Месечни архиви: February 2016

Privilege in the Gardens

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French Laundry Gardens

It’s a sunny February afternoon in Yountville, California, in the heart of Napa Valley. My fellow bloggers and I just finished a sumptuous lunch at Michael Chiarello’s Bottega, easily a new contender for one of the best meals of my life, and have consumed just enough wine to give the landscape a softened haze.

Yountville is also home to The French Laundry, one of the best restaurants (if not the best) in America. Chef Thomas Keller’s gardens that supply the restaurant are open to the public, and we stop briefly to wander the rows of produce.

My feet squelch through the damp grass. A gardener tills the soil in rows of cabbage. Bees hum at a nearby hive. The gardens are so straight and immaculate, I wonder if Keller has a secret garden that grows wild and straggly, where he hides the really good vegetables.

We’re happy. It’s the perfect time to take a group photo.

“Ooh, let’s get the farmhand in the background!” squeals one blogger.

And I freeze.

Bottega Wine Glasses

I’ve worked in the restaurant industry and I consider it among the most formative experiences of my life. Anyone who has worked in the restaurant industry in the United States knows that restaurants are built on undocumented immigrants. (Not every immigrant who works in a restaurant is undocumented, but a great many of them are.) And these people are often the hardest working employees with the worst jobs in the kitchen — and, paradoxically, the best attitude.

That goes for the fields, too, especially in an agriculture-driven state like California. I don’t know this man’s story; I wish I did. But he is not an Instagram prop.

We live in a time when Donald Trump is on his way to the Republican nomination after claiming that he wants to round up and deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants. A time when the alternative Republican candidates argue about who speaks Spanish better and who would treat immigrants worse.

Anthony Bourdain was succinct: “If Mr. Trump deports 11 million people or whatever he’s talking about right now, every restaurant would shut down.”

Napa Flowers

Like most of my blog trips, our group consists of entirely white middle-to-upper-class bloggers. And that is a problem. It’s not enough that one of the bloggers says hello to the gardener and chats with him in Spanish. It’s not enough that I write and publish this post. What we need is people of diverse backgrounds going on these trips and sharing their viewpoints.

(The travel blogging world can be surprisingly segregated by race. Did you know that? How many bloggers of color do you actually read? Think about it.)

The overwhelming whiteness of our group stands out even more as we explore Oakland, a phenomenally diverse city with a history of social justice. Here, I’m struck by how this city isn’t defined by a white narrative with people of color relegated to side players, a place where hip-hop isn’t “too scary” or “too inappropriate” for families to dance to on a Friday night at the excellent Oakland Museum of California.

But this isn’t a story about Oakland — that will come in due time. This is about a moment while standing in the French Laundry gardens, sunshine on our faces.

My stomach turns at the thought of smiling white people who make their living traveling to exotic places and posting pretty photos on Instagram making sure they get the brown-skinned gardener, a man who likely went through hell to get here today, in the background of their selfie, because — why, exactly? To prove how much better we have it than him?

“No,” I say. “No farmhand. Just us.”

I take a selfie of our group, but the moment’s gone. It sits on my phone, never to see the light of day.

I was hosted in Yountville as part of a campaign with Visit California. All opinions, as always, are my own.

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Why I Moved to Harlem Instead of Brooklyn

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Hamilton Heights, Harlem

For the longest time, I was certain I would be moving to Brooklyn. It made the most sense — it was cool, most of my friends were there, it wasn’t too far from the airport, and, well, it was cool. The epicenter of all things cool. And I was cool, wasn’t I?

And so I spent several months checking out Brooklyn neighborhoods, one by one. I had spent most of my previous visits to New York staying in Harlem, where my sister has lived for years. Family members would often ask me if I was planning to live near her.

“There’s not enough places to work in the neighborhood,” I would say. “I work online. I’d become a hermit.”

But then one night I went to dinner with my sister at Red Rooster on 125th St. in Harlem. Red Rooster, the latest restaurant by Marcus Samuelsson, has been enormously popular since its opening in 2011.

It was the atmosphere that struck me. The live music, the chic cocktails, the eclectic Southern fusion menu with Scandinavian touches, the fact that in this restaurant was one of the most diverse groups of people I had seen in New York. Everyone was welcome here. It was a weeknight and yet it felt like a party.

Over sweet potato donuts, I looked at my sister and smiled. “I’m starting to think I was too fast to write off Harlem.”

A few months later, I was settling into my one-bedroom apartment in the heart of Hamilton Heights, Harlem — something I couldn’t have imagined just a few months ago.

Yeah, I might have shocked a lot of people.

“But Kate! You belong downtown!” Liz exclaimed.

“Nobody’s ever going to visit you,” Matt told me.

Still, moving to Harlem was the smartest decision I could have made.

Hamilton Heights, Harlem

Understanding Harlem and Brooklyn

First of all, before I write anything more, know this: Harlem is a huge and diverse neighborhood.

I live in Hamilton Heights, which is part of West Harlem. Part of Hamilton Heights overlaps with Sugar Hill, and it borders Manhattanville to the south and Central Harlem to the east. Washington Heights, which is not part of Harlem, is to the north.

The borough of Brooklyn is even more enormous and diverse than Harlem. The neighborhoods I was considering living in were Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, Downtown Brooklyn, Boerum Hill, Crown Heights, and Bushwick.

That said, I’ll be using the terms “Harlem” and “Brooklyn” throughout this post for simplicity’s sake.

Hamilton Heights, Harlem

What I Love in a Neighborhood

In my post-college years, I’ve lived in several different neighborhoods in two major cities, Boston and London, along with some suburban areas. Beyond that, I’ve spent a lot of time traveling around other cities and spending short- or long-term stints living like a local. In that time, I’ve learned what works for me in a place to live.

I don’t like living in the heart of downtown. I did that when I lived on the Back Bay/Fenway line in Boston. While there were lots of good things about living downtown, I felt that the residents were an odd mix of the very wealthy (especially men working in finance), college students, and tourists. I preferred the slightly shabbier, more intellectual environments of Cambridge and Somerville.

I like a place with neighborhood pride. I like having good local places at which to eat, drink, and hang out. But I also want to live somewhere where people are happy to live and spend their time, not just grumbling about it until they can afford somewhere better.

Good transit is a major priority. If there’s only one semi-reliable line to my neighborhood, I’m more likely to cocoon and less likely to venture further afield. I like to live somewhere I can get in and out, ideally on a few different transit lines, and somewhere I can get to the airport easily.

Overall, I like a neighborhood that is fun and active but not in the heart of the city. I liked staying in neighborhoods like Northcote in Melbourne, Bronte in Sydney, Nimmanhaeman in Chiang Mai, North Beach in San Francisco, and Shepherd’s Bush in London.

Hamilton Heights, Harlem

Checking Out New York Neighborhoods

My next step was to try out lots of different neighborhoods in New York. Overnight stays were a priority for me, as neighborhoods can feel markedly different at night.

I had done many stays with my sister in her current apartment in Hamilton Heights and in her last apartment, further south in Harlem, so it was time to check out other regions. I did multi-day stays in the following neighborhoods:

Brooklyn Heights. If I could live anywhere in New York, it would be Brooklyn Heights. The brownstones here are gorgeous and it’s the first neighborhood over from lower Manhattan. Furthermore, Brooklyn Heights is adjacent to Cobble Hill, which is filled with awesome restaurants and shops, including a Trader Joe’s. Also, everyone seems to have a dog here, including my best friend, who lives there! That said, this is a very expensive neighborhood.

Downtown Brooklyn. I had the best Airbnb here — a studio apartment on top of the Brooklyn Ballet with huge windows overlooking the sunset. (Sadly, it’s no longer available for rent.) Downtown Brooklyn doesn’t have the beauty of other neighborhoods, but if you’re in the southern part, it’s very convenient to Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, and Boerum Hill.

Boerum Hill. Boerum Hill seemed to be the best fit for me — close to Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill, and similar in atmosphere and beauty, but further from Manhattan and therefore more affordable. Almost every major subway line in Brooklyn goes through Atlantic Terminal, which is in the neighborhood.

Crown Heights. Crown Heights was probably the best “on paper” fit for me — decent rents, not far from most of my Brooklyn friends, on the A train, an easy journey to the airport, and home to the best coffee shop I’ve worked from in New York City (Breukelen Coffee House).

But Crown Heights just didn’t do it for me. While I never felt unsafe there, I never felt comfortable, either; it almost felt like my intuition was screaming at me for three days straight. I know better than to ignore my intuition. (No offense to my friends who live in and love Crown Heights. I can see why people love living there; it just wasn’t for me.)

Bushwick. Weird as hell. At times, I loved Bushwick madly; at times, I couldn’t stand it. This is the artsiest neighborhood in New York. It’s cheap and full of cool restaurants, galleries, and coffee shops. They’re all spread out quite a bit through a warehouse-filled district. Ultimately, though, I didn’t feel like I would fit in, and deemed Bushwick a fun place to visit rather than a place to live.

Upper West Side/Morningside Heights. I really like this part of the Upper West Side, close to Columbia. I stayed on 109th St. and loved it. Even though, like the chi-chi Brooklyn neighborhoods, it was a bit out of my price range (and not close to an express train besides the 2 at 96th). That’s what ultimately put me off.

Other neighborhoods were jettisoned for various reasons. Rents were rising at an astronomical rate in Williamsburg. Park Slope was too pricey for the inconvenient transportation. Bed-Stuy wasn’t gentrified enough. And as much as I would enjoy living somewhere like Greenwich Village, it would be a similar atmosphere to my time in Back Bay: lots of extremely wealthy people, lots of NYU students, and the only apartments in my price range would be dreadful.

Hamilton Heights, Harlem

So after all that, why did I end up in Harlem?

Because I ran the numbers, compared the neighborhoods, and realized that there was far more value in Hamilton Heights than in any of the Brooklyn neighborhoods I looked at.

After traveling full-time for five years, my primary goal was to have a nice place to call my own. A place that could furnish nicely. A place where I could host tons of out-of-town friends. A place I wouldn’t need to share with roommates. A place, most importantly, I could comfortably afford.

Basically, if I lived in this exact apartment in Brooklyn Heights — a large one-bedroom floor-through brownstone apartment with hardwood floors and an in-unit washing machine — it would cost at least $1,000 more, if not $1,500 more. That’s a huge chunk of change.

Low prices. You get more for your money in Hamilton Heights than in cheaper Brooklyn neighborhoods like Crown Heights, Bed-Stuy, and Bushwick. You can get a renovated one-bedroom with an elevator, counter space, and a dishwasher for just $1,800. (Yeah, I know. Trust me, this is cheap for New York.)

High quality apartments. From what I’ve seen, most apartments in this neighborhood are either in newly renovated buildings or well-maintained brownstones. There are a few duds, as there are everywhere, but the quality is generally very high.

Excellent transportation. The 145th St. station, in the dead center of Hamilton Heights, has stops for the express A and D lines, which get you to midtown in two stops (!!), as well as the B and C. The 1 runs along Broadway.

Lots of cool restaurants, bars, and coffeeshops. You won’t find them stacked up end-to-end like in Cobble Hill (except on Broadway between 148th and 149th, which I jokingly call Restaurant Row), but there are lots of good places. I’m thrilled that a bar as cool as Harlem Public is my local. Bono does amazing and well-priced Italian food. The Chipped Cup does fabulous coffee. And more are opening up every month.

I feel safe here. Incredibly safe. Yes, I do get occasional catcalls from men (which is standard throughout New York or any other American city) but I’ve never felt uncomfortable or in danger here.

The main drawback: people’s reactions. “Wow, you’re really far up,” is the usual response. (“It’s-18-minutes-from-Times-Square-and-I’m-a-five-minute-walk-from-the-express” has become my standard reply.)

But honestly, the distance isn’t as big a deal as it looks on a map. It sure hasn’t dissuaded my friends from visiting. My friend Anna even came from Bushwick, almost an hourlong ride away.

I have to be willing to make a long journey to visit my friends in Brooklyn. But that’s fine. I love my friends and I love Brooklyn. (And I take my Kindle everywhere with me.)

Hamilton Heights, Harlem

I find it interesting here.

Harlem is interesting to me in a way that none of the aforementioned Brooklyn neighborhoods are. It’s so different from everywhere I’ve lived so far.

When I travel the world, my eternal goal is to fit in seamlessly. If I can’t pass as a local, I hope to at least pass as a longtime expat. That’s the way I feel about living here.

I love the architecture in Harlem. Hamilton Heights is home to a fantastic historic district (including the Royal Tenenbaums house!).

Being a lifelong R&B and hip-hop fan, I love that this is the music you hear when you’re out and about. (I’m not used to hearing the music I love anywhere!) I immediately sit up straight in shock when I hear Lianne La Havas’s “What You Don’t Do” at the Handpulled Noodle or Miguel’s “Simple Things” at the Sugar Hill Cafe.

That’s the random R&B that I discover on deep cuts playlists on Spotify.

I love being part of a neighborhood with so much history and culture. There’s so much more that I have to learn.

Also, a fact — Neil Patrick Harris lives in Harlem! He’s part of the most famous celebrity family with young kids and two gay dads. They could have lived anywhere in New York City and chose to live in Harlem. I find that so interesting.

Hamilton Heights, Harlem

Most importantly: I’m in Harlem to give, not just take.

I am a middle-class person moving to a historically low-income neighborhood. I am a white person moving to a historically black and Latino neighborhood. I am not forgetting that for one minute.

Gentrification is neither unilaterally good nor bad; to insist so is ignorant. Longtime residents in gentrifying neighborhoods receive benefits like higher property values, more money being spent at local businesses, and a more attentive police force as well as detriments like being priced out of their neighborhoods. That said, for many residents, the bad outweighs the good.

No matter what I do, I’m gentrifying this neighborhood just by being here. But I have a choice about how my actions affect my neighbors. I want my presence in Harlem to make a positive impact.

How am I going to do that? First of all, I’m getting involved with local issues. My friend Maya (whom I profiled in my traveling solo as a woman of color interview) lives and works in Harlem as a community organizer! We’ve already talked about me joining her at the meetings and helping out.

There are times when they’ll need a photographer with a good camera, she told me. There’s a chance they could need help with social media outreach or something web-oriented. Or they might just need another set of hands. Those are ways I can contribute.

Second, I’m perusing the longtime local businesses as well as the hipster ones. Yes, I love my lattes from the cute coffee shops, but I also love the no-frills juice stands up and down Broadway. I love the pappardelle al cinghiale at Bono as well as the tamales from the truck on 145th street. I don’t flee the neighborhood to get my nails done, even though the salons here are on the rough side. Instead of getting everything delivered from Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, I shop at the discount grocery stores in the neighborhood, along with the local health food store. I’m getting tickets to see the Dance Theatre of Harlem in April.

Third, I’m observing how people behave here and following suit. For example, I’ve noticed that, as in Asia and Latin America, the elderly are given an enormous amount of respect here. More so than in other parts of America. If you so much as grab fruit from the same bin as an elderly person, lord help you. Treat them like kings and queens here.

Fourth, I’m making an effort to get to know my neighbors. Such a small thing, but very important. As an introvert, chatting up strangers in the grocery store isn’t my favorite thing to do, but I know this will have good effects.

Fifth, I plan to write more about Harlem and Hamilton Heights here. If I convince you to come up for a visit — or even move here — that’s a good thing. Maybe I should host some reader meetups at Harlem Public!

Finally, I’m here to listen and learn and understand. I’m reading up more on black history and Harlem history. (Currently: The Autobiography of Malcolm X, someone I know very little about despite taking AP US History.) I’m checking out the local meetup groups. I’m honestly game for anything going on in the neighborhood that will help me get to know it better.

Hamilton Heights, Harlem

This is only the beginning.

I’ve only been here a few weeks, in the dreary winter, no less. Only time will tell whether I made the right choice. I will say this, however — I am very optimistic about my future here. Several times a day, my heart feels like it’s exploding with happiness at my new life.

If you’re in a similar position to me and contemplating a move to New York City, know that Brooklyn is not the only acceptable place to live. There are tons of great neighborhoods all over the city and you shouldn’t overlook Harlem.

If you’re looking for an apartment with nice amenities — like a renovated apartment or a dishwasher — or you want more square footage, Hamilton Heights should definitely be on your list. If you want to live alone, I’d highly recommend looking here.

But Harlem is more than just a cheap place to live. This neighborhood is rich in beauty and culture and has so much to discover. I can’t wait to share it all with you.

If you could live anywhere in New York, where would you live?

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How to Avoid Motion Sickness While Traveling

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Val d'Orcia

Here’s a dirty little secret I’ve mostly kept under wraps: despite being a full-time traveler, I get horrific motion sickness. You’d think being in motion so often would allow me to develop a tolerance over time, but no, it doesn’t work that way.

And yes, it’s led to some awkward moments. Like the time I puked my guts out in the majestic Tuscan countryside,  pictured above, while on a press trip. (Everyone was very nice about it.)

That said, while I haven’t been able to eliminate motion sickness from my travels completely, I’ve found ways to reduce it and get from Point A to Point B with minimal cookies blown. Here are some of my top recommendations.

Douro Valley

Douro Valley, Portugal — such a beautiful region, but I felt so sick while driving through it!

How to Prepare: Know Your Motion Sickness Triggers

Motion sickness is what happens when your eyes and inner ear receive conflicting signals — for example, if you’re on a bus and your body feels the movements but your eyes are looking at something still like your phone.

For some people, being in a car or bus is the worst. For others (myself included), boats are the worst. In time, you’ll find out where you’re hit the hardest. For now, here’s how to prepare:

Know if you have something rough ahead of you. Be prepared when you’re taking smaller roads through mountainous regions (or visiting rural mountainous regions). Be extra vigilant about boat journeys, especially smaller boats on the ocean.

Research the transportation options. If you have terrible motion sickness when on buses, is there a possibility to take a train instead? Trains often cost significantly more, depending on the route, but sometimes you’ll luck out and they’ll be similarly priced. At the same time, larger boats are often much steadier than smaller boats, as I learned on Lake Nicaragua.

If you’re on a guided tour, you may want to let your guide know in advance. If, say, whale watching is part of your day, you may want to pull the guide aside and let him or her know that you might have some motion sickness issues and ask if most people have trouble with this part of the tour. He or she will be able to advise you.

Beautiful Pai

The road from Chiang Mai to Pai in Thailand famously takes 762 stomach-lurching turns. You can buy shirts that say 762 on them!

What to Pack Before Your Trip

Sea Bands. Sea Bands are acupressure bands that you put on your wrists that apply pressure to a point on your lower arms. I know it sounds a little hippie-dippie, but seriously — they only cost a few bucks, so don’t knock them until you try them!

I first got into Sea Bands when I started waitressing when I was 20. Smelling food on a constant basis made me feel nauseated throughout my shift. I tried the Sea Bands on a whim and they worked so well, they became a permanent part of my waitressing uniform.

Ginger chews. Ginger has been a remedy for nausea for thousands of years, and I find that ginger chews are the most convenient way to eat ginger while traveling. These are good to keep in your purse or day bag.

Crackers or other innocuous foods. Some people swear by Saltines; others prefer bananas, which are ubiquitous in tropical climates. Having a little bit of food in your stomach can keep nausea at bay.

Dramamine or motion sickness tablets. If you end up feeling very sick or worry about a particularly tough journey, you may want to actually take over-the-counter motion sickness medication. Keep in mind that many motion sickness tablets cause drowsiness.

Plastic bags. Plastic bags go with me everywhere — they’re easily accessible in my purse, my camera bag, and my luggage. I even take them when on excursions around home. Just in case you need to puke while in public, you have options.

Capri

One of the worst journeys of my life was the hydrofoil from Naples to Capri in 2004. They handed out barf bags to the whole boat. I managed to avoid puking, but the Japanese tourists surrounding me weren’t as lucky.

Tips for Preventing Motion Sickness During Your Trip

Don’t read or browse your phone. Seriously. I know that for bookworms, it’s so tempting to spend a four-hour car ride engrossed in your Kindle, but it’s usually the worst thing you can do.

Offer to drive if it’s an option. Being the one in control can eliminate motion sickness completely, or at least keep it at bay.

Sit facing forward. A lot of people feel much better this way, especially while on trains.

Keep your eye on the horizon. It’s a cliche and it’s true. Keep your eye on what’s ahead of you. That might mean going outside if you’re on a boat.

Get yourself to a source of fresh air if possible. Crack a window or get yourself outside.

Close your eyes and lie down if possible. Closing your eyes effectively ends the discourse between your eyes and your inner ear. (But how to make sure you have the room to do that? Sometimes when on buses, I make sure I have an extra seat to myself by getting on early then making myself look gross, shirt hitched up and covered in crumbs, and spreading out like crazy.)

Listen to something distracting. Some people like podcasts or audiobooks; I prefer having something that doesn’t require concentration. Dance music is my favorite when-I’m-feeling-nauseous music.

If you’re on a wildly pitching boat, stand up and ride it out as best you can. One morning on my Croatia cruise, we hit some rough seas and most of the boat was sick. Miraculously, I wasn’t because I got up earlier and went out to the deck. (I then ran into the boat’s resident Kiwi who toasted me with his morning beer.)

Avoid drinking heavily. The older I get, the more susceptible I am to nausea the next day, even after just a few drinks. Motion sickness is bad enough without a hangover on top of it. Keep your drinking to a minimum.

Take breaks. Are you able to pull over and take a breather? Do so if you can. It’s worth it.

If they’re handing out motion sickness tablets or plastic bags — take them. This is more common on boats. If it’s so bad that they hand that stuff out, trust me, it’s going to be a wild ride.

Lombok Sunset

The seas were extremely rough on the night of my shipwreck in Indonesia. I took a Dramamine and passed out at 7:00 PM. This was a more peaceful moment in Lombok two days before.

Know that you can’t prepare for everything.

You can follow every bit of advice on this list and STILL get sick. Things happen.

Make peace with the fact that you can’t control every factor of a trip — or anything in life. Just prepare as well as you can, for motion sickness as much as everything else, and if the punches come, be ready to roll with them.

One of my favorite kindnesses shown to me while traveling was the first time I traveled from Chiang Mai to Pai in Thailand in 2010. The road is notoriously twisty and I made the mistake of browsing my phone in the minibus, and I ended up with the worst motion sickness I’ve had in years. We stopped at a rest stop and I went to a table and put my head down.

And then I heard someone come over and place a cup next to me and ask if I was okay. It was a French guy who was on my minibus — he bought me a cup of tea after seeing how sick I was. How considerate is that? I’m still touched whenever I think about it.

That being said, I’ve tried never to get to that point again — and the above tips have helped.

Do you suffer from motion sickness? What are your tips?How to Avoid Motion Sickness While Traveling

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The Funk Factor of Tirana, Albania

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Kate at the Pyramid, Tirana Albania

The Balkans are my favorite region in the world. I’ve now visited four summers in a row: Croatia, Bosnia, and Montenegro in 2012; Macedonia and Kosovo in 2013, Croatia and Slovenia in 2014; and finally Albania, Montenegro, and Serbia in 2015.

Oh, Albania. This country is probably the most interesting place I visited in 2015. And Albania is chock full of my favorite things about the Balkans: astounding natural beauty, a less-developed tourism infrastructure with fewer foreigners, rich UNESCO World Heritage Sites, cheap prices, beautiful mountains, cafe culture, and a wacky capital city.

Tirana was my final destination in Albania, and I wasn’t quite as excited for it as I was for Saranda and the Riviera. But that quickly faded away when I realized what a cool place Tirana was! I wouldn’t quite call Tirana the weirdest city in the region — that honor belongs to Skopje — but I’ll gladly award it second place.

Laundry Tirana Albania

I arrived in Tirana from Berat on an aged bus that seemed to be held together with duct tape and prayers. Dropped off on a random street corner, I hopped into a cab with a driver who spoke about as much English as I spoke Albanian. We communicated entirely in Italian, him pointing out the landmarks as we entered the tree-lined streets of Blloku.

My heart began to beat fast. I had never seen a city like this before — elegant and riotous, drab and rainbow.

Tirana Albania

A City in Color

Like many Eastern European cities, Tirana is filled with ugly Communist-era architecture. These buildings are usually eyesores, and while many cities have charming old towns, central Tirana is instead full of cement block structures.

Unlike other Eastern European cities, though, you’ll find several of these buildings awash in color. Mayor Edi Rama, who was elected in 2000, began a campaign to bring color to Tirana. Some of the buildings have stripes across them; others are painted bright contrasting colors.

Rama did a TEDx talk about campaign to fill Tirana with color. You can view it here.

Yellow Building Tirana AlbaniaTirana AlbaniaTirana Albania

For the Love of Blloku

More than anything, it was Tirana’s ritziest neighborhood, Blloku, that made me fall in love with the city.

I walked around, whispering to myself, This is Tirana?! Not what I had pictured at all. It looked so…fancy.

Tirana AlbaniaTirana AlbaniaTirana AlbaniaLake Tirana Albania

For about 40 years, Blloku was restricted to the political elite of Albania. Ordinary people were not allowed in. When communism fell in 1991, Blloku began its transformation into a neighborhood for all.

Blloku is where you’ll find the fanciest bars, restaurants, and cafes in Tirana. And those CAFES! They’re piled on top of each other!

You might recall that Albanian food was very hit or miss for me, so I indulged in international food here, especially Italian food. A three-course meal with wine will set you back around $12!

Pyramid Tirana Albania

Climbing the Pyramid

In the middle of Tirana sits an enormous derelict pyramid. It was originally constructed in 1988 as a museum to honor dictator Enver Hoxha; by 1991, it had become a conference center, then it became a NATO command center during the war in Kosovo.

Today, it’s mostly abandoned, looking like something out of a horror movie.

And it begs to be climbed.

Pyramid Tirana Albania

So I did just that.

Pyramid Tirana AlbaniaView from the Pyramid Tirana AlbaniaPyramid Tirana AlbaniaKate at the Pyramid, Tirana Albania

I think climbing the pyramid was my favorite experience in Tirana! More than anything, it represented the city’s beauty and weird factor.

Kids Pyramid Tirana Albania

Local kids climbed and slid, climbed and slid. (My friend Erisa, a Tirana native, later told me that she used to do this as a kid as well, sliding down on cardboard!)

If you’re interested in climbing the pyramid, I have some advice:

1. Be okay with making a fool of yourself. Locals see this as an activity for kids; only occasional tourists join in.

2. Wear decent shoes. I wore flip flops and was sweating so much my feet kept sliding out of them as I neared the top.

3. Wear sunscreen. There is no protection from the sun up there.

4. Prepare to slide down on your butt. Unlike the kids, it took me about 15 minutes. I could have torn up my shorts if I hadn’t been so careful.

Tirana Albania Sunset

Sunset Cocktails

In most places I visit, I like to climb a tall building to look over the landscape. One of the tallest building in Tirana, the Sky Tower, is home to the Panoramic Bar and Restaurant on top.

I’ll let the sunset views speak for themselves.

Tirana AlbaniaTirana Albania Sunset

I had a glass of prosecco, of course. You all know why! The cost? 350 lek. That’s a mere $2.83.

I so love this country.

Tirana Albania

Shopping Galore

I’m usually not much of a shopper, but I went absolutely crazy in Albania. First of all, everything was so cute and cheap and funky. Secondly, I was about to attend a music festival for the first time ever and had NOTHING TO WEAR.

Balkan women tend to be very thin, so keep that in mind while shopping. Sizes above 10 more or less do not exist, and sometimes you’ll struggle to find anything larger than an 8.

Some of the items I bought included:

Kate at Sea Dance

How festival-y is this outfit? I basically lived in this at Sea Dance in Montenegro.

Kate in Castanea, Sicily

This dress, worn in Sicily, is now referred to as my Albania Dress. It works just as well with leggings, boots, and a blazer as it does with flip-flops.

Kate at Albanian Victoria's Secret

This I definitely did not buy — a business shirt attached to a lacy thong! (I thought this was hilarious. It was one of the most popular photos I shared on Facebook all summer.)

But seriously, the Albanian version of Victoria’s Secret is insane. It’s basically all of the brightest, wildest, trashiest lingerie that they couldn’t sell elsewhere. I had to buy myself a crazy bra — a melange of neon purple satin and black lace, with the power to push your boobs up into the stratosphere.

Best souvenir ever.

Lake Tirana Albania

Endless Quirks

It seemed like everywhere I turned in Tirana, I would find something that made me smile.

Bunker Tirana Albania

There was a bunker on display in central Blloku. (There are thousands of these spaceship-like structures dotting the Albanian countryside.) Behind it is a chunk of the Berlin Wall.

Red Bull Ice Cream Tirana Albania

Red Bull-flavored ice cream. Be still, my heart.

Rottweiler Dog in Tirana Albania

A Rottweiler roughly the size of a horse.

Tirana Opera House Flag

And, of course, the blood-red Albanian flag proudly displayed everywhere.

Tirana Albania Sunset

The Takeaway

I really want to return to Tirana! Albania is such a cool emerging country, and still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface.

While at the rooftop bar, I chatted with a few Swiss girls who were in Tirana for their second trip. Like me, they had come on a whim and had been unexpectedly blown away. I feel that other frequent travelers would feel the same way.

When I return, one other aspect of Tirana that I want to explore more is the nightlife. I only saw a tiny part of the scene, and I can tell there is a lot more to discover.

Essential Info: I stayed at Propaganda Hostel, which is ideally located in the Blloku neighborhood. I had a private ensuite room for 25 euros ($28) per night. (Some places in Albania charge in euros instead of lek, but you can usually pay in lek.) This was a terrific hostel and I recommend it, especially for its location. That weird Victoria’s Secret is on the block.

For shopping, I recommend perusing the streets of Blloku and the TEG mall just outside the city. (Take a cab from anywhere or a bus from the Skanderbeg Square, the central square in Tirana.)

Tirana is one of few world capitals without a central bus station. Plan on getting dropped off on a random street corner and grabbing a cab! If departing by bus, ask your accommodation where and when to get a bus to your next destination.

If you’re coming to or from Montenegro, I highly recommend the Montenegro Hostel shuttle which runs back and forth between Tirana and Kotor, Budva, and Podgorica. It cost me 40 euros ($45) for a one-way ride to Budva and took five hours. It was a comfortable, air-conditioned journey and I highly recommend it, as the alternative is taking several public buses of dubious quality. They also stop for a photo op at beautiful Sveti Stefan.

What’s your favorite weird city?The Funk Factor of Tirana, Albania

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The Truth About Extreme Budget Travel

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Kate in Senggigi

What does budget travel mean to you?

For some of my friends, it means downgrading to a three-star hotel instead of a luxury property. For others, it’s giving up their private rooms for hostel dorms.

Budget travel is unique to everyone. The broadest definition of budget travel is being financially conscious during your travels.

I asked my Facebook fans a question: how low-budget would you go? Hostel dorms? Couchsurfing? Never eating in a restaurant, ever? They had a lot of great answers and I’ve included them throughout this post.

Leon Nicaragua

Extreme Budget Travel

I define extreme budget travel — or what I like to call traveling “on the hobo” — as traveling while spending the least amount of money possible.

“I had some Couchsurfers come stay with me that are doing a long term trip with a $0 budget for accommodation. If they can’t find CS hosts they camp. One was sleeping in temples in Myanmar. He said his average is $5/day but oftentimes only spends $3. They also only hitchhike everywhere.” –Nathan

Accommodation? Free only. Couchsurfing or camping in their own tent or van. Possibly sleeping in churches, temples or mosques. Free lodging via working gigs. Hostel dorms if there’s no other option.

Transportation? Free or very cheap only. Hitchhiking or traveling in their own vehicle. If anything, an occasional bus ride or public transit.

Food? Cheap only. Supermarket fare or cheap street food. No restaurants, ever. Maybe an occasional takeaway kebab.

Attractions? Free only. In cities, walking around and taking photos, enjoying free museums and attractions. In the countryside, hiking and exploring. Forget about paying for a ticket.

How to get by? Working from time to time. WWOOFing, Workaway gigs, working in hostels or bars, busking, random gigs along the way.

And while there are occasional exceptions, the above is largely how extreme budget travelers spend their time on the road.

Here are some examples:

We Visited Over 50 Countries In Our Van Spending Just $8 Per Day

This is How a Guy Traveled Through Southeast Asia On Just $10 Per Day

I just came back from a 5-months travel. I’ve done hitch-hiked over 15 000km, and have been living as a homeless for pretty much 4 months.

Amman Skyline

The Pros of Extreme Budget Travel

Travel longer. See more. The less you spend, the more time you have to see everything the world has to offer. The price you would pay for a midrange two-week trip could grow into a multi-month extravaganza when traveling on the hobo.

Enjoying the same sights at a fraction of the price. Nobody charges you to walk through the piazzas of Florence, nor do you pay anything to enjoy the white sand beaches of Boracay. It feels awesome to look around and know that you paid far less than everyone else!

Expensive destinations aren’t off-limits. One thing I noticed was that extreme budget travelers don’t shy away from expensive countries. You find just as many extreme budget travelers in Norway and Australia as you do in Laos and India.

“Curiously enough it’s easier to spend less in expensive countries. It’s easier to say no to a $25 hotel room and camp, than to say no to a $5 hotel room and camp. In Europe I’d go camping and couchsurfing all the time out of necessity, but here in Asia I’d happily pay for accommodation, because it’s cheaper. But of course that adds up and in the end I pay more. I remember spending 6 months in the US and Canada and I spend $0 on accommodation. :D” –Meph248 on Reddit

Having more local experience. You’ll get to know locals more intimately, whether it means couchsurfing in locals’ homes, working with locals, hitchhiking with locals, or shopping at the local markets. Plenty of travelers will pass through the same town without having a conversation with someone who wasn’t a waiter or hostel employee.

The time of your life — on very little cash. You’ll have great stories to tell your kids someday!

“I did $5 a day while touring the Balkans for a month. I managed!
-Free lodging and food by volunteering at a hostel (even had my own room at the top floor)
-Free private beach access through a guy I was seeing
-Free drinks every night at the bar across the street because the owner swore I was Serena Williams

That about covers all bases! Lol” –Gloria, The Blog Abroad

The possibility of extending your trip indefinitely. If you pick up enough paid gigs in between, you can keep on traveling forever. This especially works well if you pick up gigs, either officially or under the table, in high-paying countries like Australia.

Bay of Kotor, Montenegro

The Pitfalls of Extreme Budget Travel

Reduced safety. If you don’t have funds allocated for accommodation or private transportation, what happens when none of the Couchsurfing hosts in town appeal to you? What happens if your bus is delayed, you show up in Tegucigalpa late at night, and you can’t afford a cab to your accommodation?

Not having money for instances like these sacrifices your safety.

“I would never want to absolutely rely on couchsurfing for the whole of my trip. I couchsurf where I can but when I can’t find a decent host I book a hostel. I think when you get too desperate to couchsurf you end up pushing the safety limit a bit and staying with dubious people.” –Britt, Adventure Lies in Front

Just how bad can the result be? Read this heartbreaking post by Trish on Free Candie.

Missing cool activities and social events. You meet a cool group of fellow travelers and they’re all going whitewater rafting. They want you to join — but you can’t do that. And sure, you can walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge if the $300 Bridgeclimb is out of your price range, but would you go to Leon, Nicaragua, and skip $30 volcano boarding? What about a $5 wine tasting in a Tuscan town? And even if it’s just a $4 hostel shuttle to the beach, which all your friends from the hostel are taking, you’re stuck on the much longer 25-cent local bus.

Less exposure to local cuisine. Yes, there’s fresh produce and markets and supermarkets can be their own adventure, but if you’re making pasta in the hostel every night, you’re missing out on one of the best parts of traveling — the food.

No backup savings. In the event of an emergency — say, you need to fly home for the funeral of a dear friend — you don’t have the cash to do so. Most of the time, travel insurance will only reimburse you if it’s a member of your immediate family.

Isolation and discomfort. If you’re not comfortable in your accommodation, you have fewer options and may be far from the city center or tourist zone. If you’re limited with money, you can’t just pick up and leave — you might need to stick it out for at least a night.

“Ive couchsurfed once and they tried to convert me to their religion so i just left.” –Christipede

No alone time. If you’re a natural extrovert, this probably won’t be an issue, but traveling on the hobo requires you to socialize with lots of people on a daily basis, especially if you’re couchsurfing. If you’re an introvert, you’ll have difficulties carving out alone time to relax your mind. (Camping solo is one way around this, however.)

Mooching off others. Conversely, depending on others day after day can wear away at you. Sure, you can help cook and clean, or play music, and you know you’ll pay it back to other travelers someday, but you might get uncomfortable having strangers host and feed you for free on a regular basis.

“It’s funny. I’m open to going extremely low budget. As long as I can be self-reliant about it. Meaning I’d rather sleep (legally or semi-legally) on an abandoned beach or in a corner of a park than ask for someone’s couch. This is strange, I know, since the spirit of travel is tied so intrinsically into the good will of others. I guess I’d rather rely on others for their company (and their rum!) and then slip off to my tent for the night.” –Bring Limes

Resentment. Is this the trip you had in mind? Is this even the kind of trip you’d want? Wouldn’t you rather be in a nice hotel room, eating in restaurants, doing cool activities, and not having to work every now and then? After weeks of depriving yourself, over and over, you could end up feeling resentful. It might not be worth the savings.

“I feel like [extreme budget travel] would detract from the travel experience itself. If I was wrapped up in my head worrying about money and a budget the whole time it would take away from experiences. I certainly don’t travel luxuriously, but I choose to travel within my means without missing out on things.” –Megan, Forks and Footprints

Blue Night Shadows

A Lot of People Think They Can Do This

I’m an avid Redditor but don’t comment often. What makes me comments are posts like these:

“Me and my cousin are going on a trip in 2015 for 16 months around SE Asia. we plan on visiting 19 countries in that time: Bangladesh, China, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Sri lanka, Tawain, Thailand, Vietnam, Bhutan

We dont really know what months to go to the different countries and theres not much info online about it, so im asking you we kind of want summer all the time around. Also what places should we see in different countries? Im thinking that 12k USD will be enough for this trip? no including air fare, is that close to accurate?”

Oh God.

First of all, no, $12K will not be nearly enough. I really hope he meant $12K each, because even $24k for two would not be enough for a trip like that, especially with countries like Bhutan and Japan on the list. The only way it would be possible would be through extreme budget travel, and just the idea of traveling that way for 16 months makes me want to curl into a ball and hide.

I get emails all the time from travelers who want to travel as long and as much as possible, so they squish their budget down to the bare minimum. They tell me that yeah, they really want to see as much as possible, so they’re going to couchsurf and camp and they’ll be able to stretch their trip to as long as possible. I give them advice, wish them luck, tell them to buy travel insurance.

Some of them end up traveling this way — and have a fabulous, life-changing trip. Others end up miserable and return home much sooner than planned.

My worry about these travelers is that they won’t end up enjoying themselves on what should be the trip of a lifetime. I believe that far more people think they can handle long-term extreme budget travel than can actually handle this style of travel on a long-term basis.

It doesn’t help that traveling on the hobo is romanticized in popular culture, complete with scenes of waking up on a farm in Provence, harvesting olives all day, then having huge dinners with wine every night before hopping on a train to the next idyllic destination.

In short, it’s fun to travel on the hobo if you’re doing it for fun. It’s not so fun if you’re doing it because you can’t afford anything else.

Bike Lady in Ferrara

Special Concerns for Women Travelers

I feel like there needs to be an asterisk when talking about extreme budget travel as a woman. Just like there needs to be an asterisk with almost every kind of travel.

If you haven’t read Why Travel Safety Is Different For Women, please read it now.

In that piece, I talk about how women are attuned to the risk of sexual assault every minute of every day. It never leaves our minds, and each day we make dozens of micro-decisions for the sake of self-protection. For that reason, we need to be extra careful when it comes to extreme budget travel.

“extreme budget travel is a luxury that men can have I think. as a woman, I always need to have a little extra to get myself out of a bad guesthouse or take taxis rather than walk. I’m sure some women have managed it, but i wouldn’t feel safe on a low low budget. I usually budget $50/day with an extra $500/month of travel, although I rarely use it all. it gives me enough cushion to get a single room rather than share a dorm with just one man, etc.” –Lily

Camping alone or sleeping outside leaves us vulnerable to sexual assault.

Staying in a sketchy guesthouse with a badly locking door leaves us vulnerable to sexual assault.

Hitchhiking with strangers leaves us vulnerable to sexual assault.

Taking public transportation in a rough city at night leaves us vulnerable to sexual assault.

Accepting food and drinks prepared by Couchsurfing hosts leaves us vulnerable to sexual assault.

That doesn’t mean that women can’t do extreme budget travel — I know women who do it and love it. I know that some take extra precautions, like carrying pepper spray and a knife. And even then, many of them have done so safely; most of them have only had a few scary but ultimately non-dangerous incidents, like I have.

But it doesn’t mean that the risk isn’t there. You need to evaluate that risk closely.

Kyoto Apartment

It’s Not For Everyone

If you want to try out extreme budget travel and you think you would enjoy it, go for it! I’m happy for people to travel in any way they’d like, as long as it’s not harmful to others.

There are plenty of people for whom extreme budget travel is a great choice. And they’re a surprisingly diverse group of people.

My issue with it is that I think a lot of people underestimate how difficult it is to live this way on a long-term basis. In short, it’s not for as many people who think it’s for them. So many people attempt it, burn out, and leave their trip with regrets.

Costa Brava Mountains

Short-Term Extreme Budget Travel

What if you only did the extreme budget travel thing for a shorter time? Say, for a two-week trip or just for a month or two out of a yearlong RTW trip? What if you just did it when you traveled in Australia and went back to spending more money in Southeast Asia?

I think that’s actually a very smart idea. This way, you get to try it out, reduce costs in the most expensive destinations, and see if you are interested in doing it long-term.

“I don’t mind dorms for cheap travel, although a few weeks is the max I could do that without at least a few nights in a private. I’m planning to couch surf and WWOOFing a lot in Japan, since I want to go for a while without spending thousands and thousands. I can’t live on that low though- it’s boring to only have enough to eat and stay in the hostel!” –Alexandria

Marigolds in Pienza

How to Maintain Your Sanity While Traveling on the Hobo

Don’t be penny-wise and pound-foolish. Walking a mile out of the way for loaves of bread that cost 20 cents less is the definition of insanity. Instead, reduce your big expenses like accommodation and transportation, or stick to cheap countries.

Travel slower. Spending more time in fewer destinations will majorly cut down your costs. When you spend longer in a destination, you’ll get to know the cheaper places, you’ll spend less time sightseeing, and your transportation costs will be lower.

Stick to cheaper regions — not just cheaper countries. Most people consider Thailand a cheap country but don’t take into account that the beach resorts in the south are MUCH more expensive than the rest of the country. Stick to rural, less-visited areas for lower costs. In Thailand, you’ll find the cheapest prices in the north.

Set up a separate bank account for splurges. Use it for special activities like seeing Angkor Wat, getting scuba certified, or having a restaurant meal in a fabulous food region.

Plan on getting private accommodation every few weeks or so. Just a few days in a room to yourself will make you feel so much better, especially if you’re an introvert.

Have a re-entry fund saved up and don’t touch it. This is money to cushion your return home. How much do you need? Depends on your situation. Some people like to have enough to secure a new apartment and pay for a few months of frugal expenses; others just need a thousand dollars or so. The choice is yours.

Don’t scrimp on travel insurance. Even if you’re committed to spending as little as possible, you don’t want to put yourself in a position where you weigh your health against saving money. Not to mention that it will save your ass financially in the event that you get severely injured and need an air ambulance to another country. I use and recommend World Nomads.

Leaving the Generalife

One Last Tip: Check Your Privilege

When you’ve been traveling on the hobo for awhile, there will be dark days. You’ll be down to your last few dollars and unable to eat anything but rice and pasta. You’ll be tired. You’ll be lonely. You’ll be treading water and you won’t know when you’ll earn enough to leave town.

This happens to all travelers. We all go through tough times, but extreme budget travelers are additionally vulnerable because of their lack of money.

Even when you’re at your lowest, it’s important to remember that you hold enormous privilege. You’re living this lifestyle by choice, and you’ve experienced far more than the vast majority of the world will ever be able to.

Don’t refer to yourself as poor. Don’t take food donations meant for the needy. And for the love of God, don’t compare yourself to the homeless.

Instead, practice gratitude each day. Be kind. Use what you’ve learned to create a better life for everyone you meet, both on the road and at home.

And if you choose to settle down for some time — whether it’s just for a few weeks or something more permanent — open up your home to vagabonds like yourself. Feed them, give them a place to sleep, show them your favorite spots in town. It’s time to repay the kindness that you’ve been gifted on your journey.

Have you ever tried extreme budget travel? Did you enjoy it?

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AK Monthly Recap: January 2016

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Kate Couch

Last month, I said that my one and only goal was to find an apartment in New York. So did I succeed?

YES! I GOT A PLACE. I saw five apartments in total and fell in love with the second one on sight. The entire process was difficult and nerve-wracking and I think I gained several gray hairs over the course of the process. But I’m so excited to move in this week!

The rest of the month was very quiet — one of the quietest months I’ve had in the past few years. I went on a photo-taking frenzy in Rockport a few days ago because I had almost zero photos to put into this monthly post!

Rockport

Destinations Visited

Reading, Lynn, Newburyport, and Rockport, Massachusetts, USA

New York, New York, USA

Favorite Destinations

New York today, New York tomorrow, New York forever.

Chipped Cup

Highlights

Finding the apartment! I thought apartment-hunting in Boston was difficult; in New York, it’s worse. Tenants in New York have a lot of rights, and for that reason, landlords are very strict in who they allow to live there.

While in Boston a landlord would verify that you have a job and check your credit score, New York landlords do a lot more. Most apartments require you to make an annual salary of 40 times the monthly rent. (That works out to one third of what you make.) And when you’re self-employed, it’s even more complicated and requires years of past tax returns and several bank statements.

But I did my research, searched hard, and it worked! I’m moving to Hamilton Heights, Harlem! A lot of my friends were shocked to hear this; in fact, I was dead set on moving to Brooklyn until recently!

I’ll be writing about my decision to choose Harlem over Brooklyn later on, as it’s a huge topic that deserves a full post. The main reason? My biggest priority was to live alone in a really nice apartment.

While I looked all over Brooklyn, Hamilton Heights has much better value for money. Most rentals here are newly renovated and in excellent condition. Transportation is outstanding. On top of that, rents are lower than most decent Brooklyn neighborhoods, even lower than cheaper neighborhoods like Bushwick, Crown Heights, and Bed-Stuy.

How good is the transit? My sister commutes about 100 blocks from Hamilton Heights to midtown and it literally takes her TWO STOPS on the subway. How crazy is that?!

I like Hamilton Heights a lot, and I’ve spent a lot of time here, as my sister has lived here for the past few years. It’s convenient to several subway lines, the architecture is beautiful, and there are lots of cool bars and restaurants. I’ve walked alone at night here quite often and I feel very safe here. It feels like a comfortable, lived-in neighborhood.

The moment I walked into my apartment, I knew it was the one. It just felt so warm. It’s a roomy one-bedroom apartment in a beautiful, well-maintained brownstone on a gorgeous block. It’s actually the entire second floor of the building (!!).

The living room is big enough for a dining table and a desk as well as a couch. The kitchen is separate and has more counter space than any other unit I saw. The bedroom is on the small side, but it fits a queen bed and has tons of storage shelving built in. There’s a long, gallery-style hallway leading to the bathroom.

Best of all…I have an in-unit washer/dryer. That is the HOLY GRAIL in New York City!

Location-wise, the apartment is within four blocks of all the subways (1, A, B, C, D), multiple grocery stores, my sister’s place, a coworking space, some great bars and restaurants, my favorite coffeeshop in the neighborhood, and more! Walk a few more blocks and you’ll hit multiple gyms and a yoga studio with $5 classes.

So you could say that I chose the neighborhood with my head and the apartment with my heart.

Kim, Kate and Caroline in NYC

While I was too busy waiting to hear from brokers to hit up the New York Times Travel Show, I did make it to one of the post-show parties and got to hang out with lots of my blogger buddies! I always relish every chance to see my friends and it’s been a while since I’ve been at a big blogger event.

Oh, and while apartment-hunting, an adorable little man, the super of one building, asked me if I was a Columbia student. I patted his shoulder. “Sir, you flatter me. I’m neither that young nor that smart!”

Furnishing and decorating! OH MY GOD, YOU GUYS, THIS IS SO MUCH FUN. I’ve always loved art and design and I’m so happy that I finally get to design a place for myself!

You know, I actually never really furnished my post-college apartments in Somerville and Boston. I hung up my diploma — that was it. I knew from the beginning that my dream was to travel the world, and I couldn’t justify spending on money on something I’d be putting into storage before long.

Now, it’s finally time.

Kate, Lisa and Alexa in Rockport

My friends sent me off in style. Lisa and Alexa insisted on giving me a special going-away-day from Massachusetts, and we spent it day-tripping to Rockport, a little seaside town on the North Shore.

Rockport used to be a tiny fishing village; today, it’s popular with artists. It was actually the filming location for the Alaska scenes in the movie The Proposal. The only issue? Most of Rockport shuts down in the winter months! Definitely go in the summer.

We finished at home with a bottle of champagne and an HGTV marathon. I couldn’t have asked for a better day.

Rockport Bearskin Neck

Challenges

You don’t want to know how much money I spent this month. Moving is expensive, New York is expensive, furnishing a place from scratch is expensive…

Also, I’m growing my eyebrows out. I used to have much thicker, darker brows when I was younger (even when I was in my early twenties) so I’m experimenting to see if I can grow them back. It’s not a great look so far — pretty much the only thing more awkward than growing out your bangs.

SNOW! COLD! It’s hard enough living in the suburbs without a car of your own. Add freezing cold weather and snow and it’s no surprise I became a virtual hermit this month.

Other than these little peccadilloes, it was an easy January, and for that I am grateful.

Rockport

Most Popular Post

How to Arrive in Bangkok — Wow, this post did well! I love writing in-depth posts for the cities I know best.

Oysters at the Grog

Other Posts

Kate’s Picks: Where to Go in 2016 Before It’s Too Late — Japan for the exchange rate, Nicaragua before the canal is built, and Jordan to expand your friends’ horizons.

Scenes from England’s Lake District — One of the most beautiful places I’ve been in the UK.

Quit Fucking Around and Build Yourself a Fuck-Off Fund — This post was HUGE! And a very important message.

The Ultimate Girls’ Getaway to Koh Lanta, Thailand — My favorite place in the world. My third trip was my favorite.

Make This The Year You Start Your Own Business — Literally the only way you can have job security.

Seven Quirky Travel Accessories For Your Future Home — Some of my favorite new finds from Airportag.

Rockport

News and Announcements

Not a lot of big news to report. January’s challenge was to find and furnish a place, something that I’ve achieved for the most part.

But for February? Hmm.

Then I got an idea. We’re in a leap year — why not do something with the number 29?

So I decided — 29 days, 29 friends! I want to spend time with 29 different friends over the course of the month. Not necessarily new friends (though meeting new friends would be AWESOME!) — I want this specific challenge to be about reconnecting with the friends I already have.

And to add to the list, I want five of those friends to be people I haven’t seen in at least five years. I have a few in mind already.

So if you’re in New York and we know each other, drop me a line! Let’s hang out soon.

Castlerigg Sunset

Most Popular Photo on Instagram

Everyone loves a glorious sunset. I’ll never forget this sunset at Castlerigg Stone Circle in the Lake District of England!

Rockport

What I Read This Month

I read a piece on XOJane that suggested completing an author in 2016. What a great idea — you read all the works by an author you love (or at least everything you can find!).

I had already planned on completing Junot Diaz this year, but I could easily do Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Elizabeth Gilbert, Toni Morrison, or Barbara Kingsolver. As much as I adore Lionel Shriver, her books take a lot out of me (in a good way) and they’re best spaced out over a long time.

But a suggestion for you? Steve Martin. Yes, that Steve Martin. His books are magnificent and very different from what you think they would be. My favorite is Born Standing Up; I also love Shopgirl, The Pleasure of My Company and An Object of Beauty.

Here’s what I read this month:

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs — This book is going to stay with me for a LONG time. Robert Peace grew up in one of the roughest neighborhoods in Newark. He was brilliant and hardworking, earning a scholarship to Yale. After Yale, he traveled the world, then returned to selling drugs in his old neighborhood and was murdered.

How could this happen? How could this be prevented? I can’t stop thinking about these questions. What if he had had a mentor? What if he hadn’t been so loyal to his friends and family above all other things? This book was tremendously eye-opening when it comes to race and especially class in America, and I can’t recommend it enough.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates — This is one of the biggest books on race in America. Written as a series of letters to his son on what it means to be black in America today, Coates weaves through the history of his life from Baltimore to “The Mecca” (Howard University) to New York, Paris, and beyond.

This book was more of a challenge than I anticipated — it’s dense, it’s difficult, it’s beautiful and not a single word is wasted. As racial violence grips America, I’m trying to read more so that I understand more (not least because I’m moving to a historically black neighborhood). This book isn’t the easiest read, but I feel like it should be required reading for Americans, especially in an election year.

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — This Kindle short is based off Adichie’s TED Talk on contemporary feminism in Nigeria and beyond. So it’s a quickie read — and I’m not sure if I’m being dishonest by including it in my book round-up here! It’s an argument for why feminism needs to be taken seriously and appreciated by all citizens of the world — but she delivers it in the most delightful, charming way. Definitely worth a read.

Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling — I like Mindy Kaling a lot and I really enjoyed her first memoir. Like the Fey/Poehler/Dratch memoirs, she has great things to say about working hard in a female where women struggle to be acknowledged (not to mention women of color). But I think Kaling’s biggest strengths are when she writes about feeling like an outsider and faking it until you make it.

Anyway, I’m hoping that if we meet, we’d be friends. Her high school was actually one of my high school’s rivals. I’d love to tell her stories about the freaky incest-space-shadow-baby plays her high school would present at Dramafest.

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert — I adore Liz Gilbert and will read anything she writes. This book isn’t quite a self-help book, nor is it quite a memoir — it’s a guide on how to bring more creativity into your life and how best to use it. It’s a quicker read than I expected, and I absolutely loved it. I feel like I have a whole new way of seeing things, both the creative work I do for my career and the creative work I do for myself. Definitely worth a read, and Gilbert is one of my favorite literary voices.

What I Watched This Month

Mozart in the Jungle. I put it on after it won a few Golden Globes and I ended up binge-watching all 20 episodes over three sessions! It’s a show about the secret lives of the best classical musicians in New York. It’s a bit soapy, a bit funny, and an interesting look at the life of a professional classical musician.

If you are a creative or work in the arts, you need to see this show. Seriously. More than anything, it’s about the relationship between art and money. And if you’re a musician, especially a classical musician, you’ll love it, too. It reminded me of my nights partying, skinny-dipping, and drinking with the musicians in Kuhmo, Finland, before watching them perform Bach and Sibelius the next day!

What I Listened To This Month

“Lazarus” by David Bowie.

As usual, I woke up, grabbed my phone, and opened Facebook. My stomach tightened when I saw that David Bowie was trending. I knew he’d been ill with heart problems and living out of the public eye for awhile. Had he left us?

And the first thing I saw was this video, which I watched immediately.

I was overcome.

He knew he was dying for a long time. And instead of withdrawing from the world, he chose to create a beautiful final collection of music, as unique as his material had always been.

I thought I would listen to this song once, be sad, and turn to my usual favorite Bowie songs, “Young Americans” and “Modern Love” and “Golden Years.” But I kept listening to “Lazarus” and marveling at how bravely and beautifully Bowie decided to leave this world.

RIP.

Snowy Harlem via Instagram

Coming Up in February 2016

Moving day is February 3! My dad is driving me down and helping me move in my belongings. Furniture will be arriving over the next few weeks. Let’s just hope the weather doesn’t look like that above photo!

I won’t be traveling anywhere in February (other than home to Boston for a bachelorette party two days after I move, amusingly enough), but I’m making BIG plans for the spring and summer. I’m also arranging lots of meetings with my New York-based travel contacts so we can put some cool trips together.

Guys, the travel tingles are returning. That makes me SO HAPPY. Last week I got an idea for a trip and I researched and planned it maniacally, my heart racing, until I realized it was 3:30 AM and I should probably go to sleep.

That trip might end up happening — or it might not. We’ll see. The important thing is my mojo is sloooowly coming back. For awhile I was afraid that I had lost it after pushing myself too hard for too long.

It’s still there. And it’s raring to go.

One last thing — I am deeply grateful to have what I have today. Five years ago, my dream was to earn $1,000 per month from my blog so I could afford to live in Southeast Asia. That dream obviously grew and changed over time as I grew and changed as a person.

To be at the point where I can live on my own in Manhattan — and still travel — is something that I didn’t think would be possible a few years ago. I’ve worked so hard for this but I’ve also had a fair amount of luck, not to mention privilege. I won’t ever forget that, and I’m enormously grateful to all of you who continue to read my material and allow me to remain a full-time blogger.

What are your plans for February? Share away!

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