I’ve been telling myself this a lot recently, ‘you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be.’ It really started in November with that unbelievable Oregon sunset (this one here). It’s a notion that’s been continuing ever since, mostly signaling itself through natural events, like sunsets, sunrises and moonscapes that are so beautiful I can’t help but be anywhere but exactly there, exactly where I’m supposed to be.
Someone said this to me recently as I was recounting the sudden, unexpected late and breaking plot twists that are showing up here at the end of 2017 for me. It’s a common phrase. But it got me thinking about the trajectory of events in my life over the last few months/years. I’ve wanted to write an update post since my August lay-off, and so here it is.
Hi folks, Sorry about the spam posts. No, I haven't decided to pursue travel, culture and inspiration through nonsensical posts about form writing. Yes, I'm aware my blog has been hacked and yes I'm trying to figure out why! Apparently there's a bigger issue than changing the passwords. I'm also trying to figure out how to make it not automatically email you all when this happens. Thanks for your patience! - Jess
Yes, I know that it's a week into 2014 and I'm stuck in the past, but forgive me. It was an adventurous year, so I'd rather be a bit late in reflecting before properly moving on to anticipate whatever 2014 has to bring. So I'm taking a moment to reflect on some lessons learned and some of my favorite moments. I've never been a succinct blogger, so feel free to settle in and enjoy. My Biggest Lesson
Life can happen in a bazillion different ways. Seeing how people around the world live their lives, make a living, care for their families and loved ones helped me realize that I don't need to adhere to the 9-5, American, live-to-work model if I can make something else work that's fulfilling. With a little creativity, I can shape my life in the way that is most fulfilling. A simple lesson, but also one that can be hard to stick to.
I learned this phrase while living in Senegal in 2003, but now it's really stuck with me. It's Arabic and basically means "god willing." It's customary in any situation where one is not certain of the outcome to say, 'incha'allah' at the end of a statement, because, really, how can you be certain, and god willing the thing you're speaking of will come to pass. Example: "Jon and I are flying to Belgium and then on to Mali." Really? Are we certain? Incha'allah all that happens. It also presents itself in smaller situations. "Tonight, I'm making soup, incha'allah." Because, simply, it's not up to you. God willing all goes well and you can make soup. I actually love this sentiment, not so much for the religious aspect, but for the purpose of surrender. To me, it says that we should never be totally certain, but rather keep ourselves open to the possibility of something else.
Know at least a bit of the language
As a travel tip, knowing something of the local language was hugely important. Not only is it a sign of respect and that you do actually have some reverence for the people that make up the country you're visiting, it can transform an experience. Example: Jon and I hired a car to visit Lac Rose outside of Dakar. Lac Rose is a pink lake that is no more than 3 meters deep, and is the center of an extremely robust salt industry. It's a pretty touristy place, and so one has to be prepared to get hassled - a lot. We were walking along the shore when sure enough a woman came up to us to hawk her trinkets. She said hello and bonjour, and I replied with, "Yo! Na nga def?" which is the wolof greeting for "hello! how are you?" She was delighted to say the least, and instantly went from someone trying to make a buck to a kind local who ended up giving us a complete history of the salt operations, as well as introduce us to her relatives who were standing by. It ended up being a really pleasant exchange, all with the help of a simple phrase. Case in point and lesson learned: be open to locals, don't just treat them as people trying to take advantage, and know a bit of the language.
You don't need souvenirs & travel light
I'm bad at both of these things, just to be honest. But with each of us having only one bag, it meant that anything acquired equated to something else being tossed or given away. Sure we bought a few things here and there, and the packable duffel bag was a good way to take home gifts when we returned to the States for the wedding. But all in all, not being prone to shopping meant we could enjoy our time doing other things. We spent a lot of time in the souks (markets) in Morocco, but they are so fabulous that we really didn't want to do anything else. Plus for people who weren't buying souvenirs, our best takeaway (in terms of material goods) is an incredible handwoven blanket from the local craftswomen in the Atlas Mountains that our friend, Ismail, sold to us from his hotel. And that deal came out of just spending time with Ismail and loving the area. I think other than that, our biggest souvenir is our memory, this blog, and our photos. The word souvenir is french, and it means to remember anyway, so that works out nicely.
Splurge every now and then
This is also a good one for the non-traveler who is on a budget (aren't we all?). When you are constantly watching the pennies (or dirham, or cfas or euros or whatevers), I highly recommend doing something nice or special every once in awhile. It takes the pressure off. I did this in the grocery store the other day. I'm still completely attuned to not spending money on anything. I wanted to buy jam and spent about 7 or 8 minutes looking at the whole shelf trying to decide which of the absolute cheapest ones might taste ok. And then there was the one I really wanted. It was a whole $1 more than the rest. I thought about it and said to myself, "It's really ok if I treat myself and get the thing I really want, this is not a normal occurrence, and yes, this delicious jam will make me happy." Back to our theme of buying experiences - I have a wonderful experience with my toast every day now, it was totally worth the "splurge" :)
Traveling with a partner is both amazing and challenging
Jon and I traveled together for 10 months. It's a long time. The best parts about traveling with someone you love is that you always have a sidekick, you are building wonderfully unique experiences together, and it's a lot easier to feel safe. On the other hand, you are less likely to do something completely spontaneous, may spend a bit more money, and well, like the good, unfortunately you always have a sidekick. The key is balance. We weren't very good at this, but taking a day or even half a day alone and coming back to share stories strengthens the experience. In the end, having the shared experience of something grand is pretty great.
I tried to pair these down to a manageable 10 or 20, but whatever, these are some of the most memorable moments of my 2013. I would post photos for all of these, but instead I give you links to related posts. On to great things in 2014!!
FAVORITE MOMENTS (chronological order)
- New Year's Eve in Bruges - what's better than 15,000 people at a sing-a-long in a perfectly preserved yet totally classy Baroque city??
- Sunday tea with friends in Mali - all day music, sharing a meal out of a communal bowl, impromptu dancing and hot desert tea
- Beachy private sunset walks in the Casamance, and getting taken to a tiny remote village to see how palm wine is extracted + meeting the village chief aka our taxi driver's dad.
- Cap Skiring street party
- Being the recipient of true Senegalese taranga (hospitality) and having a stranger take us under his wing to guide us through the Mauritanian border crossing.
- Seeing camels in Mauritania
- Leaving Mauritania and entering Morocco
- Fresh orange juice from the man who looked like Aladdin in Dakhla
- Seeing the landscape change from 2400km of endless desert to the deep red earth and green trees of the Middle Atlas
- The freedom of having a car rental and driving through the Valley of 1000 Kasbahs
- Meeting our friend Ismail and staying in his riad.
- Buying fresh chickens, pigeons, spices and vegetables to make Tagine in the market in Essouira (and by fresh I mean, we picked out the live ones, went and bought our spices, and came back to pick them up).
- Endless hot water in our first Western shower upon arrival in France.
- Listening to French kids try to speak English - they say the funniest things.
- Counting the chateaux while bike riding in the French countryside - I counted 9 in 14km - that's a lot!
- The dance parties, or "Boom" we threw for our French campers - honestly I've never had as much fun in a real dance club...
- Our amazing apartment in Lyon and its proximity to some of the best Pho I've ever eaten plus the Asian grocery stores.
- Showing Jon around Paris.
- Getting to fly back to the US to see my brother get married.
- Getting to fly back to Europe to keep traveling, despite having no itinerary or clue of where we wanted to go.
- Afternoon tea in the garden with friends during our first day in England.
- The drive to Hadrian's Wall and seeing the plains of Northern England.
- An awesome CD release party in Newcastle where the power went out and the concert continued outside in the rain.
- Live folk music in Edinburgh
- Buying a huge whole sea trout and eating it in an astonishingly large variety of ways in Norway
- Alicante, Spain - all of it was a highlight
- Sunbathing in the buff in Spain - yep, it's real nice, and it helps that Spaniards are a beautiful beautiful people.
- Enjoying tapas and spanish nightlife
- Festival Cante de las Minas, La Union, Spain.
- Festival Gracia, Barcelona
- Hanging with my friend Olivier, playing board games, speaking nothing but French and drinking Rosé in the south of France.
- My first real panini in Italy - it was at a gas station cafe, and I'm not kidding, it was divine.
- Walking in Rome with Jon, eating unbelievable gelato, and well, being in Rome - it's ROME people.
- Freshly whipped mascarpone cheese topped with peaches preserved with bay leaf and pink peppercorns (our first dessert at the homestay in Italy).
- Truffle pasta
- Montefalco Wine Festival - Italy
- Daily sunbathing - I was TAN ok??!.
- Eating the best pizza in the world for less than $5 in Naples.
- Istanbul - all of it
I hope you enjoyed taking this journey with us! Who knows what 2014 will bring, but my goal is to continue to pursue things that inspire. What are your goals?
I've learned a big lesson since returning to the US after 10 months of travel overseas: reconstructing your life after travel is a lot harder than deconstructing it before leaving. There's something liberating about grasping the idea and belief that if you're willing to take the risk and let go of your material stuff, your job and your home, which in most cases is replaceable, that it won't be that hard to put it all back together again. It's a freedom from the constraints we and our society put on ourselves that is desirable. You have to have a good job, you have to have things, and sometimes nice things, you have to look a certain way. It creates not only a deep-set sense of competition among one another, but also a sense that it's the only way we can be 'successful' in life (I'm referring primarily to American culture here, but it certainly exists elsewhere).
So letting that go and absorbing the belief that you can not only live your life in many many ways, but that you don't have to stick to one way of life is incredibly freeing. But let's say you want to go and create the life of home+things+career+stable relationships? After stepping outside of that world, I see now how each aspect of that web relies on the other. Not that I really know at all what it's like, but I have begun to have a glimpse of just how hard it is for people to lift themselves out of homelessness.
Take for starters the necessity of a mailing address. Don't have one? Well then how to do you get or renew a drivers license? Don't have a license? How do you get a cell phone? I'm sorry, but your amazingly stamped passport is not the sort of ID they want. Is your temporary mailing address in another state? Well then how do you establish residency? And let's just say that you wanted to apply for food benefits, because the time it takes to get a job is longer than you expected. If you don't have a mailing address that's in your state of 'residency' - well - let me just say it creates a total cluster-$&*! of a mess with Human Services.
Let's move on to the housing side of this equation. Don't have a job yet, but do have savings to pay for an apartment? Good luck - no one wants to rent to someone without proof on income. Even as a freelancer, renters are wary. They not only want proof of income - and a lot of proof, they are going to want a seriously large deposit. In our case, one that would have depleted all those savings and made it impossible for us to have the time to find gainful employment.
Speaking of gainful employment, how do you become successful at finding and getting a job, much less showing up to work in a presentable and professional way, if you don't have a home from which to base yourself. How do you show up ready to work, if you don't have a steady place to make breakfast, get dressed, and feel centered? And how do you reach out to people in your profession in order to learn what's happening on the ground when it's difficult to know when you're going to be in the same city?
Mush all that together with the strange phenomenon that is reverse culture shock (if you're traveling it's best to accept the fact now that this will occur) and you've got yourself full of some likely uncomfortable feelings. Not to worry, although the process of deconstruction was relatively quick, I have no doubt that the passage of time will take care of any roadblocks.
It's not all bad of course. The long transition time of finding home and reconstructing the web has made for some fun experiences.
Namely, our home of Portland, Oregon, feels new to us. 10 months didn't seem like that long, but stuff happened here. New restaurants opened, heck there are whole new city blocks of restaurants and shops to explore. There are new murals and public art pieces which I'm particularly excited about. There's even a new lightrail line that opened while we were gone, and I can now get bus tickets on my phone. It's just like being on a travel journey, except I don't get lost and I can read the signs!!
I think the best part about this reconstruction is connecting with friends. For us, 10 months was the perfect amount of time to go off and do our travel thing but not be forgotten by the people at home. Their lives haven't completely moved on without us. As many stories as we have to tell, there are equally as many to listen to. It's a wonderful opportunity to share and get to know one another again.
Given the challenges, would I change anything? Mmm, no. Would I do it again? Yes! I'm ready to go right now! There's no way that taking an opportunity to do something that sounds crazy outweighs the benefit of not doing it. It doesn't have to be travel - for some folks that's not their vice. For me, I would make the same choice again and again, no matter how hard it was to come back.
What are the crazy things you want to do but aren't sure you should/could/would?
It’s Christmas Eve, and although I myself do not identify as Christian, my family has always celebrated Christmas (and Hannukah – both sides represent!) and so I wanted to extend my warmest wishes for a holiday season to all. Whatever holiday you celebrate (or don’t), often this time can be one of joy, warmth, inspiration and giving. We can also be distracted and focused on errands, finishing work, the stress of buying gifts. For me, this has been an anomaly of a holiday season. Jon and I returned to the States in early November, and have been in a transitory state of being ever since. So I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the ‘fireflies’ or the things that give me inspiration, hope and happiness during the holidays, even if they are hard for me to see at this time of job and home seeking, this in-between time of a life on the road and a life in one place. I remind myself, that even though I’m not with my own family this Christmas, I’m surrounded by people I love and who love me, and above all, that is the most important and inspiring place to be during the holidays. So here’s a short list of things this season that have peaked my heart and mind. And from my family to yours, best wishes for a happy holiday season and a joyous New Year.
Lights. My favorite are the lights of the Menorah, which were lit during Thanksgiving this year, adding a special flare of gratefulness and contentment that we were with people we love. Last year we caught the end of the holiday season in Bruges, Belgium – it was incredible. Christmas markets, ancient buildings lit, stringed lights over cobblestoned streets – beautiful.
Craftyness. I love that the holidays are a perfect time to create something either as a gift, decoration or just for the fun of it. I love seeing creations of all sorts. My favorite this year is Jon’s wrapping of my present – yes it’s an aluminum foil Mt. St. Helens. I wonder what’s inside!!! Hopefully not a pyroclastic cloud – unless it’s a pyroclastic cloud of love. I don’t know that that means….
Sillyness. Portland is a great place for this. Exhibit A – Ugly Sweaters on sculptures. What else is there to say?
Warm beverages. Mulled wine, hot cider and yummy teas. Pair that with a blanket, couch and your honey and you’ve got a recipe for comfy, snuggly success.
Giving. If you can make gift giving about seeing the joy on someone’s face when you know you really hit the nail on the head, it’s all worth it. Of course I also love giving to my favorite nonprofit organizations. It’s a slim year this year given our travel and subsequent lack of income, but normally, this is one of my favorite and fulfilling things to do. It reminds me that the world is so much bigger than whatever is going on in my life, yet at the same time I’m a part of that world.
What are your fireflies during the holidays? Warmest wishes to you all!
For those of you who thought that just because we were stateside we'd stop writing, sorry but here I am. Plus, the return home after a long journey is generally a topic that is often overlooked I think - we're mostly focused on the leaving. I also have had several suggestions that I should just keep writing as though I'm traveling, so, who knows, maybe a not-so-distant future in fiction?? In any case, Jon and I are about 2 weeks into our American re-entry, and it's been... a lot of things. Time has passed slowly, and it's hard to believe that 2 weeks ago we were in Istanbul, and a few days before that we were going about our normal day-to-day in Italy. For those of you who might be wondering, are you experiencing culture shock? Yes. Here are some thoughts that run through my head more often than they probably should:
- If I ask this person a question will they speak my language? I wonder if they speak French...
- Wait, what time is it?
- My coffee is HUGE
- Everything is HUGE
- I understand everything
- How lovely that laundry takes less than 1-2 days, dryers are awesome and everything is soft and fluffy
- Wow, that plate of food is HUGE
- What's the exchange rate. Wait....
- Oh, I can call you on the telephone, and I don't have to search all over for wifi???
It's an interesting thing to consider that I've spent the majority of my life in my home country, and really a small percentage outside of the country, that experiencing culture shock at home would happen, but it does. It's taught me that as people, we have an amazing ability to adapt quickly to new places and ways of living so much so that we have to re-adapt to what we've grown up with. And it's just as much of a challenge as going to a new place.
Luckily for Jon and I, our re-entry was somewhat staged, so getting back into a life in America just seemed like transitioning to a new place, one that we happen to be familiar with (and includes our friends and family). Here's how it happened:
Istanbul - Springfield
There's something about going from the crossroads of Europe and Asia to a center of Americana such as Springfield, Illinois. Not exactly glamorous as one might have it, but extremely interesting, and oh so American. No, we didn't choose Springfield randomly, we came back at this particular time to attend the Abraham Lincoln Library Governor's Conference on Otto Kerner, governor from 1961-1968; who also happens to be my grandfather. I've never really incorporated that bit of family history with how I identify myself in my day-to-day, primarily because I really didn't know much about his career. But I learned some fascinating things about him, including a sampling of his major accomplishments; which include:
- Restructuring the entire mental health system in Illinois
- Expanding the higher education system from 6 campuses to 33, effectively creating the nation's first community college system
- Using political ingenuity to improve racial equality by making Illinois one of the first States to ensure equal housing rights to Black Americans
- Securing Illinois as the site for the first permanent atomic accelerator lab in the country (Fermilab)
- Serving as the chair of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (also known as the Kerner Commission); with the basic conclusion that, "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white--separate and unequal."
Hearing from his contemporaries, learning of these accomplishments, visiting Springfield, and even getting a surprise visit of the State Mansion where mom grew up made for a really special weekend. A true cultural learning experience!
We took our day between conferencing and flying to Seattle to walk around Springfield, visit Abraham Lincoln's house, have a mediocre hamburger and enjoy our cozy hotel room. AMERICA!
Springfield - Seattle
Apparently, it's cheaper to take a train to St. Louis and then fly to Seattle by way of Chicago, than it is to fly from Springfield to Chicago and then onto Seattle... Huh. Fine for us, we love taking trains, and are used to it! A great way of seeing any country, and America totally applies, is by train, and so the 2 hour ride from Springfield to St. Louis, through nothing but small mid-west towns and cornfields was lovely. Plus, crossing the Mississippi and seeing the Arch was very cool. Again, this felt just like a continuation of our adventure.
We didn't spend any time in St. Louis, but did appreciate that unlike so many American cities, but very common in Europe, the lightrail to the airport was just outside the main train and bus station. Here's to transportation hubs!
No More Airplanes
We arrived in Seattle in time for it to really hit us that we were done with airplanes. In fact, the idea of stopping for a while was becoming an ever present sensation. Yes we'd been in Italy for 2 months, but after awhile you just want a space that's yours. We haven't gotten there yet, but being with family and good friends has made this so much easier.
For our first few days we relaxed in Olympia, with family and are now visiting Portland, Oregon, the place from which we began this journey, and the place to which we will end. We had mixed feelings driving into Portland; thoughts of "is it really over?" and "you missed our exit, our house is that way... oh wait, we don't have a house..." But driving into Portland, where I have lived for 12 years and Jon 11, felt both familiar and new. Comfortable with new curiosity and interest. The city looks a bit brighter and intriguing. I don't know how much it's really changed in 10 months, but enough time passes where there are new restaurants, new people, new things happening. So suddenly your home feels like a whole new landscape to explore. That's nice for us. It really does feel like a kind of continuation - not a stop, or sidestep.
Many people, in fact most people were really surprised when we said we were up and leaving. And most people also expressed that they could never do it. Bull honkey. Anyone can stop the phone service, give up the apartment (yeah this is harder if you own your house), quit the job and go. Of course it's not THAT easy, but it's also not that hard. What IS hard is reconnecting all those cords once you've cut them. It's really hard to rent an apartment without a job! I realize now I've never had to do that. We built in several months of living expenses for this ambiguous time of settling, but still, I definitely did not consider how complicated it is to completely create a new life that is not based in transition. No regrets, just an interesting challenge in this next phase of our life journey...
So what's next? Jobs, house, friends, family, and all that goes with it. And maybe the occasional blog post and wanderlust. And for the record, it's really really really nice to be near people we care about. Travel is fabulous, but it doesn't replace relationships - ever.
Jon and I are back stateside, but before we completely re-enter the world of whatever is to come, I wanted to follow up on my two-part series about art overseas. I can't pretend that these writings are comprehensive by all means. Books have been written, heck grad programs are built on art and culture in these places. So this is just a brief survey. England & Scotland
2 words: Free Museums. That’s what I took away from our month in the UK (plus a newfound love of creamed tea). Art, history, archeology, music, literature – anything that can go into a museum or collection is free to access thanks to the UK’s support of culture and heritage. Of course London itself is a whole other beast – being an arts capital in and of itself. Unfortuantely we only spend 6 hours in London…. So I just know about that arts-capital-ness in theory.
In terms of immersion, being in the UK didn’t really feel that different from being in the US. There are summer music festivals everywhere with all kinds of music and events. Art and craft fairs are frequent. Pubs and evening concerts are plentiful – especially in the music city of Newcastle, where we went to 2 music festivals and got to catch a CD release party (the power went out so the party continued on the street – pretty cool). Aside form the fact that eating isn’t so much a pleasurable experience in the UK, getting out and doing something arty is quite easy, fun and always interesting.
The National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh, by the way, was one of my favorite visual art experiences. I event went back for a second visit. Incredible paintings, beautiful galleries, and an excellent contemporary art installations made for an extremely pleasant visit.
I am 100% certain that Norway is full of super interesting cultural goings-ons, but the fact that sitting down for a cup of coffee costs around $15 and going into a museum would mean eating hot dogs for a week, we were unable to participate in much. I do know from my own studies that Norway and the Scandinavian countries in general have a rich folk music tradition, which one can easily access on the radio. Metal and other types of hard rock are also extremely popular here. Interestingly one of the most blatant forms of creativity we saw was in home interior design. Apparently because it’s so cold most of the year people are really focused on making their homes very comfortable, inviting and beautiful.
Painting, sculpture, dance, music, old, new – Spain has it all. As Bruges oozed architectural amazement, Spain just oozes expression. The Spanish people are already social, gregarious and outwardly emotive, and in my experience they put just as much of that gregariousness into their art. It’s everywhere, and I believe the Spanish are proud of their cultural heritage and dedicated towards fostering creativity for the future.
Not only is Spain the home of the greats like Picasso, El Greco, de Goya, Ramon Gaya and so many others; its museums: the Prada, the Reina Sofia, the Picasso in Barcelona, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, are some of the best in the world. All of this doesn’t account for the local arts, which are well taken care of via local town festivals, galleries, concerts and nightly flamenco music in tavernas.
One of our favorite experiences was getting to see a Flamenco Festival in the small mining town of La Union near Cartagena. 5 hours of dance, guitar, singing and instrumentation was incredible.
Spanish culture is delightful as well in that, especially at night, everyone is out and about. People walk around town, 3 year olds with great grandparents until the wee hours of the morning, just chatting, walking, and enjoying the warm air. I loved that scene.
Before you come to Italy in search of art, of any kind, you should ask yourself: How do you feel about the Renaissance? How do you feel about religious art? Because if you don’t care much for either, or its enormous contributions to Western art and culture, nor its implications on political history (as in how much money the church really had), you probably won’t appreciate much of what Italy has to offer.
Now, we spent the majority of our two months only in the Region of Umbria, With about 9-10 days or so combined outside of the region in Rome and Naples. One thing we learned is how unique all of Italy’s regions are, and also how important Umbria was to the Renaissance. No, it’s not Florence, Tuscany or Venice. But Umbria is home to Assisi – a pilgrimage for many Catholics. Perugia has ancient Etruscan history, and the towns surrounding Lake Trasimeno were the scenes of many battles, including the defeat of the Roman army by Hannibal himself. During medieval times the church had the majority of the wealth and, aside from very wealthy landowners was the only purse able to fund art. Umbria also became an area for many artists to study and practice, artists like Raphael himself who studied with Vannucci, or more commonly known as Perugino, in Perugia.
One thing that is so incredible about Italy is also just how much art is intact from the Renaissance era. From the largest most ornate basilicas and cathedrals to the tiny hamlet church that has a priceless 13th century altar piece inside – it’s everywhere. I’ll admit, I got a little jaded on god art, but one still has to appreciate how much there is, and how these artists paved a way for the development of painting and visual art in the Western World.
Although we weren’t there during the season, the importance of Opera should not be understated, and some of the world’s greatest opera houses are in Italy – fitting for the country that produced Verdi and Puccini. We went to the world’s smallest opera house – it was pretty cool!
But truly, so much in Italy is steeped in old tradition including food and wine. We were amazed at the wine festivals (it should also be noted that culturally, Italians seem to love to celebrate!). Not only were the pours generous, but the wines were good and so was the people watching.
I want to make quick note about European culture in general. And that’s to say that sure there are a few things, mostly politically and economically that can be generalized, but one reason I find Europe so fascinating is just how unique each country and its people are. France is a completely different ballgame than Spain, and Italy couldn’t be more different from either of those two. Having been to Germany on an earlier trip, I can also say how different that country is from the others. This is really incredible to me especially given that Europe is politically unified.
What's been one of the most memorable cultural experiences you've had?