Touring England - Off the Beaten Path


At long last our blog is fixed and we can resume sharing stories from our travels with you. First up - touring England - off the beaten path and in places you probably wouldn't normally go to, but are brilliant (as they say). Our time in England has been driven by 2 things - where our friends live that can host us, and when they're available for a visit. To be honest, I didn't do any research about England or what we should see and do. I've personally decided to approach this leg of our journey with a hearty go-with-the-flow attitude.

Southend & Kent

We spent our first few days in England in Southend-on-Sea with a former co-worker of Jon's, Jim, and his partner Kieron. Kieron and Jim were fabulous hosts and not only introduced us to Southend, its pubs and the wonders of Tesco (England's super large and cheap grocery store - for which we have so much love), they took us on an amazing day out and about in the County Kent. We visited stately homes, a castle, old medieval cities, had an incredible afternoon tea in a garden and experienced a true countryside pub.

We spent time playing board games, cooking and baking (so nice to bake after being on the road!) and I fell in love with what I now believe to be the best television show (despite it being for kids) - Horrible Histories. We had such a wonderful time relaxing in a town we certainly would not have gone to.

Peterborough, Nottingham, Cambridge & March

Our next visit was to a university friend of Jon's, Dan, who lives just outside of Peterborough in the small village of March. The land is much more flat north of London, with green farmland stretching for miles. It's lush and beautiful.

Our first full day took us to the famous city of Nottingham - yes I thought the same thing at first as well - Robin Hood! We decided to go on a little Robin Hood adventure - the snapshots of which you can view on our new YouTube channel (where we'll feature our new vlog - hooray!).  Nottingham is much bigger than I would have imagined. I must have still had an image in my head of little village below a castle. Not so. What is amazing is that there are hundreds of caves carved out of the sandstone beneath Nottingham. We ventured into 8 or so of them and got to see the oldest (and therefore most significant) underground tannery in the UK. Hard to believe it's underneath a shopping center.

Our Robin Hood finding mission took us to Nottingham Castle - only to find out that there's no castle left. Boo hoo. But it was a great view of the city - and again, probably not somewhere we would have gone! Walking down Maid Marian Way was kinda funny.

We also took a day trip to Cambridge, home of the famous university. Cambridge is stunning - I can't believe people go to school there! We enjoyed another day of incredible weather walking the old city and musing at the people punting on the river (pushing boats through the canal - it looks silly when you can't see their legs).

Our final venture in the area was a night out on the town...of March. March is actually interesting, in that it used to be an island surrounded by marshes, and has evidence of Roman settlements (thank you wikipedia). What we discovered also is that it is home to 3 fabulous pubs, all of which have character. I'd never heard of March, but in the spirit of going to places you'd never go - this was a really fun and interesting stop along the way. Thanks for the fabulous stay Dan!

On to Welwyn Garden City

Next stop was to see friend of mine, Esther, whom I haven't seen since 1997. Esther welcomed us into her lovely flat in Welwyn Garden City just outside of London. Another unexpected gem, old Welwyn is one of the more charming villages we've seen, complete with old tudor buildings, a tiny canal and flowers covering old stone houses.

Being so close to London, we couldn't resist spending a day in the city. With 6 hours in London, we managed to visit 2 incredible museums - the British Museum of Antiquities and the Tate Modern Museum of Art. The British Museum was absolutely amazing. We'd been to the Museum of Antiquities in Cairo - but wow, the British Museum has an incredible Egypt collection. Plus - we got to see the actual Rosetta Stone. Not bad. I've also been continuing my Harry Potter kick by seeing Platform 9 3/4 at Kings Cross among other sites. Yeah, I'm dork.

Up to York

Moving on from Welwyn (thanks Esther for an incredible visit!) we stopped over in York for a night. What an amazing city! Complete with a walled old center, incredible cathedral and apparently lots of ghosts as it's touted as the most haunted city in England, this was a good stopover. We even made a second video about what to do in York with 16 hours or less.

Newcastle, Durham & Hadrian's Wall

After York we continued our journey north to stay with another wonderful college friend of Jon's, Rob, just outside of Newcastle. We're just a few days here so far, but we've already seen the beautiful old city of Durham (whilst enjoying a free music festival in which Rob played - well done!) and made a day trip to see Hadrian's Wall. Built in 127 AD it was the official border between what is now England and Scotland (they didn't exist back then). It crosses the entire width of England at this point - 70 miles. We were jealous of the people hiking along the wall.

The landscape is different that far north - rolling hills, but less trees. More exposed rock and more topography. I hope we get to see Scotland, and some of the coastline. This is how I imagine it.

After I reflect on this it really makes me realize - by golly we've seen a lot in 2 short weeks in England! I can't have even imagined venturing through these little towns, villages and sights, especially having done no preparation for it. But it's been really charming and wonderful to spend time with friends and get to know the area. Can't wait for more!

Mysteries Solved! - kinda

My my, does time fly. It's already been three weeks since we ended our jobs at American Village, flew to Florida and arrived back in Europe. How did that happen so quickly?! Well it did. We're currently in Southend, England, in the county of Essex, about 45 minutes east of London by train. It's a bit of a story, but I'll tell you how we ended up here. Sorry for the delay in the post - the blog has been broken all week! The Art of Planning (and the non-art of not planning)

As many of you know, we started this trip 5 months ago with a pretty clear idea of how it would progress. Belgium, Mali, Senegal, Mauritania, Morocco, we thought Spain, but then we got the jobs in France so we headed there. We knew we'd be there until early May and that would end the first 'leg' of our journey. It never really crossed our minds how important that basic outline to our plan was - because it'd always been there. Sure we got sick, we got tired, we got to pick and choose cities and be flexible on timing. But overall, we had the plan.

Fast forward to May 6. We're in Lyon, just finished with camp, with one day in Paris before flying to Jacksonville. We had no place to stay in Paris. Luckily our now former employer offers 1 free night in Paris to all employees, so we were fortunate to take advantage of that and stay in a decent hotel in a cool neighborhood we'd never see (Vincennes, check it out next time you're in Paris!). At the time I remember thinking, "ok, when we get to Florida, I really want to work on finding a great place to stay for when we go back."

But it became abundantly clear to us that we really had absolutely no plan of what our next move would be after Florida. All we had was a return ticket to Paris and an impending date. Turns out also that the weekend we flew back is a holiday weekend, so everything - and I mean everything was booked. Couchsurfing royally failed us (if you're not familiar, is a site you can go to in order to connect with people all over the world who will offer a free place to stay) - we probably reached out to over 20 people with no replies. Hostels were booked, airbnb was booked - and expensive, and no replies from TripAdvisor's vacation rentals left us wondering if we were going to have to skip Paris again and pick a random town in France to go to. Luckily at the very 11th hour (as in we didn't have a confirmation by the time we boarded our overnight flight from Charlotte to Paris...) we found a decently priced hotel - and although we wanted to find free or almost-free accommodations - we were so desperate we booked it.

But all of that last minute scramble made us realize that we weren't able to spend anytime even thinking about what we might do after our 3 days in Paris. Money is getting tight and we want to make the most of our time with the least amount of expenditures.

At this moment, I have to thank my dear family, who all throughout my brother's incredible wedding weekend (congrats Jeremy!), were kindly asking, "So...where are you going next?" To which we could only answer, "Um...we land in Paris." (end of conversation)

So after three days, in Paris, between seeing the sights, walking about 20 miles in 2 days and enjoying our last bit of France (for now, hopefully), we connected with a few of Jon's college and work friends, and an old friend of mine to piece together 8 days in the UK. Don't ask us what we're doing next week! We'll let you know :)

All of this has really made me appreciate how the world being one's oyster can be both a blessing and a curse. Transport is expensive, but we could go just about anywhere. The multitude of choices has been our downfall and we're working to figure that one out. For now, we're enjoying the small coastal town of Southend, then up to Peterborough north of London and then up to Newcastle. Funny that in trying to save money we've taken ourselves to the most expensive countries in Europe. Oops.

Hot, Sunny Florida

So what did we do in the States? Other than a brief medical episode (we had to, we've seen doctors in every country, got to keep the streak going at this point), we relaxed, ate delicious home-cooked meals - thanks Mom and Dad - and enjoyed our friends and family in celebration of my brother's wedding.

We also visited Universal Studios and got relish in our dorkdom at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. We did have to stop ourselves a couple times while marveling at Hogwarts castle and realize that it's silly we're less impressed by real castles. It was a fun time to ride the rides and play all day at the theme park. Even the crazy downpour we walked through was nice - tropical rain is nice and warm - as opposed to the 40 degree frigid rain we were welcomed with in Paris.

Speaking of Paris

It's grand. There simply isn't another word for the size and scale of the City of Light. I've been to Paris before a few times, but I hadn't done the sights in the last few visits. We only had 2 full days and boy did we pack it in. Day one had us at the Eiffel Tower, a walk to Les Invalides (where Napoleon is buried), a visit to the Rodin Museum, Musée d'Orsay and the quintessential eating experience - Royale with Cheese at McDonalds.  Day 2 had us on the Right Bank, starting at the Arc de Triomphe and a walk down the ENTIRE Champs Elysée past the Jardin des Tuileries, through the Louvre (we didn't go it, we were too tired), a cross over Pont Neuf (supposedly the most romantic spot in Paris - can you tell by our pictures?), a visit to Notre Dame, ice cream at the famed Barthillon and a walk through the 5th arrondissement up Rue Moufftard and back for a quick break before having a fabulous eating experience at a little neighborhood Basque restaurant. It was an enormous amount of walking - which justified the extra crepes and ice cream - and a lot to see in 48 hours. I already miss it and hope we can go again, but I'll look forward to the English countryside just the same.

Southeast England

We've been blessed to be welcomed by a former co-worker and friend of Jon's into his home for a few days in Southend - heartily described as the "Jersey Shore" of England. I don't know what to say about that, other than I had a lot of fun playing the arcade games the first night we arrived.

We've been enjoying a very 'english' experience - pubs, fish 'n' chips, afternoon tea in a garden, and roaming the countryside of Kent looking at old (as in built in the 14th century) country homes, mansions and castles. I love it!

We're still working out the next leg of our adventure. In a couple of days we should know more. But for now, think England, Hungary, France or Norway. Once we know, we'll tell you why :) We're just as curious as you are (maybe you're curious?) to find out, but that's all part of the fun right? And yes, even though it's uncertain, we're still having a blast!


Return to America (for now)

After a fabulous 2 days in Lyon, France, and a very short but stunning few hours in Paris, we're hopping the pond and heading stateside tomorrow to relax, recuperate and celebrate my brother's marriage in Jacksonville, Florida. It's almost strange to be going to America at this time. Aside from the fact that I cannot wait to see my family, there's a part of me that thinks, "oh, it's over? We're going back to our country?" But then I have to remember, that in all the little legs of this trip, this big leg #1 is coming to a close and a new chapter of our adventure is beginning. Being in France seems normal at this point - we have been in the country for 7 weeks now. For me speaking French comes easily, and Jon's comprehension is really picking up to where he can follow conversations. There are things every day that surprise us and help us remember that we're traveling and living abroad, and those moments continue to make every day special.

I also have to remember that our ticket is a round trip flight, and 2 weeks will pass very quickly. Before we know it we'll be back in Paris and another part of our experiment will begin. I for one, am really looking forward to being in a familiar place, with people that I know care about me and with whom I don't have to second guess or worry a decision will drastically impact the next set of events. We've come to learn just how stressful (all the while amazing) continuous travel can be. Both Jon and I commented that if we weren't going to Florida at this point, we'd need to find an apartment somewhere for a good long while just to stop moving. Not only is it expensive, but it's just exhausting. While I miss my friends, community, definitely family, and sometimes work, I still wouldn't trade being here. There's so much more to do and see, and so many unexpecteds to cross our path. I can't wait for the next chapter.

Some Stats

Since December 28 (our departure date) here are some fun facts from our travels:

  • Visited 29 cities, villages and towns
  • Traversed approximately 39 degrees of latitude and around 118 degrees of longitude
  • Used boats, trains, buses, cars, taxis, airplanes, shared taxis, metros, our feet, bikes and hitchhiked to get to where we wanted to go
  • Stayed in 7 people's private homes thanks to their generosity
  • Attempted to entertain approximately 308, 8-14 year old French children over the course of 6 weeks
  • Colored, drew and/or laminated well over 200 handmade posters (and trust me, the mention of designing something on a computer and printing it results in a very disappointed look from your boss - tried it)
  • My favorite stat for which I truly have no idea - the number of bottles of wine consumed that cost less than 3euro each - enough to be proud - budget traveling baby.

Lyon/Paris Recap

Before I get too far into thinking about the future - because let's face it, Jon and I make travel decisions on the fly - I do want to tell you just how awesome Lyon is. It's really awesome.

But seriously, Lyon for me is to Paris as Chicago is to New York - the more laid back, user friendly, unintimidating 2nd largest city with arguably better food, definitely nicer people and attractions that will still boggle your senses.  We rented a little 1-bedroom flat through airbnb (if you don't know it, try it it's fantastic) from a lovely French woman who happens to have traveled a bunch in West Africa and Morocco and is really into the arts. We rented her entire apartment (she goes and stays with a friend while she has guests) for at least 20 euro less than the cost of a hotel. BUT we got a kitchen, private bathroom, washer and endless internet. We also got to spend time in a neighborhood we would never have seen, which happened to be the Asian/North Africa/Turkish neighborhood. YES! Pho for lunch, kabab for dinner, and endless options for grocery shopping in the Asian food markets and Middle Eastern pastry shops. It was also a 10 minute walk from the very heart of Lyon. It was almost too good to be true - must have been the 5 flights of stairs we had to climb to get there that offset the perfectness.

Another bonus was that we got to spend the day with our counselor friend Krista, who was passing through on her way from our mutual last work site to Barcelona. Together we spent the day walking Lyon, searching for traboules (tunnels that connect buildings in old Lyon), and climbing the mountain to see the incredible castle-like church that overlooks the city.

If you do anything in Lyon, I recommend traboule hunting. Some of them are marked, and as we learned from a nice bookstore owner, you just have to press the bottom button the call pad to open the doors. Naturally, since the majority of them are not marked, this led us to probably prank call about a half-dozen or so homeowners on their callpads, before realizing these were just private residences with no cool tunnels running under their apartments. Oh well. Sorry people.

Anyway, our stay in Lyon, as usual was too short, and so here we are, with less than 12 more hours in the grand city of Paris before we board the plane and head to Florida. Still recovering and exhausted from camp, we walked through the Louvre courtyard and the Jardin des Tuileries. Crossing the bridge near Musée d'Orsay and meandering down Rue St. Germain was about all we had in us. It's my 5th time in this fabulous city, and Jon's first. If we weren't arriving back here in 2 weeks, I think we would have made a more concerted effort, but since (incha'allah) we are coming back, we're contented to enjoy our little neighborhood (thanks to a free hotel night on American Village! woohoo!) and lay low. Paris Party 2013 begins on May 23 - stay tuned.

So, off to the States tomorrow, check ya'll stateside!

Reflections from Camp

It's our last week at American Village, and with approximately 5 long days left on our contract, I find myself attempting to reflect on the last 5 weeks of craziness that has become my life and sort it all out. It's been a fascinating, frustrating, at times funny, and at most times frantic experience (Jon wants me to insert f^&*cked in to my 'f' adjective list...). So here are some thoughts on where we've been and perhaps what's next. "Being" in France

Yes, it's true, the phrase, "I'm working in France" sounds sooo romantic and exciting and wonderful all at the same time. We've also been pretty good I'd say at sharing some enticing photos from where we've been. But it's time for us to come clean. In the last 5.5 weeks, we've had 4 days off, with the addition of a 3 day break when we moved work locations. ALL of the adventuring, eating and yes, drinking, we've been boasting about has happened on those short days. That should tell you that we do a lot of the following things when we're not at camp:

  • Eat
  • Drink
  • Walk (usually 5-10 miles in a day)
  • Think about eating and drinking
  • Think about and subsequently search for patisseries and chocolatiers (that's usually JStern-driven)
  • Walk
  • Get ourselves to and from our work site.
  • Oh yeah, we usually spend a lot of time griping about camp...

I will say that in our short and few days off in the last month or so, the best part about where we've been in France is that we would NEVER come to these small towns and villages. Most likely we would pass through Vienne on the way to somewhere else, and we certainly would not have stopped in Marmande or even remotely thought about going to Eymet - which was truly a highlight. We would probably not have quite the exposure to the different regional flavors and wines as we are having, and we certainly wouldn't be seeing so much rural farmland. So although the time we're spending experiencing France as opposed to working in the bizarre little microcosm that is American Village is short, those days off have been really great.

Cultural Lessons from Camp

The fascinating 'f' adjective in my introduction stems from the fact that being around French adolescents for 5+ weeks really has been quite interesting. It's a great way to experience French culture and see how different (and sometimes similar) French kids are from American kids. For me, although I am not permitted to speak French with the kids (full on English immersion) it's been an excellent way to improve my comprehension of the language, as well as learn vocab and take in colloquialisms. I also realized today that it really wasn't my fault I can't understand anyone here back at Vienne, their accent is so much thicker than the folks that live near Bordeaux. It's as though they really do have marbles in their mouths! Some observations about the kids are:

  • Although incredibly competitive - much more than American kids - French children will support and encourage their peers in such uplifting ways.
  • French kids are pretty whiny
  • As a result of an education system that teaches by repetition rather than problem solving and critical thinking - French kids have a really hard time with creative projects and open ended questions for which they have no model. (Insert a plug for the need for quality arts education HERE!)
  • As language learners, they say incredibly funny things. For example, we had a super cute kid last week try and ask to pass the bread at the table, but what came out was (think of a strong french accent here), "can uhh you uhhhh shit bread?" What?!? Awesome. Of course he wasn't saying 'shit' but whatever he was trying to say certainly sounded like it.

Life After Camp

At the end of our American Village experience what will we do? SLEEP. I will also be certain to never work a job that pays less than $3/hour and requires me to work 6 days per week for over 15 hours per day. It's just dumb.

We're thinking of heading back to the South of France, but it's super expensive so we're looking at other options to spend time here until May 10. On said date, we're flying all the way to Jacksonville, Florida for the fabulous celebration of my brother's (heeeyy Jeremy) wedding. Let me tell you, we have NEVER been more thrilled to go to Florida. 3 months of various illness, exhaustion, ups, downs, stress from this crazy job and so on, makes us happy to spend a relaxing 2 weeks soaking in the sun and doing nothing but celebrating. Don't get me wrong, travel is AWESOME, and I feel blessed and so fortunate to have been able to make the decision to take my life in this direction. Wouldn't change a thing. A little break will be nice, that's all.

Signing off for now - have you ever needed a break from something really super awesome?