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

Advertisements

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

Happy National Peanut Butter Day!

Indeed, who knew that January 24th was a day set aside to celebrate that delicious, stick-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth concoction that is made from peanuts but isn’t really butter?

I didn’t know this before doing some research, but peanut butter was apparently created in a raw form in 1890 by Dr. John Kellogg (the same Kellogg of the corn flakes company) as a way for patients with no teeth to get their protein.  Years later, Dr. George Washington Carver developed a better tasting version of peanut butter, and in 1922 it was commercialized by the Rosefield Packing Company in California.  Today, over half of American peanuts are used to make peanut butter.

Growing up in Texas, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were consumed by probably 95% of the kids in the elementary school cafeteria.  This was, of course, before peanut allergies have apparently become commonplace; it seemed like everyone’s mom packed them peanut butter sandwiches for lunch.  There were even debates at the table over which type of jam was better with peanut butter (I voted strawberry, while most of my friends said grape), which texture was better (crunchy for me, creamy for others), and which brand was tastier (Skippy for me, even though at home we mainly had Jiffy or Peter Pan).  It was a staple in our young diets.

Peanut butter was also a necessity for anyone going through a lean economic time, whether in college or starting out in the professional world.  When I first moved to D.C. and spent most of my first paychecks on rent, I lived off of peanut butter sandwiches (without jam–that would have been an extra $5!) for ten days straight.  By day eleven, I couldn’t handle it anymore and took about a six month sabbatical from peanut butter.

Nowadays, I don’t eat that much peanut butter, but whenever I travel for extended periods of time I find myself craving the stuff like crazy.  When I interned in Rome for a summer, I was introduced to the European equivalent of peanut butter, Nutella, and quickly embarked on a love affair with the chocolate/hazelnut spread.  To this day, I love Nutella (although it just doesn’t taste as good when you buy it in the States–it’s creamier in Europe), but there is still a subconscious void when peanut butter isn’t around.  As an American, it’s part of our culture.  So, to keep my American roots intact, there were days when I made Nutella/peanut butter sandwiches for lunch in Rome (thank goodness for care packages from the parents).

Living in London also brought up peanut butter cravings, mainly on account of the lack of it.  I found myself missing Reese’s peanut butter cups, Reese’s pieces, and jars of Skippy, which seemed ridiculous because, as much as I love my home country, let’s face it–the Europeans do chocolate and confectionary sweets better than anyone.  So, I tried to enjoy the local sweets but also enjoyed indulging in peanut butter whenever a fellow expat would bring a jar over from a visit home.

During my time in South Korea, I discovered quickly that while Koreans were developing a taste for American sweets, they weren’t crazy about the creamy thickness of peanut butter.  Once again I found myself daydreaming about a big peanut butter and jelly sandwich, often while I was enjoying my lunch of kimchi and rice (healthier, to be sure, but certainly not delicious with chocolate).

Now, living in D.C., I admit that I tend to take peanut butter for granted once again.  It’s becoming more “hip,” though, and many recipes nowadays incorporate peanut butter into more grown-up dishes.  They all sound delicious too–peanut butter pancakes, peanut butter cupcakes, peanut butter cheesecake, and so on.  There’s also the classic, tried-and-true American snack of peanut butter on apples.

Peanut butter certainly has its place in American history and culture, and if you ask most kids who grew up in the States, it holds a nostalgic element as well.  There’s something comforting, even to this day, about having a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  I almost feel like I’m back in the school cafeteria, talking with the other kids about the pressing matters of the day (homework, does Joey like Emily, when is recess today, and so forth).

In the end, I guess it does make sense to have a day set aside to honor peanut butter.