Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Final Days and FAQ's

I'm back and better than ever! Well, let's say I'm back and more relieved than ever. Though today's the day I should've been arriving back in New York, I've actually been here since Sunday morning. On Saturday morning I found myself at the Dublin airport sending Nathan off and decided to hop on a plane myself. It had been a long, hard 6 weeks of travel and I was simply too exhausted to do another 3 days on my own.

That being said, our week in Ireland was wonderful. It was relaxing and fun and Nathan picked a really great mix of places for us to visit. We did a good amount of driving (or I should say Nathan did) but got to see a varied mix of spots and get a good overall impression of the country. After Mullaghmore, we headed on to Doolin which is a tiny town known for its live traditional music scene. Now, you might be picturing Austin, Texas with a drop more whiskey or Nashville, Tennesee covered in tartan plaid but Doolin actually has a whopping 3 bars that offer live Irish music. And that makes it the live music capital of the country. Seriously. I hate to say it, but we were slightly disappointed in the music scene in Ireland as a whole. We kept expecting to walk in to bagpipes or fiddles or traditional dancing but the majority of the time we actually found lone guys with guitars...and drum machines...singing The Monkees. Guys with guitars would've been fine but the drum machines were unbearable. And The Monkees? Really? Is that really what American tourists are aching for? Well, if they were all my Mom then yes, they would be but come on, Ireland! At least Doolin was free of these two plagues but the music was still less than stellar. Nathan and I may be spoiled seeing that his Mom plays fiddle, both he and his Dad play guitar and we see incredible live music in the States all the time but I still expected a bit more from the Irish music scene.

From Doolin we took the ferry out to the farthest and largest of the three Aran Islands, Inishmore. It was absolutely my favorite stop in Ireland - filled with the requisite cows, sheep and horses but like a little time capsule of what Irish life must have been like centuries ago. Yes, it has bicycles, ice cream shops, a few cars and a small airport but the whole mood there is just about enjoying time and taking in the gorgeous scenery that envelopes every single inch of the place. After spending a full day exploring the island on bikes, we hopped on the afternoon ferry back to the mainland and drove onwards to Athlone, a city in the Midlands region. When telling a Dublin couple about the last stop on our trip they asked, "Athlone? Can you cancel?" I guess its reputation isn't great but we found it to be a fun, funky little town, or at least the Left Bank section where we stayed was. It had lots of little restaurants and shops and the oldest pub in the British Isles, founded in 900 AD! Our B&B there was quite "eclectic" with a maze of old, dark, wooden stairs and some sort of taxidermied animal bearing its teeth in the lobby but it was a nice change of pace from the more traditional and proper ones we'd been staying in all week.

The next morning we awoke at the absolute crack of dawn and made our way to Dublin airport. I got the next flight I could to London, had some nasty struggles with payphones, ticketing agents and airport internet kiosks and somehow found myself in Newark, New Jersey in the wee hours of Sunday morning. Since then, I've found that lots of people have been dying to ask me the same questions over and over which I know is just a means of making smalltalk but efficiency obsessor that I am, I figured I'd do some FAQ's so that I can answer everyone's questions upfront and then when I see you in person you can skip right ahead to, "What directions did the toilets flush?" or some equally pressing tidbit. So here we go! (Note that I'll be playing the role of interviewer and interviewee in tonight's production but if you have any other questions you'd like answered and you think others might enjoy, leave them in the comments or on my Facebook page!)

FAQ's - Finally Answered Questions

What was your favorite place that you visited?
What? No, you can't name 3. Okay, fine.

My first favorite was the town of Corniglia in Cinque Terre, Italy. I remember being there and thinking, this is it, this will be my favorite place of the whole trip, but I also really enjoyed the little medieval town of St. Paul de Provence and the Aran Island of Inishmore. There's a definite theme that unites the three: very small, rural, historic villages overflowing with their own unique character. Each one was unlike any other place in the world. Oh also, I really liked my trip out to Eastern Serbia because the towns were so unlike what I expected and really beautiful and peaceful. So those 4. I'll stop now.

What was your favorite food that you tried? Follow-up question, are you going to be a meat eater now for good?! Pretty please?!

Does coffee&Baileys count as a food? No? Hmm, okay, I'll go with pretty much all the desserts in Italy: gelato, frozen yogurt, cannoli, tiramisu, etc. I also really came to love the tradition of tea in England and Ireland. I've always been a tea drinker but NEVER with cream or sugar and usually I like a little kick of fruit or flowery essence but the Breakfast tea in the UK was perfect as is.

As far as eating meat, I am for now but will probably meander back towards the vegetarian side with an occasional dabble in bacon. Meat tends to be one of those things that sounds amazing (Coconut fried chicken with spicy mango dipping sauce? Yes, please!) but then never lives up to my expectations and leaves me feeling icky. At least with vegetables I still feel like a good person after my meal. (Just kidding, I'm actually not a vegetarian for "moral" reasons but it's a nice jab to pull out sometimes.)

What's it like staying in hostels? Are there bedbugs, weird people and/or hot water?

Hostels are fantastic. Seriously. Every single one I stayed at was as clean as any mid-range hotel and the staff was incredibly accommodating. The atmosphere definitely reminded me of being in summer camp or living in a dorm at college but less screaming and more meaningful conversation. 98% of the other guests are people in their 20's who are down-to-Earth, self-sufficient and love to travel. What more could you ask for? Seriously, if I could live in a hostel I think I might. It was one of the only places where I've ever felt like I'd found kindred spirits, where people weren't in the least surprised that I'd quit my job to travel (heck, they probably did the same) and shared similar interests like hiking, being a weirdo who takes photos of food and sitting around drinking wine while recounting stories of the 2% of crazies who stay at hostels. The one time I "treated" myself to a hotel in Bologna was weird and pretty lonely. I met some really awesome people at hostels and will keep in touch with many of them.

What's it like traveling alone as a female in her 20's? Any bad experiences?

Being a naturally overly cautious person, I took more precautions than the normal person might. I didn't go out by myself after dark, I stayed in touristy areas and I often asked staff members for safety recommendations. I'm a pretty modest dresser by nature and even though I didn't necessarily dress like those fashionable Europeans, I had loads of people come up and ask me for directions in the local language so I must not have looked too out of place! I attribute that to my naturally occuring "angry and on a mission" look which people think only natives, brimming with locally induced scorn, sport around town. Little do they know that all New Yorkers, in or out of their habitat, have it too! The one time I had an experience where I felt a twinge of danger, I took a winding, roundabout route back to the hostel, befriended someone and ventured back out with them.

I ran into a few other travelers who experienced safety problems and both were traveling in pairs; two guys who were pickpocketed in Barcelona and two girls who had a purse stolen in Florence. Traveling alone almost seemed to be safer because I never let my guard down and I was suspicious of pretty much everyone. Okay, so I have trust issues, but I survived without experiencing any real problems. At the same time, I was exhausted from constantly being on the lookout. There was probably some middle ground in there but I never found it.

Any lessons you'd like to share?

My first lesson would be book it all in advance (except the trains, I think that whole Eurail pass thing is a crock) but be flexible. That means, plan on doing, say, 2 days in Brussels but change your plans if you're bored after 20 minutes. Last minute changes are pretty doable and can be more exciting and refreshing than sticking to your original plan.

That being said, my second lesson would be: Know yourself. Do you like museums? Or maybe you prefer sitting in a cafe and observing present day life. Do you make the best of less-than-ideal situations like boredom? Or maybe you have mini-meltdowns. Your family, friends, fellow travelers and everyone and anyone who can will give you advice about where to go, what to see, what to eat and how to take photos ("If you don't do the holding the Leaning Tower of Pisa thing, I'm never talking to you again!") Take them all with a grain of salt. Though your grandmother lives and breathes by Marc Chagall, perhaps visiting his grave in a tiny Provencal village you can only reach by public bus isn't the best way to spend your only day in France. If it's her dying wish, that's another story.

Oh yeah, what are you doing for a job now? Loll about the house and be a professional bane on society?

I'll get some sort of employment...eventually. Nathan and I head to Alaska to visit my good friend, Danielle, on August 10th and when I get back on the 21st the job search kicks into high gear! Yep. High gear. Or any gear. I told myself I could have the summer off from working and I'm pretty sure summer technically goes 'til what? Like November or something? That being said, if you'd like to employ me, let me know!

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