Five Years From Fulbright

Loved every minute of it!

It’s hard for me to believe, but this month marks five years from when Tucker and I first embarked on a long term, overseas adventure. It’s hard to say when exactly we decided that life abroad was something we wanted for our future, but I do remember asking if we could just stay in Finland indefinitely when we took our first international trip, just after our wedding/university graduation. I was immediately hooked on the adventure, but for Tucker, I think having a set plan and an entire, relatively stable year of not only living but also working in another country gave him the insight he needed, which ended up shifting our life plan pretty drastically.

At both Dalton State and Georgia State we had wanted to study abroad, but it was just way too expensive, even with scholarship help. However, in grad school I learned about Fulbright. An exchange program that provides grants for individual research projects, or in the case of the ETA program, specifically assigned teaching posts. It was obviously an amazing opportunity to not only experience another culture, life abroad, professional development, etc. but to also make money in the process – something extremely valuable to those graduating with student loans. However, before you can apply for a highly competitive Fulbright grant, you first have to choose a country/placement that interests you (and that will hopefully give you a good chance of success). For us, this was another easy choice and an incredible opportunity; we chose Poland.

2015-2016 Cohort

My heritage ties, solid grades, and excellent letters of recommendation (thanks again mentors!) eventually pushed us across the almost year long application/waiting process. We got the “congratulations” email in March, with a departure date in September. It was our first experience with a State Department exchange program, and it made a lasting impression. Meeting my fellow Fulbrighters, the Fulbright Commission staff in Warsaw, and eventually my mentor and colleagues at the University of Łódź completely solidified my respect for cultural exchange and soft diplomacy. I learned so much about Poland, the United States, history, politics, teaching, you name it, but I think what surprised me most was how much I learned about myself.

Tucker in the midst of solving a problem…

Being in a completely new environment always shifts one’s focus, and I would argue that living in a new environment (such as in a new country/culture) shifts it permanently. I absolutely loved that every day was an adventure. Going to the bank, setting up our internet connection, grocery shopping: it was all exciting and gave us new insights into everything from security and privacy to historical ties and familial influence. For problem-solvers like me and Tucker, it was a constant string of puzzles and challenges to work through often with the most amusing results and exciting successes. It also allowed for exceptional personal growth – interpersonal skills, patience, dealing with ambiguity. These skills I now cherish were addressed and honed day after day as an expat. 

Legendary hospitality!

Then there is everything we learned about Poland and about my family and my heritage. Seeing some of the “quirks” of my family represented by an entire culture, experiencing the long-lasting effects of World War II, celebrating Wigilia with new friends, eating as many pierogi and kopytka as humanly possible – we tried to soak in as much as we could. In fact, there are many habits we picked up in Poland that are still a part of our everyday lives. I discovered my love of both herbata (tea) and piwo (beer) in Poland. Tucker and I developed an interest in history and politics that we didn’t really have before. We saw firsthand how important fresh, wholesome food is and we learned how to shed some of our homegrown laziness, both of which have influenced our daily lives ever since.

Another unexpected gain from my time with Fulbright was a shift from a strong interest in teaching language (an obvious passion of mine) to an even stronger passion of teaching and discussing culture as well. After Fulbright I learned about the English Language Fellow Program, which allowed me to continue this combined effort of teaching English/language skills while at the same time learning from each other as our mutual understanding and friendships grew. Tucker and I are now considering taking this idea one step further and potentially joining the foreign service in order to continue developing meaningful intercultural relationships with people from all over the world. Fulbright gave us a glimpse into the many incredibly powerful things exchange programs can do.

Looking back at this seemingly small part of my academic/professional career, it’s clear to see it definitely had a huge impact on my life. It changed the way I view myself and my culture as well as how I see the world. From Fulbright 2015-2016 right up to the craziness that is 2020 and hopefully beyond, I plan to continue sharing my experiences in exchanging culture and shifting perspectives, whether with the help of specially designed programs like Fulbright, through my online teaching of international students, or throughout my life as an expat anywhere in the world. These five years have absolutely flown by, but I will forever be grateful for every step along the way. Thank you, Fulbright, and dziękujemy, Poland.

So thankful

Fun Florida Facts (and Opinions)

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Oh, 2020…

This year has thrown a lot of surprises at the world (and some not-so-surprising events as well really), but for me and Tucker one of the most unexpected occurrences has been our prolonged stay in Florida. We were only meant to be here for a few months as we gathered our lives from various corners of the world in order to head north for the next few years. Of course, with a brief snag in our immigration paperwork followed by a global pandemic, we’ve found ourselves in a holding pattern since March. And while, like everyone else, I’m still struggling to figure out what this all means for our jobs, our future, our society, etc. I’ve also been doing what I do best in a new place: exploring. Even though this exploring has taken place mostly online (and occasionally from a socially acceptable distance), life in Florida has still been quite interesting, and in some ways enlightening. Thus, for this month’s post, I have put together a list of my newly gleaned facts (and opinions) to share about our temporary home.

Cartoon Florida
Hi, guys! Wanna be my friend?

The first thing I have to mention is the fact that everyone seems to have an opinion about Florida. People who have never even been here feel one way or another about it, and plenty of people like to vocalize their opinions (many of which are quite negative) without much regard to facts or feelings. I say this as a non-Floridan, someone who doesn’t have a strong feeling one way or another about this particular state, but sheesh, even I feel bad listening to the many tirades and verbal attacks on the Sunshine State, especially those that can be found online. In our brief time here, I’ve come to view Florida as the state that’s often picked on, but that everyone secretly likes and takes advantage of (like an annoying kid in school that has a really nice pool).

When reflecting on why there are so many negative associations with Florida and Floridians floating around out there, I feel it boils down to two things: 1) the Florida Man and 2) vacationers. Most everyone knows about the Florida Man trope nowadays. A long-lasting meme that has permeated the internet and beyond, it originally referred to the crazy headlines often found in Florida that always begin with “Florida man…” and usually end with his doing something absolutely absurd. But interestingly, one of the first things I learned about the Florida Man origins is that they were sparked by a change in state law. In the 1990’s Florida passed the Sunshine Law, which ensures public access to all government records, including police arrest records. As you can imagine, in 30 years, the spring break capital of the US has racked up quite a few crazy stories, which brings me to my next point.

 

Vacationers. Probably the first thing we noticed after a few months in Florida was the ebb and flow of the people. Renters in, renters out; snow birds in, snow birds out; spring-breakers in, and (thankfully) spring-breakers out. The state of Florida has approximately 22 million permanent residents, but sees 110 million tourists annually. That’s a lot of YOLOing for any place to deal with. I think I actually first noticed this phenomenon in grocery stores. People in bathing suits, vacation gear (lots of Disney paraphernalia where we are), and a general lack of care for their immediate environment. Many people are here for a short time and their mindset is to live it up; therefore, chaos ensues, sometimes in the form of drunken parties and possible police involvement (which is then publicly documented for all the word to see and share).

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Three Sisters Springs

Of course, I completely understand why so many people choose to vacation to Florida. It’s an amazing place for affordable and varied entertainment. We’ve got theme parks all over the place: Disney World, Legoland, Universal Studios, SeaWorld, Busch Gardens, (and for a select clientele) Gatorland. There is also an abundance of parks, lakes, and other natural features like the Everglades, hot springs, swamps, and of course, the many, many beaches. Florida actually has the longest coastline of any of the contiguous states, and the climate (especially in south FL) means beach-going is possible year-round.

Speaking of South Florida, another thing that became immediately clear upon moving here was the presence of three distinct regions. You have North Florida, Central Florida, and Southern Florida, and the people who live (and vacation) in these three places often differ as much as the geography. We’ve heard this said a few times now: the further north you go in Florida, the further South you are. This refers to the fact that northern Florida is very much like Georgia, Alabama, the Carolinas, etc. Demographically, linguistically, socially, north of Ocala is really part of the South. On the other side, you have South Florida which held onto its Spanish roots and still welcomes a large influx of immigrants from Central and South America. The influence can be seen, heard, felt, and tasted as soon as you drive south of Lake Okeechobee. And that leaves Central Florida, which is somewhat a mix of the two and also somewhat the result of many retirees from out of state. Orlando and many other cities in Central Florida are very much like any other major city in the US: professional, progressive, and a tad hipster.

Another part of life in Florida that caught my attention early on was the naming of the coasts. Most likely, at least in part due to tourism, each section of the coastline in Florida has a name and, for lack of a better word, a vibe. You have the Space Coast, which is the location of the Kennedy Space center and where all the rocket launches take place (which we can see from our driveway, btw). You also have the Gold Coast where the big cities (Fort Lauderdale and Miami) and the famous South Beach are located. There’s the Sun Coast with its beautiful sunsets, the Nature Coast with its natural springs and manatees, and even the First Coast, which is where you can find the first and longest continuously inhabited settlement in modern day USA.

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I sense another checklist forming…

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Castillo de San Marcos

Since our trip to Saint Augustine and the First Cost, I’ve been really interested in Florida’s history and particularly how it differs from that of the colonies. Perhaps most people remember that Florida was first claimed by Spain, which is why we still see so many names like: Boca Raton, Punta Gorda, Buena Vista, etc., but what I (having taken Georgia History, not Florida History, in school) found super interesting was the native American history here. Of course, it now seems quite obvious with place names like: Tallahassee, Kissimmee, and Osceola, but I never gave much thought to the tribes that called Florida home and were actually some of the first to be attacked and displaced. Indeed, the Creek/Seminole tribes, in particular, not only found themselves stuck in the middle of a fight between Britain and Spain during the Seven Years’ War, but went on to challenge the US settlers with what is now known as the Seminole Wars, some of the longest and most expensive in early US history. Historically, Florida has seen a lot, and I don’t think it gets much credit for its important place in US history, let alone world history.

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Daily torrential rain

Finally, the last surprising fact I am very pleased to share is about the weather. As cold weather people, Tucker and I were very much dreading our time spent in the humid and, yes, extremely sunny Florida, especially as that time started to stretch into summer. However, I’m happy to report that it’s really not so bad! Florida is really breezy, which certainly helps with the heat, and now that we’re officially in summer, I can say that there’s a bit of a rainy season here meaning the afternoon thunderstorms that happen almost every day also help to cool it down. We’ve both commented that while the warmer temps might last longer, they don’t feel near as oppressive as summer in Atlanta. Plus, the produce here is absolutely amazing! In addition to citrus, Florida produces significant percentages of the country’s tomatoes, watermelons, cucumbers, and sugar cane.

All in all, Florida has been a surprise in many ways for us (including the very exciting news that there is no state income tax in Florida!). Ultimately, our time here has really just been another lesson in finding out how much there is to discover/learn, even in a place you think you already know pretty well. So, what have you learned so far in 2020?

Quarantine Endeavors

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Anything to cure the boredom!

Quarantine, for me, officially started on March 14th, and as a person who was already working remotely, this definitely led to a surplus of down time at home (something I certainly wasn’t used to). The good news is, I can always be counted on to come up with plenty of ideas, projects, games, and the like. See? Being an only-child has its benefits! And now that it seems like this phase might be lasting a bit longer than anyone would have liked, maybe some of you are also in the market for some cheap, interesting at-home entertainment! If so, take a look at my newly documented list of quarantine endeavors: twenty-something random activities, categorized, described, and, of course, photographed for your perusal. Enjoy!

Cooking-related:

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International Brunch

If you know me, you know I absolutely despise cooking, so you might be wondering why I’ve been doing so many cooking-related activities. Well, necessity is the mother of invention, no? We had to cook at home more often, so I thought we might as well have some fun with it, starting with our monthly brunches. At the beginning of 2020, we made a plan to meet my parents for brunch on the first Sunday of every month for as long as we were in Florida. As it turned out, our leaving the country wasn’t the issue…having brunch out was. So, we took the idea to our home tables, creating a theme each month and enjoying the process of cooking together and trying something a little different. Some of our recent themes have included: Disney-inspired brunch, international dishes, and red, white, and blue (for July, of course).

coq au vin'
Oui, oui! C’est délicieux!

We’ve also had our fair share of kitchen-y fun just trying out new (i.e. fancy) dishes like coq au vin and cauliflower rice burrito bowls. More time at home has meant more time to find recipes, meander our way through the cooking process, and really sit down and enjoy our meals. We’ve also made the most of our grocery store visits by conducting various taste tests: classic snack foods, Easter candy, and beef jerky, just to name a few. I mean, a bit of nostalgia mixed in with legitimate research, how could you go wrong? In addition to all the food we’ve been experimenting with, I’ve also taken it upon myself to finally figure out which wines I prefer, and potentially learning to like reds a bit more in the process. We live near a Trader Joe’s, and you just can’t beat Two Buck Chuck!

Game-related:

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Destroying it might have been more fun…

I love games even in non-pandemic times, so obviously I have ideas in this category, such as the classic: jigsaw puzzles. I love them, and recently I’ve been intrigued by all the variety there is! 3D puzzles, gradient puzzles, I-Spy puzzles, etc. Tucker and I also had a lot of fun reliving our childhood Lego dreams with a Titanic build, which we then made into a game of “who can make the best ______? Go!” Of course, I probably still gravitate most to board games, thus we’ve recently added Villainous and Sushi Go to our collection. Additionally, we’ve continued putting our own twists on some other classic games (for example, we’ve been known to play Guess Who by choosing two or three people, which makes the questioning much more complicated, especially when we stipulate “no English” – making it a great language practice as well). And speaking of innovation, it’s super fun to make up your own game! Tucker and I still play a version of “Cheyenne, Wyoming”, which is a card game we made up years ago on an overnight layover.

Artistic:

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Striking…lol

One of the things I loved seeing at the beginning of quarantine was all the artistic fun people were having. It started with the artwork challenges where people were imitating famous paintings using what they could find at home. Tucker and I did a few of these, and it was so much fun! Searching galleries for pieces that would work, collecting the props, arranging the set, staging the photo, etc. I’ve also used some of this down time to work on my cross stich and origami skills – getting ready for holiday gift-exchanges already! On a whim, I also ordered a paint-by-numbers kit, and let me tell you, if you’re looking for something that takes up a lot of time, this would be it. Eventually when I finish the thing, I also have big plans for any paint I don’t use: painted rocks for the neighborhood, a Bob Ross video, etc. Time at home really gets the creative juices flowing!

Technology-related:

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Groovy!

Can we all agree we’re really lucky this happened in 2020 and not 2002 because technology really gives us a lot of options. I don’t think I can have a list of things to do during quarantine without including the ever-popular, binge-watching. So, yeah, find something to watch, make some popcorn, and veg out. I didn’t get into the whole Tiger King thing, but I really loved The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Taskmaster, Russian Doll, and many others. Check out the free site Taste Dive to find shows/books/movies that are similar to your favorites. Also, don’t get hung up in doing the same things online and/or on your phone. I’ve found some really amazing websites and apps just from googling other “things to do when you’re bored/quarantined” lists. Some of my favorites include: Seterra (geography quizzes), Mental Floss (human interest articles), Bored Panda (stories of art and design), Sporcle (trivia), and Free Rice (vocabulary games). Some new apps I’ve had fun with are: 13 tile mahjong, psychedelic camera, photo editors/collage makers, and Hello Talk (social media/language exchange). Since I recently had to get a new phone, I also purposely spent a lot of time optimizing it to my exacting specifications. I tried out all sorts of settings I never would have even looked at before, and I also googled tips/tricks specifically for my phone/system. Tucker even learned a few things for his phone, which he’s had for two years now!

Educational:

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My constant companions…

If you’re starting to feel like maybe you should do something with your at-home time other than just entertain yourself, it might be a great time to focus on learning something specific. I’ve been addicted to Duolingo for while now, but it’s totally guilt-free because my French is seriously improving. I also really enjoyed my 30-day challenges that included something educational (but also easy), like watch a TED Talk every day or read a random country’s entire Wiki page (which coincidentally also helped with my wanderlust). This time is also perfect for catching up on any reading lists you may have. I’ve focused on books I acquired long ago, but never had the time/access to read as well as books that have popped into my mind for one reason or another (such as Jurassic Park – aren’t you curious about how the movie differs from the book? I know I am). I’ve also been enjoying the time I’ve put into some pertinent research. Human rights’ laws, Black history, local election processes, charities, corona-viruses, and so many other things. We’re incredibly lucky to live in the information age where we can learn just about anything we want, including how to reliably fact-check and source information.

Health-related:

One concern I had (even prior to any lock-downs) was how am I going to be as active as I used to be, now that I don’t have to walk to work or traverse the vast, open spaces of China on a daily basis. One way I tried to address this problem was by setting a physical challenge for myself for each month of the year, such as walk 10,000 steps a day (March), 30 minutes of yoga a day (April), etc. Now that I find myself residing in a new neighborhood, I’ve also made a list of “walking tours” for us to complete when we take the dogs out. Just another way to get a bit more exercise and systematically see our neighborhood (and beyond) a little more thoroughly. Of course, I’ve also been dying to organize my things (which are all still in boxes/suitcases), so if you are able to, use some of this at-home time to go through your closets, drawers, even digital files and Marie Kondo your life. Also let me know when you do, so I can live vicariously through you! Finally, another health-related activity I’ve been working on is finishing up any/all beauty products I have. I came back from China with heaps of hydrating face masks, and I love throwing one on and simultaneously finishing up that tanning lotion I got way back in 2016 (at long last!).

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Luckily Orlando is a really nice place to walk!

Miscellaneous:

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Birthday Boy

Finally, we all need to be reminded that while we might be limiting our face-to-face time, we should still be connecting with family and friends. This is the perfect time to develop new habits of regular phone calls, video chats, game nights, etc. We should definitely all keep celebrating special events too! Birthdays, anniversaries, successfully submitting your tax returns, whatever you want! Tucker and I just celebrated Christmas in July last weekend and had so much fun. I actually think eggnog tastes better in the summer. Also, even though it’s tough to do, try to keep planning. Trust me, I really know the frustration of trying to plan during a pandemic (I’m still technically mid-move), but it really feels good to talk about the possibilities, even if they end up changing. And one last one: write something! Write a postcard or a letter, start a bullet-journal, take up blogging or poetry. It can really be quite cathartic.

So that’s my list. I hope it gave you an idea or two or maybe it sparked something completely different. This really is the perfect time to try something new and perhaps change some habits in the process. I also feel like having these small, solid “events” to look forward to have really helped keep me sane in this time of unknowns. It’s definitely been an interesting phase in our lives, but there’s certainly no reason it can’t be a fun one as well. I can’t wait to look back on quarantine and reminisce about all the crazy things we did and tried! See you on the other side!

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And it will

Ruminating on Returning

With so much to see in the world (and currently so much time to plan) Tucker and I find ourselves talking about trips we’d like to take fairly often. We typically have no problem jumping into the logistics and research of a given location, but we do sometimes get stuck on the initial “where should we go” question. There are so many places we’d absolutely love to visit, but there is also a growing list of places we’d really like to return to; places we clearly haven’t explored thoroughly enough for our liking; places, including but not limited to:

The Netherlands

472549_4075793461494_1409717026_oThis was an obvious choice for this particular list because we only spent about 23 hours in the country. It was our first foray into long-layover travel, and we definitely fumbled our way through it. It wasn’t too difficult to get from the airport to the city center (and back again), but as we set off with absolutely no plan, it was mostly just a long walk around the beautiful canals. Amsterdam is a great walking city though, so even with our random ambling, we were able to take in the numerous and iconic bridges, bicycles, and fry-stands. We also explored the infamous Red Light District and (from a distance) the I AMsterdam sign, which is sadly no longer there.

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Pre-smartphone days

If/when we return, however, there many things we have added to our NL itinerary. Mostly notably, all the incredible museums that we missed! Anne Frank, Van Gogh, Rembrandt – we definitely needed more time. I also want to visit Castle De Haar, see the tulips, and maybe spend the night in a houseboat. We’ll also need to do a better job of trying some Dutch specialties on our next trip: poffertjes (small fluffy pancakes), bitterballen (fried meat balls), and some fresh Gouda, for a start.

Finland

414107_4076007586847_1513337318_oNext on our “must return to” list is Finland, which might not have been an obvious choice seeing as we spent almost three weeks there, but at the time we 1) had very little money to spend, 2) were exhausted from finishing up our undergrad degrees, and 3) had just gotten married, which as anyone who has planned a wedding can attest, left us feeling a bit burnt out. Typically when we travel now, we avoid suitcases and we move around a lot, but as this was our first trip sans car, we failed miserably at both packing lightly and at utilizing public transportation. We also weren’t able to afford train passes or much of anything at that time; in fact, our flights and accommodations were wrangled together with the help of some of our wedding gifts and useful family connections. Regardless of what now seems like a trip very far removed from our usual preferences, at the time is was magical.

It was actually my first trip overseas, and I quite literally cried on the plane from sheer excitement. Even with very little planning and even less travel experience, we found time to act our age in a youth hostel in the Olympic Stadium of Helsinki; we then honeymooned properly in a cabin (with its very own sauna) at a lakeside resort in Kajaani, and we also watched a series of bizarre sunsets around 11pm each night. I really wouldn’t change anything about our time in Finland, but for the next visit, I do have a list of a few more things I’d like to see/do. Things like: cross into the Arctic Circle, see the Northern Lights, meet Santa Claus, go snowshoeing, step foot in Turku, and visit Olavinlinna Castle, all while listening to my favorite language in the world: suomen.

The Bahamas

536438_10200935610700815_1786181392_nTechnically we’ve been to the Bahamas a few times now, but does it really count if it’s on a cruise? I mean, don’t get me wrong, cruises are fun and economical, but they definitely keep you in a bit of a bubble. For this reason, I would love to go back to the Bahamas, without the big boat. I think it would be amazing to fly into Nassau and explore New Providence Island a little more slowly and a lot more thoroughly. There are several forts I want to see on the island, not to mention the art galleries, lighthouses, and, of course, the beaches (especially the ones on the far side of the island). At some point Tucker and I want to get our diving certification so we can explore the depths too, or if we don’t have time for that, then I want to do one of those bubble helmet dives instead!

South Korea

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Chimek

Another clear case of not enough time: our quick trip to South Korea still feels like a bit of a blur. I had just spent a month studying abroad in China, but before taking the long plane ride back to the US, Tucker and I tacked on a few days in Seoul as well. Luckily we had our very own personal tour guide as a former student of mine (and his wife) took us around the city showing us all the famous sights and, more importantly, the best eats. We tried to act cool in Gangnam, we saw the famous Blue House, we crisscrossed the many bridges and marveled at the surrounding mountains. We were also treated to the most amazing Korean BBQ, bingsu (shaved ice dessert), chimek (fried chicken and beer), and soju (traditional Korean alcohol), which fueled our love of gochujang (red chili paste) for years to come. It was truly unlike any trip we’d ever taken, and spending the time with new friends was the best part.

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Thanks Hyung-Bin and Jessica!

Of course, with so little time (and a tightly packed and carefully arranged agenda), we didn’t really even make it out of the capital. Next time, we’d love to see the notorious DMZ or to head south to the highly regarded Jeju Island. I find that a lot of my Korean students speak very fondly of the nature in their home country, and I’d love to hike a mountain, view a waterfall, or whatever else is going on in the season we find ourselves in. I’m also pretty sure I’ll never get my fill of Korean food, so obviously we need more time and access on that front. I know we didn’t even try half of what was on our list, and everything we did try, we mostly certainly want to have again!

Italy

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So sick 😦

Does anyone feel like they’ve ever seen enough of Italy? I feel like even Italians are always discovering new things they want to do and see in a country that clearly has culture coming out of every orifice. Speaking of orifices, mine were a bit sneeze-y, stuffy, and runny when we took our trip to Rome a few years ago. It was actually a bit heartbreaking to not be able to fully taste what many people regard as the king of international cuisines. Due to my weakened state and a surprise address from the Pope that weekend, we weren’t able to check off quite as many things as we’d hoped in planning that particular trip. Fortunately, we did still hit most of the highlights of the Eternal City, plus we got to see the Pope pop his head out of the little carpeted window in the Vatican, so how can I really complain?

For Rome specifically though, I know we need to see the Sistine Chapel and the rest of the Vatican Museums (when we were there, the wait to go inside was over 4 hours long). We also opted not to go into the Colosseum when we were there, partly because of crowds but also because it just looked so touristy. In hindsight, we regret not taking a closer look at such a historic structure. And then, there’s the rest of Italy we still need to explore: the fashion of Milan, the waterways of Venice, the architecture of Pisa, the art of Florence, the pizza of Naples; I mean really, there is so so much we still have to see in Italy. I also want to have a clear nose and a few more cannoli taste-tests next time.

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Waiting to hear Pope Francis

Germany

13726595_10210193233855608_8528054797553861878_nGermany unfortunately represents another set of rookie moves on our part. We spent a year living just a few hours over the border in central Poland, yet we failed to A) make it to Oktoberfest and B) visit Bavaria, the most quintessential of all the German regions. While I do sorely regret not making time for southern Germany, we did really enjoy our time in Berlin and Potsdam looking at the incredible architecture, sampling the infamous brews, and picnicking in the numerous parks. It was an absolutely lovely time, but of course, I’d love to go back for a festival or two. It’s really not our fault we missed Oktoberfest; we had wrongly assumed it took place in October, but really it’s more of a September event that actually ends in early October. Ah well, it’s on the list for our inevitable return trip. As are other famous places like: Neuschwanstein Castle, the Rhine, Cologne, and, of course, Bavaria.

Mongolia

22489965_10214825998711834_2745602979160999147_nPerhaps unlike any other place we had been, Mongolia intrigued us in so many ways. It’s really a breathtakingly beautiful country that exceeded every expectation we had for it. We visited for about a week in 2017, but unfortunately a lot of that time was taken up by work (conferences, presentations, etc.) In our free time though, we were able to pretty thoroughly explore Ulaanbaatar, including temples, yurt neighborhoods, live-music bars, and amazingly trendy restaurants. We also took a short road trip out to Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, which was honestly a bit frightening for me (mostly because we opted to dismiss the rental insurance), but ultimately it gave us the best glimpse of what life is like outside UB.

It was this glimpse that sparked our conversations of returning to Mongolia. We’d love to experience more of the steppes, perhaps to try our hand at some serious horseback riding, yurt living, and other nomadic fundamentals. I’m also really eager to return to Mongolia in the dead of winter because Ulaanbaatar is consistently ranked the world’s coldest capital, and that’s something I want to experience. Although, on the flip side, I also want to make the long trek out to the Gobi dessert or the Flaming Cliffs; as one of the least densely populated countries in the world, the nature in the Land of Eternal Blue Sky is unspoiled and absolutely stunning. Okay, so apparently we need two or three more trips to Mongolia.

Malaysia

51666025_10218814551103151_7277803769331449856_nLast on this list (for now) is a place we actually visited just last year. On our way back to China from a work event in the Philippines, we took a bit of a roundabout path that allowed us to spend almost a week in Malaysia, well, in and around Kuala Lumpur anyway. Malaysia is a tricky country to fully explore in a short amount of time because it’s made up of part of a peninsula (West Malaysia) and part of the island of Borneo (East Malaysia), the two regions being about 400 miles apart. For this reason, although we feel pretty good about our exploration of the amazing capital city, typically called KL for short, we still really want to explore some of the other regions of this incredibly diverse country.

51743204_10218802008229587_1851030617089638400_nWe never made it to a beach while we were in Malaysia, so maybe we’ll start there on a subsequent trip. There are many islands off the coasts of both West and East Malaysia that look amazingly beautiful and relaxing. There are also several world-renowned national parks, which are home to a collection of unique indigenous species that Tucker really wants to check out. Of course, as we found in KL, Malaysia seems to enjoy extremes sports as well, so maybe we’ll try the popular zip-lining, white water rafting, or jungle trekking activities while we’re at it!

65967210_10219977305371281_6241891798231285760_nOf course, there are three countries, not previously mentioned, that are and will indefinitely be on our return radar: the United States, Poland, and China. These are the places we have the greatest connection to, and thus will need many re-visits and reunions to sustain us. Luckily, our friends and family in Chicago, Atlanta, Orlando, Łódź, Hefei, and Shanghai continue to make us feel like we never left. Traveling around the world and learning about different cultures and languages has been a huge part of my life, and I sincerely hope it always will be. Whether we make it back to any of these places, or onto any of the other 150+ countries still on my list, I’ll forever be grateful for these opportunities and the people who have had a hand in making them happen.

30 Lessons I’ve Learned in My 30 Years

1This month I turned 30, which of course has me reflecting. Reflecting on the now three decades of life I’ve lived, and perhaps more importantly, on the three decades of lessons I’ve learned. I truly feel I learn something each and every day, and sometimes these lessons are what I consider to be “life lessons”, nuggets of advice that I try to take with me and live by, not just in the moments that test me, but throughout all the moments I’ve been given.

Of course, this can be tricky to do – there’s a lot to process in our daily lives, and it can be hard to focus on keeping the things we’ve learned front and center. For this reason, for my 30th birthday, I’ve listed out 30 things (in no particular order) that I personally try to remember and further infuse into each of my currently 15 million+ minutes of life.

You can always learn something. At any time, from any person, in any situation, there is always a way to learn and grow.

3Ask questions. One of the best ways I know to learn and grow is by asking questions. I used to be embarrassed to be the person who always had a question or two, but now I realize how valuable questions can truly be for our own understanding and for others’.

Try everything. Now I just think of the Zootopia song, but honestly, it’s great advice: try anything and everything. Always be open to new things because you never know what you might discover.

Experience and wisdom are not necessarily age-based. We have a tendency to believe that our added years bring us wisdom, and while for many of us it feels that way as we continue to progress through our lives, I don’t think age and experience/wisdom are mutually inclusive. It’s important to remember that each person brings their own unique experience and wisdom to the table, and that respect should have no age limit.

6There will always be someone _________ (insert comparative adjective here) than you. It’s no use chasing labels like “the best _______” or “the most _________” because somewhere out there someone will burst that bubble. We really shouldn’t compare ourselves because we’re just not the same.

Live your own life. Speaking of not comparing, our lives and choices should also go on without any rivals. We commonly talk about the detriment social media has on this regard, but keeping up with the Jones’ isn’t a new concept, and it has never been healthy.

Work to live don’t live to work. Somewhat morbidly, I like to read what people say about their lives when they’re close to the end, and one of the most common threads is that “work took up too much time, focus, and energy”. We need to work, but our work days aren’t what we’ll look back on in the end.

10Find things that make you happy and do them often. So when you’re not working, find and do things that you like. Enjoy your hobby, spend time with people you love, take trips, do all the things!

Keep moving forward; always have a goal. Possibly the opposite problem of living just to work, is living without a purpose or goal. It’s never easy to decide in which direction to go, but having any direction at all can often spur the most incredible, unexpected opportunities.

We are our own captains driving this ship. I heard this in a yoga class once, and while it was true in the moment (on a physical/exercise-based level), it’s also true in the grand scheme of life. We get to choose so many things for ourselves day in and day out. Make those decisions count.

Home is what you make it. Another very personal lesson for me after years of having a not-so-traditional “home”. I’m not exactly sure I’ll ever settle on “where” my home is, but I’ve found that the place itself is not important at all. Who you’re with, what you do with your time and space, this is what makes a place feel like home.

16Stay positive. Especially right now, it can seem impossible to see the glass as half-full, but there’s always a silver lining and “happiness can be found even in the darkest of places” if you keep looking. Staying positive not only helps us get through tough times, but it allows us to move forward with hope for a better future.

Complaining doesn’t change anything. Shockingly, complaining won’t help solve any problems, and, in fact, it might actually make you feel worse. Ignore the impulse and skip ahead to the possible solutions or mindset changes that are needed instead.

Think first, act second. The human existence version of “measure twice, cut once”. Our actions can have drastic consequences, so we better be sure to act only after conscious consideration.

18Some things don’t need to be said. Together with thinking before acting, we should definitely also think before speaking. I’ve had to edit a lot of papers in my day, so I’ve learned the art of reticence. I really love the proverb: “Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates. Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?”

Focus on doing good/being good. We love wholesome memes and feel-good stories, so we should work on being a part of them ourselves. How can we actively do more good? Imagine how much more good there would be in the world if we all worked on this!

Believe in something. Whether it’s your faith, your passion, or even yourself, having something (or some things) to believe in can really help narrow down your goals, choices, behaviors, etc.

20People are more alike than different. Another truth that makes itself known to me every day is that we are all more alike than different. It’s fun to share and learn from our little differences, like customs, slang, preferences, etc. But ultimately, we’re all human, and we’re so much better off together.

Empathy defines us as human. As with most virtues, we can choose which ones to cultivate and bring into greater focus, and for me, empathy is one I would very much like to continue striving for. In our individualistic society, it’s so easy to say “everyone for themselves”, but that is the very last thing I want for our collective future.

Try to build a longer table not a taller fence. Another great quote that I try to live by. Our connection and cooperation bring us together and strengthen our bonds like nothing else. We’re truly all in this together.

21Awareness and open-mindedness are necessary for growth. We simply cannot hope to improve or progress without awareness and open-minded thinking. It can at times feel uncomfortable or strange, but the end results can be truly life-changing.

Embrace and then learn from your mistakes. Easy to say, tough to do, but so useful if it can be managed. We often tell our kids “mistakes are how you learn”, so let’s take our own advice for once!

Don’t dwell on hindsight. Another task that seems easy until you actually try it. Everything looks so different in hindsight, but we can’t get caught up in the “shoulda, coulda, woulda”. It’s impossible to go back and do it again, so do the best you can in the moment and then pull an Elsa and let it go.

Patience is a virtue (and at times an absolute lifesaver). The more we can work on this particular skill, the happier we’ll all be. Trust me patience is precious.

22Be thankful and reflect on how/why. We all know we should be grateful for what we’ve been given in this life. It could always be worse, after all. Gratitude can really give us that big picture perspective and prompt so many other positive thoughts and actions in our lives.

Perception is everything. We each see the world a little differently, and it’s important to always keep that in mind. The media isn’t the only one with bias; we each have our biases and filters, and we should be aware and thoughtful of our own and others’ perspectives.

Change is inevitable; flexibility is gift. Most people don’t like change (and while I typically thrive in it) sometimes I find myself rejecting change as much as the next person. Unfortunately as much as we might not want things to change, they undoubtedly will. Best adapt a strategy sooner rather than later!

25Not always having the answer is freeing. I have a motto: embrace ambiguity. It’s healthy to not have all the answers, and even healthier to recognize that we don’t.

Drink more water. Just do it; you won’t regret it.

Don’t be afraid to share. Contribute, participate, commiserate, teach, post, whatever! We all have something valuable to add to this world, so let’s do that.

I’m happy to be able to share my lessons with whoever is interested enough to read this, and I’d love to hear some of your most important life lessons. What did you learn in your first thirty years or even in the last thirty days? What do you try to work into your everyday thoughts and actions? We’ve got lots of time to reflect, and with all the people out there, the amount of lessons we can learn from each other is limitless!

29

Florida Adventures

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Contemplating the state of the world

Have I already mentioned what an interesting year 2020 is turning out to be…well, anyway, as you may have heard, we should all be self-quarantining now. So what better time is there to write about all the adventures we had (and some we still have) planned for our sojourn in Florida, which has also been quite unexpected and rife with issues (more on that in a later, much longer post).

For now, let’s focus on Florida: the Sunshine State, the Family Vacation Mecca, the Hotbox of the East Coast. Of course, like most middle-class Americans east of the Mississippi, Tucker and I had been to Florida many times in our lives. Apparently my first ocean experience was as a two month old at New Port Richey Beach; Tucker and I both visited grandparents down here when we were little (mine in St. Pete and his in Fort Pierce), and of course, if you know my family, you know we’ve made our fair share of trips to the big WDW. We actually both remember separate trips to Pensacola for one reason or another, and as I have family in the Villages, we’ve made several stops there as well. But, when my parents officially moved down here back in 2017, Tucker and I planned and took a trip to Fort Lauderdale, Miami, and Key West (with his mom this time), which I believe truly marked the beginning of our new and focused Florida Explorations.

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Sunset Key

So, when we came back this year, knowing immigration would take a few months, we decided to really see what Florida has to offer. I made a list, shocking I know, and we’ve done our best amid the global and domestic catastrophes to explore our new state of temporary residency. Here’s what we’ve done:

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Butter beer!

1 – Universal Studios

The first place I knew had to be on the list was Universal Studios. Tucker had never been, and the last time I was here was in 2006 with a friend and her family. Since then, they’ve added pretty much the only thing that could draw me away from Disney and into another over-priced theme park: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Long story short, it’s no Disney, but you really can’t miss visiting Hogwarts and Diagon Alley, can you?

 

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So amazing!

2 – Daytona Beach

We realized pretty early on in our Florida-life that everything in the state is between 1-3 hours away from Orlando, so it was easy to plan Saturday excursions in any direction. One of the first of such excursions was to Daytona Beach, which boasts the title of “The World’s Most Famous Beach”. And while I might not go that far, it’s always great fun to share a fishbowl drink overlooking the waves.

3 – Disney Brunches

Some of the things on our list are events rather than places, as with our plan to go to brunch with family on the first Sunday of each month we are in Florida. This was narrowed down to Disney-specific brunches because my parents get a discount and, well, we love the World. So far we’ve been to Chef Art Smith’s Homecomin’, Boma – Flavors of Africa, and the Whispering Canyon Cafe. Next up was going to be the Wave…of American Flavors, but I think April’s brunch might be an at-home affair.

4 – Cocoa Beach and the Space Coast

82989356_10221868133720808_9032252941439860736_nNext up, my dad wanted to try a famous seafood place (Dixie Crossroads) out on the Atlantic coast, which I quickly paired up with a drive to Cocoa Beach and Port Canaveral. Although it was a quick visit, we walked along the beach and the pier, looked for the cruise ships and the Space Center, and learned that Florida has a nickname for every single section of coastline.

5 – Crystal River Manatees

Of course, I had to include Florida’s friendliest sea creature in our excursions! Tucker and I took a drive up to Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge to see some free range manatees and were blown away by the large numbers of them. While they definitely kept their distance, and rightly so, it was incredible to watch them splash and float around in adorable aggregations (which I learned is the group noun for manatees).

6 – Downtown Orlando

Just as I spent a lot of time exploring Atlanta when we lived there, I knew I wanted to go through the different neighborhoods and attractions of Orlando as well, you know, aside from the theme parks. One day we took a lovely walk around Eola Lake and up around Church Street. We went to see Henry IV at Orlando Shakes and strolled around all the museums on the north side. We’ve also found our new favorite used bookstore in Best Used Books and have been back and forth to all sorts of Orlando hot spots since January.

7 – Hop Passport: Florida Edition89925318_10222367882414213_2624685322386014208_n

Actually, one of the main reasons we’ve been to so many random locations in Florida is due to our quest to get a stamp at as many local breweries as possible. My sister-in-law and her boyfriend gave us the amazing Hot Passport for Christmas this year, and we’ve had a great time checking off places and seeing new cities across Florida. We’re at 14 out of 96 so far, and you should definitely check out the Hop Passport for your state if you’re also a beer-lover. You just can’t beat half-off beers!

8 – Disney (free things)

Another more open-ended item on our list is to finally do some of the free things at Disney that we never had the time or energy to do on previous trips. We haven’t bought park tickets for our time in Florida this year, but we’ve had a great time attending free events, walking the Boardwalk, hanging out at Disney Springs (the free shopping and entertainment area), and so much more. If you want a list of fun, free, and non-kiddie things to do at Disney, please let me know. I’m practically an expert.

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The Boardwalk: my favorite Disney place!

9 – Saint Augustine

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Castillo de San Marcos

Finally, on our last day of freedom (pre-self-quarentine), Tucker and I drove up to Saint Augustine to learn a bit more about Florida’s very long history. We visited the Fountain of Youth, the Colonial Quarter, the oldest masonry fort in the US, and ultimately saw a completely different side to this seriously diverse state. I’d really love to go back and explore Saint Augustine even more one day; it’s really an awesome city.

And so that brings me to a few things still on our list for the oh-so-tentative future:

* Take a train

I absolutely love trains, and when I saw how frequently they’re actually used in Florida (albeit still over-priced and not terribly convenient), I knew I needed to try them out for myself. Probably after the pandemic though…

Train

* Naples/Everglades

The Naples area is deemed “Paradise Coast” and it’s one part of Florida neither of us have ever been to; therefore, it was an obvious choice for the list. We’ve also never truly been into Everglades National Park (we’ve only driven through parts of it), so we tacked that (and the obligatory airboat ride that accompanies it) on as well.

* Devil’s Den

A place that has been on my travel to-do list for years now, Devil’s Den is an underground spring with clear waters and an abundance of ancient rock formations and fossils. It looks so cool, and I really want to go! Once the water gets a bit warmer though…

Den

* Tampa/deep sea fishing

And for now, the last thing on our list is a trip over to the Gulf Coast for a deep-sea fishing excursion (during which I might just have to close my eyes or ask that we be allowed to catch and release). We’re also planning to do a more thorough exploration of downtown Tampa on this particular trip. I really love the whole two birds, one stone idea.

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Making lemonade!

Well, that’s our Florida bucket list! Fingers crossed that everyone stays home for the next few weeks/months, so we can get back to exploring once everyone’s healthy again. Until then, I might add a few more things to list now that I have such ample time for research! I also challenge everyone reading this to do the same for your state/region – it’s a great way to pass the time and make the most of our days in the future!

Country Curiosities

InkedAround the World_LII don’t intend on writing about my 30 Day Challenges (see January’s blog) each month, or even ever again; however, I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to share some of what I have learned this month with my “read about a different country every day” challenge. For each day in February (more or less), I selected a country to explore digitally (i.e. with the help of various web resources), and in the process, I have gleaned a plethora of fun facts!

I went with a round-robin style selection process, where I purposefully chose countries (fully sovereign and UN recognized) that I knew very little about from each of the continents in alphabetical order (Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, Oceania, South America). And even with a few missed days, I was still able to read about 24 lesser-known places: 4 countries from each continent.

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My checklist

To say I learned something new every day would be a gross understatement of this process. It is absolutely incredible how much there is to learn about each and every little corner of the globe, including our own. And now, to help pique your interest in some of these places, here are some of the most interesting tidbits I picked up in my daily readings:

 

Togo: This small country in West Africa was originally claimed by Germany as “Togoland”, which to me sounds like an amusement park rather than a country.

Georgia: Nestled in the Caucasus Mountains, Georgia (the country, definitely not the state) has two disputed regions that are currently vying for independence: Abkhazia and Adjara.

Andorra: A country (located between France and Spain) that is so tiny, there are no international airports within its borders.

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Beautiful Andorra 

Costa Rica: In 1949 Costa Rica abolished their army, working instead to replace it with “an army of teachers”, thus focusing on education rather than military spending.

Federated States of Micronesia: Includes over 600 islands extending almost 3000 kilometers in the Pacific ocean (that’s about the distance from Atlanta to Salt Lake City).

Suriname: A small country in South America where the official and most commonly spoken language is, you guessed it (not!), Dutch.

 

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Stars, stripes, guns, and tools

Mozambique: Located on the southeastern coast of Africa, Mozambique has a machine gun and a mattock on its flag, which gives a bit of insight into its checkered (and complicated) past.

 

Kazakhstan: means the Land of Nomads, who fortunately have a lot of room to roam in the world’s largest land-locked country.

Cyprus: A small island in the Mediterranean that was inhabited by humans before boats were invented (gotta love a good ol’ Ice Age story).

Trinidad and Tobago: Only seven miles off the coast of Venezuela, this pair of islands is the birthplace of Limbo.

Limbo
Think they limbo to Cotton Eye Joe?

Papua New Guinea: PNG is one of very few places on Earth where you can straddle the equator and see snowfall in the same country! Elevation is no joke!

World CupUruguay: A country consistently providing the world with incredible soccer players, Uruguay was the first country to win the FIFA World Cup (in 1930).

Tunisia: I was most interested to learn that the ancient city of Carthage is in modern day Tunisia, but I was told others might find it more interesting to learn that several Star Wars movies were filmed here.

Bhutan: A small, mountainous country in between China and India, the highly Buddhist Bhutan has a Gross Domestic Happiness index, which is used to measure and develop the collective happiness of the nation as a “fundamental human goal”.

Denmark: In the smallest country in Scandinavia, you’re never more than 52 kilometers (32 miles) from the coast.

Belize: Despite sharing English as a national language, Belize has opted not to share in American fast food chains. No McDonalds or KFCs in this Central American country.

Nauru: One of the smallest countries in the world at only 8 square miles, Nauru also has one of the highest obesity rates at almost 72%.

Bolivia: This landlocked country in South America boasts the world’s largest salt flat, half of the highest lake, and an annual rainfall of over 5m (one of the highest in the world). Talk about biodiversity!

Salt Flats
Salar de Uyuni

Chad: Named after Lake Chad, this large central African country lies mostly in the Sahara desert giving it the morbid nickname the “Dead Heart of Africa”.

Pakistan: Although extremely far from Europe, Pakistan was a prominent stop on the Hippie Trail of the 1960s. If you haven’t heard of the Hippie Trail, I highly suggest a quick Google!

Romania: We might know it as the Land of Dracula, but Romania is also home to the heaviest building in the world (at just over 9 billion pounds)! And no, it’s not Bran Castle.

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Palace of Parliament

Dominica: Often confused for the Dominican Republic, Dominica is a separate island nation known for electing the first female prime minister in the Caribbean (back in 1980).

Kiribati: Another impressive set of islands in the Pacific ocean, Kiribati not only celebrates the New Year first each year, but is also the only country to have land in all four hemispheres.

Paraguay: In part due to its central location, Paraguay was subjected to the bloodiest international conflict in the Americas, the Paraguayan War (1864-1870), in which the country lost 50% of its population in addition to 40% of its land.

Believe me when I say these are just the tip of the iceberg! Each of these countries, and indeed, every country and culture is unique and inspiring. I think this will be an easy challenge to extend past 30 days…I mean there are almost 200 countries out there! What are some of your country curiosities to share?

24 Countries

A Year of 30 Day Challenges

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Happy New Year!

It’s January! A new year, a new decade even, which typically means resolution-making and goal-setting. I, personally, love this time of year because 1) I much prefer beginnings to endings and 2) I like a good challenge. This year I’m doing things a little differently though. Rather than setting my usual collection of resolutions (and promptly forgetting about them a few weeks in), I’m focusing on 30 Day Challenges instead. Each month I’ve set two challenges for myself (one mental and one physical) that I’m going to attempt to do every day for 30 days.

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In the words of Rocky, “you owe yourself.”

They say you have to do something for at least three weeks for it to become a habit, so perhaps I’m looking at this as a way to develop 24 good habits. Of course, I doubt they’ll all stick, and honestly, as I’m typing this, I’ve already had a slight lapse in one of my challenges. Haha! But I’m not really too concerned about that. I don’t see resolutions or goals as something that I can fail at. For me, it’s just a way to bring new things to my attention every day, which might turn into something lasting or might not. The worst that happens is I bettered myself for a few days rather than not at all.

IMG_9783You may have already heard about 30 Day Challenges. I first heard about them from Matt Cutts’ TED Talk (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nzRvMsrnoF8 ). I really like the idea because it allows me to set several shorter goals that can easily build into something bigger. For example, I’d really just like to get into the habit of exercising in some way every day, but in the past, when I have left a goal vague like that, it always feels much more difficult to accomplish. This way I’m able to set mini-goals that will actually lead into the larger ones naturally. I’m basically tricking myself. Lol.

Anyway, for inspiration (or maybe just for entertainment) here is the list of 30 Day Challenges I created for myself, and if you are interested in creating your own set of challenges, here are some other lists I have perused for ideas: https://www.mindfulproductivityblog.com/blog/101-30-day-self-care-challenge-ideas and https://www.developgoodhabits.com/30-day-challenge-ideas/.

-January: read at least one news article every day AND stretch for 15 minutes every day

-February: research a specific country/culture every day AND floss my teeth every day

-March- watch a documentary every day AND walk 10,000 steps every day

-April- learn a new word every day AND do yoga for 30 minutes every day

-May- listen to a new song every day AND eat vegetarian for a month

-June- complete a French lesson every day AND improve my posture every day

-July- meditate for 10 minutes every day AND do 50 sit-ups every day

-August- do a brain-training exercise every day AND do 25 push-ups every day

-September- check email/social media only once per day AND do 50 squats every day

-October- draw a picture every day AND dance for 30 minutes every day

-November- write a book in a month AND eat no processed foods for a month

-December- learn to waltz in a month AND drink 8 glasses of water every day

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Everyone loves stickers!

Of course, the act of accomplishing these tasks every day is a reward in and of itself, but in order to really track my progress and reward myself for even remembering (let alone completing) the challenges each day, I reverted back to elementary school and created a little sticker chart for myself. You might feel like printing a tiny calendar and remembering to put the stickers on every day is another task to add to your list, but for me, it’s fun and a good use of all these random stickers I have saved up! Regardless of your choice of reward, I think it’s a good idea to recognize the little accomplishments you’re making every day or every month towards whatever challenges or goals you have set. I mean, who couldn’t use a few more gold stars in their life, right?

Whether you have made resolutions, plan to give a 30 Day Challenge a shot, or just want to make it through another year in one piece, I wish you the best of luck in 2020! Happy New Year!

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Bring it on 2020!

Viva La Mexico

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Chichen Itza

Another month, another amazing country explored! Have I mentioned how nice it’s been working entirely online? No, but seriously, we’re incredibly lucky to be able to support these explorations as Tucker and I continue to make plans for what we want to do and where we want to be in the future. For the past 30 days, we’ve been in Mexico, sussing out the situation in three amazing cities, and learning all we could in the process. When planning our Mexican adventure (while happily freezing in Canada), we narrowed our focus down to Merida, Guadalajara, and Mexico City. Through online research and word of mouth, we felt that these were the three most likely candidates for a potential future home that fits our particular set of needs/wishes. So we set out to see which city would reign supreme (in our eyes anyways). Of course, we were also very interested in what living in Mexico would be like in general, having never visited any part of Latin America, and also how much tourism we could possibly squeeze into this already packed month of international inquiries! Here’s what we learned:

Merida

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Enter a caption

Our first stop was the city of Merida, which is the capital city of the Yucatan peninsula. We arrived fairly late at night and were quite surprised when the first restaurant we came face-to-face with in Mexico was a Carl’s Jr. Haha! From that moment on, we were constantly reminded how much the US and Mexico have influenced each other over the years. From the abundance of Coke products to the variety of Christmas songs, there were so many things that made us feel like we weren’t too far from home. Some things, however, were very different. For example, the colors of Merida were unlike any city I’ve ever been to! Every building was painted a different, yet equally vibrant shade: coral, sea foam, cyan, olive; I lost count early on. All the color was even more surprising when we learned that Merida’s nickname is “the White City”! Apparently that has more to do with the traditional clothing than a description of the city itself, because Merida is nothing if not colorful.

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Pure art!

Merida was also incredibly clean! Everywhere we walked we could smell the scents of soap or laundry detergent wafting out of the various doorways. I had also (wrongly) assumed that in such a warm climate, bugs would be imminent, but we saw none during our 10 days on the peninsula. We what did find was a lot of extremely helpful strangers. As we stood in front of famous buildings or walked back and forth trying to find the correct bus stop, so many people approached us and gave us advice and information. We learned a lot about the Mayan people from locals who kindly shared what they knew in English, just for us. They didn’t ask for tips or for us to buy something from them, they shared because they’re proud of their heritage and wanted foreigners to also soak up some of their history and culture. Overall, Merida was incredibly laid-back, absolutely unique, and unequivocally friendly.

Guadalajara

74469092_10221331106775470_6605481842357305344_nOur next stop was Guadalajara, the capital city of Jalisco (I’m really beginning to think I must have a thing for capital cities…). Anyway, when we arrived in this, larger city, I realized just how much all the negative hearsay (like the number of well-meaning warnings I received before our trip) can really affect first-time travelers. I immediately felt uneasy, like everything was an unforeseen danger. Of course, after only a few hours, that was all wiped away. The people of Guadalajara were just as friendly and carefree as those in Merida. Our Uber drivers, especially, greeted us and patiently listened as we stumbled through Spanish to ask questions or give any necessary additional information. We also noticed that in Guadalajara, and perhaps Mexico as a whole, the timings of things are quite flexible. We often found ourselves checking the hours of one place or another, only to arrive and see they haven’t quite set up yet (even a few hours after opening). We really felt the struggle of coming from a China mindset (up early, asleep by 10pm) to the Mexican way of life, where nothing really gets going until after 8pm at least!

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Arco de Zapopan

Once it gets going though, it’s impossible to deny the liveliness of Mexcio! Guadalajara in particular has an amazing bar/restaurant street that has so much activity it would take more than a year to see and do everything just on that one strip! From festivals and live music to pub crawls and lucha libre tours, the people in the city know how to party (even on weeknights, which was incredibly impressive, and something I wasn’t quite able to do). While in the city, I was also surprised by the extreme variety of Mexican cuisine. I love Mexican food in the US, but what we typically see is a list of the same 5-6 items with various customization options. In Mexico, the food-scene is much more diverse. From the taco stands and torta kiosks to traditional Aztec/Mayan dishes that look like they came right out of a Top Chef episode (not to mention all the international options). In 30 days I’ve added countless new dishes to my favorites list, and I can now be absolutely sure that Mexican is my favorite of the world’s cuisines. Of course, my favorite among favorites is still the humble taco, and I feel no shame in admitting that Tucker and I kept track of the 75 tacos we ate in Mexico!

Mexico City

78976206_10221463131596008_7786060591298248704_nOur final stop on this scouting mission was the infamous Mexico City. One of the largest cities in Latin America with about 9 million residents, and easily one of the most welcoming mega-cities I’ve ever been in. Sometimes in cities of this size, the expectations for speed and efficiency can be extremely high, which poses a problem for travelers who are clueless as to how things are usually done. However, I never felt any impatience from the locals in CDMX (Ciudad de Mexico). Things were just as easy-going and friendly as the other cities we visited. Of course, Mexico City is quite big, which does bring about some challenges. For example, it typically took over an hour to get from one side of the city to the other, even with the super convenient (and cheap) metro. A sprawling city combined with loads of commuters, holiday shoppers, and tourists definitely made for a chaotic transportation situation. However, because of that large and diverse group, we were also able to get some Kansas City BBQ when we wanted something a bit different one night. It’s the eternal struggle of city life!

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Busy, busy!

Aside from the sheer size and diversity Mexico City (and really all of Mexico) has to offer, I was also really surprised by the openness we saw and felt. Mexico is a Catholic country, and having lived in Poland, I remember the conservative lean that often goes along with that. However, Mexico proved again and again that if it’s not bothering anyone, who cares? We immediately noticed all the pda (public displays of affection): lots of kissing, hand holding, etc. anywhere and everywhere, by all sorts of couples: old, young, gay, straight. We also saw more skin than we had grown used to in China (although that is pretty much necessary when it’s still in the 80’s in winter). And finally, the language used was a bit freer as well. I’ve never seen so many kids shouting curse words as when we went to the lucha libre match (all in good fun though). Ultimately, Mexico had the “anything goes” approach that we sometimes found in China and Poland, but here it was definitely more strongly connected to social issues, and we ultimately found it very refreshing.

Mexico In General

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Incredibly lush!

As I’m writing this, I keep thinking of things I want to add. All the information we got in Merida about the Mayan people and the way it influences the modern culture there, all the flowers and fruits of Jalisco that surrounded us even in the middle of a huge city, and all the people in Mexico City, who just like in NYC are trying to make it big in one way or another. As is typical when we travel, we learned so much about the places and people around us, but we also learned more about ourselves: like how strong preconceived notions can be (even in experienced travelers), how many American exports are actually really unhealthy (sugary drinks and fast food), and ultimately, how similar we all really are. We often found ourselves bonding in limited language over traffic, wifi, cute animals, and delicious food: you know, the important things in life.

In short, Mexico was absolutely amazing, and we could definitely see ourselves living there in the future! We felt safe and welcomed, and we had a great time getting to know our southern neighbors a bit better. As it stands now, we’re muddling our way through Canadian immigration, but at least we now have a solid plan B (Guadalajara won out, by the way). Or, who knows, maybe after a few years in the frigid north, the desire to thaw out in Mexico will draw us south of the border sooner than we think!

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A Bit Different, Eh?

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Look how Canadian I am!

So we just spent our first month in Canada, and I can tell you I’ve never been more observant in all my life! Tucker and I are in the process of deciding where we want to live for the next few years, so we’ve been looking into everything from neighborhoods and public transportation options to social interactions and local habits, most recently in Ottawa and Montréal, Canada, but with a few cities in Mexico soon to follow (more about that in a subsequent post, I’m sure). Our reason behind these investigations is that neither of us have actually spent any real time in Canada (or Mexico), and we really just didn’t know what to expect. Would I find it too similar to the US (i.e. boring)? Would Tucker be able to get a job without speaking French or Spanish? What would our lives be like on the whole in any one of these places? To get a clearer picture, we first headed up to Ottawa and Montréal to see what we could discover about life in the Great White North. So far, these are a few things that have stood out to us as uniquely Canadian:

Language Uncertainty Dance

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Aka “stop”

Many people know that Canada has two official languages, but what exactly does that look like? Well, to us it seems pretty clear cut on paper: in Québec, French is the default language, and everywhere else, English is the go-to. Therefore, signs, menus, and the like carefully follow provincial lines. However, people are bit more mobile than that, and the lines aren’t always so clear when speaking is involved. For example, Montréal is a very international city with immigrants who speak many different languages, and Ottawa is located half in Ontario and half in Québec. This all led to a bit of a which-language-should-we-use dance between us and everyone we encountered. Hotel staff, grocery store clerks, restaurant servers, and literally everyone we talked to had to make a choice of which language to use with us, and we, in turn, also had to choose.

We determined that provincial lines do play a role in the choice, but there were other factors of consideration as well, like the supposed heritage of the speaker (Francophone or Anglophone), how we appeared (clearly lost or in-the-know), and what situation were we in (ordering Vietnamese food or buying food from an outdoor market). Even our names seemed to be used as an indication; at all the ticket checkpoints I received “merci”s and Tucker got “thank you”s, and the only reason we could come up with is that my name is Danielle. For me, this process was fascinating, and I found myself eavesdropping on anyone and everyone just to note which language they were using and why. When so many people are bilingual the possibilities are truly much more interesting!

How Cold It Really Is

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Sometimes I wore my hat AND earmuffs…

Canada is quite far north, of course, but when looking at the lines of latitude, Ottawa and Montréal really aren’t that much above what I consider “normal” cities. Łódź, for example, is significantly closer to the Arctic Circle, which began a line of thought that led us severely astray. Because while the latitudes of these two cities are actually well below some well-known (and might I add, temperate) western counterparts like Vancouver or Seattle, their climates are simply different. There’s no large body of water to curb the freezing temperatures, and evidently the “Polar Vortex” is a real thing that starts much earlier than I had anticipated. In short, Ottawa is one of the top ten coldest national capitals in the world, and I didn’t bring my big jacket. Oopsies.

Honestly, even with my big jacket I doubt my small collection of outerwear is actually going to be enough for winter in Canada. Taking a look at some of the clothing stores here, we’ve seen winter gear we didn’t even know existed. Linings for boots, glove extensions, and every possible manner of covering your ears and face. The terminology is also a bit different, as I had to google the word “toque” shortly after our arrival. It’s actually pretty impressive to see the flexibility of clothing in action. Even in October, the temperatures can get below freezing, especially at night, but during the day it can get up to the 60’s. It’s amazing to watch the various pieces come off and go back on throughout the day, sometimes sparked solely because the sun came out from behind the clouds. I vaguely remember the vast temperatures swings of Chicago, but clearly I have yet to master dressing for them.

An Abundance of Animals

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Polite squirrels as well!

With our new-found knowledge of how cold and long “winter” in Canada can be, we definitely found the amount of fauna out and about to be rather odd. Immediately upon arrival to Ottawa (which I will remind you is 200kms from the closest Great Lake and almost 500kms away from the ocean) we were met with the loud, annoying cries of seagulls. Seagulls? There are no beaches here! Sure there are rivers, but it’s cold! What’s with the seagulls? In our first week we also came across squirrels of all colors, bunnies, chipmunks, and so so many birds. And that was in the city proper, skyscrapers well in view! It seems nature really is on your doorstep up here in the North. However, if I see a moose or a bear lumbering down Sparks Street, I might just lose my mind.

French/British Combo

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Her majesty

Another surprising insight into life in Canada is that it seems to be less of an American/French fusion and more of a British/French fusion. As a native inhabitant of a former British colony myself, I just assumed all former colonies were quite distinct from Old Blighty, but evidently there’s more of a scale of “Britishness” than I thought. Here in Canada, we have the Queen on the currency, a Prime Minister and Parliament, Celsius and the metric system, traditional tea and pub cultures, and the distinctive, yet eccentric spelling system with all those extra vowels and not enough “z”s. Additionally, as Americans, especially Americans coming from China, we’ve also found an extraordinary penchant for forming lines in Canada. At the train station we wrapped around the entire hall forming two lines to match the two platforms below the station. It seemed very odd to us, inefficient even, but soon we realized lines are a way of life here; basically if it’s a norm at Timmy’s, it’s a norm everywhere.

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Ah, Timmy’s

Interesting Fusions

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Beyond delicious!

Speaking of combos, we’ve also seen an incredible amount of interesting food fusions in Canada. Early on in our stay I ordered “pierogi eggrolls”, and even after eating them, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the concept. Canada has seen its fair share of immigration throughout its history, and we can definitely see how that has affected the restaurants and their signature dishes throughout the country. We’ve had tandoori nachos, a turducken club, bruschetta mac and cheese, and many other colorful combinations. It seems even their own, native poutine (which is traditionally French fries covered in cheese curds and thick gravy) is also open to interpretation. We’ve tried jalapeño poutine, butter chicken poutine, and Peking duck poutine just to name a few! Stores and other vendors also seem to cater to this preference for food creativity and variety. We’ve seen ph broths and żurek mixes in grocery stores, Italian sausages served in French bread by street vendors, and vending machines with American, British, and European candy choices.

The Use of “Washroom”

This might be a small thing, but I couldn’t get over the Canadian use of the word “washroom”. I’ve lived in several different cities, on different continents even, thus I have heard many things used to describe the place we go to “relieve ourselves”. I’ve heard bathroom, restroom, toilet, WC, lavatory, powder room, even “the john”, but “washroom” is not one I would have listed as a common occurrence. Until Canada, that is. Here it’s virtually the only word they use! It’s on all the signs, it’s what people say, I was even corrected once when I asked about the location of the “restroom”. They looked a bit confused and clarified with, “the washroom?” Which I then went off in search of, quietly contemplating my accent, word choice, and place in the world.

 

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I bet they have the nicest washrooms in there.

Also of interest on the topic of washrooms in Canada is that they all seem to be located in the basement. At the majority of restaurants and pubs we visited, the washrooms were located under the establishment, often down a very long, steep staircase. I tried to look into why that is so common here, and the best I could find is that it had something to do with the building codes at the time of construction. Whatever the reason, I just hope they keep them well-heated in winter. Thankfully, even if the rooms themselves end up being a bit drafty, at least the hot water in Canada is on point. The tap water, we’ve noticed, goes from ice cold to absolutely steaming hot in about 5 seconds – in a pinch, I actually brewed my tea with the sink water in Montréal. Canada really does seem to love their extremes!

And, For Sure, the Politeness

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We even got compliments on our photos!

Finally, the last Canadianism that stuck out to us was, indeed, the politeness that perhaps they are so well known for outside of Canada. At first, we noticed all the “no worries” and “of course”s and other pleasant responses to our many “thank you”s. There wasn’t even that tone of you’re-a-bit-of-an-idiot-and-I’m-only-helping-you-because-it’s-my-job sort of thing that’s so common Stateside. We also heard a lot of back channeling or the words you use when showing someone you’re paying attention. Things like “for sure, for sure”, “oh yeah, definitely”, and “wow, great”. There also seemed to be a great deal more small talk. People more frequently asked questions or shared information than what we have grown used to in the US. For example, when our bus cards didn’t work on the STO line, the bus driver took a few minutes to explain to us how the complicated inter-provincial system worked. He then let us ride for free – so nice! We’ve also been given quite a few tips for places to go and things to do, after various locals asked and discovered that we’re not Canadian. These politeness features have definitely made the big cities of Canada feel not quite as big.

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O Canada!

So these are some of the most obvious things that immediately reminded us that we’re not in the US; however, I have a feeling there will be many more discoveries like this in the future, should we come back for a longer stint. Every country, even long-time neighboring countries with similar back stories have their little quirks. I can’t wait to find out more about what makes Canada, Canada!