Sunday, January 7, 2018

Paris, The End of the Journey

To really bring my trip full circle, I met up with my friend Andrew in Paris (the one whom I visited in Lyon during my first week of the trip), and his friend Stephany graciously agreed to host us.

First stop were the Catacombs, or a giant underground collective "ossuary," or rather, holding place for bones. The cemeteries in the city began running out of room after centuries of use and were causing real problems - one named Les Innocents caused a neighboring building to collapse from the weight of so many dead. Also, much of the limestone used to build the oldest parts of the city was extracted using a mining technique which used wells as access points to dig horizontally, which meant that there were many undiscovered open mines. The same police prefect was in charge of finding and reinforcing old mines as was responsible for solving the cemetery problem, and thus was born the idea of an enormous underground mortuary.

Walking through the catacombs is eerie. The bones are stacked in decorative arrangements, but we realized these were just a pleasant "front" if you will - if you look behind the closest stack, the stacks of bones extend all the way back against the wall. The tunnels are spacious and it takes a few minutes to walk through all of them, so you can imagine that there are a lot of bodies - a few million, actually. Then there's the creepy sensation that if you back up, you accidentally brush up against a lot of dead people.

That night, Stephany asked if we would like to go out with a few of her friends. I was really excited about the possibility, because I hadn't gone out much as a solo traveler. We met up at a grungy-cool bar with super cheap drinks, and I nodded along politely while everyone chatted in French. They all spoke at least some English, but it's easier for anyone to speak their native language, so I decided it would be an evening of people watching. Once it was past midnight, I admitted to Andrew that I was sleepy and he said he'd suggest going home.

The conversation went a bit like this:
Andrew: "Hey guys, it's been a lovely evening, what do you think about going home?"
Everyone else: "Nonsense, let's keep drinking!"
Andrew: "But doesn't it sound nice to get some sleep?"
Everyone else: "Hey, we have a great idea, let's go drink at Stephany's!"
Andrew: "Or we could go to bed."

Of course, we bought more alcohol and everyone returned to Stephany's for "just one or two drinks, really chill." And, as my wise friend Mira says, it's the chill nights that end up being the craziest. American drinking games ensued, played with wine (for them once the cheap beer ran out, for me the entire time because Celiac). A glass was broken, the neighbors knocked on the door, and I fell asleep on the couch around 4:30 am. The next morning was hell. I think it took me an hour to eat my oatmeal, and then we had to clean. We even washed all the Solo cups, because they are much more expensive and hard to come by there. It was a mental game of doing just this one thing, and then the next, and all the time fooling yourself with just the task at hand until eventually it all gets done.

We then went out to explore Montmartre, a formerly seedy and now hipster central neighborhood. We also walked down the Champs de Elysees lit up by Christmas lights and visited the central Christmas market. There was even a giant lit-up electric sleigh that Santa "flew" over the crowd. Then we all hugged goodbye. I'm still not sure how we became such good friends in a short amount of time, but I'll always fondly remember that weekend in Paris.

My flight home wasn't until Thursday, so I had three days to explore Paris on my own. Monday I went to the Louvre, as everyone does. It was truly massive, and to be honest, a little overwhelming. It wasn’t super crowded, which was nice, but I found that there was so much to look at that I felt stressed I couldn’t see it all, or even a portion of it. Plus, it wasn’t as much my style of art.

Yep, Mona Lisa
I did see the Mona Lisa, because it’s practically obligatory, and I still can’t figure out why people make such a big freaking deal of it. I ended up going back to the hostel early so that I could take care of a different task: I had to find the perfect dress for the PwC Holiday Party, and I was determined to find it in a used clothing store. Thankfully, the hostel I had chosen for its proximity to the Gare du Nord train station also happened to be surrounded by used clothing boutiques. Just the process of combing through them was fun! In the third or fourth store I went into, I found the perfect one. There was no booth for trying on the clothes, so the woman working in the store held a cloth in front of me, beach towel style. She and I agreed that the first dress suited me best, so I paid cash for it and headed back to the hostel grinning.

The next day, I took the train out to Versailles.For the second time of the trip (after the Vatican), I felt claustrophobic. The tour groups were huge and coagulated in the most inconvenient places. Still, the tour was neat - it is a very large and very sparkly castle. I far preferred wandering the endless, curving rows of hedge in the Versailles gardens.

Royal Bedroom

For the final day of my trip, I visited the Musee d’Orsay, which is now far and away my favorite museum in the world. Impressionism has always been my favorite style of art, and this museum has room after room of it. I was drooling. The space itself is also gorgeous. After visiting this museum, I decided that I need to return to Paris and bring my momma with, so that she too can see some of the best works by her favorite artists. I was awestruck, and completely absorbed by the beauty of the artwork. An ache slowly built in my heart, because I knew that all too soon I’d be home. I realized how much I would miss this transient lifestyle, with its constant novelty.
Central hall
Peering out through the clock face

Paint me like a French girl

Some of my favorite Monet's in the background

Van Gogh's self portrait
That evening, I needed a grand finale to the trip. I found a lovely gluten free cafe in the corner of a marketplace and then decided to go to the most romantic place in the world, alone: the Eiffel Tower lit up by night lights. It seemed to bring the trip full-circle, for I visted the Eiffel Tower on my first day in Europe, and also on my last. As I strolled along the lawns, I was struck by how truly beautiful and charming the tower is at night. There were couples everywhere, including one who looked like they had just gotten engaged - both of their families were with them, and the woman was beaming with a bouquet of roses filling her arms. My heart glowed even though I had no one to warm my hand, or drape an arm around my shoulder, and I realized that I was truly happy, period. I was happy. I was grateful to the bottom of my heart for traveling, and for all the places I went, things I saw, experiences I lived, and the people I met. At the same time, I came to peace with the end of my journey and decided that I was ready to go home, too. On the way back to the hostel, I spent my last Euros - some on a small Eiffel Tower replica to remind me of this moment and its realizations, and I gave the rest to a refugee family in a spontaneous act of generosity welling from a full heart.

In the wee hours of the morning, I rose and went to the train station. The sign kept changing which platform I needed, and eventually my fellow travelers and I realized there might not be a train departing for the airport, after all. We quickly agreed to pool funds and find a taxi to take us to the airport, even though we had already purchased train tickets, because none of us were about to miss our international flights home. I felt like the village idiot, because I had spent all my cash the night before. I almost regretted giving my money to the refugee family, but then I realized that what I actually regretted was not pulling out more cash in the first place. Luckily, we worked it out - I paid for the cab with card, and everyone else gave me cash. I made my flight to London, and was able to spend my last British pounds (OF COURSE I had pounds leftover, but no Euros) at the duty free store. My purchases? The best Milka bar ever to bring to my family, and some whiskey and Coke. I promptly mixed a very strong drink in the middle of the airport, at 10 in the morning, appalling many around me. I silently wished them to keep their judgment to themselves, for they would probably do the same if they were facing a daytime overseas flight home.

To my joy and pleasure, a large group of students boarded the same Denver-bound plane. A posh British boarding school was taking a group of students to Winter Park, Colorado for a ski trip! One of the seventh grade girls was seated right next to me, while the rest of the students and chaperones were several rows back. I felt bad for her, so I tried to make a little conversation. Eventually one of her friends came up and joined us. We chatted about the UK, and what they were excited for in America (their answer: shopping malls). I think the flight attendant took pity on me, because she brought me two or three free mini bottles of wine, which I drained. And then, the time pretty much flew by until I was hugging my mom outside the international arrivals gate in DIA. (Flew by! Get it?) I was finally home after the trip of a lifetime. 

Wednesday, January 3, 2018


Americans are famously poor at geography, so I like to think that for an American I'm pretty good with maps. And yet, until I found myself in Scotland in early December, I had no idea how far north it is. Edinburgh is almost at 56 degrees North. For reference, Copenhagen, Denmark is at 55. Juneau, Alaska is at 58. Stockholm, Sweden is at 59. Oslo, Norway is at 60. And yet, it was unusually warm and pleasant when I was there. In fact, during the 10 day period I was in the United Kingdom and Ireland, it didn't rain once. The one downside was the incredibly short days - about an 8:15 am sunrise, a 3:45 pm sunset, and only 7.5 hours of daylight. This was both an excuse to sleep in and go to bed early, and an incentive to maximize time.

Edinburgh skyline by daylight, featuring a Christmas market

Same view after dark
The walking tour I took in Edinburgh was one of my favorites - informative, and our tour guide was hilarious, if more than a bit quirky. Here are some of the best tidbits:

1. In the early 1800's, Edinburgh was one of the leading cities for anatomy studies. The Scottish government strictly restricted which kinds of bodies could be dissected for science - mostly those of criminals. This meant that bodies were hard to come by, and there was a thriving black market for corpses. If you were a proper Christian, you probably believed that the body needed to be left intact for the resurrection. Ironically, there were "resurrectionists", or crews of thieves who would go around to graveyards and dig up the deceased. The poor couldn't afford giant marble tombs, so they would put protective metal cages around their loved ones' remains, and even stay in the graveyard overnight (some suggest this is where the term "graveyard shift" originates).

This graveyard is gorgeous
2. Also speaking of graveyards, J.K. Rowling wrote the Harry Potter books while she was living in Edinburgh. She drew inspiration from her surroundings. For example, Professor McGonagall was probably inspired by a poet's grave:

And, you can stand on Tom Riddle's (aka Voldemort's) grave:

One can also suppose that she might have gotten inspiration for Hogwarts by looking at the skyline and seeing a posh boarding school next to a castle.

Since renting a car had gone so well in Ireland, I decided to do the same in Scotland, although it was even more of a necessity for accessing the Highlands in the off-season. My hometown of Palmer Lake, Colorado has a flat-topped mesa named Ben Lomond, so I was quite excited that I could visit the (potential) namesake, the original Ben Lomond mountain and the surrounding Loch Lomond. The landscapes are actually pretty similar. 

I set off without a map or plan, and just drove around until I found pretty places to walk. I'd get out, walk for a while, and then get back in my car and drive (on the left side of the road) to another pretty place, until it got dark. I did the same thing the next day, except when I had gotten to the first place I planned to hike, the fog was so thick that I had to turn around and hike more along the lake I had been hiking above the previous day. While driving, I was dancing in my seat and singing along to the epic Irish pub playlists I had downloaded for driving. At some point, the limited data plan I had purchased for navigation purposes ran out, so it was just me, the road signs, and the remaining memory I had about how I had arrived previously.

Time Lapse of a Picnic with Wildlife:
1. Bird makes eye contact with sandwich
2. Bird makes eye contact with me, defiantly
3. Bird attacks sandwich

Highland cow

 I remember some of the neat people I met in Scotland. While hiking, I met a group of school children from a nearby city who were on a week-long field trip in the Highlands. They were curious and asked me tons of questions about where I was from - they thought it was fascinating and so cool that I was from the US, and I honestly told them that I thought they were from a pretty cool place. My warm and hospitable Airbnb host had a "vegan friendly" rental with the cutest dogs. I even met a few Coloradans on one of the trails.

But what I remember most was the elation experienced as I realized that I was one hundred percent content on my own. At this point on the trip, I had been eagerly anticipating returning home, largely to see how things would turn out with the guy I had fallen for before I left and spent a lot of (unnecessary) time missing. Of course, I was also excited to be stateside again and to be reunited with family and other friends. However, as I goofy-danced and sang along to the music in my car, listened to the gentle lap of the lake along the shore, soaked the northern sunshine into my face, and drank in the beautiful views, I realized that I was deeply, truly, to-the-bottom-of-my-soul, satisfied, on my own. With or without the guy (without, as it would turn out, but I didn't know that yet). I was so proud of my adventures, the strength of my spirit, my self-sufficiency, and my growing capacity to truly enjoy life in a way I hadn't before.

I loved Scotland, and if I ever get the chance, I'd love to go back and explore the highlands further.

A traditional scotch, enjoyed properly - poured over ice, with just one drop of water added
Proof that I drove on the left side of the road!


My dad's family is Irish Catholic and very proud of that heritage, so I was excited to finally see the "homeland," so to speak. As it turns out, the Irish are very proud of their Irish heritage, too. Upon arriving to the airport, most of the signs were bilingual: Irish Gaelic was written first, and much larger, and English slumped along behind.

On the late-night shuttle from the airport to downtown, I naively assumed that the driver would stop at the indicated stops on the map. I'm not sure why I neglected to state my stop when I got on the bus. One of the few other passengers, who was going to the same stop, made the same assumption, only he realized his mistake quicker and asked the driver to stop after the bus sped past. The driver was pretty rude about it, so once we stepped off, I thanked the other passenger for taking the brunt of criticism. We started chatting, and as it turns out, Justin is a Colorado native taking a gap year after high school. We exchanged contact information and agreed to meet up later in the trip. I love quickly-formed travel relationships!

I only spent one day in Dublin, since I was eager to get into the countryside. The tour guide on the walking tour spoke a bit of Gaelic, and it was super neat to hear the language spoken out loud - it almost sounds like Elvish from Lord of the Rings. I was interested to learn that the Irish government strongly (and fiscally) supports regions where Gaelic is the primary language spoken. It makes sense that the Irish are so eager to protect their heritage when you consider that they were ruled by (and many argue, oppressed by) the British for so many centuries.

The building where U2 was founded
My hostel friend Steffano and I visited the Kilmainham Gaol, or the prison which held many of the rebels who led the Irish Revolution. It was a solemn tour.

"Beware of the Risen People"

That evening, we met up with Justin for dinner and a drink. We accidentally showed up to the wrong restaurant, which is a bit complicated when no one has cell phone service, but we eventually figured it out. Dublin, and in particular the neighborhood of Temple Bar, is a great place to hear traditional live music.

Low-quality photos, but they catch the mood
The following morning, I had to get out to the airport to pick up my rental car, for I was bound and determined to drive across the country to . I went to the stop to catch the airport bus, only to watch it drive right past me. Baffled, I asked a man standing nearby, "Wasn't that bus supposed to stop?" He responded, "Well, did you flag it down?" Embarrassed, I shook my head. Apparently, bus etiquette is a bit different in Ireland than in the US. As it would turn out, he was a bus driver waiting to begin his shift, meaning that the previous driver was going to drop off the bus. He would then drive to the airport to begin accepting passengers. He very kindly offered to give me a lift over to the airport, free of charge, and of course I accepted.

Once at the airport, I discovered that the rental car company I had selected would not rent me a car because I was underage. I thought I had indicated my date of birth on the booking site and would just have to pay an extra "young driver" fee, but instead I was just too young to rent a car. They told me there was just one company that would rent me a car, so I walked up to their desk and found out that yes, they would rent me a car, but that it would be more expensive than planned, by a significant amount, with the young driver surcharge. Worse, because I was underage, I was not eligible to purchase insurance, and I knew for a fact that my own car insurance would not cover me outside the continental US, leaving me open to a $1,000 fine should anything happen to my rental car. In a foreign country, where I was driving on the opposite side of the road, through narrow and curvy country roads bordered by stone walls, with my own less-than-perfect driving record. A rational person might have decided to just take a bus instead, but that would put me behind schedule and the end of my trip was drawing near. Who knew if I would get this opportunity again? So, thinking to myself that my father would kill me if he knew I was doing this, I threw down my credit card.

I only screamed and swore a few times as I pulled out of the airport and hit my first roundabout, on the left side of the road. With a bit of practice, I found it wasn't too difficult, and I hit the highway bound for Killarney, a small town on the southwestern coast which was a three and a half hour drive away. Upon arriving to town, I visited the Tesco to pick up lunch, and its Super-Walmart size made me feel right at home, as did their entire aisle dedicated to gluten free products. I then booked it for the Muckross Estate in Killarney National Park, to explore a bit before nightfall, which comes early at northern latitudes in early December. The landscape reminded me a bit of home. I found some excellent gluten free fish and chips for dinner, and went to go settle in at one of the coziest and homiest hostels I've ever stayed in.

I could photoshop in a leprechaun and it wouldn't even look photoshopped

Muckross Estate

Torc Waterfall
The other young people staying in my hostel were so fun, and instantly convinced me that I should go out with them that night. So I threw on a cozy sweater to combat the chill and we headed over to the local pub. I was expecting relaxed live music like there was in Dublin, but instead there was a local punk cover band playing. They were really good, and the group I was with were heavy drinkers, so after a few pints of delicious Irish cider (beer for the rest of the group) we were all dancing. Small pub + lots of people + dancing + turtleneck sweater = copious amounts of sweat. Seeing the rivers pouring down my face, my young Czech friend Martin shouted, "Take off your jumper!" I shouted back, "But I don't have anything on underneath it!" He even more insistently replied, "TAKE OFF YOUR JUMPER!" and kept repeating it the whole night. To be honest, his accent was quite good - he had moved to Killarney to learn English, and at least in my opinion could have passed for a local. I hadn't lost all my morals, of course, so used the turtleneck to periodically wipe my face off and continued to enjoy the evening. Megan, one of the girls from our crew, had heard that I'd rented a car and asked if she could drive the Ring of Kerry with me the following day. Happy to have the company, I agreed, and we were off to bed.

Another anecdote which only I might find amusing, but which I want to remember in my old age, which is the only reason I'm writing this blog anyway. The following morning my Kiwi friend Tim apologized that his friends had roasted me so thoroughly on Facebook - you see, his buddies saw whenever he made a female friend on Facebook and then proceeded to publicly make jokes about Tim and she (in this case, me). His privacy settings were such that I couldn't see any of the jokes, but he showed me what they had written and it was pretty funny.

I hugged Tim and friends goodbye, and then Megan and I took off to drive the Ring of Kerry. I confessed to her that I didn't have insurance on the rental, and she pointed out that I would be liable for damages, not her, but I agreed that we could switch off driving anyway. One benefit of driving is that we got to stop where we pleased and take as long as we pleased, as opposed to doing a bus tour where the pace would have been dictated by others.

Another benefit is that I got to know Megan pretty well. I can't imagine many non-traveling scenarios where I would agree to jump in the car for a day with a virtual stranger, but she was pretty nice and easy to talk to so we had a great time. The views were beautiful and serene, and as the sun dipped over the horizon, we were bathed in soft colors.

Once it was too dark to see much, we drove back into town. I dropped Megan back off at the hostel, consumed a lot of caffeine, and started the long drive back to Dublin, where I would drop off the rental car at the airport, catch a bus to a hostel, crash for a few hours, and then wake up again a few hours later to catch another bus back to the airport and get on a plane bound for Scotland. Thankfully, I had downloaded two epic road trip playlists before the trip, so I had the music to keep me company - one of classic rock hits, the other of Irish pub songs. My cell phone died just as I was getting in to Dublin, and I didn't realize until I had already pulled into the car return line that I had neglected to re-fill the tank, meaning I had to loop back to a gas station, return the car, and wander the airport searching for an outlet so I could charge my phone enough to pull up instructions on how to get to the hostel. By the time I finally got there, I was a zombie, and the staff took great pity on me when they realized they'd be checking me out again in just a few hours. I took a shower, passed out, and somehow managed to be back at the airport just a few hours later.