Our Work Exchange Part 2


We arrived at our HelpX stay almost 1 month ago, and life in Italy has been good. We’re doing a fine job of enjoying the dolce vita (sweet life) in addition to working hard and seeing a lot of what Umbria has to offer. This has been a great work exchange and we’re incredibly grateful for the experience. From Farm to Hotel

As you may recall we began our work exchange at the home farm of our hosts, Ev and Claudia. We tended grapes, did a bunch of gardening and weeding, took care of the chickens, ate a lot of figs and enjoyed the quite life of rural Umbria.

Before we arrived, we knew that there two other volunteers who had made arrangements to be at Ev and Claudia’s during the wine harvest so we had some overlap. And since we wanted to stay longer than these other volunteers they offered to let us stay at Claudia’s bed and breakfast near Perugia, Il Casale della Staffa, in exchange for sanding and re-staining all the windows and me finishing the website. So for the last 2 weeks we’ve been living in one of the apartments at the B&B, working in the morning, sunning by the pool midday and then visiting the beautiful towns and villages of Umbria in the afternoons.

I won’t lie, it’s been pretty great. Being in Italy is like being on a never-ending honeymoon for us. Everything is beautiful, delicious, romantic and even if the work isn’t too exciting, how could one possibly complain when you have this view out your kitchen window???

View from our temporary kitchen

Assisi & Montefalco

It seems that there’s always some kind of festival or event going on here. Maybe that’s because it’s harvest season, but we’ve been really fortunate that there’s a festival going on all the time – I’m serious – music, arts, food, wine and soon to be chocolate. There’s a lot happening in Umbria apparently.

Jon is going to write about the incredible Montefalco Wine Festival that we went to so I won’t steal his thunder there. I will say that Montefalco – also called the banister of Umbria – is a delightful little hill town. If you like wine, this is the place to go in Umbria. It’s known for its Sagrantino, a grape that only grows in this region of the world. That in addition to the other “typical” products of honey, truffles and cured meats makes for Montefalco to be a delicious place to be, both for the eyes and the senses.

We also had the opportunity to visit Assisi – the namesake for Francis d’Assisi or Saint Francis (hello San Francisco). Despite the fact that Saint Francis was practically a hermit and lived in nature, trying to be a very humble figure within the grandure of the Catholic Church, Assisi is an impressive town with an even more impressive Cathedral built in Saint Francis’ name. We saw it first from the road at night, and then up close during a visit with our fellow helpers.

The climb up to the historical center is not only a good workout but also a beautiful introduction to this holy city. Signs of devotion are everywhere. Making one’s way down the main road you pass a Roman temple from the 1st century BC, which became one of Saint Francis’ churches. I loved being able to clear see the Roman qualities to this temple, and then the medieval addition that is the church. It’s such a great example of how these ancient sites have developed over time.

Another thing that caught my eye was the banner hanging from the church depicting a visit by the Pope, Francis, to Assisi on October 4th. Have you ever met a Jew who’s this excited to see the Pope? Probably not – I mean, come on, he’s pretty hip you have to admit.

St. Francis’ cathedral is really stunning, and I love that all the paintings and frescos (by Torriti, Cimabau and Giotto on the upper level and by Lorenzetti, Giotto and Martini in the lower basilica) inside tell the story of his life and deeds –something rare for churches at the time. This is a place of pilgrimage for many Catholics. Despite that, I still didn’t feel pulled in by a spiritual magnet to this place, until we went below to visit St. Francis’ tomb. A quiet, simple, modest room, candlelit, with St Francis resting in the very stone column that runs the entire height of the cathedral – not only is this structurally important – it’s symbolically perfect – he’s holding this place together. I was really moved by that place, in the midst of all the art and magnanimity of the churches and the age and beauty of the towns we’ve seen – the tomb of St Francis is something I will never forget.

I also won’t forget the truffle/lardo/salami sandwhich we got right on the main drag in Assisi – surrounded by touristy places it was a slim chance we’d get good food. But that was a spiritual experience in and of itself.

Harvest Time

This arrangement has clearly been pretty great. It’s allowed us time to intimately get to know the region of Umbria, and our hosts are accomplishing tasks they haven’t been able to.

This week is what we’ve been waiting for: grape harvest. We’ll head over to the house early in the morning on Wednesday and hand-pick the grapes. They’ll be taken up to the ‘cantina’ - not a bar – but the place where the wine is made. The cantina is a small room in a 15th century church by the way that’s up the road from the house. Our first day’s work in Italy involved painting it and cleaning the floor in preparation for wine making. It’ll be wonderful to actually mash the grapes, and see the whole process from start to finish – actually building the cellar, to tending the vines, picking the grapes and making the wine.

Umbria is really beautiful and if you ever get a chance to come here, I can’t recommend it enough. We’ve visiting Corciano, Orvieto, Todi, Betona, Montecastello di Vibio, Castiglione del Lago, Passignano, Marsciano, Foligno, Montefalco, Assisi and driven through countless hamlets and villages which all have their own charm. What’s amazing about these towns is that they all feel different and have their own traditions. They’ve all survived hundreds of years of turmoil and wars being propped up on their hills. Pretty smart if you ask me.

We still have the big Tuscan cities on our list: Siena, Arezzo and of course Florence. I can’t say it enough how grateful I am for this arrangement. A few hours of work a day is a small exchange to live here for 2 months, practically for free.

High Heels vs Chickens: The Lives we Lead


Yeah, I know it's an odd title for a post, and no I'm not seeking some weird morbid revenge on the rooster that attacked me. I've been thinking about high heels and chickens because the time has come when Jon and I are thinking of our return home, what that will look like and what our lives will be like. Inevitably the return will involve going back to a day-to-day job and that (for me, not Jon) will probably involve high heels. But in my day to day here where I'm wondering how the new baby chicks are doing - I begin to think of all the various ways we can choose to use the time we have during our lives; and all the kinds of life we can lead. For me, I find myself at a crossroads of the different versions of my life and am as curious as anyone to see where life will take me next. Now that I've explained my bizarre train of thought, let me continue. This trip has offered an opportunity to "be" many things. I've been a traveler, a teacher, an actress (at camp), a consultant, a housesitter, a web developer, a farmer and most recently a window repair person. But is this "me"? Isn't all of it me? When we go back to Portland, will I "be" whatever my job title is - high heels or not? It's so easy for us, especially in America where our culture is career driven, to be defined by what we do for work. But if there's one thing I've learned over the last 9 months, it's that the  activities I do during my time on earth don't define me, I think they're absorbed into what creates my character.

What do you think?

Certainly moving away from a career-driving lifestyle offers perspective on where we think we're going with that drive. This time in Italy has shown me how wonderful a slower-paced, tied-to-the-land kind of life can be. And I do like the chickens, even if one of the roosters doesn't like me. They give the most wonderful eggs and the little chicks are fluffy and cute.

A different perspective

Jon has a different take on all of this, which I welcome. While my mind goes directly towards, "what will I do for work?" when thinking of "home," Jon thinks first of what makes home home: friends, family, food, lifestyle etc. Work is just the thing you do to make "home" possible. I know there are a lot of arguments against this: "Oh you should enjoy the way you spend  those 8 hours a day!" But I have to admire the guy for not being concerned with how the income is made, as long as you're happy and you live the lifestyle you want.

When we don the high heels (or the suit or whatever 'costume' your job requires) does it change you? I have mixed feelings about this, because the lines between my personal and professional life are often blurred, whereas Jon creates more rigid boundaries in his work life. I enjoy knowing the people I work with and often want to know more about them than just who they are at the office.

Going Home, Taking the World With Us

Regardless of what our work lives will bring us, this trip has afforded us glimpses into many different lifestyles, which we've enjoyed, been confused by, surprised by, loved and wanted to take with us. We both agree that taking the time to travel in the way we have, to be in places long enough to understand the cultures a bit has allowed us to learn how people all over the world live their lives, and how it's not better or worse, but how there are so many options for how people can use their time on earth. I like that. I like knowing that we can "be" one thing for a time and then "be" something else (of course I understand very well the privileged position I hold in being able to say that, and that there are many many people in the world who don't have the option to change their situation). In the end it makes me feel like I do not have to be defined solely by how I earn income, but that I can choose to be defined by other things: the relationships in my life, service to my community, and sure for me, the energy I put into work and how that effects those around me. Maybe I'm giving this more of a simplistic view than it deserves, but being able to "be" many things in a short time has opened our eyes. Life is long (incha'allah - god willing) and I hope that I have the courage to define my life by the experiences I have and how I share those with others. Whether that involves high heels or chickens, or both, I suppose it will be up to me to make it good.

What are your thoughts about work, life, and how you create your life? Is it based on what you do for a living? Or something else? As you ponder, enjoy these photos from our visits to the beautiful villages and towns of Umbria - they are stunning (the towns, probably not the photos so much).

A Farm Stay in Italy


Jon and I have been in our little Umbrian paradise for just over a week now. Aside from somehow getting on the bad side of one of the roosters (who now wants to attack me), our farm stay in Italy has been everything I could have imagined it to be. We are living in a beautiful 12th century stone house just outside of the hilltop town of Todi, in the province of Umbria. We're nestled right in a bend of the famous Tiber river, yes, the one that flows across Italy, through Rome and into the sea. It meanders here through the hills, the sides of which are dotted with olive trees, or plowed into golden fields that grow sunflowers, wheat or various other goods. Just above our own fields of wine grapes (sangiovese and sagrantino) is a 12th century castle and church, which even has a small but beautiful fresco from the 16th century. While walking up there we met the building owner, who kindly took us up to his terrace for an incredible 360 degree view. This is a special place for which I'm grateful at just about every moment.

Opposite our little farm, way on top of the hill, is the village of Montecastello di Vibio - a beautifully scenic town that is home to the world's smallest opera house. It's modeled after the famous La Scala in Milano, but this one is like walking into a dollhouse. 35 seats on the floor (plush red velvet) and 2 tiers of tiny boxes for a grand total of 99 seats. The entire interior is hand painted and is truly a tiny masterpiece of art. I can only imagine how special it is to see a concert or opera there.

Our arrangement here is through a site called HelpX. We work 4-5 hours per day in the fields, gardens or around the house in exchange for all our meals and accommodations. Sometimes it doesn't feel like a fair trade because the experience of living in this place, eating home cooked Italian food and getting to explore or just relax on our time off is so wonderful.

Our tasks are varied, but the overall project for the home and farm is ambitious. The owners moved here 6 years ago when the house was apparently a complete ruin. The olive grove had been abandoned, the grapes neglected, I guess there was just nothing here. Slowly, and with the help of volunteers like us over the years, they've completely renovated and furnished the home into a beautifully restored living space. They've built stone walkways, a vegetable garden that provides greens, tomatoes, onions, eggplants, squash, and so many other goodies. This is not to mention the fruit trees that are plentiful and the fig trees that seemingly grow wild around the property. It's also home to 15 chickens that provide fresh eggs and 4 geese that...are geese. The flower gardens they built are beautiful and from what I understand are a rose-lovers dream come true in the spring. 2 years ago they built a traditional brick oven and can now make true Italian homemade pizza (which we enjoyed our first night here), aside from breads and just about anything else that needs a perfect convection oven.

Eventually there will be another room added to the house, the foundation for which we'll seal and paint again while we're here. We've painted and cleaned the 'cantina' - the room that's being rented in a nearby church that will be the site of the winemaking. We've pruned the olives and plowed part of a new field for grapes. We're constantly weeding, trimming and maintaining the expansive gardens. We're putting in fall and winter vegetables; and anxiously awaiting the hatching of the 10 chicks that are soon to come! Part of our exchange is also that I'm building a new website for our owner's bed and breakfast, the Casale della Staffa. All this while I'm trying to avoid the one rooster that has decided he doesn't like me and wants to attack me. It seems fine with Jon though, so that's good. I'm ready to put it in a pot!

Of all the travel we've done, the experiences we've had, and the places we've seen, this is a really lovely way of being somewhere new. It's only one family, and one vantage point, but we are getting to see what farm life in Italy is like, and learning so much about caring for land in the process. Even just working with the grapes, learning how to tend them, testing pH and sugar levels and waiting for the harvest has been a unique experience. It's also really nice to be here for a good length of time in order to relax and truly enjoy the dolce vita - the sweet life Italians so cherish.

Enjoy some photos from Todi, the farm and beautiful Umbria!

(French) Words with Friends

No, I'm not talking about the extremely popular app/game that so many people play. I'm talking about spending time speaking enormous amounts of a second language with new friends and how speaking foreign words with friends can be intimidating, but offer great experiences and cultural insight if you can get past the fear of sounding like a buffoon. I think that no matter how good of a traveler you are, it's hard to meet locals. Yeah, you can stay at hostels - but you're meeting travelers, and while that's fun, it doesn't provide the opportunity to really get to know a culture. I've been fortunate enough to have family stays in Senegal and France, and was able to gain incredible cultural insight to those 2 places during college. But it wasn't until I found myself reconnecting with the one French friend I made while living in Strasbourg that I realized just how difficult it is to meet and befriend locals when you're constantly on the move. I am also extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to study a second language to the point of near-fluency because without it, traveling in francophone countries wouldn't nearly be as interesting.

Reconnecting After 10 Years

Toulon & Six Fours Les Plages

I can't tell you if this marathon socializing exists all over France, but it was great to experience it mixed with what life is like in small town cote d'azure/french mediterranean coast life. It's August and so everyone is still on vacation. This means more time for sitting and chatting for hours, beach volleyball and driving around to visit friends. I took part in all of this (minus the beach volleyball - they're kinda serious about it) and again while I felt exhausted by all the chatting, was happy to see how people enjoy life during the summer.

Toulon is a nice mid-sized city. Six Fours is basically a beach village, and the real gem of the area is Sanary which is complete with a tiny wood-boat filled port, winding streets, charming shops and the relaxed atmosphere you'd expect of Southern France - without the luxury of the Riviera (that's coming in the next post). It was the non-glitzy part of the Cote d'Azur and I'm glad to have experienced it.

Next stop is Rome. Yes, Rome. I arrived this evening. I can't even imagine the grandeur and enormity of this city and am nervous and excited to see it all at the same time.

Until then, bisous et à bientot.

Reflections on Being in France (again)


I'm once again saying goodbye (for now I hope) to France. Each trip here is different and while walking around the old town of Nice in search of late night food I had a few thoughts on my upcoming departure and recent stint here. I Love Speaking French

I do. It's empowering to speak a different language, and getting to the point where you've learned to converse means opening a whole new world of cultural learning and connections with locals. The quick inundation of English at the hostel makes me really appreciate having spent a week speaking nothing but French with old and new friends. I will miss it once I'm in Italy and understand nothing!

France is regionally diverse

I had never been to the south of France prior to this trip, save a short few days with Jon to Aix en Provence in the spring. I'd never seen the coast, the famous Cote d'Azur and the French Riviera. Being here makes me appreciate how diverse France is geographically and among it's regions. We love fois gras (despite it not being a friendly practice) but you can't find that here. Want red wine? Yeah it's France you can find it, but you come to the south to drink Rosé - and it's delicious - even the cheap bottles. Having lived in the north in Alsace, to spending the spring in the center to now seeing the south, it's no wonder people call this Europe's Club Med - it has so many different things to offer in so many wonderful ways.


All at the same time I have a love/hate relationship with France. I love the food, the cities and villages, the environment, the fact that it's France. But it also frustrates the heck out of me. The fact that people seem to not know how to walk without obliviously getting in the way; the bureaucracy is out of control; and yeah sometimes people are outright rude (but not everyone - I've spent an amazing week with new friends!) - it irritates me. I also have a strange surge of American patriotism every time I come here. I just love my country so much when I'm in France. I find that interesting... hmmmm.

Saying À Bientot

All in all there's a feeling of sadness every time I leave and I experience it now. When it's all said in done, I know how to be in France. Of course not as much as my own country, but I can get around here, talk with people and even make friends. There's always something interesting, old, funny, dorky, frustrating and wonderful all at the same time.

So I leave France now saying, 'see you soon' because I hope it won't be too long before I come back. Merci encore la France pour toute les plaisirs!

PS: I can't be that sad because I'm going to Rome tomorrow. ROME!!!

2 Days in Barcelona

What a whirlwind! I arrived in Toulon, France on Friday night after 2 days in Barcelona. Is 2 days enough to do that city justice? Absolutely not. Did I give it a good go? Hell yes. Would I ever want to go back to Barcelona? Are you crazy for asking such a silly question?? Ok, I guess I asked that question - but anyway, of course I would! Here's how I spent my 48 hours in Catalonia. Arrival

After leaving Alicante at 12pm on Wednesday I drove with several Spaniards via BlaBla Car (another post on that method of transport coming soon) to the Barcelonian suburb of Sant Joan Despi. I had written instructions via Google on how to take the regional train from there to my hostel and so I didn't think it would be a problem. I was incredibly grateful to a fellow passenger who just happened to be going to the exact same metro stop as me (coincidence or did I really seem like I wasn't going to make it??) and helped me buy my ticket because none of the train numbers matched the directions I had. Thank you kind stranger!

I found my hostel easily after that and checked in. I looked forward to staying in a hostel because, despite the lack of sleep I knew I'd get, I wanted to meet some fellow travelers. The lady at the desk asked me if I was "going to the festival" and I said, "Sure. What is that?" "Every neighborhood in Barcelona has a street festival. This one is in the Gracia neighborhood, we're leaving at 10:30." Cool, I had some time to ditch the bag, relax and meet my roommies.

Festival Gracia

Ok, so my hostel was kinda dirty and the AC in our room didn't work but it is SO awesome that they led a group of guests to the Gracia festival for free. We were about 15 people - Americans, Germans, a Canadian, 2 Kiwis, some British guys and a Polish guide from the hostel. Fun. Although they had said it was a street fair with "lights hanging in the streets," that was a completely lame explanation for what it really was. Dozens of small streets throughout the neighborhood were themed and decorated, some completely covered, with hanging lanterns, sculptures, lights and art. There were stages with live music - each a different kind of music - and bars and food carts selling drinks, empanadas and sandwiches. Every bar in between had it's doors open offering take-away cocktails and snacks. Basically this was a giant neighborhood movable feast. It was incredible.

In the plazas between the streets, the city had erected tents and dance areas. In one square the band played swing music, in another there was a DJ. In a lot of ways it reminded me of the atmosphere during New Year's eve in Brugges - unbelievably happy people celebrating just to celebrate out and about - one hundred percent happy positive goodness. This plus the artsy element to it made it an all-trip highlight. The big thing that was missing was my hubby!!

A 13-mile walk

The next day I woke up leisurely ready to explore the city. You already know from my last post that I intended on visiting the Joan Miro Park - which was mildly, well ok, not really that successful. After my 'experience' I wandered up past the Placa Espanya to the 'magic fountain' which wasn't so magic as it was turned off, and up to the Museo de Arte de Catalanya. This impressive, palatial museum overlooks Barcelona with incredible fountains, sculptures dotted about and a grandeur that's humbling. I was even more excited to see the interior until I learned it was a hefty 12 euro ticket. So much for the free museums of the UK! They do offer a free day on Saturdays from 3pm-9pm, but being a Thursday that didn't work for me. So I grudgingly skipped the art museum and continued up Mont Juic towards the Olympic Park.

I'm getting closer to having visited all the olympic cities from the 1990's. Although Nagano probably won't be on this trip's agenda. The stadium and park was impressive - I love the Olympics. I continued my walk in search of Joan Miro's actual museum, only to find that after waiting in a very long line, the entry to that museum was 11 euro. Being on a meager 25 euro/per day budget makes these things difficult! So I moved on but was delighted to find myself descending Mont Juic in the incredible tiered gardens of Laribal. What a beautiful and romantic place to have so close to the center of the city.

Deciding that I needed a snack, I made my way back to the Metro and hopped off at the Placa Catayluna, right in the thick of downtown and at the top of the famous La Rambla. I didn't really have it in me to walk La Rambla, but I did head through part of the old city to the Cathedral and had a nice sandwich whilst watching throngs of tourist pay the 5 euros to enter the church (which I also skipped - although apparently there are gardens inside the cathedral - that's cool). Feeling like my 10 miles of walking before 3pm was taking it's toll, I headed back to the hostel for a proper siesta.

The remaining miles for the day took place during the evening, while enjoying the company of my roommates, the unbelievable artistry, and art of the city, the balmy coastal air, tapas, sangria and the lively vibe that Barcelona has to offer. 13 miles is a lot - and I was certainly ready for a good night's sleep.

The remaining few hours

In the morning I decided that I better check out the Rambla, the Mercato Boqueria - the famous indoor/outdoor food market - and catch a bit of the Gothic Quarter. Most gratefully I had already seen the Gaudi houses and Picasso Museum while in Barcelona with my family in 2001 - otherwise this post - and my 2 days- would be a lot different. I will say that if in Barcelona and you haven't seen the museums, the tourist card, which includes 6 museums for 30 euro is a great deal. But beware, that line out of the Picasso Museum was HUGE. It's August, what can you expect.

My day-2 walk took me through the old city and up to the lively market - which was a bit too crowded for me given the number of tourists. It was still an enticing sensory experience - the presentation of the fruits and fish in particular were really amazing. This would be the place I'd hang out in May or October - and definitely with a bit more cash so as to sit at one of the market tapas bars and enjoy the fresh food and great atmosphere.

I headed all the way down La Rambla, through the Gothic Quarter (which is stunning) and up to the Arc de Triomf. A really lovely circuit. My 4pm departure loomed so I decided to check on the progress of the Sagrada Familia and made a quick trip on the metro for a photo op. It's looking good! I think the 2026 completion date is on track (since of course I clearly know about such things). Hmm, perhaps that's a celebration to take part in! After admiring such an interesting architectural feat, I sped back to the hostel, grabbed my bag and raced to meet my next BlaBla Car ride to Toulon. Sound quick - yeah I'm still tired.

My 2 days in Barcelona were fabulous, albeit exhausting. I didn't have a great impression the last time, but I think now that's because I was simply too enamored with Sevilla to really see Barcelona's advantages. It's nice to be back in France - especially because now I can talk to people! It has been strange to be solo, after being with Jon for so long. We'll be back together soon and I'm looking forward to it! Hasta Luego!

Festival Cante de las Minas


Last Friday night Jon and I had a blast. Near dusk we drove about 45 minutes south towards Cartagena to a small inland mining town called La Union for the 53rd Annual Festival Cante de las Minas, or "Songs of the Mines." The chance to go see an international flamenco festival was one not to pass up. Plus, the cheapy tickets were only 10 euro per person, how could we go wrong? The first half of the 10 day festival is all presentation of individual artists, and the second half is a competition. Since we were only going to afford one night of tickets, we opted for a competition night in order to see all the kinds of flamenco: singing, dance, and instrumentation.

As mentioned, La Union has a heritage in mining - primarily silver, alum, iron ore and other minerals; and apparently given the richness of the soil and the proximity to Cartagena (see my last post on the city), played an extremely important economic role in the Mediterranean economy (source: Discover Costa Calida). The mining community gave way to a rich folkloric tradition and La Union has now become home to not only the Festival we attended, but is clearly an arts center in the area. The large central indoor market was even converted into a performance venue. As an arts person, this union (no pun intended) between mining and arts is fascinating, and I love seeing how industry and culture are intertwined here.

Although the festival is billed as "international" and world-renowned - which I'm sure it is - I'm fairly certain we were the only English speaking people there, and certainly the only Americans within a 20 mile radius. Even the ticket office didn't have any English speakers (nor did they take credit cards...).  But we showed up around 7pm, explored the little town, and settled down on the main plaza for a cañas (small glass of beer) and tapas. The square was filled with little kids jump-roping and families enjoying the coolness of the evening - such is the Spanish way - all generations out together. I love it.

I want to highlight a few moments in the night, because, in addition to the guitar and the harmonica, the singing and dancing soloists were truly amazing. I also have to say that not only were the musicians great, but it was just as much fun to watch the audience react, with a hearty, "Olé!!" when they were impressed. This, by no means, is not a culture that remains passive.

Baile - Dance

Woah. Before I say anything about traditional and professional flamenco dance. You just have to see it.

When I came to Spain with my family in 2001, we went to Sevilla and found an amazing locals tavern. There were about 10 chairs lined up, occupied by 2 or 3 guitarists and the rest clappers and singers. It wasn't a show, it was just a night out. People from the audience would come in and dance a bit and then switch out. Actually it's very similar to neighborhood dance parties in Mali and Senegal. But I digress. The point is that it was very participatory.

This was something entirely different. 1 Guitarist, 2 singers and 3 others clapping. And, then, that guy: Eduardo José Guerrero Gonzàlez. He strode in, more like glided in and proceeded to give 2 performances unlike anything I've ever seen. I'm not exaggerating. Sitting on the edge of my seat, with chills, I watched as this person danced with such a power, grace, passion and energy that I really have never seen. It was angular and sudden, but smooth and fluid at the same time. Jon and I were both dumbfounded at the end of his performance. In so many ways, the baile for men is easily linked to the art of bullfighting. The movements, the sudden attacks, the provocation - you see the matador in the dancer.

So as I was watching this incredible feat of human artistry I started to think about the art of bullfighting. It's not bullfighting season, we'll miss it by a few weeks (since Spain is essentially closed in August). I understand that there are a lot of people out there that think bullfighting should be banned, that it's cruel and dangerous. Well, I'm not disputing that it's cruel and dangerous. Just during our first few days here a young 16 year old boy was gored to death during a run of the bulls in Spain. And in the ring, it is a fight to the death - either the matador or the bull. But if you watch bullfighting - you see the art. You see the depth of the tradition, and the richness of the cultural expression. From the ceremony, to the running of the bulls, to the fights, to the costumes and fresh in my mind - to the dance - bullfighting runs in the veins of the Spanish. Art, music and dance runs in the veins of this culture as well. And it became crystal clear to me that you can't separate the two.

I think that in our American culture we rarely see the arts so clearly expressed in sport, and very rarely do we see sport reflected in the arts. But last night while I was watching the dancer, not only did I see the matador, I realized that in the matador is also the dancer. To see these two uniquely Spanish traditions blended into one was beautiful. It was the highlight of the evening for me.

Cante - Singing

When we left the show at 2am, Jon asked me, "Yeah, so the signing, it sounds like..." and before he could answer I said, "Quranic chant? Yes, it does and it should - it's the Moorish influence left on the music tradition."  (Thank you Lewis & Clark for all those ethnomusicology classes!) Flamenco singing is powerful, intense and for lack of better words, just really interesting and impressive. We saw 4 singers as part of the competition, 3 men and 1 woman. The first singer came out swinging, with huge notes and unbelievable projection. The second slow played it a bit, was much more casual in his performance, but was really incredible. The third singer left us wondering how 10 euros could possibly be better spent (that was just before the dance performance!). His first song was quiet, the son Mineras - for the miners - and we both commented, "huh he's not as impressive as the last guy." But we were wrong. The control, the emotion, the tiny pitch fluxations (or half and quarter tones if you're into music theory), not to mention the stupidly long amount of time he for which he could hold a pitch, again, was just incredible.

The singers performed traditional songs. Even people in the audience next to us were singing along. I know this sounds silly, but it's something I love about Spain - just how Spanish everyone is. They wear their culture on their sleeve - it's beautiful.

Overall it was a truly wonderful evening of music and art. I'm so grateful that we were able to experience it!

What have some of your favorite/best overseas arts or cultural experiences been?

Global Travel: Irresponsible or Growing Opportunity?


This post was written by me (Jess) with healthy input and editing from Jon. Over the last 6 months, 9-12 months really, I’ve been thinking a lot about whether the decision to sell our stuff, leave our jobs and go on the road was plain irresponsible or an attempt to live life to the fullest before it passes by.  With us closing in on 6 months out, and spending my 31st birthday in England, I think it’s both.

When we decided to make this trip, we met a lot of people that said, “Oh I could never do that!” Or, “I have too many responsibilities;” or “I could never afford to travel like that.” Well, I had responsibilities, and I really don’t have much money. But what Jon and I do have is drive, flexibility and creativity. It’s working out for us so far. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s working.

Part of the reason I wanted to take this trip was because I wanted to stop working simply to live. I stopped believing that I was required to live the status quo life - that it wouldn't be that outlandish to want more hours in the day of enjoyment than occupying a desk. There's nothing wrong with the 'status quo' life - it's just not for me at this time. The meager funds that we had could actually provide for us for quite some time. And, we’d have the rest of our lives to provide for family, house, job, material goods etc. Now, we are the healthiest we are ever going to be (well, despite the series of illnesses we had early on in the trip). So, we decided to buy experiences. Luckily, and we’re really honest about this, we have the privilege of being highly educated, middle class Americans. Sorry, but that’s a reality.

When looking through the lens of the ‘status quo’ lifestyle, one that involves a career-track full-time job, regular rent or a mortgage, and other ‘adult’-like responsibilities, what we’ve done is horribly irresponsible. You could say, “Jess you had a great job, you were on the up and up, it was going so well!” And yes, it was, although I did feel a bit overworked, there was still something missing for me (see our earlier blog post about it here - Taking the Leap).

But when thinking about buying experiences – an alternate lifestyle is interesting. I’m not talking about some ‘alternative’ live in the woods type deal – I’m talking about financial stability, location independence.

While driving along the Northeastern English coastline the other day our friend got me thinking about this whilst listening to a song. There’s a bit of 22 year-old defiance there that I don’t identify with, but nonetheless, it got me thinking. I have pasted a few lines below with a link to the song by Frank Turner.

“Oh when no ones yet explained to me exactly what's so great About slaving 50 years away on something that you hate Look I'm meekly shuffling down the path of mediocrity Well if that's your road then take it but it's not the road for me

And I won't sit down And I won't shut up And most of all I will not grow up"

I thought about this song, and the lyrics as we drove and I said to Rob, “You know, I don’t mind growing up.” And it’s true, it’s actually quite fun. Plus, I’d much rather be 31 than 16 again – for me every year gets better as I learn more about myself and the world in which I live. Rob so poignantly replied, “Yeah, I guess growing up is really just about taking charge.”

Well said, Rob. Although growing up is about taking on more responsibilities, it’s about thinking independently about your life, grabbing the reins and not just sitting by while life passes.  That’s at least my young 31-year old take on it.

This form of taking charge wasn’t some flighty version of let’s up and leave and throw caution to the wind. Our trip was a highly calculated risk – one whose consequences and possibilities were carefully weighed.

This trip has already afforded us opportunities to take charge – of our finances, of our marriage, of the things and experiences that really truly matter to us.

Anyway now that I’ve thought about it a bit, I have to change my original statement. This travel experience isn’t irresponsible at all in my mind – in fact it’s the most responsible thing we could have done as adults. Because, in the end, if we hadn’t taken charge and chosen this experiment - even though I miss my friends, the people I worked with, the garden, the car and yes I really miss my pillow - I think after awhile I would have been miserable just hoping that someday I might be able to travel and see the places I’ve dreamed of. The best part is that it wasn’t that hard in the grand scheme of things to make those dreams a reality. I recommend trying.

What’s the worst that can happen? People say it all the time, but really, I would challenge you to ask yourself: what is the worst that could happen?

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, couchsurfing.org 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!