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!


Camp: Not for the weak-hearted


Weekly post here, phew I think I'm three for three, woohoo! Jon and I officially have 1 week of camp under our belts and are preparing to greet a new group of kiddos tomorrow. It's been an exhausting, exhilarating and exciting experience (like my string of E's?? yeah, I'm tired).

For those just tuning in, Jon and I have camp counselor gigs in France for 6 weeks for American Village - a program that offers English exposure classes and activities to French kids. We're called "Animateurs" and I have never felt so animated on the spot (whether naturally or forced) than in the last week. Actually, if the work day wasn't literally nonstop from 8am-10pm with the kids (last week was 53, 8-11 year olds) plus a staff meeting 'til 11pm, I'd say that it's actually quite fun to be in a purely playful environment where my biggest responsibility is to make kids - most of whom don't understand english - laugh, play and have a great time. It's a nice change from the office life.

The Stats

I got to put this picture of Jon on a fake dollar bill - it's awesome

If I remember correctly, in the first week of camp I wore 3 wigs, played a robot, a cow, a rocker, a French Olympian Ninja Chess Player (I won the gold - of course), did aerobics to "Pump Up the Jam", learned and taught 53 kids Gangdam Style, rocked the basketball court and felt pretty good about it until I realized I was playing a 9 year old who'd never touched a basketball, and watched in awe as Jon played a clumsy spiderman and 2 women. Generally - we've been nothing but ridiculous and I love it (except the tired part).



In the Cour et Buis farmer's co-op - so many yummy local frenchy things!

Rhone Valley

In all the silliness, I can't forget that we are in the heart of the Rhone Valley of France - surrounded by lush rolling farmland and mountains in the distance. I wrote about Vienne last week, and yesterday on our day off Jon and I walked to the nearest village of Cour et Buis. Round trip it was 7 miles, a nice opportunity to take in the scenic rural landscape and enjoy each others company, which we aren't able to do during the week. Cour et Buis is tiny - with 3 restaurants, a boulangerie, a tabac (mini mart) and our favorite stop - a farmers co-op selling products from the farmers that live and work right in the pastures we walked by. We picked up some locally made salami, honey and of course a large bottle of wine, all for under 10 euro. I will note that you can buy 5 liters of "Vin du Pays" or table wine for 8euro. Clearly the way to budget travel in Europe is to get your calories from drinking and sleep under a tree (?).


Since I'm working now I get to say that time off = vacation. So, as far as I know we have next week off. Any suggestions on where we should go in France (or Italy...or Spain... or Switzerland..)??

Weekly Fireflies - Vienne France

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! I realized that earlier today as I was coloring a poster (more on why I was doing that below), and thought – wow it’s mid March, my concept of time has really changed. En France?

Vieux Port Marseille

We arrived in France a little less than a week ago, and (poor Jon, who’s never been here) could not have had a less-French experience. We spent about 9 hours in Marseille, France’s 2nd largest city. Apparently the transport in France’s 2nd largest city stinks, because the trains stopped at 10:30pm (our flight from Marrakesh arrived at 10pm) and the next day all transport was on strike, so in less than 12 hours we were over $50 into transportation via taxis. Goodness the euro is expensive!

A quick train ride to Lyon and an even quicker train ride dropped us in the small town of Vienne on the Rhone River. Exploring this food-haven would have to wait; we were getting picked up to go to our new jobs – “Animateur” or counselor at a camp for French kids whose parents want them to learn about America!

It was dark by the time we arrived so even getting to see the beautiful rolling countryside was out of the question.

Apparently It’s the Little Things

I’ve been in France a week and I still can’t get over the endless supply of hot water, electricity, heating, food, water you can drink from the tap and toilets that flush properly. I’ve been beginning to realize how accustomed I got to not having all those things throughout our travels in West Africa. I feel like I’ve landed in complete luxury. I also find myself seeing French women and thinking, “wow they are really scantily clad, and they should cover up!” Even though they’re wearing nothing out of the ordinary or even remotely provocative. I’m just so used to dressing conservatively to walk about in Muslim countries. Huh.

Apparently it's about wine

Ok, I lived in Strasbourg, France in 2003 for 5 months and I'm sure I knew this then, and perhaps it's the stark contrast from traveling in Muslim/mostly-alcohol-free countries for the last 2 months, but there is so much wine here!! People are drinking all the time! I seem to have completely forgotten about wine with every meal (ok not at breakfast), and even then the multiple types of wine you drink at various stages in the 3-5 course 2-hour meal. In complaining about how expensive the euro is, I will say that we found the thing in France that is cheap - wine. Jon and I just bought 3 bottles of Cote du Rhone "vin du pays" (country or table wine) for less than 13euro, and they were all great. I'm particularly proud of the 2 euro bottle that was actually quite nice. I'm almost relieved that we're not allowed to drink when the kids are in camp session. I'd just be slightly tipsy and mostly groggy all the time.

French/American Camp

We’re working for American Village, which runs week-long English language immersion camps for French kids. Jon’s teaching English and I’m running activities with 6 other American/Native-English speakers. More soon on how it’s actually going (the kiddos arrive tomorrow), but so far I’ve done a lot of coloring – making posters for the camp buildings – and eaten a lot more butter than I’m used to.


Luckily on our day off (Saturday) Jon and I got a ride into the town of Vienne, situated right on the Rhone River and built into a rocky hillside that climbs right off the river. Vienne is a lovely small French town. We arrived during the weekly outdoor market, and although the wind was blowing a blustery cold wind, the sun was shining and the deliciousness of French eating was on full display. We enjoyed a long lovely walk through the old town center, which is complete with a Roman temple, amphitheater and other beautiful ruins. Turns out that the Archbishop to Vienne in 1080 or something became Pope Calixtus II in 1118. Needless to say the cathedral is impressive. Our day in Vienne was what you might think of as a classic day in small-town France – quiet small streets, a cozy wine bar where we had a bottle of local wine, a plentiful charcutrie plate and olives and the entertainment of some pretty tipsy old French guys, all for 14 euro. The day was complete once we picked up some delicious chocolates and enjoyed dinner with 2 fellow counsies and headed back through the rolling farmland to camp.

The most frustrating thing about being here is knowing that we’re in France but we can't spend time enjoying France! Hopefully that will change as we make good use of our days off and move camp sites and see a bit more country.

Have you ever been in a place but really not been able to experience it?

Can't Ghent Enough

Ghent it? Yeah, we do. Not only is Belgium's fourth most populous city prime for name-calling puns, it's my new favorite super-old, overly gorgeous, filled with delicious things European city.
We arrived yesterday, New Year's day (happy new year!) and are leaving tomorrow to go to Brussels. This is certainly a place I know I want to come back to. A sizable city, with just over 250,000 inhabitants, Ghent brings together the seemingly unending architectural beauty that Brugges offers, but with a bigger city feel, thriving student population and all kinds of old-world-meets-new-world art and design that makes this girl real happy.

A note about art in Ghent: it's everywhere. In addition to the collection of medieval churches, buildings and town halls, one can see what seems like an entire history of western architecture just in an hour's walk through the historic city center.  Earlier in 2012 I spent a lot of time thinking (mostly at work) about creative placemaking - the process of animating public spaces with artistic expression and installation. Here, creative placemaking is alive and well. One of the most visible examples is the 'grafitistraatje' - a little alley where the street walls, bricks and fences (anyone - you too!) are continually reinvented by street graffiti artists. At first glance, looking down the alley looks a bit dodgy, but once you step in you're surrounded by such a collection of artists that Portland's first Thursday would pale in comparison. Street art seems to be a highly respected form of expression and you can easily find yourself turning a corner to be welcomed by an extensive mural or graffiti experiment. And although we didn't see it, apparently a group of artists are working on a 'graffiti tower' project in response to the city's plan to tear down to high-rise low(er) income development projects and displace a large group of immigrants.

I've also been so excited to see contemporary art installations in the (huge) medieval churches. From photography installations to youth artworks to an electric light installation, it's clear that these old, ornate and incredibly beautiful spaces are being reinvigorated time and time again. I like it.

We've of course been keen to partake in local treats. Aside from the obvious necessary intake of high-gravity Belgian beer, we found a true Belgian "Frieten" or friterie/fries cart. Just for the record, fries are not French, their Belgian, and are typically served with sauce - the traditional being mayo.

We also visited Mokabon, a coffee house that serves locally roasted coffee. But the best part??? When you want cream with your coffee, they give you a little plate of thick Belgian whipped cream. I LOVE THIS PLACE.

We also made sure to try "cuberdon" - the "nose of Ghent" a candy made only in this region is hard on the outside (but not like hard candy) and stuffed with fruity sweet gelatin paste. At first taste we weren't sure we were into it, but before we knew it we were on a mission for a sac of these little "noses" because we just wanted more. Good thing we're walking about 9 miles a day (that's not an exaggeration) because Belgium would be very bad for my waistline otherwise.

Our next destination is to the capital, Brussels, where we'll spend three days hanging out. I'm particularly looking forward to visiting the instrument museum, the world's largest collection of unique instruments from around the world. I'm also looking forward to having some Belgian chocolate, which oddly for me I haven't even had yet - too busy with the waffles, beer, fries and now cuberdons. Don't worry Mom, I had a salad tonight.

There's so much more I want to say about Ghent, but it's been such a whirlwind of a time here. I remarked to Jon tonight how much it feels like Strasbourg (France) to me, and perhaps that's why I feel so comfortable here and why I enjoy it so much (despite not understanding a lick of Dutch - I just don't Ghent it..hahaha ok sorry). I spent 5 months in Strasbourg, fyi for anyone who was wondering why on earth I would have any attachment to that city. Whatever it is, I hope we make it back here before the trip is done. I'm considering this an official scouting mission.

What are some of your favorite far away cities?