How to Plan a Holiday

My last week got overrun by more vacation planning and I didn’t really have time to do much writing. However, since I’ve turned my gaze once more to the fun fun prospect of organizing my next international adventure, it seemed like a great time to share my process with you.


Related imagePlan? That sounds like WORK! Isn’t a holiday supposed to be FUN? Yes, but if you want to maximize your vacation time and money, taking the time and effort to plan ahead makes a world of difference. Unless you’re rich enough to just hire someone to plan the trip for you (and even then, finding the right tour company is important too!) you need to commit to planning. The time-money-quality triangle applies to everything, even holidays. The more time you put into the plan, the less money you need for high quality results. 

Step 1: Find Your Holiday Mission Statement

Planning a trip doesn’t start with booking a hotel and flight. There are some pre-trip questions you should really think about before any web searches or bookings take place.

How do you want to feel?

One of my friends loves laying on the beach with a book for days on end, but that sounds boring as heck to me after about 3 hours. Neither of us is right or wrong, but we want different things from our holiday. It’s important to know what your goals are, it’s kind of your vacation mission statement. From then on, any time you’re faced with an option or choice you can check to see if it matches your mission statement. Much like for a business, a vacation mission statement works best when it’s as specific as possible, while still being brief.

What you want from your holiday? Leisure? Adventure? Food? Shopping? Change of scenery? Nightlife? Art? History? Be pampered? Get dirty? 

What do you want to see?

Decide if you’re having a destination holiday or an experience holiday.

Destination holidays are those where you want to see a specific place like Rome or the Pyramids. There are awesome things everywhere in the world, but there’s only one Rome. Destination driven holidays should be more focused on off-season travel to maximize savings and also to avoid the high-season crowds. 

Destination driven holidays also need to think about weather as well as expenses. My favorite Thai island is closed 6 months of the year. Last fall, I had to find a different magical island getaway. My friend wants to go to Egypt and for a minute she thought she’d go in the summer break until I showed her the weather reports that include regular temps in the 40s (C). Now we’re going in February.

Experience holidays are ones in which you first consider your time off, and then see what’s having an off season sale that you might be interested in at that time. Sometimes, you can’t help but go to the popular place at the popular time. Work and school schedules are not always cooperative, but it is worth considering what else is available.

How long do you want to go?

Long weekend? 10 days? A month? There are vacations for nearly every length of time. Bear in mind shorter times should focus on one or two main activities in a single place with minimal travel. 

The less time you have in one place, the more detailed the planning needs to be. You might be fine spending an afternoon getting lost in town or just sitting at a cafe people watching if you have several days to spare, but if you get lost on your only day to do/see THE THING you’ll be really sad.

How much do you want to spend?

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There are places in the developing world where you can book a luxury resort for 300$ a week (I did that in Egypt), places where you can eat amazing gourmet food for 25$ a meal or less (China and the Philippines for sure), there are places where a beer is 0.50 cents (Prague!) and places where a beer is 8-12$, places you can get a private room for 5$ a night with breakfast included, and others where a room in a dorm (sheets not included) costs 40$.

Don’t worry about the cost of individual things at this point, just think about how much you are willing to spend per day on average (take your total trip budget, subtract airfare, divide by the number of days you want to travel)Once you know your budget, you can check it against other travelers’ experiences to see if it’s enough for the place you’re dreaming of. I find that a lot of the blogs for backpackers are decently accurate for minimal daily expenses, and that the cost of living websites are more accurate for “family vacation” style spending. Most of SE Asia is 30-40$ a day for good times and EU is 80-100$ a day if you’re frugal.

Who are you going with?

Discuss the practical things – I almost forgot this one because I’m so used to travelling alone, but it is important. Not only do you have to ask all the previous questions of your travel buddies, you also have to think about room sharing (my mother snores so loud I’m not sure how that’s going to work when we travel together), as well as age or ability limitations (meeting my friend with a 3 yr old last summer, I had to think about 3yr old human needs). Travel buddies can be great company and help save money on things like renting a car or a room when you can share, but it’s a compromise on location and activities.

Be upfront about your goals and expectations – If possible, try to pick travel buddies who share your travel goals and habits. If you can’t do that, discuss them in advance so you have a way to handle when you want different things. It is so easy for a holiday to turn into resentment when people are tired, sunburnt, hungry and didn’t get to see/do the thing they wanted. If you are travelling with people who don’t share your goals, make sure you’re both ok splitting up sometimes so that no one’s feelings are hurt when you want to do something different.

Make time for each other – I don’t just mean plan with them, I mean that they need to have a place on your itinerary. What will you share together other than the hotel room? It’s almost impossible to make another person your top priority when you’re going on a (probably expensive and unique) travel experience, but it will help if part of every day is focused on each other more than the sites, even if it’s just one of your meals or a drink before bed. This applies to anyone, not just a romantic interest or spouse, but family, friends, and acquaintances. 

Step 2: Accommodation and Transit

Wait! All that was Step 1??? Yes, but it’s not as bad as it sounds. Step one is mostly thinking, and a little bit of research to help you get the answers to those questions. Don’t skip it, though, because you’ll use those answers to shape everything that comes next.

The Flight

The flight is the biggest purchase you’re going to make and it defines the rest of your holiday. I think of it as the spine of the vacation.

For a destination trip (or once you’ve decided your experience locations):
The flight search matrix used by Google is a great way to be able to see all available flights between to airports. Websites like Travelocity, Priceline, Expedia, and Kayak ALL use the matrix to search. It’s faster to go directly to the matrix instead of comparing 20 websites.

For experience vacations (or to narrow a list of potentials in a specific area):
You can look at a website like Kiwi.com to search “Anywhere” and see the cheapest flights during your holiday time, or you can search by country, or you can use the map function to just scroll around the globe and see where cheap prices are. I love this for wanderlusties who find themselves with time and money restraints because there’s always something awesome at the other end and discovering can be fun.

My trip to the EU was I’d say 40% destination 60% experience. I wanted to go to north Europe, I was less picky about the specifics.  I looked around at prices and noticed that CDG is cheap and convenient to fly into. I could have opted for round trip, but it would have meant making my route a circle or doing a long backtrack and I wanted to get at least one Nordic country in on this trip. I did a quick check on some sample bus prices (like Paris to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Oslo) and decided I could do it. Thus my return flight airport was decided, and I went over to the Matrix to find the cheapest flight. I got a ticket with Russian airline Aeroflot through Moscow for under 1000$. The cheapest options on flight booking websites were 500-700 more.

Conversely, my winter holiday is far more destination driven. It’s going to be much harder to find such a great deal. I originally wanted to do Morocco, Israel, Jordan and Egypt (my friend is joining me for Jordan and Egypt). I haven’t found the perfect ticket yet. Kiwi thinks it will be around $2000 to fly Korea to Morocco to Jordan to Egypt and back to Korea. It IS a lot of flights, but I hold out hope that several hours of testing options on the flight matrix will save me a few hundred dollars.

Search nearby airports – Flying one airport and then taking a bus or train out to a cheaper destination could save you hundreds of dollars. It’s worth comparing airports, and checking the price and timing of the ground transit before you buy, just to be sure. I don’t recommend this for short holidays (less than 3 days), but the longer your holiday is, the more worthwhile this becomes. In New Zealand, I flew in and out of Auckland even though I didn’t want to do anything in that city. In the Philippines, I had to fly into Manila, sleep in a little airport hostel, then fly to Bohol the next morning.

Choosing Your City/Cities

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Destination vacation people will have done this step before buying plane tickets.

Experience vacation –  “I’ll just see what’s there when I land” is not a reliable recipe for a great holiday. It’s a little like the lottery. Stack the odds in your favor and read up. Even if you think you know where you’re going, it doesn’t hurt to read about your destination on something other than Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet.

In the winter of 2016/17 my destination was “the Malay peninsula”. It looks small on a map, but it is big on the ground. I almost ended up missing out on Koh Lipe because Langkawi has been famous longer. Reading more sources gave me more options, and better information to make my decision with.

Read the blogs – Find some bloggers who share your holiday mission statement. It doesn’t do me any good to read bloggers who love to bike across Europe because I will not be doing that. Ever. I found a blog that talked about running tours of cities and nearly fainted from thinking about it.  Find unique bloggers who share real details. Mainstream bloggers like Nomadic Matt are fine for finding out the basic details and some run off the mill travelling advice, but for my taste, when I’m trying to decide where to go, I need the atmosphere, the mood, and the experiences of someone like me.

Check the local transport options – In addition to attractions, hotels and ground transit can shape your city choices. If you’re going to places with good public transit, it’s easy to land in one place for a bit and then move to another hub. If rental cars are cheap, you might consider driving around some of the rural parts of your chosen holiday spot. 

Move at least once a week – Happiness experts say that the shiny new vacation smell wears off after about 7 days in the same place. I like to change cities at least once a week, but if you want to spend your whole summer in the Maldives laying on the beach, it’s still a good idea to break it up by moving to a hotel on the other side of the island or taking a weekend to explore the mainland. After 7 days, things become a “routine” and the mental mood boosting benefits of vacationing begin to taper off sharply. Relaxing holidays will tend to move less, while exploring holidays will need to move more. How much more often than every 7-8 days you move will depend on your goal.

Finding Accomodation

Don’t stay anywhere you don’t feel safe or can’t get good sleep. It’s not worth saving money if you’re stressed or too tired to enjoy the next day’s activities.

Do try to minimize your accommodation costs unless the resort itself is the center of your holiday (which is fine, private beaches are dreamy).

Shop around – It’s good to have a range of search options to keep your prices down. I like Airbnb and Booking.com the best, but I’ve been known to poke around Hostelworld. Sometimes I’ve just made email arrangements because I’m traveling to the back end of nowhere. Most of these places give discounts to non-cancellable reservations, but if you want to maintain flexibility, its a good idea to book places you can change later in case you find something better or change your plan altogether.

Beware hidden costs – Things to think about besides the room price: are any meals included? Do you need parking? Do you need a shuttle service? Will you need laundry service? Is it close to public transit? A great room price can be ruined if you have to pay 20$ a night for parking, if you have to walk a mile to the bus stop, or if there’s no place to eat nearby (this happened to me once in Korea and my hostess, bless her heart, fed us, but it was embarrassing!)

Location, location, location – When booking my rooms, I’m typically going back and forth between the booking site, a map of the region, and some travel blogs. Sometimes the map will show me something interesting because Google does that now. Sometimes the hotel will mention famous nearby sights to check out, and always travel bloggers will tell you about their own experiences there.  I spend ages staring at maps, reading blogs, and looking at the map function of Airbnb. It can show you the prices of a large geographical region. Sometimes I find great prices and realize I don’t really want to GO to that place so it’s useless.

Quality is subjective – Reading reviews of accommodation is tricky. If the person leaving the review has a different set of values and expectations than you, their review may not be helpful. Don’t just look at stars. Look at how many people reviewed something. A 4 star rating from 200 reviews is better than a 5 star rating from only 10 reviews. Read the things people liked, but also read what they didn’t like. Are those things important to you? Can you sleep in a room where you might see a rat to save $$? Do you HAVE to have A/C? Do you want to meet other guests or have more privacy? What is the standard in that country? I found that a 2-3 star (of 5) rating in developed countries is equivalent to a 4 or 5 star place in developing nations.

Prioritize – For me, feeling safe is #1. I don’t like to stay in co-ed dorms if I can avoid it but female only dorms are often more expensive. I also won’t stay in an Airbnb with all men (one or many, I don’t do it unless there’s a female in the house).  I’ve learned I can sleep just about anywhere for one night, but I prefer a single room, or a women only dorm in a clean place in a non-party part of town (I do not like hearing people throwing up from being drunk while I’m trying to sleep). I also look for transportation options (parking if I have a car, bus stop if I don’t).

Things like lux decorations, pools, spas, and services are less important to me, but you need to know your own priorities. If you want to party all night, stay in the party zone. If you can’t enjoy yourself unless you’re staying in the Marriott, then increase your budget or pick cheaper parts of the world where those resorts are affordable. Sharm el-Sheik in Egypt is great for that. You can stay in fancy beach resorts for a fraction of the cost of other countries.

Local Transportation

Minimize travel time – I’ve seen tourists travel for hours to reach someplace and look for 15 minutes, take a few pics, and then get back on the bus. I don’t understand this method of travel. I think transit should be minimized. I don’t like to spend more than 4 hours a day in transit (except the flights in and out). It’s not always possible, but it is important. The comfort level of your transit is also important, as I learned in Thailand. A 3 hr bus ride in a plush comfy air conditioned seat is much more tolerable than a 3 hr ride in a cramped, hot, minivan.

Travel in your down time – In EU this summer, I traveled on Saturday so I wouldn’t have to fight weekend crowds at popular venues, and I used them as rest days where I could just relax and travel from one place to another. On shorter trips, I like to do intercity transit early in the morning or last thing at night. If you have to go a long way, it might be worth looking into sleeper cars. When we were in China (a huge landscape) we did that a couple times and skipped out on hotels for the 8-10 hour train rides overnight.

Research the details – If you’re going in the off season, you can probably buy tickets the day of your travel, but in the high season it’s best to make reservations. Look at the time tables and make sure you can get to the bus/train station on time. Compare the bus and train costs. I found that taking the bus around France and Holland was great, but that in Germany the train was cheaper.  I took a bus from Singapore to KL, but a train from KL to Ipoh.

Look at alternative travel options – Sometimes local flights can be more efficient and cheaper than bus or train. Sometimes there are even boats. Which I love. I took a ferry from Jordan to Egypt last time I was there. It was not any cheaper than flying, but it was a much cooler experience. I also had to take a boat to get to Koh Lipe and back since there are no airports on the tiny little island. Now that I’ve been, I know I probably could have bought my ticket when I got to the port, but at the time I had no idea how full it would be so I made sure to book online.

Check the reviews – In some cases you won’t have choices, but when you do it’s best to check and see if you can find a picture of the fleet that is NOT on the company website. I thought the boat to Koh Lipe would be like the ferries I’m used to where we could go up on deck and with that in mind, I was looking into a 3 hr boat ride. When I read more and realized that the Thai ferries in the region are all very restrictive and make passengers stay seated below decks, I opted for the shortest possible ride instead.

When in Rome – Not literally, but when it comes to getting around, it’s a good idea to see what locals do. I did so much research on inter-city transit to get from one place to another, I neglected to pre-research city buses to learn how to get around once I was there! It turns out, every one is different and it was a huge source of stress for me last summer.  How do you use the bus/tram/metro system? Do you need a bus pass? Where do you buy tickets? Does it cost more to buy one at a time or get a pass? Is the tourist pass worth it? Don’t assume it will be easy to figure out when you get there… it won’t be.

Step 3: The Details

Now you have your cities chosen, your hotels booked, and a solid idea of how you’ll get around. Time to narrow your focus and figure out what you’ll do in each location. Show up and see what happens is not a strategy that works for most people. It seems very romantic, but most people find they end up sitting around on Google trying to do the research they should have done before they arrived.

Brainstorm

Brainstorm by DBed

Write a list – Just make a list of names of all the places you can find where you’re going. Websites like Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet come in handy at this stage. They are great resources for building a basic list of things to see. They are a bit limited to the most popular tourist attractions, however, so try adding something like Atlas Obscura to your search.

Dig deeper For more unique travel opportunities, check travel blogs and Facebook pages and other types of social media from smaller voices to see what isn’t being seen by the big famous travel sites. I found a magical heated waterfall in NZ this way. I’ve learned about unique food in tiny restaurants, and the less famous but just as beautiful temple or church next to the one full of tourists. You get beautiful memories and you often get the place mostly or even all the way to yourself. I can’t provide links because each blogger focuses on different places and experiences, but if you type the name of the place + “blog” or “travel blog” you should get some decent results.

Check the map– Once you get a list written down, you can start searching for what’s near them geographically. Pull up the Google Map and see what pops up next to your famous site or on the route from your hotel to that site. Read more blogs about people who went to a famous site and see if they did any side trips. I had a side trip for buffalo ice cream on my way back from a famous site in Bohol. Local water-buffalo being milked for ice cream… that’s a unique holiday experience.

Expand your search – If your’e staying in one hotel more than 3 days (it hardly ever takes longer to see the highlights of one city, although of course you could explore a single city for years and not see everything, many people on holiday like to maximize experiences), you can look at day trips from the city you’re in. Can you do a tour to a nearby natural reserve for hiking, kayaking, fishing, etc? Can you get a bus to a neighboring city and see their sights? I found an amazing spa in Aachen Germany about 2 hours away from my hotel in Lanaken Belgium.

Read until your eyes blur – Keep adding things to your list.  Make your list as long as you like, don’t worry about all the details of each place yet, this is the brainstorm phase. Anything that sounds interesting, put it on the list.

Edit the List

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Location, Location, Location – things that are close together can be done on the same day, while things that are far away, not on the public transit line, or not near anything else cool might be cut from the list. I had the Tower of Eben-Ezer on my list, but when I realized how far out it was and that it would take me hours each way without a car, I reluctantly took it off the list. Other times I’ve gone to a place I was only semi-interested in because it was 5 minutes walk from my primary stop and had a great experience.

Timing is everything –  Check the days and hours of operation, and the price. If it’s not open when you’re there, if it conflicts with something you want more, if it costs too much, cross it off the list. Do you need to book in advance or can you buy tickets at the door? How long is the line? Many attractions have “skip the line” tickets that let you save time. When we went to the Catecombs in Paris, the line was 3 hours long. We had skip the line tickets and got in with only about 5 minutes wait. I completely failed to buy my Kremlin tickets ahead of time, and had to choose between standing in line and seeing the Kremlin or doing literally anything else in Moscow that day.

Read the reviews – Read reviews, look at pictures, visit the website. Look beyond rating and see what people are saying. Are the things they talk about important to you? Does this seem like something you’ll like? More than once I’ve declined to visit a city’s most popular tourist destination because it just didn’t seem that interesting to me.

PrioritizeYour list should be divided into “must see” and “see if there’s time”, with a side of “bad weather options”. Make sure you have no more than 50% of your list as “must see”. Even after editing out all the places you can’t get to, can’t afford, aren’t open, or aren’t interesting, the list should still be huge, and contain more things that you can actually do in the time you have because you might need to change something based on weather, unexpected closures, illness, or random acts of gods.

Step 4: The Schedule

It’s a good idea to have a schedule, as long as you know that it will change. I don’t want to spend my precious vacation time thinking about what to do each day. Sometimes I write detailed schedules down to the half hour, other times I make “day itineraries” grouping nearby activities together so I can wake up and say, ok today I’ll do itinerary 3.

Booking in Advance

Use your priority list and start with things on your “must see” list that require (or strongly suggest) advance reservations. Once those are filled in, you can start adding things that have variable times and things from your “see if there’s time” list.

Visit the website – Almost all of them have an English page and will tell you how important it is to buy tickets in advance. Some places don’t even sell tickets at the door. 

Don’t Over-schedule

The temptation to squeeze sightseeing into every moment of the day is strong. Avoid it. A single event or a bike/walking tour that lasts 2-3 hours is a “half day” event (2 per day). Anything more than 5 hours is an “all day” event (1 per day). I can’t make you slow down, but thousands of travelers over several decades agree that seeing fewer things, but experiencing them more fully is a more satisfying experience.

Make time for meals! Oh man, the number of times I’ve ended up not getting food because I’ve been so busy looking around. It’s a tragedy especially if you’re travelling anywhere with good food… soooo basically everywhere. Street food is awesome and should be tried, but you need to sit down and rest too.

Organize by geography – When I was in the Philippines, I had itineraries that could be done on any day, as long as the items were done as a group because they were all close together. You can sneak tiny things into a day this way. If there’s something that will take less than an hour quite close to one of your half or all-day events you can work that in without killing yourself.

Time is a Gift – You look at an itinerary like this and you think, OH we’re wasting so much time, but you are not. You are giving yourself a precious gift. Now you have time to get lost, to explore, to check out that cool thing on the way you didn’t know about, to stop for an ice cream or coffee, to meet people along the way.

Be Prepared to chuck the plan – If you travel with an open eye and open mind, you’ll also find new and interesting things along the way. Sometimes it’s meeting people who invite you along, sometimes the concierge or Airbnb host tells you about a local secret, sometimes you just walk into a wine festival in the park (true story, happened to me in Prague). You want to be able to make time for these things, and in order to do that you need things you can move around in your itinerary.

Step 5: Organize Your Documents

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Gone are the days of having to print our whole holiday itinerary and carry them around in waterproof document cases! Yes, people did that. Sometimes I still see older couples doing it. I’m not saying it’s a bad idea, and if you’re not going to be around computers or the internet, it’s VITAL, but now that we can store everything in the cloud, we can access schedules, booking details, and vouchers with our phones!

At a Glance – There are countless apps you can use to organize your itinerary, but be sure you get one that is easy to read at a glance. You’ve seen my color coded spreadsheet that shows a calendar where I put the things I’ve scheduled and bought tickets for, but I also use something like a Word.doc for the list of things I can do more or less whenever that includes addresses, websites and phone numbers I may need, and any itinerary groupings.

On the Cloud – I make a dedicated folder in my cloud storage for all vouchers and receipts for everything I bought online from hotel reservations to museum tickets for each trip. I filter all my emails related to the holiday into a dedicated email folder for easy reference. I also keep photos of my critical documents. I know not everyone is comfortable with this, but if you lose your passport or ID, it will be easier to show your Embassy a picture of your missing credentials so they can help you faster.

Offline – If you won’t have data or internet when you arrive you can also download the documents you need to the phone’s storage. Some strange places in the world are still requiring printed vouchers/ tickets, so double check when you make reservations if you can use the pdf or email as proof or not.


What is all this for?

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Planning a holiday can certainly be fun and help you build anticipation for your upcoming adventure. However, it can also be a lot of work and there are days when you’ll want to throw the towel in and just wing it when you get there. Trust me. Don’t. 

All of this painstaking work helps make sure you get to see the best your holiday destination has to offer you.

  • make sure you don’t show up to a venue that is closed or sold out.
  • minimize transit time by grouping your events together.
  • maximize your bucket list by prioritizing only one or two things a day. 
  • have enough time to do everything and a way to stop and rest as needed. 
  • alleviate the stress of where to go and how to get there while you’re jet-lagged and culture-shocked.
  • explore organically by leaving a little extra time every day that could be filled or changed as needed.

I hope your next adventure is everything you dream.

Happy Travels!

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Carolus Thermen Spa Experience

I didn’t have many spa experiences growing up. We weren’t exactly poor but we never really had enough money to do things like that. A “spa day” in my house was putting some scented oil in a hot bath and filling the bathroom with candles. A mud mask or cuticle soak purchased at the local corner store sometimes featured as well. I remember once we were able to take a trip to Hot Springs, Arkansas where we were treated to a soak in the “healing waters” but it wasn’t until I was living in Saudi Arabia that I discovered the magical heights that “spa day” can soar to. That experience will probably remain the most astonishing spa experience of my life, and I’m ok with that, but Carolus Thermen comes in at a very close second.


Bad Aachen

It’s not “bad”, that just means “bath” and according to the website “Aachen” is a linguistic evolution of the word “aaaahhh” that people exclaim when they enter the warm mineral spring water that flows naturally in this part of Germany. For 2000 years humans have been enjoying the thermal water there, from the Celts to the Romans, the Victorians, and now modern tourists from all over. Charlemagne actually declared Aachen his favorite place because he loved soaking so much! Royalty and celebrity have been visiting for centuries to “take the waters”, but when I went they were having a summer sale and I could enjoy all the tradition of pure spring water piped in from Aachen’s Rosenquelle spring along with all the modern amenities of pools, waterfalls, saunas and treatments for a mere 26€ for the whole day. I’m pretty sure that a home “spa day” with candles, bath bomb, face mask, and foot scrub would cost at least that much and not be anywhere near as glorious.

On July 18, I was staying in Lanaken, a small town in Belgium that is effectively a suburb of the larger (yet still small) city of Maastricht in the Netherlands. Yes, those are two different countries, but for the most part, inside the Schengen zone of the EU, travel between countries is no more a hassle than travel between two states or provinces in other places. The main complication was the sudden switch from French to Dutch at the border and the fact that the public transit was run by two different nations. More on that in a dedicated transit article, but for now just be in awe that I woke up in the morning in Belgium, rode a Belgian bus to the Netherlands, then rode a Dutch bus to Germany to spend the day at the spa.

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The final bus stop was about 1km from the spa and the walk was through a beautiful green park with lots of shade and fountains. The weather was still unseasonably hot for the area, but the large green space was cooler than the streets around it. I saw my first red squirrel there, too! He was too fast for me to snap any photos, but it was quite a pleasant shock as someone who has spent a lifetime surrounded by grey squirrels to see one of the fox colored ones in the fur, so to speak.

Thermal Bathing

I ended up coming into the spa complex from the park, aka, the back entrance. I walked through part of the outdoor pool area where I captured my only photo of the day. Thankfully, the spa front desk had friendly, English speaking staff who explained the rules to me and issued my bracelet. No one carries keys or money or even phones around. The bracelet unlocks your assigned locker but also has a chip that you can use to buy any food or drinks, items from the shop, or extra spa services. Then when you leave, they add up your total and you pay all at once on the way out.

I didn’t have much in the way of spa gear, but I had brought my swimsuit and a sarong I got in Malaysia that now functions as my multipurpose travel cloth: light blanket, towel, scarf, skirt, shawl, dress, swimsuit cover, etc. I was prepared to rent towels and a robe if the spa required such, but no one said anything to me, and I saw plenty of other people who had brought wraps from home as well. As with all shared water spaces, the changing room included showers in order to get everyone squeaky clean before entering the pools. Once I checked in, I couldn’t take photos, so from this point on, all the photos are from the spa’s website.

The swimming area is like a water park for grown ups. There are eight indoor and outdoor pools of various temperatures, the unique brine steam bath “Strokkur”, a beautiful sun terrace and even a beach. The main pool connects with several others and includes amenities like bubbles, waterfalls, and gentle currents. I also noticed a lift for disabled visitors which I thought was great since the warm water therapy would be wonderful for people in PT or with long term physical limitations.

Most of the pools are in the “warm” range (35°C), with a few dedicated to more extreme temperatures. Two pools on either end lead outside to cooler (33°C) water. A small set of pools next to each other were set up hot (38°C) and cold (18°C) to go back and forth between. I perched under a massage waterfall in the hot pool for a nice chance to work out the tension, and I did the ice plunge to get my circulation going and because it feels bonkers when you go from hot to ice to hot. In addition to being a treat for the body, it is stunning to look at.

After exploring every pool on the first floor, I ducked back to my locker to grab my phone (functioning as e-reader) and a sandwich from my bag before heading to the sun terrace for a rest. The sun terrace is a lovely outdoor area surrounding one of the two outdoor pools on this level. There’s a little faux beach with sand and beach chairs, as well as a small bar/cafe where you can get refreshments. I noticed that many of the people who had reserved the larger beach chairs also brought picnic baskets filled with tupperware containers of snacks, some books, extra tanning lotion and other “beach day” necessities. I was a little worried the spa might not allow outside food and drink since they sell it there, but it seemed to be quite common after all.

The Saunas

After lunch, I headed upstairs to check out the sauna. I didn’t think I was into saunas because, except for the one in KSA, I haven’t really enjoyed them. I find them to be too hot and hard to breathe in. Because I read the website ahead of time, I realized that the variety of saunas offered at Carolus was so extensive it would be almost impossible for me not to find at least one I liked. Aside from the sheer volume and variety on offer, they also have scheduled special events inside the saunas that are free, and I was intensely curious about these.

It was amazing. However marvelous the first floor with all it’s pools and waterfalls, it is as nothing compared to the pleasures and sensory delights that awaited me on the sauna side. There are 15 different saunas and steam baths of different humidity and temperatures, a sauna lake, and the sauna garden. 

While the thermal bath area requires swimwear, the saunas are bare skin. People don’t just walk around naked the whole time (although they could), but wraps or robes are hung on hooks outside each room, and you just use a towel between you and the seat as a cushion and heat barrier, and to keep your sweat off the wood, because you WILL sweat. 

Right out of the showers, I first encountered the Feminarium (below), for women who want to sauna nude without any male observers. It’s much smaller but still had a dry and wet sauna option as well as cool showers, foot baths, and reclining chairs so that ladies could enjoy a full sauna experience in gender seclusion. I was the only person in it, and I just stayed long enough to test everything out before moving on.

The main floor has the dry saunas which are low humidity and often extremely hot. To do sauna right, nearby is a cold pool, a foot bath, and resting area. Outdoors there are even more pools, dry saunas, and quiet places to rest or nap. It also has the no-clothes terrace for those who don’t want any tan lines.

There is a large board displaying the day’s event schedule, showing what is happening in what room when. I was too excited by the variety to sit still and relax yet. Instead, I wandered around testing things out while I waited for the next scheduled event.

Oriental Bathing World

Downstairs from the dry saunas is a pool surrounded by steam rooms. These are higher humidity and had a wide range of temperatures. I enjoyed the Tepidarium (below), which, at 27°C, was just warm enough to feel it without trying to kill me, but my favorite was the Odorium. This room has my “Goldilocks” temperature with just little hints of air current to keep it from stifling. The Odorium is named for its aromas which were truly heavenly.

While the Odorium had my favorite smell, nothing in this place was odorless. I tested every room and only one had a smell I didn’t like. Many of the rooms were too hot for me to spend much time in. The warmest steam rooms were 45°C and 100% humidity! I read the proper way to sauna, but that involved spending 10-15 minutes even in the hottest of rooms and I just couldn’t last that long.

The whole decor of the sauna is dark, but in a refined classy way. It’s gentle for the eyes, with lots of soft lighting, color shifting LEDs and star lights in the ceiling. The dry rooms are mainly cedar benches, but the steam rooms are decorated with stunning tiles and patterns, intentionally reminiscent of a Turkish bath.  Beautiful ornaments, and water fixtures were everywhere. Lamps made to look like cut lace and even globes with holes to let shafts of light out to dance in the steam. Each room was intricately beautiful and completely unique. It’s no surprise that area is called “The Oriental Bathing World”.

Under a high arching dome, in the middle of all the steam rooms, there was another pool with pleasantly warm water (34°C) and LED lights shining upward casting rippling light and shadow in the ceiling, as well as softly changing colors. Just as I was drifting there thinking oh yeah this is that “wow-is-this-real” feeling I love so much, and imagining all my friends reactions to visiting such a space and how happy it would make them to experience this magical crossover of visual beauty, amazing smells and skinny-dipping, I decided to float on my back and watch the ceiling lights. Suddenly there was music!

Startled, I sat up and it was gone. The music was only underwater. As soon as I submerged my ears the sounds of the people vanished and I could hear lovely soothing “meditation” music!!! Floating naked in a near body temperature pool with underwater music in my ears and the mingled fragrances of saunas in my nose (no bathroom or pool smell here) and my eyes feasting on the shifting lights and colors above… It was pure magic.

Steam Sauna Treatment

When it was finally time for the treatment, left the pool with no small reluctance. I needn’t have worried. Nothing in this place could possibly be a let down. The first activity I was able to join was a mystery to me. The name on the schedule was an all caps word I did not recognize and had forgotten by the time I got back to anything I could take notes with. Even though I had no idea what it was, I was ready to explore.  I headed into Halvet (below), a very hot and steamy room, to see what would happen. This picture is nice and clear, but when I went in the room was filled with thick steam and the latticed orbs and windows shone soft beams of warm light.

Plenty of other people had the same idea and soon the benches were full. About a minute later, a young man in a towel came in with a tray of little plastic shot glass looking things that had a lightly golden liquid inside. Having no clue what I was supposed to do, I tried to surreptitiously watch the people around me and discovered it was meant to be applied to the skin. It was a delightfully scented oil! No one seemed hesitant or shy about rubbing themselves with oil in front of each other, and I decided I wouldn’t be either. Friends even helped each other, rubbing oil into hard to reach spots. I was sweating so much I wasn’t sure the oil was going on, but I kept at it until I had used the whole thing. I noticed the others who finished were heading straight to the showers and followed suit.

With only 15 minutes until the next event, I went to lay down in my favorite room, the Odorium (below). I felt like heaven. My skin was singing and so so so soft. The room was cool enough to help me relax from the hot steam treatment while still being warm enough to be comfortable naked. Not to mention my favorite smell of the day. I thought I was going to melt into the lounge chair with sheer pleasure.

Dry Sauna Infusion

The next event was a “popsicle infusion” back upstairs in one of the dry saunas. The dry saunas range from 60°C to 100°C (I didn’t set foot in that one). The infusion room is listed as 90°C (194°F) with a mere 5% humidity. The walls are lined with cedar benches, and a tall cylinder of hot rocks was in the center.

Popsicle infusion was remarkably popular. I have been to naked parties, and gone skinny dipping, but I do not think I have ever been in such a small space with so many other naked adults where no one gave a crap. It’s mixed gender. Men and women together, lining every available seat on the three tiers of cedar benches. Dudes were casually adjusting balls to rest comfortably on the seat, and chicks were wiping boob sweat. There was not one trace of awkward or creepy. The attitude was “sauna” not “sexy”. I felt completely safe and comfortable in a way I can’t even imagine experiencing in the US.

When all the seats were filled, another betoweled employee came in carrying a saucepan and a bucket of ice. He talked a lot and people laughed at certain points. I’m sure the story in German was good, but all I managed to decipher was something about the ice and that the infusion was orange.

When the speech was finished, rock music eased out of the speakers. With some disappointment, he called out to his assistant to crank it up and soon we were well and truly rocking out in these Death Valley conditions. He liberally sprinkled ice on the rocks and I swear it sublimed, going from solid to vapor without even passing through liquid on the way. He then took another towel and used it to fan the steam at us. Not in cute dainty wafting way, no. This was aggressive German air shoving.

You know that blast of heat you get when you open the oven to check on something? It was like that. The force of the hot air hitting us dead on as he went around the room. People put their arms up like in a roller coaster.

Next he added the orange infused liquid. The smell was intense but pleasant, and the moisture in the air was much more noticeable. Once more, he repeated the towel blasting. I was getting into it, but also feeling really hot by this stage and just starting to wonder if I’d have to leave when he picked up the bucket of ice and flung handfuls at the ceiling. It was coarse shaved ice and broke apart on the wooden beams, raining down on us as a cool shower.

As he started on a second round of infused liquid, a girl sitting in front of me headed for the exit. I decided if she could be a wimp, I could too. Honestly it was just as well. I was becoming dizzy and realized I could be flirting with dangerously overheating. I got to some cool water and started to feel better just in time for the popsicles! The staff passed out little orange creamscicles to everyone who had participated. I’d already been thinking that they must have named it the “popsicle infusion” because it smelled like that childhood treat, so the cold fruity reward was the perfect finish.

Break Time

After the intense heat of the popsicle sauna, I took my time to cool off all the way. I had a cold shower, took a walk outside, lay for another rest in my favorite room, and one more dip in the cold pool (18°C) of the Balneum (below).

With plenty of time before the next event, I decided to head over to the sauna’s connected restaurant. You don’t get dressed to eat there, just throw on a robe or towel. It’s separated from the clothed area, and the terraces are protected with shrubbery to keep anyone outside from seeing in. The view was lovely, but the food was disappointing. I ordered the Thai crab soup, which tasted like someone went “soy sauce and ramen that’s Asian right?” It also had no crab or even fake crab, just teeny tiny shrimp. The cheap sandwich I brought in from the grocery store was better. Before you ask why I ordered Thai food in Germany, the restaurant is called “Lemongrass” and claims to specialize in Asian food. However, the staff was kind, and my mood was just to good to want to think about bad food so I just wrote it off, I was planning to pay 36€ that day before I learned about the summer sale. Thinking of it as bad free food it’s much less painful than thinking of bad food I paid for.

Feeling Like Fresh Bread

It would have taken an act of gods to ruin my glow that day, and while the restaurant may have been a let down, good food was the topic of my final experience: the bakery.

It’s a dry sauna meant to be like a red brick oven which is not uncommon in saunas. I’ve seen several in the Jimjilbang in Korea. However at Carolus, there’s actually an oven inside. Although the room is open for use all the time, every couple hours they bake something in the oven while people are there. I read about it before going and it was one of the things I was most looking forward to. I went into the room the same time the dough did and I lay in the semi-dry heat (60°C 40% humidity) dripping sweat and surrounded by the wonderful smell of fresh baking bread. I can’t even properly describe this room other than to say I felt like I was in the oven with the bread…in a really yummy way, not in a gingerbread cottage witch way.

When they were done baking, it turned out to be pretzel rolls. Once she added some coarse salt, the attendant staffer passed around the piping hot treats. They were light and fluffy inside and crispy outside and almost too hot to bite into. It was so amazing to be with the bread and have the aroma as part of the sauna and then get eat it after as I walked around in the fresh outdoor air.

Spa Spell

I never wanted to leave that place. After my baking treatment, I had only about 30 minutes left to visit my favorite highlights one last time before it was time to return to the non-magical world outside. Of course for me, that meant one more float in the musical pool, and a rest in the Odorium to air dry a bit. 

My ersatz towel was completely drenched by this time and would do me no good as a drying method. I was a little worried about carrying my wet bathing suit and sarong home, so I didn’t get back into any of the swimming baths at the end of my day. I underestimated the facilities once again, since the locker rooms had quick spin cycle machines to whip the extra water out of any towels or suits. There were hair dryers, too. I didn’t need one in the summer, but I would have been grateful to see them if I were leaving on a cold winter’s evening.

When I put this spot on my travel calendar, I did not think I could spend 7 hours in a spa with no distractions, but I only read my book for about an hour at lunch. Other than that my phone was locked up the whole time. I didn’t even miss it.  There were many more experiences, treatments, and classes I never had a chance to attend. I thought about trying to find a room in Aachen so I could stay until they closed at 10pm and come back again the next day, but the cost was even more than the bus rides. I thought also about returning another day that week, before I left Lanaken. I could go back every day for a week before I could see it all.

In the end I decided that the euphoria I experienced that day came from the wonderful surprises and the way nearly every part of the day exceeded any possible expectation I had. If I returned and it was anything less than pure magic, I risked disappointment. Lanaken and Maastricht were providing a nearly unbearable number of disappointments already, and I didn’t think I could take another. Better to keep this shining jewel of memory just the way it is. Visiting Carolus Thermen in the middle of some intense emotional turmoil (which I intend to share elsewhere for those interested in my turmoil and growth) was an incredible escape. It elevated me into a realm of calm delight that was not only a pure joy, but gave me the mental clarity to process a lot of heavy stuff. It is and will remain one of the highlights of all my adventures. 


Writing away as fast as I can, I still can’t seem to get all the way to my goal of 2 stories a week. The new semester of classes has brought it’s share of challenges as I try to understand a whole set of course materials and students. It’s also bringing some new joys which may be taking away from writing time. I adjusted my schedule so that I could attend more weekend events out of town. Last weekend, I got to attend my first watercolor class which was a lovely social event and a chance to learn new art skills. I plan on going to book clubs, craft fairs, and of course to some Korean festivals as well. I’m incredibly grateful that I’ve arrived at a place in my life where I get to have so many adventures of all sizes. I’ll do my best to keep sharing them with you, even if it’s not as quickly as before. Thanks for reading! See you next week 🙂

Speelklok Museum: Fads in Music Tech?

They say travel should expand your horizons and change your way of thinking about the world and while I had other experiences like that this summer, for some reason, the Speelklok Museum stands out among them. Do you ever think about how recent changes in technology are impacting your generation differently than people in the past? Well, it may not be as different as you think. Turns out we’ve been having a music technology revolution for at least 150 years, maybe longer.


When I arrived to buy my tickets, I was told about all three different options for exploring the museum that were included in my entry fee: the music tour, solo exploration, and the “Expedition”. I didn’t really know what to expect out of the museum and I could only see a few exhibits in the waiting area. One was this blatantly-racist-but-normal-at-the-time automaton duet. Insert a coin in the slot and the show begins as the robots play a little jazz tune. It’s not a recording with puppets, the machine actually creates the music.

This is a museum dedicated to self playing instruments and music machines that pre-date the gramophone and other recording devices invention and rise to musical dominance. The museum roughly covers the time from 1750-1950, but focuses mainly on the Victorian and Edwardian periods (1840-1910). For reference, the phonograph was invented in 1877 and the first commercial record player was released in 1895.

The Music Tour: Hearing History

The music tour is unique not only because you get a guide to explain things, but because that guide will also activate several of the devices that are otherwise stationary and silent in the museum. Since it’s all about the music, hearing is believing. Music may be a universal language, but Dutch is not. Thankfully our guide was gracious enough to give the relevant information in both Dutch and English.

Speelklock means “musical clock” and that is where the tour began. Although the earliest example of a musical clock is from 1598, the ones we looked at were very advanced members of the species popular in the 1750s. We visited first a white room with many such elaborate clocks on display.

The guide explained a bit about the history of early self playing music starting with bells and pipes. Bells were the first and “easiest”, if that can be applied to such complex machinery. A metal cylinder like that in a music box was used to orchestrate a series of springs and levers to tap small bells of different tones. There was only one length of note and it resulted in some very un-nuanced music, but the Victorians loved gadgets sooo much that owning such a marvel in one’s home was a real status symbol. They were incredibly expensive and very fine. The only way to change the song was to change the cylinder inside.

Pipes were close behind bells, although they were even more expensive and complicated, since they relied on a vacuum seal and bellows system to pump air through the pipes. It did allow for a slightly nicer sound since the length of individual notes could be shortened and lengthened in the program.

I’m going to keep calling these “programs” because that is the word the museum used to describe the different types of devices used to impart the directions to the machines. Over the decades they changed form, but always used a series of bumps and holes rather like early computer punch-cards.. The first use of such a cylinder used to program music was in the church carillons in the mid 1500’s. I sure as heck didn’t know that the idea of programming music was that old, did you?

Many of these early musical clocks also included some simple form of animation. The one we watched had a progression of figures parading through the fields showing the phases of life and inevitability of death… there’s a reason it’s called “Victorian Gothic”.

Kids and Their Newfangled Gadgets

My first real clue that I have spent my life seeing time and history all wrong came a few steps to the left as our guide began to explain the rapid change in music technology. The cylinder, which had been used consistently since 1550 to create musical programs was suddenly replaced by the disc in 1885. Cylinders were heavy, difficult to make, and expensive. Plus, most people had to have them professionally changed out in order to listen to new songs. With a disc, much less material was needed and production could be streamlined by simply stamping each flat disc with it’s musical program. Much cheaper, more efficient, and easier to use.

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But what do you do with your cylinder collection? No worries! The modern wonder of technology created a crossover player with a space for both! What about that new gramophone recording? No problem! Your technological crossover music machine comes equipped with a clockwork organ and a gramophone speaker! Maybe you had a similar device? I know we had a record player with a tape deck… and later a boom box with a tape deck and CD player… and later a CD walk-man that played both .wav and Mp3 discs. And now, a Bluetooth Gramophone? Turns out that fad is more than 100 years older than I realized.

Much like the record to tape to CD to MP3 transition, the musical programme revolution of the 1800’s wasn’t over. The next step? PAPER! The lightest, cheapest and above all longest musical program yet. With paper, you could have a much larger music collection and you could play longer pieces of music, or multiple pieces on a single program. Plus you could print words on paper, giving rise not only to the player piano, but to the world’s first “karaoke”. Friends and family could gather round the player piano and modern favorites would play from the paper program which would display the lyrics in a moving scroll as the music played, allowing those with imperfect memories to sing along. Yes, that’s really how they used it back in 1925. Although it started in early 1900, the paper roll player piano was the height of home entertainment from about 1920-1930 when the stock market crash combined with the rise of other musical technology wiped it out. Talk about a fast fad.

During this time, our old friend the cylinder program achieved some continued use in miniature. Not only in the form of teeny tiny pocket sized music boxes, but most especially inside automata cleverly shaped like people or animals that would come to life and perform to some piece of music. These automata captivated the people of the Edwardian era and were almost as short lived as Edward himself. We got to see a nightingale in a cage (yes, made of real nightingale), an acrobat atop a ladder, a rabbit emerging from a paper cabbage, and a rather singularly Dutch representation of the painter Van Gogh painting his famous “Sunflowers”.

The guide kindly led me back after the tour so that I could see it in action and as Vincent’s arm moves the brush across the canvas to the music, the sunflowers begin to spin as his eyes go wide in representation of the hallucinations he was thought to have.

Clockwork Organs & Orchestrions

Book music put out from reader - Gavioli & Cie fairground organ - rear left - Birkenhead Park Festival of Transport 2012

The music tour continued into pipe organs and dance hall organs. Starting in the late 1800s, the pipe organs used the cylinder method, though often wooden instead of metal. Organ grinders were so called because they had to turn a crank to operate a kind of bellows to keep the cylinder turning and the air passing through the pipes. Earlier pipe organs were displayed on the street and at festivals and often involved theatrical stories and sing-a-long musical numbers to keep the audience engaged with the limited cylinder length.

By 1892, the pipe organs too had converted to paper, although instead of a paper roll, they used a “book” made of cardboard and folded in a zig-zag fashion so that it unfolded into one long piece with all the convenience of a paper roll, but made of a far sturdier material that would withstand the abuse of outdoor performances and travel better than flimsy paper.

Street organs remained popular in the Netherlands until the street organ ban in WWII. They have never really made a comeback, but are still enjoyed as a novelty from time to time. Many of the most fantastic designs were made between 1910 and 1925 including the “Gouden Limonarie” and “The Arab”.

The final segment of the music tour was the orchestrions. These were not merely seeking to produce music from a single instrument, but rather to imitate an entire orchestra. The earliest of these machines was created in 1805. They were fairly limited to the number and type of instruments at first, but quickly expanded to encompass brass, woodwind, and percussion, delighting and astonishing audiences everywhere.

The final and most challenging orchestral section to make self-playing was the strings. In 1910 at the world’s Fair, the first self-player with a string section had it’s debut and was hailed as the 8th wonder of the world. It included three sets of violin strings which could be set to different pitches with different levers acting as mechanical fingers of the left hand and used a “bow” made of continuously circling horsehair that could be lowered and raised to play notes as the “right hand”. It was so inconceivable an achievement that some believed it to be magic until they could see the inner workings for themselves.

While the musical clock and player piano might find their way into any reasonably affluent household, the larger organs and orchestral players were reserved for the ultra wealthy and of course, the dance halls. During their height (again an incredibly brief time ending abruptly in 1930) these orchestrions were the darling of the day, drawing large crowds to dance halls to cut a rug to the mechanical orchestras and marvel at the wonders of modern technology. Because of the limited amount of musical numbers available to each machine, and because of the stunning but stationary artwork on the outside, audiences became bored with a single orchestrion quite quickly. (no, our attention spans weren’t any better a century ago no matter what your grandmother says) To keep the crowds coming, these huge machines were often built to be easily disassembled and moved to play a new dance hall every week. Early 20th century DJs played the precursor to EDM– MDM: Mechanical Dance Music.

The Whitewashing of Buurkirk

When the music tour ended, I was left in a very thoughtful state as I set off to find the rest of the museum’s displays. After returning to some of the machines for a longer look, I found a staircase and went up. It was immediately clear that the museum was actually built into a disused cathedral. Post-travel research tells me this is the Buurkirk and is the largest and wealthiest of the parish cathedrals in Utrecht, having been built in the mid 10th century and suffering from 4 fires and rebuilds in less than 300 years.

It’s only a couple blocks away from St. Martin’s Cathedral, and you may wonder why any town needs so many churches so close together, but I believe St. Martin’s was at the time mainly operating as a monastic center (and a royal palace). Perhaps folks in town could come for masses, but parish churches would have been a bit less formal and also often offered the church space for use in the community during non-church times. I suspect that Buurkirk and the other nearby parish churches were a bit more like community centers and St. Martin’s was a bit more like a place you go for Easter and Christmas but otherwise leave to the clergy and nobility.

The walls, columns, arches, and decorative carvings are painted a crisp clean white except a few places where the original church artwork has been preserved and painted around. The whitewashing isn’t a result of secularism, however, but rather the work of the Protestant reformation which took over the church in 1586 and just hated all that ostentatious Catholic art. Buurkirk was actively used as a church until 1975 and it became the Speelklok Museum in 1984. Wandering among the displays and whitewashed arches, my mind was occupied with the impending massive shift in my perception of humans, time, and technology.

The Expedition

At last, I found the “expedition” part I had been so curious from the moment I bought my ticket. I had been given a card and told it would be used for this segment of the museum. It was not the first time I encountered the idea and I’m still not sure why it exists since it would be just as easy for visitors to press a button to activate whatever the card does. It’s just one more thing to hold in my hands, or more accurately, fish out of my pocket every time I found one of the small silver slots in the wall with a little speaker on cord.

Holding the palm sized speaker up to my ear, I could use the card to activate audio recordings (sadly, not the music machines themselves). The recordings included samples of the music as well as narration about the pieces on display. While some were a bit dry, there was a fun section where I seemed to be visiting a wealthy Victorian gentleman who had the very latest in musical clocks and self playing instruments he eagerly wanted to show off to me. Maybe I liked it so much because it reminded me of a friend who would talk about historical clocks and clockwork with almost the same level of enthusiasm.

Several of the expedition displays included information that the guide on the music tour had given, but I didn’t mind since often it was able to go into greater detail. For example, the fad of “player” instruments stretched well past the piano. The urge to amaze your friends with your musical talents extended to a number of other instruments like this “player trumpet”. Just blow?

Composing for Machines

Room after room of intricate, detailed clocks and devices ended in a small theater. While the card-activated recordings were played for me in English (the choice of language determined by the placement of holes in your card, haha, how clever, just like a music program) the theater had only one soundtrack and it was Dutch. Thankfully, a film of the English words played on a display that I could easily read.

The stage was occupied by a large number and variety of self playing instruments which were highlighted as the story moved to cover them. While some of the information was familiar from my guided tour, I was rather astonished to learn that composers like Mozart, Hadyn, Handel, and even Beethoven had composed music expressly for these wonderful self playing machines.

Wait wait, I hear the music history majors cry, they were alive in the 18th century, late 1700’s composers. I thought you said these machines were popular in the 19th and 20th century! Yes, I did and the museum did mainly focus on these later inventions, but remember the original carillon use of the cylinder program is from 1550. The human operated pipe organ was a popular instrument for composition during the Baroque era. Although Classical era composers like those mentioned above rarely wrote for the traditional pipe organ, some were interested in the abilities of the clockwork organ which was becoming more and more available by the mid 1700’s. Available at least to the reasonably affluent, and that’s who paid composers after all.Freule-open-bewerkt-930x620

The film at the museum said that because the clockwork organ could play combinations of notes not possible by human hands, the composers of the day felt drawn to compose unique and challenging works. Other sources I have since found seem to think that some of the composers disdained the tinny sounding miniature organs and only accepted the commissions for composition out of economic necessity. Either way, I was captivated by the notion because not only were these unique works designed exclusively for a machine to do what a human could not, the composers were actually present during the creation of the cylinder programs and could make adjustments to the timing and length of notes (the most nuance possible for the machines at the time) giving us the most accurate representation of the musical result they themselves envisioned for each piece.

Below is one of the pieces by Hadyn composed for the mechanical organ. Although it was recorded at the Speelklock Museum, it’s not my recording, I found it on Youtube by a Swedish Instrumental Band called Wintergaten. I especially like this video because you can see the organ working as it plays. You can find recordings of other compositions for clockwork organs on Youtube as well: here are a few for Handel, Mozart, and Beethoven. Although most of the videos are not as visually captivating as Wintergaten’s, it’s still interesting to hear these unique mechanical compositions

What Is New Under the Sun?

What started out as a mildly amusing side trip turned into one of the most eye-opening experiences of my summer. Before the invention of self-playing instruments there was no way to hear music without a musician, just as before the invention of the motion picture, there was no way to see a play without actors. It was a revolution in human culture and it happened a lot earlier than I realized.

In a very short amount of time from roughly 1750 to 1930 the culture is constantly demanding and creating new and improved technology. From about 1850-1920, the changes were happening so fast that your home music player would become obsolete almost as soon as you bought it. Meanwhile, in my head, I always pictured the fast transition of music playback to be the one from LP to MP3 that took place between 1965 (the release of the 8-track cassette deck) and 2001 (the release of the iPod).Related imageAnd just like our parents (maybe grandparents), people living in the 1860-1930 range complained that each new development was destroying music, culture, and maybe even the very fabric of society. However will we maintain social standards when people can just listen to music in their home instead of getting dressed up and attending a performance in polite society!?

I admit, I am a little flummoxed trying to imagine a world where music isn’t just there when I want it (and when I don’t, elevators everywhere). We are hardly ever without music. In our earbuds, in our cars, in every shop and most restaurants there is music. I’m listening to music while I write this. I struggle to imagine a world where the only music is that you can make yourself or pay a large number of people with expensive instruments to make for you. The invention of musicianless music is, I believe, an actual moment of deep cultural change on par with the printing press or the assembly line. However, past that huge conceptual change in our relationship with music, the trappings, the delivery systems, those are only small changes, and not as significant or original as we like to believe.

The mechanics might be different, but none of it is new: karaoke, the drum machine, samplers, auto-tuning. It was all there 100-400 years ago in a different form. The more I learn about history, the more it looks like we’ve been reliving the same cycles over and over with smaller and faster machines each time. I don’t find this thought depressing. It makes me look at the progression of time as more of a gradually progressing spiral than a straight line. Yes, it’s a repetitive cycle, but each cycle changes slightly. We’re still moving forward just not at the breakneck speed that the “get off my lawn” crowd would have us believe. Every so often we get a really big “ah-ha” change that sweeps us on to the next series of small change cycles.

So the next time someone says something like “kids these days” or heaven forfend “Millenials are killing everything”, just remember that Mozart programmed music in binary code for a machine to play over 200 years ago. Change is the only constant.


The Speelklok Museum in Utrecht was not the only place this summer that made me reach inside my brain and rearrange the way I look at things, but it was undoubtedly one of the biggest and most compact of such experiences. As I stated my intention is that these stories have no order or thematic relationship to my experiences this summer. Non-linear felt intuitively like a good way to go and after reconstructing these memories and thoughts I start to see why. Sometimes we have to step away from the linear narrative to see the bigger picture. As always, thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll return for more stories as they come.

Gone Travelin’

I try to update this blog 2-4 times a month, but I’m about to embark on a 51 day tour of 8 countries in Europe and I have to be honest, taking time out to write an unpaid blog is not on my itinerary for the trip.

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I will be testing out the speech to text option in Google Docs to see if I can use it to record my thoughts and impressions along the way, but I won’t be able to sit down and compile, edit, revise, and add photos to all of those until sometime in September. God that sounds far away.

This is the largest single travel excursion I’ve ever undertaken and I am so psyched and so terrified. I stayed in Europe for 3 weeks in 2015, but I spend 2/3 of it in my friend’s apartment in Prague and there was basically zero planning. I spent 6 weeks living in Japan after a job ended before I left again, but I had an apartment and I wasn’t “vacationing” I was mainly trying to find another job before my visa ran out.

This time, I’ve structured my 51 day trip with all the detail planning work I learned on my short trips to New Zealand, Malaysia and the Philippines combined.  I’m going to 22 cities in 8 countries and I’m aiming to enjoy a wide variety of famous sites and hidden gems. Bonus, my job and apartment will be waiting for me when I get back!

You may have to wait until the fall to read all about it here, but I will be posting daily photos on Instagram and semi-regular short updates on Facebook. I hope you’ll join me on one or both and follow along as I finally get to enjoy a summer in Europe.

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July 2-7 : Paris!
Catacombs, bike tours, museums both famous and less well known. All the French food I can eat.

July 7-14 : Brussels & Beyond
Boat tour in Ghent, Belgian Brewery tours, Castles, ancient underground ruins, more castles, some wall art, and a whole day dedicated to chocolate!

July 14-21 : Maastrict & More
Castles, caves, cruises, catacombs and one luxurious day at a famous natural hot springs spa in Aachen, Germany.

July 21-28 : The Netherlands North
Den Haag, Amsterdam & Utrecht. Beaches, installation art, Van Gogh, canals, red lights, antiques, and hidden cities below.

July 28-August 4 : Hot for Hamburg
Singing fountains, botanical gardens, street festivals, summer fairs, PRIDE week, night markets, shipwrecks, haunted history museums, and fairy-tale villages right out of Grimm.

August 4-9: Clearly Copenhagen
World’s oldest amusement parks, Hamlet’s castle, the Little Mermaid, more museums, more castles, and at least one anarchist commune.

August 9-18 : Road Trip Sweden
From Gothenburg to Stockholm and back around the beautiful lakes. It’s nature hikes, saunas, and Vikings all the way.

August 18-20 : Next to Oslo
Nordic Fjords, midnight sun, a wood fired hot tub under the stars, and of course more Vikings.

August 21 : Back in the USSR?
A long layover in Moscow gives me time to check out Red Square, the Kremlin and a special Kremlin-lite amusement village & traditional market.

Aug 22: Home Again, Home Again. I arrive back in Korea and have to navigate from the airport in Seoul back to my home in Gyeongju … or maybe spend the night in Seoul, we’ll see how I want to sleep: immediately or in my own bed.

See ya on the road!

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Reflections on Paris, Friday the 13th

This is not a political blog, I am not a journalist. Generally, when I write here it is to share my beautiful adventures and to reflect on the things I am learning while exploring the world. Sometimes, however, things happen that aren’t beautiful and that make me question the things that I learn. So while it isn’t the normal tone, I’m going to take a page and talk about the terror attacks.

When I was in grad school, I studied religious terrorism. I nearly wrote a thesis paper on it, but events conspired and I ended up writing about a cult instead. I haven’t pursued a career in anti-terrorism or international relations, or any of the things I studied in school really, but I’m still completely fascinated with the field and keep up with a lot more international news than is probably healthy for me. So when I got in my car and turned on NPR and heard the BBC reporters explaining the unfolding events of Friday 13th in Paris, I was immediately aware of the depth of what I was hearing, even if I had not fully processed the information. I knew it was going to be big, like 9/11 had been for Americans big.

20150521_090755Then I watched the internet and saw the outpouring of emotions: support for Paris, hatred of Daesh (ISIS), fear of and for immigrants fleeing Syria, anger from Muslims around the Middle East at the West’s ability to ignore violence until it happened to white people, remonstrations and blame in many directions, and fortunately a good deal of “love the whole world” sentiments as well. I started trying to pick apart these views and feelings, as well as understand my own. I changed my Facebook pictures to shots I’d taken this spring when I was in Paris, but I couldn’t bring myself to use the flag filter after seeing so much pain from those in Lebanon.

I’m not proposing that I have any answers. In fact, one of the things that I learned in grad school was that research raises more questions than it provides answers. So I’m going to talk about some things, and share some ideas, and ask some questions. I hope you’ll think about it too.

The Silk Ring Theory

Shortly before this all happened, I ran across an article on my Facebook feed titled  “How Not to Say the Wrong Thing”. 
It explained this issue we have with our reactions to someone in pain, and how we can focus too much on our own pain and forget how to be supportive. The Silk Ring Theory introduces a set of concentric circles with the person most affected in the center ring, and each progressive ring containing the people less directly impacted.
In the case of the Paris attacks, then, those who were injured, or lost loved ones, or even were just at ground zero are in the center circle. Their friends, families, etc who were not there but are still closely connected in the next. Parisians, then French people and so on…As an American who once visited Paris, I’m pretty far out in the rings. The theory also instructs with the motto “care in, dump out” meaning that anything you say to someone in a smaller circle needs to be comforting, and you can only dump selfish or negative feelings outward. Hence the huge outpouring of comfort towards the French people who are ALL in a smaller circle than we Americans is totally appropriate.

But lets look at where we are dumping. Who do we see as being in a larger circle than us? Is it Muslims? Is it immigrants? Is it just anyone who has less historical or personal connection with France? So, if it’s your neighbor who has never been to France, or Australia because they didn’t trade freedom statues back in the day, it’s correct to say they are in a larger circle and you can dump some of your fear and uncomforty feelings their way. But, when it comes to the people of the Middle East, immigrant or not, we have to consider another circle: the circle of Daesh terrorism.

It’s clear that in the Paris attacks, Parisians are right at the center of that circle, however, the reign of Daesh terror is much larger than France and has been going on in the Middle East for arguably more than a decade. The people who have been killed, enslaved, raped, mutilated, murdered and displaced by Daesh are the center of this other circle of tragedy. And for them, the French people and the American people are equally far out in the rings. So, it’s also understandable that they should be frustrated when they see us offering so much “comfort in” toward France while they get ignored or worse, “dumped out” at.

So what do we do when we have two groups of people at the center of their own circles of tragedy who also exist as outer rings for each other? I don’t know. But, we can try to remember what the tragedy is, and who is at the center, and where the people we’re comforting or dumping on are in relation to us before we speak.

The Bandwagon

So, I learned the term Daesh  while I was living in Saudi Arabia. My friends and students taught it to me because it was important to them not to give the radical group any legitimate creedence. The first “S” in ISIS and ISIL stands for the English word “state” and, they argue, it gives too much legitimacy to a rouge group to call them a “state”. The Arabic “al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham” could be argued to translate as “state” or “country” (I’m by no means fluent), but the acronym has also come to mean “a bigot who imposes his view on others” and the group themselves hate it to little bitty pieces. I mean, don’t you think Westboro or KKK would be upset if we started calling them “asshole bigots” instead of using the names they chose for themselves. Bring it.

But when I came back to the US and tried to use the term, or even to explain it to other people, I was pretty universally met with dismissal or curious amusement at best. I changed no one’s vocabulary. It became awkward for me to use the term because no one knew what it meant and I was seen as “showing off” my knowledge or linguistic skills or international travel. The French president and our own VP had both made statements in the news urging people to start using the term and they were ignored too, so at least I can’t take it too personally.

Now everyone is using it. It’s all over facebook and my co-workers are self correcting, “ISIS, wait no, now it’s Daesh” like it’s suddenly changed. I sound bitter, I know. I’m trying really hard to be grateful that more people are becoming aware of this issue and the importance of words giving or taking legitimacy, but I really wish that people could be persuaded to give a damn without first world tragedy being plastered all over every form of media. No one cared when it was Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, etc. But Paris, OMG. It’s like al-Qaeda again, no one cared until New York.

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So, there it is really. Use the bandwagon if it helps us make the world better, but ask yourself why you’re riding it now and where were you when John Kerry and I were trying to get you to say “Daesh” instead of “ISIS”, or why you’re changing your Facebook picture to a French flag right now. I’m not blaming, it’s not like I was on the front lines either. I don’t know if I would have learned about it before you if I hadn’t take the trip to Saudi, but I know the answer to these questions for myself. I needed a personal connection. I needed to see and meet the people who were most affected by these terrorists (it’s not New Yorkers, btw). Not everyone can take a trip to the Middle East, but I bet most of you know someone from there or at least see them around. Maybe take the time to listen to them, hear what they have to say and how they feel about Daesh and the situation in their homeland. Personal connections go a long way to making things real and important.

Why Is Paris More Important?

Which brings me to my next point. Why the heck we’re exploding about Paris after ignoring Iraq, Syria, and most recently Lebanon? My personal connection to the people of the Middle East made me more aware of the contrast. I got to see posts on my facebook from people still living there, connections I made and didn’t want to give up. It was really wrecking to see them so hurt and angry. Some people were simply gently reminding us not to forget about them, but others were angry at the media and at us for ignoring them, and a few even said that France got what it deserved for the way it had been acting. These people weren’t Daesh sympathizers, they hate Daesh, but they were angry at the West too for so many things that it was hard for them not to see the attacks as a kind of retribution or at very least a “now you know what it feels like”.

I wanted this to be more than just “white people” or “rich people” because while I know our culture does over focus on the rich/white, it was hard for me to think that this huge reaction was only from this. Then one of my former Professors from the UW, Zev Handel, put a post up on his wall explaining it in more detail. He starts off by saying what I think we all know and agree with, that all human life matters and should matter equally. The lives of Parisians are not worth more than the lives of Lebanese. But,

“The attack in France is different. Its implications for our lives are vast. First, unlike the attacks in Beirut, it signifies a very real and increased danger for those of us who live in major American cities. The desire and ability of ISIS (or whoever it turns out is behind the Paris attacks) to pursue its political agenda by instigating mass casualties outside of the Middle East means that what happened in Paris could quite easily happen in New York, or DC, or Los Angeles, or Chicago, or Seattle. It’s not surprising that many Americans experienced a more visceral shock from Paris than from Beirut (or from South Sudan or from Iraq or from all the other places in the world that are constantly convulsed by violence).

Second, this event is going to reshape our lives in ways that the Beirut attack never could have. It will change the tenor and possibly the outcome of the presidential election. It will change our military posture and could quite conceivably mean that many more people we know and love will go off to fight wars on foreign soil. It will have immediate and palpable effects on our experiences at airports and public venues. And so on.”

This brings me back around to the idea of personal connections. In the case for compassion, it’s about meeting the people who are impacted, but in the case of taking action, responding to fear or danger, it’s about feeling that impact in our own lives. Most people don’t have a personal connection to the Middle East so it was hard for them to get excited or riled up about the violence that’s happening there. However, we are more familiar with Paris and even if we love making fun of the French, there’s a sort of “nobody picks on my sister but me” feeling to the American responses. And of course, we feel the personal impact on something as simple as increased airport security for our upcoming holiday travel plans.

Paris isn’t more important. But humans have a natural tendency to focus on what affects them most. Instead of focusing on why swathes of humanity only seem to care when it hits close to home (or worse, blaming them for not doing enough) perhaps we can look for ways to help show people how groups like Daesh affect them before they blow up another stadium full of people? How can we make more connections?

The Blame Game

So, in all of this there is tons of blame flying around (I may be guilty of some blamey thoughts myself, too). I mentioned before that some Arabs were blaming the French for their own attack, others blame the West at large for not doing more, plenty blame each other. For their part westerners are blaming all Muslims, the Quran, the refugees and each other, and of course both Bush and Obama.

Brené Brown has some neat insights on blame and why it sucks,  but generally I think most of you know that blame is hurtful and counterproductive. We get caught up in the gray area between trying to understand why something happened and absolving ourselves of responsibility. It’s useful to understand the history behind an event, what led up to it, what contributes to it. As Brené points out, it is our natural tendency to leap to blame as fast as possible.

I’m lucky in that I live in a place where people are generally liberal and tolerant, so I don’t really see a lot of backlash against Muslims or refugees where I am right now. But I see that there are people in my country signing petitions to keep them out, or send them away. I mostly see people expressing concern for immigrants and refugees, but I recognize that the concern stems from responses to threats made by those to are afraid and don’t understand. I’ve lost track of how many different memes I’ve seen trying to explain or metaphor the total lack of relationship between Daesh and the majority of Islam. I’m not sure what’s going to get through to the people who are too afraid to listen, but I recommend Reza Aslan’s work, especially the interview that has gone viral in the wake of the attacks explaining once again how there is no such thing as “Muslim countries” as a single identity.

 

Just as blame is a response to fear and anger, so can be the urge to retaliation. I’m seeing a lot of people out there calling for a fight. France itself initiated several strikes in the days following the Paris attacks. But the reality is that unstructured violence, fear, blame, anger, and misunderstanding are tools for Daesh just as much as AKs and bomb vests. Will the militaries of the world need to take action to eliminate this threat? Most certainly, for they don’t seem the types to give in to logic, compassion or diplomacy. But we should look at these military actions as necessary structured violence, not a triumphant act to be enjoyed or reveled in. And for those of us who are not in the active military service we should remember that our best tools to combat terror are understanding, compassion, and personal connection. If you really want to fight Daesh, do so. But if you don’t want to join the military to do it, try fighting a different way: befriend a Muslim, help a refugee, learn the truth instead of spreading the rumors, invite an Imam to speak at your Church.

I don’t have all the answers. I don’t think anyone does, which is why I go looking far and wide for ideas and insights. I hope that I’ve given you some things to think about, some questions to ask, some ideas to share and maybe even some constructive actions to take.

 

“Queen” Sized: Finding Plus-sized clothing outside the US

This post isn’t really a story of adventure, so much as a hopeful resource for other women like me. Trying to find things online that actually are useful is really hard. If you are a plus (or queen) sized lady with overseas shopping experiences, PLEASE feel free to leave a comment here to help me and others out. If you want to tell me or others like me to go on a diet/exercise regimen, or otherwise insult our bodies, please fuck off.

Yes, I know, Americans are fat. And while some developing nations (not naming names here, you know who you are) are giving us a run for our money in the obesity race, we’re still a nation of large. I’m not here to fat shame, or blame the horrible processed food diet (I think I did that in another post), or soapbox in any way about it. I’m just acknowledging it’s there so I can move on to the rest of today’s blog.

The Plus Sized Shopping Experience

I’m “average” size in America (not by magazine/hollywood standards, but by actual statistics). This means I’m fat in most other countries in the world. And while the US has a growing plus sized fashion market, shopping abroad for many of us can seem like the quest for the Holy Grail.

Living in China (remember I’m not naming names?, well….) I read a lot about how it was quickly increasing in obesity, and I could find clothes that fit, but it was an ordeal, and often involved Wal-Mart. Saudi Arabia (another unnamed name) is full of full figured ladies, but because of the abaya requirement, the clothing options for plus sizes was somewhat limited. I tried to find a pair of jeans there, but everything cute was just about 1 size too small, or it was a huge elastic waisted tent.

Japan was not a place I expected to find anything, but after seeing quite a few larger (my size or bigger) Japanese ladies around town who happened to be dressed quite snappily, I gained some hope. There was a used clothing store across from my share house, and I love thrift store shopping, so I went to check it out. It’s so dang humid here that I really wanted some lighter weight tops that were a little more flattering. To my amazement, I found several in the bargain rack. I have no idea if they were actually intended for large women or if the Japanese tendency to wear clothes that make them look like children playing dress-up just worked in my favor.

Then, after my jeans from the US finally gave out, I realized I really needed to get new bottoms if I wanted to go exploring in the heat. I love my skirts, but, let’s face it, at 90% humidity, everyone gets some degree of chub-rub. I was fairly open to options: leggings, gym shorts, or real pants. But after a whole day of searching, I realized that even the men’s XL was still too tight a fit to be comfy. After more searching online for advice from other expats, I headed back out to a larger mall, to try again at the limited number of stores that *might* have something my size. Eventually, I found some things, but it meant exploring maternity and men’s departments because nothing in the women’s clothes came close.

How to Cope with Being Plus-sized Abroad?

So what’s a girl to do? I have some good news and some bad. There are some tricks that can make your clothing experience better (good news), but you’ll never be able to get exactly what you wear in the US (bad news). Here’s what I’ve learned after 2 years and 4 countries worth of clothes shopping overseas.

1) Adapt your style. In the US you may love wearing skinny jeans and printed t-shirts, or snappy pant-suits, or any number of other styles that you’ve made your own over time. But since you are unlikely to be able to find those exact things in your new country, be willing to change. In Saudi, I couldn’t find jeans for love nor money, but I found about a million beautiful skirts that fit me and looked great. I never wore skirts that often before, but it was there, pretty and cheap. In Japan, the shirts I found were all fluffy, billowy, lacy things, very feminine and “cute”. Again, not my previous style, but they fit well and flatter my shape while keeping me cooler in the Japanese summer.

2) Look around you and ask. Look for other ladies your size/shape, what are they wearing? Do you like it? Ask them where they got it. Make it a compliment. “Oh, what a great dress, where did you buy that?” Consider that another essential phrase to learn in your new country’s language along with “Where’s the bathroom?” and “Another beer please.” Locals often know of smaller hidden stores that cater to special / niche markets that might not show up on a Google search. Heck, if you’re a teacher like me, you can make it a class assignment option and get plenty of feedback.

4) Pack the essentials. Before you leave your home country, or any time you go home for vacation, know what you have the hardest time finding in your size and stock up. I brought extra brand-new bra’s that I knew I wouldn’t even need for 6 months, because I didn’t want to try to bra shop in Saudi. Other hard to find items include undies, panty hose/stockings, and jeans. People often stock up in their luggage on medications and toiletries, but really, unless it’s a weird prescription or super special local brand, you can find these things even more readily in pharmacies and convenience stores abroad than you can in the US, so ditch the things that are easy to replace and make some suitcase space for the clothes you know you’ll want.

5) Shop the local thrift stores. Also called used clothing or second hand shops, places where the local population has donated a wide variety of brands, styles and sizes. In both Prague and Japan, these shops yielded great finds. A pair of jeans in Prague (though too warm for the summer, I picked them up against the eventual fall weather), and several summer weight blouses in Japan. Yes, it takes time to sort through everything, but it can be fun, and if you do find something that fits, you can check the label and maybe find the local shop that sold it the first time.

6) Foreign brands are a reliable standby. I no longer shop at H&M despite their range of plus size clothing because I object to their unethical business practices of using overworked and under-payed women in unsafe conditions. Other places like the dreaded Wal-Mart (yeah, I hate them), or UK brand box stores like Tesco. I hate box stores, but unless you can afford a local tailor, they are your safest bet for clothes abroad. The regular sizes go up to US 12, but often times different styles fit differently, so you can generally find something up to about an 18. In China it was Wal-Mart, in Japan it was Uniqlo, and in Prague, it was Tesco that saved my wardrobe essentials. I love shopping local, but when you simply can’t find what you need, these places can be a good solid backup.

7) Don’t be afraid to stray to other departments. As I mentioned earlier, my pants success in Japan was attributed to maternity and men’s wear. It’s a little embarrassing at first to take some of these items to a fitting room, but not half as painful as my thighs after an afternoon of walking around in a skirt here, and definitely not worth missing out on the adventures. Sure, people may look at you a little funny, but chances are you’re already being looked at funny just for being a foreigner so don’t let it bug you. Find the clothes that fit no matter where the store has put them.

Where have you been? 2 months of blog silence

I realize that I haven’t really updated anyone in a couple of months. My life got a little crazy, but here’s some of what’s been going on.

I left Saudi in mid-May and went to Europe for three weeks with the expectation of a nice secure job awaiting me in Japan. Europe was great. I got to hang out with some friends I hadn’t seen in a long time and to see really cool stuff. It was a great vacation, even if it was accompanied by a cold. During my time of resocialization, I started to emerge from the fog of isolation that had covered my mind during my time in Saudi. To be clear, I don’t blame the country or culture for this, I think it could happen to me nearly anywhere. However, being cut off from friendly socialization for that long drove me more than a little bonkers, and although I knew when I made my decision to leave that it was a problem, it wasn’t until I was back among friends that I started to realize how big of a problem it had been. Take away lesson, make sure I’m in a social setting from now on.

20150521_150241France was epic, I managed to blog a little about that before radio silence kicked in. In 5 days and 3 towns I fell in love with it and am now looking at various options for how to live there for 6mo-1year in the reasonably near future.

Prague is also pretty kick ass. It was nice to be able to just hang out with one of my besties, the beer was amazingly cheap and the clubs were super fun. The weather was awesome and there were festivals just about every other day celebrating something. It was really tempting to just stay there, it would have been a little tricky to get all my visa paperwork done, but there appeared to be plenty of jobs and it was *cheap* to live there. The main thing that sent me moving on was the thought of this nice job waiting for me in Japan.

I’d really tried to do my research and be picky. I turned down jobs in rural areas because I knew I needed to be in urban (social) areas to be ok, and I turned down jobs at pre-schools because I didn’t want to work with tiny tots all day. (more on that later, but my hats off and all respect to early learner teachers). I asked loads of questions and discussed the conditions that were causing me to leave my position in Saudi. I really thought I’d landed at a happy place. I was excited to go and start a new job.

Things started going a little weird when I tried to get more detailed info about my arrival in Japan. Since the nearest airport to Yokohama is in Tokyo, it’s not a short cab ride away. Every other school I’ve worked for (and to be fair that’s only been 3 others) has sent someone to the airport to collect me. These folks tell me I have to get myself from the Tokyo airport to the train station that is nearest the residence. This turns out to involve a 2 hour bus ride and a transfer from the bus to the train line. Additionally, arriving with NO phone (still don’t have a Japanese SIM, btw) I had to call the house manager (not affiliated with the school) who would then meet me at the train station to show me to the house (and collect my rent money).

I’ve done enough travelling that I was able to sort it all out, including getting my luggage delivered to the school so that I didn’t have to try to haul 2 large suitcases and my carry on bags across all that public transportation. But it wasn’t a good omen. As it turns out I was not able to accept the job for a variety of reasons I won’t go into in public, but we are parting amicably.

20150709_145612Other than that, Japan is pretty cool. The weather is down right miserable this time of year, hot and humid. Stepping outside means you need a shower. So I haven’t done much exploring outside the neighborhood. I did make it down to Chinatown in Yokohama, the largest one in Asia, and although I got rained out after a few hours, the weather that day was pretty nice. Most of the rest of the time I think about going out until I open the door and feel the non-airconditioned air. So I’m really hoping that I can stick around through the fall at least and get a chance to see things without melting.

My house is a sweet set-up. It’s called a share house, so it’s like dorms for adults. We get bedrooms that are private, but the bathrooms, showers, kitchen and living room are all shared spaces. I hear that not all the share houses around here are so nice, but we 20150606_150634have a kitchen that looks like the set of a cooking show, and a cleaner that comes in and does a base coat cleaning 5x a week. I have to clean my own room and wash my own dishes, but the rest is taken care of. On top of that, the people who live here are really fun and friendly. I’ve stayed up having great conversations, parties, drinking and even gone out to karaoke a couple of times. Just for eg, last night I made some comment about a post from Facebook about the discussion of economy in the US Presidential race and ended up having a 2 hour conversation with a German, Norwegian, Canadian and Saudi.

I keep thinking that I should be more worried/depressed/anxious about things, after all, I’m about to leave my job without a new one. It’s too hot to do anything so I end up laying around at home binge watching netflix until it’s time to go down to the kitchen to cook and hang out with folks. I think I should feel bad for not taking advantage of being in Japan to go visit temples or beaches or hot springs. But I’m really not. I’m not tripping skipping euphoric happy or anything, but even when I lift up the carpet and peek behind the dresser in my head I can’t seem to find any heart stabbing sadness or spine freezing anxiety waiting to jump out at me. After the near crippling anxiety and depression I was going through the last few months in Saudi, it’s still a little hard to believe.

I’ll start job hunting again once the visa is in (my house is cheap so even part time work will be enough), and I’ll try to find some fun places to go that have AC until the weather turns cooler, but for the most part, I’m coming to terms with the fact that what I need right now may not be a whirlwind adventure, but instead it may be to have a slow lazy summer of watching too much TV, staying up too late, drinking too much and just hanging out with cool people in the kitchen. That being said, blog posts may be fewer and they’ll almost certainly be more about things I’m thinking or feeling rather than about things I’m doing. But that’s OK. Not every part of an adventure is external, trekking to new places and seeing new things outside of ourselves. Sometimes we need to trek inside and sometimes we need to visit the familiar.

To be sure, the tone of my adventure has changed in the last couple months, but that’s part of why my mission isn’t just “teacher & adventurer”, I’m also a learner and a seeker. Thanks for sharing it with me, and I hope you’ll stick around as the next chapters unfold.

🙂

Five Days in France: Pt. 1 – Metz & Reims

My original summer plans had actually involved finishing the school year in Tabuk and then spending two months wandering Europe before returning to the US. All of this turns out not to be true anymore. As much as I loved my students and appreciated the experience of Saudi, I didn’t even realize how unhealthy I had become. I lost physical tone because there was no place to excersice easily, my lunchtime yoga routine had died when the school slashed our lunch breaks, and my mood (ok depression) made it nearly impossible for me to get up the energy to do any exercise at home. I also became mentally unhealthy, depressed and moody, unable to deal with stressors properly and not at all balanced. Being out for just a week made me feel happier and more balanced. So in addition to the extra stress that happened in my last week in Saudi (like the fact that all the teachers got heat exhaustion and had to go to the nurse or hospital), the restoration of my neurotransmitter levels in these last few weeks has really affirmed my choice to leave early.

Between my new job in Japan and the cancellation of my backpacking buddy, I decided to cut my summer break short and will be heading back to work on June 8th. With only three weeks of holiday and feeling a strong need to get people back in my life, I decided my break would be less about seeing Europe and more about seeing friends. My friend in Prague was happy to have me, but had another guest for a few days so I went to meet up with another friend, Miss Vixen Valentine, who was travelling in France to do some research for her Master’s thesis and to do a performance in Paris. So it was that one day into my holiday, I embarked on a road trip across Germany.

I rented a little mini car for pretty cheap and I had GPS on my phone, so after a light breakfast in my hotel, I hit the open road. Germany is really beautiful to drive through. It’s GREEN. I missed green so much. I think I had actually forgotten there were so many shades of green. I made up poetry in my head about the color green as I drove. And I think I also formed a new appreciation for the canola fields that broke up the green rolling hills with swaths of bright sunny yellow. The farm fields would end abruptly in forests as the vallys turned upward then open back up to farmland in the next valley. The gas stations were also really neat. There were these huge rest areas with gas stations, restaurants, bathrooms, and nature areas. The bathrooms cost .70 Euro, but you got a voucher for .50 that you could use at the next stop or toward your purchase in the shop. The coffee machines actually had whole beans and would and brew your coffee fresh when you pushed the button. There were full delis with actual food and not just gas station junk. It was really nice. I tried to follow one of the brown signs to see a cool site, but I never did find it. I didn’t mind the detour however, since I got to see a tiny little town with windy roads and cool buildings before getting back onto the main highway.

The drivers were really polite and took the whole concept of a passing lane very seriously. I had a couple mishaps early on where I didn’t get out of someone’s way fast enough, but I soon figured it out and then really enjoyed the driving experience.   As I got closer to France, the crops changed from  canola to grapes. The only indication that I had left Germany was a tiny blue sign that said France and the language on the road signs changed. It felt just like driving across states in the US, only I think states make a bigger deal about letting you know you are leaving or entering.

Metz, Lorraine Region

After a long but leisurely drive, I finally arrived in Metz. To be honest, I wouldn’t have even noticed this town, let alone spent two days there if I was travelling just to sight see. My friend however had gone to see the river Moselle because it is her family name, and so I found myslf across from the Cathedral of St. Etienne in a tiny little studio apartment overlooking the Moselle river.

Part of me just wants to tell you how terrible this place is, oh awful, don’t go, just so I can keep this little jewel all to myself. But, really, I think it may have been my favorite place in France and I’m strongly looking at how to get an EU work visa for next year just so I can live close enough to visit Metz more often. After settling in with my “luggage” (a backpack), we set off in search of dinner. Restaurants in France don’t typically open for dinner until 7 or 730, and it was Sunday, so even fewer were open. Eventually we found a little Canadian themed restaurant and decided to eat there.

I have been thinking about how to talk about the food in France. I went through several stages of love, disbelief, infatuation, rapture and awe while eating in France and I’ve decided that I really need to write a separate post to do the food justice. So for the moment, I will just tell you the restaurant was ah-maze-ing and I’ll do the blow by blow (or bite-by-bite) later on for all the fantastic places we ate.

We lingered a really long time over the meal and didn’t get back to the room until after midnight, but the gentleman serving our food never once made us feel rushed. We probably didn’t get enough sleep, but we were both just happy to be in such a pretty little town that we got up fairly early. We got ready slowly though, drinking our coffee and researching things to do in Metz as well as trying to figure out where we would go next and where we would stay in Paris. When we set off for lunch, Vixen suggested we ask the local tourist office where a good place to eat was, which turned out for the best because once again we ended up spending more than two hours over an impossibly good meal. When we finally finished our last cup of post dessert coffee we set off for the cathedral.

I don’t have a lot of experience with cathedrals. There are a couple in the US, but of course they aren’t very old. This one dated back to the 5th century. I had been admiring the exterior architecture every time we walked past it, but somehow I had not really been expecting the inside to be as high. I guess I thought there would be floors? So when we walked in and the ceiling just didn’t quit going up, I was really amazed. The building looked like it might have undergone a fire at some point because the stone walls were blackened in places. The stained glass windows also looked like they might have been replaced at various points in history because there seemed to be medieval, renaissance and post modern styles in the window art. There were very few other people in the massive structure, so it was very easy to feel the scale of the building. We walked all around admiring the art in glass, stone and wood. There was a birdsnest organ as well as the main organ, and for a while I just had to sit down and reflect on the sheer number of centuries that this building had been standing and been used as an active place of worship. Seeing this cathedral made me even more excited at the thought of going to Notre Dame in Paris in a few days.

After that, Vixen needed to go to see the Centre Pompidou-Metz, which turned out to be a sort of gallery space that looked like a large white tent and seemed to have a rotation of 5-6 different gallery displays. We ended up sitting in the little outdoor cafe area because I was starting to feel pretty icky. At first I thought it was just some jet lag and maybe allergies, but it quickly became apparent I was getting very dehydrated and also developing a wicked sore throat from my sinuses. So we left the Centre and set off to find a pharmacie on our way back to the flat. The French speaking pharmacist tried to help me out with my bad French, but eventually had to go get her English speaking co worker. She was able to help me find some rehydration powder as well as some throat lozenges which helped a bit. We stopped in a Carrefour to get some water and ended up with delicious fresh strawberries as well.

We passed by the Rue Taison, which is supposed to be a kind of Taiwan town, but other than the large plaster dragon hanging over the street and a few dragonesque signs around, I wasn’t really sure why. The shops are more French than anything else, and I didn’t see a strong presence of Taiwanese food or goods. It was still nice to walk through the little streets and see all the different architecture. Some buildings as old as the cathedral had been re-purposed into shops or hotels next to “newer” buildings that were a mere 200-300 years old. We stopped at a street vendor selling soft serve ice cream, let me just say that nutella-pistachio swirl is a magical idea.

By this point in the day it was becoming apparent that I did not merely have some desert to temperate climate adjustment issues going on in my sinuses, but actually a full-blown travel flu. The downside to so many flights in a row is the enormous exposure to other people’s germs. So we headed back to the flat so I could get some rest while Vixen went to view the river of her family. Somewhat sadly, I slept firmly until the following morning and missed out on the river island and what I am sure was another amazing dinner. Travelling while sick is really no fun since it takes a lot of your get up and go right out. I was feeling a bit less insanely flu-like after a good shower, so determined to keep on with my adventures through France.

Reims, Champagne Region

After some breakfast pastry detours (which I will explore more fully in the post about the food), we made it back on the road heading to Reims. We weren’t originally planning to do anything between Metz and Paris. We’d stopped in Metz to see my friend’s family river and she had a show in Paris. It’s only about a 3 hour drive, but we looked up what was between them just for fun. It turns out that the Champagne region is between them. I sort of vaguely remember when France threw a giant naming fit and everything that had previously been called “champagne” in the US suddenly became “sparkling wine”. This basically meant that in my life, I had never had true champagne. Even my champagne brunch in Dubai was really served with sparkling wine because I was too cheap to go for the Moet upgrade. We decided that we couldn’t really justify driving through Champagne without drinking any, so I looked up several different options for tours and tastings. There was one particularly helpful BBC article that outlined four houses, so we tried to reach out and contact each of those to make an appointment, but we weren’t doing it far enough in advance, because they didn’t email us back until 2 days after we’d left Reims. So if you’re dead set on a particular house, I suggest planning well in advance.

We decided to drive up to them anyway and see if we could get in. The first one we went to was GH Mumm, and the description was a tour of the process of making champagne plus a tasting. They told us we could join the 4pm tour, so we booked our spot and went off to check into our hotel. Our tiny little hotel, Alhambra, was in an interesting part of town, since we were in sight of a sex shop and a tattoo parlor, and also just around the corner from a school. The rooms were small but clean, there was a bathroom on each floor and a shower on the main floor. We were only staying for one night, so it wasn’t really an issue. The manager there was a Berber from Algeria and was very proud of the languages he spoke (7) and very complimentary of my “beautiful” English. Some of our conversation was in English, some in French, and some in Italian (which Vixen speaks quite well), but eventually he helped us by calling one of the other houses we were interested in, and we found out they had an English speaking tour at 4pm also. Realizing that we were only going to make it to one champagne house, we then had to choose based entirely on online descriptions.

The house we decided on in the end was Tattinger. Tattinger started out as a chalk quarry in the 4th century under Roman occupation. Later, in the 13th century an abbey was built on the chalk pits and the monks used the temperature controled caves to keep their champagne at a constant temperature. The abbey itself was destroyed during the French revolution, but the caves and cellars were used during WWII to house women and children, so there are carvings in the soft chalk walls from the people who lived there during the war. Then shortly after the war, the Tattinger family began to use the site for their own champagne. Wise choice. It was really amazing to see all of that history just piled up on itself underground. There were stone stairs leftover from the abbey that had once lead from the abbey to the cellars and now led from the cellars simply into the ceiling. The carvings from those during WWII were alongside chisel marks from Roman tools. And the whole thing was filled with over 2 million bottles of champagne.

Our guide told us about the champagne process, how they use the natural yeast in the fruit for the first fermentation, but add yeast and sugar later on to create the champagne from the still wine. I learned that most champagnes are actually a mixture of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes. Since the later two are black grapes, they must be picked gently by hand to make sure that none of the pigment leakes from the skins to change the color of the juice. The process takes a long time and involves several stages of fermentation, resting, turning and rebottling. I think the most fascinating stage to me was the removal of the sediment from the bubbly. The still wine is bottled with extra sugar and yeast, but it is corked to keep the gas that is released during fermentation in the bottle (making it sparkling).

However, as the yeast dies it forms a layer of sediment in the bottle that no one wants to drink. So there are these racks that gradually change the angle of the bottles over a period of 8 weeks. Two guys come in and turn the bottles and slowly change the angle from horizontal to pointing almost straight down. This process sends all of the sediment into the neck of the bottle. Then (this part is really cool) they freeze the neck of the bottle. This causes the sediment to freeze solid, so when they turn the bottle upright it stays in place, then they simply treat it like a cork and pull it out whole! leaving the clear sparkling champagne behind to be properly corked and placed in storage to age.

She showed us all the sizes of bottles that they distribute in, including a really giant one for extra special occasions. She talked about the different types of champagnes that Tattinger makes, and how they measured the quality of each year’s grapes, still wines and champagne blends to see if they deserved to be marked as vintage or not. I really just expected the structure and tasting to be the cool parts of this tour, but it turns out the whole process of champagne making is way more interesting than I thought it would be. Definitely a worthwhile stop over.

After the tour, we headed up to the tasting room. Vixen and I had bought the three glass tasting. Everyone got to try the Brut Reserve which is their most popular. I was pleasantly surprised at how light it was. I am so used to Brut sparkling wines in the US being very dry and kind of aggressive. This was far from sweet, but it was mellow and bright. Very enjoyable with a sort of amber warmth. The second glass was the Grand Crus, mixed from Chardonay and Pinot Noir in equal measure. It was just as mellow as the Brut, but I felt that it had more notes of fresh green. The third glass was extra special, the Blanc de Blancs which was made entirely from chardonnay grapes (unlike the others which are blended). It isn’t produced every year, but only when the grapes are deemed exceptional at the harvest. It’s only from the first press, and 5% of the wine used to make it are aged in oak barrels before they go into the champagne fermentation. The Tattinger website has a really lovely description of its flavor, and since I am not a sommelier, I defer to their adjectives, I’ll just say that I’m pretty sure it was the best champagne I’ve ever put in my mouth and when I am rich and famous, I’ll order it by the case for Christmas gifts.

We lingered a long time over our tastings and eventually the very nice folks there had to remind us that they closed up at 5:30. Half of our goal for the day was well and happily completed, so all that remained was to find a nice meal. I gotta say, in many ways Reims was a serious let down from Metz. I mean, I understand it’s a small town, but I would think with so many tourists coming through on wine tours that it might have been a little nicer. The traffic was prodigious, so once we made it back to our room, we didn’t want to move the car again until we left the next day, so we set out to find a restaurant we could walk to. Unlike Metz where walking seemed to be the main form of locomotion, Reims almost seemed designed for cars.

We walked to a small tapas place, but ended up not liking the diner menu so we kept going. Eventually we found a tiny fondue restaurant and decided to try it. More about all the wonderful food that was that place in the France food post, but it was amazing, keeping up with all our food experiences so far, and our waiter was a really cool guy who totally didn’t freak out at all when Vixen knocked the burner over and set the table on fire. We tried another new after dinner liquor and as I was complimenting our waiter on the amazing chocolate mousse that came with our desert, he decided to share another local wine with us! So it was that we found ourselves sitting in a tiny Swiss themed restaurant after hours finishing off a bottle of something local and delicious while chatting with our waiter as he ate his own dinner, meeting the owner (and his twin brother) and finding out about the local club/show/dj scenes in Reims. I. love. my. life.

The next morning I set out a little early to find us some pastry and coffee for the road. This is how I learned about the school nearby and passed the Reims cathedral. I stopped at a bakery and got chocolate croissants, but they didn’t have any coffee, so the man directed me 100 metres past the school to a shop that would have some. When I got there, I saw some folks enjoying an early morning glass of wine, giving me just one more reason to adore the food culture of France. Suitably armed, we hit the road for our last stop in France: Paris.

to be continued…

From Saudi to Czech

Sorry it’s been so long since I’ve added anything here. Since leaving the Kingdom I’ve been having a lovely time travelling in several countries and hanging out with some friends who have also made the exodus from the US. I also caught a fun cold/flu thing which has had me moving a little slow and maybe not writing as much as I wanted. Tomorrow I’m heading off to Japan to start my new job and the next chapter of my adventures. It may take me some time to share all the amazing stories from the last 3 weeks, especially since I’ll be settling in to a new home/job/life soon, but I promise it will all get out there.


 

Leaving Saudi was a strange feeling. I didn’t feel any particular sense of relief or sadness, it just felt like walking out the door on a normal day. I had some last minute Saudi style adventures because my driver forgot about me (despite having been reminded only the day before) and the airport in Tabuk did not check my bags all the way through to my final destination. During my 5 hour layover in Jeddah, I managed to track down someone about the bags, because I did not have time to pick them up at Charles de Gaul and change planes. At first they tried to say there was nothing they could do, but I’d been in Saudi too long to accept that as an answer, and eventually got a manager who made someone go and find my luggage and reissue the stickers. And thank goodness, because I barely made it to my connecting flight in Paris.

After seeing several other ladies in the Jeddah airport dressed in non-Saudi clothes, including one Indian woman in a midriff revealing sari, I decided I could pack my abaya before boarding. It felt strange to be surrounded by people in a public place that way, but I noticed even more ladies had changed as soon as they boarded the airplane. Still surrounded by so many thobes and abayas, I felt oddly exposed in my modest western clothes. Once again I was asked to change seats to spare some man the trial of sitting next to a woman, and then had to explain to the French lady who I was seated next to what was going on. She had simply been catching a connecting flight from Kuala Lumpur and had no context for the Saudi airline custom.

When we arrived in Paris, she warned me about the poor organization of the CGD airport, and I said that after living in Saudi, nothing like that could really phase me anymore. A Saudi man turned to me and said that I sounded like I didn’t like Saudi, so I started to try to explain my mixed feelings and point out positive things, but as soon as I mentioned I had lived in Tabuk, his expression completely changed. Oh no wonder you didn’t like it, I’m sorry you had to live there, etc. We chatted a little about my week in Jeddah and how different it was, but even a native Saudi who was proud of his country expressed understanding for my frustrations when he found out where I’d lived.

My flight neighbor was right about the airport. Not only did the airline check all our passports as we disembarked, but we also had to go through passport control for the EU there in CDG regardless of our final destination. The security area seemed to be malfunctioning, so they asked me to take off my “jacket” so they could use the wand. This was really just a long sleeved shirt over my sleeveless shirt, and I was pretty upset about having to remove it, since I felt like they were asking me to take off my shirt while the ladies still wearing abayas were not asked to undress. After all the respect and privacy accorded to women in the Middle East airports (not just Saudi, but Jordan, Egypt and Dubai), this was a real wake up call that I was back in the West.

The line for customs was enourmous and I would not have made my flight if I’d waited patiently, but the people around me encouraged me to simply skip up and explain to others that I had only 15 minutes to make my connection, and this actually worked, no one got upset at all. I saw some other people try to walk up to one of the airport officials with the same plea and get turned back, so I’m glad I decided to rely on the patience of my fellow travellers to get up to the head of the line. I made it to the gate at final bording call! I didn’t actually realize this was passport control until much later because there was no bag searching and no declaration forms, they simply stamped a date in my passport and waved me through.

I had a big surprise arriving in Prague because I didn’t have to do any customs or passport control there at all. My friend explained to me that it was because I had done it in Paris, so that crazy wand search and little passport stamp were all the security I needed to be in the EU. We picked up my rental car and for the first time in over 8 months I was driving again. It’s so peculiar because the entire time I lived in China, I never even wanted to drive. To be fair, there was great cheap public transportation and prolific taxis, plus the driving was kinda scary. But somehow, being stuck in a place where I could not drive and could not move independently with public transport made the feeling of being back behind the wheel nearly euphoric.

My friend met me at the airport and guided me back to her apartment. She’s also a teacher and you can read about her adventures here. Some nice young men from her TESOL program showed up just as we did and helped move all the luggage up the three flights of stairs. Then we set off to find food, which turned out to be this amazing little restaurant called Martin’s Bistro wherein I had some really phenomenal food, the likes of which I really hadn’t had since the last time I was in Dubai.

On our way back we ran into a wine festival in a public park area and ended up getting happily buzzed on local Czech wines. I discovered Clarets and straw-wine, both of which I hope to cultivate a longer relationship with in the future. I also got a frozen yoghurt that was fresh made and mixed on the spot with frozen cherries for a fruity soft serve in a light and crispy waffle cone. The weather was simply perfect, sunny but not hot, and the live music was fun. It felt like the entire world was trying to welcome me home. As if that weren’t enough, we went with some of her classmates to a traditional Czech pub for dinner where I ate the heavy but delicious local food and watched the Russians get way too excited about the hockey game on TV.

Because I’d really only slept for a few hours on the flight from Jeddah to Paris, the whole thing felt like one really long day in which I’d woken up in my apartment in Tabuk and somehow been warped into this quaint Eastern European utopia of wine and food where I finally fell asleep. Little could I have known what else the universe had in store for me as I continued my journey.

 

The Long Journey to Tabuk

Its been a while since I was able to make an entry, in no small part because my visa finally arrived and I had to scurry to pack and get on a plane. What follows may be a little long, but it is the story of how I have come to Tabuk, KSA from Seattle, USA.

Seattle to Frankfurt

The first leg of my journey involved a flight on Condor airlines to Frankfurt. Now, I admit, I haven’t flown into Europe as an adult before, so I was going from memories of flying in and out of China as to how much luggage I should be allowed, because I needed to start packing before I got the plane ticket from my company. After packing and repacking about 3 times, I got the reservations, and read the Condor luggage policy. This may be a great budget airline if you’re going on a short trip or vacation, but for moving overseas, the luggage restrictions and prices for breaking these make you think stereotypically negative things about Germans.

One 23kg checked bag, no more than 158cm (add height, width & length), and one carry on, no more than 6kg. !!!!! I had to buy new luggage two days before leaving because mine was a few cm over size. I had to repack 3 more times, stepping on and off my bathroom scale trying to make sure the suitcases didn’t go over weight.

Finally after 4 days of fighting with my luggage, and a roaring karaoke send off by my friends, I was on my way to the airport (thank you Magic Rob for the ride). The entertainment was also lacking. Although there were nice high-tech touch screen tvs in every seat, if you wanted to watch anything, it cost extra. During the Great Luggage Siege, my roommate had gone online and ordered gluten free meals for me on the flight (also cost extra). This turned out to be a really good call, since not only did I get to eat the food that was served, it was much better than the stuff everyone else got, and I stashed away my extra snacks for later, which turned out to be the best thing I could have done because…

Frankfurt Airport

This may be the worst airport in the developed world. Do not fly through here if you can avoid it. There were no eateries. The only shopping was the duty free shop, so unless you wanted chocolate, there was no food available anywhere in the concourse.IMG_0008 This is fine if you’re passing through quickly, but I had a seven hour layover after my ten+ hour flight from Seattle. No food, no coffee, and the ONLY bathroom was at the far end of the terminal on the third floor.

In fact the only nice thing about the airport were the cots that lined all the walls where travelers could enjoy a nap. We even had to go back through security even though we’d all just gotten off the plane. On the far side of security there was another duty free, a tiny expensive cafe, and (thankfully) another bathroom, but not much else. I was told by another weary traveler that Munich airport is much better, so if you have to do a layover in Germany, maybe best to try that one instead.

Frankfurt to Riyadh

Lufthansa, in case you were wondering, same basic service as Condor, but less extra costs. The special meal was free, and the tv was free. I realize these are small things, but when you’re traveling for days, it really starts to matter. Any further review of this leg of the journey would devolve into movie reviews, since I took the opportunity to see a couple summer films that I’d missed out on.

Riyadh Arrival

IMG_0012Approximately 24 hours after I left Seattle, we touched down in Riyadh. From the final approach, the city was a field of lights. It is very flat, uninterrupted by trees, or bodies of water, just miles and miles of lights. Before getting off the plane, I fished my abaya and hijab out of my carry on bag, like most of the other women on the flight, so that I could be appropriately dressed as soon as I set foot on Saudi soil.

The airport was clean and beautiful. Contrary to many other stories I had read, I had a very smooth trip through security and customs. First, at a sort of immigration area, all first time visitors to the country had to register finger prints and face photos. Rows of individual desks, the clerks behind glass were all dressed in the traditional Saudi men’s wear of the white Thobe and red and white checkered Shemagh. The line I joined was having some trouble with the fingerprint reader, and the man there was clearly frustrated, but still nice to me. When I finally was sent to the next kiosk over, that gentlman spoke some English, and we exchanged pleasantries, including the seemingly obligatory conversation when someone finds out I teach English, a joking request for tutoring and an unspoken fish for a compliment on their current level. Customs didn’t even have a declaration form, and all we had to do was run our bags through an x-ray one more time.

Then I was out, and my driver was waiting right outside the doors with a sign. He was a very friendly young man from the Philippines who had been working as a driver for three years. His family is still back in the Philippines. When he asked me which state in America I was from, and I told him Washington, he proudly announced that the capitol was Olympia and that the state was located in the northwest next to Canada. Honestly, it sounds silly, but I was impressed. I felt like this guy was really interested in the world, and trying to learn things even though he was stuck driving a van so far from his home and family for so long.

On the drive to the apartment where I would stay until my next flight, he pointed out many landmarks to me, inlcuding the Princess Nora University, which is the largest women’s university, and boy are they not kidding. He told me as we spent several minutes driving past the campus that students took a train to get across the campus because it was so large.

In Riyadh

IMG_0015I was put up in one of the teacher apartments. It was large, to be sure, but I have to say I’m pretty happy that I’m not living there. It bore some sad resemblances to my place in China: dirty, falling apart, and the shower was just a showerhead in the wall with a drain in the bathroom floor. The bed was pretty, but it became obvious quickly that this was an illusion, since it was just a sham cover over an old mattress. I actually got a fabric burn on my leg from sleeping on the rough material. There was no food awaiting me, and not even any toilet paper in the bathroom (fortunately, I always travel with some).

But, fine! I think to myself, I’m going to be out on a flight the next day to a luxurious western compound in Al Ahsa, I can handle this.

Yes, I said Al Ahsa, not Tabuk, just keep reading.

So, after a few fitful hours of sleep, I head downstairs to meet the driver to be taken to my medical exam. Sadly, the friendly Philipino was gone, and in his place a recalcitrant Indian. Not mean, just not really interested in making conversation. I tried to ask him if we would be coming back to the apartment before heading to the airport later that day, and he said my flight to Al Ahsa was canceled, and I was staying in Riyadh. !!!!

I rode to the medical exam in shock and silence. Not only was the apartment really shabby, but the neighborhood was bleak and barren. There were no nearby shops or markets, and the area seemed under a long term construction project. Was I really going to be stuck there?

I watched the city go by through the darkly tinted window of the company van. In the residential areas, once we got out of our shabby area, I could see the palace like homes of the wealthier Saudis hiding behind sand colored walls. In the more industrial areas, the city reminded me a lot of China. All the pictures I’d seen of Riyadh online made it look like a sleek metropolis, but in reality it seemed every building was under construction. Incomplete skyscrapers were adorned with scaffolding and cranes. Piles of dirt and rubble piled up in construction sites and huge concrete frames of buildings sat, seemingly abandoned in the middle of being built. In its advertising sense, everything was either sand colored or tremendously gaudy. Nearly everything was in English and Arabic, so I had very little trouble reading the ads and shop signs. Fast food and American brand restaurants were clustered together between clothing and furniture shops. Nearer the end of the ride, we passed through a small market area where men sold fruits and vegetables on carts in the street in front of smaller less Western looking shops. Nearly everyone I saw was male. Only a couple of black shrouded figures broke up the all male continuity of the area.

The medical exam went quickly, as all they needed was blood, urine and photos. On the way back, I asked the driver if we could pick up some food, since I hadn’t had a meal since the flight into Riyadh the day before. He seemed to soften up a little at this point, and began talking about the market options. He wasn’t sure if the supermarket was open at that time on a Friday, but he promised if it wasn’t, we would find a convenience store, then he would come back for me after Duhr prayer to try again.

Things Get Scary

The market turned out to be open, hooray. He dropped me off at the door, saying I should go on and do my shopping, and that he would park the car and find me inside. Still unsure of how long I would be in Riyadh, I didn’t want to buy too much and not be able to take it on the plane, so I got some chicken biryani, some yogurt, some fruit and some chocolate. I paid for my purchases and stepped back into the air conditioned space between shops, looking for my driver, but he was nowhere to be seen.

I am a good adventurer. I am usually well prepared, having the name, phone number and address of where I’m staying available on hand. A lot of hostels offer little cards at the check in desk so you can just show them to a taxi driver. I usually get myself from place to place, and tend to spiral outward from easy landmarks. None of this was any good in this situation. I had no phone, and the phone numbers I had for anyone in Riyadh were all in my email. Aside from this, I had no idea where I was staying, no landmark or point of reference, no name of a hotel, just an anonymous apartment complex somewhere in the sand colored city. And even if I knew, how could I, as a woman alone, possibly catch a taxi?

I didn’t panic, at first. I walked around the mall’s central area a few times, but to no avail. I’d like to think that low blood sugar and sleep deprivation were the primary cause of my emotionality, but this was one of the scarier situations I’d found myself in. I knew, logically, that the driver couldn’t possibly leave me. He was employed by my school, and I’m sure he would be in lots of trouble abandoning a teacher, so I knew this couldn’t be the case. But I had no control, no back up plan, no ability to be self reliant. Thoughts whirled around my head: could I maybe approach another foreigner for aid? would they let me use their phone to look up the number and call for help? What would happen if the mall closed for prayer while I was still alone?

I wanted nothing more than to find the ladies room and have a good cry, but I couldn’t risk being out of sight in case my driver turned up. So, I sat in what I hoped was a visually conspicuous place near the main entrance and waited. Suddenly the whole journey caught up with me. The luggage, the lack of sleep, the horrible Frankfurt airport, the lack of food, the shabby apartment and the massive uncertainty. Tired, hungry, lost and alone, feeling more helpless than I had in any other similar situation, I pressed a tissue into my eyes to keep from becoming a spectacle in public.

After an indeterminate amount of time, the driver finally descended the escalator. He had several shopping bags. I was so amazed that he would take his time shopping here without even letting me know!

On the way back, I think he might have sensed I was unhappy, because he tried to tell me some other helpful things about our neighborhood. He pointed out where there was a small market about two blocks away and drove slowly by it so I could see the streets and landmarks clearly. He also made sure I had the internet password before he dropped me off.

I managed to log in, and get to my email before finishing my meltdown. The school had decided, since I requested to work in Jeddah that they would move me to Tabuk instead… This makes no sense, and also means I don’t get to live in the super luxurious compound at Al Ahsa which had a pool, a gym, a jacuzzi and a resident masseuse. Some friends from Seattle spent a while talking me back to sanity, and the chicken biryani helped a great deal. I pretty much spent the rest of the day sleeping as the jet lag finally caught up with me.

Riyadh to Tabuk

The Riyadh airport that seemed so welcoming when I arrived at the international terminal became a daunting mass of conflicting instructions once I was in the domestic terminal. I knew that I would need to pay for my second bag, but what I did not know was that this would mean about 30 minutes of wandering all over the terminal looking for where to do this… at 430 am.

Security was also interesting. There was a ladies line for security which turned out to be a shorter line and a largely hassle free experience. After putting my carry on bags on the machine, I stepped into a separate area to go through the metal detector. When it beeped as I walked through, I realized I’d left a metal hair clip in my hair. I took it out, thinking I would need to walk through again, and indicated the offending metal object to the female security personnel there, and she simply waved me on!

My steel water bottle fell out of my bag on its way through x-ray and it took some pains to retrieve it. At first I simply tried to get someone’s attention to ask about it, but the one person who I got responded that he didn’t speak English. Unwilling to give up on my favorite canteen, I looked around the area for it, and finally spotted it under the conveyor belt. After a few more tries, I managed to get the security guys to look at me, whereupon I pointed to the bottle where it had rolled on the floor. I don’t think they were trying to be rude, it felt more like they simply couldn’t imagine that a woman would be trying to talk to them.

They seemed surprised when they finally realized I was addressing them, but once they spotted the bottle I was pointing to, they quickly retrieved it for me.

The terminal was interesting, full of kiosks selling coffee, ice cream, snacks and sweets. A crowd of young men were gathered near a sign that advised there was a 200 Riyal fine for smoking there, but that the smoking room was that way. They posed, in defiance or self-importance, or simply lack of caring, a variety of traditional thobes and modern jeans and t-shirts, smoking their Marlboros next to that sign. I managed to find a bottle of water, using the last of my US currency to purchase it, and receiving my change in Riyals.

When it was time to board, we huddled up around the gate. I didn’t expect neat lines, because I was warned, so I just pretended I was boarding a bus in China, and was fine. Once we got past the gate, we were led downstairs and outside into a bus… which then drove us for quite a ways to an airplane just hanging out on the tarmac with a staircase. I may never know why.

The flight attendants had the cutest little blue hijabs with a little built in hat. They also wore pants suits instead of abayas. It was interesting to see how professional women dressed and acted differently. The nurse at the medical exam place had been the same.

Tabuk

IMG_0026After collecting my luggage I headed out and found a friendly [redacted] named [redacted] holding a sign with my name. He turns out to be the [redacted] on the men’s side, but had taken it upon himself to come and greet me because the driver didn’t speak any English. We chatted on the short ride to the hotel, and I got some details about life in Tabuk. The hotel where we live is nice enough. Nothing compared to the compound I was expecting in Al Ahsa, but its walking distance from a good shopping market and several smaller shops and restaurants.

After helping me get my things to my room, we went down to the grocery store so I could pick up some things. I didn’t really know what to get, yet. Last time I did this kind of thing, I made oatmeal for breakfast and ate every other meal out. But its not far, so I can go back on my own when I figure out what I need.

We’re going to get dinner at the Schwarma place next door in a bit, and tomorrow I start work.