International Travel

Confession:  I might be back in the U.S. right now, but my heart is still in Switzerland and Italy.

After months of planning, it was time to leave for a family trip to Switzerland and Italy for the Christmas holiday.  The itinerary was all planned out, reservations were confirmed, and everything was organized.  To be sure, everyone knew that things would go wrong, as travel often throws curveballs, but we were all ready.  I printed off Google maps for everyone to show our progression from Geneva to Zermatt, Zermatt to Venice, and Venice to Rome.

Leon and I flew to Geneva from D.C. and explored the city while my family headed over from Texas.  It was a brisk day in Geneva, so we walked quickly.  Lake Geneva was lovely, as were the swans that looked up to see if we had any bread or treats with us (we didn’t, so they did not grant us much of their attention).  We walked by the World Trade Organization, a must-see for any international studies major, and shared a big pot of cheese fondue while struggling to stay awake on account of jetlag.

Then it was time to meet the family at Geneva Airport and liaise with the shuttle to drive the three hours to Zermatt, a village in the Swiss Alps at the base of the majestic Matterhorn.  After an arduous drive in a blizzard and a train ride from the town of Tasch (Zermatt does not allow anything but electric cars within its vicinity), we made it to Hotel Schweizerhof and crashed.

Zermatt is a charming village, with a main street known as the Bahnofstrasse lined with little shops and vendors selling fresh bratwurst with hot mustard.  Parents pull their children along on sleds instead of in strollers, dogs wear puffy coats like their human owners, and skis are the footwear of choice.  My family isn’t big on skiing (I tried to ski in Colorado as a teenager and wiped out everyone unfortunate enough to be in my path), but we took the Glacier Paradise lift up one morning to see the Matterhorn up close and personal.

The Matterhorn is magnificent in person, and intimidating as well.  It has claimed the lives of many who dared to climb it–an entire section of the cemetery in Zermatt is dedicated to those who “chose to climb,” and in St. Peter’s Church, where we attended a Christmas Eve service, there are plaques spanning the years naming those who perished on its sharp incline.  When you’re close to the top, the air is thin and the sight is mesmerizing.  I still get a chill looking at the pictures that we took up there.


After encountering the Matterhorn and enjoying the Swiss village life for a few days, as well as having one of the best meals of my life at Stockhorn Grill, it was time to take the train to Venice.  I think that other travelers can vouch for my opinion that traveling by train in Europe is the way to go.  From Switzerland to Italy the view of snow-topped mountains, villages, and rolling hills was a great way to spend Christmas Day.

I had never been to Venice at Christmastime before this trip, and I have to say that I now wholly recommend it.  The city is much less crowded than during peak tourism times in the summer months, and the canals have a sort of foggy haze over them that captures the sparkle of Christmas lights just perfectly.  The city had a completely different feel to it than the other times I had visited–it was quieter, almost sleepy even.  There was still the bustle around Piazza di San Marco with shoppers searching for Christmas gifts and such, but overall the city was calmer.

We spent a few days enjoying Venice, namely having coffee at Caffe Florian, dining at Harry’s Bar, strolling through the winding streets, and perusing the many shops filled with colorful Venetian glass.  The next thing I knew it was time to hop on the train to my favorite city in the world, Rome.

The train from Venice to Rome takes about four hours and was also a feast for the eyes.  There is something about Italy that has drawn me back ever since I first visited back in 2000.  I feel comfortable there.  To be sure, there are dozens of incredible places to visit in the world, but Italy feels more like home than any other.  Needless to say, it was good to be home–in Rome.

The time in Rome flew by, as it always does, and involved several days of what I like to call “Italian indulgence.”  The family diet there pretty much consisted of pizza, pasta, coffee, and gelato.  Although it was pretty chilly weatherwise, one cannot go to Rome without going to Giolitti for gelato.  I made my usual pilgrimage to see my old apartment near Piazza di Spagna, where I had spent the summer in 2004, and had fun reminiscing about running around Italy in my early 20’s.  My family did a tour of the Vatican, threw coins into the Trevi Fountain, took photos of the Pantheon, stopped by the Christmas Market at Piazza Navona, and went inside the Colosseum.  Leon had never been to Rome before, so we went back to the Vatican to tour St. Peter’s Basilica, and were waiting in line only to hear trumpets blast and look up to see the Pope emerge to give a homily.  Always full of surprises, my beloved Rome.

As most travelers can attest, months of planning yielded a vacation that went by way too quickly.  As always, though, it was completely worth it.


Needless to say, the last few weeks have been a blur.  Not only did Leon and I buy a condo in northern Virginia, but we also planned a wedding and got married–while both working full time.  I will never take coffee for granted again.

Before we knew it, June 2 arrived and we were standing up in front of family, friends, and God in our church, Columbia Baptist, in Falls Church, Virginia.  The ceremony itself was beautiful, and things went smoothly. It was a relief when the logistics all played out well, especially because the evening before our wedding day there were major storms in the D.C. area which left dozens of guests stranded in airports around the country. Thankfully, everyone arrived safely (some guests took a taxi straight from the airport to the ceremony) and the wedding proceeded without a hiccup.

Then, before we knew it, we were off to the airport to catch the first flight of our honeymoon trip.  It wasn’t just a honeymoon trip for me, however–it was the fulfillment of a 10-year dream.  We were headed to Bora Bora.

Back in college, I first saw a picture of Bora Bora and became intrigued by the overwater bungalows, emerald landscapes, and turquoise waters of French Polynesia.  My goal was to get there someday, hopefully for a honeymoon, on account of the island having the reputation for being one of the most romantic destinations in the world. I had mentioned to Leon while were were dating that I hoped to go there one day, so it was surreal when we were actually headed there as a newly married couple.

My new husband and I were braced for a challenging travel itinerary–three flights and a boat–but were beyond ecstatic.  As we landed on Bora Bora and took a boat out to the Pearl Beach Resort (known as a private, traditionally Polynesian establishment), I pinched myself for about the fifth time.  Photos of Bora Bora, as beautiful as they are, simply do not do the island justice.

To say that the tempo of life on Bora Bora was a far cry from the rigorous pace of D.C. would be an understatement. We spent a week and a half indulging in island life, and it was incredible.  From the time we arrived, my husband and I turned off our iPhones and dove wholeheartedly into the rhythm of the South Pacific. The islanders went to bed at sundown, and so did we. Locals woke up with the sun, and so did we. They walked around with giant baguettes in their hands, as did we. It was fascinating to see the fusion of Polynesian and French culture at play in the historically French territory, mixing the French love of good cuisine with the laid-back mentality of Polynesian tradition.

We spent our days diving off of our overwater bungalow deck into the crisp South Pacific, having coffee each morning while watching the sunrise, feeding the fish from our glass bottom coffee table, and strolling around the island after having giant plates of French/Polynesian food each day (fresh seafood paired with rich French sauces and crusty bread? Yes please). Food was a large part of our honeymoon experience on Bora Bora, and I discovered a new appreciation for vanilla–namely, Tahitian vanilla. As I write, I’m craving a large mahi mahi fillet with Tahitian vanilla sauce, followed by a Tahitian vanilla creme brûlée for dessert.

Speaking of good food, going to Bloody Mary’s for dinner when you visit Bora Bora is also a must. We took the boat over to the main island a few evenings to catch the restaurant’s shuttle, when we were then greeted by the sight of fresh mahi mahi, oahu, parrot fish, marlin, and other delicious fish which were caught and then put on ice for you to choose from. As I mentioned before, my favorite dish while on the island was definitely the fresh mahi mahi with Tahitian vanilla sauce. There is nothing quite like it.

We also spent a few lazy island afternoons meandering through the artisan market and shops of Vaitape, the local village on the main island of Bora Bora. The locals were incredibly friendly, constantly greeting foreigners with “Ia Orana” in a tone that was genuinely affable and warm. It also felt good to dust off my long-neglected French and try to get in some good language practice, whether with the local islanders or French expatriates.

The island was more than I had ever fantasized about, and even after being there for over a week it was still awe-inspiring to wake up each morning to the views of Mount Otemanu and the sparkling ocean. There were several fun excursions and outings to sign up for, but after a year and a half of nonstop activity with the wedding and work, Leon and I just wanted to be still for awhile. We appreciated having a honeymoon where we woke up each morning and said, “What do you want to do today–go to the beach or go to the village?”

A Bora Bora vacation can be as simple or as extravagant as you’d like for it to be.  In our case, we chose to simply relax and enjoy the island at a slow, uninhibited pace. I was thankful to have the chance to fulfill my dream of visiting the island, and even more thankful to visit it at the beginning of an exciting new chapter of life. With its unparalleled beauty, laid-back nature, and blend of cultures, Bora Bora is truly unlike any other place on earth.


This morning news resurfaced that President Obama had eaten dog meat as a child in Indonesia. Obviously, after Democrats gave Romney a hard time about traveling with his dog in a crate strapped to the roof of the car, this was too tempting for Republicans to resist hitting back with.

Not that I agree with our president on much, but I do have to say that if I ever ran for public office, the media might pick up on a similar story from my past.

When you’re living in a foreign country, you obviously want to experience the local culture and immerse yourself. (Within ethical, legal, and moral considerations of course). While living in Asia, I soon learned that dog meat was a delicacy and that people still enjoyed it.

In South Korea, where I lived for a couple of years, while feasting on dog meat was becoming less common as the world globalized, it was still popular. My friends there told me that when Seoul hosted the 1988 Olympics, local authorities required restaurants selling dog meat dishes to get licenses and to take down signs with pictures of dogs on them (to avoid offending foreigners). There are still restaurants with photos of puppies on them, to let you know that they serve dog meat there, and even I admit that those pictures kind of freaked me out. As my friends pointed out, however, in some cultures they consider it strange that Americans eat cows.

As well, according to my friends in Seoul, the dogs raised for dog meat dishes are not the cuddly, cute puppies we tend to picture or adopt as pets. They are a specific type of breed bred for eating, much like cows are bred and prepared for consumption.

I still wasn’t crazy about the idea of eating dog meat, but I told myself when I moved to South Korea that I would be open to cultural experiences. Before I left Seoul, some Korean friends from my church told me that I needed to at least try dog meat before I departed. They took me to a small place in the city that was known for its boshintang, or soup with dog meat. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t feel guilty when we sat down on the floor to begin the meal.

In the end, dog meat tasted–in my opinion–a lot like lamb, and even had a similar consistency. It was a little tough, but with the vegetables and other ingredients in the soup, it wasn’t that bad. I was told that Koreans eat boshintang for energy (especially men), because the meat is very high in protein.

So, not that I ever saw myself sticking up for our president, but I can empathize that when you’re in a different culture you sometimes do or eat something that might be puzzling to your native culture. Not that I’ll eat dog meat again, but I don’t regret trying it in South Korea. (I’ll still take a burger any day though).

The story of the Titanic has maintained a prominent place in world history and has captured imaginations for decades.  In essence, the magnificent ship was a symbol of decadence, luxury, and ultimately, human arrogance and tragedy.

That iconic luxury liner, which one crewman allegedly referred to as a ship that “not even God could sink,” will mark its 100th anniversary this weekend.  Mystery still shrouds the event, in which the ship sank on April 14, 1912, over a span of almost three hours until it was completely buried by the sea in the early hours of April 15, 1912.  Many media outlets have already begun to run feature articles on the anniversary, and the Titanic once again emerges from the pages of history to today’s headlines.

The Titanic was the biggest news source of its time and was celebrated as the grandest ship ever built.  It was heralded a “floating palace” and boasted every luxury item one could imagine, from gilded staircases to the finest china to rooms that would rival those at any 5-star hotel.  It began its first (and last) voyage on April 10, 1912, setting sail from Southhampton, England, and stopping at Queenstown, Ireland, with New York City as its unreached destination.

After sailing through quiet waters for its first few days at sea, one of the lookouts spotted an iceberg at approximately 11:40 pm on April 14, .  While he issued a warning, it was too late, and the Titanic slammed into the iceberg.  Within about ten minutes, water had already risen about 14 feet in the front of the ship, and the captain was informed that the ship would only stay afloat for two hours.  As we learn from our history books, there were only enough lifeboats available for about half of the approximately 2,227 passengers.  Women and children were given first consideration, meaning that most men did not survive, and even worse, because many lifeboats remained partially empty, only about 800 passengers actually survived.  The rest went down with the ship into the icy, eerily dark waters that night.  By 12:20 a.m. on April 15, the ship was gone.

Personally, I have been fascinated by the story of the Titanic since childhood.  Even before the film with Leonardo DiCaprio and the nauseatingly sweet Celine Dion song, “My Heart Will Go On,” came out, I was fascinated by the story.  (I admit it, I saw the movie about three times in the theater and cried every time, not to mention that I bought the soundtrack and listened to it repeatedly).  Before the “Kate and Leo” hysteria–when I was in the sixth grade–I submitted a story about fictional characters on the doomed voyage to the McKinney PTA’s annual writing contest, subsequently won, and had my picture published in the McKinney Courier-Gazette.  I remember thinking that millions of stories could have been written about possible characters on the Titanic and how they responded during that fateful night.

What made the McKinney PTA react positively to my little story was the same thing that was mentioned in a 1985 National Geographic documentary on Bob Ballard’s expedition in which the shipwreck was discovered after years of failed attempts–because the Titanic sank over such a long period of time, people had time to respond to what was happening.  Some acted with bravery, and others with cowardice.  Heroes were made, as were villains.  Subsequently, it is possible for people in modern times to wonder what they would have done if faced with the same situation.

To this day, stories of passengers aboard the Titanic continue to enthrall.  There is of course the story of the Strauses, a wealthy older couple who owned the Macy’s department store chain; when Mrs. Straus was in the lifeboat and realized that her husband was not allowed to join her, she voluntarily left her guarantee of safety and perished alongside him.  There was also the young man who had just turned 18 years old, who declined a spot in a lifeboat because, as he said, “No, I’m a man now. I’ll stand with the rest.”  And, of course, there is the iconic image of the orchestra members who played their music on the ship’s deck until they were claimed by the sea.

New attention is being paid to the Titanic, as the story still strikes a chord a century on.  Even this week, new photos are being published of the wreckage site, and some related artifacts (such as a handwritten account by the captain of the Carpathia, the first ship to arrive after the Titanic issued its distress call) are set to be auctioned off for tens of thousands of dollars.

Titanic exhibitions and memorials of the disaster also exist around the world.  I was fortunate to have the chance to visit Cobh, Ireland (known as Queenstown when the tragedy occurred), a few years ago to see the place where Titanic docked for the last time before sailing towards New York.  I also had the opportunity to visit a Titanic exhibition in Belfast a few years ago.  There was also supposed to be a memorial cruise this week, reenacting the ship’s trajectory (people even dressed in period costumes to get the “real feel” for things, apparently), but the trip has reportedly been delayed due to rough weather and a passenger’s evacuation for medical treatment.

There are also some new theories as to what caused the ship to hit the iceberg in the first place.  One new theory, for instance, states that a rare astronomical event (i.e. a full moon and freak tides) in 1912 might have caused icebergs to detach from their usual positions and float into shipping lanes.  Another claims that crew members could not see the iceberg until it was too late because, on account of the unusually cold sea air that night, light bended abnormally downward and caused a thick haze.  That same downward light could have also distorted the Titanic’s distress signals, rendering the captain of the USS Californian (the ship that was closest to the sinking site, but whose captain did not take action after being alerted by staff) unable to recognize the signal as that of the Titanic.

These theories are, for now, being debated in academic circles, and time will tell whether or not they are generally accepted as plausible.  Either way, the story of that “unsinkable” ship remains a real reminder that human creations are not invincible, and leaves us to wonder what kind of character we would exhibit under such horrific circumstances.

It was September 2005, and I was nervous.

I had just moved to London.  It was my first time to go overseas to actually live somewhere, instead of just traveling through.  After accepting a spot to study for a Masters degree in International Relations at King’s College London, the butterflies in my stomach were in a perpetual state of fluttering.  And looking back, I don’t think the butterflies went away at all that entire year in the UK.

Flash forward six years, thousands of cups of tea, and even more thousands of crumpets, and I once again felt those butterflies fluttering in my stomach while on a British Airways flight back to London.  This time, I was headed back to revisit old memories while celebrating future ones–my dear friend Sonja, an effervescent Northern Irish gal, was organizing my “hen do” in honor of Leon’s and my upcoming nuptials.

A hen party is to the British what a bachelorette party is to Americans, and in the UK they go all out to celebrate.  Sonja coordinated with friends in the States, Rose, Kristin, and Esther, as well as friends in London, Julie, Kate, Sy, and Olof, to plan a week filled with everything from prancing around London in tiaras to going on a late-night Jack the Ripper tour.

As I sat on the plane headed back to where I’d enjoyed graduate school, I definitely had one of those moments where you feel like you’re getting hit in the face with reality.  I left for London in 2005 as a wide-eyed 22-year old, and I was returning as a tired-eyed 29-year old (work and wedding planning will do that to a girl).  It was exciting to have the chance to revisit the past while looking forward to the future.  And of course, it was fun to take a break from the pre-wedding diet and indulge in the staples of British cuisine, namely chocolates, biscuits, crumpets, fish and chips, and curries.

The days flew by, and it was nothing short of unforgettable.  It is so accurate that, with close friends, you can always pick right back up where you’ve left off, even if years passed since visits.

And pick right back up we did.  Looking back, I don’t know how, but we managed to cram in about two months’ worth of fun into about four days.  We strolled through Borough Market, shopped Covent Garden, had afternoon tea at the Lanesborough, ran around Harrod’s, visited King’s College, walked the entire city to take photos of everything from St. Paul’s to Trafalgar Square to Big Ben, had a private tour of Parliament, ate fish and chips, and so on.  Not to mention that we were able to meet up with Jazz and Tracy, dear friends I met at church while we were living in South Korea, at Spitalfields Market one afternoon.

And that didn’t even include the hen night fun.  Sonja had organized girls’ nights out to go dancing one evening, and to hit a karaoke room the next.  Of course, with hen nights, the bride-to-be is meant to be paraded around the city while wearing outrageous get-up (in this case, a “bride to be” sash with twinkling red lights, a faux veil with pink devil horns, and a sparkly wand) and subjected to whatever “dares” the friends can come up with.

The first evening, while dancing with the girls, I had to answer a series of questions which Sonja had emailed to Leon before the hen trip.  If I got them wrong, I had to spin a little dial and conduct the dare which the plastic needle landed on.  Of course, the questions were things like, “If Leon were an animal, which animal would he be?” and I got a few wrong.  In the course of that evening, I had to dance on a table for 60 seconds (not ideal when there’s a very short ceiling and you hit your head) and ask three random blokes for their phone numbers (during which one of said bloke’s girlfriends became a bit hostile).

The second evening was a bit calmer, if you call cramming a group of girls into a karaoke room and giving them crazy wigs and hats “calmer.”  We sang our hearts out and ended the evening with very hoarse voices.

Before you could sing the first line of “London Bridge is Falling Down,” it was time to head back to the States, and to reality.  I was truly humbled and thankful for the planning and organizing by Sonja, and for the kindness of friends to take time out of their schedules to celebrate with me.  Blessed are those with good friends, indeed.

It was cathartic, in many ways, to visit a place which meant so much in the past, and to celebrate the present and future with those whose friendships mean so much.  One great benefit of getting everyone together, bridal party and girl friends, before the wedding is that everyone will already know each other before the big day.  But, more importantly, it was really special to see two big chapters of my life, the London chapter and the D.C. chapter, converge.

Needless to say, London will always hold a special place in my heart.  It is truly a city like no other in the world.  Where else can you receive a Masters degree after being taught by professors knighted by the queen, and then six years later run around in a crazy costume, announce that it’s your hen party, and have an entire dance club erupt into applause and cheers?

   The ever historic, ever modern, London

When I heard that Mercer Consulting had published its 2011 “Cost of Living Survey,” I thought for sure that either New York City or D.C. had made it in at least the top twenty.  I think that most Americans who have tried to rent or buy property in either city (myself included) would agree; my little one bedroom apartment in D.C. costs the same as a nice house in Texas.

Needless to say, I was surprised when I saw the rankings.  New York City did make the list, but it was ranked as #32 and was the only city in the U.S. to break the top fifty.  I was even more surprised, though, when I saw the world’s #1 most expensive city.

According to the list, Luanda, Angola, takes the cake (a very expensive cake).  I wanted to know why a city in sub-Saharan Africa ranked above places like Tokyo (#2), Moscow (#4), and Osaka (#6).  I’ve been to Tokyo, Moscow, and Osaka, and they are indeed expensive.  I remember buying a “cheap” lunch at a Tokyo version of 7-Eleven for what a nice lunch at a swanky D.C. bistro would cost.

After doing some research, I found out why.  According to a February 2011 Economist article, while the high prices in Luanda are slightly related to the country’s oil revenues (Angola is sub-Saharan Africa’s second largest oil producer), overall they are a byproduct of the country’s experience with limited supplies during the civil war there that ended in 2002.  Apparently local retailers enjoyed being able to charge exorbitant rates so much that, even after the civil war ended and supplies became less scarce, they kept the prices the same as when the country was at war.

After dealing with expensive real estate prices in D.C., I was shellshocked to read that an apartment in Luanda can cost between $10,000 to $15,000 to rent and over a million to purchase.  The Economist article also told the story of a Frenchman who was forced to pay $100 for a melon (one single, normal melon).  He was so angry that he took a picture of the melon and marched that, along with the receipt, to a court and promptly sued the store.  It was too bad for him though–the judge dismissed the case because he had eaten the melon, and therefore the original evidence was gone.  Literally.

So, if you’re planning a trip to Angola, you might want to check out the rural areas (which are way cheaper).  And if you do make it to Luanda, you might want to take some extra currency.

To the chagrin of many, and the delight of others, Valentine’s Day is next week.  In case you hadn’t noticed all of the red hearts filled with chocolate lining your local grocery store aisles.

February 14th marks the day which some anticipate with breathless excitement, which some dub “Singles Awareness Day,” and which others brush it off as a “commercialized, fabricated holiday” meant to boost retail sales of florists and candy shops.

Depending on what stage of life you’re in, Valentine’s Days over the years can have many different faces.  As a kid, Valentine’s Day was exciting for my friends and me–our parents would take us to buy little cards and candy hearts at the store and we would all exchange them during the school day.  There were years when Valentine’s Days meant going out with a group of fellow single girlfriends to see a chick flick and “people watch” individuals who had the misfortune of being on awkward dates that evening.  Those were always fun.

There were also some not so great Valentine’s Days.  Like the one where the guy I was dating cooked a great dinner for me (apparently out of guilt, or so he told me when he broke up with me a week later).  Or the one when a guy I had been out with a few times called to tell me that he was boycotting Valentine’s Day because it was a “useless” holiday, and he was going to go to the gym instead.

Thankfully, recent Valentine’s Days have been much better.  Valentine’s Day 2008 was spent with my mom in Rio de Janeiro, the same week when we somehow ended up caught in the middle of the Carnival parade near Ipanema Beach.  On February 13th, 2010, pre-Valentine’s Day, I was reintroduced to my now-fiancé.  One year ago, also on February 13th, Leon proposed, and we celebrated our engagement with friends on the actual holiday.

Americans, in general, tend to treat Valentine’s Day as a pretty big deal.  One only need to turn on the TV this week to see a jewelry store advertisement, for instance.  American culture overall seems to uphold certain traditions for Valentine’s Day, namely, nice dinners, flowers, chocolates, jewelry, cards, and candy.  In its purest form, it’s a day to show love and appreciation for loved ones, especially a spouse, and to take a step back from the hectic pace of life to rekindle any dimmed sparks.

Celebrations will also be rampant around the rest of the globe next week.  In Mexico, for instance, Valentine’s Day is also known as the day of “amor y amistad” (love and friendship), and apparently anything red and heart-shaped is a popular gift.  In Western Europe, from what I saw, it seemed like flowers and chocolates were the most common gifts.  An interesting article I read recently talked about how, in Africa, Valentine’s celebrations mainly happen among affluent residents, but because so much of the world’s cocoa bean supply is grown on the continent, Africa is permanently tied to the holiday.

In South Korea, they do things a little differently.  I remember being surprised to hear from my Korean friends that February 14th was a day when girls would give gifts to boys, and then one month later on March 14th (also known as “White Day”) the guys were supposed to “step up” and bestow gifts upon them (to note, in Japan they do the same thing).  The Koreans also go one step further–another month later, on April 14th, single people are supposed to eat jjajanmyun, wheat noodles smothered in black soybean sauce.  To add insult to injury, April 14th is also called “Black Day.”  I remember seeing many depressed-looking Koreans out and about that day.

Then there are some places that don’t allow Valentine’s Day celebrations, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, where things like the sale of red roses are outlawed.  Militant Hindu groups in India have also called for bans on Valentine’s Day, namely because St. Valentine is a Christian figure.  From some research I did, however, it sounds like some clandestine celebrations still occur.

This year Valentine’s Day falls on a Tuesday, and it will be interesting to see what is happening around D.C.  (Last year the holiday fell on a Monday, and I remember cringing while watching men in suits and ties fight over the last bouquets of roses at the local CVS).  This year, besides spending time with Leon, I’m planning on gaming the system a little bit; I’m going to wait and buy chocolates and candy the day after Valentine’s Day.  When they’re on sale.



Besides Rome, Venice has to be one of my favorite cities in Italy.  Before I went for the first time, some fellow travelers brushed Venice off as being “cheesy” and “overrated.”  After spending a few days there, however, I had to disagree.  I’ve been about three times now, and each time the city seemed even more beautiful and more intriguing.

With its winding canals, ornate gondolas, and gilded palazzi, Venice is truly unlike any other city in the world.  Its history alone is fascinating.  The city was built on several islands of a lagoon, which were then linked by bridges that you can still cross over today.  Venice was the cultural, artistic, and political powerhouse of its time, serving as the hometown of both the great explorer Marco Polo and the infamous womanizer Casanova (born in Venice in 1725).  The city withstood plagues, became part of the Hapsburg Empire after being defeated by Napoleon in 1797, was spared during World War II on account of its beauty, and faced rising water levels and flooding as the city’s marble foundations sank further into the marsh.

Speaking of sinking, one must only look at the water lines on Venetian stoops to see the dramatic evidence of rising water levels.  Steps that were several feet above the water centuries ago are now submerged.  According to National Geographic, Venice dropped about five inches between 1950 and 1970, and while the city now sinks at a rate of less than two inches every 100 years, the surrounding Adriatic Sea continues to swell and causes more threats of submersion.

Under a new plan to save Venice, Italian hydrologists would inject billions of gallons of seawater to try and “inflate” porous sediments under the city.  Hopefully, this would cause Venice to rise by as much as a foot and would create a more stable foundation for existing buildings.  The trick is that Venice has a layer of clay under it, and therefore the injected seawater would spread out underneath the clay and cause a lateral elevation.

The method of “subsurface fluid injection” has apparently been used to California, Canada, and other places to lift up sagging land, and experts are optimistic that this experiment might dramatically help the city.  According to National Geographic, tourists don’t really mind the flooding in places like Piazza di San Marco (although I’ve been there when it has flooded, and it was scary to see how quickly the piazza was submerged), and Venetians are used to the acqua alta (high water), but the concern is that over time the flooding would become more catastrophic.

Venice is a truly remarkable city, and although its mask is a bit dulled from time and wear, you can still see the glimmer of gold in its countenance.  It will be interesting to see if the fluid injection experiment goes forward, and whether or not progress is made.  Either way, I don’t think that anyone wants to see such a beautiful city sink past the point of no return.

Chatting with a local shopkeeper in one of Venice’s many beautiful shops

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!


Needless to say, as someone who has visited London several times and attended graduate school there, I was alarmed to hear the news of recent riots that have spread around the city and even other parts of England.

London is a vibrant city, with such a mix of historical uniqueness and modern flair, and it is quite disturbing to see what is happening this week with the senseless, aggressive violence committed so vagrantly by out-of-control thugs.  The news is awash with chilling photos of British citizens, innocently trying to get home, being forced to strip down in broad daylight and being robbed by masked hooligans who have no concern for basic decency.  Numerous stores have been looted, and fires are being set everywhere.  I saw one photo of a woman jumping out of a burning building into safety, and it left me speechless.  And to add insult to injury, several British politicians are trying to blame the current economic difficulties and attempts to cut spending as justification for why these crooks are “understandably” acting out.

Thankfully, many Londoners are trying to fight back.  They are using Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social media to band together to do good things, instead of using them for evil as the hooligans did.  I read one story about people coordinating cleanup efforts to try to undo some of the catastrophic damage that British officials are already estimating will cost a fortune to remedy.

My friends in London assured me that they are fine, but they are definitely laying low and are being extra careful.  It cannot be assumed that even the most “posh” of neighborhoods in London are immune to the violence.  Right now it seems that everyone is scrambling to get home, hoping that the police will continue their diligence in combating this wave of senselessness, and looking to make sense of a situation fueled by chaos.

Hopefully the city known for its culture of politeness will return to stability soon, and those who have injured so many with their cruelty and anarchic ways will be held accountable.

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