General wisdom says that life changes are stressful.  Whether getting married, having a baby, changing jobs, or losing a loved one, experiencing a big transition puts great stress on the body, heart, and soul.

It therefore did not come as much of a surprise that, as true firstborns, Leon and I ended up tackling three life changes at the same time.  Talk about being poster children for overachievers (or, as some friends have said, crazy people).

We are now 36 days away from our wedding, and things are only picking up speed from here.  Guest counts must be finalized, checks to vendors must be written, and meetings must be held with our pastor and church coordinators to go over details for the big day.  We’re both incredibly excited about the wedding, don’t get me wrong, but the wedding is one of many things on the checklist right now.

Besides working on wedding plans, we also just closed on a condominium in northern Virginia, not to mention that Leon is about to make a career change.  When we’re not discussing wedding plans, we’re arranging movers to move my apartment’s contents into the new place and reading over his resume.  My mom flew out for a weekend to help us look for furniture for the condo, and we spent 13 hours with one meal break running around D.C. to find things.  Granted, it’s a small (I like to say cozy) condo, but it takes a lot of work to furnish even a D.C.-sized place.

I asked my mother if being an adult would always feel like you were sprinting on a treadmill, just one second away from tiring out and flying right off the back (which I did in college once–it didn’t feel very good).  Her answer?  “You guys are just getting started.”

As I look over the “to do” list that just keeps growing, much like the stress lines in my forehead, my current goal is to get down the aisle without collapsing at the end.  At least, we’ve been telling ourselves, if we push hard now we’ll enjoy several benefits later.  We have our honeymoon to look forward to, with the daily grind being temporarily replaced by a French Polynesian bungalow and the beach.  Then we’ll return to an actual home.  One that we own.  As a married couple.

This time period feels a lot like running track in junior high, when I was completely out of shape  but the coach would not take the “I have no desire to be an athlete” argument that I should not be held to McKinney ISD gym class standards.  I remember running around the track cursing the day, feeling miserable, and praying that I wouldn’t throw up my peanut butter and jelly sandwich from lunchtime.

As the finish line approached during the last lap, though, I remember feeling a surge of energy.  And after crossing the line, it felt pretty good to know that I had finished the run.  Before I threw up, of course.

We’re at that point with life changes–the final lap is approaching, and we’re running toward the finish line of “adulthood, chapter one.”  Only this time there won’t be a snobby classmate watching me run around the track, yelling out in front of the class, “Douthit, I can walk faster than you run!”  (She’s not invited to the wedding).

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.

Well, it’s almost that time of year again.

As the weather warms up, flowers start to bloom, and it’s possible to leave the house without that heavy coat, tourist season begins to awaken.  Individuals from around the world, perhaps including yourself, begin to pack their bags, plan how to best utilize their hard-earned vacation days, and look forward to taking a break from the daily grind.

Here in D.C., tourist season is already in full force.  Tourists have been trickling in for the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, with this year marking 100 years since Japan first brought the beautiful trees over to Washington.  I have to confess, sadly, that the blooms come and go pretty quickly starting in late March, and local Washingtonians tend to feel bad for the tourists who travel up here in mid-April expecting them to still be on display.

Tourist season in D.C. tends to run at high speed through the balmy weeks of August.  Interns flood the city to fill thousands of summer internship positions, student groups come to study our nation’s history, international visitors come to take advantage of the warm weather on the East coast, and families come to complete the pilgrimage of bringing their children to the country’s capital.  In turn, the locals tend to brace themselves for impact.

Like any popular destination, D.C. is thankful for tourist season, but in a slightly begrudging way.  Politicians have gotten in trouble in the past, to be sure, for “dissing” the large groups of sweaty, tired tourists wandering aimlessly around the Capitol and distracting security guards by asking for directions. Locals tend to stay away from downtown D.C. at all costs, bemoaning the takeover of the city that causes yearly bouts of extra traffic, street congestion, and longer lines at places of interest.

To prepare for this year’s tourist season, local papers in the D.C. area have taken to Twitter and other social media to ask locals to give advice to tourists.  That got me to thinking.  After all, part of being a good tourist means preparing effectively for your trip, namely, trying to understand a bit about the local culture of your vacation destination and serving as not just an economic asset to the region’s coffers, but also as a graceful ambassador of your point of origin.

Case in point:  Study the local culture.  This doesn’t mean that you have to read dozens of books about D.C. and know more than your tour guide at the Smithsonian (which is comprised of several different museums by the way, not just one big one).  Instead, this means, as I like to call it, blending into the environment and stealthily eyeing how the locals live.  For instance, in D.C. it is an unwritten rule of culture that people stand on the right side of escalators and walk on the left.  I’ve seen Washingtonians fighting the rush hour on their work commutes find themselves trapped on the escalators by tourist groups chatting away, yell at them, and literally try to run them over.  The best remedy to avoid being “that person” blocking the escalator and irritating the locals who aren’t on holiday is to study how other people are acting.  If everyone is standing to the right of the escalator, that is not the moment to declare your individuality and repulsion towards conformity.  Stand to the right just like everyone else.

Another way to be a good tourist is to, in fact, pretend like you’re not a tourist.  Shopkeepers in D.C. tend to be very nice people, but they do get frustrated by the crowds who cram into their stores, don’t look at them, and proceed to aggressively paw through their merchandise and only address them if they want to know the price, often in a gruff tone.  To be a graceful visitor, slow down.  Take your time in a shop, greeting the shopkeeper or employee with a polite “hello” or “good afternoon,” and asking politely if it would be all right to touch items that look breakable.  Being in a different city should be treated as visiting someone else’s home.  As well, local shopkeepers, waiters, etc., can often give you valuable advice and answer any questions you might have.

In terms of sightseeing, everyone has their own travel style.  I have friends whose parents literally schedule every hour of family vacations, often starting at 7 a.m., with even bathroom breaks specifically slotted for certain times.  Others, such as myself, like to make a list of things to see, but also allow plenty of time to just “chill out” and enjoy the city.  Some of my best travel memories are of sitting in a cafe with a cup of coffee and just people watching all afternoon.  Of course, it is beneficial to see the major tourist sites, or to visit things of particular interest (if you’re a history buff, for instance, the National Archives in D.C. is a must), but it is okay to accept the reality that you will not physically be able to see everything and do everything.  I’ve lived in D.C. for almost three years now, and there are numerous things I haven’t done or seen yet.

Another rule of thumb I like to keep in mind while traveling is that it’s okay to leave something on the list unchecked.  When I was an intern in D.C. back in 2005, I felt like I had to see everything and do everything in the city before I left.  After all, I didn’t think I’d be back on the East coast ever again.  Then, several years later, I found myself there again, this time living and working in the city.  You never know when you’ll get to go back to a location, so if there are a couple of things you didn’t get to do on your vacation, it’s not the end of the world.

Another thing to keep in mind while traveling is the temptation to go overboard on souvenirs.  I myself have been guilty of this (hello Cambodian musical instruments that I can’t even play, or tropical sundresses that look great in the Caribbean but ridiculous anywhere else).  It’s tempting when you’re in a new place to snap up all of the local “must haves,” but then you get home with a heavy suitcase of extra stuff that you wonder what on earth you’ll do with.  My goal while traveling is to find one unique item that will always remind me of my trip.  It doesn’t have to be super expensive, and it’s also helpful to get a collection of something going.  I began to pick up pieces of jewelry during my travels, often a pair of earrings or a necklace, and they each have a story with a special meaning behind them. Plus I’ll be able to share them with my daughter someday, if Leon and I have one.  Beginning a focused collection of something takes away the pressure of feeling like you have to buy everything in sight and getting home wondering why you ended up with twelve refrigerator magnets.

When it comes down to it, the art of being a good tourist means relaxing and enjoying yourself.  Travel can be stressful if you let it, to be certain, but once you get to your destination it’s important to give yourself the mental break you worked so hard to earn.  It’s possible to strive for that balance between seeing lots of interesting things and also going along slowly enough to watch the local customs and abide by them.

Happy tourist season 2012 everyone!

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

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!”

For most nomads, or travelers in general, the thought of “settling down” can be a scary one.  It’s far more exciting to see yourself gallivanting around the globe, darting from locale to locale, and going wherever the wind takes you.

That was my life for awhile, and I loved it.  From Europe to Asia to South America, three years of indulging in every travel whim one could imagine flew by.  To be sure, a few “dream destinations” were left on the list to leave room for future adventures, but overall the attitude was to travel as much as possible.

While many friends and family members were focused on finding houses, taking out mortgage loans, finding stable employment, and putting money away into retirement funds, those things were the furthest from my mind.  Sure, bills had to be paid and travel funds needed to be saved up, and thankfully I enjoyed my work experiences overseas (which did add skills to the resume and money into the bank account).  However, more long term concepts like mortgages and retirement accounts were not that desirable.  They were downright scary.

But, as happens to most nomads, the day does come in which one begins to think of the overall picture of the future, instead of the next travel adventure.  At least, it did for me.  Things began to change when I moved to D.C. three years ago, met my almost-husband two years ago, and started to think about putting down some roots.

With the wedding quickly approaching, Leon and I began to discuss whether or not we wanted to look at purchasing a home in the D.C./northern Virginia area.  After a lot of prayer and discussion, we both felt like the D.C. area was where we wanted to be for the indefinite future.  We spent hours researching the home buying process, looked at properties, and tried to find a suitable place in our price range (after getting over the shock that a property in D.C. costs the same as two properties in Texas or Colorado).  We found a realtor, met with her to discuss the process, and spent a lot of time perusing housing listings before finding a property that we felt was a good fit for our needs, fit within our budget, and didn’t require a two-hour work commute for either of us.  If the contracts go through, it looks like we might officially be first-time homeowners soon.

Amidst the process of trying to find a home, Leon asked me if I felt okay with the commitment.  After all, having a mortgage means being anchored to same place, at least for awhile, and means giving up the nomadic freedom to spontaneously relocate at a moment’s notice.

Quite shockingly, however, the transition feels very natural.  Travel is still a passion, and will always be.  The difference is that, as I’ve learned recently, it is possible to aim for a balance.  It’s possible to save up for another travel adventure in a faraway land, and to maintain a sense of wonder and curiosity for all things international, while also striving to provide stability for future children and planning for a healthy retirement situation.

Of course, it’s more fun to hike through the Cambodian jungle than look through housing contracts, but it is exciting to think that those housing contracts signal the beginning of a new chapter.

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