Luck and Gratitude

After all the negativity I was spewing in my last blog post (hey, that’s the point of a blog – open area for complaining!), I thought it was important to follow it up with something highlighting that I do feel positively here as well!

As someone who pretty much lives on the Internet (don’t all we Millennials do that?) I was happy to come across this Thought Catalog article, thinking it would be an interesting read for someone about to/kinda currently traveling the world.

There are definitely parts I agree with: you gotta hate those jerks who are all, I’m 25,687 times better than you because I’ve seen more things and done more traveling and had all these life-changing experiences. But you know what? Travel CAN be a life-changing or at least mildly life-altering experience for the person, depending on what part of their life they want to adjust and how travel accomplishes that.

It’s not that I seek the become a better person by traveling the world, but I do seek to be brave while keeping calm, in whatever circumstances I can. Sometimes that is doing something “normal” within my “normal life:” going to a conference for work. Going out on a night I would rather stay in, with people I don’t know too well. Travel is just another piece of that which allow me to step out of my comfort zone.

The top emotion I feel whenever I am traveling and see a supposed life-altering site is gratitude. Gratitude that I am able to do this, when 50 years ago it would be unusual for a solo woman, 100 years ago technologically difficult to do, 200 years ago it was all just chaos (obviously). Even though I have worked hard to achieve this (NOT TO BRAG OR ANYTHING), there were a lot of factors in my life and in my culture allowing me to reach this point.

And so I take a deep breath and thank my lucky stars that I live now in my life and I have the opportunity to be brave. I have the opportunity to see things as close by as a relative’s backyard:

Or as wider example of what’s in your “backyard” – that just so happens to be overlooking France:

Or the place that was the so-called “dream destination” for so long and suddenly became incredibly attainable – twice:
Or even the place that you longed to leave and now have a slight twinge inside to return:

The uneasy part of living the dream

I know how lucky I am: for the simple basic facts of my existence and place on this planet, as well as for what’s happening now. I’ve had plenty of people tell me how jealous they are of me, because I get to live rent-free in London and work in a job directly related to my career plan and do exotic things like jet off to the Continent for the weekend. In many ways, I am “living the dream” – at least my dream, at least for right now.

I acknowledge this, I accept this, I am grateful for it. But sometimes I feel like crap, and I can’t pretend that everything is sunshine and butterflies (not the least because I do in fact live in a city where it rains almost every day).

I want so much to be able to just put up pictures of pretty things I see on my travels, gabbing about funny cultural misunderstandings I had, or concluding that while I had a pretty rough time at X thing I learned and grew from it! But you know what? Sometimes, I just want to whine. I feel like my friend Amanda said it best when she told me, after I apologized for complaining, “Pretending to love everything about a situation you are in because you feel you NEED to be positive only makes things worse.” She’s a homeowner, so you know she’s wise.

It’s now October 21. I’ve been here for two months and one week, and have about a month and a half left in my job. I could go into a huge rant here about any number of things that are irritating me about my life.

But you know what? I’ve done that already. I’m sick of complaining. I’ve literally complained about the same things so many times that I copied and pasted what I had written to one friend in another email.

Last week, when I was wallowing in my life, I pulled up my friend Laura Maas’ blog. I’ve already talked about how much I adore her, but I think I fell for her even more (in a platonic way… maybe.) when I read her latest blog post. She wrote about how she had felt off since arriving in a new city, but had been afraid of being frank with others. Her moral was that she realized, as her title indicates, “It take a village to raise a Maasy,” and that utilizing the support of her friends makes her stronger.

Basically I’m just going to plagiarize from her because I love that. Being vulnerable is hard, but it’s better than smiling through gritted teeth or tears.

Yes, I already used this photo in my blog, but we’re JUST

… I guess this did end up being a post where something was difficult but I learned and grew from it. Sorry for being a tricksy hobbit.

(P.S. Reason #4758 I adore Laura Maas – she sent me an out-of-the-blue email the next day and ended with “When you read my most recent post, you hold a sizable plot of land in my village. …Yeah… that came out sounding dirtier than I intended.”)

Someone who is ACTUALLY living the dream

London as a Tour Guide

After an incredible amount of persuasion (i.e. saying Hey, you should come to London and hang out with me!) I was lucky enough to be graced by the presence of one of my favorite people on the planet: Missy Moxie.

Us when we were young and naive and both had bangs… OH HOW THINGS CHANGE!

She’s one of my favorite people on the planet for several reasons:

1) She introduced me to Cry-Baby, a movie which I frankly can’t BELIEVE I never watched before because it is precisely up my ally.

2) She’s the best house guest because she is so low-maintenance and still super fun (I should do PR for her).

3) We spent the entire week talking about a huge dog we saw on the Tube

4) We also spent the entire week talking about these amazingly ugly leggings we saw in Primark and ended up going to purchase them on her last day. It was a lot of really serious discussions.

As I do with all visitors (or at least I did this when my parents visited a few years ago), as soon as she landed and we had tucked into a delicious breakfast I dragged her out for a long walk around London. I stubbornly insist that this is the best way to keep a jet-lagged visitor awake and help them get a feel for the city while taking in the major landmark, and is NOT in fact a death march as my mother claims to this day.

Luckily the weather absolutely cooperated, putting the city in its best light. I plan things that way because I am the master tour guide. I am also amazing at being a tour guide because most of my landmarks are described as such: “So I think that like three centuries ago a really famous person did something here, but I can’t remember what. I CAN tell you about Christopher Wren, his architecture in London, his impact at the College of William & Mary, and the name of the library at WM, but that’s it.”

Go ahead and hire me. I benevolently accept.

I did act as an amazing tour guide because the second the clock hit noon I decreed it to be Pimms O’Clock. It was a Sunday, after all. Must respect the Lord’s day.

Even though this day was about keeping my best friend awake and making sure I was the most interesting person ever so the seven hour flight would be worth it (and yes we did end the day by watching Bridget Jones’ Diary), it was a nice treat for me to get to see the city I love and to show it off to others. Sometimes I just stand by the Thames and get a crazy feeling about how my life actually ended up with me here. You just never know, you know?

Philosophical musings aside, best part of the entire day: creamy pumpkin and goat cheese soup. Please and thank you.

Kristen’s Exercise Series: Dover

I’m no stranger to traipsing around Europe and seeking the highest points by climbing every tower possible. It’s always a kick in the butt, but a fantastic way to see the best views on the cheap and tone up those glutes.

The tower of Europe have absolutely NOTHING on Dover. Three days later, I’m STILL sore. To allow you to have the best possible experience ever, I now present my own version of a work-out tape: how to be completely unprepared for Dover.

First, definitely dress like you are going sledding in Alaska in January. I wore a tank top, sweater, jacket, rain jacket, scarf, jeans, AND knee socks for good measure. That was about 2 layers too many; at one point I almost stripped down to my tank top – in 50 degree weather – just to get some relief.

Next, only have a vague understanding of Dover Castle. This was the first stop in our itinerary and I GUESS I knew in the back of my mind that it was at the top of a hill, but I didn’t really stop to think about it.

Not only is it at the top of a hill, it has grabbed ALL the hills in England and carried them over to the Castle grounds to ensure you somehow always have another hill to climb up.

Then, despite having already had PTSD flashbacks to that time I decided to climb up the side of a steep hill and fell down INTO a marathon, go up any flight of stairs you find. Don’t worry about what’s at the top. You have a mission to complete! 
Mission accomplished. 
After utterly exhausting yourself at the Castle, go seek out those famous White Clifs you’ve heard so much about. But don’t bring a map or anything – it will be much more fun to wander down to the beach and assume if you keep walking west you’ll find it! 
Clearly, that is a terrible plan. Backtrack. Find a little sign that says “Gateway to the White Cliffs.” That’s GOTTA be it. 
Gird your loins for the most intense and inclined walk the world has ever seen. 
It starts out fine. You can see an old woman carrying a BACKPACK in front of you so if she can do it with that extra weight you can do it hopping on one leg! 
Okay. Flight of stairs. It’s all good.
The final stretch and OH MY GOD. I know this picture doesn’t really capture it, but I’m not even exaggerating when I say it was basically a 90 degree incline. This mother was STEEP! 
Finally – FINALLY – reach the top. It starts to become flatter…
You start to catch some glimpses of the Channel….
And suddenly, it was all worth it.
Go ahead and treat yo’self to a scone after. You earned it. 

Old London Through New Eyes

I thought that I had seen all the “typical” London things, in the various times that I have been here: Westminster, Parliament, Big Ben, St. Pauls, the Tower of London… all wonderful experiences, but a little played out for me.

One beautiful autumn afternoon, I decided to swing back in to my favorite museum in London… the Museum of London (cleverly named, I know). Since it was conveniently located near some shops I wanted to explore, via one of my favorite walks (down Fleet Street to the Strand and up to Covent Garden), I would be bound to see some of those oldies but goodies. Sure, I’ll take my camera, but just in case.

It was while on my wander that I realized something: no matter how many times you see something, there’s always a different angle (sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively). And the best part about London? There’s always something new to discover.

It started simply: while on my walk to the grocery store, I decided to swing down a mews for a shortcut. (My borough in London has a LOT of streets that are mewses – former stables converted into houses). What I discovered was a colorful, flower-filled, narrow oasis.

After my weekly shop, it was time to head to the City of London.* 
As I departed from the St. Paul’s stop, I figured since I was right there I might as well go check out the old lady. (Man, I guess?). 
Coming up from a strange side angle I realized… in all my time in London, I’ve only ever seen one of its iconic landmarks from the same boring angles! Never before have I seen this: 
Or this:
And I had literally no clue that there was a beautiful garden to one side, and a pleasant seating area to the other: 

Following these revelations, it was time to head to my favorite museum and check out the new Our Londinium 2012 (Roman London) exhibit. This is where I saw the greatest museum display of all: a sly shout-out to Monty Python:
The best part about being in London in 2012 is that I get to experience their slogan: “This is GREAT Britain.” I’ve alluded to it before, but they are proud as anything about their year of the Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics. Pride is everywhere, from museum displays to random phone booths:

As I finished my walk, I came across a wall of London 2012 through the eyes of visitors. I certainly know something about that, don’t I?
And while I was doing my massive walk, this was happening:
*What’s that, you ask?! And I know you were asking! WELL allow me to educate. The City of London is different from London; in fact, it is just a little square mile area with approximately 10,000 people living there! It is the original London – this is where the Romans set up camp, and now where the financial district is focused. It also has its very own mayor, with the fancy title of Lord Mayor of London, not to be confused with the Mayor of London. The Lord Mayor has an awesome outfit, but the Mayor got to be on Jon Stewart a few months ago, so it’s a toss-up.

My SEA (Southeast Asia) Plans!

My itinerary is still VERY in flux, but so far my plans are:


Image via Xin Li 88
Image via brongaeh

I will fly into Bangkok and spend probably about a week, initially, to do my typical tourist sightseeing and jump in to haggling, street food, tuk-tuks, and traveling solo!

After Bangkok, I will journey down to Southern Thailand and hit up the Andaman Coast. I might end up going to the Gulf coast as well, but so far none of the islands sound appealing to me personally. I’m not exactly sure yet which islands I will explore, but I will probably use Krabi as a base and will likely go to Koh Lanta and Railay, as well as others, depending on how long the smoothie and beach bumming lifestyle appeals to me! I won’t be doing a ton of touristy sightseeing, mostly just relaxing, but I do hope to learn how to ride a motorbike when I am on one of these islands.

As of right now, I don’t think I will have enough time to swing Northern Thailand. That disappoints me… but who knows what will happen?


Image via trippinlarry

As time is of the essence, I will likely fly from Thailand to Laos and explore the beautiful cities of Luang Prabang and Vientiane, learning more about the Lao culture and history. I will likely skip the backpacker favorite Vang Vieng, a town where you inner-tube down a river from bar to bar, as I’m not greatly into the “party scene.” But I may end up meeting some friends who convince me otherwise!


Image via Stuck in Customs

This is the one part of my route that is most up in the air now but will end up being the most planned out, as I am meeting one of my favorite travel partners, my father!

That’s Pop!

He and I will likely meet in Siem Reap and spend about four days exploring the temples of Angkor before heading to visit some other cities. We are still talking about which ones, but perhaps Phnom Penh and Kep? No matter what, I’m looking forward to experiencing this country with him, particularly as I will be able to scrub off a month and a half of hostels and stay in nice resorts!


Image via ccdoh1

I will bus from Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City, in southern Vietnam (probably with my father, who will fly out after a few days there). I’m glad I will be able to jump into the craziness that is Vietnam with someone else! I plan to journey up the coast of Vietnam, hitting places like Mui Ne, Nha Trang, Hoi An, and Hue before ending in Hanoi towards the beginning to the middle of April. Then back to BKK!
After that, it’s back to Virginia to celebrate the weddings of two very good friends… and then MYSTERY. 
If you have any tips about good places to visit or how to best swing all of this, I would be happy to hear!

The Tragedy and the Triumph of Baking in Britain

It seems simple enough: my supervisor’s birthday is coming up. I enjoy baking. (Mostly, I enjoy the cake batter/cookie dough/etc.) And so: cupcakes!

I decide to make them from a box (GASP!!!) since I was a little swamped that day. But to jazz ’em up a little, I whip up some chocolate ganache for the middle (essentially chocolate sauce: I enjoy putting it on almost everything). Naturally, I am left with oodles of ganache. Naturally, I need to use it up.

And so: sugar cookies stuffed with ganache, and then s’more cupcakes with ganache icing. From scratch.

And then the trouble starts…

Challenge 1: Shopping

Welcome to my thought process in the grocery store:

Where in this blasted store are the baking powder and baking soda? I see the flour, and the sugar… the baking powder and baking soda must be around here somewhere.

Oh. I get it. “Bicarbonate of soda.” Those Brits. Funny shaped canisters, too. This is why they lost the empire.

BUT WHY IS THE COCOA POWDER NOT IN THE BAKING SECTION? Oh, of course, there is an entire SECTION dedicated to chocolate in its various forms. Empire won again.

Challenge 2: Translating

I gather all my materials, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, and get ready to make a miracle.

Of course, I lack mixing bowls – but why should that stop me?! I have a casserole dish. It’s essentially the same thing.

The real problem: blasted British measurements. See, I’m stubborn and kooky and insist on using recipes I’m used to… aka American recipes (U-S-A! U-S-A). But in the Land of Liz, they have entirely different methods of measuring.

For example: Pyrex measuring cup marked for ounces, pints, and liters: no 1/2 cup, 1/3 cup, anything.

(Should it be called a measuring PINT then? Hmmm.)

The stick of butter? More like a brick of butter, differentiated by lines measuring 50 grams. No such thing as 1/4c of butter marked on the wrapper in the United Kingdom, lad.

But I am a tough Scandinavian woman and I persevere! More accurately, I have a little post-it cheat sheet stuck on my cabinet to translate cups into ounces and a handy website that is literally a butter converter. What fun!

Challenge 3: The physical act of baking

All right guys and girls, it may have taken a precise measurement of 56.7 grams of butter, but we finally got to the glory moment: baking in the oven!

Of course, as you may remember, this is the kitchen that Zenon, girl of the 21st century, uses. I finally scrounged up the user’s manuel, but got a headache when trying to translate British to American and finally just set it on the little bold bar at the top with the fan going and figured I would call it a day.

Challenge 4: Getting everything eaten and not STUFFING YOUR FACE

Of course, after overcoming the horrific challenges of purchasing baking soda and turning the dials on the oven, I face the largest challenge of all: I don’t have a roommate (or people who come to my flat on a daily basis)… I don’t have anything that can easily transport baked goods… and I just made 15 cupcakes.


But fear not, because in addition to being a Swede/Irish gal with a sparkling personality, I also am a Girl Scout with a box of tinfoil. Et viola, cupcake carrying cases constructed entirely out of tinfoil! Thank you, thank you.

I’m proud to say those puppies were consumed in one day. I’m less proud to say that I kept six in my house for future usage and they are all gone. I may or may not have made them less than five days ago.


Seven Years

Seven years ago… I came to Europe for the first time, in the best way possible: with my best friends (then and now).

In the summer of 2005, 17-year-old Kristen was on the edge of all that was to happen Next: graduation from high school, off to the Brave New World, and of course the current utter unknown. 
But back then, I just enjoyed my whirlwind tour of Europe that culminated in the most wonderful August days in England you could imagine, marking my first official steps into the country that would become my home twice in the next seven years. 

One year ago, I returned to the same locations for the first time since 2005: Bath and Stonehenge. 
I delighted in realizing that I recognized many of the places from before, including the “wishing well” in the Roman Baths where 17-year-old Kristen threw in a coin after taking a picture just like this, wishing for God knows what. Naturally I had to recreate (expression and all). You’re just gonna have to trust it’s like the old picture, which was taken in the olden days before Facebook was around to immortalize everything forever. 
This time around, 23-year-old Kristen had a lot of experiences under her belt. By this point, I’d been back to England twice more (once as a tourist and once to live for the semester as a student), so of course they basically made me Queen. I’d done the college thing (with a few bumps along the way) and was a year into grad school. I was edging into my major life changes but not quite yet. There was still time for wishing. 
One week ago, I was back at Bath and Stonehenge. 

Once a student, now the teacher (really… I even had the “Educational Tour Leader” sticker to prove it at Stonehenge! Of course, I got scolded by the guard for not being with my students but once I explained they are 18 and not requiring supervision by Stonehenge Laws he relented. Take that, Stonehenge man!). I’ve been introducing others to the places I first saw when I was their age, delighting in their general 18-year-old-ness. 
Even though I am a Grown Up and Educational Tour Leader (naturally), there’s still time for wishing. 
Most importantly, I’ve found comfort in visiting these historic landmarks that have literally withstood the test of time, that have been there for millennia, that have been viewed and worshipped and adored and drawn and photographed by others long before me and long after me. I drank the water that Seneca drank, for pete’s sake! 
For me, they have been the witnesses to my personal life changes for the past seven years. For as much as I have changed, you know what hasn’t changed? 
From August 2005, to July 2011, to September 2012…

 Steady as a rock. (Stop it, Kristen, you’re too funny!)

Also hasn’t changed: