrate my 29th birthday, and I’m so thankful to have a thoughtful fiancé who made my dream of returning to New York in the fall a reality.

I also figure that, by the time we digest everything we ate, it will be time to return for more!

                                     Ain’t no party like a [New York] cheesecake party…

 

 

 

It’s always fun to return to a city you enjoyed visiting in the past.  It’s also fun to explore a new place.  When you get to do both in the same weekend, it’s double the excitement.  After all, travelers often operate in a dichotomy–at times craving the familiarity of a place we know well, other times wanting to check out a place completely foreign to us.

This weekend, if all travel plans go accordingly, Leon and I are looking forward to a “double the excitement” kind of trip.  We’re heading out to Chicago and will then drive on to South Bend, Indiana, to visit with some of his buddies from Notre Dame and watch the Fighting Irish play some football on Saturday.

The familiar aspect of this trip, for me, is Chicago.  I first visited Chicago last year to reunite with my good friend Esther, who I met in a Bible study group at our church in London while we were both in graduate school.  She moved back to Chicago shortly after our year in the UK, and I had been hoping to explore her hometown at some point.  When a weekend visit worked out for us, it was fantastic.  Well, minus a couple of bumps in the road upon arrival.

I landed in Chicago with my little backpack as my luggage, and since it was light I carried it around with me that evening so we wouldn’t have to run back to Esther’s apartment before going to an international ice cream festival at a local museum (there was no way I wanted to delay sampling different ice creams from around the world).  We had such a wonderful time and were in such a sugar coma afterwards that, upon arriving to her apartment, I realized that I had left my backpack in the taxi cab.  I sprinted outside and tried in vain to catch up with the cab, but it was too late (and I was a little out of shape).

After an emergency trip to Target for me to get some clothes, we resumed our fun weekend hanging out in Chicago.  Esther and I went up the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower and took pictures of each other on the “invisible” ledge that makes you look like you’re suspended above the city, walked around downtown admiring the interesting architecture, and of course enjoyed true Chicago deep dish pizza and drank loads of good coffee (Chicago was ranked recently as the nation’s most highly caffeinated city, as I wrote about in a previous post).  I really enjoyed soaking up the laid back yet vibrant culture of Chicago, made even more enjoyable by sharing it with a friend.

The “new” aspect of this weekend will involve South Bend, Indiana.  I’ve never been to Indiana, for starters, but I’m looking forward to going–after all, my fiance did spend four years there and loved his time at Notre Dame.  Leon showed me pictures of the campus, and it looks beautiful.  Plus, it will be fun to catch up with his friends and enjoy some fall football.  I’m also curious to see what Indiana looks like; right now I’m picturing cows and cornfields, and that’s about it.  Guess I’ll have to wait and see.

This weekend will involve the dichotomy of new versus familiar, as well as contrast the dynamics of a big city versus a smaller city.  It’s always fun to mix dynamics, in my opinion.  I’m looking forward to enjoying some deep dish pizza at Giordano’s (with Esther, of course–we’re going to meet up with her) amidst the hustle and bustle of the Windy City and then check out the (supposedly) slower pace of South Bend.

Overall, I’m looking forward to experiencing both places this weekend.  It’s something to keep in mind as a traveler–mixing dynamics on a trip can make you feel like you’re getting two for the price of one!

 

Sometimes, even when you live in a city that others flock to for vacation, it’s easy to forget that you live in a really cool place.  I first learned this while living in Rome and, much to my horror, walked by the Spanish Steps one night without even blinking at their grandeur, like they were just another set of old marble stairs.

The same thing has happened to me in Washington, D.C., after living here for almost two-and-a-half years.  That time has flown by here in the U.S. capital, and like most long-term situations the initial sense of novelty and awe has faded into the background of the daily grind, i.e. the day-to-day routine.  For instance, the typical routine of a young professional in D.C.:  Wake up early to drag yourself to the gym, make a strong cup of coffee, groggily ride the Metro to work, get into “the zone” at the office, do your best at work, and groggily ride the Metro back home to scarf down some dinner (or groggily meet up with friends to scarf down some dinner) before catching some z’s and beginning the process over again.

They say to “stop and smell the roses,” and today I did just that, albeit completely by accident.  I’d taken a lunch break to run over to Good Stuff Eatery, close to the House of Representatives and a favorite burger joint of congressional staffers, to say hello to my friends Aaron and David, both of whom are buddies from my first days in D.C. and both of whom I had not seen in ages.  We caught up for a bit before I needed to head back to the office and began the brisk walk back.

Or so I tried.  I hadn’t planned to walk the twenty minutes to see Aaron and David that day, and that morning I had picked out a pair of cute high heels to go with my dress. It soon became clear that it was not the day to wear high heels, and my brisk walk morphed from quick strides to slow paces to a limping shuffle.  (Any girl who has tried to walk a long distance in high heels can quickly empathize).

As I limped along, I found myself walking in front of the U.S. Capitol.  I’ve walked in front of the Capitol and the National Mall dozens of times, but this time I was pretty much forced to make it a slow jaunt.  I noticed groups of tourists standing around, just looking up at the imposing building with their mouths open in awe or snapping away with their cameras.  Before I knew it, I too was taking some photos with my Iphone and enjoying the beauty of the city.  I even think my mouth was gaping open at one point.

After taking some photos and resting my throbbing feet for a minute, I made it back to my office, thankful to be able to sit down.  I was also thankful, in a way, to have been forced to slow down and be reminded of where I live.  Looking back on the 2.5 years, from when I first arrived in D.C. as a wide-eyed young professional not knowing what lay ahead, to the blessing of having the job I do now, I was reminded at how cool Washington, D.C., really is.  For all of its intensity, power trips, frustrations, and randomness, it really is a beautiful place.  I’m glad that I was reminded of that today.

And after I ride the Metro home, I’m going to soak my feet.  The next time I “stop and smell the city,” I’ll try to wear flip flops.

                      Thank you, evil high heels, for making me pause and enjoy this view

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